Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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Two men, one young, the other middle-aged, were finishing their second after-dinner cigar and a somewhat prolonged conversation, comfortably seated in the smoking-room of a large, dingy, north London mansion. That they were no mere acquaintances was evident from the spasmodic manner of their talk, and the long silences in which they frequently indulged. Nothing indeed but intimacy could account for the absolute indifference which each at times displayed to the other's presence; and consequently, neither having felt bound to assume in any degree the part of entertainer, their conversation had been a very interesting one to both, but chiefly, perhaps, to the younger man, for it was he whom it chiefly concerned.
He had come to seek advice from his father's old friend, and very readily and promptly his appeal had been responded to. Mr. Barton had given his opinion without hesitation, and he was not one who used weak words. To the younger man his counsel had been very welcome, for although he was in no hurry to say so, it was exactly in accordance with his own inclinations.
He stood on the hearthrug prepared to take his leave, a tall, broad-shouldered, long-limbed young man, with an attractive though not remarkable face, and clear grey eyes, just now full of a very thoughtful expression. By his side, Mr. Barton, who had also risen from his lounge, showed to little advantage. But although nature had denied to him her external gifts, she had recompensed him with others which had combined to place him at the very head of his profession. For in legal circles, and amongst the bewigged fraternity, it was generally acknowledged that there was no shrewder lawyer in criminal cases than Robert Barton—known to some of the more doubtful of his clients as "little Bobby Barton," and a reputation such as this means a good deal. To Mr. Barton it meant merely the income of a Prime Minister, and a very comfortable feeling of self-satisfaction. But that was because he was a family man who had outgrown ambition, and cared nothing for society.
To the young barrister, who was his evening's guest, he had been a friend worth having. Philip Rotheram's first brief had come from him, and it had been followed by many another. So well and so successfully had they all been handled, that the name of Mr. Barton's protégé began to be mentioned in legal circles with a good deal of interest, and others besides the famous criminal lawyer deemed it worth their while to send him an occasional brief. They never found cause to regret having done so, for their cases always had justice done to them. That is, they were shrewdly argued. And thus it was that Philip Rotheram—with whose fortune this story is chiefly concerned—found himself at twenty-six years of age mirabile dictu well-established at the bar, with a sound and increasing practice, and a reputation far above the average.
He never forgot to whom he owed his start in life, nor indeed would Mr. Barton have allowed him to forget it. Once a week, when in chambers, he dined "en famille" with the latter, and at least once in every year Mr. Barton accompanied him down to his home in Sorchestershire. The difference of twenty years or so in their ages seemed to be no bar to their intimacy, nor, indeed, was it readily apparent, for whilst Mr. Barton was in manner and appearance younger than his years, Philip was certainly older. As far as two men whose tastes were diametrically opposite could be, they were friends. At any rate, there was a feeling of strong and reciprocal cordiality between them, which, if it was not strictly speaking friendship, was a very good substitute for it.
A clock from somewhere in the rear of the room struck eleven, and with an incredulous start, Philip Rotheram drew out his watch and broke the long silence.
"Eleven o'clock! I had no idea that it was so late! What will Mrs. Barton say to me for having kept you here talking all this time!"
The lawyer shrugged his shoulders and smiled composedly. He did so with a mind quite as much at ease as the gesture indicated, for he was anything but a hen-pecked husband.
"Mrs. Barton will be only too delighted when I tell her the subject of our conversation. Almost as delighted as I am!"
The young man smiled thoughtfully, and paused for a moment in his preparations for going.
"Then I may take it, Barton," he remarked slowly, "that you are altogether in favour of my accepting this offer?"
"I should think you a most consummate ass if you didn't," was the prompt reply. "Of course, you must accept it, and consider yourself an uncommonly lucky fellow too. Why, a seat in Parliament is the one great desideratum for a young man with your prospects. It's the great mistake most of us old fogies make, waiting until we're middle-aged men before we think about it. Politics are like everything else—you can't do much good unless you go in for them while you're young. The taste for that sort of thing don't grow when you're past a certain age. It won't develop. Youth is the time for keen, strong interests to take root, even if they don't bear fruit until middle age. But I've said enough on the subject and I don't want to be prosy. You know what my opinion is, and I've given you my advice—gratis for once. Now let's go in to the drawing-room, and Ada shall give us some music."
Philip Rotheram shook his head, although he followed his host out of the room.
"I won't stop to-night, thanks," he said, pausing in the hall. "Mrs. Barton will excuse me for once, I know. It's late already, and I want to think this matter out quietly. If you don't mind I'll take another cigar, and walk home."
"Just as you please," Mr. Barton answered, strolling down to the front door. "By Jove! What a splendid night. Are you bent upon walking, or shall I send Burdett round to the stand for a hansom? It's a good step to the Temple, you know."
For a moment his guest who was struggling into his overcoat, hesitated, and many times afterwards he remembered that hesitation, and marvelled to think how different his life might have been had he decided otherwise. Assuredly had he done so this story would never have been written.
"No, don't trouble," he said, lighting his cigar, and looking up at the star-lit sky. "I think I should like the walk to-night. I'll drop you a line from Sorchester if I don't get back to town for a day or two," he added, as he lingered for a moment on the step.
"Aye do, and you'll remember me to them all at the Elms. Good night!"
"Good night! Don't forget my excuses to Mrs. Barton and Miss Holroyd."
Mr. Barton nodded, and remained on the door-step watching the tall powerful figure of his departing guest until it had turned the corner of the square and disappeared. Then he shut the door and returned to the bosom of his family, to receive a mild scolding from his wife, who had sent all the way to Clapham for her niece when she had heard who was expected to dine with them. But then men are so stupid and short-sighted in those little matters.
From Mr. Barton's house to the Temple was by no means a short walk, but to Philip Rotheram, with his long powerful limbs, a good cigar, and pleasant thoughts to occupy his mind, the distance appeared trifling. He must already have accomplished half of it, when he made a discovery which bought him to a sudden halt. He had lost his way.
It was a strange thing for him to have done. Many a time afterwards he sought to account for it, but could not. Having regard to what befell him, a man of more fanciful or superstitious nature might have ascribed it to some species of fate.
But Philip Rotheram, being a man of rigid, philosophical common sense, preferred to think of it always in a more prosaic light. He had been absorbed in thought, and must have unwittingly taken a wrong turn. It was a thing which might have happened to anyone and it happened to him.
He first became aware of what had befallen him when he found his further progress suddenly checked by a brick wall, with which he would have certainly come into collision with consequences more or less disastrous (to himself) had he taken another step forward. He was in a street to which, as a single hasty glance showed him, there was no outlet, save the way by which he had come. It was a street, too, in which he did not recollect ever to have been before. The thoroughfare was rather a wide one, but the paths were narrow and badly paved, the lamps were few and dull, and the houses, most of them detached, and standing a little way back from the road, were of somewhat old-fashioned design for modern London villas, and unfamiliar to him. He looked around in vain to discover some clue as to his probable whereabouts, and then paused for a moment to consider before retracing his steps.
His first thought was that he could not have wandered very far away, for only a few minutes before he had passed across a square which was known to him, and yet when he cast another searching glance around he was forced to admit that there was nothing in the dull, dark houses, the blank wall or the wide street, which yielded to him any idea as to whither he had wandered. He was in an altogether unknown region—to him—and there was only one course to adopt. He must retrace his steps, and trust to meeting a policeman or some other belated wanderer to set him right.
Already he had turned upon his heel to carry into effect this resolution, when, without having heard either sound or footstep, he felt a light touch upon his arm.
No man living was possessed of stronger nerves, but the suddenness of the incident, the electric thrill which seemed to run through him at the touch of the unknown person, and the figure he looked upon as he started round with a short hasty exclamation, almost impelled in him the belief that he was gazing at an apparition. A tall girl, dazzlingly fair, stood on the pavement by his side, with one hand still holding open the gate through which she had just issued. The other rested for a moment on his arm, and then sunk to her side, but even in that moment he could see that it was small and white, and that the trembling fingers were sparkling with diamonds. She was leaning forward towards him with the strangest look upon her face that he had seen on human visage before. Her features, regular, and delicately chiselled, seemed contorted with a sudden spasm of fear, and her large blue eyes were fastened upon him with a concentrated gaze, half of appeal half of terror. Even that rapt, bewildered look which he first bent upon her showed him that she was richly dressed, and that her fair hair, coiled on the top of her head in many folds, was fastened with gems which glittered and shone in the dull flickering lamp-light.
For a second or two they stood speechless and motionless, like dumb figures in some strange tableau. Her sudden appearance, and its startlingly incongruity with the dreary surroundings, and, more than anything, that look of horror in her face, paralysed him, and although he was a man of more than average presence of mind, he could not collect himself sufficiently to address her coherently. It was she, therefore, who dissolved the situation. Slowly removing her eyes from his, with a last lingering glance, which haunted him for many a day, she turned, and motioning him to follow her with a gesture half appealing, half imperious, she walked swiftly down the path towards the side door of the house from which she had issued.
Scarcely conscious of what he was doing, he obeyed her unspoken command, and followed her. He was essentially by disposition and training a matter of fact man. There was in his nature, although he was young, no spice of romance or love of doubtful adventure. Neither was he by any means a squire of dames, and yet never for one second did any other idea occur to him than to do her bidding. She leading, he a few steps behind, they reached the door, and stooping low he followed her inside and down a long, dark passage, unlit save by a single oil-lamp which hung from the ceiling. He had no mind to look about him, and he noticed nothing of the bare, dismantled appearance of the place, or of the deep silence which reigned throughout the house. He simply obeyed her motion, and followed until they reached the extreme end of the passage, and it seemed as though they could go no further. Even then he never spoke to her, although she cast a swift glance into his face, as though expecting him to do so. He simply stood by her side and waited, content to receive her explanation as to why she had brought him there and what she wanted with him at her own pleasure.
For a moment or two she passed her hand along the surface of the wall, as though searching for something. Then with one finger she pressed what seemed to be a small ivory knob in the wall, and a door rolled noiselessly open before them, sliding back along a polished groove as though propelled by an invisible hand. Thick curtains, suspended by rings from a rod which formed a semi- circle over the door, hid from him the room in which they stood, until, throwing them back from the centre, she swept past him, and in obedience to her silent gesture he followed.
From hell to heaven, from a world of darkness to a world of dazzling light,—no contrast conceivable to the mind of man could have seemed so wonderful to Philip Rotheram as the change from the dreary street and the dark passage without to the room wherein he now stood.
The wildest flight of his imagination could not have conjured up to his mind expectations of seeing anything half so beautiful. It seemed almost as though he had stepped from an age of semi-barbarism into the golden future of a civilization idyllic in its refinement, and surpassing everything behind it, real, and conceived in its marvellous embodiment of luxury. A heavily piled carpet of soft Eastern hue, rich and subdued in its varied tints, covered the floor, and as though that were not covering enough, magnificently marked rugs, many of them whole tiger and zebra skins, were stretched carelessly about.
The walls, wonderfully painted from floor to ceiling, and fringed with dadoes figured all over with quaint devices, were hung with oil paintings, the dark figures in which, some alluring, some majestic, some menacing, seemed to stand out with a vivid reality which threw into utter insignificance their massive frames, and proclaimed the touch of a master hand.
The windows were of magnificent stained glass, and the furniture a picturesque medley, every piece differing from the rest in material, structure, and design. Black oak, ebony, sandal, and ivory wood were all represented, and every chair was a curiosity of delicate carving.
Brackets of every shape and size, on which reposed curios from southern and eastern lands, of gold and ivory, and coral, many of them Hindoo idols and examples of Brahmin workmanship, were hung in every corner, while dainty little ivory-topped tables, strewn all over with golden ornaments, encrusted with precious stones, stood in every recess.
Stretching along one side of the room, the glass doors of a series of rococo cabinets, which an art-collecting monarch might have gloried in possessing, revealed long rows of old-fashioned china, hand painted and plain, and a vast collection of foreign firearms and weapons of quaint design and marvellous workmanship, from the Toledo blade, whose hilt (surely never intended for use) was inlaid with ivory, and glistened with the brilliant sparkle of diamonds and of sapphires, to the rude Afghan spear and Indian tomahawks.
Censor-shaped lamps, suspended by golden chains from the ceiling, and from brackets, burned with a soft blue light, and the air was heavy with the dreamy perfume wafted from them.
At one extremity of the apartment the remains of a fire were still smouldering on an open marble grate, and protecting the rich Oriental hearthrug was a brass fender of great height, at each end of which reposed the magnificent model of a lion, fashioned with wonderful skill from the solid metal. Vases of exquisite shape and delicacy reposed on the black marble chimney- piece, and chaste statuettes of women half draped, holding in one hand a candle and in the other a rose-coloured shade over it, hung from the ceiling by an invisible silver wire, and floated gently with a voluptuous rhythmic motion backwards and forwards within their tiny orbit.
It seemed as though vast fortunes, whole museums, the collections and trophies of a nation, had been crowded into this one fairy chamber, and a goddess of the ancients invoked from classical shades to guard over them. No wonder that Philip Rotheram, a sober-minded, matter-of-fact man of the world, was staggered into something very much like stupefaction, and that, as his eyes roved around the room, and dwelt upon its marvellous beauty, he passed his hand across his forehead, and for a moment wondered whether this was not some wild dream or delusion of the fancy, from which he would presently awake to find himself safe amongst the more prosaic surroundings of his Temple chambers.
The girl at whose bidding he had come stood by his side for a while in silence, watching his expression as his confused senses struggled to recover themselves. Then with trembling fingers she touched him on the arm, and pointed towards the hearthrug.
He moved a step forward, and followed with his eyes her shaking finger. Then, although he was no coward, he started back with an only half-suppressed cry of horror. Stretched on his side across the hearthrug, with his face half covered with his arm, his eyes closed, and his limbs as motionless as death, lay stretched the figure of a man, and from a wound in his chest the dark blood was oozing slowly out, staining his white shirt front, and trickling on to the magnificent hearthrug.
For a space of time which, brief though it really was, seemed to him like an eternity, Philip Rotheram stood motionless, with eyes riveted upon the sight before him, struggling with a sickly feeling of horror which stole over his benumbed senses. Then, breaking though it at last with a great effort, he stepped forward and fell on his knees by the side of the prostrate man.
Almost mechanically he did what seemed best to him. He tore his handkerchief into strips, and with them strove to staunch the fast-flowing blood. Then he forced brandy, which he discovered in a liqueur case close at hand, between the white lips, and loosened the collar and necktie, glancing for the first time as he did so at the features of the still unconscious man.
His first thought was that he was a foreigner, and his next that he had never before seen so patrician a face. The high, straight forehead and classical outline, the small, thin lips, preserving even in unconsciousness a slightly supercilious curve, were thoroughly un-English, and all tended to show that this was a man of no common order. His hair, once evidently jet black, was now plentifully sprinkled with grey, and his complexion was sallow, almost of an olive tint, notwithstanding the pallor which had crept over it. He was of great height, with slim, long limbs, and small, shapely hands and feet, dressed in orthodox evening attire, but wearing over his dress coat, a dressing gown lined with thick ermine, and fastened around the waist with a cord.
Then for the first time, as he bent over the inanimate figure, the girl spoke in a slow, musical tone, trembling slightly as though with agitation, and with a strong foreign accent.
"You will help me—to carry him away—into another room? It is not far."
He rose to his feet, and with a last look at the man whom he had been tending, tuned towards her. The blood had ceased to flow, but as yet there were no signs of returning consciousness.
There had been many questions trembling upon his lips, but when he turned and looked at her again they had died away. With a look of wild terror in her face, and a very ague of fear shaking her exquisite form, she was leaning heavily upon the back of a chair, with her eyes fastened upon the entrance to the room. He followed her gaze trembling, though he knew not why. There was the slow rumbling of the door as it rolled back, and then the curtains were thrown open by a pair of thin shaking hands, which retained their hold upon them, as though for support. Then a man staggered forward and glared wildly into the room—a man? or was it a ghost? Philip Rotheram was as brave as most men, but he could not check the cry which rose to his lips at the sight of the strange weird figure, which seemed, indeed, more like a visitant from the other world than a human being.
Tall, but thin as a lath, and bent almost double either with age or illness, the man who had so suddenly appeared gazed at them and at the body on the hearthrug with an indescribable intensity of bewildered horror. He was clad in a long dressing- gown, which had evidently been thrown over a night-dress, for his feet and throat were bare. His hair was long and white, and his beard, of the same colour, reached far down his chest. He looked like a patriarch, save that his eyes, now widely dilated, were of a cruel steel colour, and from underneath his white shaggy eyebrows they gleamed and flashed with an unnatural and repulsive light. Standing there in the dim light he looked a hideous figure enough, but the girl, frightened though she still was, looked upon him with a great relief.
"Ivan! Ivan! How did you get here?" she cried. "How could you be so rash!"
He pointed with a shaking finger at Philip Rotheram, and a stream of eager, incoherent questions burst from his white lips in a language which Philip had never heard before, and which was, therefore, altogether strange to him.
The girl moved swiftly to his side, just in time to save him from sinking to the ground with exhaustion, and helped him into a low chair. Then she replied to his eager questions, answering them in French, and Philip, that he might not overhear, bent once more over the prostrate figure by his side.
He started to his feet. The girl who had brought him here was standing close to him.
"I fear that you must think this all very strange," she said softly. "Poor Ivan, there, is our servant, and hearing voices, he crept out of his bed, although he is very ill, to see what was the matter. See, he is overcome!"
The old man was leaning back in a low chair, with closed eyes, and great beads of perspiration upon his forehead.
"Can we do nothing for him?" Philip asked.
The girl shook her head, with her eyes fixed upon the man who lay stretched at their feet.
"No; Ivan will be better soon. Help me now with him," she said anxiously, pointing downwards.
He said no more. He merely bowed his assent, and stood waiting.
She moved to the door, and again it rolled open at her touch. Then she pushed the curtains back in readiness, and returning, helped him to raise the still motionless form. Slowly they made their way down the narrow passage until she pushed open another door nearer to the entrance of the house, and entering, they laid him, now groaning heavily, upon a couch just inside the room.
Standing upright to take breath, for the labour of carrying that helpless body had not been slight, Philip Rotheram found his eyes wandering curiously around the room in which they now were. In no single respect did it bear the slightest resemblance to the one from which they had just come; in fact, the change of surroundings was so great as to be almost incredible. It appeared to be an ordinary sleeping chamber, quite plainly, though handsomely furnished, and although comfortable, without any special signs of wealth or luxury. Involuntarily he glanced at his companion, half expecting to find her, too, changed, and as he looked the sense of enchantment returned, for amongst those barer surroundings she looked more than ever unlike any other woman whom he had ever seen in his life.
She was bending anxiously over the man whom they had carried there, chafing his cold hands, and every now and then pausing to kiss his white forehead. Presently she turned round, and spoke.
"Will you, monsieur, add to your already great kindness by fetching a doctor?"
He bowed, and for the first time since they had entered the room addressed her, pointing to the figure on the couch.
"Will you not tell me what has happened?" he asked, though after her soft musical accents his voice sounded to him harsh and strained.
The question seemed to distress her, for she turned away with a sort of shudder, and covered her face for a moment with her hands.
"Ah! monsieur, that you must not ask. For pity's sake do not. Ivan, as you have seen, is ill, and the others are gone. I am alone. You will go for me?"
Aye, he would go! Again he bowed his head, and moved towards the door. She followed him.
"If you go down the street that way," and she waved her small jewelled hand, "and take the first turn à gauche—you understand?"
He nodded assent.
"The first house is a doctor's. Bring him—and—and you will return?"
He bowed in silence, and would have gone, but she detained him.
He looked down at her. Tall though he was, it was not far, and her coronet of golden hair reached above his shoulder. She was gazing into his face with an eager, half-frightened look, and when she spoke it was in appealing tones.
"Monsieur, you must promise me something!" she begged. "You will not mention that room to the doctor, nor mention it to anyone else!" She pointed down the dark passage, and looked anxiously up at him.
"I promise," he said simply. Then a thought struck him, and he hesitated.
"But your servant, Ivan, he seems very ill. Ought not the doctor to see him too?"
She shook her head. "He would not see him. He knows what is the matter with him—it is a sort of ague—and he has his own remedies."
He would have gone then, but she still detained him.
"And—and you must say to the doctor that—that—that there has been an accident."
"I promise," he repeated, and then she let him go, and he strode away down the gravel path and along the deserted street, feeling like a man who gropes his way through the mazes of a strange nightmare, half conscious that it is all a dream, and yet not sufficiently awake to break through the spell.
He found the house pointed out to him without difficulty, rang the doctor up, and explained his mission.
"Do you know anything of these people?" asked the doctor curiously, as side by side they hurried along the silent streets.
Philip Rotheram shook his head.
"I never saw or heard of them before. I was passing, and a lady asked me to fetch a doctor—there had been an accident—so I came for you. That is all."
She was waiting for them at the open door, apparently in anxiety, and he saw with surprise that she had taken off most of her jewels, and had changed her rich gown for a long dark dressing robe of plain material.
Holding a lamp in her hand, she preceded them down the passage, and ushered them into the room where the unconscious man lay. The doctor advanced at once to the couch, and hurriedly examined his patient by the light of the lamp which she held steadily over him.
Philip Rotheram, feeling for a moment that he was not wanted, stood back in the shadows, with eyes fixed upon the little group, anxiously awaiting the verdict.
"How did this happen, and how long ago?" the doctor asked quickly, as he removed the handkerchief, and felt with his fingers for the depth of the wound.
Philip Rotheram leaned forward, listening with an intensity of eagerness which he had seldom if ever felt before in his life for her answer.
"About an hour ago," she said quietly. "We were together. He was playing with a toy stiletto which I had been using for a paper knife, showing me how the people in the East use their weapons, and just as he was pointing it to his chest he seemed to have some sort of a fit and fell to the ground. He must have stabbed himself without knowing what he was doing."
Philip Rotheram felt his heart stand still, and a great fear came upon him. Incredulity was plainly written upon the doctor's grave face.
"A fit!" He bent once more over his patient, and suddenly his expression changed. He hastily re-examined the wound, and then stood back thoughtfully.
"Has he lived in a very warm climate lately?" he enquired.
She assented with a slow graceful movement of the head.
"He has lived in many countries—last of all in India. Is—is it serious?" she added, with a shudder.
He shook his head encouragingly.
"No, the wound is only a flesh wound," he said. "It is strange that it should have bled so much, for it is little more than a scratch. He has had a sort of apoplectic fit, very rare in this country, and to Englishmen, but common enough amongst the Orientals."
Philip Rotheram drew a long breath, and felt like a man whose heart is unburdened of a great load. What he had dreaded he would not now even confess to himself.
The doctor drew off his patient's coat, and went down on his knees by the side of the couch.
"Get me some water will you, and a towel," he said. "We must bandage up this scratch at once. Can't afford to let him lose any more blood. These fits are quite weakening enough without that."
She brought them to him, and watched anxiously while he pulled a towel into shreds, and deftly bandaged the wound. Then he made a narrow one, and laid it on his head.
"He will do now, I think," the doctor remarked, rising, and looking around the room. "We must move him on to the bed, though!"
And Philip Rotheram stepping forward with a silent proffer of his help, the two men lifted the still unconscious form, and carried it to the sleeping couch.
"Let him lie there quietly!" the doctor continued, "and I will see him again in an hour or two. You need not be nervous," he went on, turning towards the girl. "There is no danger,—at least no immediate danger. You had better stay with him, however, and change the bandage on the head occasionally, and if he should recover consciousness remember that you are not to let him talk on any account. Such attacks as his are best dealt with by keeping the patient perfectly quiet, and letting nature fight it out herself. There is nothing to be alarmed at at all. It would take a much more severe fit than this to kill a man, even if he were an invalid, and as far as I can see my patient here has a constitution of iron, and will throw this seizure off with the utmost ease. Good night; good night, sir."
She went out with him, and it occurred to Philip Rotheram that he too ought to go. But, nevertheless, he stayed there until she returned, and even then he made no immediate motion to leave. It was she who reminded him.
"You must go now, monsieur," she said softly, and he almost fancied—and he caught at the fancy—that there was a tremor of regret in her tone.
Those who knew Philip Rotheram would have laughed had anyone spoken of him as impulsive. His whole life seemed founded upon contrary principles, and no man as a rule gave more thought to his actions, or undertook them more deliberately. But it was not so now.
"Let me watch here for you until the doctor comes again," he said impetuously. "You will need rest, and it is late!"
She did not appear displeased at his offer, but she shook her head at once.
"No, that must not be," she said decidedly. "You must go. And you have been so very, very kind that I shall ask you one thing more."
"To be able to grant it will be very pleasant," he murmured.
"You will promise me something then? Give me your word," she asked.
Again he bowed. She seemed a little agitated, and spoke hastily, keeping her eyes fixed upon him, and unconsciously drawing a little nearer to his side.
"You will keep—all this—secret. You will tell no one—not one soul—of this house—of that room—that you have even been here. You promise me that, monsieur?"
"I promise," he said simply—plain words, yet spoken with a force that made them more eloquent than any more elaborate phrase could have been.
"Ah! how kind you are," she murmured gratefully. "How thankful I am that it was you whom I saw when I ran out into the street for help. It might have been so different," she added, with a little shudder.
"I, too, am glad," he said, "very glad. It has been a pleasure to me to have been able to serve you."
Afterwards, when he thought over what he had said to her, it all seemed very bald, and not at all the words which he would have liked to have used. But although he was usually ready of speech, he seemed in a manner tongue-tied now, and almost nervous.
"You must go now," she said softly. "Come!" and she beckoned him to follow her out of the room.
"But you are surely not alone here?" he ventured to say, as they walked down the passage.
She shook her head, smiling at him over her shoulder with a smile which spoke of everything but mirth.
"No, there are others—servants—but they are away just now. Ivan was well when they went, or they would not have left me."
A sudden impulse prompted him to express a wish which seemed just at that moment the thing most to be desired on earth.
"May I not—shall I never see you again?" he asked.
She shook her head, and those marvellous blue eyes were lifted to his, and gleamed upon him for a moment half angrily, half tenderly.
"Never, never, monsieur. You must not come here again. You have promised."
A cold chill seemed to fall upon him. They stood together at the door, but he was loth to go.
"Have you no friends you can send for, to be with you?" he asked. "Surely you do not live here alone with—with—"
"I live here quite alone with my father and those of whom I spoke," she said, slowly. "Friends! No, I have no friends!" and by the dim light of the lamp which she carried he fancied that her eyes were glistening.
"Never say that again," he exclaimed, earnestly. "Not, at least, if you would count me one. See, my name is there. If ever I can be of service to you in any way—send for me, and I will come."
She took the card which he put into her hand, and thrust it into the bosom of her dress.
"You are very kind," she murmured. "So kind that I feel I cannot let you go without telling you—. Promise that you will not think any harm of me?"
He promised. He would have sworn had she asked him.
Her face became troubled, but she went on, speaking as though with a great effort.
"What I told the doctor was not quite true. I didn't mind telling him, but I do not like to let you go, and to think that I had— had told you what was false. The—accident did not happen as I— I—"
He caught hold of her hand and stopped her.
"I do not wish to know anything about it," he said gently. "I know, however, that you were not to blame."
She flashed a grateful look at him, which set his pulses tingling and his heart beating fast.
"You are very kind," she said. "Will you take this to remind you of your promise, and—and of Iola? And now you must really go," she added quickly. "Good-bye, good-bye, monsieur."
Her eyes were full of regret, and he dared not let his rest upon them. Her little fingers lay in his great strong hand for a moment, and then he turned and went.
Through the deserted streets he strode away towards his chambers, with a queer old-fashioned little ring clenched tightly in his hand, and with the feelings of a man who has been thrust back to earth after having been allowed to revel for a brief while amongst the glories of Paradise. As yet the halo of his recent adventure was clouding his senses, and he could see in it nothing which it was possible to regret. But in years to come, it all seemed very different to him, and many a time he found himself wishing with a passionate earnestness that that night cold be blotted out from his life, over which it was fated to cast so deep a shadow.
The matter on which Philip Rotheram had been so anxious to consult his friend Mr. Barton was certainly a very important one indeed. It was neither more nor less than an invitation from several of the prominent politicians of his native town to appear as their candidate at the ensuing Parliamentary election. It had all come about very suddenly. One of the sitting members had quite unexpectedly announced his intention not to again contest his seat, and in looking about them for a suitable successor, those on whom the duty devolved selected George Rotheram, Philip's elder brother. A formal application to him, however, was answered by the following letter:
"The Elms, Sorchester, July 2, 18—.
My Dear sir,
I have given the subject referred to in yours of yesterday's date my serious consideration, and have, I regret to say, been compelled to come to the conclusion that I cannot accept your very flattering proposal. One reason will perhaps suffice, without entering into others equally potent. I do not see my way clear—in fact, I could not possibly spare the time required for a Parliamentary career. If I might presume to make a suggestion, however, it seems to me that my brother Philip would make a far better candidate than I, and he would, I have no doubt, be willing to undertake the responsibility. He is now, as you are perhaps aware, practising at the bar, but he is independent of his profession, and could at any time give it up, and, if necessary, devote his whole time to Parliamentary duties. He is a fluent and able speaker, and I believe that his political views are much the same as my own—only, perhaps, a trifle more advanced. I mention this for your consideration, and should you think favourably of it, I beg that in any communication you may have with him upon the subject you will not mention your prior offer to myself, with which he is quite unacquainted.
Assuring you once more of my deep appreciation of the honour you have done me, I remain, yours faithfully,
The committee were unanimous in deciding to adopt the suggestion contained in this letter; hence their application to Philip Rotheram—hence his visit to Mr. Barton, and hence indirectly his strange adventure in that lonely street.
The advice of all his friends, and Mr. Barton in particular, his own strong inclinations, and the absence of any material contra-argument, induced Philip Rotheram to come to a very speedy decision. On the morning after he had dined with the lawyer he sat down in his chambers, and returned a favourable reply to the invitation. Then lighting a pipe he strolled out into the Temple gardens to re-consider the matter in all its bearings.
It was a most unsatisfactory attempt. Do what he could he could not restrain his thoughts from continually recurring to and dwelling upon his recent adventure. Time after time he thrust back memories of that fair girl's divine face, and her strange attitude and expression when first he had seen her, of that marvellously luxurious chamber, and the sweet subtle perfume which floated on the heavy air within it, and which he almost fancied that he could again detect. Time after time, too, he recalled and felt again that thrill of ecstatic pleasure with which her glance, and the consciousness of doing her bidding, had filled him. Those wonderful blue eyes! how well he remembered their every glance, now horrified, now supplicating, now imperious, now almost tender! And that musical voice, with its graceful foreign accent, whose tones had so stirred him that even now, at the mere recollection, he felt his pulses thrill and quicken.
Oh! such thoughts were too sweet—sweet with all the charm of novelty—to banish, and at last the feeble resistance of his common-sense yielded to them, and he leaned back on one of the iron seats, with his hands clasped behind his head, picturing again to himself the whole scene. What could be the mystery of the dull dark house in that out-of-the-way street, he wondered? For without doubt there was a mystery. Who were they, this father and daughter, who lived so strangely alone? Why had she bidden him so earnestly not to betray the existence of that Aladdin's chamber, and to keep secret his visit there? And above all he wondered with a shudder what was it that had happened there to send her out into the street in the dead of night to seek for aid, and how had he whom she called her father come by that wound?
Bah! Such speculations were a waste of time, useless unprofitable! He would escape from them by plunging into his work. But no sooner was he seated before his table with a pile of papers stretched out before him than he knew that the attempt was useless. His thoughts refused to be thrust along the avenues of political differences and social economy, and after a half an hour, during which the sole word he had written on the clean white foolscap before him was "Iola," he gave it up in despair.
Suddenly an idea seized him with irresistible force, and he acted upon it without delay. He had noticed the name of the doctor whom he had summoned on the preceding evening, and with the aid of a directory he soon discovered his address. There he quickly found himself, with what purpose he scarcely knew.
Yes, Dr. Thomson was in, and would be disengaged directly, and he was shown into a waiting-room and handed the Times by a very diminutive page-boy.
The doctor soon appeared, and recognised him at once.
"Ah! good morning, sir! Seen our patient this morning?"
Philip Rotheram shook his head.
"No. I am a complete stranger to them, and I scarcely liked to call. I have taken the liberty of looking in to ask you how he is. You have seen him since, I suppose."
The doctor assented.
"Yes, I was there about an hour ago. He is getting on very well— very well indeed. The fit was not a severe one."
"I am very glad to hear it," Philip declared. "Apoplexy is rather a serious complaint, though, isn't it?"
"Certainly," replied the doctor. "Some day or other it will kill him, no doubt, but it will need a much more severe fit than last night's to carry him off. He has the remains of a magnificent constitution, although he appears to have played the devil with it. I think you said that you were a stranger to them?" he continued, inquiringly.
Philip Rotheram silently admitted that such was the case.
"Ah! they appear to have no friends! Live in a curious manner, too. Keep no servants in the house except an old Russian, who speaks no language but his own. I've never even seen them out of doors except in a closed carriage. Dull life for the young lady, I should think."
Evidently the doctor had told him all he knew about his neighbours, but there was one thing more which his visitor desired to ask him. He hesitated long, however, before he overcame his repugnance to mentioning it. At last he blurted it out—
"That was rather a strange thing, wasn't it, his wounding himself in that way? Have you ever heard of a similar case?"
The doctor's manner changed at once. He eyed his questioner keenly, and answered guardedly.
"I don't know that I have. It is a strange circumstance, certainly."
"You would not be inclined to believe, I suppose," Philip Rotheram continued, "that the young lady was deceived, and that he really stabbed himself with the intention of taking his life?"
"I see no reason to doubt the young lady's version," the doctor answered stiffly. "There is nothing inconsistent with possibility in her statement."
Philip Rotheram was satisfied, and at once rose to go. Glancing round at the barely furnished room as he rose to his feet, it suddenly occurred to him that its owner was probably a poor man, and that he had been taking up his time merely for the sake of his own personal gratification.
"Now that I am here, doctor," he said gravely, "I think I will ask you to be so good as to prescribe for me. I—er, I have a headache—a little overwork I think. Can you give me a tonic?"
The doctor's manner visibly brightened. He felt his unexpected patient's pulse, which was as steady and much firmer than his own, asked him a few questions, wrote out a prescription, and received his guinea with a solemn bow. Then he accompanied him to the street door, and wished him good morning, cordially.
At the corner of the street Philip hesitated. If he turned to the right he would pass the scene of his last night's adventure. If, on the other hand, he turned to the left, it would lead him towards his chambers. His wiser self urged him to choose the latter, and return to his neglected work, but a new power was working within him, and almost without realising what he did, he turned to the right, and walked slowly on with beating heart until he stood on the very spot where his enchantress first appeared to him. He glanced at the house. There was nothing in the outward appearance of that long, low, rather dingy-looking building which would seem to indicate any mystery within.
The front door had shutters over the panes, and apparently was seldom used, and the front of the house generally bore a somewhat disregarded and indifferent appearance. The garden was quite neglected, and the lawn was covered with dandelions and weeds. The shrubs were untrimmed, and the flower beds empty; altogether the place seemed deserted and unwholesome looking, and he knew not why, struck him with a sort of chill as he turned and walked away.
There were only three or four more houses in the street—it was a very short one—but they were all nearer the road, and much more attractive looking. He cast a glance at them, and a lingering one behind, noticed the name of the street, and then walked rapidly away back to his chambers, where he sat down again to his work, with somewhat better results.
He was a man of most unimaginative type, shrewd, gifted with a robust common sense, and with decided tendencies to be conventional. He was a man of the times, unromantic, non- sympathetic, with all the harder, sterner part of his nature developed by his legal training and logical scholarship. He was by no means the sort of man to enter into any sort of intrigue, especially one in which a woman was concerned. Therefore he made no sort of attempt to follow up his strange nocturnal adventure farther than he had already done, or to improve upon the acquaintance which he had made in so singular a manner. He would have very much preferred to consign the whole affair to oblivion, had that been possible, but he had a most distinct and disquieting conviction that to do so was beyond his power. His will might be strong enough to control his actions, but it could not control his memory, and in a safe corner of that mysterious faculty there dwelt what had never lingered there before—a woman's face.
At first he yielded to a little self-deceit, and endeavoured to deny to himself that it was there. Then he tried ridicule, and finally, being worsted in both attempts, he withdrew his thoughts with a great effort to more important matters, and sternly refused to let them dwell for a single moment upon such an irrelevant and unworthy subject. And this was all the more difficult inasmuch as he was reluctantly aware that to let them dwell there for a brief while was very pleasant. To do so was to invite again those curious but thrilling sensations which had surged up within him for the first time in his life when he had stood side by side, hand in hand with the girl who had summoned him from the dark street to her aid. Intuitively he felt that there was danger in this, and he set his face against it.
He was a moralist, even a Puritan, and he was very censorious of other men's wrong-doing. For a young man he had some very extraordinary ideas, the outcome of a hard, strong nature, governed altogether by the head, and in no way by the heart. Self-restraint was his ideal virtue, and he possessed and exercised it in a very considerable degree. He was intolerant of weakness in others and deemed himself incapable of it. To be influenced by affections or emotions, to be prompted by them towards action contrary to the decisions of reason, would have seemed to him gross folly. And so it troubled him not a little that the weaker part of his nature, which had always been so well under control, should have received so powerful an ally in the shape of these disturbing recollections.
For more than a week after his acceptance of that very important invitation Philip Rotheram remained in town, arranging for the transfer of some of his briefs, and devoting a good deal of time to arranging his ideas upon the minor points of the political programme which he would very soon have to elaborate to his future constituents. During that time he never once went near the scene of his recent adventure. Three times he had paid visits to Mr. Barton, but on each occasion he had taken care to have a cab waiting for him. He told himself that he had not the slightest wish, not even the barest curiosity, to look upon the place again, or the faces of the people connected with it. His one wish was to forget the whole incident as speedily as possible; but that was exactly what he found it impossible to do then or ever afterwards.
At the end of the week he found that there was no longer anything to detain him in town, and accordingly one afternoon, having made all arrangements for a protracted absence from his chambers, he drove to St. Pancras, and two hours later the Manchester express deposited him upon the platform of his native town. He had purposely delayed letting even his own people know of his plans until an hour or two before he started, so he found no one there to meet him except an old manservant, who hurried up to him with a beaming face, and many signs of delighted recognition.
"Glad to see 'ee, Master Philip, sir, right down glad to see 'ee," he exclaimed, touching his hat. "Be this all your luggage, sir?"
"Thank you, Thomas, that's all for the present. Be careful how you carry the small bag. You'd better let a porter take one of them. Trap outside?"
"The Victoria, sir. Miss Beatrice, she would come down, although her ma—"
Philip did not stop to hear the rest, he was already making his way out of the station. Close to the booking office door a small Victoria was drawn up, and out of it a bright-faced, eager- looking young lady was leaning forward with an impatient welcoming smile.
"Philip! you old stupid! What a time you've been! And how are you, and what on earth have you been stopping gossiping with Thomas on the platform for, when I was sitting here dying to see you? Get in quick! Goodness gracious! how the springs do creak! This carriage was never meant for great things like you, sir! I declare you grow bigger every day!"
Philip stretched himself out by her side with a complacent smile, and pinched his sister's arm.
"As great a chatterbox as ever, I see, Beatie. Any news?"
"News! I should just think there is news, indeed! First of all the papers this week have published a sort of biographical sketch of you. They'll make you feel bad when you read them, I can tell you. How they got to know all the things, I can't imagine. The Dispatch says that you are a rising young barrister with exceptional talents, and eminently qualified to fill the dignified post of M.P. for Sorchester! And oh! you needn't draw yourself up like that, and look so pleased. Some of the other papers don't think so at all. The Constitutional regrets very much that it is unable to congratulate its political opponents on their candidate. Very little indeed, it says, is known of him, but that little is politically bad, very bad indeed," she added, shaking her head with mock gravity. "In fact, the Constitutional seems to think that you are quite too dangerous a character to be allowed to wander about without a muzzle, and shudders when it considers the possibility of your ever representing your native town. It does call you some names too—rampant Republican, unscrupulous Anarchist, with know leanings towards the dangerous so-called Socialism of the London agitators! And the Morning Standard says a lot of deliciously nasty things, too. Mother won't allow them in the house, but I make Thomas get them for me."
Philip leaned back in his seat and laughed. No-one ever amused him so much as his younger sister.
"Well, you have the election fever in earnest, and no mistake," he remarked.
"Of course I have, I think there's nothing in the world as delightful as an election. And I'm going to canvass, too. Dr. Brandon says that I shall get no end of votes. I believe I should, too."
"Dr. Brandon shouldn't make any rash promises. I don't want to get returned, you know, and then lose my seat for bribery and corruption. That wouldn't do, would it, young lady?"
"Do you suppose that I should do such a thing?" she rejoined, scornfully. "We're all too much in earnest about it. You know what an old fossil George is generally. Well, I've seen him, not quite, but almost excited this week. And I'm making cartloads of rosettes for you to wear, and for the horses. I wanted Thomas to let me pin two on Bedford and Prince this afternoon, but he wouldn't. Stupid old thing! Goodness gracious, here we are, almost at home already, and I've got such a lot more news for you. Well, here's one piece for you, at any rate, Frances is here."
"Frances!" Philip looked up and repeated the name with a quick intonation of surprise. "Frances here! When did she come?"
"Only yesterday. You don't seem so delighted as you ought to be, sir," she added slyly.
He looked a little uneasy, a good deal displeased, and during the short remaining distance of their drive he sat with his eyes steadily fixed upon the carriage mat, and his brows contracted in a heavy frown. Least of anyone did he wish just then to meet his cousin, Lady Frances Clanningham.
They had turned off the main road, and were driving through an open field studded with fine old elms, which reached right up to the ring fence bounding the smooth green lawn and shrubberies in front of the house. Thence they stretched in irregular fashion round to the side, and finally formed a noble avenue which reached down to the end of the large kitchen garden and orchard at the back of the house. Rooks had built in those tall trees, certain of being undisturbed, and had multiplied exceedingly; to such an extent, indeed, that the old gardener had many a time been wroth at the instructions which secured their safety, and had more than once taken down his gun, half inclined to disobey them. But he never went the whole length of disregarding orders, and the only danger they had ever run was from secret attacks with a catapult in the youthful days of the hero of this story. It is not wonderful that amongst the rook community their colony at the Elms was considered a fortunate and a secure one.
The house itself was one of the largest, although the least ostentatious, in the suburb of Sorchester, where it was situated. It's very simplicity was a powerful though silent rebuke to the more gaudy and fanciful structure—many of them built from designs of somewhat questionable taste—which in a period of commercial prosperity had sprung up around it. It was a plain, three-storied building, with small old-fashioned windows, and high chimneys, standing only a few hundred yards back from the road, but amply shielded from undue prominence by the venerable old trees. There was nothing particularly attractive about the house itself, but age had endowed it with a beauty which the more elaborate residences surrounding it did not possess, and its waving trees, green fields, picturesque old gardens and orchards presented a striking contrast, and, to the cultured eye, a very favourable one, to the artistically laid out but artificial grounds of the newer villas. This was Philip Rotheram's home.
It was a very old house, the "Elms." When Philip Rotheram's grandfather, the youngest son of an old north country family, retired from the navy after thirty years' honourable service, he was attracted by its comfortable and homely appearance, and moved his penates from the country of his birth into the house which he christened the "Elms."
Perhaps at the risk of being a little prosy, it will be well here to say a few words more about the family to which our hero belonged. When Commodore Philip Rotheram died at a ripe old age his only son George had no inclination to leave the town of his adoption, and at his own request was articled to the Sorchester man of law. In due course he became his successor, and it was just at the beginning of his career that a new industry was developed in Sorchester, and the town commenced to make rapid strides forward. George Rotheram was not the man to neglect his opportunities, and when he died Sorchester lost her most prominent as well as her wealthiest citizen. He had filled its various offices with credit and good account, and left behind him an honoured name and a well-established, remunerative practice. The latter was left in charge for his elder son George, then fifteen years old whilst Philip, by five years the younger, was to be educated for the bar. He left besides two daughters, Ruth and Beatrice, the former two years younger than George, and Beatrice, the youngest of the family, only two years old.
His death beyond the grief which it naturally caused his wife and children, did not affect them in any other way. He had died a rich man, and he had left a partner fully capable of keeping his practice together until George, according to his dying wish, should be able to take the management of it. The period between his death and the present time had been an uneventful one. In due course George entered the offices of Messrs. Rotheram and Gordon, and eventually took over the reins of command, whilst Philip, after keeping his terms at Magdalen, took his degree, passed the necessary examinations with some distinction, and was called to the bar.
Both in personal appearance and disposition no two men could have been more unlike than Philip and George Rotheram. The former was decidedly of the athletic type. His figure was massive, but well knit and powerful. His head was firmly placed upon broad shoulders, and his carriage was upright, and from his height and splendid physique (he was six feet three) almost imposing. His face was of somewhat common-place type, but it was attractive from its thoroughly open though thoughtful expression. It was the face par exellence of a man of integrity, but the features were too large and irregular for beauty or even good looks. The forehead was low and broad, the eyebrows dark and bushy, and the thin lips and small mouth which completely retrieved the face from even a suspicion of coarseness were tokens of no mutability of character. His eyes were grey, powerful, and keen, but rather small in comparison with his other features, and only striking when passion—an extremely rare visitant—or deep earnestness filled them with expression. His hair was dark brown, with a tendency to curliness, and his moustache, slight and struggling, was of somewhat lighter colour. The rest of his face was clean shaven.
There was something in the almost brusque independence of his bearing and manner of speech which casual acquaintances did not find altogether pleasant. Those who were disposed to be censorious called it pride, but those who were inclined to form a more charitable judgment shrugged their shoulders and put it down to mannerism. Certainly he was not proud, but he was exceedingly self-reliant and reserved. He was not effusively affectionate, but his affections were deep. He was not a dreamer, but he was in a vague sort of way ambitious. He was egotistical, had an iron will, and was of a healthy turn of mind. He was possessed of a private fortune of about three hundred a year, besides other property from which he was at present deriving no benefit. He was not extravagant, but he had a contempt for parsimony. Such, as near as words can describe him, was Philip Rotheram.
George Rotheram, who, as the carriage approached the house, came out on the hall steps to welcome his brother, was a man of an altogether different type, both physically and in all other respects. As regards the former, he was of medium height, only thin and dark, with pale, almost cadaverous face, and thoughtful expression. He was slow and methodical in disposition, and almost painfully precise in his habits. There were those who called him "Quakerish" and "old-fashioned," but, nevertheless, he was a good lawyer, and kept together a sound, paying connection amongst conveyancing clients. When he did have a brief to dispose of, which was not often, he sent it to his brother, and, notwithstanding the marked dissimilarity in their dispositions, the two were fairly good friends. But there was little or no sympathy between them. They never corresponded, and seldom met, save at the Elms, for George, strangely domestic and retiring in his habits, seldom visited London, and Philip, of course, had his chambers and lived there. He was a dutiful son, but not a particularly affectionate one. Ruth, his sister, seemed to enjoy almost a monopoly of his regard, and the attachment between them was a remarkably strong one.
She, Ruth was the very prototype of himself, both in appearance and manners. She was reserved, apparently somewhat plethoric, and more interested in philanthropic works than in home doings. Beatrice, her younger sister, shared none of these traits, nor did she in any way resemble Ruth. She was a bright- eyed, lively, good-tempered English girl, of a not uncommon type, good-looking, but not beautiful, talkative, but not a chatterbox. She was Philip's favourite in the family, and next to Philip's, her mother's.
Mrs. Rotheram was a woman to whom nature had been especially kind, for though she was long past her fiftieth year, her appearance was still that of a woman in the prime of life. Her dark hair was as yet scarcely tinged with grey, and her smooth brow was unwrinkled. She had retained, too, in great measure the figure of her youth, to the attractiveness of which was now added the stateliness and dignity which only years can bring. Her features, though not perfect, were of good type, and clearly cut, but undoubtedly her great charm lay in the winning expression which made her face still almost beautiful—so much so, that you only realised that she was no longer a young woman when thought or perplexity contracted her brows, and chased the light out of her mobile face. In disposition she fully bore out the promise of her appearance. She was kind-hearted and affectionate, deeply attached to her children, and unselfish. But notwithstanding her affections she had, for a woman, a wonderfully keen sense of justice, and in the earlier days of her family had struggled hard to conceal her preference for her two younger children, and even now that they were men and women she was indefatigable in her attempts to keep it secret. George and Ruth were almost strangely alike, and the image of their father and his family. Beatrice and Philip quite as distinctly resembled their mother, although their likeness to each other was less marked.
She was of an exceedingly good family, the oldest daughter of Sir Francis Claybrook, a baronet of ancient creation, and her marriage with Mr. Rotheram was considered by all her friends to be a mésalliance. Both her father and mother were annoyed beyond measure at her choice, for they had looked forward to making a brilliant alliance—by no means an unreasonable expectation, for besides being an acknowledged beauty, she was possessed in her own right of a somewhat considerable fortune. However, her mind was made up, and she was reluctantly allowed to have her own way. But the marriage was not forgiven, and the breach gradually widening, by degrees all communication, even between her parents and herself, ceased.
She had never been a particularly happy woman, for her husband had scarcely fulfilled the expectations which she had cherished of him during their engagement. He had been fond of her, but he was ambitious and besides working hard at his profession, had also taken a warm interest in municipal affairs—an interest so warm, indeed, as to become almost absorbing, and very little of his time was spent at home, for the claims of the office and the council chamber were paramount with him.
Being a sensitive woman, she could not but perceive that she occupied by no means the foremost place in his thoughts, and considering the sacrifice she had made for him, and the fortune she had brought him, she felt herself rather hardly used. Then, too, there was a subject of disagreement between them which, though it never blazed up into a positive quarrel, was still continually smouldering. It was his strong and oft-expressed wish that she would take an active lead in the society of the town, and back him up in his municipal work by social influence. To this she had very decided, and, as they appeared to her, sufficient objections. Sorchester society was scarcely the sort of society to which she had been accustomed, and she flatly refused to have anything to do with it. There was a good deal of excuse for her refusal, but her husband was angry, and took no pains to conceal his annoyance. She was firm, however, and he found it impossible to move her. A parvenu in society she could tolerate, but a society of parvenus—no. The people whom she felt disposed to visit and receive at her house were people, for the most part, of no earthly use to him in his career, and she emphatically refused to extend the circle of her acquaintances.
"It's all very well, George," she told him in one of their discussions upon the subject, "but I cannot do as you wish, and you really must not press it. 'Punch's' Sir Georgius is very amusing, I admit, and one could tolerate that sort of thing in moderation amongst one's equals. But the people whom you wish me to be friendly with seem to be all of the Sir Georgius type, and I couldn't endure that, you know. It isn't the men so much—it's their wives!" and she gave an aristocratic little shiver.
"You make quite a mistake," he had assured her rather testily. "Of course they are a little rough and uncultured, but they are not nearly so bad as you suppose. There are some excellent people amongst them—excellent people!" he repeated emphatically.
But she had been unconvinced, and for awhile the subject had been dropped, although with the understanding that it was to be reviewed when the year for Mr. Rotheram's mayoralty came round, an event which his wife accordingly looked forward to with no little dread.
It never came, however. Only a few months after this conversation a severe cold, which developed into an attack of pneumonia, cut short somewhat abruptly his municipal career, and Mrs. Rotheram was left a widow, with the Elms and a comfortable jointure her's for life, and with the charge of her four children to occupy her time.
Then commenced what was perhaps the happiest period of her life. Her husband, although he had not meant to be neglectful, had certainly disappointed her. His local ambitions had always seemed to her somewhat petty, and she had felt a good deal of regret that he had never shown any signs of aspiring to more than provincial honours. She was herself a woman of wider ambitions. She had married George Rotheram not only because she liked him, but because she fancied that he was possessed of talents which would enable him to strike out a line for himself, and, with the aid of her social influence and fortune, to push his way forward to the very front rank of his profession.
She had taken the ambition for granted, and it was no pleasant surprise for her when she found that it did not exist, or rather that it exited in such a meagre form. She was a woman of very fine disposition, however, and never uttered the shadow of a reproach, or betrayed in any manner the mild contempt with which she regarded the career which he had chosen. Instead, she turned her attention to her children, and found here the interest with which her husband's schemes had failed to inspire her.
She was a good mother, but she had one—the mother's failing. She had a favourite. Not all her strenuous efforts—and she did try hard— could altogether conceal from the others the greater amount of affection which her younger son commanded from her. She had been proud of the prizes which he had brought home from school, of the cups which he had sent from Oxford, and of the successful start which he had made in life. She was proud of his physique, and of his self-possessed, independent manners. He was to her the very prototype of what a man should be—and he was her son. She was ambitious for him, she schemed for him (of which more anon), and she felt all her former interest in life revive when she thought of him, head and shoulders above all other men in her mind, easily pushing his way forward amongst an unresisting and admiring crowd to the very foremost circles in his calling.
And in the midst of day dreams such as these there had come this great delight. He was to go into Parliament! He was to be an M.P.! What greater lift than this could he receive, and to what might it not lead! There were few happier women in England than Mrs. Rotheram as she stood on the steps that afternoon with a proud loving smile upon her face, and welcomed her favourite son home to the Elms.
The drawing-room at the Elms was one of the most comfortable apartments that could be imagined. The ceiling was perhaps a trifle low for modern tastes, but this was absolutely its only fault, if it be a fault. It was large, and of delightfully irregular shape, furnished and decorated with the nicest possible regard to colouring and space, and having about it that air of indefinable daintiness which bespeaks the presiding care of a woman of taste and refinement. Not the least pleasant features about it were the curiously-formed recesses on the south side, from each one of which you could step through French windows on to the broad gravel walk bordering the tennis lawn.
In one of these, with a magazine in her hand, and a shaded lamp on a small round table before her, sat Mrs. Rotheram on the evening of her son's arrival. Had she chosen, she might have been reading all about a clergyman's holiday in the Ardennes, or the doings of the anti-vivisection society, or the opinions of a well-known satirist concerning her sex. But as a matter of fact she was doing nothing of the kind. The magazine had slipped uncut from her fingers on to her lap, and her eyes were fixed upon the red light of a cigar about a dozen yards away, behind which she knew that Philip was lounging in the basket chair which he had dragged out of the smoking-room.
Presently the red light grew dimmer, and suddenly described a semi-circle in the air, alighting in some flower beds. Then Mrs. Rotheram knew that her time had come, and leaning forward she called to him softly—
He had got up with his hands in his pockets, as though about to stroll down the path, but when he heard who it was calling him he took his chair up to her, and sat down again.
"I didn't see you, mother. What a splendid night it is!"
"Yes. You must find it very much pleasanter down here this weather than in those stuffy chambers of yours."
He agreed with her. It certainly was more pleasant; and then there was a silence.
"I am rather glad to get you quite to myself for a few minutes, Philip," his mother remarked, glancing backwards to the interior of the room. "I wanted to have a word or two with you quietly."
He nodded. "About the election?"
"No, about Frances," Mrs. Rotheram replied, a little timidly, with the air of one who is about to broach a subject which she fears may not be a welcome one. Philip knitted his brow and looked annoyed.
"Anything interesting in 'Murray's' this month?" he inquired, stretching out his hand for it, but she withheld it.
"Never mind about 'Murray's' just now, sir, but listen to me. What do you mean to do about Frances? It is quite time you made up your mind one way or the other."
He did not answer immediately. First of all he fixed his eyes thoughtfully upon the tall gloomy elm trees opposite, which, undisturbed by even the slightest night breeze, seemed just then like dark towering monuments. Then he gazed up at the sky, and studied the glittering arc of the heavens as though in search of some particular star, and finally he concentrated all his attention upon his left foot, which he was carefully attempting to balance upon his right toe.
"I am waiting for your answer, Philip," she reminded him.
"I haven't made up my mind yet," he replied, rather weakly. "There's no hurry."
Mrs. Rotheram was of a very different opinion. It seemed to her that there were strong reasons for hurry.
"Philip, Philip," she said, speaking in a tone of admonition, "this isn't like you at all. I never knew you so undecided about anything. Do you know that you are making me quite anxious. You can't expect a girl like Frances with her fortune to go on waiting year after year until you choose to throw down the handkerchief. If you don't mind, you'll lose her."
What connection there could have been between the two things it is impossible, of course, to see. But certain it is that just at this point his thoughts suddenly flashed back to that strange house at Kensington, and revelled for a moment in the recollection of a pair of pleading blue eyes, full of a half- defined regret, and a soft voice bidding him in slow, musical accents depart. Before his mother had noticed his abstraction, however, he had summarily recalled them.
"You must see with me, Philip, I am sure," she went on, not without a shade of anxiety in her tone, "that however desirable this—er—arrangement was before, it is ten times more so now. A seat in Parliament is not, comparatively speaking, worth much to a man unless he has either money or influence. If you marry Frances you will have both. You will be a rich man even in London, and as the husband of the Earl of Clanningham's daughter you will gain a distinct position in society. You must see this, Philip. Directly I heard from George that they were going to ask you to stand for Sorchester I wrote to and begged her to give us a few days, and although she was staying with some very nice people in Scotland, she came at once. She must have known what it meant and she will expect you to speak."
Philip kicked a pebble out of his way savagely, and sat for a minute or two in silence, a heavy frown contracting his thick eyebrows.
"It seems to me that there isn't much left for me to do," he remarked abruptly.
"There is not," his mother answered calmly. "We have had no direct conversation upon the subject, but her coming here at all under the circumstances is a proof that she is willing to carry out poor Eleanor's wishes. I am sure that you have only to ask, and I hope that you will do so, now that you have an opportunity, without any further delay."
"I don't see any particular hurry," he said moodily. Then he sat up suddenly and frowned again, for he had been compelled to recall his truant thoughts from a forbidden subject.
"I am surprised at you, Philip," his mother said sternly, and she could be very stern indeed when she liked. "You are either wilfully blind or very stupid. Can't you see how embarrassing the position is for her. You must either pay her a little more attention than you did at dinner-time, and let her see that you are anxious for the arrangement to be carried out, or else give it up altogether."
He rose from his chair, and pushed it away from him impatiently.
"Well, I'll go and talk to her, anyhow," he said, stooping down and entering the room through the open window. "I've scarcely spoken to her yet."
He walked slowly across the room with his hands behind him, but before he reached his destination he stopped short. Seated before a small table a few yards away from him, with her eyes, and apparently her whole attention, riveted upon the man who was leaning forward toward her, was the young lady whom he was conscious of having a little neglected, and the man to whom she was listening with so much empressement was his brother George. There was a chessboard between them, but it seemed to have been forgotten by both, he in his talking and she in her listening.
Philip stood before them for a moment unnoticed, with a half- surprised, half-amused look on his face. Then George looked up and saw him, and broke off short in the midst of a sentence.
"I shall relinquish the argument to Philip," he said, rising. "I have some letters to write."
Philip sank into the vacant chair after an unavailing protest and for the rest of the evening did his best to entertain the woman whom a family conspiracy had destined for his wife. But family arrangements of this sort sometimes fall through, and Philip Rotheram, had he known it, might have spared himself the slight pains he was taking to ingratiate himself with his cousin. For into his life, prosaic and uneventful as it had been up till the time when his fortunes became our concern, a strange and startling change was soon to come.
After all, the haste which Philip Rotheram's partisans had shown to get him down to Sorchester, and to place his candidature before the constituency, proved to be unnecessary. The sitting member unexpectedly decided to retain his seat until the November election instead of at once resigning.
But all the same Philip was not allowed to return to his work in town. His committee would not hear of such a thing. The time, they said, was none too long, and they rapidly planned out a series of ward meetings, mass meetings, and demonstrations, which threatened to tax his utmost energies. But he rose to the occasion, and got through an astonishing amount of work, to the great satisfaction of his adherents. And his spare time he occupied in making love—in his very mild fashion—to his cousin.
A word or two about this young lady. Mrs. Rotheram's sister had married as well as she (Mrs. Rotheram) had done badly, for very soon after her sister had left home for Sorchester she had become Countess of Clanningham. Three years after her marriage she had had a severe illness, which left her an invalid for life, and obliged her to live for nine months out of the twelve in the southern countries of Europe. Her husband was devoted to her, and for her sake readily accommodated himself to circumstances. He had travelled much in his younger days, and foreign manners and customs had always pleased him more than those of his own land, and having few ties save the responsibilities of his great estates in England, their enforced sojourn was no hardship to him.
They had one child only, Frances, and during their long absence from home she had always been left at Saville Court with her grandfather and grandmother, until he had grown to consider it almost as her home. She was there when Sir Francis died suddenly, and his widow, unable to bear the shock, passed away on the same day.
When the will was opened, it was found that instead of dividing his vast property (for it was nearly all unentailed, having come to him through his wife) equally between the Countess of Clanningham and Mrs. Rotheram, his only surviving children, Sir Francis Claybrook had left the whole of it to little Frances, nor was there in it any mention of the daughter who had offended him.
Nothing could exceed Lady Clanningham's annoyance at this bequest to her child, more especially as during his latter days her father had shown many signs of relenting towards Mrs. Rotheram, and had he lived a short while longer, there appeared to be little doubt that he would have altered his will in her favour. Besides, in the event of their having no other child, which seemed more than probable, Frances was already heiress to a princely fortune. Altogether Lady Clanningham was excessively put out. She could not bear to think that her child was possessed of a fortune some part of which at least should have gone to her sister; and in one of their conversations on the subject, she had let fall the hint that matters could only be righted should one of Mrs. Rotheram's sons, then in the nursery, take a fancy to Frances, and she return it. A marriage between them would bring the money into the Rotheram family, even if Mrs. Rotheram did not herself receive it.
The idea was always particularly pleasing to Mrs. Rotheram. She was ambitious for her younger son, and fully realised the advantage that such a fortune would give him, both in the social word and in his profession. She eventually sounded him, with care of course, upon the subject, and had found that he had views which seemed likely to facilitate the consummation of her wishes.
Worn out at last by a long and painful illness, Frances, Countess of Clanningham, died in her husband's arms. During the last stage of her malady she had told him of her wish respecting Frances, and he had acquiesced at once, and so, though no direct communication had passed between them on the subject, Mrs. Rotheram understood that could it be brought to pass there was no opposition to be feared from her brother-in-law.
As for Frances herself, she was more favourably inclined towards this arrangement than many girls in her place would have been. She was a sensible young woman, not in the least romantic, and she had considered the matter very carefully. She had seen a good deal of both of her cousins, and on the whole thought both of them superior to most of the men whom she had met. She had only run the gauntlet of one season, chaperoned by a distant connection of her father's, but she had very little inclination to renew the experience. She had met fortune-hunters in plenty, and had snubbed them as they had deserved. She had been introduced by loving mammas to prodigal younger sons, whose praises had been duly impressed upon her by these artful designers, and the whole thing had rather sickened her. So far from her fortune bringing her happiness, it was the very reverse, for although she was anything but pessimistic in her judgment of her fellows, she could not help perceiving that it was her two hundred thousand pounds, and not any personal gifts, which made her so interesting to society, and so warmly courted.
She was not sentimental, and she had strongly developed ideas as to right and wrong. Then too, the thought that the money which made her such an object of attraction should by right have gone to the Rotherams was a perpetual trouble to her. Hence she was the more inclined to seriously consider the many hints and innuendoes which she had received as to the means by which the matter could be put right. A marriage de convenance she had always considered hateful, and such a one she would certainly not have contemplated under ordinary circumstances. But these were not ordinary circumstances, and after a good deal of consideration she declared that if the sacrifice were required of her, she would be prepared to make it. The men whom she had met in society had not attracted her, perhaps because she was half unconsciously biased against them by the idea that it was for her fortune's sake that they were so eager to talk to her, and pay her attention, and this idea had made her just a trifle cynical, for in proportion as she magnified the importance of her vast fortune she felt inclined to depreciate her own personal attractions, which were by no means insignificant, and would have found it difficult to believe, supposing that such had happened to be the case, that she was being sought for herself alone. She would have to marry some time, she reasoned, and no doubt it would be for her fortune's sake and not for her own, and surely it anyone had a right to that fortune, it was one of her cousins, and so when she accepted this invitation to the Elms she had quite made up her mind that she would go prepared to listen favourably to her cousin's suit.
Engrossed as he was by his political struggle, however, Philip Rotheram naturally found very little time to prosecute the wooing which had been arranged for him, but it must be added that at no time did he show any disposition to hurry in the matter. It was evident to his cousin that her's would be no ardent courtship. He seldom ever addressed her individually, save to make some unimportant remark, and when she would have liked to have discussed with him, or to have heard him discuss the progress and chances of his contest, she found him slow to take advantage of the opportunities which her questions afforded him, and, indeed, on all matters relating to the election he maintained the most complete silence.
It annoyed, even offended her, that he should be thus reticent. Surely if she were to be asked to bestow herself and her vast fortune upon this man, he might at least take advantage of the present opportunity of placing them on a more confidential footing, when, by her evident interest in his cause, she had paved the way. But he did nothing of the sort. When in conversation with her, he limited that conversation to subjects of trifling interest and importance, and when she forced him into perceiving that there were other and weightier matters which she preferred to discuss, he listened to her, and replied with just a soupcon in his manner of letting himself down to the intellectual level of a person of inferior understanding. This was anything but pleasing to her, for she was in reality an intelligent young woman, fully able to grasp the subjects which he avoided discussing with her. Amongst the considerations which had influenced her to look upon this arrangement favourably was prominent the idea that her cousin's career would be one likely to interest her, and that she would be able to manifest her interest by her sympathy, even advice, and that thus there would be between them some kind of a bond, consisting in a mutual ambition and concern, which would be able at first, anyhow, to take the place of affection, and in time doubtless propagate it.
She knew very little of his nature when her reflections thus prompted her. Such sympathy and fellow-interest as she fancied might readily be kindled between them were wholly undesired by him. That which he had decided he had decided, that which he hoped for he hoped for, and he cared very little for anyone else's approbation or opinion when once he was himself satisfied as to the wisdom or expediency of a certain course of action. When he felt that he needed inspiration, or was halting in his mind between two issues, he never dreamed of seeking the one or determining the other by the advice or opinion of friends. He betook himself instead to solitude, lit his huge meerschaum, and thought the vexed matter out from all its points of view. It did not take him long, as a rule, to come to a decision, and when once his mind was made up he seldom, if ever, changed it. In a certain sense his was a hard, unlovable nature. He was so entirely independent, so confident in his own decisions—with a certain amount of reason—that his independence and confidence might almost seem to approach egotism, perhaps even selfishness. But from the lower form of selfishness his nature was utterly free, although his too great self-reliance perhaps laid him open to the charge of the former failing.
There was much in the character of Philip Rotheram which, had she properly understood it, would have been attractive to his cousin, but on the other hand there was a good deal in his superficial traits which was repellant to her. The particular position in which they stood with regard to each other was unfavourable, almost prohibitive of any spontaneous affection springing up between them—in other words, it was unnatural, and not to be looked for that she should fall in love with him, for the very reason that she had promised to marry him.
In a certain degree she recognised this improbability; at any rate she did not look for, or for a moment entertain, the idea of an ordinary love-making. Her notion was that by enjoying his confidence, and exhibiting her interest in his plans and career, some sort of affection would be certain to spring up, which constant intercourse would very soon ripen into a feeling sufficiently warm to enable them to become husband and wife, not in name alone, but in very truth. But his peculiar disposition was opposed to the realisation of such an idea. He withheld his confidence from her, and expressed not the slightest desire that she should interest herself in his plans and hopes, although she reflected he must know that her presence there implied her willingness to accept this family arrangement which was to unite them "for better or worse." What sympathy, what mutual tie, she wondered, could there be between them to justify his asking her for her hand! To look upon the affair solely and altogether as a bargain, as a financial transaction, was, as already observed, peculiarly repellant to her sensitive disposition, and such a marriage she felt it would be misery for her to carry out. And yet his behaviour seemed indicative of no desire to establish any tie either of affection or interest between them. He talked to her as a man might talk to his partner at a dance, or to a chance acquaintance, and never once with the earnestness of a man who seeks to discover whether there is in the nature of his companion anything akin to his own. It was a perplexing situation for her. She could not press him for his confidence, or remonstrate with him for his reticence, for as yet he had not asked her to be his wife, and until he did she was chary of taking much apparent concern in his doings. She was sure that he intended to ask her, and although she had come on this visit determined to say yes to him, she felt that if it was thus he sought to win her, his wooing would meet with but a very cold response.
And all might have been so different, she reflected, half- angrily, half-bitterly. Had he appeared anxious to win her sympathy, had he talked to her openly and unreservedly as, for instance, George did, told her of his aspirations and intentions, and dwelt upon the possibilities of the future which she was to share with him, she felt that he could scarcely fail to excite her interest, and as for the rest, there was much in his character which would have been compensation to her, for his lack of affection and the sacrifice which she had agreed to make would have been so much easier. Perhaps after marriage he would be different—would soften and grow more confidential, but it was surely terrible risk to stake her life's happiness upon a chance.
For his part, Philip Rotheram was giving the subject far more attention than was apparent from his manner; far more attention, indeed, than he cared to acknowledge even to himself. It was often uppermost in his mind, and invariably his first thoughts were that this marriage was well for him, and his final determination the same. But his intervening thoughts were thoughts which he himself could scarcely follow. He was so used to meditative study, the cool and logical reasoning of a clear and healthy brain, that it was a mystery to him why, when he chose this subject for reflection, his imagination should suddenly triumph over his reasoning faculties, and unless restrained and subordinated by a mighty effort, play strange havoc with his conclusions. He would commence by reflecting that in such a career as he intended following a wife would be a desirable and even a necessary appendage. He must have one fairly good-looking, sensible, a lady, and used to society.
These were the qualities which he put down as indispensable, and all these the lady in question possessed, besides the additional and important consideration of a large fortune. Yes, everything was in favour of his marrying his cousin if she would have him. He could come to no other conclusion, and yet somehow it was a conclusion which did not give him unalloyed satisfaction, and as often as he arrived at it he found his steady reasoning give way to wilder truant thoughts, thoughts which led him of a sudden back to the night of his strange adventure in that dull suburban street! Again he fancied that he saw that fair girl with her perfect features and stately figure, with her deep blue eyes, and soft lingering speech, strange from its foreign accent, but ringing still like sweet magic in his ears. Once more he stood in that Aladdin's chamber with its fairy surroundings, with the soft blue light and the entrancing odours wafted gently to him, and he recalled, even felt again, the curious thrall which had crept over him, the strange disturbing excitement which had rendered him her passive slave, yielding without a murmur to her will, and obeying her slightest movement. And thus oftentime he found himself musing, pondering upon the slightest incident in connection with that remarkable night, until with an effort he realised his wandering state, and, sternly rousing himself, proceeded once more to weigh the matter, thoughts of which had given way to such ecstatic recollections.
He could come to but one conclusion—to ask his cousin to become his wife. Everything was in favour of his doing so, and there was not a single contra-argument. But should he ask her now—she had been at the Elms about a month—or wait until the result of the election was known? He considered, temporised, until chance inspired him with a sudden decision.
One morning there was upon his plate a letter addressed to Philip Rotheram, Esq., the handwriting of which was unknown to him. He was down first, and, as was his usual custom, carried his letters and the paper out into the garden to study them until the breakfast hour. The first three or four were not particularly interesting, belonging to a class which he termed election letters, and to which he was becoming quite accustomed; petitions for charity, letters of advice, some anonymous, some signed with a flourish, notices of meetings, tradesmen's circulars, and applications for subscriptions to some local sport or charity. These he glanced rapidly through, and then carelessly stuffed into his pocket for more business-like perusal later on, until at last he came to the letter which had headed the pile on his plate, and which had vaguely interested him. It was in a lady's handwriting, and he had no lady correspondents, a small, refined hand written on thick cream paper, which emitted a faint and somehow not altogether unfamiliar perfume. Certainly it was no business letter, nor was it at all like an election epistle. With some curiosity he tore it open, and the colour came slowly into his cheeks as he glanced it through eagerly, and then re-read it with an unabated interest.
It was a strange letter. There was no orthodox commencement, nor was there on it either date or address. Thus it ran:—
But a very short time ago you were so good as to offer me your services should I ever require them. It may be that you spoke merely out of courtesy to a frightened girl, and, if so, pray tear this letter up and think no more about it. But you looked as though you meant what you said, and I have no friends—not a single friend in this country to whom I can appeal for advice. My father is very ill, and I am greatly perplexed. I believe that you could do me a great service if you would, and though I fear—alas! I know—that I am bold in thus addressing a stranger, I have unfortunately no choice. If you would earn my deepest gratitude, Monsieur, meet me in the Kensington Gardens, near the principal entrance, at two o'clock to-morrow afternoon, and I will then tell you my trouble. I dare not ask you to come here, I cannot tell you why, but I shall trust to see you all the same, and I believe that you will come.
Twice he read this strange letter through, and then crumpling it into his pocket, he stepped back into the morning room deep in thought. Should he go, or should he not go? What claim had this girl upon him that at her summons he should rush away from his electioneering duties, and help her with her troubles? Was he a modern Don Quixote, to go wandering about the country succouring damsels in distress, instead of attending to his own business? Was this his character, he who prided himself more than anything on being so matter of fact, so logical, so superior to the influences which might attack other men of weaker calibre? Bah! The notion was distasteful to him, even hateful, but all the while he knew that his pulses were beating with excited pleasure, and that he was already looking forward with keen anticipations of delight to seeing again the heroine of his little romance.
And then, as thoughts of his cousin had somehow often led him to think of her, so the reverse now happened, and thoughts of her led him to think of Lady Frances Clanningham and her vast fortune. It was strange, but the idea seized him, and he could not altogether divest himself of it, that this journey to London, if he took it, would lead to results which might imperil the success of that little family arrangement in which Frances and he were the prominent figures. As soon as he realised it he despised himself for harbouring, even for an instant, so puerile an idea. And yet he could not get rid of it, absurd though it seemed to him, for notwithstanding all his reasonings it was implanted in his mind with the tenacity and certainty of an original conviction, and resisted all his attempts to laugh it away.
Perhaps for the first time in his life Philip Rotheram felt that morning a strange and nerveless indecision pressing upon him. He seemed in a thick fog, and the way before him, generally so plain and clear, was obscured and mystical. Should he obey this girl's mysterious appeal for help, and hurry to her side, or should he remain where he was, taking no notice of her letter, and thus escape the indefinable risk which somehow he felt to be associated with another meeting with her? There was his word, his pledged word, but could he not write and explain the inconvenience of quitting Sorchester just at this particular time, and enquire in what manner he could be of service to her? While he was thus meditating with the open letter in his hand, the door opened, and Lady Frances entered.
"Good morning, Philip; down first, as usual," she remarked as they shook hands.
He looked thoughtfully into her bright, pleasant face, and clear grey eyes, and noticed with unconscious approbation her daintily fresh white morning gown hanging in one straight fold around her trim figure, and the simple arrangement of her hair. There was about Lady Frances all that indefinable charm which belongs only to well-bred womanhood, and Philip was just the man to appreciate it.
She walked away from him to the window, and stood looking out into the garden. He watched her idly until a sudden impulse flashed in upon him, and he started; then moved across the room to her side.
"Are you going into the garden?" he asked, quietly. "There is plenty of time before breakfast."
She acquiesced at once, and stood aside while he opened the window, and motioned her to precede him. But a moment afterwards her heart gave a great throb, and she would have given the world to be back in the morning room. For a glance into his face had told her that the moment of her trial had come.
Side by side, Philip Rotheram and his cousin, Lady Frances, strolled across the smooth lawn, she nervous, and scarcely able to hide her feelings, he apparently preoccupied, until they reached the lower gardens and were out of sight of the house. Then he paused before a seat, and she, divining his wish, sat down and listened with downcast eyes, whilst he spoke to her more seriously than as yet he had ever done.
"Frances," he said, "perhaps you can guess what it is that I want to say to you. I am not going to be a hypocrite, and tell you that I am in love with you, because, frankly, I am not. But I like you better than any woman I know."
He paused and repeated this sentence steadily, as though defying some thought of his own. Then he continued.
"I really believe that we should be happy together, and I know that our people would approve of it. Will you be my wife, Frances?"
She did not answer immediately. She was looking away from him and idly pulling away the branches of the tree which drooped over the seat.
"Perhaps you think that this is a strange way to ask you," he went on slowly, as if weighing the matter in his mind, "but what I have said I honestly mean. Of course I do not pretend to conceal the fact that your money will be useful to me, even that your fortune was the first thing which made me think of asking you to be my wife. But leaving that out of the question I do think that we should suit each other very well—and I would try, to make you happy. What do you say, Frances?"
A strange wooing this for an heiress to listen to! She had been asked before by handsomer men on bended knees, with well simulated passion in their tones, and in long speeches full of vows of adoration and eager entreaties. But she had been perfectly well aware that her money was the attraction which had brought them to her feet, although they had studiously avoided all mention of it, and their protestations had sounded to her like mockery, and without hesitation or compunction she had dismissed them. But this man she felt instinctively was a man of a different calibre. He was no ordinary fortune-hunter, or at least he did not seem so to her. His proposal, though couched in strange terms, had nevertheless been a frank and open one. Would it not be a good omen for their future happiness that his truth and candour should remain unimpaired one jot, even when he pleaded for a gift which must make an immense difference to his lot. And then, too, had she not already promised? How could she draw back?
She stole a glance at him. He was standing before her erect and unbending, as usual, but there was a wistful light in his clear grey eyes, and a disturbed anxious look in his face, which she had never seen there before, and she could not guess that it was not altogether anxiety to win her which had called them forth. She thought that surely he must care a little for her, and was not so utterly indifferent, or he would not be thus moved. She did not for one moment believe that the hope of winning her fortune would thus affect him, nor would it have done so. Then she withdrew her hand from its idle task, and place it in his, whispering,—
"If you wish it, Philip, let it be so."
He stooped and gravely kissed the little fingers, a gallantry she would not have believed him capable of before, and then, as the breakfast gong boomed out its noisy summons for the second time, she rose, and in silence they moved across the lawn, and entered the morning-room. Mrs. Rotheram, seated at the head of the table, glanced at them with a quick appreciation of what was coming, and her hand shook as she abruptly replaced the coffee- pot on its stand.
"Mother," Philip said guiltily as he bent down and kissed her, "I have asked Frances to be my wife, and she has consented."
Mrs. Rotheram wiped the tears from her eyes as she drew her niece towards her affectionately.
"This makes me very happy," she said.
"George, won't you congratulate me?" Philip asked, turning round. George had walked away to the window, but at the sound of his brother's voice addressing him he turned round and extended his hand.
"With all my heart I congratulate you, Philip. You should be happy," he added, with a slight tremor in his tones.
And Philip wondered then why Ruth's eyes should be fixed upon his brother's face, as they stood there with clasped hands, and why as she gazed such a strange, half angry, half mournful look should light up her plain homely face.
That same morning the 9.30 express from Sorchester deposited Philip Rotheram on the platform of St. Pancras a few minutes before twelve o'clock. He had not found it difficult to invent a sufficient excuse for this sudden absence from the scene of his labours, but there had been naturally not a little curiosity to encounter at home with regard to the cause for this hurried journey, especially after the morning's event. There may be different opinions as to how a man should employ the time immediately after the woman whom he had asked to be his wife has accepted him, but to quit her side barely an hour afterwards on an unexplained journey is scarcely a popular or usual course of action. There had been no direct remonstration or question, however, from anyone, and his curt remarks as to some business in town had been accepted in silence by all of them.
He certainly had not exhibited any extraordinary elation at the success, one might almost say the undeserved success of his suit, but Mrs. Rotheram assured Frances that such was not to be expected from him, for it was very seldom indeed that they were able to judge of his feelings by his appearance or manner of speech.
"He is happy about it, my dear, I am sure," declared Mrs. Rotheram. "You will soon get used to his reserved ways. It's purely mannerism," and with this Frances was forced to be content, but she was scarcely satisfied.
In a general way Mrs. Rotheram was right, but this once her son's appearance and manner were hardly correct indices of his thoughts. He did not feel any elation at the success of his suit beyond a certain sense of relief that the matter was settled at last. His cousin and her vast fortune had never seemed so indifferent, almost obnoxious to him as they did when he was seated in the express on his way to London, and he reviewed the altered prospects of his life. He was now an engaged man. He had acted upon a cool and steady criticism of the matter, and had done what seemed to him the common sense thing, but somehow he felt a little nervous as to the wisdom of the whole arrangement. It was a vague sort of nervousness after all, for it was begotten of no tangible fear, but he knew very well that he would have let the matter rest for a while if it had not been for certain apprehensions which had filled him with the idea that this journey to London would inspire him with a greater distaste than ever towards the marriage de convenance to which he had now committed himself. And so he had hurried in doing what he firmly believed to be a wise and judicious action out of fear lest his feelings might revolt, and render the task impossible were it not quickly done.
The idea was not pleasing to him. What was there in this strange girl that could affect him or cause him to alter his plans? Was he, Philip Rotheram, afraid of a few minutes conversation with a beautiful woman? No, a thousand times no! It was a ridiculous fancy. He had given his word to help her, and if his help could be fairly and honestly given, she should have it for the sake of that word, but it was madness, wild, illogical folly, traitorous to his nature and false to his stronger self, that he should be looking forward to his interview with her with these strange sensations of excited hope and pleasure. What was she to him, or he to her, that he should feel aught but indifference at the prospect of seeing her again? There was mystery, for all he knew, crime, in her surroundings, and surely he was not the man to be attracted by such.
Besides, he had passed the Rubicon now; he was "appropriated," and although it seemed absurd to imagine that that fact had any material connection with his appointment in Kensington Gardens, he still had an uneasy consciousness that, bearing that fact in mind, a disinterested person might view with some disapprobation the purpose of his journey to London. Still there was his word, given when he had been moved with a fascinated pity towards that beautiful foreign girl, and that word must be kept. He would see her, and, if possible, help her in her trouble, whatever it might be, and then he would come away, and forget her.
Arrived at St. Pancras, he drove first to his chambers, and then to his club, where he lunched. It was still only half-past one, so he lit a cigar, and took up the Times; but every now and then he found himself glancing up at the clock, wondering why the long hand moved so slowly, and whether the clock was right. He calculated that it would take about ten minutes to get to Kensington Gardens, and he had made up his mind not to stir from his chair until a quarter to two, but as the long hand reached the twenty minutes he began to be restless, and divers possibilities occurred to him. Supposing he should not be able to find a hansom immediately; supposing it were to take the man longer to get there than he had calculated! Why, she might have been and gone away again when he reached the meeting place! The very idea upset him, and jumping up from his chair he left the room, had his hat handed to him with a final, but quite unnecessary brush by the doorkeeper, and hurried down the steps. His first fear was soon dissipated. There was a hansom prowling about outside, and he hailed it at once.
"Gents in a 'urry," soliloquised the Jehu, and whipped up his horse, hoping by a little extra speed to gain an extra shilling, so that when he pulled up opposite the Albert Hall it wanted still eight minutes to two.
She was not there yet. His first quick glance showed him that, for it was the great middle-class dinner hour, and the gardens were comparatively deserted. He strolled down the broad gravel path, trying to persuade himself that he was quite at his ease, but the attempt was not perfectly satisfactory, for he was conscious of an excited nervousness altogether foreign to his usual self. He did not, however, outwardly betray any such emotion, for his face was as imperturbable and impassive as it always was, and his long leisurely strides would not have suggested to anyone the idea that any but the most prosaic and calm thoughts were reigning within that tall, distinguished looking man who was pacing backwards and forwards with his hands behind his back, glancing every now and then with apparent unconcern towards the gate.
Two o'clock struck and then she came. She did not see him at first, and walked a little way down the principal path, while he for a moment stood still and watched her with eager eyes and unwonted disturbance of thoughts. She wore a long velvet cloak, which fitted her to perfection, and a turban hat, and that wonderful golden hair was coiled up at the back of her head in many plaits. The few loiterers in the gardens stared curiously at her, this tall, beautiful girl, so handsomely dressed, but she glanced neither to the right nor to the left, moving along with a grace which was almost majestic, and with an impatient frown upon her fair, proud face. Behind her followed, with somewhat tottering footsteps, the old man whom Philip remembered to have seen in that mysterious chamber. He was dressed in the soberest black, and, notwithstanding the warmth of the weather, wearing an overcoat lined with fur. As they entered the gate she turned round and spoke to him, and his respectful manner as he listened easily betrayed the servant.
For scarcely a minute Philip Rotheram watched her. And then, repressing a strong impulse to fly, he advanced and walked towards her. She knew him at once, and, smiling, quickened her pace until they stood side by side, and a second later hand in hand, her blue eyes fixed anxiously upon him, as though searching his face. He was a man never at a loss for words, and equal as a rule to any social emergency. But at that moment he felt tongue tied. It was she who must speak first.
"You have come, then," she said, in those slow, halting tones which had so lingered in his memory. "It is so very good of you," and the blue eyes which he had dreamed of and thought of flashed to him a look of gratitude.
"Yes, I have come; I promised," he answered, simply, and turning, he walked by her side.
The nursemaids with their noisy charges were beginning to troop into the gardens again, and, as if by common consent, they turned down one of the side walks, at the end of which was an unoccupied seat. The man who had been following her, in obedience to an imperious gesture, remained waiting near the gate, but his gaze followed them until hey were out of sight, and Philip, glancing round as they turned away, fancied that there was suspicion and anger in his bleared steel-coloured eyes.
"That is your servant, is it not?" he asked.
She bowed, and no other word passed between them until they reached the seat.
He was nervous, although he had the advantage of not showing it, but she was more excited still, and as he allowed himself to glance down at her (he had remained standing) he could detect the traces of tears in her fair face, and saw that she looked harassed and ill.
"I fear that you have not been well," he said gently.
She looked up at him, and he could trace, with a strange pity at his heart, the dark rings which had encircled her eyes, the faint marks of which still lingering, seemed to lend an added brilliancy to their soft deep blue.
"I have been troubled," she said slowly. "You can imagine that, or I should not have been compelled to write to you—almost a stranger. It was my last, nay my only recourse," and she turned away with a sigh.
He felt his pity rising strongly within him, and he spoke earnestly, almost pleadingly.
"Can you not forget that our acquaintance, no let me say our friendship, has been so short a one—Iola? Try and think of me as an old friend. No one could be more anxious to serve you than I am."
She stole a glance into his face, and knew that he spoke the truth.
"You are very kind," she said lingeringly, "very. But I fear that you will not think me—will not think so well of me when I have told you all," and the colour slowly dyed her silken cheeks, and her eyes sought the ground. "You will think me forward, presuming, I fear, for asking of you so great a service."
He shook his head deliberately.
"If it is within my power to help you," he assured her gravely, "it will be a sincere pleasure to me, and—and—I think—I could imagine nothing of you that was not good."
Philip Rotheram had meant to make no such speech as the last which had left his lips. He had meant to be cold and formal, if friendly; but all the force, and even the recollection of his preconceived plan of proceedings was melting away before the subtle fascination of her presence.
Her eyes thanked him first for his speech, than which no words could have been more eloquent; and then after a few minutes' hesitation she commenced her explanation, speaking hurriedly, but with emphasis.
"Let me tell you first," she said, "why I was compelled to write to you for help when we are for so—for so short a time friends. It was because, save yourself, my father, and Ivan, who waits at the gate there, I have spoken barely a single word to either man or woman in this country."
She paused as though expecting him to make some remark or express his surprise. But he said nothing—only looked at her wonderingly.
"I have not one friend in England," she went on. "I know no one. I am not complaining," she added quickly. "It is necessary. It must be so. You will not ask me why. Nay, if you did it would be no use, for I could not tell you."
Gravely he bowed assent, and she continued, her words coming quicker, and her tones becoming more agitated.
"We live, as you chance to know, alone—buried. Last week my father was taken ill, or rather he grew worse, for he has never quite recovered from the effects of that night. During the last few days he has lain between life and death. There is something on his mind which appears to be worrying him—killing him almost. He raves all day and all night about it. He wants money, a large sum of money, by to-morrow. I dared not tell you for what purpose even if I knew; but Ivan knows."
The dreaded word in her narrative was passed, but not without a struggle. The rich colour had streamed into her cheeks, and her eyes had fallen from his face as she uttered the obnoxious words, but when she proceeded, after only a trifling pause, it was fast dying away again, and she spoke almost haughtily, although there was still a sight trembling in her tones.
"We are not poor, Monsieur (he thought of that wonderful chamber, and could well believe it). On the contrary, my father is, I believe, very rich, but all his money comes from abroad, and although Ivan has written, it cannot be here in time. We have no friends, and Ivan knows not what to do, for my father is, alas! too ill to sign anything. I know not whom to go to, and he is worrying himself to death. I have jewels worth many times the amount, but I cannot tell what to do with them. Ivan speaks no word of English save what he has learnt from the tradespeople, and that avails him nothing. I myself took them yesterday morning to a jeweller, monsieur," she went on, the colour rising again into her cheeks, and her eyes sparkling with indignation. "I offered too sell him all I had. He stared at me. He asked me my name and address and for a reference. The latter I could not give, for I know no one, and the former I dared not, for my father has made me promise never to. Then he refused, and—and he was rude. He thought that I had stolen them," she burst out, passionately.
He felt scarcely less indignant, though why he should have been so it would have puzzled him to say, for the jeweller's suspicion was, after all, a perfectly natural one. In a calmer moment he would have acknowledged this, but just then he felt a hot enmity against the whole race of jewellers, as a body of men devoid of the slightest particle of common sense or discernment. He muttered out something to this effect, rather incoherently, but she was satisfied.
"I would sooner die that go inside one of those shops again," she went on, traces of her anger still lingering in her cheeks. "I thought of you, and of your kind words that night, which I have thought of, oh! so often. I thought that perhaps you would help me. The jeweller would know you, and would take them from you, and so I—I wrote to you. Here are the jewels." She drew a small oblong box from her pocket. "Do you think that you could do this for me? Is it asking too much?"
She was suffering acutely, he could see. The blue eyes into which he found it such sweet pleasure to look were fixed upon the ground, and the deep flush had mounted again to her cheeks, and stolen up to the very roots of her hair.
"Asking me too much, to render you so slight a service! No! a thousand times no! What is the amount?" he asked gently, bending over her without glancing at the casket which she was half holding out towards him.
"Eight hundred pounds! It is a large sum, is it not?" she added anxiously.
He broke into a reassuring laugh, which sounded almost natural, and an intense air of relief stole into his face. The balance at his bank was scarcely so large, but the deficiency was not enough to cause him any uneasiness.
"Nonsense," he said lightly. "That can very easily be managed, I am sure. The jewels must be worth quite three times the amount (he had not even looked at them yet). The money shall be in your hands in an hour's time."
She tried to thank him, but was obliged to turn her head rapidly away. Divining the reason, he went on cheerfully—
"You take the matter far too seriously, Iola. It is a pleasure, a great pleasure to me, I can assure you, to be allowed to render you this trifling service."
She looked up at him then with a smile of deep gratitude.
"I shall be obliged to you for ever, monsieur, and I shall never, never forget the obligation. I shall owe to you my father's life. How can I ever thank you enough?" and the soft light in those radiant blue eyes made his heart beat and his colour rise, until he began to think that, strong man though he was, this interview had better be curtailed.
"You can thank me best by mentioning it no more," he said quietly. "And now, how am I to let you have this money? Your man servant there, Ivan, is to be trusted?"
"Ivan? Oh yes."
"Then let him take you home," he continued, "and meet me there at the gate, where he is now, in an hour's time. He shall have the money then."
"And the jewels? you must not forget the jewels;" but he drew back and would not take the casket which she was holding out to him.
"You must keep them, if you please, monsieur, until I can repay you," she said quietly, but with an imperious ring in her tones which he feared to disobey; and so only after a moment's hesitation he slipped the case into his pocket.
She rose to her feet, and though but a moment before he had longed for this interview to end, he now sought to prolong it, walking very slowly by her side along the narrow path.
"May I ask you something?" he said.
"Yes, I will answer it if I can."
"I know you by one name only. Your other is—?"
She opened her lips as if about to reply; then stopped and hesitated.
"If I told it you it would be a false name," she said slowly, "and you have been so kind to me, so good, that I could not deceive you. Think of me, if you ever should think of me, as Iola only."
"Iola!" He repeated the name softly, and then he repeated the question which before he had asked her on the night of their first meeting—
"Shall I not see you again, Iola?"
She looked away for the moment, and then the wonderful eyes were turned towards him full of sincere regret, aye, of even more than regret—for the tears had gathered in their blue depths.
"Never!" she said sadly. "Never. At least it is not likely."
His eyes fell. He could not meet that tearful gaze unmoved, and, besides, something of the feeling which had saddened her was waking within him.
"It must be as you will," he said quietly.
She laid her hand upon his arm, and her touch thrilled him.
"Nay," she said earnestly, "it is not as I will. It is how fate directs."
"'Tis a cruel fate," he said, half to himself, in a low voice, and then they paused, for they were at the end of the walk.
"You must leave me here," she said gently. "Adieu! I shall never, never forget your kindness."
"I would have you think of it, Iola," he said, with a sudden nerveless desperation, "only that you may not quite forget me."
And then he stooped and kissed the white shapely little hand, smaller even than that other which his lips had touched with not half the tenderness only a few hours before. Then, as if the one action had reminded him of the other, a sudden bitter sense of shame and weary regret rushed in upon him. Without another word he turned away and walked rapidly out into the road.
His mind was in a strange turmoil as he hurried along the crowded streets, and he was conscious of a strong desire not to attempt to analyse it, at any rate until he had carried this business through.
Arrived at his bank, Bouverie's, after a word or two's explanation to the cashier, he drew out eight hundred pounds in Bank of England notes, and obtaining an envelope from the counter, he made his way back towards Kensington Gardens. He was there before his time, and as he paced slowly up and down the walk he tore out a leaf from his pocket-book, and after a few minutes deliberating wrote across it:—
Forgive me for sending you back the jewels, Iola. They are only a trouble to me, and I know that you will send me the money. Why should I keep them, therefore?
He put this and the notes into the envelope, and then glancing up he saw the old man in the fur-lined coat standing before him.
"You speak French?" Philip asked him.
The man shook his head, and muttered a few words in a language which was strange to his questioner. There was nothing for it but to give him the packet without speech, which Philip did, bending at the same time a curious scrutinising gaze upon the servant.
He was a very old man, at least he appeared to be so, for his head was snow white, and his brow wrinkled. He had been tall, but stooped now, so that he no longer gave one the idea of being above the average height. His manner was respectful in the extreme, and his appearance, save in one particular, decidedly prepossessing. His features might once have been hard and displeasing, but time had softened them, and given them a venerable, almost a benevolent cast. His small steel-blue eyes were his weakest points. They had a trick of wandering shiftily about, as though always on the watch or in fear of somebody, and this restless gaze had developed into a cunning glance, which, notwithstanding his otherwise attractive appearance, would have made a physiognomist chary of pronouncing him worthy of that absolute trust which Iola had declared was to be reposed in him. He gave one the idea of a man who had once been honest, but was so no longer, and often afterwards it afforded Philip no little uneasiness to reflect that this man and an aged father were the only companions and guardians Iola had.
It was all over. The old man had taken the packet and gone, and Philip was alone to think over what he had done. It was past, this half dreaded, half longed-for meeting with the mysterious girl who had so troubled his thoughts. Once again she had passed away from him, and Philip Rotheram, as he watched the retreating figure of her messenger, scarcely knew whether he felt more relief or sorrow. Again he had acted more the part of a romantic dreamer than a clear-headed matter-of-fact man, but as yet he was conscious of no regret. He would not have recalled a single word that he had spoken or changed his action had he the opportunity, but that he should have been moved to act towards and speak to this girl as he had done was a matter beyond his comprehension.
He thought it over as he walked back to St. Pancras, but he only became the more bewildered. It seemed to be a case in which reflection could not help him. He could see no reason, nothing to court and much to shun, in this strange fascination. No good could come of seeing her again, and yet he longed to do so. His parliamentary aspirations, his profession, his cousin, and her two hundred thousand pounds, all seemed very little to him for the moment beside Iola's blue eyes, and thoughts of them were again banished by the sensations which her presence had awakened. How beautiful she was! how stately her figure! and charming her halting foreign speech! How completely unlike other women! And he alone was her friend, the only friend she had, the only man to whom she spoken in England. Where had she come from? he wondered. Who was she, and what would be her fate? Idle wonderings! Profitless speculations! Some day he supposed this strange seclusion in which she lived would be cast aside, and she would become as other girls—would marry doubtless, and though he thought of this last as a matter of course, the idea was anything but pleasant to him.
Although at the time he scarcely recognised it, Philip Rotheram fought a hard battle with himself that afternoon. There had been new feelings, new sensations, awakened within him since he had followed that fair girl into the dull gloomy house which held that wonderful chamber, sensations which he feared to analyse, feelings which he dared not carefully examine, and which he fought against instead, with the nervous desperation begotten of an indefinable fear.
The projects and aspirations of early life, when they have in them, however ill-founded they may be, the elements of nobility, and strengthened by time have taken to themselves definite shape and purpose, become dear to a man as his own life, and it is a terrible moment for him when these are threatened—when ideas fondly cherished, and zealously cultivated aspirations, deepened, widened, and endeared by long contemplation, are suddenly shaken by a new influence, and their progenitor is brought face to face with the immediate danger of seeing them dissipated and toppled about his ears.
Long ago, in the days of his later boyhood, Philip Rotheram had vowed to himself that there was no sensuous influence on earth which should prevail against the force of his reasoning faculties, and with the aid of those reasoning faculties he had marked out his life plainly, pursued its course in imagination many a time, and through long years he had been most successful in shaping it strictly according to his preconceived ideas concerning it. In so doing he had found happiness, or thought he had. In the self- satisfaction engendered by an achieved task he had found contentment and even a certain amount of exultation, but that content and that happiness, as was only natural, fostered an excessive self-reliance, a self-reliance which bordered upon pride.
When a man's happiness is thus attained he is forever on the brink of a precipice, and ever liable to have it shattered. At any moment an influence stronger than any which has yet assailed him may advance and summon him to surrender, and it is only natural that when that time comes a strong man will stand by his guns to give battle, and fight against that attacking influence until either it prevails, and his dreams and ideals of life fall shattered about his miserable head, or he wins the day, and grinds that influence into subordination.
There had come to Philip Rotheram such a crisis in his life. An influence, a potent, subtle influence unfelt before, and therefore doubly powerful, had suddenly assailed him, and the conclusions arrived at by deep thought, and the ideas which formed the mainspring of his life, were suddenly challenged, and provoked to a combat à l'outrance.
As he walked on like a man in a dream amongst the busy throngs of people, he felt very much like a man at bay. Once before, but a short time ago, there had come to him an insidious attack, a haunting uneasiness, which, with the aid of his strong will, he had repelled. But this time it was a different thing. The insidious attack had become an open one, the uneasiness persisted, and he was driven to confess to himself, keenly humiliating confession though it was, that there was now to be fought a battle between this new influence and the ideas which up till now had governed and guided him! Was he in love with this girl? In love! How he loathed that simple phrase, and yet what was it that caused his heart to beat and his pulses to throb as his heart had never beat or his pulses throbbed before!—that brought her form continually into his mind, that left him idly dreaming of the charm of her stately presence and dark-blue eyes? What was it that made him recall with the keenest pleasure every glance which she had cast at him, every kind word which she had spoken?
"Impossible," he muttered fiercely to himself through clenched teeth, "impossible!" In love with a woman of whose disposition and tastes he was so ignorant that it was quite possible that in every important detail they were exactly opposite to his own, to wed whom would bring him neither advantage nor honour, and who might, for all he knew, have a shameful pedigree! In love! To wish to marry merely from a captivation of the senses, for such a love as he could have formed for her could be no other! Had he thus fallen? Was it possible that a woman could have brought this to pass within him? Was he to yield to such enchantment, to forfeit for ever his self esteem and shatter his future happiness for the gratification of so ignoble a phantom? Never! Besides, was he not the accepted lover of Lady Frances Clanningham? Should he renounce his honour, his career, destroy his mother's hopes, and blast his own ideals, because of this strange, fascinating influence? No, a thousand times no! He felt that the end of the struggle was near, and that he was winning, and he quickened his pace, throwing his head back, and glancing no more with wistful eyes behind him.
Deep down in the remotest recesses of his memory he would stifle and crush these disturbing recollections. Happiness, duty, and honour were at stake, and as he came to the end of his walk he swore to himself solemnly that no more the memory of that fair bewitching face should trouble him. Let the past be dead. She should pass out of his life, and they would never meet again. He had been a little foolish, but he had not been quite a fool.
"I want to have a talk with you, if you can spare me a few minutes, Philip! Can I come into your room?"
Philip, who had just returned from a late evening meeting in the town, pushed open the door of his sanctum, and motioned his brother to precede him.
"Of course you can," he said cordially, "come in and make yourself at home! Have a pipe! Ah! I had forgotten, you don't smoke, do you? You won't object to my having one, I suppose?" he added, drawing the tobacco jar up to him, and leisurely filling with coarse-cut fragrant honeydew the pipe which he had taken down from a well-filled rack.
"Good meeting?" George inquired. "I was sorry I couldn't get away in time to look in."
Philip shrugged his shoulders.
"Fairly good. The same set of questions to answer, and the same officious little crowd worrying one to death upon the platform. I tell you what it is, George," he added, stretching himself out in his chair, and emitting volumes of smoke from his highly-coloured meerschaum, with an air of keen enjoyment, "I shan't be at all sorry when it's all over!"
"You manage it very well, they all say."
"Sorchester audiences are not very critical, I fear, fortunately for me, perhaps," Philip remarked. "But all the same, this continual harping around one subject grows very monotonous. By-the-bye, do you happen to know whether there's any seltzer water in the house?"
George had not the least idea. He never took spirits.
"Ring the bell and ask," he suggested. "I don't think they're all gone to bed yet."
The seltzer water was duly forthcoming, and then there was a somewhat prolonged silence, George wondering how he was to breach a somewhat delicate subject, and Philip enjoying his pipe with the peculiar pleasure of an enthusiastic smoker after an enforced period of abstention.
"I suppose it was about the election you wanted to have a chat?" he asked, never doubting that it was so.
"No, it was about Frances," George declared bluntly.
"About Frances!" Philip looked up a little more than surprised. "What about her? Isn't she well—or what?" he added indifferently.
"You need not be alarmed. She's quite well," George assured him with a tinge of sarcasm in his tones. "Philip, I hope you don't think me a meddler for interfering between you and her. I don't like doing it, I can assure you, but I feel that I must tell you that you that I don't think you treat her exactly as you should do. She is engaged to be your wife, you know, but no one would gather that from your behaviour to her. You seldom talk to her. You do not encourage her to take the least interest in your concerns—this election for instance—and I don't believe you've been alone with her for ten minutes since your engagement. It seems to me that you treat her more like an upper housemaid whom you have procured to manage your house than like a woman whom you are about to marry, and—I think that she feels it too. You will forgive me for having spoken so plainly—for having spoken at all," he added abruptly, for he had been very much in earnest, and there had been, for him, an unusual amount of warmth in his tones.
Philip had been listening with ever increasing surprise as he realised the purport of his brother's words, and after he had finished smoked on for a while in silence. It was all true that his brother had been charging him with. In his heart he knew it, although he would not confess it even to himself.
"Has Frances been complaining to you?" he asked, rather shortly.
A faint tinge of colour crept into George's pale face.
"I have had some brief conversation with her," he said stiffly, "and she confirmed my ideas of what I felt sure must be her feelings at your conduct. And I feel bound to add that I sympathise with her."
"Then why the devil don't you marry her yourself?" said Philip, coolly, striking another match and relighting his pipe. "I don't want to, I'm sure, if she isn't satisfied."
George looked up with a dangerous gleam in his eyes, and the hot colour mounting to his cheeks.
"Philip, I did not come here to jest, least of all upon such a subject," he said indignantly.
Philip hesitated, and a quick retort died away upon his lips. After all, his brother was in the right, and he in the wrong. It was the very conviction that his behaviour towards Frances was scarcely what it should be that had caused his irritation.
"I beg your pardon, George. I spoke thoughtlessly. I was to blame," he acknowledged. "But what is it that you want me to do? I had hoped that Frances was above sentiment. She knows that I am not what is called in love with her. I took particular care to let her know that when I proposed to marry her. She surely doesn't expect me to go through a course of lovemaking. What does she want?"
"I will tell you," his brother answered earnestly, leaning forward in his chair, with the unusual colour still dyeing his pale cheeks. "I will tell you what she wants. She wants to be able, when the time comes for her to do it, to swear to love, honour and obey you. She wants to be able to look forward to the time when she will be your wife with pleasure, instead of uncertainty, with hopes of a happy future, and not to view that future as a dull blank. She is not the sort of woman to be tolerated merely as an appendage to your household, an ornament, a mere piece of furniture. She will expect, and she deserves, something different from that. She will look forward to being your wife not in name only, but in fact and deed; to sharing your thoughts, to consoling you in reverses, to exulting with you in success, to being part of yourself and part of your life. This is what every true woman looks forward to in marriage, and you must admit, Philip, that you are holding out to her very scant hopes of such a future. You seem to sheathe yourself in an impenetrable reserve, to purposely exclude her from your confidence, and to keep her at a distance. You talk and behave to her almost as though she were a stranger, instead of the woman who has promised to become a part of your life. No wonder that she is perplexed and anxious! You are to blame, Philip, forgive me for saying so, but you are decidedly to blame, and if you intend holding her to your engagement you must alter your conduct towards her, alter it considerably!"
There was a silence of more than a few minutes' duration. At last Philip knocked the ashes out of his pipe into the hearth, and turned towards his brother.
"What a Don Quixote you are, George," he said with a rather forced smile. "But to put the matter plainly, your ideas of matrimony and mine differ, differ greatly. To me, your notions appear to be based more upon sentiment than reality. At any rate, I want no woman to play such a part in my life as you describe," and the slight smile died away, and his face seemed to harden a little. "I want a wife to keep up an establishment, to receive my guests, and to hold for herself a place in society. She must be well-bred and presentable, and that is all. My life belongs to myself, and I have no wish, no intention of sharing it with anyone—least of all with a woman. I can endure defeat and enjoy success without looking to anyone for sympathy or consolation. I will go further, George, since we are upon the subject. I look upon it as a weakness in a man not to prefer to live his life to himself, to rush to a woman for consolation when down, and applause and approbation when successful. Let those do it whose natures are softer and weaker than mine. It will never be my role as husband. My wife must attend to her household and society duties, and her children, if she should have any. That would be her life, and let her keep it! I should never dream of interfering with her in these things, nor should I expect her to interfere in my concerns. If Frances imagines that when I marry her I am going to link my life with hers in the manner you suggest, she must be undeceived, for it will not be so."
George has risen to his feet, and was restlessly moving about the little room, with a heavy frown upon his face, but when his brother had finished speaking, he stopped at once.
"Philip," he said firmly, "we have never been on particularly cordial terms for brothers, but on the other hand, we have never disagreed. I don't wish that we should do so now, so I beg of you not to be offended if I speak very plainly."
"I shall prefer it," Philip interrupted.
"Thank you. Well, then, I think that your definition of a wife's position and duties an altogether degrading one, and I say that you have no right, Philip, no right," he repeated with emphasis, "to drag a woman like Frances down to the level of your ideal. You will spoil her life if you attempt it. You will destroy her womanhood. You will convert her into a machine for the sake of your ignoble philosophy. God forbid that I should judge you harshly, Philip, but if for the sake of gaining a well ordered establishment and a fortune you marry her, you will be guilty of a selfish—a cruelly selfish action. She is sensitive and honourable, and if you hold her to it no doubt she will fulfil her promise. But you must not hold her to it, Philip—at any rate without fully explaining your somewhat peculiar views as to married life. I understand women better than you, I think, little though I have seen of them, and I tell you, Philip, that there is not one true woman in England who would consent to be you wife to be treated according to your theory."
There was a pause. Philip sat looking into the fire with a slight frown upon his forehead, somewhat at a loss to know in what manner to answer his brother, although no whit disposed to yield the matter at issue. There had been a quiet earnestness in George's manner which was most impressive, and Philip, knowing that he had spoken only out of a strong sense of duty, respected him for it, and what anger he felt was directed against himself only.
"I'm glad you have spoken plainly, George," he said, "I like it best. But my views and yours upon this matter are as wide apart as the poles. Every man has a right to his own opinions, of course, and has a perfect right to state them. I hope that we shall be none the worse friends because we differ here. You have too much sentiment, I, perhaps, too little. But with your ideas you have done well and kindly both to Frances and myself, in speaking as you have done, and I'm very much obliged to you. I don't wish to wreck any one's life in the tragic manner you describe, least of all poor little Frances'. She shall judge for herself. I will tell her plainly what I shall require of her as my wife, or you can, and I will give her back her promise freely if she feels that she cannot be happy with me. I can't do more."
"You cannot, Philip. That is exactly what I should have proposed. I'll be off now, and—and Philip," he added impressively as he turned to go, "mark my words. Some day you will have to change those ideas of yours. If Frances doesn't make you, someone else will!"
Philip laughed, a careless, incredulous laugh, as he shook his brother's hand.
"Well, I'll let you know when the time comes. Good night!"
"Good night, old fellow."
The door closed, and Philip was alone. For a while he sat without moving, then he filled again his ponderous meerschaum, and leaned back in his chair, musing more idly and to less purpose than usual upon his brother's words. It would be awkward, after all, he thought, if he were to lose his cousin's fortune. It would alter his prospects very materially supposing he succeeded in getting into Parliament, and yet the idea that Lady Frances might accept the opportunity which he was going to afford her, and take back her word, was far from displeasing to him.
Before breakfast on the following morning, Philip and his cousin met in the garden. He at once thrust his letters into his pocket and accosted her.
"I was hoping to see you," he said, in a matter-of-fact tone, as they shook hands; and he turned and walked by her side. "I had some talk with George last night," he said slowly, "and as the result of it I made up my mind to ask you a question. Have you regretted your promise to me yet?"
His keen grey eyes were fixed steadily upon her, and the warm colour rushed into her cheeks. If she had been a man she would have told him plainly yes, and the matter would have been at an end. But being a woman she dallied, nervously plucking the leaves from the rose she was carrying, and bending over it as though it possessed some special interest for her.
"Why do you ask me that?" she asked, in a low tone, without looking up.
"I have a very good reason for asking," he replied, keeping his eyes fixed upon her. "I have been told—George has told me, in fact—that when you accepted me you did so under the impression that your position as my wife would be a very different one to that which I should desire. Now, is it your wish that I should explain exactly what that would be; or do you wish to take back your word altogether; or was George mistaken, and are we to remain on the same footing?"
She had not anticipated so prompt a result from her appeal to his brother, and she was bewildered. She felt he was putting the matter very awkwardly for her. She did not wish to be thought capricious, neither did she care at the present stage of their relations about giving him her idea of a wife's proper position. Delay seemed to be her only recourse.
Generally, in such scenes as this, it is the woman who has the best of it, who remains cool and self-possessed, while the man— poor fellow!—loses either his head or his temper, and thus gives her a decided advantage. But between Philip and his cousin the reverse was the case. His perfect coolness and her own indecision flurried her, and her answer came slowly and hesitatingly, as she paced by his side with drooped head and flushed cheeks.
"I think, perhaps," she faltered, "that I answered without sufficient consideration. If I might take a fortnight to think it over!" and she looked up almost for the first time.
"By all means! Let it be so then," he said, not altogether unkindly, as he noticed her distress. "What a magnificent rose! By the bye, I hope that you and Beatrice are going to the show this afternoon?" and thus the conversation descend suddenly to the commonplace, greatly to the relief of Frances.
If ever woman was perplexed and undecided, Lady Frances was in that frame of mind during those next fourteen day. If after all she decided to beg for release from this engagement with her cousin she would deeply disappoint her aunt, to whom her conduct would certainly appear capricious and childish, and besides in her heart she was not at all sure that she desired such release herself.
Her feelings towards her cousin were strangely various and conflicting. She could not but respect and even admire what she had observed of his character, and, indeed, she looked upon him with a certain degree of awe, as being a man of stronger calibre than any whom she had met in society, or previously come in contact with. There is nothing about a man so attractive to a woman as his manhood. The nearer he approaches towards her in the degrees of effeminacy the less he is admired by her.
And Philip Rotheram was most essentially a man of a manly stamp, not only in his firm, decided ways, but also in his physique. She was very much a woman, and found in these characteristics cause for sincere admiration, but the admiration was tempered with just a little too much awe, it approached just a little too near to fear.
Truth to tell, there was little in him to inspire an ordinary woman's love, although there was much which would be bound to command her respect. He was very far from being a lady's man. He had never troubled himself to study her whims and nature (one is almost tempted to write her whimsical nature), or how to lay himself out to please her. He was a novice in the tender words and deferential manner which a woman accepts as her rightful homage from man. Talking to women had always seemed to him but a waste of time, and when the exigencies of society had commanded that he should do so, he had talked in an ungraceful, almost awkward way, having no knowledge of or interest in the subjects which might be supposed to prove attractive to them. He always felt out of his element in their society, and ill at ease, and when he forced himself to talk, he would do so in rather a stilted fashion, leaving something of the impression that he was endeavouring to descend from the contemplation of some abstruse range of thought to talk nursery chatter with a baby. Then, too, he was generally indifferent to, or at any rate, very seldom attracted by, a woman's personality, and perhaps this was his greatest offence.
There are many things which, in her sweetness of disposition, a woman will forgive you—inattention to her conversation, non-acceptance of her advances, even apparent boredom in her society, these faults might perhaps pique her, but they would not be impardonable. She will not forgive you, however, if you underrate or fail to properly appreciate her personal charms. The grossest flattery will frequently content her, even if you are yawning by her side the while, but if neither by word or look you pay tribute to her appearance, she will detest you. You will be gauche, a bear perfectly insupportable.
And so women did not as a rule like Philip Rotheram, and he returned the compliment by viewing them partly with contempt, and partly with indifference. The only two outside his own family by whom he had felt in the least attracted were his cousin and the heroine of the one romantic episode of his life. Of the latter he refused to think, but with his cousin it was otherwise. Expediency prompted him strongly to employ all his powers of persuasion and will to induce her to become his wife. Her disposition and appearance were alike pleasing to him, and her fortune would be invaluable.
He had asked and been accepted, but the prospect of his approaching happiness had certainly not moved him to any enthusiasm. Now there had come a hitch; she was irresolute, undecided, and instead of being anxious, and urging her to keep to her word, he had felt anything but sorrow at her faltering, and was quite content to stand by indifferent, and let her choose her own course, unbiased by his persuasions. Reason showed him very plainly that this was folly, and that he ought to use every effort to secure her for his wife, but something else seemed to inspire him with a certain measure of disappointment at her acceptance of his, and a sudden—well, it was almost a hope, at her subsequent hesitation. He had no desire, in fact he had studiously avoided, every attempt to analyse this something which thus disturbed him.
Throughout his life he had been troubled with no emotions which conflicted with, or sentiments which revolted from, the careful reasonings of his brain. Never had a decision of his been assailed by feelings or wishes which urged him in a contrary direction. His mind was the arena wherein was fought out the conflict between opposing considerations, and that which carried with it the weight of expediency had ever been the victor. He had a more than a half-developed consciousness that this strange feeling which prompted an unreasonable aversion to his marriage with Lady Frances, and which he could not but connect with certain vivid recollections of his recent adventure, was a sign of rebellion in his internal organisation, fraught with the greatest possible danger to his most cherished ideas, and, indeed, to his whole modus vivendi.
His manifest indifference to her final decision, which she believed to be assumed, but which was in reality existent, was perhaps the strongest of any argument which he could have employed to win from her a reiteration of her promise. She had always considered—it had been a weighty consideration with her in her decision—that Philip himself was exceedingly anxious that she should accept him, and therefore his offer to give her back her freedom seemed to her far more magnanimous than it really was, and the indifference which he displayed as to her final answer, which she believed unreal, also commanded more than its share of her admiration. She believed that greatly though he wished for a favourable reply, he was too proud, too high-minded to attempt to win it by persuasions, or to influence her by the slightest appearance of anxiety as to the result of her deliberations. She was not by any means a woman of strong will or mind—perhaps the absence of these qualities, so conspicuously developed in his nature, increased her respect for him. For amongst women, as well as amongst men, the tendency is common enough to admire most in others those qualities in which they themselves are most deficient, and of her shortcomings his virtues were the complement. She was sensitive, also—over sensitive—and the reflection of the pain which she would cause her aunt by now withdrawing back, and the opprobrious epithet, "capricious," which she feared that by so doing she would certainly earn, were strong considerations with her. Yet, on the other hand, the prospect of entrusting her life's happiness to a chance was not an alluring one.
She might be happy with Philip, or she might be made miserable. It would depend altogether, of course, upon his treatment of her, and had she not been restrained by a delicacy which caused her to shrink from such conversation during their present rather anomalous relations, she would have given much to have asked him questions as to their future life, should she consent to be his wife. Had she overcome these scruples, and asked him a few plain questions, her decision would have been an easy one, for she would have decided at once that it was utterly impossible for her to link herself with him under the conditions which he desired, and the matter would have been at an end. But unfortunately she could not bring herself thus to approach him, and although neither in his proposal nor in any subsequent conversation had he hinted at the existence of any affection on his part, he had not given her to understand, as perhaps he ought to have done, that after marriage he should neither attempt to call any up for himself, nor win any from her.
She understood that this was to be a marriage without love, but she did not understand that he was perfectly indifferent whether any should come after marriage or no, or she would have instantly repudiated the idea of entering into so mercenary a compact. She would not have had the least sympathy with, in fact she would have been repelled by his notions of marriage and wedded life, and in such non-sympathy and repulsion she would have been in accord with the great majority of her sex. Men are strong, and have absorbing pursuits and interests which easily wean their thoughts from sentiment and lovemaking. But women are different. Their dispositions are such that they find it hard to live their lives to themselves. They must have sympathy and love. Their natures are not strong enough to exist without these qualities, and there is for them no substitutive interest. They feel too weak to stand alone, and when they marry they expect their lives to be coalesced in their husbands, to be able to win from them sympathy even in their little domestic difficulties, and affection, which they are ever ready to return with interest. Philip Rotheram, had he prosecuted the search, would have found very few women worth having willing to play the role in his household which his theory demanded.
Lady Frances came to a decision by chance, and by a chance which very nearly involved a tragedy.
It was Lady Frances' last day of grace, and she was still undecided. She could ask for no longer time. The fortnight had been fixed by herself, and it had passed away, and now she must answer her cousin, and by that answer abide. Was ever girl so worried by being an earl's daughter, and the possessor of a fortune, as was she, she wondered bitterly. She was harassed and distressed by the recollection that the odious money which made her an heiress should in equity belong to her aunt, who sorely coveted it for her son; and she was urged by a strong sense of duty to marry that son, a man whom she scarcely knew whether she admired or feared the most! On the one side were ranged duty, her word, her mother's emphatic dying wish, her aunt's passionate desire, and the consciousness that the man to whom she was asked to give herself was at least a man of talents and honour, and worthy of her regard. On the other were inclination, or rather disinclination, and a strong conviction that not even duty should be allowed to interfere with so sacred a subject as marriage. In her mind the scales balanced exactly, and although she knew that in a few hours her answer must be given, she had not yet decided whether it was to be yes or no.
The last morning of her period of probation she had spent by herself wandering about the old orchard, and recapitulating in her mind the arguments for and against this marriage with her cousin, until the luncheon bell had rung and summoned her to the house. At any moment now Philip might demand his answer, and what words would come to her with which to reply she did not know.
After lunch Beatrice declared her intention of driving into the town to do some shopping. Would Frances go with her? And Frances, despairing of being able to make up her mind by any further reflection, consented. Philip had not appeared at luncheon. He had gone down to the club early in the morning, and had not yet returned, and it was partly to avoid the possibility of his arriving soon and finding her alone that Frances accepted her cousin's invitation with alacrity.
During Mr. Rotheram's lifetime, the stables had been well and carefully kept up, and even after his death, some good animals had been retained, for both George and Philip are fond of riding—indeed, it seemed to be almost the one relaxation which the former really enjoyed. Beatrice, too, was a good horsewoman, and frequently rode to hounds during the season, and she was almost equally fond of driving; so much so, indeed, that George and her mother's combined present to her on her last birthday had been a pair of chestnut cobs and a small phaeton. She was a good whip, and held her little steeds well, but she was just a trifle reckless, and fond of urging the pace. Still there had never been any approach to an accident, and Mrs. Rotheram did not hesitate to trust in her with either Thomas or Dick, his youthful assistant, in attendance.
"Just yer be a bit careful wi' 'em this afternoon, miss," enjoined the former, touching his hat with the confidential respect of an old servant, to his young mistress, as she stood on the steps drawing on her gloves. "Juno, she seems a bit fractious like in the stable, hoff her feed, and a bit tantivy. They ain't 'ad much to do lately, neither of 'em, and that there young whipper-snapper," he continued, with a contemptuous motion of his head to the smartly-attired stable boy, who stood at the end of the pole ("like a blooming figger-'ead," as his superior had more than once, in a moment of wrath, described him), "he ain't no mortal use to yer, if they gets a bit troublesome. So you just keep 'em well in 'and, Miss Beatrice; don't be for using the whip," he concluded, in the half admonitory, half authoritative tone which he always considered himself justified in adopting to his young mistress.
Beatrice laughed merrily. When did not youth laugh at the cautions of age!
"All right, Thomas; I'll be careful. Are you nervous, Frances?"
Lady Frances seated herself composedly in the front seat of the phaeton.
"Not very, dear. They don't look very vicious!" and then Beatrice got in and took possession of the reins. Dick, with a parting grimace at his natural enemy, clambered up behind, and they were off.
That was an eventful drive. They started well, but soon Juno began to get a trifle sluggish, and Beatrice, neglecting Thomas caution, touched her with the whip. This by no means improved her temper, but she answered to it, and went better for a while, until just as they reached the old race-course, the commencement of the descent into the town, they suddenly came upon the borough stream-roller, slowly and with ponderous puffs and pants crushing the sharp flints into the road. A man holding a red flag was standing at the junction of the two roads, and there was also a board up, but Beatrice had been occupied bowing to some acquaintances, and had noticed neither.
"Hold on a bit, miss," cried Dick, springing down from his perch, for he foresaw dire consequences from Juno's ill-temper and Dido's nervousness, but he was too late. Just before he could reach their heads, Juno had reared up wild with terror at the sudden spectacle and diabolical noise. Beatrice struck her smartly with her whip, and then with a tremendous plunge both of the frightened animals started forward at a mad pace, leaving Dick helpless in the middle of the road.
In their first impulse of fright, both Juno and Dido had shied violently across towards the wrong side of the road, the jerk of the carriage as they crossed the tram-rails almost throwing the girls out. Then at a furious gallop, with the bit well between their teeth, they dashed along straight ahead, the slenderly- built phaeton swaying behind them until every moment it seemed as though it must collide with the kerb. With all their strength the two terrified girls tugged at the reins, but to no purpose, for the animals were completely beyond all control.
"Try and pull them to the other side of the road," cried Lady Frances, breathlessly.
It was an unfortunate suggestion. Beatrice did try, until at last they did swerve to the left, but instead of crossing right over, the wheels caught in the tram-rails, and the carriage being now a mere featherweight behind them, the runaway animals raced on more recklessly than ever.
They dashed past several carts, whose drivers gave them as wide a birth as possible, and shouted out different pieces of advice. A policeman seemed about to make some effort to stop them, but thought better of it, and contented himself with shouting, fiercely. "Pull 'em in! D'ye hear? Stop 'em!" and several other people's warning shouts and exclamations only still further terrified the runaways. Then they reached the top of the hill, and the last remnant of colour died out of Beatrice's cheek.
"The tram," she gasped in a frenzy of terror, "the tram!" and falling back in her seat she fainted away. Lady Frances snatched the reins from her yielding fingers, and made a desperate attempt to guide the animals off the rails, but in vain. Mad with fright and temper, Juno rushed on straight ahead, and Dido, little less excited, kept up with her, while scarcely fifty yards in front was a tram-car slowly creeping up the hill towards them. There were many hoarse shouts—"Pull 'em to the right," "Pull 'em off the track," "Pull 'em to the left"—but Lady Frances knew very well that no strength of hers could guide or stop their headlong career, although with despairing efforts she tugged frantically at the reins until her gloves burst open in all directions.
Hope died within her as she stared with fascinated eyes at the impending disaster, and she would have taken her chance and leaped out on to the road which seemed spinning by but that a deadly sickness was stealing over her, numbing her limbs and senses. Suddenly there was a shout of a different sort, and then a breathless silence. A tall form had stepped from the front of the car, and was running up the hill towards the bolting ponies. The man halted a few yards in front, and for a second or two stood waiting on the left hand side of the metals, swaying himself backwards and forwards as though preparing for a spring. It was literally only for a second or two, but the eyes of Lady Frances were fastened upon his resolute figure as she was borne on towards the spot where he stood, and to her dying day she carried in her mind the picture of her cousin Philip as he stood there, strong and fearless, with tightly compressed lips and flashing eyes, quietly waiting to save them from almost certain death.
"Hold tight, Frances. Hold Beatrice if you can," he shouted in his quick clear tones, and as though his voice had recalled her from a trance, she caught hold of the side of the carriage with one hand, and dropping the reins passed the other round Beatrice's waist. They neared him, reached him, and then with a spring he snatched at the reins close to Juno's bit, and dragged her with a tremendous jerk to the left. The shook carried him off his feet, but he never relaxed his iron grip of the reins. With a sickening feeling of horror Lady Frances saw him hurled to the ground, and borne on with them in their mad career, trailing in the dust, but with the reins still locked in his hands. They passed the tram in safety, the back seat only being swayed by their swinging progress through the windows and broken off short, and then the danger was over. Philip's weight was too much for the ponies to bear on their reins, and they slackened speed. Then with a bound he regained his feet, and, running by their side, jerked their heads into the air and brought them to a standstill.
It was all over. A little crowd gathered round at once, but the first thing Lady Frances remembered seeing was Philip's tall form covered with dust, with his clothing torn and disarranged, his necktie and collar hanging loosely down, and a hideous gash across his forehead, but seemingly all unconscious of his state, as he asked her earnestly whether she was hurt, and then bent over his sister, who had just opened her eyes.
"How silly of me to faint," were her first words. "Is Frances all right? Who stopped—Philip! Philip!" she cried out terrified. "Oh, you are hurt!"
His lips parted in their usual impassive smile, and he shook his head.
"Scarcely a scratch," he assured her, staunching the blood from his forehead with a handkerchief. "I was very lucky."
A carriage stopped, and a doctor pushed his way through the little throng.
"Can I be of any—. Good heavens, is that you, Rotheram?" he exclaimed in a shocked tone.
Philip looked round quickly, and recognised him.
"Ah! Dr. Brandon! How fortunate. No one's hurt, but there's been a bit of a spill, you see. I wish you'd drive Lady Frances and my sister home."
"By all means. But, my dear Mr. Rotheram, you'll excuse me, but you seem to be very much hurt," Dr. Brandon continued, eyeing Philip's dishevelled appearance and bleeding forehead.
"The merest scratch! Nothing to signify, I assure you, doctor. Might be a little better bound up, perhaps," he added, carelessly touching his forehead, round which he had wrapped his handkerchief. "Look here, you drive on home with the young ladies, and I'll follow with these little brutes and submit to medical treatment at once," he added with a laugh.
The doctor assented after a slight protest, and hurried the girls into his brougham.
"Merely a scratch!" he muttered. "I hope so, I'm sure! Don't look like it!"
They all reached home nearly together, Philip driving the cowed and now quite submissive runaways. He had picked up Master Dick on the road, and from him gathered the details of the accident.
"It wur an uncommon near go," remarked that young gentleman, who had witnessed the narrow escape from afar off. "There never wur a back seat so comfortable as that theer one," he ruminated, as they turned in at the gate and he glanced round at the wreck behind. "Wonder wot old Stick-i'-the-mud 'll say to I?"
"Stick-i'-the-mud," by the bye, was the classical appellation which he had bestowed upon Thomas.
Philip's wound was really not so serious as it had appeared, and at dinner-time he was able to appear with his arm in a sling and a slight limp, but making very little concern about his maimed condition. Beatrice met him at the door, and throwing her arms around his neck, burst into hysterical tears.
"Oh, Philip, Frances has been telling me all about it, and how you saved us. It was very brave of you."
He stooped down and kissed her, looking but little pleased, however, for he detested scenes.
"It was nothing at all," he said. "Frances was excited, and exaggerates the danger, I've no doubt. I simply guided those little brutes of yours out of the tram-rails, and pulled them up. Someone else would certainly have done it for you if I had not happened to be on the car," and pushing her gently from him he took his seat at the table. Lady Frances was by his side, and there were tears in her eyes, too, and an unwonted colour in her cheeks.
"I don't think that anyone else seemed disposed to try," she said warmly. "There are very few who would have done what you did for us, Philip. Beatie and I both owe our lives to you," and her voice and eyes spoke the gratitude which she felt rising up strongly within her.
He made no further attempt to deprecate his act, for everyone was against him. They all felt that a terrible tragedy had been narrowly averted, and were grave and silent during the meal—so silent, indeed, that everyone was glad when it was over, and Mrs. Rotheram and the girls were able to retire and relieve their pent-up feelings by mutual expressions of wonder and thankfulness, after the usual feminine method. In the eyes of all Philip was a hero, and Lady Frances thought so too.
It was late in the summer, and the days were shortening. The warm weather still lingered, however, and Philip, after dinner, as was his usual custom when not engaged in the town, dragged a basket chair out on to the lawn, and sat there in an easy lounging position, smoking his pipe, and maintaining at intervals a desultory conversation with his brother, who sat at the open window writing.
Later on, when George had disappeared, and the twilight was settling around him, a light step by his side caused him to glance suddenly up.
"Frances! Why you came upon me like a ghost," he said, rising and offering his chair.
She stood by his side nervously toying with a book, glancing not at him but at the ground, and neglecting to take his chair.
"I have been in the drawing-room," she said, "all the evening, trying to learn chess. But it was hot, and—and—I wanted to speak to you."
"Yes." He looked down at her, waiting for her to proceed, and felt a curious thrill of surprise. It had never struck him that his cousin was particularly good looking, but to-night she was more than that even—she was beautiful. The fleecy white shawl had fallen back from her head, and hung gipsy fashion behind her, and her large grey eyes were filled with a soft pleading light, which transformed her whole expression. Her cheeks too, usually pale, were dyed with a soft crimson glow almost as deep as the rose displayed at her breast, and the light of the moon shining softly through the tops of the elm trees showing her thus, with her soft white dress hanging in graceful lines around her lithe little figure, showed her to him as he had never seen her before.
"I won't sit down," she said, "thanks. I only came out for a moment. You know, Philip, I promised to let you have my answer to-night," she added timidly.
She looked very fair and sweet standing there in the soft moonlight, with the almost spiritual glow in her large clear eyes, and the gratitude and admiration shining out of her whole being. He felt more moved by her close presence than he cold have believed possible as he bent over her and answered almost in a whisper—
"Would you not rather wait for a day or two longer. Perhaps your adventure to-day has unsettled you a little."
She understood him at once. He would not take advantage of her excited feelings or her gratitude, and it was a delicacy which she fully appreciated.
"I may as well tell you now as then," she said, her eyes drooping, and a swift blush stealing into her face beneath his steady gaze. "I was mistaken. I do not want to retract my promise. I will try to make you a good wife, indeed I will."
He bent down and kissed her forehead; she thought for a moment that he might almost have touched her lips.
"I am glad that you have decided so," he said simply.
And then she knew that it was all over, and that for better or worse she must be his wife—and he—he closed the more firmly with an iron hand the barrier which kept locked up in a dark corner of his memory a fairer face and a fairer presence than hers. Only he longed that he might never see her again!
The eventful election day came and passed, and Philip Rotheram was entitled to write himself M.P. for his native town. It had been a very exciting time. The result was expected to show a very much closer contest than was actually the case, and when the result had been made known, the market square of Sorchester had been crowded with a dense throng of excited people, whose clamour of tongues when the figures were at last announced shook the air like a mighty cannonade. Two miles away Mrs. Rotheram, walking restlessly up and down the avenue of the Elms, heard it, and waited with beating heart for the news, which was not long in coming, and then again, a quarter of an hour later, another roar, mightier even than the last, marked the conclusion of Philip's brief speech.
He had spoken many times before during his electioneering campaign, but he had made no such speech as he made that night. The flush of success, the sound of his name called upon by many thousands of voices, the sea of upturned faces, and perhaps in some measure the incongruous hour—it was past midnight—seemed to inspire him with an unwonted glowing eloquence which carried every one of his hearers away with him.
It was wonderful sight. The great space below the balcony of the Town Hall was thronged with a dense crowd, whose dark forms the moon, suddenly emerging from behind a lowering mass of black clouds, showed with striking, almost startling vividness to the chosen few on the eminence, and as far as they could see by its pale light, on either side and in front was a surging mass of white upturned faces moving slightly backwards and forwards from the pushing of the hindmost, like the waves of an ever-restless sea. When the Mayor appeared holding in his hand the result of the counting of the votes, there was a low, tremulous murmur of excitement, and then a silence almost appalling, whilst many thousands held their breath and leaned forward, listening with strained ears.
It seemed to be Lady Frances' fate that she should at all times see the man whom she had promised to marry under circumstances which could not fail to excite her emotional feelings. She had seen him but a brief while ago standing before her fearless and determined, a guardian angel prepared with his strong arm to save her from a fearful death. And now, whilst her gratitude and admiration for his courage were still strong within her, she heard his name shouted by many voices, and saw him standing above her, the cynosure of a thousand eyes, preparing to address the enthusiastic multitude. The dim moonlight was just sufficient to enable her to discern his tall, upright form and easy figure, as he waited patiently until the shouts had died away, and given place to a breathless silence before he spoke.
Every word of his strong, musical voice reached her distinctly. She listened to his terse, vigorous utterances, becoming in each sentence more animated, until at last the neatly turned periods flowed from his lips with all the passion and force of inspiring eloquence. She watched him with riveted eyes until after a necessary brief but brilliant peroration he drew back, and his form was lost amongst the others. There was a short, intensified silence, and then a roar—it was nothing else—such as had never before arisen from amongst the streets and squares of Sorchester, resounded from the mighty crowd which thronged the market square in tens of thousands. It was terrific, deafening. There was nothing to which it could be compared, and those who stood on the stone steps listening, and Beatrice and Lady Frances in the carriage below, had never heard anything like it before. They held their breath almost in fear. The sound died away, only to return like a mighty supernatural force, swelling and increasing in volume until once again it subsided with a final shout which seemed as though it must rend the skies, and which left the air shaking and vibrating as it does after the noise of a stupendous cannonade.
It was all over. The crowds began to melt away, and Philip at last found himself able to escape from the congratulations of his excited little group of supporters. There was a slight sparkle in his keen grey eyes, and a little more colour than usual in his cheeks, but save for these he betrayed no sign of exultation, and had very little the appearance of a man who had just achieved a great triumph. It was a great triumph, for he was at the head of the poll, and when he reached the carriage Lady Frances, with sparkling eyes and flushed cheeks, was the first to congratulate him.
In London once again; and Philip was almost disturbed to find how glad he was to get back to his old haunts. Never before in all his life had he come back to his bachelor quarters after a brief holiday with less regret than now, when, strange anomaly, he was engaged to marry. He knew very little about such things, but he had an uncomfortable though vague conviction that this was not quite as it should be.
He had a solitary dinner at his chambers soon after the hansom from St. Pancras had deposited him there, and then thrusting his feet into his well-worn slippers he lit his meerschaum and looked around him with placid satisfaction. His were not elaborately- furnished chambers, for he was very far from being a sybarite, but they were comfortable and quiet, and he had been very content there alone, although within easy distance of his club and the chambers of his few acquaintances. And now he looked round him and contemplated the time, not very far distant, when he would have to give up these comfortable rooms, and take to himself a far more magnificent abode, with Lady Frances always by his side, and somehow the prospect did not seem particularly alluring. Anyhow, he was glad to be back there, even though it were but for a short while, he thought, stretching himself out once more in his threadbare but comfortable easy chair. How life had changed with him since last he had spent the evening there with his pipe and his books. He had been restless then, and disposed to be discontented at its narrow confines, and now they had expanded until he could see no limit to his prospects, nothing to stop him from climbing to heights which he had never before even contemplated. Then, too, the last time he had been in this room he had been disturbed and haunted by thoughts of a romantic adventure, the remembrance of which should never have dwelt with him for a moment. He had got over that now, he assured himself. He had risen superior to this mysterious influence which had so suddenly crept into his life! He had driven back to the inmost recesses of his memory the recollection of that night's mysterious adventure, and the image of that fair girl whom he had twice befriended. At times he knew they still advanced to trouble him; in his heart he knew that he would carry the remembrance of Iola with him through all the days of his career. It was the one weak thought of a strong mind, but although he was in a measure ashamed of it, he consoled himself with the reflection that his memories of her, fascinating though they had been, had never influenced him in any single action. For proof, he was engaged to marry his cousin, and he had asked her to be his wife at the very moment when thoughts of his bewitching enchantress had been strongest within him. A few weeks ago he had been only a fairly successful young barrister, having to fight hard to hold his own, and surrounded on all sides by men his equals, some few perhaps his superiors in intelligence. And now he was M.P. For Sorchester. And the deafening plaudits of the crowds who had hailed him as such still rang in his ears. Not only that, but he was engaged to marry a woman who would bring him great wealth still further to brighten the prospect before him—great wealth and weighty social influence. Still his future did not seem to him altogether bright. It should have been, and yet—and yet—
A knock at the door disturbed him, and he turned round.
"Come in," he shouted. Then as the door opened, and Mr. Barton appeared on the threshold, he sprang up from his chair.
"Barton," he exclaimed in surprise. "Come in do. Delighted to see you. Why, I haven't been back from Sorchester more than an hour or two."
"So your servant told me downstairs," said Mr. Barton. "However, I thought that I must just run up and congratulate you. Everyone's talking about the Sorchester election, you know— splendid victory, capitally fought, and all that sort of thing. Glad to see you looking so well after your hard work."
Philip smiled. "I don't know that it was such very hard work," he remarked. "But sit down and have a cigar and a glass of claret now you are here, and I'll tell you all about it."
Mr. Barton was quite willing. In fact, he had come down for no other purpose than to hear his young friend's account of the struggle. Naturally enough, the telling it led to a great deal of discussion, for they were on opposite sides in politics, and it was late when they had at last exhausted the subject. Then Philip told his friend of that other change which was to take place in his life, and Mr. Barton was interested in that too.
"Have you made up your mind yet about continuing your practice, Rotheram?" he asked, breaking a short silence.
"I think so. I have not absolutely decided," Philip said thoughtfully, "but if I go in strong for politics I shall give up most of my other work."
"Seems rather a pity, that!" remarked Mr. Barton. "Curiously enough, I have a brief in my pocket now which I was going to offer you—one that you'd have liked too, although it seems a bad case. Sure you couldn't undertake it?"
"Quite sure, thanks," Philip said decidedly. "Very good of you all the same. What is it—criminal?"
The lawyer nodded. "Yes, murder,—and a woman too! Court put the defence into my hands! Quite a young girl the prisoner!"
"Not the slightest doubt about it, I should say!" Philip mused for a few minutes, watching the smoke from his pipe as it curled up towards the ceiling.
"I've read nothing but the political news lately," he remarked at last. "Was it a startling murder? I don't remember having seen anything about it."
"I should rather think it was," declared Mr. Barton emphatically. "I wonder you haven't heard of it. The facts are simple enough, but there are some curious circumstances in connection with the case. The girl, by the bye one of the most beautiful women I ever saw in my life, was found with the pistol smoking in her hand over her father's body. It seems he kept her shut up for some reason or other, and she had threatened to shoot him—a most revolting case—and the strangest thing is that they lived in a little back street not such a long way from my place, and not a soul knows anything—but hullo! Rotheram! Are you ill?"
He might well ask, for a quick exclamation of horror had burst from Philip's lips, and he was leaning forward towards the lawyer, with pale cheeks and hands nervously clutching the sides of his chair, and with a fierce, almost threatening look upon his face.
"What street? What name?" he almost hissed out, as Mr. Barton, frightened almost out of his wits by such an outbreak from the most even-tempered man he had ever known, shrank back in his chair, speechless and bewildered.
"Ardinge Street! The girl's name is a queer one. Calls herself Iola something or other," he faltered out. "What is the matter, Rotheram?"
A spasm of violent pain twinged through Philip Rotheram's frame, leaving his face as pale as death. He sat for a moment or two like a statue, without speaking.
"You'll forgive me, Barton," he said at last rising to his feet, and gradually recovering something of his ordinary manner. "I'm afraid I frightened you! The fact is the name you mentioned is familiar to me, and it was rather a shock. I've been working like a horse at this election, too, you know," he added apologetically, "and I'm afraid I'm a bit out of sorts."
The lawyer nodded sympathetically. He had got over his first surprise, but he did not believe that overwork had anything to do with his friend's sudden emotion.
"Very likely! Very likely!" he said, rising to his feet. "Trying work, electioneering. Well, I must be off, or there'll be a scolding from Mrs. B. And so you won't take this brief," he added, eyeing the barrister keenly.
Philip filled his pipe with fingers that trembled a little before he replied.
"If you'll give me the opportunity of changing my mind, Barton, I think that I should like to run through it, at any rate," he said quietly.
Mr. Barton stood up, and drew a roll of papers from the pocket of his loose overcoat.
"With pleasure," he said, laying them on the table. "There is no one to whom I would sooner entrust it. Here are copies of the depositions and all the papers. See me to-morrow at my office if anything strikes you about it."
"What time shall you be in?" Philip asked, mechanically.
"All the morning after eleven o'clock. The trial is on Monday, so you won't have too much time. You can name your own junior, you know. Good night. I really must be off," and with kindly tact Mr. Barton hurried away.
For a while Philip sat without moving, like a man who has received some stunning shock. It seemed like some hideous dream, the lawyer's careless words and pitying amazed stare, the sound of her name, and the rustling of the stiff parchment. Why, scarcely a week ago he had heard from her—a few brief lines—and with trembling fingers he drew the letter out from his pocketbook, and smoothing it out upon his knee, read it slowly, not for the first or the second time.
"Cher Monsieur Rotheram," it commenced, although the Monsieur had been crossed out and Mr. substituted. She had evidently been educated at least in France, although he could have sworn that that was not her whole nationality.
At last I am able to return to you the money which you so generously procured for me. But although I can return you that, I can never, never sufficiently repay your great kindness in so trusting one who was almost a stranger to you. You cannot have any idea of—you cannot imagine the shame, the humiliation from which your magnificence saved me. Twice you have been my preserver. Alas! how can I hope to repay you! Never, I fear? And somehow, I cannot tell why, but one gets such ideas sometimes. I cannot keep away from me a presentiment which tells me that once more we shall meet, and you will be again as you have been before my guardian angle. Until then, Monsieur Rotheram, believe me to remain,
Yours ever gratefully,
P.S.—You will not forget your promise. You will not come to me. Do not think me vain in imagining that you might wish to do so. I only thought that perhaps out of your great kindness you might come—and you must not. It would be, oh, so pleasant to see you, but it is impossible. You must keep away from me. You will do as I ask, I know. Farewell, or rather, au revoir, for something assures me that some day we shall meet again."
He folded the letter up again, and gazed as though fascinated at the pile of papers on the table. "Au revoir, au revoir." The words seemed ringing in his ears like the refrain of some singing nightmare. He thought of her tracing those words on the delicately perfumed paper, and smiling as she did so in a mild wonder as to whether they would prove prophetic. He thought of the morning when he had read that letter in the orchard at the Elms. He remembered how it had taken hold of his thoughts, and carried them away, and how in the quiet of the old orchard, and under the drowsy influence of the hot summer's morning, he had forgotten that scarcely two miles away a great town was ringing with his name and demanding his presence, for it was the morning of the election. He had forgotten the struggle of the day, forgotten that before nightfall the course of his future life would be decided for him by the voice of many thousands of his townsmen, and above all had he forgotten his cousin and her fortune, soon to be his.
The old spell had seized him, and carried his thoughts back with a rush to that night when he had walked beneath the stars from Mr. Barton's house to his chambers, and had lost his way. A subtle, enchanting spell it was, a spell that had set his pulses beating and his heart aglow with the vivid recollection of that strange girl, with her queenly figure and exquisite face so close to his, as they had stooped together over her wounded father, and that rapid upward glance of those dangerous blue eyes as she had commanded and he had obeyed. Sweeter recollections still had flooded in upon him, recollections which had filled him with a vague, troubled regret, of the lingering tones in which she had bade him go and never see her again, and the pressure of her hand as they had parted in Kensington Gardens. Delightful reverie! entrancing thoughts they had been, and this was the end of it! this the au revoir! Strong man though he was, he shuddered from head to foot as the hideous truth stole in upon him. Then, with a great effort, he drew a chair up to the table, turned up the lamp, and eagerly seized the roll of papers which the lawyer had left.
The first one he came to was headed:
"Evidence of Ivan Penitchkoff, servant to deceased. Copy of depositions."
"My name is Ivan Penitchkoff. I was the only servant of the deceased. There was no one living in the house of my late master except myself and Mr. and Miss Frankfort, the prisoner. No one else could possibly have been in the house on the night of October 1st. The female servant employed by deceased left always at mid-day, and she had done so on the day in question. It was my custom to sit up in the kitchen or my own room until my master retired for the night, as I had to help him in his room.
"On Wednesday evening, October 1st, Miss Iola came out to me about nine o'clock in the evening, and told me I could retire, as my master would be sitting up late, and would manage without me. I thought that strange, as he had not done such a thing for many years. I did not go immediately, and soon Miss Iola—the prisoner—came out to me again and asked me angrily why I had not obeyed her. I did so then, but returned in a few minutes and went into the back kitchen. I don't know what motive I had in doing this. I was not exactly suspicious. I was only curious.
"In about five minutes after my return Miss Iola—the prisoner—came again softly into the front kitchen, and not seeing me she went back again. She went into the salon. I know she went into the salon, because I heard the door roll back.
"About five minutes after that I heard the report of a pistol. There was no scream following it at all. I ran into the salon, and saw my master lying on the hearthrug. He was quite dead. The prisoner was standing bending over him with a pistol in her hand. The pistol produced is the same that she was holding. It was one of a pair which hung as ornaments in her room. I had loaded it that afternoon at her request. She told me that she was nervous of robbers, and should keep it in her room.
"When I entered the salon she appeared frightened, and very much surprised. If I had obeyed her orders, and gone to my room, it is not probable that I should have heard the report of the discharge of the pistol. When she saw me she stooped down, and lifting up his head, tried to press her handkerchief against the wound, as though wishing to staunch the bleeding. Then she looked up at me and said, 'Mon Dieu, il est mort.' She told me to go at once and fetch a doctor. I went and fetched Dr. Thomson.
"When we returned, in less than a quarter-of-an-hour, she was still by his side, but she had dropped the pistol. We carried the body into a bedroom.
"For anything I know to the contrary, Miss Iola was a good daughter to him, but they did not seem to be on very affectionate terms. She was his only daughter. He had no other children, and his wife had been dead many years. They quarrelled occasionally. I heard very high words pass between them on the morning of October 1st, but I only understand a few words of English, so I cannot swear that they were quarrelling. It did sound like it. I have lived with my late master for forty years." (N.B.—This part of the evidence was given with great reluctance.)
"Most of that time we have spent travelling about. We have lived for a while in India, Africa, North and South America, as well as nearly every European capital. My master always appeared to be a very rich man, but I do not know exactly from what source his income came. I did not know his father, nor have I ever heard him speak of any of his family. He spoke Russian, but I did not conclude from that that he was of necessity a Russian, as he spoke equally well every European language. The prisoner never accompanied us on any of our travels. She was at school, near Paris I believe.
"I know nothing of my late master's wife save that she was a Frenchwoman. She died just before we commenced twenty years of travel. Miss Iola was about two years old then. We have lived in the house where my late master met his death for nearly two years. I do not know why most of the rooms in the house were unoccupied and unfurnished, except that we had no use for them. I do not know any reason for the seclusion in which deceased lived and imposed upon Miss Iola and myself. I have always looked upon it merely as a whim. I have always been on good terms with the prisoner. She spoke a little Russ, but not much."
Cross-examined by Mr. Barton, on behalf of the prisoner—
"I did not move from the inner kitchen between the time when the prisoner came out for the second time and when I heard the report. I am sure that there was no scream. I will swear that there was none. I will swear that I did not hear the prisoner's voice at all. My hearing is very good. I am not in the least deaf.
"The prisoner did appear frightened when I entered the salon. She may have appeared bewildered, but I did not notice that she did. She held the pistol in her right hand. I have seen the deceased teach her how to fire a pistol. The pistols were not as a rule kept loaded.
"Miss Iola, the prisoner, never went out except in the carriage. I can remember only one occasion on which she did so, and then I attended her. I drove the carriage myself. I did all the work, but two women came every morning to help, but they were never allowed to enter the salon. I have the charge of that room. There were only five rooms inhabited—the kitchen, the salon, and three bedrooms. I did the cooking myself. I don't know why my later master kept no other servants. He hated strangers. I did not grumble at the work. I preferred doing it all myself. It did not strike me that there was anything extraordinary in our manner of living. My wages were always regularly paid.
"I noticed that when the doctor and I raised the dead body of my master from the hearthrug that there was a piece of paper clenched in his hand. I believe that the piece of paper produced is the same. I did not take particular notice, as it was only an ordinary half sheet of blank paper. It did not strike me that the piece of paper was of foreign manufacture. I did not try to crumple it up when you handed it to me just now. It is of no importance, only a piece of blank paper. I have seen plenty like it before on my late master's desk. I do not know where the corresponding half sheet is. I do not know how it is that no more of the same sort has been found. I do not know why the three letters produced are written in cypher. My late master used to speculate a good deal on foreign bourses, and I know that he had friends who used to send him secret intelligence. The letters are probably from one of them. I have not a key to the cypher.
"I am quite sure that no one could have got into the house without my knowledge. I will swear that deceased did not move out of the salon for two hours before he met with his death. I will swear that he could not have walked down the passage to the back door without my having heard him, and I will swear that he did not do so. I did not hear any whistle or any other sound outside the house that evening. I will swear that I did not hear any whistle. I am not deaf—on the contrary, as I said before, my hearing is rather good. My first idea as to my late master's death was that he had committed suicide. I would rather not say what I think now."
Re-examined by the Solicitor for the Treasury—
"Deceased was rather eccentric in some of his habits, but he did not strike me as being an unhappy man at all. He was a great student, and he did not like the English people. I know of no reason why he should have lived in such seclusion. I do not believe that it was from any definite reason, compulsory or prudential. He was always a very good master to me, and I was much attached to him."
This was all. The next roll of papers was headed:—
"Copy of the evidence of George William Thomson, M.D."
"I am a doctor of medicine practising at No. 3, Latimer- street. On the night of Oct. 1st, at about ten minutes past nine, the last witness rang my bell and asked to see me. He was shown into the patients' room, and I saw him at once. He seemed very excited, and told me in French that I was wanted at his master's at once. He said more, but I did not follow him, as he spoke very rapidly, and I have forgotten a good deal of my French. I put on my coat and hat, and went with him immediately.
"He took me to the house in Ardinge-street. He walked very fast, and kept urging me along. We went down to the back door, which stood open, and along a dark passage to the extreme end. Here the man appeared to me to touch a knob in the wall, and a door which I had not noticed rolled back. There was a curtain hung in a semicircle around the door inside the room, which the man pushed on one side. I cannot describe the interior of the room, as I was anxious to see my patient, but it struck me as being unusually luxurious.
"Deceased was lying upon the hearthrug, with his head resting upon a handkerchief. The prisoner was on her knees by his side. She was not crying, but she appeared struck dumb. I am not a physiognomist, and I cannot say whether the shock from which she was suffering was of fear or surprise—the latter, I hope. I felt deceased's heart, and discovered that he was quite dead. At the prisoner's suggestion we carried him into a bedroom. The bedroom was quite plainly furnished.
"I then made an examination of the wound on deceased's head. It was the result of a pistol shot. The bullet had entered at the back of the head, but above the neck. Death must have been instantaneous. It would have been exceedingly difficult, almost impossible, for deceased to have shot himself without using both hands. It would have been absolutely impossible for him to have shot himself with his left hand, owing to the direction of the wound."
At this stage of the proceedings Ivan Penitchkoff was recalled, and in answer to a question swore positively that the piece of paper was found clenched in deceased's right hand.
Dr. Thomson's examination continued:
"There was a half-sheet of blank notepaper clenched in the dead man's right hand. The piece of paper produced is the same. I took particular notice of it, because it struck me at once that unless he caught that piece of paper up after he had fired the shot he could not have used his right hand in he perpetration of the deed, as the piece of paper was uncrumpled and clenched by all his fingers. I will swear that from the direction of the wound he could not have shot himself with his left hand.
"I asked the prisoner how it had happened and she replied 'He shot himself.' I said that the position of the wound was a very queer one, but she merely repeated, 'He shot himself.'
"I don't know that I thought her behaviour suspicious. I should not like to say that exactly, but I thought it strange. I will not swear that it was impossible for deceased to have snatched up that piece of paper from his knee or from the ground after he had fired the shot, but if so he must have made an extraordinary effort. I did not see the pistol at the time, so cannot swear to the one produced, but the bullet extracted from the wound fits it exactly.
"On leaving the house, after weighing over the facts, I felt it my duty to report the matter at the nearest police station."
The doctor did not appear to have been cross-examined. The next paper was headed:
"Evidence of James Marlin."
"My name is James Marlin, and I am a detective officer in the— Division, Metropolitan police. On the night of October 1st the last witness, Dr. Thomson, went to our office, and in the presence of myself and the inspector made a statement similar to that which he has just made in court. I received instructions to investigate the matter, and accordingly went at once to the house of the deceased, accompanied by a constable in plain clothes. I rang the bell of the side door, which was opened by the man Ivan Penitchkoff. I told him that we wished to see his mistress, and we were kept waiting in the passage while he went to summon her.
"I could not see to which room he went, and he turned round at the end of the passage, and was out of sight. I heard him address someone in French, and presently the young lady in the dock came to us.
"I told her that I was a detective from the police station, and wished to examine the room in which her father had died. She seemed much disturbed, and after some hesitation led us to the end of the passage. She touched what appeared to be a knob in the wall, and a door opened. There was a curtain inside, which she pushed back and beckoned me to enter. The room we found ourselves in astonished me beyond measure, for it was furnished far more handsomely than any I had ever been in before. I have seen rooms in the mansions of many of the nobility at different times, but I have seen nothing to compare with this room for magnificence.
"I asked the prisoner to describe the affair to me, and she did so. She showed me where he had been found. I remarked that it was a pity he had not been left there until after my visit. She asked me why? I did not answer her. There was blood on the rug where, according to her account, the head had been. There were no signs of any struggle. The prisoner, at my request, handed me the pistol now produced. The piece of paper was brought to our office by Dr. Thomson.
"There was an easy chair about a yard behind where the body had lain, and a small round table close by the side of it. There was penholder on the table with a new gold pen in it, and a small ivory paper knife, but no ink, or any sign of a letter having been recently written. I asked the prisoner if I might speak to the servant, and she called him in. I took down a statement from him in French which exactly tallies with his evidence given before the Court. I am well acquainted with the French language. I asked the prisoner, after having taken down and compared the two statements, whether she would object to my leaving the policeman in the house. She seemed surprised, but made no objection.
"Early the next morning, acting upon instructions from headquarters, I called again at the house, and asked to see her. The man Ivan showed me into the room called the salon. I then told her that she must come with me to the police station, and read the warrant charging her with the murder of deceased.
"She appeared at first faint with the shock, but afterwards she certainly seemed more indignant than terrified. She exclaimed, 'Monsieur, this is infamous.'
"I then gave her the usual caution that anything she said might be used as evidence against her at her trial. She asked to be allowed to change her dress, and I waited outside the door of her apartment while she did so. She did not speak to me again after that, but seemed to be growing more nervous. I took possession of the letter which she had been writing. She had only written a few words."
Letter and envelope here produced. The former had evidently been only commenced:—
'For God's sake come to me at once if you would render me a great, great service. Forgive me for troubling you, but I am in terrible d—'
The last word was not completed. There were two letters only on the envelope, as though she had at first intended writing the address before the letter, but subsequently changed her mind. The letters were "Ph—"
Cross-examination of James Marlin by Mr. Barton:—
"The prisoner was present whilst I was taking down the statement of Ivan Penitchkoff. On several occasions she started and seemed surprised, and she exclaimed once:-
"'Mais ceci n'est pas vrai, Ivan!'
"I told her that she must be quiet, and not interrupt. She seemed very much agitated. I cannot tell whether she looked like a guilty person or not when she gave me her version of the affair. It did not strike me while she was making it that it was a fabrication, though I could not help putting it down as very improbable.
"My suspicions were first aroused when I discovered the difference between her statement and the statement of the man Ivan Penitchkoff. The letter told his tale simply and clearly, although at some points in it, notably those implicating the prisoner, he seemed much affected, and exhibited great reluctance in their recital. He seemed surprised when the prisoner interrupted him, but made no remark.
"I cannot say, judging from his manner, whether he had been expecting such contradictions, but should judge not. There were a great number of ornaments about the room. There were some other pistols, and a case of foreign daggers. There was a gold whistle curiously carved, and which had a peculiar mouthpiece, as though designed to give out some particular note, lying at the corner of the chimney piece. The whistle is the same as now produced."
Re-examined by the Solicitor for the Treasury—
"There were so many other ornaments lying about the room of a like kind that I did not wonder at the presence of the whistle. I took possession of it because of something in the prisoner's statement. There were two or three other silver ones in the room. I saw them through the glass doors of a cabinet."
The close of the detective's evidence brought Philip Rotheram to the last paper of all. It was headed—
"Prisoner's statement to Inspector Marlin, supplemented
by additional particulars elicited by Mr. Barton."
With a trembling hand Philip drew the lamp a little closer to him, and bent eagerly over the stiffly-written sheets.
Philip knew very well before he had read half a dozen sentences of the document before him that it was not a simple narration of the facts in Iola's own language, but that everything in it had been elicited and drawn out by questions. Thus it ran:
"The deceased was my father. My mother died when I was two years' old. I know nothing whatever of my father's family, and very little of my mother's. I do not know for certain what my mother's maiden name was, but believe that it was De Meuillis. I have an aunt living, who was the superior of the convent near Paris where I was brought up. I have often been told that I have no other relations. At my mother's death my father placed me at this convent, and left France. I only saw him twice that I can remember during the whole time that I was there, until eighteen months ago, when he came to the convent, and brought me here to England. I had letters from him as I grew up, which I have preserved. He seemed to be always travelling about, and seldom wrote twice from the same place. In one of these letters, dated from Vienna, he speaks of being in great danger, and gave me the address of a bank in Paris where, in case anything happened to him he said I should find money lodged in my name. He never told me what his danger was. I have had letters from India, Rio Janeiro, Buenos Ayres, and the United States. These were during the last ten years—previously all my letters were from European towns, mostly from Geneva, Basle, and Vienna, and now and then from St. Petersburg.
"I often wondered what made him travel about so, but he never told me. I have thought lately it might have been because he speculated a good deal on foreign exchanges. I do not believe that his name was Frankfort, because once when he came to see me at the convent he was accompanied by another gentleman who called him 'Vôtre Altesse,' and another time 'Count.' My father rebuked him sharply for this.
"When he came to the convent the last time he did not take me away with him at once. He told me that he was going to settle down quietly, and wanted me to live with him, but that he had not decided yet where we should go. He went away for about a month, and when he returned told me that we were going to live in London. We stayed in Paris about a week after that, and when we left together for England he took home some French workpeople with him.
"I was not sorry to leave the convent, although they had all been very kind to me, and I was very fond of my aunt. When I left she declared that she should give up her post, and go back to her old home. My father promised us that I should go and see her in three year's time, when he would be obliged to spend a month in Switzerland, but he insisted that in the meantime no letters were to pass between us. I thought this very strange at the time, but my aunt seemed to understand it. I always used to call her Aunt Élise, but her real name was De Meuillis. She was called Sister de Meuillis at the convent.
"When we reached England we went to the Langham Hotel, and had rooms there. My father told me that our house was not yet ready, and that the workpeople whom he had brought over with him were to re-decorate it. We were at the hotel for very nearly a month, but my father very seldom took me out, and when he did it was always in a closed carriage. We had private rooms in the hotel, and never once even dined in public.
"One day he took me out to some shops with him, and bought me a quantity of jewellery, and more clothes than I have been able to wear. He gave me the idea, by our manner of living at the hotel and our purchases, of being very wealthy. He paid more than a thousand pounds for the jewels he bought me. All the dresses and parcels were to be sent to the Langham Hotel, and he cautioned me to give no other address. I once ask him why, but he did not answer me.
"I often wanted to go out in the morning, but he always made some excuse, and at last he told me that he had reasons for wishing not to be seen in London. I did not ask him again, but I thought it very strange.
"In about a month's time after our arrival in England, my father told me that our home was ready for us, and we moved from the hotel into the house where we have since been living, in Ardinge- street.
"I did not like the house at all, but when he showed me the room he called the salon, I was enchanted. I had never seen such a magnificent chamber. But he only smiled, and told me that he had been used to such, and could not exist in any other. It astonished me that there were only four or five rooms furnished in the house, and no regular servant except Ivan, and I asked him how it was. I did not like the idea at all, and I was beginning to get frightened.
"He looked very grave then, and he talked to me for a long time that evening after diner. He told me that he was in danger of his life, and compelled to remain in the strictest seclusion. He had been hunted all over the world, he said, and was longing for a little rest. He did not tell me what it was that he had done, nor did I want to know. He said he would be safe here if I could put up with seeing no one, and living in entire seclusion—that I need not stop with him longer than I wished, and when I wanted a change I might go back to my aunt's for a while; but he told me that he had been very lonely all his life, and had looked forward to having me with him for a while, so I stayed.
"I stayed of my own free will, and I was only too glad to do so, for I felt sure that every word he said was true, and I felt very sorry for him. I often wondered what his past history had been, and once I asked him to tell it to me, but he shook his head, and said that he would never burden me with the knowledge. I never asked him again, and I was not especially curious. I grew very much attached to him, and we were not at all unhappy. He would talk to me for hours of the wonderful things he had seen in foreign countries, and I used to like to listen to him. I had any number of books, and I was not very dull.
"I used sometimes to go for a drive, and very rarely my father would accompany me. His favourite, and indeed his only form of exercise was fencing, and Ivan and he used to practice it for hours together, sometimes in one of the empty rooms.
"We have a carriage of our own, but when we went out Ivan used to hire the horses, and drive them himself.
"I used often to fancy that Ivan knew the whole of my father's history, but I never asked him any questions. He did not seem to like me, and I don't think he approved of my coming to live with them. He was very devoted to his master. I think, perhaps, that he was a little jealous of me.
"He used to do most of the work in the house, even to superintending the hired women, and he would never allow me to help. No one else ever entered the house.
"My father was very precise in his habits. He liked to dine at eight o'clock, and he always insisted upon my dressing elaborately, and wearing jewels.
"I don't know where his income came from, but on the first of every month he always received a letter with a large sum of money—more that we could possibly spend. He told me that the letters came from his agent abroad. Once I remember in the middle of the month he received a letter which seemed to distress him terrible. I did not see the postmark, for Ivan always used to go out and fetch the letters—from the Post Office, I suppose. He was very ill at the time, and kept on calling out that he must have a certain sum of money at once.
"I got it for him, and Ivan started away with it at once. He was gone three days and looked very weary when he returned, as though he had been travelling all the time. During his absence we had to get on anyhow.
"Considering the manner of our life, and what he must have passed through, my father did not seem to be at all an unhappy man. I only remember him to have been ill once, besides the time which I have just mentioned. On that occasion he had a slight apoplectic fit, and we had to summon a doctor, but he was soon well again. He was wonderfully handsome and distinguished- looking, and I always used to think that he must be of noble birth. Aunt Élise once hinted to me that this was so, but she said that he had forfeited his position, and would never regain it.
"Looking back from the time of our coming to Ardinge-street to the night of October 1st, I can only remember one unusual incident. Soon after we had settled down there it happened, and I mention it because it seems to me to have some connection with what happened on the night of October 1st. I had retired for the night, and was preparing to undress, when I heard the sound of a peculiar whistle from the shrubbery in the garden, and while I was listening I heard the same sound repeated from the salon. I opened my door, and found myself face to face with my father, who was just issuing from the salon. I told him about the whistle outside, but he only laughed at me, and said that it was he whistling for Ivan. I declared that I had heard the whistle outside as well, but he said that it was impossible, and that there was only one whistle like his in the world. I persisted, and he ordered me sternly to return to my room at once, and close the door.
"I could not sleep, and later on in the night I heard voices in the salon and in the passage. I heard Ivan and my father, and another voice which was strange to me. They were talking in a language which I did not understand. I did not leave my room, but I was very nervous, and told my father about it in the morning. To my astonishment he laughed at me, and declared that only Ivan and himself were talking. I said nothing more, but I feel sure that someone else had been with them, and after what happened on the night of October 1st I am more than ever convinced of it.
"I positively state that at no time during the morning or the afternoon of October 1st did I have anything of the nature of a dispute or an excited conversation with my father. Ivan is mistaken when he declares that he heard such. He is either mistaken, or he wilfully perverts the truth, for what purpose I cannot imagine. On the contrary, my father was in a particularly cheerful frame of mind upon that day, and talked to me a good deal of the possibility of our emerging in some measure from out secluded existence in the course of a year or two if all went well.
"Soon after dinner was over—as near as I can remember it was about nine o'clock—my father was talking to me of a skating carnival which he had once witnessed, when suddenly he broke off, and started into a listening attitude. I could hear nothing, but evidently he had, for he turned pale, and I could see his hand shaking, so that a cigarette which he was smoking fell from his fingers on to the ground. He told me to go and tell Ivan at once that he was to go to bed, and I did so.
"When I returned he was walking up and down the room, and seemed fearfully agitated. Great beads of perspiration stood out upon his forehead, and he was trembling in every limb. I had never seen him like it before. I was very frightened, and kept on asking him what was the matter; but he would not answer me at first. As soon as he had recovered a little he sent me out again to see whether Ivan had obeyed his order.
"When I returned he was still pacing the room, with his hands behind his back. I told him that Ivan was going immediately, but he did not seem satisfied, and sent me then again to see if he had actually gone. When I came back for the third time he seemed much more composed.
"'Iola,' he said, 'don't stir from this room, I command you.' He bent down and kissed me, and then left the salon, and went down the passage towards the side-door. Immediately he left me I heard him blow his whistle softly.
"He was gone about five minutes, and when he returned I was horrified at his appearance. He was as pale as a corpse, and shivering in every limb, and there was a fearful look of despair in his face. His eyes glazed, and he did not appear to see me. He sat down in his easy chair, and pulled it close up to the fire.
"I spoke to him, and asked him whether there was anything I could get him, but he took no notice of me for a minute or two, sitting with his head buried in his hands. Suddenly he got up and groped towards the door, but seeing me he stopped, and told me to fetch the small medicine chest from his room. I was some little time looking for it, and while I was engaged in my search I heard him walk down the passage again and back to the salon.
"When I entered the room with it in my hand I was startled at his peculiar position. He was standing on the hearthrug with both his hands raised behind him. Before I could speak I heard a loud report, and he sank to the ground with a heavy groan.
"As he fell his eyes seemed to catch sight of a piece of paper which lay on the chimney-piece, and he reeled towards it and gripped it between his fingers. I believe that he intended to throw it into the fire, but he had not the strength left.
"I rushed over to where he was lying, picked up the pistol which he had let fall, and bent over him, almost dumb with fright. Then Ivan rushed in, and I just managed to tell him to go for the doctor. He asked me what had happened, but I forget what I replied. I believe I showed him the pistol. The pistol did not belong to me. I have never asked Ivan to load it for me; in fact, I have never discharged a pistol in my life.
"I cannot account for the fellow one and the powder and bullets being found in my room. They must have been put there.
"This is my statement to the truth of which I have sworn.
"(Signed) Iola Frankfort."
The only other document, besides some rough plans of the house, was a half sheet of foolscap, on which were a few notes in Mr. Barton's handwriting:
"On this evidence the prisoner Iola Frankfort was committed for trial. It seems a bad case, but of course all the evidence, except that of the man Penitchkoff, being circumstantial, there may be just a chance of acquittal. Might try for manslaughter if the girl would plead guilty, but she persists in asserting the truth of her cock and bull story, and it cannot be hoped that any jury will credit it. No papers of importance were discovered about the house, but all the financial periodicals appear to have been taken in and filed, corroborating the supposition, which was no doubt a correct one, that the deceased was an enthusiastic speculator on foreign exchanges. He also appears to have taken in most of the continental newspapers of repute. The case is too simple a one to require prolific notes. We leave it to you to make the best of.
Like a man in a dream Philip Rotheram sat back in his chair gazing with a blank, horrified stare at the little pile of papers on the table before him. Then nerving himself by a desperate effort to his task, he cast on one side with a half contemptuous gesture the page of Mr. Barton's notes, and only pausing to re- trim the lamp, commenced to read again slowly and thoughtfully the whole of the documents. The gray light of dawn was creeping through the drawn blinds and throwing ghostly lines of light about the room when at last he had finished his task. He rose to his feet, and with his brain in a whirl, paced up and down the room restlessly. Her prophesy was indeed coming true. She was in danger—terrible danger, he thought, with a shudder as he recalled to his mind the damning evidence against her—and in her distress she had been about to appeal to him to help her, as the half-written letter proved. It did not take him an instant to decide that her appeal should be answered—that he would devote to her service his every energy, and that by every means of which he was the master he would strive to rescue her from her perilous condition. He would stand justified to himself in so doing, for it was the friendless girl in a strange country, not the woman who had fascinated him, who appealed to him to succour her! As such he would think of her, and as a man who had pledged his word it was his duty to stand by her. But his heart sank within him, weighed down by a horrible apprehension, when he considered the purport of the papers which he had just read. The evidence was strong against her. Supposing a jury should consider it strong enough for a conviction. Great God! what a terrible thought! He felt the perspiration ooze out of his forehead at the bare idea. He had no need to read the depositions again. Long habit had taught him at a single reading to sift ten times the amount of evidence, and extract and carry in his mind the salient points, and he had devoured every line of her statement until every damning point in the evidence was burned in upon his memory. Without a moment's hesitation he had decided that her tale was true, and that she was innocent; but when he contemplated the nearness of the trial, and the mystery which he had to solve, he felt again almost dizzy with fear.
The ghostly light grew more and more distinct, until at last a sunbeam found its way in and cast a long straggling beam of brightness upon the carpet. But he never noticed it, and when at last his servant, surprised at hearing her master up, knocked at his door on her way downstairs, he was still deep in thought, evolving possibilities, and considering how best to commence his task.
"Is that you, Lacey?" he inquired. He had sunk into an easy chair exhausted, and but little inclined for sleep. "What's the time?"
"Past six o'clock sir," replied his wondering house-keeper. "Are you not going to your room sir?"
He did not answer. He was busy thinking.
"Bring me a cup of strong tea as soon as you can, and turn the water on in the bath-room," he said shortly, which orders Lacey promptly withdrew to execute.
"Well, I never know'd Mr. Rotheram to 'ave a turn like this before," she remarked below to a fellow domestic as she prepared to start upstairs with the tea about half an hour later. "Wonder what's amiss! 'Taint everything to be an Hem! P! I should think," and then cook, to whom her remark had been addressed, had a long and interesting reminiscence to tell of a former household which had been honoured by her services, in which the master was a "Hem! P!" and did not reach home until four or five o'clock in the morning, and looked "that pale and worn out, like as if he'd one foot in the grave, and they said as 'ow it were all along of a nasty mean lot o' men as called 'emselves, or leastways they were called 'hobstructionists,' and stopped all the other business because they couldn't get their own attended to first. Which I'd a sent 'em a packing pretty quick if I'd a been the boss o' the show," she remarked with some vigour.
The tea was rather cold when it arrived, but Philip did not appear to notice the fact, for he swallowed it without remark. He had been writing letters.
"Lacey," he said, "you know where Mr. Barton lives. I want you to take this note to him at once, and ask them to send it up to his room if he is not down. Then you must take a cab and go down to Hammersmith, to Simpson's lodgings, and tell him to come back with you. He had better come prepared to go out of town."
Twenty minutes later Mr. Barton received the following note:—
The Temple, Friday morning.
Dear Mr. Barton,
Regina v. Frankfort—I am exceedingly interested in this case. Will you do me the favour of seeing me here as soon as possible. I am convinced that Miss Frankfort is innocent.
Yours in haste,
The lawyer read his young friend's note whilst he was at breakfast, and was puzzled.
"Innocent is she!" he meditated. "Well, how the deuce he's arrived at that decision I can't imagine! Rotheram's a shrewd fellow, as a rule, too. I'd better call and see him on my way to the office," and accordingly he ordered his carriage for half an hour earlier than usual, and directed the man to call at Mr. Rotheram's chambers. When he reached there, he met a little old man on the stairs, carrying a small portmanteau.
"Hullo! Simpson," he called out, patronisingly (everyone patronised Simpson), "going out of town?"
Mr. Simpson nodded a very grey head, and chuckled quietly.
"Paris, Mr. Barton, Paris! Not bad for an old 'un like me, eh? I'm in a hurry, though. Good morning," and he walked briskly away.
Mr. Barton looked after him in some surprise.
"Paris! Paris! Can't be on this case, surely! Ah, good morning, Rotheram. I was just coming up to see you."
Philip was unfeignedly pleased to see him.
"Good morning, Barton! Glad to see you. It's very good of you to come so soon!"
The lawyer subsided into the easy chair, and, crossing his legs, assumed a listening attitude. Philip seemed at first uncertain how to commence, for he stood upon the hearthrug with his hands behind him, and his eyes fixed upon the ground. At last, however, he raised them and spoke.
"That girl is no more guilty of her father's murder than you or I, Barton," he said abruptly.
The lawyer arched his eyebrows.
"Indeed!" he remarked, incredulously.
"Ah, I can understand that that sounds like nonsense to your legal mind; but—but I happen to know the young lady very slightly," Philip added slowly.
Mr. Barton looked up astonished. Here, then, was the explanation of the other's excitement when he had seen the brief on the previous day, and then he heard in a few words the story of Philip's midnight adventure.
"I'm not going to deny, in confidence," the latter went on to say, "that the girl interested me very much, although when acting altogether upon impulse I gave her my card, and assured her that if ever I could I would serve her, I never seriously expected to see or hear from her again. But not long afterwards she took me at my word, and did write to me asking for my help in some small matter. Of course I kept my promise, and since then I haven't seen her."
"Yes, but what about the case?" the lawyer said, a little impatiently. "What has all this to do with her innocence, eh?" enquired the prosaic man of law.
Philip's strong face flushed a little, and there was unusual hesitation in his tones.
"Barton," he said slowly "you know that I'm not a romantic sort of fellow, and don't go mad about every girl's face I see. You know that I'm not that sort, don't you."
The lawyer grunted an unqualified assent. He had been a very mild ally of Mrs. Barton's in more than one feminine scheme to entrap the eligible young barrister into the blessed state of matrimony, the utter failure of which still rankled in the mind of his better half, so he was quite prepared to assent, without the slightest hesitation, to his young friend's appeal.
"Well, you'll nevertheless consider me an idiot, perhaps, for what I'm going to say. I can't help it if you do. I've only spoken to that girl twice, but I'll stake my life on it that she never committed that murder. Ah! no wonder you shake your head. The evidence is strong against her, I admit, and I'm not going to argue the case with you, simply because I shouldn't know how to begin. But I want you to do me a great favour Barton—a very great favour."
Mr. Barton had been watching him keenly, and saw that he was greatly in earnest. In all his life he had never seen him so moved, and he hastened to reply.
"Anything, my dear fellow," he declared, heartily, "anything in reason, and I'm sure you wouldn't ask me anything that was not."
"I want you," Philip said, earnestly, "to put aside all prejudice from your mind, and take up this case as though you knew that the girl was innocent. Imagine that by some extraordinary means you knew her to be so, and I want you to work with me to do everything in your power to prove it. I will be quite frank with you. I am going to devote, if necessary, the whole of my time and all my energies to this case. She is innocent, and she must be proved innocent. Will you help me?"
Mr. Barton never hesitated for a moment.
"With pleasure, my dear fellow," he said, emphatically. "Everything I can do, I will. I only wish, for your sake, that it was a stronger case."
"Thank you," and to the lawyer's surprise, for he always looked upon Philip Rotheram as one of the most undemonstrative of men, Philip leaned across and shook his hand heartily, whilst a keen glow of gratitude shone in his clear, grey eyes. Then he proceeded, in his usual business-like tones.
"Now, assuming as we are going to do, that Miss Frankfort is innocent, it becomes evident at once that the man Penitchkoff knows more about the matter than came out in evidence. In his examination he affirms that high words passed between the deceased and Miss Frankfort in the morning. She denies it. He affirms that Mr. Frankfort never at any time during the evening quitted the salon or blew his whistle. She declares that he twice left the room, walking down the passage past the chamber in which Ivan was, mind, and that he blew his whistle, which must have been heard all over the house. He swears that at her request he loaded the pistol with which the deed was done, and furthermore that she was accustomed to shooting with a pistol. She point blank denies that he did so, and declares that she never fired off a pistol in her life. Now these differences are of course too important to be accidental. There is design in Ivan's denying the two former events and making that assertion, and assuming that Miss Frankfort is innocent (as we are doing), then comes the question—Why does Ivan Penitchkoff give false evidence? The answer to that question is our first problem."
The lawyer nodded.
"I follow you exactly," he remarked, a little drily. "You have arrived at this point. Why does an eminently respectable old man, who has served his master faithfully through a lifetime, voluntarily attempt to fasten a hideous charge upon a young girl, his master's daughter?"
Philip assented doubtfully.
"Well, I shouldn't have too much to say about Mr. Penitchkoff's respectability if I were you just yet, I haven't much faith in it myself. However, we will stop there as far as he is concerned. Now has it not struck you that there is something intensely mysterious about this dead man? The obscurity of his past, the nameless dread in which he lived, and the precautions he took for remaining in absolute security? That he had played a leading part in life at some time or another it is not easy to doubt, when one puts together all that has come out about him. The splendour of the apartment in which he lived, his travels, his wealth, the title given to him by his friend at the Convent de St. Mureau, all these point to it. There is some strange mystery anent this man's life, I know, and could we but unearth it, we might be able to connect it with his sudden act of suicide."
Mr. Barton looked more than a little dubious.
"We are past the age of romance, you know, Rotheram," he said, shaking his head slowly. "The general impression is that he was simply a man of eccentric disposition, who after a very checkered career determined to end his life as a misanthrope, to the natural disgust of his daughter. I'm afraid that the bestowal of that title partook a little bit of the nature of romancing on the part of Miss Frankfort—I mean to say, of course, that it would appear so to the public. By-the-bye, I met Simpson on the stairs. You have sent him away on this business?"
"Yes. I have sent him to Paris to the Convent de St. Mureau, with a letter to Madame de Meuillis."
The lawyer smiled. "I hope that it may not prove a wild-goose chase for him," he said. "I have written and telegraphed there, as I told you, but I have had no reply."
"Madame de Meuillis may have left the convent, and the letters may not yet have reached her. In any case I thought it best to send. But now for the more immediate aspects of the case," Philip continued earnestly. "About that half-sheet of paper which is such an important link in the testimony. Miss Frankfort's statement that her father snatched at it in his dying moments is derided because no one can see any sense in his taking such an interest in so unimportant an object, and they naturally conclude that she avers this in order to make her version of the suicide agree with the medical evidence, which goes to prove, as you will remember, that he could not have shot himself except with his right hand. The piece of paper was found clean and uncrumpled in his right hand. Now, looking at it from our point of view (we are assuming Miss Frankfort's innocence, you will bear in mind), that piece of paper becomes invested with a considerable amount of interest, because the dying man's last thoughts were of it, and in his dying moments he snatched at it."
Mr. Barton assented with a gesture of impatience.
"Yes, yes; but you know I have seen this piece of paper, and there is neither mark nor writing upon it. It is simply an ordinary half-sheet of foreign writing paper. What importance can it have?"
"I don't know yet," Philip answered thoughtfully. "It seems strange that there was none other of the same sort found about the house, not even the corresponding half-sheet. Of course it will be preserved?"
"Oh! yes, it will be preserved," the lawyer assured him drily. "Have you formed any theory of your own about the matter?" he added, after a short pause. "About the whole affair, I mean."
Philip shook his head. "I have not elaborated one," he said, "but I have some ideas about one, of course. You remember Miss Frankfort in her statement asserts that before she left the room to fetch the medicine chest—in fact, before she was sent in to tell Ivan to go to his room—her father started as though he had heard something. Well, I believe that what he heard was a signal from someone outside the house, and that for some reason or other he was terrified to confront the person from whom the signal came, and blew his brains out rather than do so. He might have walked down the passage twice, as she says he did, with the intention of answering the signal, and then have been unable to summon up sufficient resolution to do so. You will remember Miss Frankfort states that he blew his whistle when he left the room for the first time. This was probably an answer to the signal from without. I must confess that so far as that piece of paper is concerned I am altogether at a loss."
"And how about the man Penitchkoff's perjury? Have you formed any theory about that?" asked the lawyer.
"Well, he was probably jealous of, and therefore disliked, his young mistress for one thing, and also I imagine that he too heard the signal, knows his master's real reason for committing suicide, and is mixed up with the matter in some way so that he dreads investigation and discovery of the true cause. It sounds rather far-fetched, I know," Philip went on, a suspicion of desperation creeping into his tones, "but assuming his innocence, what on earth else are we to suppose? And if this man Penitchkoff has made up his mind, as of course he had done, to commit perjury, why how shall we be able, how can we save her, in the face of his false evidence?" and Philip rose from his chair with much of his ordinary calmness banished by the horrible imagination, and paced the room restlessly.
Mr. Barton shrugged his shoulders, and glancing at his watch rose to go.
"I should like to think the matter over quietly," he said. "Come to my office at three o'clock this afternoon, and I will tell you what I think about it. The only thing which occurs to me just now is to have this man Penitchkoff watched. I'll see to that. I really must hurry away now, though. I have two appointments in the city already overdue. After three, then, I shall see you. Good-bye, till then."
"I never could have believed it of Rotheram," he exclaimed softly to himself, as he stepped into his carriage. "If it had been anyone else, I could have understood it, but Philip! Philip Rotheram!!"
Philip Rotheram was by no means a man of sanguine temperament, but his convictions as to the innocence of the girl whose champion he had constituted himself were deep and absolute—so much so that he could not bring himself to believe but that some slight circumstances would be unravelled during the next few days; in other words, something would turn up to demonstrate it. He ran over the situation in his mind. The trial was to take place at the Old Bailey on Monday; to-day was Thursday. Simpson could easily return by Saturday night, and on the information which he would doubtless obtain from the Abbess of the Convent Philip greatly relied—at any rate, he felt sure in his own mind that it would be such as would ensure a postponement of the trial being granted. Then, too, something might come of Ivan's being watched. His motive for attempting to fasten so horrible a crime upon his young mistress might come to light, and then the rest would be an easy task.
Parliament was not summoned to meet until the end of the next week, so his time was completely at his own disposal, and there was nothing to divert his thoughts from the sensational case of Regina v. Frankfort. It was well that this was so. Had it been otherwise, if all Sorchester had cast him off, and chosen another candidate, he would not have turned aside for one moment from his self-imposed task.
It had been half understood at the Elms that he was to return and spend the Sunday there—indeed, his visit to London had only been hurriedly decided upon, undertaken partly out of whim—if such a term could aptly be applied to the workings of so strong a mind— and partly in order to escape from the exuberant and overwhelming congratulations of the Sorchestrians. And so now, after Mr. Barton's departure, he sat down and wrote a few lines to his mother, telling her that a case in which he had decided to accept a brief would take up all his attention for a day or two, and that in consequence he would not be able to return for the Sunday, and then, pen in hand, he hesitated, for it occurred to him that he ought surely to write a line or two to his fiancée. He dipped his pen in the ink, drew the notepaper towards him, and then again he paused.
How was he to address her? "My dear Frances?" He was a novice in such matters, but he could not help feeling that it would be a strange incongruity to call her Lady Frances. He had thought nothing of calling her Frances. She was his cousin, and it had seemed perfectly natural for him to do so, but he had never written her in his life, and somehow it seemed to him far more difficult to write those few preparatory words than he could have imagined possible. Then, while he was deliberating, it suddenly occurred to him that he would like to see how somebody else's name looked, and before he had realised what he was doing, the words were written, and "My dear Iola" was staring up at him from the sheet of paper. He looked at the letters, he pretended to himself that they were a surprise, but the colour came slightly into his cheeks, and he felt something like a very guilty schoolboy who had suddenly been convicted of some glaring irregularity. For the first time in his life he felt like a hypocrite. It appeared to him, too, that he would still more experience this feeling if he wrote to his cousin whilst all the time his every thought and interest was centred in and absorbed by another woman. Of course it was only the remembrance of her danger, compassion for her terrible plight, and sympathy with her friendless state and awful position which brought that other face so prominently into his thoughts. Of course, that was all—but still he did not write that letter to his cousin, merely reopening his mother's and adding a postscript.
"Remember me to Frances and the rest. Sorry no time to write," which was to say the least of it rather a sorry excuse for dismissing in so summary a manner the woman who had consented to be his wife.
His correspondence brought thus to a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion, he turned to his library, and spent an hour or two reading over law records, hunting up precedents, noting and studying Judge so and so, and Lord somebody else's remarks on circumstantial evidence, and then, having made copious notes, he swallowed a hearty lunch, and hurried off to Mr. Barton's office in Bedford-row.
The lawyer was in and disengaged, so without delay his caller was ushered into a bare looking, but lofty apartment, lined to the ceiling with tin boxes, and commanding from its uncurtained windows an excellent view—of the neighbouring housetops.
"You're punctual," Mr. Barton remarked, pointing to a vacant chair. "I've been thinking this case out from every point of view," he went on, plunging at once in medias res, "and every view, I'm sorry to say, seems to converge towards the same result. Assuming that Miss Frankfort is innocent, I must tell you candidly that I don't see how we're going to prove it. That man Penitchkoff is our only hope. I've set Wells, the shrewdest detective in the force, upon his track, and if he discovers his whereabouts, as no doubt he will, every movement of his will be zealously watched. Then, of course, there is just a possibility of Simpson's raking up something when in Paris, but I shouldn't build too much upon that if I were you. If you take my advice, you'll devote all your time now to working up the case upon rather a different tack. Read everything you can lay your hands upon that anyone has ever written or said about the dangers of circumstantial evidence, and at the trial devote all your efforts to upsetting that fellow Penitchkoff in cross-examination. You know what parts of his evidence, according to the theory of Miss Frankfort's innocence, are false. Press him hard on them. If you can shake the faith of the jury in his credibility it'll give you just a chance of a verdict. The worst of it is the fellow looks so thoroughly respectable, and gives his evidence in such a straightforward way, that it seems ridiculous to suspect him of apparently purposeless perjury. However, you must press him hard, but don't let the jury think you're bullying him, or you'll do more harm than good, especially if he holds his ground. Will you have anyone with you? A junior, anyhow, I suppose? Or do you prefer to do everything yourself?"
"The latter, decidedly. I should be glad if you could lend me a clerk though, as Simpson is away, to arrange my notes, and hunt up references."
"Certainly, I'll send Brookes round to you. And with regard to this man Penitchkoff, I'll let you know at once if anything transpires as to his movements. Good morning."
Friday passed, and no day had ever seemed so long to Philip Rotheram as he waited in vain for a telegram from Simpson, or news from Mr. Barton. Early on Saturday morning came a message from Simpson:
"Convent de St. Mureau broken up six months ago. Just heard that Madame de Meuillis is at a village in the south. I go there to-day."
Saturday morning already, and the trial on Monday! Little chance of good coming from Simpson's mission now—at any rate in time for the trial. And Sunday passed, and Monday morning dawned without further news from France, nor had the shrewdest detective in London succeeded in discovering anything suspicious about Ivan Penitchkoff's movements.
There was a crowded court—so crowded that temporary barricades had to be erected to keep back the well- dressed mob of men and women who clamoured for admission that they might feast their eyes upon the young girl who was supposed to have committed so hideous a crime, and possibly hear the sentence of death pronounced upon her. Horrible desire—a desire begotten of morbid and unhealthy instincts preying upon a puny and diseased nature, from which every scrap of womanly refinement and delicacy must have been absent. It is a desire very prevalent nowadays, though, and by no means confined to the lower orders, for ladies of fashion will often struggle and push for places, and deem it a pleasing novelty in the round of society amusements, to see one of their own sex stand her trial for life or death, and, scarcely less debasing, to hear the long and pitiable record of domestic misunderstanding culminating in crime revolting and debasing. They will sit there—(who is there who frequents the law courts who will deny it?)—to all appearances gloating over the shameful details, revelling in the slough of immorality, and with unmoved countenances will listen to incidents and particulars which had they the slightest spark of shame or delicacy within them, would drive them blushing from the court.
"A disgrace to their sex!" an eminent judge once sternly remarked, heedless of the fact that his eyes were resting upon many of those well known to him in society, and Philip Rotheram echoed that opinion in his heart as from his seat in the well of the court he cast a scornful, disapproving glance around at the heterogeneous crowd. He betrayed very little of the fever which was raging within him. Anticipation had been almost enough to unnerve him, but now that the time had actually come, his will was predominant, and the passionate anxiety which he certainly felt was controlled and kept down with an iron determination.
There was a stir when the judge took his seat, and a still more decided movement when the prisoner was brought into the dock. A moment of weakness came to the young counsel prepared to plead in her defence, and he bent down as though to examine his papers. It was gone almost at once, however, and then he looked at her. She was pale, almost of an ivory pallor, dressed in a plain black velvet gown buttoned close up to her white throat, and her golden hair, which seemed as though it had defied all effort to hide or restrain it, remained half coiled on the top of her head, half hanging down over her shoulders. Pale though she was, it was scarcely the pallor of fear. Her clear blue eyes were filled with a proud, indignant light, and her perfectly shaped, mobile features seemed undisturbed by any emotions of cowardice or alarm. Notwithstanding her terrible position, there was a dignity about her even as she stood at the front of the dock which it was impossible not to admire. She looked more like a young queen in the hands of her enemies than a criminal, and there vibrated through the court an only half-suppressed murmur of admiration of and involuntary pity for the beautiful prisoner.
Philip Rotheram looked steadily at her, with lips slightly parted, in a kind, encouraging smile, and with pity and sympathy shining out of his softened grey eyes, of which he was not aware. Presently she met his gaze, and started palpably. She knew him, notwithstanding his wig and gown, and a slight smile of glad recognition flitted across her face, her lips trembling as though with some emotion. It was only momentary, however, and few in the Court noticed it.
The formalities in the proceedings were commenced. The jurymen were sworn in, the charge read, and then the question was put, guilty or not guilty. In firm, clear tones, low, yet with a peculiar distinctness, the answer came back at once, "not guilty." It was recorded, a chair was brought up for the prisoner, and the counsel for the prosecution rose to open his case.
He would be brief, he said, for the facts were simple. Simple though they were, however, he continued, so simple that the jury would be but a very short time deciding upon them, he felt very great pain in standing there and detailing them, for they were of such a nature as would leave no doubt in their minds as to the guilt of the unfortunate young lady in the dock. At a certain house in Ardinge-street, Kensington, had dwelt up to the night of October 1st this Mr. Frankfort and his daughter. They had lived in a seclusion which it was difficult to understand, and the only conclusion at which they would be able to arrive would doubtless be that the late Mr. Frankfort must have been a man of most eccentric disposition. The young lady, his daughter, was never allowed to cross the threshold of his door, save in a closed carriage and accompanied by his servant, while he himself, it appeared, only on the rarest occasions left, even for a single hour, the house where he lived in such extraordinary seclusion.
"Now," he went on, "do you imagine that this manner of life could have been otherwise than wearisome and irksome to Miss Frankfort? Young ladies are fond of change and society, they like shopping and many other feminine occupations, but from all such, from all the ordinary pursuits and amusements which make up the role of a young lady's life, was Miss Frankfort debarred by her father's peculiar whim.
"I put it to you whether such constraint must not have been oppressive and galling to her, more especially as she was aware of no real reason—I do not for a moment suppose that there was one—why she should be thus shut out from the enjoyments, the natural and innocent engagements other girls of her age enjoy. It is extremely easy to imagine, therefore, that this state of things was not provocative of good feeling between the late Mr. Frankfort and his daughter; and coming to the first of October, the day on which the unfortunate Mr. Frankfort met with his death—on the very afternoon of that day, mind, only a few hours before the crime—I beg your pardon, before the terrible tragedy took place—I shall prove to you that there was a quarrel between father and daughter, during which very high words passed. What the nature of the quarrel was matters very little to us. It is sufficient that there was a quarrel. You will be so good as to bear that in mind, gentlemen of the jury, while I detail to you the events of that evening.
"About nine o'clock on the evening of October 1st Miss Frankfort left her father in the room which they called the salon, and went into the kitchen, where Ivan Penitchkoff, the only other person in the house, was sitting, and he will tell you that his young mistress not only ordered him to go to bed, stating that it was her father's wish that he should do so, but she subsequently came back twice into the kitchen, once to peremptorily repeat her order, and again to assure herself that it had been carried out. He will tell you that for seventeen years, night after night, he has assisted his master to undress, and it will be for your considerations, gentlemen of the jury, whether that message on this night of all others really was given to Miss Frankfort to deliver, or whether she did not, for reasons of her own sufficiently apparent, invent it.
"About a quarter of an hour after the prisoner believed that Penitchkoff had obeyed her orders, and retired for the night, the report of a pistol shot rang through the house. The man Penitchkoff, fortunately at hand, rushed into the salon. The prisoner was standing by the prostrate form of her father, with the pistol still smoking in her hands— mark that, gentlemen, with the pistol still smoking in her hands.
"She had not imagined, of course, that the man Penitchkoff could have been there so soon, or it seemed possible to me, as no doubt it does to you, that the weapon would have been found on the ground by the dead man's side, or even locked in his fingers. Questions are asked of her as to how it had happened, none of the questioners having it in their minds that the fatal deed was any other than suicide. And to those questions what is her only reply? 'He shot himself.' Doesn't that sound like the anticipation a guilty mind always has of accusation? Of course it does.
"Now for the medical evidence. The dead man was discovered to have gripped between the stiffened fingers of his right hand a plain half-sheet of paper. Gentlemen of the jury can examine that scrap for themselves, and they will see at once that there is nothing remarkable in any way about it. There is no writing upon it, and no tracing of any, and gentlemen will at once perceive that there could be nothing about that scrap of paper to induce a man in the shock of death, when his senses were reeling, the eyes growing dim, and the hands feeble—that there could be nothing about that scrap of paper to induce a dying man to bestow upon it his last thoughts, to devote to it his last action. And yet if the deceased did not do this—and in the name of common sense can you believe that he did do it?—then the medical evidence will prove to you that the wound of which the unfortunate man died could not have been self-inflicted, and if not self-inflicted, gentlemen, by whom was it inflicted? By whom else than by the prisoner at the bar?
"A medical gentleman of repute will presently go into that box and swear that the wound could not have been inflicted by the deceased with his left hand alone. Ergo, if the deceased committed suicide, he must have used his right hand. But I am prepared to prove to you that the deceased could not have used his right hand—to prove it, that is to say, with a certain assumption. To return for a moment to that half sheet of paper. You will already have decided as a mere matter of common sense that the deceased did not devote his dying energies and efforts to possess himself of it, and that, gentlemen is the only assumption I need, for it would have been absolutely impossible for deceased to have held the pistol in his hand at the same time as that piece of paper, which was found uncrumpled and clenched by all the fingers.
"Then, gentlemen of the jury, what is the natural sequel of all this? It is that deceased could not have shot himself with or used his right hand, and that, therefore, he could not have shot himself at all. That is a simple statement of the case. I now propose, with your permission, to call the witnesses necessary to prove it."
"Call Ivan Penitchkoff!"
There was a movement amongst the officials around the witness box, and a straining of eyes amongst the spectators to catch sight of the principal witness for the prosecution. He answered at once to his name, and stepped quietly into the box—a tall, spare man, with a white beard cropped rather close, and white moustachios, with low forehead and bushy light eyebrows almost meeting over his bleared blue eyes. He was solemnly attired in black, and looked exactly what he was described as being, a respectable and faithful old servant. By his side stood the interpreter through whom his evidence was conveyed to the Court.
The customary oaths were administered, and then the junior counsel for the Crown rose, and, following exactly upon the lines laid down during the examination before the magistrates, drew from the witness very nearly the same replies. The learned gentleman resumed his seat, and instantly Philip rose in his place. Before commencing the cross-examination, however, he leaned over towards the judge.
"Your Lordship," he said, "I perceive that my learned brother in examining this witness for the prosecution has asked his questions in English, which the interpreter has communicated to the witness. I appeal to your Lordship, and I lay great stress upon the appeal, whether I may not reverse the rule—whether I may not ask the questions in French, which the interpreter can translate for the benefit of the Court, together with the answers of the witness. Your Lordship will understand that I wish the answers of the witness to be immediate replies to my questions."
The judge considered for a moment or two, and, though there was a lack of precedent, he decided that this was a reasonable request, provided that the jury had no objection. The foreman of the jury intimated that they were quite willing to acquiesce in the proposed arrangement, and thereupon his Lordship formally assented. Philip thanked him, and then turned round at once upon the man whom he believed to be plotting away the life of an innocent girl—turned upon him with none of the cheap arts of wary counsel, who with bland smile and suave manner seek to mislead an unsuspecting witness, but with every line in his stern face deepened, and with his heavy brows contracted over his piercing grey eyes, alight with intelligence.
"Ivan Penitchkoff, you were in the confidential service of the deceased, I believe?"
"For how many years?"
"For nearly forty."
"Can you tell me in what country you were when you were first engaged?"
The witness started palpably. The counsel turned to the jury as though asking them to note the fact.
"I do not remember. I am getting old."
"You do not remember! Impossible, sir! You must remember in what country you were. Was it in Europe?"
"It was in Paris."
"Indeed. I congratulate you upon the sudden recovery of your memory. And during all these years you have been his confidential servant and companion?"
"I have, sir; and none could have served a better master."
"You were very much attached to him?"
"I was; indeed, I was!"
There was a simple earnestness about that reply which convinced even Philip Rotheram, who thoroughly distrusted and disbelieved in his witness, of its truth.
"You would naturally feel some little jealousy at being suddenly displaced from your post of chief confidant to the deceased?"
"I had no one to be jealous of. None save myself was his confidant."
"You are sure of that, are you? Now, Ivan Penitchkoff, let me ask you this. What was the nature of those secrets which you shared with your late master?"
Ashen whiteness stole into the face of the witness, and for a moment he did not answer, gazing steadfastly into the face of his interrogator as though he would read his inmost thoughts. The silence in the Court was almost profound. Philip leaned a little closer over towards him.
"Shall I tell you, Ivan Penitchkoff, what those secret ties were—that common knowledge which bound you to your master?"
"For the love of God, no," answered the witness in a quick hoarse whisper, and he rolled heavily against the side of the box, as though about to swoon.
It had been a chance shot, but it had told. A slight smile of triumph was on the young barrister's lips as he turned towards the jury. Then he stood waiting while someone handed the witness a glass of water, and until he had recovered himself a little.
"Very well, sir," he recommenced. "You have acknowledged that a mysterious secret surrounded your master in which you shared. Now, answer me this. Do you know of any cause which might have led him to commit suicide?"
"None," firmly, but with a tinge of regret.
"Are you aware, Ivan Penitchkoff, that the young lady in the dock stands there accused of wilful murder, owing to your evidence?"
"I am, sir. But I have pledged my word to God to speak the truth."
"Then answer me truly. Had not your master had conveyed to him some time during the evening of October 1st bad news?"
"None, sir," was the sorrowful answer. "I repeat what I said just now, that I know of no possible consideration which could have prompted him to commit such an act. I knew him too well to believe him capable of it."
For almost the first time Philip Rotheram removed his eyes from the witness and glanced through his papers.
"You say that when you entered the salon after hearing the report, your mistress was holding the pistol in her right hand?"
The witness assented. "That was so."
"Is it not a fact that she (he studiously avoided the use of the word prisoner) was holding the pistol by the barrel, as though she had just picked it up from the carpet?"
The witness shook his head sorrowfully.
"It is not so. She held it by the butt."
"You will swear that?" And as he asked the question he bent over towards the prisoner with a keen, penetrating gaze.
"I will swear that," was the reply, reluctantly given, as though the witness felt himself bound in the cause of justice to give evidence which, if he could, he would have withheld.
"You were the only servant employed by the deceased?"
"It was part of your duty to brush and keep in order the sitting-room, the room known as the salon?"
"Do you remember that there was half a sheet of blank notepaper found in the dead man's hand?"
"Are you aware of the importance of that piece of paper?"
Again the witness blundered. He half repeated the question, and was evidently ill at ease.
"It was of no importance that I know of. It was only an old scrap."
"You cleaned and dusted the room you say. Did you never come across the corresponding half sheet?"
"Not to my recollection!"
"Has it not struck you as being somewhat curious that you did not do so—that no more of the same paper was found in the house?"
"Then you do not believe that the other half-sheet was torn off in the salon?"
It was altogether a sudden inspiration which prompted the question, but again the witness appeared ill at ease and nervous.
"I did not say so," he faltered.
"But you believe so?" sharply.
"I do not. I did not attach any importance whatever to the presence of a trifling piece of common paper," he added, recovering himself.
"But it is not common paper. It is foreign paper of peculiarly fine manufacture."
Another slight start, but no remark.
"Do you know where your master procured this foreign paper?"
"He brought some home with him from abroad."
"From abroad. Ah, you have travelled a good deal with him, haven't you?"
"In most of the countries of the globe."
"What was your late master's occupation?"
"He had none. He was a gentleman."
"Indeed! Then how did he interest himself—pass away his time?"
"In sport mostly."
"Ah! And can you tell me how it was that he found himself suddenly compelled to abandon his sporting proclivities and go into hiding?"
Another barely repressed start.
"We were not in hiding."
"Indeed! It was nothing else but hiding. And now, Ivan Penitchkoff, I ask you again to tell me the nature of that mysterious past which you shared with your master, and which bound you so closely together? I ask you what those secrets were?"
Then the witness scored.
"Monsieur," he said, with a gentle dignity, "they were purely personal, and he is dead I have no right to tell you, nor you to ask."
"Will you swear that it was not owing to something in connection with this past that your master committed suicide?"
"I will swear it. I have told you before that I know of no reason which could have induced my master to take his own life. You force me to repeat it, although God knows I would rather not."
"Upon your oath?"
"Upon my oath."
"Do you know whether deceased suddenly quitted the salon on the evening in question?"
"I do not." The witness here faltered slightly.
"Ah! Then you admit that he did leave it?"
"No. I did not say so. I did not hear him!"
"Will you swear that he did not?"
"I have sworn so before. I repeat it!"
"Let me ask you one more question, Ivan Penitchkoff, and I have done with you. Are you aware, do you clearly realise that your young mistress, against whom you are giving evidence, is in that dock on trial for her life?"
The old man turned his head away, and his voice shook. There was a murmur of sympathetic approbation throughout the court.
"I do, sir, and none is more sorry than myself to see her there. But the truth must be told."
Philip stood for a full minute with his papers in his hand, watching the witness as though about to ask him another question, watching him with the keen bitter light of scornful unbelief blazing in his grey eyes before which Ivan Penitchkoff visibly flinched. Then without another word he resumed his seat, and the witness stepped out of the box.
Dr. Thomson followed, and then Marlin, the detective, but from neither of these was anything fresh extracted. Then there was a short pause in the proceedings, during which whispers and significant glances passed backwards and forwards amongst the audience. The general impression was that things looked black against the prisoner. She had been leaning slightly forward in her chair, listening with keen interest to the evidence, but, save now and then during the cross-examination of Ivan Penitchkoff, her expression was inscrutable. She had caught, as many others had done, the withering glance of scornful disbelief which Philip had cast upon Penitchkoff as he left the box, and for a moment her heart had leaped for joy, and a smile had hovered upon her lips. One at least in that motley throng believed her innocent, and that one the man who was striving to save her. The thought was a strangely consoling one. It sustained and helped her to maintain an immutable and steadfast front. For a while, indeed, the steadfastness and gratitude which filled her eclipsed her fear and the consciousness of her terrible situation, so that she was indifferent to them, mindful only of him and his goodness to her.
The senior counsel for the Crown rose to wind up his case, which he did at no very great length. He evidently considered the charge proved, and calling for no very special effort on his part, and he merely pointed out, in terse and forcible language however, that his witnesses had upheld the case which he had enunciated to the jury at the outset. He bade them remember that a medical man of repute had given his sworn evidence that the wound could not have been self-inflicted, save and unless the deceased had used his right hand, and according to the evidence before them he could not have used his right hand unless in his dying grasp he had snatched at and secured that chance fragment of paper, and he left it to the jury to consider whether such a supposition was not ridiculous in the extreme. They would no doubt reject the theory of suicide as impracticable and untenable, and if he had met his death by another's hand than his own, by whom else could he have met with it save by the hand of her who declared that with own eyes she had seen him commit suicide? When they recollected the quarrel which deceased and prisoner had had during the earlier part of the day—her no doubt passionate temper chafed and goaded by the irksome mode of life to which her father's misanthropy of misfortune relegated her— her leaving the room twice in her anxiety to get the man Penitchkoff sent to his room and out of the way—when they considered the fact that she had herself caused to be loaded the pistol with which the deed was done, her defence "He shot himself," uttered in faltering tones before anyone had thought of accusing her, could they in reason doubt that the prisoner in the dock was guilty of this black deed? If they could honestly doubt it, then let them find her not guilty, and none would hear their verdict with greater satisfaction than himself. But from men of the world, from men of common sense, he knew very well that such a verdict was not possible, and it was with the deepest regret and the very strong conviction as to the nature of their verdict that he left the case in their hands.
He sat down, and there was the usual subdued murmur of voices amongst the audience, and rustling of papers at the benches of counsel. He had been moderate, moderate in the extreme, but he had made out a strong case, and there was only one opinion as to the verdict.
There was a slight stir in the court. The usher's sonorous voice appealed for silence, and the people in the back of the court craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the counsel for the defence. Erect, and with easy bearing, as, fluently, and with somewhat of a deprecating smile, he began his opening remarks, none would have supposed or have imagined that an oppressive sickening fear was gnawing at the very strings of his heart, and that his composed demeanour was only the result of stupendous effort. Yet if one who knew him well had sat by his side and watched him closely, they might have noticed something which they had never before had the opportunity of seeing in him. The twitching hands, the colour coming and going, and other signs of a like nature would have suggested to them that the speaker was struggling with a great nervousness. He commenced by complimenting the counsel for the Crown on the skilful manner in which he had stated his case, and fulfilled this part of his task with such empressement, that some of the jury began to wonder whether, after all, the expressions of regret and moderation, which had for the moment told with them, were not after all clever devices assumed, rather than, as was really the case, spontaneous and genuine feelings.
"He has made the best of what is, after all, a weak case," declared the young counsel, "and bolstered it up by inferences, by coadjuvancy, by suppositions, and assumptions, but it is my duty to tell you, to impress upon you, gentlemen, that in considering your verdict you must withdraw those suppositions and assumptions you must do without coadjuvancy, you must not make use of inferences, you must consider the facts, and nothing but the facts, and you will then decide, as absolutely as I have done, that there is nothing in these facts incompatible with the theory of suicide, and in accepting that, the true theory, you will find the young lady, whom misfortune and nothing but misfortune has placed in the dock, not guilty. Now is this the only weak phase, the only vulnerable joint in the chain of evidence which has been raked up against her. There are many other reasons which convince me that you will let her depart from this court free, and relieved by your verdict from the foul and most undeserved imputation which has been cast upon her. The evidence of circumstances is the most misleading, the least reliable, of any form of evidence, and you should hesitate long before you convict a fellow creature of so horrible a crime solely upon such testimony. Facts are stubborn things, I will admit, but the evidence of circumstances is scarcely the evidence of facts.
"We cannot look upon an array of circumstances and form a conclusive and incontrovertible judgment upon them. We need to know something further before we can rightly consider them. We need to know the influences which have so arranged them, and the conditions under which they so remain, and without such knowledge consideration of circumstances is after all merely groping in the dark. We know, or rather we do not know, for we have only been told by Ivan Penitchkoff, that this young lady did have some sort of a misunderstanding with the deceased at some time during the day of his death, and also that she did instruct the man Penitchkoff to retire for the night before his accustomed time, and we know that she was discovered by the side of the dead man with the pistol in her hands. We are told, too, of the exclamation to which she gave utterances at the time, but all these circumstances are not irreconcilable with the theory of her innocence, and, strange though they may seem, could we but find the clue, they might easily be explained. There is nothing save inference to link them together, and let me impress upon you that it is not by inference that you must decide that young lady's fate. Conviction alone, pure, solid conviction, must impel your verdict, and as sober-minded and practical men I feel sure that conviction strong enough for you to send her out of the world by a disgraceful death, and brand her name with eternal infamy, will not be created in your minds by inferential processes of reasoning."
He went on to quote cases in which the circumstantial evidence had seemed irresistible, but where a slight clue had dissipated and explained away the whole chain. He read extracts, drew conclusions, step by step retraced the evidence in the present case, pointing out its defects, was argumentative and reasonable, and the jury listened to him with grave and never failing interest.
"And now, gentlemen of the jury," he went on, folding up his notes, "a word or two as to the evidence of Ivan Penitchkoff. Far be it from me to take an unjust or even a pessimist's view of any man's virtues or general character, but this man's evidence, given in a faltering manner, through which shone occasionally a feverish desire to incriminate the unfortunate young lady in the dock, does not appear to me to be the evidence of a straightforward and truthful man. I know what thought has occurred to you gentlemen. You are asking yourselves what possible motive could this man have to induce him to act so fiendish a part to induce him to attempt to fasten so hideous a crime upon a young and innocent girl. I will do no more than remind you of the possibility, nay, of the probability, of jealousy in the mind of this old servant towards one who, in a certain measure, must have lessened his influence with his master. I will not suggest motives to you for such action on his part, nor should you seek for or consider them. You have not come here as philosophers to investigate into the inner workings of a sealed nature, at all times a precarious and uncertain task. You are here to consider the facts, to digest probabilities, and to view the case from a common-sense standpoint.
"The man Penitchkoff told you that his dead master never moved from the salon during the whole of that evening, and that he did not once blow his whistle, while the young lady in the dock most emphatically states that both these events did take place, and stated so, moreover, before their possible significance appeared. And the detective here, James Marlin, has told you in the most open manner that on hearing Ivan Penitchkoff's contrary statement to him, the young lady exhibited all the signs of genuine and unaffected surprise.
"Reflect, too, for a moment upon the strange life which the dead man led, on the mystery with which it was shrouded, and the peculiar connection which appears to have existed between Ivan Penitchkoff, the servant, and Mr. Frankfort, the master. What think you was the reason which demanded such secrecy and such careful hiding? An ever present fear of some sword of retribution, some detection, some recalling of the story of the past. Surely in one of these must lie the answer. And is there not in this reflection a suggestion of motive which at any time might drive a man to take away his life? Ivan Penitchkoff denies it. The secrecy, he says, was eccentricity. Supposing it was. Even then eccentricity so pronounced might have led him to take his own life. His life, Ivan Penitchkoff declares, in his feverish desire to incriminate his young mistress, was a happy one.
"Do you believe it, gentlemen? Do you believe that a man who thus buried himself, who never dared leave his home to breathe the pure air of heaven, or gaze upon the faces of his fellow creatures, who was debarred by a great fear from entering into any sort of society, who shunned all the haunts of men, and was cowed and weighed down by a sickening ever present fear of some resurrection of the past—do you believe that this was a happy life? You do not. You cannot. I read it in your faces. Neither do I believe it. Not one word of the evidence of this Ivan Penitchkoff, any more than I believe this unfortunate young lady to be guilty of the loathsome crime of which she stands accused."
No one had ever heard Philip Rotheram plead as he was pleading that day. The calm deliberation, the almost irritating coolness which were recognised as his chief characteristics had for the nonce vanished, and in their place had suddenly arisen all the fire and nervous force of genuine eloquence, the eloquence only attained by real and deep earnestness. His eyes were flashing with burning indignation against Ivan Penitchkoff as he denounced his evidence, and his air was that of a man rebutting and defending himself from personal attack or calumny. And when he turned involuntarily towards the prisoner with a gesture, which was in itself intensely dramatic, there was a real pity and tenderness in his tones, as with emphatic words he proclaimed his convictions as to her innocence.
"Remember, gentlemen of the jury," he continued, "what the moment of your verdict is to that young lady, and even were the evidence of circumstances far stronger than it is. I think you would hesitate before you found her guilty of wilful murder. Does her face seem to you the face of a murderess, her bearing when confronted with this terrible charge the bearing of an abandoned and callous woman? Oh! be very careful lest you allow yourselves to be deluded into a false conclusion, lest by a hasty and ill- considered verdict you trifle away a young and innocent life. Many of you, gentlemen, no doubt have daughters of your own as young as she is. Imagine them in her position, friendless in a strange country and in horrible danger, and let your memory of them induce you to be very jealous of suspicion, to be very careful before you arrive at a conclusion which shall either send her back amongst her fellows with her name unstained, or send her, the victim of circumstances ill-considered by you, to an awful end—cut short her life in the hey-day of youth and hope, and send her out of the world as surely murdered as this father of her's was not murdered."
There were unmistakable signs of what the reporters call "sensation" in the court as he paused, for the prisoner at last showed some signs of breaking down. She bent her head, hiding it within her hands, and one great convulsive sob shook her frame. The weakness was only momentary, however, and, as if with a great effort, she raised herself and resumed her former position, with her eyes riveted upon the man who was pleading with such passion for her life.
He went on speaking a little more quietly, but still with a deep intense earnestness, which was almost agitation, vibrating in his tones.
"I have no more to say to you, gentlemen. But when you presently retire to deliberate upon your verdict consider this, that if there exists in your mind the least doubt, and there surely must be a great deal of doubt, as to the guilt of the prisoner, it is your duty to give her the benefit of that doubt. And if you consider the case as I feel sure you will—if you allot the proper amount of importance, or rather unimportance, to the circumstantial evidence, and, neither more nor less than that proper amount—if free from bias and prejudice, from preconceived opinions based upon a superficial survey of an ingeniously woven-together thread of incidents which are really not connected; if, as men of clear understanding and common sense, and, too, as fathers and husbands, you jealously and carefully consider this hideous charge. I know, I feel convinced that you will at once decide not to run the risk of having the life of an innocent girl upon your consciences, but that you will let her go with the freedom of which she should never have been deprived. Let her go to thank God that in England the innocent need fear no damning by chance combination of circumstances whilst their cases are submitted to a tribunal which is not misled by such, and which has the acumen and perception to read between the lines and rescue the innocent even from the perils of false evidence, as well as from the incriminating but purely incidental and fortuitous combination of circumstances."
He had finished, and when he resumed his seat it needed all the stern frowns and admonitions of the pompous ushers to check a burst of applause from the body and back of the court. It is not the words alone, or the phrasing, but the voice, the action, the bearing, and even the mannerisms which move the hearts and cause to beat the pulses of the listener, and never in that or any of other court had man pleaded who longed more ardently to win from the jury their verdict, a longing which escaped from his eyes, which vibrated in his tones, and which showed itself in his gestures and in every movement of his body. He had not made a speech at the jury, he had spoken to them, and until the effect of his impassioned tones had died away, there was scarcely a man or woman in the court, who did not long for an acquittal.
At the commencement of the trial sympathy had not been with the prisoner. The chain of evidence was considered so complete, and the testimony of Ivan Penitchkoff so unimpeachable, that her guilt seemed manifest. But many changed their opinions after the address of the counsel for the defence. Gaily dressed ladies, leaders of society, hardened women of the world, pressed their lace handkerchiefs to their eyes, and felt something nearer akin to the luxury of emotion than they had felt for many a long day at the almost tragic sight of that young barrister pleading with the passionate eloquence which bespoke a swelling heart to those stolid-looking jurymen for the life of a fair young girl. Even the habitués of the court were, many of them, stirred for a moment out of their wonted nonchalance, and as a leading journal had it the next morning, the speech of the learned counsel for the defence created a profound sensation.
There was a little whispering between clerk and judge, a few formalities, a rustling of papers, and then his Lordship, leaning slightly over towards the jury, proceeded in clear incisive tones to sum up the case to them.
"Gentlemen of the Jury. Perhaps never in my experience has there been so little which it is my duty to say to you on so important and grave a case. The facts are clearly and lucidly laid before you by the counsel for the Crown, and I am bound to say that his synopsis of the case has been borne out by the evidence given. With regard to the defence, the prisoner has had the advantage of one of the most powerful and eloquent addresses which it has ever been my pleasure to listen to in this or any other court. My duties in putting this case before you are very slight, because there is no conflicting evidence for me to comment upon, nor is there any abstruse point on which my advice might be useful to you. The case lies in a nutshell. Do you or do you not believe the evidence of Ivan Penitchkoff, and of the medical gentleman who has told you that it was impossible for the deceased to have shot himself with his left hand? As far as regards this latter point I can see no reason for you to differ from Dr. Thomson. It seems to me that with the wound at such an angle (here his Lordship handed a diagram to the jury) it would have been utterly impossible for him to have shot himself with his left hand, and very difficult for him to have done it at all without using both. I am bound also to point out to you that a man committing suicide would not be likely to choose the back of his head from which to blow his brains out.
"The piece of paper found in the dead man's hand is a very curious phase in the case, and shows by what slight means crime may be detected. With regard to it you have to consider whether it would have been possible for deceased to have shot himself with this piece of paper in his hand, which must also have held the pistol, and in any case whether he would not have been more likely to have dropped it before securing the pistol. He could have had no reason for retaining it in his hand, and its possession must have incommoded him in his action, even if it were possible for him to carry it out without crumpling the paper, which I do not for one moment believe. On this matter, gentlemen of the jury, you will most likely decide that supposing deceased shot himself, he had not that piece of paper in his hand at the time, and in that case, following out the assumption of suicide, he must have snatched it up after the fatal shot. It is my duty to give you my opinion on this point, and I regret extremely to have to say that it seems to me both improbable and unlikely for a man in his death throes to commit so purposeless and insignificant an action.
"The learned counsel for the defence in his extremely able and exhaustive address, has cast a good deal of doubt upon the evidence of Ivan Penitchkoff. How far you will be inclined to go with him there I cannot tell. There certainly was some confusion manifest in several of his replies, and there is an element of mystery, of course, in his evident fear of certain secrets which existed between himself and his late master being dragged into light. These is no doubt that the antecedents and former life of the deceased have in them much of the mysterious, but I am bound to remind you that that is not a matter for your consideration. There is nothing tangible to connect them with the matter at issue, which is the death of Mr. Frankfort, and you must put them outside your consideration altogether, and in deciding upon your verdict they must not influence you.
"I must warn you, too, against being over-much impressed by the eloquent appeal to your sympathy of the learned counsel for the defence. You are here to aid at the impartial administration of justice, whether the prisoner be young or old, man or woman, beautiful or otherwise. You must not allow yourself to be led away—in fact, you must not for one moment allow your consideration to be diverted from the various points of the case by the sex, or personal appearance, or apparent guilt or innocence of the prisoner. If you find her guilty, such considerations might operate with you in adding to your verdict a recommendation to mercy, but the verdict itself they must not influence. The learned counsel for the defence was also very emphatic in reminding you of the dangers of trusting to circumstantial evidence, when uncorroborated by the evidence of persons, and there is no doubt considerable, if not absolute, truth in what he said on this matter, and by the cases which he quoted you have seen what extraordinary errors juries have at times fallen into when trusting wholly to such evidence. But the case before you is different to the majority of those which he quoted in this respect—that here the evidence of the external circumstances is supported by the evidence of the man Ivan Penitchkoff, and in a lesser degree by that of Dr. Thomson. And you must bear in mind that although the evidence of the circumstances alone might appear untrustworthy, and the evidence of the witnesses Ivan Penitchkoff and Dr. Thomson alone weak, yet when both are linked together, and the links fit exactly, they form strong evidence.
"You can have no weaker case, legally speaking, than one in which all the evidence is testimonial or all circumstantial, but when there is a little of each the case is materially strengthened, even though the units of evidence, so to speak, may not reach so high a quantum. Collusion between persons is comparatively easy, but between a person and an array of facts conspiracy is impossible, unless the whole of the testamentary evidence is a complete fabrication, built upon a perfect knowledge of and acquaintance with the circumstances. That is not so in this case, for even if you should be inclined to doubt the evidence of Ivan Penitchkoff, you cannot cast any imputation upon that of Dr. Thomson, and there are several instances of corroboration on his part, unimportant in themselves, but important so far as they prove at any rate that such part of the evidence of this man Penitchkoff as is capable of corroboration is corroborated and proved true.
"I am exceedingly reluctant to give you my personal opinion as to the trustworthiness of Ivan Penitchkoff's evidence, but I must advise you not to attach too much importance to his confusion when cross-examined as to the secret understanding which existed between him and his master. Whatever those secrets might have been, of however guilty a nature, the man Penitchkoff no doubt regarded them as sacred to the dead, and in refusing to disclose them he only acted the part of a dutiful and affectionate servant. No doubt, too, in your considerations as to the truthfulness of his evidence, it will occur to you to wonder what possible motive an old man could have in plotting to take away the life of a young girl, the daughter of a man whom he had faithfully served for nearly forty years, and who could never by any possibility have injured him. Jealousy was a motive hinted at by the learned counsel for the defence, but do you seriously imagine that such could have induced in the minds of any, save the very blackest of villains, so fell and diabolical a scheme.
"The only positive instructions which I can give you are these— that if you have any doubt as to the truth of Ivan Penitchkoff's evidence, you may find the prisoner not guilty. But if on the other hand you believe all the evidence which has been brought before you, you must then return a contrary verdict. I have given you all the help I can, gentlemen. Do not hurry in the consideration of your verdict, and I need scarcely say, satisfy yourselves thoroughly of the guilt of the prisoner, before you condemn that young woman to die. You will wish to retire, of course?"
A moment's whispering, and then the foreman stood up.
"If you please your Lordship," and accordingly the twelve men, themselves zealously guarded, filed out of the box, and were escorted by an usher to their retiring room.
The judge's summing up was certainly, on the whole, adverse to the prisoner, and everywhere in the court the speedy return of the jury was prophesied. Such seemed to be the universal opinion, and it floated about the court in subdued whispers, reaching more than once the ears of the two persons most interested in the decision. Iola Frankfort, with face as pale as death, and rigid features, was leaning slightly forward in her seat with her white fingers clenched tightly together, waiting with a deep intensity of expectation, betrayed by her constant restless glances towards the door, for the return of the men who bore in their hands her fate. Now and then her glance was intercepted by some curious gaping starer, and then she would draw herself up a little more erect, and a proud look would flash for a moment in her eyes. As time wore on, however, she became used to being the cynosure of all observers, and her eyes would travel over the heads of the curious mob with a placid indifference shining out of their blue depths, which induced more than one of the reporters to scribble down a note as to the apparent nonchalance of the prisoner pending the arrival of the verdict.
Philip Rotheram had never once moved from the seat into which he had subsided on the termination of his impassioned address. His head was bent as though intent upon studying the papers which were stretched out before him, but a close observer would have noticed that his eyes never moved from a fixed and steadfast gaze, and would have judged from his heavy frown and tightly compressed lips that he was awaiting the verdict of the jury with an eagerness only second to the prisoner.
Several of his fellow-barristers stopped as they passed him on their way out, and whispered congratulations on the success of his election, and also on his wonderful pleading. But he answered them only mechanically, and in response to the question, was he not coming out to stretch his legs, he merely shook his head.
"Something's up with Rotheram," was the universal remark amongst the bewigged and begowned fraternity as they strolled up and down the corridor in couples, or stood about in little groups inside the room set aside for their use.
"By Jove, if I'd just pleaded in that style, I should be in slightly better spirits than he appears to be," remarked one of the briefless youngsters who was lounging on the table.
"I tell you what I think about it, Jack," struck in another, "I believe Rotheram was in downright earnest, you know; meant every word he said. He must either know the girl or else be suddenly smitten by her!"
A general murmur of dissent and incredulity was at once manifest. "Rotheram's not that sort of fellow," was the almost unanimous opinion.
"Well, anyhow, if he is, I'm sorry for him," continued the first speaker, "for after old Grannie's summing up she hasn't a ghost of a chance. Devilish good looking girl, you know. Can't wonder at any fellow being a bit gone on her. I feel a bit queer myself when I think of her probable destination, hanged if I don't," and he patted with a complacency which denied his words that part of his waistcoat under which the heart is supposed to perform its functions.
There was a laugh amongst his confrères, for Jack Ellington was notorious for a decided penchant towards the fair sex, which a good-natured impressionability had rendered proverbial.
"Pity you couldn't have defended her yourself, old man; got her triumphantly acquitted, you know, and then persuaded her to bestow her hand as a reward upon her talented preserver, eh? I declare there's a good deal of romance to be knocked out of a law court even!"
"Shouldn't wonder if that wasn't Rotheram's little game," laughed Jack.
"Not it. He scarcely even looked at her. Besides, I heard yesterday that he was engaged to his cousin Lady Frances Clanningham. You remember her, don't you Jack? Nice looking little thing, with lots of tin. Wish I were in his place, but some fellows seem to have all the luck."
Jack was unconvinced. "Cousins be hanged," he declared emphatically. "I flatter myself that I know the symptoms as well as any one. I ought to, anyhow. I've had 'em often enough. 'Tisn't easy, I know, to tell whether a man's in earnest, or only sticking it on, when he's pleading, but I wouldn't mind betting anything you like that Rotheram was in downright, deadly earnest this afternoon. Why, clever fellow though he is, he isn't got it in him to put all the side on he did in his wind up."
"Well, he's gone up a peg or two, anyhow. Wonder how long those fellows are going to be making up their minds?" yawned the other.
The barristers gossiped, the judge yawned, the people began to get restless, and hope, almost crushed out of Philip Rotheram's heart, began to revive as the minutes grew into hours and the jury did not return into court. The calculations of the knowing ones were all upset, for long before this they had expected to have heard the judge deliver the dread sentence of death. But as time went on, and the jury still remained locked up in their retiring room, there were whispers of a disagreement, easily credited in the view of their long absence, and the excitement in the court became more and more intense as grew the possibilities, which had been deemed nil, of an acquittal. At twenty minutes to nine precisely, after nearly four hours' absence there was a sudden stir, and then a deep eager silence. The foreman of the jury had a communication to make to the judge. He desired to intimate that the jury were not able to agree upon a verdict.
The Judge preserved a perfectly impassive countenance, and gave no sign of surprise or displeasure. Perhaps he was not altogether sorry to be spared the solemn duty of drawing on the black cap, and repeating those few fatal words to the fair trembling girl in the dock.
"Is there any part of the evidence upon which you are not clear?" he asked. "You can have the depositions read over again if you like."
The foreman shook his head.
"I am very sorry, my lord," he said, "but there is not the slightest chance of our agreeing if we were locked up for a week."
The Judge made no further remark, but entered into a whispered conversation with the clerk of arraigns.
Presently he looked up.
"The case must be re-tried before a fresh jury. The present jury are dismissed."
And thus ended the first stage of the Frankfort murder case.
Owing to a very heavy calendar, and a variety of other causes, nearly a fortnight must lapse before Iola could again be put on her trial, and to Philip Rotheram that brief period seemed like a blessed respite, although to her, ignorant as she was of his efforts on her behalf, for he made no attempt to see her, it seemed like a wearisome prolongation of a period of intense misery. One and all of the daily papers were unanimous in condemning that faction of the jury whose stubborn refusal to coincide with a verdict of guilty had necessitated a fresh trial, and when it began to be whispered about that the dissentient faction had consisted of one man only, they were still louder in their abuse and heaped all manner of opprobrious epithets upon his obstinate head. It was a striking manifestation of the defects of trial by jury, they declared, that one pig-headed man, influenced no doubt by extraneous circumstances, such as the youth and beauty of the prisoner, should close his eyes to the facts of the case, and his ears to the arguments and demonstrations alike of the judge and of his fellow jurymen, and by his individual action cause the whole thing to be gone through again at a further waste of public time and money.
On the morning after the trial Philip received the following telegraphic despatch from Simpson:—
HAVE DISCOVERED MADAME DE MEUILLIS. SHE ACCOMPANIES ME TO ENGLAND. WE REACH PARIS TO-NIGHT, WATERLOO TO-MORROW.
This was almost the first gleam of real hope which Philip had had since the commencement of the trial. Not only had this aunt of Iola Frankfort's been found, but she was coming straight to England to do what she could for her niece. From her he might hope to hear the history of the dead man, and it seemed to him very possible that it might afford him some clue towards the elucidation of what was to him, convinced of Iola's innocence, a most profound mystery. He took up his pen, and dashed off a hasty note to Mr. Barton, appraising him of the expected arrival, and despatched it, not without some slight sensation of triumph, for the lawyer had scarcely affected to conceal his disbelief in Iola's story of her early life, and even in the existence of Madame de Meuillis, whoever she might be.
This note despatched, he remembered another, which he was bound in common decency to write, and after a good deal of hesitation, he managed to put together a few sentences, although the result was anything but an adequate return for the time and thought which he had bestowed upon it.
The Temple, Nov 18.
Mother will no doubt have explained to you the reason why I have been unable to run down to Sorchester, as I promised, and as Parliament meets on Thursday, I fear that I shall not be able to do so now for some little time.
Any commissions which I could execute for you in town I should be most happy to undertake, and hope to have the pleasure of seeing you again soon.
P.S.—I called at Cadogan-square as I passed the other day, and found your house shut up. Groves told me that Lord Clanningham is not expected home until after Christmas, so I must write him as to our engagement.
This could not by any possible stretch of imagination be termed a very lover-like epistle. There was no mention in it of the future, no allusion to the past, not a single assurance of affection, even of remembrance, and surely a woman has a right to expect something of this sort from the man whom she has promised to marry. It was a short polite note, such as might very well pass between chance acquaintances, but considering their relative positions she thought it almost affrontingly cold, as with a keen pang of disappointment she replaced it in the envelope, and took her seat at the breakfast table.
"From Philip?" asked Mrs. Rotheram, and Lady Frances nodding, pushed it across the table towards her.
Mrs. Rotheram adjusted her eye-glasses, and read it at once. Anything from her son was always interesting to her, but even she, when she had perused it, blinded though she was with affection for the writer, could not help instantly acknowledging that it was scarcely the letter which under the circumstances should have been written.
"He doesn't seem to have much to say even to you," she remarked, as she handed it back again. "But then, he never was fond of writing letters, and he must have a great deal to occupy him just now."
Lady Frances made no remark, but she decided that she was glad her cousin was not coming down to Sorchester for awhile. She was angry with herself for being glad, but her anger did not alter the case. She felt that she ought to teach herself to look forward to his coming, and trouble at his going away, to feel pleasure in his company, and grief during his absence. But she also felt that the lesson would be an extremely difficult one, unhelped as she would be by any spontaneous impulse. It was not altogether a satisfactory reflection, either, that those few latter days at the Elms had been by far the most pleasant which she had ever spent there. She could not help remembering in how many ways Philip's presence had seemed almost like a restraint upon her. She had been all the time under a continual necessity of governing her actions in such a manner that they should be most pleasing to him, and this, the most pleasing task which a woman can undertake when the consciousness of such necessity is prompted by her affection, is surely the most miserable when it proceeds solely from a sense of duty. The affection too, which she deemed certain to be evoked in her by the continual contemplation of his personal virtues was very slow in coming, and during these few days of his absence she had tried in vain to trace its growth, or to become conscious of the slightest possible sign of its approaching existence.
But for her qualms of conscience and her nervous apprehensions as to the future those days were in themselves far from unhappy ones. Ruth was away in Manchester at a great training school for hospital nurses, whose kindly profession it had always been her strong desire to adopt; Beatrice had many friends and trivial engagements, which took her often away from home, and Lady Frances, when, as was generally the case, she did not care to accompany her cousin, was left a good deal to the society of Mrs. Rotheram, but really to George's.
For reasons of his own, and very serious ones they were, he would have avoided her if possible, but under the circumstances he could not, and so when he realised the position he braced himself up with a great effort, and determined to stand his ground. She was, most unfortunately, the woman he loved, but she was also his brother's affianced wife, between whom and him nothing save friendship was possible. And so he determined to treat her like an ordinary guest, and bury his secret in the furthest depths of his own consciousness. But in moments of reflection he did not find much cause to congratulate himself upon his progress; on the contrary, he was frequently startled to remember how she had led him on to talk of himself and his interests, and how when, as he often did, he had commenced to dilate upon Philip's good qualities and abilities, the subject had seemed almost distasteful to her, and she had, without his noticing it at the time, led him from it to talk more about his own life and doings. Of what real interest could they be to her, he wondered a little bitterly, and why had she led him on to talk of them and forget for a while that it was Philip's life and career which must be useful to her, and not his less brilliant but possibly more useful one? It was kindly meant of her, no doubt, very kindly, but none the less it was keen pain to him afterwards to reflect how easily he had been led to drop his brother's name from the conversation, and to talk of their two selves as though none other were of any interest to them. And after a while it happened that the reproaches of his conscience, the tension of his feelings, and a naturally delicate constitution worked together towards the inevitable end. He fell ill.
Dr. Brandon who was called in to attend him, noted his symptoms with some surprise and a good deal of concern.
"Overwork!" was his decision in the sick room. "Must be kept perfectly quiet, and without worry or excitement, or there will be mischief."
Down in the morning room, with Mrs. Rotheram he was more explicit.
"Your son is in a most critical state," he said gravely. "This attack must have been coming on for some time. In fact, all the symptoms point to brain fever, and we must guard against that with every effort. In his shattered state there would be danger, great danger."
"There is none at present?" Mrs. Rotheram asked, anxiously.
"At present, no. But there may be in a later stage of his illness, that is, if his illness develop as I fear it may. There has been some great mental strain! Do you know of anything that could have been weighing upon his mind? Any trouble?" he added slowly.
Mrs. Rotheram shook her head in bewilderment. She knew of none, did not imagine that there could be any. He was reserved, it was true, but his life was so simple a one that she could not imagine anything of trouble coming to him unknown to her. No, there must be some other reason for this illness—some purely physical disorder.
The days passed on, and he grew neither better nor perceptibly worse, but the doctor's visits became more frequent, and his manner more anxious.
"I am convinced that your son is in some great trouble," he declared to Mrs. Rotheram, but she protested that it was impossible.
No one was more grieved than Lady Frances at his illness. She had never before realised how much she had depended upon his society, and what a lack of interest there was in life at the Elms without him. She was eager to take her share in the nursing, and begged for leave to sit with him, but she was deeply pained to be met with his point-blank refusal. He would rather be quiet, was his reply to her request, conveyed through Mrs. Rotheram, and on another occasion his head was too bad for him to see anyone. She could not understand it in the least, for their friendship had been a very pleasant one to her, and she had never doubted that it had been genuine. And now, at that time when a woman's presence is generally supposed to be most grateful and pleasant, he declined even to see her. At first she was astonished, then indignant, and finally hurt. Her pride came to her aid, and she made no further offer of her services. But she was more unhappy than she would have liked to own to anyone save herself.
At four o'clock on the second day after the trial, a hansom drove up to the Temple gates, and hastily dismissing the cabman, Simpson hurried into his employer's presence.
"Has she come?" were Philip's first words.
"We've travelled night and day, sir," he said dropping into a chair, "I've left her at the Continental Hotel in Piccadilly, and came straight on here. She will see you as soon as ever you like. The sooner the better, she told me to say."
"Can she help us, do you think?"
Simpson shrugged his shoulders.
"She is mysterious," he said. "She will tell me nothing, but when I declared my mission, and told her all about it, she was in a terrible way. I thought that she was going to faint right off. 'I knew that harm would come of it. I will go to England with you, and see your master.' That's all she said. And except a few necessary remarks about the journey, those are the only words I've heard her speak. Wonderfully close old lady she is!" he concluded with a shade of professional admiration in his tones. Silence in a woman was a virtue indeed, and with a sigh he contrasted the failings of his own better half with the admirable reticence of his late travelling companion.
An hour later Philip and Mr. Barton were shown into a private sitting-room at the Continental Hotel, and before they had had time to exchange many remarks, the lady for whom they had inquired, Madame de Meuillis, entered the room.
She was a rather short but erect little woman, dressed in the deepest black, her only ornament a plain cross, which hung from the neck by a long chain of white ivory links. Her hair was grey, almost white, but there was an abundance of it, carefully parted and lying on the top of her head in wavy folds. She was of a pale complexion, with dark eyes, a gentle expression, now clouded over with deep anxiety. Such was Philip Rotheram's first and by no means unpleasant impression of Madame de Meuillis.
"Monsieur Rotheram," she asked quickly, looking from one to the other of the two men, and Philip stepped a little forward and bowed.
"This is Mr. Barton," he exclaimed, turning towards his companion, "the solicitor acting on behalf of your niece, Miss Frankfort."
She acknowledged the lawyer's bow with a graceful, old- fashioned courtesy. Then Philip offered her a chair, and seated himself opposite, again addressing her in his usual manner-of- fact tones, which, however, became more animated as he proceeded.
"I presume, Madame de Meuillis," he began, "that you yourself are much interested in this unfortunate young lady, Miss Frankfort, or you would not be here. Be so good as to believe the same of us. I am firmly convinced of her innocence, but she has been the victim of circumstances which certainly have woven a strong chain of evidence against her;" and in a few words he told the story of Mr. Frankfort's death, whilst Madame de Meuillis listened eagerly.
"My own conviction is," he proceeded, "that Mr. Frankfort committed suicide, and I want to be in a position to convince the jury that such was the case when the trial comes on again. To do this I must discover the motive, and in order to trace back for a motive, I want to know every possible incident of the dead man's career, and especially what that mystery was which surrounded him and caused him to live in such seclusion. I also want to know more about this man Penitchkoff, the servant, who, I am convinced, gave false evidence at the trial. You are the only person, madame, of whom we had any knowledge, likely to be in a position to give us any assistance, and besides, as being the early instructress, and I believe the relative, of Miss Frankfort, I had no doubt that you would wish to know of her trouble and danger. Therefore I sent for you, and if you wish to save your niece you will tell me every particular concerning the late Mr. Frankfort, and every single incident of his life with which you may be acquainted."
There was a brief silence after Philip had concluded his explanation. Then she looked up and spoke.
"Monsieur," she said emphatically, "your conviction is mine. I know that Iola, my sister's child, could never have committed, or dreamed of committing, such a barbarous act. I know her better than anyone. I brought her up. I have been a mother to her, and I know she would sooner have died herself than have done this thing. Her own father, too! The idea is preposterous," and she looked into the faces of her two listeners with a sparkle of indignation in her dark eyes.
Philip bowed assent "So I think, madame," he said. "We are agreed there. But we must not overlook the fact that circumstances seem almost to have conspired against her, and our convictions concern ourselves only. The question is, how are we to prove her innocence? Mr. Frankfort without doubt committed suicide, but why? For my part, I do not for a moment doubt that it was to escape from some danger, a threatened evil, arising out of his mysterious past. Can you help us by letting us know what that past was?"
"Monsieur, all that I know you shall know," she said simply. "But there is one thing," and she leaned forward towards the two men in a confidential attitude and lowered her voice.
"All that I know I will tell you without reserve," she went on, "but first I must have your word of honour, messieurs, that unless I consent not one word is repeated outside this room. It may become necessary in order to save her life, and then I shall consent. But if there appear other means, or if part may be withheld, why then, messieurs, I shall hold you to your promise. You agree?"
Both men immediately signified their assent, and Mr. Barton began to feel conscious of a greatly increased interest in this case.
She pondered for a moment or two, as though doubtful how to commence.
"Messieurs," she said, at last, looking up, "I shall tell you the story of my own life. You will learn from it all that I can tell you on this subject. My rather was an avocat in a quiet country town, in the west of France. He was one of the younger sons of a noble family, but he had displeased and alienated himself from his relations, both by the profession which he adopted and by his marriage, although my mother was of gentle birth. I had one sister only. She was Iola's mother."
"My father, by means of some fortunate speculation, became wealthy, very wealthy, and consequently we, his daughters, were large heiresses, but until his death, ah! mal jour! we had neither of us ever entered Paris. Well, he died when Marie was nineteen and I was twenty-one, and my mother, who was always delicate, only survived him a week or two. My father's relations had never acknowledged us, but immediately after my mother's death, an old aunt of his, a worldly and eccentric old lady, herself on bad terms with the rest of the family, appointed herself our protectress, and took us to live with her at Paris. Under her care we saw something of society, and being large heiresses she seemed to take pleasure in chaperoning us, although by so doing she lost altogether the favour of her relations, who neither then nor at any subsequent time acknowledged her."
"Marie, my sister, was gay and fond of change and life. These glimpses of life in the faubourg were paradise to her—to me, who cared very little for such things, they were wearisome.
"Marie had plenty of suitors, but she treated them all alike until one night at a ball, she met a Polish nobleman—pardon me his name for the present. He was young, handsome, but almost a pauper, and all Paris was talking of the cruel manner in which he had been wronged—his estates confiscated, which his fore- fathers had held for centuries, and himself driven forth an exile on the mere chance suspicion of having, whilst a student been concerned in some political conspiracy. He figured admirably as a hero of romance, and his burning hatred of the county which had so cruelly wronged him was readily excused under the circumstances. He was pitied and admired, but he was too high spirited to find comfort in the former, and too much of a man to care for the latter. Paris made a little god of him; he was the fashion, and the women all raved about this handsome young Pole, but he seemed indifferent to all until he met Marie.
"There is no need to make a long story of it—they fell in love with each other. What more natural! My aunt was furious. She had desired above all things that Marie and I should marry into noble French families, and the match was odious to her. Marie was as firm as a rock, however, and I was easily won over to her side, and upheld her choice. So my aunt renounced us both. I went into a convent near Paris, it had always been my wish, and Marie married this young Polish nobleman, and they lived in Paris, where I saw them occasionally. Marie had inherited all our mother's weakness of constitution, and soon after the birth of her child, Iola, she gradually sank, until twelve months afterwards she died. On her death-bed she implored me with an earnestness which I then thought strange, but which I afterwards better understood, to watch over her child as though it were my own, and to guard her from all possible danger. Of course I gave her my solemn promise.
"After the funeral my brother-in-law sought me with a request that I would take charge of the child for awhile, and I assented willingly. It was easy for me to comply with his request, for the convent to which I had repaired on leaving Paris was in a decayed state, poverty stricken, and with half of my fortune I had restored it. The sisters were grateful, and in a very short time although I wished not for the honour, I was appointed superior, and so I took the child Iola there, wondering much at the promise which her father exacted from me, that I should tell no one, not even herself, her name or parentage, lest, he said with a sad smile, he should find it difficult at some future time to see her. I promised, for without that promise he would not leave her with me, and then he left Paris, and I took the infant child down with me to the convent, which was my home.
"Occasionally I heard from him, from all parts of Europe the letters were dated, but my replies, which he always begged me to let him have promptly, were all sent to an address in Paris to be forwarded. She, Iola, was five years old before he visited her, and up to that time she had never seen to remember either father or mother.
"Then in the dead of one winter's night a carriage and four horses dashed up to the convent gate, and impatient hands clanged the rusty hollow- pealing old bell. It was he who sought admittance, but at first I did not know him, for he had on a false beard and hair, and he seemed to have aged strangely during so short a time.
"'The child,' he exclaimed hurriedly, almost as soon as he passed into the gates, 'let me see her,' and I brought Iola down to him in her nightdress, and almost disposed to cry at being so suddenly disturbed. She was not a bit frightened, however, and I let them alone for half an hour.
"When I returned she was sitting on his knee with her arms around his neck, and he seemed much affected. Directly he saw me though he put her down with her little bare feet upon the floor, and rose. 'I must go now,' he said hastily. 'I have not a moment to lose, Élise,' he added, taking my hand as we stood together on the threshold, 'may God reward you for your goodness to her! I am in danger, great danger. It may blow over, or it may not. If anything happens to me take care of her.' And impressed by his solemn manner, almost to tears, I promised him that she should always be to me as my own child. He grasped my hand and then another man sprung out of the chaise and hurried him away. It was nearly six years before I saw him again."
She paused for several moments to collect her thoughts, and the two men, deeply interested, exchanged a rapid glance.
"Iola was eleven years old," Madame de Meuillis continued, "before she saw her father again, but the memory of his first visit never left her, and she often talked of him. His letters had ceased for more than twelve months, when again, in the middle of the night, there came a soft knocking at the convent door, and when I was aroused it was her father who awaited me. He wore a dark riding suit, and from head to foot was splashed with mud and dirt, whilst his horse, which he had tied to the railings was covered with foam, and quivering in every limb. Again, too, he was disguised, but when he drew off his false moustaches I was shocked to see his haggard face and the anxious gleam in his eyes. But he gave me little time to notice his altered appearance.
"'The child! Iola! quick,' he cried, and hastily dressed, she hurried down to him, and again I left them alone. In barely ten minutes he summoned me, and with a passionate embrace pushed the child gently from him."
"He took me on one side that she might not overhear."
"'The chances are,' he said rapidly, 'that I shall never see either her or you again. Search the papers for my fate. This day week all Europe will ring with my name. Watch over her, and may God reward you'; and then he rushed from the room, and I heard him gallop away, leaving me half stupefied by his strange words."
"He spoke the truth. In a week's time all the papers were full of the discovery of a desperate Nihilist plot and the extraordinary escape of the Czar. The leader and originator of that plot messieurs," she said, leaning forward, and dropping her voice almost to a whisper, "was Iola's father, and his name—once more let me remind you of your promise!" The two men nodded, and then she breathed softly a name which made Philip spring to his feet, and Mr. Barton lean back in his chair, half paralysed with astonishment.
"A bomb cast between the two men could not have more effectually astounded them, for all through Europe, indeed all through the civilised world, the name she whispered had become the symbol of all that was noble and daring and romantic in modern conspiracy. He had been in some respects the tool of a fanatical body of men, but his motives had not been their motives, nor had they suffered as he had suffered the biter pangs of unjust oppression. Rather in admiration than loathing, in pity than hate, was held the name of that very prince of conspirators who had appeared to vanish from the face of the earth after the tragical failure of his daring plot. They both repeated the name, and half fearfully she raised her finger.
"Hush! Let me finish now. You have no doubt heard that, though all Europe and America were ransacked for him, not the slightest clue as to his whereabouts was ever discovered. Nor was that very much to be wondered at, for all that time he spent hiding in the most remote parts in India, Persia, Africa and South America.
"From all these places I heard from him. The first letter I had was from Capetown. It was very guarded in its contents, but begged for news of Iola. I wrote him continually, and enclosed letters from her, which he always answered, although his answers were short, and alluded neither to the past, nor the future. About two years ago, at noon, a closed carriage drove up to the convent, and he descended and entered. He needed no disguise, for even I found it hard to believe that I saw again the dashing young Polish nobleman in that weary looking, grey-haired old man. But it was so, and when he spoke I knew him at once. He had had news from a trusted source that the search for him had been abandoned.
"He had been supposed, all the world had now supposes him, to have committed suicide in Vienna six years ago, but that was a ruse on the part of his confederates to enable him to return to Europe in safety, and the body identified as his was falsely sworn to by paid spies. So, weary of wandering, and trusting also to his altered appearance he had come back to live, for awhile at any rate in Europe. My heart sank when he told me that he wanted Iola; but she was his daughter and I could not complain. She knew him again, and was quite willing to go, so he left us for a brief while only to decide where it would be best and safest for him to dwell.
"In a week's time he returned. He had bought a house in London, he said, and he had come to fetch Iola. For three years, he told me, he should keep her, and then he promised that I should have her back again for awhile, but in the meantime there was to be no correspondence, to which condition, knowing his reasons, I was bound reluctantly to consent. Iola was absolutely ignorant of all the secrets of her father's life, for we had both agreed that it was better and safer not to trouble her with them. They went away, and I did not even know in what part of London they were living. I had given up the convent, and was living quietly near my old home when you clerk brought me these terrible tidings. I started with him at once—and—voila tout!"
There was quite a lengthy silence after she had concluded. Both Philip and Mr. Barton felt completely bewildered by her strange story, and she sat looking anxiously into their faces as though to read their thoughts.
"Do you know anything of the servant, Ivan Penitchkoff?" asked Mr. Barton, breaking the silence.
She shook her head. "Very little, except that he knew all his master's history, and accompanied him everywhere. He was with— Mr. Frankfort shall we continue to call him—when he first came to Paris, before he married my sister, and I have heard that he was a servant upon his estate. Twice he accompanied his master on his hurried visits to the convent, but he always remained outside, as though keeping watch. I never liked him, but I believe that he was deeply attached to his master, and had saved his life several times."
The lawyer asked a few more questions, but they led to nothing, and presently Philip rose abruptly from his chair and held out his hand. "Madame," he said as he stood ready to depart, "you have helped us, helped us very considerably by the story which you have told us. But before we can decide in what way to make the best use of your information we must think it over for awhile, and Mr. Barton and I must have a little conversation. You are tired, no doubt, with your rapid journey. We will leave you now, and see you again to-morrow morning."
"You will take no steps with regard to what I have told you without acquainting me?" she asked anxiously.
"None. You may depend upon that," Philip assured her.
"And you will see me in the morning?"
"Without fail, madame," he assured her gravely, and then with a stately courtesy, she dismissed them.
Mr. Barton had asked Philip to dine with him on the evening of their first introduction to Madame de Meuillis, but Philip, for a variety of causes, had remained firm to his first refusal, and went straight home from the Continental Hotel to his chambers. Here he had a solitary cutlet and his usual two glasses of claret—no man was more uniformly moderate than he—and afterwards strolled idly out into the streets with his pipe still in his mouth.
It was a strange impulse which had hold of him, an impulse which he was not a little ashamed of while he yielded to it, but in a short time he found himself walking steadily northwards. Before very long he was in Ardinge-street, and stood in front of the low, gloomy-looking house lately made interesting to the passers-by as the scene of an awful tragedy.
Save himself there was no one in the street, and after a few moments' hesitation he crossed the road and leaned over the gate, gazing in at the dark blank windows of the house, and at its dull heavy outline. It was here that he had first seen Iola Frankfort, and in the fit of abstraction which took possession of him as he idly leaned over the gate and puffed steadily at his meerschaum, he fancied that he almost heard the sound of her rustling draperies, and detected the faint sweet perfume which, even in that fairy-like chamber, where the air was heavy with all manner of strange odours, he had easily distinguished. How strange, he thought, that such an adventure should have come to him of all men, and that he should have conceived so absorbing an interest in this fair, stately girl, as to constitute himself her champion and defender. It was a very romantic episode this, to have stolen into his hard prosaic life so insidiously, as to have wound itself around and engrossed all his thoughts until everything else had given place to it. It was the cause of innocence in peril which so appealed to him, he assured himself. Let that be established, let her be saved from this horrible danger, and other thoughts of other things would soon regain their importance to him, and there would exist only faint recollections of this blue-eyed girl, who for a time—he was sure that it was but for a time—had changed thus his whole nature, had overcome the determinations of a strong mind, and received a monopoly of his whole thoughts.
Hark! What was that? The sound of a distant footstep had broken in upon his thoughts, and he listened for a moment intently. Had it been the sound of an ordinary regular footfall he would have one on his way and never even glanced behind, but the approaching presence was evidently in a state of nervous agitation, for the steps seemed shuffling and stealthy, every now and then ceasing altogether. As Philip listened the idea occurred to him that the person who was approaching was in fear of pursuit or surveillance. Without a moment's hesitation he pushed open the unfastened gates and secreted himself behind a thick shrub a little on one side of the path.
The footsteps drew near, reached the gate within a couple of yards of which Philip Rotheram stood back in obscurity, and halted there. There was a short silence, as though the new comer were hesitating whether or no to enter. Presently the gate creaked, and a man stepped along the garden path, and slowly made his way down towards the side door. No characteristic of his personal appearance could be discerned, for although the night was mild, he wore a long ulster and cape, and a thick muffler shielded the lower part of his face.
At the side door he halted, and after a stealthy glance around drew something which flashed like silver in the moonlight from his pocket, and with it gave a long low whistle with peculiar vibrations, ending in a flute-like note. Three times he whistled, and suddenly Philip, who was crouching behind the shrubs, remembered with a start the description which Iola had given of that curious whistle on the night of her father's death.
There was no answer to the summons, for such it seemed to be, and after waiting awhile the man slowly retraced his steps towards the gate, with more than one backward glance at the gloomy deserted house. This time Philip saw something of his face, but not much. He saw a pair of fierce- looking black eyes, filled with an anxious haunted light, a savage scowl of disappointment, and a heavy frown of dark eyebrows, and he heard him mutter between his teeth, as he cautiously unfastened the gate, "Mille diables, Ivan est perdu."
Then in the same stealthy manner as he had come, only a little more rapidly, he turned out into the street and disappeared.
Philip's first idea had been to boldly accost this mysterious visitor, but second thoughts induce him to alter his mind. He had come on the chance of seeing Ivan, that was clear, and not having seen him he would come again. So Philip waited until he was out of sight and hearing, and then rising from his cramped position with a decided sensation of relief he hurried off to Mr. Barton's house to acquaint him with this discovery, and consult with him.
"If anything had been needed to strengthen my convictions of Miss Frankfort's innocence," he said decidedly to his friend about half an hour later, "this would have been sufficient. There is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that Mr. Frankfort blew his whistle in answer to the man whom I have seen to-night, and very little doubt but that this man brought him news which caused him to destroy himself."
"It certainly seems to be pointing that way now," the lawyer admitted, "but how about the man Penitchkoff, eh? What the mischief is he trying to swear the girl's life away for? Seems absurd on the face of it. Such a respectable old fellow as he appears, and must be, to have lived with his master for forty years! He swore positively that no whistle sounded, you know, and that his master never left the salon. How do you account for that, eh?"
"Even that is beginning to grow clearer to me," said Philip thoughtfully. "But about to-morrow night?"
"Well, I suppose we'd better have the house watched, and when your mysterious friend arrives upon the scene, he can be arrested—that is, if he turns up again."
Philip shook his head disapprovingly.
"A lot of good that would do, Barton! Why, the fellow, of course, would deny everything, and swear that he was there merely out of curiosity. No, no; that won't do at all! If the police get hold of the fellow his mouth will be closed at once, and will remain closed, and this chance will be thrown away."
The lawyer shrugged his shoulders.
"What do you propose doing then?" he asked.
"I shall manage the affair myself," Philip declared.
Mr. Barton's countenance betrayed the disapprobation which he did not express in words. This sort of thing was very unprofessional.
"You won't be able to plead for her again, you know, Rotheram, if you get mixing yourself up with the case like this," he contented himself with saying.
"I don't want to," Philip answered, quietly. "I expect now to make her innocence so manifest that no pleading will be required. I see a very good chance of it, and etiquette or no etiquette, I mean to try it myself by myself."
Mr. Barton smoked on in silence, and offered no further opposition. Knowing his friend's disposition as he did, he was too wise to attempt to argue the matter with him. But all the same, he scarcely liked the turn things were taking.
Early on the following morning Philip called at the Continental Hotel and explained his last night's adventure to Madame de Meuillis. She was deeply interested, and listened with many explanations of surprise and wonder.
"You must be careful, very careful, my dear Monsieur Rotheram," she said, with a slight shudder. "You in England know little of these secret societies and conspiracies. Ah! you are happy! They are terrible! And, monsieur, those who are engaged in them are for the most part desperate dangerous men, who pause at nothing, and think no more of murder than you would of killing a fly. Beware how you act, for there will be danger in the slightest communication with one of these men. And without doubt this stranger is one of them."
"I believe so," Philip assented slowly. "A messenger, I should imagine who probably brought your brother-in-law the news which led him to destroy himself. But why does he linger in England, I wonder?"
The little old lady shrugged her shoulders.
"It is for you to discover. But oh! Monsieur, be very careful! Iola will never be able to thank you enough for all you are doing for her."
He flushed a little at the mention of her name. The dark red colour stole slowly almost up to his temples, and the little Frenchwoman watched him keenly, wondering whether this man was in love with her niece, that he should exert himself so much on her behalf.
"He does no look that sort," she decided rather reluctantly, for, like all her countrywomen, the simplest intrigue delighted her, and she rather admired this tall, grave young Englishman, so different from the men of her own race.
"I will let you know whether I succeed or not," he promised taking up his hat. "Good morning," and with a grave bow he would have departed, but that she arrested him, taking his hand between her own, while the tears came into her eyes, and trickled down her cheeks.
"Ah, monsieur, you are very kind. May le bon Dieu reward you, for I can never thank you enough for your efforts on behalf of my poor Iola. You will forgive me," she begged as she dropped his hand, and wiped away her tears, "but I love her so, and have longed to see her again. My little Iola!"
He felt serious enough—never more so, but for a moment he could almost have smiled at the idea of that tall, stately girl being termed "une pétite."
"I shall do all in my power, madame," he assured her, gently. "You may depend upon that," and with another burst of tearful thanks she let him go.
On his way back he called at a gunsmith's in Bond Street, and purchased a small revolver and cartridges, when he returned to his chambers, and wrote some letters. Towards evening he called on Mr. Barton.
"Have you the address of the man Ivan Penitchkoff?" he asked.
The lawyer gave it to him, and he copied it carefully into his pocket-book.
"You are sure that he has been watched carefully since the trial?" he asked.
"Certain. Wells has lodgings in the same house, and he scarcely lets him out of his sight. He assures me that there is nothing suspicious in his movements, and he seems quite unconscious of any espionage."
Philip smiled incredulously.
"Ah! no doubt! That is the weak point with most detectives. They always report that their victim appears unconscious of being watched, but with all due respect to Mr. Wells, I think that if Mr. Penitchkoff had the chance, there are a few enquiries he would like to have made, and a little excursion westwards which he would like to have taken."
"Possibly. But about to-night. You have quite made up your mind to carry this matter through by yourself?"
"I have, thanks. I don't want to have the whole thing spoilt by a meddling officer of the law. The sight of one would effectively close our friend's mouth, whereas by myself I hope to be able to open it. Unless something goes wrong, which I do not greatly fear, I hope to have the proofs of Miss Frankfort's innocence in my hands before I see you again. Good-night Barton. You needn't have the least anxiety on my account."
The lawyer had been looking a little disturbed, but glancing up at his friend's towering frame and massive shoulders, he felt reassured.
"H'm. Perhaps not. But all the same, I shall be anxious to know how you get on. Let me hear as soon as possible."
"I will," and with that promise and a hearty grip of the hand, Philip departed on his adventure.
At twenty minutes to ten that night a man, closely muffled up, passed along Ardinge-street towards the end house. At the gate he paused, and glanced behind him and around. Not a sound was to be heard, nor was there anyone in sight, and reassured he entered by the gate, moving stealthily down the path towards the side door. Again he paused, standing for a moment motionless. Then he drew from his breast pocket a whistle, and blew it softly.
He leaned forward, listening intently to hear whether or no the signal was returned, and another sound smote upon his strained hearing. There was a crunching of the gravel behind him, and in a moment he was struggling frantically in the grasp of a tall powerful man who had moved from the concealing presence of the shrubs. He was immediately quite powerless for mischief, lying upon his back, with a grasp of iron upon his throat, and the gleaming muzzle of a revolver within a few inches of his head, and a resolute and stern face, the face of a man not to be trifled with, bending closely over his.
The man on the ground glared at his captor with a savage gleam flashing in his dark eyes.
"Who are you?" he exclaimed in a passionate choking tone, "and what the devil do you mean by this?"
The grasp on the throat released a little, and his question was met by another.
"Whom did you expect to find in this house?"
No reply was given, and then the prostrate figure was dragged up, and helped to his feet, though a strong hand still clenched his coat collar, and in his captor's other hand the revolver still flashed ominously.
There was a short breathless silence. He who had been thus suddenly overpowered stood panting, and eyeing the other with a fierce and at the same time an enquiring gaze.
"What do you want with me?" he demanded again in a hoarse tone.
"A few minutes' conversation, that's all. We can't talk here. Will you accompany me to my chambers? Yes or no, quick!"
The man seemed somewhat bewildered, and eyed his assailant curiously. The survey seemed somewhat to reassure him.
"Monsieur, are you connected with the English police?" he asked doubtfully.
"In no way. My mission with you is one of peace, if you will have it so," was the prompt reply.
"Then I will go with you to your rooms, certainly. But, pardieu, your introduction was scarcely a courteous one, to say nothing about peace," he added with a slight laugh. "Nay, you need not fear my trying to escape. I give you my parole—my word of honour. You understand."
Philip turned and bent a searching glance upon his prisoner.
"Yes, I will trust you," he said shortly. "Come with me;" and, releasing his hold on the other's coat they passed down the street together until they came to the cab stand, and, stepping into a hansom, they were quickly driven round to the Temple.
They mounted the stairs of the Temple Chambers in silence, and Philip ushered his strange visitor into his sitting-room, turned up the lamp, and motioned him to a seat.
He gazed wearily about him with a sort of languid curiosity, deposited his hat upon the table, and sank back into a chair. Then, as though moved by a sudden impulse, he turned to his host.
"Monsieur," he said, "they say that English gentlemen are generous, and I perceive that you are one. I am about to put it to the test by making a bold request."
Philip looked at him enquiringly, and he proceeded after some slight hesitation.
"I am hungry, monsieur; pardieu, ravenous. All to-day and a part of yesterday I have not tasted a morsel. If you had a biscuit or anything about the place!" and he glanced round the room without finishing his sentence.
Philip Rotheram turned the lamp up higher, and for the first time looked steadily at his strange guest. He did indeed seem to be in some straits. His face was thin, emaciated, pale, pale as marble, and the large dark eyes had a hungry starved look in them as they roved around the room. His clothes were old and travel stained, his yet black hair was unkempt, and a slight beard was bristling upon his chin, but notwithstanding his dishevelled appearance there was an air almost of nobility about him, a certain abandon of carriage and bearing which spoke of gentle breeding, and Philip, when he had completed his survey was conscious of a decided feeling of pity rising within him for this man.
He rang the bell and ordered some supper. Then with his own hand he opened a bottle of claret, and pouring out a tumblerful offered it to his visitor.
"Drink this, monsieur, it will revive you," he said; and no second bidding was needed.
The supper appeared, and Philip, rising to his feet motioned his guest to the table.
"We will defer our conversation for a while," he said. "You will excuse me, I have lately dined," and he crossed to the other end of the room, taking a book with him, whilst the other, his effects to restrain his eagerness being almost altogether futile, seated himself at the table and commenced his repast.
His host, as he leaned back in an easy char, idly turning over the pages of the book which he was pretending to read, was certainly to all appearances the least at ease of the two. There was something so altogether extraordinary and unlooked for in the denouement of this adventure, that every now and then he caught himself glancing involuntarily at his guest, to assure himself that the whole thing was not a dream.
Could it really be he, Philip Rotheram, who was thus entertaining with his best an unknown stranger, a man whom he believed to be a conspirator of the blackest hue, and whom he had quite expected would have been a beetle-browed, swarthy, foul-mouthed ruffian. There was something so romantic in the whole affair, the capture, the giving and zealously keeping of the parole, the high-bred air and winning manner of his prisoner guest, his gentle, almost refined appearance, his starved condition, and his own hospitality, that Philip Rotheram felt for a moment a little confused. But never for one moment did he forget the main purpose which he had in view, and pity or no pity, his face grew stern as he decided that, should this man withhold his aid, it should go ill with him.
He glanced at him again over the top of his book. He had finished his meal, and had turned his chair round to the fire, into which he was gazing fixedly with a faraway look in his eyes. Philip watched him, and his compassion grew stronger and stronger.
It was the face of a young man, and but for the wrinkled brow and the deep lines which care and anxiety seemed to have stamped upon it, it would have been the face of an eminently handsome fellow. The forehead was high, and gave an air of frankness and nobility to the countenance which otherwise, from the perfect regularity of features and transparency of complexion, might almost have approached effeminacy, and there was a weary, haunted look in the deep black eyes as, with forehead resting upon his slender fingers, he gazed thoughtfully into the fire.
The book which Philip had been pretending to read dropped to the ground, and at the sound of its fall the young man started to his feet.
"Ah! Monsieur, I had forgotten for the moment where I was. Pardon me."
Philip nodded, and strolling to the other end of the room brought out a cigar box from his cabinet.
"You smoke?" and he selected one for himself the while he held the box towards his guest.
The latter looked at the box, and up to the man who offered it to him with a peculiar expression. Finally he took one, with a short laugh.
"You are very good, I cannot refuse."
He leaned back in his chair, smoking for a moment or two in silence, with the air of a satisfied connoisseur. Then he tuned towards his host.
"Monsieur, I shall never be able to return your hospitality, I fear," he said with a sigh, "but I shall not easily forget your great kindness. And now perhaps—"
He hesitated, but Philip understood him, and drawing his chair up closer commenced his explanation.
"You want to know who I am, and why I have brought you here?" he said. "Well, I will tell you. You know Mr. Frankfort?"
The other assented slightly.
"You also know that lately he has committed suicide?"
Philip's guest withdrew his cigar from his mouth, and knocked off the ash into the grate.
"I knew that he was dead," he acknowledged slowly. "I heard that he had been murdered."
"But you knew that that was not so?"
The stranger gave a quick, restless glance at his interrogator.
"Monsieur," he said quietly, "we are merely fencing. 'Tis waste of time. Tell me who you are, and what you want of me."
"Very well, I will," Philip commenced, after a moment's consideration. "I am a friend of Miss Iola Frankfort's, and it is my desire, I may add my intention, to prove her innocent of the charge of murder which has been brought against her. I expect you to help me."
"Impossible! I know nothing of the matter," declared the other doggedly.
Philip's face grew a trifle sterner and a determined light flashed in his clear grey eyes.
"I think that that is scarcely true," he said firmly. "But let me proceed. Mr. Frankfort committed suicide beyond a doubt, and he did so because of news, bad news, brought to him by you. Ah! now you start. I know more than you think. I know so much that if I chose to share my knowledge with the English police and the Russians Ambassador here you would probably find yourself in an awkward position. Sit down, young sir, and be calm. I am not your judge, and I wish you no harm. Help me as I wish, and you have nothing to fear from me. Listen! I know the real name of the dead man. I know that he was a leader amongst a dangerous secret society, a prince of conspirators, and a Russo-Polish nobleman. I know that on the night he committed suicide you brought him news—bad news, Ivan Penitchkoff knew this, although in the witness box he swore to the contrary. Do you know, sir, that an innocent girl will be hanged for a crime which she never committed unless the truth be proved, and it rests with you whether the truth will be forthcoming or not?"
The stranger rose from his seat, and flinging his cigar into the grate, turned round and faced his host with a look of firm but pained resolution.
"Monsieur," he said sorrowfully, "I had rather you had asked me for my life. You might have had that and welcome, but monster and ingrate though you will think me, I am powerless to help you in this matter. You know all. I can deny nothing. I am a member of a band of desperate men whom doubtless you regard with horror. But oh! you do not know all. You do not know the shameful wrongs, the bitter injuries which those have suffered who are thus leagued together. Tyranny you know nothing of in England. Ah! fortunate people! fortunate England! Before I was seventeen years old, monsieur, I had sworn upon my knees a solemn oath to devote my life, not merely out of passionate sentiment, but out of stern justice, towards the overthrowing of a detestable, a vile despotic government, an infamous system of institutions and an iniquitous code of laws. You do not know what provocation, what motives I had. Why should I attempt to defend myself to you? It is useless. I will not waste your time. I will only tell you this—that I have sworn by a fearful oath, than break which I had sooner die a thousand times over, never to turn back my hand, never to imperil in the slightest degree the safety of the community to which I belong. If I did as you ask, I should break that oath. I cannot do it. Would to heaven I could. My life and liberty are in your hands. Do as you will with them. I am bound to return your kindness by what must seem to you a heartless cruelty. But I do not plead for mercy. Call your police if you will. I am here, and I shall not resist, but my lips are sealed by an inviolable oath, and—and—"
His rapid speech seemed to have exhausted him, for suddenly the words seemed to die away on his lips, and with a choking sob his head fell upon his folded arms.
There was a long silence between Philip Rotheram and his strange guest after the latter's passionate speech. Philip stood in the shadow of the room, watching from underneath his heavily-knitted brows his pale, miserable wreck of a man, and despite himself his pity was stronger even than his disappointment.
He changed his position at last, and paced the room restlessly for several minutes.
"Sir," he said, turning suddenly towards him, and speaking in so mild tone that the young man looked up astonished. "I do not want your life, nor do I want to deprive you of your liberty. Pull yourself together, and sit down with me whilst we consider whether you cannot help me without breaking your oath."
The stranger sank wearily back into his chair again, and remained for a while deep in thought. Suddenly he looked up with an eager exclamation.
"Do you happen to know," he asked anxiously, "whether there was a piece of blank notepaper found anywhere near Co—Mr. Frankfort's body?"
A piece of blank notepaper. Philip turned towards him quickly.
"There was, and it had been preserved."
"Thank heaven. There is yet hope then! Let me think it out," and in his turn the stranger rose and paced up and down the room. All at once he came to a standstill by the side of his host.
"Listen, monsieur," he said earnestly. "Supposing there had been found in the place of that fragment of paper a letter with terrible news in it. Would not that go a long way towards proving the young lady's innocence?"
"Certainly. But none such was found," answered Philip hastily.
"Give me a pen and paper," cried the other, his gaunt frame shaking with excitement, "at once."
Philip pointed to the writing table, and watched his pen rush over the smooth notepaper. When he had finished he turned round in his chair, holding out what he had written.
"Take this, Monsieur," he said, "to a chemist's, the most careful that you know of, and bid him prepare the mixture for which I have written here the formula. Get the piece of paper which was found near the dead man, rub it lightly over with the mixture, then hold it to the fire, and you will be able to read some such words as these:—'You are ruined. The scheme has failed.'
"You must read it at once, as the liquid dries up, and the letters disappear almost immediately. That would be almost sufficient proof, wouldn't it? At any rate it would supply a motive for his committing suicide."
"Of course it would," exclaimed Philip. Curiously enough the apparent unimportance of that scrap of paper was one of the strongest links of circumstantial evidence against her. "But how about Ivan Penitchkoff?" he asked abruptly. "This will place him under very strong suspicion of having committed perjury."
"Pardieu! I had forgotten Ivan."
He leaned back in his chair, and he remained for a while in deep thought. Then he looked up quickly.
"Ivan Penitchkoff shall not be at the trial," he said. "He shall be spirited away, and shall leave behind him a sworn statement witnessed by whomsoever you like, acknowledging that his former evidence was false, and that owing to jealously he wished to encourage the supposition of murder; and further, he shall leave behind him a letter in the handwriting of the deceased, the envelope not addressed, but which he can swear that he was charged to deliver to one of his master's friends, containing the statement that he intended to commit suicide rather than face ruin. How will that do?" and he paused, looking anxiously into the other's face for approval.
"Do? It would be abundant, overwhelming proof. But he never wrote any such letter surely," Philip continued dubiously. "The news which induced him to commit suicide, whatever it might have been, had nothing to do with money matters, so he would never have been likely to have written such a letter. Are you proposing a conspiracy to me, sir?" he added, his face darkening with a sudden anger.
The stranger drew himself up proudly, and with an instinctive motion his hand sought his side, betraying in the gesture his quondam occupation.
"Monsieur," he said, with dignity, "it is not generous to insult the unfortunate. It is true that I am a conspirator in a righteous cause, but I am also a man of honour, and—and a nobleman," he added. "Let me explain my meaning to you. All our communication amongst ourselves are founded upon the principle of a substitution of ideas. You follow me? The message on that half- sheet of paper, 'You are a ruined man,' means really, that you are chosen. A desperate enterprise is, or was, on foot amongst us. That week, lots were drawn in a tiny Austrian village. The man chosen by this ordeal was M. Frankfort. His oath compelled him to either obey the message on that scrap of paper, or to die. He chose the latter. Hence his suicide. Transposition of ideas is more confusing to an outsider than any cipher, and more reliable. It avails us strangely in the present instance. You understand?"
"Perfectly; and I must apol—"
The young man bowed, and interrupted him.
"You are generous, monsieur. But there is a slight difficulty in the way. This man Penitchkoff, as you have surmised, is one of us, but I do not know his whereabouts. I have sought for him continually in all our London haunts, but in vain. It was for him I was seeking to-night. It is a mystery to me why he has not communicated with me!"
"Perhaps I can explain," Philip said. "We had some suspicions about the fellow, and have had him watched by detectives. No doubt he became aware of it, and did not attempt to communicate with you."
"Of course he would not. Then you know his whereabouts?"
"Yes, I have his address, but it is too late to see him or to do anything else to-night," said Philip, glancing at the clock, "and I must think this scheme out, too. You had better sleep here, and we will talk it over again in the morning."
"As you will, monsieur," answered the young man, rising and throwing the end of his second cigar into the grate. "I accept your hospitality with gratitude. Show me where I may lie down, on this rug will do, and I will hand you the key of the room and my clothes—the best security against flight," he added, with a laugh.
"It is not necessary," Philip assured him gravely, "I will take your word."
"And that you have with my best thanks. In here? Thanks."
Philip looked round his bedroom, into which he had ushered his guest.
"You will find everything you want, I think," he said. "If not, don't be afraid of ringing the bell. Good night."
Then he closed the door, and descending to the sitting-room, extemporised for himself a bed with the aid of the sofa cushions. But sleep came to him only tardily and at fitful intervals, for his mind was busy planning for the morrow, and the first streaks of daylight stealing in through the closed blinds found him still awake.
At nine o'clock the two men whom chance had so strangely thrown together met at breakfast, Philip Rotheram, the prosaic, matter-of-fact barrister, and the young conspirator, the latter with his appearance vastly improved by a shave and a clean shirt of his host's.
Immediately after the meal was over, their last night's conversation was resumed.
"Without a doubt," Philip remarked, in answer to a question from the other, "Miss Frankfort's innocence could be proved by the means you suggested last night—but," he added with some hesitation, "you must forgive me if I appear distrustful. You are by your own confession a conspirator, you know, and your oath of allegiance to your fellows stands before everything else with you. What security have I, then, that you will keep your promise when you get away from here? It may occur to you that you run some risk of discovery if you go so far, and you have acknowledged that if you thought so no considerations of personal honour would weigh with you."
The other's face flushed, but he answered readily and without offence—
"You have reason in what you say, monsieur. It is one of the penalties of my calling," he said bitterly, "that I become part of a machine, and have to sink my feelings as a man of honour. I am not at all sure that I ought not to have broken my parole to you last night. You are right, monsieur, quite right, although God is my witness that I intend to keep my word with you. I have only one security that I can offer you," he went on slowly, "and you shall have it."
He rose, threw open his coat and waistcoat, and from a secret pocket of the latter drew out a leather case.
"You may judge, monsieur, how I value this," he said, "when I tell you that for thirteen years, through trouble and grief and danger, I have kept next to my heart this likeness. It is the dearest—bah! the only treasure I have on earth, the only thing I value. Will you look at it, Monsieur Rotheram? It opens with a spring from underneath—so. It is the likeness of my mother!"
Almost with reverence Philip received the case, the interior of which was encrusted with jewels, into his hands and opened it. Yes, there was the likeness of a woman, a beautiful woman, and undoubtedly the mother of the man who stood by his side with folded arms. There was the same noble brow, deep eyes, regular delicate features, and dignified figure. The likeness was undeniable.
"Many a time," the young man went on, "have I been almost on the verge of starvation, but never have I dreamed of parting with that," and his voice softened and shook, and Philip looked away, making a pretence of glancing out of the window, lest he should see the tears in the other's eyes.
"You, too, perhaps, have a mother," he continued, "as good to you as she was to me. Listen," and he took the case again into his hands. "I swear by the likeness of her, who taught me what truth was, that I will keep my word to you."
He kissed the likeness, and handed it back to Philip.
"Keep it until the trial is over, and you are assured that I have kept my word to you. It is the only security I can offer to save my honour, but it is worth to me more than fortune—yea, more than life itself," he concluded, with a sudden passionate burst.
"I will trust you without this," Philip said quietly. "Here, take it back."
The young man shook his head, and waved it away with an imperative gesture.
"As I have said, so let it be," he said firmly. "You shall hear from me in a while as to its disposal. Until then keep it. And now let me ask you a question," he proceeded after a short pause, during which Philip had locked up the battered leather case in his cabinet. "How came you to discover the dead man's identity, and who shares that knowledge with you?"
"Only one other, and with him, as with me, it is buried. We heard it from his sister-in-law under a vow of secrecy. It will never pass beyond us three."
"That is well. So long as no suspicion is aroused it will easily be believed that he was merely an eccentric speculator. You yourself must favour that view. It will seem mysterious to many, no doubt, but there will be nothing to put the public on to the right track, and the curiosity will die out. Do you not think so, monsieur?"
"Yes," replied Philip decidedly, "I don't think that there is the least fear of his identity coming out. And now for your plans."
"They are very simple. I must see Penitchkoff at once, procure his confession, and enclose with it the letter which Mr. Frankfort wrote when he had made up his mind to take his own life, and the instructions for preparing the fluid to rub on that half sheet of paper. These must be put in an envelope and left with you to post to the proper authorities when we are safely away."
"But this man Penitchkoff—is he not likely to make objections? How do we know that he will do this?" Philip asked anxiously.
The other laughed.
"Ivan is a mere tool," he said; "a servant to our cause, although a most devoted one. He would never dream of disputing my commands. And now if you will give me his address I will go and seek him out. Of course, if you prefer it so, you can accompany me, but I think it would be better otherwise. Ivan might judge from your presence that I was acting under compulsion. If I go by myself I have only to dictate the confession to him, produce two witnesses, bring it to you, and then we can be off. How will this do?"
"Admirably," replied Philip. "But I must post the papers the day after to-morrow, as the trial is close at hand."
"Post them to-morrow if you like. Once out of England, there is no detective in your dull country who could come near us. We have many haunts in every capital of Europe, even in London, where we are absolutely secure."
"At what time will you bring me this confession of Ivan's?" asked Philip.
"At eleven to-night, here. Will that suit you?"
"Yes, and you will allow me to make you some trifling advance? You will need money for rapid travelling, you know," said Philip.
"Thanks, but Ivan will have plenty, so there is no need for me to render myself still further your debtor," the other answered, shaking his head. "At eleven to-night, here, then. Au revoir," and he was gone.
After his guest's departure, the first question which occurred to Philip was whether or no he should acquaint Mr. Barton and Madame de Meuillis with the progress of events, and he very soon decided that he would not do so. He would wait until the confession was actually in his hands, signed, sealed, and addressed, before he communicated to either the success of his plans. He had a lurking idea that the lawyer would regard with a certain amount of scepticism, not to say positive distrust, his strange confederate, and that he would consider his treatment of the case, to say the least of it, unprofessional. He had very little wish to appear to his friend romantic or over-sanguine, and he had more than an idea that Mr. Barton would regard his convictions as to the trustworthiness of his strange ally as certainly bordering upon the romantic.
The matter had not turned out in any way as he had expected, and, although he had no direct misgivings, he was scarcely satisfied that he had in the whole affair acted as a man of the world should have done. Things had turned out well so far, there was no denying that, but he grew almost uncomfortable when he reflected how easy it would have been for his prisoner to have escaped from him during their walk down Ardinge-street. He had taken no steps to prevent his being able to do so, either then or during their subsequent journey in the cab—he had simply trusted to the word of honour of a stranger.
And then, again, there was another disturbing feature in the case. It was within his power to cause to be arrested two dangerous conspirators, and instead of doing so he was assisting them, and was prepared to assist them by every means in his power, to escape; and not only that, but one of them he had entertained as his guest, and had treated him in every respect as a gentleman and his equal. He was the last man in the world to delight in romantic adventures, but he had been suddenly drawn into one, and was obliged to confess that he had behaved in all respects as a person who took a keen delight in such, and not at all like the matter-of-fact man of rigid common sense which he prided himself on being.
And then, as he sat alone in his study, there came upon him sudden swift thoughts of the woman in whose behalf he was then labouring, remembrances of his first meeting with her who had been the one disturbing influence of a prosaic life. Well, it would soon all be over, he reflected, half in relief, half in some uncertain regret. In less than a week, if all went well, she would be a free woman, free to depart with her aunt back to France through his means, and a thrill of pleasure stirred him for a moment at this recollection. Why should he be pleased, though? He did not want her thanks, and yet he thought it would be very pleasant to see her face light up with emotion, and those wonderfully blue eyes flash gratitude upon him whilst she poured out her thanks for her deliverance.
Bah! why should he wish for this? a momentary gratification, a pleasure fleeting indeed, for, the words spoken, she would depart, leave England, and pass out of his life for ever. No, it was because he had believed in her innocence, he assured himself, that he had striven so hard to establish it. It was the cause of innocence which had inspired him in his passionate appeal to the jury on that eventful day of the trial. She in her person was not responsible for or provocative of such an outburst. It was impossible! And yet he had some dim recollections of other feelings which had been working within him to aid in producing, if they did not altogether generate, that passionate appeal.
A man is never so much or so deeply in earnest as when a personal desire is ingeniously interwoven with a praiseworthy end, to seek which seems moral and right, and it was not alone the cause of innocence which Philip Rotheram had so brilliantly upheld in the shades of that dull law court. He knew that this was so, and it troubled him, troubled him the more when he coupled it with a depression of spirits and sinking of the heart, a sense of a future devoid of all interest and hope, of which he was conscious when he reflected that in a very short time the English Channel would roll between him and her.
For the second time since that fatal meeting in Ardinge-street he turned upon himself and faced the question. He brought forward the change in his disposition the image which haunted him, and to muse upon which gave him such keen pleasure, his sudden and growing distaste for this alliance with his cousin, his dull dread of the time when she, not his cousin, should have gone back to France. He analysed the motives which had led him so earnestly to embrace her cause and he confessed to himself that he, Philip Rotheram, M.P. for Sorchester, was on the brink (if, indeed, he had not already fallen) of a terrible disaster.
He was nearly, very nearly, in love with this girl. There were more reasons than one why such a condition should be utterly distasteful—almost agony to him. There were hosts of reasons. Such a climax would be an acute diversion from the cherished and zealously guarded lines of his life, along which for years he had passed unscathed by external influence, with peace and to his own self satisfaction, and to break aside from which he had never before dreamed of. Life to him had been a matter of pure reasoning, and his actions had ever been guided by such aided by constant and careful reflections. Sentiment had never entered into it. Happiness he had regarded as the natural fruits of self-satisfaction, and happiness aimed at in any other fashion he had despised. Like he had felt, and dislike he had experienced, but neither had led him, nor would he have suffered them to lead him, to act in any way contrary to his judgment.
Until now the two had never clashed. He had been secure, over-secure, in his estimate of the strength of his will and the force of his mind, and he had laughed to himself, half in wonder, half in scorn, when other men had thrown away ambition, chances of advancement, social position, the good opinion of their fellows to yield to a passion which they called love. Fools he had deemed them, weak, womanly creatures, unworthy the name of men, and he had wondered if ever the time would come when he also would feel this affection. Would he ever, he wondered, be tempted to commit an action, unwise in its worldly bearings, but gratifying to his sensuous nature. Let the time come, he had said to himself defiantly, almost exultantly, so secure was he in himself, and it should find him of a different calibre to other men. It should be crushed in a moment, met first and criticised by his judgment, and then stamped out when found wanting by his iron will.
He did not believe in, he scoffed at the idea of real happiness coming to any one by such means. It had seemed to him that the happiness bred of affection, ministered to by the senses, must be essentially a palliating happiness, a happiness of fits and starts, now warm, now cold, which would in time become something of a habit, and cease to be happiness at all. Such he would not seek! Rather would he hope and expect to find it in the proud satisfaction of leading a blameless life, of yielding to no temptation, of stepping aside neither to the right nor to the left from the lines which enclosed a well-considered and logically-balanced career, along which he would pass, invincible against assaults from unworthy considerations or affections purely sensuous. Such satisfaction as he should derive from strict adherence to them, his life's principles and tenets, should take the place to him of happiness, and far more worthy to be called so, this settled glow of satisfaction based upon a sense of real deserving, that any more pungent or exhilarating emotion which he could possibly experience.
Marriage had seemed to him the rock on which so many men came to grief, and to the subject of marriage, therefore he had given some consideration, although he had never regarded it as a means of attaining to happiness. He had decided that at some future time it might be well for him to take a wife, provided a wife could be found whose position and whose wealth would make an alliance advantageous. But it was always marriage in the abstract which he had contemplated. He had never in his thoughts upon the subject linked the name or personality of any particular woman with his own, and decided that a union with her would be pleasant to him. Such an idea of marriage was not his. The woman herself was merely a means to an end; she was the last thing he considered. All were alike to him, he had decided, provided that her appearance was not repulsive, or her manners awkward, and any woman who possessed those more solid attractions would answer his purpose—his cousin, Lady Francis, as well as any other.
These had been his views ever since he had had views upon the matter at all. And now at the eleventh hour a subtle change had swept in upon him, shattering all the ideals of his past, and leaving him like a man in some hideous nightmare, groping through the rolling mists of indecision. And all that he could clearly see or understand was the fair face of Iola Frankfort alight with all the sweet witchery of invitation.
To a man holding Philip Rotheram's somewhat peculiar views on the subject of marriage generally, the dilemma in which he now found himself was, to say the least, disconcerting. He faced the matter boldly, however. He acknowledged that an emotion against which he had deemed himself impregnable had attacked him with a force and persistency which he had never contemplated. But while he went so far as to acknowledge this, he declared to himself over and over again that he would never yield, that he would never dream of acting in such ill-accordance with the dogmas of his life as to seek to win this girl for his wife. His wife, indeed! The daughter of a notorious conspirator of historical celebrity, and withal a girl whose name would be for a while the constant theme for idle people's tongues as the heroine of a cause celèbre. Such an idea was preposterous, and he vowed emphatically that no word of love should ever pass his lips although she went down upon her knees to him with gratitude, and although her blue eyes might swim with tears as she poured out her thanks to him whom she would doubtless consider as her preserver. Besides, was he not engaged to marry his cousin, Lady Frances, and was not every thought of Iola Frankfort as a possible sweetheart, therefore, an insult to her and dishonouring to himself? The thought gave him a prick of conscience to which he was unaccustomed and he knitted his brows, and puffed away almost savagely at his huge meerschaum. He must guard with all his vigilance and all his powers of self-control against the forthcoming inevitable interview. The sooner she passed out of his life the better, and save himself none should ever know the wrench which that parting would be to him.
A knock at the door, and the very man whom Philip wished least to see just then—Mr. Barton—entered.
"Why, Rotheram, you're a nice fellow, I must say, sporting the oak in this fashion," the lawyer declared vigorously. "I've been expecting to hear from you all the morning. Did your midnight prowler turn up? Come, out with it."
There was nothing to be done but to disclose the whole affair, which Philip accordingly did, whilst Mr. Barton, abandoning altogether his attitude of polite attention, listened with open mouth and perfectly unconcealed astonishment. When the recital was over he gave vent to his feelings by a prolonged whistle, and leaning back in his chair gazed at his friend steadily for a full minute.
"Bravo! old man! Capital!" he cried out at last. "But you'll excuse me. Why in the name of wonder have you let the fellow go?"
"Because it was best for him to see Ivan alone," Philip answered. "He'll come back again all right. I don't know when I felt so sorry for a fellow in my life," he went on more slowly. "A fine young fellow like that to waste his life and talents in a hopeless conspiracy! It seems a pity, a cruel pity. I don't know much about Russian Nihilism, or Eastern domestic policy at all, but there must be something wrong somewhere when men of his calibre are leagued together inspired with such fearful loathing and hate of their country's institutions and government. Poor fellow!"
The lawyer looked at his friend curiously, and laughed a little.
"I tell you what it is, Rotheram," he declared, "your getting quite a hero of romance. The protector and champion of a very beautiful young lady; this chivalrous confidence in that fellow you caught hanging round Ardinge-street, and sympathy with a most damnable conspiracy—why, you'll end—"
But he did not finish his sentence, for something very decided in Philip's frowning face warned him that he little liked such jesting. So he broke off abruptly, and changed the conversation.
"How about the little Frenchwoman?" he asked. "How much of this are you going to tell her?"
"After to-morrow, everything. To-day, only that success is almost assured. And that reminds me—I wish you'd call and see her. Parliament opens to-day, you know, and if I don't attend and take my seat, there'll be a row down at Sorchester. I shall have to run down home directly this affair's settled," he added thoughtfully.
"Ah, yes! There's the young lady," remarked Mr. Barton, eyeing his friend closely. "She'll be thinking you neglectful. I never met your cousin, I think?"
"Then I shall have the pleasure of introducing you to her when she is my wife," rejoined Philip, pointedly. But there was rather a weary expression in his countenance which Mr. Barton noticed and pondered over.
"Can't understand what's come over Rotheram," he remarked to his wife that evening as they lingered over their tête-à- tête dinner. "Seems all gone to pieces since this trial came on. Lucky fellow too! M.P., and engaged to marry an Earl's daughter with nearly a quarter of a million of money they say. I wish I'd my time over again with his chances."
His wife jocularly replied. "And I wish I had my life over again with her advantages."
During the afternoon Mr. Barton had called upon Madame de Meuillis, and had met the little old lady just issuing from the hotel.
"Ah! Monsieur Barton, how glad I am to see you," she exclaimed, taking both his hands. "Come in, come in! And tell me now what news."
"Good news," replied the lawyer, cheerfully. "Good news. We shall succeed beyond a doubt. Mr. Rotheram has all but unravelled the mystery. You shall know all to-morrow."
"Ah, thank God"—and she sank down on an ottoman with a gesture of intense relief. "Ah! how I have suffered during these last few days, monsieur, none can tell," she went on, drying her eyes. "And this morning I have been almost wild. Mette hors de sens! I was just starting to try and find you out at your offices! How thankful I am to that young Monsieur Rotheram. Tell me, who is he? and why has he thus interested himself on my niece's behalf? For which may God reward him," she added, fervently.
"Who is he?" repeated the lawyer, smoothing deliberately the nap of his glossy silk hat. "Well, he's a great friend of mine, and so was his father. He's well born, well off, clever, a Member of Parliament, and engaged to a girl with an immense fortune. Why he's taken such an interest in this case I can't imagine. He isn't at all the sort of man I should have expected to have taken it up as he has done. He generally looks at a case from a very professional point of view, and it has been quite a new experience for me, I can tell you, to see him trying to create a defence when the foundation was only a conviction of his own. Very strange," the lawyer repeated, emphatically.
There was just a shape of disappointment in his listener's face. Like all Frenchwomen, she delighted in anything savouring of the romantic, and had woven together in her mind a pretty little romance, in which this Mr. Rotheram and her niece played prominent parts.
"I had thought, perhaps," she said, regretfully, "that he was attached to Iola."
Mr. Barton shook his head.
"He's engaged to marry his cousin. He told me so this morning. Besides, he's only seen your niece twice."
That went for nothing with Madame de Meuillis, and she seemed still scarcely convinced.
"We women have quick perceptions in such matters," she said slowly, "and I had judged from his manner that he took a personal interest in her. I believe so still."
Mr. Barton shrugged his shoulders.
"Possibly," he said, "but that interest is not what you ladies call love. Philip Rotheram is anything but romantic, and I'm quite sure he's not the sort of man to be engaged to one woman and make love to another. Quite sure of that," he repeated emphatically.
"Perhaps he is marrying this cousin of his for her money," she suggested. "But, pardon, monsieur," she added, colouring a little. "I forgot myself. I should not thus be questioning you about his affairs. At any rate, I shall always be truly and deeply grateful to him for my beloved Iola's sake, and also to you, monsieur," she added, with a graceful inclination of the head.
"She will owe me nothing," he replied, regretfully. "I am ashamed to say that I even believed her guilty until lately, and have throughout let Rotheram take the sole management of the case. So you see, madame, that you will owe everything to him, and he deserves all your thanks. And now I must go."
"But, Monsieur Barton, you have told me nothing yet," she exclaimed, reproachfully. "Stay a little longer, and tell me more of the means by which my child Iola's innocence is to be proved, and—"
"Explanations must wait," he told her, rising. "I will see you to-morrow morning, and then you shall know everything. Until then"—and he held out his hand.
"Will Monsieur Rotheram come to see me?" she queried.
"Not to-day. He has to attend Parliament, but he will see you to-morrow, no doubt."
"Ah well, I must remain content then. If you see him, thank him a thousand times, and tell him," she added, "that I long to see him, and know for certain that all is arranged. Au revoir, monsieur, au revoir."
That afternoon Philip Rotheram took his seat in Parliament. There had been some talk of Mrs. Rotheram and Lady Frances coming to witness the opening ceremony, but the idea had been abandoned in consequence of George's illness, and Philip, when he received the letter telling him of this alteration in their plans was almost angry with himself that he should feel so much relieved. He had not the slightest intention of attempting to free himself from this engagement with his cousin. On the contrary, he made up his mind, as he walked along towards Westminster, that immediately this trial was off his mind, and Madame de Meuillis and her niece had departed for France, he would press her to name an early day for their marriage. He was not want to defer the execution of any project when once he had decided upon its wisdom, and having irrevocably decided to marry his cousin, he did not intend to allow the consummation of his plan to stand over for an indefinite period. On his very next visit to the Elms, which must perforce be soon—he did not anticipate how soon—he intended to mention the matter to her, and make known his wishes.
He was still suffering from a certain vague depression of spirits when he reached the House of Commons, but the scene in which he was called upon to take part was such as for the present to drive everything else out of his mind. The Queen herself, some said to mark her satisfaction at he result of the bye-elections, had come down in state to open Parliament, and nothing had been omitted which could add to the pomp and magnificence of the spectacle. When the members of the Lower House, among whom was Philip Rotheram, trooped into the House of Lords to hear the Queen's Speech read, there is little wonder that the unrivalled brilliance of the scene—there is none other such in the world was sufficient to completely divert his thoughts for a time from outside matters. He had been introduced by one of the members of the county, with whom he had a slight acquaintance once, and by a legal friend, and had touched the Speaker's hand, and receiving his stereotyped smile of greeting, had taken his seat a veritable member of the House of Commons.
Though not impressionable, and by no means sensitive to the influence of circumstances or surroundings, the associations of the Chamber in which he sat, and the names of the men who talked in little groups, and moved around him, were absorbing and sufficient to awe at first a stronger nature even than his. He was amid scenes similar to those when Sheridan and Burke and Disraeli moved to wild enthusiasm a listening senate. He was a member of the Parliament that Pitt had harangued for hours; he sat within walls which had held more really great men than any other in the world save the walls of the Roman Senate House. It was here, in this Chamber, where he now had a right to sit, that men won for themselves undying fame and glory, that the veriest outsider could fight his way to the foremost ranks of the men of the day. Here all things were possible to him in whom was the capacity for great things and from those benches amongst which he sat could plead the noble-minded philanthropist or ambitious statesman, the crafty politician or the egotistical and verbose "rising man," with the certainty that their words, for good or for evil, were influencing the destinies of their fellow- countrymen.
Great thoughts are suggestive of great deeds, and such thoughts, which none save the ignorant or callous can well suppress, were wholesome food to Philip's mind. Personal ambition there was none in his nature to be aroused, but there was a strong, deep desire, not for fame or notoriety, but to find here some absorbing interest, some great and worthy end, the pursuit of which would lend a zest to his life which hitherto it had not possessed. He felt that he had ability enough to raise him to the rank of a statesman, and with Lady Frances' money and the Earl of Clanningham's interest, had he not a fair chance of moving to the front?
He dined at the House, and walked back to his chambers afterwards in a strange mood. The last week or two seemed somehow to have retreated from him, and to lie far back in the past. He could review them more critically than as yet he had been able to do, and he felt that they were ill in accordance with the rest of his life. Worse than that, he felt a sort of shame stealing over him that he should have thus diverged from himself, as it were, that he should have thrown his whole interest, his energies, his heart, into the cause of the girl who had so strangely fascinated him.
It was not the action itself which troubled him. The shame, the self-contempt, which he felt so bitterly, arose from a consideration of the motives which led him to enter so vigorously into her cause, rather than regret at having done so. For the sake of a girl's fair face, he knew that often during those last few days he would have sacrificed everything in the world, and he remembered, with a fresh sensation of shame, the wild and eloquent force with which he had, a few days ago pleaded her cause, and the passionate longing with which he had awaited the verdict which never came. He had stepped aside from the vowed course of his life for a woman's sake. What though he had done good by it—had perhaps saved an innocent life? That could not excuse him—a hard judge of himself as of others—the motives which had prompted him so to act.
Had he, Philip Rotheram, he wondered bitterly, before whom lay stretched in the future an honourable life of advancement and success, had he ever for a moment contemplated sacrificing it for the sake of a passing sensation, for the gratification of emotions generated by the remembrance of two short meetings with a beautiful woman? Curse it! Curse her! he muttered savagely, who had caused him thus to forfeit for a while his self-esteem. But thank heaven that reflection had come, and that his folly had been revealed to him. It was well that Parliament had met that day. It had restored to him all his old strength of purpose and will, and he shuddered to think how close to danger he would have sailed had he met again this fair woman before some such event as to-day's had recalled him to his former self.
And yet his strengthened determination and his thankfulness for his escape brought him nothing of the glow of satisfaction or happiness as he strode along through the crowded streets with frowning brow and black looks, for there was just the inkling of a suspicion in his heart that after all he was playing in some measure the hypocrite to himself—that pain, not pleasure, was begotten by the recollection of what was due to himself and his position, and the realization of his folly during the last few days.
He tried hard to think harshly of the woman who had brought him such disquietude, but he could not, for her fair, innocent young face, almost statuesque in its pensive beauty, those clear blue eyes which he had seen lit up at different times with imperiousness and appeal, gratitude and scornful indignation, were in some mysterious manner dear to him, and he could no curse them for the mischief they had wrought, although even that remembrance, the knowledge that they were very dear to him, increased his anger and self-abasement.
It was within a few minutes of eleven o'clock when he reached his chambers, and, before going upstairs, he left word with his servant to show into his room at once anyone who might call to see him. The man stared rather—it was late for callers, but in less than a quarter of an hour there was a clamorous ringing of the bell, and punctual to his appointment Philip's quondam guest was shown into the room.
He seemed very little inclined to prolong the interview, for he refused a chair and spoke rapidly.
"All is well, monsieur," he declared, "but we have been followed, and must get out of England to-night. All our arrangements are made. See, here is the confession. Read it through, and see whether it will do. And here is the letter which Monsieur Frankfort entrusted to Ivan to give to me, and also one for Miss Iola Frankfort. The confession is witnessed by two respectable men whose addresses are given under their signatures. Glance through it, and tell me to whom it must be addressed."
Philip took the paper offered him, and read it carefully through. It was admirably constructed. Jealousy was the motive alleged for the perjury, but the writer declared that his first idea had only been to frighten his young mistress, and that he had not foreseen how strong the case against her would grow. He was compelled to repeat the evidence which he had given before the magistrate at the trial, but he had made up his mind that if the verdict were guilty he would leave a written confession behind him and fly. He had been unable to bear the suspense of waiting for another trial, however, so had decided to anticipate it. He laid much stress upon the vast speculations in which the deceased had been engaged, and upon his extremely eccentric disposition. Then he detailed in full the false parts of his evidence, gave the prescription for the mixture which was to be applied to the scrap of paper, enclosed the two letters written by the dead man whilst his daughter had been out of the room, one addressed to her, and the other not addressed, but which the writer had been charged to deliver to Mr. Frankfort's partner in his gigantic monetary schemes. At the foot of the confession were the signatures of witnesses, as to whose bona fides there could be no question. Even Philip, with his legal training, could find no flaw in it.
"Yes," he said briefly, "it will do. I suppose this letter to Miss Frankfort will clench the matter," and he balanced it thoughtfully.
"We must see," decided his ally. "'Tis only gummed. A little steam will soon settle it."
Philip shook his head and withheld the letter.
"We must not open it," he declared. "Certainly not."
The other shrugged his shoulders a little superciliously at the Englishman's scruples. Nevertheless, he rather respected them.
"You would not make a conspirator," he remarked, "but no doubt you are right so far as you are concerned. The case is complete enough without it, but whether you participate in the action or not, I must open that letter."
"And why?" asked Philip, still retaining possession of it.
"Cannot you see why? There might—it is not likely—for Co—Mons. Frankfort was a singularly careful man, but still there might by some possibility be something in that letter compromising to us and monsieur," he added firmly, his face darkened and his manner becoming more resolute. "It is my duty to guard against all possible danger to our community. I am bound to open that letter."
Philip considered for a moment, and then handed it over.
"Very well. Under the circumstances I cannot refuse you," he said. "Take it, but don't read the contents aloud, and reseal it as before."
"Never fear, monsieur. We conspirators are handy at such things,"—and when he returned it a minute or two later, it certainly did not show any signs of having been tampered with.
"I will not tell you the contents, monsieur," he remarked. "Suffice it to say that the could not better answer our purpose, and now, monsieur, I must say adieu! Ivan waits for me impatiently, and we leave London at midnight. I am a conspirator, it is true, but—but I have never perjured my honour, and—and you will shake hands with me?"
"With pleasure," and they clasped hands. Philip Rotheram, the stern worldly-wise young barrister, and the boyish conspirator engaged in a desperate pursuit which might at any moment consign him to the scaffold or the wastes of Siberia.
"I am only sorry," said Philip earnestly, and with genuine feeling in his tones, "that I cannot wish you success in life. Some day I trust that you will repent your ill-considered vows, and adopt a less hazardous, and pardon me, more honourable mode of life."
The other smiled, or rather his thin lips parted as if to smile, but his colourless face and mournful expression belied the gesture.
"Wish me not that, Monsieur Rotheram," he said sadly, and the light of an ineffable sorrow gleamed for a moment or two in his dark eyes, "wish me not that, for if it came to pass, which God forbid, then would honour and I, indeed, part company. Until the very hour of death my one thought will be to aid in heaping all the evils and horrors which our art can command upon a tyrannous, a perjured, a despotic government. Ah! Monsieur Rotheram, you know not of what nationality I am, and you do not understand my vehemence. You do not know the misery of exile, the fierce, consuming indignation of the patriot who sees his country unlawfully possessed, and its true-hearted and faithful inhabitants ground down under heel, or cast forth wanderers upon the face of the earth. You have never seen mother and sisters die before your eyes of weakness and starvation, and the woman you loved kill herself to avoid a worse fate. No; thank your God! Monsieur Rotheram, for your country's welfare, and in your prayers you will sometimes remember me, an exile, an outcast, what you term a conspirator. Do so if you will, for Heaven knows I shall need them all before six months have passed. And now, once more, farewell! The time flies, and there is none to spare. You have been kind to me, and you have recognised in me an equal. I am grateful! I am glad that I have been able to do something for you in return. Adieu! Monsieur Rotheram. Adieu!"
The trial was over, and all had turned out according to calculation. There had been rumours floating about that some startling revelations were imminent, and from an early hour the court was packed. The rumours were amply confirmed. The principal witness for the prosecution had fled, leaving behind him a confession of perjury, and abundant evidence of the innocence of the prisoner.
Such a scene had never before been enacted as the shades of that gloomy law court witnessed when the hastily-prepared mixture was applied to the scrap of paper, and the amazed witnesses to the confession were hurried into court to swear to their signatures. There was no evidence to offer against Miss Frankfort, but with her permission the letter addressed to her by her father was read aloud in court. It was very brief.
My Dearest Child,
I have received terrible news, and like a coward I am going to escape from it, by taking my life. God bless and keep you, Iola, and reward you for the dutiful love which you have ever shown your unhappy father,
P.S. There is money in your name at Rothschild's bank in Paris. I wish it were more.
The other letter was still shorter, and had no orthodox commencement.
I am too old to face such a catastrophe. I die to-night.
There were a few more formalities, some whispered consultation at the bar, and the prosecution was formally withdrawn. The judge spoke a few kind words of sympathy, and then ordered the prisoner to be at once discharged. At the conclusion of his remarks there was a burst of applause from the court, which neither he nor the ushers attempted to restrain.
All had been arranged beforehand, and the moment she stepped out of the dock she was met by her aunt, and, escorted by Philip, they left the court by a private door, and passed outside to where a carriage was waiting. He had not ventured to address her as they hurried down the corridor, scarcely even to look at her, but one quick glance at the white set face and frightened expression told him that the sudden revulsion of feeling had tried her more even than the suspense. When on her trial she had looked like an indignant young princess, but now it was passed the shock had converted her into a timorous, half-fainting woman. When, as they reached the street, a loud cheer greeted them she shuddered, and clung timidly to him, and he drew her hand through his arm, and was conscious that his heart was beating with a mad pleasure as he whispered some re-assuring words to her. Madame de Meuillis had no notion of silence, although she had no listener. She was voluble in her tearful compassion and her torrents of thankfulness that her precious Iola had been delivered from this barbarous plot against her, but Iola scarcely seemed to hear, and answered never a word. Her blue eyes were fixed upon vacancy, and as he drew her closer to him the while they descended the steps, he could feel that she was trembling violently, and he cut short her aunt's tirade by hurrying them into the carriage and bidding the man drive with all speed to the hotel.
"You will come this afternoon to see us," begged Madame de Meuillis from her seat in the carriage. "I shall hasten back to France, and Iola will be ready to go, I am sure," she added, taking her niece's hand and turning affectionately to her. But Iola was lying back amongst the cushions, with half-closed eyes, as though exhausted, and merely bowed a faint assent.
"Yes, I will come," and then the carriage drove away.
He returned to the dressing-room, and hastily divesting himself of his wig and gown, escaped from the court, for he had little desire to be questioned about his case, and the surprise which this unexpected turn of events must have been to him, or to be chaffed about his gallantry. To avoid all this he hurried back to his chambers, and over his lunch began to think a little about this impending interview. He would have to go and congratulate her upon her escape, there was no doubt about that, and his great hope was that Madame de Meuillis would not have magnified to her his services. And yet he knew that he should find it very pleasant to be thanked by those eloquent blue eyes, and see them shining into his, full of gratitude and kindness.
He deserved it, certainly he deserved it, but nevertheless he had not laboured for the poor reward of a beautiful girl's thanks. He smiled at the absurdity of the idea, but the smile was a trifle forced. Surely he had thrown himself into this cause with so much enthusiasm because he had been convinced that it was the cause of innocence! He would tell her so, he declared, if her thanks became embarrassing. But after all he was probably exaggerating to himself the nature of this coming interview. She would thank him in a ladylike manner, he would congratulate her, Madame de Meuillis would strike in a word or two, there would be a casual suggestion of correspondence, a general invitation perhaps, polite regrets at parting, renewed thanks, handshaking all round, and voila tout. The interview was not going to be such a terrible thing after all. Surely he was not going to turn coward!
The country post came in whilst he was loitering over his lunch, and brought him a letter from his mother, which he read with some anxiety. George's indisposition seemed to be increasing rather than mending, and the doctor was looking grave. Could Philip run down for an hour or two? Mrs. Rotheram was so full of confidence in her son that it seemed as though she half believed that his very presence at the Elms would restore George to health, or at any rate that the nature of his malady, which appeared to be rather puzzling Dr. Brandon, would be instantly detected. He decided that he would run down on the following day, and then rapidly glanced over the latter part of the letter, which consisted of messages from and mention of Lady Frances, together with excuses for her not having written, and assurances that he should hear by a later post.
He finished reading it, and then glanced impatiently at his watch. Only two o'clock. He had thought that it must be nearly an hour later. He commenced writing a letter to his mother, to while away the time, but it did not progress, and over and over again he pulled out his watch, only to replace it with an impatient gesture, as though disgusted with the slow flight of time. At last he rose, and glancing through what he had written, tore it up with a contemptuous exclamation. A few moments later he was seated in a hansom and being borne along towards Piccadilly.
He was going to see her for the last time, and however he might resent its presence, he felt every moment the consciousness growing stronger within him that to bear his part well in the approaching interview he would have to summon to his aid all his strength of will, his determination, his recollection of a pre- conceived future, and last, but not least, realisation of the fact that he was engaged to marry his cousin.
Traffic was plentiful westwards, and several times he was blocked, and had to sit still in his cab and listen to the bandying of words between his driver and the driver of an omnibus, which, by a series of dexterous movements, kept advancing in front of its proper place. As he leaned over the apron of the cab watching the stream of traffic, a Victoria, drawn by a pair of thorough-bred bays, slowly passed him, and the man who lolled back amongst the cushions talking to a handsome girl by his side raised his hat and nodded.
"Prescott, by Jove!" muttered Philip to himself, as he returned the salute. He turned round and glanced after the pair with interest. Prescott had been a "brother briefless" until, a year ago, he had married an heiress, and since then things had gone smoothly with him. Sensible fellow, Prescott, Philip decided; and then it suddenly occurred to him that he was about to follow his friend's example, and would soon be able to afford a carriage and pair himself—at the expense of a companion.
Another carriage crawled by, and a prominent member of the Opposition to whom he had been introduced on the preceding evening by an indefatigable whip recognised him. "A rising young man, engaged to marry Clanningham's daughter; will do well," he had overheard that functionary whisper to his chief, and though such things were nothing to him except for their significance, Philip felt a thrill of pleasure as he returned his lordship's affable greeting.
The political and social world combined, the world which Disraeli was so fond of describing, cannot fail to appear singularly dazzling and alluring to the outsider who stands on the verge of it, and is received with fair looks and encouraging smiles. Around Philip Rotheram's modest hansom, as it bore him along with many stoppages towards his destination, was streaming the wealth and distinction of the greatest capital in the world. Statesmen, peers, renowned physicians, leaders of society, of politics, of both, were passing and re-passing, exchanging salutations with the glow of success, or the frown of intellect, or the smile of hope upon their faces. It was the bright, the gilded side of life that he saw, and in a sense it dazzled him.
Many a time before he had passed unheedingly along those streets, and had scarcely cared to cast a glance or thought upon the glittering show. He was an outsider! The world of society and politics was not his world, and he had held on his way lest thought of society should beget envy. But now all was changed. It was within his power to demand an entry into that charmed circle. Might he not have wealth, and gain a distinct position in the social world, by the fulfillment of a bounden promise? Had he not youth and energy, a seat in Parliament, and ability enough to make the best use of those advantages? Where was the limit to a career undertaken under such auspicious circumstances! Where indeed? and his brain grew dizzy with the first real flash of ambition as his cab rolled in and out amongst the motley crowd of vehicles. For the moment he forgot his mission, forgot whither he was bound. And then his cab pulled up with a jerk at the doors of the Continental.
Madame de Meuillis was within, and Philip Rotheram was shown into her room at once. She was alone.
"Ah, Monsieur Rotheram you have come, then!" and she took his great strong hand into her little withered ones and pressed it earnestly, while the tears stood in her eyes as she led him to a seat.
"How can we ever attempt to thank you?" she went on fervently. "You have saved my Iola from—from I dare not think what fate. Ah! monsieur, words are too weak. I can say nothing," and she released his hand to take out her handkerchief, turning away whilst she wiped her tears.
"I have done very little outside my professional duty, madame," he said kindly, for the old lady was trembling with earnestness, and her fervour had touched him. "Very little indeed. We must thank circumstances that things turned out as well as they did."
She shook her head deprecatingly.
"Nay, we must thank him who brought out the circumstances. Mr. Barton has told me all, and we know that all our thanks are due to you alone. It seems almost like a romance," she added, with a sigh.
"How is Miss Frankfort?" he enquired a little uneasily.
She shook her head, and looked sorrowful,
"My poor Iola! She suffers much now that it is all over. I shall hurry her away home with me at once. She will forget more easily in the country and at my home. Échoûilis, it is quiet indeed. And yet so charming! so picturesque! You must come and pay us a visit, Monsieur Rotheram! Now promise that you will. Ah! here is my child!"
He rose to his feet as the door opened, and then a sudden shock of pained surprise held him speechless for a moment, as he gazed upon her. He had expected to find her perhaps a little pale, but not like this. He was a man, and knew little about women, less about their nature, and he could not realise the sensitiveness, the acute nervousness, and keen susceptibility which are comprised in it.
He had pitied her with a great pity, but he had not judged to what extent she was realising the full horrors and degradation of her position when he had watched her in the prisoners' dock with white set countenance, and a gleaming of hauteur in her indignant blue eyes. He had not known, it had not occurred to him, that her partial nonchalance was the mask assumed by a proud nature, lest a gaping and staring mob might guess at the intensity of feeling which it concealed.
He did not know that it had been the mask of an agony, an overwhelming sensation of shame, which only a woman, an innocent woman, could have felt. But as he gazed upon her now he knew that she must have suffered far more acutely than he had suffered. Whilst she had been the cynosure of curious eyes, the knowledge that she was such had enabled her to maintain her dignity, but it had been unnatural, a frightful strain, and now that it was all over the reaction had stricken her hard. Her cheeks were utterly devoid of colour, and notwithstanding the short space of time, almost sunken, and her eyes, liquid and full of expression as he had remembered them, were dry and restlessly brilliant. She seemed to have grown thinner, and walked unsteadily, as though uncertain of her strength, and when she entered the room her first action was to lay her hand on the back of a chair, as though to support herself.
He noticed the action, and started forward to meet her, taking her hand and placing a seat for her without a word; but all the time his eyes were speaking a great compassion.
"I should not have disturbed you to-day," he said, regretfully, "but Madame de Meuillis was good enough to wish it, and I ought to go away to-morrow. You look ill, Miss Frankfort, and no wonder. I am afraid that this shock has tried you terribly."
She shook her head—a slow graceful movement—and smiled faintly.
"I am glad that you have come. I could not have rested until I had seen you," she said, extending her hand to him with a sudden impulsive gesture. "I owe you more than my life, Monsieur Rotheram. To acknowledge the debt is easy, but to attempt to offer you thanks, oh! how impossible. It seems so to attempt to find the words."
"Then pray do not try," he begged earnestly. "There is no need, and after all the truth would have been sure to come out."
She shook her head again. "It would not. I know the whole story now. A strange story, is it not?" she repeated musingly; "and I know that but for you I should never have been a free woman again. And, besides, you believed in me," she went on, in a low dreamy tone, as though talking were an exertion almost beyond her. "I could tell it when you spoke for me at the trial, and—I was very glad. You cannot tell how thankful it made me, monsieur. It gave me fresh hope and strength when I was commencing to despair, and it was such sweet pleasure to me to feel that you did not believe me guilty, like all the rest of that horrid crowd," and she shuddered at the remembrance of those curious gazers, who had pressed one against another to fix upon her their cruel, pitiless stare.
One of her hands still rested in his. She had not attempted to withdraw it, and he had felt a curious reluctance to let it go, and Madame de Meuillis, after watching them for a moment with a well-satisfied smile, quietly glided from the room. He knew that he was on the brink of a precipice, and he trembled for himself. A strange, subtle thrill of pleasure, such as he had never experienced or dreamed of before, was gliding through his veins, half intoxicating him, and there was a wild temptation rising up strong and passionate within him to take that fair weeping form into his strong arms, and bid her forget the horrors of the past, and live for the future—and for him. But with a fierce effort he kept down the impulse.
"You have had a terrible trial, Miss—Iola," he said slowly, "and believe me I pity you from my heart. But you must do your best to forget it now that it is all over."
"Forget it!" she echoed, half sadly, half in mockery.
"It will be hard, I know it will, but you must try. Think of the future, a pleasant and happy one I am sure it will be for you."
She glanced up in his face, but something in his unconscious gaze caused her eyes to suddenly droop, and a slight tinge of pink stole slowly into her cheeks, chasing from them the death- like pallor, altering wonderfully her appearance.
"You think so?" she said slowly. "I can scarcely believe it. I have never been very happy yet, and now that I am alone in the world, it seems scarcely likely that happiness will find me out. Besides, there is the hideous part to forget—if ever I do succeed in forgetting it," she added wearily.
"You have your aunt," he reminded her, scarce knowing what words he spoke, so fierce was the struggle going on within him.
"Yes, I have my aunt," she admitted. "Dear old Aunt Élise. It was good of her to come over at once to me, was it not?"
"Very," he answered mechanically, and then there was a long silence. He dared not speak, and she seemed exhausted.
It was she who recommenced the conversation, however.
"Tell me something about yourself, your own life and your people. I am going away, you know. I shall never come back to England again, and I shall like to think of you often."
He collected his thoughts with a great effort, and answered her.
"There is nothing very interesting to tell you," he said. "I am a barrister, that you know, and I have lately become a member of Parliament. I have chambers in London, but my home is down in Sorchester, nearly a hundred miles from here. My mother lives there—my father has been dead for many years."
"Have you no brothers or sisters?" she asked.
"One brother and two sisters. The live at Sorchester."
"I wonder what your sisters are like?" she went on. "Are they older than you?"
"One older and one younger. Beatrice is my favourite. She is the younger."
"Beatrice! What a pretty name! And is she anything like you?"
He laughed. "She would scarcely be flattered if you told her so!" he said.
"Why not! Ah! she is not so big, of course," she continued, without waiting for an answer. "Is she anything like me?"
He shook his head. "No, Beatrice is not beautiful. She is only nice-looking."
She blushed very slightly, and looked away. He suddenly became conscious that he had unwittingly made a pretty speech.
"Merci, monsieur," she said, with a very slight affectation of gaiety, "and that is all your family?" she added.
"All except a cousin who is stopping with us for awhile," and he despised himself then and afterwards that he could not force himself to add those simple words, "to whom I am engaged." But he did not.
"And is she beautiful too?"
He shook his head uneasily.
"And I am?" she queried with a faint smile.
"And you are—very," he said slowly. "Does it give you pleasure to hear that?"
She hesitated. "It does not matter to me what most people think, but I like you to think so. Don't you think me very vain?"
"No," he said decidedly, "I don't think so at all." Neither did he.
There was a silence, and in the midst of it Madame de Meuillis reappeared, and looked anxiously at them as though she had expected to hear some tidings which would have pleased her. She was a thorough Frenchwoman, and delighted in a love affair of any sort for its own sake, but apart from that she felt a strong liking for Philip, and could not conceive what other motive, save affection for her niece, had led him thus to espouse her cause. She was disappointed when she saw that what she desired had not come to pass, but she did not despair.
"You are going already, Monsieur Rotheram?" she asked, for at her entrance he had risen to his feet.
"Yes, I am going now, but I will see you again before you depart, if I may;" and although he spoke to her, his eyes wandered away towards Iola, and Madame de Meuillis decided that there was still hope.
"You must come soon then," she said, "for we leave here to- morrow afternoon. Suppose you come and lunch with us to-morrow, and then if you will, you can start us on our journey."
He hesitated, glancing again towards Iola. Her eyes met his and both glanced away in slight confusion. Madame de Meuillis smiled. All was indeed not yet lost!
"If you can come, do," Iola said; and he promised.
"This will not be good-bye, then," he remarked, as he shook hands with Madame de Meuillis, and then he turned towards Iola, and taking her proffered hand lent over it just a trifle lower than was necessary, and retained it for a moment longer than he need have done.
"Good afternoon Iola. I shall see you to-morrow." And to Madame de Meuillis, perhaps even to Iola herself, there was more in his tone and in his eyes than he knew of.
He walked back to his chambers with the hum of the busy streets in his ears and his brain in a whirl. He felt dejected, miserable, weighed down by a vague sense of unreality and approaching trouble, which seemed to stifle his thoughts. A telegram lay on his table when he entered the sitting room. He tore it open at once. It was from the Elms.
"George in great danger. Brain fever. Come without fail by the five o'clock train. Little hope."
He caught up his pen and paper, and scrawled a few hasty lines to Madame de Meuillis explaining his sudden absence. An hour later he was on his way to Sorchester.
The sudden climax in George Rotheram's illness was brought about by a strange turn of events, of which Lady Frances was the innocent cause. No one had been more grieved than she at his increasingly precarious state She had scarcely before, perhaps, realised how much she had depended upon his society, and what a lack of interest there was in life at the Elms without him. She was eager to take her share in the nursing, and begged for leave to sit with him, but she was deeply pained to be met with his point-blank refusal. He would rather be perfectly quiet, was his reply to her request, conveyed to him by Mrs. Rotheram, and on another occasion his headache was too bad; he did not care to see anyone.
For some time she acceded to his prohibition, but on the day when Philip paid his call at the Continental Hotel the doctor had recommended a change of rooms, and he had been brought down to the drawing-room. By accident she entered it, and saw him stretched on the sofa, staring listlessly out of the window, and pity overcoming the slight feeling of resentment which she had felt at his continual refusals to see her, she begged leave to sit with him.
He granted it nervously, motioning her to a seat, and her eyes filled with sympathetic tears as she marked the change which only a few days had wrought in him. His thin, pallid cheeks, the restless glance in his bright, dry eyes, and his long white fingers twitching with an emotion which she did not understand, were all evidences of it, and her heart ached with pity as she beheld him thus broke down and enfeebled, and remembered how good and kind he had been to her.
"George, you have been very ill," she stammered, taking the long thin fingers in hers, and holding them almost caressingly. "I am grieved to see you looking like this!"
He smiled faintly, the corners of his mouth twitching nervously, and made a weak attempt to withdraw his hand, but her great pity was overcoming all natural reserve, and she resisted the movement.
"Are you going to read to me?" he asked feebly, turning his head away from her as though to gaze out of the window.
She dried her eyes, and put her handkerchief away with a determined gesture.
"Yes, if you like. What shall it be?" she added with an attempt at cheerfulness.
He turned slowly round.
"Oh, anything. You have dropped a letter, Frances," he said, pointing to the ground. "A love letter, too," he added, and there was a barely repressed tinge of sarcasm lurking in his tone as he pronounced that last word. "It is from Philip, is it not?"
She nodded, and picked it up hastily.
"May I see it?" And not knowing how to refuse, although full of wonder at his asking, she let him take it.
He read it through, read it through twice and the deep colour slowly dyed his cheeks, and a curious light which almost frightened Lady Frances flashed into his eyes.
He broke into a short unnatural laugh.
"Ha! ha! ha! A pretty love letter!" and then he raised himself up on one elbow, and the long fingers of his other hand grasped her wrist until she almost cried out with the pain.
"Frances, do you think that you will ever love this man who writes you so affectionately?" he asked, in a low, hoarse whisper. "Do you? Aren't you looking forward eagerly to the time when he will be your husband? Eh?"
She looked at him frightened, astonished at his strange tone and manner, and met his eyes full of a wild, feverish light, and yet with something in them before which hers drooped.
"I don't know, I fear not," she faltered, drawing a little away from him.
"Then, by God, you never shall marry him," he burst out, passionately, springing up to a sitting posture with a sudden burst of energy, and striking the head of the couch fiercely with his clenched fist. "Honour or dishonour, I will not stand by and see such a sacrifice! Frances, what is Philip to you that you should throw away the happiness of your life to bring him wealth? It's all a preposterous mistake, a Quixotic notion of yours, but I have been silent long enough. Don't interrupt me! Let me speak out!" he cried, with a wild gesture. "Frances, he does not love you, he never will. You are mad to throw yourself away on him. Do you know why I have been silent so long, what it is that has been burning in my brain, and weighing me down almost to death?" he gasped out. "It's killing me now. My head whirls! I'm giddy! Hold me Frances! No, no, don't call for help. I'm better now. Hear me out. Let me tell you why I have been silent. Because I, I love you, Frances! No, no, don't start away from me! Don't be frightened! Let me finish telling you now my love, and then leave me if you will. You were engaged to Philip, pressed and cajoled into it by your mother and mine that your cursed money might win for him a brilliant future. I stood by and watched him win you without effort or pains, with only a careless word. I swore to myself that I would forget you. You were gone! Why should I make everyone unhappy by striving to win you away? What use to me, a quiet country lawyer," he said bitterly, "would your fortune or your name be, and, besides, what chance was there for me, dull, plodding, and uninteresting as I am, when Philip sought you?"
"Oh! I have struggled hard, Frances," he cried with increasing passion, "to keep my secret, and to ensure your happiness. I have implored Philip to behave as though he loved you, even though he did not. I have striven to point out to him the way to love you— alas! I knew it! I have sounded to him all your good qualities. I knew them better than he did, and then he nearly drove me mad with a mocking laugh and disparaging speech. Still I strove to keep things straight between you. I have softened down his brusqueness to you, and I have magnified your sensitiveness to him, I have tried by all the means in my power to restrain this wild unreasoning love for you. But it has conquered me at last. It has conquered me now. I have lost the power of will. I—what have I been saying, Frances?" he cried out in a suddenly changed tone. "God forgive me if I tell her now! My brain is dizzy, my head is on fire. Hold me, hold me," and he clutched her shrinking terrified figure in a sudden passionate embrace.
"Frances, I love you," he hissed out, "love you so that I am going mad with holding my peace so long," he screamed, letting her go suddenly. "Ah! here comes Philip, Philip! Can't you see him!" and with a wild effort he sprang to his feet, and shook his fist at the door. "You selfish brute," he shrieked out, in a paroxysm of mad rage, "you selfish—" And then, his strength suddenly failing him, he sank back on the couch foaming at the mouth, and gibbering inarticulate sentences.
She rushed screaming into the hall, and then back into the room. Mrs. Rotheram and the servants came hurrying in, to find her fainting by his side, and very soon afterwards the doctor, summoned in hot haste, joined the little group.
His face grew very grave as he bent over his patient.
"The worst has come. This is brain fever, and fearfully developed," he pronounced anxiously. "Something terrible must have happened to him to bring him to this state."
About half-past seven that evening Philip arrived at the Elms. Mrs. Rotheram met him at the door, looking graver and more troubled than he had ever seen her before.
"I'm so thankful that you've come, Philip," she said earnestly, as she preceded him into the dining-room. "George is very ill indeed, and the doctor has been here for hours."
"Tell me all about it," he demanded.
She told him, and he listened anxiously to the recital.
"Brain fever! raving mad! This is all very sudden, isn't it?" he asked, as he slowly drew off his travelling ulster and divested himself of his other impediments.
"Do you know what brought it on?"
Mrs. Rotheram shook her head. She had not the faintest idea.
"Who is with him now?" Philip asked.
"Dr. Brandon and a nurse from the Infirmary, and I believe Frances is there still."
"Frances! Surely it is no place for her! What is she doing there?" he asked, surprised.
"I don't know," declared Mrs. Rotheram, sinking into a chair. "I only know that she asked Dr. Brandon whether she might not stop with him until the nurse came, and I haven't heard her come down yet."
"Well, I think I'll go up and see the doctor," Philip decided, after a few minutes' meditation.
Mrs. Rotheram was exhausted, and had been crying quietly.
"Do, Philip, and let me know what he says."
The door of the sick-room was jealousy guarded, and Philip was not allowed to enter, but in a few minutes Dr. Brandon came out to him.
"Don't let him hear your voice," were the doctor's first words. "Come a little further down the corridor."
"Is there danger?" asked Philip, when they had reached its furthest extremity.
"Yes, there is," was the prompt reply. "There's no need to despair, though. I never thought it was going to develop as it has done," the doctor went on. "Your brother must have been suffering from severe mental strain," and he looked into Philip's face inquiringly, but Philip only appeared perplexed, as indeed he was.
"So I suppose," he said, in a mystified tone. "And yet it seems almost impossible. I can't imagine what trouble he could have had."
The doctor looked dubious—a little disappointed.
"It must be found out and put right, whatever it is," he said. "I'm hopeful of pulling him through the acute crisis, but it's afterwards I'm afraid of. You're sure you haven't an idea as to what this trouble could be?" and Dr. Brandon eyed him keenly.
Philip looked at him surprised—a trifle indignant.
"Of course I haven't. I'd tell you in a moment if I had."
The doctor looked out of the long window for a moment, thoughtfully.
"It's a queer thing," he said, abruptly.
"What the devil are you driving at?" exclaimed Philip in despair. "You'll excuse me, doctor, but why on earth don't you speak out. What is it that's queer?"
Dr. Brandon hesitated. "I suppose I'd better tell you," he said. "It may be merely a phantasy, of course, but your brother seems to mix you up in this trouble, and alludes to you in his ravings in terms—well, the reverse of complimentary."
"Why, we've always been on capital terms," declared Philip, thoroughly bewildered. "Poor fellow! His brain must be completely turned."
"Ah, well, I thought it as well to tell you," said the doctor "I'll go back to my patient now. Remember you mustn't think of coming in to see him or letting him hear your voice. It would do him incalculable harm."
Four days passed away—rather ebbed away to the little household at the Elms, to whom they were days of deep suspense. A change might come at any moment, they were told, the crisis could not be far off, so they each and all feared to absent themselves for long, and hung listlessly about the house, Philip alone making any attempt at employing his time, and he only by fits and starts. He scarcely exchanged a word with Frances during those days of waiting. Although presumably she should have suffered least of them all, she appeared to yield in anxiety to none of them, and went about with pale cheeks and restless manner very different to her usual self. She avoided Philip, at least so it seemed to him, but he troubled very little about that, for he was in no mood for even his own very mild style of love-making. Under the pretence of study he shut himself up most of the day in his sanctum, where he was quite secure from interruption, for it had long been understood in the household that directly he closed the door of that retreat he was engaged in the throes of profound study, and only in much fear and trembling, and under dire necessity, did any venture to disturb him.
But in the afternoon of the fourth day there was a timid rap at the door, and in response to his somewhat surly "Come in," his cousin entered.
He rose somewhat surprised, and removed his pipe from his mouth.
"May I come in, Philip? I won't disturb you for long," she said hesitatingly.
"Of course you can," he assured her, with a faint attempt at cordiality. "Sit down, will you?"
She sank down in the chair which he placed for her, and remained for a moment or two nervously clasping and unclasping her hands. It was he who spoke first.
"Now that you are here, Frances," he said gravely, "there is something which I should like to say to you. I had intended asking you to spare me half-an-hour this evening, but if you can, spare it me now."
"Yes, I have nothing to do," she assured him, and he proceeded.
"It is about our engagement, Frances."
The colour dyed her cheeks, but she remained silent.
"You know how we entered upon it," he continued. "I never pretended to be in love with you, nor did you with me. But it has never occurred to me to ask you whether there was anyone else."
Her lips parted as though about to speak, but he held up his hand to check her.
"I have learned something, only last night," he went on, "which I must say has taken me completely by surprise; something of which I had not the least idea. Don't be impatient," he begged, as she seemed about to speak. "I am gong to tell you all about it," and she sat and listened with downcast head.
"I always knew that George was a very good fellow," he went on. "He has been a remarkably good brother to me, but I never knew until last night how great was his self-denial, or what a brute, although quite unconsciously, I have been to him. I never knew that he declined the offer to contest Sorchester simply that I might have it. I did hear after the election that he had had the offer and had refused it, but I believed even then that his excuse was genuine, and that he really did not care for it. I never dreamed that he was sacrificing the one ambition of his life through pure and simple unselfishness. Yet this was so, and Frances, I learnt more still, partly from his ravings, partly from Dr. Brandon. He has had another secret which he has concealed only too well, a secret I fear which has caused his illness. I don't suppose you know it. I never dreamed of it," and he leaned forward in his chair and lowered his voice a little. "He loves you, Frances!"
She made no sign, and showed no surprise. She simply waited for him to continue.
"The more I think of it, the more I am forced to admit that he has acted splendidly. You do not know how he has praised you to me, pointed out your good qualities, and urged me to do this and to do that after the manner which he knew would please you best. In short, he has striven to show me the way to win your love, Frances, whilst all the time he has been battling with the longing to possess it for himself. He has made me feel ashamed of myself. I have been tempted to look down sometimes with a sort of fancied superiority upon his quiet unostentatious life here, and to deem him narrow-minded because it has contented him. I was a fool to think so. I can see now that George is a better man than I shall ever be. I scarcely know how to put what I want to say to you into words, Frances. You must forgive me if I do it awkwardly. But if I were you, I should think that such conduct as his deserved more than my gratitude—even my love. You don't care much for me, Frances, I know, and I never pretended to care for you except in a cousinly way. I am thankful that this is so, because it gives me hope that what I wish may some day come to pass."
"Consider what George has done for you," he went on earnestly, "how nobly, how unselfishly he has behaved, and more than this, consider how he loves you! Frances, if you could care for him, if you would have him instead of me, you would still marry a Rotheram, and I would see things right somehow with our people. I would not dare to say this to you if there had been the slightest pretence of love between us, but there has not. Forgive me if I have put this bluntly. It is not an easy thing for a man to say to a woman," he went on desperately, "but if you care for George, it would only be a fitting reward for him, and I am sure that he would make you happy. What do you say Frances?" and he waited anxiously for her answer.
She had covered her face with her hands whilst he had been pleading his brother's cause, so he had not been able to judge from her countenance what effect his words were having. But when he had finished she withdrew them, and smiled faintly up at him through her tears. "Philip," she said simply, "I love George. I came here to ask you to release me from my engagement. If he wishes it, I will marry him," she added blushing slightly through her tears.
A great relief shone in Philip's face.
"Then I only just escaped being jilted," he said, smiling. "This is well, Frances. Our engagement after all was a great mistake. I am afraid you would never have been happy as my wife. You are too sensitive, and a great deal too good for me. This is well."
"I wish he wasn't so ill," she said anxiously.
"I don't think that we need trouble now," he assured her. "Dr. Brandon seems to be quite confident of getting him over the crisis all right. It was afterwards he feared, and I think that we shall be able to take the matter out of his hands then. We can offer him a pretty strong inducement to pull himself together again, you see, and that's what'll be wanted."
She smiled and dried her eyes.
"You are very good, Philip," she said, "and about that horrid money, you know," she continued, looking down and studying the pattern of the slipper. "We shan't know what on earth to do with that. It will be of no use to us!"
For the first time in his life he realised the meanness of that little family arrangement, and he felt a slight sensation of shame at the idea of ever having contemplated marriage for money.
"We will talk about that some other time," he said quietly. "I have plenty, and George must come into Parliament himself. Run away now," he continued, rising and opening the door for her. "I want to go and see Dr. Brandon. This will be good news for him."
She held out her hand impulsively. He had been very good after all, she thought, and she felt very kindly towards him as he stood by her side, his strong features indicative of the liveliest gratification at the satisfactory termination of their interview.
He took it frankly. "We shall always be good friends, I hope," he said smiling, "although we simultaneously jilted one another."
"I am sure that we shall," she replied heartily, and then she hurried off to her room to yield to the favourite indulgence of her sex—in grief or happiness—a good cry.
Later on in the evening Philip told his mother of his discovery and subsequent conversation with Frances. She was bewildered at first, and incredulous, but when convinced of the truth she was much more reasonable even than he had dared to hope. It was a bitter disappointment, the upsetting of a cherished scheme, but she was a sensible woman, and recognised the necessity of accepting the inevitable; and when possessed of the whole truth, she saw at once that it was inevitable. Besides, although Philip was so much her favourite, George was still her son, and his illness had brought out a good deal of latent affection, of the existence of which she had been scarcely aware. If it was Philip of whom she was proud, and to whom her mother's heart yearned, still George had always been a dutiful, even a model son to her, and she could not in justice, of which she possessed more than a woman's share, grudge him this happiness which had come to him. Since it was to be, she accepted the position with a very good grace, and straightway went in search of Frances.
"Philip has told me everything," she said, kissing her affectionately, "and you needn't look so anxious. You are a dear, good girl, and you will still be my daughter. Don't think that I mind in the least. I am perfectly content."
Frances drew a long sigh of relief, for she had dreaded what her aunt might say. Then Philip came in, and nothing more was said on the subject.
On the following evening came the expected crisis, and the result proved that Dr. Brandon had not been too sanguine in his prognostications. George turned the corner of his illness, and before the morning dawned was conscious, though terrible weak—so weak that he seemed content to be quite still, half awake, half asleep, asking no questions, and apparently taking no interest in anything passing around him. There he lay for three days, and then Dr. Brandon had a short consultation with Mrs. Rotheram and Philip, the result of which was that the latter and Frances were admitted into the sick-room. The invalid seemed distressed at first by their presence but he held out his long thin fingers to his brother, and summoned the ghost of a smile. Then his eyes fell upon Frances, and he turned half round, as though to hide her from his sight. But Philip led her forward with him, and taking her hand placed it between his brother's wasted shaking fingers.
"George," he whispered, bending closely over him, "we all wish this, and she has chosen so." Then he turned and departed from the room, leaving George with eyes into which the long absent fire of hope and life had leaped fixed upon the woman he loved, while she, half-blushing, half in tears, suffered herself to be drawn closer to his side by the gentle pressure of his fingers.
"I must be dreaming again," he whispered. "Frances, is this thing true?"
And for answer she sank upon her knees by his couch, and kissed his lips.
A week had passed away, and Philip was back again in his London chambers, standing with his hands in his pockets, staring out of the window of his sitting-room at the apparently illimitable vista of slated roofs and chimney-pots. By his side lay a little pile of letters which had accumulated during his absence, but of these he had only troubled to open two. One of them was from Madame de Meuillis, and was dated exactly a week back.
My dear Monsieur Rotheram,
We were both truly grieved to receive your note, and learn that you were compelled to leave London so suddenly. I trust that your brother's state no longer gives you cause for alarm.
I feel that as yet I have not thanked you half enough for your noble kindness to my dear Iola, although mere words could not convey to you one-half of the gratitude which is in my heart. We leave for Échoûilis to-morrow at noon, so I deeply regret that in England at any rate we shall meet no more. But cannot you come and pay us a visit at Échoûilis; if not now, before very long? I think that you would like the place, and I should be charmed to see you there. Come, do! I enclose a note from Iola. She is no worse than I expected, and I am sure that the change of scene and perfect quiet at Échoûilis will soon restore her to health.
Believe me, my dear Monsieur Rotheram, to be ever yours most gratefully,
Cécile Élise de Meuillis.
Iola's note was indeed a short one:—
Dear Mr. Rotheram,
If I were to write for hours, and for days, I could never hope to offer you thanks sufficient for the service you have rendered me, and I should only weary you. I owe you my life, and more than my life. It would be idle for me to seek to requite with words such noble and disinterested kindness as you have shown me, but until death comes I shall never cease to bless your name, and think of you as my preserver.
There was another letter which lay open on the table, and to which his reply and a small packet lay ready for posting. There was neither date nor address at the head of it, and it contained only these few lines, written in French:—
Dear Mon. Rotheram,
Kindly return the likeness to Jean Mollinot, Poste Restante, Berne, and rest assured of the constant kind assurances of the writer.
Philip had only come up from Sorchester that afternoon, and had found these letters awaiting him. George was mending rapidly, and had been pronounced completely out of danger, until which verdict had been given Philip had not cared to leave the Elms, for the more he thought over his brother's conduct towards him the more he felt moved to admiration of self-denial and unselfishness so pronounced, and so steadily persevered in. George was to have his reward though, and that was a great satisfaction to him, for it had been arranged that on his recovery, with as little delay as possible, Frances and he should be married.
The day on which Philip received those letters from Madame de Meuillis and her niece marked a great crisis in his life. Notwithstanding the change in his prospects which had of course ensued upon the breaking off of his engagement to his cousin, he could not feel any depression, or indeed any regret at all, in the severance of their compact. Somehow he had a very strong conviction that if it had come to pass their union would have been an unhappy one.
Not that he was inclined for a moment to abandon his views on the subject of marriage generally, but rather that Lady Frances, being of a particularly sensitive disposition, would not have viewed in so practical a light their relative position, and would have expected more from him than he would have been prepared to give. George would be the better husband for her beyond a doubt. There was more sentiment in his composition, and therefore it was more in accord with her own. He did not grudge them their happiness, he mused as he walked up and down the room with his hands folded behind him. On the contrary, it had given him keen pleasure to aid at its accomplishment.
George had proved himself to be a man of infinitely higher calibre than Philip had ever thought him, and the events of the last fortnight had induced in him, a great respect for his brother. There was only one point in which he felt inclined to look down upon him as proof that he was a man of much weaker disposition than himself, and that was that he seemed content to expect and desire his chief happiness at a woman's hand. But, nevertheless, he was not at all sure that there was not a shade of envy in his mind.
He had never been very happy himself. Why, it seemed rather difficult for him to decide. He did not for a moment believe that happiness was a chance gift, descending on some and passing over others. He rather regarded it as the natural and inevitable sequence of right doing, revealing itself to some in one way, to others in another, according to their tastes and disposition.
It had seemed to him perfectly natural, then, that a man should choose for himself what happiness for himself should consist in, and he, Philip, as a boy, a dabbler in philosophy and the science of the mind, had decided to lead a moral life, a life good in the eyes of men as in his own, a life as far as possible sinless, as far as possible deserving. He had never doubted that the natural reward of success in the prosecution of so worthy a design would be happiness, happiness springing from the content and satisfaction derived from the contemplation of his successfully achieved task, and in proportion as he had determined thus to deserve and secure happiness, he had decreed that he would never seek it in any less worthy fashion. It had seemed to him then, and through all the years of his early manhood he had not changed his mind, that the happiness proceeding from the propitious arrangement and development of circumstances and local influences was a far less worthy happiness, which he would neither covet nor, if it should tempt him by its near approach encourage.
His was a dangerous mind to imbibe a notion which had been better abandoned or never conceived. His disposition was strong, and utterly antagonistic to change. His will was sufficient to conquer with the utmost ease any ordinary passions which could assail him, and not his passions alone, but his every action and impulse, the whole course of his life, had ever been in complete subservience to it. He was egotistical—such a nature as his could not well have escaped such a defect—for, after all, a certain measure of selfishness is the natural outcome of all philosophical study, and in the eager watch which he kept over his own life, that it might be shaped and preserved intact according to his preconceived notions, he seldom or never paused to consider its bearing and influence upon the wishes or feelings of others.
Hence he was in a measure selfish, although his was far from being the lowest form of selfishness. Marriage, for instance, he had never contemplated save from his own point of view, self- advancement, and the very indifference to the woman, on which he rather prided himself as being a proof of his impregnability against influence, was after all a subtle refinement of this fault. He was virtuous, upright, in all things moderate, conscientious, in many cases generous, rather from philosophy than from moral or religious scruples. He embraced these qualities and united them into his life rather from motives of self-interest than from any recognition of the principles of Christianity, or from pure love of virtue.
As a child, he had been singularly quiet and reticent, and yet not particularly studious in the matter of reading. He was a wise child. He preferred to gather his knowledge of life, its obligations and its possibilities, from the lives of those around him, rather than from books or teachings. He had been, for a child, a wonderful student of human nature, and his constant study of it had developed perceptions keen and accurate. It was from the result of such study, and the tendencies of a naturally healthy mind, that he had drawn the lines of his life so as to include many noble and fine qualities, and, on the other hand, it was from his too great neglect of teachings, and from the errors of a hard and logical mind utterly devoid of even a reasonable amount of imagination, that he had placed outside them many qualities and propensities which, utterly harmless in themselves, would certainly have aided him in the attainment to happiness.
He was a pessimist in his ideas of his fellows, and had been wont to talk much in his college days of the decadence of man and the preponderance of the animal elements over his higher gifts. Simplicity, he thought, was the natural state of mankind, and the state in which his higher gifts were more potent in obtaining the mastery over his less worthy instincts.
Civilisation had ever been directed by man towards the refinement of all the arts which minister to the animal faculties, and it seemed to him that as these refinements increased they appealed more and more powerfully to mankind, and in like proportion swelled and assumed a larger and more prominent place in his nature. True, the same extension of knowledge and civilisation had opened his eyes to many marvellous scientific and physical facts, and had therefore ministered to his mental faculties, but the proportions were not on an equal scale, for after all nature herself and solitude were the grandest incentives to ennobling reflection, and these man had without the aid of civilisation.
Philip had read it as an axiom, the truth of which he had immediately recognised, that vice was the direct product of the animal faculties, and that virtue proceeded from moral sentiment and the rational faculties. Therefore he had chosen virtue, and as in time his thoughts turned towards religion, and his convictions became less wavering and more concentrated, he was well content to find that the qualities which he had espoused from considerations of expediency were such as the teachings and principles of Christianity fully endorsed.
Many young men enter life with some of the same ideas as Philip Rotheram, but few, fortunately perhaps, have the tenacity of purpose and strength of will to maintain their early principles again considerations and material influences of whose potency, or of whose very existence, they had never dreamed. But the singular strength of Philip's character had carried him irresistibly along, and through many years had kept him steadfast to the purposes and designs of his early days. There had lately been moments of weakness, almost of wavering, but in the end he had conquered.
From the night on which he had followed that strange half foreign girl into her mysterious home a new and terribly powerful temptation had attacked him. Once he had conquered it, twice he had conquered it, and after its third assault, fierce though the struggle had been, he still remained the victor.
And now it was all over. She had gone, and the temptation with her, but had he come out scatheless? when not all his boasted strength of will could drive from his mind that graceful supple form, that fair sweet face with its coronet of golden hair, those pleading, suffering blue eyes. Scatheless? when beside thoughts of her, hopes of future greatness, the aspirations of the parliamentary novice, the avowed purpose of a life which years had shaken never a jot, these all sunk into impotent and utter indifference.
The happiness which he had declared himself able to win by such means seemed never so far off as when viewed in conjunction with the means whereby he had hoped to gain it, never so near as when he abandoned himself to visions and remembrances which made his pulses beat fast, and his heart throb.
It was a mood, he told himself wearily, merely a revulsion of feeling. It would be gone in a day or two, and he would be the same as ever again, but all the while convictions against which his whole nature battled with a desperate earnestness whispered that the essence of life would corrode for him, and that happiness would for ever be denied to him save he obeyed the wild longing impulse which bade him follow her to France, and bring her back to be the medium of that happiness.
Such a thought was sheer agony to him, and he stamped the room in a fierce fit of anger. What! After all his high resolutions, his lofty imaginings, and steadfast determination, was he to descend all of a sudden to grovel for his happiness at a woman's hand? He to do this! he to whom women had seemed well in their places at the head of their husband's dinner table, in the nursery, or reception-room, but all the while merely an appendage—an instrument useful enough in her place, but to be regarded as a hindrance and a nuisance should she attempt to step out if it into greater prominence.
Men of weaker mould, he had declared, might waste their time in the weak luxury of wifely embraces, might if they chose, make their spouses the partners of their lives, the confidantes of their hopes, the presiding genii of their existence. He was superior to all such ignominy. His life he would live to himself, independent even of man's sympathy and help, far more of woman's. She was an influence to which he was impregnable, he had decided with satisfaction, a hindrance which could never hinder him, an influence which he could deride, resist, and despise. And well had he maintained his early principles; so well that their truth, their wisdom, and his own impregnability had become an oracle to him.
And now at the zenith, at the turning point of his career, at the moment when glimpses of a new life had struck a responsive chord of newly- awakened interest in his nature, he was called upon to yield to this very influence, which in an over-estimated sense of security he had derided and scoffed at. Passions, feelings, sensations never kindled in him before, and of whose latent existence he had been ignorant, had suddenly been galvanised into life, and were struggling against his reason, his will, and the doctrines of his life with a vehemence and force which startled and alarmed him beyond measure. So far he had resisted, but time after time, unvanquished and unweakened, these strange emotions had renewed the strife, and every day his will had been growing weaker, his doctrines more shaken, and his reason veering.
He felt himself at bay at last, and he was growing desperate. Happiness, he reasoned, I shall lose if I yield, for happiness, I have sworn, I will only seek by carrying out and persevering in the life which reason tells me I have well conceived. If I pass through life my intellect and reason holding me superior to all unworthy attractions, whilst I seek success neither for ambition's sake nor fame's, from my own consciousness of doing and deserving well shall come my reward, and never from any less worthy source.
What presumption! What arrogance! whispered those fiercely tempting thoughts. Who gave you leave to set up your own standard of happiness upon a pedestal, and declare that save from that particular pedestal you will not accept it? What folly! What ignorance! Happiness is a gift, not a sequence. It is not for men to decide arbitrarily how or in what manner they will obtain it. To deserve it is not to win it; those only are successful on whom the mighty goddess Chance bestows her favours. She holds it out to you! Grasp it, or, fool, you will be too late, for not all your determination, all your will, all your proud and boasted self-reliance, shall win her favours from that fickle goddess if you defy her, and seek without her aid to grasp it.
Supposing I yield, he reasoned, supposing I relinquish my cherished determination, and seek happiness by yielding to this passion which bids me hasten to Iola's side, what shall I gain? A passing joy, a momentary bliss, a brief delirium of happiness, and then—surfeit, remorse, reaction. This strange enchanting emotion, love they call it, cannot be lasting. It must evaporate in time, and then—then, utter disgust, utter misery!
Besides, who is she? The daughter of a conspirator whose name is historical, and who in his lifetime was feared and dreaded throughout Europe, as the most dangerous and reckless revolutionist of modern times. Shall I, Philip Rotheram, make the daughter of such a one my wife, whom perforce I should have to marry under an assumed name, and who is herself the heroine of a cause celèbre.
No! By Heaven, no! he swore through his clenched teeth, and he struck the table with such violence that his pile of letters were scattered in all directions. He picked them up, tearing them open, and glancing at them as he did so. Some—no less than seven—were from well-known solicitors inquiring as to the truth of the rumour that he was about to relinquish his practice, and more than one strenuously advised him to do nothing of the sort, and congratulated him on his brilliant defence in Regina v. Frankfort. There were three offering briefs, several promising them. There was a whip from his party to attend and vote that night at the House, two or three invitations to dinner, in all the correspondence of a rising man.
He dressed rapidly, and drove down to the House. The debate, it was a somewhat important one, was at its height, and he listened with keen interest to the war of words around him, for the subject was one with which he was well acquainted. A prominent member of the Government got up and spoke at some length, but with an evident uncertainty as to his subject, and when his speech was over, Philip rose simultaneously with several others, and caught the Speaker's eye. There was an encouraging cry of "new member." The others gave way at once, and Philip found himself committed without any preparation to make his maiden speech in Parliament.
His opening sentences were bald, but pithy, and then gaining courage from the knowledge which he had of his subject he launched out boldly in defence of his views of it, and categorically demolished the arguments of his opponents. He did not speak at too great length, but he spoke fluently and to the point, and when he resumed his seat amidst a burst of hearty applause he felt perfectly satisfied with his effort, as indeed he had good reason to be. It seemed to him as he passed out of the House an hour or two later that stray members whom he met in the lobby nodded to him with increased interest and affability, and just as he was stepping into a hansom outside, Mr.——, his leader, who was entering his carriage, drew back, and accosting him congratulated him on his speech, and asked him to dine at C— square on the morrow.
Nothing much in it after all. Merely the usual signs of an initiatory success, but nevertheless they are very precious to the beginner, and Philip felt a thrill of pleasure as he accepted his leader's invitation, and a certain resolution which he had sworn to adhere to became strengthened.
That night Philip devoted to answering his correspondence. He accepted the briefs offered him, and contradicted the report that he was about relinquishing his practice. He glanced at the names on his dinner cards, and finding that they were good ones, accepted them also, and finally he wrote Madame de Meuillis with a firm hand and unwavering determination.
He thanked her for her letter, and regretted that he had not been able to see them again before they left England. He deprecated their thanks—he had done nothing to deserve such gratitude. He thanked her for her invitation. Some day he promised himself the pleasure of accepting it, but it would not be just yet. He desired his kindest regards to be offered to Miss Frankfort, and thanks for her note, and trusted that she would soon recover from the shock of her father's death, and her own misfortune, and he remained theirs sincerely, Philip Rotheram.
In a little French village, far away from the stir and hum of life, two lonely women read together this short cold letter.
"Bête!" And the elder impatiently stamped her foot, and then glanced anxiously at her companion.
"Aunt, aunt, why should you call him that!" and a momentary gleam of indignation lit up those dreamy blue eyes. "He deserves nothing but kind words and thoughts from either of us. It is not likely that, that—"
And she never finished the sentence.
But Madame de Meuillis was very angry with Philip.
Two years had passed since Philip Rotheram won what he esteemed to be a victory over himself, and very important years they had been to him. He had made quiet but steady progress in the House, and occasionally—he did not speak often—he added to his fast growing reputation by a telling and forcible speech. More rapid still had been his advancement at the bar. He was wise not to have abandoned his profession, for his nature included all the qualities which a successful legal career demands. He was clear-sighted and far-seeing; logical and tenacious, and at every effort his powers of speech seemed to be more forcible, until at length he was even termed eloquent amongst those whose chief desideratum is that commendation. His practice had increased to an almost overwhelming extent. Two sudden deaths placed in his hands a good deal of Parliamentary business, which he managed in such a fashion that no one was surprised when he received the coveted silk gown, and became the youngest Q.C. at the English bar.
There had been many changes during these two years. Beatrice was married, and had gone with her husband to India. Ruth had established a training school for nurses near Sorchester, and was herself the matron. George had brought his wife home to the Elms, after a prolonged tour in the East, and Mrs. Rotheram, nothing loth, had left them in sole possession, and at Philip's request had come up to London to take the head of an establishment more befitting his altered position.
She was perfectly content to have her favourite son all to herself, and to watch his rapid advance both in the House and at the Bar, and she was never more thoroughly in her element than when receiving her son's guests, or accompanying him to some reception or dinner-party. For society had looked favourably upon the hard-working and successful young barrister, and he was far too wise not to avail himself to the fullest extent of its advances.
To all appearances he was little altered; still grave, reserved, and thoughtful, yet always courteous and even-tempered. His views as to marriage and the other sex generally seemed to have undergone no moderation, at any rate he shunned their society when possible, and when impossible his gravity of demeanour and abstraction were far too apparent and impenetrable to win him any popularity amongst them.
And yet there were many who were interested in him, and would fain have known him better; interested in him perhaps because there was something quite inexplicable in the gravity, almost gloom, of his deportment. If success had come, and it certainly had come, it had evidently not brought him much satisfaction, for gradually his natural reserve was deepening into severity, and his taciturnity into almost offensive abruptness.
Philip Rotheram was not a happy man. The fact was written in his face, and he himself could not deny it. The self-satisfaction on which he had reckoned as absolutely certain to yield him this great gift had utterly failed in so doing. Success grew, and so did his melancholy, and the mere routine of his pursuits. In vain he tortured himself with speculations as to the cause of it all. He reviewed his brief career. It was one long unbroken record of plans well conceived and executed, of determinations zealously and faithfully carried out—a career wonderfully free from all reproach, the career of an honest, upright man, who, with untiring energy and moderate talents, had fought his way up in the world in an incredible short space of time to a position which much older men might view with envy. And yet neither the consciousness of having done well, the self-satisfaction at his own tenacity of purpose, nor the fruits of his labours themselves had brought him one single hour of real happiness.
It was a strange thing this, he thought. What, after all, was this gift which refused to be won by such rational and moral efforts as his? Was it a mere chance sensation, unevenly distributed without regard to desert, and to be attained to by no man's efforts? He refused to believe it. His religion and his common-sense alike denied it. And yet what else was he to believe? How was he to account for the weariness and languor which seemed settling down like a heavy cloud upon his life? for the ashes which grated between his teeth when he had thought to taste the sweets of his hardly won success?
"You ought to be dressing, Philip," remarked Mrs. Rotheram, glancing up at the clock. "Burdett will be round with the brougham in a minute or two."
They were sitting together in the drawing-room of his new house in Mayfair, Mrs. Rotheram in a basket chair half out on the verandah, and Philip sitting back in the shade, for the venetian blinds had been drawn close to keep out the blazing afternoon sun.
He did not answer at once, and had the room not been so darkened, Mrs. Rotheram might have noticed that his thoughts seemed very far away.
"I shall not go this evening," he said, quietly. "Will you be so good as to write an excuse for me, and send Burdett round with it. I don't feel quite equal to it."
Mrs. Rotheram left her chair at once, and stepped into the room both surprised and alarmed. She had never heard such a speech as that last from her son before, for physically he seemed made of iron, and that it should have come to-night of all others seemed to her most extraordinary. There was an official dinner and a reception afterwards at Lord ____ 's, to mark the winding up of the Session, and Philip's invitation to the dinner had been considered a great honour.
"Do you mean it, Philip?" and she looked at him in blank astonishment, but the look changed in a moment into one of deep anxiety.
"Philip, you are ill," she cried out. "I knew how it would be. Those horrid committees!" and she bent over him the better to study his looks.
"There's nothing much the matter," he assured her, with an attempt at cheerfulness. "A little over-work, perhaps, and these late sittings are trying. But I'm afraid I shall scarcely be able to go to-night," he added, regretfully.
"Of course you will not," and she crossed the room and opened her desk. "I will write at once, and I shall send round to Mr. Armitage and ask him to call."
She did so, and early on the following morning he came.
There was nothing whatever the matter, he declared. Organically, his patient was in perfect health, although his mental condition was far less satisfactory. He was suffering without a shadow of doubt from over-work. In plain words, he was stale.
"You must have a change at once," he declared; "a yachting cruise, or a quiet walking tour. The former would be the better."
The busy young man of the world consulted his engagements, and shook his head.
"Absolutely impossible until the Long," he declared.
The physician was a man not given to mincing his words, nor did he do so on the present occasion.
"Very well," he said, drily, drawing on his gloves, "then it will also be absolutely impossible for you to escape a severe illness. You know best, of course. Good morning."
Mrs. Rotheram pleaded, and Philip determined to compromise matters. His constituents had seen very little of him lately, and had sent him a pressing invitation to distribute the prizes at the local infirmary sports. He would run down to Sorchester and stop with George for a day or two.
Having made up his mind, he determined to start at once lest anything should happen to prevent him. A pair was found by an obliging but regretful whip, a couple of briefs were transferred to a fellow barrister, some other business was postponed, and on that same afternoon he travelled down to Sorchester.
George met him at the station, and his quiet but genuine smile of welcome was exchanged for a look of apprehension as he noticed his brother's worn look and haggard appearance.
"I'm afraid you've been overdoing it, Philip," he said kindly, as they drove out of the station yard. "We hear of you every day down here, and I believe if there was an election to-morrow you'd go in at the head of the poll again."
Philip smiled. "Glad to hear it. But I'm sick of politics. How's Frances, and my young nephew?"
"Quite well. Frances will be glad to see you."
Certainly in point of physique the brothers appeared almost to have changed places. George had grown stouter and far more robust, and his smiling face wore a very different expression and a much happier one than it had known two years ago. And, indeed, those two years had been such happy ones that it would have been strange if they had not left their stamp upon his appearance. He had been disturbed by no vain speculations as to the philosophy of happiness or its most appreciable and perfect form. Happiness had been offered to him, and recognising it he had grasped at and obtained it, and it had seemed to him none the less valuable, inasmuch as he had once very nearly lost it for ever.
And Frances? she too was well content. George was a devoted husband, and she a model wife, and their home, lately enlivened by the arrival of a second new comer, was almost an ideal one. How to dispose of Frances' fortune had been their first perplexity.
"It'll come in for the youngsters, I suppose," George had ventured to remark, after the arrival of the first—a girl. But Frances looked grave.
"I should not like a daughter of mine to be a great heiress," she had said with a slight shudder, and her husband knowing well of what she was thinking, stooped down and kissed her.
"Neither should I," he said, but when the second arrival turned out to be a boy, of course that improved matters.
Philip was an honoured and a welcome guest at the Elms, for nether George nor Frances had any thoughts of him that were not grateful. His old rooms had been kept sacred, and were always at his disposal during his flying visits to Sorchester, and now on the occasion of this more protracted one, they were still available. Frances, a shade more matronly, but otherwise very little altered, had herself seen to their due arrangement, and welcomed her brother-in-law with the sweetest of smiles and the most genuine of regrets at his ill-appearance.
There was no embarrassment between them whatever. His was not the nature to feel such, and her thoughts were far too deeply engaged by her husband and children to dwell much on the past. Once or twice, when she was realising to the full her perfect happiness, it had occurred to her to wonder what might have been her lot had she married Philip, had she been content to forego the domestic joys which now surrounded her for the barren satisfaction of having performed a quixotic act of quixotic justice; and the reflection had made her shudder.
The very sense of what she had escaped made her feel very grateful and very kind towards Philip. He had behaved well in the matter after all. He had never pressed for her consent to that family scheme, which had been so nearly fatal to her happiness! He had never simulated any affection for her, and he had given her up without a murmur directly he had discovered his brother's secret. And he had done more than merely give her up.
He had reconciled his mother to the change of arrangements, and he had successfully exerted all his influence with her father to see the matter in a proper light. For at first Lord Clanningham had demurred when the news was conveyed to him, and was far from pleased. Philip, an M.P. and a rising barrister, was a very different match for his daughter to a quiet country lawyer, although the two were brothers, and Lord Clanningham's desire for his daughter's fortune to find its way to the Rotherams had somewhat cooled when he was told by whose means it was now proposed that the restitution should take place. But after all his daughter's happiness was the chief thing with him, so he quickly gave way, and by the next mail (Lord Clanningham was a colonial governor) to that which brought them a somewhat querulous and discontented letter came a kind and cordial assent to the proposed change of arrangements. And very soon after the receipt of that letter they had been married, and seemed likely to settle down into a veritable Darby and Joan.
The days slipped away into weeks, but Philip seemed very content to stop on quietly at The Elms, doing nothing and saying very little. The long vacation had commenced, and Parliament had been prorogued some time, but still he showed no disposition to depart, and George and Frances, who had planned a quiet excursion in Normandy, postponed their trip without a word, and devoted themselves wholly to their guest.
But with all their care he seemed to grow but little better, and many were the long and anxious discussions they had as to the cause of his complete collapse. Overwork Dr. Brandon assured them. Terrible strain these late sittings, especially when a man's been working hard all day. He can't do better than remain just as he is, free from all excitement and away from his work; and the doctor's words appeared to be wise ones, for in a week or two he grew stronger, and began to take longer walks. The Elms was a charming place to idle away the long summer days, and the invalid spent many lazy mornings lolling upon the lawn under the shade of the stately old trees, and watching the fleecy white clouds drift across the sky.
What a change this perfect quiet was to the worry and turmoil of the Courts, and the feverish anxiety of the debates in the House; and how thoroughly contented these two seemed to be in their quiet home! He had never known such happiness, he mused despondently, nor did he see any prospect of it in the future, and yet he had worked and toiled for it as George had never done. He recounted to himself his successes, thought of his splendid position, all pregnant with possibilities of the future, and tried to work himself into a more hopeful state of mind by such reflections.
But he failed. For, somehow, when he looked back upon his hard work, his untiring energy, his unvarying success, its fruits seemed to pall upon him, and he began to wonder whether, after all, they were worth the value he had bestowed upon them. Here was George, who had never put forth a single effort, a happy and contented man, whilst he, who had gone out into the world and striven and toiled to attain the same end, was a miserable and discontented one. What was wrong? Never would he believe that happiness was a chance dispensation, or an arbitrary gift, bestowed without account of man's deservings; and yet, what had he done or left undone that it was denied to him, and yielded without effort to his quiet, stay-at-home brother.
Something of these thoughts he imparted to George one night, and George had looked very grave as he had listened to them. Frances was upstairs in the nursery, and the two men were sitting in front of the open window enjoying the cool evening breeze and the smell of the flowers freshly watered after a blazing hot day, Philip lounging in a basket chair with a pipe in his mouth, and George listening attentively to his brother's weary disconnected talk with a pained look upon his face.
"I'm very sorry to hear all this, Philip," he said, quietly. "Surely you cannot mean quite all you say, though?"
"I don't know," Philip replied, wearily. "There's something wrong with me somewhere. All that I am certain of is that I have accomplished everything I made up my mind to accomplish. I have done no man harm. Although I tell you so myself, George, I have led an honest and a straight life, and yet at thirty years of age I feel sick and tired of life, tired of wrangling at the Bar, weary of Parliament, sick of society. An ignoble confession isn't it?" he added with a faint yet bitter smile. "There is positively nothing I wish for in the world. Personal ambition I have none. The satisfaction of success has become like dead sea fruit to me. I have accomplished everything I worked for. I have won what I always determined should bring me happiness, and now I find that I have staked all my efforts and energies, and lost. I have obtained the material things which I made up my mind to obtain, but the happiness which I expected to find with them is all a myth. I am a discontented man! Strange, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is strange," his brother answered thoughtfully, "and yet—mine has been a quiet life, you know, compared with yours, Philip, and I know nothing about the philosophy of happiness. But don't you think it seems a trifle presumptuous to decide for yourself so absolutely in what happiness shall consist for you, and in making up your mind to accept it in no other way. Happiness, it seems to me, is not yielded as a right, but comes as a divine favour, and it is not for us to work with the sole object of obtaining it, but to wait, and accept it thankfully in any form whenever it is offered. That is how it seems to me."
There was a long silence, so long that the twilight merged into darkness. One by one the stars lit up the sky, and the night breeze swelling amongst the leaves of the old elm trees grew colder, and still they sat there in silence.
It was George who spoke first, and there was a solemn earnestness in his tone as he leaned a little out of his chair towards his brother.
"Philip, may I ask you a question?"
Philip nodded. "A thousand if you like."
"Have you ever refused a proffered happiness, in order that you might win it your own way in some other shape—or rather try to win it?"
He waited anxiously for an answer, and soon it came in Philip's slow, deliberate tones—slower even than usual.
"I don't know, George. Perhaps I have. But it never struck me before like that."
His brother's words had come like an inspiration to Philip Rotheram. In a moment his thoughts had wandered far away, and a face which he had resolutely exiled from his memory as the face of a temptress slowly reappeared. Again he saw that graceful, frightened girl, in whose blue eyes and fair face as she had poured out her gratitude to him he had read a secret which he had refused to listen to, and George, watching him, wondered greatly what memories of the past had flooded in upon him that he should have become so enthralled, and that his face should be so full of longing and regret.
He left him to himself, and soon a servant brought in lights and the tea tray, and Frances followed close behind.
"How you two have been gossiping!" she exclaimed brightly. "Fancy sitting out there all this time in the dark. Come and have some tea, Philip."
He recalled his truant thoughts with a sharp effort, and moving his chair into the room, accepted the cup she offered him. But he set it down by his side untasted, and yielded again to the memories which were flooding in upon him. Then George, appreciating his mood, and seeing that he was best left alone, drew Frances away with him to the other end of the room, and there they remained for a while. When at last Philip looked up, his brother was seated in a distant easy chair gazing down into his wife's face with mingled affection and amusement, and carelessly stroking her hair with his left hand, whilst she, on her knees by his side, with her head reclining upon his shoulder, was recounting to him in whispers the nursery prattle of her little namesake, whom she had just seen safely to bed. So absorbed were the two in their own selves that Philip's voice made them start and colour like guilty children.
He had risen to his feet, and was standing almost at their side.
"George," he said abruptly, "you asked me a question more than an hour ago."
George withdrew his hand from caressing his wife, and put her gently away, looking up at his brother with interest.
"Yes," he said simply. "I have not forgotten it."
"Well, I am not at all sure that I have not done what you suggested. Anyhow, listen, and judge for yourself. No, you need not go, Frances," he said, turning to her, for she had risen to her feet, and was looking doubtfully at her husband. "You two seem to have found out the secret of being happy; perhaps you can teach me," he added sadly. "Listen," and then he told them of his meeting with Iola, told them of her trial, and how he had worked and strained every nerve to save her, and he told them what he had never before even acknowledged to himself, why he had done all this, and as he told them he read in their eyes a deep sympathy.
"George," he went on, "you know something of my life and its aims. You can guess how repugnant such an idea was to me. I fought against it. I grappled with it. I stamped it down. I called to mind the precepts of my life, the fixed purpose which I had sworn to myself to accomplish. I put the matter before myself, as I thought, plainly.
"Should I, who had always scoffed at such passions as the elysium of weak-minded fools; should I fling away my prospects, my ambitions, my hopes, to the winds; and, regardless of them all, throw myself at her feet; forfeit for ever my self-esteem and respect, and for ever after the first delirium of joy had burned out be the victim of remorse and self- contempt! Should I seek to win for my wife the daughter of one of the greatest criminals in Europe? for though he was a nobleman, and had suffered many wrongs, no more dangerous conspirator ever breathed than that girl's father, and she, too, notorious through her trial, and her name in every one's mouth!
"I had a terrible struggle, but in the end I swore that I would not yield to this passion, and since I could not crush it I determined to live it down. I met her after the trial. I received her thanks in a perfectly formal manner, and made light of my exertions on her behalf. They wrote me from France; her aunt wrote me, and begged me to visit them. I answered the letter politely but coldly, and then I turned over that page in my life, and settled down with the firm determination to forget the whole episode and her. In a measure I have succeeded, but at a terrible cost. It seems almost as though I have sinned in striving to blot out from my memory that fatal past, and to strangle my love for her—for I suppose it was love. A blight seems to have settled upon me. Life has lost its sweetness, its flavour, even its interests. Happiness! Happiness! the word has been a mockery to me. I am a miserable man! George, Frances," and he turned to each of them, "what do you advise me to do?"
He ceased, and turning abruptly away, paced the room with restless, uneasy steps, and dejected air—yet with a certain amount of relief.
There was a deep, intense silence. Then Frances quitted her husband's side, and laid her hand upon Philip's shoulder.
"Philip, will you take a woman's advice?" she asked, looking up at him steadfastly.
He bowed his head.
"I will take yours," he said.
"Then go and find this girl and marry her, Philip! The love which has conquered your will, and has remained so powerful, must be a love which will bring you happiness. No one but a good woman could have inspired it. Bring her here, Philip, and she shall be as my sister, though her father were a murderer and she a beggar."
She hesitated. He seemed deeply agitated, but notwithstanding his frown there was gleam of passionate longing in his eyes.
"Frances is right," declared George, earnestly, passing his arm around his wife's waist. "Bring her here, Philip, and she shall be welcome."
He stood back in the shadows of the room, but the moonlight was streaming in through the high French windows, and by its clear pale light they could see that a fierce struggle was going on within him. The ill-conceived dogmas of a lifetime were fighting their last battle with a new-born conviction. Bye-and- bye he spoke.
"I believe she is," he said almost humbly. "I—I have made a great mistake!"
On the following morning Mrs. Rotheram was surprised by the sudden return of her son.
He barely gave himself time to accept her salute before he commenced his speech.
"Mother," he said, abruptly, "I have been a fool. I have been making my life one long dream of regrets, to no purpose. Can you guess what I mean—what it is that has been troubling me?"
She shook her head in grave perplexity, and forthwith he told her the whole tale.
She listened intently, and when he had finished took off her glasses and wiped her eyes. It was a blow to her.
"Bring her here, then, Philip, and I will love her for your sake," was all she said.
"But she is the daughter of a man who must never be mentioned, a man who has made all Europe ring with his crimes, and—and she has been on her trial for murder," he reminded her, anxiously.
She looked almost indifferent, proud woman of the word though he knew her to be.
"It does not matter, Philip. If you love her, bring her to me, and she shall be my daughter."
He bent over her with a great sob, and kissed her.
"Mother," he said, "you are an angel," and then he hurried away to catch the express to Dover.
Across the Channel, he sped, a new man, with buoyant heart and full of eager expectancy, which made him fret and fume at every trifling and necessary delay. He caught the tidal train to Paris, and there he had to spend the night. Early on the morrow he was on his way southwards, and at noon had reached the nearest town to the little village which was his destination. He was far too impatient to wait for the 'diligence,' so, not without some difficulty, he hired a shaky old carriage and a pair of horses, and was soon speeding along the white dusty roads, embarked upon the final stage of his journey.
He did not doubt that his mission would be successful. He felt sure that he would be able to win her. Had not Madame de Meuillis plainly hinted at this culmination to their little romance, and although he was the veriest novice in women's looks, had he not read something in Iola's eyes which sustained him, and gave him confidence? Yes, he would win her, and life began already at the mere thought to appear brighter and to promise better things. With Iola at his side his flagged interest in his career seemed suddenly to spring into life again. Ah! What a fool he had been! How short-sighted! How egotistical! How stupidly self-reliant! Let him be thankful, and he did feel fervently thankful, that before it was too late the scales had fallen from his eyes.
There were ascending a steep hill, and the post boy, pausing for a moment to allow his horses to recover their breath, turned round and pointed with his whip to a cluster of white houses in the valley below.
"Voici Échoûilis, monsieur," he exclaimed, "et voila le Château Échoûilis," and he pointed to a half-ruined grey stone castle almost on the summit of the hill which frowned over the little village.
Philip stood up in the carriage to look at the château, and cast a glance around at the thickly-wooded line of hills which encircled the valley, but his thoughts were riveted upon his mission, and he paid but little attention to the beauties of the landscape which the chattering post boy was dilating upon in a most abominable patois; nor did he notice the black clouds gathering around them until his driver whipped up his horses with a startled exclamation.
"Pardieu! But we shall scarcely escape the storm, monsieur!"
Nor did they. As they rolled through the little hamlet and turned in at the great iron gates the black clouds, which had been gathering fast above them, opened, and a flash of lightning illuminated the whole country side, showing them with a curious vividness the very carvings on the grey weather-beaten walls of the old château towering high above them, and the leaves of the trees which grew thick on the inner side of the drive rustled together with a gentle sighing which predicted the coming storm. A peal of thunder, which commenced with a low muttering and culminated in a roar which seemed to shake the very ground beneath and the air above them, startled the horses, and they trembled in every limb.
"Nonsense! Push on," cried Philip, for the driver had dismounted and seemed to meditate a retreat into the village; and so, sulkily and muttering silent curses on the head of the impatient Englishman, he ran by their side, whipping them into a gallop up the steep winding ascent.
Another vivid flash of lightning, and almost simultaneously the thunder boomed with a sudden crash, which rattled amongst the hills, and gathered force, until it seemed as though the whole artillery of heaven had suddenly been set in motion. The frightened cattle in the fields upon their right galloped about madly, or cowered together under the trees, seeking shelter from the threatened downpour. It came at last, great drops like half- crowns falling slowly, and then a very deluge poured down just as they turned the last corner and galloped up to the front. The carriage had been seen ascending the hill, and the door was open. With a jerk the post boy brought his trembling horses to a standstill, and Philip leaped out, casting a rapid glance up at the sky before he hurried into shelter. One cloud, as black as ink, loomed right over the château, and from it the forked lightning glittered away all over the lowering sky.
He shuddered, and half closed his eyes. It seemed almost like an ill-omen, he thought, as he stepped into the great hall. Bah! Was he growing superstitious?
He wished to see Madame de Meuillis! It was very good! She should be informed; and he was shown into a vast but cold dreary- looking apartment by a grey haired old servant, who seemed to regard him with no little surprise.
He paced up and down the room restlessly—his old habit, but his patience was not tried long. In less than ten minutes she appeared.
His back was turned when she entered, for there was a photograph of Iola on the wall, and he was studying it.
"Monsieur wishes to—Ah! You! Monsieur Rotheram!" she cried, "you!" and then she drew herself up and looked at him in dignified wonder.
"Yes, Madame de Meuillis, it is I," he said smiling, and taking her passive palm, "and Iola? Where is she? I have come to see her. She is well?"
She did not answer him immediately. She was studying his face with a cold, penetrating light, and her still blue eyes chilled him.
"You have been long in coming, Monsieur Rotheram," she said slowly, and he fancied that there was a shade of scorn in her tone.
"I know it. But I have come," he answered simply.
Again she fixed her eyes upon him with a curious searching glance.
"And now that you have come, what do you want with her?"
"I want to take her away from you," Philip answered quickly. "I want her to be my wife."
She kept her eyes fastened upon him, took in his eager hopeful look, and his smile of expectancy, and she sighed.
"Come with me! I will take you to her," and she led him out of the room.
In silence he followed with a beating heart, and full of a strange wild joy which even his cold welcome could not check, followed her across the hall, through other rooms, in each of which he hoped to find her, and then—out of a low window into the gardens. The storm was over, but the ground was soaked with rain, and it dripped from every bush and oozed up in little pools from the sodden lawn. Still she walked steadily on, and he followed, wondering greatly whither she was leading him.
"Surely she has not been out in the storm," he exclaimed; but she never answered him, never even turned her head, and with sinking heart and full of a vague alarm he strode along after her. She opened a gate, and they passed down a gravel path, bordered by a little avenue of lime trees, into a smaller enclosure, and here at last she paused. Before them was a small grey stone chapel, the door of which she opened noiselessly, and motioned him to precede her. Breathless, he did so, and glanced eagerly around. The sunlight was stealing in through the richly stained glass windows, showing him clearly the whole of the austere, undecorated interior. The place was empty, gloomy and without any sign of recent visitant, save a great bowl of freshly cut white flowers, which stood in front of a plain white stone. He looked round to Madame de Meuillis for an explanation, and shrank back, for she was standing close by his side with her hand stretched threateningly out towards him, and a fever of hate dancing in her eyes. The strangely coloured light which streamed in through the stained windows gave her a weird, witch-like appearance, and the words froze on Philip's lips.
"You would see Iola, my niece! You have come all the long way from England to see her! So, good!" she exclaimed in sharp staccato tones. "See her, then," and with shaking finger she pointed to the plain white stone before them, looking up at him with a fierce angry gleam dancing in her eyes, and with her gentle face grown hard and pitiless, and a great dread rushed in upon him.
He stood as though turned to stone, voiceless, motionless. She drew closer to him.
"Yes, Monsieur Rotheram," she almost hissed into his ear. "She is dead, and it is you who could have saved her, and you would not. Day by day," she continued, her voice growing softer, and her eyes losing their fierce light, "I watched her sink away before my eyes, growing weaker and weaker in spite of everything that could be done for her. Physicians came here from Paris. 'She will recover,' they all said, 'there is no organic disease,' and yet— yet she faded away. But she did not die after all in that way. The end was more horrible!"
"Shall I tell you something, Monsieur Rotheram," she went on, her voice hardening again. "She loved you, if you had come, it would not have happened. You stopped away. You murdered her! Iola! Iola!" and she burst into a passionate fit of weeping.
There was a long, intense silence. He was leaning with his back against the wall, his face resting in his hands, and she stood a little apart, weeping more quietly. At last she looked up, and turning towards him, and reading the mute agony in his face, her bitter indignation died away, and she forgave him. Aye, more than forgave him, for as her woman's heart softened she felt impelled to play the part of comforter.
"Monsieur Rotheram," she said quietly, "perhaps I spoke somewhat harshly. You will forgive me? Come, let us return to the house."
He never moved. He seemed as though he had not heard her, and she was awed into comparative forgetfulness of her own grief as she watched the convulsive contortions of his features.
For long she stood patiently by his side, and then she touched his shoulder.
"Let us go," she whispered kindly, and as though in a stupor he turned and followed her with slow mechanical steps and stooping shoulders—a broken-down man.
She led him into her own little sitting-room, and placed for him her most comfortable chair against the open window, through which the fresh breeze, cleansed and purified by the recent thunderstorm, stole gently in. He sank into it without a glance at the smiling gardens before him, nor did he open his lips to breathe the invigorating air. Without a murmur he obeyed her behests, but he never spoke.
The afternoon passed away. She had his portmanteau brought in and dismissed his chaise, and then returned to sit with him. Towards evening he opened his lips.
"Tell me all about it," he said, in so subdued a tone that she could scarcely catch the words.
"It is a terrible tale," she answered gravely. "When we first arrived here I thought that she seemed better. She loved the country and our quiet life, and we avoided mentioning the past as much as possible. You were the only one connected with it of whom we ever spoke, and very foolishly, I fear, I talked to her often of you. I was sure that you would be coming soon to pay us a visit, I declared, and, monsieur—ah! but it was wrong of me!—I encouraged her to think of you, and told her that which I truly believed, that you loved her.
"She never made me any answer, but she seemed happy to let me talk of you and listen. Ah! but I was much to blame! I was indeed thoughtless! I encouraged her hopes; I never knew how deep they were. I was sure that you would come, and at first when I used to say so she would blush and look pleased, and I used to rally her, never dreaming that she really loved you so deeply.
"Then as time wore on and you did not come, she began to get restless and out of health, but still I never suspected the cause. I had doctors here, but they only shrugged their shoulders and prescribed a tonic. There is nothing the matter with mademoiselle, they declared, but has she trouble? I told them that her past was a sad one. You must keep her thoughts away from it, then, they declared. Bring her to Paris for awhile. Let her have change, and more society. But she would not go, although I begged her hard. "I am happier here," she said, and smiled, ah, so sadly, that my heart ached for her, but I could do nothing. Once I thought of writing to you, but when I mentioned it she seemed so much distressed, and begged me so hard not to do so that I yielded. 'Why should he want to come here?' she said. I remember now how mournfully she said it. And so I promised not to write. Would to God I had broken that promise!
"Time passed, and she grew worse and worse. The doctors began to look grave, and Monsieur Beaulis, he was the one who came oftenest, said that he could do nothing for her. All he could advise was a change, but she would not go away. Poor child! I believe that she feared to leave, lest you should come in our absence. At last the whole truth dawned upon me. One day a chaise drove up, and she heard the wheels. 'Aunt,' she cried, 'Aunt,' and I was frightened to death at the sudden gleam in her eyes and her start of joy. 'It is he! At last!' And then the servant announced a visitor, and we know that it was not you. It was my awakening. I declared that I would write you at once. She begged me not to do so. Then I blamed you passionately—and she wept. I would write you I declared, and at last she grew quite calm and persuaded me no more. On the morrow when I went to her room she had gone!"
"Gone!" he interrupted for the first time. "Where?"
She looked at him with streaming eyes.
"For months I would not believe it, although her hat and gloves were found, and she had been seen going to the river. But it must have been so. Nine months afterwards a body was found. 'Twas unrecognisable, but it was hers. I put up the stone to her in the chapel. I—I—"
She broke down, sobbing fiercely; but her agony was nothing to his. When she had a little recovered, she held out to him a folded letter.
"'Tis what she left."
He read it. Only a couple of hasty lines, traced in lead pencil.
"Forgive me, aunt, for what I am going to do, I beseech you. You must not blame him, and do not write him. When we meet again, pray that I may be happier."
The paper sunk from his nerveless fingers, and fluttered to the ground. Before his eyes everything was dim and blurred, and the shades of an everlasting night seemed to have fallen upon his life.
If Madame de Meuillis had wished for revenge upon Philip, surely she had it. He seemed stricken down with a grief so overmastering that all the strength of his nature and iron will could not resist the dull apathy which had stolen over him. He made no movement to depart, and although her invitation fell upon deaf ears, she bade him stop as long as he wished. In silence he accepted her kindly words, and remained, moving about the roomy half-deserted old château like a man in a dream. Every morning at daybreak he wandered down to the little half-ruined chapel, and then to where the dark rushing river swept through the forest below. He would eat and drink, and in all such things obey her bidding, but if she let him out of her sight for moment he was gone, and she knew where to find him. She feared that he would be ill, but the days passed away, and there appeared no change in him. Once he asked for writing materials, and wrote a single line to his mother—it was the only thought of the outside world which appeared to reach him.
From the very depths of her womanly heart there welled up a great pity for him. She thought of him, the strong, proud, active man of the world, who planned and carried out her niece's deliverance, a man of keen interests, absorbed in his work, and full of energy and vitality. She thought of him as he had turned towards her on his first arrival, with an eager glow of pleasure and anticipated joy in his countenance, and she looked at him now, a broken-down man, a wreck from whom all pleasure and interest in life appeared to have fled, with all the traces of a fierce, undying grief stamped upon his white face, and in his agony-stricken eyes, and she pitied him as though he were her only son. She forgave him freely, and reproached him no more; she never even asked him why he had stopped away so long. She left him alone, trusting to time to soften a little his great grief.
On the evening of the fifth day of his stay, he came back from his pilgrimage with dishevelled appearance, and with the traces of tears upon his white face, and she knew that he had been weeping, and that it was good for him. The next morning he packed his portmanteau, and came down rather more carefully dressed.
There was a change in him. The spiritless despair was gone, but still he bore in his face the traces of a great sorrow, and his appearance was that of a man prematurely stricken down by a sudden blow.
"I am going away this morning, Madame de Meuillis," he said after breakfast. "You have been very good to have me here so long."
She pressed his hand warmly, and the tears rolled down her cheeks.
"You were welcome to stay, very welcome, for her sake," she said, softly.
A carriage had been ordered for him, but on the step he lingered.
"May I come again?" he asked, abruptly.
"Whenever you will," she answered, cordially. "I am a lonely woman now, and as long as I live there will be a welcome for you here."
He stooped down and kissed the stately little Frenchwoman upon her wrinkled forehead.
"You were very good to her," he said. "God bless you!"
"You will come and see me again?" she begged, through her tears, and he promised.
Travelling without a break, Philip reached London on the following day, and went straight to his mother's room.
She stood up to welcome him, with an eager, half-anxious smile, but it died away almost at once.
"You have been ill," she cried, resting her hands upon his shoulders and gazing fearfully into his worn face. "Philip, what has come to you?"
For a full minute he did not answer her. Then, in the twilight, with his face turned away, he told her his story, and long before he has finished she was sobbing in his arms.
"My poor boy!" she exclaimed, passing her arms around his neck. And more she could not say. But silence was best.
The lights were brought in presently, and then she saw, with aching heart, the streaks of grey in his dark hair, and noticed more plainly his stooped shoulders and stricken appearance.
"Don't you think, Philip, that it would be well for you go away for a year; you and I together?"
He shook his head. "Mine is no sorrow that travel would cure," he said. "I shall face it out here. It will be better for me."
And when Parliament assembled a fortnight later Philip took his seat as usual.
Three years had passed, and the bitterness of Philip Rotheram's grief was dying slowly away. But none the less the grief was there always with him, softened and subdued perhaps, but never absent. His life seemed little different to what it had been before—save that he worked if possible a little harder. Success came to him, as it always does to those who value it least— success commanded and deserved, but it bought him neither satisfaction nor relief. He had made a name for himself in the House, and his reputation stood high in his profession—so that after a while sundry rumours were confirmed, and he became an active member of the Government. But never was there a man who toiled so hard and cared so little for the fruits of his labours. Society knew little of him, although it sought and respected him, even dared to pity him. He seemed to have no interest in life to advance, no desire or ambition which preferment or success could gratify. He worked simply for the sake of working, an existence incomprehensible to the crowd of greedy aspiring politicians and office-seekers who struggled and fought around him, but then they none of them knew the story of his life. He still owed his seat in Parliament to Sorchester, and now and then visited the Elms, where George and Lady Frances welcomed him kindly, and did all they could to make him happy.
One other visit he had not forgotten to pay. At the commencement of the Parliamentary vacation each year, when the tired barristers and weary M.P.'s were rushing off to the northern moors, or to their yachts, he had packed a small bag, and crossing to France had travelled down to Échoûilis and there he always found a kind, hearty welcome awaiting him from a white- haired old lady, who looked forward to his visits as the one bright event of her lonely life. Together they spent long weeks roaming about the neglected but picturesque old grounds, always terminating their walks in the little enclosure which both held sacred, and talking in half-abated tones of her whose memory linked them together. These visits he too regarded as the one redeeming feature in his hard lonely life, and each time he had returned to the world feeling more resigned and a better man for those few weeks spent with the pious old French lady.
"Good-bye, my son," she would say, grasping his strong hand in hers. "Come again next year!" and he always went.
But one winter, when Parliament was sitting, and cases were pressing, there came a telegraphic despatch. Madame de Meuillis was dying! Would he go? And he threw his cases and his Parliamentary duties to the winds, and crossed to France that same evening. He was in time only to see her die, though carriages with swift horses were waiting for him at every stage, and immediately on his arrival he was hurried into her room.
She sat up in bed with a faint cry of joy.
"Philip! Oh my son! my son! You have been a son to me indeed."
He sank on his knees by her bedside, whilst she struggled for breath.
"It was for her sake, ma mère."
She made a terrible effort to speak, but her strength was fast ebbing away, and the words died away on her white lips.
"Forgive! Iola! Valière—seek—my—blessing! Valière."
She sank back, and although she smiled at him eagerly, as though asking him to understand her, she spoke no other word. An hour afterwards she died, leaving him still bewildered.
He stayed for the funeral, heedless of the telegrams which poured in upon him from anxious clients and an agitated whip, and afterwards paid a visit to the avocat, for he had a scheme in his mind to buy the old château, with its grounds, and keep it for a resting-place where he should end his days when old age should force him to retire from the battle of life. But it was not necessary, for when the will was opened all was left to him.
Before he returned to England he questioned the old housekeeper, with a view to finding out whether she could throw any light upon her mistress's last words. But she could not. She was quite sure that she had never heard the name Valière before, and that none of Madame de Meuillis's relations were so called. She wondered whether it could have had anything to do with a letter which madame had received on the day before her death, and which had exited her greatly. She was of opinion that had monsieur arrived sooner he would have received some communication from madame, for she had been painfully anxious to see him before her strength failed. Their search for the letter was useless, for Philip, as executor, had destroyed all such without even glancing at them. So he remained puzzled.
Valière! Valière! It seemed a strange thing, but the name seemed to haunt him, and the memory of those broken words was always with him. He could think of nothing else on his rapid journey home. "Forgive—Iola—Valière—seek—my—blessing—Valière." What could it mean, and what was Iola's name mixed up with it for?
Valière! Valière! Surely this was the strangest thing of all, for when he reached London, and was driven homewards through the crowded streets, the name in great letters stared at him from every wall in huge posters, filled whole columns of the evening newspapers, and seemed everywhere before him. He bought a paper, and the mystery was solved. Valière was the new singer, whose marvellous voice was the talk of musical Europe. Only a year ago she had made her début at Vienna, and already, according to the glowing panegyric which he glanced through, she had put into the shade all the famous songstresses of the age. He read of her triumph, of the emperors before whom she had sung, and of the wild praise which had been lavished upon her! How the people in the art-loving towns of Southern Europe had strewn flowers in the streets before her, and made every short journey a triumphal procession and how courts and 'directors' were vying with each other in the magnificence of their proposals to secure her services. He read all this, and his interest grew less, almost evaporated. The Valière whose name had trembled on the lips of that dying woman could scarcely have had any connection with this great singer. Yet it was strange that he should come back to London with that name ringing in his ears, to find it meeting his every glance, and to hear it bandied about, the common subject of conversation in the drawing-rooms, the lobbies, and the clubs.
Cold as ice, proud, living the life of a hermit, and as beautiful as an angel, this was what he heard in everybody's mouth of the famous singer. But the words had no significance to him, and he listened to them idly. Fresh from the death-bedside of the old friend who had been so dear to him as the one link which bound him to the past, he had no room for other thoughts. His old trouble had come upon him again with all its crushing intensity. Day and night there seemed always to be with him the sad, sweet face of the woman whom he had loved and lost, sometimes as he had seen her first, standing in the deserted street with the moonlight playing upon her golden hair and her frightened blue eyes, sometimes as she had stooped by his side in that perfumed chamber, and oftenest, alas! when her wistful face and reproachful eyes had betrayed the secret which then he refused to know. Oh! what greater misery can a man know, than to realise that it is he himself, of his own deliberation and intent, who has cast away his own happiness! None of the weak satisfaction of railing at fate, at circumstances, at enemies, for everything recoils upon his own head! Tis he himself who has done it. Herein lies the essence of the agony of self- reproach.
Philip started forward in his brougham like a man who had received a great shock, for it had seemed to him, as he had leaned back amongst the cushions with closed eyes, that the dying words of Madame de Meuillis had been breathed into his ear. And as though in answer to them he started to find himself passing the doors of the Opera House, and to see that name placarding the walls, and traced in gas jets outside the great doors.
Again the wild thought of some connection between the two flashed into his mind, and this time he yielded to it. He pulled the check-string, and alighting, elbowed his way through the crowd into the vestibule of the house.
The man whom he asked for a seat laughed at him. They had all been taken months ago, he declared, but while Philip stood there hesitating, the clerk from the inner office came out with a proposition. There was a box which had been let to Lord—six weeks ago. His lordship was known to be out of town, and had probably forgotten all about it. Mr. Rotheram could have it if he liked for—
Philip paid the money, and passed down the heavily-carpeted corridor. Afterwards it all seemed like a dream to him, that sudden descent from his carriage and passing into the Opera House. But at the time he felt conscious only that he was doing rather a silly thing, and would probably be late at the reception to which he had been bound.
The second act was almost at an end when Philip entered his box. The great singer was concluding an impassioned song amidst a breathless silence, soon to be exchanged for a thunder of applause. Suddenly a strange thing happened. A great wave of colour rushed into her pale face, and she visibly faltered, sang a false note, broke down, and with a little hysterical cry sank backwards fainting. A great, audible murmur of compassion came from all parts of the house, and all eyes were riveted upon the stage, even after the curtain had fallen. And in one of the front boxes, standing back in the shadow, grasping the hanging curtains for support, and gazing with a fixed, glassy stare at the brilliant house and on the empty stage, was Philip Rotheram.
Like a man in a dream he left the Opera House, and, staggering like a drunken man, found his way, together with many other enquirers, to the stage door. They all received the same reply. Mademoiselle Valière had been attacked by a sudden indisposition, and had gone home. 'Twas believed to be nothing serious, and she would probably be able to sing again to-morrow night. Her address? Oh, everyone knew that. 38 Biddulph-square.
As fast as his horses could carry him Philip drove there. Iola! Valière! What did it all mean? His brain was in a whirl, and his heart was beating with fast, fierce throbs. It could not be! Surely it could not be!
He arrived at his destination, and rang the bell. Mademoiselle had just returned from the opera, ill, he was told, and would certainly not see any one. But Philip refused to go.
"Tell her I bring her a message from Madame de Meuillis," he said hoarsely. "I must see her for a moment."
The trim maid servant withdrew, shrugging her shoulders. Almost immediately, however, she reappeared, and ushered him into her mistress's presence.
It was Iola who rose to meet him, Iola still wearing her stage dress of trailing white velvet, Iola's hand which was held out to him. Take it he could not. He stood there trembling, half in fear, half with a great bounding joy. And his silence and his looks told her more than the most eloquent words could have done. She saw the streaks of grey in his hair, the stamp of a weary sorrow in his eager face, and they told her that he had suffered. And she saw more than this. She saw his great love burning in his dry eyes, and heard it like sweet music burst at last from his white lips, in hoarse, passionate words. She had meant to be cold, but she hesitated, and was lost. If she had suffered, so had he. She listened with streaming eyes, and let him pour out his confession in rapid, half-incoherent sentences, let him draw her closer to him and closer, until his strong arms were folded around her, and their lips had met in a long, passionate kiss; and then it was too late to be cold, and with a great joy in her heart, she whispered out the words of forgiveness for which he had pleaded.
Late into the night they sat together, and with her fair face very close to his, she told him the story of her life since she had fled from Échoûilis. She had been a singing mistress in Paris, until a professor, who had heard her sing in a drawing- room, induced her to let him train her voice. She had sang first at Leipzig, and from that time her career had been one long success. Often she had determined to write her aunt, but always put it off for awhile, fearing her anger. For she had written to her from Paris, and had sent her maid to Échoûilis with it, and had received no answer. Philip would have told her that to his certain knowledge Madame de Meuillis had not received that letter and believed her drowned, but she interrupted him. Only a week ago, the woman had confessed that she had never delivered the letter. She had feared that it would lead to a reconciliation, and that her mistress would return to Échoûilis instead of remaining in Paris. So she had torn it up, and invented a story of madame's great anger, and a request that her niece would not write to her again.
There were many other things which he had wished to ask her, but the sound of his carriage still waiting outside, and a distant clock striking two, brought them both back to the everyday world. The convenances must be respected even by lovers. So for a while they parted, and Philip drove homewards with the light of hope once more sparkling in his eyes, and the warmth and vigour of a new life glowing within him.
"Marriage is a failure," declared little Bob Coulson gloomily, as he stood before the bay windows of a West-end club, and gazed disconsolately out into the busy street. "A huge failure."
"Think so, Bob," remarked a friend who stood by his side. "Well, there goes a living proof to the contrary," he added, motioning towards a Victoria which was slowly passing by.
The speaker looked almost enviously into the faces of the man and woman seated within it. Certainly no faces could have spoken more plainly of happiness than his, handsome, smiling, and animated; and her's, fair, ripping with laughter, and turned fondly towards her husband's.
"Can't have been married six months," growled Bob. "Who are they?"
His friend laughed as he leaned forward to watch the carriage out of sight.
"You mean to say you don't know?"
Bob shook his head.
"You forget I've been out of England for four years."
"Ah, of course. Well, that's Rotheram, Q.C., you know, and M.P. For Sorchester. Made a great speech last night, by the bye, and of course his wife was there to hear him."
"That Rotheram!" Bob Coulson exclaimed, incredulously. "Philip Rotheram! Why I knew him five years ago, and a more miserable- looking man I never saw."
"A proof of the fallacy of your statement," laughed his friend. "That is Philip Rotheram, and I don't believe there's a more thoroughly happy and successful man in London, nor a more charming woman than his wife."
And for once club gossip spoke the truth.
Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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