"I BEG your pardon." Mrs. Wildney suggested. "You were saying something about eleven o'clock?"
"What! out loud?" Chesney gasped. "My dear lady, pray accept my profound apologies I—I have a stupid habit of thinking aloud. As a matter of fact, I have a most important appointment for eleven o'clock to-night; but that I had mentioned in sotto voce—"
Mrs. Wildney glanced at the speaker from under the purple fringe of her eyelashes. They were very old friends, and they could speak plainly. The talk round the dinner table was animated; the lights were judiciously shaded. Mabel Wildney held her hand on Chesney's arm.
"What is it, Ralph?" she whispered. "Tell me the trouble. I'd love to help you if I can."
Chesney laughed somewhat uneasily. So—people were beginning to talk. He was utterly unconscious of the hard misery in his eyes, the moody frown, the gnawing of the lips.
"So you imagine that there is something wrong, Mabel?" he forced.
"My dear boy, I am certain of it. Why didn't Betty come here tonight?"
Chesney slipped the pink velvet from a peach thoughtfully. Oh, certainly people were beginning to talk. As a matter of fact, Mabel Wildney was speaking quite plainly. Bitter as he was, a certain blind, unreasonable loyalty spurred him on.
"She meant to come," he said. "But she had a bad headache, and I had to come alone. We were going on to the Malvains afterwards, but I don't think I'll show there alone."
"Ralph, I am deeply sorry to see you two drifting apart in this way. You met Betty for the first time in my house, remember. I was delighted to see you coming together. And now!"
"We all make mistakes," Chesney said, bitterly. "I did. Possibly Betty did too."
"I don't think so. It was a great mistake on your part to negleot her so."
Chesney fairly started. He prided himself on being a just man, and here was a new point of view. Neglected Betty!—ridiculous! On the contrary, it was she who had neglected him. She had lost all interests in the sports they had previously enjoyed together; she made all kinds of excuses when he suggested a day on the links; she had chosen her own friends entirely outside his circle. If he wanted her to dine at one house, she had always made an appointment elsewhere. She had grown cold and distant, fretful, and inclined to tears. There were long silences when they were together—she whose conversation had at one time been so bright and animated. This was bad enough, but there were darker thoughts behind. Of course, he could take no notice of those anonymous letters—no gentleman could stoop to that kind of thing. But even now he was hesitating in his mind. A jingle of words ran like water in his head:
"So you refuse to be warned? Your wife will plead a headache to remain home to-night. Tell her you are going to the Malvains, but return home by eleven instead. Fool. Have you no regard for your own honor? This may be your last chance."
No gentleman could do it. Some enemy had designed this thing. It was not the first of these abominations either. There had been two previous communications before; and the worst of it was that they had tallied with certain movements of Betty's. He could not think evil; but the conclusion was forced upon him. Still it was quite plain that no gentleman—
He would go on to the Malvains as if nothing had happened. To return home now would be tacitly to put the letter to the test. Betty had had a headache right enough. Anyone could see that from her pala face and the purple shadows under her blue eyes.
"Are you not going a bit to far, Mabel?" he asked.
"Think it over," Mrs. Wildney said. "Think it over with your last cigar. Oh, what a fool a really clever man can be sometimes!"
There was a ripple of silken skirts, the drifting odors of perfumes, followed by a scratching of matches, as the womankind floated from the room. Chesney shook himself together wearily. The inevitable discussion on sport was going to begin. How illogical he was; a fortnight ago he would have enjoyed it. As an enthusiastic golfer on the plus side he would hava gone cheerfully into the fray. The last faw days he had played like a child. They were chaffing him on his putting now, though he was utterly oblivious to it.
He managed to get away at length, carefully avoiding Mabel Wildney as he did so. With the jingle of that anonymous latter chiming on his brain, it was his bounden duty to go on to the Malvains. To show his contempt for the writer, he must not go home. Betty might have grown cold and indifferent; she might have ceased to care for him; possibly it was not in her nature to care for anybody but herself. But when it came to some vulgar intrigue, a surreptitious meeting in—oh, hang it!
He didn't care for her any longer, of course. That dream was shattered, and there was an end to it. They could come to some kind of understanding, so as to avoid anything like a scandal; there was no reason why they should not remain friends in future. They could talk the matter over quietly and dispassionately. Chesney knew scores of households like that.
So this poor fool, hugging his cheap philosophy, walked along without the remotest notion whether he was going, and all unconsciously he had turned his steps in the direction of his own house. He was up in Scotland in the early days of the honeymoon—by the side of a salmon river, showing Betty how to play her fish. And, by Jove! how quickly she had learnt her lesson! How ripping she had looked in that kilted skirt and grey hat. She was one of the few women who could look fascinating in a sporting kit. And what a jolly evening they had had in the little hotel afterwards; and, incidentally, what sentimental asses men are!
There were other pictures like this, warm and glowing, in Chesney's eyes as he strode along the deserted streets. With a start he realised presently that he was outside his own house. Involuntarily he glanced up at his wife's bedroom windows, only to note that no light was there. Betty always liked a light. Even when she was ill she could not bear to be in the dark. In an uneasy way Chesney wondered what it meant. He had had no intention of coming home yet; honestly, he had not meant to do so. Still, it did not much matter; in fact, nothing mattered now. Having come so far, it would be absurd to turn back. It would be far better to think the thing out over a cigar in the smoking- room. Possibly Betty had changed, and come down stairs.
Chesney pushed his way into the hall and hung up his coat. The dining and drawing rooms were in darkness, only in the smoking-room were the lights switched on. A maid crossed the hall demurely.
"How is your mistress, Batley?" Chesney asked. "Is her head better?"
The maid looked jjust a little bewildered. "I beg your pardon, sir," she said. "Madame is not in. She went out some time ago."
Chesney turned on his heel sharply. He was concerned that the maid should not see his face for the moment. The simple announcement shook him with the force of a blow. "She is much better, then?" he asked. "Where has she gone, Batley?"
"I couldn't tell you, sir," the girl replied. "I dressed my mistress just after dinner. She said something about the theatre. No, sir, she didn't have the car. I called a taxi-cab for her. And she told me I was not to sit up."
Chesney dismissed the girl with a careless gesture. He hummed a time as he lounged into the smoking-room and closed the door behind him. His face had grown white under the healthy tan.
Good heavens! If this hideous thing were true! For the first time tho awful significance of those anonymous letters came home to him. It was impossible to disregard the warning any longer. He had played the game up to now, but his personal honor stood in front of everything. He hated and loathed this thing from the bottom of his soul, but there were limits. It was no longer possible to blind himself to the fact that Betty had deceived him. Her headache had been a mere sham. Secure in the knowledge that Chesney would not be back till the small hours, she had gone off to keep her assignation. The whole thing was disgustingly cheap, and theatrical to a degree.
The thought stung Chesney to madness. Whatever Betty's feelings might been he had never ceased to care for her. In the bitterness of tho moment he admitted it freely. Now that he had lost her, the whole world seemed to have turned to dust and ashes. Perhaps he had been a little careless and indifferent, perhaps he had been a little too anxious over that gold scratch medal.
Who was the man? Chesney's eyes gleamed as he thought of it, his muscles grew rigid. Let him only meet the man face to face, and murder would be done. He racked his brain in thought, but could think of nobody, not even an old admirer of Betty's, to pick a quarrel with. With strange lack of logic, the discovery pleased and comforted him.
He took from the safe the last of the anonymous letters. The other two he had destroyed. Ho had tossed them into the fire before the poison had begun to work. The third he had put aside with a possible view to consulting a solicitor on the matter. The words seemed to stand out from the paper like ripples of fire. This pitiful coward was telling the truth. In the safe was Betty's case of diamonds—the family diamonds worn by her on state occasions. Chesney always locked them in the safe when they ware not being worn. They had been there for a month now, he reflected. There wad agony in the thought that thay might never be worn by Betty again.
How singularly quiet the house had grown. Everybody had gone to bed probably. The clock was striking twelve as a taxi-cab came purring up to the front door, and a latch- key rattled in the lock. Chesney could hear his wife as she crossed the hall; With a tightening at his throat, he hastened to meet her. It seemed to him that she fairly started as she saw the haggard whiteness of his face.
"So you have. come; back," she stammered. She seemed, to be perplexed, annoyed about something. Chesney recollected that afterwards. For the moment he was puzzled. He had expected some shadow of guilt, but he could see none in that lovely face, with its dainty coloring and deep blue eyes clear as a pool.
"You said you were going to the Malvains," she murmured.
"I intended to," Chesney explained. "But-I changed my mind. That's, not quite true, I forgot all about the Malvains and came back mechanically. Perhaps it is as well I did."
Betty asked no further questions. She made no attempt to explain her absence from home. Chesney could see that she was quietly dressed, as if for some concert or theatre party. How bonny and winsome she looked, how like the Betty he remebered when... Still... What a fool he had been not to care for her better! If she was hard and unfeeling, her looks belied her sorely. And all the children that Chesney knew fairly worshipped her. That was supposed to be a good sign.
"I think I'll, go to bed," Betty said.
"Not quite yet," Chesney said, hoarsely. "A moment, please. It is not much of your time that I have claimed lately, Betty. Will you sit down."
Betty dropped into a shair. Chesney could see that she was trembling. The rings on her hands shimmered and danced like streams of fire. Yet she looked him in the face—those deep blue eyes were as frank as those of a child.
"If you have anything to say I am ready to listen, Ralph," she murmured.
Chesney hesitated just for a moment. It was going to be far more difficult than he had anticipated. He always hated anything that suggested the bullying of women. And he wast just realising that he loved this particular woman perhaps a little more than he had ever loved her before. His heart was crying out for her. How easy it would be to sweep the whole crowd of doubt away, to start afresh—that was, if she still held any affection for him. But with that letter in his pocket he could not believe this. Besides, she had lied to him. Was she not just back from some disgraceful meeting with the man who ihad taken his place? And yet she did not look a bit like that. What actresses women were! So beautiful, so innocent, and yet so vile!
"Where have you been this evening?" he demanded.
"Is it really any business of yours, Ralph?" Betty asked. "Have I ever questioned you as to your movements? And when you adopt that tone of voice—"
"I beg your pardon, Betty. Please make allowance for me. Try and put yourself in my place."
"I have done that a good many times. Perhaps it is because I am a woman that I have failed."
"Need we go into that?" Chesney asked. "I mean now. We were asked out to dinner. It is understood that we go on to another affair afterwards. You accepted on behalf of the pair of us. At the last moment you decline to come on the plea of a headache. It is absolutely certain that I am not likely to be back before two in the morning, so that I am out of the way. I leave you practically in bed. When I come back at midnight I find that you have been out for some hours. Where?"
"And suppose I decline to answer question, Ralph?"
Chesney shugged his shoulders; it seemed the proper thing to do.
"Oh, of course, I can't force you to speak," he said bitterly. "In our walk of life I can't knock you down and jump on you. There is only one way for us."
"And that is—"
"An understanding. Of course, there need not be any scandal. This house and the place in Surrey is large enough for the both of us, and, fortunately, there is no money question."
"I see, Ralph. A separation in the same house. Outwardly friends so far as the world is concerned."
"Precisely—after you have explained where you have been this evening."
Betty flushed to the hair. There was a cruel pain at her heart, a mist of tears in her blue eyes. Still, she faced him bravely and steadily.
"Ralph," she said, "Did it ever occur to you that I was lonely?"
"Lonely!" Ohesney 'exclaimed. "Lonely! With all you wanted, any number of friends—"
"Any number of friends! How like a man you talk in that way! How many friends have you got? How many men that you could confide in and feel that they would do anything for you? Oh, I know what is at the back of your mind. Come, Ralph. You want a man in whose hands you are prepared to place your honor and the honor of your house. Out of all your shooting and golfing companions, give me the names of two. You cannot do it."
Chesney stood there in silence, just a little disturbed and perplexed. And the odd thing was that all that Betty said was true. A little smiie flickered on her lips.
"It is the same with me," she said. "I am lonely and neglected. Your golf is dearer to you than your wife. That's a bitter thing for a proud, sensitive woman to realise. And out of all my friends there is not one I can confide in, Ralph. Think of that."
"Why didn't you tell me?" the man asked, uncomfortably.
"Why didn't you ask? You would have seen plainly enough a year ago. It was no fault of mine that I was the only gdrl with six brothers who spoilt me. There was no amusement of theirs which I didn't share. Their pleasure was not complete without me., And when you came along1 they were jealous. It was a hard wrench to leave the old home, but I made it because I loved you, Ralph. And you were glad enough to have me for your companion at one time. You preferred me as your partner in a foursome to 'that ass Allison.' And now you are playing at Walton Heath and Sunningdale with 'that ass Allison' on four days a week. Do you remember telling me once that with a little coaching I should be in the running for the lady championship? Yet you go out of your way to play with Madge Lettington, to whom I used to give two strokes."
"But, my dear Betty," Chesney protested, "this is mere jealousy."
"Is it?" Betty asked, unsteadily. "Perhaps so. It is an asset in my favour, anyway. It shows that the old affection is not dead, in spite of everything. Besides, it is hardly decent of you to reproach me with jealousy. What about yourself?"
"You mean to say that I am jealous, Betty? Nonsense! You would find it difficult to prove."
"Not at all. You were annoyed to find me out. You demanded to know where I had been. You told me quite plainly that there could be no question of any amiable arrangement between us unless I explained where I had been this evening. Is not that jealousy?"
"Nonsense! It is a proper regard for my honour—for my good name."
"We will take that for granted, Ralph. Why did you come home this evening? Did you guess that I should be out? Did you doubt my word? I am going to have an answer."
Chesney flushed uncomfortably. The temptation to lie was terrible. If he told the truth he would have to confess that he had been impelled by that wretched anonymous letter. It was all very well to try and delude himself with the suggestion that he had come back more or less mechanically; but for that letter he would be elsewhere at this moment.
"You have not been spying on my movements?" Betty asked.
"The mere suggestion is an insult," Chesney cried, hotly. "Have I ever shown any signs of—"
"No, you haven't, Ralph," Betty admitted. "I could have forgiven you more easily had you done so. But you haven't answered my question. Why did you come back to-night?"
"My dear Betty, you have no right to take this high ground," Chesney protested. "Before we go any further I must know where you have been tonight."
"That I will tell you in due course, Ralph. There is no occasion for an unseemly wrangle. If you answer my question first, I promise you to tell the truth afterwards."
Chesney stood there staring helplessly into space. This was not at all as he had intended the interview to be. Still, he had thrown down the challenge, and he would not flinch from it. He snatched the letter from his pocket and laid it on the table.
"That!" he said. "That is what brought me home. I did not want to come—heaven knows that I did not want to come. Some impulse that I could not resist brought me here. I came with a smile for my own weakness. I came—oh, hang it all! I came to prove the lie in that infernal letter. And I didn't prove the lie; I found that—but, here, read the thing for yourself."
Betty read the letter sternly and thoughtfully. There was no flush on her face, no guilty start, and no suggestion of confusion. Her hands had beome quite steady again.
"You are prepared to believe that this is a coincidence?" she asked.
"I would give five years of my life," Chesney said hoarsely, "to be certain of the fact."
A dazzling smile, tender and melting, flashed over Betty's face. It was only just for a moment, then her lips trembled, and her eyes filled with tears.
"We will come to that presently," she murmured. "Is this the first of these things you have received?"
"No, it isn't," Ralph confessed. "I have had three of them altogether. The first I tossed into the fire without a thought; the second worried me, but I managed to put it put of my mind. Tuhis accursed business is like brandy-drinking—it grows upon one. You can't keep clear of the poison altogether; You—you begin to ask yourself questions against your will. And when a man and his wife are—are not getting on very well together, you see— No doubt a good deal was my fault. And yet, when I come to look at you, Bet, a8 you ait there, I could kick myself for—for—"
"I fancy I understand," Betty smiled. "Ralph, I know who wrote those letters."
"You know who wrote the letters! If you could only prove it, Bet! I'd break every bone in his—"
"Hers!" Betty corrected. "A woman wrote those letters. How long is it since I had the diamonds out?"
"Since you had the diamonds out! My dear child, what's that to do with it?"
"Everything, as you will see presently, Ralph. Would you oblige me by unlocking the safe now. You know the key is never out of your possession. Take out my jewel-case and open the little secret drawer, at the bottom, and tell me what find there."
Chesney complied wonderingly. From the drawer he took two letters sealed and addressed to himself. He saw, to his astonishment, that they were in the same hand as the anonymous letters.
"Open them and read," Betty said. "They are addressed to you. You will find that they are more poisonous and atrocious than those you have already received."
"They must have been there a month," Ralph cried. "You placed them there yourself. Who wrote them?"
"I did," Betty said, calmly. "I wrote every line of them."
"A comedy!" Chesney gasped. "A regular stage comedy. In the name of fortune, why?"
"Because I wanted to test you," Betty whispered. She rose from her seat and stood now with her hands quietly resting on her husband's shoulders.
"I—I wanted to force your hand. I wanted to feel quite sure whether I had lost you or not. Three of the letters I kept by me to post, the others I placed in your custody so that I could prove my innocence if—if anything really dreadful happened. When you took no notice of the first letter I felt bad, but when you ignored the second I—I wanted to die, Ralph. If the third had failed I should have left you. I went out to-night on the chance that you might return, and you did. I have been down to the Convent with Sister Agnes for three hours. My dear boy, there never has been anybody but you, and there never will be. I can tell you this now because I am sure that it has been all a dreadful mistake, and because I know that I have never lost your love. I saw that in your eyes when I came in. You were stern and harsh and angry, but there was the pain and misery on your face, though you never knew it. And when you said just now that you would give five years of your life to—"
Chesney drew the trembling arm about his neck and kissed the red, quivering lips. He saw it all quite clearly now; there was not another word to be said. The tears were moist on Betty's cheeks, but these were tears of happiness, and her eyes were dim and sweet.
"It was wonderful," Chesney said. "Wonderful. By gad! it was an idea that any novelist Johnny might be proud of. And all done between ourselves, and nobody any the wiser. You have taught me to value what I came very near to losing, Bet, and I'll never forget it. Just one moment, dear."
"Where are you going to?" Betty asked.
"To telephone to Allison at the club," Chesney explained. "He's sure to be there still. I want to let him know that Littlestone is off to-morrow. We'll go down to Sandwich, you and I, dear, and have a jolly happy week there. Oh, you darling!"