"SUNNY APRIL" of the poet's fancy had faded into May; and at length had succumbed to the warmth of early summer. Though the season had been a late one, hedges and sloping woodlands glowed with a tender mass of greenery against a snowy background of pear-blossom and pink-flushed apple-bloom. The fortunate "ten thousand," dragged captive behind the gilded chariot of Fashion, turned their faces from the fresh born beauty, now at its best and brightest, to slave and toil, to triumph and be triumphed over; for the first drawing-room was "ancient history," and the lilacs in the Park were fragrant with pink flowers. Town was very full—that is to say, the four odd thousands of suffering, struggling humanity were augmented by the handful of fellow-creatures who aspire to lead the world and make the most of life. The Academy had opened its door for nearly a month, and the dilettante, inspired by the critics, had stamped with the hall-marks of success the masterpieces of Orchardson and Solomon, had dwelt upon the vivid classicality of Alma Tadema, and listened in languid rapture on opera nights to Patti and Marie Roze. Already those who began to feel the heat and clamor of "the sweet shady side of Pall Mall" sighed in secret for the freshness of green fields, and were counting the days which intervened between them, and "royal Ascot."
It is a fine thing, doubtless, to be one of Fortunatus's favorities, to rise upon gilded pinions, and to soar whither one listeth; to be in a position to transport the glorious freshness of the country into the stifled atmosphere of towns. Down the sacred streets, sun-blinds of fancy hues and artistic arrangement repelled the ardent heat, filtered the light through silken draperies of pink and mauve on to pyramids and banks of fragrant flowers, gardenias and orchids, and the deep-blue violets fresh and dewy from the balmy Riviera itself.
A glorious day had been succeeded by a perfect night. Gradually the light deepened till the golden outlines of the mansions in Arlington street gave promise of the coming moon, rising gradually, a glowing saffron crescent, into the blue vault overhead. From every house there seemed to float the sound of revelry; a constant line of carriages filtered down the street; and many outcasts, drifting Heaven alone knows where, caught a passing glimpse of fairyland between the ferns and gleaming statuary, behind doors flung, with mocking hospitality, open.
There was one loiterer there who took slight heed of those things. His shabby raiment might at one time have been well made, but now it was no longer presentable in such an aristocratic quarter; his boots, trodden down at heel, were a scant protection against the heat of the fiery pavement. The face was that of a man who had seen better days, a young face, not more than 30 at the outside, a handsome countenance withal, but saddened by care and thought, and the hard lines of cultivated cynicism, peculiar to the individual who is out of suits with fortune. For a moment he stood idly watching an open door, before which stood a neatly-appointed brougham; and within the brilliantly lighted vestibule, half in shadow and half in the gloom, a tall graceful figure loitered, a haughty-looking woman, with a black lace mantilla twisted round her uplifted head. It was a striking picture— the dainty aristocrat within, the neglected wanderer without; he half shrinking in the shadows, she clear-cut as cameo against the blazing light, a background of flowers and ferns to show off her regal beauty. As she swept down, the steps at length towards the carriage, something bright and shining fell from her throat, and lay gleaming on the marble tiles at her feet. Apparently the loss was unnoticed, for the brougham door was closed behind her before the stranger stepped forward and raised the trinket from its perilous position.
"I think you have dropped this," he said quietly, with a tone and ease of manner in startling contrast to his appearance. "May I be allowed to restore it to you?"
The haughty beauty, disturbed in some pleasant reverie, looked up almost without catching the meaning of the words. She saw nothing more than a humble individual of a class as distinct from her own as the poles are apart, who, perhaps in the hope of a small reward, had hastened to restore the lost property to its rightful owner.
"Oh, thank you," she replied, half turning in his direction, at the same time, taking the brooch, and placing a piece of money in the stranger's hand. "I should have been greatly distressed to have lost this."
"The miniature, must be valuable," returned the stranger, mechanically regarding the coin in his hand. "But you will pardon me in calling attention to another mistake— You have given me a sovereign."
"You scarcely deem it enough," said the girl, with a half-smile, as the strange anomaly of her position flashed across her mind. "If—"
"On the contrary, madam, I am more than rewarded."
"No," as she once more opened the little ivory purse.
Again the palpable absurdity of her situation struck the listener. That she was speaking to a man of education there was no longer reason to doubt. And yet the fact of his accepting the sovereign severely militated against the fact of his being what his language implied.
"You surely are a man of education, are you not?" she asked.
"Really, I can hardly tell you," he answered with some confusion. Then, suddenly pulling himself together, he said: "But I am presuming. It is so long since a lady spoke to me, that for a moment I have forgotten that I am what I am."
He had lost himself for a moment, thinking himself back in the world again, till his eyes fell upon the silver harness glittering in the moonlight, and the marble statuary gleaming in the vestibule behind. But the listener drew herself up none the higher, and regarded him with a look of interest in her dark dreamy eyes.
"I do not think so," she said, "and I-I am sorry for you if you need my pity. If I can do anything—"
Some sudden thought seemed to strike her, for she turned half away, as if ashamed of her interest in the stranger, and motioned the servant to close the carriage door behind hor. The loiterer watched the brougham till it mingled with the stream of vehicles, and then, with a sigh, turned away.
"281 Arlington street," he murmured to himself. "I must remember that. And they say there is no such thing as fate! Vere, Vere, if you had only known who the recipient of your charity was."
He laid the glittering coin on his palm, so that the light streamed upon it, and gazed upon the little yellow disc as if it had been some priceless treasure. In his deep abstraction he failed to notice that standing by his side was another wayfarer, regarding the sovereign with hungry eyes.
"Mate," exclaimed the mendicant eagerly, "that was very nigh being mine."
The owner of the coin turned abruptly to the speaker. He beheld a short powerful-looking individual, dressed in rough cloth garments, his closely- cropped bullet-shaped head adorned by a greasy fur cap, shiny from long wear and exposure to all kinds of weather.
"It might have been mine," he continued "only you. were too quick for me. With a sick wife and three children starvin" at home, it's hard."
"Where do you live?" asked the fortunate one abruptly.
"Mitre Court, Marchant street, over Westminster bridge. It's true what I'm telling you. And if you could spare a shillin'—"
The questioner took five shillings from his pocket and laid them on his open palm. As he replied, he eyed his meaner brother in misfortune with a shady glance, in which sternness was not altogether innocent of humour.
"I have seen you before," he observed, "and so, if I am not mistaken, have the police. You can have the five shillings, and welcome, which just leaves me this one sovereign. I am all the more sorry for you becouse I have the honor of residing in that desirable locality myself."
So saying, and dropping the coins one by one into the mendicant's outstretched hand, and altogether ignoring his fervid thanks, John Winchester, to give the wanderer his proper name, walked on, every trace of cynicism passed from his face, leaving it soft and handsome. His head was drawn up proudly, for he was back with the past again, and but for his sorry dress, might have passed for one to the manner born.
Gradually the streets became shabbier and more squalid as he walked along; the fine shops gave place to small retailers' place of business; even the types of humanity began to change. Westminster Bridge with its long lane of lights was passed, till at length the pedestrian turned down one of the dark unwholesome lines leading out of the main road, a street with low evil-looking houses, the inhabitants of which enjoyed a reputation by no means to be envied by those who aspired to be regarded as observers of the law. But adversity, which makes us acquainted with strange bedfellows, had inured the once fastidious Winchester to a company at once contemptible and uncongenial. He pursued his way quietly along till at length he turned into, one of the darkest houses, and walking cautiously up the rickety, uneven stairs, entered a room at the top of the house, a room devoted to both living and sleeping purposes, and illuminated by a solitary, oil-lamp.
Lying on a bed was a man half asleep, who, as Winchester entered, looked round with sleepy eyes; fine gray eyes they might have been, but for their red hue and bloodshot tinge, which spoke only too plainly of a life of laxity and dissipation. In appearance he was little more, than a youth, a handsome youth but for the fretful expression of features and the extreme weakness of the mouth, not wholly disguised by a fair moustache.
"What a time you have been!" he cried petulantly. "I almost go mad lying here contemplating these bare walls and listening to those screaming children. The mystery to me is where they all come from."
Winchester glanced round the empty room, all the more naked and ghastly by reason of certain faint attempts to adorn its native hideousness, and smiled in contemptuous self-pity. The plaster was peeling from the walls, hidden here and there by unframed water-colors, grim in contrast; while in one corner an easel had been set up, on which a half-finished picture had been carelessly thrust. Through the open windows a faint fetid air percolated from the court below in unwholesome currents, ringing with the screams of children, or the sound of muffled curses in a deeper key.
"'Tis sweet to know there is an eye will mark our coming, and grow brighter when we come.' Poverty calls for companionship, my dear Chris. Why not have come out with me and seen the great world enjoying itself? I have been up west doing Peri at the gates of Paradise."
"How can I venture out?" exclaimed the younger man with irritation. "How can a man show himself in such miserable rags as these? It isn't every one who is blessed with your cosmopolitan instincts— But enough of this frivolity. The first great question is, have you had any luck? The second, and of no less importance, how much?"
"In plain English, have I any money? Voilà!"
Winchester drew the precious coin from his pocket and flung it playfully across to his companion. His eyes glittered, his face flushed till it grew almost handsome again then he turned to the speaker with a look nearly approaching gratitude, or as near that emotion as a weak selfish nature can approach. Winchester laughed, not altogether pleasantly, as he noticed Ashton's rapidly-changing expression of feature.
"'Pon my word, Jack, you are a wonderful fellow and what I should do without you I dare not contemplate. Have you found any deserving picture-dealer who had sufficient discrimination to—"
"Picture-dealer!" Winchester echoed scornfully. "Mark you, I have been doing what I never did before—something, I trust, I shall never be called to do again. I told you I had been up west, and so I have, hanging about the great houses in expectation of picking up a stray shilling; I, John Winchester, artist and gentleman. And yet, someway, I don't feel that I have quite forfeited my claim to the title."
"You are a good fellow, Jack, the best friend I ever had," said Chris Ashton after a long eloquent pause. "I should have starved, I should have found a shelter in jail, or a grave in the river long ago, had it not been for you. And if it had not been for me, you would be a useful member of society still. And yet, I do not think I am naturally bad; there must be some taint in my blood, I fancy. What a fool I have been, and how happy I was till I met Wingate."
The melancholy dreariness of retrospection, the contemplation of what might have been dimmed the gray eyes for a moment while Winchester, his thoughts far away, pulled his beard in silent rumination.
"When you left the army three years ago—"
"When I was cashiered three years ago," Ashton corrected. "Don't mince matters."
"Very well. When you were cashiered for conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, you came to me, and I saved you from serious consequences. You were pretty nearly at the end of your tether then, and Wingate was quite at the end of his; you had spent all your share of your grandfather's money, and your sister had helped you also. When Wingate stole that forged bill of yours, that I had redeemed, from my studio, you thought it was merely to have a hold upon you, in which you are partly mistaken. He kept it because he imagined that, by making a judicious use of the document, your sister might be induced to marry him to shield you."
"At any rate, he profited little by that scheme. There was a time, Jack, when I thought you were in love with Vere."
Winchester bent forward till his face rested on his hands.
"I always was; I suppose I always shall. If it had not been for your grandfather's money— But there is nothing ito be gained by this idle talk. That is the only thing I have to regret in my past, that and my own fruitless idleness. Carelessly enough, I sacrificed all my happiness. Little Vere, poor child! What would she say if I were to remind her of a scertain promise now!"
"Marry you!" Ashton replied with conviction. "Ay, in spite of everything."
"Winchester laughed joylessly, bitterly, as he listened. He, a social outcast, beyond the pale of civilisation almost; she, with beauty and fortune, and if rumor spoke correctly, with the strawberry leaves at her feet, if she only cared to stoop and raise them to her brows. A sweet vision of a fair pleading face, lighted by a pair of dark brown eyes, looking trustingly into his own, rose up with faint comfort out of the dead mist of five years ago.
"Some day I fancy you will come together again, you and she, Jack, when I am no longer a burden to you. If I could, rid, myself of my Frankstein, my old man of the sea, I wouid have one more try. But I cannot my nerve is gone, and I am, after all, a poor, pitiful coward— I must tell you, I must: Wingate has been here again."
There is something very terrible in the spectacle of a strong man crushed by the weight of an overwhelming despair. Winchester crossed over and laid his hand in all kindness on his friend's shoulder, though his face was black and stern. For a moment it seemed that he would give way to the passion burning in every vein, but by a great effort he controlled himself.
"And what is the latest piece of scoundrelism, may I ask?"
Ashton's face was still turned away from the speaker. His reply came painfully, as if the words cost him an effort. "At first I refused, till he held that bill over my head and frightened me. It is bad this time, very bad, for, disguise it how he will, it is nothing but burglary. They want me to help them; they say I can if I will. And if not—"
"Ah, so it has come to that at last. You know something of the plans, of course. Where is the place they propose to honor with a visit?"
Somewhere in the West End—Arlington street, I fancy anyway, it is some great house, the residence of a well-known heiress. Wingate did not say whose, but the number is 280 or 281."
Winchester's face was very grave now, and almost solemn in its intensity. A dim glimmering of the vileness of the plot began to permeate his understanding. That Wingate, the before-mentioned scoundrel, knew well who the heiress was, he saw no reason to doubt.
"Chris," said he, with quiet earnestness, "turn over and look me in the face;" which the unhappy youth did with a strange feeling of coming relief.
"I told you I had been loitering in the streets to-night, and one of the streets I happened to choose was Arlington street— by chance, as some people would say. By the same chance, as I was waiting there, a beautiful girl came down the steps to her brougham, arrayed for some gaiety or another. In so doing she dropped a beautiful ornament and passed into her carriage without noticing her loss. I hastened to restore it to her; my back was to the light, so she could not recognise me. But I did recognise her. She gave me the sovereign lying there, and what was better, she gave the her sweet womanly sympathy. It was not out of any idle curiosity that I made a note of the number of the house. I hope you are listening to me, Chris?"
"Yes, dear old fellow, I am listening."
"It was 281, and she was the heiress Wingate mentioned. You think the coincidence ends here, but not quite. I said that I recognised her; I also said she could not recognise me. Can you guess who it was?'
"Not-not Vere!" Ashton exclaimed brokenly—"my sister?"
"It was Vere, changed, more beautiful, but the same Vere. Now, cannot you see the whole fiendishness of Wingate's plot? Cannot you see that if anything is discovered, he will get off scot-free, when you are implicated? My boy, I am going to play a bold stroke for your freedom. I am going to break the vow I made five years ago, in the hope that good may come o£ it. Treat Wingate for the present as if you are still his tool, and trust me, for beyond the darkness I see light at last."
THERE are some of us born and reared far enough beyond the contaminating influences of evil, who, nevertheless, take so naturally to rascality, that one is prone to ask a question as to whether it is not the outcome of some hereditary taint or mental disease. To this aberrant class, Anthony Wingate, late of Queen's Own Scarlets, naturally belonged.
Commencing a promising career with every advantage conferred by birth, training, and education, to say nothing of the possession of a considerable fortune, he had quickly qualified himself for a prominent position amongst those cavaliers of fortune who hover on the debatable land between acknowledged vice and apparent respectability. In the language of certain contemporaries, he had once been a pigeon before his callow plumage had been stripped, and it became necessary to lay out his dearly-bought experience in the character of a hawk. Five years of army life had sufficed to dissipate a handsome patrimony; five years of racing and gambling, with their concomitant vices, at the end of which he awoke to find himself with an empty purse, and a large and varied assortment of worldly knowledge. Up to this point, he had merely been regarded as a companion to be avoided; as yet, nothing absolutely dishonorable had been laid to his charge, only that common report stated that Anthony Wingate was in difficulties; and unless he and his bosom friend Chris Ashton made a radical change, the Scarlets would speedily have cause to mourn their irreparable defection.
But, unfortunately, neither of them contemplated so desirable a consummation. In every regiment there are always one or two fast young 'subs' with a passion for ecarté and unlimited loo, and who have no objection to paying for that enviable knowledge. For a time this pleasant condition of affairs lasted, till at length the crash came.
One young officer, more astute than the rest, detected the cheats and promptly laid the matter before his brothers-in-arms. There was no very grave scandal, nothing near so bad as Ashton had suggested to Winchester, only that Captains Wingate and Ashton resigned their commissions, and their place knew them no more. There was a whisper of a forged bill, some hint of a prosecution, known only to the astute sub and his elder brother and adviser-in-chief, Lord Bearhaven, and to Vere Dene, Ashton's sister, who is reported to have gone down on her knees to his lordship and implored him to stay the proceedings. How far this was true, and how Vere Dene came to change her name, we shall learn presently, But that there was a forged bill there can be no doubt, for Wingate had stolen it from Winchester's studio while visiting Ashton, after the crash came and, moreover, he was using it now in a manner calculated to impress on Ashton the absolute necessity of becoming the greater scoundrel's tool and accomplice. Since that fatal day when he had flown to careless bohemian Jack Winchester with the story of his shame, and a fervid petition to beg, borrow, or steal the money necessary to redeem the fictitious acceptance bearing Bearhaven's name, he had not seen his sister, though she, would cheerfully have laid down all her fortune to save him. But all the manhood within him was not quite dead, and he shrank, as weak natures will, from a painful interview. Winchester had redeemed the bill, and Wingate had purloined it.
Winchester had been brought up under the same roof as Vere Ashton, by the same prim puritanical relative, who would hold up her hands in horror at his boyish escapades, and predict future evil to arise from the lad's artistic passion. It was the old story of the flint and steel, fire and water; so, chafed at length by Miss Winchester's cold frigidity, he had shaken the dust from his feet, and vowed he would never return until he could bring fame and fortune in his train. There was a tender parting between the future Raphael and his girlish admirer under the shadow of the beeches, a solemn interchange of sentiments, and Jack Winchester started off to conquer the world with a heart as light and unburdened as his pocket.
But man proposes. Vere's mother had been the only daughter of a wealthy virtuoso, who had literally turned his only daughter out of doors when she had dared to consult her own wishes in the choice of a husband and for years, long years after Vere and Chris had lost both parents, he made no sign. Then the world read that Vavasour Dene was dead, and had left the whole of his immense fortune to his grandchildren three-fourths to Vere on condition that she assumed the name of Dene, and the remainder to Chris, because, so the will ran, he was the son of his mother. Presently, Winchester, leading a jolly bohemian existence in Rome, heard the news, and decided, in the cynical fashion of the hour, that Vere would speedily forget him now. And so they drifted gradually apart. Winchester had been thoughtless, careless, and extravagant living from hand to mouth, in affluence one day, in poverty another but he was not without self-respect, and he had never been guilty of a dishonorable action. He hated Wingate with all the rancour a naturally generous nature was capable of feeling, and set his teeth close as he listened.
"Of course it was only a matter of time to come to this," he said. "Well, of all the abandoned scoundrels— And that man once had the audacity to make love to Vere, you say. I wish I had known before."
"That was a long time ago," Ashton replied, "before— before we left the army, when you were in Rome. Remember, Wingate was a very different man, in a very different position then. Do you suppose that he knows whose place it is that he contemplates—?"
"Knows! of course he knows. Now listen to me, Chris, my boy, and answer me truthfully. I believe, yes, I do, that if you had a chance you would end this miserable life. You say you are in Wingate's power. What I want to know is whether he carries that precious paper about with him?"
"Always, always, Jack. With that he can compel me to anything; the only wonder is that I have never forced it from him before now. Still, I do not see what that has to do with the matter."
Winchester smoked in profound silence for a time, ruminating deeply over, a scheme which had commenced to shape itself in his ready brain.
"I don't suppose you do understand," he said dogmatically. "Do you think if I were to see Vere she would acknowledge me, knowing whom I am?"
For answer Ashton laughed almost gaily. "Your modesty is refreshing. Do you think she has forgotten you, and the old days at Rose Bank? Never! There are better men than you; handsomer, cleverer by far; she meets daily good men and true, who would love her for her sweet self alone. She is waiting for you, she will wait for you till the end of time. Whatever her faults may be, Vere does not forget."
A dull red flush mounted to the listener's checks, a passionate warmth flooded his heart almost to overflowing; but even the quick sangumeness of his mercurial disposition could not grasp the roseate vision in its entirety. Its very contemplation was too dangerous for ordinary peace of mind.
"One more thing I wish to know," said he, reverting doggedly to the original topic. "Of course the dainty Wingate does not intend to soil his fingers by such an act as vulgar burglary. Who is the meaner rascal?"
"So far as I can gather, a neighbor of ours, a very superior workman, I am told, who is suffering from an eclipse of fortune at present. The gentleman's name is Chivers— Benjamin CHivers. Is the name familiar?"
"Why, yes," Winchester answered dryly, "which is merely what, for a better word, we must term another coincidence. The fellow has a most respectable wife and three children, who are distinguished from the other waifs in the street by a conspicuous absence of dirt. I thought I recognised the fellow's face."
"Recognised his face? Have you seen him, then?"
Winchester gave a brief outline of his interview with the individual he had chanced to encounter in Arlington street. A little circumstance in which one day he had been instrumental in saving a diminutive Chivers from condign chastisement had recalled the ex-convict's face to his recollection. Perhaps—but the hope was a wild one—a little judicious kindness, and a delicate hint at the late charitable demonstration, might sufficiently soften the thief's heart and cause him to betray Wingate's plans. That they would not be confided entirely to Ashton he was perfectly aware, and that the meaner confederate had been kept, in want of funds by his chief the fact of his begging from a stranger amply testified.
"Which only shows you that truth is stranger than fiction," said he, as he rose to his feet and donned his hat. If I only dared to see her and even then she might— but I am dreaming. However, we will make a bold bid for freedom. And now you can amuse yourself by setting out the Queen Anne silver and the priceless Dresden for supper;" saying which, he felt his way down the creaky stairs into the street below.
The 10 days succeeding the night upon which this important conversation was held were so hot that even Ashton, much as he shrank from showing himself out of doors in the daytime, could bear the oppressive warmth no longer, and had rambled away through Kennington Park Road, even as far as Clapham Common, in his desire to breathe a little clear fresh air. Winchester, tied to his easel by a commission which, if not much, meant at least board and lodging, looked at the blazing sky ahd shook his head longingly. Despite the oppressive, overpowering heat, the artist worked steadily on for the next three hours. There was less noise than usual in the street below, a temporary quiet in which Winchester inwardly, rejoiced. At the end of this time he rose and stretched himself, with the comfortable feeling of a man who has earned a temporary rest. In the easy abandon of shirt sleeves he leant out of the window, contemplating the limited horizon of life presented to his view. There were the usual complement of children indulging in some juvenile amusement, in which some broken pieces of oyster-shells formed an important item, and in this recreation Winchester, who had, like most warm-hearted men, a tender feeling towards children, became deeply engrossed. One or two street hawkers passed on, crying their wares, and presently round the corner there came the unmistakable figure of a lady, followed by a servant in undress livery, bearing a hamper in his arms, a burden which, from the expression of his face, he by no means cared for or enjoyed.
"Some fashionable doing the Lady Bountiful," Winchester murmured. "Anyway, she has plenty of pluck to venture here. If she was a relation of mine—"
He stopped abruptly and stared in blank amazement, for there was no mistaking the tall figure and graceful carriage of Vere Dene. She passed directly under him, and entered a house a little lower down the street with the air of one who was no stranger to the locality. In passing the group of children, she paused for a moment, and selecting one or two of the cleanest, divided between them the contents of a paper parcel she carried. Directly she had disappeared, a free fight for the spoils ensued. The interested spectator waited a moment to see which way the battle was going, and then hurried down the stairs and out into the street towards the combatants. The presence of the new ally was sorely needed. The three representatives of the house of Chivers were faring sorely in the hands of the common foe. In that commonwealth all signs of favor were sternly discountenanced.
"What do you mean by that?" Winchester demanded, just in time to save the whole of the precious sweetmeats. "Don't you know it is stealing, you great girls, to rob those poor little children?"
"They don't mean it, bless you." said a voice at the mediator's elbow, "and they don't know any better. It's part of their nature, that's wot it is."
Winchester turned round, and encountered the thickset form and sullen features of his Arlington street acquaintance. As their eyes met, those of Chivers fell, and he muttered some incoherent form of thanks and acknowledgment for the past service. Presently he went on to explain.
"You see, my wife is better brought up than most of them about here, and she do try to keep the childer neat and tidy; and that makes the others jealous. They ain't been so smart lately," he continued, with a glance half kindly, half shameful, at his now smiling offspring, "'cause mother has been poorly lately, and I've been out o' luck too."
In spite of his shamefaced manner and the furtive look common to every criminal, there was something in the man's blunt candour that appealed to Winchester's better feelings. Besides, knowing something of the ex-convict and his doubtful connection with Wingate, it was to his interest to conciliate his companion with a view to possible future advantage.
"It must be a miserable life, yours," he said not unkindly. "Better, far better, try something honest. You will not regret it by-and-bye."
"Honest, sir Would to heaven I could get the chance! You are a gentleman, I can see that, though you do live here, and know what misfortune is. If I could only speak with you and get your advice. You have been kind to me, and good to my poor little ones, and I'm-I'm not ungrateful. If I could help you—"
Winchester laid his hand upon his companion's shoulder with his most winning manner. He began to feel hopeful. "You can help me a great deal," said he; "come up to my room and talk the matter over."
It was a very ordinary tale to which he had to listen.
"I was a carpenter and joiner, with a fair knowledge of locksmith's work, before I came to London. I was married just before then, and came up here thinking to better myself. It wasn't long before I wished myself back at home. I did get some work at last, such as it was, a day here and a day there till I became sick and tired of it, and ready for anything almost. I needn't tell you how I got with a set of loose companions, and how I was persuaded to join them... I got 12 months, and only came out 10 weeks ago. I have tried to be honest. But it's no use, what with one temptation and another."
"And so you have determined to try your hand again. You run all the risk, and your gentlemanly friend gets all the plunder."
It was a bold stroke on Winchester's part; but the success was never for a moment in doubt. Chivers' coarse features relaxed into a perfect apathy of terror. He looked at the speaker in speechless terror and emotion.
"We will waive that for the present," Winchester continued. "What I wish to know is how you have contrived to live for the past 10 weeks?"
"I was coming to that, sir, when you stopped me. You see, when the trouble came, my poor wife didn't care to let her friends know of the disgrace, and tried hard to keep herself for a time. But illness came too, and she and the little ones were well-nigh starving. Mary, my wife, sir, remembered once that she was in service with an old lady, whose niece came into a large fortune. Well, she just wrote to her and told her everything. And what do you think that blessed young creature does? Why, comes straight down here into this den, of a place and brings a whole lot of dainty things along. And that's the very lady as is up in my bit of a room at this very minute."
"I am quite aware of that," said Winchester quietly. "Miss Dene, as she is called now, and myself are old friends. I remember everything now. Your wife was once a housemaid at Rose Bank; and you are the son of old David Chivers, who kept the blacksmith's, shop at Weston village. —Ben, do you ever remember being caught birdnesting in Squire Lechmere's preserves with a ne'er-do-well fellow called Jack Winchester?"
For answer, Chivers burst into tears. Presently, after wiping his eyes with the tattered fur cap, he ventured to raise his eyes to his host.
"You don't mean to say it's Mr Winchester?" he asked brokenly.
"Indeed, I am ashamed to say it is. This world of ours is a very small place, Ben, and this is a very strange situation for you and me to meet. But before we begin to say anything touching old times, there is something serious to be discussed between us. Remember, you are altogether in my hands. I might have waited my opportunity and caught you red-handed. Don't ask me for a moment what is my authority, but tell me"—and here the speaker bent forward, dropping his voice to an impressive whisper—"everything about the Arlington street robbery you have planned with that scoundrel Wingate."
Once more, the old look of frightened terror passed like a spasm across the convict's heavy features. But taking heart of grace from Winchester's benign expression, he, after a long pause, proceeded.
"I don't know how he found me out, or why he came to tempt me—not that I required much of that either. It seemed all simple enough, and I was very short of money just then, and desperate-like, though I won't make any excuse. I don't know all the plans—I don't know yet whose house—"
"Whose house you are going to rob," Winchester interrupted with a thrill of exultation at his heart. Then I will tell you as an additional reason why you should make a clean breast of it. Perhaps you may not know that Miss Dene lives in Arlington street and that Miss Dene, whose name, I see, puzzles you, is Miss Ashton, once of Rose Bank?"
"I didn't know," Chivers exclaimed with sudden interest. "If it is the same—"
"It is the same. She changed her name when she inherited her grandfather's fortune. Come, you know enough of Wingate's plans to be able to tell me if No. 281, Arlington street, is the house?"
"As sure as I am a living man, it is," said Chivers solemnly. Mr Winchester, I have been bad; I was on the road to be worse; but if I did this, I should be the most miserable scoundrel alive. If you want to know everything, if you want me to give it up this minute—"
"I want to know everything, and I certainly do not want you to give it up this minute. You must continue with Wingate as if you are still his confederate. And of this interview not a word. I think, I really think, that this will prove to be the best day's work you have ever done."
Chivers answered nothing, but drew from a pocket a greasy scrap of paper cut from a cheap society paper, and placed it in Winchester's hand. As far as he could discern, the paragraph ran as follows
"The delicate and refined fancy of a 'jewel ball,' designed by the Marchioness of Hurlingham, will be the means of displaying to an admiring world the finest gems of which our aristocracy can boast. Starr and Fortiter, et hoc genus omne, are busy setting and polishing for the important event, not the least valuable parure of brilliants in their hands being those of Miss Dene, the lovely Arlington street heiress, who, rumor says, intends to personify diamonds. Half a century ago the Vere diamonds had become quite a household word. Certainly they never had a more lovely mistress to display their matchless beauty."
"That," explained the penitent criminal in a hoarse whisper, is about all I know at present. But if I made a guess, I should say it would be the night after the ball."
IN POINT of artistic beauty and delicacy of floral arrangement throughout Arlington street, No. 281 certainly bore away the palm; for Miss Dene, like most country girls, had a positive passion for flowers—a graceful fancy she was fortunately in a position to gratify. Many an envious eye fell upon that cool facade with its wealth of glorious bloom; many a darling of fashion paused as he passed on his listless way, and forgot his betting-book and other mundane speculations to wonder lazily who might some day be the fortunate man to call that perfectly-appointed mansion and its beautiful mistress his own. For Vere Dene could have picked and chosen from the best of them, and graced their ancestrai homes; but now she was five-and-twenty; so they came at last to think it was hopeless, and that a heart of marble pulsed languidly in that beautiful bosom.
The hall-door stood invitingly open—more, perhaps, in reality to catch the. faint summer breeze, for the afternoon was hot, and inside, the place looked cool, dim, and deliciously inviting. On a table there lay a pair of long slim gauntlets, thrown carelessly upon a gold-mounted riding-whip, and coming down the shallow stairs, against a background of feathery fern and pale gleaming statuary, was Miss Dene herself. A stray gleam of sunshine, streaming through a painted window, lighted up her face and dusky hair—a beautiful face, with creamy pallor, overlaid by a roseate flush of health. The dark-brown eyes were somewhat large— a trifle hard, too, a stern critic of beauty might have been justified in saying; the tall graceful figure drawn up perhaps too proudly.
Vere Dene was, however, no blushing debutante, but a woman who knew her alphabet of life from alpha to omega who was fully conscious of her power, and the value of her position well enough to discern between honest admiration and studied flattery, and to gather up the scanty grains of truth without mistaking chaff for golden corn. There was no reflection of wistful memory on the heiress's face as she rode slowly down the street some time later, the cynosure of admiring eyes. There was a rush and glitter of carriages hurrying parkwards, as she rode on her way alone, bowing to one acquaintance or another, and dividing her favors impartially.
"A beautiful face," murmured a bronzed soldierly-looking man to his companion as they lounged listlessly against the rails of the Row, watching the light tide of fashion sweeping by.
"A perfect face, wanting only soul to make it peerless. Who is she, Leslie?"
"Who is she?" laughed the other. "Is it possible you do not know Miss Dene?— But I forgot you had been so long in India. You remember old Vavasour Dene, of course, and his son, the poetical genius, who married some demure little country maiden, unknown to Debrett or Burke, and who was cut off with the traditional shilling accordingly. You can imagine the rest of the story a life-long fend between father and son, ending, as it usually does, in the parent's dying and cheating condemnation by an act of tardy justice. That handsome girl is old Dene's heiress, a woman with all London at her feet, a quarter of a million in her own right, and never a heart in the whole of her perfect anatomy."
Wholly unconscious of this storiette, and apparently of the admiration she naturally excited, Miss Dene rode, on down the Mile, with many a shake of her shapely head as one gloved hand after another beckoned her to range alongside barouche or mail-phaeton till at length a slight crush brought her to a standstill. Almost in front of her was an open stanhope, wherein was seated a delicate fragile-looking lady, exquisitely dressed, and apparently serenely indifferent to the glances and smiles in her direction. By her side sat a child of six or seven, a diminutive counterpart of herself, to her fair golden hair and melting pansy-blue eyes. Vere would fain have pushed her way through the crowd and passed on but the child had seen her, and uttered her name with a cry of innocent delight and Vere, like many another who is credited with want of heart, had a tender love for children.
"Really, I owe Violet my grateful thanks," murmured the owner of the stanhope as Vere ranged alongside. "Positively, I began to fear that you meant to cut me. I should never have forgiven my brother, if you had. My dear child, I warned him that it was useless; I did indeed. And now he says that his heart is broken, and that he shall never believe a woman any more."
Vere looked down into the Marchioness of Hurlingham's fair demure face with a little smile.
"So Lord Bearhaven has been abusing me?" she said. "I am disappointed. I did not think he would have carried his woes into the boudoir."
"My dear Diana, he has done nothing of the kind. Surely a man might be allowed to bewail his hard lot with his only sister. —Violet, my darling child, do be careful how you cross the road."
"This warning, addressed to the diminutive little lady, who had succeeded unseen, in opening the carriage door came too late; for by this time the volatile child had recognised some beloved acquaintance over the way, and indeed was already beyond the reach of warning. Vere watched the somewhat hazardous passage breathlessly, then, satisfied that her small favorite had made the dangerous journey in safety, turned to her companion again.
"I have a genuine regard for Lord Bearhaven," said she, speaking with an effort, "too great a regard to take advantage of his friendship under false pretences. I shall never forget the kindness he once did me in the hour of my great trouble Will you tell him so, please? and say that perhaps for the present it will be well for us not to meet."
"Now, that is so like both of you," Lady Hurlingham cried, fanning herself in some little heat. "Why will you both persist in making so serious a business. of life? At anyrate, you might have some consideration for us more frivolous-minded mortals. Vere, if you do not come to my Jewel Ball on Thursday, I—I— well, I will never speak to you again."
"So, I am to be coerced, then. I am morally bound to be present, since the Society papers have promised the world a sight of the Vere diamonds; besides which, I simply dare not incur your ladyship's displeasure!"
"I wonder if you have a heart at all," said the other musingly. "Sometimes I almost doubt it; and the times I generally doubt it most are immediately after those moments when I have flattered myself that I really have begun to detect symptoms of that organ. The romantic ones have been libelling again. Would you like to hear the latest story?"
"You stopped me for this, I presume. Positively, you will not know a moment's peace till you have told me. I am all attention."
"They are saying you have no heart, because it was given away long ago; they say there is a rustic lover somewhere in hobnails and gaiters who won your affections, and is afraid to speak since you became a great lady."
Vere did not reply or glance for a moment into her friend's sparkling mischievous face. A deeper tinge of colour flushed the creamy whiteness of neck and brow, like the pink hue upon a snowy rose.
"They do me too much honor." she replied. "Such a model of constancy in this world of ours would indeed be a peril amongst women. Pray, do they give a name to this bashful Corydon of mine?"
"Naturally, nothing but the traditional second cousin, ma chère. Really, it is quite a pretty romance the struggling, artistic genius who is too proud to, speak, now you are in another sphere. Surely you are not offended?"
In spite of her babyish affectations and infantine innocence, mere mannerisms overlaying a tender kindly heart, Helena, Marchioness of Hurlingham, was not entirely without an underlying vein of natural shrewdness. She was clever enough to see now that the innocently-directed shaft of a bow drawn at a venture had penetrated between the joints of Vere's armour, in spite of her reputation for being perhaps the most invulnerable woman in London.
"I am not offended," Vere answered, recovering from her chill composure at length; "only such frivolity annoys one at times. What a lot of idle scandal poor womankind has to endure—What is that?"
Gradually above the roll of carriages, the clatter of hoofs, the subdued murmur of voices, and light laughter, a louder, sterner hum arose. Borne down on the breeze came distant sounds of strife, and now and then a shriek in a woman's shrill notes; it seemed to swell as if some panic had stricken the heedless crowd further down the drive. Every face, restless and uneasy with the sudden consciousness of some coming danger, was turned in the direction whence the evidence of trouble arose, as a carriage and pair of horses, coming along at lightning speed, scattered pedestrians and riders right and left, like a flock of helpless sheep, in a wild medley of confusion.
As if by magic, a lane seemed to have opened, and coming along the open space tore a pair of fiery chestnuts, drawing after them in their fear and fright a mail phaeton as if it had been matchwood. With a feeling of relief, the helpless spectators noticed that the vehicle was empty, save for its driver, who, with bare head and face white as death, essayed manfully to steer the maddened animals straight down the roadway, a task rendered doubly dangerous and difficult from the crowded state of the Row, and the inability of certain tyros to keep the path sufficiently clear.
In the midst of the turmoil and confusion there arose another cry, a shout of fear and unheeded expostulation, for, crossing the roadway smilingly, without the semblance of a fear, came a little child, bearing in her hand a bunch of roses; a little girl with sunny golden curls and laughing blue eyes, standing like a butterfly before a sweeping avalanche. There was another shout, and again the tiny passenger failed to note her danger as nearer and nearer came the horses, till through the now paralysed, helpless crowd burst the figure of a man who without a moment's hesitation sprang forward and caught the child just as the pole of the carriage threatened to strike her to the ground. There was no longer time for an escape, a fact of which the heroic stranger was perfectly aware and grasping the laughing maiden with one powerful arm, with the other he made a grab for the off-horse's head, and clung to the bridle with the bulldog tenacity of despair. For a moment the animals, checked in their headlong career, swerved to the right; there was a crashing sound of broken panels, and a moment later child, rescuer, horses, and driver lay in an inextricable struggling confusion. For a second or two there followed a dread intense silence, as each butterfly of fashion contemplated in fascinated horror the struggling mass; then, before the nearest could interfere, it was seen that the stranger had risen to his feet, his garment soiled and stained, and a stream of ruddy crimson slowly trickling down his face. Just for a brief instant he reeled from very faintness, till, dashing the blinding blood from his eyes, he stooped swiftly, and at the imminent risk of his brains drew the now thoroughly frightened child right from those terrible hoofs, and taking her in his arms, staggered rather than walked to a seat.
Meanwhile, Lady Hurlingham, beside herself with grief, and terror, the lady of fashion merged for the moment into the mother, had descended from her carriage, her face pale and haggard, and hurried with Vere to the seat where the stranger reclined. It was no time for ceremony or class distinction. With a gesture motherly and natural, as if she had been moulded of meaner clay, she snatched little Violet from the arms still mechanically holding her, with a great gush of thankfulness to find that, with the exception of the fright, not one single hair of that golden head had been injured.
By this time the crowd had sufficiently recovered from the threatened realisation of sudden death, and, with regained wit, sufficient society veneer to murmur the usual polite condolences and congratulations to the now elated mother. Still the rescuer sat, his face buried in his hands, a whirling, maddening pain in his head, and a mist before his eyes as if the world had suddenly lost its sunshine. Vere, with tears in her eyes and a tremble in her voice, pushed her way through the too sympathetic crush and laid her hand gently oh the sufferer's arm.
"I am afraid you are hurt," she said. "Can I do anything for you?"
Winchester, for he it was, looked up vaguely, the words coming to his ears like the roar of the sea singing in a dream, a dream which was not all from the land of visions. He wondered dreamily where he had heard that voice before. With an effort, he looked up again. For the first time in five years their eyes met in the full light of day. She knew him now, recognised him in a moment. But it was scarcely the same Winchester who had restored her lost ornament a fortnight ago. The old shabby raiment had disappeared, giving place to a neat suit, such as no gentleman had been ashamed to wear. Fourteen days' steady work, inspired by a worthy object, had met an equal reward. It was no longer Winchester the outcast that Vere was addressing, but Winchester the gentleman, and in his heart he rejoiced that it was so. For a moment they were no longer the centre of a glittering host of fashion; their thoughts together had gone back to the vanished past, as they looked into each other's eyes, neither daring to trust to words.
"Jack," said Vere at length, "Jack, is it really you?"
"Yes, dear, it is I," Winchester responded faintly. "You did not expect to meet me like this—if you ever expected to meet me at all."
"Do you think I forget—as some people do? You did not always judge me so harshly. How could we meet better; how could I feel more proud of you than I do at this moment?"
Gradually the crowd fell back. There was not much mischief done after all—nothing that a clothes-brush and a little warm water would not rectify. Besides, Miss Dene seemed to know the stranger, and from one or two expressions, would apparently prefer to be left alone. Winchester's answering smile had no trace of its accustomed bitterness. After all, there was something in the soft music of Vere's tones, a charm in the reckless abandonment of self which fell upon his troubled heart like balm in Gilead. There was something sweet also in the consciousness that he had played the man so recently in her sight, under the very eyes whose brightness alone he had only valued. There was a stimulant worth all the tonics in the pharmacopoeia.
He would have spoken again, but he was suffering still from a great rush of pain and giddiness, as if the whole universe was slipping into space. Directly after, the feeling passed away, and he was himself once more. By this time Lady Hurlingham had driven away, while some one, more thoughtful than the rest, had remained to place his carriage at Winchester's disposal.
"This gentleman is a friend of yours, Miss Dene?" he asked. "Allow me to suggest that your groom takes your horse, and that you drive likewise. You will pardon my sister's apparent heedlessness, but you see Violet is an only child, and—"
Vere looked gratefully into Lord Bearhaven's grave, handsome face, and extended her hand in an impulse of gratitude. The meeting she had so much dreaded was made smooth and pleasant by his kindly courtesy.
"I might have expected this from you," she answered warmly. "Believe me, I am deeply obliged. Mr Winchester is not only a friend, but a relation."
Lord Bearhaven gave Jack a handgrip which said more than the most carefully chosen words. But what an effort this magnanimity cost him, only Vere, who saw that he had heard everything, alone could tell.
"I am forgiven, then?" asked Winchester as they drove along Oxford street. "Well, it is worth playing the poor part I have played to-day to hear that. Vere, Vere, what a sorry self-opinionated fool I have been. Do you know that for the last week I have been screwing up my courage to the sticking-point? But whenever I found myself near you, my pluck failed."
"You do not deserve to be spoken to," Vere replied, her cheeks aflame, her eyes laden with unshed tears, though the thrilling tenderness of her voice robbed the words of their sting. "How dare you venture to treat me as if I should be ashamed of my old friends?"
Up to this point Winchester had scarcely dared to analyse his sensations. Now that all the impenetrable barriers of restraint were broken down between them, he found himself talking in the old familiar strain, and wondering if the last five years were merely a phantasm of his own creation.
"And Chris," Vere ventured at length, though the question had long been trembling on her tongue, "do you eyer hear anything of him?"
Winchester told her everything, disguising nothing except the part of good Samaritan he himself had played towards the unfortunate Ashton. It must have been an interesting conversation, for Vere's face as she listened grew yery soft and tender, her eyes sweet and luminous. When at length the end of Arlington street was reached, Winchester stopped the coachman, and insisted upon alighting, a step which Vere vehemently opposed.
"You are coming home with me," she said. "Have you any idea who you will find waiting there to welcome you?"
"Not the slightest, unless you have persuaded— but that is impossible. Still, you must have a chaperon of some sort. Is it possible that you have our clear old Aunt Lucy at Arlington street?"
"Not only possible, but an actual fact. Come; you cannot refuse now."
Winchester hesitated for a moment, then, with a sudden impulse, complied. Of all his relations, the Aunt Lucy in question was the only one who kept a green spot in his recollections. A few moments later he passed a welcome guest through the very portals outside which so short a time before he stood a wretched outcast and useless member of society.
Two hours later, when he descended the steps again, with a bright eager look of exultation on his face, a servant loitering in the hall saw and wondered if it was the same man whom his mistress had brought home so recently. He lingered for a moment for a few parting words with Vere.
"So that is settled," he said, "and if you should feel afraid—"
"Afraid—I," she echoed scornfully. "I shall not be afraid."
"I do not think you will. Now, remember you have promised. And above all things, Lord Bearhaven must know everything."
"I promise," she answered. "If I could only see Chris—"
"But you can't do anything of the kind— for the present, at least. You must have perfect faith in me."
"I have," Vere replied, looking into his glowing eyes. "Had I not always?"
THE HOUR was a little after 2 in the morning; a perfect silence, broken at intervals by the roll of some passing carriage, or faint echo of distant music, reigned in the streets of Vanity Fair. Vere Dene swept down the marble steps, with their coating of crimson cloth, which lay before the Marchioness of Hurlingham's residence in Park Lane, her head drawn up, the Vere diamonds flashing in the lamplight under her thin gossamer wrap. There had been some faint surprise, a little well-bred expostulation at her early departure and Lord Bearhaven, standing at the carriage door bare-headed and regretful, murmured against the fates. "Your presence is absolutely necessary?" he asked.
"Absolutely. You understand everything, and besides, I should be so miserably anxious all the time. Goodnight."
"Good-night, Miss Dene or, rather, let us say au revoir."
The carriage rolled away into the darkness, carrying with it no delicious whirl of thought, no sweet consciousness of a night of triumph. Lord Bearhaven threw a coat over his evening dress and hailed an empty cab crawling down the street. A moment later, he, too, was hurrying Arlington street way.
There was a fitful gleam of light in some of the windows at No. 281 as the carriage drew up and the door opened. A few feet farther on was a hackney coach with the outline of a policeman on the box with the cabman, the conveyance from Starr and Fortiter's, in which their confidential agent had arrived to convey the Vere diamonds to safe custody.
Under tbe subdued light of the shaded lamps, Vere waited, but for what she scarcely knew. The ancient butler, a faithful old servant of Vavasour Dene's, came forward with a poor attempt to conceal his agitation. "Some one has been inquiring for you, Miss," he said. "I did not know what to do. I had to hide him in the library. But—"
"Who is up, Semmes? Are all the servants in bed?"
"Every one except myself and Miss Ashton, Miss. Your maid said you left orders for her not to wait for you. Mr Winchester has been here some time, but where he is now I know no more than—"
"And the agent from Starr's, where is he?"
"In the breakfast-room. He has been here half-an-hour."
Vere's heart was beating fast enough now; a curious choking in her throat checked her ready flow of speech for a moment. Then all the dominant courage of her nature seemed to come again, strengthening every nerve and limb, till she felt almost exulting in her audacity of purpose. She swept up the stairs leading to her dressingroom, her face calm and placid, as if she had no consciousness of danger, a profusion of soft wax-lights flashing upon the living fire of jewels gleaming on her dusky hair and round the full white throat. For a moment she stood contemplating her own perfect-loveliness, then she removed the glittering jewels from her wrists and throat and bosom and placed them one by one in their leathern cases. Taking the cases from the table, she walked down the stairs again. At the foot of the stairs stood Ashton, a smile of uneasy meaning upon his neat handsome face, a smile of uncertainty as to his welcome. They made a strange picture as they stood thus, this brother and sister, after a parting nearly five years old, as different now as light from darkness, as wide asunder as tbe poles.
"Come with me," Vere whispered, conscious of the danger of being overheard, at the same time leading the way into a small room half-concealed behind a bank of gardenias and tube-roses, and where one dim light was burning. "You have chosen a strange time for your visit, Chris. You might have selected a more appropriate hour." Her eyes wandered over him from head to foot, over all the signs of pitiless poverty he bore, till her heart melted, and all the pure sisterly love came to the surface.
"Chris, Chris, what have I done that you should treat me like this? Why do you keep away from me as you have done, when all mine is yours, and I would have sacrificed it all to help you."
Ashton turned away his face as if the words had been tbe lashes of a whip; even the thickening folds of self-pity which the years of trouble and misfortune had wrapped around him were penetrable to one touch of Nature.
"Do not grudge me the last embers of my manhood," said he with an imploring gesture. "Don't make it any harder, Vere."
"I hate to hear you talk like this," Vere answered, her voice trembling. "You, a young man, with all the years before you; time enough to wipe out the stain and regain your honorable name."
"An honorable name for me, with the recollection of the cowardly part I am playing at this moment! But cost what it will, I play the hypocrite no longer.—Do you guess what brings me here to- night?"
"Yes, Chris I know only too well what brings you here to-night."
So utterly surprised was Ashton by the unexpected reply, that he could only cling to the back of the chair against which he was standing and regard the speaker with starting eyes. That Vere had been taken into Winchester's confidence he had not had the smallest conception.
"Is it possible you can really know? And if you have discovered everything, why do you not ring the bell and order your servants to thrust me out into the street? What can you gain by keeping tne here?"
"Much that I want— much that you need also. Chris, it is folly for you and me to stand here wasting bitter words. You came here because there was no help for it; you imagine yourself to be deserted. Even now, we are all doing our best to save you."
Ashton laughed mirthlessly. "To save me?" he cried. "And how?"
"How, another hour will prove. For the present, I am merely an instrument in cleverer hands than my own. Only wait and see."
"Your patience will be tried no longer. —Vere, are you ready?"
The suddenness of the interruption caused brother and sister to turn uneasily. In the dim light Winchester's tall figure was faintly visible, though the lamp shining on his face showed it illuminated by a smile of hope and pleasurable expectation. His very presence seemed to give them a fresh meed of comfort. Vere would have spoken, only that he laid a finger on her lip and pointed silently to the door. For a moment Vere hesitated, as if half afraid; but gathering up her,courage, somewhat shaken by the unexpected interview, without another word took up the jewel cases and left the room. A bright light was burning, in the breakfast room as she entered. There was still the consciousness of unseen danger, till beyond, in the darkness of an inner apartment, she discerned the outline of Winchester's figure as he came in noiselessly by another door. There was only one other person present, a tall, slim individual, with a small black moustache, and gleaming eyes, but little dimmed by the pince-nez he bore. He bowed, and brightened visibly as Vere laid the leathern cases upon the table.
"You come from Starr and Fortiter's, I presume?" she asked.
"I have the honor to be their confidential clerk, madam," replied the agent smoothly. "If you will be good enough to read this letter, you will see thatI am what I represent. In such matters we usually take every precaution."
Vere glanced through the letter carelessly, after which, at the clerk's direction, she initialled it. With almost suspicious alacrity he took up the cases, and with another profound bow, walked towards the door. As he did so, Winchester came out of the inner apartment and stopped him with a gesture.
"I hardly think this is quite formal," he said. "Perhaps Miss Dene has no objection to my asking a few question? And you, sir, pray, be seated. If Miss Dene will do me the favor to retire for a moment—"
Vere wanted no second bidding. Already her courage, high as it was, began to fail. It had been a trying night, and the sense of danger overpowering. Moreover, the evil had not been seen, but rather implied. Without waiting to hear more, she left the aparment and stepped across to a little room opposite, fearful lest Ashton might in a moment of rashness betray himself.
Directly the last sound of her footsteps had died away, the patent politeness of Winchester's manner underwent a change.
"Now, you scoundrel," he said grimly, "give me those jewels."
"My good sir, I am quite at a loss to know who you are; but, representing as I do one of the first houses in town—"
"You are at no loss to know who I am," Winchester, returned, approaching the agent, and with a dexterous movement, removing wig, moustache, and glasses from tbe other's face. "My name is Winchester, and yours is Wingate There is not the least occasion to deny the fact."
Wingate, for, he it was, dropped the cases and staggered into a seat. For a moment he measured his antagonist with his eye, and despairingly gave up the wild idea of a struggle as at once hopeless and perilous. An instant of wild baffled rage was followed by a cold trembling of the limbs. There remained only a last effort for freedom to be made, and as the detected thief remembered the forged acceptance in his pocket, his spirits rose to the encounter. "Perhaps you will be good enough to prove what my name is," he answered doggedly.
"Prove it," Winchester echoed contemptuously; "yes, before a jury, if you like. Do Starr ancl Fortiter's agents generally do their business in disguise, with a cab waiting for them outside with a pantomine policeman alongside the driver The scheme was a very neat one but unfortunately for you, I happen to know everything."
"En après," said Wingate with all the cool insolence at his command. "Upon my word, you carry matters with a high hand. Perhaps you forget that I hold an open sesame that will allow me to depart whether you like it or not."
"'Pon my word, I am greatly obliged to you for mentioning it," Winchester returned. You are naturally alluding to tbe acceptance you stole from my studio—"
"Bearing the forged name of Lord Bearhaven."
"Bearing the forged name of Lord Bearhaven. Exactly. For that reminder also allow me to tender you my most sincere thanks. You are an audacious rascal, Mr Wingate, a truism we both appreciate. If that bill was in my pocket, you would not feel so easy as you do."
"Certainly. That, as you are perfectly aware, is my sheet anchor. Come what may, you dare not prosecute me and so far as I am concerned, I shall walk out of this room as freely as I came in."
"That is very likely," Winchester returned dryly. "But if I may venture to prophesy, not without paying something for your freedom. You may rest assured of one thing, that unless that bill is in my posession, your exit will be accompanied by an official not altogether unconnected with Scotland Yard."
"You would force it from me?" Wingate cried, tbe first real feeling of alarm getting the better of his matchless audacity. "You would never dare—"
"I would dare anything. Can't you see that you are completely in my power? However, I do not desire to use force; it would be bad for me, and a great deal worse for you. You are counting upon Lord Bearhaven's character for severity, and also how. you can be revenged upon Ashton for betraying you. Upon my word, when I think of everything, the cool villainy of this plot, now I have you in arm's length, I can scarcely refrain from thrashing you within an inch of your life and I should do so with the liveliest satisfaction."
"You will treat me as a gentleman," Wingate faltered, shrinking back with blanched lips and chattering teeth. He was completely cowed; but the malignant cunning of his nature did not fail him quite yet. "I-I could do a lot of harm. If I sent to Lord Bearhaven and said to him—"
"Should you like to see him?" Winchester asked abruptly.
Wingate's dark eyes- blazed with the intensity of impotent malice.
"Like to see him!" he cried. I would give anything, five years of my life, if I could, for the opportunity of 10 minutes' conversation at this moment."
Winchester touched the little silver bell on the table. "I am delighted to be in a position to accommodate you," he replied cheerfully, as Semmes entered. "Will you be kind enough to ask Lord Bearhaven to step this way."
A moment later, Bearhaven entered, calm, cool, and slightly contemptuous in his immaculate evening dress, and looking down from his superior height upon the thoroughly bewildered Wingate, while Winchester, content to leave the matter in such competent hands, discreetly vanished.
"You wished to speak to me," said the newcomer after a long pause. "I would advise you to be brief in your confidence, Mr Wingate."
"Captain Wingate, if you have no objection," responded the discomfited rascal, with a fair assumption of ease. "Let us preserve the ordinary courtesies."
"Pooh, my good fellow, a jury would not recognise so fine a distinction. I am sorry to disappoint you of your promised treat, but everything is known to me. Your confederate Chivers— Benjamin Chivers, to be correct— has disclosed everything. We know how you ingratiated yourself into the good graces of Starr and Fortiter's agent, how you stole his credentials from him, and where he lies drugged at this moment. What you are most desirous of mentioning is that forged bill bearing my signature. Will you be surprised to hear that I knew all about that three years ago?"
"But if I liked" to disclose the facts, my lord," broke in Wingate, now thoroughly alarmed, "if I am presssd to do so—"
"You dare not," Lord Bearhaven sternly replied. "I am not going to argue with you one way or another. Let me bring myself down to your level. Try it and I will be prepared to acknowledge the signature, and Mr Winchester will be prepared to swear you stole the bill from his studio. And I think," concluded the speaker, with stinging contempt, "I think you will be a long while in persuading a jury to give credence to your story. Lord Bearhaven's testimony, I presume, will go further than that of a well-known sharper and blackleg."
Wingate's head fell lower and lower, till his face rested on his hands. The struggle, long and severe, had been too much for even his temerity. "I am quite in your power," he said. "I think, I hope you will not be hard upon me. Tell me what I must do, and it shall be done."
"The acceptance you have at this moment in your possession— nay, do not prevaricate; it is your last chance so you may expect little mercy from me. Place it in my hands and trust to my discretion."
"And supposing I agree— what then? I will make terms—"
"You will do nothing of the kind; it is I who will make terms. Hand it over without another word and you leave here a free man. I say no more."
Slowly, grudgingly, Wingate drew from his breast-pocket a worn leather case, and taking therefrom a narrow slip of paper, handed it to Lord Bearhaven, as if it had been some precious treasure at which his soul recoiled from parting with. After a hasty glance at its contents, Lord Bearhaven held it over the flame of a lamp till nothing but a few blackened ashes remained in his fingers.
"Now you may go," he said, with a motion towards the door. "Allow me to see you safely off the premises. Your cab is still at the door, I think. You must make your own peace with the cabman and the artificial policeman."
Winchester was standing in the hall somewhat impatiently waiting for the termination of the interview. One glance at the detected scoundrel's face was sufficient evidence of the successful issue. As Wingate disappeared in the darkness, Bearhaven turned to the artist and held out his hand. "I think we can congratulate ourselves," he said. "The paper we spoke of no longer exists. And now I will retire, if you have no objection. Miss Dene will, not care to see me again to-night, especially as—you understand—"
Winchester nodded; it would have been impossible to express his feelings in words. Once alone, he ran lightly upstairs to the drawing-room, where Chris and Vere together with Miss Ashton were awaiting him. As he entered, the light was falling full upon Vere's face, from which all the pride and haughtiness had gone, leaving it soft and tearful. There was a tremor of her limbs, her lips worked unsteadily as she tried to smile, in return for his bright face. For a moment all were silent, Ashton watching them without daring to speak.
"It is done," he said gently, noting the dumb piteous appeal in Ashton's eyes. "Thank Heaven, you are free at last."
There was another silence, at the end of which he told them all. Miss Ashton, weeping quietly, hung on every word with breathless admiration. To Winchester she firmly believed there was nothing impossible; this favorite erring nephew had always been the delight and terror of her simple life. Now the tale was told, the play was ended. With a passionate sigh, Winchester turned to go.
"This Is no longer any place for us," he said. "Chris, are you coming with me?"
"You will dp nothing of the kind!" cried Miss Ashton, firm for the only time in her amiable existence. "I will give Semmes orders to lock every door and bring me the keys. Jack, you ought to be ashamed of yourself."
Winchester sighed again wistfully as Aunt Lucy bustled out of the room. He held out his hand to Vere, but she could not, or would not, see. At the door he lingered for a moment with a backward glance; and Vere, looking up at length, their eyes met, each telling their own tale in the same mute language. He was at her side in a moment. "What dare I say?" he asked.
"What dare you say? Rather, what dare you not say? What did you promise years ago, and how have you fulfilled that promise? Do you think that I forget so easily; that, because riches and prosperity have come to me— Oh can't you see?—Can't you say something I may not?"
"Is it that you care for me, darling that you still love me?"
"I am weak and foolish but I cannot help it, Jack," Vere cried with her face aflame, "Oh, how blind you have been, and how unhappy I! Of course it is. What will people say? What do I care what people say, when I am the happiest girl in England. But, Jack, there is one thing 1 would not have them say, that I had actually to ask a man to— to marry me."
There was a great glow of happiness upon Winchester's face, reflected in a measure on Ashton's pallid cheek. For a few moments he dared not trust himself to utter the words trembling on his lips.
"You always had my love," he said presently. "Fate has been very good to me in spite of myself. My darling, if you are willing to brave the world, you shall never regret it so long as God gives me health and strength to shield you. Chris, have you nothing to say?"
"Only that you may be as happy as you deserve to be. And what you have done for me to-night, with God's help, you shall be repaid for, all the days of your life.—And now, Vere may perhaps be persuaded to let us go."
"I will," she whispered, "for I know you will come again to-morrow. To-morrow—rather to-day for, see, the sun has risen, and daylight