IT was a beautiful prison in which Angela Patton lived, but it was a prison, all the same. Not that she had done anything wrong, from the point of view of the Draconian creed, but, to begin with, she was alone and friendless in the world, a slim, little, somewhat fragile creature, with the heart of a poet and the mind of a child who has yet learnt something in the hard school of adversity. She knew the bitterness of the bread of charity, and though the bread that she ate now was thin and white and exquisitely buttered, it was as if it had been dipped in the waters of Marah and flavoured with servitude.
She was fair enough, and sweet in her own dainty way, with a pleasant smile and a wistful glance in those grey eyes of hers, so that the young man who came from the library occasionally to change Sir John Osborne's books, and who had an artistic mind of his own, compared her to the Huguenot maiden in Millais' famous picture—in which the young man from the bookshop was entirely right, and wiser than he knew. For the rest, she was discreet and sane in her maidenly way, and those deep grey eyes of hers were pensive and thoughtful and full of a quiet intellectuality, that touch of soul which was one of her greatest charms. In happier circumstances she would have been beloved and popular, and, perhaps, when the good fairy came along, she was marked out to be the happy mother of children and the helpmeet of some good man, who would have loved her, and never been conscious of the fact that she was growing old.
As it was, she was a girl who had been educated, ever since she could recollect, in a big institution devoted to the orphans of artists and literary people and other improvidents who take no heed of the morrow, and are content to gather their rosebuds as they blossom casually by the roadside. For Angela had lost her parents many, many years ago, and of them she had only the dimmest recollection. There had been a little mother with blue eyes and a mass of golden hair, and a tall man with a brown beard, who made everybody laugh, and whom everybody liked, even the tradesmen who waited upon his doorstep in vain for the promised cheque that never came. But all this was a tangled mass of recollection, like a half-waking dream in the early sunlight of a summer morning. And now Angela was secretary and amanuensis to a selfish old valetudinarian, who wrote books that nobody read, and sent learned treatises to newspapers that never published them. The work was easy enough, for Sir John confined his efforts to two hours in the morning, so that Angela had the rest of the day to herself. She had her own small suite of rooms, and a servant to wait upon her, so that she was free to devote the balance of her time to her own literary work. Some day or other she would make a reputation as a writer of short stories, and then she would turn her back upon this lonely, dreary London, and take a delightful little cottage in the country. That was her dream, the one thing she had to live for; but it was a long way off yet, for the acceptances were few and far between, and the balance in the savings bank was a long way short of the hundred pounds which Angela had decided must be the amount of her capital before she cut herself adrift from Queen's Hostel, the old house in Chelsea where her employer lived. Meanwhile she was entirely alone in the world, not exactly unhappy, for she ived in an atmosphere of her own, but full of those vague longings and ambitions that every well-balanced girl in the same condition must feel.
It was a delightful atmosphere, too, a glorious old house hidden away not far from the Chelsea Embankment, a house that, in its day, had been famous as the twin residence of a man who had writ his name large in history, and whose tragedy had inspired many a writer of romance—a glorious old house, with big, rambling rooms with oak panels and painted ceilings, and quaint ingle-nooks with the same Jacobean furniture, none of which had been disturbed for the past century or two, and in itself represented a fortune. As a matter of fact, the Queen's Hostel had originally been two houses thrown into one, and now it was two houses again, the exact counterpart of one another, and somewhere on the wide landing, with its bedrooms leading from a broad gallery, was a panelled frame of a doorway which had once given access to the premises which, in the modern phrase, was now merely "next door." And it was this world "next door" that interested Angela so deeply, and around which she had spun more than one of those delightfnl little fantasies which had found their way into print, and which had induced one discerning editor, at least, to ask for more.
Angela had not the least idea who lived next door. She could have found out, of course, by consulting "The Post Office Directory," but that prosaic proceeding would have taken the romantic flavour out of it altogether. She liked to imagine that the white-haired lady next door, with her tall, commanding figure and black silks and flashing diamonds, was a French marquise of the old nobility, who had come there to hide some secret sorrow, and it would have been a terrible thing to have discovered that she was Mrs. Smith or Jones, or that she was the widow of some City knight who had made a fortune in cheese or butter, because the lady next door looked the part to perfection. She was wealthy, beyond the shadow of a doubt, for she had a houseful of servants, and a big car or two, in one of which she drove out most afternoons. Then there was an extremely nice-looking young man who came to the house next door most days, and who occasionally accompanied the white-haired lady on her drives. That a deep affection existed between these two, Angela had no doubt. She could see that from the way in which the two tenderly embraced when they met, and parted, for the young man did not live in the house, and occasionally he did not come near for days together. Quite half a dozen of Angela's short stories were written around the white-haired lady next door. And the romance was heightened by the fact that no other visitors called, so far as Angela could see.
And so it was that the whole thing grew upon the girl. It was the one spot of light and romance in her life, the one little link that connected her with the great world beyond. And so there gradually grew upon the girl's mind an almost overwhelming desire to know the lady next door. This was not idle curiosity on Angela's part— merely the working of the artistic mind in its search for the necessary material. Angela knew that the house next door was the exact counterpart of the one in which she lived—she had found out that her neighbour had purchased her house, as Sir John had done his, just as it stood, with its beautiful furniture and artistic treasures intact—so that she was enabled to visualise in her romantic mind a good deal that was going on upon the other side of that piece of panelling. She knew, too, that in the large room looking into the quadrangle the lady next door had her own sitting-room, in which was a piano, for many an hour had she stood on the landing there, listening to the strains of Chopin and Mendelssohn and the elder musicians, that came from the other side of the oaken barrier. And Angela was filled with a longing desire to see what was going on in the world next door. She had a sort of uncanny consciousness that her own escape into the golden universe of flowers and sunshine lay that way.
And one sunny afternoon she made a great discovery. The rays of light played upon the wall, and it was in these circumstances that Angela found out that what she took to be oak panelling was really a sliding door. It was some little time before she could get it to work, but she succeeded at last, and as the quaint-carved woodwork slipped back in its socket, she found herself gazing with wondering eyes into a room beyond.
It was not a very large room, and had evidently been divided at some recent period from the rest. It had all the same charm of age and mellowness as the remainder of the house—a room panelled with oak throughout, the walls lined with beautiful velvety soft mezzotints and quaint cabinets of blue china, with a square Persian carpet on the floor, and in the centre a writing-table, on which stood a photograph in an old silver frame. In one corner of the room was a small-model grand piano littered with music, most of it in manuscript, faded with age and faintly scented with lavender. It was all so beautiful and restful, all so home-like and inviting that, just for the moment, Angela forgot that she was a trespasser, and a mere curious spectator should have had no business there at all. She stood there, forgetful of all this, drinking in the beauty of it eagerly, heedless of the fact that she might be discovered at any moment, and then she stole across the room and bent eagerly over the photograph. This was so conspicuous and arresting that she felt instinctively that it must be something, some dominant note which, perhaps, had a bearing on the white-haired lady with the sad face. And then Angela forgot everything else in the thrill of a great and arresting discovery.
For the photograph was that of her own mother. She could not have been mistaken, because, upstairs in her own bedroom, she had another copy of the same picture, the one thing that she had left to remind her of her mother and the days which had now become no more than a blurred and occasionally tear-stained memory. The photograph was inscribed with the words: "Yours affectionately, Angela," and nothing more.
How long Angela stood gazing down at that picture, she did not know. It might have been ten minutes, it might have been an hour. Then she came back to herself with a start, and, with tingling cheeks and a flushed face, she suddenly realised the enormity of her offence. She closed the panel behind her again and fled incontinently to her bedroom, her cheeks ablaze and her heart aflame, and tingling from head to foot with all the dread delight of one who has made a great discovery.
For here was romance indeed—romance warm and palpitating to the finger-tips, a charming mystery beyond anything she had ever evolved in that nimble little brain of hers. She took out her own photograph of that dead mother of hers from her slender store of secret treasures, and any lingering doubts she might have had in her mind were set at rest. And then, for days to come, she pondered over this strange thing, wondering what the connection could be between that misty mother of hers and the sad-faced lady next door.
She was like a child who has wandered into a new and strange world—a world full of tender romance and mystery—much as if she had been another Alice. But though all this was delightful, it led Angela no further. Then gradually she found herself entering into the heart of the conspiracy. Every spare moment at her disposal was devoted to watching the movements of the lady next door. She became acquainted with the stranger's name. She was a Mrs. de Courcey, a widow, who was supposed to have had a good deal of trouble in her time, and who devoted her large fortune to works of charity. And more than once, when Mrs. de Courcey was out, Angela timidly made her way through the sliding panel into the mysterious room next door. She must have gone there a dozen times at least before the accident happened. She knew now that there was a spring attached to the sliding panel, and, when the great disaster happened, the panel had been pulled so far back that the spring refused to act, and the heroine found herself a prisoner in that delightful room, quite in the approved manner of dramatic precedent. In vain she struggled, till her finger-tips were sore and her nails were broken. She ventured out on to the landing, but a maid in the hall below drove her back into the oak-panelled room again, frightened and hunted, half unconscious with fear. And there she waited, till at length, almost with a feeling of relief, she heard a faint footfall coming up the stairs before the door opened again, and the nice-looking young man with the pleasant face entered. He stood for a moment with his back to the closed door, startled and surprised, and yet with something in his eyes that was almost fear.
"Who are you," he asked, "and how did you get here?"
"I-I don't know," Angela stammered. "Of course, I do know, but it's so difficult to explain. You see, I live next door. I am Sir John Osborne's secretary, and he dictates all his work to me. And I—I wrote stories in my spare time. The old house appeals to me, and I have thought about it till I have come to live in a sort of romance of my own. And I wanted to know Mrs. de Courcey so badly. She looks so kind and gentle, and I haven't a friend in the world. But that's not explaining. I discovered a few days ago, when I stood on the landing, that what I thought was panelling was really a sliding door leading from one house to the other, and I tried to see if I could open it. I did open it, and found myself in here."
Angela paused, with the colour flaming in her cheeks. She was conscious of a desire to suppress the whole truth. The pleasant-faced young man smiled with an imp of mischief dancing in his dark eyes.
"To-day, you mean, I suppose?" he asked. "Well, no," Angela faltered. "To be quite truthful, I have been here several times. I come when Mrs. de Courcey is out. And I didn't realise what a shameful thing I have been doing till you came into the room. Do you believe me?"
"Of course I do," the young man said. "When you look at me like that, I must believe anything you say. And, after all, there is no harm done. And I want you to regard me as your friend. I want you to tell me everything. For instance, has that photograph standing on the table anything to do with your visits?"
Here was the touch of romance again, here was the hero who had placed his finger unerringly on the very heart of the mystery. Angela felt herself expanding like a flower.
"How did you guess that?" she asked eagerly.
"Surely you must be aware of the extraordinary likeness between yourself and that photograph," the young man said. "If you were dressed in the same way, and your hair was, done in the same fashion, you might pass for the original. And that's why you startled me so much when I came into the room. And I suppose you don't know that this room is a shrine, and that photograph there stands on an altar. But of course you don't. Perhaps I had better explain. Mrs. de Courcey is a distant relative of mine—in fact, she believes that I am her only relative in the world. She is very rich and kind-hearted and charitable, as I know, because she honours me with the spending of all her money. Some day it will come to me as a sacred trust, and I think I shall know what to do with it. You see, I happen to have money of my own, and therefore I have no ulterior motives. But when I knew Mrs. de Courcey first—twenty-five years ago—she was very different to what she is now. She was a woman in the pride of her beauty, witty and accomplished and much sought after—proud, too, as proud as a Lucifer. She married a man older than herself, and from him she inherited her fortune. He died in the course of a year or two, and left my relative with an only child, a daughter. It seems strange that I should be telling you these things, after I have only known you for a few minutes, but you will see presently how necessary it all is."
"I think I see it now," Angela murmured. "I am beginning to comprehend. And presently I will try and make you understand that I am not what you take me to be."
"I don't," the young man said, with a whimsical smile. "I want you to know how delightful and charming the whole thing is, and how glad I am to meet you in this unconventional fashion. It is the most charming story in the world! And to think that, if it had not been for the accident to that panel, we might never have met! Let me confess I know something about you. I have seen you going in and out of the house next door, and, being a young man of—er —susceptible temperament, I made a few inquiries. I know the sort of life you must lead with that selfish old beast Osborne. But I had never before met you face to face. If I had, I should certainly have stopped you, at the risk of giving offence, and asking you if you were any relation to the artist who was known as Giles Patton." "He was my father!" Angela' cried. "I knew it. I knew it directly I saw you standing there, like a beautiful picture in an old oak frame. And I knew, too, that my gracious lady downstairs had found what she has been praying for in this sanctuary of hers any time in the last twenty years. It seems almost like a sacrilege for us to be standing here, like two figures in a modern comedy, in a shrine which is devoted to tears and penitence. And now, my dear Angela —your mother's name was Angela—cannot you guess the name and identity of the lady who rules this house, or shall I—"
"No, no," Angela cried, "don't spoil it like that! I have dreamt some beautiful dreams in my time—dreams which I have in vain tried to put down on cold paper, but they never satisfy me afterwards. Let me tell you. That photograph is my mother's, beyond all doubt. I have one, too, in my bedroom, and more than once I have compared them. And now I know that Mrs. de Courcey is my grandmother."
"Of course. No other conclusion could be possible. There could be no other ending to a romance like this. Won't you sit down? You have a right in this sanctuary, if anybody has."
Angela was thankful enough' to drop into a chair, for she was trembling from head to foot with the surprise and joy and happiness of the moment, and the whole world was swaying unsteadily about her. Two unshed tears stood in her eyes.
"You are very, very good to me," she said, "and I am not used to it. You don't know what it is to find a friend when you have lived all your life amongst strangers, who regard you as a mere unit in a garden of children. For, you see, my mother died when I was very small, and my father followed her very soon afterwards. And then some artist friends of his managed to get me into a school which looks after the orphans of painters and musicians, and then I became a mere number. I suppose I was always shy and retiring, so that I was forced into a sort of world of my own till the time came when I had to get my own living. But, oh, if you only knew how lonely it was! It wasn't that the other girls were unkind, but that they did not understand me, because they could not enter into my little kingdom. And then, in the fullness of time, I came here, where, at any rate, I have a comfortable home and a not uncongenial occupation. And I have time on my hands to write my little stories and realise my ambition of saving a hundred pounds to take a little cottage in the country. I don't know why I tell you all this, except because you are so kind and sympathetic, and my heart is calling out for friendship."
The young man broke in hastily. He could see that Angela was on the verge of tears, and her frankness touched him.
"Oh, yes, I understand," he said hastily. "Mine was largely a lonely youth, too. And now it is my turn to speak again. Your mother met your father at an art school, and fell in love with him. Of course, that was long ago, in the days when your grandmother was full of family pride and in the zenith of her popularity. And when she found out everything, she was furious. She was still more furious when Giles Patton ran away with your mother and married her. And from that moment mother and daughter never met. Outwardly, at any rate, Mrs. de Courcey did not seem to feel her loss—she never mentioned anything to her dearest friends—but the wound rankled and festered, and went deeper as the years rolled by. For behind that outward coldness Mrs. de Courcey dearly loved her only child, and the time came when she fought with her pride and conquered it. All too late. When she set out to find your mother, it was only to discover that the erring daughter was dead, and that the cause of all the mischief was dead, too. Inquiries were made about you, but you had been taken away by another Bohemian, who was also dead, and Mrs. de Courcey was under the impression that you had eventually disappeared somewhere in the wilds of Australia. She spent any amount of money in advertising for you, and, no doubt, if an effort had been made to hide you, you would have been found; but, as no such thing had happened, it was impossible to trace you. The police told us at the time that such was often the case. And so Mrs. de Courcey, humbled and chastened, gave up the world, and came to live in this quiet street, where I could look after her, and she could spend her time and money in helping the very class of people to which you belong, or did belong a few minutes ago. And now you must come down and see her. She has not been out for a day or two—in fact, she is confined to her room at the present moment. You are not afraid to come, are you?"
"I am horribly afraid," Angela confessed through her tears. "What will she think of me when she knows?"
"She will see that it was the hand of Providence. When you come to think of it, it can be nothing else. Now, come along, and make a noble old soul happy."
Angela found herself presently in a big, sunny bedroom on the far side of the landing, standing blushing before an armchair, in which the grey-haired lady with the sad face was seated. She looked white and frail, but she looked whiter still as her eyes fell on the girl's flushed face. She half started to rise, and dropped back into her seat again.
"What does this mean, Edgar?" she asked. "Is there something the matter with my eyes, or is this child—"
"Now, pray be calm," Edgar de Courcey said soothingly. "The most extraordinary and amazing thing has happened. I went upstairs just now into that sanctum of yours to fetch down the photograph, as you asked me, and what should I find there but the original itself. Here is the original as she must have looked twenty years ago, staring, as I found her, at her counterpart like a beautiful little ghost. Yes, you've guessed it. This is your grandchild, Angela Patton."
"Indeed, indeed, I am," Angela said. "Can you ever forgive me? And yet I cannot regret the vulgar curiosity that led me into your sitting-room."
"You had better explain, Edgar," the grey-haired lady said faintly. "I am afraid I don't quite understand."
The young man proceeded to tell his story. He told it well and humorously, with artistic little touches that served to check the tears and bring the smiles back again to the lips of both listeners. And when he had finished he faded quietly and unostentatiously from the room, leaving the two women alone, with Angela seated on a stool at her grandmother's knee, and the slim, white, faded hand, with its flashing diamonds, resting tenderly on the girl's sunny hair.
"It is all so wonderful," Mrs. de Courcey murmured, "that I can hardly believe it. All these years I have been praying for a miracle something like this—praying in the illogical way that woman does, and almost despising herself in her own heart for her romantic folly. And yet I knew that you were in the world somewhere. I knew that you would come back to me, and give me back some of my lost youth and the happiness that I deliberately shattered, if only my penitence were deep and sincere enough. And Heaven only knows how deep and sincere it has been. It was my pride that held me back—a pride that I look back upon now with horror. It is the coldest thing that a woman can hug to her heart, and well I know it. But I won't say any more about it now. I can guess what sort of a youth yours has been, and it shall be my task to wipe out the recollection of it. You must come to me at once—you must tell your employer that my need is greater than his—then we will go off to a delightful house of mine in the country that I am longing for, and where I never go, because your mother was born there, and there her happiest days were spent. And we will take Edgar with us—Edgar, the good and kind, whom I cannot do without. And perhaps, later on, when you come to know him better "
Angela smiled behind her blushes. And, when the proper time came, it was Edgar himself who saw to that.