THE RED HOUSE MYSTERY
The Piccadilly Novels
BOOTS PURE DRUG CO., LTD. NOTTINGHAM & LONDON
It stood on the top of a high hill--bleak, solitary. In winter all the winds of heaven raved round it; in summer the happy sunshine rarely touched it. It was, indeed, hemmed in from brightness of any kind, by a dense row of cypresses that grew before the hall-door, and by a barren rock that rose perpendicularly at the back.
On clear days one could get from this cold house a grand view of the valley below, nestling in its warmth, and from the road that ran under it people would sometimes look up and wonder at the curious colour of the Red House--such a dark red, sombre, like blood.
It was a bleak house at all times, but to-day it showed itself singularly dull. A light rain was falling--light, but persistent, and the usual charming gaiety of an early May morning was drowned in tears. The house looked drearier than ever, in spite of the grand proportions. But no amount of walls can make up for a dearth of nature's _bijouteries_--her shrubs, her trees, her flowers.
The Red House had no flowering parterres anywhere, no terraces, no charming idyllic toys of any sort, no gracing gardens full of lovely sweets, wherewith to charm the eye. Nothing, save one huge elm upon the barren lawn, and the dark, gloomy row of cypresses--those gloomiest of all dear Nature's gifts, standing in funeral procession before the hall door. They had been there when Dr. Darkham took the place ten years ago. He had thought of removing them, but on second thoughts had let them alone. Somehow, he told himself, they suited his _ménage_.
Indoors, the day was, if possible, more depressing than outside. May should be a lovely month, but months do not always fulfil their obligations. This May day, as I have said, was full of grief. Rain in the morning, rain in the afternoon, and rain now and again when the evening is descending.
In the morning-room, lounging over a low fire, sat Mrs. Darkham, the doctor's wife, a big, coarse, heavy-looking woman--heavy in mind as in body. Her hair, a dull brown, streaked liberally with gray, was untidily arranged, stray locks of it falling about her ears. She was leaning forward, staring with stupid, small, but somewhat vindictive blue eyes into the sorry glow of the fire, and her mouth looked as though she were dwelling on thoughts unkindly. It was a loose mouth, and vulgar. The woman, indeed, was plebeian in every feature and movement.
The room was well furnished--that is, comfortably, even expensively--but it lacked all signs of taste or culture. It was not unclean, but it was filled with that odious air that bespeaks carelessness, and a want of refinement. The tables had been dusted, but there were few ornaments on them--a copy of Wordsworth was so closely leaved as to suggest the idea that it had never been opened; another of Shakespeare in the same condition; some sea-shells, and no flowers.
On the hearthrug--squatting--foolishly playing with the cinders in the grate, sat a boy--a terrible creature--deaf and dumb and idiotic. It was the woman's son. The son of Dr. Darkham, that clever man, that learned scientist!
He sat there, crouching, mouthing; his head protruded between his knees, playing with the cinders, making passes at the fire with his long fingers. He was sixteen, but his face was the face of a child of seven. His mind had stood still; his body, however, had developed. He was short, clumsy, hideous; but there was strength --enormous strength--in the muscular arms and legs. The face vacant, without thought of any kind, was in some remarkable way beautiful. He had inherited his father's dark eyes--all his father's best points, indeed--and etherealised them. If his soul had grown with his body, he would have been one of Nature's greatest products; but his soul lay stagnant, and the glorious dark eyes held nothing.
His figure was terrible--short and broad. His hair had never grown, and the body had ceased to form upwards at twelve. He had now the appearance of a boy of that age, but the strength of his real years.
The mother sat in the lounging chair looking into the fire; the boy sat on the rug. Neither of them was doing anything besides. Suddenly the door opened.
The woman started and looked round. The poor creature on the rug still played with the cinders.
"Oh, you!" said Mrs. Darkham. Her husband had just come in.
"Yes. I am going out; I want a stamp."
"You'll find them in the table drawer, then," said his wife sullenly. Her voice was guttural, vulgar.
"So you're goin' out again," said she, taking up the poker and stirring the fire into a blaze. As she did so, a hot coal fell on the idiot's finger, and he threw himself backwards with a hideous howl.
"What is it, my darling, my lamb?"
The woman went on her knees, and caught the unwieldy mass of humanity to her with long arms. It had been but a slight burn, and after awhile the turmoil subsided. Mrs. Darkham rose from her knees, and the idiot went back to his play amongst the cinders.
"I believe you'd see him burnt alive with joy," said she, turning to her husband, a great animosity within her eyes.
"Your beliefs are so numerous, and are always so complimentary, that it is hard to reply," said Dr. Darkham, with a slow smile.
If her glance had betrayed animosity, his, to her, betrayed a most deadly hatred.
"Oh, there, you're at your sneers again!" said she shrugging her ample shoulders. "So you're going out this wet day. Where?"
"To"--slowly--"visit the sick."
"Same old answer," said she, trying to laugh contemptuously.
"What you mean is--only you haven't the courage to say it--that you're going to Rickton Villa."
"I dare say"--with admirable composure, though his heart is beginning to beat--"that I shall call in there on my way home to see Mrs. Greatorex."
She leans forward, resting her elbows on her knees, and peers at him insolently. In this position the detestable order of her gown becomes more apparent.
"Mrs. Greatorex, or her niece, eh?"
"I am not aware that Miss Nesbitt requires the services of any doctor. Where are these stamps?"
"No! Doesn't she? You seem as blind about her as you are about the finding of them stamps. And so it is Mrs. Greatorex you go to see three times a week? She pays you, I suppose?"
"Not now. Feeling herself better a little time ago, she told me to discontinue my visits. But I dislike leaving a cure half finished. So I told her I should still call occasionally. She is not very well off, as you are aware."
He said all this with the dry, business-like air of one who felt he was bound to speak, but then would do it as concisely as possible.
"She is well enough off to treat me as a nobody. Me--the wife of a man whose visits she accep's for nothing! She a pauper, and me who can ride in my carriage! Why, she wouldn't raise her eyes to mine if she could 'elp it. Can't see me sometimes, she can't. And so she's taking your time and your advice for nothing! and you give them, knowing how she treats your wife!"
The word "wife," so incessantly insisted on, seemed to grind his very soul. Yes, there she was, sodden, hideous, irredeemable, and --his wife!
"She is not well off, as I have told you; but she has a certain standing in the neighbourhood. And it is not well for a doctor to quarrel with those around him."
"Hypocrite!" said the woman, in a dull but furious way. The very stolidity of her often made the outburst the more remarkable.
"Don't you think I see into you? Don't you think I know you?-- that I haven't known for the past six months the reason of your visits to the Villa?"
"Put an end to this," said the doctor, in a slow, cold voice.
"Are you mad?" His dark eyes glowed.
He was a tall, singularly gaunt man, and handsome. The deeply-set eyes were brilliant, and dark as night. As night too, unfathomable. The mouth was fixed, cold, determined, and suggestive of cruelty. The brow was broad and grand. He was about forty-five, and in manner was suave, low-voiced, and agreeable. Education and resolution had lifted him up from his first surroundings to a plane that made him level with those with whom he now desired to mix. But all his quality could not conceal the fact that he would be a bad man to fight with--that he possessed an indomitable will that would drive all things before it, till it gained the object of its desire.
"Mad? Don't think you'll make me that. I tell you again and again that I know very well why you visit at---"
He turned upon her, and by an impressive gesture stopped her.
"How dare you speak so of---"
"Miss Nesbitt?" She laughed aloud as she interrupted him.
"No. _Of me!_ Of course I know what you mean. But am I to give up all my patients to satisfy your detestable jealousy?"
"My jealousy! Do you think I am jealous of you?" said his wife, with a contemptuous smile.
"'Pon me word, you must think a lot of yourself! Why, who the deuce are you, any way? Tell me that. You married me for my money, and glad enough you were to get it."
She poured out the terrible torrent of invective in a slow, heavy, rumbling way; whilst he stood silent, motionless, listening. It was so true! And her hideous vulgarity--that was true too. It would never alter. She would be there always, clogging him, dragging him down to her own level. She was now as uneducated and idealess as when, at the age of twenty-two, he married her for the sake of her money; and now besides all that, she was hideous and old--older than himself in appearance. Quite an old woman!
And then the child!
Dr. Darkham's eyes turned to the hearthrug, and then turned away again hastily. He loathed to look upon this, his first-born and only child. He shrank with horror whenever he saw him. Physical deformity was an abomination in his eyes, beauty a thing to worship. Thus his only child was a living torture to him.
To the mother the unfortunate idiot was something to love--he was the first of her womb, and an object of love--but to the father he was loathsome.
The child had been born beautiful, but time had proved him deaf and dumb, and, worse than all, devoid of intellect; without a single idea, save, indeed, an overpowering adoration for his mother, a clinging, unreasoning love that knew no bounds.
For his father, the unhappy mute felt nothing but a settled, and often openly shown, aversion.
His wife had recovered her breath, and was still hurling accusations and sneers at him. He had grown accustomed to let her rave, but now something she said caught his ear, and made him turn to her sharply.
"You are getting yourself pretty well talked of, I can tell you."
"Talked of? What"--sternly--"do you mean?"
"Right well you know. They are talking about your attentions to that minx at the Villa--that Miss Nesbitt."
Darkham's eyes suddenly blazed.
"Who has dared to talk of Miss Nesbitt with disrespect?" asked he.
"Oh, law! You needn't make such a fuss about it, even if she is your dearie-o. But I can tell you this Darkham, that people are talking about you and her, all the same. And why shouldn't they? Why, you never take your eyes off her."
"Be silent, woman!" said he savagely, coarsely; now and again his own birth betrayed him. "Who are you that you should speak to me like that?"
"I am your wife, any way," said she.
"Ay. My wife!"
The look that accompanied his tone should have frozen her, but she only laughed.
"I know, I know," she said, wagging her hideous fat head at him.
"You would undo it all if you could. You would cast me out, like Rebecca, and marry your Sarah instead; but"--with slovenly triumph--"you can't. You can't, you know. I"--with a hideous leer at him--"am here, you see, and here I'll stick! You wish me dead, I know that; but I'll not die to please you."
(If she had only known!)
She looked up at her husband out of her small, obstinate eyes--- looked at the tall, handsome, well-dressed man whose name she bore, yet who was so different to her in all ways. And he looked back at her.
A strange smile curled his lips.
"Wishes don't kill," said he, slowly. Now his voice was soft, refined, brutal.
"Good for me," returned she, with a hoarse chuckle, "or I wouldn't be long above ground. I know you! And as for that girl down there"--she paused, then went on with malicious intonation: "you may as well cease your funning in that quarter. I hear she's as good as engaged to that young fellow who took up Dr. Fulham's practice three months ago--Dr. Dillwyn."
"A very suitable match for her," said Darkham, after a second's pause that contained a thousand seconds of acute agony. He spoke coldly, evenly.
"Yes." She looked disappointed; her spleen had desired a larger fulfilment of its desire. "Suitable indeed, for both are paupers. But, for all you're so quiet, I don't believe you like it, eh? Dr. Dillwyn, you know, and you---"
"I wish sometimes you would forget me," said he.
"Ha, ha, ha!" She flung herself back in her chair, and laughed aloud, her hideous vulgar laugh. "For once in our lives we are agreed. I wish that, too. But I can't, you see--I can't. You're always there, and I'm always there!"
"You! you!" Darkham took a step towards her; his face was convulsed. "You," he muttered, "always you!" His voice, his gesture, were menacing.
The idiot on the hearthrug, as though gathering into his poor brain something of what was going on between his father and his mother, here writhing round upon the rug, threw himself upon the latter. He embraced her knees with a close, soft clasp. He clung to her. Every now and then he glanced behind him at his father, his dull eyes angry, menacing. His whole air was one of protection; short barking cries came from him, hideous to hear.
Mrs Darkham bent down to him, and caught the beautiful soulless face to her bosom, wreathing upon it sweet reassuring words. The idiot, mouthing, slaps her quietly, incessantly, on the shoulder. Darkham watches them--the mother's heavy, coarse endearments, the boy's vacant affection, with his mouth open--and from them presently Darkham turned away with an oath. A shudder of disgust ran through him. "Great heavens! what a home!"
His wife had looked up for a moment, and had seen the disgust. It was fuel to an already very hot fire.
"Go!" she cried violently. She had the boy's head pressed to her breast, keeping his eyes against her that he might not see her face, perhaps, which now was frightful. "Go! leave us! Go where you are welcome! Leave us! Leave your home!"
"My home!" he paused, but always with his eyes on hers. "My home is a hell!" said he.
He went out then, closing the door softly behind him.
But when he had stepped into his brougham he gave himself full sway. As the wheels rolled over the gravel his thoughts surged and raged within him.
That dull, illiterate creature, why had he ever married her? What cruel fate had driven him to such a marriage? And for ever that marriage would endure--trampling him down, destroying him, clogging his career.
Some men got rid of their wives. But that was when kindly Providence stepped in and Death took them away. But this woman, without feeling, sentiment or beauty, even Death would not deign to touch her.
Death--death! If he were only free!
All at once the face of a young girl rose before him. It stood out clear and tranquil from a detestable background--not like a dream, a thought, but sweetly, definitely. The eyes, the hair, the lovely mouth, all were there. They seemed to sit there before him, embodied in the brougham.
Darkham flings himself back and covers his eyes with his hand, as if to blot out the too, too lovely apparition. But it would not go. It stayed. The sweet eyes always smiling, the lips a little parted.
What was it that woman, that human devil, had said about her? That she was thinking of--that she was in love with that young Dillwyn? Pshaw!
Here the brougham stopped at the gate of a small if pretty entrance, beyond which a gravel path led to a small but perfectly appointed house. Dr. Darkham stepped out of his carriage, and, entering the hall, followed the servant into the drawing-room beyond, and into the presence of the gentle spectre who had possessed his thoughts during his short drive.
She stood at the end of the room, bending over some flowers she was arranging, and after a slight inclination of her small and charming head, took no further notice of him.
He passed up the room quickly to his quasi-patient, Mrs. Greatorex, an elderly but still pretty woman who sat lounging in a cosy chair.
The room was warm and sweet with flowers. It was exquisitely arranged, if not richly furnished. It spoke of refinement, though not of wealth, and was very charming and womanly. A few Persian rugs lay here and there, and jars full of early flowering branches were placed in the corners of the windows and against the tall screens that stood at the end of the room. All the place was sweet with little bowls full of honeysuckle and primroses.
Mrs. Greatorex held out her hand to him.
"How good of you to come!" said she, in her low, cultivated voice. "And after your hard day's work, too."
"I like work. How do you feel this evening--you are better? You look better. You will be out of my hands altogether soon, and I shall be left desolate."
His eyes wandered to the figure bending over the primroses, but she seemed engrossed with her pretty flowers.
She was tall, slender, graceful, with dark hair, and a mouth beautiful in its strength and purity. Her eyes were her chief feature, and shone like stars. They were a clear gray--soft and kind by day, dark and even kinder by night; and so full of expression, love and laughter, grief and quick delight, tenderness and anger: all things those perfect eyes could declare in their right season.
Just now they were lowered, so it was hard to see what lay within their shining depths; but a little line across her forehead showed that her thoughts were not altogether pleasant. She bent even more assiduously over the flowers, and showed no disposition to go forward and add to the pleasant reception her aunt was giving Dr. Darkham.
The latter had been going through the usual formula with Mrs. Greatorex, feeling her pulse, asking about her appetite, etc., and then had drifted into a light gossip. This pleased his patient, and gave him leisure to gaze on the lovely figure in the window. He hardly cared that she did not speak to him.
After a time he rose, and bid Mrs. Greatorex good-bye. Then he turned deliberately to the girl.
"If you can spare me one moment, Miss Nesbitt, there is just a word or two I would say to you about our patient here," with a smile and bow towards Mrs. Greatorex. "She has been making a little too free, I am afraid, and if you will let me write a prescription in the next room---"
"Certainly," said Agatha, courteously but coldly. She let her flowers fall, and led the way to the little anteroom beyond, hidden by a falling curtain, where a tiny writing-room had been made up.
She stood silent, whilst he told her to keep her aunt a little warmer, or something as trivial, and then scribbled a line or two on a sheet of paper for the chemist. The he went. But he had gained his end. He had held her small cool hand in his. She had not been able to refuse it when he held out his.
Agatha came back to the drawing-room, and went straight to her flowers. She did not look at her aunt.
"Well," asked the latter inquisitively. She loved discussing her own ailments.
"Well, there is nothing new. He evidently thinks you immensely better. So much better that I wonder he comes here at all."
"It is very kind of him to come," said Mrs. Greatorex calmly.
"It is too kind. And--for nothing."
"My dear Agatha, I'm afraid it cannot be for nothing. I expect he will see little symptoms of---"
"I don't mean that. What"--impatiently--"I want to say is, that he gains nothing by coming here."
"Nothing in a pecuniary sense, certainly," said Mrs. Greatorex; "but he likes good society---"
Agatha made a sudden movement.
"I wonder how you can do it," said she.
"Do what?" asked Mrs. Greatorex, letting the pretty little pale pink silk sock she was knitting lie upon her lap for a moment.
"Accept his services gratuitously?"
Mrs. Greatorex laughed.
"What have you got into your head now?" asked she. "He has attended me for the past year. Last month I sent him a cheque with a little hint to the effect that as I felt so much better I need not trouble him again. He came the next day. I then told him plainly I could afford no more fees out of my slender income. He said--very gracefully, as I thought--that he could never bear to resign a case until a perfect cure had been accomplished--or something to that effect. Well, why should I not allow him to be happy in his own way?"
"And I am a burden to you," said the girl in a low voice.
"My good child, never give yourself over to nonsense!" said Mrs. Greatorex, with a shrug. "You know very well I am delighted to have you."
She took up her little sock again and turned the heel.
The needles clicked on, and Agatha thought. _Was_ her aunt delighted to have her? Sometimes things pointed that way. But certainly she was a burden to her, as Mrs. Greatorex's income was not only a small one, but she herself was a of a decidedly miserly disposition. The girl had certainly a miserable twenty pounds a year of her own, but that was too little. She made it suffice for her dress, but it sufficed very badly. It was all, however, her father, Colonel Nesbitt, had been able to leave her. Sometimes the girl felt that she loved her, worldly as she was. When she was sixteen, the colonel died. At sixteen she had found herself an orphan, without a friend, and almost penniless, and but that Mrs. Greatorex had then come forward, the poor child would hardly have known what to do or where to go. Fortune favours the brave, they say; sometimes, however, it favours the beautiful.
Agatha Nesbitt was beautiful, and suddenly fortune came to her in the shape of Mrs. Greatorex. It was not a great fortune, truly, but it lifted the girl for the moment out of her Slough of Despond.
But now another terror threatened her. This detestable Dr. Darkham, whose visits to her aunt for the past few months had been so regular--whose visits, now that her aunt had declared herself off his hands, were still so regular--troubled here more than she cared to think.
What there was in his manner to distress her she hardly knew--- hardly understood; but she had learned to regard his coming with fear and loathing--to dread those _tête-à-têtes,_ when, in the little ante-room, he wrote out his prescriptions and gave her his instructions.
Not that a word had ever been spoken that all the world might not hear--not a look; and, after all, what was there in the lengthened regard of his dark, unfathomable eyes to alarm her? She could not tell. Not--not love, certainly. He--a married man!
She had remonstrated with her aunt very often. To accept his visits without payment! Mrs. Greatorex, whose pride in her birth was excessive, but who would have gone any lengths to save her pocket, had pooh-poohed the girl's expostulations, and had continued to accept Dr. Darkham's visits without protest.
. . . . . . .
Agatha roused herself from her thoughts.
"I know how good you have been to me always," said she with warmth. "You are my one friend. It is because I love you that I can't bear you to have this Dr. Darkham coming here like this. He---"
"My dear, he comes only because he likes to get away from the atmosphere of his sordid home. That pays him. He likes nice people, you know. Why do you dislike the poor man so much?"
"Yes, you do. Like all girls, you are full of nonsensical fads, and"--slowly--"it is my opinion that you think he is in love with you."
"I can't congratulate you, then, on the girls you have known!" said Agatha coldly.
"No?" Mrs. Greatorex laughed the little irritating laugh that belonged to her. "A poor compliment to yourself! Still, I have been studying you a little of late, and I feel sure I am right. Get this latest fad of all out of your head, my dear girl, and as soon as possible."
"You should remember he has a wife," said Agatha coldly.
"Why, so I should." Again that irritating little cackle grated on the girl's ears. "But really, it is very hard to remember. He himself forgets it so persistently. Poor man! who can blame him? Bad as he is, and, of course, we know he rose from the rankest of the ranks, still she--- What a woman! A perfect annoyance to the neighbourhood."
"I can't see how she annoys anybody. One never sees her."
"You'll see her to-morrow night at the Firs-Robinsons', anyway. Mrs. Poynter told me this morning that she was going."
"What?" said Agatha. She paused. She even forgot the argument in question in the thought of seeing Mrs. Darkham at the dance to-morrow night. How strange! "Are you sure she is going?"
"As a rule, she refuses all invitations."
"There's where she shows her one grain of sense."
"There's where Dr. Darkham shows his tyranny," said Agatha "I believe he doesn't allow her to go anywhere."
Mrs. Greatorex shrugged her thin, ladylike shoulders.
"I suppose you know by this time that 'people are mostly fools.' And even if such light talk be true, and Mrs. Darkham is such a nonentity as to be controlled in the way you declare, her husband is quite wise to exercise his power."
"It is not wisdom in this case, it is cowardice. He is afraid of her vulgarity."
"No wonder. She was a tradesman's daughter, wasn't she?"
"Well," with some fire, "wasn't he a tradesman's son?"
"Oh, _you_ to consider!" the girl interrupted her vehemently--- "you who lay so much stress on 'family'; you who will hardly acknowledge the Firs-Robinsons because they cannot swear to a grandfather."
"What I was going to say was that Dr. Darkham must be pitied about his marriage, to a certain degree. He has risen out of the mire of his birth and his original surroundings. She has sunk deeper into hers. I think," said Mrs. Greatorex, who had a fond fancy that she was a sympathetic soul, "that, of all harrowing afflictions, the worst must be that of a man tied for life to an uncongenial companion."
"I think it must be infinitely worse for a woman to be tied for life to a thoroughly bad husband."
"My dear Agatha! You will end by representing Dr. Darkham as a modern Bluebeard. As for me, I pity him. And there are so many cases just like his. A young man of his parentage--nobody at all, in facts--starts in life, very naturally, by marrying somebody in his own class. Some dreadful person! Then he, being clever--a man--rises. She stands rootedly still. She is a millstone round his neck, weighing him down, keeping him back from the goal to which he would attain--the goal of equality with his superiors which he feels ought to be his, because of the intellect that ennobles him. Now we all know Mrs. Darkham. No wonder he hates her."
"For all that, if a man marries a woman of his own free-will he should deal fairly by her," said Agatha thoughtfully.
"Of course. But there are always exceptional cases. And surely Mrs. Darkham is one of them."
"I don't think so. She is very vulgar, and very fat, and unutterably dull; but one must remember that she was all that when he married her. What, then, does he look for now?"
"Perhaps for the 'h's' she is always dropping," said Mrs. Greatorex, with a laugh. "You say she never goes anywhere, that he keeps her in durance vile; but she is going to this dance to-morrow night at the Firs-Robinsons', and I saw her yesterday at the Poynters'. What is it about her that jars so dreadfully? She started the subject of that idiot son of hers, and wore it to tatters, whilst we all sat aghast, and wished ourselves dead. I was quite thankful Dr. Darkham wasn't there. I really think if he had been, he would have been quite justified in murdering her."
"Oh no!" The words seemed to fall from Agatha unconsciously. There was horror in them--she shuddered. "Aunt Hilda, how dreadful! To murder her!"
Mrs. Greatorex laid down her knitting.
"It wasn't so much that she was vulgar--had bad taste--but that she was so--so oppressive. And rude, too--very rude."
"I could fancy," said the girl slowly, "that she is very unhappy. I have often thought it."
"You are prejudiced. _I_ could fancy that she is very nearly as much out of her mind as that terrible son of hers."
"Poor Edwy! I met him yesterday in the wood. He came crash through it like a young Samson. Poor, poor boy! To be deaf and dumb and idiotic seems--well, a cruel sentence."
"Strange how people like that live on! Useless--mere burdens--- creatures one shrinks from. Why, he must be almost grown up now."
"He is sixteen; but he looks a mere child. His body has grown, but his face has not; it is so young--pathetically young--and at times almost beautiful."
"Not when he is excited."
"No, no! And not when he laughs. What a frightful sound it is! You know, I suppose, that he can say one word. At least, not a word, but a noise that has a meaning."
"Mr. Blount told me about it. _'Sho'_ is the sound, is it not?"
"Yes; and it always means his mother. He calls to her in that way. It is very remarkable. You know he adores her. After all, I think she can't be without some good quality, when that poor stricken boy loves her so much."
"Like to like," said Mrs. Greatorex carelessly. "Really she is nearly as dull as he is. Let us forget her. What of to-morrow night? Did you hear who was likely to be there?"
"At the Firs-Robinsons'? Everybody, as far as I can see."
"Quite right, too. They are 'nobody,' if you like."
"I think Elfrida is charming," said Agatha quietly.
"Elfrida!" Mrs. Greatorex sniffed. "Elfrida, with Robinson at the end of it! Firs-Robinson because of the society craze for double names. Well, and so every one is to be there. What do they mean by every one?"
"Why"--laughing--"I suppose _every one_. And I hear Lord Stilton and his party, and Lord Ambert."
"Ambert!" Mrs. Greatorex let the sock fall to the floor this time. "Can it be true that he wants to marry that girl? I can't imagine Miss Robinson--a countess! But he is very hard up, and she has a great deal of money. Money is everything nowadays!" Then suddenly, leaning forward, and letting her brilliant eyes rest upon her niece's face, as if indignant with her, "Why haven't _you_ money?" said she.
The uncontrollable ambition that ruled her whole life betrayed itself in these words. If Agatha had been an heiress she might have married Lord Ambert.
"Late as usual, and all your partners in hysterics!" said a quick voice--a voice a little sharp, perhaps, and decided, but clear as a bell. Agatha, who had just entered the dancing-room with her chaperon, turned quickly round and smiled at Miss Firs-Robinson.
"I couldn't help it. Aunt Hilda was afraid to come out, and so Mrs. Poynter has kindly brought me."
"Oh, if it is Mrs. Poynter, thank Heaven you are here at all! Her wild determination to be 'fashionable,' as she calls it, makes her slow in many ways. But here you are, anyway."
"What a charming gown!" said Agatha, looking at her friend.
Certainly the gown was not more charming than its wearer. Miss Firs-Robinson was looking her very best to-night--small, fairy-like, refined, in spite of her parentage, which, indeed, was not all it might have been. Her grandfather had been a store boy in America, had got on, and become the head of a store himself.
Anyway, Miss Firs-Robinson was as delicately formed as though the blood of all the Howards had run through her veins. A little thing--small--vivacious. Her father, the moment he felt himself above the whims of Fortune's vilest efforts, came to England and died.
That was five years ago. Elfrida, who had been sent home at an early age for educational purposes, and who remembered but slightly her American experiences, had lived all these years with her father's sister, the elder Miss Firs-Robinson. She was a most estimable woman, and full of prejudices.
Elfrida was as lovely as the dawning day. Her pretty fair hair covered in tiny curls a head as patrician in shape as though its owner had been the daughter of a hundred earls. And in this head to-night some diamond stars were glittering, sparkling gaily as its owner moved and spoke. Her mouth was small, but not too small. And her nose was not Greek. It was pretty and very lovable, for all that. Her eyes were blue, and so easy to read, said the tyro; so difficult, said the expert.
"If you hadn't come," said Miss Firs-Robinson, "there would have been murder presently. Dr.---"
Agatha's face changed and whitened; she made an impulsive movement.
"Dr. Dillwyn has been wandering round aimlessly for the last hour, seeking whom he may devour, I suppose. Certainly he has not been seeking a partner. Now you have come---"
"Well? Now I have come?" Agatha repeated her words. "How can you be so stupid!" said she.
"Stupid! Stupid! I like that. Well I have news for you. Who do you think is---"
"Our dance, I believe," said some one to Elfrida at that moment. It was Elfrida's shadow during the past two months--Lord Ambert. He bowed to Agatha over Miss Firs-Robinson's head.
"Is it? Yes, of course," said Elfrida, glancing at her card. "But I have just one word to say to Miss Nesbitt." She smiled again at Ambert, very prettily.
"Do you know who has come to-night to stay with us for a month? Dicky--Dicky Browne. He met auntie and me last season in town. And auntie asked him to run down to us for a bit. He's a nuisance, certainly," shrugging her shoulders. "We all know that, in spite of everything; but I do love Dicky more than any one else, I think."
"I wish I could believe that," said Agatha, in a low tone. Lord Ambert was standing near, waiting for Elfrida. "Better love him than---"
"Pouf! What a suggestion! Why should I love any one?" Elfrida's piquant face was now alight with mischief. "Do you think I am such a one as thyself? I tell you, Agatha, that I, for one, have no heart! I can't afford one."
"I should think you could afford anything," said Agatha. "You could, at all events, afford to marry the man who loved you."
"And where does he live?" asked Elfrida, laughing.
"You know," said Agatha slowly, earnestly.
"You're lovely; you're a perfect delight!" said Miss Firs-Robinson, her amusement now growing more apparent; "but really I don't. I know only that I--want to be---"
"Happy?" said Agatha, answering.
"No; a countess," said the pretty little fairy, with a gay grimace. She looked over Agatha's shoulder and beckoned to Lord Ambert, who was still "in waiting," to come to her.
He came. A middle-sized, well-set-up man of about forty, with a rather supercilious mouth and small eyes. He looked quite a gentleman, however; which a great many earls do not, and, of course, there he scored. He was a poor man for his rank in life, and was desirous of impounding the numerous thousands in which Miss Firs-Robinson lay, as it were, enwrapped. He never forgot his dignity, however, when with her. He gave her quite to understand that she was by birth many degrees below zero, and that he was a star in her firmament.
In the meantime Elfrida, who had a very acute mind of her own, saw straight through him. In a sense he amused her, and, after all, she knew very well who would be mistress and master after her marriage with him. Not Ambert, anyway. Her money should be securely settled on herself; she was quite decided about that. She was quite decided also about her marriage with him. She had lived some little time in America, as has been said, and had learned the value of our English lords; so she had arranged with herself very early in life never to die until she could have a title carved upon her tombstone. Ambert had come in quite handy. He was the only unmarried earl within a radius of a tremendous number of miles, so, of course, he would have to do. It was a pity he was so old--that he was a little bald--that his expression was so unpleasant. But he was an earl. She would be Lady Ambert; and if he thought he would have it all his own way afterwards--why, she would show him. She hadn't the least doubt about his proposing to her. She gave herself no trouble on that head; and, indeed, she used to know great mirth sometimes, when he had been specially laborious over his efforts to prove to her that he had twenty or forty heiresses in his eye, who would all be ready at a moment's notice to accept his title, his debts, and his bald head.
For all that, she was determined to marry him. This, however, did not prevent her indulging in small flirtations here and there. There were several young officers in the barracks in the next town who were literally at her feet, and there was the curate, Tom Blount, who every one knew was a very slave to her every caprice.
"Ah, Mr. Blount," said she, as she passed him now on her way to the conservatory. "Here? And you haven't asked me for a single dance."
"I don't dance," said Tom Blount. "The bishop doesn't like it, you know, and to ask you to sit out a dance with me would be more than I dare venture."
He smiled at her out of two honest blue eyes. And she smiled back at him out of two very dishonest ones, though all four were much of the same colour.
"'If thy heart fail thee,'" quoted she daringly.
"Well, I shan't let it fail me," said the curate suddenly. His smile was somewhat forced, however. "Will you sit out one with me?"
"You don't deserve it," said she. "But---"
Here Lord Ambert bent and whispered something into her ear. He was evidently urging her to refuse the insolent request of this nobody, this curate of a small country parish. But his words took no effect. Elfrida listened to them, nodded and smiled as if acquiescing, and then---
"The fourteenth is a quadrille, for the sake of appeasing old Lady Saunders, I believe," said she, looking at the curate. "Will you have that dance--to sit it out with me?"
"Won't I!" said the curate enthusiastically, who had not long left Oxford, and who was wonderfully young in many ways.
"You promised that quadrille to me," said Ambert, frowning.
"Yes, I know. But as I never dance quadrilles---" She paused and looked up at Ambert. "You see?"
"No, I don't," said he.
"Well I am sure Mr. Blount does," said Elfrida audaciously. "Now, remember, Mr. Blount, the fourteenth is ours."
Lord Ambert looked at him.
Really the audacity of this contemptible curate passed comprehension. To speak so to her, his--Ambert's--future wife. He frowned and bit his lip. That was the worst of marrying into the middle classes; they never know how to keep those beneath them in order.
Lord Ambert, holding her hand during her descent from the steps to the garden beneath, ventured a cold remonstrance.
"Is it wise of you--you will pardon, I hope, my interference-- but is it wise of you to be so kind to a person of that sort?"
"A person? Is he a person?" asked Miss Firs-Robinson with much airy astonishment. "I quite understood he was a man of good family. Whereas a 'person' must be of no family whatever."
"If without money," put in Lord Ambert quickly, "quite so. There are, of course, grades."
"Yes. A man of no birth with money is not the same as a man of no birth without it. For money educates, refines, elevates." This he pointed with little emphases, as a small hint to her.
"And a man of birth without money?"
"Sinks." Here Lord Ambert's voice took even a lower tone. "Sinks until he meets the _extreme_--that is, the lowest of all classes--with which he unites. I am afraid that young man you have just been talking to will come to that end. His people, I believe, were in a decent set at one time; but there is no money there now, and probably he will marry his landlady's daughter, or the young woman who manages the school in the village, and-- repent it soon after."
"Repentance is good for the soul," said Elfrida; she laughed.
"But as you show it, money is everything. Even the 'person' can be raised by it."
"It is sad of course, but I am afraid that is really the case. In these days money is of great importance--of nearly as great importance as birth or position. It lifts the 'person,' as you call it---"
"Has it, then, lifted me?"
"Dear Miss Firs-Robinson! What a question! Surely you do not consider yourself part of this discussion?"
He, however, _had_ considered her so, and had taken pleasure in the argument that had laid her low. This was part of what he called his "_training_" of her!
"You--who are a thing apart, a thing most precious---"
"I don't want to be a 'thing,' however precious," said Miss Firs-Robinson, with decision. "I should much rather be a 'person,' for choice, however criminal it sounds. It only wants 'age' put to it to be magnificent. And so you call Mr. Blount 'a person'?"
"Perhaps I was wrong," said Ambert contemptuously; "a 'beggar' would be nearer the mark."
Meanwhile Agatha was left standing near the doorway, whilst her chaperon was explaining the reason of her late arrival to old Miss Firs-Robinson, Elfrida's aunt.
The girl's eyes were directed towards the dancers, and so absorbed was her gaze that she started visibly when a voice sounded at her elbow--that hated voice!
"May I have the pleasure of this waltz, Miss Nesbitt?"
Agatha looked up. Dr. Darkham, tall, handsome, almost young, was standing beside her.
"I am sorry--but the dance is promised," said Agatha, gently but coldly.
"I am unfortunate." He looked keenly at her, with open question in his eyes. He had educated himself very carefully on the lines of social etiquette; but education of that sort, unless it comes by nature, is often defective and sometimes he forgot. It did not now suggest itself to him that to question Agatha's word, whether that word were true or false, was a _bêtise_. Some men had come up to ask, Agatha for a dance, and when they were gone he spoke.
"It is promised, then?" he said. "And yet you have only just come?"
Agatha looked at him for a moment as if surprised.
"It is promised," she said again.
She made no attempt to explain herself. Her manner, however, was very quiet, although her face was set and her tone frozen.
Suddenly, however, her expression changed. It lit up with a happy fervour, and her eyes shone. They were looking past Dr. Darkham's towards something beyond, and the latter, as though unable to control his longing to learn the cause of this sweet change in the lovely face before him, turned to follow her glance, and saw over there, making anxious efforts to reach her, a young man rather above middle height, with a face that, if not strictly handsome, was at all events extremely good to look at.
It was Dillwyn, the young doctor who had lately come into the neighbourhood, and who was beginning to do pretty well with a certain class of patients. Not the better classes; those belonged almost exclusively to Darkham.
Dillwyn was still a long way off, hemmed in by a crowd of skirts that now, being a little stiffened at the tail, took up a considerable amount of room and were not easily passed. There was still a moment or two before he could reach Agatha. Darkham caught his opportunity and turned hurriedly to her.
"I hope you will give me a dance later on?" he said, with a dogged sort of determination. He saw that she did not wish to dance with him, but the knowledge only served to strengthen his desire to dance with her; yet he did not ask her for the next dance. An almost mad longing to waltz with her, to hold her in his arms for even a few minutes, to feel her hand in his, took possession of him. He would risk it.
"If the first supper dance is not engaged, may I hope for that?" he said, his voice quite even, his heart beating wildly.
"I am afraid I have promised that, too," said Agatha, who had _not_ promised it, but she felt driven to desperation. Her voice was low and tremulous. What was it about him that repelled her so? She could not, she _would_ not dance with him, whatever came of it.
Darkham bowed and drew back, leaning against the wall just behind her. She felt miserable, and yet thankful, that she could no longer see him. Yet she knew he was behind her, watching her; and she had been rude--certainly, very rude.
At that moment Mrs. Poynter joined her.
"Not a partner yet? I suppose you must wait for this dance to be over? Ah! here I see Dr. Dillwyn coming towards us. You know, Agatha dearest, that he is a cousin of mine, and quite good family and all that."
"Yes, yes; you ought to take it that way. It really should not be serious," said Mrs. Poynter, who was a young woman and fond of Agatha, and thought the girl with her charming face ought to make a good match. "I am so glad you are not going to be serious over it, because, really, it would be a terrible throwing away of yourself."
"But Mrs. Poynter---"
"Yes, of course. He hasn't proposed, you mean; but--I really wish he had not been placed here through the influence of old Mrs. Greatorex, Reginald Greatorex. The old gentleman might just as well have sent him anywhere else, and he _does_ run after you a good deal, Agatha, doesn't he now?"
"I never saw him run in my life," said Agatha demurely.
"Ah, there! I see you are evading the subject. And here he comes. Now Agatha, be careful; you know---"
"Yes; I know, I know," said Agatha, smiling at her. Yet she hardly heard her; her eyes and thoughts were for the young man who was standing before her.
Neither of them saw the face behind them--the face of the man leaning against the wall!
"At last!" said John Dillwyn. "You have not given it away? You have remembered?"
"Yes. You know you said you would give me the first on your arrival."
"But this! I am so late! I could not have expected you to wait---"
"I have waited, however. And it is mine?" He was now looking at her anxiously. What did her manner, her hesitation, mean?
"Yes, of course, but have you no partner?"
"I have, indeed"--laughing. "One I would not readily change. I have you."
"But," looking up at him a little shyly after this plain speech, "how did you arrange it?"
"Very simply. This will be _my_ first waltz as well a yours."
"Oh, that is too bad of you," said the girl, colouring softly. She meant to be angry with him, perhaps; but if so, the effort was a dead failure. The corners of her lips were smiling, and a happy light had crept into her eyes. "To wait so long, and---"
"It was long. I admit that," interrupted he, smiling. "I thought you would never come."
"It was all Mrs. Poynter's fault," said Agatha. "And really, but for me I am sure she would not be here even now."
"Well, come on, now; let us get even a turn or two," said Dillwyn. "By the bye, the next--is that free?"
"Yes," said Agatha. She felt a little frightened. She hoped he would not know she had kept it free purposely. Four or five men had asked her for dances whilst she stood near the door on her arrival with Mrs. Poynter, and when giving them a dance here and there she had steadily refused to part with the next one. She did not tell herself why at the moment, but she knew all the same.
"May I have it?" asked Dillwyn, with such a delightful anxiety that all at once her mind was set at rest.
He suspected nothing, thought of nothing but his fear that the dance might have been given away before he could ask her for it. Oh, how dear he was! Was there ever any one so good, so perfect?
He passed his arm round her waist, and together they joined the dancers.
Agatha waltzed delightfully. Her lovely _svelte_ figure swayed and sympathised with the music, just as though it had caught her and was moving with her. Dillwyn waltzed well too.
The dance was too soon at an end.
"The night is lovely," said he, "will you come out?" He felt that he wanted to be more alone with her; the presence of the people round checked him, destroyed the keenness of the joy he always knew when with her.
"I should like it," said she.
They went towards the conservatory, from which there were steps to the garden outside. The door of the conservatory opened off the dancing-room, and was close to where Agatha had been standing on her entrance. Darkham was still there.
He had not stirred since Agatha had floated away with Dillwyn's arm around her. He had watched her persistently. He watched her now as she went through the conservatory door down to the gardens, that glad, sweet light upon her face. Were his wife's words true then, after all? Was there something between her and that fellow--that interloper, who had come from no one knew where, to dispute his right in all the parish ailments? His eyes followed them as though they could not tear themselves away, as Dillwyn and Agatha, happy, laughing, went out of the door beyond into the mild and starlit night.
A laugh roused him; it was his wife's. A terrible vision in scarlet satin, trimmed with black velvet bows, met his gaze as he turned. Mrs. Darkham was distinctly _en fête_ to-night.
"Well, what d'ye think now? That's her young man. What did I say? Don't you wish you were young, eh? Why, she looks upon you as a Methusaler!"
Darkham drew his breath sharply. He looked quickly round him. Had any one heard? The woman's hideous vulgarity made him sick. Try as he would, how could he raise himself with this incubus hanging round his neck?
He moved away, tired at heart, half mad with misery.
Agatha and Dillwyn had reached the garden by this time--a garden lit by heaven's own lamps, and sweet with the breath of sleeping flowers.
A few other couples were strolling up and down the paths--but over there was a garden-chair untenanted. They moved towards it in a leisurely fashion. Whether they stood or walked or sat, they were together--that was the principal thing.
"The next is mine, too," said he, in a glad voice, as if dwelling on some joy that nothing could spoil.
"Yes. We must take care not to lose it."
"And yet it is so lovely out here. Are you sure you are warm enough? And, at all events, it is a good thing to know we need not hurry--that there is no other partner waiting for either of us."
He seemed to dwell upon the "we" and "us" as if they conveyed great sweetness to him. His heart seemed full. All at once it seemed to him as though he _must_ speak to her--must tell her of the love that filled his heart. The hour, the loneliness, the silence, all tempted him, and yet he feared!
She had known him so short a time--and what was there in her manner to him that should give him courage? Could he dare to put it to the touch to win--or _lose_ it all? To lose! That was what held him back.
Agatha was speaking.
"I am so sorry you waited for me," said she, lying unconsciously. Had not her heart beaten with delight because he had waited? "And you, too, who are so fond of dancing."
"Ah! fond! That is a strong expression. I am not a slave to it, you know."
"No." She paused. She seemed to study him for a moment. His face, young, strong, with a sort of defiance in it, as though he could and would conquer his world, fascinated her. It had always fascinated her from the first moment she saw it, now three months ago. It was not so much the kindliness of it as its strength that attracted her. She, too, could be strong. She felt in harmony with him from the very first. He was, as has been said, not strictly handsome, but his eyes were dark and expressive, and his mouth firm. The pose of his head was charming and his figure well-built and athletic. He was always in splendid spirits, and the milk of human kindness ran swiftly within his veins. Already the poor in his district began to adore him, for kind were his words and encouraging his smiles, and these counted with the sickly ones even more than the shillings that so often came out of a pocket where but few shilling lay. He had begun his fight with life unaided, save by the influence of old Reginald Greatorex, who had property in Rickton, and had got him appointed there, but he felt no fears. A natural buoyancy upheld him.
"Well," said he, smiling at her. He was wondering at the depth of her regard.
"I was thinking," said she, starting slightly, "that you could never be a slave to anything."
Dillwyn looked at her now.
"There you wrong me," said he. "I could be--I am--a slave!"
"It is difficult to believe," said she calmly.
"Why should it be difficult?"
"I don't know. But you don't lend yourself readily to the idea. You look as if you could never be easily swayed or governed."
"Not easily, perhaps. But---" He put out his hand as if to clasp hers.
At this moment a sudden movement in the bushes behind her struck upon Agatha's ears. She sprang to her feet.
A sense of faintness crept over her. By some strange prescience, she knew who stood behind there in the darkness, concealed, listening. A great horror took possession of her. Why should he haunt her so? What was she to him? He who had a living wife!
She turned to Dillwyn, who had risen too.
"Come back to the house," said she. Her voice was nervous, but very low. She moved away from the seat, on which she had been resting, with a haste that was almost feverish. Dillwyn followed her, his mind disturbed. Had she fathomed his determination to speak to her, and had she purposely prevented his speaking? He went at once to the point, as he always did when uncertain or perplexed.
"Have I offended you?" asked he.
"No! Oh, no! You must not think that. How could you have offended me? But I thought I heard some one--there--behind the shrubs."
"But even so, there are people all over the place to-night."
"Yes, I know." Her tone now was almost heartbroken. She stopped suddenly and held out her hand to him. "You are still my friend?" said she.
"I shall be your friend to the last day of my life," said Dillwyn. But his tone was heavy; the elasticity that always distinguished it had gone out of it for the first time.
In silence they reached the house. Not another word was said about the dance impending. Agatha seeing a couch surrounded by fragrant shrubs, went towards it.
"The dance has begun," said Dillwyn, but so coldly that she shrank from him.
"I am tired," she said.
"Then you had better rest here. Shall I bring you an ice?"
He went away. Agatha dropped on to the lounge and gave her misery full play. She had put an end to it all--all that might have made her dull life a very spring of joy. And yet to tell the man who loved her that another man--a married man--pursued her with his hateful attentions was more than she could do.
Now, left alone, her spirit failed her, and her eyes filled with tears. She would have given all she possessed to be at home, in her own room, alone, so that her grief might have full sway. She almost hoped he would not come back with the ice. She dreaded the coldness of his regard more than his absence. She---
"Can I do anything for you, Miss Nesbitt?"
Dr. Darkham stood beside her. It was to Agatha as though he had risen from the dead. She had supposed him still outside in the garden. But he had followed her apparently.
"No, thank you," she said, in a voice well kept in order.
"You are not dancing, then?"
"Not for the moment."
"Your partner is Dr. Dillwyn?"
"He was your partner for the last two, I think?"
Agatha roused herself. She looked full at him; there was a smile upon her beautiful lips.
"Ah, Dr. Darkham, I have already a chaperon!" said she.
"A most inefficient one," said Darkham steadily. "Why should you be allowed to listen to the solicitations of a mere beggar? Were your aunt to hear of this---"
Agatha looked up at him, but after that one swift glance drew back. What was there in his eyes? Oh, horrible! Surely, surely now she knew that she was not wrong when lately she told herself in shrinking whispers that this man was in love with her. There had been something so strange in the expression of his eyes when looking at her--something so _empressé_ in his manner-- something so downright hateful in the inflection of his voice.
"My aunt is quite capable of looking after me without the interference of any one," said Agatha slowly. "You have been very kind to Mrs. Greatorex, but you must not extend your kindness to me. I want no other guardian but my aunt." She rose and looked him straight in the face. "Pray do not trouble yourself about my welfare for the future."
She passed him and went on; she saw Dillwyn coming towards her with the ice; she had believed she would rather not have seen him return, but now she went to him gladly.
Darkham fell slowly into the chair she had just left. That girl --her face, her form--they haunted him. And side by side with hers always grew another face, another form--that of his wife! What vile fiend had arranged his marriage? A mere mockery of marriage, where hatred alone was the link that bound the two.
Gold that had given a false brilliancy to the faded yellow of her hair, and thrown a gleaming into her light, lustreless eyes. Had he but waited, had he but relied upon himself and given his undoubted genius a chance, he might have risen, unaided, to the highest point, and been now free to marry the woman he loved.
With wild, increasing exultation he remembered how she had risen to-night out there in the shrubberies as Dillwyn was on the point of proposing to her. She had cast him off in a sense. Gently, though. She was always kind and gentle. But she certainly put him off; she did not care for him, then.
Darkham's face glowed as he sat there in the conservatory.
If this woman to whom he was tied was gone--_dead!_ Then his chance might come. If she did not care for Dillwyn--why, she might care for _him_. At present how _could_ she?
"Why don't you come out and look at her?" said the coarse voice he dreaded at his ear; "she's dancing with Dillwyn. She dances lovely--'specially with Dillwyn."
Mrs. Greatorex was, in a ladylike sort of way, a confirmed gossip. To have told her so personally would have been to make her your enemy for life. The way she looked at it was far more Christian--she said "she took a kindly interest in her neighbours."
To-day her interest was particularly strong, if not very kindly; and she was now, from the depths of her low lounging chair, catechising Agatha about the dance last night. She was always very keen about any news that concerned the Firs-Robinsons, who were really nobodies, whilst she---
Her grandfather had been an earl--out-at-elbows, it was true, but yet an earl. She laid great store by this, and periodically reminded her acquaintances of it. Her mother, Lady Winifred, had married (badly from a moneyed point of view) a young and reckless guardsman, who died three years after her marriage, leaving her all his debts and an infant daughter. But then he was one of the Engletons of Derbyshire, and would have come into a baronetcy if three uncles and five cousins had been removed.
Unfortunately, her husband predeceased his father! And when the old man (who detested her) followed him to the family vault three months later, it was found that she was not as much as mentioned in his will.
There had been no settlements. As there were no children, all the property went to the second son, Reginald Greatorex.
The sorest subject with Agatha's aunt was this brother-in-law. She had treated him very cavalierly during her short reign at Medlands, as wife of the elder son; and when Reginald came in for the property he remembered it. He portioned her off with as small a dowry as decency would allow.
He was testy, self-contained old bachelor--and the last of his race--though with a good point here and there. He had a been good, at all events, to John Dillwyn, whose father was the rector of his parish, and whose mother, some said, had been the one love of old Reginald's life. Both father and mother were dead now, and the young man, after a fierce struggle for existence in town, had passed all his exams, and was free to kill or cure, anywhere. It was when he stood triumphant, but friendless, that Mr. Greatorex had come forward, and got him his post at Rickton, where the former had a good deal of property, though Medlands itself lay in an adjoining county.
Mrs. Greatorex had received the young man coldly. Any one connected with Reginald must be distasteful to her. To do her justice, she had never truckled to her brother-in-law in any way, and had contented herself with undisguised hatred of him. Agatha had nothing to do with him, she thanked Heaven--otherwise she could not have supported existence with her. She came from _her_ side of the house, where people had been officers and---
"Mrs Darkham looked frightful," said Agatha. "She really did, poor woman! Fancy, such a gown--red satin and black velvet-- and her face---"
"As red as the satin, no doubt. But is it possible, Agatha, what you tell me--that Richard Browne is staying with those people?"
"Those people" were always the Firs-Robinsons with Mrs. Greatorex. The fact that they could have bought her up a thousand times over at any moment rankled in her mind. She could not forgive them that.
Still in some queer way she hankered after the Robinsons-- desiring to know this and that about them, and being, as has been hinted, of a parsimonious turn of mind, did not refrain from accepting from them fruits and flowers and vegetables. Indeed, face to face with them she was delightful. She justified herself over this hypocritical turn, and explained herself to Agatha, by quoting St. Paul. "All things to all men" was a motto of his.
"Richard?" questioned Agatha, as if surprised. Indeed, Mrs. Greatorex was perhaps the only person of his acquaintance who called Mr. Browne "Richard." "Dicky, you mean?"
"Yes, of course. He was christened Richard, Agatha. That ought to count. His father's name is Richard."
"It is so funny to think of Dicky's having a father," said Agatha, laughing. "What kind is he, auntie?"
"A mummy! A modern mummy," said Mrs. Greatorex, laying down her sock. "A dandified mummy. All paint and wig and teeth---"
"But a mummy! It wouldn't have---"
"Yes, I know. But there's nothing in him! Nothing that is his own. He is padded and stuffed and perfumed! He"--indignantly-- "ought to have died ten years ago, and yet now he goes about the world rejuvenated yearly. Only last month I had a letter from a friend of mine, saying Richard's father had come back from the German spas describing himself as 'a giant refreshed.' Just fancy that, at seventy-eight!"
"I always feel I could love old Mr. Browne," said Agatha, laughing still.
"You must have precious little to love," said her aunt, knitting vigorously. She had known old Mr. Browne in her youth.
Agatha's laughter came to a sudden end. She sprang to her feet.
"Here is Edwy Darkham," said Agatha, moving to the window--"and looking so wild! Aunt Hilda, do come here! Oh!"--anxiously-- "surely there is something wrong with him."
Across the lawn, running uncouthly, hideously--rolling from side to side--yet with astonishing speed, the idiot came. His huge head was thrown up, and the beauty that was in his face when it was in repose was now all gone. He was mouthing horribly, and inarticulate cries seemed to be bursting from his lips.
Agatha struck by the great terror that so evidently possessed him, conquered all fear, and springing out of the low French window, ran to meet him.
At times she shrank from him--not always. Deep pity for him lay within her heart, because he was so docile, and because he clung to her so, poor thing! and seemed to find such comfort in her presence. She had been specially kind in her manner to his mother often because of him, and perhaps that kindness to her--the mother--whom the poor, handsome, ill-shapen idiot adored, had been the first cause of his affection for Agatha. She had always been good to Edwy, in spite of her detestation of his father, and now, when the unhappy creature was in such evident trouble--a trouble that rendered him a thousand times more repulsive than usual--she lost her fear of him, and ran down the balcony steps to meet him.
He was unhappy--this poor boy, whose soul was but an empty shell! What ailed him? All her young, strong, gentle heart went out to him.
"Edwy! Edwy!" cried she, as eloquently as though he could hear her.
He rushed to her, and caught her arm, and sank on his knees before her.
"Sho! Sho! Sho!" he yelled.
It was his one word. To him it meant "mother."
Agatha understood him. She pressed his poor head against her arm.
"What is it? What is it, Edwy?" asked she. There was quick anxiety in her tone.
Her voice was unheard by him, but his eyes followed hers and the movement of her lips. Some thread in his weak brain caught at the meaning of her words. His fingers clutched her and closed upon both her arms. The pain was excessive, almost beyond bearing, and Agatha tried to shake herself free. But after a first effort she checked herself. The agony in the poor boy's face, usually so expressionless, moved her so powerfully that she stood still, bearing the pain courageously.
She managed to lay her hand, however, on the large bony one (so singularly muscular) that was grasping her right arm, and after a moment or two Edwy relaxed his hold.
"Aunt Hilda," cried Agatha, turning to the window. "What _can_ be the matter?" But Mrs. Greatorex, who had carefully taken refuge behind the window curtains, from which safety point she could see without being seen, declined to leave her shelter to solve the problem offered her.
"Send him away! send him away!" she screamed dramatically, safe in the knowledge that the idiot could not hear her. "He is going mad. I can see it in his eyes. He'll murder you if you encourage him any further. Get rid of him, Agatha, I implore you, before he does any mischief."
"Oh no, it isn't that. It is only that he is in terrible distress about something."
At this moment Edwy rose to his feet, and, approaching her, began to gesticulate violently and make loud guttural sounds. In vain Agatha tried to understand him. Finally, as if dimly aware that his cries and gestures conveyed no meaning to her, the idiot seized her by both arms and turned her in the direction from which he had just come. Then he waited a moment, but seeing her immovable, an access of fury seemed to take hold of him, and catching her by her arm and shoulder, he began to drag her forcibly along with him, so forcibly that Agatha felt she had no power to battle with him, and that it would be useless to resist.
She did resist, however, with all her might, useless as it was. She herself was young, strong, and lithe, but this squat, broad creature, over whose head she could look, held her powerless in his grasp.
With fierce impatience he hurried her forward, in spite of her now almost frantic struggles to free herself from the clasp of his long arms.
His eyes were always staring straight before him as though he were looking at something that affrighted him. His strength was superhuman, and he had now dragged Agatha with him half across the lawn. She could not reason with him, as he could not hear, and she felt her strength grow less every moment. Where was he going? Where was he taking her?
She looked down at the stunted figure beside her, at the rough, unkempt head. She felt the long, sinewy arms tighten round her, and suddenly a sensation of faintness overcame her. What was it her aunt had said? That he was mad! That he would murder somebody! Was he going to murder _her_?
By this time Mrs. Greatorex's terrified shrieks were resounding across the lawn. But the servants, two small maidens, were evidently too frightened to attempt a rescue. They hung back, and clung to each other, and whimpered sympathetically.
In the meantime Agatha had been dragged to the borders of the wood. Another minute would take her out of the view of those watching from the windows.
At this moment a young man pushed his way vigorously through a thick hedge of laurel, and, springing forward, intercepted the idiot. He stood before him in an authoritative manner, and made a strange little gesture. Evidently Edwy understood it. He came to a sudden standstill.
The new-comer was Dr. Dillwyn. He went up to the poor boy, and laid his hand upon his shoulder and made a sign or two to him with his fingers. Edwy let Agatha go, and the girl, sick and faint with the terror, fell back against a tree behind her.
The idiot caught Dillwyn by the shoulder, looking at him and mouthing beseechingly.
"Sho! Sho! Sho!" moaned he.
He had now, however, grown calmer, and presently his face regained its usual placid look. Dillwyn's appearance had had some extraordinary effect upon him. The terror disappeared from his eyes, and they were now fixed on the young doctor with the steady gaze of a dumb animal.
The poor idiot had learned in some blind way to like and believe in Dillwyn. In the same strange unreasoning fashion he had grown to like Agatha. These two he clung to of all those that surrounded him in his silent life. There was another, and that was "Sho," his mother. To him, however, she was light and life and all things. And she loved him. And now "Sho" was in danger-- was lying there at home in a darkened room silent, without a look, a word for him, for the first time in all his blighted existence. It was to that darkened room he would have carried Agatha, some unformed thought of help for his mother stirring him.
Again Dillwyn made some signs, pointing towards the direction from which the unfortunate lad had come, and after a minute or two the idiot turned and shuffled rapidly away towards his home.
Dillwyn went towards Agatha. His face was as white as death. He caught her hand.
She felt that he was trembling even more than she was. He let her hand go, and it occurred to the girl that he made a step towards her with his arms a little outheld, as though he would have clasped her to his heart. Her late danger had perhaps made him bolder--for the moment. He could dare the strong idiot, but what man could dare his love?
"Don't be frightened," said he in a low tone. "He meant nothing. Nothing, really. But I thank God I arrived in time. You must have had a great shock."
"Yes, yes," said Agatha, who was trembling still. The tears rose to her eyes. "I am not really a coward," said she very bravely, "and at first I didn't mind. I bore it quite well; but he was so strong, and I didn't know where he was going, and"--with a shudder--"it was so horrid being rushed along like that." Here she covered her eyes with her hands and burst into tears. "Oh! now you will think me a coward," sobbed she like any child.
"I know what I think you, long ago," said Dillwyn.
"Let me tell you how it all was," said he; "and sit down while I tell you. You are quite unstrung, and no wonder. You are, in my opinion, the bravest girl I ever met."
"Oh no!" said she.
"The bravest girl I ever met," repeated he firmly. "Poor Edwy! Who would not be horrified by him in his excited moments? But the fact is, his mother has met with an accident, and is, I fear, at death's door."
"Mrs. Darkham!" Agatha roused herself from her nervous agitation and looked at him.
"Yes. She went out early this morning shopping in the town, and coming down that hilly part of the High Street she slipped on an orange-peel, and came with fearful force upon the flags. You know what a heavy woman she is?"
"Yes, yes. Poor thing!"
"She was taken home quite insensible. Darkham was out, but was sent for, and it appears it was some time before he returned. In the meantime poor Edwy had crept into the room where she was lying, and the servants told me the sight of the blood--she had cut the back of her head slightly--affected Edwy horribly. First he flew to her and then recoiled. They said he did not know her lying there so still.
"He went away, but came back again and flung himself upon her, and great, difficult tears fell from his eyes. I was there then, and so was the father. It was pitiful beyond words. I raised him and tried to calm him.
"He got up suddenly and ran round the bed to me. He took my arm and pointed to the door. I believe now he was trying to tell me that he was going to bring you to the succour of his mother."
"Poor, poor boy!" Agatha sighed quickly. "It is not hopeless, at all events?" questioned she.
"Who can say? Darkham thinks it is, and I--well, I have seen cases as bad recover. But that is nothing. It is undoubtedly a very bad case. She is a heavy woman, you know, and a fall like that--and concussion--I am going up there again this evening in consultation with Dr. Bland."
"Ah!" said Agatha quickly. There was relief in her tone. She could not have explained it to herself, but she was glad that so respectable a man as Dr. Bland had been called in for consultation.
Dillwyn looked at her questioningly.
"You thought it would be some other man?"
"Yes. But I am glad it is Dr. Bland. He---"
"Is not so old as most of the old figure-heads in the county," said Dillwyn with a smile, who had suffered a good deal from the medical fossils in the surrounding neighbourhood since he came to Rickton. "Darkham sent for me first. I was the nearest, you know."
"Yes," said Agatha. "And the cleverest," she would have added had she dared to give her heart _carte blanche_.
"It was all very sad, and the poor boy so helpless. I am sure I am reading the riddle correctly when I say he ran to you to get you to come to his mother in her extremity---"
"I wish I had gone," Agatha said quickly. She half rose. "Oh, perhaps I ought to go. Has she no woman with her?"
"She has two," said Dillwyn quietly. "You would be in the way if you went there now. Two nurses engaged by Darkham are in constant attendance on her. Don't distress yourself about that--and will you think of yourself a little now? If you won't, I shall think _for_ you. You must go back to the house, and to your room, and try to sleep, if possible, for the next two or three hours."
"As for that!" said she--a faint laugh broke from her.
"You won't do what I tell you, then?" said he. He had taken her hand as if to draw it within his arm, but he held it now in his own whilst questioning her.
"To do what you tell me?" She reddened vividly.
"Yes; why not?" His tone was calm, but the hand clasping hers tightened its grasp. It was as though he could not let her go.
There was a pause. Agatha made an effort to draw her hand from his, but he held it manfully.
"Why shouldn't you do what is good for you?" asked he at last.
"And what is the good of a doctor if he can't suggest useful remedies? I am a doctor, and, therefore, why shouldn't you do what I tell you?"
"Oh, if you put it that way," said she.
"Then you are going to obey me?"
She gave him a little glance.
At this they both laughed. Agatha still a little nervously. She did not, however, resist him any further, and presently he had taken her back across the lawn and on to the balcony, where Mrs. Greatorex met them.
She had seen Dillwyn spring though the laurels, and had known Agatha was safe. She met him now with extended hand.
"Thank you a thousand times, Dr. Dillwyn," said she, "for your happy appearance on the scene a moment ago. I warned Agatha about that repulsive boy, but she would not listen to me. However, I am sure there was nothing really serious about it."
Her manner was kind, but reserved. She had noticed his attentions to Agatha, and was not yet sure whether they ought to be encouraged or rejected.
He was poor, and though Reginald Greatorex had, in a sense, placed him here, still, she knew that "old skinflint"--I regret that that was the name she applied to her brother-in-law in her private hours--was certainly not to be depended upon. This rather presumptuous young doctor would never get a penny out of Reginald Greatorex if he hoped for a thousand years. Had _she_ not hoped?
And yet, though she assured herself Dillwyn had no chance of old Reginald's money, still, the very fact that he _might_ have a chance rendered the young man distasteful in her eyes. A protege of Reginald's would always be a blur upon the landscape of her life.
"No, I think not," said Dillwyn; "yet your niece has certainly been subjected to a severe shock. That unfortunate boy was greatly disturbed in mind, and, as it appears, ran to Miss Nesbitt at once for comfort. He meant nothing beyond a desire to gain help for his mother, who is very ill."
"Mrs Darkham is ill?"
"Yes, seriously so."
"Good heavens! Nothing infectious, I hope? Oh, Agatha! And you have been with her son just now! My dear"--drawing herself back hurriedly--"had you not better go in and get disinfected? Sulphur is very good, and---"
"I don't think you need be alarmed in this instance," said Dillwyn coldly; "concussion of the brain is not catching."
At this moment the sound of footsteps on the gravel outside could be heard, and a laugh--gay, sweet.
Round the corner now came the elder Miss Firs-Robinson, with Elfrida in her train, and Mr. Blount, the curate, in Elfrida's. And after them a young man--rather short and stout, with clothes that suggested London, and an unfathomable air. It was Mr. Browne, who, when anything was on, could never keep his finger out of the pie.
Mrs. Greatorex turned quickly to Agatha.
"Not a word about that wretched idiot," she said in a low tone.
"And stay for awhile; the servants will be sure to talk, and I should like these people, who"--with a contemptuous shrug-- "are inveterate gossips, to see that nothing really has happened."
"But your niece---" protested Dillwyn, seeing Agatha's exhausted air.
"My aunt is right," said Agatha quickly, fearing a collision between the two--the young doctor's eyes, indeed, were burning fiercely. She moved forward at once to meet the coming guests, greeted old Miss Firs-Robinson with calm courtesy, and kissed Elfrida--Elfrida, who looked back at her keenly for a moment, then pressed her into a seat beside her, and pulled up a cushion behind her back. It occurred to Dillwyn that he rather liked Elfrida. He bade good-bye to Mrs. Greatorex, who seemed delighted to say good-bye to him. And another good-bye to Agatha, holding her hand until he met her eyes.
As he went another guest came--Lord Ambert.
Mrs. Greatorex received him with effusion, and gave him a chair near herself.
"A frightful thing, dear Mrs. Greatorex!" said Miss Firs-Robinson. She sank into a wicker seat upon the balcony with tremendous effect. Every one thought the balcony was going down. Providentially, it rebounded from the shock, and was itself again.
"A frightful thing, indeed!" said Mr. Browne, who had subsided near Agatha and Elfrida. "It has been a most merciful deliverance. I thought we were all going to the lower regions, didn't you?"
"After all, it wouldn't be far!" said Agatha, thinking of the depth of the small balcony--one so near the ground.
"My dear girl, consider! Even the very doughtiest scientists have failed to find the number of descending acres that divide our comparatively pleasant home from---"
"Well," said Mr. Browne, "really I hardly like to name it in a select assembly like this. But I believe nasty people call it-- hell!"
"Oh, Dicky!" said Agatha. He was an old friend of hers. He was an old friend of a lot of people. One had only to know Dicky Browne for ten days to be quite a century-old friend of his. At this moment Lord Ambert strolled towards them and up to Elfrida.
"I knew it would startle you, but you insisted," said Dicky Browne reproachfully.
"What nonsense!" said Elfrida. "You know auntie was talking of this sad affair about Mrs. Darkham."
"Yes," said the curate gravely. "She is dying, I hear, poor soul!"
"Oh no!" from all, which did not mean a contradiction.
"I am sorry to say it is true. I heard this morning there was no hope."
"After all, she is no great loss," said Elfrida, with a sort of determination in her tone.
"She _is_ a loss," said the curate, defying her valiantly, openly, and to her face. "She will be a loss to that poor son of hers, whom Heaven, in a wisdom unknown to us, has afflicted."
"Oh, _you_ know everything," said Elfrida, with a shrug of her dainty shoulders. She almost turned her back on him. Lord Ambert came forward and whispered a word or two in her ear. She laughed. The curate fell back. Dicky, laying a hand upon his arm, drew him away from the group and into the shadow of some large tubs filled with shrubs.
Miss Firs-Robinson had been gaining a loose rein to her sympathetic tendencies. And to Mrs. Greatorex!
"A shocking affair! Poor dear creature! Rather--er-- behindhand in some little ways; but such an end! Of course, Dr. Dillwyn has told you all the facts of the case, but the details, they are so interesting; but no doubt you've heard 'em."
Mrs. Greatorex, who would have given worlds to say she had, was so carried away by her desire to learn the smallest minutiae of the tragedy upon the _spot_ that she gave way, and confessed that she knew little or nothing of the terrible affair. She made the handsome admission with quite an air, however. She did it admirably, but she played rather above the head of her companion, who did not understand her in the least.
"Law, my dear, how out of the world you are!" said that worthy, with a patronising smile that filled the soul of Mrs. Greatorex with wrath. "Well, I keep my eyes open and my ears too, and now I'll tell you."
Mrs. Greatorex made a movement as if to crush her with a well-applied word or two, but she checked herself. If she offended old Miss Firs-Robinson, she would learn nothing about Mrs. Darkham's accident. If she endured her in silence, all the gossip of the neighbourhood would be hers in five minutes. And five minutes was not long to endure any one. Dr. Dillwyn had been vague, and too much taken up with Agatha (she would have to put an end to that presently) to tell her anything worth hearing, and so she had heard nothing beyond the mere fact of the fall.
"Yes?" said she carefully.
Tea had been brought out by one of the small maids, who had now ceased from her trembling, and Mrs. Greatorex stood up to pour it out.
"She's dying," said Miss Firs-Robinson; "not a doubt of it! She's heavy, you know; and her head came with an awful thud on the ground. Concussion, that's what it is. They say the boy--that unfortunate creature, you know--was in a frightful state; but they do say that the husband bore it wonderfully."
"Scandalous gossip!" said Mrs. Greatorex, drawing back and letting the tea overflow in the cup.
"Why?" asked Miss Firs-Robinson, who, if a gossip, was, at all events, not a hypocrite. "I should think he'd be glad enough to get rid of her--decently, you know--decently."
"Dear Miss Firs-Robinson, surely you don't quite mean what you say!"
"Indeed I do, my dear. If people are tied together, and don't like each other, they had better be separated."
"Good heavens, this is heresy!" said Mr. Browne. "You'll get taken up, Miss Robinson, if you don't look out."
"Not me!" said the old maid, with her loud, hearty laugh. "No such luck. Nobody ever wanted me in all my born days, except 'Frida. And I stick to what I say. It's my opinion that poor Mrs. Darkham didn't have altogether a good time with her husband."
"Ah, you are evidently prejudiced!" said Mrs. Greatorex sweetly.
"And prejudiced people, you know, have no opinions."
"I don't agree with you there."
"It is true, nevertheless. They merely adopt the thoughts of those who think as they do, and suit their opinions to their likes and dislikes. Unbiased judgement is beyond them."
"Then I'm not prejudiced," said old Miss Firs-Robinson, with another laugh. "Your words prove it, because I beg you to understand I have as sound an opinion as any one I know on most matters. And I don't suit it to my likes or dislikes either, because I never could bear Mrs. Darkham; yet I think there is some good in her."
"Who is Mrs. Darkham?" asked Mr. Browne. "That big red woman with the voice of a costermonger I met here last year?"
"Yes. She slipped on an orange-peel yesterday, and is now hardly expected to recover."
"After all, there is something in orange-peel," said Mr. Browne thoughtfully.
"You think her death will be welcomed by some people?" asked Miss Firs-Robinson, pushing up her pince-nez into better position for battle. She had always suspected Mrs. Darkham's relations with her husband; though, evidently, Mrs. Greatorex had not.
"By herself! Herself!" said Mr. Browne severely. "Just think of the burden she has had to carry about with her for all these past years."
"There, you see!" cried Miss Firs-Robinson triumphantly to Mrs. Greatorex. "Dicky has noticed it too."
It was delightful for her to know that somebody besides herself had seen that the poor woman now lying low had not been altogether kindly treated by her husband.
"I don't know what he has noticed," said Mrs. Greatorex coldly.
"And I think, Richard," casting a chilly glance at Mr. Browne, who took it and apparently was lost in wonder over it, "it would be wiser if you abstained from open condemnation of things of which you know absolutely nothing!"
"I'm in it, as usual," said Mr. Browne, with an air of tender resignation. "But why these cold glances? I've seen her, you know, and seeing is believing. Surely, I must know something-- some little thing!"
"Of course," said Miss Firs-Robinson triumphantly. "To see her was enough, poor creature! So dull--so sat upon!"
"Did he do that?" asked Mr. Browne, with perhaps too lively an interest. "Dared he sit upon her? Well, she'd tempt one that way, you know."
"I agree with you, Richard," said Mrs. Greatorex, with a friendly inclination towards him.
"Dicky does not mean that," said Miss Firs-Robinson angrily. "He knows, because I've told him, that her husband made her life a burden to her."
"Oh, but, really, it was her flesh I alluded to, you know, not her husband--not her husband, you know!" said Mr. Browne, with a reproachful glance at the irate dames on his left, and a sharp attack on the sponge-cake on his right. The tea-table is fatally near him. "Her--eh--well, it must be a burden to her, you know, and no doubt, poor creature! she'll be glad to lay it down."
He has now got a considerable portion of the sponge-cake in his possession, and is waxing quite Christian in his air and smile. The smile, indeed, is seraphic.
"I believe you've been taking us in all the time," said Miss Firs-Robinson at last. She was broad-minded, and could laugh at her own small defects at times. Mrs. Greatorex could not, however, and had turned away, and was talking to Lord Ambert, who was giving her rather curt replies, as he wanted to make the running with the small heiress as strong as possible, and grudged a moment taken from his stride. The small heiress, who was flirting assiduously with the unfortunate curate, was well aware of his impatience with Mrs. Greatorex, and laughed in her dainty lace sleeves about it.
"I am afraid auntie is not orthodox," said she, looking at Tom Blount, who was still hovering round her, out of two very unorthodox blue eyes. She was alluding to her aunt's late openly-expressed opinion that married people unsuited to each other were better apart. "Are you, auntie?"
Auntie drew near at this challenge; when would she not draw near when that pretty voice summoned her?
"I don't know what I am," said that stout lady, with a beneficent smile. "But, 'on my, if it came to living with Dr. Darkham all my life, I'd cry 'No, thank you!'"
"Oh, auntie, now you are giving yourself away indeed! You are uncharitable, and Mr. Blount will put you down as incorrigible," said her niece, retreating behind the fan she held, as if horrified.
Evidently, she was ashamed of herself, thought her aunt. Blount, however, was filled with unhappy certainty that she was laughing.
"Don't mind her, Mr. Blount," said old Miss Robinson very kindly.
"I know you won't do anything of the kind."
"Ah, Lord Ambert--going?"
"Yes--aw--just dropped in for a moment, you know. Good-bye," to Elfrida, who smiled at him.
"See you at the Stackfords' on Tuesday?"
"I think not." She still smiled at him, her lovely little face a picture. "This sudden illness of Mrs. Darkham's--it casts a sort of gloom, you see."
"Yes; it would be inhuman," said the curate suddenly, "to go to a tennis-party, or a party of any kind, when that poor woman is lying at death's door."
"A merely plebeian idea, I assure you, Miss Robinson," said Ambert, taking Elfrida's hand and pressing it in a tender fashion. "I trust you will not let yourself be influenced by it, and that I shall see you on Tuesday." He paused. "I shall see you to-morrow, at all events!"
He pressed her hand again, bowed to Agatha--he had already made his adieux to Mrs. Greatorex--gave a nod to Dicky Browne, who seemed delighted with him in some strange way, and without so much as a glance at the curate, though, certainly, courtesy demanded as much as that, he went his way.
It was quite true: Mrs. Darkham was at the very portals of death. Whether those great gates were to be opened for her, or she could be dragged back from them, was the question that troubled the physicians who attended her.
Perhaps it troubled her husband more than them. He was sitting now in his library, in the big chair, with his arms hanging listlessly over the arms of it, and his head pushed somewhat forward. He was thinking.
The doctors had come and gone, and both were agreed. It was almost an impossibility, but not quite; she might, if such and such a change occurred, live. If not, death lay before her--a death into which she would enter without revisiting, even in thought, this world again. Dr. Bland, an elderly man, and one of great and deserved reputation, gave it as his opinion that if death did not ensue in a very few hours, hope might be entertained. Dillwyn had nodded an assent, and had said a few words too--to the effect that such grave cases _had_ been known to recover even after hope seemed at an end. He had kept his eyes carefully averted from the husband of the injured woman whilst saying this. He had looked at him when he first entered the room, but he could not trust himself to look again. There was something terrible in Darkham's face, something hungry, ravenous. An animal stalking its prey might have looked like that.
And now Darkham sat alone in his library thinking--thinking. They had given it as their opinion that she would die--those two who left--that she _would die!_ Would leave him free-- free of her accursed company!
A sort of fierce joy rose up and seized upon him. It caught and shook him. Free! free! After all these years! Free! She was dying. Surely, certainly! In a few hours her breath would cease, and no more would her odious, vulgar words and accents make him shrink and shudder. She would be gone to the Great Unknown, and he---
And it would be none of his doing--none! Here the great passionate joy that thrilled him seemed to culminate. He would be rid of her, without a single effort of his own. Had he even dreamed of making an effort?.... He would be quit of her in an hour or two--a day at latest. Surely the stars in their courses were fighting for him!
What was it they had said, those two? that if--if--he pressed his hands, both of them, to his head--that if she lasted until morning she might recover! Fools! She would not recover. Death was on her face when last he saw her. Pshaw! he was a better judge than either of them. Bland--an old man, too old; and Dillwyn--a young idiot, who followed his leader naturally! But he--he knew!--he who was in the prime of life, and had studied death--and life--in all their varied ways.
Yes, he knew! Siva, the Destroyer, lay hovering above the woman --whom the law called his wife--with outspread wings, awaiting the moment to descend and clutch his prey. Soon--soon--let it be!
Oh, to be delivered from her! From this creature who made life a torture; who had dragged him with a chain all these interminable years--the years of a marriage that had damned him! When he could have risen, that chain had nailed him to the earth, had clipped his soaring wings, had withered every moment of his life. Truly a young man starting in life should look well to the way he is going, and should choose a wife meet for him. Marriage is not for an hour, but for all eternity--sometimes!
This one, however! It will not last so long. This marriage will end soon, thank---
He broke off abruptly. Who was he thanking?
He rose suddenly and went to the door. He would go upstairs and see how things were going on. He shook a little as he put his foot upon the first step of the stairs, and looked back as if he would willingly change his mind and return to the library. But he overcame himself, and went steadily upstairs.
So he went, and entered the room, and beckoned to the nurse in charge that she need not stay. She rose at his bidding, and slipped through the farther door, glad enough to get away for and hour or so. Her employer was a doctor and the husband of the sick woman under her charge, and so she felt safe in leaving her. Besides which, it was a hopeless case. The nurse had seen many such in the London hospitals, and though some as bad had pulled through, still, the percentage lay the other way.
Darkham went up to where the silent figure lay, and ruthlessly pulled back one of the curtains at the end of the old-fashioned bedstead.
The light from the dying day streamed in through the window, and lay on the dull, yellow face that rested on the pillow. It lit it up and showed it in all its ugliness.
Darkham bent over it--lower--lower still, and looked--and looked again. Was there a change? _was_ there?
Already the face looked like that of a corpse. The lips were a little parted, as if the strength to close them was gone, and the upper teeth showed through them in a ghastly fashion.
And yet it seemed to the husband bending over her that there was some slight return of strength, of consciousness, in the face beneath him. It was so slight as to be all but unseen by any, save one passionately interested either in her recovery or her death. If, after all---
He bent still lower, and then raised himself with a frown and a quick sigh. No, he had been mistaken. Death would be her portion this night. The two men who had just left had said it. Well, they were right. She would die to-night.
He sat down in a distant arm-chair that still gave him a full view of the bed, and gazed with uncompromising sternness at the form thereon.
He fell a-musing again. How death-like she looked! How close to the last breath! Just a step one way or the other--this way to life, that way to the grave. A touch, a single movement, and she would be beyond the line that divides the darkness from the light.
Great heavens! how, even in the helplessness of her, her face retains its old expression! The vulgar sneer still dominates it, the drawn lips are still replete with venom. What a life he has had with her! A life? Nay, a death.
The night was descending, but out of the misty darkness of the room a girl's face stood--calm, cold, lovely. There from the end of the room it looked at him, the eyes shining clear as day and full of truth.
He turned uneasily, and rose and began to pace the room stealthily, silently, yet with a sort of cruel spring in every step. It was as though he could hardly keep himself in; as if some vitality within him was at work, and urged him forward-- forward--always forward.
Why had the accident been so slow a thing? Death--instantaneous death--how much more merciful it would have been to her, to him! A heavier fall, by half an inch or so, and all would have been at an end. There would have been no more room left for doubt, for fear, or for joy. He did not mince matters to himself as he walked there to and fro like a caged lion. He was strong enough to tell himself the truth.
He stopped himself in his strange hurrying up and down, and once more approached the bed. He bent over her and lifted her hand that lay so miserably helpless within his, and then let it fall again.
It sank upon the coverlet with a little dull thud, scarce audible, save to him whose ears were strained to hear, whose senses were so preternaturally on the alert. Why had her head been so hard, or else those flags so soft! A less thing had killed a score of fools before this.
Something in her face again arrested him. Surely there was a change. He placed his ear close to her mouth and listened. When he uplifted himself presently his face had taken a grayish tinge. Her breath was certainly stronger and steadier.
He went back to the arm-chair and seated himself slowly in it.
He rose, as though he found it impossible to be still, and laid his hand upon the mantelpiece. His grasp was so hard that his knuckles stood out white against the black marble. That devil, Dillwyn, had said she might recover. No doubt his hope was father to his opinion. He would do him, Darkham, a bad turn wherever he could. There had been occasions lately in the neighbourhood when this young fool thought--strove--to wrestle with him in professional matters. There was that affair of General Montgomery's the day before last when Dillwyn had been called in to the Cedars. The general was an important person in the place, and though scarcely _en rapport_ with Darkham, had generally employed him up to this. He thought of Dillwyn, of Agatha's face as he had seen it at Miss Firs-Robinson's dance--looking into Dillwyn's--of the preference shown to the latter by General Montgomery and a few other unimportant people, but people who always mean the thin end of the wedge in such affairs, and his clasp upon the arms of the chair grew tighter.
He broke off and glanced again at the bed, this time hurriedly, shortly. He saw her there, motionless, torpid, her sullen breaths coming with strange trouble from her breast. When would they cease! That was the one thought. When they ceased he would be free.
Presently he crept towards her again, and again bent over her and listened. He had _not_ been mistaken, then! Yes, the breath was stronger; he even imagined now that her hand stirred a little. He stood up. A minute passed in which he hardly breathed.
In that minute he knew what he was going to do.
He went back to his chair again, however, and fought it out with himself. Pah! what was it, after all, but to bring to a quicker end a life that the doctors had all but declared gone? What _was_ it they had said? So deep was the intensity of his desire to go back to that consultation of the two doctors and their verdict that he hardly heard a faint movement in the room, a slow stirring of the curtains that half hid the bed.
At last he remembered. If she were to live for a certain number of hours there might be hope--a vague hope truly, said Dr. Bland, and not to be depended on, but a hope. If not, she must die. She had lived for many hours now, almost to the time mentioned, and _still_ she breathed.
The nurse came to the door and opened it. He recollected himself in a moment, but hardly dared turn his face to hers. He told her by a motion of his hand, a softly muttered word, to go away; that the patient was still doing well, that he had hopes, that he wished to stay there. And the woman withdrew, praising him in her heart as a husband full of love and grief and anguish.
It was a slight interruption, but it half maddened him for the moment, although his iron nerve carried him through it.
He rose. The day was now at an end, and he lit a night-lamp with a careful hand--a hand that never trembled; and then he went again, and stared down at her. If she woke again to life there would be no longer life for him. It was to be either he or she.
The face was lying helpless, looking up at him, as it were, showing ghastly in the dim light. He had had no actual design in his mind until his eyes rested on those lips, but then all at once the means to the end became quite clear. His mind grew bright as day. He saw it all! It would not take long, and it was sure--and safe.
He went swiftly but noiselessly to a chest of drawers at the farther end of the room, and drew out the top shelf--always with a marvellous noiselessness. This drawer that usually--even in the broad daylight--creaked loudly when opened, now beneath the velvet fingers gave no sound whatever. He stooped forward, peering into the drawer, moving a thing here and there, and finally brought out something--a soft linen substance--a handkerchief, apparently, and moved with it to the basin-stand near him.
A squalid basin-stand of common deal. Certainly the poor, detested creature now lying prone upon the bed, utterly at his mercy, had not cost him much--had at least one virtue, that of prudence. Of course, if she had cost him more, if she had brought him by her extravagance to his last penny, she would have been of some importance in his eyes; he might even have learned to see something in her, in spite of her huge defects; but she had done nothing beyond being ugly--_that_, it must be allowed, she had done quite handsomely--and stupid, and vulgar, and all the rest of it.
He raised the water-jug. It made a little sound, and he looked behind him. No--no one had heard. That no one could see he was sure. Who was there in the room save he--and--and that unsightly object on the bed? He looked sharply, however, round the room, peering here and there, as people will who _feel_ a presence yet cannot see it; but he saw nothing.
He abandoned his first thought of pouring water into the basin, and put back the jug very slowly into its original place. How foolish that first thought was!
With another half-unconscious glance round him he lowered the handkerchief into the jug--slowly, delicately--until the water surrounded his hand and it. How cool the water was--how refreshing! He would have a bath presently--_afterwards_. Cold water was the best of all pick-me-ups.
He lifted the handkerchief, cautiously, yet a little drip fell from it. One-two-three! They sounded like a knell from hell! They terrified him--for a moment.
He glanced suddenly over his shoulder, once again to the bed where that silent form lay. Had she heard? Had she known? He thought he saw a movement of the curtains, but a second later he dismissed the fancy with a deep indrawn breath.
He was in that state of mind now that even if she _had_ known-- if she had been capable of rising and denouncing him--he would still have caught her by the throat and pressed her back upon her pillows and deliberately strangled the life out of her. It was decided. Fate had sent her so far upon her road, but now her travelling was over, and the end of her was to be bitter and ignominious and unknown.
The handkerchief was saturated. He went towards the bed and bent down. The terrible open mouth, with the hideousness of it, seemed to give him a demoniac courage. He folded the cloth and laid it softly over it and the faintly breathing nostrils. He pressed the damp covering down--down--moulding it to the nose and mouth as one might who was taking a cast of some one dead and unknown to him, and with quite as strong a calm and carefulness.
A moment--a frightful moment--and then she stirred, the big head swayed from side to side. Darkham--white, rigid--watched her as she moved in her terrible impotence, but still held the cloth. It was but a momentary struggle, after all; suddenly it ceased. She lay now, rigid, white--the cloth still upon her face; her eyes had opened in the dying struggle and looked up at him, pale, horrible. But her breath--her breath was gone. She was dead!
A moment--a frightful moment--and then she stirred. It was but a momentary struggle after all; suddenly it ceased. She was dead!
He stood for a long time watching her. At least it seemed a long time. He had released his hold of the death-cloth, but it still lay on her face, covering the lips and nose, and leaving only those frightfully glaring eyes to be seen. They were wide open, and seemed fixed on him. He laid his hand upon her lids, and with a brutal haste forced back the lids upon the dying eyes.
He drew in his breath sharply, and leaning against one of the four posts, compelled himself to listen--to watch.
Not a sound in the house. And not a sound here, either. The breathing had ceased--was still. All was over. Those men had been right, then. There was so little life left in her that recovery was impossible. If he had only waited, nature would have done its own work unaided.
Once again that mad rush of exultation ran within her veins. Once again he sat in the room with Agatha Nesbitt--saw her, listened to her charming voice. He stooped over the woman in the bed, and in a wild ecstasy tore the murderous cloth from off her face. A smothered yell of triumph broke from him. She was dead--dead-- dead!
It was over--done! He was free! He reeled against the bedpost and tried to collect himself--to check the terrible laughter that rose to his lips. He was free at last.
His curious excitement came to an end at last, and he roused himself. He looked at the clock, and found that it was quite an hour since--since that. He turned his eyes then on his wife's face and saw it was quite calm. There was nothing to wonder at-- no sign of a struggle. There had been very little struggle indeed, life was so low within her. He assured himself that she looked natural enough, and touched the bedclothes here and there. Then he rang the bell violently, thrusting the wet handkerchief into the inside pocket of his coat as he did so; and presently the nurses came to the door, stepping softly, delicately, yet with fear on their faces. To them he told the sad news. He feared he had been a little drowsy, and she--his voice broke--must have passed away in her sleep. His manner was perfect, and they were all impressed by it, especially the nurse whom he had dismissed some hours ago, telling her he would sit up with the patient. She said afterwards that he looked heart-broken, but so calm--the calmness of despair, no doubt.
They went with him to the bed, and bent over the silent form. There was no breath coming now from the parted lips; the features looked rigid. The face was placid, stern, with that Sphinx-like expression on it that the dead so often wear.
Darkham himself lifted the arms--oh, so tenderly!--and crossed them on her breast. Tears rose to the nurses' eyes. How he had loved her!
"Go!" he said to them in a broken voice. "I shall watch here."
They heard him lock the door after them, and felt sad with pity at the thought of the lonely vigil the broken-hearted husband was about to keep in the dim death-chamber.
He listened intently to the sound of their departing footsteps, then cautiously opened a second door that led into an adjoining room. It was a sort of dressing-room, that had been used by his wife as a place for lumber of all sorts. It was untidy, but it was large, and sitting at the far end of it one might feel far away from the bedroom outside. He struck a match with a cautious hand--a hand that it gave him a sensation of admiration to see did not tremble, and lit a candle. This he placed on the floor behind a brass-bound trunk of gigantic size that effectually hid its rays from any one who might be outside the windows to-night.
He sat down, prepared to watch for the dawn. Well, it came early, anyway. He seated himself on a box, and began to arrange his plans. There was nothing to condemn him anywhere. She had been so far gone already that the slight stoppage of her breath that he had occasioned had made no effect upon her. Her face was quite calm and placid; and he could quote the words of Bland and Dillwyn at any moment. Besides, why should he be suspected? Who was there to suspect him?
As for himself--his manner--he could rely upon that. He held up his hand before him, and noticed boastingly that it was firm, and strong, and steady. After all, what had he done? Merely hastened the departure of a life--not taken it. Why, if he had taken it years ago, who could blame him? That devil, thwarting his every movement, destroying his life, killing him soul and body--of what use was she to the world? A mere clod, swelling the list of those who dam the flow of the tide that leads to all light and progress. Why, it was a righteous deed!
His head was resting against a wardrobe. His eyes closed. His thoughts were brilliant to-night; they flew here and there. The candle was burning dimly, and before he knew it he had lost consciousness--he was asleep.
He slept, and dreamt he was in hell! He struggled madly, and the struggle with an over-whelming mass of fiends, who were dragging him towards a caldron full of pitch, roused him. The madness, indeed, lasted only a few minutes, and left him wide awake. He woke with a violent start, and looked hurriedly around him. All was still.
He sat up. A sensation of damp upon his chest troubled him. He thrust his hand into his inner pocket, and drew out--the handkerchief!
With a curse he flung it from him--far as he could throw it-- gazing at it with wide, fascinated eyes. For the moment he was afraid of it; then sense returned to him, and all his old strength, and he was himself again. He picked up the handkerchief deliberately, and placed it once more in his pocket. A grim smile at his own folly lit his dark features.
Even as he so sat smiling at his past weakness, a strange sound smote upon his ear. It was the sound of some heavy body falling on the ground. Seemingly it came from the next room--from the room where the dead body lay. He rose and went quietly to the door of it, and stood there listening. And as he listened a low crooning smote upon his ear. How well he knew it!
The boy! How had _he_ come there, with all the doors locked? He now went quickly forward, through the door and into the room beyond. There he stood still, as if frozen into stone. An awful sight awaited him!
The bed he had left so decorously arranged was now in frightful disorder. The clothes were flung here and there, and on the floor, half out of the bed and half in it, lay--his wife.
Her arms were flung out, and her head was lying on one arm, the scanty gray locks parted, and showing bald patches in this place and that. The face was almost hidden, but he could see the nose and a little blood coming from it.
As he stood gazing at it, a movement on his right attracted him. It came from behind the curtains--a squat, unwieldy form, with working mouth and eyes on fire. He knew it. It was his--son!
The poor creature drew closer and closer by degrees to the form upon the floor, as if frightened, and not understanding. When had he ever before seen his mother like this? But as he came up to her he touched her, and, getting no response, he touched her again, and again, and finally, as if some light had dawned upon his darkened mind, he caught her, and lifted her head upon his knees, and began to lavish on her a whole world of endearments. Standing behind the bed-curtains, as he had stood for hours, in a dull, faithful determination to be near her, he had seen her fall out of bed, and then surprise and horror had produced that crooning noise that Darkham had heard. He now bent his face to hers, and with uncouth gestures tried to wipe away the blood that was already congealing round the nostrils.
She had probably come to life again for some brief moments, and fought and gasped for breath, and then by a last mighty effort had flung herself on the side of the bed.
With so much strength _she must have recovered_ had he not hastened her death with that wet rag! He faced that thought with the strong callousness he had shown all through.
But the boy? He looked upon the wretched object crouched upon the floor, and advanced towards him. Taking him by the shoulder, he shook him sharply. The boy looked up with vacant eyes, and Darkham motioned him imperiously to move aside. At any moment some one might come to the door, and though it was locked, still, to refuse admission---
Edwy, trained to fear him, rose sullenly, and once more retreated into the shadow of the curtains, and, squatting down upon the ground, sat gibbering, his eyes always on the corpse.
Darkham, stooping, lifted his wife. With some fear he gazed upon her. But she was now dead indeed. He laid her back upon the bed and felt her heart. It was still. Once again he closed the eyes, sponged the slight bloodstains from her face, and rearranged the bed-clothes. Again he folded the arms across her breast in the exact position in which they had been when the nurses saw her last. The minutest detail he thought of and followed out.
The slight distortion of the features, now visible, would not be noticed or treated seriously. And an hour or two, besides, would probably do away with it. An hour after death makes the dead face so different, even when death has been hard.
It was all finished now, and the boy only remained to be got rid of; he could not stay here.
Much as Darkham disliked being left alone in this terrible room, still he disliked more the companionship of this loathsome idiot. There was always the thought, too, that he _knew_--had _seen!_ For the first time he felt thankful that his only child had been born deaf and dumb, and a fool. If only he had been born blind as well!
He unlocked the door softly, and motioned to his son to go. The idiot shook his head. He understood what his father meant, but, though accustomed to obey him, he now felt as if to leave the room that held his mother--a mother so strange, so changed, but still his mother--was impossible to him. She might wake and want him.
Darkham imperiously, by a second gesture, ordered him to leave the room, and, seeing he did not move, went toward him.
As he advanced, the idiot rose. A low howl broke from him. Suddenly, as if with a mad desire for vengeance, he flung himself upon his father and tore and wrestled with him savagely. It was the anger of an enraged brute; the boy's nails seemed to tear into Darkham's flesh.
The struggle, however, lasted only for a minute or two. With a mighty effort, Darkham wrenched himself free, and the idiot, his hands working convulsively, dashed from the room.
"Isn't it frightful!" said old Miss Firs-Robinson, exclaiming as much with her hands as with her tongue. "Such a death!"
"A terrible death, indeed," returned Mrs. Poynter--a pretty, fashionable-looking young woman--with deep commiseration. "So sudden!"
It was the next day, and the news of Mrs. Darkham's death had spread and was now known far and wide. All the people in Rickton had "a day," and this one belonged to Miss Firs-Robinson. A most blessed thing, as everyone wanted to meet every one else and discuss with them the tragedy. It was the rector's wife who had been the first to use the word "tragedy," and it had caught on at once. "She is so clever, you know. Always the right word on every occasion. Really quite talented! The rector could never get on without her; she has been the making of him. That last sermon of his about regeneration, surely--_well!_ And she does write, you know, for some of the papers. At all events, she has been known to answer a charade most successfully. You _must_ remember. It began with "My first was an ass.""
Lord Ambert and Elfrida were playing tennis in the courts below against Captain Poynter and a rather pretty girl who was staying with the Poynters.
Mr. Blount was standing on the terrace close to the nearest point from which the tennis-court could be seen. He was supposed to be making himself agreeable to the companion Fate had accorded him for the moment, but in reality he was watching Elfrida with a sad but absorbed gaze. Agatha Nesbitt, sitting at the end of the terrace, seemed to read his thoughts, and beckoned him to come to her. She herself was sitting where whoever came to the hall-door could be readily seen.
"And I hear," said Mrs. Poynter, arching her brows and putting on a look of perfect misery, "that Dr. Darkham is absolutely inconsolable."
"Oh my dear, do you think so? Well, I don't know, I'm sure." Miss Firs-Robinson as she spoke turned purple. "He is--well, you know, I don't like him. But dissolute--one should be charitable, my dear. I confess I have thought him a little queer at times in his ways, but nothing so far gone as that. No, no."
"You mistake me," said Mrs. Poynter, flushing delicately, yet with a glance round her. She wanted to laugh, but it is so impossible to laugh alone. She caught Dicky Browne's eye at this moment, however, and was happy.
"I'm sure I do, my dear," said old Miss Firs-Robinson heartily, who was really a good soul. "Poor man! I'm talking of Dr. Darkham, Dicky; he's gone all to pieces, they tell me, over this business."
"I hope sincerely nobody will put him together again," returned Mr. Browne piously.
"Such a feeling man!" said Mrs. Greatorex, dropping into a chair near them. "No wonder he is in such a terrible state. I fear this sad occurrence will place the neighbourhood in grief for some time."
"I suppose so. And yet"--Mrs. Poynter turned to her next neighbour--"You see, she was such a stranger to us, poor woman! _Such_ a stranger!" She lifted her pale-gray gloves here, and did something to her veil. "Did _you_" said she gently, looking at Mrs. Greatorex, "see much or her?"
Mrs. Poynter's voice was wonderful. It was a perfect coo, like a dove's. And she was very good-natured, too, in her own way, but it _had_ to be her own way. She detested anything unpleasant, anything that interfered with her, anything that rubbed her up the wrong way, and she certainly detested Dr. Darkham. But she had a little way with her that precluded the idea of her detesting anybody.
"Oh yes, very, very often," said Mrs. Greatorex sweetly. "I always tried to do what I could for her, poor creature!"
"And you?" said Mrs. Poynter, turning to Miss Firs-Robinson, who was looking grim. The old lady had been studying Mrs. Greatorex.
"Did you see much of her?"
"Well, as little as I could help," said the spinster with all the candour that adorned her, and a trifle of anger besides. "Because a more odious, a more unpleasant person I never met in my life."
"Oh, dear Miss Firs-Robinson!" cried the rector's wife, a little sallow woman. "You should remember, you should indeed. She is dead, you know."
"Yes, I do know," said the old lady in a loud voice, "but how does that alter matters? If the dead want to be praised, they ought to behave themselves properly whilst they are alive, and _she_ didn't. I am sorry the poor woman died like that, without returning to consciousness even for a little while."
"It was quite hopeless from the very first," said Mrs. Poynter.
"Dr. Bland and Dr. Dillwyn were both quite agreed about that."
"Oh no!" Agatha spoke as if involuntarily. "Not quite agreed. Dr. Dillwyn told me she might recover."
"Told you?" questioned Mrs. Greatorex quite gently. Then with a little smile: "But when, dear Agatha?"
The girl looked at her and paused. She seemed to struggle with a certain confusion.
Mrs. Greatorex, who would have made a splendid diplomatist, at once regretted her question, and stepped into the breach. She had made up her mind that her niece was to settle herself in life well, and to have her even "mentioned" with so deplorable a detrimental as Dillwyn--a young doctor just making his first breach through the wall of life--would be destruction. She therefore came to Agatha's rescue, and accepted the question as answered.
"He seems to have had two minds on the subject," she said slightingly, "which only shows how ridiculous it would be to place any confidence in his opinion. Young men of his age are not to be relied upon."
"I wonder if the party at Ambert Towers will be put off?" said the rector's wife, lowering her voice and speaking confidentially. "It was to be on Thursday next." "I should think not. Lord Ambert is not the sort of man to---"
"No, he is not, indeed."
"He seems to me more reserved than unsympathetic," said Mrs. Greatorex, who always supported him on principle. Were they not of the same class? "Are you going?" asked she, addressing Mrs. Poynter.
"We've been asked," said that pretty woman, with downcast lids.
"But do you think one should go--with this death so very recent? Are"--she paused prettily--"are _you_ going?"
"Not as to a party"--with much _empressement_. "It will, I feel sure, be a quiet affair, on account of poor Dr. Darkham's bereavement."
"Oh, bereavement!" Mrs. Poynter permitted herself first a smile, and then gave way to a subdued laugh. "I say, mustn't he be glad?" said she.
"My dear Mrs. Poynter, hush! If any one should hear you! And, really, you take quite a wrong view of it. You are worse than Mr. Browne, who says quite dreadful things. I admire Dr. Darkham, you know--I do indeed. I think him an ideal man. Fancy his devotion to that dreadful being all these years!" She lifted her hands.
"Such a handsome man, my dear Mrs. Poynter; he is one in a thousand."
"So glad," said Mrs. Poynter, rather frivolously. "Two of him in a thousand would be more than one could endure. To me he always seems--don't you know--well, so out of it."
"Out of it?"
"Well, not _in_ it, don't you know. A--a little on one side-- eh? A little--well, vulgar is a horrid word, isn't it? Oh, how d'ye do, Lord Ambert? Been winning as usual?"
"Not as usual. I've been winning to-day because Miss Firs-Robinson has been my partner!"
"Oh, I like that," said Elfrida, who was with him. "As if I was the least use to you! You could have won the game quite as well without me--better, I dare say. I don't believe I made five good strokes all day. My ball went _into_ the net, instead of over it, every time. I'm a perfect fraud!" She looked up at Blount suddenly, brilliantly, intentionally. "Now am I not, Mr. Blount?"
Blount hesitated and coloured, and Lord Ambert stared at him superciliously. Blount shook his head.
"You must let me contradict you," said he shyly, boyishly.
"Shall I get you some tea?" asked Ambert, who was frowning.
"No, thank you. There is claret-cup somewhere, if one could only find it. Mr. Blount, will you come with me on a voyage of discovery?"
Poor Blount! His eyes lit up. He went quickly to her, and she led him a fool's dance for the next ten minutes.
Ambert strolled leisurely away in an opposite direction, his face set and angry.
"What a pity it is that she _will_ encourage that poor boy!" said Mrs. Poynter to Agatha. "And when her mind is so entirely made up to marry Lord Ambert!"
"Then you think---"
"I am afraid she is a terrible flirt," said Agatha. Whereon they both laughed.
"Here comes John Dillwyn," said Mrs. Poynter presently. "And straight to us. _You_ are not a flirt, I know, Agatha--which makes me all the more afraid for you. You know he hasn't a penny. Well, John," taking a sympathetic note at once, "so that poor woman has slipped through your fingers. We are all so shocked about it. There was no hope from the beginning, I suppose?"
"I don't think that. I fully believed there was a chance for her, but it was a bare one. Still---"--he knitted his brows as if perplexed--"I believed in it."
"You mustn't say that now, John," said Mrs. Poynter, patting her cousin's arm; "you have your fortune to make, you know, and mistakes are fatal. Ah, you'll get on, John; you have the courage to confess your faults," said his cousin, smiling; "but don't confess them before unappreciative people. Dr. Darkham is, of course, very---"
"I saw him only for a moment this morning. He looked like death himself. I had no idea he--er--cared for her so much. His face looked quite changed."
"Agatha, I think we must go now," said a cold voice. Mrs. Greatorex laid her hand on Agatha's shoulder. "How d'ye do, Dr. Dillywn? I hope you have seen poor Dr. Darkham, and that he is bearing up?"
"He seems greatly cut up," said Dillwyn.
"Ah, as I said. So sympathetic, so tender-hearted! I should so like to tell him how I feel for him."
"I am afraid you will have no chance of doing that except by letter. He is leaving home directly after the funeral for some months."
"And are you to look after his patients?" asked Mrs. Greatorex, turning to Dillwyn.
"Oh no"--smiling. "I am not big enough for that. Bland is to see to them."
Once settled in the fly, that on all occasions was borrowed from the inn to convey them to such distances as Mrs. Greatorex could not walk, the latter turned to her niece.
"When did Dr. Dillwyn tell you Mrs. Darkham might recover?" asked she very quietly.
"Last evening. I was standing at the gate, and he happened to be passing by. I asked him about Mrs. Darkham's condition, and he told me he thought she _might_ recover, but it was very doubtful."
"I should think," said Mrs. Greatorex presently, "between you and me, that Dr. Darkham is feeling profoundly relieved at this present moment."
"That that woman was the curse of his existence for the past twenty years."
"She was dreadful, certainly. But Dr.--Dr. Dillwyn said he looked so sorry."
"It was a shock, of course, but he will recover from that in no time. And he is a handsome man, and rich and clever."
"Yes." Agatha looked at her as if wondering. There had been some meaning in her tone that the girl felt but did not understand.
"Yes. Don't you see? There is a chance for you now," said Mrs. Greatorex playfully, but with deadly meaning. The girl, after a swift glance at her, turned away. She felt cold and sick. Was this woman human, to pretend--to jest so--on the very threshold of death? And was it all jesting? She drew a long breath, as if suffocating.
"How can you talk like that?" she said.
"Nothing is more pleasant to the eye," said Lord Bacon, "than green grass nicely shorn." And truly his quaint Lordship would have been pleased had he been able to look upon Mrs. Poynter's grass to-day. It was shorn and shaven as close as the priest of old who was so unkind as to marry the pretty maid forlorn to that dreadfully tattered old man we have all known in our story books. For summer was gone to sleep, and lay prone upon the earth covered with her dead rose-leaves--only to wake again hereafter.
And now Autumn reigned. The dahlias in the long borders were shining like coloured stars, and the asters and sunflowers still upheld their heads. In the smaller beds the good begonias, who never crave for rest until dread frost compels them, shed great splendour where they lay. But they are frail things, and drop from their stems in a night when harsh winds assail them.
June, July, August, all have gone. And with them every thought of the poor woman who had been done to death so strangely, only three months ago! One never talked of Mrs. Darkham now, though every one said a good deal about, Dr. Darkham, who had come back three weeks ago from that sad trip he had taken to shake off his grief.
His grief appeared excellently well shaken off, they all said. He seemed quite to ignore it, indeed, when he returned, looking pale and thin certainly, but more interested in social surroundings. He was more full of life than he had ever been before.
Mr. Sparks, a young man staying with the Poynters, who during the last year had contracted an unfortunate passion for photographing his friends, was now standing out on the lawn, with his instrument of torture before him, and his head buried in a dirty velveteen cloth. He "meant well," as they say, but he never did it. He was abnormally tall and thin, and his hair fell over his forehead; the atrocities that he had committed no doubt preyed upon his conscience. To add to his other misfortunes, he was a friend of Dicky Browne, who to-day was taking great joy out of him.
"We'll be taken in a group," decided Mr. Browne, after a long discussion; "we can be taken separately afterwards, if we have the courage."
He looked at Mrs. Poynter, who had been most eager to get a sitting all to herself. She was pretty, and she knew it, and why shouldn't others know it? She was unaware of Mr. Sparks's peculiar talent, certainly, or perhaps she would not have been so desirous of seeing herself or her children--two lovely little beings of six and eight--once again on paper.
"Now I'm ready, if you are!" roared Mr. Sparks from the centre of the lawn.
"One minute!" shouted back Dicky Browne.
He was settling everybody, and pulling out their skirts. This made all the women mad.
"Are you ready?" roared out Sparks again, who was suffocating from his incessant visits beneath the velveteen cloth. It was a very warm day.
"One moment." Dr. Dillwyn had just come in, and where was he to be placed? He made straight for Agatha, and Dicky could not fail to see the significance of the smile with which she greeted him.
"Is there room for me here?" That was his whisper.
"Yes, yes," she said softly, gently. So he laid his hand on the arm of her chair, and stood erect.
There was a moment of awful tension. All were putting on their worst smiles and the most fatally imbecile expression, and Mr. Sparks was about to withdraw the cap, when a lively crash was heard and a smothered shriek.
They all sprang to their feet, and the tableau was spoiled. It was Dicky, of course. As usual, he had chosen the frailest seat in the place as a support for his rather stout frame--this time a milking-stool of delicate proportions; and one of the legs had come off, and now Dicky and it were floundering together on the floor of the veranda, buried in one common ruin.
The party in the veranda broke up and went here and there through the gardens, or else back to the tennis-courts. Tea was going on in a large tent on the lawn, and presently Elfrida, who had seated herself in a garden-chair outside the tent, and had sent Lord Ambert for some coffee, saw Mr. Blount standing near her. Elfrida looked up at him. She was quite alone--a singular occurrence so far as she was concerned--and for the first time, therefore, she was able to look at Blount with a critical eye. It struck her first that he was the youngest-looking man she had ever seen, and then, for she was fond of analysis, she told herself she regarded him like that simply because Lord Ambert was so very far from young.
Presently Blount looked round and saw her, and such a light of gladness grew upon his face as could not be mistaken.
"Can't I do something for you?" asked he.
"You can indeed; you can sit here beside me and amuse me, and tell me things."
"Tell you things?" He laughed at this; he was feeling extraordinarily happy. "What can I tell you that could interest you?"
"Well, one thing," said this finished coquette, "your Christian name. When one likes a person, one always wants to know how those who love him call him."
She smiled at him divinely, bending here pretty head towards him. She looked very lovely in her exquisite gown--a delicate petunia shade, clouded with lace--and the curate, looking at her, lost his head a little. He looked back at her, with all the passionate and very real love he felt for her showing now openly within his honest young eyes.
Blount woke from his mad dream, and to a most unpleasant reality. The Rev. Thomas Blount was a name that could be seen very often on cards for soirees, or placards for temperance meetings, or invitations to tea for girls' friendly societies. It hurt him in some strange way that she had never noticed those cards and placards. If she had even liked him, she would have felt some such small interest in him.
"I'll tell you, of course," said he. Yet he hesitated. _Thomas!_ How could he tell her his name was Thomas? It was, indeed, one of his greatest griefs that he had to sign himself so when he came to this parish. Thomas was such a respectable name!
"Ah, I know now!" cried Elfrida, as he hesitated. "It is Thomas. I saw it in a---"
"Oh, really, you know, it is _not_ my name," said Blount. "I'm always called Tom by my friends."
"Yes?" Elfrida turned and gave him a wonderful little look from under her hat--a charming hat all covered with violets. "Am _I_ your friend?" asked she.
"My friend?" he stammered, and then stopped. Something in her face, her eyes, that were looking over her shoulder at some one approaching, checked another word. He, too, looked hastily backwards, to see Ambert coming out of the tent and approaching them, a cup in his hand and a scowl upon his brow. Mrs. Greatorex and Miss Firs-Robinson were behind him.
He turned to Elfrida, his face pale and miserable. He hardly knew what he was saying.
"He is coming--Ambert, I mean. He will ask you to go and see the houses with him."
"Is that all?" Elfrida looked amused.
"He is going to ask you to marry him."
"Is _that_ all!" She laughed now, merrily. Her lovely little face, that was so infantile, yet so strong and so determined beneath all its youth and sweetness, seemed now slightly mocking.
"Don't go with him," entreated Blount passionately. All in a moment the youth of his own face seemed to die from it. He looked strong and earnest. His eyes were lit with a fire she had not thought them capable of. She looked at him strangely for awhile. Then she smiled.
"Why should I not?" she asked gaily. She had quite recovered herself. Ambert was very close now, and she turned and smiled at him--a smile of encouragement.
He came up and gave her the cup she had asked for, not noticing Blount even by a bare nod. He made a point of being rude to Blount. She drank the coffee, and then consented to go with him to the vineries. She rose, her small, graceful figure, slender as an elf's, looking even more fragile than usual in her pale gown, and moved a step or two forward with Ambert at her side.
Blount rose too. The very bitterness of death seemed on him now. She was going--going from him for ever.
At that moment Elfrida turned her graceful neck, and stopped and held out her hand to him. The little trifler was true to her calling.
"Won't you come too, Mr. Blount? Do."
There was actual entreaty in her eyes. Blount would have refused her request but for that look. As a fact, Elfrida felt the proposal from Ambert was imminent, and though she desired it, she wilfully determined to put it off, as women sometimes will. Blount rose, and, regardless of Ambert's insolent air went with her towards the houses.
Miss Firs-Robinson laughed; she was having a right royal revenge.
"Elfrida's good to the poor, too; in fact, she's good to every one--except perhaps"--thoughtfully--"young men."
"To me," said Mrs. Greatorex spitefully, "she appears the very kindest girl I ever knew to young men, and, indeed, to old men, and _all_ men. She seems to have no other thought than for them."
"Just so. I said she was a flirt; but when she's married to Ambert she'll be cured of that."
"When she _is_," said Mrs. Greatorex with emphasis and a peculiar smile.
Miss Firs-Robinson might have gone on again, adding more fuel to the fire, but a little rush of people out of the tent near them distracted her attention. Dicky Browne was leading, but was hard pressed by Agatha and Mrs. Poynter and a few others.
"What is it, Agatha?" asked Mrs. Greatorex, as the girl reached her.
"Sparks!" gasped Mr. Browne. "He says he wants to take us again."
"So we're flying--flying for our lives," said Dicky. "Stop us at your peril." He looked back. "Oh lawks, here he is!" said he; whereupon they all took to their heels again and disappeared into a bit of wood close to them.
Agatha was last; she turned aside, and, separating herself from the others, ran lightly up a little path that led towards a tangle of ferns and young trees--mere saplings. She knew the place well, and knew it to be solitary. No one would go there to-day, and she wanted to be alone to think. Half an hour ago Dillwyn had been called away to see a poor child in the village whose little hand had been badly scalded. He had passed Agatha when going, and had told her he would be back again in an hour or less. Without him the day seemed dull, and the thought of escaping from every one, of sitting alone in that small retreat until his return, was good to her. She wouldn't confess to herself that the idea of her getting away from Dr. Darkham had its charm too. She clung to the other thought. She could see the road by which Jack--she had grown to think of him as Jack-- would return. Indeed, his shortest way would be straight through here. She told herself she was going to sit here and watch for his coming; and out of such telling no shame came to her heart. She loved him, and he loved her. And though he had not spoken, she believed he was waiting for her, until his prospects were brighter, surer. She laughed to herself over that. As if she cared about his prospects! She cared for nothing on earth but him himself--his dear, _dear_ self.
She had gained her shelter now, and stood looking towards the road. Two of the young saplings were quite big boys now, and very tall for their age. They towered over _her,_ at all events. They stood both together, and she stood between them, always with her beautiful face looking towards the road; and she twined her arms round these younglings, and so supported herself. All her thoughts were given to Dillwyn. So engrossed were they, indeed, that she heard no footstep behind her--knew of no approach, until the voice she hated above all others sounded on her ear.
She felt she was as pale as death as she turned to confront him.
"Dr. Darkham! _You!_" Her tone was cold, almost haughty.
"Yes. I followed you!" He looked at her, his eyes resting on her. Such strange eyes, they seemed on fire! And his tone--it was one she had never heard before.
As for Darkham, he stood there looking at her, gloating on her beauty--the beauty for which he had sold his soul. How sweet she was--a thing born of the gods! So tall, so slender, so defiant, so divine!
But in all his dreams of her, had she ever been as beautiful as now? She had still her arms round the young trees--she was, indeed, clinging to them now, as if demanding support of them-- and her small shapely head and slender figure showed through them as though they formed a living panel.
Something other than the longing to be always with her had urged him towards this interview. The fear of losing her altogether! He had seen the way she went, and had followed her, and had rightly judged that she was waiting here to see Dillwyn return.
He knew Mrs. Greatorex. Money was a god to her, and she would strongly urge Agatha to act as he desired. She would condone the haste of his proposal. He could explain away all that by saying he feared to lose her--by a judicious hint about Dillwyn's attentions. He knew how that would annoy her. And she was an obstinate and determined woman, who would go all lengths to gain her own ends. He could see her to-night--a note would manage it.
"You followed me!" Her soft eyes flashed. "Why should you follow me?"
"You know," said Darkham. He advanced a step nearer to her. "You _must_ know."
His voice now was shaken with passion, and his face was deadly white. He was alone with her, far from every one, and he was going to tell her that he loved her. To him it was the moment of his life.
"I know nothing. I desire to know nothing."
The girl had stepped out now from between the trees, and was standing before him, quite calm, but with a little droop of the lids he was not slow to interpret. It meant disdain. But he cared for nothing now, save his one mad longing to tell her.
"You do know," said he in a strange voice. "I dare you to say otherwise. You know that I love you." It was out. It was said. The very air was ringing with it. He repeated it. To himself it seemed that he was shouting the great news, but in reality his voice was low--intense. "I love you. I have loved you always-- _always_. Even whilst that woman lived. You know that, too. I have seen it in your eyes so often. No, not a word! Let me speak.... I have been silent so long."
"To be silent for ever would be better," said Agatha. She was very pale, but she had a certain courage of her own, and it stood to her, so far, most valiantly. "You must see what folly this is. Why do you speak? What good will it do you?"
"It means life!" said Darkham. "What nights, what days have been filled with my vain longing for such an hour as this! To _say_ it --to tell you how unutterably dear you are to me--has been my consuming passion since first we met. Often, often, when attending your aunt, a craving to speak to you--to lay bare my heart--to take you in my arms---"
He moved towards her, and she shrank back affrightedly. After all, a girl's best courage does not amount to much.
"What!" said he, "do you think I would touch you? No, no!"
"You must be mad," said she. She was trembling now. "How can you talk to me like this?--to me, who---"
"Well?" said he--his voice was a question--"well?"
"Why go into it?" said the girl gently, touched by the horrible anguish in his face. "Is it not enough for you to---"
"To what?"--violently, as she hesitated to finish her sentence.
"Your words are enigmas; I would hear from your own lips the answers to them."
"As you insist," said Agatha calmly, "I shall finish it. To you, who"--slowly, defiantly--"are _abhorrent to me!_"
"You think to marry that young fool!" said he. "And I tell you you never shall. I shall not allow it. Your aunt will not allow it."
"Mrs. Greatorex is not my aunt," said Agatha. "But am I to understand, then, that you are going to bring _her_ into this hateful matter?"
"I shall certainly tell her how things are," returned he doggedly.
"You would coerce me--you would compel me to accept you!" cried she miserably, a vision of Mrs. Greatorex's anger rising before her.
"I compel you in no wise! I would only have careful consideration where your best interests are concerned. I can supply you with all that makes life bearable. I can surround you with luxuries-- and Dillwyn, what can he do?"
"I don't want him to do anything," said Agatha slowly. She said nothing more for a moment and the meaning of her words sank into Darkham's heart. No, Dillwyn need do nothing. She loved him-- love was sufficient! What more was wanting? Agatha's voice broke through his wretched thoughts. "I do not understand your allusions to Dr. Dillwyn. He is merely a friend, an acquaintance of mine. No more."
"No more!" He mimicked her tone, and burst into queer laughter.
"Would you swear to that? Ay! I suppose--and die for it--just because he has not said to you what I have said to-day. But you will never marry him. Mark that! You will marry me!"
"You mean that you will make Mrs. Greatorex my enemy abut this," said the girl scornfully. "You will turn her against me."
"As for that," said he, "you are not the down-trodden slave you would describe. The law of to-day"--bitterly--"leaves most people very free. You are thoroughly protected."
"So far, yes; but you also know that my only home is with Mrs. Greatorex. If she were to turn against me---"
"Then I should take you in."
"Never!" said she strongly. "I would rather die on the roadside than have anything to do with you!"
"You think that now, but time changes most things, and poverty is hard to bear. You will listen to your aunt at last; and I--I who have loved you--I who have looked forward to such an hour as this--have looked to you as my salvation---"
"Dr. Darkham!"--she turned upon him passionately--"do not look at me at all. It is useless, believe me. Nothing under heaven could change my determination on this point. I have told you I would rather die than marry you. Look elsewhere and forget me, I entreat you."
She turned away from him and glanced once more up the road. Would he _never_ come?
"Not in sight yet?" said Darkham, with a contemptuous laugh. "To keep you waiting so! What a dilatory lover!"
"I wish you would go away," said she quietly.
"That you may see him alone? A most reasonable request." He laughed again harshly, with forced merriment; then suddenly he fell on his knees before her, and caught hold of her gown.
"Agatha, for the sake of the heaven I have lost, hear me! You _must_ hear me! See--I am at you very feet! Give me a word--a word--only _one!_ Just one word of hope. Oh, my soul, if you only knew how I feel towards you--what I have _done_ for you! Agatha, have pity!" He seemed hardly to know what he was saying. He caught the hem of her gown, and pressed it to his lips. The girl, distressed, horrified, laid her hand upon his head to press it back, away from her. To him the pressure of that soft, hasty hand seemed like a benediction.
He rose slowly, staggering a little, and looked up at her; she had moved away towards an opening in the hedge that led to the road, and was holding up her hand as if to attract somebody. Her face was white, terrified; even in this strange moment he felt a sensation of gladness in the thought that he could move her some way, even to fear.
In another minute Dillwyn had sprung over the stile and was beside her. He looked quietly from her to Darkham.
"I saw you," said the girl, laughing a little hurriedly. "And this was your nearest way back, you know, and---"
"And as I am due to see a patient now," said Dr. Darkham, drawing out his watch and examining it closely, "I am glad you have come in time to see Miss Nesbitt back to the grounds."
"Why don't you like him?"
It was the next morning, and Mrs. Greatorex, lounging on a sofa in her bedroom, was regarding Agatha with a rather stern air.
Dr. Darkham, true to the promise he had made to himself, had gone to Rickton Villa the previous night, had sought a private interview with her, and told her all: of his admiration for her niece, of his fear of losing her unless he spoke at once, of his belief that Dillwyn was in love with her also, and of the settlements he was prepared to make.
These last were very handsome. For the past twenty years of his successful life, he had saved far more than he had spent-- refusing to go much into society or to entertain, because of his wife's deficiencies, though by his marriage with that wife he had been made a rich man. There had been no settlements on his marriage with her, and all her fortune was now within his grasp. It was with that, indeed, he intended to buy Agatha.
Mrs. Greatorex's ambitious heart rose to the bait. The sum he proposed to settle on Agatha was considerably more than she had even hoped for, and during the past week or two she had been led by Darkham to understand that he loved her "niece," as she always called Agatha.
Darkham, watching her, half smiled to himself--she was so easily read, and so sordid, and so mean, with all her absurd aristocratic airs and hints at the greatness of her family that did not know her.
He went on carefully. He fought his way with ease. He even ventured to tell her in a subdued whisper that he had never really cared for his first wife--it was a boyish infatuation, and she was older than he was--and--well, the same old vulgar story that we all know by heart and despise and don't believe in.
Mrs. Greatorex chose to believe it, however. At the last she gave him to understand that she would urge her niece by every means in her power to accept his offer. Her refusal of him that afternoon was probably mere girlish embarrassment, she said. As for that suggestion about Dr. Dillwyn, she was quite positive there was nothing in it.
She was looking now at the "dearest girl"--who was looking back at with anxious eyes. She did not appear "shy," however--only very anxious and unhappy.
She did not answer, so Mrs. Greatorex went on,---
"He told me he had spoken to you yesterday, and that you had refused him. You must have been out of your senses when you did that. He is prepared to make splendid settlements---"
"I shouldn't object to settlements if--if I didn't object to-- him," said Agatha in a low voice.
"To him! To Dr. Darkham? What can you see to object to in him? He is handsome--clever---"
"He is old," said Agatha, trifling with the question as if to gain time.
"_That_ is the last epithet to apply to him. My dear Agatha, consider. He is clever, as I say, and learned, and so kind and thoughtful. I'm sure his goodness to me during my illness--- Now, what further objection can you make?"
"I can't bear him," said Agatha, suddenly, which, indeed, was the conclusion of the whole matter.
"My dear! At your age! I _beg,_ Agatha, that you will cease to consider yourself a baby. Such a speech as that, if you _were_ a baby, might pass muster, but for a girl who has seen her twentieth year it sounds simply foolish. Why, when I was your age I had had six proposals. And you--have you had a single proposal, save this most fortunate one?"
She paused. Agatha did not answer. Meantime, Mrs. Greatorex waited relentlessly.
"Well?" she said.
"No." The answer was very faint, and it awoke in Mrs. Greatorex's mind a suspicion. Was the girl deceiving her? Was there an actual engagement between her and Dr. Dillwyn?
"No? Are you sure, Agatha? It seemed to me that you hesitated. I hope there is nothing in a certain absurd report I have heard about you and Dr. Dillwyn."
"There is nothing to say," said she in a low, anguished voice. Oh, that there _had_ been!
"I am at liberty, then," said her tormentor, "to tell Dr. Darkham that you are absolutely _free_--that you care for nobody--- that your heart is still your own to dispose of? I may tell him that you have never felt so much as a passing fancy for this young man, Dr. Dillwyn, who has been sent here through a whim of Reginald Greatorex--to starve, as far as I can see; for Dr. Darkham, as you know, has all the paying practice, and Reginald Greatorex"--bitterly--"as you also know, is a false friend, and a man that would rather die than part with a penny. I may tell Dr. Darkham that?"
Agatha, pale as death, lifted up her eyes and looked at her.
"Not that," she said; "do not tell him that. I---" she grew whiter and whiter, but she was true to herself and her own heart to the last--"I love Dr. Dillwyn."
"Agatha!" Mrs. Greatorex rose, and stood before her, filled with wrathful horror. To tell the truth, she was genuinely shocked. Her narrow prejudices could not conceive such a thing as this.
"When he has never spoken to you--never---"
"I know. It is--it _sounds_ dreadful," said the girl wildly.
"But"--folding her hands upon her breast--"he will speak. He _will_."
There was silence.
"I trust not. I believe not," said Mrs. Greatorex at last. Here tone was cold, and there was a certain element of disgust in it that hurt the girl to her very soul. Why--_why_ had she spoken? And yet to deny him! She would suffer for it, but hers was the nobler part, and in the end she would be placed above shame. But if he _never_ spoke! A cold wind seemed to creep over her, chilling her through and through. It was her one doubt of him, and it died at birth, but she always repented herself for it. "In the meantime, Agatha, you must permit me to say that I am horrified beyond words at your confession."
"I shall never marry Dr. Darkham," said the girl slowly, miserably, but with great courage. "Let me leave you, Aunt Hilda. Let me go out in the world as a governess. I could make my own way, perhaps--and---"
"Don't talk to me like that, Agatha. You--my niece! Do you think I am going to have you spoken of by the people here as a _paid person?_ No, you shall stay here." She rose to her feet and pointed imperiously to the door. "You shall stay here and marry Dr. Darkham, and thank God for your good fortune. Now go; leave me." She pointed again to the door, and Agatha, sad and sick at heart, went out of the room.
When she was gone, Mrs. Greatorex tried to rest again upon her lounge, but failed. That slip of a girl to refuse such an offer as this! A girl who was literally penniless! She stormed and raged as she walked up and down her small room. As a fact, she had grown honestly fond of Agatha--as fond as she could be of anything outside herself; but she was fonder still of her ambition--and to see Agatha married to a man without position or money....
Agatha went slowly downstairs, and ate no breakfast. She went into the garden after breakfast, and tried to do wonders with a small bed of asters; but her heart was in nothing, and when she came indoors about half-past one and changed her morning frock, and made herself very pretty for luncheon, it was with a shrinking heart, as she thought of meeting Aunt Hilda again.
But Aunt Hilda refused to appear--which perhaps frightened Agatha more than all that had gone before. For Mrs. Greatorex to miss her luncheon meant that she was really offended. Agatha got through the sad little meal as quickly as possible, and then, snatching her hat from the stand, told herself she would go for a long, long afternoon upon the bank of the river. The Rickton river was about half a mile from the town, and there were charming little bits about it, good enough to satisfy the souls of most.
As she reached the hall door, however, the maid threw it open, and the Rev. Thomas Blount stepped in. Agatha could have hated almost anybody else for his intrusion at this moment, but Blount, somehow, always had a kindly boyish air about him that put an end to criticism.
"Oh, you, Mr. Blount!" said she, as if greatly pleased, and she took him into the small drawing-room, and sat down to entertain him right royally. Poor thing! With her heart as heavy as lead.
She was delightful to him for five minutes, and then she felt the strain was very great. It suddenly occurred to her that there were some engravings hung in the little antechamber, where she had so often--she shuddered now at the remembrance of it--so often had to stand _tête à tête_ with Dr. Darkham whilst he gave her instructions about her aunt's treatment.
Would Mr. Blount like to see these old prints? She had heard they were valuable. Mr. Blount said he would like to see them very much, and she led him into the little chamber. He and she were standing on the threshold of it, however, when the opening of the drawing-room door beyond caught Agatha's ear.
"Some visitors, I am afraid, Mr. Blount," she said gently.
"Forgive me for a moment. You can see the pictures there"-- pointing to them--"for yourself."
"Pray don't think of me," said Blount. "I shall give my whole attention to these."
But did he? Agatha had gone back to the drawing-room to find Elfrida rushing towards her.
"Isn't it beautiful?" cried that small person, precipitating herself upon Agatha's neck. "Isn't it all it ought to be?" She surrendered Agatha's neck here, and stood back from her, looking at her in, evidently, brilliant spirits, and the latest Parisian gown. "I'm going to be a bona-fide countess! A real live one, too. You may put anything you like on that. Lively shall be the word for me. If he thinks he's going to keep me down, and--Oh, Mr. Blount! You here!"
Blount did not answer her; words, indeed, were beyond him. So it was all over!
"I think I'll come and see your engravings some other day, Miss Nesbitt," said he, as calmly as possible, though it went to Agatha's heart to see the expression in his kind young eyes. "You and Miss Firs-Robinson must have a good deal to say to each other."
He turned to Elfrida. "You see I heard," said he gravely.
"Yes." Elfrida held out her hand to him in farewell. Agatha had not made even an attempt at detaining him, the situation seemed so full of briers. "And won't you---"
"No, I do not congratulate you," said he steadily.
When he had gone, Agatha said quickly, "It is not true!"
"It is, indeed. He proposed to me yesterday just before he left, and I accepted him."
Agatha turned away from her.
"I thought better of you," she said.
"Now, that is always what puzzles me," said Elfrida, not in the least offended by Agatha's ungracious reception of her news, but with the air of one prepared to argue the question calmly, even to the death. "Why should people always think better of me? I don't see how I _can_ be better. What's the matter with me?"
Agatha looked at her sadly. Her own dull, miserable story was before her.
How could a girl willingly sell herself for title, or money, or position, or anything? And Elfrida, who was rich, who could defy the world, _she_ to sell herself to that detestable man, for the sake of hearing herself called Lady Ambert! In her present mood it seemed hateful--unnatural--to Agatha. Oh, how gladly would she _give_ herself for love--love only!
"There is nothing the matter with you," said she--- "nothing. I won't believe there is. I won't believe, either, that you will marry Lord Ambert."
"I expect I shall, however. And why not? Auntie is quite delighted about it. Just fancy, she will be Ambert's 'auntie' very shortly!"
"Your aunt is naturally ambitious for you," Agatha said; "but you --you---"
"Well, I--- I"--mimicking her gaily--"what of me? Do you think I can't see the glitter of diamonds as well as any one else?-- and I hear the Ambert diamonds are beyond praise."
"What are diamonds to you, who have so much money? Why, you could buy them for yourself."
"Well, that's what I'm doing. I _am_ buying them. Now, don't tell me I am not following your advice, after all." She spoke mockingly.
"If you took my advice, you would see very little glitter in Lord Ambert's diamonds."
"See here!" said Elfrida steadily; "it's no use your taking it like that. I know exactly how you feel about it, but, then, I am not you."
"But surely your father never intended---"
"Yes, he did; and I admire him for it. He said to himself, "What is the good of my girl having all that money if she doesn't gain something by it?" Remember how hard my grandfather had worked for it, and they had their ambition, you see--it was to make me a lady! I'm afraid they've failed there," said Elfrida, with a sudden laugh. "But, at all events, I shall be a lady in another sense. I shall be Lady Ambert!"
"I don't know how you can look at it like that. The throwing away of your whole life's happiness---"
"Don't you? Ah! but you see, you have not been educated as I was. Why, only look at the name! They evidently gave it to me at my baptism with a view of my living up to it. Elfrida! quite early English! It speaks of centuries of dead and gone ancestors of illustrious origin, who, I hope, didn't sell soap."
"I don't believe you care," said Agatha reproachfully, who, however, was now laughing in spite of herself. "To make a jest of everything as you do---"
"Argues that I have no heart; and a good thing, too. Auntie sometimes calls me Frid, an extra petting of my pet name Frida. But really it should be Friv. I don't seem to care about anything, and I seldom think. I don't allow myself. It brings wrinkles--as I read the other day in one of those ladies' papers. Well, I must be going. You are the first person I have told of my engagement, but you needn't flatter yourself you are the only person who knows it by this."
"Your aunt will, I suppose, publish it abroad!" said Agatha sadly.
"No. Lord Ambert will. He seemed very flatteringly anxious to clinch the nail. I expect he has more debts than he knows what to do with."
"But, Frida"--anxiously--"I hope you will take care that he does not make away with all your money."
"You bet!" said Elfrida, who really, perhaps, ought to have been behind that counter; "_that's_ all right. I shall help him to clear the mortgages, of course, by degrees, but without touching a penny of my principal."
She seemed "all there."
"Oh, there's one thing," said she, trifling with the handle of the door: "I am sorry I told you of my engagement before Mr. Blount."
"_I_ am not," said Agatha bluntly, a little sternly indeed. "I am glad he knows. You would never have told him until the last moment if you had had your own way." If she had thought to overwhelm Elfrida by this harsh judgement, or reduce her to a sense of shame, she found herself mistaken.
"You're a witch!" said that naughty little person, with a gay grimace. "I think I seldom met so nice a--a friend as Mr. Blount. What a pity I must lose him now!"
"You have Lord Ambert instead," said Agatha coldly. In her heart she loved Elfrida, but she was angry with her now.
"Ah, true, true!" cried the culprit gaily. She ran down the steps to where her ponies were waiting for her. Agatha, though angry, followed her. It hurt her to be offended with the pretty charming, lovable little creature, who was so wilfully making hay of her life; she even went down the steps and, without looking at Elfrida tucked the light rug round her.
Elfrida smiled, picked up the reins, and took the whip out of it socket. The ponies sprang forward. Suddenly she checked them.
"Agatha!" she called. Agatha looked up. "After all, I was wrong.... I _have_ a heart.... if only for _you_!"
The little fair, merry face was pale now, and tears lay heavily within her blue eyes. Agatha, startled, gazed at her, but there was no time for more. The ponies where trotting up the tiny avenue, and Elfrida did not look back.
On each side of her rose banks, filled with glorious colourings. Autumn, always so rich in variety, was painting everything with a lavish hand--all the tints were gorgeous, splendid, ripe. She stopped for a moment to gather some berries from the blackberry bushes, that were now laden with ebony fruit, and whose luscious darkness was well thrown out by the pale green clumps of the hart's-tongue ferns that grew beneath them.
Presently she turned the corner and came within sight of the river. It was running very swiftly to-day, being swollen by all the rain that fell last night; and leaves from the trees, yellow and red and green, were swirling down it, in the rays of a mad, hot sun.
She found her own nook at last, and sat down beneath a huge beech-tree, through the branches of which the light played merrily. She flung off her hat, as though glad to feel the air upon her forehead. One could hardly believe summer was gone and autumn well advanced. Far away in the wood on the other side the solitary figure of an old woman picking sticks, with a scarlet kerchief bound around her head, made a spot in the picture.
Agatha sat down and let her head fall into her hands. She knew now--now that she was at last alone--how badly she had been wanting to cry all these long, _long_ hours. The tears ran down her cheeks and through her clasped fingers. She was so alone-- so utterly alone!
A gentle hand was laid upon her shoulder. She started violently and looked up, to find Dillwyn looking down at her.
"What is it?" asked he softly.
"Oh, nothing--nothing!" cried she hurriedly. "Nothing, really." She rose quickly to her feet and tried to smile.
"_Tell_ me," said he.
"Well, I have told you," said she, trying to be brave. "It is nothing. Only--sometimes---" She broke down ignominiously, and covered her face with her hands. "Oh, I am unhappy--_unhappy!_" she said bitterly.
"My darling!" said the young man. He did not try to take her hands from her face, but he drew her to him, and encircled her with his arms, and pressed her head down on his shoulder, with silent but fervent passion. He held her to him. "Agatha, you know I love you. I told myself I would not speak until I was sure that you loved me, and until I had something to offer you; but now, seeing you like this--if I can help you---" He stopped and pressed his lips to her head. "You _do_ love me, Agatha?"
Agatha raised herself, and, laying both her hands upon his breast, looked at him. Two tears still lay upon her cheeks, but she was not crying any more. Her face was transfigured--a most heavenly light was in her eyes. Dillwyn looked back at her, wondering--he had not know she was so beautiful. He caught her to him.
"Is it true," said he. "You really love me?"
"What a question! It doesn't deserve an answer. But you shall have it. Yes, I love you with all my heart and soul."
"Ah!" said Agatha. A cloud crept over her face. She looked at him.
"_Why_ didn't you tell me so before?" she said.
He questioned her, and then all the truth came out--Dr. Darkham's proposal, her aunt's acquiescence in it, her horror and fear. Her hand was in his as she told him, and the nervous little fingers tightened on his in the telling. It was such a hateful story, and she had suffered so. But now---
"The infernal scoundrel!" said Dillwyn at last. She was only half through her story then. "Why, his wife isn't three months dead." After that he heard her patiently to the end.
"I have been so frightened, so miserable," said Agatha. Something of the effect of this speech would have been taken away if a mere outsider had been addressed, as now there was not a touch of misery about her anywhere, but Dillwyn understood her, and drawing her hand to his lips, kissed it warmly.
"You shall never be miserable again if I can help it," said he.
"After all, Agatha, I haven't told you about the stroke of luck that has fallen to me to-day. I'm afraid I should hardly have had the pluck to speak to you at all if it hadn't been for that."
"Oh, Jack!" said she reproachfully.
"Well, I wasn't sure how it was. I could see your aunt was against me, and I don't blame her of course, and---."
"Then I think you ought. Fancy her wanting to marry me to Dr. Darkham!"
"A man like that! Well, that's bad, certainly."
"Yet you say you cannot blame her."
"How could I blame her? Do you imagine that any aunt would like to marry a girl like you to me?"
"I should; any aunt would be glad to marry _any_ girl to a man like you."
This was delightful from all points, and a good deal of business was done on the head of it.
"But look here," said Dillwyn presently; "I haven't told you about the luck. Old General Montgomery has called me in."
"Yes, last night. Attack of the gout. It appears they had known my mother, and had heard that I was enormously clever. I was sorry for him _then,_ poor old man!"
"Nonsense. He heard the truth."
"And it appears he was dissatisfied with Darkham who was with him a week ago. There was evidently something queer about his last visit. The General wouldn't say much--he's a touchy old fellow, you know; but plainly he was offended. Of course, I shall patch it up with him and Darkham. I hate other people's shoes, but for all that it will give me a rise in the neighbourhood--the fact of having been called in, I mean."
Women are seldom magnanimous where a lover is concerned. Agatha now raised a quick protest.
"Why should you do that? If he doesn't like Dr. Darkham--and who could?--why should not you take his place?"
"It is only a momentary row, I expect. Darkham has been his doctor for a long time. But what I want you to know is that it will probably give me a fillip here; and"--he drew her to him --"that will enable me to make a home for you the sooner."
"A home!" said she. The very word was music.
"_Our_ home!" He looked at her and she at him, and their lips met. "For how long have I desired this hour!" said he. "For years!"
"Weeks--only weeks. But---"
"Very _long_ weeks."
At this they both laughed, and then he went on a little shamefacedly, perhaps--true lovers are always a little shamed at heart before their loved ones,--
"Will you marry me, now, as I am, Agatha? Will you take the risk?"
"What risk?" said she delightfully. "I won't let you talk of risks."
"It's a cottage," said Dillwyn--"a mere cottage."
"I love cottages," said she.
"There are only five rooms altogether."
"What can one want with more?"
"And I'm afraid the kitchen chimney smokes."
"All kitchen chimneys smoke."
"And I don't believe that girl can cook a bit."
"Then here's a girl who can teach her!" She laid her hands lightly on her bosom.
But they didn't stay very long there. Now Dillwyn had her in his arms.
"Do you mean that you are not afraid--that you will come to me --that you are mine really--really?"
Suddenly he put her from him.
"Look here, it's a shame!" said he. "You are sacrificing your life. You had better give me up!" He caught hold of her hands, however, as he said that, and drew her to him and held her fast.
"You had indeed. But if you do, Agatha, there's an end of me."
"Oh, Jack!" said she. She was laughing, but the tears were in her eyes. Quickly she released her hands from his, and then threw them round his neck. "_I_ shan't make an end of you," she said.
"Well, that's settled, I suppose," said he. "But I shall always feel I have been selfish towards you. But, however, it's done now. And, Agatha, I wish you could see the house. It's a cottage, you know."
"I know. I've seen it."
"Only the outside. But inside it isn't half bad, and there are two of the rooms very pretty, and it is covered all over with ivy. Mr. Greatorex was very good to me on my coming here, so some of the rooms are decent enough, but"--shyly and tenderly-- "hardly good enough for you."
"For me!" Agatha grew softly pink. "It would be heaven!" said she in a low tone. That he should think otherwise, that he should imagine she would not be happy with him _anywhere!_ Was there ever such sweet folly?
"There is quite a nice little room on the south side," Dillwyn was saying, Agatha's cheek pressed against his--"a very pretty room. That would be your drawing-room, and the one opposite, that would be the dining-room. It is very small, certainly; in fact, the word 'dining-room' seems too grand for it."
Here Agatha sighed heavily.
"What is it, darling?" asked he anxiously. "You don't like the prospect? Certainly it is small."
"I'll tell you what it is," said she, looking at him seriously: "it is too good to be true--_all_ of it. It will never be mine. That drawing-room, that dining-room, that whole lovely cottage, will never be mine. It would be too much happiness. You forget Aunt Hilda. She will never give her consent--never!"
"But she is not your aunt really," said he.
"No; but she--Jack, she has been very good to me. But for her" --she paused, and her charming face grew sad--"I might have starved. I cannot forget that."
"I shall not forget it either," said Dillwyn. "And if she ever wants a friend, I'm there. But for all that, Agatha, I've got to think of you too. You are mine now, you know; and one should think first of those that belong to him. And, after all, I expect Mrs. Greatorex is open to reason. Once she knows you hate Darkham, and that you love me--and you do, darling, don't you?"
"Jack! as if you weren't sure---"
"Well, I am now; and I'll come up to-morrow and tell your aunt all about it."
"Oh, don't!" cried Agatha. "It will be no use--none at all. She --she is bent on this marriage with Dr. Darkham. Don't say a word for awhile."
"And let you be tortured meanwhile? Not likely!" said Dillwyn. "I shall certainly speak to her to-morrow. We must make the way clear at once. I shall come up at four. I can't come earlier because of General Montgomery; but at four."
"You won't see her," said Agatha, with a touch of triumph. "She is going over to the Monteiths' after luncheon to spend a long and happy day with them, and won't be back until ten. I'm glad, do you know. I'm afraid of your speaking to her. I dread it. She will be so annoyed."
"Better get it over," said he. "But even if I can't see Mrs. Greatorex to-morrow, I _must_ see you. She will be away, you say. I can come and see you for all that, can't I?"
"Yes, come at seven. I am afraid I cannot ask you in, however. She would be so angry. But if you will come to the garden---" She coloured painfully and looked distressed. "I can't even give you coffee.... I can do nothing for you," said she, the tears rising in her eyes.
He smiled. "You can!" said he. "Do you know you haven't kissed me once of your own accord?" He drew her towards him, and she lifted her face.
"Agatha!" said he, in a low tone, "I wonder if you know how I love you?"
"Oh, I know more than that," said she, with a little happy, shy laugh. "I know how I love you!"
It was the next day, and evening was far advanced. The idiot was sitting in the garden outside mumbling to himself, and stupidly turning and twisting a sort of white rag between his fingers. Through the dense mist in which his soul ever sat, one spark of light had penetrated. The white rag was the medium. Whenever he looked at the crumpled bit of cambric he held, the idiot seemed to feel, or to see, or to be conscious of--_something_. And that something--vague and wild as it was--meant hatred--blind, unfathomable hatred!
It had taken the place of his idolatry of his mother. She was gone; he did not know where--it was impossible for him to grasp that--but she was gone. She had been taken from him. And he knew by whom! Yes, he knew that, at all events. He could not have explained it to himself, but he knew his father had taken his mother away from him, and hatred--that "madness of the heart" --tore at his breast, crying aloud for vengeance.
He sat there, in the dying sunshine, and twisted the white rag. Whenever he looked at it, a queer vision rose within his blighted brain. His mother's room, and the big bed, and her hand hanging over the side of it. And over there his father.... He used to grow confused at that point. It was impossible for him to follow it out to the end, the poor brain got so obscured; but after a few minutes or so he could see again his father rising, with something white in his hand, and then--_then_--his mother's face was under it, and--and--that was all--except his father's hand pressing--pressing--_pressing down_!
The poor boy had stolen into his mother's sick-chamber during that eventful evening, and had hidden himself behind the large bed-curtains. He had, indeed, squeezed himself between the bed and the wall, fearful lest the nurses should send him away. They had been a little rough with him in the beginning of the day, and he distrusted them, believing, foolishly, that they meant to harm "Sho." He had been there off and on for hours--ever since his mad effort, indeed, to bring Agatha to his mother's help-- crouching, waiting, beyond the knowledge of things. To be near her was all he asked: the adoration he had for her was only the blind, wild affection of an unreasoning animal, but it carried him far.
He saw him go back again to his chair, and again rise and approach the bed, this time with a handkerchief in his hand.
The poor boy had watched eagerly. Into his dull mind the sure conviction grew that with the wet handkerchief his father was going to do something to his mother that would enable her to talk again to him, to caress, to fondle him. He almost betrayed himself in his delight. He did not like his father, but many things had taught him that Darkham was clever. The idiot, watching and waiting, was firmly convinced that a miracle was going to be performed with the handkerchief, that it would make the dull, dead figure on the bed talk and smile again.
After that it was always blurred--his picture. He could not remember anything more. But there lived with him, like a shadow, a mad longing to kill his father!
He sat out there playing with the white cloth he held in his hand. The day was dying down, and it grew a little chilly, as days will in September. He crept from the garden-chair to the stone steps that led to the library above, where his father always sat.
The father was sitting there now, lying back in his lounging-chair and thinking. Oddly enough, in spite of himself, his thoughts ran to his dead wife. As a rule he did not permit himself to think of her, and it seemed absurd to do it now--now when he was thinking of taking a second wife.
He had come in from his round of daily visits a little fatigued. He was careful now to fatigue himself as much as possible during the daytime, it was so difficult to drop to sleep at night. He had seen Agatha for a moment, and had come home full of her--of the sweet beauty of her gentle face--of her superior air--of the extreme coldness of the salute she gave him.
The evening was wonderfully quiet. He lay back, and tried to bring up Agatha's face before him. But somehow she eluded him. He almost laughed aloud. It seemed so absurd. Her face, that was ever before him. No! he could not bring it up now--not so much as a feature. He laid his hands over his eyes, leaning back in his chair, to compel the vision. In the complete darkness he might find her.
But he did not--Instead, another face arose--pale, cold, ghastly! Once again he was staring at his unlovely dead! That hideous face! Great heavens! and lying there--there, sprawling on the floor with the mouth half open!
He dashed his hands from his eyes, and stood up, and stared before him, and then a yell broke from him!
Over there!.... What _was_ that over there, in the shadow? That frightful face with a white cloth laid across it. Was it she come back to torment him?
Again he felt his hand pressing the wet handkerchief upon her nose, her mouth, and the faint struggle beneath his fingers. Such a sickening struggle! Again he pressed, and _pressed_, until he had pressed the very life out of her!
He clutched the chimney-piece and glared at that awful apparition. Had she come back? Was he never to be rid of her? Would she be always at his side, showing herself when--he grew almost frantic here--when his young bride was at his side?
His horror compelled movement. He loosed his desperate grasp upon the mantelpiece, and, like a drunken man, staggered forward. As he did so, the apparition stirred, and a terrible cry sounded through the room.
It was like a battle-cry. As it reached his ear, Darkham stood still. All at once he knew--knew everything; the boy had been in the room that night, and had seen, and in a strange way understood.
He laughed aloud. It was quite safe, that secret. The boy could neither speak nor write, and as for _her_--what a fool he was! --why, she was too _dull_ to find her way back to earth. He laughed again at this conceit, so glad he was at the solution of this ridiculous affair. He must be out of order, in want of a tonic, to have such absurd fancies.
In the meantime, he advanced upon his son. Sitting out there on the veranda, the idiot had conceived a splendid plan. He would lay this white thing over his face and go in and see his father; perhaps if he did his father would understand, and be frightened, and give "Sho" back to him. He had certainly taken her away. Heaven knows how this hope arose! But he crept in noiselessly, and sat crouching in the comer waiting for his father to see him, with the handkerchief laid across his mouth and nose exactly as he had seen it lying across hers. He sat there a long time, waiting for his plan to work, before Darkham turned and saw him.
Hatred, too, was in the heart of Darkham--a very madness of rage. He seized the boy and held him as in a vice, and leant over him, breathing hard, as if thinking what he should do with him. The devil of murder once more rose within him. He loosened one hand and laid it on his son's throat. He tightened his grasp!
In another moment he found himself dashed backwards against the wall. His head had come against it with astounding force, and for a second he was half stunned. He stood there panting. That creature, half his size, was stronger than he! His first thought was amazement. And the most curious thing of all was that he felt no resentment. The boy was strong! After all, Edwy could do something. He could conquer--he could kill!
The idiot had disappeared, but near where he had stood a white object could be seen. Darkham knew it at once. It was the handkerchief with which he had helped is wife to heaven. He stooped and picked it up. In spite of his hardihood, he felt a sense of strong repulsion as he touched it. Her life-blood seemed do be frozen into it. He compelled himself to open it, however, and look at it. Her name was in the corner, coarsely worked with red thread. It was just like any other of her handkerchiefs, yet he could have sworn it was _the_ one. The boy must have picked it up that night. It must have fallen from his breast-pocket as he bent over the dead form upon the floor.
Well, there was nothing in it to incriminate him; still, it would be as well to get rid of it. The fire had been laid in the grate, but not lighted. He dropped the handkerchief on the table, and went to find some matches on the mantelpiece. With these he stooped and lit the dry kindling, and soon the fire began to roar up the chimney.
He turned to the table to get the handkerchief. Once burned, he told himself, he would forget it--and so, too, would the boy. But apparently the boy had not forgotten it, even for a few minutes. When Darkham looked for the handkerchief it was gone. The idiot had come back for his relic.
Darkham stood and thought for a moment. No, there was no danger; and it might only excite that fool the more to compel him to restore it.
Still, he felt disturbed. He went to the window. The evening was divinely fair. It would rest him and arrange his thoughts to go for a stroll. He would walk down toward Rickton Villa--not _to_ it, exactly. Her aunt was away this evening at the Monteiths'; but Agatha was sometimes in her garden at this hour, tending her flowers. There, or through the windows, he might, perhaps, get a glimpse of her.
The evening was now merging into night. Far up above in the darkening sky a pale star or two were shining. Night falls early in September, and already the flowers in the small garden at the villa were shutting up their pretty eyes.
It was a charming evening, soft, cool, melodious. The purling of the brook below was delightful in itself, but other music blended with it. The wind sighed so sweetly that the grasses in the meadows beyond bowed to it, in compliment, no doubt, and thus made a music of their own.
A clock somewhere struck the hour.
Agatha started to her feet. The tiny summer-house was so small that her charming head almost touched its roof as she rose.
"Who could have thought it was so late?" said she. "Eight o'clock! You must go!"
The surprise in her tone was surely complimentary; but Dillwyn looked aggrieved.
"I believe you want to get rid of me," said he.
"Do you?" She stood and laughed at him. She had always been charming; but Love, when he came to her, had lent her many cosmetics, and now she was lovely. "You believe that?" She held out her hands to him. "What a story!"
"My darling! my life!" said Dillwyn in a low tone fraught with love. "Must I go now? When shall I see you again?"
"Why, to-morrow at the Poynter's. Now, do try to be there in time. Get over your cases as quickly as you can. Oh no! _don't_. Poor things! Of course your patients want you more than I do."
"Still, tell me that you want me too--just as much as they do."
"I needn't!" said she, tears rising in her eyes. She smiled tremulously. "You know it!"
They had come out of the little summer-house and were strolling towards the gate where they were to part. The night had fallen a little lower, and everything lay in a soft dusk.
It was not so dark, however, but that a figure standing just outside the gate, and hidden by a thick laurel bush, could see and hear all that was going on in this small garden.
"What a beautiful sky!" said Agatha, stopping to look up at the exquisite dome above her.
Dillwyn looked up too. Yes, it was exquisite--the glittering small stars, shining like silver on that pale breast of blue! Some old lines came to him. He caught her hand and pressed it to his lips.
"'Look'st thou at the stars? If I were Heaven, With all the eyes of Heaven would I look down on thee.'
I don't know what made me think of that. Perhaps because I wish I had more eyes with which to look at you."
"Would you be the giant of old who had an eye in the back of his head?" said she. "And after all, I think your verse a little rude. To look down on me!" She stood back from him, and glanced at him in the prettiest way. Happiness was developing in her a tender and joyous coquetry. "On _me!_"
"Do you know," said Dillwyn, a little sadly, "I have often thought what presumption it was on my part to dream of gaining you."
"Oh now, now!" cried she, in a little expostulatory way. She ran back to him and held out her hands. Her face expressed the greatest penitence. "Presumption--what a word! Do you know, Jack, I shall be thankful to my dying hour that you loved me. Oh, you must go!" said she, raising her head. As she did so she started.
"What was that? Jack, didn't you hear something?"
"Hear something? No," said Dillwyn. He looked towards the house.
"No, no! In there"--pointing to the bushes behind them. She spoke in a low whisper, and he could feel that she was trembling.
"In there? Who could be there?"
"I don't know--perhaps---"
"One of the servants? Well, what matters--to-morrow I shall tell Mrs. Greatorex all about it."
"I wasn't thinking of the servants; I was thinking--I suppose it was foolish--but--I almost felt that Dr. Darkham was there!"
"Nonsense, darling! Though, certainly"--with sudden wrath-- "it would be like the skulking scoundrel to be eavesdropping." He spoke loudly--angrily. If Darkham was there he could hear.
"Still," said Agatha nervously, "go now. Do go. I am sure I oughtn't to have let you come here at all this evening. If Aunt Hilda hears of it, she---"
"Your Aunt Hilda will hear more than that to-morrow."
"Oh, Jack, must you tell her?"
"My dearest heart! Why not? You know that---"
"Yes, yes, I know. But we are going to the Poynters's to-morrow, Jack, and we might have a happy day there, if--- Don't tell her until after that."
"It shall be as you wish, of course. But, Agatha, is it wise? However--well, then, the day after to-morrow I shall speak to her. Now are you satisfied, you lovely tyrant?"
"Well, well, good-bye," said she regretfully. She raised her face to his, and he caught her to his heart.
"To-morrow will never come," said he.
"Oh yes, it will--it will! And it will bring you!"
They clung to each other, and kissed and kissed again. Then he left her, and she stood waving her hand to him until the scented twilight hid him from her sight.
She turned back then from the rustic gate, and took a step or two towards the house. Presently she paused, smiling--thinking hopefully of all that he had said. He loved her, as she loved him. Her face was beautiful in its delight, as she so stood thinking on her love.
Suddenly she turned, as if hearing something, and the smile faded from her lips. A shadow lay across her path. She knew quite well who it was, even before Darkham's hand was laid upon her arm!
Agatha remained quite still. Her heart was beating wildly, but she showed no outward sign of fear, and it was too dark now for him to see that her face was as white a death.
"Take away your hand," she said, presently, in a tone that startled even herself, it was so calm, and with a touch of dignity in it not to be withstood. Truly, "courage mounteth with occasion."
Darkham let her go instinctively, but he still stood facing her, and through the deepening of the night she felt that his eyes were on her. At last he spoke.
"You think you will marry him," he said. His voice was low, not at all violent; but it frightened Agatha the more perhaps for that. At all events it rang in her ears for days afterwards.
His hopes were at fever height when he reached the villa. He had entered the tiny avenue and come cautiously up, hidden by the rhododendrons, to that small gate inside which the girl so often at this hour ministered to her flowers.
And then he had seen her--in Dillwyn's arms.
The evening was not so far advanced, and the delicate light of a first love that lay on her beautiful face was quite clear to him. He saw her lift her arms, and let Dillwyn take her into his. They kissed each other.
He went a little mad then. He lost consciousness for a moment or two, and clung to a tree close to him. So much had been dared and done, and now was it all to be in vain?
He recovered himself presently, remembering everything, and a great oath broke from him. He swore to himself that the one terrible deed of his life should not lie fallow. Something should come of it. It should bear fruit.
He withdrew into the denser shadow, and waited, and watched, and listened. He was not naturally a man of base understandings. There was nothing small about him, and probably under happier circumstance he would have disdained to lie there in ambush watching and listening; but now passion mastered him, and his love for Agatha--the one pure sentiment of his life--was unhappily the undoing of him. It _should_ have ennobled him; it only debased him.
Everything seemed to be falling from him. This girl on whom his soul was set would not so much as look at him, and Dillwyn-- that affair of General Montgomery's had touched him. In time the wedge, that now had got in its thin edge, would work deeper and take from him his practice. A hatred against Dillwyn had always been in his breast ever since those earliest days when he first came to Rickton, and now it blazed and grew to monstrous dimensions.
What! was Dillwyn to "supplant him these two times?" Never! His courage came back to him. His indomitable will grew strong again. As Dillwyn passed him on his way home he raised is hand as if to strike him to the earth, but paused.
"You think you will marry him," said he again. "You think it possible to escape me." He was quite beside himself, or he would hardly have dared so to speak to her.
"I don't understand you," said Agatha coldly. "It is late. I wish to go in."
"Not too late, however, for you to see your lover!"
"Dr. Darkham! This is not the first time you have spoken to me like this. I must ask you to let it be the last. For you to dictate to me on any subject is impertinence," she said haughtily. "I am sure you must see it. I am nothing to you, and you are, if possible, less to me."
"You are wrong there!" He took a step nearer to her, and the girl set her teeth hard. If he were to _touch her!_ At this moment the moon came out from behind a cloud and showed her his face-- dark, determined, passionate. "You are all the world to me. Life itself! Do you hear? Do you understand? You are my very life! And a man fights hard for his life. I shall fight hard," he said.
"It is bad to fight for failure," said she. Her hands were icy cold now, but her face was impassive. "I hope you will go away now. My aunt, as you know, is not in, and---"
"Did Dillwyn know that too--that your aunt was not in? Do you think he would have come here if he had not known it?"
"I am sure he would," said the girl. There was a change in her voice as she spoke of him, a sudden tenderness, a glad delight. The man listening noticed it, and it maddened him the more.
"You---" He stopped short, as if to complete the sentence was beyond him. His voice was thick, uncertain. "You will tell me next," said he, leaning forward and gazing at her threateningly, "that you love him!"
"Yes; I love him!"
Darkham burst into a wild laugh.
"Him! Love him! A man who courts you clandestinely, who has not the courage or the desire to do so openly. Has he spoken to your aunt? Come, what has he done? Has he asked your hand in marriage of your only guardian? Or is he playing fast and loose with you? It would not be the first time he had played that game. Why, there are tales of him in the village."
Agatha made a gesture of contempt.
"There are no tales of Dr. Dillwyn in this village or any other," she said. "As for his speaking to Mrs. Greatorex, he would have spoken to her to-day but that I forbade him. He will speak to her to-morrow."
"So he says, no doubt. But even if he does speak--what then? Will Mrs. Greatorex listen to the proposals of a pauper?"
"She will, I am sure, listen to the proposals of a gentleman."
She had not meant this as a cut to him, but it went home. He writhed under it.
"She will listen to me," said he. "To me only--though I may not be what you in your arrogance class as a gentleman."
"Dr. Darkham. I assure you--I--" She was shocked at his reading of her words. Her face, pale and beautiful, turned to him full of contrition. It seemed terrible to her, to have even inadvertently hurt the feelings of any one. "I did not mean that."
This sudden change on her part, from extreme coldness to a faint kindness, came as the dew from heaven to Darkham. This little touch of sweetness, what might it not lead to if he pleaded with her? Pleaded with all his soul--_for_ his soul!
"Agatha!" cried he, "hear me. I beseech you to hear me. Everything is against me; I know that; but you--if you could only understand what you are to me!"
"I do not wish to understand." She broke into his stammering speech with a certain courage, but a courage that she felt was failing her. For the first time real fear seized upon her.
"You _shall_ understand," said he. "When I tell you that my very soul is in your keeping---"
He broke off and tried to take her hand, but she pushed him from her. She felt terrified.
"Your soul! _Yours!_" she said. "Oh, no, no, no!"
There was such horror, such open shrinking, in her whole air that he stood and looked at her. Had she heard anything? Was there a suspicion in her mind? Impossible! He dismissed that thought, but another rose. He felt now that his case was hopeless, so far as she was concerned. He was abhorrent to her. She loathed him, and --strongest lever of all against him--she loved another. Had she been free he might have won her, but he knew her well enough --and it was this knowledge that had drawn him to her--to understand that when once steadfastly determined she would be hard to move.
"You have decided?" said he.
She made a little movement to signify acquiescence.
"You deliberately choose a life of want?"
"I choose the life I wish to lead."
"And Mrs. Greatorex? She has been good to you. You will go against her? yet you owe her something."
"I owe her more than I can ever repay," said Agatha with emotion.
"But not the selling of my soul."
"You have made up your mind?" said Darkham again. His tone was a question, and the question conveyed a threat. "You absolutely refuse me? Think--think again, Agatha--_think!_"
"I have thought."
He broke out then,--
"You defy me?"
She faced him bravely even at this moment, when her heart was dying within her.
"Yes, I defy you!"
He drew nearer to her, and caught her arm. His face was close to hers. _Such_ a face!
"To defy _me_"--he spoke below his breath--"you must be mad to defy me. Now, hear me! You will never marry that fool of yours. I _shall_ prevent that, even though"--he paused ominously--"I have to destroy him."
The word "destroy" might have had reference to Dillwyn's profession, but to the girl's over-wrought imagination it sounded like a death-knell. Oh, to get away! To think!
She would have tried to pass him, but something warned her that such a movement would be unwise. To show cowardice of any sort in his present excited state would be madness. She held her ground bravely, and prayed to Heaven for deliverance of some sort.
And Heaven sent it.
"That you Agatha?"
A cheerful voice came to her over the gate. It was the voice of Mr. Browne. Now, Dicky's voice, though good enough of its kind, had never up to this been likened to music; to Agatha, however at this moment it sounded like sweet harmony. She drew her breath quickly; with difficulty, indeed, she suppressed a sob. She held out her hand to him.
"Dicky, is it you? Come--come here. Come quickly!"
She did her best to suppress her agitation, but it mastered her; and Mr. Browne lifted the latch of the small gate, and in a seemingly leisurely manner was at her side almost immediately. He took her hand and held it in a good firm clasp. He was very fond of Agatha, and she was very fond of him, too. Agatha, however, never said that after that night.
Of course, he saw at a glance that something was wrong. He nodded to Darkham, who was in the shadow.
"Heavenly night, isn't it?" Mr. Browne raised his eyes ecstatically to the sky above, now literally besprinkled with the lamps of heaven. "But there's a dew falling. Mrs. Greatorex not ill again, I hope?"
He looked directly at Darkham, compelling an answer.
"No," said Darkham.
"So glad!" said Dicky. "Then you came---"
His manner was delightful; not a suspicion in it; yet Darkham felt he must answer.
"I was merely passing by here, and saw Miss Nesbitt, and came to ask her a question," said he doggedly. He was quite master of himself again, and spoke naturally.
"Which Miss Nesbitt, of course, didn't answer," said Dicky airily. "I never answer questions myself. You always get let in if you do. Agatha, I hope you stood firm. Always resist the questioner."
He was making light of the situation. The babe unborn could not have seemed more innocent than Dicky at this moment. Yet Darkham, listening, cursed him in his heart.
"Miss Nesbitt, I am afraid, does not follow your lines," said he, in a suave tone. "She--you came a little late you see--she _did_ answer."
"More shame for you!" said Dicky to Agatha. "See now how you encourage Darkham."
There were times when Mr. Browne thoroughly enjoyed himself, and this was one of them. He could see that Agatha did not understand him, but that Darkham did. He thought Darkham a common sort of fellow, with a slight veneer, and he didn't like him.
"_I_ encourage him!" said Agatha.
"Why, of course. To answer the questioner is to lead him to worse mischief in the future. He will continue his persecution." He laughed quite gaily here, and brought down his hand with a resounding slap on Darkham's shoulder. It seemed the friendliest slap, but Darkham didn't seem to care about it. "Look here, Darkham, I sympathise with you. I do, indeed. People who ask questions are bores. Yet a doctor must ask them. About one's tongue, for example, or one's--better not go into it. What were you asking Miss Nesbitt about? Not _her_ tongue, I hope. Agatha! You know I often warned you about it. The tongue is an unruly member--who have you been abusing now?"
"Ask Dr. Darkham," said Agatha, who had recovered all her courage on the advent of Dicky.
"My dear girl, I think I should rather ask the rector. He would be the true physician in this case. An unruly tongue, you know. You have nothing to do with those, have you, Dr. Darkham? Don't you think Miss Nesbitt had better see the rector? Come now, your advice.... Advice is what one wants from you!"
"Miss Nesbitt, I am sure, does not want it," said Darkham slowly, as his eyes met Agatha's. "She knows all I can tell her. I have given her my advice."
"Did it include the fact that the dew is falling? Agatha, my dear girl, you ought to go in, or else get a hat or a shawl or something. You ought to have warned her"--to Darkham.
"I _have_ warned her!" said the latter, in a strange meaning tone.
He went towards her and held out his hand. "Good-night!" He so stood between her and Dicky that the latter could not see that she refused to give her hand in return. "Remember," said Darkham in a low tone, "the warning!"
He stepped quietly past Dicky, who nodded to him cheerfully, and went out of the gate and down the small avenue, and into the road that led him homewards.
"Now, what on earth is it all about?" asked Mr. Browne, as the last sound of his footsteps died away.
"Oh, Dicky!" said Agatha. She had a kind of theory that a woman ought to be above surprises or fears, but lately she had begun to doubt the truth of it. She enlarged her doubts at this moment by covering her face with her hands and bursting into tears. Mr. Browne waited a moment.
"That's right," said he. "It will do you good. Nothing like tears. But look here: why waste 'em? The weather has been awfully dry of late; just stand over those asters, will you, and give them a shower."
It was horrid of him, Agatha told herself, but in spite of that she began to laugh, and when Mr. Browne had gone into the house and brought her out a little sherry-and-soda she felt almost herself again. She was still frightened, however--though not for _herself_.
"You're awfully done," said Mr. Browne presently. "You ought to be in your bed instead of out here."
"I couldn't sleep," said she. "I am too miserable. Oh, Dicky, I am so frightened; and I haven't a single person to speak to."
"That's what a woman always says when she has the person near her," said Mr. Browne. "Go on"--resignedly. "I'm the person on this occasion. Start fair, and tell me all about it."
She did. She told him everything.
"Fancy his wanting to marry me, when his poor wife is only three months dead! Fancy his forgetting her so soon!"
"I feel it brings me within the pale of crime," said Mr. Browne mournfully. "But I feel sure that I could have forgotten her a good deal sooner."
"Oh, but, Dicky, you weren't married to her."
"True," said Dicky thoughtfully. "That's a point. There are things one should be thankful for, after all." He sighed. "And was it to-night that he laid his charms at your feet?"
"No--the day before yesterday. At least, I think it was the day before yesterday, but"--dejectedly--"it seems like a century ago. I've gone through so much since."
"And in the meantime?"
"Jack has asked me to marry him." She glanced up at Dicky and smiled. He thought he had never seen her look so pretty. Love had gilded her beauty. There was quite an air of triumph about her.
"If you expect me to be surprised," said he, "you're out of it. To ask you to marry him is the sort of thing that any fellow would want to do in a second. I may as well tell you, now that hope is at an end for ever, that I myself often had a desire to ask you that great question myself."
"I wish, Dicky, you would try to be sensible for even a little while," said she impatiently. "I'm _so_ unhappy. I've told you that Aunt Hilda has set her heart on my accepting Dr. Darkham."
"I shouldn't do that if I were you," said Mr. Browne.
"No, no, of course not! Nothing would induce me. Not now, when Jack has told me that he--he---"
"I know," said Mr. Browne confidentially. "You needn't go into it. I've done it myself. Usual taradiddle. Told you you were the 'only woman in the world.' It's extraordinary how a lie like that takes, when one has only to look round and see a lot more women than one wants. But it never fails."
"He never said anything like _that_ to me," said Agatha indignantly. "Do you think he is so stupid as that?"
"I never thought him stupid till this moment," said Mr. Browne unabashed. "What on earth _did_ he say to you?"
"Just that he loved me--and enough, too. But, oh! Dicky, I told you I was frightened, and I am. That dreadful man said that, rather than see me married to Jack, he would destroy him!" Her voice began to tremble. "He'll do it, too; I feel he will."
"Nonsense, my good child! People can't go about destroying people nowadays. There is always the convenient hangman. And besides, though I can't exactly say I dote on Darkham, still, he seems to me a most respectable person."
"To me," said Agatha in a low tone, "he seems a murderer! Yes; I _mean_ it. I am afraid of him, and I really do think, Dicky"-- bursting into tears--"that he will try to kill Jack. His face was frightful when he said it. Oh, perhaps he is devising some scheme now--now, this moment! I could not be deceived; there was meaning in his eyes. Dicky"--turning to him with a touch of passion--"I want to see Jack--to warn him."
"Oh no! Now--now! Can't I see him now? I shall go mad with thinking if I have to pass this night without giving him a word of warning."
"Look here, Agatha! It's late, you know, and Mrs. Greatorex will be home shortly, and---"
He paused. The girl knew well what he meant. Of course it was unconventional to go to her--to Dr. Dillywn's house now; but for the sake of conventionality was she to let the man she loved be murdered? She was a little unstrung, and at this moment she firmly believed that Darkham was bent on a swift destruction of her lover. In the slow, solemn passing of the light to darkness fears grow thick, and Agatha's became unbearable.
Jack was there, in his lonely house, and unwarned! What fitter time to take a person unawares? The poor child was weakened by the events of the past few days, and could see nothing but her one sole possession cruelly done to death. That man--Darkham-- had looked murderous. Oh, to go to Jack for a second only--to _tell_ him! What could it matter what the world said, if he still lived!
"I don't care _when_ she is home--" She spoke vehemently, but then checked herself. "No, no; she won't be--can't be at home for a long time. It is only half-past eight now, and she will not be home till ten."
"But Dillywn's house is half a mile away."
"But if I ran through the wood no one would see me--and--_you only_ would know of it. I want just to tell him to be on his guard. It wouldn't take me a moment. Don't you think"-- feverishly--"that I might go?"
"Not alone, certainly. If you _must_ see him, I'll go with you."
"Oh, Dicky, how good of you! Will you, really? Then come-- _come!_"
"Without a hat?"
"Yes. What does a hat matter? And we haven't a moment to lose."
"Well, here goes!" said Dicky. He pulled her arm through his and together they went out of the gate, and, turning, ran down a slope that led to the wood on their left. Through this they went at full speed, the path being well defined, and Agatha's agitation giving her the speed of an Atalanta.
As they pulled up at the gate of Dillywn's cottage, a tiny establishment, standing by itself about a quarter of a mile from the village, Dicky pulled out his watch.
"We've beaten the record," said he; "I don't believe any one ever did the distance in so short a time. But, talking of time, Agatha --it's flying. I shall stay here, and give you just five minutes by this"--tapping his watch--"to rejoin me."
"Five minutes! I shan't be _one,_" said Agatha.
"You had better tell him that I brought you here, and that I shall take you back. Though"--resignedly--"he will no doubt shoot me when you do so."
"Dicky! He will be so grateful."
"That"--gloomily--"is not the way of lovers. And I have two to contend with. Darkham is probably sitting in a tree at this moment taking aim."
"Oh, Dicky, _don't!_."
"And even if I escape these two, there is still Mrs. Greatorex to slay me with her tongue. There, go on, dear Agatha. If not here on your return, I trust you to put up a fitting monument to my many virtues."
Agatha turned towards the house--he was really too frivolous for anything.
"I say!" called Mr. Browne after her. "Five minutes, you know-- not a second more."
She ran noiselessly across the grass to the lighted window where she fancied Dillwyn must be sitting, and knocked gently at the window-pane. In a moment the blind was drawn up; there was a sharp ejaculation; then the window was thrown up.
"Yes, yes. I have only a moment--but I _must_ speak to you. After you went, Dr. Darkham came; he had seen you, and---"
"Wait a moment!" His voice was stern. "Give me your hands. You must come in and tell me all." The window was very close to the ground, and she sprang to his side easily.
She was now in the room, but so great was her nervous agitation that she never once glanced round her to see what kind it was. Her lover's room. And yet she never looked at it. She thought only of him.
"Jack! I could not help coming. I felt I _should_ tell you."
"My darling girl! But what---"
With her head upon his breast, she told him all--her hatred, her suspicions, her fears.
Dillwyn, holding her close to his heart, laughed a little. Her fears--her sweet, _sweet_ fears!--that were all for _him_.
"You may laugh," said she; "and I am glad you do. Somehow it makes me feel less frightened. But, still, be on your guard. _Do_, Jack. I dread that man."
"Say you hate him. That will satisfy me more," said Dillwyn, "though I don't think even Mrs. Greatorex could make you be false to me now. My poor, poor little heart! Fancy your coming all this way to tell me to take care of myself!"
"To keep yourself alive for my sake." He drew her to him, and for a moment they clung to each other, heart to heart. Then again he laughed.
"Well, I'll do my best," said he.
Agatha glanced past him. She was now rewarding herself for her virtuous abstinence on her entrance. She was examining the room.
"What a lovely little room!" said she.
"No, no, you must not look at it," said he, taking her face between both his hands and hiding her eyes against his breast.
"But I must--I must indeed." She drew herself free from him and looked round. It was a small room, very barely furnished, but there were touches about it here and there--little remnants brought from his late home: a picture or two, a tiny statuette, a large bowl of flowers, a small bookcase, crowded from top to bottom with favourite writers--that redeemed it from the actual vulgarity of poverty. A poor man lived here, no doubt, but the poor man was a gentleman.
A little fire was burning on the hearth, and she went up to it and looked down at a large arm-chair close to it.
"This is where you sit?" said she. There was delight and love and humour in her eyes.
He went to her and caught her hands and pressed their palms to his lips.
"Sometimes," said he, "I have dreamt of you as sitting there-- in _that_ chair, close to _that_ fire. A presumptuous dream!"
He regarded her anxiously.
"A lovely one," said she.
"But the room must not be like this," said he. "No--a better one--larger--with a bow window, and a little garden outside, and--You know that house of the Beckets, at the other side of the village?"
"Too big!" said she. "What I like is this--just this." She glanced at the wall near her. "What a charming picture!"
"You like it? My father gave it to me a year ago. You think you could be happy here--even here? You would be content with me?"
"Content!" Her tone was answer enough. "Do not have a doubt," said she eagerly. "Do not spoil one single moment of ours."
At this moment a whistle loud and long came to them through the open window.
"I must go," said she. "Though I'm certain it can't be five minutes yet."
"Who's whistling?" asked he.
"Dicky Browne. He brought me here."
"Yes." She smiled at him. "He said he knew you would shoot him for it. But he has been so kind. I couldn't have come but for him. I do so like Dicky, don't you?"
"Yes. But _you_ mustn't like him too much."
"There is only one person in the world I like too much. But you must confess that Dicky was very good to me to-night."
"I know. But"--impatiently--"I wish there was no need for any one to be good to you except me. However, I am grateful to him. And so long as you love me--you do love me, Agatha?"
"You know it."
"Still, it is so good to hear. Forgive me. I'm a jealous fool. I wish we had never to part again. And soon," said he quickly, eagerly, "you will be my very own. I shall succeed. I shall conquer fortune. I know it. I feel strong." Indeed he looked strong as he stood before her with his hands on her shoulders, and his dark, brilliant eyes full of life and hope. "Before I met you I hardly cared for success. My work was sufficient for me. But now---" He swayed her softly, tenderly, to and fro and laughed aloud. "What fool said that love ruined genius? I tell you, you have given me genius--you that are the soul of me--I shall _win_."
He insisted on taking her out--solely against her will--to where Dicky was waiting for her. That worthy had retreated behind a laburnum-tree, and it was only when she called his name carefully that he consented to show the tip of his nose.
"No blunderbusses, I trust," said he, in a quavering tone. "I'm an orphan boy, guv'nor. Spare! oh, spare me!"
"Come, Dicky, come," cried Agatha, in a low voice. "Oh, I hope we shall be home before Aunt Hilda."
"I'm glad you thought of it!" said Mr. Browne wrathfully. "We've got just twenty minutes to do it in, and I'm not so young as I used to be. When next you take your walks abroad, I'd be thankful to you if you'd give yourself decent time to do them in. Twice I whistled. I am sure I need hardly say, Dillywn, that you did not try to detain her. On the contrary, I feel certain you did your utmost to hasten her departure. I hope you gave her a piece of your mind on the subject of unpunctuality. You ought, you know! You--as her lord and master."
"Dicky, are you coming?" said Agatha severely. She turned impetuously, and moved quickly into the shadow of the trees. Really, Dicky was _too_ provoking! Mr. Browne, after a silent but most effective farewell to Dillwyn, followed her.
Just as they once more reached the little inside gate of the villa, the sound of wheels in the small avenue outside told them of Mrs. Greatorex's return.
"Cut for your life!" cried Mr. Browne in a tragic whisper, and without waiting for another word from her, he took his own advice, and bolting through the few shrubs, found himself presently safe but breathless on the public road, and almost in the arms of Dillwyn.
"So you followed the dear departed, after all," said Dicky. "What a thing is love! To tread in the footsteps of _her_ is rapture. Or"--Mr. Browne paused and drew himself proudly up--"or else am I to understand, sir, that you distrusted me?"
Dillwyn drew his arm within his.
"You know all about it," said he. "Come back with me and have a pipe and a whisky-and-soda."
We all know what that meant! But Mr. Browne was of a high courage. He accepted the invitation.
It was the next day, and quite an ideal one for late September, though that is perhaps the least capricious month of all the year. Still Mrs Poynter hardly knew what to do with her guests. When one has been playing tennis steadily from the 1st of May to the 19th of September, even that best of games begins to pall a little. And people came so early in September--at half-past three some of them, because the daylight faded so soon. It was quite a relief to her when Dicky suggested the houses. But, unfortunately, the suggestion fell flat. Just a few went, but the majority remained.
Mrs. Greatorex, indeed, was too comfortable to stir, and Elfrida was too amused. She had Lord Ambert leaning over her on the left, and she had enticed the curate into an argument on her right. She felt perfectly happy. She was never happier than when she was annoying Ambert, who was to be her husband in a month or so.
As for Mr. Browne, though he had suggested the grapes, he made no movement in their direction. He, too, was quite in his element. He was teasing the children with all his might.
Mrs. Poynter, if she were ever jealous of other people's possessions, at all events had no occasion to be jealous with them about their children. Her own were perfect--little creatures of delight! Their manners, however, were not their strong point.
Vera, the youngest, sat on Mr. Browne's right knee, and Henry on his left. They held a book in their hands. It contained the poems of Dr. Watts. Their mother, who was one of the most thoughtless people in the world, was evidently determined that _they_ should think, with a vengeance.
Dicky could see, however, that the little maiden on his knee hated the book.
"Go on, read us something," said Henry.
"Don't," said Vera, "it's a pig of a book."
"Hold your tongue, Vera," said Henry, whose education was not altogether completed. He nudged Dicky. "Go on," said he, and Dicky began:--
"Let dogs delight to bark and bite, For God hath made them so---"
"I don't believe it," said Vera, who was on for battle; "God wouldn't."
"Yes, He would. He's made lots of things that fight. Lions and tigers and Pappy."
Captain Poynter was a soldier, and had served with some distinction in the Egyptian War.
"Well _I_ don't want to fight," said Vera, shaking her blonde head. She wriggled down off Dicky's lap, and ran to Agatha, who was close to her, and unfortunately very close to every one else, too. "I want to love peoples. Don't you, Aggie? Do _you_ love peoples, Aggie?"
"I do indeed--lots of peoples," said Agatha, drawing the child on to her knee. "I love you for one."
"Oh, me!" It was plain to the public that Miss Vera thought it would be a poor person indeed who did not bow the knee to her.
"But not all the other peoples?"
"Yes, I love all the other peoples, too."
"That's not true, for mammy says that you're beastly unkind to---"
"Vera!" cried a shocked mamma.
Mrs. Poynter rose and came forward, but Miss Vera was evidently not afraid of her mammy. She kicked out her pretty silk-clad legs, and went on quite calmly:
"She says you're very nasty to Dr. Darkham, but that you _do_ love Dr. Dillwyn."
The little, sweet, shrill voice carried very far--too far. Mrs. Greatorex looked up.
As for Mrs. Poynter, she was crimson. She was afraid to look at Agatha, who felt as if her heart was going to stop beating. She bent over Vera--who was playing with her bangles, all unconscious of the bombshell she had just discharged--to hide her face. Mrs. Poynter was speaking to the child: "Vera, how naughty! You are a very bold child."
"'Be bolde, be bolde, and everywhere be bolde,'" quoted Mr. Browne promptly. He picked up the small sinner from Agatha's lap and perched her on his shoulder. "I say let's go down and see what they are doing on the courts."
Agatha eagerly rose and went with him. When they had reached the courts the children ran away, and Agatha turned a very distressed face to him.
"Wasn't it unfortunate?" she said. "I am sure Aunt Hilda heard her. Why should the child have said just the wrong thing?"
"Give him a hint. Tell him to be sensible for once in his life, and keep out of her way."
"If I could do that."
"Well, why can't you? When is he coming?"
"He said he would be here at half-past four, and that he"--here she grew prettily shamefaced and very red--"would meet me in the little alley behind the rhododendrons over there. You know there is a gateway in there from the road."
"We've got ten minutes," said Mr. Browne, after a brief consultation with his watch. "Let us go and sit in the alley and circumvent Aunt Hilda."
It was quite easy to skirt around the players and enter the pretty secluded walk that led to nowhere but the high road--a mere cul-de-sac that made it unpopular with most young people. But Agatha liked the high road, for that good white winding ribbon would bring her her Jack.
"Now let us talk about it," said he comfortably.
"There's nothing to talk about," said Agatha mournfully. "Aunt Hilda is determined I shall marry Dr. Darkham, and I am determined that I shan't. That is all."
"Far from it. There is the other side of the question to be considered also," said Mr. Browne, assuming a magisterial air.
"Aunt Hilda is determined that you shan't marry Dr. Dillwyn, and you are determined that you will. What price the winner? I back you."
"Well, I shall not give in," said she with a smile. She looked very sad, however. "I wish I were not under such obligations to her."
"What nonsense! As if she were not under obligations to you! I expect it must have been a real treat to her when you got under her roof."
"Oh no. I have only been a burden."
"Modesty can go too far. I can tell you that the very fact of your having saved her from loneliness repays all your debt to her. Don't be down-hearted about your obligations in that direction."
"You've got too much conscience," said Mr. Browne. "You're over-ballasted; I'd throw a little overboard if I were you. And I'd keep clear of Darkham, anyway. He's got a nasty turn of jaw."
"He's nasty every way," said Agatha, sighing. "But, then, what am I to do? Aunt Hilda is so angry, and poor Jack is---"
"_Poor!_ It's a conundrum," said Mr. Browne thoughtfully. "But there must be ways of solving it."
Here he turned and caught sight of something--some one-- between the branches of the rhododendrons. Dicky knew him at once. It was the tall young doctor standing at the gate. Why did he not come on? Dicky in a moment guessed that conundrum, at all events. Dillwyn had come there to meet Agatha alone, and was waiting for him to go away. Mr. Browne felt, with a distinct acceleration of spirit, that Dillwyn did not know who Agatha's companion was at the moment. It is sometimes hard to distinguish people through swaying branches.
It was perhaps a little unfortunate that Nature had endowed Dicky at his birth with the spirit of mischief. It is so difficult to strangle Nature's gifts.
"We must wait, I suppose," said Agatha.
Mr. Browne cast a backward glance toward the little gate.
"_He_ must wait anyway," said he sadly.
"We must both wait."
"Oh, not both!"--with a sidelong glance towards the silent figure half seen through the branches. "It is you who are keeping _him_ waiting."
"You are wrong, indeed, Dicky," said the girl earnestly. "We shall wait together. I don't mind that."
"_He_ might, however; especially as you are _not_ together." A slight movement in the hawthorn bush that stood beside the gate emphasised this remark.
"That makes no difference," said Agatha sweetly. "We are content to wait apart."
"Yet Dillwyn doesn't strike me as being a modern Job," said Mr. Browne, who could see Dillwyn marching up and down before the gate in a distinctly impatient style. He had not yet recognised Dicky, and he knew Agatha had by agreement come there to meet him, and was probably doing all in her power to get rid of her troublesome companion. There was a "Will he never go away?" sort of air about him that unhappily amused Dicky.
"I told you you did not understand him--did not sympathise with him," said Agatha reproachfully.
"I do! I do!" Dicky's voice grew tearful. "Waiting for the beloved one is melancholy work; it demands all one's sympathies. I can at this moment,"--here Dicky grew almost tragic--"enter into all his feelings. I feel with him. It may seem painful to you, Agatha, but I assure you I can actually _see_ him as he waits."
"How kind, how good you are, Dicky!"
"But you," said Mr. Browne frantically, "are _you_ good or kind? Is it not cruel of you to keep him waiting as you do?" Again his eye peered through the bushes, and again he saw Dillwyn pacing to and fro.
"But what can I do?"--tearfully.
"Go to him!"--nobly.
"Oh, Dicky! How can I go?"
"My dear girl, the road is open before you."
"That shows," said she, sighing faintly, "how little you know about it. No, we must wait."
"Wait! It's been a good long wait already," said Mr. Browne, who really ought to have been ashamed of himself, "How much longer is it to go on?"
"I don't know," dejectedly.
"Already, I expect, he is beginning to think it a century."
"Poor dear Jack!" said she.
"He's getting jolly tired, you know."
At this Agatha flushed and looked at him. There was indignation in her glance.
"You _don't_ know," said she. "You know nothing at all about it. And he is _not_ getting tired. You shouldn't talk about things of which you know nothing--absolutely nothing."
"Of course you ought to know more about it than I do. I accept the back seat. I am not your other self--that's how he puts it, isn't it? But for all that"--with a stealing glance to the rear --"it seems to me that he is growing impatient."
"Oh, Dicky, I think you shouldn't say such things as that." Tears rose to her eyes.
"What else _can_ I say?"
"To hint that he is impatient---"
"So he is."
"That sounds as if he were discontented."
"So he is."
"He is _not_"--angrily.
"Well, my dear girl, when one sees a fellow lifting first one leg and then the other, and craning his neck over a gate until one fears for the vertebrae of it, one naturally does accuse him of impatience."
"He? Who?" Agatha started, and sprang to her feet and looked round.
"Why Dillwyn. I'm certain _he_ feels as if he had been waiting a century. I'll swear that _he_ is growing impatient. He,"--with a gentle wave of his arm towards the gateway--"has been dancing a _pas seul_ there for the last ten minutes!"
Agatha looked at him for a moment only. Then she turned aside.
"I think you might have told me!" said she, her voice quick with anger.
"I might--I might," said Mr. Browne, with truly noble acquiescence. "But you said, dear Agatha, that he was not to be here for ten minutes, and I thought it might be bad for you to see him too soon."
She was not listening to him, however. She had gone towards the gate.
Dicky with a resigned smile lit a cigarette, and started for "fresh fields and pastures new."
"At last you are alone," said Dillwyn, advancing to meet her. "I thought that fellow would never go. I could only see the top of his head, and I longed for a pea-shooter."
"It was Dicky Browne. And at all events he saw you. And fancy-- he wouldn't tell me you were there, just to tease me!"
"Or perhaps to keep you a little longer to himself," said Dillwyn, who was too thorough a lover not to be jealous of every one.
"What a fancy!" said Agatha, laughing. "You must have a brilliant wit to imagine Dicky in love." She stopped laughing and grew very grave. "Such an unfortunate thing has happened," said she; and she told him of little Vera's mistake.
"What does it matter," said he. "The sooner every one learns that we belong to each other the better. Where is Mrs. Greatorex? If I could see her, even a word would explain matters."
"Jack, I entreat you not to speak to her, here, before all these people." She grew very pale. "She is quite sure to say something dreadful to you. I _beg_ you to wait."
"But for how long?"--impatiently.
"Until to-morrow, at all events. And if you wait for even longer than that--- Well, well"--seeing his expression--"until to-morrow. Do you know, Jack, I came here just now only to ask you to go away, and so avoid seeing Aunt Hilda at all."
"That I won't do," said Dillwyn firmly. "You are mine, and I claim you. You yourself, of your own free-will have given yourself to me, and do you think I shall make little of that gift? No, no; come back with me to the grounds, and let all the world see how it is with us."
She slipped her hand through his arm, and turned to go back to the tennis-grounds. It was a most satisfactory answer. Half-way down the alley, however, a sound behind them made them turn. There stood the unhappy Edwy, waving his long arms and gesticulating frantically. He must have followed Dillwyn (for whom he had a great affection) through the little gate. He was evidently in a frightful state of excitement. His face was livid, his eyes staring. He was looking through an interstice in the rhododendron hedge, and his hands, extended, were grasping the air convulsively.
"Oh poor Edwy!" said Agatha. "Something is troubling him. Let us go back."
"He has been growing much worse of late," said Dillwyn, studying the unfortunate idiot attentively. "His mother's death seems to have preyed upon him a good deal. Poor boy! I suppose she was his sole comfort. He has grown more violent and unreasonable, and the form his increasing mania has taken is a hatred of his father. Every one is remarking that. He cannot see him without going into a frightful state of excitement."
"What is it, my poor fellow?" said Dillwyn gently, who always spoke to him as though he could hear.
He tried to release his hand from Agatha's arm. There was a difficulty about doing this, the idiot being strong; but Dillwyn had a strange influence over him. He made a slight gesture, and at once the boy turned to him, letting Agatha go.
"Sho! Sho!" he growled in his unnatural voice--a voice full of living anguish, however--pointing through the hole in the rhododendrons.
Dillwyn and Agatha followed his gaze, and saw Darkham far away over there, talking to Mrs. Greatorex, who had evidently come down to the courts.
The idiot pointed again to his father, and lifted his hands and shook them violently. There was horror and an awful hatred in his wild black eyes that were so like Darkham's.
"Sho! Sho!" shouted Edwy again, not knowing that he shouted; and then he turned to Agatha, staring at her, as if to compel her attention, and pointed again to his father, and suddenly drew a handkerchief from his pocket.
He folded it, clumsily, it is true, and then, with a weird movement, laid it across his mouth and nostrils, and pressed his hands upon it. With all his _might_ he pressed.
She grew deadly pale. Had he--had that man murdered his wife? Oh no! Oh _no!_ It was impossible.
The boy was still pressing his hands against his mouth, and pinching his nostrils to keep out his breath. He was growing livid. Dillwyn went to him and tore down his hands. The idiot gasped, and then laughed in that horribly foolish way so distressing in those whose minds are affected.
"Sho! Sho!" cried the poor creature again in heartrending accents. It was as though the mere sight of his father roused all his passions within him. He kept pointing frantically to where Darkham stood, and presently his cry rose into a fierce scream-- the scream of a wounded animal.
Dillwyn laid his hand upon his arm and drew him gently away from the opening in the hedge through which his father could be seen. Dillwyn's own face was very pale. For the first time a suspicion that Mrs. Darkham had been foully murdered entered into his brain.
He drew back Edwy with a certain force, and the boy fell to the ground in short but fierce convulsions.
Dillwyn loosened his collar, and soon it was all over. Edwy rose, looked strangely round him, and with a queer twitching of the features rushed past Dillwyn before he could prevent him, and disappeared into the wood.
"Poor fellow!" said Dillwyn sadly.
Agatha struggled with herself, and then burst into tears.
"My darling! What is it? _Agatha!_" The hideous thought that had come to himself he would not have revealed to her for all the world, and now a fear that she, too, had entertained it horrified him. He held her to him, her head pressed against his breast.
"Oh, I knew it! I knew it all through: I _felt_ it," sobbed she violently. Words of Darkham's that day in the wood came back to her. 'For the sake of the heaven I have lost!' _How_ had he lost it? "Jack, he killed her! He murdered her!"
"Agatha, my beloved! Why have such a thought as that? You must remember that that poor boy---"
"Oh, no, no! It is true. He"--trembling--"he smothered her! Didn't you see how Edwy pressed that handkerchief across his own nose and mouth, as if to _show_ something? And you tell me the poor boy has shown hatred to his father of late. It is plain. It is quite, _quite_ plain. Oh, poor boy! Jack"--in a nervous whisper; she was now shaking from head to foot--"he must have seen it! _Seen_ his father kill his mother!" She cowered as if in terror.
"Agatha, I entreat you to compose yourself. All this is mere supposition."
"It is not. It is all the awful terrible truth! And what frightens me is, that he will kill _you_ too, if he can. You laughed at me last night. You made light of my fears, but I tell you to beware of him." She burst into bitter weeping again. "I am _sure_ he will try to kill you, and you--you will do nothing to save yourself--not even for my sake. And yet you say you love me."
"Love seems a poor word," said Dillwyn. "My dear, _dear_ girl, have pity on me, if not upon yourself. Don't cry like that. I'll do anything you like--_anything_, if you will only try and be happy again. Why, look here now, Agatha; it isn't altogether so easy a matter to murder a person without being found out as you seem to imagine."
"You, too, then"--eagerly--"think that---"
"It is impossible to know what to think," said he, with some emotion. He paced to and fro upon the path, his head down-bent, pondering. Suddenly he lifted it. "Look here, this has got nothing to do with us in any way," he said. "Why spoil this hour because of it?"
"It has something to do with me, at all events," said the girl, who was now deadly pale.
"I have a weight on my heart, Jack! I _must_ tell you about it." She drew her breath sharply, but with a great courage went on. "I think now--I hardly understood it then--but I think that before his wife died he--wished to marry me."
"Well!" Dillwyn's face was hard and cold. But he caught her to him, and pressed her face down against him. It would be easier for her to speak like that, where her face could not be seen. His poor, poor darling! What she had gone through!
"Well"--miserably--"I think now that but for me--he-- might not have killed her! _Oh, Jack!_"
Jack lifted her face and kissed her.
"Think something else," said he. "That you are my own brave girl, and that morbid thoughts are unworthy of you. Even if what you say was the case, Agatha, still it leaves your soul as white as heaven. There now, beloved! Will you grieve me? Think one thing more, Agatha. Think of me and of my love for you--my undying love. If that will not help you, then"--with a tender smile--
"I shall be afraid you do not care for it."
She clung to him.
"I'm afraid, after all, you will have your own way, and that I shall not be able to speak to Mrs. Greatorex to-day," said he presently. "Your eyes are sad tell-tales. Come with me into the wood, and down to the river. There we can bathe them."
They were bathed. And as a fact it took Agatha and Jack Dillwyn quite an hour to get back to the others. The first two they met were Elfrida and Mr. Blount sitting _tête-à-tête_ on an innocent garden-chair.
It struck Agatha as a little peculiar that Elfrida, who usually hailed her appearance with rapture, now let her go by with the kindliest, the friendliest of nods. The thought struck her that Elfrida, knew that she loved Jack, and would for that reason not detain her, but afterwards it came to her that she merely wanted to be alone with Mr. Blount.
But Elfrida was superior to criticism. As Agatha went by she turned to her companion.
"I do love Agatha. Don't you?"
"I like her," said the curate.
"Oh, that!--one likes so many. Why don't you love her?"
"Because I can only love one," said he.
"It would be indiscreet, of course, to ask about the 'one,'" said she. "No one, not even a stupid person like me, could go so far as that."
Blount by this time had recovered himself. He showed her quite a brave front. He was the saddest man on earth at that moment, I believe, yet he told himself he would die rather than let her know it.
"Your life!" said he. "Surely it is more valuable than all that comes to. A question addressed to me by you could hardly endanger your existence."
Perhaps she was a little chagrined at this sudden strength--at his calm taking of her question. Certainly her face changed.
"How can I tell?" said she petulantly. "One never knows what one's life is worth." She turned aside and stood with a frowning brow, as if thinking. Suddenly she turned to him again. The frown had gone. The smile was back again. The coquette was once more herself.
"What is _your_ life worth?" asked she. Her face was radiant now; her eyes were fixed on his; her little slender figure seemed quite filled anew with hopeless frivolity.
"Nothing!" said Blount. He spoke the word quite evenly--with a smile, indeed; but in spite of his effort a terrible sadness underlay and dominated his intonation. What was life without love? And love was a thing the Fates refused him. Whom could he love, indeed, having once seen her?
To-day she seemed sweeter than ever to him--now when he knew that she was pledged to Ambert.
And in truth there was great character in the small face; great gaiety, too, some humour, an immense wilfulness, and, alas! too much ambition.
"Ah! you underrate yourself," said she. She shrugged her dainty shoulders. "Every one's life is worth something. And one should prove it. That is the principal thing--to prove one's life worth something."
"How are you going to prove yours worthy?" Blount asked this question slowly, deliberately. She flushed crimson.
"Oh! To be rude is not to be argumentative," said she, and turned abruptly away from him, and crossed to where Mrs. Poynter stood, surrounded by a bevy of friends.
Blount stood still. He did not attempt to follow her. Why should he?
Every one was saying good-bye now; Mrs. Greatorex had beamed her sweetest on Mrs. Poynter, and had accepted Dr. Darkham's arm to the fly. How Agatha hated that fly! It was full of nothing but lectures, and scandals, and frowns--if one left out the moths and the must.
The poor child felt now there was electricity in the air, as, avoiding Darkham's hand, she sprang into the dingy vehicle, and seated herself beside Mrs. Greatorex. She had been quite aware that Dr. Darkham had spent the last half-hour with Mrs. Greatorex, and she felt certain that a catalogue of all her crimes during last night had been played upon her aunt's mind, with variations.
She sat looking as usual as possible until the entrance gate was passed, and then, by a sudden movement of Mrs. Greatorex's figure, she knew that wrath was about to descend upon her.
"What am I to understand by this, Agatha?"
"By what, Aunt Hilda?" It was the old way of gaining time.
"You heard that child, I presume. Such an _exposé_. All children are odious, but that child of Mrs. Poynter's--However, I have nothing to do with her. It is with you, Agatha, I have to do. Am I to understand that you are determined to take your own way-- to try your will against mine?"
"Why should you talk to me like that?" cried the girl with great agitation. "Do I not know what you have done for me--how you have saved me from starvation? But, Aunt Hilda, what can I do? Would you have me marry a man I hate?"
"A man, however, whom you will marry," said Mrs. Greatorex with cold decision. "The marriage is arranged, Agatha. Dr. Darkham and I have been talking it over, and we have arranged that the marriage is to take place next April."
"The marriage will never take place," said Agatha.
"You are a mere child, and do not know what is good for you," said Mrs. Greatorex. "You have insane fancies that can never come to anything. I really believe you think yourself in love with that young man whom Reginald Greatorex has foisted on us, and who has not so much as done you the honour to ask you in marriage."
"You are wrong there," said Agatha, in a low tone, but such a triumphant one. "Dr. Dillwyn _has_ asked me to marry him."
"He has!" Mrs. Greatorex turned upon her, her light brown eyes flashing. "And you never told me. Is this your return to me for all my goodness?"
"How could I speak?" Agatha was white to her lips. "How could I? You would have been so angry--you would not listen--you---"
She would have tried to go on and explain, but Mrs. Greatorex broke into her disjointed, terrified speech in a sort of fury.
"So it is true, then? I didn't believe it of you. But Dr. Darkham told me of your disgraceful conduct last night. That you so far forgot yourself as to receive him, alone in the arbour, up to half-past eight without a soul near you?"
"He did not know your were to be away at first. It was I who told him. He wanted to see you very much."
"And I want to see him very much." Her voice struck cold to the girl's heart. "I am so desirous of seeing him that I have sent a note to him"--she frowned, her brow darkened--"commanding his presence at my house to-morrow at twelve o'clock, to inquire into his flirtation with my niece."
"I hope you have not done that," said the girl, turning very pale.
"Certainly, I have done it. And I wish you to be in, Agatha, at that time."
"I shall be in," said Agatha. "But to summon him like that--to insult him--in my presence." Her voice was unsteady, she was trembling. "It will do no good!" said she despairingly.
"I think it will. At all events I shall try it. This silly intrigue must be brought to an end at once, and after that you shall marry Dr. Darkham."
"I shall not do that, Aunt Hilda," said Agatha, in a low but determined voice.
Dillwyn had received Mrs. Greatorex's note with joy. Here was the meeting he had hoped to gain by a manoeuvre actually given him by the enemy. He reached the villa next morning so much before the appointed hour that he had to stroll up and down the road until his watch told him he might march to the attack. It struck twelve by Mrs. Greatorex's tiny hall clock as he walked into her house.
She was in the drawing-room awaiting him. She gave him her hand, certainly, but a very unpleasant glance with it. She looked cold, calm, determined. The young man regarding her could have laughed aloud, only that he felt so sad. What was the good of it all? He knew himself, and he knew the girl he loved, and--who could part them?
Over there in the window was the girl he loved, standing up bravely, with a little troubled smile upon her lips--but still a smile--and all for him. What a stout heart she had, his dear, pretty girl!
"I am glad you have come, Dr. Dillwyn," said Mrs. Greatorex.
"Agatha refused me her confidence, but I have heard from other sources of your--you must forgive me if I call them presumptuous--attentions to my niece. Of course, considering your position in life, I do not take them seriously; but such as they are, they rather prejudice her chances of making an excellent marriage."
"I am afraid you will have to take my attentions seriously," said Dillwyn, looking at her very quietly, but with purpose on his brow. "Indeed I am sure of it. I love Miss Nesbitt, and she---" He hesitated, and Agatha, seeing his uncertainty, stepped bravely into the breach.
"Loves you!" said she, in a low, frightened, but very clear tone.
Mrs. Greatorex looked at her.
"Were all my words in vain? Have you not yet learned the meaning of modesty? Stand back, Agatha, whilst I speak."
The girl retreated a little, more from habit than anything else, and Mrs. Greatorex once more addressed Dillwyn.
"I want just an answer to one question," said she. "If you were to marry my niece, could you support her--in even such small comfort as she has been accustomed to?"
"Not now, perhaps. But we have both time before us, and we can wait a little while"; he looked at her intently. "I shall conquer in the end. I know that."
"It is probable," said Mrs. Greatorex, in quite a liberal sort of spirit. "But in the meantime you condemn the girl you profess to love to certain privations!"
"I don't believe in marriages where love is left out," said he.
"But you do believe in love where a girl delicately nurtured is exposed to absolute poverty! So you think that to wilfully destroy a girl's chance in life means love?"
"A girl's chance! There is but one chance for any soul living, man or woman," said Dillwyn; "and that is to follow the straight road--the dictates of his or her own conscience. Why should Agatha diverge from it? Why should she sell all that is most dear to her--herself--her mind--all--for mere dross?"
"I am to believe, then," said Mrs. Greatorex, "that you have made up your mind to drag Agatha down with you into the abyss of poverty. Have you thought of the selfishness of that?"
"I hope it will not be poverty," said Dillwyn slowly.
Mrs. Greatorex's brow grew dark.
"Agatha, come here!" said she, in a tone of extreme anger. But Agatha did not stir. She was evidently very comfortable were she was, and her sweet proximity strengthened Dillwyn.
"She is is mine," said he; "I claim her. Mrs. Greatorex, why would you part us?"
"For her good--and especially now. You refuse to consider how you are injuring her. An advantage has fallen into her life, and you must wilfully deprive her of it."
"An advantage! Darkham do you mean? As for that," said Dillwyn,
"I am not depriving her of an advantage. I am saving her from"-- he paused--"misery. Agatha!" He laid his hands on her shoulders and held her back from him, and studied her a moment. It was a sweet study. "You believe me?"
"I believe you always!"
She clung closer to him, and looked with a strange sort of sad defiance over her shoulder at Mrs. Greatorex.
"The matter is not ended yet," said the latter. "I beg, Dr. Dillwyn, that you will leave me. And you, Agatha,--you---"
"Oh, do not be so angry with me," cried the girl, thrusting Dillwyn from her, and running to the woman who had befriended her so long, and catching her in her strong young arms, and holding her. She was mistaken--wrong. She would hurry her into a marriage that meant death to her--but she did not know. Agatha at that moment assured herself that Mrs. Greatorex _could_ not know. "Aunt Hilda, think--think---"
"Of how much nicer Jack is than Dr. Darkham," said she.
"I never spend my thoughts on absurdities," said Mrs. Greatorex.
She disengaged herself finally from Agatha and turned to Dillwyn.
"You, of course, understand that your visits here are at an end," said she; "and your acquaintance with my niece also." Dillwyn bowed.
"My visits shall be at an end, of course; but my acquaintance with Miss Nesbitt---"
"What, sir! After all I have said--after representing to you that you are damaging her fortune--you refuse to withdraw your---"
"Claim!" He suggested the word. "Yes; I refuse."
"You are aware that she will not have a penny from me on her marriage with you or _ever_?"
"How could the consideration of money attach itself to her?" said he, with a tender smile--his eyes were now on Agatha. "Surely she herself--How could one think of money?" said he.
He went forward and drew Agatha into his arms and kissed her. It was the simplest action. He then bowed to Mrs. Greatorex and left the room.
"What a heavenly spot!" said Mrs. Poynter.
She looked up through the overhanging trees to the blue expanse of the sky beyond.
Lord Ambert had chosen this place for his tea with most consummate care and a very artistic eye. Elfrida told him so on her arrival--which was late; she was, in fact, the very last to appear upon the scene.
She was very delightful to everybody during tea, however, and quite subjugated two young men from the barracks in the next town. If she was cold to Ambert, it was in such a careful manner that no one understood it but himself.
After tea the party broke up. Here and there by twos and threes they disappeared into the wood. When Ambert looked round for Elfrida, he found she, too, had gone away somewhere with one of the young soldiers. Certainly she had not waited for him--for _him,_ the man she had promised to marry!
With a heart soured and enraged he turned away, and, plunging through a brake, came out into a level bit of ground beyond. He stood there, thinking a moment. The knowledge that there was no one near him, that he was quite alone, forsaken, in a certain sense, and that she was enjoying herself elsewhere, heightened the sense of vicious anger within his heart.
There was a little rustling among the brambles on his left. Hah! He looked towards the sound, slunk behind a tree, and waited. Fellows after rabbits, of course. He waited quite three minutes, and then a little boy came out, looked eagerly around him, and then whistled softly.
He was quite a little lad, and delicate-looking; he was whistling to a companion, whom he supposed to be some yards away, to come and help him to gather the nuts from some wonderful tree he had seen just now. The companion, however, had probably seen Ambert, who was a terror in the neighbourhood, and had taken to his heels.
But to Ambert just now the boy's guilt seemed sure. And certainly of late the Ambert woods had been poached persistently for rabbits. Well, he could teach the decoy something.
He sprang forward and caught the child by the arm and dragged him into the open. The boy struggled a moment, and then grew very white. Ambert was well known among his tenantry. The smaller members were always sure of one thing from him--a kick, a curse, or a cuff.
He grasped the collar of the boy's coat, and lifted the cane he held. Down it came, and down and down again--a heavy shower of blows on the little fellow's thin shoulders. The boy cried and moaned and wriggled, and every cry and moan gave Ambert joy. It was delightful to him in his present mood to be able to torture somebody; for choice he would have made it Elfrida, but as that could not be, the boy was most convenient.
At length, as the blows grew and grew, the poor little shoulders grew redder and sorer. The boy's cries at last rose into a wild shriek. It was at this moment that Tom Blount, who often made this part of the wood a short-cut to the village when on his rounds amongst his parishioners, came into view.
He stopped for a second as if stricken dumb with amazement; then he ran forward. He knew the boy well--little George Robins! He was indeed very fond of the delicate child. He had a desperately warm heart--poor Blount!
"What are you doing?" cried he in an infuriated voice. It maddened him to hear the child's cries. He crashed through some underwood that lay before him, and, coming up to Ambert, dragged the boy away from him, and flung him behind him. Such a careful flinging--holding the boy until he was steady on his feet, then letting him go.
Ambert turned upon the curate furiously.
"What the devil are you doing here, sir, in my wood? What brought you here to-day? Sneaking, eh?"
"Run home, George," said the curate to the boy, who was standing trembling behind him.
"How dare you interfere!" said Ambert. "That boy shall not go. I have not done with him yet."
"You have done with him! I'll see that you don't touch him again. Why, you've nearly done for him for ever," said he, looking at the boy, who was shaking nervously, and down whose face the blood was streaming from a last cut of Ambert's cane. "To attack a child like that!" cried Blount, fuming--the blood was sickening him. "What do you mean by it, _you brute?_" Blount had now indeed completely lost his temper.
They were both so enraged that neither of them saw Elfrida as she came slowly from between the bushes. She was accompanied by Dicky Browne, Agatha, and John Dillwyn. This little party stood silent, astonished at what was going on. They were behind the two men, and, standing amongst the tall bracken, could hardly be seen, even had they been in front. Ambert and Blount were very plain to them, and the little trembling child too, with the blood running down his face.
It was here that Ambert, who was a big man, made a movement to push Blount aside, but the curate, though spare, knew a thing or two about boxing. He did something or other to Ambert, and then looked back at the boy.
"Run away, George. Go home; you're all right."
The frightened child, who had been rather stunned at first, now understood him, and, turning, rushed for his home as swift as a hound let loose from his leash.
"You think you have got the better of me," said Ambert, white with rage. His anger raised his voice, and every sound went clearly to where Elfrida was standing. "But I'll be even with you yet. I'll have you up, sir, for trespass. What are you doing on my wood?"
"You seem to know a great deal," said Tom Blount, who was trying to control himself. "But there is one thing you _don't_ know-- and that is how to behave yourself as a gentleman."
"Do you think you are qualified to lecture on that subject?" said Ambert, whose rage was now at white heat. "Do you think I don't see through you, you beggar? Do you think I haven't noticed how you laid siege to Miss Robinson, with a view to making yourself comfortable on her fortune?"
"If I weren't a clergyman," said Blount, who was now as white as death, and whose nostrils were dilated, "I'd thrash you within an inch of your life for that speech."
Ambert laughed insultingly.
"It is easy to shield oneself behind one's cloth," said he. Now, this was a little rash of him, but, then, he didn't know it.
"And, of course, I can allow for a little chagrin on your part. Miss Robinson---"
"Don't bring her into this," said Blount. He drew nearer, and if Ambert hadn't been a fool as well as a coward, he might have seen that the man was dangerous. "Look here---" He struggled for words to express his rage, but they didn't come.
"And why not?" said Ambert, who was a cur of the first water, and now thought to derive some fun out of the curate. "Of course, I know it is a sore subject. She played with you, didn't she?"-- he grinned into the other's face--"as a cat would play with a mouse. But, after all, she wasn't going to throw herself away on" --he paused with the plain design of making his insult worse-- "on a common fellow like you!"
He knew Blount was of good family, and he thus purposely affronted him.
"Confound you, sir!" roared the curate. "Say that again, and I'll knock every one of your damned teeth down your throat!"
Ambert laughed in his usual slow, sneering way. He did not believe that Blount would make his word good, he had been so patient up to this--all through his (Ambert's) courtship of Elfrida. "Are you desirous of hearing it again?" said he. He laughed. "After all, what is there to be offended at? You _are_ a common fellow, aren't you?"
Blount took one step forward, and caught him by the collar. Then he wrenched the cane out of his hand, and--well, he enjoyed himself thoroughly for fully five minutes. At the end of that time Ambert was lying on the ground cursing but cowed, and the curate was standing over him. It had been a great five minutes.
"There, get up!" said Blount.
And Ambert rose slowly, sullenly, to his feet.
"You'll hear more of this, sir," said he; but his attempt at dignity was sadly spoiled by the fact that he was covered with dust, and that he had evidently a very strongly-developed desire to keep out of range of Blount.
"Oh, go home!" said the curate contemptuously.
Ambert took his advice. He limped quietly through the trees beyond to where he knew of a side-walk that would take him to his house in ten minutes. He cursed and whimpered as he went. Who was going to explain his absence to his guests? He found a ray of comfort in the thought that Elfrida--that nobody but the curate knew: and he was a big man and the curate nobody; and, of course, as there were no witnesses, the big man's story would be believed.
Of course, if Elfrida had really wished to interfere, it would have been the simplest thing in the world for her to call aloud to Ambert; that would have checked the fracas before it came to any serious proportions; but, oddly enough, after her one protest to Mr. Browne, she had stood looking on, as if spellbound. She had heard everything--seen everything. She had not even shown anger when Dicky went into silent hysterics over Ambert's appearance as he rose from the ground covered with dust and his coat considerably the worse for wear.
As Ambert slunk away between the trees, Mr. Browne darted forward and up to Blount and wrapped him in a warm embrace.
"Blount, how I love you!" cried he sentimentally. "Oh, Tom, what a treat you've given me! You couldn't do it all over again, could you?"
"What the deuce am I to say to the bishop?" said he. He looked quite limp now. The light of battle had died from his eyes.
"Nothing--not a word!" said Dicky. "Do you think that beggar won't be glad to keep his skinning quiet?"
"After all, I shouldn't have thrashed him, Browne. It--it was unclerical--unchristian, you know."
"It was the most Christian act of your life," said Mr. Browne.
"It was an act of martyrdom. Because if you hadn't done it, somebody else would, and so you've saved the soul of another. See?"
"I don't," said Blount. "I ought to have argued with him--borne with him."
"And been trampled under foot by him. Not a bit of it. Come along with me. Elfrida is in here, and she---"
"Miss Firs-Robinson!" The curate grew crimson. "She--she didn't---"
"Yes, she did. And a good thing too. Come and speak to her."
"Are you _mad?_" said Blount. He gathered up his hat and a few other things that had come off during the skirmish--and fled for his life.
"Well," said Elfrida angrily, when Mr. Browne got back to her, "you think him very brave, of course, but why did he run away like that? You're a most annoying man, anyway." Elfrida made an irritated movement. "I wasn't thinking of Ambert. _He's_ all right."
"Well, I'm not so sure," said Mr. Browne thoughtfully.
"At all events, I don't care whether he is or not!" said Elfrida, with now undissembled wrath. "What I want to know is why Mr. Blount ran away just now. What was the matter with him? What did he expect?" Elfrida made a petulant gesture, and Agatha said gently,---
"It was the last thing Mr. Blount would have liked to be led into, but I do not think any one could blame him; I am very sorry about it."
"Well, I'm not," said Dillwyn. "If ever a man got his deserts in this life, it was Ambert. And how he took it, too!" He laughed contemptuously. "Not a blow in return."
Elfrida coloured hotly.
"I didn't see. I didn't look," said Agatha. "It was terrible. I hope he wasn't hurt. You saw Lord Ambert going away, Dicky. How did he look?"
Mr. Browne considered, and then gave words to memory. "Like a crushed strawberry," said he, with all the usual grace that belonged to him.
A little silence followed this, and then Elfrida gave way to unmistakable mirth.
Presently she felt a little ashamed, and tried to explain herself away.
"Ah, but you should have seen how Mr. Blount looked!" cried she. This was, however, the openest subterfuge. She certainly had not been thinking of Blount's appearance when she laughed.
She drew Agatha away and laid her hands upon her arms.
"It is all over. It is done. You were right, Agatha. I shall never marry him."
"You mean--Lord Ambert?"
"I mean that beast!" said Elfrida, who seldom studied the delicacies of the language--"that hateful coward!"
"You will break off with him? Elfrida, it will take courage."
"It will not take one moment." said Elfrida. "I shall be home in half an hour; it will take me five seconds to scribble a note, and twenty minutes after that I shall be free again. Free as air!"
"I hope you are in earnest--that you mean it," said Agatha gravely, "because he may make an unpleasantness about it."
"Ah, I'm so afraid he _won't,_" said Elfrida.
Dicky Browne, coming up at this moment with Dillwyn, heard her and understood.
"It was a great run," said Mr. Browne, "and full of pluck--on one side. I'm glad I was in at the death."
He sank upon the mossy bank next to Elfrida, whilst Dillwyn gladly accepted the opportunity to get beside Agatha. Agatha decidedly had the best of it. Mr. Browne was bent on teasing.
"I could see you looking on," said he to Elfrida. "You clapped, didn't you?"
"No," said Elfrida.
Her brows contracted. She felt so sorry for herself.
"Ah, you should," said Mr. Browne; "such a splendid performance. Pit and gallery rose to it."
"Where did you place me?" asked she coldly. "Gallery?"
But here Dillwyn interposed, cutting off Dicky's extremely low joke.
"I tell you what," said the latter, who really had no sense of decent feeling, and was not even now ashamed of himself, "I never felt so cheerful in my life as when Blount floored that fellow. When I saw him lying on the ground in a state of collapse, I fell upon my own neck with delight."
"When you fell on your own neck"--Elfrida suppressed her smile --"did you enjoy it?"
"'Twas poor--'twas very poor," confessed Mr. Browne. "But what was to be done? If you"--he looked at Elfrida--"had been there--I could have had your neck to fall upon."
"Certainly you could not," said Elfrida indignantly.
"What!" Mr. Browne's tone had taken a most reproachful cadence.
"You mean to say you wouldn't have succoured me under such trying circumstances?"
"Under no circumstances."
"Your cruelty lays it all plain," said he. "Surely it was most merciful, considering all things, that I had my own neck to fall back upon."
"I think your own neck must have been greatly surprised," said Elfrida caustically.
"Why?" demanded Mr. Brown, regarding her with severity. "Do you think it was the first time it was subjected to such sweet assaults?"
"What do you mean, Dicky? I am thankful to say that I know very little of you or your neck."
"Then, I'm sorry for you," said Mr. Browne sadly. "You've been done out of a real good thing. I must make it up to you later on."
"Agatha, we ought to find auntie and go home," said Elfrida.
She gave Dicky a short glance, but one full of contempt. It seemed to delight him. She drew Agatha away with her.
"You are still steadfast?" asked Agatha, who was afraid she wasn't.
"Quite--quite." She paused, and then laughed below her breath.
"How could I marry a crushed strawberry?" said she.
Agatha did not answer her, but she felt the frivolous Dicky had his uses.
As they came towards the party in general, they found it already on the move. Ill news flies apace, and some little tidings, some faint echoes in the air, had reached the others.
At all events, Mrs. Greatorex, horrified, was sending in all directions for Agatha. Dr. Darkham was her messenger. These sudden scandals were so disgraceful. Would he go and look for Agatha, he who---
There was a last moment, however, when Agatha found herself alone with Dillwyn. The short, scrubby bushes were thick in this blessed spot--Dillwyn and Agatha were virtually alone.
"That is all over, I fancy," said Dillwyn, alluding to Elfrida's engagement with Ambert.
"Yes, I think so. I am sure of it."
"The best thing that could happen to her. Love alone makes marriage sacred."
"And as for Ambert--he would not have made her happy."
"I don't believe he could make anybody happy. But don't let us waste our time over him. We have only a moment--When can I see you again?"
"To-morrow. By the river?"
"Yes. At four. Agatha, I hope you know how I feel about all this secrecy--how I detest it. It is always on my mind that our meetings will be discovered, and that on you the annoyance will fall. Every evening I picture you to myself sitting dolefully"-- he tried to smile--"whilst Mrs. Greatorex scolds you. I would to Heaven, my darling, I were a rich man--though I never cared for money till I saw you."
"You mustn't expect miracles," said she tenderly; "but somehow I feel sure it will all be right, and very soon, too. Aunt Hilda will give in--she cannot persist much longer--or else something will happen."
Elfrida stayed awake till twelve o'clock that night. Then she went to bed and slept soundly until her maid next morning called her.
She had said last night she would not marry Ambert. She had not yet, however, said whom she _would_ marry.
She dressed herself and went down to the garden. She always rose early, and was in the habit of taking a little first breakfast in her own room. And now she found that the tiny cup of chocolate and its accompanying roll was as much as she cared for to-day.
She strolled slowly here and there. But presently she left the garden and strolled idly into the meadow beyond it, and, leaning her arms upon the stile, told herself it was lovely to be alone for once, and at this delightful hour, with not a single weight on her mind, not a creature in sight, and her engagement broken off!
Engagements were odious! Never would she submit to one again. They meant waiting and waiting. If ever she were to dream of marriage again, there should be no engagement. Hateful word!
Suddenly a quick light grew within her eyes. Down there in the lower field, quite a quarter of a mile away, some one was walking quickly. A quarter of a mile is a long way for people to distinguish one person from another, but somehow Elfrida was equal to the occasion. She knew at once that the man down there trudging across that field was Tom. She always called him Mr. Blount to _people_, but to herself of late he had been Tom.
She thought a moment, and then this finished coquette drew a handkerchief from her pocket and held it aloft.
The breeze caught and swayed it most delicately to and fro, but it did not seem to be of much use. At all events, the curate held his even way, and was now nearly across the field without having glanced once in its direction.
Elfrida was a person hard to beat. She now flung down her handkerchief, and raised both her small white hands to her mouth.
The old Australian call came sweetly from her lips, and rang as such a sweet call should, straight to where it was meant to go.
The young man in the field below stood still, glanced to right and left, and then direct to the right.
Yes; she was there! It was she who had called him.
Blount knew nothing of what had happened after he ran away yesterday from her displeasure.
He was quite near before he dared to look at her, and then his spirits went up with a bound. _She had not heard, then!_
She received him sweetly.
"Fancy your cutting me like that," said she.
"Well, yes--down there in the lower meadow. I waved my handkerchief to you, but, of course, one needn't see a thing unless one likes."
"I should have liked," said he. "But I didn't see."
"No? And then I called to you. You"--with a glance from under her long lashes--"_had_ to come then."
"You know very well," said he, with some reproach, "that I was only too glad to come."
She laughed a little, but she had the grace to blush.
"What made you do that yesterday?" asked she at last, in a low tone.
"Who told you?" asked he. "But that is outside the matter. I did it because it was what I have been longing to do for months. Of course"--slowly--"I could say I did it because he insulted me, but there's no good telling a lie about it."
"For months! And why?"
"Well--if you will have it," said he desperately. "I half killed that fellow because you had promised to marry him, and-- God forgive me--I'm not a bit sorry for it."
There was a short silence, then Elfrida looked straight at him.
"Neither am I," said she.
This astounding announcement from the bride-elect of the man he had just thrashed startled Blount into more immediate action.
"Then, what on earth are you marrying him for?"
"Oh, that's all over," said Elfrida airily.
"My engagement to Lord Ambert. Didn't you know? I could not possibly marry a man who had been beaten--and beaten by _you_!"
"You are free now?"
"I don't know," said she softly. Her eyes were again on the ground.
Tom Blount looked at her. Was she in earnest?
"You don't believe it," she said. She could read him like a book.
"It seems to me"--petulantly--"that you don't _want_ to believe it. And yet you tell me you half killed that coward just because---"
"I loved you," said Blount.
"Ah!" She was not looking at the pebble now; she was looking at him. "You loved me _then_; I wonder--if you love me now."
"You do?" She laughed again, so prettily, and held out to him her hand. He took it and held it fast.
"Why don't you kiss it?" she said, coquette to the last.
"I will not kiss your hand unless I may kiss you," said he. "And I would not kiss you unless you said you would be my wife."
"Wouldn't you?" said Elfrida. All her old audacity had come back to her. She stood erect, and looked at him defiantly. Her eyes sparkled; she did not, however, remove her hand from his grasp. It would have been difficult. "Very well, then, let me tell you that _I_ wouldn't kiss you for anything you could offer-- unless you said you would be my husband."
I don't think either of them knew which was the first. It was a simultaneous rush into each other's arms.
She took him in to breakfast--she had recovered her appetite-- and told Miss Firs-Robinson all about it on the spot.
Miss Firs-Robinson, who had refused to believe in Elfrida's determination to break off her engagement with Ambert, was at first greatly upset. She marched to the window, turning her back upon Blount--it was beyond question the finest back in Europe --and there thrummed upon the panes for a minute or so. Then she came back.
"It is a blow--a blow," said she. "Your poor father meant you to be---"
"Happy!" said Elfrida, "And I shall be so happy with Tom, and Tom with me. Won't you, Tom?" Blount had his arm round her in a moment. "And I couldn't bear Ambert, auntie, could I now? And you couldn't bear him, either, could you now?"
She left Blount's dear arms, and went to Miss Firs-Robinson, and slipped herself into her embrace.
"He was an earl!" said the old lady, in a distinct tone.
"He was a beast," said her niece sweetly.
There seemed something definite about this. Miss Firs-Robinson let Elfrida recline upon her ample bosom, and Elfrida accepted the air-cushion very gracefully. Peace with honour seemed to be restored, when all at once Miss Firs-Robinson spoke again. Her words were unpleasant, but she for the first time on this eventful morning addressed them to Blount, which of course was a good sign.
"Elfrida has a great deal of money," said she.
"I know," said Blount. He was feeling restive.
"Why," said he, looking at Elfrida, "could you not endow a hospital or an orphanage, or---"
"Certainly not!" said Elfrida, abandoning the air-cushion on the spot. "Why should we be uncomfortable just because we happen to love each other?" She ran to him. "I love you, and you love me, and, auntie"--she looked back and held out her hand to the old lady--"you love him too, don't you?"
"How can I tell?" said she.
"Well, at all events, you _hated_ Ambert, didn't you now?" Miss Firs-Robinson struggled with herself and then gave way. She burst into tears.
"Like poison, my dear," said she--"_like poison_."
One surprise makes many. The neighbourhood of Rickton had hardly recovered from its astonishment about the fact that Elfrida had thrown over Lord Ambert and accepted the curate, when a still greater piece of news descended upon them.
Old Reginald Greatorex died on the very evening of the day that saw Elfrida's emancipation, and a letter two days later from his solicitors told Dillwyn that the old man had made him his heir. Dillwyn went down to the funeral, and heard the will read. It was all true. There were no near relations, and no entail. Reginald was at liberty to leave his property as he chose--and he chose now to leave Medlands and three thousand a year to the son of the woman who had been the one love of his life.
To Mrs. Greatorex he left ten thousand pounds, to her immense astonishment. She had expected nothing from him. It made her feel quite rich, and on the spot she forgave him all.
Dillwyn, on his return, had an early interview with her. He was determined to see her even before seeing Agatha, though he wrote the latter an impassioned note out of the fullness of his heart. Mrs. Greatorex received him with open arms and without a touch of embarrassment. She told him in the frankest way that she had always liked him--nay, _loved_ him; but, of course, he could see that Agatha must be considered. She had constituted herself her dear girl's guardian, and was it not her duty then to place her as well in life as possible? But that was all over now, of course, and her darling Agatha would be happy and comfortable as well. When he was going away she kissed him, and told him she was never so delighted in her life--she knew he was the only man in the world who could make her dearest girl happy.
He had to go off in a hurry to see old General Montgomery, who had had another slight attack last night, and who would allow no doctor but Dillwyn near him. He had chafed greatly at the young man's unavoidable absence during the past two days.
When he was gone, Mrs. Greatorex sent for Agatha. The girl quite expected that she would have said something about Jack, but there was no mention of him for some time; she dwelt largely on the difference the ten thousand pounds would make in her income, and then drifted off to Elfrida. She had behaved so wisely, she said.
"That is quite what I think," said Agatha. "She would have been wretched with Lord Ambert."
"No wonder!" said Agatha earnestly. "Such an odious man!"
"My dear, it wasn't the man, it was the position that frightened her. A girl like that--of _no_ family, whose people kept a _store_--to even _dream_ of being a countess was the most outrageous presumption. At the last, you see, she shrank from it; she felt she could not with any propriety wear a coronet. Her brows were not formed for it by nature. It"--solemnly--"would drop off. Now you, Agatha, you will indeed be a fitting mistress for--Medlands!"
Agatha sat and stared. Mrs. Greatorex beamed back at her.
"I think," she said lightly, "you had better write a little line to Dr. Darkham to terminate that unfortunate engagement."
"There was no engagement," said the girl proudly, "except my engagement to Jack. I have had nothing to do with Dr. Darkham-- nothing!"
"Well--very little, certainly," said Mrs. Greatorex. She smiled. "He has hardly anything to complain of, really. Hardly _anything_. I shall send him a little diplomatic, friendly line at once."
Under the trees it was charming, though many of them were now losing their leaves. Agatha and Dillwyn sat beneath a huge beech, and made sweet plans for their future. It was lovely to be alone, and to be able to say everything that came straight from their hearts without the necessity of whispering. Of course they could not tell that just behind them, kneeling in the shelter of a thick growth of young trees, was a man--a man whose face was the face of a devil at that moment.
They arranged that they should live at Medlands, and they named the day for their wedding. There was nothing to grieve them in old Reginald's death.
"I feel as if I ought to be sorry for him," said he, with a little self-reproach. "But somehow I can feel nothing but that I can claim you now before the world."
"I was yours, whether the world knew it or not," said she.
"I know--I know.... Mrs. Greatorex has written to Darkham?"
"Yes; immediately after you left. He knows by this time that even a question of an engagement is at an end."
The man behind smiled. There was a look on his face as though he were jotting down something in his memory.
Dillwyn looked at his watch, and suddenly sprang to his feet.
"By Jove!" said he, "it's just two."
"Well, but that is very early," in an aggrieved tone.
"Too early"--with disgust. "But that poor old fellow is very unstrung, and begged me to go back at two."
"Yes. I'll pull him through, I think; but he is very shaky and nervous. I am going to sleep there to-night."
"Are you? Oh, I'm glad," said Agatha quickly.
"I don't know"--she hesitated. "Don't despise me for it, Jack; but I do dread that horrible man, Dr. Darkham. Sometimes I think he is mad. However, at General Montgomery's you will be safe."
Dillwyn laughed gaily, and caught her to him and kissed her.
Darkham kneeling there in his purgatory, had seen and heard everything.... On such and such a day they were to be married. All their young lives were to be a dream of joy!
When they were gone he fell prone upon the earth--with his face to it, and so lay long without moving.
Then he raised himself and got slowly to his feet. He looked round him for a moment vaguely, as though earth and sky and place were strange to him. Then he turned and ran, crashing wildly through brambles and bracken and furze, as though there was a fiend out of hell pursuing him.... Perhaps there was.
It was the evening of the same day.
A clock somewhere struck five, and Darkham suddenly heard it. It seemed to wake him from his frightful dream--a dream in which he had been walking--walking always--he did not know where.
Now as he looked up he knew. He stood at the gate of General Montgomery's avenue.
He opened the gate and went in. The place was familiar to him. How often he had been here attending on the old man until this Dillwyn came! He went slowly onwards into the deeper twilight of the trees. How cool it was--how green, how quiet! He took off his hat and let his forehead bathe itself in the dewy stillness.
When he came close to the house he stopped short. Masons were hurrying in and out of one of the side doors, and a ladder lay against a wall that led to an upper window. He had heard that some improvements were being made in the house which was a hideous structure, but he had imagined they would have been put back by the General's illness. That ladder--why, up there was the room in which the old man used to sleep.
Presently a mason came out of the house and towards the spot where he was standing. Darkham, who was quite himself again, felt a little ashamed of being discovered here without any purpose. Going quickly forward, he met the man half-way.
"Surely you are not working here, when the General is so ill?" he said, in a tone of polite surprise.
"No, sir. We've just got our orders to do no more for some days. We're collecting out tools, that's all, and are off to another job."
"The General's main bad, I'm told. The doctor's just come and gone. He--you know him: Dr. Dillwyn--is sleeping here to-night, it seems, if you can call it sleeping when he only gets two hours."
"How two hours?"
"Well, I don't know, sir. But that's how it is. I head the servants talking. And mighty poor rest it seems to me for a man that's toiling all day. I suppose he'll be up with the old gent the rest of the night. He wouldn't have another thing done to that window, either"--pointing to the window against which the ladder lay--"although he is sleeping in that room, and the lower sash is out, as you can see. Seems he always sleeps with the window open."
Darkham nodded to him as a dismissal, and he moved away. Just as he was turning the corner, however, Darkham called to him.
"You are leaving your ladder?"
"Yes, sir. Hope to be back shortly, and the ladder'll do no harm."
"No, of course not, unless the doctor objects--he's sleeping in that room, you say."
"Why, bless you! the ladder can't harm him."
"True. Especially when he has only got two hours to endure it." Darkham laughed pleasantly. "I hope they will be early ones, at all events."
"Twelve to two, Maria says. Not so early, either."
Darkham nodded again, and, when the mason was out of sight, turned and went home. As he walked he thought. And ever his thoughts grew clearer, more concentrated.
He put his hand inside his coat, and brought out a letter. It was the "little, diplomatic, friendly line" that Mrs. Greatorex had sent him. He read it through again, although he knew it by heart, and when he had finished it his face was not good to look upon.
For the past few weeks he had lived largely on Mrs. Greatorex's promises to help him. He had believed in her promises about the coercion of Agatha. To-day he knew what her promises were worth. The moment fortune flung itself at his rival's feet, she had gone over to that rival's side! Suddenly the despised Dillwyn had become eligible and there was an end to all her professions of friendship.
He was at this moment a far richer man than Dillwyn, but Mrs. Greatorex had put all that aside as if it were not to be considered. She preferred that her niece should marry a gentleman with three thousand a year, rather than a _nobody_ with five. She had not so much as _hinted_ at it, yet she had managed to convey her meaning all the same. The little delicately-written, perfumed missive was full of it!
The oath he had sworn was dear to him. He had told Agatha that rather than see her married to Dillwyn he would destroy him. Well!
He began to walk again, and more rapidly. He could not take his mind off that ladder; with his eyes open, he seemed to see it. It went along the road before him, now here, now there, with the sashless window at the top of it.
He turned in the direction of the Red House. He hated going home. But it would be necessary to put in an appearance there. He feared lest, with what lay before him, his absence at dinner to-day might be noticed by the servants.
Afterwards, when the household was quiet, he could slip out through the library window. He told himself he must be careful to upset the bedclothes on his return--perhaps, however, it would be better to do so before starting.
He laid his plans very carefully. It would take, first so long to get from here to The Cedars, to mount the ladder, to enter the open window, to--It would not take long to do _that_--and then so much time to get back again, to see to his clothes--the spots, the stains.
It seemed quite feasible, quite safe.
It was all so comfortably arranged for him. He felt he owed Dillwyn a debt of gratitude for the ladder and the open window. What a truly Christian trust in Providence he showed, sleeping thus at the mercy of all men! He shook anew with his horrible merriment. What a gay bridegroom he would look to-morrow. The early morning light would touch up his face.
Darkness had fallen. The wind was sighing heavily, and no star appeared.
Through the dense shadow of the trees Darkham was hurrying swiftly, stealthily. Sometimes he ran, but always he made great haste.
A loose sweeping branch met him, and cut him across the face a swingeing blow. He felt no pain. When he had broken it he cast it aside impatiently and went on with even increasing speed.
Suddenly he stood still and listened. _Again_!
It was the second time he had heard that sound, or fancied he had heard it. A dull unplaceable sound, yet one that suggested itself to him as the footsteps of a person following.
Once before he had stopped to listen, but nothing came of it, except the heavy soughing of the wind in the trees as the storm swept over them. No sound but that. Yet all through his hurried walk in the wood, it had seemed to him that that sound lay behind him, as though some strange thing was haunting him.
He went on again, moving cautiously, yet with great speed. Every now and then he thrust his hand into his inner pocket, and there felt for something, and patted it with a curious affection.
As he passed the edge of the wood, almost as his foot was on the road, he started. He looked back. The murky shadows of the wood told him nothing; but--_that sound!_ Again that sound! He could have sworn he heard footsteps!
A sudden fear caught him; he turned, and rushed back into the wood, crashing to right and left of him. If he was followed, why, his purpose would be at an end; but he swore to himself, as he rushed here and there, that if he caught the man who had circumvented him, he would kill him on the spot.
Then his fury abated. He grew suddenly quite quiet. There was nothing, after all--nothing.
He wiped his brow and went on.
He tried the latch of the gate, but it was locked. He cared nothing for small obstructions like that. He climbed it easily enough, and went on down the avenue.
As he drew near the house, for the first time fear rose within his heart. But it was a fear that would have made the angels weep.
Was the ladder there? Or had one of the workmen taken it away?
He ran frantically to the break in the laurels from which the house could be seen.
The ladder was there!
He thrust his hand for the last time into his pocket, and felt the knife, and fondled it. Then he went on.
He reached the ladder, put his foot on it, and mounted. He began to climb quickly, yet with a dogged determination to make no mistake. There should be no false step.
When he was half-way up he looked down. Beneath was an area that surrounded the whole house--an area lately cemented. It was broad and white and clean. In the darkness it made a sort of light.
He turned his eyes from that and looked up. The window above was open--wide open; the sash had not been replaced.
He mounted still higher. The sill was almost within his reach; he put out his hand to grasp it, but it fell short. Another rung or two, and then---
Suddenly he made a lurch forward and clung to the ladder. The ladder was swaying to and fro. He made a quick rush upwards and put out his hand to grasp the ledge of Dillwyn's window--but he was still too low for that.
The ladder was swaying heavily from side to side; it was now almost on the very edge of the sill. Soon it would be over. Something from below must be dragging it--dragging---
He made a frantic dash at the sill--_and missed it!_
Again the ladder swayed, this time _towards_ the desired sill. Darkham braced himself for a last effort. He made a dash and sprang on to the sill of Dillwyn's room.
That precipitated the end. The ladder, reaching the edge, toppled over and went with a crash to the cemented area below.
Darkham, clutching on to the sill, saw the fall of the ladder. That meant death unless help came soon; and who was to give him help? _The man he had come to murder?_
He clung on desperately, his nails working into the hard stone. If he shouted, Dillwyn would hear him, would rescue him; but even at this last moment his hatred of Dillwyn held him dumb.
His fingers were growing tired--his nails were wearing away and loosening.... In a moment they would come to the edge, and then---
Mad despair was in his heart. He clung desperately to the sill! A minute--could he hold on another minute? There was only a minute left. Was it so far to fall. Death rather than an appeal to his rival. So far the strength of the man held out.
But now his nails were loosening; his eyes, mad with fear, sought the ground below.
He looked--_and looked_--and all at once a fearful yell broke from him.
What was that thing down there--crouching--with that white cloth over her mouth? Had she come--_was she waiting for him?_
Great God! have mercy!
His fingers gave way. He fell with a sickening scream on to the hard cement below.
There was a hideous thud.
That awful yell had wakened Dillwyn from his sleep--a sleep that would have been death but for it. He sprang up and rushed to the open window, but too late! He caught a vague, awful vision of one falling--falling through the air into eternity--but that was all.
It was enough, however; he lit a lamp, and rushed downstairs to the front of the house. There he lowered the lamp and looked about him. Nothing--nothing to be seen. He stepped down from the avenue on to the newly-cemented area that ran round the house, and looked about him with an anxious gaze. Suddenly he found he was stepping on a little crimson line that ran towards him sluggishly.
With a sharp ejaculation he stepped aside. A cold chill ran through him. All at once he knew that it was blood.
Then he went on, following up the red line until he came to---
Darkham was lying on the pavement, smashed almost out of recognition, yet still alive. Dillwyn knew that by the convulsive twitching of the fingers.
A figure was bending over him. Dillwyn at once saw it was the idiot, and even as he watched, the unhappy creature bent lower and laid a white cloth over the dying man's nose and mouth, pressing it down with a demoniacal force.
Dillwyn hurried forward, calling aloud as he came, but the idiot crouching over Darkham could not hear. At last he reached them and flung himself upon the wretched boy, and tore him from his prey.
The idiot grappled with him in a sort of frenzy, but Dillwyn held on. The lamp threw a dull light upon the dying man's face--but above them and around was gloom.
All at once the idiot desisted from his struggle; he pointed frantically to Darkham.
Dillwyn followed his gaze. Darkham had risen on his elbow--it was the last effort before death. Dillwyn went to him and laid his arm round him, but Darkham pushed him back. Yet it seemed to the younger man that, though Darkham's hatred of him followed him to the grave, his last thoughts were not of him.
The dying man lifted his hand and pointed it slowly, solemnly at his son--the son who sat opposite to him, laughing in his dying face. There was some awful meaning in Darkham's glazing eyes, as though he saw something beyond the idiot--something so horrible that it _kept_ him alive in spite of nature. He struggled forward as though to address _some one_--some one Dillwyn could not see --but the struggle was too much for him, and he fell back.... Dillwyn caught him in his arms--he was dead.
A great shout rose from the idiot.
"Sho! Sho! Sho!" yelled he.
His mother was avenged.