IN the month of August 1889, and in the middle of the seaside holiday, a message came to me from Wilkie Collins, then, though we hoped otherwise, on his death-bed.
It was conveyed to me by Mr. A. P. Watt. He told me that his son had just come from Wilkie Collins: that they had been speaking of his novel, "Blind Love," then running in the Illustrated London News: that the novel was, unfortunately, unfinished: that he himself could not possibly finish it: and that he would be very glad, if I would finish it if I could find the time. And that if I could undertake this work he would send me his notes of the remainder. Wilkie Collins added these words: "If he has the time I think he will do it: we are both old hands at this work, and understand it, and he knows that I would do the same for him if he were in my place."
Under the circumstances of the case, it was impossible to decline this request. I wrote to say that time should be made, and the notes were forwarded to me at Robin Hood's Bay. I began by reading carefully and twice over, so as to get a grip of the story and the novelist's intention, the part that had already appeared, and the proofs so far as the author had gone. I then turned to the notes. I found that these were not merely notes such as I expected--simple indications of the plot and the development of events, but an actual detailed scenario, in which every incident, however trivial, was carefully laid down: there were also fragments of dialogue inserted at those places where dialogue was wanted to emphasise the situation and make it real. I was much struck with the writer's perception of the vast importance of dialogue in making the reader seize the scene. Description requires attention: dialogue rivets attention.
It is not an easy task, nor is it pleasant, to carry on another man's work: but the possession of this scenario lightened the work enormously. I have been careful to adhere faithfully and exactly to the plot, scene by scene, down to the smallest detail as it was laid down by the author in this book. I have altered nothing. I have preserved and incorporated every fragment of dialogue. I have used the very language wherever that was written so carefully as to show that it was meant to be used. I think that there is only one trivial detail where I had to choose because it was not clear from the notes what the author had intended. The plot of the novel, every scene, every situation, from beginning to end, is the work of Wilkie Collins. The actual writing is entirely his up to a certain point: from that point to the end it is partly his, but mainly mine. Where his writing ends and mine begins, I need not point out. The practised critic will, no doubt, at once lay his finger on the spot.
I have therefore carried out the author's wishes to the best of my ability. I would that he were living still, if only to regret that he had not been allowed to finish his last work with his own hand!
SOON after sunrise, on a cloudy morning in the year 1881, a special messenger disturbed the repose of Dennis Howmore, at his place of residence in the pleasant Irish town of Ardoon.
Well acquainted apparently with the way upstairs, the man thumped on a bed-room door, and shouted his message through it: "The master wants you, and mind you don't keep him waiting."
The person sending this peremptory message was Sir Giles Mountjoy of Ardoon, knight and banker. The person receiving the message was Sir Giles's head clerk. As a matter of course, Dennis Howmore dressed himself at full speed, and hastened to his employer's private house on the outskirts of the town.
He found Sir Giles in an irritable and anxious state of mind. A letter lay open on the banker's bed, his night-cap was crumpled crookedly on his head, he was in too great a hurry to remember the claims of politeness, when the clerk said "Good morning."
"Dennis, I have got something for you to do. It must be kept a secret, and it allows of no delay."
"Is it anything connected with business, sir?"
The banker lost his temper. "How can you be such an infernal fool as to suppose that anything connected with business could happen at this time in the morning? Do you know the first milestone on the road to Garvan?"
"Very well. Go to the milestone, and take care that nobody sees you when you get there. Look at the back of the stone. If you discover an Object which appears to have been left in that situation on the ground, bring it to me; and don't forget that the most impatient man in all Ireland is waiting for you."
Not a word of explanation followed these extraordinary instructions.
The head clerk set forth on his errand, with his mind dwelling on the national tendencies to conspiracy and assassination. His employer was not a popular person. Sir Giles had paid rent when he owed it; and, worse still, was disposed to remember in a friendly spirit what England had done for Ireland, in the course of the last fifty years. If anything appeared to justify distrust of the mysterious Object of which he was in search, Dennis resolved to be vigilantly on the look-out for a gun-barrel, whenever he passed a hedge on his return journey to the town.
Arrived at the milestone, he discovered on the ground behind it one Object only--a fragment of a broken tea-cup.
Naturally enough, Dennis hesitated. It seemed to be impossible that the earnest and careful instructions which he had received could relate to such a trifle as this. At the same time, he was acting under orders which were as positive as tone, manner, and language could make them. Passive obedience appeared to be the one safe course to take--at the risk of a reception, irritating to any man's self-respect, when he returned to his employer with a broken teacup in his hand.
The event entirely failed to justify his misgivings. There could be no doubt that Sir Giles attached serious importance to the contemptible discovery made at the milestone. After having examined and re-examined the fragment, he announced his intention of sending the clerk on a second errand--still without troubling himself to explain what his incomprehensible instructions meant.
"If I am not mistaken," he began, "the Reading Rooms, in our town, open as early as nine. Very well. Go to the Rooms this morning, on the stroke of the clock." He stopped, and consulted the letter which lay open on his bed. "Ask the librarian," he continued, "for the third volume of Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.' Open the book at pages seventy-eight and seventy-nine. If you find a piece of paper between those two leaves, take possession of it when nobody is looking at you, and bring it to me. That's all, Dennis. And bear in mind that I shall not recover the use of my patience till I see you again."
On ordinary occasions, the head clerk was not a man accustomed to insist on what was due to his dignity. At the same time he was a sensible human being, conscious of the consideration to which his responsible place in the office entitled him. Sir Giles's irritating reserve, not even excused by a word of apology, reached the limits of his endurance. He respectfully protested.
"I regret to find, sir," he said, "that I have lost my place in my employer's estimation. The man to whom you confide the superintendence of your clerks and the transaction of your business has, I venture to think, some claim (under the present circumstances) to be trusted."
The banker was now offended on his side.
"I readily admit your claim," he answered, "when you are sitting at your desk in my office. But, even in these days of strikes, co-operations, and bank holidays, an employer has one privilege left--he has not ceased to be a Man, and he has not forfeited a man's right to keep his own secrets. I fail to see anything in my conduct which has given you just reason to complain."
Dennis, rebuked, made his bow in silence, and withdrew.
Did these acts of humility mean that he submitted? They meant exactly the contrary. He had made up his mind that Sir Giles Mountjoy's motives should, sooner or later, cease to be mysteries to Sir Giles Mountjoy's clerk.
CAREFULLY following his instructions, he consulted the third volume of Gibbon's great History, and found, between the seventy-eighth and seventy-ninth pages, something remarkable this time.
It was a sheet of delicately-made paper, pierced with a number of little holes, infinitely varied in size, and cut with the smoothest precision. Having secured this curious object, while the librarian's back was turned, Dennis Howmore reflected.
A page of paper, unintelligibly perforated for some purpose unknown, was in itself a suspicious thing. And what did suspicion suggest to the inquiring mind in South-Western Ireland, before the suppression of the Land League? Unquestionably---Police!
On the way back to his employer, the banker's clerk paid a visit to an old friend--a journalist by profession, and a man of varied learning and experience as well. Invited to inspect the remarkable morsel of paper, and to discover the object with which the perforations had been made, the authority consulted proved to be worthy of the trust reposed in him. Dennis left the newspaper office an enlightened man--with information at the disposal of Sir Giles, and with a sense of relief which expressed itself irreverently in these words: "Now I have got him!"
The bewildered banker looked backwards and forwards from the paper to the clerk, and from the clerk to the paper. "I don't understand it," he said. "Do you?"
Still preserving the appearance of humility, Dennis asked leave to venture on a guess. The perforated paper looked, as he thought, like a Puzzle. "If we wait for a day or two," he suggested, "the Key to it may possibly reach us."
On the next day, nothing happened. On the day after, a second letter made another audacious demand on the fast failing patience of Sir Giles Mountjoy.
Even the envelope proved to be a Puzzle on this occasion; the postmark was "Ardoon." In other words, the writer had used the postman as a messenger, while he or his accomplice was actually in the town, posting the letter within half-a-minute's walk of the bank! The contents presented an impenetrable mystery, the writing looked worthy of a madman. Sentences appeared in the wildest state of confusion, and words were so mutilated as to be unintelligible. This time the force of circumstances was more than Sir Giles could resist. He took the clerk into his confidence at last.
"Let us begin at the beginning," he said. "There is the letter you saw on my bed, when I first sent for you. I found it waiting on my table when I woke; and I don't know who put it there. Read it."
Dennis read as follows:
"Sir Giles Mountjoy,--I have a disclosure to make, in which one of the members of your family is seriously interested. Before I can venture to explain myself, I must be assured that I can trust to your good faith. As a test of this, I require you to fulfil the two conditions that follow--and to do it without the slightest loss of time. I dare not trust you yet with my address, or my signature. Any act of carelessness, on my part, might end fatally for the true friend who writes these lines. If you neglect this warning, you will regret it to the end of your life."
To the conditions on which the letter insisted there is no need to allude. They had been complied with when the discoveries were made at the back of the milestone, and between the pages of Gibson's history. Sir Giles had already arrived at the conclusion that a conspiracy was in progress to assassinate him, and perhaps to rob the bank. The wiser head clerk pointed to the perforated paper and the incomprehensible writing received that morning. "If we can find out what these mean," he said, "you may be better able, sir, to form a correct opinion."
"And who is to do that?" the banker asked.
"I can but try, sir," was the modest reply, "if you see no objection to my making the attempt."
Sir Giles approved of the proposed experiment, silently and satirically, by a bend of his head.
Too discreet a man to make a suspiciously ready use of the information which he had privately obtained, Dennis took care that his first attempt should not be successful. After modestly asking permission to try again, he ventured on the second occasion to arrive at a happy discovery. Lifting the perforated paper, he placed it delicately over the page which contained the unintelligible writing. Words and sentences now appeared (through the holes in the paper) in their right spelling and arrangement, and addressed Sir Giles in these terms:
"I beg to thank you, sir, for complying with my conditions. You have satisfied me of your good faith. At the same time, it is possible that you may hesitate to trust a man who is not yet able to admit you to his confidence. The perilous position in which I stand obliges me to ask for two or three days more of delay, before I can safely make an appointment with you. Pray be patient--and on no account apply for advice or protection to the police."
"Those last words," Sir Giles declared, "are conclusive! The sooner I am under the care of the law the better. Take my card to the police-office."
"May I say a word first, sir?"
"Do you mean that you don't agree with me?"
"I mean that."
"You were always an obstinate man Dennis; and it grows on you as you get older. Never mind! Let's have it out. Who do you say is the person pointed at in these rascally letters?"
The head clerk took up the first letter of the two and pointed to the opening sentence: "Sir Giles Mountjoy, I have a disclosure to make in which one of the members of your family is seriously interested." Dennis emphatically repeated the words: "one of the members of your family." His employer regarded him with a broad stare of astonishment.
"One of the members of my family?" Sir Giles repeated, on his side. "Why, man alive, what are you thinking of? I'm an old bachelor, and I haven't got a family."
"There is your brother, sir."
"My brother is in France--out of the way of the wretches who are threatening me. I wish I was with him!"
"There are your brother's two sons, Sir Giles."
"Well? And what is there to be afraid of? My nephew, Hugh, is in London--and, mind! not on a political errand. I hope, before long, to hear that he is going to be married--if the strangest and nicest girl in England will have him. What's wrong now?"
Dennis explained. "I only wished to say, sir, that I was thinking of your other nephew."
Sir Giles laughed. "Arthur in danger!" he exclaimed. "As harmless a young man as ever lived. The worst one can say of him is that he is throwing away his money--farming in Kerry."
"Excuse me, Sir Giles; there's not much chance of his throwing away his money, where he is now. Nobody will venture to take his money. I met with one of Mr. Arthur's neighbours at the market yesterday. Your nephew is boycotted."
"So much the better," the obstinate banker declared. "He will be cured of his craze for farming; and he will come back to the place I am keeping for him in the office."
"God grant it!" the clerk said fervently.
For the moment, Sir Giles was staggered. "Have you heard something that you haven't told me yet?" he asked.
"No, sir. I am only bearing in mind something which--with all respect--I think you have forgotten. The last tenant on that bit of land in Kerry refused to pay his rent. Mr. Arthur has taken what they call an evicted farm. It's my firm belief," said the head clerk, rising and speaking earnestly, "that the person who has addressed those letters to you knows Mr. Arthur, and knows he is in danger--and is trying to save your nephew (by means of your influence), at the risk of his own life."
Sir Giles shook his head. "I call that a far-fetched interpretation, Dennis. If what you say is true, why didn't the writer of those anonymous letters address himself to Arthur, instead of to me?"
"I gave it as my opinion just now, sir, that the writer of the letter knew Mr. Arthur."
"So you did. And what of that?"
Dennis stood to his guns.
"Anybody who is acquainted with Mr. Arthur," he persisted, "knows that (with all sorts of good qualities) the young gentleman is headstrong and rash. If a friend told him he was in danger on the farm, that would be enough of itself to make him stop where he is, and brave it out. Whereas you, sir, are known to be cautious and careful, and farseeing and discreet." He might have added: And cowardly and obstinate, and narrow-minded and inflated by stupid self-esteem. But respect for his employer had blindfolded the clerk's observation for many a long year past. If one man may be born with the heart of a lion, another man may be born with the mind of a mule. Dennis's master was one of the other men.
"Very well put," Sir Giles answered indulgently. "Time will show, if such an entirely unimportant person as my nephew Arthur is likely to be assassinated. That allusion to one of the members of my family is a mere equivocation, designed to throw me off my guard. Rank, money, social influence, unswerving principles, mark ME out as a public character. Go to the police-office, and let the best man who happens to be off duty come here directly."
Good Dennis Howmore approached the door very unwillingly. It was opened, from the outer side, before he had reached that end of the room. One of the bank porters announced a visitor.
"Miss Henley wishes to know, sir, if you can see her."
Sir Giles looked agreeably surprised. He rose with alacrity to receive the lady.
WHEN Iris Henley dies there will, in all probability, be friends left who remember her and talk of her--and there may be strangers present at the time (women for the most part), whose curiosity will put questions relating to her personal appearance. No replies will reward them with trustworthy information. Miss Henley's chief claim to admiration lay in a remarkable mobility of expression, which reflected every change of feeling peculiar to the nature of a sweet and sensitive woman. For this reason, probably, no descriptions of her will agree with each other. No existing likenesses will represent her. The one portrait that was painted of Iris is only recognisable by partial friends of the artist. In and out of London, photographic likenesses were taken of her. They have the honour of resembling the portraits of Shakespeare in this respect--compared with one another, it is not possible to discover that they present the same person. As for the evidence offered by the loving memory of her friends, it is sure to be contradictory in the last degree. She had a charming face, a commonplace face, an intelligent face--a poor complexion, a delicate complexion, no complexion at all--eyes that were expressive of a hot temper, of a bright intellect, of a firm character, of an affectionate disposition, of a truthful nature, of hysterical sensibility, of inveterate obstinacy--a figure too short; no, just the right height; no, neither one thing nor the other; elegant, if you like--dress shabby: oh, surely not; dress quiet and simple; no, something more than that; ostentatiously quiet, theatrically simple, worn with the object of looking unlike other people. In one last word, was this mass of contradictions generally popular, in the time when it was a living creature? Yes--among the men. No--not invariably. The man of all others who ought to have been fondest of her was the man who behaved cruelly to Iris--her own father. And, when the poor creature married (if she did marry), how many of you attended the wedding? Not one of us! And when she died, how many of you were sorry for her? All of us! What? no difference of opinion in that one particular? On the contrary, perfect concord, thank God.
Let the years roll back, and let Iris speak for herself, at the memorable time when she was in the prime of her life, and when a stormy career was before her.
BEING Miss Henley's godfather, Sir Giles was a privileged person. He laid his hairy hands on her shoulders, and kissed her on either cheek. After that prefatory act of endearment, he made his inquiries. What extraordinary combination of events had led Iris to leave London, and had brought her to visit him in his banking-house at Ardoon?
"I wanted to get away from home," she answered; "and having nobody to go to but my godfather, I thought I should like to see You."
"Alone!" cried Sir Giles.
"No--with my maid to keep me company."
"Only your maid, Iris? Surely you have acquaintances among young ladies like yourself?"
"Acquaintances--yes. No friends."
"Does your father approve of what you have done?"
"Will you grant me a favour, godpapa?"
"Yes--if I can."
"Don't insist on my answering your last question."
The faint colour that had risen in her face, when she entered the room, left it. At the same time, the expression of her mouth altered. The lips closed firmly; revealing that strongest of all resolutions which is founded on a keen sense of wrong. She looked older than her age: what she might be ten years hence, she was now. Sir Giles understood her. He got up, and took a turn in the room. An old habit, of which he had cured himself with infinite difficulty when he was made a Knight, showed itself again. He put his hands in his pockets.
"You and your father have had another quarrel," he said, stopping opposite Iris.
"I don't deny it," she replied.
"Who is to blame?"
She smiled bitterly. "The woman is always to blame."
"Did your father tell you that?"
"My father reminded me that I was twenty-one years old, last birthday--and told me that I could do as I liked. I understood him, and I left the house."
"You will go back again, I suppose?"
"I don't know."
Sir Giles began pacing the room once more. His rugged face, telling its story of disaster and struggle in early life, showed signs of disappointment and distress.
"Hugh promised to write to me," he said, "and he has not written. I know what that means; I know what you have done to offend your father. My nephew has asked you to marry him for the second time. And for the second time you have refused."
Her face softened; its better and younger aspect revived. "Yes," she said, sadly and submissively; "I have refused him again."
Sir Giles lost his temper. "What the devil is your objection to Hugh?" he burst out.
"My father said the same thing to me," she replied, "almost in the same words. I made him angry when I tried to give my reason. I don't want to make you angry, too."
He took no notice of this. "Isn't Hugh a good fellow?" he went on. "Isn't he affectionate? and kindhearted? and honourable?--aye, and a handsome man too, if you come to that."
"Hugh is all that you say. I like him; I admire him; I owe to his kindness some of the happiest days of my sad life, and I am grateful--oh, with all my heart, I am grateful to Hugh!"
"If that's true, Iris----"
"Every word of it is true."
"I say, if that's true--there's no excuse for you. I hate perversity in a young woman! Why don't you marry him?"
"Try to feel for me," she said gently; "I can't love him."
Her tone said more to the banker than her words had expressed. The secret sorrow of her life, which was known to her father, was known also to Sir Giles.
"Now we have come to it at last!" he said. "You can't love my nephew Hugh. And you won't tell me the reason why, because your sweet temper shrinks from making me angry. Shall I mention the reason for you, my dear? I can do it in two words--Lord Harry."
She made no reply; she showed no sign of feeling at what he had just said. Her head sank a little; her hands clasped themselves on her lap; the obstinate resignation which can submit to anything hardened her face, stiffened her figure--and that was all.
The banker was determined not to spare her.
"It's easy to see," he resumed, "that you have not got over your infatuation for that vagabond yet. Go where he may, into the vilest places and among the lowest people, he carries your heart along with him. I wonder you are not ashamed of such an attachment as that."
He had stung her at last. She roused herself, and answered him.
"Harry has led a wild life," she said; "he has committed serious faults, and he may live to do worse than he has done yet. To what degradation, bad company, and a bad bringing-up may yet lead him, I leave his enemies to foresee. But I tell you this, he has redeeming qualities which you, and people like you, are not good Christians enough to discover. He has friends who can still appreciate him--your nephew, Arthur Mountjoy, is one of them. Oh, I know it by Arthur's letters to me! Blame Lord Harry as you may, I tell you he has the capacity for repentance in him, and one day--when it is too late, I dare say--he will show it. I can never be his wife. We are parted, never in all likelihood to meet again. Well, he is the only man whom I have ever loved; and he is the only man whom I ever shall love. If you think this state of mind proves that I am as bad as he is, I won't contradict you. Do we any of us know how bad we are----? Have you heard of Harry lately?"
The sudden transition, from an earnest and devoted defence of the man, to an easy and familiar inquiry about him, startled Sir Giles.
For the moment, he had nothing to say; Iris had made him think. She had shown a capacity for mastering her strongest feelings, at the moment when they threatened to overcome her, which is very rarely found in a young woman. How to manage her was a problem for patient resolution to solve. The banker's obstinacy, rather than his conviction, had encouraged him to hold to the hope of Hugh's marriage, even after his nephew had been refused for the second time. His headstrong goddaughter had come to visit him of her own accord. She had not forgotten the days of her childhood, when he had some influence over her--when she had found him kinder to her than her father had ever been. Sir Giles saw that he had taken the wrong tone with Iris. His anger had not alarmed her; his opinion had not influenced her. In Hugh's interests, he determined to try what consideration and indulgence would do towards cultivating the growth of her regard for him. Finding that she had left her maid and her luggage at the hotel, he hospitably insisted on their removal to his own house.
"While you are in Ardoon, Iris, you are my guest," he said.
She pleased him by readily accepting the invitation--and then annoyed him by asking again if he had heard anything of Lord Harry.
He answered shortly and sharply: "I have heard nothing. What is your last news of him?"
"News," she said, "which I sincerely hope is not true. An Irish paper has been sent to me, which reports that he has joined the secret society--nothing better than a society of assassins, I am afraid--which is known by the name of the Invincibles."
As she mentioned that formidable brotherhood, Dennis Howmore returned from the police-office. He announced that a Sergeant was then waiting to receive instructions from Sir Giles.
IRIS rose to go. Her godfather courteously stopped her.
"Wait here," he said, "until I have spoken to the Sergeant, and I will escort you to my house. My clerk will do what is necessary at the hotel. You don't look quite satisfied. Is the arrangement that I have proposed not agreeable to you?"
Iris assured him that she gratefully acceded to the arrangement. At the same time, she confessed to having been a little startled, on discovering that he was in consultation with the police. "I remember that we are in Ireland," she explained, "and I am foolish enough to fear that you may be in some danger. May I hope that it is only a trifle?"
Only a trifle! Among ether deficient sensibilities in the strange nature of Iris, Sir Giles had observed an imperfect appreciation of the dignity of his social position. Here was a new proof of it! The temptation to inspire sentiments of alarm--not unmingled with admiration--in the mind of his insensible goddaughter, by exhibiting himself as a public character threatened by a conspiracy, was more than the banker's vanity could resist. Before he left the room, he instructed Dennis to tell Miss Henley what had happened, and to let her judge for herself whether he had been needlessly alarmed by, what she was pleased to call, "a mere trifle."
Dennis Howmore must have been more than mortal, if he could have related his narrative of events without being influenced by his own point of view. On the first occasion when he mentioned Arthur Mountjoy's name, Iris showed a sudden interest in his strange story which took him by surprise.
"You know Mr. Arthur?" he said.
"Knew him!" Iris repeated. "He was my playfellow when we were both children. He is as dear to me as if he was my brother. Tell me at once--is he really in danger?"
Dennis honestly repeated what he had already said, on that subject, to his master. Miss Henley, entirely agreeing with him, was eager to warn Arthur of his position. There was no telegraphic communication with the village which was near his farm. She could only write to him, and she did write to him, by that day's post--having reasons of her own for anxiety, which forbade her to show her letter to Dennis. Well aware of the devoted friendship which united Lord Harry and Arthur Mountjoy--and bearing in mind the newspaper report of the Irish lord's rash association with the Invincibles--her fears now identified the noble vagabond as the writer of the anonymous letters, which had so seriously excited her godfather's doubts of his own safety.
When Sir Giles returned, and took her with him to his house, he spoke of his consultation with the Sergeant in terms which increased her dread of what might happen in the future. She was a dull and silent guest, during the interval that elapsed before it would be possible to receive Arthur's reply. The day arrived--and the post brought no relief to her anxieties. The next day passed without a letter. On the morning of the fourth day, Sir Giles rose later than usual. His correspondence was sent to him from the office, at breakfast-time. After opening one of the letters, he dispatched a messenger in hot haste to the police.
"Look at that," he said, handing the letter to Iris. "Does the assassin take me for a fool?"
She read the lines that follow:
"Unforeseen events force me, Sir Giles, to run a serious risk. I must speak to you, and it must not be by daylight. My one hope of safety is in darkness. Meet me at the first milestone, on the road to Garvan, when the moon sets at ten o'clock to-night. No need to mention your name. The password is: Fidelity."
"Do you mean to go?" Iris asked.
"Do I mean to be murdered!" Sir Giles broke out. "My dear child, do pray try to think before you speak. The Sergeant will represent me, of course."
"And take the man prisoner?" Iris added.
With that startling reply, the banker hurried away to receive the police in another room. Iris dropped into the nearest chair. The turn that the affair had now taken filled her with unutterable dismay.
Sir Giles came back, after no very long absence, composed and smiling. The course of proceeding had been settled to his complete satisfaction.
Dressed in private clothes, the Sergeant was to go to the milestone at the appointed time, representing the banker in the darkness, and giving the password. He was to be followed by two of his men who would wait in concealment, within hearing of his whistle, if their services were required. "I want to see the ruffian when he is safely handcuffed," Sir Giles explained; "and I have arranged to wait for the police, to-night, at my office."
There was but one desperate way that Iris could now discern of saving the man who had confided in her godfather's honour, and whose trust had already been betrayed. Never had she loved the outlawed Irish lord--the man whom she was forbidden, and rightly forbidden, to marry--as she loved him at that moment. Let the risk be what it might, this resolute woman had determined that the Sergeant should not be the only person who arrived at the milestone, and gave the password. There was one devoted friend to Lord Harry, whom she could always trust--and that friend was herself.
Sir Giles withdrew, to look after his business at the bank. She waited until the clock had struck the servants' dinner hour, and then ascended the stairs to her godfather's dressing-room. Opening his wardrobe, she discovered in one part of it a large Spanish cloak, and, in another part, a high-crowned felt hat which he wore on his country excursions. In the dark, here was disguise enough for her purpose.
As she left the dressing-room, a measure of precaution occurred to her, which she put in action at once. Telling her maid that she had some purchases to make in the town, she went out, and asked her way to Garvan of the first respectable stranger whom she met in the street. Her object was to walk as far as the first milestone, in daylight, so as to be sure of finding it again by night. She had made herself familiar with the different objects on the road, when she returned to the banker's house.
As the time for the arrest drew nearer, Sir Giles became too restless to wait patiently at home. He went away to the police-office, eager to hear if any new counter-conspiracy had occurred to the authorities.
It was dark soon after eight o'clock, at that time of the year. At nine the servants assembled at the supper-table. They were all downstairs together, talking, and waiting for their meal.
Feeling the necessity of arriving at the place of meeting, in time to keep out of the Sergeant's way, Iris assumed her disguise as the clock struck nine. She left the house without a living creature to notice her, indoors or out. Clouds were gathering over the sky. The waning moon was only to be seen at intervals, as she set forth on her way to the milestone.
THE wind rose a little, and the rifts in the clouds began to grow broader as Iris gained the high road.
For a while, the glimmer of the misty moonlight lit the way before her. As well as she could guess, she had passed over more than half of the distance between the town and the milestone before the sky darkened again. Objects by the wayside grew shadowy and dim. A few drops of rain began to fall. The milestone, as she knew--thanks to the discovery of it made by daylight--was on the right-hand side of the road. But the dull-grey colour of the stone was not easy to see in the dark.
A doubt troubled her whether she might not have passed the milestone. She stopped and looked at the sky.
The threatening of rain had passed away: signs showed themselves which seemed to promise another break in the clouds. She waited. Low and faint, the sinking moonlight looked its last at the dull earth. In front of her, there was nothing to be seen but the road. She looked back--and discovered the milestone.
A rough stone wall protected the land on either side of the road. Nearly behind the milestone there was a gap in this fence, partially closed by a hurdle. A half-ruined culvert, arching a ditch that had run dry, formed a bridge leading from the road to the field. Had the field been already chosen as a place of concealment by the police? Nothing was to be seen but a footpath, and the dusky line of a plantation beyond it. As she made these discoveries, the rain began to fall again; the clouds gathered once more; the moonlight vanished.
At the same moment an obstacle presented itself to her mind, which Iris had thus far failed to foresee.
Lord Harry might approach the milestone by three different ways: that is to say--by the road from the town, or by the road from the open country, or by way of the field and the culvert. How could she so place herself as to be sure of warning him, before he fell into the hands of the police? To watch the three means of approach in the obscurity of the night, and at one and the same time, was impossible.
A man in this position, guided by reason, would in all probability have wasted precious time in trying to arrive at the right decision. A woman, aided by love, conquered the difficulty that confronted her in a moment.
Iris decided on returning to the milestone, and on waiting there to be discovered and taken prisoner by the police. Supposing Lord Harry to be punctual to his appointment, he would hear voices and movements, as a necessary consequence of the arrest, in time to make his escape. Supposing him on the other hand to be late, the police would be on the way back to the town with their prisoner: he would find no one at the milestone, and would leave it again in safety.
She was on the point of turning, to get back to the road, when something on the dark surface of the field, which looked like a darker shadow, became dimly visible. In another moment it seemed to be a shadow that moved. She ran towards it. It looked like a man as she drew nearer. The man stopped.
"The password," he said, in tones cautiously lowered.
"Fidelity," she answered in a whisper.
It was too dark for a recognition of his features; but Iris knew him by his tall stature--knew him by the accent in which he had asked for the password. Erroneously judging of her, on his side, as a man, he drew back again. Sir Giles Mountjoy was above the middle height; the stranger in a cloak, who had whispered to him, was below it. "You are not the person I expected to meet," he said. "Who are you?"
Her faithful heart was longing to tell him the truth. The temptation to reveal herself, and to make the sweet confession of her happiness at having saved him, would have overpowered her discretion, but for a sound that was audible on the road behind them. In the deep silence of the time and place mistake was impossible. It was the sound of footsteps.
There was just time to whisper to him: "Sir Giles has betrayed you. Save yourself."
"Thank you, whoever you are!"
With that reply, he suddenly and swiftly disappeared. Iris remembered the culvert, and turned towards it. There was a hiding-place under the arch, if she could only get down into the dry ditch in time. She was feeling her way to the slope of it with her feet, when a heavy hand seized her by the arm; and a resolute voice said: "You are my prisoner."
She was led back into the road. The man who had got her blew a whistle. Two other men joined him.
"Show a light," he said; "and let's see who the fellow is."
The shade was slipped aside from a lantern: the light fell full on the prisoner's face. Amazement petrified the two attendant policemen. The pious Catholic Sergeant burst into speech: "Holy Mary! it's a woman!"
Did the secret societies of Ireland enrol women? Was this a modern Judith, expressing herself by anonymous letters, and bent on assassinating a financial Holofernes who kept a bank? What account had she to give of herself? How came she to be alone in a desolate field on a rainy night? Instead of answering these questions, the inscrutable stranger preferred a bold and brief request. "Take me to Sir Giles"--was all she said to the police.
The Sergeant had the handcuffs ready. After looking at the prisoner's delicate wrists by the lantern-light, he put his fetters back in his pocket. "A lady--and no doubt about it," he said to one of his assistants.
The two men waited, with a mischievous interest in seeing what he would do next. The list of their pious officer's virtues included a constitutional partiality for women, which exhibited the merciful side of justice when a criminal wore a petticoat. "We will take you to Sir Giles, Miss," he said--and offered his arm, instead of offering his handcuffs. Iris understood him, and took his arm.
She was silent--unaccountably silent as the men thought--on the way to the town. They heard her sigh: and, once, the sigh sounded more like a sob; little did they suspect what was in that silent woman's mind at the time.
The one object which had absorbed the attention of Iris had been the saving of Lord Harry. This accomplished, the free exercise of her memory had now reminded her of Arthur Mountjoy.
It was impossible to doubt that the object of the proposed meeting at the milestone had been to take measures for the preservation of the young man's life. A coward is always more or less cruel. The proceedings (equally treacherous and merciless) by which Sir Giles had provided for his own safety, had delayed--perhaps actually prevented--the execution of Lord Harry's humane design. It was possible, horribly possible, that a prompt employment of time might have been necessary to the rescue of Arthur from impending death by murder. In the agitation that overpowered her, Iris actually hurried the police on their return to the town.
Sir Giles had arranged to wait for news in his private room at the office--and there he was, with Dennis Howmore in attendance to receive visitors.
The Sergeant went into the banker's room alone, to make his report. He left the door ajar; Iris could hear what passed.
"Have you got your prisoner?" Sir Giles began.
"Yes, your honour."
"Is the wretch securely handcuffed?"
"I beg your pardon, sir, it isn't a man."
"Nonsense, Sergeant; it can't be a boy."
The Sergeant confessed that it was not a boy. "It's a woman," he said.
"A woman," the patient officer repeated--"and a young one. She asked for You."
"Bring her in."
Iris was not the sort of person who waits to be brought in. She walked in, of her own accord.
"GOOD Heavens!" cried Sir Giles. "Iris! With my cloak on!! With my hat in her hand!!! Sergeant, there has been some dreadful mistake. This is my god-daughter--Miss Henley."
"We found her at the milestone, your honour. The young lady and nobody else."
Sir Giles appealed helplessly to his god-daughter. "What does this mean?" Instead of answering, she looked at the Sergeant. The Sergeant, conscious of responsibility, stood his ground and looked at Sir Giles. His face confessed that the Irish sense of humour was tickled: but he showed no intention of leaving the room. Sir Giles saw that Iris would enter into no explanation in the man's presence. "You needn't wait any longer," he said.
"What am I to do, if you please, with the prisoner?" the Sergeant inquired.
Sir Giles waived that unnecessary question away with his hand. He was trebly responsible--as knight, banker, and magistrate into the bargain. "I will be answerable," he replied, "for producing Miss Henley, if called upon. Good night."
The Sergeant's sense of duty was satisfied. He made the military salute. His gallantry added homage to the young lady under the form of a bow. Then, and then only, he walked with dignity out of the room.
"Now," Sir Giles resumed, "I presume I may expect to receive an explanation. What does this impropriety mean? What were you doing at the milestone?"
"I was saving the person who made the appointment with you," Iris said; "the poor fellow had no ill-will towards you--who had risked everything to save your nephew's life. Oh, sir, you committed a terrible mistake when you refused to trust that man!"
Sir Giles had anticipated the appearance of fear, and the reality of humble apologies. She had answered him indignantly, with a heightened colour, and with tears in her eyes. His sense of his own social importance was wounded to the quick. "Who is the man you are speaking of?" he asked loftily. "And what is your excuse for having gone to the milestone to save him--hidden under my cloak, disguised in my hat?"
"Don't waste precious time in asking questions!" was the desperate reply. "Undo the harm that you have done already. Your help--oh, I mean what I say!--may yet preserve Arthur's life. Go to the farm, and save him."
Sir Giles's anger assumed a new form, it indulged in an elaborate mockery of respect. He took his watch from his pocket, and consulted it satirically. "Must I make an excuse?" he asked with a clumsy assumption of humility.
"No! you must go."
"Permit me to inform you, Miss Henley, that the last train started more than two hours since."
"What does that matter? You are rich enough to hire a train."
Sir Giles, the actor, could endure it no longer; he dropped the mask, and revealed Sir Giles, the man. His clerk was summoned by a peremptory ring of the bell. "Attend Miss Henley to the house," he said. "You may come to your senses after a night's rest," he continued, turning sternly to Iris. "I will receive your excuses in the morning."
In the morning, the breakfast was ready as usual at nine o'clock. Sir Giles found himself alone at the table.
He sent an order to one of the women-servants to knock at Miss Henley's door. There was a long delay. The housekeeper presented herself in a state of alarm; she had gone upstairs to make the necessary investigation in her own person. Miss Henley was not in her room; the maid was not in her room; the beds had not been slept in; the heavy luggage was labelled--"To be called for from the hotel." And there was an end of the evidence which the absent Iris had left behind her.
Inquiries were made at the hotel. The young lady had called there, with her maid, early on that morning. They had their travelling-bags with them; and Miss Henley had left directions that the luggage was to be placed under care of the landlord until her return. To what destination she had betaken herself nobody knew.
Sir Giles was too angry to remember what she had said to him on the previous night, or he might have guessed at the motive which had led to her departure. "Her father has done with her already," he said; "and I have done with her now." The servants received orders not to admit Miss Henley, if her audacity contemplated a return to her godfather's house.
ON the afternoon of the same day, Iris arrived at the village situated in the near neighbourhood of Arthur Mountjoy's farm.
The infection of political excitement (otherwise the hatred of England) had spread even to this remote place. On the steps of his little chapel, the priest, a peasant himself, was haranguing his brethren of the soil. An Irishman who paid his landlord was a traitor to his country; an Irishman who asserted his free birthright in the land that he walked on was an enlightened patriot. Such was the new law which the reverend gentleman expounded to his attentive audience. If his brethren there would like him to tell them how they might apply the law, this exemplary Christian would point to the faithless Irishman, Arthur Mountjoy. "Buy not of him, sell not to him; avoid him if he approaches you; starve him out of the place. I might say more, boys--you know what I mean."
To hear the latter part of this effort of oratory, without uttering a word of protest, was a trial of endurance under which Iris trembled. The secondary effect of the priest's address was to root the conviction of Arthur's danger with tenfold tenacity in her mind. After what she had just heard, even the slightest delay in securing his safety might be productive of deplorable results. She astonished a barefooted boy, on the outskirts of the crowd, by a gift of sixpence, and asked her way to the farm. The little Irishman ran on before her, eager to show the generous lady how useful he could be. In less than half an hour, Iris and her maid were at the door of the farm-house. No such civilsed inventions appeared as a knocker or a bell. The boy used his knuckles instead--and ran away when he heard the lock of the door turned on the inner side. He was afraid to be seen speaking to any living creature who inhabited the "evicted farm."
A decent old woman appeared, and inquired suspiciously "what the ladies wanted." The accent in which she spoke was unmistakably English. When Iris asked for Mr. Arthur Mountjoy the reply was: "Not at home." The housekeeper inhospitably attempted to close the door. "Wait one moment," Iris said. "Years have changed you; but there is something in your face which is not quite strange to me. Are you Mrs. Lewson?"
The woman admitted that this was her name. "But how is it that you are a stranger to me?" she asked distrustfully.
"If you have been long in Mr. Mountjoy's service," Iris replied, "you may perhaps have heard him speak of Miss Henley?"
Mrs. Lewson's face brightened in an instant; she threw the door wide open with a glad cry of recognition.
"Come in, Miss, come in! Who would have thought of seeing you in this horrible place? Yes; I was the nurse who looked after you all three--when you and Mr. Arthur and Mr. Hugh were playfellows together." Her eyes rested longingly on her favourite of bygone days. The sensitive sympathies of Iris interpreted that look. She prettily touched her cheek, inviting the nurse to kiss her. At this act of kindness the poor old woman broke down; she apologised quaintly for her tears: "Think, Miss, how I must remember that happy time--when you have not forgotten it."
Shown into the parlour, the first object which the visitor noticed was the letter that she had written to Arthur lying unopened on the table.
"Then he is really out of the house?" she said with a feeling of relief.
He had been away from the farm for a week or more. Had he received a warning from some other quarter? and had he wisely sought refuge in flight? The amazement in the housekeeper's face, when she heard these questions, pleaded for a word of explanation. Iris acknowledged without reserve the motives which had suggested her journey, and asked eagerly if she had been mistaken in assuming that Arthur was in danger of assassination.
Mrs. Lewson shook her head. Beyond all doubt the young master was in danger. But Miss Iris ought to have known his nature better than to suppose that he would beat a retreat, if all the land-leaguers in Ireland threatened him together. No! It was his bold way to laugh at danger. He had left his farm to visit a friend in the next county; and it was shrewdly guessed that a young lady who was staying in the house was the attraction which had kept him so long away. "Anyhow, he means to come back to-morrow," Mrs. Lewson said. "I wish he would think better of it, and make his escape to England while he has the chance. If the savages in these parts must shoot somebody, I'm here--an old woman that can't last much longer. Let them shoot me."
Iris asked if Arthur's safety was assured in the next county, and in the house of his friend.
"I can't say, Miss; I have never been to the house. He is in danger if he persists in coming back to the farm. There are chances of shooting him all along his road home. Oh, yes; he knows it, poor dear, as well as I do. But, there!--men like him are such perverse creatures. He takes his rides just as usual. No; he won't listen to an old woman like me; and, as for friends to advise him, the only one of them that has darkened our doors is a scamp who had better have kept away. You may have heard tell of him. The old Earl, his wicked father, used to be called by a bad name. And the wild young lord is his father's true son."
"Not Lord Harry?" Iris exclaimed.
The outbreak of agitation in her tone and manner was silently noticed by her maid. The housekeeper did not attempt to conceal the impression that had been produced upon her. "I hope you don't know such a vagabond as that?" she said very seriously. "Perhaps you are thinking of his brother--the eldest son--a respectable man, as I have been told?"
Miss Henley passed over these questions without notice. Urged by the interest in her lover, which was now more than ever an interest beyond her control, she said: "Is Lord Harry in danger, on account of his friend?"
"He has nothing to fear from the wretches who infest our part of the country," Mrs. Lewson replied. "Report says he's one of themselves. The police--there's what his young lordship has to be afraid of, if all's true that is said about him. Anyhow, when he paid his visit to my master, he came secretly like a thief in the night. And I heard Mr. Arthur, while they were together here in the parlour, loud in blaming him for something that he had done. No more, Miss, of Lord Harry! I have something particular to say to you. Suppose I promise to make you comfortable--will you please wait here till to-morrow, and see Mr. Arthur and speak to him? If there's a person living who can persuade him to take better care of himself, I do believe it will be you."
Iris readily consented to wait for Arthur Mountjoy's return. Left together, while Mrs. Lewson was attending to her domestic duties, the mistress noticed an appearance of pre-occupation in the maid's face.
"Are you beginning to wish, Rhoda," she said, "that I had not brought you to this strange place, among these wild people?"
The maid was a quiet amiable girl, evidently in delicate health. She smiled faintly. "I was thinking, Miss, of another nobleman besides the one Mrs. Lewson mentioned just now, who seems to have led a reckless life. It was printed in a newspaper that I read before we left London."
"Was his name mentioned?" Iris asked.
"No, Miss; I suppose they were afraid of giving offence. He tried so many strange ways of getting a living--it was almost like reading a story-book."
The suppression of the name suggested a suspicion from which Iris recoiled. Was it possible that her maid could be ignorantly alluding to Lord Harry?
"Do you remember this hero's adventures?" she said.
"I can try, Miss, if you wish to hear about him."
The newspaper narrative appeared to have produced a vivid impression on Rhoda's mind. Making allowance for natural hesitations and mistakes, and difficulties in expressing herself correctly, she repeated with a singularly clear recollection the substance of what she had read.
THE principal characters in the story were an old Irish nobleman, who was called the Earl, and the youngest of his two sons, mysteriously distinguished as "the wild lord."
It was said of the Earl that he had not been a good father; he had cruelly neglected both his sons. The younger one, badly treated at school, and left to himself in the holidays, began his adventurous career by running away. He got employment (under an assumed name) as a ship's boy. At the outset, he did well; learning his work, and being liked by the Captain and the crew. But the chief mate was a brutal man, and the young runaway's quick temper resented the disgraceful infliction of blows. He made up his mind to try his luck on shore, and attached himself to a company of strolling players. Being a handsome lad, with a good figure and a fine clear voice, he did very well for a while on the country stage. Hard times came; salaries were reduced; the adventurer wearied of the society of actors and actresses. His next change of life presented him in North Britain as a journalist, employed on a Scotch newspaper. An unfortunate love affair was the means of depriving him of this new occupation. He was recognised, soon afterwards, serving as assistant steward in one of the passenger steamers voyaging between Liverpool and New York. Arrived in this last city, he obtained notoriety, of no very respectable kind, as a "medium" claiming powers of supernatural communication with the world of spirits. When the imposture was ultimately discovered, he had gained money by his unworthy appeal to the meanly prosaic superstition of modern times. A long interval had then elapsed, and nothing had been heard of him, when a starving man was discovered by a traveller, lost on a Western prairie. The ill-fated Irish lord had associated himself with an Indian tribe--had committed some offence against their laws--and had been deliberately deserted and left to die. On his recovery, he wrote to his elder brother (who had inherited the title and estates on the death of the old Earl) to say that he was ashamed of the life that he had led, and eager to make amendment by accepting any honest employment that could be offered to him. The traveller who had saved his life, and whose opinion was to be trusted, declared that the letter represented a sincerely penitent state of mind. There were good qualities in the vagabond, which only wanted a little merciful encouragement to assert themselves. The reply that he received from England came from the lawyers employed by the new Earl. They had arranged with their agents in New York to pay to the younger brother a legacy of a thousand pounds, which represented all that had been left to him by his father's will. If he wrote again his letters would not be answered; his brother had done with him. Treated in this inhuman manner, the wild lord became once more worthy of his name. He tried a new life as a betting man at races and trotting-matches. Fortune favoured him at the outset, and he considerably increased his legacy. With the customary infatuation of men who gain money by risking the loss of it, he presumed on his good luck. One pecuniary disaster followed another, and left him literally penniless. He was found again, in England, exhibiting an open boat in which he and a companion had made one of those foolhardy voyages across the Atlantic, which have now happily ceased to interest the public. To a friend who remonstrated with him, he answered that he reckoned on being lost at sea, and on so committing a suicide worthy of the desperate life that he had led. The last accounts of him, after this, were too vague and too contradictory to be depended on. At one time it was reported that he had returned to the United States. Not long afterwards unaccountable paragraphs appeared in newspapers declaring, at one and the same time, that he was living among bad company in Paris, and that he was hiding disreputably in an ill famed quarter of the city of Dublin, called "the Liberties." In any case there was good reason to fear that Irish-American desperadoes had entangled the wild lord in the network of political conspiracy.
The maid noticed a change in the mistress which surprised her, when she had reached the end of the newspaper story. Of Miss Henley's customary good spirits not a trace remained. "Few people, Rhoda, remember what they read as well as you do." She said it kindly and sadly--and she said no more.
There was a reason for this.
Now at one time, and now at another, Iris had heard of Lord Harry's faults and failings in fragments of family history. The complete record of his degraded life, presented in an uninterrupted succession of events, had now forced itself on her attention for the first time. It naturally shocked her. She felt, as she had never felt before, how entirely right her father had been in insisting on her resistance to an attachment which was unworthy of her. So far, but no farther, her conscience yielded to its own conviction of what was just. But the one unassailable vital force in this world is the force of love. It may submit to the hard necessities of life; it may acknowledge the imperative claims of duty; it may be silent under reproach, and submissive to privation--but, suffer what it may, it is the master-passion still; subject to no artificial influences, owning no supremacy but the law of its own being. Iris was above the reach of self-reproach, when her memory recalled the daring action which had saved Lord Harry at the milestone. Her better sense acknowledged Hugh Mountjoy's superiority over the other man--but her heart, her perverse heart, remained true to its first choice in spite of her. She made an impatient excuse and went out alone to recover her composure in the farm-house garden.
The hours of the evening passed slowly.
There was a pack of cards in the house; the women tried to amuse themselves, and failed. Anxiety about Arthur preyed on the spirits of Miss Henley and Mrs. Lewson. Even the maid, who had only seen him during his last visit to London, said she wished to-morrow had come and gone. His sweet temper, his handsome face, his lively talk had made Arthur a favourite everywhere. Mrs. Lewson had left her comfortable English home to be his housekeeper, when he tried his rash experiment of farming in Ireland. And, more wonderful still, even wearisome Sir Giles became an agreeable person in his nephew's company.
Iris set the example of retiring at an early hour to her room.
There was something terrible in the pastoral silence of the place. It associated itself mysteriously with her fears for Arthur; it suggested armed treachery on tiptoe, taking its murderous stand in hiding; the whistling passage of bullets through the air; the piercing cry of a man mortally wounded, and that man, perhaps----? Iris shrank from her own horrid thought. A momentary faintness overcame her; she opened the window. As she put her head out to breathe the cool night-air, a man on horseback rode up to the house. Was it Arthur? No: the light-coloured groom's livery that he wore was just visible.
Before he could dismount to knock at the door, a tall man walked up to him out of the darkness.
"Is that Miles?" the tall man asked.
The groom knew the voice. Iris was even better acquainted with it. She, too, recognised Lord Harry.
THERE was the Irish lord at the very time when Iris was most patiently resigned never to see him more, never to think of him as her husband again--reminding her of the first days of their love, and of their mutual confession of it! Fear of herself kept her behind the curtain; while interest in Lord Harry detained her at the window in hiding.
"All well at Rathco?" he asked--mentioning the name of the house in which Arthur was one of the guests.
"Yes, my lord. Mr. Mountjoy leaves us to-morrow."
"Does he mean to return to the farm?"
"Sorry I am to say it; he does mean that."
"Has he fixed any time, Miles, for starting on his journey?"
Miles instituted a search through his pockets, and accompanied it by an explanation. Yes, indeed, Master Arthur had fixed a time; he had written a note to say so to Mistress Lewson, the housekeeper; he had said, "Drop the note at the farm, on your way to the village." And what might Miles want at the village, in the dark? Medicine, in a hurry, for one of his master's horses that was sick and sinking. And, speaking of that, here, thank God, was the note!
Iris, listening and watching alternately, saw to her surprise the note intended for Mrs. Lewson handed to Lord Harry. "Am I expected," he asked jocosely, "to read writing without a light?" Miles produced a small lantern which was strapped to his groom's belt. "There's parts of the road not over safe in the dark," he said as he raised the shade which guarded the light. The wild lord coolly opened the letter, and read the few careless words which it contained. "To Mrs. Lewson:--Dear old girl, expect me back to-morrow to dinner at three o'clock. Yours, ARTHUR."
There was a pause.
"Are there any strangers at Rathco?" Lord Harry asked.
"Two new men," Miles replied, "at work in the grounds."
There was another pause. "How can I protect him?" the young lord said, partly to himself, partly to Miles. He suspected the two new men---spies probably who knew of Arthur's proposed journey home, and who had already reported to their employers the hour at which he would set out.
Miles ventured to say a word: "I hope you won't be angry with me, my lord"----
"Stuff and nonsense! Was I ever angry with you, when I was rich enough to keep a servant, and when you were the man?"
The Irish groom answered in a voice that trembled with strong feeling. "You were the best and kindest master that ever lived on this earth. I can't see you putting your precious life in peril"----
"My precious life?" Lord Harry repeated lightly. "You're thinking of Mr. Mountjoy, when you say that. His life is worth saving. As for my life"---- He ended the sentence by a whistle, as the best way he could hit on of expressing his contempt for his own existence.
"My lord! my lord!" Miles persisted; "the Invincibles are beginning to doubt you. If any of them find you hanging about Mr. Mountjoy's farm, they'll try a shot at you first, and ask afterwards whether it was right to kill you or not."
To hear this said--and said seriously--after the saving of him at the milestone, was a trial of her firmness which Iris was unable to resist. Love got the better of prudence. She drew back the window-curtain. In another moment, she would have added her persuasion to the servant's warning, if Lord Harry himself had not accidentally checked her by a proceeding, on his part, for which she was not prepared.
"Show the light," he said; "I'll write a line to Mr. Mountjoy."
He tore off the blank page from the note to the housekeeper, and wrote to Arthur, entreating him to change the time of his departure from Rathco, and to tell no creature in the house, or out of the house, at what new hour he had arranged to go. "Saddle your horse yourself," the letter concluded. It was written in a feigned hand, without a signature.
"Give that to Mr. Mountjoy," Lord Harry said. "If he asks who wrote it, don't frighten him about me by telling the truth. Lie, Miles! Say you don't know." He next returned the note for Mrs. Lewson. "If she notices that it has been opened," he resumed, "and asks who has done it, lie again. Good-night, Miles--and mind those dangerous places on your road home."
The groom darkened his lantern; and the wild lord was lost to view, round the side of the house.
Left by himself, Miles rapped at the door with the handle of his whip. "A letter from Mr. Arthur," he called out. Mrs. Lewson at once took the note, and examined it by the light of the candle on the hall-table. "Somebody has been reading this!" she exclaimed, stepping out to the groom, and showing him the torn envelope. Miles, promptly obeying his instructions, declared that he knew nothing about it, and rode away.
Iris descended the stairs, and joined Mrs. Lewson in the hall before she had closed the door. The housekeeper at once produced Arthur's letter.
"It's on my mind, Miss," she said, "to write an answer, and say something to Mr. Arthur which will persuade him to take care of himself, on his way back to the farm. The difficulty is, how am I to express it? You would be doing a kind thing if you would give me a word of advice."
Iris willingly complied. A second note, from the anxious housekeeper, might help the effect of the few lines which Lord Harry had written.
Arthur's letter informed Iris that he had arranged to return at three o'clock. Lord Harry's question to the groom, and the man's reply, instantly recurred to her memory: "Are there any strangers at Rathco?"--"Two new men at work in the grounds." Arriving at the same conclusion which had already occurred to Lord Harry, Iris advised the housekeeper, in writing to Arthur, to entreat him to change the hour, secretly, at which he left his friend's house on the next day. Warmly approving of this idea, Mrs. Lewson hurried into the parlour to write her letter. "Don't go to bed yet, Miss," she said; "I want you to read it before I send it away the first thing to-morrow morning."
Left alone in the hall, with the door open before her, Iris looked out on the night, thinking.
The lives of the two men in whom she was interested--in widely different ways--were now both threatened; and the imminent danger, at that moment, was the danger of Lord Harry. He was an outlaw whose character would not bear investigation; but, to give him his due, there was no risk which he was not ready to confront for Arthur's sake. If he was still recklessly lingering, on the watch for assassins in the dangerous neighbourhood of the farm, who but herself possessed the influence which would prevail on him to leave the place? She had joined Mrs. Lewson at the door with that conviction in her mind. In another instant, she was out of the house, and beginning her search in the dark.
Iris made the round of the building; sometimes feeling her way in obscure places; sometimes calling to Lord Harry cautiously by his name. No living creature appeared; no sound of a movement disturbed the stillness of the night. The discovery of his absence, which she had not dared to hope for, was the cheering discovery which she had now made.
On her way back to the house, she became conscious of the rashness of the act into which her own generous impulse had betrayed her.
If she and Lord Harry had met, could she have denied the tender interest in him which her own conduct would then have revealed? Would he not have been justified in concluding that she had pardoned the errors and the vices of his life, and that he might without impropriety remind her of their engagement, and claim her hand in marriage? She trembled as she thought of the concessions which he might have wrung from her. "Never more," she determined, "shall my own folly be answerable for it, if he and I meet again."
She had returned to Mrs. Lewson, and had read over the letter to Arthur, when the farm clock, striking the hour, reminded them that it was time to retire. They slept badly that night.
At six in the morning, one of the two labourers who had remained faithful to Arthur was sent away on horseback with the housekeeper's reply, and with orders to wait for an answer. Allowing time for giving the horse a rest, the man might be expected to return before noon.
IT was a fine sunshiny day; Mrs. Lewson's spirits began to improve. "I have always held the belief," the worthy old woman confessed, "that bright weather brings good luck--of course provided the day is not a Friday. This is Wednesday. Cheer up, Miss."
The messenger returned with good news. Mr. Arthur had been as merry as usual. He had made fun of another letter of good advice, received without a signature. "But Mrs. Lewson must have her way," he said. "My love to the old dear--I'll start two hours later, and be back to dinner at five."
"Where did Mr. Arthur give you that message?" Iris inquired.
"At the stables, Miss, while I was putting up the horse. The men about were all on the broad grin when they heard Mr. Arthur's message."
Still in a morbid state of mind, Iris silently regretted that the message had not been written, instead of being delivered by word of mouth. Here, again, she (like the wild lord) had been afraid of listeners.
The hours wore slowly on until it was past four o'clock. Iris could endure the suspense no longer. "It's a lovely afternoon," she said to Mrs. Lewson. "Let us take a walk along the road, and meet Arthur." To this proposal the housekeeper readily agreed.
It was nearly five o'clock when they reached a place at which a by-road branched off, through a wood, from the highway which they had hitherto followed. Mrs. Lewson found a seat on a felled tree. "We had better not go any farther," she said.
Iris asked if there was any reason for this.
There was an excellent reason. A few yards farther on, the high road had been diverted from the straight line (in the interest of a large agricultural village), and was then directed again into its former course. The by-road through the wood served as a short cut, for horsemen and pedestrians, from one divergent point to the other. It was next to a certainty that Arthur would return by the short cut. But if accident or caprice led to his preferring the highway, it was clearly necessary to wait for him within view of both the roads.
Too restless to submit to a state of passive expectation, Iris proposed to follow the bridle path through the wood for a little way, and to return if she failed to see anything of Arthur. "You are tired," she said kindly to her companion: "pray don't move."
Mrs. Lewson looked needlessly uneasy: "You might lose yourself, Miss. Mind you keep to the path!"
Iris followed the pleasant windings of the woodland track. In the hope of meeting Arthur she considerably extended the length of her walk. The white line of the high road, as it passed the farther end of the wood, showed itself through the trees. She turned at once to rejoin Mrs. Lewson.
On her way back she made a discovery. A ruin which she had not previously noticed showed itself among the trees on her left hand. Her curiosity was excited; she strayed aside to examine it more closely. The crumbling walls, as she approached them, looked like the remains of an ordinary dwelling-house. Age is essential to the picturesque effect of decay: a modern ruin is an unnatural and depressing object--and here the horrid thing was.
As she turned to retrace her steps to the road, a man walked out of the inner space enclosed by all that was left of the dismantled house. A cry of alarm escaped her. Was she the victim of destiny, or the sport of chance? There was the wild lord whom she had vowed never to see again: the master of her heart--perhaps the master of her fate!
Any other man would have been amazed to see her, and would have asked how it had happened that the English lady presented herself to him in an Irish wood. This man enjoyed the delight of seeing her, and accepted it as a blessing that was not to be questioned. "My angel has dropped from Heaven," he said. "May Heaven be praised!"
He approached her; his arms closed round her. She struggled to free herself from his embrace. At that moment they both heard the crackle of breaking uuderwood among the trees behind them. Lord Harry looked round. "This is a dangerous place," he whispered; "I'm waiting to see Arthur pass safely. Submit to be kissed, or I am a dead man." His eyes told her that he was truly and fearfully in earnest. Her head sank on his bosom. As he bent down and kissed her, three men approached from their hiding-place among the trees. They had no doubt been watching him, under orders from the murderous brotherhood to which they belonged. Their pistols were ready in their hands--and what discovery had they made? There was the brother who had been denounced as having betrayed them, guilty of no worse treason than meeting his sweetheart in a wood! "We beg your pardon, my lord," they cried, with a thoroughly Irish enjoyment of their own discomfiture--and burst into a roar of laughter--and left the lovers together. For the second time, Iris had saved Lord Harry at a crisis in his life.
"Let me go!" she pleaded faintly, trembling with superstitious fear for the first time in her experience of herself.
He held her to him as if he would never let her go again. "Oh, my Sweet, give me a last chance. Help me to be a better man! You have only to will it, Iris, and to make me worthy of you."
His arms suddenly trembled round her, and dropped. The silence was broken by a distant sound, like the report of a shot. He looked towards the farther end of the wood. In a minute more, the thump of a horse's hoofs at a gallop was audible, where the bridlepath was hidden among the trees. It came nearer--nearer---the creature burst into view, wild with fright, and carrying an empty saddle. Lord Harry rushed into the path and seized the horse as it swerved at the sight of him. There was a leather pocket attached to the front of the saddle. "Search it!" he cried to Iris, forcing the terrified animal back on its haunches. She drew out a silver travelling-flask. One glance at the name engraved on it told him the terrible truth. His trembling hands lost their hold. The horse escaped; the words burst from his lips:
"Oh, God, they've killed him!"
THE SOUR FRENCH WINE
WHILE the line to be taken by the new railway between Culm and Everill was still under discussion, the engineer caused some difference of opinion among the moneyed men who were the first Directors of the Company, by asking if they proposed to include among their Stations the little old town of Honeybuzzard.
For years past, commerce had declined, and population had decreased in this ancient and curious place. Painters knew it well, and prized its mediæval houses as a mine of valuable material for their art. Persons of cultivated tastes, who were interested in church architecture of the fourteenth century, sometimes pleased and flattered the Rector by subscribing to his fund for the restoration of the tower, and the removal of the accumulated rubbish of hundreds of years from the crypt. Small speculators, not otherwise in a state of insanity, settled themselves in the town, and tried the desperate experiment of opening a shop; spent their little capital, put up the shutters, and disappeared. The old market-place still showed its list of market-law's, issued by the Mayor and Corporation in the prosperous bygone times; and every week there were fewer and fewer people to obey the laws. The great empty enclosure looked more cheerful, when there was no market held, and when the boys of the town played in the deserted place. In the last warehouse left in a state of repair, the crane was generally idle; the windows were mostly shut up; and a solitary man represented languishing trade, idling at a half-opened door. The muddy river rose and fell with the distant tide. At rare intervals a collier discharged its cargo on the mouldering quay, or an empty barge took in a load of hay. One bold house advertised, in a dirty window, apartments to let. There was a lawyer in the town, who had no occasion to keep a clerk; and there was a doctor who hoped to sell his practice for anything that it would fetch. The directors of the new railway, after a stormy meeting, decided on offering (by means of a Station) a last chance of revival to the dying town. The town had not vitality enough left to be grateful; the railway stimulant produced no effect. Of all his colleagues in Great Britain and Ireland, the station-master at Honeybuzzard was the idlest man--and this, as he said to the unemployed porter, through no want of energy on his own part.
Late on a rainy autumn afternoon, the slow train left one traveller at the Station. He got out of a first-class carriage; he carried an umbrella and a travelling-bag; and he asked his way to the best inn. The station-master and the porter compared notes. One of them said: "Evidently a gentleman." The other added: "What can he possibly want here?"
The stranger twice lost his way in the tortuous old streets of the town before he reached the inn. On giving his orders, it appeared that he wanted three things: a private room, something to eat, and, while the dinner was being cooked, materials for writing a letter.
Answering her daughter's questions downstairs, the landlady described her guest as a nice-looking man dressed in deep mourning. "Young, my dear, with beautiful dark brown hair, and a grand beard, and a sweet sorrowful look. Ah, his eyes would tell anybody that his black clothes are not a mere sham. Whether married or single, of course I can't say. But I noticed the name on his travelling-bag. A distinguished name in my opinion--Hugh Mountjoy. I wonder what he'll order to drink when he has his dinner? What a mercy it will be if we can get rid of another bottle of the sour French wine!"
The bell in the private room rang at that moment; and the landlady's daughter, it is needless to say, took the opportunity of forming her own opinion of Mr. Hugh Mountjoy.
She returned with a letter in her hand, consumed by a vain longing for the advantages of gentle birth. "Ah, mother, if I was a young lady of the higher classes, I know whose wife I should like to be!" Not particularly interested in sentimental aspirations, the landlady asked to see Mr. Mountjoy's letter. The messenger who delivered it was to wait for an answer. It was addressed to: "Miss Henley, care of Clarence Vimpany, Esquire, Honeybuzzard." Urged by an excited imagination, the daughter longed to see Miss Henley. The mother was at a loss to understand why Mr. Mountjoy should have troubled himself to write the letter at all. "If he knows the young lady who is staying at the doctor's house," she said, "why doesn't he call on Miss Henley?" She handed the letter back to her daughter. "There! let the ostler take it; he's got nothing to do."
"No, mother. The ostler's dirty hands mustn't touch it--I'll take the letter myself. Perhaps I may see Miss Henley." Such was the impression which Mr. Hugh Mountjoy had innocently produced on a sensitive young person, condemned by destiny to the barren sphere of action afforded by a country inn!
The landlady herself took the dinner upstairs--a first course of mutton chops and potatoes, cooked to a degree of imperfection only attained in an English kitchen. The sour French wine was still on the good woman's mind. "What would you choose to drink, sir?" she asked. Mr. Mountjoy seemed to feel no interest in what he might have to drink. "We have some French wine, sir."
"Thank you, ma'am; that will do."
When the bell rang again, and the time came to produce the second course of cheese and celery, the landlady allowed the waiter to take her place. Her experience of the farmers who frequented the inn, and who had in some few cases been induced to taste the wine, warned her to anticipate an outbreak of just anger from Mr. Mountjoy. He, like the others, would probably ask what she "meant by poisoning him with such stuff as that." On the return of the waiter, she put the question: "Did the gentleman complain of the French wine?"
"He wants to see you about it, ma'am."
The landlady turned pale. The expression of Mr. Mountjoy's indignation was evidently reserved for the mistress of the house. "Did he swear," she asked, "when he tasted it?"
"Lord bless you, ma'am, no! Drank it out of a tumbler, and--if you will believe me--actually seemed to like it."
The landlady recovered her colour. Gratitude to Providence for having sent a customer to the inn, who could drink sour wine without discovering it, was the uppermost feeling in her ample bosom as she entered the private room. Mr. Mountjoy justified her anticipations. He was simple enough--with his tumbler before him, and the wine as it were under his nose--to begin with an apology.
"I am sorry to trouble you, ma'am. May I ask where you got this wine?"
"The wine, sir, was one of my late husband's bad debts. It was all he could get from a Frenchman who owed him money."
"It's worth money, ma'am."
"Yes, indeed. This is some of the finest and purest claret that I have tasted for many a long day past."
An alarming suspicion disturbed the serenity of the landlady's mind. Was his extraordinary opinion of the wine sincere? Or was it Mr. Mountjoy's wicked design to entrap her into praising her claret and then to imply that she was a cheat by declaring what he really thought of it? She took refuge in a cautious reply:
"You are the first gentleman, sir, who has not found fault with it."
"In that case, perhaps you would like to get rid of the wine?" Mr. Mountjoy suggested.
The landlady was still cautious. "Who will buy it of me, sir?"
"I will. How much do you charge for it by the bottle?"
It was, by this time, clear that he was not mischievous--only a little crazy. The worldly-wise hostess took advantage of that circumstance to double the price. Without hesitation, she said: "Five shillings a bottle, sir."
Often, too often, the irony of circumstances brings together, on this earthly scene, the opposite types of vice and virtue. A lying landlady and a guest incapable of deceit were looking at each other across a narrow table; equally unconscious of the immeasurable moral gulf that lay between them, Influenced by honourable feeling, innocent Hugh Mountjoy lashed the landlady's greed for money to the full-gallop of human cupidity.
"I don't think you are aware of the value of your wine," he said. "I have claret in my cellar which is not so good as this, and which costs more than you have asked. It is only fair to offer you seven-and-sixpence a bottle."
When an eccentric traveller is asked to pay a price, and deliberately raises that price against himself, where is the sensible woman--especially if she happens to be a widow conducting an unprofitable business--who would hesitate to improve the opportunity? The greedy landlady raised her terms.
"On reflection, sir, I think I ought to have ten shillings a bottle, if you please."
"The wine may be worth it," Mountjoy answered quietly; "but it is more than I can afford to pay. No, ma'am; I will leave you to find some lover of good claret with a longer purse than mine."
It was in this man's character, when he said No, to mean No. Mr. Mountjoy's hostess perceived that her crazy customer was not to be trifled with. She lowered her terms again with the headlong hurry of terror. "You shall have it, Sir, at your own price," said this entirely shameless and perfectly respectable woman.
The bargain having been closed under these circumstances, the landlady's daughter knocked at the door. "I took your letter myself, sir," she said modestly; "and here is the answer." (She had seen Miss Henley, and did not think much of her.) Mountjoy offered the expression of his thanks, in words never to be forgotten by a sensitive young person, and opened his letter. It was short enough to be read in a moment; but it was evidently a favourable reply. He took his hat in a hurry, and asked to be shown the way to Mr. Vimpany's house.
THE MAN SHE REFUSED
MOUNTJOY had decided on travelling to Honeybuzzard, as soon as he heard that Miss Henley was staying with strangers in that town. Having had no earlier opportunity of preparing her to see him, he had considerately written to her from the inn, in preference to presenting himself unexpectedly at the doctor's house. How would she receive the devoted friend, whose proposal of marriage she had refused for the second time, when they had last met in London?
The doctor's place of residence, situated in a solitary by-street, commanded a view, not perhaps encouraging to a gentleman who followed the medical profession: it was a view of the churchyard. The door was opened by a woman-servant, who looked suspiciously at the stranger. Without waiting to be questioned, she said her master was out. Mountjoy mentioned his name, and asked for Miss Henley.
The servant's manner altered at once for the better; she showed him into a small drawing-room, scantily and cheaply furnished. Some poorly-framed prints on the walls (a little out of place perhaps in a doctor's house) represented portraits of famous actresses, who had been queens of the stage in the early part of the present century. The few books, too, collected on a little shelf above the chimney-piece, were in every case specimens of dramatic literature. "Who reads these plays?" Mountjoy asked himself. "And how did Iris find her way into this house?"
While he was thinking of her, Miss Henley entered the room.
Her face was pale and careworn; tears dimmed her eyes when Mountjoy advanced to meet her. In his presence, the horror of his brother's death by assassination shook Iris as it had not shaken her yet. Impulsively, she drew his head down to her, with the fond familiarity of a sister, and kissed his forehead. "Oh, Hugh, I know how you and Arthur loved each other! No words of mine can say how I feel for you."
"No words are wanted, my dear," he answered tenderly. "Your sympathy speaks for itself."
He led her to the sofa and seated himself by her side. "Your father has shown me what you have written to him," he resumed; "your letter from Dublin and your second letter from this place. I know what you have so nobly risked and suffered in poor Arthur's interests. It will be some consolation to me if I can make a return--a very poor return, Iris--for all that Arthur's brother owes to the truest friend that ever man had. No," he continued, gently interrupting the expression of her gratitude. "Your father has not sent me here--but he knows that I have left London for the express purpose of seeing you, and he knows why. You have written to him dutifully and affectionately; you have pleaded for pardon and reconciliation, when he is to blame. Shall I venture to tell you how he answered me, when I asked if he had no faith left in his own child? 'Hugh,' he said, 'you are wasting words on a man whose mind is made up. I will trust my daughter when that Irish lord is laid in his grave--not before.' That is a reflection on you, Iris, which I cannot permit, even when your father casts it. He is hard, he is unforgiving; but he must, and shall, be conquered yet. I mean to make him do you justice; I have come here with that purpose, and that purpose only, in view. May I speak to you of Lord Harry?"
"How can you doubt it!"
"My dear, this is a delicate subject for me to enter on."
"And a shameful subject for me!" Iris broke out bitterly. "Hugh! you are an angel, by comparison with that man--how debased I must be to love him--how unworthy of your good opinion! Ask me anything you like; have no mercy on me. Oh," she cried, with reckless contempt for herself, "why don't you beat me? I deserve it!"
Mountjoy was well enough acquainted with the natures of women to pass over that passionate outbreak, instead of fanning the flame in her by reasoning and remonstrance.
"Your father will not listen to the expression of feeling," he continued; "but it is possible to rouse his sense of justice by the expression of facts. Help me to speak to him more plainly of Lord Harry than you could speak in your letters. I want to know what has happened, from the time when events at Ardoon brought you and the young lord together again, to the time when you left him in Ireland after my brother's death. If I seem to expect too much of you, Iris, pray remember that I am speaking with a true regard for your interests."
In those words, he made his generous appeal to her. She proved herself to be worthy of it.
Stated briefly, the retrospect began with the mysterious anonymous letters which had been addressed to Sir Giles.
Lord Harry's explanation had been offered to Iris gratefully, but with some reserve, after she had told him who the stranger at the milestone really was. "I entreat you to pardon me, if I shrink from entering into particulars," he had said. "Circumstances, at the time, amply justified me in the attempt to use the banker's political influence as a means of securing Arthur's safety. I knew enough of Sir Giles's mean nature to be careful in trusting him; but I did hope to try what my personal influence might do. If he had possessed a tenth part of your courage, Arthur might have been alive, and safe in England, at this moment. I can't say any more; I daren't say any more; it maddens me when I think of it!" He abruptly changed the subject, and interested Iris by speaking of other and later events. His association with the Invincibles--inexcusably rash and wicked as he himself confessed it to be--had enabled him to penetrate, and for a time to defeat secretly, the murderous designs of the brotherhood. His appearances, first at the farmhouse and afterwards at the ruin in the wood were referable to changes in the plans of the assassins which had come to his knowledge. When Iris had met with him he was on the watch, believing that his friend would take the short way back through the wood, and well aware that his own life might pay the penalty if he succeeded in warning Arthur. After the terrible discovery of the murder (committed on the high road), and the escape of the miscreant who had been guilty of the crime, the parting of Lord Harry and Miss Henley had been the next event. She had left him, on her return to England, and had refused to consent to any of the future meetings between them which he besought her to grant.
At this stage in the narrative, Mountjoy felt compelled to ask questions more searching than he had put to Iris yet. It was possible that she might be trusting her own impressions of Lord Harry, with the ill-placed confidence of a woman innocently self-deceived.
"Did he submit willingly to your leaving him?" Mountjoy said.
"Not at first," she replied.
"Has he released you from that rash engagement, of some years since, which pledged you to marry him?"
"Did he allude to the engagement, on this occasion?"
"He said he held to it as the one hope of his life."
"And what did you say?"
"I implored him not to distress me."
"Did you say nothing more positive than that?"
"I couldn't help thinking, Hugh, of all that he had tried to do to save Arthur. But I insisted on leaving him--and I have left him."
"Do you remember what he said at parting?"
"He said, 'While I live, I love you.'"
As she repeated the words, there was an involuntary change to tenderness in her voice which was not lost on Mountjoy.
"I must be sure," he said to her gravely, "of what I tell your father when I go back to him. Can I declare, with a safe conscience, that you will never see Lord Harry again?"
"My mind is made up never to see him again." She had answered firmly so far. Her next words were spoken with hesitation, in tones that faltered. "But I am sometimes afraid," she said, "that the decision may not rest with me."
"What do you mean?"
"I would rather not tell you."
"That is a strange answer, Iris."
"I value your good opinion, Hugh, and I am afraid of losing it."
"Nothing has ever altered my opinion of you," he replied, "and nothing ever will."
She looked at him anxiously, with the closest attention. Little by little, the expression of doubt in her face disappeared; she knew how he loved her--she resolved to trust him.
"My friend," she began abruptly, "education has done nothing for me. Since I left Ireland, I have sunk (I don't know how or why) into a state of superstitious fear. Yes! I believe in a fatality which is leading me back to Lord Harry, in spite of myself. Twice already, since I left home, I have met with him; and each time I have been the means of saving him--once at the milestone, and once at the ruin in the wood. If my father still accuses me of being in love with an adventurer, you can say with perfect truth that I am afraid of him. I am afraid of the third meeting. I have done my best to escape from that man; and, step by step, as I think I am getting away, Destiny is taking me back to him. I may be on my way to him here, hidden in this wretched little town. Oh, don't despise me! Don't be ashamed of me!"
"My dear, I am interested--deeply interested in you. That there may be some such influence as Destiny in our poor mortal lives, I dare not deny. But I don't agree with your conclusion. What Destiny has to do with you and with me, neither you nor I can pretend to know beforehand. In the presence of that great mystery, humanity must submit to be ignorant. Wait, Iris--wait!"
She answered him with the simplicity of a docile child: "I will do anything you tell me."
Mountjoy was too fond of her to say more of Lord Harry, for that day. He was careful to lead the talk to a topic which might be trusted to provoke no agitating thoughts. Finding Iris to all appearance established in the doctor's house, he was naturally anxious to know something of the person who must have invited her--the doctor's wife.
THE REGISTERED PACKET
MOUNTJOY began by alluding to the second of Miss Henley's letters to her father, and to a passage in it which mentioned Mrs. Vimpany with expressions of the sincerest gratitude.
"I should like to know more," he said, "of a lady whose hospitality at home seems to equal her kindness as a fellow-traveller. Did you first meet with her on the railway?"
"She travelled by the same train to Dublin, with me and my maid, but not in the same carriage," Iris answered; "I was so fortunate as to meet with her on the voyage from Dublin to Holyhead. We had a rough crossing; and Rhoda suffered so dreadfully from sea-sickness that she frightened me. The stewardess was attending to ladies who were calling for her in all directions; I really don't know what misfortune might not have happened, if Mrs. Vimpany had not come forward in the kindest manner, and offered help. She knew so wonderfully well what was to be done, that she astonished me. 'I am the wife of a doctor,' she said; 'and I am only imitating what I have seen my husband do, when his assistance has been required, at sea, in weather like this.' In her poor state of health, Rhoda was too much exhausted to go on by the train, when we got to Holyhead. She is the best of good girls, and I am fond of her, as you know. If I had been by myself, I daresay I should have sent for medical help. What do you think dear Mrs. Vimpany offered to do? 'Your maid is only faint,' she said. 'Give her rest and some iced wine, and she will be well enough to go on by the slow train. Don't be frightened about her; I will wait with you.' And she did wait. Are there many strangers, Hugh, who are as unselfishly good to others as my chance-acquaintance in the steamboat?"
"Very few, I am afraid."
Mountjoy made that reply with some little embarrassment; conscious of a doubt of Mrs. Vimpany's disinterested kindness, which seemed to be unworthy of a just man.
Iris went on.
"Rhoda was sufficiently recovered," she said, "to travel by the next train, and there seemed to be no reason for feeling any more anxiety. But, after a time, the fatigue of the journey proved to be too much for her. The poor girl turned pale--and fainted. Mrs. Vimpany revived her, but as it turned out, only for a while. She fell into another fainting fit; and my travelling-companion began to look anxious. There was some difficulty in restoring Rhoda to her senses. In dread of another attack, I determined to stop at the next station. It looked such a poor place, when we got to it, that I hesitated. Mrs. Vimpany persuaded me to go on. The next station, she said, was her station. 'Stop there,' she suggested, 'and let my husband look at the girl. I ought not perhaps to say it, but you will find no better medical man out of London.' I took the good creature's advice gratefully. What else could I do?"
"What would you have done," Mountjoy inquired, "if Rhoda had been strong enough to get to the end of the journey?"
"I should have gone on to London, and taken refuge in a lodging--you were in town, as I believed, and my father might relent in time. As it was, I felt my lonely position keenly. To meet with kind people, like Mr. Vimpany and his wife, was a real blessing to such a friendless creature as I am--to say nothing of the advantage to Rhoda, who is getting better every day. I should like you to see Mrs. Vimpany, if she is at home. She is a little formal and old fashioned in her manner--but I am sure you will be pleased with her. Ah! you look round the room! They are poor, miserably poor for persons in their position, these worthy friends of mine. I have had the greatest difficulty in persuading them to let me contribute my share towards the household expenses. They only yielded when I threatened to go to the inn. You are looking very serious, Hugh. Is it possible that you see some objection to my staying in this house?"
The drawing-room door was softly opened, at the moment when Iris put that question. A lady appeared on the threshold. Seeing the stranger, she turned to Iris.
"I didn't know, dear Miss Henley, that you had a visitor. Pray pardon my intrusion."
The voice was deep; the articulation was clear; the smile presented a certain modest dignity which gave it a value of its own. This was a woman who could make such a commonplace thing as an apology worth listening to. Iris stopped her as she was about to leave the room. "I was just wishing for you," she said. "Let me introduce my old friend, Mr. Mountjoy. Hugh, this is the lady who has been so kind to me--Mrs. Vimpany."
Hugh's impulse, under the circumstances, was to dispense with the formality of a bow, and to shake hands. Mrs. Vimpany met this friendly advance with a suavity of action, not often seen in these days of movement without ceremony. She was a tall slim woman, of a certain age. Art had so cleverly improved her complexion that it almost looked like nature. Her cheeks had lost the plumpness of youth, but her hair (thanks again perhaps to Art) showed no signs of turning grey. The expression of her large dark eyes--placed perhaps a little too near her high aquiline nose--claimed admiration from any person who was so fortunate as to come within their range of view. Her hands, long, yellow, and pitiably thin, were used with a grace which checked to some extent their cruel betrayal of her age. Her dress had seen better days, but it was worn with an air which forbade it to look actually shabby. The faded lace that encircled her neck fell in scanty folds over her bosom. She sank into a chair by Hugh's side. "It was a great pleasure to me, Mr. Mountjoy, to offer my poor services to Miss Henley; I can't tell you how happy her presence makes me in our little house." The compliment was addressed to Iris with every advantage that smiles and tones could offer. Oddly artificial as it undoubtedly was, Mrs. Vimpany's manner produced nevertheless an agreeable impression. Disposed to doubt her at first, Mountjoy found that she was winning her way to a favourable change in his opinion. She so far interested him, that he began to wonder what her early life might have been, when she was young and handsome. He looked again at the portraits of actresses on the walls, and the plays on the bookshelf--and then (when she was speaking to Iris) he stole a sly glance at the doctor's wife. Was it possible that this remarkable woman had once been an actress? He attempted to put the value of that guess to the test by means of a complimentary allusion to the prints.
"My memory as a playgoer doesn't extend over many years," he began; "but I can appreciate the historical interest of your beautiful prints." Mrs. Vimpany bowed gracefully--and dumbly. Mountjoy tried again. "One doesn't often see the famous actresses of past days," he proceeded, "so well represented on the walls of an English house."
This time, he had spoken to better purpose. Mrs. Vimpany answered him in words.
"I have many pleasant associations with the theatre," she said, "first formed in the time of my girlhood."
Mountjoy waited to hear something more. Nothing more was said. Perhaps this reticent lady disliked looking back through a long interval of years, or perhaps she had her reasons for leaving Mountjoy's guess at the truth still lost in doubt. In either case, she deliberately dropped the subject. Iris took it up. Sitting by the only table in the room, she was in a position which placed her exactly opposite to one of the prints--the magnificent portrait of Mrs. Siddons as The Tragic Muse.
"I wonder if Mrs. Siddons was really as beautiful as that?" she said, pointing to the print. "Sir Joshua Reynolds is reported to have sometimes flattered his sitters."
Mrs. Vimpany's solemn self-possessed eyes suddenly brightened; the name of the great actress seemed to interest her. On the point, apparently, of speaking, she dropped the subject of Mrs. Siddons as she had dropped the subject of the theatre. Mountjoy was left to answer Iris.
"We are none of us old enough," he reminded her, "to decide whether Sir Joshua's brush has been guilty of flattery or not." He turned to Mrs. Vimpany, and attempted to look into her life from a new point of view. "When Miss Henley was so fortunate as to make your acquaintance," he said, "you were travelling in Ireland. Was it your first visit to that unhappy country?"
"I have been more than once in Ireland."
Having again deliberately disappointed Mountjoy, she was assisted in keeping clear of the subject of Ireland by a fortunate interruption. It was the hour of delivery by the afternoon-post. The servant came in with a small sealed packet, and a slip of printed paper in her hand.
"It's registered, ma'am," the woman announced. "The postman says you are to please sign this. And he seems to be in a hurry."
She placed the packet and the slip of paper on the table, near the inkstand. Having signed the receipt, Mrs. Vimpany took up the packet, and examined the address. She instantly looked at Iris, and looked away again. "Will you excuse me for a moment?" saying this she left the room, without opening the packet.
The moment the door closed on her, Iris started up, and hurried to Mountjoy.
"Oh, Hugh," she said, "I saw the address on that packet when the servant put it on the table!"
"My dear, what is there to excite you in the address?"
"Don't speak so loud! She may be listening outside the door."
Not only the words, but the tone in which they were spoken, amazed Mountjoy. "Your friend, Mrs. Vimpany!" he exclaimed.
"Mrs. Vimpany was afraid to open the packet in our presence," Iris went on: "you must have seen that. The handwriting is familiar to me; I am certain of the person who wrote the address."
"Well? And who is the person?"
She whispered in his ear:
THE GAME: MOUNTJOY LOSES
SURPRISE silenced Hugh for the moment. Iris understood the look that he fixed on her, and answered it. "I am quite sure," she told him, "of what I say."
Mountjoy's well-balanced mind hesitated at rushing to a conclusion.
"I am sure you are convinced of what you tell me," he said. "But mistakes do sometimes happen in forming a judgment of handwriting."
In the state of excitement that now possessed her, Iris was easily irritated; she was angry with Hugh for only supposing that she might have made a mistake. He had himself, as she reminded him, seen Lord Harry's handwriting in past days. Was it possible to be mistaken in those bold thickly-written characters, with some of the letters so quaintly formed? "Oh, Hugh, I am miserable enough as it is," she broke out; "don't distract me by disputing what I know! Think of a woman so kind, so disinterested, so charming--the very opposite of a false creature--think of Mrs. Vimpany having deceived me!"
There was not the slightest reason, thus far, for placing that interpretation on what had happened. Mountjoy gently, very gently, remonstrated.
"My dear, we really don't know yet that Mrs. Vimpany has been acting under Lord Harry's instructions. Wait a little before you suspect your fellow-traveller of offering her services for the purpose of deceiving you."
Iris was angry with him again: "Why did Mrs. Vimpany never tell me she knew Lord Harry? Isn't that suspicious?"
Mountjoy smiled. "Let me put a question on my side," he said. "Did you tell Mrs. Vimpany you knew Lord Harry?" Iris made no reply; her face spoke for her. "Well, then," he urged, "is your silence suspicious? I am far, mind, from saying that this may not be a very unpleasant discovery. Only let us be sure first that we are right."
With most of a woman's merits, Miss Henley had many of a woman's faults. Still holding to her own conclusion, she asked how they could expect to be sure of anything if they addressed their inquiries to a person who had already deceived them.
Mountjoy's inexhaustible indulgence still made allowances for her. "When Mrs. Vimpany comes back," he said, "I will find an opportunity of mentioning Lord Harry's name. If she tells us that she knows him, there will be good reason in that one circumstance, as it seems to me, for continuing to trust her."
"Suppose she shams ignorance," Iris persisted, "and looks as if she had never heard of his name before?"
"In that case, I shall own that I was wrong, and shall ask you to forgive me."
The finer and better nature of Iris recovered its influence at these words. "It is I who ought to beg pardon," she said. "Oh, I wish I could think before I speak: how insolent and ill-tempered I have been! But suppose I turn out to be right, Hugh, what will you do then?"
"Then, my dear, it will be my duty to take you and your maid away from this house, and to tell your father what serious reasons there are"---- He abruptly checked himself. Mrs. Vimpany had returned; she was in perfect possession of her lofty courtesy, sweetened by the modest dignity of her smile.
"I have left you, Miss Henley, in such good company," she said, with a gracious inclination of her head in the direction of Mountjoy, "that I need hardly repeat my apologies--unless, indeed, I am interrupting a confidential conversation."
It was possible that Iris might have betrayed herself, when the doctor's wife had looked at her after examining the address on the packet. In this case Mrs. Vimpany's allusion to "a confidential conversation" would have operated as a warning to a person of experience in the by-ways of deceit. Mountjoy's utmost exertion of cunning was not capable of protecting him on such conditions as these. The opportunity of trying his proposed experiment with Lord Harry's name seemed to have presented itself already. He rashly seized on it.
"You have interrupted nothing that was confidential," he hastened to assure Mrs. Vimpany. "We have been speaking of a reckless young gentleman, who is an acquaintance of ours. If what I hear is true, he has already become public property; his adventures have found their way into some of the newspapers."
Here, if Mrs. Vimpany had answered Hugh's expectations, she ought to have asked who the young gentleman was. She merely listened in polite silence.
With a woman's quickness of perception, Iris saw that Mountjoy had not only pounced on his opportunity prematurely, but had spoken with a downright directness of allusion which must at once have put such a ready-witted person as Mrs. Vimpany on her guard. In trying to prevent him from pursuing his unfortunate experiment in social diplomacy, Iris innocently repeated Mountjoy's own mistake. She, too, seized her opportunity prematurely. That is to say, she was rash enough to change the subject.
"You were talking just now, Hugh, of our friend's adventures," she said; "I am afraid you will find yourself involved in an adventure of no very agreeable kind, if you engage a bed at the inn. I never saw a more wretched-looking place."
It was one of Mrs. Vimpany's many merits that she seldom neglected an opportunity of setting her friends at their ease.
"No, no, dear Miss Henley," she hastened to say; "the inn is really a more clean and comfortable place than you suppose. A hard bed and a scarcity of furniture are the worst evils which your friend has to fear. Do you know," she continued, addressing herself to Mountjoy, "that I was reminded of a friend of mine, when you spoke just now of the young gentleman whose adventures are in the newspapers. Is it possible that you referred to the brother of the present Earl of Norland? A handsome young Irishman--with whom I first became acquainted many years since. Am I right in supposing that you and Miss Henley know Lord Harry?" she asked.
What more than this could an unprejudiced mind require? Mrs. Vimpany had set herself right with a simplicity that defied suspicion. Iris looked at Mountjoy. He appeared to know when he was beaten. Having acknowledged that Lord Harry was the young gentleman of whom he and Miss Henley had been speaking, he rose to take leave.
After what had passed, Iris felt the necessity of speaking privately to Hugh. The necessary excuse presented itself in the remote situation of the inn. "You will never find your way back," she said, "through the labyrinth of crooked streets in this old town. Wait for me a minute, and I will be your guide."
Mrs. Vimpany protested. "My dear! let the servant show the way."
Iris held gaily to her resolution, and ran away to her room. Mrs. Vimpany yielded with her best grace. Miss Henley's motive could hardly have been plainer to her, if Miss Henley had confessed it herself. "What a charming girl!" the doctor's amiable wife said to Mountjoy, when they were alone. "If I were a man, Miss Iris is just the young lady that I should fall in love with." She looked significantly at Mountjoy. Nothing came of it. She went on: "Miss Henley must have had many opportunities of being married; but the right man has, I fear, not yet presented himself." Once more her eloquent eyes consulted Mountjoy, and once more nothing came of it. Some women are easily discouraged. Impenetrable Mrs. Vimpany was one of the other women; she had not done with Mountjoy yet--she invited him to dinner on the next day.
"Our early hour is three o'clock," she said modestly. "Pray join us. I hope to have the pleasure of introducing my husband."
Mountjoy had his reasons for wishing to see the husband. As he accepted the invitation, Miss Henley returned to accompany him to the inn.
Iris put the inevitable question to Hugh as soon as they were out of the doctor's house--"What do you say of Mrs. Vimpany now?"
"I say that she must have been once an actress," Mountjoy answered; "and that she carries her experience of the stage into private life."
"What do you propose to do next?"
"I propose to wait, and see Mrs. Vimpany's husband to-morrow."
"Mrs. Vimpany, my dear, is too clever for me. If--observe, please, that I do her the justice of putting it in that way--if she is really Lord Harry's creature, employed to keep watch on you, and to inform him of your next place of residence in England, I own that she has completely deceived me. In that case, it is just possible that the husband is not such a finished and perfect humbug as the wife. I may be able to see through him. I can but try."
Iris sighed. "I almost hope you may not succeed," she said.
Mountjoy was puzzled, and made no attempt to conceal it. "I thought you only wanted to get at the truth," he answered.
"My mind might be easier, perhaps, if I was left in doubt," she suggested. "A perverse way of thinking has set up my poor opinion against yours. But I am getting back to my better sense. I believe you were entirely right when you tried to prevent me from rushing to conclusions; it is more than likely that I have done Mrs. Vimpany an injustice. Oh, Hugh, I ought to keep a friend--I who have so few friends--when I have got one! And there is another feeling in me which I must not conceal from you. When I remember Lord Harry's noble conduct in trying to save poor Arthur, I cannot believe him capable of such hateful deceit as consenting to our separation, and then having me secretly watched by a spy. What monstrous inconsistency! Can anybody believe it? Can anybody account for it?"
"I think I can account for it, Iris, if you will let me make the attempt. You are mistaken to begin with."
"How am I mistaken?"
"You shall see. There is no such creature as a perfectly consistent human being on the face of the earth--and, strange as it may seem to you, the human beings themselves are not aware of it. The reason for this curious state of things is not far to seek. How can people who are ignorant--as we see every day--of their own characters be capable of correctly estimating the characters of others? Even the influence of their religion fails to open their eyes to the truth. In the Prayer which is the most precious possession of Christendom, their lips repeat the entreaty that they may not be led into temptation--but their minds fail to draw the inference. If that pathetic petition means anything, it means that virtuous men and women are capable of becoming vicious men and women, if a powerful temptation puts them to the test. Every Sunday, devout members of the congregation in church--models of excellence in their own estimation, and in the estimation of their neighbours--declare that they have done those things which they ought not to have done, and that there is no health in them. Will you believe that they are encouraged by their Prayer-books to present this sad exposure of the frailty of their own admirable characters? How inconsistent--and yet how entirely true! Lord Harry, as you rightly say, behaved nobly in trying to save my dear lost brother. He ought, as you think, and as other people think, to be consistently noble, after that, in all his thoughts and actions, to the end of his life. Suppose that temptation does try him--such temptation, Iris, as you innocently present--why doesn't he offer a superhuman resistance? You might as well ask, Why is he a mortal man? How inconsistent, how improbable, that he should have tendencies to evil in him, as well as tendencies to good! Ah, I see you don't like this. It would be infinitely more agreeable (wouldn't it?) if Lord Harry was one of the entirely consistent characters which are sometimes presented in works of fiction. Our good English readers are charmed with the man, the woman, or the child, who is introduced to them by the kind novelist as a being without faults. Do they stop to consider whether this is a true picture of humanity? It would be a terrible day for the book if they ever did that. But the book is in no danger. The readers would even fail to discover the falseness of the picture, if they were presented to themselves as perfect characters. 'We mustn't say so, but how wonderfully like us!' There would be the only impression produced. I am not trying to dishearten you; I want to encourage you to look at humanity from a wider and truer point of view. Do not be too readily depressed, if you find your faith shaken in a person whom you have hitherto believed to be good. That person has been led into temptation. Wait till time shows you that the evil influence is not everlasting, and that the good influence will inconsistently renew your faith out of the very depths of your despair. Humanity, in general, is neither perfectly good nor perfectly wicked: take it as you find it. Is this a hard lesson to learn? Well! it's easy to do what other people do, under similar circumstances. Listen to the unwelcome truth to-day, my dear; and forget it to-morrow."
They parted at the door of the inn.
THE GAME: MOUNTJOY PLAYS A NEW CARD
MR. VIMPANY (of the College of Surgeons) was a burly man, heavily built from head to foot. His bold round eyes looked straight at his fellow-creatures with an expression of impudent good humour; his whiskers were bushy, his hands were big, his lips were thick, his legs were solid. Add to this a broad sunburnt face, and a grey coat with wide tails, a waistcoat with a check pattern, and leather riding-gaiters--and no stranger could have failed to mistake Mr. Vimpany for a farmer of the old school. He was proud of the false impression that he created. "Nature built me to be a farmer," he used to say. "But my poor foolish old mother was a lady by birth, and she insisted on her son being a professional man. I hadn't brains for the Law, or money for the Army, or morals for the Church. And here I am a country doctor--the one representative of slavery left in the nineteenth century. You may not believe me, but I never see a labourer at the plough that I don't envy him."
This was the husband of the elegant lady with the elaborate manners. This was the man who received Mountjoy with a "Glad to see you, sir," and a shake of the hand that hurt him.
"Coarse fare," said Mr. Vimpany, carving a big joint of beef; "but I can't afford anything better. Only a pudding to follow, and a glass of glorious old sherry. Miss Henley is good enough to excuse it--and my wife's used to it--and you will put up with it, Mr. Mountjoy, if you are half as amiable as you look. I'm an old-fashioned man. The pleasure of a glass of wine with you, sir."
Hugh's first experience of the "glorious old sherry" led him to a discovery, which proved to be more important than he was disposed to consider it at the moment. He merely observed, with some amusement, that Mr. Vimpany smacked his lips in hearty approval of the worst sherry that his guest had ever tasted. Here, plainly self-betrayed, was a medical man who was an exception to a general rule in the profession--here was a doctor ignorant of the difference between good wine and bad!
Both the ladies were anxious to know how Mountjoy had passed the night at the inn. He had only time to say that there was nothing to complain of, when Mr. Vimpany burst into an explosion of laughter.
"Oh, but you must have had something to complain of!" said the big doctor. "I would bet a hundred, if I could afford it, that the landlady tried to poison you with her sour French wine."
"Do you speak of the claret at the inn, after having tasted it?" Mountjoy asked.
"What do you take me for?" cried Mr. Vimpany. "After all I have heard of that claret, I am not fool enough to try it myself, I can tell you." Mountjoy received this answer in silence. The doctor's ignorance and the doctor's prejudice, in the matter of wine, had started a new train of thought in Hugh's mind, which threatened serious consequences to Mr. Vimpany himself. There was a pause at the table; nobody spoke. The doctor saw condemnation of his rudeness expressed in his wife's face. He made a rough apology to Mountjoy, who was still preoccupied. "No offence, I hope? It's in the nature of me, sir, to speak my mind. If I could fawn and flatter, I should have got on better in my profession. I'm what they call a rough diamond. No, offence, I say?"
"None whatever, Mr. Vimpany."
"That's right! Try another glass of sherry."
Mountjoy took the sherry.
Iris looked at him, lost in surprise. It was unlike Hugh to be interested in a stranger's opinion of wine. It was unlike him to drink wine which was evidently not to his taste. And it was especially unlike his customary courtesy to let himself fall into thought at dinner-time, when there were other persons at the table. Was he ill? Impossible to look at him, and not see that he was in perfect health. What did it mean?
Finding Mountjoy inattentive, Mr. Vimpany addressed himself to Iris.
"I had to ride hard, Miss Henley, to get home in time for dinner. There are patients, I must tell you, who send for the doctor, and then seem to think they know more about it than the very man whom they have called in to cure them. It isn't he who tells them what their illness is; it's they who tell him. They dispute about the medical treatment that's best for them, and the one thing they are never tired of doing is talking about their symptoms. It was an old man's gabble that kept me late to-day. However, the Squire, as they call him in these parts, is a patient with a long purse; I am obliged to submit."
"A gentleman of the old school, dear Miss Henley," Mrs. Vimpany explained. "Immensely rich. Is he better?" she asked, turning to her husband.
"Better?" cried the outspoken doctor. "Pooh! there's nothing the matter with him but gluttony. He went to London, and consulted a great man, a humbug with a handle to his name. The famous physician got rid of him in no time--sent him abroad to boil himself in foreign baths. He came home again worse than ever, and consulted poor Me. I found him at dinner--a perfect feast, I give you my word of honour!--and the old fool gorging himself till he was black in the face. His wine, I should have said, was not up to the mark; wanted body and flavour, you know. Ah, Mr. Mountjoy, this seems to interest you; reminds you of the landlady's wine--eh? Well, sir, how do you think I treated the Squire? Emptied his infirm old inside with an emetic--and there he was on his legs again. Whenever he overeats himself he sends for me; and pays liberally. I ought to be grateful to him, and I am. Upon my soul, I believe I should be in the bankruptcy court but for the Squire's stomach. Look at my wife! She's shocked at me. We ought to keep up appearances, my dear? Not I! When I am poor, I say I am poor. When I cure a patient, I make no mystery of it; everybody's welcome to know how it's done. Don't be down-hearted, Arabella; nature never meant your husband for a doctor, and there's the long and the short of it. Another glass of sherry, Mr. Mountjoy?"
All social ceremonies--including the curious English custom which sends the ladies upstairs, after dinner, and leaves the gentlemen at the table--found a devoted adherent in Mrs. Vimpany. She rose as if she had been presiding at a banquet, and led Miss Henley affectionately to the drawing-room. Iris glanced at Hugh. No; his mind was not at ease yet; the preoccupied look had not left his face.
Jovial Mr. Vimpany pushed the bottle across the table to his guest, and held out a handful of big black cigars.
"Now for the juice of the grape," he cried, "and the best cigar in all England!"
He had just filled his glass, and struck a light for his cigar, when the servant came in with a note. Some men relieve their sense of indignation in one way, and some in another. The doctor's form of relief was an oath. "Talk about slavery!" he shouted. "Find me such a slave in all Africa as a man in my profession. There isn't an hour of the day or night that he can call his own. Here's a stupid old woman with an asthma, who has got another spasmodic attack--and I must leave my dinner-table and my friend, just as we are enjoying ourselves. I have half a mind not to go."
The inattentive guest suddenly set himself right in his host's estimation. Hugh remonstrated with an appearance of interest in the case, which the doctor interpreted as a compliment to himself: "Oh, Mr. Vimpany, humanity! humanity!"
"Oh, Mr. Mountjoy, money! money!" the facetious doctor answered. "The old lady is our Mayor's mother, sir. You don't seem to be quick at taking a joke. Make your mind easy; I shall pocket my fee."
As soon as he had closed the door, Hugh Mountjoy uttered a devout ejaculation. "Thank God!" he said--and walked up and down the room, free to think without interruption at last.
The subject of his meditations was the influence of intoxication in disclosing the hidden weaknesses and vices of a man's character by exhibiting them just as they are, released from the restraint which he exercises over himself when he is sober. That there was a weak side, and probably a vicious side, in Mr. Vimpany's nature it was hardly possible to doubt. His blustering good humour, his audacious self-conceit, the tones of his voice, the expression in his eyes, all revealed him (to use one expressive word) as a humbug. Let drink subtly deprive him of his capacity for self-concealment! and the true nature of his wife's association with Lord Harry might sooner or later show itself--say, in after-dinner talk, under skilful management. The right method of entrapping him into a state of intoxication (which might have presented serious difficulties under other circumstances) was suggested, partly by his ignorance of the difference between good wine and bad, and partly by Mountjoy's knowledge of the excellent quality of the landlady's claret. He had recognised, as soon as he tasted it, that finest vintage of Bordeaux, which conceals its true strength--to a gross and ignorant taste--under the exquisite delicacy of its flavour. Encourage Mr. Vimpany by means of a dinner at the inn, to give his opinion as a man whose judgment in claret was to be seriously consulted--and permit him also to discover that Hugh was rich enough to have been able to buy the wine--and the attainment of the end in view would be simply a question of time. There was certainly the chance to be reckoned with, that his thick head might prove to be too strong for the success of the experiment. Mountjoy determined to try it, and did try it nevertheless.
Mr. Vimpany returned from his medical errand, thoroughly well satisfied with himself.
"The Mayor's mother has reason to thank you, sir," he announced. "If you hadn't hurried me away, the wretched old creature would have been choked. A regular stand-up fight, by Jupiter, between death and the doctor!--and the doctor has won! Give me the reward of merit. Pass the bottle."
He took up the decanter, and looked at it.
"Why, what have you been about?" he asked. "I made up my mind that I should want the key of the cellar when I came back, and I don't believe you have drunk a drop in my absence. What does it mean?"
"It means that I am not worthy of your sherry," Mountjoy answered. "The Spanish wines are too strong for my weak digestion."
Mr. Vimpany burst into one of his explosions of laughter. "You miss the landlady's vinegar--eh?"
"Yes, I do! Wait a minute, doctor; I have a word to say on my side--and, like you, I mean what I say. The landlady's vinegar is some of the finest Château Margaux I have ever met with--thrown away on ignorant people who are quite unworthy of it."
The doctor's natural insolence showed itself. "You have bought this wonderful wine, of course?" he said satirically.
"That," Mountjoy answered, "is just what I have done."
For once in his life, Mr. Vimpany's self-sufficient readiness of speech failed him. He stared at his guest in dumb amazement. On this occasion, Mountjoy improved the opportunity to good purpose. Mr. Vimpany accepted with the utmost readiness an invitation to dine on the next day at the inn. But he made a condition. "In case I don't agree with you about that Château--what-you-call-it," he said, "you won't mind my sending home for a bottle of sherry?"
The next event of the day was a visit to the most interesting monument of antiquity in the town. In the absence of the doctor, caused by professional engagements, Miss Henley took Mountjoy to see the old church--and Mrs. Vimpany accompanied them, as a mark of respect to Miss Henley's friend.
When there was a chance of being able to speak confidentially, Iris was eager in praising the doctor's wife. "You can't imagine, Hugh, how agreeable she has been, and how entirely she has convinced me that I was wrong, shamefully wrong, in thinking of her as I did. She sees that you dislike her, and yet she speaks so nicely of you. 'Your clever friend enjoys your society,' she said; 'pray accompany me when I take him to see the church.' How unselfish!"
Mountjoy kept his own counsel. The generous impulses which sometimes led Iris astray were, as he well knew, beyond the reach of remonstrance. His own opinion of Mrs. Vimpany still pronounced steadily against her. Prepared for discoveries, on the next day, which might prove too serious to be trifled with, he now did his best to provide for future emergencies.
After first satisfying himself that there was nothing in the present state of the maid's health which need detain her mistress at Honeybuzzard, he next completed his preparations by returning to the inn, and writing to Mr. Henley. With strict regard to truth, his letter presented the daughter's claim on the father under a new point of view. Whatever the end of it might be, Mr. Henley was requested to communicate his intentions by telegraph. Will you receive Iris? was the question submitted. The answer expected was: Yes or No.
THE GAME: MOUNTJOY WINS
MR. HENLEY's telegram arrived at the inn the next morning.
He was willing to receive his daughter, but not unreservedly. The message was characteristic of the man: "Yes--on trial." Mountjoy was not shocked, was not even surprised. He knew that the successful speculations, by means of which Mr. Henley had accumulated his wealth, had raised against him enemies, who had spread scandalous reports which had never been completely refuted. The silent secession of friends, in whose fidelity he trusted, had hardened the man's heart and embittered his nature. Strangers in distress, who appealed to the rich retired merchant for help, found in their excellent references to character the worst form of persuasion that they could have adopted. Paupers without a rag of reputation left to cover them, were the objects of charity whom Mr. Henley relieved. When he was asked to justify his conduct, he said: "I have a sympathy with bad characters---I am one of them myself."
With the arrival of the dinner hour the doctor appeared, in no very amiable humour, at the inn.
"Another hard day's work," he said; "I should sink under it, if I hadn't a prospect of getting rid of my practice here. London--or the neighbourhood of London--there's the right place for a man like Me. Well? Where's the wonderful wine? Mind! I'm Tom-Tell-Truth; if I don't like your French tipple, I shall say so."
The inn possessed no claret glasses; they drank the grand wine in tumblers as if it had been vin ordinaire.
Mr. Vimpany showed that he was acquainted with the formalities proper to the ceremony of tasting. He filled his makeshift glass, he held it up to the light, and looked at the wine severely; he moved the tumbler to and fro under his nose, and smelt at it again and again; he paused and reflected; he tasted the claret as cautiously as if he feared it might be poisoned; he smacked his lips, and emptied his glass at a draught; lastly, he showed some consideration for his host's anxiety, and pronounced sentence on the wine.
"Not so good as you think it, sir. But nice light claret; clean and wholesome. I hope you haven't given too much for it?"
Thus far, Hugh had played a losing game patiently. His reward had come at last. After what the doctor had just said to him, he saw the winning card safe in his own hand.
The bad dinner was soon over. No soup, of course; fish, in the state of preservation usually presented by a decayed country town; steak that rivalled the toughness of india-rubber; potatoes whose aspect said, "stranger, don't eat us"; pudding that would have produced a sense of discouragement, even in the mind of a child; and the famous English cheese which comes to us, oddly enough, from the United States, and stings us vindictively when we put it into our mouths. But the wine, the glorious wine, would have made amends to anybody but Mr. Vimpany for the woeful deficiencies of the food. Tumbler-full after tumbler-full of that noble vintage poured down his thirsty and ignorant throat; and still he persisted in declaring that it was nice light stuff, and still he unforgivingly bore in mind the badness of the dinner.
"The feeding here," said this candid man, "is worse if possible than the feeding at sea, when I served as doctor on board a passenger-steamer. Shall I tell you how I lost my place? Oh, say so plainly, if you don't think my little anecdote worth listening to!"
"My dear sir, I am waiting to hear it."
"Very good. No offence, I hope? That's right! Well, sir, the captain of the ship complained of me to the owners; I wouldn't go round, every morning, and knock at the ladies' cabin-doors, and ask how they felt after a sea-sick night. Who doesn't know what they feel, without knocking at their doors? Let them send for the doctor when they want him. That was how I understood my duty; and there was the line of conduct that lost me my place. Pass the wine. Talking of ladies, what do you think of my wife? Did you ever see such distinguished manners before? My dear fellow, I have taken a fancy to you. Shake hands. I'll tell you another little anecdote. Where do you think my wife picked up her fashionable airs and graces? Ho! ho! On the stage! The highest branch of the profession, sir--a tragic actress. If you had seen her in Lady Macbeth, Mrs. Vimpany would have made your flesh creep. Look at me, and feast your eyes on a man who is above hypocritical objections to the theatre. Haven't I proved it by marrying an actress? But we don't mention it here. The savages in this beastly place wouldn't employ me, if they knew I had married a stage-player. Hullo! The bottle's empty again. Ha! here's another bottle, full. I love a man who has always got a full bottle to offer his friend. Shake hands. I say, Mountjoy, tell me on your sacred word of honour, can you keep a secret? My wife's secret, sir! Stop! let me look at you again. I thought I saw you smile. If a man smiles at me, when I am opening my whole heart to him, by the living jingo, I would knock that man down at his own table! What? you didn't smile? I apologise. Your hand again; I drink your health in your own good wine. Where was I? What was I talking about?"
Mountjoy carefully humoured his interesting guest.
"You were about to honour me," he said, "by taking me into your confidence." Mr. Vimpany stared in tipsy bewilderment. Mountjoy tried again in plainer language: "You were going to tell me a secret."
This time, the doctor grasped the idea. He looked round cunningly to the door. "Any eavesdroppers?" he asked. "Hush! Whisper--this is serious--whisper! What was it I was going to tell you? What was the secret, old boy?"
Mountjoy answered a little too readily: "I think it related to Mrs. Vimpany."
Mrs. Vimpany's husband threw himself back in his chair, snatched a dirty handkerchief out of his pocket, and began to cry.
"Here's a false friend!" the creature whimpered. "Asks me to dinner, and takes advantage of my dependent situation to insult my wife. The loveliest of women, the sweetest of women, the innocentest of women. Oh, my wife! my wife!" He suddenly threw his handkerchief to the other end of the room, and burst out laughing. "Ho! ho! Mountjoy, what an infernal fool you must be to take me seriously. I can act, too. Do you think I care about my wife? She was a fine woman once: she's a bundle of old rags now. But she has her merits. Hush! I want to know something. Have you got a lord among your circle of acquaintance?"
Experience made Mountjoy more careful; perhaps a little too careful. He only said "Yes."
The doctor's dignity asserted itself. "That's a short answer, sir, to a man in my position. If you want me to believe you, mention your friend's name."
Here was a chance at last! "His name;" Mountjoy began, "is Lord Harry--"
Mr. Vimpany lost his dignity in an instant. He struck his heavy fist on the table, with a blow that made the tumblers jump.
"Coincidence!" he cried. "How wonderful--no; that's not the word--providential is the word--how providential are coincidences! I mean, of course, to a rightly constituted mind. Let nobody contradict me! When I say a rightly constituted mind I speak seriously; and a young man like you will be all the better for it. Mountjoy! dear Mountjoy! jolly Mountjoy! my wife's lord is your lord--Lord Harry. No; none of your nonsense--I won't have any more wine. Yes, I will; it might hurt your feelings if I didn't drink with you. Pass the bottle. Ha! That's a nice ring you've got on your finger. Perhaps you think it valuable? It's nothing, sir; it's dross, it's dirt, compared to my wife's diamond pin! There's a jewel, if you like! It will be worth a fortune to us when we sell it. A gift, dear sir! I'm afraid I've been too familiar with you. Speaking as a born gentleman, I beg to present my respects, and I call you 'dear sir.' Did I tell you the diamond pin was a gift? It's nothing of the sort; we are under no obligation; my wife, my admirable wife, has earned that diamond pin. By registered post; and what I call a manly letter from Lord Harry. He is deeply obliged (I give you the sense of it) by what my wife has done for him; ready money is scarce with my lord; he sends a family jewel, with his love. Oh, I'm not jealous. He's welcome to love Mrs. Vimpany, in her old age, if he likes. Did you say that, sir? Did you say that Lord Harry, or any man, was welcome to love Mrs. Vimpany? I have a great mind to throw this bottle at your head. No, I won't; it's wasting good wine! How kind of you to give me good wine. Who are you? I don't like dining with a stranger. Do you know any friend of mine? Do you know a man named Mountjoy? Do you know two men named Mountjoy? No: you don't. One of them is dead: killed by those murdering scoundrels what do you call them? Eh, what?" The doctor's voice began to falter, his head dropped; he slumbered suddenly and woke suddenly, and began talking again suddenly. "Would you like to be made acquainted with Lord Harry? I'll give you a sketch of his character before I introduce him. Between ourselves, he's a desperate wretch. Do you know why he employed my wife, my admirable wife? You will agree with me; he ought to have looked after his young woman himself. We've got his young woman safe in our house. A nice girl. Not my style; my medical knowledge certifies she's cold-blooded. Lord Harry has only to come over here and find her. Why the devil doesn't he come? What is it keeps him in Ireland? Do you know? I seem to have forgotten. My own belief is I've got softening of the brain. What's good for softening of the brain? There isn't a doctor living who won't tell you the right remedy--wine. Pass the wine. If this claret is worth a farthing, it's worth a guinea a bottle. I ask you in confidence; did you ever hear of such a fool as my wife's lord? His name escapes me. No matter; he stops in Ireland--hunting. Hunting what? The fox? Nothing so noble; hunting assassins. He's got some grudge against one of them. Means to kill one of them. A word in your ear; they'll kill him. Do you ever bet? Five to one, he's a dead man before the end of the week. When is the end of the week? Tuesday, Wednesday--no, Saturday--that's the beginning of the week--no, it isn't--the beginning of the week isn't the Sabbath--Sunday, of course--we are not Christians, we are Jews--I mean we are Jews, we are not Christians--I mean--"
The claret got the better of his tongue, at last. He mumbled and muttered; he sank back in his chair; he chuckled; he hiccupped; he fell asleep.
All and more than all that Mountjoy feared, he had now discovered. In a state of sobriety, the doctor was probably one of those men who are always ready to lie. In a state of intoxication the utterances of his drunken delirium might unconsciously betray the truth. The reason which he had given for Lord Harry's continued absence in Ireland, could not be wisely rejected as unworthy of belief. It was in the reckless nature of the wild lord to put his own life in peril, in the hope of revenging Arthur Mountjoy on the wretch who had killed him. Taking this bad news for granted, was there any need to distress Iris by communicating the motive which detained Lord Harry in his own country? Surely not!
And, again, was there any immediate advantage to be gained by revealing the true character of Mrs. Vimpany, as a spy, and, worse still, a spy who was paid? In her present state of feeling, Iris would, in all probability, refuse to believe it.
Arriving at these conclusions, Hugh looked at the doctor snoring and choking in an easy-chair. He had not wasted the time and patience devoted to the stratagem which had now successfully reached its end. After what he had just heard--thanks to the claret--he could not hesitate to accomplish the speedy removal of Iris from Mr. Vimpany's house; using her father's telegram as the only means of persuasion on which it was possible to rely. Mountjoy left the inn without ceremony, and hurried away to Iris in the hope of inducing her to return to London with him that night.
DOCTORING THE DOCTOR
ASKING for Miss Henley at the doctor's door, Hugh was informed that she had gone out, with her invalid maid, for a walk. She had left word, if Mr. Mountjoy called in her absence, to beg that he would kindly wait for her return.
On his way up to the drawing-room, Mountjoy heard Mrs. Vimpany's sonorous voice occupied, as he supposed, in reading aloud. The door being opened for him, he surprised her, striding up and down the room with a book in her hand; grandly declaiming without anybody to applaud her. After what Hugh had already heard, he could only conclude that reminiscences of her theatrical career had tempted the solitary actress to make a private appearance, for her own pleasure, in one of those tragic characters to which her husband had alluded. She recovered her self-possession on Mountjoy's appearance, with the ease of a mistress of her art. "Pardon me," she said, holding up her book with one hand, and tapping it indicatively with the other: "Shakespeare carries me out of myself. A spark of the poet's fire burns in the poet's humble servant. May I hope that I have made myself understood? You look as if you had a fellow-feeling for me."
Mountjoy did his best to fill the sympathetic part assigned to him, and only succeeded in showing what a bad actor he would have been, if he had gone on the stage. Under the sedative influence thus administered, Mrs. Vimpany put away her book, and descended at once from the highest poetry to the lowest prose.
"Let us return to domestic events," she said indulgently. "Have the people at the inn given you a good dinner?"
"The people did their best," Mountjoy answered cautiously.
"Has my husband returned with you?" Mrs. Vimpany went on.
Mountjoy began to regret that he had not waited for Iris in the street. He was obliged to acknowledge that the doctor had not returned with him.
"Where is Mr. Vimpany?"
"At the inn."
"What is he doing there?"
Mountjoy hesitated. Mrs. Vimpany rose again into the regions of tragic poetry. She stepped up to him, as if he had been Macbeth, and she was ready to use the daggers. "I understand but too well," she declared in terrible tones. "My wretched husband's vices are known to me. Mr. Vimpany is intoxicated."
Hugh tried to make the best of it. "Only asleep," he said. Mrs. Vimpany looked at him once more. This time, it was Queen Katharine looking at Cardinal Wolsey. She bowed with lofty courtesy, and opened the door. "I have occasion," she said, "to go out"----and made an exit.
Five minutes later, Mountjoy (standing at the window, impatiently on the watch for the return of Iris) saw Mrs. Vimpany in the street. She entered a chemist's shop, on the opposite side of the way, and came out again with a bottle in her hand. It was enclosed in the customary medical wrapping of white paper. Majestically, she passed out of sight. If Hugh had followed her he would have traced the doctor's wife to the door of the inn.
The unemployed waiter was on the house-steps, looking about him--with nothing to see. He made his bow to Mrs. Vimpany, and informed her that the landlady had gone out.
"You will do as well," was the reply. "Is Mr. Vimpany here?"
The waiter smiled, and led the way through the passage to the foot of the stairs. "You can hear him, ma'am." It was quite true; Mr. Vimpany's snoring answered for Mr. Vimpany. His wife ascended the first two or three stairs, and stopped to speak again to the waiter. She asked what the two gentlemen had taken to drink with their dinner. They had taken "the French wine."
"And nothing else?"
The waiter ventured on a little joke. "Nothing else," he said-- "and more than enough of it, too."
"Not more than enough, I suppose, for the good of the house," Mrs. Vimpany remarked.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am; the claret the two gentlemen drank is not charged for in the bill."
"What do you mean?"
The waiter explained that Mr. Mountjoy had purchased the whole stock of the wine. Suspicion, as well as surprise, appeared in Mrs. Vimpany's face. She had hitherto thought it likely that Miss Henley's gentleman-like friend might be secretly in love with the young lady. Her doubts of him, now, took a wider range of distrust. She went on up the stairs by herself, and banged the door of the private room as the easiest means of waking the sleeping man. To the utmost noise that she could make in this way, he was perfectly impenetrable. For a while she waited, looking at him across the table with unutterable contempt.
There was the man to whom the religion of the land and the law of the land, acting together in perfect harmony, had fettered her for life! Some women, in her position, might have wasted time in useless self-reproach. Mrs. Vimpany reviewed her miserable married life with the finest mockery of her own misfortune. "Virtue," she said to herself, "is its own reward."
Glancing with careless curiosity at the disorder of the dinner-table, she noticed some wine still left in the bottom of her husband's glass. Had artificial means been used to reduce him to his present condition? She tasted the claret. No; there was nothing in the flavour of it which betrayed that he had been drugged. If the waiter was to be believed, he had only drunk claret--and there he was, in a state of helpless stupefaction, nevertheless.
She looked again at the dinner-table, and discovered one, among the many empty bottles, with some wine still left in it. After a moment of reflection, she took a clean tumbler from the sideboard.
Here was the wine which had been an object of derision to Mr. Vimpany and his friends. They were gross feeders and drinkers; and it might not be amiss to put their opinions to the test. She was not searching for the taste of a drug now; her present experiment proposed to try the wine on its own merits.
At the time of her triumphs on the country stage--before the date of her unlucky marriage--rich admirers had entertained the handsome actress at suppers, which offered every luxury that the most perfect table could supply. Experience had made her acquainted with the flavour of the finest claret--and that experience was renewed by the claret which she was now tasting. It was easy to understand why Mr. Mountjoy had purchased the wine; and, after a little thinking, his motive for inviting Mr. Vimpany to dinner seemed to be equally plain. Foiled in their first attempt at discovery by her own prudence and tact, his suspicions had set their trap. Her gross husband had been tempted to drink, and to talk at random (for Mr. Mountjoy's benefit) in a state of intoxication!
What secrets might the helpless wretch not have betrayed before the wine had completely stupefied him?
Urged by rage and fear, she shook him furiously. He woke; he glared at her with bloodshot eyes; he threatened her with his clenched fist. There was but one way of lifting his purblind stupidity to the light. She appealed to his experience of himself, on many a former occasion: "You fool, you have been drinking again--and there's a patient waiting for you." To that dilemma he was accustomed; the statement of it partially roused him. Mrs. Vimpany tore off the paper wrapping, and opened the medicine-bottle which she had brought with her.
He stared at it; he muttered to himself: "Is she going to poison me?" She seized his head with one hand, and held the open bottle to his nose. "Your own prescription," she cried, "for yourself and your hateful friends."
His nose told him what words might have tried vainly to say: he swallowed the mixture. "If I lose the patient," he muttered oracularly, "I lose the money." His resolute wife dragged him out of his chair. The second door in the dining-room led into an empty bed-chamber. With her help, he got into the room, and dropped on the bed.
Mrs. Vimpany consulted her watch.
On many a former occasion she had learnt what interval of repose was required, before the sobering influence of the mixture could successfully assert itself. For the present, she had only to return to the other room. The waiter presented himself, asking if there was anything he could do for her. Familiar with the defective side of her husband's character, he understood what it meant when she pointed to the bedroom door. "The old story, ma'am," he said, with an air of respectful sympathy. "Can I get you a cup of tea?"
Mrs. Vimpany accepted the tea, and enjoyed it thoughtfully.
She had two objects in view--to be revenged on Mountjoy, and to find a way of forcing him to leave the town before he could communicate his discoveries to Iris. How to reach these separate ends, by one and the same means, was still the problem which she was trying to solve, when the doctor's coarse voice was audible, calling for somebody to come to him.
If his head was only clear enough, by this time, to understand the questions which she meant to put, his answers might suggest the idea of which she was in search. Rising with alacrity, Mrs. Vimpany returned to the bed-chamber.
"You miserable creature," she began, "are you sober now?"
"I'm as sober as you are."
"Do you know," she went on, "why Mr. Mountjoy asked you to dine with him?"
"Because he's my friend."
"He is your worst enemy. Hold your tongue! I'll explain what I mean directly. Rouse your memory, if you have got a memory left. I want to know what you and Mr. Mountjoy talked about after dinner."
He stared at her helplessly. She tried to find her way to his recollection by making suggestive inquiries. It was useless; he only complained of being thirsty. His wife lost her self-control. She was too furiously angry with him to be able to remain in the room. Recovering her composure when she was alone, she sent for soda-water and brandy. Her one chance of making him useful was to humour his vile temper; she waited on him herself.
In some degree, the drink cleared his muddled head. Mrs. Vimpany tried his memory once more. Had he said this? Had he said that? Yes: he thought it likely. Had he, or had Mr. Mountjoy, mentioned Lord Harry's name? A glimmer of intelligence showed itself in his stupid eyes. Yes--and they had quarrelled about it: he rather thought he had thrown a bottle at Mr. Mountjoy's head. Had they, either of them, said anything about Miss Henley? Oh, of course! What was it? He was unable to remember. Had his wife done bothering him, now?
"Not quite," she replied. "Try to understand what I am going to say to you. If Lord Harry comes to us while Miss Henley is in our house--"
He interrupted her: "That's your business."
"Wait a little. It's my business, if I hear beforehand that his lordship is coming. But he is quite reckless enough to take us by surprise. In that case, I want you to make yourself useful. If you happen to be at home, keep him from seeing Miss Henley until I have seen her first."
"I want an opportunity, my dear, of telling Miss Henley that I have been wicked enough to deceive her, before she finds it out for herself. I may hope she will forgive me, if I confess everything."
The doctor laughed: "What the devil does it matter whether she forgives you or not?"
"It matters a great deal."
"Why, you talk as if you were fond of her!"
The doctor's clouded intelligence was beginning to clear; he made a smart reply: "Fond of her, and deceiving her--aha!"
"Yes," she said quietly, "that's just what it is. It has grown on me, little by little; I can't help liking Miss Henley."
"Well," Mr. Vimpany remarked, "you are a fool!" He looked at her cunningly. "Suppose I do make myself useful, what am I to gain by it?"
"Let us get back," she suggested, "to the gentleman who invited you to dinner, and made you tipsy for his own purposes."
"I'll break every bone in his skin!"
"Don't talk nonsense! Leave Mr. Mountjoy to me."
"Do you take his part? I can tell you this. If I drank too much of that poisonous French stuff, Mountjoy set me the example. He was tipsy--as you call it--shamefully tipsy, I give you my word of honour. What's the matter now?"
His wife (so impenetrably cool, thus far) had suddenly become excited. There was not the smallest fragment of truth in what he had just said of Hugh, and Mrs. Vimpany was not for a moment deceived by it. But the lie had, accidentally, one merit--it suggested to her the idea which she had vainly tried to find over her cup of tea. "Suppose I show you how you may be revenged on Mr. Mountjoy," she said.
"Will you remember what I asked you to do for me, if Lord Harry takes us by surprise?"
He produced his pocket-diary, and told her to make a memorandum of it. She wrote as briefly as if she had been writing a telegram: "Keep Lord Harry from seeing Miss Henley, till I have seen her first."
"Now," she said, taking a chair by the bedside, "you shall know what a clever wife you have got. Listen to me."
HER FATHER'S MESSAGE
LOOKING out of the drawing-room window, for the tenth time at least, Mountjoy at last saw Iris in the street, returning to the house.
She brought the maid with her into the drawing-room, in the gayest of good spirits, and presented Rhoda to Mountjoy.
"What a blessing a good long walk is, if we only knew it!" she exclaimed. "Look at my little maid's colour! Who would suppose that she came here with heavy eyes and pale cheeks? Except that she loses her way in the town, whenever she goes out alone, we have every reason to congratulate ourselves on our residence at Honeybuzzard. The doctor is Rhoda's good genius, and the doctor's wife is her fairy godmother."
Mountjoy's courtesy having offered the customary congratulations, the maid was permitted to retire; and Iris was free to express her astonishment at the friendly relations established (by means of the dinner-table) between the two most dissimilar men on the face of creation.
"There is something overwhelming," she declared, "in the bare idea of your having asked him to dine with you--on such a short acquaintance, and being such a man! I should like to have peeped in, and seen you entertaining your guest with the luxuries of the hotel larder. Seriously, Hugh, your social sympathies have taken a range for which I was not prepared. After the example that you have set me, I feel ashamed of having doubted whether Mr. Vimpany was worthy of his charming wife. Don't suppose that I am ungrateful to the doctor! He has found his way to my regard, after what he has done for Rhoda. I only fail to understand how he has possessed himself of your sympathies."
So she ran on, enjoying the exercise of her own sense of humour in innocent ignorance of the serious interests which she was deriding.
Mountjoy tried to stop her, and tried in vain.
"No, no," she persisted as mischievously as ever, "the subject is too interesting to be dismissed. I am dying to know how you and your guest got through the dinner. Did he take more wine than was good for him? And, when he forgot his good manners, did he set it all right again by saying, 'No offence,' and passing the bottle?"
Hugh could endure it no longer. "Pray control your high spirits for a moment," he said. "I have news for you from home."
Those words put an end to her outbreak of gaiety, in an instant.
"News from my father?" she asked.
"Is he coming here?"
"No; I have heard from him."
"A telegram," Mountjoy explained, "in answer to a letter from me. I did my best to press your claims on him, and I am glad to say I have not failed."
"Hugh, dear Hugh! have you succeeded in reconciling us?"
Mountjoy produced the telegram. "I asked Mr. Henley," he said, "to let me know at once whether he would receive you, and to answer plainly Yes or No. The message might have been more kindly expressed--but, at any rate, it is a favourable reply."
Iris read the telegram. "Is there another father in the world," she said sadly, "who would tell his daughter, when she asks to come home, that he will receive her on trial?"
"Surely, you are not offended with him, Iris?"
She shook her head. "I am like you," she said. "I know him too well to be offended. He shall find me dutiful, he shall find me patient. I am afraid I must not expect you to wait for me in Honeybuzzard. Will you tell my father that I hope to return to him in a week's time?"
"Pardon me, Iris, I see no reason why you should waste a week in this town. On the contrary, the more eager you show yourself to return to your father, the more likely you are to recover your place in his estimation. I had planned to take you home by the next train."
Iris looked at him in astonishment. "Is it possible that you mean what you say?" she asked.
"My dear, I do most assuredly mean what I say. Why should you hesitate? What possible reason can there be for staying here any longer?"
"Oh, Hugh, how you disappoint me! What has become of your kind feeling, your sense of justice, your consideration for others? Poor Mrs. Vimpany!"
"What has Mrs. Vimpany to do with it?"
Iris was indignant.
"What has Mrs. Vimpany to do with it?" she repeated. "After all that I owe to that good creature's kindness; after I have promised to accompany her--she has so few happy days, poor soul!--on excursions to places of interest in the neighbourhood, do you expect me to leave her--no! it's worse than that--do you expect me to throw her aside like an old dress that I have worn out? And this after I have so unjustly, so ungratefully suspected her in my own thoughts? Shameful! shameful!"
With some difficulty, Mountjoy controlled himself. After what she had just said, his lips were sealed on the subject of Mrs. Vimpany's true character. He could only persist in appealing to her duty to her father.
"You are allowing your quick temper to carry you to strange extremities," he answered. "If I think it of more importance to hasten a reconciliation with your father than to encourage you to make excursions with a lady whom you have only known for a week or two, what have I done to deserve such an outbreak of anger? Hush! Not a word more now! Here is the lady herself."
As he spoke, Mrs. Vimpany joined them; returning from her interview with her husband at the inn. She looked first at Iris, and at once perceived signs of disturbance in the young lady's face.
Concealing her anxiety under that wonderful stage smile, which affords a refuge to so many secrets, Mrs. Vimpany said a few words excusing her absence. Miss Henley answered, without the slightest change in her friendly manner to the doctor's wife. The signs of disturbance were evidently attributable to some entirely unimportant cause, from Mrs. Vimpany's point of view. Mr. Mountjoy's discoveries had not been communicated yet.
In Hugh's state of mind, there was some irritating influence in the presence of the mistress of the house, which applied the spur to his wits. He mischievously proposed submitting to her the question in dispute between Iris and himself.
"It is a very simple matter," he said to Mrs. Vimpany. "Miss Henley's father is anxious that she should return to him, after an estrangement between them which is happily at an end. Do you think she ought to allow any accidental engagements to prevent her from going home at once? If she requests your indulgence, under the circumstances, has she any reason to anticipate a refusal?"
Mrs. Vimpany's expressive eyes looked up, with saintly resignation, at the dirty ceiling--and asked in dumb show what she had done to deserve the injury implied by a doubt.
"Mr. Mountjoy," she said sternly, "you insult me by asking the question."--"Dear Miss Henley," she continued, turning to Iris, "you will do me justice, I am sure. Am I capable of allowing my own feelings to stand in the way, when your filial duty is concerned? Leave me, my sweet friend. Go! I entreat you, go home!"
She retired up the stage--no, no; she withdrew to the other end of the room--and burst into the most becoming of all human tears, theatrical tears. Impulsive Iris hastened to comfort the personification of self-sacrifice, the model of all that was most unselfish in female submission. "For shame! for shame!" she whispered, as she passed Mountjoy.
Beaten again by Mrs. Vimpany--with no ties of relationship to justify resistance to Miss Henley; with two women against him, entrenched behind the privileges of their sex--the one last sacrifice of his own feelings, in the interests of Iris, that Hugh could make was to control the impulse which naturally urged him to leave the house. In the helpless position in which he had now placed himself, he could only wait to see what course Mrs. Vimpany might think it desirable to take. Would she request him, in her most politely malicious way, to bring his visit to an end? No: she looked at him--hesitated--directed a furtive glance towards the view of the street from the window--smiled mysteriously--and completed the sacrifice of her own feelings in these words:
"Dear Miss Henley, let me help you to pack up."
Iris positively refused.
"No," she said, "I don't agree with Mr. Mountjoy. My father leaves it to me to name the day when we meet. I hold you, my dear, to our engagement--I don't leave an affectionate friend as I might leave a stranger."
Even if Mr. Mountjoy communicated his discoveries to Miss Henley, on the way home, there would be no danger now of her believing him. Mrs. Vimpany put her powerful arm round the generous Iris, and, with infinite grace, thanked her by a kiss.
"Your kindness will make my lonely lot in life harder than ever to bear," she murmured, "when you are gone."
"But we may hope to meet in London," Iris reminded her; "unless Mr. Vimpany alters his mind about leaving this place."
"My husband will not do that, dear. He is determined to try his luck, as he says, in London. In the meantime you will give me your address, won't you? Perhaps you will even promise to write to me?"
Iris instantly gave her promise, and wrote down her address in London.
Mountjoy made no attempt to interfere: it was needless.
If the maid had not fallen ill on the journey, and if Mrs. Vimpany had followed Miss Henley to London, there would have been little to fear in the discovery of her address--and there was little to fear now. The danger to Iris was not in what might happen while she was living under her father's roof, but in what might happen if she was detained (by plans for excursions) in Mr. Vimpany's house, until Lord Harry might join her there.
Rather than permit this to happen, Hugh (in sheer desperation) meditated charging Mrs. Vimpany, to her face, with being the Irish lord's spy, and proving the accusation by challenging her to produce the registered letter and the diamond pin.
While he was still struggling with his own reluctance to inflict this degrading exposure on a woman, the talk between the two ladies came to an end. Mrs. Vimpany returned again to the window. On this occasion, she looked out into the street--with her handkerchief (was it used as a signal?) exhibited in her hand. Iris, on her side, advanced to Mountjoy. Easily moved to anger, her nature was incapable of sullen perseverance in a state of enmity. To see Hugh still patiently waiting--still risking the chances of insult--devoted to her, and forgiving her--was at once a reproach that punished Iris, and a mute appeal that no true woman's heart could resist.
With tears in her eyes she said to him: "There must be no coolness between you and me. I lost my temper, and spoke shamefully to you. My dear, I am indeed sorry for it. You are never hard on me--you won't be hard on me now?"
She offered her hand to him. He had just raised it to his lips--when the drawing-room door was roughly opened. They both looked round.
The man of all others whom Hugh least desired to see was the man who now entered the room. The victim of "light claret"-- privately directed to lurk in the street, until he saw a handkerchief fluttering at the window--had returned to the house; primed with his clever wife's instructions; ready and eager to be even with Mountjoy for the dinner at the inn.
MR. VIMPANY ON INTOXICATION
THERE was no unsteadiness in the doctor's walk, and no flush on his face. He certainly did strut when he entered the room; and he held up his head with dignity, when he discovered Mountjoy. But he seemed to preserve his self-control. Was the man sober again already?
His wife approached him with her set smile; the appearance of her lord and master filled Mrs. Vimpany with perfectly-assumed emotions of agreeable surprise.
"This is an unexpected pleasure," she said. "You seldom favour us with your company, my dear, so early in the evening! Are there fewer patients in want of your advice than usual?"
"You are mistaken, Arabella. I am here in the performance of a painful duty."
The doctor's language, and the doctor's manner, presented him to Iris in a character that was new to her. What effect had he produced on Mrs. Vimpany? That excellent friend to travellers in distress lowered her eyes to the floor, and modestly preserved silence. Mr. Vimpany proceeded to the performance of his duty; his painful responsibility seemed to strike him at first from a medical point of view.
"If there is a poison which undermines the sources of life," he remarked, "it is alcohol. If there is a vice that degrades humanity, it is intoxication. Mr. Mountjoy, are you aware that I am looking at you?"
"Impossible not to be aware of that," Hugh answered. "May I ask why you are looking at me?" It was not easy to listen gravely to Mr. Vimpany's denunciation of intemperance, after what had taken place at the dinner of that day. Hugh smiled. The moral majesty of the doctor entered its protest.
"This is really shameful," he said. "The least you can do is to take it seriously."
"What is it?" Mountjoy asked. "And why am I to take it seriously?"
Mr. Vimpany's reply was, to say the least of it, indirect. If such an expression may be permitted, it smelt of the stage. Viewed in connection with Mrs. Vimpany's persistent assumption of silent humility, it suggested to Mountjoy a secret understanding, of some kind, between husband and wife.
"What has become of your conscience, sir?" Mr. Vimpany demanded. "Is that silent monitor dead within you? After giving me a bad dinner, do you demand an explanation? Ha! you shall have it."
Having delivered himself to this effect, he added action to words. Walking grandly to the door, he threw it open, and saluted Mountjoy with an ironical bow. Iris observed that act of insolence; her colour rose, her eyes glittered. "Do you see what he has just done?" she said to Mrs. Vimpany.
The doctor's wife answered softly: "I don't understand it." After a glance at her husband, she took Iris by the hand: "Dear Miss Henley, shall we retire to my room?"
Iris drew her hand away. "Not unless Mr. Mountjoy wishes it," she said.
"Certainly not!" Hugh declared. "Pray remain here; your presence will help me to keep my temper." He stepped up to Mr. Vimpany. "Have you any particular reason for opening that door?" he asked.
The doctor was a rascal; but, to do him justice, he was no coward. "Yes," he said, "I have a reason."
"What is it, if you please?"
"Christian forbearance," Mr. Vimpany answered.
"Forbearance towards me?" Mountjoy continued.
The doctor's dignity suddenly deserted him.
"Aha, my boy, you have got it at last!" he cried. "It's pleasant to understand each other, isn't it? You see, I'm a plain-spoken fellow; I don't wish to give offence. If there's one thing more than another I pride myself on, it's my indulgence for human frailty. But, in my position here, I'm obliged to be careful. Upon my soul, I can't continue my acquaintance with a man who--oh, come! come! don't look as if you didn't understand me. The circumstances are against you, sir. You have treated me infamously."
"Under what circumstances have I treated you infamously?" Hugh asked.
"Under pretence of giving me a dinner," Mr. Vimpany shouted--"the worst dinner I ever sat down to!"
His wife signed to him to be silent. He took no notice of her. She insisted on being understood. "Say no more!" she warned him, in a tone of command.
The brute side of his nature, roused by Mountjoy's contemptuous composure, was forcing its way outwards; he set his wife at defiance.
"Then don't let him look at me as if he thought I was in a state of intoxication!" cried the furious doctor. "There's the man, Miss, who tried to make me tipsy," he went on, actually addressing himself to Iris. "Thanks to my habits of sobriety, he has been caught in his own trap. He's intoxicated. Ha, friend Mountjoy, have you got the right explanation at last? There's the door, sir!"
Mrs. Vimpany felt that this outrage was beyond endurance. If something was not done to atone for it, Miss Henley would be capable--her face, at that moment, answered for her--of leaving the house with Mr. Mountjoy. Mrs. Vimpany seized her husband indignantly by the arm.
"You brute, you have spoilt everything!" she said to him. "Apologise directly to Mr. Mountjoy. You won't?"
Experience had taught his wife how to break him to her will. "Do you remember my diamond pin?" she whispered.
He looked startled. Perhaps he thought she had lost the pin.
"Where is it?" he asked eagerly.
"Gone to London to be valued. Beg Mr. Mountjoy's pardon, or I will put the money in the bank--and not one shilling of it do you get."
In the meanwhile, Iris had justified Mrs. Vimpany's apprehensions. Her indignation noticed nothing but the insult offered to Hugh. She was too seriously agitated to be able to speak to him. Still admirably calm, his one anxiety was to compose her.
"Don't be afraid," he said; "it is impossible that I can degrade myself by quarrelling with Mr. Vimpany. I only wait here to know what you propose to do. You have Mrs. Vimpany to think of."
"I have nobody to think of but You," Iris replied. "But for me, you would never have been in this house. After the insult that has been offered to you--oh, Hugh, I feel it too!--let us return to London together. I have only to tell Rhoda we are going away, and to make my preparations for travelling. Send for me from the inn, and I will be ready in time for the next train."
Mrs. Vimpany approached Mountjoy, leading her husband.
"Sorry I have offended you," the doctor said. "Beg your pardon. It's only a joke. No offence, I hope?"
His servility was less endurable than his insolence. Telling him that he need say no more, Mountjoy bowed to Mrs. Vimpany, and left the room. She returned his bow mechanically, in silence. Mr. Vimpany followed Hugh out--thinking of the diamond pin, and eager to open the house door, as another act of submission which might satisfy his wife.
Even a clever woman will occasionally make mistakes; especially when her temper happens to have been roused. Mrs. Vimpany found herself in a false position, due entirely to her own imprudence.
She had been guilty of three serious errors. In the first place she had taken it for granted that Mr. Vimpany's restorative mixture would completely revive the sober state of his brains. In the second place, she had trusted him with her vengeance on the man who had found his way to her secrets through her husband's intemperance. In the third place, she had rashly assumed that the doctor, in carrying out her instructions for insulting Mountjoy, would keep within the limits which she had prescribed to him, when she hit on the audacious idea of attributing his disgraceful conduct to the temptation offered by his host's example. As a consequence of these acts of imprudence, she had exposed herself to a misfortune that she honestly dreaded--the loss of the place which she had carefully maintained in Miss Henley's estimation. In the contradictory confusion of feelings, so often found in women, this deceitful and dangerous creature had been conquered--little by little, as she had herself described it--by that charm of sweetness and simplicity in Iris, of which her own depraved nature presented no trace. She now spoke with hesitation, almost with timidity, in addressing the woman whom she had so cleverly deceived, at the time when they first met.
"Must I give up all, Miss Henley, that I most value?" she asked.
"I hardly understand you, Mrs. Vimpany."
"I will try to make it plainer. Do you really mean to leave me this evening?"
"May I own that I am grieved to hear it? Your departure will deprive me of some happy hours, in your company."
"Your husband's conduct leaves me no alternative," Iris replied.
"Pray do not humiliate me by speaking of my husband! I only want to know if there is a harder trial of my fortitude still to come. Must I lose the privilege of being your friend?"
"I hope I am not capable of such injustice as that," Iris declared. "It would be hard indeed to lay the blame of Mr. Vimpany's shameful behaviour on you. I don't forget that you made him offer an apology. Some women, married to such a man as that, might have been afraid of him. No, no; you have been a good friend to me--and I mean to remember it."
Mrs. Vimpany's gratitude was too sincerely felt to be expressed with her customary readiness. She only said what the stupidest woman in existence could have said: "Thank you."
In the silence that followed, the rapid movement of carriage wheels became audible in the street. The sound stopped at the door of the doctor's house.
THE MOCKERY OF DECEIT
HAD Mountjoy arrived to take Iris away, before her preparations for travelling were complete? Both the ladies hurried to the window, but they were too late. The rapid visitor, already hidden from them under the portico, was knocking smartly at the door. In another minute, a man's voice in the hall asked for "Miss Henley." The tones--clear, mellow, and pleasantly varied here and there by the Irish accent--were not to be mistaken by any one who had already hear them. The man in the hall was Lord Harry.
In that serious emergency, Mrs. Vimpany recovered her presence of mind.
She made for the door, with the object of speaking to Lord Harry before he could present himself in the drawing-room. But Iris had heard him ask for her in the hall; and that one circumstance instantly stripped of its concealments the character of the woman in whose integrity she had believed. Her first impression of Mrs. Vimpany--so sincerely repented, so eagerly atoned for--had been the right impression after all! Younger, lighter, and quicker than the doctor's wife, Iris reached the door first, and laid her hand on the lock.
"Wait a minute," she said.
Mrs. Vimpany hesitated. For the first time in her life at a loss what to say, she could only sign to Iris to stand back. Iris refused to move. She put her terrible question in the plainest words:
"How does Lord Harry know that I am in this house?"
The wretched woman (listening intently for the sound of a step on the stairs) refused to submit to a shameful exposure, even now. To her perverted moral sense, any falsehood was acceptable, as a means of hiding herself from discovery by Iris. In the very face of detection, the skilled deceiver kept up the mockery of deceit.
"My dear," she said, "what has come to you? Why won't you let me go to my room?"
Iris eyed her with a look of scornful surprise. "What next?" she said. "Are you impudent enough to pretend that I have not found you out, yet?"
Sheer desperation still sustained Mrs. Vimpany's courage. She played her assumed character against the contemptuous incredulity of Iris, as she had sometimes played her theatrical characters against the hissing and hooting of a brutal audience.
"Miss Henley," she said, "you forget yourself!"
"Do you think I didn't see in your face," Iris rejoined, "that you heard him, too? Answer my question."
"You have just heard it."
"You false woman!"
"Don't forget, Miss Henley, that you are speaking to a lady."
"I am speaking to Lord Harry's spy!"
Their voices rose loud; the excitement on either side had reached its climax; neither the one nor the other was composed enough to notice the sound of the carriage-wheels, leaving the house again. In the meanwhile, nobody came to the drawing-room door. Mrs. Vimpany was too well acquainted with the hot-headed Irish lord not to conclude that he would have made himself heard, and would have found his way to Iris, but for some obstacle, below stairs, for which he was not prepared. The doctor's wife did justice to the doctor at last. Another person had, in all probability, heard Lord Harry's voice--and that person might have been her husband.
Was it possible that he remembered the service which she had asked of him; and, even if he had succeeded in calling it to mind, was his discretion to be trusted? As those questions occurred to her, the desire to obtain some positive information was more than she was able to resist. Mrs. Vimpany attempted to leave the drawing-room for the second time.
But the same motive had already urged Miss Henley to action. Again, the younger woman outstripped the older. Iris descended the stairs, resolved to discover the cause of the sudden suspension of events in the lower part of the house.
MRS. VIMPANY'S FAREWELL
THE doctor's wife followed Miss Henley out of the room, as far as the landing--and waited there.
She had her reasons for placing this restraint on herself. The position of the landing concealed her from the view of a person in the hall. If she only listened for the sound of voices she might safely discover whether Lord Harry was, or was not, still in the house. In the first event, it would be easy to interrupt his interview with Iris, before the talk could lead to disclosures which Mrs. Vimpany had every reason to dread. In the second event, there would be no need to show herself.
Meanwhile, Iris opened the dining-room door and looked in.
Nobody was there. The one other room on the ground floor, situated at the back of the building, was the doctor's consulting-room. She knocked at the door. Mr. Vimpany's voice answered: "Come in." There he was alone, drinking brandy and water, and smoking his big black cigar.
"Where is Lord Harry?" she said.
"In Ireland, I suppose," Mr. Vimpany answered quietly.
Iris wasted no time in making useless inquiries. She closed the door again, and left him. He, too, was undoubtedly in the conspiracy to keep her deceived. How had it been done? Where was the wild lord, at that moment?
Whilst she was pursuing these reflections in the hall, Rhoda came up from the servants' tea-table in the kitchen. Her mistress gave her the necessary instructions for packing, and promised to help her before long. Mrs. Vimpany's audacious resolution to dispute the evidence of her own senses, still dwelt on Miss Henley's mind. Too angry to think of the embarrassment which an interview with Lord Harry would produce, after they had said their farewell words in Ireland. she was determined to prevent the doctor's wife from speaking to him first, and claiming him as an accomplice in her impudent denial of the truth. If he had been, by any chance, deluded into leaving the house, he would sooner or later discover the trick that had been played on him, and would certainly return. Iris took a chair in the hall.
It is due to the doctor to relate that he had indeed justified his wife's confidence in him.
The diamond pin, undergoing valuation in London, still represented a present terror in his mind. The money, the money--he was the most attentive husband in England when he thought of the money! At the time when Lord Harry's carriage stopped at his house-door, he was in the dining-room, taking a bottle of brandy from the cellaret in the sideboard. Looking instantly out of the window, he discovered who the visitor was, and decided on consulting his instructions in the pocket-diary. The attempt was rendered useless, as soon as he had opened the book, by the unlucky activity of the servant in answering the door. Her master stopped her in the hall. He was pleasantly conscious of the recovery of his cunning. But his memory (far from active under the most favourable circumstances) was slower than ever at helping him now. On the spur of the moment he could only call to mind that he had been ordered to prevent a meeting between Lord Harry and Iris. "Show the gentleman into my consulting-room," he said.
Lord Harry found the doctor enthroned on his professional chair, surprised and delighted to see his distinguished friend. The impetuous Irishman at once asked for Miss Henley.
"Gone," Mr. Vimpany answered
"Gone--where?" the wild lord wanted to know next.
"No; with Mr. Hugh Mountjoy."
Lord Harry seized the doctor by the shoulders, and shook him: "You don't mean to tell me Mountjoy is going to marry her?"
Mr. Vimpany feared nothing but the loss of money. The weaker and the older man of the two, he nevertheless followed the young lord's example, and shook him with right good-will. "Let's see how you like it in your turn," he said. "As for Mountjoy, I don't know whether he is married or single--and don't care."
"The devil take your obstinacy! When did they start?"
"The devil take your questions! They started not long since."
"Might I catch them at the station?"
"Yes; if you go at once."
So the desperate doctor carried out his wife's instructions--without remembering the conditions which had accompanied them.
The way to the station took Lord Harry past the inn. He saw Hugh Mountjoy through the open house door paying his bill at the bar. In an instant the carriage was stopped, and the two men (never on friendly terms) were formally bowing to each other.
"I was told I should find you," Lord Harry said, "with Miss Henley, at the station."
"Who gave you your information?"
"He ought to know that the train isn't due at the station for an hour yet."
"Has the blackguard deceived me? One word more, Mr. Mountjoy. Is Miss Henley at the inn?"
"Are you going with her to London?"
"I must leave Miss Henley to answer that."
"Where is she, sir?"
"There is an end to everything, my lord, in the world we live in. You have reached the end of my readiness to answer questions." The Englishman and the Irishman looked at each other: the Anglo-Saxon was impenetrably cool; the Celt was flushed and angry. They might have been on the brink of a quarrel, but for Lord Harry's native quickness of perception, and his exercise of it at that moment. When he had called at Mr. Vimpany's house, and had asked for Iris, the doctor had got rid of him by means of a lie. After this discovery, at what conclusion could he arrive? The doctor was certainly keeping Iris out of his way. Reasoning in this rapid manner, Lord Harry let one offence pass, in his headlong eagerness to resent another. He instantly left Mountjoy. Again the carriage rattled back along the street; but it was stopped before it reached Mr. Vimpany's door.
Lord Harry knew the people whom he had to deal with, and took measures to approach the house silently, on foot. The coachman received orders to look out for a signal, which should tell him when he was wanted again.
Mr. Vimpany's ears, vigilantly on the watch for suspicious events, detected no sound of carriage wheels and no noisy use of the knocker. Still on his guard, however, a ring at the house-bell disturbed him in his consulting-room. Peeping into the hall, he saw Iris opening the door, and stole back to his room. "The devil take her!" he said, alluding to Miss Henley, and thinking of the enviable proprietor of the diamond pin.
At the unexpected appearance of Iris, Lord Harry forgot every consideration which ought to have been present to his mind, at that critical moment.
He advanced to her with both hands held out in cordial greeting. She signed to him contemptuously to stand back--and spoke in tones cautiously lowered, after a glance at the door of the consulting-room.
"My only reason for consenting to see you," she said, "is to protect myself from further deception. Your disgraceful conduct is known to me. Go now," she continued, pointing to the stairs, "and consult with your spy, as soon as you like." The Irish lord listened--guiltily conscious of having deserved what she had said to him--without attempting to utter a word in excuse.
Still posted at the head of the stairs, the doctor's wife heard Iris speaking; but the tone was not loud enough to make the words intelligible at that distance; neither was any other voice audible in reply. Vaguely suspicions of some act of domestic treachery, Mrs. Vimpany began to descend the stairs. At the turning which gave her a view of the hall, she stopped; thunderstruck by the discovery of Lord Harry and Miss Henley, together.
The presence of a third person seemed, in some degree, to relieve Lord Harry. He ran upstairs to salute Mrs. Vimpany, and was met again by a cold reception and a hostile look.
Strongly and strangely contrasted, the two confronted each other on the stairs. The faded woman, wan and ghastly under cruel stress of mental suffering, stood face to face with a fine, tall, lithe man, in the prime of his heath and strength. Here were the bright blue eyes, the winning smile, and the natural grace of movement, which find their own way to favour in the estimation of the gentler sex. This irreclaimable wanderer among the perilous by-ways of the earth--christened "Irish blackguard," among respectable members of society, when they spoke of him behind his back--attracted attention, even among the men. Looking at his daring, finely-formed face, they noticed (as an exception to a general rule, in these days) the total suppression, by the razor, of whiskers, moustache, and beard. Strangers wondered whether Lord Harry was an actor or a Roman Catholic priest. Among chance acquaintances, those few favourites of Nature who are possessed of active brains, guessed that his life of adventure might well have rendered disguise necessary to his safety, in more than one part of the world. Sometimes they boldly put the question to him. The hot temper of an Irishman, in moments of excitement, is not infrequently a sweet temper in moments of calm. What they called Lord Harry's good-nature owned readily that he had been indebted, on certain occasions, to the protection of a false beard, And perhaps a colouring of his face and hair to match. The same easy disposition now asserted itself, under the merciless enmity of Mrs. Vimpany's eyes. "If I have done anything to offend you," he said, with an air of puzzled humility, "I'm sure I am sorry for it. Don't be angry, Arabella, with an old friend. Why won't you shake hands?"
"I have kept your secret, and done your dirty work," Mrs. Vimpany replied. "And what is my reward? Miss Henley can tell you how your Irish blundering has ruined me in a lady's estimation. Shake hands, indeed! You will never shake hands with Me again as long as you live!"
She said those words without looking at him; her eyes were resting on Iris now. From the moment when she had seen the two together, she knew that it was all over; further denial in the face of plain proofs would be useless indeed! Submission was the one alternative left.
"Miss Henley," she said, "if you can feel pity for another woman's sorrow and shame, let me have a last word with you--out of this man's hearing."
There was nothing artificial in her tones or her looks; no acting could have imitated the sad sincerity with which she spoke. Touched by that change, Iris accompanied her as she ascended the stairs. After a little hesitation, Lord Harry followed them. Mrs. Vimpany turned on him when they reached the drawing-room landing. "Must I shut the door in your face?" she asked.
He was as pleasantly patient as ever:
"You needn't take the trouble to do that, my dear; I'll only ask your leave to sit down and wait on the stairs. When you have done with Miss Henley, just call me in. And, by the way, don't be alarmed in case of a little noise--say a heavy man tumbling downstairs. If the blackguard it's your misfortune to be married to happens to show himself, I shall be under the necessity of kicking him. That's all."
Mrs. Vimpany closed the door. She spoke to Iris respectfully, as she might have addressed a stranger occupying a higher rank in life than herself.
"There is an end, madam, to one short acquaintance; and, as we both know, an end to it for ever. When we first met--let me tell the truth at last!--I felt a malicious pleasure in deceiving you. After that time, I was surprised to find that you grew on my liking, Can you understand the wickedness that tried to resist you? It was useless; your good influence has been too strong for me. Strange, isn't it? I have lived a life of deceit, among bad people. What could you expect of me, after that? I heaped lies on lies--I would have denied that the sun was in the heavens--rather than find myself degraded in your opinion. Well! that is all over--useless, quite useless now. Pray don't mistake me. I am not attempting to excuse myself; a confession was due to you; the confession is made. It is too late to hope that you will forgive me. If you will permit it, I have only one favour to ask. Forget me."
She turned away with a last hopeless look, who said as plainly as if in words: "I am not worth a reply."
Generous Iris insisted on speaking to her.
"I believe you are truly sorry for what you have done," she said; "I can never forget that--I can never forget You." She held out her pitying hand. Mrs. Vimpany was too bitterly conscious of the past to touch it. Even a spy is not beneath the universal reach of the heartache. There were tears in the miserable woman's eyes when she had looked her last at Iris Henley.
LORD HARRY's DEFENCE
AFTER a short interval, the drawing-room door was opened again. Waiting on the threshold, the Irish lord asked if he might come in.
Iris replied coldly. "This is not my house," she said; "I must leave you to decide for yourself."
Lord Harry crossed the room to speak to her and stopped. There was no sign of relenting towards him in that dearly-loved face. "I wonder whether it would be a relief to you," he suggested with piteous humility, "if I went away?"
If she had been true to herself, she would have said, Yes. Where is the woman to be found, in her place, with a heart hard enough to have set her that example? She pointed to a chair. He felt her indulgence gratefully. Following the impulse of the moment, he attempted to excuse his conduct.
"There is only one thing I can say for myself," he confessed, "I didn't begin by deceiving you. While you had your eye on me, Iris, I was an honourable man."
This extraordinary defence reduced her to silence. Was there another man in the world who would have pleaded for pardon in that way? "I'm afraid I have not made myself understood," he said. "May I try again?"
"If you please."
The vagabond nobleman made a resolute effort to explain himself intelligibly, this time:
"See now! We said good-bye, over there, in the poor old island. Well, indeed I meant it, when I owned that I was unworthy of you. I didn't contradict you, when you said you could never be my wife, after such a life as I have led. And, do remember, I submitted to your returning to England, without presuming to make a complaint. Ah, my sweet girl, it was easy to submit, while I could look at you, and hear the sound of your voice, and beg for that last kiss--and get it. Reverend gentlemen talk about the fall of Adam. What was that to the fall of Harry, when he was back in his own little cottage, without the hope of ever seeing you again? To the best of my recollection, the serpent that tempted Eve was up a tree. I found the serpent that tempted Me, sitting waiting in my own armchair, and bent on nothing worse than borrowing a trifle of money. Need I say who she was? I don't doubt that you think her a wicked woman."
Never ready in speaking of acts of kindness, on her own part, Iris answered with some little reserve: "I have learnt to think better of Mrs. Vimpany than you suppose."
Lord Harry began to look like a happy man, for the first time since he had entered the room.
"I ought to have known it!" he burst out. "Yours is the well-balanced mind, dear, that tempers justice with mercy. Mother Vimpany has had a hard life of it. Just change places with her for a minute or so--and you'll understand what she has had to go through. Find yourself, for instance, in Ireland, without the means to take you back to England. Add to that, a husband who sends you away to make money for him at the theatre, and a manager (not an Irishman, thank God!) who refuses to engage you--after your acting has filled his dirty pockets in past days--because your beauty has faded with time. Doesn't your bright imagination see it all now? My old friend Arabella, ready and anxious to serve me--and a sinking at this poor fellow's heart when he knew, if he once lost the trace of you, he might lose it for ever--there's the situation, as they call it on the stage. I wish I could say for myself what I may say for Mrs. Vimpany. It's such a pleasure to a clever woman to engage in a little deceit--we can't blame her, can we?"
Iris protested gently against a code of morality which included the right of deceit among the privileges of the sex. Lord Harry slipped through her fingers with the admirable Irish readiness; he agreed with Miss Henley that he was entirely wrong.
"And don't spare me while you're about it," he suggested. "Lay all the blame of that shameful stratagem on my shoulders. It was a despicable thing to do. When I had you watched, I acted in a manner--I won't say unworthy of a gentleman; have I been a gentleman since I first ran away from home? Why, it's even been said my way of speaking is no longer the way of a gentleman; and small wonder, too, after the company I've kept. Ah, well! I'm off again, darling, on a sea voyage. Will you forgive me now? or will you wait till I come back, if I do come back? God knows!" He dropped on his knees, and kissed her hand. "Anyway," he said, "whether I live or whether I die, it will be some consolation to remember that I asked your pardon--and perhaps got it."
"Take it, Harry; I can't help forgiving you!"
She had done her best to resist him, and she had answered in those merciful words.
The effect was visible, perilously visible, as he rose from his knees. Her one chance of keeping the distance between them, on which she had been too weak to insist, was not to encourage him by silence. Abruptly, desperately, she made a commonplace inquiry about his proposed voyage. "Tell me," she resumed, "where are you going when you leave England?"
"Oh, to find money, dear, if I can--to pick up diamonds, or to hit on a mine of gold, and so forth."
The fine observation of Iris detected something not quite easy in his manner, as he made that reply. He tried to change the subject: she deliberately returned to it. "Your account of your travelling plans is rather vague," she told him. "Do you know when you are likely to return?"
He took her hand. One of the rings on her fingers happened to be turned the wrong way. He set it in the right position, and discovered an opal. "Ah! the unlucky stone!" he cried, and turned it back again out of sight. She drew away her hand. "I asked you," she persisted, "when you expect to return?"
He laughed--not so gaily as usual.
"How do I know I shall ever get back?" he answered. "Sometimes the seas turn traitor, and sometimes the savages. I have had so many narrow escapes of my life, I can't expect my luck to last for ever." He made a second attempt to change the subject. "I wonder whether you're likely to pay another visit to Ireland? My cottage is entirely at your disposal, Iris dear. Oh, when I'm out of the way, of course! The place seemed to please your fancy, when you saw it. You will find it well taken care of, I answer for that."
Iris asked who was taking care of his cottage.
The wild lord's face saddened. He hesitated; rose from his chair restlessly, and walked away to the window; returned, and made up his mind to reply.
"My dear, you know her. She was the old housekeeper at--"
His voice failed him. He was unable, or unwilling, to pronounce the name of Arthur's farm.
Knowing, it is needless to say, that he had alluded to Mrs. Lewson, Iris warmly commended him for taking care of her old nurse. At the same time, she remembered the unfriendly terms in which the housekeeper had alluded to Lord Harry, when they had talked of him.
"Did you find no difficulty," she asked, "in persuading Mrs. Lewson to enter your service?"
"Oh, yes, plenty of difficulty; I found my bad character in my way, as usual." It was a relief to him, at that moment, to talk of Mrs. Lewson; the Irish humour and the Irish accent both asserted themselves in his reply. "The curious old creature told me to my face I was a scamp. I took leave to remind her that it was the duty of a respectable person, like herself, to reform scamps; I also mentioned that I was going away, and she would be master and mistress too on my small property. That softened her heart towards me. You will mostly find old women amenable, if you get at them by way of their dignity. Besides, there was another lucky circumstance that helped me. The neighbourhood of my cottage has some attraction for Mrs. Lewson. She didn't say particularly what it was --and I never asked her to tell me."
"Surely you might have guessed it, without being told," Iris reminded him. "Mrs. Lewson's faithful heart loves poor Arthur's memory--and Arthur's grave is not far from your cottage."
"Don't speak of him!"
It was said loudly, peremptorily, passionately. He looked at her with angry astonishment in his face. "You loved him too!" he said. "Can you speak of him quietly? The noblest, truest, sweetest man that ever the Heavens looked on, foully assassinated. And the wretch who murdered him still living, free--oh, what is God's providence about?--is there no retribution that will follow him? no just hand that will revenge Arthur's death?"
As those fierce words escaped him, he was no longer the easy, gentle, joyous creature whom Iris had known and loved. The furious passions of the Celtic race glittered savagely in his eyes, and changed to a grey horrid pallor the healthy colour that was natural to his face. "Oh, my temper, my temper!" he cried, as Iris shrank from him. "She hates me now, and no wonder." He staggered away from her, and burst into a convulsive fit of crying, dreadful to hear. Compassion, divine compassion, mastered the earthlier emotion of terror in the great heart of the woman who loved him. She followed him, and laid her hand caressingly on his shoulder. "I don't hate you, my dear," she said. "I am sorry for Arthur--and, oh, so sorry for You!" He caught her in his arms. His gratitude, his repentance, his silent farewell were all expressed in a last kiss. It was a moment, never to be forgotten to the end of their lives. Before she could speak, before she could think, he had left her.
She called him back, through the open door. He never returned; he never even replied. She ran to the window, and threw it up--and was just in time to see him signal to the carriage and leap into it. Her horror of the fatal purpose that was but too plainly rooted in him--her conviction that he was on the track of the assassin, self devoted to exact the terrible penalty of blood for blood--emboldened her to insist on being heard. "Come back," she cried. "I must, I will, speak with you."
He waved his hand to her with a gesture of despair. "Start your horses," he shouted to the coachman. Alarmed by his voice and his look, the man asked where he should drive to. Lord Harry pointed furiously to the onward road. "Drive," he answered, "to the Devil!"
THE SECOND PERIOD
IRIS AT HOME
A LITTLE more than four months had passed, since the return of Iris to her father's house.
Among other events which occurred, during the earlier part of that interval, the course adopted by Hugh Mountjoy, when Miss Henley's suspicions of the Irish lord were first communicated to him, claims a foremost place.
It was impossible that the devoted friend of Iris could look at her, when they met again on their way to the station, without perceiving the signs of serious agitation. Only waiting until they were alone in the railway-carriage, she opened her heart unreservedly to the man in whose clear intellect and true sympathy she could repose implicit trust. He listened to what she could repeat of Lord Harry's language with but little appearance of surprise. Iris had only reminded him of one, among the disclosures which had escaped Mr. Vimpany at the inn. Under the irresistible influence of good wine, the doctor had revealed the Irish lord's motive for remaining in his own country, after the assassination of Arthur Mountjoy. Hugh met the only difficulty in his way, without shrinking from it. He resolved to clear his mind of its natural prejudice against the rival who had been preferred to him, before he assumed the responsibility of guiding Iris by his advice.
When he had in some degree recovered confidence in his own unbiased judgment, he entered on the question of Lord Harry's purpose in leaving England.
Without attempting to dispute the conclusion at which Iris had arrived, he did his best to alleviate her distress. In his opinion, he was careful to tell her, a discovery of the destination to which Lord Harry proposed to betake himself, might be achieved. The Irish lord's allusion to a new adventure, which would occupy him in searching for diamonds or gold, might indicate a contemplated pursuit of the assassin, as well as a plausible excuse to satisfy Iris. It was at least possible that the murderer might have been warned of his danger if he remained in England, and that he might have contemplated directing his flight to a distant country, which would not only offer a safe refuge, but also hold out (in its mineral treasures) a hope of gain. Assuming that these circumstances had really happened, it was in Lord Harry's character to make sure of his revenge, by embarking in the steamship by which the assassin of Arthur Mountjoy was a passenger.
Wild as this guess at the truth undoubtedly was, it had one merit: it might easily be put to the test.
Hugh had bought the day's newspaper at the station. He proposed to consult the shipping advertisements relating, in the first place, to communication with the diamond-mines and the goldfields of South Africa.
This course of proceeding at once informed him that the first steamer, bound for that destination, would sail from London in two days' time. The obvious precaution to take was to have the Dock watched; and Mountjoy's steady old servant, who knew Lord Harry by sight, was the man to employ.
Iris naturally inquired what good end could be attained, if the anticipated discovery actually took place.
To this Mountjoy answered, that the one hope--a faint hope, he must needs confess--of inducing Lord Harry to reconsider his desperate purpose, lay in the influence of Iris herself. She must address a letter to him, announcing that his secret had been betrayed by his own language and conduct, and declaring that she would never again see him, or hold any communication with him, if he persisted in his savage resolution of revenge. Such was the desperate experiment which Mountjoy's generous and unselfish devotion to Iris now proposed to try.
The servant (duly entrusted with Miss Henley's letter) was placed on the watch--and the event which had been regarded as little better than a forlorn hope, proved to be the event that really took place. Lord Harry was a passenger by the steamship.
Mountjoy's man presented the letter entrusted to him, and asked respectfully if there was any answer. The wild lord read it--looked (to use the messenger's own words) like a man cut to the heart--seemed at a loss what to say or do--and only gave a verbal answer: "I sincerely thank Miss Henley, and I promise to write when the ship touches at Madeira." The servant continued to watch him when he went on board the steamer; saw him cast a look backwards, as if suspecting that he might have been followed; and then lost sight of him in the cabin. The vessel sailed after a long interval of delay, but he never reappeared on the deck.
The ambiguous message sent to her aroused the resentment of Iris; she thought it cruel. For some weeks perhaps to come, she was condemned to remain in doubt, and was left to endure the trial of her patience, without having Mountjoy at hand to encourage and console her. He had been called away to the south of France by the illness of his father.
But the fortunes of Miss Henley, at this period of her life, had their brighter side. She found reason to congratulate herself on the reconciliation which had brought her back to her father. Mr. Henley had received her, not perhaps with affection, but certainly with kindness. "If we don't get in each other's way, we shall do very well; I am glad to see you again." That was all he had said to her, but it meant much from a soured and selfish man.
Her only domestic anxiety was caused by another failure in the health of her maid.
The Doctor declared that medical help would be of no avail, while Rhoda Bennet remained in London. In the country she had been born and bred, and to the country she must return. Mr. Henley's large landed property, on the north of London, happened to include a farm in the neighbourhood of Muswell Hill. Wisely waiting for a favourable opportunity, Iris alluded to the good qualities which had made Rhoda almost as much her friend as her servant, and asked leave to remove the invalid to the healthy air of the farm.
Her anxiety about the recovery of a servant so astonished Mr. Henley, that he was hurried (as he afterwards declared) into granting his daughter's request. After this concession, the necessary arrangements were easily made. The influence of Iris won the goodwill of the farmer and his wife; Rhoda, as an expert and willing needlewoman, being sure of a welcome, for her own sake, in a family which included a number of young children. Miss Henley had only to order her carriage, and to be within reach of the farm. A week seldom passed without a meeting between the mistress and the maid.
In the meantime, Mountjoy (absent in France) did not forget to write to Iris.
His letters offered little hope of a speedy return. The doctors had not concealed from him that his father's illness would end fatally; but there were reserves of vital power still left, which might prolong the struggle. Under these melancholy circumstances, he begged that Iris would write to him. The oftener she could tell him of the little events of her life at home, the more kindly she would brighten the days of a dreary life.
Eager to show, even in a trifling matter, how gratefully she appreciated Mountjoy's past kindness, Iris related the simple story of her life at home, in weekly letters addressed to her good friend. After telling Hugh (among other things) of Rhoda's establishment at the farm, she had some unexpected results to relate, which had followed the attempt to provide herself with a new maid.
Two young women had been successively engaged--each recommended, by the lady whom she had last served, with that utter disregard of moral obligation which appears to be shamelessly on the increase in the England of our day. The first of the two maids, described as "rather excitable," revealed infirmities of temper which suggested a lunatic asylum as the only fit place for her. The second young woman, detected in stealing eau-de-cologne, and using it (mixed with water) as an intoxicating drink, claimed merciful construction of her misconduct, on the ground that she had been misled by the example of her last mistress.
At the third attempt to provide herself with a servant, Iris was able to report the discovery of a responsible person who told the truth--an unmarried lady of middle age.
In this case, the young woman was described as a servant thoroughly trained in the performance of her duties, honest, sober, industrious, of an even temper, and unprovided with a "follower" in the shape of a sweetheart. Even her name sounded favourably in the ear of a stranger--it was Fanny Mere. Iris asked how a servant, apparently possessed of a faultless character, came to be in want of a situation. At this question the lady sighed, and acknowledged that she had "made a dreadful discovery," relating to the past life of her maid. It proved to be the old, the miserably old, story of a broken promise of marriage, and of the penalty paid as usual by the unhappy woman. "I will say nothing of my own feelings," the maiden lady explained. "In justice to the other female servants, it was impossible for me to keep such a person in my house; and, in justice to you, I must most unwillingly stand in the way of Fanny Mere's prospects by mentioning my reason for parting with her."
"If I could see the young woman and speak to her," Iris said, "I should like to decide the question of engaging her, for myself."
The lady knew the address of her discharged servant, and--with some appearance of wonder--communicated it. Miss Henley wrote at once, telling Fanny Mere to come to her on the following day.
When she woke on the next morning, later than usual, an event occurred which Iris had been impatiently expecting for some time past. She found a letter waiting on her bedside table, side by side with her cup of tea. Lord Harry had written to her at last.
Whether he used his pen or his tongue, the Irish lord's conduct was always more or less in need of an apology. Here were the guilty one's new excuses, expressed in his customary medley of frank confession and flowery language:
"I am fearing, my angel, that I have offended you. You have too surely said to yourself, This miserable Harry might have made me happy by writing two lines--and what does he do? He sends a message in words which tell me nothing.
"My sweet girl, the reason why is that I was in two minds when your man stopped me on my way to the ship.
"Whether it was best for you--I was not thinking of myself--to confess the plain truth, or to take refuge in affectionate equivocation, was more than I could decide at the time. When minutes are enough for your intelligence, my stupidity wants days. Well! I saw it at last. A man owes the truth to a true woman; and you are a true woman. There you find a process of reasoning--I have been five days getting hold of it.
"But tell me one thing first. Brutus killed a man; Charlotte Corday killed a man. One of the two victims was a fine tyrant, and the other a mean tyrant. Nobody blames those two historical assassins. Why then blame me for wishing to make a third? Is a mere modern murderer beneath my vengeance, by comparison with two classical tyrants who did their murders by deputy? The man who killed Arthur Mountjoy is (next to Cain alone) the most atrocious homicide that ever trod the miry ways of this earth. There is my reply! I call it a crusher.
"So now my mind is easy. Darling, let me make your mind easy next.
"When I left you at the window of Vimpany's house, I was off to the other railroad to find the murderer in his hiding-place by the seaside. He had left it; but I got a trace, and went back to London--to the Docks. Some villain in Ireland, who knows my purpose, must have turned traitor. Anyhow, the wretch has escaped me.
"Yes; I searched the ship in every corner. He was not on board. Has he gone on before me, by an earlier vessel? Or has he directed his flight to some other part of the world? I shall find out in time. His day of reckoning will come, and he, too, shall know a violent death! Amen. So be it. Amen.
"Have I done now? Bear with me, gentle Iris--there is a word more to come.
"You will wonder why I went on by the steamship--all the way to South Africa--when I had failed to find the man I wanted, on board. What was my motive? You, you alone, are always my motive. Lucky men have found gold, lucky men have found diamonds. Why should I not be one of them? My sweet, let us suppose two possible things; my own elastic convictions would call them two likely things, but never mind that. Say, I come back a reformed character; there is your only objection to me, at once removed! And take it for granted that I return with a fortune of my own finding. In that case, what becomes of Mr. Henley's objection to me? It melts (as Shakespeare says somewhere) into thin air. Now do take my advice, for once. Show this part of my letter to your excellent father, with my love. I answer beforehand for the consequences. Be happy, my Lady Harry--as happy as I am--and look for my return on an earlier day than you may anticipate. Yours till death, and after.
Like the Irish lord, Miss Henley was "in two minds," while she rose, and dressed herself. There were parts of the letter for which she loved the writer, and parts of it for which she hated him.
What a prospect was before that reckless man--what misery, what horror, might not be lying in wait in the dreadful future! If he failed in the act of vengeance, that violent death of which he had written so heedlessly might overtake him from another hand. If he succeeded, the law might discover his crime, and the infamy of expiation on the scaffold might be his dreadful end. She turned, shuddering, from the contemplation of those hideous possibilities, and took refuge in the hope of his safe, his guiltless return. Even if his visions of success, even if his purposes of reform (how hopeless at his age!) were actually realised, could she consent to marry the man who had led his life, had written this letter, had contemplated (and still cherished) his merciless resolution of revenge? No woman in her senses could let the bare idea of being his wife enter her mind. Iris opened her writing-desk, to hide the letter from all eyes but her own. As she secured it with the key, her heart sank under the return of a terror remembered but too well Once more, the superstitious belief in a destiny that was urging Lord Harry and herself nearer and nearer to each other, even when they seemed to be most widely and most surely separated, thrilled her under the chilling mystery of its presence. She dropped helplessly into a chair. Oh, for a friend who could feel for her, who could strengthen her, whose wise words could restore her to her better and calmer self! Hugh was far away; and Iris was left to suffer and to struggle alone.
Heartfelt aspirations for help and sympathy! Oh, irony of circumstances, how were they answered? The housemaid entered the room, to announce the arrival of a discharged servant, with a lost character.
"Let the young woman come in," Iris said. Was Fanny Mere the friend whom she had been longing for? She looked at her troubled face in the glass--and laughed bitterly.
THE LADY'S MAID
IT was not easy to form a positive opinion of the young woman who now presented herself in Miss Henley's room.
If the Turkish taste is truly reported as valuing beauty in the female figure more than beauty in the female face, Fanny Mere's personal appearance might have found, in Constantinople, the approval which she failed to receive in London. Slim and well balanced, firmly and neatly made, she interested men who met her by accident (and sometimes even women), if they happened to be walking behind her. When they quickened their steps, and, passing on, looked back at her face, they lost all interest in Fanny from that moment. Painters would have described the defect in her face as "want of colour." She was one of the whitest of fair female human beings. Light flaxen hair, faint blue eyes with no expression in them, and a complexion which looked as if it had never been stirred by a circulation of blood, produced an effect on her fellow-creatures in general which made them insensible to the beauty of her figure, and the grace of her movements. There was no betrayal of bad health in her strange pallor: on the contrary, she suggested the idea of rare physical strength. Her quietly respectful manner was, so to say, emphasised by an underlying self-possession, which looked capable of acting promptly and fearlessly in the critical emergencies of life. Otherwise, the expression of character in her face was essentially passive. Here was a steady, resolute young woman, possessed of qualities which failed to show themselves on the surface--whether good qualities or bad qualities experience alone could determine.
Finding it impossible, judging by a first impression, to arrive at any immediate decision favourable or adverse to the stranger, Iris opened the interview with her customary frankness; leaving the consequences to follow as they might.
"Take a seat, Fanny," she said, "and let us try if we can understand each other. I think you will agree with me that there must be no concealments between us. You ought to know that your mistress has told me why she parted with you. It was her duty to tell me the truth, and it is my duty not to be unjustly prejudiced against you after what I have heard. Pray believe me when I say that I don't know, and don't wish to know, what your temptation may have been--"
"I beg your pardon, Miss, for interrupting you. My temptation was vanity."
Whether she did or did not suffer in making that confession, it was impossible to discover. Her tones were quiet; her manner was unobtrusively respectful; the pallor of her face was not disturbed by the slightest change of colour. Was the new maid an insensible person? Iris began to fear already that she might have made a mistake.
"I don't expect you to enter into particulars," she said; "I don't ask you here to humiliate yourself."
"When I got your letter, Miss, I tried to consider how I might show myself worthy of your kindness," Fanny answered. "The one way I could see was not to let you think better of me than I deserve. When a person, like me, is told, for the first time, that her figure makes amends for her face, she is flattered by the only compliment that has been paid to her in all her life. My excuse, Miss (if I have an excuse) is a mean one---I couldn't resist a compliment. That is all I have to say."
Iris began to alter her opinion. This was not a young woman of the ordinary type. It began to look possible, and more than possible, that she was worthy of a helping hand. The truth seemed to be in her.
"I understand you, and feel for you." Having replied in those words, Iris wisely and delicately changed the subject. "Let me hear how you are situated at the present time," she continued. "Are your parents living?"
"My father and mother are dead, Miss."
"Have you any other relatives?"
"They are too poor to be able to do anything for me. I have lost my character--and I am left to help myself."
"Suppose you fail to find another situation?" Iris suggested.
"How can you help yourself?"
"I can do what other girls have done."
"What do you mean?"
"Some of us starve on needlework. Some take to the streets. Some end it in the river. If there is no other chance for me, I think I shall try that way," said the poor creature, as quietly as if she was speaking of some customary prospect that was open to her. "There will be nobody to be sorry for me--and, as I have read, drowning is not a very painful death."
"You shock me, Fanny! I, for one, should be sorry for you."
"Thank you, Miss."
"And try to remember," Iris continued, "that there may be chances in the future which you don't see yet. You speak of what you have read, and I have already noticed how clearly and correctly you express yourself. You must have been educated. Was it at home? or at school?
"I was once sent to school," Fanny replied, not quite willingly.
"Was it a private school?"
That short answer warned Iris to be careful.
"Recollections of school," she said good-humouredly, "are not the pleasantest recollections in some of our lives. Perhaps I have touched on a subject which is disagreeable to you?"
"You have touched on one of my disappointments, Miss. While my mother lived, she was my teacher. After her death, my father sent me to school. When he failed in business, I was obliged to leave, just as I had begun to learn and like it. Besides, the girls found out that I was going away, because there was no money at home to pay the fees--and that mortified me. There is more that I might tell you. I have a reason for hating my recollections of the school--but I mustn't mention that time in my life which your goodness to me tries to forget."
All that appealed to her, so simply and so modestly, in that reply, was not lost on Iris. After an interval of silence, she said:
"Can you guess what I am thinking of, Fanny?"
"I am asking myself a question. If I try you in my service shall I never regret it?"
For the first time, strong emotion shook Fanny Mere. Her voice failed her, in the effort to speak. Iris considerately went on.
"You will take the place," she said, "of a maid who has been with me for years--a good dear creature who has only left me through ill-health. I must not expect too much of you; I cannot hope that you will be to me what Rhoda Bennet has been."
Fanny succeeded in controlling herself. "Is there any hope," she asked, "of my seeing Rhoda Bennet?"
"Why do you wish to see her?"
"You are fond of her, Miss---that is one reason."
"And the other?"
"Rhoda Bennet might help me to serve you as I want to serve you; she might perhaps encourage me to try if I could follow her example." Fanny paused, and clasped her hands fervently. The thought that was in her forced its way to expression. "It's so easy to feel grateful," she said--"and, oh, so hard to show it!"
"Come to me," her new mistress answered, "and show it to-morrow."
Moved by that compassionate impulse, Iris said the words which restored to an unfortunate creature a lost character and a forfeited place in the world.
MR. HENLEY'S TEMPER
PROVIDED by nature with ironclad constitutional defences against illness, Mr. Henley was now and then troubled with groundless doubts of his own state of health. Acting under a delusion of this kind, he imagined symptoms which rendered a change of residence necessary from his town house to his country house, a few days only after his daughter had decided on the engagement of her new maid.
Iris gladly, even eagerly, adapted her own wishes to the furtherance of her father's plans. Sorely tried by anxiety and suspense, she needed all that rest and tranquillity could do for her. The first week in the country produced an improvement in her health. Enjoying the serene beauty of woodland and field, breathing the delicious purity of the air--sometimes cultivating her own corner in the garden, and sometimes helping the women in the lighter labours of the dairy--her nerves recovered their tone, and her spirits rose again to their higher level.
In the performance of her duties the new maid justified Miss Henley's confidence in her, during the residence of the household in the country.
She showed, in her own undemonstrative way, a grateful sense of her mistress's kindness. Her various occupations were intelligently and attentively pursued; her even temper never seemed to vary; she gave the servants no opportunities of complaining of her. But one peculiarity in her behaviour excited hostile remark, below-stairs. On the occasions when she was free to go out for the day, she always found some excuse for not joining any of the other female servants, who might happen to be similarly favoured. The one use she made of her holiday was to travel by railway to some place unknown; always returning at the right time in the evening. Iris knew enough of the sad circumstances to be able to respect her motives, and to appreciate the necessity for keeping the object of these solitary journeys a secret from her fellow-servants.
The pleasant life in the country house had lasted for nearly a month, when the announcement of Hugh's approaching return to England reached Iris. The fatal end of his father's long and lingering illness had arrived, and the funeral had taken place. Business, connected with his succession to the property, would detain him in London for a few days. Submitting to this necessity, he earnestly expressed the hope of seeing Iris again, the moment he was at liberty.
Hearing the good news, Mr. Henley obstinately returned to his plans--already twice thwarted--for promoting the marriage of Mountjoy and Iris.
He wrote to invite Hugh to his house in a tone of cordiality which astonished his daughter; and when the guest arrived, the genial welcome of the host had but one defect--Mr. Henley overacted his part. He gave the two young people perpetual opportunities of speaking to each other privately; and, on the principle that none are so blind as those who won't see, he failed to discover that the relations between them continued to be relations of friendship, do what he might. Hugh's long attendance on his dying father had left him depressed in spirits; Iris understood him, and felt for him. He was not ready with his opinion of the new maid, after he had seen Fanny Mere. "My inclination," he said, "is to trust the girl. And yet, I hesitate to follow my inclination--and I don't know why."
When Hugh's visit came to an end, he continued his journey in a northerly direction. The property left to him by his father included a cottage, standing in its own grounds, on the Scotch shore of the Solway Firth. The place had been neglected during the long residence of the elder Mr. Mountjoy on the Continent. Hugh's present object was to judge, by his own investigation, of the necessity for repairs.
On the departure of his guest, Mr. Henley (still obstinately hopeful of the marriage on which he had set his mind) assumed a jocular manner towards Iris, and asked if the Scotch cottage was to be put in order for the honeymoon. Her reply, gently as it was expressed, threw him into a state of fury. His vindictive temper revelled, not only in harsh words, but in spiteful actions. He sold one of his dogs which had specially attached itself to Iris; and, seeing that she still enjoyed the country, he decided on returning to London.
She submitted in silence. But the events of that past time, when her father's merciless conduct had driven her out of his house, returned ominously to her memory. She said to herself: "Is a day coming when I shall leave him again?" It was coming--and she little knew how.
THE DOCTOR IN FULL DRESS
MR. HENLEY'S household had been again established in London, when a servant appeared one morning with a visiting card, and announced that a gentleman had called who wished to see Miss Henley. She looked at the card. The gentleman was Mr. Vimpany.
On the point of directing the man to say that she was engaged, Iris checked herself.
Mrs. Vimpany's farewell words had produced a strong impression on her. There had been moments of doubt and gloom in her later life, when the remembrance of that unhappy woman was associated with a feeling (perhaps a morbid feeling) of self-reproach. It seemed to be hard on the poor penitent wretch not to have written to her. Was she still leading the same dreary life in the mouldering old town? Or had she made another attempt to return to the ungrateful stage? The gross husband, impudently presenting himself with his card and his message, could answer those questions if he could do nothing else. For that reason only Iris decided that she would receive Mr. Vimpany.
On entering the room, she found two discoveries awaiting her, for which she was entirely unprepared.
The doctor's personal appearance exhibited a striking change; he was dressed, in accordance with the strictest notions of professional propriety, entirely in black. More remarkable still, there happened to be a French novel among the books on the table--and that novel Mr. Vimpany, barbarous Mr. Vimpany, was actually reading with an appearance of understanding it!
"I seem to surprise you," said the doctor. "Is it this?" He held up the French novel as he put the question.
"I must own that I was not aware of the range of your accomplishments," Iris answered.
"Oh, don't talk of accomplishments! I learnt my profession in Paris. For nigh on three years I lived among the French medical students. Noticing this book on the table, I thought I would try whether I had forgotten the language--in the time that has passed (you know) since those days. Well, my memory isn't a good one in most things, but strange to say (force of habit, I suppose), some of my French sticks by me still. I hope I see you well, Miss Henley. Might I ask if you noticed the new address, when I sent up my card?"
"I only noticed your name."
The doctor produced his pocket-book, and took out a second card. With pride he pointed to the address: "5 Redburn Road, Hampstead Heath." With pride he looked at his black clothes. "Strictly professional, isn't it?" he said. "I have bought a new practice; and I have become a new man. It isn't easy at first. No, by jingo--I beg your pardon--I was about to say, my own respectability rather bothers me; I shall get used to it in time. If you will allow me, I'll take a liberty. No offence, I hope?"
He produced a handful of his cards, and laid them out in a neat little semicircle on the table.
"A word of recommendation, when you have the chance, would be a friendly act on your part," he explained. "Capital air in Redburn Road, and a fine view of the Heath out of the garret windows--but it's rather an out-of-the-way situation. Not that I complain; beggars mustn't be choosers. I should have preferred a practice in a fashionable part of London; but our little windfall of money--"
He came to a full stop in the middle of a sentence. The sale of the superb diamond pin, by means of which Lord Harry had repaid Mrs. Vimpany's services, was, of all domestic events, the last which it might be wise to mention in the presence of Miss Henley. He was awkwardly silent. Taking advantage of that circumstance, Iris introduced the subject in which she felt interested.
"How is Mrs. Vimpany?" she asked.
"Oh, she's all right!"
"Does she like your new house?"
The doctor made a strange reply. "I really can't tell you," he said.
"Do you mean that Mrs. Vimpany declines to express an opinion?"
He laughed. "In all my experience," he said, "I never met with a woman who did that! No, no; the fact is, my wife and I have parted company. There's no need to look so serious about it! Incompatibility of temper, as the saying is, has led us to a friendly separation. Equally a relief on both sides. She goes her way, I go mine."
His tone disgusted Iris--and she let him see it. "Is it of any use to ask you for Mrs. Vimpany's address?" she inquired.
His atrocious good-humour kept its balance as steadily as ever: "Sorry to disappoint you. Mrs. Vimpany hasn't given me her address. Curious, isn't it? The fact is, she moped a good deal, after you left us; talked of her duty, and the care of her soul, and that sort of thing. When I hear where she is, I'll let you know with pleasure. To the best of my belief, she's doing nurse's work somewhere."
"Nurse's work? What do you mean?"
"Oh, the right thing--all in the fashion. She belongs to what they call a Sisterhood; goes about, you know, in a shabby black gown, with a poke bonnet. At least, so Lord Harry told me the other day."
In spite of herself, Iris betrayed the agitation which those words instantly roused in her. "Lord Harry!" she exclaimed. "Where is he? In London?"
"Yes--at Parker's Hotel."
"When did he return?"
"Oh, a few days ago; and--what do you think?--he's come back from the goldfields a lucky man. Damn it, I've let the cat out of the bag! I was to keep the thing a secret from everybody, and from you most particularly. He's got some surprise in store for you. Don't tell him what I've done! We had a little misunderstanding, in past days, at Honeybuzzard--and, now we are friends again, I don't want to lose his lordship's interest."
Iris promised to be silent. But to know that the wild lord was in England again, and to remain in ignorance whether he had, or had not, returned with the stain of bloodshed on him, was more than she could endure.
"There is one question I must ask you," she said. "I have reason to fear that Lord Harry left this country, with a purpose of revenge--"
Mr. Vimpany wanted no further explanation. "Yes, yes; I know. You may be easy about that. There's been no mischief done, either one way or the other. The man he was after, when he landed in South Africa (he told me so himself) has escaped him."
With that reply, the doctor got up in a hurry to bring his visit to an end. He proposed to take to flight, he remarked facetiously, before Miss Henley wheedled him into saying anything more.
After opening the door, however, he suddenly returned to Iris, and added a last word in the strictest confidence.
"If you won't forget to recommend me to your friends," he said, "I'll trust you with another secret. You will see his lordship in a day or two, when he returns from the races. Good-bye."
The races! What was Lord Harry doing at the races?
ON HAMPSTEAD HEATH
IRIS had only to remember the manner in which she and Mountjoy had disappointed her father, to perceive the serious necessity of preventing Mountjoy's rival from paying a visit at Mr. Henley's house.
She wrote at once to Lord Harry, at the hotel which Mr. Vimpany had mentioned, entreating him not to think of calling on her. Being well aware that he would insist on a meeting, she engaged to write again and propose an appointment. In making this concession, Iris might have found it easier to persuade herself that she was yielding to sheer necessity, if she had not been guiltily conscious of a feeling of pleasure at the prospect of seeing Lord Harry again, returning to her an innocent man. There was some influence, in this train of thought, which led her mind back to Hugh. She regretted his absence--wondered whether he would have proposed throwing her letter to the Irish lord into the fire--sighed, closed the envelope, and sent the letter to the post.
On the next day, she had arranged to drive to Muswell Hill, and to pay the customary visit to Rhoda. Heavy rain obliged her to wait for a fitter opportunity. It was only on the third day that the sky cleared, and the weather was favourable again. On a sunshiny autumn morning, with a fine keen air blowing, she ordered the open carriage. Noticing, while Fanny Mere was helping her to dress, that the girl looked even paler than usual, she said, with her customary kindness to persons dependent on her, "You look as if a drive in the fresh air would do you good--you shall go with me to the farm, and see Rhoda Bennet."
When they stopped at the house, the farmer's wife appeared, attending a gentleman to the door. Iris at once recognised the local medical man. "You're not in attendance, I hope, on Rhoda Bennet?" she said.
The doctor acknowledged that there had been some return of the nervous derangement from which the girl suffered. He depended mainly (he said) on the weather allowing her to be out as much as possible in the fresh air, and on keeping her free from all agitation. Rhoda was so far on the way to recovery, that she was now walking in the garden by his advice. He had no fear of her, provided she was not too readily encouraged, in her present state, to receive visitors. Her mistress would be, of course, an exception to this rule. But even Miss Henley would perhaps do well not to excite the girl by prolonging her visit. There was one other suggestion which he would venture to make, while he had the opportunity. Rhoda was not, as he thought, warmly enough clothed for the time of year; and a bad cold might be easily caught by a person in her condition.
Iris entered the farm-house; leaving Fanny Mere, after what the doctor had said on the subject of visitors, to wait for her in the carriage.
After an absence of barely ten minutes Miss Henley returned; personally changed, not at all to her own advantage, by the introduction of a novelty in her dress. She had gone into the farmhouse, wearing a handsome mantle of sealskin. When she came out again, the mantle had vanished, and there appeared in its place a common cloak of drab-coloured cloth. Noticing the expression of blank amazement in the maid's face, Iris burst out laughing.
"How do you think I look in my new cloak?" she asked.
Fanny saw nothing to laugh at in the sacrifice of a sealskin mantle. "I must not presume, Miss, to give an opinion," she said gravely.
"At any rate," Iris continued, "you must be more than mortal if my change of costume doesn't excite your curiosity. I found Rhoda Bennet in the garden, exposed to the cold wind in this ugly flimsy thing. After what the doctor had told me, it was high time to assert my authority. I insisted on changing cloaks with Rhoda. She made an attempt, poor dear, to resist; but she knows me of old--and I had my way. I am sorry you have been prevented from seeing her; you shall not miss the opportunity when she is well again. Do you admire a fine view? Very well; we will vary the drive on our return. Go back," she said to the coachman, "by Highgate and Hampstead."
Fanny's eyes rested on the shabby cloak with a well-founded distrust of it as a protection against the autumn weather. She ventured to suggest that her mistress might feel the loss (in an open carriage) of the warm mantle which she had left on Rhoda's shoulders.
Iris made light of the doubt expressed by her maid. But by the time they had passed Highgate, and had approached the beginning of the straight road which crosses the high ridge of Hampstead Heath, she was obliged to acknowledge that she did indeed feel the cold. "You ought to be a good walker," she said, looking at her maid's firm well-knit figure. "Exercise is all I want to warm me. What do you say to going home on foot?" Fanny was ready and willing to accompany her mistress. The carriage was dismissed, and they set forth on their walk.
As they passed the inn called "The Spaniards," two women who were standing at the garden gate stared at Iris, and smiled. A few paces further on, they were met by an errand-boy. He too looked at the young lady, and put his hand derisively to his head, with a shrill whistle expressive of malicious enjoyment. "I appear to amuse these people," Iris said. "What do they see in me?"
Fanny answered with an effort to preserve her gravity, which was not quite successfully disguised: "I beg your pardon, Miss; I think they notice the curious contrast between your beautiful bonnet and your shabby cloak."
Persons of excitable temperament have a sense of ridicule, and a dread of it, unintelligible to their fellow-creatures who are made of coarser material. For the moment, Iris was angry. "Why didn't you tell me of it," she asked sharply, "before I sent away the carriage? How can I walk back, with everybody laughing at me?"
She paused--reflected a little--and led the way off the high road, on the right, to the fine clump of fir-trees which commands the famous view in that part of the Heath.
"There's but one thing to be done," she said, recovering her good temper; "we must make my grand bonnet suit itself to my miserable cloak. You will pull out the feather and rip off the lace (and keep them for yourself, if you like), and then I ought to look shabby enough from head to foot, I am sure! No; not here; they may notice us from the road--and what may the fools not do when they see you tearing the ornaments off my bonnet! Come down below the trees, where the ground will hide us."
They had nearly descended the steep slope which leads to the valley, below the clump of firs, when they were stopped by a terrible discovery.
Close at their feet, in a hollow of the ground, was stretched the insensible body of a man. He lay on his side, with his face turned away from them. An open razor had dropped close by him. Iris stooped over the prostate man, to examine his face. Blood flowing from a frightful wound in his throat, was the first thing that she saw. Her eyes closed instinctively, recoiling from that ghastly sight. The next instant she opened them again, and saw his face.
Dying or dead, it was the face of Lord Harry.
The shriek that burst from her, on making that horrible discovery, was heard by two men who were crossing the lower heath at some distance. They saw the women, and ran to them. One of the men was a labourer; the other, better dressed, looked like a foreman of works. He was the first who arrived on the spot.
"Enough to frighten you out of your senses, ladies," he said civilly. "It's a case of suicide, I should say, by the look of it."
"For God's sake, let us do something to help him!" Iris burst out. "I know him! I know him!"
Fanny, equal to the emergency, asked Miss Henley for her handkerchief, joined her own handkerchief to it, and began to bandage the wound. "Try if his pulse is beating," she said quietly to her mistress. The foreman made himself useful by examining the suicide's pockets. Iris thought she could detect a faint fluttering in the pulse. "Is there no doctor living near?" she cried. "Is there no carriage to be found in this horrible place?"
The foreman had discovered two letters. Iris read her own name on one of them. The other was addressed "To the person who may find my body." She tore the envelope open. It contained one of Mr. Vimpany's cards, with these desperate words written on it in pencil: "Take me to the doctor's address, and let him bury me, or dissect me, whichever he pleases." Iris showed the card to the foreman. "Is it near here?" she asked. "Yes, Miss; we might get him to that place in no time, if there was a conveyance of any kind to be found." Still preserving her presence of mind, Fanny pointed in the direction of "The Spaniards" inn. "We might get what we want there," she said. "Shall I go?"
Iris signed to her to attend to the wounded man, and ascended the sloping ground. She ran on towards the road. The men, directed by Fanny, raised the body and slowly followed her, diverging to an easier ascent. As Iris reached the road, a four-wheel cab passed her. Without an instant's hesitation, she called to the driver to stop. He pulled up his horse. She confronted a solitary gentleman, staring out of the window of the cab, and looking as if he thought that a lady had taken a liberty with him. Iris allowed the outraged stranger no opportunity of expressing his sentiments. Breathless as she was, she spoke first.
"Pray forgive me--you are alone in the cab--there is room for a gentleman, dangerously wounded--he will bleed to death if we don't find help for him--the place is close by--oh, don't refuse me!" She looked back, holding fast by the cab door, and saw Fanny and the men slowly approaching. "Bring him here!" she cried.
"Do nothing of the sort!" shouted the gentleman in possession of the cab.
But Fanny obeyed her mistress; and the men obeyed Fanny. Iris turned indignantly to the merciless stranger. "I ask you to do an act of Christian kindness," she said. "How can you, how dare you, hesitate?"
"Drive on!" cried the stranger.
"Drive on, at your peril," Iris added, on her side.
The cabman sat, silent and stolid, on the box, waiting for events.
Slowly the men came in view, bearing Lord Harry, still insensible. The handkerchiefs on his throat were saturated with blood. At that sight, the cowardly instincts of the stranger completely mastered him. "Let me out!" he clamoured; "let me out!"
Finding the cab left at her disposal, Iris actually thanked him! He looked at her with an evil eye. "I have my suspicions, I can tell you," he muttered. "If this comes to a trial in a court of law, I'm not going to be mixed up with it. Innocent people have been hanged before now, when appearances were against them."
He walked off; and, by way of completing the revelation of his own meanness, forgot to pay his fare.
On the point of starting the horse to pursue him, the cabman was effectually stopped. Iris showed him a sovereign. Upon this hint (like Othello) he spoke.
"All right, Miss. I see your poor gentleman is a-bleeding. You'll take care--won't you?--that he doesn't spoil my cushions." The driver was not a ill-conditioned man; he put the case of his property indulgently, with a persuasive smile. Iris turned to the two worthy fellows, who had so readily given her their help, and bade them good-bye, with a solid expression of her gratitude which they both remembered for many a long day to come. Fanny was already in the cab supporting Lord Harry's body. Iris joined her. The cabman drove carefully to Mr. Vimpany's new house.
NUMBER Five was near the centre of the row of little suburban houses called Redburn Road.
When the cab drew up at the door Mr. Vimpany himself was visible, looking out of the window on the ground floor--and yawning as he looked. Iris beckoned to him impatiently. "Anything wrong?" he asked, as he approached the door of the cab. She drew back, and silently showed him what was wrong. The doctor received the shock with composure. When he happened to be sober and sad, looking for patients and failing to find them, Mr. Vimpany's capacity for feeling sympathy began and ended with himself.
"This is a new scrape, even for Lord Harry," he remarked. "Let's get him into the house."
The insensible man was carried into the nearest room on the ground floor. Pale and trembling, Iris related what had happened, and asked if there was no hope of saving him.
"Patience!" Mr. Vimpany answered; "I'll tell you directly."
He removed the bandages, and examined the wound. "There's been a deal of blood lost," he said; "I'll try and pull him through. While I am about it, Miss, go upstairs, if you please, and find your way to the drawing-room." Iris hesitated. The doctor opened a neat mahogany box. "The tools of my trade," he continued; "I'm going to sew up his lordship's throat." Shuddering as she heard those words, Iris hurried out of the room. Fanny followed her mistress up the stairs. In her own very different way, the maid was as impenetrably composed as Mr. Vimpany himself. "There was a second letter found in the gentleman's pocket, Miss," she said. "Will you excuse my reminding you that you have not read it yet."
Iris read the lines that follow:
"Forgive me, my dear, for the last time. My letter is to say that I shall trouble you no more in this world--and, as for the other world, who knows? I brought some money back with me, from the goldfields. It was not enough to be called a fortune--I mean the sort of fortune which might persuade your father to let you marry me. Well! here in England, I had an opportunity of making ten times more of it on the turf; and, let me add, with private information of the horses which I might certainly count on to win. I don't stop to ask by what cruel roguery I was tempted to my ruin. My money is lost; and, with it, my last hope of a happy and harmless life with you comes to an end. I die, Iris dear, with the death of that hope. Something in me seems to shrink from suicide in the ugly gloom of great overgrown London. I prefer to make away with myself among the fields, where the green will remind me of dear old Ireland. When you think of me sometimes, say to yourself the poor wretch loved me--and perhaps the earth will lie lighter on Harry for those kind words, and the flowers (if you favour me by planting a few) may grow prettier on my grave."
There it ended.
The heart of Iris sank as she read that melancholy farewell, expressed in language at once wild and childish. If he survived his desperate attempt at self-destruction, to what end would it lead? In silence, the woman who loved him put his letter back in her bosom. Watching her attentively--affected, it was impossible to say how, by that mute distress--Fanny Mere proposed to go downstairs, and ask once more what hope there might be for the wounded man. Iris knew the doctor too well to let the maid leave her on a useless errand.
"Some men might be kindly ready to relieve my suspense," she said; "the man downstairs is not one of them. I must wait till he comes to me, or sends for me. But there is something I wish to say to you, while we are alone. You have been but a short time in my service, Fanny. Is it too soon to ask if you feel some interest in me?"
"If I can comfort you or help you, Miss, be pleased to tell me how." She made that reply respectfully, in her usual quiet manner; her pale cheeks showing no change of colour, her faint blue eyes resting steadily on her mistress's face. Iris went on:
"If I ask you to keep what has happened, on this dreadful day, a secret from everybody, may I trust you--little as you know of me--as I might have trusted Rhoda Bennet?"
"I promise it, Miss." In saying those few words, the undemonstrative woman seemed to think that she had said enough.
Iris had no alternative but to ask another favour.
"And whatever curiosity you may feel, will you be content to do me a kindness--without wanting an explanation?"
"It is my duty to respect my mistress's secrets; I will do my duty." No sentiment, no offer of respectful sympathy; a positive declaration of fidelity, left impenetrably to speak for itself. Was the girl's heart hardened by the disaster which had darkened her life? Or was she the submissive victim of that inbred reserve, which shrinks from the frank expression of feeling, and lives and dies self-imprisoned in its own secrecy? A third explanation, founded probably on a steadier basis, was suggested by Miss Henley's remembrance of their first interview. Fanny's nature had revealed a sensitive side, when she was first encouraged to hope for a refuge from ruin followed perhaps by starvation and death. Judging so far from experience, a sound conclusion seemed to follow. When circumstances strongly excited the girl, there was a dormant vitality in her that revived. At other times when events failed to agitate her by a direct appeal to personal interests, her constitutional reserve held the rule. She could be impenetrably honest, steadily industrious, truly grateful--but the intuitive expression of feeling, on ordinary occasions, was beyond her reach.
After an interval of nearly half an hour, Mr. Vimpany made his appearance. Pausing in the doorway, he consulted his watch, and entered on a calculation which presented him favourably from a professional point of view.
"Allow for time lost in reviving my lord when he fainted, and stringing him up with a drop of brandy, and washing my hands (look how clean they are!), I haven't been more than twenty minutes in mending his throat. Not bad surgery, Miss Henley."
"Is his life safe, Mr. Vimpany?"
"Thanks to his luck--yes."
"To be sure! In the first place, he owes his life to your finding him when you did; a little later, and it would have been all over with Lord Harry. Second piece of luck: catching the doctor at home, just when he was most wanted. Third piece of luck: our friend didn't know how to cut his own throat properly. You needn't look black at me, Miss; I'm not joking. A suicide with a razor in his hand has generally one chance in his favour--he is ignorant of anatomy. That is my lord's case. He has only cut through the upper fleshy part of his throat, and has missed the larger blood vessels. Take my word for it, he will do well enough now; thanks to you, thanks to me, and thanks to his own ignorance. What do you say to that way of putting it? Ha! my brains are in good working order to-day; I haven't been drinking any of Mr. Mountjoy's claret--do you take the joke, Miss Henley?"
Chuckling over the recollection of his own drunken audacity, he happened to notice Fanny Mere.
"Hullo! is this another injured person in want of me? You're as white as a sheet, Miss. If you're going to faint, do me a favour--wait till I can get the brandy-bottle. Oh! it's natural to you, is it? I see. A thick skin and a slow circulation; you will live to be an old woman. A friend of yours, Miss Henley?"
Fanny answered composedly for herself: "I am Miss Henley's maid, sir."
"What's become of the other one?" Mr. Vimpany asked. "Aye? aye? Staying at a farm-house for the benefit of her health, is she? If I had been allowed time enough, I would have made a cure of Rhoda Bennet. There isn't a medical man in England who knows more than I do of the nervous maladies of women--and what is my reward? Is my waiting-room crammed with rich people coming to consult me? Do I live in a fashionable Square? Have I even been made a Baronet? Damn it--I beg your pardon, Miss Henley--but it is irritating, to a man of my capacity, to be completely neglected. For the last three days not a creature has darkened the doors of this house. Could I say a word to you?"
He led Iris mysteriously into a corner of the room. "About our friend downstairs?" he began.
"When may we hope that he will be well again, Mr. Vimpany?"
"Maybe in three weeks. In a month at most. I have nobody here but a stupid servant girl. We ought to have a competent nurse. I can get a thoroughly trained person from the hospital; but there's a little difficulty. I am an outspoken man. When I am poor, I own I am poor. My lord must be well fed; the nurse must be well fed. Would you mind advancing a small loan, to provide beforehand for the payment of expenses?"
Iris handed her purse to him, sick of the sight of Mr. Vimpany. "Is that all?" she asked, making for the door.
"Much obliged. That's all."
As they approached the room on the ground floor, Iris stopped: her eyes rested on the doctor. Even to that coarse creature, the eloquent look spoke for her. Fanny noticed it, and suddenly turned her head aside. Over the maid's white face there passed darkly an expression of unutterable contempt. Her mistress's weakness had revealed itself--weakness for one of the betrayers of women; weakness for a man! In the meantime, Mr. Vimpany (having got the money) was ready to humour the enviable young lady with a well-filled purse.
"Do you want to see my lord before you go?" he asked, amused at the idea. "Mind! you mustn't disturb him! No talking, and no crying. Ready? Now look at him."
There he lay on a shabby little sofa, in an ugly little room; his eyes closed; one helpless hand hanging down; a stillness on his ghastly face, horribly suggestive of the stillness of death--there he lay, the reckless victim of his love for the woman who had desperately renounced him again and again, who had now saved him for the third time. Ah, how her treacherous heart pleaded for him! Can you drive him away from you after this? You, who love him, what does your cold-blooded prudence say, when you look at him now?
She felt herself drawn, roughly and suddenly, back into the passage. The door was closed; the doctor was whispering to her. "Hold up, Miss! I expected better things of you. Come! come!--no fainting. You'll find him a different man to-morrow. Pay us a visit, and judge for yourself."
After what she had suffered, Iris hungered for sympathy. "Isn't it pitiable?" she said to her maid as they left the house.
"I don't know, Miss."
"You don't know? Good heavens, are you made of stone? Have you no such thing as a heart in you?"
"Not for the men," Fanny answered. "I keep my pity for the women."
Iris knew what bitter remembrances made their confession in those words. How she missed Rhoda Bennet at that moment!
MR. HENLEY AT HOME
FOR a month, Mountjoy remained in his cottage on the shores of the Solway Firth, superintending the repairs.
His correspondence with Iris was regularly continued; and, for the first time in his experience of her, was a cause of disappointment to him.
Her replies revealed an incomprehensible change in her manner of writing, which became more and more marked in each succeeding instance. Notice it as he might in his own letters, no explanation followed on the part of his correspondent. She, who had so frankly confided her joys and sorrows to him in past days, now wrote with a reserve which seemed only to permit the most vague and guarded allusion to herself. The changes in the weather; the alternation of public news that was dull, and public news that was interesting; the absence of her father abroad, occasioned by doubt of the soundness of his investments in foreign securities; vague questions relating to Hugh's new place of abode, which could only have proceeded from a preoccupied mind--these were the topics on which Iris dwelt, in writing to her faithful old friend. It was hardly possible to doubt that something must have happened, which she had reasons--serious reasons, as it seemed only too natural to infer--for keeping concealed from Mountjoy. Try as he might to disguise it from himself, he now knew how dear, how hopelessly dear, she was to him by the anxiety that he suffered, and by the jealous sense of injury which defied his self-command. His immediate superintendence of the workmen at the cottage was no longer necessary. Leaving there a representative whom he could trust, he resolved to answer his last letter, received from Iris, in person.
The next day he was in London.
Calling at the house, he was informed that Miss Henley was not at home, and that it was impossible to say with certainty when she might return. While he was addressing his inquiries to the servant, Mr. Henley opened the library door. "Is that you, Mountjoy?" he asked. "Come in: I want to speak to you."
Short and thick-set, with a thin-lipped mouth, a coarsely-florid complexion, and furtive greenish eyes; hard in his manner, and harsh in his voice; Mr. Henley was one of the few heartless men, who are innocent of deception on the surface: he was externally a person who inspired, at first sight, feelings of doubt and dislike. His manner failed to show even a pretence of being glad to see Hugh. What he had to say, he said walking up and down the room, and scratching his bristly iron-gray hair from time to time. Those signs of restlessness indicated, to those who knew him well, that he had a selfish use to make of a fellow-creature, and failed to see immediately how to reach the end in view.
"I say, Mountjoy," he began, "have you any idea of what my daughter is about?"
"I don't even understand what you mean," Hugh replied. "For the last month I have been in Scotland."
"You and she write to each other, don't you?"
"Hasn't she told you--"
"Excuse me for interrupting you, Mr. Henley; she has told me nothing."
Mr. Henley stared absently at the superbly-bound books on his library-shelves (never degraded by the familiar act of reading), and scratched his head more restlessly than ever.
"Look here, young man. When you were staying with me in the country, I rather hoped it might end in a marriage engagement. You and Iris disappointed me--not for the first time. But women do change their minds. Suppose she had changed her mind, after having twice refused you? Suppose she had given you an opportunity--"
Hugh interrupted him again. "It's needless to suppose anything of the sort, sir; she would not have given me an opportunity."
"Don't fence with me, Mountjoy! I'll put it in a milder way, if you prefer being humbugged. Do you feel any interest in that perverse girl of mine?"
Hugh answered readily and warmly: "The truest interest!"
Even Mr. Henley was human; his ugly face looked uglier still. It assumed the self-satisfied expression of a man who had carried his point.
"Now I can go on, my friend, with what I had to say to you. I have been abroad on business, and only came back the other day. The moment I saw Iris I noticed something wrong about her. If I had been a stranger, I should have said: That young woman is not easy in her mind. Perfectly useless to speak to her about it. Quite happy and quite well--there was her own account of herself. I tried her maid next, a white-livered sulky creature, one of the steadiest liars I have ever met with. 'I know of nothing amiss with my mistress, sir.' There was the maid's way of keeping the secret, whatever it may be! I don't know whether you may have noticed it, in the course of your acquaintance with me--I hate to be beaten."
"No, Mr. Henley, I have not noticed it."
"Then you are informed of it now. Have you seen my housekeeper?"
"Once or twice, sir."
"Come! you're improving; we shall make something of you in course of time. Well, the housekeeper was the next person I spoke to about my daughter. Had she seen anything strange in Miss Iris, while I was away from home? There's a dash of malice in my housekeeper's composition; I don't object to a dash of malice. When the old woman is pleased, she shows her yellow fangs. She had something to tell me: 'The servants have been talking, sir, about Miss Iris.' 'Out with it, ma'am! what do they say?' 'They notice, sir, that their young lady has taken to going out in the forenoon, regularly every day: always by herself, and always in the same direction. I don't encourage the servants, Mr. Henley: there was something insolent in the tone of suspicion that they adopted. I told them that Miss Iris was merely taking her walk. They reminded me that it must be a cruelly long walk; Miss Iris being away regularly for four or five hours together, before she came back to the house. After that' (says the housekeeper) 'I thought it best to drop the subject.' What do you think of it yourself, Mountjoy? Do you call my daughter's conduct suspicious?"
"I see nothing suspicious, Mr. Henley. When Iris goes out, she visits a friend."
"And always goes in the same direction, and always visits the same friend," Mr. Henley added. "I felt a curiosity to know who that friend might be; and I made the discovery yesterday. When you were staying in my house in the country, do you remember the man who waited on you?"
Mountjoy began to feel alarmed for Iris; he answered as briefly as possible.
"Your valet," he said.
"That's it! Well, I took my valet into my confidence--not for the first time, I can tell you: an invaluable fellow. When Iris went out yesterday, he tracked her to a wretched little suburban place near Hampstead Heath, called Redburn Road. She rang the bell at Number Five, and was at once let in--evidently well known there. My clever man made inquiries in the neighbourhood. The house belongs to a doctor, who has lately taken it. Name of Vimpany."
Mountjoy was not only startled, but showed it plainly. Mr. Henley, still pacing backwards and forwards, happened by good fortune to have his back turned towards his visitor, at that moment.
"Now I ask you, as a man of the world," Mr. Henley resumed, "what does this mean? If you're too cautious to speak out--and I must say it looks like it--shall I set you the example?"
"Just as you please, sir."
"Very well, then; I'll tell you what I suspect. When Iris is at home, and when there's something amiss in my family, I believe that scoundrel Lord Harry to be at the bottom of it. There's my experience, and there's my explanation. I was on the point of ordering my carriage, to go to the doctor myself, and insist on knowing what the attraction is that takes my daughter to his house, when I heard your voice in the hall. You tell me you are interested in Iris. Very well; you are just the man to help me."
"May I ask how, Mr. Henley?"
"Of course you may. You can find your way to her confidence, if you choose to try; she will trust you, when she won't trust her father. I don't care two straws about her other secrets; but I do want to know whether she is, or is not, plotting to marry the Irish blackguard. Satisfy me about that, and you needn't tell me anything more. May I count on you to find out how the land lies?"
Mountjoy listened, hardly able to credit the evidence of his own senses; he was actually expected to insinuate himself into the confidence of Iris, and then to betray her to her father! He rose, and took his hat--and, without even the formality of a bow, opened the door.
"Does that mean No?" Mr. Henley called after him.
"Most assuredly," Mountjoy answered--and closed the door behind him.
FIRST SUSPICIONS OF IRIS
FROM the last memorable day, on which Iris had declared to him that he might always count on her as his friend, but never as his wife, Hugh had resolved to subject his feelings to a rigorous control. As to conquering his hopeless love, he knew but too well that it would conquer him, on any future occasion when he and Iris happened to meet.
He had been true to his resolution, at what cost of suffering he, and he alone knew. Sincerely, unaffectedly, he had tried to remain her friend. But the nature of the truest and the firmest man has its weak place, where the subtle influence of a woman is concerned. Deeply latent, beyond the reach of his own power of sounding, there was jealousy of the Irish lord lurking in Mountjoy, and secretly leading his mind when he hesitated in those emergencies of his life which were connected with Iris. Ignorant of the influence which was really directing him, he viewed with contempt Mr. Henley's suspicions of a secret understanding between his daughter and the man who was, by her own acknowledgment, unworthy of the love with which it had been her misfortune to regard him. At the same time, Hugh's mind was reluctantly in search of an explanation, which might account (without degrading Iris) for her having been traced to the doctor's house. In his recollection of events at the old country town, he found a motive for her renewal of intercourse with such a man as Mr. Vimpany, in the compassionate feeling with which she regarded the doctor's unhappy wife. There might well be some humiliating circumstance, recently added to the other trials of Mrs. Vimpany's married life, which had appealed to all that was generous and forgiving in the nature of Iris. Knowing nothing of the resolution to live apart which had latterly separated the doctor and his wife, Mountjoy decided on putting his idea to the test by applying for information to Mrs. Vimpany at her husband's house.
In the nature of a sensitive man the bare idea of delay, under these circumstances, was unendurable. Hugh called the first cab that passed him, and drove to Hampstead.
Careful--morbidly careful, perhaps--not to attract attention needlessly to himself, he stopped the cab at the entrance to Redburn Road, and approached Number Five on foot. A servant-girl answered the door. Mountjoy asked if Mrs. Vimpany was at home.
The girl made no immediate reply. She seemed to be puzzled by Mountjoy's simple question. Her familiar manner, with its vulgar assumption of equality in the presence of a stranger, revealed the London-bred maid-servant of modern times. "Did you say Mrs. Vimpany?" she inquired sharply.
"There's no such person here."
It was Mountjoy's turn to be puzzled. "Is this Mr. Vimpany's house?" he said.
"Yes, to be sure it is."
"And yet Mrs. Vimpany doesn't live here?"
"No Mrs. Vimpany has darkened these doors," the girl declared positively.
"Are you sure you are not making a mistake?"
"Quite sure. I have been in the doctor's service since he first took the house."
Determined to solve the mystery, if it could be done, Mountjoy asked if he could see the doctor. No: Mr. Vimpany had gone out.
"There's a young person comes to us," the servant continued. "I wonder whether you mean her, when you ask for Mrs. Vimpany? The name she gives is Henley."
"Is Miss Henley here, now?"
"You can't see her--she's engaged."
She was not engaged with Mrs. Vimpany, for no such person was known in the house. She was not engaged with the doctor, for the doctor had gone out. Mountjoy looked at the hat-stand in the passage, and discovered a man's hat and a man's greatcoat. To whom did they belong? Certainly not to Mr. Vimpany, who had gone out. Repellent as it was, Mr. Henley's idea that the explanation of his daughter's conduct was to be found in the renewed influence over her of the Irish lord, now presented itself to Hugh's mind under a new point of view. He tried in vain to resist the impression that had been produced on him. A sense of injury, which he was unable to justify to himself, took possession of him. Come what might of it, he determined to set at rest the doubts of which he was ashamed, by communicating with Iris. His card-case proved to be empty when he opened it; but there were letters in his pocket, addressed to him at his hotel in London. Removing the envelope from one of these, he handed it to the servant: "Take that to Miss Henley, and ask when I can see her."
The girl left him in the passage, and went upstairs to the drawing-room.
In the flimsily-built little house, he could hear the heavy step of a man, crossing the room above, and then the resonant tones of a man's voice raised as if in anger. Had she given him already the right to be angry with her? He thought of the time, when the betrayal of Lord Harry's vindictive purpose in leaving England had frightened her--when he had set aside his own sense of what was due to him, for her sake--and had helped her to communicate, by letter, with the man whose fatal ascendency over Iris had saddened his life. Was what he heard, now, the return that he had deserved?
After a short absence, the servant came back with a message.
"Miss Henley begs you will excuse her. She will write to you."
Would this promised letter be like the other letters which he had received from her in Scotland? Mountjoy's gentler nature reminded him that he owed it to his remembrance of happier days, and truer friendship, to wait and see.
He was just getting into the cab, on his return to London, when a closed carriage, with one person in it, passed him on its way to Redburn Road. In that person he recognised Mr. Henley. As the cab-driver mounted to his seat, Hugh saw the carriage stop at Number Five.
THE PARTING SCENE
THE evening had advanced, and the candles had just been lit in Mountjoy's sitting-room at the hotel.
His anxiety to hear from Iris had been doubled and trebled, since he had made the discovery of her father's visit to the doctor's house, at a time when it was impossible to doubt that Lord Harry was with her. Hugh's jealous sense of wrong was now mastered by the nobler emotions which filled him with pity and alarm, when he thought of Iris placed between the contending claims of two such men as the heartless Mr. Henley and the reckless Irish lord. He had remained at the hotel, through the long afternoon, on the chance that she might write to him speedily by the hand of a messenger--and no letter had arrived. He was still in expectation of news which might reach him by the evening post, when the waiter knocked at the door.
"A letter?" Mountjoy asked.
"No, sir," the man answered; "a lady."
Before she could raise her veil, Hugh had recognised Iris. Her manner was subdued; her face was haggard; her hand lay cold and passive in his hand, when he advanced to bid her welcome. He placed a chair for her by the fire. She thanked him and declined to take it. With the air of a woman conscious of committing an intrusion, she seated herself apart in a corner of the room.
"I have tried to write to you, and I have not been able to do it." She said that with a dogged resignation of tone and manner, so unlike herself that Mountjoy looked at her in dismay. "My friend," she went on, "your pity is all I may hope for; I am no longer worthy of the interest you once felt in me."
Hugh saw that it would be useless to remonstrate. He asked if it had been his misfortune to offend her.
"No," she said, "you have not offended me."
"Then what in Heaven's name does this change in you mean?"
"It means," she said, as coldly as ever, "that I have lost my self-respect; it means that my father has renounced me, and that you will do well to follow his example. Have I not led you to believe that I could never be the wife of Lord Harry? Well, I have deceived you---I am going to marry him."
"I can't believe it, Iris! I won't believe it!"
She handed him the letter, in which the Irishman had declared his resolution to destroy himself. Hugh read it with contempt. "Did my lord's heart fail him?" he asked scornfully.
"He would have died by his own hand, Mr. Mountjoy----"
"I will say 'Hugh,' if you prefer it--but the days of our familiar friendship are none the less at an end. I found Lord Harry bleeding to death from a wound in his throat. It was in a lonely place on Hampstead Heath; I was the one person who happened to pass by it. For the third time, you see, it has been my destiny to save him. How can I forget that? My mind will dwell on it. I try to find happiness--oh, only happiness enough for me--in cheering my poor Irishman, on his way back to the life that I have preserved. There is my motive, if I have a motive. Day after day I have helped to nurse him. Day after day I have heard him say things to me--what is the use of repeating them? After years of resistance I have given way; let that be enough. My one act of discretion has been to prevent a quarrel between my father and Harry. I beg your pardon, I ought to have said Lord Harry. When my father came to the house, I insisted on speaking with him alone. I told him what I have just told you. He said: 'Think again before you make your choice between that man and me. If you decide to marry him, you will live and die without one farthing of my money to help you.' He put his watch on the table between us, and gave me five minutes to make up my mind. It was a long five minutes, but it ended at last. He asked me which he was to do--leave his will as it was, or go to his lawyer and make another. I said, 'You will do as you please, sir.' No; it was not a hasty reply--you can't make that excuse for me. I knew what I was saying; and I saw the future I was preparing for myself, as plainly as you see it--"
Hugh could endure no longer the reckless expression of her despair.
"No!" he cried, "you don't see your future as I see it. Will you hear what I have to say, before it is too late?"
"It is too late already. But I will listen to you if you wish it."
"And, while you listen," Mountjoy added, "you will acquit me of being influenced by a selfish motive. I have loved you dearly. Perhaps, in secret, I love you still. But, this I know: if you were to remain a single woman for the rest of your life, there would be no hope for Me. Do you believe that I am speaking the truth?"
"You always speak the truth."
"I speak in your interest, at least. You think you see your future life plainly--you are blind to your future life. You talk as if you were resigned to suffer. Are you resigned to lose your sense of right and wrong? Are you resigned to lead the life of an outlaw, and--worse still--not to feel the disgrace of it?"
"Go on, Hugh."
"You won't answer me?"
"I won't shock you."
"You don't discourage me, my dear; I am still obstinate in the hope of restoring you to your calmer and truer self. Let me do every justice to Lord Harry. I believe, sincerely believe, that his miserable life has not utterly destroyed in him the virtues which distinguish an honourable man. But he has one terrible defect. In his nature, there is the fatal pliability which finds companionable qualities in bad friends. In this aspect of his character, he is a dangerous man--and he may be (forgive me!) a bad husband. It is a thankless task to warn you to any good purpose. A wife--and a loving wife more than another--feels the deteriorating influence of a husband who is not worthy of her. His ways of thinking are apt to become, little by little, her ways of thinking. She makes allowances for him, which he does not deserve; her sense of right and wrong becomes confused; and before she is aware of it herself, she has sunk to his level. Are you angry with me?"
"How can I be angry with you? Perhaps you are right."
"Do you really mean that?"
"Then, for God's sake, reconsider your decision! Let me go to your father."
"Mere waste of time," Iris answered. "Nothing that you can say will have the least effect on him."
"At any rate," Mountjoy persisted, "I mean to try."
Had he touched her? She smiled--how bitterly Hugh failed to perceive.
"Shall I tell you what happened to me when I went home to-day?" she said. "I found my maid waiting in the hall--with everything that belongs to me, packed up for my departure. The girl explained that she had been forced to obey my father's positive orders. I knew what that meant--I had to leave the house, and find a place to live in."
"Not by yourself, Iris?"
"No--with my maid. She is a strange creature; if she feels sympathy, she never expresses it. 'I am your grateful servant, Miss. Where you go, I go.' That was all she said; I was not disappointed--I am getting used to Fanny Mere already. Mine is a lonely lot--isn't it? I have acquaintances among the few ladies who sometimes visit at my father's house, but no friends. My mother's family, as I have always been told, cast her off when she married a man in trade, with a doubtful reputation. I don't even know where my relations live. Isn't Lord Harry good enough for me, as I am now? When I look at my prospects, is it wonderful if I talk like a desperate woman? There is but one encouraging circumstance that I can see. This misplaced love of mine that everybody condemns has, oddly enough, a virtue that everybody must admire. It offers a refuge to a woman who is alone in the world."
Mountjoy denied indignantly that she was alone in the world.
"Is there any protection that a man can offer to a woman," he asked, "which I am not ready and eager to offer to You? Oh, Iris, what have I done to deserve that you should speak of yourself as friendless in my hearing!"
He had touched her at last. Their tender charm showed itself once more in her eyes and in her smile. She rose and approached him.
"What exquisite kindness it must be," she said, "that blinds a clever man like you to obstacles which anyone else can see! Remember, dear Hugh, what the world would say to that protection which your true heart offers to me. Are you my near relation? are you my guardian? are you even an old man? Ah me! you are only an angel of goodness whom I must submit to lose. I shall still count on your kindness when we see each other no more. You will pity me, when you hear that I have fallen lower and lower; you will be sorry for me, when I end in disgracing myself."
"Even then, Iris, we shall not be separated. The loving friend who is near you now, will be your loving friend still."
For the first time in her life, she threw her arms round him. In the agony of that farewell, she held him to her bosom. "Goodbye, dear," she said faintly--and kissed him.
The next moment, a deadly pallor overspread her face. She staggered as she drew back, and dropped into the chair that she had just left. In the fear that she might faint, Mountjoy hurried out in search of a restorative. His bed-chamber was close by, at the end of the corridor; and there were smelling-salts in his dressing-case. As he raised the lid, he heard the door behind him, the one door in the room, locked from the outer side.
He rushed to the door, and called to her. From the farther end of the corridor, her voice reached him for the last time, repeating the last melancholy word: "Good-bye." No renewal of the miserable parting scene: no more of the heartache--Iris had ended it!
THE FATAL WORDS
WHEN Mountjoy had rung for the servant, and the bedroom door had been unlocked, it was too late to follow the fugitive. Her cab was waiting for her outside; and the attention of the porter had been distracted, at the same time, by a new arrival of travellers at the hotel.
It is more or less in the nature of all men who are worthy of the name, to take refuge from distress in action. Hugh decided on writing to Iris, and on making his appeal to her father, that evening. He abstained from alluding, in his letter, to the manner in which she had left him; it was her right, it was even her duty to spare herself. All that he asked was to be informed of her present place of residence, so that he might communicate the result--in writing only if she preferred it--of his contemplated interview with her father. He addressed his letter to the care of Mr. Vimpany, to be forwarded, and posted it himself.
This done, he went on at once to Mr. Henley's house.
The servant who opened the door had evidently received his orders. Mr. Henley was "not at home." Mountjoy was in no humour to be trifled with. He pushed the man out of his way, and made straight for the dining-room. There, as his previous experience of the habits of the household had led him to anticipate, was the man whom he was determined to see. The table was laid for Mr. Henley's late dinner.
Hugh's well-meant attempt to plead the daughter's cause with the father ended as Iris had said it would end.
After hotly resenting the intrusion on him that had been committed, Mr. Henley declared that a codicil to his will, depriving his daughter absolutely of all interest in his property, had been legally executed that day. For a time, Mountjoy's self-control had resisted the most merciless provocation. All that it was possible to effect, by patient entreaty and respectful remonstrance, he had tried again and again, and invariably in vain. At last, Mr. Henley's unbridled insolence triumphed. Hugh lost his temper--and, in leaving the heartless old man, used language which he afterwards remembered with regret.
To feel that he had attempted to assert the interests of Iris, and that he had failed, was, in Hugh's heated state of mind, an irresistible stimulant to further exertion. It was perhaps not too late yet to make another attempt to delay (if not to prevent) the marriage.
In sheer desperation, Mountjoy resolved to inform Lord Harry that his union with Miss Henley would be followed by the utter ruin of her expectations from her father. Whether the wild lord only considered his own interests, or whether he was loyally devoted to the interests of the woman whom he loved, in either case the penalty to be paid for the marriage was formidable enough to make him hesitate.
The lights in the lower window, and in the passage, told Hugh that he had arrived in good time at Redburn Road.
He found Mr. Vimpany and the young Irishman sitting together, in the friendliest manner, under the composing influence of tobacco. Primed, as he would have said himself, with only a third glass of grog, the hospitable side of the doctor's character was displayed to view. He at once accepted Mountjoy's visit as offering a renewal of friendly relations between them.
"Forgive and forget," he said, "there's the way to settle that little misunderstanding, after our dinner at the inn. You know Mr. Mountjoy, my lord? That's right. Draw in your chair, Mountjoy. My professional prospects threaten me with ruin--but while I have a roof over my head, there's always a welcome for a friend. My dear fellow, I have every reason to believe that the doctor who sold me this practice was a swindler. The money is gone, and the patients don't come. Well! I am not quite bankrupt yet; I can offer you a glass of grog. Mix for yourself--we'll make a night of it."
Hugh explained (with the necessary excuses) that his object was to say a few words to Lord Harry in private. The change visible in the doctor's manner, when he had been made acquainted with this circumstance, was not amiably expressed; he had the air of a man who suspected that an unfair advantage had been taken of him. Lord Harry, on his side, appeared to feel some hesitation in granting a private interview to Mr. Mountjoy.
"Is it about Miss Henley?" he asked.
Hugh admitted that it was. Lord Harry thereupon suggested that they might be acting wisely if they avoided the subject. Mountjoy answered that there were, on the contrary, reasons for approaching the subject sufficiently important to have induced him to leave London for Hampstead at a late hour of the night.
Hearing this, Lord Harry rose to lead the way to another room. Excluded from his visitor's confidence, Mr. Vimpany could at least remind Mountjoy that he exercised authority as master of the house. "Oh, take him upstairs, my lord," said the doctor; "you are at home under my humble roof!"
The two young men faced each other in the barely-furnished drawing-room; both sufficiently doubtful of the friendly result of the conference to abstain from seating themselves. Hugh came to the point, without wasting time in preparatory words. Admitting that he had heard of Miss Henley's engagement, he asked if Lord Harry was aware of the disastrous consequences to the young lady which would follow her marriage. The reply to this was frankly expressed. The Irish lord knew nothing of the consequences to which Mr. Mountjoy had alluded. Hugh at once enlightened him, and evidently took him completely by surprise.
"May I ask, sir," he said, "if you are speaking from your own personal knowledge?"
"I have just come, my lord, from Mr. Henley's house; and what I have told you, I heard from his own lips."
There was a pause. Hugh was already inclined to think that he had raised an obstacle to the immediate celebration of the marriage. A speedy disappointment was in store for him. Lord Harry was too fond of Iris to be influenced, in his relations with her, by mercenary considerations.
"You put it strongly," he said. "But let me tell you, Miss Henley is far from being so dependent on her father--he ought to be ashamed of himself, but that's neither here nor there--I say, she is far from being so dependent on her father as you seem to think. I am not, I beg to inform you, without resources which I shall offer to her with all my heart and soul. Perhaps you wish me to descend to particulars? Oh, it's easily done; I have sold my cottage in Ireland."
"For a large sum--in these times?" Hugh inquired.
"Never mind the sum, Mr. Mountjoy--let the fact be enough for you. And, while we are on the question of money (a disgusting question, with which I refuse to associate the most charming woman in existence), don't forget that Miss Henley has an income of her own; derived, as I understand, from her mother's fortune, You will do me the justice, sir, to believe that I shall not touch a farthing of it."
"Certainly! But her mother's fortune," Mountjoy continued, obstinately presenting the subject on its darkest side, "consists of shares in a Company. Shares rise and fall--and Companies some times fail."
"And a friend's anxiety about Miss Henley's affairs sometimes takes a mighty disagreeable form," the Irishman added, his temper beginning to show itself without disguise. "Let's suppose the worst that can happen, and get all the sooner to the end of a conversation which is far from being agreeable to me. We'll say, if you like, that Miss Henley's shares are waste paper, and her pockets (God bless her!) as empty as pockets can be, does she run any other risk that occurs to your ingenuity in becoming my wife?"
"Yes, she does!" Hugh was provoked into saying. "In the case you have just supposed, she runs the risk of being left a destitute widow--if you die."
He was prepared for an angry reply--for another quarrel added, on that disastrous night, to the quarrel with Mr. Henley. To his astonishment, Lord Harry's brightly-expressive eyes rested on him with a look of mingled distress and alarm. "God forgive me!" he said to himself, "I never thought of that! What am I to do? what am I to do?"
Mountjoy observed that deep discouragement, and failed to understand it.
Here was a desperate adventurer, whose wanderings had over and over again placed his life in jeopardy, now apparently overcome by merely having his thoughts directed to the subject of death! To place on the circumstances such a construction as this was impossible, after a moment's reflection. The other alternative was to assume that there must be some anxiety burdening Lord Harry's mind, which he had motives for keeping concealed--and here indeed the true explanation had been found. The Irish lord had reasons, known only to himself, for recoiling from the contemplation of his own future. After the murder of Arthur Mountjoy, he had severed his connection with the assassinating brotherhood of the Invincibles; and he had then been warned that he took this step at the peril of his life, if he remained in Great Britain after he had made himself an object of distrust to his colleagues. The discovery, by the secret tribunal, of his return from South Africa would be followed inevitably by the sentence of death. Such was the terrible position which Mountjoy's reply had ignorantly forced him to confront. His fate depended on the doubtful security of his refuge in the doctor's house.
While Hugh was still looking at him, in grave doubt, a new idea seemed to spring to life in Lord Harry's mind. He threw off the oppression that had weighed on his spirits in an instant. His manner towards Mountjoy changed, with the suddenness of a flash of light, from the extreme of coldness to the extreme of cordiality.
"I have got it at last!" he exclaimed. "Let's shake hands. My dear sir, you're the best friend I have ever had!"
The cool Englishman asked: "In what way?"
"In this way, to be sure! You have reminded me that I can provide for Miss Henley--and the sooner the better. There's our friend the doctor down-stairs, ready to be my reference. Don't you see it?"
Obstacles that might prevent the marriage Mountjoy was ready enough to see. Facilities that might hasten the marriage found his mind hard of access to new impressions.
"Are you speaking seriously?" he said.
The Irishman's irritable temper began to show itself again.
"Why do you doubt it?" he asked.
"I fail to understand you," Mountjoy replied.
Never--as events were yet to prove--had words of such serious import fallen from Lord Harry's lips as the words that he spoke next.
"Clear your mind of jealousy," he said, "and you will understand me well enough. I agree with you that I am bound to provide for my widow--and I mean to do it by insuring my life."
NEWS OF IRIS
AFTER his interview with the Irish lord, Mountjoy waited for two days, in the expectation of hearing from Iris. No reply arrived. Had Mr. Vimpany failed to forward the letter that had been entrusted to him?
On the third day, Hugh wrote to make inquiries.
The doctor returned the letter that had been confided to his care, and complained in his reply of the ungrateful manner in which he had been treated. Miss Henley had not trusted him with her new address in London; and Lord Harry had suddenly left Redburn Road; bidding his host goodbye in a few lines of commonplace apology, and nothing more. Mr. Vimpany did not deny that he had been paid for his medical services; but, he would ask, was nothing due to friendship? Was one man justified in enjoying another man's hospitality, and then treating him like a stranger? "I have done with them both--and I recommend you, my dear sir, to follow my example." In those terms the angry (and sober) doctor expressed his sentiments, and offered his advice.
Mountjoy laid down the letter in despair.
His last poor chance of preventing the marriage depended on his being still able to communicate with Iris--and she was as completely lost to him as if she had taken flight to the other end of the world. It might have been possible to discover her by following the movements of Lord Harry, but he too had disappeared without leaving a trace behind him. The precious hours and days were passing--and Hugh was absolutely helpless.
Tortured by anxiety and suspense, he still lingered at the hotel in London. More than once, he decided on giving up the struggle, and returning to his pretty cottage in Scotland. More than once, he deferred taking the journey. At one time, he dreaded to hear that Iris was married, if she wrote to him. At another time, be felt mortified and disappointed by the neglect which her silence implied. Was she near him, or far from him? In England, or out of England? Who could say!
After more weary days of waiting and suffering a letter arrived, addressed to Mountjoy in a strange handwriting, and bearing the post-mark of Paris. The signature revealed that his correspondent was Lord Harry.
His first impulse was to throw the letter into the fire, unread. There could be little doubt, after the time that had passed, of the information that it would contain. Could he endure to be told of the marriage of Iris, by the man who was her husband? Never! There was something humiliating in the very idea of it. He arrived at that conclusion--and what did he do in spite of it? He read the letter.
Lord Harry wrote with scrupulous politeness of expression. He regretted that circumstances had prevented him from calling on Mr. Mountjoy, before he left England. After the conversation that had taken place at Mr. Vimpany's house, he felt it his duty to inform Mr. Mountjoy that he had insured his life--and, he would add, for a sum of money amply, and more than amply, sufficient to provide for his wife in the event of her surviving him. Lady Harry desired her kind regards, and would write immediately to her old and valued friend. In the meantime, he would conclude by repeating the expression of his sense of obligation to Mr. Mountjoy.
Hugh looked back at the first page of the letter, in search of the writer's address. It was simply, "Paris." The intention to prevent any further correspondence, or any personal communication, could hardly have been more plainly implied. In another moment, the letter was in the fire.
In two days more, Hugh heard from Iris.
She, too, wrote regretfully of the sudden departure from England; adding, however, that it was her own doing. A slip of the tongue, on Lord Harry's part, in the course of conversation, had led her to fear that he was still in danger from political conspirators with whom he had imprudently connected himself. She had accordingly persuaded him to tell her the whole truth, and had thereupon insisted on an immediate departure for the Continent. She and her husband were now living in Paris; Lord Harry having friends in that city whose influence might prove to be of great importance to his pecuniary prospects. Some sentences followed, expressing the writer's grateful remembrance of all that she had owed to Hugh in past days, and her earnest desire that they might still hear of each other, from time to time, by correspondence. She could not venture to anticipate the pleasure of receiving a visit from him, under present circumstances. But, she hoped that he would not object to write to her, addressing his letters, for the present, to post-restante.
In a postscript a few words were added, alluding to Mr. Vimpany. Hugh was requested not to answer any inquiries which that bad man might venture to make, relating to her husband or to herself. In the bygone days, she had been thankful to the doctor for the care which he had taken, medically speaking, of Rhoda Bonnet. But, since that time, his behaviour to his wife, and the opinions which he had expressed in familiar conversation with Lord Harry, had convinced her that he was an unprincipled person. All further communication with him (if her influence could prevent it) must come to an end.
Still as far as ever from feeling reconciled to the marriage, Mountjoy read this letter with a feeling of resentment which disinclined him to answer it.
He believed (quite erroneously) that Iris had written to him under the superintendence of her husband. There were certain phrases which had been, as he chose to suspect, dictated by Lord Harry's distrust--jealous distrust, perhaps--of his wife's friend. Mountjoy would wait to reply, until, as he bitterly expressed it, Iris was able to write to him without the assistance of her master.
Again he thought of returning to Scotland--and, again, he hesitated.
On this occasion, he discovered objections to the cottage which had not occurred to him while Iris was a single woman. The situation was solitary; his nearest neighbours were fishermen. Here and there, at some little distance, there were only a few scattered houses inhabited by retired tradesmen. Further away yet, there was the country-seat of an absent person of distinction, whose health suffered in the climate of Scotland. The lonely life in prospect, on the shores of the Solway, now daunted Mountjoy for the first time.
He decided on trying what society in London would do to divert his mind from the burdens and anxieties that weighed on it. Acquaintances whom he had neglected were pleasantly surprised by visits from their rich and agreeable young friend. He attended dinner parties; he roused hope in mothers and daughters by accepting invitations to balls; he reappeared at his club. Was there any relief to his mind in this? was there even amusement? No; he was acting a part, and he found it a hard task to keep up appearances. After a brief and brilliant interval, society knew him no more.
Left by himself again, he enjoyed one happy evening in London. It was the evening on which he relented, in spite of himself, and wrote to Iris.
LORD HARRY'S HONEYMOON
THE next day, Hugh received a visit from the last person in the little world of his acquaintance whom he expected to see. The lost Mrs. Vimpany presented herself at the hotel.
She looked unnaturally older since Mountjoy had last seen her. Her artificial complexion was gone. The discarded rouge that had once overlaid her cheeks, through a long succession of years, had left the texture of the skin coarse, and had turned the colour of it to a dull yellowish tinge. Her hair, once so skilfully darkened, was now permitted to tell the truth, and revealed the sober colouring of age, in gray. The lower face had fallen away in substance; and even the penetrating brightness of her large dark eyes was a little dimmed. All that had been left in her of the attractions of past days, owed its vital preservation to her stage training. Her suave grace of movement, and the deep elocutionary melody of her voice, still identified Mrs. Vimpany--disguised as she was in a dress of dull brown, shorn without mercy of the milliner's hideous improvements to the figure. "Will you shake hands with me, Mr. Mountjoy?" Those were the first words she said to him, in a sad subdued manner, on entering the room.
"Why not?" Hugh asked, giving her his hand.
"You can have no very favourable remembrance of me," she answered. "But I hope to produce a better impression--if you can spare me a little of your time. You may, or may not, have heard of my separation from my husband. Anyway, it is needless to trouble you on the subject; you know Mr. Vimpany; you can guess what I have suffered, and why I have left him. If he comes to you, I hope you will not tell him where Lady Harry is,"-- Hugh interposed: "Pray don't speak of her by that name! Call her 'Iris,' as I do."
A faint reflection of the old stage-smile trembled on Mrs. Vimpany's worn and weary face.
"Ah, Mr. Mountjoy, I know whom she ought to have married! The worst enemy of women is their ignorance of men--and they only learn to know better, when it is too late. I try to be hopeful for Iris, in the time to come, but my fears conquer me."
She paused, sighed, and pressed her open hand on her bosom; unconsciously betraying in that action some of the ineradicable training of the theatre.
"I am almost afraid to say that I love Iris," she resumed; "but this I know; if I am not so bad as I once was, I owe it to that dearest and sweetest of women! But for the days that I passed in her company, I might never have tried to atone for my past life by works of mercy. When other people take the way of amendment, I wonder whether they find it as hard to follow, at first, as I did?"
"There is no doubt of it, Mrs. Vimpany--if people are sincere. Beware of the sinners who talk of sudden conversion and perfect happiness. May I ask how you began your new life?"
"I began unhappily, Mr. Mountjoy--I joined a nursing Sisterhood. Before long, a dispute broke out among them. Think of women who call themselves Christians, quarrelling about churches and church services--priest's vestments and attitudes, and candles and incense! I left them, and went to a hospital, and found the doctors better Christians than the Sisters. I am not talking about my own poor self (as you will soon see) without a reason. My experience in the hospital led to other things. I nursed a lady through a tedious illness, and was trusted to take her to some friends in the south of France. On my return, I thought of staying for a few days in Paris--it was an opportunity of seeing how the nurses did their work in the French hospitals. And, oh, it was far more than that! In Paris, I found Iris again."
"By accident?" Hugh asked.
"I am not sure," Mrs. Vimpany answered, "that there are such things as meetings by accident. She and her husband were among the crowds of people on the Boulevards, who sit taking their coffee in view of the other crowds, passing along the street. I went by, without noticing them. She saw me, and sent Lord Harry to bring me back. I have been with them every day, at her invitation, from that time to this; and I have seen their life."
She stopped, noticing that Hugh grew restless. "I am in doubt," she said, "whether you wish to hear more of their life in Paris."
Mountjoy at once controlled himself.
"Go on," he said quietly.
"Even if I tell you that Iris is perfectly happy?"
"Go on," Hugh repeated.
"May I confess," she resumed, "that her husband is irresistible--not only to his wife, but even to an old woman like me? After having known him for years at his worst, as well as at his best, I am still foolish enough to feel the charm of his high spirits and his delightful good-humour. Sober English people, if they saw him now, would almost think him a fit subject to be placed under restraint. One of his wild Irish ideas of expressing devotion to his wife is, that they shall forget they are married, and live the life of lovers. When they dine at a restaurant, he insists on having a private room. He takes her to public balls, and engages her to dance with him for the whole evening. When she stays at home and is a little fatigued, he sends me to the piano, and whirls her round the room in a waltz. 'Nothing revives a woman,' he says, 'like dancing with the man she loves.' When she is out of breath, and I shut up the piano, do you know what he does? He actually kisses Me--and says he is expressing his wife's feeling for me when she is not able to do it herself! He sometimes dines out with men, and comes back all on fire with the good wine, and more amiable than ever. On these occasions his pockets are full of sweetmeats, stolen for 'his angel' from the dessert. 'Am I a little tipsy?' he asks. 'Oh, don't be angry; it's all for love of you. I have been in the highest society, my darling; proposing your health over and over and over again, and drinking to you deeper than all the rest of the company. You don't blame me? Ah, but I blame myself. I was wrong to leave you, and dine with men. What do I want with the society of men, when I have your society? Drinking your health is a lame excuse. I will refuse all invitations for the future that don't include my wife.' And--mind!--he really means it, at the time. Two or three days later, he forgets his good resolutions, and dines with the men again, and comes home with more charming excuses, and stolen sweetmeats, and good resolutions. I am afraid I weary you, Mr. Mountjoy?"
"You surprise me," Hugh replied. "Why do I hear all this of Lord Harry?"
Mrs. Vimpany left her chair. The stage directions of other days had accustomed her to rise, when the character she played had anything serious to say. Her own character still felt the animating influence of dramatic habit: she rose now, and laid her hand impressively on Mountjoy's shoulder.
"I have not thoughtlessly tried your patience," she said. "Now that I am away from the influence of Lord Harry, I can recall my former experience of him: and I am afraid I can see the end that is coming. He will drift into bad company; he will listen to bad advice; and he will do things in the future which he might shrink from doing now. When that time comes, I fear him! I fear him!"
"When that time comes," Hugh repeated, "if I have any influence left over his wife, he shall find her capable of protecting herself. Will you give me her address in Paris?
"Willingly--if you will promise not to go to her till she really needs you?"
"Who is to decide when she needs me?"
"I am to decide," Mrs. Vimpany answered; "Iris writes to me confidentially. If anything happens which she may be unwilling to trust to a letter, I believe I shall hear of it from her maid."
"Are you sure the maid is to be relied on?" Mountjoy interposed.
"She is a silent creature, so far as I know anything of her," Mrs. Vimpany admitted; "and her manner doesn't invite confidence. But I have spoken with Fanny Mere; I am satisfied that she is true to her mistress and grateful to her mistress in her own strange way. If Iris is in any danger, I shall not be left in ignorance of it. Does this incline you to consult with me, before you decide on going to Paris? Don't stand on ceremony; say honestly, Yes or No."
Honestly, Hugh said Yes.
He was at once trusted with the address of Iris. At the same time, Mrs. Vimpany undertook that he should know what news she received from Paris as soon as she knew it herself. On that understanding they parted, for the time being.
THE DOCTOR IN DIFFICULTIES
SLOWLY the weeks passed. Strictly Mrs. Vimpany kept her promise.
When she heard from Iris the letter was always sent to Hugh, to be returned after he had read it. Events in the lives of the newly-married pair, many of which pointed to the end that Mrs. Vimpany saw and dreaded, were lightly, sometimes jestingly, related by the young wife. Her blind belief in her husband, sincerely asserted in the earlier part of the correspondence, began to betray, in her later letters, signs of self delusion. It was sad indeed to see that bright intelligence rendered incapable of conceiving suspicions, which might have occurred to the mind of a child.
When the latest news from Paris followed, in due course, Mountjoy was informed of it by a note from Mrs. Vimpany expressed in these terms:
"My last letter from Iris is really no letter at all. It simply encloses a circular, with her love, and asks me to send it on to you. If it is in your power to make inquiries in the right quarter, I am sure you will not hesitate to take the trouble. There can be little doubt, as I think, that Lord Harry is engaged in a hazardous speculation, more deeply than his wife is willing to acknowledge."
The circular announced the contemplated publication of a weekly newspaper, printed partly in English, and partly in French, having its chief office in Paris, and being intended to dispute the advantages of a European circulation with the well-known Continental journal called "Galignani's Messenger." A first list of contributors included names of some notoriety in the literature of England and the literature of France. Speculators who wished to know, in the first place, on what security they might reckon, were referred to the managing committee, represented by persons of importance in the financial worlds of London and Paris.
Being in a position to make the inquiries which Mrs. Vimpany had suggested, Hugh received information which verified the statements contained in the circular, and vouched for the good faith of those persons who were concerned in directing the speculation. So far, so good.
But, when the question of success was next discussed, the authorities consulted shook their wise heads. It was impossible to say what losses might not be suffered, and what sums of money might not be required, before the circulation of the new journal would justify the hope of success. This opinion Hugh communicated to Mrs. Vimpany; Iris was informed of it by that day's post.
A longer time than usual elapsed before any further news of Lord Harry and his wife was received by Mountjoy. When he did at last hear again from Mrs. Vimpany, she forwarded a letter from Iris dated from a new address, in the suburb of Paris called Passy.
From motives of economy (Iris wrote) her husband had decided on a change of residence. They were just established in their new abode, with the advantages of a saving in rent, a pretty little garden to cultivate, and purer air to breathe than the air of Paris. There the letter ended, without the slightest allusion to the forthcoming newspaper, or to the opinion that had been pronounced on the prospects of success.
In forwarding this letter, Mrs. Vimpany wrote on the blank page as follows: "I am sorry to add that some disquieting news of my husband has reached me. For the present, I will say no more. It is at least possible that the report may not be worthy of belief."
A few days later the report was confirmed, under circumstances which had certainly not been foreseen. Mr. Vimpany himself arrived at the hotel, on a visit to Mountjoy.
Always more or less superior to the amiable weakness of modesty, the doctor seemed to have risen higher than ever in his own estimation, since Hugh had last seen him. He strutted; he stared confidently at persons and things; authority was in his voice when he spoke, and lofty indulgence distinguished his manner when he listened.
"How are you?" he cried with a grand gaiety, as he entered the room. "Fine weather, isn't it, for the time of year? You don't look well. I wonder whether you notice any change in me?
"You seem to be in good spirits," Hugh replied, not very cordially.
"Do I carry my head high?" Mr. Vimpany went on. "When calamity strikes at a man, don't let him cringe and cry for pity--let him hit back again! Those are my principles. Look at me. Now do look at me. Here I am, a cultivated person, a member of an honourable profession, a man of art and accomplishment--stripped of every blessed thing belonging to me but the clothes I stand up in. Give me your hand, Mountjoy. It's the hand, sir, of a bankrupt."
"You don't seem to mind it much," Mountjoy remarked.
"Why should I mind it?" asked the doctor. "There isn't a medical man in England who has less reason to reproach himself than I have. Have I wasted money in rash speculations? Not a farthing. Have I been fool enough to bet at horse races? My worst enemy daren't say it of me. What have I done then? I have toiled after virtue--that's what I have done. Oh, there's nothing to laugh at! When a doctor tries to be the medical friend of humanity; when he only asks leave to cure disease, to soothe pain, to preserve life--isn't that virtue? And what is my reward? I sit at home, waiting for my suffering fellow-creatures; and the only fellow-creatures who come to me are too poor to pay. I have gone my rounds, calling on the rich patients whom I bought when I bought the practice. Not one of them wanted me. Men, women, and children, were all inexcusably healthy--devil take them! Is it wonderful if a man becomes bankrupt, in such a situation as mine? By Jupiter, I go farther than that! I say, a man owes it to himself (as a protest against undeserved neglect) to become a bankrupt. If you will allow me, I'll take a chair."
He sat down with an air of impudent independence and looked round the room. A little cabinet, containing liqueurs, stood open on the sideboard. Mr. Vimpany got up again. "May I take a friendly liberty?" he said--and helped himself, without waiting for permission.
Hugh bore with this, mindful of the mistake that he had committed in consenting to receive the doctor. At the same time, he was sufficiently irritated to take a friendly liberty on his side. He crossed the room to the sideboard, and locked up the liqueurs. Mr. Vimpany's brazen face flushed deeply (not with shame); he opened his lips to say something worthy of himself, controlled the impulse, and burst into a boisterous laugh. He had evidently some favour still to ask.
"Devilish good!" he broke out cheerfully. "Do you remember the landlady's claret? Ha! you don't want to tempt me this time. Well! well! to return to my bankruptcy."
Hugh had heard enough of his visitor's bankruptcy. "I am not one of your creditors," he said.
Mr. Vimpany made a smart reply: "Don't you be too sure of that. Wait a little."
"Do you mean," Mountjoy asked, "that you have come here to borrow money of me?"
"Time---give me time," the doctor pleaded: "this is not a matter to be dispatched in a hurry; this is a matter of business. You will hardly believe it," he resumed, "but I have actually been in my present position, once before." He looked towards the cabinet of liqueurs. "If I had the key," he said, "I should like to try a drop more of your good Curaçoa. You don't see it?"
"I am waiting to hear what your business is," Hugh replied.
Mr. Vimpany's pliable temper submitted with perfect amiability. "Quite right," he said; "let us return to business. I am a man who possesses great fertility of resource. On the last occasion when my creditors pounced on my property, do you think I was discouraged? Nothing of the sort! My regular medical practice had broken down under me. Very well--I tried my luck as a quack. In plain English, I invented a patent medicine. The one thing wanting was money enough to advertise it. False friends buttoned up their pockets. You see?"
"Oh, yes; I see."
"In that case," Mr. Vimpany continued, "you will not be surprised to hear that I draw on my resources again. You have no doubt noticed that we live in an age of amateurs. Amateurs write, paint, compose music, perform on the stage. I, too, am one of the accomplished persons who have taken possession of the field of Art. Did you observe the photographic portraits on the walls of my dining-room? They are of my doing, sir--whether you observed them or not I am one of the handy medical men, who can use the photograph. Not that I mention it generally; the public have got a narrow-minded notion that a doctor ought to be nothing but a doctor. My name won't appear in a new work that I am contemplating. Of course, you want to know what my new work is. I'll tell you, in the strictest confidence. Imagine (if you can) a series of superb photographs of the most eminent doctors in England, with memoirs of their lives written by themselves; published once a month, price half-a-crown. If there isn't money in that idea, there is no money in anything. Exert yourself, my good friend. Tell me what you think of it?"
"I don't understand the subject," Mountjoy replied. "May I ask why you take me into your confidence?"
"Because I look upon you as my best friend."
"You are very good. But surely, Mr. Vimpany, you have older friends in your circle of acquaintance than I am."
"Not one," the doctor answered promptly, "whom I trust as I trust you. Let me give you a proof of it."
"Is the proof in any way connected with money?" Hugh inquired.
"I call that hard on me," Mr. Vimpany protested. "No unfriendly interruptions, Mountjoy! I offer a proof of kindly feeling. Do you mean to hurt me?"
"Certainly not. Go on."
"Thank you; a little encouragement goes a long way with me. I have found a bookseller, who will publish my contemplated work, on commission. Not a soul has yet seen the estimate of expenses. I propose to show it to You."
"Quite needless, Mr. Vimpany."
"Why quite needless?"
"Because I decline lending you the money."
"No, no, Mountjoy! You can't really mean that?"
"I do mean it."
The doctor's face showed a sudden change of expression---a sinister and threatening change. "Don't drive me into a corner," he said. "Think of it again."
Hugh's capacity for controlling himself gave way at last.
"Do you presume to threaten me?" he said. "Understand, if you please, that my mind is made up, and that nothing you can say or do will alter it."
With that declaration he rose from his chair, and waited for Mr. Vimpany's departure.
The doctor put on his hat. His eyes rested on Hugh, with a look of diabolical malice: "The time is not far off, Mr. Mountjoy, when you may be sorry you refused me." He said those words deliberately--and took his leave.
Released from the man's presence, Hugh found himself strangely associating the interests of Iris with the language--otherwise beneath notice--which Mr. Vimpany had used on leaving the room.
In desperate straits for want of money, how would the audacious bankrupt next attempt to fill his empty purse? If he had, by any chance, renewed his relations with his Irish friend--and such an event was at least possible--his next experiment in the art of raising a loan might take him to Paris. Lord Harry had already ventured on a speculation which called for an immediate outlay of money, and which was only expected to put a profit into his pocket at some future period. In the meanwhile, his resources in money had their limits; and his current expenses would make imperative demands on an ill-filled purse. If the temptation to fail in his resolution to respect his wife's fortune was already trying his fortitude, what better excuse could be offered for yielding than the necessities of an old friend in a state of pecuniary distress?
Looking at the position of Iris, and at the complications which threatened it, from this point of view, Mountjoy left the hotel to consult with Mrs. Vimpany. It rested with her to decide whether the circumstances justified his departure for Paris.
LONDON AND PARIS
INFORMED of all that Hugh could tell her relating to his interview with her husband, Mrs. Vimpany understood and appreciated his fears for the future. She failed, however, to agree with him that he would do well to take the journey to France, under present circumstances.
"Wait a little longer in London," she said. "If Iris doesn't write to me in the next few days there will be a reason for her silence; and in that case (as I have already told you) I shall hear from Fanny Mere. You shall see me when I get a letter from Paris."
On the last morning in the week, Mrs. Vimpany was announced. The letter that she brought with her had been written by Fanny Mere. With the pen in her hand, the maid's remarkable character expressed itself as strongly as ever:-- "Madam,--I said I would let you know what goes on here, when I thought there was need of it. There seems to be need now. Mr. Vimpany came to us yesterday. He has the spare bedroom. My mistress says nothing, and writes nothing. For that reason, I send you the present writing.--Your humble servant, F."
Mountjoy was perplexed by this letter, plain as it was.
"It seems strange," he said, "that Iris herself has not written to you. She has never hitherto concealed her opinion of Mr. Vimpany."
"She is concealing it now," Mr. Vimpany's wife replied gravely.
"Do you know why?"
"I am afraid I do. Iris will not hesitate at any sacrifice of herself to please Lord Harry. She will give him her money when he wants it. If he tells her to alter her opinion of my husband, she will obey him. He can shake her confidence in me, whenever he pleases; and he has very likely done it already."
"Surely it is time for me to go to her now?" Hugh said.
"Full time," Mrs. Vimpany admitted--"if you can feel sure of yourself. In the interests of Iris, can you undertake to be cool and careful?"
"In the interests of Iris, I can undertake anything."
"One word more," Mrs. Vimpany continued, "before you take your departure. No matter whether appearances are for him, or against him, be always on your guard with my husband. Let me hear from you while you are away; and don't forget that there is an obstacle between you and Iris, which will put even your patience and devotion to a hard trial."
"You mean her husband?"
There was no more to be said, Hugh set forth on his journey to Paris.
On the morning after his arrival in the French capital, Mountjoy had two alternatives to consider. He might either write to Iris, and ask when it would be convenient to her to receive him--or he might present himself unexpectedly in the cottage at Passy. Reflection convinced him that his best chance of placing an obstacle in the way of deception would be to adopt the second alternative, and to take Lord Harry and the doctor by surprise.
He went to Passy. The lively French taste had brightened the cottage with colour: the fair white window curtains were tied with rose-coloured ribbons, the blinds were gaily painted, the chimneys were ornamental, the small garden was a paradise of flowers. When Mountjoy rang the bell, the gate was opened by Fanny Mere. She looked at him in grave astonishment.
"Do they expect you?" she asked.
"Never mind that," Hugh answered. "Are they at home?"
"They have just finished breakfast, sir."
"Do you remember my name?"
"Then show me in."
Fanny opened the door of a room on the ground floor, and announced: "Mr. Mountjoy."
The two men were smoking; Iris was watering some flowers in the window. Her colour instantly faded when Hugh entered the room. In doubt and alarm, her eyes questioned Lord Harry. He was in his sweetest state of good-humour. Urged by the genial impulse of the moment, he set the example of a cordial reception. "This is an agreeable surprise, indeed," he said, shaking hands with Mountjoy in his easy amiable way. "It's kind of you to come and see us." Relieved of anxiety (evidently when she had not expected it), Iris eagerly followed her husband's example: her face recovered its colour, and brightened with its prettiest smile. Mr. Vimpany stood in a corner; his cigar went out: his own wife would hardly have known him again--he actually presented an appearance of embarrassment! Lord Harry burst out laughing: "Look at him Iris! The doctor is shy for the first time in his life." The Irish good-humour was irresistible. The young wife merrily echoed her husband's laugh. Mr. Vimpany, observing the friendly reception offered to Hugh, felt the necessity of adapting himself to circumstances. He came out of his corner with an apology: "Sorry I misbehaved myself, Mr. Mountjoy, when I called on you in London. Shake hands. No offence--eh?" Iris, in feverish high spirits, mimicked the doctor's coarse tones when he repeated his favourite form of excuse. Lord Harry clapped his hands, delighted with his wife's clever raillery: "Ha! Mr. Mountjoy, you don't find that her married life has affected her spirits! May I hope that you have come here to breakfast? The table is ready as you see"---- "And I have been taking lessons, Hugh, in French ways of cooking eggs," Iris added; "pray let me show you what I can do." The doctor chimed in facetiously: "I'm Lady Harry's medical referee; you'll find her French delicacies half digested for you, sir, before you can open your mouth: signed, Clarence Vimpany, member of the College of Surgeons." Remembering Mrs. Vimpany's caution, Hugh concealed his distrust of this outbreak of hospitable gaiety, and made his excuses. Lord Harry followed, with more excuses, on his part. He deplored it--but he was obliged to go out. Had Mr. Mountjoy met with the new paper which was to beat "Galiguani" out of the field? The "Continental Herald "--there was the title. "Forty thousand copies of the first number have just flown all over Europe; we have our agencies in every town of importance, at every point of the compass; and, one of the great proprietors, my dear sir, is the humble individual who now addresses you." His bright eyes sparkled with boyish pleasure, as he made that announcement of his own importance. If Mr. Mountjoy would kindly excuse him, he had an appointment at the office that morning. "Get your hat, Vimpany. The fact is our friend here carries a case of consumption in his pocket; consumption of the purse, you understand. I am going to enrol him among the contributors to the newspaper. A series of articles (between ourselves) exposing the humbug of physicians, and asserting with fine satirical emphasis the overstocked state of the medical profession. Ah, well! you'll be glad (won't you?) to talk over old times with Iris. My angel, show our good friend the 'Continental Herald,' and mind you keep him here till we get back. Doctor, look alive! Mr. Mountjoy, au revoir." They shook hands again heartily. As Mrs. Vimpany had confessed, there was no resisting the Irish lord.
But Hugh's strange experience of that morning was not at an end, yet.
THE BRIDE AT HOME
LEFT alone with the woman whose charm still held him to her, cruelly as she had tried his devotion by her marriage, Mountjoy found the fluent amiability of the husband imitated by the wife. She, too, when the door had hardly closed on Lord Harry, was bent on persuading Hugh that her marriage had been the happiest event of her life.
"Will you think the worse of me," she began, "if I own that I had little expectation of seeing you again?"
"Certainly not, Iris."
"Consider my situation," she went on. "When I remember how you tried (oh, conscientiously tried!) to prevent my marriage--how you predicted the miserable results that would follow, if Harry's life and my life became one--could I venture to hope that you would come here, and judge for yourself? Dear and good friend, I have nothing to fear from the result; your presence was never more welcome to me than it is now!"
Whether it was attributable to prejudice on Mountjoy's part, or to keen and just observation, he detected something artificial in the ring of her enthusiasm; there was not the steady light of truth in her eyes, which he remembered in the past and better days of their companionship. He was a little--just a little--irritated. The temptation to remind her that his distrust of Lord Harry had once been her distrust too, proved to be more than his frailty could resist.
"Your memory is generally exact," he said; "but it hardly serves you now as well as usual."
"What have I forgotten?"
"You have forgotten the time, my dear, when your opinion was almost as strongly against a marriage with Lord Harry as mine."
Her answer was ready on the instant: "Ah, I didn't know him then as well as I know him now!"
Some men, in Mountjoy's position, might have been provoked into hinting that there were sides to her husband's character which she had probably not discovered yet. But Hugh's gentle temper--ruffled for a moment only--had recovered its serenity. Her friend was her true friend still; he said no more on the subject of her marriage.
"Old habits are not easily set aside," he reminded her. "I have been so long accustomed to advise you and help you, that I find myself hoping there may be some need for my services still. Is there no way in which I might relieve you of the hateful presence of Mr. Vimpany?"
"My dear Hugh, I wish you had not mentioned Mr. Vimpany."
Mountjoy concluded that the subject was disagreeable to her. "After the opinion of him which you expressed in your letter to me," he said, "I ought not to have spoken of the doctor. Pray forgive me."
Iris looked distressed. "Oh, you are quite mistaken! The poor doctor has been sadly misjudged; and I" --she shook her head, and sighed penitently--"and, I," she resumed, "am one among other people who have ignorantly wronged him. Pray consult my husband. Hear what he can tell you--and you will pity Mr. Vimpany. The newspaper makes such large demands on our means that we can do little to help him. With your recommendation he might find some employment."
"He has already asked me to assist him, Iris; and I have refused. I can't agree with your change of opinion about Mr. Vimpany."
"Why not? Is it because he has separated from his wife?"
"That is one reason, among many others," Mountjoy replied.
"Indeed, indeed you are wrong! Lord Harry has known Mrs. Vimpany for years, and he says--I am truly sorry to hear it--that the separation is her fault."
Hugh changed the subject again. The purpose which had mainly induced him to leave England had not been mentioned yet.
Alluding to the newspaper, and to the heavy pecuniary demands made by the preliminary expenses of the new journal, he reminded Iris that their long and intimate friendship permitted him to feel some interest in her affairs. "I won't venture to express an opinion," he added; "let me only ask if Lord Harry's investments in this speculation have compelled him to make some use of your little fortune?"
"My husband refused to touch my fortune," Iris answered. "But"-- She paused, there. "Do you know how honourably, how nobly, he has behaved?" she abruptly resumed. "He has insured his life: he has burdened himself with the payment of a large sum of money every year. And all for me, if I am so unfortunate (which God forbid!) as to survive him. When a large share in the newspaper was for sale, do you think I could be ungrateful enough to let him lose the chance of making our fortune, when the profits begin to come in? I insisted on advancing the money--we almost quarrelled about it--but, you know how sweet he is. I said: 'Don't distress me'; and the dearest of men let me have my own way."
Mountjoy listened in silence. To have expressed what he felt would have been only to mortify and offend Iris. Old habit (as he had said) had made the idea of devoting himself to her interests the uppermost idea in his mind. He asked if the money had all been spent. Hearing that some of it was still left, he resolved on making the attempt to secure the remains of her fortune to herself.
"Tell me," he said, "have you ever heard of such a thing as buying an annuity?"
She knew nothing about it. He carefully explained the method by which a moderate sum of money might be made to purchase a sufficient income for life. She offered no objection, when he proposed to write to his lawyer in London for the necessary particulars. But when he asked her to tell him what the sum was of which she might be still able to dispose, Iris hesitated, and made no reply.
This time, Hugh arrived at the right conclusion.
It was only too plain to him that what remained of her money represented an amount so trifling that she was ashamed to mention it. Of the need for helping her, there could be no doubt now; and, as for the means, no difficulties presented themselves to Mountjoy--always excepting the one obstacle likely to be offered by the woman herself. Experience warned him to approach her delicately, by the indirect way.
"You know me well enough," he said, "to feel sure that I am incapable of saying anything which can embarrass you, or cause a moment's misunderstanding between two old friends. Won't you look at me, Iris, when I am speaking to you?"
She still looked away from him. "I am afraid of what you are going to say to me," she answered coldly.
"Then let me say it at once. In one of your letters, written long since--I don't suppose you remember it--you told me that I was an obstinate man when I once took a thing into my head. You were quite right. My dear, I have taken it into my head that you will be as ready as ever to accept my advice, and will leave me (as your man of business) to buy the annuity"--
She stopped him.
"No," she cried, "I won't hear a word more! Do you think I am insensible to years of kindness that I have never deserved? Do you think I forget how nobly you have forgiven me for those cruel refusals which have saddened your life? Is it possible that you expect me to borrow money of You?" She started wildly to her feet. "I declare, as God hears me, I would rather die than take that base, that shameful advantage of all your goodness to me. The woman never lived who owed so much to a man, as I owe to you--but not money! Oh, my dear, not money! not money!"
He was too deeply touched to be able to speak to her--and she saw it. "What a wretch I am," she said to herself; "I have made his heart ache!"
He heard those words. Still feeling for her--never, never for himself!--he tried to soothe her. In the passion of her self-reproach, she refused to hear him. Pacing the room from end to end, she fanned the fiery emotion that was consuming her. Now, she reviled herself in language that broke through the restraints by which good breeding sets its seal on a woman's social rank. And now, again, she lost herself more miserably still, and yielded with hysteric recklessness to a bitter outburst of gaiety.
"If you wish to be married happily," she cried, "never be as fond of any other woman as you have been of me. We are none of us worth it. Laugh at us, Hugh--do anything but believe in us. We all lie, my friend. And I have been lying--shamelessly! shamelessly!"
He tried to check her. "Don't talk in that way, Iris," he said sternly.
She laughed at him. "Talk?" she repeated. "It isn't that; it's a confession."
"I don't desire to hear your confession."
"You must hear it--you have drawn it out of me. Come! we'll enjoy my humiliation together. Contradict every word I said to you about that brute and blackguard, the doctor--and you will have the truth. What horrid inconsistency, isn't it? I can't help myself; I am a wretched, unreasonable creature; I don't know my own mind for two days together, and all through my husband--I am so fond of him; Harry is delightfully innocent; he's like a nice boy; he never seemed to think of Mr. Vimpany, till it was settled between them that the doctor was to come and stay here---- and then he persuaded me--oh, I don't know how!--to see his friend in quite a new light. I believed him--and I believe him still--I mean I would believe him, but for you. Will you do me a favour? I wish you wouldn't look at me with those eyes that won't lie; I wish you wouldn't speak to me with that voice which finds things out. Oh, good Heavens, do you suppose I would let you think that my husband is a bad man, and my marriage an unhappy one? Never! If it turns my blood to sit and eat at the same table with Mr. Vimpany, I'm not cruel enough to blame the dear doctor. It's my wickedness that's to blame. We shall quarrel, if you tell me that Harry is capable of letting a rascal be his friend. I'm happy; I'm happy; I'm happy!--do you understand that? Oh, Hugh, I wish you had never come to see me!"
She burst into a passionate fit of weeping, broken down at last under the terrible strain laid on her. "Let me hide myself!" was all that Iris could say to her old friend--before she ran out of the room, and left him.
THE MAID AND THE KEYHOLE
DEEPLY as she had grieved him, keenly as he felt that his worst fears for her threatened already to be realised, it was characteristic of Mountjoy that he still refused to despair of Iris--even with the husband's influence against him.
The moral deterioration of her, revealed in the false words that she had spoken, and in the deceptions that she had attempted, would have justified the saddest misgivings, but for the voluntary confession which had followed, and the signs which it had shown of the better nature still struggling to assert itself. How could Hugh hope to encourage that effort of resistance to the evil influences that were threatening her--first and foremost, among them, being the arrival of Vimpany at the cottage? His presence kept her in a state of perpetual contention, between her own wise instincts which distrusted him, and her husband's authoritative assertions which recommended him to her confidence. No greater service could be rendered to Iris than the removal of this man--but how could it be accomplished, without giving offence to her husband? Mountjoy's mind was still in search of a means of overcoming the obstacle thus presented, when he heard the door open. Had Iris recovered herself? or had Lord Harry and his friend returned?
The person who now entered the room was the strange and silent maid, Fanny Mere.
"Can I speak to you, sir?"
"Certainly. What is it?"
"Please give me your address."
"For your mistress?"
"Does she wish to write to me?"
Hugh gave the strange creature the address of his hotel in Paris. For a moment, her eyes rested on him with an expression of steady scrutiny. She opened the door to go out---stopped--considered--came back again.
"I want to speak for myself," she said. "Do you care to hear what a servant has to say?"
Mountjoy replied that he was ready to hear what she had to say. She at once stepped up to him, and addressed him in these words:
"I think you are fond of my mistress?"
An ordinary man might have resented the familiar manner in which she had expressed herself. Mountjoy waited for what was still to come. Fanny Mere abruptly went on, with a nearer approach to agitation in her manner than she had shown yet:
"My mistress took me into her service; she trusted me when other ladies would have shown me the door. When she sent for me to see her, my character was lost; I had nobody to feel for me, nobody to help me. She is the one friend who held out a hand to me. I hate the men; I don't care for the women. Except one. Being a servant I mustn't say I love that one. If I was a lady, I don't know that I should say it. Love is cant; love is rubbish. Tell me one thing. Is the doctor a friend of yours?"
"The doctor is nothing of the kind."
"Perhaps he is your enemy?"
"I can hardly say that."
She looked at Hugh discontentedly. "I want to get at it," she said. "Why can't we understand each other? Will you laugh at me, if I say the first thing that comes into my head? Are you a good swimmer?"
An extraordinary question, even from Fanny Mere. It was put seriously--and seriously Mountjoy answered it. He said that he was considered to be a good swimmer.
"Perhaps," she continued, "you have saved people's lives."
"I have twice been so fortunate as to save lives," he replied.
"If you saw the doctor drowning, would you save him? I wouldn't!"
"Do you hate him as bitterly as that?" Hugh asked.
She passed the question over without notice. "I wish you would help me to get at it," she persisted. "Suppose you could rid my mistress of that man by giving him a kick, would you up with your foot and do it?"
"Thank you, sir. Now I've got it. Mr. Mountjoy, the doctor is the curse of my mistress's life. I can't bear to see it. If we are not relieved of him somehow, I shall do something wrong. When I wait at table, and see him using his knife, I want to snatch it out of his hand, and stick it into him. I had a hope that my lord might turn him out of the house when they quarrelled. My lord is too wicked himself to do it. For the love of God, sir, help my mistress--or show me the way how!"
Mountjoy began to be interested. "How do you know," he asked, "that Lord Harry and the doctor have quarrelled?"
Without the slightest appearance of embarrassment, Fanny Mere informed him that she had listened at the door, while her master and his friend were talking of their secrets. She had also taken an opportunity of looking through the keyhole. "I suppose, sir," said this curious woman, still speaking quite respectfully, "you have never tried that way yourself?"
"Wouldn't you do it to serve my mistress?"
"And yet, you're fond of her! You are a merciful one--the only merciful one, so far as I know--among men. Perhaps, if you were frightened about her, you might be more ready with your help. I wonder whether I can frighten you? Will you let me try?"
The woman's faithful attachment to Iris pleaded for her with Hugh. "Try, if you like," he said kindly.
Speaking as seriously as ever, Fanny proceeded to describe her experience at the keyhole. What she had seen was not worth relating. What she had heard proved to be more important.
The talk between my lord and the doctor had been about raising money. They had different notions of how to do that. My lord's plan was to borrow what was wanted, on his life-insurance. The doctor told him he couldn't do that, till his insurance had been going on for three or four years at least. "I have something better and bolder to propose," says Mr. Vimpany. It must have been also something wicked--for he whispered it in the master's ear. My lord didn't take to it kindly. "How do you think I could face my wife," he says, "if she discovered me?" The doctor says: "Don't be afraid of your wife; Lady Harry will get used to many things which she little thought of before she married you." Says my lord to that: "I have done my best, Vimpany, to improve my wife's opinion of you. If you say much more, I shall come round to her way of thinking. Drop it!"--"All right," says the doctor, "I'll drop it now, and wait to pick it up again till you come to your last bank note." There the talk ended for that day---and Fanny would be glad to know what Mr. Mountjoy thought of it.
"I think you have done me a service," Hugh replied.
"Tell me how, sir."
"I can only tell you this, Fanny. You have shown me how to relieve your mistress of the doctor."
For the first time, the maid's impenetrable composure completely failed her. The smouldering fire in Fanny Mere flamed up. She impulsively kissed Mountjoy's hand. The moment her lips touched it she shrank back: the natural pallor of her face became whiter than ever. Startled by the sudden change, Hugh asked if she was ill.
She shook her head.
"It isn't that. Yours is the first man's hand I have kissed, since--" She checked herself. "I beg you won't ask me about it. I only meant to thank you, sir; I do thank you with all my heart--I mustn't stay here any longer."
As she spoke the sound of a key was heard, opening the lock of the cottage-door. Lord Harry had returned.
THE CONQUEST OF MR. VIMPANY
THE Irish lord came in--with his medical friend sulkily in attendance on him. He looked at Fanny, and asked where her mistress was.
"My lady is in her room, sir."
Hearing this, he turned sharply to Mountjoy. On the point of speaking, he seemed to think better of it, and went to his wife's room. The maid followed. "Get rid of him now," she whispered to Hugh, glancing at the doctor. Mr. Vimpany was in no very approachable humour--standing at the window, with his hands in his empty pockets, gloomily looking out. But Hugh was not disposed to neglect the opportunity; he ventured to say: "You don't seem to be in such good spirits as usual."
The doctor gruffly expressed his opinion that Mr. Mountjoy would not be particularly cheerful, in his place. My lord had taken him to the office, on the distinct understanding that he was to earn a little pocket-money by becoming one of the contributors to the newspaper. And how had it ended? The editor had declared that his list of writers was full, and begged leave to suggest that Mr. Vimpany should wait for the next vacancy. A most impertinent proposal! Had Lord Harry--a proprietor, remember--exerted his authority? Not he! His lordship had dropped the doctor "like a hot potato," and had meanly submitted to his own servant. What did Mr. Mountjoy think of such conduct as that?
Hugh answered the question, with his own end in view. Paving the way for Mr. Vimpany's departure from the cottage at Passy, he made a polite offer of his services.
"Can't I help you out of your difficulty?" he said.
"You!" cried the doctor. "Have you forgotten how you received me, sir, when I asked for a loan at your hotel in London?"
Hugh admitted that he might have spoken hastily. "You took me by surprise," he said, "and (perhaps I was mistaken, on my side) I thought you were, to say the least of it, not particularly civil. You did certainly use threatening language when you left me. No man likes to be treated in that way."
Mr. Vimpany's big bold eyes stared at Mountjoy in a state of bewilderment. "Are you trying to make a fool of me?" he asked.
"I am incapable, Mr. Vimpany, of an act of rudeness towards anybody."
"If you come to that," the doctor stoutly declared, "I am incapable too. It's plain to me that we have been misunderstanding each other. Wait a bit; I want to go back for a moment to that threatening language which you complained of just now. I was sorry for what I had said as soon as your door was shut on me. On my way downstairs I did think of turning back and making a friendly apology before I gave you up. Suppose I had done that?" Mr. Vimpany asked, wondering internally whether Mountjoy was foolish enough to believe him.
Hugh advanced a little nearer to the design that he had in view.
"You might have found me more kindly disposed towards you," he said, "than you had anticipated."
This encouraging reply cost him an effort. He had stooped to the unworthy practice of perverting what he had said and done on a former occasion, to serve a present interest. Remind himself as he might of the end which, in the interests of Iris, did really appear to justify the means, he still sank to a place in his own estimation which he was honestly ashamed to occupy.
Under other circumstances his hesitation, slight as it was, might have excited suspicion. As things were, Mr. Vimpany could only discover golden possibilities that dazzled his eyes. "I wonder whether you're in the humour," he said, "to be kindly disposed towards me now?"
It was needless to be careful of the feelings of such man as this. "Suppose you had the money you want in your pocket," Hugh suggested, "what would you do with it?"
"Go back to London, to be sure, and publish the first number of that work of mine I told you of."
"And leave your friend, Lord Harry?"
"What good is my friend to me? He's nearly as poor as I am--he sent for me to advise him--I put him up to a way of filling both our pockets, and he wouldn't hear of it. What sort of a friend do you call that?"
Pay him and get rid of him. There was the course of proceeding suggested by the private counsellor in Mountjoy's bosom.
"Have you got the publisher's estimate of expenses?" he asked.
The doctor instantly produced the document.
To a rich man the sum required was, after all, trifling enough. Mountjoy sat down at the writing-table. As he took up a pen, Mr. Vimpany's protuberant eyes looked as if they would fly out of his head.
"If I lend you the money--" Hugh began.
"Yes? Yes?" cried the doctor.
"I do so on condition that nobody is to know of the loan but ourselves."
"Oh, sir, on my sacred word of honour--" An order on Mountjoy's bankers in Paris for the necessary amount, with something added for travelling expenses, checked Mr. Vimpany in full career of protestation. He tried to begin again: "My friend! my benefactor--"
He was stopped once more. His friend and benefactor pointed to the clock.
"If you want the money to-day, you have just time to get to Paris before the bank closes."
Mr. Vimpany did want the money--always wanted the money; his gratitude burst out for the third time: "God bless you!"
The object of that highly original form of benediction pointed through the window in the direction of the railway station. Mr. Vimpany struggled no longer to express his feelings--he had made his last sacrifice to appearances--he caught the train.
The door of the room had been left open. A voice outside said: "Has he gone?"
"Come in, Fanny," said Mountjoy. "He will return to London either to-night or to-morrow morning."
The strange maid put her head in at the door. "I'll be at the terminus," she said, "and make sure of him."
Her head suddenly disappeared, before it was possible to speak to her again. "Was there some other person outside? The other person entered the room; it was Lord Harry. He spoke without his customary smile.
"I want a word with you, Mr. Mountjoy."
"About what, my lord?"
That direct question seemed to confuse the Irishman. He hesitated.
"About you," he said, and stopped to consider. "And another person," he added mysteriously.
Hugh was constitutionally a hater of mysteries. He felt the need of a more definite reply, and asked for it plainly:
"Does your lordship associate that other person with me?"
"Yes, I do."
"Who is the person?"
SAXON AND CELT
WHEN amicable relations between two men happen to be in jeopardy, there is least danger of an ensuing quarrel if the friendly intercourse has been of artificial growth, on either side. In this case, the promptings of self-interest, and the laws of politeness, have been animating influences throughout; acting under conditions which assist the effort of self-control. And for this reason: the man who has never really taken a high place in our regard is unprovided with those sharpest weapons of provocation, which make unendurable demands on human fortitude. In a true attachment, on the other hand, there is an innocent familiarity implied, which is forgetful of ceremony, and blind to consequences. The affectionate freedom which can speak kindly without effort is sensitive to offence, and can speak harshly without restraint. When the friend who wounds us has once been associated with the sacred memories of the heart, he strikes at a tender place, and no considerations of propriety are powerful enough to stifle our cry of rage and pain. The enemies who have once loved each other are the bitterest enemies of all.
Thus, the curt exchange of question and answer, which had taken place in the cottage at Passy, between two gentlemen artificially friendly to one another, led to no regrettable result. Lord Harry had been too readily angry: he remembered what was due to Mr. Mountjoy. Mr. Mountjoy had been too thoughtlessly abrupt: he remembered what was due to Lord Harry. The courteous Irishman bowed, and pointed to a chair. The well-bred Englishman returned the polite salute, and sat down. My lord broke the silence that followed.
"May I hope that you will excuse me," he began, "if I walk about the room? Movement seems to help me when I am puzzled how to put things nicely. Sometimes I go round and round the subject, before I get at it. I'm afraid I'm going round and round, now. Have you arranged to make a long stay in Paris?"
Circumstances, Mountjoy answered, would probably decide him.
"You have no doubt been many times in Paris before this," Lord Harry continued. "Do you find it at all dull, now?"
Wondering what he could possibly mean, Hugh said he never found Paris dull--and waited for further enlightenment. The Irish lord persisted:
"People mostly think Paris isn't as gay as it used to be. Not such good plays and such good actors as they had at one time. The restaurants inferior, and society very much mixed. People don't stay there as long as they used. I'm told that Americans are getting disappointed, and are trying London for a change."
Could he have any serious motive for this irrelevant way of talking? Or was he, to judge by his own account of himself, going round and round the subject of his wife and his guest, before he could get at it?
Suspecting him of jealousy from the first, Hugh failed--naturally perhaps in his position--to understand the regard for Iris, and the fear of offending her, by which her jealous husband was restrained. Lord Harry was attempting (awkwardly indeed!) to break off the relations between his wife and her friend, by means which might keep the true state of his feelings concealed from both of them. Ignorant of this claim on his forbearance, it was Mountjoy's impression that he was being trifled with. Once more, he waited for enlightenment, and waited in silence.
"You don't find my conversation interesting?" Lord Harry remarked, still with perfect good-humour.
"I fail to see the connection," Mountjoy acknowledged, "between what you have said so far, and the subject on which you expressed your intention of speaking to me. Pray forgive me if I appear to hurry you--or if you have any reasons for hesitation."
Far from being offended, this incomprehensible man really appeared to be pleased. "You read me like a book!" he exclaimed. "It's hesitation that's the matter with me. I'm a variable man. If there's something disagreeable to say, there are times when I dash at it, and times when I hang back. Can I offer you any refreshment?" he asked, getting away from the subject again, without so much as an attempt at concealment.
Hugh thanked him, and declined.
"Not even a glass of wine? Such white Burgundy, my dear sir, as you seldom taste."
Hugh's British obstinacy was roused; he repeated his reply. Lord Harry looked at him gravely, and made a nearer approach to an open confession of feeling than he had ventured on yet.
"With regard now to my wife. When I went away this morning with Vimpany--he's not such good company as he used to be; soured by misfortune, poor devil; I wish he would go back to London. As I was saying--I mean as I was about to say--I left you and Lady Harry together this morning; two old friends, glad (as I supposed) to have a gossip about old times. When I come back, I find you left here alone, and I am told that Lady Harry is in her room. What do I see when I get there? I see the finest pair of eyes in the world; and the tale they tell me is, We have been crying. When I ask what may have happened to account for this--'Nothing, dear,' is all the answer I get. What's the impression naturally produced on my mind? There has been a quarrel perhaps between you and my wife."
"I fail entirely, Lord Harry, to see it in that light."
"Ah, likely enough! Mine's the Irish point of view. As an Englishman you fail to understand it. Let that be. One thing; Mr. Mountjoy, I'll take the freedom of saying at once. I'll thank you, next time, to quarrel with Me."
"You force me to tell you, my lord, that you are under a complete delusion, if you suppose that there has been any quarrel, or approach to a quarrel, between Lady Harry and myself."
"You tell me that, on your word of honour as a gentleman?"
"Sir! I deeply regret to hear it."
"Which does your lordship deeply regret? That I have spoken to you on my word of honour, or that I have not quarrelled with Lady Harry?"
"Both, sir! By the piper that played before Moses, both!"
Hugh got up, and took his hat: "We may have a better chance of understanding each other," he suggested, "if you will be so good as to write to me."
"Put your hat down again, Mr. Mountjoy, and pray have a moment's patience. I've tried to like you, sir--and I'm bound in candour to own that I've failed to find a bond of union between us. Maybe, this frank confession annoys you."
"Far from it! You are going straight to your subject at last, if I may venture to say so."
The Irish lord's good-humour had completely disappeared by this time. His handsome face hardened, and his voice rose. The outbreak of jealous feeling, which motives honourable to himself had hitherto controlled, now seized on its freedom of expression. His language betrayed (as on some former occasions) that association with unworthy companions, which had been one of the evil results of his adventurous life.
"Maybe I'll go straighter than you bargain for," he replied; "I'm in two humours about you. My common-sense tells me that you're my wife's friend. And the best of friends do sometimes quarrel, don't they? Well, sir, you deny it, on your own account. I find myself forced back on my other humour--and it's a black humour, I can tell you. You may be my wife's friend, my fine fellow, but you're something more than that. You have always been in love with her--and you're in love with her now. Thank you for your visit, but don't repeat it. Say! do we understand each other at last?"
"I have too sincere a respect for Lady Harry to answer you," Mountjoy said. "At the same time, let me acknowledge my obligations to your lordship. You have reminded me that I did a foolish thing when I called here without an invitation. I agree with you that the sooner my mistake is set right the better."
He replied in those words, and left the cottage.
On the way back to his hotel, Hugh thought of what Mrs. Vimpany had said to him when they had last seen each other: "Don't forget that there is an obstacle between you and Iris which will put even your patience and your devotion to a hard trial." The obstacle of the husband had set itself up, and had stopped him already.
His own act (a necessary act after the language that had been addressed to him) had closed the doors of the cottage, and had put an end to future meetings between Iris and himself. If they attempted to communicate by letter, Lord Harry would have opportunities of discovering their correspondence, of which his jealousy would certainly avail itself. Through the wakeful night, Hugh's helpless situation was perpetually in his thoughts. There seemed to be no present alternative before him but resignation, and a return to England.
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