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´╗┐Title: The Autobiography of a Slander
Author: Lyall, Edna [pseud.], 1857-1903
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Transcribed from the 1890 Longmans, Green, and Co. edition by David
Price, email ccx074@pglaf.org



THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A SLANDER


BY
EDNA LYALL

AUTHOR OF 'DONOVAN' 'WE TWO' 'IN THE GOLDEN DAYS'
'KNIGHT ERRANT' ETC.

   _Trust not to each accusing tongue_,
      _As most week persons do_;
   _But still believe that story false_
     _Which ought not to be true_

   SHERIDAN

_NEW EDITION_
(THIRTY-NINTH TO FORTY-FIRST THOUSAND)

LONDON
LONGMANS, GREEN, AND CO.
AND NEW YORK: 15 EAST 16th STREET
1890

_All rights reserved_

DEDICATED
TO ALL
WHO IT MAY CONCERN



MY FIRST STAGE


   At last the tea came up, and so
   With that our tongues began to go.
   Now in that house you're sure of knowing
   The smallest scrap of news that's going.
   We find it there the wisest way
   To take some care of what we say.

   _Recreation_.  JANE TAYLOR.

I was born on the 2nd September, 1886, in a small, dull, country town.
When I say the town was dull, I mean, of course, that the inhabitants
were unenterprising, for in itself Muddleton was a picturesque place, and
though it laboured under the usual disadvantage of a dearth of bachelors
and a superfluity of spinsters, it might have been pleasant enough had it
not been a favourite resort for my kith and kin.

My father has long enjoyed a world-wide notoriety; he is not, however, as
a rule named in good society, though he habitually frequents it; and as I
am led to believe that my autobiography will possibly be circulated by
Mr. Mudie, and will lie about on drawing-room tables, I will merely
mention that a most representation of my progenitor, under his _nom de
theatre_, Mephistopheles, may be seen now in London, and I should
recommend all who wish to understand his character to go to the Lyceum,
though, between ourselves, he strongly disapproves of the whole
performance.

I was introduced into the world by an old lady named Mrs. O'Reilly.  She
was a very pleasant old lady, the wife of a General, and one of those
sociable, friendly, talkative people who do much to cheer their
neighbours, particularly in a deadly-lively provincial place like
Muddleton, where the standard of social intercourse is not very high.
Mrs. O'Reilly had been in her day a celebrated beauty; she was now grey-
haired and stout, but still there was something impressive about her, and
few could resist the charm of her manner and the pleasant easy flow of
her small talk.  Her love of gossip amounted almost to a passion, and
nothing came amiss to her; she liked to know everything about everybody,
and in the main I think her interest was a kindly one, though she found
that a little bit of scandal, every now and then, added a piquant flavour
to the homely fare provided by the commonplace life of the Muddletonians.

I will now, without further preamble, begin the history of my life.

* * * * *

"I assure you, my dear Lena, Mr. Zaluski is nothing less than a
Nihilist!"

The sound waves set in motion by Mrs. O'Reilly's words were tumultuously
heaving in the atmosphere when I sprang into being, a young but perfectly
formed and most promising slander.  A delicious odour of tea pervaded the
drawing-room, it was orange-flower pekoe, and Mrs. O'Reilly was just
handing one of the delicate Crown Derby cups to her visitor, Miss Lena
Houghton.

"What a shocking thing!  Do you really mean it?" exclaimed Miss Houghton.
"Thank you, cream but no sugar; don't you know, Mrs. O'Reilly, that it is
only Low-Church people who take sugar nowadays?  But, really, now, about
Mr. Zaluski?  How did you find it out?"

"My dear, I am an old woman, and I have learnt in the course of a
wandering life to put two and two together," said Mrs. O'Reilly.  She had
somehow managed to ignore middle age, and had passed from her position of
renowned beauty to the position which she now firmly and constantly
claimed of many years and much experience.  "Of course," she continued,
"like every one else, I was glad enough to be friendly and pleasant to
Sigismund Zaluski, and as to his being a Pole, why, I think it rather
pleased me than otherwise.  You see, my dear, I have knocked about the
world and mixed with all kinds of people.  Still, one must draw the line
somewhere, and I confess it gave me a very painful shock to find that he
had such violent antipathies to law and order.  When he took Ivy Cottage
for the summer I made the General call at once, and before long we had
become very intimate with him; but, my dear, he's not what I thought
him--not at all!"

"Well now, I am delighted to hear you say that," said Lena Houghton, with
some excitement in her manner, "for it exactly fits in with what I always
felt about him.  From the first I disliked that man, and the way he goes
on with Gertrude Morley is simply dreadful.  If they are not engaged they
ought to be--that's all I can say."

"Engaged, my dear!  I trust not," said Mrs. O'Reilly.  "I had always
hoped for something very different for dear Gertrude.  Quite between
ourselves, you know, my nephew John Carew is over head and ears in love
with her, and they would make a very good pair; don't you think so?"

"Well, you see, I like Gertrude to a certain extent," replied Lena
Houghton.  "But I never raved about her as so many people do.  Still, I
hope she will not be entrapped into marrying Mr. Zaluski; she deserves a
better fate than that."

"I quite agree with you," said Mrs. O'Reilly, with a troubled look.  "And
the worst of it is, poor Gertrude is a girl who might very likely take up
foolish revolutionary notions; she needs a strong wise husband to keep
her in order and form her opinions.  But is it really true that he flirts
with her?  This is the first I have heard of it.  I can't think how it
has escaped my notice."

"Nor I, for indeed he is up at the Morleys' pretty nearly every day.  What
with tennis, and music, and riding, there is always some excuse for it.  I
can't think what Gertrude sees in him, he is not even good-looking."

"There is a certain surface good-nature about him," said Mrs. O'Reilly.
"It deceived even me at first.  But, my dear Lena, mark my words: that
man has a fearful temper; and I pray Heaven that poor Gertrude may have
her eyes opened in time.  Besides, to think of that little gentle,
delicate thing marrying a Nihilist!  It is too dreadful; really, quite
too dreadful!  John would never get over it!"

"The thing I can't understand is why all the world has taken him up so,"
said Lena Houghton.  "One meets him everywhere, yet nobody seems to know
anything about him.  Just because he has taken Ivy Cottage for four
months, and because he seems to be rich and good-natured, every one is
ready to run after him."

"Well, well," said Mrs. O'Reilly, "we all like to be neighbourly, my
dear, and a week ago I should have been ready to say nothing but good of
him.  But now my eyes have been opened.  I'll tell you just how it was.
We were sitting here, just as you and I are now, at afternoon tea; the
talk had flagged a little, and for the sake of something to say I made
some remark about Bulgaria--not that I really knew anything about it, you
know, for I'm no politician; still, I knew it was a subject that would
make talk just now.  My dear, I assure you I was positively frightened.
All in a minute his face changed, his eyes flashed, he broke into such a
torrent of abuse as I never heard in my life before."

"Do you mean that he abused you?"

"Dear me, no! but Russia and the Czar, and tyranny and despotism, and
many other things I had never heard of.  I tried to calm him down and
reason with him, but I might as well have reasoned with the cockatoo in
the window.  At last he caught himself up quickly in the middle of a
sentence, strode over to the piano, and began to play as he generally
does, you know, when he comes here.  Well, would you believe it, my dear!
instead of improvising or playing operatic airs as usual, he began to
play a stupid little tune which every child was taught years ago, of
course with variations of his own.  Then he turned round on the music-
stool with the oddest smile I ever saw, and said, "Do you know that air,
Mrs. O'Reilly?"

"Yes," I said; "but I forget now what it is.'"

"It was composed by Pestal, one of the victims of Russian tyranny," said
he.  "The executioner did his work badly, and Pestal had to be strung up
twice.  In the interval he was heard to mutter, 'Stupid country, where
they don't even know how to hang!'"

"Then he gave a little forced laugh, got up quickly, wished me good-bye,
and was gone before I could put in a word."

"What a horrible story to tell in a drawing-room!" said Lena Houghton.  "I
envy Gertrude less than ever."

"Poor girl!  What a sad prospect it is for her!" said Mrs. O'Reilly with
a sigh.  "Of course, my dear, you'll not repeat what I have just told
you."

"Not for the world!" said Lena Houghton emphatically.  "It is perfectly
safe with me."

The conversation was here abruptly ended, for the page threw open the
drawing-room door and announced 'Mr. Zaluski.'

"Talk of the angel," murmured Mrs. O'Reilly with a significant smile at
her companion.  Then skilfully altering the expression of her face, she
beamed graciously on the guest who was ushered into the room, and Lena
Houghton also prepared to greet him most pleasantly.

I looked with much interest at Sigismund Zaluski, and as I looked I
partly understood why Miss Houghton had been prejudiced against him at
first sight.  He had lived five years in England, and nothing pleased him
more than to be taken for an Englishman.  He had had his silky black hair
closely cropped in the very hideous fashion of the present day; he wore
the ostentatiously high collar now in vogue; and he tried to be
sedulously English in every respect.  But in spite of his wonderfully
fluent speech and almost perfect accent, there lingered about him
something which would not harmonise with that ideal of an English
gentleman which is latent in most minds.  Something he lacked, something
he possessed, which interfered with the part he desired to play.  The
something lacking showed itself in his ineradicable love of jewellery and
in a transparent habit of fibbing; the something possessed showed itself
in his easy grace of movement, his delightful readiness to amuse and to
be amused, and in a certain cleverness and rapidity of idea rarely, if
ever, found in an Englishman.

He was a little above the average height and very finely built; but there
was nothing striking in his aquiline features and dark grey eyes, and I
think Miss Houghton spoke truly when she said that he was 'Not even good-
looking.'  Still, in spite of this, it was a face which grew upon most
people, and I felt the least little bit of regret as I looked at him,
because I knew that I should persistently haunt and harass him, and
should do all that could be done to spoil his life.

Apparently he had forgotten all about Russia and Bulgaria, for he looked
radiantly happy.  Clearly his thoughts were engrossed with his own
affairs, which, in other words, meant with Gertrude Morley; and though,
as I have since observed, there are times when a man in love is an
altogether intolerable sort of being, there are other times when he is
very much improved by the passion, and regards the whole world with a
genial kindliness which contrasts strangely with his previous cool
cynicism.

"How delightful and home-like your room always looks!" he exclaimed,
taking the cup of tea which Mrs. O'Reilly handed to him.  "I am horribly
lonely at Ivy Cottage.  This house is a sort of oasis in the desert."

"Why, you are hardly ever at home, I thought," said Mrs. O'Reilly,
smiling.  "You are the lion of the neighbourhood just now; and I'm sure
it is very good of you to come in and cheer a lonely old woman.  Are you
going to play me something rather more lively to-day?"

He laughed.

"Ah!  Poor Pestal!  I had forgotten all about our last meeting."

"You were very much excited that day," said Mrs. O'Reilly.  "I had no
idea that your political notions--"

He interrupted her

"Ah! no politics to-day, dear Mrs. O'Reilly.  Let us have nothing but
enjoyment and harmony.  See, now, I will play you something very much
more cheerful."

And sitting down to the piano, he played the bridal march from
'Lohengrin,' then wandered off into an improvised air, and finally
treated them to some recollections of the 'Mikado.'

Lena-Houghton watched him thoughtfully as she put on her gloves; he was
playing with great spirit, and the words of the opera rang in her ears:--

   For he's going to marry Yum-yum, Yum-yum,
   And so you had better be dumb, dumb, dumb!

I knew well enough that she would not follow this moral advice, and I
laughed to myself because the whole scene was such a hollow mockery.  The
placid benevolent-looking old lady leaning back in her arm-chair; the
girl in her blue gingham and straw hat preparing to go to the afternoon
service; the happy lover entering heart and soul into Sullivan's charming
music; the pretty room with its Chippendale furniture, its aesthetic
hangings, its bowls of roses; and the sound of church bells wafted
through the open window on the soft summer breeze.

Yet all the time I lingered there unseen, carrying with me all sorts of
dread possibilities.  I had been introduced into the world, and even if
Mrs. O'Reilly had been willing to admit to herself that she had broken
the ninth commandment, and had earnestly desired to recall me, all her
sighs and tears and regrets would have availed nothing; so true is the
saying, "Of thy word unspoken thou art master; thy spoken word is master
of thee."

"Thank you."  "Thank you."  "How I envy your power of playing!"

The two ladies seemed to vie with each other in making pretty speeches,
and Zaluski, who loved music and loved giving pleasure, looked really
pleased.  I am sure it did not enter his head that his two companions
were not sincere, or that they did not wish him well.  He was thinking to
himself how simple and kindly the Muddleton people were, and how great a
contrast this life was to his life in London; and he was saying to
himself that he had been a fool to live a lonely bachelor life till he
was nearly thirty, and yet congratulating himself that he had done so
since Gertrude was but nineteen.  Undoubtedly, he was seeing blissful
visions of the future all the time that he replied to the pretty
speeches, and shook hands with Lena Houghton, and opened the drawing-room
door for her, and took out his watch to assure her that she had plenty of
time and need not hurry to church.

Poor Zaluski!  He looked so kindly and pleasant.  Though I was only a
slander, and might have been supposed to have no heart at all, I did feel
sorry for him when I thought of the future and of the grief and pain
which would persistently dog his steps.



MY SECOND STAGE


   Bear not false witness, slander not, nor lie;
   Truth is the speech of inward purity.

   _The Light of Asia_.

In my first stage the reader will perceive that I was a comparatively
weak and harmless little slander, with merely that taint of original sin
which was to be expected in one of such parentage.  But I developed with
great rapidity; and I believe men of science will tell you that this is
always the case with low organisms.  That, for instance, while it takes
years to develop the man from the baby, and months to develop the dog
from the puppy, the baby monad will grow to maturity in an hour.

Personally I should have preferred to linger in Mrs. O'Reilly's pleasant
drawing-room, for, as I said before, my victim interested me, and I
wanted to observe him more closely and hear what he talked about.  But I
received orders to attend evensong at the parish church, and to haunt the
mind of Lena Houghton.

As we passed down the High Street the bells rang out loud and clear, and
they made me feel the same slight sense of discomfort that I had felt
when I looked at Zaluski; however, I went on, and soon entered the
church.  It was a fine old Gothic building, and the afternoon sunshine
seemed to flood the whole place; even the white stones in the aisle were
glorified here and there with gorgeous patches of colour from the stained
glass windows.  But the strange stillness and quiet oppressed me, I did
not feel nearly so much at home as in Mrs. O'Reilly's drawing-room--to
use a terrestrial simile, I felt like a fish out of water.

For some time, too, I could find no entrance at all into the mind of Lena
Houghton.  Try as I would, I could not distract her attention or gain the
slightest hold upon her, and I really believe I should have been
altogether baffled, had not the rector unconsciously come to my aid.

All through the prayers and psalms I had fought a desperate fight without
gaining a single inch.  Then the rector walked over to the lectern, and
the moment he opened his mouth I knew that my time had come, and that
there was a very fair chance of victory before me.  Whether this
clergyman had a toothache, or a headache, or a heavy load on his mind, I
cannot say, but his reading was more lugubrious than the wind in an
equinoctial gale.  I have since observed that he was only a degree worse
than many other clerical readers, and that a strange and delightfully
mistaken notion seems prevalent that the Bible must be read in a dreary
and unnatural tone of voice, or with a sort of mournful monotony; it is
intended as a sort of reverence, but I suspect that it often plays into
the hands of my progenitor, as it most assuredly did in the present
instance.

Hardly had the rector announced, "Here beginneth the forty-fourth verse
of the sixteenth chapter of the book of the prophet Ezekiel," than a sort
of relaxation took place in the mind I was attacking.  Lena Houghton's
attention could only have been given to the drearily read lesson by a
very great effort; she was a little lazy and did not make the effort, she
thought how nice it was to sit down again, and then the melancholy voice
lulled her into a vague interval of thoughtless inactivity.  I promptly
seized my opportunity, and in a moment her whole mind was full of me.  She
was an excitable, impressionable sort of girl, and when once I had
obtained an entrance into her mind I found it the easiest thing in the
world to dominate her thoughts.  Though she stood, and sat, and knelt,
and curtseyed, and articulated words, her thoughts were entirely absorbed
in me.  I crowded out the Magnificat with a picture of Zaluski and
Gertrude Morley.  I led her through more terrible future possibilities in
the second lesson than would be required for a three-volume novel.  I
entirely eclipsed the collects with reflections on unhappy marriages;
took her off _via_ Russia and Nihilism in the State prayers, and by the
time we arrived at St. Chrysostom had become so powerful that I had
worked her mind into exactly the condition I desired.

The congregation rose.  Lena Houghton, still dominated by me, knelt
longer than the rest, but at last she got up and walked down the aisle,
and I felt a great sense of relief and satisfaction.  We were out in the
open air once more, and I had triumphed; I was quite sure that she would
tell the first person she met, for, as I have said before, she was
entirely taken up with me, and to have kept me to herself would have
required far more strength and unselfishness than she at that moment
possessed.  She walked slowly through the churchyard, feeling much
pleased to see that the curate had just left the vestry door, and that in
a few moments their paths must converge.

Mr. Blackthorne had only been ordained three or four years, and was a
little younger, and much less experienced in the ways of the world, than
Sigismund Zaluski.  He was a good well-meaning fellow, a little narrow, a
little prejudiced, a little spoiled by the devotion of the district
visitors and Sunday School teachers; but he was honest and energetic, and
as a worker among the poor few could have equalled him.  He seemed to
fancy, however, that with the poor his work ended, and he was not always
so wise as he might have been in Muddleton society.

"Good afternoon, Miss Houghton," he exclaimed.  "Do you happen to know if
your brother is at home?  I want just to speak to him about the choir
treat."

"Oh, he is sure to be in by this time," said Lena.

And they walked home together.

"I am so glad to have this chance of speaking to you," she began rather
nervously.  "I wanted particularly to ask your advice."

Mr. Blackthorne, being human and young, was not unnaturally flattered by
this remark.  True, he was becoming well accustomed to this sort of
thing, since the ladies of Muddleton were far more fond of seeking advice
from the young and good-looking curate than from the elderly and
experienced rector.  They said it was because Mr. Blackthorne was so much
more sympathetic, and understood the difficulties of the day so much
better; but I think they unconsciously deceived themselves, for the
rector was one of a thousand, and the curate, though he had in him the
makings of a fine man, was as yet altogether crude and young.

"Was it about anything in your district?" he asked, devoutly hoping that
she was not going to propound some difficult question about the origin of
evil, or any other obscure subject.  For though he liked the honour of
being consulted, he did not always like the trouble it involved, and he
remembered with a shudder that Miss Houghton had once asked him his
opinion about the 'Ethical Concept of the Good.'

"It was only that I was so troubled about something Mrs. O'Reilly has
just told me," said Lena Houghton.  "You won't tell any one that I told
you?"

"On no account," said the curate, warmly.

"Well, you know Mr. Zaluski, and how the Morleys have taken him up?"

"Every one has taken him up," said the curate, with the least little
touch of resentment in his tone.  "I knew that the Morleys were his
special friends; I imagine that he admires Miss Morley."

"Yes, every one thinks they are either engaged or on the brink of it.  And
oh, Mr. Blackthorne, can't you or somebody put a stop to it, for it seems
such a dreadful fate for poor Gertrude?"

The curate looked startled.

"Why, I don't profess to like Mr. Zaluski," he said.  "But I don't know
anything exactly against him."

"But I do.  Mrs. O'Reilly has just been telling me."

"What did she tell you?" he asked with some curiosity.

"Why, she has found out that he is really a Nihilist--just think of a
Nihilist going about loose like this, and playing tennis at the rectory
and all the good houses!  And not only that, but she says he is
altogether a dangerous, unprincipled man with a dreadful temper.  You
can't think how unhappy she is about poor Gertrude, and so am I, for we
were at school together and have always been friends."

"I am very sorry to hear about it," said Mr. Blackthorne, "but I don't
see that anything can be done.  You see, one does not like to interfere
in these sort of things.  It seems officious rather, and meddlesome."

"Yes, that is the worst of it," she replied, with a sigh.  "I suppose we
can do nothing.  Still, it has been a great relief just to tell you about
it and get it off my mind.  I suppose we can only hope that something may
put a stop to it all--we must just leave it to chance."

This sentiment amused me not a little.  Leave it to chance indeed!  Had
she not caused me to grow stronger and larger by every word she uttered?
And had not the conversation revealed to me Mr. Blackthorn's one
vulnerable part?  I knew well enough that I should be able to dominate
his thoughts as I had done hers.  Finding me burdensome, she had passed
me on to somebody else with additions that vastly increased my working
powers, and then she talked of leaving it to chance!  The way in which
mortals practise pious frauds on themselves is really delightful!  And
yet Lena Houghton was a good sort of girl, and had from her childhood
repeated the catechism words which proclaim that, "My duty to my
neighbour is to love him as myself . . . To keep my tongue from
evil-speaking, lying, and slandering."  What is more, she took great
pains to teach these words to a big class of Sunday School children, and
went, rain or shine, to spend two hours each Sunday in a stuffy school-
room for that purpose.  It was strange that she should be so ready to
believe evil of her neighbour, and so eager to spread the story.  But my
progenitor is clever, and doubtless knows very well, whom to select as
his tools.

By this time they had reached a comfortable-looking, red-brick house with
white stone facings, and in the discussion of the arrangements for the
choir treat I was entirely forgotten.



MY THIRD STAGE


   Alas! such is our weakness, that we often more readily believe and
   speak of another that which is evil than that which is good.  But
   perfect men do not easily give credit to every report; because they
   know man's weakness, which is very prone to evil, and very subject to
   fail in words.

   THOMAS A KEMPIS.

All through that evening, and through the first part of the succeeding
day, I was crowded out of the curate's mind by a host of thoughts with
which I had nothing in common; and though I hovered about him as he
taught in the school, and visited several sick people, and argued with an
habitual drunkard, and worked at his Sunday sermon, a Power, which I felt
but did not understand, baffled all my attempts to gain an entrance and
attract his notice.  I made a desperate attack on him after lunch as he
sat smoking and enjoying a well-earned rest, but it was of no avail.  I
followed him to a large garden-party later on, but to my great annoyance
he went about talking to every one in the pleasantest way imaginable,
though I perceived that he was longing to play tennis instead.

At length, however, my opportunity came.  Mr. Blackthorne was talking to
the lady of the house, Mrs. Courtenay, when she suddenly exclaimed:--

"Ah, here is Mr. Zaluski just arriving.  I began to be afraid that he had
forgotten the day, and he is always such an acquisition.  How do you do,
Mr. Zaluski?" she said, greeting my victim warmly as he stepped on to the
terrace.  "So glad you were able to come.  You know Mr. Blackthorne, I
think."

Zaluski greeted the curate pleasantly, and his dark eyes lighted up with
a gleam of amusement.

"Oh, we are great friends," he said laughingly.  "Only, you know, I
sometimes shock him a little--just a very little."

"That is very unkind of you, I am sure," said Mrs. Courtenay, smiling.

"No, not at all," said Zaluski, with the audacity of a privileged being.
"It is just my little amusement, very harmless, very--what you call
innocent.  Mr. Blackthorne cannot make up his mind about me.  One day I
appear to him to be Catholic, the next Comtist, the next Orthodox Greek,
the next a convert to the Anglican communion.  I am a mystery, you see!
And mysteries are as indispensable in life as in a romance."

He laughed.  Mrs. Courtenay laughed too, and a little friendly banter was
carried on between them, while the curate stood by feeling rather out of
it.

I drew nearer to him, perceiving that my prospects bid fair to improve.
For very few people can feel out of it without drifting into a
self-regarding mood, and then they are the easiest prey imaginable.
Undoubtedly a man like Zaluski, with his easy nonchalance, his knowledge
of the world, his genuine good-nature, and the background of sterling
qualities which came upon you as a surprise because he loved to make
himself seem a mere idler, was apt to eclipse an ordinary mortal like
James Blackthorne.  The curate perceived this and did not like to be
eclipsed--as a matter of fact, nobody does.  It seemed to him a little
unfair that he, who had hitherto been made much of, should be called to
play second fiddle to this rich Polish fellow who had never done anything
for Muddleton or the neighbourhood.  And then, too, Sigismund Zaluski had
a way of poking fun at him which he resented, and would not take in good
part.

Something of this began to stir in his mind; and he cordially hated the
Pole when Jim Courtenay, who arranged the tennis, came up and asked him
to play in the next set, passing the curate by altogether.

Then I found no difficulty at all in taking possession of him; indeed he
was delighted to have me brought back to his memory, he positively
gloated over me, and I grew apace.

Zaluski, in the seventh heaven of happiness, was playing with Gertrude
Morley, and his play was so good and so graceful that every one was
watching it with pleasure.  His partner, too, played well; she was a
pretty, fair-haired girl, with soft grey eyes like the eyes of a dove;
she wore a white tennis dress and a white sailor hat, and at her throat
she had fastened a cluster of those beautiful orange-coloured roses known
by the prosaic name of 'William Allan Richardson.'

If Mr. Blackthorne grew angry as he watched Sigismund Zaluski, he grew
doubly angry as he watched Gertrude Morley.  He said to himself that it
was intolerable that such a girl should fall a prey to a vain, shallow,
unprincipled foreigner, and in a few minutes he had painted such a dark
picture of poor Sigismund that my strength increased tenfold.

"Mr. Blackthorne," said Mrs. Courtenay, "would you take Mrs.
Milton-Cleave to have an ice?"

Now Mrs. Milton-Cleave had always been one of the curate's great friends.
She was a very pleasant, talkative woman of six-and-thirty, and a general
favourite.  Her popularity was well deserved, for she was always ready to
do a kind action, and often went out of her way to help people who had
not the slightest claim upon her.  There was, however, no repose about
Mrs. Milton-Cleave, and an acute observer would have discovered that her
universal readiness to help was caused to some extent by her good heart,
but in a very large degree by her restless and over-active brain.  Her
sphere was scarcely large enough for her, she would have made an
excellent head of an orphan asylum or manager of some large institution,
but her quiet country life offered far too narrow a field for her energy.

"It is really quite a treat to watch Mr. Zaluski's play," she remarked as
they walked to the refreshment tent at the other end of the lawn.
"Certainly foreigners know how to move much better than we do: our best
players look awkward beside them."

"Do you think so?" said Mr. Blackthorne.  "I am afraid I am full of
prejudice, and consider that no one can equal a true-born Briton."

"And I quite agree with you in the main," said Mrs. Milton-Cleave.
"Though I confess that it is rather refreshing to have a little variety."

The curate was silent, but his silence merely covered his absorption in
me, and I began to exercise a faint influence through his mind on the
mind of his companion.  This caused her at length to say:

"I don't think you quite like Mr. Zaluski.  Do you know much about him?"

"I have met him several times this summer," said the curate, in the tone
of one who could have said much more if he would.

The less satisfying his replies, the more Mrs. Milton-Cleave's curiosity
grew.

"Now, tell me candidly," she said at length.  "Is there not some mystery
about our new neighbour?  Is he quite what he seems to be?"

"I fear he is not," said Mr. Blackthorne, making the admission in a tone
of reluctance, though, to tell the truth, he had been longing to pass me
on for the last five minutes.

"You mean that he is fast?"

"Worse than that," said James Blackthorne, lowering his voice as they
walked down one of the shady garden paths.  "He is a dangerous,
unprincipled fellow, and into the bargain an avowed Nihilist.  All that
is involved in that word you perhaps scarcely realise."

"Indeed I do," she exclaimed with a shocked expression.  "I have just
been reading a review of that book by Stepniak.  Their social and
religious views are terrible; free-love, atheism, everything that could
bring ruin on the human race.  Is he indeed a Nihilist?"

Mr. Blackthorne's conscience gave him a sharp prick, for he knew that he
ought not to have passed me on.  He tried to pacify it with the excuse
that he had only promised not to tell that Miss Houghton had been his
informant.

"I assure you," he said impressively, "it is only too true.  I know it on
the best authority."

And here I cannot help remarking that it has always seemed to me strange
that even experienced women of the world, like Mrs. Milton-Cleave, can be
so easily hoodwinked by that vague nonentity, 'The Best Authority.'  I am
inclined to think that were I a human being I should retort with an
expressive motion of the finger and thumb, "Oh, you know it on the best
authority, do you?  Then _that_ for your story!"

However, I thrived wonderfully on the best authority, and it would be
ungrateful of me to speak evil of that powerful though imaginary being.

At right angles with the garden walk down which the two were pacing there
was another wide pathway, bordered by high closely clipped shrubs.  Down
this paced a very different couple.  Mrs. Milton-Cleave caught sight of
them, and so did curate.  Mrs. Milton-Cleave sighed.

"I am afraid he is running after Gertrude Morley!  Poor girl!  I hope she
will not be deluded into encouraging him."

And then they made just the same little set remarks about the
desirability of stopping so dangerous an acquaintance, and the
impossibility of interfering with other people's affairs, and the sad
necessity of standing by with folded hands.  I laughed so much over their
hollow little phrases that at last I was fain to beat a retreat, and,
prompted by curiosity to know a little of the truth, I followed Sigismund
and Gertrude down the broad grassy pathway.

I knew of course a good deal of Zaluski's character, because my own
existence and growth pointed out what he was not.  Still, to study a man
by a process of negation is tedious, and though I knew that he was not a
Nihilist, or a free-lover, or an atheist, or an unprincipled fellow with
a dangerous temper, yet I was curious to see him as he really was.

"If you only knew how happy you had made me!" he was saying.  And indeed,
as far as happiness went, there was not much to choose between them, I
fancy; for Gertrude Morley looked radiant, and in her clove-like eyes
there was the reflection of the love which flashed in his.

"You must talk to my mother about it," she said after a minute's silence.
"You see, I am still under age, and she and Uncle Henry my guardian must
consent before we are actually betrothed."

"I will see them at once," said Zaluski, eagerly.

"You could see my mother," she replied.  "But Uncle Henry is still in
Sweden and will not be in town for another week."

"Must we really wait so long!" sighed Sigismund impatiently.

She laughed at him gently.

"A whole week!  But then we are sure of each other.  I do not think we
ought to grumble."

"But perhaps they may think that a merchant is no fitting match for you,"
he suggested.  "I am nothing but a plain merchant, and my I people have
been in the same business for four generations.  As far as wealth goes I
might perhaps satisfy your people, but for the rest I am but a prosaic
fellow, with neither noble blood, nor the brain of a genius, nor anything
out of the common."

"It will be enough for my mother that we love each other," she said
shyly.

"And your uncle?"

"It will be enough for him that you are upright and honourable--enough
that you are yourself, Sigismund."

They were sitting now in a little sheltered recess clipped out of the yew-
trees.  When that softly spoken "Sigismund" fell from her lips, Zaluski
caught her in his arms and kissed her again and again.

"I have led such a lonely life," he said after a few minutes, during
which their talk had baffled my comprehension.  "All my people died while
I was still a boy."

"Then who brought you up?" she inquired.

"An uncle of mine, the head of our firm in St. Petersburg.  He was very
good to me, but he had children of his own, and of course I could not be
to him as one of them.  I have had many friends and much kindness shown
to me, but love!--none till to-day."

And then again they fell into the talk which I could not fathom.  And so
I left them in their brief happiness, for my time of idleness was over,
and I was ordered to attend Mrs. Milton-Cleave without a moment's delay.



MY FOURTH STAGE


   Oh, the little more, and how much it is!

   R. BROWING.

Mrs. Milton-Cleave had one weakness--she was possessed by an inordinate
desire for influence.  This made her always eagerly anxious to be
interesting both in her conversation and in her letters, and to this end
she exerted herself with unwearying activity.  She liked influencing Mr.
Blackthorne, and spared no pains on him that afternoon; and indeed the
curate was a good deal flattered by her friendship, and considered her
one of the most clever and charming women he had ever met.

Sigismund and Gertrude returned to the ordinary world just as Mrs. Milton-
Cleave was saying good-bye to the hostess.  She glanced at them
searchingly.

"Good-bye, Gertrude," she said a little coldly.  "Did you win at tennis?"

"Indeed we did," said Gertrude, smiling.  "We came off with flying
colours.  It was a love set."

The girl was looking more beautiful than ever, and there was a tell-tale
colour in her cheeks and an unusual light in her soft grey eyes.  As for
Zaluski, he was so evidently in love, and had the audacity to look so
supremely happy, that Mrs. Milton-Cleave was more than ever impressed
with the gravity of the situation.  The curate handed her into her
victoria, and she drove home through the sheltered lanes musing sadly
over the story she had heard, and wondering what Gertrude's future would
be.  When she reached home, however, the affair was driven from her
thoughts by her children, of whom she was devotedly fond.  They came
running to meet her, frisking like so many kittens round her as she went
upstairs to her room, and begging to stay with her while she dressed for
dinner.  During dinner she was engrossed with her husband; but
afterwards, when she was alone in the drawing-room, I found my
opportunity for working on her restless mind.

"Dear me," she exclaimed, throwing aside the newspaper she had just taken
up, "I ought to write to Mrs. Selldon at Dulminster about that G.F.S.
girl!"

As a matter of fact she ought not to have written then, the letter might
well have waited till the morning, and she was over-tired and needed
rest.  But I was glad to see her take up her pen, for I knew I should
come in most conveniently to fill up the second side of the sheet.

Before long Jane Stiggins, the member who had migrated from Muddleton to
Dulminster, had been duly reported, wound up, and made over to the
Archdeacon's wife.  Then the tired hand paused.  What more could she say
to her friend?

"We are leading our usual quiet life here," she wrote, "with the ordinary
round of tennis parties and picnics to enliven us.  The children have all
been wonderfully well, and I think you will see a great improvement in
your god-daughter when you next come to stay with us"--"Oh dear!" sighed
Mrs. Milton-Cleave, "how dull and stupid I am to-night!  I can't think of
a single thing to say."  Then at length I flashed into her mind, and with
a sigh of relief and a little rising flush of excitement she went on much
more rapidly.

"It is such a comfort to be quite at rest about them, and to see them all
looking so well.  But I suppose one can never be without some cause of
worry, and just now I am very unhappy about that nice girl Gertrude
Morley whom you admired so much when you were last here.  The whole
neighbourhood has been dominated this year by a young Polish merchant
named Sigismund Zaluski, who is very clever and musical and knows well
how to win popularity.  He has taken Ivy Cottage for four mouths, and is,
I fear, doing great mischief.  The Morleys are his special friends, and I
greatly fear he is making love to Gertrude.  Now I know privately, on the
very best authority, that although he has so completely deceived every
one and has managed so cleverly to pose as a respectable man, that Mr.
Zaluski is really a Nihilist, a free-lover, an atheist, and altogether a
most unprincipled man.  He is very clever, and speaks English most
fluently, indeed he has lived in London since the spring of 1881--he told
me so himself.  I cannot help fancying that he must have been concerned
in the assassination of the late Czar, which you will remember took place
in that year early in March.  It is terrible to think of the poor Morleys
entering blindfold on such an undesirable connection; but, at the same
time, I really do not feel that I can say anything about it.  Excuse this
hurried note, dear Charlotte, and with love to yourself and kindest
remembrances to the Archdeacon,

"Believe me, very affectionately yours,

"GEORGINA MILTON-CLEAVE.

"P.S.  It may perhaps be as well not to mention this affair about
Gertrude Morley and Mr. Zaluski.  They are not yet engaged, as far as I
know, and I sincerely trust it may prove to be a mere flirtation."

* * * * *

I had now grown to such enormous dimensions that any one who had known me
in my infancy would scarcely have recognised me, while naturally the more
I grew the more powerful I became, and the more capable both of
impressing the minds which received me and of injuring Zaluski.  Poor
Zaluski, who was so foolishly, thoughtlessly happy!  He little dreamed of
the fate that awaited him!  His whole world was bright and full of
promise; each hour of love seemed to improve him, to deepen his whole
character, to tone down his rather flippant manner, to awaken for him new
and hitherto unthought-of realities.

But while he basked in his new happiness I travelled in my close stuffy
envelope to Dulminster, and after having been tossed in and out of bags,
shuffled, stamped, thumped, tied up, and generally shaken about, I
arrived one morning at Dulminster Archdeaconry, and was laid on the
breakfast table among other appetising things to greet Mrs. Selldon when
she came downstairs.



MY FIFTH STAGE


   Also it is wise not to believe everything you hear, not immediately to
   carry to the ears of others what you have either heard or believed.

   THOMAS A KEMPIS.

Though I was read in silence at the breakfast table and not passed on to
the Archdeacon, I lay dormant in Mrs. Selldon's mind all day, and came to
her aid that night when she was at her wits' end for something to talk
about.

Mrs. Selldon, though a most worthy and estimable person, was of a
phlegmatic temperament; her sympathies were not easily aroused, her mind
was lazy and torpid, in conversation she was unutterably dull.  There
were times when she was painfully conscious of this, and would have given
much for the ceaseless flow of words which fell from the lips of her
friend Mrs. Milton-Cleave.  And that evening after my arrival chanced to
be one of these occasions, for there was a dinner-party at the
Archdeaconry, given in honour of a well-known author who was spending a
few days in the neighbourhood.

"I wish you could have Mr. Shrewsbury at your end of the table, Thomas,"
Mrs. Selldon had remarked to her husband with a sigh, as she was
arranging the guests on paper that afternoon.

"Oh, he must certainly take you in, my dear," said the Archdeacon.  "And
he seems a very clever, well-read man, I am sure you will find him easy
to talk to."

Poor Mrs. Selldon thought that she would rather have had some one who was
neither clever nor well-read.  But there was no help for her, and,
whether she would or not, she had to go in to dinner with the literary
lion.

Mr. Mark Shrewsbury was a novelist of great ability.  Some twenty years
before, he had been called to the bar, and, conscious of real talent, had
been greatly embittered by the impossibility of getting on in his
profession.  At length, in disgust, he gave up all hopes of success and
devoted himself instead to literature.  In this field he won the
recognition for which he craved; his books were read everywhere, his name
became famous, his income steadily increased, and he had the pleasant
consciousness that he had found his vocation.  Still, in spite of his
success, he could not forget the bitter years of failure and
disappointment which had gone before, and though his novels were full of
genius they were pervaded by an undertone of sarcasm, so that people
after reading them were more ready than before to take cynical views of
life.

He was one of those men whose quiet impassive faces reveal scarcely
anything of their character.  He was neither tall nor short, neither dark
nor fair, neither handsome nor the reverse; in fact his personality was
not in the least impressive; while, like most true artists, he observed
all things so quietly that you rarely discovered that he was observing at
all.

"Dear me!" people would say, "Is Mark Shrewsbury really here?  Which is
he?  I don't see any one at all like my idea of a novelist."

"There he is--that man in spectacles," would be the reply.

And really the spectacles were the only noteworthy thing about him.

Mrs. Selldon, who had seen several authors and authoresses in her time,
and knew that they were as a rule most ordinary, hum-drum kind of people,
was quite prepared for her fate.  She remembered her astonishment as a
girl when, having laughed and cried at the play, and taken the chief
actor as her ideal hero, she had had him pointed out to her one day in
Regent Street, and found him to be a most commonplace-looking man, the
very last person one would have supposed capable of stirring the hearts
of a great audience.

Meanwhile dinner progressed, and Mrs. Selldon talked to an empty-headed
but loquacious man on her left, and racked her brains for something to
say to the alarmingly silent author on her right.  She remembered hearing
that Charles Dickens would often sit silent through the whole of dinner,
observing quietly those about him, but that at dessert he would suddenly
come to life and keep the whole table in roars of laughter.  She feared
that Mr. Shrewsbury meant to imitate the great novelist in the first
particular, but was scarcely likely to follow his example in the last.  At
length she asked him what he thought of the cathedral, and a few tepid
remarks followed.

"How unutterably this good lady bores me!" thought the author.

"How odd it is that his characters talk so well in his books, and that he
is such a stick!" thought Mrs. Selldon.

"I suppose it's the effect of cathedral-town atmosphere," reflected the
author.

"I suppose he is eaten up with conceit and won't trouble himself to talk
to me," thought the hostess.

By the time the fish had been removed they had arrived at a state of
mutual contempt.  Mindful of the reputation they had to keep up, however,
they exerted themselves a little more while the _entrees_ went round.

"Seldom reads, I should fancy, and never thinks!" reflected the author,
glancing at Mrs. Selldon's placid unintellectual face.  "What on earth
can I say to her?"

"Very unpractical, I am sure," reflected Mrs. Selldon.  "The sort of man
who lives in a world of his own, and only lays down his pen to take up a
book.  What subject shall I start?"

"What delightful weather we have been having the last few days!" observed
the author.  "Real genuine summer weather at last."  The same remark had
been trembling on Mrs. Selldon's lips.  She assented with great
cheerfulness and alacrity; and over that invaluable topic, which is
always so safe, and so congenial, and so ready to hand, they grew quite
friendly, and the conversation for fully five minutes was animated.

An interval of thought followed.

"How wearisome is society!" reflected Mrs. Selldon.  "It is hard that we
must spend so much money in giving dinners and have so much trouble for
so little enjoyment."

"One pays dearly for fame," reflected the author.  "What a confounded
nuisance it is to waste all this time when there are the last proofs of
'What Caste?' to be done for the nine-o'clock post to-morrow morning!
Goodness knows what time I shall get to bed to-night!"

Then Mrs. Selldon thought regretfully of the comfortable easy chair that
she usually enjoyed after dinner, and the ten minutes' nap, and the
congenial needle-work.  And Mark Shrewsbury thought of his chambers in
Pump Court, and longed for his type-writer, and his books, and his swivel
chair, and his favourite meerschaum.

"I should be less afraid to talk if there were not always the horrible
idea that he may take down what one says," thought Mrs. Selldon.

"I should be less bored if she would only be her natural self," reflected
the author.  "And would not talk prim platitudes."  (This was hard, for
he had talked nothing else himself.)  "Does she think she is so
interesting that I am likely to study her for my next book?"

"Have you been abroad this summer?" inquired Mrs. Selldon, making another
spasmodic attempt at conversation.

"No, I detest travelling," replied Mark Shrewsbury.  "When I need change
I just settle down in some quiet country district for a few
months--somewhere near Windsor, or Reigate, or Muddleton.  There is
nothing to my mind like our English scenery."

"Oh, do you know Muddleton?" exclaimed Mrs. Selldon.  "Is it not a
charming little place?  I often stay in the neighbourhood with the Milton-
Cleaves."

"I know Milton-Cleave well," said the author.  "A capital fellow, quite
the typical country gentleman."

"Is he not?" said Mrs. Selldon, much relieved to have found this subject
in common.  "His wife is a great friend of mine; she is full of life and
energy, and does an immense amount of good.  Did you say you had stayed
with them?"

"No, but last year I took a house in that neighbourhood for a few months;
a most charming little place it was, just fit for a lonely bachelor.  I
dare say you remember it--Ivy Cottage, on the Newton Road."

"Did you stay there?  Now what a curious coincidence!  Only this morning
I heard from Mrs. Milton-Cleave that Ivy Cottage has been taken this
summer by a Mr. Sigismund Zaluski, a Polish merchant, who is doing untold
harm in the neighbourhood.  He is a very clever, unscrupulous man, and
has managed to take in almost every one."

"Why, what is he?  A swindler?  Or a burglar in disguise, like the _House
on the Marsh_ fellow?" asked the author, with a little twinkle of
amusement in his face.

"Oh, much worse than that," said Mrs. Selldon, lowering her voice.  "I
assure you, Mr. Shrewsbury, you would hardly credit the story if I were
to tell it you, it is really stranger than fiction."  Mark Shrewsbury
pricked up his ears, he no longer felt bored, he began to think that,
after all, there might be some compensation for this wearisome dinner-
party.  He was always glad to seize upon material for future plots, and
somehow the notion of a mysterious Pole suddenly making his appearance in
that quiet country neighbourhood and winning undeserved popularity rather
took his fancy.  He thought he might make something of it.  However, he
knew human nature too well to ask a direct question.

"I am sorry to hear that," he said, becoming all at once quite
sympathetic and approachable.  "I don't like the thought of those simple,
unsophisticated people being hoodwinked by a scoundrel."

"No; is it not sad?" said Mrs. Selldon.  "Such pleasant, hospitable
people as they are!  Do you remember the Morleys?"

"Oh yes!  There was a pretty daughter who played tennis well."

"Quite so--Gertrude Morley.  Well, would you believe it, this miserable
fortune-hunter is actually either engaged to her or on the eve of being
engaged!  Poor Mrs. Milton-Cleave is so unhappy about it, for she knows,
on the best authority, that Mr. Zaluski is unfit to enter a respectable
house."

"Perhaps he is really some escaped criminal?" suggested Mr. Shrewsbury,
tentatively.

Mrs. Selldon hesitated.  Then, under the cover of the general roar of
conversation, she said in a low voice:--

"You have guessed quite rightly.  He is one of the Nihilists who were
concerned in the assassination of the late Czar."

"You don't say so!" exclaimed Mark Shrewsbury, much startled.  "Is it
possible?"

"Indeed, it is only too true," said Mrs. Selldon.  "I heard it only the
other morning, and on the very best authority.  Poor Gertrude Morley!  My
heart bleeds for her."

Now I can't help observing here that this must have been the merest
figure of speech, for just then there was a comfortable little glow of
satisfaction about Mrs. Selldon's heart.  She was so delighted to have
"got on well," as she expressed it, with the literary lion, and by this
time dessert was on the table, and soon the tedious ceremony would be
happily over.

"But how did he escape?" asked Mark Shrewsbury, still with the thought of
"copy" in his mind.

"I don't know the details," said Mrs. Selldon.  "Probably they are only
known to himself.  But he managed to escape somehow in the month of March
1881, and to reach England safely.  I fear it is only too often the case
in this world--wickedness is apt to be successful."

"To flourish like a green bay tree," said Mark Shrewsbury, congratulating
himself on the aptness of the quotation, and its suitability to the
Archediaconal dinner-table.  "It is the strangest story I have heard for
a long time."  Just then there was a pause in the general conversation,
and Mrs. Selldon took advantage of it to make the sign for rising, so
that no more passed with regard to Zaluski.

Shrewsbury, flattering himself that he had left a good impression by his
last remark, thought better not to efface it later in the evening by any
other conversation with his hostess.  But in the small hours of the
night, when he had finished his bundle of proofs, he took up his notebook
and, strangling his yawns, made two or three brief, pithy notes of the
story Mrs. Selldon had told him, adding a further development which
occurred to him, and wondering to himself whether "Like a Green Bay Tree"
would be a selling title.

After this he went to bed, and slept the sleep of the just, or the
unbroken sleep which goes by that name.



MY SIXTH STAGE


   But whispering tongues can poison truth.

   COLERIDGE.

London in early September is a somewhat trying place.  Mark Shrewsbury
found it less pleasing in reality than in his visions during the dinner-
party at Dulminster.  True, his chambers were comfortable, and his type-
writer was as invaluable a machine as ever, and his novel was drawing to
a successful conclusion; but though all these things were calculated to
cheer him, he was nevertheless depressed.  Town was dull, the heat was
trying, and he had never in his life found it so difficult to settle down
to work.  He began to agree with the Preacher, that "of making many books
there is no end," and that, in spite of his favourite "Remington's
perfected No. 2," novel-writing was a weariness to the flesh.  Soon he
drifted into a sort of vague idleness, which was not a good, honest
holiday, but just a lazy waste of time and brains.  I was pleased to
observe this, and was not slow to take advantage of it.  Had he stayed in
Pump Court he might have forgotten me altogether in his work, but in the
soft luxury of his Club life I found that I had a very fair chance of
being passed on to some one else.

One hot afternoon, on waking from a comfortable nap in the depths of an
armchair at the Club, Shrewsbury was greeted by one of his friends.

"I thought you were in Switzerland, old fellow!" he exclaimed, yawning
and stretching himself.

"Came back yesterday--awfully bad season--confoundedly dull," returned
the other.  "Where have you been?"

"Down with Warren near Dulminster.  Deathly dull hole."

"Do for your next novel.  Eh?" said the other with a laugh.

Mark Shrewsbury smiled good-naturedly.

"Talking of novels," he observed, with another yawn, "I heard such a
story down there!"

"Did you?  Let's hear it.  A nice little scandal would do instead of a
pick-me-up."

"It's not a scandal.  Don't raise your expectations.  It's the story of a
successful scoundrel."

And then I came out again in full vigour--nay, with vastly increased
powers; for though Mark Shrewsbury did not add very much to me, or alter
my appearance, yet his graphic words made me much more impressive than I
had been under the management of Mrs. Selldon.

"H'm! that's a queer story," said the limp-looking young man from
Switzerland.  "I say, have a game of billiards, will you?"

Shrewsbury, with prodigious yawn, dragged himself up out of his chair,
and the two went off together.  As they left the room the only other man
present looked up from his newspaper, following them with his eyes.

"Shrewsbury the novelist," he thought to himself.  "A sterling fellow!
And he heard it from an Archdeacon's wife.  Confound it all! the thing
must be true then.  I'll write and make full inquiries about this Zaluski
before consenting to the engagement."

And, being a prompt, business-like man, Gertrude Morley's uncle sat down
and wrote the following letter to a Russian friend of his who lived at
St. Petersburg, and who might very likely be able to give some account of
Zaluski:--

   Dear Leonoff,--Some very queer stories are afloat about a young Polish
   merchant, by name Sigismund Zaluski, the head of the London branch of
   the firm of Zaluski and Zernoff, at St. Petersburg.  Will you kindly
   make inquiries for me as to his true character and history?  I would
   not trouble you with this affair, but the fact is Zaluski has made an
   offer of marriage to one of my wards, and before consenting to any
   betrothal I must know what sort of man he really is.  I take it for
   granted that "there is no smoke without fire," and that there must be
   something in the very strange tale which I have just heard on the best
   authority.  It is said that this Sigismund Zaluski left St. Petersburg
   in March 1881, after the assassination of the late Czar, in which he
   was seriously compromised.  He is said to be an out-and-out Nihilist,
   an atheist, and, in short, a dangerous, disreputable fellow.  Will you
   sift the matter for me?  I don't wish to dismiss the fellow without
   good reason, but of course I could not think of permitting him to be
   engaged to my niece until these charges are entirely disproved.

   With kind remembrances to your father,

   I am, yours faithfully
   HENRY CRICHTON-MORLEY.



MY SEVENTH STAGE


   Yet on the dull silence breaking
   With a lightning flash, a word,
   Bearing endless desolation
   On its blighting wings, I heard;
   Earth can forge no keener weapon,
   Dealing surer death and pain,
   And the cruel echo answered
   Through long years again.

   A. A. PROCTER.

Curiously enough, I must actually have started for Russia on the same day
that Sigismund Zaluski was summoned by his uncle at St. Petersburg to
return on a matter of urgent business.  I learnt afterwards that the
telegram arrived at Muddleton on the afternoon of one of those sunny
September days and found Zaluski as usual at the Morleys.  He was very
much annoyed at being called away just then, and before he had received
any reply from Gertrude's uncle as to the engagement.  However, after a
little ebullition of anger, he regained his usual philosophic tone, and,
reminding Gertrude that he need not be away from England for more than a
fortnight, he took leave of her and set off in a prompt, manly fashion,
leaving most of his belongings at Ivy Cottage, which was his for another
six weeks, and to which he hoped shortly to return.

After a weary time of imprisonment in my envelope, I at length reached my
destination at St. Petersburg and was read by Dmitry Leonoff.  He was a
very busy man, and by the same post received dozens of other letters.  He
merely muttered--"That well-known firm!  A most unlikely story!"--and
then thrust me into a drawer with other letters which had to be answered.
Very probably I escaped his memory altogether for the next few days:
however, there I was--a startling accusation in black and white; and, as
everybody knows, St. Petersburg is not London.

The Leonoff family lived on the third storey of a large block of
buildings in the Sergeffskaia.  About two o'clock in the morning, on the
third day after my arrival, the whole household was roused from sleep by
thundering raps on the door, and the dreaded cry of "Open to the police."

The unlucky master was forced to allow himself, his wife, and his
children to be made prisoners, while every corner of the house was
searched and every book and paper examined.

Leonoff had nothing whatever to do with the Revolutionary movement, but
absolute innocence does not free people from the police inquisition, and
five or six years ago, when the Search mania was at its height, a case is
on record of a poor lady whose house was searched seven times within
twenty-four hours, though there was no evidence whatever that she was
connected with the Nihilists; the whole affair was, in fact, a
misunderstanding, as she was perfectly innocent.

This search in Dmitry Leonoff's house was also a misunderstanding, and in
the dominions of the Czar misunderstandings are of frequent occurrence.

Leonoff knew himself to be innocent, and he felt no fear, though
considerable annoyance, while the search was prosecuted; he could hardly
believe the evidence of his senses when, without a word of explanation,
he was informed that he must take leave of his wife and children, and go
in charge of the gendarmes to the House of Preventive Detention.

Being a sensible man, he kept his temper, remarked courteously that some
mistake must have been made, embraced his weeping wife, and went off
passively, while the pristav carried away a bundle of letters in which I
occupied the most prominent place.

Leonoff remained a prisoner only for a few days; there was not a shred of
evidence against him, and, having suffered terrible anxiety, he was
finally released.  But Mr. Crichton-Morley's letter was never restored to
him, it remained in the hands of the authorities, and the night after
Leonoff's arrest the pristav, the procurator, and the gendarmes made
their way into the dwelling of Sigismund Zaluski's uncle, where a similar
search was prosecuted.

Sigismund was asleep and dreaming of Gertrude and of his idyllic summer
in England, when his bedroom door was forced open and he was roughly
roused by the gendarmes.

His first feeling was one of amazement, his second, one of indignation;
however, he was obliged to get up at once and dress, the policeman
rigorously keeping guard over him the whole time for fear he should
destroy any treasonable document.

"How I shall make them laugh in England when I tell them of this
ridiculous affair!" reflected Sigismund, as he was solemnly marched into
the adjoining room, where he found his uncle and cousins, each guarded by
a policeman.

He made some jesting remark, but was promptly reprimanded by his gaoler,
and in wearisome silence the household waited while the most rigorous
search of the premises was made.

Of course nothing was found; but, to the amazement of all, Sigismund was
formally arrested.

"There must be some mistake," he exclaimed, "I have been resident in
England for some time.  I have no connection whatever with Russian
politics."

"Oh, we are well aware of your residence in England," said the pristav.
"You left St. Petersburg early in March 1881.  We are well aware of
that."

Something in the man's tone made Sigismund's heart stand still.  Could he
possibly be suspected of complicity in the plot to assassinate the late
Czar?  The idea would have made him laugh had he been in England.  In St.
Petersburg, and under these circumstances, it made him tremble.

"There is some terrible mistake," he said.  "I have never had the
slightest connection with the revolutionary party."

The pristav shrugged his shoulders, and Sigismund, feeling like one in a
dream, took leave of his relations, and was escorted at once to the House
of Preventive Detention.

Arrived at his destination, he was examined in a brief, unsatisfactory
way; but when he angrily asked for the evidence on which he had been
arrested, he was merely told that information had been received charging
him with being concerned in the assassination of the late Emperor, and of
being an advanced member of the Nihilist party.  His vehement denials
were received with scornful incredulity, his departure for England just
after the assassination, and his prolonged absence from Russia, of course
gave colour to the accusation, and he was ordered off to his cell "to
reflect."



MY TRIUMPHANT FINALE


   Words are mighty, words are living;
   Serpents with their venomous stings,
   Or bright angels crowding round us,
   With heaven's light upon their wings;
   Every word has its own spirit,
   True or false, that never dies;
   Every word man's lips have uttered
   Echoes in God's skies.

   A. A. PROCTER.

My labours were now nearly at an end, and being, so to speak, off duty, I
could occupy myself just as I pleased.  I therefore resolved to keep
watch over Zaluski in his prison.

For the first few hours after his arrest he was in a violent passion; he
paced up and down his tiny cell like a lion in a cage; he was beside
himself with indignation, and the blood leapt through his veins like
wildfire.

Then he became a little ashamed of himself and tried to grow quiet, and
after a sleepless night he passed to the opposite extreme and sat all day
long on the solitary stool in his grim abode, his head resting on his
hands, and his mind a prey to the most fearful melancholy.

The second night, however, he slept, and awoke with a steady resolve in
his mind.

"It will never do to give way like this, or I shall be in a brain fever
in no time," he reflected.  "I will get leave to have books and writing
materials.  I will make the best of a bad business."

He remembered how pleased he had been when Gertrude had once smiled on
him because, when all the others in the party were grumbling at the
discomforts of a certain picnic where the provisions had gone astray, he
had gaily made the best of it and ransacked the nearest cottages for
bread-and-cheese.  He set to work bravely now; hoped daily for his
release; read all the books he was allowed to receive, invented solitary
games, began a novel, and drew caricatures.

In October he was again examined; but, having nothing to reveal, it was
inevitable that he could reveal nothing; and he was again sent back to
his cell "to reflect."

I perceived that after this his heart began to fail him.

There existed in the House of Preventive Detention a system of
communication between the luckless prisoners carried on by means of
tapping on the wall.  Sigismund, being a clever fellow, had become a
great adept at this telegraphic system, and had struck up a friendship
with a young student in the next cell; this poor fellow had been
imprisoned three years, his sole offence being that he had in his
possession a book of which the Government did not approve, and that he
was first cousin to a well-known Nihilist.

The two became as devoted to each other as Silvio Pellico and Count
Oroboni; but it soon became evident to Valerian Vasilowitch that, unless
Zaluski was released, he would soon succumb to the terrible restrictions
of prison life.

"Keep up your heart, my friend," he used to say.  "I have borne it three
years, and am still alive to tell the tale."

"But you are stronger both in mind and body," said Sigismund; "and you
are not madly in love as I am."

And then he would pour forth a rhapsody about Gertrude, and about English
life, and about his hopes and fears for the future; to all of which
Valerian, like the brave fellow he was, replied with words of
encouragement.

But at length there came a day when his friend made no answer to his
usual morning greeting.

"Are you ill?" he asked.

For some time there was no reply, but after a while Sigismund rapped
faintly the despairing words:--

"Dead beat!"

Valerian felt the tears start to his eyes.  It was what he had all along
expected, and for a time grief and indignation and his miserable
helplessness made him almost beside himself.  At last he remembered that
there was at least one thing in his power.  Each day he was escorted by a
warder to a tiny square, walled off in the exercising ground, and was
allowed to walk for a few minutes; he would take this opportunity of
begging the warder to get the doctor for his friend.

But unfortunately the doctor did not think very seriously of Zaluski's
case.  In that dreary prison he had patients in the last stages of all
kinds of disease, and Sigismund, who had been in confinement too short a
time to look as ill as the others, did not receive much attention.
Certainly, the doctor admitted, his lungs were affected; probably the
sudden change of climate and the lack of good food and fresh air had been
too much for him; so the solemn farce ended, and he was left to his fate.
"If I were indeed a Nihilist, and suffered for a cause which I had at
heart," he telegraphed to Valerian, "I could bear it better.  But to be
kept here for an imaginary offence, to bear cold and hunger and illness
all to no purpose--that beats me.  There can't be a God, or such things
would not be allowed."

"To me it seems," said Valerian, "that we are the victims of violated
law.  Others have shown tyranny, or injustice, or cruelty, and we are the
victims of their sin.  Don't say there is no God.  There must be a God to
avenge such hideous wrong."

So they spoke to each other through their prison wall as men in the free
outer world seldom care to speak; and I, who knew no barriers, looked now
on Valerian's gaunt figure, and brave but prematurely old face, now on
poor Zaluski, who, in his weary imprisonment, had wasted away till one
could scarcely believe that he was indeed the same lithe, active fellow
who had played tennis at Mrs. Courtenay's garden-party.

Day and night Valerian listened to the terrible cough which came from the
adjoining cell.  It became perfectly apparent to him that his friend was
dying; he knew it as well as if he had seen the burning hectic flush on
his hollow cheeks, and heard the panting, hurried breaths, and watched
the unnatural brilliancy of his dark eyes.

At length he thought the time had come for another sort of comfort.

"My friend," he said one day, "it is too plain to me now that you are
dying.  Write to the procurator and tell him so.  In some cases men have
been allowed to go home to die."

A wild hope seized on poor Sigismund; he sat down to the little table in
his cell and wrote a letter to the procurator--a letter which might
almost have drawn tears from a flint.  Again and again he passionately
asserted his innocence, and begged to know on what evidence he was
imprisoned.  He began to think that he could die content if he might
leave this terrible cell, might be a free agent once more, if only for a
few days.  At least he might in that case clear his character, and
convince Gertrude that his imprisonment had been all a hideous mistake;
nay, he fancied that he might live through a journey to England and see
her once again.

But the procurator would not let him be set free, and refused to believe
that his case was really a serious one.

Sigismund's last hope left him.

The days and weeks dragged slowly on, and when, according to English
reckoning, New Year's Eve arrived, he could scarcely believe that only
seventeen weeks ago he had actually been with Gertrude, and that disgrace
and imprisonment had seemed things that could never come near him, and
death had been a far-away possibility, and life had been full of bliss.

As I watched him a strong desire seized me to revisit the scenes of which
he was thinking, and I winged my way back to England, and soon found
myself in the drowsy, respectable streets of Muddleton.

It was New Year's Eve, and I saw Mrs. O'Reilly preparing presents for her
grandchildren, and talking, as she tied them up, of that dreadful
Nihilist who had deceived them in the summer.  I saw Lena Houghton, and
Mr. Blackthorne, and Mrs. Milton-Cleave, kneeling in church on that
Friday morning, praying that pity might be shown "upon all prisoners and
captives, and all that are desolate or oppressed."

It never occurred to them that they were responsible for the sufferings
of one weary prisoner, or that his death would be laid at their door.

I flew to Dulminster, and saw Mrs. Selldon kneeling in the cathedral at
the late evening service and rigorously examining herself as to the
shortcomings of the dying year.  She confessed many things in a vague,
untroubled way; but had any one told her that she had cruelly wronged her
neighbour, and helped to bring an innocent man to shame, and prison, and
death, she would not have believed the accusation.

I sought out Mark Shrewsbury.  He was at his chambers in Pump Court
working away with his type-writer; he had a fancy for working the old
year out and the new year in, and now he was in the full swing of that
novel which had suggested itself to his mind when Mrs. Selldon described
the rich and mysterious foreigner who had settled down at Ivy Cottage.
Most happily he laboured on, never dreaming that his careless words had
doomed a fellow-man to a painful and lingering death; never dreaming that
while his fingers flew to and fro over his dainty little keyboard,
describing the clever doings of the unscrupulous foreigner, another man,
the victim of his idle gossip, tapped dying messages on a dreary prison
wall.

For the end had come.

Through the evening Sigismund rested wearily on his truckle-bed.  He
could not lie down because of his cough, and, since there were no extra
pillows to prop him up, he had to rest his head and shoulders against the
wall.  There was a gas-burner in the tiny cell, and by its light he
looked round the bare walls of his prison with a blank, hopeless, yet
wistful gaze; there was the stool, there was the table, there were the
clothes he should never wear again, there was the door through which his
lifeless body would soon be carried.  He looked at everything
lingeringly, for he knew that this desolate prison was the last bit of
the world he should ever see.

Presently the gas was turned out.

He sighed as he felt the darkness close in upon him, for he knew that his
eyes would never again see light--knew that in this dark lonely cell he
must lie and wait for death.  And he was young and wished to live, and he
was in love and longed most terribly for the presence of the woman he
loved.

The awful desolateness of the cell was more than he could endure; he
tried to think of his past life, he tried to live once again through
those happy weeks with Gertrude; but always he came back to the aching
misery of the present--the cold and the pain, and the darkness and the
terrible solitude.

His nerveless fingers felt their way to the wall and faintly rapped a
summons.

"Valerian!" he said, "I shall not live through the night.  Watch with
me."

The faint raps sounded clearly in the stillness of the great building,
and Valerian dreaded lest the warders should hear them, and deal out
punishment for an offence which by day they were forced to wink at.

But he would not for the world have deserted his friend.  He drew his
stool close to the wall, wrapped himself round in all the clothes he
could muster, and, shivering with cold, kept watch through the long
winter night.

"I am near you," he telegraphed.  "I will watch with you till morning."

From time to time Sigismund rapped faint messages, and Valerian replied
with comfort and sympathy.  Once he thought to himself, "My friend is
better; there is more power in his hand."  And indeed he trembled,
fearing that the sharp, emphatic raps must certainly attract notice and
put an end to their communion.

"Tell my love that the accusation was false--false!" the word was
vehemently repeated.  "Tell her I died broken-hearted, loving her to the
end."

"I will tell her all when I am free," said poor Valerian, wondering with
a sigh when his unjust imprisonment would end.  "Do you suffer much?" he
asked.

There was a brief interval.  Sigismund hesitated to tell a falsehood in
his last extremity.

"It will soon be over.  Do not be troubled for me," he replied.  And
after that there was a long, long silence.

Poor fellow! he died hard; and I wished that those comfortable English
people could have been dragged from their warm beds and brought into the
cold dreary cell where their victim lay, fighting for breath, suffering
cruelly both in mind and body.  Valerian, listening in sad suspense,
heard one more faint word rapped by the dying man.

"Farewell!"

"God be with you!" he replied, unable to check the tears which rained
down as he thought of the life so sadly ended, and of his own
bereavement.

He heard no more.  Sigismund's strength failed him, and I, to whom the
darkness made no difference, watched him through the last dread struggle;
there was no one to raise him, or hold him, no one to comfort him.  Alone
in the cold and darkness of that first morning of the year 1887, he died.

Valerian did not hear through the wall his last faint gasping cry, but I
heard it, and its exceeding bitterness would have made mortals weep.

"Gertrude!" he sobbed.  "Gertrude!"

And with that his head sank on his breast, and the life, which but for me
might have been so happy and prosperous, was ended.

* * * * *

Prompted by curiosity, I instantly returned to Muddleton and sought out
Gertrude Morley.  I stole into her room.  She lay asleep, but her dreams
were troubled, and her face, once so fresh and bright, was worn with pain
and anxiety.

Scarcely had I entered the room when, to my amazement, I saw the spirit
of Sigismund Zaluski.

I saw him bend down and kiss the sleeping girl, and for a moment her sad
face lighted up with a radiant smile.

I looked again; he was gone.  Then Gertrude threw up both her arms and
with a bitter cry awoke from her dream.

"Sigismund!" she cried.  "Oh, Sigismund!  Now I know that you are dead
indeed."

For a long, long time she lay in a sort of trance of misery.  It seemed
as if the life had been almost crushed out of her, and it was not until
the bells began to ring for the six o'clock service, merrily pealing out
their welcome of the new year morning, that full consciousness returned
to her again.  But, as she clearly realised what had happened, she broke
into such a passion of tears as I had never before witnessed, while still
in the darkness the new year bells rang gaily, and she knew that they
heralded for her the beginning of a lonely life.

And so my work ended; my part in this world was played out.  Nevertheless
I still live; and there will come a day when Sigismund and Gertrude shall
be comforted and the slanderers punished.

For poor Valerian was right, and there is an Avenger, in whom even my
progenitor believes, and before whom he trembles.

There will come a time when those self-satisfied ones, whose hands are
all the time steeped in blood, shall be confronted with me, and shall
realise to the full all that their idle words have brought about.

For that day I wait; and though afterwards I shall be finally destroyed
in the general destruction of all that is unmitigatedly evil, I promise
myself a certain satisfaction and pleasure (a feeling I doubtless inherit
from my progenitor), when I watch the shame, and horror, and remorse of
Mrs. O'Reilly and the rest of the people to whom I owe my existence and
rapid growth.





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