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Title: Barren Honour: A Novel
Author: Lawrence, George A. (George Alfred), 1827-1876
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
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.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Barren Honour: A Novel" ***

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by The Kentuckiana Digital Library)



                                   BARREN HONOUR:

                                      A NOVEL.

                                BY GEORGE A. LAWRENCE

       BY THE AUTHOR OF "GUY LIVINGSTON," "THE SWORD AND GOWN," &c., &c.


    NEW YORK:
    DICK & FITZGERALD, PUBLISHERS.
    No. 18 ANN STREET.



CHAPTER I.

NEW AND OLD.


A very central place is Newmanham, both by local and commercial
position--a big, black, busy town, waxing bigger and blacker and busier
day by day. For more than a century that Queen of Trade has worn her
iron crown right worthily; her pulse beats, now, sonorously with the
clang of a myriad of steam-hammers; her veins swell almost to bursting
with the ceaseless currents of molten metals; and her breath goes up to
heaven, heavy and vaporous with the blasts of many furnaces.

Whenever I pass that way, as a born Briton, an unit of a great
mercantile nation, I feel or suppose myself to feel, a certain amount of
pride and satisfaction in witnessing so many evidences of my country's
wealth and prosperity; they are very palpable indeed, those evidences,
and not one of the senses will be inclined to dispute their existence.
If I chance to have an exiled Neapolitan prince, or a deposed
grand-duke, or any other potentate in difficulties, staying with me
(which, of course, happens constantly), I make a point of beguiling the
illustrious foreigner into the dingy labyrinth of Newmanham, from which
he escapes not till he has done justice to every one of its marvels.
Nevertheless, as an individual whose only relations with commerce
consist in always wanting to buy more things than one can possibly
afford, and in never, by any chance, having anything to sell, except now
and then a horse or two, more or less "screwed," or a parcel of ideas,
more or less trivial--as such an one, I say, I am free to confess, that
my first and abiding emotion, after being ten minutes in that great
emporium, is a desolate sense of having no earthly business there, and
of being very much in everybody's way--a sentiment which the natives
seem perfectly to fathom and coincide with.

It is not that they make themselves in any wise disagreeable, or cast
you forth with contumely from their hive. The operative element does not
greet the stranger with the "'eave of a arf-brick," after the genial
custom of the mining districts; neither is he put to confusion by a
broad stare, breaking up into a broader grin, as sometimes occurs in our
polite sea-port towns. A quick careless glance, as if the gazer had no
time even for curiosity, is the worst ordeal you will have to encounter
in passing a group of the inhabitants, whether at work, or by a rare
chance, resting from their labours. There are "roughs" to be found there
more dangerous, they say, than in most places: but these do not show
much in daylight or frequented thoroughfares. They have their own
haunts, and when the sun arises they lie down in their dens. In deed,
the upper Ten Thousand--the great manufacturers and iron-founders or
their representatives--will treat you with no small kindness,
especially if you have letters of introduction: they will show you over
their vast works and endless factories, adapting their conversation
always to your limited capacity, becoming affably explanatory or blandly
statistical, as the occasion demands, only indulging in a mild and
discreet triumph, as they point out some unutterably hideous combination
of steel and iron peculiar to their own establishment, which produces
results as unexpected as a conjuring trick. Even so have we seen Mr.
Ambrose Arcturus, the stout and intrepid voyager, beguile a Sabbath
afternoon in exhibiting to a friend's child--to the officer of the day
from the contiguous barracks--to a fair country cousin--or some other
equally innocent and inquisitive creature--the treasures of the
Zoological Society, not a few of which are the captives of his own bow
and spear; lingering, perhaps fondly, for a moment, opposite a gigantic
bivalve or mollusca which he is reported to have vanquished in single
combat.

But, in spite of all this hospitality, the consciousness of being in a
false position, of taking up people's time where time is money--in fact,
of being rather a nuisance than otherwise--cannot easily be shaken off:
the eye grows weary with seeking a resting-place where everything
illustrates perpetual motion, and the brain dizzy with the everlasting
tremor and whir of wheels. It is a positive relief when we find
ourselves starting on one of the lines that radiate from Newmanham to
every point of the compass, like the feelers of a cuttle-fish, always
dragging in "raw material" to the voracious centre: it is an absolute
luxury, an hour afterwards, to sweep on through the great grazing
grounds again, and to see forty acres of sound, undulating pasture
stretching away up to the black "bullfinch" that cuts the skyline.

You may easily guess what the political tone of such a borough must be:
Liberalism of the most enlightened description flourishes there
unchecked and unrivalled; for no Conservative candidate has yet been
found so self-sacrificing as to solicit the suffrages of Newmanham. Were
such an one to present himself, it is scarcely probable that the free
and independent electors would content themselves with such playful
missiles as graveolent eggs or decomposed cabbage-stalks: they would be
more likely to revive, for his especial benefit, that almost obsolete
_argumentum a lapide_ which has silenced, if it did not convince, many
obstinate enthusiasts--who, nevertheless, were not far from the truth,
after all. In no other town of England are Mr. Bright's harangues
received with such favour and sincere sympathy. When the santon-fit is
on that meek Man of Peace, and carries him away in a flood of furious
diatribe against "those who sit in high places and grind the faces of
the poor," it is curious to remark how willingly and completely his
audience surrender themselves to the influence of the hour. You may see
the ground-swell of passion swaying and surging through the mass of
operatives that pack the body of the hall, till every gaunt grimed face
becomes picturesque in its savage energy: you have only to look round to
be aware that education, and property, and outward respectability, are
no safeguards against the contagion: it is spreading fast now through
that phalanx of decent broad-clothed burghers on the platform,
and--listen--their voices chime in with ominous alacrity in the cheer
that rewards a peroration that in old days would have brought the
speaker to the pillory.

That same cheer, once heard, is not easily forgotten: there is not the
faintest echo of anything joyous, or kindly, or hopeful, in its accent;
one feels that it issues from the depths of hearts that are more than
dissatisfied--through lips parched with a fiery longing and thirst for
something never yet attained. For what? God help them! _they_ could not
tell you--if they dared. Go to an agricultural dinner (farmers are the
most discontented race alive, you know), mark the tumult among the
yeomen when the health of the county favorite has been given, or rather
intimated, for they knew what the speaker would say, and before he could
finish, the storm of great, healthy voices broke in. Those two
acclamations differ from each other more strikingly than does the full
round shout of a Highland regiment "doubling" to charge, from the
hoarse, cracked "hour-ra" of a squadron of Don Cossacks.

With these dispositions, you may conceive that, albeit Newmanham rather
covets land as an investment (they make very fair and not unkindly
seigneur, those _Novi homines_), she cherishes little love or respect
for the landed interest, its representatives, and traditions. Yet, when
a brother magnate from Tarenton or New Byrsa comes to visit one of these
mighty burghers, to what object of interest does the host invariably
first direct the attention of his honored guest? Deferring to another
day the inspection of his own factory, and of all other town wonders, he
orders round the gorgeous barouche, with the high-stepping greys,
overlaid with as much precious metal as the Beautiful Gate, and takes
the stranger fifteen miles away, to view the demesne which, through the
vicissitudes of six centuries, has been the abiding-place of the
Vavasours of Dene.

The house is not so ancient, nor does it stand on the site of the old
Castle. All that would burn of _that_ crumbled down in a whirlwind of
flame, one black winter's night during the Wars of the Roses. There had
long been a feud between the Vavasours and a neighboring family nearly
as powerful and overbearing. Sir Hugh Mauleverer was a shrewd, provident
man, and cool even in his desperation. When he saw signs of the tide
turning against Lancaster, he determined to settle one score, at least,
before he went to the wall. So, on New-Year's eve, when the drinking was
deep, and they kept careless watch at Dene Castle, the Lancastrians came
down in force, and made their way almost into the banqueting hall
unopposed. Then there was a struggle--short, but very sharp. The
retainers of the Vavasour, though taken by surprise, were all fully
armed, and, partly from fidelity, partly because they feared their stern
master more than any power of heaven or hell, partly because they had no
other chance, fought like mad wild cats. However, three to one are heavy
odds. All his four sons had gone down before him, and not a dozen men
were left at his back, when Simon Vavasour struck his last blow. It was
a good, honest, bitter blow, well meant and well delivered, for it went
through steel and bone so deep into Hugh Mauleverer's brain that his
slayer could not draw out the blade; the grey old wolf never stirred a
finger after that to help himself, and never uttered a sound, except one
low, savage laugh as they hewed him in pieces on his own hearth-stone.
When the slaughter was over, the sack, of course, began, but the young
Mauleverer, though heated by the fight, and somewhat discomposed by his
father's death, could not forget the courtesy and charity on which he
rather prided himself. So, when every living thing that had down on its
lip was put out of pain, he would not suffer the women and children to
be outraged or tortured, magnanimously dismissing them to wander where
they would into the wild weather, with the flames of Dene Castle to
light them on their way. Most of them perished before daybreak; but one
child, a grandson of the baron's, was saved at the price of its mother's
life. She stripped herself of nearly her last garment to cover the heir
of her house, and kissed him once as she gave him to the strongest of
the women to carry, and then lay down wearily in the snow-drift to die.

When Walter Vavasour came to manhood, the House of York was firm on the
throne, and another manor or two rewarded his family for what it had
suffered in their cause. He commenced building on the site of the
present mansion; but it was reserved for his grandson (who married one
of the greatest heiresses at the court of Henry VIII.) to complete the
stately edifice as it now stands, at the cost of all his wife's fortune,
and a good part of his own.

There are more dangerous follies than a building mania; and perhaps it
would have been well for Fulke Vavasour if he had ruined himself more
utterly in its indulgence. Poverty might have kept him out of worse
scrapes. If he resembled his portrait, his personal beauty must have
been very remarkable, though of a character more often found in Southern
Europe than in England. The Saxon and Norman races rarely produce those
long, dark, languid eyes, and smooth, pale cheeks, contrasted with
scarlet lips, and black masses of silky hair. Fair form and face were
fatal endowments in those hot-blooded days, when lovers set no bounds to
their ambition, and _une caprice de grande dame_ would have its way in
spite of--or by means of--poison, cord, and steel. All sorts of vague
rumors were current as to the real cause which brought the last Lord
Vavasour to the scaffold. The truth can never be known; for, on the same
night that he was arrested, a cavalier (whom no one recognized) came to
the Dene; he showed the Baron's signet ring, and required to be left
alone in his private chamber. The day was breaking when the stranger
rode away; and an hour afterwards a pursuivant was in possession of the
house, making, as is the fashion of his kind, minute perquisitions, when
there was nothing left to search for. Doubtless all clue to the mystery
was destroyed or removed before he came. But it may well be, that, if
Fulke Vavasour was innocent of the plot for which he died, he was not
guiltless of a darker one, with which statecraft had nothing to do. It
is certain that his widow--a most excellent and pious young woman, one
of the earliest Protestant converts, and a great friend of The
Bishops--made little moan over the husband whom she had long wearied
with her fondness; she never indeed mentioned his name, except from
necessity, and then with a groan of reprobation. They endure neglect
like angels, and cruelty like martyrs; but what _dévote_ ever forgot or
forgave an infidelity?

Let it be understood, that I quote this fact of the widow's scant regret
just for what it is worth--a piece of presumptive evidence bearing upon
a particular case, and in no wise illustrating a general principle. I am
not prepared to allow, that a fair gauge of any deceased person's moral
worth is invariably the depth or duration of the affliction manifested
by his nearest and dearest.

The barony of course became extinct with the attainted traitor; but the
broad lands remained; for the Tiger, in a fit of ultra-leonine
generosity, not only disdained himself to fatten on his victim, but even
kept off the jackals. Perhaps, the contracting heart of the unhappy
jealous old tyrant was touched by some dim recollection of early
chivalrous days, when he took no royal road to win the favor of woman or
fortune, but met his rivals frankly and fairly, and either beat them on
their merits, or yielded the prize.

The sins of the unlucky reprobate were not visited on his children. The
estate gradually shook off the burden he had laid upon it, and during
the four succeeding generations the prosperity of the Vavasours rather
waxed than waned. Like the rest of the Cavaliers, they had to bear their
share of trouble about the time of the Commonwealth; but they were too
powerful to be forgotten when the king came to his own again. Indeed,
there was a good deal of vitality about the family, though individually
its members came curiously often to violent or untimely ends; and the
domain had descended in unbroken male succession to its present owner
with scarcely diminished acreage. Yet, from a period far beyond the
memory of man, there had been no stint or stay in the lavish expense and
stately hospitality which had always been maintained at Dene. Twice in
the last hundred years the offer had been made of reversing the
attainder, and reviving the ancient barony, and each time, from whim or
some wiser motive, rejected. No minister had yet been found cool enough
to proffer a baronetcy to those princes of the Squire-archy.

It is not worth while describing the house minutely. It was a huge,
irregular mass of building, in the Tudor style, with rather an unusual
amount of ornamental stonework; well placed near the centre of a very
extensive park, and on the verge of an abrupt declivity. The most
remarkable features in it were the great hall--fifty feet square, going
right up to the vaulted roof, and girdled by two tiers of
elaborately-carved galleries in black oak--and the garden-front. The
architect had availed himself right well of the advantages of the
ground, which (as I have said) sloped steeply down, almost from the
windows; so that you looked out upon a succession of terraces--each
framed in its setting of curiously-wrought balustrades--connected by
broad flights of steps leading down to a quaint stone bridge spanning a
clear, shallow stream. Beyond this lay the Plaisance, with its
smooth-shaven grass, studded with islets of evergreens, and endless
winding walks through shady shrubberies, issuing from which, after
crossing a deep sunk-fence, you found yourself again among the great
oaks and elms of the deer-park. If there had been no other attraction at
Dene, the trees would have been worth going miles to see; indeed, the
stanch adherents of the Vavasours always brought the timber forward, as
a complete and crushing refutation of any blasphemer who should presume
to hint that the family ever had been, or could be, embarrassed. The
stables were of comparatively modern date, and quite perfect in their
way; they harmonized with the style of the main building, though this
was not of much importance, for the belt of firs around them was so
dense, that a stranger was only made aware of their existence by a
slender spire of delicate stonework shooting over the tree-tops, the
pinnacle of a fountain in the centre of the court. The best point of
view was from the farther end of the Plaisance.

Looking back from thence, you saw a picture hardly to be matched even
amongst the "stately homes of England," and to which the Continent could
show no parallel, if you traversed it from Madrid to Moscow. The grand
old house, rising, grey and solemn, over the long sloping estrade of
bright flowers, reminded one of some aged Eastern king reclining on his
divan of purple, and silver, and pearl. No wonder that Dene was a
favorite resort of the _haute bourgeoisie_ of Newmanham on Mondays, when
the public was admitted to the gardens, the state apartments, and the
picture gallery; indeed, on any other day it was easy to gain admission
if the Squire was at home, for Hubert Vavasour, from his youth upwards,
had always been incapable of refusing anybody anything in reason. If "my
lady" happened to be mistress of the position, success was not quite
such a certainty.

I think we have done our duty by the mansion; it is almost time to say
something about its inmates.



CHAPTER II.

MEA CULPA.


There were all sorts of rooms at Dene, ranging through all degrees of
luxury, from magnificence down to comfort. To the last class certainly
belonged especial apartment, which, from time immemorial, had been
called "the Squire's own." For many generations this had represented the
withdrawing-room, the council chamber, the study, and the divan of the
easy-going potentates who had ruled the destinies of the House of
Vavasour; if their authority over the rest of the mansion was sometimes
disputed, _here_ at least they reigned supreme. There was easy access
from without, by a door opening on a narrow winding walk that led
through thick shrubberies into the stables, so that the Squires were
enabled to welcome in their sanctum, unobserved, such modest and
retiring comrades as, from the state of their apparel or of their
nerves, did not feel equal to the terrors of the grand entrance. Hither
also they were wont to resort, as a sure refuge, whenever they chanced
to be worsted in any domestic skirmish: though tradition preserves the
names of several imperious and powerful Chatelaines, and chronicles
their prowess, not one appears to have forced or even assailed these
entrenchments. It almost seemed as if provision had been made against a
sudden surprise; for, at the extremity of the passage leading to the
main part of the building, were two innocent-looking green-baized doors,
with great weights, so cunningly adjusted, that one, if not both of
them, was sure to escape from weak or unwary hands, and to close with an
awful thunderous bang, that went rolling along the vaulted stone roof,
till even a Dutch garrison would have been roused from its slumbers.
Very, very rarely had the rustle of feminine garments been heard within
these sacred precincts; hardly ever, indeed, since the times of wild
Philip Vavasour--"The Red Squire"--who, if all tales are true,
entertained singularly limited notions as to his own marital duties, and
enormously extensive ones as to _les droits de seigneurie_.

It was a large, square, low-browed room, lined on two sides with presses
and book-cases of black walnut wood, that, from their appearance, might
have been placed there when it was built. The furniture all matched
these, though evidently of quite recent date; the chairs, at least,
being constructed to meet every requirement of modern laziness or
lassitude. An immense mantelpiece of carved white marble, slightly
discolored by wood-smoke, rose nearly to the vaulted ceiling, in the
centre of which were the crest and arms of the family, wrought in
porphyry. There were two windows, large enough to let in ample light, in
spite of heavy stone mullions and armorial shields on every other
pane--the south one looking to the garden-front, the west into a quiet,
old-fashioned bowling-green, enclosed by yew hedges thick and even as an
ancient rampart, and trained at the corners into the shape of pillars
crowned with vases. Not a feature of the place seems to have been
altered since the times when some stout elderly Cavalier may have smoked
a digestive pipe in that centre arbour; or later, when some gallant of
Queen Anne's court may have doffed delicately his velvet coat, laying
it, like an offering, at Sacharissa's feet, ere he proceeded to win her
father's favour by losing any number of games.

A pleasant room at all hours, it is unusually picturesque at the moment
we speak of, from the effects of many-colored light and shade. A hot
August day is fast drawing to its close; the sun is so level that it
only just clears the yews sufficiently to throw into strong relief,
against a dark background, the _torso_ of a sitting figure which is well
worth a second glance.

You look upon a man past middle age, large-limbed, vast-chested, and
evidently of commanding stature, with proportions not yet too massive
for activity; indeed, his bearing may well have gained in dignity what
it has lost in grace. The face is still more remarkable. Searching
through the numberless portraits that line the picture-gallery, you will
hardly find a dozen where the personal beauty for which the Vavasours
have long been proverbial is more strikingly exemplified than in their
present representative. There are lines of silver--not unfrequent--in
the abundant chestnut hair and bushy whiskers; but fifty-four years have
not traced ten wrinkles on the high white forehead, nor filled the
outline of the well-cut aquiline features, nor altered the clearness of
the healthy, bright complexion, nor dimmed the pleasant light of the
large frank blue eyes. There is a fault, certainly--the want of
decision, about the mouth and all the lower part of the face; but even
this you are not disposed to cavil much at, after hearing once or twice
Hubert Vavasour's ready, ringing laugh, and watching his kindly smile.
His manner had that rare blending of gentle courtesy with honest
cordiality, that the rudest stoic finds irresistibly attractive: you
never could trace in it the faintest shade of condescension, or
aggravating affability. Presiding at his own table, talking to a tenant
at the cover-side, discussing the last opera with the fair Duchess of
Darlington, or smoking the peaceful midnight cigar with an old comrade,
the Squire of Dene seemed to be, and really was, equally happy, natural,
and _at home_.

At this particular moment the expression of his pleasant face was
unusually grave, and there was a cloud on his open brow, not of anger or
vexation, but decidedly betokening perplexity. He was evidently
pondering deeply over words that had just been addressed to him by the
only other occupant of the "study."

The latter was a tall man, slightly and gracefully built, apparently
about thirty; his pale, quiet face had no remarkable points of beauty,
except very brilliant dark eyes, looking larger and brighter from the
half-circles under them, and a mouth which was simply perfect. You could
not glance at him, however, without being reminded of all those stories
of unfortunate patricians, foiled in their endeavours to escape because
they _could_ not look like the coal-heaver, or rag-merchant, or clerk,
whose clothes they wore. If the whim had possessed Sir Alan Wyverne to
array himself, for the nonce, in the loudest and worst-assorted colors
that ever lent additional vulgarity to the person of a Manchester
"tiger," it is probable that the travestie would have been too palpable
to be amusing; he would still have looked precisely as he did now and
ever--from the crown of his small head to the sole of his slender
foot--"thoroughbred all through."

The intelligence which seemed to have involved the Squire in doubt and
disquietude was just this. Five minutes ago he had looked upon Wyverne
only as his favourite nephew; he had scarcely had time to get accustomed
to him in the new light of a possible son-in-law; for the substance of
Alan's brief confession was, that in the course of their afternoon's
ride he had wooed and (provisionally) won his fair cousin Helen.

Now, when the head of a family has five or six marriageable females to
dispose of, forming a beautiful sliding-scale, from 'thirty off'
downwards, his feelings, on hearing that one is to be taken off his
hands, are generally those of unmixed exhilaration. Under such
circumstances, the most prudent of "parents" is apt to look rather
hopefully than captiously into the chances of the future _ménage_: he is
fain to cry out, like the "heavy father," "take her, you rascal, and
make her happy!" and indeed acts up to every part of the stage
direction, with the trifling exception of omitting the hand over the
bulky note-case, or the "property" purse of gold. But it is rather a
different affair when the damsel in question is an only daughter, fair
to look upon, and just in her nineteenth summer. _Then_ it will be seen,
how a man of average intellect can approve himself at need, keenly
calculating in foresight, unassailable in arguments, and grandiloquent
on the duties of paternity. His stern sagacity tramples on the roses
with which our romance would surround Love in a Cottage. It is no use
trying to put castles in Spain into settlements, when even Irish estates
are narrowly scrutinized. Perhaps we never were very sanguine about our
expectancies, but till this instant we never regarded them with such
utter depression and humility of spirit. Our cheery host of
yesternight--he who was so convivially determined on that "other bottle
before we join the ladies"--has vanished suddenly. In his stead there
sits one filling his arm-chair as though it were a judgment seat, and
freezing our guilty hearts with his awful eye. Our hopes are blighted so
rapidly, that before the hour is out not one poor leaf is left of the
garland that late bloomed so freshly. We have only one aim and object in
life now--to flee from that dread presence as quickly as we may, albeit
in worse plight than that of Sceva's sons. How sorry we are that we
spoke!

But Hubert Vavasour's voice was not angry nor even cold. If there was
the faintest accent of reproach there, it surely was unintentional; but
in its gravity was something of sadness.

"Alan, would it not have been better to have spoken first to me?"

His own conscience, more than that simple question or the tone in which
it was uttered, made Wyverne's cheek flush as he answered it.

"Dear Uncle Hubert, I own it was a grave fault. I am so sorry for not
having told you the secret first, that I hardly know how to ask even
_you_ to forgive me. But will you believe that there was no _malice
propense_? I swear that when I went out this afternoon, I had no more
idea of betraying myself to Helen than I had of proposing to any
Princess-Royal. I am sure I have no more right to aspire to one than the
other. But we were riding fast and carelessly through Holme Wood; a
branch caught Helen's _sombrero_, and held it fast. I went back for
it--we could not pull up for a second or two. When I joined her again,
she was trying to put in order some rebellious tresses which had escaped
from their net; the light shot down through the leaves on the dark
ripples of hair; there was the most delicious flush you can fancy on her
cheek, and her lips and eyes were laughing--so merrily! I don't believe
that the luck of painters ever let them dream of any thing half so
lovely. I suppose I've seen as many fair faces as most men of my age,
and I ought to be able to keep my head (if not my heart) by this time.
Well--_it went_, on the instant. I had no more self-control or
forethought than a schoolboy in his first love. Before I was aware, I
had said words that I ought never to have spoken, but which are very,
very hard to unsay. Don't ask me what she answered. I should have been
still unworthy of those words if, since my manhood begun, I had never
done one ill deed, never thrown one chance away. Uncle Hubert, you can't
blame me as much as I despise myself. The idea of a man's having got
through a good fortune and the best years of his life, without having
learnt--when to hold his tongue."

The clouds had been clearing fast on Vavasour's face while the other was
speaking, and the sun broke out, suddenly, in a kind, pleasant smile.
Probably more than one feeling was busy within him then, which it would
have been hard to separate or analyse. The father's heart swelled with
pride and love as he heard of this last crowning triumph of a beauty,
that, from childhood upwards, he had held to be peerless. Indeed, he was
absurdly fond of Helen, and had spoiled her so consistently, that no one
could understand why the _demoiselle_ (who certainly _had_ a will of her
own) was not more imperious and wayward. Besides this, the Squire's
strong natural sense of humour was gratified. It amused him unspeakably
to see his calm, impassible nephew for once so embarrassed as actually
to have been betrayed into blushing. More than all, gay memories of his
own youth and manhood came trooping up fast, some faint and distant,
some so near and brightly-coloured, that they almost seemed
tangible--vanishing and reappearing capriciously, as one fair vision
chased another from light into shade, like elves holding revel under a
midsummer moon.

True, the days of his gipsyhood were past and gone; but the spirit of
the Zingaro had tarried with Vavasour longer than with most men, if
indeed it was even yet extinct. He could not help owning that, if the
same temptation had assailed himself at the same age, he would have
yielded quite as easily as Wyverne had done that day, with perhaps
rather less of prudent scruple, and with more utter contempt of
consequences. Though he had seldom given grounds to Lady Mildred for
grave accusation, or even suspicion, gayer gallant never breathed since
Sir Gawaine died. A chivalrous delicacy and high sense of honour had
borne him (and others) scathless through many fiery trials; yet--not so
long ago--hearts had quivered at the sound of his musical voice, like
reeds shaken by the wind. Few men had achieved more conquests with less
loss to victor and vanquished; for he was satisfied with the surrender
of a beleaguered city without giving it up to pillage. Flesh is weak, we
know; it would be rash to assert, that in his hot youth, Hubert Vavasour
had never regretted a lost opportunity; but perhaps he did not sleep
less soundly now, because of all the lost souls who, on either side of
the grave, live in torment, not one could lay its ruin at his door. Two
or three reputations slightly compromised are surely not an immoderate
allowance for a _viveur_ of five-and thirty years' standing, and need
scarcely entail indulgence in poppies or mandragora. I think it speaks
well for the presiding judge if, when a young offender is brought up
before the Council of the Elders, those ancient memories stand forth as
witnesses for the defence.

So the Squire's tone was cheery and hearty as ever, when he replied to
Alan's rather unsatisfactory explanation, and there was a laugh in his
eyes.

"It must have been a terrible temptation, for the mere recollection of
it makes you poetical. That period about 'the sunlight on the rippled
hair' would have done credit to a laureate in love. Seriously, my dear
boy, I'm not angry with you; and I don't feel inclined to blame you
much. I only meant that if you had spoken first to me, you would have
heard one or two things not pleasant to hear, which _must_ be told you
now, and which had better have been said earlier."

"Uncle Hubert," Wyverne said, gently, "don't worry yourself with going
through all the objections which make the affair impracticable. I know
them so well. It is easy to give up hopes that one never had any right
to cherish. Of course it is clear what you and Aunt Mildred ought to
say. See, I accept your decision beforehand. I promise you that I won't
murmur at it, even to myself, and I shall not like any one of you a bit
the worse. It was written that Ellen should be my first serious love,
and my last too, I fancy. _Kismet_--it is my fate; but that is no reason
why _hers_ should be bound up with it."

The ruffle of brief emotion had passed away from his quiet face, and it
had settled into its wonted calmness; though at that instant the
happiness of two lives was swaying in the balance, it betrayed no
disquietude by the shadow of a sign.

Hubert Vavasour rose and laid his hand upon the speaker's shoulder.
There was nothing of mirth left now in the expression of his features;
all their grand outline was softened in a solemn tenderness, and his
strong voice was low and tremulous as a woman's.

"I have not deserved to be so misunderstood, and--by you, Alan, you are
my only sister's son, and I have loved you all your life long like my
own. You were too young when your mother died to remember how I mourned
her. You never knew either that, when I said good bye to her, after the
last Sacrament, I promised her, as plainly as I could speak for tears,
that I would always stand fast by you and Gracie. I wish other promises
were as easy to keep faithfully. Do you suppose that my interest in you
ceased with my guardianship, though my right of interference did? In
spite of everything that has happened, there is no man living to whom I
would give Helen so readily as to yourself. I am not going to trifle
with you. As far as my consent to your marriage can help you, you have
it freely; God's blessing go with it. Now--will you listen patiently
while I tell you of difficulties in the way?"

If a life dearer than his own had depended on Alan Wyverne's saying
anything intelligible at that moment, he could not have saved it by the
utterance of one word; but there was eloquence enough in the long white
fingers, which closed round his uncle's with the gripe of a giant.

The Squire sate down again, leaning his forehead on his hand that shook
ever so little, keeping his face, so, half shaded. He was a bad
dissembler, and the effort to speak cheerfully was painfully apparent.

"Alan, have you any idea how the account stands between the
world--taking it as a commercial world--and the Vavasours of Dene? I
don't see how you should have; for, besides your aunt, your cousin Max,
and myself, not half a dozen people, I believe and hope, know the real
state of affairs. There is no bankruptcy court for us, or I should have
been in it years ago. There were very, very heavy incumbrances on the
property when I came into it, and--see,--I dare not look you in the
face--they are nearly doubled now. I can give no account of my
stewardship; but I suppose play is about the only extravagance I have
not indulged in; and 'my lady'--mind I don't blame her--is not a much
better economist. I wonder our family has lasted so long. It has never
produced a clever _financier_, I need hardly say; but, more than that,
not one Vavasour for the last seven generations has had the common sense
or courage to look his difficulties in the face, and retrench
accordingly. Unluckily, rolling debts are not like rolling stones; they
_do_ increase in volume, diabolically. Well, it's no use beating about
the bush or making half confessions. Here is the truth in six words: a
quarter of a million would hardly clear us. They said I gave up the
hounds because I had got too heavy to ride up to them; perhaps you will
guess if _that_ was the real reason. It was more as a sop to keep my
conscience quiet than anything else though; for £3,000 a year saved only
keeps a little interest down, and leaves the principal as big and black
as ever. When Max came of age, it was absolutely necessary to make some
arrangement. We cut off the entail of all property, sold some outlying
farms, and replaced the old mortgages by new ones on rather better
terms. But--we raised more money. Max owed seven or eight thousand, and
I wanted nearly as much to go on with. He behaved very well about it,
only binding me down by one stipulation--that I should cut no timber;
for it was suggested then that £30,000 worth might be felled and
scarcely missed. He had a fancy, that whether Dene stayed with us or
passed away to others, it should keep its green wreath unshorn. It looks
as if there were some sympathetic link between our fortunes and our
forests--we have cherished and spared them so for centuries: if any
White Lady (like her of Avenel) watches over our house, I am very sure
she is a Dryad. Alan, the worst is still to tell."

He paused for a minute or so, clearing his throat once or twice
nervously, all to no purpose, for when he spoke again his voice was
strangely husky and uncertain.

"You don't know much of Newmanham? the greatest iron-founder. There is
one Schmidt, a German Jew, whose father was naturalized. They say he is
worth half a million. When a man of the people has made money up to that
mark, he is always mad to invest in land. Only six months ago, I found
out that Schmidt had bought up every shilling of mortgage on this
property, and--and--by G--d, I believe he means to foreclose."

The Squire stopped again, and then broke out into a harsh unnatural
laugh.

"The patriarch knows where to pitch his tent, doesn't he, Alan? His
spies have searched out the length and breadth of the land already, and
I dare say he knows as much about the woods now as I do. His lines will
fall in pleasant places when he has cast out the Hittite. Dene would be
no bad spot to found a family in. Twenty quarterings ought to leave
savour enough about the grey walls to drown somewhat of the Newmanham
_fumier_. Leah has been prolific, they tell me. The picture gallery will
be a nice place for the little Isrealites to disport themselves in in
bad weather, and the Crusaders and Cavaliers will look down benevolently
on 'the young Caucasians all at play.' Perhaps he will offer something
handsome to be allowed to take our name. Faith, he may have it! I don't
see why we should keep that to ourselves when all the rest is gone."

The bitter laugh ended in something like a sob, and the lofty head sank
down lower still. Looking on Wyverne's colourless face, you would not
have guessed that its pallor could deepen so intensely as it did when
any strong emotion possessed him. During the last five minutes it had
grown whiter by several shades.

"It is punishment enough for all my faults and follies," he said, "to be
forced to listen to such words as these, and to feel myself utterly
helpless and useless. Uncle Hubert, I remember, when every one thought
my ruin was complete, you came the first to offer help, and you never
dreamt of taking interest by making me listen to advice or reproaches.
Now I hear of _your_ troubles for the first time, and I find that I have
come in, seasonably to add another grave embarrassment. What a luxury
benevolence must be, when it meets with such a prompt return. If you
knew how I hate myself!"

The elasticity of Vavasour's gallant spirit had quite shaken off by this
time the momentary depression of which he was already heartily ashamed.
He threw back his stately head with a gesture full of haughty grace, as
if about to confront a palpable enemy or physical danger, and his voice
rang out again, bold and musical and clear.

"Don't speak so despondingly, Alan. My weakness has infected you, I
suppose? I don't wonder at it. I am not often so cowardly; indeed it is
the first time I have broken down so, and I think it will be long before
I disgrace myself so again. Yes, you would help me if you could, just as
I would help you. I know you, boy, and the race you come of. _Bon sang
ne peut mentir._ Whatever happens, I shall never repent having given you
Helen. But I want you to see your line clearly; it isn't all open
country before you. Listen. I am certain 'my lady' has some projects in
her head. She thinks her daughter fair enough to be made the pillar and
prop of our family edifice. (Poor child! that slender neck would break
under half such a burden.) Now, if either of the young ones is to be
turned into an Atlas, surely Max ought to take the part. But he is too
proud, or too indolent, or too fond of his comforts, to give himself any
trouble in the matter. Faith, I like him the better for it. I think I
would rather see the old house go to ruin respectably than propped by
Manchester money-bags. _Que diable!_ Each one to his taste. I don't
imagine that your aunt's visions have assumed shape or substance yet.
The coming son-in-law and his millions are still in cloud-land, where I
hope for all our sakes they will remain. For my own part, if Croesus
were to woo and win Helen to-morrow, I don't see how it would help us
much; besides, it is quite probable that he would have gone away
rejected. If you had never spoken, you cannot suppose that I would have
seen her sacrificed. Still I warn you that her ladyship has some ideas
of the sort floating on her diplomatic brain, so you must not be
disappointed if her consent and concurrence are not quite so heartily
given as mine."

"I have a great respect for Aunt Mildred's sagacity," Wyverne answered
gravely; "whatever policy she might adopt I am sure would be founded on
sound principles, and carried out wisely and well. It is very rash to
run counter to any plan of hers, even if it be in embryo; I doubt if one
ought even to hope for success. My dear uncle, every word you say makes
me feel more keenly how wrongly I acted this unlucky afternoon."

The Squire held out his hand again; the strong, honest grasp tingled
through every fibre of the other's frame, bringing hope and
encouragement with it, like a draught of some rare cordial.

"Alan, I have heard of many rash and wild deeds of yours, never of one
that made you unworthy of your blood or mine. It would be rather too
good if _I_ were to cast mere extravagance in your teeth. I wont hear
any more evil auguries or self-reproaches. My word is passed, and I
shall not take it back again till you or Helen ask me to do so. We will
talk more of your prospects another time. As long as I live you will do
well enough; afterwards--we shall see. Thank God, she is the only child
I have to provide for. Don't be downhearted, boy! The Vavasours of Dene
are a tough, tenacious race, and die hard, if all tales are true; we are
not _aux abois_ yet. 'Vast are the resources of futurity,' as some great
and good man observed; perhaps we shall pull through, after all. At any
rate, we will not be tormented before our time. The thing which is most
on my mind at this moment is--who is to tell this afternoon's work to
'my lady?'"

The Squire's bright blue eyes were glittering with suppressed humour as
he said the last words, merrily, as if he had never heard of such things
as troubles or mortgages. Alan could not help smiling at his uncle's
evident eagerness to be spared the responsibility of ambassador.

"I fancy the worst is known to my poor aunt an hour ago. Helen went
straight to the _boudoir_ when we came in; she wished to tell everything
herself, and immediately. It is the best way. Poor child! I hope she has
had half the success that I have met with; one cannot count on such good
fortune, though."

Vavasour's face was radiant with satisfaction, it was an unspeakable
relief to him to hear that the official communication had been made.

"What a brave girl that is!" he said, with profound admiration; "she has
ten times her father's courage. Alan, confess now, you didn't try to be
first--_there_? Well let us pray for light winds, for we may have to
tack more than once before we fetch the haven where we would be. But as
the sailors say, 'we can't tell what the weather will be till we get
outside,' so--_vogue là galère_! Hark! there goes the dinner-gong; go
and dress directly; of all days in the year this is the last on which to
keep her ladyship waiting."



CHAPTER III.

A "MOTHER OF ENGLAND."


If the Squire's study was the most comfortable room in the Dene, the
prettiest, and to a refined taste the most attractive, without
contradiction, was "my lady's chamber." It was of moderate size, on the
first floor, at an angle of the building; two deep oriels to the south
and east caught every available gleam of sunshine in winter, while in
summer time many cunning devices within and without kept heat and glare
at bay. The walls were hung with dark purple silk, each panel set in a
frame of polished oak; bright borderings and bouquets of flowers
inwoven, prevented the effect from being sombre; the damask of the
furniture, as well as the velvet of the _portieres_ and curtains (these
last almost hidden now in clouds of muslin and lace), matched the
hangings exactly. There was as much of buhl and marqueterie and mosaic
in the room as it could _well_ hold--no more; no appearance of crowding
or redundance of ornament. On each of the panels was one picture, of the
smallest cabinet size, and on three of the tables lay cases of
miniatures, priceless from their extreme rarity or intrinsic beauty; and
all sorts of costly trifles, jewelled, enamelled, and chased, were
scattered about with a studied artistic carelessness. The delicate
_mignardise_ pervading every object around you was very agreeable at
first, and finished by producing the oppressive, unhealthy effect of an
atmosphere overladen with rare perfumes. Such an impression of unreality
was left, that you fancied all the pretty vision would vanish, like a
scene of fairy-land, at the intrusion of any rude, unauthorized mortal,
such as some "mighty hunter," bearing traces of field and flood from cap
to spur. That the hallowed precincts had never been profaned by so
incongruous an apparition since Lady Mildred Vavasour began to reign, it
is unnecessary to say. Her husband came there very seldom; her son,
rather often, when he was at home. With these two exceptions, the
threshold had remained for years inviolate by masculine footstep, as
that of the Taurian Artemis. Few even of her own sex had the _entrée_;
and of these only three or four ventured to penetrate there uninvited.
It was a privilege more difficult to obtain than the gold key of the
_petits appartemens_ at Trianon.

The whole tone and aspect of the _boudoir_ was marvellously in keeping
with the exterior of its mistress. She occupied it on that August
evening, alone, if we might except a Maltese lion-dog, sleeping in lazy
beatitude, half buried in a purple velvet cushion, like a small
snow-ball. It may be as well to say, at once, that this latter
personage, though a very important one in his own sphere, gifted with
remarkable intelligence, and capable of strong attachments, has nothing
on earth to do with the story.

It would be difficult as well as uncourteous to guess at Lady Mildred
Vavasour's precise age; her dark hair has lost perhaps somewhat of its
luxuriance, but little of its glossy sheen; her pale cheek--tinged with
a faint colour (either by nature or art) exactly in the right place--and
white brow, are still polished and smooth as Carrara marble; and her
small, slight, delicate figure, with which the tiniest of hands and feet
harmonize so perfectly, retains its graceful roundness of outline.

Why is it that, after one brief glance--giving the lady credit for all
these advantages--we feel sure that she has advanced already far into
the maturity of womanhood? Perhaps, when the mind has been restless and
the thoughts busy for a certain number of years, those years _will_ not
be dissembled, and, however carefully the exterior may have been
conserved, traces of toil, sensible, if not visible, remain. There is no
short cut to Political Science any more than to Pure Mathematics; not
without labour and anxiety, which must tell hereafter, can their crowns
be won; and Foresight, though certainly the more useful faculty of the
two, is sometimes more wearing than Memory.

Now, in her own line, Lady Mildred Vavasour stood unrivalled; she was
the very Talleyrand of domestic diplomacy. I do not mean to infer that
she was pre-eminent among those Machiavels in miniature, who glide into
supremacy over their own families imperceptibly, and maintain their
position by apparent non-resistance, commanding always, while they seem
to obey. In her own case such cleverness would have been wasted. She no
more dreamt of interfering with any of the Squire's tastes or pursuits
than he did with hers; and was perfectly content with complete freedom
of action, sure of having every whim gratified. Indeed, up to the
present time, her talents had been employed in singularly disinterested
ways. Very, very seldom had she acted with her own advantage, or that of
any one closely connected with her, in view. The position of the
Vavasours was such as never to tempt them to look for aggrandizement;
the Squire represented his county, as a matter of course, but there was
not a particle of ambition in his nature; and her son had always
steadily refused to allow his mother's talents or influence to be
exercised on his behalf. But she had a vast circle of acquaintance, both
male and female, and when any one of these was in a difficulty, he or
she constantly resorted to Lady Mildred, sure of her counsel, if not of
her co-operation. She gave one or both, not in the least because she was
good-natured, but because she liked it. She liked to hold in her little
white hand the threads of a dozen at once of those innocent plots and
conspiracies, which are carried on so satisfactorily beneath the smooth,
smiling surface of this pleasant world of ours. Granting that the means
were trivial, and the end unworthy--it was almost grand to see how her
cool calculation, fertile invention, and dauntless courage, rose up to
battle with difficulty or danger. She loved a complicated affair, and
went into it heart and soul; no one could say how many cases that had
been given up as hopeless, she had carried through auspiciously, with an
exceptional good fortune. With mere politics she meddled very seldom
(though she never sought for a place or promotion for one of her own
favourites, or an adopted _protégé_, without obtaining it), but in her
own circle there scarcely was a marriage made or marred, of which the
result might not have been traced to the secret police of Lady Mildred's
_boudoir_. If she had a _specialité_, it was the knack of utterly
crushing and abolishing--in a pleasant, noiseless way--a dangerous
Detrimental. The victim scarcely ever suspected from what quarter the
arrow came, but often entertained, in after days, a great respect and
regard for the fatal Atalante.

Yes, the work had told even on that calm, well-regulated nature: Lady
Mildred's smile was still perilously fascinating; but a certain covert
subtlety, when you looked closer, half neutralized its power; and the
bright, dark eyes were now and then disagreeably searching and keen. At
such times you could only marvel at the manifest contradiction; with all
the outward and visible signs of youth about her, she looked unnaturally
older than her age.

In all probability, at no one period of her life had she been more
attractive than at the present moment. There was extant a miniature
taken before she was twenty, and the resemblance of that portrait to the
living original was very striking. One charm she certainly never could
have possessed--_La beauté du Diable_.

Now we are on the subject, I wish some one would explain this paradox or
misnomer. Do we take it in a passive sense, and suppose, that if any
emotion of love could fall on "the blasted heart"--like water on molten
iron--it would be stirred by that especial type of loveliness--seen now
so seldom, but remembered so well? It may well be so. _Voe miseris!_
Every other phase of mortal and immortal beauty has ten thousand
representatives in Gehenna, save only _this_. Surely few lost spirits
carry the stamp of innocence on their brows, even so far as the broad
gate with the dreary legend over its door: "Leave hope behind you." Seen
very seldom--only when across the great Gulf, the souls in torment catch
a glimpse of angelic features melting in intense, unavailing pity; but,
perchance, well remembered, for where should freshness and innocence be
found, if not in the faces of the Cherubim? And his punishment would be
incomplete if it were given to the Prince of Hell to forget sights and
sounds familiar to the Son of the Morning.

It is worth while to realize how dwarfed, and trivial, and childish,
appears all tales of human ruin and shame and sorrow, by the side of the
weird primeval tragedy. Well: the brute creation sympathizes with _us_
in our pain; but who are we, that we should presume to pity a fallen
archangel? Truly, pious and right-minded men have done so, in all
simplicity and sincerity. The story of the Perthshire minister is always
quoted among the _Traits of Scotch Humour_; but I am sure the amiable
zealot intended nothing irreverent, and saw nothing grotesque in his
prayer. He had exhausted, you know, his memory and imagination in
interceding not only for his own species and the lower orders of
animals, but for "every green thing upon the earth," beside. He paused
at last and took breath; then he went on--rather diffidently, as if
conscious of treading on perilous ground, but in an accent plaintively
persuasive--

"An' noo, ma freends, let us praigh for the De'il; naebody praighs for
the puir De'il!"

That is not a bad digression--taking it as a digression--from the
boudoir of a _petite maîtresse_ to the bottomless pit. Whatever
connexion may ultimately be established between the two, I am aware that
it is neither usual nor justifiable to place them in such close
proximity.

But here I make my first and last act of contrition for all such
divagations, in season and out of season, past, present, and to come.
Reader of mine! you have always the resource (which I would were
available in society) of banishing your interlocutor when he bores you,
by skipping the paragraph, or throwing the book aside. I may not hope to
instruct you; it is quite enough if your interest and yourself are kept
awake. Whether this object would be promoted by writing "to order," is
more than doubtful. If one's movements are naturally awkward and slow,
they will scarcely gain in grace with the fetters on. Let us not force
our talent, such as it is. Few qualities are more useful or estimable
than that grave pertinacity of purpose which never loses sight for a
moment of the end it has had in view all along. But then, one must
_have_ a purpose to start with; and up to the present point, this volume
is guiltless of any such element of success. It is in the nature of some
to be desultory; and there are heretics who think that the prizes of
Life--let alone those of authorship--would hardly be worth the winning,
if one were bound down under heavy penalties to go on straight to the
goal, never turning aside for refreshment by the way.

_Peccavimus, et peccabimus._ If this literary ship must be shattered on
rocks ahead, we will, at least, make no obeisance to the powers that
have ordained the wreck. O younger son of Telamon! you have spoken well,
if not wisely. The wrath of adverse gods is mighty, and hath prevailed;
but let us die as we have lived--impenitent and self-reliant, without
benefit of Athéne.

It is nearly time, though, to go back to Lady Mildred. She is still
sitting where we left--I am ashamed to say how long ago--in the same
attitude of indolent grace; a very refreshing picture to look upon after
such a sultry day, the ideal of repose and comfortable coolness. No
mortal eye had ever seen "my lady's" cheek unbecomingly flushed, or her
lips blue with cold; it must be confessed that she seldom threw a
chance away in taking care of herself, and had a wholesome dread of the
caprices of our English atmosphere. She had been amusing herself for the
last two hours with one of the paper-covered _novelettes_ which flow in
a stream (happily) perennial from that modest fountain head in the
Burlington Arcade, mollifying our insular manners, and not permitting us
to be brutified. The labour of perusing even this unremittingly, seemed
to be too much for the fair student, for ever and anon the volume would
sink down on her lap, and she would pause for several minutes, musing on
its philosophy--or on graver things--with half-closed eyes.

While she was indulging in one of these reveries or semi-siestas, a
quick, elastic step came down the long corridor. Lady Mildred could not
have been dozing (nobody ever does allow that they have been
sleeping--out of their beds), for she recognised the footfall instantly,
though it brushed the deep-piled carpet so lightly as to have been to
most ears inaudible: simultaneously with the timid knock that seemed to
linger on the panel, her clear quiet voice said--

"Come in, my Helen!"

In these prosaic days of Realism, when Oreads and Undines, and other
daughters of the elements, have become somewhat coy and unattainable, it
would be hard to conjure up a fairer vision than that which now stood
hesitating on the threshold. I will try to give you a faint idea of
Helen Vavasour as she appeared then, in the spring-tide of her
marvellous loveliness.

She had inherited the magnificent stature for which her family had for
centuries been remarkable, united to the excessive refinement of contour
and delicacy of feature which had made "the Dene Beauties"
world-renowned. Her figure, though very slight, betrayed no signs of
fragility, and you guessed that the development that three more years
must bring would make it quite faultless. Her hair was darker than her
mother's by many shades--equally fine and silky, but thrice as
luxuriant; its intense black was relieved by a sheen of deep glossy
blue, such as Loxias may have worshipped in the tresses of the
violet-haired daughter of Pitané. Her complexion is much fairer than is
often found where all the other points are so decidedly a brunette's;
dazzling from its transparent purity, it was never brilliant, except
when some passing emotion deepened the subdued shade of delicate, tender
pink into the fuller rose-tint that lines a rare Indian shell. So with
her eyes--long, large, and velvet-soft, they stole upon you at first
with a languid, dreamy fascination; but you never realized their hidden
treasures till amusement, or love, or anger made them glitter like the
Southern Cross. It was one of those faces bearing even in childhood the
impress of pride and decision, over which half a century may pass
without rendering one line in them harsher or harder.

If you have ever taken up a plain photograph, untouched by the
miniature-painter, of the form and features (for the moment) deemed
fairest of all, you will sympathise with my utter dissatisfaction in
reviewing this abortive attempt at portraiture. The stereoscope brings
out a certain similitude; but what a cold, colourless parody on glorious
reality! That very fixedness of expression--in the original so
perpetually varied--makes it an insult to our incarnate idol.

Long and attentive study, for her own or her friends' benefit, had
taught Lady Mildred to read very fluently the language of the eyes; the
glance of the Expert withdrew their secret from Helen's, during those
few seconds while she stood hesitating in the doorway; and a shy,
conscious happiness glowing round her like a soft halo, made surmise
certainty.

O laughter-loving daughter of Dioné! your divinity is trampled in the
dust, and none worship now at the shrines of Aphrodité, Astarte, or
Ashtaroth; but one feels tempted at times to turn Pagan again, were it
only to believe in your presence and power. Other, and younger, and
fairer faces have borne tokens of having met you in the wood, since your
breath left a freshness and radiance on the swart features of the false
sea-rover, that carried Dido's heart by storm.

Yes, Lady Mildred guessed the truth at once, and all her self control
was needed to repress a sigh of vexation and impatience, which very
nearly escaped her; it bore her through, though, triumphantly. Nothing
could be more placable and propitious than her smile; nothing more
playfully than her gesture, as she beckoned Helen to her side:--

"My darling! what has happened in your ride to agitate you so? I can see
you are not much hurt. Come and make confession instantly."

This was apparently the young lady's intention, for she had evidently
come straight to the boudoir after dismounting; she was still in her
riding-dress, and had only taken off her Spanish hat. While her mother
was speaking she came near with the swift, springy step which made her
inimitable, and knelt down by the low couch, half-concealing her glowing
face and sparkling eyes.

If there is any written manual adapted to such rifle-practice, (I mean
where a young woman has to fire off at her parent a piece of
intelligence particularly important or startling), I fancy, here, it
would run thus--"At the word 'three,' sink down at once on the right
knee, six inches to the right and twelve inches to the rear of the left
heel, and square with the foot, which is to be under the body and
upright"--the great difference being, that the fair recruit is "_not_ to
fix the eye steadfastly on an object in front."

So far, certainly, Helen acted up to the formula provided for her case;
but she had not been much drilled, and was indeed singularly exempt from
most of the little weaknesses, conventionalisms, and _minauderies_ which
are, justly or unjustly, attributed to modern damosels. Natures like
hers affect, as a rule, no more diffidence than they feel, and are
seldom unnecessarily demonstrative, however small and select their
audience and however dramatic the piece they are playing. So, after a
few minutes' silence, she looked up and said, quite quietly and simply--

"Mamma, Alan asked me this afternoon to marry him; and--I love him
dearly."

The two voices were strangely alike in their accent and inflexions; but
the girl's voice, even when, as now, somewhat tremulous and uncertain,
was mellower in its rich cadences, fuller and rounder in its music.

Lady Mildred clasped her daughter's waist, and bent down to kiss her,
repeatedly, with passionate tenderness. When the close embrace was
ended, she lingered yet for a few seconds with her cheek pillowed on
Helen's forehead; during those seconds her features were set, and her
lips tense and rigid; that brief interval of self-indulgence lasted just
so long as it would have taken her to utter the words--"It shall never
be."

Now, mark; the daughter was kneeling at her mother's feet, as she might
have knelt to say the first prayer of infancy; she had just told the
secret which involved her life's hope of happiness--whether wrongly or
rightly founded it matters not; the mother sate there, with a firm, cool
resolve at her heart to crush the hope and frustrate the purpose; and
yet she kissed her child without shivering or shrinking. To our rough
common sense it would seem, that caress more cruel in its falsehood,
more base in its deliberate treachery, never was bestowed since that one
over which angels wept and devils shouted for joy--the kiss given in the
Garden of Gethsemane.

But who are we, that we should criticize the policy of a Mother of
England, cavil at her concessions to expediency, or question the
rectitude of her intentions? They are white-hot Protestants, many of
them, but none the less do they cherish and act upon the good old Jesuit
maxim--"The end justifies the means." Unluckily, sometimes even _their_
sagacity and foresight are baffled in guessing what the end of all will
be. You have read _Aspen Court_, of course? Do you remember Cyprian
Heywood's definition of a parable?--"A falsehood in illustration of
truth." "My lady" affected this convenient figure of speech a good deal;
her first words now were decidedly parabolical.

"My dearest child, you have quite taken my breath away. I cannot tell
yet whether I am sorry or glad to hear this. It comes so very suddenly!"

"Ah, mamma, say at least that you are not angry--with Alan," the soft
voice pleaded.

Lady Mildred did not think it necessary to remain long astounded, being
always averse to unnecessary expenditure of time or trouble. So she
answered, after drawing one or two deep, agitated breaths (wonderfully
well done), with intense gentleness of manner and tone--

"How could I be angry, darling? Next to Max, and yourself, and your
father, I think I love Alan better than anything in the world. He has
been rash and wild, of course; but I believe he is quite good and steady
now. I am sure he will try and make you happy. Every one will exclaim
against your imprudence, and mine; but we will not look forward
despondently. Only you must not be impatient; you _must_ wait and hope.
You don't know as well as I do what difficulties are in the way. Perhaps
I ought to have foreseen what was likely to happen, when you and Alan
were thrown so much together as you have been lately; but I never
dreamt--" she stopped, compressing her lips, as if annoyed that a truth,
for once, was escaping them. "Well--never mind; confess, Helen, you did
not fear that _I_ should oppose your wishes? You know my first object in
life is to see you happy; and I have not often contradicted you, have I,
since you were old enough to have a will of your own?"

I fancy that most damsels, under similar circumstances, would have been
of Miss Vavasour's opinion--"That there never was such a darling
mother." She did not express it very intelligibly, though; and, indeed,
it must be confessed, that the conversation from this point was of a
somewhat incoherent and irrational nature. Feminine example is
miraculously contagious; if the fountain of tears is once unlocked, the
gentle influence of the Naïad will be sure to descend on every womanly
bosom within the circle of its spray. I do not mean to imply that upon
the present occasion there was any profuse weeping; but they got into a
sort of _caressive_ and altogether childish frame of mind--a condition
very unusual with either mother or daughter. It may be questioned, if
the sympathetic weakness displayed by Lady Mildred was altogether
assumed. The most accomplished actresses have sometimes so identified
themselves with their parts, as to ignore audience and foot-lights, and
become natural in real emotion. Five minutes, however, were more than
enough to restore one of the parties to her own calm, calculating self.
Another yet fonder caress told Helen, as plainly as words could have
done, that the audience was ended: as soon as she was alone, Lady
Mildred fell back into her old quiet, musing attitude. But the French
novel was not taken up again; its late reader had a plot, if not a
romance, of her own, to interest her now. Whether the thoughts that
chased one another so rapidly through that busy brain were kindly or
angry, whether the glimpses of the future were gloomy or hopeful--the
smooth, white brow and steady lips betrayed, neither by frown nor smile.



CHAPTER IV.

A WAIF FROM A WRECK.


"Look into a man's Past, if you would understand his Present, or guess
at his Future." So spake some sage, name unknown, but probably
intermediate in date between the Great King and Mr. M. F. Tupper. The
rule is not implicitly to be relied on, but perhaps there is as much of
truth in it as in most apophthegms of proverbial philosophy.

So it may save some time and trouble hereafter, if we sketch briefly now
some of Alan Wyverne's antecedents; for he is to be the chief character
in this story, which has no _hero_, properly so-called, nor heroine
either.

The main facts are very soon told: his twenty-first birthday saw him in
possession of a perfectly unencumbered estate of £12,000 a year, and all
the accumulations that two paragon guardians had toiled to amass during
an unusually long minority; his twenty-eighth dawned on a comparative
pauper.

The last score of centuries have taught us many things; amongst others,
to go down hill with a certain caution and timidity, if not with
sobriety. We never hear now of those great disasters to which the very
vastness of their proportions lent a false grandeur; where a colossal
fortune foundered suddenly, leaving on the world's surface a vortex of
turbulence and terror, such as surrounds the spot where a three-decker
has gone down. The Regent and his _roués_ were wild in their generation,
but they never quite attained the antique magnificence of recklessness.
The expenses of a contested county election fifty years back, would have
shown poorly by the Ædile's balance-sheet, A. C. 65, when Cæsar laughed
to see his last _sestertium_ vanish in the brilliancy of the Circensian
Games. What modern general would carry £20,000 of debt as lightly as he
did half-a-million, when he went out to battle with the Lusitanian? If
we even hear nowadays of a like liability, it is probably in connexion
with a great commercial "smash," involving curious disclosures as to the
capabilities of stamped paper, and the extent of public credulity; but
the interest of such rarely spreads west of Temple-bar. Truth to
say--however moving the tale may be to the unfortunates ruined by the
delinquent, there is little romance to be extracted out of mercantile
atrocities.

Nevertheless, if you only give him time, and don't hurry him beyond his
stride, a dwarf will "go to the dogs" just as easily and surely as a
giant. After our _mesquine_ fashion, that journey is performed so
constantly, that only some peculiarities in Alan's case make it worth
noting at all.

Few men have trodden the road to ruin with such a perfectly smooth and
even pace; there was no rush or hurry about it from beginning to end;
nothing like a crash to attract notice or scandal. He was known to bet
high and play deep; but no one spoke of him at the clubs as having lost
an extraordinary stake on any one night, nor did the chroniclers of the
Turf ever allude to him amongst those "hit hard" on any single event.
_One_ destructive element never showed itself throughout his career. It
must have been gratifying to those much-abused Hetæræ to reflect (do
they ever reflect at all?) that none could charge any one of the
sisterhood with having aided in Wyverne's downfall. Reckless and
extravagant as the son of Clinias, he escaped--at least Timandra. More
than one scruple, probably, helped him to maintain a continence which
soon became so well-known, that the most persevering of feminine fowlers
never thought of laying her snares in his way. Something might be
ascribed to principles learnt at his dead mother's knee, which all the
contagion of Bohemia failed quite to efface--something to a chivalrous
reverence for the sex, which withheld him from deliberately abetting in
its open degradation--something to the pride of race, with which he was
thoroughly imbued. He loved his ancient name too dearly, to see it
dragged through the dust past the statue of Achilles, at the
chariot-wheels of the fairest Phryne of them all. For once--hearing a
story of human folly and frailty, you asked, "_Dove la donna?_" and
waited in vain for a reply.

If the Sirens failed to seduce Wyverne, that was about the only peril or
temptation from which he escaped scathless. Profuse hospitality all the
year round in London, Leicestershire, and at his home in the north, cost
something: a string of ten horses in training (besides yearlings and
untried two-year-olds), which only won when their owner had backed
something else heavily, cost more: backing other men's bills _currente
calamo_, receiving no substantial considerations for so doing, cost most
of all. Alan's bold, careless handwriting was as well known in a certain
branch of commerce as the official signature on the Bank of England's
notes. There was joy in Israel when they saw his autograph: Ezekiel and
Solomon--most cautious of their tribe (those crack bill-discounters are
always lineally descended, it would seem, from some prophet or
king)--smacked their bulbous lips in satisfaction as they clutched the
paper bearing his endorsement: their keen eyes looked three months
forward into futurity, and saw the spoil of the Egyptian secure. Alan's
own resources, though rapidly diminishing, always sufficed his own
wants: but he never tired of paying these disinterested liabilities as
long as his friends could furnish him with any decent excuse for his
doing so: if the defaulter failed in making out even a shadow of a case,
Wyverne still paid, but never consorted with him afterwards. Then the
dark side of his character came out. Generous and kind-hearted to a
fault, he was at times obstinate to relentlessness: slow to take offence
or to suspect intentional injury, he was yet slower in forgiving or
forgetting either: he did not trouble himself to detect the falsehood at
the bottom of any tale of distress, but against imposture carried with a
high hand he set his face as it were a millstone.

Hercules St. Levant (of the Chilian Cuirassiers) would tell you--if he
could be brought to speak coherently on the subject--that he dates his
ruin from the day when he miscalculated the extent of Sir Alan Wyverne's
long-suffering or laziness. Surely some of us can remember that
wonderful Copper Captain--the round, ringing tones tempting you with a
point over the proper odds--the scarfs and waistcoats blinding in their
gorgeousness, so "loud" that you _heard_ them coming all the way up from
the distance post--the supernatural whiskers, whose sable volutes shaded
his broad shoulders like the leaves of a talipat-palm? Hercules was very
successful at first: he must have started with a nominal capital, but he
had plenty of courage, some judgment, and more luck; so, by dint of
industry, and now and then picking up crumbs from the table of those by
whom the "good things" of the turf are shared, he contrived to ruffle it
for awhile with the best of them. Men of mark and high estate would meet
and hold communion with him--as they have done with deeper and darker
villains--on the neutral ground at "The Corner," without caring to
inquire too closely what Cacique had signed his commission, or on what
foughten-fields the rainbow of his ribbons was won. With common prudence
he might have held his own till now. But St. Levant was a buccaneer to
the backbone: he spent his winnings as lavishly as any one of the young
patricians whom he delighted to honour and imitate; and took his ease in
the sunshine, scorning to make the slightest provision for the season of
the rains. It came at last, in an Epsom Summer Meeting. The adverse
Fates had it all their own way there: several of the Captain's
certainties were overturned, and several promising "plants" were
withered in their bud. It was the fourth "day of rebuke and blasphemy,"
and still the battle went hard against the Peruvian plunger. The Oaks
dealt him the _coup de grace_: it was won by an extreme outsider.
Hercules saw the number go up, and staggered out of the enclosure like a
drunken man, with hardly breath enough left to hiss out a curse between
his white lips. "Hecuba" was one of six that Wyverne had taken with him
against the field for an even thousand: her name had never been
mentioned in the betting at the time, and Alan only selected her because
he chanced to know her owner and breeder well.

St. Levant was ruined horse-and-foot, without power or hope of
redemption: that one bet would have pulled him through. Some pleasanter
engagement had kept Wyverne away from The Corner on the "comparing day,"
and with his usual carelessness he had even omitted to send his book
down by other hands: Hercules saw a last desperate chance, and grasped
at it, as drowning men will do. He appeared at the settling with his
well-known betting book (gorgeous, like all his other belongings, in
green morocco and gold,) but Hecuba's name was replaced by the second
favourite's. He chanced to have in his possession a fac-simile of the
original volume, and had copied out, in the interim, every bet it
contained, with this one trifling alteration. The matter came before the
authorities, of course. The discussion that ensued, though stormy (on
one side) was very short and decisive: the swindler's foamy
asseverations were shivered, like spray, on the granite of the other's
calm, contemptuous firmness. The judges did not hesitate long in
pronouncing against St. Levant their sentence of perpetual banishment.
All his piteous petitions addressed to Wyverne in after days to induce
the latter to obtain a mitigation of his punishment, remained absolutely
unanswered. There still survives--a pale, blurred shadow of his former
self--as it were, the _wraith_ of the Great Captain. We see occasionally
a hirsute head rising above the sea of villanous figures and faces that
seethe and surge against the rails of the enclosure: we catch glimpses
of a meteoric waistcoat flashing through the surrounding seediness; and
we hear a voice, thunderous as that of the elder Ajax, dominating the
din of the meaner _mêlée_; but there is no reversal of his doom. The
poor lost spirit must ramp and roar among the "welshers" of the outer
darkness, for the paradise of the Ring is closed to him for evermore.

Everybody--including the two or three friends who might hope to ride his
horses--was sorry for Wyverne when a heavy fall over timber laid him up,
quite early in the season, with a broken arm and collar-bone. The only
pity was, that the fortunate accident should not have happened three
years earlier. The indoor resources of a country-town, where all one's
associates hunt five days a-week at least, are limited. One morning Alan
felt so bored, that the whim seized him to look into his affairs, and
ascertain how he stood with the world: so he went for his solicitor (as
much for the sake of having some one to talk to as anything else), and
went in at business with great patience and determination. The men who
sat with him on the second evening after the lawyer's arrival, thought
Wyverne looking paler and graver than usual, but he listened to their
account of the run with apparently undiminished interest, and
sympathized with his friends' mishaps or successes as cordially as ever.
Only once his lips shook a little as he answered in the negative a
question--"If he felt in much pain?" Yet that morning had been a sore
trial both of brain and nerve. It is not a pleasant time, when you have
to call for the reckoning of ten thousand follies and faults, and to pay
it too--when the bitter _quart d'heure de Rabelais_ is prolonged through
days.

Though they arrived then at a tolerably accurate idea of the state of
Alan's finances, it took months to complete the final arrangements. When
everything in town and country that could well be sold had been disposed
of, Wyverne was left with a life-income of just as many hundreds a-year
as he had started with thousands. But all his personal debts, and
liabilities incurred for others, were paid in full. The only absolute
luxuries that he retained (with the exception of all the presents that
he had ever received) were the two best hunters in his stud, and his
gray Arab, "Maimouna." That residue might have been nearly doubled, if
Alan would have consented to dismantle the Abbey. But he could not help
looking upon its antique furniture and fittings in the light of
heirlooms. He had added little to them when he came into his
inheritance: he took nothing away when he lost it. So the great, grave
mansion still retained its old-fashioned and somewhat faded
magnificence; and few changes, so far, were to be seen there, except
that the grass grew long on the lawns, and the flowers wandered over the
parterres at their own sweet will, and instead of thick reeks of
unctuous smoke, only a thin blue line stole out modestly from two or
three chimneys now and then in the shooting season. The game was still
kept up, and the farmers watched it as jealously and zealously as if
they had been keepers in their landlord's pay.

The sternest Stoic alive could scarcely have fallen into his new
position more naturally, or adapted himself to its requirements more
gracefully, than did that gay, careless Epicurean. If he had any
regrets for the irrevocable Past, he kept them to himself, and never
wearied his friends for their sympathy or compassion; he accused no one
with reference to his ruin; I doubt if he even blamed himself very
severely. There was no more of recklessness in his conduct, than there
was of despondency in his demeanour; but he comported himself exactly as
you would expect to see a man do, of good birth and breeding, and
average steadiness, born to a modest competency. His experience, brief
as it was, might have taught him to be somewhat sceptical as to the
virtues of our human nature, more especially having regard to such
trifles as truth and honesty; but no amount of punishment will beat
wisdom or knowledge into a confirmed dunce or idler. His constitutional
indolence may have had something to say to it; but to the last hour of
his life Alan Wyverne never learnt to be suspicious, or sullen, or
cynical.

To be sure, the world in this case broke through an established rule,
and behaved better to him when he was at the bottom of the wheel than it
had ever done at the culminating point of his fortunes. There seemed to
be a general impression that he had been very badly treated by some
"person or persons unknown," and it became the fashion to compassionate
Wyverne (in his absence) exceedingly. People who in former days met and
parted from him quite indifferently, found out suddenly that they had
always been very fond of him, and contended as to who should attract him
to their house in the hunting or shooting season. The Marquis of
Montserrat, for instance, roused himself from where he lay, surrounded
by every delight of a Mussulman's paradise, in his summer palace by the
Bosphorus, to send a sort of _firmun_, giving Alan powers of life and
death over the keepers and coverts of all his territory marching with
the lands of Wyverne Abbey; an instance of good-nature which was the
more remarkable, inasmuch as the great Absentee not only carries
laziness and selfishness to a pitch of sublimity, but has of late
registered a vow against befriending any one under any circumstances
whatever. This last and rather superfluous hardening process was brought
about in this wise.

Some years ago there appeared suddenly in the firmament of fashion a
little star; no one knew whence it came--though it was supposed to have
risen in the East; and when, after twinkling brightly for a brief space,
it shot down into utter darkness, no one cared to ask whither it went.
Mr. Richardson had advanced just so far in intimacy with the magnates of
the land that they began to call him "Tom" (his Christian name was
Walter), when the crash came, and he subsided into nothingness. He lived
upon that recollection, and little else, for the remainder of his days.
Yet one chance was given him. Wandering about the Continent, he met the
Marquis of Montserrat. The mighty golden Crater and the poor shattered
Amphora had once floated side by side, for a league or two, down the
same stream. After a _tête-à-tête_ dinner (the _cótelettes à la
Pompadour_ were a success), old recollections, or his own Clos Vougeot,
made the peer's heart warm, and he bethought himself how he might serve
the unlucky pauper. At last he said,

"Tom, there is a regular establishment at Grandmanoir, and there always
will be in my time, though I never mean to see it again. Go and live
there; you'll be more comfortable than in lodgings, and save rent and
firing besides. Make yourself quite at home; slay the venison; eat the
fruit of the vine, and drink the juice thereof (the cellar ought to be
well filled); and grow as fat as Jeshurun, if you like. I only insist on
one thing. Whether matters are going on well or ill in the house or out
of it--don't bother _me_ about them. I don't want to hear a word on the
subject. Is it settled so?"

You may fancy Tom Richardson's profuse thanks and his great joy and
gladness at finding himself chatelain of Grandmanoir. The _valetaille_
treated him at first with no small kindness (he was a meek little man,
averse to giving unnecessary trouble), and for some months all went
merrily. But before a year had passed there began to dawn on the
stranger's mind suspicions, which soon changed into certainties. There
existed at Grandmanoir the most comprehensive and consistent system of
robbery that could well be conceived. It would have been harder to find
one honest menial there than ten saints in a City of the Plain.
Everybody was in it, from the agent and house-steward, who plundered _en
prince_, down to the scullion (fat, but _not_ foolish), who peculated
_en paysanne_. There was commercial blood in Tom Richardson's veins, and
the sight of these enormous misdeeds vexed his righteous soul
exceedingly. One day he could withhold himself no longer, but sat down
in a fury and wrote,

"My dear lord,--In spite of your prohibition, I feel it my duty," &c.

And so went through all the disagreeable details regularly. The reply
came by return of post, though not exactly in the shape that he
expected. The steward came in with scant ceremony, an evil smile on his
face (he probably guessed at the truth), charged with his lord's
commands that the visitor should quit Grandmanoir before sunset and
never return there. Thus rudely was broken the last of poor Tom's golden
dreams. The Great Marquis, when the circumstances were alluded to, never
could be brought to see any harshness in his own conduct, but spoke of
his _protégé's_ rather plaintively as "an instance of human ingratitude
that he was really not prepared for." He did not give the species many
chances of surprising him in _that_ way again.

If the chiefs of his tribe were ready to comfort and cherish the
disabled "brave," now that he could no longer put on paint and plume,
and go forth with them on the "war-trail," be sure that the matrons and
maidens were yet more active and demonstrative in sympathy. There must
be extraordinarily bad features in the case of distress that fails to
secure feminine compassion; except in a matrimonial point of view, our
sisters rarely consider a man deteriorated because he is ruined. Though
he was a general favourite in his set, Wyverne possessed many more real
friends of the other sex than of his own. If there is anything in
reciprocity, it was only fair that it should be so. Alan's reverence and
affection for Womanhood in the abstract were so intense and sincere, as
to be almost independent of individual attributes. His companion for the
moment might be the homeliest, humblest, least attractive female you can
conceive; but with the first word his tone and manner would change and
soften in a way that she could not but perceive, even if she did not
appreciate it. Most of them _did_ appreciate it, though, and this was
the secret of his invariable and proverbial success. Wyverne could like
a woman honestly, and let her know it, without a thought of love, and
could always render courtesy where admiration, or even respect,
unfortunately, were out of the question. However good the sport might be
in other ways, he considered the day comparatively lost in which the
feminine element was wanting. While his comrades were resting for an
hour before dinner--dead beat with seven hours' hard stalking in the
corries of Benmac-Dhui--Alan would be found loitering about the door of
the chief keeper's bothy, carrying on, under extreme difficulties of
dialect, a flirtation on first principles with his orange-haired
daughter. He seemed to derive some refreshment from the process, though
the absence of a beard, and the (occasional) presence of a petticoat,
were about the only distinctive characteristics of her sex that the
robust Oread could boast of. When the season was at the flood, he would
spend hours of an afternoon in the quiet twilight of a boudoir in
Mayfair, by the side of an invalid's sofa. Sooth to say, that room held
no ordinary attractions. Lady Rutherglen had been a famous beauty in the
Waterloo year; and though long illness had somewhat sharpened her
delicate features, she still retained the low sweet voice and winning
manner which had made wild work with the heart of the Great Czar (the
imperial wooing was utterly wasted, for the witty, wayward Countess
could guard her honour as well as the stupidest of Pamelas); there was
hardly a wrinkle on the little white hand, and the lovely silver hair
looked softer and silkier now than it had ever done in its golden prime.

Sad and strange shapes of sin and sorrow cross our path sometimes, as we
walk home from club or ball through the early morning. Saddest, perhaps,
and strangest of all, is the spectacle of one of God's creatures,
unsexed and deformed by passion and fiery liquor, struggling in blind
undiscriminating rage, and shrieking out defiance alike of friends and
foes. The Menad ceased to be romantic when the Great Pan died. Erigone
may be magnificent on canvas, but even Béranger failed in making her
attractive on paper: in flesh and blood she is simply repellent. Public
sympathy would side rather with Pentheus nowadays than with his cruelly
convivial mother; and we hold the disguise of drink to be the least
becoming of all Myrrha's masquerades. Such a sight affected Wyverne with
a disgust and pain that few men could have fully appreciated; but he
rarely would pass by without an attempt at mediation. They say that his
kind, gentle voice was almost magical in its soothing power. The
exasperated guardian of the night would relax the roughness of his
grasp; and the "strayed reveller" would subside from shrill fury into
murmurs placable and plaintive, yielding, in spite of the devil that
possessed her, to the charm of his cordial compassion and invincible
courtesy.

All things considered, womankind had rather a better reason for petting
Alan than could be given for most of their whims. When his resources
were almost unlimited, he was always so perfectly regardless of time and
trouble and cost in endeavouring to gratify even their unexpressed
wishes, that it was no wonder if, when the positions were reversed, he
began to reap his reward, and found out that he had laid up treasure
against the time of need.

I have said more than enough to give you some insight into a character
in which the elements of hardness and ductility, passionate impulse and
consummate coolness, recklessness and self-control, were strangely
mingled, like the gold, brass, iron, and clay in the frame of the giant
Image that stood beside the prophet in his trance, on the banks of "the
great river Hiddekel."

With all his faults and failings, Hubert Vavasour would have chosen him
out of broad England for a son-in-law. Lady Mildred thought that such a
bridal dress would become her daughter worse than a winding-sheet.

Which of the two was right? Probably neither. There is little wisdom in
extremes.



CHAPTER V.

THE GIFTS OF A GREEK.


When Helen came into the cedar drawing-room (the place of assembly
before dinner) she found her father alone. His face was rather
thoughtful and grave, but it brightened as she came quickly to his side,
and nothing but intense love and tenderness remained, when she rested
her clasped hands on his shoulder, and looked up at him with a deepened
rose colour on her cheek, and a question in her great, earnest eyes. If
she had dreaded the meeting, all fear would have vanished even before
the strong, true arm circled her waist, and the kind, honest voice that
had never yet lied to man or woman murmured "God bless you, my own
darling!" Helen felt happier and safer then than when she rose from
receiving her mother's more elaborate caress and benediction.

Nothing, surely, can be more natural or justifiable under such
circumstances than a paternal embrace; therefore there was no particular
reason for those two starting apart, with rather a guilty and
conscience-stricken expression of countenance, when the door opened, and
Lady Mildred glided in with the even noiseless step and languid grace
that all her friends knew so well, and some admired so much. The
appearance of things did not greatly please her, neither did it trouble
her much. She had a high opinion of her own resources, and a very poor
one of the talents against which she meant to contend; so she regarded
the signs of coalition before her with the same contemptuous
indifference that a minister (with a safe majority) would display, when
the opposition threatens a division, or that a consummate
billiard-player would feel, when his antagonist (to whom he gives ten
points under the proper odds) makes a grand but unproductive fluke.

As a rule, unless her adversary was extraordinarily skilful or vicious,
that accomplished duellist preferred _taking_ his fire; so on this
occasion Hubert Vavasour had to speak first. He came to time gallantly,
though rather nervously.

"You have heard what these foolish children have been doing and saying
this afternoon, mamma? I suppose they ought to be scolded or sent to bed
supperless, or otherwise chastised; but I cannot play the stern father,
and you don't look much like Mother Hubbard. _We_ were foolish and
childish once, Mildred; surely you remember?"

If his own life or fortunes had been at stake, there would not have been
half such pitiful pleading in his eyes and his tone.

Lady Mildred's memory was unusually retentive, but it did not accuse her
of any such weakness. Her imagination must have been tasked before she
could have pleaded guilty; nevertheless she called up a little conscious
look with admirable success, and smiled with infinite sweetness. Perhaps
there was the faintest sarcastic inflexion in the first few words of her
reply, but it needed a sharper ear to detect it than either her husband
or daughter owned.

"Dear Hubert, you are growing romantic yourself again, or you would
scarcely call Alan a child. If he is one he is very wise for his years.
But on the principle of love levelling everything, I suppose all ages
are the same when people forget to be prudent. Of course it was a great
surprise to me. I can hardly realize it yet; but--has not Helen told
you? I _do_ approve more than I ought to do, and I hope and pray that
good may come of it to both of them. I love Alan nearly as well as I do
my own Helen, and she and you know how dearly that is."

She wound her arm round her daughter's waist as she spoke, and drew her
close till the two soft cheeks met. It was the prettiest _pose_ you
can fancy--nothing theatrical or affected about it--enough of
tender _abandon_ to satisfy the most fastidious critic of
attitudes--beautifully maternal without being "gushingly" demonstrative;
but not a hair in "my lady's" careful braids was ruffled, nor a fold in
her perfect dress disarranged. The embrace was still in progress, when
the door opened again and Alan Wyverne joined them, only preceding by a
few seconds the announcement of dinner. It is just possible that the
caress might have ended more abruptly, if one ear in the cedar
drawing-room had not been quick enough to distinguish his footsteps from
that of the Chief Butler--a portly man, with a grand and goodly
presence, in his gait sedate and solemn--who ever bore himself with the
decent dignity befitting one long in authority, conscious of virtue, and
weighing seventeen stone.

Nevertheless Lady Mildred's knowledge of her nephew's character made her
aware that it would not answer to try with him the line of strategy
which might succeed with her husband and daughter. It was very unlikely
that he would be taken in by the feint of unconditional surrender. Alan
had not devoted himself to the society of womankind for so many years
without acquiring a certain insight into their charming wiles. It was
very easy to persuade, but wonderfully difficult to delude him. She did
not like him the worse for that; indeed she only spoke the truth when
she said he was one of her chief favourites. Under any other
circumstances she would have grudged neither time nor trouble to serve
him, either by gratifying his wishes or advancing his fortunes, and
perhaps really regretted the stern political necessity which made it an
imperative duty to foil him if possible. Her game now was the
temporising one--to treat, but under protest. She looked up once in
Alan's face as she leant on his arm on their way to the dining-room.
That glance was meant to combine affection with a slight tinge of
reproach, but a gleam of covert amusement in her eyes almost spoilt the
intended effect. Lady Mildred had a strong sense of humour, and, after
the first vexation was over, she could not help laughing at her own
carelessness and want of prevision. The fact was, she believed Wyverne
capable of any amount of flirtation with any creature wearing a kirtle;
but, with regard to serious matrimonial intentions, she had held him
safe as if he had been vowed to celibacy; in default of a better, she
would have allowed him on an emergency to play chaperon to Helen. Lo,
the sheep-dog not only proved faithless to his trust, but was trying to
make off with the flower of the flock, leaving its mistress to
sing--with the "lass of the Cowdenknowes"--

    Ere he had taken the lamb he did,
    I had lieve he had taken them a'.

They were rather a quiet quartette at dinner. Helen was by no means
sentimental, nor did she think it the least necessary to be nervous,
even under the peculiar circumstances; her colour, perhaps, deepened
occasionally by a shade or two, without any obvious reason, and the long
shadowing lashes swept down over her eyes more frequently than usual, as
if desirous of veiling their extraordinary brilliancy; beyond these,
there were no outward and visible signs of perturbation, past or
present; her accomplice's face was a study for its perfect innocence and
calmness. Nevertheless, neither was quite equal to the effort of
discussing utterly uninteresting subjects quite unconcernedly; both had
a good deal to think of, and _one_ had a good deal to prepare for.
Hubert Vavasour was cheerful and happy enough, apparently, but he only
talked by fits and starts; so that it devolved on "my lady" to defray
the expenses of the conversation. She performed her part with infinite
tact and delicacy; it was only the fact of her so rarely taking any
trouble of the sort in a strictly domestic circle (she thought it quite
enough, there, to submit to be amused), that caused the effort to be
observable.

It would be just as easy to make a dam-head of sand water-tight, as to
prevent the knowledge of an event very interesting to one of its members
percolating through a large household within a few hours after it has
happened. You may not see the precise spot where the water soaks
through, and you may never discover the precise channel by which the
intelligence is circulating; but there is the fact, and a very provoking
one too, sometimes. It is unnecessary to say that the probable
engagement of the cousins formed the prominent subject of discussion
that night in the steward's room, though of the circumstances of the
_fiançailles_ everybody was profoundly ignorant. Of course, Allan could
not be closeted with his uncle, and Helen with her mother, immediately
after returning from a _tête-à-tête_ ride, without the domestics drawing
their own conclusions--to say nothing of the traces of emotion which,
perhaps, even that haughty demoiselle failed to dissemble from the
quick-witted Pauline.

The Chief Butler (before alluded to) during a quarter of a century's
servitude in the family had acquired, besides a comfortable competence
and considerable corpulence, a certain astrological talent with regard
to the signs of the times showing themselves within his limited horizon.
He was faithful, too, after his fashion; but--loving his master
much--honoured his mistress more, and was ever especially careful to
ascertain how the wind blew from _that_ quarter. He was wont to preside
over his little parliament like Zeus over the Olympian conclave;
hearkening to, encouraging, and, if need were, controlling the opinions
of the minor deities; on such occasions his words were few, but full of
weight and wisdom. He waited now till, after long discussion, the
majority decided that, "it would be a very nice match, and suitable
everyways" (a feminine voice remarking "What did it matter about
fortune? Sir Alan was good enough for a duchess"); then, slowly and
solemnly, said the portly Thunderer:

    [Greek: ôs ephath', hoi d' ara pantes akên egenonto siôpê
    Mython agassamenoi mala gar kraterôs agoreusen.]

"It may be a match, and it mayn't be a match. I've nothing to say
against Sir Allan, and I wish him well; but there'll be some curious
games up, or I'm mistaken. I doubt my lady ain't altogether pleased
about it--she was so uncommon pleasant at dinner!"

According to one proverb, "No man is a hero to his own valet;" another
tells us, "Bystanders see most of the game." Combining these two, we may
guess how it is that the deepest politicians of private life do not
always succeed in blinding the eyes of their own domestics, however
great an interest they may have in doing so. Perhaps a rash and quite
unfounded contempt for the auricular and mental capacities of a most
intelligent class may sometimes help to throw them off their guard;
though the proudest _lionne_ of our democratic day would hardly care to
emulate the cynicism of that exalted dame (she was nearly allied to the
Great Monarch) who, when discovered in her bath receiving her chocolate
from the hands of a gigantic lacquey, replied to her friend's
remonstrances--"Et tu appelles _ça_ un homme?"

The Squire of Dene was not so clear-sighted as his major-domo: indeed,
that pleasant habit of contemplating things in general through roseate
medium is apt to lead one into errors with regard to objects distant or
near. He thought the aspect of affairs decidedly favourable; so, when
they were alone again, he looked across the table at Wyverne with a
smile full of hope and intelligence--draining at the same time his first
beaker of claret with a gusto not entirely to be ascribed to the flavour
of the rare '34.

"I drink to our castle in Spain," he said; "it seems to me the first
stone has been laid auspiciously."

The other filled a bumper very slowly and drained it deliberately,
before he replied. Surely it was more that curious presentiment of some
counterbalancing evil in the dim background, which so often accompanies
great and unexpected happiness, than any intuitive knowledge of the real
state of things, which prompted the half-sigh--not smothered so soon but
that Vavasour's ear caught it 'flying.'

"It is almost too good to be true, Uncle Hubert. I'm modest about my own
merits; and I think I know pretty well by this time how much luck I
ought to expect. Would it not be wrong to reckon on winning such a prize
as that, without some trouble, and toil, and anxiety? I confess I don't
like these very 'gay' mornings; the clouds are strangely apt to gather
before noon, and one often gets drenched before sunset."

During the short interval that had elapsed since the first confidence
was made, the Squire had signed in his own mind a treaty with his
nephew, offensive and defensive; he had identified himself so thoroughly
with the latter's interests, that it provoked him a good deal now to
meet with something like despondency; he had counted on an exhilaration
at least equal to his own.

"Your poetical vein fails you, Alan; you are scarcely so happy in your
similes as you were three hours ago. That's rather a threadbare one, and
certainly not worth of the occasion; it isn't true, either, as you would
find if your habits were more matutinal. I don't think you know much
about your own merits, or about 'my lady's' intentions; perhaps you do
injustice to both. But--simply to gratify you--we will suppose the
worst; suppose that she is hostile, and only hiding her game. Well, I
believe there is such a thing as paternal authority, though mine has
been in abeyance ever since Max was born: I think I should be equal to
exercising it if we came to extremities. When all one's other
possessions are encumbered, there would be a certain satisfaction in
disposing of a daughter. I'm not aware that any one holds a mortgage on
Helen."

Now Hubert Vavasour spoke in perfect sincerity and singleness of heart,
when he thus purposed to assert a suzerainty quite as unreal as the
kingdom of Jerusalem or the bishopric of Westminster. His chances of
success in such a reactionary movement would have been about equal to
those of a modern French proprietor who, at the marriage of one of his
tenants, should attempt to revive those curious seignorial rights, used
or abused four centuries ago by Giles de Retz and his compeers. Alan
could not but admire the audacity of the resolve; but his sense of the
absurd was touched when he reflected on the utter impossibility of its
accomplishment. Perhaps this last feeling helped to dispel the gloom
which had gathered on his face; at any rate, his smile was gay enough
now to satisfy his sanguine confederate.

"I should like to know the man, Uncle Hubert," he said, "who would
persist in being suspicious or misanthropical after talking to you for
ten minutes. _I_ am not such a natural curiosity. 'Sufficient for the
day is the evil thereof:' that's the only sound and remunerative
philosophy, after all. There has been nothing but good in this day; so I
don't know what ungracious or ungrateful devil possessed me: but you
have fairly exorcised him. Let us do as our fathers did--burn our
galleys, advance our gonfalon, and cry--'_Dex nous aide!_'"

"That's more like the old form," Vavasour replied; "say no more about it
now. The claret stands with you; don't linger over it to-night, I fancy
we are waited for."

Wyverne's first glance on entering the drawing-room searched for his
cousin; he was rather relieved than otherwise at not finding her there;
he felt that the difficulties of the next half hour were best
encountered alone. Lady Mildred was reclining on her usual sofa; close
to it, and just within easy ear-shot of the cushion supporting her head,
was placed a very low and luxurious arm-chair. "My lady" was ever
considerate as to the personal comfort of her victims, and took especial
care that they should not be galled by the ropes that bound them to the
stake; acting, I suppose, on the same benevolent principle which prompts
the Spaniard to deny nothing to those who must die by the garotte on the
morrow.

The proximity was ominous, and far too significant to be unintentional.
The instant Alan saw that chair, he guessed for what use it was
destined, not without a slight apprehensive thrill. Just so may some
forlorn Scottish damsel of the last century, whose flaxen locks snood
might never braid again, have shivered in the cold white penance-sheet,
recognizing the awful Stool on which she was to "dree her doom."
Nevertheless, he accepted the position very gallantly and gracefully,
sinking down easily into the _causeuse_ and nestling comfortably into
its cushions, without any affectation of eagerness or betrayal of
reluctance. As he took up Lady Mildred's little soft hand and kissed it,
his natural caressing manner was tempered by a shade of old-fashioned
courtesy; and even that calm _intrigante_ for the moment was not exempt
from the influence of a dangerous fascination. Do not, however, do her
the injustice to suppose that she once relented in her set purpose, or
faltered one whit in its execution.

It would savour somewhat of repetition, and simply bore you, if all the
conversation that ensued were given in detail. "My lady's" line was
perfect frankness and candour. She alluded pleasantly to the great
matrimonial fortunes that she had projected for Helen, and
confessed--pleasantly, too--her conviction that the alliance now
contemplated was perfectly imprudent, and in a worldly point of view
altogether undesirable; she dilated rather more at length on the
affection for Alan, indulgence to Helen, &c. &c., which induced the
parents to overlook all such objections, and to give their conditional
consent; but even on this point she was not oratorical or prosy.
Nevertheless her hearer was quite aware that there was some more serious
obstacle kept in the background; all these preliminary observations were
so many shots to try the distance; the battery did not take him by
surprise when it opened in earnest.

"Alan, I know it must bore you, now that Helen has come down stairs, to
be obliged to listen to _Madame Mère_; it is very good of you not to
show it: be patient a little longer. I must make you look at one side of
the question that has escaped you, so far, I think; it is so important
to the happiness of both of you that you should see your way clearly. I
am not much afraid of your getting into difficulties again, your lesson
has been sharp enough to cure you of extravagance; but there are
embarrassments worse than any financial ones, which are only tiresome
and annoying, after all. My dear nephew--has it occurred to you yet,
that in changing your _vie de garçon_, you will have to economize in
more ways than one, and wear some chains, though they may be light and
silken?"

"I've hardly had time to realize the position, Aunt Mildred," Wyverne
answered, "but I am conscious of a perfect flower-show of good
resolutions, budding and blossoming already. While I was dressing, I was
considering how I could best get rid of my hunters, and I have almost
decided where to place them."

"You are too eager in beginning self-denial," Lady Mildred said;
"perhaps it will not be necessary to part with your horses _this_
season. But you must settle your future establishment with Helen and
your uncle. _I_ was thinking of some other favourite pursuits of
yours--of handsomer and more dangerous creatures than Red Lancer--though
I suppose he is a picture of a horse, and it always makes me shiver to
see him rear. Yon may be angry with me, and call me prudish or
puritanical if you like; but I _must_ say it. Alan--do you know that I
consider you the most confirmed and incorrigible flirt of my
acquaintance?"

To apply to the speaker either of the two epithets she deprecated would
have been simply impossible. Her bright eyes sparkled with a malicious
amusement and gay triumph, as she marked the effect of her words in the
quaint look of contrition mingled with perplexity which overspread
Wyverne's face--usually so imperturbable. For once in his life, he felt
fairly at a loss for a reply. Those general accusations are remarkably
hard to meet, even when one is conscious of innocence; but woe to the
respondent, if the faintest shadow of self-conviction hangs over his
guilty head! The adverse advocate sees the weak point in a moment, and
bears down on his victim with the full flood of indignant eloquence,
exulting in a verdict already secured.

On this occasion, however, Lady Mildred did not seem inclined to press
her advantage; she interrupted Alan's attempt at a disclaimer, before
his embarrassment could become painful.

"Don't look so dreadfully penitent: you make me laugh when I am quite
determined to be grave. I did not mean to impute to you any dark
criminality. Up to the present time, perhaps, that general devotion has
been rather useful in keeping you out of serious scrapes: you certainly
have been singularly fortunate in that way--or wonderfully discreet.
Besides, I don't mean to lecture you: it is a peculiarity in Helen's
character, not in yours, that makes me give you this warning. I suppose
you have guessed that she is capable of strong attachments; but you have
no idea how exacting she is of undivided love in return. She has only
had friendships (and very few of these) to deal with so far: but I
remember her fretting for days, because her favourite governess would
not give up corresponding with some school friend whom Helen had never
seen, but had magnified into a rival. It is no use disguising the truth
from you, when I cannot disguise it from myself, much as I love my pet.
_You_ would not like her to be faultless? Helen is not captious or
suspicious; but she is absurdly jealous, sometimes. I cannot conceive
how she learnt to be so: she certainly did not inherit the weakness
from her father or me. I believe she would begin to hate a dog or a
horse, if you made it too great a favourite; and words or looks of
yours--perhaps quite innocent and meaningless--might make her more
miserable than I can bear to think of. Dear Alan, it tires me more to
sermonize, than it bores you to be forced to listen; but what would you
have? If a mother has any duties at all, it must be one of them to speak
when danger threatens her own child and another whom she loves almost as
dearly."

A peculiarity of "my lady's" _parables_ was, that not only were they
always plausible and probable, but they generally contained an element
of truth and a slight foundation of fact: it made the deception more
dangerous, because more difficult to detect. Really scientific coiners
do not grudge a certain expense of pure silver to mix with the base
metal: it adds so much sharpness to the outline and clearness to the
ring.

So, though Alan had never till this moment heard of that defect in his
fair cousin's character, he was by no means inclined to disbelieve
entirely in its existence now; simply because he knew his aunt too well
to suppose that she would venture upon an utter fiction which would
refute itself in a very short time. Most men would be somewhat
disquieted by the revelation of a phase in their _fiancée's_ disposition
which is likely to interfere materially with domestic comfort and peace:
but it troubled Wyverne wonderfully little. Whatever her mother might
say or insinuate, he could not believe that the proud, beautiful eyes
would ever condescend to show signs of unworthy or vulgar passions. He
knew that Helen was too frank and impetuous to keep a suspicion
concealed for half-an-hour; and he felt that he could rely on himself
for not giving her serious cause of uneasiness. It was rather a
conviction that he was losing ground every moment, slowly but surely, as
his adversary's game developed itself, that made his face very grave as
he answered, though he was calm and self-possessed again as ever--

"You don't expect me to be so conceited as to allow all you implicate,
Aunt Mildred? Still, I fear I cannot deny that I have found many of your
sex very charming, and that I have not always refrained from confiding
the fact to the parties most interested in hearing it. (I rather pride
myself on that circumlocution!) But, you know, I was never bound over to
keep the peace till now. I think I can give fair securities, though not
very substantial ones. Remember, I pledge all my hopes of happiness--of
happiness greater than I ever dreamt would fall in my way. I don't think
I should risk them lightly. I cannot tell _when_ I began to love Helen;
but I know that for months past the temptation has been growing stronger
which vanquished me to-day: for months past it has made me proud to
compare her with all the women I have ever admired (you say, Aunt
Mildred, their name is legion), and to feel that no one could stand the
comparison for an instant. _That_ ought to be a safeguard, surely,
against other enchantments? I can hardly fancy Helen playing Zara; yet,
if the whim should seize her, I think it would be easy to prove to her
that the part did not suit her at all. It is not my way to be prodigal
of professions; but I am certain of one thing; there is no imaginable
friendship or acquaintance--past, present, or to come--that I would not
give up to spare that child ten minutes' unhappiness; and I should not
call it a sacrifice. You are right to be distrustful when so much is at
stake; but, on my faith and honour, _I_ have no fears."

The clear dark eyes were fastened on Lady Mildred's inscrutable face
very earnestly, as if beseeching that at least truth might be answered
by truth. The trained glance of that great diplomatist did not care to
meet the challenge; it must needs have quailed. I would not affirm that
a momentary compunction did not assail her just then, while she did
justice, in thought, to the kind, generous nature of the man she had
determined to betray. It behoves the historian to be impartial, and not
to attribute an ideal perfection even to his pet politician. The Prince
of Benevento himself might be pardoned for indulging in a brief
self-reproach, after maligning his own daughter and lying to her
accepted lover, within the same half-hour. When Lady Mildred spoke
again, her voice, always low and musical, was unusually gentle and
subdued.

"I am not so unkind or unjust as you seem to think, Alan. I do believe
thoroughly in your sincerity now, and I am sure you will try your very
utmost at all times to make Helen happy. I don't mean to say that it
will be necessary to set a watch on your lips, and measure out the
common attentions of civilized life by the phrase: the constraint would
be too absurdly evident, if _you_ were to become formal. Nor can I
suggest, at this moment, any one acquaintance that it would be better
you should sacrifice: your own good sense will tell you when and where
to be careful and guarded. But I do wish that both you and Helen should
try how far you are suited to each other, before you take the one step
in life which cannot be recalled. Remember how very young she is. You
cannot call me unreasonable if I ask one year's delay before we fix the
day for your marriage?"

It came at last--that cunning thrust under the guard, impossible to
evade, difficult to parry, which the fair gladiator had been meditating
from the very outset of her graceful sword-play: all the feints of
"breaking ground" had no end or object but this. At those last words
Wyverne set his lips slightly, and drew himself together with the
involuntary movement which is--_not_ shrinking, just as a fencer might
do touched sharply in mid chest by his opponent's foil. Twelve
months--not a long delay, surely--scarcely more than would be required
to complete the settlements, _trousseaux_, and other preliminaries for
some matches that we wot of, especially if a great house is to be swept
and garnished, before the bride is brought home. Alan might have thought
about some such preparations years ago; now--he only thought that,
whatever forces Lady Mildred might have in reserve would all be
marshalled in their place before half the probationary year had passed.

But her position was perfectly safe and unassailable. When a prospective
mother-in-law consents to ignore a suitor's social and financial
disadvantages, he cannot well quarrel with her for endeavouring to make
sure that the damsel's affections are not morally misplaced: of course
her domestic prospects ought to be bright, in proportion as her worldly
ones are gloomy. The aspirant may have a private surmise, amounting
almost to a certainty, that he is being unfairly dealt with. He may
murmur to himself that, if he had been a marquis or a millionaire, the
maternal scruples would have been mute; but it would show sad lack of
wisdom to express such feelings aloud. If the case were to come on for
trial, no judge or jury in England would give the plaintiff a verdict.
He would not only lose his cause, but get "committed for contempt of
court," and incur all sorts of vague pains and penalties, besides being
held up as a phenomenon of ingratitude, and a warning to his fellows for
the remainder of his natural life. Most men who come to grief under such
circumstances will find their position disagreeable enough, even without
the perpetual punishment of the pillory.

Yes, reason, if not right, was on "my lady's" side; and she was
perfectly aware of her advantage; for her eyes met Wyverne's steadily
enough now as she waited for his reply.

The latter had reckoned so fully on meeting with opposition somewhere in
this quarter, that it is doubtful if he was exactly disappointed at the
turn the conversation had lately taken; though perhaps, as a matter of
taste, he would have preferred more overt antagonism and obstacles more
tangible to grapple with. At any rate, there was not a trace of
sullenness or vexation in his manner when he spoke.

"I should have thought it unreasonable if you had made my probation as
long as Jacob's, Aunt Mildred; simply because the span of life is
greatly contracted since the patriarchal times, and everything ought to
go by comparison. It would not so much matter to Helen; for, as you
say, she _is_ very young: she will only be in the prime of her beauty
when my hair is grey. But I confess, I should like to reap the reward of
patience before I pass middle-age. Men seem to appreciate so few things
_then_, that I doubt if one would even enjoy domestic happiness
thoroughly. No; I don't think you at all exacting or over-cautious; and
I will bide my time with a tranquillity that shall be edifying. I never
found a year very long yet, and I shall have so much to do and to think
of during the present one that I shall have no time to be discontented."

Lady Mildred smiled on the speaker sweetly and gratefully, but the keen,
anxious, _business-like_ look still lingered in her eyes.

"Thank you so very much, dear Alan," she whispered, "you have behaved
perfectly throughout, just as I expected you would" (she spoke the
truth, there). "You will promise me, then, that the day of your marriage
shall not be actually fixed till the year has past? You know your uncle
is rather impetuous, and not very prudent; I should not wonder if he
were to try to precipitate matters, and that would involve discussions.
Now I never could bear discussions, even when my nerves were stronger
than they are; I think they grow worse every day. If _you_ promise, I
shall have nothing of this sort to fear. You will not refuse me this,
because it looks like a selfish request?"

I have the pleasure of knowing very slightly a Companion of the Order of
Valour, who carried the colours of his regiment at the Alma--it was his
"baptism of fire." At the most critical moment of the day, when the
troops were struggling desperately up "the terrible hill side," somewhat
disordered by the vineyards and broken ground; when the Guards were
reeling and staggering under the deadly hail that beat right in their
faces; the man I speak of turned to the comrade nearest to him and
remarked:

"Do you suppose they _always_ shoot as fast as this, Charley? I dare say
it's the correct thing, though."

They say his manner was as listless and unconcerned as usual, with just
a shade of diffidence and doubt, as if he had been consulting a
diplomatic friend on some point of etiquette at a foreign court. I have
the happiness of knowing very well an officer in the sister service who
has received a medal scarcely less glorious, for rescuing a sailor from
drowning in the Indian Sea. They had had a continuance of bad weather,
and worse was coming up all round; great lead-coloured billows weltered
and heaved under the lee--foam-wreaths breaking here and there, to show
where the strong ship had cloven a path through the sullen surges; there
was the chance, too, of encountering one of two sharks which had been
haunting them for days; but I have heard that on Cis Hazelwood's face
when he went over the bulwarks, there was the same expression of cheery
confidence as it might have worn when he was diving for eggs at The
Weirs.

Now it is fair to presume, that both these men were endowed with courage
and coolness to an exceptional degree; but I very much doubt if, in
perfect exemption from moral and physical fear, and in contempt for
danger either in this world or the next (if the said peril stood in her
path), Lady Mildred might not have matched the pair. When the Vavasours
were travelling in Wales, soon after their marriage, something broke as
they were descending a long steep hill, and the horses bolted; it was a
very close question between life and death, till they were stopped by a
couple of quarrymen just at the spot where the road turned sharp to the
left over a high narrow archway; no carriage going that pace could have
weathered that corner, and the fall was thirty feet clear. The poor
Welshmen certainly earned their rich reward, for they both went down,
and were much bruised in the struggle, and one got up with a broken
collar-bone. When the horses first broke away, "my lady" deigned to lay
aside the book she was reading, but showed no other sign of interest in
the proceedings, far less of discomposure. The Squire was once asked
"how his wife behaved after it was all over?" (that is generally
considered the most trying time). "She looked," was the answer,
"precisely as if she had expected the episode all along; as if it had
formed part of the programme of our wedding tour that the horses should
bolt on that particular hill, and be stopped at that very critical spot
by those identical quarrymen. It struck me that she praised and
compassionated the poor fellow that was hurt, exactly as one might an
acrobat who had met with an accident while performing for our
amusement."

You may judge from this fact, whether "my lady's" nerves were as weak
and sensitive as she was pleased to represent them. But with all her
wile and wariness, she was a thorough woman at heart; and, as such, was
not disposed to let a chance slip of turning to account the apparent
bodily fragility which dissembled a very good constitution. Seldom,
indeed, does maid or matron allow any small capital of the sort to lie
long idle or profitless. Throughout all ages, despots have been found,
anxious to drape their acts of oppression with a veil of reason and
legality just dense enough for decency. In the present case, Lady
Mildred brought forward a convenient and colourable pretext for a fresh
exaction; she was rather indifferent as to its being received with
implicit credit, for she knew that Alan was too kindly and courteous to
contradict her.

As it happened, Wyverne was not deceived for a moment; but as the really
important points of the hollow treaty were already decided, he did not
think it worth while to hesitate over minor details.

"You shall have all you ask without reservation," he said, "and 'thereto
I plight my troth.'"

So they locked hands there--faith and falsehood--truth and
treachery--the one, harbouring no thought that was not honest and
tender; the other, consistent to the last in her dark, pitiless
scheming. Yet the woman's fingers were most cordial in their pressure,
and they never shrank or trembled.

It is pleasant to read of the retribution that descended on Brian de
Bois-Guilbert, or Sir Aldinger; but poetical justice does not always
assert itself so conveniently as in the lists at Templestowe. I wonder
how often in the ordeal of battle, honour has gone down before
dishonour, to the mocking echo of the herald's cry--"God defend the
right!"

Lady Mildred lay back on her sofa with a long sigh of weariness which
was not altogether feigned.

"I will not keep you another instant," she whispered. "Go to Helen, and
be as happy as you like; you have earned that reward."

Miss Vavasour had been sitting all this while close to her father's
side. The chair she had chosen was so low that her head could rest
against his hand as it lay on the arm of the vast _fauteuil_. They had
been very quiet, those two, while the conference was proceeding,
scarcely venturing to glance twice or thrice furtively in the direction
of the dread divan; but their whispered confidences were pleasant
enough, if one might judge from Helen's beautiful blushes and the
Squire's musical laugh breaking in at intervals, discreetly modulated
and subdued. Both gazed anxiously in Alan's face as he drew near, trying
to augur from its expression how he had sped. It told no tales; for his
brow was smooth and his smile serene, as if there were no such things in
this world of ours as doubt, or distrust, or despondency. If he could
not hope to clear away all troublesome thorns from the path of the fair
girl who had promised that day to trust him, he could at least spare her
the pains of anticipation; for her sake as well as his own he was
determined to make the most of every hour of sunshine. Without going
into particulars then, he succeeded in leaving an impression that Lady
Mildred had shown herself more favourable to their wishes than could
have been hoped for. Helen went to rest on that eventful night, when
childhood ended and her womanhood began, in a flutter of happiness which
lasted through her dreams.

"While we live let us live." How is this agreeable maxim to be carried
out, if we are always looking forward into the Dark? There is little
wisdom in the desperate philosophy which teaches men "to eat and drink
for to-morrow they die;" but surely there is reason in taking, while we
may, such moderate refreshment as may brace us for the perils and
labours that the dawning may bring. Do you suppose that Teucer's galleys
clove less swiftly through the Egean because their crews had feasted
high in Salamis on the eve of exile? I fancy those grim old sea-dogs at
their last home revels--cutting deeper into the mighty chines, and
dipping their grizzled beards into the black wine with a keener zest,
while the cheery voice, clear and sonorous as if its owner had never
known defeat or disaster, rings out

      ----O fortes pejoraque passi
    Mecum sæpe viri, nunc vino pellite curas:
        Cras ingens iterabimus æquor.

The torches flare and swirl in the wind that is rising gustily; there is
a dull sullen booming outside familiar to the wanderers, for they have
heard it ere this when every sinew was strained to keep them clear of
breakers on their lee; they were met by dark lowering faces when they
sailed in through the harbor-mouth; the populace--taught to call them
traitors by the savage old childless king--is now raving for their
blood. What matters it all? They catch their leader's eye as he stands
up in the midst, erect and dauntless, with the great gold crater in his
gripe, and they laugh out loud in defiance; remembering storms they have
weathered and foes they have tamed, and perils compared to which these
are but child's play. Would their prospects have looked better if they
had sat down, with folded hands and covered heads, to complain of
mortals and immortals, and miserably to make their moan? Truly I think
not. Now--when they cast off their moorings to-morrow--in despite of
envious Pallas, we need not fear to wish the exiles "good speed."



CHAPTER VI.

GOLDEN DREAMS.


First Love!

Do not they look and sound just as fresh as ever--those two pretty
words? And yet, they have been harder worked than the tritest of
school-copies, by successive generations of romancists in prose and
rhyme, from Anacreon and Sappho down to that more modern and practical
enthusiast, who, in a simile that must come home to every maid and
matron in Belgravia (about five P.M. daily), exclaims, "A first love is
like the first cup of tea--all others like the second." The heresy was
worse than Antinomian that would cavil at feelings allowed by common
consent to be divinely delicious. Take warning by Tantalus; beware of
misbehaviour at the celestial table; when nectar and ambrosia are set
before you, accept them gratefully, without discussing too curiously
their flavour. Perhaps it is best so; perhaps the children's plan is
wisest--"Open your mouth and shut your eyes."

Why is it then that, at this moment, I feel inclined to be hyper
critical and disparaging? Truly, there is no accounting for moods, any
more than for tastes; the claret last night was undeniable, and the
morning weather (for a wonder) is perfect; there is not a shadow of an
excuse for evil tempers. Can it be that the pet theme has really been
over-rated; and will it turn out that, after all, there's something
quite as sweet in life as Love's young dream?

See--we have given the _sacerrima verba_ every chance: they stand in a
line by themselves, at the head of the chapter, producing a striking and
rather pictorial effect. Pictorial--I wish the word had not been
written, for association brings back the feeling with which we have
looked on some late acquisitions to our National Gallery, procured at
nearly their weight in gold. "A good thing in its way, but--hardly worth
the money." It would be very difficult, I suppose, to convince our
sisters that it is advantageous for man or woman to go through a certain
amount of mild preparatory training, before either is brought out for
the last grand match against Time. Shall we suggest to Amoret the bride
that Fidelio's affections, since they first gushed out from the remote
fountain-head, have rippled and murmured--not unmusically--through a
dozen _lovelets_ at least, caressing on the way several fragrant
water-lilies and delicate lady-ferns, before they poured a full
undivided volume into the one deep channel, through which (let us hope)
they will flow on peacefully for evermore? And then, shall we hint that
she ought rather to rejoice thereat than chafe or complain? It were
boldly--it were rashly done. However respectable our antecedents--if we
could bring testimonials to character signed by ten responsible
housewives (which I very much doubt if Sir Galahad himself could have
obtained)--the lady would infallibly inscribe our name, foremost, on the
Black List of those dangerous and detrimental acquaintances who were the
bane of the Beloved's life, before she came--another Pucelle--to the
rescue; thenceforward we should certainly "have our tea in a mug,"
whenever these fair hands had to pour it.

Yet, Madonna, if you would deign to look at the subject dispassionately,
you could scarcely help perceiving that the very guilelessness and
simplicity which make a First Love so charming and romantic, detract
somewhat from its actual value. It is a very pleasant and charitable
frame of mind, which "hopeth all things and believeth all things;" but
it involves a certain deficiency in discrimination and, I think, in
appreciative power. The Object may possibly be superlative in beauty,
goodness, or talent; but what is our opinion worth, if we have had no
practical experience of the other two degrees? Unless the paired doves
take flight at once to some uncolonized island in the Pacific,

    And there securely build, and there
      Securely hatch their young--

each must stand comparison, in aftertime, with other birds, tame and
wild, whose plumage glistens with every gorgeous variety of colour,
whose notes sink and swell through all the scales of harmony. Then it is
the old story over and over again. Madame Ste. Colombe does not care so
much for modest merit, and considers meekness rather a tame and insipid
virtue, since the keen black eyes of haughty, handsome Count Aquila told
her a flattering tale; sober drab and fawn no longer seem a becoming
apparel since Prince Percinet (the Duchess's favourite lory) dazzled her
with his Court suit of crimson and gold. Her innocent consort never
dreams, of course, of repining; but he confesses to an intimate friend
that cooing _does_ sometimes sound rather monotonous: he heard a few
days ago, for the first time, Lady Philomelle sing. Surely it were
better to endure loneliness a little longer--ay, even till "black turns
grey"--than to discover that we are unworthily or unsuitably matched,
when to change our mate would be a double sin. There are matrimonial
mistakes enough, Heaven knows, made as it is; but, if every one were to
marry their first love, a decade of Judges more untiring than Sir
Cresswell would be insufficient to settle the differences of aspirants
to dis-union.

This is the "wrong side of the stuff," of course; it would be easy to
quote thousands of opposite instances--of the Anderson type--where no
shadow of discontent has clouded a long life of happiness. Still, the
danger remains: you can no more ignore it than you can any other
disagreeable fact, or public nuisance; but it will probably be lessened
if one or both of the contracting parties have had practical experience
enough to enable them to know their own minds once for all. The wise old
Stagyrite, after discussing different sorts of courage, places high that
of [Greek: Empeiria]: shall we not, too, honour and value most the Love
which has been matured and educated by a course of preliminary and
lighter experiments?

If we have wandered far, through many gardens--finding in each flowers
fragrant and beautiful, but never a one worthy to be placed in our
breast--do we love her less, when we choose her at last--our own
Provence Rose? Was it not well that we should review and admire other
fair pictures wrought by the Great Artist, before we bought what we
hold to be His masterpiece, at the price of all our life's treasure? Had
we not acquired some cunning of the lapidary, by studying the properties
of less precious gems, could we value your pure perfections aright, O
Margarita, pearl of pearls?

(In spite of that last sentimental sentence, which, I swear, was
elaborated solely as a peace-offering to Them, I feel a comfortable
conviction of having left the prejudices of every feminine reader in
precisely the same state as I found them when we broached the subject.)

If you disagree entirely with these premises, you will hardly allow that
Miss Vavasour's frame of mind was either correct or justifiable on this
same August morning. It would be difficult to conceive any human being
more thoroughly and perfectly happy. Yet it was not the bliss of
ignorance, nor even of unconscious innocence. In some things demoiselle
was rather advanced for her years: she could form opinions of her own,
for instance, and hold to them, pretty decidedly. Some of our
maiden-recruits contrive to acquire a tolerable knowledge of their
regiment and its proceedings before they actually join: they have
probably several friends who have passed their drill; and these are by
no means loth to communicate any intelligence likely to instruct or
amuse the aspirant. So, though Helen had not yet been presented, few of
the _historiettes_ of the last two seasons (fitted for ears polite and
virginal) had failed to reach her, directly or circuitously. In more
than one of these Alan Wyverne's name had figured prominently. Lady
Mildred had not spoken unfairly or untruly when she characterized her
daughter's temperament as somewhat jealous and exacting; but the
jealousy was not retrospective. Helen decided, very wisely, to bury the
past, with its possible peccadilloes, and to accept her present position
frankly, without one _arrière pensée_.

It seemed rather a pleasant position, too, as she sate in the deep,
cushioned recess of one of the oriel windows of the picture-gallery; the
play of light through the painted panes falling fitfully on the grand
masses of her glossy hair, and lending a brighter flush to her fair
cheek than even happiness could give it; her clasped hands resting on
her cousin's shoulder, as he half reclined on the black-bear skin at her
feet--(Alan was decidedly Oriental in his choice of postures)--her head
bent forward and low, so as to lose not one of many murmured words.
Would it have been better if a suspicion had crossed her mind, just
then, that the voice she listened to was indebted possibly to long
practice in similar scenes for the dangerous melody of its monotone? I
think not; there is no falser principle than judging from results.

The line of demarcation between the cousin and the lover is proverbially
faint, so much so, indeed, as sometimes to become quite imaginary. There
is one advantage about this, certainly; the transition into the
affianced state is not so abrupt as to make either of the parties feel
awkward or shy; while on the other hand, their transports are probably
more moderate and rational. In the present case there was not much
danger of extravagance in this way. Wyverne, as a rule, was the
personification of tranquillity, and Helen--though impulsive and quick
tempered enough herself--held demonstrative damsels in very great scorn.
Still it would be difficult, if not impossible, to transcribe their
conversation that morning, up to a certain point.

Fortunately, one is not expected to do anything of the kind. Where the
story is meant to be melo-dramatic, it is necessary sometimes to give a
good strong scene of passion and temptation, in which either guilt or
innocence triumphs tremendously; but the male writers of the present day
seem pretty well agreed that it is best to leave _domestic_ love
passages (where everything is said and done under parental sanction)
quite alone. An odd authoress or so does now and then attempt to give us
a sort of expurgated edition, which is about as much like the reality as
the midnight sun glimmering faintly over the North Cape resembles that
which blazes over Sahara. You will observe, that even those dauntless
and unscrupulous French _romanciers_ of the physiological school rather
shirk these scenes.

Perhaps occasionally a curious melancholy feeling mingles with this our
masculine reserve. It may be that Mnemosynè (she can be stern enough, at
times, you know) stands on the threshold of the half-open door and warns
us back with uplifted finger; it may be that of all in the book, we
should have to draw hardest on our imagination for this particular
chapter. In either case it would not be a very attractive one to have to
begin. There is something dreary in sitting down to an elaborate
description of luxuries or riches that have passed away from us long
ago, or which have hitherto eluded us altogether. I am not inclined to
laugh much at Mr. Scrivener's enthusiasm (he writes the "high-life"
tales for the _Dustpan_ and other penny periodicals) when he dilates on
the splendours of Lady Hermegild's boudoir, hung with mauve velvet and
silver, or on the glories of the Duke of Devorgoil's banquet, where
everything is served on the purest gold profusely embossed with
diamonds. He lingers over the details with an extraordinary gusto, and
goes into minutiæ which (if they were not grossly incorrect) would imply
an intimate personal acquaintance with the scenes he describes. Now, Mr.
Scrivener's father is a very meritorious grocer, in the Tottenham
Court-road, and the most aristocratic assembly Jack ever attended was a
party at Hackney, where (unfortunately for his prudence) he met his
pretty little wife. But I know that he composes these gorgeous chapters
in a close stifling room, not much bigger or better furnished than that
of Hogarth's poet, with the same wail of sickly children in his ears
(the walls are like paper in those suburban lodgings) and with the
notice lying on the mantelpiece that the acceptance comes due on Monday,
which he must mortgage his brains to meet. I think the incongruity is
too sad to be absurd.

Do you see the parallel? Velvet and gold are comfortable and costly, but
they are not the most precious trifles that a man may lose or win; bills
are very stubborn inconveniences but there are debts yet harder to meet,
on which we pay heavier usury.

Whether that pair in the picture-gallery made themselves in anywise
ridiculous, either by word or deed, in the course of the morning, is a
question between themselves and their consciences; for the only
witnesses were the members of their ancestry on the walls, who looked
down on the proceedings with the polite indifference of well-bred people
who have seen a good deal of that sort of business in their time, and
have found out that "this, too, is vanity." At the moment when we
intrude on the _tête-à-tête_, its component parts were in a very
decorous and rational condition; in fact they had resolved themselves
into a sort of committee of supply, and were discussing the financial
affairs of the future. It was delightful to observe the perfect gravity
and good faith with which they approached the subject; though it would
have been difficult to decide which of the two was most hopelessly and
absolutely ignorant of all matters pertaining to domestic economy.
Wyverne was especially great on the point of retrenchment, as far as his
own personal expenses were concerned.

"You have no idea how much I shall save by giving up hunting," he was
saying; "I don't care nearly so much for it as I did, so it is hardly a
sacrifice" (he really _thought_ he was speaking the truth); "my present
stud is too small to be of much use, and I hate being mounted. So that's
settled. I shall have no difficulty in getting rid of my horses; Vesey
will give me four hundred for Red Lancer any day; and Cuirassier ought
to fetch three. Only fancy, Helen, what one will be able to do with
seven hundred sovereigns! You must have a brougham to yourself, even if
we stay at the great house in town, and it will be useful in the
country, for I suppose people will want us to dine with them sometimes.
We must have our saddle-horses of course--Maimouna carries you
beautifully already--I shall never let you give up riding, if only for
the memory of yesterday afternoon; and that will be all, besides the
ponies that Uncle Hubert gave you on your last birthday."

"But, dear Alan," his cousin objected, "it seems to me, all those horses
will cost more to keep than your hunters do now; for, you know, you
always stay somewhere throughout the season, where they get board and
lodging."

"Don't entangle yourself in calculations, child," Wyverne answered; "you
haven't an idea how expensive hunting from other people's houses is;
sending on, costs a fortune. I should like you to see my accounts for
last season" (he said this with intense gravity, just as if he had kept
them regularly); "I am certain I shall save two hundred a year at the
lowest computation. Yes, we can do it easily. I saw Harry Conway the
other day (he married that pretty Kate Carlyon two years ago); he began
telling me of his rectory in Herefordshire, what a lovely garden his
wife had, and how all the country admired the Welsh ponies she drove.
Now, I know their income does not touch six hundred pounds. We can
double that, at all events, O cousin, cautious beyond your years!"

The part of Dame Prudence was in reality so entirely foreign to Miss
Vavasour's nature and habits, that it amused her very much to play it,
so she still tried to look solemn, but the laugh would not be dissembled
in her eyes.

"An Abbey is a more expensive residence than a rectory, _M. le
Financier_, even if the Lady Abbess should not be enthusiastic about
flower-gardens. Have you formed any plans as to our life in the North? I
mean to make Mrs. Grant teach me housekeeping; and I shall be so severe
about the weekly bills! I can fancy the butchers and bakers trembling
when they bring up their little red books to be settled."

"Certainly, _il faut vivre_; I quite admit the necessity of that. I have
no doubt we shall do wonderfully well. I shall slay a good number of
creatures, finned, furred, and feathered, and one does not get tired of
game easily. We must not have any one to stay with us, except in the
shooting-season; though I believe the chief cost of guests is the claret
they drink; fortunately there is a Red Sea of that in the cellars. And
now, my Helen, prepare to open your great eyes very extensively; I mean
to annihilate your scruples with my last idea in economy. When the
present stock is exhausted (it's not large) the supply of champagne at
the Abbey will be cut off until I come into another inheritance."

He enunciated the words rather sententiously and solemnly, evidently
feeling the confidence and self-satisfaction that might be pardonable in
a Chancellor of the Exchequer who has thought of a new and productive
tax that cannot possibly hurt or offend anybody, or in a calculator who
has elaborated a scheme for materially reducing the national debt. This
time Miss Vavasour's musical laugh was not repressed.

"Don't go any further, Alan; Prudence owns herself vanquished by that
last tremendous retrenchment. I begin to think we shall manage
perfectly; perhaps there is no danger of absolute penury. Whenever I
find the larder is empty, and that there are no means of filling it, I
shall bring in the Spur in the Dish with my own hands; you were born
near enough the Border to know, then, that you and your lances must go
out on the foray."

"That's right," Wyverne said; "they say nothing stimulates one to
exertion like appreciation, and I've got an exertion before me this
morning, in the shape of letter-writing, that I don't much fancy. It's a
question of Bernard Haldane. (I can never call him and your father
'uncle' in the same breath, but he did marry my aunt, you know.) He must
be absurdly rich by this time; and when I did not in the least want it,
I believe I was to have been his heir. So I might still have been, they
tell me, if I had been utterly and irretrievably ruined, and had come to
him in the form of the pauper. But he never forgave the poor little
salvage out of the wreck which made me independent of his bounty. Very
odd old man, that, and intensely disagreeable, I own; but still I wish,
now, you two had met. I do believe you would have melted the
misanthrope, and a very trifling thaw in that quarter would be of
material advantage to us just at this juncture."

Miss Vavasour's haughty lip curled perceptibly; her face did not care to
conceal some aversion and disdain.

"I should certainly spare myself the annoyance of writing that letter,
if I were you, Alan. I don't think mendicancy would suit you at any
time, and it is rather early to begin the trade. _I_ should hardly
succeed better, even if I had the chance of trying. If I have any
fascinations, I think I will keep them for some other subjects than odd,
disagreeable, old men."

Wyverne was not in the least inclined to chafe at her tone; in truth,
admiration left no place for anger; it would have been hard to quarrel
with her, she looked so handsome in her scorn. He knew, too, that her
pride was only half selfish, and that she would have dreaded humiliation
for his sake, more than for her own. So he smiled quite pleasantly, as
he answered,

"O Queen, let your imperial mind be set at rest. Your bond-servant had
no intention of making obeisance to any other tyrant. Do I look like one
of 'the petitioners who will ever pray?' (He certainly did _not_ at that
moment.) I only meant to convey a piece of simple intelligence, which
perhaps Mr. Haldane is entitled to in courtesy, and leave him to think
and act as he would. But I told you I disliked doing even this; and I
hesitated till I consulted your mother on the point after breakfast. She
decided at once that I ought to do so. I own her look, as she said it,
would have puzzled me, if I had not given up long ago trying to decipher
'my lady's' countenance. I imagine she expects not much will result. I'm
sure _I_ don't. But if Plutus were only to part with a poor thousand, it
would help me to furnish two or three rooms prettily at the Abbey for
you and your friends. My pet, you will look like Nell in the Curiosity
Shop, in that dismal grey house, with its faded old-fashioned
furniture."

Helen was accusing herself already of having been unjust and unkind. Her
conscience smote her yet more keenly as her cousin spoke these last
words. When she laid her hand on his mouth to stop him, it was half
meant as a caress. Wyverne pressed the lithe white fingers against his
lips, and made them linger there not unwillingly; but his mood, usually
so equable and gay, had become strangely variable since yesterday. The
dark hour came on suddenly now. His face seemed to gather anything but
light from the bright loveliness on which he gazed. Helen's hand was
dropped almost abruptly, and he went on muttering low to himself, as if
unconscious of her presence.

"Esau was wiser than I. He _sold_ his birthright at all events: I gave
mine away. God help us! Instead of these miserable shifts and
subterfuges, I ought at this moment to be talking about the fresh
setting of my mother's diamonds. I wonder who wore them at the last
drawing-room! I took my own ruin too lightly. I suppose that is why it
stands out so black and dismal, when I have brought another down to
share it. Ah me! If the struggle and the remorse begin so early, what
will the end be?"

She broke in quickly, her fingers trembling as she twined them in his,
and her cheeks glowing with her passionate earnestness.

"Alan, how can you speak so? Do you want to make me feel more selfish
than I do already? I might have known what it would come to when you
proposed selling Red Lancer, and I ought to have resisted then. You
would sacrifice all your own pursuits and pleasures to me and my
fancies, and you take nothing in return except"--(the word-music could
scarcely be heard here)--"except--my my dear love. See, _I_ do not fear
or doubt for one instant. Am I to teach you courage--you that I have
always heard quoted for daring since I was a little child?"

We have read in the _Magic Ring_ how the draught mixed by Gerda, the
sorceress, for Arinbiorn, before the great sea-king went forth to fight,
doubled the strength of his arm and the sway of his battle-axe. Glamour
more potent yet may be drawn from brilliant dark eyes, whose imperial
light is softened, not subdued, by tears that are destined never to
fall. A tamer spirit than Wyverne's would have leapt up, ready for any
contest, under the influence of Helen's glance, when she finished
speaking. Very scanty are the relics that abide with us of the old-time
chivalry; but our dames and demoiselles still play their part as
gallantly and gracefully as ever. Even "Sir Guy of the Dolorous Blast,"
when bound to the battle, will scarcely lack a maiden to brace on his
armour.

Alan rose to his feet and leant over his cousin where she sate. He
forgot to be ashamed of his own weakness; he felt so proud of his
beautiful prize, as he wound his arm round her delicate waist and drew
her close to his side, till the little head nestled on his shoulder and
his lips touched her ear as they whispered,

"My own brave darling! you shall never have to revive me again. The dead
past may bury its dead; my last moan is made; henceforward will we not
hope, even against hope."

In spite of his newly-born confidence, he scarcely repressed a start and
a shiver, as, looking up during the happy silence that ensued, he seemed
to be answered by the earnest melancholy eyes of the last Baron
Vavasour.

There are certain pictures, you know, whose gaze always follows you,
however often you may change your position. This portrait was one of
such. It ought to have been excepted from the other ancestors, when we
spoke of the unconcern with which they regarded the proceedings of their
descendants. It was a very remarkable face, as I have said before, and
by far the most peculiar feature in it were those same eyes.
Notwithstanding their soft beauty, there was something dark and
dangerous about them, as if the devil that lurked in their languid
depths _would_ look out sometimes. They were just the eyes from which an
Italian would dread the _jetta-tura_, seeming to threaten not only evil
to others, but misfortune to their owner. In Fulke Vavasour's life
certainly both promises were amply fulfilled. If those scornful lips
could have spoken now, one might have guessed at the import of the
words.

"No change since my time. Those old commonplaces about faith and hope
and love are not worn out yet; but it amuses me to hear them again now
and then--not too often. I could repeat them glibly enough myself once,
and perhaps I believed in them a little. I am wiser now, and so will you
be, _beau cousin_, before you have done. I had my romance, of course.
You know how that was cut short one cold morning on Tower-hill; but you
_don't_ know where yours will end."

Some ideas like these shot across Wyverne's mind, but he had no time to
give them form or distinctness, even if he had wished to indulge in such
absurdity, for one of the doors of the gallery opened just then, and
though the drawing aside of the heavy _portière_ gave them a moment's
grace, the cousins had scarcely time to resume an erect and decorous
posture before their _tête-à-tête_ was ended.



CHAPTER VII.

MATED, NOT MATCHED.


The new-comer was an elderly man, in a clerical dress. His figure,
originally massive and powerful, had thickened and filled out of late
years till little of fair proportion or activity remained. In his walk
and general bearing there was the same lassitude and want of energy
which spoilt his face. The features could never have been regularly
handsome; they were too weakly moulded for _any_ style of beauty; but
their natural expression was evidently meant to be kindly and genial.
This, too, had changed. There was a nervous, worried look about him, as
of a man exposed to many vexations and annoyances. It was not grave
enough to suggest any great sorrow. Geoffry Knowles's story is very soon
told. He was three or four years the Squire's senior; but they had been
great friends at college. Few of their old set were left when Geoffry
went up to keep his "master's term;" so, unluckily, he was a good deal
thrown on his own resources. His evil genius lured him one day to a
certain water-party, where he met Laura Harding, the handsome, flashy
daughter of an Oxford attorney in large and very sharp practice, who
speedily entangled him irretrievably. If Hubert Vavasour had been in the
way, it might have been prevented. His thoroughbred instincts would have
revolted from the intense vulgarity of the whole family, and the great
influence he possessed over his friend's facile mind would all have been
exerted to free the latter from a connexion which could only prove
disastrous and unhappy. Geoffry Knowles himself, the most indolent and
unobservant of men, saw from the first that the fair Laura's _entourage_
was most objectionable; and certain incongruities (to use a mild term)
in the lady's own demeanour and dialect struck him now and then
painfully, as they would have done any other man well-bred and
well-born. But, though conscious of going down hill, he was too idle to
try to struggle back again; and when the moment for the final plunge
came, he took it resignedly, if not contentedly, expecting no
countenance from any of his friends, as he had not sought their counsel.
Perhaps, after all, retractation would have been worse than vain. The
wily lawyer might have said with the Sultan,

    Dwells in my court-yard a falcon unhooded,
    And what he once clutches he never lets go.

Though Knowles was of an impoverished family and rather an extravagant
turn, Mr. Harding knew he had powerful friends, first and foremost of
whom was the Squire of Dene; so far he judged rightly. Hubert Vavasour
not only disliked "hitting a man when he was down," but never would let
him lie there without trying to help him up. So, in spite of the
connexion which he thoroughly disapproved, as soon as the rectory of
Dene fell vacant, he did not hesitate to offer it to his ancient
comrade: it was one of those great family livings that are almost as
valuable as a fat priory or abbey might have been; and thenceforth its
rector wanted no comforts that affluence could supply. When this event
occurred the Squire had been married about three years: he took the step
without consulting his wife, or in all probability Lady Mildred would
have interfered to some purpose. It was part of her creed never to waste
either lamentations or reproaches on what was irrevocable; so she
accepted the fact quite composedly, determining to judge for herself as
to the feasibility of associating with the new-comer, and to act
accordingly.

Neither the Squire's nor the rector's wife ever forgot the first evening
they met. Truth to say, "my lady" had prepared herself for a certain
amount of vulgarity; but the reality so far transcended her
expectations, that the shock was actually too much for her. She could
not repress a slight shiver and shrinking sometimes, as Mrs. Knowles's
shrill, highly-pitched voice rattled in her ears, and her trained
features did not always conceal wonder and aversion at certain words and
gestures that grated horribly on her delicate sensibilities. The other's
sharp eyes detected every one of these unflattering signs, and she never
forgot them: though long years had passed and a reckoning-day had never
come, the debt still remained, written out as legibly in her memory as
Foscaro's in Loredano's tablets. That evening, when the visitors had
taken their departure, the fair hostess leaned back wearily on her sofa
and beckoned her husband to her side. When he came she laid her hand on
his arm and looked up into his eyes rather plaintively, but not in the
least reproachfully.

"Dear Hubert!" she said, "I fancy Mr. Knowles very much, and I hope he
will come here whenever he likes. He may bring his wife four times a
year (when you have some of those constituency dinners, you know); but,
at any other time or place, I absolutely decline to entertain that
fearful woman again!"

There was not a shade of anger, or even disdain, on the placid face,
but he must have been a bolder man than Vavasour who would have argued
the point with her then. Hubert knew that the fiat just issued by those
beautiful lips, ever so little set, was irrevocable.

"She _is_ an awful infliction!" he assented, gravely; "I can't call you
unjust, dear Mildred. Indeed, I almost regret having brought her so near
you. I must manage it with Geoffry as best I can; I should not like to
lose his society. Poor fellow! I was very wroth when I first heard of
his derogation--but I can do nothing but pity him now. If she affected
us so disagreeably this evening, think what it must be to have to live
with her all the year round! It is no use saying, 'He's used to it.'
There are some nuisances one never gets indifferent to."

Lady Mildred shrugged her round white shoulders slightly, as though to
intimate that Mr. Knowles's domestic Nemesis was essentially _his_
concern; and so the matter ended.

It was not long before that worried, nervous expression, to which I have
alluded, became the habitual one of poor Geoffry's face. He never spoke
of his troubles, even to Hubert Vavasour; but they must have been heavy,
and almost incessant. His wife had captured him simply as a measure of
expediency: she would have married him just as readily if he had been
elderly and repulsive when she first saw him; she very soon got tired of
keeping up affectionate appearances; indeed, that farce scarcely
outlasted the honeymoon. The last phantasm of romance had ceased to
haunt the dreary fireside, years and years ago. Laura's sharp tongue and
acid face were enough to scare away a legion of such sensitive elves. As
soon as she found that their income was far more than sufficient for
their wants she took severely to parsimony, and "screwed" to an extent
scarcely credible. There never breathed a more liberal and openhanded
man than Geoffry Knowles--it must have been a poor satisfaction to him
to know that about thirty pounds per annum were saved by economy in beer
alone, and that his servants'-hall was a byword throughout the county.
The wives of the squirearchy had been very kind and civil to her at
first, and were not all inclined to follow the lead of the _grande dame_
at Dene; but they couldn't stand her long, and one by one they fell off
to a ceremonious distance, doing out their visits and invitations by
measure and rule. This did not improve the lady's temper, which was
exacting and suspicious to a degree: she never would allow that she ever
lost a friend or failed to make one by her own fault; though she had a
pleasant habit of abusing people savagely to their nearest neighbours,
so that it was about ten to one that every syllable came round to them.
They had one child--a son--who might have been some comfort to the
Rector if his mother would have let him alone: but she asserted her
exclusive right to the child even before he was christened, insisting on
calling him by her own family's name--"Harding"--(some one said, "it was
to commemorate an incomplete victory over the aspirates"); and
maintained her ascendency over his mind by the simple process of abusing
her husband to and before the boy, as soon as he was old enough to
understand anything; it is needless to say there was always more
distrust than sympathy between father and son.

So, you see, Geoffry Knowles had a good deal to fight against, and very
little to fall back upon. His one consolation was, his neighbourhood to
Dene: he clung fast to this, and would not let it go, in spite of
incessant sarcasms levelled at his meanness of spirit for "always
hanging about a house where his wife was not thought good enough to be
invited:"--(she never missed one of those quarterly dinners, though). It
was inexpressibly refreshing to get out of hearing of the shrill
dissonant voice--ever querulous when not wrathful, and to share

    The delight of happy laughter,
      The delight of low replies,

which one could always count on finding at Dene when its mistress or her
daughters were to the fore. Those visits had the same effect on the
unlucky rector, in calming and bracing his nerves, as change of air will
work on an invalid who moves up from the close dank valley to the fresh
mountain-side, where the breeze sweeps straight from the sea over crag,
and heather, and tarn. Lady Mildred liked him--perhaps pitied him a
little--in her own cool way, and the Squire was always glad to see him;
so he came and went pretty much as he chose, till it would have been
hard to say to which family he really most belonged. Helen was very fond
of him; it would have been strange had it been otherwise, for he had
petted her ever since he held her in his arms at the font, and, indeed,
had lavished on her all the father-love of a kindly nature, which he was
debarred from giving to his own child. As her loveliness ripened from
bud to blossom under their eyes, no one could have said which was the
proudest of their darling--the Rector or the Squire.

It rather spoils the romance of the thing--but, truth to say, there were
other and much more material links in the chain that bound Geoffry
Knowles so closely to Dene. He had always been of a convivial turn, and,
from youth upwards, not averse or indifferent to the enjoyment of old
wine and fat venison: of late years he had become ultra-canonical in his
devotion to good cheer. I do not mean to imply that he drank hard or
carried _gourmandise_ to excess; but certainly not one of Vavasour's
guests, whose name was legion, savoured more keenly the precious
vintages that never ceased to flow from his cellars, or the
master-strokes of the great artist who deigned to superintend the
preparation of his banquets. Was it a despicable weakness? At all
events, it was not an uncommon one. The world has not grown weary of
trying that somewhat sensual anodyne, since Ulysses and his comrades
revelled on the island-shore till the going down of the sun--

    [Greek: dainymenoi krea t' aspeta kai methy hêdy]

a few hours after he crept out of the Cyclops' cave, leaving the bones
of six of his best and bravest behind; many bond-slaves since Sindbad,
as the jocund juice rose to their brain, have forgotten for awhile that
they carried a burden more hideous and heavy than the horrible Old Man
of the Sea.

I have lingered much longer than I intended over the antecedents of the
Rector; but as one or two members of his family play rather an important
part in the story afterwards, there is some excuse for the interruption.

When Mr. Knowles entered the picture-gallery, he was evidently unaware
that it held other occupants; he had advanced half way up its length,
before Miss Vavasour's gay dress, looking brighter in the strong
sunlight, caught his eye; even then he had to resort to his glasses
before he could make out who sat in the deep embrasure.

"This is a new whim, Helen," he said, as he turned towards them; "I
never found you here in the morning before. Can you tell me where the
Squire is? I want--"

He stopped abruptly, for he was near enough now for the fair face to
tell its tale, and, short-sighted as he was, the rector saw the state of
things instantly. A few steps--very different from his usual slow,
deliberate pace--brought him into the oriel; he stooped and kissed Helen
on her forehead, and then griped Wyverne's hand hard, his lips moved
twice before he could say, unsteadily and huskily, "I am so very, very
glad!"

It was a simple and hearty congratulation enough, but it was the first
that the fair _fiancée_ had had to encounter, and it threw her into
considerable confusion, coming thus brusquely. To speak the truth, she
"arose and fled away swiftly on her feet," covering her retreat with
some indistinct murmur about going to find the Squire, and left her ally
to bear the brunt of the battle alone. The Rector was not in the least
vexed at her flight; he knew his pet too well to think that she could be
ungracious; he only looked after her with a smile of pride and fondness
as she glided away and disappeared through the curtained door, and then
turned again to Alan.

"I have always dreamt of this," he said; "but so few of my good dreams
come true that I scarcely hoped there would be an exception here. I am
certain you will take all care of her; and how happy she will make you!
And how long has this been going on? You have kept your secret well, I
own, but I am so blind that it is very easy to keep me in the dark."

There was a faint accent of melancholy, and a half reproach in the last
few words, which did not escape Wyverne's quick ear.

"My dear Rector, don't be unjust. What do you mean by suspecting us of
keeping secrets from _you_? You won't give one time to tell you. We were
all perfectly sober and sane till yesterday afternoon, when I lost my
head riding in the Home Wood; and everybody has been following my lead
ever since, for I ought to be crushed on the spot instead of encouraged.
You see I'm like other maniacs; they always know their companions are
mad, and tell you so--don't they?"

"Imprudent, perhaps, but not insane," the other said, heartily; "and is
'my lady' as bad as the rest of you?"

"Well, not exactly; for, though she refused nothing, she was wise enough
to stipulate that the time of our marriage should not be fixed until a
year had passed. I believe Aunt Mildred likes me, but I don't think her
partiality quite blinds her to my disadvantages."

It would have been hard to decide from Wyverne's face, whether he spoke
in earnest or irony; but there was no mistaking the expression of the
Rector's; disappointment was written there very legibly.

"You could hardly expect unreserved consent _there_," he said; "but it
is a long delay before anything is actually fixed--too long. Alan, trust
me. You don't mind my speaking frankly? Helen comes out next season, you
know; and even if your engagement is announced, nothing will prevent
half the 'eligibles' in London going wild about her. It will be
fearfully tantalizing to 'my lady's' ambition, and I doubt if her good
faith will last out the year. If that once fails, you will have a hard
battle to fight and a dangerous one; none can say what a day may bring
forth, and few of Lady Mildred's are wasted when she has determined to
carry anything through. Surely you tried to shorten the probation-time?"

Wyverne bit his lip, frowning slightly.

"My triumph is great, I own, but really I don't require to be reminded
that I am mortal. Of course there are risks and perils without end, but
I have counted them already, Rector; don't trouble yourself to go
through the list again. No, I did _not_ remonstrate or resist, simply
because I think it wiser to husband one's strength than to waste it. I
might say to you as Oliver said to Sir Henry Lee--'Wearest thou so white
a beard, and knowest thou not that to refuse surrendering an
indefensible post, by the martial law deserves hanging?' My position at
the moment was not quite so strong, numerically, as the Knight of
Ditchley's, for he had _two_ 'weak women' in his garrison, and, I fancy,
I had only one brave girl. We can count on the Squire's good will to any
extent, but he would be the merest reed to lean upon if matters went
wrong. It is much the best plan to trust till you are forced to
distrust; for it saves trouble, and comes to about the same thing in the
end; pondering over your moves don't help you much when your adversary
could give you a bishop or a castle. So for the present I believe in
Aunt Mildred _coûte qui coûte_. You are right though--there will be a
fair crop of rivals next spring; but I am vain enough to think that,
with such a long start, I may hold my own past the post."

Alan threw back his head rather haughtily, as he spoke these last words,
and once again encountered the eyes of Fulke Vavasour. He turned quickly
to his companion, before the latter could reply.

"An ominous neighbourhood to make love in, is it not? especially
considering the resemblance. You have remarked it?"

Geoffry Knowles started visibly, and his countenance fell more than it
had yet done.

"I wish you had not asked me. Yes, I have seen it coming out stronger
every month for the last year; it was never there before. I have always
avoided looking at that picture since I was forced to confess that the
family likeness to Helen is far stronger than in her own brother's
portrait that hangs there. If the Squire had only some excuse for
putting it away! Such coincidences are common enough, of course, but I
wish to God the features of the worst of her race had not been
reproduced in our darling."

"Not the worst, I think," Wyverne answered, decidedly, "though he was
wild and reckless enough in all conscience. It's an odd thing to say,
but I've liked him better since I heard how and why he sold himself to
Satan. I dare say you don't know that version of the story. Percie
Ferrars, who is always hunting out strange family legends, told it me
the other day. He found it in some book relating to the black art,
written about fifty years after the Baron's death. It seems that he had
always been meddling with magic, but he never actually came to terms
with the fiend till the night of his arrest. He signed and sealed the
contract within an hour after he entered his cell, on the condition that
certain papers then at the Dene should be in his hands before the dawn;
so he saved a woman's honour from being dragged through the mire of a
public trial, and perhaps a delicate neck from the scaffold. This is how
the horseman came along at midnight, bearing the Baron's signet-ring,
when the arrest was not two hours old; and this is why the pursuivant,
who started before the prisoner was in the Tower, and never drew bridle
on the way except to change his horses, found nothing but empty drawers
and rifled caskets, with a mark here and there, they say, as if hot
coals had been dropped on them. The author brings the case forward in a
very matter-of-fact way, to show for what a miserably small
consideration men will sometimes barter their souls, for he observes
that Vavasour could not even obtain for himself safety of life or limb.
Perhaps he did not try; he came of the wrong sort to stand chaffering
over a bargain when he was in no position to make terms. I don't mean to
deny that Fulke was very guilty; I don't mean to assert that a man has
any right to sell his soul at all; but I am not prepared to admit the
absurd smallness of the value received. The Baron himself, it appears,
revealed the infernal contract to one man, his cousin and dearest
friend. When the confidant, rather horror-stricken, asked 'if he did not
repent?' he only answered--'What is done is well done'--and
thenceforward would answer no question, declining to the last the
consolations of religion or the visits of a priest. But every one knows,
that at his trial and on Tower-hill he bore himself as coolly and
bravely as if he had been a martyred bishop. Let him rest in peace if he
may! If he erred, he suffered. For the sake of that last wild deed,
unselfish at least, I will cast no stone on his grave."

His quiet features lighted up, and his eyes gleamed, just as they would
do if he were reading some grand passage in prose or rhyme that chanced
to move him strongly. No enthusiasm answered him from the other's face.
The Rector evidently could not sympathize.

"It's a dark story," he said, "whichever way you look at it, and your
version does not make me dislike that picture the less. But I'm not a
fair judge. If I ever had any romance, it has been knocked out of me
years ago. I won't argue the point. I'm only sorry that our talk has got
into such a melancholy groove. It is my fault entirely. First I spoil
your _téte-à-téte_ by blundering in here, where I had no earthly
business, and then I spoil your anticipations with my stupid doubts and
forebodings. Just like me, isn't it?"

Wyverne's gay laugh broke in before the Rector's penitence could go
further.

"Not at all like you," he answered cheerily; "and don't flatter yourself
that either prophecy or warning will have the slightest effect.
Ecclesiastes himself would fail if he tried to preach prudence to _us_
just now. I told you we had all gone out of our sober minds up here. For
my part I don't care how long the Carnival lasts. We must keep the
feasts in their order, of course; but, by St. Benedict, we will not
anticipate Lent by an hour."

Geoffry Knowles looked wistfully into the speaker's frank, fearless
eyes, till his own brow began to clear, and a hearty, genuine admiration
shone out in his face.

"I do envy that hopeful geniality of yours, more than I can say, Alan. I
have a dim recollection of having been able to 'take things easy,' once
upon a time; but the talent slipped away from me, somehow, just when it
would have served me best. It was acquired, not natural, with me, I
suppose. I doubt if I could translate without blundering, now--_Dum
spiro, spero_. I am glad, after all, that I caught you first, and got
rid of my 'blue' fit before I saw the Squire. He would not have taken it
so well, perhaps, as you have done."

"I don't know about that," Alan said; "Uncle Hubert is pretty confident,
and you would most likely have been carried away helplessly by the
stream; he put _me_ to shame last night, I can tell you. You'll find him
in his room by this time; and I can't stay here any longer. I've letters
to write, and I mean to have Helen in the saddle directly after
luncheon. I must make the best use of my chances now, for, unless the
gods would

    Annihilate both Time and Space
    To make two lovers happy,

(as the man in the play wanted them to do), and cut out the shooting
season from the calendar, there would be no chance of keeping Dene clear
of guests. They will be coming by troops in less than a fortnight. There
is no such thing as a comfortable _causerie_, with keen eyes and quick
ears all around you. _Ay de mi!_ one will have to intrigue for
interviews as if we were in Seville. I shouldn't wonder if we were
driven to act the garden-scene in the _Barbière_ some night. Even if I
wanted to monopolize Helen, then (which I don't, for it's the worst
possible taste), I know 'my lady' would not stand it. Well, thank you
for all you have said--yes, _all_. I shall see you at luncheon?"

From the Squire's radiant face, when he came in with the Rector, it
might be presumed that the latter comported himself during their
interview entirely to his friend's satisfaction.

It was no vain boast of Wyverne's when he said that neither omen nor
foreboding would affect his spirits materially that afternoon. Few
people ever enjoyed a ride more thoroughly than the cousins did their
very protracted one. They would not have made a bad picture, if any one
could have sketched them during its slow progress. Alan on the Erl-King,
a magnificent brown hunter of Vavasour's; Helen on the grey Arab,
Maimouna, whom she mounted that day for the fourth time. The one so
erect and knightly in his bearing; the other so admirably lithe and
graceful--both so palpably _at home_ in the saddle; even as they lounged
carelessly along through the broad green glades, apparently lost to
everything but their own low, earnest converse, at the first glance one
could have recognised the seat and hand of the artist.

If one _must_ be locomotive, when alone with the ladye of our love (not
a desirable necessity, some will say), I doubt if we can be better than
on horseback. A low pony-carriage, with a _very_ steady animal in the
shafts, has its advantages; but I never yet saw the man who could
accommodate himself and his limbs to one of these vehicles without
looking absurdly out of his place; his bulk seems to increase by some
extraordinary process as soon as he has taken his seat, till ten stone
loom as large as fourteen would do under ordinary circumstances. The
incongruity cannot always escape one's fair companion, and, if her sense
of the ridiculous is once moved, our romance is ruined for the day:
perhaps the best plan, on turning into a conveniently secluded road
(always supposing that "moving on" is obligatory), would be, to get out
and walk by her side, leaving the dame or demoiselle unrestricted scope
for the expansion of her feelings and--her drapery. On the whole, I
think one is most at ease _en chevauchant_. But then both steeds must be
of a pleasant and sociable disposition--not pulling and tearing at the
reins, till they work themselves and their riders into a white heat,
whenever a level length of greensward tempts one irresistibly to a
stretching gallop; nor starting perversely aside at the very moment
when, in the earnestness of discourse, your hand rests unconsciously (?)
on your companion's pommel; but doing their five miles an hour steadily,
with the long, even, springy gait that so few half-breeds ever attain
to,--alive, in fact, to the delicacy of the position and to their own
responsibilities as sensible beasts of burden. Maimouna was a model in
this respect: she could be fiery enough at times, and dangerous if her
temper was roused; but she comported herself that afternoon with a
courtesy and consideration for others worthy of the royal race from
which she sprang--

    Who could trace her lineage higher
    Than the Bourbon can aspire,
    Than the Ghibelline or Guelf,
    Or O'Brien's blood itself.

It was pretty to see her, champing the bit and tossing her small proud
head playfully, or curving her full, rounded neck to court the caress of
Helen's gauntlet; with something more than instinct looking all the
while out of her great bright stag's-eyes, as if she understood
everything that was going on and approved it thoroughly: indeed, she
seemed not indisposed to get up a little mild flirtation on her own
account, for ever and anon she would rub her soft cheek against the
Erl-King's puissant shoulder, and withdraw it suddenly as he turned his
head with a coy, _mutine_ grace, till even that stately steed unbent
somewhat of his dignity, and condescended, after a superb and
sultanesque fashion, to respond to her cajoleries.

Altogether they made, as I have said, a very attractive picture,
suggestive of the gay days when knights and paladins rode in the sweet
summer-weather through the forest-tracks of Lyonnesse and Brittany, each
with his fair _paramour_ at his side, ready and willing to do battle for
her beauty to the death. Wyverne's proportions were far too slight and
slender to have filled the mighty harness of Gareth or Geraint; but
Helen might well have sat for Iseult in her girlhood before the breath
of sin passed over the smooth brow--before the lovely proud face was
trained to dissemble--before King Mark's unwilling bride drank the fatal
philtre and subtler poison yet from her convoy's eyes, as they sailed
together over the Irish Sea.

Yes--no doubt

      It was merry in good greenwood,
    When mavis and merle were singing;

when silvered bridles and silvery laughs rang out with a low, fitful
music: when the dark dells, whenever a sunbeam shot through, grew light
with shimmer of gold and jewels, or with sheen of minever and brocade;
when ever and anon a bugle sounded--discreetly distant--not to recall
the lost or the laggards, but just to remind them that they were
supposed to be hunting the deer. Pity that almost all these romances
ended so drearily! We might learn a lesson, if we would; but we "hear
and do not fear." The modern knight's riding suit is russet or
grey--perhaps, at the richest, of sable velvet; a scarlet neck-ribbon or
the plumes of a tropical bird are the most gorgeous elements in his
companion's amazonian apparel; but I fear the tone of their dress is
about the only thing which is really sobered and subdued. People will go
on lingering till they lose their party, and looking till they lose
their hearts, and whispering till they lose their heads, to the end of
time; though all these years have not abated one iota of the retribution
allotted those who "love not wisely but too well;" though many miserable
men, since Tristram, have dwined away under a wound that would never
heal, tended by a wife that they could never like, thirsting for the
caress of "white hands beyond the sea," and for a whisper that they
heard--never, or only in the death-pang; though many sinners, since
Launcelot, have grovelled in vain remorse on the gravestone of their
last love or their first and firmest friend.

Certainly, none of these considerations could trouble the cousins'
pleasant ride; for every word that passed between them was perfectly
innocent and authorized; they had, so to speak, been "blessed by the
priest" before they started. When Helen came down (rather late) to
dinner, her face was so changed and radiant with happiness that it made
"my lady's" for the rest of the evening unusually pensive and grave.
Some such ideas shot across her as were in the cruel step-mother's mind,
when she stopped those who bore out the seeming corpse to its burial,
saying--

    Drap the het lead on her breast,
      And drap it on her chin;
    For mickle will a maiden do,
      To her true love to win.



CHAPTER VIII.

CROESUS COMETH.


We have been comfortable in our country-houses for centuries. Even in
those rough-and-ready days--when the hall was strewn with rushes, and
the blue wood-smoke hung over the heads of the banqueters like a canopy,
and the great tawny hounds couched at their master's feet, gnawing the
bones as they fell from the bare oak tables, and the maids of Merry
England recruited their roses with steaks and ale in the early
morning--I believe the Anglo-Saxon squire had a right to be proud of his
social privileges, and to contrast them favourably with the
short-comings of his Continental neighbours. But it looks as if we had
only begun of late years thoroughly to appreciate those advantages;
now--there is hardly a tale or a novel written, which does not sound a
note or two of triumph on the subject. In truth, it is hardly possible
to praise too highly this part of our social system. Nevertheless, in a
few of these favoured mansions, there springs up something bitter from
the midst of the fountain of delights which, to the minds of many of us,
poisons the perfection of hospitality. Sometimes the officer in command
is rather too exact and exacting about his morning-parade, insisting
upon his company being "all present and correct" within a certain time
after the warning gong has sounded. Punctuality is an immense virtue, of
course; but our frail and peccant nature will not endure even virtues to
be forced upon it against the grain, without grumbling; and there are
men--sluggish if you will, but not wholly reprobate--who think that no
amount of good shooting or good cookery can compensate for the
discomfort of having to battle with a butler for the seisin of their
grill, or being forced to keep a footman at fork's length, while they
hurry over a succulent "bloater" should they wish to break their fast at
a heterodox and unsanctified hour. There is some sense in the objection,
after all. If you want to enforce regularity with Spartan sternness, it
is better to be consistent, and not tantalize one with contrasts, but
recur to the old black-broth and barley-bread form; choose your system
and stick to it: it never can answer to mix up Doric simplicity with
Ionian luxury.

So few things were done by line and measure at Dene, that it would have
been strange if breakfast had formed the solitary exception to the rule
of--_Fais ce que voudras_. The general hour was perhaps "a liberal ten;"
but if any guest chanced to be seized with a fit of laziness, he could
indulge his indolent genius without fear of having to fast in expiation.
At whatever hour he might appear, a separate breakfast equipage awaited
him, with the letters of that post laid out thereon, decently and in
order, and the servants seemed only too glad to anticipate his appetite.

The Squire himself was tolerably early in his habits, and kept his times
of starting very well in the shooting or hunting season: he would never
wait beyond a reasonable time for any one--making no distinction of
persons--but would start with those who were ready, leaving the laggards
to follow when they would. There was a want of principle, perhaps, about
the whole arrangement, but it answered admirably; even those who were
left behind on such occasions never dreamt of being discontented or
discomfited; indeed, it was not a very heavy penance to be condemned to
spend a home-day at Dene with the feminine part of its garrison. There
were few houses that people were so glad to come to, and so sorry to
leave.

Wyverne was very capricious and uncertain as to the hours of his
appearance, except when any sport by flood or field was in prospect: he
was never a second behind time then. If the day chanced to be very
tempting, it was even betting that he would be found sauntering about
some terrace that caught the fresh morning sun, before the dew was off
the flowers; but it would have been dangerous to lay odds about it;
taking the average of the year, the balance was decidedly in favour of
indolence.

When he came down on the sixth morning from that on which this story
began, the Squire and Helen were lingering over their breakfast nearly
finished, that Alan might not have to eat his in solitude. Nobody ever
thought of apologizing for being late at Dene; so, after the pleasant
morning-greetings were over, Wyverne sat down to his repast with his
usual air of tranquil, appreciative enjoyment; he did not seem in any
particular hurry to grapple with the pile of letters that lay beside his
plate.

Have you ever observed the pretty flutter that pervades all the
womanhood present when the post-bag is brought in--how eyes, bright
enough already, begin to sparkle yet more vividly with impatient
anticipation, and how little tremulous hands are stretched out to grasp
as much of the contents as their owners can possibly claim? We of the
sterner sex take the thing much more coolly--of course because we are so
much graver and better and wiser than _they_ are: when a man "plunges"
at his letters, you may be quite sure he has a heavy book on an
approaching race, or is a partner in some thriving concern, commercial
or amatory; in such a contingency the speculator is naturally anxious to
know if his venture is likely to prove remunerative. Where no such
_irritamenta malorum_ (or _bonorum_, in exceptional cases) exist, we are
apt to accept what the post brings us with resignation rather than with
gratitude, reflecting moodily, that all those documents must not only be
read through, but answered--at what expense of time, money, or
imagination, it is impossible at present to say.

Some years ago I heard of a female Phoenix--wise and fair, too, beyond
her fellows--who actually wrote to a very intimate friend ten
consecutive letters, each containing, besides more confidential and
interesting matter, all sorts of news and scandal, with the recording
angel's comments annexed. They were model epistles, I believe--witty,
but not _too_ wicked; frank, without being too demonstrative; and to not
one of the brilliant decade did the writer _expect an answer_. That was
understood from first to last, for circumstances made silence, on one
side, imperative. I hope her correspondent appreciated that rare
creature, then: I am very sure he did, the other day, when he sat down
to his writing-table with a weary sigh and the remark--that "of all fond
things vainly imagined, a second post was the most condemnable." If
charity covers a multitude of sins, surely such repeated acts of
unselfish benevolence ought to cloak most of that poor Rose's little
faults and failings. Speaking quite disinterestedly (for I scarcely knew
her by sight), I think she deserves a statue--as a marvel of the
Post-office--better than Rowland Hill: if I were bound to take a
pilgrimage, I would pass by the shrine of Saint Ursula, and go a
thousand miles beyond it, to the green Styrian hills where She withered
and died--the only woman on record who could persist, for three whole
months, in amusing a silent correspondent without proximate hope of
recompense.

Wyverne's letters were not very numerous that morning, nor did they
appear to interest him much; for he took up one after the other, at
intervals, and after just glancing at the contents put them aside,
without interrupting a pleasant desultory conversation with his
companions. At last only two remained unread.

The envelope of one was of thick blue-wove paper; the direction was in a
large, strong, upright hand; the seal square, and solemnly
accurate--such a seal as no man dare use unless he were in a position to
set the world at defiance. If you or I, _amigo_, were to risk it,
however numerous and unblemished our quarterings, we should lay
ourselves open to all the penalties attendant on _lése-majesté_: the
very crest was a menace--a mailed arm, with a mace in its gripe. If any
possessor of that truculent coat-of-arms had put it on the outside of a
love-letter, all passionate pleading must have been neutralized; the
nymph to whom it was addressed would have fled away, swiftly as Arethusa
of light-footed memory, or a "homeless hare."

The other letter was of a widely different type; it bore no seal, but a
scarlet monogram so elaborately involved as to be nearly illegible;
after careful study of its intricacies, with a certain amount of luck,
you might have made out the initials N. R. L. There was a _mignardise_
about the whole thing quite in keeping with the handwriting--slender,
sloping, and essentially feminine; at the same time there was a good
deal of _character_ about it; without much practice in graphiology, one
guessed at once that those lines had been traced by fingers long, lithe,
and lissome--fingers that either in love or hate would close round
yours--pliant and tenacious as the coils of a Java serpent--fingers apt
at weaving webs to entangle men's senses and souls.

Alan took these letters up in the order in which we have named them. The
first was evidently very brief; as he read it, an odd smile came on his
lip, not altogether of amusement, but rather bitter and constrained;
just such a smile as one might put on to mask a momentary discomfiture,
if, in a contest of polite repartee, one had received a home thrust,
without seeing exactly how to _riposter_. The other envelope contained
two full note-sheets, one of which (of course) was crossed. Wyverne just
glanced at the first page and the last few lines, and then, putting it
back into its cover, laid it down with the rest; it was quite natural
that he should thus defer the perusal, for, however well he might have
known the handwriting, ten minutes of undivided attention could scarcely
have carried him through it. A very close observer might have detected
just then a slight darkening and contraction of his brows; but the
change lasted not five seconds, and then his face became pleasant and
tranquil as ever.

"Well, that is over, or nearly so," he said, drawing rather a long
breath. "Did anybody ever see such a day for riding? I feel the Tartar
humour on me, Helen--do you sympathize? If so, we'll let our
correspondence take thought for the things of itself--_I_ don't intend
to put pen to paper to-day--and go forth on a real pilgrimage, trusting
to fate for luncheon. There's not an atom too much sun, and the breeze
might have been made to order."

Perhaps the movement of Alan's arm, which pushed two or three of his
letters off the table, was quite involuntary; and perhaps quite
unintentionally, when he picked them up, he placed the _last_ undermost:
but the eyes of Lynceus were not keener-sighted than those dark languid
orbs, held by many to be the crowning glory of Helen Vavasour's beauty.
Neither the change in her cousin's face, nor one detail of the apparent
accident escaped her; and it is possible that she drew from them her own
conclusions. Probably they were not very serious ones, and perhaps his
careless tone contributed to reassure her; at any rate, nothing could be
brighter than her face as she answered--

"I should enjoy it, of all things, Alan. On a day like this I believe
Maimouna would tire before I should. I never knew what it was to feel
_rested_ while riding fast, till I mounted her. Don't be jealous if she
begins to know me better than you; you never heard of my visits to the
stable, under old Donald's escort, on purpose to pet her. You may order
the horses as soon as you please. I must see mamma before we start; but
would you like to bet that I am not ready first?"

Alan's reply was on his lips, when the door opened softly, and, gliding
in with her usual quiet grace, Lady Mildred joined the party. It was
rare indeed that the mistress of Dene favoured the world with her
presence before noon. At intervals, upon state occasions, she
condescended to preside at breakfast; but, as a rule, took her chocolate
and its accessories in her own apartments, and got through the business
of her day in solitude. Her letters were always impounded, as soon as
the letter bag was opened, by her own maid--a placid, resolute person--a
sort of cheap edition of her mistress--who had held her place for many
years, and was supposed to know more of the secrets of the boudoir than
any creature alive. Women of Lady Mildred's calibre rarely change their
confidential servants.

"My lady" was seemingly in a charming humour that morning; she greeted
every one most affectionately, and listened to the plan of the long ride
with a gentle approval, and even some show of interest. But all the
three felt certain that she had good reason for her early appearance.
They were not kept long in suspense.

"I had a letter from Max, this morning," Lady Mildred remarked. "Helen,
dear, he says all sorts of kind things about you and Alan, but he
reserves most of his congratulations, as he hopes to see you so soon.
You know he has been shooting with Lord Clydesdale, in Perthshire,
Hubert? Before this news came, he had asked him and Bertie Grenvil to
come here for the early part of September; but if you don't wish the
engagement to stand, you have only to let him know at once."

His astute helpmate could hardly refrain from smiling at the queer
embarrassed expression of the Squire's frank face--she read his feelings
so well! Indeed poor Hubert was the worst dissembler alive. He looked
wistfully at his two confederates, but there was small chance of succour
from that quarter. Helen's glance met her mother's for a second, and she
bit her scarlet lip once, but remained perfectly silent. Alan was
brushing away a stray crumb or two from the velvet sleeve of his
riding-coat, with a provoking air of absolute unconcern. Vavasour was so
intensely hospitable, that he would just as soon have thought of
stabbing a guest in his sleep, as of grudging him entertainment, besides
there was no earthly reason why either of the names just mentioned
should be distasteful to him, or to any one else present; if he felt any
real objection, it was more like a presentiment impossible to put into
words. Nevertheless there was an unusual gravity in his voice, as he
replied--

"Rather an unnecessary question of Max's, dear Mildred. He ought to
know, by this time, that his friends are quite as welcome here as my
own. As it happens, we have ample room for those two guns during the
_early_ (the word was marked) part of September. So many anxious parents
will be contending for the possession of Clydesdale, that he will
scarcely waste his golden time here beyond a fortnight. Few men are
fonder of being persecuted with the attentions of your sex than that
very eligible Earl. I believe he thinks it is no use being _the parti_
of England if you don't reap its advantages, before as well as after
marriage. I dare say Bertie will stay longer; the mothers, at all
events, don't hunt him. I hope he will, for there's no pleasanter boy in
a house, and his detrimentalism won't hurt us here. Will you write at
once and say that we shall be charmed to see them all?"

Those last words were spoken with rather an unnatural distinctness; it
seemed as though it cost the Squire an effort to utter them, and he left
the room almost immediately, muttering something about "people waiting
for him in his study." After a few minutes more of insignificant
conversation not worth recording, the cousins, too, went out to get
ready for their ride. Lady Mildred stayed her hand for a moment--she
was crumbling bread into cream, carefully, for the Maltese dog's
luncheon--and looked after them with a pensive expression on her face,
in which mingled a shade of pity. Just so much compassion may have
softened, long ago, the rigid features of some abbess on her tribunal,
when after pronouncing the fatal _Vade in pace_, she saw an unhappy nun
led out between the executioners, to expiate her broken vows.

Whatever might be Miss Vavasour's failings, dilatoriness in dressing was
certainly not one of them; she would have won her wager that morning;
and yet it would have puzzled the severest critic to have found a fault
of omission or commission in her costume as she stood in the recess of
one of the windows of the great hall, waiting for the horses and her
cousin. He joined her almost immediately, though, and Helen's eyes
sparkled more brilliantly, as she remarked a letter in his hand.

"I always quote you and Pauline," Wyverne said, "when people keep their
horses at the door for an hour by Shrewsbury clock; but you have outdone
yourselves to-day. You deserve a small recompense--_la voilà_. It must
be a satisfaction to a minor prophetess to find her prediction perfectly
realized. My beautiful Sybil! I don't grudge you your triumph,
especially as I did not contradict you on the point. The oldest and
ugliest of the sisterhood never made a better guess at truth. Read
_that_. I shall give 'my lady' the sense of it; but I don't think I
shall show it her."

It was Bernard Haldane's answer, and it ran thus:

     My dear Alan,--I thank you for your letter, because I am sure
     it was courteously meant, and, I believe, disinterestedly too;
     though, as you are my nearest male relation, it might naturally
     be expected that I should do or promise something on an
     occasion like this. I wish you to understand plainly, and once
     for all, that, in the event of your intended marriage taking
     place, you need anticipate no assistance whatever from me,
     present or future, before or after my death. I think it best to
     enter into no explanations and to give no reasons, but simply
     to state the fact of my having so determined. I have given up
     congratulating people about anything; but, were it otherwise, I
     should reserve such formalities for some more auspicious
     occasion. Neither am I often astonished; but I had the honour
     of knowing Lady Mildred Vavasour slightly many years ago, and I
     own to being somewhat surprised at _her_ sanctioning so
     romantically imprudent an engagement. I will not inflict any
     sermon upon you; it is only to their heirs that old men have a
     right to preach. It is unlikely that we shall meet or
     correspond often again. After what I have written, it seems
     absurd to say, "I wish you well." Nevertheless--it is so.

     Believe me,

     Very faithfully yours,

     BERNARD HALDANE.

There was disappointment certainly on the beautiful face, but it sprung
from a very different cause from that to which Wyverne naturally
assigned it. Helen had expected the perusal of a more delicate
handwriting. The quaint cynical letter did not interest her much under
the circumstances; however she read it through, and as she gave it back,
there was a smile on her proud lip partaking as much of amusement as of
disdain.

"Let us give credit where credit is due," she said. "I believe it cost
Mr. Haldane some pains to compose that answer, short as it is. If you
ever speak to him about it, will you say that we considered it very
terse and straightforward, and rather epigrammatic? Don't show it to
mamma, though. I wonder when she knew Mr. Haldane? Is it not odd that
she never alluded to it when his name has been mentioned? Ah, there are
the horses at last. Alan, do you see Maimouna arching that beautiful
neck of hers? I am certain she is thinking of me. I defy the crossest of
uncles to spoil _my_ ride to-day. Will he yours?"

Every shade of bitterness had passed away, and the sunniest side of
Helen's nature--wayward and wilful at times, but always frank and honest
and affectionate--showed itself before she finished speaking.

Reader of mine, whether young or old--suppose yourself, I beseech you,
to be standing, with none to witness your weakness, by the side of the
Oriana of the hour; let the loveliest of dark eyes be gazing into yours,
full of provocative promise, till their dangerous magnetism thrills
through brain and nerve and vein, and then--tax your imagination or your
memory for Alan Wyverne's answer. You will write it out better than I,
and it will be a charity to the printer; for, were it correctly set
down, it would be so curiously _broken up_ as to puzzle the cleverest
compositor of them all.

Alan and his cousin enjoyed their ride thoroughly, without one _arrière
pensée_. Thus far there was not a shadow of suspicion on one side, not
the faintest consciousness of intentional concealment on the other;
nevertheless, there was already one subject on which they could not
speak quite openly and freely. It was early, too early, to begin even a
half reserve. When such a sign appears in the "pure æther" so soon after
the dawning of love, however light and small and white the cloudlet may
be, the weatherwise foretell a misty noon and a stormy sunset.



CHAPTER IX.

THE LONG ODDS ARE LAID.


A man must be very peculiarly constituted--indeed, there must be
something wrong about his organization--if he does not entertain a
certain partiality for his female cousins, even to the third and fourth
generation. But the same remark by no means applies to the brothers of
those attractive kinswomen. Your male cousin either stands first and
foremost on the list of your friends, or you are absolutely uninterested
in his existence. There _are_ instances of family feuds, of course, but
these, nowadays, are comparatively rare. The intercourse between Alan
Wyverne and Max Vavasour had never gone deeper than common careless
courtesy. It was not to be wondered at. Both were in the best society,
but they lived in different sets, meeting often, but seldom coming in
actual contact. Just so, they say, the regular passengers by the
parallel lines of rail converging at London-bridge recognise familiar
faces daily as they speed along side by side, though each may remain to
the other "nameless, nameless evermore." Besides this, the tastes of the
cousins were as dissimilar as their characters; for the mere fact of two
men being extravagant by no means establishes a real sympathy between
them.

Alan's favourite pursuits you know already. Max was lady Mildred
reproduced, with the exception of her great talents, which he had not
fully inherited; but he had the same cool calculating brain, with whose
combinations the well-disciplined heart never interfered. This, added to
a perfect unscrupulousness of thought and action, many diplomatists
besides Vavasour have found to be a very fair substitute for unerring
prescience and profound sagacity. Both morally and physically he was
wonderfully indolent, and, doing most things well, rarely attempted
anything involving the slightest exertion. His shooting was remarkably
good; but two or three hours of a battue about the time of the best
_bouquets_, or a couple of turnip-fields swarming with birds, round
which the stubbles had been driven for miles, were about the extent of
his patience or endurance. As for going out for a real wild day after
partridges, or walking a quaking bog after snipe, or waiting for ducks
at "flight time," he would just as soon have thought of climbing the
Schreckhorn. He rode gracefully, and his hand on a horse was perfection;
but he had not hunted since he was eighteen, and his hacks, all
thoroughbreds with good action, were safe and quiet enough to carry a
Premier. He especially affected watching other men start for cover on
one of those raw drizzling mornings which sometimes turn out well for
hunting, but in every other point of view are absolutely detestable. It
was quite a picture to see him return to his breakfast, and dally over
it with a leisurely enjoyment, and settle himself afterwards into the
easiest of lounging chairs, close to the library fire, with a pile of
French novels within reach of his hand. Occasionally, during the course
of the morning, he would lay aside his book, to make some such
reflective remark as--

"Pours still, doesn't it? About this time Vesey's reins must be
thoroughly soaked and slippery. I wonder how he likes riding that
pulling mare of his. And I should think Count Casca has more mist on his
spectacles than he quite fancies. It's a very strongly enclosed country,
I believe, and the ditches are proverbially deep. He must have 'left all
to his vife' before this."

And then he would resume his reading, with a shrug of his shoulders,
intimating as plainly as words could speak, intense self-congratulation,
and contempt for those who were out in the weather. Yet it was not nerve
in which Max was deficient. Twice already--he was scarcely
twenty-six--his life had been in mortal peril; once at Florence, where
he had got into a bad gambling quarrel, and again in a fearful railway
accident in England. On both occasions he had shown a cool, careless
courage, worthy of the boldest of the valiant men-at-arms whose
large-limbed effigies lined the galleries at Dene. In thews and stature
and outward seeming he was but a degenerate descendant of that stalwart
race, for he was scarcely taller than his sister, and had inherited his
mother's smooth dark complexion and delicate proportions. That same
indolence, it must be owned, told both ways, and went far to neutralize,
for evil as well as for good, the effect of the calculating powers
referred to. He had a certain obstinacy of will, and was troubled with a
few inconvenient scruples, but wanted initiative energy to entangle
himself or others in any of those serious scrapes which are not to be
settled by money. So far, Max Vavasour's page in the _Chronique
Scandaleuse_ was a blank.

The heir of Dene and his friends arrived so late, that they had barely
time to dress for dinner. No private conference took place, apparently,
between the mother and son that evening; but the latter joined the
others very late in the smoking-room. It is scarcely to be presumed that
the doffing of _la grande tenue_ and the donning of an elaborately
embroidered suit of purple velvet, would consume forty-five minutes; so
that half an hour remained unaccounted for, during which interval
probably the boudoir was witness to a few important confidences.

Max was rather fond of his sister, after his own fashion, and never
vexed or crossed her if he could help it; so when they spoke of her
engagement on the following morning, he not only forbore to reproach her
with its imprudence, but expressed himself hopefully and kindly enough
to satisfy Helen's modest expectations. She knew her brother too well to
anticipate expansiveness or enthusiasm from _that_ quarter. To Alan he
was, naturally, much less cordial in his congratulations; indeed, it was
only by courtesy that they could be called congratulations at all. Max
had a soft, quiet way of saying unpleasant things--truths or the
reverse--that some people rather liked, and others utterly abhorred. On
the present occasion he did not scruple to confess frankly his opinion
as to the undesirability of the match, to which the other listened with
at least equal composure.

"I wish I had not gone to Scotland," Vavasour went on, reflectively. "I
do believe I could have stopped it, if I had only been on the spot, or
forewarned. I needn't say, I have no prejudices against you
personally--nobody _has_ any such weaknesses nowadays"--(how very old
the young face looked as he said it); "but it's a simple question of
political expediency. I may be very fond of Switzerland or Belgium; but,
as an ally, I should much prefer France or Russia. The Squire has told
you, of course? Things are going hard with us just now. I doubt if the
smash can be staved off much longer. A _very_ great match might just
have stood between us and ruin; and Helen would have had the chance of
it, I am certain. _You_ know that, as well as any one. There is
something peculiar about her style of beauty. I am not infatuated about
her because she is my sister; but I swear, there was not a woman in
London fit to be compared with her last season, and I don't know that I
ever saw one--except, perhaps, Nina Lenox in her best days. By the body
of Bacchus! we might have had our choice of all the eligibles in
England!"

"Including Clydesdale, for instance,"--Wyverne remarked.

There was a smile on his lip, but no mirth in his eyes, which fastened
on his cousin's with a piercing earnestness hard to encounter. Not a
muscle of Max's face moved, his pale cheek never flushed for an instant,
and he returned the other's glance quite as steadily.

"Including Clydesdale,"--he answered, in his grave, gentle tones. "Of
course, that would have been the very connexion one would have liked. I
should have tried to make up the match, if you had not unfortunately
come in the way, and I should do so still if anything were to happen to
you. Don't suppose I am going to have you poisoned, or that I shall
shoot you by accident, or machinate against you in any way whatever; but
life is very uncertain; and--my dear Alan--you do ride remarkably hard."

Wyverne laughed merrily, without the slightest affectation or
bitterness. Perhaps he had never liked his companion better than at that
moment.

"By heaven, Max," he said--contemplating the philosopher not without
admiration--"you're about the coolest hand I know. I don't believe
there's another man alive, who would speculate on the advantages
contingent on his cousin's breaking his neck, to the face of the said
unlucky relation. I've hardly the heart to disappoint you, but--I don't
think I shall hunt much this season. I suppose you wouldn't allow
Clydesdale to buy Red Lancer, if Vesey does not take him? Ah! I thought
not. Seriously--I admit all your objections--and more; but I exhausted
my penitence with 'my lady' and the Squire, who appreciated it better
than you would do. What would you have? All are not born to be martyrs.
I quite allow that I ought never to have tried to win Helen; but I'm not
self-denying enough to give her up. I shall keep her, if I can."

"Of course you will," the other replied, resignedly. "Well, I have said
my say, and now things must take their course. _I_ am passive. I hope
the event may be better than the prospect; but I shall give myself no
trouble till the crash comes--nor then, if I can help it. _You_ seem to
get on rather better since you were ruined. By the bye, there's no
chance, I suppose, of that old ruffian, Haldane's, dying and relenting?
My lady told me about his letter--at least, as much as you chose to tell
her."

Wyverne shook his head, but had not time to answer, for at that moment
they joined the rest of the shooting-party, who were at luncheon. Max
had only come out just in time to have this talk with his cousin; but he
remained with them for a couple of hours in the afternoon, seemed in
capital spirits, and never shot better in his life.

I will try to sketch the scene, in the cedar drawing-room at Dene, on
the fourth evening after the arrival of fresh guests. They are the only
addition, so far, to the family party, though more are expected
incontinently.

Helen Vavasour is at the piano, and close to her side, on a low chair,
placed so that his head almost touches her shoulder, sits Alan Wyverne.
He has behaved perfectly to-day, never attempting to monopolize his
_fiancée_, not even securing a place near her when she came out to meet
the shooting-party at luncheon; apparently he thinks he has a right to
indemnify himself for a brief space now. It is rather a brilliant piece
she is playing, but not so difficult as to interfere with a murmured
conversation, evidently very pleasant and interesting to both parties.
The Squire and the Rector are playing their everlasting piquet, which
has been going on for nearly a score of years, and is still undecided.
It is a very good match, and both are fair players, though each is
disposed privately to undervalue his adversary's science, characterizing
him as "the best card-holder in Europe." The great difference is that
Vavasour looks at a bad hand with a cheerful unconcern, whereas Geoffry
Knowles knits his brow, and bites his lip, when luck is running against
him, and has never learnt to dissemble his discontent or discomfiture.
Lady Mildred is reclining on her own peculiar sofa, and, on a stool
close to her elbow, lounges Bertie Grenvil--better known as "The Cherub"
in half the fast coteries of London, and throughout the Household
Brigade.

It is a very fair face to look upon, shaded by masses of soft, sunny
silken hair, and lighted up by large, eloquent eyes of the darkest blue.
It would be almost faultless, were it not for the extreme effeminacy,
which the delicately trained moustache fails to redeem. He is one of "my
lady's" prime favourites; she has assisted him ere this with her
countenance and counsel, when such help was sorely needed; for it is a
wild, wicked little creature--reckless and enterprising as Richelieu in
his pagehood--always gambling and love-making, in places where he has no
earthly business to risk his money or his heart. With those smooth
pink-and-white cheeks, and plaintive manner, and innocent ways of his,
The Cherub has done more mischief already than a dozen years of
perpetual penance could atone for. At this moment he is confiding to "my
lady" the hopes and fears of his last _passion malheureuse_, suppressing
carefully the name of the object--a very superfluous precaution, for
Lady Mildred has guessed it long ago, and can afford to be
amused--innocently. She knows, what Bertie does not wot of, that his
pursuit will be absolutely _theoretical_ and fruitless.

Very near them, lounges Max Vavasour. He looks up, ever and anon, from
that eternal _novelette_, and as his eye meets his mother's, a quick
glance of intelligence passes between them. It is more than probable
that he has been, told off for "interior and picket duty" this evening,
but the time for action has not yet come.

Only two of the party remain to be noticed. They are sitting together,
rather remote from the rest, and somewhat in the shadow. We will take
the younger man first, though his appearance is not exactly attractive.

His features, naturally coarse and exaggerated, bear evident traces of
self-indulgence, if not of intemperance; that cruel sensual mouth would
spoil a better face, and the effect of an unpleasantly sanguine
complexion is rather heightened than relieved by crisp, strong reddish
hair, coming low down on the heavy forehead, and framing the pendulous
cheeks; his big, ungainly frame is far too full and fleshy for his
years; one solitary sign of "race" shows itself in his hands, somewhat
large, but perfectly shaped. Yet, if the possessor of all these personal
disadvantages were to enter any London drawing-room side by side with
Bertie Grenvil, and it were a question of being warmly welcomed, the
odds would be heavily against the Guardsman. I wish an "alarum and
flourish of trumpets" were available to accompany the announcement of so
august a name. That is no other than Raoul, tenth Earl of Clydesdale,
Viscount Artornish, lord of a dozen minor baronies, and Premier _Parti_
of England.

His income varies by tens of thousands, according to the price of divers
minerals, but never falls short of the colossal. He owns broad lands and
manors in nearly every county north of the Tyne; and, when he came of
age four years ago, the border-side blazed with as many bale-fires, as
ever were lighted in old days to give warning that the lances of
Liddesdale were out on the foray. Ever since he left college, the
match-makers of Great Britain have been hard on his trail; and his
movements, as chronicled in the _Post_, are watched with a keener
interest than attaches to the "progress" of any royal personage. He is
so _terribly_ wealthy that even the great city financiers speak of his
resources with a certain awe; for, independently of his vast income,
there are vague reports of accumulations, varying from a quarter to half
a million. His father died when the present Earl was in his cradle.

There is nothing very remarkable, outwardly, about the other man.
Harding Knowles has rather a disappointing face: you feel that it ought
to have been handsome, and yet that is about the last epithet you would
apply to it. The features individually are good, and there is plenty of
intellect about them, though the forehead is narrow; but the general
expression is disagreeable--something between the cunning and the
captious. There is a want of repose, just now, about his whole
demeanour--a sort of fidgety consciousness of not being in his right
place; he is always changing his position restlessly, and his hands are
never still for a moment. He had been Clydesdale's "coach" at Oxford for
two or three terms, and had acquired a certain hold on the latter's
favour, chiefly by the exercise of a brusque, rough flattery, which the
Earl chose to mistake for sincerity and plain speaking.

No parasite can be perfect, unless he knows when to talk and when to
hold his tongue. Knowles had mastered that part of the science,
thoroughly. On the present occasion he saw that the silent humour
possessed his patron, and was careful not to interrupt the lordly
meditations; only throwing in now and then a casual observation
requiring no particular answer. No one dreams of deep drinking nowadays
in general society; but the Earl has evidently taken quite as much
claret as was good for him--enough to make him obstinate and savage.
That pair at the piano seem to fascinate him strangely. He keeps
watching every movement of Wyverne's lips, and every change in Helen's
colour, as if he would guess the import of their low earnest words. A
far deeper feeling than mere curiosity is evidently at work. It is well
that the half-closed fingers shade his eyes just now, for they are not
good to meet--hot and blood-shot, with a fierce longing and wrathful
envy. Not an iota of all this escaped Harding Knowles; but he allowed
the bad brutal nature to seethe on sullenly, till he deemed it was time
to work the safety-valve.

"A pretty picture," he said at last, with rather a contemptuous glance
in the direction of the lovers--Clydesdale ground out a bitter blasphemy
between his teeth; but the other went on as if he had heard
nothing--"Yes, a very pretty picture; and Sir Alan Wyverne deserves
credit for his audacity. But I can't help feeling provoked, at such a
rare creature being so perfectly thrown away. If ever there was a woman
who was born to live in state, she sits there; and they will have to be
pensioners of the Squire's, if they want anything beyond necessaries.
It's a thousand pities."

"You mean she might have made a better match?" the other asked: he felt
he must say something, but he seemed to speak unwillingly, and his
voice, always harsh and guttural, sounded thicker and hoarser than
usual.

"Yes, I am sure she might have made a better match: I _think_ she might
have made--the best in England."

Knowles spoke very slowly and deliberately, almost pausing between each
of the last words. His keen steady gaze fastened on Clydesdale, till the
Earl's fierce blue eyes sank under the scrutiny, and the flush on his
cheek deepened to crimson.

"What the d--l's the use of talking about that now?" he grumbled out,
"now that it's all over and settled?"

"Settled, but not all over. I'm not fond of betting as a rule; but I
should like to take long odds--_very_ long odds, mind, for Wyverne's
dangerous when he is in earnest--that the engagement never comes off."

Lord Clydesdale paused quite a minute in reflection. There was a wicked
crafty significance in the other's look that he could not misunderstand.

"I don't know what you call long odds," he said at last, "but I'll lay
_you_ five thousand to fifty that it is not broken off within the year."


There are men, not peculiarly irascible or punctilious, who would have
resented those words and the tone in which they were spoken as a direct
personal insult; but Knowles was not sensitive when it was a question of
his own advantage or advancement, and had sucked in avarice with his
mother's milk.

"I'll book that bet," he answered, coolly. "I take all chances in. Sir
Alan might die, you know, before the year is out; or Miss Vavasour might
come to her senses."

So he wrote it down carefully on his ivory tablets, affixing the date
and his initials. They both knew it--he was signing a bond, just as
effectually as if it had been engrossed on parchment and regularly
witnessed and sealed. But neither cared to look the other in the face
now. In the basest natures there lingers often some faint useless
remnant of shame. I fancy that Marcus rather shrank from meeting his
patron's glance, when he went out from the Decemvir's presence to lay
hands on Virginius's daughter.

While this conversation was going on, Max Vavasour had roused himself
from his easy chair, and strolled over towards the piano. It is probable
that he had got his orders from "my lady's" eloquent eye. As he came
near, Wyverne drew back slightly, with a scarcely perceptible movement
of impatience, and Helen stopped playing. They both guessed that her
brother had not disturbed himself without a purpose.

"It's a great shame to interrupt you, Alan," Max said; "but one has
certain duties towards one's guests, I believe; and you might help me
very much, if you would be good-natured. You see, all this isn't much
fun for Clydesdale; and I want to keep him in good humour, if I
can--never mind why. He's mad after _ecarté_ just now, and he has heard
that you are a celebrity at it. He asked me to-day if I thought you
would mind playing with him? I would engage him myself with pleasure;
but it would be no sport to either party. He knows, just as well as you
do, how infamously I play."

Wyverne very seldom refused a reasonable request, and he was in no mood
to be churlish.

"What must be, must be," he replied, with a sigh of resignation. "If the
Great Earl is to be amused, and no other martyr is available, thy
servant is ready, though not willing. I thought I had lost enough in my
time at that game. It is hard to have to lose, now, such a pleasant seat
as this. Tell him I'll come directly. I suppose he don't want to gamble?
He has two to one the best of it, though, when he has made me stir from
here. Helen, perhaps you would not mind singing just one or two songs? I
am Spartan in my tastes so far: I like to be marshalled to my death with
sweet music."

So the two sat down, at the _ecarté_ table. Clydesdale betrayed an
eagerness quite disproportionate to the occasion when Max Vavasour
summoned him to the encounter. He suggested that the stakes should be a
"pony" on the best of eleven games: to this Alan demurred.

"I have given up gambling now," he said; "but, even when I played for
money, I never did so with women in the room. A pony is a nominal stake
with you, of course: with me, it is different. You may have ten on, if
you like. I only play one rubber."

The other assented without another word, and the battle began. The Earl
was far from a contemptible adversary; but he was palpably over-matched.
Wyverne had held his own before this with the best and boldest of half
the capitals in Europe. He played carelessly at first, for his thoughts
were evidently elsewhere; but got interested as the game went on, and
developed all the science he possessed: it carried him through one or
two critical points against invariably indifferent cards. At last they
were five games all, and were commencing "_la belle_." Max, Harding
Knowles, and Bertie Grenvil (who never could keep away from a
card-table, unless some extraordinary potent counter-excitement were
present) had been watching the match from the beginning; the last having
invested 11--10 on Wyverne--taken by Clydesdale eagerly. The cards ran
evenly enough. By dint of sheer good play Alan scored three to his
opponent's two. As he was taking up his hand in the next deal, Miss
Vavasour came up softly behind him, and leant her arm on the high carved
back of his chair. She felt sure that her cousin would win, and wanted
to share even in that trivial triumph. I wonder how often in this world
women have unconsciously baulked the very success they were most anxious
to secure? Alan held the king and the odd trick certain; but, if his
life had depended on the issue, he could not have helped looking up into
the glorious dark eyes to thank them for their sympathy. At that moment
his adversary played first, and Wyverne followed suit, without marking.
It was one of those fatal _coups_ that Fortune never forgives. The next
deal Clydesdale turned up the king, and won the _vole_ easily.

Even Max Vavasour, who knew him well, and had seen him play for
infinitely larger stakes, was astonished at the excitement that the Earl
displayed; he dashed down the winning card with an energy which shook
the table, and actually glared at his opponent with a savage air of
exultation, utterly absurd and incomprehensible under the circumstances.

Alan leant back in his chair, regarding the victor's flushed cheek and
quivering lips with an amused smile, not wholly devoid of sarcasm.

"On my honour, I envy you, Clydesdale," he said quietly; "there's an
immense amount of pleasure before you. Only conceive the luxury of being
able to gratify such a passion for play as yours must be, without danger
of ruin! I never was so interested about anything in my life as you were
about that last hand; and bad cards for ten years, at heavy stakes,
would only get rid of some of your superfluous thousands."

The exultation faded from the Earl's face, and it began to lower
sullenly. He felt that he had made himself ridiculous, and hated Wyverne
intensely for having made it more apparent.

"You don't seem to understand that we were playing for love," he
muttered. "I had heard so much of your play, that I wanted to measure
myself against it, and I was anxious to win. It appears that the great
guns miss fire sometimes, like the rest of us."

"Of course they do," Wyverne answered, cheerfully. "Not that I am the
least better than the average. But we are all impostors from first to
last."

The party broke up for the night almost immediately afterwards. Alan
laughed to scorn all his fair cousin's penitential fears about "her
having interrupted him just at the wrong moment." It is doubtful if he
ever felt any self-reproach for his carelessness, till Bertie Grenvil
looked up plaintively in his face, as the two were wending their way to
the smoking-room.

"Alan, I _did_ believe in your _ecarté_," he said.

There was not much in the words, but the Cherub uttered them with the
air of a man to whom so wonderfully few things are left to believe in,
that the defalcation of one of those objects of faith is a very serious
matter indeed.

Yet Wyverne was wrong, and did his adversary in some sort injustice,
when he supposed that the spirit of the gambler accounted altogether for
the latter's eagerness and excitement. Other and different feelings were
working in Lord Clydesdale's heart when he sat down to play. One of
those vague superstitious presentiments that men are ashamed to confess
to their dearest friends shot across him at the moment. He had said
within himself--"It is my luck against his, not only now, but hereafter.
If I win at this game, I shall beat him at others--at _all_." So you
see, in the Earl's imagination, much more was at issue than the nominal
stakes; and there was a double meaning in his words--"We were playing
_for love_."



CHAPTER X.

    "A shiny night,
    In the season of the year."


It was the third evening after that one recorded in the last chapter;
the party at Dene remained the same, though a large reinforcement was
expected on the morrow. Only the younger Vavasour was absent; he had
gone out to dine and sleep at the house of a country magnate, with whom
a Russian friend of Max's was staying. Lady Mildred and her daughter had
just left the drawing-room--it was close upon midnight--Wyverne followed
them into the hall to provide them with their tapers, and had not yet
succeeded in lighting Helen's--there never was such an obstinate piece
of wax, or such an awkward [Greek: pyrphoros.] It is possible he would
have lingered yet longer over the operation, and some pleasant last
words, but he suddenly caught sight of the chief butler standing in the
deep doorway that led towards the offices. The emergency must have been
very tremendous to induce that model of discretion to intrude himself on
any colloquy whatever; he evidently did not intend to do so now; but an
extraordinary intelligence and significance on the grave precise face,
usually possessed by a polite vacuity, made Alan conclude his
"good-nights" rather abruptly; he guessed that he was wanted.

"What is it, Hales?" he said, as soon as he came within speaking
distance.

The butler's voice was mysteriously subdued as he replied--

"My master wishes to see you in his study immediately, if you please,
Sir Alan. Mr. Somers is with him."

The said Somers was born and bred in Norfolk, but had been head keeper
at Dene for fifteen years--a brave, honest, simple-minded man, rather
blunt and unceremonious with his superiors, and apt to be surly with his
equals and subordinates; but not ill-conditioned or bad hearted _au
fond_; a really sincere and well-meaning Christian, too, though he would
swear awfully at times. He had only one aim and object in life--the
rearing and preservation of game; we should be lucky, some of us, if we
carried out our single idea as thoroughly well.

The Squire was looking rather grave and anxious, as his nephew entered.

"Tell Sir Alan at once what you have been telling me, Somers," he said.
"There is no time to lose, if we mean to act."

The keeper's hard, dark face, grew more ominous and threatening, as he
muttered--"Acting! I should hope there's no doubt about _that_: there
never was such a chance." And then in his own curt, quaint way, he gave
Wyverne the sum of his intelligence.

It appeared that the neighbourhood had been infested lately by a
formidable poaching gang, chiefly organized and directed by a certain
"Lanky Jem;" their head quarters were at Newmanham, and they had divided
their patronage pretty equally, so far, over all the manors in a circle
of miles round. They had done a good deal of harm already; for they
first appeared in the egging season, and had netted a large number of
partridges and hares, even before the first of September, since which
day they had been out somewhere every night. Of course it was most
important to arrest their depredations before they could get at the
pheasants. The gang had been seen more than once at their work; but
their numbers were too formidable--they mustered quite a score--for a
small party to buckle with; and to track them home was impossible; they
had carts always near, artfully concealed, with really good trotters in
the shafts; so, when they had secured as much as they could carry, they
were able to ensure their retreat, and dispose of their booty. In
Newmanham they took the precaution of changing their quarters
perpetually, which made it more difficult to catch them "red-handed."

That very day, however, one of the lot, partly from revenge, partly on
the certainty of a rich reward, had turned traitor. Somers was in
possession of exact information as to time and place: about _catching_
the poachers that night there was no doubt whatever--_holding_ them was
another question; for "Lanky Jem" had made no secret of his intention to
show fight if driven into a corner; indeed it was supposed that he would
not be averse to having a brush, under favourable circumstances, with
his natural enemies, the guardians of the game.

"They terms him Lanky Jem," the head-keeper explained; "'cause he comes
from Lankyshire. He's a orkard customer in a row, they say, wery
wenturesome and wery wenomous; he's taught his gang what they calls the
'rough-and-tumble game;' all's fair in that style they says, and if they
gets you down, you may reckon on having their heel in your mouth before
you can holler. I don't think that chap would have split, only he had
words with Jem; he knocked two of his teeth out, and roughed him
dreadful, by the looks on him. You'll see our man with the rest on 'em
to-night, Sir Alan, and don't you go to hit him; he'll have a spotted
hankercher half over his face, and won't be blacked like the others,
that's how you'll know him. I've taken the liberty already of letting
Sir Gilbert's folks know; we shall muster a score or thereabouts, and I
don't see no fear about matching 'em. The moon won't be down these two
hours, and they won't begin much afore that. They'll come back through
Haldon-lane, and I thought of lining it, Sir Alan, and nipping down on
'em there, if it's agreeable to you; the banks are nicely steep, and
they won't get out of _that_ trap in a hurry."

The Squire could not help smiling at the quiet way in which the old
keeper took his nephew's presence and personal aid for granted.

"You have not asked Sir Alan if he means to go out with you," he
remarked.

"I should think not," Wyverne interposed. "Somers knows me too well to
waste words in that way. What a piece of luck, to be sure! Haldon-lane
is the very place for an ambush; if we manage well we ought to bag the
whole batch of them. You shall be general, Somers--I see your baton's
all ready--I'll do my best as second in command. I think I ought to let
the other men know, Uncle Hubert? I shall be ready in ten minutes, and
so will they, I'll answer for them. If you've anything to do before we
start, you had better see about it at once, Somers. We'll all meet in
the servants' hall in a quarter of an hour."

The keeper indulged in a short, grim laugh of satisfaction and approval.

"I like to hear you talk, Sir Alan," he said; "you always comes to the
point and means business. Everything's ready when you are; but we
needn't start for a good half hour yet. My men are stanch enough, I
reckon; but it's no good keeping 'em too long, sitting in the cold."

The Squire laid his hand kindly on his nephew's shoulder, and stood for
a second or two looking into his face, with a hearty affection and
pride.

"I can't tell you how glad I am you are here, Alan. Even if Max had been
at home, I think I would have asked you to go out to-night. I am too old
for this sort of thing now; but somebody must be there that I can trust
thoroughly. There will be wild work before morning, I fear, and coolness
may be needed as much as courage. There has been no bloodshed, for the
game, in my time, that the village-doctor could not stanch; and it would
grieve me bitterly--_you_ can guess why--if any one were dangerously
hurt now. We have had no fray so serious as this promises to be. You
will take care, Alan, will you not? I am very anxious about it; I half
wish I were going out myself."

"I'll take every care, Uncle Hubert," the other answered, cheerily. "But
I don't the least apprehend any grave accident; it isn't likely they
will have guns with them, as they are out netting, and don't dream of
being waylaid. I must go and tell the others, and get ready. I shall see
you before we start, and when we come back, perhaps, with our
prisoners."

It was very characteristic of those two, that Vavasour never hesitated
to expose his nephew to peril, nor of excusing himself for not going out
to share it; while Wyverne accepted the position perfectly, simply, and
naturally. It was evidently a plain question of expediency; the idea
that it was possible to shrink from mere personal danger never crossed
either of their minds.

Lord Clydesdale and Bertie Grenvil decided at once on joining the
expedition; though it must be confessed that the alacrity displayed by
the former hardly amounted to enthusiasm: it had rather the appearance
of making the best of a disagreeable necessity.

Alan had nearly finished his brief preparations when there came a low
knock at his door; when he opened it Lady Mildred's maid was on the
threshold. "'My lady' wished to speak to him particularly: she was in
her boudoir, and would not detain him a moment."

There Wyverne found her. It struck him that her cheek was a shade paler
than usual, but the effect of contrast, produced by her _peignoir_ of
deep purple and her dark hair braided close round her small head, may
have helped to deceive him. There was an accent of annoyance in her
voice as she said--

"Alan, what is this I hear about your going out with the keepers? How
can you be so rash? What on earth are those people paid for if it is not
to take poachers? Surely they know their own business best, and can do
it alone."

"Not on an occasion like this, Aunt Mildred: heads as well as hands are
useful sometimes. Even as Venice used to send out a pacific civilian to
watch the conduct of their generals, so am I deputed to-night to control
the ardour of the faithful Somers and his merry-men all. I hope to do
myself credit as a moderator."

"I wish you would be serious for once. Even if _you_ must go out, which
I am certain there is no necessity for, there can be no reason for those
other two accompanying you. Of course, I don't suppose there is danger
of life; but it is quite dreadful to think of that poor delicate Bertie
_aux prises_ with some drunken ruffian; and if Lord Clydesdale were to
meet even with a slight hurt or disfigurement, I am sure he would detest
Dene for ever and ever. Alan, do try what you can do to stop it."

He laughed within himself as he muttered, under his breath, "_Enfin, je
te vois arriver_;" but his manner was quite easy and unsuspicious as he
answered her--

"I'm not much afraid for the Cherub; he can take good care of himself
anywhere. You all pet him so much that you do injustice to his pluck.
You never seem to remember that he is a soldier. He may have to guard
his head in sharp earnest one of these days. But you are quite right
about Clydesdale. I had much rather he stayed behind; but I fear it
would be useless to try to dissuade him now. Aunt Mildred, you don't
quite understand these things. He _must_ go. But you may sleep in peace.
Not a hair of that august head shall be harmed if I can help it. You
have read your _Maid of Perth_? Well, your unworthy nephew and other
retainers of the house will do duty as a body-guard, like Torquil and
his eight sons. The word for the night is, _Bas air son Eachin_. I only
hope the parallel won't quite be carried out. All the nine fell, you
remember, and then--the young chief ran away. I must not stay another
second. Dear Aunt Mildred, give us your good wishes. You may be easy, if
you will only trust to me."

He kissed her hand before she was aware, and was gone before she could
reply. When Alan came into the servants' hall, he found the whole party
mustered, with the exception of the Earl, who joined them almost
immediately. The latter had evidently bestowed some pains on his
equipment. He wore rather an elaborate cap, with a black cock's feather
in the band, white breeches, and boots coming above the knee; but the
most remarkable feature was a broad belt of untanned leather, girding
the shooting-coat of black velvet. From this was suspended a formidable
revolver, balanced by a veritable _couteau-de-chasse_.

Wyverne scanned him from head to foot with a cool critical eye, and then
took Clydesdale aside a little from the rest.

"It's a picturesque 'get up,'" he said; "a little too much in the style
of the bold smuggler, but that's a matter of taste. May I ask what you
intend to do with these?"

He touched the weapons with the point of his finger.

"Do with them? Use them, of course," the earl replied, flushing angrily.
"I made my fellow load the revolver afresh, while I was dressing.
There's no fear of its missing fire."

The other laughed outright.

"Did you mean to let all those barrels off, and then go in and finish
the wounded with that terrible hanger? I give you credit for the idea;
but, my dear Clydesdale, we are not in Russia or the Tyrol, unluckily. A
man's life is held of some account here, you know, and there's a d--l of
a row if you massacre even a poacher. You must be content with the
primeval club. See, there's a dozen to choose from. The Squire allows no
other weapons. Ask him, if you like. Here he comes."

Vavasour, when appealed to, spoke so decisively on the subject, that the
Earl had no option but to yield. He did so, chafing savagely, for he was
unused to the faintest contradiction, and registered in his sullen heart
another grievance against Alan Wyverne. After a few words of caution and
encouragement, addressed by the Squire to the whole party, they started.
He griped his nephew's hand hard as the latter went out, and whispered
one word--"Remember."

When they had gone a few hundred yards from the house, Wyverne fell back
to the rear of the column and took Grenvil by the arm.

"Look here, Bertie," he said, gravely. "I'm rather sorry I didn't go out
alone on this business. We shall meet a roughish lot in an hour's time.
Now, don't be rash and run your head against danger unnecessarily. I
shall not be able to look after you; I've got a bigger baby in charge
to-night. I should hate myself for ever if your beauty was spoiled."

The Cherub laughed carelessly and confidently. The burliest Paladin that
ever wore a beard was not more utterly fearless than he. He could use
those little hands of his (he was in the habit of exchanging gloves with
his favourite partners) as neatly and as prettily as he did everything
else, and in sooth was no contemptible antagonist for a lightweight.

"Don't bother yourself about me, Alan," he answered. "I'll look after my
face, you may rely on it. I've been very diligent in my practice lately,
and if I get hold of an extraordinarily small poacher, perhaps I may
astonish him with what the Pet calls--the 'London Particular.'"

They met Sir Gilbert Nevil's men by the way, and when they reached the
place of ambush, numbered twenty-two stalwart fighting men. The spot was
admirably adapted for the purpose; a narrow deep lane passed just there
through the crest of a small hill, and the brushwood on the steep banks
was sufficient to hide a larger party. The rest nestled down there as
comfortably as they could, while Alan and the head-keeper climbed the
ridge to look out over the champaign lying beneath them. They had not
long to wait before two lights appeared on the plain below, moving
quickly within a foot or so of the ground, and every now and then
becoming stationary. They were lanterns fastened round the necks of the
steady pointers quartering the stubbles.

The keeper gave vent to a suppressed groan, ending in a growl.

"There they are, d--n 'em," he muttered. "The very beat I meant you to
take to-morrow, Sir Alan. They won't be long in filling that ere blasted
bag of theirs. I see five coveys on that forty-acre bit this arternoon.
We'll take our change out of 'em before we sleep, or my name ain't Ben
Somers."

Wyverne shook his head warningly.

"Your blood's hotter than mine, I do believe," he said, "though you are
old enough to be my father. But mind, there is to be no unnecessary
violence to-night. I've passed my word to the Squire, and you ought to
help me to keep it. If they show fight, it's another matter, and they
may take the consequences."

"I'll pound it, they fight," the other grumbled; "it comes more nateral
to Jem than running, 'specially as he'll find hisself in a middlin'
tight trap. We may get back to cover, sir; they'll not be long now; I
reckon they'll finish in that stubble close agin' the lane."

So they rejoined their companions. The ambush was thus disposed. Eight
men, including Somers, Wyverne, and Lord Clydesdale, took post, four on
either bank, at a certain spot; six others, similarly divided, were left
about forty yards in the rear--Bertie Grenvil was with this lot--the
others concealed themselves at short intervals along the vacant space;
the signal was not to be given till the poachers had got well into the
space between the two main bodies; that in advance was rather the
strongest, as it was expected the marauders would try to force their way
into the high road, where carts were sure to be awaiting them. So,
without a movement of tongue or finger, they were to bide their time.

Unless one is gifted with exceptional nerves, that time of suspense
before action is very trying. To compare great things with small, I
heard one of the best and bravest of all who went up to the Redan,
confess, the other day, that he never felt so uncomfortable as during
those long minutes when the men stood in their ranks waiting for the
last orders, and that it was an unspeakable relief when the word was
given for the stormers to advance.

Lord Clydesdale evidently liked his position less and less every moment.
"Cursedly cold, isn't it?" he muttered, at last, and in truth his teeth
were chattering audibly.

"Pocket-pistols are not interdicted, if other fire-arms are," Wyverne
whispered, good-humouredly. "Take a pull at mine, and wrap my plaid
round you; I really don't want it, I'm better clothed for this work than
you are, I fancy; I've been at it before."

The Earl took the plaid, and half drained the flask without a word of
thanks; he was still brooding sulkily over the rebuff he fancied he had
met with before starting; besides this, the world had spoilt him so
long, that self-sacrifice on the part of his fellow-men for the
convenience of Lord Clydesdale, seemed to him the most natural condition
of things imaginable; he accepted such tributes affably or morosely,
according to his humour, but invariably as his proper due.

Alan interpreted his companion's feelings pretty correctly, and smiled
contemptuously to himself in the darkness.

"You amiable aristocrat!" he muttered between his teeth; "if it were not
for vexing Aunt Mildred, and for my promise to her, would I _not_ let
you look out for yourself this cold morning? I wonder if a thoroughly
good thrashing would improve your temper; it were a good deed to allow
the experiment to be tried. I do believe the most inveterate ruffian we
shall meet, has more natural courtesy than has fallen to your share."

But the momentary bitterness soon passed away. Alan--as is the wont of
his kind--never felt so benevolent towards mankind in general as when
the moment of danger approached, which was to bring him into conflict
with certain units of the species. Surely that perfect physical
fearlessness is an enviable, if not a very ennobling qualification; it
enables you to charge a big fence or a big adversary, with comparative
comfort to yourself; in neither case, unfortunately, will it ensure you
against a bad fall; but unless quite disabled, you rise up and go on
again, as cheerfully as Antæus, and are at all events spared any pains
of anticipation. An interval of silence which seemed very long, ensued.
Suddenly Wyverne laid a firm, steady grasp on Lord Clydesdale's arm.

"Take off that plaid," he said, in the lowest and quietest of whispers;
"you'll be warm enough in five minutes. They are in the next stubble
now."

The ear of the practised deer-stalker, accustomed to listen for the
rattle of a hoof far up the corries, had already caught certain faint
sounds imperceptible to his companions. Somers heard them, though,
nearly as soon; they could just see him through the black darkness,
stretching his brawny limbs, and twisting round his wrist the thong of
his bludgeon.

The fall of footsteps came nearer and nearer, more and more distinct, as
the poachers crossed the low fence one by one, and got on to the harder
ground; they were evidently very numerous. They did not come on in
detached straggling parties, but appeared to wait till all were in the
lane, and then advanced in something like a regular column, in the
centre of which four men carried, in two nets made for the purpose, the
night's spoil; as this entirely consisted of birds, the weight was
overwhelming, though the result had been extraordinarily successful.

"Get on, two of ye, as soon as we top the hill," a deep, hoarse voice
said, from the midst of the poachers; "and mind you see all clear."

The slightest touch of Wyverne's arm, and the discreetest chuckle,
testified to Somers' intense appreciation of the impending "sell." The
gang advanced with their habitually stealthy tread, but evidently quite
unsuspiciously, till they were hemmed in by the divisions of the ambush.
Then a whistle sounded shrill and ominous as Black Roderick's signal,
and a dozen port-fires blazed out at once, casting a weird, lurid glare
over the crowd of rugged blackened faces, working with various emotions
of wonder, rage, and fear.

In the pause that ensued, while the assailed were still under the
influence of the first surprise, and the assailants were waiting for
orders, Wyverne's voice was heard, not raised by one inflection above
its usual tone, and yet the most distant ear caught every syllable.

"Will you surrender at once? It is the best thing you can do."

The same voice answered which had spoken before--hoarse and thick with
passion.

"Surrender be d--d! Here's the chance we've been wanting ever so long.
Stick together, lads, and be smart with those bludgeons: there's enow of
us to cut the ---- keepers to rags."

Alan spoke again; and the curt, stern, incisive accents clove the still
night-air like points of steel.

"Stand fast in the front: close up there in the rear. It is our own
fault if a man gets through: we'll have all--or none."

He had only time for a hurried whisper--"Somers, whatever happens, look
after Lord Clydesdale;" for Bertie and his men came on with a rush and a
cheer. The port-fires were cast down and trampled out instantly, and
so--darkly and sullenly--the _melée_ began. It was likely to be an equal
one; the poachers had the disadvantage of the surprise and the attack
being against them, but they were slightly superior in numbers, and
their bludgeons were of a more murderous character than those carried by
the keepers, shod with iron for the most part, and heavily leaded. For a
minute or two the struggle went on in silence, only broken by the dull
sound of heavy blows, by hard, quick breathings, and by an occasional
curse or groan. Lord Clydesdale had drawn slightly aside, and so,
avoiding the first rush of the poachers, remained for awhile inactive.
Suddenly, as ill-luck would have it, he found himself face to face with
the most formidable of all the gang. "Lanky Jem" had forced his way to
the front, partly because safety lay in that direction, partly because
he fancied that there fought "the foemen worthiest of his steel;" he had
his wits perfectly about him, and was viciously determined to do as much
damage as possible, whether he escaped or no. He saw the figure standing
apart from the rest, taking no part in the conflict, and instantly
guessed that he had to do with a personage of some condition and
importance: keepers are rarely contemplative or non-combatants at such a
moment.

"Here's one of them ---- swells!" he growled. "Come on, d--n ye! I'll
have _your_ blood, if I swing for it."

Clydesdale was not exactly a coward; if any ordinary _social_ danger had
presented itself, he would scarcely have quailed before it. For
instance, I believe he would have faced a pistol at fifteen paces with
average composure. But it so happened (he had not been at a public
school) that in all his life he had never seen a blow stricken in anger.
The aspect of his present adversary fairly appalled him. Independently
of the poacher's huge proportions and evidently great strength, there
was a cool, concentrated cruelty about the bull-dog face--the white
range of grinded teeth showing in relief against the blackness of his
sooty disguise--which made him a really terrible foe. The Earl looked
helplessly round, as though seeking for succour; but all his party
seemed to have already as much as they could do. He saw the grim giant
preparing for a spring, and all presence of mind utterly deserted him;
he drew hastily back without lifting his hands to defend himself; his
heel caught in a projecting root, and he fell supine, with a loud,
piteous cry. "Lanky Jem" was actually disconcerted by such absolute
non-resistance; but the brutal instinct soon reasserted itself, and he
was rushing in to maim and mangle the fallen man, after his own savage
fashion, when a fresh adversary stood in his path, bestriding Clydesdale
where he lay.

Wyverne had been engaged with a big foundry-man, who chanced to come
across him first; but even in the fierce grapple, where pluck and
activity could scarcely hold their own against weight and brute
strength, he had found time to glance repeatedly over his shoulder. He
saw the Earl fall, and extricating himself from his opponent's gripe
with an effort that sent the latter reeling back, he sprang lightly
aside, just in time to intercept the Lancashire man from his prey. But
the odds were fearfully against him now; for his original adversary had
recovered himself, and made in quickly to help his comrade. Both struck
at Alan savagely at the same instant. He caught one blow on his club,
but was obliged to parry the other with his left arm: the head was
saved, but the limb dropped to his side powerless. He ground his teeth
hard, and threw all the strength that was left him into one bitter blow;
it lighted on the temple of the man who had disabled him, and dropped
him like a log in his tracks. But, before Wyverne could recover himself,
the terrible Lancashire bludgeon came home on his brows, crushing in the
low, stiff crown of his hat like paper, and beating him down, sick and
dizzy, to his knee. He lifted his club mechanically, but it hardly broke
the full sway of another murderous stroke, which stretched him on his
face senseless. It looked as if he had remembered his promise to the
last; for he fell right over Clydesdale, effectually shielding the
latter with his own body.

Alan's life and this story had well nigh ended there and then. Such an
abrupt termination might possibly have been to _his_ advantage as well
as to yours, reader of mine. But it was not so to be. Just as Jem was
bracing his great muscles for one cool, finishing stroke on the back of
Wyverne's unprotected skull, a lithe active form lighted on his
shoulders, and slender, nervous fingers clutched his throat till they
seemed to bury themselves in the flesh; and as he fell backward, gasping
and half-strangled, a voice, suppressed and vicious as a serpent's hiss,
muttered in his ear three words in an unknown tongue--"_Basta, basta,
carissimo_!"

The poacher's vast strength, however, soon enabled him to shake off his
last assailant, and he was rising to his feet, more dangerous than ever,
when a tremendous blow descended right across his face, gashing the
forehead and crushing the bones of the nose in one fearful wound. The
miserable wretch sank down--all his limbs collapsing--without a groan or
a struggle, and lay there half drowned in blood.

The old head keeper stooped for a moment to examine his ghastly
handiwork, and then, lifting his head, remarked with a low fierce
laugh--

"I gives you credit for that move, Master Bertie, it wur wery neatly
done."

The poachers had been getting the worst of it all through; they were so
hemmed in in the narrow way that their numbers helped them but little;
indeed, some in the centre of the crowd never struck a blow. Their
leader's fall decided the fray at once; some voice cried out--"Don't hit
us any more; we gives in;" and they threw down their bludgeons, as
though by preconcerted signal.

So ended the most successful raid that had been heard of in that country
for years; they talk of it still. Out of twenty-six men, only three
escaped, and one of these was the informer. Neither was any one mortally
or even dangerously hurt, though there were some hideous wounds on both
sides; but, if you bar gunpowder, it takes a good deal to kill outright
a real tough "shires-man." Even "Lanky Jem" recovered after a while from
Somers' swashing blow, though they were obliged to carry him back to
Dene. The permanent disfigurement which ensued, made his repulsive
countenance rather more picturesque in its ugliness, so that it was an
improvement after all. He quitted those parts, though, as soon as he got
out of gaol, and never returned.

Of all the wounded, perhaps Wyverne was the most seriously hurt; but,
though his senses came back slowly, he was able to stagger home, leaning
heavily on Bertie Grenvil's shoulder. You must imagine the satisfaction
with which the Squire welcomed the conquerors and their captives.

    Unwounded from the dreadful close,
    But breathless all, the Earl arose.

Even his overweening self-esteem could not prevent Clydesdale's feeling
nervous and uncomfortable. He was conscious of having betrayed a very
discreditable pusillanimity; and he could not guess how many might be in
the secret of his discomfiture. There was nothing in the mere fact of
his coming out of the fray scathless, for Grenvil had not a scratch or a
bruise; but it struck him as rather odd, that nobody asked "if he were
hurt in any way." He was so perturbed in spirit, as hardly to be able to
display a decent amount of solicitude about Wyverne's injuries, or to
sympathize, with a good grace, in the triumph of the rest of the party.
There was one man, at all events, that he could never look in the face
again, without an unpleasant feeling of inferiority and obligation. Poor
Alan! He meant well; but he did not make a very good night's work of it,
after all. He got one or two hard blows, and changed Clydesdale's
previous dislike into a permanent and inveterate hate. Virtue is always
its own reward, you know.

Perhaps the Earl's _largesse_ to every one concerned in the capture
would not have been so extravagantly liberal, if he had guessed how
thoroughly the old keeper appreciated the real state of affairs. When
Somers alluded to the subject--which he did once a month for the rest of
his natural life--he generally concluded in these words:

"It wur the prettiest managed thing ever I see; but we wery near got
muddled at one time, all along of that there helpless Lord."



CHAPTER XI.

DIAMONDS THAT CUT DIAMONDS.


Helen Vavasour came of a race whose women, if tradition speaks truth,
could always look, at need, on battle or broil without blenching; but it
is probable she would hardly have slept so soundly that night, had she
guessed at what was going on under the stars. She heard nothing of the
preparations; the bustle was confined to those remote regions where a
Servile War might have been carried on without the patricians wotting of
it; the furlongs of passage and corridor in the vast old manoir
swallowed up all ordinary sounds. Pauline would of course have
enlightened her mistress, but Wyverne chanced to "head" her before she
could "make her point." The quick-witted Parisian saw that he meant what
he said, when he begged her not to open her lips on the subject, and
kept silence through the night, though it was pain and grief to her.
That sentimental _soubrette_ kept for Alan the largest share of a simple
hero-worship, and she lay awake for hours listening and quaking, and
interceding perpetually with her favourite Saint for the safeguard of
her favourite Paladin. Judge if she indemnified herself for her
reticence, when she woke Miss Vavasour on the following morning! She had
got a perfect Romance of the Forest ready, wherein Wyverne's exploits
transcended those of Sir Bevis, and the physical proportions of his foes
cast those of Colbrand or Ascapart into the shade.

Making all allowances for her handmaiden's vivid imagination, Helen came
down to breakfast in a great turmoil of curiosity and anxiety. She had
to wait for authentic particulars, till she got fevered with impatience.
The Squire, quite determined on doing _his_ share of the business
thoroughly, had followed the prisoners, already, to the neighbouring
town, where they were to answer their misdeeds before himself and other
magistrates. Helen had no reason to believe that her mother was better
informed than herself, and "my lady's" morning meditations were not
likely to be disturbed; no one else had shown any sign of life so far.
At last, Bertie Grenvil lounged into the breakfast-room. His appearance
was somewhat reassuring; there was not a trace of conflict or even of
weariness on the fair face; indeed, the Cherub was so used to turn night
into day, that late hours and sleeplessness were rather his normal
state. His answers to Helen's string of eager questions were rather
unsatisfactory; much in the style of old Caspar's reminiscences about
Blenheim:

    "Why that I cannot tell," quoth he:
    "But 'twas a famous victory."

Perhaps there was no real reserve or affectation about it; one's waking
recollections of a midnight fray are apt to be strangely distorted and
vague.

"I've seen Alan, this morning," Bertie remarked at length casually.
"He's wonderfully well, all things considered, and means to show at
luncheon; but I fear they've spoiled his shooting for some time; he
won't be able to use that left arm for a fortnight."

Miss Vavasour's cheek lost its colour instantly, and her hand shook so
that it could hardly set down the cup it held.

"You don't mean that Alan is seriously hurt?" she said. "And they never
told me. I have never even sent to ask after him. It is too cruel." She
rose quickly, and rang the bell, before Grenvil could anticipate her.

"What an idiot I am!" Bertie interjected, actually flushing with a real
self-reproach. "I thought you had heard that Alan had met with two or
three hard blows, or I would not have mentioned it so abruptly. Don't be
frightened; on my honour, they are nothing worse than bruises; he will
tell you so himself in an hour's time."

Helen forced a smile, and recovered her composure immediately. But she
did not seem comfortable till she had sent Pauline to bring a report of
her cousin's state from his own lips. The _soubrette_ had been kept in
equal ignorance with her mistress as to Wyverne's hurts, and when she
came back to repeat his cheerful message, her voice was trembling, and
her bright dark eyes were dim with tears.

The whole party--with the exception of the Squire--met at luncheon; for
Max Vavasour returned in the course of the morning. The latter
congratulated everybody very pleasantly on the success of the night's
expedition; and, it is possible, congratulated himself quite as
sincerely on having been out of the way; at all events, he affected no
regret at having missed his share of peril and glory. Alan Wyverne came
in the last. With the aid of a scientific valet, he had contrived to
dissemble very successfully the traces of the fray; the dark thick hair
swept lower than usual over his brows, and almost concealed the spot
where the first blow had fallen; the second had left no visible mark. He
seemed in the best possible spirits, and his gay, pleasant laugh came as
readily as ever, without an appearance of being forced or constrained;
but his face was very pale, and his left arm hung helplessly in its
sling.

The worst of Lord Clydesdale's enemies--already he had made not a
few--might have been satisfied at the state of the Earl's feelings, as
he sat there, brooding sullenly over the recollection of his own
discomfiture, and watching the _empressment_ which everybody seemed
determined to manifest towards his unconscious rival. Miss Vavasour, as
we have before said, was never "gushing" or demonstrative; but she
considered it the most natural thing in the world that her cousin should
be petted and tended under the circumstances. So she sat by his side,
anticipating and ministering to his wants with the tact and tenderness
that only a woman--and a loving one--can display, utterly ignoring the
savage blue eyes that kept glaring at her from beneath their bushy
brows. Clydesdale muttered curse after curse under his breath, and
drained glass after glass of the strong brown sherry that stood close to
his hand; the rich liquor seemed to be absorbed with no better effect
than a genial rain produces falling on a quicksand.

It was rather remarkable that no one seemed disposed to question _him_
much about last night's adventure. Possibly, Lady Mildred knew something
of the truth--though not all--and had taken Max into confidence; for her
maid might have been seen in close colloquy with one of the keepers,
early in the morning; and it is probable that model of austere and
dignified propriety would not so far have derogated without good cause.
However this might be, her manner towards Alan Wyverne was kind and
affectionate to a degree; when she spoke to Lord Clydesdale, a very
close observer might have detected a certain coldness in the perfect
courtesy. "My lady" was only a woman, after all; and the instincts of
her sex, though tamed and trained, would assert themselves sometimes.
She looked at the Earl as he sat there swelling with sulky
self-importance; ruddy, certainly--perhaps unpleasantly so--but not "of
a cheerful countenance;" then she looked across at Wyverne, just as a
bright, grateful smile lighted up all his wan face, and thanked Helen
for some trifling act of kindness. The contrast was too much for Lady
Mildred; for once, the cold diplomatist yielded to a real frank impulse
and forgot her cunning. When she rose with the others, she crossed over
to where Alan sat, and leant over him, on pretence of settling his
sling, till her lips touched his hair. Even Helen, who was so near, did
not catch the whisper--

"Ah, so many thanks! Who can help loving you--always braver and better
than your word?"

Neither ever alluded to the events of that night again, but they
understood each other perfectly; and to the end of his days, Wyverne
considered his services over-paid. In truth, it was no mean triumph to
have made "my lady," for more than a hundred seconds, thoroughly honest
and sincere.

That day brought a large influx of fresh guests to Dene; but only four
deserve special mention, and perhaps these might be reduced to three.

Grace Beauclerc was Alan's only sister. There was a strong likeness
between them, not only in features, but in character. She had the same
quiet thoroughbred face, that no one ever called beautiful, but every
one felt was intensely loveable; the same slender, graceful proportions;
the same soft, winning manner; the same power of attraction and
retaining the affection of men and women. The resemblance extended still
further--to their fortunes. Grace had not ruined herself,
certainly--with the exception of a few fair speculators of whose daring
The Corner and Capel Court are conscious, they generally leave that
luxury to _us_--but she had gone as near the wind as possible, by
contracting the most imprudent of alliances. How the Beauclercs lived,
was a mystery to their nearest and dearest friends. The crash had not
come at Wyverne Abbey when the marriage took place, and Alan had then
settled £400 a year on his sister; but this, added to the interest of
her own small fortune, and the pay of a clerk of nine years' standing in
the Foreign Office, hardly carried their income beyond the hundreds. A
cipher had represented Algernon Beauclerc's own personal assets long
before he married. Yet they lived apparently in great comfort, went out
everywhere, gave occasionally the nicest entertainments, at home, on a
very tiny scale, that you can conceive; and, it was said, were
wonderfully little in debt. It was a great social problem, in its way,
and one of those that it is not worth while puzzling oneself to solve.
But though Grace's husband had been very extravagant, and was still far
from self-denying, he was weak neither in mind nor principle; he loved
his wife and his children, after his fashion, far too well to involve
himself in any serious scrape; and contrived to utilize his amusements
to a remarkable degree. He was passionately fond of whist, and had
attained an exceptional intelligence in that fascinating game. His plan
was to set aside a certain sum each year to risk on its chances: the
profits went to the account of _menus plaisirs_, in which Grace had more
than her share; if the card-purse was emptied, nothing would induce him
to play again till the time arrived for replenishing it. Algy Beauclerc
hardly knew how to be angry, even with an incorrigibly careless or
stupid partner, and the world in general found it impossible to quarrel
with him. In appearance, he was a curious contrast to his wife--broad
and burly, with a bluff, jovial face, half shrouded in a forest of
blonde beard, and large, light, laughing eyes. Prince Percinet and
Graciosa never got on better together than did that apparently
ill-matched couple. The set in which they lived, though neither vicious
nor reckless, was decidedly fast; looking at Grace's quiet, rather
pensive face, one could not help fancying that she must have felt
sometimes uncomfortably out of her element; but she had a singular power
of adapting herself to circumstances, without being deteriorated
thereby. Presiding over one of those post-operatic _réunions_, where
cigars, and even cigarettes, were not interdicted--or playing with her
children, as she would do for hours of a morning--she always seemed
perfectly and placidly happy.

Of a very different stamp were the other pair that remain to be noticed.
Not only her intimate friends, and the men with whom she had flirted
more or less seriously--they would have made a fair second-battalion to
any regiment--but the whole of London opened wondering eyes when
handsome, daring Maud Dacres married Mr. Brabazon, a pillar of the Stock
Exchange, five-and-twenty years her senior, after an acquaintance of
seven weeks, begun at Boulogne, where--for reasons cogent, though
temporary--her father was then residing. It was not that she was more
unlikely than another to make a money-match; but every one was surprised
at her selecting that particular millionaire.

Richard Brabazon was not only glaringly under-bred in form, feature,
mind, and manner, but he was popularly considered one of the most
"aggravating" men alive. He had a knack of hitting upon the topic most
disagreeable to his interlocutor or to the company in general, and of
introducing the same at the most inappropriate moment, always in a
smooth, plausible way, which made it more irritating. Even when he
wished to be extraordinary civil, there was an evident affability and
condescension about him that very few could stand. His slow, measured,
mincing way of speaking--pronouncing _a's_ like _e's_--affected one's
ear like the hum of a mosquito; and his plump, smug, smooth-shaven face
was intensely provocative, inspiring people, otherwise calm and pacific,
with a rabid desire to leap up and smite him on the cheek. This laudable
and very general propensity had never yet been gratified; for Richard
Brabazon was far too cunning ever to give a chance away. Many men would
have given large monies for an opportunity of taking overt offence, but
they waited still in vain.

It was a marvel how his wife--high-spirited and quick-tempered to a
fault--contrived to live with him, without occasionally betraying
annoyance or aversion. It is probable that several bitter duels had in
fact taken place; but the antagonists kept their own secret; and it was
a perfect neutrality now, though an armed one. The principle of
non-interference was thoroughly established, and the contiguous powers
did not even take the trouble to watch each other's frontier. Sometimes
the spirit of aggravation would tempt Brabazon to launch a taunt or a
sarcasm in the direction of his wife or her friends; but it was
generally met by an imperial and absolute indifference--at rare
intervals, by a retort, not the less biting because it was so very
quietly put in. He _would_ do it, though he knew he should get the worst
of it, just as Thersites could not refrain from his gibe, though his
shoulders were shaking already in anticipation of the practical retort
of Ajax or Odysseus.

Lady Mildred was good-natured enough never to cross the plans or
pleasures of her friends unless they interfered with hers; indeed, she
would further them as far as was consistent with her own credit and
convenience; but even in her benevolence some malice was mingled. She
was rather glad to give Grenvil an opportunity of following out his
love-dream, especially as she felt certain no harm would come of it;
but, in mentioning to him the expected guests, she had purposely omitted
the Brabazons.

Bertie had been indulging in an ante-prandial siesta, and only came down
the great staircase as the others were filing past in to dinner; he was
in time to see Maud Brabazon sweep by, more insolently beautiful, he
thought, than ever. She just deigned to acknowledge his presence with
the slightest bend of her delicate neck, and the sauciest of smiles.
That wily Cherub could feign innocence right well when it served his
wicked ends; but only one visible sign _really_ remained to testify that
he had once been guileless--perhaps it was a mere accident of
complexion--he had not forgotten how to change colour. Lady Mildred
watched the meeting. She saw Bertie's cheek flush--brightly as a girl's
might do who hears the first love-whisper--and then grow pale almost to
the lips. "My lady" laughed under her breath, in calm appreciative
approbation, just as some scientific patron of the Arena may have
laughed, when the net of the Retiarius glided over the shoulders of the
doomed Secutor.

Any one interested in such psychological studies--and, to some people, a
really well-managed flirtation is a very interesting and instructive
spectacle--would have been much amused that evening watching the
"passages" of Bertie's love. It was rather a one-sided affair, after
all; for the Cherub was so hard hit as to forget his cunning of fence,
and timidity for once was not in the least assumed. The lady was
thoroughly at her ease, as women ever are who play that perilous game
with their head instead of their heart.

Maud Brabazon was just on the shady side of thirty; but such a pleasant
shade it was! The sunniest year in the lives of her many rivals looked
dull and tame by comparison. She was rather below the middle height, and
rather fuller in her proportions than was consistent with perfection of
form; but no one was ever heard to hint that her figure could have been
improved upon. Large bright brown eyes were matched by soft abundant
hair of a darker shade; a slightly aquiline nose, a delicately chiselled
_mutine_ mouth, and the ripest of peach-complexions, made up a picture
that every one found fascinating, many fatally so.

She was a very queen of coquetry, understanding and practising every one
of its refinements. You always saw the most attractive elements of any
company converging to the spot where she sat, like straws drawn in by an
eddy. Where was the secret of her power? Men who had been led captive at
her chariot-wheels asked themselves that question in after days, when
freedom was partially regained, and got puzzled over it, as one does
over the incidents of a very vivid dream. It was a fair face, certainly,
but there were others more brilliant in their beauty, more winning in
their loveliness. Her frank boldness of speech dazzled you at first with
its natural, careless _verve_--she kept for special occasions the tender
confidential tones that lingered in your ears through many sleepless
night-watches--but several of her beaten rivals had really thrice her
wit and cleverness, and, as conversationalists, could have distanced her
easily. Maud Brabazon seemed to diffuse round her an atmosphere of
temptation. Cold-blooded men, of austere morals and rigid propriety,
felt irresistibly impelled to make love to her on the shortest
acquaintance, not wildly or passionately, but in an airy, light-minded
fashion, which left no remorse, hardly a regret, behind. It was strange
that she had never yet got entangled in any of the toils she wove so
deftly, for the bitterest of friends or foes had never dared to impute
to her any darker crime than consummate coquetry. One who knew her well
when the subject was being discussed, thus expressed himself in the
figurative language of the turf, of which he was a stanch supporter:

"Yes, she can win, when she's in front all the way. Wait till you see
her collared; _they've never made her gallop yet_."

Thereby intimating his opinion that the Subduer was still in the future,
by whom Maud's peace of mind was to be imperilled.

All things considered, it seemed likely that poetical justice was going
to assert itself in the shape of merited retaliation impending over the
Cherub's graceless head; a state of things so perfectly satisfactory
that we may as well leave them there for the present.

Pressing affairs called Lord Clydesdale away from Dene on the following
day. He had probably reasons of his own for cutting his visit short
rather abruptly. He thought that whatever interests he might have at
stake would be advanced fully as well in his absence, for the present.
Somehow or another, before he went, Max Vavasour was made aware of the
wager with Harding Knowles. On the occasion of a great robbery--

    When the knowing ones, for once, stand in
    With some dark flyer meant at last to win--

and the owners of one or two dangerous horses are put on, a "monkey to
nothing," I believe they go through the form of registering it as a bet;
so we may as well dignify the Earl's compact by that convenient name. It
is more than likely that Clydesdale made the confession himself. He had
little delicacy in such matters when he knew his man; and no Oriental
despot could be more insolent in his cynicism. If he had thought he
could do so safely, he would have offered money to her nearest relation,
to serve him in his pursuit of any woman he might fancy, without the
faintest scruple or shame.

However the revelation was made, Max Vavasour never betrayed to Knowles
his consciousness of the confederacy by word or sign; but he would look
at the latter occasionally with a very peculiar expression in his cold
dark eyes. There was something of curiosity in that look, more of
dislike and contempt. The wily schemer would accept readily the aid of
any instrument, however repulsive, that would serve his purpose; but
they never were stifled for one moment--the instincts of patrician
pride. Harding was no favourite of Lady Mildred's; and her manner
towards him could not be said to be cordial now; but there certainly was
a shade more of courtesy and attention. She suggested now and then that
his name should be added to the dinner-list, which she had never done
before; and honoured him at times with a fair share of her evening's
conversation. There was nothing strange in this. Knowles was evidently a
rising man; and "my lady" made a point of being at least civil to such
people, though she would just as soon have thought of asking a real
Gorilla to her house, as any living celebrity--soldier, priest, lawyer,
or literate--simply because he chanced to be the lion of the day.



CHAPTER XII.

RUMOURS OF WARS.


Harding Knowles had never been a hard-working man. Very little more
reading would have turned a good Second in classics into an easy First,
and this was so well known at Oxford that he might have had as many
pupils as he liked during the year that he resided there after taking
his degree. He would only take two or three--"just to have something to
do in the morning," he said; and these were all of the Clydesdale
stamp--men whose connexion was worth a good deal, while their
preparation cost no sort of head-work or anxiety. He had been called to
the bar since then, but had never pretended to follow up the
profession. There was not a trace of business about his chambers in the
Temple; no face of clerk or client ever looked out at the chrysanthemums
through those pleasant windows, the sills of which were framed and
buried in flowers. He could write a clever article, or a sharp sarcastic
critique, when the fit seized him, and made a hundred or so every year
thus in an easy desultory way: the Rector's allowance was liberal, so
that Harding had more than enough to satisfy all his tastes, which were
by no means extravagant; in fact, he saved money. But he was avaricious
to the heart's core, and could be painstaking and patient enough when
the stake was really worth his while to win. He did not tarry long at
Dene after Clydesdale's departure--long enough, though, to have another
incentive to exertion in the latter's cause. Personal pique was added
now to the mere greed of gain. The merest trifle brought this about, and
you would hardly understand it without appreciating some anomalies in
Knowles's character.

There never was a more thorough-going democrat. From his birth his
sympathies and instincts had all taken the same direction, and these had
been strengthened and embittered by his mother's evil training. He
disliked the patrician order intensely; but their society seemed to have
a strange fascination for him, judging from the pertinacity he displayed
in endeavouring to gain and confirm a footing there. He would intrigue
for certain invitations in the season as eagerly as a French deputy
seeking the red ribbon of honour. Yet he was always uncomfortable when
his point was gained, and he found himself half way up the much-desired
staircase. The mistress of the mansion greeted him probably with the
self-same smile that she vouchsafed to nine-tenths of the five hundred
guests who crowded her rooms; but Knowles would torment himself with the
fancy that there was something compassionate or satirical in the fair
dame's look, as if she penetrated a truth, of which he was himself
conscious--that he had no business to be there. He felt that, if he got
a fair start, he could talk better than the majority of the men around
him; but he felt, too, that he had no chance against the most listless
or languid of them all. They were on their own ground, and the intruder
did not care to match himself against them there; his position was far
too constrained, his footing too insecure. How he hated them, for the
indolent _nonchalance_ and serene indifference that he would have given
five years of life to be able to assume! A wolfish ferocity would rise
within him as he watched a beardless Coldstreamer dropping his words
slowly, as if each were worth money and not lightly to be parted with,
into the delicate ear of a haughty beauty from whom Knowles scarcely
dared to hope for a recognising bow. The innocent object of his wrath
was probably only sacrificing himself to the necessities of the
position, while his thoughts reverted with a tender longing to the
smoking room of his club, or anticipated the succulent chop that Pratt's
was bound to provide for him before the dawning.

In all other respects, Harding was as little sensitive as the most
obstinate of pachyderms. He did not know what shame meant, and an
implied insult that would have roused another savagely would scarcely
attract his notice. You have seen one instance of this already. But he
was nervously and morbidly alive to the minutest point affecting his
position in society. After assisting at one of those assemblies of the
_haute volée_, he would review in his memory every incident of the
evening, and would be miserable for weeks afterwards if he thought he
had made himself ridiculous by any awkwardness of manner or any
incongruity of word or deed. If the choice had been forced upon him, he
would have committed a forgery any day, sooner than a _gaucherie_.

I suppose everybody is sensitive somewhere, and it is only a question
whether the shaft hits a joint in the harness, and so some go on for
years, or for ever, without a scratch or a wound. Sometimes the weak
point is found out very oddly and unexpectedly.

There is now living a man whom, till very lately, his friends used to
quote as the ideal of impassibility. Even in his youthful days, when he
was "galloper" occasionally to General Levin, war-worn veterans used to
marvel at and envy the sublime serenity with which he would receive a
point-blank volley of objurgation, double-shotted with the hoarse
expletives for which that irascible commander is world-renowned. I have
seen him myself exposed to the "chaff" of real artists in that line. He
only smiled in complacent security, when "the archers bent their bows
and made them ready," and sat amidst the banter and the satire, unmoved
as is Ailsa Craig by the whistle of the sea-bird's wings. It was
popularly supposed that no sorrow or shame which can befall humanity
would seriously disturb his equanimity, till in an evil hour he plunged
into print. It was a modest little book, relating to a Great War, in
which he had borne no ignoble part; so mild in its comment and so meek
in its suggestions, that the critics might have spared it from very
pity. But unluckily he fell early into the hands of one of the most
truculent of the tribe, and all the others followed suit, so that poor
Courtenay had rather a rough time of it. They questioned his facts and
denied his inferences, accusing him of ignorance and partiality in about
equal degrees, and, what was harder still to bear, they anatomized his
little jokes gravely, and made a mock at his pathetic passages,
stigmatizing the first as "flippancy," the last as "fine writing." Ever
since that time, _le Beau Sabreur_ has been subject to fits of
unutterable gloom and despondency. Only last summer, we were dining with
him at the "Bellona." The banquet was faultless, and the guests in the
best possible form, so that the prospects of the evening were convivial
in the extreme. It chanced that there was One present who had also
written a book or two, and had also been evil entreated by the
reviewers. A peculiarly savage onslaught had just appeared in a weekly
paper, imputing to the author in question every species of literary
profligacy, from atheism down to deliberate immorality. The man who sat
next to him opened fire on the subject. It so happens that this much
maligned individual--as a rule, quite the reverse of good-tempered--is
stolidly impervious to critical praise or blame. This indifference is
just as much a constitutional accident, of course, like exemption from
nausea at sea, but one would think _he_ must find it convenient at
times. He joined in the laugh now quite naturally, and only tried to
turn the subject, because its effect on our host was evident. His kind,
handsome face became overcast with a moody melancholy. The allusion to
his friend's castigation brought back too vividly the recollection of
his own. The cruel stripes were scarcely healed yet, and the flesh
_would_ quiver at the remote sound of the scourge.

Courtenay's fellow-sufferer would fain have cheered him. The first flask
of "Dry" had just been opened (it was _una de multis, face nuptiali
digna_--a wine, in truth, worthy to be consumed at the marriage-feasts
of great and good men), he took the brimming beaker in his hand, before
the bright beads died out of the glorious amber, and spoke thus,
sententiously--

"Oh, my friend, let us not despond overmuch; rather let us imitate
Socrates, the cheery sage, when he drained his last goblet. Do me right.
Lo! I drink to the judge who hath condemned us--[Greek: Touto tô kalô
Kritia]."

Courtenay did drink--to do him justice, he will always do _that_--but
his smile was the saddest thing I ever saw; and it was three good hours
before his spirits recovered their tone, or his great golden moustaches,
which were drooping sympathetically their martial curl.

If you realize Harding Knowles's excessive sensitiveness on certain
points, you will understand how Alan Wyverne fell under his ban.

The cousins were starting for their afternoon's ride. Knowles had
lunched at Dene, but was not to accompany them. He chanced to be
standing on the steps when the horses came up, and Miss Vavasour came
out alone. Something detained Alan in the hall for a minute, and when he
appeared, Harding was in the act of assisting Helen to mount. Now that
"mounting" is the simplest of all gymnastics, if you know how to do it,
and if there exists between you and the fair Amazon a certain sympathy
and good understanding; in default of these elements of concord, it is
probable that the whole thing may come to grief. Harding was so
nervously anxious to acquit himself creditably, that it was not likely
he would succeed. He "lifted" at the wrong moment, and too violently,
not calculating on the elasticity of the demoiselle's spring, even
though she was taken unawares. Nothing but great activity and presence
of mind on Helen's part saved a dangerous fall. She said not one word as
she settled herself anew in the saddle; but the culprit caught one
glance from the depths of the brilliant eyes which stopped short his
stammered apology. It was not exactly angry--worse a thousand times than
that; but it stung him like the cut of a whip, and his cheek would flush
when he thought of it years afterwards.

While Knowles was still in his confusion, he felt a light touch on his
shoulder, and, turning, found Wyverne standing there. Nothing chafed
Alan more than an exhibition of awkwardness such as he had just
witnessed; besides this, he had never liked Harding, and was not
inclined to make excuses for him now. The pleasantness had quite
vanished from his face; and when he spoke, almost in a whisper, his lip
was curling haughtily and his brows were bent.

"_Fiat experimentum in corpore vili_," he said. "Your classical reading
might have taught you that much, at all events. You want practice in
mounting, decidedly; but I beg that you will select for your next lesson
a fitter subject than Miss Vavasour."

Knowles was ready enough of retort as a rule; but this time, before he
could collect himself sufficiently to find an answer, Wyverne was in the
saddle,

    And lightly they rode away.

The animosity was not equally allotted, for Alan engrossed far the
bitterest share of it; but thenceforward both the cousins might fear the
very worst from an enemy capable of much stratagem, recoiling from no
baseness, whose hatred, if it were only for the coldness of its
malignity, might not safely be defied.

For some days after Knowles's departure, everything went on pleasantly
at Dene; and nothing occurred worthy of note, unless it were a slight
passage-of-arms between Bertie Grenvil and Mr. Brabazon. The latter was
so rarely taken at fault, that it deserves to be recorded.

The financier was perfectly aware of the flirtation in progress between
his wife and the Cherub; but he never disquieted himself about such
trifles; and it was simply his "aggravating" instinct which impelled him
one day, after dinner, to select the topic which he guessed would be
most disagreeable to both. A certain Guardsman had just come to great
grief in money matters, and had been forced to betake himself in haste
to some continental Adullam. He was a favourite cousin of Maud's, a
great friend of Grenvil's, and in the same battalion. It was supposed
that the Cherub was to a certain extent involved in his comrade's
embarrassments, having backed the latter almost to the extent of his own
small credit. On the present occasion, Mr. Brabazon was good enough to
volunteer a detailed account of the unlucky spendthrift's difficulties,
which he professed to have received in a letter that morning, adding his
own strictures and comments thereon. No one interrupted him, though Lady
Mildred had the tact to give the departing signal before he had quite
finished. Mr. Brabazon felt that he had the best of the position, and
determined to follow up his triumph. When the men were left alone, his
plump, smooth face became more superciliously sanctimonious, till he
looked like Tartufe intensified.

"There is one subject I would not allude to," he said, "till _they_ had
left us. I have heard it hinted that Captain Pulteney's ruin was
hastened by his disgraceful profligacy. It is said that he lavished
thousands on a notorious person living under his name in a villa in St.
John's Wood. Mr. Grenvil perhaps knows if my information is correct?"

Brabazon wished his words unsaid as Bertie's bright eyes fastened on his
face, glittering with malicious mirth.

"Yes; I know something about it," he replied; "but I don't see that I'm
called upon to reveal poor Dick's domestic secrets to uninterested
parties. You don't hold any of his paper, I suppose? No--you're too
prudent for that. Not quite prudent enough, though. I wouldn't say too
much about St. John's Wood, if I were you. You've heard the proverb
about 'glass houses?' I believe there's a conservatory attached to that
very nice villa in Mastic Road, to which you have the _entrée_ at all
hours. Have you got the latch-key in your pocket?"

If Richard Brabazon valued himself on one possession more than another,
it was his immaculate respectability: in fact, an ostentatious piety was
part of his stock-in-trade. For once, he was fairly disconcerted. His
face grew white, and actually convulsed with rage and fear as he
stammered out, quite forgetting his careful elocution--

"I don't pretend to understand you; but I see you wish to insult me."

"Wrong again, and twice over," the other answered, coolly. "I never
insulted anybody since I was born. And you will understand me perfectly,
if you will take the trouble to remember a very warm midnight last
spring, when the cabman could not give you change for a sovereign and
you had to send him out his fare. You were in such a hurry to go in,
that you never saw the humblest of your servants, about fifteen yards
off, lighting his cigar. I don't wonder at your impetuosity. I got a
good look at the _soubrette_ when she came out with the change;
and, if the mistress is as pretty as the maid, your taste is
unimpeachable--whatever your morals may be."

The great drops gathered on Brabazon's forehead as he sat glaring
speechlessly at his tormentor, who at that moment appeared intent on the
selection of some olives, all the while humming audibly to himself, "The
Young May Moon."

"It is an atrocious calumny," he gasped out, "or a horrible mistake. I
wish to believe it is the last."

"You wish _us_ to believe, you mean," the other retorted. "But I won't
'accept the composition,' (that's the correct expression, isn't it?)
There was no mistake about it. I saw you that night, just as plainly as
I did the morning before, going into Exeter Hall to talk about
converting the Pongo Islanders--only you were in your brougham _then_.
Quite right too. Never take your own carriage out on the war-trail: it
only makes scandal, and costs you a night-horse. I always tried to beat
so much economy into poor Dick Pulteney. If he would have listened to
me, he might have lasted a month or two longer. I assure you I watched
the whole thing with great interest. One doesn't see a _financier en
bonne fortune_ every day; and the habits of all animals are worth
observing at certain seasons. A Frenchman wrote such a pretty treatise
the other day about the 'Loves of the Moles!'"

Many men would have derived much refreshment from the spectacle
presented just then by their ancient enemy. You cannot fancy a more
pitiable picture of helpless exasperation, nor more complete abasement.
Even with his usual crafty reserve, he would scarcely have held his own
against the cool insolence of his opponent--thoroughly confident of his
facts, and mercilessly determined to use them to the uttermost. If the
Squire had been present, the skirmish would not have lasted so long; but
he was presiding at a great agricultural dinner miles away. Max
Vavasour, who sat in his father's place, was not disposed to interrupt
any performance which amused him. Neither he nor any other man present
felt the faintest sympathy with, or compassion for, the victim. Brabazon
appreciated his position acutely. He was only reaping as he had sown;
but some of those same crops are not pleasant to gather or garner. He
rose suddenly, and muttering something about "not staying another
instant to be insulted," made a precipitate retreat, leaving not a shred
of dignity behind. Max Vavasour did rouse himself to say a few pacifying
words of deprecation, but they did not arrest the fugitive, nor did the
speaker seem to expect they would do so.

When the door closed, Wyverne looked at Bertie with an expression which
was meant to be reproachful, but became, involuntarily, admiring.

"What a quiet, cruel little creature it is," he said. "Fancy his keeping
that secret so long, and bringing it out so viciously just at the right
time. Is it not a crowning mercy, though, that the Squire's
'agricultural' came off to-night? He would have stopped sport for once
in his life. I wonder whether Brabazon is a 'bull' or a 'bear' on
'Change? Whichever he is, he was baited thoroughly well here; and, I
think, deserved all the punishment he got. Cherub, I shall look upon you
with more respect henceforth, having seen you appear as the Bold
Avenger."

They soon began to talk of other things. A reputation fostered by years
of caution, outward self-restraint, and conventional observances, had
just been slain before their eyes; but those careless spirits made
little moan over the dead, and seemed to think the obsequies not worth a
funeral oration. Having once accepted his position, Brabazon, to do him
justice, made the best of it. He made no attempt at retaliation, as he
might easily have done, by removing himself and his belongings abruptly
from Dene; indeed, during the remainder of a protracted visit there, he
comported himself in a manner void of offence to man or woman. The
Squire, who knew him well, remarked the change, and congratulated
himself and others thereupon; but they never told him of the somewhat
summary process by which the result had been achieved. It was simple
enough, after all. Some horses will never run kindly till you take your
whip up to them in earnest.

Though Sir Alan Wyverne had no property left worth speaking of, he still
had "affairs" of one sort or another to attend to, from time to time,
and of late it had become still more necessary that these be kept in
order. Before very long, he too was obliged to go up to town on
business. He was only to be absent three or four days; but he seemed
strangely reluctant to leave Dene. In good truth, there was not the
slightest reason for any gloomy presentiment; but Helen remembered in
after years, that during the last hours they spent together then, her
cousin made none of those gay allusions to their future that he was so
fond of indulging in; and that though his words and manner were kind and
loving as ever, there was something sad and subdued in their tenderness.
So far as Alan knew, it was a simple case of business which called him
away; more than once afterwards he thought it would have been better if
he had died that night, with the music of Helen's whisper in his ears,
the print of her ripe scarlet lips on his cheek, the pressure of her
lithe twining fingers still lingering round his own.

Many men, before and since, have thought the same. It is, perhaps, the
most reasonable of all the repinings that are more futile than the
vainest of regrets. Two lifetimes would not unravel some tangles of
sorrow and sin, that are cut asunder, quite simply, by one sheer sudden
stroke of Azräel's sword. Be sure, the purpose of God's awful messenger
is often benevolent, though his aspect is seldom benign. The legend of
ancient days bears a sad significance still. His arm is "swift to smite
and never to spare;" black as night is the plumage of his vast shadowy
wings; his lineaments are somewhat stern in their severe serenity; but
in all the hierarchy of Heaven--the Rabbins say--is found no more
perfect beauty than in the face of the Angel of Death.



CHAPTER XIII.

THE FIRST SHELL.


So Wyverne went on his way--not rejoicing; and Helen would have been
left "sighing her lane," if she had been at all given to that romantic
pastime. But they were not a sentimental pair; and did not even think it
necessary to bind themselves under an oath to correspond by every
possible post--a compact which is far more agreeably feasible in theory
than in practice. However, a long letter from Alan made his cousin very
happy on the third day after his departure. It was a perfect epistle in
its way--at least, it thoroughly satisfied the fair recipient; to be
sure, it was her first experience in that line. Two lines evidently
written after the rest--said that his return must be deferred
four-and-twenty hours. Helen did not hear again from her cousin; but on
the morning of the day on which he was expected, the post brought two
strange letters to Dene which changed the aspect of things materially.
One was addressed to Lady Mildred, the other to her daughter. Both were
written in the same delicate feminine hand, and the contents of both
were essentially the same, though they varied slightly in phrase. "My
lady's" communication may serve as a sample:

"When Alan Wyverne returns, it might be well to ask him three simple
questions:--What was the business that detained him in town? Who was his
companion for two hours yesterday in the Botanical Gardens (which they
had entirely to themselves)? Where he spent the whole of this afternoon?
I would give the answers myself, but I know him well, and I am sure he
will not refuse to satisfy your natural curiosity. As my name will never
be known, I need not disguise my motive in writing thus. I care not
serving you, or saving your daughter; I simply wish to serve my own
revenge. I loved him dearly, once, or I should not hate him so heartily
now. If Alan Wyverne chooses to betray so soon the girl to whom he has
plighted faith, I do not see why _one_ of his old loves should engross
_all_ the treachery."

Helen's letter was to the same purport, but at greater length, and more
considerately and gently expressed, as though some compassion was
mingled in the writer's bitterness.

I should very much like to know the _fiancée_ who would receive such a
communication as this with perfect equanimity--supposing, of course,
that her heart went with the promise of her hand. Miss Vavasour believed
in her cousin to a great extent, and her nature was too frank and
generous to foster suspicion; but she was not such a paragon of
trustfulness. She was thoroughly miserable during the whole of the day.
There was very little comfort to be got out of her mother (it was
decided that the subject should not be mentioned, at present, to the
Squire); "my lady" said very little, but evidently thought that matters
looked dark. When she said--"Don't let us make ourselves unhappy till
you have spoken to Alan; I am certain he can explain everything"--it was
irritatingly apparent that she really took quite an opposite view of the
probabilities, and was only trying to pacify Helen's first excitement,
as a nurse might humour the fancies of a fever-patient. Nevertheless,
the _demoiselle_ bore up bravely; not one of the party at Dene guessed
that anything had occurred to ruffle her; and there were sharp eyes of
all colours amongst them.

Mrs. Fernley was there--the most seductive of "grass-widows"--whose
husband had held for years some great post high up in the Himalayas,
only giving sign of his existence by the regular transmission of large
monies, wherewith to sustain the splendour of his consort's
establishment. There, too, was Agatha Drummond--whose name it is treason
to introduce thus episodically, for she deserves a story to herself, and
has nothing whatever to do with the present one--a beauty of the grand
old Frankish type, with rich fair hair, haughty aquiline features,
clear, bold blue eyes, and long elastic limbs--such as one's fancy
assigns to those who shared the bed of Merovingian kings. She passed the
most of her waking hours in riding, waltzing, or flirting; seldom or
ever read anything, and talked, notwithstanding, passingly well; but for
daring, energy, and power of supporting fatigue in her three favourite
pursuits, you might have backed her safely against any woman of her age
in England. Both were very fond of Helen, and would have sympathized
with her sincerely had they seen cause; but their glances were not the
less keenly inquisitive; and, under the circumstances, she deserved some
credit for keeping her griefs so entirely to herself.

I have heard grave, reverend men, with consciences probably as clear and
correct as their banking books, confess that they never returned home,
after a brief absence during which no letters had been forwarded,
without a certain vague apprehension, which did not entirely subside
till they had met their family and glanced over their correspondence. I
will not affirm that some feeling of the sort did not cross Wyverne's
mind as he drove up the long dark avenue to Dene. He arrived so late
that almost every one had gone up to dress, so he was not surprised at
not finding Helen downstairs; it is possible that he was slightly
disappointed at not encountering her somewhere--by chance of course--in
gallery or corridor. When they met, just before dinner, Alan did fancy
that there was something constrained in his cousin's welcome, and
unusually grave in his aunt's greeting; but he had no suspicion that
anything was seriously amiss, till Helen whispered, as she passed him on
leaving the dining-room--"Come to the library as soon as you can. I am
going there now." You may guess if he kept her waiting long.

Miss Vavasour was sitting in an arm-chair near the fire; her head was
bent low, leaning on her hand; even in the uncertain light you might see
the slender fingers working and trembling; there was a listless
despondency in her whole bearing, so different from its usual proud
elasticity, that a sharp conviction of something having gone fearfully
wrong, shot through Wyverne's heart, like the thrust of a dagger. His
lips had not touched even her forehead, yet, but he did not now attempt
a caress; he only laid his hand gently on her shoulder--so light a touch
need not have made her shiver--and whispered--

"What has vexed you, my own?"

For all answer, she gave him the letter, that she held ready.

He read it through by the light of the shaded lamp that stood near.
Helen watched his face all the while with a fearful, feverish anxiety;
it betrayed not the faintest shade of confusion or shame, but it grew
very grave and sad, and, at last, darkened, almost sternly. When he came
to the end he was still silent, and seemed to muse for a few seconds.
But she could bear suspense no longer. Yet there was no anger in the
sweet voice, it was only plaintive and pleading--

"Ah, Alan, do speak to me. Won't you say it is all untrue?"

Wyverne roused himself from his reverie instantly; he drew nearer to his
cousin's side, and took her little trembling hand in his own, looking
down into her face--lovelier than ever in its pale, troubled
beauty--with an intense love and pity in his eyes.

"The blow was cruelly meant, and craftily dealt," he said, "but they
shall not part us yet, if you are brave enough to believe me thoroughly
and implicitly, this once. I will never ask you to do so again. Yes, the
facts are true--don't draw your hand back--I would not hold it another
second if I could not say the inferences are as false as the Father of
lies could make them. A dozen words answer all the questions. I was with
Nina Lenox, in the Gardens; and yesterday afternoon I staid in town on
_her_ business, not on my own. There is the truth. The lie is--the
insinuation that I had any other interest at stake than serving a rash
unhappy woman in her hard need. That unfortunate is doomed to be fatal,
it seems, even to her friends--she has right few left now to ruin.
Darling, try to believe that neither she nor the world have ever had the
right to call _me_ by any other name."

Mrs. Rawson Lenox was one of the celebrities of that time. Her face and
figure carried all before them, when she first came out; and even in the
first season they set her up as a sort of standard of beauty with which
others could only be compared in degrees of inferiority. She married
early and very unhappily. Her husband was a coarse, rough-tempered man,
and tried from the first to tyrannize over his wayward impetuous
wife--who had been spoilt from childhood upwards--just as he was wont to
do over the tenants of his broad acres, and his countless dependents. Of
course it did not answer. Years had passed since then, each one giving
more excuse to Nina Lenox for her wild ways and reckless disregard of
the proprieties; but--not excuse enough. Men fell in love with her
perpetually; but they did not come scathless out of the fire, like the
admirers of Maud Brabazon. The taint and smirch of the furnace-blast
remained; well if there were not angry scars, too, rankling and refusing
to be healed. Mothers and mothers-in-law shook their heads ominously at
the mention of Nina's name; the first, tracing the ruin of their
son--moral or financial--the last, the domestic discomfort of her
daughter, to those fatal lansquenet-parties and still more perilous
morning _tête-à-têtes_.

Was it not hard to believe that a man, still short of his prime, and
notoriously epicurean in his philosophy, could be in the secret of the
sorceress without having drunk of her cup? That he could serve her as a
friend, in sincerity and innocence, without ever having descended to be
her accomplice? Yet this amount of faith or credulity--call it which you
will--Wyverne did not scruple to ask from Helen, then.

It may not be denied that her heart seemed to contract, for an instant,
painfully, when her lover's lips pronounced so familiarly that terrible
name. But it shook off distrust before it could fasten there. She rose
up, with her hand in Alan's, and nestled close to his breast, and looked
up earnestly and lovingly into his eyes.

"My own--my own still," she murmured, "I do believe you thoroughly, now,
even if you tell me not another word. But do be kind and prudent, and
don't try me again soon, it is so very hard to bear."

"If I had only guessed--"

That sentence was never finished, for reasons good and sufficient; such
delicious impediments to speech are unfortunately rather rare. The kiss
of forgiveness was sweeter in its lingering fondness, than that which
sealed the affiancement under the oak-trees of the Home Wood.

"Sit here, child," Wyverne said, at last. "You shall hear all now."

He sank down on a cushion at her feet, and so made his confession. Not a
disagreeable penance, either, when absolution is secured beforehand, and
a delicate hand wanders at times, with caressing encouragement, over the
penitent's brow and hair.

It is quite unnecessary to give the explanation at length. Mrs.
Lenox had involved herself in all sorts of scrapes, of which
money-embarrassments were the least serious. Things had come to a
dangerous crisis. She had been foolish enough to borrow money of a man
whose character ought to have deterred her, and then to offend him
mortally. The creditor was base enough to threaten to use the weapons he
possessed, in the shape of letters and other documents, compromising
Nina fearfully. She heard that Wyverne was in town, and wrote to him to
help her in her great distress. She preferred trusting him, to others on
whom she had a real claim, because she knew him thoroughly; and if there
was no love-link between them, neither was there any remorse or
reproach. She was heart-sick of intrigue, for the moment, and would try
what a kind honest friend could do. It was true. Their intimacy had been
always innocent. These things are not to be accounted for; perhaps Alan
never cared to offer sacrifice at an altar on which incense from all
kingdoms of the earth was burned. Mr. Lenox's temper had become of late
so brutally savage, that Nina felt actual physical fear at the idea of
his hearing of her embarrassments. This was the reason why she had met
Wyverne clandestinely in the Botanical Gardens. Her husband was absent
the whole of the next day; so that she had received him at home. It was
a difficult and delicate business; but Alan carried it through. He got
the money first--not a very large sum--found out the creditor with some
trouble, and satisfied him, gaining possession of every dangerous
document. It was a stormy interview at first; but Wyverne was not easily
withstood when thoroughly in earnest; and his quiet, contemptuous
firmness fairly broke the other down. You may fancy Nina's gratitude:
indeed, up to a certain point, Alan had congratulated himself on having
wrought a work of mercy and charity without damage to any one. You have
seen how he was undeceived. He did not dissemble from Helen his
self-reproach at having been foolish enough to meddle in the matter at
all.

"Some one must be sacrificed at such times," he said; "but, my darling,
it were better that all the _intrigantes_ in London should go to the
wall, than that you should have an hour's disquiet. Trust me, I'll see
to this for the future. I am sure Mrs. Lenox would not be a nice friend
for you; and it is better to cut off the connexion before you can be
brought in contact. One can afford to be frank when one has done a
person a real service. I'll write her a few lines--you can correct them,
if you like--to say that this affair has been made the subject of
anonymous letters; and that I cannot, for _your_ sake, risk more
misconstruction; so that our acquaintance must be of the slightest
henceforward."

So peace was happily restored. We need not go into a minute description
of the "rejoicings" that ensued. One thought only puzzled and troubled
Alan exceedingly.

"I can't conceive who can have written that letter," he said, "or got it
written. The hand of course proves nothing, nor the motive implied,
which is simply not worth noticing. It is just as likely the work of a
man's malevolence as of a woman's. Helen, I own frankly I would rather
it were the first than the last. But I thought I had not made an enemy
persevering enough to watch all my movements, or cruel enough to deal
that blow in the dark."

It was evident that the shock to his genial system of belief in the
world in general affected him far more than the foiled intent of
personal injury.

When Lady Mildred saw her daughter's face, as the latter re-entered the
drawing-room alone, she guessed at once the issue of the conference, and
knew that it would be useless now to cavil at an explanation which must
have been absolutely satisfactory. She was not in the least
disappointed; indeed, the most she had expected from this first shock to
Helen's confidence was a slight loosening of the foundations. From the
first moment of reading the anonymous letter, she detected fraud and
misrepresentation; and argued that the Truth would this time prevail.
So, when Alan had audience of her in her boudoir late that evening, he
found no difficulty in making his cause good. "My lady" did just refer
to something she had said on a former occasion, and quite coincided in
Wyverne's idea, that this was one of the dangerous acquaintances that it
was imperative for him to give up: indeed, she was very explicit and
decided on this point. Otherwise, she was everything that was kind and
conciliatory; and really said less about the imprudence in meddling with
such an affair at all, than could have been expected from the most
indulgent of aunts or mothers. Just before he left the boudoir, Alan
read the letter through that "my lady" had given him--he had scarcely
glanced at it before. When he gave it back his face had perceptibly
lightened, though his lip was curling scornfully.

"I'm so glad you showed me that pleasant letter, Aunt Mildred," he said.
"My mind is quite easy now as to the sex of the informer. No woman, I
dare swear, to whom I ever spoke words of more than common courtesy
could have written such words as those. Perhaps I may find out his name
some day, and thank him for the trouble he has taken."

Lady Mildred did not feel exactly comfortable just then. She would have
preferred the whole transaction being now left in as much obscurity as
possible. She knew how determined and obstinate the speaker could be
when he had real cause to be unforgiving. She knew that he was capable
of exacting the reckoning to the uttermost farthing, though the
settlement was ever so long delayed. On the whole, however, she was
satisfied with the aspect of affairs as they remained. She had good
reason to be so. Doubt and distrust may scorn to vanish; but they
generally leave behind them a slow, subtle, poisonous influence, that
the purest and strongest faith may not defy. Of all diseases, those are
the most dangerous, which linger in the system when the cure is
pronounced to be perfect.

I knew a man well who passed through the Crimean war untouched by steel
or shot, though he was ever in the front of the battle. Even the
terrible trench-work did not seem to affect him. He would come in, wet
but not weary, sleep in his damp tent contentedly, and rise up in his
might rejoicing. When, quite at the end of the war, he was attacked by
the fever, no one felt any serious alarm. We supposed that Kenneth
McAlpine could shake off any ordinary sickness as easily as Sampson did
the Philistine's gyves. In truth, he did appear to recover very
speedily; and, when he returned to England, seemed in his usual health
again. But soon he began to waste and pine away without any symptoms of
active disease. None of the doctors could reach the seat of the evil, or
even define its cause. It took some time to sap that colossal strength
fairly away; but month by month the doom came out more plainly on his
face, and the end has come at last. Poor Kenneth's grave will be as
green as the rest of them, next spring, when the grass begins to grow.

Standing by the sepulchre of Faith, or Love, or Hope--if we dared look
back--we might find it hard to remember when and where the first seeds
of decay were sown, though we do not forget one pang of the last
miserable days that preceded the sharp death-agony.



CHAPTER XIV.

THE LETTERS OF BELLEROPHON.


Wyverne's valedictory note to Mrs. Lenox, though kindly and courteous,
was brief and decisive enough to satisfy Helen perfectly. The answer
came in due course; there was no anger or even vexation in its tone, but
rather a sad humility--not at all what might have been expected from the
proud, passionate, reckless _lionne_, who kept her sauciest smile for
her bitterest foe, and scarcely ever indulged the dearest of her friends
with a sigh. A perpetual warfare was waged between that beautiful Free
Companion and all regular powers; though often worsted and forced, for
the moment, to give ground, she had never yet lost heart or shown sign
of submission; the poor little Amazonian target was sorely dinted, and
its gay blazonry nearly effaced, but the dauntless motto was still
legible as ever--_L'Empire c'est la guerre_.

So for awhile there was peace at Dene, and yet, not perfect peace. Miss
Vavasour's state of mind was by no means satisfactory; though it seemed,
at the time, to recover perfectly from the sharp shock, it really never
regained its healthy elastic tone. Miserable misgivings, that could
hardly be called suspicions, would haunt her, though she tried hard not
to listen to their irritating whispers, and always hated herself
bitterly afterwards for her weakness. She thought how unwise it would be
to show herself jealous or exacting, yet she could hardly bear Alan to
be out of her sight, and when he was away, had no rest, even in her
dreams. Her unknown correspondent, in a nice cynical letter,
congratulated Helen on her good-nature and long-suffering, and hinted
that Mrs. Lenox had been heard to express her entire approval of Alan's
choice--"it would be very inconvenient, if there were bounds to the
future Lady Wyverne's credulity." She did not dare to confess to her
cousin that she had read such a letter through, and so only took her
mother into the secret. Lady Mildred testified a proper indignation at
the spitefulness and baseness of the writer, but showed plainly enough
that her own mind was by no means easy on the subject. All that day, and
all that week, Miss Vavasour's temper was more than uncertain, and
though no actual tempest broke, there was electricity enough in the
atmosphere to have furnished a dozen storms. "My Lady" had always
indulged her daughter, but she took to humouring and petting her now,
almost ostentatiously; the compassionate motive was so very evident,
that instead of soothing the high-spirited demoiselle, it chafed her, at
times, inexpressibly.

The change did not escape Alan Wyverne. He felt a desolate conviction
that things were going wrong every way, but he was perfectly helpless,
simply because there was nothing tangible to grapple with; he did not
wish to call up evil spirits, merely to have the satisfaction of laying
them. Helen's penitence after any display of waywardness or wickedness
of temper was so charming, and the amends she contrived to make so very
delicious, that her cousin found it the easiest thing imaginable to
forgive; indeed, he would not have disliked that occasional petulance,
if he had not guessed at the hidden cause. The only one of the party who
failed to realize that anything had gone amiss, was the Squire; and
perhaps even his gay genial nature would scarcely have enabled him to
close his eyes to the altered state of things, if he had watched them
narrowly; but, having once given his adhesion frankly and freely, he
troubled himself little more about the course of the love-affair,
relying upon Alan's falling back on him as a reserve, if there occurred
serious difficulty or obstacle. The troubles threatening his house, were
quite enough to engross poor Hubert's attention just then.

A few weeks after the events recorded in that last chapter, Wyverne came
down late, as was his wont. His letters were in their usual place on the
breakfast table: on the top of the pile lay one, face downwards, showing
with exasperating distinctness the fatal scarlet monogram.

Seldom in the course of his life had Alan been so intensely provoked. He
felt angry with Nina Lenox for her folly and pertinacity--angry with the
person unknown, whose stupidity or malice had put the dangerous document
so obtrusively forward--angry, just a very little, with Helen, for
betraying, by her heightened colour and nervous manner, that she had
already detected the obnoxious letter--angrier than all with "my lady,"
whose bright quiet eyes seemed to rest on him _judicially_, not caring
to dissemble her suspicion of his guilt. It is always unwise, of course,
to act on impulse, and of all impulses anger is supposed to be the most
irrational. Such folly was the more inexcusable in Wyverne, because his
power of self-command was quite exceptional; it only enabled him, now,
to preserve a perfect outward composure; he acted just as stupidly and
_viciously_ as if he had given way to a burst of passion. In the first
five seconds he had fully determined to burn that letter, unread--a most
sage resolve, certainly--the only pity was, that he could not bring
himself to execute his purpose there and then, or at all events confide
his intention to the parties most interested therein. But you must
understand that Alan--with all his chivalrous devotion to
womankind--held orthodox notions (so _we_ should say) as to the limits
of their powers, and by no means favoured any undue usurpation of the
Old Dominion; he held, for instance, that the contents of the post-bag,
unless voluntarily confided, should be kept as sacred from feminine
curiosity as the secrets of the Rosicrucians. In the present case, he
could hardly blame Helen for betraying consciousness of a fact that had
been, so to speak, "flashed" before her eyes; but he felt somehow as if
she ought to have ignored it. He would not make the smallest concession.
I have told you, how obstinate and unrelenting the frank, kindly nature
could at times become: the shadow of a great disaster was closing round
him fast, and his heart was hardened now, even as the heart was hardened
of that unhappy King, predestined to be a world's wonder, whom the
torments of nine plagues only confirmed in his fell purpose--"not to let
Israel go."

He pushed all the letters aside with an impatient movement of his arm,
and thrust them into the pocket of his shooting-jacket before he left
the table, without opening one of them. All through breakfast he
persisted in talking carelessly on indifferent subjects, in spite of the
evident discomfort and nervousness of his cousin, and the reticence of
"my lady;" eventually he had to fall back on the Squire, who, ignorant
of this fresh cause of discord as he had been of the former one, was
open to any fair offer in the way of conversation.

An hour or so later, as Wyverne was going down to his uncle's room (they
were to shoot some small outlying covers) he met Helen in the
picture-gallery.

"I suppose you are aware that a letter came for me this morning from
Mrs. Lenox?" he said.

There was no particular reason why Miss Vavasour should feel guilty, and
blush painfully, nevertheless she did both, as she answered him.

"Yes, Alan, I could not help seeing it, you know, and--"

He interrupted her, somewhat impatiently.

"Of course you could not help it, child. You were bound to remark it,
where it lay. I suppose it was so fore-ordained by Fate, or some more
commonplace power. I know it worried you; but, indeed, it vexed me quite
as much. I have no idea what she wrote about, for I burnt the letter,
half an hour ago, without breaking the seal."

Helen did not answer at once, and when she looked up, for the first time
in their lives her cousin read uncertainty in her eyes. His own face
grew dark and stern.

"Ah, Helen, it cannot have come to this, yet--that you doubt me when I
state a simple fact."

Her cheek had paled within the last few seconds, but it crimsoned now
for very shame.

"No, no, Alan," she said impetuously, "I don't doubt you. I never do,
when I am myself; but sometimes I feel so changed--so wicked----"

Wyverne would not let her go on; but the kiss which closed her lips
carried scarcely more of caress than did his voice, as he answered what
she meant to say.

"My own, I guess it all. It is a hard battle when such as you and I have
to fight against principalities and powers. I fear we are not cool and
crafty enough to hold our own. God knows how it will all end--and when.
The sooner, perhaps the better for you. But if they would only let _you_
alone, darling! It has been my fault from the first, and I ought to have
all the trouble and pain. But indeed, now, I have done my best. I burnt
the letter unread, and I have written six lines to tell Mrs. Lenox so.
Now, we won't speak of it any more just now. There can be no repetition
of _this_ annoyance, at all events. Will you tell Aunt Mildred what I
have done? _I_ had better not enter into the subject with her, that's
certain."

Wyverne's perfect sincerity carried all before it, for the moment; when
he left her, Helen felt happier than she had done for days. Even had it
been otherwise, of course she would have made the best of it to her
mother. It is the woman's way, you know--at least till, with middle age,
wisdom has waxed and passionate affection has waned--if in anywise
maltreated by her lover, she will make her moan loudly enough to _him_,
but she will tax her little ingenuity to the utmost, to palliate that
same offence to her nearest and dearest friend.

It was well that Helen's spirits were high, when she went to her
audience in the boudoir; certes she reaped small encouragement there.
Lady Mildred was by no means disposed to be enthusiastic or unreserved
in her trustfulness, and, indeed, hinted her doubts and fears and
general disapprobation, much more plainly than she had hitherto done.
She believed Alan _now_, of course, but she could not help thinking that
the relations between him and Mrs. Lenox must have been far more
intimate than she had had any idea of. It would have been much more
satisfactory if he could have opened the letter and shown it to Helen.
So he had written to say what he had done? That was right, at all
events. (What made "my lady" smile so meaningly just then?) But every
day made her more fearful about the future.

"I ought to have been firmer at first, darling," she murmured.

The look of self-reproach was a study, and the penitential sigh rightly
executed to a breath.

"It is not that I doubt Alan's meaning fairly; indeed, I believe he does
his best; but when a man has lived that wild life, old connexions are
very difficult to shake off; sometimes it is years before he is quite
free. You don't understand these things; but I do, my Helen, and I know
how you would suffer. You are not cold-blooded enough to be patient or
prudent. Even now, see how unhappy you have been at times lately. I was
very weak and very wrong."

It is not worth while recording Helen's indignant disclaimer and eager
profession of faith, especially as neither in anywise disturbed or
affected the person to whom they were addressed. "My lady" kissed the
fair enthusiast, with intense fondness, but not in the least
sympathetically or impulsively, and went on with her scruples and
regrets and future intentions as if no interruption had occurred. There
ensued a certain amount of desultory discussion, warm only on one side,
it is needless to say. Lady Mildred did not actually bring maternal
authority to the front, but she was _very_ firm. At last it came to
this. "My lady" was understood to have taken up a fresh position, and
now to disapprove actively; but she consented to take no offensive step,
nor even to mention the changed state of her feelings to the Squire or
Alan Wyverne, till some fresh infraction of the existing treaty should
justify her in doing so. Then, the crisis was to be sharp and decisive.
This was all Helen could gain after much pleading, and perhaps it was as
much as could be expected. The Absent, who are always in the wrong,
don't often come off so well.

The instant her daughter left her, Lady Mildred rang for her own maid,
and said a dozen words to the attentive Abigail; though they were alone
in the boudoir, she whispered them. All outward-bound letters at Dene
were placed in a certain box, which was kept locked till they were
transferred to the post-bag. The confidential _cameriste_ carried on her
watch-chain several keys, one of which fitted the letter-box with
curious exactness. It was not often used; but in the dusk of the evening
a small slight figure with a footfall soft and light as the velvet tread
of a cheetah, might have been seen (if she had not chosen her time so
well) flitting through the great hall, and tarrying for a few seconds in
that special corner.

That day there were two letters burnt at Dene, both with their seals
unbroken.

Though all was not bitter in her recollections of the last twenty-four
hours--those few minutes in the picture-gallery told heavily on the
right side--Miss Vavasour's state of mind, when she woke on the
following morning, was none of the pleasantest or calmest. Her mother's
overt opposition did not dismay or discourage her much; for, after the
grateful excitement of the first interview had passed away, she had
entertained in spite of herself certain misgivings as to the duration,
if not the genuineness of "my lady's" favour, or even neutrality. But
the demoiselle could not deny to herself--though she had denied it to
her mother--that the latter had spoken truly with regard to her own
present unhappiness, and wisely as to the perils of the future. Helen's
heart, brave as it was, sank within her as she thought of what it would
be if she were destined to experience for years the wearing alternations
of hope and fear, pleasure and pain, that had been her portion only for
a few weeks. She did believe in her cousin's good faith _almost_
implicitly (there was a qualification now), but she did not feel sure
that he would always resist temptations; and even with her slight
knowledge of the world, she guessed that such might beset his path
dangerously often. New enemies to her peace might arise any day; and
Nina Lenox's pertinacity showed plainly enough how loth Alan's old
friends were to let him go free. Could _she_ wonder at their wishing to
keep him at all risks, so as at least to hear the sound of his voice
sometimes--she, who could never listen to it when softened to a whisper,
without a shiver and a tingle in her veins?

"Nina!"

As she uttered that word aloud, and fancied how he might have spoken it,
and might speak it again, black drops of bitterness welled up in the
girl's heart, poisoning all its frank and generous nature; she set her
little white teeth hard, and clenched her slender fingers involuntarily,
with a wicked vengeful passion. If wishes could kill, I fear Nina Lenox
would have been found next morning dead and cold. Helen had seen her
fancied rival once--at the great archery-meeting of the Midland
shires--and even her inexperience had appreciated the fascinations of
that dark dangerous beauty. She remembered, right well, how one man
after another drew near the low seat on which Mrs. Lenox leant back,
almost reclining, and how the lady never deigned to disturb her queenly
languor by an unnecessary look or word, till one of her especial friends
came up: she remembered how the pale statuesque face brightened and
softened then: how the rosy lips bestirred themselves to murmur quick
and low; and how from under the long heavy eyelashes glances stole out,
that Helen felt were eloquent, though she could not quite read their
meaning. She remembered watching all this, standing close by, and how
the thought had crossed her heart, How pleasant it must be to hold such
power.

Do you suppose that, because Miss Vavasour did perhaps more than justice
to the charms of the woman she had lately learned to hate, she was
unconscious of her own, or modestly disposed to undervalue them? It was
not so. Helen was perfectly aware that she herself was rarely lovely and
unusually fascinating. If she had been cool enough to reason
dispassionately, she would probably have acknowledged that the
comparison might safely be defied. Both flowers were passing fair; but
on the one lingered still the dewy bloom and scented freshness of the
morning; the other, though delicate in hue and full of fragrance still,
bore tokens on her petals, crisped here and there and slightly faded, of
storm-showers and a fiery noon; nor, at her best could she ever have
matched her rival in brilliancy of beauty.

But, supposing that Miss Vavasour had over-estimated herself and
under-estimated her enemy to such a point as to imagine any comparison
absurd, do you imagine it would have lightened one whit her trouble, or
softened her bitterness of heart? I think not.

Feminine jealousy is not to be judged by the standard of ordinary
ethics; you must measure it by the "Lesbian rule," if at all, and will
probably, even so, be wrong in your result. Not only is the field more
vast, its phases more varied, but it differs surely in many essentials
from the same passion in our sex. Don't be alarmed; I have no intention
of writing an essay on so tremendous a subject. The pen of Libyan steel,
that the old chroniclers talk about, would be worn down before it was
exhausted. Take one distinction as an example. I suppose it is because
we have more of conceit, pure and simple; but when we once thoroughly
establish the fact, that the man preferred before us is really and truly
our inferior in every way, it helps materially to soften the
disappointment. Comfortable self-complacency disposes us to be
charitable, compassionate, and forgiving; we try (not unsuccessfully) to
think, that the bad taste displayed by the Object is rather her
misfortune than her fault; nor do we nourish enduring malice even to him
who bears away the bride. Remember the story of Sir Gawaine. When the
huge black-browed carle would have reft from him his dame by force, he
bound himself to do battle to the death; but when the lady had once made
her choice, the Knight of the Golden Tongue thought no more of strife,
but rode on his way, resigned if not rejoicing. With our sisters it is
not so. Let a woman realize ever so completely the inferiority of her
rival,--moral, physical, and social--it will not remove one of her
suspicious fears, nor dull the sting of discomfiture when it comes, nor
teach forgetfulness of the bitter injury in after days.

When wild Kate Goring created universal scandal and some surprise by
eloping with that hirsute riding-master, Cecil Hamersley was intensely
disgusted at first, but did not nurse his griefs nor his wrath long;
when the unlucky couple came to the grief which was inevitable, Kate's
jilted lover pitied them from the bottom of his great honest heart, and
seemed to think it the most natural thing in the world, that he should
help them to the utmost of his power. It was entirely through Cecil,
that Mr. Martingale was enabled to start in the horse-dealing business,
which he has conducted with average honesty and fair success ever since.

Take a converse example. Ivor Montressor, for the last year or more, has
been laying his homage at the feet of Lady Blanche Pendragon, and it has
been accepted, not ungraciously; at the end of last season, it was
understood that it was nearly a settled thing. But the wooer has not
displayed intense eagerness since in pressing on the preliminaries.
There is a certain Annie Fern, whose duty it is to braid the somewhat
scanty gold of Lady Blanche's tresses--the most captivating little witch
imaginable, with the most provoking of smiles, that contrasts charmingly
with her long, pensive, dark-grey Lancashire eyes. She is prettier a
thousand-fold, and pleasanter, and really better educated, than the
tall, frigid, indolent descendant of King Uther, whom she has the honour
to serve; but that is no excuse, of course, for Ivor's infatuation. A
dreadful whisper has got abroad, of late, that he admires the maid above
the mistress. Lady Blanche is supposed to be not unconscious of all
this; but, if she guessed it, she would not deign to notice it in any
way, or even to discharge her fatally attractive handmaid. Let us hope
that the vagrant knight will be recalled to a sense of his duty, and,
remembering that he is a suitor nearly accepted, "act as such." However
it may turn out, let us hope, for Annie's sake (she has been absolutely
innocent of intriguing throughout), that it will never happen to her "to
be brought low even to the ground, and her honour laid in the dust;"--in
such a case, I know _who_ will be the first to set the heel of her
slender brodequin on the poor child's neck, and keep it there, too.

No; that conscious superiority does not help them at all. As it is now,
so it was in the ancient days. Did it much avail Calypso, that in her
realm there was wealth of earth's fairest fruits and flowers, while in
Ithaca it was barren all--that ages passed over her own divine beauty,
leaving no furrow on her brow, no line of silver in her hair, while with
every year the colour faded from the cheek, and the fire dried out of
the eyes of her mortal rival--if her guest still persisted in repining?
Be sure she never felt more wretched and hapless than when, wreathing
her swan's neck haughtily, she spoke those words of scorn:

    [Greek: Ou men thên keinês ge chereiôn euchomai einai,
    Ou demas, oude phyên, epei ou pôs oude eoiken
    Onêtas athanatêsi demas kai eidos erizein.]

O gentle Goddess! would your kindly heart have been most pained or
pleased, if you could have guessed how ample was the final retribution?
You never knew how often--wearied by petty public broils, worried by
Penelope's shrill shrewish tongue, overborne by the staid platitudes of
the prim, respectable Telemachus--your ancient lover strode over bleak
rocks and gusty sand-hills, till his feet were dipped in the seething
foam, and he stood straining his eyes seaward, and drinking in the wind
that he fancied blew from Ogygia--the island to which no prow of mortal
ever found the backward track. You never knew how often his thoughts
rushed back, with a desperate longing and vain regret, to the great
cave shrouded by the vine heavy with clusters of eternal grapes, deep in
the greenwood where the wild birds loved to roost, girdled by the
meadows thick with violets--where cedar and frankincense burned brightly
on the hearth, making the air heavy with fragrance--where the wine, that
whoso drank became immortal, mantled ever in unstinted goblets--where
you bent over your golden shuttle, singing a low sweet song--where your
dark divine eyes never wearied in their welcome.

I have always thought that, of all men alive or dead, of all characters
in fact or fiction, Odysseus, in his declining years, must have been the
most intensely bored. But then, you know, though passing wise in his
generation, he was wholly a pagan and half a barbarian. Far be it from
me to insinuate, that any Christian and civilized Wanderer, when once
reinstated in his domestic comforts, ever wastes a regret on a lost love
beyond the sea.



CHAPTER XV.

PAVIA.


It is said, that when a man is struck blind by lightning, he never
forgets afterwards the minutest object on which his eyes rested when the
searing flash shot across them. Even so, when the crash of the great
misfortune is over, and we wake from dull, heavy insensibility to find
the light gone out of our life for ever, we remember with unnatural
distinctness the most trivial incidents of the last hours of sunshine;
we actually seem to see them over again sometimes, as we grope our way,
hopelessly and helplessly, through the darkness that will endure till it
is changed into night; for it may be, that from our spirit's eyes the
blinding veil will never be lifted, till they unclose in the dawn of the
Resurrection.

Both the cousins had good cause to treasure in their memories every word
and gesture that passed between them on one particular evening; for it
was the last--the very last--of pure, unalloyed happiness that either of
them ever knew. Years afterwards, Wyverne could have told you to a shade
the colour of the ribbons on Helen's dress, the fashion of the bracelets
on each of her wrists, the scent of the flowers she wore. She, too,
remembered right well his attitude when they parted; she could have set
her foot on the very square of marble on which his was planted; she
could recall the exact intonation of his gentle voice, as he bade her
farewell on the lowest step of the great staircase, for he was to start
very early the next morning. She remembered, too, how that night she
lingered before a tall pier-glass, passing her hands indolently through
her magnificent hair, while the light fell capriciously on the dark
shining masses, rejoicing in the contemplation of her surpassing
loveliness; she remembered how she smiled at her image in saucy triumph,
as the thought rose in her heart--that Nina Lenox's mirror held no
picture like this.

Ah, Helen, better it were the glass had been broken then; it may show
you, in after years, a face disdainful of its own marvellous beauty, or
tranquil in its superb indifference, according to your varying mood; but
a happy one--never any more.

The Squire had to go to town for a few days, and Alan, who had also
business there, accompanied him. They were to be back for
Christmas-day--the last in that week. Wyverne got through his affairs
quicker than he had anticipated, so he determined to return a day
sooner, without waiting for his uncle. His evil Genius was close to his
shoulder even here; for, if Hubert Vavasour had been present, it is just
possible, though not probable, that things might have gone differently.

Alan started by an early train, so that he arrived at Dene soon after
midday. Perhaps it was fancy, but he thought that the face of the Chief
Butler wore rather a curious and troubled expression; if it were
possible for that sublimely vacuous countenance to betray any human
emotion, something like a compassionate interest seemed to ruffle its
serenity. The letters of expected visitors were always placed on a
particular table in the great hall. Again--on the top of the pile
waiting for Alan, lay one in the well-known handwriting of Nina Lenox.
This time it was placed naturally, with the seal downwards.

The first, the very first imprecation that had ever crossed Wyverne's
lips in connexion with womankind, passed them audibly, when his eye
lighted on the fatal envelope. He knew right well that it held the
death-warrant of his love; but even now the curse was not levelled at
the authoress of his trouble, but at his own evil fortune. As he took up
the letters, he asked, half mechanically, where his aunt and cousin
were. The answer was ominous:

"My lady was exceedingly unwell, and confined to her room. Miss Vavasour
was somewhere in the Pleasance, but she wished to be sent for as soon as
Sir Alan arrived." He had written the night before, to say he was
coming.

Wyverne walked on into the library without another word. For the moment
he felt stupid and helpless, like a man just waking after an overdose of
narcotics. He sat down, and began turning the letter over and over as if
he were trying to guess at its contents. From its thickness it was
evidently a long one--two or three note-sheets at least. A very few
minutes, however, brought back his self-composure entirely, and he knew
what he had to do. It was clear the letter could not be burnt unopened,
this time. He drew his breath hard once, and set his teeth savagely;
then he tore the envelope and began to read deliberately.

Alan once said, when he happened to be discussing feminine ethics--"I
can conceive women affecting one with any amount of pain or pleasure;
but I don't think anything they could do would ever _surprise_ me." Rash
words those--perhaps they deserved confutation; at any rate the speaker
was thoroughly astounded now. He knew that no look or syllable had ever
passed between himself and Nina Lenox that could be tortured into
serious love-making; yet this letter of hers was precisely such as might
have been written by a passionate, sinful woman, to the man for whom she
had sacrificed enough to make her desertion almost a second crime. There
was nothing of romance in it--nothing that the most indulgent judge
could construe into Platonic affection--it was miserably _practical_
from end to end. No woman alive, reading such words addressed to her
husband or her lover, could have doubted, for a second, what his
relations with the writer had been, even if they were ended now.
Griselda herself would have risen in revolt. It is needless to give even
the heads of that delectable epistle. Mrs. Lenox acknowledged that she
wrote in despite of Alan's repeated prohibition; but--_c'était plus fort
qu'elle_, and all the rest of it. One point she especially insisted on.
However _he_ might scorn her, surely he would not give _others_ the
right to do so? He would burn the letter, she knew he would, without
speaking of it, far less showing it to any human being; she suffered
enough, without having her miserable weakness betrayed for the amusement
of Miss Vavasour.

Every line that Alan read increased his bewilderment. Was it possible
that dissipation, and trouble, and intrigue had told at last on the busy
brain, so that it had utterly given way? Such things had been; there was
certainly something strange and unnatural in the character of the
writing, sometimes hurried till the words ran into each other, sometimes
laboured and constrained as if penned by a hand that hesitated and
faltered. He knew that Nina was rash beyond rashness, and would indulge
her sudden caprices at any cost, without reckoning the sin or even the
shame, but he could not believe in such a wild _velleité_ as this.

"She must be mad."

Wyverne spoke those words aloud; they were answered by a sigh, or
rather a quick catching of the breath, close to his shoulder; he started
to his feet, and stood face to face with Helen Vavasour, who had entered
unobserved while he sat in his deep reverie.

Helen was still in her walking-dress; a fall of lace slightly shaded her
brow and cheeks, but it could not dissemble the bright feverish flush
that made the white pallor of all the lower part of the face more
painfully apparent; the pupils of her great eyes were contracted, and
they glittered with the strange _serpentine_ light which is one of the
evidences of poison by belladonna; but neither cheeks nor eyes bore
trace of a tear. She had schooled herself to speak quite deliberately
and calmly; the effect was apparent, not only in the careful
accentuation of each syllable, but in her voice--neither harsh nor
hollow, yet utterly changed.

"Mad, Alan? Yes, we have all been mad. It is time that this should come
to an end. You think, so, too, I am sure."

Wyverne had known, from the first moment that he saw the letter, how it
would fare with him; but the bitter irritation which had hardened his
heart on a former occasion was not there now; he could not even be angry
with those who had brought him to this pass; all other feelings were
swallowed up in an intense, half-unselfish sorrow.

"Dear child, it _is_ more than time that you should be set free from me
and my miserable fortunes. We will drift away, alone, henceforth, as we
ought always to have done. It was simply a sin, ever to have risked
dragging you down with the wreck; it must founder soon. Ah, remember, I
said so once, and you--never mind that--I'll make what amends I can; but
I have done fearful harm already. Three months more of this, would wear
you out in mind and body; even now they will tell in your life like
years. We most part now. Darling, try to forget, and to forgive,
too--for you have much to forgive."

He stopped for a moment, but went on quickly, answering the wild,
haggard question of her startled eyes; she had understood those last
words wrongly.

"No--not that;" he struck the letter he still held, impatiently, with a
finger of the other hand. "I told you once, I would never ask you to
believe me again as you did then. I don't ask you to act as if you
believed, now. But, Helen, you will know one day before we die, whether
I have been sinned against or sinning in this thing; I feel sure of it,
or--I should doubt the justice of God."

The soft, sad voice quite broke down the calmness it had cost Helen so
much to assume; she could not listen longer, and broke in with all her
own impetuosity--

"Ah, Alan! don't ask it; it is not right of you. You know I _must_
believe whatever you tell me, and I dare not--do you hear--I dare not,
now. It is too late. I have promised--" and she stopped, shivering.

Wyverne's look was keen and searching; but it was not at _her_ that his
brows were bent. He took the little trembling hand in his own, and tried
to quiet the leaping pulses, and his tones were more soothing than ever.

"I know it all, darling; I know how bravely you have tried to keep your
faith with me; I shall thank you for it to my life's end, not the less
because neither you nor I were strong enough to fight against fate,
and--Aunt Mildred. I cannot blame her: if I could, _you_ should not hear
me. She was right to make you promise before you came here. It was
unconditionally, of course?"

The girl's cheek flushed painfully.

"There was a condition," she murmured under her breath; "but I hardly
dare. Yes; I dare say anything--to you. Mamma sent for me when that
letter came, or I should never have heard of it. She did not say how
_she_ knew. You cannot think how determined she is. I _was_ angry at
first; but when I saw how hard she was, I was frightened; and, Alan,
indeed, indeed I did all I could to soften her. At last she said that
she would not insist on my giving you up, if--if you would show me that
letter. Ah, Alan--what have _I_ done?"

He had dropped her hand before she ended, and stood looking at her with
an expression that she had never dreamt could dwell in his
eyes--repellant to the last degree, too cold and contemptuous for anger.
It softened, though, in a second or two at the sight of Helen's
distress.

"Did you doubt what my answer would be? I am very sure your mother never
doubted: she knew me better."

No answer; but she bowed her beautiful head till it could rest on his
arm; a stormy sob or two made her slender frame quiver down to the feet;
and then, with a rush like that of Undine's unlocked well, the pent-up
tears came. The passion-gust soon passed away; and her cousin kept
silence till Helen was calm again; then he spoke very gently and
gravely.

"Do forgive me; I did not mean to be harsh. You only gave your message,
I know; but it was like a stab to hear your lips utter it. Child, look
up at me, and listen. I need not tell you I am speaking God's truth--you
feel it. You know what I have done to stop these accursed letters. I
believe the writer to be mad; but that will not help us. I think I would
stand by and see her burned at the stake, as better women have been
before her, if by that sacrifice I could keep your love. But--if I knew,
that by this one act I could make you my very own, so that nothing but
the grave could part us--I would not show you a line of her letter. It
may be, that there are higher duties which justify the betrayal of an
unhappy woman, when her very confidence is a sin. I dare say I am wrong
in my notions of honour, as well as in other things; but, such as they
are, I'll stand by them to the death, and--to what I think must be
harder to bear than death. I don't hesitate, because I have no choice. I
know that I am casting, this moment, my life's happiness away:
Helen--see--my hand does not tremble."

He tossed the letter as he spoke into the wood fire blazing beside them;
it dropped between two red logs, and, just flashing up for a second,
mingled with the heap of ashes.

Now, Wyverne's conduct will appear to many absurdly Quixotic, and some
will think it deserves a harsher name than folly. I decline to argue
either point. It seems to me--when one states fairly at the beginning of
a story, "that it has no Hero"--the writer is by no means called upon to
identify himself with the sentiments of his principal character, much
less to defend them. I have not intended to hold up Alan Wyverne either
as a model or a warning. He stands there for what he is worth--a man not
particularly wise or virtuous or immaculate, but frank and affectionate
by nature, with firmness enough to enable him to act consistently
according to the light given him. Whether that light was a false one or
no, is a question that each particular reader may settle _à son gré_.
Purely on the grounds of probability, I would suggest that others have
sacrificed quite as much for scruples quite as visionary. Putting aside
the legions of lives that have been thrown away on doubtful points of
social professional honour, have not staid and grave men submitted to
the extremes of penury, peril, and persecution, because they would not
give up some favourite theory involving no question of moral right or
wrong? The _Peine forte et dure_ could scarcely have been an agreeable
process; yet a Jesuit chose to endure it, and died under the iron press,
rather than plead before what he held to be an incompetent tribunal. You
constantly say of such cases, "One can't help respecting the man, to a
certain extent." Now, I don't ask you to respect Alan Wyverne: it is
enough, if you admit that his folly was not without parallels.

Among those who could blame or despise him, Helen Vavasour was not
numbered: she never felt more proud of her lover than at that moment
when his own act had parted them irrevocably. She was not of the
"weeping willow" order, you know; the tears still hanging on her
eyelashes were the first she had shed since childhood in serious sorrow.
Quick and impetuous enough in temper, she was so unaccustomed to indulge
any violent demonstration of feeling, that she felt somewhat ashamed of
having yielded to it now. But the brief outbreak did her good; it
lightened her brain and brought back elasticity to her nerves. There is
nothing like a storm for clearing the atmosphere. Nevertheless, the
haughty, bold spirit was for the moment thoroughly beaten down. There
was something in her accent piteous beyond the power of words to
describe, as she whispered half to herself,

"Yes, we must part; but it is too, too hard."

"Hardest of all," he said, "to part on a pretext like this. There is
either madness or magic, or black treachery against me, I swear. Some
day we shall know. But, darling, sooner or later it must have come. I
have felt that for weeks past, though I tried hard to delude myself. I
must say good-bye to Dene in an hour. When shall I see the dear old
house again? I am so sorry for Uncle Hubert, too. If he had been
here--no, perhaps it is best so--there would have been more wounded, and
we could never have won the day."

"Don't go yet; ah, not yet"--the sweet voice pleaded--all its dangerous
melody had stolen back to it now, and lithe fingers twined themselves
round Alan's, as though they would never set him free.

But Wyverne was aware that the self-control which had carried him
through so far, was nearly exhausted. He had to think for _both_, you
see; and it was the more trying, because the part of Moderator was so
utterly new to him; nevertheless, he played it honestly and bravely.

"I dare not stay. I _must_ see Uncle Hubert before I sleep; and it is
only barely possible, if I leave Dene in half an hour. Listen, my Helen:
I am not saying good-bye to _you_, though I say it to our past. I lose
my wife; but I do not intend to lose my cousin. I will see you again as
soon as I can do so safely. A great black wall is built up now, between
the future, and all that we two have said and done: I will never try to
pass it again by thought or word. You will forget all this. Hush, dear.
You think it impossible at this moment, but _I_ know better. You will
play a grand part in the world one of these days, and perhaps you may
want a friend--a real friend. Then you shall think of me. I will help
you with heart and hand as long as life lasts; and I will do so in all
truth and honour--as I hope to meet my dead mother, and Gracie, and you,
in heaven."

She did not answer in words. The interview lasted about a hundred
seconds longer, but I do not feel called upon to chronicle the last
details. Writers, as well as narrators, have a right to certain
reserves.

Alan Wyverne was away from Dene before the half hour was out; but he
left a sealed note behind him for his aunt. "My lady" was waiting the
issue somewhat anxiously; it is needless to say, her health was the
merest pretext. She read the note through, calmly enough; but, when she
opened her escritoire to lock it up safely, her hands shook like
aspen-leaves, and she drank off eagerly the strongest dose of "red
lavender" that had passed her lips for many a day.

Does not that decisive interview seem absurdly abrupt and brief? It is
true that I have purposely omitted many insignificant words and
gestures; but if all these had been chronicled, it would still have been
disappointingly matter-of-fact and meagre.

Nevertheless--believe it--to build up a life's happiness is a work of
time and labour, aided by great good fortune: to ruin and shatter it
utterly is a question of a short half hour, even where no ill luck
intervenes. It took months of toil to build the good ship Hesperus,
though her timbers were seasoned and ready to hand; it took hours of
trouble to launch her when thoroughly equipped for sea; but it took only
a few minutes of wave-and-wind-play, to shiver her into splinters, when
her keel crushed down on the reef of Norman's Woe.



CHAPTER XVI.

MISANTHROPOS.


On the morning after the most disastrous of all his bad nights at
hazard, Charles Fox was found by a friend who called, in fear and
trembling, to offer assistance or condolence, lying on his sofa in lazy
luxury, deep in an eclogue of Virgil. The magnificent indifference was
probably not assumed, for there was little tinsel about that large
honest nature, and he was not the man to indulge in private theatricals.
Since I read that anecdote, I have always wondered that the successes
achieved by the great Opposition leader were not more lasting and
complete. Among the triumphs of mind over matter, that power of
thoroughly abstracting the thoughts from recent grief or trouble, seems
to stand first and foremost. Such sublime stoicism implies a strength of
character and of will, that separates its possessor at once from his
fellows: sooner or later, He must rule, and they must obey.

Alan Wyverne was not so rarely gifted. The bustle of the heavy journey
from Dene to the railroad, and the uncertainty about catching the train,
helped him at first; but when all that was over, and he was fairly on
his way to town, he was forced to _think_, whether he would or no.
Anything was better than brooding over the past; he tried desperately to
force his thoughts into the immediate future--to imagine what he should
say to his uncle, and how the Squire would take the heavy tidings. The
effort was worse than vain. The strong stream laughed at the puny
attempts to stem it, sweeping all such obstacles away, as it rushed down
its appointed channel. All the plans he had talked over with Helen, even
to the smallest details of their proposed domestic economy, came back
one by one; he remembered every word of their last playful argument,
when he tried to persuade her that certain luxuries for her boudoir at
Wyverne Abbey were necessities not to be dispensed with; he remembered
how they had speculated as to the disposal of the money, if his solitary
bet on the next Derby, 1000 to 10 about a rising favourite--should by
any chance come off right; how they had weighed gravely the advantages
of three months of winter in Italy against the pleasures of an
adventurous expedition whose turning-point should be the Lebanon. What
did it matter now who won or lost? Was it only yesterday that he had an
interest in all these things? Yesterday--between him and that word there
seemed already a gulf of years. Yesterday, he had felt so proud in
anticipating the triumphs of his beautiful bride; now, he could only
think of her certain success with a heavy sinking of the heart, or a hot
fierce jealousy; for she was all his own treasure then; one night had
made her the world's again. That miserable journey scarcely lasted four
hours; but when it ended, Wyverne was as much morally changed as he
might have been, physically, by a long wasting sickness.

Does it seem strange that a man, who up to this time had met all
reverses with a careless gaiety that was almost provoking, should go
down so helplessly now before a blow that would scarcely stagger many of
our acquaintance? A great deal, in such cases, depends on the
antecedents. Human nature, however elastic and enduring, will only stand
a certain amount of "beating." When Captain Lyndon is in good luck and
good funds, he accepts the loss of a hundred or two with dignified
equanimity, if not with chirping cheerfulness; but supposing the bad
night comes at the end of a long evil "vein"--when financial prospects
are gloomier than the yellow fog outside--when the face of his banker is
set against him, as it were a millstone--when that reckless soldier

    Would liever mell with the fiends of hell,
    Than with Craig's Court and its band.

O, my friend! I marvel not that a muttered imprecation shot out from
under your moustache, last night, when the Queen of Hearts showed her
comely face--your adversaries having the deal, at three.

Now Alan Wyverne had been playing for his last stake, so far as he knew:
he had put it down with some diffidence and hesitation, and it had
followed the rest into the gulf, leaving him without a chance of winning
back his losses. Under the circumstances some depression, surely, was
not wholly despicable. Remember, he was not so young as he had been:
though still on the better side of middle age, he had in many ways
anticipated his prime, and had not much left to look forward to.

    Qu'on est bien dans un grenier
    Quand on a vingt ans!

So sings Béranger, well, if not wisely. But--add another score of years
or so--what will the lodger say of his quarters? Those seven flights of
stairs are dark and steep; the bread is hard and tasteless; the wine
painfully sour and thin; the fuel runs short, and it is bitter cold, for
Lisette is no longer there to hang her cloak over the crazy casement,
laughing at the whistle of the baffled wind.

Wyverne saw his uncle that night. The Squire was equally provoked and
grieved; the intelligence took him completely by surprise, for he had
never guessed that anything was going wrong; he would not allow at first
that the engagement was irrevocably broken off, and wished to try what
he could do to re-cement it; but Alan was so hopelessly firm on the
point that Hubert was forced to yield. He believed in his nephew
implicitly, and acquitted him of blame from first to last; but he was
completely puzzled by Mrs. Lenox's strange conduct; he only dropped the
subject when he saw how evidently it pained Alan to pursue it.

"I shall not write, even to reproach her," the latter said. "I am too
heart-sick of her and her caprices. I suppose she will explain herself
if we ever meet, and I have patience to listen."

When they parted, the Squire clasped Wyverne's hand hard, looking
wistfully into his face.

"I--I did my best, boy," he said, huskily.

The old genial light came back for an instant, only an instant, into the
other's weary eyes, and he returned the gripe right cordially.

"Do you think I don't know that?" he answered; "or that I shall ever
forget it? We all did our best; but Aunt Mildred has her way, after all.
Take care of Helen; she will need it. And if you would write soon to
tell me the truth about her, it would be so very kind."

The next morning Alan started for the North, alone. If the
Christmas-tide was dreary at Wyverne Abbey, it was not a "merry" one at
Dene. The Squire did not seek to disguise his discontent, though he said
little on the subject of the broken engagement, either to his wife or
Helen. There was a gloomy reserve in his manner towards the former, that
showed that he more than suspected her of unfair play; to the latter he
was unusually gentle and considerate. Miss Vavasour bore up bravely. No
one looking at the girl's pale proud face would have dreamt of the dull,
heavy pain coiled round her heart, like the serpent round Don Roderic in
the tomb. She accepted her father's caresses gratefully, and her
mother's with placid indifference. No words of recrimination had passed
between these two; but there is an instinct of distrust as well as of
love or fear; the last few days had slain sympathy outright, and even
the tough sensibility of the cool diplomatist was not always unmoved as
she realized the utter estrangement. So even "my lady," though the game
was won, did not feel in vein for the festivities of the season. Her
conscience had long ceased to trouble her, when it was a question of
expediency; she compassionated the sorrows of her misguided daughter
about as much as a great surgeon does the sufferings of a patient who
has just passed under his knife; but she was not quite philosopher
enough, wholly to disbelieve in Retribution. Her dreams of a brilliant
future for Helen were sometimes disturbed by a vision of sad earnest
eyes, pleading only that truth might be met by truth--she had answered
their appeal so well!

It was an odd sort of life that Wyverne led at the Abbey. He took to
shooting over his broad manors, with a dogged determination that
rejoiced the hearts of his keepers and tenants and every one interested
in the preservation of his game. He went out always early in the
morning, and never returned till darkness set in; then he slept for a
couple of hours, dined late, and sat smoking and musing far into the
night. But it did him good in every way: the strong exercise and the
keen north-country air stirred up the iron in his blood, and braced his
nerves as well as his sinews. I believe that permanent melancholy
implies a morbid condition, not only of the mind but the body. I
believe--be it understood this is only a theory, so far--that a man will
not _mope_ in the Queen's Bench, though he may hate himself
occasionally, and find the position irksome, if he sticks to cold water
and rackets. The genial hopefulness which had resisted so many rude
shocks, was dead in Alan for ever and aye; but it was not in his nature
to become sullen and saturnine; he rejoiced simply and sincerely when
his uncle's letter brought good news of Helen; he was not selfish enough
to quarrel with his lost love because her wreath was not always
ostentatiously twined of the willow. Some men are never satisfied unless
they leave more than half the misery behind them.

Wyverne had been at the Abbey about a month, when he got a letter which
surprised him not a little. Mr. Haldane wrote, to beg his nephew to
visit him, for a single night, and pressed it on the ground that his
health was failing.

Castle Dacre was situated far up in the hills, thirty miles or so from
the Abbey. They had nicknamed it "Castle Dangerous" through the
country-side, for the roads all round it were so infamous as to be
sometimes impassable. Very few, of late years, had found it worth their
while to encounter such perils. It was a huge dreary pile--a tall grey
keep in the centre, dating back to the time of the Danes: round this
long low ranges of more modern buildings were grouped, all in the same
pale gaunt granite. The trees clustering about the castle in clumps, and
thickly studded over the bleak park, hardly took away from the bare
desolate effect; some of them were vast in the trunk and broad in the
top, but it seemed as if the bitter north wind had checked their growth,
though it could not waste their strength. You shivered involuntarily
when you looked at the house from the outside; the contrast was the more
striking when you entered. The whole of the interior was almost
oppressively light and warm; great fires blazed in huge grates in the
most unexpected corners, and bright lamps burned in the remotest nooks
of passage, and hall, and corridor. A Belgravian establishment might
have been maintained for a whole season at the cost of the coals and oil
consumed in Dacre Castle; but such was the whim of its eccentric and
autocratic master.

Alan Wyverne arrived very late, and did not see his uncle till they met
at dinner. Mr. Haldane must always have been small and slight of frame;
he was thin, now, to emaciation; there was not a particle of colour in
the face or the delicate hands; the articulations in the last were so
strongly marked as almost to spoil the perfection of their shape. His
features might have been handsome once, and not disagreeable in their
expression, but evil tempers and physical suffering had left ruinous
traces there; the thin lips had forgotten how to smile, though they were
meaning enough when they curled sardonically; he had a curious way of
perpetually drawing himself together, as if struck with a sudden chill.

He was just the sort of man you would have set down as a great judge of
pictures and collector of curiosities. So it was. The whole house was
overflowing with the choicest productions of nature and art, gathered
from every quarter of the known world. A long gallery was completely
filled with the rarest specimens of china that the last three centuries
could display. Some of our connoisseurs would have sold their souls for
the plundering of that one chamber.

The dinner was simply perfection. You might have feasted for a whole
season at half the best houses in London, and have missed the artistic
effects which awaited you in that lonely castle of the far North. The
wines of every sort were things to dream of. Mr. Haldane drank nothing
but Burgundy. Even Alan Wyverne, accustomed as he was to witness deep
wassail, felt wonder approaching to fear, as he saw his host drain glass
after glass of the strong rich liquor without betraying a sign of its
influence, either by the faintest flush on his thin parchment cheek, or
a change of inflection in his low monotonous voice. It seemed as if he
were trying to infuse some warmth into his veins, in defiance of a curse
laid upon him--to remain frozen and statuelike forever.

While dinner lasted, the conversation went languishing on, never coming
to a full stop, but never in the least animated. It was evident that the
thoughts of both often wandered far away from the subject they were
talking of. At last they drew their great arm-chairs up to the fire, one
on each side of the horse-shoe table, with a perfect barricade of glass
between them in the shape of decanters and claret-jugs. For the first
ten minutes after they were left alone the host kept silence, leaning
forward and spreading his hands over the fierce fire; they were so thin
and white that the light seemed to pass through them as it does through
transparent china. He raised his head suddenly and glanced aside at his
companion, who was evidently musing, with an expression half
inquisitive, half satirical, in his keen grey eyes.

"So everything is at an end between you and Helen Vavasour. I am very
glad of it, and not the least surprised."

It is never pleasant to have one's reveries abruptly broken; the nerves
are _agacés_, if nothing worse. Besides this, both words and manner
grated on Alan's sensibilities disagreeably. He did not fancy those thin
cynical lips pronouncing that name with such scant ceremony; so his tone
was anything but conciliatory.

"Thank you. I don't seem to care much about being congratulated, or
condoled with, either; and I cannot conceive what interest the subject
can have for you. You ignored it pretty decisively some months ago.
Perhaps you will be good enough to do so now."

The look on his face, that had been simply listless before, grew hard
and defiant while he was speaking. If Bernard Haldane was inclined to
take offence, he certainly controlled his temper wonderfully. He filled
a great glass to the brim with Chambertin, held it for a minute against
the blaze, letting the light filter through the gorgeous purple, and
drained it slowly before he replied--

"I am not surprised at your engagement being broken off, because I know
right well with whom you had to deal. I am glad, because I have always
taken an interest in you, Alan. You don't believe it; but it is true
nevertheless; and I do so still. I would sooner see a man I cared for
dead, than married to Mildred Vavasour's daughter."

Wyverne's anger ceased, as soon as he saw that the old man had some
reason, real or fancied, for his strange conduct; but he spoke coldly
still.

"Strong words, sir. I suppose you have strong provocation to justify
them?"

Bernard Haldane drew a folded letter from his breast-pocket, and put it
into the other's hand, silently. The paper was yellow with age, the ink
faint and faded; but Alan knew the handwriting instantly. His
astonishment deepened as he read on. Was it possible that his cool,
calculating, diplomatic aunt could have penned such words as
these--words in which passion seemed to live and vibrate still, untamed
by passage through thirty years?

Mr. Haldane drained two glasses in rapid succession while the letter was
reading. There was no thickness or hesitation in his voice when he spoke
again, but it was hard and hoarse, as if his throat were dust-dry in
spite of all the Burgundy.

"That is her last letter--the last of forty or more. I have them all
still, and I think I know them all by heart. You may laugh out if you
like; I shall not be angry. She wrote once more--not a letter, only a
note--to break all off, without a word of remorse for herself or pity
for me. A fresh fancy or a better match came across her, so she turned
me adrift like a dog she was tired of. She would have given me a dog's
death, too, if she could, I dare say; for, till she was married, she
never felt safe. Do you wonder now, or blame me, for what I have said
and done or _not_ done?"

Six weeks ago such a story as this would have won hearty sympathy from
Alan Wyverne; but he had suffered too lately himself, to be moved by a
tale of wrong thirty years old. He could not forget Bernard Haldane's
answer to his own letter, and the idea would haunt him that in some way
or other it had materially affected his matrimonial prospects.

"I neither wonder nor blame," he said, wearily. "If any one is right in
visiting the sins of the mothers on the children, I suppose you were.
Certainly, 'my lady' has a good deal to answer for. I understand her
look now, when I mentioned your name. Yes, I _do_ wonder at one thing. I
don't understand why you married my father's sister."

The old man glanced darkly at the speaker from under his strong grey
eyebrows.

"I hope my poor wife never knew the lie I uttered at the altar; or, if
she did, that she forgave me before she died. But God knew it, and
punished it. Alan--you are my nearest heir."

After those significant words there was silence for some minutes, only
broken by a faint tinkle and gurgle, as the host filled his glass
repeatedly, and his guest followed the example in more moderate fashion.
At last Mr. Haldane spoke again.

"Alan, I wonder what would be your line, if you came into this
inheritance? Do you know, it is larger than the one you threw away?"

A few weeks ago, when Wyverne's fortunes were bound up with Helen
Vavasour's, such a speech as that would have sent a hot thrill of hope
through all his being: he heard it now with an indifference which was
not in the least assumed.

"It would be a hazardous experiment," he answered, carelessly. "They say
there is a great pleasure in hoarding, when you have more money than you
know what to do with. I never tried it; perhaps I should take to avarice
for a change. But I might take to playing again: it's just as likely as
not; and then everything would go, if my present luck lasted--the
pictures and the gems, and the china, and the mosaics. It would be a
thousand pities, too; I don't believe there's such another collection in
England."

Bernard Haldane seemed determined, that night, not to be provoked by
anything that his nephew could do or say. He was so accustomed to be
surrounded by helpless dependents, bowing themselves without
remonstrance or resistance before his tyrannical temper, that he had got
weary of obsequiousness. Alan's haughty _nonchalance_, though it
evidently proceeded from dislike or displeasure, rather refreshed the
old cynic than otherwise.

"You are honest at all events," he muttered; "it's no use trying to
bribe you into forgetting injuries; if you _will_ bear malice,--there's
an end of it. We won't speak of inheritances: they put unpleasant
thoughts into a man's head, whose health is breaking faster every day."

Once more a shiver ran through the speaker's emaciated frame, as it
cowered and shrunk together; and once more the thin white hands spread
themselves eagerly to the blaze. After a pause he rose, evidently to go,
and there was something actually approaching to cordiality in his
manner.

"It is hardly fair to ask you to stay on in this dreary place; but it
would please me very much if you would spare me a few days. They tell me
the covers are full of game, and you can have a hundred beaters at half
an hour's notice. You will be nearly as much alone here as at the Abbey,
for I never appear till dinner-time, and I go to bed very early, as you
see. The Burgundy is a good sleeping-draught, but it must be humoured.
You will stay over to-morrow, at least? I am glad of that. Perhaps you
would like to see the keeper? Give any orders you please, not only
about this, but about anything you may fancy: I _can_ answer for their
being promptly obeyed. Good-night."

His step, as he left the room, was slow and feeble; but not the
slightest uncertainty or unsteadiness of gait gave token of the deep
incessant draughts of fiery liquor that would long ago have dizzied any
ordinary brain. Every family of ancient name, besides its statesmen and
soldiers, preserves the moist memory of some bacchanalian Titan, whose
exploits are inscribed on bowl, or tankard, or beaker. We may not doubt
that there were giants in those days; but the prowess of the mightiest
of all those stalwart squires would have been hardly tried, if he had
"drunk fair" that night with the little, wan, withered hypochondriac.



CHAPTER XVII.

A WISE MAN IN THE EAST.


Day succeeded day, and Alan Wyverne still lingered at Dacre Castle. He
could hardly have told you what kept him there. The shooting certainly
was a great attraction, for, though the season closed in the first week
of his stay, there were snipe and wild-fowl enough to have found work
for half a dozen guns; but it was not the only one. The truth was, that
a sort of liking had sprung up between the cynical host and his quiet
guest. No amount of deep drinking could warm Bernard Haldane into an
approach to conviviality; but his morose, moody temper decidedly
softened during the few hours that he spent each evening in Alan's
society. There was no sympathy perhaps, strictly speaking, between these
two, but there was a certain affinity of suffering. The same soft white
hand had stricken them both sorely, though one wound was yet green, and
the other had been rankling more than a score of years. After that first
night, neither made the faintest allusion to the subject; but ever and
anon, when they were talking about pictures or other things in which
both took an interest, the conversation would drop suddenly, and a
silence would ensue as if by mutual consent; then, each felt conscious
that his companion's thoughts were wandering in the same direction as
his own, and with equal bitterness. After a few minutes you might have
seen each break from his reverie, with the same half angry impatience,
as if despising himself for the weakness of such idle musing, knowing
all the while that the return of the dreaming-fit was as much a
certainty and a question of hours as the rising of the morrow's sun.

Wyverne's visit would probably have been still further prolonged, if an
invitation had not come one morning, suiting his present humour so
exactly, that he accepted it without a moment's hesitation. An old
comrade of Alan's was on the point of starting in his yacht for a roving
cruise round the shores of Greece and Syria, with an intention of
penetrating as far as the hunting-grounds that lie westward of the lower
spurs of the Caucasus: indeed, there was a charming indefiniteness about
the whole thing; the limits of their wanderings and the time of their
return were to depend entirely on circumstances and the fancy of the
travellers. Raymond Graham had heard of his friend's late
disappointment, though he made no allusion to it in his letter, only
enlarging on the sporting prospects of the expedition and the
attractions of a very pleasant party. He thought it would be just the
proposal to tempt Wyverne, and he guessed right.

None of the new-fashioned remedies beat some of the old ones, after all.
Change of climate and change of scene enable the sufferer to make a
stand against sickness of body or mind just as effectually as they did
four thousand years ago.

Hot blinding tears stream down Dido's stricken face as she steals on
board her galley in the harbour of Tyre; for nights she will not close
her heavy eyes, lest a dead man should stand by her couch pointing to
the gash of Pygmalion's dagger; the boldest of her true friends and leal
vassals dares not trouble with a word of comfort that great hopeless
sorrow. But see--the headlands of Cyprus are yet blue in the leeward
distance, and the rich blood has begun to colour the pale cheek again;
when the dark lashes lift, men see that the divine light is not quenched
in the glorious eyes; nay, the sweet lips do not dissemble a faint, sad
smile as she hears Bitias boasting loud of the bride he will win before
sundown. Of a truth, I think the fair Queen's dreams will cease to be
spectre-haunted, before her prow touches ground in the sands of
Bagradas.

They are more definite now as to the seasons of donning and doffing
their weeds, and will not set their tresses free a day too soon; but, O
Benedict, my friend, are you sanguine enough to believe that so long a
voyage would be needed, to replace despairing grief by decorous woe, in
the desolate bosom of your widow, or mine?

Remember, we have been speaking of creatures, many of whom must find a
certain pleasure in a mild languid melancholy. "They would not, if they
could, be gay." Wyverne's temperament, though it contained womanlike
elements of gentleness and tenderness, was essentially masculine. He
was, indeed, stouter of heart and stronger in will than most of the
rough-and-ready Stryver sort, who cannot argue without blustering or
advise without bullying; who, neither in love nor war, ever lay aside
the speaking-trumpet. The battle of life had gone hard against him of
late; but he did not therefore conclude that there was nothing left
worth living for. The example just then before his eyes was not without
a significant warning. Alan felt that absence from England would suit
him best for awhile; but he had no idea of banishing himself
indefinitely. The proposed expedition would have tempted him at any
period of his life, and he looked forward to it now with a real interest
and an honest determination to make the best of everything.

Bernard Haldane did not attempt to alter his nephew's purpose; indeed,
he approved of it thoroughly; but he sat much later than usual on the
last evening, and seemed loth to say good-bye.

"If I am alive when you return, you will come here, I hope," he said at
last. "If I am gone, I am sure you will, for good reasons. Your
programme promises well--so well that it would be a pity not to carry it
out thoroughly. Don't let money stop you. Where you have to deal with
semi-barbarians, it's often a mere question between silver and steel;
the first saves an infinity of trouble, and, I think, it's the most
moral argument of the two. So take my advice, and bribe Sheikhs and
chiefs to any extent. I have written to-day to my bankers, to give you
unlimited credit there. Now, don't annoy me by making objections. You
know perfectly well that _I_ sacrifice nothing. If I did, my generosity
would still begin very late--too late, I fear. It would be the falsest
delicacy if you were to refuse; for, though we have been almost
strangers hitherto, through my fault, Alan--you _are_ my nephew, after
all."

He laid his hand gently, almost timidly, on Wyverne's as he finished
speaking, and the thin white fingers quivered with his nervous
eagerness, though they remained always deadly cold.

It must be a very mortifying and humiliating time when an old man, who
has started in life with exceptional advantages of intellect and
fortune, is compelled to admit the probability of the whole thing having
been a mistake from first to last; unless there is some grievous sin to
be acknowledged and repented of, I think it would be more satisfactory
to go blundering on unconsciously to the end. To such a frame of mind
Mr. Haldane had been coming gradually for days past. He quite realized
the fact that, in default of a son, he would have chosen Wyverne out of
all England as the heir to his broad lands and great possessions. He
knew enough of Alan's character to feel sure that no more than common
kindness in earlier days would have been needed to win his affection and
keep it; but he had held him at arm's length with the rest till it was
too late to do anything better than change dislike into indifference.
For thirty years he had sat alone, "nursing his wrath to keep it warm,"
fancying that he could make the many suffer for the crime of one. He had
succeeded perhaps in discomfitting a few miserable dependents, and in
disappointing or disgusting a few relatives and friends; but he had
never ruffled a rose-leaf in the couch of the fair "enemy who did him
that dishonour." Who had been the real sufferer, after all? The unhappy
misanthrope almost gnashed his teeth as he answered the question, and
acknowledged the childish impotence of his rancour. If he had only had
the courage at first, to look his wrongs and griefs fairly in the face,
they might have been easily kept at bay; it was too late to strive for
the mastery when they had become a part of his morbid being. He saw all
this clearly enough now. The old, old story--theory perfected, when to
work it out is physically impossible--the alchemist just grasping the
Great Arcanum, without a stiver left to buy powder for the crucible or
coal for the furnace.

Nevertheless, that inveterate habit of looking at things _au noir_
rather misled Bernard Haldane as to the state of Wyverne's feelings. It
would be too much to say that he had begun to conceive a real affection
for his uncle; but he was not insensible to the change in the latter's
demeanour. He felt that the old man was trying, after his fashion, to
make some amends for the past, and rather reproached himself for not
having met such advances more cordially. Day by day the wall built up
between them had been crumbling, and this last act of generosity made
the breach quite practicable. An orthodox hero would, of course, have
taken the "pale and haughty" line, and have rejected the golden
olive-branch, preferring sublime independence to late obligation. Alan
was much more practical and prosaic in his ideas; he accepted without
hesitation, and did not scruple to express his gratitude warmly, though
not demonstratively. It is needless to say that he did not intend to
work the _carte blanche_ unreasonably hard. So those two parted, in all
amity. Bernard Haldane knew that he would be alone again on the morrow,
and that in all probability he saw his nephew's face for the last time;
but he drank less and slept better, that night, than he had done for
years.

Wyverne wrote to tell Hubert Vavasour of his plans as soon as they were
fixed. He got a very characteristic answer, full of kind wishes and
prophecies of great success to the expedition. In truth the Squire
rather envied any one who at that juncture could get well clear of
England, home, and beauty. He spoke cheerfully about Helen, but his
hopes for her seemed about the brightest of his domestic prospects.
Evidently he thought that the crash could not be much longer averted,
and that the close of the current year would find wrack and ruin at
Dene. None the less, from the bottom of his honest heart, he wished his
nephew good-speed.

A fortnight later, strong, healthy excitement tingled in Alan's veins,
as he stood on a wet sloping deck, his arm coiled through the
weather-rigging, and looked ahead, through spray driving thick and
blindly, over a turmoil of black foam-flecked water, betting with
himself as to when the next sea would come tumbling in-board. The
_Goshawk_ was a stout schooner, measuring two hundred liberal tons;
there was no handier or honester craft in all the Royal squadron; but
she had to do all she knew that afternoon, fighting her way foot by foot
and tack by tack against a boisterous south-wester, with Cape Finisterre
frowning on her lee. We have not to follow in the track of the
outward-bound; our business is, now, with the girls they left behind
them.



CHAPTER XVIII.

A STAR IN THE WEST.


The season opened early, and promised brilliantly. There was an
unusually good entry of "maidens;" but among these one held easily, from
the first, an undisputed pre-eminence. They would have made a favourite
even of a _protegée_ of Lady Mildred Vavasour's; you may guess what
_prestige_ attached to her only daughter. In truth, the demoiselle could
have won upon her merits; before that first drawing-room when, it was
said, Royal eyes lighted upon her kindly and admiringly, the triumph was
secured. Such a success had not been achieved within the memory of the
oldest inhabitant of White's. Hardly any one had heard of her brief
engagement, and those who did know, only looked upon it as a childish,
_cousinly_ folly, entailing no serious consequences. Certainly, there
was nothing in Helen's demeanour suggestive of regret or repining. Most
people would have laughed incredulously, if they had been told that the
superb head, which carried itself so imperially, had ever been bowed
down hopelessly and helplessly, or that the lustre of the glorious eyes
had ever been drowned in miserably unavailing tears. She seemed
generally in good spirits, but they were not equable; her humour was
cruelly capricious, and it was impossible to calculate upon her temper;
she would be dangerously captivating one evening, and, the next morning,
absolutely inaccessible. They very soon found out that she would
sometimes be moved to serious anger on absurdly slight pretexts,
or--none at all.

To speak the truth, Miss Vavasour was by no means insensible to the
admiration she commanded, and appreciated homage thoroughly. It was very
pleasant to keep the best men in town _en faction_ near the Statue,
looking eagerly for her appearance in Rotten-row; and to know, at a
ball, that her rivals were waiting with blank tablets, till her own was
filled up to the cotillon. She was strictly impartial at first, and the
sharpest eyes could not detect the shadow of a preference; she made it a
rule not to indulge the best of her partners with more than his one
regular turn. There was surprise, if not scandal, throughout Babylon,
when Bertie Grenvil engrossed her almost entirely on a certain evening.
The Cherub was not disposed to undervalue his advantages of any sort: so
he never confided to the world that he had received in the morning a
long letter from Alan Wyverne, and had discussed it with Helen, line by
line.

Almost all our old acquaintances are in town. Max Vavasour has returned
from Northern Italy, where some mysterious attraction had detained him
since last November, and signalizes himself by an exemplary attention to
his domestic duties; he sacrifices readily all the early part of his
evenings whenever "my lady" requires his attendance, and breaks his
morning sleep, without a murmur, to chaperon his sister in her rides.
Such virtue deserves to be rewarded; and it is possible that Max sees
the glitter of a rich compensation not far off in futurity. There is
Maud Brabazon, you see--more perilously provocative than ever; her
coquetry seems to have blossomed with the spring flowers; she is still
disporting herself mischievously with Bertie Grenvil's facile
affections, who has not gained a foot of ground since we left them at
Dene. The Cherub begins to acknowledge that he is getting very much the
worst of it; but finds, apparently, a certain satisfaction in the
maltreatment, and submits to cruelty and caprice with an uncomplaining
docility worthy of a better fate and a better cause. Harding Knowles,
too, has opened the campaign with unusual prodigality and splendour; he
rides the neatest of hacks, is profusely hospitable in luncheons at his
chambers and suburban dinners, and speaks--always with bated breath and
in the strictest _tête-à-tête_--familiarly of "Clydesdale." He is to be
seen at all Lady Mildred's parties, who treats him with marked
consideration; but he keeps clear of her daughter, for the recollection
of that discomfiture at Dene still rankles bitterly.

Before long, diffidence and despondency showed themselves in the circle
of Miss Vavasour's assiduous admirers; the Detrimentals drew back in
fear and trembling, and even the best of the Eligibles stood aloof, for
a season, watching how things would go. The Great Earl had come to the
front, evidently in serious earnest.

Such reserve is, surely, most just and natural. Shall we be ruder than
the lower animals, who by their example teach us a proper respect of
persons?

See--a company of beautiful bright-eyed antelopes are drinking at their
favourite pool, deep in the green heart of the jungle; the leopards have
tracked them, and steal nearer and nearer, till a few seconds more will
bring the prey within clutch of their spring; suddenly the ravenous
beasts cease to trail themselves forward, crouching lower and lower till
their muzzles seem buried in the ground; there they lie, rigid and
motionless, showing no sign of life, even by a quiver of the listening
ear; the sounds close by are significant enough to _them_, though the
poor little antelopes hear nothing--a soft, heavy footfall--a deep
breath drawn long and savagely--a smothered rustle, as though some huge
body were forcing stealthy passage through the tangled jungle-grass: the
leopards know, right well, that the King of the Forest is at hand, and
famished as they are, will not betray their presence even by a growl,
till their Seigneur shall have chosen his victim and satiated his
appetite. Could the most patient and discreet of courtiers or parasites
act more decorously?

The simile is not altogether inapposite, I fancy, nor very new either;
nevertheless, O fairest reader! I _do_ pray you to pardon the truculence
of that carnivorous comparison.

Clydesdale did not seek to dissemble his admiration; indeed, he seemed
desirous to _afficher_ it as much as possible, for he knew that it was
the surest way of keeping the ground clear, and that was precisely what
he wanted. If it had been possible he would have liked, when he was
calling in Guelph-crescent, to have left some visible token of his
presence outside, to warn off the vulgar and profane, even as the
Scythian chiefs used to plant their spear at the door of the tent
wherein dwelt the favourite of the hour. From the moment that he heard,
with a fierce throb of exultation, of the breaking off of Helen's
engagement, the Earl had made up his resolve, and never doubted as to
the event. Alan's departure made him still more confident; he felt that
the last barrier had been taken away: he had nothing to do now but to
sit still and win. He was doggedly obstinate in his attentions, yet by
no means demonstrative; he seldom tried to secure more than two of Miss
Vavasour's waltzes in an evening, but these were the only ones in which
he deigned to exhibit himself; when she was dancing with any one else,
he would stand watching her swift graceful movements, with a critical
complacency on his broad sensual face, that was enough to aggravate even
an indifferent spectator--the conscious pride of proprietorship was so
very evident. With just that same expression, the chief of a great
stable watches the Oaks favourite as she sweeps past him, leading the
string of two-year-olds--so easily--with her long sweeping stride. Lord
Clydesdale was always sparing of his conversational treasures, if he
possessed any; nor did he lavish them even on the woman whom he
delighted to honour. His eyes ought to have been more expressive, for
they had a good deal of duty to do; his pertinacious gaze scarcely left
Helen's face when he was in her presence, and he seemed to consider this
homage quite sufficiently expressive, without translating it verbally.
Riding by her rein in Rotten-row, lounging in Lady Mildred's
drawing-room for hours of an afternoon--the moody suitor was always the
same silent, sulky, self-satisfied statue of Plutus. If the real truth
had been known, I believe he would have preferred doing all the wooing
by proxy.

No amount of coldness on Miss Vavasour's part would have checked the
Earl in his obstinate determination to win her; but it must be confessed
that he did not meet with much discouragement.

If a purely conventional marriage had been proposed to Helen, some
months ago, she would probably have rejected it with much indignation
and scorn; but things were altered now. Women, as well as men, turn
readily to ambition--never so readily as when love has just been
thwarted--and the demoiselle, though proud as Lucifer, was not too proud
to be ambitious. The little she had seen of her admirer had not
impressed her very favourably; but no active dislike was working the
other way. She knew how eagerly matrons and maidens had striven and
schemed to attain the Clydesdale coronet--it was, in truth, better worth
wearing than some Grand Ducal crowns--there was a certain triumph in the
consciousness that she had only to stretch out her little hand to place
it on her brows.

"There's nothing like competition," they say; the maxim holds good in
other things beside commerce and Civil Service examinations. I believe
that there is hardly any folly, short of sin--let us be generous, and
make that possible exception--to which a woman may not be tempted, if
she is once thoroughly imbued with the spirit of rivalry. There is no
end to the absurdities that they will commit, when this emulous devil
possesses them. I have seen a most excellent young person, ordinarily a
model of demure propriety, attempt to vault over high timber, and come
thereat to grief absolutely unutterable, sooner than be beaten by a
companion better versed in gymnastics, who had just performed the feat
safely and gracefully, amidst general applause. I have known a fair
dame--maturer, it is true, in attractions than in years--utterly ignore
her habitual prudence, and compromise herself gravely by waltzing thrice
almost consecutively with the same partner, simply because she alone
could induce that languid hussar to break an antiterpsichorean pledge
which he had entered into for no earthly reason but laziness; yet, on
her purity of principle and honesty of intention, I would peril the
residue of my life--or, what is more to the purpose--of my patrimony.

The Apple may be crude or withered, and scarcely worth the plucking; but
if the fatal legend be once visible on its rind, you will see divine
eyes glitter with something more than eagerness; and even chaste, cold
Pallas may not repress a jealous pang, when the prize is laid in
Aphrodite's rosy palm.

If it had been a question of keeping faith with Alan Wyverne, Miss
Vavasour would not have wasted one thought or one regret on the present
triumph or the splendid future; but knowing that they were separated for
ever and ever, she was inclined to try if "the pomps and vanities of
this wicked world" could not make some amends for what she had lost. She
would not suppose it possible that a new affection could ever replace
the passionate love that had been crushed and thwarted, but which would
not die. There was her great mistake. It is in our early years that we
ought to be patient; but we never recognize this till we are old: we
hope while we are young, but we will not wait. So Helen accepted
Clydesdale's saturnine devotion, on the whole rather graciously; her
haughty, wayward temper, which would break out at times, rather
attracted than repelled him.

It soon began to be noised abroad that the Great Fish was firmly hooked,
if not landed. Certain astute chaperons acknowledged, with a sigh, that
it was time to desist from a futile pursuit, and to seek humbler and
more available victims. Dudley Delamere, the Earl's heir presumptive,
who had nourished wild hopes of succession, on the strength of his
cousin's notorious habits of self-indulgence, came down to the Foreign
Office, two mornings running, with whiskers uncurled, thereby intimating
prostration and despair as plainly as if he had rent his perfect
garments, or scattered ashes on his comely head.

"I won't fight any longer," he said, plaintively; "the luck's too dead
against me. Throw up the sponge; the Begum has won it fairly."

Those profligates were wont thus irreverently to designate a certain
elderly Indian widow--very stout, good humoured, and dark complexioned,
with rather more thousands in the funds than she had years on her
head--who, for the last two seasons, had manifested an unrequited
attachment to the ungrateful but not unconscious Delamere. It must have
been the attraction of contraries that made her bow down so helplessly
before that slim, golden-haired Irresistible. He rather avoided her than
otherwise; made a merit of coming to her artistic dinners, and treated
her, when they met, with cruelly cold courtesy; but the impassioned
Eurasian still kept hoping and worshipping on; pursuing the reluctant
Adonis with pertinacious blandishments, with broad benevolent smiles
that terrified him inexpressibly, and with glances out of her great
black eyes that sent a shiver through his sensitive organization.
Patient fidelity was rewarded at last. When Dudley had once made up his
mind to the dire necessity, he accepted the position in a manly and
Christian-like spirit, and sacrificed himself for the benefit of his
country and his creditors, with a calm, chivalrous bravery worthy of
Regulus or--Smith O'Brien. They say it is a very comfortable _ménage_,
on the whole; certainly, the Begum's smiles are more oppressively
radiant than ever, and I should think she has gained about two stone in
weight, since the day that crowned her constancy as it deserved.

Nevertheless, though Lord Clydesdale's attentions were so marked, and
his intentions so evident, the season ended without his coming to the
point of a formal proposal. It would be rather hard to define his
reasons for the delay. Possibly, holding the game in his hand, he chose
to dally over his triumph, and play it out to the last card. Possibly,
too, when a man's bachelor-life comprises every element of comfort and
luxury, he lingers with a fond reluctance over its close. Besides this,
the Earl appreciated the advantages of his position thoroughly; it
pleased him to be the centre-point at which the machinations of mothers
and the fascinations of marriageable virgins were levelled; he had
observed of late--not without regret--a manifest slackening in these
assiduities, and, vain as he was, he felt that it would be rather unsafe
to rely on his personal attractions for securing such pleasant homage,
after his future was once decided irrevocably. Absolutely unalloyed
selfishness will make even the dullest of intellects calculating and
crafty. But Clydesdale did not vacillate in his set purpose for an
instant. His last words, both to Lady Mildred and her daughter, before
he left town for Scotland, were perfectly significant and satisfactory.

"My lady" had shown herself throughout worthy of her fame as a
consummate tactician. The cunning mediciner was always at hand to give
aid if aid was required, but she was far too wise to interfere with
Nature when it was working favourably. She guessed aright as to the
state of her daughter's feelings; she could understand how bitter
memories were perpetually conflicting with ambitious hopes in the poor
child's troubled breast; but she knew that a certain order and harmony
must inevitably succeed, ere long, the chaos and discord; so she waited
for the event in quiet confidence, without irritating Helen by
consolation, or advice, or surmises. With Clydesdale, Lady Mildred was
equally cautious and reserved; she was always charmed to receive him, of
course, and ready to accept his attendance; but her bitterest enemy
could not have accused her of betraying any undue eagerness to attract
or monopolize it. The accomplished dissembler could afford to despise
affectation; when the Earl's marked attentions showed that he was
thoroughly in earnest, she did not pretend unconsciousness, but accepted
them with a composed courtesy, as if such homage was only her daughter's
due. She bore herself somewhat like a monarch of olden days, receiving
the fealty of a mighty vassal--evidently gratified by the tribute, yet
by no means overpowered by the honour. She did not attempt to conceal
her approval, but she would not derogate from her position one step; she
was ready to conciliate, not to concede. The suitor soon understood that
his position did not entitle him to follow his own fashion of wooing, or
to dictate his own terms; he could not claim a single privilege that had
not been granted from time immemorial to such as were worthy to aspire
to a Vavasour of Dene. Do not suppose that "my lady's" demeanour ever
expressed this too plainly; dignified stiffness or majestic
condescension were utterly out of her line; her manner never lost the
gentle caressing languor which made it so charming. The tacit way in
which the understanding was established showed the perfection of the
art. The engine would not have been complete, if soft quilted velvet had
not masked the steel springs so thoroughly.

Lady Mildred was not in the least vexed or disappointed when Clydesdale
left town without bringing matters actually to a crisis. She knew right
well it was the simplest question of time. When the Earl spoke, rather
eagerly, about meeting the Vavasours again very soon, she only replied
"that she hoped they might do so; but that her own summer arrangements
were scarcely fixed yet. They would be at Dene in the autumn, certainly,
and would be very happy to see him, if he could spare them a week in the
shooting season."

Her coolness quite disconcerted Clydesdale; he bit his lip, and looked
for a moment as if he were going to be angry; but he checked himself in
time, only giving "my lady" a look before he went, that, if she had been
at all disquieted, would have set her mind effectually at rest.

It is rather an humiliating confession to make about one's Prima
Donna--but, I am afraid, Helen was really more disconcerted than her
mother at the abeyance in which affairs just then remained. It is not
certain if she had made up her mind to accept Lord Clydesdale at once;
but it _is_ certain that she would have liked to have had the option of
refusing him. In truth there were other disagreeable incidents, besides
a passing mortification of vanity. Miss Vavasour's marvellous beauty had
not in anywise palled upon public admiration; men gathered round her,
wherever she appeared, just as eagerly as at the beginning of the
season, and the candidates for inscription on her card were numerous and
emulous as ever; but there was a marked reserve and reticence in their
homage. When a damsel is once resigned, by general consent, to a high
and puissant seignior, even though no contract shall have been signed, a
certain wall of observance is built up around her, that few care
seriously to transgress, except those incorrigible reprobates who make a
mock at all social and conventional obligations, and never see a fence
without wanting to "lark" over it. Perhaps it _is_ rather aggravating,
to be obliged to conform to all the constraints of affiancement, without
having so far reaped its solid advantages.

I am perfectly aware that poor Helen's market-value as a heroine will
have gone down about fifty per cent. in this chapter. But what would you
have? The ancient answer to the question--"What does Woman most care
for?" holds good still. We can solve the riddle, now, without the
Fairy's help, affirming boldly that is--Power.



CHAPTER XIX.

HOW WOLVES AND FOXES DIE.


One of our characters need trouble us no more. The summer passed, and
autumn came on quickly; but Bernard Haldane never saw the leaves change.
Life had been flickering within him, fitfully, for some time past; it
went out suddenly at last: the mortal sickness did not endure through
forty-eight hours. He betrayed no fear or impatience when he heard that
his end was approaching rapidly; only muttering under his breath--"There
is time enough for all I have to do." He paid no sort of attention to
the remonstrances of the physician, but caused himself to be carried at
once into his library where he remained locked in for nearly two hours,
with a servant whom he could trust thoroughly. Paper after paper was
examined and burned--a packet of yellow faded letters, first of all; and
Mr. Haldane retained throughout a perfect intelligence and
self-possession. He leant back in his chair when all was done, and
closed his eyes with a sigh of satisfaction, but roused himself from the
stupor that was creeping over him, to write, with great difficulty, a
few lines to Alan Wyverne; the signature was scarcely legible, and as he
was trying to direct the envelope, his head fell forward heavily on the
table. When they got him back to his room, he was almost too weak to
speak, though he rallied somewhat after taking strong restoratives.

The rector of the parish--a meek, single-minded, conscientious
man--thought it his duty to offer what comfort and succour he could,
though he feared the case was nearly desperate. What doubts, and
misgivings, and repinings entered into the system of Bernard Haldane's
dark cynical philosophy, God only can tell; he never tried to make a
proselyte. As regards any communion with the Church, or outward
observance of her ceremonies, he might have been the veriest of
infidels; but he had never shown himself her overt antagonist. He
listened now to all that the priest had to say, quite patiently and
courteously, but with an indifference painfully evident. When asked "if
he repented?" he answered, "Yes, of many things." Then came the
question, "Are you in peace and charity with all the world?" No word of
reply passed the firm white lips, but they curled with a terribly bitter
smile; and the skeleton hand that lay on the coverlet was clenched, as
though the long filbert-nails would pierce its palm.

The good rector felt utterly disheartened; he had not nerve enough to
cope with that intractable penitent; it would have been a sinful mockery
to speak of Sacrament, then; so he did the best he could--praying long
and fervently, even against hope, for the troubled soul that was so near
its rest. The sick man lay quite still, watching the movements of the
priest, at first with mere curiosity, soon with a growing interest; at
last it seemed as if his eyes would fain have thanked the kindly
intercessor; but they waxed dimmer every moment, till the heavy lids
closed slowly and wearily, not to be lifted again.

The physician standing by bent down his ear to the lips that still kept
moving. He caught one word--"Mildred"--and some other syllables
absolutely unintelligible. The frown on the brow and the contraction of
the features, just then, surely did not come from pain. So--murmuring a
farewell, that savoured, I fear, rather of ban than blessing--died
Bernard Haldane--more tranquilly and serenely than saints and martyrs
have died, who bore uncomplainingly all the burden and heat, and shrank
from no self-sacrifice that could benefit their kind.

The bitter face changed and softened strangely, they say, before the
corpse was cold, till it settled into intense sadness, and ten years
seemed taken from the dead man's age. That grave, pensive expression
perhaps was a natural one, before the keen morbid sensibility was so
cruelly warped and withered. It may be that he _did_ repent heartily at
last, though he could not forgive; thinking of the poverty all round him
that he had never stretched a hand to help, of the honest affection that
he may have barred out when he shut himself up in his arid misanthropy.
If he did once thoroughly realize this, and his utter impotence to make
any amends, be sure the latest pang of his life was the sharpest of all.
That is the worst of all philosophy--Epicurean or Stoic, seductive or
repellant; it _will_ often fail just at the critical time of trial. The
tough, self-reliant character, that meets misfortune savagely and
defiantly like a personal foe, holds its own well for a while; but, if
there be not Faith enough to teach humble, hopeful endurance, I think it
fares best in the end with the hearts that are only--broken.

Mr. Haldane's will was very brief, though perfectly explicit and formal.
Every one who had ever suffered from his temper or caprices found
themselves over-paid beyond their wildest expectations. These legacies
accepted, he left all that he possessed, without fetter or condition, to
his nephew.

There was great exultation among the many who knew and loved Alan
Wyverne well, when they heard of his goodly heritage. Bertie Grenvil, on
guard at the Palace on the Sunday when the news came to town, called his
intimates around him to rejoice over the "pieces of silver" that his
friend had found, and presided at a repast such as Brillat-Savarin might
have ordered if he had served in the Household Brigade. Algy Beauclerc
lost heavily at the club that night, for he was tied, after the
Mezentian fashion, to a partner who never played the right card even by
accident; but he laughed a great honest laugh, and told the incorrigible
sinner, when the penance was over, that "he would make a very fair
player in time, if he would only sit still and take pains." The Squire
appeared at dinner radiant and triumphant, as if there were no such
thing as mortgages or Jews on this side of eternity. Lady Mildred looked
delighted and vaguely sympathetic, as if she would like to congratulate
_some one_ on the spot, but did not quite see her way. Helen Vavasour's
cheek flushed for an instant and then grew very pale; her lip trembled
painfully, as she whispered to herself, "Too late--ah me! too late!"

The _Goshawk_ was lying off Beyrout when "the good news from home" came
out. Wyverne received them with a placidity approaching to indifference,
which exasperated his companions intensely; but he left the party
immediately, and returned alone by the next steamer. When he landed in
England, he went straight to Castle Dacre. The first paper that he
opened was Bernard Haldane's letter. It ran thus:

     "My dear Alan,--I wish I could have seen you once more, though
     I have little to say besides farewell. Think as kindly of me as
     you can; but don't try to persuade yourself, or others, that
     you are sorry I am gone. I leave no chief mourner. If a dog
     howls here to-night, it will be because the moon is full. It is
     but common justice that we should reap as we have sown;
     nevertheless, these last hours are rather dreary. I have left
     everything undone that I ought to have done for thirty years
     and more, but I have tried to make amends--at least to you. You
     are young enough to enjoy this second inheritance thoroughly,
     and wiser than when you lost your own. I will not attach to my
     bequest even the shadow of an implied condition; yet I pray you
     to keep the old house and its contents together as long as you
     can. You said yourself it would be a pity to part them. I would
     leave you my blessing if I dared; but it would be a sorry jest,
     and might turn out badly. I do wish you all the good luck that
     can be found in this mismanaged world. I wish it--even if you
     persuade her mother to allow Helen Vavasour to shape your
     altered fortunes. I am too tired to write more. It has been a
     long, rough journey, and I ought to sleep soundly. Good night.

     "Yours, in all kindness,

     "BERNARD HALDANE."

It would be absurd to say that Wyverne felt deep sorrow for his uncle's
death; but an intense pity welled up in his honest heart as he read that
strange letter, and fancied the lonely old man tasking the last of his
strength to trace the weak wavering lines; in truth, the characters
seemed still more hazy and indistinct, when he laid the paper down.

By my faith--it is somewhat early in the day to become funereal. Let us
pass over two or three months and change the _venue_ entirely.

It is a soft grey December morning, with a good steady breeze, cool but
not chilly. The Grace-Dieu hounds are about to draw Rylstone Gorse for
the first time this season. It is a favourite fixture, and no
wonder--sufficiently central to let the best men in of two neighbouring
packs, yet sufficiently remote from town and rail to keep the profane
and uninitiate away. There is a brook, too, in the bottom, over which
the fox is sure to go; not very wide, but deep enough to hold a
regiment, which always weeds the field charmingly. The meet is in a big
pasture hard by: while the ten minutes' law allotted by immemorial
courtesy to distant comers is expiring, it may be worth while to mark a
few of the "notables."

There, leaning over the low carriage-door, and doing the honours of the
meet to Lady Mildred, stands the Duke of Camelot. There is nothing of
_morgue_ or reserve in the character or demeanour of that mighty noble,
but his manner is, in spite of himself, somewhat superb and stately.
Wherever he appears, there is diffused around an ambrosial atmosphere
savouring of the _ancien régime_. Nature never meant him for a warrior
or statesman. His mission through life has been to _poser_ before the
world, unconsciously, as a perfect type of his order; you see it in
every movement of the long taper limbs, in the carriage of the patrician
head, in the peculiar sweep and curl of the ample grey whisker, in every
line of the clear-cut prominent features, in the smile which--intended
to be genial and benevolent--is simply condescending and benign. What
his mental capacities may be, it is impossible to say; he has never
tried them. But in his own country he hath great honour; the peasantry
believe him to be omniscient and omnipotent, if not omnipresent. Were
the fancy to seize him to rebel against the powers that be, I fancy the
stalwart yeomen would muster strong round the ancient banner, in
defiance of the claims of Stuart or Guelph. Nevertheless, the Duke is,
on the whole, a very good-natured and convivial potentate; when no
state-party is in question, he loves to gather round him pleasant people
who suit each other and suit him, without regard to their pride of place
or order of precedence. He brings, in one way or another, more than
twenty guests to the meet to-day, including, besides the family from
Dene, the Brabazons and Lord Clydesdale.

The Master had just fallen to the rear, after a brief conference with
the huntsman. He sits there, you see, with a listless indifference on
his dark handsome face, as if henceforth he had no earthly interest in
the proceedings; but in reality he is watching everything and everybody
with keen, inevitable eyes. Lord Roncesvaux is a cold, stern man, born
with tact and talent enough to have made him great in his generation, if
he had not devoted both exclusively, together with half his fortune, to
the one favourite pursuit. He speaks seldom in society--never in the
senate; but if a thrusting rired gets a step too forward at the gorse,
or presses on his hounds to-day, you will hear that well shaped mouth
open very much to the purpose.

A little to the left, with a clear space round him, is Clydesdale,
looking hot and savage, even this early hour. The horse would be quiet
enough if the rider would only let his mouth alone; but the Earl has a
knack of bullying his dependents, equine as well as human; so
"Santiago's" temper is getting fast exasperated, and his broad brown
chest is already flecked with foam.

Do you mark that lithe erect figure, on the wicked-looking bay mare,
moving from one group to another in the foreground? Everybody seems glad
to see him, and he has a jest or a smile ready for each successive
greeting. That is Major Cosmo Considine, who began life as a Guardsman,
and has served since in a more Irregular corps than he now chooses to
remember. The habitual expression of the face is gay and pleasant
enough, but sometimes the features look strangely haggard and worn, as
if the past was trying to tell its tale; and the thin lips, under cover
of the huge blonde moustache, will set, as though in anger or pain.
Redoubtable in battle--dangerous, they say, in a boudoir--he is
especially hard to beat when hounds are running straight and fast; no
matter how big the fencing may be, if it is a real good thing,
Satanella's lean eager head will be seen creeping to the front; and once
there, like her master on certain other occasions, "she is not to be
denied."

Major Considine married a wife, wealthy and fair, some three years ago,
and has ever since been purposing, gravely but vaguely, to become steady
and respectable. The pious intentions have not been carried out with
uniform success. The weak mind of his unhappy spouse is supposed to
oscillate almost daily between furious jealousy and helpless adoration;
but the silver tongue of the incorrigible Bohemian is still seductive as
when, in spite of relatives' advice and warning, it won him his bride;
about twenty minutes' persuasion always reduces her to the dreamy,
devotional phase, in which she remains till the next offence awakes her.
To do Cosmo justice, his aberrations are much more harmless than the
world gives him credit for; nor does he often seek now to illustrate his
theories practically.

There is Nick Gunstone, the great stock-breeder and steeple-chaser,
expatiating to a knot of true believers on the merits of a long, low,
raking five-year-old, with whom he expects to pull off a good thing
before next April. The young one looks wild and scared and fretful, and
evidently knows little of his business yet; but his rider has nerve
enough for both, and a hand as light as a woman's, though his muscles
are like steel. When the hounds are well away you will see the pair
sailing along in front, quite at their ease: a "crumpler" or so is a
moral certainty; but Nick Gunstone is all wire and whalebone, and seems
to rebound harmlessly from the earth, if he hits it ever so hard; he
believes religiously that "nothing steadies a young one like a heavy
fall," on which principle he generally sends them at the strongest part
of the fence, and the stiffest bit of timber. He is in rather a bad
humour to-day, for objections have just been made and sustained to his
receiving the aristocratic "allowance" in future; and Mr. Gunstone's
sensitive soul chafes indignantly at the injustice--of course on account
of the diminution of his dignity, not in the least because of the
addition to his weight!

The Amazonian division muster in great force, displaying every variety
of head-gear, coquettish and business-like. There is one of the
number--far in the background, with a solitary attendant--that even a
stranger would single out instantly, but with an instinctive feeling
that his glance ought not to rest there long. To be sure, her horse is
well worth looking at; for if shape and "manners" go for anything, Don
Juan must be a very cheap three hundred guineas' worth. But the rider's
appearance is still more remarkable. It would be rather difficult to
define exactly why. There is nothing particularly eccentric or "fast" in
her demeanour, or so far as one can judge while she is in repose; her
equipment and appointments, though faultless in every respect, are
perfectly quiet and unobtrusive; only a very stern critic would remark
that the miraculous habit fits her superb bust a shade _too_ well. You
see a frank fearless face, at times perhaps a trifle too mutinously
defiant; a broad, brent, white forehead; clear, bold blue eyes, flashing
often in merriment, seldom in anger; and thick coils of soft gold-brown
hair, braided tightly under the compact riding-hat. It is not exactly a
pretty picture, though its piquancy might be attractive to such as
admire that peculiar style.

The solitary horseman who never leaves her side is Mr. Lacy, the
professional artist, who has reduced riding over fences to a science. In
consideration of large monies, perfect mounts, and unlimited claret and
cigars, he consents to act as mentor and pioneer to the reckless _Reine
des Ribaudes_: the office is no sinecure, and the wages are
conscientiously earned. There is a look of grave anxiety on his pale
intellectual face to-day, such as may well become a brave man who
estimates aright the importance and perils of a task set before him, and
prepares to encounter them without reluctance or fear. Of a truth, in a
country like this, where, as a stranger, she rides "for her own hand,"
and means going, it is no child's-play to _chaperon_ Pelagia.

One other personage remains to be noticed--I venture to hope you are not
tired of him yet--Alan Wyverne; looking thinner and browner than when we
saw him last, but in very fair plight notwithstanding, who had just come
down into the Shires, with a larger stud than he ever owned in the old
days. He had no idea of the Vavasours being in the neighbourhood, or
perhaps even Rylstone Gorse would not have tempted him to ride the score
of miles that lay between the fixture and his hunting quarters. He has
got over the meeting with his uncle most successfully; how cordial it
was, on both sides, you may easily imagine. But he has so many friends
to greet, and congratulations to answer, that he has not found time,
yet, to approach the carriage in which Lady Mildred is reclining. Alan
has nothing in his stable, so far, that he likes so well as his ancient
favourite; he rides him first-horse to-day. In truth, Red Lancer is a
very model of a fast weight-carrier; you cannot say whether blood or
bone predominates in the superb shape and clean powerful limbs, and all
his admirers allow "that he is looking fitter than ever." He is apt to
indulge in certain violent eccentricities in the first five minutes
after he is mounted, but he has settled down now, and bears himself with
a quiet, stately dignity; nevertheless, there is a resolute look about
his head, implying obstinacy to be ruled only by a stronger will.

The ten-minutes' law has more than expired, and, at an imperceptible
signal from the Master, the pack moves on slowly towards the gorse. We
will not wait to witness the certain find, but get forward a mile or
two, to a point that the fox is almost sure to pass; being invisible we
can do no harm, even if we do cross his line.

Did you ever see a more truculent fence than that on your right, which
stretches along continuously for twelve hundred yards or more, on the
Rylstone side of the road on which we are standing? The double rails,
both sloping outwards, are much higher and wider apart than usual, and
the charge of a squadron would hardly break the new tough oak timber; to
go in and out is impossible, for there is a deep ditch in the middle
fringed by meagre, stunted quick-set; and on the landing side there is
actually another trench, vast enough to swallow up horse and rider, if
by any chance they got so far. The only outlet is through double gates,
with a bridge of treacherous planks between them. There was malice
prepense in the mind that contrived that fearful barrier. The owner of
the farm is a morose hard-fisted Scotch presbyterian, who regards all
sport as a snare and device of the Evil One, and acts according to his
narrow light, viciously. When he came into the country a year ago, he
was afraid to warn the hounds off his land, but went to a considerable
expense to stop them, as he thought, quite as effectually. The pleasant
innovation of wiring the fences was unknown in those days (soon, I
suppose, they will strew calthrops along the headlands, and conceal
spring-guns cunningly, to explode if you hit the binders); but David
Macausland did his worst after the fashion of the period; and so sat
down behind his entrenchments with the grim satisfaction of a consummate
engineer, waiting for the enemy to come on.

You know the occupants of that low phaeton that sweeps round the corner
so smoothly and rapidly, pulling up within a hundred yards of us? Miss
Vavasour's ponies are too fiery to be trusted in a crowd, so she has
listened to Maud Brabazon's suggestion that they should take their
chance of seeing something of the run, instead of going to the
meet--yielding the more readily because her own fancy, to-day, inclines
to comparative solitude. There they are, left entirely to their own
devices, with only a staid elderly groom to keep them out of mischief.

The fair adventuresses have not to wait; before they have been posted
five minutes, a symphony and crash of hound-music comes cheerily down
the wind, and a dark speck, developing itself into shape and colour as
it approaches, steals swiftly down the fifty acre pasture. Fortunately
they are not forward enough to do any harm; even the restless ponies
stand still, as if by instinct, while a big dog-fox crosses the road,
quite unconscious of the bright eyes that are following him; he whisks
the white tag of his brush knowingly, just as he clears the fence,
evidently thinking it will prove a "stopper," at least to his human
foes. Two minutes more, and the pack sweeps compactly over the crest of
the rising ground; a little in the rear, on either flank, come the real
front-rankers--the ambitious spirits who, wherever they go, will assert
their pride of place; the very flower of science and courage; the best
and boldest of England's _Hippodamastæ_. Do you think the whole world
could show you such another sight as this?

There is Cosmo Considine, sending Satanella along as if he had another
spare neck at home, in case of accidents, and as if she had ten
companions in the stable (instead of a brace) to replace her if she
comes to grief. There is Lord Roncesvaux, riding as jealous as any of
them, though he would scorn to confess such a weakness; there is a
fierce light now in his broad black eyes, though the listlessness has
scarcely left his face. There is Nick Gunstone, holding his own
gallantly, discreet enough to give "the swells" a widish berth. And
there, in the van of the battle, flutters the bright-blue habit, and
gleams the soft golden hair.

"How very fortunate!" Helen Vavasour cried. "We are just in the right
place; they must cross the road, and we shall see all the fencing."

Mrs. Brabazon was more experienced than her companion, and, indeed, had
been no mean performer over a country in her day. She shook her pretty
head negatively, as she answered--

"I am afraid not, dear, unless there is an unusual amount of chivalry
out to-day. I have been looking at that place, and I believe it is
simply impracticable. They must get round it somehow, and the hounds
will leave them here."

The old groom, standing at the ponies' heads, touched his hat, in assent
and approval.

"You're quite right, my lady," he said. "There's no man in these parts
as would try that fence; no more there didn't ought to. It's hard on a
thirty-foot fly, let alone the drop; and it's a broken neck or back if
you falls short, or hits a rail."

The _impasse_ is evidently well known, and the leaders of the field
appear to be very much of the speaker's opinion; for instead of
following the hounds down the middle of the pasture, they began to
diverge on either side, the huntsman setting the example. Will Darrell
takes fences as they come, very cheerfully, in an ordinary way; but a
great general has no business to risk his life like a reckless
subaltern; and the idea of being laid up with a broken limb so early in
the season is simply intolerable. With Lord Roncesvaux's servants duty
stands first of all; they know that no credit won by mere hard riding
would excuse a fault of rashness, or soften the implacable Master's
anger. Cosmo Considine acknowledges the necessity of a compromise,
growling out an imprecation in some strange outlandish tongue; and
Pelagia's pilot, after a hurried word exchanged with the Major, for whom
he has a great respect and esteem, follows him to the right, utterly
disregarding the remonstrances of his impetuous charge. Even Nick
Gunstone thinks that this will be rather too strong an illustration of
his favourite theory, and reserves the young one's steadying lesson for
a more convenient season.

A few sceptics determine to judge for themselves, and ride right down to
the fence; but one glance satisfies them, and they gallop along it in
both directions, rather losing ground by their obstinacy than otherwise.
Amongst these is Lord Clydesdale. Perhaps the Earl is aware of the
proximity of the pony-carriage; at any rate, he thinks it necessary to
make a demonstration; so he takes a short circuit, and pretends to
charge the fence, with much bluster and flurry. Santiago behaves with a
charity and courtesy very amiable, considering the provocation he has
undergone, and tries to save his master's honour by taking on himself
the odium of a decisive refusal. But the sham is too glaring to deceive
the veriest novice; Maud Brabazon's smile is marvellously meaning, and
Miss Vavasour's curling lip does not dissemble its scorn.

Half a minute later, Maud happened to be looking in an opposite
direction; an exclamation from the groom, and a low cry, almost like a
moan, from her companion, made her turn quickly. Helen had dropped the
reins; her hands were clasped tightly, as they lay on the bearskin-rug,
and her great eyes gleamed bright, and wild with eagerness and terror;
they were riveted on a solitary horseman, who came down at the fence
straight and fast.

Alan Wyverne had been baulked at the brook by some one's crossing him,
and the pace was so tremendous that even Red Lancer's turn of speed had
not yet quite enabled him to make up lost ground. It so happened, that
he had ridden along that double on his way to the meet, and though he
fully appreciated the peril, he had then decided that it was just within
his favourite's powers, and consequently ought to be tried.

Truly, at that moment, the pair would have made a superb picture. Alan
was sitting quite still, rather far back in the saddle; his hands level
and low on the withers, with hold enough on Red Lancer's mouth to stop a
swerve, but giving the head free and fair play; his lips slightly
compressed, but not a sign of trepidation or doubt on his quiet face.
The brave old horse was, in his way, quite as admirable; like his
master, he had determined to get as far over the fence as pluck and
sinew would send them; so on he came, with his small ears pointing
forward dagger-wise, momently increasing his speed, but measuring every
stride, and judging his distance, so as to take off at the proper spot
to a line.

They were within thirty yards of the rails now, and still Helen Vavasour
gazed on--steadfast and statuelike--without a quiver of lip or a droop
of eyelash. Maud Brabazon's nerves were better than most women's, but
they failed her then. She felt a wild desire to spring up and wave Alan
back; but a cold faint shudder came over her, and she could only close
her eyes in helpless terror.

There came a rush of hoofs sounding on elastic turf--a fierce snort as
Red Lancer rose to the spring--and then a dull smothered crash, as of a
huge body's falling.

Maud felt her companion sink back by her side, trembling violently: then
she heard a hoarse exclamation from the groom of wonderment and
applause; then Wyverne's clear voice speaking to his horse
encouragingly, and then--she opened her eyes just in time to see the
further road-fence taken in the neatest possible style.

There had been no fall after all. Red Lancer's hind hoofs broke away the
outer bank of the ditch, and he "knuckled" fearfully on landing; but a
strong practised hand recovered him just in time to save his credit and
his knees.

Negotiations were entered into soon afterwards with Mr. Macausland, and
powerful arguments brought to bear upon his cupidity; the austere
Presbyterian compromised with the unrighteous Mammon, so far as to
suppress the obnoxious middle ditch and render the fence barely
practicable. But they point out the spot still, as a proof of the space
that a perfect hunter can cover, with the aid of high courage and strong
hind-quarters, if he is ridden straight and fairly. The elderly groom,
who is saturnine and sceptical by nature, prone to undervalue and
discredit the exploits of others, when one of his fellows speaks of a
big leap, always quells and quenches the narrator utterly, by playing
his trump-card of the great Rylstone double.

It is almost an invariable rule--if a man by exceptional luck or pluck
"sets" the field the hounds are sure to throw up their heads within a
couple of furlongs. Fortune, as if tired of persecuting Alan Wyverne,
gives him a rare turn to-day.

There was a scent, such as one meets about twice in a season. The field,
spread out like a fan, begins to converge again, and the front rank are
riding like men possessed to make up their lost ground. All in
vain--nothing without wings would catch the "flying bitches" now, as
they stream over the broad pastures without check or stay, drinking in
the hot trail through wide up-turned nostrils, mute as death in their
savage thirst for blood. It was a trivial triumph, no doubt, hardly
worthy of a highly rational being; but the hunting instinct is one of
the strongest in our imperfect nature, after all; I believe that it
falls to the lot of very few to enjoy such intense, simple happiness as
Wyverne experienced for about eighteen minutes, as he swept on, alone,
on the flank of the racing pack, rejoicing in Red Lancer's unfaltering
strength. Such a tremendous burst must necessarily be brief. As Alan
crashes through the rail of a great "oxer," an excited agriculturist
screams: "He's close afore you." Close--the hounds know that better than
you can tell them. Look how the veterans are straining to the front.
Suddenly, as they stream along a thick bullfinch, old Bonnibelle wheels
short round and glides through the fence like a ghost; her comrades
follow as best they may; there is a snap--a crash of tongues--and a
savage worry. Alan Wyverne, too, turns in his tracks; and driving Red
Lancer madly through the blackthorn, clears himself from the falling
horse, just in time to rush in to the rescue, and--with the aid of a
friendly carter, who uses whip and voice lustily--to save from sharp
wrangling teeth rather a mutilated trophy.

Now, is not that worth living for? Wyverne could answer the question
very satisfactorily, as he loosens Red Lancer's girth and turns his head
to the wind, pulling his small ears, and stroking his lofty crest
caressingly. Nearly five minutes have passed, and the hounds are
beginning to wander about in a desultory, half-satisfied way, as is
their wont after a kill, before Lord Roncesvaux, and the huntsman, and
three or four more celebrities, put in a discomfited appearance.

It speaks ill for our chivalry that we should have left the
pony-carriage to itself all this time; but that "cracker" over the grass
was too strong a temptation; we were bound to see the end of it.

Mrs. Brabazon was the first to speak, breathing quick and nervously.

"Oh, Helen, was not that magnificent? But were you ever so frightened?"

The wild look had passed out of the girl's eyes, yet they were still
strangely dreamy and vague.

"It was very fearful," she said; "but I ought not to have been
frightened. There is no one like _him_--no one half so cool and brave. I
have known that for so many years!"

Maud's keen glance rested on the speaker's face for a second or two.
What she read there did not seem greatly to please her.

"I think we had better be turning homewards," she said, gravely; "I feel
tired already, and I am sure we shall see nothing more to-day."

From Miss Vavasour's flushing cheek, and the impatient way in which she
gathered up the reins and turned her ponies, it was easy to guess that
she did not wish her thoughts to be too closely scanned just then. But
before they had driven three hundred yards, she was musing again. At
last her lips moved involuntarily. Maud Brabazon's quick ear caught a
low, piteous whisper--"I don't think he even saw me"--and then a weary,
helpless sigh. In just such a sigh may have been breathed the dying
despair of that unhappy Scottish maiden, who pined so long for the
coming of her lover from beyond the sea, and whose worn-out heart broke
when he rode in under the archway without marking the wave of her
kerchief, or looking up at her window.

It was a very silent drive homewards. One of those two had good right to
be pensive. Last night, Lord Clydesdale, utterly vanquished and
intoxicated by her beauty, spoke out, right plainly. The day of grace
that Helen claimed for reflection is half gone already, and the
irrevocable answer mast be given to-morrow.

Shall we say--as they said in olden times to criminals called upon to
plead--"So God send you good deliverance?" Truly it was a kindly,
courteous formula enough; but I fancy it carried little meaning to the
minds of the judge or jury, and little comfort to the heavy heart of the
attainted traitor.

Throughout the country side that night men seemed unable to talk long
about anything, without recurring to the morning's run and the feat
which had made it so singularly remarkable. Even Clydesdale did not
venture to dissent or show discontent when Wyverne's nerve and judgment
were praised up to the skies; he only swelled sulkily, and indulged
under his breath in a whole string of his favourite curses, registering
another involuntary offence against the name he hated so bitterly. Red
Lancer came in for his full share of the glory; they discussed his
points and perfections one by one, till you might have drawn his
portrait without ever having seen him. He was as famous now, as that
mighty war-horse of whom the quaint old ballad sings--

    So grete he was, of back so brode,
    So wight and warily he trode,
    On earth was not his peer;
    Ne horse in land that was so tall;
    The knight him cleped "Lancivall,"
    But lords at board and grooms in stall
    Cleped him--"Grand Destrere."

In the servants'-hall at Beauprè Lodge, the witness of the feat thus
expressed himself, an honest admiration lighting up for once his hard,
rough-hewn face--

"It's very lucky I ain't a young 'oman of fortun" (signs of unanimous
adhesion from his audience, especially from the feminine division). "Ah,
you may laugh. If I was, I'd follow Sir Alan right over the world,
without his asking of me, if it was only for the pleasure of blacking
his boots."

After this, who will say that "derring-do" is not still held in honour,
or that hero-worship has vanished out of the land?



CHAPTER XX.

QUAM DEUS VULT PERDERE.


The noon of night is past, and Helen Vavasour is alone in her chamber,
without a thought of sleep. In truth, the damsel is exceeding fair to
look upon--though it is a picture over which we dare not linger--as she
leans back, half reclining, on the low couch near the hearth; a loose
dressing-robe of blue cashmere faced with quilted white satin, draping
her figure gracefully, without concealing its grand outlines: her
slender feet, in dainty velvet slippers broidered with seed-pearl,
crossed with an unstudied coquetry that displays the arched instep
ravishingly; a torrent of shining dark hair falling over neck and
shoulder; a thin line of pearly teeth showing through the scarlet lips
that are slightly parted; the light of burning embers reflected in her
deep eyes, that seem trying to read the secrets of the Future in the red
recesses and the fitful flames.

She had been musing thus for many minutes, when a quick step came across
the corridor; there was a gentle tap at the door, and it opened to admit
Mrs. Brabazon.

"I thought I should find you up," she said. "I'm strangely wakeful
to-night, Helen, and very much disposed to talk. Do you mind my staying
here till you or I feel more sleepy?"

Miss Vavasour assented eagerly; indeed, she was rather glad of an excuse
for breaking off her "maiden meditation;" so she established her visitor
in the most luxurious chair she could find, not without a caress of
welcome.

Nevertheless, in spite of their conversational inclinations, neither
seemed in a particular hurry to make a start; and, for some minutes,
there was rather an embarrassed silence. At length Mrs. Brabazon looked
up and spoke suddenly.

"Helen, what answer do you mean to give to the Great Earl to-morrow?
Don't open your eyes wonderingly; I drew my own conclusions from what I
saw last night. Besides, Lady Mildred is perfectly well informed; though
she has not said a word to you, she has spoken to me about it, and asked
me to help the good cause with my counsel and advice, if I could find
time and occasion. Shall I begin?"

She spoke lightly; but the grave anxiety on her face belied her tone.
Miss Vavasour's thoughts had been devoted so exclusively to one subject,
that its abrupt introduction now did not startle her at all. Her smile
was cold and somewhat disdainful, as she replied--

"Thank you, very much. But it is hardly worth while to go through all
the advantages of the alliance; I have had a full and complete catalogue
of them already. They chose Max for an ambassador, and I assure you he
discharged his duties quite conscientiously, and did not spare me a
single detail; he was nearly eloquent sometimes; and I never saw him so
near enthusiasm as when he described the Clydesdale diamonds. He made me
understand too, very plainly, that the fortunes of our family depended a
good deal upon me. Did you know that we are absolutely ruined, and have
hardly a right, now, to call Dene ours?"

Ah, woe and dishonour! Is it Helen's voice that is speaking? Have twelve
months changed the frank, impulsive girl into a calculating, worldly
woman, a pupil that her own mother might be proud of? For all the
emotion or interest she betrays, she might be a princess, wooed by
proxy, to be the bride of a king whom she has never seen.

Some such thoughts as these rushed across Maud Brabazon's mind, as she
listened; great fear and pity rose up in her kind heart, till her eyes
could scarcely refrain from tears.

"I had heard something of this," she said, sadly; "though I did not know
things were so desperate. There are a hundred arguments that would urge
you to say--Yes, and only two or three to make you say--No. It is
absolutely the most brilliant match in England. You will have the most
perfect establishment that ever was dreamt of, and we shall all envy you
intensely; it has been contemplated for you, and you have expected the
proposal yourself for months; I know all that. Yesterday--I should not
have thought it probable you could hesitate; to-day--I do beg and pray
you to pause. I think you will be in great danger if you marry the Earl.
Have you deceived yourself into believing that you love him?"

"I don't deceive myself; and I have never deceived him. He is ready and
willing to take what I can give, and expects no more, I am certain. I do
not love Lord Clydesdale; and I am not even sure that we shall suit each
other. But he is anxious to make the trial, and I--am content. I know
that I shall try honestly to do my duty as his wife, if he will let me.
That is all. Time works wonders, they say; it may do something for us
both."

Still the same slow, distinct utterance; the same formal, constrained
manner; as if she were repeating a lesson thoroughly learnt by rote.
Maud Brabazon was only confirmed in her purpose to persevere to the
uttermost in her warning.

"I have no right to advise," she said; "and moral preaching comes with
an ill grace, I dare say, from my foolish lips. But indeed--indeed--I
only speak because I like you sincerely, and I would save you if I
could. One may deceive oneself about the past, as well as the future.
Are you sure that you can forget? Are you sure that an old love has not
the mastery still? Helen, if I were your mother I would not trust you."

The girl's cheek flushed brightly--less in confusion than in anger.

"You need have no false delicacy, Maud. If you mean that I shall never
love any one as I have loved Alan, if you mean that I still care for him
more than for any living creature, you are quite right. But it is all
over between us, for ever and ever. We shall always be cousins
henceforth--no more; he said so himself. If a word could make us all we
once were, I don't think I would speak it; I am sure _he_ never would.
But, my dear, it does surprise me beyond everything, to hear _you_
arguing on the romantic side. You never could have worshipped Mr.
Brabazon, before or after marriage; and yet you amuse yourself better
than any one I know."

Miss Vavasour's quick temper--always impatient of contradiction--was in
the ascendant just then, or she would scarcely have uttered that last
taunt. She bitterly repented it when she saw the other cower under the
blow, bowing her head into her clasped hands, humbly and sorrowfully.

When Maud looked up, not one of the many who had admired and loved her
radiant face would have recognised it in its pale resolve.

"You only spoke the truth, Helen. Don't be penitent; but listen as
patiently as you can. At least, my example shall not encourage you in
running into danger. I will tell you a secret that I meant to carry to
my grave. You incur a greater risk than ever I did; see, how it has
fared with me. It is quite true that I did not love my husband when I
accepted him; but I had never known even a serious fancy for any one
else. I imagined I was hardened enough to be safe in making a
conventional marriage. And so--so it went on well enough for some years;
but my falsehood was punished at last. They say, it is sharp pain when
frozen blood begins to circulate; ah, Helen--trust me--it is worse
still, when one's heart wakes up. I cannot tell you how it came about
with me. He never tried to make me flirt, like the rest of them; but
when he spoke to me, his voice always changed and softened. He never
tried to monopolize me, but wherever I went, he was sure to be; and,
some nights, when I was more wild and mischievous than usual, I could
see wonder and pity in his great melancholy eyes: they began to haunt
me, those eyes; and I began to miss him and feel disappointed and
lonely, if an evening passed without our meeting. But I never betrayed
myself, till one night Geoffrey told me, suddenly, that he was to sail
in four days for the coast of Africa. I could not help trembling all
over, and I knew that my face was growing white and cold; I looked up in
his--just for one second--and I read his secret, and confessed mine. He
had mercy on my weakness--God rewarded him for it!--he only asked for a
flower that I wore, when I would have given him my life or my soul; for
I was wicked and mad, that night. It was so like him: I know he would
never tempt me: he would save me from going wrong if it cost him his
heart's blood. Fevers and horrors of all sorts beset them on that coast:
I might read Geoffrey's death in the next _Gazette_, and yet--his lips
have not touched my hand. You say I amuse myself. Do you know, that I
must have light, and society, and excitement, or I should go mad? I dare
not sit at home and think for an hour. I have to feed my miserable
vanity, to keep my conscience quiet. I am pure in act and deed, and no
one can whisper away my honour; but in thought I am viler than many
outcasts--treacherous, and sinning every day, not only against my
marriage vow, but against _him_. I often wish I were dead, but I am not
fit to die."

She had fallen forward as she spoke, and lay prone with her head buried
in Helen's lap--a wreck of womanhood in her abasement and self-contempt.
The wind, that had been rising gustily for hours past, swelled into fury
just then, driving the sleet against the casements like showers of
small-shot, and howling savagely through the cedars as though in mockery
of the stricken heart's wail. Maud Brabazon shivered and lifted up her
wild scared face--

"Do you hear _that_?" said she, "I never sleep when a gale is blowing.
The other night Bertie Grenvil was pleading his very best; I answered at
random, and I daresay I laughed nervously; he fancied it was because his
words had confused me. I was only thinking--what the weather might be on
the Western coast, for a gust like that last was sweeping by. Ah, Helen,
darling! do listen and be warned in time; if you don't see your danger,
pause and reflect, if only for my sake. Have I made my miserable
confession in vain."

Miss Vavasour's expression was set and steadfast as ever, though tears
swam in her eyes; she leant down and clasped her soft white arms round
Maud Brabazon's neck, and pressed a pitiful tender kiss on the poor
humbled head.

"Not in vain, dearest!" she whispered; "I shall always love and trust
you henceforth, because I know you thoroughly. But I cannot go back. It
is too late now, even if I would. I hope I shall be able to do my duty;
at least I need not fear the peril of ever loving again. I must accept
Lord Clydesdale to-morrow."

Maud drew quickly out of the close embrace, and threw herself back,
burying her face in her hands once more; when she uncovered it, it was
possessed by nothing but a blank white despair.

"The punishment is coming!" she said; "I can do harm enough, but I can
do no good, if I try ever so hard--that is clear. I will help you always
to the uttermost of my power; but we will never speak of this again."

She rose directly afterwards, and after the exchange of a long
caress--somewhat mechanical on one side--quitted the room with a vague
uncertain step. So Helen's very last chance was cast away, and she was
left to the enjoyment of her prospects and her dreams.

The decisive interview came off on the following morning. There was not
a pretence of romance throughout. Lord Clydesdale manifested a proper
amount of eagerness and _empressement_; Helen was perfectly cool and
imperial; nevertheless, the suitor seemed more than satisfied. The
negotiation was laid in due form before the Squire and Lady Mildred in
the course of the day. To do the Earl justice, he had never been
niggardly or captious in finance, and his liberality now was almost
ostentatiously magnificent. By some means or other he had been made
perfectly aware of the state of affairs at Dene. Besides superb
proposals of dower and pin-money, he offered to advance, at absurdly
moderate interest, enough to clear off all the encumbrances on the
Vavasour property; and the whole of the sum was to be settled on younger
children--in default of these, to be solely at Helen's disposal.

The poor Squire, though not taken by surprise, was fairly overwhelmed.
The temptation of comparatively freeing the dear old house and domain
would have proved nearly irresistible even to a stronger mind and will;
still, he felt far from comfortable. He did try to salve his unquiet
conscience by requiring an interview with his daughter, and seeking
therein to arrive at the real state of her heart. It was an honest offer
of self-sacrifice, but really a very safe one. Helen did not betray the
faintest regret or constraint; so Hubert Vavasour resigned himself, not
unwillingly, to the timely rescue. I have not patience to linger over
Lady Mildred's intense undemonstrative triumph.

It was settled that the marriage should take place early in the spring.
All the preliminaries went on swiftly and smoothly, as golden wheels
will run when thoroughly adjusted and oiled. Miss Vavasour behaved
admirably; she accepted numberless congratulations, gratefully and
gracefully; in the intercourse with her _fiancé_ she evinced no prudery
or undue reserve, but nevertheless contrived to repress the Earl's
enthusiasm within very endurable limits.

Only one scene occurred, before the wedding, which is worth recording;
it is rather a characteristic one. Perhaps you have forgotten that, in
the second chapter of this eventful history, there was mentioned the
name of one Schmidt, a mighty iron founder of Newmanham, who had bought
up all the mortgages on Dene? His intention had been evident from the
first; and just about the time of the last affiancement, his lawyers
gave notice that he meant to call in the money or foreclose without
mercy.

Now the Squire, though he naturally exulted, as a Gentile and a landed
proprietor, in the discomfiture of the Hebrew capitalist, would have
allowed things to be arranged quietly, in the regular professional way.
But this, Lord Clydesdale, when consulted on the subject, would by no
means suffer. He begged that the meeting of the lawyers might take place
at Dene; and that, if it were possible, Ephraim Schmidt should be
induced to attend in person: the paying off of the mortgages was not to
be previously hinted at in any way. The whims of great men must be
sometimes humoured, even by the law; and this was not such a very
unreasonable one after all.

"I wouldn't miss seeing the Jew's face if it cost another thousand!" the
Earl said, with a fierce laugh; so that it was settled that he was to be
present at the interview.

Mr. Schmidt and his solicitor arrived punctually at the appointed hour;
there was no fear of the former's absenting himself on so important an
occasion. "Nothing like looking after things yourself" was one of his
favourite maxims, enforced with a wink of intense sagacity. He was
absolutely ignorant of legal formalities, but not the less convinced
that such could not be properly carried out without his own
superintendence.

The financier's appearance was quite a study. He had for some time past
affected rather a rural style of attire, and his costume now was the
Newmanham ideal of a flourishing country squire. He chose with
ostentatious humility, the most modest of his equipages to take him to
Dene; but he mounted it like a triumphal car. Truly there was great joy
in Israel on that eventful morning, for all his family knew the errand
on which their sire and lord was bent, and exulted, as is their wont,
unctuously.

Ephraim Schmidt was a short bulky man, somewhat under fifty; his heavy,
sensual features betrayed at once his origin and the habits of
high-living to which he was notoriously prone. His companion was a
striking contrast. There was rather a foreign look about Morris
Davidson's keen handsome face, and those intensely brilliant black eyes
are scarcely naturalized on this side of the Channel--but the Semitic
stamp was barely perceptible. His manner was very quiet and courteous,
but never cringing, nor was there anything obsequious about his ready
smile. He was choice in his raiment, but it was always subdued in its
tone, and he wore no jewels beyond a signet key-ring, and one pearl of
great price at his neck. He was the type of a class that has been
developed only within the last half century--the _petit-maître_ order of
legalists--whose demeanour, like that of the Louis Quinze Abbés, is a
perpetual contradiction of their staid profession, but who nevertheless
know their business thoroughly, and follow it up with unscrupulous
obstinacy. When Mr. Davidson senior died (who had long been Ephraim
Schmidt's confidential solicitor), men marvelled that the cautious
capitalist could entrust his affairs to such young and inexperienced
hands; in truth he had at first many doubts and misgivings, but these
soon vanished as he began to appreciate Morris's cool, pitiless nature,
and iron nerves. The wolf-cub's coat was sleek and soft enough, and he
never showed his teeth unnecessarily; but his fangs were sharper, and
his gripe more fatally tenacious, than even his gaunt old sire's.

So, through the clear frosty morning, the two Jews drove jocundly along,
beguiling the way with pleasant anticipations of the business before
them. The lawyer had heard of Lord Clydesdale's engagement to Miss
Vavasour, and thought it just possible that under the circumstances some
compromise might be attempted. But to this view of the case his patron
would in nowise incline, and he discreetly forbore to press it. They
passed through the double towers flanking the huge iron-gates; and the
broad undulating park stretched out before them, clumps of lofty timber
studding the smooth turf, while grey turrets and pinnacles just showed
in the distance through the leafless trees. The Hebrew's heart swelled,
almost painfully, with pride and joy. He had been wandering for many a
year--not unhappily or unprofitably, it is true--through the commercial
Desert, and now, he looked upon the fair Land of Promise, only waiting
for him to arise and take possession, when he had once cast out the
Amorite. When they drove up to the great portico, he was actually
perspiring with satisfaction, in spite of the cold. He grasped his
companion's arm, and whispered, hoarsely--

"Mind, Morris, they'll ask for time: but we won't give them a day!--not
a day."

The chief butler received the visitors in the hall, and ushered them
himself to the library. Ephraim Schmidt, in the midst of his unholy
triumph, could not help being impressed by the grave dignity of that
august functionary. He began to think if it would not be possible, by
proffer of large monies, to tempt him to desert his master's fallen
fortunes, and to abide in the house that he became so well. A pleasant,
idle dream! Solomon made the Afreets and Genii his slaves; but, if the
Great King had been revived in the plenitude of his power, he would
never have tempted that seneschal to serve him, while a Gentile survived
on the land.

The family solicitor of the Vavasours was sitting before a table
overspread with bulky papers, with his clerk close by his side. He was
thin, and white-haired, with a round withered face, pleasant withal,
like a succulent Ribstone pippin; his manner was very gentle, and almost
timid, but no lawyer alive could boast that he had ever got the best of
a negotiation in which Mr. Faulkner was concerned. He greeted the
capitalist very courteously, and Mr. Davidson very coldly, for,--he had
seen _him_ before. There was one other occupant of the library--a tall
man, lounging in the embrasure of a distant window, who never turned his
head when the new-comers entered: it seemed as though the bleak winter
landscape outside had superior attractions. Ephraim Schmidt hardly
noticed him; but Davidson felt a disagreeable thrill of apprehension as
he recognised the figure of Lord Clydesdale. It is needless to enumerate
the verifications and comparisons of many voluminous documents that had
perforce to be gone through. The mortgagee got very impatient before
they were ended.

"Yes, yes," he kept repeating, nervously, "it is all correct; but come
to the point--to the point."

Mr. Faulkner was perfectly imperturbable, neither hurrying himself in
the least, nor making any unnecessary delay.

"I believe everything is quite correct," he said, at last. "Now, Mr.
Davidson, may I ask you what your client's intentions are? Is there any
possibility of a compromise?"

"I fear, none whatever," was the quiet answer. "We have given ample
notice, and the equity of redemption cannot be extended. My client is
anxious to invest in land, and we could hardly find a more eligible
opening than foreclosure here would afford us."

"Exactly so," the old lawyer retorted. "I only asked the question,
because I was instructed to come to an explicit understanding. It does
not much matter; for--we are prepared to pay off every farthing."

The small thin hand seemed weighty and puissant as an athlete's, as he
laid it on a steel-bound coffer beside him, with a significant gesture
of security too tranquil to be defiant.

Cool and crafty as he was, Davidson was fairly taken unawares. He
recoiled in blank amazement. Ephraim Schmidt started from his chair like
a maniac, his eyes protruding wildly, and his face purple-black with
rage.

"Pay off everything?" he shrieked. "I don't believe it: it's a lie--a
swindle. Not have Dene? I'll have it in spite of you all!" The churned
foam flew from his bulbous lips, as from the jaws of a baited boar.

The silent spectator in the window turned round, then, and stood
contemplating the group, not striving to repress a harsh, scornful
laugh. That filled up the measure of the unhappy Israelite's frenzy. He
made a sort of blind plunge forward, shaking off the warning fingers
with which Davidson sought to detain him.

"D--n you, let me go," he howled out. "Who is that man? What does he do
here? I _will_ know."

The person addressed strode on slowly till he came close to the speaker,
and looked him in the face, still with the same cruel laugh on his own.

"I'll answer you," he said. "I was christened Raoul Delamere, but they
call me Lord Clydesdale now; and I hope to marry Mr. Vavasour's only
daughter. I am here--because I am infidel enough to enjoy seeing a Jew
taken on the hip. I wouldn't have missed this--to clear off the biggest
of your mortgages. So you fancied you were going to reign at Dene? Not
if you had had another hundred thousand at your back. If we only have
warning, the old blood can hold its own, and beat the best of you yet.
Mr. Faulkner, don't you think you had better pay him, and let him go?"

The change of tone in those last words, from brutal disdain to studied
courtesy, was the very climax of insult. It was an unworthy triumph, no
doubt, but a very complete one. The Earl remained as much master of the
position as ever was Front de Boeuf. The Jew was utterly annihilated.
To have come there with the power of life and death in his hand, and now
to be treated as an ordinary tradesman presenting a Christmas bill! He
staggered back step by step, and sunk into a chair, dropping his head,
and groaning heavily. Davidson had recovered himself by this time. The
elder lawyer only sat silent, and scandalized, lifting his eyebrows in
mute testimony against such unprofessional proceedings.

"We can hardly conclude such important business to-day," Morris said.
"My client's excitement is a sufficient excuse. We know your intentions
now, Mr. Faulkner, and there is ample time to settle everything. I will
call upon you at any time or place you like to name."

So, after a few more words, it was settled.

Ephraim Schmidt went out, like a man in a dream, from the house that he
had hoped to call his own; only moaning under his breath, like a
vanquished Shylock--"Let us go home, let us go home." The chief butler
(who had been aware of the state of affairs throughout) dealt him the
last blow in the hall, by inquiring with exquisite courtesy, "If he
would take any luncheon before he went?" The miserable Hebrew quivered
all over, as a victim at the stake might shrink under the last ingenuity
of torture. Truly, the meanest of the many debtors who had sued him in
vain for mercy, need not have envied the usurer then.

O dark-eyed Miriam, and auburn-haired Deborah! lay aside your golden
harps, or other instruments of music that your soul delights in: no song
of gladness shall be raised in your tents to-night; it is for the
daughters of the uncircumcised to triumph.

When the Squire heard an account of the morning's proceedings, he by no
means shared in Clydesdale's satisfaction, and rather failed to
appreciate the point of the jest. Hubert's thoroughbred instincts
revolted against the idea of even a Jew usurer's having been grossly
insulted under his roof, when the man only came to ask for his own;
besides this, he understood the feeling that had been at work in the
Earl's breast, and despised him accordingly. The difference in social
position was too overwhelming to make the match a fair one; but in other
respects the antagonists were about on a par. It was just this--a phase
of purse-pride vanquished by another and a more potential one. Such a
victory brings little honour. The transformed rod of the Lawgiver
swallowed up the meaner serpents; but it was only a venomous reptile,
after all.

Wyverne felt neither wrath nor despair when the news of Helen's
engagement came; he had quite made up his mind that she would marry
soon; but he was sad and pensive. He did not change his opinions easily,
and he had formed a very strong one about Clydesdale's character: he
thought the Earl was as little likely as any man alive to rule a
high-spirited mate wisely and well. Nevertheless, Alan indited an
epistle that even Lady Mildred could not help admiring: it was guarded,
but not in the least formal or constrained; kind and sincerely
affectionate, without a tinge of reproach, or a single allusion that
could give pain. He saw "my lady" twice, Helen once, before the latter's
marriage, and was equally successful with his verbal congratulations. Of
course the interviews were not _tête-à-têtes_: all parties concerned
took good care of that. Wyverne and his aunt displayed admirable tact
and _sangfroid_; but the demoiselle cast both into the shade: her manner
was far more natural, and her composure less studied. Truly, the
training of the _Grande Dame_ progressed rapidly, and the results
promised to be fearfully complete.

Alan did intimate an intention of being present at the wedding; but I
fear he was scarcely ingenuous there. At all events, urgent private
affairs took him abroad two days before the ceremony, no one knew
exactly where; and it was three weeks before he appeared on the surface
of society again.

_Io, Hymenoee!_ Scatter flowers, or other missile oblations,
profusely, you nubile virgins. O choir of appointed youths! Roll out, I
beseech you, the Epithalamium roundly: let not the fault be imputed to
you, if it sounds like a requiem.

So, we bid farewell to Helen Vavasour's maiden history--not without
heaviness of heart. Henceforth it befits us to stand aside, with doffed
beaver and bated breath, as the Countess of Clydesdale passes by.



CHAPTER XXI.

MAGNA EST VERITAS.


Fifteen or sixteen months are come and gone, and the faces of people and
things are but little changed. Yes, one of our dramatic personages is a
good deal altered for the worse--Alan Wyverne. He became sadder and
wiser in this wise.

I forgot to tell you that the delicate state of Mrs. Rawdon Lenox's
health, and of her affairs, had made a lengthened Continental tour very
desirable. She remained abroad nearly two years, and did not return to
England till the summer immediately following the Clydesdale marriage.
It was late in the autumn when she and Alan met. If the latter had been
forewarned of the _rencontre_, it is probable he would have avoided it
by declining the invitation to Guestholme Priory; but when he found
himself actually under the same roof with the "Dark Ladye" (so some
friend or enemy had re-christened her), he felt a certain satisfaction
in the idea of clearing up a mystery that had never ceased to perplex
and torment him. Their first greeting was rather cold and constrained on
both sides; but things could not remain on this footing long. Nina had
no fancy for an armed neutrality with an ancient ally, and always
brought the question of war or peace to an issue with the least possible
delay.

When Alan came into the drawing-room after dinner, Mrs. Lenox's look was
a sufficient summons, even without the significant movement of the fan,
which she managed like a Madrileña. He sat down by her side, his pulse
quickening a little with expectation; but curiosity was the sole
excitement. For awhile they talked about their travels and other
indifferent subjects. The lady got tired of that child's-play first, and
broke ground boldly.

"I suppose the interdict is taken off now?" she said. "Will you believe,
that I am really sorry that there is no longer a cause for your avoiding
me? Will you believe, that no one regretted it, and felt for you more
than I did, when I heard your engagement was broken off? Do tell me,
that neither I nor my unfortunate affairs had anything to do with it. I
have been worrying myself ever since with the fancy that your great
kindness to me may have cost you very dear."

Wyverne was gifted with coolness and self-control quite exceptional, but
both as nearly as possible broke down at that moment. He certainly
deserved infinite credit for answering, after a minute's silence, so
calmly,

"Then it would be a satisfaction to you to know this? Have you any
doubts on the subject?"

"Well, I suppose I ought not to have any," Nina said, frankly. "The
engagement lasted for months after those wretched anonymous things were
written, and I am sure I did all I could to set matters straight. My
letter was everything that is meek and quiet and proper, was it not? And
it was honest truth, too, every word of it."

"Your letter? Yes, of course--the letter you wrote in answer to mine;
but the other--the other?"

He spoke absently and almost at random, like a man half awake.

"What on earth are you talking about?" Mrs. Lenox said, with manifest
impatience. "What other letter? Did you suppose me capable of writing
one other line beside that necessary reply? What have you suspected? I
_will_ know. Alan, I believed you more generous. Yon have a right to
think lightly of me, and to say hard things, but not--not to insult me
so cruelly."

There were tears in the low, tremulous voice, but none in the deep dark
eyes that had dilated at first wonderingly, and were now so sad in their
passionate reproach that Wyverne did not dare to meet them. He knew that
Nina was capable of much that was wild and wicked, but that very
recklessness made dissimulation with her simply impossible. If she had
been pure and cold as St. Agnes, Alan would not have felt more certain
of the truth and sincerity of her meaning and words. The fraud, that he
had vaguely suspected at the time, stood out black and distinct enough
now. He hated himself so intensely that for the moment all other
feelings were swallowed up in self-contempt--even to the craving for
vengeance on the conspirators who had juggled him, which ever afterwards
haunted him like an evil spirit. Wyverne had always cherished, you know,
a simple, generous faith in the dignity of womanhood; if his chivalry
had carried him one step further--if, in despite of the evidence of his
senses, he had refused to believe in womanhood's utter debasement--it
would have been perhaps the very folly of romance; but he might have
defied the forger. He took the wisest course now, by telling Nina the
whole truth, as briefly and considerately as possible.

"You see, I did you fearful wrong," he said. "Though I have paid for it
heavily already, and shall suffer to my life's end, that is no reason
why you should forgive me. I don't even ask you to do so."

Mrs. Lenox was, indeed, bitterly incensed. A perfectly immaculate matron
might have laughed such a conspiracy against her fair fame to scorn:
Nina could not afford to be maligned unjustly. Nevertheless all her
indignation was levelled at the unknown framer of the fraud; not a whit
rested on Alan. She had been used to see people commit themselves in
every conceivable way, and make the wildest sacrifices, for her sake;
but she had learned to appreciate these follies at their proper worth.
Strong selfish desire and the hope of an evil reward was at the bottom
of them all. Truly, when a man ruins himself simply to gratify his
ruling passion, the lover deserves little more credit than the gambler.
But the present case was widely different. She had not a shadow of a
claim on Alan's service or forbearance.

Though he seemed to see no merit in a single act of duty, she knew right
well what it had cost him to destroy the supposed evidence of her shame;
and now, instead of expecting thanks, he was reproaching himself for
having misjudged her while believing his own eyes. As she thought on
these things, Nina's hard battered heart grew fresh and young again. Not
a single unholy element mingled in the tenderness of her gratitude; but,
if time and place had not forbidden, she would scarcely have confined
her demonstrations to a covert pressure of Wyverne's hand.

"Forgive you?" she said, piteously. "It drives me wild to hear you speak
so. I would give up every friend I have in the world to keep _you_. The
best of them would not have done half as much for me. And we can never
be friends--really. My unhappy name has dragged you down like a
millstone; don't attempt to deceive yourself; you must hate the sound of
it now and always. Ah, do try to believe me. I would submit to any pain,
or penance, or shame, and not think it hard measure, if I could only
give you back what you have lost through me."

In despite of his exasperation, the sweet voice fell soothingly on
Alan's ear. A man need not greatly glorify himself for having simply
acted up to his notions of right and honour; nevertheless, appreciation
in the proper quarter must be gratifying to all except the _very_
superior natures. Many are left among us still who "do good by stealth,"
but the habit of "blushing to find it known" is antiquated to a degree.

So, as he listened, Wyverne's mood softened; and he began quite
naturally to play the part of consoler, trying to prove to Nina that she
had been an innocent instrument throughout, and that if the
conspirators had been foiled in this instance, they would surely have
found some other engine to work out the same result.

"But it was such base, cruel treachery," she said, trembling with
passion. "Will you not try to trace it, for my sake if not for your own?
You must have some suspicions. If I were a man, and could act and move
freely, I should never sleep soundly till I was revenged."

Wyverne answered very slowly, and, as he spoke, his face hardened and
darkened till it might have been carved in granite.

"You may spare the spur; there is no fear of my sleeping over it. I'm
not made of wax or snow, to be moulded like this into a puppet for their
profit or pleasure, and I owe you a vengeance besides. Yes, I have
suspicions; I'll make them certainties, if I live. Your never having got
my note, telling you of my burning the first of the two letters, gives
me a clue. They may double as they like, they won't escape, if I once
fairly strike the trail. Now, we will never speak of this again till--I
give you _the name_."

The change of Alan's character dated from that night; most of his
friends noticed it before long. He was never morose or sullen, but
always moody, and absent, and pre-occupied; without exactly avoiding
society, he found himself alone, unwontedly often, and solitude did him
far more harm than good. To speak the truth, his credit as a pleasant
companion began sensibly to decline. A Fixed Idea, even if it be as rosy
as Hope, interferes sadly with a man's social merits; if it chance to be
sombre or menacing in hue, the influence is simply fatal to
conviviality.

But autumn and winter passed, and it was spring again, before Wyverne
could set his foot on more solid ground than vague surmises. He felt
certain that Lady Mildred had countenanced, if not directed, the
plot--the note having miscarried from Dene was strong evidence--but he
was equally sure that her delicate hands were clear of the soil of
actual fraud. Who had been the working instrument? For a moment his
thoughts turned to Max Vavasour, but he soon rejected this idea,
remembering that the latter was not in England that Christmas-tide;
besides which, he could not fancy his cousin superintending the
practical details of a vulgar forgery; he would far sooner have
suspected Clydesdale, but there was not the faintest reason, so far, to
connect the Earl with foul play. So he went groping on, for months, in
the twilight, without advancing a step, growing more gloomy and
discontented every day. It was a curious chance that put him on the
right scent at last.

An Inn of Court is not exactly the spot one would select for setting a
"trap to catch a sunbeam;" a wholesome amount of light and air is about
as much as one can expect to find in such places; heavy, grave decorum
pervades them, very fittingly; but it may be doubted if any quarter of a
populous city, respectable in its outward seeming, has a right to be so
depressingly dull and dingy, as is the Inn of Gray; the spiders of all
sorts, who lurk thereabouts, had best not keep the flies long in their
webs, or the victims would scarce be worth devouring.

Some such thoughts as these were in Wyverne's mind as he wandered
through the grim quadrangle, one cold evening towards the end of March,
looking for "Humphrey and Gliddon's" chambers. The firm had an evil
name; men said, that if it was difficult to find out their den, it was
twice as hard to escape from it without loss of plumage. Alan's temper
had certainly changed for the worse, but his good-nature stood by him
still; so, when a comrade wrote from the country, to beg him to act as
proxy in a delicate money transaction with the aforesaid attorneys, he
assented very willingly, and was rather glad to have something to employ
his afternoon. He had just come up from his hunting quarters, where the
dry, dusty ground rode like asphalte, and scent was a recollection of
the far past.

After some trouble he lighted on the right staircase. Raw and murky as
the outer atmosphere might be, it was pure æther compared to that of the
low-browed office into which the visitor first entered; at any hour or
season of the year, you could fancy that room maintaining a good,
steady, condensed dusk of its own, in which fog, and smoke, and dust,
had about equal shares. Two clerks sat there, writing busily. The one
nearest the door--a thick-set, sullen man, past middle age--looked up as
Alan came in, and stretching out a grimy hand, said, in a dull,
mechanical voice,

"Your card, sir, if you please--Sir Alan Wyverne wishes to see Mr.
Humphrey."

It was evidently the formula of reception in that ominous ante-chamber.

The other clerk had not lifted his head when the door opened; but he
started violently when he heard the name, so as nearly to upset the
inkstand in which he chanced to be dipping his pen, and turned round
with a sort of terror on his haggard, ruined face. It might have been a
very handsome face once, but the wrinkled, flaccid flesh had fallen away
round the hollow temples and from under the heavy eyes; the complexion
was unhealthy, pale, and sodden; the features pinched and drawn, to
deformity; the lines on the forehead were like trenches, and the
abundant dark hair was, not sprinkled, but streaked and patched,
irregularly, with grey.

But, at the first glance, Wyverne recognised the face of a very old
friend; he recognised it the more easily because, when he saw it last,
it wore almost the same wild, scared look--on the memorable Derby day
when "Cloanthus" swept past the stand, scarcely extended, the two
leading favourites struggling vainly to reach his quarters.

All his self-command was needed to enable him to suppress the
exclamation that sprang to his lips; but he rarely made a mistake when
it was a question of tact or delicacy. He followed his conductor into
the next room, silently; it chanced to be vacant at that moment; then
Alan laid his hand on the clerk's shoulder, as he stood with averted
eyes, shaking like an aspen, and said, in tones carefully lowered--

"My God! Hugh Crichton--you here?"

"Hush," the other answered, in a lower whisper still; "that's not my
name now. You wouldn't spoil my last chance, if you could help it? If
you want to see me, wait five minutes after you leave this place, and
I'll come to you in the square."

"I'll wait, if it's an hour," Wyverne said, and so passed into the inner
room without another word. His business was soon done; even Humphrey and
Gliddon could find no pretext for detaining clients who came with money
in their hand. Alan did not exchange a glance with either of the
occupants of the clerks'-room as he went out; he breathed more freely
when he was in chill March air again. As he walked up and down the
opposite side of the square, which was nearly deserted, his thoughts
were very pitiful and sad.

Hardly a year passes without the appearance of one or more comets in
society; none of these have sparkled more briefly and brilliantly than
Hugh Crichton. Everybody liked, and many admired him, but the world had
hardly begun to appreciate his rare and versatile talents, when he shot
down into the outer darkness. He had friends who would have helped him
if they could, but all trace of him was lost, and none could say for
certain whether he lived or no.

Wyverne had not waited many minutes, when a bent, shrunken figure came
creeping slowly, almost stealthily, towards him, keeping well in the
shadow of the buildings. In another moment, Alan was grasping both his
ancient comrade's hands, with a cordial, honest gripe, that might have
put heart and hope into the veriest castaway.

"Dear old Hugh! how glad I am to light on you again, though you are so
fearfully changed. Why, they said you had died abroad."

"No such luck," the other answered, with a dreary laugh. "I did go
abroad, and stayed there till I was nearly starved; then I came back.
London's the best hiding place, after all; and if you have hands and
brain, you can always earn enough to buy bread, and spirits, and
tobacco. I've been in this place more than a year; I get a pound a week,
and I think of 'striking' soon for an advance of five shillings. They
won't lose me if they can help it; I save them a clerk, at least; old
Gliddon never asked me another question after he saw me write a dozen
lines. My work is all indoors, that's one comfort; they haven't asked me
to serve a writ yet; my senior--you saw him--the man with a strong cross
of the bull about the head--does all that business, and likes it. But
the firm don't trust me much, and they would be more unpleasant still,
if they knew 'Henry Carstairs' was a false name. No one has much
interest now in hunting me down; it's old friends' faces I've always
been afraid of meeting. But I did think that none of our lot would ever
have set foot in that den, and I had got to fancy myself safe. You
didn't come on your own affairs, Alan, I know. I had an extra grog the
night I heard you had fallen in for Castle Dacre. I rather think I am
glad to see you, after all."

He jerked out the sentences in a nervous, abrupt way, perpetually
glancing round, as if he were afraid of being watched; he was so
manifestly ill-at-ease that Wyverne had not the heart to keep him there;
besides it was cruelty to expose the emaciated frame, so thinly clad, a
minute longer than was necessary, to the keen evening air.

"Why, Hugh, of course you're glad to see me," Alan said, forcing himself
to speak cheerily; "the idea of doubting about it! But it's too cold to
stand chattering here. I'm staying at the Clarendon: you'll come at
seven, sharp, won't you? We'll dine in my rooms, quite alone, and have a
long talk about old days, and new ones, too. I'll have thought of
something better for you by that time, than this infernal
quill-driving."

Hugh Crichton hesitated visibly for a few seconds, and appeared to make
up his mind, with a sudden effort, to something not altogether
agreeable.

"Thank you: you're very good, Alan. Yes, I'll come, the more because
I've something on my mind that I ought to tell you; but I should never
have had the pluck to look you up, if you had not found me. I hope your
character at the Clarendon can stand a shock; it will be compromised
when they hear such a scare-crow ask for your rooms. I can't stay a
moment longer, but I'll be punctual."

He crept away with the same weak, stealthy step, and his head seemed
bent down lower than when he came.

Nevertheless, when, at the appointed hour, the guest sat down opposite
his host, the contrast was not so very striking. The office-drudge was
scarcely recognisable; he seemed to freshen and brighten up wonderfully,
in an atmosphere that had once been congenial. Even so, those bundles of
dried twigs that Eastern travellers bring home, and enthusiasts call
"Roses of Sharon" (such Roses!), expand under the influence of warmth
and moisture, so as to put forth the feeble semblance of a flower. The
black suit was terribly threadbare, and hung loosely round the shrunken
limbs, but it adapted itself to the wearer's form, with the easy,
careless grace for which Hugh Crichton's dress had always been
remarkable; his neck-tie was still artistic in its simplicity, and the
hair swept over his brow with the old classic wave; his demeanour bore
no trace of a sojourn in Alsatia, and a subtle refinement of manner and
gesture clung naturally to the wreck of a gallant gentleman. Some plants
you know--not the meanest nor the least fragrant--flourish more kindly
in the crevices of a ruin than in the richest loam.

It was a pleasant dinner, on the whole, though not a very lively one;
for Alan had too much tact to force conviviality. Crichton ate
sparingly, but drank deep; he did not gulp down his liquor, though,
greedily, but rather savoured it with a slow enjoyment, suffering his
palate to appreciate every shade of the flavour; the long, satisfied
sigh that he could not repress as he set down empty the first beaker of
dry champagne, spoke volumes.

They drew up to the fire when the table was cleared, and they were left
alone. Wyverne rose suddenly, and leant over towards his companion with
a velvet cigar-case in his hand, that he had just taken from the
mantelpiece.

"You must tell me your story for the last few years," he said; "but put
that case in your pocket before you begin. There are some regalias in
it, of the calibre you used to fancy, and--a couple of hundreds, in
notes, to go on with. You dear, silly old Hugh! Don't shake your head
and look scrupulous. Why, I won thrice as much of you at _écarté_ in the
week before that miserable Derby, and you never asked for your revenge.
You should have it now if either you or I were in cue for play.
Seriously--I want you to feel at ease before you begin to talk; I want
you to feel that your troubles are over, and that you never need go near
that awful _guet-à-pens_ again. I've got a permanent arrangement in my
head, that will suit you, I hope, and set you right for ever and a day.
Hugh, you know if our positions were reversed, I should ask you for help
just as frankly as I expect you will take it from me."

Crichton shivered all over, worse than he had done out in the cold March
evening.

"Put the case down," he said hoarsely. "It will be time enough to talk
about that and your good intentions half-an-hour hence. I'll tell you
what I have been doing, if you care to hear."

Now, though the story interested Wyverne sincerely, it would be simple
cruelty to inflict it on you; with very slight variations, it might have
applied to half the _viveurs_ that have been ruined during the last
hundred years. Still, not many men could have listened unmoved to such a
tale, issuing from the mouth of an ancient friend. When he had come to a
certain point in his story, the speaker paused abruptly.

"Poor Hugh!" Alan said. "How you must have suffered. Take breath now;
I'm certain your throat wants moistening, and the claret has been
waiting on you this quarter of an hour. It's my turn to speak; I'm
impatient to tell you my plan. The agent at Castle Dacre is so
wonderfully old and rheumatic, that it makes one believe in miracles
when he climbs on the back of his pony. I would give anything to have a
decent excuse for pensioning him off. I shall never live there much, and
the property is so large, that it ought to be properly looked after. If
you don't mind taking care of a very dreary old house, there's £800 a
year, and unlimited lights and coals, (they used to burn about ten tons
a week, I believe,) and all the snipe and fowl you like to shoot,
waiting for you. I shall be the obliged party if you'll take it; for it
will ease my conscience, which at present is greatly troubled. The work
is not so hard, and you've head enough for anything."

Not pleasure or gratitude, but rather vexation and confusion showed
themselves in Crichton's face.

"Can't you have patience!" he muttered, irritably. "Didn't I ask you to
wait till you had heard all? There's more, and worse, to tell; though I
don't know, yet, how much harm was done."

He went on to say, that about the time when things were at the worst
with him, he had stumbled upon Harding Knowles; they had been
contemporaries at Oxford, and rather intimate. Harding did not appear to
rejoice much at the encounter; though he must have guessed at the first
glance the strait to which his old acquaintance was reduced, he made no
offer of prompt assistance, but asked for Crichton's address, expressing
vague hopes of being able to do something for him; Hugh gave it with
great reluctance, and only under a solemn promise of secrecy. He did not
the least expect that Knowles would remember him, and was greatly
surprised when the latter called some five or six weeks afterwards.
Harding's tone was much more cordial than it had been at their first
meeting; he seemed really sorry at having failed, so far, in finding
anything that would suit Crichton, and actually pressed him to borrow
£10--or more if it was required--to meet present emergencies. An
instinctive suspicion almost made Hugh refuse the loan; he felt as if he
would rather be indebted to any man alive than to the person who offered
it; but he was so fearfully "hard up" that he had not the courage to
decline. Knowles came again and again, with no ostensible object except
cheering his friend's solitude, and each time was ready to open his
purse. "We must get you something before long, and then you can repay
me," he would say. Crichton availed himself of these offers more than
once, moderately; he began to think that he had done his benefactor
great injustice, and looked for his visits eagerly; indeed, few
_causeurs_, when he chose to exert himself, could talk more pleasantly
than Knowles.

One evening the conversation turned, apparently by chance, to old
memories of college days.

"That was the best managed thing we ever brought off," Harding said at
last, "when we made Alick Drummond carry on a regular correspondence
with a foreign lady of the highest rank, who was madly in love with him.
How did we christen the Countess? I forget. But I remember the letters
you wrote for her; the delicate feminine character was the most perfect
thing I ever saw. Have you lost that talent of imitating handwriting? It
must have been a natural gift; I never saw it equalled."

"Write down a sentence or two," Hugh replied; "I'll show you if I have
lost the knack."

He copied them out on two similar sheets of paper, and gave the three to
Knowles after confusing them under the table: the latter actually
started, and the admiration that he displayed was quite sincere: the
_fac similes_, indeed, were so miraculously like the original, that it
was next to impossible to distinguish them.

"I can guess what is coming," Alan whispered softly, seeing the speaker
pause. "Go on straight and quick to the end, for God's love, and keep
nothing back. Don't look at me."

The white working lips had no need to say more: the other saw the whole
truth directly. He clenched his hand with a savage curse, but Alan's sad
deprecating eyes checked the passionate outbreak of remorse and anger.
Sullenly and reluctantly--like a spirit forced to reveal the secrets of
his prison-house--Hugh Crichton went through all the miserable details.

Knowles had represented himself as being on such very intimate terms
with Wyverne, as fully to justify him in attempting a practical joke.

"Alan's the best fellow in the world," he said, airily, "but he believes
that it is impossible to take him in about womankind. There's the finest
possible chance just now, and it can be managed so easily, if you will
only help me."

Hugh's natural delicacy and sense of honour, dulled and weakened by
drink and degradation, had life enough left to revolt suspiciously. But
the other brought to bear pretexts and arguments, specious enough to
have deluded a stronger intellect and quieted a keener conscience: he
particularly insisted on the point that the lady's character could bear
being compromised, and that the secret would never go beyond Alan and
himself. Hugh had to contend, besides, against a sense of heavy
obligation, and the selfish fear of offending the only friend that was
left to back him. Of course, eventually he consented. The next morning
Harding brought a specimen of the handwriting--a long and perfectly
insignificant note, with the signature torn off--(he was a great
collector of autographs): he was also provided with paper and envelopes,
both marked with a cypher, which he took pains to conceal. Crichton
could not be sure of the initials, but he caught a glimpse of their
colour--a brilliant scarlet. The tone of the fictitious letter, though
the expressions were guardedly vague, seemed strangely earnest for a
mere mystification; certainly an intimate acquaintance was implied
between the writer and the person to whom it was addressed. The copyist
was more than half dissatisfied; he grumbled a good many objections
while employed on his task, and was very glad when it was over. The
signature was simply "N.," an initial which occurred more than once in
the specimen note, so that it was easy to reproduce a very peculiar wavy
flourish. The imitation was a masterpiece, and Knowles was profuse of
thanks and praises.

He did not allude to the matter more than once during the next few
weeks, and then only to remark, in a careless, casual way, that the plot
was going on swimmingly. This struck Crichton as rather odd; neither the
pleasure of Knowles's society nor the comparative luxuries which liberal
advances supplied, could keep him from feeling very uncomfortable at
times. One morning, late in December, a note came, begging him to dine
with Harding that night in the Temple; the writer "was going into the
country almost immediately."

It was a very succulent repast, and poor Hugh, as was his wont, drank
largely; nevertheless, when, late in the evening, Knowles asked him to
repeat his calligraphic feat, and showed the draft of a letter, it
became evident, even to his clouded brain, that something more than
"merry mischief" was intended; at first he refused flatly and rudely.
Indeed, any rational being, unless very far gone in drink or
self-delusion, must have suspected foul play. Not only was the tone of
the letter passionate to a degree, but it contained allusions of real
grave import; and one name was actually mentioned--Helen Vavasour's.
Knowles was playing his grand _coup_, and necessarily had to risk
something. He was not at all disconcerted at the resistance he
encountered; he had a plausible explanation ready to meet every
objection. "He was going down to Dene the next day, on purpose to enjoy
the _dénouement_; it would be such a pity to spoil it now. Miss Vavasour
was a cousin who had known Alan from her infancy; she would appreciate
the trick as well as any one; but, of course, she was never to know of
it. This was the very last time he would ask his friend's help." So the
tempter went on, alternately ridiculing and cajoling Hugh's scruples,
all the while drenching him with strong liquor: at length he prevailed.

Crichton was one of those men whose hand and eye, often to their own
detriment, will keep steady when their brain is whirling. He executed
his task with a mechanical perfection, though he was scarcely aware of
the meaning of each sentence as he wrote it down. Knowles took
possession of the letter as soon as it was done, and locked it up
carefully.

The revel became an orgie: the last thing that Hugh remembered
distinctly was--marking a devilish satisfaction on his companion's
crafty face, that made his own blood boil. After that everything was
chaos. He had a vague recollection of having tried to get back the
letter--of high words and a serious quarrel--even of a blow exchanged;
but the impressions were like those left by a painful nightmare. He woke
from a long heavy stupor, such as undrugged liquor could scarcely
produce, and found himself on a door-step in his own street, without a
notion of how he had got there, subject to the attentions of a
benevolent policeman, who would not allow him to enjoy, undisturbed, "a
lodging upon the cold ground." The next day came a curt contemptuous
note from Harding Knowles, to say "that he was glad to have been of some
assistance to an old friend, and that he should never expect repayment
of his advances; but that nothing would induce him to risk a repetition
of the painful scene of last night." They had never met since. Crichton
was constantly haunted with the idea of having been an accessory to some
base villany; and would have communicated his suspicions, long ago, to
Wyverne, if it had not been for the false pride which made him keep
aloof from all ancient acquaintance, as if he had been plague-stricken.

Alan sat perfectly quiet and silent, till the other had finished, only
betraying emotion by a convulsive twisting of the fingers that shaded
his eyes. All at once he broke out into a harsh bitter laugh.

"You thought it was a practical joke? So it was--a very practical one,
and right well played out. Do you know what it cost me? The hope and
happiness of my life--that's all. Why, if I were to drain that lying
hound's blood, drop by drop, he would be in my debt still!"

Then his head sank on his crossed arms, and he began to murmur to
himself--so piteously--

"Ah, my Helen! my lost Helen!"

The beaten-down, degraded look possessed the castaway's face stronger
than ever.

"Didn't I ask you to wait till I had told you all?" he muttered. "I knew
how it would be; that was why I hesitated to accept your invitation
to-day. Let me go now; I cannot comfort you or help you either. You
meant kindly though, old friend, and I thank you all the same.
Good-bye."

Alan lifted his head quickly. His eyes were not angry--only
inexpressibly sad.

"Sit down, Hugh," he said, "and don't be hasty. You might give one a
moment's breathing-time after a blow like that. I haven't spirits enough
for argument, much less for quarrelling. I know well if you had been in
your sober senses, and had thought it would really harm me, no earthly
bribe would have tempted you to pen one line. You can help me very much;
and I will trust you so far from the bottom of my heart; as for
comfort--I must trust to God. I hold to every word of my offers. I am so
very glad I made them before I heard all this; for I can ask you to
serve me now without your suspecting a bribe."

Length of misery tames stoicism as it crushes better feelings: a spirit
nearly broken yields easily to weakness that would shame hearts
inexperienced in sorrow. The pride of manhood could not check the big
drops that wetted Crichton's hollow cheeks before Wyverne had finished
speaking.

They talked long and seriously that night. Alan did not trust by halves;
he forced himself to go into every detail that it was necessary the
other should know, though some words and names seemed to burn his lips
in passing. Before they parted their plan was fully arranged. Hugh was
to resign his clerkship at once, so as to devote himself exclusively to
completing the chain of proofs that would criminate at least the main
movers in the plot. Alan clung persistently to the idea that Clydesdale
had a good deal to do with it.

It is needless to say that the amateur detective worked with all his
heart, and soul, and strength. His temperance was worthy of an
anchorite; and, when he kept his senses about him, Crichton could be as
patient and keen-scented as the most practised of legal bloodhounds.
Before a week was over, he had collected evidence, conclusive and
consecutive enough, to have convinced any Court of Honour, though
perhaps it would not have secured a verdict from those free and
enlightened Britons who will make a point of acquitting any murderer
that does not chance to be caught "red-handed." Truly ours is a noble
Constitution, and Trial by Jury is one of its fairest pillars; but I
have heard a paragon Judge speak blasphemy thereanent. If the Twelve
were allowed the French latitude of finding "extenuating circumstances,"
I believe the coolest on the Bench would go distraught, in helpless
wrath and contempt.

Wyverne knew the shop that Mrs. Lenox patronized for _papeterie_. They
ascertained there that a man answering exactly to the description of
Knowles had called, one day in that autumn, and had asked for a packet
of envelopes and note-paper, stating that he was commissioned to take
them down in the country, and producing one of the lady's cards as a
credential. The stationer particularly remembered it from the fact of
the purchase having been paid for on the spot. Trifling as the amount
was--only a few shillings--it was a curious infraction of Nina's
commercial system, which was, as a rule, consistently Pennsylvanian.
Crichton had certainly contracted no new friendships during his office
servitude, but he had made a few acquaintances at some of the haunts
frequented nightly by revellers of the clerkly guild. He worked one of
these engines of information very effectually. Harding had more than
once given him a cheque to a small amount, which he had got cashed
through one of the subordinates of the bank, whom he had chanced to
fraternize with at the "Cat and Compasses," or some such reputable
hostel. At the expense of much persuasion, and a timely advance to the
official, whose convivial habits were getting him into difficulties,
Hugh was in a position to prove that Knowles had paid into his account,
early in the January following that eventful Christmas, a cheque for
£5000, signed by Lord Clydesdale. The money remained standing to his
credit for some time, but had since been drawn out for investment. The
dates of the composition of the fictitious letters corresponded exactly
with the times at which Alan had received them.

Altogether, the case seemed tolerably clear, and a net of proof was
drawn round Harding Knowles that it would puzzle even his craft to
escape from.

I do not enter into the question whether the influences of high
Civilization are sanctifying, or the reverse; but on some grounds, it
surely ought to improve our Christianity, if it were only for the
obstacles standing in the path of certain pagan propensities. One would
think that even an infidel might see the folly of letting the sun go
down on futile wrath. In truth, nowadays, the prosecution of a purely
personal and private vengeance is not alone immoral in itself, but
exceedingly difficult to carry out. You cannot go forth and smite your
enemy under the fifth rib, wheresoever you may meet, after the simple
antique fashion. You must lure him across the Channel before you can
even proceed after the formula of the polite _duello_--supposing always
that the adversary had not infringed the criminal code.

Alan Wyverne's nature was not sublime enough to admit a thought of
forgiveness, now. Since he held the instruments of retaliation in his
hand, he had never faltered for one moment in his vindictive purpose;
but--how best to complete it--was a problem over which he brooded
gloomily for hours, without touching the solution.



CHAPTER XXII.

AN OLD SCORE PAID.


It is needless to explain, that on Harding Knowles Wyverne's anger was
chiefly concentrated. Clydesdale came in for his share; but, so far, it
was difficult to establish the extent of the Earl's connection with the
plot. When the Divine warning, "Vengeance is Mine," has once been
ignored, very few men are so cold-blooded, as to exclude entirely from
their plan of retribution, the old simple method of exacting it with
their own right hand. As Alan sat thinking, a vision would rise before
him, dangerously attractive: he saw a waste of sand-hills stretching for
leagues along the coast of France; so remote from road or dwelling, that
a shot would never be heard unless it were by a strange fishing-boat out
at sea; so seldom traversed, that the body of a murdered man might lie
there for days undiscovered, unless the gathering birds told tales; he
saw the form of his enemy standing up in relief against the clear
morning-light, within a dozen paces of the muzzle of his pistol. I fear
it was more the impracticability of the idea than its sinfulness, which
made Alan decide that it ought to be relinquished. Sometimes it needs no
great casuistry to enable even the best-natured of us to give, in our
own minds, a verdict of Justifiable Homicide. But upon calm
consideration, it was about a million to one against Harding's being
induced to risk himself in a duel, which he might guess would be to the
death, where the chances would be heavily against him. As a rule,
forgers don't fight.

There were great difficulties too, about a public exposure--so great
that Alan never really entertained the idea for a moment. He would just
as soon have thought of publishing a scurrilous libel about those whom
he loved best, as of allowing their names to be paraded for the world's
amusement and criticism.

While he was still in doubt and perplexity, he chanced to meet one
morning, a famous physician, with whom he was rather intimate, though
he had never employed him professionally. Dr. Eglinton was a general
favourite; many people, besides his patients, liked to hear his full
cheery tones, and to see his quaint pleasant face, with the _fin
sourire_ that pointed his inexhaustible anecdotes; he was the most
inveterate gossip that ever steered quite clear of ill-nature.

"You're not looking in such rude health as one would suspect at the end
of the hunting season," the Doctor said, "but I suppose there's nothing
in my way this morning. I wish I could say as much for an old friend of
yours, whom I have just left at the Burlington. It's the Rector of Dene.
By the bye, it would be a great charity if you would call on him to-day:
he seems lonely and out of spirits--indeed, the nature of his disease is
depressing. I know he's very fond of you, and you might do him more good
than my physic can. I fear it is a hopeless case--a heart-complaint of
some standing--though the symptoms have only become acute and aggravated
within the last two years. Do you know if he has had any great domestic
troubles or worries of late? He was not communicative, and I did not
dare to press him. Nothing can be so bad for him as anything of the
sort; and any heavy or sudden shock might be instantly fatal."

It was not only surprise and pain, but sharp self-reproach too, that
made Wyverne turn so pale. Revenge is essentially selfish, even when it
will reason at all; he had actually forgotten his kind old friend's
existence while pondering how to punish his son. He knew right well what
had been the great trouble that had weighed on Gilbert Knowles's heart
for the last two years. The Rector was of course unable to intercede or
avert the catastrophe; but, when he heard of the final rupture of
Helen's engagement, he bowed his head despairingly, and had never raised
it since. I told you how he loved her, and how sincerely he loved Alan.
On their union rested the last of his hopes; when that was crushed, he
felt he should never have strength or spirits enough to nourish another.

No wonder Wyverne's reply was strangely embarrassed and inconsequent:

"I don't know--yes--perhaps there may have been some trouble on his
mind. The dear old Rector! I wish I had heard of this before. Of course
I'll go to him; but not to-day--it's impossible to-day. Good-bye: I
shall see you again very soon. I shall want to hear about your patient."

His manner, usually _posé_ to a degree, was so abrupt just then, that it
set the Doctor musing as he walked away.

"There's something wrong there," he muttered, half aloud (it was a way
he had); "I wish I knew what it was; he's well worth curing. He's not
half the man he was when he was ruined. None of us are, for that matter:
I suppose there's something bracing in the air of poverty. I did hear
something about a cousinly attachment, but it can't be that: Wyverne is
made of too sterling stuff to pine away because an _amourette_ goes
wrong: besides, he's always with Lady Clydesdale now, they say. What
_don't_ they say, if one had only time to listen," &c., &c.

The good physician had a little subdued element of cynicism in his
nature, which he only indulged when soliliquizing, or over the one cigar
that professional decorum winked at, when the long day's toil was done.

"Not to-day." No; Alan felt that it would be impossible to meet the
father, till the interview with the son was over. He went back to his
rooms, and sat there thinking for a full hour. Then he took some papers
from a locked casket, and went straight to the Temple.

Knowles's servant chanced to be out, so he came himself to open the door
of his chambers. He was prosperous and careful, you know, and could meet
the commercial world boldly, abroad or at home; but the most timorous of
insolvents never felt so disagreeable a thrill at the apparition of the
sternest of creditors, as shot through Harding's nerves when he saw on
the threshold, the calm courteous face, of the man whom he disliked and
feared beyond all living. There was something in that face--though a
careless observer would have detected no ruffle in its serenity--that
stopped the other in his greeting, and in the act of offering his hand.
Not a word passed between the two, till Knowles had followed his visitor
into the innermost of the two sitting-rooms, closing the doors
carefully behind them. Then Wyverne spoke--

"An old friend of mine has given me a commission to do. I had better get
through that before coming to my own business. You advanced several sums
to Hugh Crichton at different times, lately; will you be good enough to
say, if that list of them is right?"

There could not be a more striking proof of how completely Knowles's
nerves were unstrung, than the fact, that he looked at the paper without
having a notion as to the correctness of the items, and without the
faintest interest in the question. He answered quite at random, speaking
quick and confusedly--

"Yes, they are quite right; but it doesn't in the least matter. I never
expected--"

"Pardon me," Alan interrupted, "it doesn't matter very much--_to us_.
Perhaps since you have become a capitalist, you can afford to be
careless of such trifles. Hugh Crichton does not think it a trifle to
owe money to you. Here is the exact sum as far as he can remember it. It
is your own fault if you have cheated yourself. I will not trouble you
for a receipt. I dare say you did not expect to be paid, still less by
my hand. That is settled. Now I will talk about my own affairs."

Though he spoke so quietly, there was a subtle contempt in his tone,
that made every word fall like a lash. Again and again, Harding tried to
meet the steady look of the cold grave eyes, and failed each time
signally. He tried bluster, thus early in the interview, in sheer
despair.

"I can't guess at your object, but your manner is not to be mistaken. It
is evident you come here with the deliberate purpose of insulting me.
I'm afraid I must disappoint you, Sir Alan. I decline to enter into your
own affairs at all, and I consider our conversation ended here."

The other laughed scornfully, and his accent became harder and more
_tranchant_ than ever.

"Bah!--you lose your head! There are two gross errors in that last
speech. I don't come to insult, because, to insult a person, you must
presume he has some title to self-respect. I utterly deny your right to
such a thing. And you will listen as long as I choose to speak; you may
be sure I shall not use an unnecessary word. I come here to make certain
accusations and to impose certain conditions--or penalties, if you like.
It's not worth while picking expressions."

Harding sat down, actually gnashing his teeth in impotent rage, leaning
his elbows on his knees, and resting his chin on his clenched hands.

"Go on, then," he snarled, "and be quick about it."

"I accuse you," Alan answered, steadily, "of having played the part of
common spy; of having composed, if you did not write, two anonymous
letters to Lady Mildred and her daughter; afterwards, of having maligned
a woman whom you never spoke to, by causing her handwriting to be
forged; of having made a dear friend of mine, a gentleman of birth and
breeding, unwittingly your accomplice, when he was brought so low that
the Tempter himself might have spared him; of having done me, and
perhaps my cousin, a mortal injury, when neither of us had ever hurt you
by word or deed. I accuse you of having done all this for hire, for the
specific sum of £5,000, paid you by Lord Clydesdale within a month after
your villany was consummated. You need not trouble yourself to
contradict one syllable of this, unless you choose to lie for the
pleasure of lying. I have the written proofs here."

Knowles's head went down lower and lower while Wyverne was speaking;
when he raised his face, it was fantastically convulsed and horribly
livid, like one of those that we see in the illustrations to the
_Inferno_, besetting the path of the travellers through the penal
Circles. He was too anxious to escape from his torture, to protract it
by a single vain denial; but he would not throw one chance of palliation
away.

"It was not a bribe," he gasped out, "it was a regular bet. Look, I can
show it you."

He drew his tablets out and tore them open with a shaking hand; and,
after finding the page with great difficulty, pointed it out to Wyverne.

The latter just glanced at the entry, and cast down the book with
crushing contempt.

"Five thousand to fifty," he said; "I've been long enough on the turf to
construe those odds. The veriest robber in the ring would not have dared
to show your 'regular bet.' Now, answer me one question--'How far was
Clydesdale cognizant of your plot?'"

"He has never heard one word of it, up to this moment," the other
answered, eagerly. "I swear it. You may make any inquiries you like. I
_can_ defy you there. But some one else did know of it, and approved it
too; that was----"

Wyverne's tone changed savagely as he broke in.

"_Will_ you confine yourself to answering the questions you are asked? I
don't want any confessions volunteered, I attach no real importance to
them, after all; but it grates on one to hear people maligned
unnecessarily. Now, I'll tell you what I mean to do about it. I thought
at first of inducing you to cross the Channel, and giving you a chance
of your life against mine there; but I gave that up, because I knew you
would not come. Then I thought--a brutal, last resource--of beating you
into a cripple, here. I gave that up, because I never could thrash a dog
that lay down at the first cut, writhing and howling; I know so well
that would have been your line. Do you want to say anything?"

A sudden change in Harding's countenance made Alan pause. You may have
seen how utterly deficient he was both in moral and physical courage;
but the last faint embers of manhood smouldered into sullen flame, under
the accumulation of insult. He had risen to his feet with a dark
devilish malice on his face, and made a step towards a table near him.

Wyverne's keen gaze read his purpose thoroughly, but never wavered in
its freezing contempt.

"Ah, that's the drawer where you keep your revolver," he said. "If you
drive a rat into a corner, he will turn sometimes. I don't believe you
would have nerve to shoot; but I mean to run no risks. I came prepared
after I gave up the bastinado. There's something heavier than wood in
this malacca. I'll break your wrist if you attempt to touch the lock.
That's better; sit down again and listen. Then--I thought of bringing
the matter before a committee of every club you belong to, suppressing
all the names but my own. I could have done it; my credit's good for so
much, if I choose to use it. I only gave up that idea three hours ago.
It was when I heard of the Rector's being so seriously ill. The fathers
suffer for the sins of the children often enough; but I have not the
heart to give _yours_ his death-blow. You will appreciate the weakness
thoroughly, I don't doubt. On one condition I shall keep your treachery
a secret from all, except those immediately concerned; that condition
is, that you never show yourself in any company where, by the remotest
chance, you could meet either Lady Clydesdale, Mrs. Lenox, any of the
Dene family, or myself. I'll do my duty to society so far, at all
events. Do you accept or refuse?"

"I have no choice," the other muttered, hoarsely and sullenly; "you have
me in a vice, you know that."

"Then it is so understood," Wyverne went on. "You needn't waste your
breath in promising and swearing. You'll keep your quarantine, I feel
sure. If not,----" (it was a very significant pause). "After all, my
forbearance only hangs on your poor father's life, and I fear that is a
slender thread indeed."

The mention of Gilbert Knowles's name seemed to have no effect whatever
upon his son; he did not even appear grateful for its mute intercession
between him and public shame: but Alan's voice softened insensibly as he
uttered it. When he spoke again, after a minute's silence, his tone was
rather sad than scornful.

"If you wanted money so much, why, in God's name, did you not come to
me? I would have sold my last chance of a reversion, and have begged or
borrowed from every friend I had, sooner than have let Clydesdale outbid
me. The plunge was taken, when you could once think of such infamy; you
might as well have sold yourself to me. Those miserable thousands must
have been your only motive, for you had no reason, that I know of, to
dislike me."

For the first time since the interview began, Harding Knowles looked the
speaker straight in the eyes: his face was still white as a corpse's,
but its expression was scarcely human in its intense malignity.

"You're wrong," he said, between his teeth: "the money wasn't the only
motive. Not dislike you! Curse you!--I've hated you from the first
moment that we met. Do you fancy, I thank you for your forbearance now?
I'd poison you if I could, or murder you where you stand, if I dared. I
hated your languid ways, and your quiet manner, and your soft speech,
and your cool courtesy--hated them all. You never spoke naturally but
once--on the hall-steps of Dene. Do you suppose I have forgotten that,
or the look in your cousin's eyes? I tell you I hated you both. I felt
you despised and laughed at me all the while, and you had no right to do
so--then. It is different--different--now."

His brain, usually so calculating and crafty, for the moment was utterly
distraught; he could not even command his voice, which rose almost into
a shriek while he was speaking, and in the last words sank abruptly into
a hollow groan. It was a terrible and piteous sight. But you have heard
how implacable at certain seasons Alan Wyverne could be: neither the
agony of the passion, nor the misery of the humiliation, moved his
compassion in the least; he watched the outbreak and the relapse, with a
smile of serene satisfaction that had been strange to his face for some
time past.

"So you really disliked my manner?" he said, in his own slow, pensive
way. "I remember, years ago, an ancient Duchesse of the Faubourg telling
me it had a savour of the _Vieille Cour_. I was intensely flattered
then, for I was very young. I am not sure that I ought not to be more
gratified now. I think I am. The instincts of hate are truer than those
of love. Mde. de Latrêaumont was as kind as a mother to me, and might
have been deceived. I have no more to say. You know the conditions: if
you transgress them by a hair's breadth, you will hear of it--not from
me."

He left the room without another word. It is doubtful if Knowles heard
that last taunt, or knew that his visitor was gone. He had buried his
face again in his hands; and so, for minutes sat motionless. All at once
he started up, went to the outer "oak," and dropped the bolt which made
his servant's pass-key useless, and then returned to his old seat, still
apparently half stunned and stupefied.

Do you think the forger and traitor escaped easily? It may be so; but
remember the exaggerated importance that Harding attached to his social
position and advancement. I believe that many, whose earthly ruin has
just been completed, have felt less miserable, and hopeless, and
spirit-broken, than the man who sat there, far into the twilight,
staring at the fire with haggard eyes, that never saw the red coals turn
grey.

It is true, that when Nina Lenox heard from Alan a _résumé_ of the day's
proceedings, she decided at once that the retribution was wholly
inadequate and unsatisfactory. But one need not multiply instances to
prove the truism, if women are exacting in love, they are thrice as
exacting in revenge. I cannot remember where I read the old romaunt of
the knight who came just in time to save his lady from the burning, by
vanquishing her traducer in the lists. The story is commonplace and
trite to a degree. I only remember the one instance that made it
remarkable. The conqueror stood with his foot on the neck of the enemy;
his chivalrous heart melted towards the vanquished, who, after all, had
done his devoir gallantly in an evil cause. He would have suffered him
to rise and live, but he chanced to glance inquiringly towards the pale
woman at the stake, and, says the chronicler, "by the bending of her
brows, and the blink of her eyes, he wist that she bade him--'not
spare!'" So the good knight sighed heavily, and, turning his sword-point
once more to the neck of the fallen man, drove the keen steel through
mail and flesh and bone.

Ah, my friend! may it never be your lot or mine, to lie prone at the
mercy of a woman whom we have wronged past hope of forgiveness; be sure,
that eyes and brows will speak as plainly as they did a thousand years
agone, and their murderous message will be much the same.



CHAPTER XXIII.

DIPLOMACY AT A DISCOUNT.


It would be rather difficult to define Wyverne's feelings after his
interview with Knowles. I fear that the utter humiliation of his enemy
failed entirely to satisfy him; but, on the whole, I think he scarcely
regretted not having pushed reprisals to extremities. At least there was
this advantage; he could sit with the Rector now, for hours, and strive
to cheer the poor invalid, with a quiet conscience; he could never have
borne to come to his presence with the deliberate purpose at his heart
of bringing public shame on Gilbert's son.

At the beginning of the following week, Alan heard that the Squire and
Lady Mildred were in town for a couple of days, on their way home from
Devonshire. He knew the hour at which he was certain to find "my lady"
alone, and timed his visit accordingly. Now, though the family breach
had been closed up long ago, and though Wyverne was with Lady Clydesdale
perpetually, apparently on the most cousinly terms of intimacy, it
somehow happened that he met his aunt very seldom. Still, it was the
most natural thing that he should call, under the circumstances, and "my
lady" was in no wise disconcerted when his name was announced. The
greeting, on both sides, was as affectionate as it had ever been in the
old times; it would have been impossible to say why, from the first,
Lady Mildred felt a nervous presentiment of impending danger, unless it
was--it might have been pure fancy--that Alan's manner did seem
unusually grave. So she was not surprised when he said,

"Would you mind putting off your drive for half an hour? I will not keep
you longer; but I have one or two things that I wish very much to say to
you."

"I'll give you the whole afternoon if you wish it, Alan," she said, in
the softest of her silky tones; "it is no great sacrifice; I shall be
glad of an excuse for escaping the cold wind. Will you ring, and tell
them I shall not want the carriage, and that I am not at home to
anybody?"

So once again--this time without a witness--the trial of fence between
those two began; it was strange, but all the prestige of previous
victories could not make "my lady" feel confident now.

Alan broke ground boldly, without wasting time in "parades."

"Aunt Mildred, if some things that I have to refer to should be painful
to you, try and realize what they must be to _me_; you will see then,
that only necessity could make me speak. Do you remember when those
wretched anonymous letters first came to Dene, I told you I would find
out their author and thank him? I did both last week. More than this, I
have seen and spoken with the man who wrote those letters which we all
supposed came from Mrs. Rawdon Lenox. You never had a doubt on the
subject, of course, Aunt Mildred? I thought you would be surprised; you
will be still more so when you hear the forger's name--Harding Knowles."

"My lady" really did suffer from headaches sometimes--with that busy,
restless brain it was no wonder--and she always had near her the
strongest smelling-salts that could be procured; but she did not know
what fainting meant, so she was absolutely terrified, when the room
seemed to go round, and Wyverne's voice sounded distant and strange, as
if it came through a long speaking-tube; the sensation passed off in a
few seconds, but while it lasted she could only feel, blindly and
helplessly, for the jewelled vinaigrette which lay within a few inches
of her elbow. Wyverne's eyes had never left her face for a moment; he
caught up the bottle quickly and put it, open, into her hand, without a
word.

"It--it is--nothing," Lady Mildred gasped (the salts must have been
_very_ pungent.) "I have not been well for days; the surprise quite
overcame me. But oh, Alan, are you quite--quite sure? I don't like
Harding Knowles much; but it would be too cruel to accuse him of such
horrors unless you have certain proofs."

"Make yourself easy on that score," Alan said, with his quiet smile; "no
injustice has been done. I will give you all the proofs you care to see,
directly. While you recover yourself, Aunt Mildred, let me tell you a
short story. Years ago, when we were cruising about the Orkneys, they
showed us a certain cliff that stood up a thousand feet clear out of the
North Sea, and told us what happened there. A father and his son,
sea-fowlers, were hanging on the same rope, the father undermost.
Suddenly they found that the strands were parting one by one, frayed on
a sharp edge of rock. The rope might possibly carry one to the top--not
two. Then quoth the sire, 'Your mother must not starve--cut away,
_below_.' As he said, so was it done, and the parricide got up safely.
Do you see my meaning? You say you don't like Harding Knowles? I can
well believe it; but if you cared for him next to your own children, I
should still quote the stout Orkneyman's words--'cut away, _below_.'
Now, if you will look at these papers, you will see how clear the
evidence is on which I rely."

There was silence for some minutes, while "my lady" pretended to read
attentively; in real truth, she could not fix her attention to a line.
All her thoughts were concentrated on the one doubt--"How much does he
know?" The suspense became unendurable; it was better to hear the worst
at once. Suddenly she looked up and spoke.

"Is it possible? Can you believe that Clydesdale was mixed up with such
a plot as this?"

"No," Wyverne answered, frankly. "I confess I did suspect him at first;
but I don't believe, now, that he was privy to any of the details. I
think, after securing his agent's services, he left him _carte blanche_
to act as he would. He is quite welcome to that shade of difference in
the dishonour. Well, are those proofs satisfactory? If not, I may tell
you that I saw Harding Knowles four days ago, and that he confesses
everything."

The peculiar intonation of the last two words made Lady Mildred, once
more, feel faint with fear. She had never encountered such a danger as
this. But her wonderfully trained organ did not fail her, even in her
extreme strait; though tiny drops of dew stood on her pale forehead,
though her heart throbbed suffocatingly, her accent was still measured
and full of subdued music.

"Did he implicate any one?"

It was the very desperation of the sword-player, who, finding his
science baffled, comes to close quarters, with shortened blade. Alan did
indulge vindictiveness so far as to pause for a full minute before
answering, regarding his companion all the while intently. But, though
he could be pitiless towards his own sex at times, he never could bear
to see a woman in pain, even if she had injured him mortally; that
minute--a fearfully long one to "my lady"--exhausted his revenge.

"He _would_ have done so," he replied, "but I stopped him before a name
could pass his lips. I am very glad I did. It don't follow that I should
have believed him. But it is better as it is. Don't you think so, Aunt
Mildred?"

The revulsion of feeling tried her almost more severely than the
previous apprehension had done. At that moment "my lady" was thoroughly
and naturally grateful. Wyverne saw that she was simply incapable of a
reply just then. He was considerate enough to give her breathing space,
while he went into several details with which you are already
acquainted, and mentioned the conditions he had imposed upon
Knowles--which the latter had subscribed to.

Lady Mildred listened and approved, mechanically. Her temperament had
been for years so well regulated that unwonted emotion really exhausted
her. Her bright dark eyes looked dull and heavy, and languor, for once,
was not feigned.

"There is another question," Alan went on; "it is rather an important
one to me, and, I think, my chief reason for coming here to-day was to
ask your opinion, and your help, if you choose to give it. What is to be
done about Helen? You know, when a man has been in Norfolk Island for
several years, and it comes out that some one else has committed the
forgery, they always grant him a free pardon. That is the government
plan; but it don't suit me. Besides, Helen has forgiven me long ago, I
believe, and we are perfectly good friends now. For that very reason I
cannot throw the chance away of clearing myself in her eyes. There are
limits to self-denial and self-sacrifice. Yet it is delicate ground to
approach, especially for me. As far as I am concerned--'let conjugal
love continue;' it would scarcely promote a mutual good understanding,
if Helen were told of the part her lord and master played in the drama,
and of the liberal odds that he laid so early in their acquaintance. Yet
it would be hard to keep his name out of the story altogether: mere
personal dislike would never account for Knowle's elaborate frauds. Aunt
Mildred, I tell you fairly, I am not equal to the diplomatic difficulty;
but I think _you_ are. Shall I leave it in your hands entirely? If you
will only satisfy Helen that I have satisfied _you_--if you will make
her believe implicitly that I have been blameless throughout in thought,
and word, and deed, and that black treachery has been used against us
both--on my honour and faith, I will never enter on the subject, even if
she wished to do so, unless Helen or I were dying. She shall send me one
line only to say--'I believe'--and then, we will bury the sorrow and the
shame as soon as you will. I think none of us will care to move the
gravestone."

For a moment or two "my lady" was hardly sure if she heard aright. She
knew that it was impossible to over-estimate the danger to which Wyverne
had alluded. Helen's temper had grown more and more wilful and
determined since her marriage; it was hard to say to what rash words or
deeds resentment and remorse might lead her. She knew Alan, too, well;
but she scarcely believed him capable of such a sacrifice as this. And
could he be serious in choosing _her_ as his delegate? She gazed up in
his face, half-expecting to find a covert mockery there; but its
expression was grave, almost to sternness.

"Do you really mean it?" she faltered. "It is so good, so generous of
you. And will you trust me thoroughly?"

"Yes, Aunt Mildred, I will trust you--_again_."

A thousand complaints and revilings would not have carried so keen a
reproach as that which was breathed in those few sad, quiet words. Lady
Mildred shrank as she felt them come home. Involuntarily she looked up
once more: it was a fatal error. She encountered the full light of the
clear, keen eyes--resistless in the power of their single-hearted
chivalrous truth. In another second her head had gone down on Wyverne's
shoulder, as he sat close to her couch, and she was sobbing out
something incoherent about "forgiveness."

Now, I do not suppose that the annals of intellectual duelling can
chronicle a more complete defeat than this. It is with the greatest pain
and reluctance that I record it. What avails it to be a model
_diplomate_, to sit for half a lifetime at the feet of Machiavel, to
attain impassibility and insensibility--equal to a Faquir's as a
rule--if womanhood, pure and simple, is to assert itself in such an
absurdly sudden and incongruous way? It is pleasant to reflect, that
this human nature of ours is hardly more consistent in evil than in
good. There are doubts if even the arch-cynicism of Talleyrand carried
him through to the very last. I once before ventured to draw a
comparison between him and "my lady"--that was when I _did_ believe in
her.

Wyverne was intensely surprised, rather puzzled what to do or say, and
decidedly gratified. Though he had suspected her from the first, he had
never nourished any bitter animosity against Lady Mildred. He had a sort
of idea that she was only acting up to her principles--such as they
were--which were very much what popular opinion assigns to the ideal
Jesuit. Quite naturally and easily, he began to soothe her now.

"Dear Aunt Mildred, I hardly know what I have to forgive" (this was
profoundly true); "but here, in my ignorance, I bestow plenary
absolution. I fear I have worried you, when you were really not well. I
won't tease you with a word more. Mind, I leave everything in your
hands, with perfect confidence."

Lady Mildred had fallen back on her sofa again, pressing her
handkerchief against her eyes, though no tears were flowing.

"If I had only known you better--and sooner," she murmured.

I dare say she meant every word sincerely when she said it;
nevertheless, as a historian, I incline to believe that no insight into
Alan's character would have altered "my lady's" line of policy at any
previous moment. Perhaps some such idea crossed Wyverne's mind, for
there certainly was a slight smile on his lip, as he rose to take an
affectionate farewell. The few parting words are not worth recording.

Alan was more than discontented, whenever he thought over these things,
calmly and dispassionately, in after days. Twice he had looked his
enemies in the face, and on both occasions had doubtless borne off the
honours of the day; but it was an unsubstantial victory at best, and a
triumph scarcely more profitable than that of the Imperial trifler, who
mustered his legions to battle, and brought back as trophies shells from
the sea-shore. The recollection was not poisonous enough to destroy the
good elements of his character, but it darkened and embittered his
nature, permanently.

The fact is, when a man has been thoroughly duped and deluded, and has
suffered irreparably from the fraud, it is not easily forgotten, unless
retaliation has been fully commensurate with the injury. I am not
advocating a principle, but simply stating a general fact. With a great
misfortune it is different. We say--"Let us fall into His hand, not into
the hand of man." So, at least, is consolation more easily sought for,
and found.

Remember Esau--as he was before he sold his birthright--as he is when,
in fear and trembling, Jacob looks upon his face again. That score of
years has changed the cheery, careless hunter of deer into the stern,
resolute leader of robber-tribes--ruling his wild vassals with an iron
sceptre--no longer "seeking for his meat from God," but grasping
plunder, where he may find it, with the strong hand, by dint of bow and
spear--truly, a fitting sire from whose loins twelve Dukes of Edom
should spring--not wholly exempt from kind, generous impulses, as that
meeting between Penuel and Succoth proves--but as little like his former
self, as a devil is like an angel. If the eyes of the blind old
patriarch, who loved his reckless first-born so well, had been opened as
he lay a-dying, he could scarcely have told if "this were his very son
Esau, or no."



CHAPTER XXIV.

SEMI-AMBUSTUS EVASIT.


Are you curious to know how, all this while, it fared with the Great
Earl and his beautiful bride? If the truth is to be told, I fear the
answer must be unsatisfactory. No one, well acquainted with the
contracting parties, believed that the marriage would be a _very_ happy
one; but they hoped it would turn out as well as the generality of
conventional alliances. It was not so. Alan Wyverne was right enough in
thinking that Clydesdale was most unfitted to the task of managing a
haughty, wilful wife; but even he never supposed that dissension would
arise so quickly, and rankle so constantly. There had been few overt or
actual disputes, but a spirit of bitter antagonism was ever at work,
which sooner or later was certain to have an evil ending.

It would be unfair in infer that the fault was all on the Earl's side.
It was his manner and demeanour that told most against him: he had been
so accustomed to adulation from both sexes, that he could not understand
why his wife should not accept his dictatorial and overbearing ways, as
patiently as his other dependents: so even his kindnesses were spoilt by
the way in which they were offered, or rather enforced. But--at all
events, in the early days of their married life--he was really anxious
that not a wish or whim of Helen's should remain ungratified, and spared
neither trouble nor money to insure this.

The fair Countess was certainly not free from blame. She had said to
Maud Brabazon--"I will try honestly to be a good wife, if he will let
me." Now, her most partial friend could hardly assert, that she had
fairly acted up to this good resolve. Perhaps it would have been too
much to expect that she should entertain a high respect or a devoted
affection for her consort; but she might have masked indifference more
considerately, or, at least, have dissembled disdain. Her hasty,
impetuous nature seemed utterly changed; she never by any chance lost
her temper now, at any provocation, especially when such came from her
husband. It would have been much better if she _had_ done so,
occasionally: nothing chafes a character like Clydesdale's so bitterly,
as that imperial _nonchalance_, which seems to waver between contempt
and pity. Besides, her notions of conjugal obedience were rather
peculiar. The Earl was, at first, perpetually interfering with her
arrangements, by suggestions for or against, which sounded unpleasantly
like orders; if these chanced to square with Helen's inclination, or if
the question was simply indifferent to her, she acted upon them, without
claiming any credit for so doing; if otherwise--she disregarded and
disobeyed them with a serene determination, and seemed to think, "having
changed her mind since she saw him," quite a sufficient apology to her
exasperated Seigneur.

An incident very characteristic of this had, somehow, got abroad.

Lady Clydesdale was about to accompany her husband to a tremendous
State-dinner, the host being one of the great personages in this realm,
next to royalty--no other than the Duke of Camelot. When she came down,
ready to start, one would have found it impossible to have found a fault
in her toilette. But the Earl chose to consider himself an authority on
feminine attire, and chanced to be in a particularly captious humour
that evening: the ground colour of Helen's dress--a dark Mazarine
blue--did not please him at all, though really nothing could match
better with her _parure_ of sapphires and diamonds. She listened to his
comments and strictures without contradicting them, apparently not
thinking the subject worth discussion: her silent indifference irritated
Clydesdale excessively. At last he said--

"Helen, I positively insist on your taking off that dress; there will be
time enough if you go up immediately. Do you hear me?"

For an instant she seemed to hesitate; then she rose, with an odd smile
on her proud lip--"Yes, there will be time enough," she said, and so
left the room.

But minutes succeed minutes, till it was evident that the conventional
"grace" must even now be exceeded, and still no re-appearance of Helen.
The Earl could control his feverish impatience no longer, and went up
himself, to hurry her. He opened the door hastily, and fairly started
back, in wrath and astonishment at the sight he saw.

The Countess was attired very much as Maud Brabazon found her when she
paid the midnight visit that you may remember. Perhaps her dressing-robe
was a shade more gorgeous, but there was no mistaking its character.
There she sat, buried in the depths of a luxurious _causeuse_, her
little feet crossed on the fender (it was early spring and the nights
were cold); all the massy coils of cunningly wrought plaits and tresses
freed from artistic thraldom, a half-cut _novelette_ in her
hand,--altogether, the prettiest picture of indolent comfort, but not
exactly the "form" of a great lady expected at a ducal banquet.

The furious blood flushed Clydesdale's face to dark crimson.

"What--what does this mean?" he stammered. His voice was not a pleasant
one at any time, and rage did not mellow its tone. The superb eyes
vouchsafed one careless side-glance, a gleam of scornful amusement
lighting up their languor.

"The next time you give your orders," she replied, "you had better be
more explicit: you commanded me to take off that blue dress, but you
said nothing about putting on another. Perhaps my second choice might
not have pleased you either. Besides, one is not called upon to dress
twice, even for a State dinner. You can easily make a good excuse for
me: if the Duke is very angry, I will make my peace with him myself. I'm
sure he will not bear malice long."

Now, putting predilection and prejudice aside, which do you think was
most in the wrong? The Earl was unreasonable and tyrannical, first; but
under the circumstances, I do think he "did well to be angry." He was
_so_ angry--that he was actually afraid to trust himself longer in the
room, and hurried downstairs, growling out some of his choicest
anathemas (not _directed_, it must be owned); as has been hinted before,
Clydesdale kept at least one Recording angel in full employment. The
spectacle of marital wrath did not seem greatly to appal the wilful
Countess. She heard the door of the outer chamber close violently,
without starting at the crash, and settled herself comfortably to her
book again, as if no interruption had occurred.

About this time the Earl began to be haunted by a certain dim suspicion:
at first it seemed too monstrously absurd to be entertained seriously
for a moment; but soon it grew into form and substance, and became
terribly distinct and life-like--the possibility of his wife's despising
him. When he had once admitted the probability, the mischief was done:
he brooded over the idea with a gloomy pertinacity, till a blind, dull
animosity took the place of love and trust. He swore to himself that, at
whatever cost, he would regain and keep the supremacy: unfortunately he
had never had it yet; and it would have been easier for him to twist a
bar of cold steel with his bare hands, than to mould the will of
Countess Helen. Every day he lost instead of gaining ground, only
embittering the spirit of resistance, and widening a breach which could
never be repaired. As if all this were not enough, before the year was
out, another and darker element of discord rose up in the Earl's moody
heart--though he scarcely confessed it even to himself--a fierce,
irrational jealousy of Alan Wyverne.

No one who had chanced to witness the parting of the cousins in the
library at Dene, would have allowed the possibility of free unreserved
intimacy, troubled, as it would seem, neither by repining nor misgiving,
being established between them within two years. Though Alan spoke
hopefully at the time, it may be doubted if he believed in his own
words. Yet such contradictions and anomalies happen so often, that we
ought to be tired of wondering. They moved in the same set, both in town
and country, and were necessarily thrown much together. Wyverne soon
managed to persuade himself that there was not the slightest reason why
he should purposely avoid his fascinating cousin. As for Helen, I fear
she did not discuss the question with her conscience at all. So,
gradually and insensibly they fell into the old pleasant confidential
ways--such as used to prevail before that fatal afternoon when Wyverne's
self-control failed him, and he "spake unadvisedly with his lips" under
the oak-boughs of the Holme Wood.

Perhaps there might have been a certain amount of self-delusion; but I
fancy that for a long time there was not a thought of harm on either
side. As far as Alan was concerned, I do believe that his affection for
Helen was as pure and honest and single-hearted as it is possible for a
sinful man to entertain.

Nevertheless, the change in the usual demeanour of the cousins, when
they chanced to be together, was too marked to escape observation. Her
best friends could not deny that marriage had altered Lady Clydesdale
very much for the worse: her manner in general society was decidedly
cold, and there was often weariness in her great eyes, when they were
not disdainful or defiant. The first sound of Alan's voice seemed to act
like a spell in bringing the Helen Vavasour of old days, with all the
charming impulses and petulance of her maidenhood. Ever since his
interview with Nina Lenox, Wyverne had been constantly moody and
pre-occupied; but the dark cloud was always lifted before he had been
five minutes in his cousin's presence; the frank, careless gaiety which
once made him such a fascinating companion returned quite naturally, and
he could join in the talk or enter into the project of the hour with as
much interest as ever. It _was_ remarkable, certainly--so much so that
the Earl might perhaps have been justified in not altogether approving
of the state of things, especially as he could not be expected to
appreciate Alan's feelings, simply because a chivalrous and unselfish
affection was something quite beyond his mental grasp.

Notwithstanding all this, I repeat that his jealousy was irrational. He
was sulky and uneasy in Wyverne's presence, and disliked seeing him with
Helen, not because he actually mistrusted either, but because he hated
the man from the bottom of his heart. He did not believe in the
possibility of his haughty wife's ever straying, even in thought or
word, from the path of duty; but she was the chief of his possessions,
and it exasperated him, that his enemy should derive profit or pleasure
from her society. In despite of an inordinate self-esteem, Clydesdale
could not shake off the disagreeable idea, that, wherever they had met,
so far Alan had got the better of him. He fancied he could detect a calm
contemptuous superiority in the latter's tone (it was purely imaginary),
which irritated him to the last degree. Added to all this--and it was
far the strongest motive of all--was the consciousness of having done
Alan a deadly wrong, in intention, if not in fact. It was true that he
knew nothing of Harding Knowles's treachery. He had carefully abstained
from asking a question, either before or after the result; but he knew
that he had bought an unscrupulous agent, on a tacit understanding that
a full equivalent should be given for the money; and he could guess how
thoroughly the contract had been carried out. In one word, the Earl
wished Wyverne dead, simply because he could not comfortably look him in
the face. Rely on it, that poison-bag lies at the root of many fangs
that bite most sharply.

Nevertheless, Lord Clydesdale abstained from confiding his antipathies
even to his wife. Deficient as he was in tact, he felt that a battle
would probably ensue, to which all other dissensions would have been
child's play. He had no solid grounds to go upon, and he did not see his
way clearly to a satisfactory result. So, in spite of his frowns and
sulkiness, matters went on smoothly enough up to the time of the
disclosures recorded in the last chapter.

It is probable that Lady Mildred discharged her embassage faithfully,
albeit discreetly. The subject was never mentioned between them; but
Helen's manner towards her cousin perceptibly softened, though she felt
a strange constraint occasionally that she could hardly have accounted
for. The truth was--if she had indulged in self-examination, at this
conjuncture she ought to have begun to mistrust herself. It was
dangerous to brood over Alan's wrongs now, when it was too late to make
him any substantial amends.

But the world would not long "let well alone." Before the season was far
advanced, _cancans_ were rife; and Lady Clydesdale's name was more than
lightly spoken of: glances, when levelled at her, became curious and
significant, instead of simply admiring. Of course, the parties most
intimately interested are the last to hear of such things; but Wyverne
did begin to suspect the truth, not so much from any hints or inuendoes,
as from a certain reticence and reserve among his intimates at the clubs
and elsewhere. One evening, Maud Brabazon took heart of grace, and told
him all she had heard, after her own frank fashion.

Not even during the hours which followed the miserable parting in the
library at Dene, had Alan felt so utterly hopeless and spirit-broken as
he did that night, as he sat alone, thinking over the situation, and
trying with every energy of his honest heart to determine what he ought
to do. Men have grown grey and wrinkled under briefer and lighter pain.
It did seem hard: when he was conscious of innocence of intention--when
he had so lately, at such costly self-sacrifice, abstained from
personally justifying himself in Helen's eyes, sooner than compromise
her husband--when he had just found out that he had been juggled out of
his life's hope through no fault or negligence of his own--he was called
upon to resign the shadow of happiness that was left him still, merely
because the world chose to be scandalous, and not to give him credit for
common honesty. But, after his thoughts had wandered for hours in
darkness and in doubt, the light broke clear. Half-measures were worse
than useless. To remain in England and to maintain a comparative
estrangement--to meet Helen only at appointed times and seasons--to set
a watch upon his lips whenever he chanced to be in her society--was
utterly impracticable. Like other and braver and wiser men, he owned
that he had no alternative--he was bound to fly. Weak and fallible as he
was in many respects, Wyverne's character contained this one element of
greatness--when he had once made up his mind, it was easier to move a
mountain than to change his resolve.

He never went near Clydesdale House for three days, and in that space
all his arrangements were made, irrevocably. Early in the year Alan had
purchased a magnificent schooner; she was fitting out at Ryde, and
nearly completed; he had purposed to make a summer cruise in the
Mediterranean, it was only turning the _Odalisque_ to a more practical
purpose, now. Two of his friends had organized a hunting expedition on a
large scale, first through the interior of Southern Africa, then to the
Himalayas and the best of the "big game" districts of India. Of course
they were delighted to have Wyverne as a comrade, especially when he
placed his yacht at their service; the _Odalisque_, both in size and
strength, was perfectly equal to any ocean voyage. Their absence from
England was to last at least three years. Alan felt a certain relief
when it was all settled; nevertheless his heart was cold and heavy as
lead, as he walked towards Clydesdale House to break the tidings. He
found Helen alone; indeed, the Earl was out of town for the whole day,
and was not to return till late in the evening. She could not understand
what had kept her cousin away for three days--of course she had wanted
him particularly for all sorts of things--and she was inclined to be
mildly reproachful on the subject. Wyverne listened for a while, though
every word brought a fresh throb of pain, simply because he had not
courage to begin to undeceive her.

At last he spoke, you may guess how gently and considerately, yet
keeping nothing back, and not disguising the reasons for his departure.
He had felt sure all along, that Helen would be bitterly grieved at his
determination, and would strive to oppose it; but he was not prepared
for the passionate outbreak which ensued.

The Countess's cheek had changed backwards and forwards, from rose-red
to pale, a dozen times while her cousin was speaking, and on the
beautiful brow there were signs, that a child might have read, of a
coming storm; but she did not interrupt him till he had quite said his
say; then she started to her feet; a sudden movement--swift and lithe,
and graceful as a Bayadere's spring--brought her close to Alan's chair;
she was kneeling at his side, with her slender hands locked round his
arm, gazing up in his face, before he could remonstrate by gesture or
word.

"You shall not go. I don't care what they say--friends or enemies--you
shall not go. Alan, I will do anything, and suffer anything, and go
anywhere; but I will not lose _you_. With all your courage, will you
fail me when I am ready to brave them? You cannot mean to be so cruel.
Ah, say--say you will stay with me."

Alas! if her speech was rash, her eyes were rasher still; never, in the
days when to love was no sin, had they spoken half so plainly.

Wyverne's breath came thick and fast, for his heart contracted
painfully, as if an iron hand had grasped it. It was all over with
self-delusion now; the flimsy web vanished before the fatal eloquence of
that glance, as a gauze veil shrivels before a strong straight jet of
flame.

Now--though this pen of mine has done scant justice to Helen's
marvellous fascinations--let any man, in the prime of life, endowed with
average passions and not exceptional principle, place himself in Alan's
position, and try to appreciate its peril. Truly, I think, it would be
hard measure, if human nature were called upon twice in a lifetime, to
surmount such a temptation, and survive it. Yet he only hesitated while
that choking sensation lasted. He raised Helen from where she knelt, and
replaced her on the seat she had left, with an exertion of strength,
subdued and gentle, but perfectly irresistible; when he spoke, his voice
sounded unnaturally stern and cold.

"If I had doubted at all about my absence being right and necessary, I
should not doubt now. Child--you are not fit to be trusted. How dare you
speak, at your age and in your station, of setting society at defiance,
and trampling on conventionalities? You have duties to perform, and a
great name to guard; have you forgotten all this, Countess Helen?"

On the last words, there was certainly an inflexion of sarcasm. The
bitter pain gnawing at his heart, made him for the moment selfish and
cruel. Perhaps it was as well; the hardness of his tone roused her
pride, so that she could answer with comparative calmness.

"God help me--I have forgotten nothing--my miserable marriage least of
all. Alan, what is the use of keeping up the deception? We need not lie
to each other, if we are to part so soon. I never pretended to love Lord
Clydesdale; but I think I could have done my duty, if he would have let
me.

"How can you guess what I have to endure? I may be in fault too; but it
has come to this--it is not indifference or dislike, now, but literally
loathing. Do you know how careful he is, not to wound my self-respect?
Only yesterday, he left in my dressing-room, where I could not help
seeing it, a letter--ah, such a letter--from some _lorette_ whom he
protects. It was a delicate way of showing that he was displeased with
me. And I have dreadful misgivings that I shall become afraid of
him--physically afraid, some day--I am not that yet--and then it will be
all over with me. I feel safe--I can't tell why--when you are near; and
you are going to leave me alone, quite alone."

Now, to prevent mistakes hereafter, let me say explicitly that I do not
defend Lady Clydesdale's conduct throughout. I don't know that any woman
is justified, on any provocation, in speaking of her husband in such a
strain, to her own brother, much less to her cousin, supposing that a
warmer sentiment than the ties of kindred is manifestly out of the
question. Still, if you like to be lenient, you might remember that a
passionate, wilful character like Helen's requires strong and wise
guidance while it is being formed; certainly her moral training had not
been looked after so carefully as her accomplishments; the mother
considered her duty done when she had selected a competent governess; so
perhaps, after all, the Countess had as much religion and principle, as
could be expected in Lady Mildred Vavasour's daughter.

It was a proof of the danger of such confidence, that Wyverne's blood
boiled furiously as he listened, and all his good resolves were
swallowed up for the moment in a savage desire to take Clydesdale by the
throat; but with a mighty effort he recovered self-control, before Helen
could follow up her advantage.

"I did guess something," he said, "though not half the truth. I ought to
preach to you about 'submission,' I suppose, and all the rest; but I
don't know how to do it, and I'm not in the humour to find excuses for
your husband just now. Yet I am more than ever certain that I can do no
good by staying here. I should only make your burden heavier; you will
be safer when I am gone. Of all things you must avoid giving a chance to
the scandalmongers. Child, only be patient and prudent, and we shall see
better days. Remember, I am not going to be absent for ever. Three years
or so will soon pass. We shall all be older and steadier when I come
back, and the world will have forgotten one of us long before that. Say
you will try."

Dissimulation is sometimes braver than sincerity. Perhaps Alan got large
credit in heaven for the brave effort by which he forced himself to
speak half hopefully, and to put on that sad shadow of a smile.

In a book of this length, one can only record the salient points of
conversations and situations; your imaginations must fill up the
intervals, reader of mine, if you think it worth the trouble to exercise
it. It is enough to say, that gentle steadfastness of purpose carried
the day, as it generally does, against passionate recklessness, and
Helen perforce became reasonable at last. Though the cousins talked long
and earnestly after this, the rest of the interview would hardly keep
your interest awake. Such farewells, if they are correctly set down,
savour drearily of vain repetitions, and are apt to be strangely
incoherent towards their close.

"If you are in any great trouble or difficulty, promise me that you will
send for Gracie; she will help you, I know, fearlessly and faithfully,
to the utmost of her power."

That was almost the very last of Wyverne's injunctions and warnings. If
at the moment of parting his lips met Helen's, instead of only touching
her forehead, as he intended, I hope it was not imputed to him as a
deadly sin; the sharp suffering of those few hours might well plead in
extenuation; and, be sure, He who "judges not after man's judgment,"
weighs _everything_ when he poises the scale.

I never felt inclined to make a "hero" of Alan till now. I begin to
think that he almost deserves the dignity. You must recollect that he
was not an ascetic, nor an eminent Christian, nor even a rigid moralist,
but a man essentially "of the world, worldly." If the Tempter had
selected as his instrument any other woman of equal or inferior
fascinations, I very much doubt if Wyverne's constancy and continence
would have emerged scatheless from the ordeal. But here, it was a
question of honour rather than of virtue. When his second intimacy with
Helen began to be a confirmed fact, he had signed a sort of special
compact with himself, and he found that it would be as foul treachery to
break it, as to make away with money left in his charge, or to forfeit
his plighted word. I do not say that this made his conduct more
admirable; I simply define his motives.

Alan went down to the North the next day to wind up his home business,
and he never saw Lady Clydesdale alone before he sailed. But he went
forth on his pilgrimage an unhappy, haunted man. Wherever he went those
eyes of Helen followed him, telling their fatal secret over and over
again, driving him wild with alternate reproaches and seductions. He
saw them while crouching among the sand-banks of an African stream
watching for the wallowing of the river-horse; at his post in the jungle
ravine, when rattling stones and crashing bushes gave notice of the
approach of tiger or elk or bear; oftenest of all, when, after a hard
day's hunting, he lay amongst his comrades sound asleep, looking up at
the brilliant southern stars. His one comfort was the thought, "Thank
God, I _could_ ask Gracie to take care of her."

Alan was expiating the miserable error of fancying that his love was
dead, because he had chosen formally to sign its death-warrant. The
experiment has been tried for cycles of ages--sometimes after a more
practical fashion--and it has failed oftener than it has succeeded.

Think on that old true story of Herod and his favourite wife. Lo! after
a hundred delays and reprieves the final edict has gone forth; the sharp
axe-edge has fallen on the slender neck of the Lily of Edom; surely the
tortured heart of the unhappy jealous tyrant shall find peace at last.
Is it so? Months and months have passed away; there is high revel in
Hebron, for a great victory has just been won; the blood-red wine of
Sidon flows lavishly, flushing the cheeks and lighting up the eyes of
the "men of war;" and the Great Tetrarch drinks deepest of all, the
cup-bearer can scarcely fill fast enough, though his hand never stints
nor stays. So far, all is well; the lights and the turmoil and the crowd
may keep even spectres aloof; but feasts, like other mortal things, must
end, and Herod staggers off to his chamber alone. Another hour or so,
and there rings through hall and corridor an awful cry, making the rude
Idumean guards start and shiver at their posts--fierce and savage in its
despair, but tremulous with unutterable agony, like the howl of some
terrible wild beast writhing in the death-pang--

"Mariamne! Mariamne!"

Does that sound like peace? The dead beauty asserts her empire once
again; she has her murderer at her mercy now, more pitiably enslaved
than ever.

Ah, woe is me! We may slay the body, if we have the power, but we may
never baffle the Ghost.



CHAPTER XXV.

VER UBI LONGUM TEPIDASQUE PRÆBET JUPITER BRUMAS.


AT first it really did appear as if, in expatriating himself for a
season, Wyverne had acted wisely and well.

The purveyors of scandal, wholesale and retail, were utterly routed and
disconcerted. The romance was a promising one, but it had not had time
to develop itself into form and substance. As things stood, it was
impossible to found any fresh supposition on Alan's prolonged absence,
especially as no one ventured to hint at any quarrel or misunderstanding
to account for his abrupt departure. Some were too angry to conceal
their discomfiture. One veteran gossip, in particular, went about,
saying in an injured, querulous way, that "he wondered what Wyverne did
next. He shouldn't be surprised to hear of his making a pilgrimage to
Mecca, having turned Turk for a change." It was great sport to hear
Bertie Grenvil, at the club, "drawing" the old _cancanier_, condoling
with him gravely, and encouraging him with hopes "of having something
_really_ to talk about before the season was over." Indeed, it seemed by
no means improbable that the Cherub, in person, would furnish the
materials; for, having convinced himself by repeated experiments that
Maud Brabazon either had no heart at all, or that it was absolutely
impregnable, he had taken out lately a sort of roving commission, and
was cruising about all sorts of waters, with the red signal of "no
quarter" hoisted permanently.

Lord Clydesdale rejoiced intensely, after his saturnine fashion, at
Wyverne's departure. It put him into such good humour that for days he
forgot to be captious or overbearing, and actually made some clumsy
overtures towards a reconciliation with his wife. It must be confessed,
he met with scant encouragement in that quarter. Helen was in no mood to
"forgive and forget" just then. There are women whom you may tyrannize
over one week, and cajole the next, amiable enough to accept both
positions with equanimity; but the haughty Countess was not of these
Griseldas. Her temper was embittered rather than softened by her great
sorrow and loneliness; for the void that Alan had left behind him was
wider and darker than ever she had reckoned on. Of course she tried the
old counter-irritation plan (nine out of ten do), seeking for excitement
wherever it could be found. The result was not particularly
satisfactory, but the habits of dissipation and recklessness
strengthened their hold hourly. She had a legion of caprices, and
indulged them all, without pausing to consider the question of right or
wrong, much less of consequences. Before the season closed, Helen was
virtually enrolled in the fastest of the thoroughbred sets, and might
have disputed her evil pre-eminence with the most famous _lionne_ of the
day.

Naturally the scandal mongers began to open--first their eyes, and then
their mouths again. Every morning brought some fresh story, generally
founded, at least, in fact, with Lady Clydesdale for its heroine. They
made wild work with her name before long, but so far no one could attach
to it the shame of any one definite _liaison_. A circle of courtiers
followed her wherever she went, but no one of these--jealously as they
watched for the faintest indication of a decided preference--could have
told who stood first in the favour of their wilful, capricious
sovereign. Sometimes one would flatter himself, for a moment, that he
really had gained ground, and made an abiding impression; but, before he
could realize his happiness, the weary, absent look would return to the
beautiful eyes, and the unhappy adorer had only to fall back to the dead
level of his fellows, in wrath and discomfiture.

No one the least interested in Helen could see how things were going
without serious alarm. Lady Mildred, Max Vavasour, and Maud Brabazon,
each in their turn, attempted remonstrance. The Countess met her
mother's warning apathetically, her brother's contemptuously, her
friend's affectionately--with perfect impartiality disregarding them
all.

It is more than doubtful if Clydesdale could have done any good by
interfering. He certainly did not try the experiment. From first to last
he never stretched out a finger to arrest his fair wife on her road to
Avernus. He allowed her to go where she would--very often alone--only,
indeed, escorting her when it suited his own plans or purposes. Whether
he was base enough to be actually careless about her temptations, or
whether he resolutely shut his eyes to the possibility of her coming to
harm, it would be hard to say. Nevertheless, from time to time, Helen
had to endure furious outbreaks of his temper; and with each of these,
that strange thrill of physical fear grew stronger and stronger. But
jealousy had nothing whatever to do with rousing the storms, which
usually burst forth on some absurdly frivolous provocation. The fact
was, when the Earl was sulky or wroth, he chose to vent his brutal
humour on the victim nearest to his hand that was likely to feel the
blows most acutely. He saw that such scenes _hurt_ his wife in some way,
though he did not guess at her real feelings; and it pleased him to
think that there was a vulnerable point in her armour of pride and
indifference. He would have rejoiced yet more if he had detected the
effort which it cost her sometimes--not to tremble while she vanquished
his savage eyes with the cold disdain of her own.

The domestic picture is not pleasant enough to tempt us to linger over
it. Perhaps, after all, it would have been better--it could scarcely
have been worse--if Alan had staid on, and braved it out; but this is
only arguing from consequences.

For a long time there were no certain tidings of the hunting-party: a
vague report got abroad of an encounter with lions, in which some
Englishman had been terribly hurt, but it was not even known whether it
was Wyverne or one of his companions. So months became years, and Alan's
place in the world was nearly filled up; a few of his old friends, from
time to time, "wondered how he was getting on,"--that was all. Yet he
was not entirely forgotten. Every morning and evening, in her simple
orisons, Grace Beauclerc joined his name to those of her husband and
children; and another woman--you know her well--seldom dared to pray,
because she felt it would be a mockery to kneel with a guilty longing
and repining at her heart.

It was the fourth winter after Wyverne's departure; the last
intelligence of the party dated from some months back; it reported them
all alive and well, in the northern provinces of India; there were
wonderful accounts of their sport, but no word as to their intention of
returning.

The Clydesdales were at Naples. Helen's health, which had begun to fail
rapidly of late, was pretext enough for a change of climate; but it is
more than doubtful if her husband would have taken this into
consideration, if other inducements had not drawn him southwards.

The Earl's home was certainly not a happy one; but even modern society
does not admit domestic discomfort as an excuse for outraging the common
proprieties of life; the most profligate of his companions agreed, that
he might at least have taken the trouble to mask his infidelities more
carefully; they could not understand such utter disregard of the trite
monachal maxim, _Si non casté, cauté tamen_. Personally, one would have
thought Lord Clydesdale was not attractive; but a great Seigneur rarely
has far to go when he seeks "consolations:" there are always victims
ready to be sacrificed, no matter how repulsive the Idol may be; for
interest and vanity, and a dozen other _irritamenta malorum_ work still
as potently as ever. It so chanced that the siren of the hour had chosen
South Italy for her winter quarters, so that the Earl's sudden
consideration for his wife was easily accounted for.

Naples was crowded that year; every country in Europe was nobly
represented there; so that it really was no mean triumph when the
popular voice, without an audible dissentient, assigned the royalty of
beauty to Lady Clydesdale. Rash and wilful in every other respect, it
was not likely that Helen would be prudent about her own health; indeed,
if she would only have taken common precautions, her state was
precarious enough to forbid her mixing in society as usual.

If you could only have ignored certain dangerous symptoms, you would
have said she was lovelier than when you saw her last; her superb eyes
seemed larger than ever; softer, too, in their languor, more intense in
their brilliancy: the rose-tint on her cheek was fainter, perhaps, but
more exquisitely delicate and transparent now; and her figure had not
lost, so far, one rounded outline of its magnificent mould.

She had a perfectly fabulous success; before she had been in Naples a
fortnight they raved about her, not only in her own circle, but in all
others beside. It was literally a popular _furore_; the laziest
_lazzarone_ would start from his afternoon sleep to gaze after her with
a muttered oath of admiration when "la bellissima Contessa" drove by.
She had adorers of all sorts of nations, and was worshipped in more
languages than she could speak or understand.

At last, one man singled himself out from the crowd--like the favourite
"going through his horses"--and, for awhile, seemed to carry on the
running alone. That was the Duca di Gravina. Perhaps Europe could not
have produced a more formidable enemy, when a woman's honour was to be
assailed. The Duke was not thirty yet, and he had won long ago an evil
renown, and deserved it thoroughly. Few could look at his face without
being attracted by its delicate classical beauty; the dark earnest eyes,
trained to counterfeit any emotion--never to betray one--strengthened
the spell, and an indescribable fascination of manner generally
completed it. There was not a vestige of heart or conscience to
interfere with his combinations; to say that he had no principle does
not express the truth at all; the Boar of Capreæ himself was no more
coolly cynical and cruel. Nevertheless, these last pleasant attributes
lay far below the surface; and a very fair seductive surface it was.

The Duke was more thoroughly in earnest now than he had ever been in his
life; and people seemed to think there could be but one result--the most
natural and reasonable one, according to the facile code of Southern
morality. Lord Clydesdale persisted in ignoring the whole affair; and no
one cared to take the trouble of enlightening him against his will. It
looked as if he had exhausted his jealousy and suspicions on Alan
Wyverne, and had none to waste on the rest of the world. One could not
help thinking of the old fable, of the stag who always fed with his
blind eye towards the sea, suspecting danger only from the land-quarter.
It was an ingenious plan enough; but the sea is wide and hunters are
wily; they came in a boat, you remember, and shot the poor horned Monops
to death with many arrows.

Di Gravina was almost as daring and successful at play as in intrigue;
in both he was well served by a half-intuitive sagacity which suggested
the right moment for risking a grand _coup_. He began to think that such
a crisis was now near at hand. One afternoon Lady Clydesdale and several
more of her set went up to Capo di Monte to lounge about in the gardens
and drink the fresh sea-breeze. The party then broke up into detachments
very soon, and the Duke found it very easy to bring about a comfortably
confidential _tête-à-tête_. Helen was in a dangerous frame of mind that
day. She had gone through a stormy scene with her husband in the
morning, whose temper had broken out as usual without rhyme or reason.
The velvet softness of the Italian's tone and manner contrasted
strangely with the Earl's harsh voice and violent gestures. At first it
simply _rested_ her to sit still and listen; but gradually the
fascination possessed her till her pulse began to quicken, though her
outward languor remained undisturbed. Not a particle of passion, much
less of love, so far, was at work in her heart; but in the desperation
of weariness she felt tempted to try a more practical experiment in the
way of excitement than she had ever yet ventured on. Di Gravina saw his
advantage and pressed it mercilessly. For some minutes the Countess had
ceased to answer him; she sat, with eyes half closed, just the dawning
of a dreamy smile on her beautiful lips, like one who yields not
unwillingly to the subjugation of a mesmerizer's riveted glance and
waving hands.

At last she looked up suddenly, evidently with her purpose set. How her
lips or her eyes would have answered can never be known, for at that
instant she became aware of the presence of a third person, who had
approached unheard while they were talking so earnestly.

The new-comer leant against the trunk of a palm-tree, contemplating the
pair with a quaint expression of mingled curiosity and sadness. His face
was sun-burnt to a black bronze, and almost buried in a huge bushy
beard; but the disguise was not complete. Helen sprang to her feet
impulsively as of old, with a low, happy cry, and in another second she
had clasped her hands round Alan Wyverne's arm, with just breath enough
left to gasp out a few fond incoherent syllables of welcome.

The Italian did not quite comprehend the situation at first; but he saw
instantly that he had lost the game. A smothered blasphemy worthy of the
coarsest _facchino_ (and they swear hard in those parts, remember)
escaped from his delicate, chiselled lips. For a moment his scowling
eyes belied their training, and all the soft beauty vanished from his
face, malign as a baffled devil's. Nevertheless he was his own silky
self again before Helen recovered from her emotion sufficiently to make
her excuses, and to present "her cousin." To do the Duke justice, he
behaved admirably.

"It is a most happy meeting," he said. "Will the Countess permit the
_stranger_ to offer his felicitations and--to retire? She must have so
much to say to the cousin who has so suddenly returned."

There was not an inflection of sarcasm in his voice; but he turned once
as he went, and his glance crossed Wyverne's. These two understood each
other thoroughly.

The pen of the readiest writer would fail in recording the long
incoherent conversation which ensued. Helen had so much to ask and so
much to tell that she never could get through a connected sentence or
allow Alan to finish one. She was so simply and naturally happy that he
had not the heart to check or reprove her. Even Stoicism has its limits
and intervals of weakness, and Alan was a poor philosopher with all his
good intentions "given in."

Certain members of her party came to reclaim Lady Clydesdale before half
their say was said. (Would they have intervened so soon if the Duca di
Gravina had remained master of the position?) So Alan had to content
himself with accompanying his cousin to her own door. On the whole he
thought it better not to risk meeting the Earl that night; he did not
feel quite cool and collected enough for the encounter.

Let me remark casually that there was nothing extraordinary in the
opportune apparition. The _Odalisque_ had anchored in the bay late on
the previous night. Wyverne met an old acquaintance immediately on
landing, who told him at once that the Clydesdales were in Naples. He
could not resist the temptation of calling, and the servants directed
him naturally to the place where he was sure to find Helen. Nevertheless
I own that the situation savours of the _coup de théatre_. I don't see
why one should not indulge in a slight touch of melodrama now and then;
but there are men alive who can testify that such an intervention,
coming exactly at the critical moment, is an actually accomplished fact.

No words can do justice to Lord Clydesdale's intense exasperation, when
he heard that his enemy had returned, sound in life and limb. He could
not for very shame forbid his wife to receive him just yet, but his
whole nature was transformed; the careless, negligent husband became
suddenly a suspicious, tyrannical jailor. Besides this, another foe lay
in wait for Wyverne. The Duca di Gravina made no secret of his
discomfiture or of his lust for revenge. This last enmity came round to
Helen's ears, and she confessed her apprehension frankly to her cousin.
He only laughed carelessly and confidently.

"I've seen a good deal of the feline tribe in these three years," he
said, "and I begin to understand them. That leopard is too handsome to
be very vicious. Nevertheless, I think it's as well you've given up
_domesticating_ him."

There was no bravado in his tone: he had only one honest purpose--to
reassure Helen. The event proved the correctness of his judgment. The
Duke had been "out" more than once; but it was only when he was
compelled to pay with his body for some one of his iniquities. He loved
life and its luxuries too well to risk the first without absolute
necessity. Exaggerated reports of Wyverne's prowess in the Far East had
got abroad; and the crafty voluptuary thoroughly appreciated valour's
better part when a formidable foe was to be confronted.

But the ground under their feet was nothing else than a Solfaterra, and
the volcanic elements could not remain quiet long. Early one morning,
Wyverne got a hurried message from his cousin, asking him to meet her
immediately in the garden of the Villa Reale. As he approached the spot
where she was sitting, he was struck painfully by the listless
exhaustion of her attitude. When she looked up, as he came to her side,
a cold thrill of terror shot through Alan's frame. He saw the truth at
last--a truth that Helen had striven so carefully to conceal, that it
was no wonder her cousin had failed to realize it. Her cheeks were
perfectly colourless, and seemed to have grown all at once strangely
thin and hollow; the dark circles under her eyes made them unnaturally
bright and large, and a wild haggard look possessed and transformed her
face. The signs were terribly plain to read--not of death immediately
imminent, but of slow sure decay.

Alan's courage and self-control were well nigh exhausted before he had
listened to half of what she had to tell. It appeared that on the
previous evening there had been an outbreak of Lord Clydesdale's temper,
incomparably more violent than any which had yet occurred. For the first
time he had brought Wyverne's name into the quarrel--upbraiding, and
accusing, and threatening his wife by turns, till he worked himself to a
pitch of brutal frenzy that did not quite confine itself to words. He
swore that the intimacy should be broken off at any cost, and signified
his determination to start with Helen for England within forty-eight
hours. This was the last thing she remembered; for just then she
fainted. When she recovered she was alone with her maid, and had not
seen her husband since.

"Ah, Alan; will you not save me?" she pleaded piteously. "There is no
one else to help me--no one. And I _am_ afraid now--really afraid: I
have good reason. Do you see _this_?"

She drew back her loose sleeve: on the soft white flesh there was the
livid print of a brutal grasp--marks such as were left on poor Mary of
Scotland's arm by Lindsay's iron glove.

A groan of horror and wrath burst from Wyverne's white lips, and he
shook from head to foot like a reed. A few minutes of such intense
suffering might atone for more than one venial sin. He knew well enough
what Helen meant as her eyes looked over the bay, and rested with a
feverish longing and eagerness on the spot where the _Odalisque_ lay at
anchor, the tall taper masts cutting the sky line. He knew that he had
only to speak the word, and that she would follow to the world's end. He
knew that her health was failing under tyranny and ill treatment; while
gentle nursing--such as he could tend her with--might still arrest the
Destroyer. He knew how much excuse even society would find in this
special case for the criminals. No wonder that he hesitated, muttering
under his breath--

"God help me! It is trying me _too_ hard."

There was silence only for a few seconds. During that brief space Alan's
brain was whirling, but the images on his mind were clear. He remembered
how he swore to himself to guard Helen from harm or temptation,
faithfully and unselfishly; he thought of the End--possibly very
near--and of the dishonour that would cling to his darling even in her
grave; last of all rose Hubert Vavasour's face, when he should hear that
the man whom he loved as his own son had brought his daughter to shame.
That turned the scale, and it never wavered afterwards. When Wyverne
spoke his voice was firm, though intensely sad.

"It is too late to wish that the fever or the lion had not spared me. If
I had guessed what my return would cost I would have stayed away till we
both grew old. I did hope that we had grown steadier and wiser, and that
people would have left us alone, and allowed us to be quietly happy. But
I did not go through the pain of parting three years ago, to come back
and ruin all. I stood firm then, and so I will--to the last. You will
never call me cold or cruel; I feel that. You know how I suffer now
while I am speaking; yet I say once more, we are better apart. Dear
child, I am powerless to help you, unless it were in a way that I dare
not think of. But you shall not be left to Clydesdale's tender mercies
defenceless. I'll speak to Randolph to-day. He starts for England
immediately, and he shall not lose sight of you till you reach it. He
knows enough of your husband not to be surprised at being asked to watch
over you. You may trust him as thoroughly as you could trust me. His
heart is as soft as a woman's, and his nerves are steel: I have seen
them tried often and hardly. Write to Dene, and go there straight from
Dover. Clydesdale will have come to his senses before that, and will
scarcely object. Remember, I shall follow by the next steamer, and not
sleep on the road; so that I shall be in England almost before you. Then
we will see what is best to be done. I swear that you shall have rest
and peace at any cost. This worry is killing you. Darling, do bear up
bravely, just for a little while; and be prudent and take care of
yourself. It breaks my heart to see you looking so wan and worn."

His voice shook, and his lip quivered, and his eyes were very dim.

Helen's head had sunk lower and lower while her cousin was speaking; she
felt no anger, only utter weariness and despair; she had listened with a
mechanical attention, hardly realizing the meaning of all the words, and
she answered helplessly and vaguely,--

"Thank you, dear Alan, I dare say you are right. I am sure you mean to
be kind; and I know you suffer when I suffer. It is foolish to be
frightened when there is no real danger; but I am not strong now, so
there is some excuse. Lord Clydesdale is probably ashamed of himself by
this time, and I shall have nothing to fear for some days--not even
annoyance. Still, if it suits Colonel Randolph to go so soon, I shall be
glad to feel there is one friend near me. You are sure you are coming
straight to England? And you _will_ come to Dene? Even if I am not
there, I hope you will. I must not stay longer than to say good-bye;
perhaps I have been watched and followed already. I don't know why I
ventured here, or sent for you; I knew it could do no good; but I felt
so weak and unhappy. Now--say good-bye, kindly, Alan?"

Though Wyverne knew it was wrong and unwise to detain her, a vague
presentiment that it might be long before they met again made him linger
before uttering the farewell. While he paused, a heavy foot crunched on
the gravel behind them, and a hoarse, thick voice, close by, muttered
something like a curse. The Earl stood there gazing at the cousins, his
face flushed with passion, and a savage glare in his pale blue eyes. He
essayed to speak with calmness and dignity; but the effort was absurdly
apparent and vain.

"Lady Clydesdale, I am excessively surprised and displeased at finding
you here, especially after what passed last night. I request that you
will return home instantly. You have more than enough to do in making
your preparations, and there are some necessary visits that you must
pay. We start by to-morrow's steamer, I will follow you in a few
minutes."

The assumption of marital authority was a miserable failure. Neither of
the supposed delinquents seemed at all awed or discomforted by the
Earl's sudden apparition, or by his set speech. Helen rose to depart,
silently, without vouchsafing a glance to her exasperated lord; Alan
accompanied her a few steps, to whisper a few words of farewell, and to
exchange a long pressure of hands; then he came back and waited quietly
to be spoken to.

Clydesdale's manner was arrogant and domineering to a degree; but he was
evidently ill at ease; he kept lashing gravel, angrily and nervously,
with his cane, and his eyes wandered everywhere except where they were
likely to encounter Wyverne's.

"I don't mean to have any discussion," he said; "and I choose to give no
reasons. You will understand that I decidedly disapprove of your
intimacy with Lady Clydesdale; I shall not allow her to meet you, on any
pretence, at any future period; and I beg that you will not attempt to
visit her. I mean to be master of my own house, and of my own wife. You
will take this warning, or--you will take the consequences!"

For once in his life--he reproached himself bitterly, afterwards, for
the weakness--Alan fairly lost his temper. When he replied, his tone
was, if anything, more galling than the other's, because its insolence
was more subtle and refined.

"You might have spared threats," he said; "they would scarcely have
answered, even if I had known you less thoroughly than I happen to do.
You may frighten women--especially if they are weak and ill--but men, as
a rule, don't faint. Consequences! What do you mean? I fancy I have
guaged your valour tolerably well; it is superb up to a certain
point--when personal risk comes in. If you had staid on here, perhaps
you _would_ have hired a knife. You might have laid some ruffian five
thousand piastres to fifty, for instance, that I should not be found
dead within a week--those are your favourite odds, I believe--that's
about the extent of what one has to fear from your vengeance. I am not
prepared to say how far a husband's dictation ought to extend, who does
not take the trouble to conceal his intrigues abroad, and treats his
wife brutally at home; and I'm not going to argue the point either. You
certainly have a right to close your doors against me, or any one else.
I shall not attempt to see my cousin while she remains in your house, or
under your authority; her father had better decide how long that ought
to last. I am no more inclined for discussion than you are; neither do I
threaten. I simply give you fair warning. You had better put some
constraint on your temper when your wife has to bear it; she has friends
enough left to call you to an account, and make you pay it too. Max
Vavasour will do his duty, I believe. If he don't--by G--d--I'll do
mine!"

He turned on his heel with the last word, and walked away very slowly;
but he was out of ear-shot before the Earl could collect himself enough
to speak intelligibly. If he had received a blow between the eyes,
delivered straight from the shoulder by a practised arm, he would hardly
have been more staggered. He had been so accustomed, from childhood, to
deference and adulation, that a direct, unmistakable personal insult,
literally confounded him; for a brief space he felt thoroughly
uncomfortable and humiliated; even his favourite curses came with an
effort, and failed to act as anodynes. But he remembered every word that
passed, and acted accordingly.

From that day forth, Clydesdale hated both his wife and Wyverne more
bitterly than ever; but he entirely changed his tactics, for the
present. The idea of a public _esclandre_ and separation, did not suit
him at all. His manner towards Helen on their journey homewards, was
kinder and more considerate than it had ever been; he even condescended
to express penitence for his late violence, and went so far as to
promise an amendment. He encouraged her wish to go straight to Dene,
only stipulating that he should accompany her there. The Countess was
neither satisfied nor convinced; but she was weary and wanted rest, and
so acquiesced listlessly and passively.

On the very first opportunity after his arrival at Dene, the Earl sought
an interview with Lady Mildred. It was easy to make his case good; he
lied, of course, literally; he confessed his failings, with certain
reserves, and professed great contrition; he only insisted on one
point--the necessity of keeping Wyverne at a distance, at least for a
time. "My lady" was equally anxious to avoid any public scandal, and she
was not disposed to look too closely into the facts. Helen did not
choose to make a confidante of her mother, so there was little fear of
her contradicting anything. When Alan reached England and wrote to his
uncle, he found the ground mined under his feet. The Squire believed in
his nephew thoroughly, but he was not strong-minded enough to take any
decidedly offensive step, and under the circumstances, inclined to
temporize. He talked about "faults on both sides," spoke of a
reconciliation being certainly effected, and ended, by begging Alan not
in anywise to interfere with it.

Wyverne felt sick and hopeless, he knew how much to believe of all this;
but he had only one course open to him now--to avoid meeting the
Clydesdales as carefully as possible. He hardly showed at all in town
that spring, and encountered Helen very seldom, then only for a few
minutes, when there was no opportunity for a confidence, even if either
had had the heart to attempt such a thing. He spent all the summer and
early autumn in Scotland.

Let me say now--for _your_ comfort--my patient reader, that the End is
very near.



CHAPTER XXVI.

IMPLORA PACE.


That same year was drawing to its close, in a damp dreary December--one
of those "green Yules" which greedy sextons are supposed to pray for,
and which all the rest of the world utterly abhor. Alan Wyverne was at
the Abbey with Crichton for his only companion, who had come over from
Castle Dacre to join a large shooting-party which was to assemble on the
morrow. He had travelled far that day; and he sat more than half-asleep,
before the huge wood-fire, waiting for dinner, and for Hugh, who had not
finished dressing yet. He was dozing so soundly, that he never heard the
great entrance-bell clang; but he rose to his feet with a start, as Algy
Beauclere came in. From that moment, Wyverne never heard a door open
suddenly, without shuddering.

There was no mistaking the bearer of evil tidings; he had evidently
ridden far and fast; he was drenched and travel-stained from heel to
head; his bushy beard was sodden and matted with the driving rain; and
his bluff, honest face looked haggard and weary.

Alan spoke first.

"Where do you come from? Some one is dying or dead, I know. Who is it?"

The other answered, as if it cost him an effort to speak, clearing his
throat huskily:

"I have ridden here from Clydesholme. You must come back with me
directly: Helen is dying. I don't know if I have done right in fetching
you, but I had no heart to refuse her; and Gracie said that I might
come. We must have fresh horses, and strong ones, and some one who knows
the country: I can never find my way back through such a night as this;
the waters were high in two places when I came through, and they are
rising every hour. Don't lose a minute in getting ready."

Wyverne turned and walked to the bell without a word; he staggered more
than once before he reached it: then he sat down, burying his head in
his hands, and never lifted it till the servant entered. His face, when
he uncovered it, was ghastly pale, and he was shaking all over; but he
gave his orders quite distinctly and calmly.

"Don't talk now, Algy," he said; "you shall tell me all when we are on
our way. I shall be ready before the horses are. Eat and drink
meanwhile, if you can: you must need it now, and you will need it more
before morning."

In less than a quarter of an hour Wyverne returned, fully accoutred for
the journey; while he was dressing he had made arrangements with Hugh
Crichton about telegraphing to put off the shooting party: his faculties
seemed clear as ever; he literally forgot nothing. But Beauclere was not
deceived by the unnatural composure.

"For God's sake, take something to keep your strength up," he said.
"It's a long five and twenty miles, and the road and weather are
fearful. You'll never stand it if you start fasting."

Alan looked at him vacantly, with a miserable attempt at a smile.

"I don't think I could eat anything just now," he answered; "and water
suits me best to-night."

He filled a huge goblet and drained it thirstily; the horses were
announced at that moment. Beauclere remembered afterwards how carefully
his companion looked at girth and bit before they mounted: all his
thoughts and energies were concentrated on one point--how to reach
Clydesholme as soon as possible--he would not risk the chance of an
accident that might delay them for a moment. Two grooms followed them,
to ensure a spare horse in case of a break-down; and so they rode out
into the wild weather on their dismal errand. It was a terrible journey,
and not without danger; the road was so steep and stony in places, that
few men even in broad daylight would have cared to ride over it at that
furious pace; and twice the horses were off their feet in black rushing
water. Strong and tough as he was, Beauclere was almost too exhausted to
keep his saddle before they reached Clydesholme. Nevertheless, he found
breath and time to give his companion all the details it was requisite
he should know.

It appeared that the Earl had brought his wife to Clydesholme, about a
fortnight back, on the pretext of making preparations for a large party,
which was to assemble there immediately after Christmas. During the
whole of their stay they had been perfectly alone. Her health had been
breaking faster every day; while, from some inexplicable cause, his
temper had grown more consistently tyrannical and savage in proportion
to Helen's increasing weakness and physical inability to make even a
show of resistance. On the previous evening had occurred a terrible
scene of brutal violence. Early the next morning the Earl had ridden
forth, no one knew whither, evidently still in furious wrath. Shortly
afterwards the Countess had been seized with a coughing-fit, which had
ended in the breaking of a large blood-vessel. As soon as she recovered
strength enough to whisper an order, she had sent off an express for
Grace Beauclere, who chanced to be staying within a few miles. She and
her husband came instantly; but it was only to find Helen's state
hopeless. You know the rest.

Alan listened to all this, but answered never a word; indeed, he
scarcely spoke, except to ask some question about the road, or to give
some order about increasing or moderating their speed. Once Algy heard
him mutter aloud, "If we are only in time!"--and when they had to halt
for some minutes, while a sleepy lodge-keeper was opening the park-gates
of Clydesholme, his ear caught the fierce grinding of Wyverne's teeth.

The broad front of the mansion was as dark as the night outside, for the
windows of the Countess's apartments looked over the gardens, but
several servants came quickly to answer the summons of the bell. There
was a scared, puzzled look about them all. Beauclere whispered to one of
them, and then turned to Alan with a gleam of satisfaction on his face.

"We _are_ in time," he said; "thank God for that, at least. Stay here
one minute, till I have seen Gracie."

Wyverne waited in the huge gloomy hall, with scarcely more consciousness
or volition left than a sleep-walker owns. He allowed a servant to
remove his drenched overcoat, and thanked the man, mechanically; but he
never knew how or when he had taken it off.

Beauclere soon returned and led the way through several passages into a
long corridor; at the further end of this, light gleamed through a
half-open door. Algy did not attempt to enter, but motioned Alan
silently to go in.

It was a large, dim room, magnificently furnished after an antique
fashion, and Grace Beauclere was sitting there alone. She looked wan and
worn with grief, and she trembled all over as she locked her arms round
Alan's neck, holding him for a second or two closely embraced, and
whispering a warning in his ear.

"You must be very quiet and cautious. She has hardly strength enough
left to speak. Call me if you see any great change, I shall be here. The
doctors and nurses are close by; but she would not allow any one to
remain when she guessed you had come. She caught the sound of hoofs
before any of us heard it."

She pointed to where a heavy curtain concealed an open doorway opposite.
The gesture was not needed. Wyverne knew very well that in the next
chamber Helen lay dying. His brain was clear enough now, and he was
self-possessed, as men are wont to be when they have done with hope, and
have nothing worse to fear than what the next moment will bring. He
walked forward without pausing, and lifted the curtain gently, but with
a steady hand.

The entrance nearly fronted the huge old-fashioned couch, shadowed by a
canopy and hangings of dark-green velvet, on which the Countess lay. Her
cheeks had scarcely more colour than the snowy linen and lace of the
pillows which supported her, and, till just now, it seemed as though her
heavy eyelids would never be lifted again. But, at the sound of Alan's
footfall, the eyes opened, large and bright, and the face lost the
impress of Death, as it lighted and flushed, momentarily, with the keen
joy of recognition and welcome.

He was kneeling, with his head bowed down on Helen's hand, that he held
fast, when the first words were spoken.

"I felt sure you would come," she murmured. "I have been so still, and
patient, and obedient--only that I might live long enough for _this_. I
heard you, when you rode up, through all the wind and the rain. I am so
glad--so glad. I can die easily now. I could never have rested in my
grave if we had not said--'Good-bye.'"

Wyverne tried twice to speak steadily, but there came only a miserable,
broken moan.

"Ah! forgive--forgive! God knows, I thought I was right in keeping away.
I did it for the best."

The thin, transparent fingers of the hand that was free wandered over
his brow, and twined themselves in his drenched hair, with a fond,
delicate caress.

"I know you did, Alan. _I_ was wrong--I, who would have risked all the
sin and the shame. But I have suffered so much, that I do hope I shall
not be punished any more. See--I can thank you now for standing firm,
and holding _me_ up too. And, dear, I know how good and faithful you
have been from the very beginning. I know about those letters, and all
the truth. I am content--more than content. I have had all your love--is
it not so? You will look at my picture sometimes, and though she was
wilful and wicked, no woman, however good or beautiful, will win you
away from your own dead Helen. Ah! it hurts me to hear you sob. I feel
your tears on my wrist, and they burn--they burn."

Let us draw the curtain close. Even where sympathy is sure, it is not
lightly to be paraded--"the agony of man unmanned." It was not long
before Wyverne recovered self-control. They spoke no more aloud; but
there were many of those low, broken whispers, half of whose meaning
must be guessed when they are uttered, but which are remembered longer
than the most elaborate sentences that mortal tongue ever declaimed.

For some minutes Helen's eyes had been closed. Suddenly, though not a
feature was distorted, Alan saw a terrible change sweep over her face,
and rose to call in assistance. It seemed as if she divined his purpose,
and wished to prevent it. The weak clasp tightened, for an instant,
round his fingers, the weary eyelids lifted, enough to give passage to
one last, loving look, and the slow syllables were just barely audible--

"This once--only once more."

He understood her, and, stooping down, laid gently on the poor pale lips
his own--almost as white and cold. Then, for a brief space, there was a
great stillness--a stillness as of Death. An awful sound broke the
silence--a dull, smothered cry, between groan and wail, that haunted the
solitary hearer to her dying day--a cry wrung from the first despair of
a broken-hearted man, who, henceforth, was to be alone for evermore.

Grace Beauclere shivered in every limb, for she knew that all was over.
But even then she had presence of mind enough to refrain from summoning
any one from without. Helen was past human aid, and Grace knew that she
could not serve her better now than by keeping for awhile curious eyes
and ears away.

She found Alan standing, with his head resting on his arm that was
coiled round one of the pillars of the canopy. He did not seem aware of
his sister's entrance, and never spoke or stirred as she cast herself
down by the side of the dead, pressing kiss after kiss on the sweet,
quiet face, and weeping passionately.

How long they remained thus neither could have told. All at once the
door of the outer room opened quickly, and Beauclere lifted the curtain
and stood in the doorway. The first glance told him the truth. He walked
straight up to the foot of the bed, and gazed steadily for a few seconds
on the wreck of marvellous beauty that lay there so still; at last he
muttered between his teeth,

"It is best--far best--so."

Then he passed round to where his wife was lying, and wound his arm
round her waist and raised her gently.

"Darling Gracie, you must rouse yourself. It seems hard, I know, but
this cruel night does not even give time for mourning. We must leave
this instantly. I have ordered the carriage, and, Alan, I have ordered
your horses too. You can find lodging within two miles, but you must not
stay here five minutes longer. It is no place for any of us. Clydesdale
is in the house at this moment."

For many hours Grace Beauclere's nerves and strength had been sorely
tried but had never given up to this moment. She broke down utterly now,
marking the ghastly change in her brother's face, and the murderous
meaning of his eyes, as he moved slowly and silently towards the door.
She wrenched herself out of her husband's clasp, and threw herself in
Alan's way with a wild cry of terror.

"Heaven help us! Have we not suffered enough to-night without this last
horror? Alan, you shall never meet while I have sense to prevent it.
Algy, won't you stop him? Don't you see that he is mad?"

Beauclere strode forward and laid his strong grasp on Wyverne's breast.

"Yes, you _are_ mad," he said, sternly. "You shall not pass out of this
room, if I can prevent it, to work such bitter wrong against that dead
woman, who loved you only too well. Cannot you see that if you retaliate
on her husband to-night, her name will be dishonoured for ever and ever!
She has suffered enough for you to sacrifice your selfish vengeance.
Alan, listen now; you will thank God on your knees that you did so
hereafter."

Wyverne gazed in the speaker's face, and as he gazed the devilish fire
died out of his eyes. He passed his hand over his forehead twice or
thrice as if bewildered, and then walked aside to the darkest corner of
the room, leaning his face against the wall; when he turned round again,
it was settled and calm.

"You are quite right," he said, slowly. "I _was_ mad, and forgot
everything. You need fear nothing now. I only ask you to trust me. I
will see Clydesdale before I go; but I swear I will not speak one angry
word. We will go down directly. Leave me here only three minutes, and I
will follow you."

They did trust him; they went into the outer room, and never thought of
listening or lifting the curtain. It is an example that we may well
imitate.

All this while the Earl sat downstairs alone, in such an agony of
remorse and shame that, in spite of his past brutality and tyranny, his
worst enemy might have spared reproach. He knew that Helen's state was
hopeless, though he had not heard yet that the end had come. He thought
of her, as he saw her first, in the radiant bloom of her imperial
beauty. He thought of her, as he saw her last, pale and exhausted and
death-like, after his savage frenzy had vented itself. He _did_ repent
heartily now, and felt as if he would have given ten years of his life
to undo the wrong and make ample amends. And still, the voice that none
of us can stifle for ever kept whispering, "Too late--too late!"

He was musing thus in miserable anticipation of the next news, when the
door opened slowly, and Wyverne entered, fully equipped for his
departure.

What passed between these two will never be known. Beauclere, who stood
outside within ear-shot, ready to interfere in case Alan's self-control
should fail, heard absolutely nothing. At first, the Earl's harsh, rough
voice, though subdued below its wont, sounded at intervals; but
Wyverne's deep, sombre monotone seemed to bear it down, and even this
eventually sank so low that not an accent was distinguishable.

At last, the lock turned softly, and Wyverne came out. He just pressed
Algy's hand in passing, and went straight to the hall-door, where his
horses were waiting. Immediately afterwards the hoofs moved slowly away.

It was five minutes or more before the carriage was ready. Beauclere had
put his wife in, and was standing in the hall, making his last
preparations, when Clydesdale came up behind him, and took his arm
unawares.

The Earl's face was convulsed with grief; his eyes were heavy, and his
cheeks seemed seamed with tears; and his voice was broken and low.

"I hardly dare to ask you to stay to-night," he said; "but if you
would----Only consider the fearful weather, and your wife's health. If
you knew how bitterly I repent! I only heard the truth ten minutes ago."

Algy Beauclere could preach patience better than he could practise it.
He shook off the detaining hand with a force that made Clydesdale reel,
turning upon him the wrathful blaze of his honest eyes.

"I hope you _do_ repent," he said, hoarsely. "My wife is not strong, but
she should lie out on the open moor sooner than sleep under that
accursed roof of yours."

If he had looked back as he went out he might have seen the Earl recoil
helplessly, covering a stricken face with shaking hands.

Wyverne remained at the village inn, not a mile from the park gates,
just long enough to rest his horses and men, and then rode back to the
Abbey as fast as blood and bone of the best would carry him. His
strained nerves and energies were not relaxed till he got fairly home.
There was a sharp reaction, and he lay for some time in a state of half
stupor; but he was never seriously ill. It was no wonder that mind and
body should be utterly worn out: the dark ride through such wild weather
was trying enough, and he had scarcely tasted food or drink for twenty
hours. Twice within the week there came a special messenger from
Clydesholme; it was to be presumed that the errand was one of peace;
for, eight days after Helen's death, Alan Wyverne stood in his place
among the few friends and relations who travelled so far to see her laid
in her grave. But it was noticed that neither at meeting nor parting did
any word or salutation pass between him and the Earl. Alan arrived only
just in time for the funeral, and left immediately afterwards, without
setting his foot over the threshold of Clydesholme.

No one saw anything of Wyverne for some weeks. When he reappeared in
society he looked certainly older, but otherwise his manner and bearing
and temper remained much the same as they had been for the last four
years.

That night left its mark on others besides him. It was long before
Beauclere recovered his genial careless elasticity of spirit; and for
months his wife scarcely slept a night without starting and moaning in
her dreams. Judging from outward appearance, Clydesdale was the person
most strongly and permanently affected by the events just recorded. He
was never the same man again: his temper was still often harsh and
violent, but the arrogant superciliousness, and intense appreciation of
himself and his position, had quite left him. The lesson, whatever it
was, lasted him his life. Very few of the many who were pleased or
profited by the alteration in the Earl's character, guessed at what a
fearful cost the improvement had been made.

It seemed as if poor Helen had felt for some time before her death that
the end was fast approaching. They found not only her will, which had
been executed when she was last in London, but divers letters, not to be
delivered till after her decease. There was a very large legacy to Grace
Beauclere, and some minor ones to old servants and pensioners. All the
residue of the vast sum at her disposal was bequeathed to her father,
without condition or reserve. Her jewels--with the exception of Lord
Clydesdale's gifts before and after marriage, which reverted to
him--were left to Mrs. Brabazon. There was no letter for Wyverne, and no
mention of his name; but Maud sent him a casket, which had been in her
hands for some time past. It contained three of Alan's letters, a few
trifling relics of their brief engagement, a thick packet in Helen's
handwriting, bearing a comparatively recent date, and a small exquisite
miniature, taken before her beauty had begun to fade. That casket was
the crowning jewel of the testament.

The void that her death made in society was not easily filled up; but
after awhile the world rolled on, as if she had never been. The Squire
looked broken and grey, and more careworn than when his affairs had been
most desperate. He knew scarcely anything of the terrible truth, but a
vague remorse haunted and bore him down. Lady Mildred's face was
inscrutable as ever, but her smiles grew rarer and more artificial day
by day. Max Vavasour, after the first emotion of sorrow, troubled
himself little about what was past and gone. If he ever realized his
sister's sacrifice, he looked upon it as a great political necessity--to
be deplored, but not to be repented of. Maud Brabazon felt as if she
could never bring herself to wear the jewels that she inherited; but she
got over these scruples in time; and, at the first drawing-room of the
following season, her sapphires and diamonds were generally envied and
admired.

When I said that in Alan Wyverne there was little outward alteration, I
ought to have limited the assertion. Men would have told you so; but
maids and matrons are sharper-sighted, and their report would have been
very different: _they_ knew how utterly he was changed. Their society
still had an attraction for him; and he was frank, and kind, and gentle
as ever, when a woman was in presence; but a word never escaped his lips
that could be construed into anything warmer than friendship and
courtesy. The most intrepid coquette refrained instinctively from
wasting her _calineries_ and seductions there: she might as well have
sought a lover in a deserted statue-gallery of the Vatican.

How Alan fared when he was quite alone it would be hard to say. Such
seasons were rare, except at the dead hours of night, when sleep comes
naturally to every constitution, unless some powerful momentary
excitement is at work; for he mixed more in general society than he had
done for years. I doubt if he did not suffer less acutely than when
Helen was alive, and in her husband's power. He was at least free from
the torments of anxiety and apprehension. If in this world of ours we
can defy these two enemies of man's peace, we have gained no mean
victory over Fate.



CHAPTER XXVII.

MORITURI TE SALUTANT.


It is a clear breezy night, out in the midst of the Atlantic, the mighty
steam-ship _Panama_ ploughs her way through the long, sullen "rollers,"
steadily, and calmly, strongly, as if conscious of her trust, and of her
ability to discharge it--the safe carriage of three hundred lives. A few
wakeful passengers still linger on deck; amongst them is Alan Wyverne;
the restless demon, ever at his elbow, has driven him abroad again, to
see what sport may be found on the great Western prairies.

Suddenly there is a trampling of hurrying feet between decks, and a
sailor rushes up the companion and whispers to the officer of the
watch, who descends with a scared face; in five minutes more a
terrible cry rings from stem to stern, waking the soundest sleeper
aboard--"Fire!--Fire!"

Can you form any idea of the horror and confusion that ensue, when
hundreds of human creatures wake from perfect security, to find
themselves face to face with death? I think not. No one can realize the
scene, except those few who have witnessed it once, and who see it in
their dreams till they die. No man alive can say for certain if his
nerve will stand such a shock, and the bravest may well be proud, if he
emerges from such an ordeal without betraying shameful weakness. I speak
of a mixed and undisciplined crowd--not of trained soldiers; we have
more than one proof of what _these_ can do and endure. I think, that
those who died at Thermopylæ were less worthy of the crown of valour,
than the troopers who formed upon deck and stood steady in their ranks,
till every woman and child was safe in the boats, and till the
_Birkenhead_ went down under their feet.

Nevertheless, at such emergencies, a few are always found who single
themselves out from the rest, as if determined to prove what daring and
devotion manhood can display at extremity. First and foremost among
these, on this occasion, was Alan Wyverne. He never lost his presence of
mind for an instant. Yet he had accidentally become possessed of a
secret that few on board had any idea of. English powder was at a high
premium in America, just then; and the captain had shipped, at his own
private risk, and against his orders, enough to blow all the fore part
of the vessel to shivers. Alan reached his cabin before the first upward
rush came, and made his preparations deliberately. They were very short
and simple. He opened a certain steel casket and took out a packet and a
miniature, which he secured in his breast; then passing his arm through
the port-hole, he dropped the casket into-the sea; a sharp pang of pain
flitted across his face as he did so, but he never hesitated; that one
fact told plainly enough his opinion of the crisis. Then he buckled
round his waist a broad leather belt, from which, among other
instruments, hung a long sheathed hunting-knife; he put some biscuits
and cakes of portable soup, and a large flask of brandy, into the
pockets of a thick boat-cloak, which he threw over his arm; then, after
casting round a keen hurried glance, as if to assure himself he had
forgotten nothing, he left the cabin, and with some difficulty made his
way on deck.

It was a ghastly chaos of tumult and terror--a babel of shouts, and
cries, and groans, and orders to which no one gave heed, while over all
arose the roar and hiss of escaping steam, for they had stopped the
engines at the first alarm, and the _Panama_ lay in the trough of the
sea--a huge helpless log; though the weather was by no means rough, the
"rollers" never quite subside out there in mid-ocean. The flames
beginning to burst out of one of the fore hatchways, threw a weird,
fantastic glare on half-dressed, struggling figures, and on white faces
convulsed with eagerness or fear; and all the while the clear autumn
moon looked down serenely indifferent to human suffering; even so, she
looked down on Adam's agony, on the night that followed the Fall.

Personal terror and the consciousness of guilt, had made the captain
utterly helpless already; but the chief-officer was a cool-headed
Scotchman, a thorough seaman, and as brave as Bayard; he was exerting
himself to the utmost, backed by a few sailors and passengers, to keep
the gangway clear, so as to lower the boats regularly. In spite of their
efforts, the first sank almost as soon as she touched the water, stove
in against the side through the slipping or breaking of a "fall." At
last they did get the launch fairly afloat, and were equally successful
with the two remaining cutters.

There was manhood and generosity enough in the crowd to allow most of
the women and children to be lowered without interference; but soon it
became terribly evident that fully a third of those on board must be
left behind, from absolute want of boat-room. Then the real, selfish
struggle began, some of the sailors setting the example, and all order
and authority was at an end. As Alan stood in the background, a man came
up behind him and touched his arm, without speaking. It was Jock
Ellison, whose father and grand-father had been keepers before him at
the Abbey; he had accompanied Wyverne through Africa and India; his
constitution and strength seemed climate-proof, no peril disturbed his
cheerful equanimity, and he would have laid down his life to serve his
master any day, as the merest matter of duty.

It did Alan good to see the handsome, honest, northern face, and the
bright, bold, blue eyes close to his shoulder. He smiled as he spoke.

"We're in a bad mess, Jock, I fear. Keep near me, whatever happens.
You've always done that so far, and we've always pulled through."

The stout henchman was slow of speech as he was ready of hand. Before he
could reply, Wyverne's attention was called elsewhere.

A few steps from where they were standing, a pale, sickly-looking woman
sat alone, leaning against the bulwarks. She felt she was too weak to
force a passage through the crowd, so she had sunk down there, hopeless
and helpless. She kept trying to hush the wailing of her frightened
child, though the big, heavy tears were rolling fast down her own
cheeks, moaning low at intervals, always the same words--"Ah! Willie,
Willie!" It was her husband's name, and the poor creature was thinking
how hard he had been slaving these three years to make a home for her
and "Minnie" out there in the West, and how he had been living on crusts
to save their passage money--only to bring them to _this_. Alan had been
attracted by the pair soon after he came on board, they seemed so very
lonely and defenceless and so wonderfully fond of each other. He had
been kind to them on several occasions, and had made great friends with
"Minnie," a pretty timid, fragile child of five or six years.

He went up now, and laid his hand gently on the mother's shoulder.

"Don't lose heart," he said, "but trust to me. You shall meet your
husband yet, please God. You will be almost safe when you are once in a
boat. The sea is not rough, and you are certain to be picked up by some
vessel before many hours are over. The only difficulty is to get to your
place. We'll manage that for you. Don't be frightened if you hear an
angry word or two. I can carry Minnie on one arm easily; let me put the
other round you; and wrap yourself in this boat-cloak--there's enough in
the pockets to feed you for days at a strait, and it will keep you both
warm."

He hardly noticed her gratitude, but whispered a word or two to Jock
Ellison, and moved steadily towards the gangway with both his charges.
The gigantic Dalesman kept close to his master's shoulder, rather in his
front, cleaving the crowd asunder with his mighty shoulders, utterly
regardless of threat or prayer. Some of the better sort, too, when they
saw the white, delicate woman, and the little child nestling close to
Alan's breast, till her golden hair mingled with his black beard,
yielded room, not unwillingly, muttering--"Let _them_ pass, at all
events: there's time enough yet." So, Wyverne had nearly reached the
gangway, when a haggard, wild-looking man thrust himself violently
forward, evidently determined to be the next to descend.

"You shall have the next turn," Alan said firmly. "Let these two go
first; you see how helpless they are. They are not strong enough to
fight their own battles."

The other turned upon him furiously.

"Who the ---- are you, that give orders here?" he screamed. "I've as much
right to my life as the woman or any of you. I'll have my turn in spite
of you all;" and he began to open a clasp-knife.

Alan's face grew very dark and stern.

"I haven't time to argue," he said; "stand clear, or take the
consequences."

His adversary sprang at him without another word. Wyverne's arms were so
encumbered that he was perfectly defenceless; but just then Jock
Ellison's hand came out of his breast, grasping a ponderous revolver by
the barrel: the steel-bound butt crashed down full on the man's bare
head, and he dropped where he stood, without even staggering. The crowd
drew back instinctively; before they closed in again the mother was safe
in the boat. Even in her agony of terror she found time to kiss Alan's
hand, crying "that God would reward him." In truth he _was_ rewarded,
and that soon.

It was strange--considering their brief acquaintance--to see how the
poor child clung to her protector, and how loth she was to leave him,
even to follow her mother; it almost needed force to make the thin white
arms unloose their clasp of his neck. Young as she was then, "Minnie"
will be a woman before she forgets the kind grave face that leant over
her, and the soft voice that said, "Good-bye, little one," as Wyverne
let her go.

He was turning away, when the man that grovelled at his foot began to
stir and moan.

"It's hard on him, too, poor devil!" some one grumbled in the
background; "his wife is in the boat; she's five months gone with child,
and she'll have to starve if she ever gets to land."

Wyverne stooped down and lifted up his late adversary as tenderly as he
had supported the woman.

"Hold up for a minute," he whispered. "You brought the blow on yourself;
but I promised you should have the next turn. Your wife has hardly
missed you yet. And take care of this: it may help you some day."

He drew a note-case from his pocket as he spoke, and thrust it into the
other's breast: no one attempted to interfere as he put the guiding
ropes round the half insensible body, and passed it carefully over the
ship's side. One determined mind will cow a crowd at most times; and
remember, there were two to the fore, just then.

"He has _my_ place," Alan said, simply--as if that were the best answer
to any objections or murmurs; and then he made his way back again to the
clear part of the deck, his trusty henchman following him still.

The dreadful struggle was over at last; the boats, fully freighted, had
pushed off, and lay at a safe distance; those who were left on board
knew that they had only to trust now to their own resources, or to a
miracle, or to the mercy of Providence. There was scarcely any wind, and
what there was blew in a favourable direction, so that little of the
smoke or flame came aft.

Suddenly Wyverne turned to his companion, who sat near him, apparently
quite cheerful and composed--

"You had better look to yourself, Jock. She won't hold together another
quarter of an hour. It's no distance to swim, and they may take you into
a boat still, if you try it. You've as good a right to a place as any
one now the women are gone."

The Dalesman's broad breast heaved indignantly, and there was a sob in
his voice as he replied.

"I'll do your bidding to the last, Sir Alan; but you'll never have the
heart to make me leave you. I haven't deserved it."

Wyverne knew better than to press the point.

"Shake hands then, old comrade," he said, with a smile on his lip.
"You've served me well enough to have your own way for once. I fancy you
have few heavy sins to repent of, but you had better make your peace
with God quickly; our minutes are numbered."

Just then a boat ranged up close under the ship's quarter, and a
smothered voice called on Wyverne by name. It was the chief officer's,
who had determined to make this last effort to save him.

"Let yourself down, Sir Alan, there are ropes enough about, or drop over
the side. We'll take _you_ in; you have well deserved it."

He never hesitated an instant--he withstood stronger temptations in his
time--but leant over the side and answered, in his own firm, clear
tones,

"Thanks, a thousand times; but get back out of danger instantly. It is
useless waiting for me; I don't stir. I have given up my place already,
and no power on earth would make me take another man's. If a ship comes
near, we may all be saved yet; if not, we know the worst, and I hope we
know how to meet it."

When the cutter had pushed off, Wyverne sat down again, burying his face
in his hands, and remained so for some minutes. Suddenly he looked up,
and drew the miniature out of his breast, gazing on it steadfastly and
long, with a love and tenderness that no words can express, and a
happiness so intense that it savoured of triumph. One of the survivors
who chanced to be watching him (unconscious of the catastrophe being so
near) said afterwards that a strange light shone out Alan's face during
those few seconds--a light that came neither from moon nor fire, but as
it were from _within_--a light, perchance, such as saints may, one day,
see on the faces of angels.

"Helen--darling Helen," he murmured, "I always thought and hoped and
prayed that I had acted rightly; but I never knew it till now."

He pressed the picture to his lips, and kissed it twice or thrice
fervently. Let us hope that in that impulse there mingled nothing of
sinful passion; for it was the last of Alan Wyverne's life.

In a moment there came an awful smothered roar--a crash of rending
timbers and riven metal--all the fore-part of the vessel seemed to melt
away, scattered over air and water in a torrent of smoke and flame; the
after-part shook convulsively through every joint and seam, and then,
with one headlong plunge, went down, like a wounded whale "sounding."
Some half-dozen strong swimmers emerged alive from the horrible vortex,
and all these were saved. Brave Jock Ellison, after recovering from the
first stunning shock, never attempted to make for the boats, but swam
hither and thither, till his colossal strength failed him, hoping to
find some trace of his master. But Alan Wyverne never rose again, and
never will--till the sea shall give up her dead.

And now my tale is told.

I have attempted to sketch, roughly what befel a man very weak
and erring--who was often sorely tried--who acted ever up to the
light that was given him, at the cost of bitter self-denial and
self-sacrifice--who, nevertheless, in this life, failed to reap the
tithe of his reward.

Alan Wyverne was strong, up to a certain point; but he had not faith
enough to make him feel always sure that he had done right, in defiance
of appearances; nor principle enough to keep him from repining at
results. He could neither comfort himself nor others, thoroughly. He was
a chivalrous true-hearted man; but a very imperfect Christian. He dared
not openly rebel against the laws of God; but he was too human to
accept, unhesitatingly, the fulfilment of his decrees. Throughout Alan's
life, Honour usurped the place where Religion ought to have reigned
paramount; he shrank from shame when he would perhaps have encountered
sin.

Just see how complete was the earthly retribution.

To that one principle--sound enough if it had not been the ruling
one--he sacrificed love, and friendship, and revenge, and life. Yet the
happiest moments that he knew for years, were those when he stood face
to face with a terrible death--a dead woman's picture in his hand.


THE END.



NEW WORKS IN PRESS.

By the Author of "East Lynne; or, The Earl's Daughter," and "Castle
Wafer."

    MRS. HALIBURTON'S TROUBLES.
    GERVASE CASTONEL, or, the Six Grey Powders.
    THE RED COURT FARM.
    MARY GORING: or, How I Grew to be an Old Maid.
    THE DIAMOND BRACELET; or, Going into Exile.
    RECOLLECTIONS OF CHARLES STRANGE.
    MILDRED ARKELL.
    PARK WATER; or, A Race with Time.
    THE EARL'S SECRET; or, The Second Wife.
    POMEROY ABBEY; or, The Old Keep.
    CLARA LAKE'S DREAM.
    BLANCHE LEVEL.
    THE SHADOW OF ASHLYDYAT.



BOOKS RECENTLY PUBLISHED.

    THE HEIR TO ASHLEY. By Mrs. Henry Wood
    CASTLE WAFER. By Mrs. Henry Wood
    BARCHESTER TOWERS. By Anthony Trollope, 2 vols.
    EAST LYNNE; or, The Earl's Daughter. By Mrs. Henry Wood
    THE WARDEN. By Anthony Trollope
    THE DEAD SECRET. By Wilkie Collins, author of "Woman in
      White," etc.
    HIDE AND SEEK. By Wilkie Collins
    AFTER DARK. By Wilkie Collins
    CYRILLA. By the author of "Quits," "The Initials," etc.
    LADY GLENLYON; or, The Trials of a Flirt. By the author of
      "Susan Hopley," "Lilly Dawson," etc.





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we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



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