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Title: My Lord Duke
Author: Hornung, E. W. (Ernest William), 1866-1921
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 "My Lord Duke" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



                           MY LORD DUKE

                         BY E. W. HORNUNG


    NEW YORK
    CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
    1897

    COPYRIGHT, 1897, BY
    CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS

    Norwood Press
    J. S. Cushing & Co.--Berwick & Smith
    Norwood Mass. U.S.A.



CONTENTS


       I. THE HEAD OF THE FAMILY                     1

      II. "HAPPY JACK"                              16

     III. A CHANCE LOST                             31

      IV. NOT IN THE PROGRAMME                      44

       V. WITH THE ELECT                            63

      VI. A NEW LEAF                                77

     VII. THE DUKE'S PROGRESS                       90

    VIII. THE OLD ADAM                             105

      IX. AN ANONYMOUS LETTER                      122

       X. "DEAD NUTS"                              137

      XI. THE NIGHT OF THE TWENTIETH               151

     XII. THE WRONG MAN                            163

    XIII. THE INTERREGNUM                          180

     XIV. JACK AND HIS MASTER                      189

      XV. END OF THE INTERREGNUM                   199

     XVI. "LOVE THE GIFT"                          215

    XVII. AN ANTI-TOXINE                           223

   XVIII. HECKLING A MINISTER                      233

     XIX. THE CAT AND THE MOUSE                    244

      XX. "LOVE THE DEBT"                          257

     XXI. THE BAR SINISTER                         266

    XXII. DE MORTUIS                               282



MY LORD DUKE



CHAPTER I

THE HEAD OF THE FAMILY


The Home Secretary leant his golf-clubs against a chair. His was the
longest face of all.

"I am only sorry it should have come now," said Claude apologetically.

"Just as we were starting for the links! Our first day, too!" muttered
the Home Secretary.

"_I_ think of Claude," remarked his wife. "I can never tell you, Claude,
how much I feel for you! We shall miss you dreadfully, of course; but we
couldn't expect to enjoy ourselves after this; and I think, in the
circumstances, that you are quite right to go up to town at once."

"Why?" cried the Home Secretary warmly. "What good can he do in the
Easter holidays? Everybody will be away; he'd much better come with me
and fill his lungs with fresh air."

"I can never tell you how much I feel for you," repeated Lady Caroline
to Claude Lafont.

"Nor I," said Olivia. "It's too horrible! I don't believe it. To think
of their finding him after all! I don't believe they _have_ found him.
You've made some mistake, Claude. You've forgotten your code; the cable
really means that they've _not_ found him, and are giving up the
search!"

Claude Lafont shook his head.

"There may be something in what Olivia says," remarked the Home
Secretary. "The mistake may have been made at the other end. It would
bear talking over on the links."

Claude shook his head again.

"We have no reason to suppose there has been a mistake at all, Mr.
Sellwood. Cripps is not the kind of man to make mistakes; and I can
swear to my code. The word means, 'Duke found--I sail with him at
once.'"

"An Australian Duke!" exclaimed Olivia.

"A blackamoor, no doubt," said Lady Caroline with conviction.

"Your kinsman, in any case," said Claude Lafont, laughing; "and my
cousin; and the head of the family from this day forth."

"It was madness!" cried Lady Caroline softly. "Simple madness--but then
all you poets _are_ mad! Excuse me, Claude, but you remind me of the
Lafont blood in my own veins--you make it boil. I feel as if I never
could forgive you! To turn up your nose at one of the oldest titles in
the three kingdoms; to think twice about a purely hypothetical heir at
the antipodes; and actually to send out your solicitor to hunt him up!
If that was not Quixotic lunacy, I should like to know what is?"

The Right Honourable George Sellwood took a new golf-ball from his
pocket, and bowed his white head mournfully as he stripped off the
tissue paper.

"My dear Lady Caroline, _noblesse oblige_--and a man must do his obvious
duty," he heard Claude saying, in his slightly pedantic fashion.
"Besides, I should have cut a very sorry figure had I jumped at the
throne, as it were, and sat there until I was turned out. One knew there
_had_ been an heir in Australia; the only thing was to find out if he
was still alive; and Cripps has done so. I'm bound to say I had given
him up. Cripps has written quite hopelessly of late. He must have found
the scent and followed it up during the last six weeks; but in another
six he will be here to tell us all about it--and we shall see the Duke.
Meanwhile, pray don't waste your sympathies upon _me_. To be perfectly
frank, this is in many ways a relief to me--I am only sorry it has come
now. You know my tastes; but I have hitherto found it expedient to make
a little secret of my opinions. Now, however, there can be no harm in my
saying that they are not entirely in harmony with the hereditary
principle. You hold up your hands, dear Lady Caroline, but I assure you
that my seat in the Upper Chamber would have been a seat of
conscientious thorns. In fact I have been in a difficulty, ever since my
grandfather's death, which I am very thankful to have removed. On the
other hand, I love my--may I say my art? And luckily I have enough to
cultivate the muse on, at all events, the best of oatmeal; so I am not
to be pitied. A good quatrain, Olivia, is more to me than coronets; and
the society of my literary friends is dearer to my heart than that of
all the peers in Christendom."

Claude was a poet; when he forgot this fact he was also an excellent
fellow. His affectations ended with his talk. In appearance he was
distinctly desirable. He had long, clean limbs, a handsome, shaven,
mild-eyed face, and dark hair as short as another's. He would have made
an admirable Duke.

Mr. Sellwood looked up a little sharply from his dazzling new golf-ball.

"Why go to town at all?" said he.

"Well, the truth is, I have been in a false position all these months,"
replied Claude, forgetting his poetry and becoming natural at once. "I
want to get out of it without a day's unnecessary delay. This thing must
be made public."

The statesman considered.

"I suppose it must," said he, judicially.

"Undoubtedly," said Lady Caroline, looking from Olivia to Claude. "The
sooner the better."

"Not at all," said the Home Secretary. "It has kept nearly a year.
Surely it can keep another week? Look here, my good fellow. I come down
here expressly to play golf with you, and you want to bunker me in the
very house! I take it for the week for nothing else, and you want to
desert me the very first morning. You shan't do either, so that's all
about it."

"You're a perfect tyrant!" cried Lady Caroline. "I'm ashamed of you,
George; and I hope Claude will do exactly as he likes. _I_ shall be
sorry enough to lose him, goodness knows!"

"So shall I," said Olivia simply.

Lady Caroline shuddered.

"Look at the day!" cried Mr. Sellwood, jumping up with his pink face
glowing beneath his virile silver hair. "Look at the sea! Look at the
sand! Look at the sea-breeze lifting the very carpet under our feet! Was
there ever such a day for golf?"

Claude wavered visibly.

"Come on," said Mr. Sellwood, catching up his clubs. "I'm awfully sorry
for you, my boy. But come on!"

"You will have to give in, Claude," said Olivia, who loved her father.

Lady Caroline shrugged her shoulders.

"Of course," said she, "I hope he will; still I don't think our own
selfish considerations should detain him against his better judgment."

"I am eager to see Cripps's partners," said Claude vacillating. "They
may know more about it."

"And solicitors are such trying people," remarked Lady Caroline
sympathetically; "one always does want to see them personally, to know
what they really mean."

"That's what I feel," said Claude.

"But what on earth has he to consult them about?" demanded the Home
Secretary. "Everything will keep--except the golf. Besides, my dear
fellow, you are perfectly safe in the hands of Maitland, Hollis, Cripps
and Company. A fine steady firm, and yet pushing too. I recollect they
were the first solicitors in London--"

"Were!" said his wife significantly.

"To supply us with typewritten briefs, my love. Now there is little
else. In such hands, my dear Claude, your interests are quite
undramatically safe."

"Still," said Claude, "it's an important matter; and I am, after all,
for the moment, the head of--"

"I'll tell you what you are," cried the politician, with a burst of that
hot brutality which had formerly made him the wholesome terror of the
Junior Bar; "you're a confounded minor Cockney poet! If you want to go
back to your putrid midnight oil, go back to it; if you want to get out
of the golf, get out of it! I'm off. I shouldn't like to be rude to you,
Claude, my boy, and I may be if I remain. No doubt I shall be able to
pick up somebody down at the links."

Claude struck his flag.

A minute later, Olivia, from the broad bay window, watched the lank,
handsome poet and the sturdy, white-haired statesman hurrying along the
Marina arm-in-arm; both in knickerbockers and Norfolk jackets; and each
carrying a quiverful of golf-clubs in his outer hand.

The girl was lost in thought.

"Olivia," said a voice behind her, "your father behaved like a brute!"

"I didn't think so; it was all in good part. And it will do him so much
good!"

"Do whom?"

"Poor Claude! Of course he is dreadfully cut up."

"Then why did he pretend to be pleased?"

"That was his pluck. He took it splendidly. I never admired him so
much!"

Lady Caroline opened her mouth to speak, but shut it again without a
word. Her daughter's slight figure was silhouetted against the middle
window of the bow; the sun put a golden crown upon the fair young head;
yet the head was bent, and the girl's whole attitude one of pity and of
thought. Lady Caroline Sellwood rose quietly, and left the room.

That species of low cunning, which was one of her Ladyship's traits, had
placed her for the moment in a rather neat dilemma. Claude Lafont had
cast poet's eyes at Olivia for months and years; and for weeks and
months Olivia's mother had wished there were less poetry and more
passion in the composition of that aristocrat. He would not say what
nobody else, not even Lady Caroline, could say for him. He was content
to dangle and admire; he had called Olivia his "faëry queen," with his
lips and with his pen, in private and in print; but he had betrayed no
immediate desire to call her his wife. Lady Caroline had recommended him
to marry, and he had denounced marriage as "the death of romance." Quite
sure in her own mind that she was dealing with none other than the Duke
of St. Osmund's, it was her Ladyship who had planned the present small
party (which her distinguished husband would call a "foursome") for the
Easter Recess. Flatly disbelieving in the existence of the alleged
Australian heir, she had seen the merit of engaging Olivia to Claude
before the latter assumed his title in the eyes of the world. That the
title was his to assume, when he liked, had been the opinion of all the
Lafonts, save Claude himself, from the very first; and, when it suited
her, Lady Caroline Sellwood was very well pleased to consider herself a
Lafont. In point of fact, her mother had borne that illustrious name
before her marriage with the impecunious Earl Clennell of Ballycawley;
and Lady Caroline was herself a great-granddaughter of the sixth Duke of
St. Osmund's.

The sixth Duke (who exerted himself to make the second half of the last
century rather wickeder than the first) had two sons, of whom her
present Ladyship's grandfather was the younger. The elder became the
seventh Duke, and begot the eighth (and most respectable) Duke of St.
Osmund's--the aged peer lately deceased. The eighth Duke, again, had but
two sons, who both predeceased him. These two sons were, respectively,
Claude's father and the unmentionable Marquis of Maske. The Marquis was
a man after the heart of his worst ancestor, a fascinating blackguard,
neither more nor less. At twenty-four he had raised the temperature of
his native air to a degree incompatible with his own safety; and had
fled the country never to return. Word of his death was received from
Australia in the year 1866. He had died horribly, from thirst in the
wilderness, and yet a proper compassion was impossible even after that.
For the news was accompanied by a letter from the dead man's
hand--scrawled at his last gasp, and pinned with his knife to the tree
under which the body was found--yet composed in a vein of revolting
cynicism, and containing further news of the most embarrassing
description. The Marquis was leaving behind him--somewhere in
Australia--at the moment he really could not say where--a small
Viscount Dillamore to inherit ultimately the title and estates. He gave
no dates, but said his wife was dead. To the best of his belief,
however, the lad was alive; and might be known by the French eagle of
the Lafonts, which the father had himself tattooed upon his little
chest.

This was all the clue which had been left to Claude, to follow on a bad
man's bare word, or to ignore at his own discretion. For reasons best
known to himself, the old Duke had taken no steps to discover the little
Marquis. Unluckily, however, his late Grace had not been entirely
himself for many years before his death; and those reasons had never
transpired. Claude, on the other hand, was a man of fastidious
temperament, a person of infinite scruples, with a morbid horror of the
incorrect. He would spend half the morning deciding between a semicolon
and a full stop; and he was consistently conscientious in matters of
real moment, as, for example, in that of his marriage. He had been
asking himself, for quite a twelve-month, whether he really loved
Olivia; he had no intention of asking _her_ until he was quite convinced
on the point. To such a man there was but one course possible on the old
Duke's death. And Claude had taken it with the worst results.

"He has no sympathy for _me_," said Lady Caroline bitterly, as she went
upstairs. "He has cut his own throat, and there's an end of it; except
that if he thinks he's going to marry any daughter of mine, after this,
he is very much mistaken."

It was extremely mortifying all the same; to have prepared the ground so
carefully, to have arranged every preliminary for a match which had now
to be abandoned altogether; and worse still, to have turned away half
the eligible young men in town for the sake of a Duke who was not a Duke
at all. Lady Caroline Sellwood had three daughters. The eldest had made
a good, solid, military marriage, and enjoyed in India a social position
that was not unworthy of her. The second daughter had not done quite so
well; still, her husband, the Rev. Francis Freke, was a divine whose
birth was better than his attainments, so that there was every chance of
seeing his little legs in gaiters before either foot was in his grave.
But Olivia was her youngest ("my ewe lamb," Lady Caroline used to call
her, although no other kind had graced her fold), and in her mother's
opinion she was fitted for a better fate than that which had befallen
either of her sisters. Olivia was the prettiest of the three. Her little
fair head, "sunning over with curls," as Claude never tired of saying,
was made by nature with a self-evident view to strawberry-leaves and
twinkling tiaras. And Lady Caroline meant it to wear them yet.

She had done her best to encourage Claude in his inclination to run up
to town at once. The situation at the seaside had become charged with
danger. Not only did it appear to Lady Caroline that the poet was at
last satisfied with the state of his own affections, but she had reason
to fear that Claude Lafont would have a better chance with Olivia than
would the Duke of St. Osmund's. The child was peculiar. She had read too
much, and there was a suspiciously sentimental strain in her. Her acute
mother did not imagine her "vulgarly in love" (as she called it) with
the æsthetic Claude; but she had heard him tell the girl that "pity from
her" was "more dear than that from another"; and it was precisely this
pity which Lady Caroline now dreaded as fervently as she would have
welcomed it the day before. Her stupid husband had outwitted her in the
matter of Claude's departure. Lady Caroline was hardly at the top of the
stairs before she had made up the masterly mind which she considered at
least a match for her stupid husband's. He would not allow her to get
rid of Claude? Very well; nothing simpler. She would get rid of Olivia
instead.

The means suggested itself almost as quickly as the end.

Lady Caroline took a little walk to the post-office, and said she had
been on the pier. In a couple of hours a telegram arrived from Mrs.
Freke, begging Olivia to go to her at once. Lady Caroline was apparently
overwhelmed with surprise. But she despatched her ewe lamb by the next
train.

"Olivia, I won both rounds!" called out the Home Secretary, when he
strutted in towards evening, pink and beaming. Claude also looked the
better and the brighter for his day; but Lady Caroline took the
brightness out of him in an instant; and the Home Secretary beamed no
more that night.

"It is no use your calling Olivia," said her Ladyship calmly; "by this
time she must be a hundred miles away. You needn't look so startled,
George. You know the state to which poor Francis reduces himself by the
end of Lent, and you know that dear Mary's baby is not thriving as it
ought. I shouldn't wonder if he makes _it_ fast, too! At all events
Mary telegraphed for Olivia this morning, and I let her go. Now it's no
use being angry with any of us! With a young baby and a half-starved
husband it was a very natural request. There's the telegram on the
mantelpiece for you to see for yourself what she says."



CHAPTER II

"HAPPY JACK"


A dilettante in letters, a laggard in love, and a pedant in much of his
speech, Claude Lafont was nevertheless possessed of certain graces of
the heart and head which entitled him at all events to the kindly
consideration of his friends. He had enthusiasm and some soul; he had an
open hand and an essentially simple mind. These were the merits of the
man. They were less evident than his foibles, which, indeed, continually
obscured them. He would have been the better for one really bad fault:
but nature had not salted him with a single vice.

Unpopular at Eton, he had found his feet perhaps a little too firmly at
Oxford. There his hair had grown long and his views outrageous. Had the
old Duke of St. Osmund's been in his right mind at the time, he would
certainly have quitted it at the report of some of his grandson's
contributions to the university debates. Claude, however, had the
courage of his most extravagant opinions, and even at Oxford he was a
man whom it was possible to respect. The era of Toynbee Hall and a
gentlemanly, kid-gloved Socialism came a little later; there were other
and intermediate phases, into which it is unnecessary to enter. Claude
came through them all with two things, at least, as good as new: his
ready enthusiasm and his excellent heart.

Whether he really did view the new twist in his life with the
satisfaction which he professed is an open and immaterial question; all
that is certain or important is the fact that he did not permit himself
to repine. He was never in better spirits than in the six weeks'
interval between the receipt of Mr. Cripps's cable and that gentleman's
arrival with the new Duke. Claude divided the time between the proofs of
his new volume of poems and conscientious preparations for the proper
reception of his noble cousin. He had the mansion in Belgrave Square,
which had fallen of late years into disuse, elaborately done up,
repapered, and fitted throughout with new hangings and the electric
light. He felt it his duty to hand over the house in a cleanly and
habitable state; and he was accustomed to work his duty rather hard. He
ran down to Maske Towers, the principal family seat, repeatedly, and had
certain renovations carried out as far as possible under his own eye. In
every direction he did more than he need have done. And so the time
passed very busily, quite happily, and with an interest that was kept
green to the last by the utter absence of any shred of information
concerning the ninth Duke of St. Osmund's.

Claude had even no idea as to whether he was a married man. So he
legislated for a wife and family. And his worst visions were of a
hulking, genial, sheep-farming Duke, with a tribe of very terrible
little Lords and Ladies, duly frightened of their gigantic father, but
paying not the slightest attention to the anæmic Duchess who all day
scolded them through her freckled nose.

Mr. Cripps's letters continued to arrive by each week's mail; but they
were still written with a shake of the head and a growing deprecation of
the wild-goose chase in which the lawyer now believed himself to be
unworthily engaged. Towards the end of May, however, the letters
stopped. The last one was written on the eve of an expedition up the
country, on a mere off-chance, to find out more about one John
Dillamore, whom Mr. Cripps had heard of as a resident of the Riverina.
Claude Lafont knew well what had come of that off-chance. It had turned
the tide of his life. But no letter came from the Riverina; the next
communication was a telegram from Brindisi, saying they had left the
ship and were travelling overland; and the next after that, another
telegram stating the hour at which they hoped to land at Dover.

Claude Lafont had just time enough to put on his hat, to stop the hansom
for an instant at the house in Belgrave Square, and to catch the 12.0
from Victoria.

It was a lovely day in early June. There was neither a cloud in the sky
nor the white crest of a wave out at sea; the one was as serenely blue
as the other; and the _Calais-Douvre_ rode in with a high-bred calm and
dignity all in key with the occasion. Claude boarded her before he had
any right, with a sudden dereliction of his characteristic caution. And
there was old Cripps, sunburnt and grim, with a soft felt hat on his
head, and a strange spasmodic twitching at the corners of the mouth.

"Here you are!" cried Claude, gripping hands. "Well, where is he?"

The lawyer's lips went in and out, and a rough-looking bystander
chuckled audibly.

"One thing quickly," whispered Claude: "is he a married man?"

"No, he isn't."

The bystander laughed outright. Claude favoured him with a haughty
glance.

"His servant, I presume?"

"No," said Cripps hoarsely. "I must introduce you. The Duke of St.
Osmund's--your kinsman, Mr. Claude Lafont."

Claude felt the painful pressure of a horny fist, and gasped.

"Proud to meet you, mister," said the Duke.

"So delighted to meet and welcome _you_, Duke," said Claude faintly.

"I'm afraid I'm a bit of a larrikin," continued the Duke. "You'd have
done as well to leave me where I was--but now I'm here you've got to
call me Jack."

"You knew, of course, what would happen sooner or later?" said Claude,
with a sickly smile.

"Not me. My colonial oath, I did _not_! Never dreamt of it till I seen
_him_"--with a jerk of his wideawake towards Mr. Cripps. It was a very
different felt hat from that gentleman's; the crown rose like a
sugar-loaf, nine inches from the head; the brim was nearly as many
inches wide; and where the felt touched the temples it was stained
through and through with ancient perspiration.

"And I can't sight it now!" added his Grace.

"Nevertheless it's true," said Mr. Cripps.

Claude was taking in the matted beard, the peeled nose, and the round
shoulders of the ninth Duke. He was a bushman from top to toe.

"What luggage have you?" exclaimed Claude, with a sudden effort. "We
must get it ashore."

"This is all," said the Duke, with a grin.

It lay on the deck at their feet: a long cylinder whose outer case was
an old blue blanket, very neatly rolled and strapped; an Australian
saddle, with enormous knee-pads, black with age; and an extraordinary
cage like a rabbit-hutch. The cage was full of cats. The Duke insisted
on carrying it ashore himself.

"This _is_ the man?" whispered Claude, jealously, to Mr. Cripps.

"The man himself; there's an eagle on his chest as large as life."

"But it might be a coincidence----"

"It might be, but it isn't," replied Cripps shortly. "He's the Duke all
right; the papers I shall show you are quite conclusive. I own he
doesn't look the part. He's not tractable. He would come as he is. I
heaved one old hat overboard; but he had a worse in his swag. However,
no one on board knew who he was. I took care of that."

"God bless you, Cripps!" said Claude Lafont.

He had reserved a first-class carriage. The Duke took up half of it with
his cat-cage, which he stoutly declined to trust out of his sight. There
were still a few minutes before the train would start. Claude and Cripps
exchanged sympathetic glances.

"I think we ought to drink the Duke's health," said Claude, who for once
felt the need of a stimulant himself.

"I think so too," said Mr. Cripps.

"Then make 'em lock the door," stipulated his Grace. "I wouldn't risk my
cats being shook, not for drinks as long as your leg!"

A grinning guard came forward with his key. The Duke "mistered" him, and
mentioned where his cats came from as he got out.

"Very kind of you to shout for me," he continued as they filed into the
refreshment room; "but why the blazes don't you call me Jack? Happy
Jack's my name, that's what they used to call me up the bush. I'm not
going to stop being Jack, or happy either, 'cause I'm a Dook; if I did
I'd jolly soon sling it. Now, my dear, what are you givin' us? Why don't
you let me help myself, like they do up the bush? English fashion, is
it? And you call that drop a nobbler, do you, in the old country? Well,
well, here's fun!"

The Duke's custodians were not sorry to get him back beside his cats.
They were really glad when the train started. The Duke was in high
spirits. The whisky had loosened his tongue.

"Like cats, old man?" he inquired of Claude. "Then I hope you'll make
friends with mine. They were my only mates, year in, year out, up at the
hut. I wasn't going to leave 'em there when they'd stood by me so long;
not likely; so here they are. See that black 'un in the corner? I call
her Black Maria, and that's her kitten. She went and had a large family
at sea, but this poor little beggar's the only one what lived to tell
the tale. That great big Tom, he's the father. I don't think much of
Tom, but it would have been a shame to leave him behind. No, sir, my
favourite's the little tortoise-shell with the game leg. He got cotched
in a rabbit trap last shearing-time; he's the most adventurous little
cat that ever was, so I call him Livingstone. I've known him explore
five miles from the hut, when there wasn't a drop of water or a blade of
feed in the paddicks, and yet come back as fat as butter. A little
caution, I tell you! Out you come, Livingstone!"

Claude thought he had never seen a more ill-favoured animal. To call it
tortoise-shell was to misuse the word. It was simply yellow; it ran on
three legs; and its nose had been recently scarified by an enemy's
claws.

"No, I'm full up of Tom," pursued the Duke, fondling his pet. "Look what
he done on board to Livingstone's nose! I nearly slung him over the
side. Poor little puss, then, poor little puss! You may well purr, old
toucher; there's a live Lord scratching your head."

"Meaning me?" said Claude genially; there was a kindness in the rugged
face, as it bent over the little yellow horror, that appealed to the
poet.

"Meaning you, of course."

"But I'm not one."

"You're not? What a darned shame! Why, you ought to be a Dook. You'd
make a better one than me!"

The family solicitor was half-hidden behind that morning's _Times_; as
Jack spoke, he hid himself entirely. Claude, for his part, saw nothing
to laugh at. The Duke's face was earnest. The Duke's eyes were dark and
kind. Like Claude himself, he had the long Lafont nose, though sun and
wind had peeled it red; and a pair of shaggy brown eyebrows gave
strength at all events to the hairy face. Claude was thinking that
half-an-hour at Truefitt's, a pot of vaseline, and the best attentions
of his own tailors in Maddox Street would make a new man of Happy Jack.
Not that his suit was on a par with his abominable wideawake. He could
not have worn these clothes in the bush. They were obviously his best;
and, as obviously, ready-made.

Happy Jack was meantime apostrophising his pet.

"Ah! but you was with me when that there gentleman found me, wasn't you,
Livingstone? You should tell the other gentleman about that. We never
thought we was a Dook, did we? We thought ourselves a blooming ordinary
common man. My colonial oath, and so we are! But you recollect that last
bu'st of ours, Livingstone? I mean the time we went to knock down the
thirty-one pound cheque what never got knocked down properly at all. We
had a rare thirst on us----"

Mr. Cripps in his corner smacked down the _Times_ on his knees.

"Look there!" he cried. "Did ever you see such grass as that, Jack?
You've nothing like it in New South Wales. I declare it does my old
heart good to see an honest green field again!"

Jack looked out for an instant only.

"Ten sheep to the acre," said he. "Wonderful, isn't it, Livingstone? And
you an' me used to ten acres to the sheep! But we were talking about
that last little spree; you want your Uncle Claude to hear all about it,
I see you do; you're not the cat to make yourself out better than what
you are; not you, Livingstone! Well, as I was saying----"

"Those red-tiled roofs are simply charming!" exclaimed the solicitor.

"A perfect poem," said Claude.

"And that May-tree in full bloom!"

"A living lyric," said Claude.

It was really apple-blossom.

"And you," cried the Duke to his cat, "you're a comic song, that's what
_you_ are! Tell 'em you won't be talked down, Livingstone. Tell this
gentleman he's got to hear the worst. Tell him that when the other
gentleman found us"--the solicitor raised his _Times_ with a shrug--"one
of us was drunk, drunk, drunk; and the other was watching over him--and
the other was my little cat!"

"You're joking, of course?" said Claude, with a flush.

"Not me, mister. That's a fact. You see, it was like this----"

"Thanks," said Claude hastily; "but I'd far rather not know."

"Why not, old toucher?"

"It would hurt me," said Claude, with a shudder.

"Hurt you! Hear that, Livingstone? It would hurt him to hear how we
knocked down our last little cheque! That's the best one _I_'ve heard
since I left the ship!"

"Nevertheless it's the case."

"And do you mean to tell me you were never like that yourself?"

"Never in my life."

"Well, shoot me dead!" whispered the Duke in his amazement.

"It ought not to surprise you," said Claude, in a tone that set the
_Times_ shaking in the far corner of the carriage.

"It does, though. I can't help it. You're the first I've ever met that
could say as much."

"Pray let us drop the subject. I prefer to hear no more. You pain me
more than I can say!"

Claude's flush had deepened; his supersensitive soul was indeed
scandalised, and so visibly that an answering flush showed upon the
Duke's mahogany features, like an extra coat of polish.

"I pain you!" he echoed, dropping his cat. "I'm very sorry then. I am
so! I had no intention of doing any such thing. All I wanted was to fly
my true flag at once, like, and have done with it. And I've pained you;
and you bet I'll go on paining you all the time! How can I help it? I'm
not what us back-blockers call a parlour-man, though I may be a Dook;
but neither the one nor the other is my fault. You should have let me be
in the bush. I was all right there--all right with my hut and my cats.
I'd never known anything better. I never knew who I was. What did it
matter if I knocked down my cheque when I got full up of the cats and
the hut? Nobody thinks anything of that up the bush. The boss used
always to take me on again; some day I'll tell you about my old boss; he
was the best friend ever I had. A real gentleman, who thought no worse
of you so long's it only happened now and then. But see here! It shall
never happen again. It didn't matter in the boundary rider, but p'r'aps
it might in the Dook. Anyhow I'm strict T T from this moment; that
whisky at Dover shall be my last. And I'm darned sorry I pained you,
and--and dash it, here's my fist on it for good and all!"

It is difficult to say which hand wrung the harder. Claude was not
pleased with himself; the conscious lack of some quality, which the
other possessed, was afflicting him with a novel and entirely unexpected
sense of inferiority. He was as yet unsure what the missing quality was;
he hardly suspected it of being a virtue; but it was new to Claude to
have these feelings at all.

He said not another word upon the embarrassing subject, but fell
presently into a train of thought that kept him silent until they
steamed into Victoria. There the conquering Cripps was met by his wife
and daughters; but Claude managed to get a few more words with him as
they were waiting to have the baggage passed.

"I like him," said Claude.

"So do I," was the reply, "and I know him well."

"I like his honesty."

"He is honesty itself. I did my best just now to keep him from giving
himself away--but that was his deliberate game. Mark you, what he
insisted on telling you was quite true; but on the whole he has behaved
excellently ever since."

"Well, as long as he doesn't confess his sins to everybody he meets!"

"No fear of that; he looks on you as still the head of the family, with
a sort of _ex officio_ right to know the worst. His own position he
doesn't realise a bit. Yet some day I expect to see him at least as fit
to occupy it as one or two others; and you are the man to make him so.
You will only require two things."

The great doors opened inwards, and the travellers surged in to claim
their luggage, with Mr. Cripps at their head. Claude caught him by the
elbow as he was pointing out his trunks.

"Those two things?" said he.

"Yes, those two, with my initials on each."

"No, but the two things that I shall need?"

"Oh, those! Plenty of patience, and plenty of time."



CHAPTER III

A CHANCE LOST


It was the pink of the evening when the cousins drove off in a
four-wheeler with the cats on top. Claude had been in many minds about
their destination, until the Duke had asked him to recommend an hotel.
At that he had hesitated a little, and finally pitched upon the First
Avenue. A variety of feelings guided his choice, chief among them being
a vague impression that his wild kinsman would provoke less attention in
Holborn than in Northumberland Avenue. To Holborn, at all events, they
were now on their way.

Claude sat far back in the cab; he felt thankful it was not a hansom. In
the Mall they met a string of them, taking cloaked women and
white-breasted men out to dinner. Claude saw one or two faces he knew,
but was himself unseen. He saw them stare and smile at the tanned and
bearded visage beneath that villainous wideawake, which was thrust from
one window to the other with the eager and unrestrained excitement of a
child. He felt ashamed of poor Jack. He was sincerely ashamed of this
very feeling.

"What streets!" whispered the Duke in an awestruck whisper. "We've
nothing like 'em in Melbourne. They'd knock spots off Sydney. I've been
in both."

Claude had a sudden thought. "For you," he said, "these streets should
have a special interest."

"How's that?"

"Well, many of them belong to you."

"WHAT?"

"You are the ground landlord of some of the streets and squares we have
already passed."

The brown beard had fallen in dismay; now, however, a mouthful of good
teeth showed themselves in a frankly incredulous grin.

"What are you givin' us?" laughed Jack. "I see, you think you've got a
loan of a new chum! Well, so you have. Go ahead!"

"Not if you don't choose to believe me," replied Claude stiffly. "I
meant what I said; I usually do. The property has been in our family for
hundreds of years."

"And now it's mine?"

"And now it's yours."

The Duke of St. Osmund's took off his monstrous wideawake, and passed
the back of his hairy hand across his forehead. The gesture was eloquent
of a mind appalled.

"Have I no homestead on my own run?" he inquired at length.

"You have several," said Claude, smiling; but he also hesitated.

"Several in London?" cried the Duke, aghast again.

"No--only one in town."

"That's better! I say, though, why aren't we going there?"

"Well, the fact is, they're not quite ready for you; I mean the
servants. They--we were all rather rushed, you know, and they don't
expect you to-night. Do you mind?"

Claude had stated but one fact of many. That morning, when he stopped
his hansom at the house, he had told the servants not to expect his
Grace until he telegraphed. After seeing the Duke, he had resolved not
to telegraph at all; and certainly not to install him in his own house,
as he was, without consulting other members of the family. He still
considered that decision justified. Nevertheless, the Duke's reply came
as a great relief.

"No, I'm just as glad," said Jack contentedly. His contentment was only
comparative, however. The first dim conception of his greatness had
strangely dashed him; he was no longer the man that he had been in the
train.

An athlete in a frayed frock-coat, and no shirt, was sprinting behind
the cab with the customary intent; it was a glimpse of him, as they
turned a corner, that slew the oppressed Duke, and brought Happy Jack
back to life.

"Stop the cab!" he roared; "there's a man on the track of my cats!"

"Nonsense, my dear fellow; it's only a person who'll want sixpence for
not helping with the luggage."

"Are you sure?" asked Jack suspiciously. "How do you know he isn't a
professional cat-stealer? I must ask the cabman if they are all right!"
He did so, and was reassured.

"We're almost at the hotel now," said Claude, with misgivings; he was
bitterly anticipating the sensation to be caused there by the arrival of
such a Duke of St. Osmund's, and wondering whether it would be of any
use suggesting a further period of _incognito_.

"Nearly there, are we? Then see here," said Jack, "I've got something to
insist on. I mean to have my way about one matter."

Claude groaned inwardly.

"What is it?" he asked.

"I'll tell you straight. I'm not going to do the Dook in this hotel. I'm
plain Jack Dillamore, or I don't go in."

The delight of this deliverance nearly overcame the poet.

"I think you're wise," was all he trusted himself to say. "I should be
inclined to take the same course were I in your place. You will escape a
great deal of the sort of adulation which turneth the soul sick. And for
one night, at all events, you will be able, as an alien outsider, to
form an unprejudiced opinion of our unlovely metropolis."

In the bright light of his ineffable relief, Claude's little mannerisms
stood out once more, like shadows when the sun shines fitfully; but it
was a transient gleam. The arrival at the hotel was still embarrassing
enough. The wideawake attracted attention. The attention was neither of
a flattering character in itself nor otherwise desirable from any point
of view. It made Claude miserable. There was also trouble about the
cats.

Jack insisted on having them with him in his room. The management
demurred. Jack threatened to go elsewhere. The management raised no
objection; but Claude did. He handed them his card, and this settled
the matter. There is but one race of Lafonts in England. So Jack had his
way. A room was taken; the cats were put into it; milk was set before
them; and Jack left the hotel in Claude's company, with the key of that
room in his pocket.

Claude would have taken him to his club, but for both their sakes he did
not dare. Yet he was as anxious as ever to show every hospitality to the
Duke. Accordingly he had refused Jack's invitation to dine with him in
the hotel, and was taking him across to the Holborn instead.

The dinner went wonderfully. Jack was delighted with the music, with the
electric lights, with the marble pillars, with the gilded balconies,
with the dinner itself, in fact with everything. There was but one item
which did not appeal to him: he stoutly refused to drink a drop of wine.

"A promise is a promise," said he. "I gave you my colonial in the train,
and I mean to keep it; for a bit, at all events."

Claude protested and tempted him in vain. Jack called for a
lemon-squash, and turned his wine-glasses upside down. He revenged
himself, however, upon the viands.

"Which _entrée_, please, sir?" said the waiter.

"Both!" cried Jack. "You may go on, mister, till I tell you to stop!"

After dinner the cousins went aloft, and Claude took out his cigarette
case and ordered cigars for the Duke. He could not smoke them himself,
but neither, it appeared, could Jack. _He_ produced a cutty-pipe, black
and foul with age, and a cake of tobacco like a piece of shoe-leather,
which he began paring with his knife. Claude had soon to sit farther
away from him.

Jack did not fancy a theatre; he was strongly in favour of a quiet
evening and a long talk; and it was he who proposed that they should
return, for this purpose, to the First Avenue. No sooner were they
comfortably settled in the hotel smoking-room, however, than the Duke
announced that he must run upstairs and see to his cats. And he came
down no more that night.

Claude waited patiently for twenty minutes. Then he began a note to Lady
Caroline Sellwood. Then he remembered that he could, if he liked, see
Lady Caroline that night. It was merely a question of driving over to
his rooms in St. James's and putting himself into evening dress. On the
whole, this seemed worth doing. Claude therefore followed Jack upstairs
after an interval of half-an-hour.

The Duke's rooms were on the first floor. Claude surprised a group of
first-floor servants laughing and whispering in the corridor. The little
that he heard as he passed made him hot all over. The exact words were:

"Never see such a man in my life." "Nor me, my dear!" "And yet they call
this 'ere a decent 'otel!"

Claude had no doubt in his own mind as to whom they were talking about.
Already the Duke inspired him with a sort of second-self-consciousness.
Prepared for anything, he hastened to the room and nervously knocked at
the door.

"Come in!" cried Jack's voice.

The door was unlocked; as Claude opened it the heat of the room fairly
staggered him. It was a sufficiently warm summer night, yet an enormous
fire was burning in the grate.

"My _dear_ fellow!" panted Claude.

Jack was in his trousers and shirt; the sleeves were rolled up over his
brawny arms; the open front revealed an estuary of hairy chest; and it
was plain at a glance that the Duke was perspiring at every pore.

"It's all right," he said. "It's for the cats."

"The cats!" said Claude. They were lying round about the fire.

"Yes, poor devils! They had a fire every day in the hut, summer and
winter. They never had a single one at sea. They like to sleep by
it--they always did--all but Livingstone. He sleeps with me when he
isn't on the loose."

"But you'll never be able to sleep in an atmosphere like this!"

Jack was cutting up a pipeful of his black tobacco.

"Well, it _is_ warm," he admitted. "And now you mention it, I may find
it a job to get asleep; but the cats like it, anyhow!" And he swore at
them affectionately as he lit his pipe.

"Did you forget you'd left me downstairs?" asked Claude.

"Clean! I apologise. I took this idea into my head, and I could think of
nothing else."

"May we have another window open? Thank you. I'll smoke one cigarette;
then I must be off."

"Where to?"

"My chambers--to dress."

"To _undress_, you mean!"

"No, to dress. I've got to go out to a--to a party. I had almost
forgotten about it. The truth is, I want to see Lady Caroline Sellwood,
who, although not a near relation, is about the only woman in London
with our blood in her veins. She will want to see you. What's the
matter?"

Jack's pipe had gone out in his hand; and there he stood, a pillar of
perspiring bewilderment.

"A party!" he murmured. "At this time o' night!"

Claude laughed.

"It's not ten o'clock yet; if I'm there before half-past eleven I shall
be too early."

"I give you best," said Jack, shaking his head, and putting another
light to his pipe. "It licks _me_! Who's the madman who gives parties in
the middle of the night?"

"My dear fellow, everybody does! In this case it's a woman: the Countess
of Darlingford."

"A live Countess!"

"Well, but you're a live Duke."

"But--I'm--a live--Dook!"

Jack repeated the words as though the fact had momentarily escaped him.
His pipe went out again. This time he made no attempt to relight it, but
stood staring at Claude with his bare brown arms akimbo, and much
trouble in his rugged, honest face.

"You can't get out of it," laughed Claude.

"I can!" he cried. "I mean to get out of it! I'm not the man for the
billet. I wasn't dragged up to it. And I don't want it! I shall only
make a darned ass of myself and everybody else mixed up with me. I may
be the man by birth, but I'm not the man by anything else; and look
here, I want to back out of it while there's time; and you're the very
man to help me. I wasn't dragged up to it--but you were. I'm not the man
for the billet--but you are. The very man! You go to parties in the
middle of the night, and you think nothing of 'em. They'd be the death
of Happy Jack! The whole thing turns me sick with funk--the life, the
money, the responsibility. I never got a sight of it till to-day; and
now I don't want it at any price. You'd have got it if it hadn't been
for me; so take it now--for God's sake, take it now! If it's mine, it's
mine to give. I give it to you! Claude, old toucher, be the Dook
yourself. Let me and the cats clear back to the bush!"

The poet had listened with amazement, with amusement, with compassion
and concern. He now shook his head.

"You ask an impossibility. Without going into the thing, take my word
for it that what you propose is utterly and hopelessly out of the
question."

"Couldn't I disappear?" said Jack eagerly. "Couldn't I do a bolt in the
night? It's a big chance for you; surely you won't lose it by refusing
to help me clear out?"

Claude again shook his head.

"In a week's time you will be laughing at what you are saying now. You
are one of the richest men in England; everything that money can buy you
can have. You own some of the loveliest seats in the whole country; wait
till I have shown you Maske Towers! You won't want to clear out then.
You won't ask me to be the Duke again!"

He had purposely dwelt upon those material allurements which the
bushman's mind would most readily grasp. And it was obvious that his
arguments had hit the target, although not, perhaps, the bull's-eye.

"Anyhow," said Jack doggedly, "it's an offer! And I repeat it. What's
more, I mean it too!"

"Then I decline it," returned Claude, to humour him; "and there's an end
of the matter. Look here, though. One thing I promise. If you like, I'll
see you through!"

"You will?"

"I will with all my heart."

"And you're quite sure you won't take on the whole show yourself?"

"Quite sure," said Claude, smiling.

"Still, you'll tell me what to do? You'll tell me what not to do? You'll
show me the ropes? You'll have hold of my sleeve?"

"I'll do all that; at least, I'll do all I can. It may not be much.
Still I'll do it."

Jack held out a hot, damp hand; yet, just then, he seemed to be
perspiring most freely under the eyes.

"You're a good sort, Claudy!" said he hoarsely.

"Good-night, old fellow," said Claude Lafont.



CHAPTER IV

NOT IN THE PROGRAMME


Lady Caroline Sellwood's incomparable Wednesdays were so salient a
feature of those seasons during which her husband was in office, and her
town house in St. James's Square, that their standard is still quoted as
the ideal of its kind. These afternoons were never dull. Lady Caroline
cast a broad net, and her average draught included representatives of
every decent section of the community. But she also possessed some
secret recipe, the envy and the despair of other professional hostesses,
and in her rooms there was never an undue preponderance of any one
social ingredient. Every class--above a certain line, not drawn too
high--was represented; none was over done; nor was the mistake made of
"packing" the assembly with interesting people. The very necessary
complement of the merely interested was never wanting. One met beauty as
well as brains; wealth as well as wit; and quite as many colourless
nonentities as notorieties of every hue. The proportion was always
perfect, but not more so than the general good-temper of the guests.
They foregathered like long-lost brothers and sisters: the demagogue and
the divine; the judge and the junior; the oldest lady and the newest
woman; the amateur playwright and the actor-manager who had lost his
play; the minor novelist and the young lady who had never heard of him;
and my Lords and Ladies (whose carriages half-filled the Square) with
the very least of these. It was wonderful to see them together; it was a
solemn thought, but yet a fact, that their heavenly behaviour was due
simply and entirely to the administrative genius of Lady Caroline
Sellwood.

The Home Secretary hated the Wednesdays; he was the one person who did;
and _he_ only hated them because they _were_ Wednesdays--and from the
period of his elderly infatuation for golf. It was his great day for a
round; and Lady Caroline had to make his excuses every week when it was
fine. This was another thing which her Ladyship did beautifully. She
would say, with a voice full of sympathy, equally divided between those
mutual losers, her guest and her husband, that poor dear George had to
address such and such a tiresome deputation; when, as a matter of fact,
he was "addressing" his golf-hall on Wimbledon Common, and enjoying
himself exceedingly. Now, among other Wednesdays, the Home Secretary was
down at Wimbledon (with a prominent member of the Opposition) on the
afternoon following the arrival in London of the ninth Duke of St.
Osmund's; and Mr. Sellwood never knew whether to pity his wife, or to
congratulate himself, on his absence from her side on that occasion.

One of their constant ornaments, Claude Lafont, had been forced to
eschew these Wednesdays of late weeks. Lady Caroline Sellwood had never
been quite the same to him since the Easter Recess. She had treated him
from that time with a studied coolness quite inexplicable to his simple
mind; and finally, at Lady Darlingford's, she had been positively rude.
Claude, of course, had gone there expressly to prepare Lady Caroline for
the new Duke. This he conceived to be his immediate duty, and he
attempted to perform it, in the kindliest spirit imaginable, with all
the tact at his command. Lady Caroline declined to hear him out. She
chose to put a sinister construction upon his well-meant words, and to
interrupt them with the announcement that she intended, with Claude's
permission, to judge the Duke for herself. Was he married? Ha! then
where was he to be found? Claude told her, was coldly thanked, and went
home to writhe all that Tuesday night under the mortification of his
kinswoman's snub.

Yet, on the Wednesday afternoon, Claude Lafont not only went to the
Sellwoods' as though nothing had happened, but he was there before the
time. And Lady Caroline was not only amazed, but (for the first time
since Easter) really pleased to see him: for already she had been given
cause to regret her insolent disregard of him overnight at Lady
Darlingford's. She was even composing an apology when the whiteness of
Claude's face brought her thoughts to a standstill.

"Have you seen him?" he cried, as they met.

"The Duke?"

"Yes--haven't you seen him this morning?"

"No, indeed! Haven't you?"

Claude sat down with a groan, shaking his head, and never seeing the
glittering, plump, outstretched hand.

"Haven't you?" repeated Lady Caroline, sitting down herself.

"Not this morning. I made sure he would come here!"

"So he ought to have done. I asked him to lunch. The note was written
and posted the instant we came in from the Darlingfords'. Claude, I
wasn't nice to you there! Can you forgive me? I thought you were
prejudiced. My dreadful temper rose in arms on the side of the absent
man; it always was my great weakness rightly or wrongly to take the part
of those who aren't there to stick up for themselves!"

Her great weakness was of quite another character, but Claude bowed. He
was barely listening.

"I've lost him," he said, looking at Lady Caroline, with a rolling eye.
"He's disappeared."

"Never!"

"This morning," said Claude. "I did so hope he was here!"

"He sent no answer, not one word, and he never came. Who saw him last?"

"The hotel people, early this morning. It seems he ordered a horse for
seven o'clock, shortly after I left him last night. So they got him one,
and off he went before breakfast in the flannel collar and the
outrageous bush wideawake in which he landed. And he's never come
back."

A change came over Lady Caroline Sellwood. She drew her chair a little
nearer, and she favoured Claude Lafont with a kindlier glance than he
had had from her since Easter.

"Something may have happened," whispered Lady Caroline hopefully.

"That's just it. Something _must_ have happened."

"But something dreadful! Only last season there was a man killed in the
Row! Was he--a _very_ rough diamond, Claude?"

"Very."

Lady Caroline sighed complacently.

"But you can't help liking him," hastily added Claude, "and I hope to
goodness nothing serious is the matter!"

"Of course, so do I. That goes without saying."

"Nor is he at all a likely man to be thrown. He has lived his life in
the saddle. By the way, he brought his own old bush-saddle with him, and
it appears that he insisted on riding out in that too."

"You see, Claude, it's a pity you didn't leave him in the bush; he's
evidently devoted to it still."

"He is--that's the trouble; he has already spoken of bolting back there.
My fear is that he may even now be suiting the action to the word."

"Don't tell me that," said Lady Caroline, whose head was still full of
her first theory.

"It's what I fear; he's just the sort of fellow to go back by the first
boat, if the panic took him. He showed signs of a panic last night. You
see, he's only just beginning to realise what his position here will
mean. And it frightens him; it may have frightened him out of our sight
once and for all."

Lady Caroline shook her head.

"My fear is that he has broken his neck! And if he has, depend upon it,
sad as it would be, it would still be for the best. That's what I always
say: everything is for the best," repeated Lady Caroline, pensively
gazing at Claude's handsome head. "However," she added, as the door
opened, "here's Olivia; go and ask her what she thinks. _I_ am prepared
for the worst. And pray stop, dear Claude, and let us talk the matter
over after the others have gone. We may _know_ the worst by that time.
And we have seen nothing of you this season!"

Olivia looked charming. She was also kind to Claude. But she entirely
declined to embrace her mother's dark view of the Duke's disappearance.
On the other hand, she was inconveniently inquisitive about his looks
and personality, and Claude had to say many words for his cousin before
he could get in one for himself. However, he did at length contrive to
speak of his new volume of poems. It was just out. He was having a copy
of the exceedingly limited large-paper edition specially bound in vellum
for Olivia's acceptance. Olivia seemed pleased, and apart from his
anxiety Claude had not felt so happy for weeks. They were allowed to
talk to each other until the rooms began to fill.

It was a very good Wednesday; but then the season was at its height. The
gathering comprised the usual measure of interesting and interested
persons, and the former had made their names upon as many different
fields as ever. Claude had a chat with his friend, Edmund Stubbs, a
young man with an unhealthy skin and a vague reputation for immense
cleverness. They spoke of the poems. Stubbs expressed a wish to see the
large-paper edition, which was not yet for sale, as did Ivor Llewellyn,
the impressionist artist, who was responsible for the "decorations" in
most volumes of contemporary minor verse, Claude's included. Claude was
injudicious enough to invite both men to his rooms that night. The
Impressionist was the most remarkable-looking of all Lady Caroline's
guests. He wore a curled fringe and a flowing tie, and pince-nez
attached to his person by a broad black ribbon. His pale face was
prematurely drawn, and he showed his gums in a deathly grin at the many
hard things which Stubbs muttered at the expense of all present whom he
knew by sight. Claude had a high opinion of both these men, but for once
he was scarcely in tune for their talk, which was ever at a sort of
artistic-intellectual concert-pitch. The Duke was to be forgotten in the
society of Olivia only. Claude therefore edged away, trod on the skirts
of a titled divorcée, got jammed between an Irish member and a composer
of comic songs, and was finally engaged in conversation by the aged
police magistrate, Sir Joseph Todd.

Sir Joseph had lowered his elephantine form into a chair beside the
tea-table, where he sat, with his great cane between his enormous legs,
munching cake like a school-boy and winking at his friends. He winked at
Claude. The magistrate had been a journalist, and a scandalous Bohemian,
so he said, in his young days; he had given Claude introductions and
advice when the latter took to his pen. He, also, inquired after the new
book, but rather grimly, and expressed himself with the rough edge of
his tongue on the subject of modern "poets" and "poetry": the inverted
commas were in his voice.

"You young spring poets," said he, "are too tender by half; you're all
white meat together. You may say that's no reason why I should have my
knife in you. Why didn't you say it? A bad joke would be a positive
treat from you precious young fellows of to-day. And you give us bad
lyrics instead, in limited editions; that's the way it takes you now."

Claude laughed; he was absurdly good-humoured under hostile criticism, a
quality of which some of his literary friends were apt to take
advantage. On this occasion, however, his unconcern was partly due to
inattention. While listening to his old friend he was thinking still of
the Duke.

"I'm sorry you would be a poet, Claude," the magistrate continued. "The
price of poets has gone down since my day. And you'd have done so much
better in the House--by which, of course, I mean the House we all
thought you were bound for. Has he--has he turned up yet?"

"Oh yes; he's in England," replied Claude, with discretion.

Sir Joseph pricked his ears, but curbed his tongue. Of all the questions
that gathered on his lips, only one was admissible, even in so old a
friend as himself.

"A family man?"

"No; a bachelor."

"Capital! We shall see some fun, eh?" chuckled Sir Joseph, gobbling the
last of his last slice. "What a quarry--what a prize! I was reminded of
him only this morning, Claude. I had an Australian up before me--a most
astounding fellow! An escaped bush-ranger, I should call him; looked as
if he'd been cut straight out of a penny dreadful; never saw such a man
in my life. However----"

Claude was not listening; his preoccupation was this time palpable. The
mouth of him was open, and his eyes were fixed; the police magistrate
followed their lead, with double eye-glasses in thick gold frames; and
then _his_ mouth opened too.

Her guests were making way for Lady Caroline Sellwood, who was leading
towards the tea-table, by his horny hand, none other than the ninth Duke
of St. Osmund's himself. Her Ladyship's face was radiant with smiles;
yet the Duke was just as he had been the day before, as unkempt, as
undressed (his Crimean shirt had a flannel collar, but no tie), as
round-shouldered; with his nose and ears still flayed by the sun; and
the notorious wideawake tucked under his arm.

"He has come straight from the bush," her Ladyship informed everybody
(as though she meant some shrub in the Square garden), "and just as he
is. I call it so sweet of him! You know you'll never look so picturesque
again, my dear Duke!"

Olivia followed with the best expression her frank face could muster.
Claude took his cousin's hand in a sudden hush.

"Where in the world have you been?" broke from him before them all.

"Been? I've been run in," replied the Duke, with a smack of his bearded
grinning lips.

"Tea or coffee, Duke?" said Lady Caroline, all smiling tolerance. "Tea?
A cup of tea for the Duke of St. Osmund's. And _where_ do you say you
have been?"

"Locked up!" said his Grace. "In choky, if you like it better!"

Lady Caroline herself led the laugh. The situation was indeed worthy of
her finely tempered steel, her consummate tact, her instinctive
dexterity. Many a grander dame would have essayed to quell that
incriminating tongue. Not so Lady Caroline Sellwood. She took her
Australian wild bull very boldly by the horns.

"I do believe," she cried, "that you are what we have all of us been
looking for--in real life--all our days. I do believe you are the
shocking Duke of those dreadful melodramas in the flesh at last! What
was your crime? Ah! I've no doubt you cannot tell us!"

"Can I not?" cried the Duke, as Claude stopped him, unobserved, from
pouring his tea into the saucer. "I'll tell you all about it, and
perhaps you'll show me where the crime comes in, for I'm bothered if I
see it yet. All I did was to have a gallop along one of your streets; I
don't even know which street it was; but there's a round clearing at one
end, then a curve, and then another clearing at the far end."

"Regent Street," murmured Claude.

"That's the name. Well, it was quite early, there was hardly anybody
about, so I thought surely to goodness there could be no harm in a
gallop; and I had one from clearing to clearing. Blowed if they didn't
run me in for that! They kept me locked up all the morning. Then they
took me before a fat old joker who did nothing much but wink. That old
joker, though, he let me off, so I've nothing agen' _him_. He's a white
man, he is. So here I am at last, having got your invitation to lunch,
ma'am, just half-an-hour ago."

Sir Joseph Todd had been making fruitless efforts to rise, unaided, from
his chair; he now caught Claude's arm, and simultaneously, the eye of
the Duke.

"Jumping Moses!" roared Jack; "why, there he is! I beg your pardon,
mister; but who'd have thought of finding _you_ here?"

"This is pleasing," muttered Edmund Stubbs, in the background, to his
friend the Impressionist. "I've seen the lion and the lamb lie down here
together before to-day. But nothing like this!"

The Impressionist whipped out a pencil and bared a shirt-cuff. No one
saw him. All eyes were upon the Duke and the magistrate, who were
shaking hands.

"You have paid me a valuable compliment," croaked Sir Joseph gayly. "Of
course I winked! Hadn't I my Lord Duke's little peccadillo to wink at?"

And he bowed himself away under cover of his joke, which also helped
Lady Caroline enormously. The Duke mentioned the name by which he would
go down to posterity on a metropolitan charge-sheet. Most people resumed
their conversation. A few still laughed. And the less seriously the
whole matter was taken, the better, of course, for all concerned,
particularly the Duke. Olivia had him in hand now. And her mother found
time to exchange a few words with Claude Lafont.

"A dear fellow, is he not? So natural! Such an example in that way to us
all! How many of us would carry ourselves as well in--in our bush
garments?" speculated her Ladyship, for the benefit of more ears than
Claude's. Then her voice sank and trembled. "Take him away, Claude," she
gasped below her breath. "Take him away!"

"I intend to," he whispered, nodding, "when I get the chance."

"But not only from here--from town as well. Carry him off to the Towers!
And when you get him there, for heaven's sake keep him there, and take
him in hand, and we will all come down in August to see what you have
done."

"I'm quite agreeable, of course; but what if he isn't?"

"He will be. _You_ can do what you like with him. I have discovered that
already; he asked at once if you were here, and said how he liked you.
Claude, you are so clever and so good! If any one can make him
presentable, it is you!" She was wringing her white hands whiter yet.

"I'll do my best, for all our sakes. I must say I like my material."

"Oh, he's a dear fellow!" cried Lady Caroline, dropping her hands and
uplifting her voice once more. "So original--in nothing more than in his
moral courage--his superiority to mere conventional appearances! _That_
is a lesson----"

Lady Caroline stopped with a little scream. In common with others, she
had heard the high, shrill mewing of a kitten; but cats were a special
aversion of her Ladyship's.

"What was that?" she cried, tugging instinctively at her skirts.

"Meow!" went the shrill small voice again; and all eyes fastened upon
the Duke of St. Osmund's, whose ready-made coat-tails were moving like a
bag of ferrets.

The Duke burst into a hearty laugh, and diving in his coat-tail pocket,
produced the offending kitten in his great fist. Lady Caroline Sellwood
took a step backward; and because she did not lead it, there was no
laugh this time from her guests; and because there was no laugh but his
own, the Duke looked consciously awkward for the first time. In fact, it
was the worst moment yet; the next, however, Olivia's pink palms were
stretched out for the kitten, and Olivia's laughing voice was making the
sweetest music that ever had gladdened the heart of the Duke.

"The little darling!" cried the girl with genuine delight. "Let me have
it, do!"

He gave it to her without a word, but with eyes that clung as fast to
her face as the tiny claws did to her dress. Olivia's attention was all
for the kitten; she was serenely unconscious of that devouring gaze; but
Claude saw it, and winced. And Lady Caroline saw it too.

"Poor mite!" pursued Olivia, stroking the bunch of black fur with a
cheek as soft. "What a shame to keep it smothered up in a stuffy pocket!
Are you fond of cats?" she asked the Duke.

"Am I not! They were my only mates up the bush. I brought over three
besides the kitten."

"You brought them from the bush?"

"I did so!"

Olivia looked at him; his eyes had never left her; she dropped hers, and
caressed the kitten.

"I put that one in my pocket," continued the Duke, "because I learned
Livingstone to ride in front of me when he was just such another little
'un. But he'd done a bolt in the night; I found him just now with his
three working paws black with your London soot; but he wasn't there when
I got up, so I took the youngster. P'r'aps it wasn't over kind. It won't
happen again. He's yours!"

"The kitten?"

"Why, certainly."

"To keep?"

"If you will. I'd be proud!"

"Then _I_ am proud. And I'll try to be as kind to it as you would have
been."

"You're uncommon kind to me," remarked the Duke irrelevantly. "So are
you all," he added, in a ringing voice, as he drew himself up to his
last inch, and for once stood clear of the medium height. "I never knew
that there were so many of you here, or I'd have kept away. I'm just as
I stepped off of the ship. I went aboard pretty much as I left the bush;
if you'll make allowances for me this time, it sha'n't happen again. You
don't catch me twice in a rig like this! Meanwhile, it's very kind of
you all not to laugh at a fellow. I'm much obliged to you. I am so. And
I hope we shall know each other better before long!"

Claude was not ashamed of him then. There was no truer dignity beneath
the ruffles and periwigs of their ancestors in the Maske picture-gallery
than that of the rude, blunt fellow who could face modestly and yet
kindly a whole roomful of well-dressed Londoners. It did not desert him
as he shook hands with Lady Caroline and Olivia. In another moment the
Duke was gone, and of his own accord, before he had been twenty minutes
in the house. And what remained of that Wednesday afternoon fell flat
and stale--always excepting the little formula with which Lady Caroline
Sellwood sped her parting guests.

"Poor fellow," it ran, "he has roughed it so dreadfully in that horrible
bush! You won't know him the next time you see him. Yes, I assure you,
he went straight on board at that end and came straight to us at this!
Not a day for anything in Melbourne or here. Actually not one day! I
thought it so dear of him to come as he was. Didn't you?"



CHAPTER V

WITH THE ELECT


The ragged beard had been trimmed to a point; the uncouth hair had been
cut, shampooed, and invested with a subtle, inoffensive aroma; and a
twenty-five-shilling Lincoln and Bennett crowned all without palpable
incongruity. The brown, chapped neck, on the other hand, did look
browner and rougher than before in the cold clutch of a gleaming
stand-up collar. And a like contrast was observable between the ample
cuffs of a brand-new shirt, and the Duke's hands, on whose hirsute backs
the yellow freckles now stood out like half-sovereigns. Jack drew the
line at gloves. On the whole, however, his docility had passed all
praise; he even consented to burden himself with a most superfluous
Inverness cape, all for the better concealment of the ready-made suit.
In fine, a few hours had made quite a painfully new man of him; yet
perhaps the only real loss was that of his good spirits; and these he
had left, not in any of the shops to which Claude had taken him before
dinner, but, since then, in his own house in Belgrave Square.

Claude had shown him over it between nine and ten; they were now
arm-in-arm on their way from this errand, and the street-lamps shone
indifferently on the Duke's dejection and on Claude's relief. He had
threatened instant occupation of his own town-house; he had conceived
nightmare hospitalities towards all and sundry; and had stuck to his
guns against argument with an obstinacy which made Claude's hair stand
on end. Now the Duke had less to say. He had seen his house. The empty,
echoing, inhospitable rooms, with perhaps a handful of electric lights
freezing out of the darkness as they entered, had struck a chill to his
genial heart. And Claude knew it as he led the way to his own cosy
chambers; but was reminded of another thing as he approached them, and
became himself, on the spot, a different man.

He had forgotten the two friends he had invited to come in for a private
view of the large-paper edition. He was reminded of them by seeing from
the street his open window filled with light; and his manner had
entirely altered when he detained the Duke below, and sought with
elaborate phrases to impress him beforehand with the transcendent merits
of the couple whom he was about to meet. Jack promptly offered to go
away. He had never heard tell of Impressionism, and artists were not in
his line. What about the other joker? What did _he_ do?

"Nothing, my dear fellow; he's far too good a man to _do_ things,"
explained Claude, whose changed speech inclined the other to flight
quite as much as his accounts of the men upstairs. "The really delicate
brains--the most highly sensitised souls--seldom spend themselves upon
mere creative work. They look on, and possibly criticise--that is, when
they meet with aught worthy their criticism. My friend, Edmund Stubbs,
is such an one. He has a sensitised soul, if you like! His artistic
standard is too high, he is too true to his ideals, to produce the
imperfect. He is full of ideas; but they are too big for brush, pen, or
chisel to express them. On the other hand, he's a very fountain of
inspiration, tempered by critical restraint, to many a man whose name
(as my own) is possibly a household word in Clapham, where poor Edmund's
is unknown. Not that I should pity him on that score; he has a holy
scorn for what himself would call a 'suburban popularity'; and, indeed,
I am not with him in his views as to the indignity of fame generally.
But there, he is a bright particular star who is content to shine for
the favoured few who have the privilege of calling him their friend."

"You do talk like a book, and no error!" said the Duke. "I haven't ever
heard you gas on like that before."

The bright particular star was discovered in Claude's easiest chair,
with the precious volume in one hand, and a tall glass, nearly empty, in
the other; the Impressionist was in the act of replacing the stopper in
the whisky-decanter; and Claude accepted the somewhat redundant
explanation, that they were making themselves at home, with every sign
of approval. Nor was he slow in introducing his friends; but for once
the Duke was refreshingly subdued, if not shy; and for the first few
minutes the others had their heads together over the large-paper
edition, for whose "decorations" the draftsman himself had not the least
to say, where all admired. At length Claude passed the open volume to
his cousin; needless to say it was open at the frontispiece; but the
first and only thing that Jack saw was the author's name in red capitals
on the title-page opposite.

"Claude Lafont!" he read out. "Why, you don't ever mean--to tell
me--that's you, old brusher?"

Claude smiled and coloured.

"You an author!" continued the Duke in a wide-eyed wonder. "And you
never told me! Well, no wonder you can talk like a book when you can
write one, too! So this is your latest, is it?"

"The limited large-paper edition," said Claude. "Only seventy-five
copies printed, and I sign them all. How does it strike you--physically,
I mean?"

"'Physically' is quite pleasing," murmured Stubbs; and Claude helped him
to more whisky.

Jack looked at the book. The back was of a pale brown cardboard; the
type had a curious, olden air about it; the paper was thick, and its
edges elaborately ragged. The Duke asked if it was a new book. It looked
to him a hundred years old, he said, and discovered that he had paid a
pretty compliment unawares.

"There's one thing, however," he added: "we could chop leaves as well as
that in the back-blocks!"

The Impressionist grinned; his friend drank deep, with a corrugated
brow; the poet expounded the beauties of the rough edge, and Jack gave
him back his book.

"I know nothing about it," said he; "but still, I'm proud of you, I am
so. And I'm proud," he added, "to find myself in such company as yours,
gentlemen; though I don't mind telling you, if I'd known I'd be the only
plain man in the room I'd never have come upstairs!"

And the Duke sat down in a corner, with his knife, his tobacco, and his
cutty-pipe, as shy as a great boy in a roomful of girls. Yet this wore
off, for the conversation of the elect did not, after all, rarefy the
atmosphere to oppression; indeed, that of the sensitised soul contained
more oaths than Jack had heard from one mouth since he left the bush,
and this alone was enough to put him at his ease. At the same time he
was repelled, for it appeared to be a characteristic of the great Stubbs
to turn up his nose at all men; and as that organ was _retroussé_ to
begin with, Jack was forcibly reminded of some ill-bred, snarling
bulldog, and he marvelled at the hound's reputation. He put in no word,
however, until the conversation turned on Claude's poems, and a
particularly cool, coarse thing was said of one of them, and Claude only
laughed. Then he did speak up.

"See here, mister," he blurted out from his corner. "Could you do as
good?"

Stubbs stared at the Duke, and drained his glass.

"I shouldn't try," was his reply.

"I wouldn't," retorted Jack. "I just wouldn't, if I were you."

Stubbs could better have parried a less indelicate, a less childish
thrust; as it was, he reached for his hat. Claude interfered at once.

"My dear old fellow," said he to Jack, "you mustn't mind what my friend
Edmund says of my stuff. I like it. He is always right, for one thing;
and then, only think of the privilege of having such a critic to tell
one exactly what he thinks."

Jack looked from one man to the other. The sincerity of the last speech
was not absolutely convincing, but that of Claude's feeling for his
friend was obvious enough; and, with a laugh, the Duke put his back
against the door. The apology which he delivered in that position was in
all respects characteristic. It was unnecessarily full; it was informed
alike by an extravagant good-will towards mankind, and an irritating
personal humility; and it ended, somewhat to Claude's dismay, with a
direct invitation to both his friends to spend a month at Maske Towers.

Perhaps these young men realised then, for the first time, who the rough
fellow was, after all, with whom they had been thrown in contact. At all
events the double invitation was accepted with alacrity; and no more
hard things were said of Claude's lyrics. The flow of soul was
henceforth as uninterrupted as that of the whisky down the visitors'
throats. And no further hitch would have occurred had the Impressionist
not made that surreptitious sketch of the Duke, which so delighted his
friends.

"Oh, admirable!" cried Claude. "A most suggestive humouresque!"

"It'll do," said Stubbs, the oracle. "It mightn't appeal to the suburbs,
damn them, but it does to us."

"Grant the convention, and the art is perfect," continued Claude, with
the tail of his eye on Jack.

"It is the caricature that is more like than life," pursued Stubbs, with
a sidelong glance in the same direction.

Jack saw these looks; but from his corner he could not see the sketch,
nor had he any suspicion of its subject. All else that he noted was the
flush of triumph, or it may have been whisky, or just possibly both, on
the pale, fringed face of Impressionism. He held out his hand for the
half-sheet of paper on which the sketch had been made.

"I hope it won't offend you," exclaimed the artist, hesitating.

"Offend me! Why should it? Let's have a look!"

And he looked for more than a minute at the five curves and a beard
which had expressed to quicker eyes the quintessence of his own outward
and visible personality. At first he could make nothing of them; even
when an interpretation dawned upon him, his face was puzzled as he
raised it to the trio hanging on his words.

"It won't do, mister," said the Duke reluctantly. "You'll never get
saplings like them," tapping the five curves with his forefinger, "to
hold a nest like that," putting his thumb on the beard, "and don't you
believe it."

There was a moment's silence. Then the Impressionist said thickly:

"Give me that sketch."

Jack handed it back. In another moment it was littering the ground in
four pieces, and the door had banged behind the indignant draftsman.

"What on earth have I done?" cried the Duke, aghast.

"You have offended Llewellyn," replied Claude shortly.

"How? By what I said? I'll run after him this minute and apologise. I
never meant to hurt his feelings. Where's that stove-pipe hat?"

"Let _me_ go," said Stubbs, getting up. "I understand the creative
animal; it is thin-skinned; but I'll tell our friend what you say."

"I wish you would. Tell him I meant no harm. And fetch him down with you
just whenever you can come."

"Thanks--that will be very pleasing. I daresay August will be our best
time, but we shall let you know. I'll put it all right with Ivor; but
these creative asses (saving your presence, Lafont) never can see a
joke."

"A joke!" cried Jack, when he and Claude were alone.

"Stubbs is ironical," said Claude severely.

"Look here," said the Duke, "what are you givin' us, old boy? Seems to
me you clever touchers have been getting at a cove between you. Where
does this joke come in, eh?"

And his good faith was so obvious that Claude picked up the four
quarters of torn paper, fitted them together, and entered upon yet
another explanation. This one, however, was somewhat impatiently given
and received. The Duke professed to think his likeness exceedingly
unlike--when, indeed, he could be got to see his own outlines at
all--and Claude disagreeing, a silence fell between the pair. Jack
sought to break it by taking off his collar (which had made him
miserable) and putting it in his pocket with a significant look; but the
act provoked no comment. So the two men sat, the one smoking cigarettes,
the other his cutty, but neither speaking, nor yet reading a line. And
the endless roar of Piccadilly, reaching them through the open windows,
emphasised their silence, until suddenly it sank beneath the midnight
chimes of the city clocks. In another minute a tiny, tinkling echo came
from Claude's chimney-piece, and the Duke put down his pipe and spoke.

"My first whole day in London--a goner," he said; "and a pretty full day
it's been. Listen to this for one day's work," and as he rehearsed them,
he ticked off the events on his great brown fingers. "Got run in--that's
number one. Turned up among a lot of swells in my old duds--number two.
Riled the cleverest man you know--number three--so that he nearly
cleared out of your rooms; and, not content with that, hurt the feelings
of the second cleverest (present company excepted) so that he _did_
clear--which is number four. Worst of all, riled you, old man, and hurt
your feelings too. That's the finisher. And see here, Claude, it isn't
good enough and it won't do. I won't wash in London, and I'm full up of
the hole; as for my own house, it gave me the fair hump the moment I put
my nose inside; and I'd be on to make tracks up the bush any day you
like--if it weren't for one thing."

"What's that," said Claude, "if it's a fair question?"

The other concealed his heightened colour by relighting his pipe and
puffing vigorously.

"I'll tell you," said he; "it's that old girl and--what's the daughter's
name again?"

"Olivia."

"Olivia. A beautiful name for a beautiful girl! She's all that and
more."

"And much more."

"You see, she's as good inside as out; she has a kind heart."

"I have always found it so," said Claude, "and I've known her since she
was a child."

The two kinsmen, who had been so wide apart a few minutes since, were
now more than ever mutually akin. They drew their chairs together; but
the touchstone was deep down in either heart.

"You knew her when she was a child!" repeated the Duke in a kind of awe.
"Yes; and I daresay, now, you used to play with her, and perhaps take
her on your knee, and even pull her hair and kiss her in them old days.
Yet there you sit smoking cigarettes!"

His own pipe was out. He was in a reverie. Claude also had his own
thoughts.

"The one thing was this," said the Duke at length: "would the old woman
and her daughter come to see us up the country?"

Claude was torn two ways. The Towers scheme was no longer his first
anxiety. He returned to it by an effort.

"They would," he said. "Lady Caroline told me so. They would come like a
shot in August. She said so herself."

"Would you put me up to things in the meantime? Would you be showing me
the ropes?"

"The very thing I should like to do, so far as I am able."

"Then we'll start to-morrow--I mean to-day. That settles it. And
yet----"

"Out with it," said Claude, smiling.

"Well, I will. I mean no harm, you understand. Who am I to dare to look
at her? Only I do feel as if that girl would do me a deal of good down
there--you know, in making me more the sort of chap for my billet. But
if she's gone and got a sweetheart, he might very easily object; so I
just thought I'd like to know."

"She hasn't one, to my knowledge," said Claude at length.

"Is that a fact?" cried the Duke. "Well, I don't know what all you
fellows are thinking of, but I do know that I am jolly glad. Not from
any designs of my own, mind you--I haven't as much cheek as all
that--but to save trouble. Do you know, Claudy, I've had a beast of a
thought off and on all the night?"

"No; what was that?"

"Why, I half suspected she was your own girl."



CHAPTER VI

A NEW LEAF


"The Duke of St. Osmund's and Mr. Claude Lafont left town yesterday for
Maske Towers, the family seat near Devenholme." So ran the announcement
in the morning papers of the next day but one. And the Duke was actually
exploring his inheritance when it appeared.

Overnight the pair had arrived too late to see much more than the lofty,
antique hall and the respective rooms in which they were to sup and
sleep; but the birds awoke Jack in the early morning, and he was up and
out before seven o'clock.

As yet he had seen little that attracted him within, and at this hour he
felt a childish horror of the dark colossal canvases overhanging the
grand staircase and the hall; like the sightless suits of armour
standing blind sentinel below, they froze him with the look of lifeless
life about the grim, gigantic figures. He was thankful to see one of the
great double doors standing open to the sun; it let him out into a
portico loftier than the hall; and folding his arms across a stone
balustrade, the whilom bushman looked forth between Corinthian columns
like the masts of a ship, and was monarch of all he beheld.

A broad and stately terrace ran right and left below; beyond and below
this, acres of the smoothest, greenest sward were relieved by a few fine
elms, with the deer still in clusters about their trunks. The lawn
sloped quietly to the verdant shores of a noble lake; sun and dew had
dusted the grass with silver; sun and wind were rippling the lake with
flakes of flame like leaping gold-fish; and across the water, on the
rising ground, a plantation of young pines ran their points into the
radiant sky. These trees appealed to the Duke more than anything he had
seen yet. His last bush hut had been built among pines; and such is the
sentimental attraction of the human heart towards a former
condition--better or worse, if it be but beyond recall--that the Duke of
St. Osmund's had to inspect that plantation before anything else.
Leaving the Towers behind him, unnoticed and indeed forgotten, he
crossed the lawn, skirted the lake, and plunged amid the pine-trees as
his impulse spurred him. But on his way back, a little later, the mellow
grandeur of that ancient pile broke in upon him at last, and he stood
astounded in the wet grass, the blood of possession running hot in his
veins.

The historic building stretched on this side for something like a
quarter of a mile from end to end. Here the blue sky sank deep between
turret and spire, and there it picked out a line of crumbling
battlements, or backed the upper branches of an elm that (from this
point) cut the expanse of stone in two. It had grown out of many
attempts in as many ages; thus, besides architectural discrepancies for
the eyes of the few, the shading of the walls was as finely graduated as
that of an aging beard, but the prevailing tint was a pearly gray, now
washed with purple, and exquisitely softened by the tender haze still
lingering in the dewy air. And from every window that Jack could see,
flashed a morning sun; for as he stood and looked, his shadow lay in
front of him along the milky grass.

To one extremity of the building clung an enormous conservatory,
likewise ablaze from dome to masonry; at the other, the dark hues of a
shrubbery rested the eye; but that of the Duke was used to the sunlit
desert, and not readily dazzled. His quick glance went like a bullet
through the trees to a red gable and the gilt hands of a clock just
visible beyond. On the instant he recovered from his enchantment, and
set off for the shrubbery at a brisk walk; for he had heard much of the
Maske stables, and evidently there they were.

As he was in the shrubbery, the stable clock struck eight after a
melodious chime sadly spoilt by the incessant barking of some small dog;
the last stroke reverberated as he emerged, and the dog had the morning
air to itself, to murder with its hideous clamour. But the Duke now saw
the exciting cause, and it excited _him_; for he had come out opposite
the stable-yard gates, which were shut, but from the top of which, with
its lame paw lifted, a vertical tail, and a back like a hedgehog asleep,
his own yellow cat spat defiance at an unseen foe. And between the barks
came the voice of a man inciting the dog with a filthy relish.

"Set him off, Pickle! Now's your time. Try again. Oh, blow me, if you
can't you can't, and I'll have to lend you a hand."

And one showed over the gate with the word, but the fingers grabbed the
air, for Jack had snatched his pet in the nick of time. He was now busy
with the ring of the latch, fumbling it in his fury. The breath came in
gusts through his set teeth and bristling beard. One hand clasped the
yellow cat in a fierce caress; the other knotted into a fist as the gate
flew open.

In the yard a hulking, smooth-faced fellow, whose pendulous under-lip
had dropped in dismay, changed his stare for a grin when he saw the
Duke, who was the smaller as well as the rougher-looking man of the two;
for he had not only come out without his collar, which he discarded
whenever he could; but he had clapped on the old bush wideawake because
Claude was not up to stop him.

"Well, and who are you?" began the other cheerfully.

"You take off your coat and I'll show you," replied Jack, with a
blood-thirsty indistinctness. "I'm a better man than you are, whoever I
am; at least we'll have a see!"

"Oh, will we?" said the fellow. "And you're the better man, are you?
What do _you_ think?" he added, turning to a stable-boy who stood handy
with thin brown arms akimbo, and thumbs in his belt.

"I wonder 'oo 'e thinks 'e is w'en 'e's at 'ome?" said the lad.

Jack never heard him. He had spied the saddle-room door standing open.
In an instant he was there, with the small dog yelping at his heels; in
another, he had locked the door between cat and dog, pocketed the key,
and returned to his man, stripping off his own coat and waistcoat as he
came. He flung them into a corner, and after them his bush hat.

"Now let's see you take off yours! If you don't," added Jack, with a big
bush oath, "I'll have to hide you with it on!"

But man and boy had been consulting while his back was turned, and Jack
now found himself between the two of them; not that he gave the lad a
thought.

"Look you here; I'll tell you who _I_ am," said the man. "My name's Matt
Hunt, and Matt can fight, as you wouldn't need telling if you belonged
to these parts. But he don't take on stray tramps like you; so, unless
you hook it slippy, we're just going to run you out o' this yard quicker
than you come in."

"Not till I've shown you how to treat dumb animals----"

"Then here goes!"

And with that the man Hunt seized one of Jack's arms, while the
stable-boy nipped the other from behind, and made a dive at Jack's
pocket for the saddle-room key. But a flat-footed kick sent the lad
sprawling without harming him; and the man was driven so hard under the
nose that he too fell back, bearded with blood.

"Come on!" roared Jack. "And you, my boy, keep out of the light unless
you want a whipping yourself!"

He was rolling up the sleeves from his tanned and furry arms. Hunt
followed suit, a cascade of curses flowing with his blood; he had torn
off his coat, and a wrist-button tinkled on the cement as he caught up
Jack in his preparations. His arms were thicker than the bushman's,
though white and fleshy. Hunt was also the heavier weight, besides
standing fully six feet, as against the Duke's five-feet-nine when he
held himself up. Nor was there any lack of confidence in the dripping,
hairless, sinister face, when the two men finally squared up.

They fell to work without niggling, for Jack rushed in like a bull,
leading most violently with his left. It was an inartistic start; the
big man was not touched; but neither did he touch Jack, who displayed,
at all events, a quick pair of legs. Yet it was this start that steadied
the Duke. It showed him that Hunt was by no means unskilled in the use
of his hands; and it put out of his head everything but the fight
itself, so that he heard no more the small tike barking outside the
saddle-room door, hitherto his angriest goad. Some cool sparring
ensued. Then Hunt let out from the shoulder, but the blow was avoided
with great agility; then Jack led off again, but with a lighter touch,
and this time he drew his man. The blows of the next minute it was
impossible to follow. They were given and returned with enormous
virulence. And there was no end to them until the big man tripped and
fell.

"See here," said Jack, standing over him; "that was my cat, and I'd got
to go for you. But if you've had enough of this game, so have I, and
we'll cry quits."

He was sucking a cut lip as he spoke. The other spat out a tooth and
blundered to his feet.

"Quits, you scum? Wait a bit!"

And they were at hotter work than ever.

Meanwhile the yard was filling with stable-men and gardeners, who were
in time to see Hunt striding down on his unknown adversary, and the
latter retreating in good order; but the stride quickened, ending in a
rush, which the Duke eluded so successfully that he was able to hit Hunt
hard on the ear as he passed.

It was afterwards a relief to the spectators to remember how they had
applauded this effort. To the Duke their sympathy was a comfort at the
time; though he no more suspected that his adversary was also his most
unpopular tenant, than the latter dreamt of his being the Duke.

Hunt let out a bellow of pain, staggered, and resumed his infuriate
rush; but his punishment was now heavier than before. He had lost both
wind and head, and he was losing pluck. One of his eyes was already
retiring behind folds of livid flesh; and a final blow under the nose,
where the first of all had been delivered, knocked him howling into the
arms of a new-comer, who disengaged himself as Hunt fell.

"What, Claude, is that you?" cried the Duke; and a flood of new
sensations so changed his voice, that Hunt looked up from where he lay,
a beaten, bleeding, blubbering mass. But in the silent revelation of
that moment there was at first no sound save the barking of the
fox-terrier outside the saddle-room door. This had never ceased. Then
the coachman's pipe fell from his mouth and was smashed.

"My God!" said he. "It's his Grace himself!"

He had driven the Duke from Devenholme the night before.

"The Duke of St. Osmund's!" exclaimed Hunt from the ground. He had been
shedding blood and tears indifferently, and now he sat up with a slimy
stare in his uninjured eye.

"Yes, that's right," said Jack, with a nod to the company. "So now you
all know what to expect for cruelty to cats, or any other dumb animals;
and don't you forget it!"

He put on his coat and went over to the saddle-room. Claude followed
him, still at a loss for words. And Hunt's dog went into a wild ecstasy
as the key was put into the lock.

"Hold him," said Jack. "The dog's all right; and I lay his master'll
think twice before he sets him on another cat o' mine."

"Come away," said Claude hoarsely; "for all our sakes, come away before
you make bad worse!"

"Well, I will. Only hold him tight. That's it. Poor little puss,
then--poor old Livingstone! Now I'm ready; come along."

But Hunt was in their path; and Jack's heart smote him for the mischief
he had done, though his own lower lip was swollen like a sausage.

"So you're the new Duke of St. Osmund's," said Hunt, with a singular
deliberation. "I wasn't to know that, of course; no, by gosh, not
likely!"

"Well, you know it now," was the reply. "And--and I'm sorry I had to hit
you so hard, Hunt!"

"Oh, don't apologise," said Hunt, with a sneer that showed a front tooth
missing. "Stop a bit, though; I'm not so sure," he added, with a glance
of evil insight.

"Sure of what?"

"Whether you oughtn't to apologise for not hitting a man of your own
age!"

"Take no notice of him," whispered Claude strenuously; but he obtained
none himself.

"Nonsense," said the Duke; "you're the younger man, at all events."

"Am I? I was born in '59, _I_ was."

"Then according to all accounts you're the younger man by four years."

"By--four--years," repeated Hunt slowly. "So you was born in '55! Thank
you; I shall make a note of that, you may be sure--your Grace!"

And Hunt was gone; they heard him whistling for his tike when he was
himself out of sight, and the dog went at last. Then the coachman
stepped forward, cap in hand.

"If you please, your Grace, that man was here without my knowledge. He's
always putting in his nose where he isn't wanted; I've shifted him out
of this before to-day; and with your Grace's permission, I'll give
orders not to have him admitted again."

"Who is he?" said Jack. "A tenant or what?"

"Only a tenant, your Grace. Matt Hunt, they call him, of the Lower Farm;
but it might be of Maske Towers, by the way he goes on!"

"He took a mighty interest in my age," remarked the Duke. "I never asked
to look at _his_ fangs--but I think you'll find one of them somewhere
about the yard. No; I'm not fond of fighting, my lads. Don't you run
away with that idea. But there's one thing I can't and won't suffer, and
that's cruelty to animals. You chaps in the stables recollect that! And
so good-morning to you all."

Claude led the way through the shrubbery in a deep depression. The
guilty Duke took his arm with one hand, while with the other he hugged
the yellow cat that was eying the shrubbery birds over its master's
shoulder, much as the terrier had eyed it.

"My dear old boy," said Jack, "I'm as sorry as sorry for what's
happened. But I couldn't help myself. Look at Livingstone; he'd have
been a stiff 'un by this time if I hadn't turned up when I did; so
naturally there was a row. Still I'm sorry. I know it's a bad beginning;
and I remember saying in the train that I'd turn over a new leaf down
here. Well, and so I will if you give me time. Don't judge me by this
morning, Claude. Give me another chance; and for God's sake don't look
like that!"

"I can't help it, Jack," replied Claude, with a weary candour. "I'm
prepared for anything now. You make me a year older every day. How do I
know what you'll do next? I think the best thing I can do is to give you
up as a bad job."



CHAPTER VII

THE DUKE'S PROGRESS


Claude's somewhat premature despair was not justified by the event;
nevertheless it did good. Excusable enough at the time, that little
human outbreak was also more effective than the longest lecture or the
most mellifluous reproof. Jack liked his cousin. The liking was by no
means unconnected with gratitude. And now Jack saw that he could best
show his gratitude by adopting a more suitable course of conduct than he
could claim to have pursued hitherto. He determined to make an effort.
He had everything to learn; it was a mountainous task that lay before
him; but he faced it with spirit, and made considerable progress in a
little space.

He learnt how to treat the servants. The footmen had misbehaved when he
addressed them as "my boy" and "old toucher" from his place at table. He
consulted Claude, and dropped these familiarities as well as the
painfully respectful tone which he had at first employed towards old
Stebbings, the butler. Stebbings had been very many years in the family.
The deference inspired by his venerable presence was natural enough in
the new Duke of St. Osmund's; but it shocked and distressed Stebbings's
feudal soul. He complained to Claude, and he had not to complain twice.
For Jack discovered a special and a touching eagerness to master the
rudiments of etiquette; though in other respects (which certainly
mattered less) he was still incorrigible.

His social "crammer" could no more cure him of his hatred of a collar
than of his liking for his cats. The latter were always with him; the
former, unhappily, was not. In these things the Duke was hopelessly
unregenerate; he was a stockman still at heart, and a stockman he
threatened to remain. The soft summer nights were nothing to the nights
in the bush; the fleecy English sky was not blue at all after the skies
of Riverina; and the Duke's ideal of a man was "my old boss." Claude
heard of "my old boss" until he was sick of the words, which constituted
a gratuitous reminder of a position most men would have been glad to
forget. Yet there was much to be thankful for. There were no more scenes
such as the Duke's set-to in his own stable-yard with one of his own
tenants. At least nothing of the sort happened again until Jack's next
collision with Matthew Hunt. And that was not yet.

Matthew was from home when the Duke, making a round of the estate, with
his agent, visited the Lower Farm in its turn. Old Hunt, Matthew's
besotted father, received them in the kitchen with a bloodshot stare and
little else, for drink had long dimmed his forces. Not so the old man's
daughter-in-law, Matthew's wife, who showed the visitors all over the
farm in a noiseless manner that made Jack feel uneasy, because he never
knew when she was or was not at his elbow. Besides, he could not forget
the thrashing he had given her husband, nor yet suppose that she had
forgotten it either. The woman was of a gross type strangely accentuated
by her feline quietude. She had a continual smile, and sly eyes that
dropped when they encountered those of the Duke, whom they followed
sedulously at all other moments. Jack seemed to know it, too; at all
events he was not sorry to turn his back upon the Lower Farm.

"A rum lot, the Hunts!" he said at lunch. "They're about the only folks
here that I haven't cottoned to on the spot. I shall get on fine with
all the others. But I can't suffer those Hunts!"

"There's no reason why you should suffer them," observed the agent, in
his well-bred drawl; for he had a more aristocratic manner than Claude
himself. "They have the best farm on the property, and they pay the
smallest rent. You should think over my suggestion of this morning."

"No, no," said the Duke. "He wants me to double the rent, Claude, and
clear them out if they won't pay. I can't do it."

"Well, no; I hardly think you can," assented Claude. "Oddly enough, my
grandfather had quite a weakness for the Hunts; and then they are very
old tenants. That hoary-headed Silenus, whom you saw, was once in the
stables here; so was his son after him, in my time; and the old man's
sister was my grandmother's maid. You can't turn out people like that
_ex itinere_, so to speak--I mean to say in a hurry. It's too old a
connection altogether."

"Exactly what they trade upon," said the agent. "They have been spoilt
for years, and they expect his Grace to go on spoiling them. I should
certainly get rid of the whole gang."

"No, mister--no!" declared the Duke. "Claude is right. I can't do it. I
might if I hadn't given that fellow a hiding. After that I simply
can't; it would look too bad."

The agent said no more, but his look and shrug were perhaps neither
politic nor polite. A strapping sportsman himself, and a person of some
polish into the bargain, he was in a position, as it were, to look down
on Claude with one eye, and on the Duke with the other. And he did so
with a freedom extraordinary in one of his wisdom and understanding.

"One of these days," said Jack, "I shall give that joker his cheque.
He's not my notion of an overseer at all; if he's too good for the
billet let him roll up his swag and clear out; if he isn't, let him
treat the bosses as a blooming overseer should."

"Why, what's the head and chief of his offending now?" asked Claude; for
this was one night in the billiard-room, when the agent had been making
an example of both cousins at pyramids; it was after he was gone, and
while the Duke was still tearing off his collar.

"What has he said to-night?" continued the poet, less poetically. "I
heard nothing offensive."

"You wouldn't," said the Duke; "you're such a good sort yourself. You'd
never see when a chap was pulling your leg, but I see fast enough, and
I won't have it. What did he say to-night? He talked through his neck
when we missed our shots. That about billiards in the bush I didn't
mind; me and the bush, we're fair game; but when he got on to your
poetry, old man, I felt inclined to run my cue through his gizzard. 'A
poet's shot,' he says, when you put yourself down; and 'you should write
a sonnet about that,' when you got them three balls in together. I don't
say it wasn't a fluke. That has nothing at all to do with it. The way
the fellow spoke is what I weaken on. He wouldn't have done for my old
boss, and I'm blowed if he'll do for me. One of these days I shall tell
him to come outside and take his coat off; and, by the looks of him, I
shouldn't be a bit surprised to see him put me through."

Claude's anxiety overcame every other feeling. He implored the Duke not
to make another scene, least of all with such a man as the agent, whose
chaff, he truly protested, did not offend him in the least. Jack shook
his head, and was next accused of being more sensitive about the
"wretched poems" than was the poet himself. This could not have been.
But Claude was not so very far wrong.

His slender book was being widely reviewed, or rather "noticed," for the
two things are not quite the same. The "notices," on the whole, were
good and kind, but "uninstructed," so Claude said with a sigh;
nevertheless, he appeared to obtain a sneaking satisfaction from their
perusal; and as for Jack, he would read them aloud, capering round the
room and shaking Claude by both hands in his delighted enthusiasm. To
him every printed compliment was a loud note blown from the trumpet of
fame into the ears of all the world. He would hear not a word against
the paper in which it appeared, but attributed every qualifying remark
of Claude's to the latter's modesty, and each favourable paragraph to
some great responsible critic voicing the feeling of the country in the
matter of these poems. Claude himself, however, though frequently
gratified, was not deceived; for the sweetest nothings came invariably
from the provincial press; and he at least knew too much to mistake a
"notice" for a "real review."

The real reviews were a sadly different matter. There were very few of
them, in the first place; their scarcity was worse than their severity.
And they were generally very severe indeed; or they did not take the
book seriously, which, as Claude said, was the unkindest cut of all.

"Only show me the skunk who wrote that," exclaimed Jack one morning,
looking over Claude's shoulder as he opened his press-cuttings, "and
I'll give him the biggest hiding ever he had in his life!"

Another critic, the writer of a really sympathetic and exhaustive
review, the Duke desired to invite to Maske Towers by the next post,
"because," said Jack, "he must be a real good sort, and we ought to know
him."

"I do know him," said Claude, with a groan, for he had thought of
keeping the fact to himself; "I know him to my cost. He owes me money.
This is payment on account. Oh, I am no good! I must give it up!
Ignorance and interest alone are at my back! Genuine enthusiasm there is
none!"

There was Jack's. But was that genuine? The Duke himself was not sure.
He meant it to ring true, but then he meant to appreciate the poems, and
of many of them he could make little enough in his secret soul.

All this, however, was but one side of the quiet life led by the cousins
at Maske Towers; and it had but one important effect--that of sowing in
Claude's heart a loyalty to Jack not unworthy of Jack's loyalty to him.

There were other subjects of discussion upon which the pair were by no
means at one. There was Jack's open failure to appreciate the marble
halls, the resonant galleries, the darkling pictures of his princely
home; and there was the scatter-brained scheme by which he ultimately
sought to counteract the oppressive grandeur of his new surroundings.

It was extremely irritating, especially to a man like Claude; but the
proudest possessions of their ancestors (whose superlative taste and
inferior morals had been the byword of so many ages) were those which
appealed least to that blameless Goth, the ninth Duke of St. Osmund's.
The most glaring case in point was that of the pictures, which alone
would make the worldwide fame of a less essentially noble seat than
Maske Towers. But Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea
del Sarto, Angeletti Vernet, and Claude Lorrain--all these were mere
names, and new ones, to Happy Jack. Claude Lafont, pointing to
magnificent examples of the work of one One Master after another, made
his observations with bated breath, as well he might, for where is there
such another private collection? Jack, however, was not impressed; he
was merely amazed at Claude, and his remarks in the picture-gallery are
entirely unworthy of reproduction. In the State Apartments he was still
more trying. He spoke of having the ancient tapestries (after Raphael's
Cartoons) taken out and "well shaken," which, as Claude said, would have
reduced them to immediate atoms. And he threatened to have the painted
ceilings whitewashed without delay.

"Aurora Banishing Night, eh?" he cried, with horizontal beard and
upturned eyes. "She'd jolly soon banish _my_ night, certainly; it should
be, banishing sleep! And all those naked little nippers! They ought to
be papered over, for decency's sake; and that brute of a bed, who would
sleep in it, I should like to know? Not me. Not much! It must be
twenty-foot high and ten-foot wide; it gives me the hump to look at it,
and the ceilings give it me worse. See here, Claude, we'll lock up these
State Apartments, as you call them, and you shall keep the key. I'm full
of 'em; they'll give me bad dreams as it is."

They were not, however, the only apartments of which the Duke
disapproved; the suite which had been done up entirely for his own use,
under Claude's direction, did not long commend itself to the
ex-stockman. Everything was far too good for him and his cats; they were
not accustomed to such splendour; it made them all four
uncomfortable--so Jack declared after taking Claude's breath away with
the eccentric plan on which he had set his heart. And for the remainder
of their solitary companionship each man had his own occupation; the
Duke preparing more congenial quarters for himself and the cats; and
Claude, with Jack's permission and the agent's skilled advice,
superintending the making of private golf-links for Mr. Sellwood's
peculiar behoof. For the Home Secretary had promised to join the Maske
party, for the week-ends at any rate, until (as he expressed it) the
Government "holed out."

That party was now finally arranged. The Frekes were coming with the
Sellwoods, and the latter family were to have the luxurious suite which
the Duke himself disdained. This was his Grace's own idea. Moreover, he
interested himself personally in the right ordering of the rooms during
the last few days; but this he kept to himself until the eleventh hour;
in fact, until he was waiting for the drag to come round, which he was
himself going to tool over to Devenholme to meet his guests. It was then
that certain unexpected misgivings led Jack to seek out his cousin, in
order to take him to see what he had done.

For Claude had shown him what _he_ was doing. He was producing a set of
exceedingly harmless verses, "To Olivia released from Mayfair," of
which the Duke had already heard the rough draft. The fair copy was in
the making even now; in the comparatively small room, at one end of the
library, that Jack had already christened the Poet's Corner.

Claude wiped his pen with characteristic care, and then rose readily
enough. He followed Jack down the immensely long, galleried, book-lined
library, through a cross-fire of coloured lights from the stained-glass
windows, and so to the stairs. Overhead there was another long walk,
through corridor after corridor, which had always reminded Jack of the
hotel in town. But at last, in the newly decorated wing, the Duke took a
key from his pocket and put it in a certain door. And now it was Claude
who was reminded of the hotel; for a most striking atmospheric change
greeted him on the threshold; only this time it was not a gust of heat,
but the united perfume of many flowers, that came from within.

The room was fairly flooded with fresh roses. It was as though they had
either blown through the open window, or fallen in a miraculous shower
from the dainty blue ceiling. They pranked the floor in a fine disorder.
They studded the table in tiny vases. They hid the mantelpiece, embedded
in moss; from the very grate below, they peeped like fairy flames,
breathing fragrance instead of warmth; and some in falling seemed to
have caught in the pictures on the walls, so artfully had they been
arranged. Only the white narrow bed had escaped the shower. And in the
midst of this, his handiwork, stood the Duke, and blushed like the roses
themselves.

"Whose room is this?" asked Claude, though he knew so well.

"Olivia's--I should say Miss Sellwood's. You see, old man, you were
writing these awfully clever verses for her; so I felt I should like to
have something ready too."

"Your poem is the best!" exclaimed Claude, with envious, sparkling eyes.
And then he sighed.

"Oh, rot!" said Jack, who was only too thankful for his offering to
receive the _cachet_ of Claude's approval. "All I wanted was to keep my
end up, too. Look here. What do you think of this?"

And he took from a vase on the dressing-table an enormous white bouquet,
that opened Claude's eyes wider than before.

"This is for her, too; I wanted to consult you about it," pursued Jack.
"Should I leave it here for her, or should I take it down to the station
and present it to her there? Or at dinner to-night? I want to know just
what you think."

"No, not at dinner," replied Claude; "nor yet at the station."

"Not at all, you mean! I see it in your face!" cried the Duke so that
Claude could not answer him. "But why not?" he added vehemently. "Where
does the harm come in? It's only a blooming nosegay. What's wrong with
it?"

"Nothing," was the reply, "only it might embarrass Olivia."

"Make her uncomfortable?"

"Well, yes; it would be rather marked, you know. A bouquet like that is
only fit for a bride."

"I don't see it," said Jack, much crestfallen; "still, if that's so,
it's just as well to know it. There was no harm meant. I wasn't thinking
of any rot of that kind. However, we don't want to make her
uncomfortable; that wasn't the idea at all; so the bouquet's off--like
me. Come and let me tool you as far as the boundary fence. I want to
show you how we drive four horses up the bush."

The exhibition made Claude a little nervous; there was too much shouting
at the horses for his taste, and too much cracking of the whip. Jack
could crack a whip better than any man in his own stables. But he
accepted Claude's criticism with his usual docility, and dropped him at
the gates with his unfailing nod of pure good-humour.

There he sat on the box, in loose rough tweeds of a decent cut, and with
the early August sun striking under the brim of a perfectly respectable
straw hat, but adding little to the broad light of his own honest,
beaming countenance. He waved his whip, and Claude his hand. Then the
whip cracked--but only once--and the poet strolled back to his verses,
steeped in thought. He had done his best. His soul divined vaguely what
the result might mean to him. But his actual thoughts were
characteristically permissible; he was merely wondering what Lady
Caroline and Olivia Sellwood would say now.



CHAPTER VIII

THE OLD ADAM


Olivia said least. Her mother took Claude by the hand, and thanked him
with real tears in her eyes, for after all she was an Irishwoman, who
could be as emotional as possible when she chose. As for Mr. Sellwood,
he expressed himself as delightfully disappointed in the peer of whom he
had heard so much. Jack struck him as being an excellent fellow,
although not a golfer, which was a pity, and even apparently disinclined
to take up the game--which might signify some recondite flaw in his
character. So said the Home Secretary. But Olivia merely asked who had
put all those roses in her room; and when Claude told her, she simply
nodded and took hardly any notice of the Duke that night. Yet she wore a
handful of his flowers at her shapely waist. And she did thank him, in a
way.

It was not the sweetest way in the world, as all her ways had been,
these many weeks, in Jack's imagination. He was grieved and
disappointed, but still more was he ashamed. He had taken a liberty. He
had alienated his friend. Thus he blamed himself, with bitter, wordless
thoughts, and would then fall back upon his disappointment. His feelings
were a little mixed. One moment she was not all that he had thought her;
the next, she was more than all. She was more beautiful. Often he had
tried to recall her face, and tried in vain, having seen her but once
before, and then only for a few minutes. Now he perceived that his first
impression, blurred and yet dear to him as it had been, had done but
meagre justice to Olivia. He had forgotten the delicate dark eyebrows,
so much darker than the hair. The girl's radiant colouring had also
escaped him. It was like the first faint flush of an Australian dawn.
Yet he had missed it in June, just as he had missed the liquid hazel of
her eyes; their absolute honesty was what he remembered best; and, by a
curious irony, that frank, fine look was the very one which she denied
him now.

And so it was from the Friday evening, when the Sellwoods arrived, to
the Monday morning when duty recalled the Home Secretary to St.
Stephen's. He obeyed the call in no statesman-like frame of mind. He
had spent the Sabbath in open sin upon the new-made links, and had been
fitly punished by his own execrable play. The athletic agent had made an
example of him; he felt that he might just as well have been in church
(or rather in the private chapel attached to the Towers), reading the
lessons for his son-in-law, Francis Freke; and in the Saturday's
"foursome," with the reverend gentleman on his side, the Cabinet
Minister had done little better. So he had departed very sorely against
the grain, his white hairs bristling with discontent, a broken "driver"
hidden away in the depths of his portmanteau. And Olivia, seeing the
last of him from amid the tall columns of the portico, felt
heavy-hearted, because her father was also her friend.

Jack watched her at a distance. It did not occur to him that the girl's
mother was already pitching him at the girl's head, daily and almost
hourly, until she was weary of the very sound of his name. And though he
felt he must have overstepped some mark in the matter of the flowers, he
little dreamt how Miss Sellwood's maid had looked when she saw them, or
what disgraceful satisfaction Lady Caroline had exhibited before her
daughter on that occasion. He only knew that her Ladyship was treating
him with a rather oppressive kindness, and that he would much sooner
have had half-a-dozen words from Olivia, such as the first she had ever
spoken to him.

And now the girl was unhappy; it was plain enough, even to his untutored
eye; and he stepped forward with the determination of improving her
spirits, without thinking of his own, which were not a little flat.

"You must find it dull up the country, Miss Sellwood, after London,"
began Jack, not perhaps in his most natural manner. "I--I wish to
goodness you'd tell us of anything we could do to amuse you!"

"You are very good," replied Olivia, "but I don't require to be amused
like a child. Thanks all the same. As to finding the country dull, I
never appreciate it so much as after a season in town."

She was not looking at the Duke, but beyond him into the hall. And
encountering no other eyes there, her own grew softer, as did her tone,
even as she spoke.

"You know this old place off by heart, Miss Sellwood, I expect?" pursued
Jack, who had taken off his straw hat in her presence, being in doubt as
to whether the portico ranked indoors or out.

"Oh, well, I have stayed here pretty often, you know," said Olivia.
"What do you think of the place?"

"I can't hardly say. I've never seen anything else like it. It's far too
good, though, for a chap like me; it's all so grand."

"I have _sometimes_ felt it a little too grand," the girl ventured to
observe.

"So have I!" cried Jack. "You can't think how glad I am to hear you say
that. It's my own feeling right down to the ground!"

"I don't mean to be rude," continued Olivia confidentially, seeing that
they were still unobserved, "but I have often felt that I wouldn't care
to live here altogether."

"No?" said the Duke, in a new tone; he felt vaguely dashed, but his
manner was rather one of apologetic sympathy.

"No," she repeated; "shall you like it?"

"Can't say. I haven't weakened on it yet, though it _is_ too fine and
large for a fellow. Shall I tell you what I've done? I've fixed up a
little place for myself outside, where I can go whenever I get full up
of the homestead here. I wonder--if it isn't too much to ask--whether
you would let me show you the little spot I mean?"

"Where is it?"

"In the pines yonder, on the far side o' the tank."

"The tank!"

"We call 'em tanks in Australia. I meant the lake. I could row you
across, Miss Sellwood, in a minute, if only you'd let me!" And he met
her doubtful look with one of frank, simple-hearted, irresistible
entreaty.

"Come on!" said Olivia suddenly; and as she went, she never looked
behind; for she seemed to feel her mother's eyes upon her from an upper
window, and the hot shame of their certain approval made her tingle from
head to foot. So she trod the close, fine, sunlit grass as far as
possible from her companion's side. And he, falling back a little, was
enabled to watch her all the way.

Olivia was very ordinarily attired. She wore a crisp white blouse,
speckled with tiny scarlet spots, and a plain skirt of navy blue, just
short enough to give free play to the small brown shoes whose high heels
the Duke had admired in the portico. Two scarlet bands, a narrow and a
broad, encircled her straw hat and her waist, with much the same
circumference: and yet this exceedingly average costume struck Jack as
the most delicious thing imaginable of its kind. He corrected another
impression before they reached the lake. Olivia was taller than he had
thought; she was at least five-feet-six; and she carried her slim, trim
figure in a fine upstanding fashion that took some of the roundness out
of his own shoulders as he noted it this August morning.

"It's the back-block bend," he remarked elliptically, in the boat.

His way with the oars was inelegant enough, without a pretence at
feathering; but it was quite effectual; and Olivia, in the stern-sheets,
had her back still presented to the Argus-eyes of the Towers. She
answered him with a puzzled look, as well she might, for he had done no
more than think aloud.

"What is that?" she said. "And what are the back-blocks; and what _do_
you mean?" for her puzzled look had lifted on a smile.

"I was thinking of my round shoulders. You get them through being all
your time in the saddle, up in the back-blocks. All the country in
Riverina--that is, all the fenced country--is split up into ten-mile
blocks. And the back-blocks are the farthest from the rivers and from
civilisation. So that's why they call it the back-block bend; it came
into my head through seeing you. I never saw anybody hold themselves so
well, Miss Sellwood--if it isn't too like my cheek to say so!"

The keel grounded as he spoke, and Olivia, as he handed her out, saw the
undulating battlements and toppling turrets of the olden pile
upside-down in the tremulous mirror of the lake. A moment later the
pine-trees had closed around her; and, sure enough, in a distant window,
Lady Caroline Sellwood lowered her opera-glasses with a sigh of
exceeding great contentment.

"So you haven't forgotten your old life yet," said the girl, as they
stepped out briskly across the shortening shadows of the pines. "I wish
you would tell me something about it! I have heard it said that you
lived in ever such a little hut, away by yourself in the wilderness."

"I did so; and in a clump of pines the dead spit of these here," said
Jack, with a relish. "When I saw these pines you can't think how glad I
was! They were like old friends to me; they made me feel at home. You
see, Miss Sellwood, that old life is the only one I ever knew, bar this;
often enough it seems the reallest of the two. Most nights I dream I'm
out there again; last night, for instance, we were lamb-marking. A nasty
job, that; I was covered with blood from head to heels, and I was just
counting the poor little beggars' tails, when one of the dead tails
wriggled in my hand, and blowed if it wasn't Livingstone's! No, there's
no forgetting the old life; I was at it too long; it's this one that's
most like a dream."

"And the hut," said Olivia, with a rather wry face; "what sort of a
place was that?"

"I'll show you," replied the Duke, in what struck the other as a
superfluously confidential tone. "It was a little bit of a place, all
one room, with a galvanised iron roof and mother-earth for floor. It was
built with the very pines that had been felled to make a clearing for
the hut: so many uprights, and horizontal slabs in between. A great
square hearth and chimney were built out at one end, like the far end of
a church; and over my bunk I'd got a lot of pictures from the
_Australasian Sketcher_ just stuck up anyhow; and if you weren't
looking, you knocked your head against the ration-bags that hung from
the cross-beams. You slept inside, but you kept your bucket and basin on
a bench----"

"Good heavens!" cried Olivia. And she stood rooted to the ground before
a clearing and a hut which exactly tallied with the Duke's description.
The hut was indeed too new, the maker's stamp catching the eye on the
galvanised roofing; and, in the clearing, the pine-stumps were still
white from the axe; but the essentials were the same, even to the tin
basin on the bench outside the door, with a bucket of water underneath.
As for the wooden chimney, Olivia had never seen such a thing in her
life; yet real smoke was leaking out of it into the pale blue sky.

"Is this a joke or a trick?" asked the girl, looking suspiciously on
Jack.

"Neither; it's meant for the dead image of my old hut up the bush; and
it's the little place I've fixed up for myself, here on the run, that I
wanted to show you."

"You've had it built during these last few weeks?"

"Under my own eye; and bits of it with my own hand. Old Claude thought
it sheer cussedness, I know; perhaps you will, too; but come in, and
have a look for yourself."

And unlocking the padlock that secured it, he opened the door and stood
aside for the young girl to enter. Olivia did so with alacrity; her
first amazement had given way to undiluted interest; and the Duke
followed her, straw hat in hand. There was a tantalising insufficiency
of light within. Two small windows there were, but both had been filled
with opaque folds of sackcloth in lieu of glass; yet the Duke pointed to
them, as might his ancestors to the stained-glass lights in chapel and
library, with peculiar pride; and, indeed, his strange delight in the
hut, who cared so little for the Towers close at hand, made Olivia
marvel when she came to think about it. Meanwhile she found everything
as she had heard it described in the Australian hut, with one exception:
there were no ration-bags to knock one's head against, because nobody
made meals here. Also the pictures over the bunk were from the
_Illustrated London News_, not from the _Sketcher_, which Jack had been
unable to obtain in England; and they were somewhat unconvincingly clean
and well-arranged. But the bunk itself was all that it might have been
in the real bush; for it was covered over with Jack's own old blanket;
whereon lay a purring, yellow ball, like a shabby sand-bank in a sea of
faded blue.

"So this is Livingstone!" exclaimed the girl, stooping to scratch that
celebrity's head.

"Yes; and there's old Tom and Black Maria in front of the fire. I lock
them all three up during the day, for it isn't so like the bush in some
ways as it is in others. They might get stolen any day, with so many
people about; that's the worst of the old country; there was no other
camp within five miles of me, on Carara."

"It must have been dreadfully lonely!"

"You get used to it. And then every few months you would tramp into the
homestead and--and speak to the boss," said Jack, changing his mind and
his sentence as he remembered how he had once shocked Claude Lafont.

Olivia took notice of the cats, at which Jack stood by beaming. The
kitten she had brought down from town in a basket. It lived in Olivia's
room, but she now suggested restoring it to its own people. Jack,
however, reminded her that it was hers, in such a tender voice; and
proceeded to refer to her kindness at their first meeting, in so
embarrassing a fashion; that the girl, seeking a change of subject,
found one in the long, low bunk.

"I see," said she, "that you come here for your afternoon siesta."

"I come here for my night's sleep," he replied.

"Never!"

"Every night in life. You seem surprised. I did ask old Claude not to
mention it--and--oh, well, it's no use keeping the thing a secret, after
all. It suits me best--the open country and the solitude. It's what I'm
accustomed to. The wind in the pines all around, I wake up and hear it
every night, just like I did in the old hut. It's almost the same thing
as going back to the bush to sleep; there's not two penn'orth of
difference."

"You'd like to go back altogether," said the girl, affirming it as a
fact; and yet her sweet eyes, gravely unsatisfied, seemed to peer
through his into his soul.

"I don't say that, Miss Sellwood," he protested. "Of course it's a great
thing for me to have come in for all this fortune and power--and it'll
be a greater thing still once I can believe it's true! That's the
trouble. The whole show's so like a dream. And that's where this little
hut helps me; _it's_ real, anyway; I can sight _it_. As for all the
rest, it's too many measles for me--as yet; what's more, if I was to
wake up this minute on Carara I shouldn't so very much mind."

"I wonder," said Olivia, with her fine eyes looking through him still.
"I just wonder!" And her tone set him wondering too.

"Of course," he faltered, "I should be mighty sorry to wake up and find
I'd only dreamt _you_!"

"Of course," she returned, with a laughing bow; but there had been an
instant's pause; and she was studying the picture-gallery over the bunk
when she continued, "I see you've been long enough in England to acquire
the art of making pretty speeches. And I must tell you at once that
they never amuse me. At least," she added more kindly, again facing him,
"not when they come from a person as a rule so candid as yourself."

"But you mistake me; I was perfectly candid," protested poor Jack.

"It won't do," said the girl. "And it's time we went."

Olivia felt that she had made excellent friends with the Duke; that the
more she saw of him, the better she would probably like him; and that
she could possibly be of use to him, in little ways, if he would be
sensible, and make no more than a friend of her. She was not so sure of
him, however, as she could have wished; and she was anxious to leave
well alone. It was thus the worst of luck that at this last moment she
should perceive the suggestively white bouquet upon the high deal
chimney-piece.

"You've been to a wedding," she cried, "and I've never heard a word
about it! Whose was the wedding? Some of the tenantry, of course, or the
bride would hardly have presented you with her bouquet!"

And she reached it down, and widened her pretty nostrils over the fading
flowers; but they smelt of death; and their waxen whiteness had here
and there the tarnish of a half-eaten apple.

"There was no bride," said Jack, "and no wedding."

"Then why this bride's bouquet? No! I beg your pardon; it isn't a fair
question."

"It is--perfectly. I had it made for a young lady. The head-gardener
made it, but I told him first what I wanted. There was no word of a
wedding; I only thought a nosegay would be the right sort of thing to
give a young lady, to show her she was mighty welcome; and I thought
white was a nice clean sort of colour. But it turned out I was wrong;
she wouldn't have liked it; it would only have made her uncomfortable;
so, when I found out that, I just let it rest."

"I see," said Olivia, seeing only too clearly. "Still, I'm not sure you
were right: if I had been the girl----"

"Yes?"

The quick word altered the speech it had also interrupted.

"I should have thought it exceedingly kind of you," said Olivia, after a
moment's reflection.

She replaced the flowers on the chimney-board, and then led the way out
among the pines.

"I'm sorry you were in such a hurry," he said, overtaking her when he
had locked up the hut. "I might have made you some billy-tea. The
billy's the can you make it in up the bush. I had such a work to get one
over here! I keep some tea in the hut, and billy-tea's not like any
other kind; I call it better; but you must come again and sample it for
yourself."

"We'll see," said Olivia smilingly; but with that she lost her tongue;
and together they crossed the lake in mutually low spirits. It was as
though the delicate spell of simple friendship had been snapped as soon
as spun between them, and the friends were friends no more.

On the lawn, however, in a hammock under an elm, they found a young man
smoking. It was Mr. Edmund Stubbs, who had arrived, with his friend the
Impressionist, on the Saturday afternoon. He was smoking a pipe; but the
ground beneath him was defiled with the ends of many cigarettes; and
close at hand a deck-chair stood empty.

"I smell the blood of Mr. Llewellyn," said Olivia, coming up with the
glooming Duke. "He smokes far too many cigarettes!"

"He has gone for more," said the man in the hammock.

"I wonder you don't interfere, Mr. Stubbs; it must be so bad for him."

"On the contrary, Miss Sellwood, it is the best thing in the world for
him. A man must smoke something. And an artist must smoke cigarettes.
You can tell what he does smoke, however, from his work. Pipe-work is
inevitably coarse, banal, obvious, and only fit to hang in the front
parlours of Brixton and Upper Tooting. Cigar-work is little better; but
that of the cigarette is delicate, suggestive, fantastic if you will,
but always artistic. Ivor Llewellyn's is typical cigarette-work."

"How very interesting," said Olivia.

"My colonial!" muttered the Duke.

At the same time they caught each other's eyes, turned away with one
consent, nor made a sound between them until they were out of earshot of
the hammock. And then they only laughed; yet the spell that had been
broken was even thus made whole.



CHAPTER IX

AN ANONYMOUS LETTER


It is comparatively easy to read a character from a face. This is always
a scientific possibility. To fit the face to a given character is
obviously the reverse. And those who knew the worst of Lady Caroline
Sellwood, before making her acquaintance, received, on that occasion,
something like a shock. They had nourished visions of a tall and stately
figure with a hook-nose and an exquisitely supercilious smile; whereas
her Ladyship was decidedly short, and extremely stout, with as plebeian
a snub-nose and as broad a grin as any in her own back-kitchen. Instead
of the traditionally frigid leader of society, she was a warm-hearted
woman where her own interests were not concerned; where they were, she
was just what expedience made her, and her heart then took its
temperature from her head, like the excellent servant it had always
been. A case very much in point is that of her relations with Claude
Lafont, whom, however, Lady Caroline had now her own reasons for
fearing no more. As for the Duke of St. Osmund's, her heart had been a
perfect oven to him from the first.

Nor did she make any pretence about the matter--it was this that so
repelled Olivia. But the very falsity of the woman was frank to the
verge of a virtue; and the honest dishonesty of her front hair (which
was of the same shade as Olivia's, only much more elaborately curled)
was as bluntly emblematic as a pirate's flag. Lady Caroline Sellwood was
honestly dishonest to the last ounce of her two hundredweight of
avoirdupois.

This was the kind of thing she thought nothing of doing. She had been
engaged for months upon an egregious smoking-cap for Claude Lafont. That
is to say she had from time to time put in a few golden stitches, in
front of Claude, which her maid had been obliged to pick out and put in
again behind the scenes. Claude, at any rate, had always understood that
the cap was for him--until one evening here in the conservatory, when he
saw Lady Caroline coolly trying it on the Duke.

"It never did fit you, Claude," she explained serenely. "It was always
too small, and I must make you another. Only see how it fits the dear
Duke!"

The dear Duke was made the recipient of many another mark of unblushing
favour. He could do no wrong. His every solecism of act or word, and
they still cropped up at times, was simply "sweet" in the eyes of Lady
Caroline Sellwood, and his name was seldom on her lips without that
epithet.

Moreover, she would speak her mind to him on every conceivable topic,
and this with a freedom often embarrassing for Jack; as, for example, on
the first Sunday after church.

"I simply don't know how Francis dared!" Lady Caroline exclaimed, as she
took Jack's arm on the sunlit terrace. "Twenty-one minutes by my
watch--and such drivel! It didn't seem so to you? Ah, you're so sweet!
But twenty-one minutes was an outrage, and I shall tell the little idiot
exactly what I think of him."

"I rather like him," said Jack, who put it thus mildly out of pure
politeness to his companion; "and I rather liked what he said."

"Oh, he's no worse than the rest of them," rejoined Lady Caroline. "Of
course I swear by the sweet Established Church, but the parsons
personally, with very few exceptions, I never could endure. Still, it's
useful to have one in the family; he does everything for us. He
christens the grandchildren, and he'll bury the lot of us if he's
spared, to say nothing of marrying poor Olivia when her time comes. Ah
well, let's hope that won't be yet! She is my ewe lamb. And all men are
not such dear sweet fellows as you!"

This sort of speech he found unanswerable; and although treated by her
Ladyship with unflagging consideration, amounting almost to devotion,
Jack was never at his ease in such interviews.

One of these took place in the hut. Lady Caroline insisted on seeing it,
accompanied by Olivia. Of course the whole idea charmed her to
ecstasies; it was so original; it showed such a simple heart; and the
hut itself was as "sweet" as everything else connected with the Duke. So
was the pannikin of tea which Jack was entreated to brew for her in the
"billy": indeed, this was too sweet for Lady Caroline, who emptied most
of hers upon the earth behind her camp-stool--an act which Jack
pretended not to detect, and did not in the least resent. On the
contrary, he put a characteristic construction upon the incident, which
he attributed exclusively to Lady Caroline's delicate reluctance to hurt
his feelings by expressing her real opinion of the tea; for though
personally oppressed by her persistent kindness, he was much too
unsophisticated, and had perhaps too good a heart of his own, ever to
suspect an underlying motive.

Towards the end of that week, in fact on the Friday afternoon, they were
all taking tea on the terrace; or rather all but the two talented young
men, who were understood never to touch it, and who, indeed, were
somewhat out of their element at the Towers, except late at night, when
the ladies had gone to bed. "I can't think why you asked them down,"
said Lady Caroline to Claude. "I didn't," was the reply; "it was you,
Jack." "Of course it was me," cried the astonished Jack, "and why not?
Didn't they use to go to your rooms, old man, and to your house, Lady
Caroline?" "Ah," said her Ladyship, with her indulgent smile, "but that
was rather a different thing--you dear kind fellow!" All this, however,
was not on the Friday afternoon, when Lady Caroline was absorbed in very
different thoughts. They were not of the conversation, although she put
in her word here and there; the subject, that of the Nottingham murder,
being one of peculiar interest. The horrible case in question, which had
filled the papers all that week, had ended the previous day in an
inevitable conviction. And even Claude was moved to the expression of a
strong opinion as he put down the _Times_.

"I must say that I agree with the judge," he remarked with a shudder.
"'Unparalleled barbarity' is the only word for it! What on earth,
though, was there to become 'almost inaudible with emotion' about, in
passing sentence? If I could see any man hanged with equanimity, or
indeed at all, I confess it would be this loathly wretch."

"Claude," said Lady Caroline, "I'm ashamed of you. He is an innocent
man. He shall not die."

"Who's to prevent it?" asked Jack.

"I am," replied Lady Caroline calmly.

"There'll probably be a petition, you see," exclaimed Claude. "Then the
Home Secretary decides."

"And I decide the Home Secretary," said Lady Caroline Sellwood.

It was grossly untrue, and Olivia shook her head in answer to the Duke's
astounded stare, but her mother's eyes were again fixed thoughtfully on
lawn and lake. The short dry grass was overrun with wild thyme,
innumerable butterflies played close to it, as spray, and the air hummed
with bees likewise in love with the aroma, whose fragrance reached even
to the terrace. But Lady Caroline noted none of these things, nor yet
the shadows of spire and turret encroaching on the lawn--nor yet the
sunlight strong as ever on the lake beyond. She was already pondering on
the best way of bringing a certain matter to a head. This quiet country
life, with so tiny a house-party, and with one day so like another, was
excellent so far as it went, but the chances were that it would not go
the whole way. It lacked excitement and incentive. It was the kind of
life in which an attachment might too easily stagnate in mere foolish
friendship. It needed an event; a something to prepare for, to look
forward to; a something to tighten the nerves and slacken the tongue;
and yet nothing that should give the Duke an opportunity of appearing at
a public disadvantage.

So this was the difficulty. It disqualified the dance, the dinner-party,
even the entertaining of the county from 3.30 to 6.30 in the grounds.
But Lady Caroline overcame it, as she overcame most difficulties, by the
patient application of her ingenious mind. And her outward scheme was
presently unfolded in the fewest and apparently the most spontaneous
words.

"He is not guilty, and he shall not die," she suddenly observed, as
though the Nottingham murder had all this time monopolised her
thoughts. "But let us speak of something else; I had, indeed, a very
different matter upon my mind, until the papers came and banished
everything with this ghastly business. The fact is, dear Duke, that you
should really do something to entertain your tenantry, and possibly a
few neighbours also, before they begin to talk. They will expect it
sooner or later, and in these things it is always better to take time by
the forelock. Mind, I don't mean an elaborate matter at all--except from
their point of view. I would just give them the run of the place for the
afternoon, and feed the multitude later on. Francis, don't look shocked!
I hope you'll be there to ask a blessing. Then, Duke, you could have a
band on the lawn, and fireworks, and indeed anything you like. It's
always good policy to do the civil to one's tenantry, though no doubt a
bore; but you needn't shake hands with them, you know, and you could
leaven the lower orders with a few parsons and their wives from the
surrounding rectories. It's only a suggestion, of course, and that from
one who has really no right to put in her oar at all; still I know you
won't misunderstand it--coming from _me_."

He did not; his face had long been alight and aglow with the red-heat
of his enthusiasm; and now his words leapt forth like flames.

"The very ticket!" he cried, starting to his feet. "A general muster of
all sorts, and we'll do 'em real well. Fizz and fireworks! A dance on
the lawn! And I'll make 'em a speech to wind up with!"

"That would be beautiful," said Lady Caroline with an inward shudder.
"What a dear fellow you are, to be sure, to take up my poor little
suggestion like this!"

"Take it up," cried Jack, "I should think I would take it up! It'll be
the best sport out. Lady Caroline, you're one in two or three! I'm truly
thankful for the tip. Here's my hand on it!"

His hand was pressed without delay.

"It really is an excellent suggestion," said Claude Lafont, in his
deliberate way, after mature consideration. "It only remains to settle
the date."

"And the brand of fizz, old man, and the sort of fireworks! I'll leave
all that to you. And the date, too; any day will do me; the sooner the
better."

"Well," said Lady Caroline, as though it had only just struck her,
"Olivia's birthday is the twentieth----"

"Mamma!" cried that young lady, with real indignation.

"And it's her twenty-first birthday," pursued the other, "and she is my
ewe lamb. I must confess I should like to honour that occasion----"

"Same here! By all manner o' means!" broke in the Duke. "Now, Miss
Sellwood, it's no use your saying one word; this thing's a fixture for
the twentieth as ever is."

The girl was furious. The inevitable, nay, the intentional linking of
her name with that of the Duke of St. Osmund's, entailed by the
arrangement thus mooted and made, galled her pride to the quick. And yet
it was but one more twang of the catapult that was daily and almost
hourly throwing her at his head; neither was it his fault any more than
hers; so she made shift to thank him, as kindly as she could at the
moment, for the compliment he was so ready to pay her--at her mother's
suggestion.

"You could hardly get out of it, however, after what was said," she
added, not perhaps inexcusably in the circumstances.

"No more can you," retorted the Duke. "And here comes the very man we
must all consult," he added, as the agent appeared, a taking figure in
his wrinkled riding breeches, and with his spurs trailing on the
dead-smooth flags.

The agent handed Jack a soiled note, and then sat down to talk to the
ladies. This he did at all times excellently, having assurance and a
certain well-bred familiarity of manner, which, as the saying is, went
down. In this respect he was a contrast to all the other men present. He
inquired when the Home Secretary would be back and ready for his revenge
on the links. And he heard of the plans for the twentieth with interest
and a somewhat superfluous approval. Meanwhile the Duke had read his
note more than once, and now he looked up.

"Where did you get this?" he asked, displaying the crumpled envelope,
which had also a hole through the middle.

"In rather a rum place," replied the agent. "It was nailed to a tree
just outside the north gates."

"Well, see here," said Jack, who stood facing the party, with his back
to the stone bulwark of the terrace, and a hard look on his face;
"that's just the sort of place where I should have expected you to find
it, for it's an anonymous letter that some fellows might keep to
themselves--but not me! I'm for getting to the bottom of things,
whether they're nice or whether they're nasty. Listen to this: 'To the
DUKE of St. Osmund's'--he prints 'Duke' in big letters, as much as to
say I'm not one. 'A word in your GRACE'S ear'--he prints that the same.
'They say,' he says, 'that you hail from Australia, and _I_ say you're
not the first claimant to titles and estates that has sprung from there.
Take a friendly tip and put on as few frills as possible till you're
quite sure you are not going to be bowled out for a second Tichborne. A
WELL-WISHER.' Now what does it all mean? Is it simple cheek, or isn't
it? I recollect all about Tichborne. I recollect seeing him in Wagga
when I was a lad, and we took a great interest in his case up the bush;
but why am I like him? Where does the likeness come in? I've heard fat
men called second Tichbornes, but I don't turn twelve stone. Then what
can he mean? Does he mean I'm not a Duke? I know I'm not fit to be one;
but that's another matter; and if it comes to that, I never claimed to
be one either; it was Claude here who yarded me up into this pen! Then
what's it all about? Can any lady or gentleman help me? I'll pass the
letter round, and I'll be mightily obliged if they can!"

They could: it was pure insolence, not to be taken seriously for a
single moment. So they all said with one consent; and Jack was further
advised to steel himself forthwith against anonymous letters, of which
persons in his station received hundreds every year. The agent added
that he believed he knew who had written this one; at least he had his
suspicions.

In a word, the affair was treated by all in the very common-sense light
of a mere idle insult; any serious sympathy that was evinced being due
entirely to the fact that Jack himself seemed to take it rather to
heart. Lady Caroline Sellwood dismissed the matter with the fewest words
of all; nevertheless, Jack detected her in a curious, penetrating,
speculative scrutiny of himself, which he could not fathom at the time;
and her Ladyship had a word to say to Claude Lafont after obtaining his
arm as far as the house.

"That sort of thing is never pleasant," she observed confidentially,
"and I can't help wishing the dear fellow had kept his letter to
himself. It gives one such disagreeable ideas! I am the last person to
be influenced by such pieces of impudence, as a general rule; still I
could not help thinking what a very awkward thing it would be if your
Mr. Cripps had made a big mistake after all! Not awkward from _every_
point of view, dear Claude"--and here she pressed his arm--"but--but of
course he had every substantial proof?"

"Of course," said Claude. "I looked into it, as a matter of form, on
Cripps's return; though his word was really quite sufficient. Well, he
had copies of the certificate of Jack's birth, and of that of my uncle's
marriage, besides proof positive that Jack was Jack. And that was good
enough for me."

"And for me too," said Lady Caroline, dropping his arm. "He is a dear
fellow; I hardly know which is greater, my regard for him or my sympathy
with you!" And her Ladyship marched upstairs.

Meantime the agent had led Jack aside on the terrace.

"I know who sent that letter," said he. "I had my suspicions all along,
and I recognised the disguised hand in a moment. It was Matthew Hunt."

"Well?" said Jack.

"Well, it was meant merely as an annoyance: a petty revenge for the
handsome thrashing you gave the fellow six weeks ago--I wish I'd seen
it! But that's not the point. The point is that I think I could bring it
home to the brute; and I want your Grace to let me try."

"I can't. What's the good? Leave bad alone; we should only make it
worse."

"Then mayn't I raise the rent of the Lower Farm?"

"No; not yet, at any rate. I mean to give the fellow a chance."

"And an invitation for the twentieth too?"

"Certainly; he's a tenant, or his father is; we can't possibly leave
them out."

"Very well; your Grace knows best."

And the agent went his way.



CHAPTER X

"DEAD NUTS"


It was three o'clock in the early morning of the twentieth of August. A
single jet of gas, lighting a torch in the mailed hand of a life-size
man-at-arms, burnt audibly in the silent hall; making the worst of each
lugubrious feature, like a match struck in a cavern. And Claude Lafont
was sitting up alone, in the Poet's Corner, at work upon his birthday
offering to Olivia Sellwood.

At three, however, it was finished in the rough. The poet then stretched
his fingers, took a clean sheet of paper, and started upon the fair copy
in his prettiest hand. It began--

    "What songs have I to sing you?
      What tales have I to tell?"

And there it stuck, as though these questions were indeed unanswerable;
the fact being, there was another still to come, which, however,
involved an execrable couplet as it stood. Claude twisted it about for
half-an-hour; realised its gratuitous badness; tried not to ask this
inane question at all, hunted his rhyming dictionary up and down, and
found he must; and finally, with a prayer that it might impose upon
Olivia, and another for forgiveness from the Muse, finished his first
stanza with--

    "What garlands can I bring you
      From Fancy's fairest dell?
    Before the world grew old, dear,
      The lute was lightlier strung;
    Now all the tales are told, dear,
      And all the songs are sung."

It is needless to quote more. The sentiments were superior to their
setting. An affectionate _camaraderie_ was employed, with success, as a
cloak for those warmer feelings of whose existence in his own bosom the
poor poet was now practically convinced. And the lines in themselves
were not all or wholly bad; there was a certain knack in them, and here
and there some charm. But if infinite pains could have made them a work
of genius, that they would have been. It was almost five when Claude
made his best signature at the foot of the last verse; yet there were
but four of these, or thirty-two lines in all.

He put them in an envelope which he sealed deliberately with his
signet-ring. The deliberation of all his private doings was enormous;
neither the hour nor an empty stomach could induce briskness at the
expense of pains. Yet Claude was exceedingly hungry, and the night had
put an edge on his nerves. As he paced the floor the undue distinction
between his steps, so soft on the rugs, and so loud on the parquetry,
became exaggerated in his nervous ears; and all the silence and all the
darkness of the sleeping Towers seemed to press upon that single
lamp-lit, sounding room, like fathoms of wide sea upon a diver's helm.
Claude had not thought of such things while he was still at work; he had
rather overdone matters, and he poured out a sparing measure of whisky
from the decanter upon the table.

There were other glasses with dregs at the bottom. The air was tainted
with stale smoke, and within the fender lay the remains of many
cigarettes. This was why Claude was so late. He had been late in making
a start. Stubbs and Llewellyn had sat up with him till the small hours.
The Poet's Corner was the one spot in which these young men seemed
really at home. Here, by midnight, but seldom before, they could manage
to create unto themselves their own element; for their Philistine host
went early to his eccentric lair; but there were always his easy-chairs
to lounge in, his whisky to drink, and Claude Lafont to listen to their
talk.

Not that the poet was so good a listener as he had been once; the truth
being, that he found himself a little out of touch with his clever
friends--he hardly knew why. It might be the living under one roof with
them; he himself would never have asked them down. Or it might be the
simultaneous hourly contact with an opposite type of man--the kindly,
unaffected dunce--the unburnished nugget, reeking yet of the Australian
soil, but with the gold wearing brighter every day.

Certain it was that the benefit of the cousins' close companionship had
not been all on one side. If the force of example had toned down some of
Jack's pristine roughness of speech and manner, it had taken a like
effect upon sundry peculiarities of a converse character in Claude. In a
word, there had been an ideal interchange between the two, founded on a
mutual liking. The amelioration of the Duke was sufficiently obvious to
all; that of Claude struck Olivia especially, who had never been blind
to his faults; needless to add, he was himself the last to see how he
had changed. Yet he divined something of it now. As he thought of the
verses he had just written, and of the critic to whom he would have
submitted them in all humility a couple of months ago, he knew that he
was no longer as he had been then; for he had not the faintest intention
of allowing that critic to see these verses at all.

So Claude calmed his nerves, eating biscuits the while, and sipping
soda-water merely tinctured with whisky; until all at once the lamp
began to flicker and to smell, and the song of the birds, singing in
Olivia's birthday, came at last to his ears through the plate-glass and
rich curtains of the octagonal window. Then he rose; and in half a
minute the lamp was out, the curtains drawn, a sash thrown up, and the
risen sun shining mercilessly on the dishevelled head and blue chin and
battered shirt-front of Claude Lafont.

The cool, fresh scene inspired him with delight; it was indeed a
disgraceful novelty to the poet. He thought nothing of rhyming "morn"
with "dawn," and yet of this phenomenon itself he had little or no
experience. He would gain some now; he also promised himself the unique
pleasure of rousing the early-rising Jack. So he got out of the window,
and soaked his feet in the dew, only to meet Jack emerging from his hut,
with towels on his arm, as he approached it. Nor was the Duke's
surprise very flattering; but his chaff was fair enough. He was himself
about to bathe in the creek at the north end of the tank. Would Claude
join him and then go back to the hut for an early pannikin of bush tea?
Claude would, and did, feeling (as all felt at Jack's hut) that he had
been flashed through the thick of the earth, and come out in the wilds
of Australia.

In the hut a log fire had burnt well up by the time they returned with
wet towels and glowing skins. Over the flames hung the billy-can, with
boiling water throbbing against the side. Jack lifted it down with a
stick, and threw a handful of tea among the bubbles. "Shall I sweeten
it?" he then asked; and, at Claude's nod, threw in another handful of
brown sugar.

"There, that's real bush tea for you," continued the Duke, in a simmer
of satisfaction himself as he stirred the mixture with the stick. "Now
take the pannikin and dip it in. There's no milk, mind; that wouldn't be
the thing at all. Here are some biscuits, and they aren't the thing
either. I'd have made you a damper, only I never could strike a
camp-oven; it's been trouble enough to raise the plant I've got. What do
you think of the tea?"

"Capital!" cried Claude, who was seated on the bunk. And indeed the
whole thing appealed to his poetic palate; for he could not forget that
this hut was within half a mile of the Towers themselves, in which the
Duke took evidently far less pleasure; and the many-sided contrast
amused his literary sense, even while it piqued his family pride.

"How I wish it was the real thing!" said Jack, with a sigh. "I'd have a
camp-oven, then, and you should have your mutton chop and damper served
up hot. I used to be an artist at a damper. Then after breakfast I'd
take you with me round the paddocks, and you'd help me muster a mob and
drive them to the tank; and you'd hear them bleat and see them start to
run when they smelt the water. My colonial oath, I can see 'em and hear
'em now! Then we'd give our mokes a drink in the middle of 'em, and we'd
take a pull at our own water-bags. Then we might camp under the nearest
hop-bush for a snack, and I should yard you up at the homestead, and
make you know my old boss before the day was over. What a day it would
be for you! You wouldn't believe the sky could get so blue or your face
so red. But it's no use talking--here we are again!" And he set down his
empty pannikin with another sigh.

"You wouldn't really prefer that life to this?"

"No; perhaps not; but I like to think of it, as you can see."

"Surely you like your new life best by this time? You wouldn't go back
there now?"

"I like my new friends best; I wouldn't go back on them. Olivia and you,
for instance."

"It's her birthday," said Claude; but a silence had intervened.

"So it is. God bless her! I haven't got her anything, because I seemed
to make a mull of it with those flowers. Have you?"

"Yes, I have a trifle for her; it's rather a different thing on her
birthday, you know. And--and I've written her a few verses; that's what
I've been doing all night."

"Clever dog!" said Jack enviously. "See what it is to be a man of
genius; here's where it comes in so handy. And has Llewellyn done her
something, too?"

"Yes; a portrait of herself."

"Well, let him label it to that effect, or she may put her foot in it
like me. He never shows me his blooming drawings now. But I wish you'd
let me see your poem."

"It's not all that; it's only verses, and pretty bad ones too; still,
you shall hear them if you like, and if I can remember them," said
Claude, who would have found much more difficulty in forgetting them so
soon. "I only wish they were better! There are some lamentable lines
here and there. I tried to iron them out, but they wouldn't all come."

"Go on!" cried Jack, lighting his pipe. "I'll tell you whether they're
good or bad. You go ahead!"

And Claude did so, only too glad of a second opinion of any kind; for he
had little or no intellectual self-reliance, and was ever ready to think
his productions good or bad with their latest critic. On this occasion,
however, he would have been better pleased with the general enthusiasm
of the Duke, had not the latter proceeded to point out particular
merits, when it transpired that the ingenuity of the rhymes was what
impressed him most. Knowing where they came from, the poet himself was
unable to take much pride in this feature.

"They're splendid!" reiterated Jack. "You ought to be the laureate, old
man, and I've a good mind to tell 'em so in the House of Lords. You're
far and away ahead of Shakespeare at rhyming; he hardly ever rhymes at
all; I know that; because there used to be a copy of him in my old hut.
I say, I like that about the garlands from Fancy's dell; that's real
poetry, that is. But do you mind giving me the last four lines again?"

Claude gave them--

    "While yet the world was young, dear,
      Your minstrel might be bold:
    Now all the songs are sung, dear,
      And all the tales are told."

"First-chop," said Jack, whose look, however, was preoccupied. "But
what's that you're driving at about the minstrel being bolder? What was
it you'd have said if only you'd had the cheek? Say it to me. Out with
it!"

"I don't know, really," said Claude, laughing.

"Then I do: you're dead nuts on Olivia!"

"What's that?"

"You like her!"

"Naturally."

"As much as I do!"

"That all depends how much you like her, Jack."

There was a moment's pause. The Duke was sitting on his heels in front
of the fire, into which he was also staring fixedly; so that it was
impossible to tell whether the red light upon his face was spontaneous
or reflected. And he spoke out now without turning his head.

"Old man," he said, "I've wanted a straight word with you this long
time--about Olivia. Of course I know I oughtn't to call her Olivia
behind her back, when I daren't to her face; but that's what she is in
my own heart, you see--and that's where she's pegged out a claim for
good and all. Understand? We can't all talk like books, old man! Still I
want to make myself as plain as possible."

"You do so. I understand perfectly," said Claude Lafont.

"That's all right. Well, as I was saying, she's pegged out a claim that
no other woman is ever going to jump. And what I was going to say was
this: you remember that night in your rooms in town? I mean when I said
I meant no harm, and all that; because I spoke too soon. Worse still, I
felt mean when I did speak; it didn't ring true; and long I've known
that even then there was only one thing that would have held me back.
That was--if she'd been your girl! I gave you a chance of saying if she
was, but you only laughed; and sometimes I've thought your laugh wasn't
any truer than my word. So I've got to have it in plain English before I
go the whole hog. Claude--old man--she never was--your girl?"

"Never," said Claude decidedly.

"You never asked her--what I think of asking one of these days?"

"Never."

"Thank God, old man. I'm dead nuts on her myself, I tell you frankly;
and I mean to tell _her_ when I can rake together the pluck. I'm not
sure I can keep it to myself much longer. The one thing I'm sure of is
that she'll laugh in my face--if she isn't too riled! I hear her doing
it every night of my life as I lie where you're sitting and listen to
the pines outside. I hear her saying every blessed thing but 'yes!' Yet
it isn't such cheek as all that, is it, Claude? I want your candid
opinion. I'm not such a larrikin as I was that day you met me, am I?"

And he turned to the other with a simple, strong humility, very touching
in him; but Claude jumped up, and getting behind him so that their eyes
should not meet, laid his hands affectionately on the Duke's shoulders.

"You are not the same man," he said with a laugh; "yet you are the same
good fellow! I could wish Olivia no better fate--than the one you think
of. So I wish you luck--from my heart. And now let us go."

On the lawn they found the Home Secretary driving a dozen golf-balls
into space from an impromptu tee. He had come for good now, the session
being over at last. And this was his daily exercise before breakfast,
and his valet's daily grievance, whose duty it was to recover the balls.

Mr. Sellwood accompanied the younger men into the house, where Claude
had still to shave and dress; but the Duke was the uninterested witness
of an interesting scene, between the Home Secretary and his wife, before
any one else came down to breakfast. The subject was that of the
Nottingham murder.

"They are making an example of you!" said Lady Caroline bitterly,
looking up from her husband's daily stack of press-cuttings, which she
always opened.

"Let them," said Mr. Sellwood, from the depths of the _Sportsman_, which
he read before any of his letters.

"They call it a judicial murder--and upon my word, so do I! Your
decision is most unpopular; they clamour for your resignation--and I
must say that I should do the same. Here's a cartoon of you playing golf
with a human skull for the ball!"

"Exactly how I mean to spend my day--barring the skull."

"They know it, too; it's a public scandal; even if it wasn't, I should
be ashamed of myself, with that poor man awaiting his end!"

"He was hanged five minutes ago," declared the Home Secretary,
consulting his watch. "And I may as well tell you, my dear, that I had
his full confession in my pocket when I gave my decision the night
before last. It appears in this morning's papers. And I fancy that's my
hole," added Mr. Sellwood, nodding at Jack.

But Jack had no more to say than Lady Caroline, utterly routed for once.
The Duke did not perhaps appreciate the situation, or perhaps he was not
listening; for his eyes hung very wistfully on Olivia's plate, which was
laden and surrounded by birthday offerings of many descriptions. There
were several packets by post, and an open cheque from the Home
Secretary. Claude had added his beautifully sealed envelope before going
upstairs, and now Llewellyn came in with his "likeness of a lady." The
lady was evidently lost in a fog; the likeness did not exist; and the
whole production was exactly like a photographic failure which is both
out of focus and "over-exposed." But it was better than poor Jack's
contribution of nothing at all.



CHAPTER XI

THE NIGHT OF THE TWENTIETH


A loose chain of fairy lights marked the brink of the lake; another was
drawn tight from end to end of the balustrade rimming the terrace; and
between the two, incited by champagne and the Hungarian band, the rank
and file of the tenantry cut happy capers in the opening eye of the
harvest moon.

At one end of the terrace the fire-workers awaited the word to rake and
split the still serenity of the heavens; at the other, the fairy
footlights picked out the twinkling diamonds and glaring shirt-fronts of
the house-party, the footmen's gilt buttons and powdered heads; for the
men had just come out of the dining-room, and tea was being handed
round.

"It is going beautifully--beautifully!" whispered Lady Caroline,
swooping down upon the Duke, who had himself made straight for her
daughter's side. "Inside and out, high and low, all are happy, it is one
huge success. How could it be otherwise? You make such a charming host!
My dear Jack, I congratulate you from my heart; and the occasion must be
my excuse for the familiarity."

"No excuse needed; I like it," replied the Duke. "I only wish you'd all
call me Jack," he added, with a sidelong look at Olivia; "surely we're
all pretty much in the same family boat! Well, I'm glad you think it's a
success, and I'm glad I make a decent host; but I shouldn't if I hadn't
got the loan of such an excellent hostess, Lady Caroline."

"You are so sweet!"

"Nay, it's you that's so jolly kind," laughed Jack. "The fact is, Lady
Caroline, I can get along all right at my own table so long as I don't
have to carve--and when I make up my mind to go straight through cold
water. I was sorry not to drink Miss Sellwood's health in anything
stronger; but it's better so."

"So fine of you," murmured Lady Caroline; "such a noble example! You
can't think how I've admired it in you from the first!"

Yet she looked to see whether his remarks had been overheard. They had
not; even Olivia had turned away before they were made, and her mother
now followed her example. She was rewarded by seeing the Duke at the
girl's side again when next she looked round.

They were standing against the balustrade, a little apart from the rest.
They had set their cups upon the broad stone rim. Jack began to stir his
tea with the impotent emphasis of one possessed by the inexpressible.
But Olivia gave him no assistance; she seemed more interested in the
noisy dancers on the sward below the terrace.

"I hope you've had a good time, on the whole," he began, ineptly enough,
at last. "All this is in your honour, you know!"

"Surely not all," replied the girl, laughing. "Still I don't know when I
had such a delightful birthday, and I want to thank you for everything
with all my heart."

"Everything!" laughed Jack nervously. "I've done nothing at all; why, I
didn't even give you a present. That was through a stupid mistake of
mine, which we needn't go into, because now's the time to rectify it.
I've been waiting for a chance all the evening. The thing only came a
few minutes before dinner. But better late than never, they say, and so
I hope you'll still accept this trifle from me, Miss Sellwood, with
every possible good wish for all the years to come. May they be long
and--and very happy!"

His voice vibrated with the commonplace words. As he ceased speaking he
took from his waistcoat pocket something that was certainly trifling in
size, and he set it on the balustrade between the two tea-cups. It was a
tiny leathern case, and Olivia held her breath. Next moment an exquisite
ring, diamonds and emeralds, scintillated in the light of the nearest
fairy lamp.

"This is never for me?" she cried, aghast.

"That it is--if you will take it."

She was deeply moved: how could she take a ring from him? And yet how
could she refuse, or how explain! Each alternative was harder than the
last.

"It is far too good for me," she murmured, "for a mere birthday present!
You are too generous. I can't dream of letting you give me anything half
so good!"

"What nonsense! It is not half good enough; it's only the best I could
get from Devenholme. I sent in the dogcart for the crack jeweller of the
place; it brought him back with a bagful of things, and this was the
best of a bad lot. I wish I'd kept the fellow! You might have chosen
something else."

She saw her loophole and made no reply.

"Would you prefer something else?" he asked eagerly.

"Well, if you insist on giving me a present, it must be something not
half so good."

"That's my affair."

"And perhaps not a ring."

"That's another matter, and on one condition I'm on: you must let me
drive you in to-morrow to choose for yourself."

She consented gratefully. Her gratitude was the more profuse from, it
may be, an exaggerated sense of the dilemma in which she had found
herself a moment before; at all events it was very kindly and charmingly
expressed. So Jack pocketed the ring and swallowed his tea in excellent
heart; longing already for the morrow, for the expedition to Devenholme
with Olivia alone at his side.

"That excellent follow seems very busy with our Olivia. Is there
anything in it?" asked Mr. Sellwood of his wife.

"I have no idea," replied Lady Caroline; "you know I never interfere in
such matters. I'm glad you think him an excellent fellow, though. He is
simply sweet."

"In fact we might do worse from every point of view; is that it?" said
the Home Secretary dryly. "I'm inclined to agree with you. I hope he
won't foozle his shot by being in too great a hurry."

The fireworks had begun. Rocket after rocket split the sky and descended
in a shower of stars. A set-piece stood out against the lake; it
represented six French eagles on a shield.

"Come and have a look at the family fowls," said Jack, rejoining Olivia,
who had been talking to Claude. "I'd swop the lot for one respectable
emu; it would be a good deal more appropriate for a Duke like me."

Among other things he had learnt at last to pronounce his own title
correctly. Also, he looked well at all times in evening dress, but he
had never looked better than he did to-night. Claude had these
consolations as he watched the pair go down and mingle with the throng.

As a matter of fact the Duke of St. Osmund's had never been in higher
spirits in the whole course of his chequered career. Olivia had not,
indeed, accepted his offering, but she had done much better, for now he
was sure of having her to himself for hours the next day. And what might
not happen in those hours? This was one factor in his present content;
her little hand within his arm was another that thrilled him even more;
but there were further and smaller factors which yet astonished him,
each with its unexpected measure of gratification. There were the people
bowing and curtseying as he came among them with Olivia on his arm.
There were the momentary glimpses of the stately Towers, seen from end
to end in a flash, as a bursting rocket spattered the sky with a million
sparks that changed colour as they floated to the earth. And there was
the feeling, never before this moment entirely unmixed, that after all
it was better to be the Duke of St. Osmund's than Happy Jack of New
South Wales.

"You were right!" he exclaimed, in an attempt to voice what he felt to
Olivia; "you were quite right that day in the hut to say 'I wonder,' to
what I said about not minding if I woke up and found myself on Carara
after all. You set _me_ wondering at the time, and now I rather think
that I should mind a good deal. This place grows upon you. I feel it
more and more every morning when I get the first glimpse of it, coming
through the pines. But I never felt it as I do to-night--look at that!"

The entire front of the building was lit up by an enormous Roman candle,
playing like a fountain on the terrace. Turret and spire and battlement
were stamped sharp and grey against the darkling sky. The six Corinthian
columns of the portico stood out like sentinels who had taken a step
forward as one man. And in the tympanum overhead the shield of the six
eagles that was carved there showed so plainly that Olivia and Jack
pointed it out to each other at the same moment.

"You mustn't think I've no respect for the fowls," said the Duke, when
they were both left blinking in the chaste light of the reproving moon;
"I'm proud enough of them at the bottom of my heart. I may be slow at
catching on to new ideas. I know I didn't at first take to everything
like a duck to water. I couldn't, after the life I'd led; it was too
much for one man. But I am getting used to it now. As old Claude says,
I'm beginning to appreciate it. I am so! This has been the proudest day
of my life; I'm proud of everything, of the place, the people----"

"And yourself most of all!" cried a thick voice at his elbow, while
Olivia's fingers tightened on his other arm.

It was Matthew Hunt. He was flushed with wine, but steady enough on his
legs. Only his tongue was beyond control, and a crowd was at his heels
to hear what he would say next.

"Yes, I remember you," he continued savagely. "I shan't forget that
morning in a hurry----"

"Yet you seem to have forgotten who you are speaking to," put in the
Duke quietly.

Hunt laughed horribly.

"Forgotten? I never knew! All I know is as I'm _not_ speaking to his
Grace the Duke----"

Olivia was not shaken off. She only felt a quivering in the arm she
held; she only guessed it was the other arm that shot out too quick for
her sight from his further shoulder: and all she saw was the dropping of
Hunt at their feet, as if with a bullet through his brain. She conquered
her impulse to scream, and she found herself saying instead, "Well done!
It served him right!" And the voice sounded strange in her own ears.

But her opinion was freely echoed by those who had followed in Hunt's
wake. A dozen hands raised him roughly, and kept their hold of him even
when he was firm upon his feet, half stunned still, but wholly sobered.
He tried to shake them off, but they answered that he must first
apologise to his Grace. He refused, and they threatened him with the
pond. He gave in then, in a way, speaking one thing, but looking
another, which was yet the plainer of the two to the Duke. It meant that
all was not yet over between him and Hunt. And Jack was very silent as
he led Olivia back to the terrace.

"You were quite right," she said as they went; "had I been a man I would
have done it for you."

"You're a splendid girl," he replied, to her confusion; but that was
all; nor did he seem conscious of what he said.

Already it was late, and in another hour the band had stopped; the
fireworks were over; the people all gone, and gone the memory of their
ringing cheers from the heart of the Duke, who stood alone with Claude
Lafont on the moonlit terrace. Claude had heard of Hunt's insolence and
summary chastisement; he regretted the incident extremely; but his state
of mind was nothing to that of the Duke, who was now a prey to
reactionary depression of the severest order.

"Are there any revolvers in the house?" said he. "I shall want a loaded
one to-night."

"What in the world for?" cried Claude in dismay.

"Not for my own brains; you needn't alarm yourself. But you see what a
bitter enemy I've made; he might get me at his mercy out there at the
hut. There was murder in his eye to-night, or else truth in his words,
and that you won't allow. But there was one or the other. So I want a
shooter before I go over."

"If only you wouldn't go over at all! What's the use, when there are
dozens of good rooms lying idle in the house? It does seem a madness!"

"Well, I am half thinking of giving it up; but not to-night, or that
brute may go killing my cats. He's capable of anything. Give me a
revolver like a good chap."

Claude fetched one from the gun-room. He it was who still knew the
whereabouts of all things, who kept the keys, and who arranged most
matters for the Duke. He was Jack's major-domo as well as his guide,
philosopher, and friend.

To-night they walked together as far as the shores of the lake. Claude
then returned, but for some reason the pair shook hands first. No word
was said, save between eye and eye in the pale light of the new harvest
moon. But Claude had never yet seen his cousin gaze so kindly on the
home of their common ancestors as he did to-night before they separated.
And that look was a consolation to the poet as he returned alone to the
house.

"This is the last link with that miserable bush life," said Claude to
himself; "and it's very nearly worn through. He's beginning to see that
there wasn't so much after all in the inheritance of Esau. After
to-night we shall have no more of this nonsense of camping out in a
make-believe bush hut; he will sleep under his own roof, like a sane
man, and I'll get him to burn the bush hut down. After that--after
that--well, I suppose the wedding-bells and the altar rails are only a
question of time!"

And Claude went within, to talk of art and of books until bookman and
artist went to bed; but he himself returned to the terrace instead of
following their example. A dark depression was brooding over his spirit,
his mind was full of vague forebodings. He had also a hundred regrets,
and yet the last and the least of these was for the moment the most
poignant too. He was sorry he had yielded to Jack in the matter of that
revolver. And even as the thought came into his head--by some strange
prescience--surely never by coincidence--he heard a shot far away in the
direction of the lake. He held his breath, and heard a single throb of
his own heart; then another shot; and then another and another until he
had counted five.

Now it was a five-chambered revolver that Claude had handed fully loaded
to his cousin.



CHAPTER XII

THE WRONG MAN


The Duke had proceeded to his hut with the slow and slouching gait of a
man bemused; yet the strings of his body were as those of a lute, and
there was an inordinate keen edge to his every sense. He heard the deer
cropping the grass far behind him; and he counted the very
reverberations of the stable clock striking a half-hour in the still
air. It was the half-hour after midnight. The moon still slanted among
the pines, and Jack followed his own shadow, with his beard splayed
against his shirt-front, until within a few yards of his hut. Then he
looked quickly up and about. But the hut was obviously intact; there was
the moon twinkling in the padlock of which the key was in his pocket;
and Jack returned to his examination of the ground.

He was a very old bushman; he had a black-fellow's eye for a footprint,
and he had struck a trail here which he knew to be recent and not his
own. He followed it to the padlocked door, and round the hut and back to
the door. He found the two heel-marks where the man had sat down to
think some matter over. Then he took out his key and went within, but
left the door wide open; and while his back was still turned to it, for
he could not find his matches, there was a slight noise there, and the
moon's influx was stemmed by a man's body.

"Good morning, Hunt," said Jack, without turning round.

The tone, no less than the words, took the intruder all aback. He had
planned a pretty surprise, only to receive a prettier for his pains.

"How did you know it was me?" he cried.

"By your voice," was the reply; and the matches were found at last.

"But before that?"

"I expected you. Why didn't you go on sitting there with your back to
the door?"

"You saw me!" cried Hunt, coming in.

"I saw your tracks. Hullo! Be good enough to step outside again."

"I've come to talk to you----"

"Quite so; but we'll talk outside."

And Hunt had to go with what grace he might. Jack followed with a couple
of camp-stools, pulled the door to, sat down on one of the stools, and
motioned Hunt to the other. The great smooth face shook slowly in reply;
and the moonlight showed a bulbous bruise between the eyes, which made
its author frown and feel at fault.

"Yes, you may look!" said Hunt through the gap in his set teeth which
was a piece of the same handiwork. "You hit hard enough, but I can hit
harder where it hurts more. A fine Duke _you_ are! Oh, yes; double your
fists again--do. You won't hit me this time. There's no one looking on!"

"Don't be too sure, my boy," replied Jack. "Don't you make any mistake!"

Hunt stuck a foot upon his camp-stool and leant forward over his knee.

"Recollect why you struck me to-night?"

"Perfectly."

"Well, I deserved it--for being such a fool as to say what I had to say
at a time like that. It was the drink said it, not me; I apologise again
for saying it there, I apologise to you and me too. I was keeping it to
say here."

"Out with it," said Jack, who to his own astonishment was preserving a
perfect calm; as he spoke he began filling a pipe that he had brought
out with the matches.

"One thing at a time," said Hunt, producing a greasy bank-book. "I'll
out with this first. You may have heard that the old Duke had a kind of
weakness for my folks?"

"I have heard something of the sort."

"Then I'll trouble you to run your eye over this here pass-book. It
belongs to my old dad. It'll show you his account with the London and
Provincial Bank at Devenholme. It's a small account. This here book goes
back over ten years, and there's some blank leaves yet. But look at it
for yourself; keep your eye on the left-hand page from first to last;
and you'll see what you'll see."

Jack did so; and what he saw on every left-hand page was this: "per
Maitland, £50." There were other entries, "by cheque" and "by cash," but
they were few and small. Clearly Maitland was the backbone of the
account; and a closer inspection revealed the further fact that his name
appeared punctually every quarter, and always in connection with the sum
of fifty pounds received.

"Ever heard of Maitland, Hollis, Cripps and Co.?" inquired Hunt.

Jack started; so this was the Maitland. "They are my solicitors," he
said.

"They were the old Duke's too," replied Hunt. "Now have a look at the
other side of the account. You know the Lower Farm; then look and see
what we pay for rent."

"I know the figure," said Jack, handing back the pass-book. "It is half
the value."

"Less than half--though I say it! And what does all this mean--two
hundred a year paid up without fail by Maitland, Hollis, Cripps and Co.,
and the Lower Farm very near rent free? It means," said Hunt, leaning
forward, with an evil gleam on either side of his angry bruise--"it
means that something's bought of us as doesn't appear. You can guess
what for yourself. Our silence! Two hundred a year, and the Lower Farm
at a nominal rent, all for keeping a solitary secret!"

"Then I should advise you to go on keeping it," said Jack, with cool
point; yet for all his nonchalance, his heart was in a flutter enough
now; for he knew what was coming--he caught himself wondering how much
or how little it surprised him.

"All very fine," he heard Hunt saying--a long way off as it seemed to
him--whereas he was really bending farther forward than before. "All
very fine! But what if this secret has improved in value with keeping?
Improved, did I say? Lord's truth, it's gone up a thousand per cent. in
the last few weeks; and who do you suppose sent it up? Why, you! I'll
tell you how. I dessay you can guess; still I'll tell you, then there'll
be no mistakes. You've heard things of your father? You know the sort he
was? You won't knock me down again for mentioning it, will you? I
thought not! Well, when the Red Marquis, as they used to call him, was a
young man about the house here, my old dad was in the stables; and my
old dad's young sister was the Duchess's own maid--a slapping fine girl,
they tell me, but she was dead before I can remember. Well, and
something happened; something often does. But this was something choice.
Guess what!"

"He married her."

"He did. He married her at the parish church of Chelsea, in the name of
Augustus William Greville Maske, his real name all but the title; still,
he married the girl."

"Quite right too!"

"Oh, quite right, was it? Stop a bit. You were born in 1855. You told me
so yourself; you may remember the time, and you stake your life _I_
don't forget it. It was the sweetest music I ever heard, was that there
date! Shall I tell you why? Why, because them two--the Red Marquis and
his mother's maid--were married on October 22d, 1853."

"Well?"

Hunt took out a handful of cigars which had been provided for all comers
in the evening; he had filled his pockets with them; and now he selected
one by the light of the setting moon and lit it deliberately. Then he
puffed a mouthful of smoke in Jack's direction, and grinned.

"'Well,' says you; and you may well 'well!' For the Red Marquis deserted
his wife and went out to Australia before he'd been married a month. And
out there he married again. _But you were five years old, my fine
fellow, before his first wife died, and was buried in this here parish!_
You can look at her tombstone for yourself. She died and was buried as
Eliza Hunt; and just that much was worth two hundred a year to us for
good and all; because, you see, I'm sorry to say she never had a child."

Both in substance and in tone this last statement was the most
convincing of all. Here was an insolent exultation tempered by a still
more insolent regret; and the very incompleteness of the triumph
engraved it the deeper with the stamp of harsh reality.

Jack saw his position steadily in all its bearings. He was nobody. A
little time ago he had stepped into Claude's shoes, but now Claude would
step into his. Well, thank God that it was Claude! And yet--and
yet--that saving fact made facts of all the rest.

"I've no doubt your yarn is quite true," said Jack, still in a tone that
amazed himself. "But of course you have some proofs on paper?"

"Plenty."

"Then why couldn't you come out with all this before?"

Hunt gave so broad a grin that a volume of smoke escaped haphazard from
his gaping mouth.

"You'd punished me," he said, admiring the red end of his cigar; "I'd
got you to punish in your turn, and with interest. So I gave you time to
get to like the old country in general, and this here spot in
particular; to say nothing of coming the Duke; I meant that to grow on
you too. I hope as I gave you time enough? This here hut don't look
altogether like it, you know!"

Jack's right hand was caressing the loaded revolver in the breast-pocket
of his dress-coat; it was the cold, solid power of the little living
weapon that kept the man himself cool and strong in his extremity.

"Quite fair," he remarked. "Any other reason?"

"One other."

"What was that?"

"Well, you see, it's like this"--and Hunt dropped his insolence for a
confidential tone far harder to brook. "It's like this," he repeated,
plumping down on the camp-stool in front of Jack: "there's nobody knows
of that there marriage but us Hunts. We've kep' it a dead secret for
nearly forty years, and we don't want to let it out now. But, as I say,
the secret's gone up in value. Surely it's worth more than two hundred a
year to you? You don't want to be knocked sideways by that there Claude
Lafont, do you? Yet he's the next man. You'd never let yourself be
chucked out by a chap like that?"

"That's my business. What's your price?"

"Two thousand."

"A year?"

"Two thousand a year. Come, it's worth that to you if it's worth a
penny-piece. Think of your income!"

"Think of yours. Two hundred on condition you kept a single secret! That
was the condition, wasn't it?"

"Well?"

"You've let the secret out, you cur!" cried Jack, jumping to his feet.
"And you've lost your income by it for good and all. Two thousand!
You'll never see another two hundred. What, did you take me for a dirty
skunk like yourself? Do you think I got in this position through my own
fault or of my own accord? Do you think I'm so sweet on it as to sit
tight at the mercy of a thing like you? Not me! What you've told me
to-night the real Duke and his lawyers shall hear to-morrow; and think
yourself lucky if you aren't run in for your shot at a damnable
conspiracy! Did you really suppose I cared as much as all that? Do you
think--oh! for God's sake, clear out, man, before I do you any more
damage!"

"Oh, you're good at that," said Hunt through his broken tooth. He had
risen, and now he retreated a few paces. "You're not bad with your
fists, you fool, but I've come prepared for you this time!" and he drew
a knife; but the revolver covered him next instant.

"And I for you," retorted Jack. "I give you five seconds to clear out
in. One--two----"

"My God, are there such fools----"

"Three--four----"

The man was gone. At a safer range he stopped again to threaten and
gloat, to curse and to coax alternately. But Jack took no more notice;
he turned into the hut, flung the pistol on the table, and stood
motionless until the railing died away. Yet he had heeded never a word
of it, but was rather reminded that it had been by its very cessation,
as one notes the stopping of a clock. It made him look out once more,
however; and, looking, he saw the last of Matthew Hunt in the moonlit
spaces among the pines. His retreating steps died slowly away. The
snapping of a twig was just audible a little after. And then in the
mellow distance the stable clock chimed and struck one; and again Jack
found himself keeping an imaginary count of the reverberations until all
was still.

He stood at the door a moment longer. The feathered barbs of the
pine-trees were drawn in ink upon a starry slate. The night was as mild
and clear and silent as many a one in the Riverina itself; and Jack
tried to think himself there; to regard this English summer as the
bushman's dream that he had so often imagined it here in his model bush
hut. But his imagination was very stubborn to-night. The stately home
which was not his rose in his mind's eye between him and the stars; once
more he saw it illumined in a flash from spire to terrace; once more the
portico columns marched forward as one man, while the six eagles flew
out in the tympanum above; and though a purring arose from his feet, and
something soft and warm rubbed kindly against his shins, he could no
longer forget where he was and who he was not. He was not the Duke. He
was the wrong man after all. And the hut that he had built and
inhabited, as a protest against all this grandeur, was a monument of
irony such as the hand of man had never reared in all the world before.

The wrong man! He flung himself upon the elaborately rude bed to grapple
with those three words until he might grasp what they meant to himself.
And as he lay, his little cat leapt softly up and purred upon his heart,
as if it knew the aching need there of a sympathy beyond the reach of
words.

Only one aspect of his case came home to him now, but that was its worst
aspect. The life he was to lose mattered little after all. He might miss
it more than he had once thought; it was probable he would but truly
appreciate it when it was a life of the past, as is the way of a man.
Yet even that could be borne. The losing of the girl was different and a
million times worse. But lose her he must: for what was he now? Instead
of a Duke a nobody; not even a decently born peasant; a nameless husk of
humanity, a derelict, a nonentity, the natural son of a notorious rake.
Must he go back then to the bush, and back alone? Must he put himself
beyond the reach of soft words and softer eyes for ever? He could feel
again that little hand within his arm; and it was worse a hundredfold
than the vision of the Towers lit from end to end by the light of a
bursting rocket. Would not the grave itself----

Wait.

There was the pistol on the table. The pale light lay along the barrel.
He held his breath and lay gazing at the faint gleam until it grew into
a blinding sun that scorched him to the soul. And he hardly knew what he
had done when Claude Lafont found him wandering outside with the hot
pistol still in his hand.

Jack looked upon the breathless poet with dull eyes that slowly
brightened; then he pressed the lever, shot out the empty cartridges,
blew through the chambers, and handed the revolver back to Claude.

"I've no more use for it. I'm much obliged to you. No, I've done no
damage with it; that's just the point. I was emptying it for safety's
sake. I'm so sorry you heard. I--I _did_ think of emptying it--through
my own head."

"In Heaven's name, why?"

"Only for a moment, though. It would have been a poor trick after all.
Still I had to empty it first and see that afterwards."

"But why? What on earth has happened?"

"I'm not the man after all."

"What man?"

"The Duke of St. Osmund's."

And Claude was made to hear everything before he was allowed the free
expression of his astonishment and incredulity. Then he laughed. His
incredulity remained.

"My dear fellow," he cried, "there's not a word of truth in the whole
story. It's one colossal fraud. Hunt's a blackguard. I wouldn't believe
his oath in a court of justice."

"What about the bank-book?"

"A fraud within a fraud!"

"Not it. I'll answer for that. Oh, no; we could have inquired at the
bank. Hunt's a blackguard, but no fool. And you know what my father was;
from all accounts he wasn't the man to think twice about a little job
like bigamy."

"I wouldn't say that; few men of our sort would be so reckless in such a
matter," declared the poet. "Now, from all _I_ know of him, I should
have said it was most inconsistent with his character to marry the girl
at all. Everything but that! And surely it's quite possible to explain
even that two hundred a year without swallowing such a camel as
downright bigamy. My grandfather was a sort of puritanical monomaniac;
even in the days of his mental vigour I can remember him as a sterner
moralist than any of one's school-masters or college dons. Then, too, he
was morbidly sensitive about the family failings and traditions, and
painfully anxious to improve the tone of our house. Bear that in mind
and conceive as gross a scandal as you like--but not bigamy. Do you mean
to tell me that a man like my grandfather would have thought two hundred
a year for all time too much to pay for hushing such a thing up for all
time? Not he--not he!" There fell a heavy hand upon Claude's back.

"Claude, old boy, I always said you were a genius. Do you know, I never
thought of that?"

"It's obvious; besides, there's the Eliza Hunt on the gravestone, I've
seen it myself. But look here--I'll tell you what I'll do."

"What, old man?"

"I'll run up to town to-morrow and see Maitland, Hollis, Cripps about
the whole matter. They've paid the money; they are the men to know all
about it. Stop a moment! Hunt was clever enough to have an exact date
for the marriage. What was it again?"

"October 22d, 1853."

"I think he said Chelsea _parish_ church?"

"He did."

Claude scribbled a note of each point on his shirt-cuff.

"That's all I want," said he. "I'll run up by the first train, and back
by the last. Meanwhile, take my word for it, you're as safe as the Queen
upon her throne."

"And you?" said Jack.

"Oh, never mind me; I'm very well as I am."

Claude was fully conscious of his semi-heroic attitude; indeed he
enjoyed it, as he had enjoyed many a less inevitable pose in his day.
But that he could not help; and Jack was perhaps the last person in the
world to probe beneath the surface of a kind action. His great hand
found Claude's, and his deep voice quivered with emotion.

"I don't know how it is," he faltered, "but this thing has got at me
more than I meant it to. Hark at that! Three o'clock; it'll be light
before we know where we are; you won't leave a fellow till it is, will
you? I'm in a funk! I've got to believe the worst till I know
otherwise--that's all about it. The day I shan't mind tackling by
myself, but for God's sake don't go and leave me to-night. You've got
to go in the morning; stop the rest of the night out here with me. You
shall have the bunk, and I'll doss down on the floor. I'll light the
fire and brew a billy of tea this minute if only you'll stay with me
now. Didn't you once say you'd have hold of my sleeve? And so you have
had, old man, so you have had: only now's your time--more than ever."

Claude was deeply moved by the spectacle of a stronger man than himself
so stricken in every nerve. He looked very compassionately upon the
eager open face. There were a few grey hairs about either temple, but in
the faint starlight they looked perfectly white; and there were
crow's-feet under the eyes that seemed to have escaped his attention
till now. He consented to remain on one condition: he must go back and
put out the lights, and close the windows in the Poet's Corner. So Jack
went with him; and those lights were the only sign of life in all the
vast expanse of ancient masonry, that still belonged to one of them,
though they knew not now to which. It was this thought, perhaps, that
kept both men silent on the terrace when the lights had been put out and
the windows shut. Then Jack ran his arm affectionately through that of
Claude, and together they turned their backs upon those debatable
stones.



CHAPTER XIII

THE INTERREGNUM


Lady Caroline Sellwood was delighted to find Jack in the hall on making
her descent next morning. He appeared lost, however, in a gloomy
admiration of the ghostly guard in armour. The attitude and the
expression were alike so foreign to him that Lady Caroline halted on the
stairs. But only for a moment; the next, Jack was overwhelmed by the
soft tempest of her good-will, and making prodigious efforts to return
her smiles.

Suddenly she became severe.

"You're knocked up! You look as if you hadn't had a wink of sleep. Oh, I
knew how it would be after all that racket; you dear, naughty Duke, you
should have spared yourself more!"

"I was a fool," admitted Jack. "But--but I say, Lady Caroline, I do wish
you wouldn't Duke me!"

"How sweet of you," murmured Lady Caroline.

"You know you didn't last night!" he hastily reminded her.

"But that was an occasion."

"So is this!" exclaimed Jack, and his tone struck the other more than
she showed.

"Where is Claude?" inquired Lady Caroline suddenly.

"On his way to Devenholme."

"Devenholme!"

"And London, for the day. He had to catch the 9.40."

"So he has gone up to town! Odd that one never heard anything about
it--I mean to say he could have made himself so useful to one. May I ask
when he decided to go?"

Jack hesitated. He had been charged to keep a discreet tongue during
Claude's absence; he had been supplied with a number of reasons and
excuses ready-made; but perfect frankness was an instinctive need of
this primitive soul, whose present thoughts stood out in easy print upon
his face, even as he resolved to resist his instincts for once.

"He decided--this morning," said Jack at last; and he took from his
pocket a lengthy newspaper cutting attached to a pale green slip: "This
is an article on him and his books, that has just appeared in the
_Parthenon_. What wouldn't I give to lay a hold of the brute who wrote
it! I call it the sort of thing to answer with a hiding. It's one of a
series headed 'Our Minor Poets,' which Claude says has been bad enough
all through; but this article on him is the worst and most brutal of the
lot. And--and--and old Claude took it to heart, of course; and--and he's
run up to town for the day."

"Because of a severe criticism! I should have thought he was used to
them by now. Poor dear Claude, he can string a pretty rhyme, but he
never was a poet. And you, Jack--since you insist--you never were an
actor--until to-day!"

Jack hung his head.

"You don't do it well enough, you dear fellow," continued Lady Caroline
caressingly. "As if you could impose upon me! You must first come to me
for lessons. Candidly now: what has taken him up to town in such a
hurry? The same thing that--kept you awake all night?"

"Candidly, then," said Jack, raising his haggard face doggedly, "it was!
And if you'll come out upon the terrace for five minutes I'll tell you
exactly what's wrong. You have a right to know; and I can trust _you_
not to let it go any further for the moment. Even if I couldn't, I'd
have to tell you straight! I hate keeping things up my sleeve; I can't
do it; so let me make a clean breast of the whole shoot, Lady Caroline,
and be done with it till Claude comes back."

Lady Caroline took a discouraging view of the situation. The Red Marquis
had been capable of anything; related though they had been, she could
not help telling Jack that her parents had forbidden her to dance with
his father as a young girl. This might be painful hearing, but in such a
crisis it was necessary to face the possibilities; and Lady Caroline,
drawing a little away from her companion in order to see how he was
facing them, forgot to take his arm any more as they sauntered in the
sun. She undertook, however, to keep the matter to herself until
Claude's return, at the mention of whose name she begged to look at the
cutting from the _Parthenon_.

"A most repulsive article," her mother informed Olivia after breakfast,
but not until she had repeated to the girl the entire substance of the
late conversation on the terrace. "I never read anything more venomously
ill-bred in my life; and so untrue! To say he is no poet--our Claude!
But we who know him, thank goodness we know better. It is the true
poetry, not only in but between every line, that distinguishes dear
Claude from the mere stringers of pretty rhymes of whom the papers
sicken one in these latter days. But where are you going, my love?"

"To get ready to go with--Jack."

"To go where, pray?"

"Why, to Devenholme, as we arranged last night," replied Olivia, with
spirit. "He said he would drive me over; and _you_ said 'how sweet of
him,' and beamed upon us both!"

Lady Caroline winced. "You impertinent chit!" she cried viciously; "you
know as well as I do that what I have told you alters everything. Once
and for all, Olivia, I forbid you to drive into Devenholme
with--with--with--that common man!"

"Very well; the drive's off," said the girl with swift decision; and she
left her mother without another word.

She put on her habit and went straight to Jack.

"Do you mind if we _ride_ into Devenholme instead of driving?"

"Mind! I should like it even better."

"Then suppose we go to the stable-yard and see about our horses
ourselves; and while we are there, we may as well stay and start by the
back road, which will save at least a quarter of a mile."

"My oath," said Jack without further provocation, "you might have been
dragged up in the bush!"

"I wish I had been!" exclaimed Olivia bitterly. He could not understand
her tone. Nor did he ever know the meaning of the momentary fighting
glitter in the brave brown eyes of the girl.

He rode as an inveterate bushman, entirely on the snaffle, with
inelegantly short stirrups and a regrettable example of the back-block
bend; nor did his well-broken hack give him a chance of exhibiting any
of the finer qualities of the rough-riding school. But indeed for the
most part the couple sat at ease in their saddles, while the horses
dawdled with loose reins and lazy necks in the cool shadows of the
roadside trees. By mutual consent they had dispensed with an attendant
groom. And Olivia had never been so kind to Jack, as on this day when he
was under so black a cloud, with so heavy a seal upon his lips.

For once she talked to him; as a rule she liked better to listen, with
large eyes intent and sympathetic lips apart--ever ready with the
helpful word. But to-day she was wishful to entertain, to take him out
of himself, to console without letting him suspect that she knew as much
as he had told her mother. In a sense she knew more, for Lady Caroline
had duly exaggerated his frank confession; and the girl's heart bled for
her friend, on the brink of a disillusion without parallel in her
knowledge. So she told him of her life in town and elsewhere; of the
treadmill round of toilsome pleasure; of the penance of dressing and
smiling with unflagging prettiness; of the hollow friendships and
hollower loves of that garish life, and the unutterable staleness of the
whole conventional routine. No doubt she overstated her case; and
certainly her strictures were themselves conventional; but she was
perfectly aware of both facts, and would have been exceedingly sorry to
have had this conversation recorded against her. Olivia had a healthy
horror of superiority, either of the moral or the intellectual order.
But she was conducting a conversation with an obvious purpose; and it
was only when he told her again, and more earnestly than before, how
suited she was for the bush, that she proposed the canter which brought
them a mile nearer Devenholme.

"Now it's you to play," she told him as they drew rein; "and I want to
hear some of your adventures. You've never told us any, yet you must
have had heaps. So far I've only heard about the hut, the sheep, the
homestead, and your old boss."

"A white man!" cried Jack. "I wish you knew him."

"So do I; but I can quite picture him, and just now I would much rather
hear about some of your own adventures. So begin."

Jack laughed.

"Really, Miss Sellwood, I never had one in my life!"

"Then really, my Lord Duke, I can't believe a word----"

Jack was laughing no more.

"Don't call me that," he said. "It would be so much kinder to call me
Jack!"

She had forgotten. Her heart smote her now, and the difficulty was to
conceal her unsuspected sympathy. So she insisted on his calling her
Olivia, to conclude the bargain. And the double innovation made them
both so self-conscious, that she forgot her thirst for his adventures,
while he brooded heavily upon his bitter-sweet advancement won loo late.

So they came into Devenholme as the sun was shining fore and aft along
the quaint old English streets. And in the town, where he was well
enough known by this time, poor Jack was received with a cruel
consideration that would have hurt him even more than it did had he
dreamt how it affected his companion. The tender-hearted girl was
inexpressibly grieved, and never more than when the jeweller mentioned a
hundred guineas as the price of the ring to be changed; indeed, the
situation in the jeweller's shop was perilously charged with hidden
emotions. In this terribly equivocal position, Jack could not press upon
Olivia things for which he might never be able to pay; neither could
Olivia now refuse any present at all, nor yet lead him as low as she
would have liked in the price, for fear of revealing her illicit
knowledge. So at last they hit upon a curb-bracelet that fastened with a
tiny padlock. It cost but forty-five shillings. And when he had locked
it upon her right wrist, he pocketed the key without a remark, then paid
ready money and left the shop in a throbbing agony of shame. The poor
jeweller stood bowing them out with the hundred-guinea ring still in his
hand.



CHAPTER XIV

JACK AND HIS MASTER


It was necessary to bait the horses; it was equally essential for the
pair themselves to have something to eat. So they rode under the olden
arch of the oak-lined Falcon, and it was "your Grace" at every step,
with ironic iteration very hard for either of them to bear without a
word to the other. They dismounted therefore with the less delay; and
Olivia turned her back upon the coffee-room window, and on an elderly,
bald, well-dressed man, whose cool fixed stare made the girl extremely
angry, when Jack at her side gave a shout of delight.

"So help me never! _it's the boss himself!_"

Olivia turned, and there was the objectionable old fellow in the window
smiling and waving to her enchanted companion. And this was the man of
whom she had heard so often! She did not stop to consider how he came to
be here; the back-blockers were already at explanations, but Olivia was
not listening. She was thinking of the bearded, jovial, hearty squatter
of her imagination; and she was glancing askance at the massive chin and
forehead, and at the white moustache cropped close over the bad mouth of
the real man.

"Mr. Dalrymple--my old boss--Miss Sellwood!" shouted Jack, introducing
them with a wealth of pantomime. "We're coming up to lunch with you,
sir; that is, you're to lunch with me; it's my shout!"

And poor Olivia found herself swept off her feet, as it were, into the
presence of a man whom all her instincts had pronounced odious at sight.

But the higher court of the girl's intellect reversed this judgment on
the appeal of her trained perceptions. The elderly squatter was not
after all a man to be summed up at a glance or in a word: his undoubted
assurance was tempered and redeemed by so many graces of manner and
address as to upset entirely the girl's preconceptions of his class. At
table he treated her with a princely courtesy, imperceptibly including
her in a conversation which poor Jack would have conducted very
differently if left to himself. After the first few minutes, indeed,
Olivia could see but two faults in the squatter; the first was the
fierce light his charming manners reflected on those of Jack; and the
second was a mouth which made the girl regret the austere cut of his
moustache whenever she looked at Mr. Dalrymple.

"So you left before shearing, sir!" cried Jack, who was grossly eager
for all station news. "I wonder you did that. They must be in the thick
of it now!"

"They were to begin on the fifth of this month. The shearing, Miss
Sellwood, is the one divine, far-off event towards which the whole
sheep-station moves," added Mr. Dalrymple, with a glibness worthy of
Claude Lafont.

"And don't you forget the lamb-marking," chimed in Jack. "I hope it was
a good lambing this year, sir?"

"Seventy-nine per cent.," replied Dalrymple. "I'm afraid that's Greek to
you, Miss Sellwood--and perhaps better so."

"You see, I'm as keen as ever on the old blocks!" cried Jack. It was a
superfluous boast.

"So I do see; and I must say, Jack, you surprise me. Do you notice how
he 'sirs' me, Miss Sellwood? I was on my way to pay homage to the Duke
of St. Osmund's, not to receive it from Happy Jack of Carara!"

"Do you often come over to England, Mr. Dalrymple?" asked Olivia
quickly. For the girl had seen the spasm in Jack's face, and she knew
how the anæsthetic of this happy encounter had exhaled with the
squatter's last speech.

"No, indeed!" was the reply. "I haven't been home for more years than I
care to count; and the chances are that I shouldn't be here now but for
our friend the Duke. He unsettled me. You see, Miss Sellwood, how
jealous are the hearts of men! _I_ had no inheritance to come home to;
but I had my native land, and here I am."

"And you have friends in Devenholme?"

"I have one friend; I wish that I dared say two," replied the squatter,
looking from Jack to Olivia in his most engaging manner. "No, to tell
you frankly, I was on a little inquisitive pilgrimage to Maske Towers. I
did not wait for an invitation, for I knew that I should bring my own
welcome with me."

"Of course, of course; come out to-morrow!" exclaimed Jack nervously.
"I'll send in for you, and you must stay as long as ever you can. If
only I'd driven in, as I meant to, we'd have taken you back with us. Yet
on the whole to-morrow will be best; you must give us time to do you
well, you know, Mr. Dalrymple. It'll be a proud day for me! I little
expected to live to entertain my own boss!"

Indeed, his pride was genuine enough, and truly characteristic of the
man; but at the back of it there was a great uneasiness which did not
escape the clear, light eye of Dalrymple. Not that the squatter betrayed
his prescience by word or sign; on the contrary, he drank Jack's health
in the champagne provided by him, and included Olivia's name in a very
graceful speech. But Jack drank nothing at all; and having reduced his
roll to a heap of crumbs, he was now employed in converting the crumbs
into a pile of pellets.

Olivia pitied his condition; that tremulous brown hand, with the great
bush freckles still showing at the gnarled finger-roots, touched her
inexpressibly as it lay fidgeting on the white table-cloth. She strained
every nerve to keep the squatter engaged and unobservant; and she found
herself fluctuating, in a rather irritating manner, between her first
instinctive antipathy and her later liking for the man. He was extremely
nice to her; he had an obvious kindness for poor Jack; and she
apprehended a personal magnetism, a unique individuality, quite powerful
enough to account for Jack's devotion to him. She felt the influence
herself. Yet there was something--she could not say what.

The way in which her last vague prejudice was removed, however, made a
deep impression upon Olivia, besides giving her a startling glimpse of
her own feelings. And it all came of a casual remark of Dalrymple's, in
elucidation of his prompt expedition to the district, to the effect that
the Duke of St. Osmund's had once saved his life.

"Your life!" cried Olivia, while Jack ceased meddling with his bread.

"To be sure. Is it possible he has never told you the story?"

"Not a word of it! And only this morning, as we rode in, I asked him if
he had never had any adventures!"

Her face was a flushed reproach.

"I'd forgotten that one," said Jack sheepishly. "I really had. It's so
long ago; and it wasn't much when you come----"

"Not much!" interjected Dalrymple. "I should be very sorry to find
myself in such a tight place again! It's some thirteen years ago, Miss
Sellwood. I was thinking of taking up some cattle country in the
unfenced part of Queensland. I had gone up to have a look at the place,
and the blacks attacked us while I was there. We were three strong in
an iron store: the owner, a stray shearer, and myself. The shearer had
his horse hung up outside; he could have got away quite easily in the
beginning; but our horses were all turned out, and he wouldn't leave us.
So we dragged his horse inside, and we set to work to defend the store."

"I know that shearer!" cried Olivia proudly. "Yet he hangs his head! Oh,
go on, Mr. Dalrymple, go on!"

"From daybreak to sundown," continued the squatter, "we defended
ourselves with a Winchester, a double-barrelled shot-gun, and an old
muzzle-loading rifle. The blacks came on by the score, but they couldn't
get in, and they couldn't set fire to the corrugated iron. It was
riddled like a sieve, and each of us three had a hole in him too; but
there was a wall of dead blacks up against the iron outside, and they
were as good as sandbags. We should have beaten the fellows off before
midnight if our powder had held out. It didn't; so I assure you we shook
hands, and were going to blow up the place with a twenty-gallon tin of
petroleum, that was luckily inside, when our friend the shearer came out
with an idea. His horse had a ball in its body and was screaming like a
woman, so that _it_ was no use. I recollect we put it out of its pain
with our last charge. But there was long dry grass all round up to
within some fifteen yards of the store; and after dark the shearer ran
out three or four times with a bucket of petroleum, and once with a box
of matches. The last time but one the blacks saw him. They had
surrounded the place at a pretty respectful radius, and they were having
what we call a spell; but they saw him the last time but one. And when
he went out again and struck his matches they had something to aim at.
Well, his first match went out, and there was a sheaf of spears sticking
in the sand and three new holes through the house. We waited; not
another thing could we see. We didn't know whether he was dead or alive,
and we heard the blacks starting to rush us. But we also heard the
scratch of a second match; in another instant the thing flared up like a
circular lamp--and us in the middle of the burner! The country was burnt
black for miles all round, and we ourselves had a hot time of it, Miss
Sellwood; but here are two of us, at all events, to tell the tale."

Olivia bowed to him; she could not speak. Then for a little she turned
her wet eyes, wet with enthusiasm, upon the awkward hero of the tale.
And without more words the party broke up.

Jack was still remonstrating with Dalrymple when the girl rejoined them
outside.

"Come now!" she said. "Was it true, or wasn't it?"

"More or less," admitted Jack.

"Was it true about the horse and the petroleum and the spears?"

He confessed that it was, but discredited his memory as a clumsy
qualification. Olivia turned away from him, and said no more until she
was in her saddle; then while Jack was mounting she rode up to the
squatter.

"I am truly grateful to you, Mr. Dalrymple," she said; "and all the
others will be as grateful as I am, and will look forward to your visit.
But for you, we might all have gone on being entertained by a hero
unawares. You must tell us more. Meanwhile I for one can thank you most
heartily!"

And she leant over and frankly pressed his hand; but said very little
all the long ride home. Jack assured her, however, that he had never
thought of his wound for years, although he must have a bullet in him
somewhere to that day; he also told her that the fight with the blacks
had been the beginning of his connection with his old boss, whose
service he had never left until the end. And for miles he spoke of no
one else; he was so grateful to Olivia for liking his friend, and he had
so many stories of Dalrymple to set as well as he could against that one
of himself. So the ride drew to an end in the golden afternoon, with
never a tender word between the pair, though his heart was as full as
hers; but she could not speak; and the great seal lay yet upon his
lips.



CHAPTER XV

END OF THE INTERREGNUM


Nobody was about when they dismounted, so Jack himself led the horses
back to the stables, while Olivia gathered up her habit and scaled the
steps. The stable clock struck five as the former was returning by way
of the shrubbery; another seven hours, and Claude would come home with
the news. For such an issue, it was still an eternity to wait. But Jack
felt that the suspense would be easily endurable so long as he could
have sight and speech of Olivia Sellwood; without her, even for these
few minutes, it was hardly to be borne.

Yet this stage of his ordeal was made up of such minutes. He returned to
desolate rooms. Olivia had disappeared; nor could he pitch upon a soul
to tell him where she was. Door after door was thrown open in vain; each
presented an empty void to his exacting eyes. He ran outside and stood
listening on the terrace. And there, through an open upper window he
heard a raised voice railing, which he could not but recognise as that
of Lady Caroline. Her words were indistinguishable. But as Jack looked
aloft for the window, one was passionately shut, and he neither heard
nor saw any more.

The first persons he ultimately encountered were Mr. Sellwood and the
agent. They had golf-clubs in their hands and wholesome sweat upon their
brows. The agent treated Jack as usual; the Home Secretary did not. He
stated that he had at last won a round; but his manner was singularly
free from exultation; indeed, it was quite awkward, as though perfect
cordiality had suddenly become a difficult matter, and he was ashamed to
find it so. Certainly there had been no difficulty of the kind before.
And Jack noted the change, but was too honourable himself to suspect the
cause.

He next fell in with the Frekes. This excellent couple loved Jack for
his goodness to their children, who were not universally popular. They
now carried him off to tea in the nursery, where he stayed until it was
time to dress for dinner. Jack liked the children; it was not his fault
that they were so seldom in evidence. They were obviously spoilt; but
Jack thought they were taken too seriously by all but their parents,
who certainly did not take them seriously enough. So he had many a romp
with the little outcasts, but never a wilder one than this afternoon,
for the children took him out of himself. Their society, had he but
known it, was even better for him in the circumstances than that of
Olivia herself; it was almost as good as another meeting with Dalrymple
of Carara. He rose at length from under his oppressors, dusty,
dishevelled and perspiring, but for the moment as light-hearted as
themselves. And there were the grave, sympathetic eyes of the parents
resting sadly upon him to recall his trouble. Why should they look sad
or sympathetic? Everybody had changed towards him; this was the
difference in the Frekes. Could they have divined the truth? No
suspicion of a broken confidence entered his head; yet it was
sufficiently puzzled as he dressed, with unusual care, to make a
creditable last appearance at the head of the table which would prove
never to have been his at all. He had quite made up his mind to that; he
found it appreciably harder to reconcile himself to the keen
disappointment which awaited him in the dining-room.

Olivia was not coming down.

"She has knocked herself up," explained Lady Caroline tersely. "So would
any girl--not an Australian--who rode so far on such a day. Your Grace
might have known better!"

Jack stared at her like a wounded stag; then he uttered an abject
apology, for which, however, he obtained no sort of a receipt. Lady
Caroline had turned and was talking to some one else. But it was not
this that cut him to the heart; it was her mode of addressing him, after
their conversation of the early morning.

Later in the evening he remembered that railing voice and the shutting
of the window upstairs; and with a burning indignation he divined, all
at once, who it was that had been so spoken to, and why, with the true
cause of Olivia's indisposition.

This was in the darkness of his hut, with Livingstone asleep in his lap.
In another minute Jack was striding through the pines, on his way to the
drawing-room for a few plain words with Lady Caroline Sellwood. He never
had them. Lady Caroline was gone to bed. It was almost eleven; within an
hour Claude would be back, and a moral certainty become an absolute
fact. Hunt's tale was true. Had it been otherwise, Claude would have
telegraphed. He had left, indeed, on the distinct understanding that he
should do no such thing; his mission was to be kept a secret, and a
telegram might excite suspicion; yet even so he would have sent one had
all been well. Jack was sure of it; his exhausted spirit had surrendered
utterly to an ineluctable despair.

In this humour he sought the Poet's Corner, and found its two _habitués_
furtively chuckling over some newspaper. Their gaiety cut him to the
quick. Yet he longed to enter into it.

"What's the joke?" he asked. "I want something to make me laugh!"

"This wouldn't," replied Edmund Stubbs. "It's not benign enough for
you."

"It's only a piece of smart scribbling," explained Llewellyn, lighting a
fresh cigarette with the stump of the last.

Jack was behind them; quite innocently he put his head between theirs
and looked for himself. The paper was the _Parthenon_. There was but one
article on the open page. It was headed--

          OUR MINOR POETS.

     XXVIII. MR. CLAUDE LAFONT.

"So that amuses you?" said Jack at last.

"Quite," said Llewellyn.

"You think it just, eh?"

"Oh, hang justice! It's awfully nice copy. That's all it has any right
to be. Justice doesn't matter a hang; the _Parthenon's_ not written for
the virtuous shopkeeper; it isn't meant to appeal to the Nonconformist
Conscience."

"Besides, the article _is_ just," protested Stubbs. "We know what Lafont
is, between ourselves; he's an excellent chap, but his poetry--save the
mark!--would hardly impose on Clapham and Wandsworth. His manner's cheap
enough, but his matter goes one cheaper; it's the sort of thing for
which there should be no charge." Stubbs drained his glass.

Jack was blazing.

"I don't know what you mean by 'cheap,'" he cried; "but from reading
that article, which I happen to have seen before, I should call it a
jolly 'cheap' word. I don't set up to be a clever man. I only know what
I like, and I like everything of Claude's that--that I can understand.
But even if I didn't I should be sorry to go about saying so in his own
house!"

"_His_ own house!" exclaimed the Impressionist.

"We didn't know it was his," said Stubbs.

"What's mine is Claude's," replied Jack, colouring. "It was before I
turned up, and it will be again when--whenever I peg out."

With that he was gone.

"Sounds suicidal," remarked Llewellyn.

"Or celibate," said Stubbs, replenishing his glass.

"Poor beast!" concluded the artist.

Here their host returned.

"I'm very sorry, you fellows," said he, with absurd humility. "I'm all
off colour to-night, and I know I've made a rude ruffian of myself. Some
of these days you'll understand; meantime will you forgive me?"

"_I_ have nothing to forgive," replied Llewellyn.

"We'll say no more about it," said Stubbs.

And Jack shook hands with them both before leaving them for good; then
he hurried through the length of the building to the great conservatory,
where Stebbings was putting out the lights. The conservatory was at that
extreme of the Towers which the dogcart would pass first. Here, too, was
room and air for a man distraught. So Jack called out to Stebbings to
leave the lights on longer.

"And light some more," he added suddenly. "Light up every lamp in the
place! I shall stay here until Mr. Lafont returns."

"Yes, your Grace."

"Stebbings!"

"Your Grace?"

"For God's sake don't call me that again! I--I'm not used to it,
Stebbings--any more than you're used to me," added Jack inconsequently;
and he fled into the grounds until the old man should be gone.

The night was very dark and heavy; clouds obscured the moon, shedding a
fine rain softly upon drive and terrace. Jack raised his face, and a
grateful sprinkling cooled its fever. He longed for a far heavier fall,
with the ancient longing of those prehistoric days when a grey sky and
an honest wetting were the rarest joys in life. Could he indeed return
to that rough routine after all these weeks of aristocratic ease? The
bushman might exchange his wideawake for a coronet, but could the peer
go back to the bush? Time must show. The only question was whether Hunt
had lied or told the truth; and the answer could not be much longer
delayed. Already it was half-past eleven; there was the clang creeping
lazily through the night, round quarter of a mile of intervening wall,
and half a hundred angles.

He would have gone down the drive to meet the dogcart; but the night was
too dark; and beside him blazed the great conservatory like a palace of
fire. He entered it again, and now he had it to himself; the statues
among the tree-ferns were his only companions. But in his absence old
Stebbings had placed a little table with brandy and soda-water set out
upon it; even the butler had seen and pitied his condition.

The third quarter struck. The sound just carried to the conservatory,
for now the rain was heavier, and the rattle overheard warred
successfully against all other noises. The dogcart might drive by
without Jack's hearing it. The suspense was horrible, but a surprise
would be more horrible still. He was becoming unstrung; why should he
not tune himself up with the brandy? His voluntary teetotalism was too
absurd; he had made no promise, taken no pledge, but only a private
pride in his self-discipline as it had gone on from day to day. Not a
drop had he touched since that afternoon at Dover so long, so long ago!
As he reckoned up the time, the forgotten lust possessed him; it had
been even so on Carara, when the periodical need of a cheque would first
steal over his lonely spirit. He thought now of those occasions and
their results; he knew himself of old; but he was no longer the same
man--resistance would be ridiculous now. He took another look at the
night; then he filled a wine-glass with raw brandy--raised it--and
impulsively dashed the whole upon the marble flags. The brandy widened
in a shallow amber flood; the broken glass lay glittering under the
lamps; and in Jack's ears the patter of the rain (which had never
abated) broke out anew.

He could not account for his act; he did not know it for the culmination
of a highly nervous condition induced by the twenty-four sleepless hours
of unrelieved suspense. It was neither more nor less, and yet it enabled
him to hold up his head once more. And as he did so, there--through the
swimming crystal walls--between a palm-tree and a Norfolk Island
pine--were the two red eyes of the dogcart dilating in the dark.

The great moment had come, and it was not so great after all. Jack's
little outburst had left him strangely calm. He went to the door and
hailed the dogcart in a loud, cheery voice. The lamps stopped. Claude
came within range of those in the conservatory, and shook himself on the
steps. Then he entered, looking unusually healthy, but dripping still.

"A brute of a night for you," said Jack apologetically. "Take off that
coat, and have some brandy. Mind where you go. I've had a spill."

This was the reaction. Claude understood.

"Then you don't want to hear the news?"

"I know it. I've known it for hours."

"That I can see you haven't. Listen to me. There was no English
marriage. Give me your hand!"

It was limp and cold.

"You don't believe me!" said Claude severely.

Jack subsided in a chair.

"I can't," he whispered. "I can't."

"You soon will. I wish to goodness I'd taken you with me to-day. Now
listen: there was some truth in Hunt's story, but more lies. The
marriage was a lie. There never was a marriage. There was something
rather worse at the time, but a good deal better now. My grandfather
patched it up, exactly as I thought. He packed my uncle out to
Australia, and he settled two hundred a year on the Hunts, on the single
condition of 'perpetual silence as to the connection between the two
families.' I've seen the covenant, and those are the very words. The
condition has been broken after all these years. And the Hunts' income
stops to-day."

Jack had roused himself a little; he was no longer apathetic, but
neither was he yet convinced.

"It seems a lot of money to hush up so small a matter," he objected.
"Are they sure there was no more in it than that?"

"Maitland and Cripps? Perfectly sure; they've been paying that money for
nearly forty years, and there's never been a hint at a marriage until
now. Certainly there's none in the settlement. But to make assurance
surer, young Maitland took a cab and drove off to see his father--who
was a partner in '53, but has since retired--about the whole matter. And
I took another cab, and drove straight to the old parish church facing
the river at Chelsea. I found the clerk, and he showed me the marriage
register, but there was no such marriage on that date (or any other) in
_that_ church; so why in any? One lie means dozens. Surely you'll agree
with me there?"

"I must; it's only the money that sticks with me. It seems such a case
of paying through the nose. But what had old Maitland to say?"

"Everything," cried Claude. "He remembered the whole business perfectly,
and even saying to my grandfather much what you're saying to me now. But
I've told you the kind of man the old Duke was; he was a purist of the
purists, besides being as proud as Lucifer, and a scandal so near home
hit him, as you would say, in both eyes at once. He considered he got
good value for his money when he hushed it up. They showed me a letter
in which he said as much. Young Maitland unearthed it after he had seen
his father, and with it others of a later date, in which the Duke
refused to revoke or even to curtail the allowance on the woman's death.
That's all; but surely it's conclusive enough! Here we have a
first-class firm of solicitors on the one hand, and a clumsy scoundrel
on the other. Which do you believe? By the way, they're anxious to
prosecute Hunt on all sorts of grounds if you'll let them."

"I won't."

"I think you ought to," said Claude.

"No, no; too much mud has been stirred up already; we'll let it rest for
a bit."

"But surely you'll get rid of the Hunts after this?"

"I'll see."

Claude was disappointed; he had looked for a different reception of his
news.

"Do you mean to say you're not convinced yet?" he cried.

"No," said Jack, "I'm quite satisfied now; you hem the thing in on every
side. But I wish to goodness all this had never happened!"

"So do we all; but if there was a doubt, surely it was best to set it at
rest? If I were you, I should feel as one does after a bad dream."

Jack was on his feet.

"My dear old mate," he cried, "and so I do! But I'm only half woke up;
that's what's the matter with me, and you must give me time to pull
myself together. You don't know what a day I've had; you never will
know. And you--my meat's your poison, and yet you've been doing all this
for me just as if it was the other way round; and not a word of thanks
at the end of it. Claude--old man--forgive me! Thanks won't do. They're
no good at all in a case like this. What can a fellow say? If it was
you, you'd say plenty----"

"I hope not," interrupted Claude, laughing. "Wait till you do me a good
turn. You've done me many a one already, and I've never said a word."

But Jack would shake hands, and even Claude's face was shining with a
tender light as a soft step fell upon the marble, and Lady Caroline
Sellwood entered from the drawing-room. The door had been left open. But
it was instantly evident that her Ladyship had not been eavesdropping,
or at least not to any useful purpose; for she planted herself before
the two men in obvious ignorance as to which was the man for her. She
was still in the handsome dress that she had worn all the evening; and
between her plump, white, glittering fingers she nursed the purple
smoking-cap that had always been--and was still--intended for the Duke
of St. Osmund's.

"It was no good," she cried tragically, looking from Claude to Jack and
back again at Claude. "I simply couldn't go to bed until I knew. And
now--and now I'm torn two ways; for pity's sake, put me out of _one_
misery."

"It's all up," said Jack deliberately. He owed Lady Caroline a grudge
for the shrill scolding he had heard upstairs, and another for Olivia's
absence from the dinner-table. He was also curious to see what Lady
Caroline would do.

She sailed straight to Claude, holding the smoking-cap at arm's length.

"My dear, dear Claude! _How_ I congratulate you! I find, after all, that
the smoking-cap, which was originally intended----"

"Dear Lady Caroline," interposed Claude hastily, "everything is as it
was. Hunt's story is a complete fabrication; I'd no idea that you knew
anything about it."

"I couldn't help telling Lady Caroline," said Jack. Lady Caroline turned
upon him with hot suspicion.

"You said it was all----"

He interrupted her.

"I was _going_ to say that it was all up with Hunt. He loses two hundred
a year for his pains."

"Is that possible?" cried her Ladyship.

"It's the case," said Claude; "so everything is as it was, and as it
should be."

Lady Caroline exhibited no further trace of her discomfiture.

"I wish we hadn't all interrupted each other," she laughed. "_I_ was
about to remark that the smoking-cap, which was originally intended to
have what one may term a frieze, as well as a dado, of gold lace, will
look much better without the frieze, so there's really no more to do to
it. Take it, my dear, dear Jack, and wear it sometimes for my sake. And
forgive a mother for what one said about Olivia's ride. Claude, I shall
make another cap for you; meanwhile, let me congratulate you--again--on
your noble conduct of to-day. Ah, you neither of you congratulate me on
mine! Yet I am a woman, and I've kept your joint secret--most
religiously--from nine in the morning to this very hour!"



CHAPTER XVI

"LOVE THE GIFT"


Her answer was altogether astonishing; she leant back in the boat and
looked him full in the face. A quick flush tinged her own, and the
incomparable eyebrows were raised and arched; but underneath there was
an honest tenderness which Olivia was not the girl to conceal.

"Was that your water-lilies?" said she; but this was not the astonishing
speech. He had lured her afloat on impudently false pretences; she had a
right to twit him with that.

"There are no water-lilies," he confessed; "at least, never mind them if
there are. Oh, I was obliged to make some excuse! There was nowhere else
where we could talk so well. I tell you again I have the cheek to love
you! I can't help it; I've loved you ever since that day in London, and
you've got to know it for good or bad. If it makes you very angry, I'll
row you back this minute." He was resting on his oars under cover of
the little island; the Towers were out of sight.

"Why in the world didn't you speak yesterday?" was Olivia's
extraordinary reply.

"Yesterday?" faltered Jack.

"It was such a chance!"

"Not for me! My tongue was tied. Olivia, I was under a frightful cloud
yesterday! You don't understand----"

"What if I do? What if I did at the time?"

"I don't see how you could," said Jack.

"Instinctively," replied Olivia, to screen her mother. "I knew something
was wrong, and I have since been told what. If only you had spoken
then!"

She dropped her eyes swiftly; the tear ran down her cheek.

"But why? Why then, better than now?"

"Because _I_ care, too," she whispered, so that the words just travelled
to his ear.

"Olivia! My--do you know what you've said? Do you mean it?"

"Of course I care. I mean that much. You are different from everybody
else."

"Then----"

"There must be no 'then.'"

"But you said you cared. Tell me--I don't understand."

"I can never marry you," said Olivia, looking him once more in the face.
And her eyes were dry.

"Why not, if it is true--that you care?"

"Because you are what you are--and I--oh! how can I say it even to you?
I am so ashamed. I have been thrown at your head from the very
first--no, I have no right to say that. How I hate everything I say! You
must understand; I am sure you do. Well, in the beginning I couldn't
bear to speak to you, because I knew--what was hoped--and I seemed to
see and hear it in every look and word. It hurt me more than I ever can
tell you. The same sort of thing had happened before, but I had never
minded it then. I suppose all mothers are like that; it's natural
enough, when you come to think, and I'm sure I never resented it before.
I wouldn't have minded it in your case either; I wouldn't have minded
anything if I hadn't----"

The words would not come.

"Hadn't what?" he said.

"If I hadn't liked you--off my own bat!"

"But if you really do, my glorious girl, surely that fixes it? We have
nothing to do with anybody else. What does it matter how they take it?"

"It matters to my pride."

"I don't see where your pride comes in."

"Of course you don't; you are not behind the scenes. And I can't make
you see. I'm not going to give my own people away to that extent, not
even to you. But--I can just picture my mother's face if we went in this
very minute and told her we were engaged! She would fall upon both our
necks!"

"That wouldn't matter," said Jack stolidly. "That would be all right."

"It would be dreadful--dreadful. I couldn't bear it when I know that
yesterday----"

She checked herself firmly.

"Well, what of yesterday?"

"It would have been quite a different thing."

"What! if I'd spoken then?"

"I--think so."

"You would have said----"

"I should have found out what your trouble was. You would have told me
everything. And then--and then----"

He leant still further forward.

"If you had wanted me very much----"

"I _do_ want you very much."

"I should have found it easier to say 'yes'"--the word was hardly
audible--"than I ever shall now!"

"But why, Olivia? Tell me why!"

"You force it from me, word by word," complained the girl.

"Then let me see. I think I begin to see. You like me in myself almost
well enough to marry me. Well, thank God for that much! But you don't
want to marry the Duke of St. Osmund's, because you're mortally afraid
of what people will say. You think they'll say you're doing it for the
main chance. And so they will--and so they may! They wouldn't say it,
and you wouldn't think it, of any other man in my position; no, it's
because I'm not fit for my billet, that's how it is! Not fit for it, and
not fit for you; so they'd naturally think you were marrying me for what
I'd got, and that you couldn't bear. Ah, yes, I see hard enough; it's as
plain as a pikestaff now!"

The girl saw, too; with the unconscious bluntness of a singularly direct
nature, he had stripped her scruples bare, and their littleness
horrified Olivia. The moral cowardice of her hesitation came home to her
with an insupportable pang, and her mind was made up before his last
sentences put her face in flames.

"You are wrong," she could only murmur; "oh, you are dreadfully wrong!"

"I am right," he answered bitterly, "and _you_ are right. No wonder you
dread the hard things that would be said of you! Take away the name and
the money, and what am I? A back-block larrikin--a common stockman!"

"The man for me," said Olivia hoarsely.

"Ah, yes, if I were not such a public match!"

"Whatever you are--whatever you may be--if you want me still----"

"Want you! I have wanted you from the first. I shall want you till the
last!"

Her reply was indistinct; her tears were falling fast; he took her two
white hands, but even them he did not touch with his lips. A great
silence held them both, and all the world; the island willows kissed the
stream; in the sheet of gold beyond, a fish leapt, and the ripple
reached the boat in one long thin fold. The girl spoke first.

"We need not be in a hurry to tell everybody," she began; but the words
were retracted in the same breath. "What am I saying? Of course we will
tell. Oh, what a contempt you must have for me!"

"I love you," he answered simply. "I am too happy to live. It's all too
good to be true. Me of all men--the old bushman!"

She looked lovingly on his bearded and sunburnt face, shining as she had
never seen it shine before.

"No; it's the other way about," she said. "I am not half good enough for
you--you who were so brave yesterday in your trouble--who have been so
simple always in your prosperity. It was enough to turn any one's head,
but you--ah, I don't only love you. I admire you, dear; may God help me
to make you happy!"

They stayed much longer on the lake, finally disembarking on its
uttermost shore, because Olivia was curious to see how the hut would
look in the first rosy light of her incredible happiness. And when they
came to it, the sunlight glinted on the new iron roofing; the pine-trees
exhaled their resin in the noon-day heat following the midnight rain;
and the shadows were shot with golden shafts, where all was golden to
the lovers' eyes.

Jack made a diffident swain; it was the girl who slipped her hand into
his.

"You will never pull it down?" she said. "We will use it for a
summer-house, and to remind you of your old life. And one day you will
take me out to the Riverina, and show me the hut you really lived in,
and all your old haunts. Oh, I shouldn't mind if we had both to go out
there for good! A hut would take far less looking after than the Towers,
and I should have you much more to myself. What fun it would be!"

Jack thought this a pretty speech, but the girl herself was made
presently aware of its insincerity. They had retraced their steps, and
there in front of them, cool and grey in the mellow August sunshine,
with every buttress thrown up by its shadow, and the very spires
perfectly reflected in the sleeping lake, stood the stately home which
would be theirs for ever. Olivia saw it with a decidedly new thrill. She
was looking on her future home, and yet her husband would be this simple
fellow! Wealth could not cloy, nor grandeur overpower, with such a mate;
that was perhaps the substance of her thought. It simplified itself next
moment. What had she done to deserve such happiness? What could she ever
do? And a possible tabernacle in the bush entered into neither question,
nor engaged her fancy any more.



CHAPTER XVII

AN ANTI-TOXINE


They rowed over, and were in mid-water when the landau drove up to the
house. It had been sent in for Mr. Dalrymple early in the forenoon. They
saw nothing, however, until they landed, when the equipage was
proceeding on its way to the stables, having deposited the guest. At
this discovery, the Duke's excitement knew no bounds, so Olivia urged
him to run on and leave her; and he took her advice, chiefly regretting
that he had missed the proud moment of welcoming his old boss in the
hall.

Jack regretted this the more when he reached the house. There was
Dalrymple of Carara beginning his visit by roundly abusing the butler in
the very portico! The guest was in a towering passion, the butler in a
palsy of senile agitation; and between them on the step lay Dalrymple's
Gladstone bag.

"What _is_ the matter?" cried Jack, rushing up with a very blank face.
"Stebbings, what's this? What has he done, Mr. Dalrymple?"

"Refused to take in my bag! Says it's the footman's place!"

"Then what's he here for? The man must be drunk. Are you, Stebbings?"

The butler murmured an inarticulate reply.

"Get to your pantry, sir!" roared Jack. "You shall hear more of this
when you are sober. Old servant or new servant, out you clear!"

And he took up the bag himself, as Stebbings gave a glassy stare and
staggered off without a word.

"I'm extremely sorry for losing my temper," said Dalrymple, taking
Jack's arm as they entered the house; "but it always was rather short,
as I fear I needn't remind _you_. Really, though, your disgraceful old
retainer would have provoked a saint. Drunk as fool in the middle of the
day; drunk and insolent. Has the man been with you long?"

"Only fifty years or so with the family," replied Jack savagely; "but,
by the living Lord, he may roll up his swag!"

"Ah! I wouldn't be hasty," said Dalrymple. "One must make allowances for
one's old retainers; they're a privileged class. How good of you, by
the way, to send in for me in such style! It prepared me for much. But I
am bound to say it didn't prepare me for all this. No, I never should
have pictured you in such an absolute palace had I not seen it with my
own eyes!"

And now the visitor was so plainly impressed by all he saw, that Jack
readily forgave him the liberty he had taken in rating Stebbings on his
own account. Still the incident rankled. Dalrymple was the one man in
the world before whom the Duke of St. Osmund's really did desire to play
his new part creditably; and what could be said for a peer of the realm
who kept a drunken butler to insult his guests? Jack could have shaken
the old reprobate until the bones rattled again in his shrivelled skin.
Dalrymple, however, seemed to think no more about the matter. He was
entirely taken up with the suits of armour here in the hall: indeed
Olivia discovered him lecturing Jack on his own trophies in a manner
that would have led a stranger to mistake the guest for the host.

It may be said at once that this was Dalrymple's manner from first to
last. It was that of the school-master to whom the boy who once trembled
at his frown is a boy for evermore. And it greatly irritated Jack's
friends, though Jack himself saw nothing to resent.

The Duke led his guest into the great drawing-room, and introduced him
with gusto to Lady Caroline Sellwood and to Claude Lafont. But all his
pride was in the visitor, who, with his handsome cynical face, his
distinguished bearing, and his faultless summer suit, should show them
that at least one "perfect gentleman" could come out of Riverina. Jack
waited a moment to enjoy the easy speeches and the quiet assurance of
Dalrymple; then he left the squatter to Lady Caroline and to Claude. It
was within a few minutes of the luncheon hour. Jack wanted a word with
Stebbings alone. The more he thought of it, the less able was he to
understand the old butler's extraordinary outbreak. Could he have been
ill instead of drunk? A charitable explanation was just conceivable to
Jack until he opened the pantry door; it fell to the ground that moment;
for not only did he catch Stebbings in the act of filling a wine-glass
with brandy, but the butler's breath was foul already with the spirit.

"Very well, my man," said Jack slowly. "Drink as much as you like!
You'll hear from me when you're sober. But show so much as the tip of
your nose in the dining-room, and I'll throw you through the window with
my own hands!"

The upshot of the matter was indirect and a little startling; for this
was the reason why Dalrymple of Carara took the head of his old hand's
table at luncheon on the day of his arrival; and obviously it was
Dalrymple's temporary occupation of that position, added to his
unforgettable past relations with his host, which led him to behave
exactly as though the table were his own.

A difficulty about the carving was the more immediate cause of the
transposition. In the ordinary course, this was Stebbings's business,
which he conducted on the sideboard with due skill; in his absence,
however, the footmen had placed the dishes on the table; and as these
included a brace of cold grouse, and neither Jack nor Claude was an even
moderate practitioner with the carving-knife, there was a little hitch.
Mr. Sellwood was not present; he took his lunch on the links; and Jack
made no secret of his relief when the squatter offered to fill the
breach.

"Capital!" he cried; "you take my place, sir, and I wish you joy of the
billet." And so the thing fell out.

It had the merit of seating the Duke and Olivia side by side; and the
happy pair were made distinctly happier by the mutual discovery that
neither had as yet confided in a third soul. At the foot of the table,
in the position which Jack had begged her to assume at the outset of her
visit, sat Lady Caroline Sellwood. The clever young men were on opposite
sides, as usual; nor did they fail to exchange those looks of neglected
merit and of intellectual boredom which were another feature of their
public appearances. Their visit had not been altogether a success. It
was a mystery why they prolonged it. They had been invited, however, to
spend a month at Maske Towers, which, after all, was neither an
uncomfortable resting-place nor a discreditable temporary address.

Francis Freke said a Latin grace inaudibly, and then the squatter went
to work at the birds. These were a present from afar; there were no
moors "on" Maske, as Jack explained, with a proud eye on Dalrymple's
knife. It flashed through the joints as though the bird had been already
"boned"; on either side the breast fell away in creamy flakes; and
Dalrymple talked as he carved, with the light touch and the easy grace
of a many-sided man of the world. At first he seemed to join in
everybody's conversation in turns; but he was only getting his team
together; and in a little everybody was listening to him. Yet he talked
with such tact that it was possible for all to put in their word;
indeed, he would appeal first to one, then to another, so that the
general temper of the party rose to a high level. Only Olivia and Claude
Lafont felt that this stranger was taking rather much upon himself.
Otherwise it was a pleasure to listen to him; he was excellently well
informed; before the end of the meal it came out that he had actually
read Claude's poems.

"And lived to tell the tale!" he added with characteristic familiarity.
"I can tell you I felt it a risk after reading that terrible
depreciation of you in the _Parthenon_; you see, I've been in England a
few days, and have been getting abreast of things at my hotel while my
tailors were making me externally presentable. By the way, I ran across
a young Australian journalist who is over here now, and who occasionally
scribbles for the _Parthenon_. I asked him if he knew who had made that
scurrilous attack upon you, Mr. Lafont. I was interested, because I knew
you must be one of Jack's relations."

"And did you find out?" inquired Claude, with pardonable curiosity.

"He found out for me. The culprit was a man of your name, Mr. Stubbs; no
relation, I hope?"

"I hope not," said Stubbs, emptying his glass; and his pallid complexion
turned a sicklier yellow, as though his blood were nicotine, and the
nicotine had mounted to his face.

"I should like to hear that name in full," said Lady Caroline down the
length of the table. "I read the article myself. It was a disgrace to
journalism. It is only fair to our Mr. Stubbs that we should hear his
namesake's Christian name."

"I think I can oblige," said Dalrymple, producing his pocket-book. "His
name was--ah! here it is! His name was Edmund. Edmund Stubbs!"

Edmund Stubbs was not unequal to the occasion. He looked straight at
Jack.

"Will you kindly make it convenient to send me in to Devenholme in time
for the next train?" he said. "If the Australian--gentleman--is going to
stay in your house, I, for one, shall trespass no longer on your
hospitality."

"Nor I, for another!" Llewellyn chimed in.

And without further ceremony the mordant couple left the table and the
room. Jack looked embarrassed, and Claude felt sorry for Jack. As for
Olivia, she had felt vaguely indignant with Dalrymple ever since he had
taken the head of the table; and this scene put a point to her feelings,
while it also revived her first prejudice against the squatter. Lady
Caroline, however, congratulated him upon an excellent piece of work.

"You have performed a public service, my dear Mr. Dalrymple," said she.
"Dear Jack will, I know, forgive me when I say that those two young men
have never been in their element here. They are all right in a London
drawing-room, as representatives of a certain type. In a country house
they are impossible; and, for my part, I shall certainly never send them
another card."

Jack also was ceasing to disapprove of the humiliation of Edmund Stubbs,
whose remarks overnight in the Poet's Corner had suddenly recurred to
his mind.

"Did you know it was the same man?" said he, pushing back his chair.

"I'm afraid I did," replied the squatter, as he rose. "They told me he
was staying down here, and I could hardly avoid exposing the fellow. I
hope, my dear Jack, that you will forgive the liberty I undoubtedly took
in doing so. I am the germ that expels the other germs--a sort of
anti-toxine in cuffs. _Similia similibus_, if my memory serves me, Mr.
Lafont. Before long you may have to inject a fresh bacillus to expel
_me_! Meantime, my dear Jack, let me offer you a cigar to show there's
no ill-feeling."

"No, thanks," said Jack, for once rather shortly; "you've got to smoke
one of mine. It's my house!" he added, with a grin.

And the remark was much appreciated by those to whom it was not
addressed; on Dalrymple it produced no effect at all.



CHAPTER XVIII

HECKLING A MINISTER


The engagement became known in the course of the afternoon, and the news
was received in a manner after all very gratifying to the happy pair.
Lady Caroline Sellwood did indeed insist on kissing her future
son-in-law, but the obvious attitude she now assumed did not impose upon
him for a moment. He had seen through her the night before; he could
never believe in the woman again. In any case, however, her affectation
of blank surprise, and her motherly qualms concerning the prospective
loss of her ewe lamb, were a little over-acted, even for so
inexperienced an observer as the Duke of St. Osmund's. She knew it, too,
and hated Jack with all her hollow heart for having found her out; to
him, it was, after this, a relief to listen to the somewhat guarded
observations of Mr. Sellwood, whose feelings in the matter were just a
little mixed.

Of the rest, Francis Freke volunteered his services for the great
event, and both he and his wife (who brought down her entire speaking
family to say good-night to "Uncle Jack") were consumed with that
genuine delight in the happiness of others which was their strongest
point. Claude, too, was not only "very nice about it," as Olivia said,
but his behaviour, in what was for him a rather delicate situation,
showed both tact and self-control. Never for a moment did look or word
of his suggest the unsuccessful suitor: though to be sure he had
scarcely qualified for such a _rôle_. Olivia and he had never been more
than friends. On her side, at least, the friendship had been of that
perfectly frank and chronic character which is least likely to develop
into love. And no one knew this better than Claude himself, who,
moreover, was not even yet absolutely sure that his own undoubted
affections were inspired by the divine impulse for which his poet's
heart had so often yearned. At all events he had thought upon the one
maiden for very many months; and putting it no higher than this, his
present conduct was that of a tolerably magnanimous man.

The one person who raised an unsympathetic eyebrow was Dalrymple the
squatter. He seemed surprised at the news and, for the moment, rather
annoyed; but Jack recalled the deplorably cynical view of women for
which the owner of Carara had been quite notorious in the back-blocks,
and the squatter's displeasure did not rankle. Nor was it expressed a
second time. Either the sight of the pair together, who made no secret
of their happiness; either this pretty spectacle, or the dictates of
good taste, moved Dalrymple, ultimately, to the most graceful
congratulations they had yet received. And it was characteristic of the
man that his remarks took the form of an unsolicited speech at the
dinner-table.

He had been only a few hours in the house, yet to all but Mr. Sellwood
(who did not meet him until evening) the hours seemed days. For the
squatter was one of those men who carry with them the weight of their
own presence, the breath of an intrinsic power, subtly felt from the
first; thus the little house-party had taken more notice of him in one
afternoon than the normal stranger would have attracted in a week; and
to them it already seemed inevitable that he should lead and that they
should follow whether they would or no. Accordingly, they were not in
the least surprised to see Dalrymple on his legs when the crumb-cloth
had been removed; though all but Jack deemed the act a liberty; and the
squatter still adopted the tone of a master felicitating his men, rather
than that of a guest congratulating his host.

Yet the speech was fluent and full of point; and the speaker himself
made a sufficiently taking figure, leaning slightly forward, with the
tips of his well-shaped fingers just resting on the black oak board that
dimly reflected them. An unexceptionable shirt-front sat perfectly on
his full, deep chest, a single pearl glistening in its centre; and there
was a gleam of even teeth between the close-cropped, white moustache and
the ugly, mobile, nether lip, whence every word fell distinct and clear
of its predecessor. The Home Secretary had heard a worse delivery from
his own front bench; and he was certainly interested in the story of the
iron hut and the savages of Northern Queensland, which Dalrymple
repeated with the happiest effect. Olivia forgave him certain earlier
passages on the strength of these; her heart was full; only she could
not lift her eyes from the simple chain about her wrist, for they were
dim. The speech closed with the dramatic climax of the tale; there had
been but one interruption to the flow of well-chosen words, and that was
when the speaker stopped to blow out a smoking candle without appealing
to his host.

The health of the pair was then drunk with appropriate enthusiasm; poor
Jack blurted out a few honest words, hardly intelligible from his
emotion; and the three ladies left the room.

"There's one more point to that yarn," said Dalrymple, closing the door
he had held open, "that I don't think you yourself are aware of, Jack.
It was when you got back to the store, with your shirt burnt off your
back, and the country in a blaze all round, that I first noticed the
legend on your chest. As you probably know, Mr. Sellwood, the Duke has
one of his own eagles tattooed upon his chest. I saw it that day for the
first time. I felt sure it meant something. And years afterwards, when I
heard that a London solicitor was scouring the Colonies for the unknown
Duke of St. Osmund's, it was the sudden recollection of that mark which
made me to some extent the happy instrument of his discovery."

"To every extent!" cried Jack, wringing his benefactor's hand. "I've
always said so. Mr. Sellwood, I owe him everything, and yet he makes a
song about my scaring away a few blackfellows with a bush-fire! By the
hokey, I've a good mind to have him live happily with us ever after for
his pains!"

The Home Secretary bent his snowy head: his rosy face was the seat of
that peculiarly grim expression with which political caricaturists have
familiarised the world. Dalrymple's light eyes twinkled like polished
flints; here was high game worthy of his gun. He took the empty chair on
Mr. Sellwood's left.

"I understand, sir, that you are fatally bitten with golf?" began the
squatter in his airiest manner. The other lit a cigarette with insolent
deliberation before replying.

"I'm fond of the game," he said at length, "if that's what you mean."

"That was precisely what I did mean. Pardon me if I used an
unparliamentary expression. I have read a great deal in your English
papers--with which I never permit myself to lose touch--of the
far-reaching ravages of the game. Certainly the disease must be
widespread when one finds a Cabinet Minister down with the--golf!"

"We don't pronounce the _l_," Mr. Sellwood observed. "We call it
_goff_." For though in political life an imperturbable temper was one of
his most salient virtues, the Home Secretary was notoriously touchy on
the subject of his only game.

Dalrymple laughed outright.

"A sure symptom, my dear sir, of a thoroughly dangerous case! But pray
excuse my levity; I fear we become a little too addicted to chaff in the
uncivilised wilds. I am honestly most curious about the game. I'm an old
fogey myself, and I might like to take it up if it really has any
merits----"

"It has many," put in Claude cheerily, to divert an attack which Mr.
Sell wood was quite certain to resent.

"Has it?" said the squatter incredulously. "For the life of one I can't
see where those merits come in. To lay yourself out to hit a sitting
ball! I'd as soon shoot a roosting hen!"

"Hear, hear!" cried Jack. "That's exactly what _I_ say, Mr. Dalrymple."

The discussion had in fact assumed the constituent elements of a
"foursome," which may have been the reason why the Home Secretary was
unable any longer to maintain the silence of dignified disdain.

"I should like to take you out, the two of you," he said, "with a driver
and a ball between you. I should like to see which of you would hit that
sitting ball first, and how far!"

"We'll take you on to-morrow!" exclaimed Jack.

But the Home Secretary made no reply.

"I'm not keen," remarked Dalrymple. "It can't be a first-class game."

"You're hardly qualified to judge," snapped Sellwood, "since you've
never played."

"Exactly why I _am_ qualified. I'm not down with the disease."

"Then pray let us adopt the Duke's suggestion, and play a foursome
to-morrow--like as we sit. Eh, Mr.--I beg your pardon, but I quite
forget your name?"

"Dalrymple," replied the squatter; "and yours, once more?"

"Look in Whitaker," growled the Home Secretary, rising; and he left the
table doubly angered by the weakness of his retort, where indeed it was
weak to have replied at all.

Decidedly the squatter was no comfortable guest. Apart from his
monstrous freedom of speech and action, which might pass perhaps on a
bush station, but certainly not in an English country house, he was
continually falling foul of somebody. Now it was the butler, now a
fellow guest, and lastly a connection of his host, and one of Her
Majesty's Ministers into the bargain. In each case, to be sure, the
other side was primarily in the wrong. The butler was the worse for
drink; the _Parthenon_ man had indulged in gratuitous abuse of his
friend; even Mr. Sellwood had taken amiss what was meant as pure chaff,
and had been the first to begin the game of downright rudeness at which
the old Australian had soon beaten him. Yet the fact remained that
Dalrymple was the moving spirit in each unpleasantness; he had been a
moving spirit since the moment he set foot in the house, and this was
exactly what the other guests resented. But it was becoming painfully
apparent that Jack himself would take nothing amiss; that he was
constitutionally unable to regard Dalrymple in any other light than that
of his old king, who could still do no wrong. And this being so, it was
impossible for another to complain.

Indeed, when Mr. Sellwood joined the ladies, who happened to be in the
conservatory, with savage words upon his lips, his wife stuck up for the
maligned Colonist. That, however, was partly from the instinct of
conjugal opposition, and partly because Lady Caroline was herself afraid
of "this fellow Dalrymple," as her husband could call him fluently
enough behind his back. The other men were not long in joining the
indignant Minister. They had finished their cigarettes, but Jack had
donned his gorgeous smoking-cap by special request of Lady Caroline,
who beamed upon him and it from her chair.

"Hallo! have you come in for that thing?" exclaimed Mr. Sellwood, who
was in the mood to hail with delight any target for hostile criticism.
"I always thought you intended it for Claude, my dear Caroline?"

"It turned out to be a little too small for Claude," replied her
Ladyship sweetly.

"Claude, you've had an escape," said the Home Secretary. "Jack, my boy,
you have my sympathy."

"I don't require it, thank you, sir," laughed the Duke. "I'm proud of
myself, I tell you! This'd knock 'em up at Jumping Sandhills, wouldn't
it, Mr. Dalrymple?"

"It would indeed: so the cap goes with the coronet, does it?" added the
squatter, but with such good-humour that it was impossible to take open
umbrage at his words. "I wonder how it would fit me?" And he lifted the
thing off Jack's head by the golden tassel, and dropped it upon his own.

"Too small again," said Jack: indeed the purple monstrosity sat upon the
massive hairless head like a thimble on a billiard-ball.

"And it doesn't suit you a bit," added Olivia, who was once more in a
simmer of indignation with her lover's exasperating friend.

"No more would the coronet," replied Dalrymple, replacing the
smoking-cap on its owner's head. "By the way, Jack, where do you keep
your coronet?"

"Where do I keep my coronet?" asked the Duke of his major-domo. "I've
never set eyes on it."

"I fancy they have it at the bank," said Claude.

"And much good it does you there!" exclaimed Dalrymple. "Shall I tell
you what I'd do with it if it were mine?"

"Yes, do," said Jack, smiling in advance.

"Then come outside and you shall hear. I am afraid I have shocked your
friends sufficiently for one night. And there's a very fascinating
moon."



CHAPTER XIX

THE CAT AND THE MOUSE


"You're a lucky fellow," said the squatter as they sauntered down the
drive. "Give me another of those cigars; they are better than mine,
after all."

"They ought to be," replied Jack complacently. "I told old Claude to pay
all he could for 'em."

"He seems to have done so. What an income you must have!"

"About fifteen bob a minute, so they tell me."

"After a pound a week in the bush!"

"It does sound rummy, doesn't it? After you with the match, sir."

"It's incredible."

"Yet it's astonishing how used you get to it in time--you'd be
surprised! At first the whole thing knocked me sideways; it was tucker I
couldn't digest. But once you take to the soft tack, there's nothing
like it in the world. You may guess who's made me take to it quicker
than I might have done!"

Dalrymple shrugged his massive shoulders, and raised a contemplative eye
to the moon, that lay curled like a silver shaving in the lucid heavens.

"Oh, yes, I can guess," he said sardonically. "And mind you I've nothing
against the girl--I meant you were lucky there. The girl's all right--if
you must marry. I don't dislike a woman who'll show fight; and she
looked like showing it when I tried on that cracker-night-cap thing of
yours. Oh, certainly! If you were to marry, you couldn't have done
better; the girl's worth fifty of her mother, at any rate."

"Fifty million!" cried Jack, somewhat warmly.

"Fifty million I meant to say," and the squatter ran his arm through
that of his host. "Come, don't you mind _me_, Jack, my boy! You know
what an old heathen I am in those little matters; and we have lots of
other things to talk about, in any case."

Jack was mollified in a moment.

"Lots!" he cried. "I don't seem to have seen anything of you yet, and
I'm sure you haven't seen much of the place. Isn't it a place and a
half? Look at the terrace in the moonlight--and the spires--and the
windows--hundreds of 'em--and the lawn and the tank! Then there's the
inside; you've seen the hall; but I must show you the picture-gallery
and the State Apartments. Such pictures! They say it's one of the finest
private collections in the world; there's hardly one of them that isn't
by some old master or another. I've heard the pictures alone are worth
half a million of money!"

"They are," said Dalrymple.

"You've heard so too?"

"Of course; my good fellow, your possessions are celebrated all the
world over; that's what you don't appear to have realised yet."

"I can't," said Jack. "It puts me in a sick funk when I try! So it would
you if you were suddenly to come in for a windfall like mine--that is,
if you were a chap like me. But you aren't; you'd be the very man for
the billet."

And Jack stepped back to admire his hero, who chuckled softly as he
smoked, standing at his full height, with both hands in his pockets, and
the moon like limelight on his shirt.

"It's not a billet I should care about," said the squatter; "but it's
great fun to find you filling it so admirably----"

"I don't; I wish I did," said Jack, throwing away the cigar which he had
lighted to keep his guest company.

"You do, though. And if it isn't a rude question----" Dalrymple
hesitated, staring hard--

"I daresay you're very happy in your new life?"

"Of course I'm very happy _now_. None happier!"

"But apart from the girl?"

"You can't get apart from her; that's just it. If I'm to go on being
happy in my position, I'll have to learn to fill it without making
myself a laughing-stock; and the one person who can teach me will be my
wife."

"I see. Then you begin to like your position for its own sake?"

"That's so," replied Jack. He was paring a cake of very black tobacco
for the pipe which he had stuck between his teeth. Dalrymple watched him
with interest.

"And yet," said the squatter, "you have neither acquired a taste for
your own most excellent cigars, nor conquered your addiction to the vile
twist we used to keep on the station!"

"Well, and that's so, too," laughed Jack. "You must give a fellow time,
Mr. Dalrymple!"

"Do you know what I thought when I met you yesterday?" continued
Dalrymple, turning his back to the moon, and looking very hard at Jack
while he sucked at his cigar with his thick, strong lips. "Do you know
how you struck me then? I thought you'd neither acquired a taste for
your new life nor conquered your affection for the old. That's how you
struck me in Devenholme yesterday."

Jack made no haste to reply. He was not at all astonished at the
impression he had created the day before. But his old boss was still the
one man before whom he was anxious to display a modicum of dignity, even
at the expense of a pose. And it is noteworthy that he had neither
confided in Dalrymple concerning his dilemma of the previous day, nor
yet so much as mentioned in his hearing the model hut among the pines.

"I don't wonder," he said at length; "it was the way I was likely to
strike you just then. Don't you see? I hadn't got it out at the time!"

"So it was only the girl that was on your nerves?" said Dalrymple in
disgust.

"And wasn't that enough? If I'm a different man to-day, you know the
reason why. As for being happy in my position, and all that, I'm simply
in paradise at this moment. Think of it! Think of me as I was, and look
at me as I am; think of my little hut on Carara, and look behind you at
Maske Towers!"

They were on the terrace now, leaning idly against the balustrade.
Dalrymple turned and looked: like Melrose Abbey, the grand grey building
was at its best in the "pale moonlight"; the lichened embrasures met the
soft sky softly; the piercing spires were sheathed in darkness; and the
mountainous pile wore one uniform tint, from which the lighted windows
stood out like pictures on a wall. Dalrymple looked, and looked again;
then his hard eyes fell upon the rude ecstasy of the face beside him;
and they were less hard than before.

"You may make yourself easy," said the squatter. "I shan't stay long."

"What the blazes do you mean?" cried Jack. "I want you to stay as long
as ever you can."

"You may; your friends do not."

"Hang my friends!"

"I should enjoy nothing better; but it isn't practicable. Besides,
they're a good deal more than your friends now; they are--her people.
And they don't like the man who was once your boss; he offends their
pride----"

"Mr. Dalrymple----"

"Enough said, my boy. I know my room, and I'm going to turn in. We'll
talk it over again in the morning; but my mind is made up. Good-night!"

"I'll come in with you."

"As you like."

They parted at the visitor's door.

"You'll disappoint me cruel if you _do_ go," said Jack, shaking hands.
"I'm quite sure you're mistaken about my friends; Olivia, for one,
thinks no end of you. However, as you say, we can talk it over in the
morning--when you've got to see the pictures as well, and don't you
forget it! So long, sir, till then."

"So long, Jack. I'll be your man in the morning, at all events. And I
shall look forward to a great treat in your famous picture-gallery."

But Jack was engaged; and he realised it in the morning as he had not
done before. Olivia lured him from the squatter's side; she had every
intention of so doing. The pair went for a little stroll. Neither wore a
watch; the little stroll lengthened into miles; it carried them beyond
the sound of the stable clock; they forgot the world, and were absurdly
late for lunch. Lady Caroline Sellwood had taken it upon herself to
conduct the meal without them. Dalrymple was in his place; his
expression was grimly cynical; he had seen the pictures, under Claude
Lafont's skilled escort, and, with the ladies' permission, he would now
leave the table, as he had still to put in his things.

His things! Was he going, then? Jack's knife and fork fell with a
clatter.

"I thought you knew," said Claude. "He is going up to town by the
afternoon train. I have ordered the landau, as I thought you would like
him to go as he came."

When Jack heard this he, too, left the table, and bounded upstairs. He
found Dalrymple on the point of packing his dress-clothes, with the
assistance of none other than Stebbings. Jack glared at the disrated
butler, and ordered him out of the room.

"I wouldn't have done that," remarked the squatter, pausing in his work.
"The fellow came to know if he could do anything for me, with tears in
his eyes, and he has made me a handsome apology. He didn't ask me to beg
him off, but I mean to try my luck in that way before I go."

"You mustn't go!"

"I must. Will you forgive the old man?"

"Not if you clear."

"My good fellow, this is unreasonable----"

"So it is, Mr. Dalrymple, on _your_ part," rejoined Jack warmly. "It's
too bad of you. Bother Stebbings! I shan't be hard on him, you may be
sure; and you mustn't be hard on me. Surely you can make allowances for
a chap who's engaged to a girl like mine? I _did_ want to speak to you
this morning; but she came first. I want to speak to you now--more than
you suppose. Mr. Dalrymple, I wasn't straight with you last night; not
altogether. But I can't suffer steering crooked; it gives me the hump;
and as sure as I do it I've got to go over the ground again. You are the
man I owe my all to; I can't end up crooked with _you_!"

Dalrymple sat on the bedside in his shirt-sleeves; he had turned up the
cuffs; his strong and shapely wrists lay along his thighs; and his grey
eyebrows, but not his lips, asked for more.

"I mean," continued Jack, "about what was bothering me that day I ran
against you in Devenholme. It was only the day before yesterday, but
Lord! it seems like the week before last."

And with that he unfolded, with much rapid detail, the whole episode of
Matthew Hunt, from the morning in the stable-yard to the midnight at the
hut. The story within that story was also told with particular care and
circumstance; but long before the end was reached Dalrymple had emptied
his bag upon the bed, and had himself rung to countermand the carriage.
He was interested; he would stay another day.

Downstairs in the drawing-room the Sellwood family and Claude Lafont
were even then congratulating themselves upon the imminent departure of
the unpopular guest. Their faces were so many sights when Jack entered
in the highest spirits to tell them of his successful appeal to the
better feelings of "good old Dalrymple," who after all was not going to
leave them just yet. Jack was out again in an instant; and they next saw
him, from the drawing-room windows, going in the direction of the hut
with his odious old friend at his side. Whereupon Claude Lafont said a
strong thing, for him; and the most sensible of engaged young women
retired in tears to her room.

"There's one thing you must let me do," Dalrymple was saying; "if you
don't, I shall insist. You must let me have the privilege of sorting
that scoundrel, Mark Hunt."

"Matthew," said Jack.

"Matthew, then. I knew it was one of you evangelists."

"What would you do?" asked the Duke.

"See that he annoyed you no more. And I'll guarantee that he doesn't if
you'll leave him to me."

"I didn't want to clear them out----"

"I think you must."

"Or to prosecute; it's so public, and a bit revengeful too."

"There I agree with you. I'm not even sure that you'd get a conviction.
It would be difficult, in any case, and would make a public scandal of
it, as you say."

"Then I will leave him to you. You're the smartest man I know, Mr.
Dalrymple, and always have been. What you do will be right. I'll bother
my head no more about it. Besides, anything to keep you with us a few
days longer!"

Dalrymple shrugged his shoulders, but Jack did not see the gesture, for
he was leading the way through the pines. A moment later they were at
the hut.

The hut amused the squatter. He called it a colourable imitation. But it
did not delight him as it had delighted Jack; the master bushman failed
to share his old hand's sentimental regard for all that pertained to the
bush. Dalrymple sat on the bunk and smoked a cigar, a cynical spectator
of some simple passages between Jack and his cats. Livingstone was
exhibited with great pride; he had put on flesh in the old country; at
which the squatter remarked that had he stayed on Carara, he would have
put on an ounce of lead.

"You're a wonderful man, Jack!" he exclaimed at length. "I wouldn't have
believed a fellow _could_ take a windfall as you have done, if I hadn't
seen it with my own eyes. I used to think of you a good deal after you
had gone. I thought of you playing the deuce to any extent, but I must
say I little dreamt of your building a bush hut to get back to your old
way of life! I pictured the town crimson and the country carmine--both
painted by you--but I never imagined _this_!"

And he looked round the hut in his amused, sardonic way; but there was a
ring--or perhaps it was only a suspicion--of disappointment in his tone.
The next words were merely perplexed.

"And yet," added Dalrymple, "you profess yourself well pleased with your
lot!"

"So I am--now."

"I begin to wish I hadn't changed my mind about going this afternoon."

"Why, on earth?"

"Because I also begin--to envy you! Come, let's make tracks for the
house; I shall have huts enough to look at when I go back to the place
that you need never see again."

"But I mean to see it again," said Jack as he locked up. "I intend to
take my wife out, one of these days; we shall expect to come on a long
visit to Carara; and the greatest treat you could give me would be to
let me ride my old boundaries and camp in my old hut for a week!"

"Nonsense; you stay where you are," was the squatter's only comment. He
seemed depressed; his cynical aplomb had quite deserted him. They
returned in silence to the house.

A shabby-looking vehicle stood in front of the porch; the man said that
he had brought a gentleman from Devenholme, and was to wait. The Duke
and Dalrymple mounted the steps together. The first person they
encountered in the hall was Claude Lafont, looking strangely scared; but
a new-comer was in the act of taking off his coat; and, as he turned his
face, Dalrymple and Jack started simultaneously. Both knew the man. It
was Cripps the lawyer. And he, too, looked pale, nervous, and alarmed.



CHAPTER XX

"LOVE THE DEBT"


Olivia was not a little tired; this was the true explanation of the
tears which had driven her upstairs. It was also the one excuse she saw
for herself when she thought the matter over in her own room. Jack had
devoted the whole morning to her; it was the squatter's turn; and, of
course, Jack must invite whom he liked to stay as long as he pleased. To
think of limiting his freedom in any such matter at the very outset of
their engagement! Yet she had been guilty of that thought; but she was
tired; she would lie down for an hour.

She lay down for two or three. Excitement had worn her out. It was after
five when she awoke and went downstairs. As she did so Claude and Cripps
crossed the hall and put on their hats. She hailed Claude.

"What have you done with Jack?"

"I think you'll find him in the little study at the end of the
library."

"Thanks."

Olivia glanced at Cripps. She had never met him. She wondered who he
was, and why Claude did not introduce him to her, and what made both of
them so glum. They hurried out of the house as though they were afraid
of her. What could it mean? She would find out from Jack; she felt a
renewed right to him now, and thought of hints, as she went, for Mr.
Dalrymple, if they were still together. But Jack was alone; he was
sitting in the dejected attitude engendered by a peculiarly long and low
arm-chair.

"Well?" said Olivia briskly.

"Well?" responded Jack; but he looked at her without rising and without
a smile; and both omissions were unlike the lover and the man.

"I half expected to find Mr. Dalrymple with you. I'm so glad he isn't!
I--it's my turn, I think!"

"I haven't seen Dalrymple for over an hour," said Jack, with his heavy,
absent eyes upon her all the time. "I wonder where he is?"

Olivia would not ask him what the matter was; she preferred to find out
for herself, and then tell _him_. She looked about her. On a salver were
a decanter and three wine-glasses; one was unused; and on the floor
there lay an end of pink tape. She picked and held it up between finger
and thumb.

"Lawyers!" she cried.

"Yes, I've had a solicitor here."

"Not to make your will!"

"No. On a--on a local matter. Don't look at me like that! It's nothing
much: nothing new, at all events."

"But you are worried."

She knelt beside his chair, and rested her elbows on the arm, studying
his pale set profile. His eyes met hers no longer.

"I am," he admitted; "but that's my own fault. As I say--it's nothing
new!"

"Who was the lawyer?"

"You wouldn't know him."

"I mean to know who he was. Mr. Cripps?"

Jack did not answer. He rolled his head from side to side against the
back of the chair. His eyes remained fast upon the opposite wall.

"It is--the old trouble," Olivia whispered. "The trouble of two nights
ago!"

His silence told her much. The drops upon his forehead added more. Yet
her voice was calm and undismayed; it enabled him at last to use his
own.

"Yes!" he said hoarsely. "Claude made a mistake. It was true after
all!"

"Hunt's story, darling?"

"Hunt's story. There _was_ an English marriage as well as an Australian
one. He had a wife at each side of the world! Claude made a mistake. He
went to the wrong church at Chelsea--to a church by the river. He had
always thought it was the parish church. It is not. St. Luke's is the
parish church, and there in the book they have the marriage down in
black and white. Cripps found it; but he first found it somewhere else,
where he says they have the records of every marriage in the country
since 1850. He would have looked there the day Claude was up, but he
left it too late. He looked yesterday, and found it, sure enough, on the
date Hunt gave. October 22d, 1853. And he has been to Chelsea and seen
it there. So there's no mistake about it this time; and you see how we
stand."

"I see. My poor boy!"

"It's Claude after all. Poor chap, he's awfully cut up. He blames
himself so for the mistake between the two churches; but Cripps tells me
it was the most natural mistake in the world. Chelsea Old Church--that
was where Claude went. And he says he'll never forgive himself."

"But I forgive him," said Olivia, with the first sign of emotion in her
voice. She was holding one of his hands; her other was in his hair.
Still he stared straight in front of him.

"Of course you forgive him," he said gently. "When you come to think of
it, there's nothing to forgive. Claude didn't make the facts. He only
failed to discover them."

"I am glad he _did_ fail," whispered Olivia.

"Glad? You can't be glad! Why do you say that?"

And now he turned his face to her, in his astonishment; and suddenly it
was she who could not meet his gaze.

"How can you be glad?" he continued to demand.

"Because--otherwise--you would never--have--spoken----"

"Spoken? Of course I shouldn't! It's a thousand pities I did. It makes
it all the harder--now!"

"What do you mean?"

"Surely you see?"

They had risen with a common instinct. The ice was broken; there were no
more shamefaced glances. The girl stood proudly at her full height.

"I see nothing. You say our engagement makes this all the harder for
you; it _should_ be just the opposite."

"Will nothing make you see?" cried Jack. "Oh, how am I to say it? It--it
can't go on--our engagement!"

"And why not?"

"I am nothing--nobody--a nameless----"

"What does it matter?" interrupted Olivia passionately. "Do you really
think it was the name I wanted after all? You pay me a high compliment!
I know exactly what you mean--know exactly what this means to you. To me
it makes no difference at all. You are the man you have always been; you
are the man--I--love."

His eyes glistened.

"God bless you for saying so! You are the one to love a man the better
when he's down on his luck. I know that. Yet we must never----"

"Never what?"

"Marry."

"Not--marry?" She stared at him in sheer amazement. "Not when we
promised--only yesterday? You may break your word if you like. Mine I
would never break!"

"Then I must. It is not to be thought of any more. Surely you see? It's
not that I have lost the money and the title; oh! you must see what it
is!"

"Of course I see. But I don't allow the objection."

"Your people would never hear of it now; and quite right too."

"My people! I am of age. I have a little money of my own, enough for us
both. I can do exactly what I like. Besides, I'm not so sure about my
people; you don't know my father as I know him."

"He is a man of the world. He would not hear of it."

"Then I must act for myself."

"You must not!"

"I must. Do you think I am only a fair-weather girl? I gave you my
promise when all was different. I would rather die than break it now."

"But I release you! I set you free! Everything has altered. Oh, can't
you put yourself in my place? I should deserve shooting if I married you
now. I release you because I must."

"And I refuse to be released."

They regarded one another with hopeless faces. Their eyes were dim with
love--yet here they stood apart. This was the dead-lock. Nothing could
come of this contest of honour against honour, of one unselfish love
against another. It was like striking flint upon flint, and steel upon
steel. A gong sounded in the distance; it was the signal to dress for
dinner. Olivia beat the floor impatiently with one foot; her lips
trembled; her eyes filled with tears.

"If you cared for me," she cried passionately, "half as much as you said
you did, you wouldn't be so ready to lose me now!"

"If I cared less," he answered, "I would take you at your word--God
knows how you tempt me to!--and you should be my wife in spite of all. I
would mind less how I dragged you down--what became of us in the end.
But I love you too well to spoil your life. Don't you know that,
Olivia?"

"Ah, yes! I know it! I know--I know----"

He took her in his arms at last. He was shaking all over. Her head lay
back upon his shoulder. He smoothed the hair from the high, white
forehead; he looked tenderly and long into the wild wet eyes. His arm
tightened about her; he could not help it.

"Sweetheart," he faltered, "you must help me to be strong. It is hard
enough as it is. Only help me, or it will be far harder. Help me now--at
dinner. I am going to take the head of the table for the last time. Help
me by being bright! We can talk afterwards. There is time enough. Only
help me now!"

"I will do my best," whispered Olivia, disengaging herself from his
trembling arms. "I will try to be as brave as you. Oh, there is no one
in the world like you! Yes, do let us talk about it afterwards; there is
so much to say and to decide. But I give you fair warning: I shall
never--never--never let you go. Darling, you will need me now! And I
cannot give you up--much less after this. Shall I tell you why? You have
gone the wrong way to work; you have made me love you more than ever--my
hero--my darling--my all!"

She stood a moment at the open door, kissing her hand to him--a rosy
flush upon her face--the great tears standing in her eyes. Then she was
gone. He watched her down the length of the library; the stained windows
dappled her, as she passed, with rubies and sapphires, huge and watery;
at the farther door she turned, and kissed her hand again--and fled.



CHAPTER XXI

THE BAR SINISTER


It was a close night; the men were smoking their cigarettes on the
terrace. Cripps was one of them; he was staying the night; he wished
himself a hundred miles away. But Francis Freke took him in hand; they
disappeared together, and a minute later the billiard-room windows burnt
out of the night.

Mr. Sellwood was left a little in the cold. Claude and Jack were pacing
the terrace with linked arms and lowered voices, and he wished to speak
to Jack. Mr. Sellwood knew all. He was deeply sorry for Jack, for whom
he had done his best at dinner by talking incessantly from grace to
grace. The Home Secretary could be immensely entertaining when he chose.
He had chosen to-night, as much for his daughter's sake as for Jack's.
Olivia was his favourite child.

But then Dalrymple had not been there to heckle and insult his superior;
he was gone nobody knew where. Not that he was gone for good, the luck
stopped short of that. It appeared, however, that he had been excluded
by a majority of two to one from the triangular council in the Poet's
Corner. Since then he had not been seen; but his bag was still in his
room, and it was only another of his liberties to absent himself from
dinner without a word.

Olivia was playing the piano in the drawing-room. The windows were wide
open, and Mr. Sellwood listened with his white head bent in sorrowful
perplexity. The execution was faulty, as usual, because Olivia was an
idle musician; but there was feeling in her fingers, she had a certain
"touch," and her attempts were better to listen to than some
performances. To-night they went to her father's heart. The imperfect
music spoke to him with the eloquence of broken words. It told him of
his child's necessity for action in the stress of her anguish. It told
him also of her love; and here was this poor fellow so taken up with
Claude that it was impossible to say to him what must be said as soon as
possible.

Mr. Sellwood gave it up for the present, and went to look for his wife.

"There's only one more thing, old man," Jack was saying, "and then I'm
done. I don't want to load you up to the eyes with messages and all
that. But I should like you to take care of this little bit of a key,
and give it to her as soon as ever you think fit. It belongs to that
chain bracelet business I got her for her birthday. As you know, I first
wanted to give her a ring, but she wouldn't have it; and when I changed
it for the bracelet, which cost about half as many shillings as the ring
did pounds, I couldn't look poor Hopgood in the face. It was such a sell
for him. So we were going back to-morrow to get that ring for our
engagement, and to look old Hopgood in the face. That was one of our
plans; we made so many when we were out this morning! I never knew a
morning go at such a lick. But I remember it all--I remember everything.
I've started going over every word we've said, so that I shan't forget
anything. There's not such a vast lot to keep in your head. Only a day
and a half of an engagement; but I've got to live on those thirty odd
hours for the rest of my time."

Claude looked away; the drawing-room windows were a blur to his eyes;
and Olivia's erratic rendering of Chopin filled in the pause. It was the
incoherent expression of unutterable emotion. Jack listened also,
nodding time with his head. The calmness and the nobility of despair
had settled on his spirit, as on that of a captain going down with his
ship.

He talked on, and his tone was entirely his own. It was neither bitter,
querulous, nor wilfully pathetic; but chiefly contemplative, with a
reminiscence here and the discovery of some consolation there. He
recalled the humours of the situation, and laughed outright but
staccato, as at remembered sayings of the newly dead. Beyond the loss of
Olivia he had little to regret; even that would make another man of him
for ever and a day. (So he talked.) And his English summer would be
something to look back on always; it was pleasure to the good, which
nothing could undo or take away; the experience of a second lifetime had
been crammed into those few weeks. Let him remember that when he got
back to the bush. Suppose he had never left the bush? Then he would
never have seen the old country, and seen it (as he said) from the front
seats; he would never have found his own soul, nor known the love of a
lovely girl, nor the joy of life as he knew it now. So he was really to
be congratulated to the end; there was no occasion to pity him at all.

Claude, however, was not comforted; he had never been so wretched in
his life. And he showed it so plainly, and was withal so conscious of
the display, that he felt quite sure that Jack's ingenious consolations
were not meant entirely for Jack. He was ashamed of himself on this, as
on every other score. He was to blame for the whole business, since it
was he who had scoured Australia for the Red Marquis's son. Nor could he
believe the other's protestations of personal solace and resignation;
they had been made with wistful glances at the lighted windows, glances
that Claude had seen as they both leant back against the balustrade.

"Aha!" said Jack suddenly. "Here are Mr. Sellwood and Lady Caroline
coming to have it out with me. Better leave me to them, old man."

"All right," said Claude, "but we have lots more to talk about. Where
can I find you, and when?"

Jack hesitated; the Sellwoods were within earshot as he whispered,
"Twelve o'clock at the hut!" And Claude walked away, with his hand
aching from a sudden and most crushing grip.

"My wife and I would like to speak to you," said the Home Secretary,
halting in front of Jack with Lady Caroline on his arm. "My dear
fellow, we are so very sorry for you: we know everything."

"Everything!" echoed Lady Caroline, with slow dramatic force.

"Thanks to Jack," put in her husband sharply; "it was he who gave
instructions that we should be told at once. It was so very good of you,
Jack, my boy, to think of us in your trouble. You have behaved
splendidly all through; that's what makes us all feel this so keenly;
and I am quite sure that you will behave nobly now. My dear fellow, it
isn't the fact of your not being the Duke of St. Osmund's that forces me
to take this tone; it's the unfortunate circumstances of your birth,
which have now been proved, I am afraid, beyond the possibility of that
doubt which nobody would welcome more thankfully than myself. We are all
very fond of you. I for one have learned to admire you too. But this
most miserable discovery must alter everything except our feeling
towards you. We are bound to consider our daughter."

"Our youngest child," said Lady Caroline. "Our ewe lamb!"

"Of course," replied Jack. "I see what you mean. What do you want me to
do?"

"It may seem very hard," said Mr. Sellwood, "but we wish you to release
Olivia from her engagement."

"To release her instantly!" cried Lady Caroline.

"I have done that already," said Jack with some disdain. "Did you really
think, sir, that I should wait to be told?"

Mr. Sellwood muttered an oath as he held out his hand.

"I have made a mistake; I hope you will forgive me," he said; and his
hand was crushed in its turn.

"And what did she say?" asked Lady Caroline.

"She refused to be released."

"I knew it! George, the girl is mad. And pray what do you propose to do
now?"

"What do you think I ought to do?"

"Ought?" cried Lady Caroline. "I think you ought to go away and never
see her again!"

"Or, rather, let us take her away," said Mr. Sellwood. "It may seem hard
and abominable, but there's no doubt that from our point of view a
separation is the most desirable course."

"It _is_ hard," replied Jack; "but, as it happens, it's the very plan I
hit on for myself. Not a word, sir, if you please. You're perfectly
right. She could not marry me now; and I would not marry her, knowing
what I am. It's out of the question altogether. But Olivia is quite on
to do it--at least she thought she was before dinner. I haven't seen her
since. I'm not going to see her again. She's just the sort of angel who
would swap heaven for hell to stand by the man she was fond of! But she
mustn't be let. I agree with you there. It was the first thing I thought
of myself. I made up my mind to clear out; and, if you want to know, I'm
off now."

"Now!" cried Mr. Sellwood.

Lady Caroline said nothing.

"Yes, now; there's no more to be said; and the sooner I get it over the
better for all concerned."

"But, my dear fellow, where are you going, and what do you intend to do?
Have you made any plans? I wouldn't do anything in a hurry if I were
you; we're a family party here; and all our wits put together would
surely be better than yours! We might fix up something between us."

Jack shook his head.

"You're very kind," he said; "but it's all fixed up. I'm going straight
back to the bush. This is Thursday; I can't catch to-morrow's steamer,
but I can do better. I can take the overland express to-morrow night,
and join last week's boat at Brindisi. I'm going to sleep the
night--never mind where. I don't want old Claude on my tracks; I've said
good-bye to him too, though he doesn't know it either. He wants to do
too much for me altogether. If you stay up with him till twelve, he'll
tell you he's got to look me up at the hut; and you may tell him, sir,
if you'll be so good, to sit tight, for he won't find me _there_. Say
good-bye to him for me, and tell him he's been the best mate I've ever
struck; but don't let him come up and see me off. Cripps I'm to meet in
town. I'm going to let them finance me out again, since they fetched me
home in the beginning; but not another red cent will I touch. Why should
I? I've had a good run for my money--that is, for theirs. I'm no worse
off than I was before. I should even be sure of the same old billet on
Carara that used to suit me well enough, if I only could see Mr.
Dalrymple before I start; but I'm bothered if I know where he's got to."

Mr. Sellwood was heavy with thought; his wife had left them; and he had
heard a sob in her throat as she turned away. He had an inkling of her
treatment of this poor fellow; he did not know everything, but he knew
enough to hail his wife's sob with a thankful thrill. So there was a
heart in her somewhere still! He had thought otherwise for some years;
in another moment he doubted it once more. Lady Caroline appeared at the
drawing-room window, shut it, and drew down the blind. And yet--and yet
her husband had himself been wishing for somebody to do that very thing!

Olivia was still at the piano, and her performance had sounded a little
too near at hand until now. It was near enough still; but the shutting
of the window deadened the sound. Chopin had merged into Mendelssohn.
Olivia happened to be note-perfect in one or two of the Lieder. Her
father had never heard her play them so well. But Jack had no music in
his soul--could not whistle two bars in tune--and though, even while
speaking, he listened visibly, it was not to the music as music, but to
the last sound of Olivia he was ever to hear. Her footstep in the
distance would have done as well.

"I wouldn't go to-night, old fellow," the Home Secretary said at length.
"I see no point in it. To-morrow would be time enough."

"Ah, you must think I find it easy work!" exclaimed Jack, a little
bitterly for once. "It's not so easy as all that: it's got to be done at
once, when you're screwed up to it, or it may never come off at all.
Don't you try to keep me; don't let anybody else try either! Let me go
while I'm on to go--alone. I might take it different to-morrow!"

He spoke hoarsely; the voice was as significant as the words. Mr.
Sellwood was impressed by both; he followed the other to the nearest
flight of steps leading down to the lawn.

"Let me come with you," he urged. "Surely there is something one can do!
And I've never seen the hut; I should like to."

"Wait till I've gone," was the reply. "I want you to stand in my tracks
and block anybody from following me. Head them another way! Only give me
quarter of an hour to clear out of the hut, and another quarter's start,
and I'm--and I'm----"

He lost himself in a sudden absence of mind. The music had stopped, and
the night seemed insolently still. Jack was half-way down the steps; the
Home Secretary leaned over the balustrade above. Jack reached up his
hand.

"Good-bye," he said.

Mr. Sellwood, hesitating, kept his hand. The window that had been shut
was thrown up again.

"Papa, is that you?"

"Yes, my dear."

Mr. Sellwood had turned round.

"And where is Jack?"

"Not here," whispered Jack.

"Not here," repeated Mr. Sellwood; and, looking behind him, he found
that he had spoken the truth.

"Then I'm coming down to you, and you must help me----"

Jack lost the rest as he ran. He thought he heard his own name again,
but he was not sure. He stopped under the nearest tree. Mercifully there
was no moon. Olivia could not have seen him, for he himself could see no
more of the Towers than the lighted windows and their reflections upon
the terrace. On that dim stage the silhouette of Mr. Sellwood was still
discernible: another joined it: the two figures became one: and in the
utter stillness not only the girl's sobs but her father's broken words
were audible under the tree.

Jack fled.

He ran hard to the hut, and lighted it up as it had never been lighted
before. He cut up a candle in half-inch sections, and stuck them all
over with their own grease. Thoroughness was an object as well as
despatch; nothing must be missed; but his first act was to change his
clothes. He put on the ready-made suit and the wideawake in which he had
landed; he had kept them in the hut. Then he pulled from under the bunk
the cage his cats had travelled in, and he bundled the cats into it once
more. Lastly he rolled up his swag, less neatly, perhaps, than of old,
but with the blue blanket outermost as before, and the little straps
reefed round it and buckled tight. He would want these things in the
bush; besides, the whim was upon him to go exactly as he had come. Only
one item of his original impedimenta he decided to leave behind: the old
bush saddle would be a needless encumbrance; but with his swag, and his
cats, and his wideawake, he set forth duly, after blowing out all the
candle ends.

The night seemed darker than ever; neither moon nor star was to be seen,
and Jack had to stop and consider when he got outside. He desired to
strike a straight line to the gates; he knew how they lay from the hut,
though he had never been over the ground before. To a bushman, however,
even without a star to help him, such a task could present no
difficulties. He computed the distance at something less than a mile;
but in Australia he had gone as the crow flies through league upon
league of untrodden scrub. Out there he had enjoyed the reputation of
being "a good bushman," and he meant to enjoy it again.

But his head was hot with other thoughts, and he was out of practice.
Instead of hitting the wall, and following it up to the gates, as he
intended, he erred the other way, and came out upon the drive at no
great distance from the house. This was a false start, indeed, and a
humiliation also; but his thoughts had strayed back to Olivia, and it
was as if his feet had followed their lead. He would think of her no
more to-night.

The drive was undesirable, for obvious reasons; still it was the safest
policy to keep to it now, and the chances were that he would meet
nobody. Yet he did; a footstep first, and then the striking of a match,
came to his ears as he was nearing the gates. He crept under the trees.
The match was struck again, and yet again, before it lit. Then Jack came
out of hiding, and strode forward without further qualms, for the flame
was lighting the cigar and illumining the face of his friend Dalrymple.

"Hallo, sir!" began Jack, "I'd given you up."

"Why, Jack, is that you? I can't see an inch front of my cigar," said
the squatter, as the match burnt itself out on the gravel where it had
been thrown.

"Yes, it's me; where have you been?"

"Where are you going?"

"Mine first," said Jack.

"All right. I've been talking to Master Hunt. _Now_ where are you
going?"

"Back to Australia!"

Jack waited for an exclamation; for some seconds there was none; then
the squatter laughed softly to himself.

"I thought as much!" said he. "I knew exactly what the lawyer came to
say, for I saw it in his face. Now tell me, and we'll see if I'm right."

And it appeared that he was, by the way in which he kept nodding his
head as Jack told him all. Meanwhile they had retired under the trees,
and by the red end of his cigar the squatter had seen Jack's wideawake;
using his cigar as a lantern he had examined the cage of cats; whereon
his face would have proved a sufficiently severe commentary had there
been any other light for Jack to see it by.

"Now," said Dalrymple, "stand tight. _I've_ got something to tell _you_,
my boy!" And he told it in the fewest whispered words.

Jack was speechless.

"Nonsense! I don't believe it," he cried when he found his tongue.

"But I'm in a position to prove it," replied the squatter. "I'll give
you a particular or two as we walk back to the house. What! you
hesitate? Come, come; surely my word is good enough for that! Do be
sensible; leave your infernal cats where they are, and come you along
with me!"



CHAPTER XXII

DE MORTUIS


The Home Secretary had never spent a more uncomfortable hour. His
favourite daughter had stanched her tears, and gone straight to the root
of the very delicate matter at issue between them. Much as her tears had
depressed him, however, Mr. Sellwood preferred them to the subsequent
attitude. It was too independent for his old-fashioned notions, and yet
it made him think all the more of Olivia. Indeed she was her father's
child in argument--spirited and keen and fair. His point of view she
took for granted, and proceeded to expound her own. Much that she said
was unanswerable; a little made him fidget--for between the sexes there
is no such shyness as that which a father finds in his heart towards his
grown-up girls. But a certain bluntness of speech was not the least
refreshing trait in Olivia's downright character, and decidedly this was
not a matter to be glossed over with synonyms for a spade. She wanted
to know how the circumstances of the birth affected the value of the
man--and so forth. Mr. Sellwood replied as a man of the world, and
detested his replies. But the worst was his guilty knowledge of Jack's
flight. This made him detest himself; it made him lie; and it filled him
with a relief greater than his surprise when voices came out of the
darkness of the drive, and one of them was Jack's.

Olivia ran forward.

"At last! Oh, Jack, where _have_ you been?"

Mr. Sellwood never heard the answer; he was bristling at the touch of
Dalrymple, who had led him aside.

"Entirely my doing," explained the squatter; "but I can justify it. I
mean to do so at once. Am I right in understanding the bar sinister to
be your only objection to our friend?"

"You may put it so," said Mr. Sellwood shortly.

"Then I shall have the pleasure of removing the objection: the bar
doesn't exist."

"Your grounds for thinking so, Mr. Dalrymple?"

"I don't think. I know. And I'm here to prove what I know. Good heavens,
do you suppose he was no more to me than one of my ordinary station
hands? He was the son--at all events, the stepson--of one of my oldest
friends."

"The stepson! May I ask the name of your friend?"

"It is unnecessary. You have guessed it. I have a good deal to explain.
Where can we go? I should like Lafont and Cripps to hear what I've got
to say. Cripps especially--he will be able to check half my facts."

"I think we ought all to hear them," remarked Sellwood; "we are all
interested and concerned."

"You mean the ladies? I would rather not; you can tell them afterwards;
and as to the young lady, you may make your mind easy about her. If that
was the only obstacle, I undertake to remove it. You can afford to trust
her out of your sight."

"I shall mind my own business," snapped the Home Secretary;
nevertheless, he led the way indoors with no more than a glance towards
Olivia and her lover, who were still within hail; and five minutes
later, as many gentlemen were empanelled in the billiard-room. Claude
and Cripps and Mr. Sellwood occupied the couches at one end; Francis
Freke palpitated in a corner; and Dalrymple leant against the table, his
legs crossed, his arms folded, a quiet smile upon his face. He was
waiting for a clock over the chimney-piece to finish striking; the hour
was eleven.

"Well, gentlemen," he began, "I shall not detain you many minutes. I
have certain statements to make, and any proofs that you may want I
shall be happy to supply to-morrow or any time you like. Those
statements will ignore, as far as possible, my own relations with the
notorious Lord Maske. These I shall explain later, and you will then
understand why I have hitherto held my peace concerning them. I have
known all along that our friend outside--shall we call him John
Dillamore?--was not and never could be the Duke of St. Osmund's; and
though Mr. Cripps may look as black as his boots, he never consulted my
opinion when he took John Dillamore away from my station, and it was no
business of mine to interfere. Mr. Cripps seemed sufficiently positive
about the matter; and, knowing what I know, I really don't blame Mr.
Cripps. But this by the way. I shall first confine myself to those
incidents in the Marquis's career, of which, occurring as they did at
the antipodes, and as long ago as the fifties, very little has hitherto
been known here in England. And I repeat that I shall afterwards be
prepared to prove every word I am about to say.

"The Marquis of Maske landed in Melbourne in the early part of 1854.
There for a time he cut a great dash, spent an enormous quantity of
money, and indeed reached the end of his resources by the middle of the
year. He then tried his luck on the Ballarat gold-fields, but his luck
was out. At the diggings he sailed under an alias, and under an alias he
drifted to Tasmania as early as July, 1854. And at Hobart Town, as it
was then called, he met the lady for whose sake he broke, though
unwittingly, one of the criminal laws of his native land.

"Now, I happen to know a good deal about that lady; but the more
impersonally one enters into details of this kind the more chance has
one of making such details perfectly clear to you. As it is you will
find some little complications here and there. But I shall do my best to
present them as intelligibly as possible; and where I fail, you will
perhaps make a note of the point, and call my attention to it presently.
The lady's name was Greenfield. Mrs. Greenfield was a young widow with
one male child; but not, as you might suppose, a young widow with money.
And the Marquis married her at Hobart under peculiar, and really rather
extenuating circumstances.

"Of course, he had a wife all the time. You know all about that. It has
leaked out through another channel--a channel I happen to have spent the
last few hours in exploring. I have only just returned from the Lower
Farm. I find the first wife died in 1860. But you may take my word for
one thing: her husband had reason to believe she was already dead when
he married for the second time in 1854.

"As a matter of fact, Eliza Hunt, as she was called, was actually at
death's door in June of the latter year. On a day of which she was not
expected to see the close, the late Duke wrote to his son (I happen to
possess the letter, Mr. Cripps), telling him, with perhaps a pardonable
satisfaction, that the end was only a question of hours; and making
certain overtures which I fear only excited Lord Maske's contempt and
disdain. The Marquis did not profess to be a pious man; his father did.
They had parted in anger, and in anger Maske tore up his father's
letter; but I collected the fragments, and preserved them--and I shall
justify _that_ before I'm done. Maske tore the letter to little bits.
But that very week he married again on the strength of it. And I needn't
tell you there was trouble when the next mail came in! The woman was
still alive; though still hopelessly--or rather hopefully--ill.

"So the couple in Tasmania lay low until their child was born--an event
which proved fatal to the mother, and brought the Marquis up with a
round turn, as the saying is. He was, as you may have heard, a very
heartless man; but I happen to know that he was reasonably fond of his
second wife, and reasonably grieved at her death. As a matter of fact,
it drove him almost crazy at the time, and embittered him for the rest
of his days. The point is, however, that he was thus left with two
boys--a new-born weakling and an absolutely hardy child of two, the
issue of its mother's first--and only legal--marriage. The weakling he
registered as he would have done had the marriage been really valid;
and, mark you, for all he knew it might be valid still. After that
second letter, saying that the English wife was still hopelessly ill, he
never heard again, either as to her recovery or her death, until the
latter occurred some few years later. But it might have occurred while
the second letter was still on the sea, for it was only a month behind
the first, and they took two or three months coming in those days. And
this is a point worth noting," said Dalrymple, uncrossing his arms, and
for the first time making a gesture.

"It is a nice point," conceded Mr. Sellwood.

"In a nasty story!" cried the squatter, with his sardonic laugh. "No,
not quite that; it's too strong a word. Still I am not here to whitewash
the Marquis of Maske; indeed, the next feature of the case is wholly
indefensible. You must know that all this time the exile nourished the
most venomous feelings towards his family in general and the old Duke in
particular. Unlovely as they were, however, I still think there was some
excuse for such sentiments; the boy had been harshly treated; he was
literally forced to desert his first wife; had they lived together, in
England or elsewhere, not a penny-piece would have been theirs until the
death of the Duke. Hence the silence of the Hunts--for the consideration
you wot of. It wasn't the sort of arrangement that would have gone on
very long had the woman lived, or left a child; but she died childless,
as you know; and the Hunts' subsequent policy was obvious even to the
Hunts. Nor was it an arrangement calculated to increase a young man's
respect for his father; in the case of Maske it intensified contempt,
and created the craving for revenge. I have heard him speak so often of
that revenge! He would spring an Australian heir upon the family; that
was his first, and, as you know, his very last idea. He even spoke of
it, as I understand, in the letter that was pinned to the tree under
which he was found dead in the bush! You see it was his dominant idea in
life. But the heir he spoke of was not his son at all. And that's the
indefensible feature of which I spoke."

"If not his son, who was he, pray?" asked Cripps, with indignant
incredulity; for his own repute was in question here.

The squatter smiled. "Can you ask? The elder of the two boys; the son of
Mrs. Greenfield by her first marriage," he quietly replied.

"And what of his own son?"

"Dead."

"You will find that difficult to prove!" cried the lawyer hotly.

"Yes? I think not; he died in Sydney, where the father migrated after
the mother's death; he was dead within six months of his birth. You saw
the certificate of the birth in Hobart, I believe?"

"Certainly I did."

"Then here is that of the death; better keep it; you will have more use
for it than I."

And the squatter turned round, and rolled the red ball up and down the
board, with his quiet sinister smile, while the men on the lounges
examined the document he had put in the solicitor's hands.

"It looks all right," said Cripps at length, in a tone that made
Dalrymple laugh heartily as he faced about.

"It looks all right, eh? _That's_ all right! Mr. Cripps, your
discernment--but excuse me! We are not here to bark and bite; we are
here to clear up a mystery, at least I am. Is there any other point,
gentlemen, which I can elucidate before we go any further?"

"I think there is one," said Claude, speaking nervously. "I have seen
the last letter my uncle wrote, in which he mentioned an heir. I
presume, in order to carry out the revenge you speak of, he called the
living child by the dead child's name----"

"Exactly. He did it deliberately. I was coming to that."

"But he seemed uncertain as to the living child's whereabouts. My point
is this: where was the so-called heir at the time that last letter was
written?"

"Lost," said Dalrymple, shutting his ugly lips as you shut a window.
"Lost in the bush, like Maske himself, only the child's body was not
found. The father had tattooed one of the eagles of his crest upon the
little chap's chest--I am afraid, to further his deception. I was in all
his secrets, as you see; indeed, you may call me his accomplice without
offending me; and I'm bound to say I considered the tattooing a smart
idea. However, a judgment was at hand. The child was lost for many
years. And the rest is easily told; it refers to _me_."

The squatter looked at Mr. Sellwood--not for the first time. As on the
other occasions, however, he ran his eyes against an absolutely
impassive, pink countenance.

"Mr. Sellwood may remember my little anecdote of the iron store, the
Queensland blacks, and the French eagle on the chest of the stray
shearer who saved all our lives?"

Mr. Sellwood very slightly inclined his head.

"Well, that was the finding of the _soi-disant_ Jack Dillamore. I knew
all about him. For his father's sake, I never lost sight of him again;
for his father's sake (and also because the idea appealed to me
personally) I allowed my old chum's very reprehensible plan to come off,
and our friend Mr. Cripps to lay hold of my Happy Jack for the live Duke
of St. Osmund's: and for the sake of some fun for my pains, I came home
myself to see how matters were progressing. I'm bound to say I was
disappointed. Happy Jack had grown tamer than I could have believed
possible in the time. And hang me if the fellow wasn't in love! My
disgust was such that I was on the point of taking myself off this very
afternoon, and leaving the suppositious Duke (whom it wasn't _my_
business to depose) to marry and save the Upper House by the example of
high morality he seemed certain to set; but at the last moment I
discovered his trouble. He was found out without my assistance; he was
cutting a worse figure than was in any way necessary; and was about to
lose, not only the title and emoluments he had enjoyed for some months,
but the charming girl whom he had fairly won in love. That seemed a
trifle too hard! I determined to speak out. I have done so: and I am
prepared to prove every word I have said. The certificate now in your
pocket, Mr. Cripps, was not the only one I had in mine. At the moment,
however, there's no more to be said--except a few words with reference
to Jack Greenfield's future. He has suffered enough. I have been, if not
at the bottom of it, at all events to blame in the matter. I have a
little inadequate scheme of reparation, which I shall submit to you,
gentlemen, in order that you may use your influence with Jack, if
necessary. The point is that I am never going back to Australia any
more. I was born and brought up in the old country, and I've got the
taste for it again during the few days I've been home. Indeed, I had
never lost the taste; but I don't intend to run the risk any more. I am
lucky enough to own one of the crack sheep-stations of New South Wales.
I shall want a permanent manager in my absence. I needn't tell you who
is the very man for _that_ billet. Jack Greenfield--if he'll take it."

"A good house?" said Mr. Sellwood casually.

"The best homestead in the Riverina. Trust me for that."

Mr. Sellwood said no more. His mind was made up: better lose his
daughter than have her break her heart. He could not forget the earlier
experiences of the evening. The surprises of this hour were enchanting
compared with the embarrassments of the last. Then he had no reason to
doubt Dalrymple's word as to Jack's actual antecedents; where he doubted
it, was in another matter altogether. At this point in his reflections,
however, and with the inevitable discussion of the immaterial points
still raging around him, Mr. Sellwood was brought to his feet by the
violent opening of the billiard-room door and an agitated apparition of
his wife upon the threshold. Something was the matter: had the lovers
eloped? No; with Mary Freke they were at the heels of Lady Caroline, who
came the length of the room at something ludicrously like a run--her
very fringe awry, and a horrified glance shooting from the corner of
each eye at the nonchalant, well-preserved figure of Dalrymple the
squatter.

"Do you know what they are saying downstairs?" cried her Ladyship,
looking as far as was possible at everybody at once. "Matthew Hunt is
here, and do you know what _he_ is saying? That neither Jack nor Claude
is the Duke of St. Osmund's, but you--you--you!" And she turned like a
podgy tigress upon none other than the squatter himself.

"I could have told him that," remarked Mr. Sellwood calmly; he had
arrived at the conclusion exactly ten seconds before.

"I shall tell him something he doesn't bargain for--the born idiot!"
added the squatter _sotto voce_.

"Then you believe it?" cried Lady Caroline to her husband. "You must be
mad!"

"Your Ladyship is so right; it would indeed be madness to dream of
entertaining so preposterous a notion!" cried Mr. Cripps, who was
literally dancing with disbelief. "Even Mr. Dalrymple will hardly go as
far as that. He has gone farther already than the law will follow him;
we'll do him the justice to hold him irresponsible for this absurd
report! He knows as well as we do that the Marquis of Maske was found
dead in the bush; of that we have absolute proof. Even if we hadn't, who
has recognized him? Has he one single witness to his identity? If so,
let him be called!"

"The gentleman is excited," remarked Dalrymple, ringing the bell. "Does
it really not occur to him that I might have _found myself_ dead in the
bush, and authenticated my own death by very obvious methods? Is it
inconceivable that a young man with my then reputation should jump at
the chance of dying on paper--if you will permit the expression? Such a
death offers unusual advantages, a second birth among others. However, I
never meant to be born again, least of all in this rather melodramatic
manner; but I couldn't resist coming home to see the fun, and it serves
me right to have to stop and pay the score. Witnesses? I had certainly
no intention of calling any to-night; but now that my hand has been
forced it can't be helped. The elder Hunt is one; knew me at sight; and
here comes Stebbings for another. Shut the door behind you, Stebbings,
and answer a couple of questions. It's generally supposed that you were
drunk yesterday when I arrived. Were you, or were you not?"

"I was not, your Grace."

"'Your Grace,' you see!" repeated the squatter. "I'm afraid that was
premature, Stebbings! However, if you were not drunk, and you certainly
conveyed that impression, what was the matter with you?"

"Nervousness!" cried Stebbings, who was sufficiently nervous now. "I had
seen the dead! I had recognised your Grace!"

"Exactly; and I swore at you as a blind, to explain the complete state
of collapse that you were in. That's all, Stebbings; you may go. Jack, I
see your face! You wonder you didn't spot it at the time? Stebbings
backed me up, or else you would have done; for my part, I confess I was
more frightened when you found us talking together in my room, when I
was packing. I assure you all, I meant to clear out then; believe it or
not, it's the case. In spite of what I said just now, I'm not so wedded
to an English life as I fancied Jack was; and I had no idea at the time
that his position was at all insecure. Yes, my boy, you were welcome to
the whole thing! I was going back to the bush----"

"_You_ were going back!" cried Jack, coming forward; and Olivia came
also, flushed with a joy that rendered her uniquely indifferent to the
great disclosure. Jack was hers. What did it matter who was the Duke?

"To be sure I was," said the squatter; "but now I think it will have to
be you after all. What do you say to managing Carara? What do you say,
Miss Sellwood, to helping him to try? You must talk to your father about
it. And for heaven's sake, Jack, don't thank _me_; I've been the worst
friend you ever had in your life."

Mr. Sellwood was already speaking to his wife. Jack and their daughter
stood hand-in-hand beside them. The new Duke turned his back and joined
Claude on his lounge. The solicitor had beaten a retreat; the Frekes had
done so before him; and the rest of their party, including Jack, did so
now. But Jack returned before either Claude or the squatter had left the
room.

"The worst friend I ever had!" said he reproachfully, as he took his old
master's hand. "What should I be doing to-night if it hadn't been for
you? You may say what you like; you've helped to make me the happiest
man in all the world. I can marry her after all! Mr. Sellwood's as white
a man as I know; even Lady Caroline has just given us best! But
you"--and he laid an affectionate rough hand on Claude's shoulder--"dear
old boy, what can I say to you? I'm ashamed to look you in the face.
You've lost everything!"

Claude was very pale; the other's honest eyes were shining with sympathy
beneath their bushy brows; but the new Duke laughed aloud.

"Lost everything?" he cried. "Not a bit of it! I'm not going to live for
ever, and Claude's exactly where he was--the next man in. You think not?
And have you known me all these years, and do you really and truly
expect me to marry again? Jack--my boy--have I to tell you how it is
with me? I have been a bad old lot in my time; but one woman I once
loved well enough to spoil me for ever for all the rest."

He paused an instant, and it was quite a tender hand he laid on Jack's
shoulder.

"And there's one man I love for her sake!"

       *       *       *       *       *

By E. W. HORNUNG.


THE ROGUE'S MARCH. A Romance. 12mo. $1.50.

A BRIDE FROM THE BUSH. [Ivory Series.] 16mo. 75 cents.

IRRAELI'S BUSHRANGER. A Story of Australian Adventure. [Ivory Series.]
16mo. 75 cents.





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