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Title: Mr. Witt's Widow - A Frivolous Tale
Author: Hope, Anthony, 1863-1933
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Internet Archive/Canadian Libraries)



  MR. WITT'S WIDOW



  [Illustration: "Neaera was no longer in a condition to decide
  anything. Tears were her ready refuge in time of trouble, and she
  was picturesquely weeping." (Page 203.)

  _Mr. Witt's Widow_]      [_Frontispiece_]



  MR. WITT'S WIDOW.
  _A FRIVOLOUS TALE._

  BY
  ANTHONY HOPE,
  AUTHOR OF "THE PRISONER OF ZENDA," "RUPERT OF HENTZAU,"
  "PHROSO," ETC., ETC.

  "Habent sua fata--cothurni."

  WARD, LOCK & CO., LIMITED
  LONDON, MELBOURNE AND TORONTO
  1912.



CONTENTS.


  CHAPTER                                     PAGE

       I. HOW GEORGE NESTON JUMPED               1

      II. WHY GEORGE NESTON JUMPED              15

     III. "WHAT ARE QUARTER SESSIONS?"          26

      IV. A SERPENT IN EDEN                     38

       V. THE FIRST PARAGRAPH--AND OTHERS       52

      VI. A SUCCESSFUL ORDEAL                   65

     VII. AN IMPOSSIBLE BARGAIN                 82

    VIII. THE FRACAS AT MRS. POCKLINGTON'S      95

      IX. GERALD NESTON SATISFIES HIMSELF      109

       X. REMINISCENCES OF A NOBLEMAN          122

      XI. PRESENTING AN HONEST WOMAN           136

     XII. NOT BEFORE THOSE GIRLS!              150

    XIII. CONTAINING MORE THAN ONE ULTIMATIUM  162

     XIV. NEAERA'S LAST CARD                   172

      XV. A LETTER FOR MR. GERALD              183

     XVI. THERE IS AN EXPLOSION                197

    XVII. LAURA DIFFERS                        208

   XVIII. GEORGE NEARLY GOES TO BRIGHTON       219

     XIX. SOME ONE TO SPEAK TO                 227

      XX. FATE'S INSTRUMENTS                   237



MR. WITT'S WIDOW.



CHAPTER I.

HOW GEORGE NESTON JUMPED.


The Nestons, of Tottlebury Grange in the county of Suffolk, were an
ancient and honourable family, never very distinguished or very rich,
but yet for many generations back always richer and more distinguished
than the common run of mankind. The men had been for the most part able
and upright, tenacious of their claims, and mindful of their duties; the
women had respected their betters, exacted respect from their inferiors,
and educated their brothers' wives in the Neston ways; and the whole
race, while confessing individual frailties, would have been puzzled to
point out how, as a family, it had failed to live up to the position in
which Providence and the Constitution had placed it. The error, if any,
had indeed been on the other side in one or two cases. The last owner
of the Grange, a gay old bachelor, had scorned the limits of his rents
and his banking-account, and added victories on the turf to the family
laurels at a heavy cost to the family revenues. His sudden death had
been mourned as a personal loss, but silently acknowledged as a dynastic
gain, and ten years of the methodical rule of his brother Roger had gone
far to efface the ravages of his merry reign. The younger sons of the
Nestons served the State or adorned the professions, and Roger had spent
a long and useful life in the Office of Commerce. He had been a valuable
official, and his merits had not gone unappreciated. Fame he had neither
sought nor attained, and his name had come but little before the public,
its rare appearances in the newspapers generally occurring on days when
our Gracious Sovereign completed another year of her beneficent life,
and was pleased to mark the occasion by conferring honour on Mr. Roger
Neston. When this happened, all the leader-writers looked him up in "Men
of the Time," or "Whitaker," or some other standard work of reference,
and remarked that few appointments would meet with more universal public
approval, a proposition which the public must be taken to have endorsed
with tacit unanimity.

Mr. Neston went on his way, undisturbed by his moments of notoriety,
but quietly pleased with his red ribbon, and, when he entered into
possession of the family estate, continued to go to the office with
unabated regularity. At last he reached the pinnacle of his particular
ambition, and, as Permanent Head of his Department, for fifteen years
took a large share in the government of a people almost unconscious of
his existence, until the moment when it saw the announcement that on his
retirement he had been raised to the peerage by the title of Baron
Tottlebury. Then the chorus of approval broke forth once again, and the
new lord had many friendly pats on the back he was turning to public
life. Henceforth he sat silent in the House of Lords, and wrote letters
to the _Times_ on subjects which the cares of office had not previously
left him leisure to study.

But fortune was not yet tired of smiling on the Nestons. Lord
Tottlebury, before accepting his new dignity, had impressed upon his
son Gerald the necessity of seeking the wherewith to gild the coronet
by a judicious marriage. Gerald was by no means loth. He had never made
much progress at the Bar, and felt that his want of success contrasted
unfavourably with the growing practice of his cousin George, a state of
things very unfitting, as George represented a younger branch than
Gerald. A rich marriage, combined with his father's improved position,
opened to him prospects of a career of public distinction, and, what was
more important, of private leisure, better fitted to his tastes and less
trying to his patience; and, by an unusual bit of luck, he was saved
from any scruples about marrying for money by the fact that he was
already desperately in love with a very rich woman. She was of no high
birth, it is true, and she was the widow of a Manchester merchant; but
this same merchant, to the disgust of his own relatives, had left her
five thousand a year at her absolute disposal. The last fact easily
outweighed the two first in Lord Tottlebury's mind, while Gerald rested
his action on the sole ground that Neaera Witt was the prettiest girl in
London, and, by Jove, he believed in the world; only, of course, if she
had money too, all the better.

Accordingly, the engagement was an accomplished fact. Mrs. Witt had
shown no more than a graceful disinclination to become Mrs. Neston. At
twenty-five perpetual devotion to the memory of such a mere episode as
her first marriage had been was neither to be desired nor expected,
and Neaera was very frankly in love with Gerald Neston, a handsome,
open-faced, strapping fellow, who won her heart mainly because he was so
very unlike the late Mr. Witt. Everybody envied Gerald, and everybody
congratulated Neaera on having escaped the various chasms that are
supposed to yawn in the path of rich young widows. The engagement was
announced once, and contradicted as premature, and then announced again;
and, in a word, everything pursued its pleasant and accustomed course in
these matters. Finally, Lord Tottlebury in due form entertained Mrs.
Witt at dinner, by way of initiation into the Neston mysteries.

It was for this dinner that Mr. George Neston, barrister-at-law,
was putting on his white tie one May evening in his chambers off
Piccadilly. George was the son of Lord Tottlebury's younger brother.
His father had died on service in India, leaving a wife, who survived
him but a few years, and one small boy, who had developed into a rising
lawyer of two or three-and-thirty, and was at this moment employed in
thinking what a lucky dog Gerald was, if all people said about Mrs. Witt
were true. Not that George envied his cousin his bride. His roving days
were over. He had found what he wanted for himself, and Mrs. Witt's
beauty, if she were beautiful, was nothing to him. So he thought with
mingled joy and resignation. Still, however much you may be in love with
somebody else, a pretty girl with five thousand a year is luck, and
there's an end of it! So concluded George Neston as he got into his
hansom, and drove to Portman Square.

The party was but small, for the Nestons were not one of those families
that ramify into bewildering growths of cousins. Lord Tottlebury of
course was there, a tall, spare, rather stern-looking man, and his
daughter Maud, a bright and pretty girl of twenty, and Gerald, in a
flutter ill concealed by the very extravagance of _nonchalance_. Then
there were a couple of aunts and a male cousin and his wife, and George
himself. Three of the guests were friends, not relatives. Mrs. Bourne
had been the chosen intimate of Lord Tottlebury's dead wife, and
he honoured his wife's memory by constant attention to her friend.
Mrs. Bourne brought her daughter Isabel, and Isabel had come full of
curiosity to see Mrs. Witt, and also hoping to see George Neston, for
did she not know what pleasure it would give him to meet her? Lastly,
there towered on the rug the huge form of Mr. Blodwell, Q.C., an old
friend of Lord Tottlebury's and George's first tutor and kindly guide in
the law, famous for rasping speeches in court and good stories out of
it, famous, too, as one of the tallest men and quite the fattest man at
the Bar. Only Neaera Witt was wanting, and before Mr. Blodwell had got
well into the famous story about Baron Samuel and the dun cow Neaera
Witt was announced.

Mrs. Witt's widowhood was only two years old, and she was at this time
almost unknown to society. None of the party, except Gerald and his
father, had seen her, and they all looked with interest to the door when
the butler announced her name. She had put off her mourning altogether
for the first time, and came in clothed in a gown of deep red, with a
long train that gave her dignity, her golden hair massed low on her
neck, and her pale, clear complexion just tinged with the suspicion of a
blush as she instinctively glanced round for her lover. The entry was,
no doubt, a small triumph. The girls were lost in generous admiration;
the men were startled; and Mr. Blodwell, finishing the evening at the
House of Commons, remarked to young Sidmouth Vane, the Lord President's
private secretary (unpaid), "I hope, my boy, you may live as long as I
have, and see as many pretty women; but you'll never see a prettier than
Mrs. Witt. Her face! her hair! and Vane, my boy, her waist!" But here
the division-bell rang, and Mr. Blodwell hastened off to vote against
a proposal aimed at deteriorating, under the specious pretence of
cheapening, the administration of justice.

Lord Tottlebury, advancing to meet Neaera, took her by the hand and
proudly presented her to his guests. She greeted each gracefully and
graciously until she came to George Neston. As she saw his solid jaw
and clean-shaved keen face, a sudden light that looked like recollection
leaped to her eyes, and her cheek flushed a little. The change was so
distinct that George was confirmed in the fancy he had had from the
first moment she came in, that somewhere before he had seen that golden
hair and those dark eyes, that combination of harmonious opposites that
made her beauty no less special in kind than in degree. He advanced a
step, his hand held half out, exclaiming--

"Surely----"

But there he stopped dead, and his hand fell to his side, for all signs
of recognition had faded from Mrs. Witt's face, and she gave him only
the same modestly gracious bow that she had bestowed on the rest of the
party. The incident was over, leaving George sorely puzzled, and Lord
Tottlebury a little startled. Gerald had seen nothing, having been
employed in issuing orders for the march in to dinner.

The dinner was a success. Lord Tottlebury unbent; he was very cordial
and, at moments, almost jovial. Gerald was in heaven, or at least
sitting directly opposite and in full view of it. Mr. Blodwell enjoyed
himself immensely: his classic stories had never yet won so pleasant a
reward as Neaera's low rich laugh and dancing eyes. George ought to have
enjoyed himself, for he was next to Isabel Bourne, and Isabel, heartily
recognising that she was not to-night, as, to do her justice, she often
was, the prettiest girl in the room, took the more pains to be kind and
amusing. But George was ransacking the lumber-rooms of memory, or, to
put it less figuratively, wondering, and growing exasperated as he
wondered in vain, where the deuce he'd seen the girl before. Once or
twice his eyes met hers, and it seemed to him that he had caught her
casting an inquiring apprehensive glance at him. When she saw that he
was looking, her expression changed into one of friendly interest,
appropriate to the examination of a prospective kinsman.

"What do you think of her?" asked Isabel Bourne, in a low voice.
"Beautiful, isn't she?"

"She is indeed," George answered, "I can't help thinking I've seen her
somewhere before."

"She is a person one would remember, isn't she? Was it in Manchester?"

"I don't think so. I haven't been in Manchester more than two or three
times in my life."

"Well, Maud says Mrs. Witt wasn't brought up there."

"Where was she brought up?"

"I don't know," said Isabel, "and I don't think Maud knew either.
I asked Gerald, and he said she probably dropped down from heaven
somewhere a few years ago."

"Perhaps that's how I come to remember her," suggested George.

Failing this explanation, he confessed himself puzzled, and determined
to dismiss the matter from his thoughts for the present. Aided by Isabel
Bourne, he was very successful in this effort: a pretty girl's company
is the best modern substitute for the waters of Lethe.

Nevertheless, his interest remained strong enough to make him join the
group which Gerald and Mr. Blodwell formed with Neaera as soon as the
men went upstairs. Mr. Blodwell made no secret of the fact that it was
with him a case of love at first sight, and openly regretted that his
years prevented him fighting Gerald for his prize. Gerald listened
with the complacent happiness of a secure lover, and Neaera gravely
apologised for not having waited to make her choice till she had seen
Mr. Blodwell.

"But at least you had heard of me?" he urged.

"I am terribly ignorant," she said. "I don't believe I ever did."

"Neaera's not one of the criminal classes, you see, sir," Gerald put in.

"He taunts me," exclaimed Mr. Blodwell, "with the Old Bailey!"

George had come up in time to hear the last two remarks. Neaera saw him,
and smiled pleasantly.

"Here's a young lady who knows nothing about the law, George," continued
Blodwell. "She never heard of me--nor of you either, I dare say. It
reminds me of what they used to say about old Dawkins. Old Daw never
had a brief, but he was Recorder of some little borough or other--place
with a prisoner once in two years, you know--I forget the name. Let's
see--yes, Peckton."

"Peckton!" exclaimed George Neston, loudly and abruptly.

Neaera made a sudden motion with one hand--a sudden motion suddenly
checked--and her fan dropped with a clatter on the polished boards.

Gerald dived for it, so did Mr. Blodwell, and their heads came in
contact with such violence as to drive all reminiscences of Recorder
Dawkins out of Mr. Blodwell's brain. They were still indulging in
recriminations, when Neaera swiftly left them, crossed to Lord
Tottlebury, and took her leave.

George went to open the door for her. She looked at him curiously.

"Will you come and see me, Mr. Neston?" she asked.

He bowed gravely, answering nothing.

The party broke up, and as George was seeing Mr. Blodwell's bulk fitted
into a four-wheeler, the old gentleman asked,

"Why did you do that, George?"

"What?"

"Jump, when I said Peckton."

"Oh, I used to go sessions there, you know."

"Do you always jump when people mention the places you used to go
sessions at?"

"Generally," replied George.

"I see," said Mr. Blodwell, lighting his cigar. "A bad habit, George; it
excites remark. Tell him the House."

"Good night, sir," said George. "I hope your head is better."

Mr. Blodwell snorted indignantly as he pulled up the window, and was
driven away to his duties.



CHAPTER II.

WHY GEORGE NESTON JUMPED.


"How could I ever have forgotten?" said George, aloud, as he walked
home. "I remember her now as if it was yesterday."

Memory, like much else that appertains to man, is a queer thing, and the
name of Peckton had supplied the one link missing in his recollection.
How, indeed, had he ever forgotten it? Can a man forget his first brief
any more than his first love?--so like are they in their infinite
promise, so like in their very finite results!

The picture was now complete in his mind: the little, muggy court at
Peckton; old Dawkins, his wig black with age, the rest of him brown with
snuff; the fussy clerk; the prosecuting counsel, son to the same fussy
clerk; he himself, thrusting his first guinea into his pocket with
shaking hand and beating heart (nervous before old Daw! Imagine!); the
fat, peaceful policeman; the female warder, in her black straw-bonnet
trimmed with dark-blue ribbons; and last of all, in the dock, a young
girl, in shabby, nay, greasy, black, with pale cheeks, disordered hair,
and swollen eyelids, gazing in blank terror on the majesty of the law,
strangely expressed in the Recorder's ancient person. And, beyond all
doubt or imagination of a doubt, the girl was Gerald's bride, Neaera
Witt.

"I could swear to her to-day!" cried George.

She had scraped together a guinea for his fee. "I don't know where she
got it from," the fat policeman said with professional cynicism as he
gave it to George. "She pleads guilty and wants you to address the
court." So George had, with infinite trepidation, addressed the court.

The girl had a father--drunk when not starving, and starving when not
drunk. Now he was starving, and she had stolen the shoes (oh! the
sordidness of it all!) to pawn, and buy food--or drink. It was a case
for a caution merely--and--and--and George himself, being young to the
work, stammered and stuttered as much from emotion as from fright. You
see the girl was pretty!

All old Daw said was, "Do you know anything about her, policeman?" and
the fat policeman said her father was a bad lot, and the girl did no
work, and----

"That's enough," said old Daw; and, leaning forward, he pronounced his
sentence:

"I'll deal lightly with you. Only"--shaking a snuffy forefinger--"take
care you don't come here again! One calendar month, with hard labour."

And the girl, gazing back at honest old Daw, who would not have hurt a
fly except from the Bench, softly murmured, "Cruel, cruel, cruel!" and
was led away by the woman in the black straw bonnet.

Whereupon George did a very unprofessional thing. He gave his guinea,
his firstborn son, back to the fat policeman, saying, "Give it her when
she comes out. I can't take her money." At which the policeman smiled a
smile that convicted George of terrible youthfulness.

It was all complete--all except the name by which the fussy clerk had
called on the girl to plead, and which old Dawkins had mumbled out
in sentencing her. That utterly escaped him. He was sure it was not
"Neaera"--of course not "Neaera Witt;" but not "Neaera Anything,"
either. He would have remembered "Neaera."

"What on earth was it?" he asked himself as he unlocked his door and
went upstairs. "Not that it matters much. Names are easily changed."

George Neston shared his chambers in Half Moon Street with the
Honourable Thomas Buchanan Fillingham Myles, commonly known (as the
peerage has it) as Tommy Myles. Tommy also had a small room in the
Temple Chambers, where the two Nestons and Mr. Blodwell pursued their
livelihood; but Tommy's appearances at the latter resort were few and
brief. He did not trouble George much in Half Moon Street either, being
a young man much given to society of all sorts, and very prone to be
in bed when most people are up, and _vice versâ_. However, to-night he
happened to be at home, and George found him with his feet on the
mantelpiece, reading the evening paper.

"Well, what's she like?" asked Tommy.

"She's uncommonly pretty, and very pleasant," said George. Why say more,
before his mind was made up?

"Who was she?" pursued Tommy, rising and filling his pipe.

"Ah! I don't know. I wish I did."

"Don't see that it matters to you. Anybody else there?"

"Oh, a few people."

"Miss Bourne?"

"Yes, she was there."

Tommy winked, sighed prodigiously, and took a large drink of brandy and
soda.

"Where have you been?" asked George, changing the subject.

"Oh, to the Escurial--to a vulgar, really a very vulgar
entertainment--as vulgar as you could find in London."

"Are you going out again?"

"My dear George! It's close on twelve!" said Tommy, in reproving tones.

"Or to bed?"

"No. George, you hurt my feelings. Can it be that you wish to be
alone?"

"Well, at any rate, hold your tongue, Tommy. I want to think."

"Only one word. Has she been cruel?"

"Oh, get out. Here, give me a drink."

Tommy subsided into the _Bull's-eye_, that famous print whose motto is
_Lux in tenebris_ (meaning, of course, publicity in shady places), and
George set himself to consider what he had best do in the matter of
Neaera Witt.

The difficulties of the situation were obvious enough, but to George's
mind they consisted not so much in the question of what to do as in that
of how to do it. He had been tolerably clear from the first that Gerald
must not marry Neaera without knowing what he could tell him; if he
liked to do it afterwards, well and good. But of course he would not.
No Neston would, thought George, who had his full share of the family
pride. Men of good family made disgraceful marriages, it is true, but
not with thieves; and anyhow nothing of the kind was recorded in the
Neston annals. How should he look his uncle and Gerald in the face if
he held his tongue? His course was very clear. Only--well, it was an
uncommonly disagreeable part to be cast for--the denouncer and exposer
of a woman who very probably was no worse than many another, and was
unquestionably a great deal better-looking than most others. The whole
position smacked unpleasantly of melodrama, and George must figure in
the character of the villain, a villain with the best motives and the
plainest duty. One hope only there was. Perhaps Mrs. Witt would see the
wisdom of a timely withdrawal. Surely she would. She could never face
the storm. Then Gerald need know nothing about it, and six months'
travel--say to America, where pretty girls live--would bind up his
broken heart. Only--again only--George did not much fancy the interview
that lay before him. Mrs. Witt would probably cry, and he would feel a
brute, and----

"Mr. Neston," announced Tommy's valet, opening the door.

Gerald had followed his cousin home, very anxious to be congratulated,
and still more anxious not to appear anxious. Tommy received him with
effusion. Why hadn't he been asked to the dinner? Might he call on Mrs.
Witt? He heard she was a clipper; and so forth. George's felicitations
stuck in his throat, but he got them out, hoping that Neaera would free
him from the necessity of eating them up at some early date. Gerald was
radiant. He seemed to have forgotten all about "Peckton," though he was
loud in denouncing the unnatural hardness of Mr. Blodwell's head. Oh,
and the last thing Neaera said was, would George go and see her?

"She took quite a fancy to you, old man," he said affectionately. "She
said you reminded her of a judge."

George smiled. Was Neaera practising _double entente_ on her betrothed?

"What an infernally unpleasant thing to say!" exclaimed Tommy.

"Of course I shall go and see her," said George,--"to-morrow, if I can
find time."

"So shall I," added Tommy.

Gerald was pleased. He liked to see his taste endorsed with the
approbation of his friends. "It's about time old George, here, followed
suit, isn't it, Tommy? I've given him a lead."

George's attachment to Isabel Bourne was an accepted fact among his
acquaintance. He never denied it: he did like her very much, and meant
to marry her, if she would have him. And he did not really doubt that
she would. If he had doubted, he would not have been so content to rest
without an express assurance. As it was, there was no hurry. Let the
practice grow a little more yet. He and Isabel understood one another,
and, as soon as she was ready, he was ready. But long engagements were
a nuisance to everybody. These were his feelings, and he considered
himself, by virtue of them, to be in love with Isabel. There are many
ways of being in love, and it would be a want of toleration to deny that
George's is one of them, although it is certainly very unlike some of
the others.

Tommy agreed that George was wasting his time, and with real kindness
led Gerald back to the subject which filled his mind.

Gerald gladly embraced the opportunity. "Where did I meet her? Oh, down
at Brighton, last winter. Then, you know, I pursued her to Manchester,
and found her living in no end of a swell villa in the outskirts of that
abominable place. Neaera hated it, but of course she had to live there
while Witt was alive, and she had kept the house on."

"She wasn't Manchester-born, then?"

"No. I don't know where she was born. Her father seems to have been a
romantic sort of old gentleman. He was a painter by trade--an artist, I
mean, you know,--landscapes and so on."

"And went about looking for bits of nature to murder, eh?" asked Tommy.

"That's about it. I don't think he was any great shakes at it. At least,
he didn't make much; and at last he settled in Manchester, and tried to
pick up a living, working for the dealers. Witt was a picture-fancier,
and, when Neaera came to sell, he saw her, and----"

"The late Witt's romance began?"

"Yes, confound him! I'm beastly jealous of old Witt, though he is dead."

"That's ungrateful," remarked George, "considering----"

"Hush! You'll wound his feelings," said Tommy. "He's forgotten all about
the cash."

"It's all very well for you----" Gerald began.

But George cut in, "What was his name?"

"Witt's? Oh, Jeremiah, I believe."

"Witt? No. Hang Witt! The father's name."

"Oh!--Gale. A queer old boy he seems to have been--a bit of a scholar as
well as an artist."

"That accounts for the 'Neaera,' I suppose," said Tommy.

"Neaera Gale," thought George. "I don't remember that."

"Pretty name, isn't it?" asked the infatuated Gerald.

"Oh, dry up!" exclaimed Tommy. "We can't indulge you any more. Go home
to bed. You can dream about her, you know."

Gerald accepted this hint, and retired, still in that state of confident
bliss that filled George's breast with trouble and dismay.

"I might as well be the serpent in Eden," he said, as he lay in bed,
smoking dolefully.



CHAPTER III.

"WHAT ARE QUARTER-SESSIONS?"


The atmosphere was stormy at No. 3, Indenture Buildings, Temple. It was
four o'clock, and Mr. Blodwell had come out of court in the worst of bad
tempers. He was savage with George Neston, who, being in a case with
him, had gone away and left him with nobody to tell him his facts. He
was savage with Tommy Myles, who had refused to read some papers for
him; savage with Mr. Justice Pounce, who had cut up his speech to the
jury,--Pounce, who had been his junior a hundred times!--savage with Mr.
Timms, his clerk, because he was always savage with Timms when he was
savage with other people. Tommy had fled before the storm; and now, to
Mr. Blodwell's unbounded indignation, George also was brushing his hat
with the manifest intention of departure.

"In my time, rising juniors," said Mr. Blodwell, with sarcasm, "didn't
leave chambers at four."

"Business," said George, putting on his gloves.

"Women," answered his leader, briefly and scornfully.

"It's the same thing, in this case. I am going to see Mrs. Witt."

Mr. Blodwell's person expressed moral reprobation. George, however,
remained unmoved, and the elder man stole a sharp glance at him.

"I don't know what's up, George," he said, "but take care of yourself."

"Nothing's up."

"Then why did you jump?"

"Timms, a hansom," cried George. "I'll be in court all day to-morrow,
and keep you straight, sir."

"In Heaven's name, do. That fellow Pounce is such a beggar for dates.
Now get out."

Mrs. Witt was living at Albert Mansions, the "swell villa" at Manchester
having gone to join Mr. Witt in limbo. She was at home, and, as
George entered, his only prayer was that he might not find Gerald in
possession. He had no very clear idea how to proceed in his unpleasant
task. "It must depend on how she takes it," he said. Gerald was not
there, but Tommy Myles was, voluble, cheerful, and very much at home,
telling Neaera stories of her lover's school-days. George chimed in as
he best could, until Tommy rose to go, regretting the convention that
drove one man to take his hat five minutes, at the latest, after another
came in. Neaera pressed him to come again, but did not invite him to
transgress the convention.

George almost hoped she would, for he was, as he confessed to himself,
"funking it." There were no signs of any such feeling in Neaera, and no
repetition of the appealing attitude she had seemed to take up the night
before.

"She means to bluff me," thought George, as he watched her sit down in a
low chair by the fire, and shade her face with a large fan.

"It is," she began, "so delightful to be welcomed by all Gerald's family
and friends so heartily. I do not feel the least like a stranger."

"I came last night, hoping to join in that welcome," said George.

"Oh, I did not feel that you were a stranger at all. Gerald had told me
so much about you."

George rose, and walked to the end of the little room and back. Then he
stood looking down at his hostess. Neaera gazed pensively into the fire.
It was uncommonly difficult, but what was the good of fencing?

"I saw you recognised me," he said, deliberately.

"In a minute. I had seen your photograph."

"Not only my photograph, but myself, Mrs. Witt."

"Have I?" asked Neaera. "How rude of me to forget! Where was it?
Brighton?"

George's heart hardened a little. Of course she would lie, poor girl.
He didn't mind that. But he did not like artistic lying, and Neaera's
struck him as artistic.

"But are you sure?" she went on.

George decided to try a sudden attack. "Did they ever give you that
guinea?" he said, straining his eyes to watch her face. Did she flush
or not? He really couldn't say.

"I beg your pardon. Guinea?"

"Come, Mrs. Witt, we needn't make it more unpleasant than necessary.
I saw you recognised me. The moment Mr. Blodwell spoke of Peckton I
recognised you. Pray don't think I mean to be hard on you. I can and do
make every allowance."

Neaera's face expressed blank astonishment. She rose, and made a step
towards the bell. George was tickled. She had the amazing impertinence
to convey, subtly but quite distinctly, by that motion and her whole
bearing, that she thought he was drunk.

"Ring, if you like," he said, "or, rather, ask me, if you want the bell
rung. But wouldn't it be better to settle the matter now? I don't want
to trouble Gerald."

"I really believe you are threatening me with something," exclaimed
Neaera. "Yes, by all means. Go on."

She motioned him to a chair, and stood above him, leaning one arm on the
mantelpiece. She breathed a little quickly, but George drew no inference
from that.

"Eight years ago," he said, slowly, "you employed me as your counsel.
You were charged with theft--stealing a pair of shoes--at Peckton
Quarter-Sessions. You retained me at a fee of one guinea."

Neaera was motionless, but a slight smile showed itself on her face.
"What are Quarter-Sessions?" she asked.

"You pleaded guilty to the charge, and were sentenced to a month's
imprisonment with hard labour. The guinea I asked you about was my fee.
I gave it to that fat policeman to give back to you."

"Excuse me, Mr. Neston, but it's really too absurd." And Neaera relaxed
her statuesque attitude, and laughed light-heartedly, deliciously.
"No wonder you were startled last night--oh, yes, I saw that--if you
identified your cousin's _fiancée_ with this criminal you're talking
about."

"I did and do identify her."

"Seriously?"

"Perfectly. It would be a poor joke."

"I never heard anything so monstrous. Do you really persist in it? I
don't know what to say."

"Do you deny it?"

"Deny it! I might as well deny--but of course I deny it. It's madness."

"Then I must lay what I know before my uncle and Gerald, and leave them
to act as they think best."

Neaera took a step forward as George rose from his seat. "Do you mean to
repeat this atrocious--this insane scandal?"

"I think I must. I should be glad to think I had any alternative."

Neaera raised one white hand above her head, and brought it down through
the air with a passionate gesture.

"I warn you not!" she cried; "I warn you not!"

George bowed.

"It is a lie, and--and if it were true, you could not prove it."

George thought this her first false step. But there were no witnesses.

"It will be war between us," she went on in growing excitement. "I will
stand at nothing--nothing--to crush you; and I will do it."

"You must not try to frighten me," said George.

Neaera surveyed him from head to foot. Then she stretched out her white
hand again, and said,

"Go!"

George shrugged his shoulders, took his hat, and went, feeling very much
as if Neaera had detected him in theft. So great is the virtue of a good
presence and dramatic instincts.

Suddenly he paused; then he went back again, and knocked at the door.

"Come in," cried Neaera.

As he entered she made an impatient movement. She was still standing
where he had left her.

"Pray pardon me. I forgot to say one thing. Of course I am only
interested in this--matter, as one of the family. I am not a detective.
If you give up Gerald, my mouth is sealed."

"I will not give up Gerald," she exclaimed passionately. "I love him. I
am not an adventuress; I am rich already. I----"

"Yes, you could look higher than Gerald, and avoid all this."

"I don't care. I love him."

George believed her. "I wish to God I could spare you----"

"Spare me? I don't ask your mercy. You are a slanderer----"

"I thought I would tell you," said George calmly.

"Will you not go?" she cried. And her voice broke into a sob.

This was worse than her tragedy airs. George fled without another word,
cursing himself for a hard-hearted, self-righteous prig, and then
cursing fate that laid this burden on him. What was she doing now, he
wondered. Exulting in her triumph? He hoped so; for a different picture
obstinately filled his mind--a beautiful woman, her face buried in her
white arms, crying the brightness out of her eyes, all because George
Neston had a sense of duty. Still he did not seriously waver in his
determination. If Neaera had admitted the whole affair and besought his
mercy, he felt that his resolution would have been sorely tried. But,
as it was, he carried away the impression that he had to deal with a
practised hand, and perhaps a little professional zeal mingled with his
honest feeling that a woman who would lie like that was a woman who
ought to be shown in her true colours.

"I'll tell uncle Roger and Gerald to-morrow," he thought. "Of course
they will ask for proof. That means a journey to Peckton. Confound other
people's affairs!"

George's surmise was right. Neaera Witt had spent the first half-hour
after his departure in a manner fully as heart-rending as he had
imagined. Everything was going so well. Gerald was so charming, and life
looked, at last, so bright, and now came this! But Gerald was to dine
with her, and there was not much time to waste in crying. She dried her
eyes, and doctored them back into their lustre, and made a wonderful
toilette. Then she entertained Gerald, and filled him with delight all a
long evening. And at eleven o'clock, just as she was driving him out of
his paradise, she said,

"Your cousin George was here to-day."

"Ah, was he? How did you get on with him?"

Neaera had brought her lover his hat. He needed a strong hint to move
him. But she put the hat down, and knelt beside Gerald for a minute or
two in silence.

"You look sad, darling," said he. "Did you and George quarrel?"

"Yes--I---- It's very dreadful."

"Why, what, my sweet?"

"No, I won't tell you now. He shan't say I got hold of you first, and
prepossessed your mind."

"What in the world is wrong, Neaera?"

"You will hear, Gerald, soon. But you shall hear it from him. I will
not--no, I will not be the first. But, Gerald dear, you will not believe
anything against me?"

"Does George say anything against you?"

Neaera threw her arms round his neck. "Yes," she whispered.

"Then let him take care what it is. Neaera, tell me."

"No, no, no! He shall tell you first."

She was firm; and Gerald went away, a very mass of amazement and wrath.

But Neaera said to herself, when she was alone, "I think that was
right. But, oh dear, oh dear! what a fuss about"--she paused, and
added--"nothing!"

And even if it were not quite nothing, if it were even as much as a pair
of shoes, the effect did threaten to be greatly out of proportion to the
cause. Old Dawkins, and the fussy clerk, and the fat policeman could
never have thought of such a coil as this, or surely, in defiance of all
the laws of the land, they would have let that nameless damsel go.



CHAPTER IV.

A SERPENT IN EDEN.


On mature reflection, Gerald Neston declined to be angry. At first,
when he had heard George's tale, he had been moved to wrath, and had
said bitter things about reckless talking, and even about malicious
backbiting. But really, when you came to look at it, the thing was too
absurd--not worth a moment's consideration--except that it had, of
course, annoyed Neaera, and must, of course, leave some unpleasantness
behind it. Poor old George! he had hunted up a mare's nest this time,
and no mistake. No doubt he couldn't marry a thief; but who in his sober
senses would attach any importance to this tale? George had done what
he was pleased to think his duty. Let it rest. When he saw his folly,
Neaera would forgive him, like the sweet girl she was. In fact, Gerald
pooh-poohed the whole thing, and not the less because he had, not
unnaturally, expected an accusation of quite another character, more
unforgivable because not so outrageously improbable and wild.

Lord Tottlebury could not consent to treat what he described as "the
incident" in quite so cavalier a fashion. He did not spare his hearers
the well-worn precedent of Caesar's wife; and although, after an
interview with Neaera, he was convinced of her innocence, it was in his
opinion highly desirable that George should disabuse his own mind of
this strange notion by some investigation.

"The marriage, in any case, will not take place for three months. Go and
convince yourself of your mistake, and then, my dear George, we will
make your peace with the lady. I need not caution you to let the matter
go no further."

To be treated as a well-intentioned but misguided person is the most
exasperating thing in the world, and George had hard work to keep his
temper under the treatment. But he recognised that he might well have
fared worse, and, in truth, he asked no more than a suspension of
the marriage pending inquiry--a concession that he understood Lord
Tottlebury was prepared to make, though proof must, of course, be
forthcoming in reasonable time.

"I feel bound to look into it," he said. "As I have begun it, I will
spare no pains. Nobody wishes more heartily than myself that I may have
made an ass of myself." And he really did come as near to this laudable
state of mind as it is in human nature to come.

Before the conference broke up, Lord Tottlebury suggested that there
was one thing George could do at once--he could name the date of the
trial at Peckton. George kept no diary, but he knew that the fateful
expedition had been among his earliest professional journeys after his
call to the Bar. Only very junior men went to Peckton, and, according to
his recollection, the occurrence took place in the April following his
call.

"April, eight years ago, was the time," he said. "I don't pledge myself
to a day."

"You pledge yourself to the month?" asked his uncle.

"Yes, to the month, and I dare say I shall be able to find the day."

"And when will you go to Peckton?"

"Saturday. I can't possibly before."

The interview took place on the Tuesday evening, and on Wednesday Gerald
went to lay the state of affairs before Neaera.

Neaera was petulant, scornful, almost flippant. More than all this, she
was mysterious.

"Mr. George Neston has his reasons," she said. "He will not withdraw his
accusation. I know he will not."

"My dearest, George is a first-rate fellow, as honourable as the day. If
he finds--rather, when he finds----"

All Neaera said was, "Honourable!" But she put a great deal into
that one word. "You dear, simple fellow!" she went on, "you have no
suspicions of anybody. But let him take care how he persists."

More than this could not be got out of her, but she spoke freely about
her own supposed misdoings, pouring a flood of ridicule and bitterness
on George's unhappy head.

"A fool you call him!" she exclaimed, in reply to Gerald's half-hearted
defence. "I don't know if he's a fool, but I hope he is no worse."

"Who's getting it so precious warm, Mrs. Witt?" inquired Tommy
Myles's cheerful voice. "The door was ajar, and your words forced
themselves--you know."

"How do you do, Mr. Myles?"

"As you'd invited me, and your servant wasn't about, the porter-fellow
told me to walk up."

"I'm very glad you did. There's nothing you can't hear."

"Oh, I say, Neaera!" Gerald hastily exclaimed.

"Why shouldn't he hear?" demanded Neaera, turning on him in superb
indignation. "Are you afraid that he'll believe it?"

"No; but we all thought----"

"I meant Mr. George Neston," said Neaera.

"George!" exclaimed Tommy.

"And I'll tell you why." And, in spite of Gerald's protest, she poured
her tale of wrong into Tommy's sympathetic and wide-opened ears.

"There! Don't tell any one else. Lord Tottlebury says we mustn't. I
don't mind, for myself, who knows it."

Tommy was overwhelmed. His mind refused to act. "He's a lunatic!" he
declared. "I don't believe it's safe to live with him. He'll cut my
throat, or something."

"Oh no; his lunacy is under control--a well-trained, obedient lunacy,"
said Neaera, relapsing into mystery.

"We all hope," said Gerald, "he'll soon find out his mistake, and
nothing need come of it. Keep your mouth shut, my boy."

"All right. I'm silent as the cold tomb. But I'm da----"

"Have some more tea?" said Neaera, smiling very graciously. Should she
not reward so warm a champion?

When the two young men took their leave and walked away together, Tommy
vied even with Gerald in the loudness of his indignation.

"A lie! Of course it is, though I don't mean that old George don't
believe it--the old ass! Why, the mere fact of her insisting on telling
me about it is enough. She wouldn't do that if it's true."

"Of course not," assented Gerald.

"She'd be all for hushing it up."

Gerald agreed again.

"It's purely for George's sake we are so keen to keep it quiet," he
added. "Though, of course, Neaera even wouldn't want it all over the
town."

"I suppose I'd better tell George I know?"

"Oh yes. You'll be bound to show it in your manner."

George showed no astonishment at hearing that Neaera had made a
confidant of Tommy Myles. It was quite consistent with the part she
was playing, as he conceived it. Nor did he resent Tommy's outspoken
rebukes.

"Don't mix yourself up in unpleasant things when you aren't obliged, my
son," was all he said in reply to these tirades. "Dine at home?"

"No," snorted Tommy, in high dudgeon.

"You won't break bread with the likes of me?"

"I'm going to the play, and to supper afterwards."

"With whom?"

"Eunice Beauchamp."

"Dear me, what a pretty name!" said George. "Short for 'Betsy Jones,' I
suppose?"

"Go to the devil," said Tommy. "You ain't going to accuse her of
prigging, are you?"

"She kidnaps little boys," said George, who felt himself entitled to
some revenge, "and keeps them till they're nearly grown up."

"I don't believe you ever saw her in your life."

"Oh yes, I did--first piece I ever went to, twenty years ago."

And so, what with Eunice Beauchamp, _alias_ Betsy Jones, and Neaera
Witt, _alias_--what?--two friends parted for that evening with some want
of cordiality.

"She plays a bold game," thought George, as he ate his solitary chop;
"but too bold. You overdo it, Mrs. Witt. An innocent girl would not tell
that sort of thing to a stranger, however false it was."

Which reflection only showed that things strike different minds
differently.

George needed comfort. The Serpent-in-Eden feeling was strong upon him.
He wanted somebody who would not only recognise his integrity but also
admire his discretion. He had a card for Mrs. Pocklington's at-home, and
Isabel was to be there. He would go and have a talk with her; perhaps he
would tell her all about it, for surely Neaera's confidence to Tommy
Myles absolved him from the strict letter of his pledge of secrecy.
Isabel was a sensible girl; she would understand his position, and not
look on him as a cross between an idiot and a burglar because he had
done what was obviously right. So George went to Mrs. Pocklington's
with all the rest of the world; for everybody went there. Mrs.
Pocklington--Eleanor Fitzderham, who married Pocklington, the great
shipowner, member for Dockborough--had done more to unite the classes
and the masses than hundreds of philanthropic societies, and, it may be
added, in a pleasanter manner; and if, at her parties, the bigwigs did
not always talk to the littlewigs, yet the littlewigs were in the same
room with the bigwigs, which is something even at the moment, and really
very nearly as good for purposes of future reference.

George made his way across the crowded rooms, recognising many
acquaintances as he went. There was Mr. Blodwell talking to the last
new beauty--he had a wonderful knack of it,--and Sidmouth Vane talking
to the last new heiress, who would refuse him in a month or two. An
atheistic philosopher was discussing the stagnation of the stock-markets
with a high-church Bishop--Mrs. Pocklington always aimed at starting
people on their points of common interest: and Lady Wheedleton, of the
Primrose League, was listening to Professor Dressingham's description of
the newest recipe for manure, with an impression that the subject was
not quite decent, but might be useful at elections. General Sir Thomas
Swears was asking if anybody had seen the Secretary for War--he had a
word to say to him about the last rifle; but nobody had. The Countess
Hilda von Someveretheim was explaining the problem of "Darkest England"
to the Minister of the Republic of Compostella; Judge Cutter, the
American mystic, was asking the captain of the Oxford Boat Club about
the philosophy of Hegel, and Miss Zoe Ballance, the pretty actress, was
discussing the relations of art and morality with Colonel Belamour of
the Guards.

George was inclined to resent the air of general enjoyment that pervaded
the place: it seemed a little unfeeling. But he was comforted by
catching sight of Isabel. She was talking to a slight young man who wore
an eye-glass and indulged in an expression of countenance which invited
the conclusion that he was overworked and overstrained. Indeed, he was
just explaining to Miss Bourne that it was not so much long hours as
what he graphically described as the "tug on his nerves" that wore him
out. Isabel had never suffered from this particular torture, but she
was very sympathetic, said that she had often heard the same from other
literary men (which was true), and promised to go down to supper with
Mr. Espion later in the evening. Mr. Espion went about his business
(for, the fact is, he was "doing" the party for the _Bull's-eye_), and
the coast was left clear for George, who came up with a deliberately
lugubrious air. Of course Isabel asked him what was the matter; and,
somehow or other, it happened that in less than ten minutes she was in
possession of all the material facts, if they were facts, concerning
Neaera Witt and the pair of shoes.

The effect was distinctly disappointing. Amiability degenerates into
simplicity when it leads to the refusal to accept obvious facts merely
because they impugn the character of an acquaintance; and what is the
use of feminine devotion if it boggles over accepting what you say, just
because you say something a little surprising? George was much annoyed.

"I am not mistaken," he said. "I did not speak hastily."

"Of course not," said Isabel. "But--but you have no actual proof, have
you, George?"

"Not yet; but I soon shall have."

"Well, unless you get it very soon----"

"Yes?"

"I think you ought to withdraw what you have said, and apologise to Mrs.
Witt."

"In fact, you think I was wrong to speak at all?"

"I think I should have waited till I had proof; and then, perhaps----"

"Everybody seems to think me an ass."

"Not _that_, George; but a little--well--reckless."

"I shan't withdraw it."

"Not if you get no proof?"

George shirked this pointed question, and, as the interview was really
less soothing than he had expected, took an early opportunity of
escaping.

Mr. Espion came back, and asked why Neston had gone away looking so
sulky. Isabel smiled and said Mr. Neston was vexed with her. Could
anybody be vexed with Miss Bourne? asked Mr. Espion, and added,

"But Neston is rather crotchety, isn't he?"

"Why do you say that?" asked Isabel.

"Oh, I don't know. Well, the fact is, I was talking to Tommy Myles at
the Cancan----"

"Where, Mr. Espion?"

"At the theatre, and he told me Neston had got some maggot in his
head----"

"I don't think he ought to say that."

But need we listen longer? And whose fault was it--Neaera's, or
George's, or Isabel's, or Tommy's, or Mr. Espion's? That became the
question afterwards, when Lord Tottlebury was face to face with the
violated compact,--and with next day's issue of the _Bull's-eye_.



CHAPTER V.

THE FIRST PARAGRAPH--AND OTHERS.


Under pressure of circumstances men very often do what they have
declared they cannot possibly do; it happens with private individuals no
less than with political parties. George declared he could not possibly
go to Peckton before Saturday; but he was so disgusted with his
position, that he threw all other engagements to the winds, and started
early on Thursday morning, determined not to face his friends again
without attempting to prove his words. Old Dawkins was dead, but the
clerk was, and the policeman might be, alive; and, on his return to
town, he could see Jennings, the clerk's son, who had settled down
to conveyancing in Lincoln's Inn, and try to refresh his memory with
materials gathered on the spot. For George had already seen Mr.
Jennings, and Mr. Jennings remembered nothing about it--it was not his
first brief,--but was willing to try to recall the matter if George
would get him the details and let him see a picture of the person
wanted--a request George did not wish to comply with at the moment.

So he went to Peckton, and found out perhaps as much as he could
reasonably expect to find out, as shall in due course appear. And
during his absence several things happened. In the first place, the
_Bull's-eye_ was published, containing what became known as the "First
Paragraph." The "First Paragraph" was headed "Strange Charge against a
Lady--Rumoured Proceedings," and indicated the Neston family, Neaera
Witt, and George, in such a manner as to enable their friends to
identify them. This paragraph was inserted with the object of giving
Neaera, or George, or both of them, as the case might be, or anybody
else who could be "drawn," an opportunity of contradicting it. The
second event was that the Nestons' friends did identify them, and
proceeded to open the minds of everybody who did not.

Then Mr. Blodwell read the _Bull's-eye_, as his custom was, and
thoughtfully ejaculated "Peckton!" and Lord Tottlebury, being at the
club, was shown the _Bull's-eye_ by a friend, who really could not
do less, and went home distracted; and Tommy Myles read it, and,
conscience-stricken, fled to Brighton for three days' fresh air; and
Isabel read it, and confessed to her mother, and was scolded, and cried;
and Gerald read it, and made up his mind to kick everybody concerned,
except, of course, Neaera; and, finally, Neaera read it, and was rather
frightened and rather excited, and girt on her armour for battle.

Gerald, however, was conscious that the process he had in his mind,
satisfying as it would be to his own feelings, would not prove in all
respects a solution of the difficulty, and, with the selfishness which a
crisis in a man's own affairs engenders, he made no scruple about taking
up a full hour of Mr. Blodwell's time, and expounding his views at great
length, under the guise of taking counsel. Mr. Blodwell listened to his
narrative of facts with interest, but cut short his stream of indignant
comment.

"The mischief is that it's got into the papers," he said. "But for that,
I don't see that it matters much."

"Not matter much?" gasped Gerald.

"I suppose you don't care whether it's true or not?"

"It's life or death to me," answered Gerald.

"Bosh! She won't steal any more shoes now she's a rich woman."

"You speak, sir, as if you thought----"

"Haven't any opinion on the subject, and it wouldn't be of any
importance if I had. The question is shortly this: Supposing it to be
true, would you marry her?"

Gerald flung himself into a chair, and bit his finger nail.

"Eight years is a long while ago; and poverty's a hard thing; and she's
a pretty girl."

"It's an absurd hypothesis," said Gerald. "But a thief's a thief."

"True. So are a good many other people."

"I should have to consider my father and--and the family."

"Should you? I should see the family damned. However, it comes to
this--if it were true, you wouldn't marry her."

"How could I?" groaned Gerald. "We should be cut."

Mr. Blodwell smiled.

"Well, my ardent lover," he said, "that being so, you'd better do
nothing till you see whether it's true."

"Not at all. I only took the hypothesis; but I haven't the least doubt
that it's a lie."

"A mistake--yes. But it's in the _Bull's-eye_, and a mistake in the
newspapers needs to be reckoned with."

"What shall I do?"

"Wait till George comes back. Meanwhile, hold your tongue."

"I shall contradict that lie."

"Much better not. Don't write to them, or see them, or let anybody else
till George comes back. And, Gerald, if I were you, I shouldn't quarrel
with George."

"He shall withdraw it, or prove it."

Mr. Blodwell shrugged his shoulders and became ostentatiously busy with
the case of _Pigg_ v. _the Local Board of Slushton-under-Mudd_. "A very
queer point this," he remarked. "The drainage system of Slushton is----"
And he stopped with a chuckle at the sight of Gerald's vanishing back.
He called after him--

"Are you going to Mrs. Witt's this afternoon?"

"No," answered Gerald. "This evening."

Mr. Blodwell sat at work for ten minutes more. Then he rang the bell.

"Mr. Neston gone, Timms?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then get a four-wheeler." And he added to himself, "I should like to
see her again, under this new light. I wonder if she'll let me in."

Neaera did let him in. In fact, she seemed very glad to see him, and
accepted with meekness her share of his general censure on the
"babbling" that had gone on.

"You see," she said, handing him a cup of tea, "it scarcely seemed a
serious matter to me. I was angry, of course, but almost more amused
than angry."

"Naturally," answered Mr. Blodwell. "But, my dear young lady, everything
which is public is serious. And this thing is now public, for no doubt
to-morrow's _Bull's-eye_ will give all your names and addresses."

"I don't care," said Neaera.

Mr. Blodwell shook his head. "You must consider Gerald and his people."

"Gerald doesn't doubt me. If he did----" Neaera left her recreant
lover's fate to the imagination.

"But Lord Tottlebury and the world at large? The world at large always
doubts one."

"I suppose so," said Neaera, sadly. "Fortunately, I have conclusive
proof."

"My dear Mrs. Witt, why didn't you say so before?"

"Before there was anything to meet? Is that your way, Mr. Blodwell?"

"George may bring back something to meet."

Neaera rose and went to her writing-table. "I don't know why I shouldn't
show it to you," she said. "I was just going to send it to Lord
Tottlebury. It will be a pleasant surprise for Mr. George Neston when
he comes back from Peckton with his proofs!" She handed Mr. Blodwell a
sheet of note-paper.

He took it, throwing one quick glance at Neaera. "You wish me to read
this?"

"It's letting you into the secrets of my early days," she said. "You
see, I wasn't always as well off as I am now."

Mr. Blodwell adjusted his eye-glass and perused the document, which set
forth that Miss N. Gale entered the service of Mrs. Philip Horne, of
Balmoral Villa, Bournemouth, as companion to that lady, in March, 1883,
and remained in such service until the month of July, 1883; that, during
the whole of such period, she conducted herself with propriety; that she
read aloud with skill, ordered a household with discretion, and humoured
a fussy old lady with tact (this is a paraphrase of the words of the
writer); finally, that she left, by her own desire, to the regret of the
above-mentioned Susan Horne.

Neaera watched Mr. Blodwell as he read.

"Eighteen eighty-three?" said he; "that's the year in question?"

"Yes, and April is the month in question--the month I am supposed to
have spent in prison!"

"You didn't show this to George?"

"No. Why should I? Besides, I didn't know then when he dated my crime."

Mr. Blodwell thought it a little queer that she had not asked him. "He
should certainly see it at once. Have you seen anything of Mrs. Horne
lately?"

"Oh no; I should be afraid she must be dead. She was an old lady, and
very feeble."

"It is--it may be--very lucky--your having this."

"Yes, isn't it? I should never have remembered the exact time I went to
Mrs. Horne's."

Mr. Blodwell took his departure in a state of mind that he felt was
unreasonable. Neaera had been, he told himself, most frank, most
charming, most satisfactory. Yet he was possessed with an overpowering
desire to cross-examine Neaera.

"Perhaps it's only habit," he said to himself. "A protestation of
innocence raises all my fighting instincts."

The next day witnessed the publication of the "Second Paragraph," and
the second paragraph made it plain to everybody that somebody must
vindicate his or her character. The public did not care who did it, but
it felt itself entitled to an action, wherein the whole matter should be
threshed out for the furtherance of public justice and entertainment.
The _Bull's-eye_ itself took this view. It implored Neaera, or George,
or somebody to sue it, if they would not sue one another. It had given
names, addresses, dates, and details. Could the most exacting plaintiff
ask more? If no action were brought, it was clear that Neaera had stolen
the shoes, and that George had slandered her, and that the Nestons in
general shrank from investigation into the family history; all this
was still clearer, if they pursued their extraordinary conduct in not
forwarding personal narratives for the information of the public and the
accommodation of the _Bull's-eye_.

Into this turmoil George was plunged on his return from Peckton. He had
been detained there two days, and did not reach his rooms till late
on Friday evening. He was greeted by two numbers of the _Bull's-eye_,
neatly displayed on his table; by a fiery epistle from Gerald, demanding
blood or apologies; by two penitential dirges from Isabel Bourne and
Tommy Myles; and, lastly, by a frigid note from Lord Tottlebury,
enclosing the testimony of Mrs. Philip Horne to the character and
accomplishments of Miss N. Gale. In Lord Tottlebury's opinion, only one
course was, under the circumstances, open to a gentleman.

Philanthropists often remark, _à propos_ of other philanthropists, that
it is easier to do harm than good, even when you are, as it were, an
expert in doing good. George began to think that his amateur effort
at preserving the family reputation and punishing a wrongdoer looked
like vindicating the truth of this general principle. Here was a
hornets'-nest about his ears! And would what he brought back with him
make the buzzing less furious or the stings less active? He thought not.

"Can a girl be in two places at once," he asked,--"in one of her
Majesty's prisons, and also at--where is it?--Balmoral Villa,
Bournemouth?" And he laid side by side Mrs. Horne's letter and a certain
photograph which was among the spoils of his expedition.

George had not the least doubt that it was a photograph of Neaera
Witt, for all that it was distinctly inscribed, "Nelly Game." Beyond
all question it was a photograph of the girl who stole the shoes,
thoughtfully taken and preserved with a view to protecting society
against future depredations at her hands. It was Crown property,
George supposed, and probably he had no business with it, but a man can
get many things he has no business with for half a sovereign, the sum
George had paid for the loan of it. It must be carefully remembered
that Peckton is exceptional, not typical, in the laxity of its
administration, and a long reign of solitary despotism had sapped the
morality of the fat policeman.

The art of photography has made much progress in recent years. It is
less an engine for the reduction of self-conceit than it used to be,
and less a means of revealing how ill-looking a given person can appear
under favourable circumstances. But Peckton was behind the time, here as
everywhere. Nelly Game's portrait did faint justice to Neaera Witt, and
eight years' wear had left it blurred and faded almost to the point of
indistinctness. It was all very well for George to recognise it. In
candour he was bound to admit that he doubted if it would convince
the unwilling. Besides, a great change comes between seventeen and
five-and-twenty, even when Seventeen is not half-starved and clad in
rags, Five-and-twenty living in luxury, and decked in the glories of
millinery.

"It won't do alone," he said, "but it will help. Let's have a look at
this--document." When he had read it he whistled gently. "Oh, ho! an
alibi. Now I've got her!" he exclaimed.

But had he? He carefully re-read the letter. It was a plausible enough
letter, and conclusive, unless he was prepared to charge Mrs. Witt
with deeper schemes and more dangerous accomplishments than he had yet
thought of doing.

Men are mistaken sometimes, said a voice within him; but he would not
listen.

"I'll look at that again to-morrow," he said, "and find out who 'Susan
Horne' is."

Then he read his letters, and cursed his luck, and went to bed a
miserable man.

The presentment of truth, not the inculcation of morality, being the end
of art, it is worth while to remark that he went to bed a miserable man
simply and solely because he had tried to do his duty.



CHAPTER VI.

A SUCCESSFUL ORDEAL.


The general opinion was that Gerald Neston behaved foolishly in allowing
himself to be interviewed by the _Bull's-eye_. Indeed, it is rather
odd, when we consider the almost universal disapproval of the practice
of interviewing, to see how frequent interviews are. _Damnantur et
crescunt_; and mankind agrees to excuse its own weakness by postulating
irresistible ingenuity and audacity in the interviewer. So Gerald was
publicly blamed and privately blessed for telling the _Bull's-eye_ that
an atrocious accusation had been brought against the lady referred to,
and brought by one who should have been the last to bring it, and would,
he hoped, be the first to withdraw it. The accusation did seriously
concern the lady's character, and nothing but the fullest apology could
be accepted. He preferred not to go into details at present; indeed, he
hoped it would never be necessary to do so.

Such might be Gerald's hope. It was not the hope of the _Bull's-eye_,
nor, indeed, of society in general. What could be more ill-advised than
to hint dreadful things and refuse full information? Such a course
simply left the imagination to wander, fancy free, through the Newgate
Calendar, attributing to Mrs. Witt--the name of the slandered lady
was by this time public property--all or any of the actions therein
recorded.

"It's like a blank bill," said Charters, the commercial lawyer, to Mr.
Blodwell; "you fill it up for as much as the stamp will cover."

"The more gossiping fool you," replied Mr. Blodwell, very rudely, and
quite unjustifiably, for the poor man merely meant to indicate a natural
tendency, not to declare his own idea of what was proper. But Mr.
Blodwell was cross; everybody had made fools of themselves, he thought,
and he was hanged--at least hanged--if he saw his way out of it.

George's name had not as yet been actually mentioned, but everybody knew
who it was,--that "relative of Lord Tottlebury, whose legal experience,
if nothing else, should have kept him from bringing ungrounded
accusations;" and George's position was far from pleasant. He began to
see, or fancy he saw, men looking askance at him; his entrance was the
occasion of a sudden pause in conversation; his relations with his
family were, it need hardly be said, intolerable to the last degree;
and, finally, Isabel Bourne had openly gone over to the enemy, had made
her mother invite Neaera Witt to dinner, and had passed George in the
park with the merest mockery of a bow. He was anxious to bring matters
to an issue one way or another, and with this end he wrote to Lord
Tottlebury, asking him to arrange a meeting with Mrs. Witt.

"As you are aware," he said, "I have been to Peckton. I have already
told you what I found there, so far as it bore on the fact of 'Nelly
Game's' conviction. I now desire to give certain persons who were
acquainted with 'Nelly Game' an opportunity of seeing Mrs. Witt. No
doubt she will raise no objections. Blodwell is willing to put his
chambers at our disposal; and I think this would be the best place, as
it will avoid the gossip and curiosity of the servants. Will Mrs. Witt
name a day and time? I and my companions will make a point of suiting
her convenience."

George's "companions" were none other than the fussy clerk and the fat
policeman. The female warder had vanished; and although there were
some prison officials whose office dated from before Nelly Game's
imprisonment, George felt that, unless his first two witnesses
were favourable, it would be useless to press the matter, and did
not at present enlist their services. Mr. Jennings, the Lincoln's
Inn barrister, had proved utterly hopeless. George showed him the
photograph. "I shouldn't have recognized it from Eve's," said Mr.
Jennings; and George felt that he might, without duplicity, ignore such
a useless witness.

Neaera laughed a little at the proposal when it was submitted to her,
but expressed her willingness to consent to it. Gerald was almost angry
with her for not being angry at the indignity.

"He goes too far: upon my word he does;" he muttered.

"What does it matter, dear?" asked Neaera. "It will be rather fun."

Lord Tottlebury raised a hand in grave protest.

"My dear Neaera!" said he.

"Not much fun for George," Gerald remarked in grim triumph.

"I suppose Mr. Blodwell's chambers will do?" asked Lord Tottlebury. "It
seems convenient."

But here Neaera, rather to his surprise, had her own views. She wasn't
going down to musty chambers to be stared at--yes, Gerald, all lawyers
stared,--and taken for a breach-of-promise person, and generally
besmirched with legal mire. No: nor she wouldn't have Mr. George
Neston's spies in her house; nor would she put herself out the least
about it.

"Then it must be in my house," said Lord Tottlebury.

Neaera acquiesced, merely adding that the valuables had better be locked
up.

"And when? We had better say some afternoon, I suppose."

"I am engaged every afternoon for a fortnight."

"My dear," said Lord Tottlebury, "business must take precedence."

Neaera did not see it; but at last she made a suggestion. "I am dining
with you _en famille_ the day after to-morrow. Let them come then."

"That'll do," said George. "Ten minutes after dinner will settle the
whole business."

Lord Tottlebury made no objection. George had suggested that a couple
of other ladies should be present, to make the trial fairer; and it was
decided to invite Isabel Bourne, and Miss Laura Pocklington, daughter
of the great Mrs. Pocklington. Mrs. Pocklington would come with her
daughter, and it was felt that her presence would add authority to the
proceedings. Maud Neston was away; indeed, her absence had been thought
desirable, pending the settlement of this unpleasant affair.

Lord Tottlebury always made the most of his chances of solemnity, and,
if left to his own bent, would have invested the present occasion
with an impressiveness not far short of a death sentence. But he was
powerless in face of the determined frivolity with which Neaera treated
the whole matter. Mrs. Pocklington found herself, apparently, invited to
assist at a farce, instead of a melodrama, and with her famous tact at
once recognised the situation, her elaborate playfulness sanctioned the
hair-brained chatter of the girls, and made Gerald's fierce indignation
seem disproportionate to the subject. Dinner passed in a whirl of jokes
and gibes, George affording ample material; and afterwards the ladies,
flushed with past laughter, and constantly yielding to fresh hilarity
at Neaera's sallies, awaited the coming of George and his party with no
diminution of gaiety.

A knock was heard at the door.

"Here are the minions of the law, Mrs. Witt!" cried Laura Pocklington.

"Then I must prepare for the dungeon," said Neaera, and rearranged her
hair before a mirror.

"It quite reminds me," said Mrs. Pocklington, "of the dear Queen of
Scots."

Lord Tottlebury was, in spite of his preoccupations, beginning to argue
about the propriety of Mrs. Pocklington's epithet, when George was
shown in. He looked weary, bored, disgusted. After shaking hands with
Lord Tottlebury, he bowed generally to the room, and said,

"I propose to bring Mr. Jennings, the clerk, in first; then the
policeman. It will be better they should come separately."

Lord Tottlebury nodded. Gerald had ostentatiously turned his back on his
cousin. Mrs. Pocklington fanned herself with an air of amused protest,
which the girls reproduced in a broader form. No one spoke, till Neaera
herself said with a laugh,

"Arrange your effects as you please, Mr. Neston."

George looked at her. She was dressed with extraordinary richness,
considering the occasion. Her neck and arms, disclosed by her evening
gown, glittered with diamonds; a circlet of the same stones adorned her
golden hair, which was arranged in a lofty erection on her head. She met
his look with derisive defiance, smiling in response to the sarcastic
smile on his face. George's smile was called forth by the recognition of
his opponent's tactics. Her choice of time and place had enabled her to
call to her aid all the arts of millinery and the resources of wealth to
dazzle and blind the eyes of those who sought to find in her the shabby
draggle-tailed girl of eight years before. Old Mr. Jennings had come
under strong protest. He was, he said, half blind eight years ago, and
more than half now; he had seen hundreds of interesting young criminals
and could no more recognise one from another than to-day's breakfast egg
from yesterday week's; as for police photographs, everybody knew they
only darkened truth. Still he came, because George had constrained him.

Neaera, Isabel, and Laura Pocklington took their places side by side,
Neaera on the right, leaning her arm on the chimney-piece, in her
favourite pose of languid haughtiness; Isabel was next her. Lord
Tottlebury met Mr. Jennings with cold civility, and gave him a chair.
The old man wiped his spectacles and put them on. A pause ensued.

"George," said Lord Tottlebury, "I suppose you have explained?"

"Yes," said George. "Mr. Jennings, can you say whether any, and which,
of the persons present is Nelly Game?"

Gerald turned round to watch the trial.

"Is the person suspected--supposed to be Nelly Game--in the room?" asked
Mr. Jennings, with some surprise. He had expected to see a group of
maid-servants.

"Certainly," said Lord Tottlebury, with a grim smile. And Mrs.
Pocklington chuckled.

"Then I certainly can't," said Mr. Jennings. And there was an end of
that, an end no other than what George had expected. The fat policeman
was his sheet-anchor.

The fat policeman, or to give him his proper name, Sergeant Stubbs,
unlike Mr. Jennings, was enjoying himself. A trip to London _gratis_,
with expenses on a liberal scale, and an identification at the
end--could the heart of mortal constable desire more? Know the girl? Of
course he would, among a thousand! It was his business to know people
and he did not mean to fail, especially in the service of so considerate
an employer. So he walked in confidently, sat himself down, and
received his instructions with professional imperturbability.

The ladies stood and smiled at Stubbs. Stubbs sat and peered at the
ladies, and, being a man at heart, thought they were a set of as likely
girls as he'd ever seen; so he told Mrs. Stubbs afterwards. But which
was Nelly Game?

"It isn't her in the middle," said Stubbs, at last.

"Then," said George, "we needn't trouble Miss Bourne any longer."

Isabel went and sat down, with a scornful toss of her head, and Laura
Pocklington and Neaera stood side by side.

"I feel as if it were the judgment of Paris," whispered the latter,
audibly, and Mrs. Pocklington and Gerald tittered. Stubbs had once been
to Paris on business, but he did not see what it had to do with the
present occasion, unless indeed it were something about a previous
conviction.

"It isn't her," he said, after another pause, pointing a stumpy
forefinger at Laura Pocklington.

There was a little shiver of dismay. George rigidly repressed every
indication of satisfaction. Neaera stood calm and smiling, bending a
look of amused kindliness on Stubbs; but the palm of the white hand on
the mantelpiece grew pink as the white fingers pressed against it.

"Would you like to see me a little nearer?" she asked, and, stepping
forward to where Stubbs sat, she stood right in front of him.

George felt inclined to cry "Brava!" as if he were at the play.

Stubbs was puzzled. There was a likeness, but there was so much
unlikeness too. It really wasn't fair to dress people up differently.
How was a man to know them?

"Might I see the photograph again, sir?" he asked George.

"Certainly not," exclaimed Gerald, angrily.

George ignored him.

"I had rather," he said, "you told us what you think without it."

George had sent Lord Tottlebury the photograph, and everybody had looked
at it and declared it was not the least like Neaera.

Stubbs resumed his survey. At last he said, pressing his hand over his
eyes,

"I can't swear to her, sir."

"Very well," said George. "That'll do."

But Neaera laughed.

"Swear to me, Mr. Stubbs!" said she. "But do you mean you think I'm like
this Nelly Games?"

"'Game,' not 'Games,' Mrs. Witt," said George, smiling again.

"Well, then, 'Game.'"

"Yes, miss, you've a look of her."

"Of course she has," said Mrs. Pocklington, "or Mr. George would never
have made the mistake." Mrs. Pocklington liked George, and wanted to let
him down easily.

"That's all you can say?" asked Lord Tottlebury.

"Yes, sir; I mean, my lord."

"It comes to nothing," said Lord Tottlebury, decisively.

"Nothing at all," said George. "Thank you, Stubbs. I'll join you and Mr.
Jennings in a moment."

"Good-bye, Mr. Stubbs," said Neaera. "I'm sure I should have known you
if I'd ever seen you before."

Stubbs withdrew, believing himself to have received a compliment.

"Of course this ends the matter, George," said Lord Tottlebury.

"I should hope so," said Gerald.

George looked at Neaera; and as he looked the conviction grew stronger
on him that she was Nelly Game.

"Mr. George Neston is not convinced," said she, mockingly.

"It does not much matter whether I am convinced or not," said George.
"There is no kind of evidence to prove the identity."

Gerald sprang up in indignation. "Do you mean that you won't retract?"

"You can state all the facts; I shall say nothing."

"You shall apologise, or----"

"Gerald," said Lord Tottlebury, "this is no use."

There was a feeling that George was behaving very badly. Everybody
thought so, and said so; and all except Neaera either exhorted or
besought him to confess himself the victim of an absurd mistake. As the
matter had become public, nothing less could be accepted.

George wavered. "I will let you know to-morrow," he said. "Meanwhile let
me return this document to Mrs. Witt." He took out Mrs. Horne's letter
and laid it on the table. "I have ventured to take a copy," he said. "As
the original is valuable, I thought I had better give it back."

"Thank you," said Neaera, and moved forward to take it.

Gerald hastened to fetch it for her. As he took it up, his eye fell on
the writing, for George had laid it open on the table.

"Why, Neaera," said he, "it's in your handwriting!"

George started, and he thought he saw Neaera start just perceptibly.

"Of course," she said. "That's only a copy."

"My dear, you never told me so," said Lord Tottlebury; "and I have never
seen your handwriting."

"Gerald and Maud have."

"But they never saw this."

"It was stupid of me," said Neaera, penitently; "but I never thought of
there being any mistake. What difference does it make?"

George's heart was hardened. He was sure she had, if not tried to pass
off the copy as an original from the first, at any rate taken advantage
of the error.

"Have you the original?" he asked.

"No," said Neaera. "I sent it to somebody ever so long ago, and never
got it back."

"When did you make this copy?"

"When I sent away the original."

"To whom?" began George again.

"I won't have it," cried Gerald. "You shan't cross-examine her with your
infernal insinuations. Do you mean that she forged this?"

George grew stubborn.

"I should like to see the original," he said.

"Then you can't," retorted Gerald, angrily.

George shrugged his shoulders, turned, and left the room.

And they all comforted and cosseted Neaera, and abused George, and made
up their minds to let the world know how badly he was behaving.

"It's our duty to society," said Lord Tottlebury.



CHAPTER VII.

AN IMPOSSIBLE BARGAIN.


"I should eat humble-pie, George," said Mr. Blodwell, tapping his
eye-glasses against his front teeth. "She's one too many for you."

"Do you think I'm wrong?"

"On the whole, I incline to think you're right. But I should eat
humble-pie if I were you, all the same."

The suggested diet is palatable to nobody, and the power of consuming it
without contortion is rightly put high in the list of virtues, if virtue
be proportionate to difficulty. To a man of George Neston's temperament
penance was hard, even when enforced by the consciousness of sin; to
bend the knees in abasement, when the soul was erect in self-approval,
came nigh impossibility.

Still it was unquestionably necessary that he should assume the sheet
and candle, or put up with an alternative hardly, if at all, less
unpleasant. The "Fourth Paragraph" had appeared. It was called a
paragraph for the sake of uniformity, but it was in reality a narrative,
stretching to a couple of columns, and giving a detailed account of
the attempted identification. For once, George implicitly believed the
editor's statement that his information came to him on unimpeachable
authority. The story was clearly not only inspired by, but actually
written by the hand of Gerald himself, and it breathed a bitter
hostility to himself that grieved George none the less because it was
very natural. This hostility showed itself, here and there, in direct
attack; more constantly in irony and ingenious ridicule. George's look,
manner, tones, and walk were all pressed into the service. In a word,
the article certainly made him look an idiot; he rather thought it made
him look a malignant idiot.

"What can you do?" demanded Mr. Blodwell again. "You can't bring up any
more people from Peckton. You chose your witnesses, and they let you
in."

George nodded.

"You went to Bournemouth, and you found--what? Not that Mrs.
What's-her-name--Horne--was a myth, as you expected, or
conveniently--and, mind you, not unplausibly--dead, as I expected, but
an actual, existent, highly respectable, though somewhat doting, old
lady. She had you badly there, George my boy!"

"Yes," admitted George. "I wonder if she knew the woman was alive?"

"She chanced it; wished she might be dead, perhaps, but chanced it.
That, George, is where Mrs. Witt is great."

"Mrs. Horne doesn't remember her being there in March, or indeed April."

"Perhaps not; but she doesn't say the contrary."

"Oh, no. She said that if the character says March, of course it was
March."

"The 'of course' betrays a lay mind. But still the character does say
March--for what it's worth."

"The copy of it does."

"I know what you mean. But think before you say that, George. It's
pretty strong; and you haven't a tittle of evidence to support you."

"I don't want to say a word. I'll let them alone, if they'll let me
alone. But that woman's Nelly Game, as sure as I'm----"

"An infernally obstinate chap," put in Mr. Blodwell.

Probably what George meant by being "let alone," was the cessation of
paragraphs in the _Bull's-eye_. If so, his wish was not gratified. "Will
Mr. George Neston"--George's name was no longer "withheld"--"retract?"
took, in the columns of that publication, much the position occupied by
_Delenda est Carthago_ in the speeches of Cato the Elder. It met the
reader on the middle page; it lurked for him in the leading article; it
appeared, by way of playful reference, in the city intelligence; one
man declared he found it in an advertisement, but this no doubt was an
oversight--or perhaps a lie.

George was not more sensitive than other men, but the annoyance
was extreme. The whole world seemed full of people reading the
_Bull's-eye_, some with grave reprobation, some with offensive
chucklings.

But if the _Bull's-eye_ would not leave him alone, a large number of
people did. He was not exactly cut; but his invitations diminished, the
greetings he received grew less cordial than of yore: he was not turned
out of the houses he went to, but he was not much pressed to come again.
He was made to feel that right-minded and reasonable people--a term
everybody uses to describe themselves--were against him, and that, if
he wished to re-enter the good graces of society, he must do so by the
strait and narrow gate of penitence and apology.

"I shall have to do it," he said to himself, as he sat moodily in his
chambers. "They're all at me--uncle Roger, Tommy Myles, Isabel--all of
them. I'm shot if I ever interfere with anybody's marriage again."

The defection of Isabel rankled in his mind worst of all. That she, of
all people, should turn against him, and, as a last insult, send him
upbraiding messages through Tommy Myles! This she had done, and George
was full of wrath.

"A note for you, sir," said Timms, entering in his usual silent manner.
Timms had no views on the controversy, being one of those rare people
who mind their own business; and George had fallen so low as to be
almost grateful for the colourless impartiality with which he bore
himself towards the quarrel between his masters.

George took the note. "Mr. Gerald been here, Timms?"

"He looked in for letters, sir; but went away directly on hearing you
were here."

Timms stated this fact as if it were in the ordinary way of friendly
intercourse, and withdrew.

"Well, I am----!" exclaimed George, and paused.

The note was addressed in the handwriting he now knew very well, the
handwriting of the Bournemouth character.

  "DEAR MR. NESTON,

  "I shall be alone at five o'clock to-day. Will you come and see me?

  "Yours sincerely,
  "NEAERA WITT."

"You must do as a lady asks you," said George, "even if she does steal
shoes, and you have mentioned it. Here goes! What's she up to now, I
wonder?"

Neaera, arrayed in the elaborate carelessness of a tea-gown, received
him, not in the drawing-room, but in her own snuggery. Tea was on the
table; there was a bright little fire, and a somnolent old cat snoozed
on the hearth-rug. The whole air was redolent of what advertisements
called a "refined home," and Neaera's manner indicated an almost
pathetic desire to be friendly, checked only by the self-respecting fear
of a rude rebuff to her advances.

"It is really kind of you to come," she said, "to consent to a parley."

"The beaten side always consents to a parley," answered George, taking
the seat she indicated. She was half sitting, half lying on a sofa when
he came in, and resumed her position after greeting him.

"No, no," she said quickly; "that's where it's hard--when you're beaten.
But do you consider yourself beaten?"

"Up to now, certainly."

"And you really are not convinced?" she asked, eyeing him with a look
of candid appeal to his better nature.

"It is your fault, Mrs. Witt."

"My fault?"

"Yes. Why are you so hard to forget?" George thought there was no harm
in putting it in a pleasant way.

"Ah, why was Miss--now is it Game or Games?--so hard to forget?"

"It is, or rather was, Game. And I suppose she was hard to forget for
the same reason as you--would be."

"And what is that?"

"If you ask my cousin, no doubt he will tell you."

Neaera smiled.

"What more can I do?" she asked. "Your people didn't know me. I have
produced a letter showing I was somewhere else."

"Excuse me----"

"Well, well, then, a copy of a letter."

"What purports to be a copy."

"How glad I am I'm not a lawyer! It seems to make people so suspicious."

"It's a great pity you didn't keep the original."

Neaera said nothing. Perhaps she did not agree.

"But I suppose you didn't send for me to argue about the matter?"

"No. I sent for you to propose peace. Mr. Neston, I am so weary of
fighting. Why will you make me fight?"

"It's not for my pleasure," said George.

"For whose, then?" she asked, stretching out her arms with a gesture of
entreaty. "Cannot we say no more about it?"

"With all my heart."

"And you will admit you were wrong?"

"That is saying more about it."

"You cannot enjoy the position you are in."

"I confess that."

"Mr. Neston, do you never think it's possible you are wrong? But no,
never mind. Will you agree just to drop it?"

"Heartily. But there's the _Bull's-eye_."

"Oh, bother the _Bull's-eye_! I'll go and see the editor," said Neaera.

"He's a stern man, Mrs. Witt."

"He won't be so hard to deal with as you. There, that's settled. Hurrah!
Will you shake hands, Mr. Neston?"

"By all means."

"With a thief?"

"With you, thief or no thief. And I must tell you you are very----"

"What?"

"Well, above small resentments."

"Oh, what does it matter? Suppose I did take the boots?"

"Shoes," said George.

Neaera burst into a laugh. "You are very accurate."

"And you are very inaccurate, Mrs. Witt."

"I shall always be amused when I meet you. I shall know you have your
hand on your watch."

"Oh yes. I retract nothing."

"Then it is peace?"

"Yes."

Neaera sat up and gave him her hand, and the peace was ratified. But it
so chanced that Neaera's sudden movement roused the cat. He yawned and
got up, arching his back, and digging his claws into the hearth-rug.

"Bob," said Neaera, "don't spoil the rug."

George's attention was directed to the animal, and, as he looked at it,
he started. Bob's change of posture had revealed a serious deficiency:
he had no tail, or the merest apology for a tail.

It was certainly an odd coincidence, perhaps nothing more, but a very
odd coincidence, that George should have seen in the courtyard at
Peckton Gaol no less than three tailless cats! Of course there are a
good many in the world; but still most cats have tails.

"I like a black cat, don't you?" said Neaera. "He's nice and Satanic."

The Peckton cats were black, too,--black as ink or the heart of a
money-lender.

"An old favourite?" asked George, insidiously.

"I've had him a good many years. Oh!"

The last word slipped from Neaera involuntarily.

"Why 'oh!'?"

"I'd forgotten his milk," answered Neaera, with extraordinary
promptitude.

"Where did you get him?"

Neaera was quite calm again. "Some friends gave him me. Please don't say
I stole my cat, too, Mr. Neston."

George smiled; indeed, he almost laughed. "Well, it is peace, Mrs.
Witt," he said, taking his hat. "But remember!"

"What?" said Neaera, who was still smiling and cordial, but rather less
at her ease than before.

"A cat may tell a tale, though he bear none."

"What do you mean?"

"If it is ever war again, I will tell you. Good-bye, Mrs. Witt."

"Good-bye. Please don't have poor Bob arrested. He didn't steal the
boots--oh, the shoes, at any rate."

"I expect he was in prison already."

Neaera shook her head with an air of bewilderment. "I really don't
understand you. But I'm glad we're not enemies any longer."

George departed, but Neaera sat down on the rug and gazed into the fire.
Presently Bob came to look after the forgotten milk. He rubbed himself
right along Neaera's elbow, beginning from his nose, down to the end of
what he called his tail.

"Ah, Bob," said Neaera, "what do you want? Milk, dear? 'Good for evil,
milk for----'"

Bob purred and capered. Neaera gave him his milk, and stood looking at
him.

"How would you like to be drowned, dear?" she asked.

The unconscious Bob lapped on.

Neaera stamped her foot. "He shan't! He shan't! He shan't!" she
exclaimed. "Not an inch! Not an inch!"

Bob finished his milk and looked up.

"No, dear, you shan't be drowned. Don't be afraid."

As Bob knew nothing about drowning, and only meant that he wanted more
milk, he showed no gratitude for his reprieve. Indeed, seeing there was
to be no more milk, he pointedly turned his back, and began to wash his
face.



CHAPTER VIII.

THE FRACAS AT MRS. POCKLINGTON'S.


"I never heard anything so absurd in all my life," said Mr. Blodwell,
with emphasis.

George had just informed him of the treaty between himself and Neaera.
He had told his tale with some embarrassment. It is so difficult to make
people who were not present understand how an interview came to take the
course it did.

"She seemed to think it all right," George said weakly.

"Do you suppose you can shut people's mouths in that way?"

"There are other ways," remarked George, grimly, for his temper began to
go.

"There are," assented Mr. Blodwell; "and in these days, if you use them,
it's five pounds or a month, and a vast increase of gossip into the
bargain. What does Gerald say?"

"Gerald? Oh, I don't know. I suppose Mrs. Witt can manage him."

"Do you? I doubt it. Gerald isn't over easy to manage. Think of the
position you leave him in!"

"He believes in her."

"Yes, but he won't be content unless other people do. Of course they'll
say she squared you."

"Squared me!" exclaimed George, indignantly.

"Upon my soul, I'm not sure she hasn't."

"Of course you can say what you please, sir. From you I can't resent
it."

"Come, don't be huffy. Bright eyes have their effect on everybody. By
the way, have you seen Isabel Bourne lately?"

"No."

"Heard from her?"

"She sent me a message through Tommy Myles."

"Is he in her confidence?"

"Apparently. The effect of it was, that she didn't want to see me till I
had come to my senses."

"In those words?"

"Those were Tommy's words."

"Then relations are strained?"

"Miss Bourne is the best judge of whom she wishes to see."

"Quite so," said Mr. Blodwell, cheerfully. "At present she seems to wish
to see Myles. Well, well, George, you'll have to come to your knees at
last."

"Mrs. Witt doesn't require it."

"Gerald will."

"Gerald be---- But I've never told you of my fresh evidence."

"Oh, you're mad! What's in the wind now?"

Five minutes later, George flung himself angrily out of Mr. Blodwell's
chambers, leaving that gentleman purple and palpitating with laughter,
as he gently re-echoed,

"The cat! Go to the jury on the cat, George, my boy!"

To George, in his hour of adversity, Mrs. Pocklington was as a tower
of strength. She said that the Nestons might squabble among themselves
as much as they liked; it was no business of hers. As for the affair
getting into the papers, her visiting-list would suffer considerably
if she cut out everybody who was wrongly or, she added significantly,
rightly abused in the papers. George Neston might be mistaken, but he
was an honest young man, and for her part she thought him an agreeable
one--anyhow, a great deal too good for that insipid child, Isabel
Bourne. If anybody didn't like meeting him at her house, they could stay
away. Poor Laura Pocklington protested that she hated and despised
George, but yet couldn't stay away.

"Then, my dear," said Mrs. Pocklington, tartly, "you can stay in the
nursery."

"It's too bad!" exclaimed Laura. "A man who says such things isn't
fit----"

Mrs. Pocklington shook her head gently. Mr. Pocklington's Radical
principles extended no more to his household than to his business.

"Laura dear," she said, in pained tones, "I do so dislike argument."

So George went to dinner at Mrs. Pocklington's, and that lady,
remorseless in parental discipline, sent Laura down to dinner with him;
and, as everybody knows, there is nothing more pleasing and interesting
than a pretty girl in a dignified pet. George enjoyed himself. It was
a long time since he had flirted; but really now, considering Isabel's
conduct, he felt at perfect liberty to conduct himself as seemed to
him good. Laura was an old friend, and George determined to see how
implacable her wrath was.

"It's so kind of you to give me this pleasure," he began.

"Pleasure?" said Laura, in her loftiest tone.

"Yes; taking you down, you know."

"Mamma made me."

"Ah, now you're trying to take me down."

"I wonder you can look any one in the face----"

"I always enjoy looking you in the face."

"After the things you've said about poor Neaera!"

"Neaera?"

"Why shouldn't I call her Neaera?"

"Oh, no reason at all. It may even be her name."

"A woman who backbites is bad, but a man----"

"Is the deuce?" said George inquiringly.

Laura tried another tack. "All your friends think you wrong, even
mamma."

"What does that matter, as long as you think I'm right?"

"I don't; I don't. I think----"

"That it's great fun to torment a poor man who----"

George paused.

"Who what?" said Laura, with deplorable weakness.

"Values your good opinion very highly."

"Nonsense!"

George permitted himself to sigh deeply. A faint twitching betrayed
itself about the corners of Laura's pretty mouth.

"If you want to smile, I will look away," said George.

"You're very foolish," said Laura; and George knew that this expression
on a lady's lips is not always one of disapproval.

"I am, indeed," said he, "to spend my time in a vain pursuit."

"Of Neaera?"

"No, not of Neaera."

"I should never," said Laura, demurely, "have referred to Miss Bourne,
if you hadn't, but as you have----"

"I didn't."

Presumably George explained whom he did refer to, and apparently the
explanation took the rest of dinner-time. And as the ladies went
upstairs, Mrs. Pocklington patted Laura's shoulder with an approving
fan.

"There's a good child! It shows breeding to be agreeable to people you
dislike."

Laura blushed a little, but answered dutifully, "I am glad you are
pleased, mamma." Most likely she did not impose on Mrs. Pocklington. She
certainly did not on herself.

George found himself left next to Sidmouth Vane.

"Hallo, Neston!" said that young gentleman, with his usual freedom.
"Locked her up yet?"

George said Mrs. Witt was still at large. Vane had been his fag, and
George felt he was entitled to take it out of him in after life whenever
he could.

"Wish you would," continued Mr. Vane. "That ass of a cousin of yours
would jilt her, and I would wait outside Holloway or Clerkenwell, or
wherever they put 'em, and receive her sympathetically--hot breakfast,
brass band, first cigar for six months, and all that, don't you know,
like one of those Irish fellows."

"You have no small prejudices."

"Not much. A girl like that, _plus_ an income like that, might steal all
Northampton for what I care. Going upstairs?"

"Yes; there's an 'At Home' on, isn't there?"

"Yes, so I'm told. I shouldn't go, if I were you."

"Why the devil not?"

"Gerald's going to be there--told me so."

"Really, Vane, you're very kind. We shan't fight."

"I don't know about that. He's simply mad."

"Anything new?"

"Yes; he told me you'd been trying to square Mrs. Witt behind his back,
and he meant to have it out with you."

"Well," said George, "I won't run. Come along."

The guests were already pouring in, and among the first George
encountered was Mr. Dennis Espion, as over-strained as ever. Espion
knew that George was aware of his position on the _Bull's-eye_.

"Ah, how are you, Neston?" he said, holding out his hand.

George looked at it for a moment, and then took it.

"I support life and your kind attentions, Espion."

"Ah! well, you know, we can't help it--a matter of public interest. I
hope you see our position----"

"Yes," said George, urbanely; "_Il faut vivre._"

"I don't suppose you value our opinion, but----"

"Oh yes; I value it at a penny--every evening."

"I was going to say----"

"Keep it, my dear fellow. What you say has market value--to the extent I
have mentioned."

"My dear Neston, may I----"

"Consider this an interview? My dear Espion, certainly. Make any use of
this communication you please. Good night."

George strolled away. "Suppose I was rather rude," he said to himself.
"But, hang it, I must have earned that fellow fifty pounds!"

George was to earn Mr. Espion a little more yet, as it turned out. He
had not gone many steps before he saw his cousin Gerald making his bow
to Mrs. Pocklington. Mr. Espion saw him too, and was on the alert.
Gerald was closely followed by Tommy Myles.

"Ah, the enemy!" exclaimed George under his breath, pursuing his way
towards Laura Pocklington.

The throng was thick, and his progress slow. He had time to observe
Gerald, who was now talking to Tommy and to Sidmouth Vane, who had
joined them. Gerald was speaking low, but his gestures betrayed strong
excitement. Suddenly he began to walk rapidly towards George, the people
seeming to fall aside from his path. Tommy Myles followed him, while
Vane all but ran to George and whispered eagerly,

"For God's sake, clear out, my dear fellow! He's mad! There'll be a
shindy, as sure as you're born!"

George did not like shindies, especially in drawing-rooms; but he liked
running away less. "Oh, let's wait and see," he replied.

Gerald was looking dangerous. The healthy ruddiness of his cheek had
darkened to a deep flush, his eyes looked vicious, and his mouth was
set. As he walked quickly up to his cousin, everybody tried to look
away; but out of the corners of two hundred eyes eager glances centred
on the pair.

"May I have a word with you?" Gerald began, calmly enough.

"As many as you like; but I don't know that this place----"

"It will do for what I have to say," Gerald interrupted.

"All right. What is it?"

"I want two things of you. First, you will promise never to dare to
address my--Mrs. Witt again."

"And the second?" asked George.

"You will write and say you've told lies, and are sorry for it."

"I address whom I please and write what I please."

Vane interposed.

"Really, Neston--you, Gerald, I mean--don't make a row here. Can't you
get him away, Tommy?"

Gerald gave Tommy a warning look, and poor Tommy shook his head
mournfully.

George felt the necessity of avoiding a scene. He began to move quietly
away. Gerald stood full in his path.

"You don't go till you've answered. Will you do what I tell you?"

"Really, Gerald," George began, still clinging to peace.

"Yes or no?"

"No," said George, with a smile and a shrug.

"Then, you cur, take----"

In another moment he would have struck George full in the face, but the
vigilant Vane caught his arm as he raised it.

"You damned fool! Are you drunk?" he hissed into his ear. "Everybody's
looking."

It was true. Everybody was.

"All the better," Gerald blurted out. "I'll thrash him----"

Tommy Myles ranged up and passed his hand through the angry man's other
arm.

"Can't you go, George?" asked Vane.

"No," said George, calmly; "not till he's quiet."

The hush that had fallen on the room attracted Mrs. Pocklington's
attention. In a moment, as it seemed, though her movements were as a
rule slow and stately, she was beside them, just in time to see Gerald
make a violent effort to throw off Vane's detaining hand.

"I cannot get anybody to go into the music-room," she said; "and the
signora is waiting to begin. Mr. Neston, give me your arm, and we will
show the way." Then her eyes seemed to fall for the first time on
George. "Oh, you here too, Mr. George? Laura is looking for you
everywhere. Do find her. Come, Mr. Neston. Mr. Vane, go and give your
arm to a lady."

The group scattered, obedient to her commands, and everybody breathed
a little sigh, half of relief, half of disappointment, and told one
another that Mrs. Pocklington was a great woman.

"In another second," said Tommy Myles, as he restored himself with a
glass of champagne, "it would have been a case of Bow Street!"

"I think it fairly amounts to a _fracas_," said Mr. Espion to himself;
and as a _fracas_, accordingly, it figured.



CHAPTER IX.

GERALD NESTON SATISFIES HIMSELF.


On the following morning, Lord Tottlebury sat as arbitrator, gave an
impartial consideration to both sides of the question, and awarded that
George should apologise for his charges, and Gerald for his violence.
Lord Tottlebury argued the case with ability, and his final judgment was
able and conclusive. Unfortunately, however, misled by the habit before
mentioned of writing to the papers about matters other than those which
immediately concerned him, Lord Tottlebury forgot that neither party had
asked him to adjudicate, and, although Maud Neston was quite convinced
by his reasoning, his award remained an opinion _in vacuo_; and the
two clear and full letters which he wrote expressing his views were
consigned by their respective recipients to the waste-paper basket.
Each of the young men thanked Lord Tottlebury for his kind efforts, but
feared that the unreasonable temper displayed by the other would render
any attempt at an arrangement futile. Lord Tottlebury sighed, and sadly
returned to his article on "What the Kaiser should do next." He was in a
hurry to finish it, because he also had on hand a reply to Professor
Dressingham's paper on "The Gospel Narrative and the Evolution of
_Crustacea_ in the Southern Seas."

After his outburst, Gerald Neston had allowed himself to be taken home
quietly, and the next morning he had so far recovered his senses as to
promise Sidmouth Vane that he would not again have recourse to personal
violence. He said he had acted on a momentary impulse--which Vane did
not believe,--and, at any rate, nothing of the kind need be apprehended
again; but as for apologising, he should as soon think of blacking
George's boots. In fact, he was, on the whole, well pleased with
himself, and, in the course of the day, went off to Neaera to receive
her thanks and approval.

He found her in very low spirits. She had been disappointed at the
failure of her arrangement with George, and half inclined to rebel at
Gerald's peremptory _veto_ on any attempt at hushing up the question.
She had timidly tried the line of pooh-poohing the whole matter, and
Gerald had clearly shown her that, in his opinion, it admitted of no
such treatment. She had not dared to ask him seriously if he would marry
her, supposing the accusation were true. A joking question of the kind
had been put aside as almost in bad taste, and, at any rate, ill-timed.
Consequently she was uneasy, and ready to be very miserable on the
slightest provocation. But to-day Gerald came in a different mood. He
was triumphant, aggressive, and fearless; and before he had been in the
room ten minutes, he broached his new design--a design that was to show
conclusively the esteem in which he held the vile slanders and their
utterer.

"Be married directly! Oh, Gerald!"

"Why not, darling? It will be the best answer to them."

"What would your father say?"

"I know he will approve. Why shouldn't he?"

"But--but everybody is talking about me."

"What do I care?"

It suits some men to be in love, and Gerald looked very well as he threw
out his defiance _urbi et orbi_. Neaera was charmed and touched.

"Gerald dear, you are too good--you are, indeed,--too good to me and too
good for me."

Gerald said, in language too eloquent to be reproduced, that nobody
could help being "good" to her, and nobody in the world was good enough
for her.

"And are you content to take me entirely on trust?"

"Absolutely."

"While I am under this shadow?"

"You are under no shadow. I take your word implicitly, as I would take
it against gods and men."

"Ah, I don't deserve it."

"Who could look in your eyes"--Gerald was doing so--"and think of
deceit? Why do you look away, sweetheart?"

"I daren't--I daren't!"

"What?"

"Be--be--trusted like that!"

Gerald smiled. "Very well; then you shan't be. I will treat you as
if--as if I _doubted_ you. Then will you be satisfied?"

Neaera tried to smile at this pleasantry. She was kneeling by Gerald's
chair as she often did, looking up at him.

"Doubted me?" she said.

"Yes, since you won't let your eyes speak for you, I will put you to the
question. Will that be enough?"

Poor Neaera! she thought it would be quite enough.

"And I will ask you, what I have never condescended to ask yet, dearest,
if there's a word of truth in it all?" Gerald, still playfully, took one
of her hands and raised it aloft. "Now look at me and say--what shall be
your oath?"

Neaera was silent. This passed words; every time she spoke she made it
worse.

"I know," pursued Gerald, who was much pleased with his little comedy.
"Say this, 'On my honour and love, I am not the girl.'"

Why hadn't she let him alone with his nonsense about her eyes? That was
not, to Neaera's thinking, as bad as a lie direct. "On her honour and
love!" She could not help hesitating for just a moment.

"I am not the girl, on my honour and love." Her words came almost with a
sob, a stifled sob, that made Gerald full of remorse and penitence, and
loud in imprecations on his own stupidity.

"It was all a joke, sweetest," he pleaded; "but it was a stupid joke,
and it has distressed you. Did you dream I doubted you?"

"No."

"Well, then, say you knew it was a joke."

"Yes, dear, I know it was,--of course it was; but it--it rather
frightened me."

"Poor child! Never mind; you'll be amused when you think of it
presently. And, my darling, it really, seriously, does make me happier.
I never doubted, but it is pleasant to hear the truth from your own
sweet lips. Now I am ready for all the world. And what about the day?"

"The day?"

"Of course you don't know what day! Shall it be directly?"

"What does 'directly' mean?" asked Neaera, mustering a rather watery
smile.

"In a week."

"Gerald!"

But, after the usual negotiations, Neaera was brought to consent to that
day three weeks, provided Lord Tottlebury's approval was obtained.

"And, please, don't quarrel with your cousin any more!"

"I can afford to let him alone now."

"And---- Are you going, Gerald?"

"No time to lose. I'm off to see the governor, and I shall come back and
fetch you to dine in Portman Square. Good-bye for an hour, darling!"

"Gerald, suppose----"

"Well!"

"If--if---- No, nothing. Good-bye, dear; and----"

"What is it, sweet?"

"Nothing--well, and don't be long."

Gerald departed in raptures. As soon as he was out of the room, the
tailless cat emerged from under the sofa. He hated violent motion of
all kinds, and lovers are restless beings. Now, thank heaven! there was
a chance of lying on the hearth-rug without being trodden upon!

"Did you hear that, Bob?" asked Neaera. "I--I went the whole hog, didn't
I?"

Lord Tottlebury, who was much less inflexible than he seemed, did not
hold out long against Gerald's vehemence, and the news soon spread
that defiance was to be hurled in George's face. The _Bull's-eye_ was
triumphant. Isabel Bourne and Maud Neston made a hero of Gerald and a
heroine of Neaera. Tommy Myles hastened to secure the position of "best
man," and Sidmouth Vane discovered and acknowledged a deep worldly
wisdom in Gerald's conduct.

"Of course," said he to Mr. Blodwell, on the terrace, "if it came out
before the marriage, he'd stand pledged to throw her over, with the
cash. But afterwards! Well, it won't affect the settlement, at all
events."

Mr. Blodwell said he thought Gerald had not been actuated by this
motive.

"Depend upon it, he has," persisted Vane. "Before marriage, the deuce!
After marriage, a little weep and three months on the Riviera!"

"Oh, I suppose, if it came out after marriage, George would hold his
tongue."

"Do you, by Jove? Then he'd be the most forgiving man in Europe. Why,
he's been hunted down over the business--simply hunted down!"

"That's true. No, I suppose he'd be bound to have his revenge."

"Revenge! He'd have to justify himself."

Mr. Blodwell had the curiosity to pursue the subject with George
himself.

"After the marriage? Oh, I don't know. I should like to score off the
lot of them."

"Naturally," said Mr. Blodwell.

"At any rate, if I find out anything before, I shall let them have it.
They haven't spared me."

"Anything new?"

"Yes. They've got the committee at the Themis to write and tell me that
it's awkward to have Gerald and me in the same club."

"That's strong."

"I have to thank Master Tommy for that. Of course it means that I'm to
go; but I won't. If they like to kick me out, they can."

"What's Tommy Myles so hot against you for?"

"Oh, those girls have got hold of him--Maud, and Isabel Bourne."

"Isabel Bourne?"

"Yes," said George, meeting Mr. Blodwell's questioning eye. "Tommy has a
mind to try his luck there, I think."

"_Vice_ you retired."

"Well, retired or turned out. It's like the army, you know; the two come
to pretty much the same thing."

"You must console yourself, my boy," said Mr. Blodwell, slyly. He
heard of most things, and he had heard of Mrs. Pocklington's last
dinner-party.

"Oh, I'm an outcast now. No one would look at me."

"Don't be a humbug, George. Go and see Mrs. Pocklington, and, for
heaven's sake let me get to my work."

It was Mr. Blodwell's practice to inveigle people into long gossips, and
then abuse them for wasting his time; so George was not disquieted by
the reproach. But he took the advice, and called in Grosvenor Square. He
found Mrs. Pocklington in, but she was not alone. Her visitor was a very
famous person, hitherto known to George only by repute,--the Marquis of
Mapledurham.

The Marquis was well known on the turf and also as a patron of art, but
it is necessary to add that more was known of him than was known to his
advantage. In fact, he gave many people the opportunity of saying they
would not count him among their acquaintances; and he gave very few of
them the chance of breaking their word. He and Mrs. Pocklington amused
one another, and, whatever he did, he never said anything that was open
to complaint.

For some time George talked to Laura. Laura, having once come over to
his side, was full of a convert's zeal, and poured abundant oil and wine
into his wounds.

"How could I ever have looked at Isabel Bourne when she was there?" he
began to think.

"Mr. Neston," said Mrs. Pocklington, "Lord Mapledurham wants to know
whether you are _the_ Mr. Neston."

"Mrs. Pocklington has betrayed me, Mr. Neston," said the Marquis.

"I am one of the two Mr. Nestons, I suppose," said George, smiling.

"Mr. George Neston?" asked the Marquis.

"Yes."

"And you let him come here, Mrs. Pocklington?"

"Ah, you know my house is a caravanserai. I heard you remark it yourself
the other day."

"I shall go," said the Marquis, rising. "And, Mrs. Pocklington, I shall
be content if you say nothing worse of my house. Good-bye, Miss Laura.
Mr. Neston, I shall have a small party of bachelors to-morrow. It will
be very kind if you will join us. Dinner at eight."

"See what it is to be an abused man," said Mrs. Pocklington, laughing.

"In these days the wicked must stand shoulder to shoulder," said the
Marquis.

George accepted; in truth, he was rather flattered. And Mrs. Pocklington
went away for quite a quarter of an hour. So that, altogether, he
returned to the opinion that life is worth living, before he left the
house.



CHAPTER X.

REMINISCENCES OF A NOBLEMAN.


Once upon a time, many years before this story begins, a certain lady
said, and indeed swore with an oath, that Lord Mapledurham had promised
to marry her, and claimed ten thousand pounds as damages for the breach
of that promise. Lord Mapledurham said his memory was treacherous about
such things, and he never contradicted a lady on a question of fact: but
the amount which his society was worth seemed fairly open to difference
of opinion, and he asked a jury of his countrymen to value it. This
_cause célèbre_, for such it was in its day, did not improve Lord
Mapledurham's reputation, but, on the other hand, it made Mr.
Blodwell's. That gentleman reduced the damages to one thousand, and
Lord Mapledurham said that his cross-examination of the plaintiff was
quite worth the money. Since then, the two had been friends, and Mr.
Blodwell prided himself greatly on his intimacy with such an exclusive
person as the Marquis. George enjoyed his surprise at the announcement
that they would meet that evening at the dinner-party.

"Why the dickens does he ask you?"

"Upon my honour, I don't know."

"It will destroy the last of your reputation."

"Oh, not if you are there, sir."

When George arrived at Lord Mapledurham's, he found nobody except his
host and Mr. Blodwell.

"I must apologize for having nobody to meet you, Mr. Neston, except an
old friend. I asked young Vane--whose insolence amuses me,--and
Fitzderham, but they couldn't come."

"Three's a good number," said Mr. Blodwell.

"If they're three men. But two men and a woman, or two women and a
man--awful!"

"Well, we are men, though George is a young one."

"I don't feel very young," said George, smiling, as they sat down.

"I am fifty-five," said the Marquis, "and I feel younger every day,--not
in body, you know, for I'm chockful of ailments; but in mind. I am
growing out of all the responsibilities of this world."

"And of the next?" asked Blodwell.

"In the next everything is arranged for us, pleasantly or otherwise. As
to this one, no one expects anything more of me--no work, no good deeds,
no career, no nothing. It's a delicious freedom."

"You never felt your bonds much."

"No; but they were there, and every now and then they dragged on my
feet."

"Your view of old age is comforting," said George.

"Only, George, if you want to realize it, you must not marry," said Mr.
Blodwell.

"No, no," said the Marquis. "By the way, Blodwell, why did you never
marry?"

"Too poor, till too late," said Mr. Blodwell, briefly.

The Marquis raised his glass, and seemed to drink a respectful toast to
a dead romance.

"And you, Lord Mapledurham?" George ventured to ask.

"Ay, ask him!" said Mr. Blodwell. "Perhaps his reason will be less sadly
commonplace."

"I don't know," said the Marquis, pondering. "Some of them expected it,
and that disgusted me. And some of them didn't, and that disgusted me
too."

"You put the other sex into rather a difficult position," remarked
George, laughing.

"Nothing to what they've put me into. Eh, Blodwell?"

"Now, tell me, Mapledurham," said Mr. Blodwell, who was in a serious
mood to-night. "On the whole, have you enjoyed your life?"

"I have wasted opportunities, talents, substance--everything: and
enjoyed it confoundedly. I am no use even as a warning."

"Ask a parson," said Mr. Blodwell, dryly.

"I remember," the Marquis went on, dreamily, "an old ruffian--another
old ruffian--saying just the same sort of thing one night. I was at
Liverpool for the Cup. Well, in the evening, I got tired of the other
fellows, and went out for a turn; and down a back street, I found an
old chap sitting on a doorstep,--a dirty old fellow, but uncommonly
picturesque, with a long grey beard. As I came by, he was just trying to
get up, but he staggered and fell back again."

"Drunk?" asked Mr. Blodwell.

The Marquis nodded. "I gave him a hand, and asked if I could do anything
for him. 'Yes, give me a drink,' says he. I told him he was drunk
already, but he said that made no odds, so I helped him to the nearest
gin-palace."

"Behold this cynic's unacknowledged kindnesses!" said Mr. Blodwell.

"Sat him down in a chair, and gave him liquor.

"'Do you enjoy getting drunk?' I asked him, just as you asked me if I
had enjoyed life.

"His drink didn't interfere with his tongue, it only seemed to take him
in the legs. He put down his glass, and made me a little speech.

"'Liquor,' says he, 'has been my curse; it's broken up my home, spoilt
my work, destroyed my character, sent me and mine to gaol and shame. God
bless liquor! say I.'

"I told him he was an old beast, much as you, Blodwell, told me I was,
in a politer way. He only grinned, and said, 'If you're a gentleman,
you'll see me home. Lying in the gutter costs five shillings, next
morning, and I haven't got it.'

"'All right,' said I; and after another glass we started out. He knew
the way, and led me through a lot of filthy places to one of the meanest
dens I ever saw. A red-faced, red-armed, red-voiced (you know what I
mean) woman opened the door, and let fly a cloud of Billingsgate at him.
The old chap treated her with lofty courtesy.

"'Quite true, Mrs. Bort,' says he; 'you're always right: I have ruined
myself.'

"'And yer darter!' shrieked the woman.

"'And my daughter. And I am drunk now, and hope to be drunk to-morrow.'

"'Ah! you old beast!' said she, just as I had, shaking her fist.

"He turned round to me, and said, 'I am obliged to you, sir. I don't
know your name.'

"'You wouldn't be better off if you did,' says I. 'You couldn't drink
it.'

"'Will you give me a sovereign?' he asked. 'A week's joy, sir,--a week's
joy and life.'

"'Give it me,' said the woman, 'then me and she'll get something to eat,
to keep us alive.'

"I'm a benevolent man at bottom, Mr. Neston, as Blodwell remarks. I
said,

"'Here's a sovereign for you and her' (I supposed she meant the
daughter) 'to help in keeping you alive; and here's a sovereign for you,
sir, to help in killing you--and the sooner the better, say I.'

"'You're right,' said he. 'The liquor's beginning to lose its taste. And
when that's gone, Luke Gale's gone!'"

"Luke who?" burst from the two men.

Lord Mapledurham looked up. "What's the matter? Gale, I think. I found
out afterwards that the old animal had painted water-colours--the only
thing he had to do with water."

"The Lord hath delivered her into your hand," said Mr. Blodwell to
George.

"Are you drunk too, Blodwell?" asked the Marquis.

"No; but----"

"What was the woman's name?" asked George, taking out a note-book.

"Bort. Going to tell me?"

"Well, if you don't mind----"

"Not a bit. Tell me later on, if it's amusing. There are so precious few
amusing things."

"You didn't see the daughter, did you?"

"Oh, of course it's the daughter! No."

"Did you ever know a man named Witt?"

"Never; but, Mr. Neston, I have heard of a Mrs. Witt. Now, Blodwell,
either out with it, or shut up and let's talk of something else."

"The latter, please," said Mr. Blodwell, urbanely.

And the Marquis, who had out-grown the vanity of desiring to know
everything, made no effort to recur to the subject. Only, as George
took his leave, he received a piece of advice, together with a cordial
invitation to come again.

"Excuse me, Mr. Neston," said the Marquis. "I fancy I have given you
some involuntary assistance to-night."

"I hope so. I shall know in a day or two."

"To like to be right, Mr. Neston, is the last weakness of a wise man; to
like to be thought right is the inveterate prejudice of fools."

"That last is a hard saying, my lord," said George, with a laugh.

"It really depends mostly on your income," answered the Marquis.
"Good-night, Mr. Neston."

George said good-night, and walked off, shrugging his shoulders at the
thought that even so acute a man as Lord Mapledurham seemed unable to
appreciate his position.

"They all want me to drop it," he mused. "Well, I will, unless----! But
to-morrow I'll go to Liverpool."

He was restless and excited. Home and bed seemed unacceptable, and he
turned into the Themis Club, whence the machinations of the enemy had
not yet ejected him. There, extended on a sofa and smoking a cigar, he
found Sidmouth Vane.

"Why didn't you come to Lord Mapledurham's, Vane?" asked George.

"Oh, have you been there? I was dining with my chief. I didn't know you
knew Mapledurham."

"I met him yesterday for the first time."

"He's a queer old sinner," said Vane. "But have you heard the news?"

"No. Is there any?"

"Tommy Myles has got engaged."

George started. He had a presentiment of the name of the lady.

"Pull yourself together, my dear boy," continued Vane. "Bear it like a
man."

"Don't be an ass, Vane. I suppose it's Miss Bourne?"

Vane nodded. "It would really be amusing," he said, "if you'd tell me
honestly how you feel. But, of course, you won't. You've begun already
to look as if you'd never heard of Miss Bourne."

"Bosh!" said George.

"Now, I always wonder why fellows do that. When I've been refused by a
girl, and----"

"I beg your pardon," said George. "I haven't been refused by Miss
Bourne."

"Well, you would have been, you know. It comes to the same thing."

George laughed. "I dare say I should; but I never meant to expose myself
to such a fate."

"George, my friend, do you think you're speaking the truth?"

"I am speaking the truth."

"Not a bit of it," responded Vane, calmly. "A couple of months ago you
meant to ask her; and, what's more, she'd have had you."

George was dimly conscious that this might be so.

"It isn't my moral," Vane went on.

"Your moral?"

"No. I took it from the _Bull's-eye_."

George groaned.

"They announce the marriage to-night, and add that they have reason to
believe that the engagement has come about largely through the joint
interest of the parties in _l'affaire Neston_."

"I should say they are unusually accurate."

"Meaning thereby, to those who have eyes, that she's jilted you because
of your goings-on, and taken up with Tommy. In consequence, you are
to-night 'pointing a moral and adorning a tale.'"

"The devil!"

"Yes, not very soothing, is it? But so it is. I looked in at Mrs.
Pocklington's, and they were all talking about it."

"The Pocklingtons were?"

"Yes. And they asked me----"

"Who asked you?"

"Oh, Violet Fitzderham and Laura Pocklington,--if it was the fact that
you were in love with Miss Bourne."

"And what did you say?"

"I said it was matter of notoriety."

"Confound your gossip! There's not a word of truth in it."

"I didn't say there was. I said it was a matter of notoriety. So it
was."

"And did they believe it?"

"Did who believe it?" asked Vane, smiling slightly.

"Oh, Miss Pocklington, and--and the other girl."

"Yes, Miss Pocklington and the other girl, I think, believed it."

"What did they say?"

"The other girl said it served you right."

"And----?"

"And Miss Pocklington said it was time for some music."

"Upon my soul, it's too bad!"

"My dear fellow, you know you were in love with her--in your fishlike
kind of way. Only you've forgotten it. One does forget it when----"

"Well?" asked George.

"When one's in love with another girl. Ah, George, you can't escape my
eagle eye! I saw your game, and I did you a kindness."

George thought it no use trying to keep his secret. "That's your idea of
a kindness, is it?"

"Certainly. I've made her jealous."

"Really," said George, haughtily, "I think this discussion of ladies'
feelings is hardly in good taste."

"Quite right, old man," answered Vane, imperturbably. "It's lucky that
didn't strike you before you'd heard all you wanted to."

"I say, Vane," said George, leaning forward, "did she seem----"

"Miss Pocklington, or the other girl?"

"Oh, damn the other girl! Did she, Vane, old boy?"

"Yes, she did, a little, George, old boy."

"I'm a fool," said George.

"Oh, I don't know," said Vane, tolerantly. "I'm always a fool myself
about these things."

"I must go and see them to-morrow. No, I can't go to-morrow; I have to
go out of town."

"Ah! where?"

"Liverpool, on business."

"Liverpool, on business! Dear me! I'll tell you another odd thing,
George,--a coincidence."

"Well?"

"You're going to Liverpool to-morrow on business. Well, to-day, Mrs.
Witt went to Liverpool on business."

"The devil!" said George, for the second time.



CHAPTER XI.

PRESENTING AN HONEST WOMAN.


To fit square pegs into round holes is one of the favourite pastimes of
Nature. She does it roughly, violently, and with wanton disregard of the
feelings of the square pegs. When, in her relentless sport, she has at
last driven the poor peg in and made it fit, by dint of knocking off and
abrading all its corners, philosophers glorify her, calling the process
evolution, and plain men wonder why she did not begin at the other end,
and make the holes square to fit the pegs.

The square peg on which these trite reflections hang is poor Neaera
Witt. Nature made her a careless, ease-loving, optimistic creature, only
to drive her, of malice prepense, into an environment--that is to say,
in unscientific phrase, a hole--where she had need of the equipment of
a full-blooded conspirator.

She resisted the operation; she persistently trusted to chance to
extricate her from the toils into which she, not being a philosopher,
thought chance had thrown her. If she saw a weapon ready to her hand,
she used it, as she had used the Bournemouth character, but for the most
part she trusted to luck. George Neston would fail, or he would relent;
or Gerald would be invincibly incredulous, or, she would add, smiling
at her face in the glass, invincibly in love. Somehow or other matters
would straighten themselves out; and, at the worst, ten days more would
bring the marriage; and after the marriage---- But really, ten days
ahead is as far as one can be expected to look, especially when the ten
days include one's wedding.

Nevertheless, Sidmouth Vane had a knack of being correct in his
information, and he was correct in stating that Neaera had gone to
Liverpool on business. It was, of course, merely a guess that her errand
might be connected with George's, but it happened to be a right guess.
Neaera knew well the weak spot in her armour. Hitherto she had been
content to trust to her opponent not discovering it; but, as the
decisive moment came nearer, a nervous restlessness so far overcame her
natural _insouciance_ as to determine her to an effort to complete her
defences, in anticipation of any assault upon them. She was in happy
ignorance of the chance that had directed George's forces against her
vulnerable point, and imagined that she herself was, in all human
probability, the only person in London to whom the name of Mrs. Bort
would be more than an unmeaning uneuphonious syllable. To her the name
was full of meaning; for, from her youth till the day of the happy
intervention of that stout and elderly _deus ex machina_, the late Mr.
Witt, Mrs. Bort had been to Neaera the impersonation of virtue and
morality, and the physical characteristics that had caught Lord
Mapledurham's frivolous attention had been to her merely the frowning
aspect under which justice and righteousness are apt to present
themselves.

Neaera was a good-hearted girl, and Mrs. Bort now lived on a comfortable
pension, but no love mingled with the sense of duty that inspired the
gift. Mrs. Bort had interpreted her quasi-maternal authority with the
widest latitude, and Neaera shuddered to remember how often Mrs. Bort's
discipline had made her smart, in a way, against which apathy of
conscience was no shield or buckler. Recorder Dawkins would have groaned
to know how even judicial terrors paled in Neaera's recollection before
the image of Mrs. Bort.

These childish fears are hard to shake off, and Neaera, as she sped
luxuriously to Liverpool, acknowledged to herself that, in that dreadful
presence, no adventitious glories of present wealth or future rank would
avail her. The governing fact in the situation, the fact that Neaera did
not see her way to meet, was that Mrs. Bort was an honest woman. Neaera
knew her, and knew that a bribe would be worse than useless, even if she
dared to offer it.

"And I don't think," said Neaera, resting her pretty chin upon her
pretty hand, "that I should dare." Then she laughed ruefully. "I'm not
at all sure she wouldn't beat me; and if she did, what could I do?"

Probably Neaera exaggerated even the fearless rectitude of Mrs. Bort,
but she was so convinced of the nature of the reception which any
proposal of the obvious kind would meet with that she made up her mind
that her only course was to throw herself on Mrs. Bort's mercy, in case
that lady proved deaf to a subtle little proposal which was Neaera's
first weapon.

So far as Neaera knew, Peckton and Manchester were the only places in
which George Neston was likely to seek for traces of her. Liverpool,
though remote from Peckton, was uncomfortably near Manchester. Every day
now had great value. If she could get Mrs. Bort away to some remote spot
as soon as might be, she gained no small advantage in her race against
time and George Neston.

"If she will only go to Glentarroch, he will never find her."

Glentarroch was the name of a little retreat in remote Scotland, whither
Mr. Witt had been wont to betake himself for rest and recreation. It was
Neaera's now. It was a beautiful place, which was immaterial, and a
particularly inaccessible one, which was most material. Would not Mrs.
Bort's despotic instincts lead her to accept an invitation to rule over
Glentarroch? Neaera could not afford to pity the hapless wights over
whom Mrs. Bort would rule.

Mrs. Bort received Neaera in a way most unbecoming to a pensioner.
"Well, Nery," she said, "what brings you here? No good, I'll be bound.
Where's your mourning?"

Neaera said that she thought resignation to Heaven's will not a subject
of reproach, and that she came to ask a favour of Mrs. Bort.

"Ay, you come to me when you want something. That's the old story."

Neaera remembered that Mrs. Bort had often taken her own view of what
the supplicant wanted, and given something quite other than what was
asked; but, in spite of this unpromising opening, she persevered, and
laid before Mrs. Bort a dazzling picture of the grandeur waiting her at
Glentarroch.

"And I shall be so much obliged. Really, I don't know what the
servants--the girls, especially--may be doing."

"Carryings-on, I'll be bound," said Mrs. Bort. "Why don't you go
yourself, Nery?"

"Oh, I can't, indeed. I--I must stay in London."

"Nasty, cold, dull little place it sounds," said Mrs. Bort.

"Oh, of course I shall consider all that----"

"He--he!" Mrs. Bort sniggered unpleasantly. "So it ain't sech a sweet
spot, as ye call it, after all?"

Neaera recovered herself without dignity, and stated that she thought of
forty pounds a year and all found.

"Ah, if I knowed what you was at, Nery!"

Neaera intimated that it was simply a matter of mutual accommodation.
"And there's really no time to be lost," she said, plaintively. "I'm
being robbed every day."

"Widows has hard times," said Mrs. Bort. And Neaera did not think it
necessary to say how soon her hard times were coming to an end.

"Come agin to-morrer afternoon, and I'll tell ye," was Mrs. Bort's
ultimatum. "And mind you don't get into mischief."

"Why afternoon?" asked Neaera.

"'Cause I'm washing," said Mrs. Bort, snappishly. "That's why."

Neaera in vain implored an immediate answer. Mrs. Bort said a day could
not matter, and that, if Neaera pressed her farther, she should consider
it an indication that something was "up," and refuse to go at all.
Neaera was silenced, and sadly returned to her hotel.

"How I hate that good, good woman!" she cried. "I'll never see her again
as long as I live, after to-morrow. Oh, I should like to hit her!"

The propulsions of cause upon cause are, as Bacon has said, infinite.
If Mrs. Bort had not washed--in the technical sense, of course--on that
particular Friday, Neaera would have come and gone--perhaps even Mrs.
Bort might have gone too--before the train brought George Neston to
Liverpool, and his eager inquiries landed him at Mrs. Bort's abode. As
it was, Mrs. Bort's little servant bade him wait in the parlour, as her
mistress was talking to a female in the kitchen. The little servant
thought "female" the politest possible way of describing any person
who was not a man, and accorded the title to Neaera on account of her
rustling robes and gold-tipped parasol.

George did not question his informant, thereby showing that he, in
the _rôle_ of detective, was a square peg in a round hole. He heard
proceeding from the kitchen a murmur of two subdued voices, one of
which, however, dominated the other.

"That must be Mrs. Bort," thought he. "I wish I could hear the female."

Then his attention wandered, for he made sure the unknown could not be
Neaera, as she had had a day's start of him. He did not allow for Mrs.
Bort's washing. Suddenly the dominant voice was raised to the pitch of
distinctness.

"Have ye told him," it said, "or have ye lied to him, as you lied to me
yesterday?"

"I didn't--I didn't," was the answer. "You never asked me if I was going
to be married."

"Oh, go along! You know how I'd have answered that when ye lived with
me."

"How's that?" asked George, with a slight smile.

"Have ye told him?"

"Told him what?" asked Neaera; for it was clearly Neaera.

"Told him you're a thief."

"This woman's a brute," thought George.

"Have ye?"

"No, not exactly. How dare you question me?"

"Dare!" said Mrs. Bort; and George knew she was standing with her arms
akimbo. "Dare!" she repeated _crescendo_; and apparently her aspect was
threatening, for Neaera cried,

"Oh, I didn't mean that. Do let me go."

"Tell the truth, if your tongue'll do it. The truth, will ye?"

"The deuce!" said George; for, following on this last speech, he heard a
sob.

"No, I haven't. I--oh, do have mercy on me!"

"Mercy! It's not mercy, it's a stick you want. But I'll tell him."

"Ah, stop, for Heaven's sake!"

There was a little scuffle; then the door flew open, and Mrs. Bort
appeared, with Neaera clinging helplessly about her knees.

George rose and bowed politely. "I'm afraid I intrude," said he.

"That's easy mended," said Mrs. Bort, with significance.

Neaera had leapt up on seeing him, and leant breathless against the
door, looking like some helpless creature at bay.

"Who let you in?" demanded the lady of the house.

"Your servant."

"I'll let _her_ in," said Mrs. Bort, darkly. "Who are ye?"

George looked at Neaera. "My name is Neston," he said blandly.

"Neston?"

"Certainly."

"Then you're in nice time; I wanted you, young man. D'ye see that
woman?"

"Certainly; I see Mrs. Witt."

"D'ye know what she is? Time you did, if you're a-going to take her to
church."

Neaera started.

"I hope to do so," said George, smiling; "and I think I know all about
her."

"Do ye, now? Happen ever to have heard of Peckton?"

Neaera buried her face in her hands, and cried.

"Ah, pity you haven't something to cry for! Thought I'd see a sin done
for ten pound a month, did ye?"

George interposed; he began to enjoy himself. "Peckton? Oh yes. The
shoes, you mean?"

Mrs. Bort gasped.

"A trifle," said George, waving the shoes into limbo.

"Gracious! You ain't in the same line, are you?"

George shook his head.

"Anything else?" he asked, still smiling sweetly.

"Only a trifle of forging," said Mrs. Bort. "But p'raps she got her
deserts from me over that."

"Forging?" said George. "Oh ah, yes. You mean about----"

"Her place at Bournemouth? Ah, Nery, don't you ache yet?"

Apparently Neaera did. She shivered and moaned.

"But I've got it," continued Nemesis; and, she bounded across the room
to a cupboard. "There, read that."

George took it calmly, but read it with secret eagerness. It was the
original character, and stated that Miss Gale began her service in May,
not March, 1883.

"I caught her a-copying it, and altering dates. My, how I did----"

"Dear, dear!" interrupted George. "I was afraid it was something new.
Anything else, Mrs. Bort?"

Mrs. Bort was beaten.

"Go along," she said. "If you likes it, it's nothing to me. But lock up
your money-box."

"Let me congratulate you, Mrs. Bort, on having done your duty."

"I'm an honest woman," said Mrs. Bort.

"Yes," answered George, "by the powers you are!" Then, turning to Mrs.
Witt, he added, "Shall we go--Neaera dear?"

"You'll both of you die on the gallows," said Mrs. Bort.

"Come, Neaera," said George.

She took his arm and they went out, George giving the little servant a
handsome tip to recompense her for the prospect of being "let in" by her
mistress.

George's cab was at the door. He handed Neaera in. She was still
half-crying and said nothing, except to tell him the name of her hotel.
Then he raised his hat, and watched her driven away, wiping his brow
with his handkerchief.

"Pheugh!" said he, "I've done it now--and what an infernal shame it
is!"



CHAPTER XII.

NOT BEFORE THOSE GIRLS!


It is a notorious fact that men of all ages and conditions quarrel, and
quarrel sometimes with violence. Women also, of a low social grade, are
not strangers to discord, and the pen of satire has not spared the
tiffs and wrangles that arise between elderly ladies of irreproachable
position, and between young ladies of possibly not irreproachable
morals. It is harder to believe, harder especially for young men whose
beards are yet soft upon their chins, that graceful gentle girlhood
quarrels too. Nobody would believe it, if there were not sisters in the
world; but, unhappily, in spite of the natural tendency to suppose that
all attributes distinctively earthy are confined to his own sisters,
and have no place in the sisters of his friends, a man of reflection,
checking his observations in the various methods suggested by logicians,
is forced to conclude that here is another instance of the old truth,
that a thing is not to be considered non-existent merely because it is
not visible to a person who is not meant to see it. This much apology
for the incident which follows is felt to be necessary in the interest
of the narrator's reputation for realism.

The fact is that there had been what reporters call a "scene" at Mrs.
Pocklington's. It so fell out that Isabel Bourne, accompanied by Maud
Neston, called on Laura to receive congratulations. Laura did her duty,
felicitated her friend on Tommy in possession and Tommy's title in
reversion, and loyally suppressed her personal opinion on the part these
two factors had respectively played in producing the announced result.
Her forbearance was ill-requited; for Maud, by way of clinching the
matter and conclusively demonstrating the satisfactory position of
affairs, must needs remark, "And what a lesson it will be for George!"

Laura said nothing.

"Oh, you mustn't say that, dear," objected Isabel. "It's really not
right."

"I shall say it," said Maud; "it's so exactly what he deserves, and I
know he feels it himself."

"Did he tell you so?" asked Laura, pausing in the act of pouring out
tea.

Maud laughed.

"Hardly, dear. Besides, we are not on speaking terms. But Gerald and Mr.
Myles both said so."

"Gerald and Mr. Myles!" said Laura.

"Please, don't talk about it," interposed Isabel. "What has happened
made no difference."

"Why, Isabel, you couldn't have him after----"

"No," said Isabel; "but perhaps, Maud, I shouldn't have had him before."

"Of course you wouldn't, dear. You saw his true character."

"You never actually refused him, did you?" inquired Laura.

"No, not exactly."

"Then what did you say?"

"What did I say?"

"Yes, when he asked you, you know," said Laura, with a little smile.

Isabel looked at her suspiciously. "He never did actually ask me," she
said, with dignity.

"Oh! I thought you implied----"

"But, of course, she knew he wanted to," Maud put in. "Didn't you,
dear?"

"Well, I thought so," said Isabel, modestly.

"Yes, I know you thought so," said Laura. "Indeed, everybody saw that.
Was it very hard to prevent him?"

Isabel's colour rose. "I don't know what you mean, Laura," she said.

Laura smiled with an unpleasantness that was quite a victory over
nature. "Men sometimes fancy," she remarked, "that girls are rather in a
hurry to think they want to propose."

"Laura!" exclaimed Maud.

"They even say that the wish is father to the thought," continued Laura,
still smiling, but now a little tremulously.

Isabel grew more flushed. "I don't understand you. One would think you
meant that I had run after him."

Laura remained silent.

"Everybody knows he was in love with Isabel for years," said Maud,
indignantly.

"He was very patient," said Laura.

Isabel rose. "I shall not stay here to be insulted. It's quite obvious,
Laura, why you say such things."

"I don't say anything. Only----"

"Well?"

"The next time, you might mention that among the reasons why you refused
Mr. Neston was, that he never asked you."

"I see what it is," said Isabel. "Don't you, Maud?"

"Yes," said Maud.

"What is it?" demanded Laura.

"Oh, nothing. Only, I hope--I wish you joy of him."

"If you don't mind a slanderer," added Maud.

"It's not true!" said Laura. "How dare you say it?"

"Take care, dear, that he doesn't fancy you're in a hurry---- What was
your phrase?" said Isabel.

"It's perfectly shameful," said Maud.

"I don't choose to hear a friend run down for nothing," declared Laura.

"A friend? How very chivalrous you are! Come, Maud dear."

"Good-bye, Laura," said Maud. "I'm sure you'll be sorry when you come to
think."

"No, I shan't. I----"

"There!" said Isabel. "I do not care to be insulted any more."

The two visitors swept out, and Laura was left alone. Whereupon she
began to cry. "I do hate that sort of vulgarity," said she, mopping her
eyes. "I don't believe he ever thought----"

Mrs. Pocklington entered in urbane majesty. "Well, is Isabel pleased
with her little man?" she asked. "Why, child, what's the matter?"

"Nothing," said Laura.

"You're crying."

"No, I'm not. Those girls have been horrid."

"What about?"

"Oh, the engagement, and----"

"And what?"

"And poor Mr. Neston--George Neston."

"Oh, poor George Neston. What did they say?"

"Isabel pretended he had been in love with her, and--and was in love
with her, and that she had refused him."

"Oh, and that made you cry?"

"No--not that----"

"What, then?"

"Oh, please, mamma!"

Mrs. Pocklington smiled. "Stop crying, my dear. It used to suit me, but
it doesn't suit you. Stop, dear."

"Very well, mamma," said poor Laura, thinking it a little hard that she
might not even cry.

"Did you cry before the girls?"

"No," said Laura, with emphasis.

"Good child," said Mrs. Pocklington. "Now, listen to me. You're never to
think of him again----"

"Mamma!"

"Till I tell you."

"Ah!"

"A tiresome, meddlesome fellow. Is your father in, Laura?"

"Yes, dear. Are you going to see him about----?"

"Why, you're as bad as Isabel!" said Mrs. Pocklington, with feigned
severity, disengaging Laura's arms from her neck. "He's never asked you
either!"

"No, dear; but----"

"The vanity of these children! There, let me go; and for goodness' sake,
don't be a cry-baby, Laura. Men hate water-bottles."

Thus mingling consolation and reproof, Mrs. Pocklington took her way to
her husband's study.

"I want five minutes, Robert," she said, sitting down.

"It's worth a thousand pounds a minute, my dear," said Mr. Pocklington,
genially, laying down his pipe and his papers. "What with this
strike----"

"Strike!" said Mrs. Pocklington with indignation. "Why do you let them
strike, Robert?"

"I can't help it. They want more money."

"Nonsense! They want to be taught their Catechisms. But I didn't come to
talk about that."

"I'm sorry you didn't, my dear. Your views are refreshing."

"Robert, Laura's got a fancy in her head about young George Neston."

"Oh!"

"'Oh!' doesn't tell me much."

"Well, you know all about him."

"He's a very excellent young man. Not rich."

"A pauper?"

"No. Enough."

"All right. If you're satisfied, I am. But hasn't he been making a fool
of himself about some woman?"

"Really, Robert, how strangely you express yourself! I suppose you mean
about Neaera Witt?"

"Yes, that's it. I heard some rumour."

"Heard some rumour! Of course you read every word about it, and gossiped
over it at the Club and the House. Now, haven't you?"

"Perhaps I have," her husband admitted. "I think he's a young fool."

"Am I to consider it an obstacle?"

"Well, what do you think yourself?"

"It's your business. Men know about that sort of thing."

"Is the child--eh?"

"Yes, rather."

"And he?"

"Oh, yes, or will be very soon, when he sees she is."

"Poor little Lally!" said Mr. Pocklington. Then he sat and pondered. "It
is an obstacle," he said at last.

"Ah!" said his wife.

"He must put himself right."

"Do you mean, prove what he says?"

"Well, at any rate, show he had good excuse for saying it."

"I think it's a little hard. But it's for you to decide."

Mr. Pocklington nodded.

"Then, that's settled," said Mrs. Pocklington. "It's a great comfort,
Robert, to have a man who knows his mind on the premises."

"Be gentle with her," said he, and returned to the strike.

The other parties to the encounter over George's merits had by a natural
impulse taken themselves to Neaera Witt's, with the hope of being
thanked for their holy zeal. They were disappointed, for, on arriving at
Albert Mansions, they were informed that Neaera, although returned from
Liverpool, was not visible. "Mr. Neston has been waiting over an hour
to see her, miss," said Neaera's highly respectable handmaid, "but she
won't leave her room."

Gerald heard their voices, and came out.

"I can't think what's the matter," he said.

"Oh, I suppose the journey has knocked her up," suggested Isabel.

"Are you going to wait, Gerald?" asked Maud.

"Well, no. The fact is, she sent me a message to go away."

"Then come home with me," said Isabel, "and we will try to console you."
Gerald would enjoy their tale quite as much as Neaera.

Low spirits are excusable in persons who are camping on an active
volcano, and Neaera felt that this was very much her position. At any
moment she might be blown into space, her pleasant dreams shattered,
her champions put to shame, and herself driven for ever from the only
place in life she cared to occupy. Her abasement was pitiful, and her
penitence, being born merely of defeat, offers no basis of edification.
She had serious thoughts of running away; for she did not think she
could face Gerald's wrath, or, worse still, his grief. He would cast
her off, and society would cast her off, and those dreadful papers would
turn their thunders against her. She might have consoled herself for
banishment from society with Gerald's love, or, perhaps, for loss of his
love with the triumphs of society; but she would lose both, and have not
a soul in the whole world to speak to except that hateful Mrs. Bort.
So she sat and dolefully mused, with the tailless cat, that gift of
a friendly gaoler at Peckton prison, purring on the rug before her,
unconsciously personifying an irrevocable past and a future emptied of
delight.



CHAPTER XIII.

CONTAINING MORE THAN ONE ULTIMATUM.


It was fortunate that Mr. Blodwell was not very busy on Saturday
morning, or he might have resented the choice of his chambers for a
council, and not been mollified by being asked to take part in the
deliberations. At eleven o'clock in the morning, Gerald Neston arrived,
accompanied by Sidmouth Vane and Mr. Lionel Fitzderham, who was, in
the first place, Mrs. Pocklington's brother, and, in the second place,
chairman of the committee of the Themis Club.

"We have come, sir," said Gerald, "to ask you to use your influence with
George. His conduct is past endurance."

"Anything new?" asked Mr. Blodwell.

"No, that's just it. This is Saturday. I'm to be married on Monday
week; and George does nothing."

"What do you want him to do?"

"Why, to acknowledge himself wrong, as he can't prove himself right."

Mr. Blodwell looked at Fitzderham.

"Yes," said the latter. "It can't stay as it is. The lady must be
cleared, if she can't be proved guilty. We arrived clearly at that
conclusion."

"We?"

"The committee of the Themis."

"Oh, ah, yes. And you, Vane?"

"I concur," said Vane, briefly. "I've backed George up to now: but I
agree he must do one thing or the other."

"Well, gentlemen, I suppose you're right. Only, if he won't?"

"Then we shall take action," said Fitzderham.

"So shall I," said Gerald.

Vane shrugged his shoulders.

Mr. Blodwell rang the bell.

"Is Mr. George in, Timms?" he asked.

"Yes, sir; just arrived."

"Ask him to step in to me, if he will. I don't see," he continued, "why
you shouldn't settle it with him. I've nothing to do with it, thank
God."

George entered. He was surprised to see the deputation, but addressed
himself exclusively to Blodwell.

"Here I am, sir. What is it?"

"These gentlemen," said Mr. Blodwell, "think that the time has come for
you to withdraw your allegations or to prove them."

"You see, George," said Vane, "it's not fair to leave Mrs. Witt under
this indefinite stigma."

"Far from it," said Fitzderham.

George stood with his back against the mantel-piece. "I quite agree," he
said. "Let's see--to-day's Saturday. When is the wedding, if there----?"

"Monday week," said Blodwell, hastily, fearing an explosion from Gerald.

"Very well. On Tuesday----"

"A telegram for you, sir," said Timms, entering.

"Excuse me," said George.

He opened and read his telegram. It ran, "Yes--my handwriting. Will
return by next post registered--Horne, Bournemouth."

"On Monday," continued George, "at five o'clock in the afternoon, I will
prove all I said, or withdraw it."

Gerald looked uneasy, but he tried to think, or at least to appear to
think, that George's delay was only to make his surrender less abrupt.

"Very well! Shall we meet here?"

"No," said Gerald. "Mrs. Witt ought to be present."

"Is that desirable?" asked George.

"Of course it is."

"As you please. I should say not. But ask her, and be guided by her
wishes."

"Well, then, at Lord Tottlebury's?" suggested Vane.

"By all means," said George. And, with a slight nod, he left the room.

"I hope," said Mr. Blodwell, "that you have done well in forcing matters
to an extremity."

"Couldn't help it," said Vane, briefly.

And the council broke up.

Mrs. Horne's telegram made George's position complete. It was impossible
for Neaera to struggle against such evidence, and his triumph was
assured from the moment when he produced the original document and
contrasted it with Neaera's doctored copy. Besides, Mrs. Bort was in the
background, if necessary; and although an impulse of pity had led him
to shield Neaera at Liverpool, he was in no way debarred by that from
summoning Mrs. Bort to his assistance if he wanted her. The Neston
honour was safe, an impostor exposed, and the cause of morality,
respectability, truth, and decency powerfully forwarded. Above all,
George himself was enabled to rout his enemies, to bring a blush to the
unblushing cheek of the _Bull's-eye_, and to meet his friends without
feeling that perhaps they were ashamed to be seen talking to him.

The delights of the last-mentioned prospect were so great, that George
could not make up his mind to postpone them, and, in the afternoon, he
set out to call on the Pocklingtons. There could be no harm in giving
them at least a hint of the altered state of his fortunes, due, as it
was in reality, to Mrs. Pocklington's kindness in presenting him to
Lord Mapledurham. It would certainly be very pleasant to prove to the
Pocklingtons, especially to Laura Pocklington, that they had been
justified in standing by him, and that he was entitled, not to the
good-natured tolerance accorded to honesty, but to the admiration due
to success.

In matters of love, at least, George Neston cannot be presented as an
ideal hero. Heroes unite the discordant attributes of violence and
constancy: George had displayed neither. Isabel Bourne had satisfied
his judgment without stirring his blood. When she presumed to be so
ill-advised as to side against him, he resigned, without a pang, a
prospect that had become almost a habit. Easily and insensibly the
pretty image of Laura Pocklington had filled the vacant space. As he
wended his way to Mrs. Pocklington's, he smiled to think that a month or
two ago he had looked forward to a life spent with Isabel Bourne with
acquiescence, though not, it is true, with rapture. Had the rapture
existed before, it is sad to think that perhaps the smile would have
been broader now; for love, when born in trepidation and nursed
in joy, is often buried without lamentation and remembered with
amusement--kindly, even tender amusement, but still amusement. An
easy-going fancy like George's for Isabel cannot claim even the tribute
of a tear behind the smile--a tear which, by its presence, causes yet
another smile. George was not even grateful to Isabel for a pleasant
dream and a gentle awakening. She was gone; and, what is more, she ought
never to have come: and there was an end of it.

George, having buried Isabel, rang the bell with a composed mind. He
might ask Laura Pocklington to marry him to-day, or he might not. He
would be guided by circumstances in that matter: but at any rate he
would ask her, and that soon; for she was the only girl he could ever
be happy with, and, if he dawdled, his chance might be gone. Of course
there was a crowd of suitors at her feet, and, although George had no
unduly modest view of his own claims, he felt it behoved him to be up
and doing. It is true that the crowd of suitors was not very much in
evidence, but who could doubt its existence without questioning the
sanity and eyesight of mankind?

As it so chanced, however, George did not see Laura. He saw Mrs.
Pocklington, and that lady at once led the conversation to the insistent
topic of Neaera Witt. George could not help letting fall a hint of his
approaching victory.

"Poor woman!" said Mrs. Pocklington. "But, for your sake, I'm very
glad."

"Yes, it gets me out of an awkward position."

"Just what my husband said. He thought that you were absolutely bound to
prove what you said, or at least to give a good excuse for it."

"Absolutely bound?"

"Well, I mean if you were to keep your place in society."

"And in your house?"

"Oh, he did not go so far as that. Everybody comes to my house."

"Yes; but, Mrs. Pocklington, I don't want to come in the capacity of
'everybody.'"

"Then, I think he did mean that you must do what I say, before you went
on coming in any other capacity."

George looked at Mrs. Pocklington. Mrs. Pocklington smiled
diplomatically.

"Is Miss Pocklington out?" asked George.

"Yes," said Mrs. Pocklington, "she is out."

"Not back soon?" asked George, smiling in his turn.

"Not yet."

"Not until----?"

"Well, Mr. Neston, I dare say you know what I mean."

"I think so. Fortunately, there is no difficulty. Shall we say Tuesday?"

"When Tuesday comes, we will see if we say Tuesday."

"And, otherwise, I am----?"

"Otherwise, my dear George, you have no one to persuade except----"

"Ah, that is the most difficult task of all."

"I don't know anything about that. Only I hope you believe what you say.
Young men are so conceited nowadays."

"When Miss Pocklington comes in, you will tell her how sorry I was not
to see her?"

"Certainly."

"And that I look forward to Tuesday?"

"No; I shall say nothing about that. You are not out of the wood yet."

"Oh yes, I am."

But Mrs. Pocklington stood firm; and George departed, feeling that the
last possibility of mercy for Neaera Witt had vanished. There is a limit
to unselfishness; nay, what place is there for pity when public duty and
private interest unite in demanding just severity?



CHAPTER XIV.

NEAERA'S LAST CARD.


Neaera Witt had one last card to play. Alas, how great the stake, and
how slight the chance! Still she would play it. If it failed, she would
only drink a little deeper of humiliation, and be trampled a little more
contemptuously under foot. What did that matter?

"You will not condemn a woman unheard," she wrote, with a touch of
melodrama. "I expect you here on Sunday evening at nine. You cannot be
so hard as not to come."

George had written that he would come, but that his determination
was unchangeable. "I must come, as you ask me," he said; "but it is
useless--worse than useless." Still he would come.

Bill Sykes likes to be tried in a black coat, and draggle-tailed Sal
smooths her tangled locks before she enters the dock. Who can doubt,
though it be not recorded, that the burghers of Calais, cruelly
restricted to their shirts, donned their finest linen to face King
Edward and his Queen, or that the Inquisitors were privileged to behold
many a robe born to triumph on a different stage? And so Neaera Witt
adorned herself to meet George Neston with subtle simplicity. Her own
ill-chastened taste, fed upon popular engravings, hankered after black
velvet, plainly made in clinging folds; but she fancied that the motive
would be too obvious for an eye so _rusé_ as George's, and reluctantly
surrendered her picture of a second Queen of Scots. White would be
better; white could cling as well as black, and would so mingle
suggestions of remorse and innocence that surely he could not be
hard-hearted enough to draw the distinction. A knot of flowers, destined
to be plucked to pieces by agitated hands--so much conventional emotion
she could not deny herself,--a dress cut low, and open sleeves made
to fall back when the white arms were upstretched for pity,--all this
should make a combined assault on George's higher nature and on his
lower. Neaera thought that, if only she had been granted time and money
to dress properly, she might never have seen the inside of Peckton gaol
at all; for even lawyers are human, or, if that be disputed, let us say
not superhuman.

George came in with all the awkwardness of an Englishman who hates a
scene and feels himself a fool for his awkwardness. Neaera motioned him
to a chair, and they sat silent for a moment.

"You sent for me, Mrs. Witt?"

"Yes," said Neaera, looking at the fire. Then, with a sudden turn of her
eyes upon him, she added, "It was only--to thank you."

"I'm afraid you have little enough to thank me for."

"Yes; your kindness at Liverpool."

"Oh, it seemed the best way out. I hope you pardon the liberty I took?"

"And for an earlier kindness of yours."

"I really----"

"Yes, yes. When they gave me that money you sent, I cried. I could not
cry in prison, but I cried then. It was the first time any one had ever
been kind to me."

George was embarrassed. He had an uneasy feeling that the sentiment was
trite; but, then, many of the saddest things are the tritest.

"It is good of you," he said, stumbling in his words, "to remember it,
in face of all I have done against you."

"You pitied me then."

"With all my heart."

"How did I do it? How did I? I wish I had starved; and seen my father
starve first!"

George wondered whether it was food that the late Mr. Gale so urgently
needed.

"But I did it. I was a thief; and once a thief, always a thief." And
Neaera smiled a sad smile.

"You must not suppose," he said, as he had once before, "that I do not
make allowances."

"Allowances?" she cried, starting up. "Allowances--always allowances!
never pity! never mercy! never forgetfulness!"

"You did not ask for mercy," said George.

"No, I didn't. I know what you mean--I lied."

"Yes, you lied, if you choose that word. You garbled documents, and,
when the truth was told, you called it slander."

Neaera had sunk back in her seat again. "Yes," she moaned. "I couldn't
let it all go--I couldn't!"

"You yourself have made pity impossible."

"Oh no, not impossible! I loved him so, and he--he was so trustful."

"The more reason for not deceiving him," said George, grimly.

"What is it, after all?" she exclaimed, changing her tone. "What is it,
I say?"

"Well, if you ask me, Mrs. Witt, it's an awkward record."

"An awkward record! Yes, but for a man in love?"

"That's Gerald's look-out. He can do as he pleases."

"What, after you have put me to open shame? And for what? Because I
loved my father most, and loved my--the man who loved me--most!" George
shook his head.

"If you were in love--in love, I say, with a girl--yes, if you were in
love with me, would this thing stop you?" And she stood before him
proudly and scornfully.

George looked at her. "I don't think it would," he said.

"Then," she asked, advancing a step, and stretching out her clasped
hands, "why ask more for another than for yourself?"

"Gerald will be the head of the family, to begin with----"

"The family?"

"Certainly; the Neston family."

"Who are they? Are they famous? I never heard of them till the other
day."

"I daresay not; we moved in rather different circles."

"Do you take pleasure in being brutal?"

"I take pleasure in nothing connected with this confounded affair," said
George, impatiently.

"Then why not drop it?"

George shook his head.

"Too late," he said.

"It's mere selfishness. You are only thinking of what people will say of
you."

"I have a right to consider that."

"It's mean--mean and heartless!"

George rose. "Really, it's no use going on with this," said he. And,
making a slight bow, he turned towards the door.

"I didn't mean it--I didn't mean it," cried Neaera. "But I am out of my
mind. Ah, have pity on me!" And she flung herself on the floor, right in
his path.

George felt very absurd. He stood, his hat in one hand, his stick and
gloves in the other, while Neaera clasped his legs below the knee, and,
he feared, was about to bedew his boots with her tears.

"This is tragedy, I suppose," he thought. "How the devil am I to get
away?"

"I have never had a chance," Neaera went on, "never. Ah, it is hard! And
when at last----" Her voice choked, and George, to his horror, heard her
sob.

He nervously shifted his feet about, as well as Neaera's eager clutches
would allow him. How he wished he had not come!

"I cannot bear it!" she cried. "They will all write about me, and jeer
at me; and Gerald will cast me off. Where shall I hide?--where shall I
hide? What was it to you?"

Then she was silent, but George heard her stifled weeping. Her clasp
relaxed, and she fell forward, with her face on the floor, in front of
him. He did not seize his chance of escape.

"London is uninhabitable to me, if I do as you ask," he said.

She looked up, the tears escaping from her eyes.

"Ah, and the world to me, if you don't!"

George sat down in an arm-chair; he abandoned the hope of running away.
Neaera rose, pushed back her hair from her face, and fixed her eyes
eagerly on him. He looked down for an instant, and she shot a hasty
glance at the mirror, and then concentrated her gaze on him again, a
little anxious smile coming to her lips.

"You will?" she asked in a whisper.

George petulantly threw his gloves on a table near him. Neaera advanced,
and knelt down beside him, laying her hand on his shoulder.

"You have made me cry so much," she said. "See, my eyes are dim. You
won't make me cry any more?"

George looked at the bright eyes, half veiled in tears, and the mouth
trembling on the brink of fresh weeping. And the eyes and mouth were
very good.

"It is Gerald," she said; "he is so strict. And the shame, the shame!"

"You don't know what it means to me."

"I do indeed: I know it is hard. But you are generous. No, no, don't
turn your face away!"

George still sat silent. Neaera took his hand in hers.

"Ah, do!" she said.

George smiled,--at himself, not at Neaera.

"Well, don't cry any more," said he, "or the eyes will be red as well as
dim."

"You will, you will?" she whispered eagerly.

He nodded.

"Ah, you are good! God bless you, George: you are good!"

"No. I am only weak."

Neaera swiftly bent and kissed his hand. "The hand that gives me life,"
she said.

"Nonsense," said George, rather roughly.

"Will you clear me altogether?"

"Oh yes; everything or nothing,"

"Will you give me that--that character?"

"Yes."

She seized his reluctant hand, and kissed it again.

"I have your word?"

"You have."

She leapt up, suddenly radiant.

"Ah, George, Cousin George, how I love you! Where is it?"

George took the document out of his pocket.

Neaera seized it. "Light a candle," she cried.

George with an amused smile obeyed her.

"You hold the candle, and I will burn it!" And she watched the paper
consumed with the look of a gleeful child. Then she suddenly stretched
her arms. "Oh, I am tired!"

"Poor child!" said George. "You can leave it to me now."

"However shall I repay you? I never can." Then she suddenly saw the cat,
ran to him, and picked him up. "We are forgiven, Bob! we are forgiven!"
she cried, dancing about the room.

George watched her with amusement.

She put the cat down and came to him. "See, you have made me happy. Is
that enough?"

"It is something," said he.

"And here is something more!" And she threw her arms round his neck, and
kissed him.

"That's better," said George. "Any more?"

"Not till we are cousins."

"Be gentle in your triumph."

"No, no; don't talk like that. Are you going?"

"Yes. I must go and put things straight."

"Good-bye. I--I hope you won't find it very hard."

"I have been paid in advance."

Neaera blushed a little.

"You shall be better paid, if ever I can," she said.

George paused outside, to light a cigarette; then he struck into the
park, and walked slowly along, meditating as he went. When he arrived at
Hyde Park Corner, he roused himself from his reverie.

"Now the woman was very fair!" said he, as he hailed a hansom.



CHAPTER XV.

A LETTER FOR MR. GERALD.


Mrs. Pocklington sat with blank amazement in her face, and a copy of the
second edition of the _Bull's-eye_ in her hand. On the middle page, in
type widely spaced, beneath a noble headline, appeared a letter from
George Neston, running thus:--

  "To the Editor of the _Bull's-eye_.

  "SIR,

  "As you have been good enough to interest yourself, and, I hope,
  fortunate enough to interest your readers, in the subject of
  certain allegations made by me in respect of a lady whose name has
  been mentioned in your columns, I have the honour to inform you
  that such allegations were entirely baseless, the result of a
  chance resemblance between that lady and another person, and of my
  own hasty conclusions drawn therefrom. I have withdrawn all my
  assertions, fully and unreservedly, and have addressed apologies
  for them to those who had a right to receive apologies.

  "I have the honour to be, sir,
  "Your obedient servant,
  "GEORGE NESTON."

And then a column of exultation, satire, ridicule, preaching, praying,
prophesying, moralising, and what not. The pen flew with wings of joy,
and ink was nothing regarded on that day.

Mrs. Pocklington was a kind-hearted woman; yet, when she read a sister's
vindication, she found nothing better to say than--

"How very provoking!"

And it may be that this unregenerate exclamation fairly summed up public
feeling, if only public feeling had been indecent enough to show itself
openly. A man shown to be a fool is altogether too common a spectacle;
a woman of fashion proved a thief would have been a more piquant dish.
But in this world--and, indeed, probably in any other--we must take
what we can get; and since society could not trample on Neaera Witt, it
consoled itself by correcting and chastening the misguided spirit of
George Neston. Tommy Myles shook his empty little head, and all the
other empty heads shook solemnly in time. Isabel Bourne said she knew
she was right, and Sidmouth Vane thought there must be something
behind--he always did, as became a statesman in the raw. Mr. Espion
re-echoed his own leaders, like a phonograph; and the chairman of the
Themis thanked Heaven they were out of an awkward job.

But wrath and fury raged in the breast of Laura Pocklington. She thought
George had made a fool of her. He had persuaded her to come over to his
side, and had then betrayed the colours. There would be joy in Gath and
Askelon; or, in other words, Isabel Bourne and Maud Neston would crow
over her insupportably.

"I will never see him or speak to him again, mamma," Laura declared,
passionately. "He has behaved abominably!"

This announcement rather took the wind out of Mrs. Pocklington's sails.
She was just preparing to bear majestically down upon her daughter with
a stern _ultimatum_ to the effect that, for the present, George must be
kept at a distance, and daughters must be guided by their mothers. At
certain moments nothing is more annoying than to meet with agreement,
when one intends to extort submission.

"Good gracious, Laura!" said Mrs. Pocklington, "you can't care much for
the man."

"Care for him! I detest him!"

"My dear, it hardly looked like it."

"You must allow me some self-respect, mamma."

Mr. Pocklington, entering, overheard these words. "Hallo!" said he.
"What's the matter?"

"Why, my dear, Laura declares that she will have nothing to say to
George Neston."

"Well, that's just your own view, isn't it?" A silence ensued. "It seems
to me you are agreed."

It really did look like it; but they had been on the verge of a pretty
quarrel all the same: and Mr. Pocklington was confirmed in the opinion
he had lately begun to entertain that, when paradoxes of mental process
are in question, there is in truth not much to choose between wives and
daughters.

Meanwhile, George Neston was steadily and unflinchingly devouring his
humble-pie. He sought and obtained Gerald's forgiveness, after half an
hour of grovelling abasement. He listened to Tommy Myles's grave rebuke
and Sidmouth Vane's cynical raillery without a smile or a tear. He even
brought himself to accept with docility a letter full of Christian
feeling which Isabel Bourne was moved to write.

All these things, in fact, affected him little in comparison with the
great question of his relations with the Pocklingtons. That, he felt,
must be settled at once, and, with his white sheet yet round him and his
taper still in his hand, he went to call on Mrs. Pocklington.

He found that lady in an attitude of aggressive tranquillity. With
careful ostentation she washed her hands of the whole affair. Left to
her own way, she might have been inclined to consider that George's
foolish recklessness had been atoned for by his manly retractation--or,
on the other hand, she might not. It mattered very little which would
have been the case; and, if it comforted him, he was at liberty to
suppose that she would have embraced the former opinion. The decision
did not lie with her. Let him ask Laura and Laura's father. They had
made up their minds, and it was not in her province or power to try
to change their minds for them. In fact, Mrs. Pocklington took up the
position which Mr. Spenlow has made famous--only she had two partners
where Mr. Spenlow had but one. George had a shrewd idea that her
neutrality covered a favourable inclination towards himself, and thanked
her warmly for not ranking herself among his enemies.

"I am even emboldened," he said, "to ask your advice how I can best
overcome Miss Pocklington's adverse opinion."

"Laura thinks you have made her look foolish. You see, she took your
cause up rather warmly."

"I know. She was most generous."

"You were so very confident."

"Yes; but one little thing at the end tripped me up. I couldn't have
foreseen it. Mrs. Pocklington, do you think she will be very obdurate?"

"Oh, I've nothing to do with it. Don't ask me."

"I wish I could rely on your influence."

"I haven't any influence," declared Mrs. Pocklington. "She's as
obstinate as a--as resolute as her father."

George rose to go. He was rather disheartened; the price he had to pay
for the luxury of generosity seemed very high.

Mrs. Pocklington was moved to pity. "George," she said, "I feel like a
traitor, but I will give you one little bit of advice."

"Ah!" cried George, his face brightening. "What is it, my dear Mrs.
Pocklington?"

"As to my husband, I say nothing; but as to Laura----"

"Yes, yes!"

"Let her alone--absolutely."

"Let her alone! But that's giving it up."

"Don't call, don't write, don't be known to speak of her. There, I've
done what I oughtn't; but you're an old friend of mine, George."

"But I say, Mrs. Pocklington, won't some other fellow seize the chance?"

"If she likes you best, what does that matter? If she doesn't----" And
Mrs. Pocklington shrugged her shoulders.

George was convinced by this logic. "I will try," he said.

"Try?"

"Yes, try to let her alone. But it's difficult."

"Stuff and nonsense. Laura isn't indispensable."

"I know those are not your real views."

"You're not her mother; for which you may thank Heaven."

"I do," said George, and took his leave, rather consoled. He would have
been even more cheerful had he known that Laura's door was ajar, and
Laura was listening for the bang of the hall door. When she heard it,
she went down to her mother.

"Who was your visitor, mamma?"

"Oh, George Neston."

"What did _he_ come about?"

"Well, my dear, to see me, I suppose."

"And what did he find to say for himself?"

"Oh, we hardly talked about that affair at all. However, he seems in
very good spirits."

"I'm sure he has no business to be."

"Perhaps not, my dear; but he was."

"I didn't know it was Mr. Neston. I'm so glad I didn't come down."

Mrs. Pocklington went on knitting.

"I expect he knew why."

Mrs. Pocklington counted three pearl and three plain.

"Did he say anything about it, mamma?"

"One, two, three. About what, dear?"

"Why, about--about my not coming?"

"No. I suppose he thought you were out."

"Did you tell him so?"

"He didn't ask, my dear. He has other things to think about than being
attentive to young women."

"It's very lucky he has," said Laura, haughtily.

"My dear, he lets you alone. Why can't you let him alone?"

Laura took up a book, and Mrs. Pocklington counted her stitches in a
brisk and cheerful tone.

It will be seen that George had a good friend in Mrs. Pocklington. In
truth he needed some kindly countenance, for society at large had gone
mad in praise of Neaera and Gerald. They were the fashion. Everybody
tried to talk to them; everybody was coming to the wedding; everybody
raved about Neaera's sweet patience and Gerald's unwavering faith. When
Neaera drove her lover round the park in her victoria, their journey was
a triumphal progress; and only the burden of preparing for the wedding
prevented the pair being honoured guests at every select gathering.
Gerald walked on air. His open hopes were realised, his secret fears
laid to rest; while Neaera's exaggerated excuses for George betrayed
to his eyes nothing but the exceeding sweetness of her disposition.
Her absolute innocence explained and justified her utter absence of
resentment, and must, Gerald felt, add fresh pangs to George's remorse
and shame. These pangs Gerald did not feel it his duty to mitigate.

Thursday came, and Monday was the wedding-day. The atmosphere was thick
with new clothes, cards of invitation, presents, and congratulations. A
thorny question had arisen as to whether George should be invited.
Neaera's decision was in his favour, and Gerald himself had written the
note, hoping all the while that his cousin's own good sense would keep
him away.

"It would be hardly decent in him to come," he said to his father.

"I daresay he will make some excuse," answered Lord Tottlebury. "But I
hope you won't keep up the quarrel."

"Keep up the quarrel! By Jove, father, I'm too happy to quarrel."

"Gerald," said Maud Neston, entering, "here's such a funny letter for
you! I wonder it ever reached."

She held out a dirty envelope, and read the address--

  "_Mr. Nesston, Esq._,
  "_His Lordship Tottilberry_,
  "_London._"

"Who in the world is it?" asked Maud, laughing.

Gerald had no secrets.

"I don't know," said he. "Give it me, and we'll see." He opened the
letter. The first thing he came upon was a piece of tissue paper neatly
folded. Opening it, he found it to be a ten-pound note. "Hullo! is this
a wedding present?" said he with a laugh.

"Ten pounds! How funny!" exclaimed Maud. "Is there no letter?"

"Yes, here's a letter!" And Gerald read it to himself.

The letter ran as follows, saving certain eccentricities of spelling
which need not be reproduced:--

  "SIR,

  "I don't rightly know whether this here is your money or Nery's.
  Nor I don't know _where it comes from_, after what you said when
  you was here with her Friday. I can work for my living, thanks be
  to Him to whom thanks is due, and I don't put money in my pocket
  as I don't know whose pocket it come out of.

  "Your humble servant,
  "SUSAN BORT."

"Susan Bort!" exclaimed Gerald. "Now, who the deuce is Susan Bort, and
what the deuce does she mean?"

"Unless you tell us what she says----" began Lord Tottlebury.

Gerald read the letter again, with a growing feeling of uneasiness. He
noticed that the postmark was Liverpool. It so chanced that he had not
been to Liverpool for more than a year. And who was Susan Bort?

He got up, and, making an apology for not reading out his letter, went
to his own room to consider the matter.

"'Nery?'" said he. "And if I wasn't there, who was?"

It was generous of George Neston to shield Neaera at Liverpool. It was
also generous of Neaera to send Mrs. Bort ten pounds immediately after
that lady had treated her so cruelly. It was honest of Mrs. Bort to
refuse to accept money which she thought might be the proceeds of
burglary. To these commendable actions Gerald was indebted for the
communication which disturbed his bliss.

"I wonder if Neaera can throw any light on it," said Gerald. "It's very
queer. After lunch, I'll go and see her."



CHAPTER XVI.

THERE IS AN EXPLOSION.


Mr. Blodwell was entertaining Lord Mapledurham at luncheon at the Themis
Club. The Marquis was not in an agreeable mood. He was ill, and when he
was ill he was apt to be cross. His host's calm satisfaction with the
issue of the Neston affair irritated him.

"Really, Blodwell," he said, "I sometimes think a lawyer's wig is like
Samson's hair. When he takes it off, he takes off all his wits with it.
Your simplicity is positively childish."

Mr. Blodwell gurgled contentedly over a basin of soup.

"I think no evil unless I'm paid for it," he said, wiping his mouth.
"George found he was wrong, and said so."

"I saw the girl in the Park yesterday," the Marquis remarked. "She's a
pretty girl."

"Uncommonly. But I'm not aware that being pretty makes a girl a thief."

"No, but it makes a man a fool."

"My dear Mapledurham!"

"Did he ever tell you what he found out at Liverpool?"

"Did he go to Liverpool?"

"Did he go? God bless the man! Of course he went, to look for----"

Lord Mapledurham stopped, to see who was throwing a shadow over his
plate.

"May I join you?" asked Sidmouth Vane, who thought he was conferring a
privilege. "I'm interested in what you are discussing."

"Oh, it's you, is it? Have you been listening?"

"No, but everybody's discussing it. Now, I agree with you, Lord
Mapledurham. It's a put-up job."

"I expect you thought it was a put-up job when they baptised you, didn't
you?" inquired the Marquis.

"And looked for poison in your bottle?" added Blodwell.

Vane gently waved his hand, as if to scatter these clumsy sarcasms. "A
man may not be sixty and yet not be an ass," he languidly observed.
"Waiter, some salmon, and a pint of 44."

"And may be sixty and yet be an ass, eh?" said the Marquis, chuckling.

"Among ourselves, why do you suppose he let her off?" asked Vane.

The Marquis pushed back his chair. "My young friend, you are too wise.
Something will happen to you."

"Hallo!" exclaimed Vane, "here's Gerald Neston."

Gerald came hastily up to Mr. Blodwell. "Do you know where George is?"
he asked.

"I believe he's in the club somewhere," answered Mr. Blodwell.

"No, he isn't. I want to see him on business."

Lord Mapledurham rose. "I know your father, Mr. Neston," he said. "You
must allow me to shake hands with you, and congratulate you on your
approaching marriage."

Gerald received his congratulations with an absent air. "I must go and
find George," he said, and went out.

"There!" said Vane, triumphantly. "Don't you see there's something up
now?"

The elder men tried to snub him, but they glanced at one another and
silently admitted that it looked as if he were right.

Mrs. Bort's letter had stirred into activity all the doubts that Gerald
Neston had tried to stifle, and had at last succeeded in silencing.
There was a darkly mysterious tone about the document that roused his
suspicions. Either there was a new and a more unscrupulous plot against
his bride, or else---- Gerald did not finish his train of thought,
but he determined to see Neaera at once, as George could not be found
without a journey to the Temple, and a journey to the Temple was twice
as far as a journey to Albert Mansions. Nevertheless, had Gerald known
what was happening at the Temple, he would have gone there first; for in
George's chambers, at that very moment, George was sitting in his chair,
gazing blankly at Neaera Witt, who was walking restlessly up and down.

"You sent her ten pounds?" he gasped.

"Yes, yes," said Neaera. "I can't let the creature starve."

"But why in the world did she send it back to Gerald?"

"Oh, can't you see? Why, you said you were Gerald; at least, it came to
that."

"And she meant to send it to me?"

"Yes, but I had told her my Mr. Neston was Lord Tottlebury's son; so I
suppose the letter has gone to Gerald. It must have, if you haven't got
it."

"But why should she send it to either of us?"

"Oh, because I said I sent it with Mr. Neston's approval."

"That wasn't true."

"Of course not. But it sounded better."

"Ah, it's dangerous work."

"I should never have done it, if I had foreseen this."

George knew that this represented Neaera's extreme achievement in
penitence, and did not press the question.

"What a wretch the woman is," Neaera continued. "Oh, what is to be done?
Gerald is sure to ask for an explanation."

"Quite possible, I should think."

"Well, then, I am lost."

"You'd better tell him all about it."

"I can't; indeed I can't. You won't, will you? Oh, you will stand by
me?"

"I don't know what Mrs. Bort has said, and so----"

He was interrupted by a knock at the door. George rose and opened it.
"What is it, Timms?"

"Mr. Gerald, sir, wants to see you on important business."

"Is he in his room?"

"Yes, sir. I told him you were engaged."

"You didn't tell him Mrs. Witt was here?"

"No, sir."

"Say I'll be with him in a few minutes."

George shut the door, and said, "Gerald's here, and wants to see me."

"Gerald! Then he has got the letter!"

"What do you propose to do, Mrs. Witt?"

"How can I tell? I don't know what she said. She only told me she had
sent back the money, and told him why."

"If she told him why----"

"I'm ruined," said Neaera, wringing her hands.

George stood with his back to the fireplace, and regarded her
critically. After a moment's pause, he said, with a smile,

"I knew it all--and you were not ruined."

"Ah, you are so good!"

"Nonsense," said George, with a broader smile.

Neaera looked up at him, and smiled too.

"Mightn't you risk it? Of course, truth is dangerous, but he's very fond
of you."

"Won't you help me?"

A heavy step and the sound of impatient pushing of furniture were heard
from the next room.

"Gerald is getting tired of waiting," said George.

"Won't you do anything?" asked Neaera again, barely repressing a sob.

"Supposing I were willing to lie, where is a possible lie? How can I
explain it?"

Timms knocked and entered. Gerald begged for a minute's interview, on
pressing business.

"In a moment," said George. Then, turning to Neaera, he added brusquely,
"Come, you must decide, Mrs. Witt."

Neaera was no longer in a condition to decide anything. Tears were her
ready refuge in time of trouble, and she was picturesquely weeping--for
she possessed that rare gift--in the old leathern arm-chair.

"Will you leave it to me?" asked George. "I'll do the best I can."

Neaera sobbed forth the opinion that George was her only friend.

"I shall tell him everything," said George. "Do you authorise me to do
that?"

"Oh, how miserable I am!--oh, yes, yes."

"Then stop crying, and try to look nice."

"Why?"

"Because I shall bring him in."

"Oh!" cried Neaera in dismay. But when George went out, she made her
hair a little rougher--for so paradoxically do ladies set about the task
of ordering their appearance--and anointed her eyes with the contents of
a mysterious phial, produced from a recondite pocket. Then she sat up
straight, and strained her ears to catch any sound from the next room,
where her fate was being decided. She could distinguish which of the two
men was speaking, but not the words. First Gerald, then George, then
Gerald again. Next, for full five minutes, George talked in low but
seemingly emphatic tones. Then came a sudden shout from Gerald.

"Here!" he cried. "In your room!"

They had risen, and were moving about. Neaera's heart beat, though she
sat still as a statue. The door was flung open, and she rose to meet
Gerald, as he entered with a rush. George followed, with a look of
mingled anger and perplexity on his face. Gerald flung a piece of paper
at Neaera; it was Mrs. Bort's letter, and, as it fell at her feet, she
sank back again in her chair, with a bitter little cry. The worst had
happened.

"Thank God for an honest woman!" cried Gerald.

"Gerald!" she murmured, stretching out her hands to him.

"Ah, you can do that to him!" he answered, pointing to George.

"I--I loved you," she said.

"He'll believe you, perhaps--or help you in your lies. I've done with
you."

He passed his hand over his brow, and went on. "I was easy to hoodwink,
wasn't I? Only a little wheedling and fondling--only a kiss or two--and
a lie or two! I believed it all. And you," he added, turning on George,
"you spared her, you pitied her, you sacrificed yourself. A fine
sacrifice!"

George put his hands in his pockets, and shrugged his shoulders.

"I shouldn't go on before Mrs. Witt," he remarked.

"Not go on! No, no. She's so pure, so innocent, isn't she? Worth any
sacrifice?"

"What do you mean, Gerald?" said Neaera.

"You don't know?" he asked, with a sneer. "What does a man ask for what
he's done? and what will a woman give? Will give? Has given?"

"Hold your tongue!" said George, laying a hand on his shoulder.

Neaera sat still, gazing at her lover with open eyes: only a little
shudder ran over her.

"You duped me nicely between you," Gerald continued, "me and all the
world. No truth in it all! A mistake!--all a mistake! He found out--his
mistake!" His voice rose almost to a shriek, and ended in a bitter
laugh.

"You needn't be a brute," said George, coldly.

Gerald looked at him, then at Neaera, and uttered another sneering
laugh. George was close by him now, seeming to watch every motion of
his lips. Neaera rose from her chair, and flung herself at the feet of
the angry man.

"Ah, Gerald, my love, have pity!" she wailed.

"Pity!" he echoed, drawing back, so that she fell on her face before
him. "Pity! I might pity a thief, I might pity a liar, I have no pity
for a----"

The sentence went unfinished, for, with a sudden motion, George closed
on him, and flung him through the open door out of the room.

"Finish your blackguardism outside!" he said, as he shut the door and
turned the key.



CHAPTER XVII.

LAURA DIFFERS.


_Ira brevis furor_, says the moralist; and the adjective is the only
part of the saw that is open to exception. Gerald Neston's wrath burnt
fiercely, but it burnt steadily also, and reflection brought with it
nothing but a stronger conviction of his wrongs. To George, the
interpretation his cousin put on his action in shielding Neaera seemed
to argue that uncommon degree of wrong-headedness that is hardly
distinguishable from immorality. Yet, in the recesses of George's heart
lurked the knowledge that Mrs. Witt, plain, old, unattractive, might
have reaped scant mercy, at his hands; and Gerald, if he did not believe
all he had brutally hinted, believed quite enough of it to make him
regard George as a traitor and Neaera as an intriguer. What sane
man could have acted as George had acted, unless under a woman's
fascination? Jealousy did the rest, for Neaera herself had sapped the
strength of her lover's trust in her, and he doubted not that she who
had deluded him in everything else had not hesitated to practise on him
the last deceit. She and George were confederates. Need any one ask how
they became so, or what the terms of the alliance were?

It was hardly wonderful that this theory, strange as it seemed, should
find a place in Gerald's disordered mind, or that, having done so, it
should vent itself in intemperate words and reckless sneers. It was,
however, more remarkable that the opinion gained some general favour. It
pleased the cynical, for it explained away what seemed like a generous
action; it pleased the gossips, for it introduced into the Neston affair
the topic most congenial to gossips; it pleased the "unco guid," for
it pointed the moral of the ubiquity of sin; it pleased men as a sex,
because it made George's conduct natural and explicable; it pleased
women as a sex, because it ratified the opinion they had always held
of beautiful mysterious widows in general, and of Neaera Witt in
particular. And amid this chorus, the voice of the charitable, admitting
indiscretion, but asserting generosity, was lost and hushed, and
George's little band of friends and believers were dubbed blind
partisans and, by consequence, almost accomplices.

Fortunately for George, among his friends were men who cared little for
public reprobation. Mr. Blodwell did his work, ate his dinner, said what
he thought, and esteemed the opinion of society much at the value the
Duke of Wellington set upon the views of the French nation. As for Lord
Mapledurham and Sidmouth Vane, unpopularity was the breath of their
nostrils; and Vane did not hesitate to purchase the pleasure of being in
a minority by a sacrifice of consistency; he abandoned the theory which
he had been among the first to suggest, as soon as the suggestion passed
by general acceptance into vulgarity.

The three men gave George Neston a dinner, drank Neaera's health,
and allowed themselves an attitude of almost contemptuous protest
against the verdict of society--a verdict forcibly expressed by the
_Bull's-eye_, when it declared with not unnatural warmth that it had had
enough of this "sordid affair." But then the _Bull's-eye_ had hardly
shown its wonted perspicacity, and Mr. Espion declared that he had not
been treated in a respectful way. There was no traversing the fact;
George's party fell back on a denial of the obligation.

Mankind is so constructed that the approbation of man does not satisfy
man, nor that of woman woman. If all the clubs had been ringing with his
praises, George Neston would still have turned his first and most eager
glance to Mrs. Pocklington's. As it was, he thought of little else than
what view of his conduct would gain the victory there. Alas! he knew
only too soon. Twice he called: twice was entrance refused him. Then
came a note from Mrs. Pocklington--an unanswerable note; for the lady
asserted nothing and denied nothing; she intrenched herself behind
common opinion. She, as George knew, was a tolerably independent person
so far as her own fame was concerned: but where her daughter was
interested, it was another thing; Laura's suitor must not be under a
cloud; Laura's future must not be jeopardied; Laura's affections must
be reposed only where absolute security could be guaranteed. Mr.
Pocklington agreed with his wife to the full. Hence there must be an end
of everything--so far as the Pocklington household was concerned, an end
of George Neston. And poor George read the decree, and groaned in his
heart. Nevertheless, strange events were happening behind that door, so
firmly, so impenetrably closed to George's eager feet--events to Mrs.
Pocklington inconceivable, even while they actually happened; to her
husband, alarming, reprehensible, extraordinary, puzzling, amusing,
almost, in a way, delightful. In fine, Laura rebelled. And the
declaration of independence was promulgated on this wise.

Mrs. Pocklington had conveyed to her daughter, with all delicacy
requisite and imaginable, the new phase of the affair. It shocked and
distressed her to allude to such things; but Laura was a woman now,
and must know--and so forth. And Laura heard it all with no apparent
shock--nay, with a calmness approaching levity; and when she was told
that all communications between herself and George must cease, she
shook her pretty head and retired to her bedroom, neither accepting nor
protesting against the decision.

The next morning after breakfast she appeared, equipped for a walk,
holding a letter in her hand. Mrs. Pocklington had ordered her
household, and had now sat down to a comfortable hour with a novel
before luncheon. _Dis aliter visum._

"I am going out, mamma," Laura began, "to post this note to Mr. Neston."

Mrs. Pocklington never made mistakes in the etiquette of names, and
assumed a like correctness in others. She imagined her daughter referred
to Gerald. "Why need you write to him?" she asked, looking up. "He's
nothing more than an acquaintance."

"Mamma! He's an intimate friend."

"Gerald Neston an intimate friend! Why----"

"I mean Mr. George Neston," said Laura, in a calm voice, but with a
slight blush.

"George!" exclaimed Mrs. Pocklington. "What in the world do you want to
write to George Neston for? I have said all that is necessary."

"I thought I should like to say something too."

"My dear, certainly not. If you had been--if there had been anything
actually arranged, perhaps a line from you would have been right;
though, under the circumstances, I doubt it. As it is, for you to write
would simply be to give him a chance of reopening the acquaintance."

Laura did not sit down, but stood by the door, prodding the carpet with
the point of her parasol. "Is the acquaintance closed?" she asked, after
a pause.

"You remember, surely, what I said yesterday? I hope it's not necessary
to repeat it."

"Oh no, mamma; I remember it." Laura paused, gave the carpet another
prod, and went on, "I'm just writing to say I don't believe a word of
it."

"Jack's Darling" fell from Mrs. Pocklington's paralysed grasp.

"Laura, how dare you? It is enough for you that I have decided what is
to be done."

"You see, mamma, when everybody is turning against him, I want to show
him he has one friend, at least, who doesn't believe these hateful
stories."

"I wonder you haven't more self-respect. Considering what is said about
him and Neaera Witt----"

"Oh, bother Mrs. Witt!" said Laura, actually smiling. "Really, mamma,
it's nonsense; he doesn't care that for Neaera Witt!" And she tried
to snap her fingers; but, happily for Mrs. Pocklington's nerves, the
attempt was a failure.

"I shall not argue with you, Laura. You will obey me, and there is an
end of it."

"You told me I was a woman yesterday. If I am, I ought to be allowed to
judge for myself. Anyhow, you ought to hear what I have to say."

"Give me that letter, Laura."

"I'm very sorry, mamma; but----"

"Give it to me."

"Very well; I shall have to write another."

"Do you mean to defy me, Laura?"

Laura made no answer.

Mrs. Pocklington opened and read the letter.

  "DEAR MR. NESTON," (it ran)--

  "I want you to know that I do not believe a single word of what
  they are saying. I am very sorry for poor Mrs. Witt, and I think
  you have acted _splendidly_. Isn't it charming weather? Riding in
  the park in the morning is a positive delight.

  "With kindest regards,

  "Yours very sincerely,
  "LAURA F. POCKLINGTON."

Mrs. Pocklington gasped. The note was little better than an assignation!
"I shall show this to your father," she said, and swept out of the room.

Laura sat down and wrote an exact copy of the offending document,
addressed it, stamped it, and put it in her pocket. Then, with
ostentatious calmness, she took up "Jack's Darling," and appeared to
become immersed in it.

Mrs. Pocklington found it hard to make her husband appreciate the
situation; indeed, she had scarcely risen to it herself. Everybody talks
of heredity in these days: the Pocklingtons, both people of resolute
will, had the opportunity of studying its working in their own
daughter. The result was fierce anger in Mrs. Pocklington, mingled anger
and admiration in her husband, perplexity in both. Laura's position was
simple and well defined. By coercion and imprisonment she might, she
admitted, be prevented sending her letter and receiving a reply, but
by no other means. Appeals to duty were met by appeals to justice; she
parried entreaty by counter-entreaty, reproofs by protestations of
respect, orders by silence. What was to be done? Laura was too old, and
the world was too old, for violent remedies. Intercepting correspondence
meant exposure to the household. The revolt was appalling, absurd,
unnatural; but it was also, as Mr. Pocklington admitted, "infernally
awkward." Laura realised that its awkwardness was her strength, and,
having in vain invited actual physical restraint, in its absence walked
out and posted her letter.

Then Mrs. Pocklington acted. At a day's notice she broke up her
establishment for the season, and carried her daughter off with her.
She gave no address save to her husband. Laura was not allowed to know
whither she was being taken. She was, as she bitterly said, "spirited
away" by the continental mail, and all the communications cut. Only,
just as the brougham was starting, when the last box was on, and Mr.
Pocklington, having spoken his final word of exhortation, was waving
good-bye from the steps, Laura jumped out, crossed the road, and dropped
a note into a pillar-box.

"It is only," she remarked, resuming her seat, "to tell Mr. Neston that
I can't give him any address at present."

What, asked Mrs. Pocklington of her troubled mind, were you to do with a
girl like that?



CHAPTER XVIII.

GEORGE NEARLY GOES TO BRIGHTON.


One evening, about a week after what Mr. Espion called the final
_esclandre_, Tommy Myles made his appearance in the smoking-room of
the Themis. More important matters have ousted the record of Tommy's
marriage and blissful honeymoon, and he came back to find that a
negligent world had hardly noticed his absence.

"How are you?" said he to Sidmouth Vane.

"How are you?" said Vane, raising his eyes for a moment from _Punch_.

Tommy sat down by him. "I say," he remarked, "this Neston business is
rather neat. We read about it in Switzerland."

"Been away?"

"Of course I have--after my wedding, you know."

"Ah! Seen _Punch_?" And Vane handed it to him.

"I had a pretty shrewd idea of how the land lay. So had Bella."

"Bella?"

"Why, my wife."

"Oh, a thousand pardons. I thought you rather backed Mrs. Witt."

"My dear fellow, we wanted her to have fair play. I suppose there's no
question of the marriage now?"

"I suppose not."

"What's the fair Mrs. Witt going to do?"

Vane wanted to be let alone, and Tommy worried him. He turned on the
little gentleman with some ferocity. "My dear Tommy," he said, "you
backed her through thick and thin, and blackguarded George for attacking
her."

"Yes, but----"

"Well, whoever was right, you weren't, so hadn't you better say no more
about it?" And Mr. Vane rose and walked away.

In fact, he was thoughtful. What would Mrs. Witt do next? And what would
George Neston do? Vane knew of cases where the accusation suggests the
crime; it seemed not unlikely that if George had to bear the contumely
attaching to a connection with Mrs. Witt, he might think it as well to
reap the benefit. He might not have sought to win her favour yet, but
it was very possible he might do so now. If he didn't--well, some one
would. And Mr. Vane considered that he might find it worth his while to
be the man. His great relatives would cry aloud in horror; society would
be shocked. But a man will endure something for a pretty woman and five
thousand a year. Only, what did George Neston mean to do?

It will be seen that Sidmouth Vane did not share Laura Pocklington's
conviction that George cared nothing for Mrs. Witt. Of course he had not
Laura's reasons: and perhaps some difference between the masculine and
feminine ways of looking at such things must be allowed for. As it
happened, however, Vane was right--for a moment. After George had been
for a second time repulsed from Mrs. Pocklington's doors, finding
the support of his friends unsatisfying and yearning for the more
impassioned approval that women give, he went the next day to Neaera's,
and intruded on the sorrow-laden retirement to which that wronged lady
had betaken herself. And Neaera's grief and gratitude, her sorrow and
sympathy, her friendship and fury, were all alike and equally delightful
to him.

"The meanness of it!" she cried with flashing eyes. "Oh, I would rather
die than have a petty soul like that!"

Gerald was, of course, the subject of these strictures, and George was
content not to contradict them.

"He evidently," continued Neaera, "simply cannot understand your
generosity. It's beyond him!"

"You mustn't rate what you call my generosity too high," said George.
"But what are you going to do, Mrs. Witt?"

Neaera spread her hands out with a gesture of despair.

"What am I to do? I am--desolate."

"So am I. We must console one another."

This speech was indiscreet. George recognised it, when Neaera's
answering glance reached him.

"That will make them talk worse than ever," she said, smiling. "You
ought never to speak to me again, Mr. Neston."

"Oh, we are damned beyond redemption, so we may as well enjoy
ourselves."

"No, you mustn't shock your friends still more."

"I have no friends left to shock," replied George, bitterly.

Neaera implored him not to say that, running over the names of such as
might be supposed to remain faithful. George shook his head at each
name: when the Pocklingtons were mentioned, his shake was big with
sombre meaning.

"Well, well," she said with a sigh, "and now what are you going to do?"

"Oh, nothing. I think some of us are going to have a run to Brighton. I
shall go, just to get out of this."

"Is Brighton nice now?"

"Nicer than London, anyhow."

"Yes. Mr. Neston----?"

"Yes, Mrs. Witt? Why don't you come too."

"At any rate, you'd--you and your friends--be somebody to speak to,
wouldn't you?" said Neaera, resting her chin on her hand and gazing at
George.

"Oh yes, you must come. We shall be very jolly."

"Poor us! But perhaps it will console us to mingle our tears."

"Will you come?" asked George.

"I shan't tell you," she said with a laugh. "It must be purely
accidental."

"A fortuitous concurrence? Very well. We go to-morrow."

"I don't want to know when you go."

"No. But we do."

Neaera laughed again, and George took his leave, better pleased with
the world than when he arrived. A call on a pretty woman often has this
effect; sometimes, let us add, to complete our commonplace, just the
opposite.

"Why shouldn't I?" he argued to himself. "I don't know why I should get
all the blame for nothing. If they think it of me, I may as well do
it."

But when George reached his lodgings, he found on the table, side by
side with Mr. Blodwell's final letter about the Brighton trip, Laura
Pocklington's note. And then--away went Brighton, and Neaera Witt, and
the reckless defiance of public opinion, and all the rest of it! And
George swore at himself for a heartless, distrustful, worthless person,
quite undeserving to receive such a letter from such a lady. And when
the second letter came the next morning, he swore again, at himself for
his meditated desertion, and by all his gods, that he would be worthy of
such favour.

"The child's a trump," he said, "a regular trump! And she shan't be
worried by hearing of me hanging about in Mrs. Witt's neighbourhood."

The happy reflections which ensued were appropriate, but hackneyed,
being in fact those of a man much in love. It is, however, worth notice
that Laura's refusal to think evil had its reward: for if she had
suspected George, she would never have shown him her heart in those
letters; and, but for those letters, he might have gone to Brighton,
and----; whereas what did happen was something quite different.



CHAPTER XIX.

SOME ONE TO SPEAK TO.


Being a public character, although an object of ambition to many, has
its disadvantages. Fame is very pleasant, but we do not want everybody
in the hotel to point at us when we come down to dinner. When Neaera
went to Brighton--for it is surely unnecessary to say that she intended
to go and did go thither--she felt that the fame which had been thrust
upon her debarred her from hotels, and she took lodgings of a severely
respectable type, facing the sea. There she waited two days, spending
her time walking and driving where all the world walks and drives. There
were no signs of George, and Neaera felt aggrieved. She sent him a line,
and waited two days more. Then she felt she was being treated as badly
as possible--unkindly, negligently, faithlessly, disrespectfully. He had
asked her to come; the invitation was as plain as could be: without a
word, she was thrown over! In great indignation she told her maid to
pack up, and, meanwhile, sallied out to see if the waves would perform
their traditional duty of soothing a wounded spirit. The task was a hard
one; for, whatever Neaera Witt had suffered, neglect at the hands of man
was a grief fortune had hitherto spared her.

She forsook the crowded parade, and strolled down by the water's edge.
Presently she sat down under the shade of a boat, and surveyed the
waters and the future. She felt very lonely. George had seemed inclined
to be pleasant but now he had deserted her. She had no one to speak to.
What was the use of being pretty and rich? Everything was very hard and
she had done no real harm, and was a very, very miserable girl, and----
Under the shade of the boat, Neaera cried a little, choosing the moment
when there were no passers-by.

But one who came from behind escaped her vigilance. He saw the gleam of
golden hair, and the slim figure, and the little shapely head bowing
forward to meet the gloved hands; and he came down the beach, and,
standing behind her for a moment, heard a little gurgle of distress.

"I beg your pardon," said he. "Can I help?"

Neaera looked up with a start. The upright figure, bravely resisting
a growing weight of years, the iron-grey hair, the hooked nose, and
pleasant keen eyes seemed familiar to her. Surely she had seen him in
town!

"Why, it's Mrs. Witt!" he said. "We are acquaintances, or we ought to
be." And he held out his hand, adding, with a smile, "I am Lord
Mapledurham."

"Oh!" said Neaera.

"Yes," said the Marquis. "Now, I know all about it, and it's a burning
shame. And, what's more, it's all my fault."

"Your fault?" she said, in surprise.

"However, I warned George Neston to let it alone. But he's a hot-headed
fellow."

"I never thought him that."

"He is, though. Well, look at this. He asks Blodwell, and Vane, and
me--at least, he didn't ask me, but Blodwell did--to make a party here.
We agree. The next moment--hey, presto! he's off at a tangent!"

Neaera could not make up her mind whether Lord Mapledurham was giving
this explanation merely to account for his own presence or also for her
information.

"The fact is, you see," the Marquis resumed, "his affairs are rather
troublesome. He's out of favour with the authorities, you know--Mrs.
Pocklington."

"Does he mind about Mrs. Pocklington?"

"He minds about Miss Pocklington, and I suspect----"

"Yes?"

"That she minds about him. I met Pocklington at the club yesterday, and
he told me his people had gone abroad. I said it was rather sudden, but
Pocklington turned very gruff, and said 'Not at all.' Of course that
wasn't true."

"Oh, I hope she will be good to him," said Neaera. "Fancy, if I were the
cause----"

"As I said at the beginning," interrupted the Marquis, "I'm the cause."

"You!"

Then he settled himself by her side, and told her how his reminiscence
had been the first thing to set George on the track of discovery, whence
all the trouble had resulted.

"So you see," he ended, "you have to put all your woes down to my
chatter."

"How strange!" she said, dreamily, looking out to sea.

The Marquis nodded, his eyes scanning her face.

Then she turned to him suddenly, and said, "I was very young, you know,
and--rather hungry."

"I am a sinner myself," he answered, smiling.

"And--and what I did afterwards, I----"

"I came to make my confession, not to hear yours. How shall I atone for
all I have brought on you? What shall I do now?"

"I--I only want some friends, and--and some one to speak to," said
Neaera, with a forlorn little sigh.

The Marquis took her hand and kissed it gallantly. "If that is all,"
said he, smiling, "perhaps we may manage."

"Thanks," said Neaera, putting her handkerchief into her pocket.

"That's right! Blodwell and Vane are here too, and----"

"I don't much care about them; but----"

"Oh, they're all on your side."

"Are they? I needn't see more of them than I like, need I?"

The Marquis was not young, no, nor inexperienced; but, all the same, he
was not proof against this flattery. "Perhaps they won't stay long," he
said.

"And you?" she asked.

He smiled at her, and, after a moment of innocent seriousness, her lips
wavered into an answering smile.

The Marquis, after taking tea with Neaera and satisfying himself that
the lady was not planning immediate flight, strolled back to his hotel
in a thoughtful mood. He enjoyed a little triumph over Mr. Blodwell and
Sidmouth Vane at dinner; but this did not satisfy him. For almost the
first time in his life, he felt the need of an adviser and confidant:
he was afraid that he was going to make a fool of himself. Mr. Blodwell
withdrew after dinner, to grapple with some papers which had pursued
him, and the Marquis sat smoking a cigar on a seat with Vane, struggling
against the impulse to trust that young man with his thoughts. Vane was
placidly happy: the distant, hypothetical relations between himself and
Neaera, the like of which his busy idle brain constructed around every
attractive marriageable woman he met, had no power to disturb either his
soul or his digestion. If it so fell out, it would be well; but he was
conscious that the object would wring from him no very active exertions.

"Mrs. Witt expected to find George here, I suppose?" he asked, flicking
the ash from his cigar.

"Yes, I think so."

"Anything on there?"

"Nothing at all, my dear fellow," replied the Marquis, with more
confidence than he would have shown twelve hours before. "She knows he's
mad about little Laura Pocklington."

"I'll call on her to-morrow," said Vane, with his usual air of gracious
condescension.

"She's living very quietly," remarked the Marquis.

Vane turned towards him with a smile and almost a wink. "Oho!" he said.

"Be respectful to your elders, you young dog," said the Marquis.

"You make us forget your claims in that respect. You must be more
venerable," answered Vane.

After a moment's silent smoking, "Why don't you marry?" asked the
Marquis. It is a question which often means that the questioner's own
thoughts are trending in that direction.

"I'm waiting for that heiress." Then he added, perhaps out of good
nature, "If it comes to that, why don't you?"

"I'm not anxious to have people pointing at me for an old fool."

"Oh, hang people! Besides, you're not old."

"Fifty-six."

"That's nothing nowadays."

"You're laughing!" said the Marquis, suspiciously.

"Upon my honour, no."

The Marquis laughed too, and put his cigar back in his mouth. He took
it out again almost at once. "It wouldn't be bad to have a son," he
said. "I mean an heir, you know."

"The first step is a wife then, no doubt."

"Most women are so tedious. Still, you understand my feeling?"

"I might in your position. For myself, I hate brats."

"Ah, you will feel it some day."

Vane thought this rather barefaced. "When did it attack you?" he asked
with a smile.

"This afternoon," answered the Marquis, gravely.

Vane's cynical humour was tickled by the _dénoûment_ this admission
suggested. "Gad! I should like to see Gerald Neston's face!" he
chuckled, forgetting his own designs in his gratification.

"Of course she's--well, the deuce of a flirt," said the Marquis.

Vane risked a philosophical generalisation. "All nice women are flirts,"
he said. "That's what you mean when you call them nice."

"Very pretty and attractive, though."

"And the shoes?"

"Damn the shoes!" said the Marquis.

The next morning, Mr. Blodwell and Sidmouth Vane went to London; but the
society papers recorded that the Marquis of Mapledurham prolonged his
stay at Brighton.



CHAPTER XX.

FATE'S INSTRUMENTS.


Summer and autumn came and went. The season died lingeringly and
suffered its slow resurrection. Grouse and partridges, autumn scares
and vacation speeches, the yield of the crops and the beginning of the
session each had their turn of public favour, and the great Neston
sensation died away, galvanised now and again into a fitful spasm of
life by Mr. Espion's persevering battery. His efforts were in vain. All
the cats were out of all the bags, and the interest of the public was
satiated. The actors in the drama, returning to town, as most of them
did in the winter, found themselves restored to obscurity; their story,
once so eagerly dished up as the latest gossip, was now the stale stock
of bores, useful only to regale the very young or the very provincial
palate.

All at once, there was a revival. A rumour, a piquant rumour, began to
be whispered at the clubs. Men again looked at Gerald Neston, wondering
if he had heard it, and at George, asking how he would take it. Mr.
Blodwell had to protest ignorance twenty times a day, and Sidmouth Vane
intrenched himself in the safe seclusion of his official apartment. If
it were true, it was magnificent. Who knew?

Mr. Pocklington heard the rumour, but, communing with his own heart,
held his tongue. He would not disturb the peace that seemed again to
have settled on his house. Laura, having asserted her independence, had
allowed the subject to drop; she had been bright, cheerful, and docile,
had seen sights, and gone to entertainments, and made herself agreeable;
and Mrs. Pocklington hoped, against a secret conviction, that the
rebellion was not only sleeping but dead. She could not banish herself
from London; so, with outward confidence and inward fear, she brought
her daughter home in November, praying that George Neston might not
cross her path, praying too, in her kind heart, that time might remove
the silent barrier between her and her daughter, against which she
fretted in vain.

But certain other people had no idea of leaving the matter to the slow
and uncertain hand of time. There was a plot afoot. George was in it,
and Sidmouth Vane, and Mr. Blodwell; so was the Marquis, and another,
whose present name it would ruin our deep mystery to disclose--if it be
guessed, there is no help for it. And just when Laura was growing sad,
and a little hurt and angry at hearing nothing from George, she chanced
to have a conversation with Sidmouth Vane, and emerged therefrom,
laughing, blushing, and riotously happy, though the only visible outcome
of the talk was an invitation for her mother and herself to join in the
mild entertainment of afternoon tea at Vane's rooms the next day. Now,
Sidmouth Vane was very deceitful; he, so to say, appropriated to his
own use and credit Laura's blushes and Laura's laughter, and, when the
invitation came, innocent Mrs. Pocklington, without committing herself
to an approval of Mr. Vane, rejoiced to think it pleased Laura to take
tea with any young man other than George Neston, and walked into the
trap with gracious urbanity.

Vane received his guests, Mr. Blodwell supporting him. Mrs. Pocklington
and her daughter were the first arrivals, and Vane apologised for the
lateness of the others.

"Lord Mapledurham is coming," he said, "and he's been very busy lately."

"I thought he was out of town," said Mrs. Pocklington.

"He only came back yesterday."

The door opened, and Vane's servant announced with much pomp, "The
Marquis and Marchioness of Mapledurham."

The Marquis advanced straight to Mrs. Pocklington; then he took Neaera's
hand, and said, "You have always been good to me, Mrs. Pocklington. I
hope you'll be as good to my wife."

It was hushed up as far as possible, but still it leaked out that, on
this sole occasion, Mrs. Pocklington was at a loss--was, in fact, if
the word be allowable, flabbergasted. Vane maliciously hinted at burnt
feathers and other extreme remedies, and there was really no doubt at
all that Laura untied her mother's bonnet-strings.

Neaera stood looking on, half proud, half frightened, till Laura ran to
her and kissed her, and called her the best friend she had, with much
other emotional language.

Then Mrs. Pocklington came round, and took a cup of tea, and, still
unconsciously doing just as she was meant to do, drifted into the
balcony with the Marquis, and had a long conversation with him. When she
came back, she found Vane ordering a fresh pot of tea.

"But we must really be going," she said. "Mustn't we, Laura?" And as she
spoke she took her daughter's hand and patted it.

"Do you expect any one else, Vane?" asked Mr. Blodwell.

"Well, I did, but he's very late."

"Where can he have got to?" asked Neaera, smiling.

"Oh, I know where he is," said Vane. "He's--he's only in the next room."

Everybody looked at Mrs. Pocklington and smiled. She looked at them all,
and last at her daughter. Laura was smiling too, but her eyes were eager
and imploring.

"If he wants any tea, he had better come in," said Mrs. Pocklington.

So the pair of shoes wrought out their work, giving society yet another
sensation, making Neaera Witt a great lady, and Laura Pocklington
a happy woman, and confirming all Mrs. Bort's darkest views on the
immorality of the aristocracy. And the Marquis and George Neston put
their heads together, and caused to be fashioned two dainty little
shoes in gold and diamonds, and gave them to their wives, as a sign and
remembrance of the ways of destiny. And Neaera wears the shoe, and will
talk to you quite freely about Peckton Gaol.

The whole affair, however, shocked Lord Tottlebury very deeply, and
Gerald Neston is still a bachelor. Whether this fate be a reward for
the merits he displayed, or a punishment for the faults he fell into,
let each, according to his prejudices or his experience, decide. _Non
nostrum est tantas componere lites._


WARD, LOCK AND CO., LTD., LONDON, MELBOURNE, AND TORONTO.



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  DUNDEE ADVERTISER.--"The author is an absolute master of sensation,
  and tells his powerful tale in a way which grips the reader at once,
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THE SCALES OF JUSTICE. 6s.

  The story is rich in sensational incident and dramatic situations.
  It is seldom, indeed, that one meets with a novel of such power and
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L. G. MOBERLY

IN THE BALANCE.

  THE LADIES' FIELD.--"Miss Moberly increases her literary reputation
  with each novel that she writes, and her new book is the best
  constructed in plot as well as one of the most interesting of all
  her homely stories."

JOY.

  DAILY TELEGRAPH.--"Miss L. G. Moberly has a remarkable talent for
  making a simple story, thoroughly interesting and satisfying. It
  needs much skill and a good deal of charm in writing to achieve
  this, and her latest novel is a fine example of her power."

THAT PREPOSTEROUS WILL.

  THE DAILY GRAPHIC.--"We could wish that every novel were as
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HOPE, MY WIFE.

  THE GENTLEWOMAN.--"Miss Moberly interests us so much in heroine, and
  in her hero, that we follow the two with pleasure through adventures
  of the most improbable order."

DIANA.

  THE SCOTSMAN.--"So cleverly handled as to keep its interest always
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DAN--AND ANOTHER.

  THE DAILY NEWS.--"Must be considered one of the best pieces of work
  that Miss Moberly has yet produced."

A TANGLED WEB.

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ANGELA'S MARRIAGE.

  IRISH INDEPENDENT.--"That Miss Moberly has a delightful and graceful
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THE SIN OF ALISON DERING.

  THE FINANCIAL TIMES.--"The plot of this story is cleverly conceived
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  tangle is finally cleared up. As a character-study, the figure of
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A VERY DOUBTFUL EXPERIMENT.

  IRISH INDEPENDENT.--"Miss Moberly's former works have well
  established her ability to write fascinating fiction and create
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A WOMAN AGAINST THE WORLD.

  THE SCOTSMAN.--"The whole tale is a powerful and enthralling one,
  and cannot fail to enhance the growing reputation of the authoress."



Transcriber's Note


For the txt-version of this e-book words in italics have been surrounded
by _underscores_, and small capitals changed to all capitals.

The following corrections have been made, on page

    9 "that" changed to "than" (no less special in kind than in degree)
   49 " added (unless you get it very soon----")
   57 . added (answered Gerald. "This)
   69 "epiphet" changed to "epithet" (the propriety of Mrs.
      Pocklington's epithet)
   79 double "a" removed (That's only a copy.)
  126 " added (helped him to the nearest gin-palace.")
  156 ' changed to " (made you cry?")
  164 ' changed to " ("Yes--my handwriting.)
  176 . added (if you choose that word.)
  189 "b" changed to "be" (she will be very obdurate)
  201 . changed to ," (the woman is," Neaera continued)
  214 " added (a chance of reopening the acquitance.")
  247 " added (and separate excitement.").

Otherwise the original has been preserved, including the use of archaic
words and inconsistent hyphenation.





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