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Title: A Woman Martyr
Author: Diehl, Alice Mangold
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A Woman Martyr" ***

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[Illustration: Cover]



[Illustration: "She turned a white set face upon her self-elected
escort."  _A Woman Martyr_.  _Page 10_.]



                             A WOMAN MARTYR


                                   BY
                          ALICE MANGOLD DIEHL

                      AUTHOR OF "PASSION PUPPETS"
                 "THE KNAVE OF HEARTS" "FIRE" ETC. ETC



                     ILLUSTRATIONS BY ADOLF THIEDE



                                 LONDON
                       WARD, LOCK AND CO. LIMITED
                         NEW YORK AND MELBOURNE
                                  1903



                                Contents

CHAPTER I
CHAPTER II
CHAPTER III
CHAPTER IV
CHAPTER V
CHAPTER VI
CHAPTER VII
CHAPTER VIII
CHAPTER IX
CHAPTER X
CHAPTER XI
CHAPTER XII
CHAPTER XIII
CHAPTER XIV
CHAPTER XV
CHAPTER XVI
CHAPTER XVII
CHAPTER XVIII
CHAPTER XIX
CHAPTER XX
CHAPTER XXI
CHAPTER XXII
CHAPTER XXIII
CHAPTER XXIV
CHAPTER XXV
CHAPTER XXVI
CHAPTER XXVII
CHAPTER XXVIII
CHAPTER XXIX
CHAPTER XXX
CHAPTER XXXI
CHAPTER XXXII
CHAPTER XXXIII
CHAPTER XXXIV
CHAPTER XXXV



                               CHAPTER I


A sharp shower pattering on the foliage of the sycamores and elms was
scattering the equestrians in the Row.  Fair girls urged their hacks
into a canter and trotted swiftly homewards.  Other riders, glancing
upwards, and deciding that the clouds had done their worst, drew up
under the trees.  Among these was a slight, graceful girl in a
well-fitting habit with a pale, classic face, and the somewhat Venetian
combination of dark brown eyes and red-gold hair.  With a slight wave of
her whip to her groom--who halted obediently under a neighbouring
tree--she reined in her slender-limbed bay mare under a horse-chestnut
tree whose shelter was still undemanded.

There she sat still in her saddle, with a slight frown--biting her
lip--as she asked herself again and again, "Did he see me? Has he ridden
out of the park?"

When she cantered along just as the shower began, she fancied she
recognised an admirer she had believed to be far away, walking his horse
in the same direction as herself.  This was Lord Vansittart--a man who
had several times repeated his offer of marriage--an offer she did not
refuse because he had not stirred her heart--for she loved him, and
passionately--but for other reasons. Although it had caused her bitter
pain, she had at least been determined enough in her "No" to send him
off, in dudgeon, to seek forgetfulness in other climes.

And now he had appeared again!

Her first feeling had been dismay, mingled with involuntary ecstacy
which startled her. Then came a wild, almost uncontrollable impulse just
to speak to him--to touch his hand, to look into those love laden eyes
once more--only once more!

She gazed furtively here and there, divided between the hope and fear
that her longing would be sated--she would meet him. Riders passed and
repassed.  The little crowds gathered, thickened, dispersed.  She was
disappointedly telling herself that as the shower had temporarily
subsided she ought to be returning home, when her heart gave a leap. A
rider who was trotting towards her was the man--the man strongly if
slightly built, handsome, fair, if stern--who alone among men had
conquered that heart, who, although despair had driven her to hold her
own against him, was her master.

It was all over--fate had decided--they two must once more meet! There
was no escape.

He rode up.  She blanched, but looked him steadily in the face.  He
gazed sadly, beseechingly, yet with that imperious compelling glance
which had so often made her quail--into those beautiful brown eyes.

"We meet again, you see," he said, in a harsh, strained voice.  He felt
on the rack--to him, wildly panting, yearning to take her in his arms
after weary, maddening months of longing, that gulf between them seemed
a very hell.

"So it seems," she said, with a pitiful attempt at a laugh.  "I thought
you were in Kamschatka, or Bombay--or anywhere!"

"I have come back," he returned, lamely, mechanically accompanying her
as she rode out of shelter--she would not, could not, stay there and
bandy words with him!  "I felt--I must know--the worst!"

Involuntarily she reined in, and so suddenly that she startled her
steed, and it was some moments before the mare’s nerves were calmed.
Then she turned a white, set face upon her self-elected escort.

"What do you mean, Lord Vansittart?" she asked scornfully, and her eyes
flashed.

"You--know," he hoarsely said.  "I am not so utterly vain as to think
that where I have failed, other and--and--more attractive fellows may
not succeed!"

"You know, or ought to know, that what you are saying is absurd!" she
faltered. What had she thought, feared?  She hardly knew, she only felt
a tremendous relief. Thank Heaven, even had she been secretly vowed to
the cloister, her conduct since their parting could not have borne
closer scrutiny! "You must remember--what I said--I never, never, intend
to marry--anyone.  I shall never, never, change my mind--about _that_!"

He said nothing; but glanced at her--a curious glance.  A puzzle to him
since he first had felt encouraged to believe from symptoms which only a
watchful, anxious lover would perceive, that she involuntarily, perhaps
even unconsciously, loved him--she had remained an insoluble problem
during the long days of their separation when he pondered on the subject
the slow, lagging hours through--and, now again, she bid fair to be as
great a problem as ever.  For he felt, he knew, that her reception of
him--her pallor, the strange look in her eyes and the curious pitch of
her voice--why, the veriest fool alive would not have mistaken her
demeanour or one of its details for indifference!

"I--I think you mistake yourself," he began slowly, revolving certain
ideas which he had jotted down at intervals for his future guidance, in
his mind.  "I suppose you do not believe in marriage.  You have seen its
failure!  Is that it?"

"Perhaps," she said.  "I really can’t tell, myself.  All I know is, that
I am firmly resolved not to marry--any one!"  She spoke doggedly, with
almost a childish obstinacy.

"But--you do not bar friendship?" he said, earnestly, appealingly.
"Supposing some one of the unfortunate men you determine to have nothing
to do with were to wish to devote his whole life and energies to you,
secretly, but entirely--with the absolute devotion of a would-be
anchorite or martyr--what then?  You would not refuse to give the poor
devil a chance?  I mean, to give him something in return; if friendship
were too much to expect, tolerance, pity, a look now and then, or a
word, you would allow him to play your faithful knight, of course in
strict secrecy, from afar, unsuspected by the world?"

A faint colour suffused her lovely face. She looked at him, furtively.
"Some people may care for that sort of thing--I don’t!" she bluntly
said.  "Oh, Lord Vansittart! why will you not, can you not, see and
understand that all I want of--of--everyone is to be let alone?  I have
my own ideas of what my life should be; surely any one professing
interest in me ought to respect them!"

"I respect your every thought," he eagerly, if somewhat perplexedly
returned.  "Only--I should like thoroughly to understand the kind of
life you wish to lead.  Because--well, I will not beat about the bush.
Joan! you know I love you!  You are my very life! And if I cannot be
nearer than I am now, my only happiness and motive for living must be to
serve you in some way, to see you, speak to you, help you, be your very
slave----"

Just as his voice was most impassioned his appeal was interrupted.  An
elderly gentleman rode swiftly up and tapped him on the arm.

"Why, Vansittart!  can I believe my eyes?" he exclaimed, somewhat
breathlessly. "Joan, where has he dropped from?"

It was Sir Thomas Thorne, the wealthy uncle who had adopted Joan, his
late brother’s only child, at her mother’s death a few years previously.
The admired beauty, whose only flaw seemed to be her adamantine pose in
regard to her many suitors, was known to be sole heiress of the wealthy
baronet and his wife, who were not only childless, but curiously devoid
of near relations.

"From Paris, Sir Thomas," he replied, as easily as he could.  Then he
gave a brief account of his wanderings.  He seemed to have roamed and
ranged over the earth, prowling about for some interest, which evaded
him from Dan to Beersheba.  Sir Thomas listened with a peculiar twist of
his thin, fine lips and a curious twinkle in his shrewd, handsome old
eyes.

"Come in to lunch," he genially, if abruptly, proposed, as they left the
park.  "My lady will be delighted to see you--you are one of her
particular favourites."

What could Vansittart do but accept? With many deprecatory glances at
Joan--which, as she rode on looking straight before her, she either did
not, or would not see,--he accompanied uncle and niece through the pale
sunshine which now bathed the wet streets and shone upon the dripping
bushes and bright green foliage of the trees, to the door of Sir Thomas’
tastefully beflowered mansion in one of the largest West-end squares.

Here, before the groom had had time to wait upon his mistress, he was
off his horse, and at her stirrup.

"Forgive me," he pleaded, as she eluded his help and sprang lightly
down.  "I could not resist the temptation!"

Had she heard him?  She had marched on into the house.  "She will not
appear at luncheon," he told himself bitterly, as he accompanied the
very evidently friendly Sir Thomas up the steps and through the hall.
"She will make some plausible excuse to avoid me, as she has always
done, worse luck!"



                               CHAPTER II


But for once Lord Vansittart’s good star seemed in the ascendant.  Joan
was seated at the end of the long table in the big, finely furnished
diningroom, where luncheon was already being handed round by the men in
Sir Thomas’ fawn-and-silver livery to some ladies and a man or two who
had dropped in and been invited to stay by Lady Thorne. As the kindly,
middle-aged, motherly-looking lady welcomed him with what he felt to be
pleasurable astonishment, he felt less sickened by the mingled scent of
savoury entrées and the pines, forced strawberries and rich rose blooms
that decorated the luncheon-table in profusion.  Perhaps--she seemed to
smile upon him, almost to sympathize, indeed, as Sir Thomas had made no
secret of doing some months previously--his hostess might stand his
friend in his hitherto dismally unsuccessful wooing.

While he accepted a vacant place on her right hand, and chatted about
his travels, his ear was pitched to hear what Joan was talking so
brightly about to Lady Mound and her daughters at the other end of the
table.  He lost the thread of Lady Thorne’s remarks, until she startled
him agreeably by asking him whether they would meet him that afternoon
at the concert at Dulwich House.

"Are you--is Miss Thorne--going?" he stammered.  "I--of course I only
arrived last night, but Lady Dulwich is such an old friend, I know I
should be quite the _bien-venu_!"

"Joan, you are coming with me to Lady Dulwich’s this afternoon, of
course?" asked her aunt, when there was a lull in the conversation.
"No?  Why not?"

"I am riding to Crouch Hill to see poor Nana," she said, and the
determined tones of her resonant young voice seemed to strike upon
Vansittart’s hot, perturbedly beating heart.  "I know it is not a month
yet since I went last--my uncle is an autocrat, as I daresay you know,
Lady Mound!  He only allows me to see my poor old nurse once a month!
But I had a letter from her, she is worse than usual.  I meant to have
told you, auntie, but you were busy, and I thought it did not matter."

"It matters very much, unless you drive, for I cannot accompany you this
afternoon," said her uncle, raising his voice so that his wife could
hear.  "Joan can drive with her maid, my dear."  He was well aware that
Joan detested driving accompanied by her maid.  "You can postpone it
till to-morrow? I could not go with you then, Joan, I have to attend a
meeting.  Perhaps Vansittart will spare time to escort you?  You are not
deep in engagements yet I expect, my boy, are you?"

"I should be only too pleased, if Miss Thorne will accept my services,
as she has done on occasion in the hunting-field," he said, with an
effort not to betray his violent delight at such an opportunity to plead
his cause.

"London is not the country, Lord Vansittart, thanks," said Joan, calmly;
although she had suddenly paled to lividity with dread, with the
indescribable fear she felt of self betrayal to this man who loved her.
"I shall be perfectly safe, alone.  One only meets a few wagons and
carts along the highroads."

There was a slightly displeased expostulation from her uncle, a
deprecatory word or two in favour of Vansittart as her squire on the
part of Lady Thorne; and Joan, desperate, capitulated, feeling unequal
to being focussed by all the pairs of eyes around the table. She went
upstairs to change her habit and hat for one more suited to the muddy
suburban roads, and presently found herself trotting northwards on her
spirited grey mare Nora, Vansittart at her side.

She had chosen Nora, she coldly remarked--she meant to be an icicle to
Vansittart, it was her only chance--because she "wanted a good gallop,"
and Nora had not been out that day. And as soon as the young mare had
frisked and capered through the suburbs in a manner which made
Vansittart somewhat anxious, and effectually prevented conversation, she
and her mistress bounded off in a canter, and literally tore along the
soft roads, startling the few pedestrians and drivers of tradesmen’s
carts, Lord Vansittart’s horse galloping after, and the groom scampering
in the rear to keep in sight of the pair.  Joan only slackened speed for
more than a few moments when she saw the row of cottages where old Mrs.
Todd lived, at the foot of the wide sloping road that wound downhill.

"There is the cottage," she said, pointing with her whip.  "The poor old
soul who lives in it loves me best in the world, and I think I return it
with interest!  She was my nurse when I was a child, helped my mother
nurse my father through his long illness, then nursed her to her death,
and only left me because she felt too helpless to be of any use!"

"And now you make her life happy by seeing her now and then," he said,
gazing passionately at the pure, white, girlish profile under the felt
hat.

"She can hardly be happy--doubled up with rheumatism, lonely, poor--it
is ridiculous to suggest such a thing!" she said, disgustedly--then,
touching Nora’s flank lightly with her heel, she rode off; he followed,
springing down to assist her to alight.  But she frowned at him.

"You had better hold her, please," she suggested.  "Where is that groom
of mine? Oh, there he is!  I shall be quite half an hour. You might
inspect the neighbourhood."

"Thanks for the suggestion, perhaps I shall!" he good humouredly
returned, with a scrutinizing glance at a stern old face framed by the
cottage window panes, which disappeared as he looked; and as Joan
slipped nonchalantly off her panting steed and went within,
congratulating herself upon having furnished herself with a good chance
of losing or evading him and returning alone, he decided to remain well
out of sight of the cottage, but only where he could keep his eye on the
groom and the horses.

"Well, Nana, here I am, you see," said Joan, entering and embracing the
worn old crone who stood leaning on her stick in the middle of the
kitchen and parlour combined. It was a dark, low room, filled with some
old-fashioned furniture--remnants of Joan’s vicarage home.  A big old
arm-chair stood by the fireplace, where there was a bright little fire,
although in a few weeks it would be midsummer.  "Sit down at once!"  She
led her gently back to her chair.  "Poor old dear!  You have been bad
this time, haven’t you?  You mustn’t spare the doctor--send his bill to
me!  You got that chicken panada and jelly?  That’s right!  I’ve brought
some money for little things----"

"Never mind money, dearie! but tell me who’s the gentleman?" said the
old woman, whose large, shining eyes shone living in her emaciated,
deathly face--shading her eyes with her skinny, clawlike hand, and
gazing anxiously at Joan, who had drawn a low folding chair near and was
seated opposite the fire.  "I like his face, that I do!  I saw him as
you got down from your horse."

"It is Lord Vansittart," said Joan, frowning slightly.

The old woman bent forward, and scrutinized her nursling’s expressive
features.

"You like him?" she suddenly asked. "Oh, if you do, may the Lord be
praised!"

Joan gave a bitter, hopeless laugh.

"What good would it do me if I did?" she mournfully said.

"What good?"  The aged crone leant forward and clasped Joan’s gauntleted
wrists with her dark, clawlike hands.  "Oh, my blessed darlint!  If you
could only be married--to a real gentleman like him--and would forget
all about that business, and that wretched chap, I should die happy,
that I should!  You have forgot him, haven’t you, dearie?"

Mrs. Todd gazed anxiously at Joan’s gloomy, miserable, yet most
beautiful eyes. There was a far away look--a look of mingled dread and
aversion, as if beyond all, she could see some loathsome, terrible
object.

"Forget the curse of my life?" she bitterly exclaimed.  "For, while I do
not know where he is, if he is alive or dead, my life is accursed....
How dare I--love--care for--any good man, saddle any one’s life with my
miserable folly, confess to any honest person my--my--association with
_him_?  Why, I blush and groan and grovel and tear my hair when I think
of it, and if my uncle knew--  Heavens! he might curse me and turn me
out of doors and leave me to starve!  He does not love me as if I were
his own child, I know that--how can he when he was at daggers drawn with
my father all those years?  And auntie, kind though she is, she is only
his wife--she is good to me because he wishes her to be!  They are only
pleased with me because I please in society--people like me, like my
looks--if they knew--if they knew--oh! my God!"

She clasped her hands over her face, and writhed.  The old woman’s
features worked, but her brilliant, unearthly eyes were riveted firmly
on her darling.

"You were once a great fool, dearie!  But don’t ’ee be a fool now, never
no more," she said, sonorously, solemnly.  "There was summat you once
used to say, poetry, when you was home from school--it did go right down
into my heart like a bullet dropped into a well--summat like ’a dead
past oughter bury its dead.’  Can your uncle, or your aunt, or this lord
who loves you, or you, or me, or the finest parson or king or pope or
anything or body in this world, bring back one single blessed minnit,
let alone hours or days? That’s where common sense comes in, as your
dear dead par used to say to me often and often!  No, you can’t bring it
back, nor he can’t!  It’s dead!  He’s dead--that brute--and if he ain’t
dead to you, he can’t worry or annoy you, bein’ in prison if he’s alive,
as a fellow of his sort is safe as sure to be----"

"Hush!  For Heaven’s sake, Nana, don’t talk like that!"  Joan trembled,
and glanced a despairing, furtive glance out of the window--above the
pots of arums, and prickly cactus, and geranium cuttings, where the
long, attenuated tendrils of the "mother of thousands" in the wire
basket dangled in the draught.  Much and often as she thought of her
past, that secret past which only this faithful old soul really knew the
facts of, she felt as if she could not bear it put into words.

"Who’s to hear?  The girl’s out!" exclaimed the old woman, who was
roused, excited.  Her nursling’s troubles, the obstacles to her becoming
a great lady, were to her the worst trials of her suffering, lonely
life.

"I tell you this, dearie, if you won’t have anything to do with that
splendid lord who loves you, and you say you like, I shall think you
hanker after _him_--that viper who ain’t fit to live, let alone to black
that noble gentleman’s boots!  What--you don’t?  Then what should stand
between you and him as loves you?  That--that nonsense of that fellow’s?
What do it matter if he’s dead, or in prison?  It’s four years ago,
ain’t it?  If you are so partickler, you could wait another three, and
then he wouldn’t have any sort of claim upon ye, if he has any now,
which I doubt!  He was humbuggin’ of you, dearie! I’m not to talk about
it?  I must!  I can’t die happy till I know ye’re safe with a good man
as’ll take care of ye, my pretty, and that’s a fact.  And I am sick and
tired of all these aches and pains, it’s such a weary world! Now, my
dearie, when he asks ye to be his’n, and he’ll do it, too--ah!  I can
see he’s done it a’ready--just you listen to him.  Be engaged as they
call it, secret-like, for a time.  Then don’t go and tell him about all
that which is dead and done with--never tell living soul a word about
_that_!  But let him think it’s one of the whimsies beauties like you
are supposed to have.  Make him wait!  And then--find out what’s become
of _him_!  I’ll help ye!  I’ll help ye!"

"You--you have heard--from--of him!" gasped Joan, wildly.  "Nana!  When!
How?"

"Gawd is my witness, I’ve never set eyes on him, the vagabond, since ye
showed him to me that day when he came with us in the fields, five year
ago, when you was at school, and your poor mar was nearin’ her end," she
said, solemnly.  "Letters?  Not likely!  You’ve had a letter from ’im?
No, I knew you couldn’t ’ave had.  Them convicts--hush? All right, then!
If you’ll listen to me, I’ll hush and welcome."

When Joan rose to go a few minutes later, her thoughts were in a frantic
whirl, but there was a gleam of hope shining upon those dismal memories
which stood between her and happiness.

Still she glanced round as she issued from the cottage, hoping that her
escort would not be in sight, and they would happen to miss each other.
She wanted time to think, to ponder over new possibilities suggested by
her old nurse’s words, possibilities which seemed to her, numbed by her
long battle royal to overcome her passion for Vansittart, too
magnificent ever to become probable.  And she mounted, and after a
pretence of waiting about for him as they walked their horses slowly
uphill, she said to her groom, "We had better go on, Simms," and
quickening her pace, was presently trotting homewards.

But Vansittart was calmly awaiting them at the cross roads, and reined
round and accompanied her as a matter of course.  She gave him a
desperate glance as their eyes met, and it caused him to change his
tactics.  He had meditated an onslaught upon her emotions during their
homeward ride.  "It will keep," he sagely told himself, and after an
uneventful canter and a little ordinary small talk he left her at her
door without even an allusion to a next meeting.



                              CHAPTER III


She went to her room somewhat heavy-hearted.  She was no woman of the
world, and was taken aback by his unexpected change of manner.  Her maid
Julie was busy with a charming _toilette de bal_ just arrived from
Paris: a gauzy robe over satin, richly sewn with flowers and foliage
made of tiny seed pearls.

"This will suit mademoiselle _a merveille_," exclaimed the little
Frenchwoman.  "And with that pearl _garniture_----"

"I shall not go out to-night," she said, with a disgusted glance at the
finery which seemed such hollow mockery.  And as soon as she had changed
her habit for a tea-gown, she locked herself in her boudoir, and
stormily pacing the room, asked herself what this sudden chill in her
lover meant.

"I have gone too far--I have been too cold--I have lost him!" she told
herself, wildly. "I cannot bear it!  While there was the faintest of
faint hope left--that I might be with him some day--I could
bear--everything! But to see him look at me as if I were anybody, speak
as if he did not care what became of me--no, no, I should soon go mad!"

Flinging herself prone on her sofa, she clasped her throbbing head in
both hands, and asked herself passionately what could be done.

"I cannot, must not, lower myself by writing to him--and then, if he was
the same again, I could not take advantage of it! Was ever poor wretched
girl in such a miserable position as I am?"

All seemed hopeless, gloomy, dark, until a sudden thought came like a
brilliant flash of light.

"He may be there, he will be there, to-night!  Of course, he is a friend
of the Duchess," she told herself.  "That is what it meant!  He knew we
should meet there! He was teasing me--trying me!"

The suggestions comforted her as she rang, told Julie she had changed
her mind, and would go to the ball; and she subsequently dined with her
uncle and aunt, who seemed in exceedingly good spirits.  (Sir Thomas’
pet project was that Lord Vansittart should marry Joan, and he augured
well from his appearance at this juncture, and went through the ceremony
of dressing with a certain amount of patience.)  When she stood before
her long glass, with all the electric lights switched on, and saw
herself in her gleaming white and shining pearls, tall, queenly, fair,
with the glistening wreaths of golden hair crowning her small head, and
her lustrous brown eyes alive with that peculiar, unfathomable
expression which had gained her the epithet "sphinx-like" more than once
when she was discussed as the Beauty who meant to flout every Beast that
approached her, and did--she felt comforted. Only when she was shut into
the carriage, her aunt prattling platitudes, and the flickering street
lamps flashing stray gleams into the dimly-lit vehicle as they drove
along, was she seized with a sudden panic.

"I feel as if--if he does not come--I shall break down, utterly--I shall
not be able to bear my life any more!" she told herself, despondently.
"I shall end it all--no one will care!  There is only old Nana, who is
barely alive, and she would follow me at once!"

The Duke of Arran was a man of ideas--and he lived to carry them out.
The balls and entertainments at Arran House were always unique.  That
evening was no exception.  As Joan alighted, and passing through the
hall accompanied Lady Thorne through the vestibule and up the wide
staircase, even she felt transient admiration.  White and gold
everywhere was the rule to-night at Arran House, where the famous marble
staircase had been brought from an old Venetian palazzo.  This evening’s
decorations were carried out in gold-yellow; after the gardens and
houses had been denuded of gold and white flowers to the disgust of the
ducal gardeners, the London florists had been commissioned to supply the
banks and wreaths and festoons of gold and white blossoms which
everywhere met the eye, perfumed the atmosphere, and made a fitting
background for the large staff of tall, handsome powdered men-servants
in black velvet and satin liveries, which was augmented to-night into a
very regiment.

One sickening glance round the magnificent ballroom, full of
delicately-beautiful toilettes, bright with flowers, lights, and
laughter, gay with the music of a well-known band--told her Vansittart
was not there.  However, she maintained her composure--he might yet
come--and with her usual chilly indifference allowed her few privileged
friends to inscribe their initials on her tiny tablet.  New partners she
declined, with the plea of fatigue.  But it was weary work!  She was
just telling herself, fiercely, that she could bear no more; she was
seeking Lady Thorne to implore a retreat, when she came upon Vansittart
talking pleasantly to her aunt in a cool corner.

"I was waiting for you," he said, looking into her eyes and reading in
them that which fired his blood.  "You will give me this dance?"

"Yes," she said, and she accompanied him, meek, silent, subdued, and
allowing him to encircle her slight waist with a firm, proprietory
clasp, glided round and round to the dreamy melody of the "Bienaimée"
valse. Once before, when she had first longed for his love, and felt the
throes of this overwhelming life-passion, they had danced together to
that swaying, suggestive melody.  He remembered it--remembered how to
feel her slight form almost in his embrace had urged him into a reckless
avowal of a love which was promptly rejected.  He set his teeth.  He was
at a white heat again--and she--?  By some subtle sense he believed his
moment had come.

"I must speak to you," he hoarsely said, as they halted, Joan white and
breathless with emotion.  "May I?"

She looked up into his eyes, and at the intensity of the appealing,
passionate abandonment to his will in that gaze, he thrilled with
triumph.

"We will go into the Duchess’s boudoir, I know we may," he said, feeling
a little giddy as he escorted her along a corridor and through the
drawing-rooms.  The boudoir was empty--one or two couples only were
seated in the adjacent anteroom, he saw at a glance they were well
occupied with their own flirtations. He closed the door, drew the
embroidered satin portiére across--they were alone in the dimly-lighted
room.

He turned to her as she stood gazing at him, pale, fascinated.  He took
her hands. "Joan!" he said--then, as he felt her passion, he simply drew
her into his arms, and stooping, kissed her lips--a long, passionate
kiss.

To feel his lips on hers was ecstacy to her--for a few moments she
forgot all--it was like heaven before its time.  Then she feebly pushed
him away, and gave a low moan.

"Oh! what have I done?" she wailed, and she glanced about like a hunted
creature. "How could you?"

"You love me!  What is to keep us asunder?" he hoarsely cried.  As she
sank shuddering, gasping, into a chair, he fell at her knees, and
embraced them.  "I am the happiest man on earth!  For your uncle will
approve, and you--you, Joan!  All that was wanted was your love to make
you my dear--wife!"

"Wife!"  She sank back and groaned. "I shall never be any man’s wife!"
she said. "Why?  Because I do not want to be! That is all!  Because I
never shall and will be!"

Was she crazy?  He rose, slowly, and contemplated her.  No!  There were
anguish and suffering in the lines about her mouth and eyes--in those
lustrous, strained brown orbs--but no insanity.

"We must talk it all over.  I must--I mean, I may see you to-morrow, may
I not?" he gently said, drawing a chair near, and seating himself
between her and the door, he besought at least one interview, so that
they should "understand each other."  He had but just obtained a
reluctant consent to a _tête-à-tête_ on the morrow, when the door
suddenly opened, a gay young voice cried, "surely there can’t be any one
in here!" and a bright face peeped round the curtain and at once
disappeared.

"Lady Violet!" exclaimed Joan, starting up.  "She has seen us!"

"And if she has?" asked her lover, mystified by her terror at having
been discovered alone with him by the Duke’s eldest daughter. Still,
with the promise of an elucidatory interview, he obeyed her wishes, and
left her to return to the ballroom without his escort.

She did not linger: she almost fled, scared, from the boudoir through
the drawing-rooms, into the corridor.  Which way led to the ballroom?
Hesitating, glancing right and left, she saw one of the picturesque
black-clad servitors coming towards her.  She would ask him.

As he advanced, the man’s face riveted her attention.  Not because of
its wax mask-like regularity, and the intent, glittering stare of the
black eyes which fixed themselves boldly upon her own; but because the
countenance was singularly like one which haunted her memory--waking and
sleeping--the hideous ghost of her foolish past.

"Heavens--how terribly like him!" she murmured to herself,
unconsciously, involuntarily shrinking back against the wall as he came
near.

Like!  As the man came up, and halted, she gave a strangled cry like the
pitiful dying wail of a poor hare.

"I see, you recognize me," he said, in a low voice, with a bitter little
smile.  "Don’t be alarmed!  I am not going to claim you publicly, here,
to-night.  But if you do not want me to call and send in my credentials
at your uncle’s house, you will meet me to-morrow at the old place, in
the evening.  I shall be there at eight, and will wait till you come.
Do you understand?"

"Yes," she whispered.  As he passed on and opening a baize door,
disappeared, she stood gazing after him as if his words had been a
sword-thrust, and she was a dead woman.



                               CHAPTER IV


Joan stood in the corridor, white, hardly breathing, as if turned to
stone, her beautiful eyes riveted on the spot where the man who was once
her lover had disappeared.

"Victor!" she thought, as her whole being seemed to writhe in an agony
of despair. "Victor--and in the duke’s livery--am I mad?"

She gave a wild laugh, and the sudden sound startled her into sanity.
Numbness had followed the shock of seeing the man living, in the flesh,
whom she had hoped against hope was dead.  Now she seemed to come to
life again.  She clenched her nails into her gloved hands so vehemently
that the fine kid was rent.  She suppressed her almost ungovernable
desire to groan out her misery, and as she set her teeth and closed her
eyes to realize the situation and deal with it, she seemed to see her
soul naked within her, and it was ablaze with one dominating passion
alone--love for Vansittart.

"I am all his," she slowly told herself. "How I have become so--I never
wished it--Nature, fate, the Creator who made us, alone, know.  But I am
his, he is my lord and master, and whatever comes between me and him
must be trodden under foot!"

Her whole being, violently shocked and almost outraged by the sudden
blow, the reappearance of the unscrupulous man who had dared to annex
her fair young girlhood and chain it to his fouled existence, rose and
asserted itself in a strong, overpowering will--to belong to Vansittart,
its rightful owner by legitimate conquest, against all and every
obstacle.  The feeling was so huge, so powerful, she felt as a very
feather in its grasp: she was awed by it, but strengthened.

"I will, I must be his, and I shall be!" she told herself, feeling as if
the words had uttered themselves prophetically, by some mysterious
agency, within her soul.  And she quietly returned to the ballroom,
calmed; for she was as an almost automaton, swayed by some obsessive
spirit which had asserted itself when she was half wild with despair.

Entering the ballroom, she saw Vansittart, pale, his eyes laden with
emotion, watching for her just within the doorway.  The heat, the buzz,
the patter of feet upon the parquet--they were dancing a cotillon--the
braying of the band, took her aback in her strained, nervous state for a
moment.  Then she recovered herself and went up to him.

"Take me to auntie," she said, smiling up at him.  "But first, one word!
Do I look ill?  I feel so--I am subject to horrid neuralgia, and it has
just begun.  I am distracted with pain!  I shall be in bed all day
to-morrow, I am sure!  Put off coming till the day after, won’t you?"

Was it a dream, an illusion--her confiding, tender manner--that sweet
appealing look in those adored, beautiful eyes?  Vansittart felt
suddenly weak and tremulous as he drew her hand within his arm.  She
loved him!  He was certain of it!  She loved him! She had not known it
till he dared all in that passionate kiss.  He vaguely felt himself the
Pygmalion who had awakened another Galatea.

"My darling, I am afraid it is my fault," he murmured in her ear, as he
conveyed her towards the corner where Lady Thorne sat patiently
listening to the prattle of the surrounding dowagers, and trying not to
wish the evening at an end.  "How dear of you to to say ’No!’  Of course
I will postpone coming.  But I may call and enquire?  No? Very well!
You have only to command me, my queen, my adored!"

Could it be real, that faint pressure of his arm, as he looked fondly
down upon that lovely little golden head?  Vansittart almost lost his
grip upon himself, almost forgot to act the mere amiable cavalier, as he
accompanied Joan and her inwardly relieved and delighted aunt to the
cooler regions of the ducal establishment, and after vainly pressing
them to take some refreshment, found their carriage.  As he stood
bareheaded under the awning after they had driven off, he glanced up at
the sky--it had been raining and now a wreath of cloud had parted to
disclose a misty moon--and a vague but real remorse that he had not kept
up with the noble truths he had learned at his dead mother’s knee in
those days which seemed a century or more ago brought the moisture to
his happy eyes.  "God forgive me, I do not deserve her!" was the honest
prayer which went up from his overladen heart as he turned, somewhat
giddily, and tried to walk into the ducal mansion without the
unsteadiness which might lead some of those priggish menservants to
imagine he had dined rather too well than wisely. "But, if I only can
succeed in making her my own, her life shall be a royal one!"

Would he have felt so triumphantly joyful if he could have seen his
beloved, after they parted?

Arrived at home, Joan dismissed her maid as soon as she could get rid of
her without exciting any suspicion, and spent a night’s vigil in facing
the situation.

She remembered her innocent, ignorant schooldays--when, infected by the
foolish talk of frivolous elder girls--they were mostly daughters of
rich parents, Joan’s godmother paid for the education which could not be
afforded by the poor clergyman and his invalid wife--she was flattered
by the admiring gaze of a handsome young man who watched her in church
each Sunday from his seat in a neighbouring pew.  Schoolgirl talk of him
led to chance glances of hers in response. Then came a note artfully
dropped by him and picked up by a school friend, delighted to feel
herself one of the _dramatis personæ_ in a living loveplay.  This and
ensuing love-letters proved the young man a clever scribe. He
represented himself as a member of a distinguished family, banished from
home on account of his political opinions.  The secret correspondence
continued; then, with the assistance of a bribed housemaid whose mental
pabulum was low class novelettes with impossible illustrations of seven
feet high countesses and their elongated curly-haired lovers, there were
brief, passionate meetings.  When Joan was just recovering from her
grief at her father’s recent death, the climax came.  Her mother
died--her lawyers sent for her.  When she returned to school, it was
with the knowledge that the rich uncle intended to take her from thence,
why and for what she did not know; that her godmother acknowledged his
right to deal with her future, and that her days in C---- were numbered.

With what agony and humiliation she remembered that next wildly
emotional meeting with the man she fancied she loved--his passionate
pleading that she would be his--her reluctant consent--their meeting in
town a few weeks later when she had boldly fled from school to her old
nurse in the little suburban house where she let lodgings, and their
marriage before the Registrar, to attain which Victor Mercier had
falsely stated her age, and their parting immediately after!  She went
to her uncle somewhat in disgrace because of her precipitate flight from
school.  But her beauty and the pathos of her orphanhood, also a secret
remorse on his part for his hardheartedness to her dead parents, induced
him to consider it a girlish freak alone, and to ignore it as such.

She had hardly become settled in her new, luxurious home when the blow
fell which at first seemed to shatter her whole life at once and for
ever.  She read in a daily paper of a discovered fraud in the branch
office at C---- of a London house, and of the flight and disappearance
of the manager, Victor Mercier.

To recall those succeeding days and weeks of secret anguish, fear, dread
and sickening horror, made her shiver even now.  In her desperation she
had confided in her old nurse.  "But for her, I should have gone mad!"
she told herself, with a shudder.

"You will never see him again, my pretty; all you have to do is to
forget the brute!" was the burden of Nurse Todd’s song of consolation.
"Such as him daren’t ever show his face at Sir Thomas’!  Your husbin’?
The law ’ud soon rid ye of a husbin’ of his sort! But there won’t be no
call for that!  He’s as dead as a doornail in this country--and, you’re
not likely ever to see him again!"

And now he had come to life, and in the Duke’s livery!

"He was one of the auxiliaries, of course!" Joan told herself.  "But how
does he dare to be here?  If only I had the courage to tell Uncle--all!
I believe he might forgive me. But I could never face Vansittart
again--if he knew!  It would be giving up his love, and that--that I
will not do."

No, she must endure her second martyrdom in secret, as she endured the
first. There was nothing else to be done.  And, she must become that
most subtle of all actresses--the actress in real life.

Morning came, and she declared herself too unwell with an attack of
neuralgia to rise. Her aunt came up and petted her, and she was left in
a darkened room until evening when she sat up for a little.

"You need not stay in to-night, Julie," she told her maid, a devoted, if
somewhat frivolous girl--her uncle and aunt, satisfied she was better,
had gone out to a dinner whither she should rightly have accompanied
them.  "Tell them not to disturb me unless I ring.  I shall go to bed
directly and get a long sleep."  Julie left her, half reluctant, half
eager, for her evening out--lying cosily on a soft sofa, the last new
novel from the library open in her hands.

As soon as she considered that those among the servants who indulged in
surreptitious outings were clear of the premises, and the supper bell
had summoned the others to the favourite meal of the day, she rose,
dressed herself in a short cycling costume and a long cloak, tied a veil
over her smallest, plainest hat, took a latchkey she had once laughingly
stolen from her uncle, but had never yet used, and after locking her
door and pocketing the key, crept quietly downstairs, crossed the
deserted hall, and shut herself out into the warm, cloudy night.



                               CHAPTER V


The big mansion of which she was the pampered, cherished darling, lay
solemn, pompous, solid, dark, behind her.  Before her, the pavement, wet
after a summer shower, shone in the lamplight.  Dark, waving shadows
against the driving clouds, with their fitful patches of moonlit sky,
were the trees in the enclosure, dangled by the wind.  She hurried
along--turning down the first by-street she came to--and emerging at its
end into one of the principal thoroughfares, she hailed a crawling
hansom.

"Regent’s Park, Clarence Gate," she said, in a muffled voice, as she
sprang lightly in.

To be dashing along the lighted streets to meet the absconded swindler
who had dared to take advantage of her girlish folly to make her his
wife by law, was delirious work. Cowering back in the corner of the
hansom, she gazed with sickened misery at the gay shop-windows, at the
crowded omnibuses, at the cheery passengers who carelessly stepped along
the pavement, looking as if all life were matter-of-fact, plain sailing,
"above-board."  A hundred shrill voices seemed clamouring in her
ears--"turn back--turn back!  Face the worst, but be honest!"  She had
almost flung up her arm and, opening the trap, bid the driver return,
when the memory of Vansittart--of his love--of his kiss--came surging
upon her with redoubled force.

"If I am a coward, I shall lose him!" cried her whole nature, fiercely.
No!  She must battle through: she must circumvent her enemy--the enemy
to her love, and Vansittart’s.

But how?

"I will dare him," was her instinct.  "I will tell him to claim me if he
can!"  But that was the madness of passion.  Reason bade her use other
means.

"One must fight a man with his own weapons," she told herself, as the
hansom dashed along Gloucester Place, and she knew her time was short.
It was now nearer nine than eight--she had seen that by an illuminated
clock over a shop.  _He_ was to be at their trysting-place of old, when
she had lodged with her old nurse in a street in Camden Town, at eight.
"He lied to me from the first moment to the last.  I must lie to him. I
will pretend I have cared for him!  It will put him off his guard," she
thought, as, with a double fee to the cabman, who said "thank-ye, miss,"
with odious familiarity, she scurried away in the darkness, and crossing
the wet road, turned up that which led to the Inner Circle.

There was no chance of forgetting the spot where they two had last met!
As she neared it, a slim, dark figure stepped out from the shadow.

"My wife," he exclaimed, in emotional tones.  He would have embraced
her, but she slipped away and leant up against the paling.

"You can call me that--after leaving me all these years--not knowing
whether you were alive or dead," she panted hoarsely. Under any
circumstances emotion was natural, so she made no effort to conceal it.

"I?  It was you who would not reply to my letters!" he exclaimed
bitterly.  "I wrote again and again, under cover to your miserable old
nurse--and don’t say you never had them!  The last came back to me--’not
known.’  But the others did not--they would have if they had not
reached!"

"If she had them, she never gave them to me!" she said truthfully.  "And
I don’t wonder!  I was so utterly wretched when I read of
your--your--flight--that I told her--all!  I had to--I should have gone
raving mad if I had kept it to myself!"

"Well, all that is over and done with, thank goodness!" he exclaimed,
cheerfully, after a brief pause.  "I will not scold you for misjudging
me--you were but a child! But you are a woman now, of age, your own
mistress!  I have been fortunate of late, or I should not be here.
Speculations of mine have turned up trumps--and not only that, but I
have friends in the City who will introduce me to your uncle, and if you
only play your cards well, our real wedding shall be followed by a sham
one, and Mrs. Victor a’Court will take a very nice place in society. My
dear, cash opens all doors, and I have it!"

"Some one is coming," she said feebly. His speech had called forth all
her powers of endurance, and, while bracing herself to bear up as she
did, Nature determinedly asserted itself.  She felt cold and giddy--her
limbs seemed as if they did not belong to her.

"Only a Bobby," he said, with a light vulgarity which seemed the last
straw.  As she turned to walk along by his side, she tottered.

"Don’t do that, or the Bobby will think you are drunk," he said,
coarsely, holding her up by the arm.  His detested touch achieved what
her slackening courage had failed to do.  She felt suddenly strong with
a new, fierce emotion--was it hate?

"I cannot understand how you can be well off--or, indeed, how you can be
here at all," she softly began, as the policeman marched solemnly on
before them, the light of one of the occasional lamps gleaming on his
wet weather cape.  "I thought----"

"You mean, your old nurse thought!" he went on angrily.  "You--you were
not capable of suspecting me, if that old wretch had not put it into
your head!  My love, I was a victim of circumstances.  The people I was
with were a rotten lot.  They accused me to protect themselves.  They
were bankrupt three years ago!  Mercier was not my real name.  My father
was Victor Mercier a’Court.  It suited me to use it, that’s all!
What--you don’t believe me?"

"You told me lies then--why should I believe you?" she boldly said.

"Because you are my wife!  It will not pay me to tell you untruths--nor
will it pay you to doubt me!" he savagely retorted. "I had expected a
welcome!  Instead, I am treated like this!  It is enough to exasperate a
saint--and I don’t profess to be that!  Come, let us talk business, as
you don’t feel inclined for love.  You are mine, and I mean to have you.
You understand? I have waited for you all these years, and precious hard
work it has been, I can tell you, for plenty of girls as good-looking as
you made a dead set at me--and girls with loads of oof, too!  If I don’t
get you by fair means, I will have you by foul--it is for you to select.
By Jingo, it would serve you right if I went to that wretched uncle of
yours to-morrow, and claimed you!"

She stopped short and confronted him. The moon, breaking through the
driving clouds, shone full on her face.  Beautiful, corpse-like in its
sombre, set expression, there was that in her great, shining eyes which
gave him, hardened worldling though he was, a slight shock.  He felt he
had gone too far.

"Drop the tragedy queen, do, and be my own little darling once more!" he
wheedled, and would have embraced her, but she slid away as he
approached.

"Listen!" she began, in clear, determined tones, in which there was
neither fear nor hesitation, "unless you treat me with consideration,
decency, respect--unless you can give me time to arrange matters so that
to avow myself your--wife--will not ruin me, body and soul, I swear
before God that I will put a barrier between myself and you which will
separate us for ever."

"Pah, pah, pah, spitfire!" he sarcastically said, swinging his umbrella
and beginning to walk onward.  "I know what you mean!  You have some
romantic idea of suicide.  You are not the kind of girl who kills
herself, I can tell you that--so that threat won’t hold water with me.
Come now, don’t let us waste time quarrelling. What do you propose to
do?  Before I tell you my ideas, let’s hear yours.  _Place aux dames_
was always my motto."

During her long vigil, scheme after scheme of escaping him and of
belonging irrevocably to Vansittart, one plan wilder than another, had
agitated her mind.  She had at last arrived at one set
conclusion--Victor Mercier must be cajoled into giving her time.  Events
would decide the rest.

"All I ask of you is to wait," she pleaded earnestly, vehemently.  "Give
me time to find some way of introducing you to friends, and through them
to uncle and aunt--then I can begin seeming to encourage you, and feel
my way----"

He burst into a derisive laugh.

"Rats!" he cried brutally.  "That sort of thing won’t do for me, my dear
wife, I can tell you!  I see you are as big a baby as ever--you need
some one badly to teach you your way about!  No, no!  I want you at
once--who and what’s to prevent me from taking possession of my lawful
property? There is only one thing for us to do: to bolt together--and to
leave them completely in the dark as to your fate.  I hear that those
two old prigs who wouldn’t give bite or sup to your father when he was a
dying man are dead nuts on you.  We must make ’em suffer, my darling!
We must madden them till they are ready to do anything and everything if
they can only find you alive.  And we must talk it over--so that your
disappearance may be a regular thunderbolt! Can you come to my lodgings
to-morrow evening?  I want you to myself--it’s natural, isn’t it?  This
road, quiet as it is, is hardly the place for husband and wife to meet,
is it?  What?  You can’t come?"  His voice hoarsened--he clutched her
arm so fiercely that she gave a faint cry.  "You don’t want me?" he
exclaimed, in tones which to her strained ears seemed those of deadly
menace. "If you don’t--I know you, you see!  I have not forgotten your
kisses, if you have mine--it means another man!  And if it does, I will
have no mercy on you, do you understand?  None!"

"How dare you?"  Once more she faced him, this time in an access of
desperation. "How dare you accuse me of crime?  My coldness, my absolute
refusal to listen to any man is so well known that it has been common
talk in society!  More than once I have felt that uncle has suspected
me--and, indeed, he has sounded me----"

In her earnestness she was off guard, and drawing her to him, he
suddenly threw his arms about her neck and kissed her lips--a long,
violent, almost savage kiss.

"There--go home and think of that!" he said, with a triumphant chuckle,
as she staggered away and almost fell against the fence.  "And take this
address.  I shall be here every evening at the same hour.  And if you
don’t come--well, you had better come, that’s all!  I am not in a very
patient humour."

She made her way out of the Park at his side, dazed, trembling.  When at
last he consented to leave her, and hailing a hansom, she clambered in,
she leant back, and for a few minutes was barely conscious.  She came to
herself with a sob.

"Will God have mercy on me?" she wailed.  "I was so--so--very young!"



                               CHAPTER VI


Joan made her way home--how, she hardly knew.  In the confusion of
thought succeeding that terrible interview which had successfully shown
her she was in the power of a merciless tyrant, instinct guided her.
After Victor Mercier had put her into a cab, and she had alighted from
it in a thoroughfare near her uncle’s house, she let herself in with the
latchkey she had playfully annexed, little dreaming how she would need
to use it--and meeting no one as she made her way up to her room, locked
herself in to face her misery alone.

As she tossed and writhed through the long, miserable night she almost
despaired. Perhaps she would have utterly and entirely lost heart, had
not a thought flashed upon her mind--an idea she welcomed as an
inspiration.

"There is only one way to escape the grip of that savage tiger--flight!"
she told herself.  Although the sole tie between them was the hasty
ceremony in a Registrar’s office he had cajoled her into years
ago--although she had met him but once afterwards before he absconded
and disappeared, and that was in the very spot where their interview a
few hours before had taken place, she believed, indeed she knew, that
for her to try to undo that knot would entail publicity--disgrace--even
shame--that if she endured the ordeal, she would emerge unfit to be
Vansittart’s wife.  If _he_ forgave her, even her uncle--society could
and would never overlook the smirch upon her fair girlhood.  She would
bear a brand.

"Victor gave me the idea, himself," she told herself, with a bitter
smile at the irony of the fact.  "He--the man who is legally my husband
until he chooses to renounce me"--in her ignorance of the law she
fancied that Victor Mercier might divorce her quietly in some way, if he
pleased--"proposed that we should disappear together, and frighten my
uncle into a concession.  What if I disappeared alone--and only allowed
one person to find me--Vansittart?"

That Vansittart loved her passionately, with all the fervour and
intensity of a strong, virile nature, she knew.  Whether the love was
mad enough to fall in with any wildly romantic proceeding, she had yet
to discover.

"He will seek me as soon as he can!" she correctly thought.  As she was
crossing the hall after breakfasting with her uncle, who--in his hopes
that his only niece and adopted daughter and heiress was thinking better
of her aloofness to mankind, and melting in regard to his favourite
among her many admirers, Lord Vansittart--had been unwontedly urbane and
affectionate, a telegram was brought to her.

"If I may see you at twelve, noon, do not reply.--Vansittart."

At noon her uncle would be at his club, and her aunt had, she knew, an
appointment with her dressmaker in Bond Street.  She went to her room
and spent some little time in deciding upon her toilette.  How did she
look best, or, rather, how should she be attired to appeal most strongly
to Vansittart’s imagination and senses?

Most women are born with subtle instincts in regard to the weakness of
manhood, especially the manhood already to a certain extent in their
power.  Joan hardly knew why she felt that a certain dishabille--a
suggestion of delicacy and fragile helplessness in her appearance, would
place Vansittart more entirely at her mercy; but it was with this
conviction that she attired herself in a white, soft, silken and
lace-adorned tea-gown, with lace ruffles about her smooth, rounded
throat and wrists--a robe that fell away from a pink silk underdress
which, fitting tightly about her waist, showed the rich, yet girlish
curves of her beautiful form to the fullest advantage.

Her hair had been wound somewhat carelessly but classically about her
small head by Julie, who was rather excited at having received an offer
of marriage.  Joan had listened sympathetically--she had encouraged the
girl in her love affair, more, perhaps, because it would serve her own
interests, being one which was to remain a secret from "his parents in
France" until they had seen Julie, and therefore subject to mysterious
"evenings-out" and holidays taken, with other explanations to the
housekeeper. Altogether there was a certain softness about her whole
appearance, Joan considered, as she anxiously gazed at her reflection in
the many mirrors she passed proceeding to her boudoir, which was on the
same floor as the drawing-rooms, and opened upon a small balcony full of
flowers, with a peep of the enclosure and the Park beyond, just under
the red and white awning.

It was eleven when she entered her room and set herself to write a whole
host of letters. She had barely finished three before a brougham dashed
up to the hall door.  She started up, her heart beating, her cheeks
aflame.

"It cannot be--why, it is hardly a quarter to twelve," she thought,
glancing at the Dresden china clock.  But even as she spoke she heard
his voice--those musical, resonant, manly tones she loved--and in
another moment the groom of the chambers announced, "Lord Vansittart,"
with an assurance which seemed strange to Joan, unaware of the
freemasonry below stairs which enlightened the domestic staff as to the
wishes and opinions of the master of the house.

As he came in, tall, his fair, wavy hair flung back from his broad brow;
his large, frank eyes alight, his cheeks aglow with passion; some
suggestion of a conqueror in his mien--his very fervour and exultation
were infectious--she could have fallen into his arms and abandoned
herself to his embraces as if there were no obstacle to their mutual
love.

As it was she merely gave one limp, chill hand into his eager clasp, and
cast down her eyes as he said: "I am early--I could not help it--Joan,
Joan, what is it?  You are not glad to see me"--his voice faltered.

"Sit down--won’t you?" she said, and she sank into a low chair and
motioned him to one out in the cold--but he would not understand--he
drew a light low chair quite near to hers, and fixed her with an intent,
anxious gaze.


"Last night you behaved--as if--you cared a little for me," he began,
almost reproachfully.

"Last night--I was a fool!" she bitterly said.  "I let you see too
much."

"Why too much?" he drew eagerly nearer.  "Joan, my beloved--the only one
in the whole world I care for--for, indeed, you have all my love, all--I
am yours, body and soul!--what can come between us if you love me?  And
you do!  I know you do!  I feel you don’t want to--and I don’t wonder, I
am not good enough, no one can be--but if you love me, I and no other
man, ought to be your husband!"

"Understand--I beg, pray, implore you to understand," she began, slowly,
painfully--this holding her wild instincts in check was the most
terribly hard battle she had ever fought--"I have sworn to myself never
to marry.  Years ago my uncle was hard, cruel to my parents: they
literally died, half-starved, because he would not help them.  When he
adopted me I did not know this.  I had some work to accept his kindness
after I did know.  But never, never will I accept a dowry, a trousseau,
from him--yet I will not explain why--nor will I go to any man a pauper.
Now perhaps you can see why--I feel--I can only do justice to myself,
and show mercy to him--by remaining as I am!"

"You mean to allow this folly about your uncle to come between you and
me?" he cried imperiously.  His compelling grasp closed upon her wrists.
"Joan, Joan, do not throw away my life and yours by such an
absurdity--such a whim!"

He gazed into her eyes with his so brimful of intensity of passion that
they seemed to draw her towards him.  She struggled against yielding to
the appeal, the yearning in his face--and he, he watched the
struggle--and as she gave a little sob, which was virtually a cry for
mercy, he drew her to him--he took her in his arms--she was on her
knees, in his embrace, her heart beating against his, their lips
clinging to each other.

Long--so it seemed to Joan--was she enwrapped in that delirium of bliss
she might have imagined, weakly, but had never felt in all its fierce,
oblivious ecstacy.  Then she held him from her.

"Oh, what shall I do?" she wailed--and clasping his knee she leant her
face upon her cold trembling hands.

"You dear, innocent child!  Do, indeed!" he almost merrily exclaimed,
stooping and kissing her fair wreaths of shining hair.  "Why exactly as
you like!  I don’t care a fig for your uncle--at least, as regards what
he can give you--I have enough for you and a family of brothers and
sisters, too, if you had one. All I want is _you_, do you understand,
you! You have only to dictate terms--I surrender unconditionally!"



                              CHAPTER VII


"You have only to dictate terms--I surrender unconditionally!"

Could she have heard aright?  Joan lifted her pale, miserable
face--miserable with the woe of reality after the delirious joy of being
clasped to her lover’s heart--and slowly shook her head.

"I have no terms to dictate," she slowly, dismally said.  "I cannot go
through a secret engagement!  It would be impossible to keep it secret,
either.  Uncle will guess! Why, I have hardly been decently civil to any
man who seemed as if he had ideas of marriage--he will know at once--and
then--every one else would know--oh, I could not bear it!  It would
drive me mad!"

She spoke vehemently--and there was a wild, dangerous gleam in her eyes
which he did not like.  Perhaps the mental trouble it must have been to
the sensitive orphan to accept bounty from the cold-blooded man who had
let her father, his brother, die unsuccoured, had brought about
hysteria.  He had read and heard of such cases.  It behoved him to come
to his darling’s rescue--to cherish and care for her--ward off every
danger from one so beautiful, so helpless, so alone.  As he gazed at
her, an extraordinary idea flashed upon him--like lightning it illumined
the darkness--the way he must go seemed to stand out plain before him.

"My dearest, there is a way out of our difficulty so simple, so obvious,
that it seems to me a waste of time to discuss anything else!" he said,
tenderly, gravely.  "You are of age--you are entitled to act for
yourself!  Let us be married as soon as possible and start in my yacht
for a tour round the world!  I can manage everything secretly: you will
only have to walk out of the house one fine morning and be married to
me, and we will take the next train to wherever the yacht will be
waiting for us, and be off and away before your absence has been
remarked and wondered at!  I will leave explanations to be sent to your
uncle at the right moment, acknowledging ourselves eccentric, romantic,
blameable, perhaps, but not unforgivable--saying that we knew so long a
honeymoon would be unpalatable, so we took French leave--why do you
shiver dearest?"  He bent anxiously over her. "Joan!  Won’t you trust
me?"

"Trust you!" she gazed up at him with that startling expression of
mingled love and woe into his face--a look he had seen in a great
picture of souls suffering in Hades--an expression too full of agony to
be easily forgotten. "Only it seems too much to expect!  It cannot
possibly happen--those good things don’t, in this miserable life!"

"You are morbid, dearest, if I may dare to say it," he tenderly said,
drawing her into the arms with which he vowed to shelter and defend her
from all and every adverse circumstance which might ever threaten her
peace and content.  And he set himself to comfort, hearten, encourage
her drooping spirits, as he painted the joys of their future life in the
most glowing terms at his command, during the rest of what was to him
their glorious hour together.  To a certain extent he thought he had
succeeded.  At least, Joan had smiled--had even laughed--although the
tragic look in those beautiful eyes--absent, hunted, terror-stricken,
desperate--was it only one of those things, or all?--had not been
superseded by the expression of calm satisfaction it would be such
relief and joy to him to see there.

"Something is wrong--but what?" he asked himself, after he had stayed
luncheon, and at last succeeded in tearing himself away.  "Is it only
that fact--a miserable one to so tender yet passionate a nature--that
while she is loaded with luxuries by her uncle, her parents died almost
in want because he withheld the helping hand?  It may be!
Well--anyhow--the best thing for her is absolute change--as soon as
possible--and that she shall have!"

                     *      *      *      *      *

Victor Mercier--it was his real name, his father, a meretricious French
adventurer, had married his mother for a small capital, which he had got
rid of some time before he ran away and left his wife and infant son to
starve--had left Joan the eventful night of their meeting after long
years--in a towering rage.

His was a nature saturated with vanity and self-love.  From childhood
upwards he had believed himself entitled to possess whatever he
coveted--the law of _meum and tuum_ was non-existent in his scheme for
getting as much out of life as it was possible to get.  Naturally sharp,
and with good looks of the kind that some women admire, he had not only
made a willing slave of his mother, but when, some years after, the news
of his father’s death came to her, she married again, a widower with a
charming little daughter, step-father and pseudo-sister also worshipped
at his shrine.

Then he ingratiated himself with an employer so that he was entrusted
with the sole management of the branch business at C----. Here, he
"splurged"; spent money freely, and--when he heard that the pretty
schoolgirl he had succeeded in establishing a flirtation with was the
only surviving member of the weakly family represented by the wealthy
Sir Thomas Thorne--he grew more and more reckless in the expenditure of
his master’s money and in his falsifying of the accounts.  Like many
others of his kind, he overreached his mark. When he paid a flying visit
to London to marry Joan before she was adopted by her uncle--her mother
had just died--it occurred to the head of his firm to "run over" to
C---- and audit the books.  The day of Mercier’s secret marriage he
heard that "the game was up," and his only means of escape, instant
flight and lasting absence.

It was quite true that his firm failed a couple of years later.  But he
had then just established himself as partner in a drinking-bar in the
unsavoury neighbourhood of a gold mine in South Africa.  The lady of the
establishment had fallen in love with him, and there was, in fact, money
to be made all round about by one who was not too particular in his
morals and opinions.  Suddenly, the neighbourhood grew too hot for him,
and he found it convenient to remember that the rich Miss Joan Thorne
must now be twenty-one and ready to be claimed as his wife.

So he returned with money enough to make a show, later on, of being
rich, at least for a month or two.  The first thing was to find Joan:
the next to meet her.

An acquaintance made in his comparatively innocent boyhood happened to
be now confidential valet to the Duke of Arran.  He sought him out,
flattered, and--without confiding his real story to him--made him his
creature by using a certain power of fascination which had helped on his
unworthy career from its beginning.

Paul Naz got him engagements as "extra hand" on state occasions in
noblemen’s houses; he had fulfilled three of these before he attained
his end and encountered Joan at the Duke’s--Paul consented to pay court
to Julie le Roux, Miss Thorne’s maid, so as to keep his old playfellow
informed as to the doings of the family, who, he told him, owed his late
father a considerable sum of money, which he wished to recover privately
to save scandal.  That very night Paul was taking Julie to see Mercier’s
so-called half-sister act in a transpontine theatre.  "Vera Anerley," as
she had stage-named herself, had been on tour with a popular piece--was
absent at the time of Victor’s return--and had appealed to his vanity by
her wild emotion when they met.  He was to see her on the stage, and to
have a word with Naz, who had had to probe Julie in a certain direction,
after he left his "wife" in the Regent’s Park.

When he had watched Joan’s hansom speed away in the darkness, Victor
Mercier walked along, then--hailing a passing cab, was driven to the
theatre.  As he went he anathematized Joan in the strongest of mining
oaths.

"Like all the rest," he bitterly thought. "Always another man--they must
have a man hanging about them!"

Alighting at the theatre, he met Naz, a fair, innocent-looking
Frenchman, coming out.  He joined him, saying "Come and have a drink."

"You have lost much by being late, your half-sister is adorable!" said
Naz, as they stood together at the bar of a neighbouring public-house.

"No doubt!" said Mercier carelessly.  "So is your Julie, eh?  By the
way, how is Julie’s mistress?  Any news?"

"As I said," returned Naz, in an undertone. "The beautiful creature is
trapped at last, by a lover who has been out of the country to try and
forget her, shooting big game!  They ride--meet--he was with her when I
posted you in the corridor that night. They passed me, you must have
seen him."

"Him--who?" muttered Mercier.  There was a gleam in his eyes.

"Lord Vansittart," replied Naz.  "The Duchess has been heard to say it
was a settled thing!"



                              CHAPTER VIII


The Duke’s valet prattled on until the second and third liqueurs had
solaced his being.  Then Victor glanced darkly at the clock.

"Let us go," he roughly said.

The softspoken Naz only thought that the delightful fluid which warmed
and comforted his gentle self had had a reverse effect upon his old
friend, so--following him gently as Mercier stalked gloomily into the
theatre and up to the dress circle, which was well-packed with honest
citizens and their wives in their ordinary habit as they lived--he
returned to his seat by Julie, and left him to his own devices.

The third act was over.  In the fourth Mercier’s so-called "sister" had
plenty to do. She was a peccant wife, revisiting home in disguise, and
seeking her husband’s pardon. It was a pathetic scene, when she sought
her husband and discovered herself.  Throwing off her disguise--she was
got up as an old woman--she emerged sweet, fascinating, in a white
dress, with her black hair in Magdalen-like confusion, and sinking at
his feet, alternately implored and adored with such passion and
intensity that tears rolled down the feminine auditors’ cheeks, and the
house literally rose to her.

"And all that passion is mine, to take or leave as I please," was
Victor’s saturnine comment, as he leant back in his seat with folded
arms and frowned darkly at the stage. He well knew that his amorous
dalliance with his step-father’s daughter, when he had had nothing more
to his taste to dally with, had succeeded in inspiring her with so
violent a devotion to him that, if he had not pitied, he might have come
to loathe her.  When she was a mere pretty, stupid schoolgirl, going to
and fro to her middle-class girls’ school, satchel in hand, he had had
but little patience with her absorption in him and his career. But now
that he saw her on the stage, beautiful with an undeniable beauty, full
of grace and spontaneity, and possessed of that power which passion
gives, he thrilled with mingled desire and satisfaction.

Strange ideas rose up in his mind--ideas of a subtle revenge upon
Joan--of intense and vivid gratification to himself.

"Joan will be my wife--my bondslave, to be dealt with how I please, and
when I please; and as long as I kiss and caress her no one dare
interfere, if I choose that she shall spend almost her life in my arms
with my lips on hers," he grimly told himself.  "But--Vera loves me--and
if I am Vera’s lover while I am Joan’s uxorious husband, Joan’s pride
will not allow her to accuse me, even if she suspects! And how her
proud, snobbish soul will hate my giving her half my love--as an Eastern
potentate gives it to his appointed spouse, while his real devotion is
his favourites’!"

The idea gave him a peculiar and indescribable pleasure.  It seemed,
indeed, to restore his equilibrium.  As the curtain fell, he left the
auditorium and made his way round to the stage door, as he had promised
Vera to do.

"I wish to see Miss Anerley--which is her dressing-room?" he asked,
when, after cautiously traversing a dark, unsavoury alley, he had pushed
open the swing door, had entered a dimly-lit corridor where a sickly gas
flame was flaring in the draught in its wire cage, and met a man coming
towards him.

"You are her brother?  Come this way, please."  The good-natured
acting-manager of the touring company, an eager little man in shabby
evening dress, escorted Victor along a passage to a door on which "Miss
Vera Anerley" was pasted, and knocked.

"It’s your brother, Miss Anerley," he called out.

"Thanks!  Wait one moment, Victor, will you?" cried a pretty, girlish
voice.

"All right."  Victor paced the narrow, damp-smelling corridor, hearing
the thumps and shouts from the stage, intermingled with a murmur of
melodramatic music now and then from the orchestra--making way
occasionally for a stage carpenter in shirt-sleeves, or an actor
hurrying from his dressing room--until Vera looked out.  "I am so sorry
to have kept you--come in," she said caressingly, and she pulled him
gently in and closed the door.

"Tell me, how do you like me?" she eagerly cried, clasping his hand with
both hers.  There was no reserve between these two--if, indeed,
propinquity had not established complete freedom from what Victor termed
_gêne_ long ago--and she gazed up into his face with eyes transparent,
shining, darkly blue as sapphires, eyes so brilliant that in admiring
them he hardly noticed the coarse red and white grease paint which
thickly coated her delicate skin, or the bistre rings around those
beautiful orbs.  "Victor! Speak!  If you are not satisfied, I shall
chuck the profession--dearly as I love my work, I couldn’t stand it!"

"Silly child!"  He patted her hand, and looked round for a seat.  There
were two broken chairs in the large, bare, cellar-like "dressing-room,"
with its high window shrouded by a torn and dirty red curtain and its
dresser-like table with looking-glasses the worse for wear under the
flaring gas jets. But he shook his head at them.  "I’ll sit here," he
said, perching himself on one of the big dress-baskets under the pegs
hung with feminine garments.  "By George! what a room for a future Lady
Macbeth to dress in, to be sure!  My dear, don’t gasp!  That’s your
style, tragedy, melodrama, bloodcurdling! You’re a damned passionate
little witch, that’s what you are--and I expected as much."

She gave him a rapturous glance as she drew a deep sigh of relief and
satisfaction, and sank in a graceful, unstudied attitude upon one of the
crippled Windsor chairs; and he dryly lighted a cigarette, and gazed
critically at her.  She was very fair!  Small, with an oval face under
glossy masses of dark silken hair; slight and graceful, with a child’s
hands and feet, and a tiny waist; yet the shoulders rising from her blue
ball-dress with its gaudy wreaths of pink flowers were softly
rounded--and the contour of neck and bust he considered "simply
perfect."  He ground his teeth and spat viciously on the blackened
boards--there were only pieces of old carpeting here and there--as he
remembered his wife--and her supposed lover, "Lord Vansittart."  "What a
cursed shame!" he thought.  "They wallow in wealth--and I and this
child--bah! there is something to be said for anarchy, after all!"

"You look--well, I feel I should like to kiss you," he grimly said.

She blushed under her paint.  Since her woman’s love had waxed so
strong, all the former boy-and-girl intimacy went for nothing--she was
shy of him.

"If you did you would spoil my ’make-up’ and would get a dab or two of
paint on your nose," she said, with slight embarrassment. It was just
that coy fear of him in the abandonment of her passionate love which
fired Victor Mercier when he was near her.  Fierce though his mingled
desire of, and hatred for, Joan had been, and still was, she had never
thrilled him, stirred his whole nature, as this girl, the companion of
his youth, had the power to do.

"You mean to say that is greasepaint on your shoulders?" he said,
rising.  He crossed the room, and, although she laughingly expostulated,
he bent and kissed them--then lifted her chin and kissed her throat.

"Are you angry?" he said mockingly, gazing down into her eyes with an
intent, triumphant expression.

"You know--very well--I could not be angry--with _you_!" she murmured,
lifting them, dewy with tenderness, with fervour, to his.

Victor started, and stepped suddenly away. The door was flung open, and
a young woman dressed in nurse’s costume rushed in.

"Vera, what are you about?  You’ll keep the stage waiting!  I beg your
pardon, I’m sure," she exclaimed.

Vera sprang up, and with a glance in a glass and a wild pat of her hair,
ran off.  The young woman turned to him.

"It was a near go that time; but I think she’s saved it," she said,
somewhat dryly. "You’re her brother-in-law, or step-brother, or whatever
it is, ain’t you?  She’s been all on wires to-night because you were in
front! She’s a good sort, is Vera!  We all cottoned to her when she got
the post.  But the stage-manager’s got a grudge against her, and that’s
why I ran off to get her on in time.  He’d have fined her as soon as
look at her!  You see he’s taken a fancy to her, and she won’t have
anything to say to him.  I tell her she’s a fool for her pains--he’s a
young fellow with plenty of brains, and his people have loads of money.
But there!  She won’t hear of it! I hope you’re pleased with us, Mr.,
Mr.--a’Court? You are?  That’s a good job!"

Victor Mercier left Vera’s colleague a few minutes later with the
understanding that he would wait for his "sister" at the stage door.
When Vera came out into the dark alley he met her, drew her hand under
his arm, and marching her out into the thoroughfare hailed the first
hansom he met.

"Get in!" he commanded.  Then he gave the address to the driver.



                               CHAPTER IX


The hansom drove swiftly along through the muddy streets.  Victor sat
silently by his companion.  His nature was strung up to its fullest
tension.  First had come the exasperating blow--the discovery that his
jealous surmise had been right--the wife he called wife because of those
few words spoken in a registrar’s office, alone, loved another
man--perhaps was even secretly his.  Then had come the surprise of
Vera’s beauty--grace--talent--and the conviction of her great passion
for himself.

"I will secure her," he grimly told himself.  "I must tell
her--something!  To know there is ’another woman’ will make her
irrevocably my own."  It was thus he correctly or incorrectly judged
womankind.

Vera leant back in the corner of the cab, and gazed--rapt, if
anxious--at his dark, handsome profile, visible now and again in the
moonlight which flashed white radiance upon the puddles and silvered the
wet slates of the roofs.  Did he love her?  Could he care for her?  She
was ready to follow him like a little dog through the world--if
necessary, through disgrace unto death.  For, as her sex will do, while
she had worshipped him as her hero, she had acknowledged that he could
err.  When he had been "wanted" by the police she knew that he was "in
trouble," if through folly rather than ill-doing; and while he had left
his broken-down mother without a hint as to his fate, owing her the
money she had borrowed that he might not starve while in hiding, it was
Vera who had kept a roof over her widowed step-mother’s head--who had
toiled and slaved for the lodgers all day, and danced and "walked on" at
the theatre all night.  Yes--unconsciously she avowed that her idol had
feet of clay.  But as she sat at his side, the blood raced madly through
her veins--her heart beat so strongly against her chest that she could
hardly breathe--she had to clench her hands so that they should not
clasp his arm--bite her lips lest they should play her false in furtive
kisses of the shoulder so tantalizingly near hers.

"I am a fool perhaps," she bitterly mused: "But--he is so splendid--so
delightful!"  She gave an involuntary sob--it was so terribly, cruelly
convincing that her passion was unreciprocated, that while she was
trembling and palpitating with emotion he should sit gloomily gazing out
into the darkness with arms folded like Napoleon at St. Helena.

He heard it.

"You little darling, what is the matter?" he suddenly said--then his
arms closed about her, she was clasped to his breast, her cold lips were
warmed into life by a long, close kiss; and there she lay, in an earthly
heaven, until they crossed a bridge over the Thames, now a fairy river
like quivering, molten silver in the moonlight, flowing between mystic
palaces whose windows glowed red in the shadowy façades, and the cab
halted at the end of the street.

On his sudden and unexpected return, he had occupied the rooms vacated
by a lodger called away to his mother’s deathbed in Wales, in the house
which was really Vera’s, for she paid the rent, but which his mother
literally lived by.  All the rooms except a parlour and attic she let to
students of the huge hospital in the neighbouring thoroughfare.

The windows of the little house all glittered white save one--that of
the "front parlour."

"Mother is still up," said Vera disappointedly--to cool down and behave
as a sister after that kiss was a terrible prospect! But let into the
silent house by Victor’s latch-key, they found the little parlour silent
also, and empty, although one burner of the gasalier above the little
dining table neatly laid for supper was alight.

On the table was a slip of paper: "Excuse me, I am so tired--Mother,"
was written on it.

Vera trembled a little.  "Come, Victor, you must have some supper," she
said coaxingly.

"Presently," he said, looking her over with a proprietary glance.  "Take
off that cloak! Wait, I will do it for you."

He went to her.  As he unfastened the clasp of the old evening cloak she
felt his touch upon her throat--it seemed to make her weak, almost
faint.  Then he flung it aside--it fell on the floor--and seating
himself on the horsehair sofa he drew her down upon his knee.

"You are all mine!  Do you understand?" he imperiously said; and his
dark eyes had a sinister, commanding expression as they gazed into hers
which frightened her a little, in spite of her unbounded faith and
adoration.  "All mine!  I could take you--or leave you--as I please!
You acknowledge it?"

She nodded.  To know he cared enough to make love to her overcame any
poor scraps of pride that fluttered idly in the wild gale of her passion
for him.

"Yes," she murmured humbly.

"Kiss me, then--let me feel there is one woman in the world worth the
taking!" he said, with scathing irony.  At that moment he told himself
scornfully that they might all be everlastingly banished to Sheol except
this one, and he would not turn a hair. He could look coolly over the
edge of space and watch their torments with less compunction than he had
felt gazing at the disembowelled horses in a Spanish bull-fight.

She threw her arms about his neck, and gazed adoringly into his eyes,
before she fell yieldingly into his embrace and allowed him to kiss her
again and again.

"Oh, I love you, I love you!" she murmured in her ecstasy.  Unlike poor
Joan, she had no burdened conscience dragging her back from the
reciprocation of her lover’s passion.

"You do, do you?" he asked suddenly, with one of his swift changes of
mood, loosing her, and rising to his feet, taking out his cigarette
case.  "Suppose I were to test you, eh?  Frankly, I don’t believe in one
of your sex!"  He gave a sneering laugh, as he struck a match, and,
lighting a cigarette stuck it between his lips.  "Little wonder,
considering that the old gentleman below sent one of his hags to work my
downfall! Surely you--a woman--guessed that a woman was at the bottom of
all--my--trouble?"

During that silent drive in the cab he had resolved what complexion he
would put upon "that wretched business," as he termed his defalcations
and consequent flight: in other words, what lies he would tell this
trusting, devoted girl.

"W--What?" she stammered--turning deadly white and gazing at him as if
in those words she had heard her death-sentence.

"The old game!  A woman pursuing a man," he said, with scornful irony.
Why would these women be so terribly tragic? It spoilt sport so
abominably!  "Don’t be jealous!  I called her a hag--and she was one!  I
won’t tell you who she was--it wouldn’t be fair.  But she made a dead
set at me--and I kept her at bay until my good nature let me into one of
those beastly traps good-natured fellows fall into.  I backed a bill for
a chum, and he played me false, and left me to pay up.  I borrowed money
from the business, and then the governor suddenly came down upon me for
it.  I had to take her money and her with it.  Nothing would do but I
must marry her!  Well, I did, and before I had had time to replace the
sum I had borrowed, the governor stole a march on me, and found it out!
I begged her to settle matters, but she refused!  So there was nothing
to do but to bolt--and remain away--live with the old cat I would not!
What is the matter?  She is less than nothing to me--more, I hate,
loathe, and despise her!"

She had sunk back with a groan and covered her face with her hands.  He
seated himself and drew her passionately to him.

"Come, come, there is no harm done! I mean to have you, d’ye hear?  And
soon! And as my wife!  What else do you think? I heard to-night there is
a man in the case. I mean to be free, with a capital to make merry on
for the rest of our lives!  I’ve only to play my cards properly, and
you’ve only to keep _mum_.  Can you, do you think? Can you keep
everything I do and say to yourself, and help me a bit now and then?  If
you can, you’ll be my wife!  If you can’t, you won’t.  That’s flat."

"You know what I think of you!" she moaned, gazing piteously at him.
"You know you are the whole world to me--that I would be tortured and
killed rather than betray you!"

"What is there to groan about, then?" he cried impatiently, springing
up.  "Upon my word, you are enough to rile a man into chucking you, that
you are!"

"What is there to groan about?" she repeated bitterly.  "What a question
to ask--when you tell me--you are married--when there is a woman alive
who has the right to call--you--husband!"

"Not for long, make your mind easy about that!" he grimly remarked.  He
had made an unalterable resolve that in some way or another this girl
should atone to him for Joan’s shortcomings--yet should herself benefit
to Joan’s loss: and he set himself to such a lengthened course of
cajolery and fascination of his admirer then and there, that the veils
of night were shifting and lifting, furtive nightbirds crept from their
lairs and fled along the streets as if scared by the dawn--and the light
still glowed in that window of Number Twelve, Haythorn Street.



                               CHAPTER X


At first Joan had been almost fearful in her new-born hope.  The
prospect of flight with her lover, the idea of marrying him secretly,
and starting for a tour round the world, about which no one would know
anything definite, seemed too splendid a prospect to be true!  Then, as
the days passed, and after writing an enigmatical letter to Victor at
12, Haythorn Street, the address given her by him--a letter promising to
meet him in a week’s time "with all prepared according to his
wishes"--she had no tormenting reply, she took heart.  Vansittart, in
their constant, but seemingly accidental, meetings--riding, driving, at
parties, and at the opera--encouraged her by promising that in one
fortnight from the day they had "settled matters" their plan should be
carried out. All seemed to promise to her the dawn of emancipation from
the consequences of her past folly; when, awakening somewhat suddenly
from sleep one morning, a terrible idea flashed upon her--she was
unexpectedly confronted with a truth she had overlooked in her
unreasoning passion for deliverance from Victor Mercier and freedom to
belong to Vansittart.

_Her marriage with Vansittart would be a bigamous one_.

"Oh!  Surely that was not a real marriage--that short ceremony at the
registrar’s," she told herself in anguish.  "At all events, my uncle
will make it worth Victor’s while to undo it--never to take any steps to
assert that he has any claim upon us.  Uncle will manage it.  He will
have had his will--I shall be Lady Vansittart--he will be ready to do
anything, proud man that he is, to prevent a family disgrace!"

It was a mean way of emancipating herself--to run away with Vansittart,
deceiving him as to the reason of her strange desire for what was
practically an elopement--to leave Sir Thomas Thorne recipient of her
confession that Victor Mercier was legally her husband, and must be
bribed to ignore the fact!

"But--if I cannot extricate myself in one way, I am driven to use
whatever means remain," she sadly told herself.  "I wish I had not got
to tell lies all round!  But if I must, I must!"

Every day she proposed to herself some plan of "managing" Victor
Mercier, so as to keep him quiet.  She hardly liked that silence of his.
Although she had no idea that he had instituted inquiries, and was
enlightened as to her intimacy with Vansittart, she felt as if that
cessation of hostilities on his part was the calm before the storm.

Her brief encouragement was past and gone.  She spent hours of silent
anguish, pacing her room, cold drops upon her brow, her nervous hands
wringing her gossamer handkerchiefs to shreds.  Julie, finding them in
wisps when she sorted the linen, wondered.

Then came the day before the date upon which she was to meet Victor,
"with all prepared according to his wishes."  There was an afternoon
fête at the riverside residence of the Marchioness of C----.  Sir Thomas
was to drive her down, together with Lady Thorne and some friends.  Joan
had expected that her uncle would propose that Vansittart should make
one of the party.  She knew nothing of a brief but crucial interview
which had taken place between her uncle and her lover, almost
immediately after their mutual understanding.

Lord Vansittart’s honour demanded that, while respecting the confidence
of his future wife, and acceding with entire self-abandonment to her
wishes in regard to their matrimonial affairs, he should at least defer
in some way to her guardian _in loco parentis_. So he sought a
_tête-à-tête_ with his future uncle-in-law--he contrived to put himself
in his way at the club.

It was the ordinary luncheon hour, and, after beguiling him into the
empty reading-room, he began without much preface.

"I think you know--at least, I mean, I know you are aware, that I love
your niece," he said.  "You also know she rejected me--more than once."

"Yes, my boy--and I think you know I was deuced disappointed that she
was such a silly little idiot!" warmly returned Sir Thomas.

"Well, I have some reason to flatter myself that if every one will only
let everything alone, and will not interfere, I have a very good chance
of making her Lady Vansittart!"  He looked boldly at Joan’s uncle.

"My dear boy, no one has the slightest wish to interfere!  What do you
mean?" asked Sir Thomas briskly.

Vansittart sighed, and shrugged his shoulders.  "My dear Sir Thomas,
your niece is a very extraordinary girl," he slowly said.  "Once
married, she will, I believe, settle down to be more like other people
in her ideas, which at present are extravagance itself!  But I will tell
you this much--the man who refuses to fall in with them will never call
her wife!  Now, what am I to do?  Am I to appear to outrage you by not
deferring to your opinions and feelings in regard to our engagement and
consequent marriage, or am I not?  Dearly, passionately as I love her, I
would rather give her up than behave dishonourably to you and Lady
Thorne!"

"Good Lord, what nonsense!" cried Sir Thomas with a short laugh.  "D’ye
think I don’t know that Joan is so soaked in romantic folly that she
isn’t capable of one single, reasonable, common-sense idea?  Go on and
prosper, old boy!  You have my blessing upon whatever method of
courtship you think best to adopt, even if it is to roll her in the mud
and kick her, or climb up to her window in the middle of the night and
carry her off down a rope-ladder!  Upon my word, I am jolly glad that I
am not the fool that every one thinks me, when I stick to it that Joan
has read that Shelley and Swinburne rot until she can’t tell black from
white!  Make her your wife your own way, Vansittart, and it shan’t make
any difference in her dowry, here’s my hand on it!"

After such trust on the part of the man who had the giving of his
beautiful niece, Vansittart continued his arrangements for the
fulfilment of Joan’s wishes, feeling as if treading on air.

The day of Lady C----’s garden party was showery at first.  But at noon
out had come a brilliant June sun, and the rain had only succeeded in
freshening the rich foliage and luxuriant flowers of Wrottesley Lodge,
on the Thames--a somewhat older house than the usual run of riverside
dwellings can lay claim to be.

The party on the top of the coach were extremely lively.  But Joan sat
silent.  The beauty of the day was not for her.  The summer breeze
stirred the chestnut blossoms and diffused their perfume until the air
was honeyed with it--the suburban gardens were gay with their beds of
summer bloom.  As they drove into the road where the gables of
Wrottesley Lodge peeped up among the sombre pines and firs which
screened the house from the vulgar gaze, the Thames came in sight, its
wavelets dancing in the sunlight.  All seemed careless happiness--even a
boy with a white apron and basket on his arm stood whistling gaily as he
watched the four-in-hand tool into the drive.  Only Joan’s heart seemed
like a stone in her breast, and all around was to her a ghastly
mockery--with that wretched hopelessness flooding her young soul.

Vansittart had arrived early, been welcomed, fussed with, and introduced
to specially charming girls by his amiable hostess. But their society
talk was to him like the chatter of the apes he had seen in the
jungles--he gazed at their pretty patrician features and wondered where
the beauty was which, with other things, had gone to make them successes
of the season.  When he caught sight of Sir Thomas’ well-known team of
roans, he muttered an excuse to the girl he was talking to, and hurried
off to help his beloved to alight.

There was a bustle--Joan was almost the last to descend the ladder.  How
exquisite was that high-bred little foot, he thought, in the white shoe
and delicate silk-lace stocking--already he was giving lavish secret
orders for a whole trousseau to be on board the yacht for her use--there
must be still more costly stockings and slippers to clad those dear,
pretty feet!  How lovely she looked altogether--her slight, beautifully
curved form draped in a thin muslin robe dotted with purple heartsease,
with silken sheen showing beneath--a big black hat with feathers and
pansies crowning her proud little golden head!  But when he met the
startled, awe-stricken, "lost" look of those great eyes, it was as if
some one had given him an ugly blow on the chest.

She smiled, as he welcomed her with a passionate ecstatic gaze in his
kind, devoted eyes--but the smile was a miserable imitation--and he felt
it.

"Come away--from the crowd--I have something important to tell you," he
whispered. She gave him a glance of horror, and turned pale.  "What?"
she stammered.



                               CHAPTER XI


That terror-stricken gaze of Joan’s chilled Vansittart with a vague new
dread--a fear impalpable, indefinite--still deadly in its effect upon
him.

He laughed as he said, encouragingly, "I can assure you you need not
trouble yourself that I have bad news--everything is going most
swimmingly!"  But as they threaded their way through the groups of
brightly dressed girls and young men in all kinds of costumes, from
whites to the severest frock-coat permissible at such _al fresco_
gatherings, he gave a name to his misgivings in his own mind.

"I do not believe it is her brain--she is keeping something from me--she
has a secret," he thought, as he talked gaily to her, the current small
talk of the hour, while they traversed the rich, smooth green turf to
reach the path which ran along a terrace by the river and led to the
pleasance--"Lady Betty’s pleasance" it had been called since the days
when a Lady Betty walked there in hoops and pannier, a little King
Charles spaniel waddling in her rear. "I must get it out of her!
However much we may deceive our fellow creatures, we must not deceive
each other."

"Where am I taking you?" he repeated brightly, in answer to her inquiry,
although to him it seemed as if a sudden darkness had chased all summer
brilliance from the day. "Oh, to a favourite spot of mine--a bench
overlooking the river under some tree--a hawthorn, I fancy!  We can talk
there without any fear of being overheard.  My darling--are you quite
well?  Are you sure you are?"

As they left the open, and were under the trees--a belt of well-grown
shrubbery divided the spreading lawns from the pleasance--he stopped,
and placing his hands lightly on her shoulders, gazed with such honest
worship into her eyes, that she flinched and glanced away.  Her lips
paled and trembled.

"May I kiss you, dearest?" he almost pathetically asked--his voice
faltered. In return she flung herself into his arms, and lifted her lips
to his.  It was a great moment to him, that abandonment of passion in
his beloved--but even as their lips met, and he felt her heart beat
against his own, a horrible sensation of despair mingled with the relief
her spontaneous outburst had been to him.

She still clung to him after the embrace--her cheek against his
shoulder--and he heard her groan.

"My love, this won’t do!" he cheerily exclaimed.  "You make me feel as
if I had injured you somehow--that I must be a tyrant--a monster--if you
repent of your bargain there is time yet, you know!  Although I have the
licence, and we could be married to-morrow if you chose, you can draw
back. If you repent of your promise to marry me--I do not hold you to
it!  And remember, no one knows----"

She stirred--and rose.  "No one knows?" she feverishly asked.  "You
managed it all--without--telling _anybody_?"

"Except the people I was obliged to tell to procure the special
licence," he answered lightly, as he walked along at her side.  "And
they--well, one would as soon suspect one’s lawyer, or doctor, or
banker, of betraying one’s confidence as the Doctor’s Commons fellows!
It would be absurd."

The bench he remembered was there, under the hawthorn, which was still a
mass of bloom.  Below a stone balustrade the river ran, wide, flowing,
hastening seaward.  They seated themselves.  He took her hand, drew off
her glove, and kissed the pink, soft palm of her delightful, delicately
slender hand.

"How soft it is, dear little hand!" he said tenderly.  "Do you know what
the supposed experts say of a soft palm, or skin? That the possessor is
morbidly sensitive and sympathetic!  I have thought that of you,
darling!  I have wondered, sometimes, whether you are not indulging in
melancholy retrospect--thoughts of your dead parents’ troubles, or
something!  If so, nothing could be more foolish and useless!  Can we
recall the past?  No! it is dead--there is nothing in this world so
dead!  Are we not taught that our great Creator Himself will not meddle
with it?  Darling, you make me cruelly anxious, and that is a fact, by
your gloom! Do you think I do not know--feel--share your secret
suffering?  While I cannot guess what it is, I can hardly endure your
evident unhappiness--I could bear it, if I only knew! Joan, Joan--I am
almost your husband; as we are to be married so soon, you might confide
in me!  Child!  My dearest--my almost wife--tell me!  I can help you, I
must be able to help you, and I will!  Don’t you, won’t you, believe
me?"

His words--his passion--pattered harmlessly upon her preoccupied being.
She had an idea--by a subterfuge to place her awful position before him,
and hear what he would say to it.

"Of course I believe you!" she dreamily said.  "I know you would help me
if you could!  But how can you?  It is a foolish and stupid, rather than
a wrong, action of mine, in the past!  You yourself say that God Himself
does not meddle with the past! No!  He does not!  We have to suffer the
consequences."

"But--one may deal with the consequences, darling," he tenderly said.
"Tell me--all--exactly as it is!  Won’t you?  I knew there was something
rankling in your mind.  I can assure you we shall both be the happier
for trusting each other.  Come, out with it!"

"How can I put it to you without betraying--_her_?" she mournfully
began, her strained eyes fixed on a beautiful clump of lilies, which
seemed to mock her with their modest stateliness, their spotless
purity--she, in her own idea, irrevocably defiled by her tie to Victor
Mercier--her body smirched by his embrace, her poor cold lips fouled by
his detested kiss.  "It was--a dear, intimate friend, at school.  I
loved her so, that I believed in her feelings.  I helped her in a secret
love affair--with--a young man."

"Well, that was quite natural--there was no great harm in that, I am
sure!" he exclaimed, heartily, beginning to be half ashamed of his
secret doubts, and telling himself he ought to have remembered with what
difficulty a girl brought up in a boarding-school learns life and its
meaning, how a school-girl is handicapped when she starts real existence
in the world.

"There was harm in it, although I did not think so at the time!" she
went on, bitterly. "For she married him secretly--and no sooner had she
done so, than he was taken up by the police for something or
another--and ran away.  She never heard anything of him until the other
day, when he turned up.  Oh, poor, unhappy girl!  What is to be done for
her?  Cannot you understand that I, who helped to her undoing, am
miserable?"

"My dearest child, we cannot go about the world bearing the consequences
of other people’s folly.  It is not common sense, we have plenty of
troubles of our own!" he said, almost chidingly.  He felt just a little
hurt that his love had not been strong enough to balance her vicarious
suffering.  The terrible truth that she was speaking of herself never
once occurred to him.  "Your friend married this man, not you!  She must
suffer for it.  She had better make the best of her bad bargain--and
really must not worry you! It is positively inhuman to do so!"  He spoke
with slight indignation.  She shuddered.

"But surely--there must be some way to rid her of him?" she asked,
striving with all her might to still her inward anguish, and speak
collectedly.

"Oh yes, if she does not shrink from a public scandal," he said,
somewhat dryly. "The young lady can apply for a divorce. How long since
his desertion?  Four years?"  He shrugged his shoulders.  "She had
better employ detectives to find out his doings during those years.  But
she ought to consult lawyers!--What?  She would not do that? Why not?"

"She will kill herself rather than do that--and her death will be on
my--soul!" said Joan, solemnly.  She looked her lover full in the face.
Why was it that at that moment in imagination he seemed to hear a bell
tolling and to see a churchyard with a yawning grave--towards which a
funeral procession was making its way?  He gave a short laugh, which was
more a sob.  What a grip this girl had upon his emotions!

"What power you have over me, you girlie!" he said, chokingly.  "You
seemed to make me see all sorts of things ... Darling, if money is of
any good to your friend--I should only feel too thankful to be of any
help----What?  It is of no use?"

"It is of no use!" cried she, in a helpless tone.  "None! ... And you
mean to tell me--that that few minutes in a registrar’s office--can only
be undone--publicly--in the divorce court?"

"There is only one other thing that can free her, my dear child--death!"
he said, seriously.  "People seem to forget that when they rush into
matrimony.  But--my darling--" he looked anxiously into her half-averted
face--"do you mean to say that this entanglement of your friend’s is all
you have on your mind--all?  Joan"--he grasped her hands--"trust
me--your husband--almost your husband--anything you may tell me--will be
sacred!"



                              CHAPTER XII


Joan shuddered.  To hear that fiat of her lover’s--that only death or
the divorce court could free a girl in her position from that slight yet
deadly tie--and to hear it uttered with such seemingly heartless
barbarity--was almost too ghastly to be borne.

She hardly understood his last impassioned appeal to her to confide in
him--all--all that was troubling her.  She stared miserably out upon the
river.  A steam launch went puffing up stream.  Some one on deck was
singing an apparently comic song to the strumming of a banjo; for shrill
feminine laughter, mingled with ironic "bravos" was borne upon the
breeze as the verse came to an end.  Then the band engaged for the
afternoon struck up a bright little march on the lawn the other side of
the shrubbery. The mockery of the careless gaiety of ordinary life
jarred her beyond endurance.

"Let us go away from here," she exclaimed, starting up, and glancing
wildly at Vansittart.

His heart misgave him.  This meant--he felt--that she was concealing
something from him.  Well! he must have patience, and bide his time.

"Presently," he said, in tender, but authoritative tones--and he drew
her gently, but firmly, back on the seat by his side.  "You must recover
yourself first, darling--telling me of this wretched affair of your
friend’s has upset you!  And really a girl who would be so reckless and
foolish as to damn her whole life in advance by linking it legally with
that of the first adventurer who came across her, is hardly worth your
sympathy, by the way! Come, cheer up, or people may, will think--well,
they will make a shrewd guess that there is something going on between
us, and you don’t want that, do you?"

"Just now, I don’t seem to care!" she replied--and her glance was one of
slight defiance.  "You are too hard upon my poor friend--she was a dupe
rather than--what was it? ’reckless, foolish’!"

"I am afraid I must plead guilty to having scant sympathy with dupes,"
he said, somewhat slightingly.  Her manner had hurt him unconscionably.

"I suppose that is why you fell in with my idea of making dupes of my
aunt and uncle!"  She gave a shrill laugh, so unlike her ordinary sweet,
pleasant laugh--the laugh that had haunted him those lonely nights and
days in strange foreign lands, when he had striven to forget her--that
his temporary annoyance gave way to concern.

"That is hardly kind!" he exclaimed, reproachfully.  "Remember, it was
not I who wished for this extraordinary secrecy! However, let that pass.
One of the things I brought you here to tell you, dearest, is that I
have hinted broadly to your uncle that I mean to make a dead set at you,
and conquer all your various objections to marriage--and that I have his
entire concurrence and sympathy!  Is not that comforting?"

"It may be, to you," she said.  "Honestly--dear"--she suddenly softened,
and gave him a pathetic, beseeching glance--"I am good for nothing
to-day--the past seems to have its clutch upon me, and I cannot feel
with the present, or believe in a future!  You must have patience with
me----"

"You shall believe in a future, my angel!" he said emphatically--that
look had swept away the cobwebs of doubt and vague suspicion, and he was
once again the lover alone, as he drew her towards him and seemed to
devour her with his eyes.  "Listen, dearest--you have only to fix any
day after a week is at an end, for our marriage, and the yacht will be
ready.  It is looking delightful--and I have already stocked it with a
lot of things I think you will like.  All I want now is one of your old
frocks--to have some made by the pattern--and just one little shoe and
glove"--he spoke hurriedly, somehow he shrank from such husband-like
allusions as irreverent until she was actually and irrevocably Lady
Vansittart--"may I, can I, have them, do you think?  You see, I want you
to be thoroughly, completely comfortable!  And I do not mean the yacht
to touch any port until we are absolutely compelled to--and then I shall
choose some little station where one could not get ladies’ dresses and
things."

"How long shall we be able to wander without people knowing anything
about us?" she asked eagerly.  He was pleased--reassured--to see how the
idea of a lengthy, secret honeymoon revivified her.  She must love him!
How else should she wish to sail the oceans of the globe with him,
alone, as her companion?

"Dearest, that will be for you to say," he fondly returned, gazing
rapturously at the exquisite profile, waxen and delicate against the
drooping black feathers of her picture hat.  If only the lines under
those beautiful eyes were less sharply defined, and the droop in those
soft, sweet lips less ominous of secret sorrow!

But, as he himself termed it, at that juncture in their _tête-à-tête_
Joan seemed to "take a favourable turn."  First, seemingly roused from
her melancholy mood by talk of their approaching flight and consequent
life on the high seas, she became steadily brighter as the afternoon
progressed.  Returning to the augmented crowd of Lady C----’s
fashionable guests, they mingled with the rest, Lord Vansittart behaving
with a decorous respect, and comporting himself admirably as a rejected
suitor returned to the fray.  Only when, by Sir Thomas’ special
invitation, he made one of the party on the coach, and throughout the
home-going sat as close into Joan’s pocket as he dared, did he permit
himself to drop the carefully-assumed manner it had cost him such pains
to maintain.

But, later, he was rewarded.  After dining with Joan and a few guests of
Sir Thomas’, he spent a delightful half-hour with her on the balcony,
among the flowers under the awning.  No one could see them from
below--opposite, the trees in the enclosure were dusky masses in the
starlight.  The summer night seemed charged with love-murmurs--the
glittering heavens to twinkle joyously of the great emotion which
brought forth the Universe.

"Only a few days--and you will belong to me for ever!" he said,
rapturously.  Almost as alone in their sought-for seclusion as if they
were already riding the waves of the southern seas in the ship that was
to see their first matrimonial bliss, he held her in his arms, and
tenderly, reverently--with almost the passionate devotion of an
anchorite kissing cherished relics--kissed her pale cheeks, her sweet
mouth, her beautiful, thoughtful brows. "Darling--I will make you forget
all your troubles--your self-reproach--everything that can possibly
detract from your happiness! I promise you I will!  Do, do say that you
believe that I am capable of doing it!"

"If any one is, you are!" she murmured, clinging to him.  "Somehow,
to-night, I feel happier than usual--as if life had something in it,
after all!  And it is you who have made me cheer up--a few hours with
you has given me a certain confidence--or rather, I should say, a
hope--that perhaps the day may come when I shall be able to
forget--everything--but my life with you!"

"God grant it!" he piously exclaimed; and for that night at least his
prayer seemed answered--for after he and the other guests had departed,
Joan retired to her room and seeking her couch, slept more tranquilly
and dreamlessly than she had done since those evil days when Victor
Mercier cajoled her into marrying him--and when almost on the morrow,
she had learnt that her husband was an absconding criminal.

She awoke, too, with a new sense of safety--and of the very present
refuge in her trouble--Vansittart.

"Even if he got to know--he would not turn against me, I am sure he
would not!" she told herself, as she lay and thought of him, smiling.
For once she looked at peace and happy.  "I feel it!  How strange it
would be if it turned out that he would have to fight my battles with
uncle?  But such things do happen--in real life as well as in fiction."

She lay and mused happily on the delightful subject--Vansittart, and the
coming days when they would be all in all to each other--until Julie
came with the hot water and the letters.

Then--it was as if death itself laid a cold hand on her heart--for there
was one in the detested writing of Victor Mercier. He had
dared--risked--writing to her openly in her own home, under her uncle’s
roof!

What did it mean?



                              CHAPTER XIII


The latent sense of being arbiter of a beautiful young woman’s
fate--which had been perhaps Victor Mercier’s only sentiment in Joan’s
regard during their separation--developed, on that evening they met in
the Regent’s Park, into a certain passionate exultation in possessing
her for his own, evidently against her wish.  But when he felt
convinced, from Paul Naz’ innocent betrayal of society talk, that the
girl who was legally his wife had a lover, and that already their names
were coupled together, the smouldering resentment that her girlish
passion for him was dead, burst into a fierce flame of absolute hatred.

He had enjoyed abandoning himself to the enjoyment of Vera’s love with a
double zest--because it was a secret revenge upon Joan. He had gone
about after he had received Joan’s letter postponing their next meeting,
making subtle and refined plans for the long-drawn-out punishment of his
"faithless wife," as he termed her.  He told himself he was glad of a
week’s interlude.  If he had seen her then, he might have betrayed his
wrath and desire for revenge.  His tactics were quite the opposite of
that.

"First, I must compromise her," he decided. "I must have her actions
now, at the actual moment, in my power--she must have been alone with me
in such a way as to turn this noble lord who wants her against her,
should he know of it!  Yes--if she had refused to see me, she might have
gone in for a divorce! But if I have her condonation for the past on my
side, she will have no case--even if she would not have entirely damned
herself with this cur of a lover!"

This accomplished--something tangible in the present to hold over her
head--he would take her away and make constant and passionate love to
her.  He told himself grimly that there would be a fantastic delight in
this uxorious enjoyment of a wife whose heart was given to another man,
which fell to the lot of few.  The secret ecstasy would be the knowledge
that he had left the loving arms of a devoted girl who was ready to die
for him, and could return to them at any moment--for he well knew that
Vera’s infatuation for him included wholesale acceptance of any lie he
chose to invent to account for his absence, or any detail of his life.

"Then--I can play upon them all in turn, as upon a set of musical
instruments," he promised himself.  "The uncle will do what I ask--snob
as he is, parvenu, beggar on horseback!--to hide what he will think
disgrace!  The lover--well, he shall be neatly disposed of by-and-bye.
He shall see me with her in my arms, somehow, somewhere, somewhen!  Upon
my word, that will be almost as much torture to them both as the
old-fashioned, out-of-date revenges.  It is a poor revenge upon people
to kill them!  Let them live--and thwart them, make them writhe in their
impotence to do what they want!"

And during this week Vera must be plunged more hopelessly and abjectly
in love, so that she would become such a mere echo of himself that she
would do, or not do, whatever he suggested, without so much as a second
thought.

So he devoted himself to her, and spent his money freely in the process.
He bought her pretty trinkets, and some ready-made costumes and becoming
hats--and almost every day took her some excursion.  They had a day at
Brighton, one at Windsor, one in Richmond Park, one up river.  That was
the day before the one in which the crucial interview with Joan was to
occur; and he chose to assume a portentous gravity, and to tell her that
he must go away for a time.

"My sweetest pet, this being with you is pretty well driving me mad with
impatience to get rid of that cat of a woman who keeps us apart," he
told her, as, after they had had a little _fête champêtre_ of cold
chicken and champagne, he lounged at her side in a boat drawn up under
the willows of a little creek.  "So I have made up my mind to set about
it at once!  What do you say?"

"Dearest!" was all she could reply.  Her beautiful blue eyes gazed at
him through a mist of emotion.  How deliriously dainty she
looked--flickering shadows cast by the willow branches on her _petite_,
white-clad figure--the heat of a mid-summer noon bringing a rich rose
glow to her rounded cheeks, so much more delicately pretty without
war-paint.

"It will necessitate my being absent for a little while, but that you
must not mind," he went on, judicially, resting his head on her shoulder
and thinking what a wonderful provision of Nature it was--this unbounded
credulity of enamoured women.  Did they really believe in their men, he
wondered, a little contemptuously--or did their frantic desire for their
love to be returned swallow up everything that stood in its way?  "When
one wants a good thing, one must be content to make a little sacrifice
for it, eh, darling? I don’t think you are as selfish as most of your
sex, I will say that for you!"

She glanced at him gratefully.  One word of praise from his lips
recompensed her for all the drudgery, hard work, and mental suffering of
the past years--when, not knowing where he was or what had become of
him--whether he was dead or in prison, or fallen among thieves in some
unreachable country--she had slaved and toiled nearly the
four-and-twenty hours through to keep a home together in which, some
day, to welcome back the wanderer, or even the total wreck of him.

"And now you must help me in something," he went on, sliding his arm
about her slender waist and looking up into her face with those
sinister, penetrating black eyes, which were, perhaps, the deterrent
when dogs growled and snarled at, and children fled from, him.  "I am
not one of those silly men who talk about their business--who chatter,
prate, prattle, and do nothing!--I say little--but act!  (The secret of
successful life, my dear!)  I have not been idle since I returned with
the hope of winning you for my wife. Already I have found out much of
the woman who was my ruin for a time with her unscrupulous devilry,
which will help me immensely to free myself from that obnoxious tie.
But I have still to see a very important witness against her, and I can
only see the man at my leisure at home.  Do you think that if I appoint
to-morrow night, you can persuade mother to go to the theatre with you?"

"Don’t you know?  She is going to the entertainment given for the
patients at the Hospital," returned Vera, eagerly.  "That will be the
very thing for you!  You will have the house to yourself.  Mr. Dobson is
going, of course!"  (Mr. Dobson was a student lodger).

"Everything smiles upon us, my love," he said, tenderly, grimly
congratulating himself on his good luck.  And he gave himself up to
love-making for the remainder of the summer afternoon--returning earlier
than he had intended, though, to write that letter to Joan: the letter
which Julie brought among others to her bedside, and which she read with
blanched cheeks and sinking heart:--


"You must not go to the old place, but come to me here, to-morrow night,
Wednesday, at nine.  If you fail, I intend to call upon you without
demur, and at all risk. Take a cab to the corner of Westminster Bridge,
the other side of the river, and then inquire for Haythorn Street.

  V. a’COURT."



                              CHAPTER XIV


The tone of the missive seemed to half paralyse poor Joan.  For a little
while she lay prone on her bed, unable to think, answering Julie
mechanically as she hovered about, pulling up the blinds, getting the
bath ready, placing the dainty garments ready to hand.

Then, with the first returning pang of despair--for that letter told her
that she need not imagine she was in the least secure--a sword of
Damocles hung over her unhappy head--she cast about what she must do.

Go, of course! that was certain.  And make terms--or, rather, accede _in
toto_ to anything he might propose for that flight of theirs which was
never to take place.

"I had better take money with me," she told herself.  "And--to a certain
extent I must take Julie into my confidence."  "Julie, I have no money
by me, do you know," she said, irrelevantly, as Julie was dressing her
golden hair, and wondering why her young mistress’ beautiful face was so
pale and _triste_.  Julie usually cashed her young lady’s cheques drawn
to "Self" for pocket-money.

"Shall I go for madamoiselle--after breakfast?" asked Julie, sweetly, as
she vigorously combed the glistening hairs from the jewelled hair brush,
one of Sir Thomas’ frequent gifts to his niece.  She had always liked
her beautiful young mistress, but since Joan had sympathized with her
love affair with Paul Naz, she had been ready and willing to fly to the
ends of the earth to do her bidding, if need be.

"No.  I am going shopping in the carriage, and you shall come with me.
I don’t like your taking much money into omnibuses, Julie, so I think I
shall draw a large sum at once.  It is perfectly safe locked up in this
room."

Julie readily acquiesced--and during the morning drove with Joan to
several shops, and to the Bank, where she cashed a cheque for a hundred
and fifty pounds in rouleaux of gold, which she carried in a bag to the
carriage.  As they were driving home Joan told her she wanted her to
help her in an errand of charity that very evening.

"Mais certainement, mademoiselle!" the girl readily exclaimed.
"To-night?  I can easily go out another evening."

"I don’t want you to do that," returned Joan.  "What I want is this.  My
uncle knows nothing of this poor person I am helping, and I do not want
him to know.  I thought that I might take a sudden fancy to go--say, to
Madame Tussauds’, which I have not seen for years--that we might start
together in a cab--my uncle and aunt are going out to dinner, and have
the landau--and then I will drop you at a certain spot, and meet you
there again when you are returning home."

Julie acquiesced with acclamation--and flushed with pleasure at being
admitted to share a secret with the sweet, proud girl who would, she was
certain, very soon be a great lady.  If she had her doubts about the
"poor person," and imagined, from what she knew by experience of Joan’s
eccentricity--as she considered her mistress’ coldness hitherto in
regard to the opposite sex--that the nocturnal escapade meant an
assignation with the charming milord who intended to make a great lady
of Miss Thorne--she kept it to herself.

Mistress and maid carried out their plan without hindrance.  Sir Thomas
teased his niece a little slily about the sudden fancy for waxworks--he
had, like Julie, some _arrière-pensée_ not unconnected with
Vansittart--but he made no objection to the expedition. Nor did Lady
Thorne, to whom, after his talk with Vansittart, he had said, after
giving her some broad hints--"my dear, understand this once and for
all--if we give Joan her head, and don’t interfere in the least, she
will be the Viscountess Vansittart before we know where we are!"
Shortly after Joan had had a solitary tea-dinner in her sitting-room
upstairs--a meal she affected when she preferred not to accompany Sir
Thomas and Lady Thorne to a long, dreary, dinner-party of old
fogies--mistress and maid started off in a four-wheeled cab to which a
man-servant pompously gave the address--"Madame Tussord’s."

Julie had admired, with a French girl’s admiration, her young lady’s
_savoir faire_, when she had suggested that they should actually make a
tour of the exhibition and take an opportunity of slipping quietly out
when others likely to absorb the door-keeper’s attention were coming in,
and had readily acquiesced in the idea.

They alighted at the entrance, paid their money, walked leisurely in,
strolled about, apparently examining the effigies with interest then
steering unostentatiously towards the door by which they had entered;
they waited until a number of lively children were flocking
obstreperously upstairs and had to be held in check at the turnstile,
when they issued forth, and walked along the Marylebone Road.

When they came to a church, Joan stopped. "Will you remember this
place?" she asked. "You are sure?  Then I will leave you here, and meet
you again at the exact spot at eleven o’clock.  If you are here first,
wait until I come.  On no account are you to go home alone--without me!
Do you understand?"

Julie’s protestations that she understood were sincere and hearty.  Joan
said no more, but took the bag from her--Julie had mentally commented
upon its weight, and wondered who was the lucky person to be benefited
by its contents--and with an easy "_au revoir_, then," was gone.

She sped along the street as much in the shadow as she could, lest a
glance of recognition might by any possibility be cast upon her from any
of the carriages which drove by almost in numbers, for it was the climax
of an unusually gay London season.  Then, when she began to meet
crawling cabs and hansoms, she hailed one, gave the order, "Westminster
Bridge--the Southwark end," and sank back in the corner a little spent
and exhausted by the first part of her escapade.

"So far, so good," she told herself, drawing a long breath of mingled
anxiety and disgust.  Although she had steadily pulled herself together,
willed resolutely to go through the tragic farce with Victor Mercier, as
her only alternative--her loathing of the part she had to play was so
intense that at times she felt tempted to take a leap into the black
waters of the great river instead of submitting to his endearments.  As
the cab drove briskly towards Westminster, and her eyes rested miserably
on the familiar landmarks of the great city, so beautiful in its nightly
robe of the mingled light and darkness which is so typical of its very
soul--she said to herself in a wild moment--"death or
Vansittart--which?" and the memory of her beloved one’s fine frank face,
glorified into absolute beauty by the strong tenderness of his deep
love--won.

"Even Victor’s touch--his kiss," she grimly told herself, "are not too
much to pay for a lifetime with _him_!"

A clock informed her that it was considerably past nine o’clock.  So
much the better! The shorter that hated _tête-à-tête_ with Mercier would
be, the more thankful she would feel.

The air blowing freshly down stream as they crossed the bridge, revived
her.  She alighted, paid the cabman, and taking her bag tightly in her
hand, passed some roughs who were shouting noisily as they came along,
by stepping into the road; then seeing the helmet and tunic of a
policeman silhouetted against the sky--still dully red after the
sunset--she went across the road to him.

"Can you direct me to Haythorn Street?" she asked.

"Haythorn Street?  Yes, miss.  Straight along that road, and first to
the left."

Evidently the street where her bugbear at present lived was an ordinary
one, and respectable.  The policeman’s tone of voice suggested that!
She went along the road, which was rather dark, until she came to a
neat-looking street of small, uniformly built houses.  Yes, this was
Haythorn Street--she read the name by the light of the gas lamp close
by.  Now to find the number!  The corner was number one, so she went on
at once, and then her heart gave a dull, leaden thud against her chest.
She saw a dark figure on a little balcony a few houses up, which
disappeared as she advanced.  When she came up to number twelve, the
street door stood open--Victor came out, took her hand, and led her in.

"Welcome, my dearest wife!" he exclaimed, embracing her.  Then he closed
the door.  She saw an odious, triumphant smile on his sharp, handsome
features, and in his bright dark eyes.  He was carefully dressed.
Although only half a Frenchman, he had the southern taste for fantasy in
costume.  A diamond stud shone in his embroidered shirt-front, a
button-hole of some white, strongly-scented blossom was in his coat.

"You are frightened, my own!" he caressingly said, with a suggestion of
proprietorship which made her inwardly shudder.

"Don’t be!  We are quite alone in the house, you and I!  And I will take
precautions to keep us so," he added, returning to the door and putting
up the chain.



                               CHAPTER XV


Joan staggered against the wall with sudden horror as Victor walked away
and adjusted the chain which shut out possible intruders.  Alone in the
house--with him--and he was legally her husband! Could she face it?  "I
must, I will!" she said to herself, clenching her teeth and summoning
all the fortitude she possessed to her aid.

As he turned, he noticed her pallor, the wild glitter in her great eyes.
"At bay," he thought.  "Mad with passion for another man--hates me--what
a delicious situation!"

"Come upstairs, dearest," he said, in the new, abhorrently caressing
tone which seemed to curdle her blood.  "What?  The staircase is too
narrow for us both?  Then I will go first."  He tripped lightly up the
steps, which were covered with oilcloth, and after turning up the gas on
the landing, stood smiling upon her as she slowly, reluctantly,
ascended.  As she reached the top, he opened a door, and she saw a
well-lighted room with a book-case, good, solid chairs, and a new
Kidderminster carpet.  But a curious odour floated out to meet her.

"What an odd smell of drugs!" she exclaimed, standing on the threshold.
It seemed to take her back years, that pungent odour, to the
schoolroom--when she went into the schoolmistress’ little medicine-room
to be physicked.

"I am very sorry, but I happen to be on sufferance in these rooms--their
real tenant is a medical student, who has got leave because of a series
of catastrophes in his family.  Look here!  This looks like business,
doesn’t it?"

He opened a cupboard door, and she saw a skeleton hanging on a peg.
"Oh!" she cried, shrinking back.

He laughed.  "I thought you were strong minded," he said.  "But somehow
I am rather glad you are not.  But you are not going to stand there all
the evening, are you, because there are a few harmless bones in the
cupboard?  There are worse things in creation than skeletons!"  He spoke
meaningly.

She watched him as he seated himself in a revolving chair by a writing
table.  There was a certain insolence in his manner and tone, as well as
in his depreciatory stare, as he gazed slightingly at her and twisted
his small black moustache.  A diamond twinkled on his little finger.

Somehow she took courage from his shallow, careless attitude--and she
was strongly stirred by a wild idea that flashed upon her. She would
make use of her own scheme with Vansittart to cajole him into waiting
until the mine was sprung, and he had lost her for ever!

"I am not strong-minded, more’s the pity, or I should not be here
to-night," she said, firmly, and she entered and seated herself opposite
him, once more mistress of herself and her emotions.  "Why not?  Because
I should have been with you long ago, if I’d had the spirit some women
have!"

"You would--have followed me?" he asked, a little taken back, puzzled.

"I would!  Because I believed in you!" she said, honestly.  "I thought
you more sinned against than sinning!"

"That is right!  A woman’s first duty is to believe in her husband," he
exclaimed, leering at her.

"Her husband!"  For a moment she was off guard, she spoke with scathing
contempt.  "A husband, who leaves his wife month after month, year after
year, without a word!"

"A real woman would have searched for me the world through, when she had
money to command as you have had!" he said, leaning back, folding his
arms, and contemplating her with a savage, vindictive expression.

"Money?  I have only an allowance!" she exclaimed, bitterly, and with a
real bitterness.  It had sometimes maddened her since his return, when
she thought of what she might do if only her uncle had given her the
control of a small fortune, instead of doling out an income.  "And that
is where our difficulty lies, Victor.  I have taken a week to think hard
about it.  Suppose we hire a yacht under another name, and wander about
for a time, and then I appeal to my uncle?  I think he would be inclined
to forgive--everything."

"If you remember, my dear, that was my idea, not yours," he said,
leaning back in his chair, puzzled.  Was it possible that Paul Naz, and
the people who coupled Joan with that "milord" Paul had spoken of, were
mistaken, and that she cared for him still--only her pride and vanity
had kept her from showing it?  "Not a yacht--bah, I detest the sea--and
to be shut up in a boat!  Not even with you, my beautiful wife, could I
stand such _gêne_!  No, no, I have a better idea than that.  Let us lose
ourselves in Paris!  You know nothing, you are still a baby, if you have
not seen and enjoyed life there!  But you are a baby--hein?  I must
teach my child-wife what life really is."

Slightly exhilarated by his new view of Joan, as possibly as potentially
great a victim of his fascinations as poor deluded Vera, he sprang up,
and going to her, took her in his arms.  The instinct to fling, thrust
him violently from her, was cruelly strong. But she--in an agony of woe
and love--remembered Vansittart, and mentally thought "for his sake, for
his sake," as she willed passively to endure, while Victor kept his lips
long and firmly on hers.  At last she could bear it no longer, and freed
herself with a sudden frantic effort.

"You will suffocate--choke me!" she gasped, and her eyes seemed as if
starting from her head--her voice came thickly from her quivering lips.

"Well, I will be gentler, my tender dove!" he said a little satirically.
He doubted her again.  If she had had "any mind of him," would not that
kiss of his have effectually broken down all barriers of pique, and
launched her on a sea of passion?  But there was charm to such a
_gourmet_ in love, as he considered himself, in appropriating what she
disliked to give.  He took her hand. "Come and sit with me on our friend
the medico’s sofa under the window there!" he coaxingly said.  "I want
to look at my wife, to kiss her, embrace her after these years of
longing, of waiting!"

She gave him an involuntary glance of horror and terror.  "Presently,"
she stammered.  "First let me give you the money I have brought you--let
us settle about our journey, when it is to be."

He stood still for a few moments, gazing steadily at her.  That look had
told him much--the mention of money when he asked for love told him
still more.

"Very well," he said, after a pause, during which she wondered whether
it would end in his killing her--in that lonely house she was at the
mercy of any sudden outburst of anger of his.  Just then she felt that
death would be preferable to another kiss of the kind which still stung
her icy lips.

"I suppose the money is in that bag?" he went on, going to the
writing-table and lifting it.  "You want me to take care of it for you,
as your contribution to our honeymoon?"  He spoke sneeringly.

"Yes," she said, watching him as he seated himself before the table.
Then she went to him, took up the bag, and shook out six common leather
purses she had bought at the bazaar in a great emporium that morning,
and filled during the afternoon.  Purses and gold alike were
untraceable.  "There are a hundred and twenty-five sovereigns. Count
them, won’t you?"

"No!  I will trust you," he said, with a sinister smile.  "I may be a
fool for my pains, but I trust you."

She sat as if spellbound, watching him take a small bunch of keys from
his pocket and open a worn old travelling desk on the table. It was his
own, that desk, she mechanically thought, as she noted the half
obliterated letters "V.M." on the flap, and wondered what was passing
within his mind to cause that dark frown, that cruel look in his black
eyes, as he slowly packed in the purses one by one.

"It is a beggarly sum that you have brought me, do you know?" he said,
turning to her with sudden fierceness--and his lips were drawn back, his
teeth gleamed white under his moustache.  "I am too good to you!  I have
that here in this desk with which I could coin thousands to-morrow if I
pleased.  I have only to show your letters, the certificate of marriage,
to your damnably miserly old uncle, and he would at once make terms.
And you--you would precious soon find me as much money as I wanted if I
threatened you to take the lot to your lover, Lord Vansittart!"

If a bomb had suddenly fallen upon the table before her, Joan could
hardly have had a greater shock.  She staggered back and fell limply
into a chair, staring at him.  Her lips opened to speak, but no sound
came. She was livid as a corpse.

He was frightened.  If she should choose to have a prolonged faint--such
as he had known some women to have--and Vera returned before he could
get her away!

"Don’t make a scene here, d’ye hear?" he savagely cried--and he went to
the cupboard, and after a clinking of glass, he brought out a bottle
half full of brandy, and two tumblers, and poured some into each.

"Take some of that, it’ll pull you together," he said, not unkindly, as
he held the glass to her lips.  But she kept them firmly closed, and
faintly shook her head.

"No!  Water!" she whispered, hoarsely.  "Water!"

"Don’t be so silly!  It’s not poison!  It wouldn’t suit my book to get
rid of you, my love!" he scornfully exclaimed, reassured by her being
conscious, and speaking.  Then he set down her glass on the table, and
taking up his, drank off its contents at a gulp. "There!  You see it is
not!  However, I’ll get you some water, if you like."

He crossed to the door, opened it, and went downstairs.  She sat up,
listening to his footsteps.  A new idea had flashed upon her.  She
glanced first at the desk, hungrily, wildly, then at the cupboard.  Then
she rose, stepped cautiously, supporting herself, for she was giddy, by
the chairs, and peered eagerly in at the half-open cupboard door, where
the skeleton hung.  She had seen shelves of bottles.  Scanning these,
she selected one marked "Morphia--Poison"--shook it--it was
half-full--and returned to the table.  Taking out the stopper, she
poured the contents into the bottle of brandy, swift as a flash returned
the morphia-bottle to its place on the shelf, then, going back to her
chair, leant against the wall in the exhausted attitude she had been in
when he left her.

"He drinks," she gloomily told herself. "He will take more.  I must make
him fall asleep.  Then I will secure those letters."



                              CHAPTER XVI


She closed her eyes and listened to the patter of his footsteps, running
up the oilcloth-covered stairs.  He came in evidently breathless.

"Don’t say I didn’t make haste," he said, pantingly, as he poured some
water from the glass jug he was carrying into his own tumbler, which was
empty.  "You won’t mind your husband’s glass, of course."  He handed it
to her.

"No," said Joan, who felt sternly apathetic--with but one dominant
feeling--to circumvent this fiendish being, and possess the letters and
certificate with which he threatened her.  And she drank the water off
at a draught, even as he had drunk the brandy. The glass must be empty
to hold the drugged spirit.

"Great Scott!" he laughed, contemptuously, as he took the empty tumbler
and looked curiously at it.  "To see any one gulp down water like that
gives me the shivers!  Pah, I must positively warm my nerves after
seeing you do it!"

She watched him, fascinated, as he poured out another half-tumbler of
the now drugged brandy, and dashed a few teaspoonfuls of water into it.

"That is how I take my liquor--like a man!" he said, after a long drink,
setting the nearly emptied glass down on the table. "Ah!  I feel better
of my temper already. You must not pay attention to what I said just
now, old girl!  I didn’t mean it, really I didn’t!  Some one said
something to me about a Lord Vansittart or somebody having boasted he
would have you, or die.  You doubtless know of the fellow!  But you must
be accustomed to that sort of thing by this time, eh?  Your uncle has a
big fortune to leave."  He smiled sardonically.

She thrilled--a curious, cold thrill, at the insult.  But she controlled
herself.  "Victor--I have always remembered that I was your wife," she
solemnly said.  "My uncle has teased me to marry.  I have
never--encouraged--any one."

"Then you have a sneaking liking for your ’darling,’ as you used to call
me, eh!" he said, a little thickly.  The brandy was already making him
feel less critical and sceptical in his mental attitude towards Joan and
mankind in general.  "Come and sit on the sofa under the window.  There
is hardly a breath of air in this blessed little room.  How I hate tiny
rooms!  I hope this is the last I shall ever be in!"

He held out his hand.  What was she to do?  After a swift query to
herself, she determined to dare all--to woo him to that drugged sleep
during which she would abstract his keys, open that desk, and steal
those incriminating documents.

She allowed him to lead her to the sofa and, seating himself in the
corner, encircle her with his arm.  The evening air came in through the
window which opened upon the little balcony where, coming along the
street, she had seen him, a dark figure in the twilight, awaiting her.

"It is pleasant here, is it not?" he said, with a sigh, telling himself
that he must have taken a bigger "dose" of that brandy than was prudent
at this juncture, for it seemed to have affected his speech.  His tongue
was not so ready in its compliance as usual, and his eyes felt stiff,
his eyelids heavy.  "Perhaps it was running upstairs so fast, not
knowing what she might not be up to," he thought, remembering a caution
given him by a doctor that his heart was weak--a timely warning he had
derided at the time, but which often crossed his mind when he "felt
queer."

"Yes, it is very nice," said Joan, nerving herself to act--to conceal
her violent loathing of him.  "But as you like plenty of air about you,
why not do as I suggest?  Let us start in a steamer--a sailing vessel if
you please--so that all trace of us is lost for a time, and uncle and
aunt will not be able to imagine what has become of me."

She talked away, pitching her voice in a slumberous, monotonous tone, as
she had learnt to do from a nurse, when Lady Thorne had a serious and
tedious illness after her first year with them as their adopted
daughter. The terror of the crisis, the tremendous issues depending upon
whether the brandy she had drugged would send Victor to sleep and allow
of her stealing her letters from that desk, lent her eloquence.  She
painted her uncle and aunt’s state of mind when they would find her
flown, in vivid colours--she held out the prospect of unlimited wealth
they two would eventually enjoy--all to gain time until the morphia
should hold him powerless. It was a big dose he had taken, she hopefully
thought, even were he one of those unhappy mortals addicted to the use
or abuse of narcotics.  And as she talked on and on, she stealthily
watched his face, his eyes.

"That is all--very fine--and large, as they say," he vulgarly
returned--and wondered in a vague, stupefied way why his voice sounded
so far off--an echo of itself. "But--but--well,
I--like--Paris--Paris--d’ye understand--Paris--you fool--what ’yer
starin’--at--?  Can’t ye get--me--some--no, no--water--water--"

Something heavy was gathering in his chest.  He felt breathless.  He
tried to push her away, but he could not move.

She jumped up, startled by his pallor, his sunken look--the gathering
purple round his eyes.  His nose stood out sharply from his face.  She
poured the drugged brandy into her untouched glass of the spirit, and
filling the empty glass with water, brought it to him. He seemed to
squint curiously at it, but allowed her to hold it to his lips.  He
swallowed a little, but it trickled from his mouth.  What was this
horrid feeling--this weight--powerlessness?--he asked
himself--stupidly--then he thought suddenly of Vera, and the dread of
Joan’s being found with him by her brought a temporary rally from the
strange, helpless drowsiness which had him in its grip.

"Go--go!  Now!  You--mustn’t be found here--d’ye hear me?  Go!" he
spluttered.

"Let me stay till you are better," pleaded Joan.  But he gave such a
choking oath that, remembering she could feign leaving him and return,
she pretended to obey.

"You will write and tell me when to come again, won’t you?" she said;
then, as he staggered into a sitting position and stammered out another
terrifying oath, she fled, with a backward glance of terror and misery
over her shoulder.

Down the narrow stairs, along the hall she went.  Unchaining the door,
she opened it for an instant or two, then closed it with a slight bang,
as one might do from the outside.  Then she leant up against the door
silently and listened.

There was not a sound in the house into which she was shut, alone, with
the man she had drugged.  She could hear her quickened pulses as they
ebbed back into a more normal beat.  From below came a steady ticking--a
kitchen clock, she thought, sounding loud in the empty,
sparsely-carpeted dwelling. Then it struck; listening, fascinated, she
counted eleven strokes.



                              CHAPTER XVII


"Merciful Heaven--it can’t be that!" mentally exclaimed the unhappy
girl.  "Why--people will surely be coming in--I shall be found--and
he--like that--with the drugged brandy in the bottle--and I shall not
even have got my letters out of that desk!"

She silently wrung her hands; then, determined to dare or lose all, she
crept slowly, cautiously back, along the hall, up the stairs, and peeped
in at the half-opened door.

He was lying almost prone on the sofa--his head thrown back--slowly,
slowly snoring.

She stole in and gazed fearfully at him.  He looked corpse-like, but she
thought he would naturally do that after that dose of morphia.
Insensible!  Peering into his face, she saw his eyes, filmy, fishy,
between the half-closed lids.  She touched his breast pocket,
cautiously--her heart beating fast and strong. Nothing there but the
white handkerchief, arranged in dandified fashion.  As she stooped the
scent of the flower in his buttonhole turned her deadly sick.  All
seemed to surge around.

"This won’t do!" she told herself, wildly. Then, with a violent effort,
she lifted the hand that lay limply upon his knee across his trouser
pocket.  It moved easily.  She laid it down with a light, almost tender
touch, as she remembered she had seen him return his keys to the very
pocket where she now saw them bulging, and putting her fingers gingerly
into the pocket, she drew them out.

"Thank God!" she murmured, almost hysterically, and, telling herself
that if only she could hold witnesses in her hands to that absurd,
so-called marriage of him with her, and could dictate terms, every
farthing she might inherit from her uncle should be his, and more--she
went to the table, found the tiny key in the bunch, and opened the desk.

Just as she was beginning to remove the leather purses of gold she had
brought him from the well of the desk, so as to search beneath, a
prolonged, curious, hissing snore seemed to arrest her very breath.

She stopped and went to him.  The hissing sound was barely over--how
curious it was, that half-snore, half breath!  He lay still still--still
as----

"Oh, no, no!  It cannot be that!  He looks asleep, and as happy as if he
were an innocent little child!" she assured herself, returning to the
table and to her task.  Out she quickly took them, one by one, those
silly purses--how puerile money and all those things seemed, she told
herself, at such a moment--and then peered anxiously at the packets of
papers.

Eureka!  Her girlish handwriting!  There was a package--she drew it out,
and in the middle projected a paper--she could not undo the knots--there
was no time--but she turned down a corner and saw printed letters--a
margin----

Seizing her little bag, she thrust them in, and rapidly restoring the
purses to their place, locked the desk.

"Shall I put the keys back in his pocket?" she asked herself.  "No!  I
can leave them on the table.  It is of no use trying to hide my having
taken the letters.  He will discover it."

She glanced round the room.  What else must she do?  She frowned and bit
her lip as the brandy bottle caught her eye.  There was still remaining
a certain quantity of the drugged liquid.

"Any more would certainly make him very ill, if it did not kill him--and
he will very likely start drinking again when he wakes up," she mused.
"Can I pour it away?"  She looked uncertainly at the door. No, it was
too hazardous.  Then she remembered she had seen some brown paper in
that cupboard where the skeleton hung.

Once more she went to the cupboard and took out a crumpled sheet of
brown paper, smiling almost derisively at the grinning skull of the
hanging skeleton.

"How true you were when you said there were worse things than
skeletons," she thought, inwardly apostrophizing the sleeper, as she
quickly wrapped the bottle in the paper.  Then, mentally wishing him a
better and more generous spirit in her regard when he awoke, she ran
rapidly downstairs with bag and bottle, and in another moment was in the
street.

Her success, her escape, filled her with a joy which made her feel
almost delirious. Still, she noticed a hansom with a lady in it drive
past, and with an almost contemptuous mental comment--"she cannot be
living at Number 12," she looked back over her shoulder, then stopped
short, and leaning against the rails, watched.

The hansom did stop at the house she had left.  More, the lady
alighted--briskly, as if she were as young as she was slim and
alert--looked up and down the street, as if, indeed, Joan thought, she,
too, had noticed herself, and wondered what she was doing in Haythorn
Street at that hour, and then, after paying the driver, ran up the steps
and let herself in with her latchkey.

"A lodger," thought Joan.  "I wonder if she knows him!"  Then she turned
and almost fled along the street, for the cabman had turned and waved
his whip.  To take that cab would be madness!  Besides, she meant to lay
that bottle quietly in a corner at the very first opportunity.

It came a few moments before she reached Westminster Bridge.  She saw a
doorway in the shadow, and quick as lightning she had deposited her
bottle there and had gone onward.  Almost a slight unconsciousness
possessed her after that.  She hailed a cab, drove to the spot where she
had left Julie, and alighted.

"I have been here since eleven, mademoiselle!" exclaimed Julie, coming
forward after she saw the cab drive off.  She had been confiding in her
lover--or rather, Paul Naz, as his friend Victor Mercier’s honorary
detective, had been worming matters deftly from her--and his advice had
been to her to be very, ah, most exceedingly discreet, and the young
lady would for her own sake prove their best friend in the future.  "It
is nearly half-past now--shall I call a cab?"

A crawling hansom was hailed, and before midnight a sleepy man-servant
of Sir Thomas admitted them.  He was just going to bed, he said, in a
drowsy and somewhat injured tone. "I told Sir Thomas and my lady you was
in and gone to bed, m’m," he said, almost reproachfully.  "They come in
half an hour back!  I am sure I thought you was, or I shouldn’t have
said it!"

"It doesn’t matter in the least, Robert," Joan cheerfully assured him,
and she went to her room with Julie, feeling more elated than she had
done since the awful morning four years ago when she had to accept the
fact that she was the grass-widow of a blackguard.  Julie speedily
dismissed, she spent a couple of hours over her letters.

The printed paper was her marriage certificate.  The letters were six in
number, nearly worn into shreds, and black with dirt. She read them
through, she made a note of the dates on the certificate, then she burnt
them under her empty grate.

"Once more I am free!" was her last exultant thought before she slept.
"If I keep Victor at bay for a few days, I shall be off and away with
_him_; and without those documents Victor is practically powerless! If
he gets another certificate, Joan Thorne might have been any one--some
one married under an assumed name.  He has nothing to support his
assertions!"



                             CHAPTER XVIII


When Joan awoke after a few hours’ slumber, it was to a sense of racking
headache and utter exhaustion.  She could only vaguely feel, rather than
remember, the crucial events of the previous night.

"A punishment for having dared to drug poor unfortunate Victor," she
told herself, as Julie, after administering tea, left her alone in the
darkened room.  She could almost pity Victor Mercier, now that she had
circumvented him by stealing those incriminating documents, and thereby,
if not entirely destroying, certainly weakening, his hold upon her.
"His headache, if he has one, as I expect he has--he looked awfully ill
lying there under morphia--can hardly be worse than mine," she mused.

It was a long, weary day of pain.  Towards evening, however, her
suffering abated.  "I will get up, Julie!" she said, when her faithful
attendant came in on tiptoe for about the twentieth time.  "But I will
not go down. I will have some tea up here.  Yes; you may bring me a
little chicken--I think I could eat that.  And--Julie--let me
see--yes--one or two of the evening papers."

As the dull weight had lifted from her weary head, she had begun to
think again--and the dominating as well as tormenting misgiving she had
felt on the subject of her escapade of the previous evening was anent
that bottle with drugged brandy in it, which, wrapped in brown paper,
she had left in the darkened entry of a house situated in some street
the other side of Trafalgar Square.

"I wonder who found it?" she uneasily asked herself.  What would the
finder think of his or her discovery?  Would he or she be sufficiently
idiotic to partake of the contents--and if he or she did?

She shuddered.  "No one would!" was her mental comment.  She consoled
herself with memories of the extraordinary accounts she had read of
narcotic-consumers.  Still, of course, those had been the _habitués_,
who had gradually become accustomed to the drugs.  Why, oh, why had she
not thought of pouring away the wretched stuff before she threw away the
bottle?  It would then have been empty and harmless.

She was interrupted in her self-reproach by the entrance of her maid
with the tea-tray and the evening papers.

"Mademoiselle must really eat some-ting," said Julie, coaxingly, as she
arranged the enticing tray on the table at her mistress’ elbow--Joan was
lying back wearily in a big easy chair.  "The chicken is delicious, I
can assure mademoiselle--I saw it cut myself--and the tea--just as
mademoiselle likes it!"

She poured out the tea and prattled on. As Joan was just languidly
uncovering the chicken, hardly giving any attention to the girl’s flow
of talk--she was speaking of the actress she had seen perform the night
Joan first met Victor in the Regent’s Park--a certain word half startled
her from her reverie--the word "suicide."  Then, in her strung-up,
nervous state, with that bottle on her mind, she was at once on the
alert.

"Who?  What suicide?" she sharply asked.  "Not the girl you saw act, and
liked so much?"

"No, mademoiselle, her brother," returned Julie earnestly.  "Poor girl!
Such an awful thing!  Robert, who always reads the _journaux_ when they
arrive--he airs them, you know, mademoiselle--told me, for he knows I
admired this Vera Anerley.  It seems she had returned from the theatre
to find her brother lying on the sofa--quite dead--alone in the house!"

Joan had clenched her hands on the chair as she listened incredulously.
What a horrible coincidence, she thought, that Julie should have such a
grotesquely parallel tale to tell her--with such a tragic conclusion,
when only last night she had seen Victor Mercier lying in that deathly
sleep on the sofa, also alone in the house.

"Very dreadful for her, indeed," she slowly said, striving to recover
from what was almost a shock in the circumstances, and sipping her tea.
"Is the--the--story in one of those papers you have brought me?"

"Yes, mademoiselle!  I can find it--Robert read it me--"

"Never mind!  I will find it myself, presently," interrupted Joan.  Then
she sent the eager girl downstairs with a message that "she could not
come down that evening; she had had no sleep, and was going to bed
immediately"--a mission invented more to get rid of her than anything
else.

What was it which made her spring up from the door and lock it, almost
as it closed upon Julie?  Why did she dart back to the table, seize the
paper her maid had taken up and laid aside again at her bidding, and
holding it in her trembling hands, scan its pages feverishly with her
strained eyes--eyes almost blinded by intense fear?

It was more an awful sense of certainty than mere dread.  As she found
the paragraph she sought, she fell limply into a chair, and staring
madly at the cruel words, told herself it was no surprise.  No!  She had
known something terrible had happened--all through those hours of cruel
physical pain--she had known it!

"I knew it, I knew it!" she gasped, as for a third time she read the
fatal words, with a mad hope that she was under a delusion.


               "MYSTERIOUS DEATH IN HAYTHORN STREET, S.W.

"A tragic occurrence of more than ordinary public interest occurred in
Haythorn Street, S.W., last night.  The young actress, Miss Vera
Anerley, whose attractive performances at the ---- Theatre we have
already recorded, returned home to find her only and favourite brother,
Victor a’Court, lying lifeless on the sofa in his room.  The doctor, who
was at once secured, pronounced life extinct, and by certain
appearances, suggested suicide.  At the inquest some sensational
evidence seems likely to be given."


"Yes," she thought, as she struggled to the window, flung it open, and
leant against the lintel, gasping, fighting for breath in her threatened
faintness--her eyes were unable to see properly, there was a surging and
roaring in her ears--he was dead--dead!  And she--legally his wife--had
killed him.

"I poisoned him!" she mentally told herself, in a species of dazed,
wondering incredulity.  "I sent him to face God--all his sins on his
soul--oaths on his lips!  I am lost--eternally--for ever--lost!"

It seemed to her as if a huge, yawning gulf had arisen between her and
all clean, honest human beings.  Her past life lay the other side.  She
had done the worst of all deeds.  She had destroyed a fellow creature.

"And--my own soul with him!" she groaned, in her extremity of fear and
horror. The climax of her life seemed to her over, now that she
knew--realized--the fact.  After the first awful minutes, a dull, dead
calm took the place of her overwhelming, hideous agony.  She could see
and hear again.  As she leant against the wall she noted two smart young
nurses in white, wheeling their perambulators out of the enclosure
below. She saw one of them turn and lock the gate--she heard the key
grate in the lock, and the other girl cry out sharply, "Master Dickie,
leave it alone!" as a handsome little fellow in white knickers laid hold
of the handle of the little carriage.  Then a fox-terrier ran by,
barking, and a tradesman’s cart rattled swiftly along.  A coster sent up
his long-drawn-out cry in the distance.  And--and--she was a murderess!

She laughed aloud, and then, frightened by the irresponsibility of her
actions, she crawled slowly, miserably, across the room, gulped down a
glass of water, and bathed her face.  As she did so, she
sickened--remembering how he had gasped--"water, water!"  If only that
choking prayer had told her that he was in danger--why, she would have
risked discovery, disgrace, even the loss of Vansittart, to save the
life she had endangered.

She recalled her former fancied love for the slim, handsome young
foreigner.  How she had admired him as he gazed fatuously at her in
church!  What a subtle, delicious excitement there had been in his
veiled wooing, their hardly-obtained, schemed-for clandestine meetings!
Her mother’s death had destroyed the glamour of the pseudo love affair.
Still, he had had sufficient compelling power over her emotions to bring
her to marry him secretly.  Then, of course, the thunderbolt had fallen
which had destroyed her girlish passion at a blow--the _exposé_--the
discovery that he was an absconding criminal.

"Still--nothing--nothing--can excuse me--from first to last," she
acknowledged to herself, in despair.  "I am--lost!  Fit only to consort
with the creatures who are for ever the enemies of God."

Just as she told herself this, with a pitiful sob, there was a knock at
the door.  "May I come in?  I have something for you!" cried her uncle,
cheerily.

One wild look round, then an almost savage instinct of self-preservation
leaped up within her, forcing her into self-possession.

"Certainly," she said, crossing to the door and opening it.

"Are you better, dear?  You don’t look up to much," said Sir Thomas,
gazing critically at her.  "Vansittart has just been here, and left this
for you.  I had asked him to come in and have dinner with us.  But
hearing you were ill, he would not stay."



                              CHAPTER XIX


Sir Thomas Thorne was sincerely, honestly attached to his beautiful
young orphan niece--perhaps the sentiment was all the stronger for being
tinged with a latent remorse for his callous attitude towards her dead
parents in the still unforgotten past.

It was almost a shock to him to see Joan look so "awfully bad," as he
termed it to himself.  As he placed his paper package, a round, light
one, on the nearest table in her bright, pretty bed-chamber, and seated
himself by her, he wondered, a little anxiously, whether she was not
perhaps ill with the insidious family disease which had "made short
work" of his younger brother, her father.  Ill-health would account for
most of what he considered her "vagaries."

"I think you ought to see the doctor, Joan--really I do!" he exclaimed,
with concern, as he gazed at her.  She was white as her cream cashmere
dressing-gown, and there were deep bistre circles round her more than
usually brilliant eyes.  "Let me send for him----"

"Oh, I am all right!" exclaimed Joan, easily.  She wondered at this new,
unwonted self-possession.  It seemed to her as if she--she--Victor’s
slayer--were standing aside--apart--and watching the doings of the
better self from which her past actions had for ever divorced her.
"What have you brought me?"

"Flowers, Vansittart said," replied her uncle, brightly.  "I met him at
the club, and he seemed as if he were to have a lonely evening--it was
just one of those blank nights when one happens to have a lull in one’s
engagements--so I asked him to come in to dinner.  He came, and brought
this; but went away, as I said, when he heard you were out of sorts,
saying he would call round and inquire in the morning."

He tore away the paper covering and disclosed a basket of blue and white
flowers--a _chef-d’oeuvre_ of a West-End florists.  "Pretty, aren’t
they?" he said, handing them to Joan, his head admiringly on one side.

"Very," she returned mechanically, making a pretence of appreciation.
The blue flowers were forget-me-nots.  To her strung-up imagination they
looked like innocent child-eyes gazing at her with reproach.  Once she
and Victor had sat by a stream, and she had picked some from the bank
and fastened them in his coat--he always liked a "button-hole"--Bah!
These horrible thoughts!--What was her uncle saying?  "He said he
thought you looking ill.  He wondered I had not sent to the doctor
before."

"He--who?" asked Joan, sharply.  "Lord Vansittart?  What has he got to
do with it?"

"There!  You are going to faint," exclaimed her uncle, alarmed and
annoyed, as she paled to lividity, sank back in her chair, and thrust
the basket into his hands.  Oh, the irony of fate!  She had seen the
exact counterpart among the flowers of the thick, small-petalled white
blossom in Victor Mercier’s coat that terrible last night--when she
poisoned him.  The perfume recalled it all--the waxen, deathly face, the
still, silent form--the little room with the open window.

"It is the scent--it makes me feel faint when I am well, the odour of
daphne, or tuberose, or whatever it is!" she stammered, forcing herself
to speak with a gigantic effort. "And when one has a headache like mine
it is worse."

"I will put them outside," said he, consolingly.  She watched him as he
did so, clumsily trying to tread softly as he went to the door.  Poor,
kind uncle!  If he knew--if he knew!

"Do you know," he began, scanning her livid features with solicitude as
he returned, and resuming his seat, pitched his voice in a low
undertone, which only succeeded in producing a hoarse croak, so unlike
his own cheery voice that in her hysterical, strained state she barely
repressed a shriek of agonized laughter.  "I am almost sure, indeed, I
may say I feel convinced, that this headache of yours is a nervous
attack brought on by seeing those waxworks last night.  I am sure you
went into the ’Chamber of Horrors,’ and looked at the murderers.  I did
when I was about your age, and it got on my nerves. My opinion is, that
that making effigies of terrible criminals who have dared to take their
fellow-creatures’ lives, and exhibiting them for money, is wrong, and
ought to be forbidden.  The law is right when it orders such human
monsters to be buried within the prison, and their bodies consumed with
quicklime.  They ought not to be remembered! Every trace of their awful
crimes ought to be instantly obliterated--ah!  I thought as much!  You
shudder at the very recollection of those wicked faces!  A delicate,
innocent young girl like you ought not to go to such places!  What?  You
did not go into the ’Chamber of Horrors?’"

"I don’t think so," stammered Joan faintly, closing her eyes, and
wondering how long this crucifixion of her soul would last. All her
life?  "But--what do you mean--the bodies consumed by quicklime?  In the
prison?"

"Never mind, we won’t talk of such things!" said he, cheerfully.
"Oh--poor little cold hand!"  He was startled by the deathly icy touch
of the hand he had taken between his warm palms.  "Ah!  There is your
aunt!  Come in, my dear!  I was just telling Joan that I shall insist
upon her seeing the doctor----"

"I am sure you will insist upon nothing of the kind, Thomas," said Lady
Thorne, entering in her handsome, sober black dinner-dress, redeemed
from too great plainness by the diamond pins in the black lace
head-dress crowning her iron-grey hair, and the pearl and diamond
necklet and brooches around and about her lace-encircled throat, and
seeming to bring in a matter-of-fact atmosphere from the outer world of
ordinary commonplace, which jarred upon and supported Joan at one and
the same time.  "Joan has nothing the matter with her but a little
neuralgia.  She wants a good long sleep, and she will be as well as ever
to-morrow morning.  You leave her to me, and don’t meddle with what you
men, however clever you may be, know nothing about!"  And Lady Thorne,
who remembered her own girlish "attacks" during her love anxieties, and
who had no mind for visits from a doctor who might order change of air
and nip the engagement with Lord Vansittart in the bud, bustled her
husband off, and administered a tonic to her niece in the form of a
good-humoured scolding.

"Men always want to make mountains out of mole-hills, doctors too--they
are all alike!" she ended by saying, after she had chidden her for not
forcing herself to eat and drink.  "You did not sleep!  Of course not!
Well, I promise you you shall to-night!"

She rang for some clear soup and wine, coaxed Joan to consume both,
then, after herself "seeing her to bed" and administering a good dose of
chloral--a drug she had in her amateur medical studies found was in the
opinion of certain authorities antidotal where there was a consumptive
tendency--sat by her until she was asleep.

And Joan slept--heavily.  Only towards morning was her slumber visited
by dreams. The one which arrived with the grey dawn, when the birds
began to chirp in the trees below, was almost a nightmare.

She dreamt that she was a prisoner in the dock, being tried for the
wilful murder of Victor Mercier, alias a’Court.  The jury were filing
back into the box amid an awful silence in the crowded court.  She saw
each one of her twelve umpires, scanned each sober, serious face, with a
horrible presage of coming doom.  She heard the sentence--"Are you all
agreed upon your verdict?" and the reply--the terrible fiat, "Guilty."
She saw the wizened features of the aged judge in his scarlet panoply
assume a grim and solemn expression, as, donning the three-cornered
"black cap"--a head-covering which gave him a grotesque, masquerading
appearance--he addressed her.  At first she was too dazed to understand;
then, the concluding adjuration seemed to smite her ears, and stab her
heart.

"This man loved you, and made you his wife.  A wife should be one to
stand by the man she marries ’for better, for worse’; which means that
when she takes the oath to do so, she accepts the man’s sins with the
man--she becomes one with him, half of himself.  There are wives who
have died for husbands as faulty, perhaps more so, than your unhappy
victim.  But you!  What have you done?  When you had money at your
command, did you seek him out?  Did you even endeavour to discover what
had become of him?  No!  Instead, you, as it seems by the evidence we
have heard--incontrovertible evidence of trustworthy witnesses--were
planning a bigamous marriage and secret elopement with another man; and
when, just before the consummation of your guilty plot, your lawful
husband appeared, you were tempted to get rid of the obstacle to its
accomplishment, and to kill him.  How you executed the terrible deed we
have heard. You have had every chance which the goodness of your fellow
creatures, and their kindness to you has been almost unexampled, could
provide.  You have had, I fear, more mercy than you deserve.  For
myself, I cannot hold out any hope that your misguided and guilty life
can possibly be spared."  Then Joan listened in mute agony to the
sentence which condemned her to be "hanged by the neck till she was
dead"; she heard the awful prayer, uttered with deep feeling by an aged
man to whom Death could not long remain a stranger, "and may God
Almighty have mercy on your soul!" and all became a blank.

A blank--but not for long.  She seemed to be roused by the tolling of a
bell, and looking around, found herself in the condemned cell. Some one
was strapping her with small leathern straps which hurt her, and in
reply to her miserable, pathetic appeal, "oh, please don’t," the man
dryly said it would be better for her to be submit to be tightly
bound--"it will be over all the sooner."  It?  What? Then she saw
serious averted faces--they belonged to men who were forming into
line--she heard the words, "I am the Resurrection and the Life," she
caught the gleam of a white surplice.

She struggled--fiercely--madly--and awoke.

Awoke--bathed in sweat from head to foot--her pulses beating
wildly--gasping, choking--but alive--free--free!

There was her dear familiar room, grey in the early morning light; the
bell was tolling from a neighbouring monastic church--she was
alive--alive!  But--but--it might--come--true--that dream--

"Oh God, it must not!" she exclaimed, flinging herself out of bed and
upon her knees. "It would not be just!  You know, my God, I did not mean
it!  You know what he was!  You must not let me be hanged!"



                               CHAPTER XX


Vera Anerley had never acted better than that night when Joan secretly
visited Victor.  Some subtle excitement--born, perhaps, of an unusually
passionate kiss of her beloved’s when she left him alone in the house to
interview the man he had spoken of--was perhaps the spur which had
produced an access of fervour.  Perhaps it was the approaching
separation.  Victor had announced that he would start on a journey in a
few days.  She herself was leaving for the North with the travelling
company to which she was attached.

In any case, her disappointed would-be lover, the young stage-manager,
came up to her with a smile at her final exit--a thing he had not done
since she was betrayed into pushing him roughly away when he attempted
an embrace--and condescendingly said a few words of praise, adding a
proposal to introduce "a friend of his," who had been "much pleased."

"He is the dramatic critic of the _Parthenon_!" he pompously added,
surprised when Vera knitted her brow and shook her head.

"You are very kind, Mr. Howard, but I must be getting home," she
pleaded.  What was the critic of the Parthenon to her in comparison with
half-an-hour’s _tête-à-tête_ with Victor? she asked herself, as she
escaped into her dressing-room, leaving "Mr. Howard" anathematizing her
"folly," and vindictively prophesying to himself that, in spite of her
beauty and talent, she would "never rise an inch" in her profession.
"Mother," as she called Victor’s mother, her late father’s second wife,
was out with the mild student, Mr. Dobbs, at the hospital entertainment.
She wanted to be home first!

"Put away all my things for me, won’t you, Polly?" she said to the
daughter of the veteran actress who took old women parts, and who
travelled with the company as wardrobe keeper.  "Thanks!  You are a good
sort!" and with a hasty hug of the girl she darted out of the
dressing-room, along the passage to the stage-door, and into the cool,
quiet alley.

Then she ran--into the still glaring, thronged thoroughfare--it was a
neighbourhood whose inhabitants kept late hours, and "did their
shopping" mostly at night--hailed a loitering hansom, and was driven to
Haythorn Street. Eagerly glancing out at the house, she had noticed a
tall lady with a swinging gait coming along.  She noticed her as hardly
the kind of feminine visitor frequenting Haythorn Street, and because
she seemed to swerve now and then.  When she stopped and seemed to watch
her alight and pass into the house, Vera wondered if the gentleman
Victor expected--he had hinted that his visitor was one moving in higher
circles--had brought her with him, and that she was waiting for him
outside.

"But I suppose a gentleman would hardly bring a lady here at this hour
of the night, still less leave her in the street," was her second and
more lucid thought, as she opened the hall door with her latch-key,
passed in, and closing it, listened.

If there was any one with Victor upstairs, she knew she would hear
voices.  But the stillness was that of an empty house.  As she stood,
she heard the same loud, sober ticking of the kitchen clock which had
seemed so almost terrible to Joan in her awful anxiety.  Then came a
plaintive "mew" from within the little front parlour--hers and her
step-mother’s. "Why, Kitty!  Who could have shut you in?" she exclaimed,
and she opened the door.  The tortoise-shell cat--an old one troubled
with a perpetually-moulting coat, ran out as she did so and rubbed
itself against her old winsey "theatre skirt," purring loudly. "Victor
must have shut her in," she mused, as she went slowly upstairs to find
him.

Where was he?  For the door of Mr. Mackenzie’s, the absent lodger’s,
sitting-room stood open--and there was no sound within. Entering, for
the first moment she deemed the room empty.  Then she noted the two
tumblers, one half full of dark liquid, and the glass jug of water, on
the table--and her glance travelling further, alighted on the motionless
form of her lover on the sofa.

"Asleep?" she wondered.  It seemed strange--the mercurial, ever
wide-awake Victor--so early in the evening, as he considered evenings,
too!  Still, she went towards him on tiptoe.  "I will wake him with a
kiss," she thought, with an incipient glow of passion as she imagined
him rousing from sleep to clasp her close and fasten those adored lips
on hers with that warm, possessive kiss of his which she felt was unlike
every other kiss which had been given and taken since Adam’s fresh lips
first touched the ripe, yet innocent mouth of Eve in Paradise.

When she reached him she gave a cry of terror.  Something was wrong!  He
never looked livid, sunken, his eyes half-open, like that!

She seized his hand and gasped with relief; for it was warm and limp;
then she stooped and kissed his brow.  It was damp and cold as clay
after a frost.

"He has fainted!" she wildly thought. "I must call some one!"

She flew downstairs, intending to ask help next door, in spite of a
disagreement with its proprietress after a too intimate acquaintance of
the moulting tortoise-shell with some fowls kept for laying purposes in
the backyard; but as she opened the hall door, her stepmother and the
thin, amiable Mr. Dobbs had just come up.

"Why, Vera!  You are home early," began Mrs. Wright, surprised.
"But--why--child! what is it?"  She stopped short, for Vera’s eyes
looked madly at her--the girl was deathly white.

"Victor is ill, I am going for a doctor," she gasped, distractedly--her
efforts to be calm and self-possessed only seemed to aggravate her
uncontrollable fear and anguish.  "Do go upstairs and see to him, Mr.
Dobbs, won’t you?  I think he has fainted.  I will be back directly!"

"Thank Heaven they came!" was her thought, as she ran swiftly up the
street and round the corner to the doctor who always attended them, the
kind, shrewd old practitioner, Doctor Thompson, and springing up the
steps of the house vigorously rang the bell.  She heard it clang within
with that ominous toll some bells have, and peered through the coloured
glass at the side of the door.  Were they all dead?  she asked herself
impatiently, staring in at the empty entry, with its umbrella-stand and
grandfather clock.  What miserable mismanagement! Once more, although
only a few moments had elapsed since the bell rang, she gave a tug to
the bell-pull.  A girl in hat and jacket came in sight within, put her
fingers in her ears, and hurried to the door, looking disgusted. It was
the housemaid, who had been to the hospital entertainment.

"I am sorry to have rung twice," exclaimed Vera, breathlessly, as she
opened the door--she knew the girl.  "But--is the doctor in? No?  Oh,
what shall I do?"

"It isn’t the old lady, miss?--I saw her just now in the Priscilla Ward,
a-larfin’ fit to split her sides at the comic singing gentleman--what?
Your brother?  The smart young gent with the black moustache?  A fit?
My!  Why don’t you go round to young Doctor Hampton, who ’as just set up
the dispensary?  He’s some sort of relation of master’s, and I’ve heard
master a-talkin’ of his cleverness--round there, miss, two doors up--red
lamp--you can’t miss it!"

"She do seem put about," thought the young woman, as she looked out and
watched Vera flit across the road like a black shadow. "Fancy takin’ on
like that about a brother!"

Wildly, telling herself passionately that a moment’s delay might mean
death--death was in his face--Vera tore into the still open entry of the
little house with the red lamp and gave such a violent knock and ring
that the door opened before it was over.

A young man stared at her, astonished, as she clutched at his
coat-sleeve, despairingly adjuring him to come and save her brother’s
life, he was in a fit.  He felt quite shocked and concerned at being
suddenly assailed with such a pathetic flow of appealing language from
so young and beautiful a creature.

"Yes--certainly--at once!  Only let me get my hat!" he exclaimed; and
after he had seized upon the head-gear nearest at hand, which happened
to be a cricket-cap, he also set off running at her side, entered by the
open door of Number Twelve, Haythorn Street, and sprang up after this
agile girl three steps at a time.

The room was light.  He saw two figures--a woman, kneeling by the couch,
a man with his back to him, who turned as they came in.  He looked pale
and scared.

"I am afraid there is nothing to be done, Doctor," he said, in those
low, hushed tones, which even the most irreverent use in the presence of
the dead.

The young man passed him, and going to the couch, looked down upon the
solemn face of the dead man.  He laid his hand almost tenderly upon his
brow--he listened to the heart.

"Take the old lady away, please!" he said, peremptorily, to Vera.  Then,
after the girl had, with some difficulty, coaxed her step-mother out, he
turned to the scared and guiltless John Dobbs.  "How did this happen?"
he sternly inquired.



                              CHAPTER XXI


After that spontaneous, passionate prayer to Heaven for mercy, Joan
seemed to awaken to a stronger, intenser life. A new instinct burst into
a fierce clamouring within her--the primary instinct to
live--live--anywhere, anyhow, at any price--but to live!

"I ought not to die--I did not mean to kill him!" she wailed.  Her first
mad notion was to confess everything from first to last. There would be
an inquest.  If she were to go to the coroner and tell him the whole
story, would he not see justice done?

"But it would only be my bare word," she thought, as she sat on the edge
of the bed, wringing her cold hands, shuddering so that her teeth
chattered.  "Any one who wanted to kill some one that stood in their way
might do it, and say it was an accident!"

No; that Quixotic idea was untenable. Dead silence--absolute
secrecy--these must be her defensive armour.  No one knew she had seen
Victor Mercier since his re-appearance in London, and only two persons
were aware of the so-called "love-affair."  One was the school-girl
go-between, Jenny Marchant, who on the only occasion they had happened
to meet, at a charity bazaar, had taken her aside and implored her never
to betray her complicity in that terrible escapade--she had read of
Victor Mercier’s defalcations in the papers, but had not the remotest
idea the consequence of her folly was that her chum Joan had bound
herself to the "dreadful creature" by a marriage at the registrar’s. She
would never say anything!  "And Nana would rather die than betray me!"
thought Joan.

No--absolute secrecy--to act as if no such person as the dead man who
had come by his death through her daring to drug him, existed, as far as
she was concerned--that was the best, the only course open to her to
save herself.

"But--but--I must not do anything wild," she told herself.  "The plan to
marry my beloved and start in his yacht must not be carried out!  That
would never do!  Would not people suspect I had some very good reason
for flight--for hiding myself?"

Then the truth suddenly flashed upon her; there was now no necessity for
concealment! The man who had bound her to him in law was dead.

"I am a widow!" she murmured, shivering. "How
impossible--extraordinary--yet, yet--literally true!  I never was his
wife--except for a quarter of an hour in the registry office--what a
mockery!  And all this--horror--my misery--his wretched, sudden
death--came out of that--those few words of an ordinary man’s--the
signing of our names in a book!"

Would the registrar who married them come forward?

At the idea she sickened.  Chill sweat came upon her brow.

"Why should he?  He has enough to do without making himself more
worrying work," she told herself.  "Besides, he may think I went abroad
with Victor and died there, if he thinks at all!"

No.  She must find some way of accounting for her change of ideas to
Lord Vansittart, she mused, as, hearing Julie outside, she returned to
bed, and when the girl entered, stretched her arms and yawned.

"Oh, I am much better," she told her, as Julie made anxious inquiries;
and with a violent effort she contrived to act her part pretty
successfully--to dress and seem as usual--even to attempt to eat some
breakfast. But this latter was a hard task.  The morning papers had the
"Mysterious Death" among their "sensations," and gave ominous hints as
to "Victor a’Court’s" career which threatened her with a return of that
convulsive shivering.

However, when she went downstairs, her aunt and uncle seemed so
cheerfully matter-of-fact--her aunt gave her such very pronounced hints
on the subject of Vansittart--"they would be quite to themselves,
because she was going out, but she hoped Joan would insist upon his
dining with them that evening as he disappointed them last night,"
etc.--that she began to feel as if the tragedy in her young, unfortunate
life were unreal--dream-like.

The sun shone warmly upon the brilliant bloom of the flowers in her
balcony.  A canary sang joyously from its cage outside the window of the
next house.  The lively rattle of carts, the smooth roll of carriages,
the shrill voices of passing children--all meant life--life! And she was
greedy, thirsty for life--she--who a few hours ago had done a
fellow-creature to death.

"All is not--quite--lost," she mused, as she leant her tired head on her
hands--she had seated herself at her writing-table, and was pretending
to be busy with her correspondence.  "I can do nothing--any more--for
poor, cruel Victor--may God be merciful to him!  But he has
relatives--this actress sister--he never said a word of her to me, I may
hope he never said a word of me to her. I may be able to make her life
very different--after all this is over and forgotten--hers and any other
relatives of his--and I will!  I will not spend one single day without
doing something to tend to some comfort or advantage for them!"

She was still trying to plan her announcement of her changed wishes to
Vansittart, so as not to excite the faintest suspicion in his mind that
anything had occurred to alter her ideas between her last meeting and
this, when she heard voices outside--the groom of the chambers announced
"Lord Vansittart"--and he precipitately entered.

He advanced, a little pale and anxious-looking, but so handsome, such a
tower of strength, such embodied manhood at its noblest, that suddenly
she felt utterly overwhelmed, submerged--she tottered gasping into his
arms, and clung to him as madly as one drowning cleaves to his rescuer.

"Oh--it is you--" she deliriously stammered. "Don’t--don’t leave
me--oh--what am I saying?  Are we both--alive?  Is it real?"

In her delirious collapse she would not let him kiss her lips.  First
she hid her face in his coat, then she kissed it--wildly, almost
passionately.

"My poor, sweet darling; be calm--it is all right--I will take care of
you!" he said, tenderly, brokenly.  To see her thus almost unnerved
him--he was losing command of his voice--two great cold tears stood in
his eyes, then ran down and lay glistening on her golden hair.  "Come,
my dearest love! Something has upset you, but never mind; I promise you
it shall not happen again--I will stand between you and trouble."

He stopped short, horrified--for she burst into a wild peal of laughter.
She struggled to subdue it by hiding her head upon his arm. He gazed
down at her pretty golden head, speechless with mingled feelings.  Once
more the ugly idea crept up unbidden within him--that Joan was "going
mad."

"No!  You are right there!" she cried her laughter subdued, glancing up
almost defiantly into his face.  "What--ever--does happen again?  Did
you not talk of the past being irrevocable, irrecoverable?  It is!  The
present is bad enough, is it not?  That I should be a hysterical fool
like this--all because of a dream!  At least I think my headache made me
delirious all night.  I am not good enough for you, dear.  You must give
up all idea of marrying me!"

She gazed tenderly at him with those dark eyes soft with the tears
brought by that hysterical outburst.

"Oh, yes, of course!" he ironically said. "I am to give up all chance of
happiness because you are not one of those Amazons I so cordially
detest!  Come, darling--I can see that London life is utterly and
entirely disagreeing with you!"  He seated himself on a sofa and drew
her gently down beside him.  "That fact reconciles me to taking you
away, do you know--so it is the silver lining to the only cloud that is
troubling my horizon!"

"You did not like that plan of mine?  I am--thankful!"

As she ejaculated this with evident truth, Vansittart stared at her.

"Not that, darling!  I am ready to do anything----" he began, alarmed
lest she had seized upon a loop-hole for escape.  But she interrupted.

"I had a dream last night," she began, slowly, striving for
self-possession--the very mention of that awful vision unnerved her.
"You know--what is on my mind--that I helped to ruin the life of a
friend by helping her to marry a bad man.  Well!  I dreamt--that she
came--to awful--grief!  And the dream was so vivid that I take it as a
warning. I do not wish to carry out our plan, dearest. If you care to
marry me, let us be married openly, before the world!"

"Do you really mean it?"  He grasped her hands and kissed them.  He
gazed at her with a face beaming, transfigured with joy. "Thank God, you
do!  Oh, my darling, my darling--I would have married you anywhere,
anyhow, I would even have kept our marriage secret till the crack of
doom if you had wanted to--but I hated doing it.  I hated stealing you
like a thief, instead of marrying you proudly, honourably, glorying in
it, before God and all his creatures!  You have lifted such a weight
from my heart that I hardly know where I am, or what I am about!"



                              CHAPTER XXII


For awhile, as Joan sat, her lover’s arm around her, all about them so
bright--the pretty boudoir, decked with dainty gifts of her uncle’s and
aunt’s, gay with flowers and sunshine--she was infected by his radiant
happiness.  A faint hope stole timidly up in her crushed heart--a vague
idea of "misadventure"--"the visitation of God"--as the real cause of
Victor Mercier’s death, she only the unhappy instrument.  The idea
reigned--it was the melody to the accompaniment of his joyous talk.

Then her uncle came in, and without ado Vansittart asked his blessing.

Sir Thomas had hardly kissed and congratulated his niece, beaming upon
her in his huge satisfaction, when Lady Thorne entered, and stopping
short, placidly surveyed the trio.

"No, I am not surprised," she answered, in a superior tone, to her
husband’s inquiry, after he had announced the engagement.  "Or at least,
if I am, it is because you two young people have taken so long to make
up your minds.  I never saw two people so fitted for each other."

There was an air of subdued gaiety about the four at the luncheon table.
Joan held her thoughts and emotions in check with a tremendous effort of
will.  In the afternoon the lovers rode out into the country, and she
enjoyed an almost wild ride.  She had an idea that bodily fatigue might
weaken her power of thought.  If only she could tire herself into
physical exhaustion, she fancied she might forget.  Oh! only to ignore,
to be able to ignore the past--for a few brief hours!

Vansittart was too madly in love to take exception to any desire or even
whim of his darling’s.  He cantered and galloped, raced and tore at her
side, although at last his favourite horse was reeking with sweat, and
he told himself that he had not felt so "pumped out" for a long while.
The fact that Joan did not seem to feel fatigue hardly reassured him.
He determined to ask Sir Thomas to influence her to consent to an early
marriage, that he might take her on a sea voyage. After they had dined,
a pleasant _partie quarrée_, and he and his future uncle-in-law were
alone, he broached the subject.

"I hope, Sir Thomas, you will not think me impatient if I suggest that
there should not be a prolonged engagement," he began, taking the bull
by the horns almost as soon as they had lighted up and their first glass
of Mouton was still untasted before them. "But, to tell you the truth, I
am not happy about my loved one’s health, and I fancy that some
yachting--say in or about Norway--might brace her a little."

"Great wits jump, they say!  My dear boy, you have almost taken the very
words out of my mouth!" replied Sir Thomas, confidentially. "Honestly, I
have been uneasy about Joan for a long time.  I told you months ago
about the family tendency to phthisis! Well, I am not exactly anxious
about her lungs, the medical men say they are perfectly sound, so far.
But tubercular disease has other ways of showing itself, and there is a
feverishness, a tendency almost amounting to delirium about the dear
girl, which at times makes me uneasy.  I intended to suggest a speedy
marriage, and a sea voyage, knowing of your delightful yacht.  I repeat,
you have taken the words out of my mouth!"

Joan was winding wool for Lady Thorne’s work for her special _protégés_,
the "deep sea fishermen"--winding it with an almost fiery energy, as the
two conspirators entered the drawing-room.  Her eyes met Vansittart’s
with the old hunted, desperate look--his heart sank as he felt how
impotent and futile his efforts to balance the disturbing influence,
whatever it was, had been.

Sir Thomas had determined to "strike the iron while it was hot."  So, as
soon as coffee had been served, he broached the subject of an almost
immediate marriage.

"My dear, it is the only thing to be done!" exclaimed his wife
emphatically.  "It ought to be a function, Joan’s marriage!  And if it
is not as soon as I can arrange matters, it will have to be postponed
till next season, when every one will be sick and tired of the subject.
You are our only chick and child, Joan, and I will have you married
properly, with _éclat_."

Joan made no objection.  She gave her lover one tender, confiding
glance, then resumed her wool-winding, and allowed her elders to settle
her affairs for her.  Perhaps, she thought, when she was left alone with
the awful facts of her life in her own room--perhaps she might learn to
live in something less akin to utter and complete despair than her
present humour, when she was alone with Vansittart, skimming the ocean
in his yacht.

The necessary shopping and dressmaker-interviewing, too, might distract
her from the terrible, gnawing anxiety of the coming inquest.

Each morning and evening the papers had some little paragraph about the
affair.  They hinted at the identity of "Victor a’Court" being a
disputed one.  But until the day fixed for the inquest there had been no
definite allusion in print.

The night before the inquest was one of feverish anxiety for Joan.  "If
only I were not so strong--if only some dreadful illness would attack
me!" she told herself, as the hours lagged and dragged.  She could not
face her world while that awful inquiry which might mean a shameful
death to her was going forward; yet she dared not shut herself into her
room to await the evening papers as she best could.

Her aunt was, fortunately for Joan, a "little out of sorts," as she
herself termed it. So, her uncle being out--and having, indeed, almost
entirely relaxed his barely-veiled supervision of her doings now that in
three weeks time she would be Lady Vansittart and freed from his
jurisdiction for always, she donned a hat and walking dress and wandered
out, unseen--for the hall was empty.

Why she was attracted towards the scene of her "accidental crime"--that
was her name for her administration of the drugged brandy to Victor
Mercier--she could not imagine. But she was.

She had intended to stroll about in the leafy seclusion of Kensington
Gardens, dodging her kind.  But no sooner was she in the Park than she
wandered almost unconsciously nearer and nearer to the place where she
had done her former lover to death.

Oh, for some cool, dark refuge in which to grovel and hide during the
awful hours of dreadful suspense!  The light of day seemed too
garish--every cheerful sound made her shrink and wince--every voice
seemed to thrill each overstrung nerve in her aching body.

As she was pausing, miserably, under a tree, stopping her ears that she
might not hear the glad voices and laughter of some children gaily at
play, she happened to glance skyward where the towers of the great
cathedral stood, solemn and noble, against the sky.

"I will go in there and wait!" she told herself.  She felt unable to
return home and face the evening papers in her uncle’s house. She would
wait for them there.

She almost fled along, across the road, into the cathedral, as a guilty,
hunted creature seeking sanctuary.  She halted when she had closed the
door.  There was a calm, a rest, in the sacred fane which was as the
presence of the Creator Himself.  She slunk into a corner, and crouching
down, clung for support to the rail of the bench in front of her and
waited.

Waited, half-dazed and stupified, hardly knowing where she was, mind and
brain confused as if too paralysed to think, to act. Hour after hour
passed.  Afternoon service proceeded in the choir.  Almost grovelling in
her corner, she listened.  She could not pray--she was past that.

Then, as there was a movement of the congregation to the doors, she
forced herself to rise and pass out among them.  For she knew the
evening papers would be out.

She hurried from the Abbey into the street, bought one from the first
urchin she met shouting "Special Edeetion!" fled across one street and
along another, into the Park. There she found an empty bench, and, well
hidden from passers-by by a clump of shrubs, opened her paper with
trembling fingers. Yes!  There it was!


               "INQUEST THIS DAY.  STRANGE REVELATIONS."



                             CHAPTER XXIII


The paragraphs seemed to dance before her eyes.  Joan’s mind at first
refused to understand.  Then, as she read, she feared her brain was
playing her false.

Victor a’Court was identified by several witnesses--one a detective, who
had failed to track him when he was "wanted" four years ago for
embezzling monies belonging to his firm--as Victor Mercier.

His old mother was called, but was in so pitiable a state that his
identity was finally established by the evidence of her step-daughter,
Vera "Anerley."

She was described as pale, but perfectly self-possessed.  She told the
coroner’s court how Victor Mercier’s father died in obscurity some years
before her own father, a widower, met Madame Mercier and married her.
She and Victor, who was ten years at least her senior, had called each
other brother and sister, albeit not related.  She knew nothing of the
particulars of the charge brought against him some years ago, except
that the firm were subsequently bankrupt.  She knew he had "got on"
abroad, but how, or why, he had not exactly said.

Then two medical men--one the aged practitioner who attended the family,
Dr. Thompson, the other the young doctor, his nephew--testified to the
death, and gave an account of the _post-mortem_ examination they had
made by the coroner’s order.  The sudden death, which at first had had
the appearance of suicide, especially as some brandy in a tumbler had
proved, on analysis, to contain a quantity of morphia--was actually due
to failure of the heart.

Cross-examination elicited from both medical men that there was not much
actual disease.  The heart was not in good condition--it could never
have acted strongly--and failure might have happened, they considered,
at any time, after undue strain, or shock, or even indiscretion.

Was the dose found in the stomach sufficient to cause death? asked the
foreman of the jury.  The reply was--and Joan read it feverishly again
and again--not, perhaps, in a healthy person who was addicted to
narcotics.  Those who were accustomed to other sedatives would possibly
escape being poisoned by the amount of morphia Victor Mercier seemed
likely to have swallowed. But with a heart like his death might
certainly ensue were the person unaccustomed to narcotics and the like.

Then the medical student, who had returned from settling his dead
mother’s affairs to find his "diggings" the scene of a recent tragedy,
testified to the amount and kind of morphia he had left in a bottle
among the rest of his drugs.  Probably two-thirds of the half-bottle had
been accounted for by the drugged brandy left in a tumbler, and by the
contents of the stomach.  He identified the empty bottle.

Here a juror asked if the bottle from which the brandy had been taken
were in court?

It was not.  No bottle had been found in the cupboard or anywhere in the
sitting-room, although several empty brandy bottles were in a corner of
the adjoining bedroom, where Victor Mercier was temporarily sleeping.
The student lodger vigorously disowned these, upon which the coroner
asked the aged doctor whether a man whose heart was in the condition of
Victor Mercier’s would be tempted to resort to alcohol, and having
received a decided reply in the affirmative, the subject was dropped.

Mr. Dobbs, the student who had escorted Victor Mercier’s mother to the
hospital entertainment, testified to finding Victor Mercier dead, as far
as he could judge; then Vera gave an account of how she found him, and
asked to be allowed to make a statement.

She told the Court that to her knowledge Victor Mercier had secretly
married a lady, his senior, wealthy, of good position, who had behaved
shamefully when he was under a cloud some years previously: that he had
intended and hoped to procure a divorce, and that a person was expected
to call upon him that night--the night he died--whose evidence would go
far to assist him in his desire.  "I expected the person would be still
with him," she added--"and--I found him--dead!"

The significant utterance of her statement appeared to have brought
about a perfect storm of questioning.  But, giving an absolute denial to
any further knowledge of the affair, she adhered firmly to what she had
said, and nothing further could be elicited from her, except the
somewhat defiant reply to a suggestion of the foreman of the jury that
Victor Mercier might have had some motive in wishing to have a divorce
instead of claiming conjugal rights.  "Yes.  We--he and I--were engaged
to be married, as soon as he could get rid of her!"

That speech, apparently, brought matters to a speedy conclusion.  The
Coroner placed the "ambiguous affair" before the jury somewhat
diffidently.  Their verdict was, perhaps in consequence, hardly a
decisive one.  They disagreed.  While the majority wished to adopt the
coroner’s hint that "death by misadventure" might be a safe view to
take, and that it would be easy for investigations to be proceeded with
by other authorities, should those authorities feel inclined to
dissatisfaction, there were some dissentients who suspected possible
foul play.

These were, however, sufficiently in the minority for a verdict of
"death by misadventure" to be returned, and when Joan understood that by
this she was still unsuspected by man of that which God alone yet knew
she had done, the sudden shock of joy was as bad to bear as her agony
when she read that Victor Mercier was dead.

"I am not to be hanged, I am not to be shamed before the world--God is
just--He is merciful--He has heard my prayer!" she frantically told
herself, as in the folly of ecstasy she clasped and kissed the paper,
and held it to her heart.  Was the world all sunshine, all joy?  What
was the matter? she wondered.  It was as if she had been groping through
some dark, noisome tunnel, holding by the dark walls, expecting every
moment that some horror would rush upon and destroy her miserable,
hopeless being--and--without even a warning ray of light--she had
suddenly emerged into a beautiful world--ancient, yet new--bathed in
glorious sunshine, awake and alive with joy.

She heard, almost with wonder, that the birds were carolling, that gay
voices and laughter, mingled with the ripple of the wavelets a few yards
away, where little children were screaming as they fed the quacking
ducks.  Little children!  Some day she might be a mother, and in tending
innocent babes she might forget the horror of her life.

She had no pity for the cruel man whom she saw now, first, in his true
light, as perjurer, liar, thief--who had stolen her young affections out
of mere wantonness, so it seemed to her, when he really loved this "Vera
Anerley," who was supposedly his sister.  He had lied to her all
through--he was a mere nobody--he meant to climb to a position by her
wealth: he had lied about his legal tie to her, this Vera--this love of
his. What had he meant to do?  How could he divorce her?

The answer to her own question was as a blow, so sharp, so cruel.  She
closed her eyes faint and sick.

"He knew about _us_," she thought.  "He said--’your lover, Lord
Vansittart.’  He meant to get a divorce--because of him. He would have
sworn to lies, very likely. He would have got ’damages’--a decree--and
after he had disgraced me for ever, would have made that girl his wife!
Oh--his death has been a mercy to every one--may God grant it has been a
mercy to him!"

As soon as she was equal to the effort of walking--for she felt unsteady
and giddy even then--she left the newspaper on the seat on which she had
sat to read her fate, and making her way out of the Park, took a cab
home, and entered without, she believed, being unduly observed.  She
found that her uncle had lunched at his club, and her aunt was in her
room, so, joining Lady Thorne in her boudoir, where she was lying
comfortably tucked up on a sofa, she excused her absence very casually.
She had been detained shopping, had lunched out, had attended service in
the Abbey.  Lady Thorne smiled indulgently.  "Of course, of course, my
dear!" she interrupted.  "But I am glad you are in.  Violette has sent
home one of your _trousseau_ evening frocks.  It is a poet’s dream--pink
embroidered roses, and a bouquet of pink roses has come from the Duchess
with a little note--they decorate with roses to-night in your honour!  I
want you to wear that frock.  It would make such a nice paragraph in the
society papers, and encourage Violette to exert her utmost with the rest
of the wedding order."

Joan went upstairs, wondering what it meant--this sudden flow of
sunshine.  As she inspected the dress--an exquisite _confection_ of pale
pink and white shot tissue, embroidered with clusters of La France roses
with so cunning a hand that the blossoms looked almost real--she
wondered what she would have felt, arraying herself in that gala attire,
yesterday.

"My dark, darkest of dark nights, seems over, thank Heaven!" she told
herself as she went down later on, radiant, to the drawing-room to
receive her lover.  As she opened the door, she saw him standing as if
lost in anxious thought.  He sprang towards her with a puzzled,
astounded gaze.

"How lovely you look!  But--but--oh, darling, how thankful I am to see
you look almost happy for once!" he passionately exclaimed, as he kissed
her--hands, brow, lips--with the tender reverence which made her almost
worship him in return.  "But--oh, something must have happened to please
you!  Tell me, Joan, do not let us have any secrets from each other!"

"You shall know to-night--at the dance," she said.  The dance was given
by the Duchess of Arran.



                              CHAPTER XXIV


If Joan had succeeded in fascinating Lord Vansittart until his passion
dominated him to the extinction of all his ordinary interests in life,
while she was mysteriously enwrapped in an unaccountable gloom--a gloom
which hid her natural charms, her bright, ready wit, her spontaneity,
her sympathetic responses to the moods of others, as a thick mist hides
a beautiful landscape--in her new gaiety and sudden joyousness she
simply intoxicated him.

As he sat opposite her at dinner, he gazed fatuously at her in her pink
glory, her sweet face shining above the roseate robe as the morning star
above the sunrise-tinted clouds--and wondered at the magnificence of the
fate dealt out to him by fortune. When they were driving to Arran
House--Sir Thomas by his betrothed, and he squeezing in his long figure
on the opposite seat--he felt that to sit at her feet and worship her
was more happiness than he deserved.  What of being her husband?  Of
possessing this delightful being for his very own--half of himself?

His mood, half deprecatory, half triumphant, but wholly joyful, seemed
reflected in the brilliant atmosphere of Arran House, as he followed Sir
Thomas, who had Joan on his arm, through the hall--where heavy
rose-garlands wreathed the pillars, casting their rich, luscious perfume
profusely upon the air--up the rose-decorated staircase to the draped
entrance to the ballroom, where the duchess stood, a picture in rose
moire and old point lace, the kindly little duke at her elbow, receiving
her guests, but detaining the newly-betrothed for a few warmly-spoken
words of congratulation.  The ballroom floor was already sprinkled with
couples dancing the second valse of the programme.

"Now we belong to each other publicly as well as in private, you must
dance all, or nearly all, your dances with me," said Vansittart, in
tones of suppressed emotion, as he gazed at her white throat, encircled
with his first gift--a necklet of topaz and pearls with _parure en
suite_; then, with a longing, searching look into her eyes.  Half
fearful lest the old enigmatic horror should still be lurking there, his
heart gave a throb of delight as those sweet brown orbs gazed
innocently, fearlessly, yet with a passionate abandon into his.

"Let us join the others--shall we?" he said.  She nodded slightly--a
trick of hers--and encircling her slight waist with his arm, he made one
of the slowly gyrating throng.

To Joan that dance was like a new, delicious dream.  To feel the one she
loved as she had never imagined it was in her to love, near her, was in
itself an abiding joy.  But to have lost the awful burden--her secret
link to another--to be relieved of the weight of fear lest she should
really be a criminal--that, mingled with the delight of being the
betrothed bride of her beloved, was in itself an earthly heaven.

The valse over, they betook themselves to a couple of chairs placed
invitingly under a big palm.  But Vansittart yearned to be alone with
her; or, at least, where they could talk unobserved.  In spite of his
pervading joy, there was just one discordant note sounding in his mind;
there was one gleam of anxiety anent the cause of the almost miraculous
change in Joan’s mood, from darkest night to sunlit noonday.

"It was a pretty idea of the duchess, was it not, darling, to decorate
with roses in our honour?" he said caressingly, as he took her bouquet
and inhaled its delicate sweetness.  "The flower of love!  But--well, of
course you know the story of the rose?  It seems to me that that also
may not be without its meaning in our case.  It was through a bad member
of my sex, was it not, that you had so much to endure?  Why, dearest,
forgive me for alluding to it.  I thought you would not mind!"

Joan had started a little--as a sensitive horse at the unexpected touch
of its rider’s heel.  It was only for a moment; she recovered herself
immediately.

"What story?  I don’t know of any! Tell me," she replied, annoyed with
herself at being so "morbidly impressionable."  Still, any allusion to
her secret stung her to the quick.  It disappointed her.  She had wanted
to bury her dead at once and for ever.

"Why, I hardly like alluding to your confidences to me," he began, a
little taken aback by her sudden change of humour.  "The story is about
a girl named Zillah--a Bethlehemite--whose would-be lover rejected, gave
out that she was possessed, and had her condemned to be burnt.  But the
stake blossomed into roses!  I take that to mean that no real trouble
can come to one who is pure and good by the machinations of any vile
man, however base----"

"Oh, don’t talk about it here!" she exclaimed, inwardly writhing.
"Besides, I don’t want ever to allude to--to--that affair of my poor
friend’s marriage again.  It is not necessary.  She has escaped from her
troubles. It is that which has made me so happy.  Do you understand?  I
cannot tell you how it has happened.  You must trust me so far. But it
is all over.  I have only one, one boon to crave of you--that you will
never, never again remind me of it.  Can you do that much for your
future wife?  If you do keep raking up my past troubles, we shall not be
happy. I promise you that!"

"My dearest, I would sacrifice much rather than ever say one word to
annoy you, give you pain," he began, somewhat hurt and mystified.

"I know," she exclaimed, and once more she beamed upon him.  A brilliant
smile beautified a face which was too flushed for health; sudden pallor
at the tale of the rose was succeeded by a burning glow.  "And now,
there they are, beginning another dance.  I want to dance.  I want to
live; to enjoy life.  Can’t you imagine it?  For ever so long I have
been thinking myself a perfect wretch, not eligible, like other people,
for the ordinary joys of life; and now that I find out I am not, that no
innocent person has suffered for my absurd and ridiculous folly, I want
to be happy.  Oh! let me be, if only for to-night."

"Joan, that is hardly just, not to know that there is only one thing in
this world I really wish for, your happiness," he said, with deep
feeling.  "However, do not let us have the faintest shadow between us,
when we are on the eve of belonging to each other for ever--pray don’t!
Darling, I will be careful for the future.  Do you forgive me?"

"Don’t talk nonsense," she cried, with a little laugh which sounded so
gay and careless that he led her to join the dancers somewhat reassured.
As they danced onward, round and round the duke’s beautiful ballroom,
the electric light shining through the softly-tinted Bohemian glass upon
the lavish decorations of roses of all shades, from pure white to the
deepest crimson, they both almost recovered their equanimity.  The deep,
yearning love in each young heart was sufficiently sun-like to dispel
all mists and shadows.

To both the evening speedily became one of unmixed delight.  Once or
twice they had temporarily parted and taken other partners "for the look
of the thing."  "Hating your dancing with another fellow as I do, I
would rather that, than that the frivols among them should laugh at us,"
he told her.  "You know, dearest, to be in love as we are is terribly
out of date."

So they reluctantly separated for a while, to enjoy each other’s
proximity with a more subtle ecstasy afterwards.  The last dance before
supper Vansittart had retained for himself.  "It is more than flesh and
blood can do to give up that; besides, it is not expected of me, after
the paragraphs in the papers," he said.  So, after a delightful quarter
of an hour’s gyration to the charming melody of the "Erste Geliebte"
waltz, he escorted Joan to the supper room.

It was crowded.  As Vansittart led his beautiful betrothed through the
room, her pink train rustling, the jewels on her fair neck gleaming, all
eyes turned towards them as they passed.  His head held proudly high, he
felt rather than saw that they were the object of general notice.
Meanwhile, every one of the small round supper tables, laid either for
two or four persons, seemed appropriated.

Joan had been scanning the crowd about the tables, feeling an
unpleasantly reminiscent thrill as she saw the ducal servitors in their
picturesque black uniform and powder; and remembering that horrible
shock--her encountering Victor Mercier in that garb, in that sudden and
cruel way--she was somewhat startled by meeting the malevolent,
searching gaze of a small, thin man in evening dress.

Surely it was the duke’s valet--that man with the steel-blue eyes which
seemed to flash white fire as they met hers?  Yes, he was approaching
them.

"Pardon, milord, but there is a table in the conservatory, if you would
like it," he said. "It is cooler there, and I will tell some one to
attend to you."

"Thanks, Paul," said Lord Vansittart genially, and he led Joan through
the room after their guide, following him into the conservatory, where,
among the roses, fuchsias, and orchids brought from the ducal houses, a
tiny table was laid for two persons.  "You are very kind.  But you are
not looking well. How is it?"

"A mere nothing, milord," said Paul, lightly.  "And now, I will see to
the supper for you and mademoiselle.  But Monsieur le Duc wishes a word
with you.  He sent me to say it.  You would find him in the hall, I
think, waiting for you."

"You will excuse me a minute, darling?" Vansittart, released with a
smile by Joan, left her.

Left her--with the valet, Paul Naz!  Joan wondered to see the man, with
a set, stern face she did not like at all, moving the knives, forks and
glasses about upon the table in a foolish, aimless fashion.  She
marvelled still more when he stood up and faced her suddenly, an ominous
gleam in his brilliant, pale eyes.

"A word, mademoiselle," he began solemnly, his hands clenching
themselves so they hung pendant at his sides.  "I wish to speak to you
of my poor murdered friend, Victor Mercier."

[Illustration: "’I wish to speak to you of my poor murdered friend.’"
_A Woman Martyr_.  _Page 216_]



                              CHAPTER XXV


If the duke’s pale, wrathful valet had suddenly changed into the
grinning skeleton which had seemed to Joan to mock and gird at her that
night when she replaced the poison bottle in the cupboard after pouring
its contents into Victor Mercier’s brandy, she could hardly have shrunk
back more absolutely terror-stricken.

At first she gazed, speechless, at Paul Naz’s set, ghastly face, with
those pale blue eyes flashing menace and scorn.  Then that up-leaping
instinct within her to defend herself came to her rescue.

"Are you mad, sir, to speak to me like this?" she haughtily said.
"Leave me.  If you presume to insult me, I will call for help."

For a moment her daring, her defiance, staggered Paul.  Meanwhile, the
sudden pallor of her beautiful features, the agony in her dark eyes, had
strengthened his gradually formed, but confident, belief that Victor
Mercier had been merely shielding a woman when he spoke of the Thornes
owing money to his late father, and that he and Joan were either lovers,
or had been so.  Men did not dress up as men-servants to meet a woman
who merely had some cash to repay.  Then, he had seen other symptoms in
Victor.  He believed, when he had read the account of the inquest, that
either Victor held Joan’s promise of marriage, or that she was his
secret and abandoned wife.  To the story Victor had told Vera he
attached but little significance.  Men said such things sometimes to
girls to cover unpalatable facts they need not be told.

Then, an interior conviction seemed to assert itself.  "This is the
woman," cried his soul.  He gazed steadily at Joan.

"Mademoiselle, I am sorry to speak like this, but I know you knew my
poor murdered friend well," he began in a low tone. "God forgive me if I
misjudge you!  But I feel you have been cruel to him.  Time will show.
Meanwhile, I wish to say to you that I will do nothing against you if
you do not bring this noble gentleman I hear you are to marry to shame.
I leave justice to the Creator, who invented it."

With which he made her a slight bow, turned, and stalked out of the
conservatory. She sank into a seat breathless, and stared vacantly at
the place where he had stood, for she seemed to see that white, scornful
face with the pale blue eyes which to her excited fancy had been ablaze
with lurid fire, still.

All was over, then!  The mirage of happiness was a mockery.  She was
once more plunged, steeped, in the atmosphere of crime.

"I see," she told herself, in her mental writhings under this new scorch
of pain. "He is a Frenchman; he is--was--Victor’s accomplice, his spy.
He told Victor of Vansittart.  He has been watching me."

Her first insane idea was to tell the duke that his trusted servant was
the miserable spy of unscrupulous wretches.  Second thoughts said
"madness!  Keep it to yourself.  What can the man do?  He knows nothing
of your visit to Hay thorn Street. If you say, or suggest, he is a spy,
you arouse suspicions."

Upon these second thoughts she acted. She controlled her emotions,
summoning all her force, her self-possession, to her aid. There was a
long mirror in the corner.  She composed her features and rubbed her
cheeks and lips before it, regaining a semblance of composure and
ordinary appearance only just in time, for as she leant back in her
chair slowly fanning herself Vansittart came in, looking grave,
troubled, although he smiled as their eyes met.  Had _he_ seen or heard
anything peculiar?

"Is it a breach of confidence to ask what his Grace wanted you for?" she
asked, assuming a sprightly manner which shocked her even as she did so.

"Not at all," he said, a little abruptly; "something about a wedding
present."

Then a manservant entered with a tray of champagne and the menu card,
and until she had been revived by the food she forced herself to eat,
and the champagne Vansittart insisted upon her drinking, she asked no
more.  But, in her strained state, her lover’s pre-occupation was
unbearable.

Desperate, she determined to know the worst.  "Tell me," she began,
leaning her fair elbow on the table and looking pleadingly into his face
with those bewilderingly beautiful eyes.  "You know you yourself
proposed we should share our secrets.  And, from your manner, I know--I
am positive--the duke said something more than about a wedding present."

"If he did, it was nothing of any consequence," he fondly returned,
gazing tenderly at the lovely face which was his whole world.  "I would
tell you at once, only you are such a sweet, innocent, sensitive
darling, so utterly unsophisticated, unused to this rough planet and its
still rougher inhabitants--you would make a mountain of what is far less
than a mole-hill in one’s way."

"What is it?’ I would rather, really I would, know."  She gave him a
coaxing glance.

"Well, it is this," he replied, hardly. "Very little to annoy one.  Only
I am so absurdly vulnerable, that the merest breath which affects the
subject of our marriage seems to shrivel me up.  It is those wretched
clubs; at least, the miserable gossip which the riffraff of the clubs
seem to batten and fatten upon, drivelling, disappointed, soured units
of humanity that they are! They seem to be prognosticating that our
wedding will not ’take place,’ because I have a secret wife somewhere,
who is likely to turn up.  Do you suspect me, darling?"

Her joyous laugh, born of infinite relief, almost startled him.  When he
reached his bachelor domain that night, and recalled the events of the
evening, the sweetest delight of all was to remember how his beautiful
darling took his hands, and with eyes brimming with love, drew him to
her and nestled in his arms as some faithful dove might have flown
confidently to his shoulder.  That ensuing brief--all too brief--half
hour, when, by their world seemingly forgot, and certainly their world
forgetting, they interchanged tender words and still tenderer embraces,
seemed to his passion-stricken nature to have so riveted them to each
other that the very machinations of hell itself bid fair to be powerless
to part them.

"Her absolute innocence makes her so immeasurably sweeter than all the
other women," he told himself, as he stalked about his rooms in a
hyper-ecstatic mood.  "It is that which makes her so unsuspicious, so
trusting.  Now, if I had told something of what the duke said to me to
an ordinary woman, she would have suspected me of goodness knows what in
the past.  She might have concealed it, but I should have known that she
did.  I believe it is my darling’s being so ’unspotted from the world’
which influenced me to love her as I do.  Oh, may I be worthy of being
her guardian; for my past is not the fair, white, unsullied page that
hers is!  No man’s can be."

                     *      *      *      *      *

When the young doctor she had fetched in her frantic fear the night of
Mercier’s death, after finding Victor insensible upon the sofa, came to
Vera in the little sitting room where she was kneeling at her poor
trembling old stepmother’s side and telling her with the assurance of
desperation that Victor must, would, soon be better--why should he not
be?  He had never been subject to fits.  He was so well-knit, so strong,
so athletic--she gave the intruder an imperious gesture, and, springing
up, led him out of the room, and, closing the door, leant against the
lintel, and gazed at him with such wild agony that he flinched, alarmed.
She looked uncanny, and at such a crisis it was disturbing.

"I know.  He is dead!" she resolutely said.  "But, for God’s sake, have
mercy on his poor old mother.  He is all she has in life.  There will be
an inquest?  So much the better.  Now go in to her, and tell her he is
very ill, and must be left to you and me."

The young practitioner demurred.  His private opinion was that people
ought to "face their fate."  He was fresh from the hospitals.

But there was something witchlike about this girl.  She commanded the
wistful, shivering John Dobbs, a mild specimen indeed of the genus
medico, to remain and solace her stepmother with as many white lies as
he could generate at the moment; then, over-riding the objections of old
Doctor Thompson, who, returning home and hearing of her wild condition
from his house-maid, had proceeded to Haythorn Street at once, she
insisted on accompanying them into the room where the dead man lay with
that calm, sphinx-like smile upon his handsome lips, and remaining there
until Doctor Thompson actually took her by the shoulder and, turning her
out, locked the door.

But, like some faithful dog, she remained outside.  She watched them
seal up the room in a dead silence.  After tenderly assisting her
stepmother to bed, weaving fictions the while--"Victor was in bed and
asleep, the doctors had gone, and their one direction was he should not
be disturbed; his very existence depended upon his being kept quiet,"
etc.--she returned to her post, and spent the night crouched upon the
landing, her cheek against the sealed door.

"My heart is dead; my life went with his," she told herself.  "What
there remains of me is left to find the woman who murdered him, and to
bring her to justice."



                              CHAPTER XXVI


Old Doctor Thompson sat up in his study, smoking and listening to his
nephew’s theories anent Victor Mercier’s death, while Vera, sleepless in
her anguish, remained sifting her suspicions throughout that dismal
night, limply leaning up against the sealed door which so cruelly barred
her out from that silent room where her beloved lay on the sofa in the
mystic sleep of death. "I have to revenge his murder--for he has been
drugged--poisoned--I could swear it!" she told herself, over and over
again.  "That woman I saw--tall, well-dressed--stalking off--and
staggering--she is the one who has killed him!  It is she I must
find--God help me!"

How impotent she felt, when all Mercier’s belongings were under lock,
key, and seal!

But she had enough to occupy her.  The unhappy old mother was in a
helpless state of grief--she alone had to "do for the household," since
they kept no regular servant. Then, when she sent in her resignation,
her admirer, the stage manager, Mr. Howard, urged the proprietors of the
touring company to refuse to accept it.  She had to go off and almost
beg release upon her knees.

Then came the day of the inquest, and her statement; the grudgingly
admitted verdict, and the consequent release from endurance of the worst
of the bondage.

The purses of gold were all that they found which pointed to any one’s
visit the night of Mercier’s death; and even Vera, despite her intense
anxiety to find a clue which would bring her face to face with the wife
he had told her of, the "hag," the "cat," whom he had spoken of so
vindictively as the only barrier between them, could but think that the
money might have been locked up in his desk since his return.  He had
spoken of possessing ample means for the immediate present, and had
spent lavishly upon her of late.

They searched high and low, the poor mother clinging to the relics of
the only son whose heir she was, as she had few relatives belonging to
her, and his father, her first, cruel spouse, had no kith and kin that
he had cared to acknowledge.  But while they found more money--neither
in boxes, nor chests of drawers, or pockets, did they come across any
traces bearing upon the part of his life they knew nothing about.  The
letters and papers in his desk and trunk related to past business
abroad, alone.

The funeral was a plain, but good one.  It was a wet, gloomy day when
the hearse bearing the brown oaken coffin decorated with wreaths bought
lavishly by Vera, and a few modest ones sent by the doctor’s wife and
some sympathizing neighbours, made its way slowly through the gaping
crowd in Haythorn Street and the immediate neighbourhood, and proceeded
more briskly northwards.  Vera sat back in the first of the two funeral
carriages--the two doctors were in the second--and as she vainly strove
to comfort her weeping old step-mother, she gazed sternly out upon the
familiar roads with a strange wonder at the ordinary bustle and
movement.  Life was going on as usual, although Victor Mercier’s strong,
buoyant spirit was quenched. They laughed and talked and screamed and
whistled, those crowds, while he lay still and white within his narrow
coffin under the flowers, his pale lips sealed for ever in that strange,
wistful, unearthly smile.

"But they have not heard the last of him," she grimly thought.  "The
last will be far, far more startling than the first!"

Let him be laid to rest, and she would rouse like a sleeping tigress
awakened to the defence of her young, and finding that wife of his,
bring her to justice.

The belief that that woman had secretly visited him, and that by her
means he had had his death-dose, strengthened every moment until it
became a rigid, fixed idea.  All had seemed to point to it.  His careful
dress to receive his visitor, the embroidered shirt, the diamond stud,
the white flower in his button-hole, a costume assumed after she had
left him in his ordinary day suit.  Then his shutting the cat into the
parlour was doubtless lest she should cover his visitor with her
hairs--and the cat only affected women, and had a trick of jumping up on
feminine laps.

"There is justice in heaven, so I shall find some clue to her," thought
she, as they passed the stone-mason’s yards on the cemetery road.  The
words haunted her--"Vengeance is Mine!  I will repay, saith the Lord."
They should be inscribed on his tomb.

Presently the horses slackened in their speed--they proceeded at a
funeral pace--then they stopped.  They were at the cemetery gates.  Vera
heard the distant tolling of the bell.  It had been like this when her
own father was buried, in whose grave for two Victor was to lie.

"I must bear up," said the aged woman who leant against her, with a
gasping sob. "Victor would not like to see me cry."  And she tried to
give a broken-hearted smile.

"No, mother," said the girl tenderly.  But she was not really
touched--it was as if her heart were turned to stone.

The funeral train went on with a jerk.  A returning empty hearse
scampering home the wrong way had been the temporary obstruction.
Graves, rows of crosses and headstones--ponderous marble and granite
tombs--the world of the dead was a well-peopled one. They halted--one of
the solemn undertaker’s men came and let down the steps.  There was the
coffin--

The beautiful words fell unheeded on Vera’s ears.  She was intent upon a
small, pale man with fair hair, in black, who had joined them. Who was
he?  Was he the intimate friend Victor had casually spoken of?

As they stood in the narrow pews of the mortuary chapel, the first ray
of sunshine which had pierced the clouds that day fell upon the
close-cut hair of Paul Naz, who had determined not only to see the last
of the friend anent whose fate he had such gruesome, horrible
misgivings, but to offer his friendship to the charming young actress
whom he now knew to have been more to the dead man than mere
step-sister-in-law; and Vera said to herself, "It is an omen!"

As they stepped slowly out, following the coffin, she almost staggered
as she vainly tried to support her half-fainting step-mother. Paul Naz
helped her with a "Pardon, mademoiselle!  I am his friend!" and she gave
him a grateful glance.

They were at the grave.  The clergyman was reading "He cometh up, and is
cut down like a flower--" ... A thrush carolled loudly on a neighbouring
bush.  The sunlight broke through and shone upon the brass handles of
the coffin as it was lowered into the grave. "My beloved, I will only
live to avenge you, and take care of mother," murmured Vera, as she left
the grave, and following her stepmother, who leant on Paul Naz’s arm,
listened to his affectionate talk of the dead man.

"I loved him, mademoiselle!  And if I can help you, I beg you to send to
me!" he said, earnestly, giving her a meaning, almost appealing look
after he had helped Victor’s mother into the carriage.  Then he stood,
bare-headed, and gravely watched them depart.

"He suspects!" Vera told herself, feverishly, as they drove home.
"Perhaps--oh, if it only is so!  He knows something!"

Back in the empty house, she coaxed her step-mother to bed, and was
proceeding to give orders to the charwoman about the tidying-up of the
place, when there was a vigorous pull of the bell.

"I will see to it," she said to the woman. Proceeding to the hall-door
and opening it, she was confronted with the landlady of the next-door
lodging-house--a Mrs. Muggeridge, whose fowls had been harassed by the
tortoise-shell cat, after which there had been ructions, and each house
had cut its neighbour dead.

"I am sure I don’t wish to hurt your feelings, or to intrude, Miss
Anerley, but my mind is that troubled I must speak to you," said the old
woman, who was stout and asthmatic, and looked pale and "upset."  "I
hope your poor mar is all right?"

"Yes, thanks!  Will you come this way?" said Vera, who felt somewhat as
a war-horse hearing the bugle, for she hoped to "hear something," and
she conducted her visitor into the little parlour and closed the door.

Mrs. Muggeridge pantingly, with many interpolations, told her tale.  She
had a country girl as servant, "Sar’ Ann, as good a gal as ever lived."
Still, it seemed that Sar’ Ann was human, and could err.  The day after
the murder, "as they did call it, and as some calls it now, in spite of
that there crowner, Sar’ Ann was took with hysterics, and giv’ warnin’."

"Which I took.  As I says to Sar’ Ann, ’I don’t want any one ’ere as
ain’t comfortable.’  And she was right down awful, that girl was. One
night I took and made ’er tell me what it was, and I’m goin’ to tell
you, now!  For the very mornin’ after--I suppose because I told her what
she said to me she might have to tell to a Judge and jury, she ran away.
She got the milkman to give a lift to her box, and when I got up,
expectin’ to find the kettle boilin’, she was off and away into
space--and there she is--like one of them Leonines as they talk of, but
we never sees, Miss Anerley!  It’ll take a detective to find her, if so
be as she should be called up to say what she says to me!"



                             CHAPTER XXVII


Mrs. Muggeridge paused, and had a fit of coughing.  Vera waited with the
patience which seemed part of her dogged resolve to avenge Victor’s
death.

"Yes?" she said mildly, as Mrs. Muggeridge wiped her eyes.

"Where was I?  Oh!  About Sar’ Ann making tracks like that.  Well, if I
tell you what she told me, and ease my conscience like, will you give me
your word, Miss Anerley, as no harm shall come to the girl?  Poor,
unfortunate girl!  I’m glad as it wasn’t me! You promise?  Well, it was
like this: My first-floor front, what corresponds with yours where your
gentleman lodges what’s been away for his Ma’s funeral, is occupied by a
gent in the City, what leaves a lot of vallables about as I don’t harf
like having the charge of. So, when I’m goin’ out, I locks up his room,
if so be as ’e ain’t at ’ome, and puts the key where he knows how to
find it.  Now, we was all out except Sar’ Ann the night of the murd--oh,
well, the night Mr. Musser died: I was at the horspital entertainment
along with the rest.  So what must my lady needs do, but get that
key--sly puss! she must have watched and found out where I put it--and
go up into Mr. Marston’s room to fiddle about with his things.  I
believe she spent the evenin’ there.  At all events, when she was
a-sitting at the window, peepin’ out, she sees a tall lady come along,
and disappear into your house.  She did think it queer, knowin’ or
suspectin’ as you was all out!  So she listened, and small blame to ’er,
as I told the girl!  She listens--and she swore to me she could ’ear two
voices in the next room, a man’s and a woman’s.  She sat there listenin’
for a hour or more after dark, and they was talkin’--sometimes loud--but
she couldn’t distinguish the words.  And then there was quiet-like, and
she wondered what had become of ’em--so she was peerin’ out of window
when out comes the tall lady, shuts the door, and makes off.  Your
’ansom drove up at the same time, and she declared to me she see the
lady stop short and stare at you! There now!"

Vera’s thoughts, spurred by the excitement of such important, unexpected
evidence, worked with lightning rapidity.  Even as she listened with
concentrated attention, she was warning herself to be cautious.  If her
suspicions that Victor was foully murdered were shared by others, the
criminal might be forewarned, and escape her doom.

So she gave a sad, incredulous smile, and shrugged her shoulders.  "My
dear Mrs. Muggeridge, your girl ran away because she was a wretched
story-teller, and was afraid of being called to account!" she dryly
returned.  "The voices, the tall lady--everything--is pure invention!
Surely I ought to know?  The only fact is that I came home in a hansom.
You said she was hysterical. It is a pity her perverted ideas were on
the subject of my dear, dead brother!"

"Brother?  I read as you said at the crowner’s quest that he was your
sweetheart!" exclaimed Mrs. Muggeridge, vulgarly.  She had confidently
expected to become one of the chief _dramatis personæ_ in the gruesome
tragedy at number Twelve, and her disappointment exasperated her.  "And
as for my poor Sar’ Ann bein’ a story-teller, allow me to tell you as
she’s never told a lie to my knowledge!  Stealin’ the key?  Gals will be
gals!  Let me giv’ you a word of warnin’, Miss Vera Anerley, or whatever
you call yourself.  Your best plan’ll be to find Sar’ Ann--I can’t, my
respectable house is ruined by bein’ next door to a disreputable hole
where people comes to sudden deaths and their friends want it hushed
up--I’ve to see about movin’ as soon as I’ve got over the shock it’s
been to me to be next door to such a orful thing--but if you don’t find
Sar’ Ann and let ’er help to discover the lady what murdered your
sweetheart, p’raps you’ll find yourself havin’ the cap fitted to you,
maybe! So there!  Ere’s Sar’ Ann’s larst address, to show as I don’t
bear no malice, and wish your poor old Mar well--I never had no call to
complain of _’er_--but though I knows as Sar’ Ann come original from
Oxfordshire, that’s all I do know."

Mrs. Muggeridge huffily made her exit, giving a contemptuous little
shake of her skirts and a backward glance of defiance as she issued
forth, and down the steps of the offending house.

Vera closed the door upon her and for some moments seemed riveted to the
spot, her thoughts awhirl.  If she could have known that where she
stood, contemplating vengeance, fiercely if voicelessly praying for
justice, the girl who had been her lover’s legal wife, the girl who had
drugged him and brought about his death, had stood unconsciously
listening for his last breaths, that she might return and steal the
documents which incriminated her!

But no voices came from out the walls, the ticking of the clock had no
sinister meaning.  She heard the charwoman singing some common
music-hall tune to herself as she swept.  Swish, swish, went the
irritating broom--then an organ began to play aggressively at the end of
the street--a chorus from a comic opera she had heard one night,
nestling against Victor in the dress circle of a suburban theatre.

She shuddered and wrung her hands.  Why was life so ghastly, so full of
horror, of terror? But she must not stand there, letting the precious
moments go idly, fruitlessly by.

"I must have help," she told herself.  "Alone, I can do nothing.  I will
write to Mr. Naz, and ask him to come and see me."

Writing an ordinary little note, merely asking Paul conventionally if he
could make it convenient to name some time to visit them, it would
comfort her and Victor’s poor mother to see one who had been a good
friend of their loved one’s--then going out to post it at the nearest
pillar-box--restored her outward, if not her inward equanimity. She
spent the day literally setting the house in order--assembling all
Victor’s belongings in the attic lumber-room, to be thoroughly searched
by her on the morrow.

Early the following morning an empty hansom drove up, bearing a little
note from Paul.  Would twelve o’clock suit her to see him?  And would
she send an answer by the cab?

She wrote a few lines in affirmative reply; then, after seeing her
step-mother comfortably established on the sitting-room sofa where she
and Victor had revelled in each other’s society that night of happiness
after the performance--the night he first showed her his somewhat sudden
passion for her in all its fulness--she stole away upstairs to the attic
to put away the relics of the dead man.

She had cleared her two best trunks; and in these she meant to store
everything he had left--clothes, books, pipes.  The money had been
placed in a bank in her step-mother’s name.  A lawyer friend of Doctor
Thompson had acted for them, and had simplified everything.

The little room was hot.  She opened the window wide, drew down the
tattered old green blind, and set to work shaking, folding, and
arranging Victor’s clothes.

How like him it was to have shirts that a French marquis would hardly
have disdained! As she laid them away with as tender and reverent a
touch as that of a bereaved mother storing away the little garments of a
loved, lost infant, she almost broke down.  But she took herself sternly
to task, repressed her melting mood, and reminded herself that a strong
man’s work--the bringing a criminal to book--was hers.  Any and every
womanish weakness must be sternly disallowed.

One trunk was soon full of linen and odds and ends.  This she locked,
and proceeded to fill the next.  The books came first--mere remnants of
volumes, mostly French, with morsels of yellow paper cover adhering to
them.  But--strongly redolent of tobacco, she put them carefully in a
layer beside the cases of pipes, and the odd-looking curios he had
collected.  They seemed almost part of him, somehow, those pipes.  That
they should be there, smelling of the weed he had smoked, and he should
be mouldering in his grave in that densely populated cemetery! She
shuddered.  Her hand trembled: she picked up a yellow volume, _Quatre
Femmes et un Perroquet_, with eyes brimming over with tears, picked it
up carelessly; something fell out.

Something?  Two things--one, a soiled little photograph.  As she seized
it her tears dried--her eyes burned.  It was the photograph of three
girls.

Evidently an amateur attempt--badly mounted.  Three girls in summer
frocks and aprons, two standing, one seated on a bench--in front there
was grass--at the back, part of a brick house and some shrubs.

Fiercely, with intense anxiety, she stared at the three faces.  Two were
round and plain: these belonged to the girls--fifteen or sixteen years
of age at the utmost--who were standing.  The face of the seated girl
was a beautiful one: full of sweet pathos, and yet with a tender happy
smile about the mouth.

"Too young to be that awful woman," she mused, crouching on the floor,
and gazing. Still, one of them might have been her daughter.  The woman,
by his account, had been older than Victor, possibly a widow with a
child, or children.

She was so absorbed in contemplation that she forgot the other "thing"
which had fallen from the book, until, as she laid aside the triple
portrait and began to resume her task, she saw it and pounced upon
it--darted upon it like a serpent upon its prey--for it was a letter,
and in a feminine handwriting.

A letter--soiled, its edges worn--it almost fell to pieces as she
touched it.  Yet it was, by its date, written but a few years
previously.

The hand-writing was unformed.  But it was unmistakably a love-letter.

"Dearest Victor," it ran.  "I am longing to see you quite as much as you
are wishing to see me.  You say, if I cannot answer your question to me
the other night you would rather not see me any more!  It has made me
very unhappy.  You see, I am so young to be married.  Then, if I did
what you say, it would kill my poor mother, who is so very ill.  But I
do love you, Victor!  I dream of you nearly every night.  Sometimes you
are Manfred, sometimes Childe Harold, and last night you were Laon and I
was your ’child Cythna!’  It was so sweet--we were lying side by side on
a green hill, your eyes gazing into mine, and I seemed to hear some one
singing ’Oh, that we two were maying’! Dear Victor, I must do all you
ask: I could not bear not to see you again!  It would break my heart!

Your promised wife,
       JOAN."



                             CHAPTER XXVIII


Was the loving, foolish "Joan" the woman he had married?  The woman she
had seen coming down Haythorn Street as she drove up?  Or was she
"another woman" altogether?

She gazed fiercely at the sweet face in the photograph.  It seemed to
gaze blandly, calmly, back.

"Oh, God!  What shall I do?" she wailed, grovelling on the floor in her
despair.  The anguish of discovery that another had reigned over his
affections, and so lovely a rival, was almost unbearable.  Still,
selfish misery was soon extinguished by the greater, sterner passion
which possessed her--her grim purpose of revenge, or as she chose to
consider it, the just punishment of the one who had, she believed,
poisoned her beloved.

It was not like Victor to take a noxious drug, nor was he suicidal in
feeling.  He loved life!  He was all gaiety and careless enjoyment of
the passing hour, when he was not white-hot with passion.

But could he have lied to her about the age of his "wife"?  Then, gazing
once more at the face in the photograph, she miserably told herself that
that girl could not be termed "hag" and "cat."  No, there must be two
women!  And yet--and yet--

She started.  There was a knock and a ring. It could not be Mr. Naz!
She glanced interrogatively at the little silver watch she wore which
had been her own mother’s.  It told her that it was half-past eleven.
She ran into the front attic--her and her step-mother’s bedroom--and
looked out of the window. There was a hansom at the door.  A man stood
on the step below.

She ran downstairs and opened the hall door.  It was Paul--pale,
serious, faultlessly dressed in half mourning.  He bowed low as he took
off his hat, and apologized for being early.  He was not his own master!
He thought of "wiring to her," but his anxiety for an interview urged
him not to postpone his visit.

"Come in," said Vera, in a low voice.  "My mother is in there, and I
want to see you alone," she added, as she cautiously closed the door.
"I had better tell her you are here, though.  Do you mind coming up to
the lumber room, where I am looking through Victor’s things?  There is
nowhere else."

"Anywhere--where we can be alone, Miss Anerley," he gravely
said--thinking that if ever human agony had been fully seen in a woman,
it was now, in this fragile girl with the pale face drawn with anguish,
the great eyes luminous with wild desperation.

He admired her for her self-possession, as he heard her ringing voice
telling her step-mother, who was somewhat hard of hearing, that
"Victor’s kind friend, Mr. Naz, was here, and she would bring him to see
her presently--she would first take him upstairs to choose something of
dear Victor’s as a keepsake."

"She is an actress, of course," he told himself, as he ascended the
oil-cloth-covered stairs after her--how strange were these sordid
surroundings of a man who had claims upon the wealthy, luxurious Sir
Thomas Thorne and his family!  "But there is only a little of the
actress--the rest is woman--passionate woman!"

Vera mutely conducted him into the disordered lumber-room, amid the
dusty boxes and old baskets, where the two open trunks were standing.

"I have been searching his things," she began, abruptly.

"Yes?" he answered, tentatively.

"Perhaps you can tell me who these are?"  She dipped into a trunk and
handed Paul the photograph of the three young girls.

At a glance he saw the subject.  "My sight is not very good, I will take
it to the light," he said, moving to the window, holding back the blind,
and examining the portrait with his back to her.

Heavens!  For a moment, as he saw the lovely face of the seated girl, he
felt as if some one had given him a blow.  There was only one Joan
Thorne!  To mistake that face was impossible.

Regaining his composure with a stern effort of will--for he must not
"give his friend away," especially now that he was one of the helpless
dead--he turned to Vera.

"I don’t understand!  Who are these persons?" he asked, as if mystified.

"That is what I want to find out!" she cried, passionately.  "Mr. Naz--I
know, I feel, my dearest Victor was murdered!  He never took that
morphia himself!  It was given him--and--by a woman!  I should know her
again--I should, I am sure I should!  It was she I saw coming away from
the house that night.  I said nothing about it at the inquest, for fear
of dishonouring my dearest; it was she the servant next door heard
talking to him, and saw coming out of the house--the landlady has just
been in to tell me about it!  The girl will swear to it--when we get
her--she was so frightened about it she has run away!  Mr. Naz, you were
his friend, surely, surely you will not rest till his murderess is found
and punished? I demand it of you!"

Her great sapphire eyes gleamed--she was impressive in her intensity.
Paul’s fair hair seemed to bristle on his head.  Victor had always
fascinated--influenced him--his mantle seemed to have fallen on his
beloved’s shoulders.

"I don’t understand," he stammered, taking refuge, for safety, in
apparent bewilderment; although even as she had clamoured her new
evidence with seeming incoherence, he saw all the damning circumstances
in their most fatal light: Joan Thorne’s portrait, Victor’s curious
suggestions about the Thorne family being in his power; Miss Thorne’s
secret expeditions with her maid Julie, his betrothed, whose
acquaintance, although it had led to his really caring for her, had been
made by him at Victor’s suggestions; the admission of Victor’s that he
was married; then this new and startling evidence--and Miss Thorne’s
ghastly, horror-stricken face when he, only half believing she was the
woman _liée_ with the dead man, only half-suspecting that she might have
been instrumental in his destruction, boldly taxed her with it at the
Duke of Arran’s ball, when alone with her for a few moments in the
conservatory.

"You don’t understand?"  She spoke bitterly.  "You are no friend of his,
then! You would leave him--in his tomb--killed, murdered--his murderess
at large!"

"What good could it be to him, now?" he said, firmly, almost
impressively.  "Can we follow the spirits we have lost, and do anything
for them?  Might not cruelty to others hurt them?  How can we tell?"

"Cruelty to others!" she cried, wildly. "Understand, Mr. Naz!  I know
his love--his Joan!  I will soon be on her track!  If you will not help
me, I will go to the detectives!"

In her almost frenzy of mingled love for the dead man, and hate of her
rival, the woman who had been with him the night he died, she hazarded a
chance shot, and even as she did so, she rejoiced.  For the bullet had
found its mark.  Paul’s face fell--there was an expression of dismay in
the eyes which were almost fearfully watching her.

"No, no!  You must not do that!" he slowly said.  "I do not know what my
poor friend may have told you, but remember a man is sometimes betrayed
into a little exaggeration----"

"I have her letter," said she, exultant, yet calm.  "I have plenty of
evidence to give the detectives.  I will not trouble you, Mr. Naz!" She
glanced scornfully at him.

What was he to do?  Abandon Joan Thorne to this infuriated, outraged,
therefore unscrupulous rival, and a horde of professional detectives,
who would show little or no mercy? His whole somewhat chivalrous being
revolted against it.  When he left Haythorn Street half-an-hour later he
had pledged himself by all he held sacred to assist Vera in discovering
the real story of Victor Mercier’s untimely end, and acting upon it,
whatever it might prove to be.

                     *      *      *      *      *

When Joan, at the Duchess of Arran’s ball, had, with the most violent
effort of will, played her dismal part, acted, feigned enjoyment of her
last dances with Vansittart, beguiled him with well-simulated smiles,
and sternly resisted the awful inward fear awakened by Paul Naz’s daring
words and sinister demeanour, she almost collapsed.  Then, left alone in
her room, the prattling Julie gone, her night light flickering, she sat
up in bed confronted by the new, hideous fact.

Paul Naz suspected her!  He knew of her affair with Victor Mercier!  He
had identified her with the "hag" wife that girl Victor loved had spoken
of at the inquest!  _What more did he know?_

The cold beads stood out on her brow. The innate conviction she now knew
that she had felt from the very beginning of her love for
Vansittart--the conviction that it would lead to her doom--arose within
her like some unbidden phantom.

What doom?  Public shame and the hangman? Or the utter loss of
Vansittart’s love? One seemed as terrible a retribution as the other.

"But--do I deserve such an awful punishment for what was done in
ignorance, my fancying myself in love with Victor, and being talked into
marrying him at the registrar’s?" she asked herself, with sudden fierce
rebellion against fate.  "Do I even deserve it for drugging him to take
possession of my letters?  What had he not threatened me with?  And I
never meant to kill him! I am sure I would rather have died than that!"

Again, a passionate instinct of self-defence as well as of
self-preservation came to her rescue.  As she lay there among the
shadows in the silent night, with no sound but the distant rumble of
belated vehicles, and the measured footsteps of the policeman as he went
his round upon the pavements below breaking the stillness, she
determined, once and for all, to kill the past.

"It shall be dead!" she told herself, sternly.  "I will have no more of
it!  If any one or anything belonging to it crops up, I will defy, deny,
ignore, resist to the death! No one saw me--no one can really hurt me! I
have had enough of misery and wretchedness--I will--yes, I _will_--be
happy--and no one in the world shall prevent me!"



                              CHAPTER XXIX


The morning after the Duchess of Arran’s ball Lord Vansittart was seated
at his breakfast, the _Times_ propped up in front of him, when a ring of
the hall-door bell was followed by a man-servant’s entrance with a
telegram.

Since his engagement to Joan, he had been singularly nervous--her
changeful moods were hardly calculated to soothe a lover! He regarded
the buff-coloured envelope askance.

Still his tone was cheerful as he said.  "No answer."  The message was
from Joan; but there was nothing alarming in it.  The few words were
merely "Come as early as you can."

In a very few minutes after its delivery at his house, he had given his
brief orders to the household for the day, had carelessly said he did
not know when he should return, or if he would be home before night
except, perhaps, to dress--and without waiting for a conveyance of his
own--there would be delay if he sent down to the stables--he was out,
striding along the pavement until he met a hansom, which he chartered
with promise of an extra tip for quick driving.

"Miss Thorne is in her boudoir, my lord," said the porter, when he
alighted at the house.  Evidently the order had been given to that
effect.  The groom of the chambers bowed respectfully, but was easily
waved aside.  Vansittart crossed the hall and sprang up the stairs as
only one of the family might do without disregard of the _convenances_.

Tapping eagerly at Joan’s boudoir door, his attentive ear heard a
footstep, the door was opened by Joan herself.  She was in the pink and
white _deshabillé_ she had worn the happy day she had first admitted
that she loved him sufficiently to marry him.  But now, her beauty
seemed in his fond eyes increased by the natural arrangement of the
wealth of beautiful hair which was unbound and, merely confined with a
ribbon, floated about her shoulders like a veil of golden strands.

She drew him into the room and blushed, as she said she had not expected
him so early.

"I had to write to my bridesmaids about their frocks," she began,
nestling to him.  "I meant to have my hair done before you came----"

For answer he seated himself and drawing her to him, kissed the shining
tresses and held them ecstatically in his hand.  Their soft touch seemed
to fire his emotions.

"Do you know you seem unreal, you are so beautiful?" he said,
passionately, lifting her chin and gazing intently at her delicate
lovely features and the rich brown eyes which to his delight looked more
calmly than usual into his.  "You make me feel--as if--when I get
possession of you--you must vanish into thin air--you are an
impossibility--a mocking spirit, who will disappear with elfish
laughter."

"Don’t rave!" she fondly said, returning his kiss.  "Or you will make me
rave!  And to rave is not to enjoy oneself!  Dear, I asked you to come
early--I want to spend every moment of my life with you--from
this--very--minute!  Why should we be separated?  You know what you told
me--that they were telling each other falsehoods about you at the
clubs--so our being always together will be like killing two birds with
one stone!  It will make me happy, and give the lie to their wicked
calumnies!  Do you mind?"

"Do--I--mind?"  He kissed her brow, lips, hair, again and again.  "Am I
not yours--more yours than my own--all yours through time into
eternity?"

"For worse as well as for better?"  She had said the words before she
remembered her terrible dream--when the judge who was condemning her to
be hanged had upbraided her for not having fulfilled her wifehood; as
they escaped her lips she recollected, and shuddered.  "You think me
better than I am, dearest!  I am human--erring----"

"I--know--what you are!" he passionately exclaimed.  He was plunged in a
lover’s fatuous ecstasy.  It was half an hour before Joan could get away
to put on her habit. She meant to ride to Crouch Hill to hear her old
nurse’s opinion of what had occurred. Mrs. Todd had not known Victor’s
name--she would not have identified "The Southwark Mystery," as the
newspapers termed it, with herself and her wretched entanglements. She
would tell her that Victor was dead, and hear what she would say to it.

While she was dressing, Vansittart went back to his stables, and waiting
while the grooms equipped his now staid, but once almost too mettlesome
grey horse "Firefly," returned to find Joan’s pretty "Nora" waiting at
the door, held, as well as his own horse, by her groom.  He had barely
dismounted when she issued from the house, a dainty Amazon from head to
foot, and tripped down the steps, smiling at him. "Why did you ride your
old grey?" she asked, as she sprang lightly into the saddle.

"Why?" he repeated, as he arranged her habit, and thrilled as he held
her little foot for one brief moment in his hand.  "Because I am so
madly in love with you to-day that I cannot trust myself on any horse
but the soberest and most steady-going in the stables!  I am
particularly anxious not to bring my ’violent delights’ to a ’violent
end’ by breaking my neck!"

They rode off through the sweet summer morning, he so bathed in actual
joy, as well as fired by the anticipatory delights of life with Joan for
his wife, that in his blissful mood he could have enwrapt the whole of
humanity in one vast embrace--Joan abandoning herself with all the force
of her will to the natural instincts that underlay all ordinary,
acquired emotions.

During her long self-colloquy she had deliberately burrowed, mentally,
below her civilized being, and sought these.  She had told herself that
the primary instincts of woman were wifedom and motherhood.  For the
present--until she was reassured anent her safety by time and the course
of events--she would listen to no others.

The two lovers--so near in seeming, so far asunder in reality, divided
as they were by a hideous secret--rode gleefully on, rejoicing in their
youth and love, making delicious plans for their future together,
gloating over their coming joys from different standpoints, but with
equal ardour.

"And for to-day," said Joan, as they rode under a canopy of boughs in
one of the country lanes still undesecrated by the ruthless hands of the
suburban builder, "and not only for to-day, but most days, I want to see
how the other half of humanity lives, dearest!  Before I am Lady
Vansittart, I want to see the life that commoners enjoy! I want to dine
out with you, at restaurants, and go to the theatre with you, and, in
fact, be alone with you in crowds who neither know nor care who we are,
or what we are doing!"

Vansittart, albeit slightly puzzled, readily acquiesced.  When they drew
rein at Mrs. Todd’s cottage, it was settled that they were to use a box
he had taken for the first night of a new play brought out by a manager
who was an acquaintance of his, dining first at a restaurant Joan
selected as being one not affected by their circle.

Joan entered the cottage and saw the dark old woman totter to meet her,
eagerness in her trembling limbs and brilliant, searching eyes, with a
feeling of sickly dismay.  Last time she stood here Victor was alive;
since then she had killed him!  Involuntarily she gave a little moan of
pain.

"My dearie, my lamb, what is it?"  The aged nurse was terribly agitated
as she caressed and tried to console the only creature she really loved
on earth, who had sunk crouching at her feet.  "Is it--come, tell
Nana--you know I would die this minnit for you, lambie--tell me if that
fellow is alive and annoying you in any way, for, as I sit here, if he
is, I’ll tell of him!  I’ll set the police upon him!"

"Don’t," said Joan, chokingly, clasping her knees.  For the first time
she seemed to realize what she had done.  "He is dead!"

"Thank God for that!" cried the old woman, in an access of fervour.  "He
is just, I will say that, if He’s sent that blackguard to the only place
he’s fit for, instead of leaving him here to worry innocent folks as ’ud
do their Maker credit if they was only let alone!  And now you can be my
Lady, and go to Court with as big a crown and as long a train as the
best of the lot, duchesses and all!  And you can bring little lords and
ladies into the world to be brought up proper by head nurses and then
send them to colleges, and make real gentlemen of ’em!  The Lord knows
what he is about!  There ain’t a God for nothin’!"

After the first thrill of something akin to horror at Mrs. Todd’s
grotesque rejoicing, Joan put aside her questioning as to "how the brute
came to his end" by asking her if she would like to see Vansittart, and
he, in his rapt adoration, eager to have to do with every detail of his
beloved one’s life, was only too ready to be curtsied to and
congratulated and blest.

"She is a good old soul, darling, we must look after her," he feelingly
said, as he waved farewell presently to the tall old crone watching them
from her doorstep as they rode slowly up the road.  "And now, where
shall we go?"

After one of Joan’s scampering rides they returned home, spent the
afternoon in sweet talk in her boudoir, then Joan retired to
dress--donning her plainest black evening frock and simplest
ornaments--and he paid a flying visit to his house to dress also,
returning to fetch her, as she had bidden him, in an ordinary hansom.

"I mean to enjoy myself to-night!" she gaily said.  She insisted on
feeling gay--insisted to herself.  Presents were arriving in battalions,
boxes of exquisite garments were delivered with a monotonous regularity.
She had chosen the restaurant they would dine at, she was also to select
the menu.  As they alighted at the door, a man, who was about to enter,
halted, and smiled as he lifted his hat.

"Who is that?" she asked as they went in.

"A very clever fellow, the dramatic critic of the _Parthenon_," he
returned.  "I will introduce him to you."



                              CHAPTER XXX


As Joan went into the restaurant on Lord Vansittart’s arm, she felt a
subtle, exquisite sensation of leaving her troubled, garish, emotional
life on the threshold, and stepping into another, new existence.

The vast circular building, with a dome where the electric lights
already cast a warm glow upon the bright scene beneath, was dotted over
with white tables surrounded by diners.  Palms stood about it--a grove
of moist, luscious water-plants of subtropical origin surrounded a
rosewater fountain, that tinkled pleasantly in the centre.

"We had better go upstairs, I think," said Vansittart; and he led her up
a broad staircase into a wide gallery surrounding the building, and
chose a table next to the gilt balustrade, where she might watch the
crowd beneath.

"This is delightful," she said smiling, as a band began to play a
selection from a favourite opera in a subdued yet fascinating style.
Then a waiter came up, obsequious, as with an instinct born of
experience he detected a couple above the average of their ordinary
patrons, and after a brief colloquy with him, Vansittart offered her the
menu, and seated himself opposite to await her choice.

"It is difficult to think of eating with that music going on," she said,
feeling as if in the enchanted atmosphere coarse food was a vulgar item;
and her selection was a slight one--oysters, chicken cutlets, iced
pudding.  Vansittart, possessed of an honest appetite when dinner time
came round, felt compelled to supplement it with an order on his own
account.  "You do not want me to be starved, I know," he gaily said, as
the man departed on his errand.

The music played, the fountain’s tinkle mingled with the hum of many
voices, the footfalls, the clinking of glass and china. Then the
dramatic critic and another man took the table a little on one side,
near to them.  Joan met an admiring glance from a pair of intelligent
eyes.  The oysters were fresh, and some clear soup Vansittart had
ordered seemed to "pick her up" so much that she resolved to force
herself to eat for the future.

"I shall fight the horrors of my life better if I do not fast," she told
herself, immediately afterwards chiding herself almost angrily for
recurring to her "dead miseries."  With a certain desperation born of
the discovery that she had not cast the skin of her experiences on the
threshold, she set herself to court oblivion by plunging violently into
present sensations.  She laughed and talked, ate, drank champagne, and
Vansittart, opposite, gazed at her with admiring beatitude.  Joan’s
lovely neck, alabaster white as it rose from her square-cut black dress,
her delicately-tinted oval face with its perfect features, now
brightened by her temporary gaiety, her great dark eyes, gleaming with
subdued, if incandescent fire, her halo of golden hair--all were items
in the general effect of radiant beauty.  Vansittart hardly knew what
she was talking about; he felt that the dreamy music discoursed by the
little orchestra below was a fitting accompaniment to the melody of her
delightful speaking voice, that was all.  He was plunged in a perfect
rhapsody of self-gratulation. And she?  Her suspicions were as alert as
ever.  She saw he was in a "brown study," and, although his eyes looked
dreamy ecstasy into hers, and a vague smile of as vague a content
hovered about his lips, she would rather he lived outside himself.  She
herself was trying madly to live in externals--to stifle thought!

"What are you thinking about?" she asked, leaning forward.

"You!" he said passionately.  "How can I think about anything else with
you there opposite me?"

"Hush, the waiter is listening," she said. But just at that moment the
waiter was aroused by the dramatic critic and his friend rising and
pushing back their chairs, and went forward to help them assume their
light overcoats.

"Your friend is going, and you have not introduced him to me," said
Joan.

"I will," said he, and, abruptly joining the departing men, he brought
back the critic, in no wise reluctant.

"Mr. Clement Hunt--Miss Thorne, very soon to be Lady Vansittart," he
said.

"May I offer my congratulations?" Mr. Hunt’s face, if not handsome, was
pleasant.  His voice betrayed a past of public school and college.  Joan
instinctively liked him.  After a little small talk and apologies on his
part for haste--duty called him to be at his post at the raising of the
curtain upon the new drama--he departed, volunteering to pay their box a
visit between the acts.

"He is a capital good fellow, dearest," said Vansittart, asking her
permission to smoke as the waiter brought their coffee. "But you must
know that, for I would not otherwise have introduced him to you."

"He looks it," said Joan warmly.

"I suppose you know who that couple are?" asked Mr. Hunt, as he rejoined
his friend.

"Lord Vansittart, wasn’t it?  What a beautiful girl!  But if all is true
they say, what an unfortunate creature!"

"Why, Vansittart is one of the best fellows I know!" exclaimed Clement
Hunt; and he spent the next ten minutes in indignantly endeavouring to
convince his friend that if club gossip were not invariably entirely
false, in this case any rumour of a previous marriage on Vansittart’s
part was an absolute and odious fabrication.

Meanwhile, Vansittart had carefully cloaked his beloved in her quiet, if
costly, theatre wrap, and, after royally tipping the waiter, had
escorted her, followed by interested glances, down the stairs to the
entrance. A hansom speedily conveyed them to the theatre.  They were
just settled in the box, Joan was glancing round the house through her
opera glass, when the orchestra began the overture.  At first, the music
merely aroused a dormant, unpleasant, shamed sensation.  Then, as it
struck up a well-known air from "Carmen," she inwardly shrank, her whole
being, heart included, indeed seemed to halt, as if paralyzed with
reminiscent horror.

_It was the air Victor had whistled under her window at night when he
was secretly courting her, and she had not heard it since._

What demon was persecuting her?  Not only that air sent arrows of pain
into her very soul, but the subsequent melodies drove them home to the
core.  It was as if a malignant fiend had picked out and strung together
the favourite tunes the dead man had whistled and sung during the stolen
meetings of their clandestine love affair, to clamour them in her ears
when she was powerless to escape.  To rush away before the curtain rose
would be to betray some extraordinary emotion; yet she had to fight the
desire to do so.  It took her whole little strength to force herself to
remain seated in the box and endure the consequent performance.

By the time the curtain rose she was the conqueror.  She had held the
lorgnette to her eyes, and pretended to scan the audience while that
brief mental battle was raging, lest, removing it, her lover should
notice her agitation.  Fortunately, even as the curtain gave place to a
woodland scene, the auditorium was darkened.

As the first act proceeded, she recovered herself a little.  There was
less of a dense black veil before her eyes, less surging in her ears.
She could hardly have told what the first dialogue between the second
heroine and the first heroine--a certain Lady Chumleigh--was.  The girl
was sister to the heroine’s husband, Sir Dyved Chumleigh, and appeared
to cause discomfiture to her sister-in-law by some innocent teasing; at
least, that was what Joan gathered from the lady’s subsequent soliloquy.

"However, it doesn’t much matter whether I understand the thing or not,"
she told herself.  "It seems vapid and unreal in the extreme."

The thought had hardly flashed across her mind when a sensational
episode in the play awakened the attention of the house.  A slouching
tramp, ragged, dirty, abandoned-looking, suddenly appeared from behind a
tree, and addressed Lady Chumleigh as "My wife!"

Joan sat up and stared.  Was it an awful nightmare?  No!  As the
interview proceeded between the aristocratic lady and the miserable
ex-criminal, the husband she had hoped was dead, and with him her past
degradation and misery, Joan recognized that the stage play was not only
real, and no bad dream, but the parallel of her own miserable story.
The unfortunate heroine had met and loved and been courted by Sir Dyved
Chumleigh while trying to live down her secret past.  And just when she
seemed sure of present and future happiness, the wretch who had stolen
her affection traded on it, and then having been imprisoned for fraud,
perjury, and what not, had appeared in the flesh to blast her whole
life.

The curtain descended upon a passionate scene.  The unhappy woman, after
a spurt of useless defiance, fell on her knees to adjure, bribe, appeal
to the man’s baser nature, since he seemed to be in possession of no
better feeling.  He listened grimly. The outcome of the encounter was
left to the next act.

"Dearest, it is upsetting you, I am afraid," said Vansittart, as the
turned-up lights showed him Joan pale and gasping.  "But don’t think
that villain will have it all his own way.  I read a _resumé_ of the
plot, and she kills him before the curtain falls on the last act."

"What?" said Joan, gazing at him--very strangely, he thought.  He was
about to propose they should leave the theatre, when there was a knock
at the box door, and Mr. Hunt came in.

"Well, how do you like it?" he asked pleasantly, accepting Vansittart’s
chair.



                              CHAPTER XXXI


When Vansittart had spoken those awful words, in a light, almost
reassuring manner, "she kills him before the curtain falls on the last
act," Joan first felt as if her whole mental and physical being were
convulsed with a strange, almost unearthly, pain; then everything surged
around her, and threatened to sink away into blackness, blankness.

Good heavens, she was going to faint! With an effort of will she fought
against unconsciousness; gasped for breath, struggled to maintain her
senses, and was rewarded by coming slowly back out of the mists, and
seeing the plain, clever face of the dramatic critic appear opposite,
seemingly from nowhere.  Then she heard that Vansittart was expressing
disapprobation of the play.

"I only happened to glance at the plot in your article in the
_Parthenon_ just before we came," he was saying.  "It was the very last
kind of play I should have chosen for Miss Thorne to see had I known the
story."

"Indeed?"  Mr. Hunt smiled, but Joan thought he gave her a suspicious,
enquiring look.  It was enquiring; he was wondering whether this
beautiful girl were not the prey of some latent but awful disease--her
ghastliness, the expression of anguish on her face, was undeniably the
effect of some secret suffering.  But Joan could not read his thoughts.
She was frightened into bravado.

"I certainly prefer comedies to tragedies," she hazarded, and there was
slight defiance in her glance at the dramatic critic. As for her voice,
she wondered if it sounded as unnatural in her lover’s ears as in her
own.  "A tragedy is such an exception in everyday life; and when it does
occur, one would rather not hear about it."

"You differ from the bulk of humanity, Miss Thorne," said Mr. Hunt, good
humouredly.  "And I cannot agree with you that tragedy is such an
exceptional thing in ordinary existence.  My own belief, and it is
shared by many others, is that the under-current of most lives has an
element of the tragic in it.  There are scores of crimes, too, that
never come to light; myriads of unsuspected criminals.  This I think is
shown to be the case by the interest the public have for what is called
the ’sensational.’  They recognize instincts they possess themselves,
although those instincts may be undeveloped, or held in check."

"Hunt!  You suggest that we are all of us potential murderers," said
Lord Vansittart, with an amused laugh.

Mr. Hunt shrugged his shoulders.  "I suggest nothing; I assume a
Socratian attitude; I encourage others to suggest," he somewhat dryly
returned.  "What do you think of this much-belauded actress, Miss
Thorne?  I confess I am not infatuated, like the rest.  She leaves me
utterly cold; hasn’t the power to quicken my pulse by a single beat,
even in her most impassioned moments.  I was wishing just now that the
part had been played by a little girl I saw for the first time the other
night--singularly enough, on the very night she became the heroine of a
tragedy in real life.  You must have read about it, Vansittart.  You are
not ’one who battens on offal?’  I daresay not.  Nor am I.  I should not
have been so interested in this affair if I had not been mixed up in it,
and if a friend of mine were not destined, innocently enough, to become
one of the strands of the rope which will assuredly hang the murderer,
or, I should say, the murderess."

"Please, Hunt, don’t let us talk of such horrible things," cried Lord
Vansittart.  He had seen his darling shudder.

"Oh, pray go on!" said Joan, with a sudden mad effort to hear what there
was to hear without a shriek of agony.  So--so--something more had been
discovered--was known.

"You have probably followed the case, Miss Thorne.  There was the
romantic element in it which appeals to most ladies," said Mr. Hunt,
smiling at Joan.  "Ah!  I see; you know all about it.  Well, to put it
as briefly as I can, I was urged to go and see the performance of a
young lady, a Miss Vera Anerley, who had made quite a commotion in the
provinces.  Her company, a touring one, was coming to a suburban theatre
for a couple of weeks, and already the reporter of a London evening
paper had fallen a victim to her fascination.  Well, I went, and I was
so astonished at the spontaneity of the girl, at the natural art which,
imitating nature, we call genius, that I asked to be introduced.  She
refused; the manager said she must have a lover waiting round the
corner.  True enough, she had a lover, but not waiting for her round the
corner, as it happened, but waiting for her at home, on the sofa, dead!
He was a bad lot, it seems, that Victor Mercier.  You must have read the
case, Lord Vansittart, it was ’starred’ a bit because of its association
with a girl rumour says is bound to make her mark, sooner or later.  But
even if he was the blackest of black sheep, justice is justice. One
doesn’t care for assassinations done in cold blood in the very heart of
civilized London.  I know it was brought in ’death by misadventure’;
some of those jurymen were the densest of idiots.  But the ball has not
stopped rolling.  As I said, a friend of mine has come into the case.  I
must tell you; it is so odd; it so proves the old saying that ’truth is
stranger than fiction.’  A fellow I know very well, one of your circle,
I fancy, went with me to see Vera Anerley act, but left me when I went
round to the stage door, and, finding it a fine night, elected to walk
home.  As he was making his way westwards by Westminster Bridge, his
attention was attracted by a feminine figure in front, because, besides
being tall and well made, there was a _cachet_ of belonging to a smart
set about her, or he chose to think so. Then, every now and then the
girl tottered. Was she drunk? he thought.  What was she doing there?  He
followed her, and presently, seeing her peering here and there and
glancing furtively about, felt sure he was on the track of something
peculiar, especially when she flitted up some steps in the shadow,
stooped, and seemed to deposit something she was carrying in the corner.

"Of course he at once jumped to the conclusion that she had abandoned an
infant, living or dead.  He naturally shied off being identified with a
discovery of that sort, so he, I think, if I remember rightly, did not
walk back, but waited for the first bobby that came along, and, telling
him who he was, related what he had seen.  Well, of course, when instead
of a corpse or an infant they only found a bottle with some brandy in
it, he felt rather small.  But the bobby was sharper witted than he.
’There’s summut rum about this, sir, or I’m very much mistaken,’ he
said; and he was right.  There was something ’rum.’  The brandy in that
bottle was drugged with morphia; and there is a lot of interviewing of
him going on which points, I believe, although he only winks at me and
fences questions, that the detectives are on the track, and that the
brandy bottle will hang that woman, whoever she is.  Dear me! the
curtain is going up.  I must return to my friend below.  _Entre nous_,
the very fellow I was talking about is in the house to-night.  _Au
revoir_, my lord."

Joan contrived to return his bow; she held herself together sufficiently
to wait until he was safely out of the box; then she clutched at
Vansittart as wildly as if she were drowning in deep waters and he was
the forlorn hope, the last available thing to grasp at.

"Take me home, or I shall die," she gasped.



                             CHAPTER XXXII


"Yes, certainly, we will go.  Bear up, my dearest, you are safe with me.
I deserve to be shot for bringing you to see this cursed stuff,"
murmured Vansittart, as he supported Joan to the box door, and, sending
the attendant for iced water, brandy, salts, anything, tended her
lovingly until he saw a faint colour creep back into her cheeks and
lips, when, thanking the damsel, who had not been unsympathetic, and
slipping a gold coin into her hand, he took his beloved carefully down
into the open air and once more drove her home in a hansom.

She clung feebly to him as she lay almost helpless upon his breast--the
cool night air, the darkness of the silent street under the starry sky,
thrice welcome after her agony in that hot, glaring theatre--clung,
feeling as if all else in her life were shipwrecked, engulfed in an
ocean of horror, only he, her faithful lover, the one rock that
remained.  And a word of confession from her, one damning incident that
betrayed her guilt, and she would lose even that grip on life and be
hopelessly submerged.

"I am so sorry--I was so silly," she feebly began, but he interrupted
her with almost passionate determination.

"My darling, I know, I understand!" he exclaimed.  "That was your
friend’s story in a stage play.  Joan, I feel I must protect you from
yourself, for you have allowed an innocent, girlish freak of yours to
lay hold of you in an unconceivable manner. It would be absurd, if it
were not morbid."

He held forth eloquently on the folly of retrospection, of exaggerating
the follies of youth, not only during the drive home, but when they were
alone together in the cool dining room, for Sir Thomas was out, and Lady
Thorne, not expecting them home so early, had retired for the night; and
when he left her in Julie’s hands, unwillingly obeying her behest, her
demand, given with feverish energy, that her maid was not to be told
that she had been attacked with faintness, he felt a little more at ease
about her.

Suspect her he did not, except of being one of the most highly strung
and sensitive creatures alive.  And, being sure that this was
so--feeling safe in his unbounded love and trust--she was able to rally.

Through all which might happen--even if Paul Naz changed his mind, and
followed up his suspicions; if the man who found the bottle of drugged
brandy happened to recognize her as the woman he had seen; if "that
actress girl" could identify her as the person she passed in the hansom;
if, indeed, any scraps of her letters or some old photograph of her had
been found among Mercier’s belongings--nothing, she believed, would
altogether alienate Vansittart’s love.

She clung to the thought; it seemed her one anchor to life.  But even as
she gradually recovered from the shocks of that awful hour at the
theatre, she regained a certain amount of hope.

The very pomp and circumstance of her wedding; the accounts in the
papers; the laudation of herself, Vansittart, and their respective
families--all must surely help to avoid exciting the suspicion that she,
the heroine of the glorification, was a whited sepulchre; that she had
stolen out by night and, alone in a poor room in a lowly dwelling-house
with her lover, had poisoned him and then left him to die.

Conscience did not soften the facts of the case.  She had to face them
in all their unlovely turpitude and deal with them as best she might.

But that night when she had to see her own story partly enacted on the
stage, and, worse still, hear it commented upon with unconscious
brutality by the dramatic critic, Mr. Hunt, seemed the climax, the
crisis.

As the night gave place to day--and the day was full of pleasing
incidents as well as of fresh proofs of Vansittart’s devotion; he
arrived early, and took "her in hand," kept her cheerful, and, with his
flow of joyous content, would not allow her a leisure moment for her
"morbidity," as he called it--she seemed to settle down a little, as one
respited for a time, who deliberately determines to make the most of the
term of peace. The days went by quickly, for with such a function as a
brilliant wedding imminent, there was a perpetual bustle, there were
continual obligatory goings to and fro. Besides, Vansittart mapped out
the days--rides, drives, receptions, dances, all formed part of his
scheme to entertain her until she would be his wife, feeling his
emotions, thinking his thoughts.  Only the theatre was rigidly excluded.
He avoided even the subject of the stage, nor did he allow her to hear
much music.  He considered that of all the arts music had the greatest
power to reproduce past sensations, to recall memories, especially
undesirable ones.  He was rewarded for his solicitude by seeing his
beloved outwardly cheerful, and apparently at ease.

Joan was, indeed, as the days went quietly by, encouraged by the lack of
disturbing elements, by the entire absence of any signs that the tragedy
of Victor Mercier’s death had any life left in it to torment her.  She
had promised herself that, if nothing happened before her marriage day,
she might consider that she was practically safe.  And at last the happy
day dawned--a glorious summer morning--and, arising with gratitude in
her heart, she murmured a fervent "Thank God!"

The house was crammed full of visitors--mostly the bridesmaids and their
chaperons. At an early hour these girls, attired in their delicate
chiffon frocks and "picture hats," were fluttering about the mansion
like belated butterflies; for the marriage was to be early, for a
fashionable one, to enable Lord and Lady Vansittart to start betimes for
their honeymoon, which was to be spent on board Vansittart’s yacht, but
where, remained the young couple’s secret. The bride was closeted in her
room, Julie alone was with her.  "I do not wish any one to see me before
I appear in church," she had said, so decidedly, that her attendant
maidens subdued their curiosity and started for the church in a couple
of carriages--there were eight of them--without having had even a
glimpse of the bridal attire.

Joan felt that she could not have borne the innocent chatter of those
bright, unconscious girls, so happy in their unsullied ignorance of life
and its undercurrent of horrors.  Only in a silent, inward clinging to
the thought of Vansittart--so soon to be her husband, her mainstay, her
refuge, her only hope--could she endure the few hours before she would
be safe--safe--alone with him on the high seas, no one knowing where
they were or whither they were going.

Julie?  Julie was her servant, of late quite her obsequious slave, with
the prospect of being maid to "a great lady," and therefore a personage
among her compeers before her.  Julie was silent when she was silent. So
no bride had ever been decked for the altar with greater show of
solemnity than was Joan on her wedding morn.

"Am I good enough--do I look good enough--for him?" she asked herself as
she gazed at her reflection in the long mirrors arranged by Julie so
that she could see herself at all points--full face, back, profile. What
she seemed to see was a pyramid of glistening satin, a quantity of lace,
and a small pathetic face with a golden glimmer about it, under a frothy
veil.

"A bride’s dress is very unbecoming, after all," she somewhat gloomily
said, as she accepted the bouquet Julie handed her--myrtle and delicate
orchids; for she had told Vansittart, urged by the dread of being
confronted with blossoms like the one she had seen in Victor Mercier’s
buttonhole as he lay dead, that if there were any strongly perfumed
flowers about she might faint; a threat which had driven Vansittart to
the florist who was to decorate the church to veto all but scentless
blossoms.  "It seems strange, does it not, Julie? that weddings and
funerals should have the same kind of flowers."

Julie gave a little shriek.  "Mais, mademoiselle, to speak of death on
your wedding-day!"

"There are worse things than death, Julie," said she, with a sigh.  And
she proceeded below, Julie carefully carrying her train, while wondering
with some dismay at her young mistress’s extraordinary _tristesse_,
then, met by the somewhat agitated Sir Thomas in the hall, she drove
with him to the church.

Policemen were keeping back the crowd. She went up the flight of
crimson-carpeted steps, and, passing into the church, dimly saw a double
line of bridesmaids, with their pure white frocks and eager, blushing
faces; then the officiating clergymen and choristers in their surplices.
"They meet a bride as they meet the dead," she thought, with a delirious
instinct to burst into laughter. Then she heard the sweet, solemn
strains of the wedding hymn, and she felt rather than saw Vansittart,
his manly form erect, even commanding, standing at the altar awaiting
her, his eyes fixed gravely on her, compelling her by some mesmeric
influence to be calm.

How dreamlike it all was!  The serious, holy words; the sacred promises;
the ring placed upon her finger; the farce, to her who had lost the
power to pray real prayers, of kneeling on bended knees with downcast
eyes at her husband’s side; then the fuss and fervour in the vestry, the
cheery smiles of the clergy, the excited embraces, the tiresome
congratulations.  Suddenly she began to feel her carefully-accumulated
patience give way, and in a terror lest she should betray herself, she
turned to Vansittart.

"Cannot we go now?" she almost wailed, with a pathetic, entreating
glance.

"Of course, my dearest!"

The registers were signed, the business of the ceremony completed, and,
somewhat abruptly, bride and bridegroom left the vestry and the little
crowd of their gaily dressed friends, and went quickly through the
church, to return to the house.

What stares and murmurs she had passed through, running the gauntlet of
the crowded pews of sightseers!  As she emerged on her husband’s arm,
the cool air made her gasp with relief.

Whispers, murmurs, policemen backing the crowd with commanding gestures.
There was the bridal carriage.  She saw Vansittart’s horses; they were
plunging a little. What a monster bouquet the coachman had!  She was
passing down the carpeted steps, she was about to halt to step into the
landau, when someone came right in front of her, offering her some
flowers.

Flowers!  Those horribly white, thick-scented blossoms!  She recoiled
for an instant, then, remembering she must appear gratified, she took
them, vaguely seeing a ghastly face, blazing blue eyes, a figure in deep
black, a figure she did not know.

In another moment she was in the carriage; they drove off.  "Horrible
things; throw them out of window," she faintly said, recognizing the
hideous fact that the posy was of the very flower Victor had worn when
he died.

"Presently, dearest; we cannot let the girl see us do it," he gravely
said.  He was examining a label attached.  In sudden terror she flung
down her bouquet, snatched the posy from him, and stared wildly at the
written words--

"In memory of Victor.  ’Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, saith the
Lord.’"



                             CHAPTER XXXIII


"Joan!  What does it mean?" asked the bridegroom, white, stern, after
the shock, still seeming to see those awful words, "Vengeance is Mine!"
dancing before his dazed eyes in letters of blood.

"Mean?  That I am hunted down--that they are after me, cruel creatures,
for an act you yourself said was only childish folly!"  She writhed, and
gave a mad, wild laugh which seemed to freeze him.  But her
explanation--her allusion to that which she had told him--that wretched
affair in which she had innocently helped to ally her school friend to
an utterly worthless scamp--brought instantaneous relief from his
sudden, over mastering terror that the label hinted at some unknown
horror.

"That was your poor friend, then, dearest, that you unwittingly helped
to injure!"  He detached the label with the Scriptural quotation from
the bunch of flowers, pocketed it, and flung them out of the carriage
window. "But I thought she was quit of him?  Why should she persecute
you, now?  When all is over?"

She gave him a desperate glance, and shrank away into the corner of the
carriage. White, her eyes ablaze--even in his miserable dread, his
anxiety, she reminded him of a celebrated singer he had seen at the
opera a few weeks ago in "Lucia."  Why, why was her agony so intense
about a mere secondary trouble?

"Understand!" she hoarsely said.  "If you cannot take me on trust, we
had better part, we had better separate now, this very hour, and go our
different ways----"

"How dare you!" he cried; and almost fiercely, in his anguish to hear
such a suggestion from her lips, he placed his hands on her shoulders,
ruthlessly ignoring the bridal finery, and gazed into her strained eyes.
"You are my wife!  It is an insult to me, what you say!  I am your
husband."

He took her peremptorily in his arms, and kissed her with mingled
adoration and despair.  The despair was involuntary--born of a huge
misgiving that something was seriously wrong with his new-made wife, and
that he had yet to learn what that something was.

"And now, here we are at your home!" he tenderly said.  "You must try
and pretend to be the happy bride I hoped you were!"

As he helped her to alight, and acting the part of the delighted, joyous
bridegroom, led her through the little crowd of servants standing about
the hall, acknowledging their murmur of congratulation, those melancholy
words of his--so untrue in regard to her love for him--to her rejoicing
in the midst of her misery that she was his wife--touched her to the
quick.

"My poor love!" she gasped, as soon as they were alone in the
flower-bedecked drawing-room, throwing herself upon his breast, and
gazing adoringly into his face.  "I--I had not the courage to tell you
before, but I must--now!  I told you my unhappy friend was free, but I
did not tell you how!  Her husband was that man that died--that Victor
Mercier!  Perhaps she had something to do with his death!  That is what
has been eating my heart out--that I had had a hand in killing a
fellow-creature--killing--depriving some one of life--oh, it is awful!
Sometimes I feel that if that man were alive again, I would willingly
die myself--give up all our happiness--leave you for ever!  Now perhaps
you can imagine what I have been suffering, and what I suffered at the
theatre listening to that Mr. Hunt talking of the woman with the
brandy-bottle, dreading lest he might be speaking of her--my poor
miserable friend!"

"My darling!"  There was a world of compunction, tenderness, sympathy in
his voice as he drew her down by him on a sofa, and lovingly clasped her
cold, trembling hands in his.  "But you ought to have told me before!  I
quite--see--all--now--and now I am to bear your troubles for
you--troubles indeed, absurd cobwebs--trifles light as air!  Your real
trouble, my dearest, is being in possession of an over-sensitive
conscience!  Come--there is the first carriage--how quickly they have
followed us up--try and look a little more as a bride ought to look.
Your being pale doesn’t matter--brides seem to be given that way--but
unhappy? For my sake, darling, try to look a little less as if you had
just been condemned to death instead of to living your life with me!"

He kissed some colour into her white cheeks and lips; and then the
wedding party began to flock in.  Carriage after carriage drove up, and
the bridesmaids and young men, the older relatives and friends, crowded
the drawing-room, and there were embracings and congratulations--not
half over when luncheon was announced.  It was a gay, or a seemingly gay
wedding breakfast.  Joan went through it all with a curious feeling of
unreality.  She heard herself and her loved husband toasted, she heard
his eloquent yet well-balanced little speech.  She smiled upon those who
spoke to her with the almost reverential solicitude with which a bride
is addressed on her marriage day, and she muttered some reply, although
she did not seem to gather the meaning of their speeches. She cut the
cake, she rose and adjourned upstairs when the rest went to the
drawing-room. Happily, she had to hurry her "going away" toilette, which
was presided over by her aunt, in the seventh heaven of delight at her
only niece’s splendid marriage, and by her aunt’s maid--Julie having
already started with Lord Vansittart’s valet and the luggage, to be on
board the yacht with everything ready when the bride and bridegroom
arrived.  Happily there was not a spare moment to be wasted if they
meant to "catch the train" they had planned to start by. Before she was
quite ready, Vansittart’s voice was heard outside the door, hurrying
them. They were obliged to hasten their farewells, and drive rapidly to
the station--the terminus they were starting from no one knew but Sir
Thomas, who was bound to secresy.

But even when the express was rattling across the sunlit country
seawards, Joan feverishly told herself that she was not yet safe.  Since
that posy was offered her at the church door, since she had read those
awful words written on the label, and had looked into those menacing
blue eyes, a renewed, augmented fear had seemed to half paralyze her,
body and soul; more than fear, worse than dread--a horrible conviction
of coming doom.

It asserted itself even when she lay on her husband’s breast in their
reserved compartment, listening to the passionate utterances of intense
and devoted love with which he hoped to dispel her nervous
terrors--terrors which, although he began to understand that she had
unfortunately been drawn into being one of the actors in an undesirable
life drama, he regarded as mere vapours which could be dispelled by an
equable, peaceful life shared by him and ruled by common sense. Those
clear, threatening blue eyes seemed still gazing into hers, penetrating
to the secrets hidden in her soul.  All through Vansittart’s endearing
words, the bright pictures he verbally drew of their coming happiness,
those words repeated themselves in her ears--"Vengeance is Mine!  I will
repay, saith the Lord!"

But when day succeeded day upon the yacht; when hour after hour she was
calmed by the tender devotion of her husband; when sunlit summer seas
under blue, tranquil skies were her surroundings by day, to give place
to a dusky mystic ocean lit by glittering trails of moonlight, and
reflecting myriads of stars at night--a certain calm, which was more
stolidity than calm, a content which was more relief from dread than
peace--came to her rescue.

They spent some weeks on the high seas, touching only at obscure foreign
ports.  At last Joan’s latent fears began to reassert themselves.  She
urged Vansittart to make for a seaport where they might procure English
papers.

This led to their return from a coasting tour of the Mediterranean
Islands.  The heat was intense, only tempered by sea breezes and by the
appliances on board the luxurious craft.  Still, Joan would not consent
to go northward, where people would naturally expect them to be.
Vansittart put in at Marseilles, went on shore alone, saw the papers,
ascertained that there was nothing in them anent "the Mercier affair,"
about which his young wife was, in his opinion, so unreasonably
conscientious, and brought them to her with secret triumph.

He hoped that now she would be "more reasonable," and to his content,
his hope was so far realized that when he tentatively suggested a return
home, she readily acquiesced.  A week later they arrived at his
favourite country seat--a pretty estate in Oxfordshire, near the most
picturesque part of the Thames.

An old stone house which had seen the birth of generation upon
generation of Vansittart’s ancestors, Pierrepoint Court stood in a wide,
undulating park.  Rooks nested in the tall elms, shy deer hid among the
bracken under the preserves.  An atmosphere of calm, of unworldly peace,
reigned everywhere, and seemed to affect the new mistress of the place,
even as she entered upon her duties as its _châtelaine_.

A day or two passed so delightfully that she frequently told herself
with mute gratitude to Heaven, that trouble was over--happiness had
begun.  She strolled through her dominion with her husband at her side,
all his retainers and tenants welcoming and congratulating them.  Most
of all she enjoyed driving with him in a dog-cart to outlying farms, and
rusticating among the orchards, visiting the poultry-yards and dairies.
This was before they had written to announce their arrival to Sir Thomas
and Lady Thorne. The morning their letters must have reached, they were
starting for a long drive when a telegraph boy cycled up.  Vansittart
read the message, which was from Sir Thomas, and crumpling it up, thrust
it deep in his pocket.  "It is nothing," he said, smiling. But his heart
misgave him.  The words were ominous of trouble.

"Meet me at my solicitors’ as soon after you receive this as possible.
This is urgent."



                             CHAPTER XXXIV


"No answer," Vansittart said to the boy.  Then he turned, his face pale,
his lips twitching, and saying, "Come in for a moment," he took Joan’s
hand and led her back indoors, through the hall into the morning-room,
where they had but just been laughing over their breakfast like two
happy children.

"I must catch the next train to town, dearest, my lawyer wants me on
important business connected with the settlements," he said.  "Yes!
Really, that is all!  Am I pale?  I confess that the sight of a telegram
always upsets me--I am not as stolid as I seem.  And now, darling, I
must be off at once, if I mean to catch the next train!"

He embraced her fondly, adjured her to be most careful of herself,
suggested that she should keep to the grounds while he was away--he did
not like her "wandering about the country alone"--and promising to
return as soon as his legal business was over, he left her.

She stood at the door watching the dog-cart speed away through the park
until it disappeared into the avenue of limes; then feeling as if her
heart were a huge leaden weight within her breast, she went to her
boudoir, a room Vansittart had had refurnished for her in white and pale
blue, and where they had sat together since their arrival when they were
not out of doors.  It was one of those close, thundery summer days which
encourage gloom; and as she flung aside her hat and gloves and sank
hopelessly into a chair, she wondered how she would contrive to get
through those hours before his return.

Evidently Vansittart had become not only all in all to her, but she
hardly dared face life without him.  A nervous terror seized upon her.
She felt, as she looked fearfully round, as if mocking spirits were
rejoicing to find her without his protecting presence. Faint, jeering
laughter seemed in the air, or was it only a singing in her ears?

"If I don’t fight this awful feeling, he will find me mad when he comes
home!" she wildly thought.  So she rang the bell, and asked for the
housekeeper, who presently came in in a brand-new, rustling silk, a
little fluttered.  But she felt gratified by her mistress asking so
sweetly to be "shown everything," and the hours before the luncheon bell
rang were whiled away by an inspection of the mansion and its contents
from offices to attics and lumber-rooms.

Then came luncheon in the big, pompous dining-room: luncheon alone, with
strange-looking ancestors painted by Vandyck, Lely, and others, gazing
grimly out upon the slim girl in the white frock sitting in solitary
grandeur at the table, obsequious men-servants in solemn, silent
attendance.  After that ordeal she felt she could bear no more, and
tying on her hat fled into the grounds.

Here the extraordinary stillness of everything under the dense canopy of
slowly massing clouds oppressed her still more.  She felt more and more
eerie and distraught as she wandered, until she came to the river. Here
there was movement, something like life again.  A faint breeze stirred
the wavelets as the flood rushed steadily seawards.

"I will get out a boat and have a row. That may make me feel less
horrible!" she determined.  She went to the boathouse, chose a skiff,
and was soon rowing rapidly up stream.  She had learnt to row as a
child. The boat sped cleanly along, as she neatly, deftly, handled the
sculls.

Her melancholy slightly dispelled by the exercise, she forgot how time
was going--how far she had rowed out of bounds, when suddenly an arrow
of lurid lightning went quivering down athwart the dense grey horizon,
followed by a detonating roar of thunder.

"I am in for it, there’s no doubt of that!" she told herself, almost
with a smile.  Rain, storm, thunder, lightning--what items they were in
the balance against a conscience bearing a hideous load such as hers!
As she turned and began to row steadily homewards, she realized her
mental state almost with awe.

Another flash illumined the whole landscape with a yellowish-blue glare,
then a clap of thunder followed almost instantaneously.  Down came such
a deluge of rain that for a minute she was blinded; she sat still,
wondering whether the slight craft would fill and be sunk.

Then, remembering her beloved, she urged herself to make an effort and
return home. Although the downpour beat steadily upon her, upon the boat
and the water around, although little runnels trickled coldly down her
neck, and her straw hat was already pulp, she went steadily on and on,
until at last she was at the boat-house, and had moored the skiff under
its friendly shelter.

The rain had given place to hail, so she thought better to wait awhile
before walking home.  She sat there, wringing the water from her skirts,
and wondering what Vansittart would say if he knew her plight, until the
clouds parted, watery sunbeams cast a sickly lemon tint upon the river
and its banks, and a rainbow began to glow upon the slate-coloured
clouds.

Then she stepped from the boat and started to walk across the park.  Her
clinging garments made locomotion difficult.  "What a drowned rat I must
look!" she told herself. "What will be the best way of getting to my
room without being seen?  I know! The side room window!"

"The side room" was a chamber leading from the hall, and conducting by a
second door to the offices.  It was used for humbler visitors,
messengers who waited answers, dressmakers and the like.  In the hot
weather the window was generally open.  "If they have shut it, I must go
in by the usual way," she thought.

It was not shut.  With a little spring she balanced herself on the sill,
and slipped down upon the floor, to find that the room was not empty as
she had expected.  A slight person in deep mourning, who had been
seated, rose and confronted her.

Joan stared at the white, stern, but beautiful face in sick dismay.
This was the woman who had given her the flowers--the posy with the
strange, awful threat written on the label, when she was about to enter
the bridegroom’s carriage as she left the church after her wedding.

"I see--you know me," said the girl.  She spoke with icy composure.  "I
have come to speak to you of your danger."

The two looked into each other’s eyes unflinchingly--Vera with a cold
condemnatory stare; Joan with the apathy of abject despair.

"Come this way, please," she said.  Her garments dripped slowly on the
polished floor; she glanced at the drops with a curious wonder, then led
the way along a passage, and held open a baize door.  In another moment
the two were shut into Joan’s boudoir, and Joan waved the girl that her
wretched, so-called husband had loved, towards a chair.

She shook her head, impatiently.  "I meant to wait to see you until you
were in the dock," she began.  "Your whole doings are known, from the
first letter you wrote to poor Victor, to the hour I saw you in Haythorn
Street, coming out of the house after you had poisoned him and left him
to die!  I had meant to tell all I knew to the detectives, but they came
after me.  All is complete--you may be arrested at any moment.  Then
will come your trial, your condemnation--your hanging.  I expect you
have dreamt the rope was round your neck; at least, if you have any
feeling left in you. Murderess that you are, you have ruined my life,
you have killed my dearest love, who loved me, not you--and I was
gloating over the idea of your being hanged by the neck till you were
dead, when I dreamt of my Victor.  I dreamt a shadow--his shadow--bent
over me, and said those very words that I thought meant your doom, ’I
will repay, saith the Lord!’  I awoke, and knew that I was to come and
warn you, that you may escape."

She stopped short, gazing curiously at Joan’s drawn, ashen features,
features like those of an expressionless corpse.  Her eyes, too, were
dull, wandering.

"Escape?" she said, stupidly.  Then she dropped into a chair, feeling
half dead, half paralyzed.  The thunder rolled faintly in the distance.
It seemed to her that she was still seated in the boat, rowing, rowing,
and was dreaming this wretched misery.

"Yes, escape!" the other repeated, bitterly. "You must confess
everything to your husband--mind! everything!  Then, perhaps, as I, whom
you have injured for life, have had mercy on you, he may!  At all
events, he may do something to save your neck. You have but a few hours’
safety--"

She started and stopped short.  The door was flung open, and Vansittart
entered, briskly, eagerly.  He looked from one to the other, then went
up to Joan, and reverentially lifting her hand, kissed it.

"Who is this lady, dearest?" he asked, gazing steadfastly at Vera.



                              CHAPTER XXXV


"I am Vera Anerley," said the pale girl, speaking in clear tones of
deadly meaning. "I have come to tell your wife that the case against her
is complete; that she may be arrested at any moment for the murder of
Victor Mercier!"

Joan gave a faint cry, and buried her wet, dishevelled head in
Vansittart’s coat-sleeve.

"Hush, darling, I am here!" he tenderly said.  Then, supporting Joan’s
fainting form, which was already a dead weight, he looked with cool
scorn, with stern defiance, at the slender, black-clad figure, at the
white, miserable face with those menacing eyes.

"Case, indeed," he exclaimed with scathing contempt.  "A jealous woman’s
vengeance, you should say!  But your miserable plot to destroy my
injured wife, woman, will succeed in injuring no one but yourself.  I
have this morning learnt every detail of the trumped-up charge, and
given my instructions for the defence.  If, indeed, the affair will go
any further after my deposition on oath that on the night
that--man--died--my future wife was with me until she met her maid to
return home.  And now, since you have succeeded in making Lady
Vansittart ill, I must ask you to quit the house--I will have you driven
to the station, if you like--"

Vera interrupted him with a groan.

"I forgot!" she wailed.  "I forgot--a man will perjure himself to save
the woman he loves!  But your lies will fail to save her, my lord!
Husbands and wives are nothing in law, in a murder case!  If you want to
save her, you must take her away!"

With a sob she turned on her heel and went out.  Vansittart gathered
Joan in his arms, and sinking into a chair tried to kiss her back to
life.  "My darling, I know all!  I will save you!" he repeated
passionately.  What could she have been doing?  She must have been
exposed to the whole fury of the storm. Had the vindictive creature
killed her?  He had thought himself hopelessly crushed, body and soul,
when he arrived at his lawyers’ to find the distracted Sir Thomas with
his awful tale of the charge to be brought against his niece, which Paul
Naz had in compassion forewarned him of.  But the sight of his
darling--who looked dead or dying--who lay like a stone in his arms and
hardly seemed to breathe--brought back life and energy, if it augmented
his despair.

Her garments were wringing wet--what a frightful state she was in!  With
a half-frantic wonder what he had best do, he lifted her in his arms, so
strong in his anguish that she seemed a mere featherweight, and carrying
her upstairs to her room by a side staircase that was little used, laid
her on the bed, and rang for Julie.  While a man was despatched in hot
haste for the doctor, the two cut and dragged off Joan’s soaking
garments, and vainly endeavoured to chafe some warmth into her icy
limbs.  But at last insensibility had come to the rescue of Victor
Mercier’s unfortunate dupe.  Joan lay inert and senseless, and when the
old doctor who had attended a couple of generations of Vansittarts in
their Oxfordshire home came in, his wonted cheeriness changed to
gravity.

Nothing could be done but wait patiently for the return of
consciousness, and telegraph for nurses.  He could make no prognosis
whatever at that stage, but that Lady Vansittart’s health was in a
critical condition.

"Do you mean that she may not recover?" asked Vansittart.  They had
adjourned to Joan’s boudoir, leaving Julie and the housekeeper in
temporary charge of the patient.

Old Doctor Walters shrugged his shoulders and raised his shaggy
eyebrows.  Vansittart was answered.

"When I tell you that I hope to God my wife will die, you will
understand there is something terrible in all this!" he exclaimed--and
the tone of his voice, as much as the meaning conveyed by such a speech,
made the old man sit up in his chair aghast.

But he was still more horrified when the unhappy man he had known and
tended since childhood told him the miserable story as he had gathered
it from Joan herself, and from the dreadful tale told to Sir Thomas in
its entirety by Paul Naz: the tale of a romantic schoolgirl secretly
wooed and married by a man who immediately afterwards absconded, as he
was "wanted" by the police on a charge of theft and fraud: her foolish
dream dispelled when she learnt that fact, hiding her secret from the
uncle and aunt who had adopted her; then, as the years went by and the
husband-in-name made no sign, hoping against hope, and giving way to her
great love for a man who adored her. Then, just as they were promised to
each other, the man’s reappearance with threats of exposure, his
compelling her visits to his rooms, and her succumbing to the temptation
of mixing morphia in his brandy.  The one item unknown was Joan’s motive
for drugging Mercier.  So the case looked terribly black to Vansittart
and his friend in need, his good old doctor.

Good--and tenderhearted, for at once he offered to see them through
their trouble--to the end.

"If the police appear with a warrant they cannot refuse to listen to
me," he said.  "So I shall take up my abode here, and leave my patients
to my partner and our assistant."

The honeymoon was waning in the most dismal of fashions.  The house was
wrapped in gloom.  Joan had recovered consciousness to suffer agonies of
pain, and fall into the delirium of fever.  The prolonged chill of being
the sport of the storm, with so terrible a shock to follow, had resulted
in pneumonia. A specialist was summoned from town.  He gave no hope.
When his fiat was pronounced a look of relief came upon Vansittart’s
worn, lined features.  The specialist went away wondering, but old
Doctor Walters understood.

Then the stricken husband took up his position at his wife’s pillow, and
banished every one.  Whatever his life might contain in the future of
hideous retrospection, for those few short hours left he would watch his
erring darling yield up her soul to the great Judge who alone knew the
frail clay he had made, without any human soul witnessing his agony.

Joan had been raving, madly, incoherently of the past and present,
tossing and writhing, now and then clamouring and groaning.  But a few
minutes after Vansittart had banished the nurses and taken up his
position by her side, she seemed to grow calmer.

Was it possible that at least she might die in peace, free from those
horrible fantasies, those cruel pains?

He watched her anxiously hour after hour. As the delirium abated the
restlessness ceased, and she seemed to fall asleep.  He had come to her
at midnight.  When the grey dawn crept into the room Joan was asleep,
and as he lay and gazed wearily at her, his head drooped until it rested
on the pillow.

After a succession of wild, tormenting dreams--a purgatory of horrible
physical sufferings--Joan slept.  She was vaguely conscious of
Vansittart’s nearness, vaguely sensible that relief had come.  The sleep
was like heaven after hell.

Then at last another kind of dream was added to her sense of slumber.
She felt that something greater and nobler had been added to her life,
and that it was all around and about.  In the tremendous vastness and
solidity of the new influence all seemed petty, small; she knew that
she, Vansittart, Mercier, Vera, all were but dancing specks in a
gorgeous sunlight.....

Vansittart awoke with a start, a feeling of guilt, fear, and a pain in
his arm from some heavy weight.

Then a horrible cry startled the nurse who was keeping vigil in the next
room.  She rushed in and up to the bed.

                     *      *      *      *      *

The following day three stalwart men descended from the quick train from
London and chartered a fly to drive them to Lord Vansittart’s.

"A fine place," said one, almost regretfully--he was young, with a fresh
colour, and his errand seemed ghastly to him--as they drove in at the
open gates, past a lodge which was to all appearance empty.

"Yes," said the eldest of the trio.  "Dear me," he added, looking out as
the fly passed out of the lime avenue.  "What a melancholy looking
house!  All the blinds down, too!"

Arriving at the hall-door, the oldest and sternest-looking emerged and
asked to see Lord Vansittart.  The porter looked impressed, but
unhesitatingly admitted him, and conducted him to the library, leaving
him with a grave "I will tell his lordship."

"Strange; he did not ask who I was or what I wanted," murmured the man
to himself.  The silence in the great mansion was almost oppressive.  He
heard the servant’s footsteps, distant voices, the clang of a closing
door, then a slight pattering, which grew gradually more distinct, and
seemed to keep pace with the beats of his pulse.  Advancing footsteps!

"They have heard, and they have all gone; the man is coming back with
some fine tale or another," he told himself, exasperatedly. As the door
opened he turned with ready resentment, which gave place to a startled,
uncomfortable sensation as in the ghastly man in deep black who entered
he recognised Lord Vansittart.

"I am very sorry, my Lord, but I have a most painful duty to perform,"
he began, taking the warrant from his pocket.  "I am compelled to arrest
Lady Vansittart for the wilful murder of Victor Mercier on the --th of
June last."

Lord Vansittart bowed, asked to see the warrant, and then slowly said,
"If you will come this way, I will take you to her ladyship, who has a
complete answer to the charge."

The detective bowed, passing his hand across his lips to assure himself
that he was not smiling--he had no wish to wound the wretched husband of
a miserable murderess--and followed the proprietor of the
richly-furnished mansion across the hall, up the grand staircase, and
along the corridor. Vansittart paused at a door, opened it, and entered.

The detective followed, half suspicious, half uneasy.  The room was hung
with white--everywhere were piles, masses of red flowers. On the
white-hung bed lay more blood-red blossoms.  Lord Vansittart went up to
it with bowed head, and folding back the sheet that was scattered with
the crimson blooms, showed a beautiful waxen face surrounded by
close-woven gleaming hair: waxen hands folded meekly on the breast.

"Good God!  Dead!"  The detective recognized her--he had no doubt as to
the fact--but he felt it with a shock.

"No," said Lord Vansittart, grimly, turning to him with a look which he
afterwards confided to his wife was the worst experience of his
hard-working and disillusionary existence.  "Alive!  Men may torture and
kill our bodies, man, but who can kill the soul?"



                                THE END.



    Butler & Tanner, The Selwood Printing Works, Frome, and London.



           *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *



                         Novels by Guy Boothby.


                     SPECIAL AND ORIGINAL DESIGNS.

  Each volume attractively Illustrated by Stanley L. Wood and others.

              _Crown 8vo, Cloth Gilt.  Trimmed Edges, 5s._

MY STRANGEST CASE
FAREWELL, NIKOLA!
SHEILAH McLEOD
MY INDIAN QUEEN
LONG LIVE THE KING!
A SAILOR’S BRIDE
A PRINCE OF SWINDLERS
A MAKER OF NATIONS
THE RED RAT’S DAUGHTER
LOVE MADE MANIFEST
PHAROS, THE EGYPTIAN
ACROSS THE WORLD FOR A WIFE
THE LUST OF HATE
BUSHIGRAMS
THE FASCINATION OF THE KING
DR. NIKOLA
THE BEAUTIFUL WHITE DEVIL
A BID FOR FORTUNE; or, Dr. Nikola’s Vendetta
IN STRANGE COMPANY: A Story of Chili and the Southern Seas
THE MARRIAGE OF ESTHER: A Torres Straits Sketch.



                                WORKS BY

                         E. Phillips Oppenheim.


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THE SURVIVOR.

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A MILLIONAIRE OF YESTERDAY.

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A DAUGHTER OF THE MARIONIS.

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THE MAN AND HIS KINGDOM.

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AS A MAN LIVES.

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A MONK OF CRUTA.

Illustrated by WARNE BROWNE.  Crown 8vo, cloth gilt, 3s. 6d.



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GREATER LOVE.  Illustrated by GORDON BROWNE.

LEST WE FORGET.  Illustrated by J. BARNARD DAVIS.

THE PURPLE ROBE.  Illustrated by J. BARNARD DAVIS.

THE SCARLET WOMAN.  Illustrated by SYDNEY COWELL.

THE BIRTHRIGHT.  Illustrated by HAROLD PIFFARD.

MISTRESS NANCY MOLESWORTH.  Illustrated by F. H. TOWNSEND.

FIELDS OF FAIR RENOWN.  With Frontispiece and Vignette by J. BARNARD
DAVIS.

ALL MEN ARE LIARS.  With Frontispiece and Vignette by GORDON BROWNE.

ISHMAEL PENGELLY: An Outcast.  With Frontispiece and Vignette by W. S.
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HUTCHINSON.

AND SHALL TRELAWNEY DIE?  Illustrated by LANCELOT SPEED.

JABEZ EASTERBROOK.  With Frontispiece and Vignette by STANLEY L. WOOD.

WEAPONS OF MYSTERY.  With Frontispiece and Vignette.

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                              ... THE ...

                                WINDSOR

                            Stands alone as
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                           for Men and Women.


ITS STORIES--Serial and Short alike--are by the leading; Novelists of
the day; Its Articles, ranging over every branch of our complex modern
life, are by recognised Specialists; Its Illustrations represent the
high-water mark of current Black-and-White Art.

These features combine to make The Windsor’s contents, month by month, a
popular theme for conversation in circles that are weary of the
trivialities of the common-place periodicals.

In addition to its strong interest for MEN and WOMEN, the Windsor makes
a feature of publishing the Best Studies of Child-Life that the modern
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_The WINDSOR’S recent and present Contributors include:--_

Rudyard Kipling
Mrs. P. A. Steel
S. R. Crockett
Cutcliffe Hyne
Max Pemberton
Hall Caine
E. Nesbit
Guy Boothby
Ian Maclaren
Frankfort Moore
Anthony Hope
Ethel Turner
Robert Barr
Barry Pain
Gilbert Parker



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