Home
  By Author [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Title [ A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z |  Other Symbols ]
  By Language
all Classics books content using ISYS

Download this book: [ ASCII | HTML | PDF ]

Look for this book on Amazon


We have new books nearly every day.
If you would like a news letter once a week or once a month
fill out this form and we will give you a summary of the books for that week or month by email.

Title: Beyond These Voices
Author: Braddon, M. E. (Mary Elizabeth)
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 "Beyond These Voices" ***

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



(This file was produced from images generously made


            UNIFORM WITH THIS VOLUME.


  THE FILIBUSTERS                   CUTCLIFFE HYNE
  THE ROYAL END                      HENRY HARLAND
  MOLLIE'S PRINCE                    ROSA N. CAREY
  BY RIGHT OF SWORD                A. W. MARCHMONT
  THE MAYORESS'S WOOING      MRS. BAILLIE SAUNDERS
  THE THIEF OF VIRTUE              EDEN PHILLPOTTS
  A LONELY LITTLE LADY               DOLF WYLLARDE
  THE STUMBLING BLOCK          JUSTUS MILES FORMAN
  TWO IMPOSTORS AND TINKER        DOROTHEA CONYERS
  PARK LANE                            PERCY WHITE


  HUTCHINSON & CO.'S
  7d. COPYRIGHT NOVELS.

[Illustration: "I could hear her stifled sobs as she lay on the
floor."--_p. 318._]



                                BEYOND
                             THESE VOICES

                                  By
                             M. E. BRADDON

                                London
                           HUTCHINSON & CO.
                            Paternoster Row



"BEYOND THESE VOICES"



CHAPTER I


Lady Felicia Disbrowe was supposed to condescend when she married
Captain Cunningham of the first Life--since, although his people lived
on their own land, and were handsomely recorded in Burke, there was
no record of them before the Conquest, nor even on the muster-roll of
those who fought and died for the Angevin Kings. Captain Cunningham
was handsome and fashionable, but not rich; and when he had the bad
luck to get himself killed in an Egyptian campaign, he left his widow
with an only daughter seven years old, her pension, and a settlement
that brought her about six hundred a year, half of which came from the
Disbrowes, while the other half was the rental of three or four small
farms in Somersetshire. It will be seen therefore that for a person who
considered herself essentially _grande dame_, and to whom all degrading
economies must be impossible, Lady Felicia's position was not enviable.

As the seven-year-old orphan grew in grace and beauty to sweet
seventeen, Lady Felicia began to consider her daughter her chief
asset. So lovely a creature must command the admiration of the richest
bachelors in the marriage-market. She would have her choice of opulent
lovers. There would be no cruel necessity for forcing a marriage with
vulgar wealth or drivelling age. She would have her adorers among the
best, the fortunate, the well-bred, the young and handsome. Nor was
Lady Felicia mistaken in her forecast. When Cara came out under the
auspices of her aunt, Lady Okehampton, she made a success that realised
her mother's fondest dreams. Youth, rank, and wealth were at her feet.
There was no question of riches raked out of the gutter. She had but
to say the sweet little monosyllable "yes," and one of the best born
and best-looking men in London, and town and country houses, yacht and
opera box, would be hers; and her mother would cease to be "poor Lady
Felicia."

Unhappily, before Lord Walford had time to offer her all these
advantages, Cara had fallen in love with somebody else, and that
somebody was no other than Lancelot Davis, the poet, just then the
petted darling of dowagers, and of young married women whose daughters
were in the nursery, and who had therefore no fear of his fascinating
personality. Unfortunately for Lady Felicia, her head was too high
in the air for her to take note of the literary stars who shone at
luncheon parties, and even when her daughter praised the young poet,
and tried to interest her mother in his latest book, Lady Felicia took
no alarm. It was only in the beginning of their acquaintance that Cara
talked of the poet to her unresponsive mother. By the time she had
known him twenty days of that heavenly June, he was far too sacred
to be talked about to an unsympathetic listener. It was only to her
dearest and only bosom friend, who was also in love with the adorable
Lancelot, that Cara liked to talk of him, and to her she discoursed
romantic nonsense that would have covered reams of foolscap, had it
been written.

"Lancelot!" she said in low, thrilling tones. "Even his name is a poem."

Everything about him was a poem for Cara. His boots, his tie, his cane,
and especially his hair, which he took a poet's privilege of wearing
longer than fashion justified.

Though educated at the Stationers' School, and unacquainted with either
'Varsity, nobody ever said of Mr. Davis that he was "not a gentleman."
That scathing, irrevocable sentence, with the cruel emphasis upon the
negative, had not been pronounced upon the man who wrote "The New
Ariadne," a work of genius which scared the lowly-minded country vicar,
his father, and set his pious mother praying, with trembling and tears,
that the eyes of her beloved son might be opened, and that he might
repent of using the talents God had given him in the service of Satan.

Lancelot Davis had made up for the lack of 'Varsity training by
strenuous self-culture. He was passionate, exalted, transcendental,
more Swinburne than Swinburne, steeped in Dante and Victor Hugo,
stuffed almost to choking with Musset, Baudelaire, and Verlaine; he was
young, handsome, or rather beautiful, too beautiful for a man--Paris,
Leander, the Sun God--anything you like; and, at the time of his
wooing, his pockets were full of the proceeds of a book that had made a
sensation--and he was the rage.

Were not these things enough to fire the imagination and win the heart
of a girl of eighteen, half-educated, undisciplined, the daughter of a
shallow-brained mother, who had never taken the trouble to understand
her, or taken account of the romantic yearnings in the mind of
eighteen? If Lady Felicia had cultivated her daughter's mind half as
strenuously as she had cultivated her person, the girl would have not
been so ready to fall in love with her poet. But the girl's home life
had been an arid waste, and the mother's conversation had been one long
repining against the Fate that had made her "poor Lady Felicia," and
had deprived her of all the things that are needed to make life worth
living.

Lancelot Davis opened the gates of an enchanted land in which money
counted for nothing, where there was no animosity against the ultra
rich, no perpetual talk of debts and difficulties, no moaning over
the hardship of doing without things that luckier people could enjoy
in abundance. He let her into that lovely world where the imagination
rules supreme. He introduced her to other poets, the gods of that
enchanted land--Browning, Tennyson, Shelley, Byron. She bowed down
before these mighty spirits, but thought Lancelot Davis greater than
the greatest of them.

There was nothing mean or underhand about her poet's conduct. He lost
no time in offering himself to Lady Felicia. He was not a pauper; he
was not ill born; and he was thought to have a brilliant future before
him. His suit was supported by some of "poor Felicia's" oldest and
best friends; but Lady Felicia received his addresses with coldness
and scarcely concealed contempt; and she told her daughter that while
she had committed an unpardonable sin when she refused Lord Walford,
were she to insist upon marrying Mr. Davis, it would be a heart-broken
mother's duty to cast her off for ever.

"I never could forgive you, Cara," she said, and she never did.

Cara walked out of the Weymouth Street lodgings early one morning,
before Lady Felicia had rung for her meagre breakfast of chocolate
and toast. She carried her dressing-bag to the corner of the street,
where Davis was waiting in a hansom. Her trunk, with all that was
most needful of her wardrobe, had been despatched to the station over
night, labelled for the Continental Express. There was plenty of time
to be married before the registrar, and to be at Victoria, ready for
the train that was to carry them on the first stage of that wonderful
journey which begins in the smoke and grime of South London and ends
under the Italian sky.

       *       *       *       *       *

They went from the registrar's office straight to the Lake of Como, and
lived between Bellagio and Venice for four years, years of ineffable
bliss, at the end of which sweet summer-time of love and life--for it
seemed never winter--the girl-wife died, leaving her young husband
heart-broken, with an only child, a daughter three years old, an
incarnation of romantic love and romantic beauty.

When he carried off Lady Felicia's daughter, the poet was at the top of
his vogue, and his vogue lasted for just those four years of supreme
happiness.

Nothing that he wrote after his wife's death had the old passion
or the old music. His genius died with his wife. Heart-broken and
disappointed, he became a consumptive, and died of an open-air cure,
leaving piteous letters to Lady Felicia and his wife's other relations,
imploring them to take care of his daughter. She would have the
copyright of his five volumes of verse, and two successful tragedies,
for her portion; so she was not altogether without means.

Lady Felicia's heart was not all stone; there was a vulnerable spot
upon which the serpent's tooth had fastened. Obstinate, proud, and
selfish, she had never faltered in her unforgiving attitude towards the
runaway daughter; but when there came the sudden news of Cara's death,
a blow for which the Spartan mother was utterly unprepared, an agony
of remorse disturbed the self-satisfied calm of a mind which thought
itself justified in resenting injury.

Perhaps she had pictured to herself a day upon which Cara would have
come back to her and sued for pardon, and she would have softened,
and taken the prodigal daughter to her heart. One of the girl's
worst crimes had been that she had not knelt and wept and entreated
to be forgiven, before she took that desperate, immodest, and even
vulgar, step of a marriage before the registrar. She had shown herself
heartless as a daughter, and how could she expect softness in her
mother? But she was dead. She had passed beyond the possibility of
pardon or love. That vague dream of reconciliation could never be
realised. If there had been anything wrong in Lady Felicia's behaviour
as a parent, that wrong could never be righted. Never more would she
see the lovely face that was to have brought prosperity and happiness
for them both; never more would she hear the sweet voice which the
fashionable Italian master had trained to such perfection. The French
ballads, and Jensen's setting of Heine, came out of the caverns of
memory as Lady Felicia sat, poor and lonely, in a lodging-house
drawing-room, on the borderland of West-End London, the last "possible"
street, before W. became N.W.

"_Ninon, que fait tu de la vie?_" Memory brought back every tone of the
fresh young voice. Lady Felicia could hardly believe that there was
no one singing, that the room was empty of human life, except her own
fatigued existence.

That last year of remorseful memories softened her, and she accepted
the charge that Lancelot Davis left her. He lived just long enough
in his bleak hospital on a Gloucestershire hill-top to read his
mother-in-law's letter:

 "Send the little girl to me. I will be kinder to her than I was to her
 mother."

Society, and especially Cara's other relations, said that poor Felicia
had been quite admirable in taking the sole charge of the orphan.
There was no attempt to foist the little girl upon aunts and cousins;
and, considering poor Felicia's state of genteel pauperism, always in
lodgings, her behaviour was worthy of all praise.

The grandchild brought back the memory of the daughter's childhood,
and Lady Felicia almost felt as if she was again a young widow, full
of care for her only child. So far as her narrow means permitted she
made the little girl happy, and she found her own dreary existence
brightened by that young life.

That calm and monotonous existence with Grannie was not the kind of
life that childhood yearns for, and there were long stretches of
time in which little Veronica had only her picture-books and fancy
needlework to amuse her--after the cheap morning governess had
departed, and the day's tasks were done. At least Grannie did not
torture the orphan with over-education. A little French, a little
easy music, a little English history, occupied the morning hours,
and then Vera was free to read what books she liked to choose out of
Grannie's blameless and meagre library. Lady Felicia's nomadic life
had not allowed the accumulation of literature, but the few books she
carried about with her were of the best, Scott, Thackeray, Dickens,
Byron. Her trunks had room only for the Immortals, and as soon as Vera
could read them, and long before she could understand them, those dear
books were familiar to her. The pictures helped her to understand, and
she was never tired of looking at them. Sometimes Grannie would read
Shakespeare to her, the ghostly scenes in _Hamlet_, which thrilled
her, or passages and scenes from the _Tempest_, or _Midsummer Night's
Dream_, which Vera thought divine. She had no playfellows, and hardly
knew how to play; but in her lonely life imagination filled the space
that the frolics and gambols of exuberant spirits occupy in the life
of the normal child. Those few great novels which she read over and
over again peopled her world, a world of beautiful images that she
had all to herself, and of which her fancy never wearied--Amy Robsart
and Leicester, the Scottish Knight, the generous Saracen, the heroic
dog, Paul Dombey and his devoted sister, David Copperfield and his
child-wife. These were the companions of the long silent afternoons,
when Grannie was taking her siesta in seclusion upstairs, and when
Vera had the drawing-room to herself. No visitors intruded on those
long afternoons; for Lady Felicia's card gave the world to know that
the first and fifteenth of May, June, and July, were the only days on
which she was accessible to the friends and acquaintances who had not
utterly forgotten "poor Felicia's" existence.

It was a life of monotony against which an older girl would have
revolted; but childhood is submissive, and accepts its environment
as something inevitable, so Vera made no protest against Fate. But
there was one golden season in her young life, one heavenly summer
holiday in the West Country, when her aunt, Lady Okehampton, happening
to call upon Lady Felicia, was moved to compassion at sight of the
little girl, pale and languid, as she sat in the corner of the unlovely
drawing-room, with an open book on her lap.

"This hot weather makes London odious," said Lady Okehampton. "We are
all leaving much earlier than usual. I suppose you and the little girl
are soon going into the country?"

"No, I shan't move till the end of October, when we go to Brighton,
as usual. I have had invitations to nice places, the Helstons, the
Heronmoors; but I can't take that child, and I can't leave her."

"Poor little girl. Does she never see gardens and meadows? Brighton is
only London with a little less smoke, and a strip of grey water that
one takes on trust for the sea. Wouldn't you like a country holiday,
Veronica? What a name!"

"She is always called Vera. Her father was a poet----"

"Lancelot Davis, yes, I remember him!"

"And he gave her that absurd name because the Italian hills were purple
and white with the flower when she was born."

"Rather a nice idea. Well, Vera, if Grannie likes, you shall come to
Disbrowe with your cousins, and you shall have a real country holiday,
and come back to Grannie in September with rosy cheeks and bright eyes."

Oh, never-to-be-forgotten golden days, in which the child of eleven
found herself among a flock of young cousins in a rural paradise where
she first knew the rapture of loving birds and beasts. She adored them
all, from the gold and silver pheasants in the aviary to the great,
slow wagon horses on the home farm, and the shooting dogs.

Among the children of the house, and more masterful in his behaviour
than any of them, there was an Eton boy of sixteen, who was not a
Disbrowe, although he claimed cousinship in a minor degree. He was a
Disbrowe on the Distaff side, he told Vera, a distinction which he had
to explain to her. He was Claude Rutherford, and he belonged to the
Yorkshire Rutherfords, who had been Roman Catholic from the beginning
of history, with which they claimed to be coeval. He was in the upper
sixth at Eton, and was going to Oxford in a year or two, and from
Oxford into the Army. He was a clever boy, old for his years, quoted
Omar Khayyam in season and out of season, and was already tired of many
things that boys are fond of.

But, superior as this young person might be, he behaved with something
more than cousinly kindness to the little girl from London, whose
pitiful story Lady Okehampton had expounded to him. He was familiar
with the poetry of Lancelot Davis, whose lyrics had a flavour of Omar;
and he was pleased to patronise the departed poet's daughter.

He took Vera about the home farm, and the stables, and introduced
her to the assemblage of living creatures that made Disbrowe Park so
enchanting. He taught her to ride the barb that had been his favourite
mount four years earlier. He seemed ages older than Vera; and he
condescended to her and protected her, and would not allow his cousins
to tease her, although their vastly superior education tempted them to
make fun of the little girl who had only two hours a day from a Miss
Walker, and to whom the whole world of science was dark. What a change
was that large life at Disbrowe, the picnics and excursions, the little
dances after dinner, the run with the otter-hounds on dewy mornings,
the rustic races and sports, the thrilling jaunts with Cousin Claude in
his dinghy, over those blue-green West Country waves, a life so full
of variety and delight that the pleasures of the day ran over into the
dreams of night, and sleep was a round of adventure and excitement!
What a change from the slow walk in Regent's Park, or along the
sea-front at Brighton, beside Grannie's Bath chair, or the afternoon
drive between Hove and Kemp Town, in a hired landau!

She thought of poor Grannie, who was not invited to Disbrowe, and was
sorry to think of her lingering in the dull London lodging, when all
her friends had gone off to their cures in Germany and Austria, and
while it was still too early to migrate to the brighter rooms on the
Marine Parade.

These happy days at Disbrowe were the first and last of their kind,
for though Lady Okehampton promised to invite her the following year,
there were hindrances to the keeping of that promise, and she saw
Disbrowe Park no more. Life in London and Brighton continued with
what the average girl would have called a ghastly monotony, till Vera
was sixteen, when Lady Felicia, after a bronchial attack of unusual
severity, was told that Brighton was no longer good enough for her
winters, and if she wished to see any more Decembers, she must migrate
to sunnier regions in the autumn. Cannes or Mentone were suggested.
Grannie smiled a bitter smile at the mention of Cannes. She had stayed
there with her husband at the beginning of their wedded life, when she
was young and beautiful, and when Captain Cunningham was handsome and
reckless. They had been among the gayest, and the best received, and
had tasted all that Cannes could give of pleasure; but they had spent a
year's income in five weeks, and had felt themselves paupers among the
millionaire shipbuilders and exotic Hebrews.

Lady Felicia decided on San Marco, a picturesque little spot on the
Italian Riviera, which had been only a fishing village till within the
last ten years, when an English doctor had "discovered" it, and two or
three hotels had been built to accommodate the patients he sent there.
The sea-front was sheltered from every pernicious wind, and the sea was
unpolluted by the drainage of a town. Peasant proprietors grew their
carnations all along the shore, close to the sandy beach, and the olive
woods that clothed the sheltering hill were carpeted with violets and
narcissus.

Lady Felicia described San Marco as a paradise; but her friends told
her that there was absolutely no society, and that she would be bored
to death.

"You will meet nobody but invalids, dreadful people in Bath chairs!"
one of her rich friends told her, a purse-proud matron who owned a
villa at Cannes, and considered no other place "possible" from Spezzia
to Marseilles.

"I shall be in a Bath chair myself," replied Lady Felicia. "I want
quiet and economy, and not society. At Vera's age it is best that there
should be no talk of dances and high jinks."

Mrs. Montagu Watson smiled, and shrugged her shoulders. "Girls have
their own opinions about life nowadays," she said. "I don't think
Theodora or Margaret would put up with San Marco, although they are
still in the school-room. They want fine clothes and smart carriages to
look at, when they trudge with their governess."

"Vera is more unsophisticated than your girls. She will be quite happy
reading Scott or Dickens in a garden by the sea. I mean to keep her as
fresh as I can till I hand her over to one of her aunts to be brought
out."

"She is a sweet, dreamy child," said Mrs. Watson, who became
deferential at the mere mention of countesses, "and I dare say she is
going to be pretty."

"I have no doubt about that," said Lady Felicia.

       *       *       *       *       *

They went to San Marco early in November, and found the hotel and the
sea-front the abode of desolation, so far as people went. The habitual
invalids had not yet arrived, and the weather was at its worst. The
four cosmopolitan shops that spread their trivial wares to tempt the
English visitor, and which gave a touch of colour and gaiety to the
poor little street, were not to open till December. There were only the
shabby little butcher, baker, and grocer, who supplied the wants of the
natives.

Vera delighted in the scenery, but she found a sense of dulness
creeping over her, in the midst of all that loveliness of mountain and
shore.

Everything seemed deadly still, a calm that weighed upon the spirits.
Her grandmother had caught cold on the journey, and the English doctor
had to be summoned in the morning after their arrival.

He was their first acquaintance in San Marco, and was the most popular
inhabitant in that quiet settlement. Old ladies talked of him as
"chatty" and "so obliging"; but objected to him on the ground of too
frequent visits, which made it perilous to call him in for any small
ailment, whereby he was sometimes called in too late for an illness
which was graver than the patient suspected.

Dr. Wilmot was essentially a snob, but the amiable kind of snob, fussy,
obliging, benevolent, and with a childlike worship of rank for its
own sake. He was delighted to find a Lady Felicia at the Hôtel des
Anglais--where even a courtesy title was rare, and where for the most
part a City Knight's widow took the _pas_ of all the other inmates.

Dr. Wilmot told Lady Felicia that she had chosen the very best spot on
the Riviera for her bronchial trouble, and that the longer she stayed
at San Marco the better she would like the place.

The bronchial trouble was mitigated, but not conquered; and from this
time Lady Felicia claimed all the indulgences of a confirmed invalid;
while Vera's position became that of an assistant nurse, subordinate
always to Grannie's devoted maid, a sturdy North Country woman of
eight-and-forty, who had been in Lady Felicia's service from her
eighteenth year, and who could talk to Vera of her mother, as she
remembered her, in those long-ago days before the runaway marriage
which was supposed to have broken Grannie's heart. Vera had no idea of
shirking the duties imposed upon her. She walked to the market to buy
flowers for Lady Felicia's sitting-room, and she cut and snipped them
and petted them to keep them alive for a week; she dusted the books and
photographs, and the priceless morsels of Chelsea and Dresden china,
which Grannie carried about with her, and which gave a _cachet_ to the
shabby second-floor _salon_. She went on all Grannie's errands; she
walked beside her Bath chair, and read her to sleep in the drowsy,
windless afternoons, when the casements were wide open, and the sea
looked like a stagnant pond. It was a dismal life for a girl on the
edge of womanhood--a girl who had little to look back upon and nothing
to look forward to. It seemed to Vera sometimes as if she had never
lived, and as if she were never going to live.

Grannie talked of the same things day after day; indeed, her
conversation suggested a talking-machine, for one always knew what
was coming. The talk was for the most part a long lament over all the
things that had gone amiss in Grannie's life. The follies and mistakes
of other people: father, uncles and aunts, husband, daughter; the
wrong-headedness and self-will of others that had meant shipwreck for
Grannie. Vera listened meekly, and could not say much in excuse for
the sins of these dead people, of whose lives and characters she knew
only what Grannie had told her. For her mother she did plead, at the
risk of offending Grannie. She knew the history of the girl's love for
her poet-lover; for she had it all in her father's exquisite verse; a
story poem in which every phase of that romantic love lived in colour
and light. Vera could feel the young hearts beating, as she hung over
pages that were to her as sacred as Holy Writ.

Grannie's bronchitis and Grannie's memories of past wrongs did not make
for cheerfulness; and even the loveliness of that Italian shore in the
celestial light of an Italian spring was not enough for the joy of
life. There is a profound melancholy that comes down upon the soul in
the monotony of a beautiful scene--where there is nothing besides that
scenic beauty--a monotony that weighs heavier than ugliness. A dull
street in Bloomsbury would have been hardly more oppressive than the
afternoon stillness of San Marco, when Grannie had fallen asleep in her
nest of silken cushions, and Vera had her one little walk alone--up and
down, up and down the poor scrap of promenade with its scanty row of
palms, tall and straggling, crowned with a spare tuft of leaves, and a
bunch of dates that never came to maturity.

Companionless and hopeless, Vera paced the promenade, and looked over
the tideless sea.

The only changes in the days were the alternations of Grannie's health,
the days when she was better, and the days when she was worse, and when
Dr. Wilmot came twice--dreary days, on which Vera had to go down to the
table d'hôte alone, and to run the gauntlet of all the other visitors,
who surrounded her in the hall, obtrusively sympathetic, and wanting
to know the fullest particulars of Lady Felicia's bronchial trouble,
and what Dr. Wilmot thought of it. They told her it must be very dull
for her to be always with an invalid, and they tried to lure her into
the public drawing-room, where she might join in a round game, or even
make a fourth at bridge; or, if there were a conjuror that evening, the
elderly widows and spinsters almost insisted upon her stopping to see
the performance.

"No, thank you, I mustn't stay. Grannie wants me," she would answer
quietly; and after she had run upstairs, there would be a chorus of
disapproval of Lady Felicia's want of consideration in depriving the
sweet child of every little pleasure within her reach.

Vera had no yearning for the gaieties of the hotel drawing-room, or the
conjuror's entertainment; but she had a feeling of hopeless loneliness,
which even her favourite books could not overcome. If she had been free
to roam about the olive woods, to climb the hills, and get nearer the
blue sky, she might have been almost happy; but Grannie was exacting,
and Vera had never more than an hour's freedom at a time. The hills,
and the rustic shrines that shone dazzling white against the soft blue
heaven, were impossible for her. Exploration or adventure was out of
the question. She might sit in the garden where the pepper trees and
palms were dust-laden and shabby; or she might pace the promenade,
where Grannie and Martha Lidcott, Grannie's maid, could see her from
the _salon_ windows on the second floor.

On the promenade she was safe and needed no chaperon. The hardiest
and most audacious of prowling cads would not have dared to follow or
address her under the glare of all those hotel windows, and within
sound of shrill female voices and flying tennis balls. On the promenade
she had all the hotel for her chaperon. Grannie asked her the same
questions every evening when she came in to dress for the seven o'clock
dinner. Had she enjoyed her walk? and was it not a delicious evening?
And then Grannie would tell her what a privilege it was to be young,
and able to walk, instead of being a helpless invalid in a Bath chair.

Vera wondered sometimes whether the privilege of youth, with the long
blank vista of years lying in front of it, were an unmixed blessing.



CHAPTER II


It was the middle of February, and all the little gardens that lay like
a fringe along the edge of the olive woods had become one vivid pink
with peach blossoms, while the dull grey earth under the peach trees
was spread with the purple and red of anemones. San Marco was looking
its loveliest, blue sea and blue sky, cypresses rising up, like dark
green obelisks, among the grey olives, and even the hotel garden was
made beautiful by roses that hung in garlands from tree to tree, and
daffodils that made a golden belt round the dusty grass.

Vera went to the dining-room alone at the luncheon hour on this
heavenly morning, a loneliness to which she was now accustomed, as
Grannie's delicate and scanty meal was now served to her habitually
in her _salon_. Fortified by Dr. Wilmot, who was an authority at the
"Anglais," Lady Felicia had interviewed the landlord, and had insisted
upon this amenity without extra charge.

The hotel seemed in a strange commotion as Vera went downstairs.
Chambermaids with brooms and dusters were running up and down the
corridor on the first floor. Doors that were usually shut were all
wide open to the soft spring breezes. Furniture was being carried from
one room to another, and other furniture, that looked new, was being
brought upstairs from the hall. Carpets and curtains were being shaken
in the garden at the back of the hotel, and dust was being blown in
through the open window on the landing.

Vera wondered, but had not to wonder long; for at the luncheon table
everybody was talking about the upheaval, and its cause, and a torrent
of rambling chatter, in which widows and spinsters were almost shrill
with excitement, gradually resolved itself into these plain facts.

An Italian financier, Signor Mario Provana, the richest man in Rome,
and one of the richest men in London, which, of course, meant a great
deal more, was bringing his daughter to the hotel, a daughter in
delicate health, sent by her doctors to the most eligible spot along
the Western Ligura.

The poor dear girl was in a very bad way, the old ladies told each
other, threatened with consumption. She had two nurses besides her
governess and maid, and the whole of the first floor had been taken by
Signor Provana, to the annoyance of Lady Sutherland Jones, quite the
most important inmate of the hotel, who had been made to exchange her
first-floor bedroom for an apartment on the second floor, which Signor
Canincio, the landlord, declared to be superior in every particular, as
well as one lire less _per diem_.

"I should have thought your husband would have hesitated before putting
one of his best customers to inconvenience for a party who drops from
the skies, and may never come here again," Lady Jones complained to the
landlord's English wife, who was, if anything, more plausible than her
Italian husband.

The Holloway builder's widow was uncertain in her aspirates, more
especially when discomposed by a sense of injury.

Madame Canincio pleaded that they could not afford to turn away good
fortune in the person of a Roman millionaire, who took a whole floor,
and would have all his meals served in his private _salle à manger_,
the extra charge for which indulgence would come to almost as much
as her ladyship's "_arrangement_"; for Lady Sutherland Jones, albeit
supposed to be wealthy, was not liberal. Her late husband had been
knighted, after the opening by a Royal Princess of a vast pile of
workmen's dwellings, paid for by an American philanthropist, and
neither husband nor wife had achieved that shibboleth of gentility, the
letter "h."

Vera heard all about Signor Provana, and his daughter, next morning
from Dr. Wilmot, who was more elated at the letting of the first floor
to that great man than she had ever seen him by any other circumstance
in the quiet life of San Marco.

"I consider the place made from this hour," said the doctor, rubbing
his well-shaped white hands in a prophetic rapture. "There will be
paragraphs in all the Roman papers, and it will be my business to see
that they get into the _New York Herald_. We must boom our pretty
little San Marco, my dear Lady Felicia. Your coming here was good luck,
for we want our English aristocracy to take us up--but all over the
world Mario Provana's is a name to conjure with; and if his daughter
can recover her health here, we shall make San Marco as big as San Remo
before we are many years older. It was my wife's delicate chest that
brought me here, and I have been rewarded by the beauty of the place
and, I think I may venture to say, the influential position that I have
obtained here."

He might have added that his villa and garden cost him about half the
rent he would have had to pay in San Remo or Mentone, while a clever
manager like Mrs. Wilmot could make a superior figure in San Marco on
economical terms.

"How old is the girl?" Lady Felicia asked languidly.

"Between fifteen and sixteen, I believe. She will be a nice companion
for Miss Davis."

"I do so hope we may be friends," Vera said eagerly. In a hotel where
almost everybody was elderly, the idea of a girl friend was delightful.

Lady Felicia, who had been very severe in her warnings against
hotel-acquaintance, answered blandly, though with a touch of
condescension.

"If the girl is really nice, and has been well brought up, I should see
no objections to Vera's knowing her."

"Thank you, Grannie," cried Vera. "She is sure to be nice!"

"Signor Provana's daughter cannot fail to be nice," protested the
doctor.

Lady Felicia was dubious.

"An Italian!" she said. "She may be precocious--artful--of doubtful
morality."

"Signor Provana's daughter! Impossible!"

Nothing happened to stir the stagnant pool of life at San Marco during
the next day and the day after that. Vera asked Madame Canincio when
Signor Provana and his daughter were expected, but could obtain no
precise information. The rooms were ready. Madame Canincio showed
Vera the _salon_, which she had seen in its spacious emptiness, with
the shabby hotel furniture, but to which Signor Provana's additions
had given an air of splendour. Sofas and easy chairs had been sent
from Genoa, velvet curtains and _portières_, bronze lamps, and silver
candlesticks, Persian carpets, everything that makes for comfort and
luxury; and the bedroom for the young lady had been even more carefully
prepared; but, beside her own graceful pillared bedstead, with its lace
mosquito curtains, was the narrow bed for the night-nurse, which gave
its sad indication of illness.

The flowers were ready in the vases, filling the _salon_ with perfume.

"I believe they will be here before sunset," Madame Canincio told Vera.
"We are waiting for a telegram to order dinner. The _chef_ is in an
agony of anxiety. First impressions go for so much, and no doubt Signor
Provana is a _gourmet_."

Vera heard no more that day, but the maid who brought the early
breakfast told her that the great man and his daughter had arrived
at five o'clock on the previous afternoon. Vera went to the flower
market in a fever of expectation, bought her cheap supply of red and
purple anemones, her poor little bunch of Parma violets and branches
of mimosa, thinking of the luxury of tuberoses and camellias in the
Provana _salon_, but she thought much more of the sick girl, and the
father's love, exemplified in all that forethought and preparation. For
youth in vigorous health there is always a melancholy interest in youth
that is doomed to die, and Vera's heart ached with sympathy for the
consumptive girl, for whom a father's wealth might do everything except
spin out the weak thread of life.

She heard voices in the hotel garden, as she went up the sloping
carriage drive, with her flower basket on her arm; and at a bend in the
avenue of pepper trees and palms she stopped with a start, surprised at
the gaiety of the scene, which made the shabby hotel garden seem a new
place.

The dusty expanse of scanty grass which passed for a lawn, where
nothing gayer than aloes and orange trees had flourished, was now alive
with colour. A girl in a smart white cloth frock and a large white hat
was sitting in a blue and gold wicker chair, a girl all brightness and
vitality, as it seemed to Vera; where she had expected to see a languid
invalid reclining among a heap of pillows, a wasted hand drooping
inertly, too feeble to hold a book.

This girl's aspect was of life, not of sickness and coming death.
Her eyes were darkest brown, large and brilliant, with long black
lashes that intensified their darkness, intensified also by the marked
contrast of hair that was almost flaxen, parted on her forehead,
and hanging in a single thick plait that fell below her waist, and
was tied with a blue ribbon. Three spaniels, one King Charles, and
two Blenheims, jumped and barked about her chair, and increased the
colour and gaiety of her surroundings by their frivolous decorations
of silver bells and blue ribbons; and, as if this were not enough of
colour, gaudy draperies of Italian printed cotton were flung upon the
unoccupied chairs, and covered a wicker table, while, as the highest
note in this scale of colour, a superb crimson and green cockatoo,
with a tail of majestic length, screamed and fluttered on his perch,
and responded not too amiably to the attentions of Dr. Wilmot, who was
trying to scratch himself into the bird's favour.

The doctor desisted from his "Pretty Pollyings" on perceiving Vera.
"Ah, Miss Davis, that's lucky. Do stop a minute with Grannie's flowers.
I want to introduce you to Mademoiselle di Provana."

The "di" was the embellishment of Dr. Wilmot, who could not imagine
wealth and importance without nobility, but the financier called
himself Provana _tout court_.

Vera murmured something about being "charmed," put down her basket
on the nearest chair, and went eagerly towards the fair girl with
the dark, lustrous eyes, who held out a dazzling white hand, smiling
delightedly.

"I am so glad to find you here. Dr. Veelmot"--she stumbled a little
over the name, otherwise her English was almost perfect; "Dr. Vilmot
told me you were English, and about my own age, and that we ought to be
good friends. I am so glad you are English. I have talked much English
with my governess, but I want a companion of my own age. I have had no
girl friend since I left the Convent three year ago. Dr Vilmot tell me
your father was a poet. That is lovely, lovely. My father is a great
man, but he is not a poet, though he loves Dante."

"My little girl is an enthusiast, and something of a dreamer," said a
deep, grave voice, and a large, tall figure came into view suddenly
from behind a four-leaved Japanese screen that had been placed at the
back of the invalid's chair, to guard her from an occasional breath of
cold wind that testified to the fact that, although all things had the
glory of June, the month was February.

Vera was startled by a voice which seemed different from any other
voice she had ever heard--so grave, so deep, with such a tone of solemn
music; and yet voice and enunciation were quite natural; there was
nothing to suggest pose or affectation.

The speaker stood by his daughter's chair, an almost alarming figure
in that garden of ragged pepper trees, shabby palms, and sunshine--the
sun dominating the picture. He was considerably over six feet, with
broad shoulders, long arms, and large hands, very plainly clothed in
his iron-grey tweed suit, which almost matched his iron-grey hair. He
was not handsome, though he had a commanding brow and his head was
splendidly poised on those splendid shoulders. Vera told herself that
he was not aristocratic--indeed, she feared that there was something
almost plebeian in his appearance that might offend Grannie, who,
having had to do without money, was a fierce stickler for race.

While Vera was thinking about him, Signor Provana was talking to his
daughter, and the voice that had so impressed her at the first hearing,
became infinitely beautiful as it softened with infinite love.

What must it be to a girl to be loved so fondly by that great strong
man? Vera had known no such love since her poet father's death.

She took up her basket of flowers, and then lingered shyly, not knowing
whether she ought to go at once, or stay and make conversation; but
Giulia settled the question.

"Oh, please don't run away," she said. "Don't go without making
friends with my family. Let me introduce Miss Thompson," indicating
a comfortable, light-haired person sitting near her, absorbed in
Sudermann's last novel, "and look at my three spaniels, Jane Seymour,
Anne Boleyn, and Catherine Parr. I called them after your wicked King
Henry's wives. I hope you revel in history. It is my favourite study."

She stooped to pat the spaniels, who all wanted to clamber on her
knees at once. Even under the full cloth skirt and silk petticoat Vera
could not help seeing that the knees were sharp and bony. By this time
she had discovered the too slender form under the pretty white frock,
and the hectic bloom on the oval cheek. She knew the meaning of that
settled melancholy in Signor Provana's dark grey eyes--eyes that seemed
made rather for command than for softness.

She caressed the sparkling black-and-tan Anne Boleyn, and stroked the
long silken ears of the Blenheims, Jane and Catherine, and allowed
them to jump on her lap and explore her face with their affectionate
tongues. Jane Seymour was the favourite, Giulia told her, the dearest
dear, a most sensible person, and sensitive to a fault. Vera admired
the cockatoo, and answered all Giulia's questions about San Marco, and
the drives to old mountain towns and villages, old watch-towers and old
churches--drives which Vera knew only from the talk of the widows and
spinsters who had urged her to persuade Grannie to hire a carriage and
take her to see all the interesting things to be seen in an afternoon's
drive.

"Grannie is not strong enough for long drives," Vera had told them.
They smiled significantly at each other when she had gone.

"Poor child! I'm afraid it's Grannie's purse that isn't strong enough,"
said the leading light in the little community.

"I believe they're reg'lar church mice for poverty, in spite of the
airs my lady gives herself," said Lady Jones. "If it was me, and money
was an objick, I wouldn't pretend to be exclusive, and waste ten lire
a day on a _salon_. I don't mind poverty, and I don't mind pride--but
pride and poverty together is more than I can stand."

The other ladies agreed. Pride was a vice that could only be allowed
where there was wealth to sustain it. Only one timid spinster objected.

"Lady Felicia was a Disbrowe," she said meekly, "and the Disbrowes are
one of the oldest families in England."

       *       *       *       *       *

Vera had to promise to take tea with the Signorina at five o'clock that
afternoon before Giulia would let her go.

"I am not allowed to put my nose out of doors after tea," Giulia said,
not in a complaining tone, but with light laughter. "People are so
absurd about me, especially this person," putting her hand in her
father's and smiling up at him, "just because of my winter cough--as if
almost everybody has not a winter cough. Promise! _A riverderci, cara_
Signorina."

Vera promised, and this time she was allowed to go.

Mario Provana went with her, and carried her basket.

He did not say a word till they had passed beyond the belt of pepper
trees that screened the lawn, and then he began to walk very slowly,
and looked earnestly at Vera.

"I know you are going to be kind to my girl," he said, and his low,
grave voice sounded mournful as a funeral bell. "Dr. Wilmot has told me
of your devotion to your grandmother and how sweet and sympathetic you
are. You can see how the case stands. You can see by how frail a thread
I hold the creature who is dearer to me than all this world besides."

"Oh, but I hope the Signorina will gain health and strength at San
Marco," Vera answered earnestly. "She does not look like an invalid!
And she is so bright and gay."

"She has never known sorrow. She is never to know sorrow. She is to
be happy till her last breath. That is my business in life. Sorrow
is never to touch her. But I do not deceive myself. I have never
cheated myself with a moment of hope since I saw Death's seal upon
her forehead. In my dreams sometimes I have seen her saved; but in
my waking hours, never. As I have watched her passing stage by stage
through the phases of a mortal illness, I watched her mother ten years
ago through the same stages of the same disease. Doctors said: Take her
to this place or to that--to Sicily, to the Tyrol, to the Engadine,
to India--to the Transvaal. For four years I was a wanderer upon this
earth, a wanderer without hope then, as I am a wanderer without hope
now. I have business interests that I dare not utterly neglect, because
they involve the fortunes of other people. I brought my daughter here,
because I am within easy reach of Rome. I ought to be in London."

He had walked with Vera beyond the door of the hotel. He stopped
suddenly, and apologised.

"I would not have saddened you by talking of my grief, if I did not
know that you are full of sympathy for my sweet girl. I want you
to understand her, and to be kind to her, and above all to give no
indication of fear or regret. You expected to find a self-conscious
invalid, hopeless and helpless, with the shadow of death brooding
over her--and you find a light-hearted girl, able to enjoy all that
is lovely in a world where she looks forward to a long and happy
life. That gaiety of heart, that high courage and unshaken hope, are
symptomatic of the fatal malady which killed my wife, and which is
killing her daughter."

"But is there really, really no hope of saving her?" cried Vera, with
her eyes full of tears.

"There is none. All that science can do, all that the beauty of the
world can do, has been done. I can do nothing but love her, and keep
her happy. Help me to do that, Miss Davis, and you will have the
heartfelt gratitude of a man to whom Fate has been cruel."

"My heart went out to your daughter the moment I saw her," Vera said,
with a sob. "I was interested in her beforehand, from what Dr. Wilmot
told us--but she is so amiable, so beautiful. One look made me love
her. I will do all I can--all--all--but it is so little!"

"No, it is a great deal. Your youth, your sweetness, make you the
companion she longs for. She has friends of her own age in Rome,
but they are girls just entering Society, self-absorbed, frivolous,
caring for nothing but gaiety. I doubt if they have ever added to
her happiness. She wanted an English friend; and if you will be that
friend, she will give you love for love. Forgive me for detaining you
so long. I will call upon Lady Felicia this afternoon, if she will
allow me--or perhaps I had better wait until she has been so good as to
call upon my daughter. I know that English ladies are particular about
details!"

Vera dared not say that Grannie was not particular, since she had heard
her discuss some trivial lapse of etiquette, involving depreciation of
her own dignity, for the space of an afternoon. Clever girls who live
with grandmothers have to bear these things.

Signor Provana carried her basket upstairs for her, and only left her
on the second-floor landing, with a thoroughly British shake-hands. He
was the most English foreigner Vera had ever met.

She had to give Grannie a minute account of all that had happened,
and Grannie was particularly amiable, and warmly interested in
Miss Provana's charm, and Mr. Provana's pathetic affection for his
consumptive daughter.

"They are evidently nobodies, from a social point of view," Lady
Felicia remarked, with the pride of a long line of Disbrowes in the
turn of her head towards the open window, as if dismissing a subject
too unimportant for her consideration; "but I dare say the man's wealth
gives him a kind of position in Rome, and even in London."

Vera told her that Signor Provana wished to call upon her, but would
not venture to do so till she had been so kind as to call upon his
daughter. This was soothing.

"I see he has not lived in London for nothing!" she said. "I will call
on Miss Provana this afternoon. You must help to dress me. Lidcott has
no taste."

On this Vera was bold enough to say she had accepted an invitation to
take tea with the invalid, without waiting to consult Grannie.

"You did quite right. Great indulgence must be given to a sick child.
In that case I will defer my visit till tea-time, and we will go
together. I want to be friendly, rather than ceremonious."

Vera was delighted to find Grannie unusually accommodating, and that
none of those unreasonable objections and unforeseen scruples to which
Grannie was subject were to interfere with her pleasure in Giulia's
society.

Pleasure? Must it not be pleasure too closely allied with pain, now
that she knew the girl she was so ready to love had the fatal sign
of early death upon her beauty? But at Vera's age it is natural to
hope--even in the face of doom.

"She may improve in this place. Her health may take a sudden turn for
the better. God may spare her, after all, for the poor father's sake.
At least I know what I have to do--to try with all my might to make her
happy."

       *       *       *       *       *

A footman in a sober but handsome livery was hovering in the corridor
when lady Felicia arrived, supported by Vera's arm, and by a cane with
a long tortoiseshell crook like the Baroness Bernstein's, an amount of
support which was rather a matter of state than of necessity.

Lady Felicia had put on her favourite velvet gown and point-lace
collar for the occasion. She had always two or three velvet gowns in
her wardrobe, and declared that Genoa velvet was the only wear for
high-bred poverty--as it looked expensive and never wore out.

The footman flung open the tall door of Signor Canincio's best _salon_,
and announced the ladies.

The Provana _salon_ was startling in its afternoon glory. The three
long windows were open to the sunshine, which in most people's rooms
would have been excluded at this hour. The balcony was full of choice
flowers in turquoise and celadon vases from Vallauris. The luxury of
satin pillows overflowing sofas and arm-chairs, the Dresden cups and
saucers, and silver urn and tea-tray, the three dogs running about with
their ribbons and bells, the gaudy cockatoo screaming on his perch,
Giulia's blue silk tea-gown, and Miss Thompson's mauve cashmere, all
lighted to splendour by the glory of the western sky, made a confusion
of colour that almost blinded Lady Felicia.

Provana received her with grave courtesy, and led her to his daughter's
sofa. She bent over Giulia with an affectionate greeting, and then,
sinking into the arm-chair to which Provana led her, begged somewhat
piteously that the sunshine might be moderated a little, a request that
Provana hastened to obey, closing the heavy Venetian shutters with his
own hands.

"Giulia and I are too fond of our sun-bath," he said, "and we are apt
to forget that everybody does not like being dazzled."

"I came to San Marco for the sun, and it is seldom that I get enough;
but your _salon_ is just a little dazzling." "And your dogs are more
than a little intrusive," Lady Felicia would have liked to add, the
spaniels having taken a fancy to her tortoiseshell cane and velvet
skirt. One had jumped upon her lap, and the other two were disputing
possession of her cane. Serviceable Miss Thompson was quick to the
rescue, carried off the dogs, and restored the cane to its place by
the visitor's chair, while Provana brought an olive-wood table to Lady
Felicia's elbow, and stood ready to bring her tea-cup.

"I hope you are pleased with San Marco," said Grannie, not soaring
above the normal conversation in the hotel.

"We think it quite delightful so far," Provana replied, and Vera
noticed that he never expressed an opinion without including his
daughter. It was always "We," or "Giulia and I," and there was
generally a glance in Giulia's direction which emphasised the reference
to her.

"I love--love--love the place already," cried Giulia, who had beckoned
Vera to her sofa, and was holding her hand. "Most of all because I have
found this sweet friend here. You will let us be friends, won't you,
_cara_ Grannie?"

"_Carissima mia!_" murmured her father reprovingly.

"Please don't let us be ceremonious in this desert island of a place,"
said Lady Felicia, with a graciousness that was new to Vera. "I like
to be called Grannie, and I can be Grannie to the Signorina as well as
to this girl of my own flesh and blood. You can hardly doubt, Signor
Provana, that it is pleasant for me to find that my poor Vera has now a
sweet girl friend in this hotel, where we have lived three months and
hardly made an acquaintance, much less a friend."

"But it has been your own fault, Grannie!" interposed Vera, who was
essentially truthful. "People really tried to be kind to us when we
were strangers."

"If you mean that some of the people were odiously pushing and
officious, I cannot contradict you!" replied the descendant of the
Disbrowes, with ineffable scorn.

But Grannie was not scornful in her demeanour towards the Roman
financier. To him, and to Giulia, she was Grannie in her most urbane
and sympathetic mood. She was charmed to find him so much of an
Englishman.

"My mother was English to the core of her heart. She was the daughter
of a colonial merchant, whose offices were in Mincing Lane, and his
home in Lavender Sweep. I am told there is no such thing as Lavender
Sweep now," Provana went on regretfully, "but when I was a boy, my
grandfather's garden was in the country, and there were gardens all
about it."

"And fields of lavender," said Giulia. "Oh, do say that there were
fields of lavender!"

"No, the lavender fields had gone far away into Kent. Only the name was
left; and now there are streets of shabby houses, and shops, and not a
vestige of garden."

Encouraged by Lady Felicia's urbanity, Signor Provana went on to tell
her that he was plebeian on both sides, and that all there was of
nobility about him belonged to Giulia.

"My wife came of one of the noblest families in Italy," he said, "and
when we want to tease Giulia, we call her Contessina, a title to which
she has a right, but which always makes her angry."

"I don't want to be better than my father!" Giulia cried eagerly.
"If he is not a noble, he comes of a line of good and gifted men. My
grandfather's name is revered in Rome, and his charitable works remain
behind him, to show that if he was one of the cleverest Roman citizens,
he had a heart as fine as his brain. _That_ is the noblest kind of
nobility--_non è vero_, Grannie?"

Grannie smiled assent, and entertained a poor opinion of Giulia's
intellect. A shallow creature, spoilt by overmuch indulgence, and
inclined to presume. The two girls were sitting in the sun by an open
window, a long way off. They had their own table, and Miss Thompson
waited upon them with assiduity. Grannie had been warned that there was
to be no doleful talk, no thinly-disguised pity for the consumptive
girl. All was to be as bright as the room full of flowers and the
untempered sunshine.

Provana told Lady Felicia that he had ordered a landau from Genoa,
which had arrived that afternoon.

"The horses are strong, and used to hill work, and there is an
extra pair for difficult roads," he said. "Giulia and I mean to see
everything interesting that can be seen between breakfast and sundown.
Of course we must be indoors before sunset. Everybody must in this
treacherous climate. I hope Miss Davis may be allowed to go with us
sometimes, indeed often!"

"Always, _Padre mio_, always!" cried Giulia from her distant sofa. She
had begun to listen when her father talked of the carriage. "Vera is to
come with us always. You will let her come, won't you, _cara_ Grannie?"

"Please don't ask her," Vera said dutifully. "That would be deserting
Grannie. She likes me to read to her in the afternoon."

"She shall enjoy your hospitality now and then, Signorina, and I will
do without my afternoon novel. But you would soon tire of her if she
were with you often."

"Tire of her! Impossible! Why, I don't even tire of Miss Thompson!"
Giulia said naïvely.

"Please let Miss Davis come with us whenever you can spare her,"
Provana said, when he took leave of Lady Felicia at the foot of the
stairs leading to her upper floor. "You see how charmed my daughter is
at having found an English friend; and I think you must understand how
anxious I am to make her happy."

Lady Felicia was all sympathy, and placed her granddaughter at the
Signorina's disposal. If this man was of plebeian origin, he had a
certain personal dignity that impressed her; nor was she unaffected by
his importance in that mysterious world of which she knew so little,
the world of boundless wealth.

When she arrived, somewhat breathless, in the shabby second-floor
_salon_, she sank into her chair with an impatient movement, and
breathed a fretful sigh.

"Think of this great coarse man, with his balcony of flowers, and four
horses to his landau," she exclaimed disdainfully. "These Provanas
absolutely exude gold!"

"Oh, Grannie, he is not the least bit purse-proud or vulgar," Vera
protested. "You must see that he has only one desire in life, to make
his daughter happy, and to prolong her life. I hope God will be good to
that poor father, and spare that sweet girl."

"The girl is nice enough, and they will make this place pleasant for
you. Extra horses for the hills! And I have not been able to afford a
one-horse fly!"

"It is hard for you, Grannie dear; but we have been quite comfortable,
and you have been better than you were at Brighton last year."

"Yes, I have been better, but it is the same story everywhere--the
same pinching and watching lest the end of the quarter should find me
penniless."

Lady Felicia resented narrow means, as a personal affront from
Providence.

Signor Provana lost no time in returning Grannie's visit. He appeared
at three o'clock on the following day, bringing his daughter, and
a basket of flowers that had arrived that morning from Genoa, the
resources of San Marco not going beyond carnations, roses and anemones.

"I fear you must have found the stairs rather tiring," Lady Felicia
said, when she had welcomed Giulia.

"Not a bit. I rather like stairs. You see I came in my carriage," and
it was explained that Giulia had an invalid chair on which her father
and the footman carried her up and down stairs.

"Of course I could walk up and down just like other people," Giulia
said lightly; "but this foolish father of mine won't let me. I feel
as if I were the Princess Badroulbadore, coming from the bath in her
palanquin; only there is no Aladdin to fall in love with me."

"Aladdin will come in good time," said Lady Felicia.

"I don't want him. I want no one but Papa. When I was three years old I
used to think I should marry Papa as soon as I grew up; and now I know
I can't, it makes no difference--I don't want anybody else."

An engagement was made for the next day. They were to start at eleven
o'clock for the Roman Amphitheatre near Ventimiglia, looking at the old
churches and palm groves of Bordighera on their way. It would be a long
drive, but there were no alarming hills. Lady Felicia was invited, but
was far too much an invalid to accept. There was no making a secret
of Grannie's bad health. Her bronchial trouble was the staple of her
conversation.

And now a new life began for Vera, a life that would have been all joy
but for the shadow that went with them everywhere, like a cloud that
follows the traveller through a smiling sky--that shadow of doom which
the victim saw not, but which those who loved her could not forget.
The shadow made a bond of sympathy between Mario Provana and Vera. The
consciousness of that sad secret never left them, and many confidential
words and looks drew them closer together in the course of those long
days in lovely places--where Giulia was always the gayest of the little
party, and eager in her enjoyment of everything that was beautiful or
interesting, from a group of peasant children with whom she stopped to
talk, to the remains of a Roman citadel that took her fancy back to the
Cæsars. The chief care of father, governess, and friend, was to prevent
her doing too much. Nothing in her own consciousness warned her how
soon languor and fatigue followed on exertion and excitement.

Miss Thompson was always ready with a supporting arm, always tactful
in cutting short any little bit of exploration that might tire her
charge. She was one of those admirable women who seem born to teach and
cherish fragile girlhood. People almost thought she must have been born
middle-aged. It was unthinkable that she herself had been young, and
had required to be taught and cared for. She was highly accomplished,
and the things she knew were known so thoroughly, that one might
suppose all those dates and dry historical details had been born with
her, ready pigeon-holed in her brain.

Signor Provana treated her with unvarying respect, and always referred
any doubtful question in history or science to Miss Thompson.

But her most valuable gift was a disposition of unvarying placidity.
Nobody had ever seen Lucy Thompson out of temper. The most irritating
of pupils had never been able to put her in a passion. She stood on one
side, as it were, while a minx misbehaved herself. Her aloofness was
her only reproof, and one that was almost always efficacious.

With Giulia Provana that placid temper had never been put to the proof.
Giulia had a sweet nature, was quick to learn, and had a yearning for
knowledge that was pathetic when one thought how brief must be her use
for earthly wisdom; and, what was better, she loved her governess.
Miss Thompson had a pleasant time in Signor Provana's household; moving
from one lovely scene to another, or in Rome sharing all the pleasures
that the most enchanting of cities could afford. Plays, operas,
concerts, races, afternoon parties in noble houses.

From the day his daughter's health began to fail, and the appearance
of lung trouble made the future full of fear, Signor Provana made up
his mind that her life should never be the common lot of invalids.
However few the years she had to live, however inevitable that she was
to die in early youth--the years that were hers should not be treated
as a long illness. The horrible monotony of sick rooms should never be
hers. It should be the business of everybody about her to keep the dark
secret of decay. Her trained nurses were not to be called nurses, but
maids, and were to wear no hospital uniform. Everything about her was
to be gay and fair to look upon--a luxury of colour and light. And she
was to enjoy every amusement that was possible for her without actual
risk. Into that brief life all the best things that earth can give were
to be crowded. She was to know the cleverest and most agreeable people.
She was to read the best books, to hear the most exquisite music, to
see the finest pictures, the most gifted actors. Nothing famous or
beautiful was to be kept from her. From the first note of warning
this had been Giulia's education; and Miss Thompson's chief duty had
been to read the best books of the best writers to an intelligent and
sympathetic pupil. There had been no dull lessons, no long exercises in
the grammar of various tongues--Giulia's education after her fifteenth
birthday had been literature, in the best sense of that sometimes
ill-used word. Signor Provana's system had been so far successful that
his daughter had lived much longer than the specialists had expected,
and her girlhood had been utterly happy. But the shadow was always in
the background of their lives, and wherever he went with his idolised
child there was always the fear that he might leave her among the
flowers and the palm groves that filled her with joyous surprise on
their arrival, and go back to his workaday life lonely and desolate.

Vera was astonished at the things Giulia knew, and was sorely ashamed
of her own ignorance. For the first time in her life she had come
into close association with cultivated minds--with people whose
conversation, though without pedantry, was full of allusions to books
that she had never read, and knowledge that she had never heard of. To
know Giulia and her governess was a liberal education; and Vera showed
a quickness in absorbing knowledge that interested her new friends, and
made them eager to help her.

The world of poetry lay open and untrodden before this daughter of a
poet.

The idea of her friend's parentage fascinated Giulia.

"Does she not look like a poet's daughter?" she asked her father, and
Provana assented with smiling interest.

"All Giulia's geese are swans," he said; "but I believe she has found a
real swan this time."

Vera's shyness wore off after two or three excursions in that ideal
spring-time. The weather had been exceptionally mild this season, and
there had been no unkind skies or cruel mistral to gainsay Dr. Wilmot's
praise of San Marco. It might almost seem as if Provana had been able
to buy sunshine as well as other luxuries. Day after day the friendly
little company of four set out upon some new excursion, to spots whose
very name seemed a poem. To Santa Croce, to Dolce Aqua, to Finalmarina,
to Colla, the little white town among the mountains, where there were
a church and a picture gallery, or by the Roman Road to the Tower of
Mostaccini, on a high plateau crowned with fir trees, with its view
over sea and shore, valley and wood, and far-off horizon; a place for a
picnic luncheon, and an afternoon of delicious idleness. To Vera such
days were unspeakably sweet. Could it be strange that she loved the
girl who had begun by loving her, and who was her first girl friend?
If she was not so impulsive as Giulia, she was as sensitive and as
sympathetic, and Giulia's sad history had interested her before they
met.

As friendship ripened in the familiarity of daily companionship, her
interest in Giulia's father grew stronger day by day. His devotion
to his daughter was the most beautiful thing she had ever known. He
was the first man with whom she had ever lived in easy intimacy--for
the uncles by blood or by marriage in whose houses she had been a
visitor had always held her at arm's length, and her shyness had been
increased by their coldness. The only creature of that superior sex
with whom she had ever been at her ease was her young cousin, Claude
Rutherford. He had been kind to her, and with him she had been happy;
but that friendship was of a long time ago--ages and ages, it seemed
to her, when she conjured up a vision of delicious days in the Park,
hairbreadth escapes in Claude's dinghy, and thrilling rides on his
Arabian pony.

Vera noticed that Signor Provana did not often join in the animated
conversation which Giulia and her governess kept up untiringly during
their morning drives. He was silent for the most part, and always
meditative. His dark grey eyes seemed to be seeing things that were far
away.

"You see Papa sitting opposite us, _cara_," said Giulia; "but you
must not think he is really with us. He is in London, or in Paris,
negotiating a loan that may mean war. He has to provide the sinews of
war sometimes; and I tell him he is responsible for the lives of men.
His thoughts are a thousand miles away, and he doesn't hear a word of
our foolish talk. _Non è vero, Padre?_"

He looked at her with his fond parental smile. "I hear something like
the songs of birds," he said; "and it helps me to think. Go on talking,
_anima mia_. I like the sound, if I miss the sense."

"I have been telling Vera about Browning. She knows nothing of
Browning, though she is a poet's daughter. Is not that dreadful?"

"I have had only Grannie's books, and she does not think there has been
an English poet since Byron. We are birds of passage, and Grannie has
only her poor little travelling library--but it has always seemed to
me that Byron and my father were enough. I have never wearied of their
poetry."

"Oh, but we shall widen your horizon," said Giulia; "You shall read all
my books, and you must lend me your father's poems."

"I shall be very glad if you will read some of my favourites."

"All, all! When I admire I am insatiable."

Giulia was generally silent on their homeward journeys, wearied by the
day's pleasure, in spite of the watchful care that had spared her every
exertion. When the carriage had to stop at the foot of some grassy
hill, at the top of which they were to take their picnic luncheon, or
from which some vaunted view was to be seen, Provana would take his
daughter in his arms and carry her up the slope--and once when Vera
watched him coming slowly down such a hill with the tender form held
by one strong arm, and the fair head nestling on his shoulder, she was
reminded of that Divine Figure of the Shepherd carrying a lamb, the
pathetic symbol of superhuman love. Her eyes filled with tears as she
looked at him, holding the frail girl with such tender solicitude,
walking with such care; and in the homeward drive, when Giulia was
reclining among her pillows with closed eyes, Vera saw the profound
melancholy in the father's face, and realised the effort and agony of
every day in which he had to maintain an appearance of cheerfulness.
These pilgrimages to exquisite scenes, under a smiling sky, were to
him a kind of martyrdom, knowing all that lay before him, counting the
hours that remained before the inevitable parting.

Vera knew what was coming. Dr. Wilmot had told her that the end could
not be far off. The most famous physician in Rome had come to San Marco
one afternoon. Passing through on his way to a patient at Nice, Provana
had told his daughter, and coming casually to take his luncheon at the
hotel--and the great man had confirmed Wilmot's worst augury. The end
was near.

But even after this Giulia rallied, and the picnics in romantic places
were gayer than ever, though Dr. Wilmot went with them, armed with
restoratives for his patient, and pretending to be frivolous.

It was on the morning after a jaunt that had seamed especially
delightful to Giulia that Lidcott came into Vera's room, with a dismal
countenance, yet a sort of lugubrious satisfaction in being the first
to impart melancholy news.

"I'm afraid it's all over with your poor young friend, Miss. She was
taken suddenly bad at ten o'clock last night--with an hæmorrhage.
Dr. Wilmot was here all night. I saw the day-nurse for a minute just
now, as she was taking up her own breakfast tray--they're always
short-handed in this house, Signor Canincio being that mean--and the
nurse says her young lady's a little better this morning--but she'll
never leave her bed again. She's quite sensible, and she doesn't think
she's dangerously ill, even now, and all her thought is to prevent
her father worrying about her. Worrying! Nurse says he sits near her
bedroom door, with his face hidden in his hands, listening and waiting,
as still as if he were made of stone."

"Would they let me see her?" Vera asked.

"I think not, Miss. She's to be kept very quiet, and not to be allowed
to speak."

Vera went down to the corridor, directly she was dressed, and sat
there, near the _salon_ doors, waiting patiently, on the chance of
seeing one of the nurses, or Miss Thompson. She would not thrust
herself upon Signor Provana's sorrow even by so much as an inquiry or a
message; but she liked to wait at his door--to be near if Giulia wanted
her. They had been like sisters, in these few weeks that seemed so long
a space in her life; and she felt as if she were losing a sister.

She had been sitting there nearly an hour when Signor Provana came out
with a packet of letters for the post. He had been obliged to answer
the business letters of the morning. The machinery of his life could
not be stopped for an hour, for any reason, not even if his only child
were dying. There was a look in his face that froze Vera's heart. What
the nurse had said of him was true. He was like a man turned to stone.

He took no notice of Vera. He did not see her, though he passed close
to her, as he went downstairs to post his letters--a matter too
important to be trusted to a servant.

Vera was standing at the end of the corridor when he came back, and
this time he saw her, and stopped to speak. "Ah, Miss Davis, the hour I
have foreseen for a long time has come. I have thought of it every day
of my life, and I have dreamt of it a hundred times; but the reality is
worse than my worst dream."

He was passing her, and turned back.

"We dare not let her speak--every breath is precious. To-day she must
see no one but her nurse--not even me; but if she should be a shade
better to-morrow, will you come to her? I know she will want to see
you."

"I will come at any hour, night or day. I hope you know how dearly I
love her," Vera answered, and then broke down completely and sobbed
aloud.

When she uncovered her face Provana was gone, and she went slowly
back to the upper floor, where Grannie was waiting for her to
sympathise with her indignation at certain offensive--or supposed to be
offensive--remarks in the letters of a sister-in-law, a niece, and a
dear friend.

"But indeed, dear Grannie, _that_ could not be meant unkindly," urged
Vera; for this offender was her favourite aunt, Lady Okehampton, who
had been kind to her.

"Not meant? What could it mean but a sneer at my poverty?"

"I know Aunt Mildred wouldn't knowingly wound you."

"Don't contradict, Vera. I know my nephew's wife--a snob to the tip of
her nails. She feels sure San Marco must be just the place for us--'so
pretty and so quiet, and so inexpensive.' She _dared_ not say cheap.
And she does not wonder that I have stayed longer than I talked about
staying when I left London."

Lady Felicia had remained in the dull Hôtel des Anglais six weeks
beyond her original idea--six weeks longer than the London doctor had
insisted upon; she had stayed into the celestial light of an Italian
April, to the delight of Vera, who had thus enjoyed a new life with
her new friend. She was not frivolous in her attachments, or ready
to fall in love with new faces; but, in sober truth, she had never
before had the chance of such a friendship--a girl of her own age,
highly cultivated, attractive, and sympathetically eager to give her
the affection of a sister. It would have been too cruel if Grannie's
predetermination to leave Italy in the first week of March had cut
short that lovely friendship.

Happily Grannie had found out that March in London might be more
perilous for her bronchial tubes than December; and had made a good
bargain with the rapacious Canincio, since several of his spinsters and
widows were leaving him.

It was the third day after Giulia's fatal attack that Miss Thompson
came to the upper floor to summon Vera to the sick room.

"The dear child has been pining to see you ever since yesterday
morning, when she rallied a little. She has written your name on her
slate again and again, but the doctor was afraid she would excite
herself, and perhaps try to talk. She has promised to be quite calm,
and not to speak--and you must be very, very quiet, dear, and make no
fuss. You can just sit by her bedside for a little while and hold her
hand; but above all you must not cry--any agitation might be fatal."

"Is there no hope--no hope?" Vera asked piteously.

"No, my dear. It is a question of hours."

Giulia's room was so full of flowers that it looked already like a
_chapelle ardente_. Sinking slowly, surely, down into the darkness of
the grave, she was still surrounded with brightness and beauty. Windows
and shutters were open to the sky and the sun, and the blue plane of
the sea showed far away melting into the purple horizon. Her three
dogs were on the bed, Jane Seymour nestling against her arm, the other
two lying at her feet. They were transformed creatures. No impetuous
barking or restless jumping about. The wistful eyes gazed at the face
they loved, the silken ears drooped over the silken coverlet, the
fringed paws lay still. The dogs knew.

Giulia gazed at her friend with those too-brilliant eyes, and touched
her lips with a pale and wasted hand, as a sign that she must not
speak, and then she wrote on her slate eagerly:

"I have wanted to see you so long, so long, and now this may be the
last time. I did not know I was so ill, but I know now. Oh, who will
care take of my father when he is old; who will love him as I have
done? I thought I should always be there, always his dearest friend.
You must be his friend, Vera. He will be fond of you for my sake. You
will find my place by and by."

"Never, darling. No one can fill your place," Vera said, in a quiet
voice, full of calm tenderness.

A strange, suppressed sound, half sigh, half sob, startled her, and
looking at the window she saw Signor Provana sitting on the balcony,
motionless and watchful.

Again Giulia's tremulous hand wrote:

"Don't go till they send you away. Sit by me, and let me look at you.
Oh, what happy days we have had--among the lovely hills. You will think
of me in years to come, when you are in Italy."

"Always, always, I shall think of you and remember you, wherever I am.
And now I won't talk any more, but I will stay till Miss Thompson takes
me away."

Miss Thompson came very soon, and Vera bent over the dying girl and
kissed the cold brow.

"_A riverderci, Carissima_; I shall come again when Miss Thompson
fetches me."

She left the bedside with that word of hope, the luminous eyes
following her to the door. The dogs did not stir, nor the figure in
the balcony. Miss Thompson and the nurse sat silent and motionless. A
stillness so intense seemed strange in a sunlit room, gay with flowers.

It was late next morning when Vera fell into a troubled sleep, filled
with cruel dreams--dreams that mocked her with visions of Giulia well
and joyous--in one of those romantic scenes where they had been happy
together, in hours that were so bright that Vera had forgotten the
shadow that followed them.

Lidcott came with the morning tea, and there was a letter on the tray.

"From the foreign gentleman," said Lidcott, who had never attempted
Signor Provana's name.

Vera tore open the envelope, and looked wonderingly at the page, where
nothing in the strong, stern penmanship indicated sorrow and agitation.

"My girl is at rest," he wrote. "She knew very little acute suffering,
only three days and nights of weariness. She gave me her good-bye kiss
after three o'clock this morning, and the light faded out of the eyes
that have been my guiding stars. To make her happy is what I have lived
for, since I knew that I was to lose her on this side of my grave. If
prayer could reverse the Omnipotent's decree, mine would have been the
mortal disease, and I should have gone down to death leaving her in
this beautiful world, lovely and full of life.

"You have been very kind, and have helped me to make these last weeks
happy for her. I shall never forget you, and never cease to feel
grateful for your sweetness and sympathy. When she knew that she was
dying she begged me to lay her at rest in this place where she had been
so happy. Those were the words she wrote upon her slate when she was
dying, her last words, the last effort of her ebbing life, and I shall
obey her. You will go with us to the cemetery to-morrow morning, I
hope, though you are not of our Church."



CHAPTER III


The sky over a funeral should be low and grey, with a soft, fine rain
falling, and no ray of sunshine to mock the mourners' gloom; but over
Giulia Provana's funeral train the sky was a vault of unclouded blue,
reflected on the blue of the tideless sea, and olive woods and lemon
groves were steeped in sunlight. It was one of those mornings such as
Giulia had enjoyed with her utmost power of enjoyment, the kind of
morning on which the pretty soprano voice had burst into song, from
irrepressible gladness--brief song that ended in breathlessness.

The cemetery of San Marco was a white-walled garden between the sea and
the hill-side, where the lemon trees and old, grey olives were broken
here and there by a cypress that rose, a tall shaft of darkness, out of
the silvery grey.

Never till to-day had those dark obelisks suggested anything to Vera
but the beauty of contrast--a note that gave dignity to monotonous
olive woods; but to-day the cypresses were symbols of parting and
death. Their shadow would fall across Giulia's grave in the sunlight
and in the moonlight. Vera would remember them, and visualise them
when she was far away from the place where she had known and loved
Signor Provana's daughter. She was thinking this, as she stood beside
Grannie's chair by the gate of the cemetery--watching the funeral
procession. There were no carriages. The priest and acolytes walked
in front of the bier. The white velvet pall was covered with white
flowers, and behind the coffin, with slow and steady step, followed
Provana, an imposing figure, tall and massive, with head erect; calm,
but deadly pale.

Miss Thompson, the two nurses, and Giulia's Italian maid followed,
carrying baskets of violets; and Lady Felicia, who had left her chair
as the priest and white-robed acolytes came in view, walked feebly
behind them, with Vera by her side. They, too, had brought their
tribute of flowers, roses white and red, roses which were now plentiful
at San Marco.

It had been a surprise to Vera that Lady Felicia should insist upon
getting up before nine o'clock to attend the funeral; she who had
contrived to absent herself from all such ceremonies, even when an old
friend was to be laid at rest, on the ground that her dear Jane, or her
dear Lucy, could sleep no better at Highgate or Kensal Green because
her friend risked rheumatism or bronchitis on her account.

"The poor dear herself would not have wished it," Lady Felicia always
remarked on such occasions, as she wrote her apology to the nearest
relation of the deceased. Yet for Signor Provana's daughter, almost a
stranger, Grannie had put herself, or at least Lidcott, to infinite
trouble in arranging a mourning toilette.

The Roman rites were simple and pathetic; and throughout the ceremony
Signor Provana bore himself with the same pale dignity. He stood at the
head of the open grave, and watched the rain of violets and roses, nor
did his hand tremble when he dropped one perfect white rose upon the
white coffin, the last of all the flowers, the symbol of the pure life
that was ended in that cruel grave.

It was only when the earth began to fall thud after thud upon the
flowers that his fortitude failed. He turned from the grave suddenly,
and walked towards the gate before the priest had finished his office,
and Vera did not see him again till she was walking beside Grannie's
chair, on their way back to the hotel, when he overtook them.

"I want to say good-bye to you and your granddaughter, Lady Felicia,"
he said in his grave, calm voice, the voice that was so much more
attractive than his person. "I shall leave San Marco by the afternoon
train, and I shall go straight through to London."

"So soon?" exclaimed Grannie, with a look of disappointment. "Would it
not be better to rest for a few days in this quiet place?"

"I could not rest at San Marco. It is the end of a journey that has
lasted three years. I shall never lie down to rest in San Marco till I
lie down yonder, beside my girl."

He looked towards the cemetery gate with a strange longing in his eyes,
as if his heart were yearning for that last sleep in the shadow of the
cypresses.

"Good-bye," he said, clasping Grannie's hand, and then Vena's. "I shall
never forget," he said, earnestly. "Never, never." He walked away
quickly towards the hotel, and Lidcott went on with her mistress's
chair.

"A queer kind of man," said Lady Felicia. "I don't understand him. He
ought to have shown a little more gratitude for your kindness to his
daughter."

"There is no reason for gratitude. I have never had such happy days
as those I spent with Giulia, while I could forget that she was to be
taken from me."

"Oh, indeed," said Lady Felicia in an aggrieved voice. "You are vastly
polite to me."

"Dear Grannie, of course I have been happy with you, and you have been
very kind to me."

Grannie kept her offended air till they were in their sitting-room,
when a sudden interest was awakened by the appearance of a sealed
packet on her table. At the first glance it looked like a jeweller's
parcel, but a nearer view showed that it was somewhat carelessly packed
in writing-paper, and that the large red seal bore the monogram "M. P."

Grannie's taper fingers--bent a little with the suppressed gout that
seems natural to the eighth decade--trembled with excitement, as she
tore off the thin paper and discovered a red morocco jewel-case,
heart-shaped.

While Lady Felicia was opening the case--a rather difficult matter, as
the metal spring was strong and her fingers were weak--Vera picked up
an open letter that had fallen out of the parcel.

"From Signor Provana," she said, and she read the brief note aloud,
without waiting for Grannie's permission.

 "DEAR LADY FELICIA,--I hope you will let your granddaughter wear this
 trinket in memory of my daughter. It was Giulia's own choice of a
 souvenir for a friend she loved. A friendship of two months may seem
 short to you and me; but it was long in that brief life.

                                                     "Yours faithfully,
                                                             "PROVANA."

The lid was open and the red light of diamonds flashed in the shaft of
sunshine from the narrow slit in the Venetian shutters.

"You are a lucky girl, Vera," said Grannie approvingly, as she turned
the heart-shaped locket about in the slanting sun-rays, unconsciously
producing Newton's prism. "I know something about diamonds. That centre
stone is splendid. Hunt and Roskell would not sell a diamond heart as
good as this under three hundred pounds."

Vera's only comment was to burst out crying.

"For a commercial magnate, Signor Provana is a superior person," said
Lady Felicia. "I hope we may see more of him. If he had given me time,
I should have asked him to call upon me in London."

"Oh, Grannie, you could not! It would have been dreadful to talk about
visiting to a man in such deep grief."

"I am not likely to do anything unseemly," Grannie replied with her
accustomed dignity. "I ought to have asked the man to call."

       *       *       *       *       *

Everybody was leaving the South, and San Marco had the dejected air
that the loveliest place will assume when people are going away. For
Vera San Marco seemed dead after the death of her friend; and, while
she grieved incessantly for Giulia, she was surprised to find how
much she missed Giulia's father. It seemed to her that some powerful
sustaining presence had been taken out of her life. His strength had
made her feel strong. He had been with them always, in those long
Spring days that were warm and vivid as an English July. He had talked
very little; but he had been interested in his daughter's talk, and
even in Vera's. He had come to their assistance sometimes in their
discussions, with grave philosophy or hard facts. He seemed to possess
universal knowledge; but he was not romantic or poetical. He smiled at
Giulia's flights of fancy, those voyages in cloud-land that charmed
Vera. He was always interested, always sympathetic; and the grave,
beautiful voice and the calm, slow smile were not to be forgotten by
Vera, now that he had gone out of her life.

"It is all like a long dream, beautiful, but oh, so sad," Vera said to
Grannie, who was more sympathetic than usual upon this subject.

"It has been an interesting experience for you, which one could never
have hoped for in such an hotel as this," she said. "Dr. Wilmot tells
me that Signor Provana has a house in Portland Place--the largest in
the street, where he used to entertain the best people in his wife's
time. Her rank and beauty gave distinction to his money; so I can
believe Wilmot that he was by way of being a personage in London."

Lidcott was packing the trunks, and the Bath chair, while Grannie
talked. The luggage, except the trunk with Grannie's best velvet gown,
and a frock or two for Vera, and the absolute needs of daily life, was
to go by _Petite Vitesse_, which meant being so long without it, that
old familiar things would seem new and strange when the trunks came to
be unpacked.

The long journey was dull--Grannie and Lidcott having a curious
capacity for creating dullness. It was their atmosphere, and went
with them everywhere. The change from summer sunshine to the grey sky
and drizzling rain of an English April was a sad surprise; and the
lodging-house in the street off Portland Place seemed the abode of
gloom. It was the London season, and carriages and motor-cars were
rolling up and down the handsome street in which Signor Provana's house
had been described as the largest. Vera looked at all the houses as the
cab drove past them, trying to find the superlative in size; but there
was no time for counting windows or calculating space.

The lodging-house drawing-room, albeit better furnished than Canincio's
second-floor _salon_, looked unutterably dreary; for the miniatures
and books, and old china, that were wont to redeem the commonness of
things, were creeping along the shores of the Rhone or mewed up in an
obscure station, and though flowers were cheap in the street-sellers'
baskets, not a blossom brightened the dingy drawing-room.

"How odious this house looks," said Lady Felicia, while she scanned the
cards in a cheap china dish, and read the pencilled messages upon some
of them. "I see your Aunt Mildred and your Aunt Olivia have called,
surprised not to find us. But not a word from Lady Helstone, though I
know she is in town. She was always heartless and selfish--but as she
is the one I rely on for taking you about, we shall have to be civil to
her."

"Poor dear Grannie, I really don't want to be taken out. I don't care
a scrap about Society--and, above all, I don't want to cost you
money for clothes, and I couldn't go to parties without all sorts of
expensive things."

"Don't talk nonsense, Vera. I am used to scraping and pinching. It
will only mean pinching a little harder. But there's time enough to
settle all that before you are eighteen. Of course, you will have to be
launched, if you are ever to marry--unless you want to sneak off to a
registry office with the first scribbler you meet."

"Oh, Grannie," cried Vera, and walked out of the room in a sad silence,
which made Grannie rather sorry for herself--as a poor old woman who
was being trampled upon by everybody.

The long hot journey had tired her limbs and her nerves, and this damp,
grey London, this shabby lodging-house had been too irritating for
placid endurance. Somebody must suffer; and Lidcott, that sturdy child
of the West Riding, was apt to retaliate.

Vera was perfectly sincere in her indifference to that grand event
of "coming out," which had always been held before her by Grannie as
the crown of girlhood, the crisis upon which all a young person's
future depended, the opening of a gate into the paradise of youth,
the paradise of dances and dinners, treats of every kind, where
beauty was to be surrounded with a circle of admirers, among whom
there would be at least one--the eligible, the rich, the inexpressive
he--who could lift her at once to the _summum bonum_, whether in
Carlton House Terrace, or Park Lane, whether titled or untitled---but
rich--rich--_ricconaccio_.

No, Vera had no eager desire for crowds of well-dressed people--for
music and lights and dancing, and those things that she had heard
the young cousins, still in the school-room, talk about with rapture
and longing. The joys she longed for, while the slow spring and the
fierce hot summer went by in the dull side street and the lodging-house
drawing-room, were woods and streams, and rural joys of all kinds,
such as she had known in that one happy summer of her childhood, for
slow rides in leafy glades, in and out of sunshine and shadow, for
the sound of a waterfall on moonlit nights, for young companions like
the cousin who was once so kind--for many more books, and spacious
rooms, and portraits of historic people--beautiful women--valiant
soldiers--looking at her from a panelled wall. These were the things
she wanted, and the want of which made life dreary.

In that long summer and autumn she often thought of the girl who was
lying between the olive woods and the tideless sea; and, meditating on
that short life, she could but compare it with her own, and wonder at
the difference.

Is was not the difference that wealth made--but the difference that
love made, that filled her with wonder as she recalled all that Giulia
had told her of her childhood and girlhood.

She looked back at her own fatherless years--remembering but as a dream
the father whom she had last seen on her birthday, when she was three
years old--and when a woman in whose rustic cottage she had been living
for what seemed a long time, took her to the nursing home where the
fading poet was lying on a sofa in a garden. It was to be her birthday
treat to visit "poor Papa, who would be sure to have something pretty
for her." But the poet had no birthday gift for his only child. He had
been too ill to think much about anything but his own weakness and
pain. He had not remembered his little girl's third anniversary. He
could only give her kisses, and sighs and tears; and she clung to him
fondly, and said again and again: "Poor Papa, poor Papa!"

Kind Mrs. Humphries, of the pretty rose-covered cottage, had told her
that Papa was ill, and had taught her to pray for him.

"Please God, bless poor Papa, and make him well again."

The prayer was not answered, and that spectral face, beautiful even on
the brink of the grave, was all she could remember of a father.

And then had come the long, slow years with Grannie, who had been
kind after her lights, but who required the subjugation of almost all
childish impulses and inclinations. Long years in which Vera had to
amuse herself in silence, and play no games that involved running about
a room, or disturbing things. She had been surrounded by things that
she must not touch; and her rare toys, the occasional gifts of aunts
and cousins, were objects of reprobation if they were ever left on a
chair or a table where they could offend Grannie's eye. The winter
season, when there was only one habitable room, was terrible; for then
Grannie was always there, and to play was impossible. She could only
sit on a hassock in her favourite corner and look at old story books,
too painfully familiar; and if she began to sing or to talk to herself,
there came a reproachful murmur from Grannie's sofa: "My dear child, do
you think I have no nerves?"

The summer was better, for she could play in the second-floor bedroom,
which she shared with Lidcott, a room with three windows upon which
the sun beat fiercely, but where she could talk to her dolls, and sing
them to sleep, and do anything except run about, as she had always to
remember that every step would beat like a hammer upon poor Grannie's
head.

And in these years Giulia, who was within a few months of her own
age, was being indulged with everything that could make the bliss of
childhood, in the loveliest country in the world, and then, as she grew
into a thinking, reasonable being, she had been her father's dearest
companion, his distraction after the dull round of business, his
choicest recreation, his unfailing delight. It was worth while to die
young after such a childhood, Vera thought.

Grannie's winter in Italy had been a success, and she had a summer
unspoiled by bronchial trouble. She wore her velvet gowns and her
diamond earrings very often, and had her hair dressed in the latest
fashion, with diamond combs gleaming amidst the silvery white, and was
quite a splendid Lady Felicia at the friendly dinners and small and
early parties to which she accepted invitations from her nieces and
very old friends. She had been reproached with burying herself alive,
but this year her health was better, and she was going out a little
more; chiefly on Vera's account, who was now seventeen, and must really
make her début next season. Her nieces told her that Vera was pretty
enough to make a sensation, or at any rate to have offers.

"If she does, I suppose she will refuse the best of them, as her mother
did," Lady Felicia said bitterly; "but whatever happens I shall not
interfere. If she chooses to fall in love with the first detrimental
who proposes to her, I won't forbid the banns."

Perhaps there was more of the serpent than the dove in this protest
from Lady Felicia. In long hours of brooding over an irrevocable past
it may have been borne in upon her that if she had not harped so much,
and so severely, upon the necessity of marrying for money, her daughter
might not have been so determined to marry for love.

The aunts who praised Vera did not forget to add that she would never
be as handsome as her mother.

"She may 'furnish,' as the grooms call it," said Lady Helstone, who
rode to hounds and bred her hunters; "but she will never be a striking
beauty. She won't take away the men's breath when she comes into
a ballroom. I'm afraid it may be the detrimentals, the poets, and
æsthetes, and impressionist painters, who will rave about her. She is
ethereal--she is poetical--and in spite of the man Davis she looks
thoroughbred to the points of her shoes. After all, she may make a
really good match, and make things much more comfortable for you by and
by, poor dear Auntie."

"I shall never be a dependent upon my granddaughter's husband," Grannie
retorted, with an offended blush. "The pittance which has sufficed for
me since my own husband's death, and which has enabled me to keep out
of debt, will last me to the end. I require nobody's assistance--and as
I have never found blood-relations eager to help me, I should certainly
expect nothing from a grandson-in-law; if there is such a thing."

       *       *       *       *       *

Vera felt a sudden thrill when Lady Felicia told her that they were to
winter at San Marco. She hardly knew whether the thrill was of pleasure
or of pain. The place would be full of melancholy thoughts. Giulia's
grave would be the one significant point in the landscape; but the
long parade, with its shabby date palms and ragged pepper trees, could
never again be as dull and grey and heartbreakingly monotonous as it
had been a year ago; for now San Marco was peopled with the shadows of
things that had once been lovely and dear. Now all that beauty which
had once been far away and unknown had been made familiar in the long
drives in the big, luxurious carriage drawn by gay and eager horses,
whose work seemed joy--and the al fresco luncheons on the summit of
romantic hills, with all the glory of the Western Ligura laid out below
them like an enchanter's carpet, and the semi-Moorish cities, and Roman
ruins of circus and citadel, the white cathedrals--remote among the
mountains, yet alive with priests and nuns and picturesque villagers,
and the sound of bells and swinging of censers--San Marco no longer
meant only that level walk above the sluggish sea. It meant historical
Italy. Her feelings about the place had altered utterly after the
coming of the Provanas, and her mind was full of her lost friend
when she alighted at the door of the Hôtel des Anglais, where Madame
Canincio was waiting to receive honoured guests.

Inmates who stopped till the very end of the season, and who came again
next year, were worthy of highest honour (albeit they paid the minimum
second-floor _pension_; and though Canincio had audaciously declared
that he lost money by the _arrangement_). Lady Felicia was a distinct
asset, were it only for keeping the Cit's wife, Lady Jones, in her
place.

Vera looked sadly along the spacious corridor, that had been so bright
with flowers during the Provana occupation.

"Have you nice people on your first floor, Madame Canincio?" she asked.

"Alas, no, Mademoiselle. Our noble floor is empty. If we had six third
floors and ten fourth floors, we could let every room--but for the
first floor there is no one. Rich people do not come to San Marco. They
want gambling-tables and pigeon-shooting, or the vulgarity of Nice."

"I suppose you have heard nothing of Signor Provana since he left?"

"Nothing, Mademoiselle, except that he is in Rome, and one of the
greatest men there. And he was so simple and plain in his ways, and
always so kind and courteous. He wanted so little for himself, and
never once found fault with our chef, who, good as he is, must have
been inferior to his own."

"I hope your chef did not give him risotto or chopped-up liver, or
macaroni three times a week for luncheon," Lady Felicia said, sourly.

It was not till Grannie had been read to sleep that Vera was free to go
where she liked. She had done her morning's work in the flower market,
and at the so-called circulating library, where the Tauchnitz novels of
the year before last were to be found by the explorer, stagnating on
dusty shelves. This morning duty had to be done hurriedly, as Grannie
liked to see the flower-vases filled, and a novel on her sofa-table
when she emerged from her bedroom, ready to begin her monotonous day.
Vera was secretary as well as reader, and had to write long letters to
her aunts, at Grannie's dictation; letters which were not pleasant to
her to write on account of the sense of injury and general discontent
which was the _Leit-Motiv_ running through them. In the beginning of
her secretaryship she had sometimes ventured a mild remonstrance, such
as, "Oh, Grannie, I don't think you ought to say that. I know Aunt
Olivia is very fond of you," or "Aunt Mildred is very affectionate,
and would be the last to neglect you." Whereupon Lady Felicia had told
her that if she presumed to express an opinion, the letters should be
written by Lidcott.

"Her spelling is as eccentric as the Paston letters; but I would rather
put up with that than with your impertinence."

It was rather late in the afternoon before the drowsy Tauchnitz novel
produced its soporific effect upon Grannie, though Vera had been
reading in a semi-slumber; but at last the withered eyelids fell, and
the grey head lay back upon the down pillow, and Vera might beckon
to Lidcott, who crept in from the bedroom, with her work-basket, and
seated herself by the open window most remote from Grannie, leaving
Vera free to go out for her afternoon walk; only till five o'clock,
when she must be at home to pour out Grannie's tea.

A church clock struck as she left the hotel garden, the garden where
she had often sat with Giulia, who used to breakfast on the lawn, and
only leave the garden to go to the carriage--spending as much of her
life as possible under the blue sky.

All show of brightness had vanished from the stretch of thin grass and
the ragged pepper trees--no pretty chairs or bright Italian draperies,
no gaudy-plumaged cockatoo, or be-ribboned Blenheims. All was desolate,
and tears clouded Vera's eyes, as she paused to look at the place where
she had been happy.

"How could I ever forget that she was going to die?" she wondered.

"It was she herself who made me forget. She was so full of joy--so
much alive--that I never really believed she was dying. I could not
believe; I never did believe, till she was lying speechless, with death
in her face."

She was going to the cemetery, to her friend's grave. It was almost as
if she were going to Giulia. She could not believe the bright spirit
was quenched, although the lovely form had passed into everlasting
darkness. Somewhere between earth and heaven that happy soul was
conscious of the beauty of the world she had loved, and of the love
that had been given to her--somewhere, not utterly beyond the reach
of those who loved her, that sweet spirit was floating--not dead, but
emancipated.

Miss Thompson had told her of the heroic fortitude behind that
light-hearted gaiety which had been Giulia's special charm. Although
she was sustained by the unconsciousness of her doom, which goes so
often with pulmonary disease, she had not been exempt from suffering.
The sleepless night, the wearying cough, breathlessness, pain,
exhaustion, fever, had all been borne with a sublime patience; and her
only thought when the tardy morning stole at last upon the seeming
endless night--had been of her father. He was never to be told she had
slept badly--or had not slept at all--and it was her own cheerful voice
that answered his inquiry as he stood at the half-open door: "Pretty
well, _Padre mio, si, si_; not a bad night--a pretty good night--very
good, upon the whole." No hint of the weariness, the suffering, of
those long hours--and the nurse, though unwilling, had to indulge
her, and allow the anxious father to be deceived. After all, as Miss
Thompson said, a detail like that could not matter. He knew.

Remembering this, it seemed to Vera that Giulia's death meant
emancipation--a blessed escape from the mortal frame that was fraught
with suffering, to the freedom of the immortal spirit, winged for its
flight to higher horizons, a being with new capacities, new joys--yet
not unremembering those beloved on earth, nay, with a higher power to
love the clay-bound creatures it had loved when it was clay.

In Vera's reverence for her father's genius, there had been much of the
child's unquestioning faith in something it has been told to admire,
for a considerable part of Lancelet Davis's poetry, and that which
his review book showed to have been most appreciated by his critics,
soared far beyond the limits of Vera's understanding. There were
verses which she recited to herself again and again, with a delight
in their music--verses where the words followed each other with an
entrancing melodiousness--but for whose meaning she sought in vain.
A Runic rhyme would have been as clear. She had repeated them dumbly
in the dead hours of the night. Mellifluous lines that had a soothing
charm. Lines that rose and fell like the waves of the sea; and lines
drawn out in a slow monotony like the long, level stretch of wind-swept
marshes--visions of white temples and strange goddesses; but they were
shapeless as dreams to Vera--a confusion of lovely images without one
distinct idea.

There were others of his poems that she understood and loved; the
poems that the critics had mourned over as a disappointment, a falling
away from the promise of a splendid career. There was his story of
his courtship and wedded life, which Vera thought better than "Maud,"
written during his three happy years; and there was a poem called
"Afterwards," written after her mother's death, which she thought
better than "In Memoriam," a poem in which, after descending to the
darkness of the grave, the poet soared to the gate of heaven, and told
how where there is great love there is no such thing as death. The
bond of love is also the bond of the dead and the living. Those who
love with intensity cannot be parted. The spirit returns from behind
the veil, and soul meets soul. Not in the crowded city--not within
the sound of foolish voices, not amidst people or things that are of
the earth earthy--but in the quiet graveyard, in the shadowy gloom of
the forest, in lonely places by the starlit sea, or in the silence of
sleepless nights, that other half of the soul is near, and, though
there is neither voice nor touch, the beloved presence is felt, and the
message of consolation is heard.

It was with her father's poem in her hand that Vera went to the
white-walled enclosure under the hill, where the silver-grey of the
olive woods shivered in the faint wind that could not stir a fibre of
the cypress.

She had no trouble in finding Giulia's resting-place, for the picture
of the spring morning when she had stood beside the open grave was in
her mind, as if the funeral had been yesterday. It was at the farther
end of the cemetery, in a little solitude guarded by a triangle of
cypresses that marked the end of the enclosure, a spot where the ground
rose considerably above the level of the larger space. Upon this higher
level the massive marble tomb--so severely simple, so dazzling in its
whiteness--dominated the lower plane, where memorial devices of every
shape and form, Gothic cross, and broken column, winged angel, inverted
torch, and Grecian urn, seemed poor and trivial by comparison.

It was a massive, oblong tomb without device or symbol, and only an
artist would have been conscious of the delicate workmanship with which
every member of the unobtrusive mouldings had been executed. There was
no elaborate ornament, only a Doric simplicity, and the perfection of
finely finished work.

The same simplicity marked the brief inscription on the level slab.

"Giulia, the only child of Mario Provana." This--with the date of birth
and death---was all. No record of parental love, nothing for the world
to know, except that a father's one ewe lamb had lived and died.

A yew hedge, breast high, made a quadrangular enclosure which isolated
Giulia's resting-place--a cemetery within a cemetery--and, at the end
facing Genoa and the morning sun, there was a broad marble bench, and
here Vera sat for nearly an hour, reading her father's poem, the work
of his last year, written after the hand of death had touched him.

It was an hour of pensive thought, and as she pondered over pages where
every line was familiar, it seemed to her that Giulia's spirit could
not be remote from the friend whose sudden tears fell on the page,
where some deeper melancholy in the verse brought last year's sorrow
back with the force of a new grief.

The sun was low when she left the cemetery, and the shiver that comes
with sundown chilled her as she hurried back to the hotel, more than
five minutes late for Grannie's tea. But the following afternoon, and
the day after that, she went back to the Roman bench, and sat there
till sunset, with the green cloth volume that had grown shabby with
much use, and her memory of Giulia, for her only companions. After
this she went there every afternoon, sometimes with "Afterwards,"
sometimes with a volume of Byron or Shelley. The sense of dullness
and monotony that had depressed her in her walk up and down the parade
under the palm trees seldom came upon her in this silent enclosure,
where the yew hedge--that only wealth could have attained in so brief
a time--screened her from observation. She sometimes heard the voices
of tourists admiring the monuments, or reading the epitaphs, in the
cemetery; but it was rarely that anyone looked in at the opening in the
green quadrangle where she sat.

It was more than a fortnight after her first visit to this mournful
solitude when for the first time Vera was startled by the sound of
approaching footsteps, and looking up she saw the tall form of Mario
Provana, standing in the golden sunset. She rose as he came towards
her, and gave him her hand, a hand so slender that it seemed to
disappear in the broad palm and strong fingers that clasped it.

"I was told that you were in San Marco," he said; "but I never thought
I should find you here. Then you have not forgotten?"

"I shall never forget. I come here every afternoon with my father's
book--the poem he wrote when he knew that he was dying."

"May I sit by your side for a few minutes? I should like to see your
father's book. I have not forgotten that he was a poet. Since you told
me that, it has seemed as if I ought to have known beforehand. You look
like a poet's child. I suppose everybody who saw Miranda for the first
time, without having seen Prospero, ought to have known that her father
was a magician."

His tone was grave and thoughtful, and his speech hardly sounded like a
compliment. There was no air of gallantry to alarm her.

He took the shabby little volume from her hand, and turned the pages
slowly, pausing to read a few lines, here and there.

"'Part the first, Thanatos, Part the second, Eros.' From darkness
to light," he said, in the deep, grave voice which was her most
distinctive impression of Mario Provana. "He believed in the victory
of spirit over flesh. He was a poet; and faith is easy where the
imagination is strong. Tennyson knew that all religion, all peace of
mind, hung upon that one vital question--the Afterwards--the other
world that is to give us back lost love, lost youth, lost genius, lost
joy. I am not a religious man, Vera; indeed, to the Church of Rome I
count as an infidel, because I cannot subject my mind to the outward
forms and conventions which seem to me no more than the dry husks of
spiritual things. But I am more of a Pantheist than an infidel--my
gospel is the gospel of Christ--my faith is the faith of Spinoza."

And then, after a silence, he said:

"I called you Vera just now. Do you mind? My daughter loved you as if
you had been her sister. May I call you by your pretty Christian name?"

"Pray do. I'm sure Grannie won't mind," Vera answered naïvely.

"We will ask Grannie's permission," he said, with a grave smile. "If
you will allow me to walk back to the 'Anglais' with you, I will call
on Lady Felicia this afternoon, and we can get that small matter
settled."

He talked to her as if she had been a child; and the difference between
his forty years and her seventeen made the fatherly tone seem natural.

He walked slowly round the tomb, lingering beside it now and then,
and leaning his hand on the marble slab while he stood with bent head
looking at the inscription, in a pause that seemed long; and then he
rejoined Vera, and they left the cemetery together.

"You are not out yet, I think," he said, when they had walked a little
way. "I read a paragraph in a London paper to the effect that Lady
Felicia Cunningham's granddaughter, Miss Veronica Davis, the daughter
of the poet whose early death had been a loss to literature, was to be
presented next season."

"It is so foolish of them to write like that, as if I were a person of
importance; when Grannie is so poor that it will be cruel to let her
spend a quarter's income upon a Court dress and party frocks--and I
don't care a scrap about parties or the Court."

"What a singular young lady you must be. I doubt if I could find your
parallel in London or Rome. If you don't care for society, what are the
things that make your idea of happiness?"

"Beautiful places, and the sea, books and music, and Shakespeare's
plays," she answered quite simply. "I saw Henry Irving in 'Hamlet,'
when I was twelve years old. It was my birthday, and my kindest aunt
took me to her box at the Lyceum. I have never forgotten that night."

"You admired the actor?"

"I admired Hamlet. I never remembered that he was an actor," she
answered, while her eyes brightened, and her cheek flushed with
enthusiasm. "But when someone told me suddenly that Sir Henry Irving
was dead, I felt as if one great joy had gone out of the world. I saw
Browning once--at an afternoon party at my aunt's; and she took me to
him as he stood among a group of young people, talking and laughing,
and told him who my father was; and he was too kind for words, and
patted my head, and stooped and asked me to kiss him. I knew nothing
about poetry then, not even about my father's, but now when I read
Browning, I always recall the noble face and the silvery hair, and I am
heart-broken when I think that he is dead, and that I shall never see
him again."

She stopped, blushing at her own audacity, and surprised at finding
herself talking as she had never talked to Grannie, but as she had
often talked to Provana's daughter.

Lady Felicia received the unexpected visitor with exceeding
graciousness, and showed a friendly interest in Signor Provana's
doings. She hoped he was going to spend some time at San Marco.

"I have a selfish interest in the question," she said, with her urbane
smile, "for at present Dr. Wilmot is the only person in the place who
has intelligence enough to make conversation possible. This poor child
and I come back to the 'Anglais' to find the same obese widow, the same
pinched spinsters with wisps of faded hair scraped over their poor
heads, too conscientious to put their trust in Lichtenstein. There is
one poor creature who would be almost pretty if she knew how to put on
her clothes and would treat herself to a wig."

Lady Felicia prattled gaily, not considering it her duty to put on a
mournful air and remind Provana of his bereavement. It was half a year
ago--and it was better taste to ignore the melancholy past. Vera busied
herself at the tea-table, providing for all Grannie's wants before she
gave the guest his tea. He looked colossal as he stood beside the small
wicker tea-table, and the fragile figure of the girl sitting there, in
her dark blue serge frock, a frock two years old, from a cheap tailor.

Lady Felicia had a convenient theory, that the intrinsic value
of clothes hardly mattered. It was the putting on that was the
consequence; and this philosophy, severely instilled into Vera's
growing mind, had certainly resulted in an exquisite neatness that went
some way to prove the truth of the theory.

In answer to friendly inquiries, Signor Provana told Lady Felicia that
he was staying at the "Metropole," and might possibly take another week
of quiet rest before he went back to Rome, where he was to spend the
winter.

"Rome and London are my two counting-houses," he said; "and I have to
divide my life between the two cities, with an occasional fortnight in
New York, where I have offices, and an American partner."

"How you must hate London after Rome," said Vera.

"You know Rome?"

"Only in books--Byron--and Corinne."

"Corinne sounds very old-fashioned," Grannie apologised, "but Vera has
been brought up by an old woman, and has had to put up with an old
woman's books. Vera and I can just afford to live, but we can't afford
to buy things we don't want."

Vera blushed hotly at this remark. She thought Grannie talked too much
about her poverty. It seemed quite as bad form as if Signor Provana had
expatiated upon his wealth.

Nothing could exceed Grannie's graciousness. Yes, of course, Provana
was to call the child Vera. "Miss Davis" would be absurdly formal.

"Even if Davis were not such a horribly commonplace name," added
Grannie, at which Vera protested that she had never been ashamed of her
father's name.

"An utterly ridiculous name for a poet!" And then Grannie went on to
lament that Signor Provana should think of going back to Rome in a
week. "But in that case I hope you will be charitable, and take tea
with me every afternoon."

She said "with me," not "with us"--ignoring the child.

Her hours were so long and so dull, she complained, and she loved
conversation; to hear about, and talk about, everything that was going
on in the world; the political and the social, the scientific and the
literary world. Art, letters, everything interested her; and she had
only such driblets of news as Dr. Wilmot could bring her.

"The man is fairly intelligent, but oh, so narrow," she complained.

"It will be an act of real benevolence if you will drop in at
tea-time," urged Grannie, when Provana was taking leave.

He promised to be benevolent, to take tea with Grannie every afternoon,
if so dull a person's company could give her any pleasure. He knew no
one at San Marco, wanted to know no one. He had come there only to be
near his daughter for a little while, just a short spell of thought and
rest.

"If I had been a good Catholic, I should have gone into retreat at the
nearest monastery," he said; "but my religion is too vague and shadowy
for such discipline; so I just wander about among the woods and hills,
and think, and remember."

The profound melancholy with which those words were spoken convinced
Grannie that, although his sorrow was half a year old, it was still an
absorbing grief, and that she must be prepared to take him seriously.

Vera felt a certain shyness about going to the spot where so many of
her afternoons had been spent. Signor Provana might be there before
her, and she would seem to intrude upon his sorrow. He had told them
why he had come to San Marco. He must want to be alone with sad
thoughts and cherished memories.

She took last year's dull walk on the parade, and met several of her
hotel acquaintances, one of whom, no less a personage than Lady Jones,
stopped to talk.

"I hear you had a visitor yesterday afternoon," she said; "the Italian
millionaire. Miss Mason saw him leave the hotel after dark. He must
have stopped with her ladyship quite a long time."

Lady Jones always talked of Grannie as her ladyship.

"I hope he has got over the loss of his daughter."

"In six months!" cried Vera. "How could you suppose such a thing!"

"Men's grief never lasts very long, not even a widower's," said Lady
Jones; "and I've always noticed that the more a widower wants to throw
himself into his wife's grave at the funeral, the sooner he begins to
think about marrying again. And from the fuss Signor Provana made over
his daughter, I should have expected six months would have been long
enough to make him forget her."

"I don't think he is that kind of man," Vera said gravely, trying to
move away; but Lady Jones detained her.

"What's your hurry?" she asked. "You must find it awfully dull walking
alone every afternoon."

"I rather like being alone--if I can have a book," Vera answered,
glancing at the little volume under her arm, and thinking how far the
charm of solitude surpassed Lady Jones's conversation.

"Well, I'll walk a little way with you," said that lady, with
exasperating patronage. "I don't like to see a young girl leading such
a dull life. Why don't you never come down to the drawing-room of an
evening?"

"I don't want to leave Grannie."

"You'd find us quite gay after your solitary salong. Two bridge tables,
and besique, and sometimes even games, How, when, and where, and
Consequences."

"I hate cards, and I like books better than society," Vera answered
frankly.

"Well, you are an oddity. But you seem to have a high opinion of this
Italian gentleman."

"No one could help liking Signor Provana after seeing him with his
daughter--and I was a good deal with them."

"Yes, driving out with them on all the most expensive excursions. They
quite took you up, didn't they? And it must have been very nice for you
to go about in such a luxurious way after being cooped up with Gran'ma."

"They were very kind."

"He's a fine-looking man," said Lady Jones thoughtfully. "Not what
anyone could call handsome; but a fine figure, and carries himself
well. I suppose he has been in the Army. Most of these foreigners have
to do a bit of soldiering in their young days."

They were at the end of the parade, and Vera stopped, and held out her
hand to her insistent companion.

"Aren't you coming back?" asked Lady Jones.

"Not yet. I shall sit here and read for a little while."

"Don't you go and get a chill and make her ladyship angry with you.
She won't like Dr. Wilmot's coming every day, or twice a day if he can
find an excuse for it--as he did when I had my influenzer. But, of
course, he knew I could afford to pay him. Well, O revore, dear," and
the portly form that had been blocking out the western glow over the
promontory of Bordighera slowly removed itself.

Vera was not destined to be alone that afternoon. She had not read
three pages when a tall figure came between her and the light, and she
rose hastily to acknowledge Signor Provana's greeting.

"It is too near sunset for you to be sitting there," he said. "Will you
walk a little way with me--until five o'clock?"

Vera shut her book, and they walked on slowly and in silence to the
gate of the cemetery, and still in silence till they stood by the white
tomb.

There were flowers lying upon the slab, choice flowers, in their first
freshness; and Vera thought that Provana had laid them there that
afternoon.

They stood beside the tomb for some minutes, till the chapel clock
struck the quarter before five, and no word was spoken till they were
going back to the gate. Then Provana began to talk of his daughter,
opening his heart to the girl she had loved.

He talked of her childhood, of her education, the bright, eager mind
that made learning a delight, the keen interest in all that was most
worthy to be admired, the innate appreciation of all that was best in
literature and art, her love of music, and of the beautiful in all
things. He was sure of Vera's sympathy, and that certainty made it easy
to talk of his girl, whose name had rarely passed his lips in the long
half-year of mourning.

"I have never talked of her since Miss Thompson left me," he said;
"there was no one who would understand or care. There were friends who
were kind and would have pitied me; but I could not endure their pity.
It was easier to stand alone, and keep an iron wall between my heart
and the world. But you were her companion in those last weeks; you are
of her own age; you seem a part of herself, as if you were really her
sister, left behind to mourn her, almost as I do."

After this confidence he made no more apologies for the sad note in
all his conversation, as he and Vera loitered in the place of graves,
or walked in the lemon orchards and olive woods on the hill-side above
the cemetery. It became a settled thing for them to walk together every
afternoon in the half-hour before Lady Felicia's tea-time; and as the
week that Provana had talked of drew near its close, their rambles
took a wider range, always with Grannie's approval, and they visited
the white towns on the hills where they had been with Giulia and her
governess in the golden spring-time. It was rapture to Vera to tread
the narrow mule-paths, winding through wood and orchard, to walk with
light, quick feet through scenes where everything was beautiful and
romantic; to visit wayside shrines, and humble chapels hidden in the
silver grey of the century-old trees, or to talk to the country women
tramping homeward, carrying their baskets of the ripe black fruit.
Provana helped her in her talk with the women, and contrived that
they should understand her shy little discourse, the broken words and
stumbling sentences.

Lady Felicia, usually so severe a stickler for etiquette, was curiously
lax at San Marco, and could see nothing strange or unseemly in these
unchaperoned rambles with the Roman financier, who, as she observed to
Dr. Wilmot, was so obviously correct in all his ideas, to say nothing
of his being almost old enough to be Vera's grandfather.

"Say father," said the doctor, smiling. "But you are perfectly right in
your appreciation of Provana. He is a man of the highest character, and
you may very well waive all conventionality where he is concerned."

Signor Provana did not leave San Marco at the end of the week. He
stayed from day to day; but he was always going to-morrow.

As time went by he and Vera found a world of ideas and experiences to
talk about. In the confidence that grew with every hill-side ramble,
with every half-hour spent among ruined convents or Roman remains,
they became licensed egotists, and talked of themselves and their own
feelings with unconscious self-absorption.

Led on from trifles to speak of vital things, Provana told Vera the
story of his unloved youth, motherless before his sixth birthday, and
soon under the subjection of a stepmother who disliked him.

"I was an ugly boy," he said, "and her only child was as beautiful as
the Belvedere Apollo, a creature to be worshipped, and I was made to
feel the contrast. I had inherited my English mother's plain features
and plain ways. I had none of the graces that make children adorable.
My father was not unkind, but he was indifferent, and left me to
servants, or later to my tutor, a German, middle-aged, learned, and
severely practical, a man to whom affection and emotion were unknown
quantities. It was always kept before me that I was to succeed to a
great business, to the certainty of wealth, and the paramount purpose
of my education was to make me a money-spinning machine.

"My brother's death in the flower of boyhood hardened my father's
heart against me; and the indifference to which I had resigned myself
became undisguised dislike. I lived in a frozen atmosphere; and of
sheer necessity had to devote all my energies to the barren ambition of
the man whose task in life is to sustain and augment the fortune that
others have created. That is where the emptiness of my career comes in,
Vera. A fortune inherited from those who have gone before him can give
no dignity to a man's life. He is no better than a clerk, succeeding to
a stool in a counting-house. For a man who has laboured and invented,
who has lived through long, slow years of hardship and self-denial,
who has endured the world's contempt, and persevered in the teeth of
disappointment, over such a man's career success may shed a golden
glory. He is a conqueror who has fought and won, and may be proud even
of a triumph that brings him nothing but money. But I could have no
pride in a career that was mapped out for me before I was born. All I
can ever be proud of is that personally caring nothing for riches, I
have been a conscientious worker, and have done what I was expected to
do."

He told Vera how his own unloved childhood had been in his mind when
his wife died, and he took his motherless girl to his heart, and, while
she sobbed against his breast, swore dumbly that she should never know
the need of a mother's love; and that which had begun as a duty became
afterwards the dominating purpose of his life--the thing for which he
lived.

"There had been a time after her mother's death when my heart was
frozen, and that sweet child's presence was something that called for
fortitude rather than affection, but that lovely nature soon prevailed
even over grief, and my daughter crept into my desolate heart, my
consolation and my joy."

In those quiet walks these two mortals, so far apart in age, in
experiences, and in mental tendencies, became curiously intimate,
telling each other almost everything that could be told about two
dissimilar existences, each interested in vivid pictures of an unknown
world, the child's monotonous life with an old woman, her glimpses
of more joyous houses, the young cousin, the Arab pony and family of
dogs--the old English garden, steeped in the August sunshine; and again
of the dull upstairs-room in London, and the solitary hours of silent
play, in which childish fancies had to serve instead of playfellows,
the doll that was almost alive, the toy train that travelled to
fairyland, the old, old stories in the ragged books, "Cinderella" and
the "Forty Thieves." Provana listened to these naïve revelations as if
they had been the childish experiences of a Newton or a Shakespeare,
while Vera hung enthralled upon his memories of the liberation of
Italy, the tempestuous years of revolt and battle, Victor Emanuel,
Garibaldi, Cavour, the giant of thought and will-power, whose bold
policy had made a great kingdom.

Afternoon tea in Lady Felicia's _salon_ had become an institution in
that week which spun itself out to fifteen days, and tea-time generally
lasted for an hour and a half, since Grannie wanted to hear everything
that Signor Provana had heard or read of the world of action since
yesterday. As a dweller in London for nearly half his life, he was as
keenly interested and as instructed in English politics, literature,
science, and art as any Englishman Grannie had ever known; and she
seemed to feel an inexhaustible interest in his conversation. She was
intelligent, and often said good things; so this appreciation must
needs be flattering, and Provana was naturally gratified. Flowers and
Tauchnitz novels were almost daily tributes to Grannie; but no tribute
was offered to Vera, no tribute except the tender watchfulness of dark
grey eyes, eyes that followed the fragile figure as she moved about the
room, or went in and out through the window in the desultory half-hour
when her duties at the tea-table were finished. She left him to devote
himself to Grannie in this half-hour, and showed how much milder
was her interest in the talk of the political world, and people of
importance in London, than in Provana's personal reminiscences. It was
his life that had interested her, not the lives of other people.

They had come to the evening before his last day at San Marco. He must
be on his way to Rome the day after to-morrow--that was inevitable.

"I should like to take Vera a little farther afield to-morrow, Lady
Felicia," Provana said, as he took up his hat to go. "She has never
seen the Chocolate Mills, though the way to them is one of the most
picturesque within range. One must ride or walk. There is no carriage
road; but if you will let Vera come with me to-morrow afternoon, I
will bring the surest-footed donkey in San Marco, and his owner for
our guide. I shall go on foot. The walk will be nothing for me; but it
would be too tiring for your granddaughter."

Lady Felicia hesitated, but only enough to make her consent seem the
more gracious.

"The poor child has been pining to see the Chocolate Mills; but for me
it was impossible," she concluded.

"We must start soon after your luncheon; and if you can give me time
for a little conversation before we go, I shall be greatly obliged,"
Signor Provana said, with a curious gravity.

Vera wondered what he could have to say to Grannie that needed to be
arranged for beforehand. She felt a thrill of horror at the idea that
Lady Felicia's frequent reference to her small means might have given
him a wrong impression, and that he was going to offer to lend her
money.

"You must allow that I have not let _les convenances_ stand in the way
of your enjoyment of Signor Provana's society," Lady Felicia said,
with her kindest smile, when the visitor had gone. "There are very
few men--even of his age--whom I could permit you to walk about with,
even in such a half-civilised place as San Marco; but Provana is an
exceptional man, a person whom scandal could never touch."

"And I think you like being with him," Grannie said, after a long
pause, in which she had reclined in her most reposeful attitude,
smiling at the after-glow above Bordighera.

It was not that fine promontory only, but all life and the world that
Lady Felicia saw before her bathed in golden light.

Certainly Grannie had been curiously indulgent, curiously heedless
of conventionalities, and curiously forgetful of the ways of the
world in which she had lived from youth upward, when she thought that
because San Marco was a quiet little place that had never basked in
the sunlight of fashion, there would be no ill-natured talk about her
granddaughter's _tête-à-tête_ rambles with the Roman millionaire.

To say that people had talked--the season visitors at the "Anglais,"
the spinsters and widows, the invalid parsons and their wives, who
were mostly languishing for something to talk about--to say that these
had talked about Vera and her millionaire would not have described the
situation. They had talked of nothing else; and the talk had grown more
and more animated and exciting with every day that witnessed another
audacious sauntering to the cemetery, or ascent of a mule-path through
the wood. Spinsters, whose thin legs had seldom carried them beyond the
parade, adipose widows, whose scantness of breath made the gentlest
ascent labour and trouble, took a sudden interest in the little white
chapels and shrines among the olives, and happened to meet Provana and
Vera returning from the hill, which made something to whisper about
with one's next neighbour at dinner, and was at least an agreeable
change from the daily grumbling about the bill of fare.

"Veal again! and as stringy as ever.--Yes, I came face to face with
them. He stalked past me in his gloomy way; and she did not even blush,
but just said, good afternoon, as bold as brass."

"How Lady Felicia can be so utterly regardless of etiquette!"

"Oh, it's just like the rest of the smart set. They think they can defy
the universe; and it's a surprise to them when they find themselves in
the divorce court!"

"I don't believe Lady Felicia was ever in the smart set. You have to
be rich for that. I put her down as poor and proud, and those sort are
generally ultra-particular."

"I believe she's playing a deep game," said the spinster, and then the
two friends looked down the long, narrow table to the corner where Vera
sat, silent and thoughtful, pale in her black evening frock.

"Do you think her so remarkably pretty?" asked the spinster, following
on a discussion in the drawing-room after luncheon, when the parsons
had expressed their admiration of Vera's delicate beauty.

"Far from it," answered the plethoric widow. "You may call her
ethereal," which one of the parsons had done; "I call her half-starved.
She has no complexion and no figure, and looks as if she had never had
enough to eat."

       *       *       *       *       *

It mattered little to Lady Felicia next day--after a quarter of an
hour's grave conversation with Signor Provana, or to Vera, putting on
her hat in the sunny little front room, and hearing the donkey's bells
jingling in the garden below; it mattered really nothing to either
grandmother or granddaughter what the world, as represented by the
table d'hôte of the "Anglais," might think of them. Lady Felicia lay
back among her pillows, smiling at the sea and the far-off hills as
she had never smiled before; for, indeed, that lovely coast had taken
a new colour under a new light--not the light that never was on sea or
land, but the more mundane light of prosperity, a smiling future in
which there should be no more the year in year out effort to keep up
appearances upon inadequate means.

And yet that smiling future depended upon a girl's whim, and at a word
from Vera that cloud-built castle might vanish into thin air.

"She could never be such an idiot as to refuse him," mused Grannie,
disposed to be sanguine; "and, what is better, I believe she is really
in love with him. After all, he is her first admirer, and that goes for
a good deal. I was in love with an archbishop of seventy when I was
fifteen; and I remember him now as quite the most delightful man I ever
met."

       *       *       *       *       *

Provana was walking about the garden, while the surest-footed donkey
in San Marco shook his bells and pawed up the loose gravel with the
forefoot of impatience, lazily watched by his owner, a sun-baked lad of
nineteen.

There were several pairs of eyes on the watch at various windows when
Vera came tripping out in her neat blue riding-skirt and sailor hat. It
was her kit for the riding-school near Bryanston Square, where Grannie
had given her a season's lessons, lest she should grow up without the
young lady's indispensable accomplishment of sitting straight on a
horse, and going over a fence without swinging out of her saddle.

She had brought a handful of sugar for the donkey, and he had to be
fed and patted and talked about before Signor Provana was allowed to
take the slender foot in his broad hand while she sprang lightly to the
saddle; and then the little company moved away, Vera on her great grey
donkey, bells jingling, red and blue tassels flying, Provana walking
beside her, and the sunburnt youth at the donkey's head, ready to hold
the bridle when they came to the narrow hill-tracks.

"Do they take that lad with them to play propriety?" asked the sourest
of all the spinsters, with a malevolent giggle--a question which nobody
answered--while the two parsons agreed that little Miss Davis looked
prettier than ever in her riding clothes.

Provana walked for a long time in absolute silence, while Vera prattled
with the donkey-driver, exchanging scraps of Italian and insisting upon
the donkey's biography.

"How did he call himself?" "Sancho." "Was he called after Don
Quixote's Sancho?" "_Perdona, Signorina--Non so_." "How old was he?
Was he always good? Was he always kindly treated?" His driver assured
her that the beast lived in a land of milk and honey, and seldom felt
the sting of a whip, to emphasise which assurance his driver gave a
sounding whack on Sancho's broad back. The only comfort was that the
back was broad and the animal seemed well fed.

"I would not have let you ride a starveling," Provana said; "but these
people to whom God has given the loveliest land on earth have waited
for the sons of the North to teach them common humanity."

After this he walked on in silence till they were far away from the
"Anglais," slowly climbing a stony ascent that called upon all Sancho's
sure-footedness and the guide's care.

Suddenly, in the silence of the wood, where the light fell like golden
rain between the silver-grey leaves, Provana laid his hand on Vera's,
and said in a low voice:

"I feel as if you and I were going to the end of the world together;
but in half an hour we shall be at the mill, and after that there will
be the short down-hill journey home, and Grannie's tea-table, and the
glory of my last day will be over."

Vera looked at him wonderingly in a shy silence. The words seemed
to mean more than anything he had ever said before. His tone had an
underlying seriousness that was melancholy, and almost intense.

They did not give much time to the mill and the processes of
chocolate-making. The picturesque gorge, the waterfall leaping from
crag to crag, the blue plane of sunlit sea, and the pale grey glimmer
on the purple horizon that was said to be Corsica--these were the
things they had come to look at, and they looked in silence, as if
spell-bound.

"Let us sit here and talk of ourselves, while Tomaso gives Sancho a
rest and a mouthful of oats," Provana said; and he and Vera seated
themselves on a stony bank above the waterfall, while Tomaso and Sancho
retired to a distance of twenty yards, where a bend in the path hid
donkey and driver.

It was not usual for Provana to be silent when they two were alone
together. There always seemed too much that he wanted to say in the
short space of time; but now the minutes went by, seeming long to Vera
in the unusual silence, which she broke at last by asking him, "Were
you ever in Corsica?"

"Often; but we won't talk of that, Vera," taking her hand suddenly. "I
have a question to ask you, and the longer I think about it, the more
difficult it will seem--a question that means my future existence. I
can't wait for eloquent speech. I have no words to-day. Vera, will you
be my wife?"

She looked at him as if she thought he was joking.

"Yes, it has come to that. My happiness depends upon a girl of
eighteen, who thinks that such an offer must be a jest--something to
laugh at when she tells Grannie how foolish Signor Provana was this
afternoon. For me it is life or death. In all those days that we
were together last year never a thought of love came into my mind.
I watched the two faces side by side, and wondered which was the
lovelier, but my mind was too full of sorrow for any other feeling than
gratitude to the girl who helped to make those last days happy for my
dearest. She was my dearest, the only creature I had cared for since
her mother's death. There was no room in my heart for anything but the
father's despairing affection for the child he was soon to lose. It
was when I met you by my darling's grave that your face came back to
me with a strange flash of joy, unexpected, incomprehensible. I had
thought of you seldom in the half year that had parted us; yet in that
moment it seemed to me that I had been longing for you all the time.
And the next day, and the next, with every hour that we were together,
with every time I looked into your sweet face, the more I realised that
the happiness of all my days to come depended upon you. My love did not
expand like a flower creeping slowly through dull earth into beauty and
light. It rose like a flame, instantaneous, unquenchable.

"Will you make me happy, Vera? Will you trust your life to me? Answer,
love, can you trust me?"

Her murmured "Yes" was the nearest thing to silence; but he heard it,
and she was folded in his arms, and felt with a sudden thrill what it
was to be loved with all the strength of a man's passionate heart.



CHAPTER IV


Shadows of a November twilight are gathering in the two great
drawing-rooms of the largest house in Portland Place, rooms that
have the grandeur of space, and a certain gloomy splendour that has
nothing in common with the caprices and elegances of a modern London
drawing-room. The furniture is large and massive. There are tables in
Florentine mosaic; cabinets of ebony inlaid with ivory; dower-chests
painted by Paul Veronese or his pupils; the richness of arts that are
dead; walls hung with Italian tapestry, the work of cloistered nuns
whose fingers have been lying in the dust for three centuries; silver
lamps suggestive of mortuary chapels.

"I love the Provana drawing-rooms because they are romantic, and I hate
them because they give me the horrors," little Lady Susan Amphlett told
people.

Romantic was one of her pet words. Her vocabulary was made up of pet
words, a jargon of divers tongues, and she used them without mercy.
She was very small, very whimsical and pretty, as neat and dainty as
a Dresden shepherdess; but she got upon some people's nerves, and was
occasionally accused of posing, though she was actually as spontaneous
as a tropical parasite in a South American forest, a little egotist,
who thought, spoke, and acted only on the impulse of the moment, and
whose mind had no room for the idea of an external world, except as
its people and scenery were of consequence to herself. The people she
did not know or care about were non-existent. Romantic was her word
for Madame Provana. She adored Madame Provana, with whom she had some
thin thread of affinity, the kind of distant connection that pervades
the peerage, and makes it perilous for an outsider to talk of any
recent scandal in high life, lest he should fall upon a cousin of the
delinquent's.

"Vera and I are connections. Her grandmother was a Disbrowe," Lady
Susan told people. "But it is not on that account I adore her. I love
her because she is romantic; and so few of the people one knows are
romantic."

If asked where the romance came in, Susan was ready with her reasons.

"Can there be anything more romantic than the idea of a lovely,
ethereal creature, who looks as if a zephyr might blow her off her
feet, married to an ugly giant whose sole thought and business in this
life is to heap up riches, a man who cares for nothing but money, whose
brain is a ledger, and whose heart is a cheque-book? Can anything be
more romantic, when one considers the woman she is and the man he is,
and that they absolutely dote upon each other?"

"Provana may dote," someone would say; "but I question the lady's
feelings. That an impassioned Italian should be fond of a pretty woman,
young enough to be his daughter, and whom he married without a penny
for the sake of her sweet looks, all the world can understand. But
that Madame Provana worships her money-merchant is another story."

"Did not Desdemona dote upon Othello?" cried Susan. "At least Provana
is not black, and adoration such as his would melt a statue. To be
worshipped by a case-hardened money-dealer, a man who trades in
millions, and holds the sinews of war when nations are spoiling for
a fight, a man who is a greater master of finance than half the
Chancellors of the Exchequer who have helped to make history! To see
how he worships that child-wife of his! It is absolutely pathetic."

"Pathetic" was the pretty Susie's word for Mario Provana. She used the
adjective at the slightest provocation. "You are absolute pathetic,"
she said, when he brought his wife a necklet of priceless cat's
eyes set with brilliants, and handed her the velvet case across the
tea-table as carelessly as if it had been a box of bonbons.

He was pathetic, _impayable_, _stupendo_, all the big adjectives in
little Lady Susie's vocabulary.

Susan Amphlett was Susie, or Lady Susie, for everybody who knew her
socially; and for a good many people who had never seen her little
_minois chiffoné_ nearer than in a photograph. People who spelled
over the society papers in their snug suburban drawing-rooms, and
loved to follow the flight of those migratory birds, the Mr. and Mrs.
Willies and Jimmies, and Lady Bettys and Lord Tommys, who were always
flitting from branch to branch, in the only world that seemed worth
living in, when one read the Society papers--those shining-surfaced,
richly-illustrated sixpennies, which brought the flavour of that other
world across the muffin dishes and savoury sandwiches of suburban
tea-tables.

Mr. Amphlett was something in the City! Or that was his description
when people wanted to describe him. He was briefly described as
"rolling," and yet a pauper, if you weighed him against that mountain
of gold, Mario Provana, the international money-dealer.

"If ever Provana goes under, half Europe will have to go under with
him," Susie's cousin, Claude Rutherford, ex-guardsman, ex-traveller,
ex-artist, ex-lion-shooter, said, when he discussed the great financier
with inquisitive outsiders.

Claude was in the Portland Place drawing-room this afternoon, lounging
against the mantelpiece, near the lamp-lit tea-tables, at one of which
Madame Provana presided, his tall, slender figure half lost in a
deepening gloom, above that island of bright light made by the lamps on
the tea-table.

It was easy for Claude to be lost in shadow, since there was so
little of him to lose. Euclid's definition of a line, length without
breadth, was his description; but his slender figure was a line that
showed race in every inch. His scientific acquaintance called him
a crystallisation. "Everything that was ever in the Disbrowes and
the Rutherfords, good or bad, he has in its quintessence," the poet
Eustace Lyon said of him. "Whatever the worst of the Rutherfords or the
Disbrowes, from King Stephen downwards, ever did, Claude is capable of
doing. Whatever the best of them ever accomplished he could do, if he
had a mind to."

       *       *       *       *       *

Unhappily, Claude had a mind to do nothing more with his life than
lounge through it in placid idleness. He had done so much with
life, that it seemed to him that the inconsiderable remnant at his
disposal was not enough for action, and so nothing mattered. He had
been a soldier, and had seen active service, not without a certain
distinction. He had hunted lions and shot harmless elephants, with
still more distinction; indeed, in the exploring, lion-annihilating
line he had made himself almost a celebrity. He had painted and
exhibited pictures that had pleased the public and the critics, and
had been told that he might excel in the world of art; but though he
loved art, he had not tried to excel. The success of a season satisfied
him. Nothing pleased or interested him long. He had no staying power.
He painted occasionally to distract himself, but in an amateurish way,
and he no longer exhibited. His pictures had not work enough in them
to be shown; and, indeed, rarely went beyond the impression of an
hour; but the impression was vivid and vigorous, and always suggested
how much the painter might have done, if he had cared. He had not
long passed the third milestone on the road of life; but he had left
off caring for things before his thirtieth birthday. Languor, light
sarcasm, and unfailing good temper, were among the qualities that had
made him everybody's favourite young man, the very first a smart
hostess thought of when she was counting heads for a dinner-party.
One incentive that has helped some indolent young men to success was
wanting in this case. He was not obliged to earn his daily bread. The
Rutherfords had coal-mines on the Scottish border, and were rich enough
to provide for indolent scions of the family tree.

Six or seven years ago, before he left the Army, Claude Rutherford had
been an arbiter of fashion among the men of his age. In those days
he had taken the business of his outer clothing more seriously than
the cultivation of a mind in which fancy had ever predominated over
thought; and in those days that element of fancy had entered even into
his transactions with tailor and bootmaker, and he had allowed himself
some flights of imagination in form and colour. Of all the names given
to golden youth the old-fashioned name of "exquisite" was the one that
fitted Captain Rutherford. It seemed to have been invented for him. He
was exquisite in everything, in his habiliments and his surroundings,
in speech, and manner, in every detail of his butterfly life. But when
he left the Grenadiers--to the infinite regret of his brother officers,
who were all his fast friends--he flung foppery from him as it were a
cast-off garment; and from the time he worked seriously at his easel,
and began to exhibit his pictures, he had become remarkable for the
careless grace of clothes that were scrupulously unoriginal, and in the
rear rather than in the van of fashion, the sleeves and coat-tails and
checks and stripes of the year before last. But he was still exquisite.
The grace and the charm were in his own slender form, and not in the
stuff that clothed him.

He was not handsome. He was not like David, ruddy and fair to see. He
had very little colour, and his pale grey eyes were only brilliant
in moments of mirth or strong feeling. He had a long, thin nose, and
thin, flexible lips, and his mouth, which was supposed to be the
Disbrowe mouth, and a speciality of that ancient race, was strong in
character and expressiveness. His hair was light brown, with a natural
wave in that small portion which modern barbers allow to remain on the
masculine head. A rippling line above his brow indicated that Claude
Rutherford might have been as curly as Absalom if he had let his hair
grow.

In the afternoon shadows that small head and slim form contrasted
curiously with the spacious brow of the tall and commanding figure
at the other end of the mantelpiece, the imposing presence of Father
Cyprian Hammond, at that time a famous personage in London society, the
morals and manners whereof he had of late made it his chief business
to satirise and denounce. But the people of pleasure and leisure, the
butterflies and humming-birds of the world, the creatures of light and
colour, have a keen relish for reproof and denunciation, though they
may wince under the lash of irony. For them anything is better than not
being talked about.

It had been asked of Father Cyprian why he, who was so scathing a
critic of the follies and general worthlessness of the idle rich, was
yet not infrequently to be met in their houses.

"If I did not go among my flock, I could not put my finger upon the
festering spot," he said. "I am a student of humanity. If Lord Avebury
could devote his days to watching bees and wasps, do you wonder that I
am interested in watching my fellow-creatures? A professional beauty
affords a nobler scope for observation than a queen bee; a gambler on
the stock exchange offers more points of interest than the industrious
ant. If insects are wonderful, is not the man or the woman who hazards
eternal bliss for the trivial pleasures of a London season a creature
infinitely more incomprehensible? And if, while I watch and listen, I
can discover where these creatures are assailable, if I can find some
penetrable spot in their armour of pride, I may be able to preach to
them with better chance of being heard."

Father Cyprian was a conspicuous figure in that crowd of pretty
women and "nice boys." Tall, even among guardsmen, he held himself
like a soldier. He had a fair complexion, light brown hair, and blue
eyes. A Saxon of the finest Saxon type, and coming of a family whose
genealogical tree had put forth its earliest branches before the
Heptarchy. It was the consciousness of superior race, perhaps, that
made his fashionable flock tolerant of his stinging denunciation and
unmeasured scorn of vice and folly in high places. Everything relating
to him was superior. His vestments were superb, his chapel was a thing
of beauty. The genius of a Bossuet would hardly have persuaded that
world of the successful rich to listen to a withering analysis of its
vices and pettinesses from the lips of some little Irish priest, reared
in a hovel and nourished on potatoes and potheen; but it bowed the neck
before Father Cyprian's good birth and grand manner.

Anglicans who met him in society, mostly in the houses of the powerful
or the rich, talked of him as a worldling; but his own flock knew
better. They knew that wherever the brilliant Jesuit might be seen,
however light his manner or trivial his conversation, one deeply-seated
purpose was at the back of his mind, the making of proselytes, the
aggrandisement of his Church, that Invincible, Indestructible,
Incomparable, Supreme, and Unquestionable Power, to which he had given
the service and the devotion of his whole being. If he went much among
statesmen and rulers it was because his Church wanted influence;
if he cultivated the friendship of millionaires it was because his
Church wanted money. For himself he wanted nothing, for he had been
born to independence; and though he had given much of his fortune to
the necessities of his Order, his income was still ample for the only
scheme of life that was possible for him. He was not a man who could
have lived in sordid surroundings, though he could go down into the
nethermost depths of East-End poverty, and give his days and nights to
carrying the lamp of Faith into dark places. He had a refinement of
sense that would have made squalor, or even shabby-genteel ugliness,
unbearable; and he had an ardent and artistic imagination which made
some touch of beauty in his surroundings as needful to him as fresh air
and cold water.

The attention of both these men, the priest and the man-about-town,
was concentrated upon the lady of the house, who, just at this moment,
was taking very little notice of either of them. She was surrounded by
the smartest and prettiest women in the room, chief amongst them Lady
Susan Amphlett, who was always to be found near Vera at these friendly
tea-parties.

Vera let Lady Susan and the other women do almost all the talking. She
sat looking straight before her, dreamily silent, amidst the animated
chatter about trivialities that had ceased to interest her.

She was still as delicately slender as she had been six years ago
at San Marco, when the parsons had called her ethereal, and the
spinsters had called her half-starved; but those six years had made a
transformation, and she was not the same Vera.

She had tasted of the Tree of Knowledge. She had enjoyed all the
amusements and excitements that great cities can give to rich and
beautiful women. She had been flattered and followed in Rome and Paris
and London, had been written about in the _New York Herald_, and had
been the fashion everywhere; a person whom not to know was to confess
oneself as knowing nobody and going nowhere. Indeed, it was a kind of
confession of outsiderism not to be able to talk of Madame Provana as
"Vera."

She had accepted the position with a kind of languid acquiescence,
taking all things for granted, after the first year, when everything
amused her. In this sixth year of marriage, and wealth without limit,
she was tired of everything, except the society of authors and painters
and actors and musicians--the people who appealed to her imagination.
She had inherited from her father the yearning for things that earth
cannot give--the _au delà_, the light that never was on sea or land.
"The glory and the dream."

She admired and respected Father Cyprian Hammond, and she liked him
to talk to her, though she could divine that steadfast purpose at the
back of his head, the determination to bring her into the Papal fold.
She argued with him from her Anglican standpoint, and pleaded for that
_via media_ that might reconcile old things with new; and she felt
the weakness of her struggle against that skilled dialectician; but
she refused to be converted. Half the pleasure of her intimacy with
this Eagle of Monk Street would be lost if she surrendered, and had to
exchange the struggle for the attitude of passive submission.

His arguments sometimes went near to convincing her; but the Faith he
offered did not satisfy those vague longings for the something beyond.
It was too simple, too matter-of-fact to arrest her imagination. It
offered little more than she had already in the ritual of her own
Church. The change did not seem worth while.

She looked up suddenly in the midst of the silvery treble talk about
theatres and frocks.

"Claude, do you ever keep a promise?" she asked.

"Always, I hope."

"You promised to bring Mr. Symeon to see me."

"Did I?"

"Indeed you did. Ages ago."

"Ages?"

"Well, nearly three weeks. It was at the Helstones' dinner."

"Three weeks. Mr. Symeon is not at the call of the first comer."

There was a little cry from the women, who had left off talking in
order to listen.

"He calls Madame Provana the first comer!" exclaimed the youngest and
pertest of the circle.

"I call myself the first comer where Symeon is concerned. I am not
one of his initiated. I belong to the outer herd of wretches who eat
butcher's meat and attach importance to dinner. Mr. Symeon condescends
when he gives me half an hour of a life that is spent mostly in the
clouds."

"I would give worlds to know him," said Lady Susan. "I have taken his
quarterly, _The Unseen_, from the beginning, His articles upon the
spiritual life are adorable, but I am not conceited enough to pretend
to understand him."

"If people understood him, he would be less admired," said Rutherford.

"What does he do?" asked the youngest and flippantest. "I am always
hearing of Mr. Symeon and his spook magazine; but what does he do?
Is it thought-reading, slate-writing, materialisation? Does he float
up to the ceiling, as Home did? My Grannie swears she saw him, yes,
positively floating, in that large house by the Marble Arch."

"Mr. Symeon does nothing," replied Claude. "He is the high priest of
the Transcendental. He talks."

"How disappointing!"

"Most people find that enough."

"They are bored?"

"No; they are fascinated. Mr. Symeon is more magnetic than Gladstone
was. He must have stolen those green eyes of his from a mermaid. His
disciples get nothing but his eyes and his talk; and they believe in
him as Orientals believe in Buddha. I have heard people say he _is_
Buddha--Gautama's latest incarnation."

"That's rather lovely!" exclaimed Miss Flippant. "I would give worlds
to see him."

"We'll excuse you the worlds, even if you owned them," said Claude in
his lazy voice. "You may see him within the next ten minutes, unless he
is a promise-breaker. I had not forgotten your commands, Vera. I spent
half a day in hunting Symeon, and did not leave him till he promised to
come to tea with you. I believe tea is the most material refreshment he
takes."

"You are ever so much better than I thought you," said Vera, with one
look up at Rutherford, before she turned to gaze at the distant door,
heedless of the talk that went on round her, until after some minutes a
servant announced "Mr. Symeon."

Claude Rutherford left his station by the mantelpiece and went to meet
the visitor.

The spacious rooms were mostly in shadow by this time, all the lamps
being so tempered by artistic shades in sea-green silk that they gave
faint patches of colour rather than light, and some people started at
the sound of Mr. Symeon's name, almost as if they had seen a ghost.

It was a name that all cultured people knew, even when they did not
know the man. Francis Symeon was a leader in the spiritual world,
and there were no depths in the mysteries of occultism, from ancient
Egypt to modern India, that he had not sounded. He was the editor and
proprietor of _The Unseen_, a quarterly magazine, to which only the
most advanced thinkers were allowed to contribute--a magazine which
the subscriber opened with a thrill of anticipation, wondering what
new revelation of the "life beyond" he was to find in those shining,
hot-pressed pages, where the matter was often more dazzling than the
gloss on the paper.

Vera watched with eager interest and a faint flush of pleasure as
Rutherford and Symeon came through the shadows towards her.

"You see I have kept my promise, and here is Mr. Symeon, to answer some
of those far-reaching questions with which you often bewilder my poor
brain."

Vera left her table, where there had come a sudden lull in the soprano
voices as Mr. Symeon drew near--a pause in the discussion of frocks
and hats in the new comedy at the St. James's. She stood up to talk to
Mr. Symeon, telling him how she had been reading the last number of
_The Unseen_, and more especially his own contribution, an essay on the
other life, as understood by Tennyson and Browning.

In that half-light which makes all beautiful things more beautiful,
she had a spirit look, and might have seemed the materialisation of
Mr. Symeon's thought, as she stood before him, fragile and slender,
with glimmering lamplight on her cloud of brown hair, and on the simple
white gown, of some transparent fabric, loosely draped over satin that
flashed through its fleecy whiteness. Her only ornament was a necklace
of _aqua marina_ in a Tiffany setting.

"She wears that thing when she wants to look like a mermaid," Miss Pert
whispered to her pal.

"No; she wears it to remind us that she has some of the finest jewels
in London, and that she despises them," said the pal, who had reached
that critical age which is described as "getting on," and was inclined
to take a sour view of a young woman who had married millions.

Symeon and Vera talked for some time, she with a suppressed
eagerness--earnest, almost impassioned; Symeon grave and reserved, yet
obviously interested.

"We cannot talk of these things in a crowd," he said. "If I had known
you had a party----"

"It is not a party. People come every afternoon in the winter, when
there is not much for them to do; but if you will be so kind as to come
early some day, at three o'clock, for instance, I will not be at home
to anybody, unless it were Claude, who loves to hear you talk."

"I will come to-morrow," said Symeon; and then, with briefest adieu,
he walked slowly through the crowd, acknowledging the greetings of a
few intimates with a distant bend of his iron-grey head, and walking
amongst the pretty faces and smart frocks as he might have done through
so many sparrows pecking on a lawn.

Lady Susan came to Vera, excited and eager.

"Why didn't you keep him? I wanted you to introduce him to me. I
have been pining to know him. I read every line of his Review. He is
wonderful! I believe he has secrets that ward off age. You must ask me
to meet him--at luncheon--a party of four, with Claude. Claude has been
horrid about him."

"I value his friendship too much to introduce him to Tom, Dick, and
Harry," said Claude. "Vera and he are elective affinities."

       *       *       *       *       *

Father Cyprian and Claude Rutherford left the house together.

"May I walk with you as far as your lodgings?" Claude asked.

"By all means, and come in with me, if you can. It is early yet, and I
have long wanted a talk with you."

"Serious?"

"Yes, even serious. When one cares as much for a young man as I do for
you, there is always room for seriousness. You look alarmed, but there
is no occasion. I don't preach long sermons, especially not to young
men."

They walked to the end of the street in silence. They were old friends;
and though Claude was the most lax among Papists, Cyprian Hammond had
never lost hope of bringing him back to the fold. He was emotional and
imaginative, and he had a heart. Sooner or later there would come a day
when he would want the utmost the Church could do for him.

"You can't wonder if I am a little afraid," Claude said presently.
"There has been some hard hitting from your pulpit within the last
year."

"You have heard my moralities--I won't call them sermons?"

"Yes, I have heard; but I doubt if I have enjoyed your diatribes as
much as the other sinners, especially the women of your flock. They
love to be told they are a shade worse than Semiramis, if you will only
imply that they are as fascinating as Cleopatra."

"Poor worms," said the priest with a long-drawn sigh. "They are such
very poor creatures. Even their sins are petty."

"Would you prefer them if they were poisoners, like the Borgia?"

"No; but I might despise them less. And I should have more hope of
their repentance. These creatures don't know they are sinners. They
gamble, they squander their husbands' fortunes, shipwreck their sons'
inheritance; and when the domestic ship goes down they are injured
innocents, surprised to find that 'things are so expensive.' I have
talked with them--not in the confessional--and I have sounded the
shallows of their silly minds--there are no depths, unless it were a
depth of self-love. They come to Mass, and sit fanning themselves and
sniffing eau-de-Cologne, while I expostulate with them and try to turn
their thoughts into new channels. And then they get tired of the creed
in which they were brought up; tired of hearing hard things, and of
tasting wormwood instead of honey."

"Is modern London so like Babylon?"

"I doubt if the city with a hundred gates was much worse. And
your substitutes for the Church you have deserted--your Christian
Science, Pragmatism, Humanism, your letters from the dead, your
philanthropy--expressed in oranges and buns for workhouse children, and
in fashionable bazaars; charities that overlap each other and pauperise
more than they relieve; and all for want of that one tremendous Central
Power that could harmonise every effort, bring every man and woman's
work into line and rule. In the history of God's chosen people, the one
unpardonable sin was the worship of strange gods. Their Creator knew
that religion was the only basis of conduct, and that the worshippers
of evil gods must themselves become infamous. But this is the age of
strange gods. You all have your groves and high places, your Baal and
Astarte, your Kali or your Siva, your shrines upon mountain tops and
under green trees, your Buddha, your Nietzsche, your Spinoza, your
Comte. You run after the teachers of fantastic things, the high priests
of materialism. You worship anywhere but in your church; you believe
anything but the faith of your forefathers."

They were at Father Cyprian's door by this time, in one of those wide
streets west of Portland Place, and north of the world of fashion.
Streets that may still be described as quiet, save for the ceaseless
roar of traffic in the Marylebone Road, a sound diminished by distance,
the ebb and flow of life in an artery of the great city. It was in a
street parallel with this that the great Cardinal who defied the law of
England had lived and died half a century before.

They had been walking slowly through the thickening mist of a fine
November evening, a grey vapour, across which street lamps and lighted
windows glimmered in faint flashes of gold, an atmosphere that Claude
Rutherford loved, all the more, perhaps, because he had never been able
to satisfy himself in painting it.

"What is the good of trying, when one must always fall short of
Turner?" he had said to himself in those younger and more eager days
when he still tried to do things.

Father Cyprian had talked with a kind of suppressed passion as they
walked through solitary streets, and now he laughed lightly, as he
turned the key in his door.

"You have had the sermon after all," he said.

"It didn't touch me. I am not an extravagant, bridge-playing woman, and
I worship no strange god."

"I shall touch you presently; your withers are not unwrung."

"Suppose I say good night and give you the slip."

"You won't do that. I was your father's friend."

That was enough. Claude bent his head a little, as if at a sacred name,
and followed the priest up the uncarpeted stone staircase to a large
room on the first floor--the conventional London drawing-room, with its
three long windows and chilling white linen blinds.

But, except the shape of the room and the white blinds, there was
nothing to offend the eye that looked for beauty. The floor was cheaply
covered with sea-blue felt, which echoed the colouring of the sea-blue
walls, and the central space was occupied by a massive knee-hole desk
of ebony, inlaid with ivory, evidently of Italian workmanship, and
picturesque enough to please without being a _chef d'oeuvre_. There
were only two objects of art in the spacious room, but each was supreme
after its kind. A carved ivory crucifix of considerable size, mounted
on black velvet, was centred on the wall facing the windows; and over
the marble mantelpiece there hung a Holy Family by Fra Angelico. These,
which were exquisite, were the only ornaments that Father Cyprian had
given himself, in his ten years' residence in this house, where this
spacious sitting-room, with a large bedroom for himself and a small
room for his servant, comprised all his accommodation.

Six high-backed arm-chairs, covered with old stamped leather, and a
massive gate-legged table, black with age, on which he dined, completed
his furniture. To some visitors the sparsely-furnished room might
have seemed cold and cheerless; but there was an air of repose in
its simplicity that satisfied the artistic mind. It looked like a
room designed for prayer and meditation; not a room for study, for
the one bookcase, with its neat range of theological works, would not
have sufficed for the poorest student. It looked like a room meant
for solitude and thought, and for only the most serious, the most
confidential conversation.

"I have always a sense of rest when I come into this room," Rutherford
said, while Father Cyprian was lighting the candles in a bronze
candelabrum on his desk.

"You should come here oftener, Claude. You might make a retreat here
once or twice a week. Sit on the bank for a few hours, and let that
tumultuous river of modern life go by you, while you think of the land
where there is no tumult, only a divine repose, or an agony of regret.
When did you make your last confession, Claude?"

"I have a bad memory, Father. Don't tax it too severely."

The priest was not to be satisfied by a flippant answer. He pressed the
question with authority.

"What have I to confess? An empty, dissatisfied soul, a useless life;
no positive wickedness, only negative worthlessness. I am not an
infidel," Claude added eagerly. "If I were an unbeliever, I would not
presume to claim your friendship. I should think it an insolence to
cross your threshold. I have been slack, I have fallen into a languid
acceptance of my own shortcomings."

"You have fallen in love with another man's wife," said the priest
gravely. "That is the name of your sin."

The thin face paled ever so slightly, but there was no indignant
protest; indeed, the head drooped a little, as if the sinner had
whispered _mea culpa_.

"I have never made love to her," he said in a low voice. "But I am
human, and can't help loving her."

"You can help going to her house. You can help hanging over her as she
sits among her friends. When it comes to making love the Rubicon is
passed, and the chances of retreat are as one in fifty. You are on the
downward slope, Claude. Every time you enter that house you go there at
the hazard of your soul."

"She has so few real friends. She is alone among a crowd. She and I
were friends as children, or at least when she was a child. I should
be a cur if I kept away from her, when she needs my friendship, just
because of the risk to myself. I am too fond of her ever to hazard a
situation that would mean danger for her. I know how much a woman in
her position has to lose. She is not the kind of woman who could pass
through the furnace of the divorce court, and hold up her head and be
happy afterwards. She is a creature of spirit, not of flesh. Passion
would never make amends to her for shame."

"Yet, knowing this, you make yourself her intimate companion!"

"I shall never betray myself. She will never know what you know. For
her I am a feather-brained amateur of life; interested in many things,
caring for nothing, a saunterer through the world, without much heart,
and without any serious purpose. She often scolds me for my frivolity."

"I admit that she has a certain childlike innocence which might keep
her unconscious of your feelings, till the fatal moment in which
you will fling principle, prudence, honour to the winds and declare
yourself her lover----"

"That moment will never come. The day I feel myself in danger I
shall leave her for ever. In the meantime, if I am essential to her
happiness, I shall stop."

"How can you be essential? She has crowds of friends, and a husband who
adores her."

"A husband of fifty years of age, grave, silent, with his mind
concentrated upon international finance; a man who is thinking of
another Turkish loan while he sits opposite her, with his stony eyes
fixed upon space--a man whose brain is a calculating machine and his
heart a handful of ashes."

"Has she complained of him?"

"Never; but things have leaked out. She was not eighteen--little more
than a child--when she married him. She gave herself to him in a
romantic impulse, admiring his force of character, her heart touched
by his affection for a dying daughter. To be so loved by that strong
nature seemed to her enough for happiness. But that was six years ago,
and she has lived six years in the world. The romance has gone out of
her love. What can she have in common with such a man?"

"The bond of marriage--his love, and her sense of duty," answered the
priest.

"She has a keen sense of a wife's duty: she preaches sermons upon her
husband's goodness of heart, his fine character; and she ends with a
sigh, and regrets that for some mysterious reason she has not been able
to make him happy."

"She is too rich and too much indulged, and she is without a saving
creed. Poor child, I would give much to save her from herself and from
you."

"Don't be afraid of me, Father. Men of my stamp may be trusted. We
are too feather-brained to be intense, even in sin. Good night. I
hear the jingle of glass and silver, and I think it must be near your
dinner-time. Good night!"

The priest gave him his hand, but not his blessing. That was withheld
for a better moment.



CHAPTER V


When a woman's imagination, still young and ardent, begins to find
the things of earth as Hamlet found them, "weary, flat, stale,
and unprofitable," it is only natural that she should turn with a
longing mind to the life that earth cannot give, the something unseen
and mysterious that certain gifted individuals have attributed to
themselves the power of seeing. Vera, after six years of marriage, six
years of unlimited wealth and unconscious self-indulgence, had begun to
discover that most things were stale, and some things weary, and all
things unprofitable; and then, to a mind steeped in modern poetry and
modern romance, and the modern music that always means something more
than mere combinations of harmonious sounds, there had come a yearning
for the higher life, the transcendental life that only the elect can
realise, and only the earth-weary can ardently desire.

Francis Symeon was the philosopher to whom she turned with
unquestioning faith; for even those who had spoken lightly of his
creed and of his reasoning faculty had admitted that the man was
essentially sincere, and that the faith he offered his followers was
for him as impregnable as the rock of Holy Scripture.

He was announced on the following day as the clock in Vera's
morning-room struck three, a punctuality so exceptional as to seem
almost uncanny, when compared with the vague sense of time in the rest
of her acquaintance. She received him in a room where there was no
fear of interruption--her sanctuary, more library than boudoir, where
the books she loved, her poets and novelists and philosophers, in the
bindings she had herself invented, filled her book-cases, alternating
with black-and-white portraits of the gods of her idolatry--Browning,
Tennyson, Byron, Scott, de Musset, Heine, Henry Irving, Gounod. Only
the dead had place there--the dead musician, the dead poet, the dead
actor. It was death that made them beloved and longed for. They had
gone from her reach for ever; and it was this sense of something for
ever lost that made them adorable.

Mr. Symeon looked round the walls with evident admiration.

"I see you prefer the faces of the noble dead to water-colour sketches
and majolica plates," he said. "Divine books, divine faces, those are
the best companions a woman can have."

"I spend a good deal of my life in this room," Vera answered. "I have
no children. I suppose if I had I should spend most of my time with
them. I should not have to choose my companions among the dead."

"You have chosen them among the living," Mr. Symeon answered in a
voice that thrilled her. "Do you think that Tennyson is dead? He who
knew that the whole question of religion hinges upon the after life:
immortality or a godless universe. Or Browning, who has gone to the
very core of religion, whose magnificent mind grasped the highest and
deepest in Divine love and Divine power? Such spirits are unquenchable.
This rag of mortality upon which they hang must lie in the dust, but
for the elect death is only the release of the immaterial from the
material, the escape of the butterfly from the worm. You have the
assurance from the lips of Christ: God is the God of the living; and
for those whose existence on earth is only the apprenticeship to
immortality, there is no such thing as death."

This was the chief article in Mr. Symeon's creed; hinted at, but not
formally stated in his contributions to the magazine which he edited.
He claimed immortality only for the elect--for those in whom the spirit
predominated over the flesh. To Vera there was no new idea in his
exposition of faith. She had a feeling that she had always known this,
from the time she stood beside Shelley's grave in the shadow of the
Roman Cenotaph, and that other grave under the hill, the resting-place
of Shelley's Adonais. The thought of corruption had been far from her
mind, albeit she knew that the heart of one poet and the wasted form
of the other were lying in the darkness below those spring flowers on
which her tears were falling, and it was no surprise to her to hear a
serious man of sixty years of age declare his faith in the unbroken
chain of life.

"I saw that you were not one of those who scoff at transcendental
truths," Mr. Symeon said, after a few moments' silence. "I read in your
eyes last night that you are one of us in spirit, though you may know
nothing of our creed. You must join our society."

"Your society?"

"Yes, Madame Provana. We are a company of friends in the world of sense
and in the world of spirit. The majority of us have crossed the river.
As corporal substance they have ceased to be; their dwelling is in the
starlit spaces beyond Acheron. For the common herd they are dead; but
for us they are as vividly alive as they were when they walked among
the vulgar living, and wore life's vesture of clay. They are nearer
to us since they have passed the gulf, and we understand them as we
never could while they wore the livery of earth. They are our close
companions. The veil that parted us is rent, and we see them face to
face."

Vera listened in silence, and the grave, slow speech went on without a
break.

"We have our meetings. We discuss the great problems, the everlasting
mysteries; we press forward to the higher life. We are not afraid
of being foolish, romantic, illogical. We are prepared for contempt
and incredulity from the outside world; but for us, whose minds have
received the light from those other minds, who have been consoled in
our sorrows, strengthened in our faith by those influencing souls,
there is nothing more difficult in our creed than in that of Newman,
who saw behind each form of material beauty the light, the flower, the
living presence of an angel. The spirits of the illustrious dead are
our angels; and our communion with them is the joy of our lives. We
call ourselves simply Us. Our chosen poets, philosophers, painters,
musicians, even the great actors of the past, those ardent spirits in
whom genius was unquenchable by death, men and women whose minds were
fire, and their corporal existence of no account in the forces of their
being: those who have lived by the spirit and not by the flesh--all
these are of our company. These are the influencing souls who are
our companions in the silence and seclusion of our lives. Not by the
trumpery expedient of an alphabet rapped out upon a table, or by the
writing of an unguided pencil; but by the communion of spirit with
spirit, we feel those other minds in converse with our own. They teach,
they exhort, they uplift us to their spirit world, sometimes in hours
of meditation, and sometimes in the closer communion of dreams."

"Are their voices heard--do they speak to you?" Vera asked, deeply
moved, her own voice trembling a little.

"Only in dreams. Speech is material, and belongs to the earthly
machine. It is not from lip to ear, but from mind to mind that the
message comes."

"And do they appear to you? Do you see them as they were on earth?"
Vera asked.

The November twilight had filled the room with shadow, and the face
of the spiritualist, the sharply-cut features, and hollow cheeks, and
luminous grey-green eyes, looked like the face of a ghost.

"Only in dreams is it given to us to look upon the disembodied great.
We feel, and we know! That is enough. But in some rare cases--where the
earthly vesture has worn to its thinnest tissue--where death has set
its seal upon the living, to one so divested of mortal attributes, so
marked for the spirit world, the vision may be granted. Such an one may
see."

"You have known...?" faltered Vera.

"Yes, I knew such a case. In the final hour of an ebbing life the chain
of wedded love that death had broken was reunited, and the wife died
with her last long gaze turned to the vision of her husband. Her last
word was 'reunited!'"

Vera was strangely impressed. It was not easy for the unbelieving to
make a mock of Mr. Symeon's creed. The force of his convictions, the
ideas that he had cultivated and brooded upon for the larger part of
his life, had so possessed the man, that even scoffers were sometimes
moved by his absolute sincerity, and found themselves, as it were
unawares, treating his theories almost seriously. For Vera, in whom
imagination was the greater part of mind, there was no inclination to
scoff, but rather a most earnest desire that the spiritualist's creed
might be justified by her own experience, that it might be granted to
her to sit in the melancholy solitude of that room, with a volume of
Browning on her lap, and to feel that the poet was near her, that an
invisible spirit was breathing enlightenment into her mind, as she read
the dying words of the beloved apostle in "A Death in the Desert,"
which had been to her as a new gospel--and to know that when she raised
her eyes to the portrait on the wall, it was not the dead, but the
living upon whom she looked.

This was involved in the creed of her Church--the Communion of Saints.

Were not the gifted, who had lived free from all the grossness of clay,
from the taint of earthly sin, worthy to be numbered among the saints,
and like them gifted with perpetual life, perpetual fellowship with the
faithful who adored them?

When he left the great, silent house Mr. Symeon knew that he had made
a proselyte. Though Vera had said little, it was impossible to mistake
the fervour with which she had welcomed his revelation of the spirit
world. Here was a mind in want of new interests, a heart yearning for
something that the world could not give.

She sat by the dying fire, in the gathering darkness, long after her
visitor had left her. Yes, this had been her need of late--something to
think of, something to wish for. Her life--so over full of the things
that women desire, pomp and luxury, troops of friends, jewels and fine
clothes, the "too much" that money always brings with it--had vacant
spaces, and hours of vague depression, in which the sense of loneliness
became an aching pain.



CHAPTER VI


Mario Provana's wife was the fashion. The prestige for which some women
strive and labour for years, spending themselves and their husband's
fortunes in the strenuous endeavour, and having to confess themselves
failures at last, had been won by Vera without an effort. Her husband's
wealth had done much; her youth, and the something rare and exceptional
in her beauty, had done more; but the Disbrowes had done the most of
all. With such material--a triple millionaire's wife in the first bloom
of her loveliness--the work had been easy; but no one could deny that
the Disbrowes had worked, and might fairly congratulate themselves, as
well as their fair young cousin, (first, second, or third, as the case
might be) upon the result of their tactful efforts. All Disbrowes were
supposed to have tact, just as they had arched insteps, and long, lean
hands. It was as much a mark of their race.

From the day of Vera's return from her long Italian honeymoon she found
herself walled round and protected by her mother's kindred. They came
from all the points of the compass. Lord Okehampton from his park in
North Devon, Lady Balgowrie from her castle in Aberdeenshire, Lady
Helstone from the Land's End. They came unbidden, and overflowing with
affection, but much too tactful to be vulgarly demonstrative.

"Poor Lady Felicia's foolish pride kept us all at a distance," they
told Vera; "but now that you are emancipated, and your own mistress, I
hope you will let us be useful."

From countesses down to hard-up spinsters, they all said the same
thing, and no one could accuse them of "gush." They all announced
themselves as worldlings, pure and simple, and they made no professions.

"You have made a great match, my dear," said Lady Helstone, "and you
have a great career before you, if you are careful in the choice of
your friends. That is the essential point. One black sheep among your
flock might spoil all your chances. There are men about town that my
husband calls 'oilers'--they were called tigers when my mother was
young--and one of those in a new woman's visiting list can wreck her.
The creatures are intolerably pushing, and don't rest till they can
pose as _cavaliere servente_ or at least as _l'ami de la maison_."

Vera welcomed this army of blood relations with amiability, but without
enthusiasm. She was ready to love that one kind lady who had given
her the only happy holiday of her childhood, under whose hospitable
roof she had known Claude Rutherford; but the countesses who had been
unaware of her existence while she was a dependant upon "poor Lady
Felicia," could have no claim upon her affection. Yet they and their
belongings were all pleasant people; and in that large and splendid
house which was to be her home in London, she found that people were
wanted.

The emptiness of those spacious rooms, during the long hours when her
husband was at his offices in the City, soon became appalling; and she
was glad of the lively aunts and cousins, and their following, who
transformed her drawing-rooms into a parrot house, both for noise and
brilliant colour, to say nothing of the aquiline beaks that prevailed
among the dowagers and elderly bachelors. Once established as her
relations--the distance of some of the cousinship being ignored--they
came as often as Vera cared to ask them, and they brought all the
people whom Vera ought to know, the poets, and novelists, and
playwrights, who were all dying to know the daughter of Lancelot Davis,
that delightful poet whom everybody loved and nobody envied. His fame
had increased since he had gone into the ground; and his shade was now
crowned with that belated fame which is the aureole of the dead. They
brought the newest painting people, and the fashionable actors and
actresses, English or American, as well as that useful following of
"nice boys," who are as necessary in every drawing-room as occasional
chairs, or tables to hold tea-cups.

Instigated by the Disbrowes, and with Mario Provana's approval, Vera
soon began that grand business of entertaining, to which a triple
millionaire's wife should indubitably devote the greater part of her
time, talent, and energy. Countesses and countess-dowagers gave their
mornings to her, advising whom she should invite, and how she should
entertain. They instructed her in the table of precedence as solemnly
as if it had been the Church Catechism, showed her how, in some rare
concatenation, a rule might be broken, as a past master of harmony
might, on occasion, allow himself the use of consecutive fifths.

They were never tired of extending Madame Provana's knowledge of life
as it is lived in the London that is bounded on the south by Queen
Anne's Gate and by Portland Place on the north. They called it opening
her mind--and praised her for the intelligence with which she mastered
the social problems.

Her husband was pleased to see her admired and cherished, above all to
see her happy; yet he could not but feel some touch of disappointment
when he looked back upon those quiet afternoons in the olive woods at
San Marco, and the tea-parties of three in Lady Felicia's sitting-room,
and remembered how he had thought he was marrying a friendless and
unappreciated girl, who would be all the world to him, and for whom he
must be all the world, in a long future of wedded love.

He thought he was marrying a friendless orphan, whose divine
inheritance was poetry and beauty; and he found that he had married the
Disbrowes.

They were all terribly friendly. They never hinted at his inferior
social status, his vulgar level as a tradesman, only trading in money
instead of goods. They behaved as if, by marrying their cousin, he
had become a Disbrowe. Lady Helstone, Lady Balgowrie, Lord and Lady
Okehampton treated him with affection without _arrière pensée_. The
most that Okehampton, as a man of the world, wanted from the great
financier was his advice about the investment of his paltry surplus,
so trifling an amount that he blushed to allude to the desire in such
exalted company.

But now a time had come when Vera needed no counsel from the Disbrowes,
and when she was beginning to treat those social obligations
about which she, as a tyro, had laboured diligently, with a royal
carelessness. Her aunts complained that she had grown casual, and that
she had even gone very near offending some of their particular friends,
people whom to have on her visiting list ought to have been the crown
of her life.

Vera apologised.

"I know far too many people," she said; "my house is becoming a
caravanserai."

She said "my house" unconsciously--with the deep-seated knowledge that
all those splendid rooms and the splendid crowds that filled them meant
very little in her husband's life.

Six years of the "too much" had changed Lady Felicia's granddaughter.
The things that money can buy had ceased to charm; the people whom in
her first season she had thought it a privilege to know had sunk into
the dismal category of bores. Almost everybody was a bore; except a few
men of letters, who had known her father, or who loved his verses. For
those she had always a welcome; and she was proud when they told her
that she was her father's daughter. Her eyes, her voice were his, these
enthusiasts told her. She was a creature of fire and light, as he was.

After three or four years of pleasure in trivial things, she had
grown disdainful of all delights, except those of the mind and the
imagination. The opera, or the theatre when Shakespeare was acted,
always charmed her, but for the olla podrida of music and nonsense
that most people cared for she had nothing but scorn. She never missed
a fine concert or a picture show, but she broke half her engagements
to evening parties, or appeared for a quarter of an hour and vanished
before her hostess had time to introduce the new arrivals, American or
continental, who were dying to know her.

The general impression was that she gave herself airs: but they were
airs that harmonised with her fragile beauty, the something ethereal
that distinguished her from other women.

"If any stout, florid creature were to behave like Madame Provana, she
would be cut dead," people told Vera's familiar friend, Lady Susan
Amphlett.

Lady Susan pleaded her friend's frail constitution as an excuse for
casual behaviour.

"She is all nerves, and suffers agonies from ennui. Her father was
consumptive, and her mother was a fragile creature who faded away after
three years of a happy married life. It was a marriage of romance and
beauty. Davis and his wife were both lovely; but they had no stamina.
Vera has no stamina."

Lady Felicia had been lying more than a year in the family vault
in Warwickshire. Her last years had been the most prosperous and
comfortable years of her life, and the vision of the future that
had smiled upon her in the golden light above the jutting cliff of
Bordighera had been amply realised by the unmeasured liberality of her
granddaughter's husband. Before Vera's honeymoon was over, the shabby
lodgings in the dull, unlovely street had been exchanged for a spacious
flat in a red brick sky-scraper overlooking Regent's Park. Large
windows, lofty ceilings, a southern aspect, and the very newest note in
decoration and upholstery had replaced the sunless drawing-room and the
Philistine walnut furniture, and for those last years the Disbrowe clan
ceased to talk of Captain Cunningham's widow as poor Lady Felicia. What
more could any woman want of wealth, than to be able to draw upon the
purse of a triple millionaire? As everything in Lady Felicia's former
surroundings, her shifting camp of nearly twenty years, had been marked
with the broad arrow of poverty, every detail of this richly feathered
nest of her old age bore the stamp of riches; and the Disbrowes, who
knew the price of things, could see that Mario Provana had treated his
wife's relation with princely generosity.

Once more Lady Felicia's diamonds, those last relics of her youth, to
which she had held through all her necessitous years, were to be met in
the houses of the fashionable and the great; and Lady Felicia herself,
in a sumptuous velvet gown, silvery hair dressed by a fashionable
artist, emerged from retirement in a perfect state of preservation,
having the advantage by a decade of giddy dowagers who had never missed
a season.

The giddy dowagers looked at her through their _face à main_, and
laughed about Lady Felicia's "resurrection."

"She looks as if she had been kept in cotton-wool and put to bed at ten
o'clock every night," they said.

Grannie enjoyed that Indian summer of her life, and was grateful.

"You have married a prince," she told Vera, "and if you ever slight him
or behave badly, you will deserve to come to a bad end."

Vera protested that she knew her husband's value, and was not
ungrateful.

"I want to make him happy," she said.

"That is easy enough," retorted Grannie. "You have only to love him as
he deserves to be loved."

"Was that so easy?" Vera wondered sadly.

It seemed to her that, by no fault of hers, there had come a difference
in her relations with her husband. He was always kind to her, but he
was farther from her than in the first year--the Italian year--which,
to look back upon, was still the happiest of her married life. He was
absorbed in a business that needed strenuous labour and unflagging
care. He had told her that it was not his own interests alone that he
had to guard; but the interests of other people. There were thousands
of helpless people who would suffer by his loss of fortune, or his loss
of prestige. The pinnacle upon which the house of Provana stood was the
strong rock of a multitude. A certain anxiety was therefore inevitable
throughout his business life. He could never be the holiday husband,
sharing all a wife's trivial pleasures, interested in all the nothings
that make the sum of an idle woman's existence.

Vera accepted the inevitable, and it was only when she began to think
the best people rather boring, that she discovered how the distance
had widened between herself and her husband. Without a dissentient
word, without a single angry look, they had come to be one of those
essentially modern couples whose loveless unions Father Cyprian
deplored.

She thought the blame was with Mario Provana. He had ceased to care for
her. Just as she had grown weary of her troops of friends, her husband
had wearied of the wife he had chosen after a week's courtship.

"He thought he was in love, but he could not really have cared for me,"
she told herself. "His heart was empty and desolate after the loss of
his daughter, and he took me because I was young and had been Giulia's
friend."

This was how Vera reasoned, sitting in her lonely sanctuary, while on
the other side of the wall there was a man of mature age, a man with
a proud temper and a passionate heart, a man who had endured slights
in his youth, whose first marriage had ended in disappointment, the
crushing discovery that the beautiful girl who had been given to him
by a noble and needy father had sacrificed her inclinations for the
sake of her family, and had never loved him. She had been faithful, and
she had endured his love. That was all. And in those last years, when
disease had laid a withering hand upon her beauty, and when the world
seemed far off, and when only her husband's love stood between her and
death, she had learnt the value of a good man's devotion, and had loved
him a little in return. He had suffered the disillusions of that first
union. Yet again, after many years, he had staked his happiness upon
a single chance, and had taken a girl of eighteen to his heart, in a
state of exaltation that was more like a dream than sober reality. He
had lavished upon this unsophisticated girl all the force of strong
feelings long held in check. At last, at last, in the maturity of
manhood, the love that had been denied to his youth was being given
to him in full measure. He could not doubt that she loved him. That
innocent, unconscious love, trusting as the love of children, revealed
itself in tones and looks that he could not mistake. Before he asked
her to be his wife he was sure that she loved him; but after six years
of marriage he was no longer sure of anything, except that his wife was
the fashion, and that her Disbrowe relations were innumerable. He was
sure of nothing about this girl whom he had clasped to his breast in a
rapture of triumphant love, on the hill above the Mediterranean. Year
after year of their married life had carried her farther away from him.
Who could say precisely what made the separation? He only knew that the
years which should have tightened the bond had loosened it; and that he
could no longer recognise his child-wife of their Roman honeymoon in
the fragile _ennuyée_ whom Society had chosen to adore.



CHAPTER VII


"Well, now your whim has been gratified, I should like to know what
you think of Francis Symeon?" Claude Rutherford asked, as he put down
his hat in Vera's sanctum, the day after her conference with the high
priest of occultism.

The question was his only greeting. He slipped into the low and
spacious chair by the hearth, and seemed to lose himself in it, while
he waited for a reply. He had the air of being perfectly at home in
the room, with no idea that he could possibly be unwelcome. He came
and went in Madame Provana's house with a lazy insouciance that many
people would have taken for indifference. Only the skilled reader of
men would have detected the hidden fire under that outward serenity
of the attractive man, who flirts with any attractive woman of his
acquaintance, and cares for none.

"I think he is wonderful."

"And you believe in him?"

"Yes, I believe in him, because his ideas only give form and substance
to the thoughts that have haunted me ever since I began to think."

"Grisly thoughts?"

"No, Claude; happy thoughts. When I first read my father's poetry and
began to think about him--in my dull grey room in Grannie's lodgings--I
had a feeling that he was near me. He was there; but behind the veil.
When I read 'In Memoriam' the feeling grew stronger, and I knew that
death is not the end of love. There was nothing that shocked or
startled me in what Mr. Symeon told me yesterday."

"About 'Us,' the spiritual club, in which the dead and the living
are members on the same footing? The club that elects, or selects,
Confucius or Browning one day, and Lady Fanny Ransom--mad Lady Fanny as
they call her--the next?"

"I saw nothing to ridicule in a companionship of lofty minds. But you
know more about the society than I do. Perhaps you are a member?"

Claude answered first with a light gay laugh, and then in his most
languid voice.

"Not I! I am of the earth earthy, sensual, sinful. If I went to one of
their meetings I should have to go disguised as a poodle. Lady Fanny
owns a fine Russian, that has a look of Mephisto, though I believe he
is purely canine."

"Tell me all you know about their meetings."

"Imagine a Quakers' meeting, with the female members in Parisian
frocks and hats--a large room at the back of Symeon's chambers in the
'Albany.' It was once a fashionable editor's library, smelling of
Russia leather, and gay with Zansdorf's bindings--but it is now the
abode of shadow, 'where glowing embers through the room, teach light
to counterfeit a gloom.' And there the congregation sits in melancholy
silence, till somebody, Lady Fanny or another, begins to say things
that have been borne in upon her from Shakespeare or Browning, or
Marlowe or Schopenhauer; or her favourite bishop, if she is pious.
They wait for inspiration as the Quakers do. I am told Lady F. is
tremendous. She is strong upon politics, and is frankly socialistic;
she has communications from Karl Marx and Fourier, George Eliot and
Comte. Her inspiration takes the widest range, and moves her to the
wildest speech; but she is greatly admired. They never have a blank day
when she is there."

"I should like to hear her. I know she is eccentric; but she is
immensely clever, and she seems to have read everything worth reading,
in half a dozen languages."

"She crams her expansive brain with the best books; but I am told she
occasionally puts them in upside down, and the author's views came out
topsy-turvy. You are of imagination all compact, Vera; but I should be
sorry to see you lapsing into Fannytude."

"You scoff at everything. There is nothing serious for you in this
world or the next."

"Which next world? There are so many. Symeon's for instance, and Father
Hammond's. What could be more diverse than those? I have thought very
little about the undiscovered country. But you must not say I am not
serious about something in this world."

"I cannot imagine what that something is."

"I hope you will never know. If fact, you are never to know."

His earnestness startled her. When a man's dominant note is persiflage
any touch of grave feeling is impressive. Vera was silent--and they sat
opposite each other for a few moments, she watching the rise and fall
of a blue flame in the heap of logs, he watching her face as the blue
light flashed upon it for an instant and then left it dark.

It was a face worth watching. She had her mermaid look this evening,
and her eyes--ordinarily dark grey--looked as green as her sea-water
necklace.

"How is Provana?" he asked at last; an automatic question, indicating
faintest interest in the answer.

"Oh, he is very well; but I am afraid he is worried. He stays longer in
the City than he used to stay, and he is very grave and silent when we
dine alone."

"What would you do if the great house of Provana were to go down like a
scuttled ship? Would you stick to a bankrupt husband--renounce London
and all its pomps and vanities--give up this wilderness of a house and
all the splendid things in it?"

"Can you suppose the loss of money would change my feeling for him? If
you can think that you must think I married him because he was rich."

"And didn't you?"

"I hate you for the question. When Mario asked me to be his wife I had
not a thought of his wealth. I knew that he was a good man, and I was
proud of his love."

"But you were not in love with him?"

"I don't know what you mean. I loved him for his noble character. I was
proud of his love."

"That is not being in love, Vera. A woman who is in love does not care
a jot for her lover's character. She loves him all the better, perhaps,
because he is a scoundrel--the last of the last--the off-scouring.
There were women in Rome who doted upon Cæsar Borgia; women who knew
that he was a poisoner--take my word for it. You liked Provana because
he was your first lover, and you were tired of a year in year out
_tête-à-tête_ with Grannie."

"You know nothing about it. If he were to lose his fortune to-morrow I
think I should be rather glad. We could live in Italy. Poverty would
bring us nearer together--as we were in our honeymoon year. We should
have plenty to live upon with my settlement."

She rose and moved towards the door.

"It is nearly five, and there will be people coming," she said.

The door opened as she spoke, and Lady Susan Amphlett looked in.

"Aren't you coming, Vera? There is a mob already, and people want their
tea. What are you two talking about, _entre chien et loup_? You look as
weird as Mr. Symeon, Claude."

"We were talking of Symeon, when Vera began to worry about the people
downstairs, who are not half so interesting."

"I should think not. Mr. Symeon is thrilling. To know him is like what
it must have been to be intimate with Simon Forman or Dr. Dee. I would
give worlds to belong to his society. It is quite the smart thing to
do. The members give themselves no end of airs in a quiet way."

Lady Susan would have stood in the doorway talking in her crisp and
rapid way for a quarter of an hour, oblivious of the people in the
drawing-room; but Vera slipped a hand through her arm, and they went
downstairs together, Susan talking all the way.

"Fanny Ransom has just come in, with her girl--not out yet, but ages
old in knowing what she oughtn't to know. How can a woman like Fanny,
eaten up with spiritualism, look after a daughter? They say she went to
Paris last winter on purpose to attend a Black Mass."

"The not-out daughter?" asked Claude.

"No, the mother; but she told the girl all about it, and the minx raves
about the devil--and says she would rather be initiated than presented
next year."

"Lady Fanny had better take care, or she will be expelled from Us. I
don't think Symeon would approve of the Black Mass. His philosophy is
all light. Light and darkness are his good and evil."

Claude spoke in an undertone, as they were in the room by this time,
but he ran small risk of being overheard in a place where everybody
seemed to be talking and nobody listening.

Lady Fanny was the centre of a group, her large brown eyes flashing,
her voice the loudest, a tall, commanding figure in a black and gold
gown, and a black beaver hat with long ostrich feathers and a diamond
buckle, a hat that suggested Rupert of the Rhine rather than a modern
matron.

Her girl stood a little way off, with three other not-outs, listening
to her mother's "balderdash" with unsuppressed mockery.

"Isn't she too killing?" this dutiful child exclaimed, in a rapture
of contemptuous amusement, and then she and her satellites bounced
down upon the most luxurious ottoman within reach, and employed
themselves in disparaging criticism of the company generally--their
dress, demeanour, and social status, with much whispering and
giggling--happily unobserved by grown-ups, who all had their own
interesting subjects to talk about.

Lady Fanny was deserted in favour of Vera, who, at the tea-table,
became the focus of everybody's attention. At the beginning she had
taken a childish pleasure in pouring out tea for her friends, rejoicing
in the exquisite china, the old-world silver, glittering in the blue
light of the spirit lamps, the flowers, and beauteous surroundings;
so different from the scanty treasures of shabby-gentility--the
dinted silver, worn thin with long use, the relics of a Swansea
tea-service with many a crack and rivet--to which her youth had been
restricted. She performed the office automatically nowadays, oppressed
with the languor that hangs over those who are tired of everything,
most especially the luxury and beauty they once longed for. One can
understand that in the reign of our Hanoverian kings it was just this
state of mind which made the wits and beauties eager for a window over
against Newgate--to see a row of murdering pirates hanging against the
morning sky. Nothing could be too ghastly or grim for exhausted souls
in want of a sensation.

The afternoon droppers-in had long become a weariness to Madame
Provana, yet as her fashion had depended much upon her accessibility,
she could not shut her door upon people who considered themselves
obliging when they used her drawing-room as a rather superior club.

Claude Rutherford slipped out of the room imperceptibly, eluding the
people who wanted to talk to him with the agility of a vanishing
harlequin. He had another visit to pay before his evening engagements,
an almost daily visit.

There was just one person in the world for whom he, who had left
off caring for people or things, was known to care very much. In
expatiating upon the blemishes in an agreeable young man's character,
people often concluded with:

"But he is a model son. He adores that old woman in Palace Place."

It was to the old woman in Palace Place that Claude was going this
November afternoon, and walking briskly through the clear, cold grey,
he knew as well what the old woman was doing as if he had been gifted
with second sight.

She was sitting in her large, low chair, with her table and exquisite
little tea-service--his gift--at her elbow, and with her eyes fixed on
the dial of the Sèvres clock on the mantelpiece, while her heart beat
in time to the ticking of the seconds, and he knew that if he were but
ten minutes later than usual those minutes were long enough for the
maternal mind to visualise every form of accident that can happen to a
young man about town.

Nobody talked of "poor Mrs. Rutherford," or pitied her widowed
solitude, as they had pitied Lady Felicia. The fact that she had her
own house in a fashionable quarter, and a handsome income, made all the
difference.

The house was not spacious, but it was old--an Adams house--and one of
the prettiest in London, for whatever had been done to it, after Adams,
had been done with taste and discretion. Much of the furniture was of
the same date as the house, and all that was more recent was precious
after its kind, and had been bought when precious things were easier
to buy than they are now. And Mrs. Rutherford was as perfect as her
surroundings--a slim, pale woman, dressed in black, and wearing the
same widow's cap which she had put on in sorrow and anguish fifteen
years before--and which harmonised well with the long oval face
and banded brown hair, lightly streaked with grey. She was a quiet
person, and entertained few visitors except those of her own blood, or
connections by marriage; but the name of those being legion, nobody
called her inhospitable. Altogether she was a mother whom no well-bred
son need be ashamed of loving.

Once, upon his friend saying something to this effect, Claude had
turned upon the man fiercely:

"I should have loved her as well if she had been a beggar in the
streets, and had hung about the doors of public-houses with me in
her arms. To me she is not Mrs. Rutherford, but just the sweetest,
tenderest mother on this earth--and she would have been the same if
Fate had made her a beggar."

"You believe that in your fantastic fits--but you know it ain't true,"
said his friend.

       *       *       *       *       *

Mrs. Rutherford looked up with a radiant face when her son entered the
room. She had heard his light step on the stair. He had a latchkey, and
there was no other sound to announce his coming.

"Am I late, mother?"

"It is eight minutes past five."

"And you have been watching the clock instead of taking your tea."

The butler entered with the tea-pot as he spoke, having made the tea
immediately upon hearing the hall door open.

"What have you been doing with yourself this afternoon, dearest?" Mrs.
Rutherford asked, looking up at him fondly, as he stood with his back
to the mantelpiece, looking down at her.

"Loafing as usual. I looked in at the New Gallery--their winter show
began to-day--half a dozen grand things--the rest _croûtes_."

"And then?" she asked gently, seeming sure there would be something
else.

"Then I walked up Regent Street--it was a fine bracing afternoon--from
the Gallery to the 'Langham,' and along Portland Place."

"And you had tea with Vera Provana?"

"No--not tea. There is no tea worth tasting out of this room. There was
a mob as usual at the Provanas'--and I slipped away."

"Was Signor Provana there?"

"Not he. He was last heard of in Vienna. But I believe he is coming
home next week."

"An unsatisfactory husband for a young thing like Vera," said Mrs.
Rutherford, with a faint cloud on her thoughtful face.

Claude knew that look of vague trouble. It was often on his mother's
forehead when she spoke of Vera.

"I don't think women ought to call him unsatisfactory. He is the most
indulgent husband I know. He adores his wife, and she reigns like a
queen in that great house of his--and in their Roman villa."

"That kind of indulgence is a dangerous thing for a young
woman--especially if she is capricious and full of strange fancies."

"Poor little Vera. You don't seem to have a high opinion of her."

"I don't want to be unkind. She has passed through an ordeal that
only a woman of high principles and strong brain can pass without
deterioration. A girlhood of poverty and deprivation, under close
surveillance, and a married life of inordinate luxury and liberty. She
was married at eighteen, remember, Claude--before her character could
be formed. Nor was Lady Felicia the person to lay the foundation of
a fine character. One ought not to speak ill of the dead--but poor
Felicia was sadly trivial and worldly-minded."

"_Madre mia_, what a sermon. If you think poor little Vera is in
danger, why don't you contrive to see a little more of her? She would
love to have you for a real friend. She has a host of acquaintances,
but not too many friends. Susan Amphlett is devoted to her; but Lady
Susie is not a tower of strength."

"I believe they suit each other. They are both feather-headed, and both
_poseuses_."

At this Claude fired, and was almost fierce.

"Vera is no _poseuse_," he said. "She is utterly without
self-consciousness. I don't think she knows that she is lovely, in
spite of the Society papers. Fortunately she has no time to read them.
She is too absorbed in her poets--Browning, Shakespeare, Dante. I doubt
if she reads a page of prose in a day."

"And is not that a pose? Her idea is to be different from other
women--a creature of imagination--in the world, but not of it. That is
what people say of Madame Provana.--So charming! So different!

"She can't help what people say, any more than she can help looking
more like Undine than a woman whose clothes come from the Rue de la
Paix."

Mrs. Rutherford let the subject drop. She did not want to bring
unhappiness into the sweetest hour of her life, the hour her son
gave her; and she knew she could not talk of Vera without the risk
of unhappiness. He who was the joy of her life was also the cause of
much sorrow; but from the day he left the Army, under some kind of
cloud, never fully understood, but divined, by his mother, she had
never let him know what a disappointment his broken career had been to
her. She was a soldier's daughter, and a soldier's widow; and to be
distinguished as a leader of men was to her mind almost the only way to
greatness.

Yet she had smiled when this cherished son had made light of military
fame, and told her he would rather be another Millais than another
Arthur Wellesley. She had expressed no regret, a few years later, when
he told her that art was of all professions the most hateful--and that
he did not mean to follow up the flashy success of his early pictures.

"They might make me an Associate next year, if my work was a little
better," he told her; "but I am not good enough to hit the public taste
two years running. It was the subject or the devilry in my picture that
caught on. I might never catch on again--and I'm sick of it all--the
critics, the dealers, and the whole brotherhood of art."

There again his road in life came to a dead stop; but this time it
was not a wicked woman's form that barred the vista, and shut out the
Temple of Fame. As he had missed being a great soldier, he was to
miss being a famous painter, though the men who knew, the men who had
already arrived, had told his mother that a brilliant career might
have been his, if he had chosen to work for it; to work, not by fits
and starts, like a fine gentleman in a picturesque painting-room, but
as Reynolds had worked, and Etty, and Wilkie, when he sat on the floor
painting, with his own legs for his subject.

Again, after trying her powers of persuasion, and trying to fire his
ambition, Mrs. Rutherford had resigned herself to disappointment, and
had been neither reproachful nor lugubrious.

She was an ambitious woman, and her son had disappointed her ambition.
She was a deeply religious woman, and she saw her son indifferent to
his religion, if not an unbeliever; and she never persecuted him with
tears and remonstrances, only on rare occasions, and with the utmost
delicacy, pleading the urgency of a strong faith in the midst of a
faithless generation, and the deadly risk the man runs who neglects the
sacraments of his Church.

Although she did not often approach this subject in her talk with
Claude, it was not the less a subject of anxious thought; and she
relied on the influence of her old and devoted friend, Father Cyprian
Hammond, rather than her own, for the saving of her son's soul.

If a good woman's prayers could have guarded his path and kept him from
temptation, Claude Rutherford would have walked between guardian angels.



CHAPTER VIII


While Claude Rutherford's peril was a subject of troubled thought
for his mother and her friend and father confessor, Cyprian Hammond,
no friendly voice had breathed words of warning into Vera's ear; nor
had she any consciousness that warning was needed, or that danger
threatened.

Claude was a part of her life. From the day when she had met him
for the first time after her marriage, at a luncheon party at Lady
Okehampton's, and they two had sat talking in the embrasure of a
window, recalling delicious memories of her childhood's one happy
holiday--the ponies, the dogs, the gardens, the woods, the beach and
sea--all the joy his kindness had created for her in that verdant
paradise, upon that summer sea--from that happy hour when they had sat,
talking, talking, talking, while Lady Okehampton waited with growing
displeasure for an unpunctual dowager duchess, she had felt that this
kinsman of hers belonged to her, that to him she might look as the
guide, philosopher, and friend, indispensable to the happiness of every
woman whose husband is occupied with serious interests and has a mind
above trivialities.

There was nothing too trivial for Claude to understand and discuss with
interest. The merest nothing would command his serious thought, if it
were something that interested Vera; nor was any flight of her fancy
too wild or too high for him. From the colour of a frock or the shape
of a hat, to the most oracular utterance of Zarathustra, she could
command his attention and counsel. He came and went in her house like
the idle wind; and his entrances and exits were no more considered than
the wind. When her particular friends asked her whether she had seen
Mr. Rutherford lately, she would shrug her shoulders and smile.

"My cousin Claude? Yes, he was here yesterday. I see him almost every
day. If he has nothing better to do he comes in after his morning ride,
and sometimes stays for luncheon."

People were not unkind; but as years went on the situation was taken
for granted, and there were quiet smiles, gently significant, when
Madame Provana and her cousin were talked about. Their relations were
accepted as one of those open secrets, not to know which is not to be
in Society.

Lady Susan did her best to establish the scandal by telling people that
Vera and Claude had been brought up together, or almost, and that their
attachment was the most innocent and prettiest thing imaginable--"like
Paul and Virginia"--a classic which Lady Susan had never read. The
"almost" was necessary, as most people knew that Vera had been brought
up with Lady Felicia, in furnished lodgings, and had hardly had a
second frock to her back, to say nothing of being underfed, which early
privation was the cause of the pale slenderness that some people called
"ethereal."

Lady Susan's friends, furthermore, being well up in Burke, were
satirical about the link of kindred between third or fifth cousins.

Yet on the whole there was indulgence; and when Vera went on a
week-end visit to the seats of the mighty she generally found Mr.
Rutherford one of the party; which was hardly a cause for wonder, since
he was of the stuff of which week-end parties are made.

Vera was more than innocent. She was unconscious of anything particular
in her friendship for this friend of her childhood. What could be more
natural than that she should love to talk of that one blissful interval
in her dull existence--the solitary oasis in the desert of genteel
poverty? Only then had she known the beauty of woods and gardens; only
then had she known what summer could mean to the emancipated child: the
rapture of riding over dancing waves in a cockle-shell of a boat, with
the warm wind blowing her hair and the sea-gulls flashing their white
wings overhead, the adorable birds whose name was legion. To talk of
those young days, and to feel again as she had felt then, was a delight
which only Claude could give her; and the more hollow and unsatisfying
the things that money could buy became to her, the more she loved to
sit with her locked hands upon her knee and talk of that unforgotten
holiday.

"Do you remember that evening I asked you to row me out to the setting
sun, right into the great golden ball, and you said you would, and you
went too far, and we were out till after dark, and everybody was first
frightened and then angry?"

All their talk began with "Do you remember?" His memory was better than
hers, and he recalled adventures and moments that she had forgotten.
One day he brought her a little sketch on thick cardboard, roughly
painted in oils, one of his early bits of impressionism before he had
studied art, a little girl in a short white frock, with hair flying
about her head, cheeks like roses, and the blue of the sea in her eyes.

"What a funny child. You didn't mean that for me?"

"For no one else. I have dozens of such daubs. You remember how I
used to sit on a rock and paint while you were looking for shells or
worrying the jelly-fish."

"Poor things. I wanted to see them move. I hope they have no feelings.
Yes, you used to sit and paint; and I thought you disagreeable because
you would not play with me."

Beyond these pictures of the past they had inexhaustible subjects
for talk. There was a whole world of literature, the literature of
decadence, in which Vera had to be initiated, and Claude was a past
master in that particular phase of intellectual life. Baudelaire,
Verlaine, Nietzsche, the literature of pessimism, and the literature of
despair, that rebellion against law, human and divine, which Shelley
began, and which had been a dominant note among young poets since the
"Revolt of Islam" filled romantic minds with wonder and a vague delight.

Imperceptibly, naturally, and in no manner wrongfully, as it seemed
to Vera, Claude Rutherford's society had become essential to her
happiness. She accepted the fact as placidly, and with as complete
confidence in him and in herself, as if such a friendship between an
idle young man and an imaginative young woman had never been known
to end in shame and sorrow. She had lived in the world half a dozen
years, and had known of many social tragedies; but as these had not
touched any friend she valued, and as she was not a scandal-lover,
those dark stories of husbands betrayed and nurseries abandoned had
never deeply impressed her, and had been speedily forgotten. Nobody,
not even Lady Susie, who was a _mauvaise langue_, had ever hinted at
impropriety in her association with her cousin. Signor Provana saw him
come and go, and asked no questions. That stern and lofty nature was
of the kind that is not easily jealous. Had there been no Iago, Cassio
might have come and gone freely in the noble Moor's household, and no
shadow of fear would have darkened that great love. Vera's husband was
a disappointed man. His dream of a young and loving wife who would
make up to him for all that he had missed in boyhood and youth had
melted into thin air. He was sensitive and proud, and the memory of
his unloved childhood and of his first wife's indifference was never
absent from his mind when he considered his relations with his second
wife. He thought of his age, he saw his stern, rough features in the
glass, and a faint touch of coldness, the fretful weariness of an
over-indulged girl, was taken for aversion, and all his pride and all
his force of character rose up against the creature he loved too well
to judge wisely. It was he who built the wall that parted them; it was
his gloomy distrust of himself rather than of Vera that made the gulf
between them.

Let her be happy in her own way. He had sworn to make her happy: and
if it was her nature to delight in trivial things, if the aimless
existence of a rich man's sultana was her idea of bliss, she should
reign sole mistress of a harem which he would never enter while he
believed himself unwelcome there. Vera accepted this gradual drifting
apart as something inevitable, for which she was not to blame. The
strong man's impassioned love, which had appealed to the romantic side
of her character, had languished and died with the passing years.
She brooded on the change with sorrowful wonder before she became
accustomed to the idea that the lover who had taken her to his heart
with a cry of ineffable rapture had ceased to exist in the grave man
of business, whose preoccupied manner and absent gaze, as of one
looking at things far away, chilled her when she sat opposite him on
those rare occasions when they dined _tête-à-tête_--occasions when the
dinner-table was only a glittering spot in the dark spaciousness of the
room, a world of shadows, where the footmen moved like ghosts in the
area between the table and the far-off sideboard. They had been married
six years; but Vera thought sadly that her husband looked twenty years
older than the companion by whose side she had climbed the mule-paths,
through the lemon orchards and olive woods of San Marco, the man whose
conversation had always interested her, her first friend, her first
lover.

She accepted the change as inevitable, having been taught by the wives
of her acquaintance to believe that marriage was the death of love, and
as gradually as she learned to dispense with her husband's society,
so guiltlessly, because unconsciously, she came to depend upon Claude
Rutherford for sympathy and companionship.

She did not know that she loved him, though she knew that the day when
they did not meet seemed a long-drawn-out weariness, and that when the
evening shadows came, they brought a sense of desolation and a strange
lassitude, as of one weighed down by intolerable burdens.

All occupations and all amusements were burdens if Claude was not
sharing them--Society the heaviest of all. Far easier to endure the
dreary day in the solitude of her den, with the faces of her beloved
dead looking at her, than among empty-headed people, who could only
talk of what other empty-headed people were doing, or were going to
do, with that light spice of malice which makes other people's mistakes
and misfortunes so piquant and interesting.

Claude Rutherford had become a part of her life, and life was
meaningless without him: a fatal stage in the downhill path, but it
was a long time before her awakened conscience gave the first note of
warning.

Then--waking in the first faint flush of a summer dawn, after a night
of troubled sleep and feverish dreams--a night succeeding one of those
dismal days that she had been obliged to endure without the sight
of the familiar face, the glad, gay call of the familiar voice, the
sound of the light footstep on the stairs--she told herself for the
first time, with unutterable horror, that this man was dearer to her
than he ought to be--dearer than her husband, dearer than her peace
of mind, dearer than all this world held for her and all the next
world promised. Oh, the wickedness of it! the shame, the horror! To be
false to him--the man who had put his strong arms round her and lifted
her out of the dismal swamp of shabby gentility and taken her to his
generous heart; the man who trusted her with unquestioning faith, who
had never by word or look betrayed the faintest doubt of her truth and
purity.

No lovers' word had been spoken, no lovers' lips had met; yet as she
rose from that uneasy bed, and paced the spacious room in fever and
agitation, a ghostly figure, with bare feet and streaming hair, and
long white draperies, she felt as if she were steeped to the lips in
dishonour--a monster of ingratitude and treachery.

And then she began the struggle that most women make--even the weaker
souls--when they feel the downward path sloping under their feet, and
know that the pit of shame lies at the bottom of it, though they cannot
see it yet--the impotent struggle in which all the odds are against
them, their environment, every circumstance of their lives, their
friends, the nearest and dearest even, to whom they cannot cry aloud
and say: "Don't you see that I am fighting the tempter, don't you see
that I am half way down the hill and am trying to make a stand, that
I am over the edge of the cliff, and am hanging to the bushes with
bleeding, lacerated hands in the desperate endeavour to keep myself
from falling? Have you neither eyes nor understanding that you don't
try to help me?" Rarely is any friendly hand stretched out to help the
woman who sees her danger and tries to escape her doom. Acquaintances
look on and smile. These open secrets are accepted as a part of the
scheme of the universe, a particular phase of existence that doesn't
matter as long as the chief actors are happy. The wife, her familiar
friend, her complaisant or indifferent husband, are smiled upon by a
society of men and women who know their world and take it for what it
is worth. Only when the actors begin to play their parts badly, and
when the open secret becomes an open scandal, does Society cease to be
kind.

Vera did not think of Society in that tragic hour of an awakened
conscience. That which would have been the first thought with most
women had no place in her mind. It was of her sin that she thought--the
sin of inconstancy, of ingratitude, of faithlessness. Had she crossed
the border line, and qualified herself for the Divorce Court, she could
not have thought of herself with deeper contrition.

To love this other man better than she loved her husband; to long for
his coming; to be happy when he was with her, and miserable when he was
away; there was the sin.

But no word of love had been spoken. There was time for repentance.
He did not know that she loved him. Although, looking back, and
recalling words and tones of his, she could not doubt that he loved
her, she could hope that no word of hers had revealed the passion whose
development had been gradual and imperceptible as the growth of the
leaf buds in early spring, which no eye marks till they flash into life
in the first warmth of April.

Her friendship with this man, who was of her kindred, the companion
of the only happy days of her childhood, had seemed as natural as it
would have been to attach herself to a brother from whom she had long
been separated. She had welcomed him with a childish eagerness, she had
trusted him with a childish belief in the perfection of the creature
who is kind. She had admired him--comparing him with all the other
young men she knew, and finding him infinitely above them. His very
weakness had appealed to her. All that was wanting in his character
made him more likable, since compassion and regret mingled with her
liking. To be so clever, so gifted by nature, and to have done nothing
with nature's gifts--to be doomed to go down to death leaving his
name written in water--to die, having finished nothing but his _beaux
jours_: people who liked him best talked of him as a young man with a
_beau passé_. Shoulders were shrugged, and smiles were sad, when his
painter friends discussed him.

"We thought he was going to do great things in art, and he has done
nothing."

Soldiers who remembered him before he left the Army lamented the loss
of a man who was made for a soldier.

There had been trouble--trouble about a woman that had made him
exchange to a line regiment--and then the war being over, and the
chance of active service remote, disgust had come upon him, and he had
done with soldiering.

Vera had seen the shoulders shrugged, and had heard the deprecating
criticism of this kinsman of hers, and had been all the kinder to him
because Fate had been cruel.

She had tried to fire him with new hope; she had been ambitious for
him; had steeped herself in art books, and spent her mornings in
picture galleries, in order that she might be able to talk to him. She
had implored him to go back to his work, to paint better pictures than
he had painted when critics prophesied a future from his work.

"I am too old," he said.

"Nonsense. You have wasted a few years, but you will have to work
harder and buy back your lost time. Quentin Matsys did not begin to
paint till he was older than you."

"There were giants in those days. Compared with such men I am an
invertebrate pigmy."

"Oh, if you loved art you would not be content to live without the joy
of it."

"Yes, that's what people who look at pictures think--the joy of
painting a thing like that. The man who paints knows when the disgust
comes in and the joy goes out. He knows the sense of failure, the
disappointment, the longing to fling his half-finished picture on the
floor and perform the devil's dance upon it, as Müller used to do."

And then, one day, as they were going round a picture gallery together,
he said:

"Well, Vera, I have been meditating on your lecture; and I am going to
paint another picture--the last, perhaps."

"No, it won't be the last."

"I am going to paint your portrait. After all that sermonising you
can't refuse to sit to me."

"I won't refuse--unless Mario should object."

"How should he object? He will be in New York, or Madrid, or
Constantinople, most likely, while I am painting you. I am nothing if
not an impressionist, so it mustn't be a long business."

"I shall love sitting to you. To see you at work----"

"Yes, to see me earning my bread in the sweat of my brow, like the
day-labourer, will be a novelty. I shouldn't want to be paid for the
picture, but I dare say Provana would insist upon my taking a fee,
and as he counts in thousands, it would be a handsome one. No, Vera,
don't blush! I won't take money for my daub. You shall give it to the
Canine Defence League. It shall be a labour of love; a concession to a
sermonising cousin. I shall paint your portrait, just to convince you
that I can't paint, and that the life I am wasting is worth nothing."

Thus in light talk and laughter the plan was made that brought them
into a closer intimacy than they had known before, and although Claude
Rutherford was an impressionist, that portrait was three months upon
the easel which he had rigged up in Vera's morning-room.

"I want to paint you in the room where you live; not with a marble
pillar and a crimson curtain for a background."

The sittings went on at irregular intervals, in a style that was at
once sauntering and spasmodic, all through that season. Signor Provana
looked in now and then, stood watching the painter at work for five or
ten minutes, criticised, and made a sudden exit, driven away by Lady
Susan's shrill chatter.

But Lady Susan was not always there; and there were more tranquil
hours, when Vera sat in her half-reclining attitude on a low sofa
spread with a tiger skin, fanning herself with a great fan of peacock's
feathers, and gazing at the pictures on the wall with dreaming eyes:
hours in which the painter and his subject talked by fits and
starts--with silent pauses.

After all the pains that had been taken, the picture was a failure.
The painter hated it, Provana frankly disapproved; and in the haggard,
large-eyed siren smiling over the edge of the fan, Vera could not
recognise the face she saw in the glass.

"I have been much too long over the thing," Claude told Provana, with
slow and languid speech, half indifference, half disgust; "and it is a
dismal failure. But I shall do better next time, if Vera will let me
make a rapid sketch of her, when the daffodils are in bloom, and we
shall be week-ending at Marlow Chase. I could make a picture of her
on the hill above the house, in the yellow afternoon light, and among
the yellow flowers. I am an open-air painter if I am anything; but I
had almost forgotten how to set a palette. I shall work in a friend's
studio in the autumn, and I may do better next year."

Vera urged him to persevere in this good intention, and not to mind his
failure.

"I mind nothing," he said. "I have had three happy months. I mind
nothing while you are kind, and forgive me for having put you to a lot
of trouble, with this atrocious daub for the outcome of it all."

Privileged people only were allowed to see the daub; but those,
although supposed to be few, in the end proved to be many. Critics were
among them, and Mr. Rutherford was too shrewd not to discover that
every connoisseur had a little hole to pick in the portrait, and that
when all the little holes were put together there was nothing left.

And this picture, so poor a thing as it was, made the beginning of that
open secret, which everybody knew long before the awakening of Vera's
conscience, and while Mario Provana saw nothing to suspect or to fear
in his wife's intimacy with her cousin.

But now, with the awakening of conscience, began the fight against
Fate, the fight of the weak against the strong, the woman against
the man, innocent youth against an experienced lover. She was
single-hearted and pure in intention, counting happiness as thistledown
against gold, when weighed against her honour as a wife; but she
entered the lists without knowing the strength of her opponent, the
passive force of a weak man's selfishness. The main purpose of her
life was henceforward to release herself from the web that had been
woven so easily, so imperceptibly; first a careless association between
two people whose likings and ideas were in harmony; then friendship,
confidence, sympathy; and then unavowed love; love that made the days
desolate when the lovers were not together. He had been too frequent
and too dear a companion. He had become the master of her life, and it
was for her to release herself from that unholy bondage. She had to
learn to live without him.

It needed more than common cleverness and tact to bring about a change
in their manner of life, without making a direct appeal to Rutherford's
honour and telling him that their friendship had become a danger. To do
this would be to tell him that she loved him, to confess her weakness,
before he had passed the border line that divides the friend from the
lover. No, she could make no appeal to the man whose smouldering fires
she feared to kindle into flame. She knew that he loved her, and that
he had made her love him. She had to escape from the web that he had
woven round her; and she had, if possible, to set herself free without
his knowing the strength of her purpose, or the desperate nature of the
struggle.

All the chances were against her. She could not forbid him the house
without an open scandal. As he had come and gone in the last four
years, he must still be free to come and go. She could only avoid those
familiar hours--hours that had been so dear--by living in a perpetual
restlessness, always finding some engagement away from home.

It was weary work, but she persevered, and enlisted all the Disbrowes
in her cause, unconscious that they were being made use of. She
accepted every invitation, lent herself to everybody's fads,
philanthropic or otherwise; listened to the same fiddlers and singers
day after day, in drawing-rooms and among people that she knew by
heart; or stood with aching head under a ten-guinea hat, selling
programmes at amateur theatricals.

She contracted a closer alliance with Lady Susan Amphlett, and planned
excursions: a day at Windsor, a day at Dorking, at Guildford, to
rummage in furniture shops, at Greenwich to see the Nelson relics, to
Richmond and Hampton, even to Kew Gardens. Lady Susan was almost worn
out by these simple pleasures; but as she professed, and sincerely, an
absolute _culte_ for Vera Provana, she held out bravely.

These excursions were fairly successful, and as Vera took care that no
one should know where she and her friend were going--not even Susan
herself till they were on the road--it was not possible for Claude to
follow her. It was otherwise in the houses of her friends, where she
was always meeting him, and where it was essential that she should not
seem to avoid him, least of all to let him see that she was so doing.

She greeted him always with the old friendliness--a little more
cousinly than it had been of late; and she showed a matronly interest
in his health and occupations, as if she had been an aunt rather than a
cousin.

"It is quite delightful to meet you here this afternoon," he told her,
in a ducal house where guinea tickets for a charity concert seemed
cheap to the outside public. "You are to be met anywhere and everywhere
except in your own house. I have called so often that I have taken a
disgust for your knockers. When I am dead I believe those lions' heads
will be found engraven on my heart, like Queen Mary's Calais."

It was only natural that, with the awakening of conscience, there
should come the thought of those two first years of her married life,
when her husband's love had made an atmosphere of happiness around her,
when she had cared for no other companion, needed no other friend;
those blessed years before Claude Rutherford's pale, clear-cut face,
and low, seductive voice had become a part of her life, essential to
her peace. The change of feeling, the growing regard for this man,
had come about so gradually, with a growth so slow and imperceptible,
that she tried in vain to analyse her feelings in those four years
of careless intimacy, and to trace the process by which an innocent
friendship had changed to a guilty love. When had the fatal change
begun? She could not tell. It was only when she felt the misery of
one long day of parting that she knew her sin. The husband had become
a stranger, the friend had become the other half of her soul. He had
called her by that sweet name sometimes, but with so playful a tone
that the impassioned phrase had not scared her. It was one of many
lightly spoken phrases that she had heard as carelessly as they were
uttered.

And now, looking back at the last two years, she told herself that it
was her husband's fault that she had leant on Claude for sympathy,
her husband's fault that they had been too much together. For some
reason that she had never fathomed, Mario Provana had held himself
aloof from the old domestic intimacy. It was not only that his business
engagements necessitated his absence from home several times in the
course of the year, and on occasion for a considerable period. He had
business in Russia, and in Austria, and he had crossed the Atlantic
twice in the last year, the affairs of his New York house calling for
special attention in a disturbed state of American finance. These
frequent absences alone were sufficient to weaken the marriage bond;
but in the last year he had given his wife very little of his society
when they were under the same roof.

"You have hosts of friends," he said one day when she reproached him
for keeping aloof, "people who share your tastes and can be amused
by the things that amuse you. I bring back a tired brain after my
continental journeys, and am still more tired after New York. I should
make a wretched companion for a young wife, a beautiful butterfly who
was born to shine among all the other butterflies."

"I am nearly as tired as you are after your business journeys, Mario,"
she said. "I shall be very glad when we can go back to Rome."

"But you will have other butterflies there, and a good many of the same
that flutter about you here," he answered.

"We will shut our doors upon them and live quietly."

"Like Darby and Joan--old Darby and young Joan. No, Vera, we won't try
that. You weren't made for the part."

She had been too proud to say more. If he was tired of her--if he had
ceased to care for her, she would not ask him why.

But now, in her desperate need, sick to death of those aimless
excursions and unamusing amusements with Lady Susan, and of the dire
necessity of keeping away from her own house, to flutter from party to
party, almost sure of meeting Claude wherever she went, she turned in
her extremity to her natural protector, and tried to find shelter in
the love that ought to be her strong rock.

Her husband had been on the Continent, moving from city to city, for
the greater part of the June month in which she had been making her
poor little fight against Fate--trying to cure herself of Claude
Rutherford, as if he had been a bad habit, like drink or drugs. And
then one morning, when she was beginning the day dejectedly, tired of
yesterday, hopeless of to-morrow, a telegram from Paris told her to
expect her husband at seven o'clock that evening.

Her heart beat gladly, as at the coming of a deliverer.

She was not afraid of meeting him. She longed for his coming, as the
one friend who might save her from an influence that she feared.

The face she saw in the glass while her maid was dressing her hair
almost startled her. There were dark marks under the eyes, and the
cheeks were hollow and deadly pale. The black gauze dinner-gown she had
chosen would accentuate her pallor; but it was nearly seven o'clock,
and there was no time for any change in her toilet. She paced the great
empty rooms in sun and shadow, listening to every sound in the street,
and wondering if her husband would see the sickening change that
sickening thoughts had made in her face, and question her too closely.

She heard the hall door open, and then the familiar footstep, rapid,
strong, and yet light, very different from the footfall of obese middle
age; the step of a man whose active life and energetic temperament had
kept him young.

She met him on the threshold of the drawing-room.

"I am so glad you have come home," she said, holding up her face for
his kiss.

He kissed her, but without enthusiasm.

"I am glad you are glad," he said, "but can that mean that you have
missed me? From your letters I thought you and Lady Susan were having
rather a gay time."

"I was rushing about with her and going to parties, partly because I
missed you."

"Partly, and the other part of it was because you like parties and are
dull at home, I suppose, unless you have your house full."

"Oh, I am sick of it all, Mario," she said, with a sort of passionate
energy that made him believe her, "and I would live quite a different
life if you were not away so often, and if I were not thrown too much
on my own resources."

"My dear Vera, this is a new development," he said gravely, sitting
down beside her, and looking at her with eyes that troubled her, as if
they could see too much of the mind behind her face. "You are looking
thin and white. Has anything happened while I have been away, anything
to make you unhappy?"

"No!" she exclaimed with tremendous emphasis, for she felt as if he
were going to wrest her secret from her. "What could happen? But I
suppose there must come a time in every woman's life when she has had
enough of what the world calls pleasure, when the charm goes out of
amusements that repeat themselves year after year; and when one begins
to understand the emptiness of a life, occupied only with futilities,
when one begins to tire of running after every new thing, actors,
dancers, singers, and all the rest of them. I have had enough of that
life, Mario; and I want you to help me to do something better with the
liberty and the wealth you have given me."

"Do you want a mission?" he asked with a faint smile. "That is what
women seem to want nowadays."

"No, Mario. I want to be happy with you. Your business engagements take
you so much away from home, that our lives must be sometimes divided;
but not always--we need not be always living a divided life, as we have
been in the last three years."

A crimson flush swept across her face as she spoke, remembering that
these were the years in which Claude Rutherford's influence had grown
from a careless comradeship to an absorbing intimacy.

Her husband looked at her in silence for a few moments; and his grave
smile had now a touch of irony.

"Has it dawned upon you at last?" he asked. "Have you discovered that
we have been living apart; that we have been man and wife only in name?"

"It was not my fault, Mario. It was you who kept aloof."

"Not till I saw repulsion--not till I saw aversion."

"No, no--never, never, never! I have never forgotten your
goodness--never forgotten all I owe you."

They had been sitting side by side on the spacious Louis Quatorze sofa,
his hand upon her shoulder; but at her last words he started to his
feet with a cry of pain.

"Yes, that is it--you recognise an obligation. I have given you a fine
house, fine clothes, fine friends--and you think you ought to repay me
for them by pretending to love me. Vera, that is all over. There must
be no more pretending. I can bear a good deal, but I could not bear
that. I told you something of my past life before we were married; but
I doubt if I told you all its bitterness--all the blind egotism of my
marriage, the cruel awakening from a dream of mutual love--to discover
that my wife had married me because I could give her the things she
wanted, and that love was out of the question. I compared myself with
other men, and saw the difference; and as I had missed the love of a
mother, so I had to do without the love of a wife. I was not made to
win a woman's love--no, not even a mother's. This was why my affection
for my daughter was something more than the common love of fathers. She
was the first who loved me--and she will be the last."

"Mario, you are too cruel! Have I not loved you?"

"Yes--perhaps for a little while. You gave me a year of infinite
happiness--our honeymoon year. That ought to be enough. I have no right
to ask for more--but let there be no talk of gratitude--if I cannot
have love I will have nothing."

"You have been so cold, so silent and reserved, so changed. I thought
you were tired of me."

"Tired of you? Poor child! How should you know the measureless love in
the heart of a man of my life-history? When I took you in my arms in
the evening sunshine, I gave you all that was best and strongest in my
nature--boundless love and boundless trust. All my life-history went
for nothing in that hour. I did not ask myself if I was the kind of man
to win the heart of a girl. I did not think of my five-and-forty years
or my forbidding face. I gave myself up to that delicious dream. I had
found the girl who could love me, the divine girl, youth and innocence
incarnate. Think what it was after a year of happiness to be awakened
by a look, and to know that I had again been fooled, and that if in the
first surprise of my passionate love you had almost loved me, that love
was dead."

"No, no," she sobbed; and then she hid her streaming eyes upon his
breast, and wound her arms about his neck, clinging to the husband in
whom she found her only shelter.

Was it some curious instinct of the flesh, or some power of telepathy,
that told him not to take these tears and wild embrace for tokens of a
wife's love?

"My dearest girl," he said with infinite gentleness, as he loosened
the clinging arms and lifted the hidden face, "if this distress means
sorrow for having unwittingly deceived me, for having taken a man's
heart and not been able to give him love for love, there need be
no more tears. The fault was mine, the mistake was mine. You must
not suffer for it. To me you will always be unspeakably sweet and
dear--whether I think of you as a wife, or as the girl my daughter
loved--and whom I learned to love in those sad days when the shadow of
death went with us in the spring sunshine. Yes, Vera, you will always
be dear--my dearest on this earth. But there must be no pretending,
nothing false. Think of me as your friend and protector, the one friend
whom you can always trust, your rock of defence against all the dangers
and delusions of a wicked world. Trust me, dearest, and never keep a
secret from me. Be true to yourself, keep your honour stainless, your
purity of mind unclouded by evil associations. Let no breath of calumny
soil your name. Rise superior to the ruck of your friends, and have no
dealings with the lost women whose guilt Society chooses to ignore. I
ask no more than this, my beloved girl, in return for measureless love
and implicit faith."

He was holding both her hands, looking at her with searching eyes;
those clear grey eyes under a brow of power.

"Can you promise as much as this, Vera?

"Yes."

"With heart and mind?"

"With heart and mind."

"And you will never take the liberty I give you for a letter of
license?"

"No, no, no. But I don't ask for liberty. I want to belong to you, to
be sheltered by you."

"You shall have the shelter, if you need it; but be true to yourself,
and you will need no defender. A woman's safest armour is her own
purity. And again, my love," with a return of the slightly ironical
smile, "never was a woman better guarded than you are while you are
fringed round by Disbrowes, protected at every point by your mother's
clan, people at once well born and well bred, with no taint of
Bohemianism, unless indeed it may lurk in your _poco curante_ cousin,
the young painter who made such a lamentable failure of your portrait."

She felt as if every vestige of colour was fading out of her face, and
that even her lips must be deadly white. They were so parched that when
she tried to shape some trivial reply the power of speech seemed gone.
She felt the dry lips moving; but no sound came.

This was the end of her appeal to the husband whose love might have
saved her. Their relations were changed from that hour. He was not
again the lover-husband of their honeymoon years; but he was no longer
cold and reserved, he no longer held her at a distance. He was kind and
sympathetic.

He interested himself in her occupations and amusements, the books she
read and the people she saw. He was with her at the opera, where Claude
Rutherford sometimes came to them and sat through an act or two in the
darkness at the back of the box. He was infinitely kind and tender; but
it was the tenderness of a father, or a benevolent uncle, rather than
of a husband. He held rigidly to that which he had told her. There was
to be no make-believe in their relations.

If she was not happy, she was at peace for some time after her
husband's home-coming--a period in which they were more together than
they had ever been since those first years of their married life. She
tried to be happy, tried to forget the time in which Claude Rutherford
had been her daily companion, the time when she planned no pleasure
that he was not to share, and had no opinions about people or places,
or books or art, that she did not take from him: loving the things he
loved, hating the things he hated; as if they had been two bodies moved
by one mind. She tried not to feel an aching void for want of him; she
tried not to think him cruel for coming to her house so seldom, and
tried to be sorry that they met so often in the houses of her friends.

The time came when the awakened conscience was lulled to sleep, and
when her husband's society began to jar upon her strained nerves. She
had invoked him as a defence against the enemy; and now she longed for
the enemy, and had ceased to be grateful to the defender.

The rampart of defence was soon to fall. A financial crisis was
threatened, and Signor Provana was wanted at his office in New York.
He told his wife that he might be able to come back to London in a
fortnight, allowing ten days for the double passage, and four for his
business; but if things were troublesome in America he might be a good
deal longer.

"I shall try to be home in time to take you to Marienbad," he told her.
"But if I am not here, Lady Okehampton will take you, and you can get
Lady Susan to go with you and keep you in good spirits. I had a talk
with your aunt last night, and she promised to take you under her wing."

"I don't want to be under anybody's wing; and Aunt Mildred will bore me
to death if I see much of her at Marienbad."

"Oh, you will have your favourite Susie for amusement, and your aunt to
see that she doesn't lead you into mischief. Lady Susan is a shade too
adventurous for my taste."

This idea of Marienbad was a new thing. A certain nervous irritability
had been growing upon Vera of late, and her husband had been puzzled
and uneasy, and had called in a nerve specialist recommended by Lady
Okehampton, one of those new lights whom everybody believe in for a
few seasons. After a quiet talk with Vera, that grave authority had
suggested a rest cure, the living death of six weeks in a nursing home;
and on this being vehemently protested against by the patient, had
offered Marienbad as an alternative.

Provana had been startled by this sudden change in his wife's temper,
from extreme gentleness and an evident desire to please him, to a kind
of febrile impatience and irritability; and remembering her curious
agitation on the evening of his home-coming, her pallid cheeks and
passionate tears, he had an uneasy feeling that these strange moods had
a common source, and that there was something mysterious and unhappy
that it was his business to discover before he left her.

He came to her room early on the day of his departure, so early that
she had only just left her bedroom, and was still wearing the loose
white muslin gown in which she had breakfasted.

She was sitting on her low sofa in a listless attitude, looking at the
faces on the wall--Browning, Shelley, Byron--the faces of the inspired
dead who were more alive than the uninspired living; but at her
husband's entrance she started to her feet and went to meet him.

"You are not going yet," she exclaimed. "I thought the boat-train did
not leave till the afternoon."

"It does not; but I must give the interval to business. I have come to
bid you good-bye."

"I am very sorry you are obliged to go," she said.

"For God's sake do not lie to me. For pity's sake let there be no
pretending."

He took both her hands and drew her to him, looking at her with an
imploring earnestness.

"I have trusted you as men seldom trust their wives," he said. "I
thought I had done you a great wrong when I took you in the first bloom
of your young beauty and made you my own; cutting you off for ever
from the love of a young lover, and all the passion and romance of
youth. Considering this, I tried to make amends by giving you perfect
freedom, freedom to live your own life among your own friends, freedom
for everything that could make a woman happy, except that romantic love
which you renounced when you accepted me as your husband. I believed
in you, Vera, I believed in your truth and purity as I believe in God.
I could never have reconciled myself to the life we have led in this
house if it were not for my invincible faith in your truth. But within
this month that faith has been shaken. Your eyes have lost the old
look--the lovely look through which truth shone like a light. There is
something unhappy, something mysterious. There is a secret--and I must
know that secret before I leave you."

Her face changed to a look of stone as he watched her.

It was no time for tears. It was time for a superhuman effort at
repression, to hold every feeling in check, to make her nerves iron.

There was defiance in her tone when she spoke, after a silence that
seemed long.

"There is no secret."

"Then why are you unhappy?"

"I am not unhappy. I have a fit of low spirits now and then, a feeling
of physical depression, for which there is no reason; or perhaps my
idle, useless life, and the luxury in which I live, may be the reason."

"It is something more than low spirits. You are nervous and irritable
and you have a frightened look sometimes, a look that frightens me.
Oh, Vera, for God's sake be frank with me. Trust me half as much as
I have trusted you. Trust me as a daughter might trust her father,
knowing his measureless love, and knowing that with that love there
would be measureless pity. Trust me, my beloved girl, throw your burden
upon me, and you shall find the strength of a man's love, and the
self-abnegation that goes with it."

"I have no secret, no mystery; I mean to be worthy of your trust. I
mean to be true to myself. If you doubt me let me go to America with
you. Keep me with you."

His face lighted as she spoke, and then he looked thoughtfully at the
fragile form, the delicate features, the ethereal beauty that seemed to
have so frail a hold on life.

"No, you are not the stuff for sea voyages, and the storm and stress
of New York. If we went there together I should have to leave you too
much alone among strangers. I shall have an anxious time there; but it
shall not be a long time. If possible, I shall be here to take you to
Marienbad, and in the meantime you must live quietly, and do what your
doctor tells you. He is to see you next week, remember."

He held her to his heart, with stronger feeling than he had shown for
a long time, and gave her his good-bye kiss. She flung herself on her
knees as the door closed behind him.

"God help me to be true to him in heart and mind."

That was the prayer she breathed mutely, while her tears fell thick and
fast upon her clasped hands.

He was gone, the unloved husband, and she had to face the peril of
the undeclared lover. She felt helpless and forsaken, and she sat
for a long time in listless misery; and then, looking up at the
pictures on the wall, she tried to realise that silent companionship,
the souls of the illustrious dead--tried to believe that she was not
alone in her dejection, that in the silence of her lonely room there
was the sympathy and understanding of souls over whom death has no
more dominion, and whose pity was more profound than any earth-bound
creature could give her.

She thought of Francis Symeon, and of those meetings of which he
had told her. Nothing had come of her interview with him. Claude
Rutherford's light laughter had blown away her belief in the
high-priest of the spiritual world; and she had thought no more of the
creed that had appealed so strongly to her imagination.

Now, when life seemed a barren waste, her thoughts turned to the
philosophic visionary who had so gravely expounded his dream.
Everything in her material world harassed and distressed her, and she
turned to the spiritual life to escape from reality.

She wrote urgently to Mr. Symeon, telling him that she was unhappy, and
asking to be admitted to the society of which he had told her. She had
not to wait long for an answer. Symeon called upon her that afternoon,
and was with her for more than an hour, full of kindness and sympathy;
sympathy that scared her, for it seemed as if those strange eyes must
be reading the depths of her inner consciousness, and all the disgust
of life and vague longing that were interwoven with her thoughts of
Claude Rutherford.

It was to escape those thoughts--to dissever herself from that haunting
image, that she pleaded for admission to the shadow world.

"Bring me in communion with the great minds that are above earthly
passions," would be her prayer, could she have spoken freely; but she
sat in a thoughtful silence, soothed by the spiritualist's exposition
of that dream-world, which was to him more real than the solid earth
upon which he had to live--a reluctant participator in the life of the
vulgar herd.

"The mass of mankind, who have no joys that are not sensual, and
who live only in the present moment, have nothing but ridicule and
disbelief for the faith that makes even this sordid material world
beautiful for us, who see in earthly things the image of things
supernal," he said, with that accent of sincerity, that intense
conviction, which had made scoffers cease from scoffing under the
influence of his personality, however they might ridicule him in his
absence.

Everyone had to admit that, though the creed might be absurd, the man
was wonderful.

There was to be a meeting of "Us" at his chambers on the following
afternoon, and Symeon begged Vera to come.

"You may find only thought and silence," he said, "a company of friends
absorbed in meditation, but without any message from the other world;
or you may hear words that burn, the voices of disembodied genius. In
any case, while you are with us you will be away from the dust and
traffic of the material world."

Yes, she would go, she was only too glad to be allowed to be among his
disciples.

"I want to escape," she told him. "I am tired of my futile life--so
tired."

"I thought you would have joined us long ago," he said, as he took
leave, "but I think I know the influence that held you back."

The hot blood rushed into her face, the red fire of conscious guilt
that always came at the thought of Claude Rutherford. She had never
minimised her sin. It was sin to have made him essential to her
happiness, to have lost interest in all the rest of her life, to have
given him her heart and mind.

"I think the psychological moment has come," continued Symeon's slow,
grave voice, "and that you should now become one of us. You have
drained the cup of this trivial life, and have found its bitterness.
Our religion is our faith in the After-life. We have the faith that
looks through death. The orthodox Christian talks of the life beyond;
and we must give him credit for sometimes thinking of it--but does
he realise it? Is it near him? Does he look through death to the
Spirit-world beyond? Does he realise the After-life as Christ realised
it when He talked with His disciples?"



CHAPTER IX


The meeting in Mr. Symeon's library lasted all through the summer
afternoon, till the edge of evening. The large and gloomy room was
darkened by Venetian shutters, nearly closed over open windows. There
was air, and the ceaseless sound of traffic; but the summer sun was
excluded, and figures were seen dimly, as if they belonged to the
shadow world.

Among those indistinct forms Vera recognised people she knew, people
she would never have expected to find in a society of mystics: a
statesman, a poet, three popular novelists, and half a dozen of the
idlest women of her acquaintance, two of whom were the heroines
of romantic stories, women over whose future friends watched and
prophesied with the keen interest that centres in a domestic situation
where catastrophe seems imminent.

Vera wondered, seeing these two. Had they come, like her, for a refuge
from the tragedy of life? They had not come for an escape from sin;
for, if their friends were to be believed, the border line had been
passed long ago.

An hour of silence, broken now and then by deep breathing, as of
agitation, and sometimes by a stifled sob, and then a flood of words,
speech that was eloquent enough to seem inspired, speech that might
have come from him who wrote "Christmas Eve," and "Easter Day," and
"A Death in the Desert," the speech of a believer in all that is
most divine in the promise of a future life. And after that burst
of impassioned utterance there were other speakers, men and women,
the men strong in faith, strong in the gift of tongues, possessed by
the higher mind that spoke through organs of common clay; the women
semi-hysterical, romantic, eloquent with remembered poetry. But in men
and women alike there was sincerity, an intense belief in that close
contact of disembodied mind, sincerity that carried conviction to an
imaginative neophyte like Vera Provana.

Suddenly from the stillness there came a voice more thrilling than any
Vera had heard in that long _séance_, a voice that was not altogether
unfamiliar, but with a note more intense, more poignant than she knew.
Gleaming through the shadows, she saw eyes that flashed green light,
and a long, thin face of marble pallor, in which she knew the face of
Lady Fanny Ransom.

And now came the most startling speech that had been heard that
afternoon--the passionate advocacy of Free Love--love released from the
dominion of law, the bonds of custom, the fear of the world; love as in
Shelley's wildest dreams, but more transcendental than in the dreams of
poets; the love of spirit for spirit, soul for soul, "pure to pure"--as
Milton imagined the love of angels. All the grossness of earth was
eliminated from that rarefied atmosphere in which Francis Symeon's
disciples had their being. Their first and indispensable qualification
was to have liberated thought and feeling from the dominion of the
senses. While still wearing the husk of the flesh, they were to be
spirits; and not till they had become spirits were they capable of
communion with those radiant beings whose earthly vesture had been
annihilated by death.

To Vera there was an awful beauty in those echoes of great minds; and
her faith was strong in the belief that among this little company of
aspiring mortals there hovered the spirits of the illustrious dead. She
left Mr. Symeon's room with those others, who dispersed in absolute
silence, as good people leave a church, with no recognition of each
other, stealing away as from a service of unusual solemnity. They did
not even look at each other, nor did they take leave of Mr. Symeon, who
stood by one of the shuttered windows, gravely watching as his guests
departed.

It was past seven, and the sun was low, as Vera went to her carriage,
which was waiting for her in Burlington Gardens. She was stepping into
it, when a too familiar voice startled her. She had been too deep in
thought to see Claude Rutherford waiting for her at the gate of the
"Albany."

"Send your carriage home, Vera, and walk through the Green Park with
me. You must want fresh air after the gloom of Symeon's Egyptian
temple."

"No, no. I am going straight home."

"Indeed you are not," and without further argument he took upon himself
to give the order to the footman.

"Your mistress will walk home."

She would have resisted; but it was not easy to dispute with a man who
had a way of taking things for granted, especially those things he
wanted. It would have been easier to contend against energy, or even
brute force, than against that nonchalant self-assurance of an amiable
idler, who sauntered through life, getting his own way by a passive
resistance of all opposing circumstances.

"I have been waiting nearly two hours," he said. "It would be hard if
you couldn't give me half an hour before your dinner. I know you never
dine before half-past eight."

"But I have to be punctual. Aunt Mildred is coming to dinner, and Susie
Amphlett."

"It has only just struck seven. You shall be home before eight, and I
suppose you can dress in half an hour."

"I won't risk not being in the drawing-room when Aunt Mildred comes."

"Lady Okehampton is a terror, I admit. You shall be home in good time,
child. But I must have something for my two hours."

"How absurd of you to wait," she said lightly. "And how did you know I
was at Mr. Symeon's?"

They were going through the "Albany" to Piccadilly. She had recovered
from the shock of his appearance, and was able to speak with the old
trivial air, the tone of comradeship, an easy friendliness, without
the possibility of deeper feeling. It had seemed so natural before
the consciousness of sin; and it had been so sweet. This evening, as
she walked by his side, she began to think that they might still be
comrades and friends, without the shadow of fear; that her agony of
awakened conscience had been foolish and hysterical, imaginary sin,
like the self-accusation of some demented nun.

"How did I know? Well, after calling at your house repeatedly, only
to be told you were not at home, I lost my temper, and determined to
find out where you were--at least for this one afternoon, when I knew
of no high jinks in the houses of your friends; and so, having asked
an impertinent question or two of your butler, I found that Symeon had
been with you yesterday, and guessed that you might be at his occult
assembly this afternoon. I had heard a whisper of such an assembly more
than a week ago--so you see the process of discovery was not difficult."

"But why take so much trouble?"

"Why? Because you have treated me very badly, and I don't mean to put
up with that kind of treatment. If it comes to why, I have my own
'why' to ask--a why that I must have answered. What ignorant sin have
I committed that it should be 'Darwaza band' when I call in Portland
Place? What has become of our cousinship; our memory of childish
pleasures, the sea, the woods, the heather; the pony that ran away with
you, while I stood with my blood frozen, telling myself, 'If he kills
her I shall throw myself over the cliff'? What has become of our past,
Vera? Is blood to be no thicker than water? Is the bond of our childish
affection to go for nothing? Is it because I am a failure that you have
cut me?"

"I have not cut you, Claude. How can you say such a thing?"

"Have you not? Then I know nothing of the cutting process. To be always
out when I call--to take infinite trouble to avoid me when we meet in
other people's houses! The cut direct was never more stony-hearted and
remorseless."

"You must not fancy things," she said lightly.

They were in the Green Park by this time, the quiet Green Park, whence
nursemaids and children had vanished, and where even loafers were few
at this hour between afternoon and evening.

She spoke lightly, and there was a lightness at her heart that was
new. It was sweet to be with him--sweet to be walking at his side on
the old familiar terms, friends, companions, comrades, as of old. His
careless speech, his supreme ease of manner, seemed to have broken a
spell. She looked back and thought of her troubled conscience, and all
the scheming and distress of the last two months, and she felt as if
she had awakened from a fever dream, from a dreary interval of delirium
and hysteria. What danger could there be in such a friendship? What had
tragedy to do with Claude Rutherford? This airy trifler, this saunterer
through life, was not of the stuff of which lovers are made. He was a
man whom all women liked; but he was not the man whom a woman calls her
Fate, and who cannot be her friend without being her destroyer. How
could she ever have feared him? He was of her own blood. His respect
for her race--the race to which he belonged--would hold him in check,
even if there were no other restraining influences. The burden of fear
was lifted; and her spirits rose to a girlish lightness, as she walked
by her cousin's side with swift footsteps, listening to his playful
reproaches, his facetious bewailing of his worthlessness. From this
time forward she would treat him as a brother. She would never again
think it possible that words of love, unholy words, could fall from his
lips. No such word had ever been spoken; and was it not shameful in her
to have feared him--to imagine him a lover while he had always shown
himself her loyal kinsman? In this new and happy hour she forgot that
it was her own heart that had sounded the alarm--that it was because
she loved him, not because he loved her, that she had resolved upon
ruling him out of her life.

Perhaps this evening, after the glamour of Mr. Symeon's assembly, she
was "fey." This sudden rush of gladness, this ecstasy of reunion with
the friend from whom she had compassed heaven and earth to hold herself
aloof, seemed more than the gladness of common day. She trod on air;
and when they pulled up suddenly at Hyde Park Comer, it was a surprise
to find that they had not been walking towards Portland Place.

"We must make for Stanhope Gate and cross Grosvenor Square and Bond
Street," Claude said gaily. "We have come a long way round, but a walk
is a walk, and I have no doubt we both wanted one. Perhaps you would
prefer a cab."

"No, I like walking, if there is time."

"Plenty of time. You walk like Atalanta, if that young person ever
condescended to anything but a run."

"Do you remember our walks in the woods, and the afternoon we lost our
way and could not get home for the nursery tea?"

"You mean when I lost my way, and you had to tramp the shoes off your
dear little feet. Brave little minx, I shall never forget how plucky
you were, and how you kept back the tears when your lips quivered with
pain."

Once launched upon reminiscences of that golden summer there was no
gap in their talk till the lions' heads were frowning at them on the
threshold of Vera's home.

She was flushed with her walk, and the colour in cheeks that were
generally pale gave a new brightness to her eyes. That long talk of
her childish days had taken her out of her present life. She was a
child again, happy in the present moment, without the wisdom that looks
before and after.

"Good-bye," said Claude; and then, pausing, with his hand on the moody
lion, "if you had some vague idea of asking me to dinner, it would
be a kindness to give shape to the notion, for I shan't get a dinner
anywhere else. My mother is in the country, and a solitary meal at a
restaurant is worse than a funeral."

Vera hesitated, with a faint blush, not being able utterly to forget
her determination to keep Claude Rutherford out of her daily life.

"Lady Okehampton expects to find me alone," she said.

"But you have Susie Amphlett?"

"Susie invited herself."

"As I am doing. Three women! What a funereal feast; as bad as
Domitian's black banquet. Your aunt dotes upon me, and so does Susan.
You will score by having secured me. You can say I threw over a long
engagement for the sake of meeting them. I dare say there is some
solemn dinner invitation stuck in my chimney glass. I often forget such
things."

The doors were flung open, and the suave man in black and his liveried
lieutenants awaited their mistress's entrance.

"_A ce soir_," said Claude, as he hailed a prowling hansom; and he was
seated in it, smiling at her with lifted hat, before Vera had time to
answer him.

"Mr. Rutherford will dine here this evening," she told the butler.



CHAPTER X


Vera was walking up and down her drawing-room at twenty minutes past
eight, dressed in one of those filmy white evening gowns with which her
wardrobe was always supplied, one of her mermaid frocks, as Lady Susan
called them. This one was all gauzy whiteness, with something green and
glittering that flashed out of the whiteness now and then, to match the
emerald circlet in her cloudy hair.

The tender carnation that had come from her walk was still in her
cheeks, still giving unusual brightness to her eyes.

She had been happy; she had put away dark thoughts. Life was gay and
glad once again, glad and gay as it had always been when she and Claude
were together. A load had been lifted from her heart, the vulgar terror
of the conventional wife, who could not imagine friendship without sin.
The things that she had heard that afternoon had given a new meaning to
life, had lifted her thoughts and feelings from the commonplace to the
transcendental; to the sphere in which there was no such thing as sin,
where there were only darkness and light, where the senses had no power
over the soul that dwelt in communion with souls released from earth.
She no longer feared a lover in the friend she had chosen out of the
common herd.

Lady Okehampton sailed into the drawing-room as the silvery chime of an
Italian clock told the half-hour. Her expansive person, clad in amber
satin, glowed like the setting sun, and her smiling face radiated good
nature.

She put up her long glass to look at Vera, being somewhat short-sighted
physically as well as morally.

"My dear child, you are looking worlds better than when I last saw you.
You were such a wreck at Lady Mohun's ball; looked as if you ought to
have been in bed, doing a rest cure--a ghost in a diamond tiara. I find
that when a woman is looking ill diamonds always make her look worse;
but to-night you are charming. That emerald bandeau suits you better
than the thing you wore at the ball. You haven't the aquiline profile
that can carry off an all-round crown."

Claude and Lady Susan came in together.

"My car nearly collided with his taxi," said Lady Susie, when she had
embraced her friend; "but I was very glad to see a man at your door.
From what you said this morning, I expected a hen-party. Now a big
hen-party is capital fun; but for three women to sit at meat alone! The
idea opens an immeasurable vista of boredom. I always feel as if I must
draw the butler into the conversation, and bandy an occasional joke
with the footmen. No doubt they could be immensely funny if one would
let them."

"It was an after-thought," said Claude. "Vera took fright at the
eleventh hour, and admitted the serpent into her paradise."

"No doubt Adam and Eve were dull--a perpetual _tête-à-tête_, tempered
by tame lions, must soon have palled; but at least it was better than
three women, yawning in each other's faces, after exhausting the latest
scandal."

"I think the early dinner in 'Paradise Lost' quite the dullest meal
on record," said Claude. "To begin with, it was vegetarian and
non-alcoholic. A man and his wife--the wife waiting at table--and one
prosy guest monologuing from the eggs to the apples."

"There is no mention of eggs. I don't think they had anything so
comfortable as a poultry yard in Eden; no buff Orpingtons, or white
Wyandottes, only eagles and nightingales," said Susie, and at this
moment the butler announced dinner in a confidential murmur, as if it
were a State secret. He was neither stout nor elderly; but in his tall
slimness and grave countenance there was a dignity that would have
reduced the most emancipated of matrons to good behaviour.

"I should never dare to draw _him_ into the conversation," whispered
Susie, as Claude offered his arm to Lady Okehampton. "Nothing would
tempt that perfect creature to a breach of etiquette."

The hen-dinner, relieved by one man, was charming. Not too long a
dinner; for one of the discoveries of this easy-going century is that
people don't want to sit for an hour and a half steeping themselves
in the savour of expensive food, while solemn men in plush and silk
stockings stalk behind their back in an endless procession, carrying
dishes whose contents are coldly glanced at and coldly refused. The
dinner was short, but perfect: too short for the talk, which was gay
and animated from start to finish.

Lady Susan and Mr. Rutherford were the talkers, Vera and her aunt only
coming in occasionally: Lady Okehampton with a comfortable common-sense
that was meant to keep the rodomontade within bounds.

Claude was an omnivorous reader, and had always a new set of anecdotes
and epigrams with which to keep the talk alive, anecdotes so brief and
sparkling that he seemed to flash them across the table like pistol
shots. French, German, or Italian, his accent was faultless, and his
enunciation clear as that of the most finished comedian; while in the
give and take of friendly chaff with such an interlocutor as Lady
Susan, he was a past master.

Vera did not talk much, but she looked radiant, the lovely embodiment
of youth and gladness. Her light laughter rang clear above Susan's,
after Claude's most successful stories. Once only during that gay
repast was a graver note sounded, and it came from the most frivolous
of the party, from Susie Amphlett, who had one particular aversion,
which she sometimes enlarged upon with a morbid interest.

Age was Susan's bugbear.

"I think of it when I wake in the night, like Camilla, in 'Great
Expectations,'" she said, looking round the table with frightened eyes,
as if she were seeing ghosts.

The grapes and peaches had been handed, and it was the confidential
quarter of an hour after the servants had gone.

"I don't like to give myself away before a butler," Susie said, as
the door closed on the last of the silk stockings. "Footmen are
non-existent: one doesn't stop to consider whether they are matter, or
only electricity; but a butler is a person and can think--perhaps a
socialistic satirist, seething with silent scorn for his mistress and
her friends."

"And no doubt an esteemed contributor to one of the Society Papers,"
said Claude.

"I am not afraid of Democracy, nor the English adaptation of the
French Revolution, though I feel sure it is coming," continued Lady
Susan, planting her elbow on the table in an expansive mood. "I am
afraid of nothing except growing old. That one terror swallows up all
trivial fears. They might take my money, they might steep me in poverty
to the lips, and if I could keep youth and good looks, I should hardly
mind."

Again she looked at the others appealingly, like a child that is afraid
of Red Riding-hood's wolf.

"Age is such a hideous disease--the one incurable malady. And we must
all have it. We are all growing old; even you, Vera, though you have
not begun to think about it. I didn't till I was thirty. As we sit
at this table and laugh and amuse ourselves, the sands are falling,
falling, falling--they never stop! Glad or sorry, that horrible disease
goes on, till the symptoms suddenly become acute--grey hair, wrinkles,
gout."

"But are there not some mild pleasures left in the years that bring the
philosophic mind?" asked Claude.

"Does that mean when one is eighty? At eighty one might easily be
philosophic. Everything would be over and done with. One would be like
old Lord Tyrawly, who said he was dead, though people did not know it."

"Some of the most delightful people I have known were old, and even
very old," said Claude, "but they didn't mind. That's the secret of
eternal youth, my dear Susie--not to mind: to wear the best wig you can
buy, and not to pretend it is your own hair: to wear pretty clothes,
especially suited to your years, sumptuous velvet and more sumptuous
fur, like a portrait of an old lady by Velasquez: never to brag of your
age, but never to be ashamed of it. The last phase may be the best
phase, if one has the philosophic mind."

"Oh, you," exclaimed Susan scornfully, "you are like Chesterfield. You
will have your good manners till your last death-bed visitor has been
given a chair. A fine manner is the only thing that time can't touch."

Vera saw her aunt looking bored, and smiled the signal for moving.

"Half a cigarette, and I shall follow," said Claude, as he opened the
door for the trio, "unless I am distinctly forbidden."

"Why should we forbid you? You are an artist, and you know more about
frocks and hats than we do, after years of laborious study," said Lady
Susan, and then, with her arm through Vera's as they went slowly up the
broad staircase, with steps so shallow that people accustomed to small
houses were in danger of falling over them, "Isn't he incomparable?"
she exclaimed. "There never was such a delightful failure."

"Poor Claude," sighed Lady Okehampton. "I suppose it is only the men
who fail in everything who have time to be agreeable. If a young man
has a great ambition, and is thinking of his career, he is generally
a bear. Claude has wasted all his chances in life, and can afford to
waste his time."

"It was a pity he left the Army," said Susan. "He looked lovely in his
uniform. I remember him as he flashed past me in a hansom, one summer
morning after a levée, a vision of beauty."

"It was a pity he got himself entrapped by a bad woman," said Lady
Okehampton with a sigh.

"His Colonel's second wife," put in Lady Susan. "Isn't it always the
elderly Colonel's second wife?"

Lady Okehampton gave another sigh.

"It was a disgraceful story," she murmured. "Let us try to forget all
about it."

Vera had flushed and paled while they were talking.

"But tell me about it, Aunt Mildred," she said, with a kind of angry
eagerness. "Where was the disgrace, more than in all such cases? A
wicked woman, a foolish young man--very young, wasn't he?"

"Not five and twenty."

"Where was the disgrace?"

"Don't excite yourself, child. Duplicity--an old man's heart
broken--Isn't that enough? An elopement or not an elopement; something
horrid that happened after a regimental ball. I know nothing of the
details, for it all took place while the regiment was in India, which
only shows that Kipling's stories are true to life. The husband would
not divorce her--which was a blessing--or Claude would have had to
marry her. He spoilt his career by the intrigue; but marriage would
have been worse."

Vera's heart was beating violently when Claude sauntered into the room
presently, and made his leisurely way to the sofa where she was sitting
aloof from the other two, who had just entered upon an animated
discussion of the last fashionable nerve-specialist and his methods.

"What has made you so pale?" Claude asked, as he seated himself by
Vera's side. "Was our walk through the streets too much for you? I
should never forgive myself if----"

"You have nothing to be sorry for. The walk was delightful. My aunt and
Susie have been talking of unpleasant things."

"What kind of things?"

"Of your leaving the Army. You have never told me why you threw up your
career."

"My career! There was not much to lose. The Boer War was over; my
regiment was in India all the time, and I never had a look in. Oh, they
have been telling you an ugly story about your poor friend; and it will
be 'The door is shut' again, I suppose."

"Why did not you tell me of your past life? I have told you everything
about mine."

"Because you had only nice innocent things to tell. My story would not
bear telling--and why should you want to know?"

"There should not be a wall between friends--such friends as we have
been--like brother and sister."

"Do brothers tell old love stories? Stale, barren stories of loves that
are dead?"

"Perhaps not. I oughtn't to have spoken about it. Come and talk to Aunt
Mildred. Her carriage has been announced, and she'll be huffed if we
don't go to her."

Claude followed meekly, and in five minutes Lady Okehampton had
forgotten that it was eleven o'clock, and that her horses had been
waiting half an hour. He had a curious power of making women pleased
with themselves, and with him. He always flattered them; but his
flattery was so discreet and subtle as to be imperceptible. It was
rather his evident delight in being with them and talking to them that
pleased, than anything that he said.

"Come to River Mead for next Sunday. It will be my last week-end party
before we go to Scotland," Lady Okehampton said to him before she bade
good night. "Vera and Susan are coming. We shall be a small party, and
there will be plenty of bridge."

Claude accepted the invitation as he took Lady Okehampton to her
carriage.

"I wish Provana were not so much away from his wife," she said. "It is
a very difficult position for Vera."

"Vera is not _la première venue_. She knows how to take care of
herself."

"That's what they always say about women; but is it true in her case?
She is very young, and rather simple, and knows very little of the
world."

"Not after six years as the wife of a financial Croesus?" murmured
Claude, while he arranged the matron's voluminous mantle over her
shoulders as carefully as if the outside atmosphere had been arctic.

He knew that the drift of her speech had been by way of warning for
him. Dear, inconsistent soul! It was so like her to invite him to spend
three days with her niece in the _sans gêne_ of a riverside villa, and
five minutes afterwards to sound a note of warning.

He walked along the lamp-lit streets with the light foot of triumphant
love. Vera's pale distress and unwise questioning had set his heart
beating with the presage of victory. Poor child! For his acute
perceptions, the heart of a woman had seldom been a mystery, and this
woman's heart was easier to read than most. Poor child! She had been
trying to live without him. She had fought her poor little battle,
with more of resolution and of courage than he would have expected
from a creature so tender. She had kept him out of her life for a long
time--time that had seemed an eternity for him, in his longing for
her; and then, at a word, at a smile, at the touch of his hand, she
had yielded, and had let him see that to be with him was to be happy,
and that nothing else mattered. Light love had been his portion in the
light years of youth; but this was no light love. He had sacrificed
his career for the sake of a woman; but the sacrifice had been forced
upon him, and it had killed his love. But now he was prepared for any
sacrifice--for the sacrifice of life-long exile, and strained means.
He thought of a home in a summer isle of the great southern ocean,
like Stevenson's; or, if gaiety were better, in some romantic city of
Spanish America. There were paradises enough in the world, there would
be no one to point the finger of scorn, where "Society" was a word of
no meaning.

He would carry his love to the world's end, beyond the reach of shame.
Nothing mattered but Vera. Yes, there was one who mattered. His mother!
But to-night he could not even think of her, or if he thought of her
it was to tell himself that if Provana divorced his wife, and he and
Vera were married, his mother would be reconciled to the inevitable.
Her religion would be a stumbling block. To her mind such a marriage
would be no marriage. To-night he could not reason, he would not see
obstacles in his path. Vera's pale looks and anxious questions had been
a confession of love, a forecast of surrender; and in the tumult of his
thoughts there was no room for hesitation or for fear.

He thought of his love now as duty. It was his duty to rescue this dear
girl from a loveless union with a hard man of business, old enough to
be her father, from splendours and luxuries that had become as dust and
ashes. He had known for a long time that she cared for him; but he had
never reckoned the strength of her attachment. Only this afternoon, in
her radiant happiness, as they walked through the unromantic streets;
only in her pale distress to-night, as she questioned him, had he
discovered his power: and now there seemed to be but one possible
issue--a new life for them both.

His mother's absence from London was an inexpressible relief to him.
How could he have met the tender questioning of the eyes that watched
over his life, and had learned how to read his mind from the time
when thought began? How could he have hidden the leaping, passionate
thoughts, the sense of a crisis in his fate, the ardent expectation,
the dream of joy, the fever and excitement in the mind of a man who is
making his plan of a new life, a life of exquisite happiness?



CHAPTER XI


It was Saturday, and they were at River Mead--one of those ideal places
that seem to have been raised along the upper Thames by an enchanter's
wand rather than by the vulgar arts of architect and builder, so
exquisitely do they harmonise with the landscape that enshrines them.

No hideous chimney, no mammoth reservoir, no thriving metropolitan High
Street, defiled the neighbourhood of River Mead. All around was rustic
peace. Green meadows and blue waters, amidst which there lay gardens
that had taken a century to make--grass walks between yew hedges, and
labyrinths of roses; and in the distance purple woods that melted into
a purple horizon. It was a place that people always thought of as
steeped in golden sunlight; but not even in the glory of a midsummer
afternoon was River Mead quite as lovely as on such a night as this,
when Claude and Vera strolled slowly along the river path, in the
silver light of a great round moon, hung in the blue deep of a sky
without a cloud.

The magic of night and moonshine was upon everything; the mystery
of light and shadow gave a charm to things that were commonplace by
day--to the white balustrade in front of the drawing-rooms, to the
flight of steps and the marble vases, above which the lighted windows
shone golden, the gaudy yellow light of indoor lamps shamed by the
white glory of the moon.

The windows were all open, and the voices of the card-players travelled
far in the clear air--they could even hear the light sound of their
cards, manipulated by a dexterous hand. Everybody was playing bridge,
everybody was absorbed in the game, winning or losing, happy or
unhappy, but absorbed--except these two. Everybody except these two,
who had been missing since ten o'clock; and the great stable clock had
sounded its twelve slow, sonorous strokes half an hour ago. They had
not been wanted. The tables were all full. Two or three of the players
had looked round the room once or twice, and, noting their absence, had
exchanged the quiet smile, the almost imperceptible elevation of arched
eyebrows, with which, in a highly civilised community, characters can
be killed. For Lady Okehampton--she who had more than once sounded the
note of warning, and who should have been on the alert to see danger
signals--from the moment the tables were opened and the players seated,
the world of men and women outside that charmed space--where cards
fluttered lightly upon smooth green cloth, four eager faces watching
them as they fell--had ceased to exist. She was not a stupid woman;
but she had a mind that moved slowly, and she could not think of two
serious things at once. For her bridge was a serious thing; and from
tea-time on Saturday till this Sunday midnight bridge had occupied all
her thoughts, to the exclusion of every other consideration. Smiles
might be exchanged and eyebrows raised when, on Sunday morning, Claude
Rutherford carried off her niece two miles up the river to a village
church, which by his account was a gem in early Gothic that was worth
more than the two miles' sculling a light skiff against the current;
but Lady Okehampton was too absorbed even to wonder whether there was
anything not quite correct in the excursion. Why should not people want
to see the old church at Allersley? It was one of the lions of the
neighbourhood, and counted among the attractions of River Mead.

Lady Okehampton's cards on Saturday night had seemed to be dealt to her
by a malignant fiend, an invisible devil guiding the smooth white hands
of human dealers. She had lain awake till the Sunday morning bells were
ringing for the early service to which good people were going, fresh
and light of foot, with minds at ease. She had tossed and turned in
her sumptuous bed in a feverish unrest, playing her miserable hands
over and over again, with the restless blood in her brain going round
and round like a mill wheel, or plunging backwards and forwards like
a piston rod. There had been no time to think of Vera and Claude. She
could think only of Sunday evening, and of her chance of revenge. It
was not that she minded her money losses, which were despicable when
reckoned against the price of Okehampton's autumn sport. Two thousand
pounds for a grouse moor and a salmon river--an outlay of which he
talked as lightly as if it were a new hat. The money was nothing. He
would give as much for an Irish setter as she lost in an evening. But
the vexation and humiliation of a long evening's bad luck were too much
for nerves that had been strained to snapping point by many seasons
of experimental treatment, all over Europe; and the mistress of River
Mead had left her visitors to amuse themselves at their own sweet will,
until dinner-time on Sunday evening, while their hostess slept in her
easy-chair by the open window of her morning-room, soothed by the
lullaby of the stream running down the weir, and sweet airs from a
garden of roses, such roses as only grow in a riverside garden.

The choice of amusements or occupations after luncheon on this Sunday
afternoon was somewhat limited. Two girls and their youthful admirers
played a four-handed game of croquet. A middle-aged spinster, who had
been suspected of tricky play on Saturday, trudged a mile and a quarter
to the little town where there was a church so old-fashioned as to
provide a substantial afternoon service for adult worshippers. Most
of the masculine guests wrote letters, or read Sunday papers in the
billiard-room, or slumbered in basket chairs on the river lawn. Vera
and Claude did nothing out of the common in strolling up the hill to
the wood, where they lost themselves during the lazy two hours between
the end of a leisurely luncheon and the appearance of tea-tables in
the shady drawing-room. Coming back a little tired after her idle
afternoon, Vera sat on a sofa in the darkest corner of the spacious
room, by the side of a comfortable matron, an old friend of her aunt's,
with whom she exchanged amiable truisms, and mild opinions upon books,
plays and sermons--a kind of talk that demanded neither thought nor
effort, while Claude sat among a distant group, bored to death, but
smiling and courteous.

After tea there was the garden till dressing time. Everybody was in
the garden, so it was only natural that these two should be sauntering
in lanes of roses, exchanging light talk with other saunterers, and
lingering a little at the crossing of the ways, where the slow drip of
a fountain made a coolness in the sultry evening, or stopping at an
opening in the flowery rampart, to look across the blue water towards
the grey old tower, and listen to the pensive music of church bells.

These two had been alone all day, without interference or espial from
chaperon Aunt, unconscious of observation, if they were observed, alone
in this little world of summer verdure and sunlit water; as much alone
as in a pathless wilderness. All that long summer day they had been
alone, talking, talking, talking, as only lovers talk; and now, at
midnight, they were still alone in the garden that was changed in the
moonlight, changed from the warm glow of colour to the silvery paleness
and mysterious shadow, in which the prolific clusters of the Félicité
pérpétuelle looked like the ghosts of roses.

If it were sin to love, the sin had been sinned; from the hour in which
he had drawn the confession of her love from the lips that he kissed
for the first time.

She had tried to hold him off--tried to keep those lips unprofaned by
the kiss of guilt. They were alone in the wood on the hill that fatal
Sunday afternoon, safe only for the moment, since the woodland path was
a favourite walk with visitors at River Mead. But he had drawn her from
the footpath into the shade of great beech trees, and they were alone.
He had kissed her, and she had submitted to the guilty kiss, and she
knew that she was lost.

Did she love him? She whispered yes. With all her heart and soul? Yes.
Could she be happy if he left her for ever? No, no, no. Could she give
up all the world for him, as he would for her? The lips that he had
kissed were too tremulous for speech. She hid her face upon his breast,
and was dumb.

"The die is cast," he said in a low, grave voice, "and now we have only
to think of our future."

"Our future?" Henceforth they were one; united by a bond as strong as
if they had been married before the high altar in Westminster Abbey,
with all the best people in London looking on and approving the bond.
Nothing else could matter now. They belonged to each other. He was to
command, and she was to obey. It was almost as if, in the moment of
her confession, her personal entity had ceased. In all those hours
of delicious intimacy, in fond imaginings of their future life, the
thought of her husband had never come between her and her lover--and
to-night, when she thought of Mario Provana, it was only to tell
herself that he had long ceased to care for her, and that it would not
hurt him if she were to vanish out of his life.

Provana had been gone more than fourteen days, and his cabled messages
told her of delays and difficulties. The financial crisis was more
serious than he had anticipated, and he would have to see it out. He
had sent her several messages, but only one letter--a kind letter,
such as an uncle might have written to a niece; but it seemed to her
there was no love in it, not even such love as he had lavished on his
daughter. There was nothing left of the love that had wrapped her
round like summer sunlight, the strong man's love that had made her so
proud of having been chosen by him, so tranquil in the assurance of a
happiness that nothing could change.

The change had come before they had lived a year in that great, gloomy
London house, when she had been less than two years a wife.

It was after parting with Claude in the garden, and creeping quietly
up to her room in the second hour of the new day, while doors were
beginning to open and voices to sound as the card-players bade
good-night; it was in the stillness of the pretty guest-chamber that
Vera began to think of Mario Provana, and the impassioned love that had
ended in a frozen aloofness.

He had said, "Let there be no pretending." Could he have told her more
absolutely that his love was dead, and that no charm of sweetness in
her could make it live again? She had made her poor little attempt to
win him back; and it had failed. What more was left but to be happy in
her own way?



CHAPTER XII


The season was dying hard. Lady Leominster's ball, at the great old
house at Fulham, was the last flash of an expiring fire. The Houses
of Parliament had closed their historic doors. The walls of the Royal
Academy had been stripped of their masterpieces, and empty themselves,
looked down upon dusty emptiness. All the best theatres were shut;
London was practically empty. The few thousand lingerers in a
wilderness of deserted streets bewailed the inanity of the daily Press.
There was nothing in the morning papers; and the evening papers were
worse, since they were obliged to echo the morning nothingness.

The people who never read books were longing for something startling in
those indispensable papers, were it even a declaration of war. Suddenly
their longing was satisfied. The morning papers were devoured with
eagerness. The evening paper was waited for with feverish expectancy.
All of a sudden the great army of the brainless found themselves with
something to think about, something to talk about, something upon which
to build up hypotheses, to which, once built, they adhered with a
fierce persistency.

There had been a murder. A murder in the heart of London, in one of the
fine houses of the West End; not one of the finest, for, after all,
spacious and splendid as the house might be, it was not like Berkeley
or Devonshire, Lansdowne or Stafford. It was only one in a row of
spacious houses, the house of a foreign financier, a man who dealt in
millions, and who was himself the owner of millions.

Mario Provana had been murdered in his own house--shot through the
heart by an unknown assassin, who had done his work well enough
to leave no clue to his identity. Speculation might rove at will,
theory and hypothesis might run riot. Here was endless talk for
dinner-tables--inexhaustible copy for the newspaper.

A man of great wealth, of exalted position in the world of
finance--finance, not commerce. Here was no dealer in commodities, no
manufacturer of cocoa, or sugar, or reels of cotton, but a man who
dealt in the world's wealth, and could make peace or war by opening or
closing his money-bags.

People who had never seen the great man's face in the flesh were just
as keenly interested in the circumstances of his death as the people
who had dined at his table and had known him as intimately as such
men ever are known. A rough print of his photograph was in every
halfpenny paper, and the likeness of his beautiful young wife was
travestied in some of them. Pictures of the house in Portland Place,
front and back view, were in all the papers. Columns of picturesque
reporting described the man and the house, the beautiful young
wife, the sumptuous furniture, the numerous household, the splendid
entertainments which had made the house famous for the last six or
seven years.

And for the murdered man himself, no details were omitted. Interviews
were invented, in which, during the last year, Signor Provana had
expounded his opinions and views of that sphere of life in which he
exercised so vast an influence--his ideas political, his tastes in art
and literature, music, and the drama. Minute descriptions of his person
were given in the same glowing style. The picturesque reporter made
the dead man alive again for the million readers who were panting for
details that would help them to strengthen their own pet theory or to
crush an opponent.

Thousands of sensation-hunters went to Portland Place to look at the
house that held that dreadful mystery of a life untimely cut short
by the hand of a murderer. Loafers stood on the pavement and gazed
and gazed, as if their hungry eyes would have pierced dead walls and
darkened windows. The loafers knew that the house was in charge of the
police, and that a vigilant watch was being kept there. They wondered
whether the lovely young wife was in the house. They pictured her
weeping alone in one of those darkened rooms; yet were inclined to
think that her friends would have insisted on her leaving that house of
gloom, and would have carried her off to some less terrible place for
rest and comfort.

The first idea was the correct one. Vera was lying in that spacious
bed-chamber behind three windows on the second floor, where ivy-leaved
geraniums were falling in showers of pale pink blossom from the
flower-boxes. She was lying on the vast Italian bed, lying like a stone
figure, while Susan Amphlett sat by the bed, and wept and sighed,
with intervals of vague, consoling speech, till, finding that speech
elicited no reply, and indeed seemed unheard, she had at last, in sheer
vacuity of mind, to take refuge in the first book within reach of her
hand.

It was one among many small volumes on a table by the bed--Omar Kháyyam.

"Oh, what a dreary book," thought Susie, who was beginning to feel her
office of consoler something of a burden.

She had hated entering that dreadful house, as she always called it
in her thoughts, since she had heard of the murder; and now to be
sitting there in that deadly silence, in that grey light from shrouded
windows, to be sitting there with the knowledge that only a little
way off, in another darkened room at the back of the dreadful house,
there lay death in its most appalling form, was a kind of martyrdom
for which Susie was unprepared, and which she was not constituted to
suffer calmly or lightly. As she had hated old age, so, with a deeper
hate, she hated death. To hear of it, to be forced to think of it, was
agonising; and to visualise the horror lying so near her, a murdered
man in his bloodstained shroud, made her start up from her easy chair
and begin to roam about the room in restlessness and fear.

She lifted the edge of a blind and peered into the street.

The sight of the people staring up at the house was comforting. They
were alive. There were people standing in the road, looking up with
widened eyes, so absorbed in what they saw, or wanted to see, that they
ran a risk of sudden annihilation from a motor-car, and skipped off to
the opposite pavement, there to content themselves with a more distant
view.

"There never was such a murder," Susie said to herself. "I think every
soul in town must have come to look at this horrid house since eleven
o'clock this morning."

It was now past three, in a dull, sultry afternoon. Susie spent all
the intervening hours in the silent room in the dreadful house. She
was sorry for her friend; but she was still more sorry for herself.
All those hours of silent horror, without any luncheon, and no good
done! What was the use of sitting by the bed where a woman lay dumb and
motionless, unconsoled by affectionate murmurs from a bosom friend,
apparently unconscious that the friend was there.

Lady Susan called in Hanover Square on her way home, and ordered a
black frock, lustreless silk that would stand alone, with a shimmer
of sequins flashing through crêpe: not this week's fashion, nor
last week's, but the fashion of the week after next. The style that
was coming; not the style that had come. This was her one agreeable
half-hour in all that dismal day.

"I may be dining with Vera next week, and it will be only kind to wear
mourning," Susan told herself, as she ordered the gown.



CHAPTER XIII


Mrs. Provana's French maid was the first witness at the coroner's
inquest. The first question she had to answer was as to when she had
last seen Mr. Provana alive; and the same question was put to all
succeeding witnesses. The answer in each case was the same. Neither any
member of the household, nor the confidential clerk from the City, had
seen the deceased after he left London on his journey to New York. It
was Louison Dupuis, Mrs. Provana's maid, who had discovered the dead
man lying on the floor of his dressing-room, close against the door of
communication with her mistress's bedroom. Hers had been the first foot
on the principal staircase that morning. No other servant was licensed
to tread those stairs in the routine of their servitude. The rooms they
slept in, and the stairs by which they went up and down, were at the
back of the house, remote from the principal staircase.

Mademoiselle Louison looked scared, and trembled a little as she told
her dreadful story. It was her duty to carry Madame her tea at seven
o'clock. Madame desired to be called at that hour, even when she had
come home from a party after midnight. The witness stated that the
still-room maid had the tray ready for her at ten minutes to seven, and
that she went up the staircase of service with it to the second floor,
and through the _palier_ outside Madame's room, and thence through the
open doorway of Monsieur's _cabinet de toilette_. She saw a figure
lying with the face downward. She had reason to believe that Monsieur
Provana was in America. Nothing had been said in the household of his
expected return: yet she knew at the first glance that the man lying
there was her master. He was a man of imposing figure, not easily
mistaken. The horror of it had unnerved her, and she had rushed down
the great staircase to the hall, where two of the footmen were opening
windows and arranging the furniture. She told them what she had seen,
and one of them went to fetch Mr. Sedgewick, the butler.

Her evidence was given in a semi-hysterical and somewhat disjointed
manner, with occasional use of French words for familiar things; but
the coroner had been patient with her--as an important witness, being
the first who had cognisance that murder had been done in the night
silence.

Alfred Sedgewick, the butler, was a very different
witness--self-possessed and ready, eager to express his opinion, and
having to be held with a tight hand.

He described, with studious particularity, how on leaving his room
on that morning, having just finished dressing, and having been kept
waiting for his shaving water, he had run against Ma'mselle, who was
rushing along the passage in a frantic manner, pale as death, and with
eyes starting out of her head. A young person who was apt to excite
herself about trifles, and who on this occasion seemed absolutely
demented.

On hearing Ma'mselle's statement, given in so distracted a manner that
only a person of superior intelligence could find out what she meant,
he had immediately sent one of the footmen to the police office, to
fetch a capable officer. It was no case for the first constable called
in from the street.

He, Sedgewick, had then gone upstairs with another of the men, and had
found the dead body lying, as Ma'mselle had stated, against the door
of communication with Mrs. Provana's bedroom. The face was hidden,
but he had not an instant's doubt as to the dead man's identity, for,
apart from the commanding figure, the left hand was visible, on which
the witness observed an old Italian ring that his master always wore.
He had touched the hand, and found it was the hand of death; yet, in
the circumstances, he had considered it his duty to telephone for the
doctor. The room in which the body lay was used by his master as a
dressing-room; but it was also used by him as a study, and there was a
large office desk in front of one of the windows, at which Mr. Provana
sometimes sat writing late into the night. There was also a safe in
which his master was supposed to keep important papers, and possibly
cash. It was not a large safe, but it was of exceptional strength, and
of the most modern and costly make. This safe was open when the police
took possession of the room, after the removal of the body under the
doctor's superintendence. There were no signs of disorder in the room,
except that the pistol case on the desk was open, and both pistols were
lying on the floor, one near the hand of the deceased, the other near
the desk. The safe had not been forced open. The key was in the door,
one of three small keys on a steel ring engraved with Signor Provana's
name and address. His master always carried these keys in one of his
pockets.

"When was Madame Provana informed of her husband's death?"

"Not until half-past eight o'clock, when Lady Okehampton came. Mrs.
Manby, the housekeeper, went in a cab to Berkeley Square to tell her
ladyship what had happened, and Lady Okehampton came to the house in
the cab with Mrs. Manby."

"Had not Mrs. Provana been awakened by the sounds of voices and
footsteps on the landing?"

"No. Everything had been done with the utmost quiet. There had been no
talking above a whisper. His mistress had been at the ball at Fulham
Park, and had not come home till three o'clock, and she was still
sleeping when Lady Okehampton went into her room."

The doctor was the next witness.

The medical evidence did not take long. In answer to the coroner, the
doctor stated that he was in the habit of attending the household, and
had been summoned by telephone immediately on the discovery of the
tragedy. The body was lying facing the door between the two rooms, and
at no great distance from it. It was semi-prone on its left side, the
arms extended from the body, but flexed. A loaded pistol lay close to
the fingers of the right hand. Life was extinct. Blood had trickled
from a wound in the back of the head and formed a pool on the floor.
The direction of the trickle from wound to floor was vertical. There
were no other blood-stains.

A further examination demonstrated that the wound was due to a bullet;
that the bullet had entered the head horizontally and penetrated the
brain. The bullet was found to fit a pistol lying in the room, recently
discharged, evidently companion to the one already mentioned. Both
fitted a case found on a table in front of the window.

The witness was of opinion,

1. That death was due to shock from bullet wound.

2. That death had been almost instantaneous, and had taken place within
three hours of the time when the witness examined the body.

3. That the wound was not self-inflicted nor accidental; but that the
shot had been deliberately fired and at no great distance. The person
who fired the shot was probably somewhat taller than the deceased.

Upon this Sedgewick, the butler, was recalled, and there followed an
exhaustive interrogation as to the arrangements on the ground floor
of the house. A plan had been made of the doors and passages on this
floor, the great double doors of ceremony opening into the hall, the
tradesmen's door, and another door communicating with the stables,
which were almost as spacious in that old London house as in a country
mansion of some importance. At the back of the hall there was a wide
stone corridor leading to the door opening on the stable-yard, and
other passages to pantry, plate room, lamp room, and the menservants'
bedrooms, which were all on the ground floor.

He valeted his master when he was at home, but he did not travel with
him. Mr. Provana required very little personal attendance. He had
always been aware that his master kept loaded pistols in the case on
his desk. He understood that there was a large amount of valuable
property in that room, where the deceased used often to sit writing
late at night, with open windows in summer-time, when Mrs. Provana was
at evening parties.

The pistols were in charge of the police on a table in court,
old-fashioned duelling pistols, choice specimens of Italian workmanship.

The door at the end of the corridor was often used by Mr. Provana,
and one of the keys on the ring before mentioned was the latch-key
belonging to this door. He was in the habit of walking to the City,
and he used this door every morning, passing the stables on his way.
He was very fond of his horses, and he often went into the stables, or
had the horses brought out, to look at them. The stable-yard opened
into Chilton Street. This door, communicating with the well-guarded
stable-yard, was fastened with a latch lock and heavy bolts; but the
bolts were not often used, and Sedgewick said that it was by this door
his master must have entered the house on the night of the murder, as
the doors in Portland Place had been bolted and chained at ten minutes
past three o'clock, after Mrs. Provana came home.

The coroner, with the plan of the rooms before him, pointed to that
occupied by Sedgewick.

"Was it possible for a stranger to have entered the house after or
before your master without your hearing the opening of the door or his
footsteps in the passage?"

Sedgewick concluded that it was possible, since the thing must have
happened. He was ordinarily a particularly light sleeper. Was there
ever a servant who confessed to being anything else? He had been to a
theatre that evening, and may have slept sounder than usual.

"Did none of the other men hear anything?"

John, footman, had heard the dog bark.

John was duly sworn, and stated that he had been awakened by hearing
the dog, an Irish terrier, and he had sat up in bed and listened; but
the dog had given only that one bark, by which he, John, concluded that
the animal, which slept on a mat outside his room, had been dreaming.
Interrogated as to time, he had heard the hall clock strike five not
very long after the dog barked. It might be a quarter of an hour, or it
might be half an hour.

On this followed the interrogation of stable servants, as to the gates
opening into Chilton Street, the result of which showed that the stable
gates had not been locked that morning. It was broad daylight when the
grooms finished their work and turned in for a morning sleep. The last
of the stable servants to retire had heard the clocks strike four as he
went to his bedroom.

Mrs. Provana was there to answer all further questions concerning
herself.

She stood up by the table, facing the coroner. She stood there, an
exquisite figure, slender and erect, her countenance and her attitude
sublime in composure, grace and refinement in every line.

The few of her friends who had found their way into the court, and who
were standing discreetly in the background, Mr. Symeon, Mr. Amphlett
and Lady Susan, Father Cyprian Hammond, Claude Rutherford, Eustace
Lyon, the poet--these admired and wondered.

With no vestige of colour in cheek or lip, with eyes that had grown
larger in the new horror of her life, yet unutterably calm, with not
one passing tremor in the low voice, and with not one instant of
hesitation, she answered the coroner's questions.

"At what time had she fallen asleep after her return from Fulham Park?"

"It must have been past four o'clock."

"Was your maid in attendance upon you when you went to bed?"

"No, I have never allowed my maid to sit up for me after a late party."

"Are you a heavy sleeper?"

"Not usually; but I was very tired that night."

Eustace Lyon noticed that she spoke of "that night," the night before
last, as if it had been ages ago. The fact appealed to his imagination
as a poet. He remarked afterwards that it is only poets who perceive
such subtle indications.

"Did you hear nothing between six and half-past eight o'clock?"

"Nothing."

A plan of the upper floor was lying in front of the coroner, and he was
studying the position of the rooms.

"The room in which the shot was fired has a door communicating with
your bedroom?"

"Yes."

"Was that door shut?"

"It is always shut."

"Shut, but not locked?"

"No, it was not locked."

The poet and Mr. Symeon looked at each other as she made this answer,
with unalterable composure.

The coroner was an elderly man, a doctor--grave always, but especially
so on this occasion, for this was an exceptional case, and appealed
to him in an exceptional manner. The murder was even more mysterious
than terrible; and he was at once touched and mystified by the unshaken
composure of this young woman, who had been awakened from her morning
sleep to be told that her husband had been murdered within a few yards
of the room where she had been sleeping, full of happy dreams, perhaps,
after the pleasant excitement of a dance.

Except for a strained look in the large grey eyes, there was nothing in
her aspect to indicate the ordeal through which she had passed within
the last two days.

"Isn't she simply wonderful?" murmured Susan Amphlett in the ear of
Mr. Symeon, who was standing by her chair. "She has been like that
ever since." There was no need to say since what. "I was with her all
yesterday; but it was not a bit of use. She has turned to stone. Not a
tear, not a cry; only that dreadful look in her eyes, as if she were
seeing him murdered. It would have been a relief to hear her scream, or
burst into a flood of tears."

"That kind of woman does neither," said Symeon. "She is a grand soul,
not a bundle of nerves. She has force and courage; and she knows that
death does not matter."

The coroner treated this witness with the utmost respect, but he
did not spare her. A crime so extraordinary demanded a severe
investigation, and searching questions had to be asked.

Had Mr. Provana a quarrel with anybody, either in his social or
business relations? Did the witness know of any incident in her
husband's life--in England or in Italy--which might suggest a motive
for the crime?

The answer to both questions was a negative.

"But he might have had a secret enemy without your knowledge?"

"It is possible. He would not have told me anything that would have
made me anxious or unhappy."

For the first time there was a faint tremor in her voice as she said
this; and the poet whispered three words in Lady Susan's ear--"She
loved him!"

Asked whether she expected her husband's return, she replied that she
had received no cablegram naming the steamer by which he was to return.
She had received letters and cablegrams, but none within the last six
days before his death. Asked whether they were on good terms when he
left England, she replied that there had never been a difference of any
kind between them.

She refused to be seated during this ordeal, and stood facing her
questioner till he had asked his last question; and when Lady
Okehampton came to her, wanting to lead her away, she insisted upon
remaining near the end of the table, where the witnesses came one
after another to give their evidence.

The coroner heard those low, distinct words, "I want to hear
everything," and he noted how she stood there, watching and listening
to the end of the inquiry, regardless of her aunt's endeavour to get
her away from the spot.

A confidential clerk from Mr. Provana's office in Lombard Street was
able to give an account of the safe in his principal's dressing-room,
as he had often been in the room, occupied in examining documents with
his employer, and in taking shorthand notes for letters to be written
in Lombard Street. He had examined the contents of this safe after the
murder. The door had been opened with Mr. Provana's private key, which
he always carried about him. Certain securities were missing, but the
valuables abstracted were of a much less amount than might have been
taken by anyone acquainted with the nature of the papers the safe
contained, and able to use his knowledge to advantage. Two parcels of
foreign bonds were missing, the present value of which would be about
six thousand pounds. The witness had an inventory of everything in this
safe, and he had found all other parcels intact, although the contents
of the drawers and shelves had been greatly disturbed, and the papers
thrown about, as if by some person in haste.

"Would these bonds be easily convertible into cash?"

"They are bonds to bearer, and there would be no difficulty of
disposing of them at their value."

The inquiry was adjourned. Vera was surrounded by her friends, Lady
Okehampton, Lady Susan, Mr. Symeon, and Claude Rutherford. Even Eustace
Lyon ventured to approach her.

"Forgive me for intruding at such a moment," he said, almost breathless
with excitement. "I feel that I must speak. You were sublime! Symeon is
right. You are spirit and not clay. It needs something more than flesh
and blood to go through what you have endured to-day."

She looked at him with the same strained look in her eyes with which
she had looked at the coroner; a look of surprise, as if, in the midst
of a dream, she had been startled by a living voice.



CHAPTER XIV


Vera insisted on going back to the house of death, although her aunt
and Susan Amphlett were equally urgent in trying to take her home with
them.

"Why should you make a martyr of yourself?" Susie urged in her vehement
way. "You can do him no good. He will not know. All the dead want is
silence and darkness, and to be mourned by those they love. You will
mourn for him just as sincerely in my dainty spare room in Green Street
as in that wilderness of empty rooms where he lies."

"Yes, I shall mourn for him," said Vera in low, measured tones. "I
shall mourn for him all my life."

"No, no, _chérie_," murmured Susan confidentially, as they moved
towards the door. "You will always be sorry for his quite too dreadful
death, and you will remember all his goodness and absolute devotion to
you. But you have your own life before you. You are not like some poor
old thing, who feels that life is done with when she is left a widow;
nothing to look forward to but charity bazaars and pug dogs. Remember
how young you are, child! Almost on the threshold of life. You don't
know how I envy you when I think I am such ages older. You are going to
be immensely rich; and by and by you will marry someone you can adore,
as poor Provana adored you: and whatever you do, Vera, don't wait till
you are fat and elderly, and then marry a boy, as I've known a widow
do--out of respect for a first husband."

Susan felt that she had now hit upon the right note, and was really a
consoler; but nothing she could say had any effect upon her friend.

"I am going home," she said. "The house is dreadful; but I would rather
be there than anywhere else."

She had only the same answer for her aunt, when urged to stay at
Berkeley Square, "at least until all this troublesome business of the
inquest is over."

"I can't think why the coroner could not have finished to-day," Lady
Okehampton said to her husband at dinner that evening. "They had
the doctor's evidence, and the servants', and the clerk's; all the
circumstances were made clear, every detail of the poor thing's death
was gone into. What more could be wanted?"

"Only one detail. To find the murderer. If ever I were to be murdered
I hope the inquiry would address itself more to the man who did it
than to the way in which it was done; and that the coroner would stick
to his work till he found the fellow who killed me. If he didn't, I
believe I should walk at midnight, like Hamlet's father."

       *       *       *       *       *

Claude Rutherford was among the friends who surrounded Vera as she
left the court. His mother was with him, an unexpected figure in such
a scene; and while her son said no word, Mrs. Rutherford murmured the
gentle assurance of her sympathy. She had held herself aloof from Vera
for a long time, disapproving of an intimacy in which she saw danger
for her son, and discredit for Mario Provana's wife; but she came to
this dismal court to-day moved by divine compassion for the fragile
creature who had become the central figure in so awful a tragedy.

For the first time since she had entered the court, Vera's strained
eyeballs clouded with tears, and the hand which Mrs. Rutherford held
with a friendly pressure trembled violently. That unnatural calm of
the last two hours had given way in the surprise of this meeting. Her
carriage was waiting for her, and she stepped into it too quickly for
Claude to help her; he could only stand among the others to see her
driven away.

"It was more than good of you to come to this dreadful place," he told
his mother, as they walked towards Piccadilly.

"I would do anything to help her, if it were possible. She has not made
the best use of her life, so far. Perhaps she has only gone with the
stream, like the herd of modern women, who seem to have neither heart
nor conscience. But this tragedy was a terrible awakening, and no one
can help being sorry for her."

"The ruck of her friends will not be sorry. They will only chatter
about her husband's death, and discuss the amount of her fortune
as his widow. You are right, mother. They have neither heart nor
conscience. They care for nothing, hope for nothing, except to be
better dressed and dine out oftener than other women."

He spoke with unusual bitterness, and his mother looked at him
anxiously. All the marks of a too feverish life showed upon his
delicate countenance in the clear light of summer. He had never counted
among handsome men; but a face so sensitive was more interesting than
the beauty of line and colour, and people who knew Claude Rutherford
knew that the sensitive face was the outward evidence of a highly
emotional nature.

"You are looking so tired and worn, Claude," his mother said anxiously.

"Oh, this ghastly business has been a shock for me as well as for her.
I was with her at the Fulham House ball the night before. We were
waltzing in a mob of dancers, sitting out among tropical flowers,
laughing together in the noise and laughter and foolish talk in the
supper-room. Such diamonds; such bare shoulders and enamelled faces.
It was half-past two when I took her to her carriage, and a blackbird
was whistling in the avenue. Everybody was pretending to be happy; and
she went alone to that great, gloomy house, to be awakened a few hours
later to be told that her husband had been murdered."

"What could have been the motive for such a murder?"

"Plunder. What else? Of course, it was known that he kept valuables in
that safe."

"How was it that he came home so unexpectedly?"

"Heaven knows. Perhaps he wanted to give his wife a surprise--a grim
joke in such a husband; and the result was grimmer than he could have
anticipated." There was a savage bitterness in his tone that shocked
the tender-hearted woman.

"Don't speak of it like that, Claude. It is too dreadful to think of.
He was a devoted husband, from all that I have heard; only too blindly
indulgent, letting his wife lead the wretched, empty-headed existence
that can spoil even a good woman."

They were at Mrs. Rutherford's door by this time, and she asked her son
to give her a few minutes more before he went away.

"As long as you like," he said. "I am at a loose end. My usual
diversions are out of the question; and all manner of work is
impossible."

"You must go away, Claude. You are too sensitive, too warm-hearted to
get over this business easily. You ought to leave London for a long
time."

And then, with her hand on his shoulder, looking up at him with tearful
solicitude, she enlarged upon that source of consolation to which a
woman of deep religious convictions turns instinctively in the time
of trouble. She reminded him of his happy and innocent boyhood, the
unquestioning faith of those early years, before the leaven of doubt
had entered his mind, before the Christian youth had become the trifler
and cynic.

He listened in silence, with downcast eyes, and then, tenderly kissing
her, he said gently:

"Yes, perhaps there lies the cure. I must go back to those tranquil
days. I must leave this hateful town. Yes, mother, I mean to go
away--for a long time. I shall take your advice. If you see Father
Hammond I should like you to tell him about this talk of ours."

"Why not go to him at once and make your confession? You would feel
happier afterwards."

"I have not come to that yet. I mean to have a talk with him later. _A
riverdervi, Madre mia._"

"Where are you going?"

"I don't know. To my rooms, most likely. I have letters to write."

He was gone before she could question him further. That business
of letter-writing was the most arduous work he knew. Since he had
"chucked" art, his days had no more strenuous employment; his life was
the over-occupied existence of a man of pleasure.



CHAPTER XV


Lord Okehampton, discussing the financier's fate in a _tête-à-tête_
dinner with his wife, was only one among a multitude who were thinking
of the Provana murder. There is nothing that English men and women
enjoy more than the crime which they call "a really good murder." They
will import sensation cases from America or the colonies, and will try
to feel as keenly interested in a murder in New York or Melbourne as in
a London tragedy. But the keen relish is lacking where the crime has
been done afar off. It is impossible to realise the scene in unfamiliar
surroundings. The sense of nearness, of the street or the countryside
we know, is a strong factor in the interest of the story. To the man
who knows his Paris thoroughly a Parisian crime may appeal; but to the
woman who buys frocks in the Rue de la Paix, and hats on the Boulevard
des Italiens, the most diabolical murder in the Marais, or on the
heights of Belleville, seems tame.

Thus the murder of a millionaire in the midst of the rich man's London
was a crime that set every sensation-seeker theorising and arguing.
Every man is at heart a Sherlock Holmes, while every woman thinks
herself a criminal investigator by instinct; and the theories worked
out and expounded over tea-tables, and maintained with a red-hot
intensity, were various and startling. The most sanguinary murder is
a poor thing if people know how and by whom it was done. Mystery is
essential in a crime that is to occupy the mind of the public. The
murder in the great house in Portland Place had all the elements of
enduring success--wealth, beauty, secrecy, and that Italian flavour
which offered poignant possibilities of jealousy or revenge, or perhaps
a life-long vendetta, as the motive of the crime.

The inquiry in the coroner's court dragged slowly towards an
indeterminate and unsatisfactory close, being adjourned at long
intervals to give the police time to make discoveries.

So far the police had made no discoveries, and the daily Press was
beginning to be angry with the Criminal Investigation Department; and
to make uncivil comparisons between the home article and the same thing
in France and Germany. In the meantime the newspapers found subject for
occasional paragraphs, though they had no new facts to communicate. So
long as the inquest went on, picturesque reporters found a spacious
field for their pen in the descriptions of witnesses and spectators
in the coroner's court; the spectators being mostly women of some
fashion, and more or less famous in the world of art and letters. The
stage, also, had been represented among that morbidly curious crowd;
popular actresses coming to study the appearance and demeanour of the
young widow, whose marble calm in the witness box had been written and
talked about. But in spite of searching and patient inquiry, the murder
in Portland Place remained an insoluble mystery, a standing reproach
against Scotland Yard.

While the man in the street and the daily papers he battens upon
were expatiating upon the supineness and incompetency of the
Criminal Investigation Department, the chief of that department was
not idle. Scotland Yard is not greatly in favour of the offering
of rewards for the apprehension of criminals. Scotland Yard has an
idea that such offers do more harm than good, and prefers to rely
upon the intelligence of its officials; and on that spontaneous and
disinterested help which is often afforded by outsiders.

But after the man in the street had expended much wonder and
indignation upon the fact that no reward had as yet been offered by the
murdered man's widow or family, the Disbrowes had taken upon themselves
to arouse Vera to a proper sense of her position and responsibilities.
Among Provana's friends and allies in the City--the great semi-oriental
banking house of Messrs. Zeba and Zalmunna, with whom he had been
closely associated, and other firms almost as distinguished--there was
also a feeling that strong measures were required, and some wonderment
that the widow had as yet done nothing.

Lady Okehampton, who had been in Portland Place nearly every
day--although not always allowed to see her niece--took the matter in
hand, as spokeswoman for the Disbrowes, and told Vera that she must
offer a reward for the apprehension of her husband's murderer.

"It ought to have been done before how," she said, "but you have been
so lost in grief, that I have been afraid to talk of poor Provana;
however, as time goes on people must think it extraordinary that you
can let things slide; especially after that splendid will which makes
you the richest woman in London."

The splendid will, executed in the first year of her marriage, left
Vera residuary legatee, after a long list of legacies, which although
generous, did not absorb more than a sixth of Mario Provana's estate.
If not actually the richest woman in London--a fact not easily to be
ascertained--Vera was at least rich enough to support that reputation.

She gave a little moan of anguish when her aunt spoke of the will,
and replied, with averted face, that her uncle was to do whatever he
thought right.

Before darkness came down the police stations of London exhibited
bills, offering a thousand pounds for information leading to the
discovery of the murderer, and the man in the street was a little
easier in his mind.

In the meantime Scotland Yard was pursuing its own course, and one
of the most experienced and intelligent members of the force had the
Provana affair in hand, and was actually established in Portland Place,
where he was explained to the household as a picture-restorer, who had
been engaged by Mr. Provana shortly before he left England, to examine
and restore certain pictures among those somewhat depressing examples
of the early Italian school which gave gloom to the too spacious
dining-room.

It might seem strange that work of this kind, ordered by the dead
man, should be carried out at such a time; but Mr. James Japp, of
the Criminal Investigation Department, had a power of impersonation
which rarely failed him in the most critical circumstances; and having
assumed the role of artistic man-of-all-work, he omitted no detail that
could impress and convince the house servants, among whom he hoped to
put his hand upon the murderer. Plausible, friendly, and altogether an
acquisition in that low-spirited household, Mr. Japp, alias Johnson,
was soon upon terms of cordial friendship with butler and housekeeper,
while he was genially patronising to the four stalwart footmen, and by
no means stand-offish to the coachman and his underlings, who sometimes
crept into the servants' hall in the gloaming to talk over the last
paragraph upon the mystery in Portland Place. For them the mystery was
meat and drink. They hung upon it with a morbid tenacity, never tired
of re-stating the same facts, and going over the same arguments, and
doing battle, each for his own solution of the ghastly problem. For
these Mr. Johnson, artist and picture-restorer, was a godsend.

The man was so delightfully innocent in the ways and workings of
criminals. He showed the simple faith of a child when listening with
avidity to Mr. Sedgewick's views, and allowed himself to be browbeaten
by the coachman. He would turn the drift of the talk aside at a most
interesting point to relate his early aspirations as a student, and
his dismal failure as an artist, and how he had been driven from the
painting of colossal historical pictures to the humbler art of the
varnisher and restorer, working for a daily wage. He would tell stories
of his early struggles that evolved laughter and good-natured scorn.

He had a room allotted to him for his work, one of those rooms opening
out of the long passage that led to Mr. Provana's private door, that
door by which he and his murderer must have entered the house on the
fatal night. Mr. Johnson had examined the door with studious attention,
confessing to a morbid interest in the details of crime, co-existent
with a curious ignorance of the law of the land. The nature and methods
of a coroner's court had to be explained to him, condescendingly, by
Mr. Sedgewick, when the Provana murder was under discussion.

He had his room for his artistic work, where he installed himself with
three of the largest pictures from the dining-room, his bottles of
oil and varnish, and his stock of brushes, and where he insisted upon
being undisturbed. He was of a nervous temperament, and could not bear
to have his work looked at. He talked of his progress from day to day,
expatiating upon the dangers of blue mould, the horrors of asphaltum
and other pernicious mediums, and the superiority of the old painters,
who ground their own colours; but no one, not even Mr. Sedgewick, was
allowed to see him at work.

He was altogether a superior person, yet it was something of a surprise
to the household that he should be admitted every evening to an
interview with Mrs. Provana, who received him in the great, lonely
drawing-room, where he remained with her for about a quarter of an
hour, giving an account of his day's work.

This privilege was explained by Mr. Johnson as a natural result of the
lady's interest in art, and the value she set upon pictures which it
appeared were especial favourites with her husband.

"At the rate he goes at it, I don't fancy he can have much progress to
report," remarked Mr. Sedgewick, "for I don't believe he works a solid
hour a day at those pictures. He takes things a bit too easily, to my
mind. He knows he's got a soft job, and he means to make it last as
long as the missus will let him. He's got his head pretty well screwed
on, has our friend Johnson; and he knows when he's in for a good thing.
And he's got a tongue that would talk over a special commissioner of
income tax; so no doubt he makes Mrs. Provana believe that he works
heavens hard at fetching up the colour in the Frau Angelicas."

"I shall think something of his work if he can do anything to brighten
up those Salvini Roses, which are about the dismallest pictures I
ever saw in a gentleman's dining-room," the housekeeper remarked with
conviction.

Mr. Johnson was a desultory worker. He told his friends in the
household that he worked like a tiger while he was at it, but your real
artist was ever fitful in his toil. It was in the artistic temperament
to be desultory. He would emerge from his den after an hour or so, in a
canvas apron so stained with oil, and so sticky with varnish, that none
could doubt his industry. He was eminently sociable. He couldn't get on
without company and conversation. The four young footmen afforded him
inexhaustible amusement.

"The oldest of 'em ain't over twenty-five," he said, "but every one of
'em is a character in his way. Now I love studying character. There's
no book, no, nor no illustrated magazine, you can give me that I enjoy
as I do human nature. Give me the human document, and leave your mouldy
old books for mouldy old scholars. Every one of those four lads is a
romance, if you know how to read him."

This taste, which Mr. Sedgewick and Mrs. Manby thought low, led Mr.
Johnson to consort in the friendliest way with the four youths in
question. He had not been in the house a fortnight before he knew
all about them; their sweethearts; their ambitions; their tastes for
pleasure, and their craving for gain. Even the odd man, a creature
whom the _élite_ of the household esteemed as hardly human--a savage
without a livery, by whom it was a hardship to be waited on at one's
meals--was not without interest for Johnson. While he delighted in Mr.
Sedgewick's company, and was proud to spend an evening with him at his
club, he shocked everybody by taking the old man to a music hall, and
giving him supper after the entertainment.

"I think you're all too hard upon Andrew," he said. "I find him
distinctly human."

With the ladies of the household he was at once friendly and gallant.
He aired his little stock of French with Ma'mselle, and took her for
evening walks in Regent's Park, which to dwellers north of Langham
Place is "the Park." He bought her little gifts, and took her to the
theatre. He played dummy whist with Mrs. Manby, who was sadly behind
the age, and could not abide bridge; and the result of all this
friendly intercourse, which had kept the establishment in good spirits
during a period of gloom, culminated one evening, when he told Mrs.
Provana that his residence under her roof had only a negative result,
and that he had exhausted all the means in his power without arriving
at any clue to the murderer of her husband.

"It has been a great disappointment to me, Madam," said Mr. Japp,
standing before Vera, with his hat in his hand, serious and subdued in
manner and bearing. The change from the sociable and trivial Johnson to
the business-like and thoughtful Japp showed a remarkable power in the
assumption of character.

"It has been the most disappointing case I have been engaged in for a
long time. I came into this house assured that I should put my hand
upon the guilty party under this roof. Every circumstance indicated
that the crime had been committed by someone inside the house. The
idea of an outsider seemed incredible. That a house with such a staff
of servants--with five men and an Irish terrier sleeping on the ground
floor--could have been entered by a burglar seemed out of the question.
Mr. Provana being known to keep large sums of money in one shape and
another in the safe in his private room, and no doubt being also known
to carry the keys of that safe upon his person, there was a sufficient
inducement for robbery; while it is our common experience that any
man bold enough to attempt robbery on a large scale is not the man
to shrink from murder, when his own skin is in danger. My theory was
that one of your men servants had been waiting for his opportunity
during Mr. Provana's absence in America; that he had provided himself
with implements for forcing the lock of the safe, perhaps with the
aid of an outside accomplice, and that, by a strange coincidence, he
had stumbled upon the night of his master's unexpected return, and
had been surprised at the beginning of his work. There are scratches
on the polished steel about the lock of the safe that might be made
by one of those graduated wedges which burglars use. I thought that,
being surprised by Mr. Provana's entrance, he snatched up one of the
pistols from the case on the table--which he might have examined
previously--and fired within narrow range, as Mr. Provana was about to
open the door of your room, without having seen him; that he took the
keys from Mr. Provana's pocket after he fell, unlocked the safe, and
abstracted the two parcels of bonds which are missing. The disordered
state of the safe, and the keys left in the lock, indicate that
everything was done in extreme haste. This was my theory before I came
into your house, Madam; but after nearly five weeks' careful study of
every individual under this roof, I have reluctantly arrived at the
conclusion that nobody in your household is in it, either as principal
or accomplice, before or after the fact. I think it is in an old play
that the remark has been made that 'Murder will out,' also that 'Blood
will have blood.' Both remarks are perfectly correct; but there is
another remark that might have been made with even greater truth, and
that is 'Money will out.' You can't hide money--at least the average
criminal can't. That's where he gives himself away. He can't keep
his plunder to himself--the money burns--it burns--he must spend it.
Some spend it on drink; some, begging your pardon, Madam--spend it on
ladies; some, the weakest of the lot, spend it on clothes and hansom
cabs; but spend they must. There's not one of those four young men
that could keep five or six thou' in his pocket and not give himself
away--somehow or somewhere. Nor yet Mr. Sedgewick, fine gentleman and
philosopher as he is--nor yet even the odd man. Being a poor creature,
he'd have melted those securities with the first low fence he could
hear of, and would have been on the drink night after night, till he
got the horrors and gave himself up to the police. I've been looking
for the money, Madam, and finding no trace of _that_, I know I've not
come within range of the party we want. We must look outside, Madam,
and we may have to look a long way off. If the possessor of those bonds
is an old hand, he is not likely to turn them into money anywhere in
this City; for though they are bonds to bearer, a transaction of that
kind must leave some trace. I feel the humiliation of my failure,
Madam, and I have no doubt you are disappointed."

Vera looked up at him with melancholy eyes, pale, hollow-cheeked, a
sombre figure in the severest mourning that the Maison de Deuil near
the Madeleine could supply, and French mourning knows no compromise.

"Disappointed," she repeated slowly in a low, tired voice, and then, to
Mr. Japp's surprise and almost horror, she said, "I don't think it much
matters whether the wretched creature who killed him is discovered or
not. It can make no difference to _him_ lying at rest, beyond all pain
and sorrow, that his murderer is hidden somewhere out of reach of the
law, and may escape the agony of a shameful death."

The horror in her widening eyes as she said these words showed that
her imagination could realise the horror of the scaffold. "However he
may escape human law," she went on, in the same slow, dull tones, "he
must carry his punishment with him to the grave. He can never know one
peaceful hour. He can never know the comfort of dreamless sleep. He
will be a haunted man."

"Excuse me for differing with you, Madam, but you don't know what stuff
the criminal classes are made of. _They_ don't mind. One more or less
sent to kingdom come don't prey upon _their_ nerves. Where are they
found, as a rule, when they do get nicked? Why at a theatre or in a
music-hall, or at the Derby--and generally in ladies' society. The
things you read of in novels, conscience, remorse, Banquo's ghost,
don't trouble _them_."

Mr. Japp apologised for having expressed himself so freely, and
stood for a few minutes fingering the brim of his hat, waiting for
Mrs. Provana to speak. Her speech just now had been a surprise to
him, for never had he met with so silent a lady. Night after night
she had listened hungrily to his statement of his day's progress,
his suspicions, his glimpses of light, now seeming full of promise,
and anon delusive. She had listened with keen attention; but she
had expressed no opinion, and had asked no questions. And now for
him--the accomplished Criminal Investigator, the man who had worked
at the science of detection as superior persons work at the higher
mathematics--to hear this lady say that the discovery of her husband's
murderer did not matter, that, for her part, he might go about the
world a free man, with nothing worse than a mind full of scorpions and
a sleepless bed, seemed too monstrous for comprehension. She, to whom
the murdered man had left millions, not to hunger for the ignominious
death of his murderer!

"It must be Christian Science," thought Mr. Japp, as he packed his
portmanteau. "Nothing less can account for it."



CHAPTER XVI


Everybody in the Red Book had left London. The West End was a desert,
and the shrill summons of the telephone was heard no more in Mayfair.
Nobody, unless it were the caretaker, was being asked to luncheon or
dinner, and the only tea-parties were in the basement, where the late
lettuce had not yet given place to the early muffin. Only people with
urgent and onerous business were to be found in London. Lord Okehampton
was shooting grouse, and Lady Okehampton ought to have been doing an
after-cure in Switzerland; but "the sad state of my poor niece after
her husband's ghastly death, and the legal business connected with her
colossal inheritance, make it impossible for me to leave town. Much as
I need a complete change, I must stay here, while that poor child wants
me."

This was what Lady Okehampton wrote from her deserted house in Berkeley
Square, to numerous friends, with more or less variation of phrase.

Vera's health was now the most pressing question. She had taken her
bereavement with a dumb, self-contained grief, that is the most morbid
and the most perilous kind of sorrow; the sorrow that kills. When
questioned, pressingly but tenderly, by her aunt, she always replied in
the same unresponsive manner. There was nothing the matter with her. Of
course, as Aunt Mildred said, the shock had been terrible; but no doubt
she would get over it in time. People always get over things. She only
wanted to be left to herself. She was quite strong enough to bear her
burden. No, she was not eating her heart out in solitude. It was best
for her to be alone.

"You are more than kind, Aunt Mildred, and so is Susan Amphlett; but I
am better sitting quietly and thinking out my life."

"But, my poor child, you are perishing visibly--just wasting away. I
would rather see you in floods of tears, hysterical even, than in this
hopeless state."

"What is the use of making a fuss? If tears could bring my husband
back and make life what it was before his death, I would drown myself
in tears. But nothing can change the past. That is what makes life
terrible. The things we have done are done for ever."

Lady Okehampton trembled, first for her niece's life, and next for
her sanity. And here was this stupendous fortune left to Vera for her
life, and to her children after her--her children by the husband who
was dead--but, in default of such children, to be divided among a horde
of Italian relations--third and fourth cousins, people for whom Mario
Provana might not have cared twopence--and among Roman charitable
institutions--sure to be badly managed, Lady Okehampton thought.

It seemed to her that if Vera were to die, that stupendous wealth,
which while she possessed it must be a factor in the position of the
Disbrowes, would be absolutely thrown to the dogs. To divide that mass
of riches into eights, and twelfths, and sixteenths, was in a manner
to murder it. All its power and prestige would be gone, frittered
away among insignificant people, who might be better off without it,
as it would put a stop to laudable ambition and enterprise, and might
ultimately be the cause of unmitigated harm.

"It is so sad to think there were no children," sighed Lady Okehampton
into the ears of various confidential friends. "The dear man made this
will shortly after his marriage, and evidently built upon having an
heir--he was so absolutely devoted to my niece. I know it was a bitter
disappointment for him," concluded the chieftainess of the Disbrowes,
to whom Mario Provana had said no word of his inmost feelings upon that
or any other subject.

Strange indeed would it have been for that strong hand to lift the
curtain from that proud heart. Courteous, generous, chivalrous, he
might be to the whole clan of Disbrowes. He might scatter his gold
among them with a careless hand; but to scatter the secrets of his
lonely life among that frivolous herd was impossible to the man who had
endured a mother's dislike, a father's neglect, and the disillusions of
a _mariage de convenance_, without one hour of self-betrayal.

Vera was childless, and on her frail thread of life hung Mario
Provana's millions.

Lady Okehampton told herself this in the watches of the night, and told
herself that something must be done. It was all very well for Vera
to declare that there was nothing the matter with her, while it was
visible to the naked eye that the poor child was fading away, in an
atrophy of mind and body.

"She will either die or go mad," said Lady Okehampton, and the
alternative offered visions of a _conseil de famille_, doctors'
certificates, and that rabble of fourth and fifth cousins tearing their
prey.

Long and confidential talks with Mrs. Manby, the housekeeper, and
Louison, the maid, had revealed the desperate state of their mistress's
health.

"No, my lady, she doesn't complain," asserted Mrs Manby. "I'm afraid
it's all the worse because she won't complain. But she can't sleep,
and she can't eat. Sedgewick knows what her meals are like: just
pretending, that's all; and Louison says that, go into her mistress's
room when she will, in the middle of the night or in the early morning,
she's always lying awake, sometimes reading, sometimes staring at the
sky above the window sash, but asleep--never! And it isn't for want of
taking things, for she has tried every drug you can put a name to."

"Does the doctor prescribe them?"

"He used to send her things, in the first few weeks after--the
funeral. But she made him believe that she was quite well, and was
sleeping and eating as usual, and he left off coming. And then Lady
Susan Amphlett brought her tabloids--always the newest thing out. But
they've never done her any good. It's the mind that's wrong, my lady."

"She was absolutely devoted to Mr. Provana," sighed Lady Okehampton.

"No doubt, my lady."

"And she can't get over her loss."

"No, my lady."

Susan Amphlett was of Aunt Mildred's opinion. Something must be done,
and it must be done quickly, before any of those Roman cousins could
appear upon the scene, prying and questioning, and hinting at a
commission of lunacy. Things had come to a perilous pass, when Mrs.
Manby, the housekeeper, could talk of her mistress's mind as the seat
of the mischief. People who go out of their minds seldom take a long
time about it, Lady Susan urged. "It's generally touch and go."

Lady Okehampton waited for no permission, but marched into her niece's
room one dark September afternoon with the fashionable nerve specialist
at her heels, the bland elderly physician from Cavendish Square, whom
nobody in Mayfair had even heard of till he had entered upon his
seventh decade, and who had languished at the wrong end of Harley
Street for a quarter of a century, before the great world had made the
remarkable discovery that he was the one man in London who could cure
one of everything.

He was kind and sensible, and really clever; but the great world loved
him most because he had all the new names for old diseases at the
tip of his tongue, and had the delightful manner which implied that
the patient to whom he was talking was the one patient whose life he
considered worth saving.

"He really does think about you when he's feeling your pulse," said a
dowager. "He ain't totting up last night's winnings at bridge all the
time. He does really think, don't you know."

Dr. Selwyn Tower, as he held Vera's wasted wrist in his broad, soft
hand, looked as serious as if the fate of a nation were at stake.
Indeed, he had been told that millions were in jeopardy, and in the
modern mind the destinies of big fortunes are as serious as the rise
and fall of peoples.

The physician asked no troublesome questions; but he contrived to keep
Vera in conversation--on indifferent subjects--for about a quarter of
an hour, her aunt joining in occasionally with sympathetic nothings;
and by the end of that time he had made up his mind about the case,
or at least about his immediate treatment of the case. He might have
thoughts that went deeper and farther--but those could be held in
abeyance. The thing to be done was to save this fragile form, which was
obviously perishing.

A rest cure--nothing else would be of any use--an uncompromising rest
cure. Six weeks of solitary confinement in the care of a resident
doctor and a couple of highly trained nurses.

Lady Okehampton anticipated a struggle, remembering how resolutely Vera
had resisted this line of treatment three months before; but her niece
surprised her by offering no vehement opposition.

"There is absolutely nothing the matter with me," she said, "but if it
will please you, Aunt Mildred, I will do as Dr. Tower advises."

"Nothing the matter! And you neither eat nor sleep! Is that nothing?"

"Who told you that I can't sleep?"

"My dear lady, your eyes tell us only too plainly. Insomnia has
unmistakable symptoms," said the doctor.

"Yes, it is true," Vera answered wearily. "I seem to have lost the
faculty of sleep. It is a habit one soon loses. I lie staring at the
daylight, and wondering what it is like to lose count of time."

And then, after a little more doctor's talk, soothing, and rather
meaningless, she asked abruptly:

"What time of year is it?"

"Dear child," exclaimed Lady Okehampton, "can you ask?"

"Oh, I have left off writing letters and reading newspapers, and I
forget dates. I know the days are getting shorter, because the dawn is
so long coming when I lie awake."

"We are in the middle of September," said the doctor, "a charming
month for country air--neither too hot nor too cold--the golden mean."

"And in six weeks it will be the end of October, and I can go to Rome
for the winter!"

"You could not do better. We shall build up your constitution in those
six weeks. You will be another woman when you leave Sussex."

"But, my dearest Vera," protested her aunt, "you can never think of a
winter alone in that enormous villa. You will die of ennui."

"No, no, Aunt Mildred, I love Rome. The very atmosphere of the place is
life to me. I am not afraid of being alone."

Dr. Tower shot a significant look at her ladyship, which silenced
remonstrance, and no more was said.

Two days later Vera found herself on a windy hill in Sussex, under
the dominion of the house-doctor and two nurses, and almost as much
exposed to the elements as King Lear on the heights near Dover. An
eider-down coverlet and a hot-water bottle made the only difference.
Lady Okehampton, having sacrificed her own cure to her niece's, went
with a mind at ease to join her husband in Yorkshire; an arrangement
almost without precedent in their domestic annals.



CHAPTER XVII


Father Cyprian Hammond returned to his comfortable rooms in the
north-west region one rainy autumn evening after a long day in the
dreariest abodes of East London. He was almost worn out by the bodily
fatigue of tramping those dismal streets with one of his friends
and allies, a priest from the Cathedral at Moorfields; and by the
mental strain that comes from facing the inscrutable problem of human
suffering--the mystery of sorrow and pain, inevitable, unceasing,
beyond man's power to help or cure.

He had visited the poor in great hospitals where every detail
testified to the beneficence of the rich; yet he knew that the comfort
and cleanliness of the hospital must needs accentuate the dirt and
squalor of the slum to which the patient must return.

He sank into his armchair, with a sigh of relief, and was sorry to hear
of a visitor, who had called twice that afternoon and would call again
after nine o'clock.

"Did he leave his card?"

Yes, the card was there on the table.

"Mr. Claude Rutherford."

Father Cyprian had not seen Claude since the opening day of that
inquest which had been so often adjourned, only to close in an open
verdict, and a mystery still unsolved. He had not seen Claude; but he
had seen Mrs. Rutherford more than once in that quiet month when life
in West End London seems to come to a stand-still. She had talked about
her son as she talked only to him, opening her heart to the friend
who knew all its secrets, the best and the worst of her. Hitherto she
had never failed to find him interested and sympathetic; but in those
recent interviews it had seemed to her as if the close friend of long
years had changed; as if he was talking to her from a distance; as if
some mysterious barrier had arisen between them.

She had told him of that conversation with her son, in which he had
promised to confide in this old and trusted friend. That had happened
more than a month ago, and the confidence had not yet come. Perhaps it
was coming to-night.

"I will see Mr. Rutherford at whatever time he calls," Father Cyprian
told his servant.

His dinner was short and temperate, but not ill-cooked or ill-served.
He drank barley water, but the jug that held it was of old cut-glass,
picked up at a broker's shop in a back street for seven shillings, and
worth as many pounds. His silver was old family plate, his napery of
the finest.

It was past nine when Claude Rutherford appeared, and the first thing
Father Cyprian observed was that he was physically exhausted. He
dropped into a chair with a long sigh of fatigue, and it was three or
four minutes before he was able to speak.

"I knew you would have finished your Spartan dinner by this time," he
said, "but I hope I am not spoiling your evening."

"You ought to know that I have nothing better to do with my evening
than to talk with anybody who wants me," answered the priest in the
low, grave voice that was like the sound of Hollmann's bow in an adagio
passage, "and I think you must want me, or you would not come to this
house a third time. What have you been doing since six o'clock? You
look horribly fagged."

"I have been to Hampstead. It is a fine night, and I wanted a walk."

"You have walked too far. You are ill, Claude."

"A little under the weather. The modern complaint, neuritis, and its
concomitant, insomnia."

"You ought to go to one of my neighbours in Harley Street."

"No. I want you--the physician of souls. This corporal frame of mine
will mend itself when I get out of London; a thousand miles or so. Do
you remember the night we walked home together from Portland Place? You
pressed me very hard that evening. You tried to bring me back to the
fold--but the time had not come."

"And now the time has come?" questioned the priest, pushing aside the
book that he had been reading, and bending forward to look into a page
of human life, bringing his searching eyes nearer to the haggard face
in front of him.

"Yes, the time has come."

"What is the matter?"

"Oh, only the old disease--in a more acute phase. The disgust of
life--satiety, weariness of the world outside me, loathing of the world
inside; the old disease in a virulent form. I want you to help me to
the cure. It must be heroic treatment. Half measures will be no use.
I want you to help me to enter one of the orders that mean death to
the world. Dominicans, Benedictines, La Trappe, anything you like; the
harder the rule the better it may be for my soul."

"This is strangely sudden."

"Perhaps it is an inspiration. But no, my dear friend, it is not
sudden. The complaint is chronic, and has been growing upon me for
the last ten years, ever since I found that I was a failure. That
discovery is a crisis in a man's life. He looks inside himself one
day, and finds that the fire has gone out. It must all come to that.
Life, mind, heart, all are contained in that central fire which is the
soul of a man. While the fire burns he has hope, he has ambitions, he
has a future; when the fire goes out, he has nothing but the past; the
memory of things that were sweet and things that were bitter; nothing
but memory to live upon in all the years that are to come: and he may
live to be ninety, a haunted man! I have done with the world, Father
Cyprian. Am I to walk about like a dead man for ten or twenty or thirty
years? I have done with the world. I want to give the rest of my life
to the God you and my mother believe in."

"You would not want to do that if you were not a believer."

"I was reared in the true faith. Yes, I believe. Help thou mine
unbelief."

"I will help you with all my heart; but I do not think you are of the
stuff that Benedictine monks are made of; and it is a foolish thing
to put your hand to the plough, unless you have the force of mind to
finish your furrow."

"I will finish my furrow."

"And break your mother's heart, perhaps. Your love is all she has in
this life, except her religion."

"Her religion is no less a force than her love. My neglect of my duties
has been a grief to her. She has never ceased to remonstrate with me,
to remind me of my boyish ardour, my days of implicit faith."

"She wants to see you return to the faith, and the obedience, of those
days; but it would distress her if you took a step that would mean
separation from her."

"That would be inconsistent, after all her sermons."

"Women are apt to be inconsistent--even the best of them."

"In any case, even if my mother should object, which I think unlikely,
I have made up my mind. I had time to commune with my soul in that
three hours' walk through the darkness. I came to you this night fully
resolved not to ask your advice as to the step, but your help in taking
it. Where can I go? To whom can I submit myself?"

"Frankly, Claude, I am too much in the dark to help you. Come to me at
my church to-morrow morning after mass, with your mind more at rest,
and make your confession. Let me see into the bottom of your heart. I
cannot talk to a man behind a mask. I can say nothing till I know all."

"No, I cannot do that. I must have time. I want solitude and a cell.
I want to shake off the husk of the world I have lived in too long. I
want to be done with earthly desires. I shall have a new mind when I am
in my woollen gown."

"Alas, Claude, I doubt, I doubt. Do you remember all we talked about
when you were last in this room--a long time ago?"

"Yes, I remember."

"You remember how I tried to awaken you to the danger of your relations
with Mario Provana's wife."

"Those are things a man does not forget."

"You denied the danger; but you did not deny your love. You gave me
your assurance, not as to a priest, but between man and man, that no
evil should ever come of that love."

"Yes, I remember. I was not afraid of myself. I belong to the great
army of triflers and dilettanti--I am not of the stuff that passionate
lovers are made of."

"But now Death has intervened, and the situation is changed. Two years
hence you might marry your cousin without shame to either, without
disrespect to the dead. Are you capable of renouncing that hope by
burying yourself in a cloister? Are you equal to the sacrifice? Would
there be no looking back, no repentance?"

"I shall never marry my cousin Vera."

"Because she does not love you? Is that the reason?"

"No need to enter into details, or to count the cost. I have made up my
mind. For once in my life I have a purpose and a will."

"You seem in earnest."

The words came slowly, like a spoken doubt, and the priest's searching
eyes were on the pale face in front of him. The countenance where the
refinement of race--a long line of well-born men and women, showed in
every lineament.

"This sudden resolve of yours is inexplicable," the priest continued
in a troubled voice, after a silence that seemed long. "It is not in
your temperament or your manner of life, since you came into a man's
inheritance, to cut yourself off from all that makes life pleasant to a
young man with talent, attractiveness, and independence. I would give
much to know your reason for such a step."

"Haven't I told you, my dear friend? _Welt Schmerz._ Isn't that enough?"

"No, it is not enough. _Welt Schmerz_ is the chronic disease of a
decadent age. If every sufferer from _Welt Schmerz_ were to turn monk,
this world would be a monastery. It is a phase in every man's life--or
a pose. I know it is not that with you. There is something behind,
Claude--something at the back of your mind. Something that you must
tell me, before I can be of any real help to you. But you are your
mother's son, and were you steeped in sin, I would do my uttermost to
help you. Come to me the day after to-morrow. I shall have had time to
think over your case, and you will be in a better mood for considering
the situation: to surrender this worldly life and all it holds is not a
light thing that a man should do in a fit of the blues, a man still on
the sunward side of forty. I, who have entered my seventh decade, have
no yearnings for a woollen gown."

"I have made up my mind," Claude repeated, in a dull, dead voice, the
voice of an obstinate man. "Good night."



CHAPTER XVIII


The six weeks' captivity on the hill in Sussex had been a success, and
Vera was able to leave England before the first November fog descended
upon Portland Place. She was in Rome, in the city where she had spent
the happiest period of her life--the time in which she had first known
what it meant for a woman to be adored, and lovely, and immeasurably
rich. There she had first known the power of wealth and the influence
of beauty; for her husband's position and her own attractions had
assured her an immediate social success, and had made her a star in
Roman society during her first season, while, over and above all other
graces, she had the charm of novelty. But it was not the memory of
social triumphs or of gratified vanity that was with her as she sat
alone in the too spacious saloon, or roamed with languid step through
other rooms as spacious and as lonely.

Sympathy had flowed in upon her from all her Roman acquaintances, and
acquaintances of divers nationalities, the birds of passage, American,
French, Spanish, German. Cards and little notes had descended upon the
villa like a summer hailstorm; and she had responded with civility, but
with no uncertain tone. Her mourning was to be a long mourning; and her
seclusion was to be absolute. She had come to live a solitary life in
her villa and gardens, to wander among ruins and steep herself in the
poetry of the city. She had come not to the Rome of the present, but
to the Rome of the past. This was how she explained her life to the
officious people who wanted to force distractions upon her; and who in
secret were already hatching matrimonial schemes by which the Provana
millions might be made to infuse new life into princely races that were
perishing in financial atrophy.

The Villa Provana was on high ground, beyond the Porta del Popolo, and
the view from the gardens commanded the roofs and towers and cupolas of
the city, and the dominating mass of the great basilica, which dwarfs
all other monuments, and reduces papal Rome, with its heterogeneous
roofs and turrets, steeples and obelisks, to a mere foreground for that
one stupendous dome.

Day after day, in those short winter afternoons, Vera stood on the
terrace in front of the villa, leaning languidly against the marble
balustrade, and watching the evening mists rising slowly over the city,
and the grey of the great dome gradually deepening to purple, while
the golden light in the west grew more intense, and orange changed to
crimson.

She was never tired of gazing at that incomparable prospect. How often
in her honeymoon year she had stood there, with Mario Provana at her
side, questioning him with a childish delight, and making him point
out and explain every tower and every cupola, the classic, the papal,
the old and the new; churches, palaces, public buildings, municipal
and royal, picture-galleries, museums, fountains! It was there, as an
idolised young wife, with her husband's strong arm supporting her, as
she leant against him, in the pleasant fatigue after a day of pleasure,
that she had learnt to know Rome, and that she had discovered how
dearly the hard man of business loved the city of his birth. It was
there he had told her what Victor Emanuel and Cavour--the soldier and
the statesman--had done for Italy; and how that which had been but a
geographical expression, a patchwork of petty states--for the most part
under foreign rulers--had become the name of a great nation in the van
of progress.

She thought of him now, evening after evening, in the unbroken silence
and solitude of the long terrace on the crown of the hill, and only a
little lower than the terrace on the Pincio. She looked backward across
the arid desert of her five years of society under Disbrowe influences,
five years of life that seemed worthless and joyless compared with that
year of a happiness she had almost forgotten, till her husband's death
carried all her thoughts back to the past: to the time when she had
given him love for love; to the days that she could think of without
remorse.

"Oh, God, if I had died at the end of that year, what a happy life mine
would have been!"

She thought of the tomb on the Campagna, the splendid monument of a
husband's love, near which she had sat in her carriage with Mario to
watch the gathering of a gay crowd, and the flash of red coats against
the clear blue of a December day, the hounds trotting lightly in front
of huntsman and whip, the women in their short habits, patent-leather
boots flashing against new saddles; men on well-bred hunters; the whole
picture so modern and so trivial against the fortress tomb with its
mystery of a distant past--only a name to suggest the story of two
lives.

"If I had only died then," she thought.

To have ended her life in that year of gladness, innocent, beloved,
while all her world was lovely in the freshness of life's morning. To
have died then, before the blight of disillusion or the taint of sinful
thought had touched her, to have passed out of the world, beloved and
worthy of love, and to have been laid to rest in the cemetery at San
Marco, beside her girl friend. Ah, what a happy destiny! And now what
was to be her doom? A cold breath touched her as she leaned over the
balustrade, with her hands clasped over her eyes, a cold breath that
thrilled her and made her tremble. It was only the cooler wind of
evening, breathing across the gathering shadows, but it startled her by
the suggestion of a human presence.

She rose from the marble bench where she had been sitting since the sun
began to sink behind the umbrella pines on a hill in the distance, and
while the far-reaching level of the Campagna began to look like the
blue waters of a sea in the lessening light, and walked slowly back
to the villa, by the long terrace, and under a pergola where the last
roses showered their petals upon her as she passed.

The lamps were lighted in the saloon, and logs were burning in the
vast fireplace at the end of the room, a distant glow and brightness,
a pleasing spot of colour in a melancholy picture, but of not much
avail for warmth in a room of fifty feet by twenty-five, with a ceiling
twenty feet high. But the comfort of the villa was not dependent upon
smouldering olive logs or spluttering pine-cones. There was a hot-water
system, the most expensive and the best, for supplying all those
palatial rooms with an equable and enervating atmosphere.

There was a letter lying on Vera's book-table, a table that always
stood by her armchair at one side of the monumental chimneypiece. This
spot was her own, her island in that ocean of space. This chair was
large enough to absorb her, and when she was sitting in it, the room
looked empty, and a servant had to come near her table before he could
be sure she was there.

She took up the letter, and looked at the address wonderingly. It
had not come by post. There was something familiar in the writing.
It reminded her of Claude's; and then, in a moment, she remembered.
The letter was from Mrs. Rutherford. Little notes had been exchanged
between them in past years, notes of invitation from Vera, replies,
mostly courteous refusals, from the elder lady.

Mrs. Rutherford must be in Rome. Strange! Had she, too, come to winter
there?

  "MY DEAR VERA,

 "I hear you are at your villa, living in seclusion and refusing all
 visits; but I think you will make an exception for me, as it is
 vital for me to see you. I am in great trouble, and I want your
 help--badly. I shall call on you at noon to-morrow. Pray do not shut
 your door against me.

                                                 "Yours affectionately,
                                                 "MAGDALEN RUTHERFORD."

The address was of one of the smaller and quieter hotels in the great
city, a house unknown to the tourist, English or American: a house
patronised only by what are called "nice people."

Trouble! What could be Mrs. Rutherford's trouble? Had she anything in
this world to be glad or sorry about, except her son?

The letter gave Vera a night of agitation and feverish dreams, and she
spent the hour before noon pacing up and down the great room, deadly
pale in the dense blackness of her long crape gown.

It was not five minutes past the hour when Mrs. Rutherford was
announced. She, too, was pale, and she, too, wore black, but not
mourning.

"You are kind to let me see you," she said, clasping Vera's hand.

"How could I refuse? I am so sorry you are in trouble. Is it--" her
voice became tremulous, "is it anything about Claude? Is he ill?"

"No, he is not ill, unless it is in mind. But the trouble is about him,
a new and unexpected trouble. A thunderbolt!"

The terror in Vera's face startled her. She thought the frail figure
would drop at her feet in a dead faint, and she caught her by the arm.

"I think you may help me. You and he were great friends, pals, Susan
Amphlett called you."

"Yes, we were pals. He was so good to me at Disbrowe, years and years
ago."

"Yes, I know. He has often talked of that time. Well, you were great
friends; and a young man will sometimes open his mind more to a woman
friend than he will to his mother. Did Claude ever talk to you of his
Church, of his remorse for his neglect of his religion, of his wanting
to give up the world, to end a useless life in a monastery?"

"Never."

"I thought not. It is a sudden caprice; there is no real strength of
purpose in it. He is disgusted and disappointed. He has made a failure
of his life, and he is angry with, himself, and sick to death of
Society. Such a man cannot go on being trivial for ever. A life without
purpose can but end in disgust. My poor child, you are shivering, and
can hardly stand. Let us go nearer the fire. Sit down, and let us talk
quietly--and be kind, and bear with a foolish old woman, who sees the
joy of her life slipping away from her."

The visitor's quick eye had noticed the great armchair and book-table
by the hearth, and knew that it was Vera's place. She led her there,
made her sit down, and took a chair by her side.

"Now we shall be warm and comfortable, and can look my trouble in the
face."

"Tell me all about it," Vera said quietly, with her hand in Mrs.
Rutherford's.

The wave of agitation had passed. She spoke slowly, but her voice was
no longer tremulous.

"I dare say, if you have ever thought of me in the past, you have given
me credit for being a strong-minded woman."

"Claude has told me of your strength of will--the right kind of
strength."

"And now I have to confess myself to you, as weak, unstable,
inconsistent; caring for my son's love for me more than I care for his
eternal welfare."

"No, no, I can never believe that."

"But you will believe it when I tell you that he has taken the first
step towards separating himself for ever from this sinful world, and
giving the rest of his life to God; and that I am here in this city,
here pleading with you, to try to change his purpose and win him back
to the world."

"Oh!" said Vera, with a faint cry. "Has he made up his mind?"

"He thinks he has. But oh, what shall I do without him? It is
horrible, selfish, unworthy; but I can only think of myself and my own
desolate old age. Only a few years more, perhaps, only a few years
of solitude and mourning; but my mind and heart rise in rebellion
against Fate. I cannot bear my life without him. Again and again I
have urged him to remember the faith in which he was reared; I have
tried to awaken him to the call of the Church; I have begged Father
Hammond to use his influence to rekindle the fervour of religion that
made my son's boyish mind so lovely: and now when he has gone beyond
my prayers, and wants to renounce this sinful world, I am a weak,
miserable woman, and my despairing cry is to call him back to the life
he has grown weary of. Do you not despise me, Vera?"

"No, no. I can understand. It is natural for a mother to feel as you
feel; but, all the same, I think if he has made up his mind to retire
into a monastery, it is your duty to let him go. Think what it is for a
man to spend his last years in reconciling himself with God. Think of
the peace that may come with self-sacrifice. Think what it is to escape
out of this sinful world--into a place of silence and prayer, and to
know that one's sins are forgiven."

"He has no sins that need the sacrifice of half a life. He has been
the dearest of sons, the kindest of friends, honourable, generous,
straightforward. Why should he shut himself in a monastery to find
forgiveness for trivial sins, and neglect of religious forms? He can
lead a new and better life in the world of action, where he can be of
use to his fellow-men. Even Father Hammond has never advised him to
turn monk. He can worship God, and lead the Christian life, without
renouncing all that is lovely in the world God made for us."

Vera listened with a steadfast face, and her tones were calm and
decided when she replied.

"Dear Mrs. Rutherford, the heart knoweth its own bitterness. I think,
the better you love your son the less you should come between him and a
resolve that must give him peace, if it can never give him happiness."

For the first time since Mrs. Rutherford had been with her, Vera's
eyes filled with tears, tears that overflowed and streamed down the
colourless cheeks, and that it needed all her strength to check.

"You surprise me," the elder woman cried passionately, flinging away
the hand that she had been holding. "You surprise me. I came to you for
sympathy, sure that I should find it, believing that you cared for my
son almost as much as I care for him. You were his chosen friend--he
devoted half his days to you. The closeness of your friendship made
malicious people say shameful things, and has given me many an unhappy
hour; and now, at this crisis of his life, when he is bent upon burying
himself alive in a monastery--entering some severe order, for whose
rule of hardship and deprivation he is utterly unfit, a kind of life
that will break his heart and bring him to an early grave--you preach
to me of his finding peace in those dreary walls--peace--as if he were
the worst of sinners."

"No, no, you don't understand me. Father Hammond has told me about
the monastic life--the Benedictines, La Trappe. He has told me what
happiness has been found in that life of solitude and prayer by those
who have renounced the world."

"Was it you who inspired this extraordinary resolve?"

"_I?_ No, indeed. I knew nothing of it till you told me."

"What? He could take such a step without consulting you, without
confiding in you--his closest friend?"

"Was it likely that he would tell me, if he did not tell his mother?"

"He told me nothing till he had come here; to make a retreat in a
monastery; to give himself time for meditation and thought, before he
took any decisive step. He is here in Rome, and has been here for some
time. My first knowledge of his decision was a letter he sent me from
here. Such an unsatisfactory letter, giving no adequate reason for his
resolve, only vague words about his weariness of life and the world."

"What else could he say? That must always be the reason. One gets tired
of everything--and then one turns to God--and a life of prayer seems
best. It is death in life; but it may mean peace."

"Vera, I was never more shocked and disappointed. I thought you loved
him when love was sin. I thought you loved him at the peril of your
soul; and now, when a terrible calamity has left you free to do what
you like with the rest of your life, now, when however deeply you may
mourn for your husband's awful death, and grieve over any sins of
omission in your married life, yet there must needs be the far-off
thought of years to come, when without self-reproach, you may give
yourself to a lover who in years and temperament would be your natural
companion----"

"There has been no such thought in my mind," Vera said coldly. "I shall
never cease to mourn for Mario Provana's death. I have nothing else in
the world to live for."

"My poor girl. It is only natural that you should feel like that. I
did wrong to speak of the future. You have passed through a horrible
ordeal, and it may be long before you can forget. But you are too kind
not to be sorry for a mother who is threatened with the loss of all
that she has of joy and comfort in this world."

"I am very sorry for you," Vera said, with a mechanical air, as if her
thoughts were far away.

"Then you will help me?" Mrs. Rutherford cried eagerly.

"How can I help you?"

"You can appeal to my son. You may have more influence over him than
I. I believe you have more influence," with a touch of bitterness.
"However indifferent you may be, and may have always been to him, I
know that he was devoted to you, that you could have led him, if you
had cared to lead him. And he will listen to you now, he will have pity
upon me, if you plead for me, if you tell him what it is for a mother
to part with the son of nearly forty years' cherishing, who represents
all her life on earth, past, present, and to come. I cannot live
without him, Vera. I thought that I was strong in faith, and patience,
and resignation, till this trouble came upon me. I thought that I was a
religious woman; but now I know that the God I worshipped was of clay,
and that when I prayed and tried to lift my thoughts to Heaven it was
only of my son that I thought, only for his welfare that I prayed.
Help me, Vera, if you have a heart that can love and sympathise with
another's love. Plead with him, tell him how few the years are for a
woman of my age; and that there will be time enough for him to bury
himself alive in a monastery when I am at rest. His dedication of those
later years will not be less precious in the sight of God, because he
has deferred the sacrifice for his mother's sake."

"I cannot think that he will listen to me, if he has not yielded to
you; I know he loves you dearly."

"He did love me--never was there a better son. But he changed all at
once. It was as if something had broken his life. But I think you can
melt his heart. He will understand my grief better when it is brought
home to him by another. I am to see him to-morrow afternoon, and I
shall be allowed to take you with me. Will you come?"

The entreaty was so insistent, so agonising, that Vera could only bend
her head in mute acquiescence.

Mrs. Rutherford threw her arms round the frail figure and strained it
to her breast.

"My dearest girl, I knew you would have pity upon me. I will call for
you to-morrow at half-past two. The house is on the hill, beyond the
Medici Villa--a lovely spot--but to me, though it is only a place of
probation, it seems like a grave. Vera!" with a sudden passion, "if
I thought that this step were for his happiness, I believe I could
submit; but when I parted with him last week his face was the face of
despair. How changed, oh, my God, how changed!"



CHAPTER XIX


Mrs. Rutherford and Vera drove to the hill behind the Medici Villa in
the golden light of a Roman November, when the gardens on the height
were glowing with foliage that seemed made of fire, and only cypress
and ilex showed dark against that splendour of red and amber; but to
those two women all that beauty of autumn colour, and purple distances,
of fairy-like gardens, and flashing fountains, was part of a world that
was dead. The metaphysician's idea of the universe as an emanation of
the individual mind is so far borne out by experience, that in a great
grief the universe ceases to exist.

The room to which one of the brotherhood led them faced the western sky
and was full of golden light when the two women entered.

It was a room that had once been splendid; but of all its splendour
nothing was left but vast space, and the blurred and faded outlines of
a fresco upon the ceiling.

The two women stood within the doorway looking to the other end of the
room, where a solitary figure was sitting, huddled in a large armchair,
in front of a fireplace that looked like an open tomb, where a little
heap of smouldering logs upon a spacious hearth seemed a hollow mockery
of a fire meant for warmth. That crouching form with contracted
shoulders, and wasted hands stretched above the feeble fire-glow--could
that be Claude Rutherford?

Vera shivered in the chillness of the dismal scene, where even the vast
window, and the golden west, could not relieve the sense of cold and
gloom.

Yes, it was Claude! He started to his feet as Mrs. Rutherford moved
slowly along the intervening space. He looked beyond her, surprised at
the second figure, and then, with one brief word to his mother, hurried
past her and came to Vera.

He clasped her hands, he drew her towards the window, drew her into
the golden light, where she stood transfigured, like the Madonna in a
picture by Fra Angelico, glorious and all gold.

He looked at her as a traveller who had been dying of thirst in a
desert might look at a fountain of clear water.

It was a long, long look, in which it seemed as if he were drinking
the beauty of the face he looked at, as if, in those moments, he tried
to satisfy the yearning of days and nights of severance. It seemed as
if he could never cease to look; as if he could never let her go. Then
suddenly he dropped her hand, and turned from her to his mother, who
was standing a little way off.

"Why have you done this?" he asked vehemently.

"Because you would not listen to me. No prayers, no tears of mine would
move you. I was breaking my heart, and I thought she might prevail when
I failed; I knew her influence over you, and that she might move you."

"It was a cruel thing to do. I knew she was in Rome, that we were
breathing the same air. The thought of her was with me by day and
night. Yet I was rock. I made myself iron, I clung to the cross, like
the saints of old time, who had all been sinners. Vera, why have you
come between me and my God?"

"I could not see your mother so unhappy and refuse to do what she
asked. Oh, Claude, forget that I came here. Forget that we have ever
clasped hands since--since you resolve to separate yourself from the
world. I will not come between you and the saving of your soul."

"Vera," Mrs. Rutherford cried passionately, "have you no compassion for
me? Is this how you help me?"

"You know that I refused, that I did not want to see him. I ought never
to have come. But it is over. We shall never meet again, Claude. This
is the last--the very last."

"Heartless girl. Have you no thought of my grief?" urged the mother.

"No, not when I think of him. If you can come between him and his hope
of heaven--I cannot." She turned and walked quickly to the door without
another word. Mrs. Rutherford cast one despairing look at her son,
before she followed the vanishing figure, muttering, "Cruel, cruel, a
heart of stone!"

No words were exchanged between the two women as they left the
monastery, conducted by the monk, who had waited for them in the stony
corridor at the top of the broad marble stairs. He let them out of
the heavy iron-lined door, into the neglected garden, where a long
row of cypresses showed dark against a saffron sky. The greater part
of the garden had been utilised for growing vegetables, upon which
the brotherhood for the most part subsisted. Huge orange-red pumpkins
sprawled among beds of kale, and patches of Indian corn were golden
amidst the rusty green of artichokes gone to seed.

It was a melancholy place, and the aspect of it sent an icy chill
through Mrs. Rutherford's heart as she thought of that light, airy
temperament which had been her son's most delightful gift, the
gay insouciance, the joyous outlook that had made him everybody's
favourite. He the jester, the trifler, for whom life was always
play-time, he to be shut within those frozen walls, immured in a living
grave! It was maddening even to think of it. She had talked to him of
his religious duties. Oh, God, was it her old woman's preaching that
had brought him to this living death?

Vera bade her good-bye at the gate, saying that she would rather walk
than drive, and left Mrs. Rutherford to return to her hotel alone.

"I wonder which of us two is the more unhappy?" she thought. "Why do I
wonder? What is her misery measured against mine?"

For Claude a night of fever followed that impassioned meeting, a night
of sleeplessness and semi-delirium. For the first time since he had
been a visitor in that house of gloom he got up at two o'clock and
went to the chapel, where the monks met for prayer and meditation at
that hour. As a probationer making his retreat he was not subject to
the severe rules of the order, and he need not leave his bed till
four o'clock unless he chose. This night he went to the dimly-lighted
chapel, and knelt on the chill stone, for respite from agonising
thoughts, from the insidious whispers of the tempter. This night he
went into the House of God to escape from the dominion of Satan.

Hitherto he had borne his time of probation with a stoical submission.
He had sought no relaxation of the rule for penitents on the threshold.
He had lain upon the narrow bed and shivered in the chilly room, and
risen in the winter dark, to lie down again sleepless, at an hour when
a little while ago his night of pleasure would have been still at full
tide. He had submitted to the repellent fare, the vegetables cooked
in half rancid oil, coarse bread and gritty coffee. He, who had been
always a creature of delicate habits, accustomed to the uttermost
refinement in every detail of daily life--his food, his toilet, his
surroundings.

He had shrunk from no burden that was laid upon him, earnestly intent
upon keeping his promise to Father Hammond. He was to spend six weeks
in this place of silence and prayer, and at the end of that time he
was to make his confession to the Superior, and to make his communion.
Then would follow the slow stages of preparation for the final act,
which would admit him to the brotherhood, and shut the door of the
world upon all the rest of his life. He had learnt to think of that
awful change with a stoic's resignation. He had brought himself to a
Roman temper. He thought with indifference of the world which he was to
renounce. He had done with it. This had been the state of his mind as
he shivered over the smouldering olive logs. This iron calm, and his
stony contempt for life, had been his till that moment of ecstasy when
the woman he loved stood before him, a vision of ethereal beauty in the
light of the setting sun.

Why had she come there? Why? The penitential days and nights, the
stoic's iron resolve, all were gone in one breath from those sweet
lips, faint and pale, but ineffably beautiful.



CHAPTER XX


It was a little less than three weeks after the meeting in the house of
silence; but to Vera the interval seemed an endless procession of slow,
grey days and fevered nights--nights of intolerable length, in which
she listened to the beating of the blood against her skull, now slow
and rhythmical, now tempestuous and irregular--endless nights in which
sleep seemed the most unlikely thing that could happen, a miracle for
which she had left off hoping. In all that time she had heard no more
of Mrs. Rutherford, though the daily chronicle that kept note of every
stranger in Rome still printed her name among the inmates of the Hotel
Marguerita.

She was angry and unforgiving. Unhappy mother! Unhappy son!

Two pairs of horses had to be exercised daily, but Vera had no orders
for the stables. That monotonous parade in the Pincio, which every
other woman of means in Rome made a part of her daily life, had no
attraction for Signor Provana's widow. The villa gardens, funereal in
their winter foliage of ilex and arbutus, sufficed for relief from
the long hours within four walls. Wrapped in her sable coat, with the
wind blowing upon her uncovered head, she paced the long terraces for
hours on end, or sat like a statue on the marble bench that had been
dug out of the ruins of imperial baths. But though she spent half her
days in the gardens she took no interest in them. She never stopped to
watch the gardeners at work upon the flower-beds, never questioned them
about their preparations for the spring. Thousands of bulbs were being
planted daily, but she never wanted to learn what resurrection of vivid
colour would come from those brown balls which the men were dropping
into the earth. She walked about like a corpse alive! The men almost
shrank from her as she passed them, as if they had seen a ghost.

She could never forget that last meeting with her lover. The last--the
very last. She sat with her arms folded on the marble balustrade, and
her head resting on the folded arms, with her face hidden from the
clear, cold light of a December afternoon.

Her gaze was turned inward; and it was only with that inward gaze that
she saw things distinctly. The outside world was blurred and dim, but
the pictures memory made were vivid.

She saw Claude's agonised look, saw the melancholy eyes gazing at her:
the yearning love, the despairing renunciation.

Mrs. Rutherford had called her cruel, but was not the cruelty far
greater that submitted her to that heart-rending ordeal?

To sit brooding thus, with her arms upon the cold marble, had been
so much a habit with her of late, that in these melancholy reveries
she had often lost count of time, till the sound of some convent bell
startled her as it told the lateness of the hour, or till the creeping
cold of sundown awoke her with a shiver. In that city of the Church
there were many bells--all with their particular call to prayer, and
she could have told the progress of the day and night without the help
of a clock. Now it was the bell of the Trinità del Monte, for the
office of Benediction, distant and silvery sweet in the clear air. It
was a warning to go back to the house--yet she did not stir. Solitude
here, with the cold wind blowing upon her, and the twitter of birds
among the branches, was better than the atmosphere of those silent
rooms.

She raised her head at the sound of a footstep, not the leisurely tread
of one of the gardeners, heavy and slow. This step was light and rapid,
so rapid that before she had time to wonder, it had stopped close
beside her, and two strong arms were holding her, and quick, sobbing
breath was fluttering her hair.

"Don't be frightened! Vera, my angel, my beloved!"

She tried to release herself, tried to stand upright, but the
passionate arms held her to the passionate heart.

"Claude, are you mad?"

"No. Madness is over. Sanity has come back. I am yours again, my
beloved, yours as I was that night--before a great horror parted us.
I am all your own--your lover--your husband, whatever you will. The
miserable slave you saw in the monastery is dead. I am yours, and only
yours. I have no separate existence. I want no other heaven! Heaven is
here, in your arms. Nothing else matters."

"My God! Have you left the monastery!"

"For ever. I bore it till last night--but that was a night of hell. I
told the Superior this morning that I was not of the stuff that makes a
martyr or a monk. He was horrified. To him I seemed a son of the devil.
Well, I will worship Satan sooner than lose you. I am your lover,
Vera--nothing else in this sublunary world. 'We'll jump the life to
come.'"

She clung to him in the ecstasy of reunion, and their lips met in a
kiss more tragic than Francesca's and Paolo's, for their guilt was yet
to come; while with Vera and her lover guilt had been consummated.

Presently, with a sudden revulsion, she snatched herself from his arms,
and stood looking at him reproachfully.

"Oh, my dearest, why did you not stand firm? Think how little this poor
life of ours means compared with that which comes after."

"I leave the after-life to the illuminated--to Symeon and his
following. I want nothing but the woman I love. Here or hereafter, for
me there is nothing else. Vera, forget that I ever tried to forsake
you--that I ever set my soul's ransom above my thoughts of you. It
was a short madness, a cowardly endeavour. Forget it all, as I shall
from this hour. Here are you and I--in this little world which is the
only one we know--with just a few more years of youth and love. Let
us make the most of them; and when the fire of life dies down, when
these fierce heart-throbs are over, we will give our fading years to
penitence and prayer."

This is what happens when a man of Claude Rutherford's temperament puts
his hand to the plough.



CHAPTER XXI


Just two years after the sudden close of Mr. Rutherford's retreat
there was a quiet wedding in Father Hammond's chapel--a bride without
bridesmaids, a marriage without music, a bride in a pale grey gown and
a black hat, with just a sprinkling of the Disbrowe clan to keep her in
countenance. Three stately aunts, Lady Okehampton being by far the most
human of the three, and their three noble husbands, with Lady Susan
Amphlett, vivacious as ever, and immensely pleased with her friend.

From a conversational point of view she had been living upon this
marriage all through the little season of November fog and small
dinner-parties at restaurants or at home. She knew so much more than
anybody else, and what she knew was what everybody wanted to know. She
discussed the subject at Ritz's, at Claridge's, at the Savoy, at the
Carlton, and seemed to have something fresh to say at each place of
entertainment. There was more variety in her information than even in
the _hors d'oeuvres_, which rise in a crescendo of novelty in unison
with the newness of the hotel.

People wondered they had not married sooner, since, of course,
everybody knew it must end in marriage.

Susie shrugged her pretty shoulders, and flashed her diamond necklace
at the company.

"The sweet thing is _exaltée_. She is one of Francis Symeon's flock;
and she thought respect for her husband obliged her to wait two years.
She only left off her mourning last week."

"But considering that she was carrying on with Rutherford years before
Provana's death?"

"You none of you understand her. Their friendship was purely platonic.
She and I were like sisters, and I was in and out of her house just as
Claude was. There never was a more innocent attachment. I used to call
them Paul and Virginia."

"I should think Paolo and Francesca would be more like it," murmured
one of the company.

Susie shook her fan at him.

"You men will never believe in a virtuous friendship. However, there
they are--absolutely devoted to each other. They will be the happiest
couple in London, and they mean to entertain a great deal."

"Then I hope they are on the look-out for a pearl among chefs. People
won't go to Portland Place to eat second-rate dinners."

"Provana's dinners were admirable, and his wines the finest in London."

Then there came the question of settlements. How much of her millions
had Mrs. Provana settled upon Rutherford?

"I don't think there has been any settlement."

"The more fool he," muttered a matter-of-fact guardsman. "What's the
use of marrying a rich woman if you don't get some of the stuff?"

"Don't I tell you they are like Paul and Virginia?" said Susie.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Provana murder had died out long before this as a source of
interest and wonder. It had flourished and faded like a successful
novel, or a play that takes the town by storm one year and is forgotten
the year after. The Provana mystery had gone to the dust-heap of old
things. Slowly and gradually people had resigned themselves to the
knowledge that this murder must take its place among the long list of
crimes that are never to be punished by the law.

Romantic people clung to their private solutions of the tragical
enigma. These were as sure of the identity of the murderer as if they
had seen him red-handed. The quiet marriage in the Roman Catholic
chapel revived the interest in the half-forgotten crime, and Lady Susan
had the additional kudos of a close association with the event.

"Vera and I were together at Lady Fulham's ball within two or three
hours of that poor fellow's death," she told her friends at a Savoy
supper-table. "I never saw her look so lovely, in one of her mermaid
frocks, and a necklace and girdle of single diamonds that flashed like
water-drops. Other people's jewels looked vulgar compared with hers.
She was in wonderful spirits, stayed late, and danced all the after
supper waltzes. She was fey."

"Rutherford was there, of course?" said someone.

"Of course," echoed Susan; "why shouldn't he be there? Everybody was
there."

"But everybody couldn't waltz or sit out with Madame Provana all the
evening, as I heard he did," remarked a middle-aged matron, fixing
Susan with her long-handled eyeglass.

"Why shouldn't they waltz? They are cousins, and have always been
pals, and they waltz divinely. To watch them is to understand what
Shakespeare meant by the poetry of motion. Everything Vera does is a
poem. Every frock she wears shows that she is a poet's daughter. And
now they are married, and are going to be utterly happy," concluded
Susie with conviction.

The world in general does not relish that idea of idyllic
happiness--especially in the case of multi-millionaires. It is
consoling--when one is not a millionaire--to think of some small
counterbalance to that overweening good luck, some little rift within
the lute.

A cynic, as cold and sour as the aspic he was eating, shrugged his
shoulders.

"If I had a daughter I was fond of, I don't think I would trust the
chances of her happiness to Claude Rutherford," he said quietly.

"Claude is quite adorable," said a fourteen-stone widow, whose opulent
shoulders and triple necklaces had been the central point of the public
gaze at the theatre that evening.

"Much too adorable to make one woman happy. A man of that kind has to
spread himself. It must be diffused light, not the concentrated glow
of the domestic hearth," said the cynic, smiling at the bubbles in his
glass.

Everybody found something to say about Vera and her husband. Certainly
their behaviour since Provana's death had been exemplary. They had
never been seen about together, at home or abroad. The house in
Portland Place had been closed, and the widow had lived in Italy,
a recluse, seeing no one. Half the time had been spent by Claude
Rutherford in Africa, hunting big game with a famous sportsman. The
other half in well-known studios in Antwerp and Paris. He had thrown
off his lazy, dilettante habits, and had gone in for art with a curious
renewal of energy. The man was altered somehow. His old acquaintance
discovered a change in him: a change for the better, most likely,
though they did not all think so.

And now he had attained the summit of mortal bliss, as possible to a
man of nine-and-thirty, who had wasted the morning of life. He had won
a lovely woman whom he was supposed to adore, and whose wealth ought to
be inexhaustible.

"However hard he tries, I don't see how he can run through such a
fortune as that," his friends said.

"That kind of quiet, unpretentious man has often a marvellous faculty
for getting rid of money," said another; "it oozes out of his pockets
without the labour of spending. Rutherford is sure to gamble. A man of
that temperament is too idle to find excitement for himself. He wants
it ready-made--at the baccarat table, or on the turf."

"Well, it will last him a few years, at the worst, and then he can go
into the Charter-house."

The idea of Claude Rutherford going to bed at ten o'clock in the
Charter-house made everybody laugh.

       *       *       *       *       *

The long interval of mourning and probation, of melancholy solitude on
Vera's part, and of forced occupation on Claude's, was over: and they
two, who in thought and feeling had been long one, were now united in
that closer bond which only death or sin can sever. In the intensity of
that union it seemed to them as if they had never lived asunder, as if
all of their existence that had gone before were no more than a long,
dull dream, the grey monotony of life that was less than life, hard and
mechanical even in its so-called pleasures.

"I never lived till now," she told him, when she was folded to his
heart, in their sumptuous alcove in the great room in Venice, in an
hotel that had been a palace, an alcove surrounded with a balustrade, a
bed that had been made for a king. "I never lived till now--for now I
know that nothing can part us. We belong to each other till death."

"If it were now to die 'twere now to be most happy," he murmured in a
low, impassioned voice that soothed her like music.

"And the past is dead," she whispered.

"The past is dead."

The voice that echoed her words had changed.

The winter moonlight sent a flood of cold light across the shining
floor, and the glow of burning logs on the hearth glimmered redly under
the sculptured arch of the Byzantine fireplace. It was a wonderful room
in a wonderful city. Vera had never been in Venice till this night,
when she stepped from the station quay into the black boat that was to
bring them to the hotel, man and maid and luggage following in a second
gondola. To most travellers so arriving, Venice must needs seem a dream
city; but to Vera all life had been a dream since she had stood before
the altar and heard Father Hammond's grave voice pronounce the words
that made her Claude's wife.

She had chosen Venice for their honeymoon, because it was the one
famous city in her beloved Italy in which she had never been with
Provana.

"It will be all new and strange," she told Claude, and then came the
unspoken thought. "He will not be there."

He had been with her in Rome, almost an inseparable companion, until
she had grown accustomed to the thought that he must be with her
always, wherever she went, an inseparable shadow; but with her marriage
the bond that held her to the past was broken, the shadow was lifted.
She was young again; young and thoughtless, living in the exquisite
hour, almost as happy as she had been when she was an impulsive,
light-hearted child of eleven, leaping on to her cousin's knee, and
nestling with her arms round his neck, while they watched the waves
racing towards the rock where they were sitting, she rather hoping that
the waters would rise round them and swallow them. That blue brightness
could hardly mean death. They would only become part of the sea--merman
and mermaid, children of the ocean. How much better than to return to
the dull lodgings, and Lidcott's harsh dominion!

That solitude of two in the loveliest city in Europe seemed altogether
of the stuff that dreams are made of. They kept no count of the days
and hours. They made no plan for to-morrow. They wandered along the
_calle_, and in and out of the churches, in a desultory and casual
way, looking at pictures and statues without any precise knowledge
of what they were seeing--only a dreamy delight in things that were
beautiful themselves, and which awakened ideas of beauty. They spent
idle days in their gondola going from island to island, musing among
the historic arches of Torcello, or sauntering along the sands of
the Lido. The winter was mild even in England, and here soft air and
sunshine suggested April rather than December. It was a delicious
world, and in the seclusion of a gondola, or in the half-light of a
church, they seemed to have this lovely world all to themselves. There
were very few strangers in Venice at this season, and the residents had
something more to do than to wander about the narrow _calle_, or loiter
and look at things in the churches, or the Doge's Palace. These two
were learning Venice by heart in those leisurely saunterings, a little
listless sometimes, as of people whose lives had come to a dead stop.

They never talked of the past, or only of that remote past when Vera
was a child, the time of childish happiness by the blue waves and dark
cliffs of North Devon. They talked very little of the future. Their
talk was of themselves, and of their love. They read Byron and Shelley
and Browning, and De Musset. They drank deep of the poetry that Venice
had inspired, until every stone in the City of Dreams seemed enchanted,
and every noble old mansion, given over perhaps now to commerce,
glass-blowers, and dealers in bric-à-brac, seemed a fairy palace.

They drained the cup of life and love. Claude forgot that he had ever
thought of the woollen gown and the hempen girdle; Vera forgot that
she had ever seen him, haggard and hollow-eyed, crouching over the
smouldering olive logs in the monastery on the Roman hill.

Early on their wedding journey, leaning against the side of the boat,
hand locked in hand, they had sworn to each other that all the past
should be forgotten. Come what, come might, in unknown Fate, they would
never remember.

And now they were going back to London in the gay spring season, and
Lady Susan Amphlett had another innings. It was delicious to be moving
about in a world where everybody wanted to know things that only she
could tell them.

"And are they really going to live in the house in Portland Place?"

"Really, really. Where could they get such rooms, such air and space?
And that old Italian furniture is priceless. There is nothing better
in the Doria Palace. It took the Provana family more than a century to
collect it--even with their wealth."

"Well, when I saw the painters at work outside I thought the house
must have been sold. This world seems full of strange people. How Vera
can reconcile herself to life in that house passes my comprehension.
I could understand her keeping the furniture; but to live inside
those four walls. I should fancy they were closing in upon me, like a
mediæval torture chamber."

"Vera is all poetry and imagination, but she is not morbid."

"Vera knows that we are in the midst of the unseen, and that our dead
are always near us," said a thrilling voice, and Lady Fanny Ransom's
dark eyes flashed across the table. "The house can make no difference
to her. If she loved her first husband she has not lost him."

"Nice for her, but not so pleasant for her second," murmured a
matter-of-fact K.C.

"She was utterly devoted to poor Provana," protested Susie, "but it was
the reverent looking-up kind of love that an innocent girl feels for
a man old enough to be her father. She has told me the story of their
courtship--so sweet--like Paul and Virginia."

"A middle-aged Paul! I thought Rutherford was the hero of the Paul and
Virginia chapter of her history."

"Oh, well, they were little lovers as children, and Vera and Claude are
the most ideal couple that ever the world has seen. They are going to
entertain in a sumptuous style. Their house will be the most popular in
London."

"In spite of its being the scene of an unsolved mystery and
undiscovered crime. That's the worst of it," said sour middle-age in a
garnet necklace. "For my part, I could never sleep a wink in that awful
house."

"Ah, but you'll be able to eat and drink in it," remarked Mr.
Hortentius, K.C., dryly. "We shall all dine there, if the dinners are
as good as they were in poor Provana's time."

Poor Provana! That was his epitaph in the world. On the marble tomb at
San Marco, to which the dead man had been carried--in remembrance of a
desire expressed in those distant days when he and Vera wandered in the
olive woods--there was nothing but his name, and one word: "Re-united."

Vera had been too ill and too much under the dominion of Lady
Okehampton to make the dismal journey with her dead; but she had gone
from Rome to San Marco, and had spent a melancholy hour in the secluded
corner where the cypress cast its long shadow on Guilia's tomb.

She had stood by the tomb in a kind of stupor, hardly conscious of
the present, lost in a long dream of the past, living again through
those bright April days, with father and daughter, and hearing again
the ineffable tenderness in Mario Provana's voice, as he talked to his
dying child. What an abyss of time since those sad, sweet days! And now
there was nothing left but a name--

                             MARIO PROVANA

--here, and in certain hospitals in London and Rome, where there were
wards or beds established in memory of Mario Provana.



CHAPTER XXII


Mrs. Rutherford was the fashion in that first year of her second
marriage, just as she had been in her London début as Madame Provana.
It seemed as if one of the fairies at her christening had given her
that inexpressible charm which captivates the crowd, that elusive,
indescribable attractiveness which for want of a better name people
have agreed to call magnetism. Vera Rutherford was a magnetic woman.
Mr. Symeon went about telling people that she had psychic attributes
which removed her worlds away from the normal woman, and Miranda, the
only, the inimitable dressmaker, told her patronesses that it was a
delight to work for Mrs. Rutherford, not because she was rich enough
to pay for the wildest flights in millinery, but because her pale,
ethereal beauty lent itself to all that was daring and original in the
dress-designer's art. "People preach to me about Mrs. Montressor's
lovely colouring, and what a joy it must be to invent frocks for her;
but those pink and white beauties are difficult," said the dressmaker.
"They require much study. A _nuance_, just the faintest _nuance_ on
the wrong side, and your pink and white woman looks vulgar. A wrong
shade of blue and the peach complexion becomes purple, but with Mrs.
Rutherford's alabaster skin every scheme of colour is possible."

Mrs. Rutherford was a social success, just as Madame Provana had been.
Her entertainments were as frequent and as sumptuous as in the old
days, when Mario Provana stalked like a stranger through crowded rooms
where hardly one face in twenty afforded him a moment's interest. The
entertainments were as sumptuous, but they were more original. The tone
was lighter, and gilded youth from the Embassies found the house more
amusing.

"Vera is ten years younger since her second marriage," Lady Susie told
people; "Claude aids and abets her in everything frivolous. She used
to be just a little too dreamy--Oh, you may call it 'side,' but that
it never was. But she is certainly more sociable now; more eagerly
interested in the things that interest other people. Claude has made
her forget that she is a poet's daughter. She is as keen as mustard
about their house and racing stables at Newmarket. She goes to all the
big cricket matches with him, things she never thought of in Provana's
time. They are not like commonplace husband and wife, but like boy and
girl lovers, pleased with everything. I don't wonder Mr. Symeon thinks
she has degenerated. He says she is losing her other-world look, and is
fast becoming a mere mortal."

"And as a mere mortal I hope she won't allow Rutherford to spend all
her money," said Susie's confidant, an iron-grey bachelor of fifty, who
spent the greater part of his life sitting in pretty women's pockets.
"A racing stud is a pretty deep pit for gold at the best; but a man
who has married a triple millionaire's widow may safely allow himself
one hobby. Rutherford goes in for too many things: his dirigible
balloons and his aeroplane, his racing cars and his motor launches: his
Ostend holiday, where people say he is hardly ever out of the gambling
rooms. Your friend had better keep an eye on her pass-book."

"Vera!" cried Susie, with uplifted eyebrows. "Vera look at a pass-book!"

"As a banker's widow she might be supposed to know that there are such
financial thermometers. She must have learnt something of business from
Provana."

"She never took the slightest interest in his business, and he was far
too noble to degrade her by talking of money."

"A pity," said the bachelor; "when a woman's husband is a great
financier he may want to talk about money; and his wife ought to be
interested in things that are of vital concern for him."

"That's a counsel of perfection," said Susie, "and very few women rise
to it. All I have ever known about my husband is that he is interested
in railways and insurance companies and things, and that when any of
them are going wrong I'd better not talk of my dressmaker's bills, or
let him see my pass-book."

"Then you know what a pass-book is."

"I have to," sighed Susie, "for my normal state is an overdrawn
account. I think the letters n.e. and n.s. are quite the horridest in
the alphabet."

"Yet you never ask a friend to help you out of a fix?"

"Not much; when it comes to that I shall make a mistake in measuring
my dose of chloral, and it will be 'poor Susan Amphlett, death by
misadventure'!"

Susan, who had never had adventures or "affairs" of her own, was a kind
of modern representative of the chorus in a Greek play, and was always
explaining people, more especially her bosom friends, of whom Vera was
the dearest. She was really fond of Vera, and there was no _arrière
pensée_ of envy and malice in her explanations. Her intense interest
in other people may perhaps be attributed to the fact that she hardly
ever opened a book--not even the novel of the season--and that her
knowledge of public events was derived solely from the talk at luncheon
tables.

Certainly it might be admitted, even by the malicious, that Claude and
Vera were an ideal couple. They outraged all modern custom in spending
the greater part of their lives in close companionship; he originating
all their amusements, and she keenly interested in everything he
originated.

They were happy, and they were continually telling each other how
happy. They always went back to the childish days at Disbrowe.

"I feel as if all that ever happened after that was blotted out," Vera
whispered, one sunlit afternoon, as they sat side by side among silken
cushions on the motor launch, while all the glory of the upper Thames
moved past them; "all between those summer days and these seems vague
and dim: even the long years with poor Grannie. The wailing about want
of money, the moaning over the things we had to do without, the people
she hated because they were rich; all those years and the years that
came after have gone down into the gulf of forgotten things. A dark
curtain, like a pall, has fallen upon the past; and we are living in
the present. We love each other, and we are together. That is enough,
Claude, is it not? That is enough."

"That is enough," he echoed, smiling up at her from his lower level
among the pillows. That heap of down pillows and his lounging attitude
among them seemed to epitomise the man and his life. "All the same, I
want Sinbad the Second to win the Leger."

"Ah, you always laugh at me," she cried, with a vexed air. "You can
never be serious."

"No, I can't," he answered, with a darkening brow, and a voice that was
as heavy as lead.

They were living upon the rapture of a consummated love: which is
something like a rich man living upon his capital. There comes a time
when he begins to ask himself how long it will last.

They had loved each other for years; first unconsciously, with a
divine innocence, at least on the woman's part, then consciously, and
with a vague sense of sin; and then, all obstacles being removed,
triumphantly; assured of the long future, in which nothing could part
them.

She repeated this often--in impassioned moments. "Nothing can part us.
Whatever Fate may bring we shall be together. There can be no more
parting."

He was not given to serious thoughts. He never had been. His one
irresistible charm had been his careless enjoyment of the present hour,
and indifference to all that might come after. He had never considered
the ultimate result of any action in his life. He left the Army with no
more thought than he left off a soiled glove! He threw up a painter's
art, and all its chances of delight and fame, the moment he found
discouragement and difficulty. He hated difficult things; he hated hard
work; he hated giving up anything he liked. His haunting idea of evil
was the dread of being bored.

Once Vera found herself making an involuntary comparison between the
dead man and the living.

If Claude had had a dying daughter whom he loved, could he have watched
her sink into her grave, and kept the secret of his sorrow, and smiled
at her while his heart was breaking? She knew he could not. He was a
creature of light and variable moods, of sunshine and fine weather. She
had loved him for his lightness. He had brought her relief from ennui
whenever he crossed her threshold; he had brought her gladness and gay
thoughts, as a man brings a bunch of June roses to his sweetheart.
And now that the past was done with, and that she was his for ever,
they were to be always glad and gay. There was to be no gloom in their
atmosphere, no long, dull pause in life to give time for dark thoughts.

"Everybody has something to be sorry for," Vera told Susan Amphlett;
"that's why people's existence is a perpetual rush. Niagara can have
no time to think--but imagine, if nature were alive, what long aching
thoughts there might be under the bosom of a great, smooth lake."

"You know, my darling Vera, I generally think everything you do
is perfect," Susan answered, more sensibly than her wont, "but, I
sometimes fear that you and Claude are burning the candle at both
ends. You are too much alive. You seem to be running a race with time.
Neither your health nor your beauty can last at the pace you are
going."

"I'll take my chance of that. There is one thing that I dread more than
being ill and growing ugly."

"What is that?"

"Living to be old."

"What, you've caught my fear?"

"I dread the long, slow years--the long, slow days and sleepless
nights--old people sleep very little--in which there is nothing but
thought, an endless-web of miserable thoughts, going slowly round and
round, never stopping, never changing. That's what I am afraid of,
Susie."

"Strange for you to be afraid of anything," her friend said
thoughtfully. "I think you are the most courageous woman I ever heard
of--as brave as Joan of Arc, or Charlotte Corday."

"Why?"

"Because you are not afraid to live in this house."

"Why not? What does the house matter?"

"It must make you think sometimes," faltered Susan.

"I won't think! But if I were to think of the past, the house would
make no difference. My thoughts would be the same in Mexico--or at the
North Pole. I have heard of people who go to the end of the earth to
forget things, but I should never do that. I should know that memory
would go with me."

       *       *       *       *       *

For three seasons in London, for three winters in Rome, the pace went
on, and was accelerated rather than slackened with the passing of
the years. Claude Rutherford won the Blue Ribbon of the turf, with
Sinbad the Second, and was equally fortunate with his boat at Cowes.
If he did not cross the Channel or fly from London to Liverpool, he
did at least make sundry costly excursions in the air, which kept his
name in the daily papers, and made his wife miserable, till, aviation
having resulted in boredom, he promised to content himself with the
substantial earth. After those three years this boy and girl couple
began to discover that they had done everything brilliant and exciting
that there was to be done; and the fever called living began to pall.

And now Susan Amphlett told people that Vera was killing herself, and
that her husband, though as passionately in love with her as ever he
had been, was selfish and thoughtless, and was spending her money, and
ruining her health, with the extravagances and agitations of a racing
stable that was on a scale he ought never to have allowed himself.

"After all, it is her money," said Susan, "and it's bad form on his
part to be so reckless."

"But as she has only a life interest in Provana's millions, and as her
trustees are some of the sharpest business men in London, Rutherford
can't do her much harm," said masculine common-sense, while feminine
malice was lifting its shoulders and eyebrows with doleful prognostics.

"Well, I suppose the money is all right," said Chorus, still inclined
to be tragic; "it's her health I'm afraid of. She's losing her high
spirits, her joy in everything, and she is getting out of touch with
her husband. She could hardly give him a smile when Blue Rose won the
Oaks. She sat in a corner of her box, looking the other way, while
that lovely animal was coming down the hill neck and neck with the
favourite, at a moment when any other woman would have been simply
frantic."

"She is not of the stuff that racing men's wives are made of,"
said Eustace Lyon, the poet. "No doubt she was worlds away--in
dreamland--and did not even know whose mare the bookies and the mob
were cheering."

"She was not like that two years ago," said Chorus. "She and Claude
were in such perfect sympathy that it was impossible for either of them
to have a joy that the other did not share. It was a case of two souls
with but a single thought."

"I can quite believe that, for I never gave C. R. credit for thinking,"
replied the poet.

       *       *       *       *       *

Satiety had come. It came in a day. The fatal day that comes to all the
favoured and the fortunate, and which never comes to the poor and the
unlucky. That evil at least is spared to Nature's stepchildren. They
never have too much of anything, except debt and difficulty. They never
yawn in each other's faces, and ask themselves where they can go for
the summer. They never turn over the leaves of a Continental Bradshaw
and complain that they are tired of everywhere.

It is the people who can go everywhere and have everything who find
the wide earth a garden run to seed, and feel the dust of the desert
in their mouths as they talk of the pleasure places that the herd long
for. This time had come for Vera, at the end of her third season as
Claude Rutherford's wife. He, the gay and the insouciant, was careless
still, but it was a new kind of carelessness: the carelessness that
comes from hating everything that an exhausted life can give.

They had fallen into the fashion of their friends of late, and were
more like the normal semi-detached couple than the boy and girl lovers
upon whose bliss Lady Susan had loved to expatiate.

When the Goodwood week came round in this third year with the
inexorable regularity that one finds in the events of the season, Vera
declared that she had had enough of Goodwood and would never go there
again.

"Of course, that won't prevent your being there," she said.

"Well, not exactly, when I have Iseult of Ireland in two races."

"Yes, of course, you must be there. I forgot."

"You seem always to forget my horses nowadays. Yet you were once so
keen about them."

"They were very interesting at first, poor, sweet things, but the
fonder I was of them, the more cruel it seemed to race them."

"You'd like them kept to look at, eh?"

"I should like to sit with them in their boxes, and feed them with
sugar, and make them lie down with their heads in my lap."

"A Lady Rarey!"

"I sometimes long for a paradise of animals, some lovely pastoral
valley with a silver stream winding through the deep grass, where I
might live among beautiful innocent creatures--sheep, and deer, and
Jersey cows, and great calm, cream-coloured oxen from the Campagna.
Creatures that can lie in the sun and bask, knowing nothing of the
past, feeling nothing but the warmth and beauty of the world; and where
I myself should have lost the faculty of thought."

"That's a queer fancy."

"I have many queer fancies. They come to me in my dreams."

"You'd much better come to Goodwood. All the world will be there, and
you'd like to see Iseult win. Haven't you enough frocks? Is that the
reason for not coming?"

"I have too many frocks, some that I have never worn."

"Hansel them at Lady Waterbury's. You'll be the prettiest woman there."

"It's dear of you to say that"--her eyes clouded as she spoke--"but I
can't go. I'm so tired of it all, Claude, so tired!"

"Do you suppose I am never tired of things? Sick, sick to death! but I
know that to be happy one must keep moving. That's a law of human life.
You'd better come, Vera. You'll be moped to extinction alone."

"I don't mind loneliness, and I shall have Susan part of the time, and
there will be a meeting in the Albany."

"De gustibus? Well, if you prefer Symeon and his spooks to a racecourse
in an old English park, there's nothing more to be said." He stooped to
kiss the pale forehead before he sauntered out of the room, yawning as
he went. He had always a tired air; but it had verily become a law of
his being to keep moving.

"Nemesis is like the policeman on night duty," he used to say. "She
won't let us lie in the dust and sleep. We must trudge on."

Trudging from one costly pleasure to another might not suggest hardship
to the loafer on the Embankment, but to a self-indulgent worldling who
has drained the cup of life to the dregs, that necessity of going on
drinking when there are only dregs to drink may seem hard to bear.



CHAPTER XXIII


Vera told her husband that she did not mind solitude; yet it was a face
of ashen whiteness that he left behind when he shut the door of her
dressing-room, after his hurried and cheerful good-bye on the first day
of the Goodwood meeting.

He was driving his sixty horse-power Daimler to Goodwood, steering for
himself, while the chauffeur sat behind ready for road repairs, or to
give a hand in carrying a corpse to the nearest hospital.

The speed limit was naturally disregarded, as the thing that Claude
wanted was excitement, the hazards of the road as they sped past hamlet
and farm, followed by the long, white dust-cloud that flashed across
the landscape like the fiery tail of a comet, while startled villagers
gaped, and wondered if a car had passed. Peril was the zest that made
the journey worth doing: to feel that his hand upon the wheel held life
at his disposal, and that any awkward turn in the road might bring him
sudden death.

He was gone, and Vera was alone in the gloomy London house--so much
more gloomy than the vast halls and galleries of the Roman villa,
where colossal windows let in vast spaces of blue sky. Here the
heavily-draped sashes admitted only a slit of sunshine, tempered by
London smoke.

She was alone, but she told herself that solitude did not matter. It
was not solitude that weighed upon her spirits as she roamed from room
to room in the emptiness and silence. It was the sense of _not_ being
alone that weighed upon her. It was the consciousness of a silent
presence--the invisible third who had come between her and her husband
of late--who had come back into her life. In the noontide of her love,
while passion reigned supreme, and the man she loved filled her world,
the shadow had been lifted from her path. She had seen all old things
dimly--dazzled by the glory of her life's sun. She had remembered
nothing, except her childish bliss with the boy who was to be her fate.
Her life began and ended in her husband; as it had begun and ended
in Claude Rutherford when he was only her friend and companion, the
light-hearted companion, whose presence meant happiness.

In the first two years of her second marriage she had been completely
absorbed in that transcendent love, and in the ceaseless round of
pleasures and excitements that her husband contrived for her, filling
her days and nights with emotional moments, with little social triumphs
and trivial ambitions.

Satiety came in an hour--or it may be that it came so slowly and so
gradually that there was an hour when Vera awoke to the consciousness
that she was tired of everything, that the earth with all its changing
loveliness, its surprises of mountain and lake, wood and river,
was but a sterile promontory, and the blue vault above Como only a
pestilent congregation of vapours. The suddenness of the revelation was
startling; but the not uncommon malady that afflicted the Prince of
Denmark had been eating her heart for a long time before she was aware
of its hold upon her. And with the coming of satiety, the distaste
for amusement, the distrust of love, came the shadow. Memory that had
been lulled asleep by the magic philtre of passion, awakened and was
alive again. She roamed the great, silent house, haunting with a morbid
preference those rooms that were particularly associated with the dead
man, that range of spacious rooms on the ground floor where nothing had
been altered since Mario Provana lived in them: his library, and the
severe, official-looking sitting-room adjoining, where he was often
closeted with his partners and allies, his head clerks and managers,
his business visitors from Vienna, Rome, Berlin, Madrid, New York.

When the drawing-rooms had been transformed by a gayer style of
decoration, more in harmony with Vera's frivolous entertainments,
Claude had been urgent that these ground-floor rooms should be
refurnished, and every trace of their severe, business-like aspect done
away with and even certain priceless old masters that Provana had been
proud of despatched with ruthless haste to Christie's sale room; but to
his astonishment Vera had told him that nothing was to be changed in
the rooms her husband had occupied--that all things touched or valued
by him were to be sacred.

For this reason, while approving Claude's plan of colour for the walls
and draperies and carpets in the drawing-rooms, she had insisted upon
retaining the Italian cabinets of ebony and ivory, and the Florentine
mosaic tables, the things that had been collected all over Italy a
century ago, in the beginning of the Provana riches.

And now, solitary and dejected, she moved restlessly from room to
room. Sometimes standing before one of the bookcases in the library,
looking along the titles of books that she had learnt to love, in those
far-off days before she had been launched by the Disbrowes--a frail
cockle-shell, spinning round and round in the Society whirlpool--while
she and her husband were still unfashionable enough to sit together
in the autumn twilight, or to spend _tête-à-tête_ evenings in this
solemn-looking room. His mind was with her there to-day, in the July
sunshine, as it had been in those evenings of the past, while he was
a living man. His remembered speech was in her ears to-day, grave and
earnest, telling her the things she loved to hear, widening her view of
life, opening the gate to new knowledge, the knowledge of authors she
had never heard of, the story of heroes and statesmen, philosophers and
poets, whose names had been only names till he made them living people,
people to be admired and loved. He had taught her to comprehend and
love Dante to appreciate the verse of Carducci, the prose of Manzoni.
He had taught her to revere Cavour, to adore St. Francis of Assisi,
to weep for Savonarola and Giordano Bruno. He had made Italy a land
of genius and valour, a land alive from the Alps to the Adriatic with
heroic memories. He had made her know and love the history of his
country, almost as he himself loved it.

And now his spirit filled the room in which the man had lived. His
shadow had come into the house that had been his, and had taken
possession of the place and of the atmosphere. Whatever might still
remain of the undisciplined love, the passion of unreasoning youth,
that she had given to her second husband, she could never again release
herself from that first marriage tie. It was the bond of death.

She went into the dining-room when luncheon was announced, carrying
a volume of Browning, and made some pretence of eating, with the book
open by the side of her plate, a proceeding upon which the butler
expatiated somewhat severely that afternoon as he lingered over tea in
the housekeeper's comfortable parlour.

"I don't know what's come over the Missus," he said, as he took an
unwelcome "stranger" out of his second cup, and parenthetically, "This
tea isn't what it was, Mrs. Manby. She don't eat enough for a tomtit,
let alone a sparrow--and she's falling back into that dreamy way she
was in when Provana was in America, and for a long time before that,
as you may remember; that time when it was always not at home to Mr.
Rutherford."

"She was trying to break with him," said Mrs. Manby. "I give her credit
for that."

"So you may, but that kind of trying was never known to answer, when
once they've begun to carry on," remarked Mr. Sedgewick; "I've watched
too many such cases not to know the inevitability of them," he added,
having picked up the modern jargon, more or less incorrectly.

       *       *       *       *       *

The long day wore on to the melancholy twilight, and Vera was dreading
the appearance of her maid to remind her that it was time to dress
for her solitary dinner. She had talked lightly of having Lady Susan
at her disposal, but she knew that her friend was at that very hour
contributing to the vivacity of one of the smartest of the Goodwood
house-parties, and would be so engaged till the end of the week. She
had thought, in her weariness of the mill-round, that solitude would be
better than the Society that had long become distasteful; but she found
that, in the melancholy hour between dog and wolf, the shadows in a
London house were full of fear, vague and shapeless fear, an oppression
that had neither form nor name, and that was infinitely worse than any
materialisation. She was standing by the window in her morning-room
looking down into the grey emptiness of the wide carriage way, where
no carriages were passing, and on pavements where unfashionable
pedestrians were moving quickly through a drizzling rain, when a
servant announced Father Hammond.

"Can you forgive me for calling at such an unorthodox time? I happened
to be passing your door, and as I have called several times at the
right hour and not found you, I thought I would try the wrong hour."

"No hour can be wrong that brings you," she said in a low voice, as
she gave him her hand; and the words sounded more sincere than such
speeches usually are.

"I am glad to hear you say as much, and I believe you. In the whirlpool
of frivolity a few serious moments may have the charm of contrast."

"I have done with the whirlpool."

"Tired of it? After only three years? There are some of my flock who
have been going round in the same witches' dance for a quarter of a
century, and are still in the crowd on the Brocken. I can but think you
have made the pace too fast since your second marriage, or perhaps it
is your husband who has made the pace."

"You must not think that. We both like the same things. We are
companions now as we were when I was a child at Disbrowe Park, and when
we were so happy together."

Her eyes filled with tears. Oh, how far away that time of innocent
gladness seemed, as she looked back! What an abyss yawned between then
and now.

"I have distressed you," the priest said gently, taking her hand.

"No, no, but it is always painful to look back."

Father Hammond drew her towards the sofa by the open window, and seated
himself at her side.

"Let us have a real friendly talk now I have been so lucky as to find
you alone," he said. "I am glad--very glad--that you are tired of the
whirlpool, for to be tired of a bad kind of life is the beginning
of a better kind of life. You know what I think of modern Society,
especially in its feminine aspect, and how I have grieved over the
women who were made for better things than the witches' dance. We have
talked of these things in your first husband's lifetime, but then
I thought you were taking your frivolous pleasures with a careless
indifference that showed your heart was not engaged in them, and that
you had a mind for higher things. Even your dabbling with Mr. Symeon's
quasi-supernatural philosophy was a sign of superiority. His disciples
are not the basest or most empty-headed among worldlings, though they
keep touch with the world. In those days you know I had hopes of you,
but since you have been Claude Rutherford's wife, I have seen you
given up to an insatiate love of pleasure, a headlong pursuit of every
new thing, the more extravagant and the more dangerous the more hotly
pursued by you and your husband; so that it has become a byword, 'If
the thing is to cost a fortune, and to risk a life, the Rutherfords
will be in it.'"

"Claude is impetuous, easily caught by novelty," she said
deprecatingly, with lowered eyelids.

"He was not always so impetuous, rather a loiterer, indifferent to all
strenuous pleasures, delighting in all that is best in literature,
and worshipping all that is best in art, though too idle to achieve
excellence even in the art he loved. But since his marriage--and
forgive me if I say since his command of your wealth--he has changed
and degenerated."

"You are not complimentary to his wife," Vera said, with a faint laugh.

"I am too much in earnest to be polite, but it is not your influence
that has done harm, it is your money--that fatal gold which has changed
the whole aspect of Society within the last thirty years, a change
that will continue from bad to worse as long as diamond mines and gold
mines are productive, and the inheritors of great names can smile at
the vulgarity of millionaires who 'do them well' and will give the open
hand of friendship to a host who to-morrow may be branded as a thief
What does it matter, if the thief has bought Lord Somebody's estate,
and shooting that is among the best in England?"

"Well, it is all done with now, as far as I am concerned," Vera said
wearily. "I used to go everywhere Claude liked to go. People laughed
at us for being inseparable; but I am sick to death of it all, and now
he must go to the fine houses alone. No doubt he will be all the more
welcome."

"Perhaps; but I did not come to talk of trivialities or to echo
hackneyed diatribes against a state of things so corrupt and evil that
its vices have become the staple of every preacher's discourses, cleric
or layman. I want to talk about you and your husband, not about the
world you live in. Since you have done with the whirlpool, there is
nothing to keep you from better influences. Will you let mine be the
hand to lead you along the passive way of light and love, the way that
leads to pardon and peace?"

Vera turned from him, trying to hide her agitation, but the feelings he
had awakened were too strong, and she let her head fall upon the arm of
the sofa, and gave herself up to a passion of tears.

"Pardon?" she gasped, amidst her sobs; "you know I need pardon?"

"We all need pity and pardon. No man's life is spotless, and the life
you and Claude have been living is a life of sin--aimless, sensual,
godless. I have had a wide experience of men, I have known the best and
the worst, and have seen the strange transmutations that may take place
in a man, under certain influences--how the sinner may become a saint,
and the saint fall into an abyss of sin--but I have never seen changes
so sudden and so inexplicable as those I have seen in your husband,
whom I have known, and I think I may say I have loved, from the time
when he began to have a will and a mind."

"I hope you do not blame me for his having left the monastery and come
back to the world."

"How can I blame you when his mother was the active agent? She is a
good woman, though a weak one, where her affections are engaged. She
was perfectly frank with me. She told me how you had refused to use
your influence to keep her son in the world, and she loved you because
she thought it was his love for you that made him abandon his purpose.
She rejoiced in his marriage, but I doubt if she has been any more
edified than I have been in watching the life you and her son have
been leading since then. No, I do not blame you for Claude's sudden
breakdown, but I deeply deplore that he should have turned back, since
I know that his resolution to have done with the world was a right
one--astounding as it seemed to me when I first heard of it. I urged
him against a step for which I thought him utterly unprepared. I did
not believe in his vocation, but after-consideration made me take a
different view of his case. I knew that such a man would never have
contemplated such a renunciation without so strong a reason that it was
my duty to encourage him in his sacrifice of the world rather than to
hold him back. I will say something more than this, Mrs. Rutherford,
I will tell you that if it was to make his peace with God that your
husband entered the Roman monastery, he lost all hope of peace when he
left it, and he will never know rest for his heart and his conscience
until he returns to the path that leads to the cloister."

"Claude is happy enough," Vera answered lightly. "He has so many
occupations and interests. He is not as tired of things as I am. But no
doubt I shall have to go on giving parties now and then, on Claude's
account. He is not tired of the maelstrom, and it would not please him
for me to drop out altogether, and to be talked about as eccentric, or
'not quite right.'"

She spoke with a weariness that moved the priest to pity. And then he
spoke to her--as he had sometimes spoken in the past--words that were
profoundly earnest, even eloquent, for what highly-educated man, or
even what uneducated man, can miss being eloquent when his faith is
deeply rooted and sincere, and his feelings are strongly moved?

He offered her the shelter of the Church, the only armour of defence
against the weariness and wickedness of life. He would have led her
in the passive way of light and love. He offered her the only certain
cure for that _Welt-Schmerz_ of which her husband had complained when
he wanted to end his life in a cloister. He had pleaded with her before
to-day, had tried to win her, years ago, when the pleasures of life had
still something of their first freshness. He had tried vainly then,
and his efforts were as vain now. She answered him coldly, almost
mechanically. Yes; it was true that she was tired of everything, as
Claude had been years ago, before their marriage, as he would be again
perhaps by and by. But the Church could not help her. If she were to
become a Roman Catholic it would only be in order to escape from the
world--to do as Claude had wished to do, and make an end of a life that
had lost all savour. But until she was prepared to take the veil she
would remain as she was--a believer, but not in formulas--a believer,
in the after-life and in the influencing minds, the purified souls that
had crossed the river.

"I see you prefer Mr. Symeon's religion of the day before yesterday to
that of the saints and martyrs of two thousand years," Cyprian Hammond
said in his coldest tones, as he rose to leave her. "You are as dark a
mystery as your husband is. God help you both, for I fear I cannot."

The grey darkness of a wet summer night was in the room as Vera rose to
ring the bell and switch on the lamps. The clear white light showed her
face drawn and pale, but very calm.

She held out both her hands to the priest.

"Forgive me," she said; "the day may come when I shall ask you to open
the convent door for me; but I am not ready yet."



CHAPTER XXIV


The Goodwood of that year was a brilliant meeting. The winners were the
horses that all the smart people wanted to win. The weather, with the
exception of that first rainy twilight, was perfect, and all the smart
frocks and hats spread themselves and unfolded their beauty to the sun,
like flowers in a garden by the Lake of Como.

Among the owners of winning horses Mr. Rutherford was conspicuous.

"You rich people are always lucky," said his friends. "You never buy
duffers, and you can afford to pay for talent. I don't suppose you make
much by your luck, but you have the glory of it."

The house in which Claude Rutherford was staying was one of the
smartest houses between Goodwood and Brighton, a house where there
were always to be found clever men and handsome women--musical people
and painting people, and even acting people--people who could sing and
people who could talk; women who shone by the splendour of physical
beauty, and women whose audacious wit made the delight of princes. It
was a house in which cards were a secondary consideration, but where
stakes were high and hours were late.

Lady Waterbury, the hostess, expressed poignant disappointment at
Vera's non-arrival.

"My poor little wife is completely run down," Claude told her. "She
was a rag this morning, and it would have been cruel to persuade her
to come with me, though I hated leaving her in London at this dismal
fag-end of the season. I thought her pal, Susan Amphlett, would have
spent most of the week with her, but I hear Lady Susie is at the
Saxemundhams'."

"Do you suppose Susie would miss a Goodwood--no, not for friendship,"
exclaimed Sir Joseph, the jovial host, one of the last of the private
bankers of London, coming of a family so long established in wealth
that he could look down upon new money. "Well, there is one of our
beauties ruled out. I don't know what we should do if we hadn't secured
Mrs. Bellenden."

"It was just as well to ask her this year," said his wife, with pinched
lips, "though it was Sir Joseph's idea, not mine. I doubt if the best
people will care about meeting her next season."

"What has Mrs. Bellenden done to risk her future status?" Claude asked,
and then, with his cynical smile. "Certainly she has committed the
unforgivable sin of being the handsomest woman in London, which is
quite enough to set all the other women against her."

"It isn't her beauty that is the crime, but the use she makes of it.
She has made more than one wife I know unhappy."

"And yet you ask her to your house?"

"Sir Joseph invites her. I only write the letter. So far she is just
possible; but if I have any knowledge of character, she will be quite
impossible before long."

"Let us make the most of her while her good days last," Claude said,
laughing. "I should like to make a sketch of her before the brand of
infamy is on her forehead. I have met her often, but my wife and she
have not become allies; and if she is a snare for husbands and a peril
for wives, it's rather lucky that Vera is not with me, for after a week
in this delightful house they must have become pals."

"I don't think proximity would make two such women friends," Lady
Waterbury replied severely. "Again, if I am any judge of character, I
should say that Vera and Mrs. Bellenden must be utterly unsympathetic."

"My wife and I have a friendly compact," said Sir Joseph. "She may
invite as many dowdy nieces and boring aunts as she likes, provided she
asks no troublesome questions about the pretty women I want her to ask,
and gives my nominees the best rooms."

"Poor Aunt Sophia had a mere dog-hole last Christmas," sighed Lady
Waterbury.

"Well, didn't she bring her dog?"

"Poor darling; she never goes anywhere without Ponto: and, of course,
she is a shade tiresome, and it is rather sweet of Joe to put up with
her. Mrs. Bellenden may pass this time."

"Did I hear somebody talking of me?" cried a crystal clear voice, and
a woman as lovely as a midsummer dawn came with swift step across the
velvet turf towards the stone bench where Claude Rutherford and his
host and hostess were seated.

They had strolled into the Italian garden, after an abundant tea that
had welcomed the first batch of guests, a meal at which Mrs. Bellenden
had not appeared, preferring to take tea in her dressing-room, while
she watched her maid unpack, and planned the week's campaign; the exact
occasion for every frock and hat being thought out as carefully as
the general in command of an army might consider the position of his
forces. It was to be a visit of five days and evenings, and none of
those expensive garments which the maid was shaking out and smoothing
down with lightly caressing fingers, was to be worn twice. All those
forces had to be reviewed. Not a silk stocking not a satin slipper
must be reported missing. Silken petticoats that rustled aggressively;
petticoats of muslin and lace that were as soft and noiseless as the
snow whose whiteness they imitated; fans, jewels, everything must be
put away in perfect condition, ready for a lady who sometimes left
herself the shortest possible time for an elaborate toilette, and yet
always contrived to appear with faultless finish.

And this evening, as she came sailing across the garden, having changed
her travelling clothes for a mauve muslin frock of such adorable
simplicity that a curate's wife might have tried to copy it with the
aid of a seamstress at eighteenpence a day, she was a vision of beauty
that any hostess might have been proud to number among her guests.

She took her seat between Sir Joseph and his wife with careless grace,
and held out her hand to Claude Rutherford without looking at him.

"Lady Waterbury told me that you and Mrs. Rutherford were to be here,"
she said. "Is she resting after her journey?"

"I am sorry to say she was not able to come with me."

"Not ill, I hope?"

"Not well enough for another Goodwood."

"The race weeks come round so quickly as one gets old," sighed Mrs.
Bellenden. "There seems hardly breathing time between the Two Thousand
and the Leger--and while one is thinking about where to go for the
winter, another year has begun and people are motoring to Newmarket for
the Craven."

"The story of our lives from year to year is rather like a
merry-go-round in a fair, but Mrs. Bellenden is too young to feel the
rush."

"Too young! I feel old, ages old. As old as Rider Haggard's Ayesha when
the spell was broken and the enchantress changed to a hag. But I am
sadly disappointed at not meeting your wife," she went on, turning the
wonderful eyes that people talked about with full power upon Claude.
"I wanted to meet her in a nice friendly house. We have only met in
crowds, and I believe she rather hates me."

"How can you imagine anything so impossible?"

"At any rate, she has given me no sign of liking, while I admire her
intensely. Francis Symeon has talked to me about her. I have had so
much of the world, the flesh, and the devil, that I want to know
something of a lady whom he calls one of his beautiful souls."

Upon this Mr. Rutherford had to say something polite, a something which
implied that his wife would be charmed to see more of the lovely Mrs.
Bellenden.

People talked of Mrs. Bellenden's beauty to her face. It was one of the
things which her own sex registered against her as a mark of bad style.
She might be ever so handsome, other women admitted, but she was the
worst possible style. A circus rider, promoted from the sawdust to a
Mayfair drawing-room, could hardly have been worse.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was not long since this woman had burst upon the world of London--a
revelation of physical loveliness.

    Then felt they, like some watcher of the skies,
    When a new planet swims into his ken.

There are planets and planets, as there are skies and skies. Assuredly
neither Uranus nor Neptune created a greater ferment in the world of
the wise than was made by Mrs. Bellenden's first season in the world of
the foolish.

The phrase "professional beauty" had been exploded, as vulgar and
stale, but the type remained under new names.

Mrs. Bellenden was simply the new beauty; invited everywhere; the star
of every fashionable week-end party, every smart dance or dinner.
Afternoon or evening--to hear divine music or to play ridiculous games;
to be instructed about radium, or to lose money and temper at bridge,
there could be no party really successful without Mrs. Bellenden.

Men looked round the flower-garden of picture hats with a disappointed
air if her eyes did not flash lovely lightning from under one of them.
Impetuous youths made a bee-line for her, and threaded the crowd with
relentless elbows, calmly ignoring their loves of last season and the
season before last.

"Men are absolute idiots about that woman," the last seasons told each
other. "No one has a look in where she is."

Mrs. Bellenden was a young widow, a widow of two years' widowhood, the
first of which it was whispered she had spent in a private lunatic
asylum.

"That's where she got her complexion," said Malice. "It was just as
good as a year's rest in a nursing home."

"And a strait-waistcoat. That's where she got her figure," said Envy.

She was now six-and-twenty, a widow, living in a small house in a
narrow street like the neck of a bottle, between Park Lane and South
Audley Street, with an income of two thousand a year, but popularly
reputed to be spending at least five thousand. Her reputation in her
first season had been unassailed, but she was rather taken upon trust,
on the strength of the houses where she was met, than by reason of
any exact knowledge that people had of her character and environment.
Good-natured friends declared that she was thoroughbred. A creature
with such exquisite hands and feet, and such a patrician turn of the
swan-like throat, could hardly have come out of the gutter; and her
husband had belonged to one of the oldest families in Wessex. So in
that first season, except among her rivals in the beauty show, the
general tone about her was approval.

Then, in her second year as the lovely widow, things began to leak out,
unpleasant things--as to the men she knew, and the money she spent,
the hours she kept in that snug little house in Brown Street; the
places at which she was seen in London and Paris, chiefly in Paris,
where people pretended that she had a _pied-à-terre_ in the new quarter
beyond St. Geneviève. People talked, but nothing was positively stated,
except that she did curious things, and was beginning to be regarded
somewhat shyly by prudish hostesses. She still went to a great many
houses--smart houses and rich houses; but not quite the best houses,
not the houses that can give a _cachet_, and stop the mouth of slander.

She gave little luncheons, little dinners, little suppers, in the
little street out of Park Lane, and her lamp-lit drawing-room used
to shine across the street in the small hours, as a token that there
were talk and laughter and cards and music in the gay little room for
_tout le monde_, or at least for her particular _monde_. She had a fine
contralto voice, and sang French and Spanish ballads delightfully,
could breathe such fire and passion into a song that the merest
doggerel seemed inspired.

But before this second season was over there were a few people in
London who had dreadful things to say about Mrs. Bellenden, and who
said them with infinite cruelty; people for whose belongings--son or
daughter, foolish youth or confiding young wife--this lovely widow had
been a scourge.

Looking at the radiant being people did not always remember, and
some people did not know, the tragedy of her youth. She had been a
good woman once, quite good, a model wife. She had married, before
her eighteenth birthday, a husband she adored. A creature of intense
vitality, made of fire and light, sense and not mind, love with her
had been a flame; unwise, unreasoning, exacting; love without thought;
wildly adoring, wildly jealous. A word, a look given to another woman
set her raging; and it was after one of the fierce quarrels that her
jealous temper made only too frequent that her husband--handsome, gay,
in the flower of his youth--left her without the goodbye kiss, for his
last ride. He was brought back to her in the winter twilight, without a
word of warning, killed at the last ditch in a point-to-point race, a
race that was always remembered as the finest of many seasons; perhaps
all the more vividly remembered because of that tragedy just before the
finish, when Jim Bellenden broke his neck.

For some time after that dreadful night Kate Bellenden was under
restraint; and then, after nearly a year, in which none but near
relations had seen her or had even known where she was, she came back
to the world; not quite sane, and desperately wicked. That small brain
of hers had not been large enough to hold a great grief. Satan had
taken possession of a mind that had never been rightly balanced.

"I have done with love," she told her _âme damnée_. She had always her
shadow and confidante, upon whom she lavished gifts and indulgences. "I
can never love anybody after _him_: but I like to be loved, and I like
to make it hard for my lovers."

And then, in still wickeder moods, she would say, "I like to steal a
woman's husband, or to cut in between an engaged girl and the man she
is to marry. I like to make another woman as desolate as I was after
Jim was killed, but I can't make her quite as miserable. I am not
Death. But," with a little exulting laugh, "I am almost as bad."

There were people--a mother, a sister, or a wife--here and there in the
crowd we call Society, who thought Mrs. Bellenden worse than Death;
people who knew the fortunes she had wasted, the houses she had ruined,
the hearts she had broken, the careers she had blighted, and the souls
that had been lost for her.



CHAPTER XXV


Finding Claude Rutherford the most agreeable person in a house full of
people, Mrs. Bellenden took possession of him on the first evening--not
with any obvious devices or allurements, but coolly and calmly,
just as she possessed herself of the most becoming arm-chair in the
drawing-room, with such an air of distinct appropriation that other
women avoided it.

"You seem to be the only amusing person here," she said, as he came to
her side after dinner. "Isn't it strange that in so small a party there
should be such a prodigious amount of dullness?"

"Have you sampled all the people? There is Mr. Fitzallan over there,
talking to Lady Waterbury, a musical genius, who sets Shakespeare's
sonnets and Heine's ballads deliciously, and sings them delightfully.
You can't call him dull."

"Not while he is singing--but I have heard all his songs."

"Ask him to sing presently, and you will find he has brought a new
batch. Then there is Eustace Lyon, the poet."

Mrs. Bellenden smiled.

"Do you know what they say of him?" she asked.

"Who can remember half the things people say of a genius who lays
himself out to be talked about?"

"People are impertinent enough to say that he invented _me_."

"That is to make him equal to Jove, nay, superior, for it was only
incarnate wisdom--not surpassing beauty--that came from the brain of
the Thunderer."

"I believe he did rave about me the year before last, when I set up
house in London--went about talking idiotically--called me 'a soothing
gem,' and a hundred other ridiculous names."

"But you didn't mind? You bear no malice."

"No, he and I are always chums. I rather liked being advertised."

"Gratis?"

"Of course. I treat him rather worse than my butler, but I admire his
genius, and I let him sit on the carpet and read his poems to me,
before they go to the printer."

The poet joined them presently, stalking across the room, a tall, slim
figure, with a pale, lank face and long hair.

The composer joined the group five minutes afterwards, and Mrs.
Bellenden, having appropriated the only interesting men in the party,
sank farther back in her deep chair, slowly fanning herself with her
large white ostrich fan, and, as it were, withdrawing her beauty from
circulation.

Other women might affect a little fan, but Kate Bellenden knew the
value of a large one, when there is a perfect arm with a hoop of
Brazilian diamonds to be displayed.

"I am only one of three," Claude said later in the week, when one of
the men chaffed him about Mrs. Bellenden's favours. "She is a _tête de
linotte_, and at her best in a quartette. One would soon come to the
end of one's resources as an amusing person in a _tête-à-tête_."

He told himself that this peerless beauty might soon become a bore;
and he thought how much peerless loveliness there must have been
in the Royal Preacher's palace at the very time he was writing
Ecclesiastes: but all the same he found that Mrs. Bellenden's
conversation--empty-headed as it might be--gave a gusto to his days
and nights during that Goodwood week. Their trivial talk was pleasant
from its very foolishness. It was conversation without disturbing
thought. There were no flashlights of memory to bring sudden sadness. A
good deal of their talk was sheer nonsense--of no more value than the
dialogue in a musical comedy--but it was a relief to talk nonsense, to
laugh at bad puns, and to ridicule the serious side of life. Claude
gave himself up to the mood of the moment, and was at his best: the
irresponsible trifler, the mocker at solemn things, who had once been
the desire of every hostess; the light, airy jester, to keep the table
in a roar, the insidious flirt and flatterer, to amuse women after
dinner.

People told each other that Rutherford was quite in his old form.
He had become horribly _blasé_ and _distrait_ of late, as if all the
sparkle had gone out of him under the weight of his wife's gold.

"I don't believe a millionaire can be happy," said the poet.
"Rutherford has been deteriorating ever since his marriage. He rushes
about doing things; racing, ballooning, flying, acting, hunting,
shooting; perpetual motion without gaiety. He was twice the man when he
was loafing about the world on fifteen hundred a year."

"He is one of those men whom marriage always spoils," replied the
painter. "A chameleon soul that ought never to have worn fetters. To
chain such a creature to a wife is as bad as caging a skylark. If he
can't soar, he can't sing."

"I take it he will soon be out of the cage. He has done two years of
the married lover's business, and we shall see him presently as the
emancipated husband."



CHAPTER XXVI


Mr. and Mrs. Rutherford were to winter in Rome, but there was the
autumn still to be disposed of. Neither of them wanted Marienbad. They
knew the place inside out, and hated it; and after wasting half an hour
at the breakfast-table turning over a Continental Bradshaw, they had
only arrived more certainly at the conviction that they were tired of
everywhere.

The whole system of continental travelling was weariness and monotony:
the race to Dover through the freshness of morning, the race across
sunlit waves to Calais, the hurried luncheon in the station, and the
three hours' run to Paris, the huge Gare du Nord, with its turmoil of
blue blouses and loaded barrows; the long drive to the hotel, and the
early start in the Rapide for the South: or the Engadine express, with
the night journey through pine woods, and the rather weary awakening
at Lucerne, and then on to Locarno and the great lake. It had been
delicious while it was new, and while it was new for these two to be
together, wedded and inseparable for evermore. But all the tracks that
had been new were old now; and though they were lovers still, something
had come between them that darkened love.

"Tyrol, Engadine, Courmayeur? No," said Vera, throwing Bradshaw aside.
"No, no, no. The hotels are all alike, and they make the scenery seem
the same. If one could be adventurous, if one could stop at strange
inns, where one need never hear an English voice, it would be better.
But it is always the same hotel, the same rooms, and the same waiters,
and the same food."

"A little better or a little worse; generally worse," assented Claude.

"I have had a letter from Aunt Mildred this morning. She wants us to
spend August at Disbrowe."

"Would you like it?" he asked.

"Like it?" she echoed, with her eyes clouding, and a catch in her
voice; and then she started up from her seat and came to her husband,
and put her hand upon his shoulder.

"I think we have been getting rather modern of late, Claude," she said
in a low voice, "rather semi-detached. Disbrowe would bring us nearer
together again. We should remember the old days."

"Disbrowe, by all means, then," he answered gaily.

"We must never drift apart, Claude," she went on earnestly, with
something of tragedy in her voice, which trembled a little as she crept
closer to him. "Remember, we have nothing but our love, nothing else
between us and despair."

"Don't be tragic, Vera," he said quickly. "Disbrowe, by all means.
Let us play at being boy and girl again. Let us do daring things on
Okehampton's twopenny-halfpenny yacht, and ride horses that other
people are afraid to handle. Let us put fire into the embers of the
past. I suppose your aunt will have a few amusing people. It won't be
the vicar and his wife and sister-in-law every night, and the curate at
luncheon every other day."

"She will have all sorts and conditions, but that doesn't matter. I
want to be with you in the place where we were so happy."

"You want to fall in love with me again? Well, it was time," he said,
half gaily and half sadly; but with always the air of a man who means
to take life easily.

August was August that year, and Disbrowe was at its best. The great
red cliffs, the azure and emerald sea had the colour and the glory that
had made North Devon fairyland for the child Vera in her one blissful
summer.

Other children, as they grew up, had a succession of delicious summers
to look back upon, and could make comparisons, and wonder which was
happiest; but Vera had only one season of surpassing joy to remember.
She remembered it now, and contrived to draw a thick curtain over all
other memories.

Aunt Mildred was full of compliments.

"This air evidently suits you, child," she said, when her niece had
been with her a week. "You look ten years younger than when I saw you
last in London."

       *       *       *       *       *

These two who had begun to be tired of each other were lovers
again--and even memory was kind--even memory, the slow torture of
thoughtful minds. They recalled the joys of fifteen years ago; and the
joys of to-day were almost the same. Instead of the thirteen two barb
there were half a dozen hunters--thoroughbreds of fine quality, the
disappointments of Claude's racing stud--instead of the dinghy there
was Okehampton's forty-ton cutter, a rakish craft that had begun life
at Cowes, another disappointment. There was the sea, and there was the
moorland, and there were the patches of wood on the skirts of the park,
that had seemed boundless forests to Vera in her twelfth year. Her
twelfth year? She remembered Claude's affected contempt for her youth.

"Why, you are only a dozen--and not a round dozen, only eleven and a
half. No wonder your cousins in the school-room look down upon you. If
there were still a nursery, you would be there, sitting on a high chair
at tea, your cheeks smeared with jam, and a bib tied under your chin."

She remembered all his foolish speeches now, and what serious insults
they had seemed to her, or to the child that she had once been--that
innocent child whose identity with herself was so hard to believe.

They were happy again, they were lovers again. Here they could say to
each other, "Do you remember?" Here memory was a gentle nymph, and not
an avenging fury.

For Vera, who had hunted with her husband every year since their
marriage, a season at Grantham, a season in the Shires, and two winters
in the Campagna, it might seem a small thing to ride with Claude and a
handful of squireens and farmers rattling up the cubs in the woods, yet
she found it pleasant to rise before the dawn, and creep through the
silent house and out into the crisp morning air, and to spring on to a
horse that seemed to skim the ground in an ecstasy of motion. Flying
could hardly be better than to sit on this light, leaping creature, and
see the dewy wood rush by, and the startled rabbits flash across the
path; or to be lifted into the air as the thoroughbred stood on end at
the whirr and rush of a pheasant.

A discarded racer was scarcely the best mount for pottering about
after the cubs; but the pursuit of pleasure, that was always a synonym
for excitement, had made Vera a fine horsewoman, and she loved the
surprises that a light-hearted four-year-old can give his rider; and
when the last cub had been slaughtered, to gratify Mr. Somebody's
hounds, Claude and Vera had to ride to please their horses, and there
was a spice of danger in the tearing gallop across great stretches
of pasture, where the green sward sloped upward or downward to the
crumbling edge of the red cliffs, and where they saw the wide, blue
floor of the sea, and the dim outline of the Welsh coast.

One morning, when they were riding shoulder to shoulder, at a wilder
pace than usual, and when Vera's horse was doing his best to get
absolute possession of his bridle, she turned with a light laugh to her
husband.

"Isn't this delicious?" she asked breathlessly, thrilled by the
freshness of the air and the rapture of the pace. "Would you mind if we
were not able to stop them on this side of the sea?"

"Would I mind?" he echoed, looking at her with his careless smile,
the smile in which there was often a touch of mockery. "Not I, my
love. It wouldn't be half a bad end, to finish one's last ride in a
headlong plunge over the cliff--to know none of the gruesome details of
dissolution--nothing but a sense of being hurled through bright air,
forty fathoms deep into bright water. All the same, I don't mean these
brutes to have their own way," he concluded in his most matter-of-fact
tone, with his hand upon Ganymede's bridle.

They turned their horses, and trotted quietly home, Vera pale and
somewhat shaken by the excitement of the long gallop. They were near
the end of their country holiday, and they were to part at the end of
the week, Claude to spend a fortnight at Newmarket, Vera to start alone
for Italy, stopping here and there for a few days, on her way to her
Roman villa, where Claude was to join her, bringing his hunters with
him, not these light thoroughbreds, but horses of coarser quality and
more experience, fitter for the rough work of the Campagna.

It had been Vera's own fancy to revisit familiar places in Italy.
Claude had been urgent with her to abandon the idea, but she would not
listen to him.

"I want to see San Marco, where I lived so long with Grannie; when we
were poor and shabby--such a humdrum life. I sometimes wonder how I
could bear it?"

"Poor child! It was hard lines for you. But why conjure up the memory
of things that were sad? Looking back is always a mistake. Looking back
at the old worn-out things, going back to long-trodden paths! Nobody
can afford to do that. _Plus ultra_ is my motto. In Rome there will be
plenty for us to do. We must make our third winter more astounding than
either of the other two. I know lots of people who are to be there, all
sorts of big pots, pretty women, scribblers, painters, soldiers. You
will have to invent new features for your evenings, new combinations of
all kinds, and you must cultivate the new lights. When the season is
over people must go about saying that Mrs. Rutherford has made Rome."

Vera looked at her husband curiously. How shallow he was, after all,
how trivial! There were moments when her heart felt frozen, dreadful
moments of disenchantment in which the man she had loved seemed to
change and become a stranger; moments when she asked herself with a
sudden wonder why she had ever loved him.

These were but flashes of disillusion. A touch of tenderness, a thought
of all they had been to each other, and her bitter need of his love,
made her again his slave. From the hour when he surrendered his chance
of redemption, and came to her in her Roman garden, came to claim her
with passionate words of love, he had been something more than her
lover and her husband. He had been her master, ruling her life even in
its trivialities, with a mind so shallow that it could find delight in
details, leading and directing her in an existence where there was to
be no room for thought.

He had planned their days at Disbrowe so that there should be no margin
for ennui. When they were not riding they were on the yacht racing
round the coast to Boscastle or Padstow: or they were playing tennis or
croquet with the house-party, creating an atmosphere of excitement.

They parted at Disbrowe, Claude leaving for Newmarket; and they were
not to meet till November, when he was to find Vera established in the
Roman villa. All gaiety and excitement seemed to have left her with
him, and Aunt Mildred remarked the change.

"You ought to have gone to Newmarket with your husband," she said,
"though I have always thought it a horrid place for women, a place
where they think of nothing but horses, and talk nothing but racing
slang, and are as full of their bets as professional book-makers. I
hate horsey women; but you and Claude are such a romantic couple, that
it seems a pity you should ever be separated."

"Romance cannot last for ever, my dear aunt. We have been married
nearly three years. It is time we became like other people. I have
just your feeling about Newmarket. I was keen about the stud for the
first year or two, petting the horses, and watching their gallops in
the early mornings; and then it began to seem childish to care so much
about them; and whether they won or lost it was the same thing over and
over again. The trainer and his boys said just the same things about
every success and every defeat. The crack jockeys were all the same,
and I hardly knew one from another. I still love the horses for their
own sake; and I am miserable if any of them are sold into bondage. But
I am sick to death of the whole business."

There was a fortnight to spare before Vera was to start for Italy, and
Lady Okehampton wanted her to stay at Disbrowe till a day or two before
she left England.

"Portland Place will be awfully _triste_," she said; "I cannot see why
you should go and bury yourself alive there for a fortnight."

Vera pleaded preparations--clothes to order for the winter.

"Surely not in London, when you can stop in Paris and get all you want."

There were other things to be done, arrangements to be made, Vera
told her aunt. A certain portion of the staff was to start for Rome,
by direct and rapid journeying, while she, with only her maid and a
footman, was to travel by easy stages along the Riviera.

Lady Okehampton was rather melancholy in the last hour she and her
niece spent together in her morning-room.

"I'm afraid the pace at which you and Claude are taking life must wear
you out before long," she said. "You are never quiet; always rushing
from one thing to another; even here, where I wanted you to come for
absolute rest, just to dawdle about the gardens, and doze in a hammock
all the afternoon, with a quiet evening's bridge. But you have given
yourself no more rest here than in London. Okehampton told me the way
you tore about on those ungovernable horses, miles and miles away over
the moor, while other people were jogging after the hounds, or waiting
about in the lanes. He said it was not cubbing, but skylarking; and the
skipper complained that Mr. Rutherford insisted on sailing the yacht
in the teeth of a dangerous gale. 'He's the generousest gentleman I've
ever been out with,' old Peter said, 'but he's the recklessest; and I
wouldn't give twopence for his chance of making old bones.'"

"Poor old Peter," sighed Vera. "We often had a squabble with him--what
he called a stand-further. He's a conscientious old dear, and a fine
sailor; but he would never have found the shortest way to India."

"You wanted rest, Vera; but instead of resting, you have done all the
most tiring things you could invent for yourself."

"Claude is the inventor, not I. And it is good for me to be tired; to
lie down with weary limbs and fall into a dreamless sleep or into a
sleep where the dreams are sweet, and bring back lost things."

"I should not say all this, if I were not anxious about your health,"
Aunt Mildred continued gravely. "You look well and brilliant at night,
but your morning face sometimes frightens me; and you are woefully
thin, a mere shadow. It is all very well for people to call you
ethereal, but I don't want to see you wasting away."

"There is nothing the matter. I was always thin. I have a little cough
that sometimes worries me at night, but that has been much better since
I came here."

"You ought to take care of your health, Vera. You have a great
responsibility."

"How do you mean?"

"Have you ever thought of those who have to come after you? Do you ever
consider that your splendid fortune dies with you, and that your power
to help those members of our family who need help--alas, too many of
them--depends upon your enjoying a long life."

"My dear aunt, I cannot promise to spin out a tedious existence in
order to find money for poor relations."

"That remark is not quite nice from you, Vera. You yourself began life
as a poor relation."

"I have not forgotten, and I have given my needy cousins a good deal of
money since I have been rich; and, of course, I shall go on doing so."

"As your aunt, and the most attached of all your own people, I must ask
a delicate question, Vera. Have you made your will?"

Lady Okehampton asked this question with such a thrilling awfulness,
that it sounded like a sentence of death.

"No, aunt. Why should I make a will? I have nothing to leave. You know
I have only a life interest in the Provana estate."

"Nothing to leave! But your accumulations? Your surplus income?"

"I don't think I can have any surplus. Claude and I have spent money
freely, at home and abroad; and I have given large sums for the
foundation of a hospital in Rome, in memory of Mario and his daughter.
Claude manages everything for me. I have never asked him whether there
was any money left at the end of the year."

"And of that colossal income--which you have enjoyed for five
years--you have nothing left? It is horrible to think of. What mad
waste, what incredible extravagance there must have been. You ought
not to have left everything in Claude's hands. Such a careless,
happy-go-lucky fellow ought never to have had the sole management of
your immense income. It would make Signor Provana turn in his grave to
know that his wealth has been wasted."

"He would not care. We never cared for money."

"Nothing left at the year's end, nothing of that stupendous wealth! It
is monstrous!"

"Don't agitate yourself, dear Aunt Mildred. There may have been a
surplus every year. I never asked Claude whether there was or not. But
I shall always be rich enough to help my poor relations."

There was no time for further remonstrance. Aunt Mildred parted from
her niece with more sighs than kisses, though those were many.

She perused the sweet, pale face with earnest scrutiny, for she thought
she saw the mark of doom on the forehead where the lines were deeper
than they should have been on the sunny side of thirty. She remembered
the short-lived mother, the consumptive father.

       *       *       *       *       *

Vera sat in a corner of the reserved compartment and read Browning's
"Christmas Eve" all though the swift journey from the red cliffs of
North Devon and the wide, blue sky to the grey dullness of a London
twilight. It was a poem which she read again and again, which she knew
by heart. It lifted her out of herself. She felt as if she were out
in the winter darkness on the wind-swept common, as if her hands were
clutching the edge of the Divine raiment. Was not that sublime vision
something more than a dream in a stuffy Methodist chapel?

Were there not moments in life when earth touched heaven, when Divine
compassion was something more real than the words in a book; when
Christ the Redeemer came within reach of the sinner, and when Faith
became certainty? Nothing less than this, nothing but the assurance of
a Living God, could lift the despairing soul out of the abyss.

The house to which she was returning was a house of fear, and in spite
of all she had said to her aunt, she knew that there was no necessity
for her return. The rich man's widow had nothing to do that a telegram
to her housekeeper would not have done for her. But the house drew her
somehow. She had a morbid longing to be there, alone in the silence and
emptiness of unused rooms, without Claude, whose presence jarred in
rooms where another figure was still master.

She found all things in perfect order, no speck of dust in the
rooms on the ground floor, her morning-room brilliant with Japanese
chrysanthemums. She went to the library after her solitary dinner. The
evening was cold, and fires were burning in all the rooms. She drew a
low chair to the hearth, and sat brooding over the smouldering cedar
logs, perhaps one of the loneliest women in London; and yet not quite
alone, since nothing that had happened in her futile life of the last
years had shaken her belief in Mr. Symeon's creed, and she felt that
the dead were near her.

Giulia, who had loved her, Giulia, the happy soul who had known neither
sin nor sorrow, the yearning of unsatisfied love, or the seething fires
of guilty passion. Giulia's gentle spirit had been with her of late,
the spirit of her only girl friend, and she had lived over again the
tranquil hours at San Marco, the talk of books that had opened a new
world to her, Giulia having read so much and she so little. Father and
daughter had opened the gates of that new world for her. It was from
them that the poet's daughter had learnt to understand and love all
that is highest in the poetry of the world.

"If Giulia had lived," she thought to-night, as she crouched over the
lonely hearth, sitting in that low chair in which she used to sit,
as it were, at her husband's feet, sometimes in the dreamy twilight
letting her drooping head rest upon his knee, while his hand hovered
caressingly over the blonde hair.

Had Giulia lived, would everything have been different? Would Mario
have loved and married her, and would they three have lived in a
trinity of love? It seemed to her that Giulia would have been a
hallowing influence. They two would have been like sisters, loving and
understanding the man who loved them both. No cloud of jealousy could
have come between them; all would have been sympathy and understanding.
That wall of separation which had risen up between her and her husband
would never have been. Neither pride on her part nor distrust upon his
part would have killed love. Giulia would have sympathised with both;
and her love would have kept them united.

She mused long upon the life that might have been, the life without
a cloud. She thought with longing of the girl who had died sinless,
in the morning of an unsullied life. Was not such a life, wrapped
round with love, and free from the shadow of sin--such a death, before
satiety had come to change the gold to dross--the happiest fate that
God could give to His chosen?

"And to think that I was sorry for her, that I pitied her for being
taken from such a beautiful world, from such a devoted father. How
could I know that Death was the only security from sin?"

She sat long in that melancholy reverie, only rousing herself and
taking up a book from the table at her side, when she heard the door
opening, and a servant came in to put fresh logs on the fire.

She told the man that her maid, Louison, was not to sit up for her.
Nobody was to sit up. She would not be going upstairs for some time.
She wanted nothing, and she would switch off the lights.

In a house lighted by electricity the lights were of very little
consequence. The footman took elaborate pains with the fire, piling
up the logs, and arranging the large brass guard that fenced the
hearth, and then retired with ghostly step to remote regions, where
his fellows were lingering over the supper-table, some of them talking
of the journey to Rome, and those who were to remain in charge of the
house complaining of the dullness of a long winter, and the low figure
of board wages, which had remained more or less stationary, while
everything else was going up by leaps and bounds.

"I'd leap and bound you, if I had my way," said Mr. Sedgewick; "a pack
of lazy trash. If I were Mr. Rutherford, I should put a policeman and
a bull dog into the house, and lock it up till next May. You that are
left have a deal too soft a time, while we that go have to work like
galley slaves. Three parties a week, and a pack of Italian savages to
keep up to the mark; fellows who are more used to daggers and stilettos
than to soap and water, better for a brigand's cave than a high-class
pantry, and who think nothing of quarrelling and threatening to murder
each other in the middle of a dinner-party. There's no sense in a mixed
staff. My pantry was a regular pandemonium last Christmas, and I wished
myself back in sooty old London."

Mrs. Manby was to stay in Portland Place, mistress of the silent house,
with one footman, two housemaids to sweep and dust, and a kitchen wench
to cook for her. She had saved money, and was independent and even
haughty.

"When I go to Italy it will be to the Riviera, for my health, and I
shall go as a lady," she told Sedgewick, who, notwithstanding his
abhorrence of Roman footmen, liked his winter in Rome, as a period that
afforded better pickings than even a London season, Italian tradesmen
being more amenable than London purveyors, who had been harassed and
bound of late by grandmotherly legislation.

Supper had been finished in "hall" and housekeeper's parlour long
before Vera left the library. It was after midnight when a sudden
shivering, a vague horror of the silence came upon her, and she rose
from her low chair in front of the dying fire and began to wander from
room to room. The last of the logs had dropped into grey ashes in the
library, and all other fires had gone out. The formal room, with large,
official-looking chairs and severe office desk, where Mario Provana had
received formal visitors, was the abode of gloom in this dead hour of
the night: and yet it was not empty. The sound of the dead man's voice
was in the room, the voice of command--so strong, so stern in those
grave discussions which Vera had often overheard through the half-open
door of the library, in the days when she had shared her husband's
life--before fashion and Disbrowes had parted them.

His image was in the room, the massive figure, the commanding height,
the broad shoulders, a little bent, as if with the weight of the noble
head they had to carry. He was standing in front of his desk, facing
those other men with the grave look she knew so well--courteous,
serious, resolute--and then slowly, with a movement of weariness at the
conclusion of an interview, he sank into the spacious arm-chair. She
saw him to-night as she had seen him often, watching through the open
door, while she was waiting for the business people to go, and for him
to join her for their afternoon drive.

What ages ago--those tranquil days in which they had driven together
in the summer afternoons--not the dull circuit of the Park, but to
Hampton Court, or Wimbledon, or Richmond, or Esher, escaping from the
suburban flower-gardens to green fields and rural commons, glimpses
of woodland even, in the country about Claremont. Their airings were
no swift rushes in thirty horse-power car, but a leisurely progress
behind a pair of priceless horses, with time for seeing wild roses and
honeysuckle in the hedges, the dogs and children on rustic paths, and
the peace of cottage gardens.

She remembered how those tranquil afternoons had become impossible, by
reason of her perpetual engagements; and how quietly Mario Provana had
submitted to the change in her way of life, the succession of futile
pleasures, the hurry and excitement.

"I want you to be happy," he told her, when she made a feeble apology
for not having an afternoon at his service.

"You are young, and you must enjoy your youth. Things that seem trivial
and joyless to me are new and sweet to you. Be happy, love. I have
plenty of use for my time."

That was in the beginning of their drifting apart. Looking back
to-night she could but wonder as she remembered how gradually, how
imperceptibly that drifting apart had gone on; until she awoke one day
to find that she and her husband were estranged. He was kind, had only
an indulgent smile for the folly of her life, but the happy union of
their first wedded years was over and done with. In Lady Susan's brief
phrase, "They had become like other people."

And now she and Claude Rutherford had drifted apart, and were like
other people. The reunion of a few weeks at Disbrowe was but a flash of
summer across the gathering gloom of their lives.

"He can be happy," she thought, brooding in the night silence. "He
cares for so many things. I care for nothing but the things that are
gone."

And then, while the clock of All Souls struck that solemn single stroke
which has even a more awful note than the twelve strokes of midnight,
she thought of her dead--all her dead. Her poets, Tennyson, Browning,
Swinburne--men who had lived while she was living, and one by one had
vanished--of the great tragic actor whose genius had thrilled her
childish heart--of all that company of the great who had died long
before she was born--and it seemed to her in her dejection as if the
earth were an empty desert, in which nothing great or beautiful was
left. They had all gone through the dark gates of death--across the
wild that no man knows. Her poet father, her lovely young mother,
phantoms of beauty, distant and dim, evanescent shadows in the memory
of a child. Yet, if Francis Symeon's creed were true, they were not
gone for ever. They had not gone across the wild to dark distances
beyond the reach of human thought. They were only emancipated. The
worm had cast its earthly husk, and the spirit had spread its wings.
Released from the laws of space and time, the all-understanding mind of
the dead could be in sympathy with the elect among the living.

With Us, the elect, who have renounced the joys of sense, and lived
only to cultivate the pleasures of the mind: for us the poets we
worship still live, the minds that have been the light and leading of
our minds are our companions and friends. We need no salaried medium's
_abracadabra_ to summon them, no weary waiting round a table in a
darkened room, disturbed by suspicions of trickery. They come to us
uncalled, as we sit alone in the gloaming, or wander alone over the
desolate down, or by the long sea-shore. The poem we read is suddenly
illuminated with the soul of the poet: the printed page becomes a
message from the immortal mind.

To-night, in that silent hour, it was only of the dead Vera thought, as
she wandered from room to room in the house of fear, shrinking from the
prospect of the long, sleepless hours, weary yet restless. Restlessness
made her wander into regions that were almost strange.

She drew aside a heavy curtain, and pushed open a crimson cloth door
that led from the hall of ceremony to those inferior regions common to
servants and tradesmen--the long stone passage, with doors right and
left, the passage that ended at the door into the stable-yard, the door
by which Mario Provana had entered on the night of his death.

Rarely had her foot trodden the stone pavement, yet every detail of
the place--the form of the doors, the white ceiling, the unlovely drab
walls had been burnt into her brain.

A single electric lamp gave the kind of light that is more awful than
darkness. She heard clocks ticking: one that sounded solemn and slow,
as if it were some awful mechanism that was measuring the fate of men;
one with a thin and hurried beat, like the pulse of fever; she heard
the heavy breathing of more than one sleeper; and presently, in front
of the yard door, she came upon the watch dog, the Irish terrier, Boroo.

He was lying asleep on a rug in front of the door, and her light step
upon the stone had not roused him. It was only when she was close to
his rug that he started up and gave a low, muffled bark, and sniffed at
the skirt of her dress, and being assured that she was to be trusted,
sprang up with his fore-feet upon her hip and licked her hands.

She stooped over him and stroked his rough head, and let him nestle
close against her, and then she knelt down beside him and put her arms
round him and fondled him as he had never been fondled before by so
beautiful and delicate a creature. From those long thoughts of a world
peopled by the dead, the spontaneous love of this warm, living creature
touched her curiously. There was comfort in contact with anything so
full of life; and she laid her cold cheek against the dog's black nose,
called him by his name, and made him her friend for ever.

"Poor old dog, all alone in this cold place. Come upstairs with me;
come, Boroo."

The house dog needed no second invitation. He kept close to her
trailing silken skirt as she moved slowly through the hall, switching
off lights as she went, and so by the stately staircase to the second
floor.

The fire in her morning-room had been made up at a late hour by
Louison, who was now accustomed to her mistress's nocturnal habits;
and the logs were bright on the hearth, and brightly reflected on the
hedge-sparrow-egg blue of the tiled fireplace.

The terrier looked round the room with approval. Till this night he had
seen nothing finer than Mrs. Manby's parlour, where--when occasionally
suffered to lie in front of the fire--he had always to be on his best
behaviour. But in Vera's room he made himself at once at home, jumped
on and off the prettiest chairs, rioted among the silken pillows on the
sofa, looking at her with questioning eyes all the time, to see what
liberties he might take, and finally stretched his yellow-red body at
full length in the glow and warmth of the hearth, wagging a lazy tail
with ineffable bliss.

Vera seated herself in a low chair near him, and stooped now and then
to pat the broad, flat head. He was a big dog of his kind; and though
intended only for the humblest service, to rank with kitchen and
scullery-maids and under-footmen, he was naturally, in that opulent
household, a well-bred animal of an unimpeachable pedigree. His parents
and grandparents had been prize-winners, and his blood might have
entitled him to a higher place than the run of the servants' hall and
stables and a mat in a stone passage. But whatever his inherited merits
or personal charms, Vera's sudden liking for him had nothing to do with
his race or character. It was the chill desolation of the silent hour,
the freezing horror of the empty house, that had made her heart soften,
and her tears fall, at the contact of this warm, living creature in the
world of the dead. It was almost as if she had lost her way in one of
the Roman catacombs, and had met this friendly animal among the dead of
a thousand years, and in the horror of impenetrable darkness.

"You are my dog now, Boroo," she told the terrier, and the small,
bright, dark eyes looked up at her with a light that expressed perfect
understanding, while the pointed ears quivered with delight. He
followed her to the threshold of her bedroom, where she showed him
a White, fleecy rug on which he was to sleep, outside her door. He
threw himself upon his back, with his four legs in the air, protesting
himself her slave; and from that hour he worshipped her, and followed
her about her house in abject devotion.

He went with her to Italy. Of course, there would be difficulties about
his return to England; but canine quarantine might be ameliorated for a
rich man's dog. He became her companion and friend; and it was strange
how much he meant in her life. Strange, very strange; for in all the
years of folly and self-indulgence she had never given herself a canine
favourite. She had seen almost every one of her friends more or less
absurdly devoted to some small creature--Griffon, Manchester terrier,
Pekinese, Japanese, King Charles, Pomeranian--dogs whose merits seemed
in an inverse ratio to their size--or the slaves to some more dignified
animal, poodle or chow. She had seen this canine slavery, and had
wondered, with a touch of scorn; and now, in the stately spaciousness
of the Roman villa, she found herself listening for the patter of the
Irish terrier's feet upon the marble floors, and rejoicing when he came
bounding across the room, to lay his head upon her knee and express
unutterable affection with the exuberance of a rough, hairy tail.

The clue to the mystery came to her suddenly as she sat musing in the
firelight, with Boroo stretched at her feet.

She had wanted this dog. She had wanted some warm-hearted creature
to love her, and to be loved by her. It had been the vacant house of
her life that called for an inhabitant. She had awakened from her
fever-dream of happiness, to find herself alone, utterly alone, in a
world of which she was weary. Claude Rutherford was of no more account
to her. The thing that had happened was something worse than drifting
apart. Gradually and imperceptibly the distance between them had
widened, until she had begun to ask herself if she had ever loved him.

Boroo went with his mistress on the long journey to San Marco, and
behaved with an admirable discretion at the big hotel at Marseilles,
where, though he would have liked to try conclusions with a stalwart
_dogue de Bordeaux_ that he met in one of the long corridors, he
contented himself with a passing growl as he crept after Vera to his
post outside her room. All things were strange to him in these first
continental experiences; but he bore all things with sublime restraint,
concentrating all his brain-power and all his emotional force on the
one supreme duty of guarding the lovely lady who had adopted him.

At the Hôtel des Anglais Mrs. Rutherford was received with rapture,
and the spacious suite on the first floor was, as it were, laid at her
feet. She would, of course, occupy those rooms, and no other; the rooms
where Signor Provana and his sweet young daughter had lived. Signor
Canincio ignored the fact that the sweet young daughter had also died
there.

No. Mrs. Rutherford would have the rooms in which she had lived with
her grandmother.

"I want our old rooms, please," she said.

"The rooms in which you were so happy--where you spent two winters with
the illustrious Lady Felicia."

Signor Canincio at once perceived how natural it was for Madame to
prefer those rooms. Everything should be made ready immediately. His
season had not yet begun; but his hotel would be full to overflowing in
December, when he expected many of Madame's old friends to settle down
for the winter. Vera smiled as she remembered those "old friends" with
whom she had never been friendly; the sour spinsters and widows who
had always resented Lady Felicia's determination to deny herself the
advantage of their society.

It was the dead season of the year. The late lingering roses on the
walls had a sodden look, the pepper trees drooped disconsolately, and a
curtain of grey mist hung over the parade, where Vera had walked, alone
and dejected, before the coming of Giulia and her father. The hills
where they had driven looked farther away in the shadowy atmosphere.
There was no gleaming whiteness on the distant mountains. All was grey
and melancholy--and in unison with her thoughts of the dead. She had
come there to look upon her husband's grave. She had been prostrate
and helpless at the time of his burial, and had only just been capable
of arousing herself from a state of apathy, to insist that he should
be carried back to the country of his birth, and should lie beside his
daughter in the shadow of the cypresses, between the sea and the olive
woods.

Even in that agonising time the picture of that familiar spot had been
in her mind as she gave her instructions; and she had seen the marble
tomb in its green enclosure, and the tall trees standing deeply black
against the pale gold of the sky, as on that evening when Mario Provana
had found her sitting by his daughter's tomb. He must lie there, she
told his partner, nowhere else; no, not even in Rome, where his family
had their stately sepulchre. It was under the marble tomb he had made
for his idolised child that he must rest.

And now, in the dull grey November, she stood once more beside the
marble and read the lines that had been graven under Giulia's brief
epitaph. "Also in memory of Mario Provana, her father, who died in
London, on July the thirteenth, 19--, in the fifty-seventh year of his
age." And below this one word--"Re-united."

She stayed long in the green enclosure, her dog coming back to her
after much exploration of the wood above, where he had startled and
scattered any animal life that he could find there, and the seashore
below, where he stirred the tideless waves by the vehemence of his
plunges; and then she went for a long ramble in the familiar paths
where she had walked with Provana in those sunny afternoons, before the
ride to the chocolate mills. She stayed nearly a week at San Marco,
repeating the same process every day; first a lingering visit to the
grave, and then a long, lonely walk in the paths she had trodden with
the man whom she had thought of only as her friend's father, until by
an imperceptible progress he had made himself the one close friend
of her life. She took pains to find the very paths they had trodden
together, the humble shrines or chapels they had looked at, the rocks
where they had sat down to rest.

When she had first spoken of revisiting San Marco Claude had done his
uttermost to dissuade her. "Don't be morbid," he had said more than
once. "Your mind has a fatal leaning that way. You ought to fight
against it."

Yes, she knew that she was morbid, that she had taken to brooding upon
melancholy memories, that she was cultivating sadness. Alone in the
olive wood, watching the evening light change and fade, and the shadows
steal slowly from the valley and the sea, while memory recalled words
that had been spoken in that narrow pathway, among those grey old
trees in the light and shade of evenings that seemed ages ago, she had
a feeling that was almost happiness. It was a memory of happiness so
vivid that it seemed the thing itself.

She had been very happy in those tranquil evenings. She knew now that
she had begun to love Mario Provana many days before his impassioned
avowal had taken her by storm. His eloquence, his power of thought and
feeling, had made life and the world new. She "saw Othello's visage
in his mind." His rugged features and his eight-and-forty years were
forgotten in the charm of his conversation and the rare music of his
voice. The world of the scholar, of the thinker, and the poet, had
been an unknown world to the girl of eighteen, whose poor little bit
of flimsy education had been limited to the morning hours of a Miss
Greenhow at a guinea a week. He opened the gate of that divine world
and led her in, and they walked there together; he charmed by her
freshness and _naïveté_, she dazzled by his wealth of knowledge and his
power of imagination. Not even her poet father could have had a wider
knowledge of books, or a greater power of thought, she told herself;
which was a concession to friendship, as she had hitherto put her
father in the front rank of those who know.

She looked back at those innocent hours, when he who was so soon to be
her husband was only thought of as her first friend.

She looked back to hours that seemed to her to have been the happiest
in all her life. Yes, the happiest; for happiness is sunshine and calm
weather, not fever and storm. There were other hours more romantic and
more thrilling, but agonising to remember--sensual, devilish. Those
hours in the woods had been serene and pure, and she had walked there
with the heart of a child.

How kind he had been, how kind! It was the kindness in the low, grave
voice that had made its music: only the kindness of a friend of
mature years interested in her youth and ignorance, only a grave and
thoughtful friend, liking her because she had been loved by his dead
daughter. That is what she had thought of him for the greater part of
those quiet hours. Yet now and then she had been startled by a sudden
suggestion. She did not know, but she felt that he was her lover.

       *       *       *       *       *

It was in vain that Signor Canincio pressed her to occupy his _piano
nobile_ as the only part of his hostel worthy of her. She insisted on
the old rooms, the _salon_ that had been growing shabbier and shabbier
in the years of her absence, and which had never been redecorated.
There were the same faded cupids flying about the ceiling, where many a
crack in the plaster testified to an occasional earthquake; and there
was the same shabby paper on the walls. Nothing had been altered,
nothing had been removed. Vera went out upon the balcony and looked
down at the little town, and the distant ridge where the walls of a
monastery rose white against the grey November sky. Everything was the
same. She had wanted to come back. It was a morbid fancy, perhaps, like
many of her fancies. She knew that she was morbid. She wanted to steep
herself in the memories of the time before she was Mario Provana's
wife; the time when she knew that he loved her, and was proud of his
love.

She walked up and down the room, touching things gently as she passed
them, as if those poor old pieces of furniture, with their white paint
and worn gilding, were a part of her history. This was the table where
she had sat making tea, a slow process, while Mario stood beside her,
watching her, as she watched the blue flame under Granny's old silver
kettle, the George-the-Second silver that gave a grace to the cheap
_salon_. Lady Felicia had kept her old silver--light and thin with much
use--as resolutely as she had kept her diamonds.

"If ever I were forced to part with those poor things of mine I should
feel myself no better than the charwoman who comes here to scrub
floors," she told Lady Okehampton, and that kind lady, who was taking
tea with "poor Lady Felicia," in her London lodgings, had approved a
sentiment so worthy of a Disbrowe.

Vera paced the room slowly in the thickening light: sometimes standing
by the open window, listening to footsteps on the parade, and the talk
of the women from the olive woods, tramping bravely homeward with
heavy baskets on their heads, baskets of little black olives for the
oil mills that dotted the steep sides of the gorge through which the
tempestuous little river went brawling down to the sluggish sea.

And then she went back into the shadows, and slowly, slowly, paced all
the length of the room, thinking of those evenings when she had made
tea for the Roman financier.

The shadows gathered momentarily and the shapes of all things became
vague and dim. There was Granny's sofa, and Granny was sitting there
among her silken pillows. She could see the pale, thin face, and the
frail figure wrapped in a China crape shawl. The white shawl had always
had a ghostly look in a dimly lighted room.

She went over to the sofa and felt the empty corner where Granny used
to sit. No, she was not there. The sofa was a bare, hard object, with
nothing phantasmal about it. There were no silken cushions. Those
amenities had been Lady Felicia's private property, travelling to and
fro by _petite vitesse_. There was no one on the sofa, and that dark
form, the tall figure near the tea-table, was nothing but shadow. It
vanished as she came near and there was only empty space, with the
white table shining in the faint light from the open window.

"Nothing but shadow," she thought, "like my life. There is nothing left
of that but shadow."

"How happy I must have been, when I lived in this room, how happy! But
I did not know it. How sweetly I used to sleep, and what dear dreams
I dreamt. I was only seventeen in our first winter, and I was a good
girl. Looking back I cannot remember that I had ever done wrong. I was
always obedient to Granny, and I tried hard to please her, and to care
for her when she was ill. I always spoke the truth. The truth? Why
should I have been afraid of truth in those days? There was no merit in
fearless truth. But the difference, the difference!"

It seemed so strange now that she had not been happier. To be young and
without sin: to believe in God and to love Christ. Was not that enough
for happiness?

The room was almost dark before she rang for lamps. In that southern
paradise the shutting of windows must precede the entrance of lighted
lamps; and one is apt to prolong the time _entre chien et loup_.

The darkness fostered those morbid feelings that she had indulged of
late. She thought of Francis Symeon, and his belief in the communion of
the living and the dead.

Her husband might be near her as she crept about in the darkness. She
might _know_ that he was there; but she was not to hope for any visible
sign of his presence.

To see was reserved for the elect; and for them only when the earthly
tabernacle was near its end, when the veil between life and death had
worn thin. _Then_ only, and for the choicest spirits only, would that
thin veil be rent asunder and the dead reveal themselves to the living,
in a divine anticipation of immortality.

"Not for all, not for those who have loved earthly things and lived the
sensual life, not for them the afterlife of reunion and felicity."

"Not for me--never for me." She fell on her knees by Granny's sofa,
and bowed her head upon her folded arms and prayed--a wild and fervent
prayer--a distracted appeal for mercy to One Who knew, and could pity.
Such a prayer as might have trembled on the Magdalen's pale lips while,
with bent head and hidden countenance, she washed the Redeemer's feet
with her tears.

The spell that was woven of silence and shadow was broken suddenly
by the opening of the door and the tumultuous entrance of the Irish
terrier, followed by Louison, who saw only darkness and an empty room.

"Mais où donc est Madame?" she exclaimed.

Boroo had found his mistress by something keener than the sense of
sight, and had pushed his cold, black nose against her cheek, despite
of the bowed head, and leapt about her as she rose to her feet, just in
time to hide all signs of agitation as Signor Canincio's odd man, in a
loose red jacket, looking like a reformed bandit, brought in a pair of
lamps and flooded the room with light.

Louison rushed to shut the windows and exclude _cette affreuse bête le
moustique_, from whose attentions she herself had suffered.

"Mais, madame, pourquoi ne pas sonner? Vous voilà sans lumière, sans
feu, et les fenêtres grandes ouvertes. Accendere, donc," to the odd
man, "apportez legno, molto legno, et faire un bon fuoco, presto,
subito, tout de suite."

It may be that this noisy solicitude was meant to cover a certain
want of attention to her mistress; Ma'mselle having lingered over
the tea-table in the couriers' room, where a dearth of couriers at
this dead season was atoned for by the presence of Signor Canincio
and his English wife, she dispensing the weakest possible tea, with
condescending kindness, and wife and husband both alert to hear
anything that Louison would tell them about her mistress, while the
animated gestures and expressive eyes of the host testified to his
admiration for _la belle Française_, an admiration that was made more
agreeable to Louison from the consuming jealousy which she saw depicted
in the countenance of the travelling footman, whose inferior status
ought to have excluded him from that table. But Louison knew that
Canincio's hotel had always been what Mr. Sedgewick called _une affaire
d'un seul cheval_.



CHAPTER XXVII


The Roman villa was a fairy palace of light and flowers, and its long
range of windows flashed across the blue vapours of the December night,
and might have been noticed as a golden glory in the far distance by
solitary watchers in the monasteries on the Aventine hill.

It was Vera's first reception; and all that there was of Roman rank and
beauty, all that there was of transatlantic wealth and cosmopolitan
talent in the most wonderful city in the world had assembled in prompt
response to her card of invitation.

 "Mrs. Claude Rutherford, at home, 9 to 12. Music.

                                                   "The Villa Provana."

The financier's palace still bore the stamp of mercantile riches.
Claude had urged his wife to give the splendid house a splendid name;
so that, in the ever-changing society of the Italian capital, the
source of all that splendour might be forgotten; but he had urged in
vain.

"It was his father's house, and it was my home with _him_," she said,
with a strange look--the look that Claude feared. "While I live it
shall never have any other name."

"You are the first woman I ever knew with such a cult of the dismal,"
he said. "Most widows wish to forget."

"Most widows _can_ forget," she answered.

He turned and left her at the word; and she heard him singing _sotto
voce_ as he went along the corridor, "La donna e mobile."

"At least _I_ do not change," she thought.

This had happened in their first winter in Rome--a mere flash of
melancholy--soon forgotten in those wild days when the pace was
fastest, and when life went by in a hurricane of fashionable
pleasures. Visiting and entertaining, opera and theatre and
race-course; a rush to Naples to hear a wonderful tenor; to Milan to
see the new dancer at the Scala; something new and fatiguing for every
week and every day. They were both calmer now, and it may be that both
were tired, though it was only Vera who talked openly of weariness.

To-night she was looking lovely; but a Russian savant, who was among
the most illustrious of her guests, whispered to his neighbour as she
passed them, "_She_ will not live her hundred and forty years."

"I am afraid it is a question of months rather than years," replied his
friend, a famous Roman doctor.

Something there was in the radiant face, pale, but full of light and
life, in which the eye of an expert read auguries of evil; but to the
elegant mob circulating through those sumptuous rooms Mrs. Rutherford
was still beautiful with the bloom of health. Her pallor was of a
transparent fairness, more brilliant than other women's carnations.
The popular American painter had made one of his most startling hits,
two years before, by his exquisite rendering of that rare beauty, the
alabaster pallor, the dreaming eyes, blue-grey, or blue with a touch of
green. He had caught her "mermaid look"; and his most fervent admirers,
looking at the portrait in the Academy crowd, declared that the colour
in those mysterious eyes changed as they looked. The portrait was the
sensation of the year. Her eyes changed, and she seemed to be moving
out of the canvas, said the superior critics; and the herd went about
parroting them. She had her far-away look to-night, as she stood near
the doorway in the Rubens room, the first of the long suite; and though
she had a gracious greeting for everybody, those who admired her most
had a strange fancy that she was only the lovely semblance or outer
shell of a woman, whose actual self was worlds away.

There was nothing dreamy or far-away about Claude Rutherford to-night.
He was a man whose nature it was to live only in the present, and
to live every moment of his life. To-night, in these splendid
surroundings, in this crowd of the noble and the celebrated, he felt
as one who has conquered Fate, and has the world at his feet. He was
a universal favourite. The hearts of women softened at his smile; and
even men liked him for his careless gaiety.

"Always jolly and friendly, and without a scrap of side."

That was what they said of him. To have the spending of the Provana
millions and to be without side, seemed a virtue above all praise.
People liked him better than his ethereal wife. She was charming, but
elusive. That other-world look of hers repelled would-be admirers, and
even chilled her friends.

The Amphletts had arrived at the villa on a long visit, just in time
for Vera's first party; and Lady Susan was floating about the rooms in
an ecstasy of admiration. She had never seen them in Mario Provana's
time, and though she had been invited by Vera more than once in the
last three years, this was her first visit.

Her tiresome husband had preferred Northamptonshire, and she had not
been modern enough to leave him; and now he had been only lured a
thousand miles from the Pytchley by the promise of hunting on the
Campagna.

"At last Vera is in her proper environment," Lady Susan told a young
attache, who had been among the intimates in London. "She was out of
her proper setting in Portland Place. Nothing less beautiful than this
palace is in harmony with her irresistible charm. Other women have
beauty, don't you know; Mrs. Bellenden, _par exemple_."

"Mrs. Bellenden is an eye-opener," murmured the diplomat.

"Yes, I know what you are thinking, the handsomest woman in Europe, and
all that kind of thing; but utterly without charm. Even we women admire
her, just as we admire a huge La France rose, or a golden pheasant,
or a bunch of grapes as big as plovers' eggs, with the purple bloom
upon them; the perfection of physical beauty. But the light behind
the painted window, the secret, the charm is not in it. Beauty and to
spare, but nothing more."

Mrs. Bellenden sailed past them on the arm of the English Ambassador
while Susie expatiated.

It was her first appearance in Roman society, and she was the sensation
of the evening.

A form as perfect as the Venus of the Capitol, a face of commanding
beauty, a toilette of studied simplicity, a gown of dark green velvet,
without a vestige of trimming, the _dêcolletage_ audacious, and for
ornament an emerald necklace in a Tiffany setting, which even among
hereditary jewels challenged admiration, just a row of single emeralds
clasping a throat of Parian marble.

Mrs. Bellenden had the men at her feet; from Ambassadors to callow
striplings, new to Rome and to diplomacy, sprigs of good family,
who were hardly allowed to do more than seal letters, or index a
letter-book. All these courted her as if she had been royal; but the
women who had known her in London kept themselves aloof somehow, except
the American women, who praised and patronised her, or would have
patronised, but for something in those dark violet eyes that stopped
them.

"It isn't safe to say sarcastic things to a woman with eyes like hers,"
they told each other. "It would be as safe to try to take a rise out of
a crouching tiger, or to put a cobra's back up, for larks."

Lady Susan was about the only woman of position who talked to Mrs.
Bellenden; but Susie loved notorieties of all kinds, and had never kept
aloof from speckled peaches, if the peaches were otherwise interesting.

"I call Bellenden a remarkable personality," she told Claude, whom
she contrived to buttonhole for five minutes in the corridor after
supper. "A rural parson's daughter, brought up on cabbages and the
tithe pig. A woman who has spent a year in a lunatic asylum, and yet
has brains enough to set the world at defiance. You will see she'll be
a duchess--a pucker English duchess--before she has finished."

"She is more than worthy of the strawberry leaves; but I don't see
where the pucker duke is to come from. Her only chance would be a
fledgling, who had never crossed the Atlantic."

       *       *       *       *       *

If her own sex persisted in a certain aloofness, Mrs. Bellenden had her
court, and could afford to do without them. In the picture gallery,
after supper, she was the centre of a circle, and her rich voice and
joyous laughter sounded above all other voices in the after-midnight
hour, when the crowd had thinned and most of the great ladies had gone
away.

Susie watched that group from a distance, and wondered when Mrs.
Bellenden was going to break through the ring of her worshippers and
make her way to the Rubens room, where the mistress of the house was
waiting to bid the last of her guests good-night.

The first hour after midnight was wearing on, and Susan Amphlett, who
had eaten two suppers, each with an amusing escort, was beginning to
feel that she had had enough of the party and would like to be having
her hair brushed in the solitude of her palatial bedroom. But she
wanted to see the last of Mrs. Bellenden, if not the last of the party;
and she kept her cicisbeo hanging on, and pretended to be interested
in the pictures, while she furtively observed the proceedings of the
notorious beauty. She was making the men laugh. That was the spell she
was weaving over the group who stood entranced around her. Light talk
that raised lighter laughter: that was her after-midnight glamour. She
had been grave and dignified as she moved through the rooms by the side
of the Ambassador. But now, encircled by a ring of "nice boys," she was
frankly Bohemian, and amused herself by amusing them, with splendid
disregard of conventionalities. Reckless mirth sparkled in her eyes;
uproarious laughter followed upon her speech. Whatever she was saying,
however foolish, however outrageous, it was simply enchanting to the
men who heard her; and in the heart of the ring Claude Rutherford was
standing close beside the lovely freelance, hanging upon her words,
joyous, irresponsible as herself. The spell was broken at last, or
the fairy laid down her wand, and allowed Claude to escort her to her
hostess, who just touched her offered hand with light finger-tips; and
thence to the outer vestibule, an octagon room where the white marble
faces of Olympian deities, who were immortal because they had never
lived, looked with calm scorn upon the flushed cheeks and haggard
eyes of men and women too eager to drain the cup of sensuous life.
Claude and Mrs. Bellenden stood side by side in the winter moonlight
while they waited for carriage after carriage to roll away, before a
miniature brougham of neatest build came to the edge of the crimson
carpet. They had had plenty of time for whispered talk while they
waited, but there had been no more laughter, rather a subdued and
almost whispered interchange of confidential speech; and the last word
as he stood by the brougham door was "to-morrow."

Lady Susan and Vera went up the great staircase together, Susie with
her usual demonstrative affection, her arm interwoven with her friend's.

"Your party has been glorious, darling!" she began. "I see now that
it is the house that makes the glory and the dream. Your parties in
Portland Place were just as good, as parties, but oh, the difference!
Instead of the vulgar crush upon the staircase, and the three
overcrowded drawing-rooms, immense for London--this luxury of space,
this gorgeous succession of rooms, so numerous that it makes one giddy
to count them. Vera, I see now that it is only vast space that can give
grandeur. The bricks and stone in your London house would have made a
street in Mayfair; but it is a hovel compared with this. And to think
of that good-for-nothing cousin of mine leaving a bachelor's diggings
in St. James's to be lord of this palace. There never was such luck!"

"I don't think Claude cares very much for the villa, or for Rome," Vera
answered coldly. "He prefers London and Newmarket."

"That's what men are made of. They don't care for houses or for
furniture. They only care for horses and dogs, and other women,"
assented Susan lightly.

They were at the door of Vera's rooms by this time, but Susie's
entwining arms still held her.

"Do let me come in for a _cause_."

"I'm very tired."

"Only five minutes."

"Oh, as long as you like. I may as well sit up and talk as lie down,
and think."

"What, are you as bad a sleeper as ever?"

"I have lost the knack of sleep. But I suppose I sleep enough, as I am
alive. Some people talk as if three or four sleepless nights would kill
them; but Sir Andrew Clarke let Gladstone lie awake seven nights before
he would give him an opiate."

"But you will lose your beauty--worse than losing your life. You looked
lovely to-night--too lovely, too much like an exquisite phantom. And
now, my sweet Vera, don't be angry if I touch upon a delicate--no, an
indelicate subject. You must never let Mrs. Bellenden enter your house
again."

"Indeed, Susie! But why?"

"Because she is simply too outrageous!"

"Do you mean too handsome, too attractive?"

"I mean she is absolutely disreputable. If you had seen her in the
picture gallery, with a crowd of men round her--your husband among
them--laughing immoderately, as men only laugh when outrageous things
are being said!"

"And was she saying the outrageous things?"

"Undoubtedly. I watched her from a distance, while I pretended to be
looking at the pictures. Vera, I don't want to worry you, but that
woman is dangerous!"

"Dangerous?"

"Yes, like the Lurlei and people of that class. She is the very woman
Solomon described in Proverbs--and _he_ knew. She is a danger for you,
Vera, a danger for your peace of mind. She is a wicked enchantress, an
enemy to all happy wives; and she is trying to steal your husband."

"I am not afraid.".

"But you ought to be afraid. Roger and I are not a romantic couple; but
if I saw him too attentive to such a woman as Mrs. B. I should--well,
Vera, I should take measures. Remember, the woman is the danger. It
doesn't matter how much a man flirts, as long as he flirts with the
harmless woman. You really should take measures."

"That is not in my line, Susie. When my husband has left off caring for
me I shall know it, and that will be the end."

Susan looked at her with anxious scrutiny.

"I'm afraid you are leaving off caring for him," she said rather sadly.

"Never mind, dear. The sands are running through the glass, whether we
are glad or sorry, and the end of the hour will come."

"Don't!" cried Susie, wincing as if she had been hit.

"Good night, dear, I am very tired."

"Yes, that's what it means!" Susie kissed her effusively. "Your nerves
are worn to snapping point, you poor, pale thing. Good night."

Vera was on the Palatine Hill next morning before Lady Susan had
left her sumptuous bed, a vast expanse of embroidered linen and down
pillows, under a canopy of satin and gold. Painted cherubim looked down
upon her from the white satin dome, cherubs or cupids, she was not
sure to which order the rosy cheeks and winged shoulders belonged.

"They must be cupids," she decided at last. "They have too many legs
for cherubim."

Vera was wandering among the vestiges of Imperial Rome with the dog
Boroo for company. She liked to roam about these weedy pathways, among
the dust of a hundred palaces, in the clear, sunlit morning, at an hour
when no tourist's foot had passed the gate.

The custodians knew her as a frequent visitor, and left her free
to wander among the ruins as she pleased, without guidance or
interference. They had been inclined at first to question the Irish
terrier's right to the same licence, but a sweet smile and a ten-lire
note made them oblivious of his existence. He might have been some
phantom hound of mediæval legend, passing the gate unseen. Simply clad
in black cloth, a skirt short enough for easy walking, a loose coat
that left her figure undefined, and a neat little hat muffled in a
grey gauze veil through which her face showed vaguely, Vera was able
to walk about the great city in the morning hours without attracting
much notice. Among some few of the shopkeepers and fly drivers who had
observed her repeated passage along particular streets, she was known
as the lady with the dog. In her wanderings beyond the gates, in places
where there were still rural lanes and cottagers' gardens, she would
sometimes stop to talk to the children who clustered round her and
received the shower of baiocchi which she scattered among them with
tumultuous gratitude, kissing the hem of her gown, and calling down the
blessings of the Holy Mother on "_la bella Signora, e il caro cane_,"
Boroo coming in for his share of blessings.

They were lovely children some of them, with their great Italian eyes,
and they would be sunning themselves on the steps of the Trinità del
Monte by and by, when the spring came, waiting to attract the attention
of a painter on the look-out for ideal infancy; wicked little wretches,
as keen for coin as any Hebrew babe of old in the long-vanished Ghetto,
dirty, and free, and happy; but they struck a sad note in Vera's
memory, recalling her honeymoon year in Rome, and how fondly Mario
Provana had hoped for a child to sanctify the bond of marriage, and
to fill the empty place that Giulia's death had left in his heart.
A year ago Vera had been killing thought in ceaseless movement, in
ephemeral pleasures that left no time for memory or regret, but since
the coming of satiety she had found that to think or to regret was less
intolerable than to live a life of spurious gaiety, to laugh with a
leaden heart, and to pretend to be amused by pleasures that sickened
her. Here she found a better cure for painful thought, in a city whose
abiding beauty was interwoven with associations that appealed to her
imagination, and lifted her out of the petty life of to-day into the
life of the heroic past. In Rome she could forget herself, and all that
made the sum of her existence. She wandered in a world of beautiful
dreams. The dust she trod upon was mingled with the blood of heroes and
of saints.

She had seen all that was noblest in the city with Mario Provana for
her guide, he for whom every street and every church was peopled with
the spirits of the mighty dead, from the colossal dome that roofed the
tomb of the warrior king who made modern Italy, to the vault where St.
Peter and St. Paul had lain in darkness and in chains.

She had seen and understood all these things with Mario at her side,
enchanted by her keen interest in his beloved city, and delighted to
point out and explain every detail.

For Mario every out-of-the-way corner of Rome had its charm--for Claude
Rome meant nothing but the afternoon drive along the Corso, and the
bi-weekly meet of hounds on the Appian Way. Everything else was a bore.
It was the Palatine where she and Mario had returned oftenest and
lingered longest, for it seemed the sum of all that was grandest in the
story of Rome, or, rather, it was Rome. How often she had stood by her
husband's side on this noble terrace, gazing at the circle of hills,
and recalling an age when this spot was the centre of the civilised
earth! Here were the ruins of a forgotten world; and the palaces of
Caligula and Nero seemed to belong to modern history, as compared with
the rude remains of a city that had perished before the War-God's twins
had hung at their fierce foster-mother's breast. Every foot of ground
had its traditions of ineffable grandeur, and was peopled with ghosts.
They stood upon the ashes of palaces more splendid and more costly than
the mind of the multi-millionaire of to-day had ever conceived--the
palaces of poets and statesmen, of Rome's greatest orators, and of
her most successful generals; of Emperors whose brief reign made but
half a page of history, ending in the inevitable murder; of beautiful
women with whom poison was the natural resource in a difficulty; of
gladiators elevated into demi-gods; of mothers who killed their sons,
and sons who killed their mothers; and of all those hundred palaces,
and that strange dream of glory and of crime there was nothing left but
ruined walls, and the dust in which the fool's parsley and the wild
parsnip grew rank and high.

Amidst those memories of two thousand years ago, Vera felt as if life
were so brief and petty a thing, such a mere moment in the infinity of
time, that no individual story, no single existence, with its single
grief, no wrong done, could be a thing to lament or to brood over.
Nothing seemed to matter, when one remembered how all this greatness
had come and gone like a ray of sunshine on a wall, the light and the
glory of a moment.

And what of those grander lives, the Christian martyrs, the men who
fought with beasts, and gave their bodies to be burned, the women who
went with tranquil brow and steadfast eyes to meet a death of horror,
rather than deny the new truth that had come into their lives?

There were other, darker memories in her solitary wanderings. She
returned sometimes to the hill behind the Villa Medici. She lingered
in the dusty road outside the Benedictine monastery, and peered
through the iron gate, gazing into the desolate garden, where only the
utilitarian portion was cared for, and where shrubs, grass, and the
sparse winter flowers languished in neglect, where the gloomy cypresses
stood darkly out against the mouldering plaster on the wall; the prison
gate, within which she had seen her lover sitting by the dying fire, a
melancholy figure, with brooding eyes that refused to look at her.

"It would have been better for us both if he had stayed there," she
thought. "If we had been true to ourselves we should have parted at
the door of his prison for ever. It would have been better for us
both--better and happier. The cloister for him and for me. A few years
of silence and solitude. A few years of penitential pain; and then the
open gate, and the Good Shepherd's welcome to the lost sheep."

Yes, it would have been better. No pure and abiding joy had come to
her from her union with her lover. They had loved each other with
a love that had filled the cup of life in the first years of their
marriage; they had loved each other, but it had been with a passion
that needed the stimulus of an unceasing change of pleasures to keep it
alive; and when the pleasures grew stale, and there were no more new
things or new places left in the world, their love had languished in
the grey atmosphere of thought.

She knew that her love for Claude Rutherford was dead. The third year
of wedlock had killed it. She looked back and remembered what he had
once been to her. She saw the picture of her past go by, a vivid
panorama lit by a lurid light--from the July midnight in the rose
garden by the river, to the November evening in Rome, when he had
come back to her from his living grave--and she had fallen upon his
breast, and let him set the seal of a fatal love upon her lips--the
seal that had made her his in the rose garden, and had fixed her fate
for ever. This later kiss was more fatal; for it meant the hope of
heaven renounced, and a soul abandoned to the sinner's doom. For her
part, at least, love had died. Slowly, imperceptibly, from day to day,
from hour to hour, the glamour had faded, the light had gone. Slowly
and reluctantly she had awakened to the knowledge of her husband's
shallow nature, and had found how little there was for her to love
and honour below that airy pleasantness which had exercised so potent
a charm, from the hour when she met and remembered the friend of her
childhood, until the night of the ball, when he had whispered his
plan for their future as they spun round in their last waltz. All had
shown the lightness of the sunny nature that charmed her. Even in
talking of the desperate step they were going to take he had seemed
hardly serious. His confidence was so strong in the future. Just one
resolute act--a little unpleasantness, perhaps; and then emancipation,
and a life of unalloyed happiness--"the world forgetting, by the world
forgot"--themselves the only world that was worth thinking about.

And it was to this shallow nature that she had given her love and her
life; for she could see nothing in life outside that fatal love. As
that perished, she felt that she must die with it. There was nothing
left--no child--no "forward looking hopes."

But there was the memory of the past! In her lonely walks about
the environs of Rome, the past was with her. She was always looking
back. She could not tread those paths without remembering who had
trodden them with her when the wonder of Rome was new. The man who
was her companion, then the strong man, the man of high thoughts and
decisive action, the thinker and the worker. The man of grave and
quiet manners, who could yet be terrible when the fire below that
calm surface was kindled. She had seen that he could be terrible.
One episode in their happy honeymoon life had always remained in her
memory, when at a crowded railway station he had been separated from
her for a few moments in the throng and had found her shrinking in
terror from the insolence of a vulgar dandy. She had never forgotten
the white anger in Mario Provana's face as he took the scared wretch by
the collar and flung him towards the edge of the platform. She never
could forget the rage in that dark face, and it had come back to her
in after years in visions of unspeakable horror. He who was so kind
could be so terrible. So kind! Now in her lonely wanderings it was
of his kindness she thought most, his fond indulgence in those days
when he had made the world new for her, days when she had looked back
at her long apprenticeship to poverty--the daily lesson in the noble
art of keeping up appearances, and Grannie's monotonous wailings over
cruel destiny--and wondered if this idolised wife could be the same
creature as the penniless girl in the shabby lodgings. She knew now
that the devoted husband of that happy year was the man who was worthy
of something more than gratitude and obedience, something more than
duty, worthy of the best and truest love that a good woman could feel
for a good man. This was the noble lover. Wherever she went in that
city of great memories the shadow of the past went with her. He was
always there--she heard his voice, and the thoughts and feelings of
years ago were more real than the consciousness of to-day. Forgotten
things had come back. The fever-dream had ended: and in the cold light
of an awakened conscience she knew and understood the noble friend and
companion she had slighted and lost.

       *       *       *       *       *

Lady Susan was a somewhat exacting visitor; but it was years since
she had seen the inside of a dining-room before luncheon, so Vera's
mornings were her own. The half-past twelve o'clock _déjeuner_ even
appeared painfully early to Susie, though she contrived to be present
at that luxurious meal, where there were often amusing droppers-in,
lads from the embassies, soldiers in picturesque uniforms, literary
people and artistic people, mostly Americans, people whom Susie could
not afford to miss.

Vera's mornings were her own, but she was obliged to do the afternoon
drive in the Pincio gardens and along the Corso with Lady Susan, and
after the drive she could creep away for an hour to her too-spacious
saloon where all the gods and goddesses of Olympus looked down upon her
from the tapestry, and sit and dream in the gloaming--or brood over a
new novel by Matilda Seraio, her reading-lamp making a speck of light
in a world of shadows.

Here, by the red log-fire, where the pine-cones hissed and sputtered,
the Irish terrier was her happy companion, laying his head upon her
knee, or thrusting his black nose into her hand, now and then, to show
her that there was somebody who loved her, and only refraining from
leaping on her lap by the good manners inculcated in his puppyhood by
an accomplished canine educator.

Sometimes she would throw down her book, snatch up a fur coat from
the sofa where it lay, and go out through the glass door that opened
into the gardens; and then, with Boroo bounding and leaping round her,
letting off volleys of joyful barks, she would run to the lonely garden
at the back of the villa, where there was a long terrace on a ridge
of high ground shaded with umbrella pines, and with a statue here and
there in a niche cut in the wall of century-old ilex.

The solitary walk with her dog in a dark garden always had a quieting
effect upon her nerves--like the morning ramble in the outskirts of
Rome. To be alone, to be able to think, soothed her. The life without
thought was done with. Now to think was to be consoled. Even memories
that brought tears had comfort in them.

"What can I do for him but remember him and regret him?" she thought.
"It is my only atonement. If what Francis Symeon told me is true and
the dead are near us, he knows and understands. He knows, and he
forgives."

Sad, sweet thoughts, that came with a rush of tears!

These quiet hours helped her to bear the evening gaieties, the evening
splendours. She went everywhere that Claude wanted her to go, gave as
many parties as he liked, _déjeuners_, dinners, suppers after opera or
theatre, anything. Her gold was poured out like water. The Newmarket
horses were running in the Roman races; the Leicestershire hunters
were ridden to death on the Campagna. Claude Rutherford was more
talked about, and more admired, than any young man in Rome. He laughed
sometimes, remembering the old books, and told them he was like Julius
Cæsar in his adolescence, a "harmless trifler." Claude Rutherford was
happy; and he thought that his wife was happy also. Certainly she had
been happy at Disbrowe less than half a year ago; and there had been
nothing since then to distress her. The long rambles of which Susan
told him, the evening seclusion, meant nothing. No doubt she was
morbid; she had always been morbid. If she had a grief of any kind she
loved to brood upon it.

"What grief can she have?" Susan asked. "There never was such a perfect
life. She has everything."

"I don't know. We have no children. She may long for a child."

"Do _you_ feel the want of children?" Susan asked bluntly.

"Yes. I should have liked a child. Our houses are silent--infernally
silent. A house without children seems under a curse, somehow."

Susan looked at him with open-eyed wonder. This trivial cousin of
hers, who seemed to live only for ephemeral delights, this man to sigh
for offspring, to want his futile career echoed by a son. He who was
neither soldier nor senator, who had no rag of reputation to bequeath:
what should he want with an heir? And to want childish voices in his
home--to complain of loneliness! He who was never alone!

Mrs. Bellenden had not been invited to the Villa Provana after the
night when Susie had made her protest, nor had Claude urged his wife to
invite her. Mrs. Bellenden had begun to be talked about in Rome very
much as she had been talked about in London. The noblest of the Roman
palaces had not opened their Cyclopean doors to her. There were certain
afternoons when all that was most distinguished in Roman Society
crossed those noble thresholds, as by right--went in and came out
again, not much happier or richer in ideas, perhaps, for the visit, but
just a shade more conscious of superiority.

Mrs. Bellenden, driving up and down the Corso, saw the carriages
waiting, and scowled at them as she went by. Mrs. Bellenden was not
_bien vue_ in Rome. The painters and sculptors raved about her, and
she had to give sittings--for head and bust--to several of them. She
was one man's Juno, and another man's Helen of Troy. Her portrait, by
a famous American painter, was to be the rage at next year's picture
show. If to be worshipped for her beauty could satisfy a woman, Mrs.
Bellenden might have been content; but she was not.

Her exclusion from those three or four monumental palaces made her feel
herself an outsider; and she bristled with fury when no more cards of
invitation came from the Villa Provana.

"I suppose that white rag of a woman is jealous," she thought; but she
had just so much womanly pride left in her as to refrain from asking
Claude Rutherford why his wife ignored her.

Lady Susan had not even spoken of Mrs. Bellenden after the night when
she had delivered herself of a friendly warning. But although she did
not talk to Vera of the siren, she had plenty to say to other people
about her, and plenty to hear.

"I hope that foolish cousin of mine is not carrying on with that odious
woman," she had said tentatively to more than one great lady.

"Why, my dear creature, everybody knows that he is making an idiot of
himself about her. She is riding his hunters to death; and she made an
exhibition of herself at the races last Sunday when one of Rutherford's
horses won by half a length, putting her arms round the winner's neck
and shaking hands with the jockey. The King and Queen and all the
Quirinal party were looking at her. She is the kind of woman who always
advertises an intrigue. After all, I believe she is not half so bad as
people think her; only she can't keep an affair quiet. She must always
play to the gallery."

Susie shook her head, with a sigh that was almost a groan.

"Oh, my poor Vera, so sweet, so pure, so ethereal."

"That's where it is, my dear," said her friend. "Men don't care for
those ethereal women--long. Women hold men by their vices, not by their
virtues."



CHAPTER XXVIII


It was the end of February, and the Roman villa was soon to be left
to cobwebs and custodians. The Piazza d'Ispagnia and the broad steps
of the Trinità were alive with spring flowers, and the air had the
soft sweetness of an English April on the verge of May. White lilac
and Maréchal Niel roses were in all the shops; bright yellow jonquils,
and red and blue anemones, filled the baskets of rustic hawkers at the
street corners. Rome's innumerable fountains plashed and sparkled in
the sun; and Rome's delicious atmosphere, at once soft, caressing, and
inspiriting, made the heart glad.

The carnival was over, and the season was waning. Lady Susan Amphlett
was never tired of telling people that she had had the best time she
had ever had in her life--excursions to Naples, Florence, and all the
cities of Tuscany; motor drives to every place worth seeing within
fifty miles of Rome; a midnight party with fireworks in the Baths
of Caracalla; a dance by torchlight, and a champagne supper, in the
Colosseum. In this latter festivity the strangeness of the scene had
been too exciting, and the revel had almost degenerated into an orgy.

"My cousin is simply wonderful at inventing things," Susie, playing her
accustomed part of chorus, told people, "and he gets permissions and
privileges that no one else would dare ask for."

The end had come. To-morrow's meet at the tomb of Cecilia Metella was
the last of the season; and Mr. and Mrs. Rutherford were to start for
London on the following day--a long journey in a _lit-salon_, with the
monotony of dinner-wagon meals to make the journey odious.

"If one could only take a box of bath buns and _foie-gras_ sandwiches!"
sighed Susie. "With those and my tea basket I should be utterly happy;
but the same insipid omelette, and the same tough chicken and endive
salad, for eight and forty hours! _Quelle corvée!_"

It was the last morning, a lovely morning. Sunshine was flooding the
great rooms, and making even the tapestried walls look gay. Susan, for
once in her life, came down to breakfast, in a black satin _négligé_,
with a valenciennes cap that made her look enchanting.

"I wanted to see Claude in pink--Roman pink," she said, looking at the
slim, tall figure in Leicestershire clothes. "You ought always to wear
those clothes," said Susie, clapping her hands, as at the reception of
a favourite actor. "They make you bewilderingly beautiful. Now I know
why you are so keen on hunting."

"Do you think any man cares how his coat is cut, or who made his boots,
when he may be dead at the bottom of a ditch before the end of the
run?" Claude said, laughing. "Some of the best days I have had have
been in rat-catcher clothes."

He was radiant with pleasant expectations. He could do without
Leicestershire hedges, and hundred-acre fields, and all the perfection
of English fox-hunting. To-day the Campagna would be good enough--with
its rough ground and yawning chasms, wider and deeper than the worst of
the Somersetshire rhines. The Campagna would be good enough. He was in
high spirits, and he was singing a wicked little French song as his man
buckled on his spurs, a little song that Gavroche and his companions of
the Paris gutters had been singing all the winter.

       *       *       *       *       *

Lady Susan drove to the meet in one of the Provana carriages, picking
up a couple of lively American friends on her way. Vera excused herself
from going with her friend, and went off for a ramble with the Irish
terrier, much to Susie's disgust.

"You like that rough-haired beast's company better than mine," she
complained.

"Only when I want to be alone with memories and dreams."

"You are growing too horridly morbid, Vera. I am afraid you have taken
up religion. It's very sweet of you, darling, but it's the way to lose
your husband. Religion is the one thing a husband won't put up with. He
hates it worse than a bad cook."

"No, I have not taken up religion."

"Then it's spiritualism, which is just as bad. It is all Mr. Symeon's
doing. You live in a world of ghosts."

"There are ghosts that one loves. But there will be no ghosts where I
shall be walking to-day. Only wild flowers and spring sunshine."

She watched Susan take her seat in the carriage--a vision of coquettish
prettiness and expensive clothes. Susan's husband had gone back to
London and Newmarket some time since, not being able to "stick" Rome
after the Craven meeting. He had enjoyed some good runs with the Roman
pack, and he had been shown St. Peter's and the Colosseum, and had
played bridge with famous American players at Claude Rutherford's club;
so what more was there for him to do?

Vera and her dog went to the Campagna by a roundabout way that avoided
that noble road between the tombs of the mighty, by which the hunting
men and their followers would go. She roamed in rural lanes, where
violets and wild hyacinths were scenting the warm air, and sat in a
solitary nook, musing over a volume of Carducci, while Boroo hunted the
hedge and scratched the bank, in a wild quest of the rats that haunted
his dreams as he sprawled on the Persian prayer-rug before the fire.

It was late afternoon when Vera left the quiet lane and turned into the
dusty road that led to the tomb of Cecilia Metella; lingering on her
way to admire a team of those magnificent fawn-coloured and cream-white
oxen, whose beauty always went to her heart. She recalled Carducci's
lovely sonnet, "Il Bove," those exquisite lines which Giulia Provana
had repeated to her as they drove along the rural roads near San Marco,
and which she learned from her friend's lips before she had ever seen a
printed page of the Italian's verse.

All signs of horse and hound had disappeared before she came to
Cecilia's tomb; there were no people in carriages, no loitering
peasants or British bicyclists, waiting about on the chance of a
ringing run, which would bring pack and field sweeping round the wide
plain in sight of the starting-point. There was no one--only the vast
expanse of greyish-green herbage, with here and there a heap of ruins
that had been a palace or a tomb, and here and there a red-capped
shepherd and his flock. Vera strolled along the grass, taking no heed
of vehicles or foot-passengers on the higher level of the Appian Way.
She had her time chiefly engaged in keeping Boroo to heel, where only
duty could keep him, instinct and a passionate inclination urging him
to make a raid on the sheep. Distance would have been as nothing. He
would have crossed the expanse of rugged ground in a flash, if Vera's
frown and Vera's threatening voice had not subjugated that which, next
to fighting, was a master passion.

She was absorbed in her endeavour to keep the faithful beast under
control, when the sound of laughter on the road above made her come to
a sudden stop, and look, and listen.

She knew the laugh. It had once been music in her ears. That frank,
joyous laugh, the ripple of gladness that defied the Fates, had once
been an element in the glamour that cast its spell over her life. But
now the laugh jarred: there was a false note in the music.

A woman was riding at Claude's bridle-hand; their horses walking
slowly, close together; and he was leaning over her to listen and to
talk; his hand was on her saddle, and their heads were very near, as he
bent to speak and to listen. Vera could hear their voices in the clear
air of a Roman sundown; but not the words that they were speaking. One
thing only was plain, that after each scrap of talk there came that
ripple of joyous laughter from the man; and then, after a little more
talk, with heads still closer, the boisterous mirth of a reckless woman.

The woman was Mrs. Bellenden. What other rider after those Roman hounds
had a figure like hers, the exquisite lines, the curves of bust and
throat that the sculptors were talking about?

The woman was Mrs. Bellenden, in one of her amusing moods. That was her
charm, as Susan Amphlett had explained it to Vera. She made men laugh.

"That is her secret," said Susan; "she remembers all the stories her
madcap husband told her when she was young and they shocked her. She
dishes them up with a spice of her own, and she makes men laugh. She
can keep them dangling for a year and hold them at arm's length; while
a mere beauty would bore them after a month, unless she came to terms.
That's her secret. But, of course, it comes to the same in the end.
Such a woman's affairs must have the inevitable conclusion. Her pigeons
last longer in the plucking, and she gets more feathers out of them.
You had better look after your husband before he goes too far!"

Nothing had moved Vera from her placid acceptance of fate. "I suppose
my husband must amuse himself with a flirtation now and then, when his
racing stable begins to pall," she said.

"Vera, you and Claude are drifting apart," exclaimed Susie, with a
horrified air.

It was a gruesome discovery for Chorus, who had gone about the world
singing the praises of this ideal couple--these exquisite married
lovers--and talking about Eden and Arcadia.

Vera smiled an enigmatic smile.

Drifting apart! No, it was not drifting apart. It was a cleft as wide
and deep as one of those yawning chasms on the Campagna, that the
sportsmen boasted of jumping with their Northamptonshire hunters.

This was Vera's last day in Rome. They started on the homeward journey
next morning, but instead of travelling with her husband by the Paris
express, she took it into her head to linger on the way. She stopped at
Pisa, she stopped at Porto Fino, she stopped at Genoa; and last of all,
she stopped at San Marco to look at Mario Provana's grave.

"I may never see Italy again," she said, when Susan tried to dissuade
her. "I have a presentiment that I shall never see this dear land any
more."

"For my part I should not be sorry if I knew I was never coming back to
the villa," her husband answered. "It is too big for a house to live
in. It must soon fall to the fate of other Roman palaces, and become
one of the sights of the city; to be shown for two lire a head to Dr.
Lunn and his fellow-travellers."

Vera had her way. In this respect she and her husband were essentially
modern. They never interfered with each other's caprices. He travelled
by the Paris express, and stayed at the Ritz just long enough to see
the latest impropriety at the Palais Royal, and it happened curiously
that Mrs. Bellenden was travelling by the same train on the same day,
stopping at the same hotel, attended by a young lady who would have
been faultless as a _dame de compagnie_ except for a chronic neuralgia,
which often compelled her to isolate herself in her hotel bedroom. Vera
went along the lovely coast with Susie, who declared herself delighted
to escape the monotony of the dinner-wagon, and to see some of the most
delicious spots in Italy with her dearest Vee, to which monosyllable
friendship had reduced Vera's name. In an age that has substituted the
telegraph and the telephone for the art of letter-writing, it is well
that names should be reduced to the minimum, and that our favourite
politician should be "Joe," our greatest general "Bobs," and our
dearest friend M. or N. rather than Margherita or Naomi.

Vera showed Lady Susan all the things that were best worth seeing in
Genoa and the neighbourhood, and they lingered at Porto Fino, and other
lovely nooks along that undulating coastline; garden villages dipping
their edges into the blue water, and flushed with the pink glory of
blossoming peach trees, raining light petals upon the young grass. It
was the loveliest season of the Italian spring; and all along their way
the world was glad with flowers. They missed nothing but the birds that
were making grey old England glad before the flowers, but which here
had been sacrificed to the young Italian's idea of sport.

There was only one spot to which Vera went alone, and that was Mario
Provana's grave. Happily, Susan had forgotten that he was buried at San
Marco; and she wondered that Vera should have arranged to break the
journey and stop a night at a place where there was absolutely nothing
to see.

Certainly it was not very far from Genoa; but a slow train and a
headache made the journey seem an eternity to the impatient Susan,
and when San Marco came she was very glad of her dinner and bed, and
to have her hair taken down, after it had been hurting her all the
way, and to no end, as she was utterly indifferent to the opinion of a
couple of natives, the provincial Italian being no more to her than a
red-skinned son of the Five Nations or a New Zealander.

Vera was able to spend an hour in the yew tree enclosure in the morning
freshness, between six and seven. She had telegraphed her order for a
hundred white roses to the San Marco florist the day before, and the
flowers were ready for her in a light, spacious basket, in the hall of
the hotel, when she came downstairs in the dim sunrise.

"It is the last time," she said to herself, as she covered the great
marble slab with her roses, and stooped to lay cold lips on the cold
stone. "Giulia--Mario," she murmured tenderly, with lingering lips.

"I am not afraid," she said to herself. "I know that he has forgiven
me."

Maid and footman and luggage went by the morning train; and half an
hour after Vera and her friend left San Marco, in a carriage that was
to take them to Ventimiglia. By this means they had the drive in the
morning sunshine, and escaped the long wait at the frontier, only
entering the dismal station five minutes before their train left Italy.

They spent that night in Marseilles, where Susan Amphlett insisted
upon seeing the Cannebière by lamplight; and they were in Paris on the
following evening, and in London the next day.

"And now you are going to begin a splendid season," said Susie, "in
this dear old house. The rooms look mere pigeon-holes after your Roman
villa; but there's no place like London. And I really think Claude is
right. The Villa Provana is much too big, and just a wee bit eerie. It
suggests ghosts, if one does not see them. One of those sweet young
Bersaglieri told me that your husband's father made a man fight a duel
to the death with him in one of those weird upper rooms; and that the
stamping of their feet and the rattle of their rapiers is heard at a
quarter past two on every fifteenth of November. When I heard the story
I felt rather glad I did not come to you till December. Aren't you
pleased to be home, Vera, in these cosy drawing-rooms?"

Everything in life is a question of contrast, and after the Villa
Provana the drawing-room in Portland Place, with its five long windows
and perspective of other drawing-rooms through a curtained archway,
looked as snug as a suburban parlour.

"Aren't you glad to be home?" persisted Susan.

"No, Susie. I would rather have spent the rest of my life in Italy."

"Oh, I suppose you prefer the climate. You are one of those people who
care about the state of the sky. I don't. I like people, and shops,
and theatres, and the opera at Covent Garden. Milan or Naples may be
the proper place for music; but we get all the best singers. Don't
think me ungrateful, Vera. I revelled in Rome. A place where one can
go, from buying gloves and fans in the Corso, to gloating over the
circus where the Christian martyrs fought with lions, must be full of
charm for anybody with a mind. Rome made a student of me. I read two
historical primers, and a novel of Marion Crawford's; besides dipping
into Augustus Hare's delightful books. I haven't been so studious
since I attended the Cambridge extension lectures, with my poor old
governess, who used to amuse us by going to sleep, and giving herself
away by nodding. Her poor old bonnet used to waggle till it made even
the lecturer laugh."

Susie went off to join Mr. Amphlett in Northamptonshire; but she was
to establish herself at the little house in Green Street directly
after Easter, and then she and her dearest Vee must spend their lives
together.

Vera was not sorry to speed the parting guest. She had had rather too
much of Susie in that month of Rome; for though she had lived her own
life, in a great measure, there was always the sense that Susie was
there, and that she ought to give more of her time to her friend.

She had suffered one grief in coming to London, for on landing at Dover
she had to part with the Irish terrier, who was led off by a famous
dog-doctor's subordinate, to spend six months in isolation, which
was to be made as pleasant to him as such imprisonment could be made
to an intelligent dog, warmly attached to a mistress who had raised
him from the canine to the human by her companionship. Boroo was to
pass six months in quarantine before he could stretch himself on the
prayer-rug at his mistress's feet, and roll upon his back in an ecstasy
of contentment. Boroo might be made comfortable in the retreat, as one
of the favourites of fortune; but Boroo would not be happy without
his mistress, and the first telephonic communication from the canine
hotel informed Mrs. Rutherford that her faithful friend had refused
food and was very restless. The functionary who gave this information
assured her that this was only a passing phase in dog-life, and that
the terrier would be happier next day. And the account next day was
comparatively cheerful; the terrier had eaten a little sheep's head and
was livelier. Vera hated the law which deprived her of the only friend
who had comforted her in hours of deepest dejection. The dog's welcome
after every parting, the dog's abounding love, had given a new zest to
life. Was there any other love left her now quite as real as this? Her
husband, her enthusiastic friend Susan, all the train of affectionate
aunts and cousins--the girl cousins who came to her to relate their
love affairs; the baby cousins who kissed her when their nurses told
them, holding up cherry lips, and smiling with sweet blue eyes--three
generations of Disbrowes! Was there one among them all whose love she
could believe in as she could in her Irish terrier?

Six months without Boroo! It was a dreary time to think of. Boroo was
the only creature who could take her mind away from herself and her
life's history. He had given her the beatitude of loving and being
loved, without romance--without passion--without looking before or
after: and, realising the difference this dumb creature made, she could
but think with melancholy longing of what a child would have meant in
her life.

       *       *       *       *       *

And now began the familiar round in the familiar house, with the
Disbrowes gathering strong as of old to help and to suggest--to bring
to Vera's parties the few great people who had not yet discovered that
a Mrs. Rutherford whose wealth had come out of the City could be so
particularly attractive, or could give parties that had always a touch
of originality that made them worth one's while. These mighty ones told
each other that it was the absence of conventionality that made Vera's
house so agreeable; while Lady Susan, still playing her part of Chorus,
told the mighty ones that it was because her cousin was a poet's
daughter, and made an atmosphere of poetry round her.

"Vera lives in a world of dreams," she said, "and we are all dreamers,
though the horrid everyday world comes between us and our fairest
visions. I think that's why we love her."

A Princess of the blood royal happened to meet Vera at this time, and
became one of her most ardent admirers, lunching or dining in Portland
Place at least once a week, and visiting Mrs. Rutherford in her opera
box. She had heard of the Roman villa and the Roman parties.

"I shall spend next January in Rome on purpose to see more of you,"
she said, upon which Claude, who was present, begged that her Royal
Highness would make the Villa Provana her home whenever she came to
the Eternal City; an invitation which her Royal Highness graciously
promised to remember.

"My sweet girl, you are on the crest of the wave," Lady Okehampton told
her niece. "You were never so much the fashion as this year. You ought
to be proud of your social success."

"I wish I had my dog out of quarantine," was all Vera said.

"Get another dog--a Pekinese lion; ever so much smarter than your rough
brute."

       *       *       *       *       *

The season wore through somehow in perpetual gaieties which the wife
hated, but which were essential to the husband's well-being. He had all
the racing world, and never missed an important meeting; but when there
was no racing he wanted dinner-parties, or crowded evenings, abroad or
at home. Later there would be Cowes, where he had a new yacht just out
of the builder's yard, waiting to beat every boat in the Channel.

He did not often look at his wife's visiting list, being content to
give her the names of the men who were to be asked to her dinners,
taking it for granted that they would be asked. Every evening party
was more or less an _omnium gatherum_; and about these he asked no
questions--but more than once, between March and June, he had suggested
that Mrs. Bellenden should be invited to dinner--to some smallish
semi-literary and artistic dinner--and this suggestion being ignored,
he had advised her being included in one of the big dinner-parties,
where the mighty ones had been bidden to meet the royal Princess.

"I don't think that would do," Vera answered coldly.

"You forget that Mrs. Bellenden is one of the handsomest women in
London," Claude answered with some touch of temper, "and that people
like to meet a well-known beauty."

"I'm afraid Mrs. Bellenden is rather too well known. You had better
give a dinner at 'Claridge's' or the 'Ritz,' Claude, and let Susan do
hostess for you. Susie would enjoy it."

"I suppose it will come to that," said Claude. "I'll take one of your
Wagner nights--when I know you'll be happy."

       *       *       *       *       *

Lady Susan having warned her friend against the siren, was not so
disloyal as to play hostess at a Bohemian dinner.

"No, Claude," she said when the idea was mooted. "I have never been
prudish, but I draw the line at Mrs. Bellenden."

Her cousin shrugged his shoulders, and left the room with a snatch of a
French _chanson_, which was his most forcible expression of temper. The
light tenor voice, the gay French verse, harmonised with the nature in
which there were no depths.

Goodwood was once more imminent, and Cowes was in the near future, when
Vera sent out cards for her last evening party, which would be one
of the last of the season, on the eve of the exodus of smart London.
The Princess Hermione was to be at the party--and this royal lady
was like that more famous heroine of the nursery, who rode her white
horse to Banbury Cross in a musical ride; for, like that famous lady,
the Princess expected to have music wherever she went, music, and of
the best, for the royal Hermione was a connoisseur, and herself no
mean performer on the violoncello. A famous baritone and an equally
famous mezzo-soprano were to sing during the evening, in the inner
drawing-room, not in a formal way with programmes and rout seats, for
people to be packed in rows, to sit there from start to finish till,
in our elegant twentieth-century English, they were "fed up" with
squalling.

Everything was to be informal; and the people who did not want music
would have space enough in the larger rooms and on the staircase to
babble and to flirt as they chose; while that inner drawing-room would
be, as it were, a sanctuary for the elect, a temple of the god of
harmony.

Vera stood at the door of the larger drawing-room receiving her
guests, from ten to half-past, when the Princess Hermione, who had just
arrived, put her arm through her hostess's and asked eagerly:

"Did you get him?" Signor Pergolesi, the baritone, understood.

"Yes, ma'am, he is in the little drawing-room with Madame Rondolana,
waiting to sing to you!"

"Take me there this moment, Vera!" and hooked by the royal arm in a
crumpled glove, Vera led the Princess and her lady-in-waiting through
the babbling crowd to the sanctuary where the elect were beginning to
bore each other while they waited for the first song.

Herr Mainz was at the piano ready to accompany the two singers
whose engagement he had negotiated. At all concerts of this clever
gentleman's arranging it seemed to some people as if the artists were
puppets, and that he pulled the string that set them going all through
the performance. To-night, however, there was to be less string-pulling
and more _sans façon_, or rather it was Princess Hermione who was to
pull the string.

She certainly lost no time in telling Madame Rondolana what she wanted
her to sing, and she kept that brilliant vocalist rolling out song
after song in the rich abundance of a mezzo-soprano that nothing could
tire. She sang song after song, at the Princess's nod; Italian, German,
Swedish, nay, even English, with an ease that testified to power
without limit. The baritone looked and listened with languid interest,
not offended, for he knew that his turn would come, and that when once
the Princess started him she would never let him leave off. He sat
near the piano in an easy attitude; not listening, but turning his
thoughts inward, and making up his mind as to what songs he would sing.
Wagner? Yes. Bizet? Yes, but in any case "Die beiden Grenadiere" as a
finish--and then those massive folding doors, that were shutting out
the babblers, should be flung wide open, and he would sing to the whole
of the company. _He_ could stop their talking--those two grenadiers
were infallible.

"Viz dat song I alvays knock zaim in ze Ole Ken' Road," he used to tell
his friends.

At eleven o'clock there came a kind of subtle sense of something
wanting, even beyond that exquisite music; and Lady Okehampton
whispered to her niece that it was time the Princess went to supper,
and that Claude must take her downstairs. Vera went in search of him.
The crowd in the biggest drawing-room had thinned, and she was able to
look for her husband--but without success; and she went through the
other rooms to the spacious landing, in which direction most people
were drifting, and there she met a perturbed spirit in the form of
Susan Amphlett.

"What's the matter, Susie? Is there anything wrong?"

"Wrong!" cried Susie. "I call it simply disgusting. How could you be
such a fool?"

"What have I done?"

"To ask that horrid woman, and with your Princess for the guest of the
evening! She ain't prudish; but I fancy she'll think it a bit steep to
find herself rubbing shoulders with Mrs. Bellenden."

"I have not invited Mrs. Bellenden."

"Someone else has, then. Or else she has come like the lady at Cannes,
_invitée ou non_."

"Is Mrs. Bellenden here?"

"Yes, in the supper-room, in a mob of admirers. Claude took her down to
supper."

"That's rather tiresome," Vera answered quietly, "for he ought to take
the Princess, and I can't keep her waiting. Do be kind, Susie, and go
and tell him he must come to the music-room this minute. The Princess
ought to have gone down before anybody, and now you say there's a mob."

"A perfect bear-garden of greedy beasts. I don't believe there'll be
an ortolan left by the time she comes. Anyhow, I'll make it hot for
Claude!" and Susie hurried off, elbowing a desperate way through the
crowd on the stairs. "Mon dieu, quel four!" she muttered.

Vera went back to the sanctuary, impounding her uncle Okehampton on the
way, in case she found the friendly Hermione indisposed to wait for her
host.

She found her Princess with a dark and angry brow, standing near the
door, whispering to her attendant lady. She had the look of a Princess
who had been "almost waiting," and who did not like the sensation.
She heard that Mr. Rutherford was making his way through the crowd to
attend upon her, with an air of supreme indifference.

"Lord Okehampton is one of my old friends," she said, and took his
offered arm without looking at Vera. "Mr. Rutherford can bring
Pauline," she said, as they moved away.

Pauline was the lady-in-waiting, a colourless spinster of
seven-and-thirty, who loved everything the Princess loved, and hated
everything she hated, and who dressed like the Princess, only much
worse.

Lord Okehampton made himself vastly agreeable, and the mob, seeing the
royal brow under the tiara, made way for the couple, and there was a
table found for the royal lady in an agreeable position, and there were
ortolans and peaches without stint; but when Claude came presently with
the Honourable Pauline he received a snub so unmistakable that he was
glad to carry his Honourable companion to the remotest corner of the
room, where he gave her a sumptuous supper, and had the consolation of
her sympathy.

"The Princess has a heart of gold," she told him, "but her temper is
dreadful sometimes, and life is rather difficult with her."

"Not quite a bed of roses," said Claude.

"It would be ungrateful of me to call it a bed of stinging-nettles,"
said Pauline, "because as there are five of us at home, all unmarried,
I have to do something; and the Princess is wonderfully kind, and then
she is so clever and accomplished. She does everything well; but music
is her passion."

"That's how I made my mistake," said Claude. "I thought her enjoyment
of her own particular baritone would have lasted longer, and that I
should have been in attendance before she was inclined to move."

"The Princess has a good appetite," said Pauline, discussing her fourth
ortolan, "and one really does get very hungry at an evening party.
Music is so exhausting. I hope that dear Pergolesi and Madame Rondolana
are having something."

"Our good friend Mainz will take care of that."

"Apropos," said Pauline. "There is a lady here I am rather curious
about. We passed her on the stairs. Mrs. Bellenden. Gloriously
handsome, and all that; but frankly, Mr. Rutherford, I was just a wee,
wee bit surprised to see her in your wife's house, especially to meet
the Princess. I hardly like to speak of such things; but has she not
been just a little talked about lately? Of course, I know she went
everywhere two years ago; but just lately people have said things; and
one has not run against her at the best houses."

"Of course she has been talked about," answered Claude, with his frank
laugh. "Meteors are talked about. A woman so exceptionally beautiful
is like Halley's Comet. People are sure to talk about her; and the
ill-natured talkers will make scandal about her. Poor Mrs. Bellenden!
Quite a harmless person, I assure you; open-hearted, generous,
impulsive--a trifle imprudent, perhaps, as these impulsive women always
are."

The lady-in-waiting had supped too well to be ill-natured.

"I am so glad you have told me. I shall tell the Princess that there
is no foundation for any of the stories we have heard about poor Mrs.
Bellenden," she said, as they left the supper-room.

The sanctuary was full of people when Lord Okehampton took the Princess
back, after a leisurely supper, during which they had talked over old
friends and things that had happened a dozen years ago, when Okehampton
was Master of the Horse. The Princess had recovered her temper, and was
ready to enjoy her favourite Pergolesi; but Vera, who had not left the
music-room, looked white and weary; and the kindly Hermione chid her
for not having followed her to the supper-room. All the best people
were now gathered in the inner drawing-room; some for the Princess,
and some for the baritone; and only the royal chair was vacant when
the royal lady reappeared. Pergolesi chuckled at the thought that
Rondolana had lavished her octave and a half of perfection on the
chosen few; while he had all the finest tiaras, and the largest display
of shoulders and diamonds for his audience.

Hermione beckoned him to her side, and they discussed what songs he
should sing; she ordering, but he making her order what he wanted and
had made up his mind about.

"I should like to finish viz 'Die beiden Grenadiere,'" he said in his
broken English. "I think it is one of your favourites, ma'am?"

"Je l'adore."

Song after song was received with enthusiasm. Herr Mainz played a
brilliant "Mazourka de Salon," while the baritone rested and whispered
with the Princess, and when the silvery chimes of an Italian eight-day
clock announced midnight, the great doors were thrown open and
Pergolesi hurled his splendid voice upon the crowd in the outer room.

A phrase or two, and the babble of three hundred voices had become
silence; and when the song was done the crowd melted away, still in
comparative stillness, while Vera stood on the landing to see them
pass, as if she were holding a review. No one wanted to begin talking
after that stupendous song. People had stayed later than they intended,
till it was too late to go on to other, and perhaps better, houses.
The Princess had gone out by a second staircase, which had been kept
clear for her, with Pergolesi and Okehampton to escort her downstairs,
and Claude Rutherford to put her into her carriage. She went off in a
charming mood, but could not refrain from a stab at the last.

"Your wife's party has been perfect," she said, "but the company just a
little mixed. I suspect you of having introduced the Bohemian element,
in the shape of that handsome lady whom everybody has been talking
about."

There were lingerers after that, and the party was not over till one
o'clock. The last guest strolled into the pale grey night as Big Ben
tolled the first hour of day. Claude followed his wife up the broad
staircase, where the heated atmosphere was heavy with the scent of arum
lilies, and the daturas that hung their white bells in all the corners.
She was moving slowly, tired and languid after the long evening, and
she never looked back. He followed her to the door of her room; but
she stopped upon the threshold, turned and faced him, ashy pale in her
white gown, like a ghost.

"Good-bye," she said, with a face of stone.

"Vera, for God's sake! What's the matter?"

"Good-bye," she repeated, and, as he moved towards her, she drew back
suddenly, so quickly that he was unprepared for the movement, and shut
the door in his face.

He heard the key turning in the lock, shrugged his shoulders, and
walked slowly along the gallery to his own room, not the room that had
been Mario Provana's dressing-room.

"Some ass has been telling her things," he muttered to himself.

And then he thought of Mrs. Bellenden's appearance that night, in a
gown of gold tissue, and a diamond tiara. She had been too insolently
splendid in her overweening beauty, too tremendous, too suggestive of
Cleopatra at Actium, a woman who lived upon the ruin of men.

What wife, who cared for her husband, could help being angry if she saw
him near such a creature?

And he had been near her all the night. He had whispered with her in
corners, hung over her perfumed shoulders, followed her close as her
shadow, sat with her in a nest of tropical flowers in the balcony,
instead of moving about among his guests.

He had taken her down to the supper-room, first among the first,
neglecting duchesses and a princess of the blood royal for her sake.
No doubt that malicious little wretch Susan Amphlett had been watching
him, and had reported all his misdoings to Vera.

"What does it matter?" he said to himself. "My life was growing
unbearable. The gloom was closing round me like a funeral pall. Kate
was my only refuge. I have never been in love with her; but she stops
me from thinking."

That was the secret. Mrs. Bellenden had been his Nepenthe, when the
common round of pleasures had lost their power to make him forget.

Mrs. Bellenden was like strong drink, like opium or hashish. She
killed thought. She filled the vacant spaces in his life--the Stygian
swamps where black thoughts wandered in space, like angry devils. Her
exactions, her quarrels, their partings and reunions, the agitations
and turmoil of her existence, had filled his life. When he banged the
hall door of the bijou house in Brown Street behind him after one of
their stormy farewells he knew that he would go back to her in a week.
He tramped the adjacent Park across and across, along and along, in a
fury, and thanked God that he had done with "that harpy"; but he knew
that he would have to go back to the harpy, to be reconciled again,
with oaths and kisses and tears, and to quarrel again, and to obey
her orders, and go here or there as she made him. The most degrading
slavery to a wicked woman was better than the great silent house and
the horror that inhabited it.

His wife had her consolations, nay, even her hysterical delights.
She could shut herself in her white temple with the spirits of her
worshipped dead. She heard voices. Death now hardly counted with her,
neither Death nor Time. Saint Francis of Assisi was as near her as
Robert Browning. Shakespeare was no more remote than Henry Irving. She
was mad.

The emptiness, the silence, the gloom, were killing him. If there had
been children, all might have been different. The past would have
been forgotten in those new and forward-looking lives. His sons and
daughters would not have let him remember past things. And Vera would
not have had time for morbid thoughts, for nursing dark memories. Her
children would have made her forget.

He had some kind of explanation with her on the day after the party,
and made some feeble kind of apology. But she was cold and dumb; she
expressed no anger, neither complained nor reproached him; she shed no
tears. She stood before him in her white silence, still beautiful, but
with a pale, unearthly beauty that chilled his heart. All the force of
the old love swept back upon him; and his heart ached with a passion of
pity and regret. He seized her by the shoulders--so frail, so wasted,
since last year--and looked at her with despairing eyes. "Vera, you
are killing yourself by inches. What can I do? What can I do for you?
Shall we go away? Ever so far away? to new worlds--to places where the
stupendous phenomena of Nature, and the things that men have made, will
take us out of ourselves? There are things in this world so tremendous
that they can kill thought. The Zambesi, the Aztec cities of Mexico,
the great Wall of China."

"You are very good," she answered, coldly but not unkindly--rather with
a weary indifference, as of a soul too tired to feel or think. "I am
quite contented here. My life in this house suits me as well as any
life could."

"In this house?" he cried.

"Yes, in this house. I am not alone here. But I don't want to keep you
here if the house makes you unhappy. You had better go away, Claude; go
anywhere you like, as you like. I shall not complain."

"Are you giving me a letter of license?" he asked, with a harsh laugh.
"Is your love quite dead?"

"Everything is dead," she answered.

He could get no more from her, and he left her in anger.

"You had better divorce me and marry Francis Symeon," he said, "and
cultivate spookism together."

The natural sequel to a scene like that was a little dinner at
Claridge's with Mrs. Bellenden, and an evening at the silliest musical
comedy to be seen and heard in London.

His wife had given him a letter of license. She had ceased to love him.
He made himself so disagreeable to Mrs. Bellenden by dinner-time that
the meal was eaten in sullen silence; and the Magnum of Veuve Pommeroy
was hardly enough for two, for when Mrs. Bellenden was in a rage her
glass had to be filled very often, and the waiters at the smart hotels
knew her ways. The waiters worshipped her. "She tips as handsome as she
tipples," had been said of her by one of them.



CHAPTER XXIX


Everything was dead. That had been Vera's answer when Claude asked
despairingly if love was dead. The words were in her mind now as she
stood alone in the room where her poets, and her actors, and her
philosophers, looked at her from the white walls, and where the sound
of the great hall door closing heavily as her husband shut it behind
him was still in her ears.

Had he gone for ever? Was it indeed the end? Could love that had begun
in ecstasy close in this grey calm? She felt neither sorrow nor anger.
Everything was dead. She stood among the ruins of her life, feeling
as a child might feel when the house she has built of cards shatters
suddenly and falls at her feet. Everything was over. She had no thought
of building another house; no desire to patch up a broken life and
begin again. Perhaps her husband loved her still, and it was the gloom
of this haunted house that had driven him to seek distraction in a
baser love. It was her fault, perhaps, and she ought to be sorry for
him. Poor Claude! She remembered his gaiety. The airy mockery that
had enchanted her, the quick wit that had struck fire and light out
of dull things. She remembered the joyous nature, the light laughter,
the inexhaustible energy which made difficult things--in the way of
sport--seem easy. Yes, they had been happy, utterly happy in the life
of the moment, shutting out every thought that was irksome, every
memory that hurt. And it was all over and dead, and she had nothing
left but the shadows in this room, the dead faces, the words of those
who were not. That scriptural phrase had always moved her. "He was not."

Her afternoons in Mr. Symeon's library had been all she had cared
for in the season that was ending. She had gone wherever her husband
asked her to go, and had given the entertainments he wanted her to
give; but through all that brilliant summer she had gone about like "a
corpse alive." That dreary simile had been in her mind sometimes when
she thought of herself, sitting in her victoria, dressed as only the
well-bred English woman with unlimited money can be dressed, lovely in
her fragile fairness, admired and talked about. She had gone about, and
held her own, in a quiet way, among crowds of clever men and women, and
her life had seemed to her like the end of a long dream. Her only vital
interest had been in the voices she heard in Francis Symeon's shadowy
room. Those voices were of living men and women; but the words were the
words of the dead.

She was not utterly unhappy. The past was past, and she had left off
grieving over it, for now she had a transcendent hope in the near
future--the hope of death. She would soon have passed the river that
they had passed, Giulia and her father. The gate through which they had
gone to a higher stage in the upward path of life would open for her;
and no matter by what slow ascent, no matter with what feeble steps,
she would climb the mountain up which they had gone, those emancipated
spirits.

She had known for a long time that she was marked for death. She had no
specific ailment, but in this last season she had felt her vanishing
life, felt the painless ebb of vitality, and had measured, by a flight
of stairs, by a pathway in the Park, where she walked sometimes in the
early morning, the waning strength of limbs and heart. The dreadful
sleeplessness of the first year of her widowhood had returned; and her
nights were almost entirely spent in thought and reading, her brain
never resting, her heart seldom quiet.

Although she looked forward to death as release, she could not escape
the boredom of medical treatment. Lady Okehampton, whose daughters
were all married, and wanted nothing from parental affection--except
to be allowed to go their own way, and not to be obliged to invite
Mummy to their choicest parties--devoted herself more and more to her
favourite niece, who wasn't actually her niece, but only a first cousin
once removed. Since, in those last days at Disbrowe, she had seen the
mark of death on Vera's pale forehead, Aunt Mildred, who was really
a warm-hearted woman, had interested herself keenly in the vanishing
life, and had made unremitting efforts to combat the enemy.

"She has simply wasted her life since her second marriage," she said.
"She has wasted her life as recklessly as Claude has wasted her money;
but she shan't die without my making an effort to save her, even if I
have to take every specialist in London to Portland Place."

"You'd better take her to the specialists," said his lordship. "It
would save your time and her money."

"As if money mattered!"

"You could telephone for appointments, and do the whole of Grosvenor
Street and Savile Row in a morning, with a good taxi."

"A taxi--when my niece has two superb Daimlers--no. By the by, the last
Claude showed me is an S.C.A.T."

"Poor Provana!" sighed Okehampton. "To think that nothing could induce
him to buy a motor car, although he was a man to whom moments are
money. It was one of his few eccentricities to worship his horses."

"He might have been here now if he had not been quite so fussy about
his horses," sighed her ladyship.

"What do you mean?"

"He might not have used the door between the house and the stables--the
door by which he and his murderer came into the house on that awful
night."

"True," assented her husband, "it was an infernally unlucky door, and I
suppose if poor little Vera dies they'll carry her out that way to be
cremated."

"Okehampton, you are too bad! Whoever said she was to be cremated?"

"Nobody. But it's the modern way, isn't it? And, of course, everything
would be up-to-date."

"How can you be so heartless, and how can you use that odious
expression 'up-to-date'?"

"Well, I hope the poor girl will be warned in time, and live to make
old bones; but she didn't look like it at her last party. You'd better
give her husband a good wigging. It will be more useful than calling in
the specialists."

"I am utterly disgusted with Claude. He is throwing her money out of
windows, and behaving atrociously into the bargain."

"I suppose you mean Mrs. Bellenden. Well, my dear, that was bound to
come. Vera has been too much in the clouds for the last year. From what
Susan Amphlett told me of her way of life in Rome, she was bound to
lose her husband. No man can stomach neglect from a wife; unless all
the other women neglect him. And Claude Rutherford is not a negligible
quantity."

Lady Okehampton had tried her hand upon her young kinsman before this
colloquy with her lord, and had found him hopeless. He turned the point
of her lectures with a jest. He was light as vanity. He protested that
his wife was alone to blame. He adored her, and thought no other woman
upon this planet her equal in charm and beauty; but since she had taken
up with Symeon and his spooks, she had surrounded herself with an
atmosphere of sadness that would send the most devoted husband to the
primrose path, in sheer revolt against the gloom of his home.

"We are poor creatures," he said, "and we have to be amused."

Once only in the course of numerous "wiggings" did Claude show anything
like strong feeling, and then emotion came in a tempest that scared his
mild kinswoman.

She had talked to him about his wife's health.

"Vera is absolutely wasting away," she said. "Something must be done,
or she will not live till the end of the year."

"No, no, no," he cried. "My God, what do you mean? Is that to be the
end? Is death to take her from me and leave me in this black world
alone? You have no right to say such a thing! By what authority? Who
has told you that she is in failing health? I see her every day. She
never complains."

"You must be blind if you don't see the change in her."

"I don't believe there is anything seriously wrong. She is as lovely as
ever. No, I don't believe it. You are cruel to come here and frighten
me. She is all I have in the world, all, all! Do you understand?" His
head drooped suddenly upon the table by which he was sitting, and she
heard his hoarse sobs tearing his throat and chest, and saw his long,
thin fingers writhing among his hair, the boyish auburn hair with a
glint of gold in it that foolish women had praised.

"There is no need for despair, Claude. I only wanted to awaken you to
the seriousness of the case. We shall save her, in spite of herself. I
see you are still fond of her, and yet----"

"And yet I have been a brute, a senseless, idiotic beast. But that's
all over, Lady Okehampton. Love her! I would lie outside her door,
like that dog of hers, all through the long night only to get a smile
and a touch of her hand in the morning. Love her! I loved her for
five patient years, loved her passionately, and kept myself in check,
and behaved like an elder brother. I, the man no woman could trust.
Love her! The picture of her childish prettiness at Disbrowe was in
my memory when I was going to the devil at Simla. You don't know what
men are made of. You only know the model English gentleman, like your
husband."

"Okehampton has never given me any trouble, except in his young days,
when he used to ride dangerous horses. I know I have been exceptionally
fortunate in my husband; and, of course, I know that modern husbands
and wives are utterly unlike us; but I must say that your behaviour at
your wife's last party was inexcusable. The dear Princess was sadly
huffed; and I doubt if Vera will ever get her to her house again."

"I don't think Vera will try."

"But she ought to try. The Princess Hermione has been perfectly sweet
about her."

"Vera doesn't care. That's her worst symptom, that I know of. She has
left off caring about things."

"And that is a very bad symptom," said Lady Okehampton. "When
Chagford's wife showed signs of it, I bundled her off to a nursing
home for six weeks, and she came out of it just in time for Ascot, and
as keen as mustard, as Chagford said in his vulgar way. She had been
dieted, and massaged, and not allowed to see anyone but her nurses; and
she was quite cured of not caring. She romped with her children, and
ate jam pudding like one of them."

"Ah, you see there were children," sighed Claude. "There was something
for her to come back to."

"Vera and you ought to have had a family. It is very disappointing,"
said Aunt Mildred, and the tone implied that when she said
"disappointing" she meant "reprehensible."

"Never mind," she went on presently, in a more hopeful tone, "don't be
down-hearted, Claude. If doctors can cure her, she shall be another
woman before the end of the year."

"You love doctors much better than I do," said Claude, grasping her
hands. "Find the man who can cure her and I will worship him."

       *       *       *       *       *

After this Vera entered upon a wide acquaintance with the fashionable
specialists: the man who was invincible in treatment of lung trouble;
the only authority upon cardiac disorders; the man who knew more about
the nervous system than any other physician in Europe; the man who
had given his life to the study of the digestive organs; the hypnotic
doctor, and the mesmerist; and finally, as a condescension, the
all-round or common-sense man who might be consulted about anything,
and sometimes, as it were by rule of thumb, succeeded where the
specialists had failed.

These gentlemen came to Portland Place at irregular intervals through
the month of August, Vera resolutely refusing to leave London in that
impossible month, and Lady Okehampton again sacrificing her annual
cure to the care of her niece, as she had done in the year of Mario
Provana's unhappy death.

Lady Okehampton having made this sacrifice, almost the greatest which
a woman of her age and position could make, naturally allowed herself
some slight compensation in fussiness. She talked about her niece's
health to boring point with her familiar friends, with the result of
booking the name and address of some infallible specialist, hitherto
unknown to her; and this accounted for the spasmodic appearance of
a new consultant once or twice a week, in Vera's morning-room, all
through that impossible month, in which the doctors themselves were
panting for escape from London, to shoot grouse in Scotland, or do
their own cures in Bohemia, after a season of hard dining. Vera was
curiously submissive to these frequent ordeals. She answered any
questions that the great man asked her; but she never volunteered
information about herself, and she always made light of her ailments.
The admission of a little worrying cough that was at its worst at
night, a slight palpitation of the heart after going upstairs, was all
that could be obtained from her by the most subtle questionings; but
lungs and heart told their own story, without words.

She smiled when the nerve specialist asked her if she slept well, and
again when he suggested certain harmless opiates which would ensure
beneficent slumber. She had taken them all. She had exhausted Susan
Amphlett's pharmacopoeia, which contained all these specifics, and
others not so harmless.

When one physician after another--for on this they were all
agreed--told her that she ought not to be in London in this sultry,
depressing weather, while each advised his pet health resort, she
smiled sweetly, and said she meant to remain in London till November,
when she would go back to Rome.

"I am fond of this house," she said, "and the London air suits me."

"London air is very good air," answered Dr. Selwyn Tower, who
understood her better than the various new lights, "but not in August
and September. If you are to be in Rome in November, why not spend the
interval in Italy, at Varese, for instance, a charming spot, with every
advantage?"

No. Vera was not to be persuaded.

"I like the quiet of this home after the season. All I want is rest and
silence," she said, and Dr. Selwyn Tower shot a despairing glance at
Lady Okehampton.

"Your niece is absolutely charming; but as obstinate as a mule," he
told her, when they had their conference in one of the drawing-rooms.
All the doors and _portières_ were open, and the doctor looked at the
long vista of splendid emptiness with a faint shudder.

"It is a fine house, but a little depressing," he murmured.

"I call it positively uncanny; but that is all in my niece's line. She
is dreadfully morbid. I am glad there was no occultism or Christian
Science when I was young."

At these words Christian Science the famous consultant shuddered worse
than at sight of the empty rooms.

"If your sweet niece is _that_ way inclined we can do nothing for her,"
he said.

"No, thank Heaven, that is not one of her fads."

And then the fashionable physician gave his opinion of the case,
or just so much of his opinion as he thought it good to give to an
affectionate but not over wise aunt.

He found that the patient's strength was at a very low ebb. She had
been wasting her resources, living upon her capital, refusing herself
the rest that was essential for so fragile a form, so sensitive a
temperament, and so over-active a brain. Lady Okehampton had told
him of the gaieties, the rush from place to place, from amusement to
amusement, the everlasting entertaining and being entertained; and he
talked as if he had been there, watching and taking notes, all through
that wild career. He was not going to extinguish hope; so he kept up a
cheerful tone throughout the conference. There was nothing heroic in
the treatment required. Rest, and a soothing regimen. Not much walking,
but a great deal of fresh air, Drives in her open carriage to rural
suburbs, if she should insist on remaining in London; a little quiet
society; the utmost care as to diet, and constant medical supervision.
He would be glad to confer with Mrs. Rutherford's regular medical man
before he left London; and he hoped, on his return in three or four
weeks, to find a marked improvement.

This was all. When questioned as to lung trouble, he said that there
was trouble, but he saw no fatal indications. Yes, there was heart
weakness; but nothing that might not be modified by care.

Simple as she was, Lady Okehampton did not feel altogether assured by
all this bland talk, and the sound of the doctor's carriage wheels,
as they rolled away from the door, recalled the moaning of the winter
waves under the red cliffs at Disbrowe.

She repeated the specialist's diplomatic utterances to Claude, who did
not seem to attach much importance to medical opinion.

"All doctors talk alike," he said. "I don't think Vera's is a case for
the faculty. You remember what Macbeth said to his physician?"

Lady Okehampton did not remember; but she gave a sigh of assent that
answered as well.

"I'm afraid Vera's is a rooted sorrow, and, God help me! _I_ cannot
pluck it from her memory. We had better leave her alone. We can do
nothing more for her. We can't make her happy."

"Claude, this is too dreadful. Are we to let her die?" cried Aunt
Mildred, with something like an elderly shriek.

"Is death so great an evil? At least it means rest, and there are some
of us who can get rest no other way."

"Claude, it is positively dreadful to hear you talk like that, as if
you cared for nothing in this life."

"I don't."

And then Lady Okehampton took him in hand severely, and talked to
him as a good woman, but as a Philistine of the Philistines, would
naturally talk on such an occasion; and after remonstrating with him
for his want of religious feeling, and even proper affection, went
on to reproaching him for spending his wife's money, squandering her
magnificent fortune with a reckless wastefulness that might end in
reducing her to beggary.

"No fear of that, Aunt Mildred. No doubt I have thrown money out of
windows. Money has never been a serious consideration with Vera and
me. We should have been quite as happy when we started on our Venetian
honeymoon if we had had only just enough to pay for our tourists'
tickets and our gondola, just enough for the gondola and a cheap hotel.
Money could buy us nothing that we cared for. Later, when I knew what
her income was, I spent with a free hand; but there's a good deal of
spending in a hundred thousand a year----"

Lady Okehampton shivered, and stirred in her seat uneasily. That
colossal income, and nothing done for the needy members of her
husband's illustrious house!

"I wanted to amuse myself and to amuse my wife, and amusements are
costly nowadays; so the money has run out pretty fast, but there has
always been a handsome surplus. I see Mr. Zabulon, the banker, one
of my wife's trustees, two or three times a year, and he has never
complained. Vera's charities are immense; so there is really nothing
for you to moan about, Lady Okehampton."

"Nothing," cried Vera's aunt, with uplifted hands. "Was there ever
anyone so feather-headed, so feckless? Can you forget that when your
wife dies her fortune dies with her?"

"No. But when she dies, I shall have done with all that money can buy.
I shall be able to pension the old stable hands, and provide for my
dogs, out of my fifteen hundred a year; and I can give my trainer half
a dozen cracks that will make him comfortable for life."

"You are very considerate about your stable and kennels. I wonder if
you have ever considered Vera's obligations to those who come after
her."

"If you mean the Roman cater-cousins I certainly have not."

"Provana's heirs? Why, of course not! They will be inordinately rich
when that splendid fortune is chopped up among them. No, Claude, if
you had a proper family feeling, which to my mind is an essential
element in the Christian life, you would have thought of our herd of
poor relations. Nicholas Disbrowe, dying by inches in an East Anglian
Vicarage, and not daring to winter in the South, for want of means; or
poor Lady Rosalba, who is no better off than Vera's grandmother, and
doesn't make half as good a fight as poor Lady Felicia did; or Mary
Disbrowe Jones, who married so wretchedly, and is selling blouses in a
shabby street in Pimlico----"

"I think Vera has done a lot for all of 'em. I know she sent the
Reverend Nicholas a thousand pounds last winter, when his wife wrote
her a doleful letter; and she gave her blouse-making cousin two hundred
and fifty pounds last week, to save her from bankruptcy. Consider them,
forsooth! Do you suppose they don't ask to be considered? Every man
jack of them, down to the remotest connection by marriage. They are
as eloquent with the pen as professional begging-letter writers. They
blister their papers with tears. And Vera never refuses. She does not
know how."

"Oh, I know she is generous. A thousand to that worthy man in the
Fens was handsome; but that kind of casual help won't provide for the
future; and when our poor dear is gone there will be nothing. May that
sad day be long, long off; but in the meantime she ought to invest her
surplus income, and leave it to those who want it most and would use
it best. You may be sure I have no personal feeling; but the best of
us are not too well off, and if there should come the general election
that we are threatened with, I doubt if Chagford will be able to stand
for North Devon. The ballot has made bribery more audacious and more
expensive than ever. I am told three half crowns is the least the
wretches will take. They will ride a candidate's motor to death, and
then go and vote for his opponent."

"Let Chagford talk to my wife, if there's a dissolution," said Claude,
with a half-smothered yawn that expressed weariness and disgust.

"Vera is always kind," sighed Lady Okehampton dolefully; but she
refrained from suggesting that, when the dissolution came, Vera might
not be there.

This was Aunt Mildred's last attack upon Claude Rutherford. He took
matters into his own hands after this, and no longer depended upon
accounts of his wife's health at second hand. He took all information
upon that subject from Dr. Selwyn Tower, who had a great reputation at
that period, and whom he was inclined to trust.

The physician was more frank with the husband than he had been with the
aunt, though even yet he said nothing to extinguish hope. He told Mr.
Rutherford that it would have been better for his wife to winter in the
South, or by way of experiment to try a short winter in the Engadine,
coming down to Ragaz before the snow melted; but as the dear lady
seemed strangely bent upon staying in her own house, it would be safer
to indulge her fancy. Lungs and heart were only a question of weakness.
The mind was of serious consequence; and everything must be done to
check the tendency to melancholia.

"If we can make her happy, we shall be able to deal with the lung
trouble," said the physician. "Open air and good spirits might work a
miracle."

Dr. Tower naturally inquired as to parental history, and was somewhat
disheartened on hearing that the dear lady's father and mother had
died young, the former of galloping consumption, during an open-air
cure; yet even this did not induce him to pronounce sentence of death.
Nor did he allow Mrs. Rutherford to suppose herself a desperate case,
though he insisted on having a trained nurse, and of the best, in
attendance upon his patient, as well as the maid Louison.

The French girl might be all that Mrs. Rutherford could require, he
admitted, when Vera told him she wanted no one else.

"But you must allow me what I want," pleaded Dr. Tower with his most
ingratiating air. "My treatment is of the mildest--nothing heroic or
troublesome about it--but I must be sure that it is followed. I must
have someone about you who is responsible to _me_. My nurse shall not
be allowed to bore you. If she is intrusive or disagreeable to you, you
can telephone to me; and she shall be superseded within the hour."

Vera submitted. Her indifference to most things, even to those that
concerned herself, was one of her symptoms which made Dr. Tower uneasy.

"This woman will never help to cure herself," he thought, as he drove
away, with that far-off look in Vera's face impressed upon his mind.
"She does not want to get well. She is not absolutely unhappy--only
indifferent. Something must have gone wrong in her life. Yet her
husband does not seem a bad sort."

She was not unhappy. She had been allowed to take her own way, and to
live as she wished to live--in the silence and peace of the spacious
house, where the business of entertaining seemed to be at an end for
ever. Whatever had been amiss in the life that was ebbing away seemed
hardly to matter, now that she was drawing near the other life. Her
husband came and went, and spend a good deal of his time in her room,
talking with her, or reading to her, when she was too tired to talk.
There had been nothing said of his offence against her; no utterance
of that other woman's name. They were friends again, and could talk of
the things that they loved--literature, music, art; of Henry Irving's
Hamlet; of Millais and Browning, both of whom she had seen at Aunt
Mildred's house in her childhood, and whose faces she remembered; of
books new and old. They were as friendly and sympathetic as they had
been in Mario Provana's lifetime, before the dawn of love. It was as
if they were still at the same platonic stage. All that had come after
was like a lurid dream from which they had awakened. Tristram was again
the true knight. Iseult was sinless.

All that was best in Claude Rutherford was in the ascendant during
these long, slow weeks of silent sorrow, in which he knew that the
man with the scythe was at the door, that nothing money could buy or
love devise could save the woman he loved. He had broken finally with
that other woman: finally, for the fiery cup had lost its intoxicating
power, and the end had been a vulgar quarrel about money. Whatever was
to happen to him, he was safe from that siren's spells.

All his natural sweetness, his sympathy and charm, were for Vera, in
those quiet weeks of September and October, when there was nobody in
London, and the chariot wheels rolled no more in the broad roadway. He
was at his best in his wife's white morning-room, where the faces of
the immortals looked down upon him, and where he was kind even to the
dog she loved--the Irish terrier, brought home after his half-year's
quarantine--who stretched his strong limbs and rough, red-brown body
against her satin slippers, as she lay on her sofa, a fragile figure,
shadowy in her loose white gown.

All that was best in this man, the tenderness, the sympathy, was in
evidence now; a failure no doubt, trivial and shallow, incapable of
deep feeling, perhaps, but a sweet, lovable nature; a nature that had
made women love him whether he wanted their love or not.

"It is very good of you to give me so much of your time," Vera said one
day, slipping her thin little hand into his, which was almost as thin.
"Invalids are wretched company, and I don't want you to have too much
of this dull room."

"I do not find it dull--and it is no duller for me than for you."

"It is never dull for me. I have my faces. _They_ are always company."

"Your faces--You mean those portraits?"

"Byron, Scott, Browning. Yes, they are always company. I have looked
at them till they are alive. I have read Walter Scott's journals
and Byron's letters till I know them as well as if they had been my
intimate friends when they were alive. I know Browning's letters by
heart; those sweet letters to the sweet wife. Shakespeare is different.
It is so sad that there are no familiar records. One can only think of
him as the poet and the creator; genius that touches the supernatural."

"I don't think it matters how little you know of the man, his
deer-stalking or his tardy marriage, as long as you don't think there
was no Shakespeare, and that the noblest poetry this world ever saw was
written by the skunk who gave away his friend," said her husband.

"Bacon! Horrible!"

On one quiet evening, when Claude had been with her since his solitary
dinner, she said softly:

"I sometimes forget all the years, and think you are just the same
Cousin Claude who took pity on me at Disbrowe, when I was so shy that
other people's kindness only made me miserable. Till you came I used
to creep into any corner with a book, rather than mix with my Disbrowe
cousins, who were so dreadfully grand and clever."

"Precocious geniuses, Mrs. Somervilles in the bud, who matured into two
of the most commonplace women I know, and almost as ignorant as Susan
Amphlett," said Claude.

"But you must not give me so much of your time, Claude," she said
gently.

"I love to be with you; but I may slip away for the Cambridgeshire?" he
said, the trivial side of his character coming to the surface.

She did not even ask if he were personally interested in the race.
There had been a time when she knew every horse he owned, and made
most of them her friends, rejoicing in their beauty as creatures whom
she would have liked to keep for pets, rather than to expose them to
the ordeal of the turf; albeit she had followed their fortunes, and
speculated upon their chances, almost as keenly interested as her
husband. But now they had become things without shape or meaning, like
all the rest of the outside world.

"You need not be afraid of leaving me," she said. "I have this good
friend to keep me company," smoothing Boroo's rough coat with her soft
hand.

"I wish my mother were still in town. She would come to you every day."

"She is very good, but she and I have never been really friends. I know
she would be kind; but she would talk of painful things. I don't want
to remember. I want to look forward."

"Yes," he answered in a low voice, bending over her, and pressing his
lips on the pale brow. "There must be no looking back."

It was the first time he had kissed her since the night of the concert.
She looked up at him with a sad, sweet smile, and held his hand in hers
for a moment.

"Susan must come to you every day to keep you in good spirits," he said.

"No, Claude, Susie doesn't like sick people. She sits by my side and
chatters and chatters, telling me all the scandals she thinks will
interest me; but I can hear the effort she is making. Her tongue does
not run on as it used before I was ill; and once when she saw a spot
of blood on my handkerchief she nearly fainted. I don't want too much
of Susie. Mr. Symeon will come and talk to me sometimes; and his talk
always does me good."

"I wish I could think so. I hate leaving you in London. You ought to
have gone to Disbrowe, as your aunt wished. You would have done better
in that soft air."

"No. I should be better nowhere than in this silent house. If I cannot
be in Rome there is nowhere else where I should like to be. I want
space and silence, and no going and coming of people who mean to be
kind and who bore me to death. I want no fussing and talking about me.
I can put up with my nurse, because she is quiet and does her work like
a machine."

Rome? Yes, in the November afternoons when the world outside her
windows was hidden in grey fog, she longed for the beautiful city,
the place of life and light, the city of fountains, full of the sound
of rushing water. The dull greyness of London oppressed her, when she
thought of the long garden walks in their solemn stillness, the cypress
and ilex, the statues gleaming ghostly in the dusk against the dark
walls of laurel and arbutus, the broad terrace with its massive marble
balustrade, on which she had leant for hours in melancholy meditation,
thinking, thinking, thinking, as the multitude of church towers and the
great dome in the hollow below her changed from grey to purple, as the
golden light died in the west and the young moon rose above the fading
crimson of the afterglow.

It was sad to think that she would never see that divine city again,
and all that she had loved in Italy: Cadenabbia, where her honeymoon
had begun, to the sound of rippling water, as the boats crept by in the
darkness, to the music of guitars and Italian voices, singing in the
light of coloured lanterns, while the cosmopolitan crowd clustered in
the narrow space between the hotel and the lake.

       *       *       *       *       *

Susan Amphlett came nearly every day, and insisted upon being admitted.
She had come to London for a week, just to buy frocks for a winter
round of visits.

"But much more to see you, my dearest," she said, and then she recited
the houses to which she was going, and her reason for going to them,
which seemed to be anything rather than any regard for the people she
was visiting. She talked of herself as if she had been a star actress.

"I am touring in the shires this winter," she said. "I did Hants and
Dorset last year, and was bored to extinction. Roger is happy in any
hole if he can be riding to hounds every day, and he had the Blackmoor
Vale and the North Hants within his reach most of the time; while I was
excruciated by a pack of women who talked of nothing but their good
works or their bridge, and they were such poor players that the good
works were less boring than the bridge talk. 'Dear Lady Sue, would you
call no trumps if?'--and would you do this and t'other? questions that
babies in the nursery might ask over their toy cards."

Then came a long account of the frocks that were being made for the
shires, and the scarlet top-coat to be worn with a grey habit, which
Roger hated.

"I think he would like me in an early-Victorian get up, with the edge
of my habit touching my horse's fetlocks, a large white muslin collar,
and a low beaver hat with a long feather. Those early-Victorian collars
cost two or three pounds apiece, my Grannie told me, and those poor
wretches who never changed their clothes till dinner, wore them all
day long; and yet they talk of _our_ extravagance; as if nobody paid
anything for clothes in those days."

And then, when the houses to which she was going, and the clothes she
was to wear, and her quarrels with her husband and her maid had been
discussed at length, Susan began to talk about her friend.

"Lady O. told me how ill you had been, _ma mie_, and of your curious
whim about this house. She says Selwyn Tower would have liked you to
go to the Transvaal, and told her that two or three months in that
delicious climate would make you a strong woman; but finding you set
upon stopping in your own house he gave way, as your illness is chiefly
a question of nerves. It is a comfort to know that, _n'est-ce pas, mein
Schatz?_"

"Yes, of course it is a comfort. I suppose, with nothing amiss but
one's nerves, one might live to be ninety."

"True, dearest, quite ninety," Susan answered, shuddering.

Susan Amphlett was out of her element in a sick room. The mere thought
that the friend she was talking to was marked for death seemed to
freeze her blood. Her own hand grew as cold as the cold hand she was
holding. She could not be bright and pleasant with Death in sight.

As she sat with Vera in the library that had been Provana's favourite
room she felt as if there were someone standing behind the door of that
inner room, a door that had been left ajar. There was someone waiting
there whose unseen presence made her dumb. Someone! Not Provana--but
another and more terrible shape.

"Vera," she burst out at last, "why do you sit in this horrid room
instead of in your sweet white den, with Byron and Browning and all
your dear people?"

"I like this room better, now that my thoughts have gone backward."

"What can you mean by thoughts going backward?"

"Now that I know time is measured for me, so much and no more; I like
to live over the days that are gone. It spins out my life to live the
dead years over again. This is the room Mario loved. His books are on
those shelves, the books that opened a new world for me: the Italian
historians, the Italian poets. In the first year of our life in this
house, before I was the fashion, we used to sit here of an evening,
long evenings, from nine till midnight, talking, talking, talking, or
Mario reading to me. He was a banker, and a dealer in money; but he
read poetry exquisitely."

"Vera!" Susan ejaculated suddenly, and sat staring.

"What's the matter?"

"I believe you loved Provana better than ever you have loved Claude."

"I don't know," Vera said dreamily.

She had been talking in a dreamy way, as if she were hardly conscious
that anyone was listening to her.

"Perhaps you never were really in love with your second husband?"

"Yes. I loved him too much--and," after a perceptible pause, "not
enough."

"Darling, I can't make you out."

"I am not worth making out."

"One thing I must tell you, Vera, even at the risk of agitating you. It
is all over with that woman."

"Which woman?"

"Which? Mrs. Bellenden. There has never been so much as a whisper about
any other since your marriage."

"Oh, it is all over? I thought so."

"Vera, what indifference! You might be talking of somebody in Mars.
Yes, dear, it is quite at an end. They had a desperate quarrel; quite
the worst of many frightful rows. There was furniture smashed, I
believe--Sèvres and things--and now she has consoled herself."

"Really?"

"A German Prince. One of the German attachés told me he would marry her
if he dared. Well, sweet, I must be trudging. I'm dining out, one of
those nice little winter dinners that I love. You must make haste and
get quite, quite well."

This was what Susie always said to a sick friend, even when the friend
was moribund. The "quite, quite" had such a cheering sound.

"By the by, Lady O. told me you have had the Princess Hermione?"

"Yes, she came to see me two or three times when she was passing
through town."

"That must have cheered you immensely. She is devoted to you, quite
raves about you, I hear, in the highest circles. Get well, dear, and
give a party for her when she is next in town."

Susie kissed her and patted her hair, and suppressed a shiver at the
cold brow that her lips touched. It felt like the brow of death.
Yet Vera's eyes were bright, and there was a rosy bloom on the thin
cheek. Susan was glad when she had got herself out of the house and
was walking fast through the cheerful streets. But she was sincerely
attached to her friend.

"I shall be fit for nothing this evening," she told herself sadly; but
she was at least fit for her part of Chorus, and entertained the little
dinner-party with a picturesque description of her fading friend, dying
slowly in that house of measureless wealth.

"Her income dies with her," she explained, "and though I suppose a
few pennies have been saved out of a hundred thousand a year, and my
cousin will get all that's left, he will be a pauper in a year or two,
I daresay."

On this the company speculated upon how much might be left; and all
were agreed that there was a good deal of spending in a hundred
thousand, while one of the middle-aged men went so far as to make
a rough calculation of the Rutherfords' expenditure in those five
years of expensive pleasures; but even after reckoning the dances
and dinner-giving, the yachts and balloons, the racing stable, and a
certain amount of losses on the turf and at cards, they did not bring
the annual outlay above eighty thousand, whereupon a dowager looked
round with a smile, and said:

"You haven't reckoned Mrs. Bellenden."

"True. Now you mention her, I take it there would be no surplus."

And then that remarkable lady and her German Prince were discussed
at full length--dissected rather than discussed; for when a woman is
remarkable for her beauty, and has spent three or four fortunes, and
is in a fair way of spending another, there is a great deal of amusing
talk to be got out of her.



CHAPTER XXX


After Susan Amphlett's disappearance the house in Portland Place was
given over to silence and solitude. Lady Okehampton was at Disbrowe,
where she was on duty as a model grandmother, her daughters liking
their children to spend the early winter in the ancestral home, where
there were Exmoor ponies in abundance, and plenty of clever grooms to
teach the "dear kiddies" to ride, and a superannuated governess of the
"good old soul" or "dear old thing" order, to keep their young minds
from rusting and coach them for their next "exam.," whether in music or
science.

Lady Okehampton was established in her country house till Christmas;
and Claude had turf engagements and shooting engagements enough to
occupy him nearly as long. He had been reluctant to leave his wife;
but once away from the silent house, he had all manner of distractions
to prolong his absence; and while Newmarket was full of life and
anticipations for next year, the house in which he had left Vera was
a place of gloom, that haunted him in troubled dreams and made the
thought of return horrible.

He wrote to her more than once, entreating her to let him take her to
Cannes or Nice. She could have nurses and invalid carriages to make the
journey possible, and her health would be renewed in the sunshine. But
his wife's answer was always to the same effect:

"I am at peace. Let me be."

And then he fell back upon his stables and his racing friends; or his
shooting in Suffolk; or on cards: any thing to stop that horror of
retrospective thought, which had been like a disease with him of late
years.

       *       *       *       *       *

Vera was at peace. She had no trivial visitors, was not obliged to
listen to futile chatter about other people's affairs. Dr. Tower came
three or four times a week, unwilling to confide so precious a life
to his "watch-dog," the general practitioner, and was cheerful and
sympathetic. She had two hospital nurses now--one always on guard, day
and night. She could no longer maintain her struggle for independence,
for she too often needed a helping arm to support her as she went up
and down the long corridors, or toiled slowly up the spacious staircase
that had once been alive with the finest people in London, but where
now the slender figure in a soft silk gown and white fur boa, with the
nurse in cap and uniform, moved in a ghostly silence.

Father Cyprian Hammond came to see her sometimes, and sat long and
talked delightfully; but he, who was past master in the art of making
proselytes, could get no nearer the mind of this woman than he had got
a year before. Whatever her burden was, she would not open her heart to
him. Whatever her sense of sin, she would not ask him for absolution.
It was in vain that he told her what his Church could do for a
penitent--the ineffable power possessed by that one Holy and Infallible
Church to heal the wounded heart and to bring the strayed lamb back to
the Shepherd's arms.

"Try to think of yourself in the wilderness and that divine Shepherd
seeking for you," said the priest gently.

But Father Cyprian, with all his gifts, could not win her to confide
in him. It was only to Francis Symeon, the spiritualist, that she ever
spoke of the thoughts that filled her mind, as she sat alone in the
room that had been her husband's, dreaming over one of the books he
had loved. Her intimacy with Francis Symeon had grown closer since the
world outside that quiet room had closed upon her for ever, since he
knew and she knew that the transition from the known to the unknown
life was very near. He had told her the story of his own sorrows, the
tragedy of love and death that had made him a mystic and a dreamer,
whose hopes and convictions the world scoffed at.

Life had given him all the things he desired, and last, best gift
of all, the love of a perfect woman, who alone could make that life
complete for himself and for others, lifting him for ever above the
sphere of sensual joys and worthless ambitions. It was she who had
taught him to look beyond the present life, and to consider the beauty
of the world no more than a screen that concealed the glory of diviner
worlds, hidden from them only while they were moving along their
earthly pilgrimage, always looking beyond, always dreaming of something
better.

The day came, without an hour's warning, when he was to be told that
her pilgrimage was nearly done. The after-life was calling her. The
divine companions were beckoning.

All that there had been of high enthusiasm and scorn of life left him
in that moment. He was as weak and helpless as a mother with her only
child, her infant child threatened by death. The dreamer was no more a
dreamer; and only the earthly lover remained, he who was to have been
her husband. He hung upon moments, he listened to every failing breath,
he counted time by her ebbing strength and the opinions of doctors. He
lived only to watch and to listen beside her sofa, or in the curtained
twilight of her sick room, when the pretty garden-parlour was no longer
possible. Wherever she was carried in the vain pursuit of life he went
with her. The time of alternating hope and dread lasted nearly a year.

"It was our union," he told Vera. "It was my only marriage. As I sat
day after day with her hand clasped in mine I knew that this was all
I could ever know of marriage or of woman's love. From the day of her
death I had done with the world; and all the rest of my days were given
up to searching for those who had gone--for those who were in her
world, not in mine. I have waited at the door, as your dog waits when
he cannot see you, and as he believes that you are there, on the other
side, so I believe and know that she is near me; and my days have known
no other business or interest than my patient search into the books of
all ages and nations that help the science of the future life, and the
society of those people whom you have met in my rooms, and who think
and feel as I do. I am a rich man, but I only use money for the relief
of distress; and I have allowed myself no luxury or indulgence beyond
my books, and the rooms that are large enough to hold them and me."

       *       *       *       *       *

The hospital nurse sat in the adjoining room, with the door ajar.
So far, and so far only, was the patient allowed the privilege of
solitude. Someone must be always there, within hearing. When she had a
visitor the door might be shut, but not otherwise.

"There must be something very dreadful the matter with me," she said
when Dr. Tower insisted upon this point.

"No, my dear lady, there is nothing dreadful in a tired heart; but I
don't want you to faint without anybody at hand to look after you."

Vera assured him that she was not likely to faint, and made mock of his
care.

He had been very insistent upon certain points in his treatment, which
he arranged with the general practitioner who had attended her for
minor ailments in earlier days, when she was rarely in need of medical
care. He would not allow her to go up and down stairs any longer. That
ordeal must be at an end until she was stronger. He had the dining-room
made into a bedroom for her use. All the gloomy old pictures and
colossal furniture had been removed, and the walls were hung with
delicate chintz, while the choicest things in her rooms upstairs had
been brought down to make this ground-floor apartment pleasant for
her--a room that smiled as it had never smiled before, even on those
gala nights when a flood of light shone upon the splendour of Georgian
silver, and Venetian glass, and diamonds, and fashionable women.

"You are taking far too much trouble about me," Vera said, when first
she saw this transformation.

"We only want to save you trouble. The ascent to the second floor of
this lofty house is almost Alpine. I wonder you never established an
electric lift."

"I never minded running up and down stairs."

She remembered the first years after her second marriage, the years
of trivial pleasures and hurry and excitement, and with how light a
step she had gone up and down that stately staircase, to give herself
over to her Parisian maid, and to have her smart toilet of the morning
changed for the still smarter clothes of the afternoon, while she
submitted impatiently, with a mind full of worthless things: the
fashion of her gown, the shape of her last new hat. That rush from one
amusement to another--endless hours without pause--had been like the
morphia maniac's needle. It had killed thought.

All that was left of life now was thought, or rather memory; for of
late thought and memory were one.

Her doctors might do what they liked with her, so long as they let her
stay in the silent house, and did not take away her dog.

Since his return from captivity the terrier had hung about her with a
love more devoted even than before their separation. He watched her as
only a dog can watch the creature it loves. He would not let her out
of his sight. He could not forget how he had been kept away from her;
and he lived in fear of another parting. If he were not lying at her
feet, or nestling against the soft folds of her gown, he was sitting at
the door of her room, the door that hid her from him; the cruel door
that kept him from her immediate presence. He lay at her bedroom door
all night, and rushed in, with the first entrance of nurse or maid
in the morning, to greet her with hairy paws upon her coverlet, and
irresistible canine kisses upon her cheek. This was the best love that
remained to her; the love that had no after-thought, and left no sting.
She had provided a friend for him in days when she would be no longer
there. Francis Symeon had promised to take him, and love him, and give
him a happy old age and a gentle sleep when he was weary.

As the winter days shortened she grew perceptibly weaker, and the tired
heart felt as if its work in this world must be nearly done.

Mr. Symeon came every day, and stayed for a long time, a quiet figure
sitting in the low armchair by the wood fire, sometimes in silence that
was restful for the invalid, though she loved to hear him talk; for his
thoughts were not of this narrow life and its trumpery pleasures and
eating cares, but of the land beyond the veil.

"Do you believe they think of us, sometimes, those who have gone
beyond?" Vera asked in her low, sweet voice, as they sat in the winter
gloaming.

"I believe they think of us often--always, if they have loved us much."

"I had a friend whom I offended, cruelly, dreadfully," she said
slowly, as if with an effort, "and he died before I had even begun to
be sorry. And when he was dead and I knew that his spirit was there,
among the shadows, near me, I was afraid, horribly afraid. I could
only think of his anger, never of the possibility of his forgiveness.
For a long, long time I was afraid that I should see him. I could
imagine the dreadful anger in his face. His face and form were always
there, in the background of my life; and I was afraid of being alone,
afraid of silence and darkness and all lonely places; so I gave myself
up to society, and the amusements and distractions of brainless
people, without ever really caring for them--only to escape thought.
But I could not stop my brain from thinking. Thought went on like a
relentless iron mill grinding, grinding, grinding the same dead husks
by day and night; and the friend whose love I had wounded was always
there. And then there came a time when I sickened of everything upon
earth--society, splendour, music, pictures, even mountains and lakes
and forests, and all the beauty of the world. All things had become
loathsome, and I wandered about with a restless spirit in my brain that
would not leave me in peace. Then, slowly, slowly, the faint, sweet
sense of peace came back--the angry face was gone--and the face that
looked at me out of the shadows was only sad--and then the time came
when I felt that the dead had changed towards me in that dim world
you have taught me to understand, and that there was pardon and pity
in the great heart I had wounded; and one day the burden was lifted
from my soul, and I knew that I was forgiven. Now tell me, my kind
friend, was this hallucination, was it just the outcome of my brooding
thoughts, dwelling perpetually upon the same subject, or was the spirit
of my dead friend really in touch with mine? Was it by his strong will
reaching across the barrier of death that the assurance of forgiveness
had come to my soul, or was I the dupe of my own imagination, my own
longing for pardon?"

"No, you were not deceived. It is for such as you that the veil is
sometimes lifted, the creatures in whom mind is more than flesh, the
elect of human clay. I told you as much as that years ago when you
first talked to me of the world we all believe in, we who meet together
and wait for the voices out of the shadows, the wisdom and the faith
that cannot die, the voices of the influencing minds. No, my sweet
friend, have neither fear nor doubt. The sense of pity and pardon that
has come into your soul is a message from the friend you loved.

    "Would the happy spirit descend
      From the realms of light or song,
    Should I fear to greet my friend
      Or to say 'Forgive the wrong'?

Believe that you are forgiven; you can know no more than that until
you have passed the river, until the gate of a happier world has been
opened."

"And then I shall be with him again, where they neither marry nor are
given in marriage, but where they are as the angels of God in heaven?"

"That is the reunion to which we all look forward; that is the faith
that looks through death."

There was a long interval of silence, and then she said slowly:

"If I could see him with these bodily eyes, see him as I see you
looking at me in the firelight, I should be sure that the dream is not
a dream."

"You have been privileged to understand the mind of your dead friend;
to know that he is near you. That should be enough. Only to the rarest
natures is it given to see. You questioned me about this possibility
of vision once before; and I told you that I had known of one instance
when the eyes of the living beheld the dead, in the last moments of
earthly life."

"I do not think those moments are far off for me, my friend," Vera said
softly.

Francis Symeon, in whose philosophy death was emancipation, did not
say the kind of thing that Susan Amphlett would have said in the
circumstances. She no doubt would have told Vera that she was talking
nonsense, and that she was "going to get quite, quite well, and live
for years and years and years, and have a real good time."

Mr. Symeon took her attenuated hand in his friendly grasp, and sat by
her for some time in silence before he bade her his calm adieu, patted
the dog, nestling against her knees, and went quietly out of the room
and out of the house. He did not think that he would ever again be
sitting in the firelight in that room, hearing the low sad voice. He
knew that he had shut the door upon a life that was measured by moments.

Three days after that Vera was unwontedly restless. There had been a
long telegram from her husband in the morning, announcing his return
for that night. He had finished all his business with his trainer,
engaged the jockeys who were to ride for him next year, and he was
coming back to London--he did not say "coming home"--heartily sick of
Newmarket, and his Suffolk shooting, and the friends who had been with
him.

"Why do we do these things and call them pleasures?" He ended the
message with that question, as with a moral.

"Poor Claude!" sighed his wife, as she folded the thin slips of paper
and laid them among her books; and then she thought:

"How much happier for him if he had stayed with the Benedictines!"

       *       *       *       *       *

The days wore on, such slow days. The nurses were more and more
attentive, horribly attentive. There were three of them now. Two were
always about her, while the third slept. She had left off asking
questions. Dr. Tower came every morning, and sat with her quietly for a
quarter of an hour, and patted and praised her dog, and told her scraps
of the day's news, and was kind; but she heard him without interest, as
if without understanding. She had what Susie called her mermaid gaze,
as one who saw only things far away, across a vast ocean. She never
questioned him now, and made no allusion to the third young woman in
uniform, who had come upon the scene so quietly that she looked like a
double of one of the others, a trick of the optic nerves rather than
another person.

She had the nurses almost always near her; and that other sentinel, the
terrier, was there always. There was no "almost" where his affection
was concerned. As she grew weaker and moved with feebler steps he moved
nearer her. She talked to him sometimes, to the nurses never, though
she was gracious to them in her mute fashion, and understood that they
liked her and were sorry for her.

One quiet, grey evening, the closing in of a day that had been
curiously mild for an English December--a day that brought back the
still, sad atmosphere of mid-winter at San Marco--she had an unusual
respite from her watchers. It was tea-time, and they were sitting
longer than usual over the low fire in the room beyond the library,
with the door ajar--no lights switched on, no sound of laughter or loud
voices--just two well-behaved young women whispering together in the
firelight.

She was alone, moving slowly along the corridor. She had been wandering
about for some time, with a restlessness that had increased in a
painful degree of late, the dog creeping close against her skirt,
until, all in a moment, when she bent down to speak to him, he slunk
away from her and crawled under the dark archway that opened into the
deeper darkness of the hall, as Vera entered through the open door of
the library.

       *       *       *       *       *

At last it had come--the thing she had been waiting for. It was no
surprise when the dream she had been dreaming night after night became
a reality. A shiver ran through her, as if the warm blood in her
veins had turned to ice-cold water; but it was awe, not horror, that
thrilled her. Night after night she had awakened from a vision of Mario
Provana, from the sound of his voice, the touch of his hand, the glad,
vivid sense that all that was past was a dream, that he was alive,
and that she belonged to him and him only, as before the coming of
trouble. She had awakened night after night, in the faint flicker of
the shrouded lamp, when the room was full of shadows. She had awakened
to disappointment and desolation. That had been the surprise--not this.
There was neither doubt nor wonder now, as she stood on the threshold
of the dim room, and saw Provana sitting by the hearth in the chair
where he used to sit, calm, motionless, like a statue of domestic
peace, the creator and defender of the home, the master, sitting silent
by the hearth-fire that wedded love had made sacred. The dull red of
that fading fire, and the pale grey of evening outside the uncurtained
windows, made the only light in the room; but there was light enough
for her to see every line in the face, the face of power, where every
line told of force, unalterable purpose, indomitable courage.

The grey eyes looked at her, steel bright under the projecting brow.
Kind eyes, that told her of his love, a love that Fate could not change
nor diminish. Not Death, not Sin!

For these first moments she believed he had come back to her, that
he had escaped the bonds of Death. She did not ask what miracle had
brought him there, but she believed in his miraculous return. The blood
ran swift and warm in her veins again. Her heart beat with a passionate
joy. She stretched out her arms to him, trying to speak fond words of
welcome; but her tremulous lips could give no sound. The muscles of her
throat seemed paralysed.

She was yearning to tell him of her love--that she had sinned and
repented; that he was the first--must always be the first--in her
affection.

Her limbs failed her with a sudden collapse, and she sank on her knees
by a large, high-backed arm-chair that stood near the door, and clung
to the arm of it, with both her hands, struggling against the numbness
that was creeping over her senses. She kept her eyes upon the face--the
face of all her dreams, of all her sorrow--the face she had loved and
regretted. For moments her widely opened eyes gazed steadily--then cold
drops broke out upon her forehead, her limbs shook, and her eyelids
drooped--only for an instant.

She lifted them, and he was gone. There was nothing but the empty
chair--his chair in the quiet domestic evenings, before Mario Provana's
house became the fashion, before the Disbrowes gave the law to his
wife's existence.

That was the last she saw before the lifting of the veil.



CHAPTER XXXI


Chorus was at work again; not at a London dinner-table this time, but
in the easier atmosphere of a North Riding manor house, which men left
in the morning to shoot grouse, and came back to in the evening to
gossip with their womenkind, in the cheerful light of an oak-panelled
dining-room.

Chorus was wearing black, quite the prettiest thing in complimentary
mourning, which all her friends assured her suited her to perfection
and took ten years off her age. Susan Amphlett had received that kind
of compliment too often of late. She thought people were beginning to
lay a disagreeable stress upon the passage of time in relation to her
personal appearance.

"I doubt if I shall ever wear anything but black for the rest of my
poor little life," she said tearfully. "That darling and I were like
sisters. And that she should have died when I was in Scotland, hundreds
of miles away from her!"

"It must have been sudden?"

"Heart failure. No one was with her. She had three hospital nurses to
look after her, but she died alone in a dark room, while two of them
were dawdling over their tea, and the third was in bed. The dog whined,
and they went to look for her. She was lying in a huddled heap on the
carpet, near the open door, and that poor, faithful beast was standing
by her, whining piteously."

"Where was Rutherford?"

"At Newmarket, of course, the only place where he has been happy for a
long time, settling up next year's campaign, who was to ride for him,
and so on."

"What had become of the devoted husband you used to tell us about?"

"Does anything last in this decadent age? There never was a more
romantic couple than that sweet creature and my cousin Claude three
years ago. Their marriage was a poem, everything about their lives
was full of poetry, their house was the most popular in London, their
chef quite the best. They were all sweetness and light; the most
brilliant example of what youth, and cleverness, and good looks, and
unlimited money can do. But the Goodwood before last changed all that.
Vera was ennuied and run down--the two things go together, don't you
know--and broke her engagement to stay with the Waterburys for the race
week. Claude went there without her. You all know the sequel, so why
recapitulate? Nothing was ever the same after that."

"Was there an inquest?" asked the host.

"Thank Heaven that wasn't necessary. Her doctor had been seeing her
every morning, and knew she might go off at any moment. Heart failure.
She was buried in Italy, at a dull little place on the Riviera, in the
grave with her first husband and his daughter. Her own wish. She was
all poetry to the last, a poet's daughter."

From the tragedy of Mrs. Rutherford's early death, the conversation
somehow took a retrospective cast, and people talked of the murder that
had happened a long time before. It is curious how long the interest
in a murder may survive if the murderer has not been discovered. There
always remains something to wonder about. After nearly half a dozen
years the Provana murder could still bear discussion. People's pet
theories seemed as fresh as ever, and were discussed with as much
animation; while those people who had theories which they would die
rather than divulge, were the most interesting of all the theorists,
for they could be driven to ground with close questioning, as in the
familiar game of "clumps," until they made a resolute stand, and
refused to say another word upon the subject.

"I dare say it is quite horrid of me to think what I think," said one
vivacious lady, "and you would hate me if I were to tell you."

"Give us the chance at any rate. It will be a new sensation for you to
be hated."

"One thing at least I may say. It has always been a mystery to me how
those two people could bear to live in that house."

"Oh, but you cannot bar a fine house, and your own property, because
your husband has been unlucky enough to get himself murdered in it."

Here Chorus, who had sat disapproving and even angry while her friends
were discussing the murder, chipped in suddenly.

"You don't know Vera," she said. "Her memory of Provana was an absolute
_culte_, and she loved the house for his sake."

"It's a pity she kept her worship for the husband's memory," said
somebody. "For the state of things between her and Rutherford for some
years was an open secret. Everybody knew all about it."

"Nobody knew Vera as I knew her. She had no more of common earth in her
composition than if she had been a sylph. People might as well talk
scandal about Undine."

The men of the world who were present, and the women who knew nearly
as much of life, smiled and shrugged their shoulders.

"Well, it is all ancient history," said a bland worldling, with smooth,
white hair and a smooth, elderly voice. "The romantic friendship, the
murder, the marriage with the romantic friend. _Tout lasse, tout casse,
tout passe._ Nothing can matter to anybody now."

"Nothing except who killed Signor Provana," said the lady who had
declared she would sooner die than tell anybody her theory of the
murder.



CHAPTER XXXII


Father Cyprian Hammond sat alone in the winter gloaming after a hard
day's work in his parish, which was a large one, covering several of
those obscure little slums that lie hidden behind handsome streets in
north-western London. The table had been cleared after his short and
simple dinner, and he was half reclining in his deep arm-chair while
Sabatier's "Life of St. Francis of Assisi" lay open on the table under
the candles that made only a spot of light in the lofty room. It was
one of the books which he opened often on an evening of fatigue and
depression. The "Life" or the "Fioretti" were books that rested his
brain and soothed his spirits.

He lay back in his chair with his eyes closed, not asleep, but resting,
and listening with a kind of sensuous pleasure to the light fall of
wood ashes on the hearth. His winter fire of old ship logs was one of
the few luxuries he allowed himself.

"I told you I would see no one to-night," he said, as his servant came
into the room.

"It is Mr. Rutherford, Father, only just back from Italy. He said he
was sure you would see him."

"Very good, I will see Mr. Rutherford. You can light the lamp. Come in,
Claude," he called to the figure standing outside the door.

Claude came into the room, while the servant lighted a standard lamp
of considerable power, that shone full upon a face from which all
natural carnation had changed to an ashen greyness, the face of a man
in the last stage of a bad illness.

"You look dead-beat," said the priest, as they clasped hands. "You have
been travelling night and day, I suppose."

"I came straight from her grave, from their grave. She lies in the
cemetery at San Marco, beside her husband and his daughter, the girl
who loved her, and whose love brought those two together."

"It was her wish, I conclude."

"There was a letter found--a letter written half a year ago, at the
beginning of her illness, in which she begged that I would lay her
there--in his grave--nowhere else. It was he that she loved best,
always, always. Her real, her only perfect love was for him."

"May that absolve her of her sins. I would have done much, striven long
and late to bring her into the fold, if she would have let me, but she
would not. Well, she shall not want for an intercessor while I live and
pray."

And then, looking up at his visitor, who stood before him, a tragical
figure in the bright, hard light of the lamp, his face haggard and wan
against the rich darkness of his sable collar:

"Sit down, Claude," he said gently, in a tone of ineffable compassion,
the voice that day by day had spoken to sorrow and to sin. "I see you
have come to tell me your troubles. Take off that heavy coat and draw
your chair to the fire, and open your heart to me, unless indeed you
will come to my confessional to-morrow and let me hear you there. I
would much rather you did that."

"_Selon les règles._ No! Be kind, Father, and let me talk to you here.
I will keep nothing back this time. There shall be no more secrets--no
surprises. I have come to the end of my book. She is dead, and I have
nothing left to care about--nothing left to hide. There is not a joy
this world can offer to man for which I would hold up a finger now she
is gone."

"What do you want me to do for you?"

"What you did for me six years ago. Open the gate of a refuge where a
sinner may hide the remnant of a worthless life, where I may spend the
last dregs in the cup, drop by drop, where I may die day by day, on my
knees, in penitential prayer."

"I opened that gate. You were safe in such a refuge; and you broke out
again and came back to the world, twenty times worse than you were
before. The life you have been leading since you married Provana's
widow is about the most worthless, the most abject life that a
reasonable being could lead, the life of empty pleasure, of sensuality
and self-indulgence, a life that debases the man himself, and corrupts
and ruins his associates."

"I had to forget. If all that the world calls pleasure could have been
distilled into one little drug that would have blotted out remembrance,
I should have wanted no more race-horses, no more racing yachts, no
more flying-machines, no more cards or dice, only that one little drug.
Father, when I stood before you six years ago in this room, a miserable
wretch, I had to keep my secret for her sake. I have nothing to hide
now. It was I who killed Mario Provana."

"I knew."

"You knew?"

"Yes, I knew that night as much as I know now. I knew the guilt you
wanted to hide in a cloister. I knew your sin and your remorse; but I
doubted your perseverance; a doubt that was too speedily justified by
the event."

"It was the fatal course my mother took. She brought Vera to the place
where I thought that I and my sin were buried. I did not yield without
a struggle; in long days of depression, in long nights of fever, I
wrestled with Satan for my soul. I called upon my manhood, my honour,
my will-power, and I even thought that I had conquered; and then, in an
instant, my passionate heart gave way, and I walked out of that house
of rest, a fallen spirit. But, oh, the rapture of the moment when I
held her in my arms, and told her that I renounced all--the hope of
heaven, the certainty of peace--for her love."

"Oh, the pity of it, my unhappy Claude!"

"You ask me no questions, Father?"

"To what end? You are not in the confessional. There may be details
that would in some degree mitigate your guilt; but murder is a heinous
sin, and I fear in your case it had been led up to by guilt almost
as dark, the spoiling of a pure woman's soul. If the murder was not
deliberate you cannot urge the same excuse for the sin of seduction,
that sin which includes every abomination--hypocrisy, the falsehood
that betrays a trusting fellow-creature, the calculating cruelty that
sets a man's strength of will against a woman's yielding love."

"No, no, no. Father, have you forgotten those two lost souls Dante
saw, driven through the malignant air; they who had stained the earth
with blood? Sorrow and sin had been theirs; but Francesca's lover was
not a deliberate seducer, and even in that world of pain the love that
linked those two who never could be parted more was no base or selfish
passion. No man ever fought a harder battle than I fought for her sake.
I loved her when we were boy and girl together, when she was a child, a
lovely, innocent child, who gave me her heart in that happy morning of
life, who had been shut out from all the affection that makes childhood
beautiful, the caresses, the praise of an adoring mother, the love of
father, brothers, sisters. She had known nothing better than the tepid
kindness of a peevish old woman, and she gave her heart to me in the
first joyous days of her life, I taught her what youth and happiness
meant; and that spring-time of our lives was never forgotten. Vera was
the romance of my boyhood. I carried her image in my heart for all the
years in which we were strangers; and when Fate brought us together
again our hearts went out to each other, as if the years had never
parted us, as if she had been still as unconscious of passion as the
child who clambered on my knee and flung her arms round my neck on the
rocks at Disbrowe."

"But with a certain difference," said the priest. "She was Mario
Provana's wife."

"I did not forget that. I told myself that I need never forget it. She
was the centre of a selfish clan, who meant to run her for all she was
worth. I knew to what account the Disbrowes would turn a millionaire
cousin; and I took upon myself to stand between her and a herd of
cold-hearted relations, who only valued her as a counter in the social
game. Except Susan Amphlett, who is a fool, and Lady Okehampton, who is
not much wiser, there was not one of the crew that had a spark of real
regard for her."

"And you thought your affection was pure enough to save her from all
the pitfalls of Society."

"I thought that I was strong enough to take a brother's place. I had
lived my life; I had been a failure. I had sinned, and paid forfeit
for my sin. I thought I had done with passionate feeling; and that
I could trust myself as fully as Vera trusted me, in her absolute
unconsciousness of danger. I was deceived. The fire still burned in the
grey ashes of a wasted life, and the time came when it burst into flame
and consumed us."

"You were with her that night when Provana came home unexpectedly?"

"I was with her. No matter how that came about. The die had been cast
weeks before, when she and I were at the Okehamptons' river villa.
We were alone there as if we had been in a wood, and our secret was
told and our promise was exchanged. Nothing was to matter any more
in our lives except our love. We were to go to the other side of the
world and cruise about in the South Seas till we found an island, as
Stevenson did, a paradise of love and peace, to end our days in. The
yacht was waiting for us at Plymouth, manned and found for an ocean
voyage--almost as fine a vessel as the _Gloriana_. We were to start
by an early train that morning. I wrung a promise from her at Lady
Fulham's ball; and we met a few hours earlier than we had intended."

"And he found you together, and you killed him?"

"It was her life or his. We faced each other at the door of his
dressing-room. The other door was open and the lights were on. I saw
death in his face as he stood for a moment looking into her room, the
white, dumb rage that means bloodshed. He gave me only one contemptuous
glance as he dashed past me to the desk where his pistol case was ready
for him. He had the pistol in his hand and had cocked it in what had
seemed an instant, and was on his way to her room while I snatched the
second pistol from the case. For me he could bide his time. For her,
doom was to be swift. I think I read him right even in those fierce
moments. His fury was measured by the love he had given her. His foot
was on the threshold when I fired. I could hear her stifled sobs as she
lay on the floor, where she had fallen at the sound of his footsteps
on the landing, half unconscious, in her agony of shame. She told me
afterwards that strange lights were in her eyes, a roar of waters in
her ears. She was lying in a world of red light."

"Well, what do you want of me now?"

"Open the door of my cell, the Benedictines, the Carthusians, La
Trappe--in France or Spain, any order where the rule is iron, and where
my days will be short. I have lived the sinner's life, and it has not
brought me happiness. Let me live the saint's life, and see if it can
bring me peace. I am not a much blacker sinner than some of the fathers
of your Church who wear the aureole. Let the rest of my life be one
long act of expiation, one dark night of penitential prayer."

"My dear Claude, my son, all shall be done for you. The path of peace
shall be made smooth; but this time there must be no turning back."

"To what should I come back? The light of my life has gone out."



EPILOGUE


A month later, when Christmas was over, and the people who had done
with their guns, and did not mean hunting, were making a little season
in London on their way to Egypt or the Riviera, Lady Susan Amphlett as
Chorus was in her best form at cosy dinners.

"_Now_ will you believe that Claude Rutherford was a devoted husband,
and that he broke his heart when his wife died?" she asked triumphantly.

"I believe that he was nearly as much of a crank as his pretty wife.
She was a disciple of Francis Symeon, and he was under Father Hammond's
thumb. The dark room in the Albany, or a cell in La Trappe! There's not
much difference."

"From a racing stable to a cloister is a bit of a leap in the dark."

"Claude was always a bold rider. I've seen him skylarking over a hedge,
on his way home, without knowing where he was to land."

"I think he is rather lucky to land in a cloister," said the lady who
had refused to tell people her theory of the Provana murder. "But I
wonder what they think of it all in Scotland Yard!"


THE END


_Printed at The Chapel River Press, Kingston, Surrey._


       *       *       *       *       *

Italic text is denoted by _underscores_.

Obvious printer's errors corrected.

Every effort has been made to replicate this text as faithfully as
possible, including obsolete and variant spellings, non-standard
punctuation, inconsistently hyphenated words, and other inconsistencies.





*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Beyond These Voices" ***

Doctrine Publishing Corporation provides digitized public domain materials.
Public domain books belong to the public and we are merely their custodians.
This effort is time consuming and expensive, so in order to keep providing
this resource, we have taken steps to prevent abuse by commercial parties,
including placing technical restrictions on automated querying.

We also ask that you:

+ Make non-commercial use of the files We designed Doctrine Publishing
Corporation's ISYS search for use by individuals, and we request that you
use these files for personal, non-commercial purposes.

+ Refrain from automated querying Do not send automated queries of any sort
to Doctrine Publishing's system: If you are conducting research on machine
translation, optical character recognition or other areas where access to a
large amount of text is helpful, please contact us. We encourage the use of
public domain materials for these purposes and may be able to help.

+ Keep it legal -  Whatever your use, remember that you are responsible for
ensuring that what you are doing is legal. Do not assume that just because
we believe a book is in the public domain for users in the United States,
that the work is also in the public domain for users in other countries.
Whether a book is still in copyright varies from country to country, and we
can't offer guidance on whether any specific use of any specific book is
allowed. Please do not assume that a book's appearance in Doctrine Publishing
ISYS search  means it can be used in any manner anywhere in the world.
Copyright infringement liability can be quite severe.

About ISYS® Search Software
Established in 1988, ISYS Search Software is a global supplier of enterprise
search solutions for business and government.  The company's award-winning
software suite offers a broad range of search, navigation and discovery
solutions for desktop search, intranet search, SharePoint search and embedded
search applications.  ISYS has been deployed by thousands of organizations
operating in a variety of industries, including government, legal, law
enforcement, financial services, healthcare and recruitment.



Home