The click of the letter-box and a loud ring resounded through an upper flat in Montague Mansions, S.W., and immediately afterwards a tall, dark woman in a shabby tea-gown swept into the passage, and greedily gathered the afternoon post. As she walked slowly back into an untidy sitting-room, she examined the letters with feverish fingers. A coal bill, a dressmaker’s account, a card for a picture show, a Press cutting, ah—here it was! and with a sigh of relief, she threw herself into a corner of the Chesterfield sofa, and tore open a long envelope. But as she read the typed contents, (a few lines on a large sheet of office paper,) the eager look faded, and her face fell. The communication, which was from a publishing firm, said:
We are in receipt of your esteemed favour of the 12th inst., and beg to thank you for your information respecting your new book. We regret to say that the discouraging sales of ‘Dust and Ashes’, resulted in a considerable financial loss, and we therefore have no alternative but to decline the kind offer of your next novel.
We remain, dear Madam,
Topper and Scott.
Mrs. Marcia Wayne,
28, Montague Mansions,
Victoria St., S.W.
Mrs. Marcia Wayne read this communication slowly, and twice. There was no loophole of hope in any sentence, no anticipation of favours to come; it was cold, formal, final: and represented a serious reverse to its recipient; a closing of the doors of a house that had published her novels ever since she had made her first success nine years previously. She felt mortified, and not merely mortified, but frightened and angry,—as with a gesture of impatience akin to fury, she tore up the letter, the coal and dress bills, and rising, flung them into the smouldering grate. The coal was indifferent—thick yellow smoke rose lazily from a banked-up untidy fireplace; indeed the whole room had a dusty, neglected appearance—this “den,” as the owner called it, of a working woman. It was large, and rather low, being on the top storey of the flat; once it had been smartly furnished with gay chintz curtains, and chair covers, pretty wall-paper, and a green carpet; now, curtains and carpet were faded and soiled, the large writing-table which stood in the bow window was a mass of books, magazines, writing-pads, letters, cigarette ends, string, crumbs and paper fasteners, and appeared to be in a condition of hopeless chaos,—but Mrs. Wayne had her own particular methods. The neighbouring paper-basket was so full, that its contents overflowed upon the floor; the chimney-piece was crowded with photographs, medicine bottles, theatre programmes, letters, hat-pins and gloves, and the looking-glass was almost framed in smoked-dried cards of invitation.
In the centre of the apartment was a square table, where the authoress took her irregular meals, and one or two decrepit armchairs which stood about, were heaped with newspapers, books, and articles of clothing—the whole place had a squalid air—indeed there was nothing in the room worthy of a second glance, except Marcia Wayne herself. Even in her soiled pink tea-gown, she made an impressive figure, as she stood with a fixed gaze staring down into the sulky fire. Suddenly she rang the bell violently, and after a somewhat aggravating delay, a little, slip-shod Irishwoman made her appearance. She wore a remarkably dirty apron, carried a knife in her hand, and standing in the doorway sullenly demanded,
“An’ what is it now?”
“Bring me some tea—as strong as you can make it!” was the lady’s reply.
“Shure, the milk hasn’t come yet.”
“Oh, then”—and Mrs. Wayne stamped her foot, “bring it without milk, and look sharp!”
“Yu’ve dropped this, I’m thinkin’,” said Bridget, picking up a Press cutting, and proffering it between finger and thumb in the corner of her apron. Her mistress snatched it with an impatient jerk, and waved her out of the room saying,
“Tea, tea, tea!”
Then she opened the little folded slip, with its pink complexion, and halfpenny stamp. It contained a belated notice of her last,—her six months’ old—novel. This review was from “The Stiletto,” and after an exhaustive resumé of the story, concluded with,
Mrs. Wayne has a certain cleverness of her own, but it is too self-assertive, and irritates; her plots are commonplace, and her method of expression lacks style—it is sloppy, and incoherent. Her work has no firmness or distinction, a too early and easily won success has spoiled what would one day have been quite a respectable third-rate writer.
“Third-rate writer!” muttered the lady, and her eyes blazed. “This has been written by that fiend Finlay—I know his poisonous pen, and how he abhors all women authors—brute!” and she tore the notice into tiny pieces, and scattered them on the top of the coals,—the action appeared to afford her extraordinary relief, then she rested her elbows on the chimney-piece, and deliberately contemplated her gloomy visage in the glass.
She was gazing into a handsome, resolute face; masses of dark hair grew low on a broad forehead, a pair of cool grey eyes,—watching eyes that never smiled—surveyed the world beneath beautiful straight brows, and sweeping black lashes. The nose was delicately cut—a nose aristocratic—the mouth was somewhat wide, and thin-lipped, but the teeth were matchless,—--and continually exposed in brilliant mechanical smiles. The haughty carriage of the head, and the cold imperious glance, were of the type patrician, but the lady’s hands were common, and she had ugly ears, two defects which she was at considerable pains to conceal.
“Yes, I have still my looks, at any rate!” she reflected. But what of her reputation as an author? Recently a chill suspicion had invaded her, that her popularity was declining. She realised that her novels were seldom displayed on the bookstalls, or in the shops—where she always made a point of enquiring for them—that reviews were tardy and scanty: the big papers ignored her existence, or remembered her with “another novel from the prolific pen of Marcia Wayne, written in her usual style,” and that for her meed of praise, she had now to turn to the “Exmouth Herald,” or the “Southport Express.”
As Marcia Wayne leant over the fire, with her head resting on her hands, her expression was not merely grave, but careworn—she looked every day of her six-and-thirty years: lines about her mouth, and little furrows between her eyebrows, were distinctly visible. She had reckoned so confidently on selling this novel, and receiving a sum down, in advance, to tide her over the winter. Christmas was now approaching with its detestable bills, and all the ready money she could rely upon was the proceeds of two short stories and a serial,—which was at present on offer to the “Lady’s Bouquet,” and oh—she owed so much! A woman in her situation—a sort of home-made celebrity, with no rich or important relations to boom or support her, was obliged to be well-dressed, and seen about at smart functions, and important literary gatherings—even as a matter of business. “You must be well turned out,” she declared, “if you would be in the swim.” No little dressmakers, no shabby hats, or soiled gloves for a writer in her position. A French costume was neither more nor less than an investment, an advertisement of prosperity! If people know that you buy your frocks at Paquin’s, and wear lovely jewellery, they say at once, “Why, the woman must be coining! and getting enormous sums for her books.”
She is invited out, and conducted to the chief seats at feasts, for nothing succeeds like success—or even pretended success!
Mrs. Wayne was conspicuous at receptions, restaurant dinners, first nights, and charity sales. She loved London, and excitement, the surge and uncertainty of a literary life, the attentions, the homage, and the nice fat cheques—but of late, these delights had begun to wane. Undoubtedly her affairs were in a critical condition; nevertheless, she determined to show a bold front, and if she did go down in the great maelstrom, as others had done, it would be with her colours nailed to the mast! As she arrived at this decision, the door was opened with a kick, and Bridget entered bearing a battered japanned tray, a brown teapot, some bread-and-butter, and the milk, and Mrs. Wayne, who was thirsty, poured herself out a cup of tea, still standing.
As she sipped it, a fair-haired girl, without a hat, put her head into the room.
“Oh!” exclaimed Mrs. Wayne impatiently, and her expression was the reverse of hospitable.
“It’s only Nellie,” pleaded a clear voice, and a slim young woman in a blue skirt, and white blouse, entered boldly. “The door was ajar,” she declared, “and you know, you always see me; you are kind, and your advice is most important. I want it so badly before the next post.”
This visitor, Eleanor Meadows, was tenant of the opposite flat, a would-be author by choice—a typist of necessity. Mrs. Wayne was accustomed to Nellie; borrowed freely of her coal, butter, and tea, requested her to write her notes, when she particularly wished to pose as a lady with a secretary, and sent her all her manuscripts to type. In return for these privileges, she gave her advice, occasional theatre tickets, and dinner at her club. Nellie was a clever, well-educated girl with an income of eighty pounds a year, and a mad desire to write—which be it known, is as devouring a passion in its way, as a rage for the stage. She was sweet-tempered, enthusiastic, and refined; her poor bare rooms were spotlessly neat, in spite of the fact that she had no servant, and only a casual “char.” She had already spent two whole strenuous years in London, and though working and hoping—had not yet achieved a start. Occasionally a story accepted here or there, or the description of an interview, or a wedding, had kept the wolf from the door.
Nellie was all the time working incessantly on her novel: and believed with her heart and soul in Mrs. Wayne, her genius, her generosity, and her good-nature.
“Come along, then, and have tea,” said her patroness, extending an indifferent hand. “Bridget, bring another cup. And now tell me all about it.”
“Oh, how good of you—may I? It is such a comfort to be able to come to you; you are so wise and experienced—it was a lucky day for me, when I took No. 27.”
“You have not had much luck there, have you?”
“The luck of knowing you,” replied the girl.
Mrs. Wayne nodded, as she handed a cup.
“And what of Hugh Hawkshaw?” her interrogative smile was not wholly good-natured.
The visitor’s pale face flamed, but ignoring the question, she continued,
“I have had such a piece of good fortune to-day!”
“Another story in the ‘Thistle?’” enquired Mrs. Wayne, raising her beautiful brows.
“No,” replied the girl, placing her cup on the table, and proceeding to dust a chair.
“Yes,” exclaimed Mrs. Wayne, “this room is pretty awful, and wants a thorough turning out,” and she pointed to piles of books, newspapers, and cardboard boxes, “but I cannot spare the time just yet, and Bridget, when she does sweep, raises such clouds, you would think the place was on fire. Well—and your news?”
“You know, don’t you, that I finished ‘The Long Lane’ four months ago—I did work, and work. I believe I know every word of it by heart. I sent it off to Black, and then to Grey, and each time, it came back, with a polite refusal.”
Mrs. Wayne nodded, as much as to say, “Of course it did! What else did you expect?”
“Then I sent it to Green. They kept it for six weeks, and returned it without a line—I was simply in despair, and Mr. Hawkshaw, who you know is rather behind the scenes, advised me to try Topper and Scott.”
Once more her listener nodded mechanically. She was looking out of the window, and her attention had wandered.
“Well, I took his advice, and only think—a letter came just now—I feel nearly crazy with joy to say that they have accepted my book—they will take it.”
Mrs. Wayne gave a slight start, and stared at her incredulously.
She looked as if she could not believe her ears, and the girl went on,
“Only think of my coming out with your firm—I am proud!”
Her companion, who had stiffened visibly, said after a moment’s hesitation,
“But, my dear child, I have left them! As long as I breathe, Topper and Scott shall never get another book of mine. They are not straight—I made an awful mistake in going to them, but then I was only a beginner, and knew no better, and they have hung on to me almost ever since. May I ask what they offer you?”
“Twenty-five pounds down on the publication of the book, and ten per cent royalties after the sale of the first three thousand copies.”
“That means twenty-five for the book, and never another penny.”
“Oh then, you don’t think it good?” exclaimed the girl, in astonishment.
“Good!” she repeated, with energy, “I call it attempted robbery! Their making any offer shows that the book has money in it. You could do a hundred times better—say with Branson and Bell.”
“But they only publish for the big people,” objected Nellie, “and probably they wouldn’t look at it—and the other is a start. Twenty-five pounds means so much to me—half my rent; and you know, dear Mrs. Wayne, that I am not a popular novelist like you—who are making thousands—but a very poor, humble beginner, still”—looking appealingly into her companion’s rigid face “I will do whatever you advise, for I know you have my best interests at heart,—and are my friend.”
“Then in that case, my dear, write at once and say no,” urged Mrs. Wayne briskly, “and ask them to return your novel. I will take it myself to Branson and Bell, and get you a far better offer, a really splendid send off.”
“Oh, you angel!” cried the girl rapturously, and she suddenly bent over, and raising the angel’s hand, laid her lips upon it.
“Well, you see,” resumed her patroness, “with Topper and Scott, you would receive a small sum, give your book, and advance no further. They don’t advertise, and they don’t push, whilst this other firm will boom you, and perhaps you will see Miss Meadows’ great novel on sandwich-men’s backs, all the way up Regent Street; and plastered on the walls of the Tube stations, for I intend to do my very best for you.”
“How kind and unselfish you are!” declared the girl, “another famous authoress would never exert herself, for a mere beginner like me.”
“Well, my dear, write your letter to-night, and show it to me before you post it. Now I must send you away, for I am dining at the Metropole at half past seven—such an awkward hour—to meet the great American writer, Cyrilla Candy, and you know, I take ages to dress,” and with this announcement, she rose and dismissed her visitor.
As the door closed Mrs. Wayne stretched her arms over her head, and muttered, “Refuse my new book—and accept hers! No, not if I know it.”
Nellie Meadows’ information had been an additional humiliation, and Marcia’s expression, as she stood by the fire, looked set and fierce—hers was a hard, tyrannical, and fighting nature. Presently she rang for the slavey, and trailed away to dress; and whilst the lady is engaged in making her prolonged toilet, and Miss Meadows, with awestruck eyes, is inditing a letter of refusal to the firm of Topper and Scott, there will be ample time to transcribe a short history of Marcia Wayne, novelist.
On her father’s side, Mrs. Wayne came of a good old county stock. Captain Benlock, a retired naval officer, was a Benlock of Rossleigh,—one of the younger, poorer, prouder branch; somewhat late in life he had married a trim-waisted, capable woman, who had nursed him after a dangerous operation. This brisk, energetic little person was not sorry to exchange hospital work for a comfortable home of her own, and a well-bred, if elderly husband, but the Benlock family were not equally delighted, and instituted a rigorous examination into Miss Pippin’s past, and pedigree. Fortunately, she was an orphan,—--as her father had been a baker in quite a small way; her only sister was married to a prosperous grocer in Streatham, of the name of Boke, and with the Bokes, Annie Pippin had hitherto spent her holidays, and to them she looked for attentions and recreation.
Annie Pippin had a certain amount of go, energy, and brains—and an insatiable craving for social advancement, never as yet appeased. Her manners were agreeable, and the nurse’s blue gown, white cap and collar, were eminently becoming to her fair skin and sandy hair. Her features were insignificant, but like her daughter Marcia, she had beautiful teeth; her mouth was a little grim, and it was a painful truth, that the poor and the dying were never drawn to Nurse Pippin.
However, hospital patients were no longer her affair; she was now independent, the wife of a member of a county family, although the family ignored her existence, had quarrelled bitterly with her husband, (the hitherto old bachelor uncle, who had something to leave.) This fact was not known in Sillerhay, where Mrs. Benlock boasted of her high connections.
The Benlocks had three children, a son and two daughters. Marcia the eldest girl, was a true Benlock in appearance, a Pippin in character, whilst Ariadne was a Pippin in looks, a Benlock at heart,—and her father’s darling. Captain Benlock, an easy-going, unenterprising man, was perfectly satisfied with his little place “The Haven,” his books, his flowers, his Service papers and his pipe; when Marcia was about twelve, he died; his pension expired likewise and this made a considerable financial deficit. Nelson, the boy, was sent to a cheaper school; the girls were taught by an inefficient daily governess, and received no real education.
The two pretty Miss Benlocks grew up in the village, one dark, and the other fair—one satisfied with the daily round, the other supremely discontented. An occasional trip to the seaside, with their wealthy cousins the Bokes, broke the monotony of their existence,—these kind cousins were never invited to return the visit: for their Aunt Annie sank her grocer connections, and made desperate struggles to be received by the county; always volunteering her hospital experiences, prominent at bazaars, at meetings of the Primrose League, or at any public function likely to bring her or her daughters into notice. At home, she practised rigorous economy; but in order to maintain appearances, kept two servants, a gardener, and a pony-carriage. Consequently there was little money to spare for taking her daughters about, and life at Sillerhay was dull and humdrum. Sunday succeeded Sunday, and nothing of interest seemed to happen in between. There were few young people in the neighbourhood, and not one single eligible young man! For various reasons, Mrs. Benlock was unpopular: she was painfully sharp, pitilessly pushing, and shamelessly inquisitive: many people were sorry for the two girls, who seemed born like the well-known flower, to blush unseen,—sorry especially for Ariadne of the sunny face. Black-browed Marcia was proud and reserved, and could on occasions make herself surprisingly disagreeable. Oh, how tired she was of this daily round, where she found nothing for her hand to do; she did not, like her sister, love gardening, or animals, or the society of other girls. She hated Sillerhay, where the only gaieties consisted of children’s parties, Christmas-trees, bazaars, and tennis, where she always met the same people, and heard the same sort of stupid talk.
At last, oh happy day! she and Ariadne were invited to a garden party at some distance; here was a new opening, in another neighbourhood. The handsome sisters found themselves moving in an entirely new set; and among the strangers were several officers from a neighbouring garrison. Mr. Wayne, a tall, curly-haired, impressionable youth, was immediately attracted by Ariadne. He strolled about the grounds with her, waited upon her with strawberries and cream, sat in her pocket, so to speak, for a whole hour, and was unquestionably fascinated; whilst black-browed Marcia, looking on from afar, enviously noted the fact.
Within a few days, Mr. Wayne and a friend walked over to Sillerhay—--of course not to see Ariadne Benlock, but to visit the old church. Marcia, the imperious, immediately took him in hand, conducted him round the venerable pile, gave him tea, a buttonhole, and more seductive glances and flattering speeches, than were good for him; in short, she turned the poor fellow’s head, and totally eclipsed her sister.
“The wooing was not long a-doing.” Bobbie was a miserable match, a subaltern of four years’ standing, well-meaning, good-natured, and dull; nevertheless, his was the hand that was to draw Marcia Benlock out into the big world, and the bride-elect was radiantly elated; it was years since any girl from the village of Sillerhay had figuratively led a swain to the altar. She was about to become an officer’s wife, and to earn the bitter jealousy of all her village acquaintance.
As Bobbie’s regiment (the Barkers) were under orders for South Africa, the marriage was hurried on. It took place in the old fourteenth-century church, and was both simple and pretty. A vast concourse of spectators attended, to witness the only wedding, with a veiled bride, and bridesmaids, that had been solemnised there for twenty-five years. The wedding-presents were neither numerous nor costly—Bobbie’s people sent a small cheque, and a large silver tea-pot; the Bokes presented a canteen; and Mrs. Boke, who came to the wedding, attracted much attention by her gorgeous costume, composed of blue brocade and peacock feather trimming. Immediately after the déjeuner, the happy pair departed for London, where they spent the honeymoon.
Mrs. Robert Wayne found life in South Africa unexpectedly disappointing; everything was so large and so rough. She was not a good manager and although she had been poor all her life, proved a most helpless mate for an impecunious subaltern. Her husband received an extra two shillings a day colonial allowance, and drew rations the same as the men: they were also granted the services of a soldier at a pound a month; they drew his rations too, and fed him: but this proved to be but a poor bargain; there is no limit to the appetite of a young private!
On one occasion, their man-servant devoured a dozen eggs at a sitting; and a pound of butter, and a couple of dozen of scones, actually melted before him.
Mrs. Wayne, who had never been particularly useful with her hands, now found herself compelled to make beds, dust, and even to cook, and wash up. She employed a small black boy to act as slave; he was a fascinating little piccaninny, and she made him knickers of galatea, and a blouse, but the sort of kit he preferred would have been an old bowler hat, a coat without tails, and no trousers. The regiment was stationed at Middleburg, where officers and their wives were quartered in wooden huts, raised on piles; these had zinc roofs, on which the hailstones thundered; the very raindrops sounded like bullets. Forage was expensive, and the Benlocks could not afford a pony—indeed Marcia managed so badly, and their cupboard was sometimes so bare, that once or twice poor Bobbie was obliged to go on parade at half-past nine, on a crust of bread and a cigarette. His wife dealt,—like all the world,—--at the South African Institute, where one could buy everything from a plum-pudding to an india-rubber bath; and to this Institute she was now and then heavily in debt; but somehow Bobbie contrived to pull her through. He was always gay, and good-tempered; playing racquets, or tennis, working in his garden, assisting in the house. He admired his handsome wife enormously, and held her in a certain amount of awe: on the other hand, it was a regrettable fact that Marcia despised her husband; who was merely what is known as “a good sort,” and who bored her to death. Happily, she had sufficient wit to keep this state of mind to herself.
There was tennis, and dancing, and Bridge at the club, and a good deal of fun and simple hospitality. When people invited you to dinner, the chances were, that most of the dishes had been cooked by the hostess herself; domestics were so scarce. There was practically no society in the place, outside the garrison; for in those days, the town detested the English. Still, it was an amusing existence, with all its drawbacks; and much more alive than Sillerhay, in spite of the terrible dust and hailstorms: the latter broke windows, stripped every leaf in the garden, and even killed the poultry. Occasionally, there were picnics and teas on the veldt; there was also a Bridge Club,―--with perhaps as many as four tables; indeed, everyone made the best of their situation, and helped one another, through days evil, and days good.
The Barkers, that is to say the officers and their wives, thought Mrs. Wayne remarkably handsome, but an unsatisfactory consort for “Daddy-long-legs.” She never exerted herself to make his quarters comfortable,—--as did other women,—with clever little contrivances, and pathetic attempts to establish a home. The Waynes’ rooms were always more or less bare and untidy: the shutters clapped, the rooms were full of red dust, there never seemed to be any ice, or soda-water, or even tea,—the establishment gave the impression of an absent mistress;—--but it was only the mistress’s mind that was absent. Mrs. Wayne, was ever ready to take an active part in teas, picnics, and dances, elsewhere.
Thus the couple struggled along for two years: Marcia was beginning to make her personality felt, and to accumulate possessions. An officer, who had gone on leave, left her the use of his pony, and a neighbouring lady had asked her to give house room to a piano. In another year Bobbie would be a captain; the regiment was under orders for India, where life was more luxurious, society more spacious, and where opportunities for a handsome woman to make notable friends would not be lacking. But unfortunately one day, poor Bobbie, who was out on the veldt after springbok, was prostrated by sunstroke, and died within twenty-four hours; leaving Marcia a widow with a pension of thirty pounds a year. Yes, it was a sad, bad business; and nothing remained for her to do, but return to England without delay. As far as social advancement was concerned, her last state was worse than the first; for she had spread her wings, and seen something of the world; and here she was back again at Sillerhay, and once more in the cage!
Her mother, with whom she had never been a favourite, was snappy, peevish, and inquisitive, and inclined to cast her for the rôle of the traditional bad penny! From Mrs. Benlock’s point of view, it was too annoying, that after all her satisfaction and triumph, and the heavy expenses of wedding and trousseau, she should find Marcia once more under her roof—possibly a permanency—with only thirty pounds a year; a gloomy, dissatisfied, depressing inmate.
Ariadne, now Miss Benlock, and practically mistress of the house, was pretty, attractive, and popular, and actually in county society. When she occasionally went to town to visit her cousins the Bokes, and enjoy theatres, concerts, and shopping, her return was hailed by the village children, the old people, and the dogs—for Ariadne’s was a radiant personality; on the other hand, Marcia, who held herself superbly remote, had never been a favourite, and now her gloomy looks, and her long black veil, seemed to strike a note of awe into beholders, as she stalked down the street, on her way to long, lonely wanderings, among the country lanes.
Sometimes she remained for hours in her own room brooding; sometimes it seemed to her that her life in South Africa had been a dream; sometimes she thought of taking poison,—--and speculated as to the most painless mode of quitting a world that she detested. Her husband’s relatives had invited her to visit them, immediately after her return to England, but the meeting had not proved a success; Bobbie’s mother was heartbroken, he had been her youngest, and she had an instinctive feeling that this handsome, cold, unresponsive daughter-in-law had not made her boy happy. Bobbie’s widow and his family were not congenial, and she was not pressed to remain, or to return.
As that door closed, another was opened, and once again by the hand of her sister, who, realising Marcia’s empty, idle hours, and her ever-increasing depression, said to her,
“Do you know, that I have kept every one of your letters from South Africa—we thought them so interesting, and quite good enough to publish—--especially when you look at all the stupid things, and the awful rubbish, people get printed nowadays.”
Marcia received a large untidy packet, which she carried to her own room, and there, sitting in the window—went steadily through the contents, letter by letter. How they brought everything back to her! She could see herself writing at the rickety little table, with the sound of the bugles in her ears, and the spreading veldt before her eyes. She could almost imagine that she heard Bobbie’s heavy tread, thundering up the steps on his return from parade, and calling out, “Marchie, Marchie, where are you?”
The letters were really not bad! they seemed fresh and amusing, being written on the spot, in all the first ardour of freedom, novelty, and joy. As she turned them over, a great idea dawned upon her. She would work them up, string them into a story, and endeavour to get them published. Fired by this project, she lost no time in investing in a ream of paper and a Stylo pen, shut herself up in the study, where she laboured incessantly—and her labour was not in vain.
The homeliness and intimacy of the letters made bright reading, and seen through a haze of regrets, the memory of those good days at Middleburg were glorified by Marcia’s pen. She also introduced several malicious personal sketches, and all this combined to make a live and racy book. The book began to be mooted in the family; and an advertising agent who was known to the Bokes undertook to get it typed, and send it forth to take its chance. To its author’s great joy, “On the Stoep” was accepted by a magazine, which published it with illustrations; and thanks to the business-like aptitude of the Bokes’ friend, she received a cheque for seventy pounds.
Subsequently Topper and Scott acquired the book rights for one hundred and fifty pounds down, and in Marcia’s opinion, her future was assured, the cage door was open, and almost before her family could realise the fact, she had hopped forth, and flown away to London! Here she established herself in cheap lodgings in Bloomsbury, firmly determined to become a literary woman,—her aim was success, and to stand out from her fellows.
At first, Mrs. Wayne’s progress was slow and difficult; but she plodded on doggedly, being alert, industrious, and persistent. Her appearance too, was highly in her favour, and this handsome young widow of an officer, a Benlock by birth, gradually began to make her way. She contrived to scrape acquaintance with one or two important people, and succeeded in getting ‘pars.’ in the Press, and her remarkably striking photograph published in one or two of the illustrated papers.
“On the Stoep” was selling briskly, and the name of Mrs. Marcia Wayne began to be recognised. She joined a good club,—borrowing the entrance money from her mother, to whom she wrote glowing accounts of her unexpected success; her shrewd parent helped her considerably, and despatched weekly hampers containing poultry and butter, but money was still a serious difficulty. Thirty pounds a year pension did not go far in London—especially with a lady whose ruling passion was dress.
At interviews, the new writer made a favourable impression; she never talked too much, or stayed too long, and usually left business men with the feeling that they would like to see more of Mrs. Wayne. She wrote short stories, cheap serials, and another novel. This was again a success, being the “real, true and only history,” of her native village, and containing life-like portraits of the inhabitants, and not only these, but many dead and buried scandals were ruthlessly dragged from their graves. “Our Post-Office,” with its malicious, and amusing disclosures, caused quite a stir at the libraries. But this was nothing in comparison with the sensation it created at Sillerhay; where the outcry became so clamorous, that the author’s mother and sister were compelled to close The Haven, and to take a long holiday in Switzerland.
Here Ariadne, the beauty of an Alpine hotel, made a conquest of an Indian official, a man of position and means. It was an excellent match; the pair were married at Lucerne, and when the bridegroom’s furlough had expired, departed together for the East.
Now that her family were dispersed, Mrs. Benlock disposed of her home, and retired to a boarding-house at Brighton, where “my daughter the authoress,” and “my daughter the Judge’s wife,” were daily on her lips.
She was a simpering, faded little personage, with an expensive transformation, and a neat figure, who gave herself wonderful airs as Mrs. Benlock, one of the Benlocks,—--and cut herself more or less adrift from her sister, the vulgar and opulent Mrs. Boke.
Marcia’s ambition was, let it be said, greater than her ability—--nevertheless she obtained a certain amount of success; her books were in demand, “Our Post-Office” was in its third edition, and had been published in New York. Her serials and short stories were bespoke, autograph hunters pursued her, and photographers begged for sittings. Such was the tide of good fortune, that it carried her up to the top flat in Montague Mansions, which she furnished in a showy fashion, with odds and ends picked up at auction rooms; wobbly tables and unreliable old chairs; also a bureau, book-cases, and prints. The drawing-room, with pretty chintz covers, gay cushions, and muslin curtains, looked really fresh and pretty; here Mrs. Wayne was “At Home” every Saturday from four to six, and began to take her place as a popular author of the day; she gave dinners and luncheons at smart restaurants, wore expensive gowns, and talked continuously and solemnly of “her work.”
Mrs. Wayne—who was erected into a celebrity by strenuous personal efforts, and unswerving belief in herself—was implicitly accepted by those under the sway of her domination: she made numerous useful acquaintances, a few intimates, and several bitter enemies. Her particular antagonist was a certain Miss Pope,—a contemporary, who had risen on the horizon simultaneously with herself; outwardly friendly, and calling one another by their Christian names, “Marcia” and “Jane,” their mutual dislike was deep and bitter, and while Mrs. Wayne spoke of Miss Pope as a “wizened old maid with a French temperament,” Miss Pope privately alluded to Marcia as “a bold-looking adventuress, whom she did not trust; whose brain was shallow, and her grammar shaky.”
When Mrs. Wayne was seen surrounded by a crowd of men after some big literary dinner; admired and flattered, like a sovereign encompassed by courtiers, whilst Miss Pope sat forlorn and abandoned on a sofa, looking limp and disconsolate, this was the hour of her rival’s triumph! However, if Mrs. Wayne’s smile was sparkling, and her shoulders were the handsomest in London, Miss Pope’s sales were superior, and she had a large and ever-increasing public.
But what are sales in comparison to triumphant good looks, French frocks, and irrepressible self-confidence? By-and-by, Mrs. Wayne went down to the country, after prolonged discussions respecting her plans, in order to write another novel, and gratify a waiting world.
On this occasion, she exploited a family history; for she had no originality; given a plot, and she could work it out; give her the stuff, so to speak, and she could make a dress. This novel, beside the aforesaid family history, contained the elements of impropriety, and for these two reasons had a considerable vogue, and was eventually published—oh, triumph!—in a shilling edition, with a gaudy picture on its cover. After this supreme effort, Marcia Wayne’s industry began to decline.
She decided that, now she had made her name, she would take things easy: shortened her hours for work, relinquished her At Home day, and went more and more abroad.
Various timid people who encountered Mrs. Wayne in society were mortally afraid of her; as they never knew when a recognisable portrait of themselves, in the guise of a divorcée, gambler, mischief-maker, or drunkard, might appear! For several years, the lady had drifted along on the stream of prosperity; occasionally encountering rocks and cataracts in her course, writing fitfully, and more or less living on her name; dressing, dining, talking, pushing, holding her head aloft, and glaring down on all enquiring eyes, with her pair of steel grey orbs. But now her progress seemed to be coming to an end, the stream was running not into the sea, but into sand; and although Marcia endeavoured to thrust from her the hateful idea in all its brutal nakedness, she recognised that a crisis had arrived that must be faced, and fought. The afternoon letter from Topper and Scott had been a staggering blow—oh, it was bitter to realise that her day was waning, that her brain was sterile. She, who had tasted the delicious fruits of literary success, and had lived a gay, hurrying, exciting, life.
Each weekly paper contained a hope of some valuable notice; every book-shop held a personal interest, people in the street or in the theatres recognised her as she passed; strangers begged for introductions; she was Marcia Wayne. Was all this to come to an end? Was she to withdraw from the struggle, where brain fought with brain, and live in some dull suburb, or dull county town, with the morning paper as the sole event of the day—never! Sooner than relinquish her present existence, she would die.
When Mrs. Wayne turned up the electric light, and advanced into the musty sitting-room, she seemed at the first glance to be an entirely different person; the woman with dishevelled locks, and slatternly, ink-stained tea-gown, had disappeared. Here was was a splendid lady, with a fine figure, beautiful neck and arms, and a noble carriage. Her dress was a rich cream satin, heavily embroidered in gold, a touch of rouge gave her an appearance of youth and brilliance, a diamond comb sparkled in her hair, whilst over her arm she carried a rose-coloured velvet cloak. This she threw about her shoulders, as she searched for the latchkey—finally went out on the landing, and rang for the lift.
As she did so, the door of No. 27 opened, and Nellie Meadows, looking flushed and excited, appeared with a letter in her hand.
“One moment, please!” she began, holding out a sheet of paper, “Will this do? I have not mentioned your name, of course.”
“Of course not!” rejoined Mrs. Wayne sharply, as she took the letter and glanced over it, “you must never refer to me. Yes,” returning it to its envelope, “this seems to be all right.”
“I copied it out seven times,” said the writer, with a dejected air.
“And enjoyed it, I am sure. Think of the exquisite sensation of declining a publisher’s offer!”
“Oh, well—it wasn’t exactly that, dear Mrs. Wayne—I found it rather difficult. You see it was my very first glimmer,” and the girl’s eyes were bright with tears.
“Yes, and I snuffed it out for your good, my dear,” rejoined Mrs. Wayne. “Ah, here he comes! Give the porter your letter—no time like the present,” and she swept into the lift, looking a most royal lady, with her gold embroideries, rose-coloured mantle, and twinkling diamonds; then kissing her hand, she sank slowly from Nellie’s sight.
Miss Meadows returned to a chilly, fireless room, sat down at her writing-table, and actually wept! Had she done what was right? she asked herself anxiously. Oh, to have seen her book in print!—that longed-for consummation seemed to be as distant as ever.
Nellie Meadows was the only child of a country gentleman, a major in the militia, of moderate means, tyrannical temper, and bibulous habits. Her mother, a beautiful, charming woman, had borne the weight of the household on her slender shoulders for years; vainly endeavouring to satisfy her husband’s discontented grumbling complaints, to make both ends meet, and maintain an appearance of domestic happiness; but when Nellie was thirteen years old, she succumbed beneath the burden, and so died. Major Meadows was both amazed and annoyed by this bereavement, and shortly afterwards went for solace, and his liver, to take the waters at Harrogate; there, he was dazzled by the glamour of a yellow-haired, flattering widow, with a grown-up daughter in the background. She was the impecunious relict of a once flourishing city man, and a remarkably clever, energetic woman, who knew exactly what she wanted, and took care that she got it. She proposed to marry Major Meadows—who, rumour declared, had a fine place in Gloucestershire—and succeeded in her design.
Alas! The fine place in Gloucestershire fell far beneath her expectations; it was a small two-storeyed house, with a few acres of land, and the dignified name of Courtfield Hall was the only fine thing it could claim. However, the bride was always a woman to make the best of circumstances; she ruled Richard Meadows in a manner that his former wife had never ventured to attempt when he stormed, she merely laughed; she set his house in order, and arranged matters upon an economical basis; kept the keys and money, dispensed with the gardener, and employed a boy; inaugurated dinners of cold meat, and put him on an allowance of tobacco!
The pretty, timid, rather dreamy stepdaughter was hustled ruthlessly during her holidays, and when she left school, expected to do a certain share of the housework. Nellie cleaned the silver, dusted rooms, made beds, and worked hard, to the best of her ability, and for the sake of peace; her father was sunk in sullen apathy, and helpless to defend either her or himself: indeed he was actually compelled to go to church on Sundays, to mow the lawn, and to pay visits.
“If you had your own way,” declared his new wife, “you would be dead in three months. I know what is good for you!”
The former friends of Nellie’s mother would gladly have welcomed the girl among them, but no invitations were accepted that did not include Mrs. Meadows and her daughter Miss Todd. In the opinion of local matrons, Miss Todd was “impossible.” She was a tall, big-boned girl, a tremendous hockey and tennis player, who talked slang, spoke with a loud voice, and was altogether an overpowering person, who appeared to be about three sizes too large for Courtfield Hall; she was also lazy, untidy, and selfish, but in her mother’s eyes, Dolly could do no wrong.
Dolly and her mother’s stepdaughter had but little in common: Nellie was fond of books and music, of sitting up in her own room reading and scribbling, when she had a little time to herself; did not care for running after the beagles, or even playing hockey. In the family, she was one too many, and when she was twenty-one, was allowed to go her own way, with her mother’s fortune of eighty pounds a year.
Her ambition was to live in London, among clever, brilliant, literary people, and to write. Such a project was scoffed at at home, where she and her housework, and her eighty pounds a year, would be missed,—--but latterly relations had become strained, scenes had been frequent, and after a tearful and terrible quarrel between Nellie and her stepmother, in which the girl for once held her ground, she took her departure, with a warning that she was never to return, and would probably die of starvation and want—and many and many a time regret the happy, comfortable, peaceful home, which she had never appreciated!
Nellie had a good friend and correspondent in London, a certain Miss Bourne, a relative on her mother’s side: who had not (as others) been kept at bay by Major Meadows’ ferocious rudeness, and had never lost sight of poor Lucy’s little girl, but sent her presents from time to time of books and gloves, and the pretty odds and ends from foreign shops,—that are delightful novelties to inhabitants in the rural parts of England. On the present occasion, she welcomed Nellie as her guest at Brown’s Hotel, and was really glad to have this charming child with the flower-like face, and poor Lucy’s eyes, as her companion. Miss Bourne was a shrivelled elderly spinster, in the enjoyment of an independent fortune, and somewhat alone in the world. Her health being delicate, she lived for most part of the year on the Riviera, or in Switzerland, (where she had many hotel friends,) travelling always with great comfort, accompanied by a trusty maid.
This lonely woman was naturally a good deal self-centred, but Lucy’s pretty little girl, with her simple, frank manners, and her warm gratitude, took her out of her daily groove, and afforded a new interest. The short stories which the child read to her of an evening were, in her opinion, astonishingly good! There had been authors in the Bourne family (indeed, she herself had written a feeble little book of travel), and there was no reason in the world why Nellie Meadows should not be a brilliant success! The only thing she seemed to lack was self-confidence, otherwise she was enthusiastic, industrious, and apparently clever, but altogether too diffident, and she seemed to Miss Bourne to be just the sort of shrinking, simple girl that quick-witted publishers would impose upon!
She found her such an agreeable companion, that she offered to take her abroad for the winter; but this Nellie, who was anxious to begin a career without delay, declined.
“I am twenty-one, you see,” she announced, “and I have not yet made any sort of start. I have only had two or three stories published, and I really do want to get on. Also I feel, that if I accepted your delightful invitation, I might fall into lazy ways, and spend my time gazing at beautiful scenery, beautiful pictures, beautiful flowers, and acquire the habit of the dolce far niente.”
Miss Bourne nodded her head sagaciously. She realised that there was wisdom in this statement; Nellie, for her age, was surprisingly sensible: and after all, to carry a young companion in one’s train for six or eight months might be a rash experiment, and Trotter, her maid, was bound to be jealous and disagreeable.
Nellie was remarkably pretty—indeed all the Bournes had been good-looking,—and her particular style, slender figure, deep blue eyes, and rose-leaf complexion would be notable among a darker race and possibly lead to complications with young men, and irritating love-affairs,—and she really was too old, and her health was too indifferent, to play the part of chaperone.
Accordingly she gave her young connection a certain amount of worldly advice; such as she hoped would arm her for her solitary self-supporting life in a little London flat. If people spoke to her in the street, she was to walk straight on, and take no notice—under no circumstances whatever was she to receive a visitor of the opposite sex in her flat—no, not if he was eighty! She was recommended to limit her acquaintance to petticoats, for, despite what was said to the contrary, women were very good to women; and especially in these days, when so many of them were leading their own lives, and earning their own bread.
Sarah Bourne was a lady who had travelled, and expanded her mind; she took much broader views of things than Major Meadows and his second wife, and to her it was not at all shocking that a girl should live, and learn to walk, alone.
Miss Bourne, who for all her delicacy, was of an active disposition, assisted her friend to the best of her power. She put her up for her own club, the “Too-Too,” and promised to pay the entrance fee and first year’s subscription, accompanied her flat-hunting, and ultimately advised the choice of 27, Montague Mansions. “To be under the same roof, and on the same landing, with a popular authoress like Mrs. Wayne,” was, she assured Nellie—“half the battle!” Mrs. Wayne was also a member of the “Too-Too,” and Miss Bourne had presented her young connection, and begged her to countenance and befriend her. She also introduced Nellie to several nice, rich, solid families, who lived in the neighbourhood of Lancaster Gate and Portland Place. These would undoubtedly invite the child to lunch on Sundays, take her for an occasional drive or motor ride, and keep a kindly eye upon the rising authoress!
It was early in November, the fogs were creeping down on London, and Miss Bourne was already due at her own particular hotel at Cannes, but before she departed she wished to see Nellie established in her flat. It had been furnished on the hire system, and here Nellie had the pleasure of entertaining her kind relative at tea; everything was beautifully neat and new, but to a guest accustomed to luxury, the impression she received was that the little sitting-room of No. 27 was comfortless and bare. She therefore sent in a present of a business-like writing-table, an easy-chair, a couple of palms, and a reliable little stove. She really was a generous and thoughtful woman, and her death six weeks later, from influenza and pneumonia, was to Nellie Meadows an irreparable loss.
As Miss Bourne had made no will, the whole of her considerable fortune went to her nearest relatives, who lived in Canada.
Winter dragged along slowly, the would-be authoress worked incessantly, and thanks to the advice of a girl at the Too-Too Club, she learnt the names and addresses of the magazines most likely to publish her particular style of story. These stories were written in beautiful English, carefully polished, and neatly typed; nevertheless they were returned through the post with distressing punctuality.
However, the writer still struggled on, being aware that, although the path she had elected to tread was long, thorny, and full of obstacles,—it led to great prizes! Very often her thoughts turned to her successful neighbour, although she saw nothing of her, beyond a glimpse of a splendidly dressed personage, standing at her own door, latchkey in hand, or waiting for the lift. On these occasions, a nod, a smile, a “Getting on all right?” would be Mrs. Wayne’s sole greeting. The borrowing of a bucket of coal was their first step towards intimacy, and the sensational end of the Montague Mansions cat brought Mrs. Wayne into disagreeable prominence. Marcia Wayne abhorred cats; they were so secret, deceitful, and self-possessed; and this friendly black gentleman was the object of her special aversion. Yet, in spite of her coldness, he was particularly addicted to haunting her apartments—he seemed to slip in and out like a shadow, and would seat himself upon her table, or before her fire or indeed in any situation that appealed to his fancy.
One morning, in a fit of furious impatience, she knocked him off the window-ledge; he fell full storeys five, and gave immediate contradiction to the nine lives theory, for when the porter picked him up on the flags, he really was stone dead. In answer to an outcry, the lady from whose window he had so swiftly descended, declared that the animal had missed his footing; but as there were no witnesses, the truth of this tragedy lay, for all time, between her and the dead.
Nellie Meadows was naturally shy; since she was a small child her life had been repressed; and she had been brought up on the principle that “little people should be seen, and not heard,” that she was never to push herself, or offer an opinion. In the first part of her existence, she was overawed by her father, and for the last eight years, by her overwhelming stepmother. She was an entirely different type of girl to those who order their parents about, advise them, and rule and manage the family. Somehow she did not venture to cultivate Miss Bourne’s prosperous friends, who resided in mansions with pillared porticos, whose doors were opened by majestic men-servants; she spent her spare hours in the reading-room of her club, where she revelled in the latest papers, magazines, and books. Occasionally she went to a concert or a lecture with Miss Finch, her only girl acquaintance, a clever, keen-faced young woman, who held advanced ideas, smoked many cigarettes, was an admirable fencer, and a brilliant writer.
Miss Finch had taken a fancy to the blue-eyed maiden from the country, who was so simple, so completely “out of it,” so absurdly Early Victorian in her ideas,—--and yet, all the same, a clever girl.
When Miss Finch went off to India in the autumn, it seemed to Nellie Meadows that it was her fate to lose her friends,—--and to tell the truth, she had not the art of sociability, and would no more venture to open conversation with a stranger at her club, than she would pick a lock. This was a pity; for the club was full of kindly people; and many a friendly hand would have been extended to her, but when anyone spoke to Miss Meadows, she blushed so painfully, and looked so surprised, and seemed to have so little to say, that her acquaintance was not cultivated.
Nellie now began to realise that the rent of her flat, the hire of furniture, the bills for firing and electric light, made an enormous hole in eighty pounds, and but a mere nominal margin remained for food and clothes. As autumn advanced into winter—her second winter in London—she began to experience the cruel nip of poverty, and it proclaimed itself in her appearance; her lovely country bloom had disappeared, her cheeks were sunken, and her hands, oh, so thin! She lived principally on bread-and-butter and tea, or Quaker Oats and apples, or the stimulating diet of bread and cheese, washed down by hot water, but she still contrived to keep a stout heart; there was a strain of stern determination in her character, she would never give up, but die in the last ditch!
Every spare penny went to pay for typewriting; thirteen lessons for half a guinea, and so much for practice. She then decided to buy a machine on the hire system, and her neat little fingers soon became proficient on the keyboard. She gained a Society of Arts certificate, but failed to find customers, even at sevenpence a thousand words; in fact, her only customer was Mrs. Wayne, who found her typewriting neighbour excessively convenient, (but rarely paid her)—and far from being a benevolent helper, had, as time advanced, become more or less of a borrower and parasite,—but simple and inexperienced little Nellie was the last to realise this fact. The poor girl often found it difficult to pay her way, and Mrs. Wayne owed her seven pounds. Once or twice, she had braced up her courage and gone to her room on purpose to ask for it. Why should she lack fire, and even food, when the money was rightfully hers? But no sooner was she confronted with the widow’s cold grey eyes, than her heart failed her; she muttered some feeble excuse for her visit, borrowed an illustrated paper, and returned empty-handed to her cold hearth. Nellie was too proud and too shy to suffer anyone to guess at her extreme poverty—least of all her fashionable acquaintance, and now declined every invitation, she even ceased to frequent her club at any rate in the daytime—her clothes had become so shabby; repeated wettings, London dust, and London mud, had done their worst to the modest wardrobe she had brought from Courtfield Hall.
Her fortunes were at their lowest ebb, when one grey drizzling morning, she set out to walk to the neighbourhood of the Strand, there to make personal enquiries respecting several short stories she had submitted to a magazine some weeks previously; “even if the editor took them, and gave her a couple of pounds, she would be thankful,” she said to herself, as she hurried along the sloppy greasy pavement—for every day was bringing her nearer to the completion of her novel. It was raining hard when she reached her destination, and was shown into a little damp, dark room, full of other callers, there to await a reply to her message.
The reply came, in the form of her own stories, tied up in brown paper, and handed to her by a brisk messenger. There was nothing for it but to take her departure, and to sally forth into the downpour. The Strand looked wet and depressing, and the wind at the corner did its utmost to carry off her rickety umbrella; her skirts were soaked, she dreaded the long trudge home; the noisy ’buses, and the mass of hurrying, rain-sodden people, seemed to get upon her nerves. She decided that for once she would treat herself to a rest and a good meal, and with this extravagant resolve, turned into an A. B. C. Here she secured an unoccupied table, and fared sumptuously on two scones, an egg, and a cup of coffee. The restaurant was fairly full of all sorts of customers; business folk, typists, clerks, journalists, men and women. Three pretty girls—actresses—were sitting near Nellie, drinking cocoa and hot milk, and discussing a recent rehearsal and forthcoming production.
Feeling much restored, Miss Meadows sought for money to pay the little docket marked sevenpence, then she discovered to her horror, that she had lost her purse! It was not in her pocket, nor in the inside pocket of her coat, nor in her little bag, nor yet in her muff. What would she do? And the bill amounted to sevenpence!
A young man sitting alone at an opposite table had noticed this anxious search, and evident distress; and realised at once that the pretty girl with the violet eyes had lost her purse. He rose, went over, and accosted her, and begged her to excuse him—but could he be of use to her in any way?
Nellie recognised that he was a gentleman; tall, well set-up, clean-shaven, with smiling dark eyes, and a square chin. She raised her violet eyes,—--now drenched in tears—to his, and told him of her misfortune, and after a little hesitation and some blushes, gratefully borrowed one shilling.
“I will send it to you,” she said timidly, “if I may have your address.”
“Hugh Hawkshaw, No. 88, Clements’ Inn.”
Subsequently, he attended her to the pay desk, talking all the time in a pleasant voice of the miserable weather, then hailed her particular omnibus, handed her into it as if she had been a princess, and stood on the pavement bareheaded, as the vehicle lurched away.
Hugh Hawkshaw duly received the shilling by post, but without any name, and perhaps this omission made him think rather often of his pretty creditor, with her anxious face, lovely eyes, and parcel of battered manuscript. She had remarkably neat feet and ankles—he could not help noticing these, as he put her into the ’bus,—--and although her clothes were shabby, and her gloves were of wool, it was evident to him that the girl was well-bred, and a lady.
Often and often, he looked about for her in the streets; he had even patronised the same A. B. C. on several occasions, but he never encountered her, and to tell the truth she was almost forgotten, when one day at a tea-party given by Mrs. Wayne at her club, he recognised the girl as a fellow guest; and requested his hostess to present him.
“Yes, of course,” she replied, “Miss Meadows lives in the flat opposite to me,—she is only a poor struggling little creature, trying to write—but she will never succeed, for she hasn’t it in her. However, she is an excellent typist, and if you had anything to give her—--it would really be a charity!”
“Is she so hard up?” he asked. “Has she no home?”
“Oh, she has a sort of home! but she cannot live there; her stepmother, and her bouncing daughter, have ousted poor little Nellie from the family nest.”
Since this introduction, Mr. Hawkshaw and Miss Meadows had become well acquainted; she typed all his work, and he found her other customers, lent her books, and sent her flowers. She was a little lady; too timid and simple to fight for herself in the world’s fierce battle. Occasionally he called, and waiting discreetly in the entrance hall, sent up a message, and took her for a walk in St. James’s Park; where they sat on a green seat under the trees, watched the penguins, and the Canadian geese, and discussed books, and plays, and often disagreed most warmly. She could not understand William Blake, whilst he declared in strictest confidence, that he could not “stick” the novels of their mutual friend, Marcia Wayne.
Sometimes on Sunday, they went to the Abbey service at three o’clock—and it was all purely platonic, and friendly.
Hugh Hawkshaw, who had been educated at Harrow and Oxford, was intended for the Diplomatic Service, but to the horror of his uncle, Sir Baldwin Hawkshaw, when the young man found himself in London, of age, and for the moment his own master, he abandoned diplomacy for the stage, and squandered his patrimony—that is to say, his mother’s fortune—in several wild ventures. He even wrote a play, indeed several plays—one of which enjoyed an uninterrupted run of three nights—but when his fortunes were at their lowest, and his purse was almost empty, he was still full of vigour, daring, and independence—moreover he was brilliantly clever, and the name of Hawkshaw was not unknown in Fleet Street. He wrote smart things for the papers, lyrics for the halls, and his work was in some demand: and now that the glamour of the stage no longer held him, he criticised plays instead of writing them,—--and received a Press pass on First Nights.
Mrs. Wayne liked him, and spoke of him as “dear boy,” although he was nearly thirty years of age—--and she also mentioned to her friends that his uncle was a baronet, with a fine estate in the north. She omitted to state that Sir Baldwin had quarrelled bitterly with his nephew, and refused to see or hear from him, “a mad play-actor fellow, a rascally spend-thrift, a disgrace to the family;” but a baronet uncle was a baronet uncle, and Mrs. Wayne was a bit of a snob.
Hugh Hawkshaw was useful to Marcia, in the many little ways in which a clever young man, who is behind the scenes, can help a woman who is not:—and he was so handsome, and cheery, and not afraid of poverty, that a talk with him was always a tonic. In his heart of hearts, Hawkshaw despised the works of Marcia Wayne, but dissembled his opinions; it was impossible for a man of his happy temperament to ignore a lady who undoubtedly appreciated him so much.
Mr. Hawkshaw and Miss Meadows were often to be found in the train of Mrs. Wayne; she looked upon them as her protégés—“her young people”—posed as their patroness, and chaperone, and being an adept at enlisting the services of others, made excellent use of them both.
The dinner in honour of Cyrilla Candy, a notable American authoress, was given at the Metropole, and promised to be a large and comprehensive function. Marcia Wayne presented a stately and triumphant appearance, as carrying her head unusually high, she swept along the passages towards the ladies’ cloak-room; which was already packed with smart women, for the most part wearing low dresses and diamonds.
There was a loud buzz of talk, as she crushed forward towards the toilet table, in her arrogant overbearing fashion. Here two friends, who had been chattering together, moved a little aside, and one of them exclaimed,
“Oh, Mrs. Wayne, so you have arrived!—and we must all make room for you,—mustn’t we?”
Marcia shot a quick glance at her, and then at her own reflection,—which was entirely satisfactory. The speaker, a worn-looking individual, with a fuzz of fair hair, and very thin neck and arms, exclaimed:
“You are splendid to-night! What a pity that you are not at the high table, where all can see you!”
“I don’t think it matters where one sits,” rejoined Mrs. Wayne, with studied unconcern.
“Oh, but it does!” protested the other, with an air of conviction; “and you know, you were there, the year before last, weren’t you?”
These little stabs were positively cruel! but with a great effort Marcia retained her temper and self-possession.
“Was I? I really don’t remember—you see, I go to so many public dinners,” she drawled indifferently, turning to take a cloak ticket from an attendant.
“Only think,” continued her tormentor, “they have promoted me! Isn’t it quite too ludicrous? I cannot imagine why I am to be exalted on this particular occasion?”
“Because you have never pushed, my dear Letty,” rejoined her friend, with withering significance.
Marcia Wayne moved away slowly. Those two vipers had always been in her path—the one a journalist, the other a novelist; as she sailed towards the door, and turned her flat shoulders upon them, the fair-haired lady smiled, and said, “What eyes! I do like to ruffle up such majestic self-complacency.”
“Oh, why bother? She’s done,” returned the journalist, putting a hairpin carefully into her hair, “I wonder if she realises it? She writes nothing but rubbish. Did you see that awful notice in the ‘Stiletto?’ She has got the knock over that book. I do wonder how she can dress as she does, and pay her way.”
“So do I—so does everyone,” agreed the novelist, and still wondering, the couple left the room together arm in arm. As the subject of their conversation walked down the passage towards the reception-rooms, she encountered several people, who passed her with a nod, and seeing a little grey-haired lady in advance of her, she overtook her hastily; this individual being rather an important writer, she was resolved to enter the reception-room in her company; but the little grey-haired lady, with “Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Wayne?” stood aside, and joined a tall, bald-headed gentleman, leaving Marcia to advance alone.
Mrs. Wayne had achieved a wide reputation as a hanger-on to useful people; she had the tenacity of a limpet, that nothing short of brutal treatment could dislodge; for instance, she would cling to a woman journalist, who could give her a good paragraph, or an introduction to an editor, or notable friends, in short promote her in any way. Proud and disdainful to those she considered beneath her, she was slavishly civil to others, and flattered them shamelessly. The climber was also unsparing of inconvenience, fatigue, and expense, in order to get herself noticed, invited, and talked about. Besides this particular weakness, she made no secret of the fact “that she did not care for her own sex”—nor they for her. She boasted of her successes, and told the most outrageous falsehoods respecting her books, she “repeated” things, and made serious mischief. Two well-known authors had to thank Mrs. Wayne for their lifelong feud.
On the other hand, men admired her as a remarkably handsome woman, with a strong personality, and a certain amount of brains. At least she had two undeniable attributes—beauty and courage.
At the entrance to the reception-room, she handed her card to the steward, and the name, “Mrs. Marcia Wayne”, was loudly announced, but no stir ensued. People did not trouble to raise their eyes, or turn their heads, and though the host offered a polite welcome, and presented her to the guest of the evening, she passed on, to drift away to the outer fringe of the waiting crowd. Here she came across some acquaintances, and enjoyed some interesting shop talk, was pointed out to one or two strangers, and heard that “Jane Pope’s new novel had been over-subscribed, and that a second edition was already in the Press!”
“Such good sound work,” declared the speaker, (a woman,) “she really deserves to succeed.”
“Well, for my part, I must confess I can’t read her,” returned Marcia, with an air of finality, “it’s all so solid and stodgy, and I believe that outside London, and a certain little set, her public is small.”
“I am not so sure of that, Mrs. Wayne,” interposed a tall, good-looking young man, “she has got into Tauchnitz, and some of the American magazines. I think her work is admirable, and she sticks to it like a leech. It’s not everyone who,” and he looked at her with a smile, “can live with the Muses and the Idlers too. I am pleased to see,” he said, referring to his card, “that I shall have the pleasure of sitting next to you at dinner—a piece of good luck for me. Ah, there they go! Now we must be moving.”
It was a very large dinner. The chief guests sat at the high table, overlooking the company; the more distinguished immediately below, and the lesser folk were distributed, until the six tables came to an end. To Marcia’s secret fury, she found that she had been placed at one of the outside tables, and was now exceedingly sorry that she had accepted an invitation; for it was true that four years previously she had been among the prominent guests.
Well, whatever happened, she must make the best of circumstances, and pretend to enjoy herself, to eat, drink, and be merry. At any rate, she was secure of a first-rate dinner, and unimpeachable champagne, so she arranged her serviette, scanned the menu, and looked about her critically. She appeared to be surrounded by nobodies or strangers. To her right was Mr. Hawkshaw, as he had predicted.
This friend of hers was a rising literary man, with a clever head and a fine brain.
Directly opposite sat a dark, stout lady, blazing with diamonds, her neighbours; a learned-looking gentleman with a long beard, and a pretty American girl, with the clean-cut features and complete self-possession which distinguish her countrywomen.
At the high table, enthroned among the chief guests, and many notabilities, sat Miss Pope in a high-necked dress, and that odious Slater woman, and her friend, the tow-headed journalist. She felt as she contemplated the pair, so smiling and gratified with their position—completely in sympathy with Haman, as he looked on Mordecai the Jew. After a little soup, and champagne, Mrs. Wayne revived, and she and her neighbours fell into talk. They discussed the weather, which was shocking; London traffic, which was murderous, the newest plays and finally books. Marcia was not an admirer of contemporary work, and while she praised, she flayed her sharp and malicious tongue spared none.
Even if in her own mind she realised that a book was good—that it was so interesting she could hardly lay it down—she kept silence; for praise and advertisement were too precious to be given away.
“And how is Miss Meadows?” enquired Hawkshaw, after his second glass of champagne. “I suppose you see her every day? And I know how good you have been to her like a mother, or rather—--I mean”—--picking himself up, “an elder sister.”
“Oh, she is all right, thank you—--she is a nice little thing, I am rather fond of her.”
“How is she getting on with her writing?”
“You always take a great interest in her,” said Mrs. Wayne, and she looked at him curiously.
“I do; she is so plucky, and so friendless. I know she has a hard time—and isn’t making much headway; but of course a man can’t help a girl—in fact, he is worse than useless.”
Mrs. Wayne nodded assent.
“I believe this last year has been terrible to her. She looks to me as if she didn’t get enough nourishment—and her clothes seem so thin.”
“Of course she is not making money as yet,” agreed Marcia equably, “writing takes time, and it’s an awful grind at first. Yes,” to a waiter, “pâté-de-foie gras.”
“Miss Meadows won’t allow me to call on her—you see, she has old-fashioned ideas—--and I don’t often meet her, but I see some change every time I do! Now, I want to do something, Mrs. Wayne, through you. would accept help from you—wouldn’t she?”
“She might,” replied the lady, slowly draining her glass, and fixing her eyes steadily on her companion. “Then suppose—of course, now this is quite private.”
She bent her head, and smiled indulgently.
“I send you—say twenty pounds, and you buy her a good warm winter coat—--a fur coat, and a big muff--or whatever you thought necessary—--and give them to her as a Christmas present from yourself. You can make it so possible, in your own gracious way,” he added artfully.
“Very well,” assented Mrs. Wayne, “I’ll see what I can do—send me the money, and I’ll buy the things; a fur coat, and a muff at once—she does look perished, poor child!”
“Thank you—and above all,—silence. I know if it ever leaked out, she would never speak to me as long as she lived, and that would be the mischief! She works hard, and her work is fairly good stuff—don’t you think so?”
“Well, not bad,” assented the lady, “but just a little crude. Her stories want form—--but she takes pains.”
“Yes. I believe she’ll write a page twenty times till she gets it to her liking—--or as right as she can manage—no scamping. I think she will come out all right yet.”
“Oh, do you?” said Mrs. Wayne, doubtfully.
“Yes. Some of her things are really excellent. You know I do a little in the literary line myself—--not creative always,” and he laughed.
“But destructive—oh yes—a critic!” supplemented Mrs. Wayne.
“Not much; I am only a struggler, but lyrics, essays, and parodies—just to keep the pot boiling. The lady opposite is speaking to you.”
The stout lady was leaning forward, and addressing Marcia said, “I have never been to a public dinner before. May we talk to you a little?”
“Why, of course,” she responded, “delighted.” No doubt the stranger had heard the name and fame of her celebrated vis-à-vis.
“It’s so interesting to see all the people one reads about. I am a country mouse, and everything is new to me. Now there’s Barrie—oh, I do love his plays—and Rider Haggard and Bernard Shaw—what an event!”
“My, yes!” broke in the American young lady, “and planted there, in the middle of them all, is our countrywoman, Cyrilla Candy—she’s a real, bright woman. There’s something in her books.”
“I hope you don’t mean that there’s nothing in our books on this side,” expostulated young Hawkshaw, with a smile.
“Oh, well, of course your novelists, as a rule, don’t make any definite sort of appeal to us—their style is poor, and besides, we like reading of our ways, and our own people.”
“A little bit narrow, isn’t it? Don’t you ever tire of the great War, and Cuba, and the backwoods, or New England farms?”
“No, I can’t truly say I do! I’ve no use for your fashionable studies of slum life, or analysing motives, and prying into all the delicate, intimate psychology of young females. Several of your authors I do read—there’s something to them—they write with care of grammar, and literary technique, and have a tale to tell--—but others—--oh, my great grand-aunt”—and she cast up her eyes—“the others!”
“Others?” repeated Hawkshaw.
“Why, yes, your silly string of women writers, with their Johnnies, and Bridge clubs, and dressmaker’s bills—they do make me smile. The worst of the whole crowd is Marcia Wayne. Say, what is she like? I’d love to see her!”
Young Hawkshaw’s face was expressive of a three-act tragedy, as he glanced from Uncle Sam’s critical daughter, to the woman beside him,—who fortunately at the moment was plunged into an interesting argument, and a literary flirtation, with a rough-hewn, bearded man, who had opened conversation with,
“This is a very pleasant gathering, to honour a talented woman from the other side. I have not seen any of her books myself, but I understand that she is far-reaching.”
“Yes, from here to New York,” rejoined Mrs. Wayne. “I never read American novels. I am not interested in pumpkin pies, and clams, and school marms, are you?”
“Oh, well, to tell you the truth, I’m shamefully ignorant about them. I am as you may know,—or may not know,—--the editor of the ‘Pandemonium,’ which devours all my time, and I have no leisure for fiction; but I am told that the qualities now most esteemed are powers of psychological analysis, and the art of realistic representation. The dinner committee made a special request that I should put in an appearance tonight, so here I am! I see that your name is Wayne,” he added glancing at the card, “you don’t write, of course?”
Not write! Where did the man live?
“Yes, I do,” she answered with energy, “I’ve been working hard for nine years.”
“And are still fighting your way, no doubt. What is your particular line?—--fashions?—--philanthropy?”
“Novels,” she answered sharply.
“Ah—um—yes,” he muttered meditatively, “somehow, you don’t give me the idea of a woman, who would be keenly interested in other people’s affairs—imaginary affairs or in love. I may be wrong, of course,” knitting his heavy brows, “in my mind’s eye, I can see you turning out a biography, with spicy little unexpected details, or editing the secret letters of So-and-So. You have not the imaginative eye,—--though excuse an old bear for saying it, they are an uncommonly handsome pair!”
Here the chairman rose to propose a toast, and silence fell upon the company. Between the speeches, Marcia and her neighbours exchanged a few sentences, and she could not help being struck by the attentive gaze of the American girl; undoubtedly she had discovered her identity, and was immensely impressed. As the dinner and speeches ended, the ladies strolled back to the reception-room—and like drifted to like. Some flitted from group to group, with a word here, a request there, a hint elsewhere; others simply stood or sat about, discussing the dinner, the guests, and the speeches. Marcia had her own particular little coterie; which was chiefly composed of budding journalists, and hard-working writers of cheap fiction. Among these she was still a Triton among minnows, whilst towards her, the attitude of the larger fry—was that of impenetrable exclusion. For instance, Mrs. Allen, once an intimate associate, who had seemed scarcely able to exist without a daily meeting, now barely glanced at her. Lady Moppet, magnificent in the family diamonds; how often she had invited her to lunch, and gathered amusing people to entertain her!
To-night this beaky monster of ingratitude looked the other way; and Mrs. Pallas, who had made her the recipient of all her domestic troubles, had placed her husband’s character unreservedly in her hands, and wept to her, and read letters to her—actually passed her with a nonchalant nod.
Mrs. Wayne’s heart was sore within her: why was her world so cold? The answer was, because her day was ended; her sun had set. Moreover there was not one woman in that large assemblage to whom she had done a kindly action, or extended a helping hand: all her exertions, and strivings were solely for the advancement of Marcia Wayne.
At last the men began to flock in, and some of the women were surrounded. Poor Miss Pope, however, was sought by none; her recent prominence at the high table must provide her with consolation and satisfaction.
After a good dinner, and a good cigar, men prefer to talk to handsome and appreciative women; they are rarely in the mood for burning incense. Young Hawkshaw came directly towards Marcia, so did a slender, fair man, with a fine romantic face, deep-set blue eyes, and a pointed beard, he looked like a modern edition of Sir Philip Sidney. This was Rufus Lacy, a country gentleman with town tastes; a connection of the Benlocks, and a sincere and enthusiastic admirer of Marcia Wayne, her works included.
Lacy was a well-bred, rather weak gentleman, who believed that Marcia was a genius; it was amazing to him that a Benlock, or indeed anyone, could write books! He had basked in her success, and talked continually of “my cousin, the authoress.” Also her tall, dark, reposeful style, her air of decision, appealed to a man of his character and complexion: indeed he admired her more than any woman he had ever seen, and Marcia was aware that she could, if she chose, be Mrs. Rufus Lacy—but oh, he was so tiresome, and stupid, and shallow! It was such a little narrow mind, which seldom soared beyond pedigree, blue china, a neat bachelor suite in Piccadilly and the croquet championship.
Rufus was undeniably good-looking, a distinguished individual for an escort; he had a nice old place in a lonely part of the country, and two thousand a year; but her life with him at The Court would be a living death; and although Marcia was almost at the end of her resources, she had not arrived at that yet. Meanwhile she dismissed young Hawkshaw, and strolled about with Lacy, who looked so well groomed, and aristocratic,—a useful cavalier; and the outer world had no idea of his dullness.
As she moved along, distributing a smile here, a nod there, her escort felt that he was assisting in a royal progress, and was overwhelmed with pride and complacency. He liked to be openly connected with a woman who was a celebrity, it flattered his self-importance. Marcia had ceased to be of any literary consequence, but was naturally the last person to open his eyes to the fact.
“I got a card,” he explained, in his little jerky way, “but of course no chance of a seat near you. I was at the far table, with my face towards the wall.
“I had a long letter from Frances to-day—she says, she wants you to go to her for Christmas. I hope you will!”
“Oh yes,” drawled Marcia, “but I have such crowds of invitations. However, I’ll think about it—Frances is a good old thing.”
Ten years previously, Miss Benlock would have thankfully given her hair, or even a front tooth, for an invitation to Rossleigh: this invitation and acquaintance was one of the good things that had been brought to her by her pen! Frances Benlock, her first cousin, was a wealthy unmarried woman, living in the old family place. Immediately after the success of “On the Stoep,” she had written to Marcia and claimed her as a relative,
“I am not an author,” she declared, “but I adore books, and people who are clever enough to write them. I liked your African story—you make the place so familiar, and the people so much alive. Please do come and stay with me, and tell me all about the novel, and yourself, and your plans. You know, you and I are cousins, and sensible people, who are going to have nothing to do with quarrels and letters that took place before we were born. A year ago, I met with a dreadful accident out hunting, and have been more or less of a cripple ever since. For a long time I was an invalid, and I am debarred from an active life, and travelling about, which once afforded me my greatest pleasure. My greatest pleasure now is when friends come to me—so please do not be stiff and ceremonious, but let me hear that I shall see you soon. The carriage will meet you any afternoon you will be pleased to fix; Parcote is our station—trains are frequent. You will find no one here, but Miss Burry my old companion, and myself; and we will do our best not to bore you more than we can help. I am sure you will bring a delightful breath of stimulating literary life to
“Your affectionate cousin,
Marcia accepted without hesitation, and enjoyed her visit so much, that she repeated it again and yet again.
Frances was a plain woman, with a strikingly clever face, and rather bulging brown eyes. She limped as she walked, and was remarkably vivacious, and unconventional.
Rufus Lacy was a neighbour, his pretty old place was within three miles of Rossleigh—the lands marched together. He came to see his cousin almost daily when at home; at Rossleigh he was half a kind of brother, and half tame cat. Here for the first time, he met Marcia Wayne, and from that notable hour, looked up to her as the star of his existence.
He proved to be useful to his star, in spite of his low monotonous voice, and boring conversation, and he had a dreadful habit after reading a book—usually a dull one—of relating the whole of the plot; or dwelling at great length on some trivial incident, until his unfortunate listener felt inclined to scream. However, he gave charming little teas at his rooms, sent flowers and theatre tickets, entertained at the Ritz and allowed Marcia to invite some of the guests. He also invested in numerous copies of her novels, and was in his deadly boring way, her very best advertisement.
Rufus was not acquainted with literary people, except his cousin’s friends, and lived in a neat, precise old bachelor style, was extremely particular regarding his appearance, attended every sale of old china, all the croquet tournaments within reach of London, and his one hope and ambition was, that he would some day persuade the celebrated and beautiful Marcia to condescend to be his wife: and the more she snubbed him, the more he figuratively grovelled at her feet.
As they moved through the crowd, Mrs. Wayne pointed out a well-known dramatist, a charming actress, and several novelists; and when one of these returned her greeting, and spoke to her for a few moments, the good-looking man beside her, with a straight nose and fair beard, was immensely impressed. When she first came to London, this particular lady had befriended Marcia—before she learnt the lessons of self-advertisement, ostentation, and extravagance; before she made the mistake of talking of her work, and doing little; and in frantic haste, between lunch and dinner, or after the theatre, sitting down and scribbling madly for an hour or two; nothing was digested, or thought out, it was just jerry-mandering, run-up material, thrust into an envelope, and posted to the typist; naturally that sort of work could not endure; the decline had come, slowly, but surely. Outspoken friends had made Marcia furious by saying, “Yes, dear, I have got your book—I am not sure that I like it as well as the last—or was it the one before? I forget its name,” and Frances Benlock had boldly informed her that her recent novels were not her style, and that much as she liked her, she could not read them.
“It’s my bad taste, my dear, no doubt,” she declared, “I am the exception that proves the rule! and you won’t be angry with me, will you?”
But secretly Marcia resented this declaration, she was particularly touchy respecting her books, and this speech of Frances’ had smouldered in her mind for years.
The assemblage thinned, Marcia saw the tall American celebrity preparing to depart, followed by an admiring crowd, and she had not exchanged one word with the heroine of the night; evidently her position was considered too insignificant for notice! and feeling somewhat like a wounded animal that is anxious to hide itself, she commanded her cavalier to take her to the cloakroom, and to call for a cab. He handed her down, as if she were Royalty itself, and begged leave to see her home to the entrance of the Mansions. The answer was as usual, “No, no, no, a thousand times no.”
Never now did Mrs. Wayne suffer anyone to penetrate to her rooms, and for excellent reasons,—which we share. She entertained friends at her club: it saved trouble and exposure, and sheltered self-respect.
“Good night, good night,” she cried to Lacy, as he stood on the pavement: she waved her hand, there was a momentary light on the clear-cut profile, on the rose-red cloak, a loud “Gee-up!” and his enchantress was out of sight.
Marcia arrived at her shabby flat to find the fire dead out, and the table covered with a swarm of bills. She shivered as she looked at them. As a rule, when she returned late, she took off her fine feathers, resumed her old tea-gown, and sat for a couple of hours, grinding out some story for a cheap serial, or a tale for a penny magazine. Her straits financial were serious. To-night, she went at once to bed, and as she undressed, made plans. To-morrow, she would go to Branson and Bell, (a big publishing firm,) taking Nellie’s novel as her stalking-horse, and persuade them to make an offer for her own book. Money she must have—she was getting desperate, and to hide her straits, was becoming daily more and more difficult; the rent, the electric light, Bridget’s wages, were so many nightmares.
The day after the dinner, Marcia lay in bed till late and had a good think; then making a careful toilette, and a light lunch, she went off to Branson and Bell.
Their office was in a modern, busy-looking, redbrick building. Mrs. Wayne sent in her card, and being a handsome individual, wearing valuable furs, and an air of consequence, was by an obsequious clerk requested to, “Step this way, if you please. Have you an appointment?”
She shook her head, but nevertheless presently found herself in a comfortable office with easy-chairs, a Turkey carpet, and a large orderly writing-table. Seated at this was a grey-haired gentleman, with a clean-shaven face, and a pair of piercing eyes. He bowed her to a seat, facing the window, and begged to know what he could do for her.
Before she answered, her quick glance had travelled round the laden bookshelves, noted the safes, the piles of written manuscript, and heard the click of typewriters in an adjoining office.
“I’ve come to see you, Mr. Branson—I presume?”
“Yes,” he assented, looking at her with attention.
“On the part of a little protégée of mine—a dear shy girl, who is dying to see herself in print.”
“She is not singular in that respect,” he answered drily, as he leant back, and fixed the tips of his fingers together.
“She really is quite clever, and so industrious—it would be such a magnificent start, if you would look at and accept her story.”
“Ah—what is the young lady’s name?”
“Miss Meadows—Nellie Meadows.”
“Has she done anything?”
“No—only just little things, in magazines, so far.”
“What is the book about—anything striking, or unusual?”
“Well, I believe it’s an English story of country life. I confess I’ve not read it.”
“Not read it! Then, dear madam, I must confess that I don’t see your object in calling on me.”
“Oh, well, the child was so nervous—and I—” with a flash of her eyes, “am an old hand, and before sending it in, she implored me to pave the way, and ask if you’d have it looked at?”
“Everything is looked at here, in the way of business. We can’t afford to neglect a chance of something good.”
“Thank you so much,” rising, “it shall be sent off immediately.”
“I’m sure I don’t know—something beginning with an ‘L.’”
“Author’s name, Meadows,” making a note, and rising also.
Mrs. Wayne was already half-way to the door, when as an afterthought she turned, with one of her radiant smiles.
“I wonder if you would care to publish something of mine?”
Mr. Branson stared, astonished.
“But I thought you always went to Topper and Scott?”
“Yes, but I’d like a change—a little change—and as the servants say, ‘to better myself.”
“We all want to do that—um—may I ask, is the book finished?”
“No, not quite,” she had not yet commenced it—”this is November, it will be ready in February—the usual length.”
“And the theme?”
“A Society novel of the present day.”
“Ah, we get so many of those,” he objected, “they are played out.”
“Well, you see, I only pretend to write on a subject I really do know.”
“Then you are an unusually wise woman—and as to terms?”
“I think,” and she hesitated, “you see I’m a newcomer, and I’ll allow you to make me an offer.”
“Times are terribly bad you know, Mrs. Wayne, so I must prepare you beforehand, that we cannot give large sums. The book trade is dying; reprints, magazines, sixpennies, sevenpennies, motors, games, all damage us. People don’t read as they did years ago.”
“Perhaps not,” she agreed, “but on the other hand, all the world can read. Well, good-bye, Mr. Branson—my address is on my card, and I’ll expect to hear from you in a day or two.”
Busy Mr. Branson gallantly held open the door and bowed the novelist forth; subsequently he took steps to find out the history of the lady’s last book, and judging by a decidedly gloomy account, sent her as requested—an offer. It was so pitiably small, that it made her face blaze—nevertheless, it was an offer! and she accepted, on the understanding that she received an advance on account.
Branson and Bell were astounded. Marcia Wayne was reputed to be so rich and prosperous—the offer had been submitted in the full expectation of a prompt refusal.
The evening of her visit, she received a call from Nellie, who brought with her the book, in a brown paper cover.
“Here it is, dear Mrs. Wayne,” she said, “Topper and Scott sent it back the next morning,—and without a word.”
“But, my dear, what could they say?” enquired Marcia, with a smile, “I’ve been to Branson’s and interviewed them about it—and they will read it at once.”
“Oh, you kindest and best of friends!”
“They asked about the plot, and name, and I could not tell them. I’d forgotten—I’d like to look over it, if you don’t mind opening it. Then I’ll pack it nicely, and send it off.”
“I shall be delighted. I never somehow had the courage to ask you to read it,” she said, hastily unfastening the parcel, “but at least,”—holding out a chapter for inspection—“it is nicely typed.”
“Yes, beautifully, so clear and neat, ‘The Long Lane,’” reading aloud; then she turned to page one.
Nellie stood by in undisguised anxiety, like a mother cat, whose kitten has been selected for inspection.
“Now, do run away, my dear,” said Marcia, looking up, “I really cannot have you watching me, with your great beseeching blue eyes; you shall hear my verdict to-night before I go to bed,” and she pointed dramatically to the door, then arranging two cushions behind her head and kicking off her shoes, Mrs. Wayne settled down to read “The Long Lane.”
Her first sensation was astonishment.
Where had this little chit found her ideas, and her vocabulary? It was like the work of a practised hand; yet clear, and fresh and sparkling as spring water. On the whole, rather a wonderful achievement for this humble little girl, who lived sparingly on Quaker Oats and milk, tea and dry toast, and laboured so assiduously to get what she called “a start.” Well, it was really a pretty story, she said to herself, as after skimming through the manuscript, she laid it down, and she would send it to Branson and Bell to-morrow.
“What do you think of it?” enquired Nellie, in the doorway in answer to a summons.
“My dear, it is quite good,” replied her patroness, “your excellent education stands to you—no one can pick holes in your grammar.”
“But the story?”
“The story is very pretty.”
“Oh, please don’t call it pretty—I can’t endure pretty stories.”
“Well then—charming—will that suit you? Perhaps just a little too saccharine for my taste, and of course you are bound to have the tinkle of wedding bells in the last chapter.”
“Yes, for I hate a book that ends badly.”
“But things that end badly are mostly true to life!”
“Oh, Mrs. Wayne—you really don’t think so?”
“I do; but don’t let me depress you. I will pack up this beautifully,” touching the manuscript, “and send it by messenger boy to Branson and Bell to-morrow.”
“And if Fortune is kind, and Branson and Bell accept it, I shall dedicate it, with all my love and thanks, to you, its celebrated godmother. And when it starts to-morrow in charge of the messenger boy, I think I’ll run down to the entrance, and throw an old shoe after him!”
Nellie Meadows looked so radiant and happy, that her appearance struck Mrs. Wayne; who suddenly remembered a cheque she had received that morning, and she said,
“Can you come shopping with me to-morrow? We will go and lunch somewhere, I want to get some winter things, and you shall help me. They are for a girl—a friend of mine—who is about your size.”
“I shall be delighted,” replied Nellie, “I love shopping and trying on, I’ll have all the fun of choosing, and nothing to pay.”
“Nothing to pay certainly; we will set out as soon as the book is off. Shortly after twelve, I’ll call for you.”
This expedition was a rapturous affair as far as Nellie was concerned. After making a few insignificant purchases at the stores, they went into the fur department, and here Mrs. Wayne selected a smart fur coat, and a big muff to match. The two together cost thirteen pounds; the balance of the cheque, I regret to state, went to appease Mrs. Wayne’s coal merchant. She salved her conscience by saying, it was a mere loan, and that for the present, the girl had everything she required. When Nellie realised that the coat, which fitted her so admirably, and the delightful big muff, were actually her own to keep—her expression was a study—even the young ladies in the mantles and furs thoroughly enjoyed the pretty little scene, and thought the handsome matron, with the splendid ermine stole, a sort of modern fairy godmother. How little these kind-hearted people guessed that the notes and sovereigns which paid for the purchases did not come from the purse of the benevolent fairy—but were the result of certain smart little articles in the weekly papers, contributed under the initials, H. V. H.
After her shopping expedition, Mrs. Wayne despatched a gracious note to Mr. Hawkshaw, acknowledging the cheque, and inviting him to tea at her club, where he would meet Nellie Meadows and behold his present.
Nellie, looking very slim and pretty in her new furs, whispered to him shyly, that these were a gift—and her eyes rested affectionately on Marcia—at the moment dispensing lumps of sugar, and sweet speeches to Mr. Galton Grant, who made a fourth in the little party. He was a tall, angular man of forty-five, with a long horse-like head, close-cropped sandy hair, and a pair of deep-set, scrutinising eyes; a rising individual who held an important political appointment in the East.
At present, Mr. Grant was home on a well-deserved holiday, and privately in search of a suitable wife; a handsome clever woman of distinguished appearance, who would sustain the part of hostess, be an agreeable helpmate, and promote his career,—a lady with ambition, brains, and money preferred.
It seemed to him that Marcia Wayne had actually been created to fill the post—he scrutinised her narrowly, as he stirred his tea; she was undeniably handsome, and dignified, and had the requisite queenly bearing; besides this she was wealthy and clever—at the moment, a lady was enquiring about her next novel,—moreover she was open-handed, and entertained her particular friends in a generous and delightful fashion.
He had enjoyed several little dinners and luncheons at her club, or at restaurants—Mr. Grant did not offer any hospitality himself; he wisely considered that a man who was home for a short time, looking out for a wife, was not expected to play the part of host.
Somehow it appeared a little strange that he had never once been invited to visit Mrs. Wayne at her own flat, but apparently customs had altered of late years, and people now were never “At Home” at home, and dispensed their festivities very completely elsewhere. As he glanced at the lady’s furs, the diamonds sparkling in her ears, (her imitations were always of the best) the knot of old lace at her throat, he said to himself, “She must at least be worth a couple of thousand a year!” and as he extended a languid hand towards the muffin dish, he had mentally decided that they would have a quiet wedding in their travelling kit, a couple of weeks in Paris, where he knew of a capital cheap hotel, and then away to India.
Refreshed with tea, and delectable hot muffins, Mr. Grant proceeded to invite Mrs. Wayne, Miss Meadows and Mr. Hawkshaw to dine with him that day week at the Carlton, and do a play. He had made up his mind to propose in the cab, as he drove Marcia to the theatre—he made no doubt of her assent,—yes, it was all settled, she had given him unmistakable encouragement.—This would give them three clear weeks before the wedding, and Mrs. Wayne being a widow, would not expect the usual fuss and presents.
His invitation was accepted with much cordiality, and a faint element of surprise; the play to be witnessed was discussed and selected, then Mrs. Wayne noticing the entrance of an important acquaintance, rose with a hasty apology.
“I must speak to Lady Augusta—do excuse me for a moment,” and she indicated some newspapers, “There’s the ‘Pall Mall Gazette’ and to-day’s ‘Punch.’” Then she went across to where the stout old woman, shaped like a lamp-shade, stood gravely awaiting her, and Mr. Grant, leaving the young couple to murmur and laugh together, immediately buried himself in “Punch.”
The “Too-Too” was not a literary club; although literary people were among its members there was a larger contingent of the fashionable world. As the stranger turned over the pages of “Punch,” he could not help overhearing the scraps of conversation of two smart women who were seated on his left.
“I always forget my autumn clothes till it is too late,” announced one, “I got it at Chenille’s, and she actually had the impudence to charge me——” murmur, murmur, murmur.
“His book is selling like wildfire, so he says,” to which the other replied.
“Yes, it really is—I saw stacks of it at the Stores and Harrod’s—it is wonderfully fine—such a firm touch, such atmosphere, and it’s so virile. Oh, there’s Mrs. Markham, she has just come in—she has gone crazy about play-writing—it’s such a pity, for she will never do one. She is too old-fashioned, and too literary. Once a novelist gets the play craze, she never does anything. Now some day I shall write a fine play—I know it, I feel it.”
“Do you really, dear?” drawled the other, as she put up her gold eyeglass, stared at her steadily, and smiled indulgently; then turning her attention to the centre of the room, she asked, “Who is that tall woman with the green feathers in her toque?”
“Oh, that is Mrs. Wayne—Marcia Wayne—talking to Lady Augusta Denton. How she is buttering up the old dowager! and how much the old dowager enjoys it! Do you see her eyes blinking, just like those of a cat that is lapping cream.”
“So that is Mrs. Wayne,” exclaimed her companion, “I have never seen her. You know I am buried alive most of the year, and have become a mere earth-worm. We never talk of anything but our roses, and our pigs, the parish nurse, and the parish magazine. They say she makes a fortune out of her books.”
Mr. Grant instantly pricked up his somewhat pointed ears, and ceased to rustle leaves.
“Oh, she made a good deal at first,” conceded the lady who lived in London, “and what is called ‘caught on’—but I must confess that I never could read her! She was just a bubble! and nothing else. Now she turns out two or three sloppy books a year, her day is done, and by all accounts her purse is empty!”
“Empty!” echoed her listener, “she doesn’t give me the impression of a woman with an empty purse!”
“No, she is extraordinarily clever in some ways; particularly in the art of what is called ‘making believe.’ Now, my dear, come along, let us go into the smoking-room, I am simply dying for a cigarette,” and immediately afterwards the pair arose, and took their departure.
Mrs. Wayne rather wondered at her guest’s altered manner, when she returned to her seat, and began to talk to him. He was unaffectedly huffy,—no doubt because she had ventured to leave him to his own devices for five whole minutes, and the other couple were too selfish to amuse him. The fact was, they seldom met, and had much to say to one another. Nellie was telling Mr. Hawkshaw all about her offer from Topper and Scott, and how she had taken Mrs. Wayne’s advice, and refused it; and how Branson and Bell were at present reading her novel.
Yes, Mr. Grant was positively glum! He thought the cartoon in “Punch” rather poor this week, thought English weather insufferable, was not sure that women’s clubs were not a mistake. It took fully ten minutes to thaw and flatter him into his former attitude of agreeable appreciation.
“I suppose all women authors are jealous of one another’s success?” he enquired, apropos of nothing.
“Of course!” was the emphatic reply. “Need you ask? As for poor me, they figuratively tear me to pieces, they are so envious. The more successful you are, the more you are maligned.”
This intelligence was distinctly comforting, Galton Grant was himself again, and soon afterwards, with a civil excuse, effected his retreat.
Marcia’s speculative eyes followed his tall, gaunt, gentlemanly figure, as he moved towards the door. He had a fine position, was considered an able man, and would undoubtedly rise to be Sir Galton Grant, K.C.B. Already she saw herself holding a brilliant court, far, far away from smoky London, harassing debts, and the flogging of an exhausted brain. No longer would she be obliged to work for her bread, to make believe, and to keep up appearances. Hers was a cold, passionless temperament; she had no desire to marry, no feeling of anything but a mere tepid toleration for Galton Grant; he was prosperous, acute, and ambitious, but unless she was mistaken, tyrannical, suspicious, and mean. Temper, she had never seen him display, until that evening, and the form it took was what is usually called the “black sulks.” Strange, that a trifling desertion should produce such undeserved results, and she really was obliged to go and speak to old Lady Augusta, for she came from Frances Benlock’s part of the world, and would be sure to return and tell her how she had seen her celebrated cousin amid congenial surroundings,—for Frances was not sufficiently impressed by Marcia’s position in London.
The old lady, who wore a black velvet mantle almost down to her heels, had said,
“Well, I suppose we shall have you down at Christmas? At any rate, I hope so. Your cousin lives too much in retirement—she wants a breath from the outer world, and she does love to hear what people are doing and saying; I always feel that, but for her shocking accident, she would have made a brilliant figure in Society.”
“Perhaps so,” agreed Marcia, “she has animation. enough to supply half a dozen. I must say, I envy her her spirits. As to going down to Rossleigh, I have not quite decided,—I have been too busy, too rushed, to arrange my plans.”
Her plans were embodied in a gentleman who at that moment was sitting bolt upright on the sofa, frowning over a paper.
“But I shall have everything settled by Christmas.”
Yes, it was all turning out admirably, she said to herself, as she rose to scribble a letter; the room was emptying, for the tea hour was over.
Nellie and Mr. Hawkshaw stood talking together by the fire—silly idiots! It was rather a shame for Hugh Hawkshaw to take so much notice of a girl whom he had not the least intention of marrying. He was just the last man to ruin his prospects for a penniless little writer. Nellie, who had once been pretty, looked so thin and worn; she had lost her colour, and sometimes her face was positively haggard. She really resembled a country plant withering in some London window-box. As for her book, it was a bright little work, but it took years and years, in these strenuous days, to gain a footing or recognition. If Nellie were wise, she would return to Courtfield Hall, endeavour to put up with her stepmother, and read novels, instead of writing them.
“This little dinner at the Carlton would settle matters definitely,” said Marcia to herself, and she began to make certain furtive preparations, such as enquiries about getting rid of the flat and furniture, dragging out her board-ship luggage, destroying letters, and paying off maddening little bills of the one-and-eleven penny and three-and-nine penny order.
It was rather a shock to have her serial returned from the “Lady’s Bouquet,” with a criticism that the interest was ill-sustained, the execution careless, and places and characters were called throughout by various and different names—indeed the editor was disposed to be sarcastic—his rejection was not merely definite, but scornful! So now Marcia had nothing to depend on but the Branson and Bell book; not a line of which was yet written.
Two days before the date of the dinner on which so much depended, Mrs. Wayne sat at home, and at her ease. It was four o’clock in the afternoon, but she still wore her hair loosely twisted round her head, her grimy pink tea-gown, and bedroom slippers. A sullen fire was smoking gently at intervals, several open cardboard boxes lay on the floor, lunch had not yet been removed, and the remains of a greasy chop, a glass of stout, and some broken crusts, stood on a tray on the centre table. She had not ventured to ring for Bridget,—who happened to be in a particularly vile temper, and had that morning given her a great deal of abuse, and clamoured for her wages. Marcia with a candle beside her, sat sewing at the writing-table: the electric light was dim, and she was altering an evening bodice, her mouth was full of pins, and her brain was busily building magnificent castles in the air.
These agreeable thoughts were suddenly dispersed by a loud ring at the door. A bill, no doubt! She had no fear of callers, having given a stern and standing order, “Not at home—ever,” and a shabby card, with the word “Out” was permanently exhibited in the tiny entrance.
As the door behind her opened, she did not turn her head, but merely called out, in a tone of harsh authority,
“Take away the tray, you good-for-nothing, lazy old wretch!”
“A gentleman to see you,” snarled Bridget.
This vindictive, treacherous woman, had actually admitted a tall, keen-looking visitor, wearing an irreproachable frock-coat, and a flower in his buttonhole.
“Mr. Galton Grant!”
Mrs. Wayne all but swallowed the pins; she rose, and staggered, as one suddenly stricken; then turned to survey her hope, her future, as he stood, hat in hand, bowing in the doorway. His deep-set eyes swept the scene in one swift comprehensive flash.
“Oh, Mr. Grant!” she gasped, realising the shocking condition of her apartment, “I am so dreadfully sorry, but I am terribly busy,—I really can’t see you today.”
No; how could she receive him, or anyone, in that littered, squalid, dusty room, which so blatantly shouted the words, “Poverty and failure?” She made him a little gesture of appeal; even in the old tea-gown, she looked a handsome, tragic creature; then with,
“Oh, I’m sorry—I wanted to see you particularly,” the chance of her life effected an abrupt departure.
As he was whirled down in the lift, the explorer said to himself,
“Galton, my boy, it was your guardian-angel sent you here, and you have seen the nakedness of the land. Good Lord!” and he wiped his forehead, as he stood in the entrance hall. “What an escape—why, the woman is a beggar!”
Signalling a passing hansom, he flung himself into it, and drove off to his club in St. James’s Square, and swallowed a stiff whisky-and-soda, then lit a cigar, and sat smoking in a quiet corner, carefully revolving new plans; he had not much time left, he had run it rather fine there was not a day to spare. What about the Jones little girl? Certainly she was no beauty, her complexion was the colour of a boiled fowl, but there was no question about the money. Rumour gave her £20,000 down and expectations. The youngest Miss Jones was not attractive, nor had she the graceful figure and assured manner of the other; but by Jove, you might pay too dearly for a woman’s looks!” He pulled out his watch, it was barely five o’clock, so he would just have time to run down to Eaton Place, and look the people up; they were bound to be at home, for it was a dull day, and they were a dull lot.
Mrs. Jones and her two daughters, who had been feeling the afternoon endless, were agreeably stimulated by this unexpected visit from Mr. Grant—such a gentlemanly man, who had so much to say for himself, and was a great swell in his own way. He made a good deal of quiet running with Lucinda,—the youngest,—assumed a confidential air, as he talked to her about his future, and his prospects; indeed he actually hinted that he had a conviction that life in the East would appeal to a girl of her character, and tastes. (For, as he said to himself, you must make strong running, Galton, my boy, as you haven’t a day to lose.)
Meanwhile her diplomatic sister had departed to see the dogs fed, whilst Mrs. Jones withdrew to write some urgent letters in the back drawing-room. Once upon a time, she had entertained hopes of Mr. Galton Grant, lately these hopes had faded and died; it was commonly reported among matrons of her acquaintance that the gentleman was “after a rich widow,” but, this evening, he seemed to have gone out of his way to make himself agreeable and “particular” to Lucinda—perhaps the widow had said no!
As Mr. Grant had found his confidences and his prognostications well received, his spirits rose, and before he took leave, he invited the party to dine with him at the Carlton,—the theatre tickets already purchased, and paid for, need not be wasted. After promising to conduct Lucinda and her sister to a picture show the following day, he hurried to the club, and dashed off a note to Mrs. Wayne to say that “As he was going out of town to keep an important engagement, which had most unfortunately escaped his memory, he regretted that he was obliged to postpone the little dinner at the Carlton. Would she be so kind as to let Miss Meadows and Mr. Hawkshaw know of this change in his plans, and offer them his apologies?”
When Marcia read this note,—written it would seem with a violent pen, and angry black splashes, she realised that it was the end; the writer considered her a fraud! But she sent him a civil little line in reply, and as she stamped it with a thump, she said to herself,
“So that is over!”
The following afternoon, it was with mixed feelings that she descried her late admirer gazing into a jeweller’s shop in Bond Street, in company with an ugly, pale-faced little girl, who was talking to him with extraordinary animation. Was this little girl about to take her place, become an Anglo-Indian hostess, and the future Lady Galton Grant?
On the day of the dinner that never came off, she happened to be at the very theatre in which they had elected to wind up the evening, for Mr. Hawkshaw had good-naturedly sent tickets for her and Nellie Meadows, and accompanied them himself. There, sitting just two rows in front, and in their original places, she beheld a massive matron, two plain girls, and Mr. Galton Grant.
“What does it mean?” whispered Nellie Meadows to Mr. Hawkshaw. “I understood he had gone into the country on business, and there he sits with other people, in the stalls he took for us!”
“You had better not ask—take no notice,” replied the cautious young man, in a low voice, “there is something behind—I expect he and Mrs. Wayne have had a row—it’s no business of ours—I must say I never cared about him,—--such a gaunt, hungry-looking chap!”
Out in the corridor, when the play was over, and on their way to the stairs, Marcia came face to face with her late friend. She looked him up and down with a pair of fiery eyes, and cut him dead. That episode was ended—and afterwards the deluge! For one whole day, the defeated lady was prostrate, then she rose, and began to gather together her scattered forces; she accepted the invitation from Frances for Christmas, and informed her that she was coming down for a long visit, as the noise and rush, and wear and tear of London, were telling on her nerves; and she pined to get away to rest, and write, in the delicious peaceful country.
She assured kind enquirers at the club and elsewhere that she was overworked, and that her doctor had ordered her out of town for the winter; in truth, she was heart-sick of London, and of the fierce struggle to live. Even on one of her last days there, at a fashionable At Home, she was racked and tortured by the stranger’s usual question, “And are you writing anything now?”
No; in her present mentally barren condition, she could not write a line of sense, were it to save her soul: but with new surroundings, ideas must surely return: at present her brain was dormant.
This was bad, but there was worse to follow. A plain, insignificant, ill-dressed girl had written a book pulsating with passion and force (the wonder was, where she had learnt her experience?). Critics hailed it as an epoch-making work; it was strong, original, individual, and the authoress held a sort of reception, acknowledging compliments and presentations in a full confident voice, whilst people abandoned Marcia to surround and acclaim the new star. Poor Mrs. Wayne found herself almost isolated, and naturally she was not disposed to swell the crowd around her neighbour.
To be ignored, neglected, forgotten, whilst this gawky, flat-faced provincial was doling out oracles to a band of worshippers. Oh, it was all too sickening! and Marcia Wayne arose, and went very quietly out of the room, and out of the house,—and no one missed her.
She now set about her preparations for breaking up in earnest, and had the unexpected good luck to sublet her flat furnished, and with merely her clothes, her books, and her writing materials, prepared to flit. Lately she had seen a good deal of Nellie Meadows, who had helped her to pack, and get under weigh. Nellie, who watched every post for news of her novel, and had bravely embarked on its successor.
The afternoon previous to her departure, Mrs. Wayne had an exciting interview with Bridget, whom she had paid, and dismissed, and Bridget secured the last word,—words heard by the lift man, Nellie, and a delighted telegraph boy.
“Faix, and ye’re a good riddance out of the place,” she screamed, “where no one was ever a penny the better of ye!—indeed worse—sure, ye owe Miss Meadows this minute pounds of butter, and half a ton of coal! ’Tis you are the hard woman, and the bad woman. Doesn’t all the world know, that ye knocked the poor black cat off the window-sill with ye’re own two hands, and he fell the five storeys, and was taken up a pancake—sure, ye’ll never have luck nor grace!”
Here Marcia would have interposed, but there was no silencing Bridget,—--her volubility hinted at years of practice.
“I’m thinkin’, that tall lath of a man was afther ye, to marry ye, and I let him in on purpose, the poor fellow, so I did. I let him see as it was all show on the outside, and dirt within. As for yer books—bah! I lent one of them to the cook in the flat below—she said in all her born days, she never read such rot, it was only fit for the dustbin!”
Marcia, livid and speechless with rage, felt ready to fall on this harridan and kill her! This unquenchable old devil, standing there with her bag, her basket and umbrella; but happily at this moment, Bridget stepped into the lift, from which she signalled impassioned adieux. Her departure was not a retreat, but a victorious and voluntary withdrawal with all the honours of war! By an immense effort, her late mistress controlled herself, and retired into her bedroom, where she slammed the door with such violence that the ceiling cracked across.
By-and-by, Nellie Meadows came to her, soothed her and kissed her, and said, “The old wretch had been drinking! Surely you don’t mind what she said. Come over to my room, and have some cocoa and hot toast: you looked fagged out! What a loss you will be to me—I shall miss you terribly, for now I shall have no one to speak to, and no one to consult: but you need a change and a rest, and I am sure if anyone deserves both, you do.”
Mrs. Wayne made no audible reply, but dabbed her face with eau-de-Cologne, and presently followed her comforter across the landing.
Rossleigh Hall, the ancient home of the Benlocks, was a fine, substantial, red-faced old mansion, standing in a great park, and flanked by a series of walled gardens. It was situated within two miles of a station, and the county-town of Parcote, and was noted for its pictures and walled fruit. The estate had descended through many generations, and many financial vicissitudes, to the last of the line—a woman. The present owner, Frances Benlock, had a clever irregular face, a swarthy skin, masses of dark hair, prominent eyes, and a large but sensitive mouth. Delicate hands, that Titian might have painted, a perfect figure, and a graceful walk, were her sole claims to beauty. Her mother died when she was an infant, and she had been almost entirely educated by her intellectual and scholarly father, a man who had more of the tastes of an Oxford don than of a county gentleman and Deputy-Lieutenant. Mr. Benlock had cultivated his daughter’s budding ideas, fostered her bright intelligence, and made her his constant companion. As she advanced into her teens, they travelled far and wide, mixing in the most cultured sets, in Rome, Florence, and Berlin. It was therefore not surprising that Frances was exceptionally well equipped.
After her father’s death, the heiress left home for nearly two years, and with her old governess, Miss Burry, visited Egypt, the Holy Land, Japan and America, before she returned to Rossleigh, and took up the reins of government. She was an animated talker, a delightful companion, a notable horsewoman, and considered by some of the old ladies in the neighbourhood deplorably masculine and eccentric, for she smoked cigarettes, and hunted four days a week. It was also whispered that she had queer opinions, and although she went regularly to church, a queer religion. She was devoted to children and animals, and boldly declared that these latter had souls—--yes, and a future existence—and why not? Many of them were far better conducted, and more respectable, than human beings!
Miss Benlock was never for a moment idle; sewing, gardening, visiting the poor, playing the piano, riding and reading; she lived an extraordinarily full life, and had become a popular, widely known hostess. Unfortunately one day when out hunting, at the end of a long run, she met with a serious accident. Her horse, who was blown, blundered at a wide ditch, and fell back upon her. There was two minutes’ agonising delay, and Frances was taken up for dead; fortunately her injuries did not prove fatal; her hip joint and her head were injured, and she had a broken arm. After a tedious convalescence, friends recognised the fact that Miss Benlock, who rode like a bird, would never again get on a horse’s back, and was a cripple for life. There was an end to all her outdoor activity. But her clever head and high spirits still remained to her, and some people declared that no matter how plain you thought Frances Benlock, when she first entered the room, after ten minutes of her animated conversation, you believed her to be beautiful; there was a witchery, a suggestion of mischief, and withal a depth of passion in her brown eyes. Those who knew her more intimately and were acquainted with her mind, were aware that she had keen sympathies, a high sense of honour, and exerted an extraordinary influence on her surroundings.
Although at the age of twenty-eight she had been, so to speak, cut off from society, since she could neither dance nor hunt (in a hunting and dancing county), in spite of her frog’s eyes, and painful limp, Frances was a personage, and many mothers were deeply interested in Miss Benlock. The Benlock estates were large and unencumbered, the pictures were worth a fortune, and the family diamonds not to be despised. Disinterested onlookers declared that Frances should marry her cousin twice removed, good-looking Rufus Lacy; he would make a nice, home-staying docile husband, bring his blue china, his pedigree, and his croquet mallets to Rossleigh, and let Court Lacy—his own place. Indeed, it was whispered, that if he were to ask a lady who had refused many suitors, on this occasion, the answer would be “yes.”
But time rolled on, and the cousins and neighbours remained cousins and neighbours still; in spite of the fact so evident to everyone, that theirs would be a most suitable alliance. Rufus Lacy would give up his London rooms, his aimless wanderings, and take the name and arms of Benlock, the Lacy name and property would of course go to the second son; thus it will be seen that the imagination of the neighbours journeyed boldly and far.
Marcia arrived at the little station of Parcote, bringing an unusual amount of luggage, and was met on the platform by the carriage groom. As she handed him her bag and cloak, she was conscious of a secret joy; his service was the premonitor of good times, her days of hardship (at least for the present), were at an end. Oh, how she enjoyed bowling along the flat roads, behind a pair of smart chestnuts, and two well-fitting livery coats, nodding to the lodge-keeper as she swept through the wide gates, and up the long avenue to the hall door at Rossleigh. Here she passed through an imposing entrance hall, and came to a room within a room, where she found Frances, who said, as she hobbled towards her,
“Welcome, my dear! I didn’t hear the carriage—I am so glad you have come, you will stir us up a bit: I am afraid you will find Rossleigh as dull as ditchwater, but you will have to make the best of Burry and me.”
“Anything but dull,” replied Marcia, “I shall enjoy the quiet and rest,” and as she spoke she looked out on the sleepy park, the great bare elm-trees, the Italian garden below the windows, where two intrusive rabbits were scuttling across the grass. “I am delighted to come to you,” she added with absolute sincerity.
“I am afraid you have been working too hard, and that’s the truth, Marcia. You look quite thin and fagged. Now come, take off your gloves, and that regal ermine stole, and we will have tea. Here are some of your own particular hot cakes.”
“How nice of you to remember my tastes. Where is Burry?”
“She has gone to take chicken broth to an old woman at the far lodge—here is your cup. I hope you have brought me lots of news, and gossip and scandal, from London town?”
“I don’t think I know much,” replied Marcia, “at least not much that will interest you.”
“Oh, my dear, everything interests me! I am not a bit blasé. Do you mean to say that you have no news—nothing special?” she added significantly.
“Not a word.”
“Well!” throwing herself back in her chair.
“What do you mean by your well?” “That I am surprised that you will not, or is it cannot, tell me anything about a tall, high-shouldered, red-haired gentleman, who has been your shadow for weeks and weeks?”
“Why, who has been gossiping?”
“Ah, now it’s coming! I heard it from a little bird.”
“Oh, I know your little bird—Rufus Lacy.”
Her cousin nodded.
“I wouldn’t marry the red-haired gentleman, if he was the only man in the whole world; besides, I shall never marry again.”
“Really?” and her companion gave an incredulous laugh. “I am not sure, from what I know of you, Marcia, that I don’t take that with a grain of salt! I would not venture to offer you a paragon of a parti that I particularly wanted myself, on the off-chance of your saying no.”
“You would be perfectly safe, I can assure you.”
“What about Rufus?” and there was a gleam of anxiety in Miss Benlock’s prominent brown eyes.
“Oh—Rufus—he is only a tame cat! He is the best groomed man in London. Not a hair out of place—”
“Yes,” interrupted Frances, “poor Rufus had no chance of being like other men. His father died young; his mother, Lady Arabella, and her sister, Lady Olivia, never trusted the one precious darling out of their sight. The unfortunate boy was never allowed to sit in a draught, or wet his feet, or eat green apples, or climb trees, or learn to shoot. He rode a little on a tame pony, and attended dancing classes, where the other boys called him ‘Lucy,’ was instructed by a tutor, and allowed to consider himself the most important person in the house—in fact the head of it.”
“How preposterous!” exclaimed Marcia.
“Yes, at the age of twelve he read family prayers, sat at the foot of the dinner-table, and gave his opinion on every subject. He never mixed with other boys—only with women-kind—elderly women, and they indulged him and listened to him as if he were an oracle, allowed him to talk as much as he pleased, and to believe himself prodigiously clever.”
“And naturally he grew up a terrible prig!”
“Of course, poor fellow, how could he help it? His tastes were trained in the direction of blue china, pedigrees, and precedence. By-and-by, he went to Oxford, and so did his mother—Lady Olivia was dead by this time, and Rufus was tightly tied to Lady Arabella’s apron-strings. She took a house not far from his college, and naturally saw him every day. Later on, he travelled with his mother, and two old servants, to see the world, and expand his mind; but his mind was already in a groove—all his ideas were fixed. Then when Lady Arabella died, he set up rooms in London, took to collecting china, rooting among pedigrees, going to tea-parties and worshipping celebrities—oh, it’s a pitiful existence!”
“Which he enjoys enormously!”
“So much the worse,” cried Frances with a touch of irritability, “what he wants is a thorough good rousing, something sensational, something violent, that would bring him close to life. I like Rufus, but I am not blind to his failings; he is rather weak and undecided, and to some people, a bore; but then I happen to know that the unfortunate fellow was educated up to be a bore! encouraged to tell long-winded stories to an applauding circle—on the other hand, he has his good points, he is a gentleman to his finger tips, isn’t he?”
“Well, if you ask me,” said Marcia, “I would call him distinctly ladylike.”
“Oh, you know what I mean,” snapped her cousin, “he is attentive to our sex, whether old or ugly, rich or poor—always ready to do our behests, and has the nice, courteous, old-fashioned manner; rises when a woman enters the room, opens the door, stands bareheaded in her presence—very out of date, I admit! Then he was a devoted son, has a warm heart, and does many generous things on the sly. You will not hear him say an ill-natured word of anyone,—--and I have never known him to break a promise. These are all weighty matters, to weigh against his little oddities.”
“You mean his boring pedigree talk, his way of saying, ‘But however,’ his impossible tidiness, and effeminacy——”
“I would not call him effeminate,” protested Frances.
“Wouldn’t you? He has never played cricket or footer, he doesn’t shoot or ride, he hates getting wet.”
“So do I,” said his champion, “but once on a time, he jumped into the boiling sea, and saved a boy’s life. He is an excellent swimmer.”
“Well, I grant you he has some perfections,—and there is no denying his good looks.”
At this moment, the door opened, and two people entered talking, a stout elderly woman with grey hair, wearing a short dress and a golf cape, and a tall, square-shouldered parson, in dark tweed and leather gaiters. He was the Rev. Clement Hermon, the rector of the parish, a priest with a keen, clever face, and the figure of an athlete—who looked what he was, in every sense of the word,—a strong man.
“We are both unfit for society!” announced Miss Burry in a loud, pleasant voice, “and covered with mud—we have been scraping one another in the hall. Oh, Mrs. Wayne,” holding out her hand, “how are you?”
“Mr. Hermon, you know my cousin, Mrs. Wayne?” said Frances.
“Oh, yes, of course,” bowing, “I am really ashamed to present myself. I walked over to visit the sick man at the farm, and met Miss Burry on the road, and she drove me here before her, by sheer will power. I suppose you have just come from Town?” he said, turning to Mrs. Wayne (between whom and himself there existed an instinctive, and intractable antipathy), “and have been very busy. Are you writing anything now?”
“Oh, how delightful it must be to have an engrossing occupation,” broke in Miss Burry, who was filling the tea-pot, “it gives one a sort of extra life—I wish I could write!”
“I am so thankful that you can’t, my dear good soul,” said Frances, “not even an ordinary interesting letter; for you are invaluable in other ways. If you were glued to a desk, what would become of the household the Girls’ Friendly, the local bazaars, the rummage sales, the sewing club—and me? I see, Marcia, that you have brought down a couple of magazines, and a new book. What is the newest, finest, most run after work of the day?”
Mrs. Wayne shrugged her shoulders, and replied, “I am afraid you mustn’t ask me.”
“I hear there is a really splendid novel by Jane Pope,” said Miss Burry, “the reviews seem to say that she is the coming great authoress.”
“Yes,” said Frances, “I always look out for her books, and enjoy them,— though they are few and far between. What a style—what a wonderful——”
“I think,” murmured Marcia, hastily gulping down her tea, “if you don’t mind, I will go to my room and unpack.”
“Why, of course, my dear, and Burry will escort you,” said Frances, and picking up her furs, and gloves, Mrs. Wayne quitted the room, leaving the parson and Frances still dilating on the merits of Jane Pope.
When Marcia found herself at last alone, she looked round her large, luxurious apartment, with its blazing fire, comfortable sofa, and roomy writing-table. Here indeed, was solid, unostentatious comfort—here she would recuperate, rest her wretched brain, absorb ideas, and begin her book for Branson and Bell.
As Frances Benlock never appeared before luncheon time, her cousin had the entire morning to herself to work undisturbed. The work generally consisted of reading the daily papers, or a novel, or merely sitting with her hands before her, staring into the park. After lunch, there was a drive, visits to pay, or visitors to entertain; then perhaps two or three neighbours to dinner and Bridge. Rufus and Mr. Hermon were frequently of the company, and so passed the easy days. Marcia soon fell into the ways of the house, and took to luxury, and the attendance of a maid, as a duckling to the pond. The topics brought forward during drives and meals were generally trivial, local, and supremely uninteresting to the visitor. It was only when Mr. Hermon dined at Rossleigh that conversation soared, and became brilliant or illuminating. The parson and his hostess discussed many subjects; for instance the recent excavations in Crete, Herodotus, Chemistry, and chemical combinations; they also held warm arguments on psychology and social questions, when Frances became eloquent and impassioned. On such occasions, the authoress listened in dumb amazement; the topics were so far beyond her ken that she took refuge in monosyllables or silence; being painfully conscious of the vast mental inequalities between her cousin and herself. Frances had wide fields of thought, which Marcia with her smaller brain could never enter.
As the days passed, Mrs. Wayne received letters from London, and piles of bills; these latter, which were stuffed into a large-sized professional envelope, were dispatched by the ever faithful Nellie, who wrote plaintive little notes, giving bulletins of her work, and adding, “No news from Branson yet; I suppose you are writing hard in the quiet country—how I do envy you!”
The amazing fact was that Marcia could not work at all. This was the terrible, the paralysing truth. Whatever gift she had once possessed, had now apparently deserted her. She walked and walked the pleasure grounds and avenues, endeavouring to construct a plot, and to see things; but strive as she might, she could not concentrate her mind. Sometimes, she would sit for hours before her desk, and scribble notes, and begin chapters, which she subsequently destroyed, for, even with her low standard she realised that what she had written was rubbish. She was pursued by the desperate fear that she could never write the book for Branson—--and what then was to be her fate? Would she be compelled to retire to a boarding-house, and join forces with her mother? or must she marry Rufus Lacy, and waste the remainder of her life in his dreary old house? taking up as an employment prize poultry, or cats, and become as others, who were in her opinion mere vegetables or fungi.
No more little dinners, or theatre suppers, no more excitement, no more suspense,—no more life. How this humdrum round revolted her—--after a time; she tired of comfort, of warm rooms, and languorous ease, and as she listened to the conversation of women who were discussing the season’s bulbs, or somebody’s sick dog, she felt inclined to rise from her seat, and shriek; but she sat there aloof, a handsome, fashionably-dressed, distant sort of woman,—Marcia Wayne the authoress, of whom people were not a little afraid; timid visitors looked at her as if she were something dangerous, though the less cowardly ventured to ask, “And are you writing anything now?” Was she writing anything now? Would she ever write anything again? Was not her imagination dead, and lifeless as a dried-up stream? With great difficulty she controlled herself, on these occasions, and replied,
“Not at present,—I am resting,”—resting in torture, for all through these local gatherings there rang the same maddening speech, repeated like a melody that recurs in an opera; the query of the tormentor, “And are you writing anything now?”
There was old Lady Augusta, roundabout and jolly, who looked like a solid object moving on castors. Every time she met the authoress, she asked,
“Now when is the new book coming out, Mrs. Wayne?”
Mrs. Wayne could have smote her, but she smiled politely, and replied,
“Not just yet.”
Meanwhile the unhappy woman was a prey to other people who were writing books and stories; for instance, there was that detestable round-faced Miss Banister, the daughter of a neighbouring squire, who came to Rossleigh about once a week, and persecuted her for assistance. She wrote little tales,—some of which had been published in a penny magazine. “Would dearest Mrs. Wayne look them over, and advise her as to having them produced in book form?”
Dearest Mrs. Wayne was coldly unresponsive; however, she did not dare to be positively discouraging, and reluctantly assented. Then the triumphant persecutor rode over on her bicycle to lunch; she brought a huge brown-paper parcel, and did all in her power to suck the novelist’s brains, animate her sympathy, and evoke her benevolence.
After three hours’ conference, Marcia felt sorely inclined to relieve her pent-up irritation by some passionate outburst. It was not her rôle to assist or advise others, much less to read and criticise their detestable manuscripts,—--but here at Rossleigh, somehow she could not help herself. She breathed a different atmosphere, and appeared to be another person to the Marcia Wayne of Montague Mansions, as she sat listening to literary controversies, to the reading of poetry and plays, and was called upon to give her opinion on the quality of red flannel, the virtues of sour milk, and the most popular toys for the Christmas-tree.
Christmas was approaching, gardeners were decking the rooms with holly and ivy, and people were occupied with letters, cards, and mysterious parcels.
One evening, Frances met her cousin on the stairs, and beckoned her into her own special sanctum, which opened off her bedroom, and was known as “The Cabin,” as once upon a time it had been the lair of an old sea-dog, a certain Admiral Benlock, who had been wounded at Trafalgar. At the present moment, the sofas and chairs were so heaped with brown-paper parcels, that it was difficult to find a seat.
“It does look like Christmas!” exclaimed Marcia, “upstairs, and downstairs, and in my lady’s chamber. I know many who will envy me my Christmas.”
“How do you mean?” asked Frances.
“I mean poor wretches who will spend the day alone in London rooms, with a badly cooked chop for their dinner.”
“Ah yes, I’m afraid there are not a few who will have a dismal holiday. Have you any particular friend, Marcia, that you would like to invite here? The house is large—indeed for the matter of that, too large—and I can easily accommodate another.”
Marcia bent her eyes upon the carpet, and considered. There was Hugh Hawkshaw—he would not be leaving town for Christmas, he was still in his uncle’s black books, and he was always so gay and stimulating, and full of amusing ideas, and she really deserved some antidote to Rufus, whom she had endured for a whole month.
“Well, Frances,” she said, looking up at last, “as you are so kind, I know a young man that it would be a charity to invite.”
“Oh, a young man!” echoed Frances, with a laugh, “is he the young man?”
“Now my dear, don’t be ridiculous! He is years younger than I am, and London women who have a profession to engross them don’t think of young men in your sense. He is rather a pal of mine—a journalist, but he is quite all right, has been to Harrow and Oxford, and is the nephew of Sir Baldwin Hawkshaw.”
“Oh, of course, dear Marcia,” raising a protesting hand, “any friend of yours is sure to be all right, and if you think he would care to come, I will write by this post, and you might send him a note. He will get the letters early to-morrow, and could run down by the five clock train. There will be some pheasant shooting here on the twenty-seventh, he might like to stay for that. Does he play Bridge?”
“Oh, rather,” said Marcia—“I am sure he will be enchanted to come; it is really very good of you to ask him.”
“I have only a small party this Christmas—is there anyone else you would like me to invite—a woman, or a girl?”
“Oh no,” she answered hastily, “there is no one.” (Of course there was Nellie Meadows, but she did not want Nellie at Rossleigh.)
“Who have you asked this Christmas, Frances?”
“There will be my cousin, Vernon Scholes, and his wife, a smart young couple, not long married—relations on my mother’s side. He has a nose like a potato, and a skin to match, but is immensely clever, with a promising political future—his wife is a beauty. Then there is Lady Augusta, and her old brother the General. It’s cheerier here than at the Dower House, and she will be able to give those dragons of servants a holiday. Tom Waller, my agent and relative, and Rufus—--of course. The Rector too, but he goes home every day. With you, and me, and Burry and your friend, I think that will make eleven. By the way, Marcia, this sudden diversion has put what I wanted to speak to you about clean out of my head. The fact is, I have been wondering what I can give you for Christmas? Do tell me?”
Marcia’s countenance underwent a curious change; her lips twitched, but uttered no sound.
Her wan, anxious expression suddenly struck her relative; how white she looked!—could she be suffering from one of those awful internal scourges that people, especially women, endure in silence? However, she dissembled her fears, and said,
“It seems to me that you have everything; furs, jewellery, lace—what in the world can I give you—is there anything you want?”
“There is, Frances, since you ask me,” it was an agonising effort, but in a muffled voice she brought out her confession, “I am terribly, desperately, in want of money!”
“Money!” repeated her cousin, with undisguised surprise, “but your books, my dear! your books!”
“Oh,” with a gesture of irritation, “my books—everyone thinks I am making a fortune, and naturally I can’t give myself away, but to you, as a relation, I may confide that, for the last four years, my prices have been small. I have got to live, and book is not an income—it’s just a sum of money, that dissolves in rent, and clothes, and coal, and wages.”
“But I thought royalties came in like interest twice a year I know that Clement Hermon——”
“Oh yes,” interrupting with a wave of her hand, “a few pounds—and what is that? How I envy you women, with your comfortable dividends derived from solid capital, the money paid in like clock-work; without trouble or effort on your part. Now I have to work hard, and live hand to mouth, and have no end of worries. You know my pension is only thirty pounds a year.” Yes, and for the evening gown she wore, she owed thirty guineas!
“Poor Marcia, I am sorry for you,” said her cousin sympathetically, “you are always so smart, I thought you were rolling in riches.”
“I made a good deal at first, but I spent it! To be successful, one must look successful, and be well turned out, and seen about—dress is my one weakness—--and I was extravagant—it was foolish; but I was hoping that I would go on earning more and more; instead of that, it has been less and less, and I am so harassed and bothered that I simply can’t write,” and she pressed her hands to her temples, and said, “You know, Frances, that often and often I wish I was dead—my life has been too great a struggle,” and suddenly sinking down in a corner of the sofa, she burst into hard, dry sobs, which shook her violently.
“Poor, dear Marcia,” exclaimed the lame woman, hobbling over, and sitting by her, “I thought you looked ill,—and I put it down to London, and late hours—I never dreamt that it was this. You must let me help you out of the trouble—your nerves seem to have all gone to pieces. Tell me, do you owe a great deal?”
“I do,—but I cannot let you pay—why should you?” and she looked up at her, with haggard eyes.
“Why shouldn’t I—what do you owe?”
“I know you will be horrified—four hundred pounds would clear me.”
“Four hundred,” repeated Frances incredulously.
“You see, I had to borrow from the bank, and I owe for clothes, and motor hire. I might be able to pay it all back some day.”
“No, no, no—never think of that,” protested her generous cousin.
“Just now my brain feels dull and clogged, like a watch that has stopped. Try as I will, I cannot work, though here I have every comfort, quiet, and leisure. If I could only go to some cheap place this winter, somewhere in the sun, I could do my book—yes, and do it well too.”
“Here is old Burry coming to hunt me to bed, we will consult together to-morrow. Good night, Marcia,” and she whispered, “Sleep well, it will be all right—I will help you,” and she bent over and kissed her hair.
The next day, Frances came into her room, an unusual proceeding, and sitting down, held out an envelope. “Here my dear, is the little bit of paper that will lift all the cares from your shoulders—it is a cheque for four hundred pounds.”
Marcia coloured vividly, and her eyes sparkled.
“Oh, how noble of you, Frances—what a gift! what a relief—I can never, never thank you, and if I can do something—anything for you—one day, I cannot tell you how happy it would make me.”
“Perhaps some day you can do something for me,” replied Frances mysteriously, and she smiled, “at the present moment I am only too glad to help you. I never dreamt that it was in my power to do so, and if, later on, you want to run away abroad for a couple of months, and work in the sun, I will pay your travelling expenses to and fro.”
“Oh Frances, you are too, too, generous!”
“Not as generous as I should like to be. You see, although I am supposed to be a rich woman, I spend my income—there is six thousand a year—yes—but the upkeep, the household expenses, eat money, as they say. Then I have a large number of pensioners; old servants, old work-people, old animals, all to be fed and cared for. People laugh at my troop of old horses, and they are quite welcome to do so. For my part, I cry, when I think of other folks’ old horses, that have worked hard for the best of their years, and are then, when infirm, sick, or blemished, cast out, and sold for a few pounds to go to Rotterdam! Oh Marcia, my blood boils when I think of it—it is bad enough for poor people—but for the rich! I could almost kill them!” and her eyes blazed. (It had been whispered that Miss Benlock’s fall had not merely broken her hip, but injured her brain.) “Oh, I have seen that poor crowd in Hull, led through the streets to their doom of battering on board ship, starvation, and butchery; horses out of which profit had been made to the very last minute. Pairs of old ’bus horses, honest workers for the public—colliery ponies stone blind, ladies’ hacks gone lame, and sold at auction for a few shillings—dainty, well-bred broken down creatures, cart-horses, somebody’s old carriage horse still holding his head on his skeleton body as in prouder days, hansom horses, brood mares in foal—oh, my dear, dear Marcia, sometimes when I think of these—I ask where is God? and I cry myself to sleep!”
“Yes, yes, dear,” answered her cousin soothingly, “I know, and I know your feeling, sensitive nature. You are a humanitarian, but what can you do? Try not to think of such things.”
“I am not even to think; whilst they suffer!” she breathed fast.
“No, dear, it is bad for you, it excites you—and you can do nothing.”
“Yes, that’s the cruel, hopeless part of it! What I try to do, is a mere drop in the ocean! but believe me, Marcia, those cruel, money-grubbing people, that sell their old servants to horrors, will be punished, yes, they will,” and Frances’ frog’s eyes blazed.
As Frances had been known to work herself up to what Burry alluded to as “states,” that ended in weeping, raging headaches, and insomnia, Marcia turned the subject with all possible expedition into the direction of the children’s Christmas-tree.
That afternoon Marcia banked her present, and spent a delightful hour in writing notes, enclosing cheques and accounts to her creditors. These she did not propose to post at once, but the joy of paying them in money and rebuke, was too delicious to be deferred. To her “demon” dressmaker, a “beast” of a milliner, one of the big drapers, a stationer’s, oh, the warm pleasure in writing “Mrs. Benlock Wayne begs to enclose account, and cheque, to Messrs. Blank and Co., and to say, that owing to their repeated and pressing applications, she will cease to be a customer at their establishment. Rossleigh Hall, Parcote. Dec., 23rd.”
What an immense load off her mind! and thanks to Frances; but after all, Frances could well afford four hundred pounds; and it was much more natural that she should help her own flesh and blood,—than old, broken-down, brute beasts!
Christmas at Rossleigh was always celebrated with due ceremony, both within and without, turkeys, beef, coal, and blankets, were distributed to the employees through the means of Miss Burry; within was holly, mistletoe, wax candles in brass sconces, and great log fires. It was the evening of December 24th, and the guests had assembled, including Hugh Hawkshaw; he had been surprised—indeed greatly surprised, to receive Miss Benlock’s invitation, accompanied by a pressing letter from Mrs. Wayne. The latter held out all sorts of temptation, in the way of cheerful society, Bridge, and shooting.
Hugh Hawkshaw, who had not spent a Christmas in the country for years, immediately wired his acceptance. The great well-lit drawing-room with its rose-coloured carpet, family portraits, and splendid Italian cabinets, held a number of people collected about the tea-table, Lady Augusta, minus her usual panoply, the black velvet cloak; her brother General Fraser, an old bachelor, who lived with her-- a man who had had a distinguished career in the East, and had now stored away his sword, his uniform, his old guns, and solar topees in an old powder closet off his bedroom. Here were also the hostess’s cousins, Captain and Mrs. Scholes.
He was all that Frances had promised—sharp, short, and ugly, but with flashing white teeth and intelligent eyes. His wife, a slim, long-necked beauty, wore a clinging tea-gown, that was positively le dernier cri, and seated on the sofa beside Lady Augusta, looked as thin and willowy as if she required a prop; but for all her languid airs, she was a lady with some ideas.
Tom Waller was also present, a fresh, boyish-looking man of five-and-thirty, at present discussing shooting with Captain Scholes. The Rector was standing with his back to the fire, arguing with Frances, Rufus was handing tea-cups, and Marcia was considering Mrs. Scholes’ personality, and wondering where she got her gowns?
At this particular moment, the butler entered, and announced, “Mr. Hawkshaw,” and was immediately followed by that gentleman. Marcia felt proud of her friend’s appearance and air. He looked so distinguished, his manners were so easy and unaffected. To tell the truth, he was now among the surroundings, and amid the class, in which he had been born. When he had been presented to the company, and refreshed with tea, and made a few remarks about his journey, he went and stood between Marcia and her cousin Frances, and after a few words to his hostess, he turned to Mrs. Wayne, and said,
“I suppose you have not heard anything lately of Miss Meadows? She is all alone and must miss you most awfully.”
“Who is Miss Meadows?” enquired Frances. Before Marcia could answer, the young man replied,
“She is a neighbour of Mrs. Wayne’s, and has lived on the same landing for the last two years, and now Mrs. Wayne has departed, she hasn’t a soul in the flat to speak to. She is such a jolly little girl,—and I must confess, I am sorry for her.”
“But hasn’t she some relations?” enquired his hostess. “You don’t mean to say she is spending Christmas in the flat alone?”
“Oh, she never goes home—I believe her people live in Gloucestershire, and she has the traditional awful stepmother.”
“I don’t think,” turning to her cousin, “I have ever heard you mention her, Marcia, have I—this little Miss Meadows?”
“No, dear,—have I not? She is what you call a bachelor girl, and against her father’s wishes, she came up to town, to try and get a footing in the literary world; but, poor thing, so far she has not been successful; her London experiment has been entirely her own choice,” then turning to Mr. Hawkshaw, she said, “Have you seen the new piece that is on at the Haymarket?” but Frances interposed hastily.
“Do you think this little Miss Meadows is spending her Christmas all alone?”
“I am afraid she is,” replied young Hawkshaw, “for she is a shy sort of girl, and doesn’t make many friends. Mrs. Wayne is almost the only person she knows intimately—indeed it was Mrs. Wayne who presented me to her.”
“I believe I know the girl you mean,” said Rufus, approaching the group, “haven’t I seen her with you at the club, Marcia? a slight girl, with a pair of imploring blue eyes, and lots of pretty brown hair,——she was some relation of old Miss Bourne’s, wasn’t she?”
“Do you mean of Sarah Bourne’s?” asked Frances.
“My father and I used to know her so well; we met in Rome and Florence, and if this girl is a relation, she must be what Marcia would call ‘all right.’”
“Oh, she’s quite all right,” admitted Marcia grudgingly, “you don’t suppose, I would know her if she was otherwise?”
“Do you think she would care to come down for Christmas?” enquired Frances, “especially as you are here.”
“Now, my dear cousin, I really can’t expect you to fill your house with all my friends!”
“I am sure Miss Meadows would be enchanted to come,” put in Mr. Hawkshaw, and he glanced round the luxurious, well-lighted, well-warmed room, with its groups of people, and two liveried servants, carrying away the tea equipage.
“And I am absolutely certain she wouldn’t come, she is too nervous,” said Marcia, in a sharp key. She was beginning to feel extremely angry with Hugh Hawkshaw. Why should he meddle with her concerns?
“I am sorry to differ with Mrs. Wayne,” he said, “but think of the horrors of that great empty, top flat! And as to being nervous, there are several people here who Miss Meadows already knows—Mrs. Wayne—Mr. Lacy and myself—--and I’m sure the rest of the company don’t look very formidable.”
Frances was secretly amused by Marcia’s reluctance and opposition, and the young man’s gallant persistence. He had a keen, clever face, and such a charming smile.
“Even if Nellie Meadows could muster up courage to face a house full of strangers—with one or two exceptions, it would have been a useless effort,” declared Mrs. Wayne with heightened colour, “for I happen to know for a fact, that she has long been engaged to some stupid rich people, friends of Miss Bourne’s, who live across the Park. She will spend her Christmas with them.”
“Sure?” enquired Hugh Hawkshaw, in a tone of great astonishment.
“Quite sure,” she answered, looking him full in the face; then she rose to close the discussion, and crossing the room, seated herself beside Mrs. Scholes.
Meanwhile young Hawkshaw moved a little nearer to his hostess, and said,
“It was most awfully kind of you to invite me here:—I have not had a real, jolly old Christmas for five years—but it would have been an even greater boon to Miss Meadows, had you invited her. That poor girl lives a drab, lonely sort of life, and never has a bit of sunshine. Her father married again, and she is the one too many at home. I expect you thought it horribly meddlesome and unconventional of me, to have been pleading for a young lady who was no relative.”
Frances looked up at him with her intelligent brown eyes, and smiled significantly.
“Oh, there is really nothing in it, Miss Benlock,” he protested hastily, and he smiled too. “I am a pauper, as Mrs. Wayne could tell you: I must confess, I am astonished that she didn’t ask you to invite Miss Meadows—instead of me.”
Frances laughed as she replied, “Surely you do not expect me to say that I am sorry? I hope you will be able to stay till the twenty-eighth—my friend Mr. Waller over there, is arranging for a shoot.—I don’t know much about shooting myself.”
“I shall be delighted to stay, thank you. I haven’t had a gun in my hand for ages. I hope I sha’n’t pepper any of the beaters. I used to be awfully keen.”
“It will be at a place some miles from here, where you will get duck, and pheasants and hares—what is called a mixed bag—something like the present company.”
“Are we then so very mixed?”
“Well, there is Lady Augusta—widow of a duke’s son, her brother—a scarred old soldier—there is our parson, I wouldn’t be in the least surprised to hear was in his heart a Socialist—he is hand and glove with what he calls ‘the people,’ manages clubs, gets up amusements in winter, cricket in summer, and is a sort of leader. He preaches short but powerful sermons, and is a believer in equality. Then there is Lily Scholes, a mondaine to her finger tips—she believes in the gospel of clothes; her husband is a Member of Parliament, and believes in the Tariff Reform, and the Blue Water School. I only hope that he and the Rector won’t come to blows!”
“What’s this you have been saying about me?” he enquired approaching.
“I have only been saying that I believe you are a Socialist, and that one of these days I shall see you coming out with a red tie.”
“Oh, is that all?”
“No, I have been trying to explain to Mr. Hawkshaw—that we are a somewhat mixed bag.”
“In which the writing element predominates. There is Mrs. Wayne,” indicating her with his eyes, “and Mr. Hawkshaw who writes in the papers”—Hawkshaw bowed—“and Scholes who writes to the papers and—”
“And you yourself,” interposed Miss Benlock, “are you not the editor of the Parish Magazine?”
“Yes,” he assented, “I admit the impeachment, “and that I am rather hung up for my next number! There is also someone else who writes,” and he looked hard at her, “someone who has a copious stock of ideas, and full ability to give them complete expression.”
Frances met his glance with a hard stare. Then she laughed outright, and said, “Now I wonder who this mysterious person can be? Ah, there is the gong, we must all go, and get ready for dinner.”
After dinner at Rossleigh, the waits came and sang on the terrace, “Good King Wenceslas,” “The Mistletoe Bough,” also other familiar selections, and the guests gathered round the windows to listen, for some of the voices were clear as silver bells, but Mrs. Wayne was not among the audience. She had moved away, and sitting apart in a high gold-backed chair, wearing a blue velvet picture gown, and a pearl chain, looked like one of the old family portraits, and almost as motionless.
The lady was thinking certain remorseful thoughts—she felt exceedingly wrath with herself, for having displayed such determined opposition to the project of inviting Nellie Meadows; it had been a mistake, though after all, why should the girl intrude into her family? Nellie was just the sort of earnest, single-minded, bread-and-butter chit—that would be certain to attract Frances—and she was resolved to suffer no outsider to share the kindness and favours that flowed from her cousin’s hand.
And oh, what a queer, contrary world it was! Most of the company here assembled—and she glanced towards the other guests—were at cross purposes, and interested in the wrong people!
For instance, the stern, self-denying parson,—--he worshipped Frances in a distant lofty fashion. Frances had possibly a ridiculous penchant for Rufus,—and Rufus adored her. She, if she had a weakness for anyone, liked Hugh Hawkshaw; always felt glad when he entered a room, and sorry when he left it. Yes, she never told lies to herself, and he certainly did attract her: though she was not quite such an idiot as to want to marry him,—nor was she such a fool as to be blind to the fact that he was interested in little Nellie—a pretty simpleton without a farthing. This was how these clever young men generally did for themselves! Somehow the idea of these misguided preferences was too comic to be credible—too much on the plan of the house that Jack built!
After the voices of the waits had ceased—and these had departed with their hearts gladdened by cake, wine, and money—the company broke up into groups; four enthusiasts hastened to a Bridge table in the anteroom, whilst the Rector moved towards the piano, and asked for music.
“Why, we’ve just had some!” objected Frances, “this is Christmas Eve—let us sit round the fire, and have a good comfortable old talk.”
“I am quite agreeable,” said Mrs. Scholes, gliding towards the sofa, and picking up a volume en passant. Turning over the leaves, she enquired of Mr. Hawkshaw, “Have you read this?”
“Unfortunately I have,” he replied with emphasis, “it is a book to hand your enemy in a deserted inn on a wet day.”
“Ah,” looking at him sharply, “so I see you have already cut it up?”
“No, no,” he protested, “I assure you, I am not in that department.”
“How interesting to be in London—literary London,” exclaimed Frances, “in touch with the great roaring world; to hear what is going on,—and what people are doing and saying.”
“Yes, and sometimes you hear very odd things,” said Mrs. Scholes.
“What sort of things?”
“I met a man the other day, a doctor, who gravely assured me that if we went about on all fours, our natural position—we should never know pain or ache!”
“He must have been a mad doctor,” said Frances.
“I have heard funny things too,” added Hawkshaw. “For instance, respecting the pineal gland, here in the forehead,” indicating the spot with his finger, “it is supposed to occupy the place of a third eye—which once looked out upon the universe. A woman I know, who has bad sight, is always bemoaning this deficiency.”
“How hideous and ogre-like she would be!” said Lady Augusta, “though sometimes I confess, I feel that another pair of eyes would be an advantage; it’s wonderful how things vanish!”
“Isn’t it dreadful to reflect, that by all accounts, our race is dwindling in size, and losing useful organs? How shall we end?” enquired Frances.
“In snow huts, on the edge of the equator,” replied Hawkshaw, “the earth is cooling—though this fact will not affect any of the present company.”
“No,” rejoined Mrs. Scholes, who stood in the middle of the group, with a gem collar round her neck, a blaze of pale splendour, “we shall all be developed by then,—and have risen I hope into higher and finer realms of existence, when this old frozen world will have reeled away to its place in the dark—among the dead planets. I am a theosophist, you see,” she concluded, and she looked straight at the Rector.
“So I gather,” he replied, “and I do not deny that among your cult are many fine minds—and illuminating ideas.”
“Now pray don’t let us get into solemn discussions,” broke in Frances, “let us be nice and commonplace, and Christmassy. Perhaps if you would all sit down, someone will tell us a story?”
“And accept the invitation to label themselves commonplace!” protested Lady Augusta.
“Well, I have not the smallest objection!” declared Hawkshaw, “if anyone else will promise to follow me with a story, I am prepared to relate a long novel,—in two minutes.”
“What a feat!” exclaimed Mrs. Scholes, sinking into a corner of the sofa, “do proceed!”
“It is not exactly suited for the young person.”
“There is no young person here,” replied Frances, “but if it is really improper,” and she glanced at Mr. Hermon, “the Rector will deal with you faithfully!”
“Ah then, you shall judge for yourselves. Here it is! Once upon a time, a beautiful young Frenchwoman was dangerously ill,—and holding her husband’s hand, she said, ‘Antoine, before I die, I have a confession to make. I have had a lover.’—To which he replied, ‘Yes, I am aware of it—and that is why I have poisoned you!’ There is your novel in three lines.”
“Not a novel, but a skeleton,” objected Mrs. Scholes, “now let us have a good stout ghost story,—told at first hand.”
“I could tell you a really terrible experience,” said Hawkshaw, “but will spare you, for I know the result would be, that you would spend the night huddled together in this room.”
“General Fraser,” said Frances suddenly, addressing the veteran, who was seated very comfortably near the fire, listening with an expression of lazy amusement, “you haven’t uttered one word since we came into the room.”
The General, a hale veteran, with a brown face and snow-white moustache, replied, “When one has nothing to say it is best to say nothing.”
“That excuse shall not serve you! and I call upon you, as the oldest person present, to tell us a story;— for instance, some of your Indian experiences?”
“Now this is really too arbitrary—surely age has its privileges! I say,” turning and addressing Hawkshaw, “you look a capable young man, and I appeal to you to get me off—find me some excuse.”
“An excuse—well, let me see you can say that the Scythians ate their aged when they became troublesome—and began to relate stories—and that you dare not risk a similar fate.”
“Yes, yes—there you are, Miss Benlock!”
“I will guarantee you safety. Oh no—you sha’n’t escape,” and glancing at Mrs. Scholes, she said, “General Fraser has a fund of the most interesting reminiscences—he was in India during the Mutiny—and out there for many years.”
“India is a country that has always attracted me,” she said, “I hope to go there one day, and see the ancient, mystic East. Can you tell us anything of Black Magic?”
“I am afraid not,” he answered, “that sort of thing was not in my line—I had more to do with black men—but all the same, I believe, there is something in it—much more magic exists in the world than is suspected. I have seen jugglers perform feats that have appeared to be manifestly impossible.”
“What have you seen?” asked Mrs. Scholes, “the basket trick?”
“Oh yes,” he replied, “I have witnessed it several times.”
“Well, please tell us how it struck you?”
“All right,” crossing his legs, and clearing his throat. “The first time I ever saw it, was one day when a conjurer came to my compound, and begged leave to give a performance, to which I assented. He was a tall, spare man, naked but for a turban, loin cloth, and a Tulwar, a native sword. His only companion was a little girl, and he had no confederate. As soon as his presence was known, the servants, all their relations, and my chuprassis, flocked into the compound, and made a large circle round the juggler, and he began his incantations. As well as I can remember, these took a considerable time, and he blew occasionally through a sort of whistle; then he made the little girl sit down on her hunkers, and covered her with one of those large round baskets—something like a hen-coop—and that are in every bungalow for airing clothes. No sooner did the child disappear, than he suddenly drew his sword, and with the utmost ferocity—hacked and slashed at the basket—slash—slash—slash! child’s terrible screams and shrieks were appalling—blood spurted through the wicker work, and oozed, and ran out on the ground—needless to say, the spectators were paralysed with consternation and horror, and I was about to shout, ‘Seize the man!’ when he coolly kicked over the basket with his foot, and it was empty!
“Then he blew his whistle, and the little girl, with broad smiles on her face, came running towards us from behind the bungalow. Now, look at it as you like—there was no possible way to account for this hideous trick—but by some description of magic. I endeavoured to get an explanation from the juggler, but none was forthcoming. He received my substantial present with a polite salaam and wave of his hand; then hoisted the child on his shoulder, and strolled away. In appearance, he looked exactly like any ordinary native; but by Jove, it is my firm, unshaken opinion, that he was a notable magician!”
After General Fraser had ceased speaking, there was a respectful pause, and then he added, “I have contributed an experience, and now I call upon my friend, the Rector, to follow me.”
“No, no,” he protested, “I am going to preach you a sermon to-morrow morning—and that must suffice.”
“And it will soon be to-morrow,” supplemented Miss Burry, glancing at the clock, “and I am sure everyone here will not be sorry to retire. No need to disturb the Bridgers—I shall ring for candles.”
Christmas festivities were over; the mixed shoot had been a success, but in spite of Miss Benlock’s urgency, Mr. Hawkshaw took leave immediately afterwards, and departed for London. The afternoon he arrived in town, he called at 27 Montague Mansions—a most unprecedented step! The door was opened by Miss Meadows herself, who stood speechless.
“May I come in?” he asked as he doffed his hat. “I—I—I suppose you must,” she assented, drawing aside.
“What a warm and cordial invitation!” entering as he spoke, “it’s my Christmas call—I hope you don’t mind?”
“No,” she answered, “but it is not to be a precedent!”
“Why not—if I may presume to ask?”
“Well, you know my friend Miss Bourne, who really launched me, and gave me that beautiful writing-table—those armchairs and palms, also offered me advice—and I gave her some promises.”
Mr. Hawkshaw nodded his head, and appeared to await further information.
“I promised that I would never smoke cigarettes, or get into debt.”
Her visitor laughed. “It sounds exactly as if you were a young man!”
“Or—receive young men in my flat.”
“And now, you have broken your promise, and I am responsible! I’m sorry. However, since I’m here, I must make the most of my time. I have been down to Rossleigh—for Christmas.”
“Oh, have you? And you saw Mrs. Wayne?”
“Yes, Mrs. Wayne was there all right. Her cousin Miss Benlock is one of the best! She gave me an awfully good time, and she wanted to invite you—and have ‘compelled you to come in,’ even at the eleventh hour, but Mrs. Wayne told her you were spending Christmas with some people across the park.”
“But I wasn’t really!” exclaimed the girl in pink astonishment. “How could she have got hold of such an idea? Those friends of Miss Bourne’s used to invite me; but as I always declined, they have not asked me there for more than a year—I expect they think I have left London, and have returned home.”
“And how did you spend Christmas?”
“Very agreeably, thank you! I had a number of cards, and a book, and a little note from my father, enclosing a post-office order. He writes to me under the rose—is it not funny? and I write to him care of the Post-Office. He got my last story, and was delighted with it, and I have sold two more!”
“That’s good!” he exclaimed.
“Someone sent me a quantity of lovely flowers on Christmas Eve—do look at them!” and she pointed to different vases, full of delicate exotics, “someone has given me a great pleasure—I am so fond of flowers. I can’t imagine who it can have been, can you?—--The messenger merely asked if I was Miss Meadows, thrust them into my hand, and fled!”
“But you have not told me how you spent Christmas?” he persisted, ignoring the flowers.
“Mabel Oliver and I went to the service at Westminster Abbey, afterwards for a walk; then we lunched together at a restaurant on turkey and plum-pudding, afterwards we had tea at the club, and looked at all the illustrated papers, later she came home with me, and we had songs,” waving her hand towards the piano, “and supper.”
“It sounds as if you put in a roaring time! I didn’t know that you sang.”
“Well, I don’t really. Mabel Oliver sings—she has a delightful voice, and once a week we go together to a slum entertainment, and I play the accompaniments. It’s just a little club, that gives amusements gratis, it’s all we can do, for you see we are not very rich ourselves.”
“May I accompany you some evening?”
“Certainly, if you can do anything—give a reading—or sing, or act.”
“Oh, I can act like a professional—I shall be a tremendous acquisition, I do assure you, so please enrol me in the club.”
“Very well, I will send in your name, but you must promise not to make a joke of the whole thing! for we are in deadly earnest.”
“So am I,” he replied, “I will do my best, and I know you will be proud of me. I say, you will look to it, won’t you, that I am not blackballed?” As he made this appeal, he rose, and added, “I’ve been here exactly seven minutes, and in deference to your promise,—I withdraw.—Will you and Miss Oliver come with me to the pantomime to-morrow night?”
“I am sure she will be enchanted, and so shall I,” said Nellie. “At what time?”
“Then at seven o’clock—I come here to fetch you both in a taxi-cab, and will wait outside on the mat.”
After the New Year, the party at Rossleigh had separated, Marcia alone remained. Her brain was somnolent, her time was given over to the voluptuous enjoyment of dainty meals, a soft bed, and luxurious rooms—she felt like some torpid animal. During this visit, she had seen a good deal of Rufus Lacy, and now, when Frances departed for her daily drive, she excused herself, on the plea of “exercise,” and walked with Rufus instead.
As they walked, they discoursed of London and London’s doings, and made various plans, connected with their return to town. Marcia was aware that he was still her devoted servant, and at times believed that she would be compelled to marry him, and therefore must not discourage his attentions.
At night, she looked magnificent in a wine-coloured velvet gown, cut so as to display her superb neck and shoulders, and although Rufus might listen to Frances’ bright talk, and clever reckless sayings, and note her animation, and espièglerie, yet his eyes rested continually on the other woman, and he was conscious of the poignancy of her spell, as she sat there motionless, and more or less silent; he was Frances’ good cousin, and friend—but Marcia Wayne’s slave.
One cold afternoon, it was snowing heavily, and Frances, who was debarred from an afternoon drive, sent a summons to her relative, who found her in her own sitting-room: a delightful apartment, lined with low book-cases, above these were suspended some valuable portraits of the Benlocks,—a dark-browed, handsome race. Frances was standing with her back to a great writing-table, as Marcia entered.
“I always think you are so like her!“ she remarked abruptly, “look just behind you at the portrait of Marcia Benlock, by Gainsborough. You might be twins—with a hundred years between you. Fortunately, you only resemble her outwardly—for by all accounts, she was a terrible woman; cold, callous, ambitious, and cruel, notoriously treacherous—and as you see, handsome.”
Marcia glanced at the half-length portrait of a lady in yellow brocade, with dark brows, indomitable eyes, and lovely arms.
“I don’t like her expression,” continued Frances, “her baleful eyes have a horrid way of following me about, and watching me—as much as to imply that she would do me some deadly injury if she could. Sometimes, I think I shall sell the celebrated Rossleigh Gainsborough; you see, I have no direct heirs; and eight or nine thousand pounds would do so much good; and then she would be welcome to go and glare in some other family—possibly in Chicago or New York.”
“I don’t think her expression is exactly disagree able,” said her namesake, with an air of deliberate criticism, “she looks proud.”
“She looks hard and ruthless. I can imagine her committing some great crime,” and Frances studied her as she spoke, “something she would do by stealth, that would never, never, never be discovered. Yes, for all her exalted air and ropes of pearls! I am sorry they are gone—old Roger Benlock lost them at cards.”
“What a wretch!” exclaimed Marcia.
“Yes, he was a villain, and a notorious gambler in the time of the Regency. If he had not broken his neck, he would have beggared the Benlocks. His portrait is in the library, painted by Romney. Only for that, I would put him up in the garret—it’s where he deserves to be. It’s extraordinary, Marcia, how you resemble some of the ancestors. Heredity is a wonderful thing—I have studied it a good deal—they say it is as five to one—in comparison with environment. You see, you have the dark hair, growing just as theirs does, the same shaped face, the well-cut nose, and thin nostrils—above all, the figure. You look like the woman who owns the place,—whereas, I who do, have inherited from my mother’s side a queer primitive type of features that may have come down from the Picts and Scots! I had the face of a Cave woman, and the Benlock figure before my smash; now you have both the family face and figure,—and as you walk through the rooms, you can see yourself reflected on all sides.”
“If you have not the Benlock features, Frances, you have a strikingly intelligent face.”
“Have I? Well, I suppose I am what is called clever—there is no mock modesty about me, and this brings me to what I wanted to see you about, and get you to help me.”
“Of course I will,” agreed her companion who was lost in speculation.
“What I am going to tell you, is a profound and masonic secret.”
Marcia leant back in her chair, and nodded assent and encouragement.
“The amazing fact is, that I am writing a book!”
“Yes—can you believe your ears? I have been working at it for a long, long time, and I am wrapped up in it. Don’t laugh, but it’s like my double! it’s another life—a life inside oneself, as Burry says—poor Burry! she little guesses the bombshell that I am manufacturing.”
“Do tell me all about it.”
“I will, with pleasure. It is an exquisite relief to talk to someone at last,—to someone who has had a similar experience, and understands what I feel. You see, when I met with that dreadful accident, I, who had spent half my days on horseback, or in active outdoor interests, and knew that I was a hopeless cripple, felt that I should like to die. However, I fought with myself, and tried to put the long gallops, the glorious runs, out of my mind, and as I lay there in a darkened room,—for my head had been injured, the atmosphere of the literary life, that I had lived with my father, seemed to return, and envelop me. And then the book came! I believe it was sent as a consolation; it sat beside me, with so to speak, its hand in mine, all through the long hours, and the weary, weary nights, and whispered about the glorious country of imagination; it opened the golden gates, and led me within, and there I met—oh, such delightful people, and witnessed most marvellous things! I lived in dreamland, and only returned to this workaday world, for food, medicine, and sleep.”
Her voice as she spoke, vibrated with passion, and she looked at the moment radiantly young; then she paused, and surveyed Marcia with glowing eyes. As Marcia accorded an encouraging nod, she continued,
“Then as I gradually recovered, I still had my visionary friends! they were in my brain so continually, their presence was so real, that I determined to describe them in pen and ink, in case some day they should desert me, and their memory fade. This was my first idea! with a tremulous pencil, and writing block; gradually the scheme grew, and I took boldly to pen and ink, and the book became an obsession. I grudged every hour that I was compelled to leave it; and kept its existence a profound secret. As I was obliged to account for the immense time I spent locked alone here, I told poor dear Burry that I was translating a difficult French work! Of course this was a lie, but I’m afraid I would do almost anything for the sake of my book! I know it is shocking to say so, but the book is like some genii, and rules me. If Burry was aware of my real occupation, she would run open-mouthed, and tell everyone ‘Only think! Miss Benlock is writing a novel,’ and I am terribly sensitive,—I don’t want to have any talk until the thing is actually finished and printed!”
“And how far have you got?” enquired Marcia.
“I am near the end now; only about three more chapters—look,” and she rose and pulling out a deep drawer in a bureau, produced a pile of neatly written manuscripts. Apparently there was not one erasure or a blot—undoubtedly the work had been a labour of love.
“It seems to be a long book,” remarked her cousin, turning over the pages, with the eye of an expert, “I should say it ran to a good deal over a hundred thousand words.”
“It has been more than three years on the stocks,” said her cousin, “and I am not at all sure that it is not both dull and long-winded.”
In Marcia’s opinion, this fact seemed more than probable; but if it amused the poor lame thing, and kept her employed, and interested, it was something. In these days, every woman believed she could write a book, and every man a play! She turned to the first page, and glanced at the opening, but Frances interposed with outstretched hand.
“I won’t ask you to read it, and I would not dare to read it to you, though I should be grateful for an independent opinion. One day, I think it is poor stuff; and the next, I think it is splendid; perhaps it is something between the two. I am too close to it as yet,—--if you know what I mean, I can’t see it in its proper perspective; but whether well or ill, I have put the best of myself into it,—--all my hopes, aspirations, regrets, enthusiasm, and heart.”
“Plenty of good material, at any rate!” remarked Marcia, and her tone was slightly condescending.
“Occasionally, when I have been writing, I have felt as if a mighty power assisted me, a power full of force; some mysterious faculty that was not myself controlled my thoughts, inspired my brain, and swept my pen along the paper! I have been carried completely away, and consumed by a kind of fever for days and days; toiling ceaselessly, to give what clamoured for utterance, adequate expression. It’s a sort of mental intoxication; exciting, breathless, and enthralling.”
She paused, and looking over at Marcia with a strange light in her eyes, added in a lower key,
“Of course, you know what I mean?”
No, Marcia had never experienced these extraordinary sensations; never had, never would; and as she stared at Frances’ eloquent gestures and shining eyes, told herself that the poor thing’s brain had certainly been injured!
Her cold unresponsive looks, her expression of cool, calm surprise, had the effect of a moral watering-pot, extinguishing the author’s enthusiasm, and she resumed in her everyday manner.
“Your writing and mine are as the poles apart, and appeal to two different publics. It is audacious of me even to speak of a public,—I, who with the exception of little footling articles have never as yet had a line in print. Your books skim along the surface of life, whilst I endeavour to dig beneath it. You have thousands and thousands of greedy readers, I may never have one,—but all the same, I must honestly confess that I think my work is superior to yours—you see, I am honest!”
“I like honesty,” replied Marcia, with difficulty swallowing her indignation. The idea of Frances, a mere scribbling amateur, talking in this way! However, she added, “Of course, I know, that you have had an unusually superior education, that you have been dipping into deep books all your life, and are naturally a cultivated intellectual woman. I value your good opinion, and I daresay to you, my modern up-to-date books seem but paltry things, but never mind them. Now do tell me, how can I help you?”
“You can help me to get my novel published, when it is finished. I have about three chapters more to write, correct, and polish,—and then it is done. You know all the ropes, you are an experienced literary woman, and can advise me, and lead me into the literary fold.”
“That I certainly will, to the best of my ability, but first of all, you must give me some ideas as to the style of your novel.”
“I am afraid you will think it heavy, and out of date. The scene is laid in the time of Napoleon.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Marcia, raising protesting hands, “that period is so overdone!”
“No doubt,” admitted Frances; “but perhaps there may yet be room for a little one. But at any rate, I bring a good equipment to the task, and a fairly full mind. As you say, I have had the education of a man, I know Latin, French, Italian, and German,—--I have a fine library below, and a long purse. All this was already here, when the torch of imagination came by, and touched me with le feu sacré! I think myself, when I am in a cheerful mood, on a fine sunny morning,—that the book is alive,—and will live.”
“Yes, my dear Frances, I don’t wish to damp you!—but that, you know, is saying a great deal. In the present day the life of a novel is from three to six months; a hardy child may perhaps survive a year!”
“Oh well, I do hope my baby will get over its teething. It may—and of course, on the other hand—it might be born dead. Oh, if it is—I believe I shall break my heart!” As she spoke she clasped and unclasped her hands convulsively. It was evident that her whole soul was in her book.
“Look here,” she went on suddenly, “shall I tell you the story—then you can judge? They say, there are only seven plots in the world—--and I believe that I have got hold of the eighth!”
“You are indeed fortunate,” sneered Marcia, “it should prove a gold mine!”
“Well then, listen,” said Frances impressively.
And she began, at first in a low monotonous voice, which gradually gained strength and confidence as the story unfolded. Her companion’s languid attention was soon aroused, moved, captured. Oh, what was this that her cousin was relating? A wonderful, original, profoundly dramatic tale, told with convincing force. Frances herself seemed completely changed, transformed, inspired! wrought to such a pitch by her vivid descriptions, that she rose and limped up and down the room; declaiming, gesticulating, her eyes alight, her voice hoarse and resonant,—carried away by the vitality of her own creation. Marcia meanwhile sat motionless, with icy cold hands clenched in her lap.
As she listened and looked, she felt confident that she was not in the presence of a mad woman, but a genius; yes, a genius! The end was inevitable, and Frances described it in broken sentences, with tears streaming down her cheeks, then suddenly dashing them away, she said in a husky whisper,
“There, that is the book,” and she hobbled to a chair, and sank into it completely exhausted.
Marcia, for once, was moved by irresistible admiration. On a sudden impulse she rose, and hurried over to her cousin, and seizing both her hands in hers, said,
“It’s splendid—it is wonderful, Frances! How did you do it and all alone?”
“I did it because I couldn’t help it,” she answered brokenly. “Oh, Marcia, I see you really have been stirred, and you make me so happy. It’s like showing a treasure one values to another for the first time, and finding that they agree as to its worth. This book, to me, has taken the place of lover, husband, children, for of course I know that now no man can ever love me for myself—but I am content; the book has consoled me for the life I once enjoyed,—and lost. It has been my comforter, and my good angel.”
“It is a great—a magnificent—idea, and if the work is anything like the scheme” “The work is my best,” interrupted Frances.
“And you had no help?”
“None except Mr. Hermon. He has been invaluable in looking up dates and papers that were beyond my reach, and procuring books for me from time to time,—but he hasn’t the smallest idea that I am writing. He knows I am a reading woman, fond of research, diving into byways, and unravelling knotty questions for my own satisfaction.”
“I believe it is a book that will take the reading world by storm,” declared Marcia, walking to the fire, and warming her hands, “you are right; my poor little mild novels are not in the same class. This work of yours will make you famous.”
“Will it?” said Frances meditatively, “tell me, Marcia, which you would rather be—famous, or happy?”
“Famous!” she answered promptly, “for to be famous—is to be happy.”
“Ah! Well, I’m not so sure of that! Now you know the secret of my life. I have told it to you, for two reasons. Because you are a writing woman, and can give me a hand into the publishing world; and because you are naturally secretive, and can keep your counsel. See, this book has its special drawer in my father’s old bureau; a drawer in which he stored particular deeds, and valuable letters. It has a queer lock, and I particularly want you to observe the spring; for if I die before the novel is finished or published, I make you my literary executor.”
“Oh my dear Frances, you are three years younger than I am.”
“Yes, but it is well to be prepared; and you have not had a horse roll over on you,—as I have. You will see it through the Press, you and Clement Hermon will look over the proofs, and whatever it brings in,—will go to charities. It is all written down clearly here,” and she displayed an envelope, on which was inscribed, “Marcia Wayne. Not to be opened, until after my death.”
“Very well, I promise to do as you wish,” agreed her cousin, “but I am sure you will survive to see your book published,—to gather your own laurels,—and to bury me.”
“Time will tell. Here comes Saxon; tea is waiting, and we must go down.”
On the way to the door, Frances paused, as they stood beneath the picture of Marcia Benlock.
“Give me your hand,” she said, “and your word of honour, never to reveal my secret?”
And Marcia readily gave both.
It was not now the contemplation of her own novel that absorbed Marcia, but the story related by Frances, which haunted her by day and night. Oh, why had she never imagined the subject? the incidents? and the characters? Yet after all, it was not her style: nor did she possess the education, or the weight of learning, requisite to write a book of that class.
During the succeeding days, as she paced the damp walks in the grounds, or took constitutionals up and down the avenues, the glow of single-hearted admiration faded, and Marcia’s one absorbing thought was, how to steal a little of her cousin’s fire, for her own cold altar? As she walked, she endeavoured to piece in bits and scenes, in a different age, and a different milieu, but somehow these would not assimilate. It was like putting patches of rich velvet on a piece of flimsy material! Frances had position, wealth, brains, and a naturally bright disposition, why should she be endowed with literary fame? and with this novel, fame was bound to come!
The father of Frances had been a scholar and brilliantly clever, a man with many intellectual friends, and apparently his mental riches, as well as his estates, had descended to his daughter—oh, it was too much! and Marcia actually stamped her foot, as she uttered the words, “Too much—too much!”
These long, long, meditative tramps, in the damp grounds, under skies of sullen, down-casting gloom, instead of stimulating Mrs. Wayne’s atrophied brain, gave her a severe cold, which ultimately developed into influenza. The family doctor hurried Frances from home, and ordered Marcia when convalescent, to the South of France, or the Italian Riviera. Generous cousin Frances sent the invalid a cheque for her journey by train-de-luxe, and added that she would expect her back at Rossleigh, by the end of April. “It will then be finished, and you and I will have long conferences, respecting its ultimate fate.”
Marcia was met at Charing Cross by the ever faithful Nellie, looking rather thin, and anxious; who informed her that her book had been returned by Branson and Bell, accompanied by a civil, almost flattering letter. As she was weary of waiting, she had sent it again to Topper and Scott, and told them, that they might have it, if they pleased.
“And what did they say?” drawled Marcia.
“They returned it unopened, with a very stiff note.”
“Well, never mind,” she replied. It is so easy to say never mind, for other people. “Your luck will come some day, and I’ll write, and send you picture postcards.” At this moment, the guard blew his whistle, the train moved, and Nellie’s pale anxious face was lost to sight.
Mrs. Wayne established herself in a comfortable pension at Bordighera, not far from the Via Romana. It was cheap, cheerful, and had a delightful garden. “Mon Désir” was chiefly patronised by women, with a moderate sprinkling of the male sex, but the new-comer held herself aloof from all, and whilst she challenged curiosity, and baffled enquiry, was considered disagreeable and stuck-up. She told herself passionately that she was not here for small talk, or to make a fourth at Bridge, but to slave at her book. When she recalled that other book, her heart failed her—what was her work in comparison?—mere piffle! Her bedroom was large and airy, looking over the palm-trees, onto the blue, blue sea, and here in the window, she arranged her writing-table, with her little note-books, dictionary and paper, and waited. But no, again, despite of her surroundings, not one single idea would be caught, and oh, the weary days of forced mental effort, that bore no fruit.
Marcia was in despair; instead of sitting indoors, or in the garden, she now took long solitary excursions, as she had been informed that walking sent the blood to the head—--and stimulated imagination—--but nevertheless her stubborn brain refused to be coerced.
Sometimes she went down to the tea-rooms in the afternoon, or to the beach in the morning, but outside the pension, she made no acquaintances. No one dreamed that she was a novelist—apparently Bordighera had never heard of her, and not one of her books was to be found in the library—it was a chastening experience. Mrs. Wayne still held most of her fellow-guests at arm’s length; inquisitive people failed to discover who she was, or where she came from. She brusquely refused to take part in donkey rides, picnics, or card-parties, and was naturally denounced as a wet blanket.
The little chirping old maid, who sat next to her table, had the profound sympathy of the company, but the dark-browed silent woman (who might be a duchess incognito) held a certain amount of fascination for Miss Jones. As for the supposed duchess, she only desired to be left entirely to herself. In despair, she bought French novels, and endeavoured to turn them to advantage, and to utilise some well-worn plot. She even worked on one of them for some time, but ultimately relinquished the task in disgust.
Meanwhile letters arrived from Branson and Bell, maddening letters,—the burthen of which was, that the season was commencing—it was the end of February—where was the book? Branson and Bell had advanced thirty pounds (long since spent) and if no novel was produced within a given time, she would find herself in legal trouble, and lose any little credit that she still possessed.
She began to be painfully obsessed by this overhanging claim, and her torpid brain. At night, she lay sleepless for hours listening to the lapping of the Mediterranean, and the occasional rumble of luggage-trains. At last, she made a bold move; she went over to Monte Carlo one morning, sold her diamond brooch at the Mont de Pieté for half its value, tried her fortunes at the table: extraordinary to relate, she won!
As she descended through the exquisite gardens to the railway-station, she had seventy pounds in her purse, or rather inside the body of her dress—sufficient money to pay off Branson and Bell, and to keep her for a few weeks longer at Bordighera; afterwards, she was resolved to return to England, and request her cousin to employ her as secretary. Her writing days were ended—her brain was numb—and she must now retire into the background; but when she thought of “the” book, and her own helplessness, envy ran in her veins like molten fire. She still walked far, and near,—weaving plans, and projects. As for plots, that virtue, such as it was, had abandoned her, and left her in the midst of a trackless desert—with an imagination as barren, and as arid, as a sun-baked rock! Middle age was holding out its arms—--what was to be her future? A boarding-house lady, living on her faded reputation? She could see herself; and her parent—with her trim little figure, her false hair: her pose, as Mrs. Benlock, one of the Benlocks, and mother of the famous novelist!
Her mother had advertised her far and wide, for the sake of the reflected glory, and also claimed importance as the parent of Mrs. Eustace Evans, wife of a judge in the N.W. Provinces, a man of high position, drawing four thousand rupees a month! Ariadne had helped her mother over some critical times, but to supply, as demanded, a regular income out of her husband’s pay was impossible. She had her boys to think of.
Mrs. Benlock had one peculiarity she never mentioned her grandchildren, having the greatest horror of being looked upon as “an old lady,” but she talked incessantly of Marcia, her books, her friends, her dresses, her successes—indeed it was actually whispered that some people had left the Trefoil boarding-house, because they had Marcia Wayne stuffed down their throats at every meal! Her mother was permanent—the proprietress her personal friend; they were confidential, and visited each other’s bedrooms, and confided to one another what they thought of some people under the same roof, their manners, their airs, and their appetites. Nevertheless, the landlady never suffered this delightful intimacy to interfere with business arrangements. Even Mrs. Benlock was obliged to settle to the day.
The wing of Marcia’s imagination was still sufficiently strong to bear her to the boarding-house, and she decided that nothing would induce her to retire there, to spend her life in the character of a broken-down novelist.
At Bordighera she rambled about for hours, becoming a familiar figure—a solitary, handsome, discontented woman, in a grey tailor-made and shabby hat. She toiled through the old town, up to the Colin, seeing nothing there of the lovely outlook, the hanging wisteria, the luxuriant pink geraniums, the deep-blue sky, or the distant hills.
Sometimes she trudged all the way to little towns in those hills, especially to one, noted for its ancient library, where she would sit for hours encompassed by venerable books.
Why should not these dead authors inspire her with some fine ideas? What was all this talk about atmospheric surroundings, and elementals—if it meant nothing? Why could not some of the immortal minds that permeated the air reanimate her empty brain? The solitary walks through the olive groves, or by the sea-shore, or along the dusty white roads, the uninterrupted meditations, came to nothing. Marcia found it impossible to concentrate her mind, and this mental stagnation affected her almost like an illness.
Then “a woman who wrote,” arrived with considerable éclat at the neat green-shuttered pension. By chance, she sat opposite to Marcia, and Marcia was compelled to listen to all the whispering, speculation, and admiration respecting a real live authoress, and to behold the airs and graces of this creature, who it appeared, had written a fairly well-known book, and a few silly little magazine stories.
The celebrity complacently swallowed all sorts of compliments, and enjoyed every whiff of incense that was burnt before her, whilst she, Marcia Wayne, author of “On the Stoep,” “The Village Post Office,” and “The Family Skeleton,” sat unnoticed and unknown! The little old maid, who rather liked Marcia, and was impressed by her silence, dignity, and mystery, sat at one side of her; on the other hand was a greedy aggressive old lady, whom Marcia found almost unsupportable. She declared she had no appetite; grumbled at every dish, and carefully selected large helpings of the choicest morsels; brought her modicum of whisky to table in a medicine bottle,—which she concealed in her lap; and wore all day, and possibly all night, a huge motor cap enveloped in a blue veil.
She sometimes endeavoured to pump the glum, reserved, Englishwoman; who merely answered yes and no, and sometimes not at all. Marcia, although she had said good-bye to her youth, was in her way the beauty of the boarding-house. Two of the younger men made civil advances, they brought her chairs, and coffee, and lent her magazines, and tried to draw her into conversation, but she really was not in the humour to be bothered—although one of them was rather good-looking, and actually possessed a motor. It was a remarkable fact that Marcia Wayne did not really care for the opposite sex, excepting in so far as she could make use of them. She was much given to palmistry and soothsayers, and once a clairvoyant had accounted for this peculiarity, by informing her that the reason of her indifference was, that in a former incarnation, she herself had been a man!
The change to a warm climate, blue sky, constant sunshine, and an air scented with flowers, proved of great benefit to Marcia physically; though the seeds of influenza still hung about, and probably accounted for her restlessness, and depression. The days seemed to flit by on noiseless wings; the weather was growing warmer, and she had a hateful conviction that soon she must be moving. She would be obliged to abandon basking in the sun, and return to the cold, cloudy, rainy England: however, she had sufficient money to pay for another fortnight, and was determined to remain at Bordighera until the first of May. One afternoon she encountered Miss Jones on the Via Romana, and Miss Jones invited her to have tea with her at the tea-rooms, as her guest.
The English tea-rooms at Bordighera are more or less the centre of the English colony, situated close to the church and tennis ground, and surrounded by a pretty garden, with tables and seats. Inside the club, there are also tea-tables and green chairs, and the walls are nearly always decorated with pretty water-colours—the overflow of the local exhibition.
As Marcia and her hostess settled themselves at the little table in the open air, and the former took off her gloves and looked about her, she became conscious of the presence of an old acquaintance, a man she had known in South Africa. In those days, he was prosperous, rising, and was said to have the keys of several lucrative affairs in his hands. By all accounts, he was now a millionaire. Marcia had heard rumours of his astounding success, but had never seen him, since she said good-bye to her little tin-roofed home at Middleburg.
As she glanced at him, she was aware that he did not recognise her, but it was also evident that he rather liked being looked at! He was a burly, red-faced individual, who wore splendid sable-lined coats, spent half his days in a luxurious motor, and addressed the world in a loud, authoritative voice. This important individual was well-known to Miss Jones; she informed her companion that the man opposite was the great Mr. Van Harmer, who was staying at the Angst Hotel, where he had the best suite of apartments, two motors, two valets, and a secretary. Marcia thought it more than likely. She remembered that he had shares in gold mines, in diamond mines, in land and coal; now apparently he had come to England to enjoy his fortune.
As she sipped her tea, she stared at him fixedly. If she could remember him, why should he not remember her? She wished most ardently that she had been wearing her smart Shantung dress, and her Monte Carlo hat, instead of a rather tossed blouse, and a dusty blue serge skirt. If she could but establish herself in his good graces, her coming to Bordighera would not have been in vain. Probably, when she spoke to him, he would recall her to his memory. She was a courageous woman, absolutely dauntless, and never lost a chance. At the present moment the South African millionaire was surrounded by satellites, who were endeavouring to make themselves agreeable to him, as he lay back in a chair, with his great legs extended, looking as if he considered himself monarch of all he surveyed. She waited patiently until the obsequious circle had dissolved, and he was alone with one companion—probably his secretary. Then she rose, went straight across, held out her hand with a smile, and said,
“I’m afraid you don’t remember me, Mr. Van Harmer? We met out in South Africa. My husband was in the Barkers, and my name is Wayne—Marcia Wayne.”
“Wayne Wayne,” repeated the potentate, and then again, “Wayne. Sorry I can’t recall it,” he said, staring up into her face, and taking a leisurely and comprehensive view of her figure. “Naturally many people remember me that I’ve forgotten—about fifty to one—ha! ha! Where did you say we met?”
“At Middleburg,” she replied with composure, ignoring the rebuff, though she felt inclined to strangle him, “you used to come to the dances, and picnics—it’s ten years ago.”
“Oh!” he ejaculated, as his eyes travelled deliberately over her plain duty skirt, her sunburnt hat, “ten years is a good while,—I’m afraid it’s longer than my memory.”
“Is it?” she responded, “I am glad to say that mine is in better case; although it is ten years, it seems to me as if it were but yesterday that I was at Middleburg, and I still feel the charm of South Africa!”
“So you would like to go back—eh?” he drawled, as he deliberately lit a cigar.
“I would,” she replied, “I enjoyed its bigness, its look of boundless space, and wonderful climate. I can smell the wattles, and see the almond blossoms—and revel in the warmth—now!“
Marcia’s enthusiasm was counterfeit; she merely desired to flatter the millionaire by belauding his native country. She had known him quite well before he had grown to be this horrible creature, who was spoilt and inflated by good fortune. He used to come to tea, and help to boil the kettle and make toast.
“But don’t you remember the subscription dances at the little club?” she persisted, “and how we each provided what we could for supper, and it all went up on a wheel-barrow, with a black boy of the moment in charge.”
“Sorry I can’t recall the supper, though I’ve no doubt it was excellent, the wheel-barrow, or”—and here he paused significantly—“the lady.” And with a quick nod, the great man rose, summoned his companion, and strode heavily away. Marcia felt precisely as if she had been violently slapped in the face, her eyes flamed, her cheeks were scarlet, as she turned about for a moment to recover from this rebuff, she looked astonishingly handsome. Presently she joined her companion, saying,
“I used to know that old Boer once upon a time; he had a big store in Middleburg, where you could buy anything from a plum-pudding to an india-rubber bath.”
“Really!” exclaimed Miss Jones, “and now I hear he has fifty thousand a year, and a house in Grosvenor Square.”
“Fifty thousand a year!” repeated Marcia to herself, what possibilities were at his command! the command of such a brute—and a brute who refused to know her! for when two days later, they met face to face on the pathway, on the Via Romana, he actually ignored her smile and bow. That she should bow to a man, who had been so grossly rude, may seem extraordinary, but Marcia for all her proud looks, was ever ready to do anything that would further her ends, and what was a smile, or a bow, in comparison to a thousand pounds a week?
The days went by, and still she lingered in the sun. In doing this, she exhausted the money reserved for her return by train-de-luxe, and made up her mind to travel second. Although she did not care much for Bordighera, with its dusty roads, and everlasting palms, yet she dreaded England in a manner that amazed her. Oh, the dull life at Rossleigh the long monotony of grey profitless days, and the dreadful boring visitors, with their perpetual, “Are you writing anything now?”
Miss Kiddle, the particular friend of Miss Jones, a girlish person of forty-five, was returning to England on the same date as Mrs. Wayne, and begged that she would kindly chaperone her to London (and indeed had secretly arranged her plans to suit those of that lady). It was the first time that Miss Kiddle had been abroad, and to her, everything was a wonderful novelty; from the coffee and rolls in the morning, to the penetrating and uncommon odours that saluted one of an afternoon in the old town.
This excursion was the most prominent event in Miss Kiddle’s career; for many a long day she began a sentence with, “When I was on the Continent,” or “When I was at Bordighera.” All her life she had lived in a prim little village, amid prim connections, had never entered a theatre, and would not look at a nude statue for any consideration in the world.
A severe cold threatening her lungs, had sent Miss Kiddle South at the expense of a benevolent relative; she had been accompanied by an efficient escort as far as Bordighera, but this escort had subsequently flitted into Italy.
Miss Kiddle’s funds could not stretch to such extra expense, and she was only too glad to remain in dear, exquisite, life-giving Bordighera, as long as a franc remained. She naturally wished to expand this, the happiest time of her whole life; she and Miss Jones, her sympathetic associate, went riding on donkeys, and sketching together—oh, such sketches! they looked equally well upside down; blue sky, blue sea, with a few woolly little trees dividing them. The two spinsters chaperoned one another to the library, the tea club, and the church; once the reckless pair actually ventured over to Monte Carlo, and beheld for themselves all the wicked people inside the Casino! For instance, the large-hatted ladies, who apparently wore but one garment, smoked cigarettes, and painted their faces! Miss Kiddle stared so persistently at one of these apparitions, that the lady with flashing eyes burst into a torrent of furious French, and poor abashed Miss Kiddle slunk back trembling and terrified among the crowd.
Every evening she played Patience Whist, with a charming polite gentleman, respecting whom, when they were alone, Miss Jones chaffed her, and Miss Kiddle giggled convulsively and said, “Oh, you naughty thing!—how can you!” but all the same she enjoyed and even courted Miss Jones’s somewhat clumsy badinage.
Mr. Melville, a retired Anglo-Indian civilian, had grizzled hair and a yellow skin; but he presented Miss Kiddle with flowers and concert tickets, lent her his “Daily Mail,” and his Baedeker, and when she departed with her chaperone, actually came to Ventimiglia to see her through the Douane, and protect her from rapacious porters. Jessie Kiddle’s eyes and heart were painfully full, as the train moved away from the platform, and she beheld the last of her one and only admirer, but Mrs. Wayne’s regrets were solely for the warm sun, and the blue sea, and not for any acquaintance. She was an experienced traveller, and had provided herself with a dust cloak, a basket of fruit, and a racy French novel, and had not the smallest intention of being bothered with Miss Kiddle. Nevertheless she and Miss Kiddle were equally implicated and interested in a little adventure which, so to speak, entered their carriage breathless with excitement, as the train stopped at Garavan Station.
The new-comer was a distractingly pretty girl of nineteen; bourgeoise—yes, but well and neatly dressed. She wore a charming hat, with one gay wing, a linen skirt, a little blue cloth coat, and a bag to match. Nothing expensive, but everything so “chic.” A tall rugged-faced woman in a cap thrust a basket and an umbrella into the carriage, and after staring hard at Miss Kiddle and Mrs. Wayne, asked,
“Ces dames, vont-elles à Paris?”
“Oui, oui,” nodded Miss Kiddle eagerly.
“C’est bien alors,” and she pointed significantly to the girl, who looked radiant—“et elle aussi—si ces dames veullent bien. Tenez-vous tranquille, ma petite Jacquette,” to the girl, “ne blaquez pas, soyez gentille; alors—vous partez!” and she leant forward, and kissed her roughly.
As the train drew away from the platform, Jacquette waved a handkerchief, then threw herself back in a corner of the carriage, with a sigh that indicated unbounded relief. After this, she arranged her little belongings to her complete satisfaction, removed her gloves, and calmly scrutinised her companions. The girl was strikingly pretty,—a dark beauty endowed with a pair of lovely ardent eyes—and extremely animated; she and Miss Kiddle at once became friendly—for Miss Kiddle was anxious to improve her French, and Jacquette was eager to talk. Her speech flowed forth like a cataract of water from some long pent-up dam, and by the time the train had reached Nice, the two English travellers were in possession of the entire history of their companion’s life.
She lived with her father and her stepmother at Mentone in the old town; he was employed on the railway, her stepmother was a corsetière, who made her work, work, oh and work! It was hateful as the galleys, and she could have had such splendid pay in a flower-shop on the Boulevard Victor Hugo, but it was “Non, non, non!” always “Non” to everything that was gay!
Her own mother had been an Arlèsienne—a miracle of beauty—and her stepmother was a villain; hard, miserly, suspicious, lying, and always at her heels. Oh, she had no liberty—not one hour, not one moment!
In short, it was the old story of the stern, ill-favoured woman, and the pretty flighty girl. This girl was more than pretty, she was unquestionably beautiful. She had such amazingly expressive eyes, eyes of the warm south, veiled by sweeping lashes, a pair of red lips, displayed flashing white teeth, her hair was soft and wavy, and her face round; it was the face of a witch——a face to bewitch!
“Oh, she had had no life là-bas,” she declared with a groan, and was kept with a discipline that was worse than a convent! Even her confessor, Father Pierre, admitted that he felt compassion for her—and he knew the human soul, and that when one was young, one should be young—and not live as an animal in a cellar. That was for those of an age! who had had their day, and their fun. But now, thanks to the saints, there had come an
opening, Grand’mère, her father’s mother, was growing feeble, she lived in Paris, and had sent for her as she wanted a companion. C’était un belle chance! Of course, her stepmother would have said No, because she would miss her slave, but for once le patron was firm. His mother was old, dévote and rich. She lived in the Rue du Bon Accord, in a fine apartment, and would send a friend to meet the train to-morrow morning. Meanwhile, for an hour she was free! She related all this, with pretty chatter and irrepressible gesticulation, and Miss Kiddle somehow felt as if she had known the girl for years, and strangled an almost over-mastering desire to invite her to visit her in England!
Mrs. Wayne was not sympathetic—she merely listened and looked on, with cold, searching eyes, and secretly envied the girl, her youth, and beauty, her gay spirits, and her possible future! Or was this brilliant creature condemned to lifelong seclusion, and passing in their charge, from one house of bondage to another?
It was almost dusk when they stopped at a small station not far from Marseilles, and here a smart young Frenchman entered the compartment, fair, curly-haired, and débonnaire; he promptly took the seat opposite to Jacquette, and they instantly slid into conversation. Then as the lamp in the roof was introduced, and the light fell upon the girl’s face, his astonishment and admiration were evident: he gave the impression of being suddenly dazzled! To Miss Kiddle’s consternation it soon became apparent that Jacquette was an accomplished little flirt—she talked to the young man with reckless vivacity—her remarks were alternately intimate and amusing—meanwhile he devoured her with his eyes.
She opened a basket, produced her supper, and offered a portion to her vis-à-vis. They shared the same glass and knife, and made merry together over bread and sausage, red wine, and pears.
The French girl, voluble and capricious, appeared to have entirely forgotten the existence or presence of her first friends, the two Englishwomen. Presently the light was covered up, and the quartette settled in their respective corners. As the heavy train thundered across France, and screamed through little stations, Miss Kiddle could not sleep, and she was aware, even with her eyes shut, that the two at the other end of the carriage conversed for hours in low tones, interrupted by an occasional burst of laughter—and—yes—a sound of kisses!
At Dijon, this shameless pair descended, in the early dawn, and partook of coffee and rolls, and all through the delicious May morning, they talked, and looked boldly into one another’s eyes. Miss Kiddle wondered what the grim stepmother would say? Would she hold Mrs. Wayne and herself responsible for this?
Stung by the fear, she leant across to her compatriot and addressed her behind a newspaper.
“Did you ever see—such—such—er—flightiness? The man is a stranger. Do you think—we should speak to her will you?”
“Not I,” rejoined Mrs. Wayne with scornful emphasis, “it’s no business of ours.”
“But she is so young, and so pretty,—and so foolish!” pleaded Miss Kiddle.
Mrs. Wayne nodded assent, and terminated the conversation by closing her eyes, and leaning back in her place. Miss Kiddle, however, could not shut hers. This pair of mutually engrossed, good-looking young people, possessed an extraordinary, an irresistible fascination, for her—a poor, little dried-up provincial,—who had never been out in the world, and knew nothing of what is called Life!
She stared and stared, and tried to catch the girl’s eye; it was no use! She had no eyes, or thoughts for any but the young man,—who was at the moment tenderly holding her hand.
At last came the outskirts of Paris, and an eager, animated discussion,—here they were, in the Gare de Lyons. The French girl, being nearest to the door, rose at once, her companion seized a little portmanteau from the rack, and took charge of her basket. She looked amazingly spruce and fresh, as she settled her hat, and shook out her skirts; then turning to her fellow-travellers, said with complete sangfroid,
“Adieu, Mesdames. Bon voyage!”
Later on, as Miss Kiddle and Mrs. Wayne were collecting their luggage, they saw the couple, still laughing and chattering together, scramble hastily into a cab and drive away! They were also aware of the presence of a thick-set elderly woman, with a grey moustache, who was pacing up and down the platform, scanning the new arrivals—in quest of someone who apparently was not to be found! Here was undoubtedly the bonne of Grand’mère, who lived in the Rue du Bon Accord! For some time, Miss Kiddle could not find words to express herself. At last she burst out,
“Well, I never!”
“I don’t suppose you ever did!” coolly assented Mrs. Wayne, “now come along, and leave this hand luggage at the bureau, and have a good breakfast, and a wash—we’ll just have time to go to the Bon Marché, and do some shopping, before the boat train.”
The traveller arrived at Parcote by an earlier train than she had named, and joggled up to Rossleigh in the musty station fly. To her amazement, she found her cousin at the door, standing by a motor-car! What had happened? Frances looked years younger, and almost handsome, so well-dressed too, wearing a becoming hat and earrings! However she welcomed her guest with her usual warmth, and announced that she had just been out motoring, and had intended running down to the station to fetch her.
“Motoring!” echoed Marcia, “I thought you abhorred motors!”
“I did once, but I have exercised my woman’s privilege, and changed my mind. Rufus has just bought this beauty and I live in it! We have been for miles and miles. There is no doubt that motoring is the most exhilarating exercise in the world—it gives one an additional pleasure in life! I am determined to sell the carriages, and pension the horses.”
“And buy a motor?” questioned Marcia, as she watched the great big green car glide silently away.
“Perhaps,” and she smiled mysteriously, then leaning on her cousin’s arm, she led her into the hall, saying, “Dear old Marcia, how well you look! I hope you have done heaps of work out there in the sun.”
“Not very much,” she responded, “I have been idling and basking, and giving my poor brain a nice, long rest.”
“Yes, yes,” assented her cousin, “I know it takes ages to pull round after the flu—you have your own room, and I need not tell you to make yourself at home, need I? I must just go and say something to Rufus—he went to get a paper in the library. They will take all your things up to you directly, and as soon as you are ready, we will have tea.”
Dinner was an agreeable little meal for three; Burry was beaming, Frances seemed in extraordinarily high spirits, and Marcia had a conviction that the air of Rossleigh was charged with some unusual element! As she went up to bed, Frances followed her into her room, and as she seated herself by the fire, for it was a chilly May evening—she turned her face away, and said with an evident effort,
“I thought I would come in here, and have a talk—the night is still young—and I have so much to say to you.”
“Good news I am sure,” said her guest, advancing towards her.
“Splendid—the best. Oh Marcia, come and kiss me,” and she raised a radiant face and smiled into her eyes. “You are looking at the happiest woman in the three kingdoms.”
Marcia stooped down, and kissed her on her forehead, then she drew herself up, and leaning her elbow on the chimney-piece, awaited further information with tingling nerves.
The information proved to be sensational.
“Rufus has asked me to be his wife,” announced her cousin.
Could Marcia believe her ears? Her startled astonishment was evident.
“Yes,” continued Frances, “isn’t it surprising? And oh, I feel so supremely blessed—so absolutely contented that I cannot settle to anything—the only thing I care to do is to fly about the country all day with him, in his motor.”
“I hope you will both be very happy,” murmured Marcia, in a dull voice: for as she stood there, she realised that the news had dealt her a double blow. The post of secretaryship, and the position of Mrs. Lacy, had been torn from her grasp, as it were, in the same moment.
“Yes, dear, I believe we shall,” assented the bride-elect, and reaching up, she seized and squeezed her cousin’s hand, “you see I have always been fond of Rufus, ever since I have been in pinafores, I don’t mind confessing this now.”
“I know you’ve always liked him,” said Marcia, with averted eyes, speaking in a muffled voice.
“Yes, it began when we were children, when his nurse brought him over to spend the day here. I remember him so well—a pretty boy in a white tunic, with long golden curls, and I was an ugly little black-headed imp, and took the lead, and planned the games, and beat off dogs, or wasps, or anything that frightened him. He was rather spoiled; delicate, and easily made to cry, whilst I was an adventurous tomboy!—you see, I was brought up by a man, and Rufus by two women,—which accounted for our peculiar characters. When father and I went from home, and travelled from post to pillar, I wrote to Rufus, and always looked forward to our meeting; and though we often quarrelled desperately, somehow we got on,—I suppose, because we were so completely different. When Rufus was his own master,—that is to say, when Lady Arabella died,—he wandered about the world, occasionally returning to Court Lacy; latterly, he was there a great deal, and I believe chiefly on my account. Then came the accident—he was out that day, though not near me,—for Rufus was never a thruster, and stuck to the roads and gates. However, he was quickly on the spot, and helped to carry me home, but as soon as I was conscious of my shattered state, I realised that Love had turned his back upon me for ever! I was no longer the graceful cousin with a plain face, a ready tongue, and a wonderful seat on horse-back, but just ‘poor Frances,’ a cripple for life. The book helped me over that bad time, and now all of a sudden, Love has returned! I saw him coming in the distance, slowly, slowly, slowly, yet ever approaching, and two weeks ago, after Rufus had dined here, and when we were alone in the library, he took my hand, and asked me to be his wife.”
“Yes, yes dear, I am so glad,” said Marcia, who found speech difficult.
“He vows that he has always cared for me, that I have been a part of his life as long as he can remember anything; but he believed I was given up to other things than marriage; philanthropy, politics, literature; yet when you come to think of it, we really have much in common; so many memories, so many friends. Of course he is not brilliant, but I consider him a cultured man; his opinion on ancient ceramic ware is much valued, he is very domesticated, and fond of home; since his mother’s death ten years ago, he has led a poor sort of empty, unsatisfactory life, poking into old curiosity shops, giving little tea-parties in his London rooms, and hanging round celebrities—this is his particular weakness! Now he will anchor here, and be Benlock of Rossleigh; he shall bring over all his beloved blue china, and will own the Nankin jars, and those great bowls in the drawing-room, which he has always so passionately envied! We will lay out a new croquet ground, and I will place the reins in his hands. As for that gloomy old Court, there will be no difficulty in letting it, as it is right in the middle of the best hunting; a splendid situation, quite wasted on Rufus.”
“And when is the wedding to be?” enquired her cousin sharply.
“The end of June—in six weeks’ time. Rufus wished it to take place immediately; he declares there is nothing to wait for, but nothing would induce me to be married in May. The announcement was sent to the ‘Morning Post’ ten days ago. I didn’t write and tell you, dear, because I thought you would rather hear the news from my own lips. We intend to have a quiet wedding at the Parish Church, give all our people a great feast, and then go off to Switzerland. Till then you must remain here, and help me, and play the part of a near relation.”
“Of course, I will stay with pleasure,” said Marcia, who had entirely recovered her self-possession, “and do what I can, and take all the tiresome visitors off your hands, leaving you free to motor about with Rufus.”
After a moment’s pause, she asked, “And what about the book?”
“The book is finished,” replied Frances, clapping her hands, “I have written the very last word. I was, as you know, so full of it; but this has driven it completely out of my head, which as you see is a poor affair, and can’t contain two big things at the same time. I have packed away the story—by-the-bye, I cannot fix on a name as yet,—--and thrust it out of my mind for the present.”
“And have you told Rufus of the novel?”
“No, not yet. Of course he knows that I write little articles; but he is one of those people that don’t believe in success until they see it actually walking about, all smiles and decorations, so no one has shared my secret but yourself.”
As she concluded, she leant back in her chair, and clasping her hands behind her head, surveyed her cousin triumphantly.
“I tell you Marcia, it is good! I have no qualms about it now. I have read it aloud to myself, and some parts of it over and over again, and they ring true—my very heart’s blood, my soul, is in that book. It will be a success—I know it. Think of me, lucky me! with happiness on one hand, and fame on the other—oh, after all my years of suffering, misery, and loneliness, the compensation seems too much! Now and then I have terrible sensations, and fear that something will happen—that the Fates will overtake me yet with their big shears.”
“Dearest Frances, what could happen?” protested Marcia, “I am sure you deserve all that has come to you—and more.”
“I am afraid you will say that I am almost idiotic, when I tell you that I believe my share of good fortune is almost too large; for when I think of Rufus, I forget the book, and when I think of the book, I forget Rufus. My gift of the pen has not come from the Benlocks. I have my father’s clear intellect, and dogged persistence, but my inspiration is from my ugly little mother, a Swayne. Her people resembled gnomes, but were supernaturally clever and original; they were said to be endowed with a seventh sense—and all the fire and restlessness of my imagination is inherited from them.”
As Frances spoke she looked full at her cousin, and a queer light seemed to burn behind her eyes.
“Well, I have put the book aside, as I have told you; but when we return in September, I will see about the second string to my bow, and who knows but I may be famous by Christmas!”
“Who knows?” repeated Marcia smoothly.
“Well, here am I, talking, talking, talking, all about myself—most abominably selfish, and egotistical. Now tell me your news, dear—how have you got on with your novel?”
“Rather badly, to confess the truth. You know, it takes a long time to get over the flu.”
“Yes, and I believe the writing fit is a fitful thing—it comes and goes; but I expect you will soon be so overflowing with ideas, that your pen will not be able to keep pace with them. I have something else to tell you. It’s about my lameness. They always said that my hip was badly set, and that if I would undergo an operation, some day I may walk as well as ever. It will be rather a serious and lengthy business; but I shall face it, because of Rufus. I really can’t let him have a limping wife, and I am going up to town on Tuesday with my maid, to interview a specialist, and to do a certain amount of shopping. Burry is useless in London, she loses her way, her parcels, and her head. I shall be away till Saturday, and must leave you and Burry tête-à-tête to take care of one another.”
“But wouldn’t an operation be a terrible risk?”
“I am not sure. I shall know more about it after next week, but if it is practicable, I shall decide to have it done within the next six months. I would undergo it now, so as to spare Rufus a lame bride, but he will not hear of any delay or postponement. He has one superstition, which is that a put-off thing never comes off! Now there is the clock striking twelve,” she said, struggling to her feet, “and I must go to bed. Kiss me, Marcia, as if you were my sister—you are my nearest relation.”
And Marcia kissed her with simulated warmth.
“Thank you, my dear, kind, affectionate kinswoman,” murmured deluded Frances, “for all your sympathy and good wishes,” and nodding her head, she hobbled away.
As soon as the door had closed, Marcia locked it, and began to walk about the room. Fierce envy gnawed at her heart, as she asked herself angrily, “Where did she come in?” This luxurious home, in which she had intended to live as companion and secretary, was now closed to her. Rufus,—--she had contemplated as a last resource, was about to be married, and she was face to face with a squalid life in lodgings; and extremely disagreeable poverty.
She walked over to the glass, and stared at herself fixedly, a common habit; it was as if she was consulting another person. “Is that face worth nothing?” she demanded of her reflection, and the inward reply was, “Nothing.” It was hard, fierce, imperious; not a face to attract, but to alarm! Then Marcia went and opened her window, and looked out upon the lovely starlit May night, and listened to the corncrakes, in distant dew-laden meadows.
And so she was to have nothing! clamoured her rebellious thoughts, whilst her ugly, lame cousin had Love, her heart’s desire, wealth, influence, and fame! She sat there for a long time immovable as a statue, and when the stable clock struck one, drew back shivering; imbued with the bitter conviction that she not only envied, but hated, Frances!
When Rufus arrived the next morning to carry off his fiancée in his motor, he encountered Marcia in the hall, who held out her hand, and gazed into his eyes with melancholy significance, as she murmured,
“I have waylaid you, dear Rufus, to tell you that Frances has taken me into her confidence. I do hope you will be immensely happy,—as happy as you de serve.”
Her sad expression haunted him throughout the whole of the afternoon. Had Marcia really loved him. all the time? She, who had so often snubbed or ignored him? (No, she had never loved him, she was merely enacting the part of dog in the manger.) Now that Lacy Court, and its income, were beyond her reach, they had suddenly become peculiarly attractive. Two thousand a year, and a nice old place,—versus thirty pounds per annum. Oh, she had been an idiot! Even if the man was a poor dull stick, and she detested his voice, his walk, the perfume he put on his beard; he represented a home, a refuge for the destitute, which she had rashly flouted! During her absence at Bordighera, Frances had undoubtedly regained her old influence; she was remarkably clever, and blessed with that indefinable quality known as “charm.” If Rufus were to guess at the existence of her novel, the success it was certain to achieve, and that the name of Frances Benlock would be wafted all over the globe, he would undoubtedly fall prostrate before her, enchanted to be the husband of a world-wide celebrity.
To-day the motor drive was prolonged, and Frances returned rather tried and fagged; the dinner-party was composed of Rufus and Mr. Hermon,—five in all. On this occasion, Marcia took extraordinary pains with her toilette. She wore a beautiful picture gown, of soft, yellow silk damask, which set off her figure to admiration, her neck and arms, her graceful contours, and her exquisite bust. She proved unusually animated and talkative, the result of eau-de-Cologne on two lumps of sugar, also champagne, and was, for her, exceptionally brilliant and lively; she related the story of Jacquette, with considerable point and detail, and gave a resumé of one or two amusing tales, picked up at the pension dinners. Yes, she really was superb, and offered a striking contrast to poor Frances, who had talked hard all day, and had a racking headache. Her face looked worn and lined, and she wore a peculiarly unbecoming dingy green tea-gown.
Rufus glanced at both stealthily! he compared the cousins, much to the disadvantage of his fiancée. Naturally a weak man with no mental backbone, already the weather-cock of his affections, he was veering towards Marcia Wayne. How beautiful she was! what eyes! what grace! His mind recurred to London, where he beheld her, in his opinion, shining like a sun in the midst of her satellites. So different to poor Frances, with her peculiar ideas and old-fashioned costumes.
By some mysterious means, Marcia had contrived to convey to Rufus the fact that she was desperately unhappy, and she avoided him so pointedly that his natural vanity was agreeably inflated. Before Frances and her maid had departed to London, she had implored Rufus to come over, and take Marcia in her place in the car, declaring that “the poor thing had not entirely recovered from her illness, and still felt greatly depressed, and there was nothing so good for raising the spirits as flying through the air in a silent easy motor.” To this request her fiancé readily assented; secretly wondering whether the cause of the lady’s depression was to be credited to influenza, or a wounded heart? Alas! These rides raised in his breast various little devils, inimical to generous, single-minded Frances.
The day after Mr. Lacy had put his cousin in the train, and seen her off to London, he invited her substitute for a long excursion. She was silent, and suffered him to do most of the talking, though she praised dear Frances in glowing terms, adding, “that it was madness to suppose for a moment that her lameness could ever be cured, and it was such a pity to buoy herself up with false hopes.”
“And some years ago, she had such a swinging buoyant walk,” declared Rufus, “her grace and her figure were her strong point.”
In answer to this, Marcia merely heaved a profoundly commiserating sigh.
“And how is the book?” he enquired suddenly.
“Oh, it’s coming on slowly but surely,” she lied, “when it appears, it will be one of, if not quite, my best.”
“That is a good hearing!” he exclaimed.
“It will be my last book,” she added unexpectedly.
“What?” he interrogated.
“My Swan Song—yes.”
“Well, dear friend, to you only, will I impart this. I am terribly tired of working, working, working. Just think of it, I have written eighteen books!”
“Ah, but you like it!—you enjoy it enormously,” he urged insistently.
“I did once; but I am not strong, and I really can’t go on. You have no idea how much a book takes out of one! Have you ever tried to write even a few pages of original composition.”
“I? Never! I couldn’t write a line to save my life.”
“Then I want to save my life, and so I am giving up the pen. The price for novels is not what it was. To succeed is becoming daily more difficult—life is fierce, and another woman is welcome to step into my shoes.”
“Oh, no! how could she?” he protested in a shocked voice, “and you, Marcia, what are your plans? Will you still continue to live in town, and move in the literary world?”
“Ah, I only wish it were possible! but I am afraid I cannot afford it. I have had a great deal of expense—in our profession, one is bound to help others,—and I am quite a poor woman.”
Having allowed this fact to sink into his mind, she continued,
“I think I shall take a post as secretary. I had hope, that Frances could fit me in somewhere, and that I might make myself useful to her, but,” and she gave a queer little laugh as she glanced at him, “she has accepted you, and I shall be left out in the cold!”
“But why should you be?” he demanded, “there is lots of room for us all at Rossleigh.”
“No, no,” hastily turning away her face; then she added in a broken voice, “I—I—I couldn’t—that would be too much,” and she left the agreeable impression on her companion’s mind, that to see him the husband of another, was a feat beyond her strength! “Now do let us talk of something else,” she added after a pause, “you know all my plans—and please consider them strictly confidential.”
The couple halted at a country inn about twenty-five miles from Rossleigh; here they had tea, and afterwards poked about a funny old curiosity shop, where the handsome dark-eyed lady, who selected several nice old (?) prints, was mistaken for the gentleman’s wife, and not long married. Rufus was by no means displeased at this mistake, Marcia Wayne was a woman to be proud of; if he had only dreamt that she cared for him seriously! but she was always so cold and irresponsive—or was it, so SHY?
That evening he dined at Rossleigh, he always kept a suit of dress clothes there—and after dinner, while Burry nodded over her knitting, he and Marcia strayed into the little drawing-room, where she sang to him in a deep emotional contralto. She sang “For ever and for ever,” with such heart rending pathos that her listener was visibly moved; as she concluded, she rose, closed the piano, left the room abruptly, and did not reappear that night. This was a master-stroke!
The following morning Mr. Lacy motored over, and invited Marcia and Miss Burry to lunch at the Court, an invitation which was promptly accepted. At lunch, Mrs. Wayne noted the excellent cooking, the beautiful old Sheffield plate, and the Crown Derby dinner service. When the meal had concluded with coffee, Miss Burry set out to visit a pensioner, who lived at the Gate Lodge, and Rufus volunteered to conduct Marcia over the house. She was agreeably surprised, as walking from room to room, she recognised the fine Chippendale and Heppelthwaite furniture, the really valuable pictures,—some by Hoppner and Sir Joshua Reynolds,—the celebrated blue china, the crowded cabinets, and polished oak floors. With a little paint, new wall-paper, and chintz, the house would be quite presentable,—and really with a car, and people to stay,—there would be worse places than Lacy Court!
It was a lovely May afternoon, as the pair wandered round the old-fashioned walled garden, with fine fruit-trees and wide herbaceous borders. From the garden they passed to the pleasure grounds, now ablaze with rhododendrons and lilac. As Marcia stood looking back at the house, she exclaimed,
“Oh, it is a sweet old place! and although I have nothing to do with it, and never will have anything to do with it, I feel strangely drawn towards it, as if I had lived here in a former existence.”
“As to a former life,” scoffed Rufus, “of course that is all bosh! but you know very well, you could have lived in the old house, in this present life, and been the mistress of Lacy Court, had you so pleased—don’t you, Marcia?”
Marcia cast down her eyes, and made no reply, beyond a sigh.
“Marcia, did you hear what I said?” he demanded impatiently.
“Yes,” she answered at last, “I believe you have always cared for me,” her voice trembled with emotion as she added, “and I have wrecked my own happiness—it is too late now.”
For a moment chivalry and passion fought in her companion’s slow mind—and chivalry fell.
“Never too late!” he cried, seizing her by the wrist, “never too late to save two people from making a terrible mistake. Frances and I have only been engaged three weeks—she never dreamt of marriage until I put it into her head. She is a dear, generous, noble woman, and when she knows what we are to one another,—she will release me at once.”
“Ye—e—s,” assented Marcia, but her tone was unconvincing and dubious.
“And you, Marcia,” and he now took both her hands, and looked into her face. As Marcia’s answer was a tender smile, he drew her closer to him, threw his arms round her, and kissed her rapturously. His housekeeper and a maid, who were standing at an upper window, overlooking the pleasure ground, were interested witnesses of this romantic scene. -Later, as the happy pair strolled back to the house, Marcia said, suddenly,
“I will go away to-morrow, Rufus, I must furbish up some excuse, and return to London. Somehow I really couldn’t remain under Frances’s roof, it would seem too—too—treacherous.”
“Treacherous, no! It’s the sincere truth—the real thing, and you know how Frances worships honesty! She would be miserable if she thought that she had come between us. If I had only dreamt that you were fond of me, Marcia!—but I had given up all hope, and life at Court Lacy is so lonely.”
“Well, I will go to-morrow to Benson’s Hotel—you will find me there, after you have seen Frances, and explained things.”
“I don’t think I’ll write to her,” he answered meditatively, “I hate explaining things; though I know that she is so broad-minded, she will see eye to eye with me in this affair. The worst of it is, the settlements are in hand, and our engagement has been publicly announced. But what are these trifles, in comparison to a lifelong mistake? After everything is arranged, you and I will walk into some empty London church, be married, and go abroad until the talk blows over.”
“Oh, I really couldn’t do that,” protested Marcia, “we must wait a reasonable time; for although Frances has a strong character, and splendid courage, this breaking off of the engagement will be a blow to her.”
For a moment Frances’s happy face rose before her, and she felt a remorseful stab; then she raised her eyes, and again looked at the beautiful old Jacobean house, yes—it should be her home—cost what it might; and like Pharaoh, King of Egypt, she hardened her heart—no, she would not let Rufus Lacy go.
“You will write to me every day?” she urged pleadingly.
“Need you ask? Here comes Burry, and we can have no more talk—but, Marcia, you may rely on me—you know that all my heart is yours.”
“Your harp!” exclaimed Miss Burry in a brisk voice, overhearing the end of the sentence, “I didn’t know you possessed one—it was your mother’s, I suppose? What a pity it has gone out—--such a graceful instrument for showing off a good figure, and shapely arms. You are coming back to dinner with us, are you not, Mr. Lacy?”
“No, thank you,” he replied, “for when I have left you at home, I have important letters to write, that must go by the night’s post.”
That same evening Burry was aghast to hear that Marcia had received a telegram, containing an urgent summons to London. She was obliged to leave by the early morning train—and was most dreadfully sorry to miss dearest Frances—but she had no alternative—go she must! Immediately after dinner, she withdrew to her own apartment, and spent the remainder of the evening packing her boxes. On this occasion—oh, ominous sign! she removed every one of her possessions.
“I am behaving shamefully, disgracefully, and cruelly,” she said to herself, as she folded and put away her gowns, “but self-preservation is the first law of Nature! and as I cannot write, and to beg I am ashamed, nothing remains for me but stupid Rufus Lacy. Frances will have her book, which will be a glory to her as long as she lives. I expect for all her enthusiasm, she would have grown tired of Rufus in less than six months, sitting opposite to him at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and listening to his silly inanities would soon pall on such a clever woman. I shall take good care that he and I are never alone. If we were, I feel confident that I should be found hanging from one of those enormous hooks that I noticed in the laundry.” Frances returned home two days later, beaming and successful; an operation was possible, but must be postponed till autumn. The happy bride-elect had interviewed her lawyers, and jewellers, left the family diamonds to be reset, the family lace to be mended, and returned laden heavily with cardboard boxes and brown-paper parcels—and in fact had achieved an enormous amount of shopping in five days. Frances was greatly astonished to hear of Marcia’s abrupt departure and joked about it to Burry, saying,
“I am afraid there is but one interpretation to be placed upon her flight; it is evident that you and Rufus must have bored her to death.”
In a little old-fashioned hotel in Mayfair, Mrs. Wayne established herself and her belongings, and there awaited developments: but post after post brought no news of importance, merely letters of lamentation from Frances, deploring her absence, and an occasional hurried scrawl from Rufus to announce that “things were going on quietly.”
“I have not yet broken it to Frances,” wrote this craven lover, “but am letting it come to dawn on her by degrees I believe in her heart she begins to understand.”
“He is a coward—a coward!” muttered Marcia, crumpling one of these letters into a ball, “he cannot screw up his courage, he is afraid to tell her the truth, and I have not the slightest doubt that he is motoring her about as usual, and that they are both discussing where he will put his blue china when he brings it to Rossleigh: meanwhile I have to wait, and wait, and live on the sale of my ermine furs.”
During this period of protracted expectation, Mrs. Wayne received several visits from Nellie Meadows, whose ship had at last entered port. It is not always agreeable to learn of the good fortune of others, especially when one’s own prospects look gloomy and hopeless, and in a cool inquisitorial attitude, Marcia learnt how Nellie’s novel was not only accepted, but actually in the Press; that an old lover of her mother’s had died recently, and left her the undisputed enjoyment of £500 a year: more than this, she had made several kind and helpful friends in the literary world: and Mr. Hawkshaw’s political articles had roused such enthusiasm in his uncle’s breast, that he had tendered the olive branch and a full pardon.
Marcia, who was lost in secret anxieties, lent but an indifferent ear to all this good news; but when she did rouse herself, her questions were so sharp and disconcerting, that Nellie Meadows began to wonder if Mrs. Wayne was really so much attached to her after all? at any rate the happy and radiant Nellie quitted the little hotel with lagging footstep and a downcast air;—a considerable amount of gilt had been removed from her gingerbread!
Two weeks elapsed—it was the middle of June, and the London season was at its height. Marcia’s funds were running short—alarmingly short: if Rufus failed her—what then? Apparently he was now entirely under the influence of Frances’s affection, domination, and fascinating manners. Three weeks—and nothing but scrappy notes: and she would soon be penniless! At last, being desperate, she wired to him to come to London at once; the telegram had been cleverly concocted, so as to inflame curiosity, and lure the waverer to his fate. His crafty lady-love had laid her plans with care—her sitting-room was decorated with choice flowers, she wore her most becoming gown, an appetising little dinner was in preparation, and the champagne in ice.
Guilty Rufus had felt somewhat doubtful as to his reception—--which however proved to be a rapturous surprise. He really appeared to be rather ashamed of himself; this weak-minded man, who vacillated between two women—the woman who had loved him all her life: and the woman who did not love him at all—but who was utterly reckless, and fully determined to marry him.
From his manner Marcia could see that he was nervous and uneasy. She saw further, she saw into his mind, and that he had decided to throw her over; yes, but he should not get the chance; his fate was unalterably fixed. She soothed his fears by not referring to Rossleigh; she was bright and vivacious, and told him all the news of the day, as picked up from the Press, for at the present crisis she had not shown herself among her haunts, not once had she ventured to the club, but spent most of her afternoons sitting at home weaving plans, and reading novels.
The little dinner was excellent, the champagne was of ’94 brand, followed by Turkish coffee, cigarettes, and some wonderful old brandy. Soon Rufus began to feel the influence of this ministration, and Marcia’s seductive airs and practised eyes re-kindled slumbering fires. She laid herself out to be irresistible; she flattered deliciously, and when the servant had retired and they were alone, left her seat, and placing her arm round his neck, so that he could feel her soft skin, and inhale the perfume of her hair, she said,
“Rufus, my dearest, to-night you have come to the parting of the ways, and you have to make up your mind as to which it is to be—Marcia or Frances?”
“Why, it is Marcia of course—--and always!” he declared with impassioned vehemence.
“I am not so sure,” she replied, “I believe you are still undecided,” then she went slowly back to her place, and looking at him steadily, as she leant across the table, said, “I give you ten minutes to make your choice.”
Marcia was bluffing, as she was well aware. On the effect of her personal beauty, the ’94 champagne, and her appeal, hung her whole future.
“Isn’t this rather unexpected?” he stammered: then raising his eyes, and meeting those of the temptress, he hastily dropped them.
“I did not seek you, Rufus,” she urged, “you yourself suggested breaking off your engagement with Frances; you declared you had adored me always, now I begin to think that my first intuition was wise, when I hung back when you proposed to me this time last year, and I stifled my real feelings.”
“But I adore you, Marchie!” protested the distracted man, “but poor Frances she adores me; and is actually going to try and get her lameness cured, because she doesn’t want me to have a limping wife—it does seem beastly to chuck her!”
“Then don’t chuck her! as you express it—chuck me; you will admit, however, that it wasn’t playing the game to pour out your adoration and lamentation, and betray me a poor silly wretch—into confessing that I cared for you—I wish now that I had bitten out my tongue.”
As she spoke, Marcia raised her head, and glanced at the clock; when she faced her visitor her eyes flamed, and the pink in her cheeks was natural.
“Well?” she demanded, “you have exactly five minutes. If at the end of that time, you decide for Frances, you leave this room, and as long as I live, you will never see me again.”
“Oh my God, Marcia! Why, of course it’s you!” he groaned, “I am a weak, silly ass: I have hesitated too long, for I felt a tremendous pity for poor old Frances,—living in such a fool’s paradise.”
“Pity!” she echoed with passion, “why should you pity her? She has a beautiful home, riches, an assured position, and is not a bit worse off than she was six weeks ago is she? whilst I,” and she leant forward suddenly and covered her face with her hands.
“Marchie darling!” he exclaimed, springing up, “don’t—I cannot stand it. Forgive me: I have never, never wavered; but I wanted to let poor Frances down by degrees.”
“Yes, and I expect you are with her every day, and all day long,” returned Marcia, raising her face.
“Never mind if I was! you have no occasion to be jealous, and now I will not be with her for many and many a day I shall write to her to-night.”
He paused, and then added, “But if I do this, you must promise to marry me next week.”
“Impossible, Rufus—think of the horrible things they would say of us.”
“Hard words break no bones,” he answered boldly, “and one big talk will do for all! When it is given out that the engagement is broken off, there will be lots of gossip; and if we marry later on, the whole thing will be gone over again. We will get married this day week, and run over to Paris, and on to the Tyrol—what do you say?”
There was undoubtedly sense in Rufus’s proposition, and in the old adage, “As well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb,” and Marcia nodded assent, then, as the result of this brief drama, she rose and went to a side-table, from which she brought a blotter and inkstand, and placed them before him with unmistakable significance.
“Write now,” she commanded, “I know it’s horrible; almost like a surgical operation, but get it over,” and she stooped and kissed his hair. “Date it from your club, dearest.”
“All right,” he muttered, drawing a sheet of paper towards him, whilst she walked away, and stood gazing into the mirror over the chimney-piece watching him narrowly.
How thin his hair was getting on the top! and what awful faces he was making! Poor Frances, it would be a terrible shock, but after all, she had her book, she had Rossleigh, and a large fortune.
“Here, will this do?” he asked presently, as he tendered a sheet of paper.
The letter began:—
“I fear I am about to give you great pain, and implore you to forgive me, but it is best to be honest and sincere before matters have gone too far. Dearest Frances, I find that I cannot marry you. The attachment I feel for you is deep and sincere, but it is the love of a brother and a friend, and not worthy of Frances Benlock—nor am I worthy of her. Years ago, I gave my heart to Marcia Wayne, but believed that my love was hopeless, she was so cold, so aloof, so undemonstrative. Too late, I have discovered that she fully returns my affection,—and yet not too late—for I know your noble, generous nature, and that you will wish me to give my heart, and my life, to the woman I have worshipped for years. It causes me most agonising torture to write this letter, but it is better to tell you the truth now, and to save you from a marriage that would be a lie. Forgive me, my dearest Frances, best of cousins, and best of friends,
“Your always affectionate,
“Yes, that will do,” said Marcia, as she folded it up, and selected an envelope, “it’s a little long—and apologetic——”
“Well, I won’t write it again,” he interrupted brusquely, “no, not even for you, Marcia! I felt all the time as if I were signing a death warrant. I only wish you loved me as she does; but you don’t, I know! however, I love you, and there is always someone who kisses, and someone who offers the cheek. I kiss you, so to speak, and Frances kisses me.”
By this time, the letter was ready for its address, the envelope was stamped, and Marcia stood over Rufus, as he wrote in his clear effeminate hand, “To Miss Benlock, Rossleigh Hall, Parcote.”
What joy or grief a little penny stamp can carry!
“It will be time enough to put a notice in the ‘Morning Post’ when you receive her answer” said Marcia, as she lit a cigarette.
“The ‘Morning Post,’” he stammered.
“Why, of course—a line to say that the marriage arranged between Rufus Lacy, of Court Lacy, and Miss Benlock of Rossleigh Hall, will not take place.”
“What talk! what talk! what talk!” he exclaimed, nervously twisting his beard in his hand, “and all because of you, Marcia. Now remember that the wedding will be this day week!”
“Yes, I will remember,” she answered—“of course it’s all very disgraceful, and we shall be in everyone’s black books, but I agree with you—one big scandal—and get it over.”
“Oh, Frances will receive us, and rehabilitate us when we come back from our honeymoon,” he answered, with sublime confidence.
“I am not so sure,” replied Marcia, “her friends will be furious. Well, I shall have a terrible scramble to be ready by to-morrow week, and you must go down by the early morning train, to set your house in order, and make arrangements.”
“I suppose so,” he assented, “but I need scarcely tell you that I sha’n’t go near Rossleigh, nor even Parcote,—I shall get out at another station.”
“You silly Rufus,” and she patted his hand, “you are not a frightened little boy—are you? but your own master, a man of position and property——”
“Who is about to marry the handsomest woman in all London—eh?” and he slipped his arm round her.
“Now you really must go, dear—we are early people!” As she spoke, she threw the stump of her cigarette into the fireplace, and submitted to his kisses. This was the price she had to pay!—and how she loathed a beard—a beard with the flavour of Windsor soap! After her guest had been solicitously hatted, coated, and escorted into the hall, Marcia put on a cloak, tucked up her tea-gown, ran to the nearest pillar-box, and popped in the letter. Presently she returned breathless, threw off her wrap, and standing in the middle of her sitting-room, stretching her arms over her head, yawned with weariness, and relief—she had won! Her neat little trap had caught its sly little mouse; then she toiled up to her bedroom, and being completely worn out with the exertions and emotions of the day, slept the sleep of the weary and the just!
Late the next night Mrs. Wayne received a wire from Parcote, which said, “Frances seriously ill— nervous breakdown, Burry.” And a day later came this distracted letter, from the same sender, written with many blots and erasures.
“My Dear Mrs. Wayne,
“We are in such dreadful trouble here. Your cousin is desperately ill—mentally—and has for the present lost her reason. We cannot account for this awful visitation. Yesterday morning she took the post-bag and distributed its contents herself. (You know that she latterly breakfasts downstairs;) she carried her letters up to the Cabin as usual—at eleven o’clock I went to ask her a question, and found the door locked, she called out something, but did not open it. At lunch time I went again, and again I was refused admittance. Tea-time arrived, and I implored her through the keyhole to open the door, and let me bring her something to eat, but she took no notice—then I became alarmed, and sent for Mr. Hermon. We tried to induce her to admit us. No, although we knew she was within, for we could hear her walking about, and talking to herself. As a last resource, I summoned our doctor, and told him that Frances had been shut up without food for twelve hours, that she would not answer us, or open the door, so finally they burst it in, and we found your poor dear cousin, insane—and oh, so terribly changed even in that short time, you would scarcely recognise her! Her face drawn and wizened; her eyes two blanks, from which the light of reason had completely fled. A nurse was obtained, an opiate administered, and a London specialist summoned. The doctors suggest some severe mental shock, but there is no sign of any trouble—no letters, no telegrams. Two mental specialists have seen her this afternoon; they consider the case serious; and say that it is possible that she may never recover her normal condition—you may imagine our grief and horror! I have known Frances for twenty years, and have always considered her so clear in her mind! she was certainly animated and excitable, but if that is a sign of lunacy, nearly every third human being must be mad,—and all the Celtic races. Of course, as a woman of fortune, Frances will have every chance. She is to be immediately removed from these surroundings, and taken to some warm, sunny climate—the specialists recommend a well-known retreat at Versailles, where Frances will have her own apartments, attendance, and carriage. Poor Frances sits in a kind of black dream, and refuses to eat; her speech is mumbling and incoherent; but she has mentioned you and Mr. Lacy, as if you were at enmity with her. I understand that it is a fatal sign, when people turn against those they love best,—--and she certainly loved both you, and him. I will let you hear how things are to be settled, and if, when Frances has been taken from home, you could come down to Rossleigh for a few weeks, I would be grateful. Ultimately the house will be closed, except for a few servants, who will keep it aired, but meanwhile I think you and I, should go over all her belongings, and put them carefully away. Please God she recovers and returns to us.
“Yours in great distress,
This was indeed startling intelligence, and Marcia had scarcely finished the letter, when Rufus entered, in a condition of extraordinary nervous excitement, looking white, stricken, yes and scared! He announced that he could only remain a few minutes, as he was urgently wanted at Rossleigh.
“I have seen her,” he said, “it gave me a terrible shock; I can’t get her out of my head, she is like another creature—a haggard old woman—she did not recognise me. Tell me, Marcia,” suddenly lowering his voice, “do you suppose it was the letter that turned her brain?”
“No, no, no,” she answered confidently, “there was no sign of anything to disturb her, according to Burry,—besides, there was not time to receive it—it was posted so late,—you may remember.”
“Then I expect it is as they say, her mind dwelling on the operation, and other things: a mind, always inclined to be too active, has suddenly overbalanced. Well—Marcia, it is a release for me, of a most awful description. I cannot tell you how thankful I am that she never received that—er—disclosure.”
Marcia nodded gravely, and after she had administered a few honeyed words of consolation and condolence, he took his reluctant departure.
It seemed to Marcia as if recent events were solely ordered for her particular benefit. Frances’s sudden attack had taken place just in time to shield and conceal her treachery. Of course the engagement with Rufus must not be whispered for months, and she would go down to Rossleigh, and assist Burry to turn over the contents of drawers, and writing-cases, and lock away her poor cousin’s belongings. Instantly, there flashed into Marcia’s mind—the book—the great book! In one blow, Frances had been deprived of both happiness, and fame. The next bulletin that arrived, announced the case to be hopeless. It exhibited every known bad symptom, melancholy, silence, insomnia, and the patient was removed to Versailles, in the charge of a doctor and two nurses, and there the door of the world was closed upon her. The calamity had been so sudden, that Frances’s neighbours felt stunned; Miss Benlock was in church one Sunday, in perfect health, and by that day week, her place was empty, and she had been taken away to a foreign madhouse——was there not something more in the tale than met the public eye? Naturally there was a great deal of speculation, sympathy, and regret. What would become of Rossleigh? and of all the old people and pensioners maintained by Frances Benlock? Who would continue the good works in which she was so active, and subscribe to the institutions so largely helped by her generous purse—and then what of Mr. Lacy? Would he wear mourning? His position was almost identical with that of a widower.
Finally it was arranged that the servants were to remain at the Hall; old pensioners and animals were not to suffer, and the property would be managed by Mr. Warren. Mrs. Wayne reappeared at Parcote discreetly and soberly dressed, wearing a countenance to correspond. The carriage met her on this occasion, she almost felt as if it were her own! At least, she had the best right to its use, as a near relative of the unhappy creature who had been carried away in it a few days previously. She found Burry distressingly tearful; the servants looking grave, the very cats and dogs subdued, and although it was summer, the atmosphere of the place seemed hushed and silent: surely the birds were not singing as they used to do? and even the trees appeared drooping and dull.
The days following Marcia’s arrival, she was busily employed in assisting Burry to arrange and store away books, and china, and furs and jewels.
“I think, Mrs. Wayne, that you are the proper person to undertake France’s bureau and writing-table, and to examine her papers,” said Miss Burry. “Of course, if there is anything special to be attended to, you will see to it, and do exactly what you think best.”
So Marcia formally received the keys, ordered a fire in the Cabin, as it was a pouring wet day, and set about her appointed task. It was with a quickened pulse that she locked herself into the room in which her cousin had lost her reason; she felt strangely nervous—there seemed to be an unnatural chill in the air, and she was uncommonly glad of the good coal fire. First of all, she must look up the book: how fortunate that she understood the spring of the secret drawer.—Yes, there it lay precisely as she had last seen it, and on the top of it, the letter from Rufus! For a moment, she stared at this incredulously, so the unfortunate creature had secreted it; hidden it away from all the world, in company with her greatest treasure; and then no doubt sat brooding in misery, and alone. Here, Marcia recognised another piece of extraordinary good fortune;— supposing that letter had happened to fall into other hands than hers! She glanced over it; tore it in two, and then poked it carefully between the bars of the grate. Had that piece of brown curling paper that sailed up the chimney, a poor shrivelled thing, cost a woman her reason? The document addressed to herself, with “Not to be opened till after my death,” she also read, and destroyed. What was the use of it now? All Frances’s papers were carefully kept; her receipts docketed, her answered letters, subscriptions to charities, were each in their own niche. The rest were merely old family correspondence, which included Rufus’s notes, in roundhand, treasured since he was a child, with a withered bunch of violets, and his photograph as a lad; old programmes, and cards, advertising meets of the hounds, were tied up with ribbon in another drawer—altogether it was the pitiful little history of a woman’s life. There seemed something intrusive in such laying bare of a personality, and this examination of another’s hoarded possessions; it was like looking into her inmost mind, but Marcia carried out her task with unfaltering precision. All the treasures were sorted; business documents put aside, and here were the notes of the novel—quantities of notes! And what about the book itself? Everything had been finished, everything arranged, except the fate of the manuscript. Marcia lifted it out it was a heavy solid mass— and began to dip into it; but before she went far, she felt compelled to turn back to the first chapter. It was inscribed in a small hand, clear as print, and the subject proved enthralling.
Where had Frances got hold of these ideas? This knowledge, this power of vivid writing, this passion too? The dressing-bell rang, and found her still engrossed; she decided to carry it into her own room, and there read it at her leisure.
All through that night, Marcia figuratively devoured the book; it grew more absorbing with every chapter. Sitting propped up with pillows, she burnt candle after candle, and the dawn was peeping in at the top of the shutters and the birds were singing, when at last she laid it down. Then she scrambled out of bed, concealed it in a drawer under some clothes, and retired to her couch, to meditate.
No wonder Frances was proud of it! The novel had a force and originality rarely met with in the work of a woman; a fire too ran through it, hot vivid thoughts as from a furnace; if the book had taken three years to write, it well repaid the toil and time. There were no weak places, no blots, no feeble characters. The book had caught hold of her, and when Marcia fell asleep, it accompanied her in her dreams! The next day Rufus motored over at an early hour, and taking her aside, asked mysteriously,
“When you looked over her bureau, did you find my letter by any chance—the letter?”
And Marcia, lying boldly, and successfully, replied, “Oh no; but I found quantities of others—even half a dozen that you wrote to her in round-hand; all tied together with a piece of gold cord. There was also a silver dog whistle, and a glove of yours, and other odds and ends.”
“You can’t think what relief you have given me,” he exclaimed, “it has lifted a load off my mind to know that the breaking-off letter never reached her. At first, when I feared that it had come into her hands, do you know, Marcia,” and his blue eyes glared, “I felt as if I had murdered Frances!”
“Well, now, you may make your mind perfectly easy,” she answered with decision, then after a moment’s hesitation, she added, “Only think, what an awful thing it would have been if you had married her, and she had gone out of her mind afterwards!”
The book weighed heavily on Marcia’s conscience; she kept the knowledge of its existence a secret, and almost experienced the same sense of guilt, as if she were concealing the body of a dead infant. Naturally people would wonder what she was doing with a great stack of manuscript in Frances’s writing-room? If a servant entered suddenly, she bundled it away, and when Burry intruded unexpectedly, dropped it on the floor, spread her skirt over it, and was consequently glued to her place. The thing, the spirit of the novel, was continually tempting her to take it to her room, pack it among her belongings, carry it to London, and there publish it as her own!
It seemed as if the manuscript positively clamoured for life; and the more she read it, the stronger and fiercer became the invocation! “Here,” whispered a voice, “was fame, thrusting itself upon her; world-wide fame in her hands—hers in a sense legally. The unhappy author was lost to all knowledge of her book for ever and ever; if the novel was published under the name of Benlock, and made a stir and talk, the result would be an exposure of poor Frances, and to proclaim her condition to the whole world; when people clamoured to see or know the writer, the answer would be, “She is in a madhouse: the great work turned her brain, and she is insane for life.”
It was impossible to do this: it would seem like invading a death chamber, and would be too cruel! urged Marcia’s specious thoughts; it would also be too cruel, and little short of a crime, to withhold it from the world! After all, not a soul was aware of its existence——no one but herself: and oh, the whispering, the insistent temptation! it actually resembled a real presence, with an audible voice ever at her ear.
By gradual degrees, Marcia succumbed; first, she destroyed one by one, all the neat, closely-written notes; then she carefully turned out every drawer in the writing-table, and the old bureau, searched each nook and crevice, till not a trace of the laborious scaffolding of the work remained. After this, she rolled it up in paper, carried the manuscript to her own room, placed it at the bottom of her travelling trunk, and locked it away. In short, she took several deliberate steps on the downward path, and found, these both easy and enticing.
The Reverend Clement Hermon was constantly at the Hall—he came about charities, and parochial business—chiefly to consult with Miss Burry. One afternoon, Marcia was rather startled to hear that the Rector particularly wanted to see her. He looked, as she entered the drawing-room, rather changed and grey; there was no doubt that he had been attached to Frances, and that her terrible mental breakdown had been a grief to him; his sorrow was really sincere, though he did not incessantly proclaim it, like Rufus Lacy.
“I wished to see you, Mrs. Wayne,” he began, “because I know that you were in your cousin’s confidence, and that to you, being a literary woman, she would naturally confide her plans. I want you to tell me,if you are at liberty to do so,—if she has not written a book?”
Marcia felt the colour ebbing from her face. The question was a shock; but she rallied, with her accustomed success, and meeting his keen black eyes, replied.
“A book!” she repeated, “why, what an extraordinary idea!”
“Not so extraordinary, when you come to think of it, Mrs. Wayne. Miss Benlock had a bright, original mind, a sense of humour, a well-stored brain, and she had travelled extensively—and seen the world. I often thought what a consolation, and occupation, writing would be to her, something to carry her out of her self. Indeed, once or twice, I have said so. I urged it upon her, and assured her that she was well equipped as an author.”
“Really,” said Mrs. Wayne, with civil indifference.
“But she only laughed.”
“And there it ended?”
“That is what I am not so sure of,” he answered with a touch of impatience.
“Miss Benlock spent many hours alone: occasionally she asked me to look up facts in books that were inaccessible to her; to visit the reading-room of the British Museum, and sometimes she invested in expensive French works. She was particularly interested in the time of the great Napoleon.”
“Yes, and so am I,” announced Mrs. Wayne.
“And it has been borne in upon me,” he continued, ignoring the lady’s statement, “that our poor dear friend, who I hope and pray is only temporarily separated from us, worked in secret, for her own exclusive pleasure, at something fine, original, and brilliant; with care, and study and leisure, and,” rising from his seat, and pacing up and down with his hands behind his back, “that some trace of this book,—if not the book itself, may possibly be discovered among her papers! If by any chance it should happen to be complete—let it be given to the world! Have you come across anything in the nature of a manuscript, Mrs. Wayne? I know that to you has been allotted the painful task of examining and arranging her papers.”
“A manuscript written by Frances—a book—oh no!” she answered, meeting his full, searching gaze, with a glance of steel-hot pincers should not tear the truth from her lips.
“Ah!” he ejaculated, with a gesture of disappointment. “Well, I must confess that you surprise me; latterly, the last year or two, your cousin was so keen about Napoleon, his campaigns, his family, and surroundings: indeed, I have been amazed at her knowledge of the period; she has dropped a sentence here and there, which showed that she was imbued in the period to the tips of her fingers. As to the well-known Hundred days, she might have been relating her own experience. I cannot believe that this was a mere passing whim; you see it was generally the same subject, and the same epoch, that she discussed. Once or twice I chaffed her, and she looked distinctly conscious; but laughed, and turned it off, and assured me that I was not her Father Confessor. All the same, I have an inward and unshakable conviction, that Miss Benlock wrote.”
“Perhaps she did,” assented Marcia, “indeed I think it likely; but she was so critical, so very insistent upon the right word, the right attitude, and the right atmosphere, that I am positive her attempts, never came up to her own high standard—and that as fast as she completed anything she destroyed it—I often do so myself!”
“That is your opinion, Mrs. Wayne? My idea is that your cousin was a woman who, when once she put her hand to the plough, kept it there. She was never one to stop half-way. All her deeds, in spite of her lively, impulsive manner, were well thought out, solid, and thorough. Do you know that two nights ago I had a dream,” and he halted in his pacing, and suddenly confronted her.
“Oh, my dear Mr. Hermon!” she exclaimed, then burst into a contemptuous laugh. “Ah, you don’t believe in dreams, of course—naturally the occult side of life would not appeal to you. Now I can believe in things that I do not comprehend. Of course I don’t mean to say that every dream that comes to one is in the nature of a vision, or a warning—certainly not—perhaps once in a lifetime we are visited by the real thing—and you know, we have it in the Bible, ‘being warned of God in a dream.’”
He looked strangely excited, and carried out of himself, as he spoke.
“What was your dream?” enquired his listener with raised brows.
“I saw Miss Benlock as distinctly as I now see you. She was sitting in her writing-room, at the big bureau, wringing her hands, and appeared to be in the greatest distress. I seemed to hear her saying, ‘My book—my book—my book—oh, save my book!’”
“I see nothing remarkable in that,” rejoined Marcia, who was a really accomplished liar, “you have had an idea working in your mind, you believed that Frances was writing. She has naturally been much in your thoughts lately, as well as in ours. This book you enquire for is the work of your own imagination—it is merely the subconscious self, the result of mental suggestion. Where is your proof of its existence?”
“To tell the truth, I was hoping that you would assist me to find it, Mrs. Wayne; I suppose most of the papers have now passed through your hands? Have you searched everywhere?”
“Everywhere—that is to say, I was not seeking for any particular article, I was merely tidying, docketing, weeding out Frances’s writing-table and old bureau. Perhaps it would be some satisfaction to you to turn out the drawers yourself? The private letters and papers are all tabulated and put away, and most of the drawers are now empty. There is no mistake about the look of a manuscript, is there? but all the same, I think you might like to run through the bureau yourself,—if you will come up with me.”
“Well yes, I should, thank you,” he answered briskly, “and as I have a little time to spare, and if it is convenient to you—I would like to run up now.”
“Certainly,” said Marcia, rising, and she led the way up the shallow oak stairs, along an echoing corridor to the so-called Cabin.
“Everything here is just as she left it,” she explained, “and now I will open the bureau.”
Mr. Hermon searched eagerly and conscientiously—he even pulled out the drawers and looked behind them, but failed to discover one single scrap to justify his hopes. No, not even a note-book; merely a few letters and programmes, Christmas cards, old calendars, catalogues of book sales, and subscription lists,—for Marcia had effected a thorough clearance.
“Yes, I see there is nothing,” he admitted at last, “it was awfully good of you to allow me to search.”
“Oh not at all,” said Marcia, drawing herself up, “I only hope that your mind will now be quite at ease, and that you will have no more bad dreams—dreams, it is said, go by contraries!”
Mr. Hermon made no immediate reply. He was well aware that he need not expect sympathy from Mrs. Wayne, with her hard eyes and her hard heart. He and the lady had always been antagonistic, and now as she stood confronting him in a cool watching attitude, his feelings suddenly burst into active animosity. It appeared to him that her cousin’s affliction sat but lightly upon those shapely shoulders, and that she had the face of a woman who was capable of deliberate cruelty, that possibly, as Frances had said of their ancestress, she would not stop short of a crime. Something in his expression made Marcia feel slightly uneasy, but she said in an airy manner,
“I know you will excuse me accompanying you—going up and down stairs is trying to me, for I have what is known as a ‘heart.’ I will ring,” touching the bell, “but I am sure you can find your way out unaided.”
She then offered him a large, limp hand, and having accepted it, he immediately effected his departure.
As soon as the door had closed, Marcia went over and took a seat in the window of the Cabin—she was thinking hard, and her heart was thumping irregularly. These scenes, in which she had to be so carefully on her guard, and present a bold and determined front, when her mind was paralysed with terror, had a serious effect upon her only weak organ. Sometimes it palpitated so violently that she could not sleep.
“Well,” she said to herself, “that has been a narrow escape—the prying parson was just one day too late!”
It was but the previous morning that she had removed the manuscript and placed it in concealment. Somehow everything indicated that the book was fated to become her property; there was the fact of Frances’s silence on the subject; the fact that she was the only person in the world who had been informed of its existence; the fact, that something entirely outside herself had urged her to remove it from the bureau, in the very nick of time!
As she sat in the window, she watched a long-legged black figure walking slowly down the avenue. The head was bowed, and the attitude denoted dejection. Was he satisfied, or did he suspect her? There had been a hostile expression in his eyes that had given her a twinge of anxiety, yet after all, he was harmless, and perfectly welcome to his doubts, and his dreams. He had not now, and never would have, one tiny atom of proof. Meanwhile the room felt strangely chilly, although it was July. She particularly disliked this apartment, she even feared it! There was a sense of something which exercised a sinister influence; something uncanny, something hidden in the place. It had witnessed Frances’s toil, Frances’s happiness and Frances’s tragedy, and it seemed to Marcia that there was a curious dimness in its corners, and that the expression of her namesake painted by Gainsborough had become distinctly disagreeable, and even intimate! Of course this was all mere fancy, but a violent and unaccountable impulse compelled her to rise to her feet, and a sudden gust of fear drove her headlong from the room.
Ten minutes later, she was in her own apartment upon her knees before a trunk. Yes, there it was, the wonderful book, whose existence the long-headed parson had suspected! Undoubtedly, he was a serious loss to the people at Scotland Yard. Oh, how he would have enjoyed editing, writing a preface, publishing, and thus bringing himself into notice, on the wings of Frances’s great masterpiece. The book would never now be of the slightest use to the poor crazy author: but on the other hand might prove of almost boundless value to that author’s kinswoman, and there it lay! complete in four parts, four hundred pages of clearly-written manuscript, neatly bound in brown paper.
Marcia turned it over familiarly, as if it were her own property, dipped into it here, dipped into it there, read half a page, or a few striking sentences, and as she did so, her eyes glowed with satisfaction; then she hastily rolled it up in a pink silk petticoat, and thus disguised, placed it at the bottom of her trunk, and with the keys in her pocket, went down to tea.
Rufus Lacy had a kind heart, and appeared to feel his cousin’s affliction acutely. His distress was genuine: he really was sincerely attached to her, and all his life long had been accustomed to find Frances at Rossleigh; Frances with her quick sympathy and generous impulses, who took an interest in all his little plans, who listened so patiently to his monotonous monologues on the subject of blue china and blue blood. This Frances was gone, her place in the old library or dining-room was empty; he mooned about the gardens and the grounds alone, half expecting to see her limping towards him as he turned a corner. This silent and subdued Rufus was a stranger to Marcia, she had no idea as she mentally expressed it—“that he would take it like this.” He and Burry had been irresistibly drawn to one another, and of course, she was compelled to simulate her grief—so as not to be left out of the group.
To the outer world, Mrs. Wayne seemed even more grief-stricken than Miss Burry; she refused herself to callers, and was never seen outside the gates of the park, except on Sundays.
All Frances’s affairs had now been put in order. Mr. Warren undertook her business matters, Mr. Hermon her charities, Burry remained in charge of the house, and yet Marcia lingered on. The fact was that she had once more found herself in a critical position, she was practically worse off than ever; she had reckoned on a home at Rossleigh, and now that Rossleigh was to be abandoned to Burry and a few servants—what was to become of her? And how was she to live? For, as a tribute to public opinion, a considerable time must elapse before she could announce her engagement to Rufus.
The bold idea of a private marriage, flying to the Continent for the honeymoon, and returning to be forgiven, received, and blessed by Frances was now completely demolished. Desperate as were her circumstances, Marcia had too much worldly wisdom to make a hasty match with the fiancé of her cousin, the moment that cousin had been removed from the scene. No, Rufus must now wait a reasonable time, if not for ever.
The pair had seen a good deal of one another at this period, and the more Marcia came to know of her lover, the more he wearied her. Frances’s sudden madness had given him a painful shock, from the effects of which he was still staggering. Over and over again, he had consulted Marcia as to her cousin’s mental condition. “Did she think that Frances had suspected his intentions? Could she have noticed anything peculiar in his manner, that might have thrown her mind off its balance? What did Marcia think? What did she say?”
And then he was so nervous, so undecided; so inclined to lean heavily on his confidante, that her mild contempt was gradually developing into hard, intolerant detestation, which mental attitude (great actress as she was) she found difficult to conceal. However, she smiled upon him, agreed with all he said, soothed his fears, cheered, supported, and flattered. When alone, she often asked herself how she was to endure such a partner for the remainder of her existence? It was true that he was well off, well born, and handsome; but oh, such a shallow-brained, egotistical bore! Alas! there was no help for it, marry him she must, after a discreet interval. This was her sole alternative, and yet it meant social isolation, an existence of stagnation among narrow-minded country-folk, whose mental horizon was bounded by their parish. If Frances had been really dead, instead of having entered the land of living death, no doubt she would have left her a handsome legacy. “But she has done so,” urged an inward voice, “there is the Book!”
At the beginning of August, when Mrs. Wayne could no longer find the smallest pretext for remaining at Rossleigh, she took her reluctant departure, carrying with her Frances’s sables (in order to keep them well aired), a piece of old lace of unquestionable value, a few useful odds and ends, and the manuscript. For her sins she was obliged to join her mother at a seaside boarding-house. Here she remained in seclusion all through August and September. Fortunately for her daughter, Mrs. Benlock spent her mornings and afternoons listening to bands, in company with one or two of her own particular set; in the evenings she was absorbed in Bridge, thus Marcia was relieved of a certain amount of her society, and of her unceasing flow of questions, “as to the condition of Frances? and if she would recover? and what the doctors really thought? and how the place would be left?”
“Of course it ought to go to your brother Nelson,” she said, “though indeed, he doesn’t deserve it. He is getting on splendidly in Canada, and never sends me as much as a pound.”
“Oh, Nelson was always peculiar and close-fisted,” declared his sister. “All men are selfish.”
“You are the only one of the family she ever noticed,” continued her mother, “and it would never surprise me if she left the Hall to you,—indeed it is more than probable, and how nice that would be! Only to think of it—and I would come and live with you, and be Mrs. Benlock of Rossleigh! What a time I should have,” and she pressed her hands together, the prey of an ecstasy that was almost painful.
Her daughter made no reply to this suggestion, she merely nodded her head: Mrs. Benlock was accustomed to her nods, Marcia was never one who talked much in her family; even as a girl, she reserved all her best conversation, as well as her best clothes—for company.
Two months of her mother’s undiluted society had been a strain on Marcia’s patience, and although she saw as little of her as possible, her questions were acute, innumerable, and maddening.
“Of course you are busy on another novel?” she said, “and that is what keeps you so much up in your room? So I always tell people!”
To this, her daughter readily assented; but all the time, when she was alone, her mind was engrossed, not in her own creation, but in that of another. Whether indoors, or out of doors, she was absorbed in Frances’s book: wondering what she would do with it? Should she burn it? And then supposing that Frances were to recover, and find that her treasure had disappeared—what an outcry! But supposing again that Frances remained a mental wreck for the remainder of her days,—was this rich treasure to be wasted?
As Marcia sat on the beach, with her hat tilted over her eyes, she was conscious of the urgent whispering, the insistent temptation. It was like a real presence; a soft voice seemed ever at her ear, which said, “Take it—take it—it is your supreme opportunity. There is a tide in the affairs of women, that taken at the flood leads on to fortune,” and Marcia as she idly watched the incoming big green waves, felt herself completely in sympathy with this pronouncement.
Early in October she returned to town, established herself at the little private hotel where she had entertained Rufus, and felt the old London fever throb in her veins. She reappeared at her club, met acquaintances, and heard what was going on. She also informed polite enquirers that she had been buried down in the country, working incessantly.
Mrs. Wayne looked remarkably handsome and prosperous, wearing Frances’s priceless sables, and was welcomed and invited by her own small circle; she kept Rufus at bay with letters, assuring him that she was too much engrossed with her new novel to see him, or anyone. The real truth was, that she had determined to abandon herself to one month’s absolute enjoyment; one month of little dinners, theatres, luncheons, and various amusements, before she made the momentous choice.
She had been so fortunate as to dispose of the piece of old Flanders Point for an unexpectedly large price. She took it to a shop in Bond Street, where she was a casual customer, and announced that she was offering this most precious treasure on the part of a poor friend, (in whose family it had been an heirloom for many generations). It happened to be of a particular description that was very rare, and at the moment in much demand. The lace expert, having examined it critically with the microscope, and tested it in every way, recognised that he had a really good thing. The price he offered was low, but to Marcia, unaware of the value of her loot, it seemed extravagant, and she stuffed the notes into her bag with supreme satisfaction. It was these notes that provided her with funds for luncheons, hotel bills, new frocks, and taxi-cabs. When they came to an end, she would be face to face with the question; was it to be Rufus? or the book? She was naturally in favour of the latter, but for one drawback, which made her hesitate; this was a secret and an unreasonable fear of Mr. Hermon,—the parson.
Day after day she remained undecided; obsessed by a strange presentiment that in some way the book would bring her bad luck. At these times, she was disposed to burn it, marry Rufus, and flit away quietly to Egypt, leaving her circle to wonder and to talk! But on other occasions, the tempter was urgent. It asked, “Why hesitate—you are in desperate need of money—how can you live on thirty pounds a year? You are known to be an author, a novel from you is due by this time. This particular novel cannot benefit the writer, she will never remember it, much less recall the fact that she has written a masterpiece. Take it, this masterpiece is yours.”
Marcia’s mind was in a whirl of shifting opinions. At night, she would fall asleep, determined to take steps respecting the immediate publication of her prize; but by the grey light of morning, her bold intention would have failed. It was such a big venture, such a daring robbery, and deep down in her heart, there ever lurked a superstitious dread of Mr. Hermon.
There are occasions when the most momentous decisions are influenced by trivial circumstances, and affairs of importance are made or marred by the lift of an eyebrow, or the tone of a voice. Mrs. Wayne was one of the guests at a woman’s luncheon party; a company of twelve, seated round the beautifully decorated table, in a fine old Adams dining-room. Among them was a well-known actress, two authoresses, the editress of a smart society paper, and various others, all of mark in the literary and artistic world, and of more importance than Mrs. Wayne,—who was not aware that, an alien to the circle, she had been invited at the eleventh hour to fill an empty place!
People rarely refused Lady Southbourne’s invitations; her beautiful old house was a museum of works of art, her cook was an artist, she herself was one of the most popular hostesses in London: clever, cultivated, and rich.
Marcia, who looked strikingly handsome in amethyst velvet and sables, enjoyed the dainty little dishes, the brisk and up-to-date conversation, the proximity of so many well-known women. The talk was of theatres, of children’s plays, of the amazing change in public taste, how all that people cared to see were musical comedies, the variety stage, and now and then a lurid melodrama. Then they discussed Russian literature, and the comparative merits of Tolstoi and Dostoyevsky. From Moscow it was naturally but a step to London—to biographies, travels, and new novels. Mrs. Hugo Lane, a well-known writer, was warmly congratulated on her recent success, and one lady assured her that she had sat up till three o’clock in the morning to finish it.
“And what magnificent notices you had!”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Vine, the journalist, a lady who wielded a formidable pen, “and they were well deserved! there is so much atmosphere in the book and such restraint. Did you see my little paragraph in the ‘Watcher’?”
Then suddenly directing her attention to Marcia, who sat immediately opposite to her, she said,
“I suppose, Mrs. Wayne, you have given up novel writing?” and she stared at her with a pair of supercilious light blue eyes.
“I?” repeated Mrs. Wayne, startled by this unexpected thrust her fighting instincts aroused.
“Well, you haven’t had anything out for twelve months, have you? And your average was about four a year.”
This was a gross exaggeration,—as Mrs. Vine was well aware; but she detested Marcia Wayne, and her silly slushy stories, her insolent airs, and preposterous pretensions.
Marcia coloured angrily, but maintained her self-possession, her heart beat rather rapidly, and it seemed as if she was listening to another person, as she announced, in a voice that was vibrant, and clear,
“No, I have not given up writing—on the contrary, I have nearly completed a book that I have been working at for the last three years.”
“Three years—dear, dear, dear! How did you manage that—with all your others appearing so continuously? I must say, I do envy your—perseverance.” The manner in which Mrs. Vine paused before uttering the word “perseverance,” brought a streak of scarlet to the cheek of her vis-à-vis, her eyes flashed like cold steel. Well, she had cast the die, crossed the rubicon, and was now committed to publish Frances’s book in her own name—even if it cost her her life! Yes, she would crush the head of the poisonous viper, who was smiling at her across the autumn flowers, crush her to the earth, with an overwhelming success.
“A book she has been working at for three years!” murmured Mrs. Vine to her next neighbour, “she means, three weeks. I am told that Topper and Scott won’t have anything to say to her stuff now—and I’m sure no one can wonder!”
“Yes, but you know her first books were not at all bad, indeed I quite liked them,” said a portly elderly countess, who had recently written volume of memoirs, “I thought them rather fresh, and natural, I must say!”
“Oh, they were just badly developed photographs of her own experiences; when she had come to the end of these, she was exhausted, and is now what the Americans call a ‘waser,’ and will never be anything else!”
Carried away by passion, Marcia had declared herself involuntarily; the deed was done. All that night she lay awake with a fluttering heart, wondering, planning, and quaking.
The following morning, she wired to Burry a prepaid telegram, asking for the latest news of Frances, and the answer came by twelve o’clock, “No better—no change.” After this, Marcia decided to consult a clairvoyant. Naturally extremely superstitious, she had frequently visited palmists; but never brought away much information in return for her five shillings, ten shillings, a sovereign as the case might be. On this occasion, she determined to test her fate with a man who she was told was extraordinarily clever, and had predicted the most remarkable things, which had actually come true—and revealed to some of his clients various peculiar incidents of their pasts which filled them with confusion and amazement!
She dressed herself plainly, and made her way to the address on foot; here she was at first cross-questioned in the hall, but ultimately was shown up to a front room, where after a few minutes’ delay, she was joined by a gentlemanly looking, middle-aged man, well dressed, well groomed; there was nothing of the charlatan or necromancer in his appearance.
“You are a clairvoyant, I understand?” she said. “My friend, Lady Robson, has given me your address.”
He bowed in silence.
“I want you to see,—what you can do for me.”
He motioned her to a little table in the middle of the room, which was covered with a velvet cloth. On this there was a small cushion, and two crystals. She sat down as desired, with her back to the light, and facing him, removed her gloves as requested. He took both her hands in his, examined them carefully, then he stared steadily into her face.
“You are a widow,” he said.
“And have had a somewhat harassing life. You have come to see me at a remarkable crisis in your affairs.”
“Can you tell me something of my past?” she asked, for what he had said to her might apply to many women.
“Oh yes,” he replied, “your immediate past, or a former incarnation?”
“A former incarnation to begin with.”
He held her hand, and gazed into one of the crystals; for a long time he did not speak. At last he looked up at her, and said,
“I see you in Paris, at the time of the French Revolution; you have a red cap on your head, and you are shouting among the yelling mob, who are accompanying victims in the tumbril on the way to the guillotine. Again I see you—you are beating a child,” Marcia drew back her hand, and her face flamed, but he met her haughty gaze steadily, and said,
“In your former life, you were a cruel woman—without pity, or heart.”
“And this present life?”
“In this present life—to my clients I always speak without reserve—you have no heart—no feeling for others, you have enormous ambition.” He paused, and then she said,
“Will my ambition be gratified?”
He now looked into another crystal, which he studied, for some time.
“I see,” he said, “an amazing success——world-wide celebrity, large sums of money, all surrounding you; and yet, there is something which baffles me. Have you a partner?”
She shook her head.
“It almost seems to me, as if although fame and fortune undoubtedly await you—that both are due to another person. The other person I cannot discern—he or she seems to be far away, and enveloped in a cloud.”
“But fame and money are coming to me?” she demanded impatiently.
“Yes; and within a comparatively short time—but there is something unusual connected with them; and at present, although you have the consciousness of owning a great treasure, you yourself are nervous and irresolute.”
“And is that all?”
“All—unless you wish to look further into the future.”
“No. If I am to enjoy fame and fortune—I am satisfied,” she answered, rising, and beginning to pull on her gloves, then having placed a sovereign and a shilling on the table, she bowed to him, he opened the door for her in silence, and she swept downstairs.
The clairvoyant looked after her for a moment; there went an extraordinary personality, an unusual client; perhaps it was as well that she had not seen further into her future. This interview gave Marcia momentary confidence, yet when she returned home, and conferred with herself, and recalled her former experience with palmists, she was dissatisfied; and determined to take the great step of running over to Paris, or rather to Versailles, and beholding the condition of Frances with her own eyes.
The following day she bought a cheap return-ticket, crossed the channel, and made her way to Versailles, to the château where her cousin was immured, and here she insisted on interviewing the doctor and the patient. The former demurred for a long time, but Marcia pleaded so eloquently, as nearest and dearest of kin, exhibited a bracelet with an inscription “From Frances,” and was altogether so eloquent and persistent, that she gained her end.
She found Frances terribly changed. Her animated face was expressionless, her eyes were like dead eyes, or candles that had been blown out. She sat with her head bowed, her hands folded before her, and did not move, or even turn, when the doctor entered with Marcia, whom she did not recognise. It was not an interview that anyone would care to prolong, and the visitor soon brought it to a close. For days she was haunted by that motionless figure, seated upright in a chair, staring blankly into a wintry French garden, with its straight gravelled walks, and rows of bare limes.
“What do you think of the case, Doctor?” she asked.
“I am afraid it is a bad business!” he replied, “melancholia; she seems sunk in depression, and is very troublesome about her food.”
“Do you think she can ever recover?”
“It is quite impossible to say, it’s a chance in a hundred, and of course she may grow worse.”
“Worse! What do you mean?”
“And your own private opinion?”
“I should not like to offer it,” he answered, “there is nothing so uncertain as lunacy—but you see what you see and can draw your own conclusions.”
Marcia did so. In her opinion, the case was incurable. She had now taken every precaution, and was sure of her ground; but poor Frances; even her stony heart had been touched by that image of silence and dejection.
As soon as Mrs. Wayne returned to London, she engaged a typist, to work with her in her sitting-room, and as each chapter of the original manuscript was completed and duplicated, she carried it away, and threw it into the special fire which awaited it in her bedroom. She lived in a kind of fever until every scrap of writing was consumed, and three copies of the great work were completed in neat type.
Marcia always enjoyed reading the accounts of murders and robberies, and she had noted that certain pitiful, but fatal little matters, known as clues, had generally delivered the criminal into the arms of justice. But she had seen that the real origin of this novel was obliterated, and would leave no trace; no one could prove that it was not her own work. The typing accomplished, she wrote a brief business-like letter to Branson and Bell, informing them that she had finished an important work, on which she had been engaged for three years, and begged to know if they would care to read it?
To this, she received a somewhat half-hearted assent, and immediately dispatched a copy by district messenger. She also mentioned her high hopes of her last book, to several of the best and busiest literary journalists, and had submitted several little “pars” to different papers, in the style of “We understand that Mrs. Wayne, the well-known novelist, has just completed a notable and original work, on which she has been engaged for the last three years. Those who have been privileged to see the manuscript declare that it is one of the most striking and brilliant novels that has been written this century—in short, a masterpiece.”
After a considerable delay, Marcia received a letter from Branson and Bell, inviting her to call upon them the following afternoon, with a view to making arrangements for the publication of her novel, “The Reckoning.” The note appeared to her to be a little extra polite; it was written, and not typed, and signed by the great J. J. Branson himself!
Accordingly, wrapped in Frances’s sable furs, she stepped out of a taxi at the publisher’s door prepared to receive an offer for Frances’s novel; and again, it might be imagination, or it might not, but it seemed to Marcia that she was received with unusual consideration; the big doors swung back readily, a manager hurried to meet her—heads from desks were raised, as she moved towards the door marked “Private.” Here in this room she found the two partners, who appeared to behold her with new eyes, and treated her with a deference that positively warmed her heart. It was true that she was wearing the shoes and sables of another, but what of that? All is fair in Love and War—here was War with the world; a desperate conflict for success and fame.
The gentlemen were possibly surprised to find that the handsome widow was a hard-headed woman of business. She demanded a large sum on account of a thumping royalty, and claimed American, dramatic, and Colonial rights. When they hesitated, and appeared to be dubious, she smiled agreeably; when they endeavoured to stand out, and talked of “the over production of novels,” and the “risks undertaken by publishers,” she simply nodded, and said,
“I thoroughly agree with you as to the flood of rubbish! There are thousands too many of the small fry; but I happen to know that mine is no common, everyday book; of this I am absolutely confident; yet, I should not like you to run any risks on my account; so if you will kindly let me have the manuscript, and telephone for a taxi, I will not trespass any further on your time.”
“Oh, by no means! by no means,” protested Mr. Branson, with unexpected animation, he was a literary man, and in love with the book,—”your novel—is—a—remarkable piece of work, especially for a woman, who has hitherto only dealt with the—surface of society. We have read it, and we approve. Your grasp of history, especially French history at the end of the eighteenth century, is unusual and profound. Mrs. Wayne, we shall be proud to produce ‘The Reckoning.’”
“On my own terms?” she demanded, with a gleam in her hard grey eyes.
“On your own terms, madam, and the contract will be delivered to you for your signature to-morrow.”
“You will be sure and advertise the book widely?” she bargained.
“Certainly. We always advertise, but this, we shall make a special occasion. It will go to Press at once, and be published as soon as the Christmas holidays are over.”
“Not a very fortunate date, is it?”
“For a good book, any date is good,” he answered with conviction.
“I am so glad you like the novel, and think it remarkable, Mr. Branson,” she said, absorbing the first little whiff of incense which had reached her nostrils.
“It is not the office of a publisher to praise,” he said, clearing his throat, “but I must confess that I have a very high opinion of your novel.”
“Yes, yes, there’s good stuff in ‘The Reckoning,’” agreed his partner, who however was not literary, “I believe it will go—anyhow you may depend upon it that we shall put our backs into it,” and the two gentlemen, Branson and Bell, actually accompanied the triumphant authoress to the entrance, whilst clerks craned their necks in order to have a look at the woman who, it was whispered, had written the best book that had come to the firm for at least ten years!
Thus was “The Reckoning” launched, and the contract signed (witnessed by Rufus in his small, delicate handwriting). Then the proofs began to pour in, certain names had been altered, and the title selected, otherwise it was the novel of Frances; precisely as she had written it. Early in February, a wonderful new book delighted the reading world, and Marcia’s name and fame were in every reader’s mouth from Bombay to Boston. Its appearance was warmly acclaimed by the Press. One important organ declared that,
“No greater novel had been published in England for many years.”
A second opinion said,
“Mrs. Wayne’s new book is so splendid, and so original, that it would almost appear to be the work of another hand; it has both style and scholarship.”
A third said,
“The Reckoning,’ a book of conspicuous power, is more like the work of a man of letters than a woman novelist.”
“This book’s amazing strength, the cleverness of the character drawing, make a great impression,” such was the verdict of the “Stiletto.”
Another notable review wrote,
“’The Reckoning’ is the work of a genius.”
French and American literary papers were also eloquent and enthusiastic in their praise.
Here and there were paragraphs indicating that in the company of other notable persons, Marcia Wayne was an author who, beginning in a small way, had suddenly found herself, and blazed into unexpected brilliance. Her enemies, rivals, and acquaintances were temporarily paralysed; they herded together in clubs and at tea-parties, in order to discuss a triumph so sweeping, and so comprehensive.
“Who would have thought it?” exclaimed Mrs. Vine. “Why, the book is perfectly marvellous; and not in the least like her other stuff. ‘The Reckoning’ belongs to a completely different class; the first class; whilst her immortal story, ‘Dust and Ashes,’ was simply beneath contempt. How could anyone, who was endowed with this talent, bring herself to write such drivel? It is my opinion,” she announced, looking cautiously round her audience, “that the woman employs a ghost!”
“No, no dear,” protested Miss Pope,—who when all was said and done, was a truly noble foe,—“the woman who wrote ‘The Reckoning,’ can stand on her own feet—it is a magnificent book! Oh, how proud I should be if I had written it—I wrote to her, and said so. I admire her novel from the bottom of my heart, let us give honour where honour is due.”
“I wouldn’t mind giving her honour where honour is due,” admitted Mrs. Vine, “and I think you will all allow that I am never stingy in that respect; but her vanity, her exultation, and her blatant superiority over all the writing world, is simply too sickening! Of course, she feels that we are worms in comparison to her; but that is no reason why she should trample us into the earth.”
“What marvellous descriptions of Paris,” said Mrs. Hugo Lane, “real old Paris—I can almost feel myself living there the atmosphere is so wonderfully done; and yet I have always understood that Mrs. Wayne merely went over for a week at a time, just to see improper plays, and to buy improper frocks. Well, I humbly confess that, in all my life, I have never been so surprised. Her book is the work of a master hand; it is magnificent!”
“That is quite true,” assented another, “and also that Mrs. Wayne’s never very gracious manners are now abominable—one dare no more approach her than if she was Wet Paint!”
“And of the two,” murmured Mrs. Vine, “I would much rather endure the Wet Paint!”
The flood of Marcia’s success rose with unparalleled rapidity, and the celebrated authoress, who had received a large cheque on account, moved into a suite of rooms at a fashionable hotel. Here she was interviewed and photographed, fêted, followed, and worshipped as a newly risen sun. It was a painful fact that she had proved a mean and exultant enemy; crushing her rivals with her Daimler motor, her diamonds, her French frocks, and insufferable air of “I told you so!” Naturally, she was besieged with offers for her next book, the one to follow, and its successor; and could have sold half a dozen on her own terms, on the strength of her notable success. It was considered strange how seldom she referred to her novel: she rarely alluded to it, and when it was brought into conversation, invariably turned the subject. Was there ever a successful writer who seemed to take so little interest in the work which had made her famous?
Frequently clever men,—including Hugh Hawkshaw,—were eager to talk to her of her book; discuss its different phases, argue with her respecting this scene, or that character, and offer their own ideas; but somehow or other, on this important subject, the author was irresponsive, and dumb. All that she would vouchsafe, was the petulant declaration,
“I have done the work,—and must leave it to speak for itself!”
In the following summer, Marcia Wayne’s star was still in the ascendant; no one had approached her sales of thousands and tens of thousands; hostesses figuratively tumbled over one another to secure her for their parties and week-ends; and as the season advanced, large sums of money came flowing in from America. “The Reckoning” was not merely translated into nearly every European language, but had been dramatised in Paris, London, and New York.
Marcia presented to her friends and admirers the calm attitude of attainment. She was now supreme, rich, and celebrated; her sole difficulties were to keep her mother, the Bokes, and Rufus, from encroaching on the scenes of her triumph. This she contrived to accomplish, with money, lies, and an iron hand, (minus the velvet glove) for the ambitious lady had her own far-reaching plans, into which these commonplace people did not enter. She bribed her mother with a handsome allowance, she snubbed the Bokes, and she kept Rufus in the country. It was true that now and then he did break bounds; dashed up to London for a day or two, and insisted on witnessing and sharing her triumph; in being present at some function where she was the principal guest, and where he was undoubtedly the proudest man present.
Subsequently Marcia would dismiss him with agreeable speeches, and vague promises; nothing now was ever whispered of their engagement; indeed she had actually hinted that her grief for Frances was so deep and incurable that she doubted if she could ever bring herself to marry him!
It is scarcely necessary to mention that Mrs. Wayne had fully decided that she would never write another book—“The Reckoning” was her Swan Song—and she was equally determined that she would never become the wife of Rufus. These two facts were locked within her heart, or whatever, in her constitution, did duty for that organ. She was resolved to marry a rich man; and from that day forth, for ever more, to live upon her reputation!
With this intention, she looked around among her circle of admirers, to see to whom she would throw the glove. Not a few men would have been happy to have been chosen by this handsome, celebrated, and, last but not least, wealthy lady. Strange to say, Mr. Van Harmer, the African millionaire, had once more risen upon her horizon. He really was enormously wealthy, and as yet unsuited with a consort. Although he was not a reading man,—the “Financial News,” the “Pink ’Un,” and the “Cape Times” exhausted his literature,—yet the fame of the great authoress had reached even his ears. He respected fame; a famous dancer, a famous actress, a famous jockey—they all appealed to him. Fame implied effort, and success.
He met the celebrated lady at a Sunday dinner at Ranelagh, and was formally presented. Marcia was a woman of most imposing presence, and looked as magnificent as her Parisian dressmaker had intended. In these days, she posed as a personage, and accorded the great man a very cool bow. This distant salute had a surprising effect; it put the gentleman upon his mettle, and revived the memories of long ago; memories also jogged by the fact of the lady’s world-wide celebrity. He had been assured that she had made a quarter of a million by her book, and that to secure her for a party was considered a remarkable feat. People gave her six weeks’ invitation, and even then, she threw them over with heartless indifference.
All this intelligence had raised Mrs. Wayne enormously in his estimation.
“I believe,” he began, swaying his heavy body as he spoke, “that I have had the pleasure of meeting you before?”
Mrs. Wayne smiled faintly, as she shook her head and replied,
“You must be thinking of someone else.”
“Oh no, once having seen you; how could I think of anyone else?”
The lady gazed at him with eyes as cold as icebergs.
“It was at Middleburg in South Africa,” he went on, “twelve years ago.”
“Really?” with a lifting of her beautiful black brows.
“Then you don’t remember me?” he demanded with a touch of impatience.
The lady contemplated him through half-closed lids, and maintained a vindictive silence. This was her hour.
“Why, don’t you remember,” now becoming indignant at such an unusual reception, “I met you quite lately at Bordighera, at the tea-shop—you can’t forget that?”
“Indeed! I am afraid I cannot recall either the tea-shop, or you—I have a wretched memory,” and she turned away, leaving the millionaire on the verge of apoplexy; but this was precisely the right attitude to assume towards the potentate; and he was now determined that he and this haughty woman should be friends. He noticed everyone in the party, and many outside it, doing homage to this literary star; a handsome star, who wore good Brazilian diamonds, and looked like a duchess.
After dinner, he again approached her, coffee cup in hand, and cautiously sitting down beside her, began to talk of South Africa; but on this occasion Mrs. Wayne abused the country roundly, complained of the awful dust, and hailstorms, the overpowering number of voracious insects, especially flies and fleas, and the total absence of domestics.
“Do you know,” she said, “that often when we had one or two people in to dinner, I have had to cook the meal, and what was a thousand times worse, to wash up afterwards.”
“Oh, colonial ways! colonial ways!” he answered cheerily.
“Yes,” she retorted, “and I hated them.”
“So then you don’t want to go back?”
“I?” she exclaimed, in a tone of scornful amazement, “why on earth should I?”
“Maybe to write another big book.”
“No, thank you; the subject is not sufficiently attractive. My own country is quite good enough for me; and I am not the least interested in diamond mines and finance.”
“Diamonds suit you all the same,” he ventured boldly, “I should like to see you in a really fine tiara.”
“I suppose you know that I have a good deal to do with diamonds.”
“Have you?” she drawled, with an air of polite boredom.
“I could tell you a good many interesting things about the mines, and about the late war.”
“Ah,” she said, “the late war—that was a sad business.”
“It was; and even now, we sometimes come across a skeleton on the veldt of some poor chap who was never found, and whose people may be still wondering what has become of him.”
Then as she rose, previous to taking her departure, he said,
“My Napier is here—may I drive you home in it, and I can tell you lots of queer stories—do you for copy, eh?”
“Thank you so much,” she answered icily, “but my own motor is waiting; I am afraid I am not interested in South Africa now.”
All the same, she could not shake him off: the huge adhesive monster escorted her to the entrance, and there handed her into a beautiful new car, which could not have cost a penny less than twelve hundred pounds. Animated by this conviction, the millionaire said,
“May I come and call upon you, Mrs. Wayne?”
“If you like,” she answered indifferently.
“And where are you staying?”
“Just now at the Ritz.”
“All right—good night—au revoir!”
Mr. Van Harmer had hitherto believed that every one in the world—that is to say everyone he knew—bowed down before him and his millions; but Mrs. Wayne proved the exception, she had snubbed him; she was out when he called, and declined his invitations to a theatre party and supper—was the woman crazy? No doubt, she had got the hump because he cut her at that beastly tea place—but she looked so shabby and dusty, and was so pertinacious, as if she wanted to stick on to him—and seemed to know none of the right set.
“I shook her off then,” he said to himself, “and now, by Jove, when I want to take her on; she won’t see it.”
But by gradual degrees, Mrs. Wayne was induced to “see it”; in other words, the advance of a millionaire. He admired her—she was his style—she looked a somebody and although he would not have married a titled woman—he had no objection to allying himself to one who had made a great name. He had made himself, and his fortune, and to marry a wife who had done the same would be a truly magnificent achievement.
During the next two weeks, matters progressed by leaps and bounds. After two days, racing, a play, and a motor run to Brighton, the pair became privately engaged, and although as yet not a whisper was afloat, Marcia had already selected the tiara and pearls, and inspected a noble country mansion. They decided to rent this, as well as the Grosvenor Square house, and a villa at Nice. Once married, Marcia felt confident that she could manage her great African bear, and snap her fingers at Fate.
The wedding was to take place very quietly in London in October. For months she had ceased to correspond with Rufus, and but seldom with Burry; they could be of no further use to her, and consequently she had dropped them both. On the first of October she was again in London, excessively busy with her trousseau, and numerous engagements.
It was within three days of the wedding; she was writing letters in her sitting-room, when she received a card on which was inscribed “Mr. Rufus Lacy. Must see you at once—urgent.”
“Show him up,” she said. Was Rufus coming to make a fuss about the wedding? Impossible. She had given him his coup de grâce months ago, and he had once more relapsed into the position of hopeless humble admirer. It was really marvellous the way in which Marcia had contrived to bamboozle and deceive him!
He entered, looking rather grave, and with an air of suppressed excitement.
“Have you heard the news?” he began, “the great news?”
“I have heard lots of news,” she answered airily, “and what is yours? Won’t you be seated?”
“Prepare yourself for something wonderful,” he said, still standing, then drawing a long breath, he added, “Frances has recovered!”
Marcia took two steps backward, and sat down rather suddenly. Her face had become a whitish-grey colour.
“Impossible!” The word was scarcely audible.
“So they all thought!” he replied, taking off his gloves, putting them carefully inside his hat, and drawing up a chair. “But they were wrong—Frances is now absolutely sane. She arrived in town this morning.”
Marcia gave a slight involuntary start.
“Yes, Burry and I went over to fetch her,” he continued. “I was thinking of asking whether there were rooms at this hotel—she is at the Metropole now.”
“Oh, this hotel is full to the roof.”
“Somehow, Marcia, you don’t appear to be keen, or pleased,” he said reproachfully.
“Rufus! what a dreadful thing to say!—of course, I am delighted—but it’s so unexpected; you never gave me a hint; and I have not been feeling very fit to-day. Do tell me some more,” and as she faced him across the little round table, it struck him that she looked ghastly.
“Oh well, you know, for some time—or rather you don’t know—Frances has been improving; but the doctors didn’t like to be too sanguine, or to buoy us up with false hopes, in case of a disappointment.”
“Yes, in case of a disappointment,” she repeated with colourless lips. “No, no, of course not.”
“She has made extraordinary progress, and can remember everything till that morning of the seizure, and then she cannot recall what happened to her. For some time past, she has been almost herself, but she did not wish it to be generally known until her recovery was complete. She wished to give us all a surprise.”
“Yes,” assented Marcia, in a faint voice.
“You will find her just as bright as ever; extremely anxious to go on with her life where she left off, and to learn all about everything that has happened recently.”
Marcia felt cold all over; the hand that was on the table shook so visibly, that she drew it away, and concealed it in her lap. The book! Frances would know about the book; the most important thing that had happened within the last eighteen months! She would claim it, and cover her, the impostor, with everlasting shame. Fame, the great marriage, and splendid prospects, would dissolve as it were into air, and nothing remain for her but poverty and disgrace. Her wedding was to take place in three days’ time—oh, if these three days could be but tided over, and the book kept from Frances, she might yet escape—indeed she would escape, as Van Harmer’s wife, crying, “Après moi le déluge!”
Of course she must see Frances, and contrive to keep the novel from her at all costs—only for three days—only for seventy hours.
“I shall call, and see Frances, the first thing to-morrow. I should like to return with you now, but she will require a good long rest. There is one thing I want you to do for me, Rufus—you know my book?”
“I should think so—who does not?”
“Well, I do not wish it to get into the hands of Frances as yet. I have a most particular reason for this; and you will allow that I generally have an excellent reason for all I do; you must manage to keep it from her.”
“All right,” he replied, “I will do my best, but she has been talking about it already—she is mad keen to get hold of it—however, you may rely upon me to put her off.”
It was with a beating heart that Marcia entered the Metropole; enquired for Miss Benlock, and was carried in the lift to the first floor, where in a private sitting-room she found Frances, looking the same as ever,—she even wore a familiar gown.
“Oh, how good of you, dear Marcia!” she said, holding out her arms, “to be the first to greet me after Rufus,” and she embraced her warmly. “But of course, Rufus would be the first.”
It was evident that she had entirely forgotten the letter, and still believed herself to be his fiancée.
And why not? thought Marcia in a flash. “I have been a most terrible trouble and anxiety to all of you, I know,” she continued, “and I need scarcely tell you that I am most deeply thankful that God has been pleased to restore my reason.”
“Yes, yes,” said Marcia, “we are all thankful, most thankful, and what joy at Rossleigh! Of course, you will be going down at once?”
“As soon as possible; but I have heard some news from Rufus, of your approaching marriage, you, who swore you would never marry again. I should like to stay for the wedding. I will just get a new toque and dress. Burry tells me that you have my sables?”
“Yes, dearest Frances, I have been taking care of them for you; but our wedding is going to be so very quiet, and as I know that you would like to go home at once, I will let you off!”
“But I don’t want to be let off!” protested her cousin, “and I shall be as quiet as ten mice—and oh, Marcia, I am just hungering and aching to read your wonderful book—a book that has made you famous! I hear it is so splendid, so original, and so strong. People were talking of it in the train, and I can’t tell you how proud I felt! I do congratulate you, my dear,” and she rose impulsively, and kissed her. “Only that it would seem too mean, I would say that I envy you! To think of being the author of a book that has made you known all over the world. We never had anything new at Versailles, and were entirely out of the literary radius. When I began to read, I read French and German, as I always do when on the Continent—I even commenced notes for something that I may undertake after my unnamed child has seen the light. No one knows a word about my secret treasure, save yourself. But about your great work. When Burry wrote and told me that you had a new book out, I thought it was just one of your usual productions—hence my ignorance, but I shall not go to bed to-night until I hold it in my hand.”
“It is most awfully kind and sweet of you, dearest Frances, but if you will take my advice, you will wait until you get home to read ‘The Reckoning.’ I’ll order a special copy to be bound for you.”
“I shall be only too pleased to accept an author’s copy—I intend to buy the common or six shilling edition at once.”
“I suppose you are very busy,” said Marcia.
“Yes; it seems like coming back from the dead, and I have a great gap to fill up. Oh, how glad I shall be to see my dear old friends, my poor people, my horses and dogs, and I hope they will be glad to see me. Don’t you think, Marcia, that it is extraordinary that I should have had such a sudden seizure?—it almost seemed as if I had been struck by lightning—at one moment perfectly happy and sane, the next, a silly blighted idiot!—and there is no insanity in our family. Our sole hereditary foe is heart disease. Do you know that I can recall nothing; nothing, beyond taking the morning’s papers, and going up to the Cabin, and afterwards for months and months my mind was a blank; then gradually my wits returned: like the winter dawn creeping into a dark room. Ah, here comes Rufus,” and she went forward and kissed the traitor, “I will get ready at once, we are going out shopping together, and we can drop you, Marcia, at your hotel, or anywhere you please,” and presently she left them.
“Isn’t it a miracle?” said Marcia, turning to Rufus, “she is as well as ever; she cannot recall any reason for her attack,—much less your letter.”
“Oh, how could she do that?” he exclaimed, “when she never received it! But I often wondered what became of it?”
“How do you know that it was ever posted? Hotel people are so careless. Well, now I suppose you will be married; and all’s well that ends well.”
“Yes,” he replied.
“And you will be a thousand times happier than if you had married me.”
“Perhaps so. Anyway, Frances is constant, and you, Marcia, have never really cared a button about me; but just led me on, and on, and on, like a veritable will-of-the-wisp! Yet, when I think of the glory, and the halo that now surrounds you, I still worship you from afar—you know, if there is one thing that appeals to me more directly than another, it is fame! Frances is very clever, and a really noble, good woman—a splendid character—and ten times too good for me—but she will never set the Thames on fire!”
At this instant, Frances entered, followed by her maid.
“A quick change!” she exclaimed, with a laugh, “Now, Marcia, are you not coming with us?”
“No, no,” replied Marcia, “two is company,” and she smiled expressively.
“Oh, very well,” rejoined Frances, when she had been assisted into the motor, “please take notice, that the very first thing I am going to buy to-day, is your celebrated book. Rufus, will you ask the chauffeur to stop at Hatchard’s,” and with this intimation of her destination, she waved her hand, and the car glided away.
The following evening, Miss Benlock and Mr. Lacy dined at the Carlton with Marcia and her overpowering fiancé. The diamond solitaire stud that blazed in his shirt front was value, as he subsequently informed his guests, for eight hundred pounds! So far as the book was concerned, all was yet well. Frances, looking surprisingly smart, wore the family jewels, and an expression of supreme content. The company were eight (the ideal number for a dinner), and of these, three couples were engaged; Marcia and the host, Frances and Rufus, Nellie Meadows and Hugh Hawkshaw. The others were merely make-weights—two burly kings from the world of finance. The entertainment was magnificent,—wine and flowers lavish to a degree indeed. Mr. Van Harmer made no secret of its cost.
“Champagne, four guineas a bottle! You don’t get that every day, my boy!” he remarked, with a familiar nod to Hawkshaw.
Coffee and cigarettes were served in the palm garden, and as the company sat listening to the strains of a delicious waltz, Frances whispered to Marcia,
“Only imagine! I can’t get your book yet! I sent Rufus flying into Hatchard’s, but they hadn’t a copy left. However, I am promised one to-morrow morning without fail.”
“I am afraid I can’t keep it from her any longer,” whispered Rufus to Marcia, shortly afterwards, “she is beginning to suspect there is something fishy about the story; or that it is extraordinarily improper—and she is set upon reading it at once.”
“Well, do your best, do your best, Rufus—as you love me,” pleaded Marcia; which was a peculiar request from an engaged woman to an engaged man!
It was the day before the wedding, and Mrs. Wayne, worn out with holding interviews and trying on, was lying on a sofa after tea, in the dusk. She was not at home to a soul, being utterly exhausted by her exertions and distracting anxiety respecting Frances—and the book. Never in all her life had Marcia endured such nerve-racking torment! By sheer force of character, she had succeeded in carrying her cousin in her train from morning till night: hurrying her from shop to shop, to the milliners’, outfitters’, jewellers’, with feverish haste, always declaring that her opinion was invaluable, and insisting on her company at lunch, at her club, and at the theatre; scarcely letting her out of her sight—any excuse or device to stave off the evil moment! It had been the most agonising period of Marcia’s existence. She had felt as if she were living in a powder mine—awaiting, and watching, the slowly approaching fuse.
Well, she had succeeded; so far the novel had not reached the hands of its author, and they would be away to-morrow by the eleven-o’clock boat, and lunch in Calais. With this soothing reflection her fears relaxed, and she fell into an uneasy doze. Suddenly the handle of the door rattled, she felt the electric light turned on. What was the man-servant saying?
“A lady to see you, ma’am!”
She started up, and glanced over her shoulder; there between her and the door, stood Frances. Frances, who was staring at her with a pair of mad eyes. At last she knew! Before Marcia could rise, and as the door closed, she began abruptly, “So I have found you out, Marcia Wayne! You believed I was as good as dead, and stole my book; published it under your own name, passed yourself off as the author, and reaped all the credit, all the fame, that was due to my incessant labour for three years. I can understand now why you were so amazed, so upset, that you nearly fainted when you heard of my release; why copies of the book were withheld from me, and why you whirled me about night and day in your company, and urged Rufus to tell lies. Oh, you false, treacherous, wicked woman!” and she looked as if she could wither the impostor with the flame of her indignation.
“And you, in whom I confided; who of all the world, knew what that book was to me—the child of my brain, the consoler of a broken life! Like a fool, I believed that you could realise in some faint degree the months and years, and days and nights, that I had given to that labour of love; and although you cannot write yourself, you knew that it was worthy!”
Here she paused, breathing fast. This long speech had given Marcia ample time to collect her thoughts, and to arm her forces. She rose slowly from the sofa, prepared to do battle.
“I haven’t the faintest idea of what you are talking about, Frances,” she said, in a cool, steady voice, “please don’t excite yourself, you know it is so bad for you!”
“I am talking about my novel,” replied Frances, in a sharp, quick key, “the novel I showed you last Christmas year, that I related to you—no one but you knew of its existence; it was finished, and ready for the press when I had that sudden breakdown—my case seemed hopeless, I was practically dead to the world, and my disappearance was your opportunity!”
“Frances, if you will go on talking this crazy nonsense which is so dangerous for you,—I must leave you,” said Marcia, and her manner was extraordinarily collected and detached.
“No, no, don’t go away and leave me just yet,” urged her visitor, now taking a chair, “this interview has to come off—you can scarcely suppose that, now I am in my senses, you would never be found out? Oh, I understand everything! Your poor little shallow brain was torpid, you had no means of feeding your hungry ambition, greedy self-indulgence, and passion for dress; so you thought of my book!—But first of all, you took certain precautions, you were the mysterious lady who came over to Versailles, and insisted on seeing me. Naturally I looked a hopeless idiot, and you returned full of joy, and confidence, and set to work upon your plunder, found a ready publisher, and an enormous and ever-increasing public. One thing I cannot comprehend—it is, how people knowing your work, your slovenly style, and peculiar grammar, could ever bring themselves to believe that my book, the careful work of a well educated, literary enthusiast,—could possibly have been written by you?”
“Oh, you are mad!” exclaimed Marcia, briefly. “Mad.”
“No, no, thank God,” replied her cousin, “not now.”
“Well, I suppose I must allow you to go on raving, raving, raving,” said Marcia, in a weary voice, “supposing it really was your book! what would you do?”
“Supposing that it is my book—and it happens to be my book—I will tell you,” replied Frances, speaking with ever-increasing vehemence, “I shall claim my work at once; my own property, and my own fame. The name of Benlock, with a full explanation, will be printed on the title page immediately. The Press shall be informed as to who is the true author, without delay, and the public shall hear the name of the meanest thief that has ever lived among them!”
“I am afraid you have set yourself an impossible task,” sneered Marcia.
“What! impossible to publish the truth, and claim my own novel!”
“But it isn’t your own novel.”
“Marcia Wayne,” she began, struggling to be calm, yet trembling from head to foot, “I was kind to you, when you needed kindness, I helped you, and trusted you, I know you for a bad, false, heartless woman. Oh, now I can understand why you have not one real friend, you make use of people, and when you have obtained all the benefits they can give you, drop them like an old glove! Let me assure you of one thing—every soul who knows you will drop you, now.”
“Why?” demanded Marcia defiantly.
“Why,” echoed Frances, her voice bordering on a scream, “because I shall expose you at once! Before I left the hotel, I telephoned to my lawyer—I telephoned to Rufus to summon him. The news will be with Branson and Bell by the first post to-morrow morning.”
“Just listen to me, Frances, and allow me to speak,” said Marcia peremptorily. “It is time that I should have a hearing—you are becoming frightfully excited, and if you are not very careful, will have to be taken back to Versailles.”
“I am never going back to Versailles,” she answered passionately.
“That remains to be seen,” replied Marcia, who was walking about the room with her hands clasped behind her, and opposing a strong calm to her cousin’s fury. “I should just like to ask you one question. Tell me, how can you prove that you have written my novel? No soul in the world ever heard that you had a book on the stocks, no one ever saw it but myself. In me,” and she paused dramatically, placed her hand on her breast, and looking steadily at her cousin, announced, “you have your sole witness!”
“My God!” exclaimed Frances, rising to her feet, as she realised the truth for the first time, “so you are!” then she added, “but the manuscript is in my writing.”
“There is not a scrap extant, every sheet, every note, every line—I burnt with my own hands!”
“So then you admit your crime!” cried Frances, in a strangled voice.
“I don’t call it a crime,” rejoined her cousin boldly, “I merely made use of what I believed was valueless to another—that was all.”
“All!” repeated Frances, her colour was high and her eyes sparkled, “fortune, consideration, world-wide fame—all!”
“Now do be reasonable, and put yourself into my place.”
“Impossible—whatever I am, or was, I am a woman of honour,” she retorted in a passion of scorn.
“I never supposed you would recover—you will believe that. No one expected that you would ever be released, or return.”
“But I have come back, as it were from the grave, and find that another has eaten up the fruit of my labour, and that I am to be as the dead—and dumb. Never!” cried Frances, speaking with great force, “I shall proclaim this abominable robbery from end to end of the kingdom—yes, even if I have to carry a poster on my back up and down Regent Street. I am not naturally sharp like you,—nor am I unscrupulous; but I have money, and friends, and yes—I will summon the law to my assistance,” she concluded with invincible determination.
“You may, with all my heart!” retorted her antagonist, “you have nothing; nothing to show, not a line, not a letter, not a single witness, not a single proof—have you? Go to a firm of solicitors,—better still, to my publishers, tell them your tale, and what do you think they will say, when they hear that you have just been released from a lunatic asylum? They will assure you, very politely, that you are suffering from a delusion,—that you imagine that you have written the great novel of 1907; they will hustle you out of their premises as civilly and quietly as they can, and have no hesitation in declaring you to be quite hopelessly mad!”
As Marcia spoke, her face looked bloodless, quivering, and fierce. The victim was in her power absolutely; she had no weapon, and stood before her defenceless and speechless.
“You say the book is yours,” continued Marcia, “then prove it—prove it—prove it!”
At last, after a long silence, Frances replied, in a strained, unnatural key,
“You know well enough that I have no proofs; yet, Marcia, you also know that I wrote every word of that book. Yes, every comma and full stop; and here face to face with me, and no witness present—you cannot deny it!”
“No,” rejoined Marcia stoutly, “I see no object in telling useless lies—you did write the book, I acknowledge and you had all the glow, the ecstasy, the enthusiasm, of creating a great novel; I grant that; but by an extraordinary turn of Fortune’s wheel, the same novel, and its world-wide fame, have fallen to unworthy me. You once asked me which I would rather be, happy or famous? Thanks to you, I am famous; and with a fame, that will stand fast; a fame that will outlive me for years! I am really sorry for your disappointment; but in spite of all that you can do, or threaten, or say, I must continue to wear your laurels!”
She was standing with her back to the fireplace, and during this cynical speech her listener’s long repressed passion had been increasing in force. If Marcia had but glanced at her, instead of out of the window, she would have seen a face transformed with fury, and been alive to the fact that she was alone with a dangerous companion.
“Wear my laurels—never!” cried Frances, in a harsh hoarse voice; raising her stick, and rising to her feet, she rushed at her cousin furiously. Marcia stepped back hastily, tripped on the train of her gown, stood swaying for a moment, and then fell heavily with her head on the fender in a twisted heap. She gave two or three convulsive gasps,—these were succeeded by an ominous silence.
There she lay, with an expression of horror on her blanched face; a little stream of blood was already dyeing the white wool rug. No, Marcia Wayne would never again wear the laurels of another—for she was dead!
The sight of Marcia, prone and motionless, far from having the effect of over-balancing the sensitive brain of her companion, sobered her on the spot; in her normal state Frances had been witness of more than one accident, and was ready, competent, and self-possessed. On the present occasion, she rang the bell violently, then threw herself down on the rug, raised her cousin’s head upon her lap, and laid her hand upon her heart. It almost seemed as if that hard, insensible organ had ceased to beat—but probably it was but a bad faint.
“Send at once for the nearest doctor,” she said to a servant, “and get me some assistance. This lady is unconscious.”
The German advanced into the room, stared hard at Mrs. Wayne, stood momentarily petrified, then effected a precipitate departure. In a very short time, the housekeeper and a maid entered together—finally the doctor.
The prostrate form of Mrs. Wayne had been laid upon the sofa, and here he made an examination. After the lapse of a minute or two, he rose, straightened himself, and looked over at Miss Benlock. It was impossible to conceal the truth; and she appeared to be a sensible sort of woman. As he met her anxious eyes, he shook his head.
“Do you mean—that—she is—is—gone?” she asked in a low voice.
“Yes,” he replied, “it is evident that she suffered from a serious form of heart disease. Of course I cannot at this moment diagnose the particular type; but if it should be as I believe, any sudden excitement was extremely dangerous, and likely to prove fatal.”
The housekeeper, who was a capable, kind-hearted person, came up to Frances, and took her by the arm, and said,
“You must please come with me, madam; you have had a bad shock, and cannot be of any use here. We will do everything, you may depend, and I will telephone for the lady’s friends, immediately.”
Next morning, the daily Press announced in large head-lines, “Death of Mrs. Wayne,” whilst on the placards at railway stations, and on the flags by the news vendors, was also displayed “Sudden death of a celebrated authoress.” And how gratified the celebrated authoress would have been, could she have returned to life, and seen her name, thus widely published, and in such heavy type! and also to read the eulogistic obituary notices, deploring the loss to English literature—just at the moment too, when her genius had ripened—and when everyone hoped that she had many years of splendid work before her!
It was arranged that Marcia should be buried in the family vault at Rossleigh; her obsequies were conducted with melancholy magnificence, and Mr. Van Harmer accompanied the cortège in deepest mourning. The entire neighbourhood attended the funeral; many notable men and women in the literary world were also present. The coffin on a bier drawn by four coal-black horses, was covered with a velvet pall, on which lay one solitary wreath—a wreath of laurel. An open vehicle, which followed, was heaped with floral tributes:— the amount of these was almost as numerous as those which had recently been offered to one of England’s greatest statesmen. To Frances Benlock, it was a stupefying experience to witness these posthumous honours! the long procession of distinguished mourners, the masses of white flowers; all eloquent testimonies to the appreciation of a work which had been given to the world, not by the dead woman—but herself! A work from which Marcia Wayne had reaped honour, fortune, and celebrity.
However, she resolved to keep silence—she would never now claim, even if she could, her heart’s treasure, “The Reckoning.”
Marcia’s mother, Mrs. Benlock, who for the first and only time of her life was at Rossleigh, and acutely sensitive of her own importance, had suddenly become a person of wealth,—if not distinction. To sympathetic visitors, she posed, in expensive mourning, as the disconsolate and desolate parent who had lost the light and pride of her existence! but to Marcia’s maid, she exhibited a different view—the business-like side of her character. As nearest-of-kin, she seized upon all her daughter’s belongings (including the new trousseau) and went systematically through every box and every drawer—no, not so much as a pair of gloves was overlooked! Her methods were more those of an avaricious old wardrobe-dealer than a woman who had suffered a recent bereavement.
Before leaving London, this grasping little widow had a terrific encounter with Mr. Van Harmer; on this occasion, Greek truly did meet Greek. It must be confessed, that the quarrel respecting the diamond tiara and pearls was most unseemly; but ultimately the lady suffered defeat, and the man of affairs held his own. Mrs. Benlock had also an interview with Marcia’s publishers, and announced that in future, all payments were to be made to her solicitor; as the authoress’s brother and sister had withdrawn their claim upon her estate. If Marcia could but have foreseen the fate of her ill-gotten gains!
For some months after Miss Benlock had arrived at home, she seemed to be depressed and silent; naturally this was attributed to the shock of her cousin’s sudden death, and to grief at her loss—but such was not the case. A return to her own room, the Cabin, had brought with it the memory of a poignant revelation. Here she recalled the letter, and its contents—and realised that Marcia had robbed her of both love and fame. By-and-by she revived, and began to see Rufus in his true light; kind-hearted and affectionate,—but weak, and unstable. The attachment she felt for him was now merely maternal; the great love which had once blazed up in her heart had flickered out and died. She recognised that she had been infatuated with an ideal; not with a faithless individual, who could make serious love to two women within a fortnight—but to do Rufus justice, Frances never understood the extraordinary influence, the almost hypnotic ascendancy, that Marcia had exercised over him.
He came to Rossleigh daily as formerly; although he was aware that he could never now be master there; nevertheless, it was his sheet anchor, and his home; and he ultimately settled down to be a harmless old bachelor, in flattering request for Garden-parties, Bazaars, and Bridge. With regard to the secret of “The Reckoning,” the only person who ever guessed it was the Rev. Clement Hermon. One day, as he was sitting with Miss Benlock in the Cabin, discussing a recent literary success, he suddenly said,
“Do you know that I once had an idea that you had written a big book.”
Frances gazed at him with startled eyes. “But why?” she asked uneasily.
“Because I knew you were working at something; you remember how you employed me to hunt up dates and information respecting the beginning of the nineteenth century? I got it into my head that you were writing a book—although you never gave me any real grounds to go upon. Not long after your breakdown, I had a dream, which was so vivid that I came here, and interviewed Mrs. Wayne, and asked her if you had not left a manuscript?—as I knew she had gone through all your papers.”
“And what did she say?” asked Frances, in a voice that was almost inaudible.
“She laughed at the idea—scoffed at it—--and assured me that dreams went by contraries!—that you had not left a scrap of manuscript of any description. She even brought me up to this room, and invited me to go through the bureau myself—but of course there was nothing!”
As he concluded, he looked interrogatively at Miss Benlock. For the moment she had lost all control over her countenance—her mouth twitched, and her eyes were wet.
“Ah, I see!” he exclaimed, “so my intuition was right—and there was a book! It was you who wrote ‘The Reckoning’?”
Still Miss Benlock remained silent; but two large, tell-tale tears rolled down her face, and splashed upon her hands.
“When I read it—it occurred to me that some of the lines and notes were identical with those with which I had provided you—and it was written in the same clear, crisp style, as the little articles signed F.B.—am I not right?”
Frances nodded assent. For some time, she found it impossible to speak; at last, she faltered in a choked voice,
“It is true; I wrote “The Reckoning’—not a soul knows this but myself—and you must swear to keep my secret. Had Marcia lived,—--I believe I would have struggled hard to recover the child of my brain—although as she pointed out to me, I had not a single proof; she was my sole witness! Yes, in all the world, Marcia alone knew of the existence of the novel—she was tempted,—--and took it! but since she is dead, the authorship of ‘The Reckoning’ shall rest in her grave.”
Miss Benlock has once more taken up her pen, and now writes openly, with ease, and confidence, the Rev. Clement Hermon, being her assistant, adviser, and critic. A book, which she has recently published, has become widely popular; indeed in it, many people have seen a surprising resemblance to the work of her celebrated relative! It exhibited the same style, the same distinction, and the same outlook upon life; and in literary circles it is hoped, and believed, that the mantle of Marcia Wayne has fallen upon her cousin’s shoulders.