The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Pit Town Coronet, Volume II (of 3), by Charles James Wills

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Title: The Pit Town Coronet, Volume II (of 3)

A Family Mystery.

Author: Charles James Wills

Release Date: February 23, 2013 [eBook #42168]

Language: English

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THE
PIT TOWN CORONET:
A Family Mystery.

BY
CHARLES J. WILLS,

AUTHOR OF

IN THE LAND OF THE LION AND SUN, ETC.

IN THREE VOLUMES.
VOL. II.

WARD AND DOWNEY,
12, YORK STREET, COVENT GARDEN, LONDON, W.C.
1888

[The right of translation is reserved, and the Dramatic Copyright protected.]

PRINTED BY
KELLY AND CO., GATE STREET, LINCOLN'S INN FIELDS, W.C.;
AND MIDDLE MILL, KINGSTON-ON-THAMES.


CONTENTS

CHAP.PAGE
I.A Horrible Scandal 1
II.At the Parsonage 27
III.How they came Home 51
IV.The Return of the Wanderer 73
V.The Misses Sleek drop in 94
VI.The Sleeks in Arcadia 117
VII.Haggard comes into his own 138
VIII.The Vicar tries Puffin 167
IX.Mr. Puffin hunts a Butterfly 190
X.A rather Shady Character 213
XI.Esau was the Firstborn 236
XII.In St. John's Wood 276

THE PIT TOWN CORONET.

CHAPTER I.

A HORRIBLE SCANDAL.

[Pg 1]

Dull as the life of the little château on the lake necessarily was, yet Georgie Haggard did not suffer from ennui seemed in fact to rather revel in the quietude, and to luxuriate in the seclusion of the Swiss villa, after the fatigues and excitements of a busy London season and the turmoil and the incidental worries which must always attend an extended foreign tour, even when it is taken for pleasure, and when expense is no object. The position of the villa was sufficiently romantic; behind it were the snow-covered Alps, Mont Blanc always clearly visible; and all in front stretched the lake with its glorious [Pg 2] blue water of that intense azure which is only seen on this Geneva lake. Why it should be so very blue is, and always will be, a mystery; of course it has been explained by scientific people in various manners satisfactory to themselves, but the fact remains that the lake is of a deeper blue than any other European water, and strange to say the intense colour is just as apparent in the shallowest parts. One may row over a place not more than a yard deep, where the bottom is clearly perceptible, but the waters are as blue as ever, a deep unnatural ultramarine blue, a blue which is seen only here and in the choicest specimens of the Oriental turquoise.

The establishment at the Villa Lambert consisted of the permanent staff of the place, the aged Savoyard and his wife, who spoke an abominable and unintelligible patois; these two people were the Gibeonites of the villa. At earliest dawn the pair rose and toiled till an hour after [Pg 3] sunset. The man worked in the garden, broke the firewood, drew water from the well, attended to the ponies, and wore the face of a martyr. The woman got through the labours of four ordinary English servants, she was cook, housekeeper, housemaid, and an entire staff in herself; she spoke to no one save her morose husband and Haggard's polyglot Swiss servant; she scrubbed, she polished her numerous brazen pots and pans till they shone like mirrors; every particle of woodwork in the house was washed and polished by her, till it resembled that seen in the Dutch village of Broek. But the great delight of the pair was the waxing and polishing of the curious inlaid parquet flooring of the salon which looked upon the lake. Lucy Warrender had been considerably surprised when she saw this process for the first time. A strange hissing noise, which continued for some minutes, gradually diminished in intensity, and then ceased altogether, only to recommence with renewed vigour, [Pg 4] surprised the two girls as they sat at breakfast. "What can it be, Georgie?" she remarked in astonishment to her cousin.

"It's in the next room, I think, dear," said the young matron; "but it's very easy to see." She opened the door of the salon. Husband and wife, with portentous gravity, the woman having her skirts well tucked up, their arms a-kimbo, were apparently skating up and down the room. To them it was evidently a very serious business; they never smiled, but the perspiration streamed from their foreheads as they flew up and down. A large flat brush was attached to each foot of either. They were polishing the floor, and their appearance was sufficiently ludicrous. Lucy looked at her cousin; the absurdity of the scene was too much for her; she closed the door and laughed till she cried.

Mrs. Haggard's maid was an invaluable servant, who understood her duties and never seemed to forget anything. Hephzibah seldom spoke; perhaps, [Pg 5] like the parrot in the story, she thought the more. The girl was in her way religious. That valuable work, once so popular but now so seldom seen, "The Dairyman's Daughter," was her only literature, but she seemed to be never tired of reading it.

Capt, the valet, was equally quiet in his way, equally dull. He did not disdain to manufacture dainty little dishes for his young mistresses. He would row them about upon the lake. He was steward, footman, and general factotum. He never opened his mouth unless he was spoken to, and between him and Hephzibah there appeared to be a good understanding; as the reader is aware they were "keeping company."

Georgie and her cousin led quiet uneventful lives. They drove, they boated, they wandered in their large garden; but they made no new acquaintances, and they lived the lives of hermits. Once a week there was some slight excitement as to the arrival of news from the absent husband; his letters came with praiseworthy regularity. He had arrived [Pg 6] safely in Mexico; the value of his property had increased enormously. He was in treaty with half-a-dozen persons for the sale of his estates. He cursed the delays of the Mexican lawyers, who seemed to do nothing but smoke big cigars and swing themselves to sleep all day in hammocks. He pathetically bemoaned the unavoidable separation from his dear Georgie. He wasn't having a bad time of it, the sport was undeniable. He had had a week with a friend at a place with an unpronounceable name. Then he described the delights of the opera house, and the great success of the new French dancer, Mademoiselle De Bondi. It seemed a pity to close finally, when land was going up in value every day, and so on, and so on, and he was his dear Georgie's affectionate husband. This was the burden of all his communications, one letter was very much like another. Haggard was evidently enjoying himself, and his affectionate Georgie, though longing for his return, did not grudge him his pleasures. [Pg 7]

Strange to say, though by force of circumstances thrown into an eternal tête-à-tête, the cousins never quarrelled. Georgie read and re-read her husband's letters. Lucy devoured one yellow-covered novel after another, and time crept slowly on. They had been four months at the Swiss villa.

It was the end of August. The two girls, they were but girls, sat on the terrace which overhung the lake. The sun was setting, as they sat dreamily gazing upon the lovely scene, which had even distracted Lucy's attention from the last naturalistic novel, which lay open on her lap. As she looked intently at the blue waters of the lake she sighed deeply. Georgie turned towards her and was startled to see that her lovely dark brown eyes were filled with tears! Georgie placed her arm softly round the girl's neck, for she dearly loved her cousin, and gently said, "What ails you, darling?"

But Lucy answered never a word, a violent burst of weeping was her only reply. [Pg 8]

Lucy, never over strong at any time, had lately caused her cousin considerable anxiety; womanlike, Lucy fought against the growing weakness; till now she had hidden her increasing melancholy under an appearance of forced gaiety, which had not deceived her cousin, but only increased her alarm.

The elder girl knelt at Lucy's feet—her own Lucy whom she still looked upon in her heart as a little child.

"Does anything worry you, darling?" she said.

No answer.

"Trust me, Lucy; we are always friends, let me share this trouble."

"I can't," faltered the girl, as she gnawed her lips, which trembled and turned pale; "I think I shall drown myself."

Then Georgie took the blanched hand of the motherless girl, and entreated her.

"Do tell me, darling; you must tell me, Lucy. Something is preying on your mind; trust me, do trust me, pet." [Pg 9]

Not then did Lucy Warrender tell her trouble to her cousin. But that night, unwillingly and ungraciously enough, she told her grief. Pale as a ghost, her fingers intertwined in a convulsive grip, she knelt by her cousin's bed and told her shameful story. She made her pitiful appeal. With dilated eyes, Georgina listened in terror to Lucy's confidence. It was the old tale. Lucy was about to become a mother; this was all she told. Was it not enough? She looked imploringly up at her cousin as she whispered:

"You can save me, Georgie, if you will—if you love me, as I know you do; and if you won't, there is nothing left for me but the lake, the cold, cruel lake." Here she laughed hysterically, and nestled to her cousin's breast.

The elder girl was struck dumb. The shame of it, the bitter shame of this accursed thing.

There was a silence, only broken by the monotonous ticking of the [Pg 10] carved Swiss clock and the deep sobs of the kneeling girl. There was a sudden whiz of spinning wheels—"Cuckoo! cuckoo!" screamed the little painted bird derisively, as he appeared for an instant from his tiny box to mark the hour. Both girls started at the inauspicious interruption.

"I save you, my darling! How can I save you? And father, poor father. Oh, Lucy! how could you—how could you so deceive us all? But he must be sent for—who is the man? He must marry you—he will marry you, of course, at once, this gentleman!"

But Lucy only sobbed the more.

"He will never marry me, Georgie. You can save me, you alone!"

She never named the man.

They talked on far into the night; and as they wept and whispered, the painted wooden demon ever and again sprang from his box and startled them with his discordant cry, [Pg 11]

"Cuckoo! cuckoo!"

How could she refuse? Much against her will at last she yielded; she agreed to deceive the absent husband who trusted her—that heartless husband whom she idolized. From that day forward the sound of a cuckoo clock—the voice of the bird himself, as she heard him in the woods—sounded in her ear as the cry of a mocking devil. Little did she dream that, in weakly yielding to her cousin's piteous entreaty, she was sowing the seed of which she and hers should reap the bitter harvest.

What could she do, poor girl? She felt it was her duty. Who can tell if she erred? If so, it was on mercy's side. Next morning Lucy was herself again; she was once more the buoyant, merry girl, who smiled and chattered, and sang her little scraps of French songs, making the sunshine of the house. The rôles were changed. Never again shall the light of perfect happiness beam in Georgie Haggard's once honest [Pg 12] eyes—those eyes now red with weeping, full of the secret sorrow of her cousin's bitter confidence. It is always painful to an honourable mind to play the part of a conspirator, and that thankless rôle was now forced upon poor Georgie—willy-nilly she had to do it. Lucy's fertile brain teemed with plan, with plot, with stratagem; certain of ultimately conquering the scruples of her gentle and loving cousin, she had evidently thought the matter out.

"We ought to trust nobody, you know," said the younger girl, who had suddenly assumed the management of everything. Startled and horrified, Georgie had become in regard to her cousin, that born intriguer, but as clay in the hands of the potter. "No, we ought not to, but we must. If ever a girl in this world could keep her tongue between her teeth, it's that pale Hephzibah of ours, and trust her we must, there's nothing else for it." [Pg 13]

Lucy's tongue, once loosed, never seemed to tire. Her despondency and melancholy, her load of carking care, were all transferred as by the wave of a magician's wand to her cousin's shoulders. Alas! that cousin, that patient, loving cousin is perhaps destined to carry to her grave the fardel of another's weakness, the punishment of a worthless woman's fault.

Georgie, from that hour, was a changed girl. No more the once happy, loving eyes gazed on the younger girl with more than a mother's pride. From that day Georgie feared her cousin, and Lucy soon detected the new sentiment which she had unexpectedly inspired. The younger dictated, the elder acquiesced.

"Georgie," she once suddenly said, when they were alone together on the little platform which hung over the blue waters of the lake, "swear to me that you will never betray my secret." She clutched her cousin's hand with fierce insistance and stamped her little foot; "swear to me," she [Pg 14] said in a hoarse whisper, "that never by word or letter you will reveal my secret—our secret," she added with a smile. If ever a pretty woman's smile was devilish, Lucy Warrender's was, as she insisted on this partnership in her guilt.

"Have I ever deceived you, Lucy, that you should want me to swear?"

"But you shall swear, Georgie," she reiterated almost savagely. "I have gone too far to hesitate at trifles now, and if you don't, you will never see me more," she added menacingly, as she pointed to the lake. Her little figure seemed to increase in height, so sternly determined was her aspect.

Georgie cowered in mingled anxiety and horror.

"Swear to me," she said, and she emphasized the command, for it was no longer an entreaty, by a fierce clutch at her cousin's wrist, "never to [Pg 15] a soul till the day of your death will you breathe a word of it. Swear."

"I do swear it, Lucy," replied the dominated victim, and she buried her face in her hands.

The next day the two English ladies left the Villa Lambert in an open carriage.

The faithful Capt was told to be ready for their return in a few days' time. Considerably to his astonishment, he did not accompany them. As the carriage drove away the valet lighted one of those long and peculiarly nasty cigars which his countrymen seem so much to enjoy. He stood watching the carriage rapt in meditation, and his face wore a puzzled air. Then he did what no economic Switzer has probably done before or since—he actually flung away the still burning abomination. Then he spat upon the ground, and with an exaggerated shrug of his shoulders re-entered the house.

The carriage took the ladies and their maid to a small town, some [Pg 16] twelve miles off. They put up at the hotel. Next morning they took tickets by the steamer to Geneva, but less than half-way they got out at a small village, Auray, a little place totally devoid of interest, a mere hamlet never visited by the tourist; here they took a lodging, humble enough, but clean, in the house of a well-to-do widow. It was from this lodging that Georgie posted a letter containing the following advertisement, which appeared in the Times:

"At the Villa Lambert, Canton of Geneva, Switzerland, the wife of Reginald Haggard, Esq., of a son. August 20, 18—."

The cousins exchanged rôles. Lucy became Madame Haggard, while Georgie was addressed by the discreet Hephzibah as Mademoiselle Warrender.

The whole thing had evidently been carefully planned by Lucy for some time previously. She had even with infinite art written numerous letters to their relatives and friends, in which she dilated upon the strange [Pg 17] reticence of "dear Georgie" as to the whole matter. Needless to say these letters were all dated from the Villa Lambert. In her letter to Haggard, and in her more formal communication to the head of the family, the old earl at Walls End Castle, she explained how her cousin had kept the whole matter secret as a surprise for her husband; and how she, the guileless Lucy, had been unwillingly compelled to participate in the deception. All was thus satisfactorily explained as the whim of the young wife.

How she had purchased the silence of the invaluable maid it is difficult to say, whether by bribes, promises or cajolery; but Hephzibah Wallis was the servant of the Warrenders, born and bred on their land, discreet and silent.

In ten days they returned to the villa, Mrs. Haggard wrapped up as a young convalescent mother; the little bastard clothed in purple and fine linen as became his expectations as Reginald Haggard's heir. Georgie [Pg 18] was pale, great black rings surrounded her eyes; she leant heavily on the arm of the invaluable Capt, as she stepped out of the carriage which had conveyed her from the nearest wharf. But Lucy's cheery laugh, though it failed to bring a smile to the face of her cousin, soon dominated the inhabitants of the Villa Lambert. Hephzibah, full of that added dignity which every woman assumes as the guardian of an infant, sat enthroned before a blazing fire, for in Switzerland in August the evenings are chilly. It was her custom never to address Mr. Capt, save on official matters, when a third person was present. On the present occasion she went further than this, for she declined even to answer him.

Capt had bustled about, had brought in the luggage, had handed their letters to his mistresses, had received the thanks of Miss Lucy [Pg 19] Warrender for his tasteful floral decoration of the little salon, and had then suddenly subsided into an attitude of respectful admiration in front of Haggard's supposed heir. To no man or male person, save perhaps to their own fathers or their medical attendants, are very young infants objects of interest; we may therefore safely presume that Mr. Capt was either really wrapped up in the severe charms of the student of the "Dairyman's Daughter," or that he had some occult and ulterior reason for remaining to study the little group at the fireside.

"Ah, madame," exclaimed the major-domo, as he washed his hands in the air, "you will not think it a liberty when I respectfully felicitate you." But no answering smile appeared on Mrs. Haggard's face.

"Certainly not," burst in the younger girl; "you are the first of our friends to do so, Capt," she said, with an almost perceptible emphasis [Pg 20] on the word; "but we are both of us knocked up with the bustle, so get us some tea at once."

The humbly sympathizing friend became once more the respectful servant, and hurried away to carry out his young mistress's behest.

"Rouse yourself, Georgie," exclaimed the younger girl impatiently, "you really look very little like the mother of a possible heir to an earldom," she maliciously added.

But Georgie made no reply to her cousin's taunt, she merely extended her colourless hands towards the blazing fire of logs.

A pile of letters lay upon the table; one by one Lucy's active fingers tore them open, one by one she read them to her silent cousin, enlivening them with a running fire of comment. As she read each one aloud, she planted a fresh dagger in her cousin's heart, but she went steadily on with an occupation which seemed congenial. [Pg 21]

They were the usual formal congratulations for the most part: one, from the old squire, gently blamed his daughter for not having taken her father into her confidence; "but the ways of women, my dear, are mysterious, and I suppose that explains it." As Lucy read the words the tears ran down her cousin's face.

One other letter yet remained; it was addressed in a crabbed hand; its contents were as follows:

"Walls End Castle.

"My dear Child,

"Miss Warrender's letter has quite taken me by surprise; I had not the slightest inkling that I should have so soon to congratulate you both on the happy event. It gives me great pleasure to do so; though I have known you, my dear, for so short a time, you have inspired me with feelings of the liveliest affection. I need not say I am greatly [Pg 22] gratified to hear that it is a little boy. The great terror of my old age, the not unremote possibility of the extinction of my house, which always preyed upon my mind, is now removed. I shall hope to welcome the little man here ere long, and with affectionate remembrance to your cousin,

"I am, my dear child,

"Yours affectionately,

"Pit Town."

The ladies had retired for the night. A heavy mist hung over the lake, but a red spark moved slowly up and down the little terrace in front of the Villa Lambert; the spark indicated the presence of Mr. Capt, who was awaiting with lover-like impatience the arrival of the discreet Hephzibah. At length she appeared, muffled in a heavy shawl.

"Have done, do, Capt," said the maiden with indignation, as the valet imprinted a salute on her pallid lips. [Pg 23]

"I haven't commenced, my beloved, yet," retorted he. "Will it be an indiscretion to hope that Miss Hephzibah has enjoyed herself, and that the separation from her beloved Maurice has produced ever so slight a depression?" said he as he attempted to take her hand.

"Stuff," replied the Englishwoman with an indignant snort.

Here the conversation took a distinctly amatory turn, and would probably hardly interest the reader. But, under the influences of the blind god, the stern student of the "Dairyman's Daughter" seemed to thaw. She took the proffered arm of her adorer, and, like all women in love, seemed to derive a pleasure from the peculiarly pungent aroma of his cigar.

"And how did we pass our time, my Hephzibah; did we amuse ourselves? Have you nothing to tell me, my beloved, nothing to confide to me?"

The lady's maid shook her head. "Except that I've been worked off my [Pg 24] legs as you may suppose, what can I have to tell you?"

"Ah!" remarked the valet. "I can fancy that my Hephzibah always fulfils her duties to her mistress, but perhaps my too perfect angel forgets that between betrothed persons there should be no secrets."

"You don't mean to say you're jealous, Capt?" she exclaimed, as she raised her face to his.

"My love, you are discretion itself; I know you never betray a secret."

"If I had one, Capt, you would worm it out of me," she said with a smile and a perceptible pressure on his arm.

"Yes, my love, I should worm it out," he replied with intention.

Hephzibah took no notice of this remark.

"The mist is very damp, and I am very tired, Maurice; I must be going in; my mistress will wonder what has become of me, so good-night." [Pg 25]

The valet kissed the girl. "Good-bye, my love," he said. "I think you had better have trusted me. Good-bye."

"Good-night, or good-bye, if you prefer it, Mr. Capt," replied the lady's maid with dignity.

"Good-bye, my dear, good-bye, till we meet again."

Hephzibah hurried into the house.

The valet continued his walk up and down the little terrace; he was immersed in thought, he still smoked his cigar, but unconsciously; he was suddenly roused from his reflections by the fire almost touching his lips. With a curse, he flung the end into the waters, and watched it disappear with a hiss. Then he walked briskly into the house.

The next morning Mr. Capt had disappeared. There was nothing wrong with the plate. On the carefully arranged breakfast table lay an envelope directed to Mrs. Haggard; it contained the man's account book, balanced [Pg 26] to a farthing; a small sum of money due from him to his mistress, and his keys.

"What does he mean by this?" said Lucy to her cousin.

Mrs. Haggard made no answer, but turning to Hephzibah, she said coldly, "Where is Capt?"

"Please, ma'am, I don't know; he's taken his things with him, and I think he is gone. I hope there is nothing wrong," said the girl, her pale face working with suppressed emotion.

Then Mrs. Haggard fainted.


CHAPTER II.

AT THE PARSONAGE.

[Pg 27]

In King's Warren Parsonage the vicar's wife was seated at her little table. Before her was a handsome service of real Queen Anne plate; the square-looking teapot with its solid ebony handle, and the bowl and jug to match, for in those days they were sugar bowls and not sugar basins. Mrs. Dodd was not alone; she had two visitors, old Mrs. Wurzel and her inseparable companion, Miss Grains. The tea was good and strong, the cream perfection; all three ladies were in the best of temper. As a rule even the most cantankerous women are placable after afternoon tea. No man had ever partaken of Mrs. Dodd's tea in her own peculiar sanctum; that honour was reserved for those of her own sex, her cronies, her [Pg 28] fellow-workers. In this little room the village scandals were threshed out, in this room the female scholars of the Sunday school received what Mrs. Dodd was pleased to call a few words of advice and admonition. What the mysterious advice was that Mrs. Dodd imparted, who can tell? One thing is certain, as they left the Vicarage they always wept, all save Jemima Ann Blogg the defiant; she alone had shed no tears.

"It's very sad," said the vicar's wife, "but I don't think any other course is open to me. I never looked upon Hephzibah Wallis as flighty; in fact, she was undoubtedly the steadiest of all my girls. It's really enough to break the old mother's heart. Why they should always want to go out of service and into matrimony I can't think; but I suppose they are all the same; but this is the climax. The creature actually declares that she has engaged herself to a foreigner."

The eyes of the other two members of the council of three were raised [Pg 29] in mingled astonishment and horror.

"Yes, it's too true," continued the vicaress; "but I shall not hesitate in my duty, which is plain: she must be saved from the foreigner and herself. I'll read you her letter.

"'Villa Lambert.

"'Dear Mother,

"'You will be glad to hear that we are all well. We are living in what they call a villa, and though I like quiet the life is very dull. All through our travels Mr. Capt, who, as you know, is Mr. Haggard's own man, has been very attentive to me; he has asked me to marry him. I think it only right, dear mother, to consult you and father before saying yes. I should tell you that we are much attached to each other. Mr. Capt is very respectable, and very clever, too, for a foreigner. He is a Swiss gentleman. I'm sure you would like to hear him talk, though [Pg 30] he's sometimes rather difficult to understand, as he uses so many dictionary words. I suppose it will have to be a long engagement, for, as you know, service is no heritage, and we are both in service. What Mr. Capt wishes me to do is to be married to him here at once, which he says would be much nicer than being engaged; but I don't think it would be right to keep it from mistress, as she has been so kind. Please let me have an answer by return, as Mr. Capt is very anxious. Give my love to father, and hoping this finds you both well,

"'I am,

"'Your loving daughter,

"'Hephzibah Wallis.'"

"Poor thing," exclaimed the stout Miss Grains, for she felt a ready sympathy, as an engaged young woman, with the whole of the rest of her sex who were in a similar position. [Pg 31]

"Poor thing, indeed," cried the vicaress, "shameless thing, I call her; a girl who has been educated under my own eyes, who was actually confirmed in this very parish, calmly proposes to degrade herself, her parents and me by secretly marrying a disgusting foreigner, for foreigners are disgusting, as a rule. I shall forbid it, I shall distinctly forbid it; it's a duty I owe to dear Georgie. I am disappointed in Hephzibah Wallis."

"I'm afraid, Mrs. Dodd, it will be difficult to save the girl; here we are in King's Warren, while she is in Switzerland, and no doubt the man makes love to her," insinuated Mrs. Wurzel.

"Ah, yes," said the brewer's daughter softly, as she thought of her own little flirtation with the sallow French master, whose classes she had attended.

"They may be fascinating," said Mrs. Wurzel spitefully, "but they always smell of tobacco and never cut their nails." [Pg 32]

Alas! the accusation was too true as regards the French master, at all events, and the brewer's daughter was temporarily extinguished.

"To a person in the position of Hephzibah Wallis," said the vicar's wife magisterially, "the length of their nails is of little importance; it's their want of principle that I object to; as for this creature Capt, like the rest of them he is, I suppose, an atheist, or perhaps worse, a Papist, for when he was here with his master he never once came inside the church. Goody Wallis has asked me to write to her, and I shall certainly do so at once, distinctly forbidding it. I haven't mentioned the matter to Anastatia, for she is so weak and romantic that she's quite capable of writing herself to the girl and inciting her to rebellion."

Here she carefully folded the letter and replaced it in her writing desk.

"And your sister-in-law's own affair, dear Mrs. Dodd, is it an [Pg 33] indiscretion to ask you if it is settled yet?" said old Mrs. Wurzel with sympathetic interest.

"Stacey Dodd, Mrs. Wurzel, is, I regret to say, of a secretive nature; she does not confide in me. No, her own sister-in-law is the last person whom she would trust. But I believe, mind I do not state it as a fact, but I have reason to believe that she has refused the squire; his age was an obstacle, you know, and then Lucy would have been a difficulty. I don't think it would quite have been a bed of roses; that girl would have been a very serious responsibility indeed."

A discreet tap was heard at the door.

The vicar never presumed to enter his wife's room without knocking; he evidently had something to communicate. He saluted the ladies and commenced his tale at once.

"A dreadful thing has happened. I have just returned from The Warren, [Pg 34] where I left the squire in a natural state of violent indignation."

The ladies expressed their curiosity.

The portly vicar continued:

"Oh, there's no secret about it, the country is ringing with it."

Then he read the paragraph in The Sphere, with which the reader is acquainted.

"Then, Mr. Dodd, we may understand that Georgina is the wife of a murderer," said Mrs. Dodd.

"Well, my dear, not exactly that; you see they say he received great provocation, so he was bound to go out with him, I suppose."

"Then my husband, a beneficed clergyman of the Church of England, approves of duelling, and is actually the champion of the—the—the assassin."

The vicar's wife was fond of strong words; this was the strongest one she knew of, so she used it. [Pg 35]

"Well, but, my dear, consider the circumstances."

"No circumstances can excuse a murder, Mr. Dodd. I hope he won't come here; don't let him dare to offer me his blood-stained hand; his mere presence would be enough to contaminate the whole village. Will they hang him?" she asked with interest.

"Oh, Mrs. Dodd," said the brewer's daughter, clasping her hands, for the thought that she herself had witnessed the marriage of this interesting criminal thrilled her very soul.

"Of course she will leave him at once," continued the vicar's wife; "were the case my own," she said, "I should not hesitate for an instant."

A slight smile rippled across the broad countenance of the vicar; perhaps it passed through his mind that were he not a clergyman there might yet be a means of escape for him. [Pg 36]

"It is of men such as this," cried the indignant vicar's wife, "that Shakespeare speaks. Yes," she said clenching her fingers, "every honest hand should hold a whip to lash the rascal naked through the world."

"It would be a highly indecent spectacle, my dear," said the vicar with a chuckle.

"I am speaking figuratively, Mr. Dodd."

"Of course, my dear, of course. In the meanwhile old Warrender is horribly angry, as well he may be."

The ladies' little meeting now broke up. Old Mrs. Wurzel hastened to the stationer's to order a copy of The Sphere and all the society papers, then, bursting with the news, she proceeded to call upon the Misses Sleek to tell her tale.

By midnight every soul in King's Warren was in possession of the fact that Georgie Haggard's husband had fought a duel and had killed his man.

The Misses Sleek did not hesitate to express to each other when [Pg 37] retiring for the night their united opinion that Mrs. Haggard was a very lucky girl.

"I always said he was a hero," said the younger sister with a sigh, and then she went to sleep to dream of him.

It is a moot question as to who can claim the title of esquire. Now a-days everybody is Mr., Mrs., or Miss. But Mrs. Dodd was uncompromising; in her mind servants, labourers and criminals should be addressed by their Christian and surname, and no more. When she was unaware of the name she was accustomed to address all males by the epithet "man." There is something very scathing, very exasperating too, in being addressed in this way. Had poor Hephzibah herself been actually in the flesh at King's Warren, Mrs. Dodd would, undoubtedly, have addressed her as "girl;" as it was she merely adopted the Spartan mode which is used by judges at a jail delivery. The tone of the judgment, [Pg 38] for we can hardly call it a letter, will be best seen if given at length:

"Hephzibah Wallis,

"Your poor mother came to me in great trouble yesterday bringing with her the flippant, the almost indecent letter, which you had thought proper to send her. Little did I think, Hephzibah Wallis, when I placed in your hands the beautiful copy of the 'Dairyman's Daughter,' which I had intended should be your guide through life, and which you afterwards so hypocritically informed me you frequently perused, that I was patronizing a girl who was about to rush headlong to her own destruction. If I remember rightly, the dairyman's daughter was a sickly person like yourself, but she would never have degraded herself by even hinting at an immoral marriage with a foreigner; nor would she have ever dared to propose such an abomination to her own mother as a [Pg 39] marriage which should be kept secret from her mistress and from the wife of her parochial clergyman. I shall not, then, shrink, Hephzibah Wallis, from the duty of warning you. Except among the upper classes marriages with foreigners always end in misery; and it is extremely doubtful whether such unions in the eyes of heaven are marriages at all. I have repeatedly pointed out to my girls at the Sunday school, and to you among the number, that no young woman in domestic service should think of entering upon the marriage state till she is past all work. I was pained to see by your letter that you have evidently hardened your heart, and I am aware that the deaf adder will not listen to the voice of the charmer, charm he (or she) never so wisely. I know that you are exposed to the dangerous fascinations of a designing foreign manservant, who, to use your own expression, only addresses you in 'dictionary words;' no doubt such language is apt to turn the head of any young [Pg 40] woman. But let me tell you, Hephzibah Wallis, that you will have a far greater chance of happiness in this world, and the next, as the wife of an English deaf mute of high principle, than you would have if married (even in the unlikely contingency of such a marriage turning out to be legal) to any foreigner, however eloquent, who is of course, as all such people are, wholly irreligious.

"If this letter, as I trust it may, should be the means of softening your heart and so saving you from the ruin to which you are evidently hastening, it will not have been written in vain. I grudge no trouble in the duty that Providence has forced upon me of superintending the lives of any of my girls. You of course are subject to great temptations, but you must never forget your duty to me and to your mistress, particularly now that she (your unhappy mistress) is, as I hear with pain and [Pg 41] consternation, the wife of a murderer. I trust that you will frequently read this letter when in doubt or temptation, and that it may be the means of preserving you is the earnest desire of

"Your well-wisher,

"Cecilia Dodd."

Mrs. Dodd posted her letter herself, and to make assurance doubly sure she registered it.

When at lunch with her husband she broke to him the fact that she had written a letter "full of kind advice," as she phrased it, "to that flighty creature, Goody Wallis's daughter."

"It's a troublesome and anxious duty, Mr. Dodd," she said, "to look after them all; but I try to shield all my girls from possible harm, and this one evidently meditated making a fool of herself."

"You are always judicious, my dear," said the vicar.

"This house and this parish would not be what they are, Mr. Dodd, were [Pg 42] it not for me."

"My love, I am fully sensible of my great good fortune."

"John," said the vicar's wife as soon as they were alone, "one of us ought to write to that poor thing."

"What poor thing, my dear?"

"I mean the squire's unhappy daughter," she said.

"Good heavens, Cecilia, for goodness sake, let her alone."

"Leave her alone in the hour of her tribulation! Mr. Dodd, is that your advice as a clergyman, or is it your other entity, the man of the world, who speaks?"

"Common prudence, my dear, suggests discretion."

"And who shall listen to the whisper of prudence, when common duty speaks so loudly, Mr. Dodd?"

"My dear, 'too many cooks spoil the broth,' is a homely saying." [Pg 43]

"A vulgar proverb, Mr. Dodd."

"But full of wisdom, my dear, as are most proverbs. I think there is another culinary hint, too, that I remember, 'It is good not to introduce one's finger into one's neighbour's pie.'"

"And is the murderer, then, to escape with impunity, Mr. Dodd? Is he to have at least no moral punishment; is the indignant finger of outraged society not to be pointed at him; is he with impunity to go out to slay whomsoever he will; and is there to be no Nemesis for such as he?"

"Oh, as much as you like, my dear; but there's no reason why you should personally represent outraged society."

"If I felt it a duty, Mr. Dodd, I should certainly represent outraged society, and Nemesis too, if I pleased."

"Of course, my dear, of course, and doubtless con amore."

"John!" said the indignant wife. [Pg 44]

But the vicar, having fired the last shot in his locker, had fled.

Fortunately Mrs. Dodd's time for the next fortnight was pretty well taken up. What with visitors who came to her to ascertain what they called the real truth; what with answering the innumerable inquiries of her large circle of acquaintance on what was now getting to be known as the "Haggard Scandal," Mrs. Dodd was fully occupied. It was a happy thing for Georgie; the young wife remained in ignorance of her husband's escapade. She was spared the threatened letter of advice and admonition.

Not one word did old Warrender breathe to his daughter of the matter.

The details of the affair however, that is to say of the actual meeting itself, were pretty well known in town. General Pepper had no cause for reticence. Men who had barely nodded to him before, now amicably grasped [Pg 45] the warrior's hand, and asked him to the most recherché dinners; and his inevitable description of the duel, at dessert, usually formed the feature of the evening. Cards of invitation from the most distinguished personages rained down upon the fortunate veteran in profusion. Report said that he had even lunched with the Commander-in-Chief. His cronies at the Pandemonium accused him of assuming an air of habitual arrogance. Captain Spotstroke swore that the general had cut him in St. James's Street.

But in London the lives of chance lions are short; people began to forget the Haggard duel and to cease to long for the presence of General Pepper, C.B. Grosvenor Square ceased to invite him to her banquets, though he was still a welcome guest in the mansions of Bayswater and Maida Vale.

As for Lord Pit Town, he was of the old school. He ascertained, from a reliable source of information, that Haggard had not been the aggressor. For a gentleman to go out with another gentleman before breakfast, to [Pg 46] settle their mutual differences, seemed to him the most natural thing in life. The faithful Wolff too, as a graduate of a German university, had been a fighter of duels in his youth. Wrapped in the bandages, the pads, the plastrons, and the guards customary on such occasions, he and the other young fellows had pluckily stood up to chop at each others' faces, on what those enthusiasts were pleased to term the field of honour. Their eternal occupation in the new galleries soon caused Haggard and his duel to be forgotten by both, and, save in King's Warren parish itself, the whole matter ceased to be remembered.

Perhaps the very last mention of the affair, even there, was made by Miss Sleek, upon a rather memorable occasion to her father.

The young ladies at "The Park," notwithstanding their undeniable good looks and good temper, had failed to find admirers, at least eligible admirers, in King's Warren. Over-dressed young men, generally beaux of [Pg 47] Capel Court, used to be brought down to stay from Saturday till Monday, to beguile the tedium of the girls' lives, by their indulgent papa. But the golden youth of the Stock Exchange found little favour in the eyes of the Misses Sleek. Generally at the second or third visit the gaily-clad young men would propose to one sister or the other, but both girls still remained heart-whole, and their father was not over anxious to lose them.

"My dears," said he one evening to his daughters, "Dabbler's coming down to-morrow. I do want you to be civil to Dabbler."

Now Dabbler was a widower; he was not of prepossessing appearance, and his h's troubled him, but Dabbler was a warm man. The Misses Sleek on hearing their father's announcement looked at each other in a meaning manner; to do them justice, perhaps because they had plenty of money themselves, perhaps because they were both rather romantically [Pg 48] inclined, neither coveted the honour of consoling the unhappy Dabbler for his rather recent loss.

"Of course we shall be civil, papa," said the elder girl; "we always are civil to Mr. Dabbler."

The father smiled upon his dutiful children and gave no further sign.

On the Saturday Mr. Dabbler arrived. He was very attentive to both girls, neither of whom showed any desire to monopolize his society. On the Sunday afternoon the conversation turned on the recent duel at Rome. The ladies defended Haggard's conduct, while Mr. Dabbler laughed at duels and duellists, and stated his conviction that "that fellow Haggard deserved to be 'ung." Whereupon both girls were highly indignant; they rapturously commended Haggard's valiant behaviour. Unfortunate Dabbler, now upon his mettle, declared that "should he ever want satisfaction, his solicitor should get it for him." [Pg 49]

The girls retorted at once "that in their eyes such a course was detestable, that they could never even respect, much less like, any one who professed such sentiments."

Dabbler, who had rather hesitated between his partner's daughters, and who, in his own mind, had decided that he had but to come, to see and to conquer, was a man used to arrive at determinations at once. From that instant he made up his mind that neither of the Misses Sleek would suitably fill the vacant place at the head of his dining-table.

As the two men went to town on the Monday by the fast morning train, Sleek, as he unfolded his Times, turned with a smile to his partner.

"Well, Dab," he said, "which is the lucky one?"

"They won't 'ave me, my boy," replied the other philosophically.

"And why not, in the name of common sense, pray?" replied his partner in some astonishment. [Pg 50]

"Because I'm not a Nero," returned Dabbler with a sigh.

"What?" said Sleek.

"We will not continue this conversation, Mr. Sleek," said Dabbler solemnly, and both gentlemen buried themselves in their newspapers.


CHAPTER III.

HOW THEY CAME HOME.

[Pg 51]

"The Warren,

"May 2nd, 18—.

"My dear Child,

"Lucy's letter announcing the happy event took me so much by surprise that I could do little more than formally congratulate you. As you say, I gave you no news whatever; to tell you the truth, there was very little to give; but, my dear child, you will have to come home immediately and see how the old man is getting on for yourself. The fact is that I have had a long letter from my friend Pit Town, who is greatly pleased and delighted at the birth of your boy. He alludes, my dear, to the possibility—and unlikelier things have happened—of the little fellow some day coming into his title, and what will go with it—his [Pg 52] immense wealth. He suggests, as he delicately puts it, that he should like to see the little chap at once; but, my dear, what he really means is that the little Lucius should be seen in the flesh. When you were managing your little surprise for your husband and me, my dear, you forgot that the little stranger was the direct heir to an earldom, and that though it is exceedingly improbable that my grandchild will ever be a peer, still stranger things have happened. Baby should certainly be in evidence.

"My old friend Pit Town has written me quite an affectionate letter, and he has succeeded in considerably altering my ideas on the subject of what he calls your husband's peccadillo at Rome. When I was a young man, of course such things were frequent occurrences; but manners are changed now. You will forgive me, my dear, when I say that I think your husband has already sown a sufficiently large crop of wild oats. Let us hope [Pg 53] his new responsibilities will sober him; I trust they may. You will hear nothing more on this matter in future, rest assured, nor shall I ever mention it to your husband.

"Pit Town thinks, and so do I, that you had better come home at once. The old man, my dear, has been very miserable without you both for the last few months; and The Warren has not seemed the same place since its young mistresses have been away.

"Lucy tells me to give you all the gossip. You will be amused to hear that the vicar's wife goes about declaring that I am on the point of a marriage with Miss Hood. The fact is, my dear, that I might have given you a mother in the form of Miss Anastatia Dodd, and I fear that, by the ladies at the Vicarage, I am looked upon as a designing old man. I need not tell you that I had no idea of paying our dear old friend the very [Pg 54] poor compliment of making her an offer of my heart and hand, but Mrs. Dodd will have it that it is so, and as her husband says, it's no use arguing with her. When we meet, the vicar's wife greets me with a snort of indignation. I fear that this is old wives' talk. You will be glad to hear——"

Here, the letter ran off into home matters, interesting enough perhaps to the girls, but trifles which in no way concern this history. The old man wound up by declaring his intense desire to see both the cousins and his "dear grandchild" as soon as possible. He also gave an affectionate message from Lord Pit Town asking them both to make an indefinite stay at Walls End Castle.

Such was the letter from the old squire that reached the ladies in their temporary home upon the Swiss lake.

Somehow or other the maternal rôle, which had been so suddenly thrown upon Georgina, had become not ungrateful to her. Perhaps she found some sort of consolation in lavishing endearments upon the unconscious [Pg 55] infant, the little Lucius who lay asleep upon her lap. As for his real mother, she took very little notice of the child. Whether it was pure heartlessness, or whether what had been first policy had now become a sort of second nature, it is difficult to say. Lucy had begun by posing as the child's aunt, and she played the part to the life. As for Georgie, probably the maternal instinct was strongly developed in her; it usually is in women who are naturally affectionate; perhaps it began in pity, but it was very evident now, both to her cousin and to Hephzibah Wallis, that young Mrs. Haggard was excessively fond of the little child of shame. Suddenly placed in her extraordinary position, separated from the father whom she loved and the unworthy husband whom she idolized, without a friend or confidant, subdued by the master mind of her cousin, is it to be wondered at that the young wife would sit for hours nursing the unconscious cause of all her woes? [Pg 56]

The cousins presented a remarkable contrast. As for Lucy, the flush of health was on her cheek, her eyes sparkled with the triumph of her recent escape and her delight at the success of her own machinations. Her clear voice might be heard ringing through the house as it trilled forth the little French chansons of more than dubious propriety that she loved so well.

"Don't sulk, Georgie," she would say, and with a laugh she would place her hand on her hip and imitating the gesture of Theresa, then still in vogue, she would warble:

"Je suis l'heureuse gardeuse de l'ours."

"Yes, you are a bear, Georgie, and twice as sulky." But Georgie, paler than usual, dark rings round her eyes, would lie flaccidly in her lounge chair, the infant on her lap, and decline to be galvanized even into momentary life by her cousin's taunts or innuendoes. There she would sit for hours together, gazing into space, the silent victim of another's fault. Why did she not rebel? Why did she not insist on informing her [Pg 57] husband at least of her cousin's lapse, of her ignoble stratagem? Probably because she was too conscientious. With some few people truth-telling is a sort of religion, a kind of Obi, a fetish; so it was with young Mrs. Haggard. She had promised, nay she had sworn. A voice, more awful than that of the Veiled Prophet, ever cried in her ear, "Thy oath, thy oath." Deception, so hateful to her truthful soul, she was compelled to carry on even against her trusting husband. Many a time and oft had she pleaded, with tears, to the remorseless girl who looked so soft and yielding. But the tender lines of Lucy's voluptuous figure covered a marble heart.

"Reginald would never betray you, darling," she had said. "He would do anything for my sake, for us and for this poor little thing." Here her eyes filled with tears as she kissed the unconscious infant in her arms. [Pg 58]

"It's no use, Georgie, you've promised, and I shan't release you. You are a most interesting young mother. You look the part; there is a sort of matronly dignity about you, Georgie, that I could never hope to attain. Don't plague me," she continued. "As for telling Reginald or any soul alive, I'd die first; and mind you I mean it, it's no idle talk. If you ever should be so cruel as to tell my secret, our secret—if you should dare to tell it, even to hint it, Georgie"—and here the lovely eyes seemed to scintillate with suppressed fury—"you would bid good-bye to me, at all events in this world," and then she would go off into a half hysterical laugh.

At first scenes such as these were frequent, but Georgie gradually ceased to plead. She had reluctantly now accepted her position, and recognized her cousin's determination as immutable.

Lucy had read her uncle's letter aloud, eagerly breaking the seal; for [Pg 59] her cousin had drifted into a state of listless apathy, a kind of dull indifference, from which even a letter from her much-loved father failed to rouse her. No look of interest, no answering smile lit up her once bright features as Lucy read the letter, interlarding it, as was her way, with a running fire of comment. When she came to the invitation to the Castle she could not restrain the exuberance of her delight, but clapped her hands in girlish glee.

"I see fresh triumphs, Georgie," she said, "with my prophetic eye. You will complete your subjugation of the old lord, and the philosophic Dr. Wolff will certainly propose to me. As for the heirs, they shall all sigh in chorus, from Lord Hetton to your father-in-law. But it is you who ought to be troubled by the suitors, patient Penelope that you are. I suppose uncle's letter must be taken as a royal mandate, and that we must leave here at once. I shan't be sorry to leave this place; there have been no sunny memories of foreign lands for us here, have there, [Pg 60] Georgie?" she said, with some little show of affection, as she placed her hand upon her cousin's shoulder. But young Mrs. Haggard shrank from her touch with an almost imperceptible shudder.

Since Mr. Capt's mysterious departure from the Villa Lambert things had not gone on so pleasantly as under the reign of that invaluable domestic. Lucy Warrender at least had missed the thousand and one delicate attentions of the valet. The various little appetizing kickshaws that he was in the habit of concocting for the delectation of his young mistresses had disappeared. The living rooms and the table service no longer presented the attractive appearance they had done under his superintendence. But worst of all, Hephzibah Wallis distinctly sulked; no other word will express the condition of that love-lorn maid. Bereft of her admirer, her study of that depressing masterpiece, "The [Pg 61] Dairyman's Daughter," became more intense; her very presence was a kind of blight as she silently performed her duties in her usual mechanical way. Never over strong, the loss of her lover was painfully apparent in Hephzibah's appearance: her muddy complexion became almost ghastly in its sallowness, and her pale lips grew almost colourless. That the girl was ill was very evident, but the fact did not seem to dawn upon Mrs. Haggard, whilst Lucy Warrender, who was in the habit of looking upon servants very much as pieces of furniture which could be replaced when worn out, troubled herself very little about the matter.

Miss Warrender, now the master-spirit of the establishment, did not hesitate. She answered her uncle's letter announcing their immediate departure for The Warren. As she playfully put it: "We must hurry home, uncle, or Miss Hood will devour you, body and bones; but we must travel [Pg 62] by easy stages as Georgie seems not over strong, and we must be careful with baby. As for Hephzibah I have no patience with her; but people of her class are always helpless."

Two days afterwards they were on their way home. Travelling is not such a very fatiguing process after all. The ladies, the baby and the maid had a compartment of the sleeping car to themselves and journeyed comfortably enough. They arrived safely at their hotel in the Rue de la Paix, and then Hephzibah Wallis broke down. Tired as she was herself, Georgie Haggard nursed her like a sister; all night long she sat by the girl's bedside and watched the movements of the pale lips, which seemed to be eternally attempting to articulate, but though the lips moved ceaselessly no sound came from them. The maid's condition alarmed Mrs. Haggard; there was evidently something more than mere fatigue; great beads of perspiration stood on the forehead, the hands were cold as ice and seemed to pick irritably and aimlessly at the coverlid. Gradually [Pg 63] the mutterings of the sick girl became louder.

Georgie attempted to rouse her, but in vain; she placed her ear to her moving lips.

"It's no use, Maurice, you'll get nothing out of me." This was all she heard, and it was evident to her mind that in her delirium Hephzibah was holding an imaginary conversation with her faithless lover.

All through the long weary night Georgie Haggard continued her watch by the bedside, moistening the girl's lips with water and wetting her burning forehead with Eau de Cologne. In the next room Lucy Warrender slept peacefully, and ever and anon her cousin would enter to take an anxious glance at the sleeping infant. The maternal instinct, which had so strangely remained dormant in the child's real mother, was abnormally developed, as we have said, in Georgie Haggard. At dawn, as Mrs. Haggard turned down the gas and admitted a little of the cold, cruel, grey [Pg 64] light of early morning, she became thoroughly alarmed at the appearance of her patient; still the ever-restless fingers continued to search for the invisible crumbs, but they were colder now, and the finger tips were almost blue. Georgie hurriedly rang the bell. After some time a half-dressed chambermaid appeared. A messenger was dispatched in haste to summon a doctor. Lucy Warrender, very much against the grain, had left her couch and, head and shoulders muffled in a shawl, stood gazing at the dying woman with contracted brow. It was evident to both girls that a terrible change had come over Hephzibah Wallis; the lips no longer moved, but were strained tightly over the teeth, which were painfully apparent; while the breathing, which though rapid had previously been tranquil, was now harsh, extremely loud and often interrupted.

And now a doctor hurriedly entered the room. He was a dapper little [Pg 65] Frenchman and had arrived in evident haste. Bowing to the ladies, he gave a perceptible start when he perceived the appearance of his patient. Taking his watch from his fob he felt the poor girl's pulse. Then he shook his head ominously. Placing a stethoscope over the region of the heart, he listened for a few seconds.

"Madame," he said, "I can do nothing; she is beyond all human skill. Alas, I fear that in a few moments she will pass away."

Even Lucy Warrender's hard heart was filled with horror.

"Can nothing be done, doctor? can you suggest no remedy? is there really no hope for her?" said Mrs. Haggard.

"Alas! no, madame, the mischief has gone too far; it is an old case of heart disease. Did she complain of ill health to you?"

"She has never been strong, doctor, and she has had a great deal to trouble her lately," said Lucy.

Suddenly, while they were yet speaking, the face of the dying girl [Pg 66] assumed a placid expression; the lips trembled convulsively and then a happy smile gradually appeared. The smile remained, the lips gently parted and then the eyes slowly opened, but in them there was no speculation, for Hephzibah Wallis had ceased to breathe; she had peacefully passed away. The faithful girl was gone, carrying with her the carefully guarded secret of her young mistresses.

As the French doctor drew the sheet over the dead girl's face, a ghastly smile, almost of satisfaction, might have been seen on Lucy's countenance. Both girls sobbed bitterly; but let us do Miss Warrender justice, her tears were tears of genuine sorrow, but her grief was tempered with a sort of awful content, that now at least her secret was buried in the solemn silence of the grave.

The next few days were passed in a sort of melancholy bustle; a letter had to be written to break the painful news to the poor old mother at King's Warren. Poor Hephzibah was buried, her two young mistresses [Pg 67] following their faithful servant to the grave.

That night Lucy Warrender stole softly into the empty room. With her own hands Miss Warrender carefully went through all the dead girl's little possessions, and she removed every letter and paper to her own room. Then she locked the door and carefully scrutinized everything, but not one scrap of writing did she find which compromised either herself or her cousin in the slightest degree. There were a few notes which had been written to the girl by her mistresses at odd times, and had been carefully treasured by the abigail. There was a little box of carved wood which contained a photograph, the likeness of the faithless Capt. Lucy cast it into the flames, and from the fire, as it turned and twisted like a living thing, the face seemed to glare at her menacingly. There was nothing more save the letter from the vicar's wife. Lucy [Pg 68] perused it with a smile, and crushing it into a ball she tossed it into the fire.

Then she returned into the dead girl's room and replaced all that remained. Taking a glance at her sleeping cousin, whom her proceedings had not disturbed, she herself quietly retired to rest.

Next day the girls were busily employed. From a crowd of applicants they had to select a nurse for the little Lucius. Their choice fell upon a handsome Norman peasant woman dressed in the becoming, though peculiar, costume of her race. She wore the tall white cap of filmy cambric, ironed in the elaborate manner with which we are all familiar; she wore too a massy pair of gold ear-rings and a heavy gold cross, which indicated that her people were well-to-do. Fanchette was evidently a paragon of neatness; no spot of dust could be seen on her short dress of French merino, or on the little woollen shawl pinned closely over her [Pg 69] shoulders. She spoke no word of English and seemed rather taciturn; the only anxiety she manifested was as to the amount of her remuneration. Her references were undeniable. She was the picture of health, a magnificent animal.

Probably what most recommended her to the critical mind of Miss Warrender was her impassive taciturnity.

Fanchette was installed at once. She expressed her readiness to proceed to England, informing the girls that all countries were the same to her as she had no relatives and her homme was serving in Algeria.

Nothing detained the party further in Paris, and they prepared to start for King's Warren the next day.

A letter from the Parsonage reached them that evening; it was from Mrs. Dodd, the vicar's wife.

"King's Warren Parsonage.

"Dear Miss Warrender,

[Pg 70] "On receipt of your letter I hurried over to Goody Wallis's cottage to break to her the sad news of Hephzibah's death. Strange to say it did not take her by surprise; she told me that the girl had been ailing for several years. Of course these things do not affect people of her class to the same extent as educated persons; but it was plain enough that she was much grieved. As you can suppose I did my best to console her. I pointed out to the poor old thing that her daughter had been saved from the degradation of a marriage with a foreign person; strange to say, this appeared to give her no comfort: she did not seem so well disposed as usual to listen to good advice. So I took my leave, lending her a copy of Lawe's 'Serious Call.'

"Your uncle is quite excited at your approaching arrival, and is burning to see the little Lucius. I suppose, my dear, that this very unusual [Pg 71] name has been selected out of compliment to you, but my husband says that he is probably called after the celebrated Irish baronet, the head of the O'Trigger family.

"I cannot express to you, my dear, my feelings of horror and indignation when I heard of the awful occurrence at Rome. Between ourselves I should think it would be better for all parties, particularly for his poor ill-used wife, if your brother-in-law remained in America. Personally, I regret to say that I shall never be able to receive him again. I'm sorry to add that my husband does not look upon the matter in the same serious light, but he was always frivolous, even for a clergyman.

"I may tell you that you are both coming back none too soon, for the squire, always a weak-minded man, seems now to be quite under the thumb of Miss Hood. That lady does not hesitate now to give herself airs to which I, for one, will never tamely submit; and I hope your cousin will [Pg 72]take steps on her arrival to at once assert her position.

"With love to Georgie and kind regards from the vicar,

"I am, dear Miss Warrender,

"Affectionately yours,

"Cecilia Dodd."

The next morning the sisters were driven with Fanchette and the baby to the station of the Northern Railway, and they left for England by the tidal train.


CHAPTER IV.

THE RETURN OF THE WANDERER.

[Pg 73]

When Georgie was ushered into the state room at The Warren, though she was horribly tired, she protested, but all to no purpose.

"It's no use, my dear; the wheels of time never go backwards. You will never be Georgie Warrender again, for she has developed into a personage—Mrs. Haggard is a personage of consideration." So said Miss Hood as she welcomed Georgie to the quarters set apart for her, Fanchette and the boy.

Summer is always enjoyable in a country house, and probably it is only after an extended absence from England that one can thoroughly appreciate the delights of English country life. To both girls the [Pg 74] change was pleasant, to Lucy especially; the Villa Lambert had been to her a very punishment, for there had been no one to talk to. But Lucy had found an ally, a mine of information, a fund of amusement, an appreciative audience all combined, in her cousin's French bonne. Naturally the foreigner looked upon England as a veritable land of Egypt, a house of bondage; equally naturally, she determined to spoil the Egyptians whenever she should have the opportunity. In her mind, as is the case with all the working classes in France, the English were objects of derision and ridicule, as well as hereditary enemies. Fanchette felt very much like a wolf turned loose in a sheep-fold: the wolf cannot foregather with the sheep; and the animal's delight may be fancied when it discovers that one at least of the flock, under the snowiest and most innocent-looking of fleeces, is, like herself, a wolf after all. Is it to be wondered at, then, that Fanchette clung to Miss [Pg 75] Warrender? The pair thoroughly understood each other. Every Frenchwoman at heart is an intriguer, here again was a similarity of tastes and pursuits.

No successor had as yet been appointed to Hephzibah Wallis. The little Lucius, like most infants of his tender age, passed the greater portion of his day in sleep, and Fanchette being an active person, willingly devoted the large proportion of spare time on her hands to Reginald Haggard's wife.

It is hardly to be wondered at that old Squire Warrender, who idolized his daughter, should make a fool of himself over the little Lucius. He even brushed up his archaic French for the sake of inquiring directly after the child's health from Fanchette. But Fanchette was only Fanchette to the two girls and the squire; to the rest of the inhabitants of The Warren she soon became "Mamzell;" this brevet, or to be more correct, local rank, she first earned by her own personal heroism. Johnny Chubb, the oldest of The Warren coachman's boys, was [Pg 76] detected by the bonne in a series of hideous grimaces. She promptly seized Johnny by the ear. Johnny's ears were large, projecting, and of a healthy crimson. As she twisted his great red ear, the agonized cries of Johnny became heartrending. "Demand of me, then, pardon, little cancer," cried the indignant bonne in her native idiom. "Say, I pray you to pardon me, Mademoiselle Fanchette."

But Johnny only screamed the louder, for Johnny did not understand French, and Johnny was in pain. Fanchette, being a determined Frenchwoman, went on with the twisting; like Sir Reginald Hugh de Bray she certainly would have twisted it on till she twisted it off; in vain did Johnny, in his ineffectual struggles, turn head over heels more than once; the relentless Frenchwoman never let go his soft and ruddy ear. She continued her injunctions to the boy, addressing him in many of the [Pg 77] choicest flowers of abuse with which her language abounds, that he should beg mademoiselle's pardon. He did so at last, for even the endurance of a British boy breaks down at the idea of losing an ear.

"I begs yer pardon, Mamzell," he said sulkily, as he clapped his hand to the injured member, to assure himself that it was still attached to his head.

From that day Fanchette ceased to be "Frenchy" to Johnny, she became "Mamzell." At first, as a joke, the Warren servants gave her the title derisively; from them it spread to the villagers, and gradually all King's Warren called her "Mamzell" in sober earnest.

The atmosphere of home, the healthy English air, and above all the quiet and regularity of the life at The Warren, combined with the hope of the approaching return of her husband, all had a beneficial effect on Georgie Haggard's physical health. Her lost colour gradually began to [Pg 78] return, her step regained somewhat of its former elasticity, but she courted solitude, and seldom spoke. It was with difficulty she could be persuaded to go outside the grounds. Even the gossip of the vicar's wife, or the genial chat of the vicar himself, failed to interest her. The change was apparent to everybody. But King's Warren opinion was generally formed by the active mind of Mrs. Dodd. Mrs. Dodd had decided that the poor thing was fretting for her husband; she considered that Mrs. Haggard deserved her sympathy, and so King's Warren looked on Mrs. Haggard as a "poor thing," and duly sympathized. Old Warrender himself became gradually less anxious, and accepted the general verdict.

Weeks rolled into months. The sale of estates, even in Mexico, ends at last. Haggard, who had returned to the capital, found the weather getting unpleasantly hot; there was nothing further to detain him, and he vouchsafed to announce his return to the wife of his bosom. Strange [Pg 79] to say, to the astonishment of all but Lucy, young Mrs. Haggard continued to "fret."

In that same rose garden, on the very bench on which she had sat awaiting Reginald's arrival on that momentous morning when she had consented to be his wife, Georgina now sat once more, but not alone. By her side was the bonne, and upon the bonne's lap, wrapped in tranquil slumbers, lay the little Lucius. The young wife sat gazing at the infant, and as she sat she tried hard to come to a decision upon the course she should pursue. On the one side lay the path of duty. Should she make a clean breast of the matter? should she take her husband into her confidence? Should she ask him to give his name to the child of her cousin's shame? Or if she did so, could she for a moment suppose that he would for one instant listen to so monstrous a proposition? Of course there was her duty to be considered, her duty towards her husband, her [Pg 80] duty towards her cousin; of what she owed herself she thought but little. But then she had sworn, and to some people, and Georgie was one of these, an oath remains ever binding. She felt herself securely caught, bound hand and foot in the net of intrigue, the meshes of which were so skilfully woven by her cousin's treacherous hands. Her mouth was sealed. Could she look forward with any pleasure to her husband's return? could it cause her aught but apprehension and a deadly fear that she, an innocent woman, was to pass the rest of her life in guarding a horrible secret, not her own, and in betraying her husband's confidence? But she had given her word; keep it she must, at whatever cost.

How different had been her feelings on that well-remembered day, as she sat alone, in maiden meditation, and awaited her would-be lover's advent. Then there had been no anxiety in her anticipations of their [Pg 81] meeting. It was very different now. A dreadful terror filled her heart; the fear of nameless horrors caused her hands to become cold and clammy. Should she appeal to his generosity? should she make an end of the whole ghastly story? If she could only nerve herself to do so, that was the one way out of the maze of doubt, the sole possible road to Georgie's future happiness. What right had Lucy to wreck her life? Hers was the sin; on her head let it be visited. But Georgie felt that she had gone too far already; the first step, that dangerous first step, in the path of deception had been unhappily taken. In her natural anxiety to shield her cousin she had yielded to her imperious demands. She had entered upon the lane of trickery, in which there is no turning back. She felt herself but a ship on a sea of troubles, whose helm was guided by that experienced sailor, her cousin Lucy. [Pg 82]

The little Lucius, the helpless centre of all the dark intrigue, clad in his garments of needlework, slept the sleep of innocence upon Fanchette's lap. Most women having so much cause would have hated the child, but to hate was not in Georgie Haggard's affectionate nature.

The sleepy mid-day silence of the rose garden was broken by the sound of wheels, but no flush of pleasure reddened Georgie's cheek as she heard the bustle of her husband's arrival.

Just as once before big Reginald Haggard strode down the gravel walk, so once more Georgie now saw him advancing in the blaze of sunlight, but not alone. With him walked her father, with a cheerful face, while on his arm hung the light-hearted Lucy, all smiles and happy blushes, her ringing musical laugh joyously heralding his advent.

But Haggard seemed to have no eyes for any one but Georgie; his face [Pg 83] wreathed in smiles, he hurriedly advanced to greet her, and then for an instant nature triumphed. Georgie burst into tears, and rushing into his arms, husband and wife were locked in a long embrace. But the momentary oblivion of her trouble ceased when Georgie left her husband's arms and caught her cousin's eye.

Lucy's finger was pressed to her lips. What the gesture meant young Mrs. Haggard knew only too well.

"If you don't moderate your transports you will commit the unpardonable crime, Reginald, for you will wake the baby," said Lucy.

It was too late. The child, with a gentle sigh, opened his eyes and stared around him. But Haggard, absorbed in his first meeting with his wife, did not seem to observe him. Lucy snatched up the little bundle of lace and embroideries, and exhibited him triumphantly.

"Have you no eyes, Reginald?" she cried. "Pray reserve some, at least, [Pg 84] of your transports for the object of universal adoration."

As Haggard gazed on the pair he thought they made a pretty picture, with their background of foliage.

"So that's the little chap," he said carelessly.

"And is that all you have to say to him?" cried Lucy. "No wonder you make him cry, Reginald," for the child, at the sight of a stranger, had burst into a succession of sturdy yells, which, at all events, showed the strength of his lungs.

But even when a man is confronted for the first time with his firstborn, he probably does not manifest the amount of interest which is expected by the female mind. The little Lucius was speedily consigned to his nurse's arms; she disappeared with him down a shady walk, carefully protecting, as is the way with French nurses, the child's complexion and her own by means of a big sunshade. [Pg 85]

"Come, uncle," said Lucy. "We have to prepare the roast veal to celebrate the prodigal's return. Besides, Georgie and Reginald must have hundreds of things to tell each other; we shall only be treated to the second edition of a gentleman's travels in America. I suppose the first will be for private circulation only. I fear Georgie won't have much to say in return, for our dull life at the château will have little to interest a man." This was said trippingly upon the tongue, but it was said with intention, and the look which accompanied it caused poor Mrs. Haggard to drop her eyes, while a slight flush suffused her cheeks.

"Two can't play gooseberry, you know, uncle; it is a rôle that, like the daisy-picker's, cannot be divided."

Old Warrender rose with a smile, and Lucy dropped the pair a profound courtesy.

"Farewell, Strephon. Good-bye, Chloe. You would both make a pretty [Pg 86] picture in sylvan costume, but in your nineteenth century clothes you look terribly prosaic."

"Lovers still though, I think, my dear; lovers still, please God," muttered the old man, as he gave his arm to Lucy.

The pair were left alone.

Were this history mere fable Reginald would at once have proceeded to possess himself of his pretty wife's unresisting hand; he would have pressed it to his lips with rapture. What he really did was to take his case from his pocket, provide himself with a large and uncommonly fullflavoured cigar, which he lighted with much care and deliberation.

"You must have found it beastly dull at that hole, Georgie," he remarked at length; "how on earth did you get through your time?"

Should she tell him? Could she tell him how she had got through that terrible time? Her honest nature urged her to it; but Georgie's love for [Pg 87] Haggard, deep as it was, was not untinged with fear. Her gentler spirit was dominated by Lucy's strong will. Her intense respect for her promise, the promise snatched from her in the moment of her excitement and tribulation, quelled the impulse.

"Of course it was dull without you, Reginald. But you, at all events, have enjoyed yourself. How brown you've got," she said, gazing up at him with her old look of girlish rapture.

The look did it. Woman's admiration was ever meat and drink to big Reginald Haggard, particularly the admiration of a pretty woman. Now Georgie was a very pretty woman. Accustomed as he was to open appreciation by the sex, it never seemed to pall on him. Though most men expect it, or at least the semblance of it, as a sort of right from their wives, and consequently cease to value it, yet Haggard, not having seen Georgie for many months, was evidently pleased. [Pg 88]

"Yes, we had plenty of sun out there," he said, as he passed his hand meditatively over his shaven chin. "It was hot, beastly hot. But they weren't a bad lot out there, you know," and then he went off into a long description.

Nothing pleases a man better than to talk to his own wife about himself, except, perhaps, when privileged to enlarge upon the same delightful subject to somebody else's wife. So Haggard ran on; but even personal experiences must have an ending, and Haggard, at the height of good humour, condescended to compliment his wife upon the little Lucius.

"Capital little chap that, Georgie," he said. "Howled awfully when he saw me. I suppose they all do, though?"

Georgie's heart beat like a sledge-hammer at the heedless remark. Should she tell him at once, or finally make up her mind to pass the rest of her life as a cheat, and the accomplice of that arch-cheat, her cousin? [Pg 89] Alas! for her, her impulse was smothered by what she considered her duty to Lucy.

She laughed a little hollow laugh—a poor little, weak, stagey giggle. "I fancy he's much like other children," she said; "they always do cry when they see a stranger."

"Let's have a good look at him, old girl," said her husband with a smile.

Young Mrs. Haggard called the bonne, who advanced at the summons, her coarse, but handsome, peasant features lighted by a smile.

The proprieties must be observed even in the presence of a bonne, and Haggard's hand, which had somehow stolen round his wife's waist, now discreetly sought the shelter of his coat pocket.

"Monstrous fine creature, by Jove!" said the husband, as he emitted a vast cloud of smoke.

This appreciative remark did evidently not refer to the baby. Many wives would have resented this openly-expressed tribute to Mademoiselle [Pg 90] Fanchette's personal attractions, but Georgie was neither surprised nor disgusted. She was accustomed to her husband's ways; often and often, on their marriage trip, had her Reginald drawn her attention to the real or supposed charms of other women. It was a way he had. He didn't admire scenery; he hated pictures; architecture, and especially ruins, were to him abominations. But he did admire the sex. The pegs on which he hung his memory were pretty faces and pretty figures. He would refer to events and places in an original way of his own, as, "The day we met that cardinal's niece with the eyes," or, "Where we saw the American girl with the hair." At first, in their married life, these remarks had a sort of sting in them, but at last Georgie had come to regard them as a sort of proof of the big man's affection. She felt that they were a [Pg 91] sign of confidence, that she was endeared to him by the far higher title of comradeship, that she was, in fact, what in his language he would dignify by the appellation of his "chum."

Fanchette dropped a courtesy. Fanchette continued to beam, for Fanchette saw that she was appreciated by Monsieur. In fact, the appreciation was mutual; and Fanchette compared her new master, and not unfavourably, either, with the proverbial pompier of her native country.

There is a class of men ever ready to chatter with servants, particularly if they are of prepossessing appearance. To this class Mrs. Haggard's husband belonged. He would have been delighted to compliment the bonne, but, alas! his linguistic powers failed him. He rose, however, to his feet, and, with true British pluck, employed the few words of Anglo-French he knew; these he accompanied with appropriate pantomime.

"Enfant," he said, pointing to the child. "Mon," he continued, [Pg 92] indicating himself. "Mon enfant," he triumphantly added, with an air of jubilant proprietorship.

"Mais assurément, monsieur!" cried the bonne, and then she went off into a flood of mingled praise of the infant, of her mistress, of her new master, and of herself. The child, whose eyes were open, was held aloft in triumph, and he stared at Haggard with a wondering gaze.

Haggard clapped his hands at the child in undisguised pleasure.

As Georgie sat upon the bench she wistfully watched the little drama, and gradually the old look of terror, which seemed to have left her in the excitement of her husband's return, came back to her face. The decision—the fatal decision—she felt was now irrevocable. From that moment she knew that her life was to be passed in the carrying out of Lucy's plot. There could be no drawing back now. As she thought of all this, the colour left her face, and the strength her limbs. [Pg 93]

The sharp eye of the bonne saw that she was almost fainting.

"Monsieur, madame se trouve mal!" she exclaimed, distracting the husband's attention from the infant and herself.

"What's amiss, George," he cried. "You are not ill, dear?" he said with unusual solicitude.

But Georgie declared that it was nothing. "I think the heat upsets me," she said with an effort.

Just then the clash of the luncheon bell was heard, and Haggard gave his wife his arm. She leaning heavily on it, the pair slowly proceeded towards the house, followed by the bonne, solacing the infant with the rather inappropriate strain of:

"Rien n'est sacré pour un sapeur—bébé.
Non, rien n'est sacré pour un sapeur."

CHAPTER V.

THE MISSES SLEEK DROP IN.

[Pg 94]

It was certainly a great deal to Haggard's credit that he remained tranquilly at The Warren for the space of three whole weeks. It was the London season—just that time of year when flat-racing was at its height; and at all the great meetings the Pandemonium set was conspicuous. It might have been that he really liked his wife's society, and that he found that the only way of getting her all to himself was, as he was pleased to call it, to bury himself alive at King's Warren. It has been said before that Haggard objected to the rôle of Beauty's Husband, but he had found that in town it was willy-nilly forced upon him. He felt it trying that the instant Georgie showed herself in their box at the play, the glasses of all the somebodies and half the [Pg 95] nobodies would be immediately levelled at her. Haggard was by no means a jealous man. He was one of those who thoroughly enjoy being a "popper-in" at the boxes of friends where beauty sits triumphant. He had admired and rather laughed at the stoical philosophy of some of his married friends, who were accustomed to calmly go off to enjoy their brandies and sodas, under such circumstances, leaving their wives the centre of a little circle of admirers—a circle of which he himself was often a prominent ornament. But, though not a jealous man, he considered it wise, when at the play, to be particularly attentive to Georgie. Haggard believed in sheep dogs to a certain extent, but he believed still more in the actual presence of the shepherd himself. But his experiences of the last London season as a married man had convinced him that the life of Corydon, particularly at the play, was not an existence of unalloyed bliss. To Mrs. Charmington and her smart set, Haggard's [Pg 96] devotion to his wife was particularly touching: in vain would they beckon him, or point to a vacant seat at their sides, with their fans; like Love's Sentinel, sweet was the watch he kept, but, to tell the truth, it bored him horribly.

It is undoubtedly pleasing to a man to find that his choice is appreciated by all his friends, but it is rather trying to a married man when he leaves his wife, even for a few moments, at a garden party, or the inclosure of a race-course, on his return to always find her, by no fault of her own, be it remembered, surrounded by a rapidly-increasing throng of enthusiastic admirers. So Haggard resigned himself, with considerable philosophy, to the innocent delights of country life and the dulness of King's Warren.

At all events, it had the refreshing charm of novelty: there was the fishing, and the King's Warren trout stream was a good one. Before he [Pg 97] had filled his creel at the pretty stream that artists used to come to paint, the girls would come down to count the spoil and walk with him through the cool lane, to conduct this most fortunate of men back to the squire's well-supplied breakfast table. Then the model husband would pass the morning in a lounge chair in the shadiest corner of the rose garden, with a big cigar in his mouth, contemplating with lazy satisfaction his prize baby and his handsome wife, while the fair-haired Lucy would swing in the Mexican hammock he had brought her as a souvenir of his American experiences, gaily singing her little scraps of rather risky French songs, which, though he did not understand them, always amused him. The little songs, too, appeared to give intense delight to Mademoiselle Fanchette; that muscular specimen of womanhood would shake with inward laughter, and fluently compliment her younger mistress. "Ah!" she would say, "if mademoiselle had only been a poor girl, what a [Pg 98] position! all Paris would be at the feet of the beautiful miss. Why, the café-concerts would be struggling to possess her. Ah, what an enviable position!"

Stimulated by this honest praise, Lucy Warrender would delight her little audience with "La Vénus aux Carottes," or some other well-known ditty of a similar nature. Old Warrender would lean on his daisy-spud a pleased spectator of the Arcadian scene. It delighted him to observe Haggard's suddenly awakened delight in the simple pleasures of country life, and the old gentleman's admiration of Monsieur, Madame and Bébé was unbounded.

The afternoons were enlivened by the unceremonious dropping in of sympathetic visitors; the Reverend John Dodd and his wife were welcome guests, and tea in the garden became quite a function.

It was a standing rule at The Warren that Thursday afternoon was a sort of special day. On Thursdays it was the custom to turn up at the [Pg 99] squire's garden for afternoon tea. The men were always in a minority, for most of the gilded youth of King's Warren were of too timid a nature to put in an appearance. Occasionally young Mr. Wurzel, dragged thither by his bride-elect, the sentimental Miss Grains, would come, but he felt like a fish out of water, seldom opened his mouth, and passed most of his time in gazing, with respectful admiration, upon Miss Lucy Warrender; an annoying fact which did not escape the observation of his mother's sharp old eyes, and which caused considerable indignation in the troubled breast of the brewer's daughter. The vicar's curate was, of course, a standing dish; other curates from adjacent parishes, too, would appear and disappear, but they met with little encouragement, for Miss Warrender didn't affect a liking for parsons. Even the short-sighted High-church deacon from the next parish, who spoke of himself as a "Celibate," and "vowed to heaven" and habitually got himself up to resemble a Roman Catholic priest, failed to move her [Pg 100] worldly little heart; the Reverend Hopley Porter would have been more in her line, mild curates were not at all in her way. The Misses Sleek, too, freely availed themselves of their entrée to The Warren, and those young ladies were ever on their best behaviour. They were not bad-looking girls, and though both rather fast, while at The Warren they affected a demure primness which made them not unattractive. They patiently submitted to the continual snubbings of the vicar's wife, and to the little sarcasms with which they were occasionally favoured by Miss Warrender. They humbled themselves in dust and ashes to Miss Hood, and seldom made any reference to that patient money-grubber, their papa. With effusive affection they always addressed the squire as "dear Mr. Warrender," and sought favour in Georgie Haggard's eyes by an ecstatic worship of the little Lucius.

"Don't you think you could manage it for us, Miss Hood? It's not a [Pg 101] formal affair, and we are so anxious it should be a success. We shall have none but nice people, and it is so terribly dull at The Park: we shall only allow pa to ask three of his friends, and they are quite old gentlemen. I really couldn't ask dear Mr. Warrender myself, nor could Connie, and we are both terribly afraid of Lucy." So spoke the elder Miss Sleek in appealing tones.

"Do help us, Miss Hood," chimed in the younger sister.

"My dear, I don't see why you should be afraid of Miss Warrender," said good-natured Miss Hood, giving that young lady her full title.

"Oh but, dear Miss Hood, she always laughs at us; only just now she inquired after that poor afflicted Mr. Dabbler. I knew she was laughing at us, and so did Connie, and then she said something dreadful in French about an ass and two bundles of hay; I'm sure we're not like bundles of hay," said the girl with an indignant sob. "But we neither mind a joke [Pg 102] from dear Miss Warrender, do we, Connie?"

"But we should be such a party, my dears."

"Oh, that would only make it more delightful," cried the girl with triumphant eyes, as she noticed the slight indication of capitulation in Miss Hood's voice. "We're neighbours after all, you know, and haymaking too; why, the squire goes to Mr. Wurzel's harvest home. Nothing but the haymaking, and a little dance afterwards; oh, we should be so grateful."

"What's that about a little dance?" cried Georgie's husband with unaffected interest.

"Oh, Mr. Haggard, it's nothing; it's only an idea of pa's; it's our haymaking, you know, and we've been asking Miss Hood if The Warren won't honour us for once in a way."

Both girls fixed their eyes appealingly on Haggard's face.

The squire's son-in-law was quite aware that the wealthy Mr. Sleek was a parvenu. He knew that old Warrender would no more dine at The Park [Pg 103] than he would think of attending the services of the Dissenting minister; but he himself was already beginning to feel rather hipped with the novelty of his quiet life at The Warren.

"Come, my dear Miss Sleek? of course we'll come. Georgie," he said to his wife, "Miss Sleek is good enough to ask us to her father's place. We'll be only too glad, of course."

With Georgie to yield to her husband's slightest wish was a second nature.

"Certainly, Reginald, if you wish it. I shall be very pleased," she added, though with an effort.

"It'll be great fun, I'm sure," exclaimed Haggard; "but you'll have mercy, Miss Sleek: you won't work us so hard at the haymaking as to knock us up for the promised dance, and you'll keep one little dance for me, won't you?" he added with cool familiarity.

The girl's face reddened with pleasure as she acquiesced with effusion. And as she thought of the glowing description in the local paper of the [Pg 104] forthcoming festivities at The Park, her eyes sparkled with the anticipation of triumph. It would be an epoch in her life to have danced with a peer's great-nephew, with the husband of one of the reigning queens of society. But fresh joys were yet in store for the Misses Sleek.

"You'll let me bring my friend Spunyarn, won't you?" said Haggard; "he's coming down to-morrow."

"Oh, we shall be delighted," chorused the girls, "for we are wofully short of men down here at King's Warren."

The babble of conversation increased. Next morning each member of the group on The Warren lawn had received an elaborate copper-plate invitation to the Misses Sleek's haymaking, and the small and early dance that was to follow it.

The Misses Sleek carried their point; had there been a Mrs. Warrender, their success would have been more than doubtful. Old Warrender himself [Pg 105] cared for none of these things; Miss Hood had protested officially, but found herself very much in the position of the unfortunate member who alone protests once a year, as a sort of duty to his constituents, against the sum voted by Parliament to royal princes or princesses on their marriage. Haggard and Lucy evidently looked forward to the haymaking as a relief to the monotony of their existence; as for Georgie, hers was the simple religion of Ruth, "Whither thou goest I will go, thy people shall be my people."

"One must be neighbourly, you know," said the squire, "in a place like this. For my own part, I see no difference now-a-days between the man who makes his money in business and the landowner. I'm sure I don't know what Dodd would do without the Sleeks; he's always ready with a cheque, and the girls seem almost unobjectionable."

What a curious fact it is, that in the eyes of all old men girls are always unobjectionable. Probably from their very age they look upon [Pg 106] even the hoydens, the "mannish," and the fast merely as big and rather naughty children; therefore, all the more interesting. Let a girl be thoroughly detested by her own sex—and to be thoroughly detested by her own sex she must at least be tolerably good-looking—she is certain to be the delight of all the old gentlemen of her circle.

Haggard was in a particularly good humour, for he was hourly expecting the arrival of his fidus Achates, Lord Spunyarn. He was impatient to hear all the talk, the gossip and the scandal, which he had missed during his prolonged absence from the Pandemonium Club. Though they don't acknowledge it, your average club man is as great a scandalmonger and gossip as any village crone; but being by nature more cautious than are women, they hardly ever commit themselves upon paper. A yarn is told by A to B, as a yarn; B tells it to C, as a rumour he has heard; C gives it a tail, and imparts it under the seal of secrecy to D; over the [Pg 107] whist table, E, F, and G get hold of it, like the rolling snow-ball, considerably increased in magnitude; sly H overhears it and gives it at once into a society journal, where it becomes public property; perhaps it may even result in an action for libel. Let the galled jade wince, our withers are unwrung. Besides, perhaps Haggard was a little nervous as to his reception; since he was last at the Pandemonium he had killed a man, not that that fact troubled his conscience in any way. Now-a-days a gambler is by no means an outcast at a smart club, particularly the lucky man; for he is placed on a sort of moral pedestal by his less successful rivals. Still the Lamb episode was not forgotten at the Pandemonium, and this, coupled with the affair of poor Barbiche, caused Georgie's husband to rather dread the cold shoulder. The presence of Spunyarn too would certainly be a break in the monotony of the life at The Warren. [Pg 108]

Haggard drove over some five miles on that hot summer day about noon, in the squire's well-appointed dog-cart, to meet his friend Lord Spunyarn, and it was with unaffected pleasure that he shook hands with him upon the platform of the little station. Had they been Frenchmen, they would have rushed into each other's arms and saluted mutually on either cheek. As it was, they merely smiled and nodded, with a mutual, "How are you, old man?" and a careless inquiry from Lord Spunyarn as to the health of "your people" followed as a matter of course. During the five-and-twenty minutes' sharp drive home, they talked of the heat, the crops and the fishing; for the squire's smart groom rendered anything but general conversation impossible: the bay mare, too, was full of oats, and a puller.

Lord Spunyarn was a welcome guest to everybody; the whole party came out to meet him at the door, and with rural hospitality a substantial meal [Pg 109] was quickly placed before him. The cool of the afternoon was got through by means of the inevitable croquet; in those days croquet was inevitable wherever there were ladies and a lawn. At The Warren both ladies and lawn were particularly attractive; the ubiquitous curate was conspicuous by his absence; there was a little play, a good deal of small talk, and as usual, Lord Spunyarn was particularly attentive to Lucy Warrender. Now-a-days it is the fashion for the youth of England to leave the spinsters out in the cold, and to affect the society of the more attractive among the married ladies only. But Spunyarn was no lady-killer, and if he had been, there was a certain air about Georgie Haggard, a kind of notice to trespassers, that would have warned off the most determined poacher. His lordship at once resumed his old position of everybody's friend; he chatted with the cousins, he talked politics with old Warrender, he complimented the head gardener; and when Lucy [Pg 110] Warrender, assuming a pensive air, inquired if he had no secrets to tell her, he calmly replied:

"There is nothing new, I think, Miss Warrender; nothing new, at least, to you; yours as ever, you know, till death," he added with a little laugh.

"True knight," she cried, "ever faithful?"

"To you, and to your cousin," he added with a little bow.

"Why, you don't even offer me an undivided affection," said the girl. "I suppose you are reserving yourself for the high jinks at The Park, Lord Spunyarn," she said. "Connie Sleek's a pretty girl, you know, and there are piles of untold gold, but in your case, though, that isn't an inducement."

"I'm too great a snob myself, dear Miss Warrender, at least, by birth, as you know, ever to fall a victim to a financial belle."

"Poor Connie Sleek, if she could only hear you. Depend upon it the [Pg 111] dreams of both sisters last night were disturbed by visions of possible promotion. They couldn't restrain their raptures when they learnt that they were to entertain a lord, a real live lord, you know. But you are not to turn their heads, Lord Spunyarn; respect the innocence of our simple village maidens."

"It is that simple village innocence, Miss Warrender, which in your case has caused me to sigh so long in vain."

"Thanks," she said with a low courtesy, "the most sincere compliments are always the most grateful. À propos de rien, how did you leave Mrs. Charmington, Lord Spunyarn?"

"On the wane, decidedly on the wane. I think she will soon be a monarch retiring from business. Your cousin and you extinguished her effectually. There's a little Portuguese Jew, a financial light; he has ducats and a daughter: the ducats are undeniable; the daughter is all eyes, hair and diamonds; she is the last startling novelty of the [Pg 112] season, and under royal patronage. There's only one chance for the Charmington to keep herself before the public: she should try the stage. God knows she has brass enough."

"You are all the same, Lord Spunyarn; when we cease to please you laugh at us. I suppose you'll be soon recommending me to try the stage."

"Oh, no, Miss Warrender. You are far too genuine, far too sincere."

Here the conversation was broken off by the exigencies of the game.

The two young men sat smoking late into the night. Haggard narrated his American experience, cursed the dilatoriness of lawyers and land agents; told of his feats by flood and field; praised the hospitality of the natives, the horses and the half-castes; but he didn't say much of Mademoiselle de Bondi, of the Mexico Opera House. And then they talked about the Pandemonium, and Haggard heard with pleasure that his [Pg 113] numerous club acquaintances would be delighted to see him.

"Not quite so pleased, I fancy, when they know I have forsworn the pasteboards. That Lamb affair was a scorcher. Besides, Shirtings, you know—I may say it to you without swagger—I find now I've made my pile that it's too big to risk, so I mean to set up as a fogey, and to confine myself to whist at pound points."

"Poor old paterfamilias," exclaimed the sympathizing friend with genuine feeling. "I know, port wine, a J.P.-ship, with a lord-lieutenancy and the gout looming in the distant future."

Haggard gave a groan. "I suppose it'll come to that," said he.

"How are the old man and the pigs? Jolly as usual, eh?"

"Well, the pigs are flourishing, but the governor's out of sorts; he speaks thick, and his handwriting's getting rather groggy; the poor old chap may go off at any moment." [Pg 114]

There was a short silence.

"Are you going to speculate yourself, Shirtings? If you were one of the impecunious, there'd be a chance for you to-morrow. Two queens of the snobocracy will entertain us at romping in the hay, with Sir Roger de Coverley to follow. From all I hear it is a land flowing with milk and honey. The people themselves are rather dreadful, but for my own part, after three weeks of enforced tranquility, seeing no one but the old boy, my wife and her cousin, I am in a state of mind that is prepared to be grateful for the smallest mercies. My dear fellow, I positively look forward to it. Another week of the existence I have been leading here, and I verily believe that I shall yearn to dance with my own wife."

"Or even her pretty cousin," chimed in Lord Spunyarn.

But Haggard took no notice of the observation. He chuckled, still tickled with the idea of the absurdity of dancing with Georgie. [Pg 115]

"And is Lucy, as of old, to be honoured with your attentions, Shirtings?" said Haggard, who was amusing himself by blowing circles of smoke into the air.

"Between ourselves, my boy, I've thought better of it. I shall remain a respectful admirer, of course; but I don't think the lady would go well in double harness. If I were a devilish good-looking fellow as you are, my boy, I might try it; but I fancy Miss Lucy would prove a handful for any fellow, and I have no ambition to play Jack Charmington's part in a sort of perpetual Palais Royal comedy. Life being too short, you know, old man, it seems hardly good enough."

"Rough on Lucy. I fancy she has looked upon you as lawful prize."

"Oh! she can reckon upon me as a permanent admirer; but without compliment, you know, her cousin rather throws her into the shade." [Pg 116]

"Thanks, dear boy; there is no accounting for taste."

As the representative of his father-in-law, Haggard asked his lordship with punctilious hospitality if he would take another peg. Then, with a yawn, he closed the Tantalus with a snap, and the pair retired to rest.


CHAPTER VI.

THE SLEEKS IN ARCADIA.

[Pg 117]

There had been a succession of battles royal between the Misses Sleek and their papa over the haymaking party. Mr. Sleek had drawn up a long list of guests, among whom prominently figured the names of most of the gilded youth of the Stock Exchange. Sleek was determined at all hazards to make what he called a "splash." He felt that in getting old Warrender and his daughter to The Park, he was in reality receiving his passport into county society. It had been gall and wormwood to the head of the firm of Sleek and Dabbler to find that in King's Warren village, except among the tradesmen whom he patronized, for no fault of his own, he had remained a social pariah. In vain had he subscribed liberally to the [Pg 118] local charities, the coal club, and the various other institutions of the place. He was annoyed that, when walking with young farmer Wurzel, village heads would be uncovered in every direction; and yet when he, Sleek, the head of a well-known firm, was alone, a surly nod or a fraternal smile was the only recognition accorded to him. He was naturally anxious, then, that his haymaking and the subsequent dance should be an important affair. But his daughters had manifested an obstinacy totally unexpected.

The family council of three had met in solemn conclave. Miss Sleek had read to her father a long list of King's Warren people, and he had cheerfully nodded his approval at each name submitted for his approbation.

"Can't be better, can't be better, my dear," smiled the father. "I don't think you've left a soul out. But we mustn't forget my friends. I tell [Pg 119] you what it is, girls, when I do a thing I like to do it well, and I mean to do this thing in style. None of your negus and stale sponge cakes for me. I shall give 'em real turtle from Birch's, and as for fizz, they shall swim in it if they like. Dry Monopole for the men, and Duc de Montebello for the ladies; women hate dry champagne, they like it sweet, for it fizzes longer, and they don't care a hang for the head in the morning. Montebello will suit the vicar's wife and the married ladies down to the boots. There's nothing like fizz, it makes 'em all so friendly; and as for music, I've secured Toot and Kinney. Kinney himself will come and conduct, and do the solos on the cornet. I'm going to arrange for a special, girls, to bring the whole party down and take 'em back to town at six a.m."

His eldest daughter suddenly put a stop to his enthusiasm by asking him rather coldly, "who the train was to bring down." [Pg 120]

"Why, my friends, of course; who else?"

"But, dear papa, we don't know your friends, at least, many of them; and I'm afraid, and so is Connie," she added with a sickly smile, "that perhaps they wouldn't amalgamate."

Much as King Lear looked when he first detected the real natures of Regan and Goneril, so did Mr. Sleek gaze in horror on his two rebellious daughters.

"Bosh!" he exclaimed with indignation. "Do you mean to tell me that after romping together all the afternoon in the hay, and getting their skins full of my champagne, they won't amalgamate, as you call it? Why, they'll be calling each other by their Christian names before supper time."

But the sisters showed no signs of yielding.

"I tell you what it is, girls," said their father in anger, "you're a pair of ungrateful minxes. Don't 'pa' me," he added at the duet of [Pg 121] deprecation that followed. "My daughters are going to dance with a lord," he continued with tragic fervour, "and their poor old father isn't good enough for them."

Mr. Sleek did not go to business that morning. A terrible ceremony that lasted a good hour and a half was gone through. Mr. Sleek's list, which had originally contained over a hundred names, was shorn of its fair proportions, till but a little handful of the least objectionable remained. With the eloquence of a Cicero and the skill of an attorney-general, Miss Sleek "showed cause" against everybody. Though he fought hard he had to yield, for the girls were two to one. But he did not give in without a struggle, and he fought loyally for the absent Dabbler, but the girls were inexorable.

"Mr. Dabbler is too dreadful, papa. I'm sure he'd forget himself, and he would insist on dancing." [Pg 122]

Now both the Misses Sleek had a vivid recollection of poor Dabbler's terpsichorean efforts at a certain Guildhall ball. Not contented with walking through his square dances, as is the lazy custom now-a-days, Mr. Dabbler had danced them with a vigour and ingenuity which would have assuredly brought down the house at a transpontine theatre. Even at the Guildhall, Dabbler's style was peculiar to himself, and productive of amazement and delight to all but his partners and those who figured in the same set. Dabbler was a vigorous dancer. When he set to his partner, he performed a sort of cellar-flap breakdown; when he stood in the middle of the quadrille while his vis-à-vis advanced and retired with the two ladies, he still continued dancing. "To dance implies that a man is glad," and Dabbler was a cheerful-minded fellow enough, but no lady danced with him a second time. The eyes of the Misses Sleek flashed with unaffected rage and horror at the terrible remembrance of that dreadful [Pg 123] night in the City.

There was nothing for it but to yield, and Mr. Sleek, when he had had time to cool, came to the conclusion that perhaps after all his daughters were right.

Romping among the haycocks may be very good fun, but the elaborate toilettes in which he found his daughters arrayed on the eventful afternoon effectually convinced him that the romping, if romping there was to be, would be entirely confined to the few juveniles who graced the entertainment with their presence.

The house was turned inside out. The drawing-room floor had been duly chalked in elaborate devices; the staff at The Park, in new gowns, caps and aprons, was reinforced by an army of myrmidons from the City. Huge blocks of ice decorated the dining-room, and Messrs. Toot and Kinney's band already discoursed sweet music from the Italian summer-house. The [Pg 124] plump charms of his two daughters were freely displayed in elaborate Parisian costumes, merveilleuse dresses of striped satin; one girl affected pink, the other sky blue. So resplendent was their appearance that the proud father hardly recognized his two buxom daughters in their gay attire.

But carriages, dog-carts and antediluvian flys began to pour into The Park. Every lady on her arrival received a bouquet of hot-house flowers, every gentleman was presented with an elaborate button-hole of orchids. Not a single invitation had been refused. King's Warren and the region round about had come to the philosophical conclusion that if Mr. Sleek, of The Park, was good enough for Squire Warrender, he was good enough for them. More than this, even those who had once passed the Sleek girls with a condescending nod, or with their noses high in air, had deigned [Pg 125] to intrigue for invitations; and in the hour of their triumph the girls had not been ill-natured, nobody had been refused.

There was quite a crowd in the shady corner of the hay-field to watch the so-called haymaking, a familiar sight enough to the King's Warreners, and there was romping among the haycocks. But the pastoral amusement was only indulged in by the children of the village school. Young Mr. Wurzel, in the shiniest of boots, yellow gloves, a pink tie and a white hat, his bride-elect, Miss Grains, upon his arm, looked on approvingly, and it is not to be wondered at if the young fellow's eye dwelt, somewhat too long for Miss Grains' satisfaction, upon their young hostesses. The Reverend John Dodd, as usual, was surrounded by a throng of female worshippers, the party from The Warren was in full force, and it somewhat astonished the Misses Sleek to note that Georgie and her cousin were in ordinary afternoon muslin dresses. No doubt the Sleek [Pg 126] family would have been more gratified if, instead of his brown billycock, Lord Spunyarn had worn his coronet; he probably didn't travel with it, however.

All went merry as a marriage bell.

"My dear young ladies, surely we ought to join in this," said the Reverend Jack with a smile, addressing his hostesses, as he pointed to the children who were pelting each other with the perfumed hay.

But the merveilleuse costumes of the Sleek girls were better suited for looking on than for taking part in the actual performance.

"Oh, we should like it of all things, Mr. Dodd, but we must reserve ourselves. You see we are almost bound to dance every dance, and there is so much to do, and so much to see to. But if any one would like to make hay we should be so pleased, and so would the children."

"You are not haymakers to-day, then, only shepherdesses looking after [Pg 127] an unruly and, I see, rapidly increasing flock. It's a very sweet pastoral, you only want your crooks to complete the picture. I, too, am a shepherd, you know; but a shepherd in black and without his crook is somewhat in the way. With your permission, then, I shall join the children," said the vicar with a smile.

"The crook will come in time, Dodd; you may depend upon it we shall see you a bishop one of these days, after all," laughed Haggard good-naturedly.

"Thank you so much, Mr. Haggard," said a deep voice at his elbow, which made him start; "thank you so much for attempting to recall my poor husband from this frivolous scene to higher things. My unhappy husband, Mr. Haggard," she added in a confidential whisper, "has no ambition. John Dodd, Mr. Haggard, is, I regret to say, a trifler. It has been the [Pg 128] labour of my life to try and withdraw his mind from frivolities, and to keep him in the path which would ultimately lead him to what should be the goal of every clergyman's ambition. Oh, if he would only try to be a little more like my dear father. If he would only think less of carnal things," and here the vicaress gave a snort and looked spitefully at the Misses Sleek, between whom the Reverend Jack still lingered.

The Misses Sleek were plump, the Misses Sleek were pretty, even if they were a little over-dressed; but to call them "carnal things" was at least unkind.

"Console yourself, dear Mrs. Dodd," said Haggard with a smile; "the vicar will be just as attentive to the school children in the hay as he is to our young hostesses now," he added with intention.

"Too well I know it, Mr. Haggard. And can there be a sadder sight than to see the vicar of this parish romping in the hay with village hoydens?" [Pg 129]

Haggard's prophecy turned out to be correct, for the vicar threw off his coat and joined the children; and he, the greatest child of them all, was soon thoroughly enjoying himself.

Nearly all the ladies were accommodated with seats, all save the Misses Sleek; they, poor girls, alas, could not sit. One can walk, flirt and dance in a Merveilleuse costume, but it is next to impossible to sit down in it. They bore their sufferings with fortitude, however, and, like the Spartan boy with his fox, concealed their agony.

And now the loud summons of a gong called everybody to the more serious business of the evening. A big marquee of striped canvas had been erected; the guests trooped into it. Soon all the little tables were filled, and everybody did full justice to the delicacies set before them. After standing in the sun a considerable time, the crowd was not sorry to eat and drink its fill. The eyes of bashful bucolic youth [Pg 130] began to sparkle with the effects of Mr. Sleek's champagne; rosy cheeks grew rosier; even the vicar's wife unbent; that blighted maiden, Stacey Dodd, almost felt her hopes revive under the influence of pâté de foie gras, and the immediate proximity of the squire. But, even in the country, people can't eat and drink for ever; and the marquee was at last deserted for the superior attractions of the dance.

For that evening, at least, class distinctions were for once forgotten in King's Warren. Young Mr. Wurzel screwed his courage up so far as to ask Miss Warrender to dance with him, while the vicar took out the village schoolmistress, and Mrs. Dodd herself condescended to waltz with her host. But after her toes had been trodden on three times in a couple of rounds, she felt that she had already done more than enough; she danced no more, and relapsed into her old position of tutelary goddess, [Pg 131] or guardian angel, to society in general. Connie and her sister were in great demand, and the cup of their happiness was filled to overflowing, each having danced with the real live lord. Young Wurzel having done enough for honour, did as engaged young men should, and stood up for dance after dance, as a matter of course, with the object of his affections.

"I can't dance as she does," whispered the Village Rose in his ear; "but hold me tight and turn me round quickly, William," she added with a sigh of satisfaction.

The young farmer did as he was bid, and owing to their united exertions, they were soon both the colour of a couple of peonies.

The big conservatory had been judiciously only dimly lighted by a few Chinese lanterns, and by common consent had been given up to the lazy philanderers, who sought its leafy shades between the dances. [Pg 132] Connie Sleek had volunteered to show the plants to Lord Spunyarn; they were both tired, and Connie in considerable trepidation managed to sit down in one of the dimly-lighted nooks, at his good-natured lordship's suggestion. Spunyarn, however, didn't make love to Connie, but the young lady felt that she had her chance, and she availed herself of it.

"I've been on my feet since four o'clock, Lord Spunyarn," she said, with a not unmusical sigh, "and I feel as if I could sit here for ever. Don't you?" she added.

What is an easy-natured young man to say under such circumstances? Given an exceptionally substantial collation, warm weather, some dozen round dances, and nothing particular to do, most men would have probably replied just as Lord Spunyarn did.

"With you, Miss Sleek? Well, do you know, I believe I could."

Connie Sleek's eyes sparkled like coals of fire. Visions of herself as [Pg 133] Lady Spunyarn presented at Court on her marriage, and patronizing her elder sister, flitted through her young and innocent but giddy brain. But his lordship's next remark rather damped her hopes; the descent from the sublime to the ridiculous is at times a little too sudden.

"By Jove!" said Spunyarn, "I should like to be one of these plants, and never move out of my pot, with nothing to think of but to look forward to the time when the gardener would come and syringe me. I wish he'd come and syringe me now, don't you? They seem to be enjoying themselves, don't they? Uncommonly, by Jove!" he added, looking towards the farther end of the conservatory.

The guileless Connie saw a pink mass in the dim shadows opposite her. The pink mass was evidently her sister. A small incandescent speck, which sparkled about a foot from where that sister's head would be, [Pg 134] indicated her partner in enjoyment, also that the gentleman was smoking a cigarette.

"Why, it's Lottie. I wouldn't have her see me here for the world, Lord Spunyarn. She's a dreadful tease, and I should never hear the last of it," and here the young lady, exactly upon the principle of the ostrich, who is said to bury its head in the sand when it wishes to escape observation, unfolded an enormous blue fan which effectually screened both herself and her fellow criminal. If Spunyarn had sought a tête-à-tête, he had now got it with a vengeance.

Precisely the same feelings evidently animated the young lady in pink. She, too, unfurled a big fan. The conversation of both couples for the next five minutes must have been interesting, for both fans, which were originally used merely as screens, were frequently violently agitated.

No doubt, the conversation of both pairs was instructive as well as amusing. Both ladies evidently enjoyed the unhoped-for but [Pg 135] well-deserved rest. Had it not been for an unfortunate disturbing influence, who can tell but that Connie Sleek might have risen from the settee Lord Spunyarn's affianced bride. When even a worldly-wise young peer occupies the half of a seat only intended for one person for fully five minutes, behind a big fan, beside a becomingly-dressed young woman of undoubted crispness, and who is not troubled with bashfulness, who can say of what folly he may not be guilty?

But Providence willed it otherwise; for Mr. Sleek suddenly entered his conservatory in a state of considerable excitement.

"Gals," he said—when excited, Sleek père always addressed his daughters as "gals"—"where on earth is Mr. Haggard? I've been looking for him everywhere."

The two men rose to their feet; the one behind the pink fan, not much to Lord Spunyarn's surprise, turned out to be Haggard. But neither young lady moved; their dresses wouldn't let them, poor things. [Pg 136]

"It's pa!" they both exclaimed in a sort of astonished chorus. "Oh, pa, it's so hot," said the elder girl, regaining her aplomb at once. But Connie, more indignant, only sighed; she felt, poor girl, that she had had her chance and lost it. There are moments in girls' lives when even a father is de trop.

"What is it, old fellow?" cried Haggard with unusual condescension as he advanced.

"I've been looking for you everywhere, Mr. Haggard. Here's a telegram for you. I hope it's no bad news," he added.

The two girls, with considerable effort and many an ominous crack, covered, too, with rosy blushes, perhaps from their exertions, had now managed to regain their feet.

"Oh, I do hope it's nothing dreadful," said the elder girl with pretty sympathy.

Haggard, as he tore the envelope open and read the telegram with difficulty by the light of one of the Chinese lanterns, blurted out: [Pg 137]

"By Jove! Shirtings, the poor old governor's dead."

There was considerable consternation. The Warren party hurried away, and though dancing went on, the two young hostesses, perhaps in their natural grief for their friend's loss, joined in it no more.

As poor Connie wept herself to sleep that night in her sister's arms, she whispered her tale of sorrow into her ear. Her last words were, "Lottie, darling, I shall never, never forgive pa."


CHAPTER VII.

HAGGARD COMES INTO HIS OWN.

[Pg 138]

Old Justice Haggard had died rather suddenly. He had been ailing for several weeks; as his son had remarked, his handwriting had been the first symptom of the breakdown. His articulation, too, had become thickened, and one evening he was found seated in his chair by his study fire speechless, his face painfully drawn on one side; within an hour he had peacefully passed away.

The king was dead, long live the king. Reginald Haggard came into his own. But though Haggard had talked of settling down into a county magnate in the case of his father's death, when that event happened he failed to do so.

"I couldn't stand it, you know. The dreadful dinners and the dreadful [Pg 139] people would have finished me, I think," he had said.

So after the funeral, Haggard returned to The Warren, but not before he had given the old steward final and definite instructions, which caused that worthy man's hair to almost stand on end.

"Cunningham," he said, "if you want to remain on the estate as my steward, you'll have to alter the state of things here. My father, you know, muddled along in a happy-go-lucky sort of way. As long as his pigs took the first prize at the county shows he was happy. That was his ambition. Now, Cunningham, you'll have to make the place pay. There are a lot of old servants, old pensioners and old horses, all eating their heads off here, and doing no work. You'll have to make a clean sweep of the lot. Were I to attempt to do it myself they'd worry my life out. Now I want you to act as a buffer. From your decisions there is to be no appeal. They are to look to you, and not to me. As I said, the place [Pg 140] must be made to pay, that's the first point; the second is, that I am not to be bothered. It used to amuse my father to sit in his justice-room every morning and to be perpetually receiving and answering letters from all sorts of people about the place. That sort of thing won't suit me. You know as well as I do that my father got nothing out of the place."

"Sir——" began the Scotchman.

"Wait till I have done, Cunningham, and you will see that you have nothing to say. I know what you are going to tell me. That it is my duty to come and live in this place, with these yokels, to have the ague at least twice a year, as my father did before me, and to ask my friends down in September to shoot my partridges. Those were my father's views, they're not mine. As to the house, I shall let it, and I shall do the same with the shooting. With regard to the property, if you can get an income out of it for me, well and good; if you can't, I don't suppose [Pg 141] anybody can; and in that case I intend to be shot of the whole bag of tricks."

"Ye wud'na think of pairting with the property, sir," said the astonished steward; "it's been your fathers' before you for centuries."

"It must pay me three per cent., Cunningham, or I shall assuredly sell it. Of course any legal liability I have I must fulfil; but there's been a good deal too much sentiment lately in the management of the place. My father was fond of pigs and paupers; I can't say I care for either. You will grant no new leases except at their full value. If Dick can't get a living out of a farm, that's no reason for letting him have it rent free. The estate must be improved, Cunningham—as a property. You understand me, I take it?"

"I could'na fail to do that, Mr. Reginald."

The steward carried out his instructions. It is needless to say that Reginald Haggard became unpopular. Ash Priory was let; the old [Pg 142] servants, those few who had any work left in them, got new and harder places at less wages; those who were past work went into the poor-house. The Haggard estate actually returned three per cent on its market value, and everybody in the neighbourhood of the Priory agreed that Mr. Cunningham the steward was an exceedingly hard man.

Haggard was very particular about one thing. A large diamond-shaped hatchment on which the arms of the Haggards were emblazoned came down from town and was duly affixed over the principal entrance to the Priory.

"It's to stay up for a year mind, Cunningham, tenant or no tenant, and then you can take it down and burn it if you like."

The death of Justice Haggard caused the postponement of the proposed visit to Walls End Castle, and it was not till more than a year afterwards that the old earl's eyes were gladdened by the sight of his [Pg 143] favourite, his great-nephew's wife.

During the year of mourning, Georgie Haggard presented her husband with a son. The child had been born at The Warren. Their recent mourning had effectually prevented the Haggards from going much into society, so rather against the grain, Haggard had consented to remain the guest of his father-in-law, varying the monotony of his long stay at The Warren by an occasional run up to town. At first he had proposed a furnished house, but he had been warned by the local practitioner that it would be unwise and imprudent to subject his wife to unnecessary fatigue, or to let her lose the benefit of the air of her native place. There was not much fuss made on the arrival of the little George; he, poor little chap, was provided with a humble attendant from the village, Fanchette being still retained to minister to the wants, whims and foibles of the elder child. [Pg 144]

Miss Lucy Warrender had enjoyed the successive delights of two London seasons; she went everywhere, she was as much admired as ever. Lucy Warrender was not a mere beauty to be stared at; she was a brilliant conversationalist and possessed considerable powers of repartee. She had an artless way of administering cruel stabs to her female acquaintances which frequently turned them into enemies. When Mrs. Charmington had innocently asked her whether she considered her proposed appearance upon the stage infra dig., she had replied that she thought her friend couldn't do better, "for," added she gently, "they tell me, dear Mrs. Charmington, that actresses never grow old." Lucy Warrender had not been without her triumphs; she had had several offers, and good offers too, but she refused them all, and Lucy Warrender was Lucy Warrender still. Excitement was an absolute necessity to Lucy; there was a persistent craving in her mind for something new, and a ceaseless round of [Pg 145] amusement was what she could not do without. Many girls would have knocked up from the effects of continuous late hours, heated rooms and high living, but Lucy seemed to thrive upon it. She was now nearly two-and-twenty, and from the time she had been able to think she had never troubled herself about anybody's comfort but her own. The maternal instinct had never been awakened in her; she petted the little Lucius simply because he was good-looking, and because she knew that a well-dressed, good-looking young person engaged in petting a child who is also well-dressed and good-looking is a pleasant and picturesque object. Just in the same way she was accustomed to hang on her uncle's arm and gaze up into his face, not because she cared one iota for her uncle, but because she considered it an effective tableau. The sole reason that Lucy Warrender never accepted any of the good offers which [Pg 146] she received was, that she thought herself better off as her own mistress. If Lucy Warrender had been a man, she would have been one of those wholly unobjectionable persons, one of those single-minded individuals, whose life is passed in trying to get the greatest possible amount of personal enjoyment out of this world. As we know, Lucy was not troubled with what is called a heart; true she had made what she now considered a mistake at the outset, but she had burnt her fingers so severely that from that time she was never likely again to lapse from her religion of self-worship. When they had first returned from Switzerland, she had had considerable cause for anxiety, for the fear of being found out had troubled her a good deal, but that shadow had gradually passed away and the whole affair now seemed to her merely like a troubled dream, which she still remembered in a vague sort of way.

Happy, tranquil and contented, Miss Lucy Warrender, looking fresh as a [Pg 147] rose, sat down to the well-furnished breakfast-table at The Warren and turned over in a meditative manner the three or four letters which had arrived for her by the morning's post. Miss Warrender was a wise young woman; she always ate her breakfast first and postponed the perusal of her correspondence till the meal was over. She put her letters in her pocket, as was her custom, and did full justice to the substantial meal which graced the squire's board; at its conclusion, provided with one of her favourite yellow-coloured novels, she lounged into the garden prepared to get through the morning with the least possible amount of trouble to herself. She sat down in a shady nook of the rose garden and read two of her letters, gossipy effusions from female acquaintances; then she took up the last letter, which was on thin paper and addressed in a legible but foreign-looking hand. She opened it carelessly, but as [Pg 148] her eyes fell upon the contents she drew herself up, suddenly the colour left her lips. This was what she read:

"131, Gerard Street, Soho.

"Madame,

"I trust you will excuse the liberty I take in addressing you on a little matter which concerns myself. Circumstances compelled me to leave the service of Mr. Haggard while you and madame were at the Villa Lambert. I have now, madame, to trespass on your kindness, in asking you to assist me in my present intention of re-entering that gentleman's service. I have no reason to believe, madame, that during the time I acted as Mr. Haggard's valet I failed to give satisfaction. It is to ask you to use your kind influence with my former master that I now address you. His valet, I understand, is about to leave him. It probably is in your power, madame, to enable me to obtain my old position once more. Should you feel inclined to use your influence in my behalf I shall be [Pg 149] for ever grateful. I may tell you, madame, that business took me to the village of Auray; what I learned at Auray I shall look upon as a secret confided to my honour. I shall write to Mr. Haggard to-day to apply for the situation. Trusting, madame, that you will give me your powerful aid in this matter, I remain,

"Very respectfully,

"Your humble servant,

"Maurice Capt.

"P.S.—It will be unnecessary to answer this letter, as I feel I can count upon your generosity."

There was no mistake. Lucy had taken every precaution; she had looked upon the old scandal as dead and comfortably buried, buried in the grave of the Parisian cemetery in which lay the unfortunate Hephzibah.

She ground her little white teeth, as she saw the spectre rise once more in a new and uncompromising shape; an unpleasant feeling of utter [Pg 150] helplessness filled her soul. Had her successful intrigues been all to no purpose after all? She had no doubt in her own mind as to what it was that Maurice Capt had learnt at the village of Auray. Capt had not written to ask her for money; she felt that he would probably name the price for his silence later on. In the meantime, she knew that the humble request of the Swiss valet was a politely-worded command which she dared not disobey; and she dreaded his presence, filled with the horrid fear of its consequences. It was even possible, she thought, that her cousin in her sudden terror might incontinently make a clean breast of the whole matter to her husband, or even to the squire. When one has felt perfectly secure, it is extremely painful to see all one's carefully-elaborated combinations instantaneously collapse. As has been [Pg 151] said, Lucy Warrender was in the habit of looking upon servants as mere furniture, but here was a piece of furniture suddenly developed into a most substantial bogey.

At first Lucy was disposed to take her cousin into her confidence, but then she thought, and thought rightly, that Georgina would make a very bad conspirator. Perhaps after all the valet might consent to be bribed; she remembered with pleasure that he was discretion itself, so she calmly resolved to adopt what doctors call an expectant policy; that is to say, to do nothing at all, and to patiently await the turn of events.

She was not kept long in suspense. While they were at dinner that evening, Haggard mentioned to the squire that he had just received a letter from his old servant.

"I think the confounded impudence of that rascal Capt has something almost sublime in it. He bolts in a mysterious manner when he was left in charge of the girls, and now he calmly proposes to come back to me again." [Pg 152]

"Of course you won't think of taking him," replied the squire.

"Take him, I'd see him hanged first, as he will be one of these days, if he gets his deserts. Why, Georgie, what's the matter?"

And well might Haggard exclaim, for young Mrs. Haggard was staring at her husband, her eyes wild with terror.

"How terribly stupid you men are; don't you see that she's fainting, Reginald," cried Lucy as she hurried to her cousin's side. "The heat's something dreadful, and it has quite overcome her," said the sympathizing cousin, as she cleverly covered Georgie's retreat from the room.

In a few minutes she reappeared.

"It was nothing after all, as I supposed. She is lying down, and will be herself again very shortly. What was it you were saying, Reginald, about Capt?"

"Oh, I had forgotten the rascal; merely that he coolly suggests that I should take him on again. He wasn't a bad servant, you know, quite what [Pg 153] a servant should be—a mere machine. I wonder what made him bolt in that unaccountable way, Lucy?"

"Didn't we tell you?" said the girl. "It was some lovers' quarrel between him and Hephzibah; she was never the same girl after he disappeared; quite a little back-stairs comedy."

"Which turned into a tragedy though when the poor girl died," said the squire; "I suppose when he bolted she broke her heart."

"You are getting quite romantic, uncle," said Lucy; "people in her class of life don't break their hearts, they only do their work worse than usual."

"I know one thing," said Haggard, "he was the best man I ever had, and if it wasn't for his confounded cheek, I should be glad to get him back. I suppose if I did though he'd commence upon Fanchette, and turn her head."

"I fancy Fanchette can take very good care of herself. I don't think [Pg 154] you need hesitate on her account if you really want him," carelessly threw in Miss Warrender.

"It wouldn't be a bad idea," said Haggard meditatively. "My present fellow insists on smoking my cigars, and absolutely declines to wear my new boots. I hate wearing boots for the first time. I think I'll give the fellow a chance after all."

A week afterwards Maurice Capt was installed. To Lucy's intense astonishment, not one word did he breathe to her of his researches at the secluded village of Auray. But she felt that they understood one another. Gradually she came to the conclusion that she had bought the valet's silence at a very cheap price. He was glad to get back his good place, and that was probably all he wanted; he dropped no hint or innuendo of his discoveries, if he had made any, and he made no attempt at blackmailing.

Mademoiselle Fanchette was at first very attentive to the valet, and [Pg 155] seemed to think less than ever of the "homme" in Algeria. But Mr. Capt, though very courteous to Fanchette, did not respond to her advances; perhaps he was yet sorrowing for the dead Hephzibah. Still Fanchette secured a gossip to whom she could confide her numerous troubles, and Haggard felt that he had done wisely in having once more obtained the invaluable services of the faithful Swiss.

It has been stated that the King's Warreners were divided into two religious camps—the upper classes and the labourers going to church, while the smaller tradespeople sat under the Reverend Boanerges Smiter, an eloquent young Baptist minister, who had wrestled in vain for thirty years of his life with cruel letter H. It was the dream of Mr. Smiter's life to empty the old-fashioned pews of the parish church. With this intention he worked hard; he preached, he lectured, he even at considerable trouble obtained a sort of reputation as a pulpit comedian, but he forgot that the seats of Gilgal Chapel were hard, while the old [Pg 156] baize-lined pews at King's Warren Church were high and comfortable, and seemed to say to their occupants, "Here your slumbers will be undisturbed," also that the vicar never preached for more than twenty minutes. Rev. B. Smiter (for somehow or other the definite article is always left out before the title of a dissenting minister) was an ingenious man. It was through his exertions that Gilgal stood proudly upon its own freehold, and that it possessed actual cash at the bank. When Mr. Smiter first came to King's Warren the funds of Gilgal Chapel were in a very bad state indeed. The community was in debt for rent, the pastor lived in a little lodging in the village, his stipend was of the smallest, and the chapel was badly out of repair. But Rev. Boanerges Smiter was equal to the occasion. He was the original inventor of the Great Avalanche System. He got into his little pulpit one day, and he [Pg 157] preached his great sermon on the text "Ask and ye shall have," and then he explained to his hearers the details of the Great Avalanche System. He told them, what they well knew, that they were in King's Warren a comparatively small body of relatively poor people. "Many a time and oft," said he, "have my predecessors stood here, and urged you, my dear brothers and sisters, to give to the needs of this chapel. My predecessors have ever resembled the young ravens in their persistent cry, 'Give, Give;' and you, my dear brothers and sisters, have given, you've responded manfully, but what has been the result? Gilgal is as badly off as ever. We are but a small handful of Israelites in a great land of Egypt, and we are oppressed by Pharaoh; for Pharaoh, clad in purple and fine linen, takes tithes of all we possess." (Did he refer to poor Jack Dodd as Pharaoh?) "But you will all remember that Moses ordered the children of Israel to spoil the Egyptians, and it will be our duty, nay our privilege, to do to these modern Egyptians as did our [Pg 158] prototypes, the children of Israel, to Pharaoh and his subjects. What does Gilgal want? Gilgal wants to be out of debt. Gilgal wants a suitable residence for its pastor. Gilgal wants a new roof, and Gilgal would be all the better for a new organ. Now, my friends, did the Egyptians assist the unfortunate Israelites? Not a bit of it. Why they wouldn't even give them straw to make their bricks with. But though they wouldn't give them any straw, yet they yielded up to them after a time their jewels of silver and their jewels of gold, for we read that the Israelites spoiled the Egyptians. I am going to ask you for your charity, and I am going to head the subscription myself. Don't be cast down, my friends, at the single shilling which your pastor is about to subscribe. I trust that we shall obtain the roof, the freehold, the suitable residence for the pastor, nay, even the organ; for fifteen hundred pounds will do all this. Fifteen hundred pounds seems a large [Pg 159] sum to you, my brethren, but it is easily to be obtained. And remark the pleasant fact that it will be obtained from the Egyptians. It is your charity I ask, but not your money, for the charity I require is simply vicarious. Let me go more into detail and make myself thoroughly understood. How is an avalanche first formed? A tiny mass of snow slips down from the top of some lofty mountain; that tiny mass is my original shilling. As the mass falls, it sets in motion other portions larger than itself. Gradually at first, and slowly, the little heap slides down the steep declivity. Its velocity increases, as does its volume—it at length becomes irresistible; enormously and indefinitely multiplied, it at last reaches the valley, no longer a tiny mass of snow, but a vast avalanche, which carries all before it, trees, rocks, and even villages being torn away by the irresistible force of the tremendous aggregation. Such is the Great Avalanche System. I am 'A,' and I subscribe a [Pg 160] shilling. I now call upon four of you to stand up, each in his place, and you four will each contribute but a humble shilling."

All the adults in the congregation of Gilgal stood up as one man.

"No, my friends," said the pastor, "I need but four, but four female friends. Four of my sisters will be my 'B's,' my busy bees; each 'B' will select four 'C's,' from each of whom she will obtain a shilling. She will register their names and addresses, and request them to do as she herself has done, and each four 'D's' to contribute a similar amount; and so on, my friends, through all the letters of the alphabet.

"The human heart is hard. There are many of us who would look twice at that shilling if we were asked for it as a simple contribution. But it is not a simple contribution, for it carries with it a privilege—it enables the person who has paid his or her shilling to exact a similar amount from four personal friends; and though the original giver has contributed but a single shilling, that giver has the pleasure of [Pg 161] handing in an amount which is practically incalculable. I know the world, my brethren, and I know that as a rule the world is very glad indeed to get off for a shilling. Alas, many of the most active contributors to the numerous Missionary Societies of this country never put a single penny into the missionary boxes with which they are always glad to be provided; for the missionary box is an outward and visible sign of respectability, and a perpetual rod in pickle for friends, relatives, and rebellious children.

"Already, my friends, in my mind's eye I see Gilgal standing proudly upon its own freehold, I see it provided with the roof it so much needs, and mentally I already dwell in the comfortable residence allotted to its pastor. I even hear the sweet strains of the much-desired American organ. And all this is no dream; in a few short weeks, my friends, it will be a delightful reality. And what will be our chief incentive to the work? Why the fact that all this money has been obtained, not from [Pg 162] the little congregation of Gilgal, but from the Egyptian, from haughty Pharaoh and his countless host."

Then he gave out the hymn.

Rev. Boanerges Smiter was right. The thing came off. The money poured in, and the Reverend Smiter's original shilling was turned, as by the touch of the enchanter's wand, into fifteen hundred pounds. Thirty thousand victims had been indirectly teased and pestered by Smiter, at the least possible amount of trouble to himself; but all had had their revenge, save the last batch, in finding four other shilling victims, and each of them had obtained for a ridiculously small sum a character for active benevolence. Who is there in this wicked world who would not consider a character for active benevolence cheap at a shilling?

It was indirectly due to Rev. B. Smiter that the vicar received the cruel snubbing which was a joke against him in King's Warren for the rest of his natural life. The congregation of Gilgal held open-air [Pg 163] meetings upon the village green at the end of summer as a sort of counter demonstration to the harvest festivals of the church. There was no Salvation Army in those days, and in a little place like King's Warren even such a mild excitement as an open-air meeting is very welcome. Besides the real congregation on the village green there was always a considerable gallery of curious onlookers, "scoffers," as they were termed by the "elect." Rev. B. Smiter had been very successful at these meetings. They really did a certain amount of good, for some who had come to laugh remained to pray. In the particular summer to which I am referring Mr. Smiter had gone to the expense of engaging what in theatrical circles would be termed a popular favourite. This was the well-known 'Appy 'Arry.

'Appy 'Arry was a character in his way. He had been a noted pugilist; he had even fought for the championship, and he took the punishment he [Pg 164] received on that memorable occasion in a very plucky manner. If 'Arry had won the fight he would doubtless have subsided into the pugilist's well-merited haven of rest—a sporting public house. But the fates willed it otherwise, and 'Arry was converted and took to religion. The man was perfectly sincere, and many a rough fellow owed his conversion from drink and debauchery to 'Appy 'Arry. His was a rude kind of eloquence that went straight to the hearts of the majority of his male hearers. He would retail his exciting experiences as a pugilist and a drunkard with much gusto. He would tell in minute detail the history of his great but unsuccessful struggle for the champion's belt; and as he dilated on the wicked glories of his former life he would say with a pleasant smile, "And was I 'appy, my brothers? No, I was not 'appy, for I hadn't got religion."

Haggard and the vicar were looking on at one of the revival meetings, [Pg 165] and 'Appy 'Arry was holding forth with his accustomed fervour.

"I've given it all up now. I don't associate with the swells now. Many's the time, my brethren, as I've had on the gloves with dooks and baronites, and other sporting swells," and here his eye fell upon the amused countenance of the Reverend John Dodd. "Ay, and with fighting parsons, too," he said.

The Reverend Jack blushed.

"But I looks on 'em now as men of sin; they used to be proud to shake 'ands with 'Arry in his bad days, but I've shook 'em off, my brothers, and I don't foregather now with the likes of them. Don't you think it's no yarns I'm telling you, my friends; why, there's one of 'em now, a-looking on. Oh, how I wish that fighting parson was as 'appy as I am now; and if he'd only listen to me in a proper spirit he might be; but he won't, my brethren, and why won't he? Because 'is 'art is 'ard. [Pg 166] Many's the merry round I've 'ad with the gloves with 'Andsome Jack Dodd, as is a-standing there. Why, he was one of my backers when I fought the butcher on Moulsey Hurst, and licked him, too, for the matter of that! 'Andsome Jack Dodd was proud to shake 'ands with 'Arry in those days. But will 'Appy 'Arry shake hands with him now? No, my brethren. And for why? Becos he ain't got religion."

And then the preacher sat down, and Haggard and the Rev. John Dodd beat a hasty retreat. Haggard told the story to Mrs. Dodd that very evening. It was a rather mean thing to do, but Haggard was a man of impulse.


CHAPTER VIII.

THE VICAR TRIES PUFFIN.

[Pg 167]

It must not be supposed that all the religious activity in King's Warren was confined to the Dissenters. The Reverend John Dodd was a fine old-crusted Tory; the world had gone very well with him. He had his cross, of course, in the shape of his wife Cecilia, and the Reverend B. Smiter was a very thorn in his flesh; but his living was a good living, and his peaches and his port wine were unsurpassed in the county. His archdeacon was an old personal friend of his own, and I am afraid that the post-prandial conversations of the two when the archdeacon made his yearly visitations and Mrs. Dodd had left them to themselves, turned more upon vintages and things of this world than on church matters. But [Pg 168] a young and active bishop, of High Church tendencies, now reigned in the neighbouring cathedral, and the archdeacon in a friendly manner suggested to Dodd that it behoved him to set his house in order.

"We must move with the times, Dodd," he said. "The bishop is a man of six-and-thirty and an enthusiast. I am sorry to say he is no respecter of persons. There is no doubt, my friend, that dissent has spread in this parish of late years with frightful rapidity." He spoke of it as if it were a disease. "What you want is an energetic coadjutor, and you can't do better than try Puffin. Puffin has been a Missioner, and he is a wonderful organizer. If you want to be in the bishop's good books you should try Puffin. He'll take every sort of trouble off your hands; all you have to do is to give him plenty of rope. He has his peculiarities, but he is honest in his way, and he did wonders at the East End, where he nearly killed himself by overwork. You won't keep him long, you [Pg 169] know, for Puffin's a man certain of good preferment. He'll fill your church, and if anything will stop the insidious progress of dissent in the place, it's Puffin."

"But, my dear fellow, we are very comfortable as we are. I hate a clerical firebrand. Why can't we rub along comfortably for the rest of my time?"

"The days of rubbing along, Dodd, are gone by. As the bishop puts it, the Church in these latter days must be a Church militant, or it will cease to exist."

"But it needn't become a Church pugnacious for all that," said Dodd.

"My dear fellow, if we were certain that I should be archdeacon for ever you might, as you put it, go on rubbing along. But the king who knew not Joseph has arrived. Our spiritual head is a man who will stand no nonsense. If you don't follow his lead, he will look upon you as refractory. Don't be refractory, Dodd; try Puffin. You will find him a [Pg 170] perfect panacea."

"But I don't believe in panaceas," said Dodd; "the fellow will set the whole place by the ears before he has been here a month. Why, in this village the aggrieved parishioner does not even exist. If a man doesn't like the church he takes sittings in the chapel, and there is an end of the thing."

"My dear fellow, you mistake the matter altogether. Now-a-days, a real, good, wrong-headed aggrieved parishioner is exactly what you do want. He keeps you before the public, and brings you to the favourable notice of your spiritual head."

"But look at the fuss, the letters, and the lawsuits."

"With a new bishop, Dodd, and a man like Puffin at your back, though there would be lots of fuss, it need not trouble you. Puffin would write all the letters; and as for the lawsuits, you would win them, and the [Pg 171] costs would not come out of your pocket. Puffin, of course, sails rather close to the wind, if I may be allowed the expression, but he knows exactly how far he can go. In fact, Dodd, though he puts his candles upon the altar he never lights them, except at evensong, and then he knows he can do so with impunity."

And then they gradually began to talk about the wine.

The result of this conversation was that the Reverend John Dodd hastened to secure the services of that energetic priest the Reverend Barnes Puffin.

Mr. Puffin arrived at the Vicarage looking very much like an ordinary clergyman, save that the round black felt that he wore had a brim of portentous width; and Mrs. Dodd noticed with some astonishment that the white tie, which all clergymen of her acquaintance habitually wore, was conspicuous by its absence, and that the new curate appeared to have put on his collar wrong side before. At first it was a mystery to her how [Pg 172] he could have got into that collar. There was certainly no visible means of entrance in front. Puffin wore his hair very long indeed, while the whole of his face was clean shaven. Mrs. Dodd, too, gave a start when he proceeded to address her as "his dear sister;" but she was still more astonished when he removed his long clerical great-coat and she saw that the Reverend Barnes Puffin was clad in a long black garment with innumerable little buttons running from his neck to within two inches of the ground. Around his waist was a long black sash with a silken fringe. As he gave the vicar's wife his arm, when they went in to dinner, he suddenly produced from his pocket a little square cap, which he placed upon his head. He did full justice to the stewed eels, with which the meal commenced; but he never removed the little cap during the whole of the entertainment, nor could the vicar and his wife persuade him to partake of any of the numerous dainties which composed the rest of the [Pg 173] feast. At first he said he wasn't hungry. A curate who refused entrées was a novelty to Mrs. Dodd.

"I fear you are not well, Mr. Puffin," she said as he declined woodcock on toast.

"Dear Mrs. Dodd, I remember that it is the Eve of St. Radegonde, Virgin and Martyr."

The vicar and his wife looked at one another; but they respected Mr. Puffin's prejudices, and ceased to press him.

The next day the reign of the Reverend Barnes Puffin commenced. The old church, where service had been held as seldom as possible from time immemorial, was now thrown open daily for matins and evensong. At first there was no congregation; but the Reverend Barnes Puffin looked up all the old pensioners, particularly the old women who were in receipt of parish relief at home, and in his persuasive but forcible way he made [Pg 174] all these poor old people understand that their comforts, for which they had hitherto given nothing in return, would depend upon good behaviour, that is to say, going to church. Nor did Mr. Puffin confine his ministrations to the lower orders. How he managed it I don't know; but before he had been three months in the place most of the younger ladies in the parish flocked to the services. I suppose he made love to them in a quiet, clerical sort of way. The Misses Sleek, looking as plump and pretty as ever, but dressed with a prim demureness which considerably astonished their father, were among his first converts; and they used to hurry to church on foot twice a day with praiseworthy regularity. They considered themselves well rewarded if the curate walked home with them occasionally to dinner, and so beatified The Park by his presence. But Mr. Puffin egregiously failed with Miss Grains. She, too, had felt inclined at first to place her conscience in Mr. [Pg 175] Puffin's hands; but young Mr. Wurzel, an easy-going fellow enough at most times, objected to Puffin's addressing his affianced bride, save from the pulpit, as "his dear sister." He had even told Miss Grains that he looked upon Mr. Puffin as a "philanderer," and that "he didn't hold with philanderers." So Miss Grains made no alteration in her costume, and she turned a deaf ear to Mr. Puffin's ecclesiastical authority.

It was not long before King's Warren Church rejoiced in a surpliced choir. There was rather a martial clang of hob-nailed boots during the numerous processions of the choir on Sundays; but the service was undoubtedly much more imposing than in the old days. Mr. Puffin did wonders with the small material at his command. He would have made an admirable stage-manager. He never missed a possible effect, and he considerably astonished the King's Warreners when he preached his first [Pg 176] funeral sermon. He was a good preacher, and always held the attention of the congregation. But perhaps some few of them smiled when he led up to the fact that the silver cord was loosed and the golden bowl broken, in an ornate and sensational harangue reaching an unexpected climax by tilting over the tumbler at his side, which fell with a crash and was shivered in a thousand pieces on the floor. There were no sleepers in King's Warren Church when the Reverend Barnes Puffin graced the pulpit after that. And yet Puffin was a sincere man, and worked energetically according to his lights.

But it was an evil day for the Reverend Barnes Puffin when he felt it to be his duty to attempt the conversion of Lucy Warrender. She was the one black sheep of the fold, for she had committed the unpardonable sin—she had laughed at Mr. Puffin. A girl may differ with a modern parson, she [Pg 177] may argue with him; nay, she may refuse to argue with him at all, but she must not laugh at him, and Lucy had done this. Had she not irreverently compared him to Samson, and wickedly declared that she would like to be a Delilah to shear with her own hands his too redundant locks? Had she not told him that it was rude to wear the little square hat, which he persisted in calling a baretta, in the presence of ladies? Had she not openly asserted her belief that he wore a hair shirt and scourged himself in private? These are only a few of the many crimes of which Miss Warrender had been guilty. It was evidently the duty of the Reverend Barnes Puffin to convert Miss Warrender without loss of time.

Puffin was always well received at The Warren; he amused the squire by the seriousness of his arguments about trifling things. For every thing that he did, for every little bob, bow or gesture, the Reverend Barnes [Pg 178] Puffin had a very good reason. Nothing that he did was trifling; it was always symbolical of something. According to him, for every movement of his body there was a ritual reason why. It became a sort of custom at The Warren that as soon as dessert was upon the table, the Reverend Barnes Puffin was allowed to mount his hobby-horse and wildly career. He liked to give what he called a little information on sacred things, and he made the most of his opportunities, for he never had a long innings, as he always retired with the ladies.

One evening the Reverend Barnes Puffin was seated in the drawing-room at The Warren conversing with the cousins. Fanchette, in all the pride of her Norman costume, was bringing the little Lucius to bid his mother good-night. Now Fanchette, from his cassock, his sash, his baretta, and the collar which had so puzzled poor Mrs. Dodd, had always looked upon the Reverend Barnes Puffin as a veritable Catholic priest, and [Pg 179] respected him accordingly. She made him a succession of low courtesies, and placing the little Lucius in his mother's arms, she advanced towards the curate in a respectful manner. To his intense astonishment she suddenly dropped on her knees at his side, seized his hand, and covered it with kisses. Then, in fluent patois, she demanded his blessing. But the curate, unfortunately, did not understand a word she said. Like most curates, he was accustomed to the blandishments which are invariably lavished by the female sex on these most fortunate of men. Interesting penitents had made eyes at him, had squeezed his hand at parting with unnecessary pressure, had loaded him with slippers, vestments, and socks and comforters knitted by their own fair fingers. They had even obtained interviews, and had wickedly taken the opportunity of the tête-à-tête to make violent love to him; but never, in the whole course of his clerical experience, had any of his "dear sisters" suddenly dropped on [Pg 180] their knees at his side and violently kissed his hand. Puffin was by no means a vain man. But what could he think? Here was a foreign woman, of prepossessing appearance, administering sounding osculations to his unwilling fingers.

"Ladies, dear ladies," he said, as he rose to his feet, the bonne still clinging to his hand and kissing it furiously, "this is most irregular." Here he strove with gentle dignity to try to withdraw his hand, but all to no purpose. "Ladies," he said, blushing violently, and speaking of Fanchette as if she had been an infuriated bull-terrier, "call her off. Please call her off."

But the cousins were far too amused at the incident to come to his assistance. Georgie could not forbear a smile, while Lucy burst into inextinguishable peals of silvery laughter.

"She wants your blessing, Mr. Puffin, that's all," said Lucy at length.

"Then she should come to church, Miss Warrender," exclaimed Mr. Puffin, [Pg 181] to whose hand the bonne clung, alternately kissing it and gazing up at him with imploring eyes.

"She thinks you are a Catholic priest," exclaimed Lucy.

"This is too horrible," cried the Reverend Barnes Puffin, as he vainly struggled to release the imprisoned hand.

"Ah, mon père," vociferated the bonne.

"Goodness me, she says I'm her father; pray explain, dear ladies. Is her mind affected?"

And then Miss Warrender did explain to her.

On hearing that the unhappy curate was not a priest of her own Church, but only, as Lucy had expressed it, a heretical Protestant pastor, Fanchette's demeanour changed altogether.

"Ah, gredin, farceur, monsieur est en travesti. Saperlotte," she added, and here she snapped her fingers in the astonished curate's face, and abruptly left the room. [Pg 182]

The curate sank into a chair and wiped his brow with his pocket-handkerchief.

"Goodness me, ladies," he said, "what a terrible person! I assure you I didn't mean to exasperate her."

From that day Fanchette ceased her respectful obeisances to the curate, but his visits to The Warren, where he was always a welcome guest, became gradually more frequent.

It is human nature after all ever to strive after the impossible, and Mr. Puffin recognizing in Miss Warrender a young lady who was essentially of the world worldly, naturally determined to attempt her conversion. But the spirit of contrariety is ever strongly developed in the female breast. As the parson became more pertinacious, Miss Warrender, who was at first rather bored than otherwise by his eloquence, resolved upon reprisals.

"I'll bet you a new bonnet," she had said to Haggard, "that I make the [Pg 183] Celibate propose to me."

"Not he, my dear," said Georgie's husband with a laugh. "Puffin's not altogether a fool after all; he's got the run of his teeth in this house, and he won't care to lose it by making an ass of himself."

"My dear Miss Warrender, my husband's curate considers himself as vowed to heaven," said Mrs. Dodd, who was present.

"They all do, Mrs. Dodd, till they find metal more attractive. I daresay even Mr. Dodd considered himself at one time as vowed to heaven."

"There is no analogy, Miss Warrender, between my husband's case and that of Mr. Puffin. When Mr. Dodd proposed to me, Miss Warrender, he did so as a beneficed clergyman; and he proposed to the daughter of a dignitary of the Church. Had Mr. Dodd been a curate, he would not have so far forgotten his position as to have been guilty of so presumptuous an act." [Pg 184]

"But I'm only Squire Warrender's niece, Mrs. Dodd; there would be no presumption in my case."

"Don't buoy yourself up with false hopes, Lucy. Were Mr. Puffin to be guilty of such unseemly folly, it would be my duty, as his vicar's wife, to seriously remonstrate with him; and should he prove obdurate, even to dispense with his services. The position of a clergyman's wife, Lucy Warrender, is full of difficulty and responsibility," she added sententiously.

"That's what makes me long for it so, Mrs. Dodd. I yearn to feel myself lifted out of the common ruck of women."

"You are unmaidenly, Lucy Warrender," said the vicar's wife, instantly assuming her favourite tone of a Lord Chief Justice.

Miss Hood smiled, for she felt that the badinage was sober earnest to Mrs. Dodd; but she made no remark, for Lucy was long ago out of leading strings.

When the vicar's wife reached her home, she sent for Mr. Puffin. After [Pg 185] she had shaken hands with him, she came to the point at once.

"I trust you are comfortable here, Mr. Puffin," she said, "and that you find King's Warren a congenial sphere."

"I do indeed, dear madam," replied the curate. "We have already accomplished much, but there is yet an abundant field of work in the place. I am very happy here."

"I have a dreadful communication to make to you, Mr. Puffin. A member of the congregation has confided to me the disgraceful fact of her personal infatuation for my husband's curate."

"This is sad, Mrs. Dodd, this is very sad; but it is not wholly unexpected. Clergymen, as you are aware, dear madam, are constantly exposed to these annoyances in the course of their ministrations. You allude, I conclude, to the younger Miss Sleek. I have noticed latterly [Pg 186] her marked assiduity in attendance at church—the most unseasonable weather has failed to keep her away. I half feared that it would be so. Alas, girls are apt to forget the priest in the man. But this is a new kind of experience to me, Mrs. Dodd, for I have found that they usually first confide their folly to the object of their aspirations."

"No, Mr. Puffin, it is not Miss Sleek to whom I allude; nothing would surprise me with regard to her. There is no folly that young persons in her class of life might not be guilty of. It is not the younger Miss Sleek, though she is an ambitious girl, but the squire's near relative who has confessed a wicked passion for my husband's curate."

"Gracious me," cried Mr. Puffin. "Can you possibly allude to young Mrs. Haggard?"

"Mr. Puffin, you forget yourself. No, it is Miss Warrender who has confided to me her infamous secret." [Pg 187]

Mr. Puffin turned pale, then he blushed to the roots of his hair; he sighed deeply, and then he simpered. The vicar's wife drummed impatiently upon the table.

"Oh, Mr. Puffin," she said, "you don't mean to say that you reciprocate this? How often have you protested to me that you were a Celibate, a priest; and now you do nothing but sit and snigger. I'm grieved; I'm disappointed in you, Mr. Puffin."

"Dear Mrs. Dodd," said the poor parson, "your communication has taken me by surprise. At first it horrified me. I am a priest, Mrs. Dodd," he said, "it is true; but, alas, I also remember that I am a man." He buried his face in his hands.

Mrs. Dodd sat immovable, looking at the curate with an astonished gaze; and then she suddenly left the room and slammed the door violently.

The transformation was as thorough as it was sudden; the Reverend Barnes [Pg 188] Puffin had entered that room the humble coadjutor of the vicar's wife; as he left it, he felt his soul soar into higher regions: as Orientals put it, "his head was touching the skies." Mrs. Dodd looked out of her breakfast room window to watch the departure of him who she mentally termed "the fallen man."

But the fallen man considerably astonished her by the change in his appearance. Mr. Puffin, who was accustomed to walk slowly and with downcast eyes, as became a celibate priest, now strode down the drive; he didn't walk, he strode. He swung his walking-stick defiantly in the air, and to her astonishment Mrs. Dodd perceived that, ere he left the place, he committed the brutal act of beheading one of her favourite poppies with a sort of swashbuckler-stroke that would have done credit to a Life Guardsman.

Flutter on, happy clerical butterfly, your bliss will be of short [Pg 189] duration; for that careful entomologist, Miss Lucy Warrender, is already preparing the sharp needle that shall transfix your little triumphant heart.

Puffin, as he passed through the village, returned the many salutations he received with joyous bows, and the wiseacres noticed that his broad brimmed clerical hat was now worn with a triumphant cock.


CHAPTER IX.

MR. PUFFIN HUNTS A BUTTERFLY.

[Pg 190]

The Reverend John Dodd had been more than satisfied with his new curate. At first the long cassock, the flowing robes, and the rather eccentric "make up" of the man had been a daily outrage to the vicar's idea of decency. Mr. Puffin was not the first curate in the vicar's experience who had sought notoriety by a fantastic dress; but Mr. Puffin worked hard in the parish, Mr. Puffin was eloquent, and the vicar felt certain that the Established Church in King's Warren was gaining ground. He was rather gratified than otherwise to hear that Mr. Puffin had begun to waver in his ideas about celibacy. Puffin as an engaged man might be somewhat less divine, but he would be assuredly more human. Dodd himself [Pg 191] didn't see why Mr. Puffin should not become the husband of Miss Warrender. Puffin was a clergyman, and a gentleman; and the Reverend John Dodd rubbed his hands as he thought of the inevitable struggle for mastery which would take place between the pair should the marriage ever come off. And after all, more unlikely things than this marriage had happened. Miss Warrender certainly had had her fling, but a girl can't go on having her fling for ever, and the vicar chuckled as he thought of Lucy as the Celibate's wife. Unconsciously perhaps the curate had assumed an air of superiority to his vicar, for as a Celibate he would naturally look down upon him as a being of a coarser clay, a mere earthen pot; but this had only amused his good-natured chief, and the Reverend John Dodd smiled as he thought of the gentle vengeance he might have, when the enamoured Puffin should take him into his confidence.

He sat down to dinner in the best of tempers. When he perceived that he [Pg 192] was to be regaled with a veal sweetbread with brown sauce, his eyes were lighted up with a merry twinkle. But he felt that there was something in the wind; he knew that that delectable propitiatory sacrifice was only offered to his critical palate on his birthday, when his wife was in a particularly good temper, or when she had a favour to ask. As he looked at the partner of his earthly joys, it was plainly apparent to him that Mrs. Dodd was ruffled; it was not his birthday, so he had a second helping of the delicacy and made up his mind to yield to the inevitable demand with the best possible grace. But not till they were alone did his wife unbosom herself.

"John," she said, "I've come to the conclusion that Mr. Puffin must leave us; a curate ceases to be of use in a parish the moment he makes himself ridiculous, and Mr. Puffin tells me that he is determined to make a fool of himself. I could have passed over his peculiarities, [Pg 193] John," she said, "and his eccentricities in dress; I could even have forgiven his long hair, in consideration of the immense amount of work he manages to get through; but he is about to render himself unsuitable. I approve of ambition in a clergyman; my dear father is an ambitious man, and he has prospered, though not perhaps according to his great deserts; but worldly ambition, the thirst for gold, is unbecoming in a clergyman. To my mind, it is painfully apparent that Mr. Puffin, who ought to be actuated by far higher motives, is prepared to sacrifice himself to Lucy Warrender, who is a most objectionable young person, in order to secure at some future time the presentation to the living of King's Warren."

The vicar laughed.

"I mean to live for the next twenty years, my dear, and if Puffin intends to put up with twenty years of Lucy Warrender for the sake of this living, though it is a fat one, I shall consider that the labourer [Pg 194] will have been worthy of his hire."

"Don't be profane, John," said the lady reprovingly.

"To do Puffin justice, I don't think he is mercenary. Lucy has probably turned his head."

"John, Mr. Puffin is not of an inflammable nature."

"All curates are of an inflammable nature, my dear; why you turned my head in your time."

"I trust, Mr. Dodd, that my mental qualities attracted you, and not mere physical beauty."

"Of course, my dear, of course; but you were a monstrous fine woman then, and for the matter of that, you are still, Cecilia," said the vicar, as he helped himself to a third glass of his '47 port.

His wife smiled and smoothed her cap ribbons.

"Don't exceed, John," she said, with a warning gesture, "or Mr. Puffin [Pg 195] may not have to wait twenty years for his preferment after all. You must admonish him, John; a man of his principles, his pretended principles, is not suited for married life. He told me himself, that ever since his ordination he has assumed what he calls a priestly garb. I ask you, John, how could he be married in a cassock? How could he go on his honeymoon in it?"

"Well, he could leave it off, my dear."

"But he has declared to me that he never would leave it off. How often has he sneered at ordinary clerical attire, though he has never dared to suggest that you should masquerade in, what he calls, proper ecclesiastical costume."

"There may be reasons, my dear; he may have bandy legs."

"His legs are perfectly indifferent to me, Mr. Dodd. If he wishes to marry, he should dress like other people." [Pg 196]

"You should suggest that to Lucy Warrender, my dear."

"If I thought for a moment, Mr. Dodd, that there was a possibility of his being the means of rescuing the girl by his own self-sacrifice, I should not say one word; if he has a taste for martyrdom, it would not be for me to interfere; but I know that Lucy is only wickedly encouraging him for the sake of winning the bet of a new bonnet from her cousin's husband. You must warn and admonish him, John, or he must go. Stacey would have been a far more suitable partner for him."

"Why didn't you suggest it, my dear?"

"It is not my duty to secure a husband for my sister-in-law, Mr. Dodd."

"You thought it was, in the squire's case, Cecilia."

But the vicar's wife let the taunt pass by unnoticed.

"If you don't admonish him, John, I must. It will be a thankless office, [Pg 197] for the wretched man seems bent on his own destruction."

"Well, he has chosen a particularly pleasant form of suicide, Cecilia."

"Flippancy, Mr. Dodd, is not becoming in a clergyman," said his wife with a ruffled air, "and it is not good taste for a clergyman to openly express his admiration for his female parishioners to his wife, and so violate the sanctity of his own fireside."

"I'm not going to make or meddle in the matter, Mrs. Dodd," said her husband.

"'Tis a vicar's duty to protect his curate, Mr. Dodd."

"Not when the curate is perfectly well able to take care of himself, my dear. Besides, there is another point of view; Lucy might do worse."

"Well, John," she replied, "I shall say no more. I can only hope that it is not in a spirit of professional jealousy that you allow this poor thoughtless young fellow to rush to his doom." And then she rang for [Pg 198] coffee.

Next day the Reverend Barnes Puffin lunched at The Warren. Being a feast day he did full justice to the meal. He was overflowing with good spirits, and as soon as lunch was over he seized the first opportunity of securing a tête-à-tête with the squire's niece. As Miss Warrender took the arm of the clergyman, she cast an amused and meaning glance at Haggard. Little by little the pair wandered away into the secluded rose garden, and the Reverend Barnes Puffin felt that he had got his chance.

"Do you care for parish work, Miss Warrender?" said the Celibate, after a few commonplace phrases.

"To tell you the truth, Mr. Puffin, I don't know; I have never tried."

"It is a great privilege, you know," he said. "Has it never occurred to you, my dear Miss Warrender, that it might be your vocation, your natural aim in life." [Pg 199]

"No, I don't think it ever has, Mr. Puffin," she said. "I did know a girl once, one of my school friends, she joined a sisterhood; you know I fancy it was the dress attracted her. She joined a sisterhood, but they made the poor thing wear dreadful thick shoes like a man's, and she had to scrub floors, which spoilt her pretty hands; poor child, they have remained red ever since, and she was glad to marry an army doctor and go to China with him. I suppose red hands don't matter in China," the girl said meditatively. "No, I don't think I should care to scrub floors, Mr. Puffin," and she spread out her taper fingers as though for her own inspection.

The curate admired the fingers, and observed with satisfaction that they were undecorated by a prohibitive ring.

"There are other spheres, dear Miss Warrender, than sisterhoods. Our friend Mrs. Dodd has found a happy and congenial one here in King's Warren." [Pg 200]

"But then she is a clergyman's wife, Mr. Puffin, and a privileged person."

"It is a privilege, Miss Warrender, a great privilege. I'm glad it commends itself to you as such."

"Oh, yes; Mrs. Dodd is much to be envied, but then Mrs. Dodd is a very clever woman; she, Mr. Puffin, has caught her hare."

"And having caught him, Miss Warrender, she has accommodated him to her own taste."

"Hers is a master mind, Mr. Puffin."

"It is perhaps as easy, my dear young lady, to rule by love as to rule by fear."

"And much nicer, I should think, Mr. Puffin."

The curate blushed, and then he made an audacious statement.

"Mine is a very accommodating nature, Miss Warrender."

"That's very fortunate for you, Mr. Puffin, for you must have so much [Pg 201] to put up with from the poor people."

"I have lately been engaged, Miss Warrender, in a very serious mental struggle. I am afraid I have been arrogant. I am afraid that I have boasted and bragged to my friends and to my parishioners that I was not as other men are, that my whole soul was given up to duty, that I was a Celibate, not merely from vocation but from inclination. But my feelings have undergone a change. At first, dear Miss Warrender, I was overpowered by a sense of what I considered my own degradation, but that feeling has entirely passed away. I confess to you that when I first came here I considered myself on a higher platform to that of most men, and I supposed that in obstinately refraining from the ordinary lot of clergymen, I mean marriage, that I was exercising a considerable degree of self-abnegation, in fact that I was leading a higher life. I now see [Pg 202] that all this was a wicked error. The Church enjoins penance, and I have come to the conclusion from my intimate acquaintance with the sufferings of my unfortunate vicar, that instead of making a sacrifice in abstaining from matrimony I was actually guilty of profound and calculating selfishness. I see, too, that a married clergyman in giving up the idea of celibacy secures at least one efficient coadjutor in his parish work. As you know, Miss Warrender, I am in the habit of acting upon my convictions."

"Then of course, Mr. Puffin, you will at once seek to secure the hand of some particularly objectionable person, in order to render the touching martyrdom you speak of the more meritorious?"

"No, Miss Warrender, I shall not look upon that as a bounden duty. My position as a Celibate has many advantages from a professional point of view, for the female portion of my parishioners are enabled to look upon me as one of themselves." [Pg 203]

"Oh, I don't quite think that, Mr. Puffin; of course there is something—well, epicene about your dress, but then to some minds, you know, the clerical dress has a great attractiveness. Why the Louis Quatorze abbés, that we see so much of in comic opera, were terribly wicked people, you know, Mr. Puffin, and they clung very tightly to the clerical dress, and so did Tartuffe for the matter of that."

"Dear Miss Warrender, the cleric garb is but a delightful reminiscence of a past time; there is nothing ridiculous in it. You have the same thing in the Blue Coat boy, and there is assuredly nothing ridiculous in a Blue Coat boy."

"Quite the contrary, Mr. Puffin; it is rather romantic than otherwise, but I can't fancy a full-grown man in yellow stockings, and a—hem—undivided skirt. By the way, Mr. Puffin, I can give you a suggestion: if you did really carry out your ideas and marry after all, you might adopt the Blue Coat costume as a sort of sign of your [Pg 204] apostacy, a kind of san benito; you would still be retaining the mediŠval idea, you see, and be thoroughly distinguishable from Tartuffe and the wicked abbés we were talking about."

"In matters of dress, Miss Warrender, did I become a married man I should naturally defer to the wishes of my wife."

"You don't mean to say that you would dress like other people?"

"Yes, Miss Warrender, I should do so, though it would not be without a pang that I should relinquish what I look upon as the true clerical garb."

"Don't think of it, Mr. Puffin, don't think of it, for an instant. The noble savage in his war-paint, his wampum, his feathers and his scalps, is a dignified object; but dress him in a suit of common clothes and cut his hair and he ceases to be interesting."

"Do you really think, Miss Warrender, that I should lose influence if I [Pg 205] adopted the costume of ordinary life, should I enter upon the perilous sea of matrimony?"

"Well, Mr. Puffin, if you dressed like other people and married, I don't see how, to use your own expression, 'the female members of your congregation could continue to look upon you as one of themselves,' because if they did, you see you would be only Mrs. Puffin's sister after all."

"Yes, I am afraid that is the reductio ad absurdum. But we are wandering away, Miss Warrender; it was about my heart, and not about my garments, that I sought to converse with you."

"Oh, Mr. Puffin, I should make the worst of confidants; I never by any chance keep a secret."

"And yet I am ready to trust your discretion, Miss Warrender."

"I confess you rouse my curiosity. Do I know the lady?" [Pg 206]

"Yes, Miss Warrender, she is your best friend and your worst enemy."

"Now you intrigue me, Mr. Puffin, for all my acquaintances address me as their dearest Lucy, and as for my enemies—I've guessed it, Mr. Puffin. I never had an enemy till Mr. Sleek's hay making. I suppose Miss Connie Sleek is the bride-elect. Let me congratulate you, Mr. Puffin, but do tell me one thing, it is so interesting—what are Miss Sleek's ideas about the clerical garb?"

"I fear you wilfully misunderstand me, Miss Warrender. My aspirations are higher. I do not think Miss Sleek would ever be the ideal wife for a clergyman."

"You mystify me, Mr. Puffin."

Mr. Puffin possessed a copy of the "Bab Ballads." He remembered two lines in them that gave him that hope which they say springs eternal in the human breast.

"It isn't so much the lover who woos,
As the lover's way of wooing."

[Pg 207] He remembered that Mr. Gilbert's successful lover came to the point at once, so, to use a hunting simile, he sat well down in his saddle, and he hardened his heart.

"Dear Miss Warrender," he said, and there was a certain amount of dignity about the man, despite his long hair and his eccentric appearance, "I am only a working clergyman, but I am a gentleman; and I wish you, for both our sakes, to share my lot."

Here Lucy Warrender cast down her pretty eyes and smiled, for she felt that she had won Haggard's new bonnet fairly and honestly.

The parson continued, taking heart of grace from the false little smile upon her lips:

"I'm going to ask you to give up a great deal for the sake of religion, and for my sake, Miss Warrender. I'm going to ask you to give up the world, its frivolous enjoyments and its pleasures, and to tread with me [Pg 208] a thorny and toilsome path which leads to higher things. I know my presumption, Miss Warrender. I know that in trying to do good according to my lights I often merely succeed in making myself ridiculous. If I am ridiculous in your eyes, Miss Warrender, you can have but one answer to give me. But my proposition to you is at least disinterested. I know you will believe that. I don't ask you for an answer now, Miss Warrender. I should scorn to snatch a favourable answer from an inexperienced girl."

Lucy gave another little smile.

"Think over what I have said, dear Miss Warrender; if you feel equal to making the sacrifice, so do I. Take time to think it over."

"No, Mr. Puffin. I have been foolish and wicked, perhaps, if I have unknowingly encouraged you; but you have spoken honestly enough to me, and the least you deserve is an honest answer. I am not fit, Mr. [Pg 209] Puffin, to be any man's wife—any honest man's wife—least of all a clergyman's."

Lucy felt that she had said a little too much, so she hastened to qualify it.

"I am but a worldly girl. I love pleasure and dissipation; it is my nature—a nature I can never change. Look on me, Mr. Puffin, as wholly unworthy of you. Were you to marry me, Mr. Puffin, you would commit an act that we should both repent. You would degrade yourself to my level; and, God knows, mine is a very low level. Take my answer as it is meant Mr. Puffin, in seriousness, and as irrevocable. Forgive me, Mr. Puffin, and do me one favour. I am utterly bad, Mr. Puffin, but try not to think unkindly of me, for I have no friends; and, as you told me just now, I am my own worst enemy."

Tears were standing in the pretty eyes. Lucy Warrender was not acting now. [Pg 210]

The Reverend Barnes Puffin did not press his suit further.

"Good-bye, Miss Warrender," he said, in a choking voice. "But never say you have no friends. We may never meet again. I have merited my rebuff, but I thank you for your forbearance. And if you ever need a friend, you have a faithful one in me."

He pressed her hand and took his leave. As he walked out of the rose garden with a dejected air, it was very evident that his wooing had not prospered. But Lucy Warrender never asked Haggard to pay his lost wager.

The Reverend Barnes Puffin bore his misfortune like a man. He felt that Lucy's determination was final, and that it would be hopeless to try his luck again with her; but she hadn't laughed at him, and that was something. Still, Mr. Puffin felt that it behoved him to leave King's Warren. Just as it is a matter of tradition, an un-written law, that a [Pg 211] ministry when beaten on a great political question goes out of office, so it is the custom among curates who have been unsuccessful in their love affairs in the parish, if the parish is aware of the fact, to tender their resignation. The curate sought an interview with the Reverend John Dodd and announced his decision. The vicar did not attempt to combat it. A celibate clergyman has many advantages; but a celibate clergyman who is prepared to renounce his principles ceases to inspire respect among the female portion of his congregation. As a Celibate, rapturous maidens will go on sighing and weeping for him, for while he represents the Unattainable there is something almost saint-like about him; but as a curate who has been refused by a member of his own congregation, the nimbus suddenly disappears from his brow; he ceases to be a modern apostle, and turns out to be an ordinary and unsuccessful [Pg 212] fisherman after all. And this is one reason why the modern fisherman always carries a creel. Isaac Walton was contented to bring home the spoils of his art strung upon an osier; but the modern creel conveys an impression of dignity; the natural supposition is that there is something in it, hence its popularity.

So the Reverend Barnes Puffin went back to hard work at the east end of London, and after a time attained the preferment which the archdeacon had prophesied; but he still retains the celibate garb, and in his dreams he sees a glorified Lucy Warrender—fair hair, brown eyes and all—and the lovely vision is quite sufficient for him. He thinks of her as he fondly fancied her, and looks on her as a sort of guardian angel still. Who shall grudge him the fond delusion?


CHAPTER X.

A RATHER SHADY CHARACTER.

[Pg 213]

The lower middle classes are a never-failing stalking-horse; we can all afford to laugh at them as ridiculous, vulgar, improvident and wicked. Even the mock hero, the good young man who tries to raise himself, has something comic in him. But we haven't seen anything of the lower orders in this history as yet, and it is only incidentally that we quit King's Warren for the grimy neighbourhood of St. Luke's. Just behind the great hospital for lunatics is Matilda Street. They are all private houses in Matilda Street, and from the number of brass plates it seems at first a professional sort of neighbourhood. Most of the houses are evidently occupied by at least three families, for the right-hand doorpost nearly [Pg 214] always contains three bells, one for each floor. But the brass plates are not those of lawyers and doctors; many of them indicate the places of business of working jewellers and watchmakers, and the latter predominate; dial painters, engine turners, escapement makers, swivel manufacturers and so on, ad infinitum. Then there are pianoforte tuners, and dealers of many sorts. Those of the plates which have only a surname upon them, indicate that the place is a lodging house. Though we are in the black heart of London, in one of the darkest, poorest and most melancholy quarters, there is a great deal of window gardening going on; plants of every kind and sort may be seen on the window ledges, from ground floor to attic; the humble Creeping Jenny is a great favourite, and it seems to thrive wonderfully in the damp thick atmosphere. Some of the ground floor windows are discreetly screened by wonderful specimens of lank spindly geraniums—hapless plants which [Pg 215] have never been known to bloom, but whose sickly-looking leaves of abnormal pallor struggle towards the light, what little there is of it. Matilda Street, being in the heart of St. Luke's, naturally contains many fanciers. Numerous bow-windowed, brass-bound cages, each with its little bit of turf, are hung outside the windows in all directions, and the imprisoned skylarks they contain warble away merrily, giving quite a rural air to Matilda Street, E.C. Seedy-looking men and boys, carrying tiny square cages carefully tied up in handkerchiefs, are continually popping in and out; these are the chaffinch fanciers, and each cage contains a sightless songster, who at his master's command is prepared to pour forth his simple rural melody at any hour of the day or night in a long unbroken series of cheeps and chirrups. In Matilda Street lives a trainer of piping bullfinches, a man who has passed his whole life [Pg 216] turning a melodeon and teaching his pupils the tune of "Rule, Britannia." Dog-breeding and dog-dealing are favourite occupations in Matilda Street; mysterious men emerge at dusk, leading dogs and carrying them in their arms, their pockets, or their bosoms, to exhibit them at numerous local shows held in neighbouring pot-houses. The little back yards—they call them gardens in Matilda Street—are filled with sheds and wondrous home-made constructions, in which fancy poultry and rabbits are kept. Even the roofs of the houses bristle with pigeon-lofts and artful-looking structures for the capture of wandering birds. Should a stray pigeon alight on one of these contrivances, attracted by the hemp seed which is profusely scattered thereon, or by the presence of a decoy securely fastened by the leg, a sudden click may be heard, and the bird finds himself in an instant imprisoned in an artful arrangement of wire walls, which has closed on him with the rapidity of a conjuring trick. [Pg 217] Matilda Street is a decidedly poor neighbourhood; but, strange to say, it is a favourite "pitch" for the bogus starving British workman and his interesting family, when he is upon what he terms the "kinchin lay." The man generally goes barefoot, his face is half covered by a stubbly crop of bristles, which pathetically indicate that he cannot even afford the cheap luxury of the British workman—a ha'penny shave. He doesn't let his beard grow—that would look far too comfortable; artful gashes in his trousers exhibit his knees, which appeal in a startling manner to the feelings of the benevolent; either elbow is clasped to show how he suffers from the inclemency of the weather; by his side walks his pattern wife, who always wears a large white apron; she invariably carries an infant of tender years; at either side of the pair march the rest of the family. They keep to the centre of the road; the woman [Pg 218] watches the windows of one side of the street, the man those of the other; and from morning till night they howl a single verse of some hymn with monotonous obstinacy, varying it with a plaintive lament that "They've got no work to do." They are quite right in choosing places like Matilda Street, for there is little or no traffic to interrupt the effect of the procession; besides, in such a place as this no policeman would interrupt them; and, strange to say, it is in shy and poor neighbourhoods that the "kinchin lay" reaps its richest harvest.

Matilda Street is essentially a shy neighbourhood—perhaps that is why the tenant of number 13 has chosen it as his residence. On the door-plate of number 13 is the simple inscription, "Parsons, agent." It's rather a puzzle to make out what Mr. Parsons is agent for; no clients ever come to see him, and he seems to pass the greater part of his day in smoking a pipe and reading a newspaper. But Mr. Parsons has [Pg 219] his profession—he was born in it, so to speak, and his father was a professor before him; but his father failed, and his father's unfortunate failure has been a lesson to him. The real fact is that Mr. Parson's father was a burglar of the fine old school. His was a life of vicissitude; and though an ambitious and fairly successful man, the law, against which he had waged war for many years, got the better of him at last; and after having passed nearly forty years of his life in Her Majesty's jails, death at length prevented his obtaining the ticket-of-leave he had almost earned, and his consequent return to business.

It is all very well for the majority of us to wonder why Mr. Parsons didn't attempt to earn an honest livelihood, but we must remember that he had been brought up to a profession of which most people disapprove from his earliest infancy. As quite a little fellow he had accompanied [Pg 220] his father on many a successful nocturnal expedition; it had been his duty to keep watch for the guardians of public order, and to signal their approach. He had been taught to rapidly dispose of precious plunder in a neat little crucible, plunged in a fierce fire of coke; as he got bigger, he it was who sat ready at the corner of the street in a tax-cart, prepared to rapidly drive off with the "swag" when of a bulky nature.

But though Mr. Parsons, Senior, had been a clever professor of the predatory art, though his triumphs had been numerous and his operations exceedingly brilliant and extensive, he could not be called a success. To pass forty years of one's life in jail, to be perpetually blackmailed by one's accomplices, to obtain only a small proportion of one's legitimate earnings from those rascals the "fences" or dealers in stolen property, and at last after all to die in prison, is not a brilliant [Pg 221] prospect. Now Mr. Parsons the son was a philosopher. On his father's death he found himself the possessor of a complete and almost perfect set of what may be termed his father's trade utensils. There was also a little secret hoard of valuable gems. Mr. Parsons put his burglarious implements in a place of safety; he lived abroad upon the proceeds of his little fortune for some years; and when he came back to England his own mother, if she had been alive, would not have known him. Then he settled down at number 13, Matilda Street, and commenced the practice of his profession upon principles of his own: not as a mere mercenary occupation, but as a fine art. Mr. Parsons kept well away from his father's old haunts and from the perfidious acquaintances who had degraded him and been the cause of his ultimate ruin. Mr. Parsons had no low tastes; he disliked drink and bad company; he had but one ambition, and that was to obtain a comfortable competence from the skilful [Pg 222] exercise of his profession. He wisely concluded that it is not sufficient to commit a successful burglary, if you are afterwards found out. He was a careful student of the police reports and the trials at the Central Criminal Court, and the more he studied those interesting records, the more he became convinced of the wickedness of human nature, the inefficiency of the police, and the tendency of accomplices to "split." Mr. Parsons, then, being a thoroughly practical man was also a theorist; he made several determinations, which he strictly kept to. In the first place, he came to the conclusion that a suspect is always watched, and that accomplices, however useful, are extremely dangerous. So he determined to carry on his profession upon strictly business principles. Wise man that he was, he appreciated the fable of the hare and the tortoise. It was better, he thought, to earn a safe and [Pg 223] comfortable living; and he determined, should he ever be so fortunate as to make a great coup, to immediately retire from business. He trusted to his own clear head, his own clever fingers, and himself. So he habitually worked alone. He passed his afternoons in "looking round." His operations were very carefully planned, and generally successfully carried out.

It will be seen from all this that Mr. Parsons was no common criminal, but he was a dangerous man for all that; for on his nocturnal expeditions he was in the habit of carrying an ugly sheath knife, not as a weapon of offence, be it remembered, but purely as a last resource for the protection of his own personal liberty.

It was a fine summer afternoon, and Mr. Parsons was lounging through one of the better streets of St. John's Wood; that neighbourhood, sarcastically designated "the shady grove of the Evangelist," had peculiar attractions for Mr. Parsons; it is wealthy, the large houses [Pg 224] stand mostly in their own grounds, and the big well-kept gardens offer favourable hiding-places to the midnight thief. Mr. Parsons lounged along, peacefully smoking a briar-root pipe; the houses where the paint was shabby or the gardens were ill-kept did not attract his attention; these signs were quite sufficient for him, and in his mind he put their owners down as "electro." Other houses which were guarded by dogs also failed to interest him, but Mr. Parsons took more than a passing glance at Azalea Lodge.

Azalea Lodge stood back some twenty feet from the road way; the entire outside of the house was painted or grained; there was a great deal of gilding on the railings, a large gas lamp of the latest construction was fixed over each of the polished oak gates that formed the entrances to the little carriage-drive; the carriage-drive itself was asphalted, and clean as a new pin; the shrubs in the small front garden were [Pg 225] expensive ones, and well pruned and trimmed; beyond the porch projected a rather elaborate glass structure set in ornamental iron work, and the centre of the well-whitened stone steps was covered with striped horsehair matting. Flowering shrubs in pots were ranged up these steps, while the sides of the porch proper were crammed with them. Elaborate floral decorations were on every window-ledge; not mere plants in pots, but great blocks of colour artfully arranged: scarlet geraniums and calceolarias with glossy-leaved fuchsias of many hues blazed in frames of blue lobelia, while dwarf ivies, nasturtiums and the pretty variegated periwinkle hung down in thick festoons, hiding the window sills. The beds in the front garden were made to show up in startling contrast to the closely-shaven turf by means of cocoanut fibre, into which potted flowering plants were plunged in reckless profusion. In one window of the drawing-room was a quasi-oriental jardinière in which [Pg 226] stood a large orchid covered with delicate blooms of mauve and yellow; in the next appeared the top of a parrot's cage of plated metal, on which sat a tame white cockatoo, who seemed to enjoy the splendour by which he was surrounded. The very linings of the curtains were of rich corded silk, and a half open window showed in the dim vista a distant vision of the heavy frames of numerous oil paintings. From top to bottom the bedroom windows were discreetly screened by lace curtains tied up with coloured ribbon.

All these pretty things have taken somewhat long to describe, but the eagle eye of Mr. Parsons took them all in at a glance. A fishmonger's cart stopped at the side door, and Mr. Parsons noticed with satisfaction that a fine piece of salmon and a lobster were taken into the house by the purveyor's assistant. Mr. Parsons continued his walk as far as the next house, which proved to be an empty one and in the hands of the [Pg 227] painters; their ladders and paint pots stood about in every direction, but the workmen themselves had evidently gone to dinner. Mr. Parsons shook out the contents of his pipe, pocketed it, and walking up to the hall door, which stood invitingly open, confidently entered the empty house; he walked into the drawing-room and on to the open Italian balcony beyond it, which commanded a view of the grounds of Azalea Lodge, and then Mr. Parsons stood wrapped in meditation. Something that he saw at a heavily-barred window on the ground floor of Azalea Lodge evidently gave him food for reflection. On a table covered with green baize lay a quantity of elaborate specimens of the silversmith's art, racing cups and trophies, vases and statuettes of burnished silver were there in profusion, and a heap of leathers and brushes showed that they were undergoing the process of cleaning. The eyes of Mr. Parsons [Pg 228] sparkled with satisfaction; he looked round to see if he was observed. There wasn't a soul in sight. And then Mr. Parsons did a very curious thing; he gave a low growl, then a little yelp, and then an aggressive bark like an irritated dog. Then he began to bark again in a louder and still more defiant manner. But there was no answer to the strange challenge. Mr. Parsons gave a satisfied smile, walked quietly out of the empty house, re-lighted his pipe and resumed his walk.

It's hardly likely that Mr. Parsons thought of renting the empty house next door to Azalea Lodge, but he walked past at least four times that afternoon. He went home to Matilda Street on the top of an omnibus, and then, like a respectable man as he was, he sat down to a good substantial tea.

Before commencing a campaign a great general sits down to think it out. This is exactly what Mr. Parsons did. The tenant of number 13, Matilda [Pg 229] Street had declared war against Azalea Lodge. From what he had seen, Mr. Parsons had no doubt whatever in his own mind that, should his campaign prove successful, he would secure the competence he had yearned for, for so many years and be able to retire from business altogether.

That night Mr. Parsons visited a public house, paid for a glass of ale, and consulted the directory. He found that Azalea Lodge was occupied by Lord Hetton; the name seemed familiar to him; he turned to the landlord, who was a well-known sporting character, and sought for information.

"Lord Hetton's a political chap, ain't he, Mr. Mason?" said he, addressing the great man with much humility.

"Not as ever I heard of; why his lordship's a racing man. Every one knows Lord Hetton—him as owned Dark Despair, and lost the Derby once by a short head." [Pg 230]

"Oh, that's him, is it?" replied Mr. Parsons, "and what's his address when he's at home?"

"How should I know his address?" said the landlord. "If you wants to call on him, you might try the Jockey Club, or I shouldn't be surprised if you was to find him at Tattersall's of a Sunday afternoon; that sort mostly shows up there. What might you want with him?"

"Oh, it's no great matter," replied Mr. Parsons; "it's only a little bit of business about a dog," and then he changed the conversation.

"Racing plate," he thought, "there is never any mistake about that; that's the real genuine article, thank goodness." And then Mr. Parsons, who was of a sentimental turn of mind and a humble patron of the drama, sauntered off to the Britannia Theatre, at Hoxton, and derived no small degree of mental comfort in four hours of the sorrows of "Ada, the Betrayed." [Pg 231]

It has been said that Lord Hetton was an economical man; every farthing that he could scrape together invariably went to settle his accounts with his trainer. He had begun life as a pigeon, to all appearances he would end it as a hawk. Dark rumours of shady things which had been done in his name rendered men shy of backing his horses. Scandal had said that the boy who rode Dark Despair, when that animal was beaten on the post, had pulled the great raking chestnut by his lordship's orders. But though Lord Hetton had done many shabby things in his time, it was by no fault of his that Dark Despair failed to win the blue ribbon of the turf. It is quite possible that the boy who rode the animal had made a mess of the race at the critical moment, or he may even have been "got at," but that was not Lord Hetton's opinion or that of his astute trainer; and the same stunted youth still always rode in his lordship's [Pg 232] colours in any big event in which Lord Hetton's animals might be engaged. Owner and trainer had neither of them been to blame in the matter; his lordship had honestly backed Dark Despair, and had had considerable difficulty in meeting his engagements at the time. There had even been an execution in Azalea Lodge. Azalea Lodge was the one luxury that his lordship permitted himself; he looked upon it as his home, and the titular mistress of Azalea Lodge had been the original cause of all his differences with his father. Hetton was quite a boy when he first fell into the toils of the syren; he was not quite fool enough to marry her, his fear of the old lord prevented that; for her sake Lord Hetton declined to marry; for her sake he was shut out from society; and he was a man to be pitied after all, for he hadn't a friend in the world, and it was with the greatest difficulty that he succeeded in satisfying her numerous extravagant demands for money. The lady was [Pg 233] passée, vulgar, and her temper was almost diabolical; but she still retained her hold upon Lord Hetton's affections. She had succeeded in riveting the fetters which bound Lord Hetton to her in a rather original manner—by an act of generosity for which none of her acquaintances would have given her credit, least of all his lordship. When he made his great fiasco with Dark Despair, and the execution was already in Azalea Lodge, by an impulse of generosity the lady had driven over to Messrs. Israels, and had pledged with them her entire collection of valuable jewelry. She had handed the cheque to Lord Hetton, and he did settle at Tattersall's on the fatal Monday following the race. Lord Hetton was agreeably astonished; he found, much to his surprise, that he had one real friend in the world. Is it then to be wondered at that from that day Lord Hetton clung to his only friend, and that he looked upon Azalea Lodge as his home? Things went better with Lord Hetton, and he [Pg 234] settled Azalea Lodge and its valuable contents upon the object of his gratitude.

When anything remained to him after paying his trainer whenever he made a coup, or landed a good stake, he invariably made a thank-offering at the shrine in St. John's Wood. It was all very wrong, and very wicked, no doubt, but after all it was perhaps very natural.

It was nine o'clock one Sunday night, and Mr. Parsons was very busy indeed—he was preparing for the war-path. On his table were arranged a number of polished steel implements, which looked like surgical instruments; they were burglar's tools. Half-a-dozen handy bits of candle and a box of silent matches were quickly placed in his pocket; a piece of strong Manilla cord some four yards long, with a sharp three-pronged hook at the end of it, was wrapped around his waist, beneath his virtuous waistcoat; his plain tweed coat carried numerous canvas bags lined with washleather in its back. It was a wonderful coat [Pg 235] with innumerable pockets in the inside; in each of these mysterious receptacles he placed one or other of the implements of his trade; a short crow-bar in three pieces, which could be screwed together, formed the last of these, while a big bunch of skeleton keys, a phial full of oil and another of acid were slipped into his waistcoat pockets. He popped a pair of loose felt slippers into his hat, calmly lighted his pipe and proceeded to Old Street. He then called a hansom cab and told the driver to take him to the Swiss Cottage.


CHAPTER XI.

ESAU WAS THE FIRSTBORN.

[Pg 236]

"Are you trying to tell his fortune, Georgie?" said Haggard as, cigar in mouth, he entered his wife's little boudoir.

The young mother was sitting in an American rocking-chair, her baby in her lap. The little creature stared at her in that peculiar way which infants do when they are being "amused." It wasn't altogether a meaningless stare, for what it meant was very obvious indeed; this peculiar look is a threat, and may be translated thus:

"If you do not give me your entire attention, and become thoroughly absorbed in me, I will rend the air with eldritch screams, and my piercing cries shall give you the headache you deserve."

"I think I was making a fool of myself, Reginald," said young Mrs. [Pg 237] Haggard; "I certainly was predicting all sorts of good fortune for him, in baby language."

"Yes, baby language as you call it, is one of women's ridiculous fads; the child learns it, and he'll have to unlearn it again to pick up the Queen's English. You don't mean to say that you believe in palmistry, Georgie?" continued Haggard.

"Well, everybody says there's something in it, Reginald; besides, it's only an old belief revived, and it's better fun than spirit-rapping, thought-reading, or Madam Blavatsky."

The husband sat down, and critically inspected the child.

"Poor little devil!" he said; "he's like a young bear with all his troubles to come. I'll tell you his fortune, Georgie. If he's got brains he'll have to go and live in the Law Courts, pinching and screwing to make both ends meet, starving his belly to feed his back, working early [Pg 238] and late, and hoping for the briefs that never come. Perhaps he'll drift into something, or finding that he can't earn a farthing he may turn paper stainer in despair, and gradually get a crust by writing dull farces or novels that nobody reads; in fact he may become a modern Grub Street free lance. If he is a humbug he'll go into the Church; or he may want to wear a red coat, or a blue one, and vegetate on his pay and the trifle he would get from me."

"Poor little fellow," said his wife; "but what has he done to be disinherited?"

"He's committed the crime of existing, my dear," replied the husband. "Can't you see, dear, that every farthing we have in the world will have to go to Lucius, for he will be the head of the family. Gad," he said, "he may be a peer of the realm, though that's a rather unlikely contingency. This child, Georgie, is not born in the purple, as is his elder brother; the one is clay, the other china." [Pg 239]

The young mother nervously clutched the child to her breast and smothered him with kisses.

"Make the most of him, my dear, lavish your affection upon him. Unless the squire means doing something for him, his fortune is what I have predicted. Younger sons in England, George, have to live on monkey's allowance—more kicks than halfpence, and if there are half-a-dozen more of them, poor little chaps, the fewer halfpence they will get and the more kicks."

Careless idle words, spoken jestingly, but every one of which went home like a barbed arrow to the mother's heart. As she buried her face in the child's neck, she thought of her vow of eternal secrecy to her cousin. It had been extracted from her when under the influence of intense fear and horror. Her cousin had only forced a solemn promise from her with the intention of covering her own ignominy. It would have needed more [Pg 240] than even the diabolical ingenuity of a Machiavel to have extorted from any mother her adhesion to a conspiracy for the ruin of her own child. But now she saw to her horror that each and every child she might bear to her own husband would, as a matter of course, be practically disinherited in favour of the little bastard. At that instant, there dawned on her for the first time the remote possible contingency of the child who was supposed to be Haggard's firstborn son ultimately inheriting the Pit Town title; that troubled her far less than do the probabilities of his ultimate succession to the Woolsack affect young Mr. Briefless when he is first called to the bar. But that each and every one of her children should by her own deliberate act, and for the benefit of an interloper, himself but a child of shame, be deprived of what was legitimately their own, their share of their father's heritage, did seem a very bitter cup.

"I can tell you one thing, Georgie," said her husband; "your father's [Pg 241] quite of my mind in the matter, and it is our universal respect for the law of primogeniture that has made England what she is. It's a sort of natural law of selection, and the survival of the fittest. The eldest son must be taken care of at the expense of the rest; he is the tribal chief, his brothers and sisters are but his henchmen and his slaves. Why, look at the French; since the Code Napoleon, which chopped up the land into little blocks and gave each child his share, there have been no great families in France. Money a young fellow can squander, but he cannot get rid of his ancestral acres, when they are tightly tied up to come to his eldest son. There's no way out of it, Georgie; the Warrenders and the Haggards wouldn't content themselves with turning in their graves, they'd haunt the pair of us, if we hesitated to do the regulation thing."

On hearing these words, which for the first time in her life brought [Pg 242] the real state of things home to her, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that young Mrs. Haggard's heart died within her. Was it not her duty to her child, to her husband, and to herself, to instantly make a clean breast of the whole mystery? Perhaps it was, but she struggled fiercely against the natural impulse to adopt this simple course. The fact has been insisted upon that secrecy was foreign to Georgie Haggard's nature; she hated deception and the very idea of anything which was underhand. Had she given way to her natural impulse, and then and there told her husband the truth, the dark web of intrigue which surrounded her innocent life would have been torn aside and dispersed at once and for ever. But with Georgie, unhappily for herself, her promise bound her as tightly as the most terrible oath. She had promised never to reveal Lucy's secret, and come what might, should this moral Juggernaut crush [Pg 243] her, her child, and her offspring yet unborn, yet she would be true to it; her word, once plighted, should be kept to the bitter end.

"I think it's cruel, Reginald," she said, and the tears were in her eyes, "cruel and wicked too. What has he done, poor little fellow, that he should be made to inherit a sort of curse?"

But before her husband could answer this very natural objection, the door was flung violently open and the child Lucius, his face suffused with angry colour, bounced into the room. To his breast he clutched a tiny white kitten, it was quite young, its eyes not being yet open.

"Dad," he cried in a tone of rage, "Auntie says I shan't see the tittens drowned. I do want so much to see them drowned. I hate Auntie Lucy, and I hate Fanchette."

Fanchette now appeared upon the scene, indignant and out of breath. The child, tossing the kitten from him, sprung upon Haggard's lap, and again expressed his intense desire to be present at the execution of the [Pg 244] kittens.

"Dad," he said in a tone of affectionate entreaty, "I never seed a titten drowned."

Perhaps it was natural after all. Just in the same way as an adult goes to an execution, because he "never has seen one, you know"—he forgets that it is "a thing to shudder at not to see"—so the little Lucius was anxious to assist at the immolation of the kittens.

"No, my man, you mustn't be cruel," and then Haggard attempted to argue with the child. But the little fellow pleaded, looking up into Haggard's face with his big brown eyes.

"Me tiss oo, dad," he said, and he did so vehemently. Haggard stroked the child's long golden curls, and placed him gently on the floor.

"Can't be done, my man," he said. At once the child's face changed and became frightful to behold; the corners of his mouth went down, the [Pg 245] whites of his eyes became injected, the tears coursed freely down his cheeks, he clenched his little fists and screamed aloud in his rage and fury.

"Debil!" he shouted in his passion, and he shook his fists at Haggard in impotent rage.

"Take him away, Fanchette," said Haggard with a laugh.

The bonne smiled and caught the infuriated child up in her arms.

"Ah ma foi, monsieur," she exclaimed, "après tout, c'est naturel, il aime le spectacle, le beau bébé."

"Well, he's not to have the spectacle, mind that, Fanchette."

The child and the one kitten undoomed to a watery grave were carried off by the bonne.

"That chap's a devil of a temper, Georgie," said the husband with a laugh. "Case in point, my dear," he continued; "we keep one kitten and drown the rest, and there doesn't seem anything very horrible about it [Pg 246] after all; and that's what we of the upper classes, Georgie, have morally to do with our own offspring. It's on exactly that same principle that little Lucius will have to get our money and our land, while that poor little chap and his brothers and sisters, if he should have the misfortune to have any, will have to rub along as best they can. You and I, Georgie, will have morally to perform the functions of the stony-hearted gardener."

Haggard kissed his wife, then he ran his hand meditatively over the infant's soft scalp; he began to whistle a tune, and left the room.

It may be very unnatural, it may be very inartistic, but this being merely a veracious chronicle, it has to be told that Georgie loved the little Lucius quite as much and with exactly the same affection that she felt for the infant she fondled on her lap. Totally inexplicable, you will say; but so it was. [Pg 247]

Georgie had never grudged to the little Lucius his share of her own and her husband's affection. She and her husband were young people; they might have a large family growing up round them, but they were wealthy, and they had large expectations, so that a child more or less to people in their position in life did not very much matter. But to give a little stranger a full share in the domestic pie is one thing, and to rob one's own children for the sake of the same little stranger is another. The more Georgie thought the matter over the more monstrous and impossible seemed her position. She would make an appeal to her cousin's mercy, to her cousin's sense of justice. But she felt morally certain that Lucy would never consent to an éclaircissement, or to the making a clean breast of the whole long-buried scandal to her cousin's husband.

Gradually the infant on her lap, her husband's legitimate heir, dozed [Pg 248] gently off; Mrs. Haggard placed him in his cot and proceeded to darken the room; as she did so the door opened and her cousin's smiling face appeared.

"I want to talk to you, Lucy; I want to talk to you about baby," said Georgie with gravity.

"Nothing the matter with him, dear, I hope, is there?"

"Oh, he's well enough as to his bodily health. It's his future I'm alarmed about. What do you suppose my husband told me to-day, Lucy? He told me, as a matter of course, that my baby was to be sacrificed to Lucius, because, forsooth, Lucius is the elder. I nearly told him then, Lucy. I must tell him, I shall have to tell him sooner or later."

"And when you do so, Georgie, you will have the satisfaction of seeing the last of your cousin. When I told you that I would fling myself into the lake if you betrayed me, it was not the mere idle vapouring of a foolish girl. I said it, and I meant it. Do you think for one single [Pg 249] instant that your husband would keep my secret? The scandal has blown over, Georgie; you and I are its sole depositories. My secret and my sin are both dead, buried for ever in the silent past. You swore you would never betray me, Georgie, and having sworn it you must keep your oath. Don't think for an instant that any ambition on my part, Georgie, makes me wish to see Lucius supplant your children. Oh that he were only dead, then at all events I should be safe."

Gradually, however, the girl became calmer, her manner to Georgie got softer and more caressing. "Keep my secret, Georgie dear," she said; "it'll be another twenty years before your children are men and women. I may be dead before that, please God I shall. Anyhow there'll be quite time enough to take your husband into our confidence, if it must be so. But I couldn't face him yet, and I couldn't face uncle. I must hold you to your promise, Georgie. You swore never to betray me, and you never shall." [Pg 250]

Reginald Haggard's wife pleaded with the girl; she argued, she entreated, but she never threatened.

"It may come out after all, Lucy," she said, "and then think of the shame, the disgrace and the scandal."

"The only way in which it could come out, dear, would be if Capt knew something about it. He evidently has no suspicion, or he would have come to us for hush-money long ago. Besides, Georgie, there's hope left to me yet," and here the girl's face grew almost diabolical as she hissed across the table in a low whisper, "Lucius is but a little child, dear; he may die!"

"I can't believe, Lucy, that the worst of mothers could deliberately wish for her own child's death. You took a base advantage of my affection in entrapping me into a promise of secrecy."

"An oath, my dear."

"An oath or a promise, whichever you like, Lucy. I'll keep your secret, you may rely on that, whatever it may cost me. But I love the child [Pg 251] (and you know you can trust me, Lucy Warrender), so be you sure of this. You dared to wish for the child's death. Should any danger menace him from you—you his own mother, worthless woman that you are—that instant your secret shall be a secret no longer. I will sacrifice my own happiness, the future of my own children, to you; for your sake I have deceived my husband, and I will go on deceiving him, but I will protect the child's life from you, Lucy Warrender, at whatever cost. Your very presence is a danger to him. After what you've told me, it is impossible that you and he can live under the same roof. You hate him, your own unhappy friendless child. I banish you from his presence, Lucy, from this day forth."

Lucy Warrender gazed at her cousin in astonishment; their rôles were changed; no longer young Mrs. Haggard looked at her cousin with patient pleading eyes; her foot beat the floor with suppressed excitement, and [Pg 252] though she never raised her voice, she continued in an angry but determined tone:

"Yes, Lucy, you must go, and quickly; you shall no longer poison my home with your presence. You have brought sufficient misery to me and mine."

There was a something in the way young Mrs. Haggard had spoken that convinced Lucy Warrender of her sincerity.

Her cousin turned and left the room without a word.

That same evening Miss Warrender announced her intention of making a long-postponed visit to some friends in town. In vain her uncle remonstrated, and pointed out that her presence was expected with the rest of the family at Walls End Castle.

"I couldn't stand it, uncle," she said; "we are quiet enough and dull enough here, heaven knows; but a month at the Castle would be too dreadful. Besides it is Georgie who is the old lord's favourite. I don't think I'm in his good books at all. I've put off and put off this visit [Pg 253] so long, that if I don't make it now, I never shall. And even London out of the season is to my mind preferable to the oppressive magnificence of the Castle. Lord Pit Town is Reginald's relative, not mine; I should only be in the way, Uncle."

And so it was arranged.

Lucy went to her friends in town, and from their house she commenced a round of visits. She corresponded regularly enough with her cousin, and there was nothing very remarkable about the letters that were interchanged. Not one word was dropped by either cousin on the subject of the family secret. Perhaps a letter written about this time from Lord Spunyarn to his friend Haggard may throw a little light upon the way in which Miss Warrender amused herself.

"The Club House,

"Royal Yacht Squadron, Ryde.

"13th August, 18—.

"Dear Haggard,

"Here I am swaggering about this place in a blue coat and brass [Pg 254] buttons, like the other sham sailors. I'm quite out of the hunt here, however, for I can't pretend to understand the jargon of the thing. Old and new measurements, tonnage, time allowances and movable ballast, are all a sealed book to me. Of course I go on to the balcony with the other idiots to stare at the matches, and, like them, I have to pretend to manifest an intelligent interest.

"To use a nautical simile your wife's cousin is 'carrying on' here. If I didn't know her so well I should think she meant marrying. Half the men here, including old Marlingspike, the venerable commodore, dance attendance upon her from morning till night, and she certainly looks a very bright little, tight little craft in her nautical get-up, which is the regulation thing with the women here. They say that little Jack Hornpiper proposed to her the other day; it looks rather like it, for he has suddenly started for a lengthened cruise in the Mediterranean. [Pg 255]

"I suppose by this you have begun wiring into Pit Town's grouse, though I hear he does not keep a very big head of game on the place. When Hetton comes into it, it won't be much better, for of course all his spare cash will go in horses. I too have an invite for Walls End, but it is only just for the festivities, which everybody declares are given in honour of your wife and her boy, and to spite Hetton. He, of course, is furious. He swore at first he wouldn't put in an appearance at all, but a good many of the people here are going, and Hetton'll have to show, if only to keep his Jews quiet. The Barringtons, who as you know were never great favourites, have been quite the rage here since Miss Warrender's arrival. They are asked everywhere and go everywhere for the lady's sake, which is very good of them. The Charmington is going to astonish us all in a three-nights engagement at the local theatre; her benefit is announced under the special patronage of H.R.H. She has gone off [Pg 256] terribly, but her hair is more luxuriant and golden than ever.

"Miss Warrender bids me tell you that she shall make a final attempt to rescue Hetton on her arrival at Pit Town's place. For your sake, old fellow, I hope she won't succeed, but I have known more unlikely things happen even than this.

"Sincerely yours,

"Spunyarn."

Lucy Warrender enjoyed herself thoroughly during her stay at Ryde. Mr. Hornpiper's misfortune had been a true bill. Lucy Warrender encouraged everybody, and it was not her fault if enthusiasts like little Hornpiper cut short the delightful period of their acquaintance with the lady by proposing to her.

It has been said that a ship is a prison, to which is added the possibility of being drowned; this is particularly the case in regard to a yacht. Theoretically, yachting is a delightful pastime; practically, [Pg 257] it is an exceedingly expensive foible, combining the maximum of probable discomfort and boredom with the not unremote contingency of possible danger. Given the most delightful weather, a big and well-found yacht and a really good cook, given that the cruise has been a short one, that everybody has done his or her best to make things comfortable; yet how uncommonly glad we all are to bid our host and his dear delightful daughters good-bye—and how uncommonly glad they must be to see the last of us. If any of our friends were to invite us to come and stay with them and eat tinned provisions for a fortnight, we should indignantly decline, but if we are asked to do it on board a friend's yacht, we accept with effusion, and for at least a week or two before we brag of the high old time we are going to have. I am afraid Lucy Warrender and [Pg 258] her friends the Barringtons were only fine-weather sailors after all, but they were very popular.

There was no false pride about Lucy Warrender. When she met her old friend and rival, Mrs. Charmington, upon the pier, she shook hands with her at once. In the days when Mrs. Charmington was a leader in society, little Jack Charmington, her husband, had been tacitly ignored; but now his wife was very glad indeed to have him constantly at her elbow, and she introduced him to everybody.

"You must know Jack, Miss Warrender," she said, as they shook hands. "I don't know what I should do without him, my dear," she continued. "He always leads the applause in front, you know, and he talks to the professional people for me, when I have the misfortune to meet them in the daytime."

"Doosid responsible position, Miss Warrender, I can tell you; one needs a constitution of iron, Miss Warrender; they're so awfully hospitable, [Pg 259] that talking with them first always means drinking with them afterwards. It's bad enough for my wife to have quitted the scenes of her former triumphs for the coarser joys of the play-house. But dramatic talent, my dear young lady, will assert itself. If my wife had been Empress of all the Russias, sooner or later her destiny would have declared itself, and she would have sought the only sphere which could content a woman of her talent and ambition."

Now Mrs. Charmington's talents as an actress were microscopical. She was good looking, she had a decently good memory, and she was a dogged, plodding woman, with a good eye to the main chance. Her principle was to buy a fairly good article, to pay a good price for it, and then to make her little experiment upon the body of the vile, by hacking her piece through the provinces, say for six months; and then producing it for a [Pg 260] short London season. There is no doubt that by time and patience it is possible to get even a little child to recite a piece of poetry with a certain amount of effect, and so it was with Mrs. Charmington. It must be remembered first, that Mrs. Charmington did not buy rubbish. She went to the great Mr. Breitmann, and she made a bargain with him. Breitmann was a man of five-and-forty; he stood six feet in his stockings, he was fair, with a quantity of light curly hair, and he had big fat fingers, which were perpetually playing upon an imaginary pianoforte; when they weren't running over an invisible keyboard, Mr. William Breitmann was engaged in extending them separately, one after the other, in a succession of violent cracks. Now the reason Mrs. Charmington went to Mr. Breitmann was, that Breitmann was a particularly independent person, who declined dancing gratuitous attendance upon Mrs. Charmington or [Pg 261] anybody else. In vain had she favoured him with a royal command, written upon crocodile paper, headed by a magnificent monogram, illuminated in many colours, in which Mr. Breitmann was informed that "Mrs. Charmington would be pleased if Mr. Breitmann would kindly call upon her on Tuesday, at three, as she wished to talk over a matter of business with him." A rude and cruel answer, short and to the point, came by return of post:

"Madam,
"I have no business with you.
"Yours obediently,
"W. Breitmann."

Then she sent an ambassador. Jack Charmington called four times upon the dramatist at his club, but even then, after bribing the page boy to indiscreetly admit that the great Breitmann was on the premises, he still found him sufficiently difficult to approach. As Jack stood in the [Pg 262] little bare den marked "Strangers' Room," he heard voices in loud talking, with occasional shouts of laughter; then he heard a gruff and angry voice grunt in an irritated manner, "Charmington, what is Charmington? I don't know Charmington. Tell him to go to——." And here a door slammed violently.

The page boy entered the strangers' room and communicated to Mr. Charmington the fact that the great man was busy.

"Did you tell him I wanted to see him on business?"

"They all say that, sir," replied the boy; "he's a very busy gentleman Mr. Breitmann, sir, if you please."

Charmington then sat down and wrote a polite note, in which he informed Mr. Breitmann that he desired a short interview with him on a matter of vital importance to them both. A second half-crown was administered to the page boy, and in a few moments the door of the strangers' room was [Pg 263] violently flung open, and Mr. Breitmann himself suddenly burst in. Breitmann never entered a room, he always burst in. The suddenness of his entry startled Charmington considerably; he was still more astonished at the tone in which Breitmann addressed him. That gentleman carried poor Jack's note in his hand.

"What is your vital business, sir? I have no vital business with you."

"My wife wrote to you, Mr. Breitmann, yesterday, asking you to call on her."

This only seemed to exasperate Mr. Breitmann still more.

"I have no business with your wife. I am not a ladies' man. Why should I call on your wife when I have no business? What do you mean by coming here and bullying me because I won't call on your wife?"

"My wife is a very prominent person, Mr. Breitmann." [Pg 264]

"I have seen your wife, sir, and if you wish, I will tell you what I think of her."

He hardly gave poor little Charmington time to assent to this proposition, when he continued, his voice changing from a shout to a scream:

"Sir, your wife is a fool!" Then he proceeded to crack his fingers violently, one after another. "Now, sir," he continued, "I wish you good-morning; my time is fully occupied in my businesses and in protecting my copyrights."

He was about to rush from the room.

"It's about that I wanted to see you," said Jack.

"Have you been infringing my copyrights then?" replied the other in a terrible voice.

"No, I want to buy one," said Charmington.

"Ah," replied Breitmann, in a calmer tone, "then you have business. Sit down. What do you want to buy?" [Pg 265]

"Well, I don't exactly know," replied Charmington.

"Well, tell me how much you want to spend, five thousand—ten thousand?"

And then they went to business. It was explained to Mr. Breitmann that Mrs. Charmington was anxious to purchase one of his new and original dramas, one of those extraordinary combinations of melodramatic impossibility, which however appeal, and not in vain, to the eye and to the heart, which never fail to fill the pockets of their fortunate purchasers, and which have rendered the name of Breitmann a household word.

For thirty years it had been Mr. Breitmann's misfortune to fight incompetency in some shape or other. It had fallen to his lot to manipulate vast armies of theatrical supernumeraries and to teach them to perform the apparently impossible feat of being in two places at once. Mr. Breitmann's struggles with the British super had taught him [Pg 266] one great secret: the British super, like the British donkey, never does what he is told until the person in authority over him loses his temper. So Breitmann, to avoid loss of time, used to begin by losing his temper at once; so terrible were his ebullitions of wrath, that nobody ever attempted to argue with him, and he always carried his point. Finding his tactics invariably successful within the walls of the theatre, he adopted them with similar success in ordinary life, and the time he saved was enormous.

His negotiations with Mrs. Charmington, her husband and her solicitor, were over in forty-eight hours; a satisfactory bargain was concluded between them for the purchase of "Ethel's Sacrifice," a melodrama of thrilling interest, originally written as a novel by Robinson. Robinson had submitted the manuscript to Breitmann, and then for a fortnight the pair had "collaborated." What took place during that dreadful fortnight [Pg 267] is only known to the two collaborators. Robinson at its commencement was a bright-eyed young fellow, full of enthusiasm, poetry and romance; at the end of the fortnight all the enthusiasm, poetry and romance had been knocked out of him. "Ethel's Sacrifice" had been altered, tinkered, transposed, cut and filled with comic incidents of the most every-day description, incidents from which the poetic soul of the unhappy Robinson revolted. Then "Ethel's Sacrifice" was gabbled through one summer's evening at a remote provincial theatre, and "Ethel's Sacrifice," by Messrs. Robinson and Breitmann, became a marketable security, duly protected by act of parliament. A nervous invalid left London for prolonged mental rest and change of scene—that was Robinson; his collaborator calmly returned to his multifarious business engagements and the onerous duties of the protection of his innumerable copyrights. [Pg 268]

Now Mr. Breitmann not only sold "Ethel's Sacrifice" to the Charmingtons, but he sold them the benefits of his own personal skill in its production. When the bills said that "Ethel's Sacrifice" was produced under the personal supervision of Mr. William Breitmann, the knowing ones jumped at once to the correct conclusion that "Ethel's Sacrifice" would be a success. Mr. Breitmann had stipulated with Mrs. Charmington that he should not deliver to her the complete drama until she herself was letter-perfect in the title rôle.

"You're never perfect, you know," he had said to her, "and you won't be till you've played the thing in the provinces for six months; that's the curse of amateurs, they never are perfect."

"But I'm not an amateur, Mr. Breitmann," the lady had retorted indignantly.

"Pardon me, dear lady," he said, "but you are nothing else. You have played four original parts, specially written for you mind, in the [Pg 269] whole of your stage experience; of course you're an amateur, but you are a big success. And," and here he cracked his fingers very slowly, "you are a fine woman, yes, a fine stage presence of a woman," said he appreciatively, as he looked her all over, much as a dealer might look over a horse—a dealer who was selling a horse, not a dealer who was buying one.

Mrs. Charmington fought hard to get hold of the beautiful type-printed copy of "Ethel's Sacrifice," which young Robinson, in elaborate morning costume and a flower in his button-hole, had read to her so delightfully; but all in vain. Mr. Breitmann kept it carefully locked up in one of the numerous tin boxes which made his rather grim-looking study so much resemble a lawyer's office.

"You'll find this quite enough to occupy you for the next three months, my dear," said Breitmann decisively, using the affectionate method of [Pg 270] address invariable in the profession.

The part, which was a formidable little volume, was just about twice as long as the Church catechism. To do Mrs. Charmington justice she set to work with a will; she was actually letter-perfect when the play was read to her company for the first time by Mr. Robinson at the Stoke Pogis theatre, where the talented little band of actors that supported Mrs. Charmington were playing at the time.

"At ten on Monday, if you please, ladies and gentlemen," said Robinson, "we will rehearse Acts I., II. and III. Mr. Breitmann will be present."

Everybody was punctual, and Mr. Breitmann was present. For five mortal hours he abused the company individually and collectively; he pervaded the theatre, he shrieked from the lighted rake of gas jets which illuminated the centre of the stage, he objurgated from the author's [Pg 271] table, he used the most horrible language when he suddenly appeared in the stalls, he had the presumption to order Mrs. Charmington not to "mince," and he told her that "it wasn't a time for mincing;" he insisted on the minuet in the second act being repeated six times, and then he informed the infuriated stage manager that "it wasn't good enough even for Whitechapel." But the climax was reached at Mrs. Charmington's great scene with her leading man, at the conclusion of the third act. Ethel (Mrs. Charmington) has to fling herself into the arms of her confiding husband; she proceeded to do so in her usual perfunctory and society manner.

"Good heavens! madam," shrieked the indignant Breitmann, "that won't do. Stand here," said he in his ferocious voice, "and look at me." He rushed at the leading man, he plunged his face into that gentleman's shirt front, he gripped the gentleman's muscular shoulders with tremendous [Pg 272] energy, and his back went up and down with convulsive sobs.

"There, ma'am," he said triumphantly; "try again." She tried again, but Breitmann vociferated all the more.

"It's no good, my dear; you must clutch and nestle. I wouldn't give that," and here he snapped his fingers, "for a woman who can't clutch and nestle; try it with me."

Breitmann took up the position of the leading man. Mrs. Charmington gave one tearful glance at her husband, then she rushed into Breitmann's arms and did her best to clutch and to nestle. But he was not even then satisfied.

"Go home, my dear," he said, "and practise it with your husband."

What a situation for one who has been a queen of society. When Mrs. Charmington, almost heart-broken, reached her lodgings she informed her husband that it was more than she could bear. [Pg 273]

"The idea of the wretch actually teaching me my business before my whole company, and then ordering me to go home and learn to 'clutch and nestle.'"

"Dev'lish sensible idea I think, Julia," said Charmington, who was in love with his wife before all things; "you can't do better than begin at once," and the little man drew himself up to his full height of five foot six and extended his arms like a mechanical doll.

"Don't remind me of my humiliation, Jack; it's too much, too much to bear," and the beauty flung herself into an easy chair and burst into floods of tears.

But Julia Charmington, wise woman that she was, did as she was bid; she clutched and she nestled all that afternoon, and she had her reward. For six whole months she delighted all the great provincial towns and watering-places of the United Kingdom with "Ethel's Sacrifice," and she reaped a golden harvest. When she came to town for the season she [Pg 274] scored a decided success, and all the leading Dailies joined in the chorus of adulation. The fair Julia got a good round sum from the photographers for the right to represent her in her four elaborate costumes; the particular triumph of the sun-artist being the representation of her nestling and clutching scene. Even the dramatic critic of the great morning journal went into ecstasies over this.

"Mrs. Charmington," he said, "has made real progress. It has been the fashion to go to see this lady from curiosity, but last night she scored a genuine success in 'Ethel's Sacrifice,' a thrilling melodrama by Messrs. Breitmann and Robinson, which was seen in London for the first time. The house was crowded with the well-known faces so familiar to us at all important premières. In her great scene in the third act, Mrs. Charmington took every one by surprise. Thoroughly spontaneous and unaffected, quite free from staginess and straining after effect, the [Pg 275] audience thoroughly appreciated the genuine burst of feeling of the young wife," and so on, and so on, for a column and a half.

Messrs. Breitmann and Robinson bowed their thanks to an enthusiastic call; and Breitmann, his face wreathed in smiles and cracking his fingers violently, as was his custom, whispered to his collaborator, "She's only a 'mug,' after all, my boy, but I'm proud of her; it's the nestling and clutching that fetched them." And then he went off to the Convivial Cannibals, where he ate an enormous tripe supper, and was more jovial and violent than ever.


CHAPTER XII.

IN ST. JOHN'S WOOD.

[Pg 276]

Lord Hetton was certainly a long-suffering man. It has been stated that the temper of the mistress of Azalea Lodge was almost diabolical; there was nothing the pair didn't quarrel over. I believe, originally, their quarrels were about nothing at all, the mere disagreements of lovers that are but a renewal of love; the best-tempered and most virtuous have been known to fight even during their honey-moons: but it is a dangerous practice, for use is second nature, and quarrelling, like dram-drinking, grows upon one, and after a while becomes a necessity. I verily believe had the inhabitants of Azalea Lodge not both been members of the cultured classes that murder would have been done. But just as [Pg 277] they quarrelled, abused each other, and hurt each other's feelings as much as possible, so they were each in the habit after a pitched battle of leaving the field in possession of the victor.

On the very day that Mr. Parsons had left Matilda Street to proceed on business to the Swiss Cottage, one of these numerous pitched battles had taken place; the lady had been vanquished, and she, her maid, and her jewel-case had left for Brighton by the evening train. Lord Hetton sat alone and tried to do justice to a recherché little dinner, but he failed, for Hetton was jealous and unhappy; and as he looked at the vacant chair opposite him, the triumphs of his undeniable cook turned to Dead Sea apples in his mouth, for, in his mind's eye, he saw the mistress of Azalea Lodge dining in solitary grandeur in the coffee-room of a fashionable Brighton hotel, the cynosure of many an admiring eye. Lord Hetton did not enjoy his dinner. [Pg 278]

These two unfortunate people, if the truth be told, really did love each other very sincerely. As has been said the lady was Lord Hetton's only friend; of this she had given him very tangible proof in the hour of his need, and on her part she owed everything she had in the world to his lordship; but each of the pair was haunted by a special terror—the lady by the fear that Lord Hetton might marry, his lordship by the dread that the lady might actually carry out her frequent threat that the next time she left him it would be never to return. Poor wretch, he would only have been too glad to have married her, but that outraged society would have been instantly vindicated by the stoppage of his allowance from the old earl.

Lord Hetton sat and meditated by his study fire. "By Jove!" thought he, "it would serve her right if I really did pay her off and married. I ought to, if it were only to keep out that fellow Haggard and his brats." [Pg 279]

It was ten o'clock. Azalea Lodge was a well-regulated household. The parlourmaid placed the spirit stand upon the table, and asked his lordship if he had any further orders. Within half-an-hour the four women servants of Azalea Lodge were fast asleep, and the thick baize-covered door, which separated the servants' quarters from the rest of the house, was securely fastened. And now Lord Hetton sat down to his writing-table, and he wrote a letter to the solicitor of the mistress of Azalea Lodge. This was the letter, which was short and to the point:

"Azalea Lodge.

"Sir,

"I shall be glad if you will call upon me here, as I am desirous of washing my hands of your client and of all the associations of this place.

"Yours faithfully,

"Hetton."

[Pg 280]Now Lord Hetton when he wrote this letter had not the slightest idea of carrying out the threat contained in it; it was merely his way of expressing his displeasure—the quickest means he knew of causing the return of the fugitive from the seaside. It was upon the lines of this letter that he composed a second epistle full of indignant recrimination, in which he announced that this, the last rupture, must be final. "I have long determined," he said, and he chuckled as he wrote the words, "to shake myself free from what was after all but a boyish infatuation at the commencement, an entanglement which I feel we both have been anxious to terminate for some time. Your solicitor will inform you that I have requested him to take the necessary steps." And as he folded the letter and placed it in its envelope he smiled. "She'll get it by the mid-day delivery to-morrow, if they post it the first thing in the morning, and she'll probably come back in a towering passion by the [Pg 281] four express. I wish she was here now," he continued with a sigh. Lord Hetton yawned, he looked at his watch, and then he stamped the letters and laid them out for posting, but circumstances intervened which caused those two letters not to leave Azalea Lodge.

Lord Hetton lighted his candle and went to bed. In half-an-hour he was sound asleep, and a dead silence reigned in Azalea Lodge. The crickets chirped merrily upon the hearth of the housemaid's pantry, where the remains of a fire still smouldered. But what is that monotonous grating sound which continues with mechanical regularity? It isn't a kettle boiling, though it sounds rather like it, for there is an occasional squeak and then the noise suddenly ceases altogether, only to recommence again.

Mr. Parsons on reaching the Swiss Cottage had walked straight to Azalea Lodge. He entered the front garden of the empty house next door to it, [Pg 282] which was still in the hands of the workmen. He flung his three-pronged hook over the high wall which separated Azalea Lodge from the empty house. Quickly, noiselessly, and without effort Mr. Parsons reached the top of the wall; then he removed the three-pronged hook, fixed it on the near side of the wall, and descended by means of the friendly rope attached to it into the grounds of Azalea Lodge. He left the rope hanging, for the return journey might possibly have to be accomplished in a very hurried manner. When Mr. Parsons stood safely within the outer defences of the fortress which he had assailed he proceeded to deliberately remove his boots. The big list slippers which he put on were perfectly noiseless; they are the professional foot coverings common to the British thief and to the ghost of Hamlet's father. Then he walked straight to the pantry window, and shading his eyes with his [Pg 283] hands, carefully took stock of the interior. Mr. Parsons lost no time; and, skilled mechanic that he was, commenced his work at once. Gripping his file firmly in both hands, and carefully lubricating its keen edge with oil, he commenced operations vigorously upon the massive bar of soft iron, which with five others protected the pantry window; the bar was at least an inch in diameter and was quite seven feet long. It took Mr. Parsons a good twenty minutes' hard work to cut through, and beads of perspiration stood upon the brow of that clever operator long before the job was finished. Mr. Parsons replaced his files in their special receptacles in his many-pocketed coat, then he seized the massive-looking bar just above where he had divided it, he placed a foot against the window-ledge and tugged with all his might. It's easy enough to bend a poker between the bars of a kitchen range; it is true that the kitchen poker is not an inch in diameter, but then neither is it seven [Pg 284] feet long. Mr. Parsons wrenched away with a will, and soon the great bar was bent almost to a right angle. Mr. Parsons slipped a small palette knife between the sashes, but Azalea Lodge had been fitted up regardless of expense, and the window-catch was a patent one which resisted the efforts of Mr. Parsons; but that gentleman was equal to the occasion; he took out a piece of diachylon plaister, apparently from the small of his back, really from one of the numerous receptacles of his professional coat; he carefully affixed and smoothed the plaister over the top centre pane of the lower sash, and then he rapidly drew a glazier's diamond round the pane. Spreading his left hand out upon the middle of the plaister he struck a smart blow upon his fingers with his right fist; he had smashed the window, but without noise—there was no crash or rattle of falling glass. With deliberate care Mr. Parsons effected an opening [Pg 285] in the broken window, in a workmanlike manner, large enough to admit his right hand, and then with a smile he gently opened Sharp's Patent Safety window-catch. Mr. Parsons now raised the window-sash with ease, and, taking his boots in his hand, effected his felonious entry, leaping lightly and noiselessly into the room. Mr. Parsons placed his boots in the fender to warm, for nothing is more unpleasant to a careful man than the putting on of cold boots. And now Mr. Parsons proceeded to carefully and deliberately wash his hands and to remove from them the grimy traces of his honest labour; then he lighted a short piece of candle—the match he used gave forth no warning sound. He examined the lock, the key was in the door, the projecting end of it he seized with a pair of peculiarly-made forceps, the key turned noiselessly and with ease. Mr. Parsons ascended the kitchen stairs and proceeded straight to the [Pg 286] dining-room, for he was no vulgar thief to whom the contents of the larder of Azalea Lodge would present attractions, but an industrious tradesman and a keen man of business.

Mr. Parsons was occupied for at least half-an-hour in the dining-room, for in the massive oak sideboard he found a good deal of portable property; the patent locks soon yielded to his skilful attack, and the spoons and forks were rapidly packed by him into the smallest possible compass and placed in a bag of suitable size. But Mr. Parsons looked in vain for any sign of the racing plate which had attracted his attention upon his first visit to Azalea Lodge. He placed the bag containing the plunder upon the hall table, and then, his lighted end of candle in his hand, he ascended the stairs. When he reached the first floor he heard the regular breathing of the sleeping Lord Hetton; he carefully removed his lordship's boots from the mat and gently tried the door, blowing out [Pg 287] his candle as he did so, for the landing was illuminated by a flicker of gas, and had his lordship awakened, the light would have betrayed the intruder. The burglar entered the room without noise, and the heavy breathing of the sleeper continued without intermission. Mr. Parsons looked around him; his eyes at once alighted on the object of his search; in a corner of the room stood a large safe of painted iron of the most recent construction—Chubbs' Patent Safety. Mr. Parsons was quite aware of what Chubbs' Patent Safety meant; he knew full well that a Chubbs' safe would successfully withstand his attempts for a period of twenty-four hours at least, and that picking the lock would be quite a hopeless matter. But Mr. Parsons did not despond; he knew that owners of safes generally keep the key upon their persons. He looked towards the sleeper; upon a small table at the bedside lay his heavy gold Frodsham chronograph, to the massive chain of which was attached a long slender [Pg 288] steel key. The burglar possessed himself of the watch and appendages, knelt down in front of the safe, which yielded to the key, and in a few moments the Toiler of the Night was busy with Lord Hetton's racing trophies. There they lay, the glittering, precious baubles, the prizes for which their owner had schemed ever since his early manhood, the useless cups, vases, &c., which had cost their fortunate proprietor far more than their weight in purest gold. The feelings of Mr. Parsons may be better imagined than described; they must have somewhat resembled those of Ali Baba when the treasures of the Forty Thieves first met his astonished eye. Is it to be wondered at then that Mr. Parsons lost his head for the moment, and that though his eyes were busily employed he forgot to use his ears; he forgot to note that Lord Hetton's breathing, which was a heavy snore when he entered the room, was now inaudible. [Pg 289]

His lordship, who had been sleeping heavily, had not exactly awakened, though had he been addressed at the moment he would probably have answered coherently enough; the fact was that he had been sound asleep and dreaming a pleasant dream, and in a state of semi-consciousness he was trying to recall the delightful vision, but it was gone for ever, and he appealed to his memory in vain. Lying perfectly still on his back, his lordship half-opened his eyes, and they rested upon the top of Mr. Parsons' head, which exactly intervened between them and an object they were accustomed habitually to rest upon, namely, the bright gilded handle of the Chubbs' safe. But the sleepy eyes closed again, and reopening half mechanically sought the missing handle. Lord Hetton now opened his eyes widely enough, and almost thoroughly awake stared, without moving his head, in search of the accustomed object. He saw the top of the safe, but he failed to discern the gay lines of green paint [Pg 290] and gilding which decorated the door; then it slowly dawned upon Lord Hetton's mind that he was no longer dreaming, or even dozing, but that he was almost wide awake, and that the door of his iron safe was open. And then his lordship became seriously alarmed. Not that he was by any means a coward, but it is alarming to awaken from one's tranquil slumbers and to feel that one may have to fight for one's life and property against possible unknown odds, and without one's clothes. A man may feel very brave indeed with his boots on, but take away his clothes and it considerably reduces his courage. As Lord Hetton became gradually thoroughly wide awake, he grew alive to the fact, not only that the safe door was open, but that (what the Divorce Court calls) "a person unknown" was tampering with its contents. Now perhaps the most prudent thing that Lord Hetton could have done would have been to have gone to sleep again, but it never for one moment occurred to his mind to allow [Pg 291] himself to be robbed with impunity. Thoroughly awake at last, Lord Hetton could with difficulty contain his rage, and it was only by a powerful exertion of his own will that he did restrain himself from rushing from his bed and attacking the intruder with his naked fists. But, he reflected, the thief or thieves were probably armed; he remembered too that there was no assistance to be obtained in the house itself, and that there was no means of arousing the neighbourhood. And then Lord Hetton's mind, which was a cool one, came to a determination. Very slowly indeed, and perfectly silently, Lord Hetton gradually stretched out his arm from the bed towards the little table upon which his watch had lain; but it was not upon the top of the table that his extended fingers attempted to grasp the object which they sought, but on a ledge several inches beneath. On that ledge lay a loaded six-chamber revolver. His lordship's fingers gradually closed upon the butt of the [Pg 292] weapon, gradually and noiselessly he raised it, and with his thumb he proceeded to cock it.

There was an ominous click.

His lordship sprang from the bed, pistol in hand.

The man Parsons started to his feet with equal celerity, and the two men stood glaring at each other.

There was an appreciable instance of silence, and each of the adversaries could hear the loud beating of his own heart.

"You infernal villain, if you don't surrender, I'll blow your brains out," hissed his lordship.

The burglar made no reply, but placed his right hand in his bosom, and in an instant his keen cruel sheath knife was raised high above his head, and without a word, like an infuriated tiger, he rushed upon the sporting nobleman.

Lord Hetton pulled the trigger, there was a sharp click, that was all. [Pg 293] His lordship swore a bitter oath, as it flashed through his mind that in his excitement of rage and indignation he had forgotten to withdraw the safety catch.

There was no time to do it now, for the burglar was upon him. Hetton struck the man furiously in the face with the butt of the pistol, but the thief succeeded in avoiding the full force of the blow, and used his knife with murderous dexterity. The pistol dropped from his lordship's failing hand, each man had the other by the throat, and the thief continued to mercilessly hack and stab, for he knew that he was fighting for liberty, and even life. Gradually he forced his victim down upon the floor, he placed his knee upon his chest, and tightened his cruel grip upon the throat of the fallen man. They still glared at each other and struggled on in horrid silence, but gradually the convulsive clutch of Lord Hetton's fingers relaxed, the glare of rage and hate disappeared [Pg 294] from his eyes, and its place was taken by a dull leaden stare. For Lord Hetton was dead.

But not for several minutes did the burglar relax his grip of the dead man's throat; and then it dawned upon him that he was a murderer, that in a few short hours justice would be upon his track; and he shuddered with mingled horror and remorse as he mechanically wiped the blade of his knife between his fingers, ere he returned it to its sheath.

The man Parsons had been cool and collected enough before, but now he trembled, and he hurried out upon the landing with anxiety, to listen if there was any movement in the house. The struggle had been fierce, but there had been no noise. The murderer was considerably reassured, as he marked the dead silence that reigned in the place, and then he turned again towards the door of the fatal bedroom. He hesitated to enter it, [Pg 295] for the wretch, though full of brute courage, feared to look again upon the face of the victim he had done to death. But there was nothing else for it; he entered the room in fear and trepidation, he gathered up his plunder with a shaking hand, and carefully secured it in a Gladstone bag which lay in the dressing-room; on it were the initials of the master of Azalea Lodge. Last of all he thrust the watch and chain of the murdered man into his pocket; then he looked upon the ground and saw with horror the marks of his own guilty foot-prints in hideous red blurs upon the gay carpet. He removed his tell-tale felt slippers, and the bag in one hand, the slippers in the other, and holding the end of the bit of candle which he had re-lighted high above his head, he regained the hall. He carefully placed the little parcel which he had left upon the hall table in the bag, and stuffing a sheep's skin mat and the blood-stained slippers in as well, he succeeded in deadening the [Pg 296] jangling noise made by the plate. He snatched down an Inverness cape which hung in the hall and flung it over his arm, and on tiptoe he gained the housemaid's pantry in safety; he put on his boots and washed his blood-stained hands. Then he strode down the garden of Azalea Lodge, carrying in his hand the rope and three-pronged hook by which he had entered the premises. He scaled several walls with cat-like celerity, and then secreted himself among the shrubs of the front garden of a house in a main road of St. John's Wood. From this hiding-place he saw with satisfaction the infrequent policeman pass on his nocturnal round; then he put on the Inverness cape, which gave him a rather distinguished appearance, and walked boldly forth, carrying his Gladstone bag. He hailed the first hansom he met and drove to Charing Cross; there he took another cab to Matilda Street. He dismissed the man at the corner, and reached his lair. [Pg 297]

Here the man Parsons disappears from our story. Early dawn saw him on board the Antwerp boat, and he reached the Continent in safety. No doubt he had his reward, in this world or the next.

And so Lord Hetton died, unlamented save by his lonely old father at Walls End Castle and by the woman who firmly believed that the very last determination of his life had been to cast her off as a worn-out garment and to "wash his hands" of her for ever. Save to these two persons, and to those who had had the misfortune to back Lord Hetton's nomination for the coming Derby, his death made no difference to anybody. We have forgotten Reginald Haggard; he, lucky fellow, of course benefited, for it brought him one step nearer to the Pit Town title.

It was after all but a vulgar tragedy, though it made considerable noise at the time. [Pg 298]

When, in the early morning, the housemaid at Azalea Lodge found her pantry door unlocked, she was alarmed; and when she saw that the window was open and that one of the protecting iron bars had been wrenched aside, she very nearly fainted. In her tribulation she hurried to her fellow servants and informed them of her startling discovery. The four women were terribly frightened, and it was only after a considerable amount of persuasion that the cook consented to put on her bonnet and go in search of the police. While she was absent the three other women fortified themselves in the kitchen and awaited her return in fear and trembling. Constable Bulger, 130 D, was soon upon the scene; he examined the pantry window from the outside, he looked very wisely indeed at the foot-prints in the soft gravel path, and directed that they should remain undisturbed; and then he entered the house and proceeded to interrogate the servants. [Pg 299]

"Anything missing, ladies?" he said.

No, nothing was missing in the basement, and the policeman and the frightened maids ascended to the hall, where the parlourmaid instantly detected the absence of the Inverness cape.

"There's more gone than that, miss," said Constable Bulger. "They don't effect a forcible entry now-a-days for the sake of a coat or two; we'd better look in the dining-room."

The parlourmaid flung open the shutters and drew up the blinds, letting in the bright sunshine. As the girl turned from the window she gave a succession of eldritch screams and went off into violent hysterics; for she saw that the doors of the massive sideboard were standing wide open and that the empty plate-basket lay upon the floor. Constable Bulger was perfectly satisfied in his own mind that the parlourmaid, at all events, [Pg 300] had had nothing to do with the burglary which had evidently been committed. For portly 130 D prided himself, and perhaps with some justice, on his intimate knowledge of the ways of women. He knew perfectly well that the dreadful laugh was not simulated, and he was quite aware of the appropriate remedies.

"Let her lie flat on the floor, ma'am," he said to the cook, "and just you run for a little water, miss, and be spry," was his command to the frightened housemaid, who, pale as ashes, was standing in the doorway. "Is his lordship at home?" said Bulger. "I'd better see him at once. Just run up and say I am here," added he.

But not one of the women stirred; all three redoubled their assiduities to the recovering parlourmaid, but each firmly declined to quit the dining-room, on the ground that "it wasn't a woman's place."

"Just keep your eye on the roadway, one of you," said the constable, [Pg 301] "the sergeant'll be passing directly, and if you see him you'd better call to him."

And then Constable Bulger undid the button of his truncheon case, not that he expected to find any one on the premises, but it was as well to be prepared for the worst, and he then ascended the stairs. One of the bedroom doors was wide open, and a horrid sight met his astonished eyes.

On the floor lay the murdered master of Azalea Lodge. The face looked like a waxen mask; the lips were bloodless and of an ashen grey, slightly parted, leaving the regular teeth of the dead man painfully apparent. The eyes were wide open and had a terror-stricken look; but the hands were clenched. The dead man lay in a pool of blood, with which his white nightdress was stained in many places.

The constable drew his truncheon, looked under the bed and into the dressing-room; a glance at the open safe told him that it had been rifled. Then, without in the slightest degree disturbing the dead man [Pg 302] or his surroundings, the constable left the room, locking the door and placing the key in his pocket. He made a perfunctory search through the rest of the house, though he knew full well that the murderer had fled; and as he descended the stairs and rejoined the frightened women, his sergeant, whom the cook had hailed from the dining-room window, appeared upon the scene.

In a whisper Bulger communicated to him what had taken place; but while he was yet speaking shrieks and cries were heard from the dining-room. Both men hurriedly entered it. The parlourmaid, mad with terror, was struggling with the other women.

"They have murdered him," she shrieked. "Oh God! they have murdered him," she reiterated, as she pointed to a great pink stain upon the ceiling.

There was no need to break to them the dreadful news now. The girl [Pg 303] continued to shriek and point at the awful stain for some minutes, and then went off in a dead faint.

All that morning a little crowd stopped to whisper and point at Azalea Lodge. In vain a special policeman entreated them to move on; they merely passed over to the other side to point and whisper in mingled excitement and curiosity. The red-coated newsvendors did a thriving trade in the neighbourhood on that day.

"Special edition. Frightful murder of a nobleman by burglars. Flight of the murderers. Further horrible details." The red-coated men's harvest was a precarious one, and they made the most of it; they even succeeded in selling some of their papers at a shilling a-piece. But the purchasers were disappointed, for though the newspaper reporters had swelled their description of what they called "The Tragedy in High Life [Pg 304] in St. John's Wood," into two columns of leaded type, yet nothing more was to be gained from it all than that the heir to the Pit Town title had been brutally murdered by a midnight thief, that the assassin had escaped with his plunder, and as yet had succeeded in baffling the efforts of the police.

Ere nightfall every police station in the metropolis displayed a hand-bill headed by the startling word "MURDER," in big black letters, and offering a reward for the apprehension of a man wearing an Inverness cape and carrying a Gladstone bag. For days the police stations were besieged by anxious informers, desirous to give information about men with Gladstone bags and Inverness capes. Both cabmen came forward, and the murderer was traced as far as Matilda Street, but here the scent failed utterly; and though the old lord offered a further and larger reward, and smug-looking men, in slop clothes and billycock hats, hung about Matilda Street at all hours of the day and night, yet they failed [Pg 305] to come upon any trace of Lord Hetton's murderer.

Twelve good men and true, his lordship's butcher, baker and candlestick maker and nine others of the same kidney, found a verdict of "Wilful Murder;" and two days after the inquest the body of the unhappy nobleman was conveyed to Walls End Castle and interred with due pomp in the family vault. The old lord, Mr. Haggard of the Home Office and Reginald Haggard, followed it to the grave.

Mr. Haggard had had a rather painful interview with a lady dressed in deep mourning in the dining-room of Azalea Lodge, on the morning of the removal of his lordship's body. The lady's grief was evidently unfeigned. When Mr. Haggard had informed her that the dead man had left her all he had to give, she was in no way consoled, and merely continued to sob and wring her hands in the bitterness of her grief. [Pg 306]

A fortnight afterwards Azalea Lodge was in the hands of an auctioneer. The first-rate modern furniture, by Gillow, was eagerly inspected by the curious, and fetched fancy prices. Six months afterwards Lord Hetton's very existence was forgotten, save by his father and a lady dressed in deep mourning, who gambled with feverish energy at Monte Carlo, vainly striving, poor thing, in that way to drown the remembrance of the past.

The wicked man's epitaph, as a rule, may be generally appropriately written in the pithy words "He was, and is not." Like a stone dropped into the water he disappears and leaves no trace.

END OF VOL. II.

PRINTED BY
KELLY AND CO., GATE STREET, LINCOLN'S INN FIELDS, W.C.;
AND MIDDLE MILL, KINGSTON-ON-THAMES.

 

 

Transcriber's Note:

Most of the apparent printers' errors have been retained. A few have been changed, including the one listed below.

Page 229 Chapter X a comma was inserted in the phrase 'he would secure the competence he had yearned for, for so many years'.

This cover for mobile versions is placed in the public domain.

 


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