Part 2 out of 5
prison and condemned to die, till at length she feared to close her
eyes. But nothing had been forgotten; and Rachel's last memory of that
eventful day, and not less eventful night, was of a mild, foreign face
bending over her with a medicine-glass and a gentle word.
And the same good face and the same soft voice were waiting for her when
she awoke after many hours; the fire still burned brightly, also the
electric-light, though the blind was up and the window filled with a
dull November sky. It was a delicious awakening, recollection was so
slow to come. Rachel might have been ill for days. She experienced the
peace that is left by illness of sufficient gravity. But all she ailed
was a slight headache, quickly removed by an inimitable cup of tea, that
fortified her against the perplexing memories which now came swarming to
her mind. This morning, however, enlightenment was due, and meanwhile
Rachel received a hint, though a puzzling one, from the Swiss maid, as
to the new identity which had been thrust upon her for the time being in
lieu of her own.
"It was very sad for madame to lose all her things," cooed the girl, as
she busied herself about the room.
"It was irritating," Rachel owned, beginning to wonder how much the
"But it was better than losing your life, madame!" the girl added with a
And now Rachel lay silent. Could this amiable young woman know all? In
one way Rachel rather hoped it was the case; it would be something to
have received so much kindness and attention, even though bought and
paid for, from one of her own sex who knew all there was to know, and
yet did not shrink from her. But the young woman's next words dismissed
"When so many poor people were drowned!" said she. And the mystification
Presently there was a knock at the outer door, which the maid answered,
returning with Mr. Steele's card.
"Is he there?" asked Rachel, hastily.
"No, madame, but one of the servants is waiting for an answer. I think
there is something written on the back, madame."
Rachel read the harmless request on the back of the card; nothing could
have been better calculated to turn away suspicion of one sort or
another, and there was obvious design in the absence of an envelope. But
Rachel was not yet in the secret, and she was determined not to wait an
hour longer than she need.
"What is the time, please?"
"I will see, madame."
The girl glided out and in.
"A quarter to ten, madame."
"Then order my breakfast for a quarter past, and let Mr. Steele be told
that I shall be delighted to see him at eleven o'clock."
A MORNING CALL
"The way to conceal one's identity," observed Mrs. Steel, "is to assume
another as distinctive as one's own."
This oracular utterance was confidentially delivered from the leathern
chair at the writing-table, in an inner recess of Rachel's sumptuous
sitting-room. The chair had been wheeled aloof from the table, on which
were Steel's hat and gloves, and such a sheaf of book-stall literature
as suggested his immediate departure upon no short journey, unless,
indeed, the magazines and the Sunday newspapers turned out to be another
offering to Mrs. Minchin, like the nosegay of hothouse flowers which she
still held in her hand. Rachel herself had inadvertently taken the very
easy-chair which was a further feature of the recess; in its cushioned
depths she already felt at a needless disadvantage, with Mr. Steel
bending over her, his strong face bearing down, as it were, upon hers,
and his black eyes riddling her with penetrating glances. But to have
risen now would have been to show him what she felt. So she trifled with
his flowers without looking up, though her eyebrows rose a little on
their own account.
"I know what you are thinking," resumed Steel; "that you had no desire
to assume any new identity, or for a single moment to conceal your own,
and that I have taken a great deal upon myself. That I most freely
admit. And I think you will forgive me when you see the papers!"
"Is there so much about me, then?" asked Rachel, with a sigh of
"A leading article in every one of them. But they will keep. Indeed, I
would much rather you never saw them at all."
"Was that why you brought them in, Mr. Steel?"
The question was irresistible, its satire unconcealed; but Steel's
disregard of it steered admirably clear of contempt.
"That was why I bought them, certainly," he admitted. "But I brought
them with me for quite a different purpose, for which one would indeed
have been enough. I was saying, however, that the best way to sink one's
identity is to assume another, provided that the second be as
distinctive as the first. We will leave for a moment the question of my
officiousness in the matter, and we'll suppose, for the sake of
argument, that I was authorized by you to do what in fact I have done.
All last week the papers were literally full of your trial, but on
Saturday there was a second sensation as well, and this morning it is
hard to say which is first and which second; they both occupy so many
columns. You may not know it, but the Cape liner due on Saturday was
lost with scores of lives, off Finisterre, on Friday morning last."
Rachel failed to see the connection, and yet she felt vaguely that there
was one, if she could but recall it; meanwhile she said nothing, but
listened with as much attention as a mental search would permit.
"I heard of it first," continued Steel, "late on Friday afternoon, as I
came away from the Old Bailey. Now, it was on Friday afternoon, if you
recollect, that you gave evidence yourself in your own defence. When you
left the witness-box, Mrs. Minchin, and even before you left it, I knew
that you were saved!"
Rachel remembered the Swiss maid's remark about the loss of her clothes
and the number of persons who had fared so much worse and lost their
lives. But Steel's last words dismissed every thought but that of their
own import. And in an instant she was trembling upright in the
"You believed me!" she whispered. "You believed me at the time!"
And for nothing had he earned such gratitude yet; her moist eyes saw the
old-fashioned courtesy of his bow in answer, but not the subtlety of the
smile that bore it company in the depths of the dark eyes: it was a
smile that did not extend to the short, tight mouth.
"What is more to the point, my dear lady," he went on in words, "the
jury believed you, and I saw that they did. You made a tremendous
impression upon them. The lawyer against you was too humane to try very
hard to remove it, and the judge too just--though your own man did his
best. But I saw at once that it would never be removed. It was between
you and the jury--human being to human beings--and no third legal party
intervening. That was where you scored; you went straight as a die to
those twelve simple hearts. And I saw what you had done--what the
lawyers between them could not undo--and took immediate measures."
Rachel looked up with parted lips, only to shut them firmly without a
"And who was I to take measures on your behalf?" queried Steel, putting
the question for her. "What right or excuse had I to mix myself up in
your affairs? I will tell you, for this morning is not last night, and
at least you have one good night's rest between you and the past. My
dear Mrs. Minchin, I had absolutely no right at all; but I had the
excuse which every man has who sees a woman left to stand alone against
the world, and who thrusts himself, no matter how officiously, into the
breach beside her. And then for a week I had seen you all day and every
day, upon your trial!"
At last there something with a ring of definite insincerity, something
that Rachel could take up; and she gazed upon her self-appointed
champion with candid eyes.
"Do you mean to say that you never saw me before--my trouble, Mr.
"Never in my life, my dear lady."
"Then you knew something about me or mine!"
"What one read in the newspapers--neither more nor less--upon my most
solemn word--if that will satisfy you."
And it did; for if there had been palpable insincerity in his previous
protestations, there was sincerity of a still more obvious order in Mr.
Steel's downright assurances on these two points. He had never ever
seen her before. He knew nothing whatever about her up to the period of
notoriety; he had no special and no previous knowledge of his own. It
might not be true, of course; but there was that in the deep-set eyes
which convinced Rachel once and for all. There was a sudden light in
them, a light as candid as that which happened to be shining in her own,
but a not too kindly one, rather a glint of genuine resentment. It was
his smooth protestations that Rachel distrusted and disliked. If she
could ruffle him, she might get at the real man; and with her questions
she appeared to have done so already.
"I am more than satisfied, in one way," replied Rachel, "and less in
another. I rather wish you had known something about me; it would have
made it more natural for you to come to my assistance. But never mind.
What were these immediate measures?"
"I took these rooms; I had spoken of taking them earlier in the week."
"Yes, on the chance of your getting off."
"But you did not say they were for me!"
"No; and I was vague in what I had said until then. I had a daughter--a
widow--whom I rather expected to arrive from abroad towards the end of
the week. But I was quite vague."
"Because you thought I had no chance!"
"I had not heard your evidence. The very afternoon I did hear it, and
had no longer any doubt about the issue in my own mind, I also heard of
this wreck. The very thing! I waited till next morning for the list of
the saved; luckily there were plenty of them; and I picked out the name
of a married woman travelling alone, and therefore very possibly a
widow, from the number. Then I went to the manager. The daughter whom I
expected had been wrecked, but she was saved, and would arrive that
night. As a matter of fact, the survivors were picked up by a passing
North German Lloyd, and they did reach London on Saturday night.
Meanwhile I had impressed it upon the manager to keep the matter as
quiet as possible, for many excellent reasons, which I need not go into
"But the reason for so elaborate a pretence?"
And the keen, dark face was searched with a scrutiny worthy of itself.
Steel set his mouth in another visible resolution to tell the truth.
"I thought you might not be sorry to cease being Mrs. Minchin--the Mrs.
Minchin who had become so cruelly notorious through no fault of her
own--if only for a day or two, or a single night. That was most easily
to be effected by your arriving here minus possessions, and plus a very
definite story of your own."
"You made very sure of me!" said Rachel, dryly.
"I trusted to my own powers of persuasion, and it was said you had no
friends. I will confess," added Steel, "that I hoped the report was
"Did it follow that I could have no pride?"
"By no means; on the contrary, I knew that you were full of pride; it
is, if I may venture to say so, one of your most salient
characteristics. Nothing was more noticeable at your trial; nothing
finer have I ever seen! But," added Steel, suppressing a burst of
enthusiasm that gained by the suppression, "but, madam, I hoped and
prayed that you would have the sense to put your pride in the second
place for once."
"Well," said Rachel, "and so far I have done so, Heaven knows!"
"And that is something," rejoined Steel, impressively. "Even if it ends
at this--even if you won't hear me out--it is something that you have
had one night and one morning free from insult, discomfort, and
Rachel felt half frightened and half indignant. Steel was standing up,
looking very earnestly down upon her. And something that she had dimly
divined in the very beginning--only to chide herself for the mere
thought--that thing was in his face and in his voice. Rachel made a
desperate attempt to change the subject, but, as will be seen, an
"So I am supposed to be your daughter!" she exclaimed nervously. "May I
ask my new name?"
"If you like; but I am going to suggest to you a still newer name, Mrs.
Rachel tried to laugh, though his quietly determined and serious face
made it more than difficult.
"Do you mean that I am not to be your daughter any longer, Mr. Steel?"
"Not if I can help it. But it will depend upon yourself."
"And what do you want to make me now?"
THE DOVE AND THE SERPENT
Rachel was bereft of speech; and yet a certain sense of relief underlay
the natural embarrassment caused by a proposal so premature and so
abrupt. Nor was the deeper emotion very difficult to analyze. Here at
last was a logical explanation of the whole behavior of this man; it was
the first that had occurred to her, and, after all, it was the only
"I want you to be my wife," repeated Mr. Steel, with enough of respect
in his tone, yet none the less with the air of a man who is accustomed
to obtain what he wants.
And Rachel, looking at the wiry, well-knit, upright figure, and at the
fresh, elderly, but virile face, with its sombre eyes and its snowy
hair, thought once again of the ancient saw which she had quoted to
herself the night before, only to dismiss it finally from her mind. This
man was no fool, nor was he old. He might be eccentric, but he was
eminently sane; he might be elderly, in the arbitrary matter of mere
years; but an old man he was not, and never would be with those eyes.
She tried to tell him it was absurd, but before the word could come she
saw that it was the last one to apply; he was so confident, so quiet, so
sure of himself, if not of Rachel. At last she told him she could not
think of it, he had seen nothing of her, and could not possibly care for
her, even supposing that she cared for him.
"By 'caring,'" said he, "do you mean being 'in love,' as they say, and
"Naturally," said Rachel, with great ease and irony, but with a new
misgiving every moment.
"And have I said I was in love with you?" inquired Mr. Steel, with a
smile as indulgent as his tone. "It might, perhaps, be no more than the
truth; but have I had the insolence to tell you so?"
"It is a greater insult if you are not," returned Rachel, speaking hotly
and quickly, but with lowered eyes.
"What! To offer to marry a person whom one does not--as yet--pretend to
Rachel vouchsafed no reply.
"Whom one only--but tremendously--admires?"
Rachel felt bound to answer him, for at least there was no insult in
his tone. She raised her candid eyes, a sweet brown blush upon her face.
"Yes," she said, "I think there is absolutely no excuse for a proposal
of marriage, if it is not founded upon love and nothing else!"
"Or its pretence and nothing else," amended Steel, with a bow and a
smile of some severity. "That is a hard saying," he went on, resuming
his chair, and wheeling it even nearer to Rachel's than it had been
before; "moreover," he added, "since I have already insulted you, let me
tell you that it is an exceedingly commonplace saying, into the bargain.
It depends, you must admit, upon the commonplace conception of marriage;
and before we go any further I should like to give you my own
conception, not of the institution, but of the particular marriage which
I have in view."
So he had it in view! It was not an inspiration, but already quite a
prospect! Rachel made an acid little note of this; but there was no
acidity in her permission to him to proceed; her turn was coming last.
"The marriage that I propose to you," continued Steel, "is simply the
most convenient form of friendship of which I can think. I want to be
your friend; indeed, that much I mean to be, if necessary, in spite of
you. I was interested in your case, so I came up to hear your trial. I
was more interested in your trial, but most interested of all in
yourself. There, indeed, the word is too weak; but I will not vex your
spirit with a stronger. My attraction you know; my determination you
know; even the low wiles to which your pride reduced me, even my dodging
and dogging, have been quite openly admitted to you on the first
reasonable opportunity. All this business of the shipwrecked daughter
was of course a crude device enough; but I had very little time to
think, and my first care was that you should not be recognized here or
elsewhere in my society. That was essential, if there was the slightest
chance of your even listening to my proposition, as indeed you are doing
now. Last night I told you nothing, because that's always easier than
telling only a little; moreover, you were so distraught that you would
possibly have gone right away without benefiting even to the slight
extent of the comfortable night's rest you so badly needed; but this
morning I am prepared to put it to the touch. And let me begin by
saying, that if circumstances would permit me to continue the paternal
imposture, that would be quite enough for me; unluckily, I am known in
my own country as an old bachelor; so that I cannot suddenly produce a
widowed daughter, without considerable unpleasantness for us both. What
I can do, however," and Steel bent further forward, with eyes that held
Rachel's in their spell; "what I can do, and will, is to go back with a
lady who shall be my wife in name, my daughter in effect. We should, I
trust, be the best of friends; but I will give you my word, and not only
my word but my bond, that we never need be anything more."
He had spoken rapidly; the pause that followed lasted longer than this
lengthy speech. And through it all they sat with eyes still locked,
until he spoke again.
"You believe, at least, in the bona fides of my offer?"
And Rachel, still looking in his eyes, murmured that she did.
"You will bear in mind how essentially it differs from the ordinary
offer of the kind; also, that I have never for a moment pretended to be
in love with you?"
Steel had risen as if to go; the keen scrutiny was withdrawn, a distinct
spell as distinctly broken; and yet he lingered, with a smile.
"That," said he, "was a poor compliment to pay twice over! But it is
human to err, and in my anxiety not to do so on the side of sentiment I
own myself in danger of flying to the other extreme. Well, you know
which is the common extreme in such cases; and at all events we shall
avoid the usual pitfall. I am going to give you a few minutes to think
it over; then, if you care to go into it further, I shall be most happy;
if not, the matter is at an end."
A few minutes! Rachel felt very angry, without knowing that she was most
angry with herself for not feeling angrier still. She had heard quite
enough; it were weakness to listen to another word; and yet--and yet--
"Don't go," said Rachel, with some petulance; "that is quite
unnecessary. Anything more extraordinary--but I owe you too much already
to be your critic. Still, I do think I am entitled to go a little
further into the matter, as you said, without committing myself."
"To be sure you are."
But this time he remained standing; and for once he kept those mesmeric
eyes to himself. Obviously, Rachel was to have a chance.
"You spoke of your own country," she began. "Do you live abroad?"
There was the least suspicion of eagerness in the question. Rachel
herself was unaware of it; not so Mr. Steel, and he sighed.
"A mere figure," he said; "what I meant was my own country-side."
"And where is that?"
"In the north," he replied vaguely. "Did you look twice at my card?
Well, here is another, if you will do me that honor now. The initials
J. B. stand for no very interesting names--John Buchanan. A certain
interest in the Buchanan, perhaps; it comes out in the flesh, I fancy,
though not on the tongue. As for the address, Normanthorpe House is the
rather historic old seat of the family of that name; but they have so
many vastly superior and more modern places, and the last fifty years
have so ruined the surroundings, that I was able to induce the Duke to
take a price for it a year or two ago. He had hardly slept a night there
in his life, and I got it lock-stock-and-barrel for a song. The
Northborough which, you will observe, it is 'near'--a good four miles,
as a matter of fact--is the well-known centre of the Delverton
iron-trade. But you may very well have spent a year in this country
without having heard of it; they would be shocked at Northborough, but
Rachel had dropped the card into her lap; she was looking straight at
Mr. John Buchanan Steel himself.
"You are very rich," she said gravely.
"I am nothing of the kind," he protested. "The Duke is rich, if you
like, but I had to scrape together to pay him what would replenish his
racing-stud, or stand him in a new yacht."
But Rachel was not deceived.
"I might have known you were very rich," she murmured, as much to
herself as to him; and there was a strange finality in her tone, as
though all was over between them; a still more strange regret,
involuntary, unconscious, and yet distinct.
"Granting your hypothesis, for the sake of argument," he went on, with
his simplest smile; "is it as difficult as ever for the poor rich man to
get to heaven?"
Rachel spent some moments in serious thought. He was wonderfully honest
with her; of his central motive alone was she uncertain, unconvinced. In
all else she felt instinctively that he was telling her the truth,
telling her even more than he need. His generous candor was a challenge
to her own.
"It may be very small of me," she said at length, "but--somehow--if you
had been comparatively poor--I should have been less--ashamed!"
And candor begot candor, as it generally will.
"Upon my word," he cried, "you make me sigh for the suburbs and six
hundred a year! But you shall know the worst. I meant you to know it
when I came in; then I changed my mind; but in for a penny, in for the
He caught up the magazine which he had brought in with the sheaf of
newspapers, and he handed it to Rachel, open at an article quite
excellently illustrated for an English magazine.
"There," he cried, "there's a long screed about the wretched place,
before it came into my hands. But it's no use pretending it isn't quite
the place it was. I took over the whole thing--every stick outside and
in--and I've put in new drainage and the electric light."
His tone of regret was intentionally ludicrous. Had Rachel been
listening, she would once more have suspected a pose. But already she
was deep in the article in the two-year-old magazine, or rather in its
not inartistic illustrations.
"The House from the Tennis Lawn," "In the Kitchen Garden," "The
Drawing-room Door," "A Drawing-room Chimney-piece," "A Corner of the
Chinese Room," "A Portion of the Grand Staircase"--of such were the
titles underneath the process pictures. And (in all but their
production) each of these was more beautiful than the last.
"That," observed Steel, "happens to be the very article from which I
first got wind of the place, when I was looking about for one. And
now," he added, "I suppose I have cut my own throat! Like the devil, I
have taken you up to a high place-"
It was no word from Rachel that cut him short, but his own taste, with
which she at least had very little fault to find. And Rachel was
critical enough; but her experience was still unripe, and she liked his
view of his possessions, without perceiving how it disarmed her own.
Presently she looked up.
"Now I see how much I should have to gain. But what would you gain?"
The question was no sooner asked than Rachel foresaw the pretty speech
which was its obvious answer. Mr. Steel, however, refrained from making
"I am an oldish man," he said, "and--yes, there is no use in denying
that I am comfortably off. I want a wife; or rather, my neighbors seem
bent upon finding me one; and, if the worst has to come to the worst, I
prefer to choose for myself. Matrimony, however, is about the very last
state of life that I desire, and I take it to be the same with you.
Therefore--to put the cart before the horse--you would suit me ideally.
One's own life would be unaltered, but the Delverton mothers would cease
from troubling, and at the head of my establishment there would be a
lady of whom I should be most justly proud. And even in my own life I
should, I hope, be the more than occasional gainer by her society; may I
also add, by her sympathy, by her advice? Mrs. Minchin," cried Steel,
with sudden feeling, "the conditions shall be very rigid; my lawyer
shall see to that; nor shall I allow myself a loophole for any weakness
or nonsense whatsoever in the future. Old fellows like myself have made
fools of themselves before to-day, but you shall be safeguarded from the
beginning. Let there be no talk or thought of love between us from first
to last! But as for admiration, I don't mind telling you that I admire
you as I never admired any woman in the world before; and I hope, in
spite of that, we shall be friends."
Still the indicative mood, still not for a moment the conditional!
Rachel did not fail to make another note; but now there was nothing
bitter even in her thoughts. She believed in this man, and in his
promises; moreover, she began to focus the one thing about him in which
she disbelieved. It was his feeling towards her--nothing more and
nothing else. There he was insincere; but it was a pardonable
insincerity, after all.
Of his admiration she was convinced; it had been open and honest all
along; but there was something deeper than admiration. He could say what
he liked. The woman knew. And what could it be but love?
The woman knew; and though the tragedy of her life was so close behind
her; nay, though mystery and suspicion encompassed her still, as they
might until her death, the woman thrilled.
It was a thrill of excitement chiefly, but excitement was not the only
element. There was the personal factor, too; there was the fascination
which this man had for her, which he could exert at will, and which he
was undoubtedly exerting now.
To escape from his eyes, to think but once more for herself, and by
herself, Rachel rose at last, and looked from the window which lit this
It was the usual November day in London; no sun; a mist, but not a fog;
cabmen in capes, horses sliding on the muddy street, well-dressed women
picking their way home from church--shabby women hurrying in
shawls--hurrying as Rachel herself had done the night before--as she
might again to-night. And whither? And whither, in all the world?
Rachel turned from the window with a shudder; she caught up the first
newspaper of the sheaf upon the writing-table. Steel had moved into the
body of the room; she could not even see him through the alcove. So much
the better; she would discover for herself what they said.
Leading articles are easily found, and in a Sunday paper they are seldom
long. Rachel was soon through the first, her blood boiling; the second
she could not finish for her tears; the third dried her eyes with the
fires of fierce resentment. It was not so much what they said; it was
what they were obviously afraid to say. It was their circumlocution,
their innuendo, their mild surprise, their perfunctory congratulations,
their assumption of chivalry and their lack of its essence, that wounded
and stung the subject of these effusions. As she raised her flushed face
from the last of them, Mr. Steel stood before her once more, the
incarnation of all grave sympathy and consideration.
"You must not think," said he, "that my proposal admits of no
alternative but the miserable one of making your own way in a suspicious
and uncharitable world. On the contrary, if I am not to be your nominal
and legal husband, I still intend to be your actual friend. On the first
point you are to be consulted, but on the second not even you shall
stand in my way. Nor in that event would I attempt to rob you of the
independence which you value so highly; on the other hand, I would
point the way to an independence worth having. I am glad you have seen
those papers, though to-morrow they may be worse. Well, you may be
shocked, but, if you won't have me, the worse the better, say I! Your
case was most iniquitously commented upon before ever it came for trial;
there is sure to be a fresh crop of iniquities now; but I shall be much
mistaken if you cannot mulct the more flagrant offenders in heavy
damages for libel."
Rachel shivered at the thought. She was done with her case for ever and
for ever. People could think her guilty if they liked, but that the case
should breed other cases, and thus drag on and on, and, above all, that
she should make money out of all that past horror, what an unbearable
On second thoughts, Mr. Steel agreed.
"Then you must let me send you back to Australia." No, no, no; she could
never show her face there again, or anywhere else where she was known.
She must begin life afresh, that was evident.
"It was evident to me," said Steel, quietly, "though not more so than
the injustice of it, from the very beginning. Hence the plans and
proposals that I have put before you."
Rachel regarded him wildly; the Sunday papers had driven her to
desperation, as, perhaps, it was intended that they should.
"Are you sure," she cried, "that they would not know me--up north?"
"Not from Eve," he answered airily. "I should see to that; and, besides,
we should first travel, say until the summer."
"If only I _could_ begin my life again!" said Rachel to herself, but
aloud, in a way that made no secret of her last, most desperate
"That is exactly what I wish you to do," Steel rejoined quietly, even
gently, his hand lying lightly but kindly upon her quivering shoulder.
How strong his touch, how firm, how reassuring! It was her first contact
with his hand.
"I wish it so much," he went on, "that I would have your past life
utterly buried, even between ourselves; nay, if it were possible, even
in your own mind also! I, for my part, would undertake never to ask you
one solitary question about that life--on one small and only fair
condition. Supposing we make a compact now?"
"Anything to bury my own past," owned Rachel; "yes, I would do
"Then you must help me to bury mine, too," he said. "I was never
married, but a past I have."
"I would do my best," said Rachel, "if I married you."
"You will do your best," added Steel, correcting her; "and there is my
compact cut and dried. I ask you nothing; you ask me nothing; and there
is to be no question of love between us, first or last. But we help each
other to forget--from this day forth!"
Rachel could not speak; his eyes were upon her, black, inscrutable,
arrestive of her very faculties, to say nothing of her will. She could
only answer him when he had turned away and was moving towards the door.
"Where are you going?" she cried.
"To send to my solicitor," replied Steel, "as I warned him that I might.
It has all to be drawn up; and there is the question of a settlement;
and other questions, perhaps, which you may like to put to him yourself
A CHANGE OF SCENE
The Reverend Hugh Woodgate, Vicar of Marley-in-Delverton--a benefice for
generations in the gift of the Dukes of Normanthorpe, but latterly in
that of one John Buchanan Steel--was writing his sermon on a Friday
afternoon just six months after the foregoing events. The month was
therefore May, and, at either end of the long, low room in which Mr.
Woodgate sat at work, the windows were filled with a flutter of summer
curtains against a brilliant background of waving greenery. But a fire
burned in one of the two fireplaces in the old-fashioned funnel of a
room, for a treacherous east wind skimmed the sunlit earth outside, and
whistled and sang through one window as the birds did through the other.
Mr. Woodgate was a tall, broad-shouldered, mild-eyed man, with a blot of
whisker under each ear, and the cleanest of clerical collars
encompassing his throat. It was a kindly face that pored over the
unpretentious periods, as they grew by degrees upon the blue-lined
paper, in the peculiar but not uncommon hand which is the hall-mark of
a certain sort of education upon a certain order of mind. The present
specimen was perhaps more methodical than most; therein it was
characteristic of the man. From May to September, Mr. Woodgate never
failed to finish his sermon on the Friday, that on the Saturday he might
be free to play cricket with his men and lads. He was a poor preacher
and no cricketer at all; but in both branches he did his best, with the
simple zeal and the unconscious sincerity which redeemed not a few of
So intent was the vicar upon his task, so engrossed in the expression of
that which had already been expressed many a million times, that he did
not hear wheels in his drive, on the side where the wind sang loudest;
he heard nothing until the door opened, and a girl in her twenties,
trim, slim, and brown with health, came hurriedly in.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, dear, but who do you think is here?"
Hugh Woodgate turned round in his chair, and his honest ox-eyes filled
with open admiration of the wife who was so many years younger than
himself, and who had seen in him Heaven knew what! He never could look
at her without that look first; and only now, after some years of
marriage, was he beginning sometimes to do so without this thought
next. But he had not the gift of expression, even in the perpetual
matter of his devotion; and perhaps its perpetuity owed something to
that very want; at least there was none of the verbal evaporation which
comes of too much lovers' talk.
"Who is it?" he asked.
Woodgate groaned. Was he obliged to appear? His jaw fell, and his wife's
"Dear, I wouldn't even have let you know she was here--you shouldn't
have been interrupted for a single instant--if Mrs. Venables wasn't
clamoring to see you. And really I begin to clamor too; for she is full
of some mysterious news, which she won't tell me till you are there to
hear it also. Be an angel, for five minutes!"
Woodgate wiped his pen in his deliberate way.
"Probably one of the girls is engaged," said he; "if so I hope it's
"No, Sybil is here too; she doesn't look a bit engaged, but rather
bored, as though she had heard the story several times already, whatever
it may be. They have certainly paid several calls. Now you look quite
nice, so in you come."
Mrs. Venables, a stout but comely lady, with a bright brown eye, and a
face full of character and ability, opened fire upon the vicar as soon
as they had shaken hands, while her daughter looked wistfully at the
"He is married!" cried Mrs. Venables, beginning in the middle like a
"Indeed?" returned the matter-of-fact clergyman, with equal
directness--"and who is he?"
"Your neighbor and your patron--Mr. Steel!"
"Married?" repeated Mrs. Woodgate, with tremendous emphasis. "Mr.
"This is news!" declared her husband, as though he had expected none
worthy of the name. And they both demanded further particulars, at which
Mrs. Venables shook her expensive bonnet with great relish.
"Do you know Mr. Steel so well--so much better than we do--and can you
ask for particulars about anything he ever does? His marriage,"
continued Mrs. Venables, "like everything else about him, is 'wrop in
mystery,' as one of those vulgar creatures says in Dickens, but I really
forget which. It was never announced in the _Times_; for that I can
vouch myself. Was ever anything more like him, or less like anybody
else? To disappear for six months, and then turn up with a wife!"
"But has he turned up?" cried the vicar's young wife, forgetting for a
moment a certain preoccupation caused by the arrival of the tea-tray,
and by a rapid resignation to the thickness of the bread and butter and
the distressing absence of such hot things as would have been in
readiness if Mrs. Venables had been expected for a single moment. It
showed the youth of Morna Woodgate that she should harbor a wish to
compete with the wealthiest woman in the neighborhood, even in the
matter of afternoon tea, and her breeding that no such thought was
legible in her clear-cut open-air face.
"I have heard nothing about it," said the vicar, in a tone indicative of
much honest doubt in the matter.
"Nor is it the case, to my knowledge," rejoined Mrs. Venables; "but from
all we hear it may become the case any moment. They were married in
Italy last autumn--so he says--and are on their way home at this
"If he says so," observed the vicar, with mild humor, "it is probably
true. He ought to know."
"And who was she?" his young wife asked with immense interest, the cups
having gone round, and the bread and butter been accepted in spite of
"My dear Mrs. Woodgate," said Mrs. Venables, cordially, "you may well
ask! Who was she, indeed! It was the first question I asked my own
informant, who, by the way, was your friend, Mr. Langholm; but he knew
no more than the man in the moon."
"And who told Mr. Langholm, of all people?" pursued Morna Woodgate. "It
is not often that we get news of the real world from him!"
"Birds of a feather," remarked her caller: "it was Mr. Steel himself who
wrote to your other eccentric friend, and told him neither more nor less
than I have told you. He was married in Italy last autumn; not even the
town--not even the month--let alone the lady's name--if, indeed--"
And Mrs. Venables concluded with a sufficiently eloquent hiatus.
"I imagine she is a lady," said the vicar to his tea.
"You are so charitable, dear Mr. Woodgate!"
"I hope I am," he said simply. "In this case I see no reason to be
"What--when you know really nothing about Mr. Steel himself?"
And the bright brown eyes of Mrs. Venables grew smaller and harder as
they pinned Hugh Woodgate to his chair.
"I beg your pardon," said that downright person; "I know a great deal
about Mr. Steel. He has done an immense amount for the parish; there
are our new schoolrooms to speak for themselves. There are very few who
would do the half of what Mr. Steel has done for us during the short
time he has been at Normanthorpe."
"That may be," said the lady, with the ample smile of conscious
condescension; "for he has certainly not omitted to let his light shine
before men. But that is not telling us who or what he was before he came
here, or how he made his money."
Then Hugh Woodgate gave the half boyish, half bashful laugh with which
he was wont to preface his most candid sayings.
"And I don't think it's any business of ours," he said.
Morna went a trifle browner than she naturally was; her husband said so
little that what he did say was often almost painfully to the point; and
now Mrs. Venables had turned from him to her, with a smile which the
young wife disliked, for it called attention to the vicar's discourtesy
while it appealed to herself for prettier manners and better sense. It
was a moment requiring some little tact, but Mrs. Woodgate was just
equal to it.
"Hugh, how rude of you!" she exclaimed, with only the suspicion of a
smile. "You forget that it's your duty to be friendly with everybody;
there's no such obligation on anybody else."
"I should be friendly with Mr. Steel," said Hugh, "duty or no duty,
after what he has done for the parish."
And his pleasant honest face and smile did away with the necessity for a
"I must say," added his wife to her visitor, "that it's the same with
me, you know."
There was a pause.
"Then you intend to call upon her?" said Mrs. Venables, coming with
directness to an obviously premeditated point.
"I do--I must--it is so different with us," said the vicar's young wife,
with her pretty brown blush.
"Certainly," added the vicar himself, with dogmatic emphasis.
Mrs. Venables did not look at him, but she looked the harder at Morna
"Well," said she, "I suppose you are right. In your position--yes--your
position is quite different!" And the sudden, half accidental turn of
her sentence put Mrs. Venables on good terms with herself once more; and
so she rose all smiles and velvet. "No, not even half a cup; but it was
really quite delicious; and I hope you'll come and see me soon, and tell
me all about her. At his age!" she whispered as she went. "At
sixty-five--if he's a day!"
A stranger would have imagined that this lady had quite decided not to
call upon the newcomer herself; even Mrs. Woodgate was uncertain of her
neighbor's intention as the latter's wheels ground the Vicarage drive
once more, and she and her husband were left alone.
"It will depend upon the county," said she; "and Mrs. Venables is not
the county pure and simple, she's half Northborough still, and she'll
take her cue from the Invernesses and the Uniackes. But I do believe
she's been round the whole country-side, getting people to say they
won't call; as if it mattered to a man like Mr. Steel, or any woman he
is likely to have chosen. Still, it is mysterious, isn't it? But what
business of ours, as you say? Only, dear, you needn't have said it quite
so pointedly. Of course I'll call as soon as I can in decency; she may
let me be of use to her. Oh, bother Mrs. Venables! If she doesn't call,
no doubt many others won't; you must remember that he has never
entertained as yet. Oh, what a dance they could give! And did you hear
what she said about his age? He is sixty-five, now!"
The vicar laughed. It was his habit to let his young wife rattle on when
they were alone, and even lay down the law for him to her heart's
content; but, though fifteen years her senior, and never a vivacious
man himself, there was much in their life that he saw in the same light
as she did, though never quite so soon.
"Sixty-five!" he suddenly repeated, with a fresh chuckle; "and last
year, when Sybil was thought to be in the running--poor Sybil, how well
she took it!--last year her mother told me she knew for a fact he was
not a day more than five-and-forty! Poor Steel, too! He has done for
them both in that quarter, I am afraid. And now," added Hugh, in his
matter-of-fact way, as though they had been discussing theology all this
time, "I must go back to my sermon if I am to get it done to-night."
A SLIGHT DISCREPANCY
Mrs. Woodgate paid the promised call a few days later, walking briskly
by herself along the woodland path that made it no distance from Marley
Vicarage to Normanthorpe House, and cutting a very attractive figure
among the shimmering lights and shadows of the trees. She was rather
tall, and very straight, with the pale brown skin and the dark brown
eye, which, more especially when associated with hair as light as Morna
Woodgate's, go to make up one of the most charming and distinctive types
of English womanhood. Morna, moreover, took a healthy interest in her
own appearance, and had not only the good taste to dress well, but the
good sense not to dress too well. Her new coat and skirt had just come
home, and, fawn-colored like herself, they fitted and suited her to
equal perfection. Morna thought that she might even go to church in the
coat and skirt, now and again during the summer, and she had a brown
straw hat with fine feathers of the lighter shade which she made
peculiarly her own; but this she had discarded as too grand for an
informal call, for Hugh had been summoned to a sick-bed at the last
moment, and might be detained too late to follow. But the Steels had
been back two days, and Morna could not wait another hour.
She was certainly consumed with curiosity; but that was not the only
feeling which Mrs. Woodgate entertained towards the lady who was to be a
nearer neighbor of her own sex and class than any she could count as
yet. On the class question Morna had no misgivings; nevertheless, she
was prepared for a surprise. Both she and her husband had seen a good
deal of Mr. Steel. Morna had perhaps seen the best of him, since she was
at once young and charming, and not even an unwilling and personally
innocent candidate for his hand, like honest Sybil Venables. Yet Morna
herself was not more attracted than repelled by the inscrutable
personality of this rich man dropped from the clouds, who had never a
word to say about his former life, never an anecdote to tell, never an
adventure to record, and of whom even Mrs. Venables had not the courage
to ask questions. What sort of woman would such a man marry, and what
sort of woman would marry such a man? Morna asked herself the one
question after the other, almost as often as she set her right foot in
front of her left; but she was not merely inquisitive in the matter, she
had a secret and instinctive compassion for the woman who had done this
"She will not have a soul to call her own, poor thing!" thought Morna,
as indignantly as though the imaginary evil was one of the worst that
could befall; for the vicar's wife had her little weaknesses, not by any
means regarded as such by herself; and this was one of the last things
that could have been said about her, or that she would have cared to
The woodland path led at last into the long avenue, and there was
Normanthorpe House at the end of the vista; an Italian palace
transplanted into the north of England, radiantly white between the
green trees and blue sky, with golden cupola burning in the sun; perhaps
the best specimen extant to mark a passing fashion in Georgian
architecture, but as ill-suited to the Delverton district as an
umbrella-tent to the North Pole. A cool grotto on a really hot day, the
house was an ice-pit on any other; or so Mrs. Woodgate fancied, fresh
from the cosey Vicarage, and warm from her rapid walk, as she stepped
into another temperature, across polished marble that struck a chill
through the soles of her natty brown shoes, and so into the lofty
drawing-room with pilasters and elaborate architraves to the doors. What
a place for a sane man to build in bleak old Delverton, even before
there was any Northborough to blacken and foul the north-east wind on
its way from the sea! What a place for a sane man to buy; and yet, in
its cool white smoothness, its glaring individuality, its alien air--how
like the buyer!
Though it was May, and warm enough for the month and place, Morna got up
when the footman had left her, and thrust one brown shoe after the other
as near as she could to the wood fire that glimmered underneath the
great, ornate, marble mantelpiece. Then she sat down again, and wondered
what to say; for Morna was at once above and below the conversational
average of her kind. Soon she was framing a self-conscious apology for
premature intrusion--Mrs. Steel was so long in coming. But at last there
was a rustle in the conservatory, and a slender figure in a big hat
stood for an instant on the threshold.
That was Morna's first impression of the new mistress of Normanthorpe,
and it was never erased from her mind; a slender silhouette in an
enormous hat, the light all behind her, the pilastered doorway for a
frame, a gay background of hothouse flowers, and in the figure itself a
nervous hesitancy which struck an immediate chord of sympathy in Morna.
She also was shy; the touch of imperfect nature was mutually discernible
and discerned; and the two were kin from the meeting of their hands.
Morna began her apology, nevertheless; but Rachel cut it very short. "My
dear Mrs. Woodgate, I think it is so kind of you!" she exclaimed, her
low voice full of the frankest gratitude; and Morna was surprised at the
time; it was as though she were the rich man's wife, and Mrs. Steel the
They sat a little, talking of the time of year; and it was some minutes
before Morna really saw her new neighbor's face, what with her great hat
and the position of the chair which Mrs. Steel selected. And for these
few minutes, after that first frank speech, the greater constraint was
on the part of the hostess; then all at once she seemed to throw it off,
rising impulsively, as though the great high room, with the Italian
tiles and the garish gilt furniture, struck the same chill to her as to
Morna before her.
"Come round the garden," said Rachel, quickly. "I am delighted with the
garden, and I think it's really warmer than the house."
Delightful it certainly was, or rather they, for the Normanthorpe
gardens were never spoken of in the singular number by those familiar
with their fame; they had been reconstructed and enlarged by a dead duke
with a fad for botany, and kept up by successors who could not endure
the cold, uncomfortable house. It was said to have been a similar taste
in Mr. Steel which had first attracted him to the place; but as he never
confirmed or contradicted anything that was said of him, and would only
smile when a rumor reached his ears, there was no real foundation for
The ducal botanist had left behind him the rarest collection of plants
and trees, and a tradition in scientific gardening which had not been
allowed to die; it was neglected Normanthorpe that had loaded the tables
and replenished the greenhouses of seats more favored by the family; and
all this was the more wonderful as a triumph of art over some natural
disadvantages in the way of soil and climate. The Normanthorpe roses,
famous throughout the north of England, were as yet barely budding in
the kindless wind; the blaze of early bulbs was over; but there were the
curious alien trees, and the ornamental waters haunted by outlandish
wildfowl, bred there on the same principle of acclimatization.
"I expect you know the way quite well," said Rachel, as they followed a
winding path over a bank of rhododendrons near the lake; "to me every
stroll is still a voyage of exploration, and I shall be rather sorry
when I begin to know exactly what I am going to see next. Now, I have
never been this way before, and have no idea what is coming, so you must
tell me, if you know. What a funny scent! I seem to know it, too. Why,
what have they got here?"
On the further side of the bank of rhododendrons the path had descended
into a sheltered hollow, screened altogether from the colder winds, and,
even in this temperate month of May, a very trap for the afternoon sun.
And in this hollow was a clump of attenuated trees, with drooping leaves
of a lacklustre hue, and a white bark peeling from the trunk; a pungent
aroma, more medicinal than sylvan, hung rather heavily over the
Rachel stood a moment with wide nostrils and round eyes; the look hardly
lasted longer, and she said no more, but she was aware that Morna had
made some answer to her question.
"What did you say?" inquired Rachel, turning politely to her visitor.
"I said they were blue gums from Australia."
Rachel made no immediate comment; secretive she might have to be, but
to a deliberate pretence she would not stoop. So she did not even say,
"Indeed!" but merely, after a pause, "You are something of a botanist
yourself, then, Mrs. Woodgate?" For they had been talking of the gardens
and of their history as they walked.
"I?" laughed Morna. "I only wish I was; but I happen to remember Mr.
Steel telling me that one day when we were here last summer."
Rachel opened her eyes again, and her lips with them; but instead of
speaking she went to the nearest gum-tree and picked a spray of the
lacklustre leaves. "I like the smell of them," she said, as they went
on; and the little incident left no impression upon Morna's mind.
Yet presently she perceived that Mrs. Steel had some color after all--at
the moment Rachel happened to be smelling her gum-leaves--and that she
was altogether prettier than Morna had fancied hitherto. The fact was
that it was her first good look at Rachel, who had kept her back to the
light indoors, and had literally led the way along the narrow paths,
while her large hat had supplied a perpetual shadow of its own. It was a
pathetic habit, which had become second nature with Rachel during the
last six months; but now, for once, it was forgotten, and her face
raised unguardedly to the sun, which painted it in its true and sweet
colors, to Morna's surprise and real delight. The vicar's wife was one
of those healthy-hearted young women who are the first to admire their
own sex; she had very many friends among women, for whom marriage had
not damped an enthusiasm which she hid from no one but themselves; and
she was to be sufficiently enthusiastic about the thin but perfect oval
of Rachel's face, the soft, sweet hazel of her eyes, the impetuous upper
lip and the brave lower one, as she saw them now for an instant in the
Moreover, she was already interested in Rachel on her own account, and
not only as the wife of the mysterious Mr. Steel. There was an undoubted
air of mystery about her also; but that might only be derived from him,
and with all her reserve she could not conceal a sweet and sympathetic
self from one as like her in that essential as they were different in
all others. Not that the reserve was all on one side. Morna Woodgate had
her own secrets too. One of them, however, was extracted during their
"May I make a personal remark?" asked Rachel, who had been admiring the
pale brown face of Morna in her turn, as they came slowly back to the
house across the lawns.
"You frighten me," said Morna, laughing. "But let me hear the worst."
"It's the ribbon on your hat," went on Rachel. "What pretty colors! Are
they your husband's school or college?"
"No," said Morna, blushing as she laughed again. "No, they're my own
Rachel stood still on the grass.
"Have you really been at college?" said she; but her tone was so
obviously one of envy that Morna, who was delightfully sensitive about
her learning, did not even think of the short answer which she sometimes
returned to the astonished queries of the intellectually vulgar, but
admitted the impeachment with another laugh.
"Now, don't say you wouldn't have thought it of me," she added, "and
don't say you would!"
"I am far too jealous to say anything at all," Rachel answered with a
flattering stare. "And do you mean to tell me that you took a degree?"
"Of sorts," admitted Morna, whose spoken English was by no means
undefiled. But it turned out to have been a mathematical degree; and
when, under sympathetic pressure, Morna vouchsafed particulars, even
Rachel knew enough to appreciate the honors which the vicar's wife had
won. What was more difficult to understand was how so young a woman of
such distinguished attainments could be content to hide her light under
the bushel of a country vicarage; and Rachel could not resist some
expression of her wonderment on that point.
"Did you do nothing with it all," she asked, "before you married?"
"No," said Morna; "you see, I got engaged in the middle of it, and the
week after the lists came out we were married."
"What a career to have given up!"
"I would give it up again," said Morna, with a warmer blush; and Rachel
was left with a deeper envy.
"I am afraid we shall have nothing in common," sighed Mrs. Steel, as
they neared the house. "I have no education worthy the name."
Morna waxed all but indignant at the implication; she had a morbid
horror of being considered a "blue-stocking," which she revealed with
much girlish naivete and unconscious simplicity of sentiment and praise.
She was not so narrow as all that; she had had enough of learning; she
had forgotten all that she had learnt; any dolt could be crammed to pass
examinations. On the contrary, she was quite sure they would have heaps
in common; for example, she was longing for some one to bicycle with;
her husband seldom had the time, and he did not care for her to go quite
alone in the country roads.
"But I don't bicycle," said Mrs. Steel, shaking her head rather sadly.
"Ah, I forgot! People who ride and drive never do." And it was Morna's
turn to sigh.
"No, I should like it; but I have never tried."
"I'll teach you!" cried Morna at once. "What fun it will be!"
"I should enjoy it, I know. But--"
The sentence was abandoned--as was often the case in the subsequent
intercourse between Rachel Steel and Morna Woodgate. From the beginning,
Rachel was apt to be more off her guard with Morna than with any one
whom she had met during the last six months; and, from the beginning,
she was continually remembering and stopping herself in a manner that
would have irritated Morna in anybody else. But then--yet again, from
the beginning--these two were natural and immediate friends.
"You must learn," urged Morna, when she had waited some time for the
sentence which had but begun. "There are people who scorn it--or
pretend to--but I am sure you are not one. It may not be the finest
form of exercise, but wait till you fly down these hills with your feet
on the rests! And then you are so independent; no horses to consider, no
coachman to consult; only your own bones and your own self! The
"May be the very thing for you, Mrs. Woodgate, but it wouldn't do for my
Mr. Steel had stolen a silent march upon them, on the soft, smooth
grass; and now he was taking off his straw hat to Morna, and smiling
with all urbanity as he held out his hand. But Morna had seen how his
wife started at the sound of his voice, and her greeting was a little
"I meant the bicycling," he was quick enough to add; "not the
independence, of course!"
But there was something sinister in his smile, something quite sinister
and yet not unkindly, that vexed and puzzled Morna during the remainder
of her visit, which she cut somewhat short on perceiving that Mr. Steel
had apparently no intention of leaving them to their own devices after
tea. Morna, however, would have been still more puzzled, and her spirit
not less vexed, had she heard the first words between the newly married
couple after she had gone.
"What's that you have got?" asked Steel, as they turned back up the
drive, after seeing Morna to her woodland path. Rachel was still
carrying her spray of gum-leaves; he must have noticed it before, but
this was the first sign that he had done so. She said at once what it
was, and why she had pulled it from the tree.
"It took me back to Victoria; and, you know, I was born there."
Steel looked narrowly at his wife, a hard gleam in his inscrutable eyes,
and yet a lurking sympathy too, nor was there anything but the latter in
the tone and tenor of his reply.
"I don't forget," he said, "and I think I can understand; but neither
must you forget that I offered to take you back there. So that's a sprig
of gum-tree, is it?"
Rachel gave him a sudden glance, which for once he missed, being
absorbed in a curious examination of the leaves.
"Did you never see one before?" she asked.
"A gum-tree?" said Steel, without looking up, as he sniffed and
scrutinized. "Never in all my life--to my knowledge!"
ANOTHER NEW FRIEND
The country folk did call upon the Steels, as indeed, they could
scarcely fail to do, having called on him already as a bachelor the year
before. Nor were the Uniackes and the Invernesses the bell-wethers of
the flock. Those august families had returned to London for the season;
but the taboo half-suggested by Mrs. Venables had begun and ended in her
own mind. Indeed, that potent and diplomatic dame, who was the undoubted
leader of society within a four-mile radius of Northborough town hall,
was the first to recognize the mistake that she had made, and to behave
as though she had never made it. Quite early in June, the Steels were
bidden to a dinner-party in their honor at Upthorpe Hall.
"Mrs. Venables!" cried Rachel, in dismay. "Is that the gushing woman
with the quiet daughters who called last Thursday?"
"That is the lady," said Steel, a gleam of humor in his grim eyes. He
never expressed an opinion to his wife about any one of their
neighbors, but when she let fall an impression of her own, he would
look at her in this way, as though it was the very one that he had
formed for himself a year ago.
"But need we go?" asked Rachel, with open apprehension.
"I think so," he said. "Why not?"
"A dinner-party, of all things! There is no cover at the dinner-table;
you can't even wear a hat; you must sit there in a glare for hours and
hours!" And Rachel shuddered. "Oh, don't let us go!" she urged; but her
tone was neither pathetic nor despairing; though free from the faintest
accent of affection, it was, nevertheless, the tone of a woman who has
not always been denied.
"I am afraid we must go," he said firmly, but not unkindly. "You see, it
is in our honor--as I happen to know; for Venables gave me a hint when I
met him in the town the other day. He will take you in himself."
"And what is he like?"
"Fond of his dinner; he won't worry you," said Steel, reassuringly. "Nor
need you really bother your head about all that any more. Nobody has
recognized you yet; nobody is in the least likely to do so down here.
Don't you see how delightfully provincial they are? There's a local
lawyer, a pillar of all the virtues, who has misappropriated his own
daughter-in-law's marriage portion and fled the country with the
principal boy in their last pantomime; there are a lot of smart young
fellows who are making a sporting thousand every other day out of iron
warrants; the district's looking up after thirty years' bad times; and
this is the sort of thing it's talking about. These are its heroes and
its villains. All you hear from London is what the last man spent when
he was up, and where he dined; and from all I can gather, the Tichborne
trial made less impression down here than that of a Delverton parson who
got into trouble about the same time."
"They must have heard of my trial," said Rachel, in a low voice. They
were walking in the grounds after breakfast, but she looked round before
speaking at all.
"They would glance at it," said Steel, with a shrug; "an occasional
schoolboy might read it through; but even if you were guilty, and were
here on view, you would command much less attention than the local
malefactor in an infinitely smaller way. I am sorry I put it quite like
that," added Steel, as Rachel winced, "but I feel convinced about it,
and only wish I could convince you."
And he did so, more or less; but the fear of recognition had increased
in Rachel, instead of abating, as time went on. It had increased
especially since the rapid ripening of her acquaintance with Morna
Woodgate into the intimacy which already subsisted between the two young
wives. Rachel had told her husband that she would not have Morna know
for anything; and he had appeared in his own dark way to sympathize with
a solicitude which was more actual than necessary; but that was perhaps
because he approved of Mrs. Woodgate on his own account. And so rare was
that approval, as a positive and known quantity, yet so marked in this
case, that he usually contrived to share Morna's society with his wife.
"You shall not monopolize Mrs. Woodgate," he would say with all urbanity
as he joined them when least expected. "I was first in the field, you
And in the field he would remain. There were no commands, no wishes to
obey in the matter, no embargo upon the comings and goings between the
two new friends. But Mr. Steel invariably appeared upon the scene as
well. The good vicar attributed it to the elderly bridegroom's jealous
infatuation for his beautiful young bride; but Morna knew better from
"Are you going?" asked Rachel, eagerly, when she and Morna met again;
indeed, she had gone expressly to the Vicarage to ask the question; and
not until she had seen the Woodgates' invitation could Steel himself
induce her to answer theirs.
The Woodgates were going. Morna was already in alternate fits of despair
and of ideas about her dress.
"I wish I might dress you!" said Rachel, knowing her well enough already
to say that. "I have wardrobes full of them, and yet my husband insists
upon taking me up to London to get something fit to wear!"
"But not necessarily on your back!" cried Steel himself, appearing at
that moment in his usual way, warm, breathless, but only playfully put
out. "My dear Mrs. Woodgate, I must have a special wire between your
house and ours. One thing, however, I always know where to find her! Did
she tell you we go by the 12:55 from Northborough?"
It was something to wear upon her neck--a diamond necklet of superb
stones, gradually swelling to one of the first water at the throat; and
Rachel duly wore it at the dinner-party, with a rich gown of bridal
white, whose dazzling purity had perhaps the effect of cancelling the
bride's own pallor. But she was very pale. It was her first appearance
at a gathering of the kind, not only there in Delverton, but anywhere
at all since her second marriage. And the invitation had been of the
correct, most ample length; it had had time to wind itself about
Mr. Venables, who of course did take her in, by no means belied her
husband's description of him; he was a rotund man with a high
complexion, and his bulging eye was on the menu before his soft body had
sunk into his chair. His conversation proved limited, but strictly to
the point; he told Rachel what to eat, and once or twice what to avoid;
lavished impersonal praise upon one dish, impartial criticisms upon
another, and only spoke between the courses. It was a large
dinner-party; twenty-two sat down. Rachel was at last driven to glancing
at the other twenty.
To the man on her left she had not been introduced, but he had offered
one or two civil observations while Mr. Venables was better engaged;
and, after the second, Rachel had chanced to catch sight of the card
upon which his name had been inscribed. He was, it seemed, a Mr.
Langholm; and all at once Rachel leant back and looked at him. He was a
loose-limbed, round-shouldered man, with a fine open countenance, and a
great disorderly moustache; his hair might have been shorter, and his
dress-coat shone where it caught the light. Rachel put the screw upon
"These cards," she said, with a glimpse of her own colonial self, "are
very handy when one hasn't been introduced. Your name is not very
common, is it?"
"Not very," he answered, "spelt like that."
"Yes it's spelt the same way as the Mr. Langholm who writes."
"Then are you any relation?"
"I am the man himself," said Langholm, with quite a hearty laugh,
accompanied by a flush of pleasurable embarrassment. He was not a
particularly popular writer, and this did not happen to him every day.
"I hoped you were," said Rachel, as she helped herself to the first
"Then you haven't read my books," he chuckled, "and you never must."
"But I have," protested Rachel, quite flushed in her turn by the small
excitement. "I read heaps of them in Tauchnitz when we were abroad. But
I had no idea that I should ever meet you in the flesh!"
"Really?" he said. "Then that's funnier still; but I suppose Mr. Steel
didn't want to frighten you. We saw quite a lot of each other last year;
he wrote to me from Florence before you came over; and I should have
paid my respects long ago, but I have been up in town, and only just
The flush had died out of Rachel's face. Her husband told her
nothing--nothing! In her indignation she was tempted to say so to the
stranger; she had to think a moment what to say instead. A falsehood of
any sort was always a peculiar difficulty to Rachel, a constitutional
aversion, and it cost her an effort to remark at last that it was very
stupid of her, she had quite forgotten, but now she remembered--of
course! And with that she turned to her host, who was offering an
observation across his empty plate.
"Strange thing, Mrs. Steel, but you can't get the meat in the country
that you can in town. Those fillets, now--I wish you could taste 'em at
my club; but we give our chef a thousand a year, and he drives up every
day in his brougham."
The novels of Charles Langholm were chiefly remarkable for their
intricate plots, and for the hope of better things that breathed through
the cheap sensation of the best of them. But it was a hope that had been
deferred a good many years. His manner was better than his matter;
indeed, an incongruous polish was said by the literary to prevent
Langholm from being a first favorite either with the great public or the
little critics. As a maker of plots, however, he still had humble
points; and Rachel assured him that she had burnt her candle all night
in order to solve one of his ingenious mysteries.
"What!" he cried; "you call yourself a lady, and you don't look at the
end before you reach it?"
"Not when it's a good book."
"Well, you have pitched on about the best of a bad lot; and it's a
satisfaction to know you didn't cut the knot it took some months to
Rachel was greatly interested. She had never before met a literary man;
had no idea how the trick was done; and she asked many of those
ingenuous questions which seldom really displease the average gentleman
of this type. When not expatiating upon the heroine whom the exigencies
of "serial rights" demanded in his books, Charles Langholm, the talker
and the man, was an unmuzzled misogynist. But nobody would have
suspected it from his answers to Rachel's questions, or from any portion
of their animated conversation. Certainly the aquiline lady whom
Langholm had taken in, and to whom he was only attentive by remorseful
fits and penitential starts, had not that satisfaction; for her
right-hand neighbor did not speak to her at all. There was thus one
close and critical follower of a conversation which without warning took
the one dramatic turn for which Rachel was forever on her guard; only
this once, in an hour of unexpected entertainment, was she not.
"How do I get my plots?" said Langholm. "Sometimes out of my head, as
they say in the nursery; occasionally from real life; more often a blend
of the two combined. You don't often get a present from the newspaper
that you can lift into a magazine more or less as it stands. Facts are
stubborn things; they won't serialize. But now and then there's a case.
There was one a little time ago. Oh, there was a great case not long
since, if we had but the man to handle it, without spoiling it, in
"And what was that?"
"The Minchin case!"
And he looked straight at her, as one only looks at one's neighbor at
table when one is saying or hearing something out of the common; he
turned half round, and he looked in Rachel's face with the smile of an
artist with a masterpiece in his eye. It was an inevitable moment, come
at last when least expected; instinct, however, had prepared Rachel,
just one moment before; and after all she could stare coldly on his
enthusiasm, without a start or a tremor to betray the pose.
"Yes?" she said, her fine eyebrows raised a little. "And do you really
think that would make a book?"
It was characteristic of Rachel that she did not for a moment--even that
unlooked-for moment--pretend to be unfamiliar with the case.
"Don't you?" he asked.
"I haven't thought about it," said Rachel, looking pensively at the
flowers. "But surely it was a very sordid case?"
"The case!" he cried. "Yes, sordid as you like; but I don't mean the
case at all."
"Then what do you mean, Mr. Langholm?"
"Her after life," he whispered; "the psychology of that woman, and her
subsequent adventures! She disappeared into thin air immediately after
the trial. I suppose you knew that?"
"I did hear it."
Rachel moistened her lips with champagne.
"Well, I should take her from that moment," said Langholm. "I should
start her story there."
"And should you make her guilty or not guilty?"
"Ah!" said Langholm, as though that would require consideration;
unluckily, he paused to consider on the spot.
"Who are you talking about?" inquired Mr. Venables, who had caught
Rachel's last words.
"Mrs. Minchin," she told him steadily.
"Guilty!" cried Mr. Venables, with great energy. "Guilty, and I'd have
gone to see her hanged myself!"
And Mr. Venables beamed upon Rachel as though proud of the sentiment,
while the diamonds rose and fell upon her white neck, where he would
have had the rope.
"A greater scandal," he went on, both to Rachel and to the lady on his
other side (who interrupted Mr. Venables to express devout agreement),
"a greater scandal and miscarriage of justice I have never known.
Guilty? Of course she was guilty; and I only wish we could try her again
and hang her yet! Now don't pretend you sympathize with a woman like
that," he said to Rachel, with a look like a nudge; "you haven't been
married long enough; and for Heaven's sake don't refuse that bird! It's
the best that can be got this time of year, though that's not saying
much; but wait till the grouse season, Mrs. Steel! I have a moor here in
the dales, keep a cellar full of them, and eat 'em as they drop off the
"Well?" said Rachel, turning to Langholm when her host became a busy
man once more.
"I should make her guilty," said the novelist; "and she would marry a
man who believed in her innocence, and he wouldn't care two pins when
she told him the truth in the last chapter, and they would live happily
ever afterwards. Nobody would touch the serial rights. But that would be
"Then do you think she really was guilty?"
And Rachel waited while he shrugged, her heart beating for no good
reason that she knew, except that she rather liked Mr. Langholm, and did
not wish to cease liking him on the spot. But it was to him that the
answer was big with fate; and he trifled and dallied with the issue of
the moment, little dreaming what a mark it was to leave upon his life,
while the paradox beloved of the literary took shape on his tongue.
"What does it matter what she was? What do the facts matter, Mrs. Steel,
when one has an idea like that for fiction? Fiction is truer than fact!"
"But you haven't answered my question."
Rachel meant to have that answer.
"Oh, well, as a matter of fact, I read the case pretty closely, and I
was thankful the jury brought in an acquittal. It required a little
imagination, but the truth always does. It is no treason to our host to
whisper that he has none. I remember having quite a heated argument with
him at the time. Oh, dear, no; she was no more guilty than you or I; but
it would be a thousand times more artistic if she were; and I should
make her so, by Jove!"
Rachel finished heir dinner in great tranquillity after this; but there
was a flush upon her face which had not been there before, and Langholm
received an astonishing smile when the ladies rose. He had been making
tardy atonement for his neglect of the aquiline lady, but Rachel had the
last word with him.
"You will come and see us, won't you?" she said. "I shall want to hear
how the plot works out."
"I am afraid it's one I can't afford to use," he said, "unless I stick
to foolish fact and make her innocent."
And she left him with a wry face, her own glowing again.
"You looked simply great--especially towards the end," whispered Morna
Woodgate in the drawing-room, for she alone knew how nervous Rachel had
been about what was indeed her social debut in Delverton.
The aquiline lady also had a word to say. Her eyes were like brown
beads, and her nose very long, which gave her indeed a hawk-like
appearance, somewhat unusual in a woman; but her gravity was rather that
of the owl.
"You talked a great deal to Mr. Langholm," said she, sounding her rebuke
rather cleverly in the key of mere statement of fact. "Have you read his
books, Mrs. Steel?"
"Some of them," said Rachel; "haven't you?"
"Oh, no, I never read novels, unless it be George Eliot, or in these
days Mrs. Humphrey Ward. It's such waste of time when there are
Browning, Ruskin, and Carlyle to read and read again. I know I shouldn't
like Mr. Langholm's; I am sure they are dreadfully uncultured and
"But I like sensation," Rachel said. "I like to be taken out of myself."
"So you suggested he should write a novel about Mrs. Minchin!"
"No, I didn't suggest it," said Rachel, hurriedly; but the beady brown
eyes were upon her, and she felt herself reddening horribly as she
"You seemed to know all about her," said the aquiline lady. "I'm not in
the habit of reading such cases. But I must really look this one up."
EPISODE OF THE INVISIBLE VISITOR
That was something like a summer, as the saying is, and for once they
could say it even on the bleak northern spurs of the Delverton Hills.
There were days upon days when that minor chain looked blue and noble as
the mountains of Alsace and hackneyed song, seen with an envious eye
from the grimy outskirts of Northborough, and when from the hills
themselves the only blot upon the fair English landscape was the pall of
smoke that always overhung the town. On such days Normanthorpe House
justified its existence in the north of England instead of in southern
Italy; the marble hall, so chill to the tread at the end of May, was the
one really cool spot in the district by the beginning of July; and
nowhere could a more delightful afternoon be spent by those who cared to
avail themselves of a general invitation.
The Steels had not as yet committed themselves to formal hospitality of
the somewhat showy character that obtained in the neighborhood, but they
kept open house for all who liked to come, and whom they themselves
liked well enough to ask in the first instance. And here (as in some
other matters) this curious pair discovered a reflex identity of taste,
rare enough in the happiest of conventional couples, but a gratuitous
irony in the makers of a merely nominal marriage. Their mutual feelings
towards each other were a quantity unknown to either; but about a third
person they were equally outspoken and unanimous. Thus they had fewer
disagreements than many a loving couple, and perhaps more points of
insignificant contact, while all the time there was not even the
pretence of love between them. Their lives made a chasm bridged by
This was not seen by more than two of their acquaintance. Morna Woodgate
had both the observation and the opportunities to see a little how the
land lay between them. Charles Langholm had the experience and the
imagination to guess a good deal. But it was little enough that Morna
saw, and Langholm's guesses were as wide of the mark as only the guesses
of an imaginative man can be. As for all the rest--honest Hugh Woodgate,
the Venables girls, and their friends the young men in the various
works, who saw the old-fashioned courtesy with which Steel always
treated his wife, and the grace and charm of her consideration for
him--they were every one receiving a liberal object lesson in matrimony,
as some of them even realized at the time.
"I wish I could learn to treat my wife as Steel does his," sighed the
good vicar, once when he had been inattentive at the table, and Morna
had rebuked him in fun. "That would be my ideal--if I wasn't too old to
"Then thank goodness you are," rejoined his wife. "Let me catch you
dancing in front of me to open the doors, Hugh, and I shall keep my eye
on you as I've never kept it yet!"
But Rachel herself did not dislike these little graces, partly because
they were not put on to impress an audience, but were an incident of
their private life as well; and partly because they stimulated a study
to which she had only given herself since their return to England and
their establishment at Normanthorpe House. This was her study of the man
who was still calmly studying her; she was returning the compliment at
And of his character she formed by degrees some remote conception; he
was Steel by name and steel by nature, as the least observant might
discern, and the least witty remark; a grim inscrutability was his
dominant note; he was darkly alert, mysteriously vigilant, a measurer
of words, a governor of glances; and yet, with all his self-mastery and
mastery of others, there were human traits that showed themselves from
time to time as the months wore on. Rachel did not recognize among these
that studious consideration which she could still appreciate; it seemed
rather part of a preconceived method of treating his wife, and the wary
eye gleamed through it all. But it has been mentioned that Rachel at one
time had a voice, of which high hopes had been formed by inexperienced
judges. It was only at Normanthorpe that her second husband became aware
of her possession, one afternoon when she fancied that she had the house
to herself. So two could play at the game of consistent concealment! He
could not complain; it was in the bond, and he never said a word. But he
stood outside the window till she was done, for Rachel saw him in a
mirror, and for many an afternoon to come he would hover outside the
same window at the same time.
Why had he married her? Did he care for her, or did he not? What could
be the object of that extraordinary step? Rachel was as far from hitting
upon a feasible solution of these mysteries as she was from penetrating
the deeper one of his own past life. Sometimes she put the like
questions to herself; but they were more easily answered. She had been
in desperate straits, in reckless despair; even if her second marriage
had turned out no better than her first, she could not have been worse
off than she was on the night of her acquittal; but she had been very
well off ever since. Then there had been the incentive of adventure, the
fascination of that very mystery which was a mystery still. And
then--yes!--there had been the compelling will of a nature infinitely
stronger than her own or any other that she had ever known.
Did she regret this second marriage, this second leap in the dark? No,
she could not honestly pretend that she did; yet it had its sufficiently
sinister side, its occasional admixture of sheer horror. But this was
only when the mysteries which encompassed her happened to prey upon
nerves unstrung by some outwardly exciting cause; it was then she would
have given back all that he had ever given her to pierce the veil of her
husband's past. Here, however, the impulse was more subtle; it was not
the mere consuming curiosity which one in Rachel's position was bound to
feel; it was rather a longing to be convinced that that veil hid nothing
which should make her shudder to live under the same roof with this man.
Of one thing she was quite confident; wherever her husband had spent or
misspent his life (if any part of so successful a whole could really
have been misspent), it was not in England. He was un-English in a
hundred superficial ways--in none that cut deep. With all his essential
cynicism, there was the breadth and tolerance of a travelled man.
Cosmopolitan on the other hand, he could not be called; he had proved
himself too poor a linguist in every country that they had visited. It
was only now, in their home life, that Rachel received hints of the
truth, and it filled her with vague alarms, for that seemed to her to be
the last thing he need have kept to himself.
One day she saw him ride a fractious horse, not because he was fond of
riding, but because nobody in the stables could cope with this animal.
Steel tamed it in ten minutes. But a groom remarked upon the shortness
of his stirrups, in Rachel's hearing, and on the word a flash of memory
lit up her brain. All at once she remembered the incident of the
gum-leaves, soon after their arrival; he had told Morna what they were,
yet to his wife he had pretended not to know. If he also was an
Australian, why on earth should that fact, of all facts, be concealed
from her? Nor had it merely been concealed; it was a point upon which
Rachel had been deliberately misled, and the only one she could recall.
She was still brooding over it when a fresh incident occurred, which
served not only to confirm her suspicions in this regard, but to deepen
and intensify the vague horror with which her husband's presence
sometimes inspired her.
Mr. Steel was an exceptionally early riser. It was his boast that he
never went to sleep a second time; and one of his nearest approaches to
a confidence was the remark that he owed something to that habit. Now
Rachel, who was a bad sleeper, kept quite a different set of hours, and
was seldom seen outside her own rooms before the forenoon. One
magnificent morning, however, she was tempted to dress and make the best
of the day which she had watched breaking shade by shade. The lawns were
gray with dew; the birds were singing as they never sing twice in one
summer's day. Rachel thought that for once she would like to be up and
out before the sun was overpowering. And she proceeded to fulfil her
All had been familiar from the window; all was unfamiliar on the landing
and the stairs. No one had been down; the blinds were all drawn; a clock
ticked like a sledge-hammer in the hall. Rachel ran downstairs like a
mouse, and almost into the arms of her husband, whom she met coming out
of the dining-room with a loaded tray. Another would have dropped it;
with Steel there was not so much as a rattle of the things, but his
color changed, and Rachel had not yet had such a look as he gave her
with his pursed mouth and his flashing eyes.
"What does this mean?" he demanded, in the tone of distant thunder, with
little less than lightning in his glance.
"I think that's for me to ask," laughed Rachel, standing up to him with
a nerve that surprised herself. "I didn't know that you began so early!"
A decanter and a glass were among the things upon the tray.
"And I didn't know it of you," he retorted. "Why are you up?"
Rachel told him the simple truth in simple fashion. His tone of voice
did not hurt her; there was no opposite extreme of tenderness to call to
mind for the contrast which inflicts the wound. On the other hand, there
was a certain satisfaction in having for once ruffled that smooth mien
and smoother tongue; it was one of her rare glimpses of the real man,
but as usual it was a glimpse and nothing more.
"I must apologize," said Steel, with an artificiality which was seldom
so transparent; "my only excuse is that you startled me out of my temper
and my manners. And I was upset to begin with. I have a poor fellow in
rather a bad way in the boathouse."
"Not one of the gardeners, I hope?" queried Rachel; but her kind anxiety
subsided in a moment, for his dark eyes were measuring her, his dark
mind meditating a lie; and now she knew him well enough to read him thus
far in his turn.
"No," replied Steel, deciding visibly against the lie; "no, not one of
our men, or anybody else belonging to these parts; but some unlucky
tramp, whom I imagine some of our neighbors would have given into
custody forthwith. I found him asleep on the lawn; of course he had no
business upon the premises; but he's so far gone that I'm taking him
something to pull him together before I turn him off."
"I should have said," remarked Rachel, thoughtfully, "that tea or coffee
would have been better for him than spirits."
Steel smiled indulgently across the tray.
"Most ladies would say the same," he replied, "but very few men."
"And why didn't you bring him into the house," pursued Rachel, looking
her husband very candidly in the face, "instead of taking him all that
way to the lake, and giving yourself so much more trouble than was
The smile broadened upon Steel's thin lips, perhaps because it had
entirely vanished from his glittering eyes.
"That," said he, "is a question you would scarcely ask if you had seen
the poor creature for yourself. I don't intend you to see him; he is a
rather saddening spectacle, and one of a type for which one can do
absolutely nothing permanent. And now, if you are quite satisfied, I
shall proceed, with your permission, to get rid of him in my own way."
It was seldom indeed that Steel descended to a display of sarcasm at his
wife's expense, though few people who came much in contact with him
escaped an occasional flick from a tongue that could be as bitter as it
was habitually smooth. His last words were therefore as remarkable as
his first; both were exceptions to a rule; and though Rachel moved away
without replying, feeling that there was indeed no more to be said, she
could not but dwell upon the matter in her mind. Satisfied she certainly
was not; and yet there was so much mystery between them, so many
instinctive reservations upon either side, that very little circumstance
of the kind could not carry an ulterior significance, but many must be
due to mere force of habit.
Rachel hated the condition of mutual secretiveness upon which she had
married this man; it was antagonistic to her whole nature; she longed to
repudiate it, and to abolish all secrets between them. But there her
pride stepped in and closed her lips; and the intolerable thought that
she would value her husband's confidence more than he would value hers,
that she felt drawn to him despite every sinister attribute, would bring
humiliation and self-loathing in its train. It was the truth, however,
or, at all events, part of the truth.
Yet a more unfair arrangement Rachel had been unable to conceive, ever
since the fatally reckless moment in which she had acquiesced in this
one. The worst that could be known about her was known to her husband
before her marriage; she had nothing else to hide; all concealment of
the past, as between themselves, was upon his side. But matters were
coming to a crisis in this respect; and, when Rachel deemed it done
with, this incident of the tramp was only just begun.
It seemed that the servants knew of it, and that it was not Steel who
had originally discovered the sleeping intruder, but an under-gardener,
who, seeing his master also up and about, had prudently inquired what
was to be done with the man before meddling with him.
"And the master said, 'leave him to me,'" declared Rachel's maid, who
was her informant on the point, as she combed out her mistress's
beautiful brown hair, before the late breakfast which did away with
luncheon when there were no visitors at Normanthorpe.
"And did he do so?" inquired Rachel, looking with interest into her own
eyes in the glass. "Did he leave him to your master?"
"He did that!" replied her maid, a simple Yorkshire wench, whom Rachel
herself had chosen in preference to the smart town type. "Catch any on
'em not doin what master tells them!"
"Then did John see what happened?"
"No, m'm--because master sent him to see if the chap'd come in at t'
lodge gates, or where, and when he got back he was gone, blanket an'
all, an' master with him."
"Blanket and all!" repeated Rachel. "Do you mean to say he had the
impudence to bring a blanket with him?"
"And slept in it!" cried her excited little maid. "John says he found
him tucked up in a corner of the lawn, out of the wind, behind some o'
them shrubs, sound asleep, and lapped round and round in his blue
banket from head to heel."
Rachel saw her own face change in the glass; but she only asked one more
question, and that with a smile.
"Did John say it was a blue blanket, Harris, or did your own imagination
supply the color?"
"He said it, m'm; faded blue."
"And pray when did you see John to hear all this?" demanded Rachel,
suddenly remembering her responsibility as mistress of this young
daughter of the soil.
"Deary me, m'm," responded the ingenuous Harris, "I didn't see him, not
more than any of the others; he just comed to t' window of t' servants'
hall, as we were having our breakfasts, and he told us all at once. He
was that full of it, was John!"
Rachel asked no more questions; but she was not altogether sorry that
the matter had already become one of common gossip throughout the house.
Meanwhile she made no allusion to it at breakfast, but her observation
had been quickened by the events of the morning, and thus it was that
she noticed and recognized the narrow blue book which was too long for
her husband's breast-pocket, and would show itself as he stooped over
his coffee. It was his check-book, and Rachel had not seen it since
That afternoon a not infrequent visitor arrived on his bicycle, to which
was tied a bouquet of glorious roses instead of a lamp; this was Charles
Langholm, the novelist, who had come to live in Delverton, over two
hundred miles from his life-long haunts and the literary market-place,
chiefly because upon a happy-go-lucky tour through the district he had
chanced upon what he never tired of calling "the ideal rose-covered
cottage of my dreams," though also for other reasons unknown in
Yorkshire. His flat was abandoned before quarter-day, his effects
transplanted at considerable cost, and ever since Langholm had been a
bigoted countryman, who could not spend a couple of days in town without
making himself offensive on the subject at his club, where he was
nevertheless discreetly vague as to the exact locality of his rural
paradise. Even at the club, however, it was admitted that his work had
improved almost as much as his appearance; and he put it all down to the
roses in which he lived embowered for so many months of the year. Such
was their profusion that you could have filled a clothes-basket without
missing one, and Langholm never visited rich or poor without a little
offering out of his abundance.
"They may be coals to Newcastle," he would say to the Woodgates or the
Steels, "but none of your Tyneside collieries are a patch on mine."
Like most victims of the artistic temperament, the literary Langholm was
a creature of moods; but the very fact of a voluntary visit from him was
sufficient guarantee of the humor in which he came, and this afternoon
he was at his best. He had indeed been writing all day, and for many
days past, and was filled with the curious exhilaration which
accompanies an output too rapid and too continuous to permit a running
sense of the defects. He was a ship with a fair wind, which he valued
the more for the belts of calms and the adverse weather through which he
had passed and must inevitably pass again; for the moment he was a happy
man, though one with no illusion as to the present product of his
"It is nonsense," he said to Rachel, in answer to a question from that
new and sympathetic friend, "but it is not such nonsense as to seem
nothing else when one's in the act of perpetrating it, and what more can
one want? It had to be done by the tenth of August, and by Jove it will
be! A few weeks ago I didn't think it possible; but the summer has
thawed my ink."
"Are you sure it isn't Mrs. Steel?" asked one of the Venables girls,
who had also ridden over on their bicycles. "I heard you had a
tremendously literary conversation when you dined with us."
"We had, indeed!" said Langholm, with enthusiasm. "And Mrs. Steel gave
me one of the best ideas I ever had in my life; that's another reason
why I'm racing through this rubbish--to take it in hand."
It was Sybil to whom he was speaking, but at this point Rachel plunged
into the conversation with the sister, Vera, which required an effort,
since the elder Miss Venables was a young lady who had cultivated
languor as a sign of breeding and sophistication. Rachel, however, made
the effort with such a will that the talk became general in a moment.
"I don't know how anybody writes books," was the elder young lady's
solitary contribution; her tone added that she did not want to know.
"Nor I," echoed Sybil, "especially in a place like this, where nothing
ever happens. If I wanted to write a novel, I should go to Spain--or
Siberia--or the Rocky Mountains--where things do happen, according to
"Young lady," returned the novelist, a twinkle in his eye, "I had
exactly the same notion when I first began, and I remember what a much
older hand said to me when I told him I was going down to Cornwall for
romantic background. 'Young man,' said he, 'have you placed a romance in
your mother's backyard yet?' I had not, but I did so at once instead of
going to Cornwall, and sounder advice I never had in my life. Material,
like charity, begins at home; nor need you suppose that nothing ever
happens down here. That is the universal idea of the native about his or
her own heath, but I can assure you it isn't the case at all. Only just
now, on my way here, I saw a scene and a character that might have been
lifted bodily out of Bret Harte."
Sybil Venables clamored for particulars, while her sister resigned
herself to further weariness of the flesh. Rachel put down her cup and
leant forward with curiously expectant eyes. They were sitting in the
cool, square hall, with doors shut or open upon every hand, and the
gilded gallery overhead. Statuettes and ferns, all reflected in the
highly polished marble floor, added a theatrical touch which was not out
of keeping with a somewhat ornate interior.
"It was the character," continued Langholm, "who was making the scene;
and a stranger creature I have never seen on English earth. He wore what
I believe they call a Crimean shirt, and a hat like a stage cowboy; and
he informed all passers that he was knocking down his check!"
"What?" cried Rachel and Sybil in one breath, but in curiously different
"Knocking down his check," repeated Langholm. "It's what they do in the
far west or the bush or somewhere--but I rather fancy it's the
bush--when they get arrears of wages in a lump in one check."