Part 3 out of 5
"And where did you see all this?" inquired Rachel, whose voice was very
quiet, but her hazel eyes alight with a deeper interest than the story
"At the Packhorse on the York Road. I came that way round for the sake
of the surface and the exercise."
"And did you see the check?"
"No, I only stopped for a moment, to find out what the excitement was
about; but the fellow I can see now. You never set eyes on such a
pirate--gloriously drunk and bearded to the belt. I didn't stop, because
he was lacing into everybody with a cushion, and the local loafers
seemed to like it."
"What a joke!" cried Sybil Venables.
"There is no accounting for taste," remarked her sapient sister.
"And he was belaboring them with a cushion, did you say?" added Rachel,
with the slightest emphasis upon the noun.
"Well, it looked like one to me," replied Langholm, "but, on second
thoughts, it was more like a bolster in shape; and now I know what it
was! It has just dawned on me. It looked like a bolster done up in a
blanket; but it was the swag that the tramps carry in Australia, with
all their earthly goods rolled up in their bedding; and the fellow was
an Australian swagsman, that's what he was!"
"Swagman," corrected Rachel, instinctively. "And pray what color was the
blanket?" she made haste to add.
And, again from sheer force of instinct, Rachel gave a nod.
"Were you ever out there, Mrs. Steel?" inquired Langholm, carelessly. "I
never was, but the sort of thing has been done to death in books, and I
only wonder I didn't recognize it at once. Well, it was the last type
one thought to meet with in broad daylight on an English country road!"
Had Langholm realized that he had put a question which he had no
business to put? Had he convicted himself of a direct though
unpremeditated attempt to probe the mystery of his hostess's
antecedents, and were his subsequent observations designed to unsay
that question in effect? If so, there was no such delicacy in the elder
Miss Venables, who became quite animated at the sudden change in
Rachel's face, and at her own perception of the cause.
"Have you been to Australia, Mrs. Steel?" repeated Vera, looking Rachel
full in the eyes; and she added slyly, "I believe you have!"
There was a moment's pause, and then a crisp step rang upon the marble,
as Mr. Steel emerged from his study.
"Australia, my dear Miss Venables," said he, "is the one country that
neither my wife nor I have ever visited in our lives, and the last one
that either of us has the least curiosity to see."
And he took his seat among them with a smile.
THE AUSTRALIAN ROOM
It was that discomfort to man, that cruelty to beast, that outrage by
unnatural Nature upon all her children--a bitter summer's day. The wind
was in the east; great swollen clouds wallowed across the sky, now
without a drop, now breaking into capricious showers of stinging rain;
and a very occasional burst of sunlight served only to emphasize the
evil by reminding one of the season it really was, or should have been,
even if it did not entice one to the wetting which was the sure reward
of a walk abroad. The Delverton air was strong and bracing enough, but
the patron wind of the district bit to the bone through garments never
intended for winter wear.
On such a day there could be few more undesirable abodes than
Normanthorpe House, with its marble floors, its high ceilings, and its
general scheme of Italian coolness and discomfort. It was a Tuesday,
when Mr. Steel usually amused himself by going on 'Change in
Northborough and lunching there at the Delverton Club. Rachel was thus
not only physically chilled and depressed, but thrown upon her own
society at its worst; and she missed that of her husband more than she
Once she had been a bright and energetic person with plenty of resources
within herself; now she had singularly few. She was distraught and
uneasy in her mind, could settle less and less to her singing or a book,
and was the victim of an increasing restlessness of mind and limb.
Others did not see it; she had self-control; but repression was no cure.
And for all this there were reasons enough; but the fear of
identification by the neighbors as the notorious Mrs. Minchin was no
longer one of them.
No; it was her own life, root and branch, that had grown into the
upas-tree which was poisoning existence for Rachel Steel. She was being
punished for her second marriage as she had been punished for her first,
only more deservedly, and with more subtle stripes. Each day brought a
dozen tokens of the anomalous position which she had accepted in the
madness of an hour of utter recklessness and desperation. Rachel was not
mistress in her own house, nor did she feel for a moment that it was her
own house at all. Everything was done for her; a skilled housekeeper
settled the smallest details; and that these were perfect alike in
arrangement and execution, that the said housekeeper was a woman of
irreproachable tact and capability, and that she herself had never an
excuse for concrete complaint, formed a growing though intangible
grievance in Rachel's mind. She had not felt it at first. She had
changed in these summer months. She wanted to be more like other wives.
There was Morna Woodgate, with the work cut out for every hour of her
full and happy days; but Morna had not made an anomalous marriage, Morna
had married for love.
And to-day there was not even Morna to come and see her, or for her to
go and see, for Tuesday afternoon was not one of the few upon which the
vicar's wife had no settled duty or occupation in the parish. Rachel so
envied her the way in which she helped her husband in his work; she had
tried to help also, in a desultory way; but it is one thing to do a
thing because it is a duty, and another thing to do it for something to
do, as Rachel soon found out. Besides, Hugh Woodgate was not her
husband. Rachel had the right feeling to abandon those half-hearted
attempts at personal recreation in the guise of good works, and the
courage to give Morna her reasons; but she almost regretted it this
She had explored for the twentieth time that strange treasury known as
the Chinese Room, a state apartment filled with loot brought home from
the Flowery Land by a naval scion of the house of Normanthorpe, and
somewhat cynically included in the sale. The idols only leered in
Rachel's face, and the cabinets of grotesque design were unprovided with
any key to their history of former uses. In sheer desperation Rachel
betook herself to her husband's study; it was the first time she had
crossed that threshold in his absence, but within were the books, and a
book she must have.
These also had been purchased with the house. With few exceptions, they
were ancient books in battered calf, which Steel had stigmatized as
"musty trash" once when Rachel had asked him if she might take one. She
had not made that request again; indeed, it was seldom enough that she
had set foot inside the spacious room which the old books lined, and in
which the master of the house disliked being disturbed. Yet it was
anything but trash which she now discovered upon the dusty shelves.
There was _Tom Jones_ in four volumes and the _Spectator_ in eight, _Gil
Blas_ and the works of Swift, all with the long "s," and backs like
polished oak; in the lower shelves were Hogarth and Gillray in rare
folios; at every level and on either hand were books worth taking out.
But this was almost all that Rachel did; she took them out and put them
in again, for that was her unsettled mood. She spent some minutes over
the Swifts, but not sufficiently attracted to march off with them. The
quaint, obsolete type of the various volumes attracted her more as a
curiosity than as readable print; the coarse satires of the early
masters of caricature and cartoon did not attract her at all. Rachel's
upbringing had deprived her of the traditions, the superstitions, and
the shibboleths which are at once a strength and a weakness of the
ordinary English education; if, however, she was too much inclined to
take a world's masterpiece exactly as she found it, her taste, such as
it was, at all events was her own.
She had naturally an open mind, but it was not open now; it was full and
running over with the mysteries and the perplexities of her own
environment. Books would not take her out of herself; in them she could
not hope to find a key to any one of the problems within problems which
beset and tortured her. So she ran her hand along the dusty books,
little dreaming that the key was there all the time; so in the end, and
quite by chance, but for the fact that she was dipping into so many, she
took out the right book, and started backward with it in her hand.
The book was _The Faerie Queene_, and Rachel had extracted it in a
Gothic spirit, because she had once heard that very few living persons
had read it from end to end; since she could not become interested in
anything, she might as well be thoroughly bored. But she never opened
the volume, for in the dark slit which it left something shone like a
little new moon. Rachel put in her hand, and felt a small brass handle;
to turn and pull it was the work of her hand without a guiding thought;
but when tiers of books swung towards her with the opening door which
they hid, it was not in human nature to shut that door again without so
much as peeping in.
Rachel first peeped, then stepped, into a secret chamber as
disappointing at the first glance as such a place could possibly be. It
was deep in dust, and filled with packing-cases not half unpacked, a
lumber-room and nothing more. The door swung to with a click behind her
as Rachel stood in the midst of this uninteresting litter, and
instinctively she turned round. That instant she stood rooted to the
ground, her eyes staring, her chin fallen, a dreadful fear in every
feature of her face.
It was not that her second husband had followed and discovered her; it
was the face of her first husband that looked upon Rachel Steel, his
bold eyes staring into hers, through the broken glass of a fly-blown
picture-frame behind the door.
The portrait was not hanging from the wall, but resting against it on
the floor. It was a photographic enlargement in colors, and the tinted
eyes looked up at Rachel with all the bold assurance that she remembered
so keenly in the perished flesh. She had not an instant's doubt about
those eyes; they spoke in a way that made her shiver; and yet the
photograph was that of a much younger man than she had married. It was
Alexander Minchin with mutton-chop whiskers, his hair parted in the
middle, and the kind of pin in the kind of tie which had been
practically obsolete for years; it was none the less indubitably and
indisputably Alexander Minchin.
And indeed that fact alone was enough to shake Rachel's nerves; her
discovery had all the shock of an unwelcome encounter with the living.
But it was the gradual appreciation of the true significance of her
discovery that redoubled Rachel's qualms even as she was beginning to
get the better of them. So they had been friends, her first husband and
her second! Rachel stooped and looked hard at the enlargement, and there
sure enough was the photographer's imprint. Yes, they had been friends
in Australia, that country which John Buchanan Steel elaborately and
repeatedly pretended never to have visited in all his travels!
Rachel could have smiled as she drew herself up with this point settled
in her mind for ever; why, the room reeked of Australia! These cases had
never been properly unpacked, they were overflowing with memorials of
the life which she herself knew so well. Here a sheaf of boomerangs were
peeping out; there was an old gray wide-awake, with a blue-silk fly-veil
coiled above the brim; that was an Australian saddle; and those glass
cases contained samples of merino wool. So it was in Australia as a
squatter that Steel had made his fortune! But why suppress a fact so
free from all discredit? These were just the relics of a bush life which
a departing colonist might care to bring home with him to the old
country. Then why cast them into a secret lumber-room whose very
existence was unknown to the old Australian's Australian wife?
Rachel felt her brain reeling; and yet she was thankful for the light
which had been vouchsafed to her at last. It was but a lantern flash
through the darkness, which seemed the more opaque for that one thin
beam of light; but it was something, a beginning, a clew. For the rest
she was going straight to the man who had kept her so long in such
Why had he not told her about Australia, at all events? What conceivable
harm could that have done? It would have been the strongest possible
bond between them. But Rachel went further as she thought more. Why not
have told her frankly that he had known Alexander Minchin years before
she did herself? It could have made no difference after Alexander
Minchin's death; then why had be kept the fact so jealously to himself?
And the dead man's painted eyes answered "Why?" with the bold and
mocking stare his wife could not forget, a stare which at that moment
assumed a new and sinister significance in her sight.
Rachel looked upward through the window, which was barred, and almost
totally eclipsed by shrubs; but a clout of sky was just visible under
the architrave. It was a very gray sky; gray also was Rachel's face in
the sudden grip of horror and surmise. Then a ragged edge of cloud
caught golden fire, a glimmer found its way into the dust and dirt of
the secret chamber, and Rachel relaxed with a slight smile but an
exceedingly decided shake of the head. Thereafter she escaped
incontinently, but successfully, as she had entered; closed the hidden
door behind her, and restored _The Faerie Queene_ very carefully to its
place. Rachel no longer proposed to join the select band of those who
have read that epic through.
She went to her own rooms to think and to decide; and what she first
thought and then decided was sensible enough. She was thankful she had
not been caught like Fatima in the forbidden room; not that she lacked
the courage to meet the consequences of her acts, but it would have put
her in the wrong and at a disadvantage at the first crash of battle. And
a battle royal Rachel quite expected; nor had she the faintest intention
of disguising what she had done; but it was her husband who was to be
taken aback, for a change.
The Steels dined alone, as usual, or as much alone as a man and his wife
with a butler and two footmen are permitted to be at their meals. Steel
was at his best after these jaunts of his to Northborough and the club.
He would come home with the latest news from that centre of the
universe, the latest gossip which had gone the rounds on 'Change and at
lunch, the newest stories of Mr. Venables and his friends, which were
invariably reproduced for Rachel's benefit with that slight but
unmistakable local accent of which these gentry were themselves all
unconscious. Steel had a wicked wit, and Rachel as a rule a sufficiently
appreciative smile, but this was to-night either lacking altogether or
of an unconvincing character. Rachel could never pretend, and her first
spontaneous remark was when her glass filled up with froth.
"Champagne!" said she, for they seldom drank it.
"It has been such a wretched day," explained Steel, "that I ordered it
medicinally. I am afraid it must have been perishing here, as it was in
the town. This is to restore your circulation."
"My circulation is all right," answered Rachel, too honest even to smile
upon the man with whom she was going to war. "I felt cold all the
morning, but I have been warm enough since the afternoon."
And that was very true, for excitement had made her blood run hot in
every vein; nor had Rachel often been more handsome, or less lovely,
than she was to-night, with her firm lip and her brooding eye.
"There was another reason for the champagne," resumed her husband, very
frankly for him, when at last they had the drawing-room to themselves.
"I am in disgrace with you, I believe, and I want to hear from you what
I have done."
"It is what you have not done," returned Rachel, as she stood
imperiously before the lighted fire; and her bosom rose and fell, white
as the ornate mantelpiece of Carrara marble which gleamed behind her.
"And what, may I ask, is my latest sin of omission?"
Rachel rushed to the point with a passionate directness that did her no
"Why have you pretended all these months that you never were in
Australia in your life? Why did you never tell me that you knew
Alexander Minchin out there?"
And she held her breath against the worst that he could do, being well
prepared for him to lose first his color and then the temper which he
had never lost since she had known him; to fly into a fury, to curse her
up hill and down dale--in a word, to behave as her first husband had
done more than once, but this one never. What Rachel did not anticipate
was a smile that cloaked not a single particle of surprise, and the
little cocksure bow that accompanied the smile.
"So you have found it out," said Steel, and his smile only ended as he
sipped his coffee; even then there was no end to it in his eyes.
"This afternoon," said Rachel, disconcerted but not undone.
"By poking your nose into places which you would not think of
approaching in my presence?"
"By the merest accident in the world!"
And Rachel described the accident, truth flashing from her eyes; in an
instant her husband's face changed, the smile went out, but it was no
frown that came in its stead.
"I beg your pardon, Rachel," said he, earnestly. "I suppose," he added,
"that a man may call his wife by her Christian name for once in a way? I
did so, however, without thinking, and because I really do most humbly
beg your pardon for an injustice which I have done you for some hours in
my own mind. I came home between three and four, and I heard you were in
my study. You were not, but that book was out; and then, of course, I
knew where you were. My hand was on the knob, but I drew it back. I
wondered if you would have the pluck to do the tackling! And I apologize
again," Steel concluded, "for I knew you quite well enough to have also
known that at least there was no question about your courage."
"Then," said Rachel, impulsively, after having made up her mind to
ignore these compliments, "then I think you might at least be candid
"And am I not?" he cried. "Have I denied that the portrait you saw is
indeed the portrait of Alexander Minchin? And yet how easy that would
have been! It was taken long before you knew him; he must have altered
considerably after that. Or I might have known him under another name.
But no, I tell you honestly that your first husband was a very dear
friend of mine, more years ago than I care to reckon. Did you hear me?"
he added, with one of his sudden changes of tone and manner. "A very
dear friend, I said, for that he undoubtedly was; but was I going to ask
you to marry a very dear friend of the man who deteriorated so terribly,
and who treated you so ill?"
Delivered in the most natural manner imaginable, with the quiet
confidence of which this man was full, and followed by a smile of
conscious yet not unkindly triumph, this argument, like most that fell
from his lips upon her ears, was invested with a value out of all
proportion to its real worth; and Steel clinched it with one of those
homely saws which are not disdained by makers of speeches the wide world
"Could you really think," he added, with one of his rarest and most
winning smiles, "that I should be such a fool as to invite you to step
out of the frying-pan into the fire?"
Rachel felt for a moment that she would like to say it was exactly what
she had done; but even in that moment she perceived that such a
statement would have been very far from the truth. And her nature was
large enough to refrain from the momentary gratification of a bitter
repartee. But he was too clever for her; that she did feel, whatever
else he might be; and her only chance was to return to the plain
questions with which she had started, demanding answers as plain. Rachel
led up to them, however, with one or two of which she already knew the
answer, thus preparing for her spring in quite the Old Bailey manner,
which she had mastered subconsciously at her trial, and which for once
was to profit a prisoner at the bar.
"Yet you don't any longer deny that you have been to Australia?"
"It is useless. I lived there for years."
"And you admit that you knew Alexander quite well out there?"
"Most intimately, in the Riverina, some fifteen or twenty years ago; he
was on my station as almost everything a gentleman could be, up to
overseer; and by that time he was half a son to me, and half a younger
"But no relation, as a matter of fact?"
"None whatever, but my very familiar friend, as I have already told
"Then why in the world," Rachel almost thundered, "could you not tell me
so in the beginning?"
"That is a question I have already answered."
"Then I have another. Why so often and so systematically pretend that
you never were in Australia at all?"
"That is a question which I implore you not to press!"
The two answers, so like each other in verbal form, were utterly
dissimilar in the manner of their utterance. Suddenly, and for the first
time in all her knowledge of him, his cynical aplomb had fallen from the
man like a garment. One moment he was brazening past deceit with a
smiling face; the next, he was in earnest, even he, and that mocking
voice vibrated with deep feeling.
"I should have thought all the more of you for being an Australian,"
continued Rachel, vaguely touched at the change in him, "I who am proud
of being one myself. What harm could it have done, my knowing that?"
"You are not the only one from whom I have hidden it," said Steel,
still in a low and altered voice.
"Yet you brought home all those keepsakes of the bush?"
"But I thought better of them, and have never even unpacked them all, as
you must have seen for yourself."
"Yet your mysterious visitor of the other day--"
"Another Australian, of course; indeed, another man who worked upon my
"And he knows why you don't want it known over here?"
"He does," said Steel, with grim brevity.
Rachel moved forward and pressed his hand impulsively. To her surprise
the pressure was returned. That instant their hands fell apart.
"I beg your pardon in my turn," she said. "I can only promise you that I
will never again reopen that wound--whatever it may be--and I won't even
try to guess. I undertook not to try to probe your past, and I will keep
my undertaking in the main; but where it impinges upon my own past I
simply cannot! You say you were my first husband's close friend," added
Rachel, looking her second husband more squarely than ever in the eyes.
"Was that what brought you to my trial for his murder?"
He returned her look.
"Was that what made you wish to marry me yourself?"
No answer, but his assurance coming back, as he stood looking at her
under beetling eyebrows, over black arms folded across a snowy shirt. It
was the wrong moment for the old Adam's return, for Rachel had reached
the point upon which she most passionately desired enlightenment.
"I want to know," she cried, "and I insist on knowing, what first put it
into your head or your heart to marry me--all but convicted--"
Steel held up his hand, glancing in apprehension towards the door.
"I have told you so often," he said, "and your glass tells you whenever
you look into it. I sat within a few feet of you for the inside of a
"But that is not true," she told him quietly; "trust a woman to know, if
In the white glare of the electric light he seemed for once to change
"If you will not accept my word," he answered, "there is no more to be
And he switched off a bunch of the lights that had beaten too fiercely
upon him; but it only looked as if he was about to end the interview.
"You have admitted so many untruths in the last half hour," pursued
Rachel, in a thrilling voice, "that you ought not to be hurt if I
suspect you of another. Come! Can you look me in the face and tell me
that you married me for love? No, you turn away--because you cannot!
Then will you, in God's name, tell me why you did marry me?"
And she followed him with clasped hands, her beautiful eyes filled with
tears, her white throat quivering with sobs, until suddenly he turned
upon her as though in self-defence.
"No, I will not!" he cried. "Since the answer I have given you, and the
obvious answer, is not good enough for you, the best thing you can do is
to find out for yourself."
A truculent look came into Rachel's eyes, as they rested upon the smooth
face so unusually agitated beneath the smooth silvery hair.
"I will!" she answered through her teeth. "I shall take you at your
word, and find out for myself I will!"
And she swept past him out of the room.
[Illustration: "I will!" she answered through her teeth--and she swept
past him out of the room.]
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER
There was now an open breach between the Steels, but no third person
would have discerned any difference in their relations. It was a mere
snapping of the threads across the chasm which had always separated
Rachel from her second husband. The chasm had been plain enough to those
who came much in contact with the pair, but the little threads of
sympathy were invisible to the naked eye of ordinary observation. There
was thus no outward change, for neither was there any outward rupture.
It takes two to quarrel, and Steel imperturbably refused to make one.
Rachel might be as trying as she pleased; no repulse depressed, no
caprice annoyed him; and this insensibility was not the least of Steel's
offences in the now jaundiced eyes of his wife.
Rachel felt as bitter as one only does against those who have inspired
some softer feeling; the poison of misplaced confidence rankled in her
blood. Her husband had told her much, but it was not enough for Rachel,
and the little he refused to tell eliminated all the rest from her
mind. There was no merit even in such frankness as he had shown, since
her own, accidental discoveries had forced some measure of honesty upon
him. He had admitted nothing which Rachel could not have deduced from
that which she had found out for herself. She felt as far as ever from
any satisfactory clew to his mysterious reasons for ever wishing to
marry her. There lay the kernel of the whole matter, there the problem
that she meant to solve. If her first husband was at the bottom of it,
no matter how indirectly, and if she had been married for the dead man's
sake, to give his widow a home, then Rachel felt that the last affront
had been put upon her, and she would leave this man as she had been
within an ace of leaving his friend. So ran the wild and unreasonable
tenor of her thoughts. He had not married her for her own sake; it was
not she herself who had appealed to him, after all. Curiosity might
consume her, and a sense of deepening mystery add terrors of its own,
but the resentful feeling was stronger than either of these, and would
have afforded as strange a revelation as any, had Rachel dared to look
deeper into her own heart.
If, on the other hand, she had already some conception of the truth
about herself, it would scarcely lessen her bitterness against one who
inspired in her emotions at once so complex and so painful. Suffice it
that this bitterness was extreme in the days immediately following the
scene between Rachel and her husband in the drawing-room after dinner.
It was also unconcealed, and must have been the cause of many another
such scene but for the imperturable temper and the singularly ruly
tongue of John Buchanan Steel. And then, in those same days, there fell
the two social events to which the bidden guests had been looking
forward for some two or three weeks, and of which the whole neighborhood
was to talk for years.
On the tenth of August the Uniackes were giving a great garden party at
Hornby Manor, while the eleventh was the date of the first real
dinner-party for which the Steels had issued invitations to Normanthorpe
The tenth was an ideal August day: deep blue sky, trees still
untarnished in the hardy northern air, and black shadows under the
trees. Rachel made herself ready before lunch, to which she came down
looking quite lovely, in blue as joyous as the sky's, to find her
husband as fully prepared, and not less becomingly attired, in a gray
frock-coat without a ripple on its surface. They looked critically at
each other for an instant, and then Steel said something pleasant, to
which Rachel made practically no reply. They ate their lunch in a
silence broken good-naturedly at intervals from one end of the table
only. Then the Woodgates arrived, to drive with them to Hornby, which
was some seven or eight miles away; and the Normanthorpe landau and pair
started with, the quartette shortly after three o'clock.
Morning, noon, and afternoon of this same tenth of August, Charles
Langholm, the minor novelist, never lifted his unkempt head from the old
bureau at which he worked, beside an open window overlooking his cottage
garden. A tumbler of his beloved roses stood in one corner of the
writing space, up to the cuts in MSS., and roses still ungathered peeped
above the window-sill and drooped from either side. But Langholm had a
soul far below roses at the present moment; his neatly numbered sheets
of ruled sermon-paper were nearing the five hundredth page; his hero and
his heroine were in the full sweep of those emotional explanations which
they had ingeniously avoided for the last three hundred at least; in a
word, Charles Langholm's new novel is being finished while you wait. It
is not one of his best; yet a moment ago there was a tear in his eye,
and now he is grinning like a child at play. And at play he is, though
he be paid for playing, and though the game is only being won after
weeks and months of uphill labor and downhill joy.
At last there is the final ticking of inverted commas, and Charles
Langholm inscribes the autograph for which he is importuned once in a
blue moon, and which the printer will certainly not set up at the foot
of the last page; but the thing is done, and the doer must needs set his
hand to it out of pure and unusual satisfaction with himself. And so,
thank the Lord!
Langholm rose stiffly from the old bureau, where at his best he could
lose all sense of time; for the moment he was bent double, and faint
with fasting, because it was his mischievous rule to reach a given point
before submitting to the physical and mental distraction of a meal. But
to-day's given point had been the end of his book, and for some happy
minutes Langholm fed on his elation. It was done at last, yet another
novel, and not such a bad one after all. Not his best by any means, but
perhaps still further from being his worst; and, at all events, the
thing was done. Langholm could scarcely grasp that fact, though there
was the last page just dry upon the bureau, and most of the rest lying
about the room in galley-proofs or in typewritten sheets. Moreover, the
publishers were pleased; that was the joke. It was nothing less to
Langholm when he reflected that the final stimulus to finish this book
had been the prospect and determination of at last writing one to please
himself. And this reflection brought him down from his rosy clouds.
It was the day of the Uniacke's garden-party; they had actually asked
the poor author, and the poor author had intended to go. Not that he
either shone or revelled in society; but Mrs. Steel would be there, and
he burned to tell her that he had finished his book, and was at last
free to tackle hers; for hers at bottom it would be, the great novel by
which the name of Langholm was to live, and which he was to found by
Rachel Steel's advice upon the case of her namesake Rachel Minchin.
The coincidence of the Christian names had naturally struck the
novelist, but no suspicion of the truth had crossed a mind too skilled
in the construction of dramatic situations to dream of stumbling into
one ready-made. It was thus with a heart as light as any feather that
Langholm made a rapid and unwholesome meal, followed by a deliberate and
painstaking toilet, after which he proceeded at a prudent pace upon his
bicycle to Hornby Manor.
Flags were drooping from their poles, a band clashing fitfully through
the sleepy August air, and carriages still sweeping into the long drive,
when Langholm also made his humble advent. He was a little uneasy and
self-conscious, and annoyed at his own anxiety to impart his tidings to
Mrs. Steel, but for whom he would probably have stayed at home. His eye
sought her eagerly as he set foot upon the lawn, having left his bicycle
at the stables, and carefully removed the clips from his trousers; but
before his vigilance could be rewarded he was despatched by his hostess
to the tea-tent, in charge of a very young lady, detached for the nonce
from the wing of a gaunt old gentleman with side whiskers and lantern
Fresh from his fagging task, Langholm did not know what on earth to say
to the pretty schoolgirl, whose own shyness reacted on herself; but he
was doing his best, and atoning in attentiveness for his shortcomings as
a companion, when in the tent he had to apologize to a lady in blue, who
turned out to be Rachel herself, with Hugh Woodgate at her side.
"Oh, no, we live in London," the young girl was saying; "only I go to
the same school as Ida Uniacke, and I am staying here on a visit."
"I've finished it," whispered Langholm to Rachel, "this very afternoon;
and now I'm ready for yours! I see," he added, dropping back into the
attitude of respectful interest in the young girl; "only on a visit; and
who was the old gentleman from whom I tore you away?"
The child laughed merrily.
"That was my father," she said; "but he is only here on his way to
"You mustn't call it my book," remonstrated Rachel, while Woodgate
waited upon both ladies.
"But it was you who gave me the idea of writing a novel round Mrs.
"I don't think I did. I am quite sure it was your own idea. But one book
at a time. Surely you will take a rest?"
"I shall correct this thing. It will depress me to the verge of suicide.
Then I shall fall to upon my _magnum opus_."
"You really think it will be that?"
"It should be mine. It isn't saying much; but I never had such a plot as
you have given me!"
Rachel shook her head in a last disclaimer as she moved away with the
Vicar of Marley.
"Oh, Mr. Langholm, do you write books?" asked the schoolgirl, with round
"For my sins," he confessed. "But do you prefer an ice, or more
strawberries and cream?"
"Neither, thank you. I've been here before," the young girl said with a
jolly smile. "But I didn't know I should come back with an author!"
"Then we'll go out into the open air," the author said; and they
followed Rachel at but a few yards' distance.
It was a picturesque if an aimless pageant, the smart frocks sweeping
the smooth sward, the pretty parasols with the prettier faces
underneath, the well-set-up and well-dressed men, with the old gray
manor rising upon an eminence in the background, and a dazzling splash
of scarlet and of brass somewhere under the trees. The band was playing
selections from _The Geisha_ as Langholm emerged from the tea-tent in
Rachel's wake. Mrs. Venables was manoeuvring her two highly marriageable
girls in opposite quarters of the field, and had only her own
indefatigable generalship to thank for what it lost her upon this
occasion. Mr. Steel and Mrs. Woodgate apparently missed the same thing
through wandering idly in the direction of the band; but the tableau
might have been arranged for the express benefit of Charles Langholm and
the very young lady upon whom he was dancing laborious attendance.
Mrs. Uniacke had stepped apart from the tall old gentleman with the side
whiskers, to whom she had been talking for some time, and had
intercepted Rachel as she was passing on with Hugh Woodgate.
"Wait while I introduce you to my most distinguished guest, or rawther
him to you," whispered Mrs. Uniacke, with the Irish brogue which
rendered her slightest observation a delight to the appreciative. "Sir
Baldwin Gibson--Mrs. Steel."
Langholm and the little Miss Gibson were standing close behind, and the
trained eye of the habitual observer took in every detail of a scene
which he never forgot. Handsome Mrs. Uniacke was clinching the
introduction with a smile, which ended in a swift expression of
surprise. Sir Baldwin had made an extraordinary pause, his hand half way
to his hat, his lantern jaws fallen suddenly apart. Mrs. Steel, though
slower at her part of the obvious recognition, was only a second slower,
and thereupon stood abashed and ashamed in the eyes of all who saw; but
only for another second at the most; then Sir Baldwin Gibson not only
raised his hat, but held out his hand in a fatherly way, and as she took
it Rachel's color changed from livid white to ruby red.
Yet even Rachel was mistress of herself so quickly that the one or two
eye-witnesses of this scene, such as Mrs. Uniacke and Charles Langholm,
who saw that it had a serious meaning, without dreaming what that
meaning was, were each in hopes that no one else had seen as much as
they. Sir Baldwin plunged at once into amiable and fluent conversation,
and before many moments Rachel's replies were infected with an
approximate assurance and ease; then Langholm turned to his juvenile
companion, and put a question in the form of a fib.
"So that is your father," said he. "I seem, do you know, to know his
Little Miss Gibson fell an easy prey.
"You probably do; he is the judge, you know!"
"The judge, is he?"
"Yes; and I wanted to ask you something just now in the tent. Did you
mean the Mrs. Minchin who was tried for murder, when you were talking
about your plot?"
Langholm experienced an unforeseen shock from head to heel; he could
"He was the judge who tried her!" the schoolgirl said with pardonable
A lady joined them as they spoke.
"Do you really mean that that is Mr. Justice Gibson, who tried Mrs.
Minchin at the Old Bailey last November?"
"Yes--my father," said the proud young girl.
"What a very singular thing! How do you do, Mr. Langholm? I didn't see
it was you."
And Langholm found himself shaking hands with the aquiline lady to whom
he had talked so little at the Upthorpe dinner-party; she took her
revenge by giving him only the tips of her fingers now, and by looking
deliberately past him at Rachel and her judge.
A MATCH FOR MRS. VENABLES
That was absolutely all that happened at the Uniackes' garden-party.
There was no scene, no scandal, no incident whatsoever beyond an
apparently mutual recognition between Mrs. Steel and Mr. Justice Gibson.
Of this there were not half-a-dozen witnesses, all of whom were given
immediate reason to suppose that either they or the pair in question had
made a mistake; for nothing could have surpassed the presence of mind
and the kindness of heart with which Sir Baldwin Gibson chatted to the
woman whom he had tried for her life within the year. And his charity
continued behind her back.
"Odd thing," said Sir Baldwin to his hostess, at the earliest
opportunity, "but for the moment I could have sworn that woman was some
one else. May I ask who she is exactly?"
"Sure, Sir Baldwin," replied Mrs. Uniacke, "and that's what I thought we
were to hear at last. It's who she is we none of us know. And what does
it matter? She's pretty and nice, and I'm just in love with her; but
then nobody knows any more about her husband, and so we talk."
A few more questions satisfied the judge that he could not possibly have
been mistaken, and he hesitated a moment, for he was a pious man; but
Rachel's face, combined with her nerve, had deepended an impression
which was now nearly a year old, and the superfluous proximity of an
angular and aquiline lady, to whom Sir Baldwin had not been introduced,
but who was openly hanging upon his words, drove the good man's last
scruple to the winds.
"Very deceptive, these likenesses," said he, raising his voice for the
interloper's benefit; "in future I shall beware of them. I needn't tell
you, Mrs. Uniacke, that I never before set eyes upon the lady whom I
fear I embarrassed by behaving as though I had."
Rachel was not less fortunate in her companion of the moment which had
so nearly witnessed her undoing. Ox-eyed Hugh Woodgate saw nothing
inexplicable in Mrs. Steel's behavior upon her introduction to Sir
Baldwin Gibson, and anything he did see he attributed to an inconvenient
sense of that dignitary's greatness. He did not think the matter worth
mentioning to his wife, when the Steels had dropped them at the
Vicarage gate, after a pleasant but somewhat silent drive. Neither did
Rachel see fit to speak of it to her husband. There was a certain
unworthy satisfaction in her keeping something from him. But again she
underrated his uncanny powers of observation, and yet again he turned
the tables upon her by a sudden display of the very knowledge which she
was painfully keeping to herself.
"Of course you recognized the judge?" said Steel, following his wife for
once into her own apartments, where he immediately shut a door behind
him and another in front of Rachel, who stood at bay before the glitter
in his eyes.
"Of course," she admitted, with irritating nonchalance.
"And he you?"
"I thought he did at first; afterwards I was not so sure."
"But I am!" exclaimed Steel through his teeth.
Rachel's face was a mixture of surprise and incredulity.
"How can you know?" she asked coldly. "You were at least a hundred yards
away at the time, for I saw you with Morna Woodgate."
"And do you think my sight is not good for a hundred yards," retorted
Steel, "when you are at the end of them? I saw the whole thing--his
confusion and yours--but then I did not know who he was. He must have
been in the house when we arrived; otherwise I should have taken good
care that you never met. I saw enough, however, to bring me up in time
to see and hear more. I heard the way he was talking to you then; that
was his damned good-nature, and he has us at his mercy all the same."
Rachel had never seen her husband in such a passion; indeed, she had
never before known him in a state of mind to justify the use of such a
word. He was paler than his wont, his eyes brighter, his lips more
bloodless. Rachel experienced a strange sense of advantage, at once
unprecedented and unforeseen, and with it an irresistible temptation to
the sort of revenge which she knew to be petty at the time. But he had
made her suffer; for once it was her turn. He could be cold as ice when
she was not, could deny her his confidence when she all but fell upon
her knees before him; he should learn what it was to be treated as he
had treated her.
"I'm well aware of it," said Rachel, with a harsh, dry laugh, "though in
point of fact I don't for a moment believe that he'll give me away. But
really I don't think it matters if he does."
Steel stared; it was wonderful to her to see his face.
"It doesn't matter?" he repeated in angry astonishment.
"Not to me," rejoined Rachel, bitterly. "You tell me nothing. What can
matter to me? When you can tell me why you felt compelled to marry
me--when you have the courage to tell me that--other things may begin to
Steel stared harder than before; he did not flinch, but his eyes seemed
to hedge together as he stared, and the glittering light in them to
concentrate in one baleful gleam. Yet it was not a cruel look; it was
the look of a man who has sealed his lips upon one point for ever, and
who views any questioning on that point as an attempt upon his treasury.
There was more of self-defence than of actual hostility in the
compressed lips, the bloodless face, the glaring eyes. Then, with a
shrug, the look, the resentment, and the passion were shaken off, and
Steel stepped briskly to the inner door, which he had shut in Rachel's
path. Opening it, he bowed her through with a ceremony conspicuous even
in their ceremonious relations.
But Rachel nursed her contrariety, even to the extent of a perverse
satisfaction at her encounter with the judge, and a fierce enjoyment of
its still possible consequences. The mood was neither logical nor
generous, and yet it was human enough in the actual circumstances of the
case. At last she had made him feel! It had taken her the better part of
a year, but here at last was something that he really felt. And it had
to do with her; it was impending disaster to herself which had brought
about this change in her husband; she knew him too well not to acquit
him of purely selfish solicitude for his own good name and comfortable
status in a society for which he had no real regard. There was never a
man less dependent upon the good opinion of other men. In absolute
independence of character, as in sheer strength of personality, Steel
stood by himself in the estimation of his wife. But he had deceived her
unnecessarily for weeks and months. He had lied to her. He had refused
her his whole confidence when she begged him for it, and when he knew
how he could trust her. There was some deep mystery underlying their
marriage, he could not deny it, yet he would not tell her what it was.
He had made her suffer needless pain; it was his turn. And yet, with all
her resentment against him, and all her grim savoring of the scandal
which he seemed to fear so much, there ran a golden thread of
unacknowledged contentment in the conviction that those fears were all
Outwardly she was callous to the last degree, reckless as on the day she
made this marriage, and as light-hearted as it was possible to appear;
but the excitement of the coming dinner-party was no small help to
Rachel in the maintenance of this attitude. It was to be a very large
dinner-party, and Rachel's first in her own house; in any case she must
have been upon her mettle. Two dozen had accepted. The Upthorpe party
was coming in force; if anybody knew anything, it would be Mrs.
Venables. What would she do or say? Mrs. Venables was capable of doing
or of saying anything. And what might not happen before the day was out?
It was a stimulating situation for one so curiously compact of courage
and of nerves as the present mistress of Normanthorpe House; and for
once she really was mistress, inspecting the silver with her own eyes,
arranging the flowers with her own hands, and, what was more difficult,
the order in which the people were to sit. She was thus engaged, in her
own sanctum, when Mrs. Venables did the one thing which Rachel had not
dreamt of her doing.
She called at three in the afternoon, and sent her name upstairs.
Rachel's heart made itself felt; but she was not afraid. Something was
coming earlier than she had thought; she was chiefly curious to know
what. Her first impulse was to have Mrs. Venables brought upstairs, and
to invoke her aid in the arrangement of the table before that lady could
open fire. Rachel disliked the great cold drawing-room, and felt that
she must be at a disadvantage in any interview there. On the other hand,
if this was a hostile visit, the visitor could not be treated with too
much consideration. And so the servant was dismissed with word that her
mistress would not be a moment; nor was Rachel very many. She glanced in
a glass, but that was all; she might have been tidier, but not easily
more animated, confident, and alert. She had reached the landing when
she returned and collected all the cards which she had been trying to
arrange; they made quite a pack; and Rachel laughed as she took them
downstairs with her.
Mrs. Venables sat in solitary stiffness on the highest chair she had
been able to find; neither Sybil nor Vera was in attendance; a tableful
of light literature was at her elbow, but Mrs. Venables sat with folded
"This is too good of you!" cried Rachel, greeting her in a manner
redeemed from hypocrisy by a touch of irresistible irony. "You know my
inexperience, and you have come to tell me things, have you not? You
could not have come at a better time. How _do_ you fit in twenty-six
people at one table? I wanted to have two at each end, and it can't be
Mrs. Venables suppressed a smile suggestive of some unconscious humor in
these remarks, but sat more upright than ever in her chair, with a hard
light in the bright brown eyes that stared serenely into Rachel's own.
"I cannot say I came to offer you my assistance, Mrs. Steel. I only take
liberties with very intimate friends."
"Then I wonder what can have brought you!"
And Rachel returned both the smile and the stare with irritating
"I will tell you," said Mrs. Venables, weightily. "There is a certain
thing being said of you, Mrs. Steel; and I wish to know from your own
lips whether there is any truth in it or none."
Rachel held up her hands as quick as thought.
"My dear Mrs. Venables, you can't mean that you are bringing me a piece
of unpleasant gossip on the very afternoon of my first dinner-party?"
"It remains with you," said Mrs. Venables, changing color at this hit,
"to say whether it is mere gossip or not. You must know, Mrs. Steel,
though we were all quite charmed with your husband from the moment he
came among us, we none of us had the least idea where he came from nor
have we yet."
"You are speaking for the neighborhood?" inquired Rachel, sweetly.
"I am," said Mrs. Venables.
"Town _and_ county," murmured Rachel. "And you mean that nobody in the
district knew anything at all about my husband?"
"Not a thing," said Mrs. Venables.
"And yet you called on him; and yet you took pity on him, poor lonely
bachelor that he was!"
This shaft also left its momentary mark upon the visitor's complexion.
"The same applies to you," she went on the more severely. "We had no
idea who you were, either!"
"And now?" said Rachel, still mistress of the situation, for she knew so
well what was coming.
"And now we hear, and I wish to know whether it is true or not. Were
you, or were you not, the Mrs. Minchin who was tried last winter for her
Rachel looked steadily into the hard brown eyes, until a certain
hardness came into her own.
"I don't quite know what right you think you have to ask me such a
question, Mrs. Venables. Is it the usual thing to question people who
have made a second marriage--supposing I am one--about their first? I
fancied myself that it was considered bad form; but then I am still very
ignorant of the manners and customs in this part of the world. Since you
ask it, however, you shall have your answer." And Rachel's voice rang
out through the room, as she rose majestically from the chair which she
had drawn opposite that of the visitor. "Yes, Mrs. Venables, I am that
unhappy woman. And what then?"
"No wonder you were silent about yourself," said Mrs. Venables, in a
vindictive murmur. "No wonder we never even heard--"
"And what then?" repeated Rachel, with a quiet and compelling scorn.
"Does it put one outside the local pale to keep to oneself any painful
incident in one's own career? Is an accusation down here the same thing
as a conviction? Is there nothing to choose between 'guilty' and 'not
"You must be aware," proceeded Mrs. Venables, without taking any notice
of these questions--"indeed, you cannot fail to be perfectly well
aware--that a large proportion of the public was dissatisfied with the
verdict in your case."
"Your husband, for one!" Rachel agreed, with a scornful laugh. "He would
have come to see me hanged; he told me so at his own table."
"You never would have been at his table," retorted Mrs. Venables, with
some effect, "if he or I had dreamt who you were; but now that we know,
you may be quite sure that none of us will sit at yours."
And Mrs. Venables rose up in all her might and spite, her brown eyes
flashing, her handsome head thrown back.
"Are you still speaking for the district?" inquired Rachel, conquering a
recreant lip to put the question, and putting it with her finest scorn.
"I am speaking for Mr. Venables, my daughters, and myself," rejoined the
lady with great dignity; "others will speak for themselves; and you will
soon learn in what light you are regarded by ordinary people. It is a
merciful chance that we have found you out--a merciful chance! That you
should dare--you, about whom there are not two opinions among sensible
people--that you should dare to come among us as you have done and to
speak to me as you have spoken! But one thing is certain--it is for the
With that Mrs. Venables sailed to the door by which she was to make her
triumphant exit, but she stopped before reaching it. Steel stood before
her on the threshold, and as he stood he closed the door behind him, and
as he closed it he turned and took out the key. There was the other door
that led through the conservatory into the garden. Without a word he
crossed the room, shut that door also, locked it, and put the two keys
in his pocket. Then at last he turned to the imprisoned lady.
"You are quite right, Mrs. Venables. It is the last conversation we are
likely to have together. The greater the pity to cut it short!"
"Will you have the goodness to let me go?" the visitor demanded, white
and trembling, but not yet unimpressive in her tremendous indignation.
"With the greatest alacrity," replied Steel, "when you have apologized
to my wife."
Rachel stood by without a word.
"For what?" cried Mrs. Venables. "For telling her what the whole world
thinks of her? Never; and you will unlock that door this instant, unless
you wish my husband to--to--horsewhip you within an inch of your life!"
Steel merely smiled; he could well afford to do so, lithe and supple as
he still was, with flabby Mr. Venables in his mind's eye.
"I might have known what to expect in this house," continued Mrs.
Venables, in a voice hoarse with suppressed passion, "what unmanly and
ungentlemanly behavior, what cowardly insults! I might have known!"
And she glanced from the windows to the bells.
"It is no use ringing," said Steel, with a shake of his snowy head, "or
doing anything else of the sort. I am the only person on the premises
who can let you out; your footman could not get in if he tried; but if
you like I shall shout to him to try. As for insults, you have insulted
my wife most cruelly and gratuitously, for I happen to have heard more
than you evidently imagine. In fact, 'insult' is hardly the word for
what even I have heard you say; let me warn you, madam, that you have
sailed pretty close to the wind already in the way of indictable
slander. You seem to forget that my wife was tried and acquitted by
twelve of her fellow-countrymen. You will at least apologize for that
forgetfulness before you leave this room."
Steel looked at his watch and sat down. "I begin to fear you are no
judge of character, Mrs. Venables; otherwise you would have seen ere
this which of us will have to give in sooner or later. I can only tell
you which of us never will!"
And Rachel still stood by without a word.
FRIENDS IN NEED
That afternoon the Vicar of Marley was paying house-to-house visits
among his humbler parishioners. Though his conversation was the weak
point to which attention has been drawn, Hugh Woodgate nevertheless
possessed the not too common knack of chatting with the poor. He had the
simplicity which made them kin, and his sympathy, unlike that of so many
persons who consider themselves sympathetic, was not exclusively
reserved for the death-bed and the ruined home. He wrote letters for the
illiterate, found places for the unemployed, knew one baby from another
as soon as their own mothers, and with his own hand sent to the local
papers full reports of the village matches in which he rarely scored a
run. Until this August afternoon he was not aware that he had made an
actual enemy in all the years that he had spent in Delverton, first as
an overworked Northborough curate, and latterly as one of the busiest
country vicars in the diocese. But towards five o'clock, as Mr. Woodgate
was returning to the Vicarage, a carriage and pair, sweeping past him
in a cloud of dust, left the clergyman quite petrified on the roadside,
his soft felt hat still in his hand; the carriage contained Mrs.
Venables, who had simply stared him in the face when he took it off.
Woodgate was quite excited when he reached the Vicarage. Morna met him
in the garden.
"Mrs. Venables cut me dead!" he cried while they were still yards apart.
"I am not surprised," replied Morna, who was in a state of suppressed
"But what on earth is the meaning of it?"
"She has just been here."
"She is not likely to come again. Oh, Hugh, I don't know how to tell
you! If you agree with her for a moment, if you see any possible excuse
for the woman, it will break my heart!"
Morna's fine eyes were filled with tears; the sight of them put out the
flame that had leapt for once from stolid Hugh, and he took her hand in
his own great soothing grasp.
"Come and sit down," he said, "and tell me all about it. Have I ever
taken anybody's part against you, Morna, that you should think me likely
to begin now?"
"No; but you would if you thought they were right and I was wrong."
Hugh reflected until they reached the garden-seat upon the lawn.
"Well, not openly, at all events," said he; "and not under any
circumstances I can conceive in which Mrs. Venables was the other
"But she isn't the only other person; that is just it. Oh, Hugh, you do
like Rachel, don't you?"
"I do," he said emphatically. "But surely you haven't been quarrelling
"No, indeed! And that is exactly why I _have_ quarrelled with Mrs.
Venables, because I wouldn't refuse to go to the dinner-party at
Woodgate was naturally nonplussed.
"Wouldn't refuse?" he echoed.
"Yes. She actually asked me not to go; and now I do believe she has gone
driving round to ask everybody else!"
Woodgate's amazement ended in a guffaw.
"And that is what you quarrelled about!" he roared. "The woman must be
mad. What reason did she give?"
"She had a reason, dear."
"But not a good one! There can be no excuse for such an action, let
alone a good reason!"
Morna looked at her husband with sidelong anxiety, wondering whether he
would say as much when he had heard all. She was sure enough of him. But
as yet they had never differed on a point that mattered, and the one
which was coming mattered infinitely to Morna.
"Hugh," she began, "do you remember being with Rachel yesterday at
Hornby, when she was introduced to Sir Baldwin Gibson?"
"Perfectly," said Hugh.
"He is the judge, you know."
"Did you think they looked as though they had ever seen each other
The vicar revolved where he sat, looking his wife suddenly in the face,
while a light broke over his own.
"Now you speak of it," he cried, "they did! It didn't strike me at the
time. I was rather surprised at her being so nervous, but that never
occurred to me as the explanation. Yet now I have no doubt about it. You
don't mean to say he knows something against Mrs. Steel, and has been
giving her away?"
"No, dear, the judge has not; but you were not the only one who saw the
meeting; and other eyes are more suspicious than yours, Hugh. Darling,
you would not think the worse of Rachel for keeping her past life to
herself, would you, especially if it had been a very unhappy one?"
"Of course not; it is no business of ours."
"So you told Mrs. Venables the day she came to tell us Mr. Steel was
married, and so I told her again this afternoon. However, that is not
her main point, and there is another thing I am still surer you would
never do. If a person had been put upon her trial, and found not guilty
in open court, you would not treat her as though she had been found
guilty, would you--even though the verdict had come as a surprise?"
"Of course I would not, Morna; no decent Christian would, I should hope!
But do you mean to tell me that Mrs. Steel has been tried for
"Yes; and by Justice Gibson!"
"Poor thing," said Hugh Woodgate, after a pause.
Morna took his hand.
"My dear, she is, or rather she was, Mrs. Minchin!"
"What! The woman who was tried for murdering her husband?"
"Good heavens!" exclaimed the vicar, and for a minute that was all.
"Well," he continued, "I didn't read the case, and I am glad that I
didn't, but I remember, of course, what was said about it at the time.
But what does it matter what is said? I imagine the jury knew what they
were about; they listened to the evidence for a week, I believe, which
other people read in a few minutes. Of course they knew best! But how
long have you known this, Morna?"
"Never until this afternoon; there was no reason why I should."
"Of course there was not."
"Then you agree with me, Hugh?"
And Morna was transfigured.
"Of course I agree with you! But I want to know more. Do you mean to
tell me that a woman of education and ability, who calls herself a
Christian, like Mrs. Venables, has actually backed out of this
dinner-party on this account, and asked others to do the same?"
"She certainly asked me, point-blank," said Morna. "And when I refused,
and persisted in my refusal, she flounced out in a rage, and must have
cut you dead next minute."
"Incredible!" exclaimed Woodgate. "I mean, she must have had some
"Oh, but she had! I forgot to tell you in my anxiety to know what you
thought. She came to me straight from Normanthorpe, where they had
insulted her as she had never been insulted in her life before!"
"Who? Steel or his wife?"
"Mr. Steel, I fancy. Mrs. Venables had no name bad enough for him, but
she brought it on herself, and I think more of him than I ever did
before. You know that Mrs. Vinson, the Invernesses' new agent's wife?"
"I do. Langholm took her into dinner the night we dined at Upthorpe, and
she was in the offing yesterday when Mrs. Steel was talking to the
"Exactly! It appears that it was Mrs. Vinson who first suspected
something, the very night you mention; and yesterday her suspicions were
confirmed to her own satisfaction. At all events she felt justified in
mentioning them to Mrs. Venables, who instantly drove over to ask Rachel
to her face if there was any truth in the rumor that she was or had been
"Rachel told her it was perfectly true."
"And then the fat was in the fire; but what happened exactly it was
impossible to gather from Mrs. Venables. I never saw a woman so beside
herself with rage. She came in incoherent, and went out inarticulate!
From the things she said of him, I could only guess that Mr. Steel had
come upon the scene and insulted her as she deserved to be insulted. But
I would give a good deal to know what did happen."
"Would you really?"
Morna started to her feet. The vicar rose more slowly, after sitting for
some moments in mute confusion. It was Mrs. Steel who stood before them
on their lawn, pale as death, and ten years older since the day before,
yet with a smile upon her bloodless lips, which appeared indeed to
express some faint irresistible amusement.
"Would you really like to know?" she repeated, standing at a distance
from them, her great eyes travelling from one to the other. "It is
strange, because I had come on purpose to tell you both that and all the
rest--but especially all the rest--in which it seems Mrs. Venables has
been before me." She paused an instant, and the corners of her sad mouth
twitched just once. "What my husband did," said Rachel, "was to lock the
doors and refuse to let her out until she had begged my pardon."
"I hope she did so," said Hugh Woodgate, with the emphasis which often
atoned for the inadequacy of his remarks.
"In about three minutes," replied Rachel, dryly, with some pride, but no
triumph in her tone.
Morna had not spoken. Now she took a quick step forward, her eyes
brimming. But Rachel held up her hand.
"You are sure you realize who I am?"
"Rachel Minchin!" added Rachel, harshly. "The notorious Mrs.
Minchin--the Mrs. Minchin whom Mr. Venables would have come to see
"Hush, Rachel, hush!"
"Then be honest with me--mind, honest--not kind! You would not have said
what Mrs. Venables said to me; she said that all the world believed me
guilty. You would not have said that, Morna; but are you sure you would
not have said it in your heart? Can you look me in the face and tell me
you don't believe it, like all the rest of the world?"
There was no faltering of the firm, sweet voice; it was only unutterably
And Morna answered it only with a sob, as she flung her arms round
Rachel's neck, while her husband waited with outstretched hand.
"THEY WHICH WERE BIDDEN"
The rose-covered cottage of Charles Langholm's dreams, which could not
have come true in a more charming particular, stood on a wooded hill at
the back of a village some three miles from Normanthorpe. It was one of
two cottages under the same tiled roof, and in the other there lived an
admirable couple who supplied all material wants of the simple life
which the novelist led when at work. In his idle intervals the place
knew him not; a nomadic tendency was given free play, and the man was a
wanderer on the face of Europe. But he wandered less than he had done
from London, finding, in his remote but fragrant corner of the earth,
that peace which twenty years of a strenuous manhood had taught him to
value more than downright happiness.
Its roses were not the only merit of this ideal retreat, though in the
summer months they made it difficult for one with eyes and nostrils to
appreciate the others. There was a delightful room running right through
the cottage; and it was here that Langholm worked, ate, smoked, read,
and had his daily being; his bath was in the room adjoining, and his bed
in another adjoining that. Of the upper floor he made no use; it was
filled with the neglected furniture of a more substantial establishment,
and Langholm seldom so much as set foot upon the stairs. The lower rooms
were very simply furnished. There was a really old oak bureau, and some
solid, comfortable chairs. The pictures were chiefly photographs of
other writers. There were better pictures deep in dust upstairs.
An artist in temperament, if not in attainment, Langholm had of late
years found the ups and downs of his own work supply all the excitement
that was necessary to his life; it was only when the work was done that
his solitude had oppressed him; but neither the one nor the other had
been the case of late weeks. His new book had been written under the
spur of an external stimulus; it had not written itself, like all the
more reputable members of the large but short-lived family to which it
belonged. Langholm had not felt lonely in the breathing spaces between
the later chapters. On the contrary, he would walk up and down among his
roses with the animated face of one on the happy heights of intercourse
with a kindred spirit, when in reality he was quite alone. But the man
wrote novels, and withal believed in them at the time of writing. It
was true that on one occasion, when the Steels came to tea, the novelist
walked his garden with the self-same radiant face with which he had
lately taken to walking it alone; but that also was natural enough.
The change came on the very day he finished his book, when Langholm made
himself presentable and rode off to the garden-party at Hornby Manor in
spirits worthy of the occasion. About seven of the same evening he
dismounted heavily in the by-lane outside the cottage, and pushed his
machine through the wicket, a different man. A detail declared his
depression to the woman next door, who was preparing him a more
substantial meal than Langholm ever thought of ordering for himself: he
went straight through to his roses without changing his party coat for
the out-at-elbow Norfolk jacket in which he had spent that summer and
The garden behind the two cottages was all Langholm's. The whole thing,
levelled, would not have made a single lawn-tennis court, nor yet a
practice pitch of proper length. Yet this little garden contained almost
everything that a garden need have. There were tall pines among the
timber to one side, and through these set the sun, so that on the
hottest days the garden was in sufficient shadow by the time the
morning's work was done. There was a little grass-plot, large enough for
a basket-chair and a rug. There was a hedge of Penzance sweet-brier
opposite the backdoor and the window at which Langholm wrote, and yet
this hedge broke down in the very nick and place to give the lucky
writer a long glimpse across a green valley, with dim woods upon the
opposite hill. And then there were the roses, planted by the last
cottager--a retired gardener--a greater artist than his successor--a man
who knew what roses were!
Over the house clambered a William Allen Richardson and two Gloires de
Dijon, these last a-blowing, the first still resting from a profuse
yield in June; in the southeast corner, a Crimson Rambler was at its
ripe red height; and Caroline Testout, Margaret Dickson, La France,
Madame Lambard, and Madame Cochet, blushed from pale pink to richest
red, or remained coldly but beautifully white, at the foot of the
Penzance briers. Langholm had not known one rose from another when he
came to live among this galaxy; now they were his separate, familiar,
individual friends, each with its own character in his eyes, its own
charm for him; and the man's soul was the sweeter for each summer spent
in their midst. But to-night they called to closed nostrils and blind
eyes. And the evening sun, reddening the upper stems of the pines, and
warming the mellow tiles of his dear cottage, had no more to say to
Langholm's spirit than his beloved roses.
The man had emerged from the dreamy, artistic, aesthetic existence into
which he had drifted through living alone amid so much simple beauty; he
was in real, human, haunting trouble, and the manlier man for it
Could he be mistaken after all? No; the more he pondered, the more
convinced he felt. Everything pointed to the same conclusion, beginning
with that first dinner-party at Upthorpe, and that first conversation of
which he remembered every word. Mrs. Steel was Mrs. Minchin--the
notorious Mrs. Minchin--the Mrs. Minchin who had been tried for her
husband's murder, and acquitted to the horror of a righteous world.
And he had been going to write a book about her, and it was she herself
who had given him the idea!
But was it? There had been much light talk about Mrs. Steel's novel, and
the plot that Mrs. Steel had given Langholm, but that view of the matter
had been more of a standing joke than an intellectual bond between
them. It was strange to think of it in the former light to-night.
Langholm recalled more than one conversation upon the same subject. It
had had a fascination for Rachel, which somehow he was sorry to remember
now. Then he recollected the one end to all these conversations, and his
momentary regret was swept away by a rush of sympathy which it did him
good to feel. They had ended invariably in her obtaining from him, on
one cunning pretext or another, a fresh assurance of his belief in Mrs.
Minchin's innocence. Langholm radiated among his roses as his memory
convinced him of this. Rachel had not talked about her case and his plot
for the morbid excitement of discussing herself with another, but for
the solid and wholesome satisfaction of hearing yet again that the other
disbelieved in her guilt.
And did he not? Langholm stood still in the scented dusk as he asked his
heart of hearts the point-blank question. And it was a crisper step that
he resumed, with a face more radiant than before.
Yes, analytical as he was, there at least he was satisfied with himself.
Thank God, he had always been of one opinion on that one point; that he
had made up his mind about her long before he knew the whilom Mrs.
Minchin in the flesh, and had let her know which way almost as long
before the secret of her identity could possibly have dawned upon him.
Now, if the worst came to the worst, his sincerity at least could not be
questioned. Others might pretend, others again be unconsciously
prejudiced in favor of their friend; he at least was above either
suspicion. Had he not argued her case with Mrs. Venables at the time,
and had he not told her so on the very evening that they met?
Certainly Langholm felt in a strong position, if ever the worst came to
the worst; it illustrated a little weakness, however, that he himself
foresaw no such immediate eventuality. There had been a very brief
encounter between two persons at a garden-party, and a yet more brief
confusion upon either side. Of all this there existed but half-a-dozen
witnesses, at the outside, and Langholm did not credit the other five
with his own trained insight and powers of observation; he furthermore
reflected that those others, even if as close observers as himself,
could not possibly have put two and two together as he had done. And
this was sound; but Langholm had a fatal knack of overlooking the lady
whom he had taken in to dinner at Upthorpe Hall, and scarcely noticed at
Hornby Manor. Cocksure as he himself was of the significance of that
which he had seen with his own eyes, the observer flattered himself that
he was the only real one present; remembered the special knowledge which
he had to assist his vision; and relied properly enough upon the silence
of Sir Baldwin Gibson.
The greater the secret, however, the more piquant the situation for one
who was in it; and there were moments of a sleepless night in which
Langholm found nothing new to regret. But he was in a quandary none the
less. He could scarcely meet Mrs. Steel again without a word about the
prospective story, which they had so often discussed together, and upon
which he was at last free to embark; nor could he touch upon that theme
without disclosing the new knowledge which would burn him until he did.
Charles Langholm and Rachel Steel had two or three qualities in common:
an utter inability to pretend was one, if you do not happen to think it
As a rule when he had finished a rapid bit of writing, Langholm sat down
to correct, and a depressing task his spent brain always found it; but
for once he let it beat him altogether. After a morning's tussle with
one unfortunate chapter, the desperate author sent off the rest in their
sins, and rode his bicycle to abolish thought. But that mild pastime
fell lamentably short of its usual efficacy. It was not one of his
heroines who was worrying the novelist, but a real woman whom he liked
and her husband whom he did not. The husband it was who had finished
matters by entering the field of speculation during the morning's work.
It may he confessed that Langholm had not by any means disliked him the
What was the secret of this second marriage on the part of one who had
been so recently and so miserably married? Was it love? Langholm would
not admit it for a moment. Steel did not love his wife, and there was
certainly nothing to love in Steel. Langholm had begun almost to hate
him; he told himself it was because Steel did not even pretend to love
his wife, but let strangers see the abnormal terms on which they lived.
What, then, was the explanation--the history--the excuse? They were
supposed to have married on the Continent; that was one of the few
statements vouchsafed by Steel, and he happened to have made it in the
first instance to Langholm himself. Was there any truth in it? And did
Steel know the truth concerning his wife?
Your imaginative man is ever quick to form a theory based upon facts of
his own involuntary invention. Langholm formed numerous theories and
invented innumerable facts during the four-and-twenty hours of his
present separation from the heroine and the villain of these romances.
The likeliest of the lot was the idea that the pair had really met
abroad, at some out-of-the-way place, where Rachel had been in hiding
from the world, and that in her despair of receiving common justice from
her kind, she had accepted the rich man without telling him who she was.
His subsequent enlightenment was Langholm's explanation of Steel's
coldness towards his wife.
He wondered if it was the kind of coldness that would ever be removed;
if Steel believed her guilty, it never would. Langholm would not have
admitted it, was not even aware of it in his own introspective mind, but
he almost hoped that Steel was not thoroughly convinced of his wife's
The night of the dinner-party was so fine and the roads so clean that
Langholm went off on his bicycle once more, making an incongruous figure
in his dress-suit, but pedalling sedately to keep cool. Fortune,
however, was against him, for they had begun clipping those northern
hedgerows, and an ominous bumping upon a perfectly flat road led to the
discovery of a puncture a long mile from Normanthorpe. Thence onward the
unhappy cyclist had to choose between running beside his machine and
riding on the rims, and between the two expedients arrived at last both
very hot and rather late. But he thought he must be very late; for he
neither met, followed, nor was followed by any vehicle whatsoever in the
drive; and the door did not open before Langholm rang, as it does when
they are still waiting for one. Then the house seemed strangely silent
when the door did open, and the footman wore a curious expression as he
ushered the late comer into an empty drawing-room. Langholm was now
almost convinced that he had made some absurd mistake, and the
impression was not removed by the entry of Steel with his napkin in one
"I've mistaken the night!" exclaimed the perspiring author.
"Not a bit of it," replied Steel; "only we thought you weren't coming at
"Am I really so late as all that?"
And Langholm began to wish he had mistaken the night.
"No," said Steel, "only a very few minutes, and the sin is ours
entirely. But we thought you were staying away, like everybody else."
"My dear fellow," said Steel, smiling on the other's bewilderment, "I
humbly apologize for having classed you for an instant with the rank and
file of our delightful neighbors; for the fact is that all but two have
made their excuses at the last moment. The telegrams will delight you,
one of these days!"
"There was none from me," declared Langholm, as he began to perceive
what had happened.
"There was not; and my wife was quite confident that you would come; so
the fault is altogether mine. Langholm, you were almost at her heels
when she was introduced to the old judge yesterday?"
"Have you guessed who she was--before she married me--or has anybody
"I have guessed."
Steel stood silent for an instant, his eyes resting in calm scrutiny
upon the other, his mouth as firm and fixed, his face fresh as a young
man's, his hair like spun silver in the electric light. Langholm looked
upon the man who was looking upon him, and he could not hate him as he
"And do you still desire to dine with us?" inquired his host at last.
"I don't want to be in the way," faltered Langholm, "on a painful--"
"Oh, never mind that!" cried Steel. "Are you quite sure you don't want
to cut our acquaintance?"
"You know I don't," said Langholm, bluntly.
"Then come in, pray, and take us as we are."
"One moment, Steel! All this is inconceivable; do you mean to say that
your guests have thrown you over on account of--of--"
"My wife having been a certain Mrs. Minchin before she changed her name
to Steel! Yes, every one of them, except our vicar and his wife, who are
real good friends."
"I am another," said Langholm through his big mustache.
"The very servants are giving notice, one by one!"
"I am her servant, too!" muttered Langholm, as Steel stood aside to let
him pass out first; but this time it was through his teeth, though from
his heart, and the words were only audible to himself.
The immediate ordeal proved less trying than Langholm was prepared to
find it. His vivid imagination had pictured the long table, laid for
six-and-twenty, with four persons huddled at one end; but the telegrams
had come in time to have the table reduced to its normal size, and
Langholm found a place set for him between Mrs. Woodgate and Mrs. Steel.
He was only embarrassed when Rachel rose and looked him in the eyes
before holding out her hand.
"Have you heard?" she asked him, in a voice as cold as her marble face,
but similarly redeemed and animated by its delicate and distant scorn.
"Yes," answered Langholm, sadly; "yes, I have heard."
He interrupted her in another tone.
"I know what you are going to say! I give you warning, Mrs. Steel, I
won't listen to it. No 'and yets' for me; remember the belief I had,
long before I knew anything at all! It ought not to be a whit stronger
for what I guessed yesterday for myself, and what your husband has this
minute confirmed. Yet it is, if possible, ten thousand times stronger
and more sure!"
"I do remember," said Rachel, slowly; "and, in my turn, I believe what
But her face did not alter as she took his hand; her own was so cold
that he looked at her in alarm; and the whole woman seemed turned to
stone. Yet the dinner went on without further hitch; it might have been
the very smallest and homeliest affair, to which only these guests had
been invited. Indeed, the menu had been reduced, like the table, by the
unerring tact of Rachel's husband, so that there was no undue memorial
to the missing one-and-twenty, and the whole ordeal was curtailed.
There was, on the other hand, no blinking what had happened, no pretence
of ignoring the one subject which was in everybody's thoughts. Thus Mrs.
Woodgate exclaimed aloud, what she was thinking to herself, that she
would never speak to Mrs. Venables again in all her life, and her
husband told her across the table that she had better not. Rachel
thereupon put in her word, to the effect that the Woodgates would cut
themselves off from everybody if they made enemies of all who
disbelieved in her, and she could not allow them to do anything of the
kind. Steel, again, speculated upon the probable behavior of the
Uniackes and the Invernesses, neither of these distinguished families
having been invited to the dinner, for obvious reasons arising from
their still recent return to the country. There was no effort to ignore
the absorbing topic before the butler and his satellites, but the line
was drawn in the right place, excluding as it did any reference to the
rout of Mrs. Venables, and indeed all details whatsoever.
The butler, however, and in a less degree the footman, presented a
rather interesting study during the course of this momentous meal, had
the professional observer present been only a little less concerned for
his hostess. The butler was a pompous but capable creature, whom Steel
had engaged when he bought the place. Though speedily reduced to a more
respectful servitude than he was accustomed to, the man had long since
ceased to complain of his situation, which carried with it the highest
wages and all arbitrary powers over his subordinates. On the steps, at
her deferred departure, Mrs. Venables had screamed the secret of his
mistress's identity into the butler's ear. The butler had risen with
dignity to the occasion, and, after a brief interview, resigned on the
spot with all his men. The mild interest was in the present behavior of
these gentry, which was a rich blend of dignity and depression, and
betrayed a growing doubt as to whether the sinking ship, that they had
been so eager to abandon, was really sinking after all.
Certainly the master's manner could not have been very different at the
head of his table as originally laid. It was not festive, it was neither
unnaturally jocular nor showy in any way, but it was delightfully
confident and serene. And the mistress was as calm in her way, though
for once hers was the colder way, and it was the opinion of the pantry
that she felt more than she showed; without a doubt Mrs. Woodgate had
more work to restrain, now her tears for Rachel, and now her consuming
indignation with the absentees.
"Your wife feels it as much as mine," said Steel to the vicar, when the
gentlemen were alone at last; and one of them could have struck him for
the speech, one who had insight and could feel himself.
"I wouldn't go so far as that," the good vicar rejoined. "But Morna
feels it dreadfully. Dreadfully she feels it!"
"I almost wish we had kept the table as it was," pursued Steel over his
cigar, "and had one of those flash-light photographs taken, as they do
at all the twopenny banquets nowadays. All that was left of them--left
His flippant tone made Langholm writhe, and drove him into the
conversation to change its tenor. He asked by whom the evil had come.
"Surely not the judge?"
"No," said Steel, with emphasis. "Not that I have it for a fact, but I
would put a thousand pounds upon his charity and his discretion in such
a matter. A kinder and a sounder man does not exist, though I say it who
never met him in my life. But I heard every word of my wife's trial, and
I know the way the judge took the case. There were a heap of women
witnesses, and her counsel was inclined to bully them; it was delightful
to see the fatherly consideration that they received as compensation
from the bench."
Langholm's breath was taken away. Here was an end to the likeliest
theory that he had evolved that morning among his roses. Steel had not
married his wife in ignorance of her life's tragedy; he had been
present, and probably fallen in love with her, at her trial! Then why
did he never behave as though he were in love? And why must he expatiate
upon the judge's kindness to the female witnesses, instead of on the
grand result of the trial over which he had presided? Did Steel himself
entertain the faintest doubt about the innocence of his wife, whose
trial he had heard, and whom he had married thereafter within a few
months at the most? Langholm's brain buzzed, even while he listened to
what Hugh Woodgate was saying.
"I am not surprised," remarked the vicar. "I remember once hearing that
Sir Baldwin Gibson and Lord Edgeware were the two fairest judges on the
bench; and why, do you suppose? Because they are both old athletes and
Old Blues, trained from small boys to give their opponents every
Steel nodded an understanding assent. Langholm, however, who was better
qualified to appreciate the vicar's point, took no notice of it.
"If it was not the judge," said he, "who in the world is it who has
sprung this mine, I saw them meet, and as a matter of fact I did guess
the truth. But I had special reasons. I had thought, God forgive me, of
making something out of your wife's case, Steel, little dreaming it was
hers, though I knew it had no ordinary fascination for her. But no one
else can have known that."
"You talked it over with her, however?"
And Steel had both black eyes upon the novelist, who made his innocent
admission with an embarrassment due entirely to their unnecessarily
"You talked it over with her," repeated Steel, this time in dry
statement of fact, "at least on one occasion, in the presence of a lady
who had a prior claim upon your conversation. That lady was Mrs. Vinson,
and it is she who ought to have a millstone hanged about her neck, and
be cast into the sea. Don't look as though you deserved the same fate,
Langholm! It would have been better, perhaps, if you had paid more
attention to Vinson's wife and less to mine; but she is the last woman
in the world to blame you--naturally! And now, if you are ready, we will
join them, Woodgate."
Sensitive as all his tribe, and himself both gentle by nature and
considerate of others according to his lights, which thoughtlessness
might turn down or passion blur, but which burned steadily and brightly
in the main, Charles Langholm felt stung to the soul by the last few
words, in which Hugh Woodgate noticed nothing amiss. Steel's tone was
not openly insulting, but rather that of banter, misplaced perhaps, and
in poor taste at such a time, yet ostensibly good-natured and innocent
of ulterior meaning. But Langholm was not deceived. There was an
ulterior meaning to him, and a very unpleasant one withal. Yet he did
not feel unjustifiably insulted; he looked within, and felt justly
rebuked; not for anything he had said or done, but for what he found in
his heart at that moment. Langholm entered the drawing-room in profound
depression, but his state of mind was no longer due to anything that had
just been said.
The scene awaiting him was surely calculated to deepen that dejection.
Rachel had left the gentlemen with the proud mien and the unbroken
spirit which she had maintained at table without trace of effort; they
found her sobbing on Morna Woodgate's shoulder, in distress so poignant
and so pitiful that even Steel stopped short upon the threshold. In an
instant she was on her feet, the tears still thick in her noble eyes,
but the spirit once more alight behind the tears.
"Don't go!" she begged them, in a voice that pierced one heart at least.
"Stop and help me, for God's sake! I can't bear it. I am not strong
enough. I can only pretend to bear it, for an hour, before the servants.
Even that has almost maddened me, the effort, and the shame."
"The shame is on others," said Steel, gravely enough now, "and not on
you. And who are those others, I should like to know? And what does it
matter what they think or say? A hole-and-corner district like this is
not the world!"
Rachel shook her head sadly; her beautiful eyes were dry now, and only
the more lustrous for the tears that they had shed. Langholm saw nothing
"But it is the world," she asserted. "It is part of the world, and the
same thing would happen in any other part. It would happen in London,
and everywhere else as soon as I became known. And henceforth I mean to
be known!" cried Rachel, wilfully; "there shall be no more hiding who I
was, or am; that is the way to make them think the worst when they find
out. But is it not disgraceful? I was acquitted, and yet I am to be
treated as though I had been merely pardoned. Is that not a disgrace to
"Humanity is not so common as you imagine," remarked Steel.
"It is un-Christian!" cried Hugh Woodgate, with many repetitions of the
Langholm said nothing. His eyes never left Rachel's face. Neither did
she meet them for an instant, nor had she a look for Hugh Woodgate or
even for his wife. It was to her husband that Rachel had spoken every
word; it was nearest him she stood, in his face only that she gazed.
"Are you going to let the disgrace continue?" she asked him, fiercely.
His answer was natural enough.
"My dear Rachel, what can I do? I never dreamt that it would come out
here; it is by the merest fluke that it did."
"But I want it to come out," cried Rachel; "if you mean the fact of my
trial and my acquittal. It was a mistake ever to hide either for a
moment. Henceforth they shall be no secret."
"Then we cannot prevent the world from thinking and saying what it
likes, however uncharitable and unjust. Do be reasonable, and listen to
reason, though God knows you can be in no mood for such cold comfort!
But I have done my best; I will do my best again. I will sell this place
to-morrow. We will go right away somewhere else."
"And then the same thing will happen there! Is that all you can suggest,
you who married me after hearing with your own ears every scrap of
evidence that they could bring against me?"
"Have you anything better to suggest yourself, Rachel?"
"I have," she answered, looking him full and sternly in the face, in
the now forgotten presence of their three guests. "Find out who _is_
guilty, if you really want people to believe that I am not!"
Steel did not start, though there came a day when one at least of the
listening trio felt honestly persuaded that he had; as a matter of fact,
his lips came more closely together, while his eyes searched those of
his wife with a wider stare than was often seen in them, but for two or
three seconds at most, before dropping in perplexity to the floor.
"How can I, Rachel?" her husband asked quietly, indeed gently, yet with
little promise of acquiescence in his tone. "I am not a detective, after
But that was added for the sake of adding something, and was enough to
prove Steel ill at ease, to the wife who knew him as no man ever had.
"A detective, no!" said she, readily enough. "But you are a rich man;
you could employ detectives; you could clear your wife, if you liked."
"Rachel, you know very well that you are cleared already."
"That is your answer, then!" she cried scornfully, and snatched her eyes
from him at last, without waiting for a denial. She was done with him,
her face said plainly; he looked at her a moment, then turned aside with
But Rachel's eyes went swiftly round the room; they alighted for an
instant upon Morna Woodgate, leaning forward upon the sofa where they
had sat together, eager, enthusiastic, but impotent as a woman must be;
they passed over the vicar, looking stolid as usual, and more than a
little puzzled; but at last they rested on Langholm's thin, stooping
figure, with untidy head thrust forward towards her, and a light in his
dreamy eyes that kindled a new light in her own.
"You, Mr. Langholm!" cried Rachel, taking a quick, short step in his
direction. "You, with your plots and your problems that nobody can
solve; don't you think you could unravel this one for me?"
Her eyes were radiant now, and their radiance all for him. Langholm felt
the heart swimming in his body, the brain in his head. A couple of
long-legged strides to meet her nine-tenths of the way, and he had taken
Rachel's hand before her husband and her friends.
"Before God," said Langholm, "I'll try!"
Their hands met only to part. There was a sardonic laugh from Rachel's
"Do you forbid me?" demanded Langholm, turning upon him.
"Far from it," said Steel. "I shall be most interested to see you go to
"Is that a challenge?"
The two men faced each other, while the third man and the women looked
on. It had sounded like a challenge to all but the vicar, though neither
of the others had had time to think so before they heard the word and
recognized its justice.
"If you like," said Steel, indifferently.
"I accept it as such," rejoined Langholm, dogging the other with his
eyes. "And find him I will--the guilty man--if I never write another
line--and if the villain is still alive!"
There are eminent men of action who can acquit themselves with equal
credit upon the little field of letters, as some of the very best books
of late years go to prove. The man of letters, on the other hand,
capable of cutting a respectable figure in action, is, one fears, a much
rarer type. Langholm was essentially a man of letters. He was at his
best among his roses and his books, at his worst in unforeseen collision
with the rougher realities of life. But give him time, and he was not
the man to run away because his equipment for battle was as short as his
confidence in himself; and perhaps such courage as he possessed was not
less courageous for the crust of cowardice (mostly moral) through which
it always had to break. Langholm had one other qualification for the
quest to which he had committed himself, but for which he was as
thoroughly unsuited by temperament as by the whole tenor of his solitary
life. In addition to an ingenious imagination (a quality with its own
defects, as the sequel will show), he had that capacity for taking
pains which has no disadvantageous side, though in Langholm's case, for
one, it was certainly not a synonym for genius.
It was 3.45 on the Monday afternoon when he alighted at King's Cross,
having caught the 9.30 from Northborough after an early adieu to William
Allen Richardson and the rest. Langholm made sure of the time before
getting into his hansom at the terminus.
"Drive hard," he said, "to the Capital and Counties Bank in Oxford