A WOMAN SCORNED

“What! will she place her foot upon my neck,
And hold me helpless, writhing in the dust?
Nay, such a thing is folly at the best,
‘Tis ill to tamper with the meanest worm,
For, serpent-like, I’ll wound her in the heel,
And when she falls from her magnificence,
I’ll twist my coils around her dainty throat
And sting!–and sting!–and sting!–until she dies.”

“Who is Mrs. Veilsturm?”

A good many people asked this question, when a woman, black-browed,
voluptuous, and imperious as Cleopatra, flashed like an unknown star
into the brilliance of a London season four years ago. No one could
answer this question, the quidnuncs for once were at fault, and
although ladies in drawing-rooms and men in clubs set their wits to
work to find out all about her, no one could give an opinion with
certainty as to who she was, where she came from, and what was the
source of her income.

The society papers, who usually know everything, could not unravel
this riddle, and it was reserved for the indefatigable Billy Dolser to
lift in some measure the veil which hung over the past of this
beautiful enigmatical woman. Under the heading of “A Cleopatra of
To-day,” an article appeared in the “Pepperbox,” setting forth a very
delightful story which satisfied everyone except a few suspicious
grumblers, but whether it was fact or fiction, no one was quite sure.

According to this veracious chronicle, Mrs. Veilsturm (or as the
“Pepperbox,” thinly veiling her identity, called her, Cleopatra) was a
West Indian Creole, born in the island of Cuba, the daughter of a
wealthy planter. Her parents died when she was young, and according to
all reports, she lived a life of semi-barbaric magnificence in the
somnolent Spanish island. Later, becoming tired of her secluded life,
she went to Jamaica, and there met Captain Veilsturm, at that time
reputed to be the handsomest man in the island. He married her, and
for some time she reigned as Queen of the Regiment, but her husband
dying suddenly of yellow fever, she left Jamaica, and came to England,
intending with her great wealth to enter into London society.

In this laudable ambition she was helped by Major Griff, a well-known
man about town, who had been in Veilsturm’s regiment, and who, if
report spoke truly, would have been glad to have married his lovely
widow. Mrs. Veilsturm, however, did not care to tempt matrimony a
second time, and refused the Major, who, nevertheless, remained her
closest friend, for her deceased husband had made him his executor. So
the wily Major looked after all the entire property of the husband
(consisting of a small house in the country), and the large property
of the wife (consisting of West Indian estates), to the mutual
satisfaction of both himself and the widow.

Major Griff was invaluable to her in more senses than one, as he knew
everyone and everything, and was enabled to float her successfully in
London society through the influence of his friends.

How it was done the “Pepperbox” scribe did not venture to say,
although he hinted that the Major’s influence in inducing his friends
to take up the lovely widow, was not due so much to their friendship
as to the Major’s possession of certain disagreeable secrets. However,
let the means used be what they might, Mrs. Veilsturm obtained a
social success in a select circle, and became quite the rage of the
season. The Major’s tactics and her own craftiness, added to her
undeniable beauty, enabled her to take up an excellent position, and
although the next season some people showed a desire to drop her, Mrs.
Veilsturm was too clever to let them do so, and managed to confirm her
social prestige in the most dexterous manner.

She had plenty of money, great beauty, a delightful house in Park
Lane, and was an admirable hostess, so with this galaxy of virtue
Society was fain to be content, and spoke well of her to her face,
although behind her back they characterised her as an adventuress. It
was dangerous to do this, however, as Major Griff was ubiquitous and,
constituting himself her protector, dared any man or woman to speak
evil of Cleopatra, whose character and life were above suspicion.

With certain reservations this was the story the “Pepperbox” told, and
whether people chose to believe or doubt, it did not matter to Mrs.
Veilsturm, who went serenely on her way, protected by the faithful
Major. Some houses, however, were closed against her, as the Major was
not omnipotent, and in these some disagreeable stories were told about
the beautiful Creole, but Mrs. Veilsturm’s set, although undeniably
fast, was also as undeniably “in the swim,” so she was supremely
indifferent to such scandal.

As to the houses closed against her, she did not pose as an exiled
Peri at the gates of a Paradise guarded by Mrs. Grundy, but set
herself up in rebel authority over her own friends, and defied the
ultra-exclusive people in every way. As they did not invite her to
visit them in Paradise, she returned the compliment by not asking
the pleasure of their company to–well, the other place, and as she
gave most delightful entertainments, the dwellers in the Mrs.
Grundy-guarded-Paradise could not help feeling rather annoyed. They
looked down on Mrs. Veilsturm, they called her an adventuress, they
wondered how any decent people could tolerate such a woman, and yet
they regretted that the laws of social respectability forced them to
ignore such an attractive woman.

This being the position of affairs, rebellious Cleopatra would,
without doubt, have gained her ambition, and obliged even these
jealously-guarded doors to be opened to her, but for an unfortunate
rumour which originated no one knew where, and, creeping through
society like a snake, raised its head and hissed disagreeable things
regarding gambling.

Gambling!

Yes! Rumour, in the guise of bewigged old ladies over tea, and
would-be juvenile old men over something stronger, said that Mrs.
Veilsturm had very charming Sunday evenings, very charming indeed, but
a trifle expensive to those not greatly blessed with this world’s
goods. At these Sunday evening receptions, at a late hour of the
night, certain green-covered tables made their appearance, and such
production led to the playing of nap, of unlimited loo, baccarat, and
such like games, over which a good deal of money changed hands.

It was also observed that who ever lost, Major Griff did not, but that
a good deal of the money on the tables managed to find its way into
his pockets. This had nothing to do with Mrs. Veilsturm certainly,
still it was curious that this wealthy woman should permit her house
to be turned into a gambling saloon, for the sake of giving Major
Griff a nice little income, so rumour once more set to work to solve
the problem, and made several startling assertions.

First, that Society had been imposed upon, as Mrs. Veilsturm was by no
means wealthy, and that the West Indian estates were a myth, emanating
from the fertile brain of Major Griff.

Second, that the relationship between the beautiful Creole and the
disinterested Major was by no means as artless as was supposed, and
that the money gained by the Major went to keep up the house in Park
Lane.

Third, that Mrs. Veilsturm and the Major were in partnership together
for the purpose of making money, and that the woman’s beauty and the
man’s skill were the stock-in-trade of the said partnership.

Then these disagreeable reports were whispered everywhere, and even
Major Griff, astute and cunning as a fox, could not find anyone to
whom he could give the lie; and despite his emphatic contradiction of
such report; people began to fight shy of fascinating Mrs. Veilsturm,
and the dainty little house in Park Lane.

The second season of Cleopatra in London, however, was nearly over, so
Major Griff, being an old campaigner, knew that out of sight is out of
mind, and determined to withdraw himself and his partner from town for
a time, until the next year, when he hoped to come back to Mayfair,
and proceed with more caution. Accordingly, Mrs. Veilsturm announced
to her dearest friends in confidence (so that it would sure to be
repeated) that she was tired of town, and was going to her little
place at Denfield, which she did shortly before the end of the season,
and the fact was duly chronicled in the Society papers.

The Major did not accompany her, as he did not want to give colour to
the reports about his relationship with Mrs. Veilsturm, and moreover,
wanted to hear the result of this dexterous move. The result was
exactly as the astute Major calculated, for people began to say that
Mrs. Veilsturm was greatly maligned, as the Major had not accompanied
her into the country, and that had she been the adventuress she was
asserted to be, she would not have left London, where she was reaping
such a rich harvest, for a dull country house. The Major’s diplomacy,
therefore, was entirely successful, and Society was quite prepared to
receive Mrs. Veilsturm when she chose to come back to Park Lane. So
after the lapse of some weeks, Major Griff joined Mrs. Veilsturm at
Denfield, to talk over the success of their clever move.

He found her in clover, for as no disagreeable rumours had found their
way to this out-of-the-world locality, and she was known to be a
leading lady in society (videlicet the Society papers), all the
provincial gentry called upon her, and she visited at their houses,
fascinating everyone with her brilliancy and beauty.

“Major Griff, a great friend of my poor husband,” was duly introduced,
and being an admirable sportsman, and a bold rider, soon succeeded in
becoming as popular as Cleopatra, so he was perfectly satisfied with
the attitude of things as he foresaw the return of the firm to London
would be after the fashion of a triumphal entry. Provincial gentry
were dull company, certainly, but a guarantee of respectability, and
the fact that Mrs. Veilsturm was at all the great houses in the
country would be duly chronicled in the papers, and being seen by the
London folk, would shew that she was not an adventuress, but a lady of
great wealth, moving in the best society.

Then Mrs. Veilsturm made a mistake.

Against the advice of the Major, who had known and detested Gabriel
Mostyn, she called on Gabriel Mostyn’s daughter and left her card,
with the hope that the visit would be returned. On the evening of the
day she had done this, she was waiting for dinner in the little
drawing-room, and Major Griff, in evening dress, was lounging against
the mantelpiece with a glass of sherry at his elbow, listening to her
remarks.

A handsome woman was Mrs. Veilsturm, as she leaned back in a deep
arm-chair, fanning herself slowly with all the grace and languor of a
Creole. A dusky skin, masses of coal-black hair, with a suspicion of
frizziness, betraying the African blood, large black eyes, a sensual,
full-lipped mouth, and the figure of a Juno, she was a wonderfully
handsome woman in a full-blooded way. Her arms and neck were
beautifully proportioned, and dressed as she was, with the negro’s
love for bright tints, in a lemon-coloured dress, with great masses of
crimson flowers at her breast and in her hair, she looked a beautiful
imperious creature, with a touch of the treacherous grace of the tiger
in the indolent repose of her lithe limbs. A painter would have
admired her voluptuous form, a poet would have raved on the dusky
beauty of her face, with the sombre light in the sleepy eyes; but no
man who had any instinct of self-preservation would have trusted this
feline loveliness, so suggestive of treachery and craft. Some highly
imaginative man averred that Mrs. Veilsturm put him in mind of a
snake, and certainly there was more than a resemblance to a serpent in
the sinuous grace of her evil beauty.

As for Major Griff, he was a tall, dried-up man, like a stick; with a
hard, handsome face, iron-grey hair and moustache, and keen eyes,
which looked everyone straight in the face. A thorough scamp, it was
true, yet with sufficient dexterity to hide his scampishness, and a
military cut-and-dried brevity which disarmed suspicion. Some rogues
fawn and supplicate to gain their ends, but not so the Major, who
habitually grave, plain in his speech, and brusque in his manner, gave
everyone the impression of being a blunt, straightforward soldier. He
was stopping at a friend’s house in the town of Starton, which was a
short distance away, and had come over on a friendly visit to Mrs.
Veilsturm, who lived mostly alone, as her house was not large enough
to enable her to receive company. This did not matter, as she
generally dined out every night, but on this special evening, the two
had to consult about their plans, so Mrs. Veilsturm had refused an
invitation with many thanks, but “you see I have to speak about
business connected with my West Indian Estates with my trustee, Major
Griff,” and the givers of the invitation were quite impressed with an
idea of her wealth. The West Indian Estates were a capital bait
wherewith to gull people as, being at a distance, no one could deny
their existence, and the very mention of them had a golden sound,
suggestive of toiling slaves and untold riches.

“So you did do what I told you not to, Maraquita?” growled the Major,
who called Mrs. Veilsturm by her Christian name when alone.

“If you mean in the way of calling upon Lady Errington, yes,” she
replied indolently, sweeping her sandal-wood fan to and fro and
diffusing a subtle eastern perfume through the room.

She had a beautiful voice, full, rich and mellow, yet with a certain
roughness which grew more pronounced when she became excited. Anyone
would have been fascinated by this voluptuous beauty lounging in the
chair, while the dreamy fragrance of the sandal-wood seemed to add to
her rich, eastern look, but custom had habituated Major Griff to this
barbaric loveliness, and he spoke curtly, being annoyed and making no
effort to conceal his annoyance.

“You were wrong, quite wrong, I tell you,” he observed, taking a sip
of sherry.

“Do you think I’m a fool?” asked Mrs. Veilsturm harshly, with a frown.

“I do! What woman isn’t–on occasions?” was the polite response.

Mrs. Veilsturm laughed in a sneering fashion, in nowise offended, as
the private conversations of this precious pair were apt to be rather
disagreeable at times, but the Major, always cool and imperturbable,
knew better than to provoke the Creole’s wrath, which resembled, in
its force and terror, the storms of her native land.

“You are polite, I must say,” said Maraquita, coolly, “but I’m used to
your manners by this time, so we need not argue about them. Let us
talk business, and tell me why you object to my leaving a card on Lady
Errington, seeing that she is a great personage down here, and may be
useful to us.”

“You ask me a question of which you know the answer well enough,”
returned the Major deliberately. “Lady Errington is the daughter of
Gabriel Mostyn, and I don’t suppose you want your relationship with
him raked up.”

“I don’t see there is much chance of that,” she replied
contemptuously. “Mostyn is dead, and his daughter knows nothing about
me.”

“Don’t you be too sure of that,” said Griff significantly. “This girl
attended to her father for four years when he was ill, and Mostyn with
his monkeyish nature was just the man to torture a woman by telling
her all kinds of things of which she would rather have remained
ignorant.”

“Still, she was his daughter, and even Mostyn would hold his tongue
about some things to her.”

“Humph! I’m not so sure of that.”

“Are you not?–I am.”

The Major frowned, pulled his moustache, and then finishing his sherry
at one gulp, spoke sharply.

“You appear to be sure of a good many things, Maraquita, but perhaps
you will be kind enough to remember that union means strength, and
that your well-being in the eyes of the world is of just as much
importance to our schemes as my knowledge of human nature. If I hadn’t
made you leave London, things would have been said which would have
closed every door against you.”

“And what about yourself?” asked the Creole her dark eyes flashing
dangerously as she shut her fan with a sharp click.

“The same thing precisely,” retorted Griff; coolly. “People were
beginning to think I knew too much about cards, so it was wise in me
to have made an end of things as I did. Don’t you make any mistake,
Mrs. Veilsturm, I am no more blind to my own defects than I am to
yours, and you have just as much right to pull me up if you catch me
tripping as I have to keep an eye on your conduct. And let me tell you
that your calling on Lady Errington is a mistake, as the good she can
do to us is nothing to the harm she might do to you.”

“Nonsense! I tell you she knows nothing.”

“So you said before, and I hope she doesn’t, but if she does there
will be trouble.”

“What can she do?” demanded Mrs. Veilsturm with supreme contempt.

“If she she knows anything, she can tell all her friends about that
South American business.”

“If she comes to measuring swords with me in that way,” said Maraquita
with vicious slowness, “I can tell a few stories about her late father
which won’t be pleasant for her to hear.”

“Pish! what good will that do? You can’t tell stories about Mostyn
without inculpating yourself. It won’t harm his memory, which is black
enough. It will only harm you, and through you, me. No, no, Mrs.
Veilsturm, I’ve too much at stake to risk the world finding out what
we want kept quiet, and if Lady Errington does not return your call,
put your cursed pride in your pocket and hold your tongue.”

“I’ve got my wits about me as well as you,” said Cleopatra coolly, “so
you needn’t lecture me as if I were a school-girl. Besides, my
position is too strong in Society to be hurt by Lady Errington or any
other silly fool of a woman.”

“Your position, my dear,” remarked Griff with cruel candour, “hangs by
a thread, and that thread is Mr. William Dolser, of ‘The Pepper Box.’
He put in what I wanted, and made people shut their mouths, but if he
turned nasty, he could find out quite enough to make them open them
again.”

“If he tried to, you could promise him a thrashing.”

“That wouldn’t do much good. He’s used to the horsewhip.”

“Then you could have an action for libel against the paper.”

“And very nicely we’d come out of it. Whether we won or lost it would
be the death-knell of our campaign in town. No! no, I’ll keep The
‘Pepper Box’ in a good temper by judicious bribes, and you on the
other hand, don’t play with fire or you’ll have the whole place in a
blaze.”

The dexterous arguing of Major Griff evidently impressed Mrs.
Veilsturm, for she made no reply, but looked down frowning at one
dainty foot in a high-heeled slipper that was resting on the green
velvet foot-stool. She knew her partner was right in all he said, but
with feminine persistence was about to renew the argument and have the
last word, when a servant entered the room and presenting a letter to
his mistress, left it again, closing the door noiselessly after him.

Mrs. Veilsturm, leaning back languidly in her chair, was about to open
the letter, when Major Griff stopped her.

“Wait a moment, Maraquita,” he said deliberately, with a certain
anxious look on his face. “You know I often have an instinct as to how
things will go?”

She bowed her head, but said nothing.

“I had an instinct that your calling on Lady Errington was a mistake,
and that letter is from Lady Errington to tell you so.”

Mrs. Veilsturm laughed scornfully as she tore open the envelope, but
the Major, putting his hands behind his back, leaned against the
mantelpiece, and looked steadily at her with a satisfied smile on his
lips.

The woman had wonderful self-command, for as she read Lady Errington’s
curt note, no sign of anger escaped from her lips, but her dark skin
flushed an angry red and a venomous smile curled the corners of her
full mouth. Still she gave no further sign of being moved, but having
read the note through in the most deliberate manner, handed it to the
Major with a low, fierce laugh.

Major Griff adjusted his eyeglass carefully, smoothed out the sheet
of cream-coloured paper, and read as follows in a subdued voice:

“Lady Errington presents her compliments to Mrs. Veilsturm, and
returns the enclosed card, which was evidently left to-day at the Hall
by some mistake.”

“So I was right, you see,” observed Griff, leisurely folding up this
short epistle and letting his eyeglass drop down. “Mostyn did tell
her about you after all–damn him!”

The Major swore in a tranquil manner, without any sign of anger, but
that he was greatly annoyed could be seen by the twitching of his thin
lips under his grizzled moustache. As for Mrs. Veilsturm, her temper
had got the better of her discretion, and having left her seat, she
was sweeping up and down the little room like an angry panther in its
cage.

“Well Maraquita,” said Griff quietly, after a pause, “you see Lady
Errington has declared war, as I knew she would.”

“You knew no more than I did,” hissed Maraquita viciously.

Major Griff smiled at her in a pitying manner.

“Instinct, my dear! Instinct! I told you what was in that letter
before you opened it.”

“I should like to kill her,” said Cleopatra, glaring at him in a kind
of cold fury.

“I’ve no doubt you would, but, as you can’t, why waste time in useless
threats?”

“That she, a school-girl–a brainless fool–should dare to put such an
insult on me,” raged Mrs. Veilsturm, clenching her fan tightly. “How
dare she? How dare she? Does she know what I am?”

“She does,” replied the Major drily, “her letter shows she does.”

Maraquita looked from left to right in wrathful despair, then throwing
all prudence to the wind, snapped her fan in two, threw it on the
ground, and stamped on the fragments.

“I wish she was there! I wish she was there! What can I do to punish
her? What can I do?”

“You can do nothing,” replied Griff, examining his nails. “To make war
on Lady Errington would be like throwing feathers at a granite image
in order to hurt it. She has an assured position in Society. You have
not. She has a past that will bear looking into–you have not. She has
everything in her favour–you have nothing, so be a philosopher, my
dear Maraquita. Grin and bear it. Vulgar certainly, but sound advice,
very sound advice.”

Mrs. Veilsturm turned on her dear friend in a fury, and stamped her
foot on the broken fan, looking like a demon with her blazing eyes and
clenched white teeth, which showed viciously through her drawn lips.

“Hold your tongue,” she shrieked wrathfully, “don’t stand sneering
there you fool. Tell me what I’m to do.”

The Major poured out another glass of sherry from the decanter on the
table and advanced towards her.

“Have a glass of sherry, and keep your temper,” he said soothingly.

Cleopatra glared at him in speechless anger, then struck the glass
from his hand with such violence that it shattered to pieces on the
carpet. Griff shrugged his shoulders, and walked back to the
fireplace.

“You’re acting like a fool, Mrs. Veilsturm,” he observed, tranquilly;
“first you broke a fan, now you break a glass–silly, my dear, very
silly! It doesn’t hurt Lady Errington, but only yourself. By-the-way,”
glancing at his watch, “it’s seven o’clock. I wonder when dinner will
be ready, I’m dreadfully hungry.”

His partner, however, was not listening to him, but a sudden thought
seemed to have struck her, for the fire died out of her eyes and her
complexion resumed its usual rich hue of health. After a pause, a
gratified smile broke over her face, and bending down she picked up
the fan.

“I’m sorry I broke this,” she said, quietly, advancing towards the
Major; “it was such a pretty fan. Dolly Thambits gave it to me. Never
mind, I’ll make him give me another.”

She spoke quite cheerfully, and the Major stared at her in silent
surprise at this sudden change from intense anger to languid
tranquillity.

“Upon my word, you puzzle me, Maraquita,” he said doubtfully. “A
moment ago you were like a devil, now you are within reasonable
distance of an angel. What is the meaning of this change?”

The beautiful widow put one slender foot on the fender, looked in the
glass, touched some ornaments in her hair, then replied, in a
wonderfully calm manner:

“Simply this, that I see my way to punishing Lady Errington.”

“The deuce you do.”

“Yes; she is newly married, and, no doubt, loves her husband–he’s a
fool, for I’ve seen him in London, so through her husband I’ll punish
her.”

“Oh, I see,” said the Major, grimly; “you intend to make love to the
husband.”

“What acute penetration, my dear Griff! That’s exactly what I intend
to do.”

“No good,” answered the man, shaking his head. “Errington is newly
married, and can see no beauty in any woman save his wife.”

“He’s a fool I tell you,” retorted Mrs. Veilsturm, coolly, “and I
never met a man yet I couldn’t twist round my finger. He may be
difficult to manage in his character of a newly married man, but I’ll
gain my ends somehow.”

“And then?” queried Major Griff.

“And then,” echoed Cleopatra, viciously, “when I’ve estranged him from
her and possibly led to a divorce, I’ll have my revenge.”

“At the cost of your own position.”

“Don’t you be afraid. I’ll look after that! I’ll keep my position and
ruin her happiness at the same time.”

“You’re playing with fire.”

“Fire that will burn them, not myself! Come, dinner is ready, give me
your arm.”

“One moment! When do you intend to begin the business?”

“That depends on Sir Guy Errington. As a newly married man, I dare say
I can do nothing with him. Newly married men sometimes get tired of
honey. When he does, then I will step in.”

“Suppose he does not get tired?”

“But he will. I tell you he’s a fool.”