And if

Lady Jim boarded a special train to Firmingham in a royal rage, the
more riotous for necessary suppression. After the shock of the
unexpected had passed, she gave a flitting thought of pity to her
drowned relatives, and reverted hastily to selfish considerations.
Solitude permitting the play of temper, she punished the fetish, by
flinging its outward and visible sign of a peacock’s feather from the
compartment which witnessed the unmasking. That her Baal should have
played her such a trick was intolerable, and still more intolerable
the thought that circumstances muzzled her. For the first time in her
victorious life Leah Kaimes dealt with a fixed decree, against which
there was no appeal.

What could she do? Nothing! To make chaos of a continent would not
have relieved her feelings, and there was nothing to wreck in the
limited space of the carriage. Unable to sit still, she threw herself
from seat to seat, feeling like a caged tiger, with the added savagery
of a trained intellect. Unlike the beast, she had the use of speech to
vent her wrath, but this she did not utilise from a conviction that no
words would do justice to the situation. A Texan mule-driver’s
vocabulary would have fallen short of her requirements. Her impotent
anger was like that of a dog leaping and slavering against an
offending but unreachable moon.

And the facts–the hard ironic facts, which she could not do away
with, scheme as she might! Those inflexible actualities buzzed in her
brain, until repetition took the rhythm of the droning wheels
underfoot. Pentland was dead, along with his son and heir; Hilda, a
widow with two girl babies, who did not count in the succession; Jim
was wiped out of social existence, and by her own act. Remained
Lionel, the curate, the prig, her one honest man–the Duke of
Pentland. Leah could have screamed in the face of this crushing truth.

A title at the best, fifty thousand a year, three country seats, a
town house, spacious and crammed with beautiful things, and a Scotch
moor with an adorable shooting-box. This was the heritage of the new
peer! “Of a milk-and-water parson,” raged Lady Jim, unjustly, “who
will waste everything in charity, and turn the houses into pigsties
for the unclean. Oh, Lord, to think that such a clerical ass should
get the inside runnings!” This latter phrase she had picked up from
Miss Mulrady, and at the moment it seemed expressive.

The position would not bear thinking about; yet she had to think,
appealing betweenwhiles to the gods-of-things-as-they-are for reasons
to justify such shabby treatment. What had she done, that they should
be so disagreeable? It was enough to make a truly virtuous woman, as
she assuredly could call herself, dance a can-can in Piccadilly. Then
she desisted for a few moments from calling the Unseen bad names to
lament over her own short-sightedness. To think that she should have
sold Jim’s birthright for thirty thousand pounds! It was not even one
year’s income of the Pentland estates. She would have been a Duchess,
too; not that she personally cared for rank, but with a higher
position she could have trampled the more easily on her enemies. A
thought of these flashing into her mind made her clench her fists and
grit her teeth. How they would rejoice, the beasts, to think what she
had missed, and by how short a period she had missed it! If they had
only one neck, as Caligula desired for his enemies, how she would have
enjoyed a chop at it!

“Oh!” cried Leah, banging the cushions and choking in the dust thus
raised–“if I could only bring Jim back!”

It was a kindly wish, as she desired him to enjoy the good things that
had fallen into his sham grave. But there did not seem much chance of
achieving the impossible. Jim was dead and buried, and the interment
had been legally sanctified by her tears. If he came to life it would
be difficult to explain how a corpse in his name came to occupy a
niche in the Kaimes vault. Also, inquiry might lead to the production
of a Siberian exile. If Demetrius told the truth–which he assuredly
would do in the face of a betrayal he must guess was her work–there
would be no place for her in Society, and she would starve, a social
Peri at the gates of a forbidden Paradise. No! Think as she would–and
think she did till her brain ached–things had to remain as she had
foolishly arranged them. It was a galling thought to think that none
but she who suffered was responsible. She could not even lay the blame
on the stars; but she could and did on the fetish. It was something of
a relief to have thrown its peacock manifestation out of the window.

Two hours in the railway carriage tamed her unruly nerves into some
sort of submission, and partially schooled her into accepting the
inevitable. To make the best of it, to rob the new Duke shamelessly of
money and the Curzon Street house, on the plea of disinheritance, were
the results at which she arrived. By the time Firmingham appeared
through the carriage windows she had ceased to kick against the
pricks. The mask was on her face when the train stopped, and it
was a quiet and demure lady who alighted at the station. Even the
sister-in-law who entered the great house to console the Marchioness
was as sympathetic as the most exacting could have required.

She suppressed a groan when she passed through the doors of the lordly
mansion that was really and truly her own, but managed by a steady
exercise of her strong will to greet Colley with great calmness. The
butler intimated that Lady Frith wept incessantly in her boudoir, and
that the Duke—-

“What?” queried Leah, sharply, adding more grammatically, “Who?”

“His Grace the Duke, my lady. He is in the study.”

“Mr. Lionel Kaimes?”

“As was, my lady. His Grace came down last night.”

“Augh! Why wasn’t there an accident on the line?” muttered she, who
longed to announce herself as a genuine duchess and could not.

“I beg pardon, my lady!”

“Oh–er–I’ll go to my room, Colley. Tell his Grace I shall see him in
an hour.”

When she had changed her dress for one heavier with crape, as a sign
of additional grief, and had lain for a miserable forty minutes
without closing an eye, and had swallowed a much-needed dose of sal
volatile, and had relieved her feelings by scolding an unoffending
maid, she went before the footlights to play her most difficult and
unpalatable part. The former nobody, seated at his predecessor’s desk,
rose, looking pale and careworn.

“A terrible thing,” said the new Duke, giving his hand gravely.

“Awful. I can scarcely believe it. Is it really true?” and she had a
passing hope that it might not be, seeing she could not benefit.

“Only too true, unfortunately.”

“For those two, I suppose you mean. You’re all right.”

“A square peg in a round hole, I fear,” he sighed. “I would give much
that both had survived.”

“How unnatural!” commented Lady Jim, with a grimace. “But you always
were eccentric. People won’t mind that, now you are a duke. But I am
sorry–really–for them, I mean. Such an awful thing to be cut off
before you’ve made your arrangements for an agreeable reception in the
next world. What a mercy they went together–for company, you know;
and they say drowning is really quite nice after the first choking is
over.”

Lionel looked at her sternly, but felt helpless. She played with the
solemn issues of life and death as a child with a bauble. Would
nothing touch her heart? Would nothing make her serious? The flippancy
jarred on his overstrung nerves. “Please do not talk like that,” said
he, harshly and emphatically. “Please do not.”

“I am only trying to cheer you up,” she answered, opening her eyes
wide, and with a faint smile softening her hard mouth. “I really
cried–you mustn’t think me hard-hearted; really, I cried when I heard
of the accident. I suppose it was an accident?”

“I should call it the act of God.”

“Oh!” Leah could find no very pertinent reply, and glided dexterously
into another subject, to prevent religious instruction. “I came down
to see poor Hilda, as she wanted me so badly. But I thought it best to
learn details from you first. We must spare the poor thing’s feelings,
you know, Lionel,” ended Lady Jim, thoughtfully.

His face brightened. “I am glad you call me that,” said he, earnestly,
“for I confess it is difficult for me to respond to my title.”

“You’ll get used to it,” she assured him. “I suppose you will drop the
parson now?”

“Certainly not. I am still my Master’s servant. He has merely raised
me to a higher and more responsible position in His household.”

“Raised your wages also,” murmured Leah, shrugging. “I beg your
pardon, Lionel, I should not have said that.”

“You should not, indeed,” was the pained response.

“It’s a kind of hysteria,” apologised Lady Jim, almost at a loss for
an excuse, “like that man who botanised on his mother’s grave, you
know. Besides, people who really feel, laugh awfully when sorrow
comes. And Jim’s death took most of my tears–poor dear Jim! I daresay
you think that I am unfeeling; but I’m not–really and truly, I’m not.
What with these dear things dying so unexpectedly, and my own feeling
of widowhood, and condolences from people who will say the wrong
thing, I feel broken-hearted.”

Lionel smiled grimly at this incoherent and wholly false explanation.

“You have a strange way of showing grief, Lady James.”

“Don’t be nasty, now that you are up in the world. I’ll be quite
different with Hilda, poor soul, though I must be natural with you. It
is a compliment, if you only look at it in the right way, which of
course, with your priggishness, you won’t. And you needn’t use that
cheap title of mine, just to remind me how nearly I’ve missed being
called by a more expensive one. I suppose Joan will be your duchess.
Do you think she will fill the position!”

“Admirably.”

“How curt! There is still a lot of the parson about you, Lionel.”

“And ever will be.”

“World without end, I suppose. Hysteria again, Duke, so don’t look
shocked. Give me details.”

The young man looked again at this wonderful being. For many months he
had known the impossibility of altering Leah’s view of things seen and
unseen. The most sacred subjects seemed to appeal to her sense of
humour, and no solemnity could banish the ever-ready smile from her
lips. In reality he was unjust in thinking thus. Lady Jim, considering
her losses and the ironic position she occupied, only kept herself
from shrieking out the truth by giving vent to ill-timed frivolities.
Her greatest relief would have been to tell this prig that he was a
supplanter. Hysteria, said she, was the excuse for unnatural
merriment, and truly hysteria it was, although she could not swear to
it. Unaware of all this turmoil in the mind of the mourner in motley,
Lionel positively thought that troubles had rendered her distraught,
and so passed over her incongruities.

“The yacht was on her homeward way,” he explained, in the eminently
laboured fashion of a landsman when dealing with ships. “During that
storm a week ago she went down off Brest–Cape Brest.”

“Struck on a reef?”

“No; she sprang a leak, and the boats were stove in, so no one could
be saved in that way. By clinging to a spar the steward reached shore.
He alone survived”; and Lionel covered his face to indulge in a silent
prayer for those who had perished.

Lady Jim was more practical according to her lights. “Why did you only
hear this week-old news yesterday?”

“The steward, the survivor, was ill with fever: also he was wounded in
the head,–against the rock, I suppose. The yacht was seen to founder
far off shore, but no one at Brest knew her name. When the steward
came to himself the other day, he explained, and the news was
telegraphed to the Duke’s lawyers, who sent for me. I expect we shall
not learn full details till this steward arrives. He is now on his way
to London.”

“And the Duke–Frith?”

“Their bodies are in the depths with the ship and those who formed her
crew. Peace be to their souls!”

“You needn’t worry about that,” said Leah, tartly, and paying her
tribute to the dead. “I am quite sure that the Duke and Frith have
gone to that heaven you’re always talking about. It is awful,” she
added pensively, and with a shudder; “but talking only makes it worse.
I’ll go and see Hilda, poor dear.”

Lionel followed her to the door. “Lady James, let me beg of you to
keep the–er–hysteria in check.”

“Of course,” she assured him, giving her hand frankly; “I always adapt
my mood to my company. It would be useless for one woman to waste
hysteria on another–both know too much about it. I’ll be nice–oh,
you can be sure of that. I’m not a bad sort, my good man.”

“Sometimes I think you are a very decent sort, Lady James.”

“And on other occasions?” she questioned, unmoved.

“Don’t ask me.”

“I won’t. You can’t explain, and will only fib. Parsons can’t keep
back an answer, whether they know anything of the matter in hand or
not. But I’ll be good to that poor baby-woman–indeed I will.”

And indeed she was, swinging round to the opposite extreme, with the
protean adaptability of her nature. Besides, after the interview with
the new Duke she felt able to command her feelings better. It is only
possible to act perfectly when the emotions are under control, as Lady
Jim found; and if she said what she did not mean, and acted as she did
not feel, well, that was the fault of the circumstances into which her
treacherous fetish had thrown her. But at heart she really had some
pity for this useless doll of a woman, who sobbed in her arms.

“Don’t cry, dear,” said Leah, ardently, beginning to console; “you
know how I feel for you. I also have lost a husband.” Owing to
circumstances she rather choked over this lie, but it came out pretty
readily.

“I shall never–never lift up my head again,” sobbed the latest widow.

“Oh, yes, you will, dear,” replied the earlier one, cheerfully: “look
at me!”

Hilda shook her head and declined to look. “Frith wasn’t Jim,” said
she.

“And he wasn’t my husband, either. You feel Frith’s death and I feel
Jim’s. We each have our own sorrow, and time alone will help us to
forget the dear departed.”

“Leah”–Hilda sobbed more violently than ever–“I shall never–never
forget. Never–never–never–never!”

“I didn’t mean forget exactly,” murmured Leah, who had been more
candid than she intended; “but time will soothe us, and we shall all
meet on a happier shore.”

“I hope so–I hope so”; the Marchioness clasped her hands devoutly and
raised her eyes. “I can see our three dear ones meeting now.”

“I wish I could,” said Lady Jim, truthfully, and she felt that the
meeting of the Kaimes family in heaven would be a sight worth
witnessing. Of course Jim was alive, but even if he were dead, she did
not think that Hilda’s vision could possibly become fact. The Duke,
who had turned angel in his old age, and Frith, who was always pious,
had a chance certainly; but Jim, when his turn came, would probably
not be of the party.

However, the business of consoling a sore heart had to be attended to,
and Leah dosed Hilda with all the platitudes which the Marchioness had
used during a similar and earlier event. And Lady Jim was so admirable
an actress that she really deceived herself into thinking that her
stage-play was real life. Her eloquence, her attentions, her hoverings
like a guardian angel over Hilda, her bringing in the children–that
was a master-stroke–and her general zeal in drying a mourner’s tears,
were truly wonderful. By the time she left the Marchioness, sitting up
with “his children” on her lap, soothed and comforted, and grateful
for Leah’s kindness, poor Lady Jim felt quite exhausted.

“I do hope there will be a decent dinner,” she soliloquised, in the
seclusion of her own room. “I can’t stand much more of this without
food.”

Through the troubles of death and the joys of birth, the worry of weak
minds and the scheming of strong ones, ever moves the solid business
of life connected with eating and sleeping. Therefore the Firmingham
cook, being a hired servant, was sufficiently master of his emotions
to send up a really tempting repast. The new Duke and the disinherited
Duchess partook of this meal in a small room without attendance.
Wishing to talk family matters, they did not desire eavesdropping
footmen. Besides, Hilda remained in her own apartment, nourishing her
emotions with red lavender, and calling at intervals for “Bunny” to
come back. Lady Jim paid several visits to the poor little soul during
the evening, and each time was successful in cheering her up; but it
was trying work, as again and again she had to begin from the
beginning. No wonder she looked harassed when seated opposite to her
host. Lionel thanked her gratefully, and with reason, for Hilda had
eulogised Leah and her work of mercy.

“I knew you would prove yourself a true woman,” said he, pouring her
out a glass of champagne.

“Oh, Lord!” said Lady Jim, sipping the wine, and wondered what he
would say could he see into her mind. “Give me some of that
vol-au-vent, Lionel. It is really very good.”

The man felt slightly disappointed. “You can eat?”

“Do you require me to tell you that?” she asked lightly. “I have
enjoyed every course. Eat–I should think so. You don’t want me to
faint, as Hilda has been doing.”

“But your feelings”

“Oh, they are well under control, now. And after all”–Leah paused
with a fork half-way to her mouth–“it’s best to be sensible even when
things smash. If I had come down to howl about the house, where would
you have been?”

“I really cannot understand your nature.”

Lady Jim nodded. “Same here. I never know what I shall do under given
circumstances, save keep my poor wits about me. We’re strange beasts,
Lionel–strange beasts.”

He disagreed, mindful of her Good Samaritan kindness. “You make
yourself out to be worse than you are, Lady James.”

“Don’t you make any such mistake. I never seek cheap praise by crying
down my virtues. Were you my father-confessor–which you are not–and
I religious–which I have no inclination to be–I should shock you
into Hilda’s state. Poor little thing, what an undisciplined mind she
has, and how she does work for those tyrants the emotions! I think you
had better send for Joan: she is used to women who run wild.”

“You put things unpleasantly,” said he, uneasily.

“And truthfully. Answer my question, please.”

“Joan arrives to-morrow with her mother.”

“I am glad,” Leah assured him fervently. “Too many female cooks can
never spoil the funeral broth. The more women you have in a mourning
house the better. We like to weep in company and to talk obituary
notices. That is, other women do. I fancy I have a dash of the man in
me, and this sort of undertaker rejoicing gives me the creeps.”

Lionel secretly agreed with her, although he disapproved of the mode
of expression. Ostentatious grief he disliked, as most men do, and
discussing funeral emotions threadbare was not to his healthy liking.
Therefore did he talk business with Lady Jim. It was necessary to
distract his attention, she said, and so set about plundering the
heir. By the time coffee arrived Lionel had promised her the Curzon
Street house as a gift, and had agreed to pay all debts as the late
Duke had arranged. Also, untruthfully assured by Leah that her
temporal prosperity had suffered by the untimely demise of Jim, he
promised to pay a quarterly thousand a year for the rest of her life.

“Yes,” said Lionel, emphatically, “even if you marry, Lady James.”

“I have no intention of marrying yet,” said Leah, who was busy with
Kümmel. She really felt that the consoling of a tearful widow required
Kümmel.

“I thought that Mr. Askew admired you.”

“He admires a new schooner he has bought, and some woman in South
America. Oh, Mr. Askew has a catholic mind, I can tell you.”

“Dr. Demetrius!”

“He has gone to Russia, I believe, on business connected with his
pardon. Didn’t Joan tell you how he was taken ill in Paris?”

“Yes; what a strange thing!”

“Oh, I don’t know. He once told me that he inherited fits–mother’s
side. It was very rude of him to have one in my rooms, but some men
are so inconsiderate.”

“He loves you.”

“Or loved me–which?”

“Present tense, I fancy. Will you marry him?”

“Will I marry the Emperor of China, you mean. No, thanks; I have no
wish to live in a country of bounce and bombs. And I never could read
those novels written by men with unpronounceable names. Besides, I
can’t bear dapper little men with waxed moustaches. I only tolerated
Dr. Demetrius because he was useful to Jim.”

“A great friend of your husband’s, I believe.”

“Do you? Does one generally make a friend of one’s doctor?”

“The man was certainly credited with being your friend. And more, he
talked openly of his love for you.”

“What bad taste! I don’t see how you can hold me responsible. He did
love me, I believe–at least, he pestered me with attentions. It’s a
mercy he has gone to Si–I mean to Russia. I hope he’ll stay there,
and be eaten up by white bears like those poor brats Elisha was so
spiteful to. As to marrying”–her eyes twinkled–“it won’t be easy to
replace poor Jim. He was such a good husband.”

“You never said that when he was alive.”

“Of course not: he would have taken advantage of the compliment. But
Jim wasn’t bad on the whole. He left me alone, at all events. Perhaps
his successor will bother me to show public affection: as if I
would–or could, for the matter of that.”

“Lady James, do you love any one but yourself?”

“You and Joan–dear little innocent glass-case dolls that you are.
Yes; you may blush and smile, but I am really in earnest. You were
always so rude to me that I knew you to be genuine.”

“Oh!” Lionel exhibited shocked surprise. “I hope I was never rude.”

“Horribly, on all occasions. If you had not been, I never should have
believed that you were genuine. When people mean what they say, and
don’t want anything from one, they are always rude; it’s a kind of
trademark. I am sure Socrates was a man you could always trust and
would never have invited to dinner. You’re something like him, only
you don’t ask questions and are better-looking. I always consider you
the one honest man in a world of rogues, and if you were not engaged
to Joan, I should marry you.”

Lionel coloured still deeper and laughed in an embarrassed fashion. “I
might have something to say to that.”

“Not at all. Didn’t you hear me say that I should have married you.
What could you or any man do against me?” and she laughed with an
insolent pride in her beauty and powers. “By the way,” she added, “I
have to run up to town to-morrow on business. Do you mind?”

“Not at all. Joan and her mother will be here. Do exactly what you
please, Lady James.”

“Call me Leah, now that you are the head of the family,” she murmured,
and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.

He threw back his head and met her eyes, with a boyish blush. “Leah!”
he breathed. “Very well, then–Leah.”

Lady Jim tapped his smooth cheek indulgently. “You foolish thing,” she
said, kindly; “if it was worth my while, I could—-” Leaving the
sentence unfinished and Lionel furious, she left the room. That
she–this hardened coquette of the world, should dare to think he
would forget the sweetest and best of girls. Let her sing the song of
the sirens as she might, he would never–no, never, prove false to
Joan. But honest as were these thoughts, Lionel was but a man, when
all was said and done, and the touch on his shoulder, the look in her
eyes, the cooing murmur of her voice, made him wince, and not
unpleasantly. Well was it for the young man that Leah did not choose
to try her wiles, else he might have been lured towards that pit the
edges of which are wreathed with roses. Had his future Duchess been
any other than Joan the simple, a perverse spirit might have led Lady
Jim to indulge in some perilous amusement; but she liked the girl, and
honestly respected Lionel. Therefore did the lover scoff at her magic
arts, strong only in escaping temptation. Had Leah put forth her
powers—- “Silly little donkey,” she thought, climbing the stairs,
“as if I couldn’t do what I liked. It would be a hard battle, but I
could–I could–I could,–only I shan’t,” she finished. “Joan is a
dear girl, and I am the most worried woman in the world.”

She made the latter part of this final remark again, when she conned a
brusque and somewhat imperative letter which had arrived by the
evening post. It came from one Richard Strange, and purported to be
written from a third-rate Strand hotel. This uncivilised communication
intimated that the aforesaid Strange would be obliged–this
underlined–if her ladyship would afford him an immediate interview.

“M’m,” commented Leah, glancing suspiciously at the underlined word,
“he isn’t sure of his money, and means to be nasty if he doesn’t get
it. Well”–she heaved a sigh–“he must be paid, I suppose, the
blackmailing beast. And the whole sum down, I expect. Time payments
won’t be acceptable to a man who writes in this fashion.”

She wrote an artful letter, stating that Dr. Demetrius had spoken of
his travels with a Captain Strange, and, solely because she wished
to hear of poor Mr. Garth, who had been a protégé of her late
father-in-law, she made an appointment at 10, Curzon Street, for five
the next evening. This epistle, which did not recognise existing facts
and could be shown to the whole world without betraying anything
underhand, she sent off at once. If possible, she would have shirked
meeting a man she more than suspected of being a brute. But to
vanquish danger one must meet it, as she very well knew.

“And if he wants more than his thousand,” thought Lady Jim, again on
her way to the widowed Marchioness, “he’ll find that I am quite equal
to deal with him, and with a dozen like him, if need be. A thousand
pounds! Oh, Lord! The greedy wretch!”

Then she spread her wings as a ministering angel.