he raised his musing eye

Lady Aspasia and M. Châtelard were seated one on each side of the
fireplace, fairly monopolising the benefits of the situation. Although
the thought of Sir Arthur, upstairs with his young wife—no doubt coaxing
the insolent beauty into a better temper—was no very agreeable one to
her, Lady Aspasia, with the good-humoured, material philosophy of her
kind, made the best of what fate left her. She toasted her well-formed,
well-shod foot at the blaze; found that the old-fashioned winged
armchair (with the help of a cushion) was as comfortable as any modern
copy if not more so, and that M. Châtelard was undoubtedly an
entertaining companion. He had seen curious things on his travels, and
he could tell of them with a French spice. By a series of jerks the two
drew ever closer together; finally blocking the hearth. Their voices
were lowered by imperceptible degrees; their heads inclined towards each
other. Lady Aspasia’s laugh rang loud and often; and presently, by a
tacit agreement in which the conversation gained enormously, each
relapsed into the native tongue.

“Upon my word,” said Lady Aspasia to herself; “I’ll send in his name for
my royal party.”

M. Châtelard, pouring forth a whispered flow of language, with a pause
on the delicate point, and a quiet chuckle after the ready listener had
had time to seize it and ring her hearty, unreserved tribute of
appreciation, was privately making little notes for future publication,
with all the traveller’s joy of discovery. “Et il y en a encore qui
croient que les Anglaises sont guindées! Un esprit tout
Rabelaisien—cette dame! Allons, l’age Victorien est bien mort et
enterré!”

Miss Aspasia, who some time back had been told, with a flap of Lady
Aspasia’s hand, “not to listen, little girl,” sat, highly disapproving,
at the further end of the room. Bethune, whose existence the great lady
now elected to ignore, had taken a chair at a little distance from the
girl. A monosyllabic conversation began between them and dropped. He
asked her for some music, and she tartly refused with a reproachful
look. She wondered at him. Did he not know her aunt’s head was bad?
He didn’t know? Well, he might have seen that she was ill! To this he
made no answer, and thereafter they spoke no more. The man had a talent
for taciturnity, but the effort of Baby’s silence seemed to bristle.
She sat very erect. Her mouth pursed, her nostrils dilated, her eyes
widely opened, her arched eyebrows more arched than ever. The tittering,
the whispering, the laughter, the meaning wriggles of the two backs as
they leant towards each other before the hearth, irritated her beyond
endurance.

“M. Châtelard,” she suddenly cried, in fluent French, with her _enfant
terrible_ directness, “do tell me—I don’t want to be rude; but why do
you cut your hair so close to your head? Isn’t it very cold this
weather?”

“Alas, Mademoiselle,” said he, turning round; his alertness of courtesy
was ingrain; “I do not dare to show to the world that my head is quite
white.”

“You think it looks better pink?” said Baby, innocently.

“Pink!” said M. Châtelard, a little disconcerted, passing his hand over
his cropped pate. “Is it possible?” Then, sparkling: “Pink? I had no
idea that Lady Melbury had so made me blush!”

“Oh, blush!” cried Lady Aspasia, her momentary displeasure with the pert
schoolgirl lost in a yell of delight at M. Châtelard’s readiness; “It’s
well that my blushing days are over!”

“Oh, Milady!” And they put their heads together again.

Young Aspasia pinched in her rosy lips so tight that they made the most
absurd button of a mouth ever seen. Bethune, who had listened with
immovable gravity to this sally, betraying indeed no sign of having
heard it, save for the rolling of an icy eye towards M. Châtelard, now
let his glance rest upon her. The hard muscles of his face began to
soften.

He had been slowly making up his mind during the whole of the evening,
and now he had decided. He would leave the manor-house on the morrow,
and cut himself once and for ever apart from its inmates. But, the devil
was in it that, in the midst of the most intolerable mental trouble he
had ever endured, he should have once and again this absurd unreasonable
feeling that if he were to carry away with him this pretty Aspasia, this
fluffy, pouting, pert, bird-like thing, it would be sweet! Something
like the blessedness of a peep of blue in a sky of lurid clouds, a ray
of sunshine across a barren moor, a snowdrop in bleak winter. The
feeling had no sense in it. He was a prey to as strong a passion as
ever possessed a man; and he not only despised himself, hated himself
for his passion, but was conscious that by the object of it he was held
a thing of scorn. More than this, she, who thus in spite of reason
filled his thoughts, was suffering, and he could not lift a finger to
help her. The whole source of her suffering was only vaguely understood
by him; but he knew that her husband’s presence had nearly driven her to
desperation. It was acute torture to him now to think of Sir Arthur in
his wife’s room; and yet … haunted by these unworthy degrading
thoughts of one who should have been twice sacred to him, he found
himself longing to take Aspasia to his breast—bright-eyed Aspasia,
pecking, twittering, fluttering like an angry dove, withal so soft, so
warm, so true! His inconsequent heart seemed to cry out for the comfort
of her.

Sir Arthur opened the door and looked in.

“Pray, pray,” said he, inserting an arm, after his head, to wave back
the confidential couple who with a great scraping of chairs had risen to
their feet, “do not let me disturb any one. I am only looking for
Aspasia.”

“Oh Lord!” said Aspasia, under her voice, alarm springing to her eyes.
“I’m here, Runkle.”

“Can you spare me a few minutes’ private conversation, my dear Aspasia?”

His tone was very solemn. He was conscious of the hush that had fallen
upon the room, conscious of the perturbed looks that were fixed upon
him, conscious of his own countenance of trouble. But it was not
without a gloomy self-approval that, given circumstances the most woeful
that could perhaps be imagined, he realised there were few who could
negotiate them like himself.

Aspasia went reluctantly to her uncle’s summons. Her heart was heavy
with anxiety concerning Rosamond. In her constitutional distrust of
whatever course of action Sir Arthur might take it into his head to
adopt, she had an oppressive sensation that most of the responsibility
of affairs rested upon her own young shoulders.

“Lord,” thought the girl to herself, as her lagging feet took her across
the drawing-room; “if one could only just shut up Runkle in a box for
six months, there might be some hope of things settling down.”

Sir Arthur beckoned her towards the little study, where, through the
half-opened door, a ruddy light showed that the room had now been made
ready for the smokers. His air of portentous gloom so exasperated Baby
that she had to relieve her feelings by childish kicks at the mats in
the hall as she passed.

“I presume that we shall be undisturbed here for the present,” said Sir
Arthur. He pushed open the door and started back with an irritated
exclamation: “Confound that fellow, he’s like a night moth!”

Between the fire and the lamplight, Muhammed Saif-u-din stood facing
them. It seemed as if he had been pacing the little space, and had
wheeled round at the sound of their approach. Baby’s heart gave a wild
throb, and then stood still. The Indian had certainly been very
restless all the evening. Sir Arthur Gerardine’s arrival seemed to have
excited him in a singular manner, and there could be no mistaking now
the straight, vindictive look that the secretary fixed upon his master.
She was minded of a splendid black panther she had seen at an Indian
village fair, not so very long ago.—The beast had been padding the
narrow limits of its cage backwards and forwards until she had drawn
close to admire it, when it had stopped and fixed her with its eyes—just
such a gaze (she told herself, shivering) as that which Muhammed fixed
on Sir Arthur; a gaze as concentrated as unfathomably savage. “Him very
bad beast,” had said the showman, grinning at her.—”Him dreaming of
drinking Missie Sahib’s blood.”

* * * * *

Sir Arthur’s grating voice rang out angrily in a brief phrase of
Hindustani. The Pathan unfolded his arms, made a gesture with one hand,
and left the room without speaking. In that gesture Baby nervously read
the meaning: I can bide my time.

“Runkle,” she cried, catching her breath, “how could you bring that
dreadful man over from India? I’m sure it’s not safe. Even Major
Bethune—and he’s lived all his life among them, you know—thinks he’s
mysterious. Oh, do, do be careful!”

“Aspasia,” said Sir Arthur, severely, “I am surprised at you. I have
other matters, matters of far other moment on my mind, I can tell you.
What nonsense is this? The fellow there doesn’t know his place, I grant
you. I’ve just told him so. You saw how he quailed. He’s devoured
with curiosity, that’s all. And, indeed,” Sir Arthur sighed, “there are
strange things taking place in this house. He may well be curious.”

“Oh, Runkle, I don’t think it’s that; he’s not the ordinary type of
Indian, I’m convinced. He’s got some purpose here.”

“Pooh, nonsense, my dear Aspasia! Purpose? Ridiculous! I should hope I
know how to deal with the creatures by this time. Don’t you begin this
sort of nerve business, too—I shall begin to think,” said poor Sir
Arthur, running a distracted hand through his grey curls, “that there’s
something about this pestilent place that’s driving everybody crazy.”
Again he caught himself up with a deep sigh on the last word. “I shall
give Master Muhammed his lesson to-morrow. I don’t require to be taught
how to manage the cattle—under the heel, my dear, under the heel!
To-night——” He paused. “Aspasia,” he lowered his voice: “I am
addressing you in the utmost confidence, relying upon your good sense
and judgment. Listen to me calmly and answer me with truth absolute.
Have you ever noticed any symptom in your poor aunt…?”

He had leant forward to drop these words mysteriously into her ear; now
he straightened himself, shook his head, and tapped his forehead.

“Uncle Arthur…!” gasped the girl, her pretty round face suddenly
pinched and small, her eyes abnormally large. What, indeed, were such
trivial speculations as a Pathan’s possible yearning for Sir Arthur’s
blood to so hideous a suggestion as this? Here was her own hidden terror
of all these weeks voiced calmly, judicially; in acknowledgment of,
almost in resignation to, an accomplished fact.

“You can’t mean——” she stammered.

“My dear,” said Sir Arthur, with melancholy triumph, “I am in very
serious anxiety. Your aunt’s manner to-night, the things she has said
to me just now, her actions, her looks—I can only explain them,
heartrending as it is to me to have to admit it, in one way.”

“Poor Aunt has got neurasthenia,” faltered the unhappy Baby.

“My dear Aspasia,” said Sir Arthur; “may it be only that! I pray it may
be only that. But the affair is too serious. I shall have the best
professional advice to-morrow, the first mental specialist in England.”

“What!” screamed Aspasia, suddenly scarlet to the roots of her hair;
“you’re never going to get a horrid mad doctor for poor darling Aunt
Rosamond?”

“My dear Aspasia!” ejaculated he, beating down the sound of her crude
words with his hands. “It is my duty, Aspasia, to get the best advice,
the best treatment, at the earliest possible opportunity. And it is
your duty,” he said, fixing his eyes sternly upon her, “to tell me
everything that can conduce to a better knowledge of her state.”

Rivulets of cold water ran down Aspasia’s back. She felt a sudden, awful
premonition of relentless fate closing about her; of the cruelty of
human beings to each other; something of the terror of the ignorant
patient in the surgical ward.

“What would they want to do with Aunt Rosamond?” she faltered.

Sir Arthur shook his head again.

“Sometimes the only chance is a temporary retreat—temporary, we must
hope and trust.”

“You mean,” she shrieked, and advanced on him with her small fists
clenched; “shut up Aunt Rosamond, shut her up—— Never! You wicked,
horrible old fool! What should you shut her up for? She’s not mad.
She’s no more mad than I am. Why should you call her mad, just because
she turned sick at the sight of you all guzzling dinner?”

“Hush, hush!” he cried.

“I don’t care who hears me,” she retorted, in the same high tones of
sobbing indignation. “You _were_ guzzling. Your nasty old Lady Aspasia
positively gobbled, and so did that disgusting Frenchman with the pink
head. I suppose she’s mad because she told you the truth for once,
upstairs? I’m glad. If some one had told you the truth before, it
would have been better for everybody.”

Upon which cryptic utterance she flung herself from the room, but popped
in her head again for a last shot:

“Of course, if the doctor asks me why poor Aunt ever married you, I
shan’t quite know what to say—it’s the only queer symptom she’s ever
shown, to my knowledge.”

Sir Arthur sank into the armchair, speechless. Presently he sought for
his handkerchief, and, with an exhausted hand, passed it across his
beaded forehead. The ring of Lady Aspasia’s laugh floated across the
hall through the door which the girl had left ajar. The sound of that
cheery, heart-whole mirth, the thought of that comfortable, healthy,
everyday, high-born woman heightened the sense of his own utter
dejection. Had he not made an irremediable mistake after all?

Meanwhile Aspasia, with an unreasoning sense that she could not too soon
be at Rosamond’s side to protect her, took the oak stairs at a canter,
pausing merely at the first landing to choke down the sobs with which
her breast was bursting.

“I only hope and trust Muhammed will be quick about it, and stick Runkle
to-night,” she said to herself, mopping her eyes fiercely, her
pocket-handkerchief tightly rolled into a ball.

At her aunt’s door she met Jani, who checked the headlong approach with
brown finger on lip and long-drawn: “Hush!”

* * * * *

In the drawing-room Raymond Bethune, a bad third, heard the ring of
Aspasia’s voice and the hammer of her flying heels on the stairs, and
realised, with keen disappointment, that she was not coming back. He
had been longing for the instant of her return for a twofold reason—his
devouring anxiety concerning Lady Gerardine, and the desire to exchange
a few last quiet parting words with the girl herself, since he intended
to walk out of the Old Ancient House, unobtrusively, with the coming
day.

As the patter of little feet died away, however, he rose stiffly from
his neglected corner, and, approaching the jocular pair by the fireside,
looked down at them with a sort of dignified awkwardness until they
would vouchsafe some consciousness of his approach.

The Frenchman, after struggling for a minute between his courtesy to the
lady, who went on pouring a country-house story into his ear, and what
was due to the patiently waiting gentleman, at last laid a warning
finger on Lady Aspasia’s wrist.

“Je crois que Monsieur désire nous parler,” he said engagingly.

“Oh,” cried the mistress of Melbury Towers, and gave an insolent
half-turn of her smooth head, a half-twist of her handsome eyes in the
direction of Bethune, as an indication that he might say his say and
have done with it.

“I thought I’d bid you good night,” said the man, stolidly.

“Comment, mon cher major,” cried the polite Châtelard, springing to his
feet, “already?”

“I’m going in the morning,” went on Bethune, in the same level tones;
“I’ve got to pack.” His words and glance were fixed on the indifferent
lady. “I think you were kind enough to say something about my coming to
Melbury Towers for Christmas. I am sorry I can’t accept.”

Lady Aspasia’s eyebrows were raised a fraction of a line.

“So sorry,” she said cheerfully. “I’m sure Sir Arthur would have liked
to see more of you.”

She did not offer him her hand, or turn her glance upon him. He bowed
in the direction of her pronounced profile, and turned to find himself
effusively seized by the globe-trotter.

“Comment, cher major,” cried the latter in tones of unaffected
disappointment; “you leave to-morrow? And I who had so much pleasure in
the renewing of our acquaintance. It is not possible we part thus.”

“Que diable,” the psychologist was saying to himself, “c’est comme ça
que l’on arrange ces petites affaires-là en Angleterre? Le mari arrive,
vous trouve en tête-à-tête, et l’amant part. Voilà tout. C’est inouï!
Je m’attendais, je l’avoue, à un dénouement plus palpitant. Mais malgré
tout…” Bethune had gone, without a word. The door was closed. M.
Châtelard was resuming his seat: “N’y-a-t’il pas, quand même, quelque
chose de fort intéressant dans cette simple solution?—oui, un caractère
exclusivement Britannique dans cette simplicité; comme qui dirait un
vestige, au milieu du désordre même, de la vertu puritaine qui tenait si
fort aux apparences, de cette horreur du shocking si profondément
enracinée dans l’Anglo-Saxon?”

As he raised his musing eye, he found Lady Aspasia’s bright grey orb
fixed upon him with a world of meaning.

“Hush!” said Jani, “Missie Sahib ill. Must not be disturbed.”

“Is she in bed?” whispered Aspasia. “Don’t be a stupid, Jani. I shan’t
do her any harm.”

With her hand on the door handle, Jani shook her head till the monstrous
gold ear-rings waggled against her cheeks.

“Missie Sahib, no more disturbed to-night,” she repeated emphatically.
Her opaque eyes were fixed with triumphant resentment upon Aspasia’s
countenance. Aspasia, the off-hand young lady, who flouted old Jani’s
vested right, who had taken upon herself to do Lady Gerardine’s hair
this very night, must learn that her presence was not always desirable.

“Who is there?” cried Rosamond’s voice, high and strained, from within.
“I can see no one. Jani, you must let no one in.”

“There, missie,” said the old woman.

Aspasia pushed the claw-like hand ruthlessly from the door knob.

“It is I, Aunt Rosamond,” said she, tapping the panels with soft
consolatory palms. “You’ll let me in, darling, won’t you? I’ll do
police, too, never fear, and better than Jani.”

“Oh, you! Come in,” bade the voice within, faintly, but with an
unmistakable accent of relief.

Aspasia made a face at Jani, but passed in with something less than her
usual flounce. Lady Gerardine was seated before the fire in her white
dressing-gown, her arms hanging, her hair loose about her. Jani had
evidently been interrupted in the act of brushing by the sound of the
approaching footsteps, and had flown to her sentry post.

“Stay outside, Jani. Lock the door, Baby.”

Lady Gerardine just turned her head sufficiently to give these orders,
then relapsed into her brooding attitude, her eyes hard, dry, encircled,
fixed unseeingly upon the fire, her face livid, save for the burning
spot on either cheekbone. Aspasia, aghast, stopped a second to survey
her.

“She does look very ill,” she thought hopelessly. “Worse than ill.” And
her heart contracted.

“Darling,” she said, approaching timidly, “just let me plait this dear
hair, and then you must get to bed.”

“I wish it were shrivelled on my head!” said Lady Gerardine, staring
before her, and sending out her words, it seemed, as aimlessly as her
glance. “It is accursed.”

“Aunt Rosamond, what are you saying!”

“Harry loved it. It was his hair, his golden hair, and that other man
has put his horrible touch upon it.”

“There’s no doubt of it,” said Baby to herself, as with the gentlest of
touches she gathered the long strands together, “though I’ll never admit
it to any one; darling Aunt Rosamond is mad. Those dreadful letters,
the poor dead husband, and the horrid old living one have driven her mad
between them! They shan’t shut her up, though, not while I live, not
while I can fight.”

The child had no fear in her heart for herself. How could any one, she
thought with a great gush of compassion, have fear of this poor,
desolate, beautiful creature? She finished the plait, while the figure
before her maintained its sinister immobility. Then she leaned forward
and slipped her arms round it in a close embrace.

“My angel, how cold you are! Only your cheeks are hot—hot.”

“Don’t kiss me,” said Lady Gerardine. “You don’t know what defilement
you are holding.”

“Dear Aunt, come to bed.”

“I was his, his consecrate—body and soul, and I gave myself to another.”

“Oh, Aunt Rosamond,” cried the girl, with a sudden upspringing of tears,
as a glimmering realisation of the other’s anguished mind broke, upon
her. “He is a happy spirit. He understands.”

“It is you who cannot understand,” angrily answered the woman. “Even in
life he wrote: ’my flesh rebels against the thought.’ It was the worst
sting of death to him. And I never knew. Now I have lost him, I am
lost.”

Baby took the nerveless hands in hers, and chafed them while her tears
rolled slowly.

“Pray to God, dearest,” she whispered. “He will help you.”

Rosamond drew away her hand with a great cry.

“God? There is no God!”

“Oh, Aunt!”

“Yes—there is, there is—a God of unsparing justice. Only a God could be
so merciless and so just. It is just, it is just. I have sinned
irremediably. I am punished for ever. What can you—you child, you
child, what can you know of my sin?”

“I know this,” cried Baby, kneeling down and gathering the cowering form
to her strong embrace; “that you are ill, that you don’t know what
you’re saying. But God is mercy,” sobbed Aspasia, very reverently—she
was shy of her religion, and spoke low, even amid her tears; “I know
that God is mercy, and that those who are with Him must be merciful
too.”

“Do you cry for me?” said Lady Gerardine, a sort of wonder in her weary
tones, as the wet cheeks were pressed against her face. “I cannot cry
for myself. I am beyond tears.”

With this, she suffered herself to be helped to rise, and made a feeble
movement towards the bed. But at the sound of a closing door beneath,
of steps on the stairs, she started violently and clutched the girl’s
arm.

“You will not let anybody in…. Nobody must come into my
room—Aspasia—Aspasia!”

“No, no! The door is locked. Darling, don’t be so frightened; how your
teeth chatter! Aunt, I promise you shall be left in peace. I will
watch. Can’t you trust me? They’d better not!” she added convincingly,
if vaguely.

The long convulsive shudders continued even after Baby had coaxed her to
bed, and piled the bedclothes over her. She sat a long while by the
sick woman, still rubbing the bloodless fingers, speaking soothingly
from time to time. But Rosamond herself spoke no more.

At last silence fell upon the Old Ancient House. Steps ceased to resound
along the echoing oak. Doors were definitely closed; even Lady
Aspasia’s pervading voice seemed to be hushed for the night. Then Lady
Gerardine suddenly turned to her niece with something of her old gentle
look:

“Go to bed, my child,” she said. “Sleep, at least while you can. Your
little face looks tired!”

“I’ll sleep here with you, if you’ll have me,” said Aspasia, kissing the
hand she held.

“No, no,” said the other. “I must be alone. I shall have Jani, she
will watch. Good night.”

Poor healthy Baby was in truth ready to tumble over with fatigue, and
had found her head, to her own fierce displeasure, nodding portentously
from time to time. She went forth with the uncertain gait of the
sleep-drunken, but paused at the door to give Jani minute and repeated
instructions, which the latter, vividly alert, received with undisguised
scorn. With much satisfaction the ayah re-entered her mistress’ room,
and locked the door upon her drowsy rival.