His wife shrugged her shoulders

A triple knock at the door both interrupted Leah’s meditations and
annoyed her, as she was far from wishing for company. It could not be
Jim, as he usually banged the panels impatiently, and walked in before
the invitation to enter could be heard through the noise of his
tattoo. Besides, Jim, for obvious reasons, connected with Askew, had
made himself scarce for the last four-and-twenty hours. Should it be a
visitor, Leah resolved to decline conversation, especially with one of
her own sex. But the women of the house-party so rarely ventured into
Lady Jim’s sitting-room, that she concluded the disturber to be some
servant with a message. Perhaps Jim had broken his head while skating,
or had made a hole in the ice. If so, his death would greatly simplify
matters.

“Come in,” she cried impatiently, and to her surprise, Lionel
presented himself, with a somewhat diffident look. “Oh, it’s you,
padre!” Lady Jim had picked up the word from a Sandhurst cadet.
“What’s the matter,–anything wrong?”

“What should be wrong?” inquired Kaimes, closing the door and
remaining on the inside.

“Oh, I don’t know. I always expect bad news when I see a lawyer’s
letter or a parson’s face. Well? Has Lady Canvey been converted, or
has Jim gone to that place where the climate forbids skating?”

“Nothing of the sort has happened,” said Lionel, dryly. “I have merely
come to chat with you.”

“Sit down, then, though I warn you I don’t feel companionable.”

“You are worried.”

“My dear man, when am I anything else but worried, with Jim for a
husband, and the Duke behaving like Shylock at his worst? You and Jim
have made a mess of things.”

“I don’t know about Jim,” said Lionel, resenting this ungrateful
speech, “but I did my best to put matters in the right light.”

“Oh, Lord, who wanted a right light? The less light on Jim’s and my
affairs the better. A few white lies would have resulted in a larger
sum than that miserable two hundred with which the Duke insulted us.”

“I am not in the habit of telling lies, white or black, Lady James.”

“I daresay. You parsons are so ridiculously punctilious. As if
diplomatic lies were not as oil on the troubled waters of this world.”

“I did not come to discuss this,” said Lionel, seeing how utterly
impossible she was, “but to help you in your trouble.”

“What trouble?”

“I don’t know. I was reading in the library, when a feeling came to me
that I must see you at once–that you needed assistance.”

Leah looked rather queer. What could he possibly know of her late
experience? “Telepathy, I suppose.”

“Well, that may be the scientific name for the Divine Spirit.”

“The what?”

“The Divine Spirit,” he repeated, firmly and seriously. “I believe
that the impulse to seek you came from above. You are in danger.”

“Am I–of being bored to death?”

“You can’t deny that you are in trouble of some sort. I can see it in
your expression.”

“My trouble is my own. I share it with no one.”

“Then you are in—-”

“Pray don’t question me,” snapped Leah, with a nervous glance around.
This interference of the Unseen with her material affairs was both
weird and uncomfortable. She could not deny the panic that had driven
her headlong from the security of the flesh, and it was remarkable
that Lionel, unsummoned and unsought, should seek her at so critical a
moment. The feeling that he was meddling with what did not concern
him, annoyed her the more. “I wish you would not frighten me,” she
cried, with an angry determination to stop this uncanny business.

“Perhaps it is your conscience that is frightening you.”

“How dare you say that?”

“Because there is something serious the matter, or I should not have
been called to your assistance.”

“I never called you.”

“Then your good angel did.”

“I don’t believe in such things.”

“Do you believe in anything?”

“Yes,” she said defiantly–“in myself.”

“That is a poor help in time of trouble.”

“I have managed very well hitherto.”

“Can you substantiate that statement, seeing how embarrassed your
worldly affairs are at this moment?”

Lady Jim could find no direct answer. “Parsons have nothing to do with
worldly matters,” she muttered, averting her eyes.

“Very true. But if I can offer spiritual consolation—-”

“Take it to Lady Canvey. She needs it more than I do.”

“I doubt that, or the call would not have come.”

“It’s a false alarm, padre,” she said jeeringly. “I don’t want to be
preached at, and you’re suffering from indigestion, or softening of
the brain.”

“Well, Lady James,” said Lionel, rising with a sigh, “your limitations
may lead you to look at the matter in that light. But if I can do
nothing for you, I can only retire, after asking your pardon–as I
do–for my intrusion”; and he made for the door.

Her mood changed with feminine rapidity, and she beckoned imperatively
that he should remain. Disguise it as she would to Kaimes, his sudden
coming on the top of her late puzzling experience drove her to
acknowledge that something outside the material was at work. Leah was
too clever a woman to deny the existence of more things in heaven and
earth than came within the scope of her knowledge.

“It is the duty of you parsons to pry into the secrets of souls, I
suppose,” she said, leaning her elbow on the chair arm, and her chin
on her hand. “But what interest can you have in my soul–if I have
one?”

“I, as other servants of the Master, interest myself in all souls.”

“That you may save them?”

“Only Christ can do that.”

“I may deny His power to do so–I may deny Him.”

“And so fall as Peter fell,” said Lionel, sadly. “Yet he repented with
bitter weeping.”

“I am not a tearful woman,” she retorted, and turned to look into the
fire. She did not wish to meet his eyes when she spoke the ensuing
acknowledgment. “You are a good man, Lionel, and–and–you may be able
to help me.”

Kaimes resumed his seat. “I hope so; but I can only point the way to a
better Helper, and One more powerful.”

She continued to gaze at the burning coals. “I was frightened a few
minutes before you entered,” she said abruptly.

“By what?”

“That is the question you must answer. By something which made me see
what a horrid nature I have.”

Lionel was silent for a few moments, not quite sure of his speech.

“The Unseen presses closely around us,” he remarked at length, “and at
times reveals itself. For instance, a contemplated sin may be
prevented by a spiritual influence informing the intelligence how
terrible the consequences of such a sin may be.”

“It was the sin itself rather than its consequence which frightened
me,” murmured Leah, so softly that Lionel caught but one word.

“What is that you say about sin?”

Lady Jim’s cunning made her shirk confession. “Nothing–oh, nothing,”
she said hurriedly; “only it seems to me that everything pleasant is a
sin in your eyes.”

“Dead Sea Fruit,” replied Kaimes, earnestly; “fair to the eye, foul to
the taste. If you turn devoutly to the spiritual, the material
pleasures of this world lose their attractiveness.”

“Perhaps,” she said sceptically; “but many things goody-goody people
of your sort shudder at are attractive. You can’t deny that.”

“I have no wish to. Satan always supplies us with rose-coloured
spectacles, through which to contemplate his works.”

Lady Jim rose and walked up and down the narrow limits of the room,
twisting her hands in a nervous, hesitating way, quite unlike her
usually calm, decisive self. “I wish you would not talk nonsense,” she
snapped; “it is absurd to believe in a personal devil.”

“And in a possible hell also, I suppose you would say.”

“Oh,” she said carelessly, “scientists have explained that away.”

“And the Inquisition of the middle ages denied that the earth went
round the sun,” said Kaimes, grimly; “but I understand that it does.”

“Clever, but not convincing. What is the use of talking nursery
theology and cheap science to me? What can you say that is likely to
do me good?”

“The patient must be frank with his physician,” hinted Lionel.

“Oh, we always tell the exact truth to doctor and lawyer,” said Lady
Jim, scornfully, “because we fear for our bodies and our property. But
who tells the truth to a parson?”

“Those who are convinced of sin.”

“In that case I may as well hold my tongue. I am not convinced of
anything, not even if I ought to make you my father confessor.”

“I cannot compel your confidence. On the other hand, I cannot help you
unless—-”

“Unless! Quite so. Let me think,” and turning her back on him, she
went to the window. The early winter gloom was blotting out the
distant landscape, but near at hand the spectral glare of the snow
revealed blackly the figures of homeward-bound skaters. The cold
deadness of so sinister a world did not tend to soothe Leah’s
overstrung nerves, and shrouded Nature could give her no counsel. Had
it been a summer’s twilight of nightingales and roses, of sleeping
blossoms and murmuring leaves, she would have recovered sufficient
spirit to scoff. But this arctic waste, livid and still in the half
light, reminded her of the frozen hell, in the deadly chills of which
shuddered Dante, the seer. And the virile Saxon word hinted at the
possible, if not at the probable. Of course, it was all very
ridiculous, and her system was out of order. Nevertheless, she felt
that some kindly human comfort and advice might restore her tormented
mind to its usual peace. And whatever she said to Lionel, he would not
dare to repeat. As a cousin, as a gentleman, as a priest, his lips
would be triply sealed. And he might be able to point out a less
dangerous path than that towards which the need of money was driving
her. He was a good fellow, too, and honest enough, in spite of his
superstition. She decided to speak, and came back to her chair. Had
she been less material, she could have heard in the stillness the
rustling wings of a returning angel. Lionel looked at her inquiringly.
She was about to speak hurriedly, lest the good impulse should pass
away, when Jim’s tattoo was heard. With a snap Leah closed her lips,
as he lumbered, red-faced, hearty, and essentially fleshy, into the
room. The mere sight of his tangible commonplace made the woman thank
her stars that she had not blundered into hysterical frankness.

“Holloa, Lionel! Holloa, Leah! Sittin’ in the twilight an’ talkin’
secrets–eh? Mind some light?” He clicked the ivory knob near the
door, and the room sprang into vivid being. “Had a jolly day’s skatin.
Y’ should ha’ come, Leah. No end of a lark. Feel sick?” This polite
question was asked because she shaded her eyes from the glare.

“No; but I can’t stand wild bulls charging into a room.”

“Might call it a china-shop,” chuckled Jim, glancing disparagingly at
the nicknackery. “Nerves slack, I’ll bet. Fresh air an’ exercise an’
cheerful company is what you want, Leah.”

“I’m likely to get the last, with you,” she rejoined witheringly, for
the overpowering vitality of the man made her wince.

“Well, Lionel here’s–been no catch in th’ way of fun, I expect. Seems
to have given you the hump. Goin’, old man? All right! I’ll cheer her
up. See you at dinner.”

The curate nodded and went out. Since Jim’s plunge into the middle of
their conversation he had not uttered a word, for the interruption had
jarred on him, as on Lady Jim. Moreover, he departed with an intuitive
feeling that the golden moment had passed. And this was truly the
case. When she next saw him, Leah wondered why she had so nearly made
a fool of herself. And indeed, she was already wondering while Jim,
obviously embarrassed, discoursed in a breezy, blundering way, with an
attempt at connubial fondness.

“Poor old girl,” he said, sitting opposite to her, looking fresh and
handsome, and essentially manly. “‘Awfully sorry you’re chippy. If I’d
known I’d ha’ come back to keep you company.”

“Are the heavens falling?” asked Leah, listlessly.

Jim, as usual, could not follow this recondite speech. “Don’t know
what you’re talkin’ about,” he remarked good-humouredly, and bustling
to the bell. “You’re a peg too low, Leah. Tell you what: we’ll have
tea here, an’ a talk, if you don’t mind.”

His wife nodded, wondering if he was about to confess his possible
Mormonism. She did not think so, as Jim never confessed anything,
unless it was dragged piecemeal out of him. Her feelings at this
moment did not lean towards cross-examination, so she let him ring the
bell and order tea, without using her too-ready tongue. In fact, she
unbent so far as to make use of him.

“Get me a dose of sal volatile, Jim,” she ordered. “There’s a bottle
on my dressing-table.”

“Poor old girl,” said the sympathetic Jim, again, and stumbling into
the next room with eager haste.

Leah smiled to herself. This ready obedience argued a guilty
conscience.

After Jim dosed her, he was tactful enough to hold his tongue and
improve the fire, without clattering the poker and tongs. Then he
pulled down the blinds and drew the curtains, and altered the shades
of the electrics, so that Leah might not be overpowered by the glare.

“It’s quite like a new honeymoon,” she said, sarcastically. The drug
was doing its renovating work, and her original devil was returning to
a swept and garnished house, with seven other spirits more wicked than
himself.

Jim took the remark seriously, and coloured with pleasure. “I believe
we’d get on rippin’,” said he, enthusiastically. “If we only had the
money I believe we’d be as happy as birds.”

“They can’t be very happy in this cold weather,” replied Leah, seeing
plainly that Jim’s amiability was owing to a selfish fear of reproval
for his iniquities. “Here’s the tea. I don’t want any just now, as the
sal volatile is doing me good. You can eat.”

“Oh, can’t I, just,” said Jim, when the footman left and he was
filling himself a cup. “Th’ skatin’s given me an appetite. ‘Sides, I
want to get into form; as I’ve somethin’ serious to say about this
insurance business.”

Leah looked up suddenly. “I thought you had given that the go-by.”

“No–o–o,” drawled her husband, not meeting her eyes. “Course, th’
pater’s a good sort an’ all that. But his arrangement will give us a
howlin’ bad time for the next few years.”

“So I told you.”

“Well, then,” Jim fiddled nervously with a piece of toast, “why not
get the twenty thousand?”

“It could be managed, of course, with some little difficulty.”

“Through that Russian Johnny?”

“Demetrius? Yes.”

“You’ve see him, then?”

“To-day. He’ll see the thing through.”

“What’s his price?”

Leah smiled blandly, as she thought of what Jim would say did she
reply honestly to this question. But she did not intend to. It seemed
to her that Jim was driving her towards the very path which Lionel,
unknowingly, wished her to avoid. It was useless to fight against
fate, so she decided, and like many another person, she laid the blame
on those scapegoats, the stars. She was now completely dominated by
the selfish influence of the great god Mammon, and the lesser sin of
lying was swallowed up in the greater one of idolatry.

“He’ll want a few thousands, of course,” she said mendaciously; “but,
as yet, we have not fixed any sum.”

“Hum,” muttered Jim, suspiciously. “I thought he’d want something more
than money.”

Leah rose indignantly, and proclaimed a virtue that her conscience
assured her she might yet lose. “I am an honest woman, Jim,” she said
haughtily, “and, married or unmarried, I should never allow any man to
make love to me.”

“Seems to me you do.”

“Only to pass away the time. I stop short when—-”

“When their hearts are broken,” growled her husband. “Upon my soul,
Leah, I’m straighter than you are.”

“I doubt that, since you swear by what you haven’t got.”

Jim rashly became aggressively virtuous. “I’ve not been a bad sort of
husband to you, Leah.”

“I have seen so little of you that it is rather difficult for me to
give an opinion,” she said, resting her elbow on the mantelpiece.
“Mrs. Berring may be in a better position to judge of your virtues.”

Kaimes turned white with emotion, and he rose from his low chair as
though worked by springs. “It’s a lie,” he growled hoarsely. “I never
married her.”

“Married who?”

“The lady you talk about.”

“The lady Mr. Askew talked about, you mean. I merely mention her
name.”

“It is not her name. She is Lola Fajardo.”

“Of the Estancia, San Jago. So Mr. Askew explained.”

“Oh, if you’re goin’ to make a row—-”

“Do I ever make rows?” asked Lady Jim, impatiently.

“You don’t care enough about me to raise Cain,” said Jim, rather sorry
for himself. “I swear I’d be a different man, if you were a different
woman.”

“Every husband in the divorce court witness-box makes the same excuse.
Sit down, Jim, and let us talk over the matter quietly. Your
infidelities have long since converted us from man and wife into a
business firm to earn money.”

“But, Leah, I swear—-”

“By that soul you know nothing about?” she flashed out contemptuously.
“Talk sense, if you are capable of doing so. You have been trying to
dodge this explanation ever since you met Mr. Askew last night, in the
smoking-room. But now that we’ve stumbled on an opening, perhaps you
will explain.”

“Explain what?”

“All that Mr. Askew did _not_ tell me.”

“Oh, he’s been makin’ somethin’ out of nothin’, the silly ass,”
protested Jim, sitting down and handling the poker with a fervent wish
that he could use it on the sailor’s head. “I met Señorita Fajardo at
Lima, and later at Buenos Ayres. Her brother asked me out to their
estancia in the camp of Argentina, near Rosario, and I stopped there
for a month. Bit of luck came my way, an’ I pulled her from under a
beastly mustang, that would have kicked the life out of her. She took
a fancy to me, ’cause I saved her life.”

“Is that all?”

“Well, I went again to San Jago, last year—-”

“Your third visit to South America since our marriage.”

“Yes,” said Jim, sullenly; “an’ I met Lola–I mean Señorita Fajardo.”

“Oh, don’t apologise. Lola is a pretty name.”

“An’ she’s a pretty woman, an’ I’m flesh an’ blood,” cried Jim,
getting up to work himself into a rage. “I met her durin’ my second
visit, an’ went again to the estancia on my third. It was no use
luggin’ a title round, for these mouldy hotel-keepers always make a
chap pay for havin’ a handle to his name, so I called myself
Berring–James Berring.”

“James Berring, bachelor.”

“Bachelor, certainly. I haven’t married her, and if Askew says I have,
he’s a liar.”

“And assuredly a marplot,” said Leah, dryly, “since he has exploded
your romance. I understood from him that this lady loves you.”

“So she does.”

“And you love her?”

Jim wriggled. “Oh, go on–go on! Kick a chap when he’s down!”

“If I had intended to kick, you would have been black and blue by now,
Mr. James Berring. But you needn’t flatter yourself that my feelings
are hurt in any way. You’re not worth it.”

“Other women think differently.”

“Lola Fajardo, for instance.”

“Well, I can’t help that, can I? If you’d been a different sort of
woman, I’d have—-”

“You said that before. Had we not better get to business?”

“What business?”

“The insurance business. I don’t care for you, and you show very
plainly that you don’t care for me. It is useless for us to struggle
together like a couple of ill-matched dogs in leash. Give me fifteen
thousand of this money, and then you can marry your Lola woman.”

Jim turned white again. “You seem jolly anxious to get rid of me.”

“Can you wonder if I do? How many women would take this scandalous
matter as quietly as I do?”

“It’s not scandalous,” said Kaimes, fiercely. “She thinks that I am a
bachelor, and I’m not even engaged to her. I have tried to be true to
you, Leah,” declared Jim, pathetically.

His wife shrugged her shoulders. It was rather late in the day for Jim
to talk sentiment, besides being a waste of time. “Well?” she asked,
facing him squarely.

Jim read her purpose in a very flinty face. “I’ll do what you want,”
he said weakly.

“Then there’s no more to be said,” remarked Leah, coldly, moving
towards the door of her bedroom. “Demetrius will explain, if you will
afford him half an hour’s private conversation.”

“Leah, do you really mean it?”

“I have meant it from the first moment you put the idea into my head,”
she said in a harsh voice. “This underhand love-making of yours only
makes me the more determined.”

“But there was no—-”

“Don’t lie, Jim. A man can no more love two women than he can serve
two masters. Is it to be Lola Fajardo, or myself?”

“I leave it to you, Leah.”

“Then I choose the fifteen thousand pounds,” she said, and vanished
into the bedroom. Jim took an impulsive step towards the door, but the
sharp click of a turning key showed him that he was locked out for
ever.

That evening Leah talked so gaily, and looked so beautiful, that her
father-in-law was absolutely fascinated. “Is it all right between you
and James?” he asked graciously.

“Yes,” Leah assured him; “we understand one another thoroughly.”