IN THE COILS OF THE SERPENT

“By the magic of thine eyes
Thou hast drawn me to the brake,
As thy victim slowly dies,
Hiss in triumph, cruel snake.
Strangled now I gasp for breath,
Thus ensnared within thy toils,
I can only wait for death,
Helpless in thy shining coils.”

Mrs. Veilsturm was a lady who once having learnt a lesson from
experience, never needed to go to that unpleasant school a second
time. She saw plainly that her first tactics with regard to Errington
had been entirely wrong, as it was a mistake to treat such a
non-appreciative person with kindness. Therefore, when he returned to
her for a second time, she behaved towards him with cold disdain,
which had the effect of making him simply furious, as it resembled the
way in which he had been treated by his wife. Instead of taking
offence, however, and leaving his capricious divinity in disgust, he
followed her everywhere, resolved with dogged perseverance to force
her to revert to her earlier demeanour.

Wherever Cleopatra went, Errington was to be seen in attendance,
and at balls, theatres, garden-parties, the Park, Hurlingham, his
haggard-looking face appeared ever beside her. All the world of
London, seeing Mrs. Veilsturm’s change of front, thought that she was
tired of her last fancy, and began to pity her for the persistent
manner in which she was followed by her discarded lover. When
questioned on the subject, she simply laughed, and talked pathetically
about being a lonely widow, so that everyone said that she had been
badly treated in being suspected of favouring Errington in any way.

“A charming woman, my dear,” whispered the world, behind its fan,
“always behaved with the greatest delicacy in every way. But that
young Errington! Oh! good gracious! a young libertine–persecutes her
with attentions and she can’t possibly get rid of him. A bad young
man, my dear, a very bad young man.”

So the world, in its usual capricious manner, changed round
altogether, and whitewashed Mrs. Veilsturm as a saint, while it
blackened poor Guy’s character as that of an irredeemable scamp. He
had a wife, whom he treated very badly, kept her shut up in a gloomy
place in the country. Spent all his income in leading a fast life.
Terribly in debt, and mixed up with the Hebrews. Mrs. Veilsturm had
implored him, with tears in her eyes, to go back to his wife, but he
resolutely declined. She was really behaving very well, but as for
young Errington–well, what could be expected now-a-days?

As for Saint Cleopatra, she was placed on a pedestal from whence she
smiled kindly on her crowd of worshippers, and, possibly, laughed in
her sleeve at the way in which she was gulling them. She had
completely recovered her position in the eyes of society, and the
Major chuckled complacently over the clever tactics of his friend and
partner. The ball at which she was to make her last appearance in
Town, was near at hand, and it seemed as though the firm were about to
depart for the States in a blaze of triumph.

A great change had come over Guy since his return to the feet of Mrs.
Veilsturm. Formerly so hearty and cheery, he was now gloomy and
morose, with a frown on his good-looking face and a pain in his heart.
His wife’s cruelty had wounded him deeply, and though he did not care
in the least for Mrs. Veilsturm, yet he was determined, out of
bravado, to persevere in his pursuit. After a time, however, he became
fascinated by her beauty and persistent neglect, which feeling
Cleopatra saw, and determined to profit by it when she judged fit. At
present, however, in the eyes of the world she was simply a virtuous
woman exposed to the addresses of a libertine, and gained a great deal
of undeserved pity thereby.

Eustace was still in Town, and was considerably puzzled over the whole
affair, especially by the way in which Mrs. Veilsturm was behaving. He
knew that she wanted to fascinate Guy for her own wicked ends, and
wondered that she treated him in a way that was calculated to lose her
the very prize which she strove to win. From constant observation,
however, he gained a clear idea of the means she was adopting both to
attract Errington and silence scandal, and could not refrain from
admiring the dexterous fashion with which she played this very
difficult game.

With regard to his cousin, he, of course, guessed that he had
quarrelled with Alizon, but was unable to ascertain clearly what had
occurred, as on asking Guy he was savagely told to mind his own
business. Eustace would have taken offence at such treatment from
anyone else, but he pitied his cousin for his obvious unhappiness,
therefore took no notice of his rudeness.

He saw plainly, however, that husband and wife had parted in anger, so
the way was made clear for him to carry out his intentions with regard
to Lady Errington. But curiously enough, now that the very thing he
desired was made so easy for him, he could not make up his mind to go
down to Castle Grim, near the home of the woman he loved. Eustace was
as selfish and egotistical as ever, still in spite of his strong
inclination for Alizon, in spite of the three interpositions of
Destiny, which had such an effect on his fatalistic nature! he
hesitated about carrying out his project, and lingered in Town in a
vacillating frame of mind eminently unsatisfactory to himself.

Once or twice, with an idea that he was doing his duty, he ventured to
speak to his cousin about the way he was haunting the footsteps of
Mrs. Veilsturm, but such well-meant intentions were received by Guy
with such bad grace that he judged it best to remain neutral.

Aunt Jelly heard of Guy’s behaviour, and also of the position taken up
by Mrs. Veilsturm, by whose conduct she, in common with the rest of
the world, was completely blinded. She sent for Guy in order to
remonstrate with him, but he curtly refused to see her at all, and in
despair she asked Eustace to speak to his cousin. Eustace told her he
had done so without any result, and declined to interfere in the
matter again. Miss Corbin would have liked to have written to Alizon,
but her last attempt to mend matters had resulted in such a fiasco
that she was afraid to do anything. So the poor old lady, already very
ill, worried and fretted herself to a shadow over the helpless
position in which she found herself.

Seriously angry with Guy, she had altered her will in favour of
Eustace, and then took to her bed, resolving to meddle no more in
mundane affairs. Victoria and Minnie attended her with great devotion,
as she was clearly destined never to recover, but her indomitable
spirit held out to the end, and she forbade any of her relations to be
summoned. One thing displeased her seriously, that Otterburn had not
yet spoken to Victoria, and one day she asked him plainly if he
intended to do so, upon which the boy told her the whole state of the
case.

“So you see, Miss Corbin,” he said, when he finished, “that I’m afraid
to try my luck a second time, in case the answer will be no.”

“You have no fear of that,” replied Aunt Jelly, patting his hand. “No
one regrets her refusal more than Victoria. You ask her again, and
I’ll warrant the answer will be what you desire.”

So Otterburn, having received this encouragement, made up his mind to
speak to Victoria at Mrs. Veilsturm’s ball. Aunt Jelly had not
intended to let Miss Sheldon go to this festivity at first, thinking
that Mrs. Veilsturm had designedly attracted Guy, but when she heard
the way in which she was behaving, she withdrew her prohibition and
insisted upon Victoria going. Not only that, but she herself selected
a costume for her ward, and considerably astonished that young damsel
when she told her what she wanted her to appear as.

“Why Flora Macdonald?” asked Victoria, in surprise. “I’m not a bit
Scotch.”

“Are you not?” said Aunt Jelly drily. “I thought your mother was?”

“Oh, yes, but—-”

“Don’t make nonsensical objections, child,” replied Miss Corbin
sharply, with a flash of her old spirit. “I want you to go as Flora
Macdonald, and I’ve no doubt you’ll find out the reason before the
ball is ended.”

Whereat Victoria, being less innocent of the reason than she pretended
to be, laughed gaily, and went off with Minnie Pelch on a shopping
excursion.

“Minnie,” she said to her companion, when they left Miss Corbin, “do
you know anything about Flora Macdonald?”

“Oh, yes,” said Minnie, delighted at displaying her historical
knowledge. “She was in love with Bonnie Prince Charlie, and saved his
life, you know.”

“Bonnie Prince Charlie,” repeated Victoria thoughtfully, “perhaps I’ll
meet him at the ball.”

“I shouldn’t wonder,” replied Miss Pelch significantly, for being a
true woman, and dearly loving a romance, she had seen long ago how
matters stood between Otterburn and Miss Sheldon.

So they went shopping all that bright afternoon, hunting up tartans,
talking learnedly about Cairngorm brooches, and white cockades, and
Jacobite songs, and the Lord knows what else.

Ah me, how strangely does Fate deal with our lives. Here was Guy
drifting away from his wife day by day, and Angus being drawn nearer
and nearer to Victoria. What Sir Guy Errington and Alizon Mostyn were
two years before, they were about to become now–would their future be
the same?

Who could tell? Fortune, blind and capricious, whirls her wheel round
and round, raising and abasing men and women daily, hourly,
momentarily, unaware herself, by reason of her bandage, of the good
and evil she allots to one and another.