She flung herself fac

Despondency was beginning to creep over even Harry English’s dauntless
spirit: in the next sheet Rosamond took up—she had to peer closer now in
the gathering dusk—for the first time he expressed doubt of their
reunion.

You will go back to England (he wrote). You will go to the old
Mother. My poor girl, I feel as if I had broken your life. But
you are young and she is very strong. She will take you to that
deep heart of hers, where I have been so well all my life; and
you will both always remember that it is for England. And if
you forget me, oh Rosamond, my Rosamond, you are young, you will
forget!—no, I will write no more in this strain…. I won’t
bind you; but there are things that a man in his living flesh
cannot regard without rebellion, whatever his sense of justice
may tell him. The dead will be quiet. Sometimes I think I am a
little mad.

* * * * *

You will like to know how this old place looks that you have,
all unconsciously, filled with your presence these days, these
nights….

The valley is set in a sort of scoop between the mountains, and
all round there are the peaks, snow-covered. The river runs
brawling from east to west, where the plateau is narrowed
between the two huge buttresses of rock which almost close the
valley; the water falls there a pretty good height, and on quiet
nights one can hear the churn of the rapids. The fort is built
on the right bank, and on that side we are safe from attack, as
the ledges are very precipitous. It is thus too we get our
water, our salvation. But this is becoming increasingly
difficult, in spite of our trenches, as the fellows over there
are getting to know the range pretty closely.

The valley is beginning to grow beautifully green, but the rocks
above and all about are grey and drab and arid all the year
round, and the snows never pass. It is over the snows our help
must come. In our courtyard we have an almond tree, in blossom.
I think of you, of your face under the bridal veil.

* * * * *

The flag, Rosamond, the old flag! What creatures we are with
our symbols! So long as the spirit is enclosed in the flesh, so
long must we grope in our efforts of expression. You can’t
conceive what this rag means to us, riddled with bullets,
bleached, draggled! … We are all in high spirits to-day. I
doubt if even a score of fat sheep could have so cheered the
garrison as our half-hour tussle on the roof, and the triumphant
fact that the flag was not lowered, even for an instant. They
gave us a hot time between seven and eight this morning; two or
three of our best were bowled over, and I saw that our fellows
had lost heart a bit—there’s just a bad moment, Rosamond,
between the glory of the fight and the last desperation; and
that’s a dangerous moment! Well, as if the fates were against
us, the flagstaff was struck, repeatedly, and all at once, in
the thick of it, we heard it crack and saw it bend. There was
not a man but turned his head. Rosamond, that flag’s their
fetish! It’s astonishing how quickly one can take in a thing at
an instant like that. I seemed to see all at once the change
that swept over the dark faces. You know how the whole aspect
of a field of corn can be changed in a moment by a puff of wind.
I made one spring for the breaking pole and caught it just in
time. And then I held it high, as high as I could, crying out to
them in such a flood of Hindustani as never fell from my lips
before. God knows what I said, or didn’t say! But they can do
with a lot of talk, these boys of ours. I must have looked like
a madman, I know I felt like one. One gets sort of light-headed
in the fight, now and again. I felt as if I were growing taller,
as if the old flag were lifting me up higher and higher. The
bullets played about us like spray, and not one hit me. As for
the boys—well, my madness got into them somehow—they fell to
like devils; they shot like angels; it was as if magic wine had
been poured into them. I don’t suppose even the oldest soldier
among us had seen anything like it before. We made a record
score, I can tell you!

Now it’s over, I look back and think that we were all possessed.
But it’s had a useful effect on the Khan and his tribes, for
they had the worst of that hour, and the flag was not lowered,
not an inch. I never let it out of my hands till a new pole had
been spliced on—a stout one, you may be sure. And this is a
happy garrison to-day. You should hear the Goorkhas jabbering
and laughing over their half-ration of rice. We have served out
extra rum. They’ve drunk the great white Empress’s health, and
are quite sure now that anything belonging to her must be safe.

As for me, the poor superstitious creatures have begun to regard
me as a small god; they think I bear a charmed life. Rosamond,
if that flag had fallen, there is no knowing if we could have
held the men. And if we’d lost the fort, I should never have
seen you again, for we four Englishmen could not let it go
before our lives. The fellows are all kicking up an idiotic
fuss about my share in the business—it makes a man feel such a
fool to be made a hero of for nothing. Rosamond, did I even do
my duty? Then, even then, upholding my country’s flag, the fury
of my thoughts was all with you: If the flag falls I shall never
see her again—that was what I was saying to myself. God knows I
am no hero.

* * * * *

No hero!

Rosamond’s heart was beating high, her eye had kindled, her cheek was
glowing. Was he not a hero? Her Harry. She could see him towering in
his strength—the “archangel” of Bethune’s description; the born leader,
stimulating his starving men to unheard-of valour!

* * * * *

But the end was drawing near. She must read on. The darkness had
gathered so close that she had to light a candle and put it beside her
on the floor. This she did mechanically, hardly aware of her own
action—so bent upon her single thought. The handwriting had become
irregular; it sprawled upon the page.

The hunger is nothing, it’s the thirst! People who slowly
starve can bear hunger, but thirst is an active devil. They’ve
found an enfilading spot commanding our trench to the water. We
lost three men in succession two days ago. Dug all day
yesterday to strike a well, no success. To-day it’s gone hard
with us. Last night, I think I’d a touch of fever; you were so
mixed up in my mind with my thirst that it seemed to me it was
the want of you made me suffer so much. I found myself, found
my dry tongue, calling for you, clamouring out loud in the
silence. Ah, there are miles and miles of mountains between us!

This is worse than death.

* * * * *

They’ve heliographed from the hills; the relief is in sight.
They’ve had an awful time in the snows, and half the fellows are
blind. They will have to recoup a bit before they can strike.
But they have guns and that ought to settle it. Meanwhile we
can’t wait—we’re going to run up a fresh trench to the water, if
we lose twenty men by it.

* * * * *

The job is done. Leicester managed it splendidly with less loss
than we expected. But he’s got a nasty wound in the hip. We’ve
got water again—Rosamond, Rosamond, when will you hold the cup
for me to drink?

The first gun went to-day. They haven’t got to the right spot
yet, but such as it was the shooting flustered the ant-hill down
there, finely. For two days Yufzul has left us in peace, and
meanwhile the guns on the hill get closer and pound away. But
the enemy shows no sign of packing yet. The Khan is a tough old
boy; we’ll have a tussle for it yet. They’ve flashed to say
they are ready up there. We shall co-operate.

This last sheet but one was dated April 15, 8 A.M.

The next entry was marked 3 P.M. of the same day.

In measure as the relief approaches, I know not why, my hopes go
down. Rosamond—oh, if I should never see you again! What will
you do with your life? You will have my mother, though that may
not be for long, and there is enough to keep you both from want,
thank God, under the roof of the Old Ancient House. Go to her
there; at least for the first. And then and then—I won’t bind
you.

If we had had a child you would be more mine!

I wish we had another night, even in this trap of death. I
might perhaps dream of you once more. The dead won’t dream.
Perhaps that is best. What if we should never meet again!

Rosamond’s breath came short, shudders ran through her. She laid down
in its turn this record of the fever of a man’s mind and took up the
last sheet. The last sheet! This was, indeed, the end! It was dated,
carefully written without any of the wildness or disjointedness of the
previous entries. The strong man on the verge of action would do all
things as became a soldier, even to his final letter to his beloved.

Rosamond, my wife, I have decided to lead the counter-attack
myself to-night. Leicester is incapacitated. Bethune’s head is
stronger than mine, now, and should the suspense be longer
delayed and the relief fail, he will make a better job of it
than I should here. Yufzul shows no sign of budging, and we
begin to suspect he is reckoning on fresh reinforcements. Do
not think that I should throw away that life which belongs to
you without just reason. When you get this letter (perhaps
after all I shall come back to-night to tear it up) you will
know that I went out with the full acceptance of the inevitable.

God keep you, Rosamond! My mother taught me to believe. I
could not have remembered her all these years of manhood and
forgotten my God. And to-night I am strong. What is to be, will
be right. I kneel before you and I kiss your sweet hands, and I
bless you.—Your HARRY.

The woman read and dropped the letter on her lap. Was that all? The
end, the end! It was impossible. He could not have left her like that.
There must be more from him. One word, one last word. And she did not
even know how he died. There was no God, or life could not be so cruel!

She was tearing, with maddened fingers, in the depths of the box….
Why will women hoard the orange blossom of their bridal hopes that it
may torture them with its hideous relentless sweetness, when fate has
fulfilled its mockery upon them!

Harry’s pocket-book—the familiar old pocket-book! It fell apart in her
hands. A portrait…. Her own face looked out on her with serious
girl’s eyes. She flung it from her: she had nothing in common with that
creature. Then she caught it up again and kissed the worn leather with
wild passion. Dear fingers had touched it. He had worn it, who knows,
over his dear heart…. Plans, service notes—”range to the shoulder of
the North Bluff works out at 1300.” Lists of stores, calculations of
stores and rations, gone over and over again. Oh, misery, there is
sorrow beyond what human strength can bear! To think of him in these
sordid straits of hunger, to stay on that thought is more than she can
do and live. And she cannot die yet: she must know first.

Ah! a letter, still in its envelope inviolate, addressed to Mrs. Harry
English. Not his the hand. Oh, then, it is that he is dead now indeed!
Broken woman with her belated grief, what wonder that her brain should
work confusedly!

It was Mrs. English in very truth—fresh widowed, her boding heart
telling her, but too surely, what last bitter detail she would find in
this stranger’s letter—who broke the seal at last after so many years.

DEAR MRS. ENGLISH,—We have wired to your friends to break the
bad news to you. You will want to hear all about it. I suppose
you know by this time, broadly speaking, what happened to us.
We were hard pressed. The relief force—worn out by the march
across the snows—was not strong enough to take the hill, which
was the key of the position, unassisted. It was agreed that we
should co-operate. English insisted on taking charge of the
party. We all knew it was a forlorn-hope business, and the men
had a superstitious feeling about him; with any one else they
would not have gone with the same spirit. It was an hour before
dawn, and the fight went on till sunrise. We—such of us as were
left in the fort, hardly an able-bodied man except myself and
Whiteley, the surgeon—did not know which way it was going with
us till dawn, when we found the enemy in retreat. Then our men
and the relief party came straggling in; none of us were up to
pursuit, and we began to count our loss. English had saved us
with his life. He had succeeded in capturing and holding the
post on the hill, completely occupying the enemy’s attention,
until the guns of the relief force came down upon their flank.
It was carried through by a stroke of genius, but it was
absolute sacrifice. Only a third of his splendid fellows have
come back to us—and English is gone.

His jemadar saw him fall (he swears it must have been instant
death) amid the Ghasi swordsmen, and then in the rush they were
swept apart. Mrs. English, you have the right to know the
complete truth. We have been unable to recover any of our dead
or wounded. The enemy carried them away; and, as we watched
them in their retreat, we saw them strip the dead and roll them
over the crags into the rapids. We shall not have Harry
English’s grave—but would he have desired a better one than the
great cold mountain waters, in the desolate valley, utmost
boundary of that Empire whose honour he died for? He will live
in the hearts of his countrymen. To you I dare not offer any
other words of consolation. What he was to us, these days of
trial, I have no power to express. Without him we should have
come badly through this business. What he was to me—forgive me,
I can write no more. All his papers I have placed together.
They will be brought to you with this letter. His last letter
to his mother was mailed to England.—Yours truly,

RAYMOND BETHUNE.

Rosamond stared. Raymond Bethune.—So it was he who wrote. She had not
recognised his hand.

Stupidly she sat, stunned. Then the wave gathered, reared itself and
broke upon her, overwhelming, drenching her with waters of irremediable
bitterness! Dead—he was dead—she had lost him. He had suffered hunger
and thirst and fever, and longing for her and anguish of mind, and
doubt; he had been hacked with swords, his beloved body had been dragged
over the rocks, flung bleeding, perhaps still quick, into the swirling
flood. But all this was nothing. All they had worked upon him was
nothing compared with what she, his chosen one, had done! Faithless,
betrayer of his love, what part could Lady Gerardine have with anything
of Harry English? Even Bethune, even that cold, hard man, had been one
with the old stricken mother in loyalty of grief. “He will live in the
hearts of his countrymen.” It was his wife who had thrust him away
among the dead, to be forgotten.

“It is we who make our dead dead.” For her now he must always be dead.
On earth and in heaven alike she had lost him. What meeting could there
ever be for her and him again, since she had given herself to another
man; since she had willed him dead, in her cowardice; in base
self-indulgence refused her soul to the dear and holy sorrow of his
living memory?

She flung herself face downwards among his papers. No tears came to her
relief, no blessed unconsciousness. For her there was no God; for her
there could be no heaven, naught was left her but the hell of her own
making!

Three times since that first fruitless summons to lunch had Aspasia come
to the door of the attic. Twice, with the engaging practicality of her
nature, she had carried up a little tray. She would fain minister to a
mind diseased, with soup or with tea, knowing no better medicine. Each
time, however, her gentle knocking, her coaxing representations through
the keyhole, had produced not the least response. But the girl’s ear
had caught the rustling of papers within; and, satisfied that there was
nothing worse than one of her aunt’s moods to account for the
persistently closed door and the silence, she had withdrawn with her
offering, more irritated, perhaps, than anxious.

Now, however, as she knocked and rattled at the handle and implored
admittance, there was a double pressure of anxiety upon her; the demands
of unexpected events without, and a new, deathlike stillness within.

“Oh, dear,” cried Baby, “what shall I do, what shall I do!”

She thought of summoning Major Bethune to her aid; but shrank, with the
repugnance of some unformed womanly reticence.

“I must get in,” she said to herself, desperately; and flung all her
young vigour against the door. To her joy, the socket of the bolt
yielded with unexpected ease. She fell almost headlong into the room,
and then stood aghast. There lay Lady Gerardine, prone on the floor,
among the strewn papers, the flickering candle by her side.

For a second the girl’s heart stopped beating. The next moment she could
have cried aloud with joy. Rosamond had not even fainted; but, as she
raised herself and Baby saw the face that was turned to her, the girl
realised that here was hardly an occasion for thanksgiving; and her own
lips, trembling upon a tremendous announcement, were struck silent.

“Oh, my poor darling!” cried she, catching the stricken woman in her
arms, “what is it?”

With a moan, as of physical pain, Rosamond’s head dropped on her niece’s
shoulder.

“You’re cold, you’re worn out,” said the girl. “Those dreadful letters,
and this place like an ice-house! Aunt Rosamond, darling——” She chafed
the cold hands vigorously as she spoke. “You must be starved, too. Oh,
and I don’t know how to tell you! Let me bring you down to your own
room—there’s tea waiting for you, and such a fire! Aunt Rosamond, you
must rouse yourself. Here, I’ll put these papers by.”

The one thing that could stir Rosamond from her torpor of misery was
this.

“Don’t touch them,” she said. Her toneless voice seemed to come from
depths far distant. She laid her wasted hands over the scattered
sheets, drawing them together to her bosom; and then, on her knees, fell
again into the former state of oblivion of all but her absorbing pain.

Frenzied with impatience and the urgency for action, Baby now blurted
out the news which the sight of Lady Gerardine’s drawn countenance
caused her to withhold:

“Runkle’s come!”

The woman kneeling half turned her head. A change passed over her rigid
countenance.

“Yes; Runkle’s here,” went on Baby, ruthlessly, raising her voice as if
speaking to the deaf. “Uncle Arthur is here; he has come over in a
motor—a party of them. Aunt Rosamond, your husband is here.”

A long shudder shook the kneeling figure. It was as if life returned to
its work; and, returning, trembled in nausea from the task before it. A
deep sullen colour began to creep into Lady Gerardine’s white cheek.
She bent over the gaping box and dropped into it her armful of papers.
Then she looked over her shoulder at Aspasia, and drew down the lid.

“My husband! … My husband is dead,” she said.

The girl’s blood ran cold. Had the hidden terror taken shape at last?
The words were mad enough; yet it was the fierce light in Rosamond’s
eyes that seemed most to signal danger.

But Aspasia was not timid, and she was not imaginative. And Lady
Gerardine’s next action, the cry which escaped her lips, at once pierced
to every tender helpful instinct of the girl’s heart, and banished the
paralysing fear.

“Oh, Baby,” cried she, springing to her feet and stretching out her arms
in hopeless appeal, “what have I done? What is to become of me?”

Once more Baby’s arms were about her. Baby, great in the emergency, was
pouring forth consolation, expostulation, counsel.

“Look here, Aunt Rosamond; it’s really only for a little while; you’ll
have to show, you know, but they can’t stay. Their blessed motor broke
down, or something, and they ought to have been here hours ago. Now they
can only stop for a cup of tea, if they are to get back to-night. You
must just pull yourself together for half an hour—just half an hour,
Aunt Rosamond! Leave me to manage. All you’ve got to do is to smile a
bit, and let Runkle do the talking. They want us all to go to Melbury
Towers to-morrow, Major Bethune and everybody. That’s what they’ve come
over for.”

Lady Gerardine put the girl from her roughly.

“I’m not going there,” she said.

“Of course not,” said wise Baby, soothing. “But we must put him off
somehow. To-morrow you can be ill or something. Do, Aunt Rosamond,
darling, be sensible. Don’t make things harder. For Heaven’s sake
don’t let us have a row—that would be worse than anything! I know
you’re not well enough to stand poor old Runkle just now; it’s your dear
nerves. But just for half an hour—for the sake of being free of him.
Oh, Aunt, you used to be so patient! Come, they’ll be in upon us in one
minute. Luckily they’ve all been busy over that machine, pulling its
inside to pieces. Come to your room, now, and have your tea and tidy a
bit. And I’ll keep them at bay, till you are ready.”

She half dragged, half led Lady Gerardine to the warm shelter of her own
room. She stood over her till the prescribed tea had been taken; then,
hearing the Old Ancient House echo to the footsteps of its unexpected
visitors, she announced her intention of running to look after them.

“I’ve told Runkle already that you’ve a beastly headache,” she cried,
with her cheerful mendacity. “I won’t let him up here, never fear; but
I’ll come and fetch you down, when I’ve started them on Mary’s scones.
If you just do your hair a bit—Lord, there goes six o’clock, they can’t
stay long, that’s one blessing!”

Left to herself, with the stimulating comfort of the tea doing its work
upon her weary frame, Lady Gerardine viewed her position with some
return to calmness. This odious burden that she had laid upon herself,
she must lift it awhile once more; and it should be for the last time.
She who for years had played the hypocrite placidly would play it now
again though the tempest raged within her. For the future she must have
time. Before she could act, she must think. For this present sordid
moment—the child was right—there must be no scandal; above all not here,
in this sacred house of his, where even she, unworthy, had recognised
the presence of the dead.

She sat down before the mirror and shook her long hair loose.

The sound of voices, of laughter, rose confusedly from the drawing-room
below. She set her teeth as the well-known note of Sir Arthur’s
insistent bass distinguished itself from the others. How had she
endured it for five years?

Doors were slammed, and then, the light thud of Baby’s footsteps
scurrying hither and thither like a rabbit; her calls in the passage
brought a vague smile to Lady Gerardine’s lips.

Up to a certain point only is the human organisation capable of pain.
After that comes the respite of numbness. Rosamond was numbed now.
Mind and heart alike refused to face the point of agony; only the most
trivial thoughts could occupy her brain. Idly she pulled the comb
through the warm gold of her hair; idly she weighed which would be the
least effort to her weary limbs, that of twisting up those tresses
herself or rising to ring the bell for Jani.

Presently her eyes wandered to the portrait that hung just over her
dressing-table. She shifted both candlesticks to one side to throw
their light full upon it.

Baby came in as upon the wings of a gust of wind.

“The most dreadful thing,” she panted, in a flurried whisper; arrested
herself in her canter across the room, and plunged back to shut the open
door; “my poor, poor darling: they’re going to stay the night!”

Lady Gerardine flung apart the girl’s arms as if the embrace strangled
her. Their eyes met in the mirror. Then the woman shot a glauce round
the room, a glance so desperate that the other, child as she was, could
not but understand.

“Oh, you’re safe—safe for the moment anyhow,” she blurted out; “I’ve
been lying like Old Nick. I said you’d just taken a phenacetin, and
that if you were disturbed now you wouldn’t be fit to lift your head all
the evening. But you’ll have to come down to dinner; you can get bad
again afterwards, can’t you? Runkle’s quite injured already. He’s been
having such a jolly time lately; he thinks it harder than ever on him
that you should still be ill. And Lady Aspasia——”

“Lady Aspasia,” repeated the other, mechanically.

“Yes, that abominable woman with the ridiculous name, she’s there! And
Dr. Châtelard; you remember, the pudgy Frenchman? We’ve got to house
them all somewhere, and to feed them. It’s desperate——”

Aspasia checked her speech; for Lady Gerardine had risen from her chair
with an abrupt movement and stood staring blankly into the mirror.

Poor Aspasia had had sufficient experience already of her aunt’s moods,
but this singular attitude affected the girl in so unpleasant a fashion
that she felt as if she ought to shake the staring woman, pinch her,
shout at her, do anything to call her out of this deadly torpor!

“Aunt Rosamond,” she cried, raising her voice sharply in the hope of
catching the wandering attention, “I’ve told Sarah about the rooms, and
ordered fires to be lit; and I’ve seen Mary about the dinner. The poor
Old Ancient House, Runkle’s crabbing it already like anything! But
we’ll show them it can be hospitable, won’t we?”

“Yes,” said Rosamond, “yes.” The hectic colour deepened on her cheek.
The widened unseeing pupil contracted with a flash of answering light.
“Baby, you’re a good child. It shall give the right hospitality—his
house.”

Aspasia drew a deep sigh of relief.

“Mary thinks she can have dinner in an hour,” she said. “Oh Lord, what
a piece of business! And—and you’ll come down, won’t you?”

She rubbed her coaxing cheek against her aunt’s shoulder.

“Yes. I’ll come down.”

“I’ll dress you,” said Baby, her light heart rising buoyantly under what
seemed such clearing skies. She nodded. “Oh, dear, I’ve such a
desperate lot of things to do! There’s the wine.” She slapped her
forehead. “I’d forgotten the wine.” And the door closed violently
behind her tempestuous petticoat. As a companion to a neurasthenic
patient Miss Cuningham no doubt had her weak points.

* * * * *

Rosamond sank slowly back in her chair; her hand fell inertly before
her.

When the girl returned after an hour’s exceeding activity the elder
woman’s attitude had not altered by a fraction. But the exigency of
time and social requirements left Aspasia no leisure now to linger over
doubts and fears. Her own cheeks were pink from rapid ablutions; her
crisp hair stood out more vigorously than ever after determined
manipulation. She pealed a bell for Jani, and fell herself upon the
golden mass covering Lady Gerardine’s shoulders, her chattering tongue
in full swing:

“Of course, the poor wretches are in their motor garments. (You never
saw anything like Runkle in a pony skin and goggles. He’s more motist
than the chauffeur.) So I’ve only just stuck on a blouse, you see. But
I’ve determined you shall be beautiful in a tea-gown. Lord, I’d no idea
Lady Aspasia was so tremendous! I want you simply to be beautiful!”

Deft hands twisted and coiled.

“It was Runkle, you know, who broke the motor: he insisted on driving
and jammed them sideways in a gate. He’s awfully pleased with himself.
It’s Lady Aspasia’s motor. She calls Runkle, Arty: what do you think of
that? Ah, here’s Jani. Which shall it be—the white and gold? I love
the white and gold, Aunt Rosamond.”

“Black—black,” said Rosamond.

Sir Arthur came down the shallow oaken stairs, after his necessarily
exiguous toilet, a prey to distinct dudgeon. He had been whirled away
upon this expedition by the impetuosity of Lady Aspasia, somewhat
against his will in the first place. That he, Sir Arthur Gerardine,
should have to come in quest of his wife, instead of the latter
obediently hieing her at his summons, was a breach of the world’s
decorum as he understood it personally. That his wife should have a
headache and have partaken of phenacetin coincidently upon his arrival;
that she should evidently (and by a thousand tokens the unwelcome fact
was forced upon him) be still in her uncomfortable hyperæsthetic
neurasthenic state of health was a want of consideration for his
feelings of which no dutiful spouse should have been guilty; and,
moreover, this condition of things was woefully destructive of all
comfort in the connubial state. He positively dared not insist upon
seeing her at once. Absurd as the situation was, he must await her
pleasure; for, with Lady Aspasia present, the danger of fainting fits or
hysterics could not be risked. Not that he wanted to blame Rosamond
unduly, poor thing; but it really was not what he had a right to expect.

These natural feelings of displeasure were heightened by the trifling
deprivations caused by his stranded condition. He could not feel his
usual superb and superior self coming down to dinner in a serge suit,
his feet in heavy outdoor shoes. Then, the poor surroundings, the very
feeling of the noisy oak boards instead of a pile carpet under these
same objectionable soles, offended him at every step. He was ashamed
that Lady Aspasia should find such a “pokey” place. It was by no means a
fit habitation for the wife of Sir Arthur Gerardine.

He had hurried down before the others, impelled by his restless spirit.
The hall was empty. He took a bustling survey. How faded was the strip
of Turkey carpet! God bless his soul, how worm-eaten were those square
oak chests, presses, and cupboards, and how clumsy—only fit for a
cottage! And that portrait, just under the lamp—poor English, he
supposed? A regular daub, anyhow; why, he could see the brush marks! He
wondered Rosamond could have it up.

He opened a door on the right and peeped in. All was dark within. He
was assailed by an odour of tobacco smoke, and sniffed with increasing
discontent. This visit of Bethune’s, now, which had prevented Rosamond
from hurrying to his side, was there not something irregular, not to say
… well, fishy about the situation? It was odd, now he came to think
of it, that Rosamond should never have mentioned the identity of her
guest in any of her numerous telegrams, in spite of his repeated
questions. He himself, in the midst of his important social, he might
almost say political engagements (since a member of the Cabinet had been
included in the recent house-party at Melbury Towers), had not had
leisure to examine into it more closely hitherto. But now he flushed to
the roots of the silvering hair, that still curled luxuriantly round his
handsome head, as he recalled Lady Aspasia Melbury’s loud laugh and
meaning cry when Baby had performed the necessary introduction upon
their recent arrival: “So you’re the excuse!” … A mere Major of
Guides! A fellow he had never really liked, after all!

Sir Arthur turned on his heel. In thought, he was already rapidly
ascending the stairs, on a voyage of discovery to Rosamond’s room.
Nerves or no nerves, there are matters that require immediate attention.
It was intolerable to think that Lady Gerardine, that his wife, should
be guilty of the unpardonable lapse of placing herself—however
unwittingly, of course—into a false position. It never even dawned upon
him—to do him justice—to suspect her of any deeper offence.

As he paused, inflating his chest on the breath of his wrath, some one,
with a quick, clean tread, came running along an outer passage, and
flung open the swing door that led into the hall—flung it back with the
shove of a broad shoulder.

Sir Arthur turned again, and had a moment of amazement before his
fluttered wits remembered the existence of his own particular secretary.

Muhammed Saif-u-din stood filling up the doorway. His red turban nearly
touching the lintel, a crusty bottle in either hand, he was staring at
Sir Arthur, to the full as intently as Sir Arthur stared at him.

“Oh, it’s you, is it?” then cried, testily, the mighty historian of the
Northern Provinces. “What the devil is the man doing with the wine,”
thought he, flaming inwardly, “when he ought to be busy on—on my book?”
In his mind’s eye Sir Arthur never beheld Muhammed but toiling with pen
and ink upon the great work. “Well,” he went on aloud, “I hope you’ve
got a lot to show me!”

“Excuse, your Excellency,” said Muhammed. He drew himself together with
a little effort, stepped across to the open dining-room door, and laid
down his burden. Sir Arthur followed him, hot on the scent of the new
grievance. Upon his word, everybody was off his head! Mohammed’s
manner, his secretary’s manner, was downright cool—cool!

“I don’t think I engaged you for this sort of business, Muhammed,” said
he.

Muhammed, with the point of a corkscrew just applied to the first
bottle, paused and looked reflectively at the speaker. Then the points
of his upturned moustaches quivered. He laid down bottle and corkscrew
and made a profound salaam.

“Excuse, Excellency,” he said again. His fine bronzed countenance was
subtly afire with some spirit of mocking irony. “There was a fear that
your Excellency should be ill served in this poor house!”

Well, well, this was laudable, of course! Yes, even the babu felt that
here was no fit entertainment for a Lieutenant-Governor. But
nevertheless, intangibly, Sir Arthur found something disquieting in that
smile, in the dark eye that fixed him. Vaguely a sense as of something
mysterious and relentless came upon him. “You never know where to have
them,” he thought to himself.

In the pomp of his own palace, surrounded by scores of servitors of his
own magnificence, he had not given a thought, hitherto, to the
possibility of treachery from the Indian subject. There he felt himself
too great a man to be touched; but here, in this desolate house on the
downs! … A small cold trickle ran down his spine. It was queer that
the creature should have been so eager to come to England! … But the
next instant the natural man asserted himself. Sir Arthur would
certainly have been no coward even in actual danger; he was far too sure
of himself to entertain idle fears.

“I shall see you to-morrow,” he said imperiously, and left the room.

A whirlwind of silks upon the stairs heralded Aspasia. She caught her
uncle by the arm and dragged him into the drawing-room.

“Pray, pray, my dear Aspasia; you are really too impetuous!” cried he,
disengaging himself testily. The familiarity which in India had added a
piquancy to his sense of importance was here a want of tact. “The
country has not improved your manners, my dear,” he went on, taking up
his place on the hearthrug and sweeping the room with contemptuous gaze.
“It’s high time to get you out of this.”

Miss Aspasia’s ready lips had already parted upon a smart retort when
the sound of Lady Aspasia’s voice, uplifted from without, prevented the
imminent skirmish. Her ladyship was evidently addressing Dr. Châtelard,
for those strident tones were conveying, in highly British accents,
words of what she supposed to be French:

“Drôle petit trou, pensez-vous pas?”

“Ah, but extremely interesting,” responded the _globe trotteur_, in his
precise English. He always obstinately answered in English Lady
Aspasia’s less perfect but equally obstinate French.

The two entered together, she towering over him, as might a frigate over
a sloop.

Lady Aspasia Melbury was a handsome woman of the “horsey” type. A
favourite, even in royal circles, her praise ran in men’s mouths
expressively as “a real good sort.” A woman kind to others, with the
ease afforded her by splendid health, unlimited means, and an assured
position. Modern to the very last minute, frank beyond the point of
offence, she might be cited as one of those rare beings to whom life is
almost an absolute success; the more safely, perhaps, because most of
her ideals (if ideals they could be called) were of the most practical
description. Yet life had failed Lady Aspasia upon one point—she had
had one unsatisfied desire; her youth had held a brief romance,
interrupted by a _mariage de raison_; and when her millionaire had left
her free, she had looked, with the confidence of her nature, to the
instant renewal of the broken idyll. But here it was that fate had
played its single scurvy trick upon the woman.

Arthur Gerardine, the once handsome, penniless lad, the now still
handsome, distinguished man, who had remained bachelor all these years
(she had fondly hoped for her sake), had married—a year after her own
widowhood—married, not the ready Lady Aspasia, but a poor unknown widow
out in India. Lady Aspasia’s solitary unrealised ideal, then, was Sir
Arthur Gerardine. In what strange nests will not some ideals perch!
And unattainable it seemed likely to remain.

As she now stood, her large, bold eyes roaming quizzically round the
faded room—which seemed to hold her ultra-modern presence with
amazement, to echo her loud laugh with a kind of protest, like a simple
dame of olden times raising mittened hands of rebuke—no one would have
guessed that she was inwardly eaten with impatience to behold her rival,
to know at last the creature who had supplanted her.

“It is, indeed, a poor little place,” said Sir Arthur, bustling forward
to advance a chair. “I had no idea it was such a tumble-down old house.
We must get rid of it as soon as possible.”

“Ah, but pardon!” interposed Dr. Châtelard. “It is old if you will, Sir
Gerardine, but thereby it is rich. Nowhere else have I so felt the
unpurchasable riches of past time. I am charmed to have come here.
After your gorgeous Melbury, the piquancy of this antique abode of
gentility is to me delicious!”

“Ah, well,” said Sir Arthur, magnificently, “I don’t say it has not got
a sort of picturesqueness and all that, but it’s not what we are
accustomed to in England, you know. Comfort, Châtelard, the land of
comfort, we say. You don’t know what it is in your country. But in the
good old days—people did not understand it either, here, you see. Look
at that chair, now. As hard as nails, eh, Lady Aspasia? I dare say a
collector or somebody might like it. What do you say—Chippendale, eh?
Elizabethan? Well, it’s all the same thing. It’s not my sort, anyhow.
I shall sell it all, bag and baggage.”

“Sell the Old Ancient House!” interrupted the younger Aspasia, hotly.
The aggravation her uncle had ever the talent of awakening in her was
now in full force. “I think you’ll find there will have to be two words
to that, dear Runkle. Aunt Rosamond’s devoted to it.”

Sir Arthur inflated his chest.

“My dear Raspasia!” …

There was concentrated acrimony in his accents. The elder lady scented
storm, and storm was not the atmosphere she liked.

“I declare, Arty,” she said, “you made me jump. I thought those stern
tones were directed to me. There are two Aspasias here—Docteur
Châtelard—elle est ma—namesake—appellée après moi, ou comment vous
dites! Come here, namesake, and let’s have a look at you.”

Aspasia fell on her knees beside the imposing tailor-made figure, and
raised her pretty, pert face—pinker than usual, with a variety of
emotions—for inspection. M. Châtelard put up his eyeglass to look down
benevolently upon her. The English Miss had yet scarcely come under his
microscope; but he quite saw that she would be a fascinating study. He
now thought the contrast between the two Aspasias somewhat cruel.
“Fraîche comme une rose, la petite. Ronde comme une caille, mutine
comine la fauvette—Mais l’autre—oh lala, quelle carcasse!”

The fine lines of Lady Aspasia’s anatomy—not inharmonious, but
over-prominent, it must be owned, from the hardening effects of a too
great devotion to sport—appealed not at all to the temperament of the
French critic.

“I don’t know what _you_ think of your godparents,” Miss Aspasia was
remarking, with the gusto of a well-established grievance, “but I know
what I think ought to be done to mine for giving me such an i-di-o-tic
name.”

She rolled her eyes meaningly towards Sir Arthur. Lady Aspasia pinched
the tilted chin not unkindly, while her loud laugh rang out.

“And you won’t ever be able to change it, either, that’s the worst of
it,” she cried. “Thank your stars, anyhow, it can’t brand you all your
life, as it does me, like an ugly handle to a fine jug—aha! By the way,
Arty, you’ll have to do something to help this poor child to change the
Cuningham, anyhow. She won’t do it down here.”

“I don’t want to change that at all,” cried Baby. Her quick ear had
caught the sound of Bethune’s tread on the threshold. She jerked her
chin from Lady Aspasia’s fingers and jumped to her feet. “I’ve never
seen any one whose name I thought better worth having than Cuningham
yet.”

In her young pride she unconsciously flung an angry glance upon the
newcomer for appearing at just the wrong moment—a glance which Lady
Aspasia caught, and from which she immediately drew conclusions.

These conclusions tallied to a nicety with some others that Lady
Aspasia, not without a certain satisfaction, had been forming of late
regarding the Gerardine _ménage_.

Lady Gerardine had shown an unmistakable disinclination to join her
husband after a long absence; she had suddenly ceased corresponding with
him except by telegram; and in these telegrams the name of the visitor
whose presence was offered as excuse had been unaccountably omitted.

“Poor child,” cried the woman of fashion, with her crow of laughter and
the brutal outspokenness of her circle; “she’s about tired of playing
chaperon here! Never mind, my dear, your time will come by-and-by. ’Nous
avons changé tout cela,’ as M. Châtelard would say; and a jolly good
thing, too. We are only proper in our teens, and after that we can have
a high old time till we are eighty. C’est ce que nous appellons un
score, M. Châtelard.”

“I think, Lady Melbury,” said M. Châtelard, suavely, “that I should
prefer to watch the high young time.”

But, as he spoke, his eye was on Sir Arthur; and from thence it went
with eager curiosity to Bethune. He was rubbing mental hands of glee.
What stroke of superlative fortune had landed him in the very middle, in
the great act, he felt sure, of that drama, the beginning of which he
had noted with such interest in far-off India? The poor, good, trusting
Sir Gerardine, who had ordered his wife to fall in with her lover’s
scheme, with such touching—such imbecile—confidence! Ah, but he was
beginning to suspect; he had winced even now at the words of yonder
impossible female. And that other? Why, it was clear that the Major
had encompassed his design—but up to what point? That relentless,
impenetrable mask was as hard to decipher as ever. It could not be said
that he looked like the fortunate lover, but neither did he look like
one who would spare or give way. “It is a nature of granite,” thought
the Frenchman, as he watched Bethune’s deliberate movements about the
room. “Successful or still plotting, the advent of the husband at this
moment—what a situation! And yet, behold the lover; immovable,
implacable. It will be tragic!”

“She’s tired of acting chaperon.” Sir Arthur let the words pass because
they were spoken by Lady Aspasia. But they had pierced right through
his armour of self-satisfaction and self-security. The new grievance
became again unpleasantly active.

Rosamond had indubitably been incredibly, reprehensibly foolish. No one
had a right so to neglect the ordinary conventions. He would have to
speak to her very seriously, by-and-by.

“What can your aunt be about, my dear Aspasia?” cried he, impatiently.
“I think I must really go up and bring her down, if you will just direct
me to her room.”

That he should have to ask to be directed to his wife’s room; that,
having been a couple of hours in the same house, they should not yet
have met—it was preposterous, intolerable, it was most inconsiderate of
Rosamond! It was an abuse of his chivalrous solicitude for her!

“Oh, I’ll run up!” cried Baby, anxiously.

“Here is Lady Gerardine herself,” said Major Bethune’s calm voice. He
stepped to the door and opened it.