Shot and shell

Leah’s emotion–as she felt–was almost cruelly genuine. It bore the
trademark of sincerity; it made her heart hammer furiously against her
ribs, and drove the blood from her cheeks. Yet she knew that Jim still
lived; that the lying cablegram was but a necessary card to play for
the winning of large stakes. For once, the expected had happened–that
was all. Why then should she exhibit emotions which could not possibly
have been caused by the excuse offered to the public. Her heart
replied with brutal directness, that she had crossed the Old Bailey
Rubicon, and was actually participating in a crime. The last word
shook her out of cotton-wool wrappings into a naked world. Up to the
receipt of the cablegram she could have drawn back. Now, fully
committed to the adventure, she was compelled to tread a perilous
path. A criminal! Yes: she had been one in intention, which mattered
little; she was now criminal in fact, and that meant punishment. Her
imagination conjured up visions of the possible. The judge spoke, the
prison gaped, the bolts shot home, Curzon Street was exchanged for
Wormwood Scrubbs. Ugh! But after all, such queasy thoughts were
unnecessary. If she had broken the eighth commandment, she fully
intended to keep the eleventh and unwritten one, “Thou shalt not be
found out.”

The truth to Mrs. Saracen, excusing a hasty departure, served to
circulate the fiction of Jim’s death, which the widow wished to be
speedily and widely known. She could not have selected a bell with a
better clapper. Promulgated by the “sauce queen,” the sad invention
shortly became town-talk, and, disseminated by myriad tongues, ran
like a prairie fire throughout Society, with a capital letter. A more
weighty bag on the postman’s back resulted, and commiserating
platitudes showered on Leah, as thick as the over-quoted leaves of
Vallombrosa. She glanced through many, replied to a few, and
burned–very wisely–the majority. Between-whiles her attention was
given to parcels from Jay’s, and considerations of widows’ caps, and
the recognition that the feminine uniform of woe clothed with marked
distinction a really beautiful mourner. To women, grief has its
consolations in crape millinery.

Seclusion was necessary in those days of lamentation, but none the
less wearisome. To play the nun, while people scattered to Cowes
and the Continent, chafed the chameleon woman. Some intimate
sympathisers she received, and to these she matched mournful words
with a mournful countenance. With the blinds half down and sal
volatile at hand, in a becoming gown, and using a handkerchief, three
inches black-bordered, to redden the driest of eyes, Lady Jim held
funereal receptions, and spoke in low tones of her late husband’s
hitherto unknown good qualities. His palpable evils she cloaked with
the “his-own-worst-enemy” phrase; and mentioned twice that, if not an
angel, he at least had been a man. The visitor addressed made her exit
expressing hopes that Lord James was an angel now, and the door closed
in time to prevent her seeing Leah’s enjoyment of the picture thus
cashed on her amused mind. “Jim, an angel!” murmured the widow, wiping
away real tears. “He’d bet on his flying.”

With the Duke she played her comedy of sorrow very prettily. Pentland
and Frith arrived in haste, while the Marchioness hurried on
beforehand, to prepare Leah for the interview. But she was already
word-perfect in her part. Aware that Lord Frith would discredit
ostentatious grief, she assumed the position of a shocked rather than
a broken-hearted widow, though she said nothing but what might have
been inscribed on Jim’s tombstone. Not a crocodile tear did she shed
under Frith’s too-observant eyes, but sat near the Duke, holding his
gouty lean hand, and skilfully impressed the trio with the belief that
she and the deceased had not been so far asunder as was supposed–the
corollary of such impression being that she honestly regretted Jim’s
untimely demise. No more could be expected, even from the most
forgiving woman, and no more was demanded by the ducal family.

After these preliminary condolences Pentland suggested that Leah
should come to Firmingham for the funeral. It was necessary to agree
to this, and she did with graceful readiness; only intimating that she
would remain in town, until the remains arrived at Southampton. Even
as she made the stipulation, she wondered how Demetrius had contrived
to transfer Garth’s body from Madeira to Jamaica for the deception.

“I thought poor Jim would have been buried where he died,” she
remarked tentatively.

The Duke was shocked. “Certainly not. Jim, poor fellow, must rest with
his ancestors. We must look upon his face for the last time.”

Leah plucked nervously at her black gown, and wondered if the Russian
was wise in submitting a substituted corpse to family scrutiny. “They
say that death changes people,” she ventured uneasily, “and of course,
embalming—-”

“Just what I said to Bunny,” interrupted Lady Frith, in too vivacious
a tone for the occasion. “We shall hardly know Jim with the soul out
of him.”

“My–dear–Hilda!”

“Well, Bunny, you know souls aren’t buried.”

“They go to a better world, as Jim’s has gone,” mourned the doting
father.

Frith looked doubtfully at his sister-in-law. The less said about
Jim’s destination, the better: therefore did he crush sentiment with
dry business. “I expect Demetrius will arrive with the remains about
the end of the month,” said he, in the hardest of voices; “after the
funeral, we can see about the will.”

“It leaves everything to Leah,” his father informed him.

“Indeed! And what had Jim to leave behind him besides his character?”

“The insurance money.”

“Oh–ah–yes. Jarvey Peel’s present. Twenty thousand pounds–eh?”

“And accumulations,” supplemented Lady Jim; “but need we talk of such
things, now?” and she sighed the conversation back to sentiment.

“Quite so–quite so,” quavered the Duke, shaking his head; “terrible
loss to you, my dear–and your natural grief, and–hum-hum—-”
Further fossilised phrases escaped his memory.

“I certainly feel for poor Jim,” said Leah, with sedate dignity: “he
had his faults, of course; but then, so have I.”

“Your kind remembrance of Jim excuses the few you possess,” was
Pentland’s reply; while Frith, compressing his thin lips, made no
remark.

Indeed, there was no chance, for Hilda clamoured that Leah should come
to her house for beef-tea and consolation. She had never agreed with
her more sceptical husband about the Curzon Street menage, and
credited Lady Jim with the requisite virtues of a genuine widow.

“Your strength must be kept up, dear,” she babbled, as though she
expected Leah to faint then and there. “I know exactly how you feel.
Just as I should, if Bunny became an angel. But we must all die, dear
Leah, and death is the gate of life, and—-”

“Can’t you leave these proverbial condolences to Lionel?” broke in her
exasperated husband.

“Oh, Bunny”–with a wail–“the sacred dead.”

“Let the child talk,” commanded Pentland; “she expresses my feelings.”

Thus encouraged, the child did talk, and Lady Jim listened with a bent
head to original remarks about Time, the great consoler, and meetings
on a golden shore, to part no more, and keeping the loved memory
green, and bowing to the inevitable, and such-like official
utterances, without which no funeral is complete. When Hilda stopped
for want of breath and memory, Leah kissed her with the affection of
one deeply moved, and observed that she was tired. And indeed she
was–bored to death, in fact. So the Marchioness, pleased with her
plagiarised eloquence, took leave tactfully and tearfully on the
Duke’s arm. Frith lingered.

“Why don’t you laugh?” he said dryly.

“At Hilda in the pulpit? Why should I. She means well.”

“Huh! I allude to your demure listening. I do not wish to speak ill of
the dead, and, after all, Jim was my brother. But are you really and
truly sorry?”

“In a way, if you _will_ press for an answer. One can’t live five
years with a man without missing him at the breakfast-table.”

“Hum! Though you and I pretend otherwise, to console my father, we
know that Jim was no saint.”

“Am I?” she asked, shrugging.

“Politeness forbids my answering that question.”

“I don’t see what politeness has to do with this interview. Have you
remained to make yourself disagreeable?”

“On my honour, no. You’re a clever woman, Leah, and as a scamp’s wife
you have conducted yourself admirably.”

“As I am now the scamp’s widow, had that not better have been left
unsaid?”

Frith shrugged in his turn. “I suppose so, since we have agreed to
call black white. But I waited to say that I’ll help you in any way
you wish.”

Leah was surprised, and touched. She and Frith had never been good
friends. Apparently, he was not such a bad sort after all. But what
was behind this offer? Her ineradicable suspicion of human nature made
her doubt, though she spared him the question. “It is very good of
you,” said she, cordially, “but with the insurance money and this
house, which your father says I can retain, I shall do very well.
There is no need for you to open your purse, or your heart.”

The Marquis hunched his shoulders and let them drop. “Hum,” he
repeated, biting his forefinger; “you will be marrying again?”

“What has that to do with you?” she flashed out, haughtily.

“Well, you bear our family name,” he reminded her, “and Demetrius—-”

Lady Jim felt qualmish. “Demetrius?” she echoed faintly. What could
Frith possibly have to say about the prime mover in the plot?

“The man is crazy about you,” said he, frowning.

“I can’t help lunatics being at large,” said Leah, reassured as to his
meaning and at once on the defensive. “Have I encouraged him?”

He hastened to protest. “Oh no. As I said before, your conduct as
Jim’s wife has been admirable–truly admirable. But I should not like
to see you marry Demetrius.”

“Why should you think me willing to do so?”

“I don’t, since the man is a foreigner and poor and untitled.”

“He can be a prince and wealthy, if he chooses to be reconciled with
the Russian authorities.”

“Even then, Leah, do you really like this man?”

“As a clever doctor and an amusing talker–yes. Well?”

Frith, baffled and perplexed, bit his finger again. “He is devoted to
you; they talk of it at the clubs. No, no,” hurriedly, as she turned
crimson with indignation; “there’s not a word said against you. But
this absurd infatuation–and you a widow; these foreigners go to
ridiculous lengths, so you see—-”

“I certainly do not see,” interrupted Leah, with conviction. “Did you
offer assistance so that you might meddle?”

“Oh no, no,” protested the Marquis, looking shocked; “but you have
behaved so well as Jim’s wife—-”

“That is the third time you have said so, and I am by no means stupid.
It seems to me,” she looked straight at him, “that you believe M.
Demetrius will ask me to marry him.”

“Yes, I do think so.”

“Will it ease your mind if I say that I have no intention of accepting
any impertinent proposal he may make?”

“It will and it does,” said Frith, bluntly. “I should not like to see
you throw yourself away on that man. Should you marry again—-”

“It will be entirely my own affair.”

“Of course, of course. All the same—-”

“Quite so! Good-day, Lord Frith.”

He smiled grimly, seeing that she would not permit him to finish a
single sentence. “Am I to take your use of my title as an intimation
that we are to be strangers?”

“To the extent of supervision, yes.”

“But you can’t manage things unaided.”

“That also is my business. As your interference is concerned with M.
Demetrius, and I have set your mind at rest on that point, there is no
more to be said.”

“As you please. Still, this Demetrius—-”

“Oh, Demetrius,” she echoed, enraged by this parrot repetition. “I
never wish to hear his name or set eyes on his face again.”

This was true enough. Now that the Russian had served her turn he
could go hang; she had no further use for him, and he could whistle
for his well-earned wages. When Frith, after further interrupted
expostulations, took his leave, Lady Jim sat down, chin on hand, to
consider this town-talk. The love-sick babbling of Demetrius troubled
her little. No scandal could attach to a Diana who never hunted the
noble quarry, man; and Leah was such a known lover of herself that
even scandal refrained from giving her a rival. Still, the Russian was
pertinacious, and could be vindictive; he had fulfilled her bidding
for a certain price, and that price he would assuredly demand. Make
him her second husband she would not. He belonged to Katinka, who
could keep him and welcome. The remembrance of the daughter suggested
the useful father.

Aksakoff, unfettered by honourable prejudices, certainly could help
her, for the attaining of his own ends, if Demetrius became
troublesome. Could she lure him to Paris, his disappearance from her
life would only be a question of days, perhaps hours. But, for the
moment, she did not see how to export her accomplice to Siberia, via
the gay city, without becoming a more active agent than was wise. One
Russian had her–there was no blinking the fact–under his thumb; and
to remove that pressure, in the only way in which it could be removed,
meant the substitution of a similar thumb. She would merely jump from
the frying-pan into the fire–both equally uncomfortable.

On this account, and lest she should exchange King Log for King Stork,
Leah hesitated to enlist Aksakoff s assistance. Luckily, there was no
need to come to an immediate decision. She had three weeks at least to
consider the matter. The funeral, the procuring of the insurance
money, natural grief, for the tricking of the world, and the
regulation period of mourning–she could oppose these obstacles,
should Demetrius press his suit unduly hard. This being so, she flung
off the burden for the time being, although the necessity of settling
the matter, sooner or later, haunted her thoughts. Such insistence of
the disagreeable broke up her rest, and she would waken at dawn, to
plot escape. Chloral, occasionally, aided her to sleep the difficulty
out of her head: but she detested drugs that demand extortionate
repayment for their kindness, and used narcotic discreetly. A week of
these haggard hauntings aged her. Anxiety became apparent in hollow
eyes and colourless cheeks. One day, with outspoken horror, she
discovered an entirely new wrinkle, and noted later that the
unexpected opening of a door caused her nerves to jump. Kind friends
ascribed such things to commendable sorrow for the dead, and Leah
tacitly accepted their comforting and petting on this obvious plea.
But not to regret a thousand Jims would she have risked her beauty;
as, after her tongue–for Leah put brains before looks–it was her
keenest-edged weapon with which to fight the world, and was supremely
powerful to control fools.

Daily the stream of sympathising friends rolled through the dainty
drawing-room, and bore Lady Jim away from comedy grief to more
pleasant shores, where gossip of he and she and the “tertium quid,”
interspersed with millinery discussions and shrewd female handling of
current society events, made things more tolerable. Lady Richardson
babbled herself in, with a box of chocolate from Sir Billy–a
consolation not unpalatable to Leah, who liked Billy and loved sweets.
“Both being acquired tastes,” said Lady Jim, but not to the little
mother.

“So thoughtful of him, isn’t it?” chattered Lady Richardson, who was
coloured in subdued tints, with a gown to match, for the visit. “The
dear boy! He said to me that we must prevent you from breaking your
heart.”

“And prescribes eating,” said Leah, humorously. “I never knew Sir
Billy was so young. Thank him for me, Fanny, and tell him that when I
think of taking a second I’ll give him a look in.”

“Oh, Billy has thought of that already–such a boy as he is. You’re
sure to have a badly spelt proposal from him, dear. But seriously
speaking, will you,–oh, of course you will.”

“Why should I?–you have not.”

“My heart is buried in the grave of Billy’s father,” murmured Lady
Richardson, pensively.

“Dig it up again.”

“Well, there’s Reggy Lake, of course; but he’s so poor.”

“All the more reason that he should propose. You have a good
jointure.”

“Settled entirely on myself,” said the little woman, shrewdly; then
added romantically, “I must be loved for myself alone.”

“Oh!” Lady Jim shrugged. “If you expect miracles!”

“Really, Leah!” Her visitor became pinker than her rouge.

“I mean that men are selfish, dear. They always have their eye on the
cash-box, you know.”

“I hope that won’t be your fate, darling,” was the spiteful reply, for
Lady Richardson always scratched back.

“Oh, my face is my fortune, Fanny. Jim, poor dear spendthrift, has
left me with only a few thousands, which won’t last long.”

“I should think not, in your hands, dear. But there is Mr. Askew and
Dr. Demetrius–both admire you.”

“Admiration does not necessarily mean marriage. And at present I think
more of my loss than of a second husband.”

“So sweet of you, and so proper. But you might take a look at the
market. Mr. Trent, now, the South African. He’s a millionaire.”

“So I should think, from his manners.”

“Lord Canvey!”

“Would give me a grandmother-in-law of the worst.”

“Sir Jacob Machpelah!”

“The man who has taken his name from Abraham’s cemetery? I suppose he
thought it sounded Scotch. No, thanks. My name is Hebrew, but my
tastes are Gentile.”

“Johnny Danesbury!”

“A penny doll with a squeak. I want a man.”

“Colonel Harrington!”

“He’s a brute, without instinct. I begin to think you keep a
matrimonial agency, Fanny.”

“It wouldn’t pay, were you my only client,” retorted Lady Richardson,
still remembering the miracle dig. “No one seems to satisfy you. I
believe you mean to marry Askew, after all. What of him?”

“He’s a nice footman, and doesn’t ask wages. Aren’t these suggestions
rather premature? My heart, like yours, may be in my husband’s grave.”

“I didn’t know he was buried yet,” said the little woman, crossly.
“How impossible you are, darling!”

“Always, when people get on my nerves, dear.”

“I believe you want some other woman’s husband?”

“Oh dear no! I never covet my neighbour’s ass.”

Shot and shell were flying rather thickly, and seeing no chance of
planting her flag on Leah’s bulwarks, Lady Richardson beat a discreet
retreat, with Judas kisses and Parthian shots. “So glad if I have
cheered you up, dear [kiss]! Bear up and don’t break your heart [kiss,
kiss]! So sweet your sorrow, and so genuine [kiss, kiss, kiss]!” And
having given several Rowlands for one Oliver, Lady Richardson
departed.

“Cat!” said Lady Jim to the closed door, and settled to munch Billy’s
chocolates over Marcel PrĂ©vost’s _Lettres d’une Femme_.