THE LAST TEMPTATION

“Death ever rends asunder marriage bonds,
So should he die, this husband undesired,
She would be free to woo and wed again
And I might haply gain her hand, her heart.
Yet there is folly in this argument,
For such a course would breed but sterile love,
Seeing the first link in the chain of circumstance
Is ominous indeed–a dead man’s grave.”

Having thus routed the enemy, Eustace returned to his hotel very well
satisfied with his victory, which he hoped would be productive
of good in removing the obstacle to the reconciliation of husband
and wife. For his own part, he felt considerable astonishment at the
self-abnegation of his conduct, seeing that he was doing his best to
place the woman he loved so devotedly beyond any possible chance of
being anything to him. But since his last interview with Lady
Errington, the astute man of the world had been quick to read her true
feelings, and had therefore given up all hope of winning her love.
Besides, he had arranged with Laxton to go to Africa, and had it not
been for the accident of Guy’s illness would have started almost
immediately for that mysterious continent, but since things had turned
out otherwise, he resolved to do his duty by his cousin even against
his desire of gratifying self. It was true he had done all in his
power to conquer this dominant faculty of egotism, he had parted with
Alizon for ever, he had saved Errington from the machinations of Mrs.
Veilsturm but the great temptation was yet to come, and in a guise
least anticipated by the tempted.

Of course, he told Dr. Storge about his success in the delicate matter
of Mrs. Veilsturm, at which success the physician expressed himself
highly delighted, as he undoubtedly thought that the removal of this
disturbing influence on Errington’s life would have a beneficial
result on his health.

Doctors are not infallible, however, and the result of this attempt to
quiet the patient’s mind only succeeded in exciting it still more,
which state of the case considerably dismayed both Storge and Gartney.

Guy, being under the impression that his wife had cast him off for
ever, had been touched by the interest displayed towards him by Mrs.
Veilsturm, and clung to the idea of her disinterested affection as a
drowning man clings to a straw. An old simile, certainly, but one that
holds good in this case. He thought that his wife did not love him,
that she had never loved him, and that Cleopatra was the only woman
who had any tender feelings towards him in her heart. It was true that
the world, a notoriously ungenerous critic, said that she was
capricious, cruel, fickle as the wind–still, so cleverly had she
feigned a love she did not feel, that Errington really believed he had
inspired a genuine feeling in her hard heart.

Every day, when tender messages arrived for him with presents of fruit
and flowers, he mentally thanked Heaven that one woman, at least,
truly loved and remembered him in his hour of trouble. When, however,
the messages with their accompanying gifts of fruit and flowers ceased
to arrive, he wondered at the omission and became querulously
suspicious. Why had she forgotten him? What was the reason of this
sudden change? Could she be false to him, seeing that she had made
such protestations of love? No, it could not be, and yet–there must
be some reason. These were the questions he kept continually asking
himself, and thereby working himself into such mad frenzies, that it
seemed as though nothing could avert the threatened attack of brain
fever.

True to her promise, which would cost her too much to break, Mrs.
Veilsturm had departed from San Remo and taken up her abode at Nice,
together with the Major, Dolly Thambits and Mr. Jiddy, alleging that
she found the Italian watering-place dull and preferred the lively
Gauls to the more sedate Latins. Errington, however, knew nothing of
this sudden exodus, and his excited brain suggested a thousand reasons
for the sudden silence of his quondam charmer. She was ill! She was
afraid of exciting him. She had been called to England on business!
What could be the reason of this sudden change from attention to
neglect, from warmth to coldness? And day and night, and night and
day, the weary brain puzzled over these perplexing questions,
suggesting and discarding a thousand answers with every tick of the
clock.

Eustace did his best to allay his cousin’s excitement without telling
him the truth, but all to no purpose, so, in despair, he spoke
seriously to Storge as to what was best to be done under the
circumstances.

“Things can’t go on like this much longer,” he said decisively, “if my
cousin was ill when I arrived, he seems to me to be much worse now.”

“It’s a very difficult case,” remarked Storge musingly. “So difficult,
that I hardly know what step to take. I’ve made him keep to his room,
see no one, given him sedatives, and yet he is no better. In fact, I
think we’re only at the beginning of the trouble.”

“Well, I’ve got that woman out of the way,” said Eustace bluntly, “so
that is something gained.”

“I’m not so sure of that,” replied the doctor, biting his nails, a
habit he had when irritated; “of course I advised it, and it was done
for the best, still, upon my soul Mr. Gartney you must think me a
fool. Here am I, a duly accredited M.D., yet I don’t know what steps
to take in order to cure my patient.”

“It is perplexing,” sighed Eustace, drumming with his fingers on the
table. “Errington has got it into his head that this woman is his good
angel–faugh! to what lengths will love carry a man.”

“But you said he was not in love with her.”

“Neither is he! This is one of those rare cases which are veritable
enigmas. Most unaccountable. As far as I can see, the whole thing is
simply this. My cousin thinks his wife hates him, and, as Mrs.
Veilsturm has played her game so cleverly, believes she loves him. He
doesn’t love her, but he is intensely grateful for what he thinks is
her disinterested kindness. Now she has withdrawn the light of her
countenance, he imagines that he is forsaken for the second time, and
his feeling is one of absolute despair.”

“‘Thou cans’t not minister to a mind diseased,” quoted Storge,
musingly. “A very true remark of Shakespeare’s. It seems to me,
judging from your theory, with which I must say I agree, that I’m in
very much the same dilemma. My drugs are no use while his mind is in
such a turmoil. You cure his mind, Gartney, and I’ll cure his body.”

“It’s all very well saying that,” replied Eustace pettishly. “You give
me the hardest task.”

“Suppose you send for his wife?”

“She won’t come.”

“But surely when she knows—-”

“I tell you she won’t come,” repeated Eustace sternly, “she thinks he
has behaved shamefully, and I’m afraid she is rather unforgiving.”

Storge ran his hands through his hair in a most perplexed fashion, but
made no reply, as he was quite at his wits’ end what to suggest. It
was as he suggested more a mental than a physical case, and though he
felt himself competent to deal with nerves, brain, or tissues, he was
quite helpless in this emergency, which required the aid of external
circumstances. Those external circumstances were best known to Eustace
Gartney, so that gentleman was the only man who could have any
influence in the matter.

“I tell you what,” said Gartney, after a pause, during which he had
been thinking deeply, “Errington imagines Mrs. Veilsturm an angel of
light, and is worrying himself because he thinks a good woman has
forgotten him. Suppose I show her to him in her true colours, and
then—-”

“And then,” finished the doctor caustically, “you’ll fix him up nicely
for a very bad attack of brain fever.”

“That is one presumption!”

“The only one.”

“I don’t agree with you! I’ll undeceive him about Mrs. Veilsturm, and
then he’ll see the snare he has escaped.”

“Oh, and do you think that will quiet him?” asked Dr. Storge
sarcastically.

“I think it will turn his thoughts back to his wife. If so, I’ll write
to her to come over—-”

“What about the forgiveness?”

“I’ll tell her it’s a case of life and death. That will surely soften
her.”

“You whirl about like a weather-cock, my friend,” said Storge grimly,
“you tell me decisively that the wife is unforgiving, and won’t come,
then you say she might soften–which view is the right one?”

“Both.”

“Impossible!”

“Nothing is impossible with regard to a woman. But what do you say to
my plan?”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Then I’ll try it,” said Eustace determinedly.

“I don’t approve of it,” remarked Storge in desperation, “still, as
it’s a case of brain fever if things go on like this, the chance of
accelerating the disease doesn’t make much difference, so you’d better
begin your disillusionising at once.”

“Very well,” replied Gartney with a sigh of relief, and this closed
the conversation.

It was a disagreeable task to undertake, but not more so than that
connected with Mrs. Veilsturm, and Eustace made up his mind to speak
to Errington at once.

“The sooner things are brought to a crisis the better,” he thought, as
he went up to his cousin’s room. “As they stand now, it’s quite
impossible to move either way.”

Guy was lying with his arms outside the counterpane, when Mr. Gartney
entered, and turned his eyes, unnaturally bright, in the direction of
the door when he heard his cousin’s footstep.

“Anything from Mrs. Veilsturm?” he asked eagerly.

“Nothing,” responded Eustace, and took a seat beside the bed.

“What can be the matter with her?” said Guy, feverishly. “Eustace, why
don’t you find out? It’s cruel of you to keep me in suspense.”

“I won’t keep you in suspense any longer.”

“What?”

Guy sat up in his bed with a cry, but Eustace forced him to lie down
again.

“Keep quiet, or I won’t tell you,” he said sternly. “By-the-way, if
you don’t want Albert, he had better go downstairs. I want to speak to
you privately.”

“Yes! yes! you can go, Albert. Mr. Gartney will stay with me.”

The well-trained valet bowed his head in answer, arranged a few things
on the little table beside the bed, and then noiselessly withdrew,
leaving the cousins together.

“Well, Eustace, well?” said Guy, plucking restlessly at the
bedclothes. “What is the matter? Nothing wrong with Mrs. Veilsturm.”

“Not that I’m aware of,” responded Gartney drily. “She is a lady who
can take remarkably good care of herself.”

“Don’t talk like that about her,” said Guy, with weak anger, “she is
my friend.”

“Your friend!” repeated Eustace scornfully. “Yes, the same kind of
friend as she is to every man!”

“Eustace!”

He sat up again with a fierce look on his face, but the calm gaze of
his cousin disconcerted him, and he sank back on the pillows with an
impatient sigh.

“I don’t understand you,” he said fretfully. “I don’t understand–my
head is aching–aching terribly.”

“Guy, old fellow,” said Eustace, in his low, soft voice, which had
such an indescribable charm in its tones, “I want to speak to you
about your wife.”

“My wife?”

“Yes! I have a confession to make to you. I love your wife.”

Guy looked at his cousin vacantly, and as if he did not understand.

“You love my wife?” he repeated mechanically. “You love my wife?”

“Yes,” said Eustace, steadily, going through his self-imposed ordeal
with stern determination, although his face was grey with anguish and
his heart ached with pain and self-humiliation. “It’s a terrible thing
to confess to you–to her husband–but true nevertheless. When I first
saw her at Como, I worshipped her for that calm, spiritual loveliness
which made her so beautiful in my eyes. But I said nothing, and went
into exile for her sake, trusting to come back and find her a happy
wife and mother. I went away to forget, and I came back to remember.
Oh, Guy, if you only knew how I have despised myself for thus thinking
about your wife; but believe me, it was not in the sensual fashion of
the world that I loved her. I worshipped her as one might worship a
star which is higher and purer than he who kneels to its splendour. My
love was pure, still I strove to crush it out of my heart, but all in
vain. I came back to England and saw her once more, a happy mother
indeed, but not a happy wife. It was not your fault, my poor boy, for
I know you did your best to win her heart, but her child blinded her
better nature, and she could not see that the father yearned for love,
and required it as much as the son. Then came the episode of Mrs.
Veilsturm, which was one of those cruel decrees of Fate which no man
can guard against. It parted you, as I thought, for ever, and you
obeyed the instincts of your lower nature, while she remained sternly
unforgiving in her purity–a purity which could not understand the
temptations of a weaker soul. I tried my best to make her look more
kindly on your mistake–as I am a living man, Guy, I did my best to
bring you together again, but it was all useless. Then I lost my head,
the devil whispered in my ear, and I spoke to her of love, and the
result was what you might have expected from your wife. She told me
that she loved her child, and would not stoop to dishonour for his
sake. But she said more–not in words indeed, but in looks, in manner,
in irrepressible tears–that she loved you, Guy, that she was sorry
for her cruel justice, that she longed for the father of her child,
for the husband of her vows, to clasp her in his arms once more. I was
punished for my daring to lift my eyes to her–I saw that I could be
nothing to such spotless purity of soul, and I left–I went away into
the outer darkness, intending to exile myself for ever from her sight.
Then the child died–the child whom she worshipped–the child who was
your strongest rival in her affections, and now she sits alone and in
solitude–robbed of her nearest and dearest–waiting for the sound of
her husband’s voice, for the clasp of his arms, for the touch of his
lips.”

In his fervour, he had slipped from his chair, and was now kneeling
beside the bed, holding his cousin’s hot hand in his own. The sick man
had listened dully to the long speech, but at the end he flung up his
disengaged hand with a bitter cry.

“No! no! It is too late, it is too late.”

“It is not too late,” said Eustace, earnestly. “I have told you the
truth. I have humiliated myself in your eyes because I am anxious to
repair my fault, to bring you together again. Let me send for your
wife, Guy, and believe me, she will come, only too gladly, to your
sick bed with words of forgiveness and regret.”

But the sick man rolled his head from side to side on the pillow with
dreary despair.

“No; no! it cannot be. My wife can never be mine again–Maraquita—-”

“Maraquita Veilsturm!” interrupted Eustace, sternly. “Don’t mention her
name in connection with that of your wife.”

“She was kind to me when Alizon was so cruel.”

“Kind, yes, for her own ends. Listen to me, Guy. Mrs. Veilsturm has
been using you as a means of revenge against your wife.”

All the listless despair disappeared from Errington’s face, and he
wrenched his hand angrily away from Eustace. “What do you mean?”

“Exactly what I say,” said Eustace hurriedly, seeing that his cousin
was getting excited, and determined to have the whole thing over and
done with it at once. “Do you think Mrs. Veilsturm ever forgave or
forgot the slight she received from your wife? Not she! I know Mrs.
Veilsturm, none better. However, I’m going to say nothing about her
except this, that she pretended to love you in order to cause trouble
between yourself and your wife. And now that she has succeeded, she
has gone off and left you, ill as you are, to do the best you can
without her.”

“No! it’s not true! It can’t be true,” raved Guy, fiercely. “You
malign her, she is a true good woman, she loves me–she loves me.”

“I tell you she does not,” said Eustace, rising to his feet, so as to
be ready for any emergency, for Guy looked so wild that he was afraid
he would spring upon him.

“Liar! You cannot prove it!”

“I can, and by her own handwriting.”

Guy snatched the letter Eustace held out to him, tore open the
envelope, glanced over the few cruel words of dismissal, and then,
dropping the paper, covered his face with his hands, moaning
pitifully.

“You see now, my dear Guy, what this woman really is,” said Gartney
tranquilly, picking up the letter; “a vindictive vixen, who simply
used you for her own ends.”

The baronet uncovered his face, and looked at Eustace in a vacant
manner, his eyes large and bright, his lips twitching with nervous
agitation, and a feverish flush on his hot, dry skin.

“I must go to her,” he said in a shrill voice, trying to rise from his
bed. “I must see her.”

“No! no! it’s impossible,” cried Eustace in alarm, holding him back;
“be reasonable, Guy, be reasonable. Stay where you are, Guy!”

But Guy was now past all understanding, and struggled vehemently with
Eustace, uttering short cries of rage and terror like a caged animal.
His cousin’s heart bled for the frenzied agony of the unhappy man, but
he saw that Guy was rapidly getting worse, and shouted for assistance.
No one answered, however, so having forced Guy to lie down with a
great effort, Eustace ran to the electric bell, and in a moment its
shrill summons rang through the house. In that moment, however, Guy
was out of bed, making for the window, swaying, staggering, raving,
with outstretched hands, and Eustace had just time to throw himself
on the madman–for he was nothing else at present–and prevent him
breaking the glass.

Albert entered, and, seeing the state of affairs, shouted for aid, and
came forward to help Gartney, whose valet also came up stairs in
answer to their cries, and between them the three men managed to get
Guy back to bed, where they held him down, raving, crying, shrieking,
and entirely insane. Leaving the two servants in charge, Eustace went
down stairs and sent for the doctor, who arrived speedily on the scene
and prescribed such remedies as were necessary, although, truth to
tell, he could do but little.

“Just what I expected,” he said grimly, when things were going
smoother, “and now, Mr. Gartney, as you’ve carried out your first
intention, perhaps you’ll carry out the second, and send for his
wife.”

“I suppose I must.”

“It’s a case of life and death,” said Storge, and walked out of the
room.

In two minutes Eustace was on his way to the telegraph office. As he
walked rapidly down the street, the temptation came, the terrible
temptation that whispered to him not to send for Alizon.

“If you do not,” whispered the devil on his left, “Guy will die, and
you will be able to gain her for your wife.”

“No,” said the good angel on his right. “She can never love you, you
could buy nothing, not even happiness, at the price of your cousin’s
death.”

So Eustace walked along with these two angels, the bad and the good,
whispering in his ears, now inclining to one, now to the other,
fighting desperately against the temptations of the devil, and again
yielding to the insidious whisper of future joy to be won by a simple
act of neglect. In that short walk a whole life-time of agony passed,
but no one looking at this stalwart, calm-faced man striding along the
Street, could have guessed the hell that raged within.

The powers of good and evil fought desperately for the possession of
this weak, wavering soul, that was in such sore straits, but in the
end the good angel prevailed, and Eustace sat down to write his
telegram.

He wrote one to Alizon, as strongly worded as he was able, and a
second to Otterburn, telling him he must bring Lady Errington over at
once. In both he wrote the words, “It is a case of life and death,”
those words that had been ringing in his ears ever since the doctor
had said them.

Then, as he handed the telegram to the clerk, the temptation again
assailed him. It was not too late, let him withdraw the messages, tear
them up, and there would be a chance of his winning the woman he loved
instead of going into voluntarily exile. But at the price of a man’s
life? No! that was too big a price to pay, and yet–he put down the
money demanded by the clerk and walked out of the post office.

Outside in the sunshine he stood with drops of sweat on his forehead,
and the soul that had been saved from the commission of a great crime,
put up a prayer of thanks to God that this last temptation had passed,
and that the powers of evil had not prevailed in the hour of weakness.