"Has she come?"
"I wish it were well over. The thought of it worries and excites me. Acushion for my backBella."
And poorpeevish Mrs. Coventry sank into an easy chair with a nervous sighand the air of a martyrwhile her pretty daughter hovered about her withaffectionate solicitude.
"Who are they talking ofLucia?" asked the languid young manlounging on a couch near his cousinwho bent over her tapestry work with ahappy smile on her usually haughty face.
"The new governessMiss Muir. Shall I tell you about her?"
"Nothank you. I have an inveterate aversion to the whole tribe. I'veoften thanked heaven that I had but one sisterand she a spoiled childso thatI have escaped the infliction of a governess so long."
"How will you bear it now?" asked Lucia.
"Leave the house while she is in it."
"Noyou won't. You're too lazyGerald" called out a younger andmore energetic manfrom the recess where he stood teasing his dogs.
"I'll give her a three days' trial; if she proves endurable I shall notdisturb myself; ifas I am sureshe is a boreI'm off anywhereanywhere outof her way."
"I beg you won't talk in that depressing mannerboys. I dread thecoming of a stranger more than you possibly canbut Bella must not be neglected;so I have nerved myself to endure this womanand Lucia is good enough to sayshe will attend to her after tonight."
"Don't be troubledMamma. She is a nice personI dare sayand whenonce we are used to herI've no doubt we shall be glad to have herit's sodull here just now. Lady Sydney said she was a quietaccomplishedamiablegirlwho needed a homeand would be a help to poor stupid meso try to likeher for my sake."
"I willdearbut isn't it getting late? I do hope nothing has happened.Did you tell them to send a carriage to the station for herGerald?"
"I forgot it. But it's not farit won't hurt her to walk" was thelanguid reply.
"It was indolencenot forgetfulnessI know. I'm very sorry; she willthink it so rude to leave her to find her way so late. Do go and see to itNed."
"Too lateBellathe train was in some time ago. Give your orders to menext time. Mother and I'll see that they are obeyed" said Edward.
"Ned is just at an age to make a fool of himself for any girl who comesin his way. Have a care of the governessLuciaor she will bewitch him."
Gerald spoke in a satirical whisperbut his brother heard him and answeredwith a good-humored laugh.
"I wish there was any hope of your making a fool of yourself in thatwayold fellow. Set me a good exampleand I promise to follow it. As for thegovernessshe is a womanand should be treated with common civility. I shouldsay a little extra kindness wouldn't be amisseitherbecause she is pooranda stranger."
"That is my deargood-hearted Ned! We'll stand by poor little Muirwon't we?" And running to her brotherBella stood on tiptoe to offer him akiss which he could not refusefor the rosy lips were pursed up invitinglyandthe bright eyes full of sisterly affection.
"I do hope she has comeforwhen I make an effort to see anyoneIhate to make it in vain. Punctuality is such a virtueand I know this womanhasn't got itfor she promised to be here at sevenand now it is longafter" began Mrs. Coventryin an injured tone.
Before she could get breath for another complaintthe clock struck seven andthe doorbell rang.
"There she is!" cried Bellaand turned toward the door as if to goand meet the newcomer.
But Lucia arrested hersaying authoritatively"Stay herechild. It isher place to come to younot yours to go to her."
"Miss Muir" announced a servantand a little black-robed figurestood in the doorway. For an instant no one stirredand the governess had timeto see and be seen before a word was uttered. All looked at herand she cast onthe household group a keen glance that impressed them curiously; then her eyesfelland bowing slightly she walked in. Edward came forward and received herwith the frank cordiality which nothing could daunt or chill.
"Motherthis is the lady whom you expected. Miss Muirallow me toapologize for our apparent neglect in not sending for you. There was a mistakeabout the carriageorratherthe lazy fellow to whom the order was givenforgot it. Bellacome here."
"Thank youno apology is needed. I did not expect to be sent for."And the governess meekly sat down without lifting her eyes.
"I am glad to see you. Let me take your things" said Bellarathershylyfor Geraldstill loungingwatched the fireside group with languidinterestand Lucia never stirred. Mrs. Coventry took a second survey and began:
"You were punctualMiss Muirwhich pleases me. I'm a sad invalidasLady Sydney told youI hope; so that Miss Coventry's lessons will be directedby my nieceand you will go to her for directionsas she knows what I wish.You will excuse me if I ask you a few questionsfor Lady Sydney's note was verybriefand I left everything to her judgment."
"Ask anything you likemadam" answered the softsad voice.
"You are ScotchI believe."
"Are your parents living?"
"I have not a relation in the world."
"Dear mehow sad! Do you mind telling me your age?"
"Nineteen." And a smile passed over Miss Muir's lipsas she foldedher hands with an air of resignationfor the catechism was evidently to be along one.
"So young! Lady Sydney mentioned five-and-twentyI thinkdidn't sheBella?"
"NoMammashe only said she thought so. Don't ask such questions. It'snot pleasant before us all" whispered Bella.
A quickgrateful glance shone on her from the suddenly lifted eyes of MissMuiras she said quietly"I wish I was thirtybutas I am notI do mybest to look and seem old."
Of courseevery one looked at her thenand all felt a touch of pity at thesight of the pale-faced girl in her plain black dresswith no ornament but alittle silver cross at her throat. Smallthinand colorless she waswithyellow hairgray eyesand sharply cutirregularbut very expressive features.Poverty seemed to have set its bond stamp upon herand life to have had for hermore frost than sunshine. But something in the lines of the mouth betrayedstrengthand the clearlow voice had a curious mixture of command and entreatyin its varying tones. Not an attractive womanyet not an ordinary one; andasshe sat there with her delicate hands lying in her lapher head bentand abitter look on her thin faceshe was more interesting than many a blithe andblooming girl. Bella's heart warmed to her at onceand she drew her seat nearerwhile Edward went back to his dogs that his presence might not embarrass her.
"You have been illI think" continued Mrs. Coventrywhoconsidered this fact the most interesting of all she had heard concerning thegoverness.
"YesmadamI left the hospital only a week ago."
"Are you quite sure it is safe to begin teaching so soon?"
"I have no time to loseand shall soon gain strength here in thecountryif you care to keep me."
"And you are fitted to teach musicFrenchand drawing?"
"I shall endeavor to prove that I am."
"Be kind enough to go and play an air or two. I can judge by your touch;I used to play finely when a girl."
Miss Muir roselooked about her for the instrumentand seeing it at theother end of the room went toward itpassing Gerald and Lucia as if she did notsee them. Bella followedand in a moment forgot everything in admiration. MissMuir played like one who loved music and was perfect mistress of her art. Shecharmed them all by the magic of this spell; even indolent Gerald sat up tolistenand Lucia put down her needlewhile Ned watched the slender whitefingers as they flewand wondered at the strength and skill which theypossessed.
"Please sing" pleaded Bellaas a brilliant overture ended.
With the same meek obedience Miss Muir compliedand began a little Scotchmelodyso sweetso sadthat the girl's eyes filledand Mrs. Coventry lookedfor one of her many pocket-handkerchiefs. But suddenly the music ceasedforwith a vain attempt to support herselfthe singer slid from her seat and laybefore the startled listenersas white and rigid as if struck with death.Edward caught her upandordering his brother off the couchlaid her therewhile Bella chafed her handsand her mother rang for her maid. Lucia bathed thepoor girl's templesand Geraldwith unwonted energybrought a glass of wine.Soon Miss Muir's lips trembledshe sighedthen murmuredtenderlywith apretty Scotch accentas if wandering in the past"Bide wi' meMitherI'm sae sick an sad here all alone."
"Take a sip of thisand it will do you goodmy dear" said Mrs.Coventryquite touched by the plaintive words.
The strange voice seemed to recall her. She sat uplooked about heralittle wildlyfor a momentthen collected herself and saidwith a patheticlook and tone"Pardon me. I have been on my feet all dayandin myeagerness to keep my appointmentI forgot to eat since morning. I'm better now;shall I finish the song?"
"By no means. Come and have some tea" said Bellafull of pity andremorse.
"Scene firstvery well done" whispered Gerald to his cousin.
Miss Muir was just before themapparently listening to Mrs. Coventry'sremarks upon fainting fits; but she heardand looked over her shoulders with agesture like Rachel. Her eyes were graybut at that instant they seemed blackwith some strong emotion of angerprideor defiance. A curious smile passedover her face as she bowedand said in her penetrating voice"Thanks. Thelast scene shall be still better."
Young Coventry was a coolindolent manseldom conscious of any emotionanypassionpleasurable or otherwise; but at the lookthe tone of the governesshe experienced a new sensationindefinableyet strong. He colored andfor thefirst time in his lifelooked abashed. Lucia saw itand hated Miss Muir with asudden hatred; forin all the years she had passed with her cousinno look orword of hers had possessed such power. Coventry was himself again in an instantwith no trace of that passing changebut a look of interest in his usuallydreamy eyesand a touch of anger in his sarcastic voice.
"What a melodramatic young lady! I shall go tomorrow."
Lucia laughedand was well pleased when he sauntered away to bring her a cupof tea from the table where a little scene was just taking place. Mrs. Coventryhad sunk into her chair againexhausted by the flurry of the fainting fit.Bella was busied about her; and Edwardeager to feed the pale governesswasawkwardly trying to make the teaafter a beseeching glance at his cousin whichshe did not choose to answer. As he upset the caddy and uttered a despairingexclamationMiss Muir quietly took her place behind the urnsaying with asmileand a shy glance at the young man"Allow me to assume my duty atonceand serve you all. I understand the art of making people comfortable inthis way. The scoopplease. I can gather this up quite well aloneif you willtell me how your mother likes her tea."
Edward pulled a chair to the table and made merry over his mishapswhileMiss Muir performed her little task with a skill and grace that made it pleasantto watch her. Coventry lingered a moment after she had given him a steaming cupto observe her more nearlywhile he asked a question or two of his brother. Shetook no more notice of him than if he had been a statueand in the middle ofthe one remark he addressed to hershe rose to take the sugar basin to Mrs.Coventrywho was quite won by the modestdomestic graces of the new governess.
"Reallymy dearyou are a treasure; I haven't tasted such tea since mypoor maid Ellis died. Bella never makes it goodand Miss Lucia always forgetsthe cream. Whatever you do you seem to do welland that is such acomfort."
"Let me always do this for youthen. It will be a pleasuremadam."And Miss Muir came back to her seat with a faint color in her cheek whichimproved her much.
"My brother asked if young Sydney was at home when you left" saidEdwardfor Gerald would not take the trouble to repeat the question.
Miss Muir fixed her eyes on Coventryand answered with a slight tremor ofthe lips"Nohe left home some weeks ago."
The young man went back to his cousinsayingas he threw himself downbeside her"I shall not go tomorrowbut wait till the three days areout."
"Why?" demanded Lucia.
Lowering his voice he saidwith a significant nod toward the governess"Because I have a fancy that she is at the bottom of Sydney's mystery. He'snot been himself latelyand now he is gone without a word. I rather likeromances in real lifeif they are not too longor difficult to read."
"Do you think her pretty?"
"Far from ita most uncanny little specimen."
"Then why fancy Sydney loves her?"
"He is an oddityand likes sensations and things of that sort."
"What do you meanGerald?"
"Get the Muir to look at youas she did at meand you will understand.Will you have another cupJuno?"
"Yesplease." She liked to have him wait upon herfor he did itto no other woman except his mother.
Before he could slowly riseMiss Muir glided to them with another cup on thesalver; andas Lucia took it with a cold nodthe girl said under her breath"I think it honest to tell you that I possess a quick earand cannot helphearing what is said anywhere in the room. What you say of me is of noconsequencebut you may speak of things which you prefer I should not hear;thereforeallow me to warn you." And she was gone again as noiselessly asshe came.
"How do you like that?" whispered Coventryas his cousin satlooking after the girlwith a disturbed expression.
"What an uncomfortable creature to have in the house! I am very sorry Iurged her comingfor your mother has taken a fancy to herand it will be hardto get rid of her" said Luciahalf angryhalf amused.
"Hushshe hears every word you say. I know it by the expression of herfacefor Ned is talking about horsesand she looks as haughty as ever you didand that is saying much. Faiththis is getting interesting."
"Harkshe is speaking; I want to hear" and Lucia laid her hand onher cousin's lips. He kissed itand then idly amused himself with turning therings to and fro on the slender fingers.
"I have been in France several yearsmadambut my friend died and Icame back to be with Lady Sydneytill -- " Muir paused an instantthenaddedslowly"till I fell ill. It was a contagious feverso I went of myown accord to the hospitalnot wishing to endanger her."
"Very rightbut are you sure there is no danger of infection now?"asked Mrs. Coventry anxiously.
"NoneI assure you. I have been well for some timebut did not leavebecause I preferred to stay therethan to return to Lady Sydney."
"No quarrelI hope? No trouble of any kind?"
"No quarrelbut -- wellwhy not? You have a right to knowand I willnot make a foolish mystery out of a very simple thing. As your familyonlyispresentI may tell the truth. I did not go back on the young gentleman'saccount. Please ask no more."
"AhI see. Quite prudent and properMiss Muir. I shall never allude toit again. Thank you for your frankness. Bellayou will be careful not tomention this to your young friends; girls gossip sadlyand it would annoy LadySydney beyond everything to have this talked of."
"Very neighborly of Lady S. to send the dangerous young lady herewherethere are two young gentlemen to be captivated. I wonder why she didn't keepSydney after she had caught him" murmured Coventry to his cousin.
"Because she had the utmost contempt for a titled fool." Miss Muirdropped the words almost into his earas she bent to take her shawl from thesofa corner.
"How the deuce did she get there?" ejaculated Coventrylooking asif he had received another sensation. "She has spiritthoughand upon myword I pity Sydneyif he did try to dazzle herfor he must have got a splendiddismissal."
"Come and play billiards. You promisedand I hold you to yourword" said Luciarising with decisionfor Gerald was showing too muchinterest in another to suit Miss Beaufort.
"I amas everyour most devoted. My mother is a charming womanbut Ifind our evening parties slightly dullwhen only my own family are present.Good nightMamma." He shook hands with his motherwhose pride and idol hewasandwith a comprehensive nod to the othersstrolled after his cousin.
"Now they are gone we can be quite cozyand talk over thingsfor Idon't mind Ned any more than I do his dogs" said Bellasettling herselfon her mother's footstool.
"I merely wish to sayMiss Muirthat my daughter has never had agoverness and is sadly backward for a girl of sixteen. I want you to pass themornings with herand get her on as rapidly as possible. In the afternoon youwill walk or drive with herand in the evening sit with us hereif you likeor amuse yourself as you please. While in the country we are very quietfor Icannot bear much companyand when my sons want gaietythey go away for it.Miss Beaufort oversees the servantsand takes my place as far as possible. I amvery delicate and keep my room till eveningexcept for an airing at noon. Wewill try each other for a monthand I hope we shall get on quite comfortablytogether."
"I shall do my bestmadam."
One would not have believed that the meekspiritless voice which utteredthese words was the same that had startled Coventry a few minutes beforenorthat the palepatient face could ever have kindled with such sudden fire asthat which looked over Miss Muir's shoulder when she answered her young host'sspeech.
Edward thought within himselfPoor little woman! She has had a hard life. Wewill try and make it easier while she is here; and began his charitable work bysuggesting that she might be tired. She acknowledged she wasand Bella led heraway to a brightcozy roomwhere with a pretty little speech and a good-nightkiss she left her.
When alone Miss Muir's conduct was decidedly peculiar. Her first act was toclench her hands and mutter between her teethwith passionate force"I'llnot fail again if there is power in a woman's wit and will!" She stood amoment motionlesswith an expression of almost fierce disdain on her facethenshook her clenched hand as if menacing some unseen enemy. Next she laughedandshrugged her shoulders with a true French shrugsaying low to herself"Yesthe last scene shall be better than the first. Mon dieuhow tiredand hungry I am!"
Kneeling before the one small trunk which held her worldly possessionssheopened itdrew out a flaskand mixed a glass of some ardent cordialwhich sheseemed to enjoy extremely as she sat on the carpetmusingwhile her quick eyesexamined every corner of the room.
"Not bad! It will be a good field for me to work inand the harder thetask the better I shall like it. Merciold friend. You put hear and courageinto me when nothing else will. Comethe curtain is downso I may be myselffor a few hoursif actresses ever are themselves."
Still sitting on the floor she unbound and removed the long abundant braidsfrom her headwiped the pink from her facetook out several pearly teethandslipping off her dress appeared herself indeeda haggardwornand moody womanof thirty at least. The metamorphosis was wonderfulbut the disguise was morein the expression she assumed than in any art of costume or false adornment. Nowshe was aloneand her mobile features settled into their natural expressionwearyhardbitter. She had been lovely oncehappyinnocentand tender; butnothing of all this remained to the gloomy woman who leaned there brooding oversome wrongor lossor disappointment which had darkened all her life. For anhour she sat sosometimes playing absently with the scanty-locks that hungabout her facesometimes lifting the glass to her lips as if the fiery draughtwarmed her cold blood; and once she half uncovered her breast to eye with aterrible glance the scar of a newly healed wound. At last she rose and crept tobedlike one worn out with weariness and mental pain.
Only the housemaids were astir when Miss Muir left her room next morning andquietly found her way into the garden. As she walkedapparently intent upon theflowersher quick eye scrutinized the fine old house and its picturesquesurroundings.
"Not bad" she said to herselfaddingas she passed into theadjoining park"but the other may be betterand I will have thebest."
Walking rapidlyshe came out at length upon the wide green lawn which laybefore the ancient hall where Sir John Coventry lived in solitary splendor. Astately old placerich in oakswell-kept shrubberiesgay gardenssunnyterracescarved gablesspacious roomsliveried servantsand every luxurybefitting the ancestral home of a rich and honorable race. Miss Muir's eyesbrightened as she lookedher step grew firmerher carriage prouderand asmile broke over her face; the smile of one well pleased at the prospect of thesuccess of some cherished hope. Suddenly her whole air changedshe pushed backher hatclasped her hands loosely before herand seemed absorbed in girlishadmiration of the fair scene that could not fail to charm any beauty-loving eye.The cause of this rapid change soon appeared. A halehandsome manbetweenfifty and sixtycame through the little gate leading to the parkandseeingthe young strangerpaused to examine her. He had only time for a glancehowever; she seemed conscious of his presence in a momentturned with astartled lookuttered an exclamation of surpriseand looked as if hesitatingwhether to speak or run away. Gallant Sir John took off his hat and saidwiththe old-fashioned courtesy which became him well"I beg your pardon fordisturbing youyoung lady. Allow me to atone for it by inviting you to walkwhere you willand gather what flowers you like. I see you love themso praymake free with those about you."
With a charming air of maidenly timidity and artlessnessMiss Muir replied"Ohthank yousir! But it is I who should ask pardon for trespassing. Inever should have dared if I had not known that Sir John was absent. I alwayswanted to see this fine old placeand ran over the first thingto satisfymyself."
"And are you satisfied?" he askedwith a smile.
"More than satisfied -- I'm charmed; for it is the most beautiful spot Iever sawand I've seen many famous seatsboth at home and abroad" sheanswered enthusiastically.
"The Hall is much flatteredand so would its master be if he heardyou" began the gentlemanwith an odd expression.
"I should not praise it to him -- at leastnot as freely as I have toyousir" said the girlwith eyes still turned away.
"Why not?" asked her companionlooking much amused.
"I should be afraid. Not that I dread Sir John; but I've heard so manybeautiful and noble things about himand respect him so highlythat I shouldnot dare to say muchlest he should see how I admire and -- "
"And whatyoung lady? Finishif you please."
"I was going to saylove him. I will say itfor he is an old manandone cannot help loving virtue and bravery."
Miss Muir looked very earnest and pretty as she spokestanding there withthe sunshine glinting on her yellow hairdelicate faceand downcast eyes. SirJohn was not a vain manbut he found it pleasant to hear himself commended bythis unknown girland felt redoubled curiosity to learn who she was. Toowell-bred to askor to abash her by avowing what she seemed unconscious ofheleft both discoveries to chance; and when she turnedas if to retrace herstepshe offered her the handful of hothouse flowers which he heldsayingwith a gallant bow"In Sir John's name let me give you my little nosegaywith thanks for your good opinionwhichI assure youis not entirelydeservedfor I know him well."
Miss Muir looked up quicklyeyed him an instantthen dropped her eyesandcoloring deeplystammered out"I did not know -- I beg your pardon -- youare too kindSir John."
He laughed like a boyaskingmischievously"Why call me Sir John? Howdo you know that I am not the gardener or the butler?"
"I did not see your face beforeand no one but yourself would say thatany praise was undeserved" murmured Miss Muirstill overcome with girlishconfusion.
"Wellwellwe will let that passand the next time you come we willbe properly introduced. Bella always brings her friends to the Hallfor I amfond of young people."
"I am not a friend. I am only Miss Coventry's governess." And MissMuir dropped a meek curtsy. A slight change passed over Sir John's manner. Fewwould have perceived itbut Miss Muir felt it at onceand bit her lips with anangry feeling at her heart. With a curious air of pridemingled with respectshe accepted the still offered bouquetreturned Sir John's parting bowandtripped awayleaving the old gentleman to wonder where Mrs. Coventry found sucha piquant little governess.
"That is doneand very well for a beginning" she said to herselfas she approached the house.
In a green paddock close by fed a fine horsewho lifted up his head and eyedher inquiringlylike one who expected a greeting. Following a sudden impulseshe entered the paddock andpulling a handful of cloverinvited the creatureto come and eat. This was evidently a new proceeding on the part of a ladyandthe horse careered about as if bent on frightening the newcomer away.
"I see" she said aloudlaughing to herself. "I am not yourmasterand you rebel. NeverthelessI'll conquer youmy fine brute."
Seating herself in the grassshe began to pull daisiessinging idly thewhileas if unconscious of the spirited prancings of the horse. Presently hedrew nearersniffing curiously and eyeing her with surprise. She took nonoticebut plaited the daisies and sang on as if he was not there. This seemedto pique the petted creatureforslowly approachinghe came at length soclose that he could smell her little foot and nibble at her dress. Then sheoffered the cloveruttering caressing words and making soothing soundstill bydegrees and with much coquettingthe horse permitted her to stroke his glossyneck and smooth his mane.
It was a pretty sight -- the slender figure in the grassthe high-spiritedhorse bending his proud head to her hand. Edward Coventrywho had watched thescenefound it impossible to restrain himself any longer andleaping the wallcame to join the groupsayingwith mingled admiration and wonder incountenance and voice"Good morningMiss Muir. If I had not seen yourskill and courage proved before my eyesI should be alarmed for your safety.Hector is a wildwayward beastand has damaged more than one groom who triedto conquer him."
"Good morningMr. Coventry. Don't tell tales of this noble creaturewho has not deceived my faith in him. Your grooms did not know how to win hisheartand so subdue his spirit without breaking it."
Miss Muir rose as she spokeand stood with her hand on Hector's neck whilehe ate the grass which she had gathered in the skirt of her dress.
"You have the secretand Hector is your subject nowthough heretoforehe has rejected all friends but his master. Will you give him his morning feast?I always bring him bread and play with him before breakfast."
"Then you are not jealous?" And she looked up at him with eyes sobright and beautiful in expression that the young man wondered he had notobserved them before.
"Not I. Pet him as much as you will; it will do him good. He is asolitary fellowfor he scorns his own kind and lives alonelike hismaster" he addedhalf to himself.
"Alonewith such a happy homeMr. Coventry?" And a softlycompassionate glance stole from the bright eyes.
"That was an ungrateful speechand I retract it for Bella's sake.Younger sons have no position but such as they can make for themselvesyouknowand I've had no chance yet."
"Younger sons! I thought -- I beg pardon." And Miss Muir pausedasif remembering that she had no right to question.
Edward smiled and answered frankly"Naydon't mind me. You thought Iwas the heirperhaps. Whom did you take my brother for last night?"
"For some guest who admired Miss Beaufort. I did not hear his namenorobserve him enough to discover who he was. I saw only your kind motheryourcharming little sisterand -- "
She stopped therewith a half-shyhalf-grateful look at the young man whichfinished the sentence better than any words. He was still a boyin spite of hisone-and-twenty yearsand a little color came into his brown cheek as theeloquent eyes met his and fell before them.
"YesBella is a capital girland one can't help loving her. I knowyou'll get her onforreallyshe is the most delightful little dunce. Mymother's ill health and Bella's devotion to her have prevented our attending toher education before. Next winterwhen we go to townshe is to come outandmust be prepared for that great eventyou know" he saidchoosing a safesubject.
"I shall do my best. And that reminds me that I should report myself toherinstead of enjoying myself here. When one has been ill and shut up a longtimethe country is so lovely one is apt to forget duty for pleasure. Pleaseremind me if I am negligentMr. Coventry."
"That name belongs to Gerald. I'm only Mr. Ned here" he said asthey walked toward the housewhile Hector followed to the wall and sent asonorous farewell after them.
Bella came running to meet themand greeted Miss Muir as if she had made upher mind to like her heartily. "What a lovely bouquet you have got! I nevercan arrange flowers prettilywhich vexes mefor Mamma is so fond of them andcannot go out herself. You have charming taste" she saidexamining thegraceful posy which Miss Muir had much improved by adding feathery grassesdelicate fernsand fragrant wild flowers to Sir John's exotics.
Putting them into Bella's handshe saidin a winning way"Take themto your motherthenand ask her if I may have the pleasure of making her adaily nosegay; for I should find real delight in doing itif it would pleaseher."
"How kind you are! Of course it would please her. I'll take them to herwhile the dew is still on them." And away flew Bellaeager to give boththe flowers and the pretty message to the poor invalid.
Edward stopped to speak to the gardenerand Miss Muir went up the stepsalone. The long hall was lined with portraitsand pacing slowly down it sheexamined them with interest. One caught her eyeandpausing before itshescrutinized it carefully. A youngbeautifulbut very haughty female face. MissMuir suspected at once who it wasand gave a decided nodas if she saw andcaught at some unexpected chance. A soft rustle behind her made her look aroundandseeing Luciashe bowedhalf turnedas if for another glance at thepictureand saidas if involuntarily"How beautiful it is! May I ask ifit is an ancestorMiss Beaufort?"
"It is the likeness of my mother" was the replygiven with asoftened voice and eyes that looked up tenderly.
"AhI might have knownfrom the resemblancebut I scarcely saw youlast night. Excuse my freedombut Lady Sydney treated me as a friendand Iforget my position. Allow me."
As she spokeMiss Muir stooped to return the handkerchief which had fallenfrom Lucia's handand did so with a humble mien which touched the other'sheart; forthough a proudit was also a very generous one.
"Thank you. Are you betterthis morning?" she saidgraciously.And having received an affirmative replyshe addedas she walked on"Iwill show you to the breakfast roomas Bella is not here. It is a very informalmeal with usfor my aunt is never down and my cousins are very irregular intheir hours. You can always have yours when you likewithout waiting for us ifyou are an early riser."
Bella and Edward appeared before the others were seatedand Miss Muirquietly ate her breakfastfeeling well satisfied with her hour's work. Nedrecounted her exploit with HectorBella delivered her mother's thanks for theflowersand Lucia more than once recalledwith pardonable vanitythat thegoverness had compared her to her lovely motherexpressing by a look as muchadmiration for the living likeness as for the painted one. All kindly did theirbest to make the pale girl feel at homeand their cordial manner seemed to warmand draw her out; for soon she put off her sadmeek air and entertained themwith gay anecdotes of her life in Parisher travels in Russia when governess inPrince Jermadoff's familyand all manner of witty stories that kept theminterested and merry long after the meal was over. In the middle of an absorbingadventureCoventry came innodded lazilylifted his browsas if surprised atseeing the governess thereand began his breakfast as if the ennui of anotherday had already taken possession of him. Miss Muir stopped shortand noentreaties could induce her to go on.
"Another time I will finish itif you like. Now Miss Bella and I shouldbe at our books." And she left the roomfollowed by her pupiltaking nonotice of the young master of the housebeyond a graceful bow in answer to hiscareless nod.
"Merciful creature! she goes when I comeand does not make lifeunendurable by moping about before my eyes. Does she belong to the moralthemelancholythe romanticor the dashing classNed?" said Geraldloungingover his coffee as he did over everything he attempted.
"To none of them; she is a capital little woman. I wish you had seen hertame Hector this morning." And Edward repeated his story.
"Not a bad move on her part" said Coventry in reply. "Shemust be an observing as well as an energetic young personto discover yourchief weakness and attack it so soon. First tame the horseand then the master.It will be amusing to watch the gameonly I shall be under the painfulnecessity of checkmating you bothif it gets serious."
"You needn't exert yourselfold fellowon my account. If I was notabove thinking ill of an inoffensive girlI should say you were the prize bestworth winningand advise you to take care of your own heartif you've got onewhich I rather doubt."
"I often doubt itmyself; but I fancy the little Scotchwoman will notbe able to satisfy either of us upon that point. How does your highness likeher?" asked Coventry of his cousinwho sat near him.
"Better than I thought I should. She is well-bredunassumingand veryentertaining when she likes. She has told us some of the wittiest stories I'veheard for a long time. Didn't our laughter wake you?" replied Lucia.
"Yes. Now atone for it by amusing me with a repetition of these wittytales."
"That is impossible; her accent and manner are half the charm"said Ned. "I wish you had kept away ten minutes longerfor your appearancespoilt the best story of all."
"Why didn't she go on?" asked Coventrywith a ray of curiosity.
"You forget that she overheard us last nightand must feel that youconsider her a bore. She has prideand no woman forgets speeches like those youmade" answered Lucia.
"Or forgives themeitherI believe. WellI must be resigned tolanguish under her displeasure then. On Sydney's account I take a slightinterest in her; not that I expect to learn anything from herfor a woman witha mouth like that never confides or confesses anything. But I have a fancy tosee what captivated him; for captivated he wasbeyond a doubtand by no ladywhom he met in society. Did you ever hear anything of itNed?" askedGerald.
"I'm not fond of scandal or gossipand never listen to either."With which remark Edward left the room.
Lucia was called out by the housekeeper a moment afterand Coventry left tothe society most wearisome to himnamely his own. As he enteredhe had caughta part of the story which Miss Muir had been tellingand it had excited hiscuriosity so much that he found himself wondering what the end could be andwishing that he might hear it.
What the deuce did she run away forwhen I came in? he thought. If she isamusingshe must make herself useful; for it's intensely dullI ownhereinspite of Lucia. Heywhat's that?
It was a richsweet voicesinging a brilliant Italian airand singing itwith an expression that made the music doubly delicious. Stepping out of theFrench windowCoventry strolled along the sunny terraceenjoying the song withthe relish of a connoisseur. Others followedand still he walked and listenedforgetful of weariness or time. As one exquisite air endedhe involuntarilyapplauded. Miss Muir's face appeared for an instantthen vanishedand no moremusic followedthough Coventry lingeredhoping to hear the voice again. Formusic was the one thing of which he never weariedand neither Lucia nor Bellapossessed skill enough to charm him. For an hour he loitered on the terrace orthe lawnbasking in the sunshinetoo indolent to seek occupation or society.At length Bella came outhat in handand nearly stumbled over her brotherwholay on the grass.
"You lazy manhave you been dawdling here all this time?" shesaidlooking down at him.
"NoI've been very busy. Come and tell me how you've got on with thelittle dragon."
"Can't stop. She bade me take a run after my Frenchso that I might beready for my drawingand so I must."
"It's too warm to run. Sit down and amuse your deserted brotherwho hashad no society but bees and lizards for an hour."
He drew her down as he spokeand Bella obeyed; forin spite of hisindolencehe was one to whom all submitted without dreaming of refusal.
"What have you been doing? Muddling your poor little brains with allmanner of elegant rubbish?"
"NoI've been enjoying myself immensely. Jean is so interestingsokind and clever. She didn't bore me with stupid grammarbut just talked to mein such pretty French that I got on capitallyand like it as I never expectedtoafter Lucia's dull way of teaching it."
"What did you talk about?"
"Ohall manner of things. She asked questionsand I answeredand shecorrected me."
"Questions about our affairsI suppose?"
"Not one. She don't care two sous for us or our affairs. I thought shemight like to know what sort of people we wereso I told her about Papa'ssudden deathUncle Johnand youand Ned; but in the midst of it she saidinher quiet way'You are getting too confidentialmy dear. It is not best totalk too freely of one's affairs to strangers. Let us speak of somethingelse.'"
"What were you talking of when she said thatBell?"
"Ahthen no wonder she was bored."
"She was tired of my chatterand didn't hear half I said; or she wasbusy sketching something for me to copyand thinking of something moreinteresting than the Coventrys."
"How do you know?"
"By the expression of her face. Did you like her musicGerald?"
"Yes. Was she angry when I clapped?"
"She looked surprisedthen rather proudand shut the piano at oncethough I begged her to go on. Isn't Jean a pretty name?"
"Not bad; but why don't you call her Miss Muir?"
"She begged me not. She hates itand loves to be called Jeanalone.I've imagined such a nice little romance about herand someday I shall tellherfor I'm sure she has had a love trouble."
"Don't get such nonsense into your headbut follow Miss Muir'swell-bred example and don't be curious about other people's affairs. Ask her tosing tonight; it amuses me."
"She won't come downI think. We've planned to read and work in myboudoirwhich is to be our study now. Mamma will stay in her roomso you andLucia can have the drawing room all to yourselves."
"Thank you. What will Ned do?"
"He will amuse Mammahe says. Dear old Ned! I wish you'd stir about andget him his commission. He is so impatient to be doing something and yet soproud he won't ask againafter you have neglected it so many times and refusedUncle's help."
"I'll attend to it very soon; don't worry mechild. He will do verywell for a timequietly here with us."
"You always say thatyet you know he chafes and is unhappy at beingdependent on you. Mamma and I don't mind; but he is a manand it frets him. Hesaid he'd take matters into his own hands soonand then you may be sorry youwere so slow in helping him."
"Miss Muir is looking out of the window. You'd better go and take yourrunelse she will scold."
"Not she. I'm not a bit afraid of hershe's so gentle and sweet. I'mfond of her already. You'll get as brown as Nedlying here in the sun. By thewayMiss Muir agrees with me in thinking him handsomer than you."
"I admire her taste and quite agree with her."
"She said he was manlyand that was more attractive than beauty in aman. She does express things so nicely. Now I'm off." And away dancedBellahumming the burden of Miss Muir's sweetest song.
"'Energy is more attractive than beauty in a man.' She is rightbut howthe deuce can a man be energeticwith nothing to expend his energiesupon?" mused Coventrywith his hat over his eyes.
A few moments laterthe sweep of a dress caught his ear. Without stirringasidelong glance showed him Miss Muir coming across the terraceas if to joinBella. Two stone steps led down to the lawn. He lay near themand Miss Muir didnot see him till close upon him. She started and slipped on the last steprecovered herselfand glided onwith a glance of unmistakable contempt as shepassed the recumbent figure of the apparent sleeper. Several things in Bella'sreport had nettled himbut this look made him angrythough he would not owniteven to himself.
"Geraldcome herequick!" presently called Bellafrom the rusticseat where she stood beside her governesswho sat with her hand over her faceas if in pain.
Gathering himself upCoventry slowly obeyedbut involuntarily quickened hispace as he heard Miss Muir say"Don't call him; he can do nothing";for the emphasis on the word "he" was very significant.
"What is itBella?" he askedlooking rather wider awake thanusual.
"You startled Miss Muir and made her turn her ankle. Now help her to thehousefor she is in great pain; and don't lie there anymore to frighten peoplelike a snake in the grass" said his sister petulantly.
"I beg your pardon. Will you allow me?" And Coventry offered hisarm.
Miss Muir looked up with the expression which annoyed him and answeredcoldly"Thank youMiss Bella will do as well."
"Permit me to doubt that." And with a gesture too decided to beresistedCoventry drew her arm through his and led her into the house. Shesubmitted quietlysaid the pain would soon be overand when settled on thecouch in Bella's room dismissed him with the briefest thanks. Considering theunwonted exertion he had madehe thought she might have been a little moregratefuland went away to Luciawho always brightened when he came.
No more was seen of Miss Muir till teatime; for nowwhile the family were inretirementthey dined early and saw no company. The governess had excusedherself at dinnerbut came down in the evening a little paler than usual andwith a slight limp in her gait. Sir John was theretalking with his nephewandthey merely acknowledged her presence by the sort of bow which gentlemen bestowon governesses. As she slowly made her way to her place behind the urnCoventrysaid to his brother"Take her a footstooland ask her how she isNed." Thenas if necessary to account for his politeness to his uncleheexplained how he was the cause of the accident.
"Yesyes. I understand. Rather a nice little personI fancy. Notexactly a beautybut accomplished and well-bredwhich is better for one of herclass."
"Some teaSir John?" said a soft voice at his elbowand there wasMiss Muiroffering cups to the gentlemen.
"Thank youthank you" said Sir Johnsincerely hoping she hadoverheard him.
As Coventry took hishe said graciously"You are very forgivingMissMuirto wait upon meafter I have caused you so much pain."
"It is my dutysir" was her replyin a tone which plainly said"but not my pleasure." And she returned to her placeto smileandchatand be charmingwith Bella and her brother.
Luciahovering near her uncle and Geraldkept them to herselfbut wasdisturbed to find that their eyes often wandered to the cheerful group about thetableand that their attention seemed distracted by the frequent bursts oflaughter and fragments of animated conversation which reached them. In the midstof an account of a tragic affair which she endeavored to make as interesting andpathetic as possibleSir John burst into a hearty laughwhich betrayed that hehad been listening to a livelier story than her own. Much annoyedshe saidhastily"I knew it would be so! Bella has no idea of the proper manner inwhich to treat a governess. She and Ned will forget the difference of rank andspoil that person for her work. She is inclined to be presumptuous alreadyandif my aunt won't trouble herself to give Miss Muir a hint in timeIshall."
"Wait till she has finished that storyI beg of you" saidCoventryfor Sir John was already off.
"If you find that nonsense so entertainingwhy don't you follow Uncle'sexample? I don't need you."
"Thank you. I will." And Lucia was deserted.
But Miss Muir had ended andbeckoning to Bellaleft the roomas if quiteunconscious of the honor conferred upon her or the dullness she left behind her.Ned went up to his motherGerald returned to make his peace with Luciaandbidding them good-nightSir John turned homeward. Strolling along the terracehe came to the lighted window of Bella's studyand wishing to say a word toherhe half pushed aside the curtain and looked in. A pleasant little scene.Bella working busilyand near her in a low chairwith the light falling on herfair hair and delicate profilesat Miss Muirreading aloud."Novels!" thought Sir Johnand smiled at them for a pair of romanticgirls. But pausing to listen a moment before he spokehe found it was no novelbut historyread with a fluency which made every fact interestingevery sketchof character memorableby the dramatic effect given to it. Sir John was fond ofhistoryand failing eyesight often curtailed his favorite amusement. He hadtried readersbut none suited himand he had given up the plan. Now as helistenedhe thought how pleasantly the smoothly flowing voice would wile awayhis eveningsand he envied Bella her new acquisition.
A bell rangand Bella sprang upsaying"Wait for me a minute. I mustrun to Mammaand then we will go on with this charming prince."
Away she wentand Sir John was about to retire as quietly as he camewhenMiss Muir's peculiar behavior arrested him for an instant. Dropping the bookshe threw her arms across the tablelaid her head down upon themand brokeinto a passion of tearslike one who could bear restraint no longer. Shockedand amazedSir John stole away; but all that night the kindhearted gentlemanpuzzled his brains with conjectures about his niece's interesting younggovernessquite unconscious that she intended he should do so.
For several weeks the most monotonous tranquillity seemed to reign atCoventry Houseand yetunseenunsuspecteda storm was gathering. The arrivalof Miss Muir seemed to produce a change in everyonethough no one could haveexplained how or why. Nothing could be more unobtrusive and retiring than hermanners. She was devoted to Bellawho soon adored herand was only happy whenin her society. She ministered in many ways to Mrs. Coventry's comfortand thatlady declared there never was such a nurse. She amusedinterested and wonEdward with her wit and womanly sympathy. She made Lucia respect and envy herfor her accomplishmentsand piqued indolent Gerald by her persistent avoidanceof himwhile Sir John was charmed with her respectful deference and thegraceful little attentions she paid him in a frank and artless wayvery winningto the lonely old man. The very servants liked her; and instead of beingwhatmost governesses area forlorn creature hovering between superiors andinferiorsJean Muir was the life of the houseand the friend of all but two.
Lucia disliked herand Coventry distrusted her; neither could exactly saywhyand neither owned the feelingeven to themselves. Both watched hercovertly yet found no shortcoming anywhere. Meekmodestfaithfulandinvariably sweet-tempered -- they could complain of nothing and wondered attheir own doubtsthough they could not banish them.
It soon came to pass that the family was dividedor rather that two memberswere left very much to themselves. Pleading timidityJean Muir kept much inBella's study and soon made it such a pleasant little nook that Ned and hismotherand often Sir Johncame in to enjoy the musicreadingor cheerfulchat which made the evenings so gay. Lucia at first was only too glad to haveher cousin to herselfand he too lazy to care what went on about him. Butpresently he wearied of her societyfor she was not a brilliant girlandpossessed few of those winning arts which charm a man and steal into his heart.Rumors of the merrymakings that went on reached him and made him curious toshare them; echoes of fine music went sounding through the houseas he loungedabout the empty drawing room; and peals of laughter reached him while listeningto Lucia's grave discourse.
She soon discovered that her society had lost its charmand the more eagerlyshe tried to please himthe more signally she failed. Before long Coventry fellinto a habit of strolling out upon the terrace of an eveningand amusinghimself by passing and repassing the window of Bella's roomcatching glimpsesof what was going on and reporting the result of his observations to Luciawhowas too proud to ask admission to the happy circle or to seem to desire it.
"I shall go to London tomorrowLucia" Gerald said one eveningashe came back from what he called "a survey" looking very muchannoyed.
"To London?" exclaimed his cousinsurprised.
"YesI must bestir myself and get Ned his commissionor it will be allover with him."
"How do you mean?"
"He is falling in love as fast as it is possible for a boy to do it.That girl has bewitched himand he will make a fool of himself very soonunless I put a stop to it."
"I was afraid she would attempt a flirtation. These persons always dothey are such a mischief-making race."
"Ahbut there you are wrongas far as little Muir is concerned. Shedoes not flirtand Ned has too much sense and spirit to be caught by a sillycoquette. She treats him like an elder sisterand mingles the most attractivefriendliness with a quiet dignity that captivates the boy. I've been watchingthemand there he isdevouring her with his eyeswhile she reads afascinating novel in the most fascinating style. Bella and Mamma are absorbed inthe taleand see nothing; but Ned makes himself the heroMiss Muir theheroineand lives the love scene with all the ardor of a man whose heart hasjust waked up. Poor lad! Poor lad!"
Lucia looked at her cousinamazed by the energy with which he spoketheanxiety in his usually listless face. The change became himfor it showed whathe might bemaking one regret still more what he was. Before she could speakhe was gone againto return presentlylaughingyet looking a little angry.
"What now?" she asked.
"'Listeners never hear any good of themselves' is the truest ofproverbs. I stopped a moment to look at Nedand heard the following flatteringremarks. Mamma is goneand Ned was asking little Muir to sing that deliciousbarcarole she gave us the other evening.
"'Not nownot here' she said.
"'Why not? You sang it in the drawing room readily enough' said Nedimploringly.
"'That is a very different thing' and she looked at him with a littleshake of the headfor he was folding his hands and doing the passionatepathetic.
"'Come and sing it there then' said innocent Bella. 'Gerald likes yourvoice so muchand complains that you will never sing to him.'
"'He never asks me' said Muirwith an odd smile.
"'He is too lazybut he wants to hear you.'
"'When he asks meI will sing -- if I feel like it.' And she shruggedher shoulders with a provoking gesture of indifference.
"'But it amuses himand he gets so bored down here' began stupidlittle Bella. 'Don't be shy or proudJeanbut come and entertain the poor oldfellow.'
"'Nothank you. I engaged to teach Miss Coventrynot to amuse Mr.Coventry' was all the answer she got.
"'You amuse Nedwhy not Gerald? Are you afraid of him?' asked Bella.
"Miss Muir laughedsuch a scornful laughand saidin that peculiartone of hers'I cannot fancy anyone being afraid of your elder brother.'
"'I amvery oftenand so would you beif you ever saw him angry.' AndBella looked as if I'd beaten her.
"'Does he ever wake up enough to be angry?' asked that girlwith an airof surprise. Here Ned broke into a fit of laughterand they are at it nowIfancyby the sound."
"Their foolish gossip is not worth getting excited aboutbut Icertainly would send Ned away. It's no use trying to get rid of 'that girl' asyou sayfor my aunt is as deluded about her as Ned and Bellaand she reallydoes get the child along splendidly. Dispatch Nedand then she can do noharm" said Luciawatching Coventry's altered face as he stood in themoonlightjust outside the window where she sat.
"Have you no fears for me?" he asked smilingas if ashamed of hismomentary petulance.
"Nohave you for yourself?" And a shade of anxiety passed over herface.
"I defy the Scotch witch to enchant meexcept with her music" headdedmoving down the terrace againfor Jean was singing like a nightingale.
As the song endedhe put aside the curtainand saidabruptly"Hasanyone any commands for London? I am going there tomorrow."
"A pleasant trip to you" said Ned carelesslythough usually hisbrother's movements interested him extremely.
"I want quantities of thingsbut I must ask Mamma first." AndBella began to make a list.
"May I trouble you with a letterMr. Coventry?"
Jean Muir turned around on the music stool and looked at him with the coldkeen glance which always puzzled him.
He bowedsayingas if to them all"I shall be off by the early trainso you must give me your orders tonight."
"Then come awayNedand leave Jean to write her letter."
And Bella took her reluctant brother from the room.
"I will give you the letter in the morning" said Miss Muirwith acurious quiver in her voiceand the look of one who forcibly suppressed somestrong emotion.
"As you please." And Coventry went back to Luciawondering whoMiss Muir was going to write to. He said nothing to his brother of the purposewhich took him to townlest a word should produce the catastrophe which hehoped to prevent; and Nedwho now lived in a sort of dreamseemed to forgetGerald's existence altogether.
With unwonted energy Coventry was astir seven next morning. Lucia gave himhis breakfastand as he left the room to order the carriageMiss Muir camegliding downstairsvery pale and heavy-eyed (with a sleeplesstearful nighthe thought) andputting a delicate little letter into his handsaid hurriedly"Please leave this at Lady Sydney'sand if you see hersay 'I haveremembered.'"
Her peculiar manner and peculiar message struck him. His eye involuntarilyglanced at the address of the letter and read young Sydney's name. Thenconscious of his mistakehe thrust it into his pocket with a hasty "Goodmorning" and left Miss Muir standing with one hand pressed on her heartthe other half extended as if to recall the letter.
All the way to LondonCoventry found it impossible to forget the almosttragical expression of the girl's faceand it haunted him through the bustle oftwo busy days. Ned's affair was put in the way of being speedily accomplishedBella's commissions were executedhis mother's pet delicacies provided for herand a gift for Luciawhom the family had given him for his future mateas hewas too lazy to choose for himself.
Jean Muir's letter he had not deliveredfor Lady Sydney was in the countryand her townhouse closed. Curious to see how she would receive his tidingshewent quietly in on his arrival at home. Everyone had dispersed to dress fordinner except Miss Muirwho was in the gardenthe servant said.
"Very wellI have a message for her"; andturningthe"young master" as they called himwent to seek her. In a remotecorner he saw her sitting aloneburied in thought. As his step roused heralook of surprisefollowed by one of satisfactionpassed over her faceandrisingshe beckoned to him with an almost eager gesture. Much amazedhe wentto her and offered the lettersaying kindly"I regret that I could notdeliver it. Lady Sydney is in the countryand I did not like to post it withoutyour leave. Did I do right?"
"Quite rightthank you very much -- it is better so." And with anair of reliefshe tore the letter to atomsand scattered them to the wind.
More amazed than everthe young man was about to leave her when she saidwith a mixture of entreaty and command"Please stay a moment. I want tospeak to you."
He pausedeyeing her with visible surprisefor a sudden color dyed hercheeksand her lips trembled. Only for a momentthen she was quiteself-possessed again. Motioning him to the seat she had leftshe remainedstanding while she saidin a lowrapid tone full of pain and of decision:
"Mr. Coventryas the head of the house I want to speak to youratherthan to your motherof a most unhappy affair which has occurred during yourabsence. My month of probation ends today; your mother wishes me to remain; Itoowish it sincerelyfor I am happy herebut I ought not. Read thisand youwill see why."
She put a hastily written note into his hand and watched him intently whilehe read it. She saw him flush with angerbite his lipsand knit his browsthen assume his haughtiest lookas he lifted his eyes and said in his mostsarcastic tone"Very well for a beginning. The boy has eloquence. Pitythat it should be wasted. May I ask if you have replied to this rhapsody?"
"And what follows? He begs you 'to fly with himto share his fortunesand be the good angel of his life.' Of course you consent?"
There was no answerforstanding erect before himMiss Muir regarded himwith an expression of proud patiencelike one who expected reproachesyet wastoo generous to resent them. Her manner had its effect. Dropping his bittertoneCoventry asked briefly"Why do you show me this? What can Ido?"
"I show it that you may see how much in earnest 'the boy' isand howopen I desire to be. You can controladviseand comfort your brotherand helpme to see what is my duty."
"You love him?" demanded Coventry bluntly.
"No!" was the quickdecided answer.
"Then why make him love you?"
"I never tried to do it. Your sister will testify that I have endeavoredto avoid him as I -- " And he finished the sentence with an unconscioustone of pique"As you have avoided me."
She bowed silentlyand he went on:
"I will do you the justice to say that nothing can be more blamelessthan your conduct toward myself; but why allow Ned to haunt you evening afterevening? What could you expect of a romantic boy who had nothing to do but losehis heart to the first attractive woman he met?"
A momentary glisten shone in Jean Muir's steel-blue eyes as the last wordsleft the young man's lips; but it was gone instantlyand her voice was full ofreproachas she saidsteadilyimpulsively"If the 'romantic boy' hadbeen allowed to lead the life of a manas he longed to dohe would have had notime to lose his heart to the first sorrowful girl whom he pitied. Mr. Coventrythe fault is yours. Do not blame your brotherbut generously own your mistakeand retrieve it in the speediestkindest manner."
For an instant Gerald sat dumb. Never since his father died had anyonereproved him; seldom in his life had he been blamed. It was a new experienceand the very novelty added to the effect. He saw his faultregretted itandadmired the brave sincerity of the girl in telling him of it. But he did notknow how to deal with the caseand was forced to confess not only pastnegligence but present incapacity. He was as honorable as he was proudand withan effort he said frankly"You are rightMiss Muir. I am to blameyet assoon as I saw the dangerI tried to avert it. My visit to town was on Ned'saccount; he will have his commission very soonand then he will be sent out ofharm's way. Can I do more?"
"Noit is too late to send him away with a free and happy heart. Hemust bear his pain as he canand it may help to make a man of him" shesaid sadly.
"He'll soon forget" began Coventrywho found the thought of gayNed suffering an uncomfortable one.
"Yesthank heaventhat is possiblefor men."
Miss Muir pressed her hands togetherwith a dark expression on herhalf-averted face. Something in her toneher mannertouched Coventry; hefancied that some old wound bledsome bitter memory awoke at the approach of anew lover. He was youngheart-wholeand romanticunder all his coolnonchalance of manner. This girlwho he fancied loved his friend and who wasbeloved by his brotherbecame an object of interest to him. He pitied herdesired to help herand regretted his past distrustas a chivalrous man alwaysregrets injustice to a woman. She was happy herepoorhomeless souland sheshould stay. Bella loved herhis mother took comfort in herand when Ned wasgoneno one's peace would be endangered by her winning waysher richaccomplishments. These thoughts swept through his mind during a brief pauseandwhen he spokeit was to say gently: "Miss MuirI thank you for thefrankness which must have been painful to youand I will do my best to beworthy of the confidence which you repose in me. You were both discreet and kindto speak only to me. This thing would have troubled my mother extremelyandhave done no good. I shall see Nedand try and repair my long neglect aspromptly as possible. I know you will help meand in return let me beg of youto remainfor he will soon be gone."
She looked at him with eyes full of tearsand there was no coolness in thevoice that answered softly"You are too kindbut I had better go; it isnot wise to stay."
She colored beautifullyhesitatedthen spoke out in the clearsteady voicewhich was her greatest charm"If I had known there were sons in thisfamilyI never should have come. Lady Sydney spoke only of your sisterandwhen I found two gentlemenI was troubledbecause -- I am so unfortunate -- orratherpeople are so kind as to like me more than I deserve. I thought I couldstay a monthat leastas your brother spoke of going awayand you werealready affiancedbut -- "
"I am not affianced."
Why he said thatCoventry could not tellbut the words passed his lipshastily and could not be recalled. Jean Muir took the announcement oddly enough.She shrugged her shoulders with an air of extreme annoyanceand said almostrudely"Then you should be; you will be soon. But that is nothing to me.Miss Beaufort wishes me goneand I am too proud to remain and become the causeof disunion in a happy family. NoI will goand go at once."
She turned away impetuouslybut Edward's arm detained herand Edward'svoice demandedtenderly"Where will you gomy Jean?"
The tender touch and name seemed to rob her of her courage and calmnessforleaning on her lovershe hid her face and sobbed audibly.
"Now don't make a scenefor heaven's sake" began Coventryimpatientlyas his brother eyed him fiercelydivining at once what had passedfor his letter was still in Gerald's hand and Jean's last words had reached herlover's ear.
"Who gave you the right to read thatand to interfere in myaffairs?" demanded Edward hotly.
"Miss Muir" was the replyas Coventry threw away the paper.
"And you add to the insult by ordering her out of the house" criedNed with increasing wrath.
"On the contraryI beg her to remain."
"The deuce you do! And why?"
"Because she is useful and happy hereand I am unwilling that yourfolly should rob her of a home which she likes."
"You are very thoughtful and devoted all at oncebut I beg you will nottrouble yourself. Jean's happiness and home will be my care now."
"My dear boydo be reasonable. The thing is impossible. Miss Muir seesit herself; she came to tell meto ask how best to arrange matters withouttroubling my mother. I've been to town to attend to your affairsand you may beoff now very soon."
"I have no desire to go. Last month it was the wish of my heart. NowI'll accept nothing from you." And Edward turned moodily away from hisbrother.
"What folly! Nedyou must leave home. It is all arranged and cannot begiven up now. A change is what you needand it will make a man of you. We shallmiss youof coursebut you will be where you'll see something of lifeandthat is better for you than getting into mischief here."
"Are you going awayJean?" asked Edwardignoring his brotherentirely and bending over the girlwho still hid her face and wept. She did notspeakand Gerald answered for her.
"Nowhy should she if you are gone?"
"Do you mean to stay?" asked the lover eagerly of Jean.
"I wish to remainbut -- " She paused and looked up. Her eyes wentfrom one face to the otherand she addeddecidedly"YesI must goitis not wise to stay even when you are gone."
Neither of the young men could have explained why that hurried glanceaffected them as it didbut each felt conscious of a willful desire to opposethe other. Edward suddenly felt that his brother loved Miss Muirand was benton removing her from his way. Gerald had a vague idea that Miss Muir feared toremain on his accountand he longed to show her that he was quite safe. Eachfelt angryand each showed it in a different wayone being violentthe othersatirical.
"You are rightJeanthis is not the place for you; and you must let mesee you in a safer home before I go" said Nedsignificantly.
"It strikes me that this will be a particularly safe home when yourdangerous self is removed" began Coventrywith an aggravating smile ofcalm superiority.
"And I think that I leave a more dangerous person than myself behind meas poor Lucia can testify."
"Be careful what you sayNedor I shall be forced to remind you that Iam master here. Leave Lucia's name out of this disagreeable affairif youplease."
"You are master herebut not of meor my actionsand you have noright to expect obedience or respectfor you inspire neither. JeanI asked youto go with me secretly; now I ask you openly to share my fortune. In mybrother's presence I askand will have an answer."
He caught her hand impetuouslywith a defiant look at Coventry who stillsmiledas if at boy's playthough his eyes were kindling and his face changingwith the stillwhite wrath which is more terrible than any sudden outburst.Miss Muir looked frightened; she shrank away from her passionate young lovercast an appealing glance at Geraldand seemed as if she longed to claim hisprotection yet dared not.
"Speak!" cried Edwarddesperately. "Don't look to himtellme trulywith your own lipsdo youcan you love meJean?"
"I have told you once. Why pain me by forcing another hard reply"she said pitifullystill shrinking from his grasp and seeming to appeal to hisbrother.
"You wrote a few linesbut I'll not be satisfied with that. You shallanswer; I've seen love in your eyesheard it in your voiceand I know it ishidden in your heart. You fear to own it; do not hesitateno one can part us --speakJeanand satisfy me."
Drawing her hand decidedly awayshe went a step nearer Coventryandansweredslowlydistinctlythough her lips trembledand she evidentlydreaded the effect of her words"I will speakand speak truly. You haveseen love in my face; it is in my heartand I do not hesitate to own itcruelas it is to force the truth from mebut this love is not for you. Are yousatisfied?"
He looked at her with a despairing glance and stretched his hand toward herbeseechingly. She seemed to fear a blowfor suddenly she clung to Gerald with afaint cry. The actthe look of fearthe protecting gesture Coventryinvoluntarily made were too much for Edwardalready excited by conflictingpassions. In a paroxysm of blind wrathhe caught up a large pruning knife leftthere by the gardenerand would have dealt his brother a fatal blow had he notwarded it off with his arm. The stroke felland another might have followed hadnot Miss Muir with unexpected courage and strength wrested the knife from Edwardand flung it into the little pond near by. Coventry dropped down upon the seatfor the blood poured from a deep wound in his armshowing by its rapid flowthat an artery had been severed. Edward stood aghastfor with the blow his furypassedleaving him overwhelmed with remorse and shame.
Gerald looked up at himsmiled faintlyand saidwith no sign of reproachor anger"Never mindNed. Forgive and forget. Lend me a hand to thehouseand don't disturb anyone. It's not muchI dare say." But his lipswhitened as he spokeand his strength failed him. Edward sprang to support himand Miss Muirforgetting her terrorsproved herself a girl of uncommon skilland courage.
"Quick! Lay him down. Give me your handkerchiefand bring somewater" she saidin a tone of quiet command. Poor Ned obeyed and watchedher with breathless suspense while she tied the handkerchief tightly around thearmthrust the handle of his riding whip underneathand pressed it firmlyabove the severed artery to stop the dangerous flow of blood.
"Doctor Scott is with your motherI think. Go and bring him here"was the next order; and Edward darted awaythankful to do anything to ease theterror which possessed him. He was gone some minutesand while they waitedCoventry watched the girl as she knelt beside himbathing his face with onehand while with the other she held the bandage firmly in its place. She waspalebut quite steady and self-possessedand her eyes shone with a strangebrilliancy as she looked down at him. Oncemeeting his look of grateful wondershe smiled a reassuring smile that made her lovelyand saidin a softsweettone never used to him before"Be quiet. There is no danger. I will stayby you till help comes."
Help did come speedilyand the doctor's first words were "Whoimprovised that tourniquet?"
"She did" murmured Coventry.
"Then you may thank her for saving your life. By Jove! It was capitallydone'; and the old doctor looked at the girl with as much admiration ascuriosity in his face.
"Never mind that. See to the woundpleasewhile I run for bandagesand saltsand wine."
Miss Muir was gone as she spokeso fleetly that it was in vain to call herback or catch her. During her brief absencethe story was told by repentant Nedand the wound examined.
"Fortunately I have my case of instruments with me" said thedoctorspreading on the bench a long array of tinyglittering implements oftorture. "NowMr. Nedcome hereand hold the arm in that waywhile Itie the artery. Hey! That will never do. Don't tremble somanlook away andhold it steadily."
"I can't!" And poor Ned turned faint and whitenot at the sightbut with the bitter thought that he had longed to kill his brother.
"I will hold it" and a slender white hand lifted the bare andbloody arm so firmlysteadilythat Coventry sighed a sigh of reliefandDoctor Scott fell to work with an emphatic nod of approval.
It was soon overand while Edward ran in to bid the servants beware ofalarming their mistressDoctor Scott put up his instruments and Miss Muir usedsaltswaterand wine so skillfully that Gerald was able to walk to his roomleaning on the old manwhile the girl supported the wounded armas no slingcould be made on the spot. As he entered the chamberCoventry turnedput outhis left hand and with much feeling in his fine eyes said simply"MissMuirI thank you."
The color came up beautifully in her pale cheeks as she pressed the hand andwithout a word vanished from the room. Lucia and the housekeeper came bustlinginand there was no lack of attendance on the invalid. He soon wearied of itand sent them all away but Nedwho remorsefully haunted the chamberlookinglike a comely young Cain and feeling like an outcast.
"Come hereladand tell me all about it. I was wrong to bedomineering. Forgive meand believe that I care for your happiness moresincerely than for my own."
These frank and friendly words healed the breach between the two brothers andcompletely conquered Ned. Gladly did he relate his love passagesfor no younglover ever tires of that amusement if he has a sympathizing auditorand Geraldwas sympathetic now. For an hour did he lie listening patiently to the historyof the growth of his brother's passion. Emotion gave the narrator eloquenceandJean Muir's character was painted in glowing colors. All her unsuspectedkindness to those about her was dwelt upon; all her faithful careher sisterlyinterest in Bellaher gentle attentions to their motherher sweet forbearancewith Luciawho plainly showed her dislikeand most of allher friendlycounselsympathyand regard for Ned himself.
"She would make a man of me. She puts strength and courage into me as noone else can. She is unlike any girl I ever saw; there's no sentimentality abouther; she is wiseand kindand sweet. She says what she meanslooks youstraight in the eyeand is as true as steel. I've tried herI know herand --ahGeraldI love her so!"
Here the poor lad leaned his face into his hands and sighed a sigh that madehis brother's heart ache.
"Upon my soulNedI feel for you; and if there was no obstacle on herpartI'd do my best for you. She loves Sydneyand so there is nothing for itbut to bear your fate like a man."
"Are you sure about Sydney? May it not be some one else?" and Nedeyed his brother with a suspicious look.
Coventry told him all he knew and surmised concerning his friendnotforgetting the letter. Edward mused a momentthen seemed relievedand saidfrankly"I'm glad it's Sydney and not you. I can bear it better."
"Me!" ejaculated Geraldwith a laugh.
"Yesyou; I've been tormented lately with a fear that you cared forheror rathershe for you."
"You jealous young fool! We never see or speak to one another; scarcelyso how could we get up a tender interest?"
"What do you lounge about on that terrace for every evening? And whydoes she get fluttered when your shadow begins to come and go?" demandedEdward.
"I like the music and don't care for the society of the singerthat'swhy I walk there. The fluttering is all your imagination; Miss Muir isn't awoman to be fluttered by a man's shadow." And Coventry glanced at hisuseless arm.
"Thank you for thatand for not saying 'little Muir' as you generallydo. Perhaps it was my imagination. But she never makes fun of you nowand so Ifancied she might have lost her heart to the 'young master.' Women often doyouknow."
"She used to ridicule medid she?" asked Coventrytaking nonotice of the latter part of his brother's speechwhich was quite truenevertheless.
"Not exactlyshe was too well-bred for that. But sometimes when Bellaand I joked about youshe'd say something so odd or witty that it wasirresistible. You're used to being laughed atso you don't mindI knowjustamong ourselves."
"Not I. Laugh away as much as you like" said Gerald. But he didmindand wanted exceedingly to know what Miss Muir had saidyet was too proudto ask. He turned restlessly and uttered a sigh of pain.
"I'm talking too much; it's bad for you. Doctor Scott said you must bequiet. Now go to sleepif you can."
Edward left the bedside but not the roomfor he would let no one take hisplace. Coventry tried to sleepfound it impossibleand after a restless hourcalled his brother back.
"If the bandage was loosened a bitit would ease my arm and then Icould sleep. Can you do itNed?"
"I dare not touch it. The doctor gave orders to leave it till he came inthe morningand I shall only do harm if I try."
"But I tell you it's too tight. My arm is swelling and the pain isintense. It can't be right to leave it so. Doctor Scott dressed it in a hurryand did it too tight. Common sense will tell you that" said Coventryimpatiently.
"I'll call Mrs. Morris; she will understand what's best to bedone." And Edward moved toward the doorlooking anxious.
"Not sheshe'll only make a stir and torment me with her chatter. I'llbear it as long as I canand perhaps Doctor Scott will come tonight. He said hewould if possible. Go to your dinnerNed. I can ring for Neal if I needanything. I shall sleep if I'm aloneperhaps."
Edward reluctantly obeyedand his brother was left to himself. Little restdid he findhoweverfor the pain of the wounded arm grew unbearableandtaking a sudden resolutionhe rang for his servant.
"Nealgo to Miss Coventry's studyand if Miss Muir is thereask herto be kind enough to come to me. I'm in great painand she understands woundsbetter than anyone else in the house."
With much surprise in his facethe man departed and a few moments after thedoor noiselessly opened and Miss Muir came in. It had been a very warm dayandfor the first time she had left off her plain black dress. All in whitewith noornament but her fair hairand a fragrant posy of violets in her beltshelooked a different woman from the meeknunlike creature one usually saw aboutthe house. Her face was as altered as her dressfor now a soft color glowed inher cheeksher eyes smiled shylyand her lips no longer wore the firm look ofone who forcibly repressed every emotion. A freshgentleand charming womanshe seemedand Coventry found the dull room suddenly brightened by herpresence. Going straight to himshe said simplyand with a happyhelpful lookvery comforting to see"I'm glad you sent for me. What can I do foryou?"
He told herand before the complaint was endedshe began loosening thebandages with the decision of one who understood what was to be done and hadfaith in herself.
"Ahthat's reliefthat's comfort!" ejaculated Coventryas thelast tight fold fell away. "Ned was afraid I should bleed to death if hetouched me. What will the doctor say to us?"
"I neither know nor care. I shall say to him that he is a bad surgeon tobind it so closelyand not leave orders to have it untied if necessary. Now Ishall make it easy and put you to sleepfor that is what you need. Shall I? MayI?"
"I wish you wouldif you can."
And while she deftly rearranged the bandagesthe young man watched hercuriously. Presently he asked"How came you to know so much about thesethings?"
"In the hospital where I was illI saw much that interested meandwhen I got betterI used to sing to the patients sometimes."
"Do you mean to sing to me?" he askedin the submissive tone menunconsciously adopt when ill and in a woman's care.
"If you like it better than reading aloud in a dreamy tone" sheansweredas she tied the last knot.
"I domuch better" he said decidedly.
"You are feverish. I shall wet your foreheadand then you will be quitecomfortable." She moved about the room in the quiet way which made it apleasure to watch herandhaving mingled a little cologne with waterbathedhis face as unconcernedly as if he had been a child. Her proceedings not onlycomforted but amused Coventrywho mentally contrasted her with the stoutbeer-drinking matron who had ruled over him in his last illness.
"A cleverkindly little woman" he thoughtand felt quite at hiseaseshe was so perfectly easy herself.
"Therenow you look more like yourself" she said with anapproving nod as she finishedand smoothed the dark locks off his forehead witha coolsoft hand. Then seating herself in a large chair near byshe began tosingwhile tidily rolling up the fresh bandages which had been left for themorning. Coventry lay watching her by the dim light that burned in the roomandshe sang on as easily as a birda dreamylow-toned lullabywhich soothed thelistener like a spell. Presentlylooking up to see the effect of her songshefound the young man wide awakeand regarding her with a curious mixture ofpleasureinterestand admiration.
"Shut your eyesMr. Coventry" she saidwith a reproving shake ofthe headand an odd little smile.
He laughed and obeyedbut could not resist an occasional covert glance fromunder his lashes at the slender white figure in the great velvet chair. She sawhim and frowned.
"You are very disobedient; why won't you sleep?"
"I can'tI want to listen. I'm fond of nightingales."
"Then I shall sing no morebut try something that has never failed yet.Give me your handplease."
Much amazedhe gave itandtaking it in both her small onesshe sat downbehind the curtain and remained as mute and motionless as a statue. Coventrysmiled to himself at firstand wondered which would tire first. But soon asubtle warmth seemed to steal from the soft palms that enclosed his ownhisheart beat quickerhis breath grew unequaland a thousand fancies dancedthrough his brain. He sighedand said dreamilyas he turned his face towardher"I like this." And in the act of speakingseemed to sink into asoft cloud which encompassed him about with an atmosphere of perfect repose.More than this he could not rememberfor sleepdeep and dreamlessfell uponhimand when he wokedaylight was shining in between the curtainshis handlay alone on the coverletand his fair-haired enchantress was gone.
For several days Coventry was confined to his roommuch against his willthough everyone did their best to lighten his irksome captivity. His motherpetted himBella sangLucia readEdward was devotedand all the householdwith one exceptionwere eager to serve the young master. Jean Muir never camenear himand Jean Muir alone seemed to possess the power of amusing him. Hesoon tired of the otherswanted something new; recalled the piquant characterof the girl and took a fancy into his head that she would lighten his ennui.After some hesitationhe carelessly spoke of her to Bellabut nothing came ofitfor Bella only said Jean was welland very busy doing something lovely tosurprise Mamma with. Edward complained that he never saw herand Lucia ignoredher existence altogether. The only intelligence the invalid received was fromthe gossip of two housemaids over their work in the next room. >From them helearned that the governess had been "scolded" by Miss Beaufort forgoing to Mr. Coventry's room; that she had taken it very sweetly and keptherself carefully out of the way of both young gentlementhough it was plain tosee that Mr. Ned was dying for her.
Mr. Gerald amused himself by thinking over this gossipand quite annoyed hissister by his absence of mind.
"Geralddo you know Ned's commission has come?"
"Very interesting. Read onBella."
"You stupid boy! You don't know a word I say" and she put down thebook to repeat her news.
"I'm glad of it; now we must get him off as soon as possible -- that isI suppose he will want to be off as soon as possible." And Coventry woke upfrom his reverie.
"You needn't check yourselfI know all about it. I think Ned was veryfoolishand that Miss Muir has behaved beautifully. It's quite impossibleofcoursebut I wish it wasn'tI do so like to watch lovers. You and Lucia are socold you are not a bit interesting."
"You'll do me a favor if you'll stop all that nonsense about Lucia andme. We are not loversand never shall beI fancy. At all eventsI'm tired ofthe thingand wish you and Mamma would let it dropfor the present atleast."
"Oh Geraldyou know Mamma has set her heart upon itthat Papa desireditand poor Lucia loves you so much. How can you speak of dropping what willmake us all so happy?"
"It won't make me happyand I take the liberty of thinking that this isof some importance. I'm not bound in any wayand don't intend to be till I amready. Now we'll talk about Ned."
Much grieved and surprisedBella obeyedand devoted herself to Edwardwhovery wisely submitted to his fate and prepared to leave home for some months.For a week the house was in a state of excitement about his departureandeveryone but Jean was busied for him. She was scarcely seen; every morning shegave Bella her lessonsevery afternoon drove out with Mrs. Coventryand nearlyevery evening went up to the Hall to read to Sir Johnwho found his wishgranted without exactly knowing how it had been done.
The day Edward lefthe came down from bidding his mother good-byelookingvery palefor he had lingered in his sister's little room with Miss Muir aslong as he dared.
"Good-byedear. Be kind to Jean" he whispered as he kissed hissister.
"I willI will" returned Bellawith tearful eyes.
"Take care of Mammaand remember Lucia" he said againas hetouched his cousin's beautiful cheek.
"Fear nothing. I will keep them apart" she whispered backandCoventry heard it.
Edward offered his hand to his brothersayingsignificantlyas he lookedhim in the eye"I trust youGerald."
Then he wentand Coventry tired himself with wondering what Lucia meant. Afew days later he understood.
Now Ned is gonelittle Muir will appearI fancyhe said to himself; but"little Muir" did not appearand seemed to shun him more carefullythan she had done her lover. If he went to the drawing room in the eveninghoping for musicLucia alone was there. If he tapped at Bella's doorthere wasalways a pause before she opened itand no sign of Jean appeared though hervoice had been audible when he knocked. If he went to the librarya hastyrustle and the sound of flying feet betrayed that the room was deserted at hisapproach. In the garden Miss Muir never failed to avoid himand if by chancethey met in hall or breakfast roomshe passed him with downcast eyes and thebriefestcoldest greeting. All this annoyed him intenselyand the more sheeluded himthe more he desired to see her -- from a spirit of oppositionhesaidnothing more. It fretted and yet it entertained himand he found a laysort of pleasure in thwarting the girl's little maneuvers. His patience gave outat lastand he resolved to know what was the meaning of this peculiar conduct.Having locked and taken away the key of one door in the libraryhe waited tillMiss Muir went in to get a book for his uncle. He had heard her speak to Bellaof itknew that she believed him with his motherand smiled to himself as hestole after her. She was standing in a chairreaching upand he had time tosee a slender waista pretty footbefore he spoke.
"Can I help youMiss Muir?"
She starteddropped several booksand turned scarletas she saidhurriedly"Thank youno; I can get the steps."
"My long arm will be less trouble. I've got but oneand that is tiredof being idleso it is very much at your service. What will you have?"
"I -- I -- you startled me so I've forgotten." And Jean laughednervouslyas she looked about her as if planning to escape.
"I beg your pardonwait till you rememberand let me thank you for theenchanted sleep you gave me ten days ago. I've had no chance yetyou've shunnedme so pertinaciously."
"Indeed I try not to be rudebut -- " She checked herselfandturned her face awayaddingwith an accent of pain in her voice"It isnot my faultMr. Coventry. I only obey orders."
"Whose orders?" he demandedstill standing so that she could notescape.
"Don't ask; it is one who has a right to command where you areconcerned. Be sure that it is kindly meantthough it may seem folly to us. Naydon't be angrylaugh at itas I doand let me run awayplease."
She turnedand looked down at him with tears in her eyesa smile on herlipsand an expression half sadhalf archwhich was altogether charming. Thefrown passed from his facebut he still looked grave and said decidedly"No one has a right to command in this house but my mother or myself. Wasit she who bade you avoid me as if I was a madman or a pest?"
"Ahdon't ask. I promised not to telland you would not have me breakmy wordI know." And still smilingshe regarded him with a look of merrymalice which made any other reply unnecessary. It was Luciahe thoughtanddisliked his cousin intensely just then. Miss Muir moved as if to step down; hedetained hersaying earnestlyyet with a smile"Do you consider me themaster here?"
"Yes" and to the word she gave a sweetsubmissive intonationwhich made it expressive of the respectregardand confidence which men findpleasantest when women feel and show it. Unconsciously his face softenedand helooked up at her with a different glance from any he had ever given her before.
"Wellthenwill you consent to obey me if I am not tyrannical orunreasonable in my demands?"
"Good! Now franklyI want to say that all this sort of thing is verydisagreeable to me. It annoys me to be a restraint upon anyone's liberty orcomfortand I beg you will go and come as freely as you likeand not mindLucia's absurdities. She means wellbut hasn't a particle of penetration ortact. Will you promise this?"
"It is better as it isperhaps"
"But you called it folly just now."
"Yesit seems soand yet -- " She pausedlooking both confusedand distressed.
Coventry lost patienceand said hastily"You women are such enigmas Inever expect to understand you! WellI've done my best to make you comfortablebut if you prefer to lead this sort of lifeI beg you will do so."
"I don't prefer it; it is hateful to me. I like to be myselfto have mylibertyand the confidence of those about me. But I cannot think it kind todisturb the peace of anyoneand so I try to obey. I've promised Bella toremainbut I will go rather than have another scene with Miss Beaufort or withyou."
Miss Muir had burst out impetuouslyand stood there with a sudden fire inher eyessudden warmth and spirit in her face and voice that amazed Coventry.She was angryhurtand haughtyand the change only made her more attractivefor not a trace of her former meek self remained. Coventry was electrifiedandstill more surprised when she addedimperiouslywith a gesture as if to puthim aside"Hand me that book and move away. I wish to go."
He obeyedeven offered his handbut she refused itstepped lightly downand went to the door. There she turnedand with the same indignant voicethesame kindling eyes and glowing cheeksshe said rapidly"I know I have noright to speak in this way. I restrain myself as long as I canbut when I canbear no moremy true self breaks looseand I defy everything. I am tired ofbeing a coldcalm machine; it is impossible with an ardent nature like mineand I shall try no longer. I cannot help it if people love me. I don't wanttheir love. I only ask to be left in peaceand why I am tormented so I cannotsee. I've neither beautymoneynor rankyet every foolish boy mistakes myfrank interest for something warmerand makes me miserable. It is mymisfortune. Think of me what you willbut beware of me in timefor against mywill I may do you harm."
Almost fiercely she had spokenand with a warning gesture she hurried fromthe roomleaving the young man feeling as if a sudden thunder-gust had sweptthrough the house. For several minutes he sat in the chair she leftthinkingdeeply. Suddenly he rosewent to his sisterand saidin his usual tone ofindolent good nature"Belladidn't I hear Ned ask you to be kind to MissMuir?"
"Yesand I try to bebut she is so odd lately."
"Odd! How do you mean?"
"Whyshe is either as calm and cold as a statueor restless and queer;she cries at nightI knowand sighs sadly when she thinks I don't hear.Something is the matter."
"She frets for Ned perhaps" began Coventry.
"Oh dearno; it's a great relief to her that he is gone. I'm afraidthat she likes someone very muchand someone don't like her. Can it be Mr.Sydney?"
"She called him a 'titled fool' oncebut perhaps that didn't meananything. Did you ever ask her about him?" said Coventryfeeling ratherashamed of his curiosityyet unable to resist the temptation of questioningunsuspecting Bella.
"Yesbut she only looked at me in her tragical wayand saidsopitifully'My little friendI hope you will never have to pass through thescenes I've passed throughbut keep your peace unbroken all your life.' Afterthat I dared say no more. I'm very fond of herI want to make her happybut Idon't know how. Can you propose anything?"
"I was going to propose that you make her come among us morenow Ned isgone. It must be dull for hermoping about alone. I'm sure it is for me. She isan entertaining little personand I enjoy her music very much. It's good forMamma to have gay evenings; so you bestir yourselfand see what you can do forthe general good of the family."
"That's all very charmingand I've proposed it more than oncebutLucia spoils all my plans. She is afraid you'll follow Ned's exampleand thatis so silly."
"Lucia is a -- noI won't say foolbecause she has sense enough whenshe chooses; but I wish you'd just settle things with Mammaand then Lucia cando nothing but submit" said Gerald angrily.
"I'll trybut she goes up to read to Uncleyou knowand since he hashad the goutshe stays laterso I see little of her in the evening. There shegoes now. I think she will captivate the old one as well as the young onesheis so devoted."
Coventry looked after her slender black figurejust vanishing through thegreat gateand an uncomfortable fancy took possession of himborn of Bella'scareless words. He sauntered awayand after eluding his cousinwho seemedlooking for himhe turned toward the Hallsaying to himselfI will see whatis going on up here. Such things have happened. Uncle is the simplest soulaliveand if the girl is ambitiousshe can do what she will with him.
Here a servant came running after him and gave him a letterwhich he thrustinto his pocket without examining it. When he reached the Hallhe went quietlyto his uncle's study. The door was ajarand looking inhe saw a scene oftranquil comfortvery pleasant to watch. Sir John leaned in his easy chair withone foot on a cushion. He was dressed with his usual care andin spite of thegoutlooked like a handsomewell-preserved old gentleman. He was smiling as helistenedand his eyes rested complacently on Jean Muirwho sat near himreading in her musical voicewhile the sunshine glittered on her hair and thesoft rose of her cheek. She read wellyet Coventry thought her heart was not inher taskfor once when she pausedwhile Sir John spokeher eyes had an absentexpressionand she leaned her head upon her handwith an air of patientweariness.
Poor girl! I did her great injustice; she has no thought of captivating theold manbut amuses him from simple kindness. She is tired. I'll put an end toher task; and Coventry entered without knocking.
Sir John received him with an air of polite resignationMiss Muir with aperfectly expressionless face.
"Mother's loveand how are you todaysir?"
"Comfortablebut dullso I want you to bring the girls over thiseveningto amuse the old gentleman. Mrs. King has got out the antique costumesand trumpery as I promised Bella she should have themand tonight we are tohave a merrymakingas we used to do when Ned was here."
"Very wellsirI'll bring them. We've all been out of sorts since thelad leftand a little jollity will do us good. Are you going backMissMuir?" asked Coventry.
"NoI shall keep her to give me my tea and get things ready. Don't readanymoremy dearbut go and amuse yourself with the picturesor whatever youlike" said Sir John; and like a dutiful daughter she obeyedas if glad toget away.
"That's a very charming girlGerald" began Sir John as she leftthe room. "I'm much interested in herboth on her own account and on hermother's."
"Her mother's! What do you know of her mother?" asked Coventrymuch surprised.
"Her mother was Lady Grace Howardwho ran away with a poor Scotchminister twenty years ago. The family cast her offand she lived and died soobscurely that very little is known of her except that she left an orphan girlat some small French pension. This is the girland a fine girltoo. I'msurprised that you did not know this."
"So am Ibut it is like her not to tell. She is a strangeproudcreature. Lady Howard's daughter! Upon my wordthat is a discovery" andCoventry felt his interest in his sister's governess much increased by thisfact; forlike all wellborn Englishmenhe valued rank and gentle blood evenmore than he cared to own.
"She has had a hard life of itthis poor little girl
but she has a brave spiritand will make her way anywhere" said SirJohn admiringly.
"Did Ned know this?" asked Gerald suddenly.
"Noshe only told me yesterday. I was looking in the Peerage andchanced to speak of the Howards. She forgot herself and called Lady Grace hermother. Then I got the whole storyfor the lonely little thing was glad to makea confidant of someone."
"That accounts for her rejection of Sydney and Ned: she knows she istheir equal and will not snatch at the rank which is hers by right. Noshe'snot mercenary or ambitious."
"What do you say?" asked Sir Johnfor Coventry had spoken more tohimself than to his uncle.
"I wonder if Lady Sydney was aware of this?" was all Gerald'sanswer.
"NoJean said she did not wish to be pitiedand so told nothing to themother. I think the son knewbut that was a delicate pointand I asked noquestions."
"I shall write to him as soon as I discover his address. We have been sointimate I can venture to make a few inquiries about Miss Muirand prove thetruth of her story."
"Do you mean to say that you doubt it?" demanded Sir John angrily.
"I beg your pardonUnclebut I must confess I have an instinctivedistrust of that young person. It is unjustI dare sayyet I cannot banishit."
"Don't annoy me by expressing itif you please. I have some penetrationand experienceand I respect and pity Miss Muir heartily. This dislike of yoursmay be the cause of her late melancholyheyGerald?" And Sir John lookedsuspiciously at his nephew.
Anxious to avert the rising stormCoventry said hastily as he turned away"I've neither time nor inclination to discuss the matter nowsirbut willbe careful not to offend again. I'll take your message to Bellaso good-bye foran hourUncle."
And Coventry went his way through the parkthinking within himselfThe dearold gentleman is getting fascinatedlike poor Ned. How the deuce does the girldo it? Lady Howard's daughteryet never told us; I don't understand that.
At home he found a party of young friendswho hailed with delight theprospect of a revel at the Hall. An hour laterthe blithe company trooped intothe great saloonwhere preparations had already been made for a dramaticevening.
Good Sir John was in his elementfor he was never so happy as when his housewas full of young people. Several persons were chosenand in a few moments thecurtains were withdrawn from the first of these impromptu tableaux. A swarthydarkly bearded man lay asleep on a tiger skinin the shadow of a tent. Orientalarms and drapery surrounded him; an antique silver lamp burned dimly on a tablewhere fruit lay heaped in costly dishesand wine shone redly in half-emptiedgoblets. Bending over the sleeper was a woman robed with barbaric splendor. Onehand turned back the embroidered sleeve from the arm which held a scimitar; oneslender foot in a scarlet sandal was visible under the white tunic; her purplemantle swept down from snowy shoulders; fillets of gold bound her hairandjewels shone on neck and arms. She was looking over her shoulder toward theentrance of the tentwith a steady yet stealthy lookso effective that for amoment the spectators held their breathas if they also heard a passingfootstep.
"Who is it?" whispered Luciafor the face was new to her.
"Jean Muir" answered Coventrywith an absorbed look.
"Impossible! She is small and fair" began Luciabut a hasty"Hushlet me look!" from her cousin silenced her.
Impossible as it seemedhe was right nevertheless; for Jean Muir it was. Shehad darkened her skinpainted her eyebrowsdisposed some wild black locks overher fair hairand thrown such an intensity of expression into her eyes thatthey darkened and dilated till they were as fierce as any southern eyes thatever flashed. Hatredthe deepest and bitterestwas written on her sternlybeautiful facecourage glowed in her glancepower spoke in the nervous grip ofthe slender hand that held the weaponand the indomitable will of the woman wasexpressed -- even the firm pressure of the little foot half hidden in the tigerskin.
"Ohisn't she splendid?" cried Bella under her breath.
"She looks as if she'd use her sword well when the time comes"said someone admiringly.
"Good night to Holofernes; his fate is certain" added another.
"He is the image of Sydneywith that beard on."
"Doesn't she look as if she really hated him?"
"Perhaps she does."
Coventry uttered the last exclamationfor the two which preceded itsuggested an explanation of the marvelous change in Jean. It was not all art:the intense detestation mingled with a savage joy that the object of her hatredwas in her power was too perfect to be feigned; and having the key to a part ofher storyCoventry felt as if he caught a glimpse of the truth. It was but aglimpsehoweverfor the curtain dropped before he had half analyzed thesignificance of that strange face.
"Horrible! I'm glad it's over" said Lucia coldly.
"Magnificent! Encore! Encore!" cried Gerald enthusiastically.
But the scene was overand no applause could recall the actress. Two orthree graceful or gay pictures followedbut Jean was in noneand each lackedthe charm which real talent lends to the simplest part.
"Coventryyou are wanted" called a voice. And to everyone'ssurpriseCoventry wentthough heretofore he had always refused to exerthimself when handsome actors were in demand.
"What part am I to spoil?" he askedas he entered the green roomwhere several excited young gentlemen were costuming and attitudinizing.
"A fugitive cavalier. Put yourself into this suitand lose no timeasking questions. Miss Muir will tell you what to do. She is in the tableausono one will mind you" said the manager pro temthrowing a rich old suittoward Coventry and resuming the painting of a moustache on his own boyish face.
A gallant cavalier was the result of Gerald's hasty toiletand when heappeared before the ladies a general glance of admiration was bestowed upon him.
"Come along and be placed; Jean is ready on the stage." And Bellaran before himexclaiming to her governess"Here he isquite splendid.Wasn't he good to do it?"
Miss Muirin the charmingly prim and puritanical dress of a Roundheaddamselwas arranging some shrubsbut turned suddenly and dropped the greenbranch she heldas her eye met the glittering figure advancing toward her.
"You!" she said with a troubled lookadding low to Bella"Why did you ask him? I begged you not."
"He is the only handsome man hereand the best actor if he likes. Hewon't play usuallyso make the most of him." And Bella was off to finishpowdering her hair for "The Marriage a la Mode."
"I was sent for and I came. Do you prefer some other person?" askedCoventryat a loss to understand the half-anxioushalf-eager expression of theface under the little cap.
It changed to one of mingled annoyance and resignation as she said"Itis too late. Please kneel herehalf behind the shrubs; put down your hatand-- allow me -- you are too elegant for a fugitive."
As he knelt before hershe disheveled his hairpulled his lace collar awrythrew away his gloves and swordand half untied the cloak that hung about hisshoulders.
"That is better; your paleness is excellent -- naydon't spoil it. Weare to represent the picture which hangs in the Hall. I need tell you no more.NowRoundheadsplace yourselvesand then ring up the curtain."
With a smileCoventry obeyed her; for the picture was of two loverstheyoung cavalier kneelingwith his arm around the waist of the girlwho tries tohide him with her little mantleand presses his head to her bosom in an ecstasyof fearas she glances back at the approaching pursuers. Jean hesitated aninstant and shrank a little as his hand touched her; she blushed deeplyand hereyes fell before his. Thenas the bell rangshe threw herself into her partwith sudden spirit. One arm half covered him with her cloakthe other pillowedhis head on the muslin kerchief folded over her bosomand she looked backwardwith such terror in her eyes that more than one chivalrous young spectatorlonged to hurry to the rescue. It lasted but a moment; yet in that momentCoventry experienced another new sensation. Many women had smiled on himbut hehad remained heart-wholecooland carelessquite unconscious of the powerwhich a woman possesses and knows how to usefor the weal or woe of man. Nowas he knelt there with a soft arm about hima slender waist yielding to histouchand a maiden heart throbbing against his cheekfor the first time in hislife he felt the indescribable spell of womanhoodand looked the ardent loverto perfection. Just as his face assumed this new and most becoming aspectthecurtain droppedand clamorous encores recalled him to the fact that Miss Muirwas trying to escape from his holdwhich had grown painful in its unconsciouspressure. He sprang uphalf bewilderedand looking as he had never lookedbefore.
"Again! Again!" called Sir John. And the young men who played theRoundheadseager to share in the applause begged for a repetition in newattitudes.
"A rustle has betrayed youwe have fired and shot the brave girlandshe lies dyingyou know. That will be effective; try itMiss Muir" saidone. And with a long breathJean complied.
The curtain went upshowing the lover still on his kneesunmindful of thecaptors who clutched him by the shoulderfor at his feet the girl lay dying.Her head was on his breastnowher eyes looked full into hisno longer wildwith fearbut eloquent with the love which even death could not conquer. Thepower of those tender eyes thrilled Coventry with a strange delightand set hisheart beating as rapidly as hers had done. She felt his hands tremblesaw thecolor flash into his cheekknew that she had touched him at lastand when sherose it was with a sense of triumph which she found it hard to conceal. Othersthought it fine acting; Coventry tried to believe so; but Lucia set her teethandas the curtain fell on that second pictureshe left her place to hurrybehind the scenesbent on putting an end to such dangerous play. Several actorswere complimenting the mimic lovers. Jean took it merrilybut Coventryinspite of himselfbetrayed that he was excited by something deeper than meregratified vanity.
As Lucia appearedhis manner changed to its usual indifference; but he couldnot quench the unwonted fire of his eyesor keep all trace of emotion out ofhis faceand she saw this with a sharp pang.
"I have come to offer my help. You must be tiredMiss Muir. Can Irelieve you?" said Lucia hastily.
"Yesthank you. I shall be very glad to leave the rest to youandenjoy them from the front."
So with a sweet smile Jean tripped awayand to Lucia's dismay Coventryfollowed.
"I want youGerald; please stay" she cried.
"I've done my part -- no more tragedy for me tonight." And he wasgone before she could entreat or command.
There was no help for it; she must stay and do her dutyor expose herjealousy to the quick eyes about her. For a time she bore it; but the sight ofher cousin leaning over the chair she had left and chatting with the governesswho now filled itgrew unbearableand she dispatched a little girl with amessage to Miss Muir.
"PleaseMiss Beaufort wants you for Queen Bessas you are the onlylady with red hair. Will you come?" whispered the childquite unconsciousof any hidden sting in her words.
"Yesdearwillingly though I'm not stately enough for Her Majestynorhandsome enough" said Jeanrising with an untroubled facethough sheresented the feminine insult.
"Do you want an Essex? I'm all dressed for it" said Coventryfollowing to the door with a wistful look.
"NoMiss Beaufort said you were not to come. She doesn't want you bothtogether" said the child decidedly.
Jean gave him a significant lookshrugged her shouldersand went awaysmiling her odd smilewhile Coventry paced up and down the hall in a curiousstate of unrestwhich made him forgetful of everything till the young peoplecame gaily out to supper.
"Comebonny Prince Charlietake me downand play the lover ascharmingly as you did an hour ago. I never thought you had so much warmth inyou" said Bellataking his arm and drawing him on against his will.
"Don't be foolishchild. Where is -- Lucia?"
Why he checked Jean's name on his lips and substituted another'she couldnot tell; but a sudden shyness in speaking of her possessed himand though hesaw her nowherehe would not ask for her. His cousin came down looking lovelyin a classical costume; but Gerald scarcely saw her andwhen the merriment wasat its heighthe slipped away to discover what had become of Miss Muir.
Alone in the deserted drawing room he found herand paused to watch her amoment before he spoke; for something in her attitude and face struck him. Shewas leaning wearily back in the great chair which had served for a throne. Herroyal robes were still unchangedthough the crown was off and all her fair hairhung about her shoulders. Excitement and exertion made her brilliantthe richdress became her wonderfullyand an air of luxurious indolence changed the meekgoverness into a charming woman. She leaned on the velvet cushions as if shewere used to such support; she played with the jewels which had crowned her ascarelessly as if she were born to wear them; her attitude was full of negligentgraceand the expression of her face half proudhalf pensiveas if herthoughts were bittersweet.
One would know she was wellborn to see her now. Poor girlwhat a burden alife of dependence must be to a spirit like hers! I wonder what she is thinkingof so intently. And Coventry indulged in another look before he spoke.
"Shall I bring you some supperMiss Muir?"
"Supper!" she ejaculatedwith a start. "Who thinks of one'sbody when one's soul is -- " She stopped thereknit her browsand laughedfaintly as she added"Nothank you. I want nothing but adviceand that Idare not ask of anyone."
"Because I have no right."
"Everyone has a right to ask helpespecially the weak of the strong.Can I help you? Believe meI most heartily offer my poor services."
"Ahyou forget! This dressthe borrowed splendor of these jewelsthefreedom of this gay eveningthe romance of the part you playedall blind youto the reality. For a moment I cease to be a servantand for a moment you treatme as an equal."
It was true; he had forgotten. That softreproachful glance touched himhisdistrust melted under the new charmand he answered with real feeling in voiceand face"I treat you as an equal because you are one; and when I offerhelpit is not to my sister's governess alonebut to Lady Howard'sdaughter."
"Who told you that?" she demandedsitting erect.
"My uncle. Do not reproach him. It shall go no furtherif you forbidit. Are you sorry that I know it?"
"Because I will not be pitied!" And her eyes flashed as she made ahalf-defiant gesture.
"Thenif I may not pity the hard fate which has befallen an innocentlifemay I admire the courage which meets adverse fortune so bravelyandconquers the world by winning the respect and regard of all who see and honorit?"
Miss Muir averted her faceput up her handand answered hastily"Nononot that! Do not be kind; it destroys the only barrier now left between us.Be cold to me as beforeforget what I amand let me go on my wayunknownunpitiedand unloved!"
Her voice faltered and failed as the last word was utteredand she bent herface upon her hand. Something jarred upon Coventry in this speechand moved himto sayalmost rudely"You need have no fears for me. Lucia will tell youwhat an iceberg I am."
"Then Lucia would tell me wrong. I have the fatal power of readingcharacter; I know you better than she doesand I see -- " There shestopped abruptly.
"What? Tell me and prove your skill" he said eagerly.
Turningshe fixed her eyes on him with a penetrating power that made himshrink as she said slowly"Under the ice I see fireand warn you tobeware lest it prove a volcano."
For a moment he sat dumbwondering at the insight of the girl; for she wasthe first to discover the hidden warmth of a nature too proud to confess itstender impulsesor the ambitions that slept till some potent voice awoke them.The bluntalmost stern manner in which she warned him away from her only madeher more attractive; for there was no conceit or arrogance in itonly aforeboding fear emboldened by past suffering to be frank. Suddenly he spokeimpetuously: "You are right! I am not what I seemand my indolentindifference is but the mask under which I conceal my real self. I could be aspassionateas energetic and aspiring as Nedif I had any aim in life. I havenoneand so I am what you once called mea thing to pity and despise."
"I never said that!" cried Jean indignantly.
"Not in those wordsperhaps; but you looked it and thought itthoughyou phrased it more mildly. I deserved itbut I shall deserve it no longer. Iam beginning to wake from my disgraceful idlenessand long for some work thatshall make a man of me. Why do you go? I annoy you with my confessions. Pardonme. They are the first I ever made; they shall be the last."
"Nooh no! I am too much honored by your confidence; but is it wiseisit loyal to tell me your hopes and aims? Has not Miss Beaufort the first rightto be your confidante?"
Coventry drew backlooking intensely annoyedfor the name recalled muchthat he would gladly have forgotten in the novel excitement of the hour. Lucia'sloveEdward's parting wordshis own reserve so strangely thrown asidesodifficult to resume. What he would have said was checked by the sight of ahalf-open letter which fell from Jean's dress as she moved away. Mechanically hetook it up to return itandas he did sohe recognized Sydney's handwriting.Jean snatched it from himturning pale to the lips as she cried"Did youread it? What did you see? Tell metell meon your honor!"
"On my honorI saw nothing but this single sentence'By the love Ibear youbelieve what I say.' No moreas I am a gentleman. I know the handIguess the purport of the letterand as a friend of SydneyI earnestly desireto help youif I can. Is this the matter upon which you want advice?"
"Then let me give it?"
"You cannotwithout knowing alland it is so hard to tell!"
"Let me guess itand spare you the pain of telling. May I?" AndCoventry waited eagerly for her replyfor the spell was still upon him.
Holding the letter fastshe beckoned him to followand glided before him toa secluded little nookhalf boudoirhalf conservatory. There she pausedstoodan instant as if in doubtthen looked up at him with confiding eyes and saiddecidedly"I will do it; forstrange as it may seemyou are the onlyperson to whom I can speak. You know Sydneyyou have discovered that I am anequalyou have offered your help. I accept it; but ohdo not think meunwomanly! Remember how alone I amhow youngand how much I rely upon yoursincerityyour sympathy!"
"Speak freely. I am indeed your friend." And Coventry sat downbeside herforgetful of everything but the soft-eyed girl who confided in himso entirely.
Speaking rapidlyJean went on"You know that Sydney loved methat Irefused him and went away. But you do not know that his importunities nearlydrove me wildthat he threatened to rob me of my only treasuremy good nameand thatin desperationI tried to kill myself. Yesmadwicked as it wasIdid long to end the life which wasat besta burdenand under his persecutionhad become a torment. You are shockedyet what I say is the living truth. LadySydney will confirm itthe nurses at the hospital will confess that it was nota fever which brought me there; and herethough the external wound is healedmy heart still aches and burns with the shame and indignation which only a proudwoman can feel."
She paused and sat with kindling eyesglowing cheeksand both hands pressedto her heaving bosomas if the old insult roused her spirit anew. Coventry saidnot a wordfor surpriseangerincredulityand admiration mingled soconfusedly in his mind that he forgot to speakand Jean went on"Thatwild act of mine convinced him of my indomitable dislike. He went awayand Ibelieved that this stormy love of his would be cured by absence. It is notandI live in daily fear of fresh entreatiesrenewed persecution. His motherpromised
not to betray where I had gonebut he found me out and wrote to me. Theletter I asked you to take to Lady Sydney was a reply to hisimploring him toleave me in peace. You failed to deliver itand I was gladfor I thoughtsilence might quench hope. All in vain; this is a more passionate appeal thaneverand he vows he will never desist from his endeavors till I give anotherman the right to protect me. I can do this -- I am sorely tempted to do itbutI rebel against the cruelty. I love my freedomI have no wish to marry at thisman's bidding. What can I do? How can I free myself? Be my friendand helpme!"
Tears streamed down her cheekssobs choked her wordsand she clasped herhands imploringly as she turned toward the young man in all the abandonment ofsorrowfearand supplication. Coventry found it hard to meet those eloquenteyes and answer calmlyfor he had no experience in such scenes and knew not howto play his part. It is this absurd dress and that romantic nonsense which makesme feel so unlike myselfhe thoughtquite unconscious of the dangerous powerwhich the dusky roomthe midsummer warmth and fragrancethe memory of the"romantic nonsense" andmost of allthe presence of a beautifulafflicted woman had over him. His usual self-possession deserted himand hecould only echo the words which had made the strongest impression upon him:
"You can do thisyou are tempted to do it. Is Ned the man who canprotect you?"
"No" was the soft reply.
"Do not ask me. A good and honorable man; one who loves me wellandwould devote his life to me; one whom once it would have been happiness tomarrybut now -- "
There her voice ended in a sighand all her fair hair fell down about herfacehiding it in a shining veil.
"Why not now? This is a sure and speedy way of ending your distress. Isit impossible?"
In spite of himselfGerald leaned nearertook one of the little hands inhisand pressed it as he spokeurgentlycompassionatelynayalmosttenderly. From behind the veil came a heavy sighand the brief answer"Itis impossible."
She flung her hair back with a sudden gesturedrew away her handandansweredalmost fiercely"Because I do not love him! Why do you tormentme with such questions? I tell you I am in a sore strait and cannot see my way.Shall I deceive the good manand secure peace at the price of liberty andtruth? Or shall I defy Sydney and lead a life of dread? If he menaced my lifeIshould not fear; but he menaces that which is dearer than life -- my good name.A looka word can tarnish it; a scornful smilea significant shrug can do memore harm than any blow; for I am a woman -- friendlesspoorand at the mercyof his tongue. Ahbetter to have diedand so have been saved the bitter painthat has come now!"
She sprang upclasped her hands over her headand paced despairinglythrough the little roomnot weepingbut wearing an expression more tragicalthan tears. Still feeling as if he had suddenly stepped into a romanceyetfinding a keen pleasure in the part assigned himCoventry threw himself into itwith spiritand heartily did his best to console the poor girl who needed helpso much. Going to herhe said as impetuously as Ned ever did"Miss Muir-- nayI will say Jeanif that will comfort you -- listenand rest assuredthat no harm shall touch you if I can ward it off. You are needlessly alarmed.Indignant you may well bebutupon my lifeI think you wrong Sydney. He isviolentI knowbut he is too honorable a man to injure you by a light wordanunjust act. He did but threatenhoping to soften you. Let me see himor writeto him. He is my friend; he will listen to me. Of that I am sure."
"Be sure of nothing. When a man like Sydney loves and is thwarted in hislovenothing can control his headstrong will. Promise me you will not see orwrite to him. Much as I fear and despise himI will submitrather than anyharm should befall you -- or your brother. You promise meMr. Coventry?"
He hesitated. She clung to his arm with unfeigned solicitude in her eagerpleading faceand he could not resist it.
"I promise; but in return you must promise to let me give what help Ican; andJeannever say again that you are friendless."
"You are so kind! God bless you for it. But I dare not accept yourfriendship; she will not permit itand I have no right to mar her peace."
"Who will not permit it?" he demanded hotly.
"Hang Miss Beaufort!" exclaimed Coventrywith such energy thatJean broke into a musical laughdespite her trouble. He joined in itandforan instant they stood looking at one another as if the last barrier were downand they were friends indeed. Jean paused suddenlywith the smile on her lipsthe tears still on her cheekand made a warning gesture. He listened: the soundof feet mingled with calls and laughter proved that they were missed and sought.
"That laugh betrayed us. Stay and meet them. I cannot." And Jeandarted out upon the lawn. Coventry followed; for the thought of confronting somany eyesso many questionsdaunted himand he fled like a coward. The soundof Jean's flying footsteps guided himand he overtook her just as she pausedbehind a rose thicket to take breath.
"Fainthearted knight! You should have stayed and covered my retreat.Hark! they are coming! Hide! Hide!" she pantedhalf in fearhalf inmerrimentas the gay pursuers rapidly drew nearer.
"Kneel down; the moon is coming out and the glitter of your embroiderywill betray you" whispered Jeanas they cowered behind the roses.
"Your arms and hair will betray you. 'Come under my plaiddie' as thesong says." And Coventry tried to make his velvet cloak cover the whiteshoulders and fair locks.
"We are acting our parts in reality now. How Bella will enjoy the thingwhen I tell her!" said Jean as the noises died away.
"Do not tell her" whispered Coventry.
"And why not?" she askedlooking up into the face so near her ownwith an artless glance.
"Can you not guess why?"
"Ahyou are so proud you cannot bear to be laughed at."
"It is not that. It is because I do not want you to be annoyed by sillytongues; you have enough to pain you without that. I am your friendnowand Ido my best to prove it."
"So kindso kind! How can I thank you?" murmured Jean. And sheinvoluntarily nestled closer under the cloak that sheltered both.
Neither spoke for a momentand in the silence the rapid beating of twohearts was heard. To drown the soundCoventry said softly"Are youfrightened?"
"NoI like it" she answeredas softlythen added abruptly"But why do we hide? There is nothing to fear. It is late. I must go. Youare kneeling on my train. Please rise."
"Why in such haste? This flight and search only adds to the charm of theevening. I'll not get up yet. Will you have a roseJean?"
"NoI will not. Let me goMr. CoventryI insist. There has beenenough of this folly. You forget yourself."
She spoke imperiouslyflung off the cloakand put him from her. He rose atoncesayinglike one waking suddenly from a pleasant dream"I do indeedforget myself."
Here the sound of voices broke on themnearer than before. Pointing to acovered walk that led to the househe saidin his usually coolcalm tone"Go in that way; I will cover your retreat." And turninghe went tomeet the merry hunters.
Half an hour laterwhen the party broke upMiss Muir joined them in herusual quiet dresslooking palermeekerand sadder than usual. Coventry sawthisthough he neither looked at her nor addressed her. Lucia saw it alsoandwas glad that the dangerous girl had fallen back into her proper place againfor she had suffered much that night. She appropriated her cousin's arm as theywent through the parkbut he was in one of his taciturn moodsand all herattempts at conversation were in vain. Miss Muir walked alonesinging softly toherself as she followed in the dusk. Was Gerald so silent because he listened tothat fitful song? Lucia thought soand felt her dislike rapidly deepening tohatred.
When the young friends were goneand the family were exchanging good-nightsamong themselvesJean was surprised by Coventry's offering his handfor he hadnever done it beforeand whisperingas he held itthough Lucia watched himall the while"I have not given my adviceyet."
"ThanksI no longer need it. I have decided for myself."
"May I ask how?"
"To brave my enemy."
"Good! But what decided you so suddenly?"
"The finding of a friend." And with a grateful glance she was gone.
"If you pleaseMr. Coventrydid you get the letter last night?"were the first words that greeted the "young master" as he left hisroom next morning.
"What letterDean? I don't remember any" he answeredpausingfor something in the maid's manner struck him as peculiar.
"It came just as you left for the Hallsir. Benson ran after you withitas it was marked 'Haste.' Didn't you get itsir?" asked the womananxiously.
"Yesbut upon my lifeI forgot all about it till this minute. It's inmy other coatI supposeif I've not lost it. That absurd masquerading puteverything else out of my head." And speaking more to himself than to themaidCoventry turned back to look for the missing letter.
Dean remained where she wasapparently busy about the arrangement of thecurtains at the hall windowbut furtively watching meanwhile with a mostunwonted air of curiosity.
"Not thereI thought so!" she mutteredas Coventry impatientlythrust his hand into one pocket after another. But as she spokean expressionof amazement appeared in her facefor suddenly the letter was discovered.
"I'd have sworn it wasn't there! I don't understand itbut she's a deeponeor I'm deceived." And Dean shook her head like one perplexedbut notconvinced.
Coventry uttered an exclamation of satisfaction on glancing at the addressandstanding where he wastore open the letter.
I'm off to Baden. Come and join methen you'll be out of harm's way; for ifyou fall in love with J.M. (and you can't escape if you stay where she is)youwill incur the trifling inconvenience of having your brains blown out by
Yours trulyF. R. Sydney
"The man is mad!" ejaculated Coventrystaring at the letter whilean angry flush rose to his face. "What the deuce does he mean by writing tome in that style? Join him -- not! And as for the threatI laugh at it. PoorJean! This headstrong fool seems bent on tormenting her. WellDeanwhat areyou waiting for?" he demandedas if suddenly conscious of her presence.
"Nothingsir; I only stopped to see if you found the letter. Begpardonsir."
And she was moving on when Coventry askedwith a suspicious look"Whatmade you think it was lost? You seem to take an uncommon interest in my affairstoday."
"Oh dearnosir. I felt a bit anxiousBenson is so forgetfuland itwas me who sent him after youfor I happened to see you go outso I feltresponsible. Being marked that wayI thought it might be important so I askedabout it."
"Very wellyou can goDean. It's all rightyou see."
"I'm not so sure of that" muttered the womanas she curtsiedrespectfully and went awaylooking as if the letter had not been found.
Dean was Miss Beaufort's maida gravemiddle-aged woman with keen eyes anda somewhat grim air. Having been long in the familyshe enjoyed all theprivileges of a faithful and favorite servant. She loved her young mistress withan almost jealous affection. She watched over her with he vigilant care of amother and resented any attempt at interference on the part of others. At firstshe had pitied and liked Jean Muirthen distrusted herand now heartily hatedheras the cause of the increased indifference of Coventry toward his cousin.Dean knew the depth of Lucia's loveand though no manin her eyeswas worthyof her mistressstillhaving honored him with her regardDean felt bound tolike himand the late change in his manner disturbed the maid almost as much asit did the mistress. She watched Jean narrowlycausing that amiable creaturemuch amusement but little annoyanceas yetfor Dean's slow English wit was nomatch for the subtle mind of the governess. On the preceding nightDean hadbeen sent up to the Hall with costumes and had there seen something which muchdisturbed her. She began to speak of it while undressing her mistressbutLuciabeing in an unhappy moodhad so sternly ordered her not to gossip thatthe tale remained untoldand she was forced to bide her time.
Now I'll see how she looks after it; though there's not much to be got out ofher facethe deceitful hussythought Deanmarching down the corridor andknitting her black brows as she went.
"Good morningMrs. Dean. I hope you are none the worse for last night'sfrolic. You had the work and we the play" said a blithe voice behind her;and turning sharplyshe confronted Miss Muir. Fresh and smilingthe governessnodded with an air of cordiality which would have been irresistible with anyonebut Dean.
"I'm quite wellthank youmiss" she returned coldlyas her keeneye fastened on the girl as if to watch the effect of her words. "I had agood rest when the young ladies and gentlemen were at supperfor while themaids cleared upI sat in the 'little anteroom.'"
"YesI saw youand feared you'd take cold. Very glad you didn't. Howis Miss Beaufort? She seemed rather poorly last night" was the tranquilreplyas Jean settled the little frills about her delicate wrists. The coolquestion was a return shot for Dean's hint that she had been where she couldoversee the interview between Coventry and Miss Muir.
"She is a bit tiredas any lady would be after such an evening. Peoplewho are used to play-acting wouldn't mind itperhapsbut Miss Beaufort don'tenjoy romps as much as some do."
The emphasis upon certain words made Dean's speech as impertinent as shedesired. But Jean only laughedand as Coventry's step was heard behind themshe ran downstairssaying blandlybut with a wicked look"I won't stopto thank you nowlest Mr. Coventry should bid me good-morningand so increaseMiss Beaufort's indisposition."
Dean's eyes flashed as she looked after the girl with a wrathful faceandwent her waysaying grimly"I'll bide my timebut I'll get the better ofher yet."
Fancying himself quite removed from "last night's absurdity" yetcurious to see how Jean would meet himCoventry lounged into the breakfast roomwith his usual air of listless indifference. A languid nod and murmur was allthe reply he vouchsafed to the greetings of cousinsisterand governess as hesat down and took up his paper.
"Have you had a letter from Ned?" asked Bellalooking at the notewhich her brother still held.
"No" was the brief answer.
"Who then? You look as if you had received bad news."
There was no replyandpeeping over his armBella caught sight of the sealand exclaimedin a disappointed tone"It is the Sydney crest. I don'tcare about the note now. Men's letters to each other are not interesting."
Miss Muir had been quietly feeding one of Edward's dogsbut at the name shelooked up and met Coventry's eyescoloring so distressfully that he pitied her.Why he should take the trouble to cover her confusionhe did not stop to askhimselfbut seeing the curl of Lucia's liphe suddenly addressed her with anair of displeasure"Do you know that Dean is getting impertinent? Shepresumes too much on her age and your indulgenceand forgets her place."
"What has she done?" asked Lucia coldly.
"She troubles herself about my affairs and takes it upon herself to keepBenson in order."
Here Coventry told about the letter and the woman's evident curiosity.
"Poor Deanshe gets no thanks for reminding you of what you hadforgotten. Next time she will leave your letters to their fateand perhaps itwill be as wellif they have such a bad effect upon your temperGerald."
Lucia spoke calmlybut there was an angry color in her cheek as she rose andleft the room. Coventry looked much annoyedfor on Jean's face he detected afaint smilehalf pitifulhalf satiricalwhich disturbed him more than hiscousin's insinuation. Bella broke the awkward silence by sayingwith a sigh"Poor Ned! I do so long to hear again from him. I thought a letter had comefor some of us. Dean said she saw one bearing his writing on the hall tableyesterday."
"She seems to have a mania for inspecting letters. I won't allow it. Whowas the letter forBella?" said Coventryputting down his paper.
"She wouldn't or couldn't tellbut looked very cross and told me to askyou."
"Very odd! I've had none" began Coventry.
"But I had one several days ago. Will you please read itand myreply?" And as she spokeJean laid two letters before him.
"Certainly not. It would be dishonorable to read what Ned intended forno eyes but your own. You are too scrupulous in one wayand not enough so inanotherMiss Muir." And Coventry offered both the letters with an air ofgrave decisionwhich could not conceal the interest and surprise he felt.
"You are right. Mr. Edward's note should be kept sacredfor in it thepoor boy has laid bare his heart to me. But mine I beg you will readthat youmay see how well I try to keep my word to you. Oblige me in thisMr. Coventry;I have a right to ask it of you."
So urgently she spokeso wistfully she lookedthat he could not refuse andgoing to the windowread the letter. It was evidently an answer to a passionateappeal from the young loverand was written with consummate skill. As he readGerald could not help thinkingIf this girl writes in this way to a man whomshe does not lovewith what a world of power and passion would she write to onewhom she did love. And this thought kept returning to him as his eye went overline after line of wise argumentgentle reproofgood counseland friendlyregard. Here and there a worda phrasebetrayed what she had alreadyconfessedand Coventry forgot to return the letteras he stood wondering whowas the man whom Jean loved.
The sound of Bella's voice recalled himfor she was sayinghalf kindlyhalf petulantly"Don't look so sadJean. Ned will outlive itI dare say.You remember you said once men never died of lovethough women might. In hisone note to mehe spoke so beautifully of youand begged me to be kind to youfor his sakethat I try to be with all my heartthough if it was anyone butyouI really think I should hate them for making my dear boy so unhappy."
"You are too kindBellaand I often think I'll go away to relieve youof my presence; but unwise and dangerous as it is to stayI haven't the courageto go. I've been so happy here." And as she spokeJean's head droppedlower over the dog as it nestled to her affectionately.
Before Bella could utter half the loving words that sprang to her lipsCoventry came to them with all languor gone from face and mienand layingJean's letter before herhe saidwith an undertone of deep feeling in hisusually emotionless voice"A right womanly and eloquent letterbut I fearit will only increase the fire it was meant to quench. I pity my brother morethan ever now."
"Shall I send it?" asked Jeanlooking straight up at himlike onewho had entire reliance on his judgment.
"YesI have not the heart to rob him of such a sweet sermon uponself-sacrifice. Shall I post it for you?"
"Thank you; in a moment." And with a grateful lookJean droppedher eyes. Producing her little purseshe selected a pennyfolded it in a bitof paperand then offered both letter and coin to Coventrywith such a prettyair of businessthat he could not control a laugh.
"So you won't be indebted to me for a penny? What a proud woman you areMiss Muir."
"I am; it's a family failing." And she gave him a significantglancewhich recalled to him the memory of who she was. He understood herfeelingand liked her the better for itknowing that he would have done thesame had he been in her place. It was a little thingbut if done for effectitanswered admirablyfor it showed a quick insight into his character on herpartand betrayed to him the existence of a pride in which he sympathizedheartily. He stood by Jean a momentwatching her as she burnt Edward's letterin the blaze of the spirit lamp under the urn.
"Why do you do that?" he asked involuntarily.
"Because it is my duty to forget" was all her answer.
"Can you always forget when it becomes a duty?"
"I wish I could! I wish I could!"
She spoke passionatelyas if the words broke from her against her willandrising hastilyshe went into the gardenas if afraid to stay.
"Poordear Jean is very unhappy about somethingbut I can't discoverwhat it is. Last night I found her crying over a roseand now she runs awaylooking as if her heart was broken. I'm glad I've got no lessons."
"What kind of a rose?" asked Coventry from behind his paper asBella paused.
"A lovely white one. It must have come from the Hall; we have none likeit. I wonder if Jean was ever going to be marriedand lost her loverand feltsad because the flower reminded her of bridal roses." Coventry made noreplybut felt himself change countenance as he recalled the little scenebehind the rose hedgewhere he gave Jean the flower which she had refused yettaken. Presentlyto Bella's surprisehe flung down the papertore Sydney'snote to atomsand rang for his horse with an energy which amazed her.
"WhyGeraldwhat has come over you? One would think Ned's restlessspirit had suddenly taken possession of you. What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to work" was the unexpected answeras Coventry turnedtoward her with an expression so rarely seen on his fine face.
"What has waked you up all at once?" asked Bellalooking more andmore amazed.
"You did" he saiddrawing her toward him.
"I! When? How?"
"Do you remember saying once that energy was better than beauty in amanand that no one could respect an idler?"
"I never said anything half so sensible as that. Jean said somethinglike it onceI believebut I forgot. Are you tired of doing nothingat lastGerald?"
"YesI neglected my duty to Nedtill he got into troubleand now Ireproach myself for it. It's not too late to do other neglected tasksso I'mgoing at them with a will. Don't say anything about it to anyoneand don'tlaugh at mefor I'm in earnestBell."
"I know you areand I admire and love you for itmy dear oldboy" cried Bella enthusiasticallyas she threw her arms about his neckand kissed him heartily. "What will you do first?" she askedas hestood thoughtfully smoothing the bright head that leaned upon his shoulderwiththat new expression still clear and steady in his face.
"I'm going to ride over the whole estateand attend to things as amaster should; not leave it all to Bentof whom I've heard many complaintsbuthave been too idle to inquire about them. I shall consult Uncleand endeavor tobe all that my father was in his time. Is that a worthy ambitiondear?"
"OhGeraldlet me tell Mamma. It will make her so happy. You are heridoland to hear you say these thingsto see you look so like dear Papawoulddo more for her spirits than all the doctors in England."
"Wait till I prove what my resolution is worth. When I have really donesomethingthen I'll surprise Mamma with a sample of my work."
"Of course you'll tell Lucia?"
"Not on any account. It is a little secret between usso keep it till Igive you leave to tell it."
"But Jean will see it at once; she knows everything that happensshe isso quick and wise. Do you mind her knowing?"
"I don't see that I can help it if she is so wonderfully gifted. Let hersee what she canI don't mind her. Now I'm off." And with a kiss to hissistera sudden smile on his faceCoventry sprang upon his horse and rode awayat a pace which caused the groom to stare after him in blank amazement.
Nothing more was seen of him till dinnertimewhen he came in so exhilaratedby his brisk ride and busy morning that he found some difficulty in assuming hiscustomary mannerand more than once astonished the family by talking animatedlyon various subjects which till now had always seemed utterly uninteresting tohim. Lucia was amazedhis mother delightedand Bella could hardly control herdesire to explain the mystery; but Jean took it very calmly and regarded himwith the air of one who said"I understandbut you will soon tire ofit." This nettled him more than he would confessand he exerted himself tosilently contradict that prophecy.
"Have you answered Mr. Sydney's letter?" asked Bellawhen theywere all scattered about the drawing room after dinner.
"No" answered her brotherwho was pacing up and down withrestless stepsinstead of lounging near his beautiful cousin.
"I ask because I remembered that Ned sent a message for him in my lastnoteas he thought you would know Sydney's address. Here it issomething abouta horse. Please put it in when you write" and Bella laid the note on thewriting table nearby.
"I'll send it at once and have done with it" muttered Coventryandseating himselfhe dashed off a few linessealed and sent the letterandthen resumed his marcheyeing the three young ladies with three differentexpressionsas he passed and repassed. Lucia sat apartfeigning to be intentupon a
bookand her handsome face looked almost stern in its haughty composureforthough her heart achedshe was too proud to own it. Bella now lay on the sofahalf asleepa rosy little creatureas unconsciously pretty as a child. MissMuir sat in the recess of a deep windowin a low lounging chairworking at anembroidery frame with a graceful industry pleasant to see. Of late she had worncolorsfor Bella had been generous in giftsand the pale blue muslin whichflowed in soft waves about her was very becoming to her fair skin and goldenhair. The close braids were goneand loose curls dropped here and there fromthe heavy coil wound around her well-shaped head. The tip of one dainty foot wasvisibleand a petulant little gesture which now and then shook back the fallingsleeve gave glimpses of a round white arm. Ned's great hound lay nearbythesunshine flickered on her through the leavesand as she sat smiling to herselfwhile the dexterous hands shaped leaf and flowershe made a charming picture ofall that is most womanly and winning; a picture which few men's eyes would nothave liked to rest upon.
Another chair stood near herand as Coventry went up and downa strongdesire to take it possessed him. He was tired of his thoughts and wished to beamused by watching the changes of the girl's expressive facelistening to thevarying tones of her voiceand trying to discover the spell which so stronglyattracted him in spite of himself. More than once he swerved from his course togratify his whimbut Lucia's presence always restrained himand with a word tothe dogor a glance from the windowas pretext for a pausehe resumed hiswalk again. Something in his cousin s face reproached himbut her manner oflate was so repellent that he felt no desire to resume their former familiarityandwishing to show that he did not consider himself boundhe kept aloof. Itwas a quiet test of the power of each woman over this man; they instinctivelyfelt itand both tried to conquer. Lucia spoke several timesand tried tospeak frankly and affably; but her manner was constrainedand Coventryhavinganswered politelyrelapsed into silence. Jean said nothingbut silentlyappealed to eye and ear by the pretty picture she made of herselfthe snatchesof song she softly sangas if forgetting that she was not aloneand a shyglance now and thenhalf wistfulhalf merrywhich was more alluring thangraceful figure or sweet voice. When she had tormented Lucia and temptedCoventry long enoughshe quietly asserted her supremacy in a way whichastonished her rivalwho knew nothing of the secret of her birthwhichknowledge did much to attract and charm the young man. Letting a ball of silkescape from her lapshe watched it roll toward the promenaderwho caught andreturned it with an alacrity which added grace to the trifling service.
As she took itshe saidin the frank way that never failed to win him"I think you must be tired; but if exercise is necessaryemploy yourenergies to some purpose and put your mother's basket of silks in order. Theyare in a tangleand it will please her to know that you did itas your brotherused to do."
"Hercules at the distaff" said Coventry gailyand down he sat inthe long-desired seat. Jean put the basket on his kneeand as he surveyed itas if daunted at his taskshe leaned backand indulged in a musical littlepeal of laughter charming to hear. Lucia sat dumb with surpriseto see herproudindolent cousin obeying the commands of a governessand looking as if heheartily enjoyed it. In ten minutes she was as entirely forgotten as if she hasbeen miles away; for Jean seemed in her wittiestgayest moodand as she nowtreated the "young master" like an equalthere was none of the formermeek timidity. Yet often her eyes fellher color changedand the piquantsallies faltered on her tongueas Coventry involuntarily looked deep into thefine eyes which had once shone on him so tenderly in that mimic tragedy. Hecould not forget itand though neither alluded to itthe memory of theprevious evening seemed to haunt both and lend a secret charm to the presentmoment. Lucia bore this as long as she couldand then left the room with theair of an insulted princess; but Coventry did notand Jean feigned not to seeher go. Bella was fast asleepand before he knew how it came to passthe youngman was listening to the story of his companion's life. A sad taletold withwonderful skillfor soon he was absorbed in it. The basket slid unobserved fromhis kneethe dog was pushed awayandleaning forwardhe listened eagerly asthe girl's low voice recounted all the hardshipslonelinessand grief of hershort life. In the midst of a touching episode she startedstoppedand lookedstraight before herwith an intent expression which changed to one of intensecontemptand her eye turned to Coventry'sas she saidpointing to the windowbehind him"We are watched."
"By whom?" he demandedstarting up angrily.
"Hushsay nothinglet it pass. I am used to it."
"But I am notand I'll not submit to it. Who was itJean?" heanswered hotly.
She smiled significantly at a knot of rose-colored ribbonwhich a littlegust was blowing toward them along the terrace. A black frown darkened the youngman's face as he sprang out of the long window and went rapidly out of sightscrutinizing each green nook as he passed. Jean laughed quietly as she watchedhimand said softly to herselfwith her eyes on the fluttering ribbon"That was a fortunate accidentand a happy inspiration. Yesmy dear Mrs.Deanyou will find that playing the spy will only get your mistress as well asyourself into trouble. You would not be warnedand you must take theconsequencesreluctant as I am to injure a worthy creature like yourself."
Soon Coventry was heard returning. Jean listened with suspended breath tocatch his first wordsfor he was not alone.
"Since you insist that it was you and not your mistressI let it passalthough I still have my suspicions. Tell Miss Beaufort I desire to see her fora few moments in the library. Now goDeanand be careful for the futureifyou wish to stay in my house."
The maid retiredand the young man came in looking both ireful and stern.
"I wish I had said nothingbut I was startledand spoke involuntarily.Now you are angryand I have made fresh trouble for poor Miss Lucia. Forgive meas I forgive herand let it pass. I have learned to bear this surveillanceandpity her causeless jealousy" said Jean with a self-reproachful air.
"I will forgive the dishonorable actbut I cannot forget itand Iintend to put a stop to it. I am not betrothed to my cousinas I told you oncebut youlike all the restseem bent on believing that I am. Hitherto I havecared too little about the matter to settle itbut now I shall prove beyond alldoubt that I am free."
As he uttered the last wordCoventry cast on Jean a look that affected herstrangely. She grew paleher work dropped on her lap and her eyes rose to hiswith an eagerquestioning expressionwhich slowly changed to one of mingledpain and pityas she turned her face awaymurmuring in a tone of tendersorrow"Poor Luciawho will comfort her?"
For a moment Coventry stood silentas if weighing some fateful purpose inhis mind. As Jean's rapt sigh of compassion reached his earhe had echoed itwithin himselfand half repented of his resolution; then his eye rested on thegirl before him looking so lonely in her sweet sympathy for another that hisheart yearned toward her. Sudden fire shot into his eyesudden warmth replacedthe cold sternness of his faceand his steady voice faltered suddenlyas hesaidvery lowyet very earnestly"JeanI have tried to love herbut Icannot. Ought I to deceive herand make myself miserable to please myfamily?"
"She is beautiful and goodand loves you tenderly; is there no hope forher?" asked Jeanstill palebut very quietthough she held one handagainst her heartas if to still or hide its rapid beating.
"None" answered Coventry.
"But can you not learn to love her? Your will is strongand most menwould not find it a hard task."
"I cannotfor something stronger than my own will controls me."
"What is that?" And Jean's dark eyes were fixed upon himfull ofinnocent wonder.
His felland he said hastily"I dare not tell you yet."
"Pardon! I should not have asked. Do not consult me in this matter; I amnot the person to advise you. I can only say that it seems to me as if any manwith an empty heart would be glad to have so beautiful a woman as yourcousin."
"My heart is not empty" began Coventrydrawing a step nearerandspeaking in a passionate voice. "JeanI must speak; hear me. I cannot lovemy cousinbecause I love you."
"Stop!" And Jean sprang up with a commanding gesture. "I willnot hear you while any promise binds you to another. Remember your mother'swishesLucia's hopesEdward's last wordsyour own pridemy humble lot. Youforget yourselfMr. Coventry. Think well before you speakweigh the cost ofthis actand recollect who I am before you insult me by any transient passionany false vows."
"I have thoughtI do weigh the costand I swear that I desire to wooyou as humblyhonestly as I would any lady in the land. You speak of my pride.Do I stoop in loving my equal in rank? You speak of your lowly lotbut povertyis no disgraceand the courage with which you bear it makes it beautiful. Ishould have broken with Lucia before I spokebut I could not control myself. Mymother loves youand will be happy in my happiness. Edward must forgive meforI have tried to do my bestbut love is irresistible. Tell meJeanis thereany hope for me?"
He had seized her hand and was speaking impetuouslywith ardent face andtender tonebut no answer camefor as Jean turned her eloquent countenancetoward himfull of maiden shame and timid loveDean's prim figure appeared atthe doorand her harsh voice broke the momentary silencesayingsternly"Miss Beaufort is waiting for yousir."
"Gogo at onceand be kindfor my sakeGerald" whispered Jeanfor he stood as if deaf and blind to everything but her voiceher face.
As she drew his head down to whisperher cheek touched hisand regardlessof Deanhe kissed itpassionatelywhispering back"My little Jean! Foryour sake I can be anything."
"Miss Beaufort is waiting. Shall I say you will comesir?"demanded Deanpale and grim with indignation.
"YesyesI'll come. Wait for me in the gardenJean." AndCoventry hurried awayin no mood for the interview but anxious to have it over.
As the door closed behind himDean walked up to Miss Muirtrembling withangerand laying a heavy hand on her armshe said below her breath"I'vebeen expecting thisyou artful creature. I saw your game and did my best tospoil itbut you are too quick for me. You think you've got him. There you aremistaken; for as sure as my name is Hester DeanI'll prevent itor Sir Johnshall."
"Take your hand away and treat me with proper respector you will bedismissed from this house. Do you know who I am?" And Jean drew herself upwith a haughty airwhich impressed the woman more deeply than her words."I am the daughter of Lady Howard andif I choose itcan be the wife ofMr. Coventry."
Dean drew back amazedyet not convinced. Being a well-trained servantaswell as a prudent womanshe feared to overstep the bounds of respectto go toofarand get her mistress as well as herself into trouble. Sothough she stilldoubted Jeanand hated her more than evershe controlled herself. Dropping acurtsyshe assumed her usual air of deferenceand saidmeekly"I begpardonmiss. If I'd knownI should have conducted myself differentlyofcoursebut ordinary governesses make so much mischief in a houseone can'thelp mistrusting them. I don't wish to meddle or be overboldbut being fond ofmy dear young ladyI naturally take her partand must say that Mr. Coventryhas not acted like a gentleman."
"Think what you pleaseDeanbut I advise you to say as little aspossible if you wish to remain. I have not accepted Mr. Coventry yetand if hechooses to set aside the engagement his family made for himI think he has aright to do so. Miss Beaufort would hardly care to marry him against his willbecause he pities her for her unhappy love" and with a tranquil smileMiss Muir walked away.
"She will tell Sir Johnwill she? Then I must be before herand hastenevents. It will be as well to have all sure before there can be any danger. Mypoor Deanyou are no match for mebut you may prove annoyingnevertheless."
These thoughts passed through Miss Muir's mind as she went down the hallpausing an instant at the library doorfor the murmur of voices was heard. Shecaught no wordand had only time for an instant's pause as Dean's heavy stepfollowed her. TurningJean drew a chair before the doorandbeckoning to thewomanshe saidsmiling still"Sit here and play watchdog. I am going toMiss Bellaso you can nod if you will."
"Thank youmiss. I will wait for my young lady. She may need me whenthis hard time is over." And Dean seated herself with a resolute face.
Jean laughed and went on; but her eyes gleamed with sudden maliceand sheglanced over her shoulder with an expression which boded ill for the faithfulold servant.
"I've got a letter from Nedand here is a tiny note for you"cried Bella as Jean entered the boudoir. "Mine is a very oddhasty letterwith no news in itbut his meeting with Sydney. I hope yours is betteror itwon't be very satisfactory."
As Sydney's name passed Bella's lipsall the color died out of Miss Muir'sfaceand the note shook with the tremor of her hand.
Her very lips were whitebut she said calmly"Thank you. As you arebusyI'll go and read my letter on the lawn." And before Bella couldspeakshe was gone.
Hurrying to a quiet nookJean tore open the note and read the few blottedlines it contained.
I have seen Sydney; he has told me all; andhard as I found it to believeit was impossible to doubtfor he has discovered proofs which cannot be denied.I make no reproachesshall demand no confession or atonementfor I cannotforget that I once loved you. I give you three days to find another homebeforeI return to tell the family who you are. Go at onceI beseech youand spare methe pain of seeing your disgrace.
Slowlysteadily she read it twice overthen sat motionlessknitting herbrows in deep thought. Presently she drew a long breathtore up the noteandrisingwent slowly toward the Hallsaying to herself"Three daysonlythree days! Can it be accomplished in so short a time? It shall beif wit andwill can do itfor it is my last chance. If this failsI'll not go back to myold lifebut end all at once."
Setting her teeth and clenching her handsas if some memory stung hershewent on through the twilightto find Sir John waiting to give her a heartywelcome.
"You look tiredmy dear. Never mind the reading tonight; rest yourselfand let the book go" he said kindlyobserving her worn look.
"Thank yousir. I am tiredbut I'd rather readelse the book will notbe finished before I go."
"Gochild! Where are you going?" demanded Sir Johnlookinganxiously at her as she sat down.
"I will tell you by-and-bysir." And opening the bookJean readfor a little while.
But the usual charm was gone; there was no spirit in the voice of the readerno interest in the face of the listenerand soon he saidabruptly"Mydearpray stop! I cannot listen with a divided mind. What troubles you? Tellyour friendand let him comfort you."
As if the kind words overcame herJean dropped the bookcovered up herfaceand wept so bitterly that Sir John was much alarmed; for such ademonstration was doubly touching in one who usually was all gaiety and smiles.As he tried to soothe herhis words grew tenderhis solicitude full of a morethan paternal anxietyand his kind heart overflowed with pity and affection forthe weeping girl. As she grew calmerhe urged her to be frankpromising tohelp and counsel herwhatever the affliction or fault might be.
"Ahyou are too kindtoo generous! How can I go away and leave my onefriend?" sighed Jeanwiping the tears away and looking up at him withgrateful eyes.
"Then you do care a little for the old man?" said Sir John with aneager lookan involuntary pressure of the hand he held.
Jean turned her face awayand answeredvery low"No one ever was sokind to me as you have been. Can I help caring for you more than I canexpress?"
Sir John was a little deaf at timesbut he heard thatand looked wellpleased. He had been rather thoughtful of latehad dressed with unusual carebeen particularly gallant and gay when the young ladies visited himand morethan oncewhen Jean paused in the reading to ask a questionhe had been forcedto confess that he had not been listening; thoughas she well knewhis eyeshad been fixed upon her. Since the discovery of her birthhis manner had beenpeculiarly benignantand many little acts had proved his interest and goodwill.Nowwhen Jean spoke of goinga panic seized himand desolation seemed aboutto fall upon the old Hall. Something in her unusual agitation struck him aspeculiar and excited his curiosity. Never had she seemed so interesting as nowwhen she sat beside him with tearful eyesand some soft trouble in her heartwhich she dared not confess.
"Tell me everythingchildand let your friend help you if hecan." Formerly he said "father" or "the old man" butlately he always spoke of himself as her "friend."
"I will tell youfor I have no one else to turn to. I must go awaybecause Mr. Coventry has been weak enough to love me."
"WhatGerald?" cried Sir Johnamazed.
"Yes; today he told me thisand left me to break with Lucia; so I ranto you to help me prevent him from disappointing his mother's hopes andplans."
Sir John had started up and paced down the roombut as Jean paused he turnedtoward hersayingwith an altered face"Then you do not love him? Is itpossible?"
"NoI do not love him" she answered promptly.
"Yet he is all that women usually find attractive. How is it that youhave escapedJean?"
"I love someone else" was the scarcely audible reply.
Sir John resumed his seat with the air of a man bent on getting at a mysteryif possible.
"It will be unjust to let you suffer for the folly of these boysmylittle girl. Ned is goneand I was sure that Gerald was safe; but now that histurn has comeI am perplexedfor he cannot be sent away."
"Noit is I who must go; but it seems so hard to leave this safe andhappy homeand wander away into the widecold world again. You have all beentoo kind to meand now separation breaks my heart."
A sob ended the speechand Jean's head went down upon her hands again. SirJohn looked at her a momentand his fine old face was full of genuine emotionas he said slowly"Jeanwill you stay and be a daughter to the solitaryold man?"
"Nosir" was the unexpected answer.
"And why not?" asked Sir Johnlooking surprisedbut ratherpleased than angry.
"Because I could not be a daughter to you; and even if I could it wouldnot be wisefor the gossips would say you were not old enough to be the adoptedfather of a girl like me. Sir Johnyoung as I amI know much of the worldandam sure that this kind plan is impractical; but I thank you from the bottom ofmy heart."
"Where will you goJean?" asked Sir Johnafter a pause.
"To Londonand try to find another situation where I can do noharm."
"Will it be difficult to find another home?"
"Yes. I cannot ask Mrs. Coventry to recommend mewhen I have innocentlybrought so much trouble into her family; and Lady Sydney is goneso I have nofriend."
"Except John Coventry. I will arrange all that. When will you goJean?"
"So soon!" And the old man's voice betrayed the trouble he wastrying to conceal.
Jean had grown very calmbut it was the calmness of desperation. She hadhoped that the first tears would produce the avowal for which she waited. It hadnotand she began to fear that her last chance was slipping from her. Did theold man love her? If sowhy did he not speak? Eager to profit by each momentshe was on the alert for any hopeful hintany propitious wordlookor actand every nerve was strung to the utmost.
"Jeanmay I ask one question?" said Sir John.
"Anything of mesir."
"This man whom you love -- can he not help you?"
"He could if he knewbut he must not."
"If he knew what? Your present trouble?"
"No. My love."
"He does know thisthen?"
"Nothank heaven! And he never will."
"Because I am too proud to own it."
"He loves youmy child?"
"I do not know -- I dare not hope it" murmured Jean.
"Can I not help you here? Believe meI desire to see you safe andhappy. Is there nothing I can do?"
"May I know the name?"
"No! No! Let me go; I cannot bear this questioning!" And Jean'sdistressful face warned him to ask no more.
"Forgive meand let me do what I may. Rest here quietly. I'll write aletter to a good friend of minewho will find you a homeif you leaveus."
As Sir John passed into his inner studyJean watched him with despairingeyes and wrung her handssaying to herselfHas all my skill deserted me when Ineed it most? How can I make him understandyet not overstep the bounds ofmaiden modesty? He is so blindso timidor so dull he will not seeand timeis going fast. What shall I do to open his eyes?
Her own eyes roved about the roomseeking for some aid from inanimatethingsand soon she found it. Close behind the couch where she sat hung a fineminiature of Sir John. At first her eye rested on it as she contrasted itsplacid comeliness with the unusual pallor and disquiet of the living face seenthrough the open dooras the old man sat at his desk trying to write andcasting covert glances at the girlish figure he had left behind him. Affectingunconsciousness of thisJean gazed on as if forgetful of everything but thepictureand suddenlyas if obeying an irresistible impulseshe took it downlooked long and fondly at itthenshaking her curls about her faceas if tohide the actpressed it to her lips and seemed to weep over it in anuncontrollable paroxysm of tender grief. A sound startled herand like a guiltythingshe turned to replace the picture; but it dropped from her hand as sheuttered a faint cry and hid her facefor Sir John stood before herwith anexpression which she could not mistake.
"Jeanwhy did you do that?" he askedin an eageragitated voice.
No answeras the girl sank lowerlike one overwhelmed with shame. Layinghis hand on the bent headand bending his ownhe whispered"Tell meisthe name John Coventry?"
Still no answerbut a stifled sound betrayed that his words had gone home.
"Jeanshall I go back and write the letteror may I stay and tell youthat the old man loves you better than a daughter?"
She did not speakbut a little hand stole out from under the falling hairas if to keep him. With a broken exclamation he seized itdrew her up into hisarmsand laid his gray head on her fair onetoo happy for words. For a momentJean Muir enjoyed her success; thenfearing lest some sudden mishap shoulddestroy itshe hastened to make all secure. Looking up with well-feignedtimidity and half-confessed affectionshe said softly"Forgive me that Icould not hide this better. I meant to go away and never tell itbut you wereso kind it made the parting doubly hard. Why did you ask such dangerousquestions? Why did you lookwhen you should have been writing mydismissal?"
"How could I dream that you loved meJeanwhen you refused the onlyoffer I dared make? Could I be presumptuous enough to fancy you would rejectyoung lovers for an old man like me?" asked Sir Johncaressing her.
"You are not oldto mebut everything I love and honor!"interrupted Jeanwith a touch of genuine remorseas this generoushonorablegentleman gave her both heart and homeunconscious of deceit. "It is I whoam presumptuousto dare to love one so far above me. But I did not know howdear you were to me till I felt that I must go. I ought not to accept thishappiness. I am not worthy of it; and you will regret your kindness when theworld blames you for giving a home to one so poorand plainand humble asI."
"Hushmy darling. I care nothing for the idle gossip of the world. Ifyou are happy herelet tongues wag as they will. I shall be too busy enjoyingthe sunshine of your presence to heed anything that goes on about me. ButJeanyou are sure you love me? It seems incredible that I should win the heart thathas been so cold to youngerbetter men than I."
"Dear Sir Johnbe sure of thisI love you truly. I will do my best tobe a good wife to youand prove thatin spite of my many faultsI possess thevirtue of gratitude."
If he had known the strait she was inhe would have understood the cause ofthe sudden tenor of her wordsthe intense thankfulness that shone in her facethe real humility that made her stoop and kiss the generous hand that gave somuch. For a few moments she enjoyed and let him enjoy the happy presentundisturbed. But the anxiety which devoured herthe danger which menaced hersoon recalled herand forced her to wring yet more from the unsuspicious heartshe had conquered.
"No need of letters now" said Sir Johnas they sat side by sidewith the summer moonlight glorifying all the room. "You have found a homefor life; may it prove a happy one."
"It is not mine yetand I have a strange foreboding that it never willbe" she answered sadly.
"Because I have an enemy who will try to destroy my peaceto poisonyour mind against meand to drive me out from my paradiseto suffer again allI have suffered this last year."
"You mean that mad Sydney of whom you told me?"
"Yes. As soon as he hears of this good fortune to poor little Jeanhewill hasten to mar it. He is my fate; I cannot escape himand wherever he goesmy friends desert me; for he has the power and uses it for my destruction. Letme go away and hide before he comesforhaving shared your confidenceit willbreak my heart to see you distrust and turn from meinstead of loving andprotecting."
"My poor childyou are superstitious. Be easy. No one can harm you nowno one would dare attempt it. And as for my deserting youthat will soon be outof my powerif I have my way."
"Howdear Sir John?" asked Jeanwith a flutter of intense reliefat her heartfor the way seemed smoothing before her.
"I will make you my wife at onceif I may. This will free you fromGerald's loveprotect you from Sydney's persecutiongive you a safe homeandme the right to cherish and defend with heart and hand. Shall it be somychild?"
"Yes; but ohremember that I have no friend but you! Promise me to befaithful to the last -- to believe in meto trust meprotect and love meinspite of all misfortunesfaultsand follies. I will be true as steel to youand make your life as happy as it deserves to be. Let us promise these thingsnowand keep the promises unbroken to the end."
Her solemn air touched Sir John. Too honorable and upright himself to suspectfalsehood in othershe saw only the natural impulse of a lovely girl in Jean'swordsandtaking the hand she gave him in both of hishe promised all sheaskedand kept that promise to the end. She paused an instantwith a paleabsent expressionas if she searched herselfthen looked up clearly in theconfiding face above herand promised what she faithfully performed inafteryears.
"When shall it belittle sweetheart? I leave all to youonly let it besoonelse some gay young lover will appearand take you from me" saidSir Johnplayfullyanxious to chase away the dark expression which had stolenover Jean's face.
"Can you keep a secret?" asked the girlsmiling up at himall hercharming self again.
"I will. Edward is coming home in three days. I must be gone before hecomes. Tell no one of this; he wishes to surprise them. And if you love metellnobody of your approaching marriage. Do not betray that you care for me until Iam really yours. There will be such a stirsuch remonstrancesexplanationsand reproaches that I shall be worn outand run away from you all to escape thetrial. If I could have my wishI would go to some quiet place tomorrow and waittill you come for me. I know so little of such thingsI cannot tell how soon wemay be married; not for some weeksI think."
"Tomorrowif we like. A special license permits people to marry whenand where they please. My plan is better than yours. Listenand tell me if itcan be carried out. I will go to town tomorrowget the licenseinvite myfriendthe Reverend Paul Fairfaxto return with meand tomorrow evening youcome at your usual timeandin the presence of my discreet old servantsmakeme the happiest man in England. How does this suit youmy little LadyCoventry?"
The plan which seemed made to meet her endsthe name which was the height ofher ambitionand the blessed sense of safety which came to her filled Jean Muirwith such intense satisfaction that tears of real feeling stood in her eyesandthe glad assent she gave was the truest word that had passed her lips formonths.
"We will go abroad or to Scotland for our honeymoontill the stormblows over" said Sir Johnwell knowing that this hasty marriage wouldsurprise or offend all his relationsand feeling as glad as Jean to escape thefirst excitement.
"To Scotlandplease. I long to see my father's home" said Jeanwho dreaded to meet Sydney on the continent.
They talked a little longerarranging all thingsSir John so intent onhurrying the event that Jean had nothing to do but give a ready assent to allhis suggestions. One fear alone disturbed her. If Sir John went to townhemight meet Edwardmight hear and believe his statements. Then all would belost. Yet this risk must be incurredif the marriage was to be speedily andsafely accomplished; and to guard against the meeting was Jean's sole care. Asthey went through the park -- for Sir John insisted upon taking her home -- shesaidclinging to his arm:
"Dear friendbear one thing in mindelse we shall be much annoyedandall our plans disarranged. Avoid your nephews; you are so frank your face willbetray you. They both love meare both hot-temperedand in the firstexcitement of the discovery might be violent. You must incur no dangernodisrespect for my sake; so shun them both till we are safe -- particularlyEdward. He will feel that his brother has wronged himand that you havesucceeded where he failed. This will irritate himand I fear a stormy scene.Promise to avoid both for a day or two; do not listen to themdo not see themdo not write to or receive letters from them. It is foolishI know; but you areall I haveand I am haunted by a strange foreboding that I am to loseyou."
Touched and flattered by her tender solicitudeSir John promised everythingeven while he laughed at her fears. Love blinded the good gentleman to thepeculiarity of the request; the noveltyromanceand secrecy of the affairrather bewildered though it charmed him; and the knowledge that he hadoutrivaled three young and ardent lovers gratified his vanity more than he wouldconfess. Parting from he girl at the garden gatehe turned homewardfeelinglike a boy againand loitered backhumming a love layquite forgetful ofevening dampsgoutand the five-and-fifty years which lay so lightly on hisshoulders since Jean's arms had rested there. She hurried toward the houseanxious to escape Coventry; but he was waiting for herand she was forced tomeet him.
"How could you linger so longand keep me in suspense?" he saidreproachfullyas he took her hand and tried to catch a glimpse of her face inthe shadow of her hat brim. "Come and rest in the grotto. I have so much tosayto hear and enjoy."
"Not now; I am too tired. Let me go in and sleep. Tomorrow we will talk.It is damp and chillyand my head aches with all this worry." Jean spokewearilyyet with a touch of petulanceand Coventryfancying that she waspiqued at his not coming for herhastened to explain with eager tenderness.
"My poor little Jeanyou do need rest. We wear you outamong usandyou never complain. I should have come to bring you homebut Lucia detained meand when I got away I saw my uncle had forestalled me. I shall be jealous of theold gentlemanif he is so devoted. Jeantell me one thing before we part; I amfree as airnowand have a right to speak. Do you love me? Am I the happy manwho has won your heart? I dare to think soto believe that this telltale faceof yours has betrayed youand to hope that I have gained what poor Ned and wildSydney have lost."
"Before I answertell me of your interview with Lucia. I have a rightto know" said Jean.
Coventry hesitatedfor pity and remorse were busy at his heart when herecalled poor Lucia's grief. Jean was bent on hearing the humiliation of herrival. As the young man pausedshe frownedthen lifted up her face wreathed insoftest smilesand laying her hand on his armshe saidwith most effectiveemphasishalf shyhalf fondupon his name"Please tell meGerald!"
He could not resist the lookthe touchthe toneand taking the little handin hishe said rapidlyas if the task was distasteful to him"I told herthat I did notcould not love her; that I had submitted to my mother's wishandfor a timehad felt tacitly bound to herthough no words had passedbetween us. But now I demanded my libertyregretting that the separation wasnot mutually desired."
"And she -- what did she say? How did she bear it?" asked Jeanfeeling in her own woman's heart how deeply Lucia's must have been wounded bythat avowal.
"Poor girl! It was hard to bearbut her pride sustained her to the end.She owned that no pledge tied mefully relinquished any claim my past behaviorhad seemed to have given herand prayed that I might find another woman to loveme as trulytenderly as she had done. JeanI felt like a villain; and yet Inever plighted my word to hernever really loved herand had a perfect rightto leave herif I would."
"Did she speak of me?"
"What did she say?"
"Must I tell you?"
"Yestell me everything. I know she hates me and I forgive herknowingthat I should hate any woman whom you loved."
"Are you jealousdear?"
"Of youGerald?" And the fine eyes glanced up at himfull of abrilliancy that looked like the light of love.
"You make a slave of me already. How do you do it? I never obeyed awoman before. JeanI think you are a witch. Scotland is the home of weirduncanny creatureswho take lovely shapes for the bedevilment of poor weaksouls. Are you one of those fair deceivers?"
"You are complimentary" laughed the girl. "I am a witchandone day my disguise will drop away and you will see me as I amolduglybadand lost. Beware of me in time. I've warned you. Now love me at yourperil."
Coventry had paused as he spokeand eyed her with an unquiet lookconsciousof some fascination which conquered yet brought no happiness. A feverish yetpleasurable excitement possessed him; a reckless moodmaking him eager toobliterate the past by any rash actany new experience which his passionbrought. Jean regarded him with a wistfulalmost woeful facefor one shortmoment; then a strange smile broke over itas she spoke in a tone of maliciousmockeryunder which lurked the bitterness of a sad truth. Coventry looked halfbewilderedand his eye went from the girl's mysterious face to a dimly lightedwindowbehind whose curtains poor Lucia hid her aching heartpraying for himthe tender prayers that loving women give to those whose sins are all forgivenfor love's sake. His heart smote himand a momentary feeling of repulsion cameover himas he looked at Jean. She saw itfelt angryyet conscious of a senseof relief; for now that her own safety was so nearly securedshe felt no wishto do mischiefbut rather a desire to undo what was already doneand be atpeace with all the world. To recall him to his allegianceshe sighed and walkedonsaying gently yet coldly"Will you tell me what I ask before I answeryour questionMr. Coventry?"
"What Lucia said of you? Wellit was this. 'Beware of Miss Muir. Weinstinctively distrusted her when we had no cause. I believe in instinctsandmine have never changedfor she has not tried to delude me. Her art iswonderful; I feel yet cannot explain or detect itexcept in the working ofevents which her hand seems to guide. She has brought sorrow and dissension intothis hitherto happy family. We are all changedand this girl has done it. Meshe can harm no further; you she will ruinif she can. Beware of her in timeor you will bitterly repent your blind infatuation!'"
"And what answer did you make?" asked Jeanas the last words camereluctantly from Coventry's lips.
"I told her that I loved you in spite of myselfand would make you mywife in the face of all opposition. NowJeanyour answer."
"Give me three days to think of it. Good night." And gliding fromhimshe vanished into the houseleaving him to roam about half the nighttormented with remorsesuspenseand the old distrust which would return whenJean was not there to banish it by her art.
All the next dayJean was in a state of the most intense anxietyas everyhour brought the crisis nearerand every hour might bring defeatfor thesubtlest human skill is often thwarted by some unforeseen accident. She longedto assure herself that Sir John was gonebut no servants came or went that dayand she could devise no pretext for sending to glean intelligence. She dared notgo herselflest the unusual act should excite suspicionfor she never wenttill evening. Even had she determined to venturethere was no timefor Mrs.Coventry was in one of her nervous statesand no one but Miss Muir could amuseher; Lucia was illand Miss Muir must give orders; Bella had a studious fitand Jean must help her. Coventry lingered about the house for several hoursbutJean dared not send himlest some hint of the truth might reach him. He hadridden away to his new duties when Jean did not appearand the day dragged onwearisomely. Night came at lastand as Jean dressed for the late dinnershehardly knew herself when she stood before her mirrorexcitement lent such colorand brilliancy to her countenance. Remembering the wedding which was to takeplace that eveningshe put on a simple white dress and added a cluster of whiteroses in bosom and hair. She often wore flowersbut in spite of her desire tolook and seem as usualBella's first words as she entered the drawing room wereas she entered the drawing room were "WhyJeanhow like a bride you look;a veil and gloves would make you quite complete!"
"You forget one other trifleBell" said Geraldwith eyes thatbrightened as they rested on Miss Muir.
"What is that?" asked his sister.
Bella looked to see how Jean received thisbut she seemed quite composed asshe smiled one of her sudden smilesand merely said"That trifle willdoubtless be found when the time comes. Is Miss Beaufort too ill fordinner?"
"She begs to be excusedand said you would be willing to take herplaceshe thought."
As innocent Bella delivered this messageJean glanced at Coventrywhoevaded her eye and looked ill at ease.
A little remorse will do him goodand prepare him for repentance after thegrand coupshe said to herselfand was particularly gay at dinnertimethoughCoventry looked often at Lucia's empty seatas if he missed her. As soon asthey left the tableMiss Muir sent Bella to her mother; andknowing thatCoventry would not linger long at his wineshe hurried away to the Hall. Aservant was lounging at the doorand of him she askedin a tone which waseager in spite of all efforts to be calm"Is Sir John at home?"
"Nomisshe's just gone to town."
"Just gone! When do you mean?" cried Jeanforgetting the reliefshe felt in hearing of his absence in surprise at his late departure.
"He went half an hour agoin the last trainmiss."
"I thought he was going early this morning; he told me he should be backthis evening."
"I believe he did mean to gobut was delayed by company. The stewardcame up on businessand a load of gentlemen calledso Sir John could not getoff till nightwhen he wasn't fit to gobeing worn outand far fromwell."
"Do you think he will be ill? Did he look so?" And as Jean spoke athrill of fear passed over herlest death should rob her of her prize.
"Wellyou knowmisshurry of any kind is bad for elderly gentlemeninclined to apoplexy. Sir John was in a worry all dayand not like himself. Iwanted him to take his manbut he wouldn'tand drove off looking flushed andexcited like. I'm anxious about himfor I know something is amiss to hurry himoff in this way."
"When will he be backRalph?"
"Tomorrow noonif possible; at nightcertainlyhe bid me tell anyonethat called."
"Did he leave no note or message for Miss Coventryor someone of thefamily?"
"Thank you." And Jean walked back to spend a restless night andrise to meet renewed suspense.
The morning seemed endlessbut noon came at lastand under the pretense ofseeking coolness in the grottoJean stole away to a slope whence the gate tothe Hall park was visible. For two long hours she watchedand no one came. Shewas just turning away when a horseman dashed through the gate and came gallopingtoward the Hall. Heedless of everything but the uncontrollable longing to gainsome tidingsshe ran to meet himfeeling assured that he brought ill news. Itwas a young man from the stationand as he caught sight of herhe drew bridlelooking agitated and undecided.
"Has anything happened?" she cried breathlessly.
"A dreadful accident on the railroadjust the other side of Croydon.News telegraphed half an hour ago" answered the manwiping his hot face.
"The noon train? Was Sir John in it? Quicktell me all!"
"It was that trainmissbut whether Sir John was in it or notwedon't know; for the guard is killedand everything is in such confusion thatnothing can be certain. They are at work getting out the dead and wounded. Weheard that Sir John was expectedand I came up to tell Mr. Coventrythinkinghe would wish to go down. A train leaves in fifteen minutes; where shall I findhim? I was told he was at the Hall."
"Ride onride on! And find him if he is there. I'll run home and lookfor him. Lose no time. Ride! Ride!" And turningJean sped back like adeerwhile the man tore up the avenue to rouse the Hall.
Coventry was thereand went off at onceleaving both Hall and house indismay. Fearing to betray the horrible anxiety that possessed herJean shutherself up in her room and suffered untold agonies as the day wore on and nonews came. At dark a sudden cry rang through the houseand Jean rushed down tolearn the cause. Bella was standing in the hallholding a letterwhile a groupof excited servants hovered near her.
"What is it?" demanded Miss Muirpale and steadythough her heartdied within her as she recognized Gerald's handwriting. Bella gave her the noteand hushed her sobbing to hear again the heavy tidings that had come.
Uncle is safe; he did not go in the noon train. But several persons are surethat Ned was there. No trace of him as yetbut many bodies are in the riverunder the ruins of the bridgeand I am doing my best to find the poor ladifhe is there. I have sent to all his haunts in townand as he has not been seenI hope it is a false report and he is safe with his regiment. Keep this from mymother till we are sure. I write youbecause Lucia is ill. Miss Muir willcomfort and sustain you. Hope for the bestdear.
Those who watched Miss Muir as she read these words wondered at the strangeexpressions which passed over her facefor the joy which appeared there as SirJohn's safety was made known did not change to grief or horror at poor Edward'spossible fate. The smile died on her lipsbut her voice did not falterand inher downcast eyes shone an inexplicable look of something like triumph. Nowonderfor if this was truethe danger which menaced her was averted for atimeand the marriage might be consummated without such desperate haste. Thissad and sudden event seemed to her the mysterious fulfilment of a secret wish;and though startled she was not daunted but inspiritedfor fate seemed to favorher designs. She did comfort Bellacontrol the excited householdand keep therumors from Mrs. Coventry all that dreadful night.
At dawn Gerald came home exhaustedand bringing no tiding of the missingman. He had telegraphed to the headquarters of the regiment and received areplystating that Edward had left for London the previous daymeaning to gohome before returning. The fact of his having been at the London station wasalso establishedbut whether he left by the train or not was still uncertain.The ruins were still being searchedand the body might yet appear.
"Is Sir John coming at noon?" asked Jeanas the three sat togetherin the rosy hush of dawntrying to hope against hope.
"Nohe had been illI learned from young Gowerwho is just from townand so had not completed his business. I sent him word to wait till nightforthe bridge won't be passable till then. Now I must try and rest an hour; I'veworked all night and have no strength left. Call me the instant any messengerarrives."
With that Coventry went to his roomBella followed to wait on himand Jeanroamed through house and groundsunable to rest. The morning was far spent whenthe messenger arrived. Jean went to receive his tidingswith the wicked hopestill lurking at her heart.
"Is he found?" she asked calmlyas the man hesitated to speak.
"You are sure?"
"I am certainma'amthough some won't say till Mr. Coventry comes tolook."
"Is he alive?" And Jean's white lips trembled as she put thequestion.
"Oh noma'amthat warn't possibleunder all them stones and water.The poor young gentleman is so wetand crushedand tornno one would knowhimexcept for the uniformand the white hand with the ring on it."
Jean sat downvery paleand the man described the finding of the poorshattered body. As he finishedCoventry appearedand with one look of mingledremorseshameand sorrowthe elder brother went awayto find and bring theyounger home. Jean crept into the garden like a guilty thingtrying to hide thesatisfaction which struggled with a woman's natural pityfor so sad an end forthis brave young life.
"Why waste tears or feign sorrow when I must be glad?" shemutteredas she paced to and fro along the terrace. "The poor boy is outof painand I am out of danger."
She got no furtherforturning as she spokeshe stood face to face withEdward! Bearing no mark of peril on dress or personbut stalwart and strong aseverhe stood there looking at herwith contempt and compassion struggling inhis face. As if turned to stoneshe remained motionlesswith dilated eyesarrested breathand paling cheek. He did not speak but watched her silentlytill she put out a trembling handas if to assure herself by touch that it wasreally he. Then he drew backand as if the act convinced as fully as wordsshesaid slowly"They told me you were dead."
"And you were glad to believe it. Noit was my comradeyoung Courtneywho unconsciously deceived you alland lost his lifeas I should have doneifI had not gone to Ascot after seeing him off yesterday."
"To Ascot?" echoed Jeanshrinking backfor Edward's eye was onherand his voice was stern and cold.
"Yes; you know the place. I went there to make inquiries concerning youand was well satisfied. Why are you still here?"
"The three days are not over yet. I hold you to your promise. Beforenight I shall be gone; till then you will be silentif you have honor enough tokeep your word."
"I have." Edward took out his watch andas he put it backsaidwith cool precision"It is now twothe train leaves for London athalf-past six; a carriage will wait for you at the side door. Allow me to adviseyou to go thenfor the instant dinner is over I shall speak." And with abow he went into the houseleaving Jean nearly suffocated with a throng ofcontending emotions.
For a few minutes she seemed paralyzed; but the native energy of the womanforbade utter despairtill the last hope was gone. Frail as that now wasshestill clung to it tenaciouslyresolving to win the game in defiance ofeverything. Springing upshe went to her room packed her few valuablesdressedherself with careand then sat down to wait. She heard a joyful stir belowsawCoventry come hurrying backand from a garrulous maid learned that the body wasthat of young Courtney. The uniform being the same as Edward's and the ringagift from himhad caused the men to believe the disfigured corpse to be that ofthe younger Coventry. No one but the maid came near her; once Bella's voicecalled herbut some one checked the girland the call was not repeated. Atfive an envelope was brought herdirected in Edward's handand containing acheck which more than paid a year's salary. No word accompanied the giftyetthe generosity of it touched herfor Jean Muir had the relics of a once honestnatureand despite her falsehood could still admire nobleness and respectvirtue. A tear of genuine shame dropped on the paperand real gratitude filledher heartas she thought that even if all else failedshe was not thrust outpenniless into the worldwhich had no pity for poverty.
As the clock struck sixshe heard a carriage drive around and went down tomeet it. A servant put on her trunkgave the order"To the stationJames" and she drove away without meeting anyonespeaking to anyoneorapparently being seen by anyone. A sense of utter weariness came over herandshe longed to lie down and forget. But the last chance still remainedand tillthat failedshe would not give up. Dismissing the carriageshe seated herselfto watch for the quarter-past-six train from Londonfor in that Sir John wouldcome if he came at all that night. She was haunted by the fear that Edward hadmet and told him. The first glimpse of Sir John's frank face would betray thetruth. If he knew allthere was no hopeand she would go her way alone. If heknew nothingthere was yet time for the marriage; and once his wifeshe knewshe was safebecause for the honor of his name he would screen and protect her.
Up rushed the trainout stepped Sir Johnand Jean's heart died within her.Graveand paleand worn he lookedand leaned heavily on the arm of a portlygentleman in black. The Reverend Mr. Fairfaxwhy has he comeif the secret isout? thought Jeanslowly advancing to meet them and fearing to read her fate inSir John's face. He saw herdropped his friend's armand hurried forward withthe ardor of a young manexclaimingas he seized her hand with a beaming facea glad voice"My little girl! Did you think I would never come?"
She could not answerthe reaction was too strongbut she clung to himregardless of time or placeand felt that her last hope had not failed. Mr.Fairfax proved himself equal to the occasion. Asking no questionshe hurriedSir John and Jean into a carriage and stepped in after them with a blandapology. Jean was soon herself againandhaving told her fears at his delaylistened eagerly while he related the various mishaps which had detained him.
"Have you seen Edward?" was her first question.
"Not yetbut I know he has comeand have heard of his narrow escape. Ishould have been in that trainif I had not been delayed by the indispositionwhich I then cursedbut now bless. Are you readyJean? Do you repent yourchoicemy child?"
"Nono! I am readyI am only too happy to become your wifedeargenerous Sir John" cried Jeanwith a glad alacritywhich touched the oldman to the heartand charmed the Reverend Mr. Fairfaxwho concealed theromance of a boy under his clerical suit.
They reached the Hall. Sir John gave orders to admit no one and after a hastydinner sent for his old housekeeper and his stewardtold them of his purposeand desired them to witness his marriage. Obedience had been the law of theirlivesand Master could do nothing wrong in their eyesso they played theirparts willinglyfor Jean was a favorite at the Hall. Pale as her gownbut calmand steadyshe stood beside Sir Johnuttering her vows in a clear tone andtaking upon herself the vows of a wife with more than a bride's usual docility.When the ring was fairly ona smile broke over her face. When Sir John kissedand called her his "little wife" she shed a tear or two of sincerehappiness; and when Mr. Fairfax addressed her as "my lady" shelaughed her musical laughand glanced up at a picture of Gerald with eyes fullof exultation. As the servants left the rooma message was brought from Mrs.Coventrybegging Sir John to come to her at once.
"You will not go and leave me so soon?" pleaded Jeanwell knowingwhy he was sent for.
"My darlingI must." And in spite of its tendernessSir John'smanner was too decided to be withstood.
"Then I shall go with you" cried Jeanresolving that no earthlypower should part them.
"What do you mean?" demanded Coventry.
"You will soon knowmy poor Geraldand we will comfort oneanother."
Nothing more could be drawn from Edward till dinner was overthe servantsgoneand all the family alone together. Then pale and gravebut veryself-possessedfor trouble had made a man of himhe produced a packet oflettersand saidaddressing himself to his brother"Jean Muir hasdeceived us all. I know her story; let me tell it before I read herletters."
"Stop! I'll not listen to any false tales against her. The poor girl hasenemies who belie her!" cried Geraldstarting up.
"For the honor of the familyyou must listenand learn what fools shehas made of us. I can prove what I sayand convince you that she has the art ofa devil. Sit still ten minutesthen goif you will."
Edward spoke with authorityand his brother obeyed him with a forebodingheart.
"I met Sydneyand he begged me to beware of her. NaylistenGerald! Iknow she has told her storyand that you believe it; but her own lettersconvict her. She tried to charm Sydney as she did usand nearly succeeded ininducing him to marry her. Rash and wild as he ishe is still a gentlemanandwhen an incautious word of hers roused his suspicionshe refused to make herhis wife. A stormy scene ensuedandhoping to intimidate himshe feigned tostab herself as if in despair. She did wound herselfbut failed to gain herpoint and insisted upon going to a hospital to die. Lady Sydneygoodsimplesoulbelieved the girl's version of the storythought her son was in thewrongand when he was gonetried to atone for his fault by finding Jean Muiranother home. She thought Gerald was soon to marry Luciaand that I was awayso sent her here as a safe and comfortable retreat."
"ButNedare you sure of all this? Is Sydney to be believed?"began Coventrystill incredulous.
"To convince youI'll read Jean's letters before I say more. They werewritten to an accomplice and were purchased by Sydney. There was a compactbetween the two womenthat each should keep the other informed of alladventuresplots and plansand share whatever good fortune fell to the lot ofeither. Thus Jean wrote freelyas you shall judge. The letters concern usalone. The first was written a few days after she came.
"Another failure. Sydney WAS more wily than I thought. All was goingwellwhen one day my old fault beset meI took too much wineand I carelesslyowned that I had been an actress. He was shockedand retreated. I got up asceneand gave myself a safe little woundto frighten him. The brute was notfrightenedbut coolly left me to my fate. I'd have died to spite himif Idaredbut as I didn'tI lived to torment him. As yetI have had no chancebut I will not forget him. His mother is a poorweak creaturewhom I could useas I wouldand through her I found an excellent place. A sick mothersillydaughterand two eligible sons. One is engaged to a handsome icebergbut thatonly renders him more interesting in my eyesrivalry adds so much to the charmof one's conquests. Wellmy dearI wentgot up in the meek styleintendingto do the pathetic; but before I saw the familyI was so angry I could hardlycontrol myself. Through the indolence of Monsieur the young masterno carriagewas sent for meand I intend he shall atone for that rudeness by-and-by. Theyounger sonthe motherand the girl received me patronizinglyand Iunderstood the simple souls at once. Monsieur (as I shall call himas names areunsafe) was unapproachableand took no pains to conceal his dislike ofgovernesses. The cousin was lovelybut detestable with her prideher coldnessand her very visible adoration of Monsieurwho let her worship himlike aninanimate idol as he is. I hated them bothof courseand in return for theirinsolence shall torment her with jealousyand teach him how to woo a woman bymaking his heart ache. They are an intensely proud familybut I can humble themallI thinkby captivating the sonsand when they have committed themselvescast them offand marry the old unclewhose title takes my fancy."
"She never wrote that! It is impossible. A woman could not do it"cried Lucia indignantlywhile Bella sat bewildered and Mrs. Coventry supportedherself with salts and fan. Coventry went to his brotherexamined the writingand returned to his seatsayingin a tone of suppressed wrath"She didwrite it. I posted some of those letters myself. Go onNed."
"I made myself useful and agreeable to the amiable onesand overheardthe chat of the lovers. It did not suit meso I fainted away to stop itandexcite interest in the provoking pair. I thought I had succeededbut Monsieursuspected me and showed me that he did. I forgot my meek role and gave him astage look. It had a good effectand I shall try it again. The man is wellworth winningbut I prefer the titleand as the uncle is a halehandsomegentleman I can't wait for him to diethough Monsieur is very charmingwithhis elegant languorand his heart so fast asleep no woman has had power to wakeit yet. I told my storyand they believed itthough I had the audacity to sayI was but nineteento talk Scotchand bashfully confess that Sydney wished tomarry me. Monsieur knows S. and evidently suspects something. I must watch himand keep the truth from himif possible.
"I was very miserable that night when I got alone. Something in theatmosphere of this happy home made me wish I was anything but what I am. As Isat there trying to pluck up my spiritsI thought of the days when I was lovelyand younggood and gay. My glass showed me an old woman of thirtyfor my falselocks were offmy paint goneand my face was without its mask. Bah! how I hatesentiment! I drank your health from your own little flaskand went to bed todream that I was playing Lady Tartuffe -- as I am. Adieumore soon."
No one spoke as Edward pausedand taking up another letterhe read on:
"My Dear Creature:
"All goes well. Next day I began my taskand having caught a hint ofthe character of eachtried my power over them. Early in the morning I ran overto see the Hall. Approved of it highly and took the first step toward becomingits mistressby piquing the curiosity and flattering the pride of its master.His estate is his idol; I praised it with a few artless compliments to himselfand he was charmed. The cadet of the family adores horses. I risked my neck topet his beastand he was charmed. The little girl is romantic about flowers; Imade a posy and was sentimentaland she was charmed. The fair icicle loves herdeparted mammaI had raptures over an old pictureand she thawed. Monsieur isused to being worshipped. I took no notice of hintand by the naturalperversity of human naturehe began to take notice of me. He likes music; Isangand stopped when he'd listened long enough to want more. He is lazily fondof being amused; I showed him my skillbut refused to exert it in his behalf.In shortI gave him no peace till he began to wake up. In order to get rid ofthe boyI fascinated himand he was sent away. Poor ladI rather liked himand if the title had been nearer would have married him."
"Many thanks for the honor." And Edward's lip curled with intensescorn. But Gerald sat like a statuehis teeth sethis eyes fieryhis browsbentwaiting for the end.
"The passionate boy nearly killed his brotherbut I turned the affairto good accountand bewitched Monsieur by playing nursetill Vashti (theicicle) interfered. Then I enacted injured virtueand kept out of his wayknowing that he would miss me. I mystified him about S. by sending a letterwhere S. would not get itand got up all manner of soft scenes to win thisproud creature. I get on well and meanwhile privately fascinate Sir J. by beingdaughterly and devoted. He is a worthy old mansimple as a childhonest as thedayand generous as a prince. I shall be a happy woman if I win himand youshall share my good fortune; so wish me success."
"This is the thirdand contains something which will surpriseyou" Edward saidas he lifted another paper.
"I've done what I once planned to do on another occasion. You know myhandsomedissipated father married a lady of rank for his second wife. I neversaw Lady H_____d but oncefor I was kept out of the way. Finding that this goodSir J. knew something of her when a girland being sure that he did not know ofthe death of her little daughterI boldly said I was the childand told apitiful tale of my early life. It worked like a charm; he told Monsieurandboth felt the most chivalrous compassion for Lady Howard's daughterthoughbefore they had secretly looked down on meand my real poverty and mylowliness. That boy pitied me with an honest warmth and never waited to learn mybirth. I don't forget that and shall repay it if I can. Wishing to bringMonsieur's affair to a successful crisisI got up a theatrical evening and wasin my element. One little event I must tell youbecause I committed anactionable offense and was nearly discovered. I did not go down to supperknowing that the moth would return to flutter about the candleand preferringthat the fluttering should be done in privateas Vashti's jealousy is gettinguncontrollable. Passing through the gentlemen's dressing roommy quick eyecaught sight of a letter lying among the costumes. It was no stage affairandan odd sensation of fear ran through me as I recognized the hand of S. I hadfeared thisbut I believe in chance; and having found the letterI examinedit. You know I can imitate almost any hand. When I read in this paper the wholestory of my affair with S.truly toldand also that he had made inquiries intomy past life and discovered the truthI was in a fury. To be so near successand fail was terribleand I resolved to risk everything. I opened the letter bymeans of a heated knife blade under the sealtherefore the envelope wasperfect; imitating S.'s handI penned a few lines in his hasty stylesaying hewas at Badenso that if Monsieur answeredthe reply would not reach himforhe is in Londonit seems. This letter I put into the pocket whence the othermust have fallenand was just congratulating myself on this narrow escapewhenDeanthe maid of Vashtiappeared as if watching me. She had evidently seen theletter in my handand suspected something. I took no notice of herbut must becarefulfor she is on the watch. After this the evening closed with strictlyprivate theatricalsin which Monsieur and myself were the only actors. To makesure that he received my version of the story firstI told him a romantic storyof S.'s persecutionand he believed it. This I followed up by a moonlightepisode behind a rose hedgeand sent the young gentleman home in a half-dazedcondition. What fools men are!"
"She is right!" muttered Coventrywho had flushed scarlet withshame and angeras his folly became known and Lucia listened in astonishedsilence.
"Only one moreand my distasteful task will be nearly over" saidEdwardunfolding the last of the papers. "This is not a letterbut a copyof one written three nights ago. Dean boldly ransacked Jean Muir's desk whileshe was at the Hallandfearing to betray the deed by keeping the lettershemade a hasty copy which she gave me todaybegging me to save the family fromdisgrace. This makes the chain complete. Go nowif you willGerald. I wouldgladly spare you the pain of hearing this."
"I will not spare myself; I deserve it. Read on" replied Coventryguessing what was to follow and nerving himself to hear it. Reluctantly hisbrother read these lines:
"The enemy has surrendered! Give me joyHortense; I can be the wife ofthis proud monsieurif I will. Think what an honor for the divorced wife of adisreputable actor. I laugh at the farce and enjoy itfor I only wait till theprize I desire is fairly mineto turn and reject this lover who has provedhimself false to brothermistressand his own conscience. I resolved to berevenged on bothand I have kept my word. For my sake he cast off the beautifulwoman who truly loved him; he forgot his promise to his brotherand put by hispride to beg of me the worn-out heart that is not worth a good man's love. AhwellI am satisfiedfor Vashti has suffered the sharpest pain a proud womancan endureand will feel another pang when I tell her that I scorn her recreantloverand give him back to herto deal with as she will."
Coventry started from his seat with a fierce exclamationbut Lucia bowed herface upon her handsweepingas if the pang had been sharper than even Jeanforesaw.
"Send for Sir John! I am mortally afraid of this creature. Take heraway; do something to her. My poor Bellawhat a companion for you! Send for SirJohn at once!" cried Mrs. Coventry incoherentlyand clasped her daughterin her armsas if Jean Muir would burst in to annihilate the whole family.Edward alone was calm.
"I have already sentand while we waitlet me finish this story. It istrue that Jean is the daughter of Lady Howard's husbandthe pretendedclergymanbut really a worthless man who married her for her money. Her ownchild diedbut this girlhaving beautywit and a bold spirittook her fateinto her own handsand became an actress. She married an actorled a recklesslife for some years; quarreled with her husbandwas divorcedand went toParis; left the stageand tried to support herself as governess and companion.You know how she fared with the Sydneyshow she has duped usand but for thisdiscovery would have duped Sir John. I was in time to prevent thisthankheaven. She is gone; no one knows the truth but Sydney and ourselves; he will besilentfor his own sake; we will be for oursand leave this dangerous woman tothe fate which will surely overtake her."
"Thank youit has overtaken herand a very happy one she findsit."
A soft voice uttered the wordsand an apparition appeared at the doorwhichmade all start and recoil with amazement -- Jean Muir leaning on the arm of SirJohn.
"How dare you return?" began Edwardlosing the self-control solong preserved. "How dare you insult us by coming back to enjoy themischief you have done? Uncleyou do not know that woman!"
"HushboyI will not listen to a wordunless you remember where youare" said Sir Johnwith a commanding gesture.
"Remember your promise: love meforgive meprotect meand do notlisten to their accusations" whispered Jeanwhose quick eye haddiscovered the letters.
"I will; have no fearsmy child" he answereddrawing her neareras he took his accustomed place before the firealways lighted when Mrs.Coventry was down.
Geraldwho had been pacing the room excitedlypaused behind Lucia's chairas if to shield her from insult; Bella clung to her mother; and Edwardcalminghimself by a strong efforthanded his uncle the letterssaying briefly"Look at thosesirand let them speak."
"I will look at nothinghear nothingbelieve nothing which can in anyway lessen my respect and affection for this young lady. She has prepared me forthis. I know the enemy who is unmanly enough to belie and threaten her. I knowthat you both are unsuccessful loversand this explains your unjustuncourteous treatment now. We all have committed faults and follies. I freelyforgive Jean hersand desire to know nothing of them from your lips. If she hasinnocently offendedpardon it for my sakeand forget the past."
"ButUnclewe have proofs that this woman is not what she seems. Herown letters convict her. Read themand do not blindly deceive yourself"cried Edwardindignant at his uncle's words.
A low laugh startled them alland in an instant they saw the cause of it.While Sir John spokeJean had taken the letters from the hand which he had putbehind hima favorite gesture of hisandunobservedhad dropped them on thefire. The mocking laughthe sudden blazeshowed what had been done. Both youngmen sprang forwardbut it was too late; the proofs were ashesand Jean Muir'sboldbright eyes defied themas she saidwith a disdainful little gesture"Hands offgentlemen! You may degrade yourselves to the work ofdetectivesbut I am not a prisoner yet. Poor Jean Muir you might harmbut LadyCoventry is beyond your reach."
"Lady Coventry!" echoed the dismayed familyin varying tones ofincredulityindignationand amazement.
"Ayemy dear and honored wife" said Sir Johnwith a protectingarm about the slender figure at his side; and in the actthe wordsthere was atender dignity that touched the listeners with pity and respect for the deceivedman. "Receive her as suchand for my sakeforbear all furtheraccusation" he continued steadily. "I know what I have done. I haveno fear that I shall repent it. If I am blindlet me remain so till time opensmy eyes. We are going away for a little whileand when we returnlet the oldlife return againunchangedexcept that Jean makes sunshine for me as well asfor you."
No one spokefor no one knew what to say. Jean broke the silencesayingcoolly"May I ask how those letters came into your possession?"
"In tracing out your past lifeSydney found your friend Hortense. Shewas poormoney bribed herand your letters were given up to him as soon asreceived. Traitors are always betrayed in the end" replied Edward sternly.
Jean shrugged her shouldersand shot a glance at Geraldsaying with hersignificant smile"Remember thatmonsieurand allow me to hope that inwedding you will be happier than in wooing. Receive my congratulationsMissBeaufortand let me beg of you to follow my exampleif you would keep yourlovers."
Here all the sarcasm passed from her voicethe defiance from her eyeandthe one unspoiled attribute which still lingered in this woman's artful natureshone in her faceas she turned toward Edward and Bella at their mother's side.
"You have been kind to me" she saidwith grateful warmth. "Ithank you for itand will repay it if I can. To you I will acknowledge that Iam not worthy to be this good man's wifeand to you I will solemnly promise todevote my life to his happiness. For his sake forgive meand let there be peacebetween us."
There was no replybut Edward's indignant eyes fell before hers. Bella halfput out her handand Mrs. Coventry sobbed as if some regret mingled with herresentment. Jean seemed to expect no friendly demonstrationand to understandthat they forbore for Sir John's sakenot for hersand to accept theircontempt as her just punishment.
"Come homeloveand forget all this" said her husbandringingthe belland eager to be gone. "Lady Coventry's carriage."
And as he gave the ordera smile broke over her facefor the sound assuredher that the game was won. Pausing an instant on the threshold before shevanished from their sightshe looked backwardand fixing on Gerald the strangeglance he remembered wellshe said in her penetrating voice"Is not thelast scene better than the first?"