THE REFUGE AMONG THE LEAVES
At this moment there issued from a side door a tall man, apparently built in jointed sections like a fishing-rod, and close behind him a little smooth-faced woman drifted in, with the sharpest and chilliest eyes in the world — the keen acrid blue of a mountain lake when the wind blows fretfully from the north. Abandoning Idalia, Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy ran to them and clasped the tall man about the neck. He bent to receive her embrace with the conscious simper of a spoiled beauty who receives an expected compliment. Then loosening her arms as swiftly, she turned and kissed the woman of the acrid eyes. She, however, only submitted like a sphinx, looking at Ione over Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy's shoulder all the while.
"Oh you loves — you dears," palpitated, at once asthmatically and ecstatically, the Lady Principal of Rayleigh Abbey; "what a blessed time you have given us! Truly the Power was manifested this night!"
The tall man came forward with blandly beaming smile and outstretched hand; but the little woman stood still and fixed her eyes keenly and piercingly upon each of the party in succession. They dwelt longest upon Ione, and it was to her that she spoke first.
"My dear," she said, in the mystical jargon affected on all occasions by the inhabitants of Castle Gimcrack, "have you also come to be cured and anointed? Alas! I fear there is not oil sufficient to heal and sanctify you in all the City of Palm Trees."
Ione took the little chill outstretched hand, but only smiled in answer. The words of the Seeress, though spoken in a singularly quiet and incisive tone, sounded to her not a whit wiser or more connected than the howling of the wild women in the hall.
Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy turned upon her, adjusting her shawl upon her shoulder for the fiftieth time. She observed with indignation Mrs. Howard-Hodge holding Ione's hand.
"You mistake," she said; "that is not my daughter-in-law. Let me introduce to you my de-e-ar daughter, the wife of my only son Marcus, of whom you have heard me speak. Doubtless during your American tours you have met with my daughter's dear, de-e-ar father, Mr. John Cyrus Judd, the great American millionaire!"
Marcus flushed hotly at hearing his own description thus repeated.
"I have never had the great felicity of meeting your father, ma'am," said the tall man to Idalia, speaking for the first time. His wife said nothing, contenting herself with shaking hands with Idalia and Marcus, and immediately turning again to Ione.
"You have suffered," she said softly, keeping the cold blue eyes fixed intently upon her; "you have lost a near relative. And you must yet suffer more. Fate is written large on your face. Even the Power itself could not help you. For in suffering only will you work out your soul's perfection, and come out of the furnace like gold seven times refined."
At that moment Marcus effected a welcome diversion.
"My dear mater" he said, "Idalia and Miss March are tired with their journey. You will let up on them till morning."
“If you mean by such language that you wish to retire to your apartments, I can only kiss my dear daughter and submit," said the lady. "But where Is your friend Keith? I understood he was to be with you!"
She uttered these last words with the first gleam of interest she had shown in anything outside herself and the Cause.
"Oh, Keith - " returned her son, "he is coming the day after to-morrow — that is, if he is well enough to travel. He has been jolly ill for the last six weeks — very nearly croaked, did poor old Keith — would too, but for - "
"Marcus!" interjected his wife suddenly, "if you don't come right now, I shall drop from sheer hunger and thirst!"
"What," shrilled Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, "Keith Harford has been ill and I have not known! My Guardian Spirit has been strangely remiss. Why have I had no warning — no presentiment? But when once he comes to this blessed tabernacle in the wilderness we will tend him. He will soon receive the POWER. We will organise special services of anointing and healing in the Temple."
"The Temple?" queried Marcus.
"Yes, the Temple of the Universal Healing Power, set up in the wilderness of Hampshire like — like — like a pearl among swine!" said Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, waving her hands; "when I still sat in darkness and was ignorant of the true potency of curative faith, it was called the 'chapel.' But now it is the First Temple of the New Dispensation — so worthily presided over by our de-e-ar friends, Mr. and Mrs. Howard-Hodge." And she simpered somewhat oozily at the Seer and Seeress, like a butter-cask set in the sun.
"Good-night, mater" cried Marcus; "see you in the morning. Come on, girls!"
"Good-night, then, if it must be!" cried the dark-browed Martyria Evicta, impressively, once more lifting up the recalcitrant shawl from the floor. "Ah, we are about to have such a beautiful After-meeting — restricted to a few saints — to bewail the sins of this age and the inefficiency of ordinary physicians. I am to give the address in person, and the Admiral is going to burn the British Pharmacopӕia — also, what is worse, Squire's Companion! If you only could be persuaded to stay, your souls would assuredly be blessed!"
"But, mother, after all, we must get something to eat, you know!" cried Marcus, stamping cheerily down the stairs after giving his mother a hasty peck on the cheek.
Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy was left speaking with her hands uplifted, a stout and rotund Cassandra of the New Faith.
"Ah, young people, young people," she called after them from the iron girder above, "would that I could make you see of what small avail is the meat which perisheth, in comparison with the POWER which enables us to do without bread, or at least - " (she added the last words, gently swaying her eighteen stone of well-nourished girth to and fro in an ecstasy of devotion), "to prefer the POWER to any pampering of this frail tabernacle of sin."
She rang a bell for the servant, who appeared with ready deference from an ante-room.
"Has Tranter taken the tray and cover up to my bedroom?" she asked.
"I don't know, madam; but I will go and see."
"Thank you," said the lady, "and tell him to make it a quart instead of a pint to-night, and to ice it well — I've been so dreadfully upset!"
"Yes, 'm!" responded the servitor submissively.
Then Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy picked up her red shawl once more, and rearranged it over her shoulders with the meek and ascetic self-abnegation of the accredited martyr of a great Cause.
* * * * *
Meanwhile Marcus was clattering downstairs and racing along passages with the boyishness which only comes to those who have escaped from school. Idalia and Ione hastened after him. He took a key from his pocket and undid a little iron wicket-door, which opened unexpectedly out of a long passage, whitewashed like a prison corridor.
"Now, girls," he said, standing aside for them to pass, "give me your hands. We are going outside a bit, and it's as dark as my hat. I sent Caleb word last week to have the little old Garden House put in order. I used to sleep and take my meals there, whenever things got too blessedly sultry up here in the Abbey. I could not conscientiously approve of more than three changes of religion in a week. It affected my digestion. One end of the cottage is directly over the coach-house, and smells a little of harness through the cracks of the floor. But to square that, nobody can get at us without going a dozen miles round by the garden-gate — and that's always locked, anyway. I see to it myself!"
So, taking hands like children, the three ran across a gloomy paved court. It felt exactly like escaping from prison. Marcus unlocked another door, which as carefully he locked again behind him. Then Ione found herself stumbling through a mat of ivy into a broad garden walk, which led among cucumber-frames and under orchard trees to the creeper-covered gable-end of a long straggling cottage. A range of steps led up apparently into a nest of leaves.
"Oh, this is just lovely," cried Idalia, clapping her hands; "it is like storming an ogre's castle, and being captured, and then in the last chapter escaping from his clutches with the fairy prince. I vote we have a private orgie all to ourselves!"
"Wait here till I open the door and get a lamp," said Marcus. "The steps are not all they should be, but I don't want them repaired. For if I did, some of that vile crew would be sure to come and hang up their hats, if they suspected there was a snug shop of this sort down here. So I've got man-traps and spring-guns all about to keep them away. And those who do get caught, or shot, I fling their bones down the well. Oh, I've thought of everything!"
Ione and Idalia stood hand in hand in the darkness at the foot of the stairs. Marcus went upward and disappeared.
"Oh," cried his wife, suddenly clutching Ione, after a moment of awe-stricken silence, broken only by muttered imprecations from above, where Marcus was struggling with the key, and by the fluttering of bats disturbed among the ivy, "suppose this is a real haunted castle, and he never comes back any more. Marcus, Marcus — I'm coming up after you right now. Do you hear, I'm not going to wait. No, Marcus Hardy — if you think you are going to play with the young affections of Idalia Judd, and then leave her to moulder in a melon-frame, you’ll get left, sure!"
Marcus appeared just in time to catch his wife in his arms at the narrow leaf-surrounded landing-place, from the further side of which the rail had dropped away.
"Idalia, you wicked girl," he exclaimed, more soberly than was his wont, "do you know you might have broken your neck over there. Why couldn't you have waited?"
"Well, I got thinking you weren't ever coming back, and Ione and I were two such lone lorn females down there! Besides, I heard just regular armies of cockroaches creeping and scuttling all about! You might have thought, Marcus! You can't love me a bit — not a little bit. And I think you are horrid. I wish I had married Washington Alston. He wouldn't have teased me so, nor gone and left me all alone up to my knees in fertilizer in the backyard of a lunatic asylum! And, besides, he has a much nicer nose than you."
"Never mind my nose, little woman," said the good-humoured giant; "come inside, and see if you don't think I 've got some good points as well as Mr. Washington Alston. Ione, give me your hand!"
So in a trice the wandering trio found themselves in the sweetest and cleanest little nest of rooms. In the first and largest of these a supper-table was laid, shining with silver and the whiteness of napery. With a pleased smile of anticipation upon his hitherto immobile face, old Caleb stood ready at the door to welcome his master's guests. He was still attired in his coachman's boots and leggings, but his red waistcoat was partly covered by an ancient blue dress-coat with broad brass buttons stamped with an anchor. As the three passed in he saluted each in a stiff manner with his right hand and elbow, as if his fingers still held the butt end of a whip. From the warm-smelling oak-panelled corridor three rooms opened a little further on, and Ione fell into a chair in the first and began to laugh helplessly. Something in the note of her voice brought Idalia flying in from her own bedroom with a smelling bottle.
"What is the matter, Ione? Quick, out with it!" cried Idalia, becoming fiercely peremptory all at once.
"Nothing," said Ione, still half sobbing, half struggling with a wild desire to laugh, “only it seemed so funny to come through the desert of Sahara and the wilds of Colney Hatch, and find your things all arranged neatly on the bed, your dressing case open, and hot water in a tin can in the basin — and if it hasn't got a gardener's watering-rose on the spout! Ha—ha—ha! It is so funny. I can't help it!"
This time Idalia knitted her brows and shook her friend by the shoulder. The case was growing serious.
"If you don't stop, I’ll tell Keith Harford you nursed him — now!"
Ione stopped instantly, the mirth stricken from her face.
"No, you must not!" she said pleadingly.
"Well, you behave then!"
All this while Marcus was rapping steadily on the door. "Can I come in?" he said, his maligned nose peeping through the crack. "Why, what's the matter?"
"Nothing — do go away!" commanded his wife; "or no — be useful for once, and bring a spoonful of brandy."
In a moment Marcus was back with a small glass of Hennessy XO.
"Had too much of it up there, Ione?" he said. "Well, you shan't be troubled with that galvanised-iron Inferno any more. I’ll see to that."
"No," answered Ione, touched by his kindness; "it wasn't that. I've not been quite up to the mark lately, I think — and — and that garden-rose on the hot-water can set me laughing."
Marcus went to the door.
"Caleb, you old fool," he cried, "what on earth made you put these things on the hot-water cans?"
Caleb, with suddenly lengthened face, came to the door, touched his finger half way to his brow for manners, and then after a pause carried it further, till of its own accord it began to rub the side of his grey crop-head in perplexity.
"Well, the way of it was, sir, that I 'ad to ask Larkins the gardener for one or two of his waterin' pots — there not being none in the bloomin' place, not countin' the one your honour busted with throwing at the cat."
"Bless my soul, so I did!" cried the cheery Marcus, contritely. "Well, come on, and let us see if you have forgotten how to cook."
"Supper is served, ladies and your honour!" said Caleb gravely, standing at his usual half-cock salute as they filed past him.
The supper was a high approven success. The sweetbreads were cooked to a turn, and delicately smothered in white sauce.
The mushrooms on toast were a further joy as they grew less hungry, and the game pleased one sense without offending another.
"Why, Caleb," said Idalia, “I declare you cook better than the stuck-up Antoine, my father's cordon bleu!”
"Thank you. Miss!" said Caleb impassively, making once more his curious jerk of his elbow which represented the butt of an imaginary whip.
“Look here, Caleb, you mustn't say 'Miss' to this young lady. I told you before she was my wife," cried Marcus.
"Beg 'ee pardon, sir," said Caleb, saluting as before; "of course she is — if you say so. I’ll endeavour to remember, sir!"
"Caleb is of the world's opinion — that you can't be a man's wife, if your hair curls naturally," laughed Idalia. "But this is the ring, Caleb, and I've got the certificates here in my ulster pocket, if you 'd like to look at them — all stamped and ready fixed for pappa when he pulls alongside with his rights of a father, and all that!"
* * * * *
As Ione laid her head on the pillow that night, the cold blue eyes of the High Priestess of the new religion seemed to search her soul through and through. And more than once she woke with a start, under the belief that Mrs. Arminell Howard-Hodge was standing by her bedside.
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.