THE BOAT TRAIN
When Keith Harford, betrayed by his over-anxiety into taking a wrong turning and becoming entangled in the rusty iron labyrinths under Rayleigh Abbey, at last reached the outer court, he could not find Ione anywhere. She had, in fact, escaped through the smaller door with the key Marcus had given her. Bareheaded, Keith ran round the house this way and that, but still could obtain no glimpse of the young girl. Finally, in his desperation, he climbed the garden wall, launched himself into the branches of a pear-tree which the wind was swaying in the direction of the coping, and letting himself quickly down at the expense of a torn sleeve and bruised knee, he reached the Garden House, where he found Caleb calmly laying the table for Ione's frugal supper.
"Has Miss March not returned?" he said, gazing about him wildly.
Caleb looked at Keith in reproachful surprise, for a branch of the pear-tree had scratched his brow, his hair was over his eyes, and he wore neither hat nor overcoat.
“Mr. Harford," he answered sedately, "the young lady has gone to the service in the chapel, what they calls the Temple, by special invitation of the missus."
"I know," said Harford, "she was there! But she has been denounced and insulted by wild beasts, and while I was facing them, she slipped out into the night, and I cannot find her anywhere."
"That old she-tiger! I thought it would come to summat like this," ejaculated Caleb, letting a dish slip from his hand and splinter unregarded on the hearth.
Keith was going out again without a word, but Caleb caught him by the arm. "Wait till I put one of master's overcoats on you! And for God's sake don't go out bareheaded, and you just fresh rose up from a bed of sickness!"
As if he had been putting the harness on his horses, Caleb made his preparations in a few seconds with his usual quiet decision. Then pulling a cap down over Keith Harford's head, he fastened the straps under his chin, as a nurse does to a child.
But before he could finish buttoning the thick overcoat, Keith was stumbling down the steps into the wet and buffeting wind, leaving Caleb vainly calling after him to wait till he could come and help.
"Oh, if master had only been here, this wouldn't never have happened as it 'as happened," he groaned; "the old hag wouldn't have dared to let out her spite and jealousy if young master 'ad bin 'ere! But that is the reason why she encouraged him to go away up to London this mornin'!"
It was with anger burning hot in his heart that Keith plunged into the night, to seek for the girl whom he had acknowledged for his affianced wife before the evil-minded pack assembled in Rayleigh Abbey.
Whither could she have gone — a delicate girl abroad on such a night, and in a strange country? Keith beat his way through the wet leathery leaves of the shrubbery, and emerged with aromatic drops spraying down upon him from laurel and holly.
What shelter could she find? He knew her wounded pride too well to think that she would abide a moment longer anywhere near that accursed habitation of asps and cockatrices.
"Ione! Ione!" he shouted, calling the beloved name aloud, as he ran headlong down the dark avenues. But the winds swept away the syllables as if his shouting had been no louder than the cry of a storm-driven bird forwandered in the night.
Keith Harford grew wild and desperate. He felt that if Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy or her accomplices met him at that moment, he would certainly slay them with his hands. And his fingers tightened upon the palms of his hands as if they were already at the throats of Mr. H. Chadford Eaton and his late coadjutor in Department Z.
So in distress and darkness he wandered about he knew not whither. Instinct more than intention took him inland away from the sea.
He looked back and shook his fist at the long cliff-like wall of Rayleigh Abbey, with its gloomy machicolations and serried tiers of lights. Had he belonged to a former time he would have uttered against its towers a set and formal curse. As it was, he contented himself with a promise to make Ione March's enemies remember that night if ever it should be his hap to meet them again.
So Keith Harford wandered on, now on the streaming road, now brushing the wet from the sides of narrow footpaths where the weight of rain drooped the long, wet grasses thwartwise across like fallen corn. Anon he went swishing and creaking with water-logged boots across flooded meadows — till before him all suddenly shone up the cheerful lights and spick-and-span newness of a railway station.
It came upon him with a quick surprise, that he had not remembered before that the express passed up from the Channel Islands' boat at twenty minutes past midnight, and that it stopped at the station upon being signalled for, in order to convey through passengers for London.
Keith leaped the wire fence, and ran along the line till he came to the platform. A smoky lamp, deserted on a barrow and apparently in the last stages of extinction, was here the sole illuminant, but within the station itself the lights were burning brightly. The ticket-window was already open, and a slim girlish figure, wrapped in a mackintosh, bent before the pigeon-hole, purse in hand. In the most matter-of-fact way possible, Ione was taking a ticket for Town. Nay more, she was counting her change as calmly as if she had only been coming home from arranging her flowers at the Hotel Universal.
Without pausing to speak to her, Keith made sure from a question which Ione asked of the sleepy clerk that she was going to get out at Clapham Junction. Then, stepping quietly before her as she stood aside to put her purse into her pocket, he bend down and asked for a ticket to the same place.
Still with the pasteboard in his hand he turned, pale and worn with anger and fatigue. He stretched out his hand impulsively.
"Thank God, I have found you!" he said hoarsely, after a long pause, during which both stood staring. And even more than his words, his burning eyes and choked and trembling utterance pleaded for him.
Yet even then Keith Harford remained shy, reticent, self-distrustful beyond the wont of men. He had held love at a distance all his life, and now that it had come to him for the first time when he was verging on forty years of age, he knew not what to do with it.
Ione and Keith walked up and down the little platform without speaking. The train was late, and the porter, tired of his vigil, had set himself down on the seat of the waiting-shed near the fire, and slumbered peacefully, folding his arms on his breast and leaning his chin upon them. At the third turning Ione spoke.
"Why have you come?" she said, without looking at him.
Now doubtless Keith Harford ought to have answered, "Because I love you!" Marcus would have answered thus. The average man, both good and bad, the strong man, the confident man, the wise man even, would have answered so. And the average man would have been right. But Keith Harford was neither an ordinary nor yet an average man. His self-distrust, his lack of the excellent quality of business push, led him to put himself aside and belittle himself — than which there is nothing more fatal in the things of love.
"Why did you come?" Ione repeated her question.
Keith was silent a moment longer, then he spoke.
"How could I stay?" he said at last; "how could I remain among those ravening wolves and sty-fed swine, out of whom the devils of foulness and evil speech have not been cast. But tell me, Ione, did you hear what I said to them?"
"Yes, Mr. Harford, I heard what you said!"
"Do not call me that!" said he, wincing at her tone; "say 'Keith' as you used to do when I was ill. You heard what I said, and you are not angry?"
"Why should I be angry," said Ione softly. "Circumstances make these things necessary at times. It is like telling the servant to say one is not at home."
"Then you are angry — for you do not any longer call me 'Keith.' Speak kindly to me if you can. Remember, I have no friend in all the world but you."
"Keith Harford, I declare I could shake you, for a great silly gaby!" That was what Ione said within her heart. But aloud she answered, sighing a little, "I am not angry, Keith. But I fear you will take cold. You should not have come away like this without some protection after your illness."
She looked down at his wet feet. She could hear the water creaking in his boots as he walked.
The train was certainly very late. Ione went and interviewed the man behind the wicket. He was a nice young man — a stationmaster, recently promoted upwards from clerkdom. He stared at the young lady from nowhere in particular, who was travelling at the dead of night without any apparent luggage. But Ione's smiles, even more than her open purse and quick air of practicality, won their well accustomed victory. She came back to Keith with a pair of dry socks, and some brandy in a flask.
"Go and change before the fire," she bade him peremptorily, "and drink this now."
So like a scholar who is chidden by his master Keith meekly obeyed. And when he had finished, Ione added, as seriously as a physician prescribing, "Now I will take a little myself."
At last the train came along, shouldering its way with difficulty eastward right in the eye of the storm. Ione and Keith found an empty "third," with Waterloo above the door in large letters. And all the while Keith Harford was raging at his own impotence. Where were his nerve, his coolness, his determination, tested on a score of mountain-peaks, and a hundred passes? So that Alt Peter had said, half in earnest, if also half in jest, "Do not write books any more, if, as the Herr Marcus says, no one will buy them. Come and be a high-mountain guide like us. We will get you a Führer-buch at the next court!"
But now he dared not even speak to the woman he loved. Why, every slim counter-jumper who sat with an arm about his sweetheart on a seat by the park-gates, had more courage than he. He thought wistfully and enviously of hare-brained Marcus, who, through all their wanderings had known the word to bring the smile to a girl's lips and the pretty coquettish turn to her head. Whereas he, Keith Harford, like a sullen stupid draff-sack, could only sit silent while the bright eyes of maidens looked over his head and Love himself passed scornfully by.
And now when he was in the presence of the woman for whom he would gladly have died — this in sober truth, and as no mere figure of speech — he could find no word to speak to her. At last, however, he managed to begin his perilous tale.
"Ione," he said, falteringly, "I have a word to say to you. Yet somehow I know not how to speak it. I am ill at finding speech wherewith to tell you of my love. But the thing itself is deep in my heart, deep as the roots of my life. I have, indeed, no right to say that I love you. For spoken to a woman that ought to mean, that I am ready to ask you to be my wife. And so much I have not the right to say — I cannot say it. You are too wondrously precious for Keith Harford to ask you to link your bright fortunes, your youth, your beauty, with the failure, complete and absolute, of a middle-aged broken-down man. Ione, I tell you that after I paid my ticket to-night, I had not a shilling of my own in the world that I could count upon. I know not even where I shall lay my head to-night when I reach London."
Ione moved uneasily in her seat, and struck her hands one into the other with the quick impatient movement characteristic of her when she was thinking quickly.
Keith stopped all at once with instant appreciation of her irritation, but with his usual blindness he wholly mistook its cause.
"No, I do not tell you this to move your pity," he said. "I only pray that God may send some better, happier man to find that which I have no right to ask for. Ione, you are stronger than I, brighter, altogether of the younger day. I will never let myself be a burden upon your opening life. That which I said to-night, I spoke only for the ears of the canting crew up there, and for the hasty words I crave your pardon."
For a space of time, which to Keith Harford seemed hours, Ione was silent as the train rushed along, roaring through tunnels, and plunging again with a certain gladness of relief into the clean dense blackness of the night.
"Keith," at last the girl spoke low and gently, "I am tired to-night. I am not so strong as you think. I cannot bear any more. Do not speak to me just now. I will answer you to-morrow when I have rested. But you will come to Audley Street to-night, and sleep in your old bed where you lay so long. Jane Allen will be glad to share hers with me."
She reached over and gently touched the back of his hand twice, so that he might not be very heart-sore at her silence. And Keith, feeling her words to be the best vindication of his hasty speech at Rayleigh Abbey, leaned back and looked at her, marvellously eased at heart.
So the boat-express sped steadily north-eastwards through the night, leaving Rayleigh Abbey far behind glooming huge and sinister over the gusty surges of the Channel.
THE PURIFYING OF THE PECULIAR PEOPLE
Ione had neither seen nor heard of her hostess since the inauspicious encounter in the garden. It was therefore with some relief and surprise that she received the following missive from Caleb at the door of the Garden House:--
“Congregation of the Peculiar People,
"Rayleigh Abbey, Rayleigh.
“First Day of the Twefth Month of the
“The POWER will be manifested at eight to-night. Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy has the honour to invite Miss March to be present. The trumpet will be blown from the walls and the boundaries of Zion purged. 'Without are dogs!' Tea and silent prayer at seven-thirty sharp."
Ione was alone in the Nest-among-the-Leaves, of which Caleb was sole ministering angel. Idalia and Marcus had gone up to town early in the morning — for a "let-up" as the former irreverently phrased it. Ione had refused to accompany them, being of the judicious opinion that the young people had better be left to their own resources for a few days. Also, by returning with them to London, as they had urged her to do, she seemed to be putting an additional barrier between herself and Keith Harford.
So she remained at Rayleigh Abbey, and spent the day with a book in the garden. The early morning interview with the Seeress had somewhat shaken her nerves, and the curious humming sound in her ears which had haunted her for some weeks seemed to have greatly increased. Ione had been feeling faint and ill all day, but in spite of this she resolved to accept the invitation of her lady hostess for that evening. The folly would serve to arouse her, she thought. She owed something to the hospitality she was accepting, and besides — she might see Keith Harford.
Tea and silent prayer were already over when, under the guidance of Caleb, Ione reached the great iron staircase which led to the balcony of the chapel. Caleb had insisted upon Ione partaking of the excellent little dinner which he had prepared for her, alleging as an excuse his master's anger if he permitted Ione "to go and bust herself on that there swill."
It still rained, though in more sedate fashion than in the morning. So Ione had taken with her on her passage through the dark garden her water-proof and a red sailor hat with a black silk band, which, as with inevitable womanly forethought she admitted, "would take no harm whatever happened."
As Ione looked down from the place which had been kept for her in the front of the balcony, she saw the body of the chapel already darkened. The elevated stage or choir was bare and empty while from beneath there came the hum and hushed rustle of many people seated closely and waiting with no ordinary interest. There were but few looking down from the balcony that night, or walking to and fro. The pit seemed to have monopolised the faithful. It was obvious that trumpeting and purgation were important functions among the devotees of the New Religion.
The service began in the usual way. Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, with magnificent dignity, which was slightly marred by the red shawl dropping midway, stalked to her elevated throne upon the right of the platform. But on this occasion a new figure attended her. Mr. H. Chadford Eaton it was who picked up the shawl, and conducted the Lady Principal to her seat — indubitably Mr. Eaton, more resplendent than ever in fine frock-coat of broadcloth and the most fashionable of ties and gaiters. Ione could hardly believe her eyes when she saw him take up his position on the seat formerly occupied by the Admiral.
Thereafter Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, rising with immense dignity, delivered a sort of introductory homily upon the latest phase of the New Religion. This, like all new Truth (with a capital T), ran on somewhat antiquated lines. Water and fire together gave power, she said — the power which connected continent with continent, and enabled the Bournborough express to bring fresh devotees from the centre of the world's darkness to the Treasure-house of the World's Light, whence illumination would presently flash forth upon the Universe. She referred to Rayleigh Abbey. Water and fire were the primordial cleansing elements. They must be applied to the spiritual community before the POWER could be liberated. They must apply them fearlessly — however painful the application for the individual or to their own feelings. There must be no Achans in the camp, and there should be none after that night.
At this announcement a deep-toned "Amen" burst from the multitude of the faithful in the darkened chapel beneath.
Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy went on with renewed confidence. These were her words:--
"Before denunciations of unfaithfulness are made, it will stir the hearts of all true believers who know that there is a very distinguished person amongst us to-night — one who has come with a truly inquiring mind — and who, having in the course of his business, searched out all earthly wisdom, has now become convinced of the wisdom which is beyond and above the earth, as it is revealed by means of the New Religion. I refer to Mr. Chadford Eaton, Late Manager of the World's Wisdom Emporium. Not for years has the Truth received so distinguished a convert, and one too, who was not only a true believer himself, but is prepared to spend his life and ability in the furtherance of the Great Cause, the germ of which, thirty-two years ago, was delivered to the founder of Rayleigh Abbey in the gospel of Mustard and Water!"
Then, after Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy sat down, there ensued a most impressive pause. The choir seemed momentarily to grow gloomier. The willow-leaf lamps shone one by one more clearly out of the gathering darkness. A hush fell upon the audience till even Ione was impressed. Then, without warning, in their stoles of white the Seeress and her husband appeared standing together at the top of the platform. Their hands were raised as if beseeching the Power to descend upon them.
"Let the sinful and the sick, the evil of heart and the sinful of life, the halt, the maimed, the diseased and the dying come forward. All pain is ignorance. All suffering is sin. The purified, the trusting do not suffer. To them is given the Power, and they are healed!"
It was the sonorous voice of Mrs. Howard-Hodge speaking in a rapid recitative, and in short, distinct sentences, clearly heard by every one in the hall.
"Come to the anointing oil. Escape the casting out. There is yet time. The Power can cleanse. The Power can heal. All sin is soul-disease. All disease is bodily sin. The Power cleanses both equally. Have you guilt on your soul? The anointing oil can cleanse and heal. Have you pain and disease in your body? That also (under the new dispensation) is sin. Get healed. Now is the time. Come!"
And starting up here and there among the audience, first one by one, and then in little knots and driblets, men and women came and flung themselves down by the railing. The unseen folk in the dusky chapel beneath accompanied the incantation with a low murmur, which broke ever and anon into a sort of gloomy outburst of thanksgiving, as this or that well-known figure made its way to the front.
"Come in your sin — come in your sickness. Leave the earthly physician. Come to the Power!" cried the Seeress.
"Amen! Amen! We will come to the Power!" responded the faithful.
"Cast your drugs to the moles and the bats! Throw away your crutches! Cast behind you your rags and bandages. Come and receive the anointing oil, which has power to heal all that believe!"
"Amen, it cleanses! — Amen, it heals!" came again the answering echo.
“Bring your children — ye that believe. From the fever that burns, from the decline that wastes, from the anguish of the head, the heart, the limb, deliver your babes and sucklings! All can be cured if you only believe."
The rail was now full. The officiating pair went round and round with the anointing oil, muttering incantations. After they had gone twice about the circle, a man suddenly rose up, and in a piercing falsetto cried aloud, "I believe. Great is the Power! I came with a palsied right hand. Now I can move it. I came in bandages. I have thrown them away. And now, behold, I can lift up my hand in sight of you all!"
And certainly he was as good as his word. Hastily he unwrapped and extended a limb which, though still stiff, indubitably moved in all its parts.
"Great is the Power. Amen!" thundered the faithful out of the dark.
Then, as the Seer and Seeress went their rounds, ever quicker and louder came the confessions of healing, of complete or partial recovery, and ever deeper and more sonorous grew the thanksgivings of the elect.
At last all was over. The last man had given his testimony. The final sick woman had been dismissed with her pining child, strong in the belief that now the oil of new health had been poured into the expiring lamp of its life.
The platform was bare. Seer and Seeress had vanished together. Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy rose again. There was a sheaf of papers in her hand.
"Now," she said, "after this noble manifestation of the Power, we arrive at a stern and unpleasing, but highly necessary part of our work. It is the purifying of the Peculiar People. Let the lights be raised, that we may look upon the countenances of the evil-doers — and, recognising, learn henceforth to shun them."
At her word the lights were suddenly enlarged from willow-shaped, flickering blades to the broad glow of ordinary gas jets.
Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy took the first paper and glanced at it.
"Charity Attenborough — accused of speaking against the Lady Principal of this Abbey. Stand up and say what you have to say in answer. Charity Attenborough!"
A round-faced, merry-eyed girl rose uncertainly and like one utterly surprised, from a front bench. The people about drew themselves away from contamination with the garments of the accused, and the whole auditory settled to a minute and self-satisfied attention.
“Please, I never did, ma'am!" said Charity, bridling indignantly beneath the stare of so many unfriendly eyes. "I brought my father here, and it's done him a heap o' good. I never said nothin' else."
"Sub-warden Griggs of D Flat in the Convalescent Annex, rise and give your testimony!" cried Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy sternly.
A slouching man, with his head abnormally to one side, and clad in the uniform of the attendants at the cheap boarding-house connected with the Abbey, rose from the side of the chapel.
"If your ladyship pleases, I heard this girl a-sayin' to another girl in the room next but one in D Flat that you was all a pack of swindlers, chargin' two pound a week for what didn't cost you five bob!"
"I never did!" interjected Charity Attenborough, "that Griggs is a white-haired old liar!"
Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy held up her hands in horror. "Who was that other girl?" she asked the witness, her eyes turned to heaven in a permanent kind of meek resignation.
"Mary Jane Parr!" responded the man promptly.
"Well, and what did Mary Jane Parr answer?"
"She said you was all swindlers, but that your ladyship was a starcher!"
A low moan of horror burst from the audience, as if forced from them by such diabolical sentiments.
"What shall be done to these evil-speaking ones?" cried the Lady Abbess, turning up her eyes yet more, and bringing her fat hands piously together like a marble knight upon a tombstone.
"Let them be cast out!" thundered the chorus with one voice, as if accustomed to the formula.
Several attendants, apparently equally well versed in their duties, promptly advanced upon the culprits, and took them by the arms.
"You will find your boxes packed outside the door," said Mrs. Hardy, with a grand gesture. "The dustman will convey you and them to the station for a consideration."
Then there ensued other cases — first and worst, one Herman Kent, who had failed to pay his week's fees for board, lodging, and baths. Kent rebelliously and publicly declared that the accommodation would have been dear at "nuthin-at-all." Another, Gilbert Greatorix by name, had maligned the Seer, and stated how much coin of the realm he would take (an inconsiderable sum) to knock his ugly nose in.
These, and other similar cases being summarily settled, there ensued silence, and Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy stood a long time quite still with a paper in her hand. At last she spoke, in a sepulchral tone fitted to express the terrible communication she had to make to the Peculiar People.
"Now I come to the most painful duty of all. 'If your right hand offend you, cut it off; or your right eye, pluck it out.' All unsuspecting we have been cherishing a viper amongst us, my friends and fellow-believers. And though this serpent has been warmed in the bosom of those near and dear to me, yet for the sake of the flock and the people committed to me, I shall proclaim, and purge, and spare not. Ione March, stand up!"
A bombshell bursting at her feet could not have stunned Ione more. She felt unable to speak or think. Every eye was turned upon her, and as she sat alone in the lighted front of the gallery, opposite the platform, she seemed to be in a kind of dock.
"This young woman," said Mrs. Hardy in a strident voice, pointing at her with her finger, "came here as companion to my dear and only son's wife—the daughter, as you are all aware, of a very distinguished and — ah — wealthy citizen of America. She came and was received with honour as a modest and reputable person. But alas! how easily and how grievously are the innocent and unsuspecting deceived! She has had an accomplice in guilt — one, too, highly favoured, which makes his infamy the more wicked. I publicly name a sometime dependent, Keith Harford, once tutor to my son. I have long suspected — yesterday I fully discovered their treason. And to-day there has been put into my hand a paper which proves that this woman, under cover of nursing a pretended sickness, removed the misguided young man from the care and tendance of a respectable widow (who is present with us to testify to the fact!) and kept him for five weeks at her own lodgings, in a low and disreputable part of the city. Shall such persons company with the purified and elect? Susanna Horehound, stand up!"
But it was Keith Harford who stood up in the front of the gallery to the right, his face white and tense with anger and surprise.
"Who dares to say this thing?" he cried. "Who dares bring into this place the names of two people neither of whom have ever had the smallest connection with your sect of liars and hypocrites?"
"Blasphemy and defamation hurt us not," responded Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, "and we have always claimed the right to oversee the conduct of all who sojourn under this roof. We may be a little Zoar amid so many mighty Sodoms and flourishing Gomorrahs, but at least we have always kept our skirts free from pollution."
Meanwhile Mrs. Horehound, holding a scent-bottle to her nostrils, and her heavy face more full of malice than ever, had been standing ready to give her evidence.
"Yes," she said, as soon as she got an opening, "I testify that this here is the shameless woman wot come to my house and took away my lodger, that was paying me twenty-five shillings for as good a bedroom, and as well looked after — what with hot bottles and mustard plasters to his feet — as ever could be. Had he been my own son, as the saying is, I couldn't have done more. She and another that was worse, they come, and cruel hard they spoke against me, that has been a decent woman and much respected in the neighbourhood all my days. And there and then they took the young man away, though he was not in his right mind, but talked nonsense and that continuous."
Thus far Mrs. Horehound, lodging-house keeper, of Tarvit Street.
Then, as to what happened afterwards, it appeared that there were two reputable witnesses — Mr. Chadford Eaton, the new and distinguished adherent of the Faith, and his coadjutor in the Private Intelligence department of the World's Wisdom Emporium, Mr. Polydore Webster.
But before these worthy gentlemen could give their testimony, Keith Harford had leaped upon the platform.
"Listen," he cried, his face white and rigid with emotion, "this young lady, whose name is too sacred and worthy to be spoken even once in the hearing of such filthy and currish ears, is my affianced wife. Let any man speak against her at his peril. He will find that he must reckon with me — as by Heaven he shall. Neither she nor I have any connection with your drivelling superstitions. We own none of your laws, and we depart with gladness from a sect so obscene, and a place made so offensive by low scandal-mongering and peeping slander."
While Keith was speaking, a great disgust of her surroundings had come over Ione. Dazed and blinded she arose, and walking like one in whose eyes a too bright light has shined, she went uncertainly towards the stairway, feeling her way with her hand. Keith, seeing her depart, abruptly quitted the platform, and sought the nearest way out that he might meet her. And behind them, thus expelled with ignominy from the full college of the elect, pursued the thundered formula with which the faithful ratified the dread sentence of their superior:
"Let the wicked be cast out, and let them no more return!"
A LIFE FOR A LIFE
It was a stormy morning some weeks after these occurrences and the wind was careering and rioting up the Channel. Seen from the cliffs above Rayleigh the sea looked all silver-grey like frosted glass, so closely did the short chopping waves follow each other, and so thin, gauzy and almost invisible was the sea mist which was being driven shoreward in fleecy streams. The wind now whooed and now trumpeted in the stout Scotch firs, which Grandfather the Founder had with happy forethought planted along the edge of the down to withstand the first breaking fury of the gale.
Ione had put on her cloak, and as the fashion of woman is, had fastened a soft cap on her head by transfixing it with a pin great and perilous. She had no fear of the wet, and a certain dull ache in her brain produced after a while a feeling of intolerable restlessness and oppression indoors. So she went out and walked upon the cliffs, following the wind-swept paths, her hands fully occupied in restraining the manœuvres of her flapping and billowy mackintosh. Sometimes the rain dashed riotously in her face, and then a feeling of resistance and struggle strengthened her soul.
She loved Keith Harford — she acknowledged it even to herself now. Keith Harford loved her, that she had known long ago. She did not argue about either fact, for she was persuaded that though their loves might find little expression, they loved each other once and for ever, with a love that was far beyond Jane Allen's strenuous self-sacrifice or Idalia's pretty nestling petulances. With such thoughts in her heart Ione was waging a good warfare with the Channel gusts upon the path nearest the cliff edge, when she became aware that some one was approaching from the opposite direction. She caught glimpses of a tall form bearing down upon her through the swaying branches of the trees. As the man came nearer, she looked up, and there before her was Mr, H. Chadford Eaton. His small eyes were fixed upon her with a hideous sneer, a look at once of thwarted vengeance and concentrated hatred. The seaward path was narrow. Ione, though her heart was beating fast, kept firmly to it. She grasped her unopened umbrella with one hand and put the other into the pocket of her waterproof to keep it tight about her. Eaton glanced once over his shoulder as if to see if he were observed. A woman was approaching at right angles through the woodland pathways. With a growl almost like that of a baffled beast, the dismissed clerk turned aside and strode away through the pines in the direction of the village which nestled in the hollow behind the cliffs on which towered the vast wind-beaten bulk of the Abbey.
As he passed Ione he gave her one look so ugly and hateful that her knees trembled under her. The girl's heart rose in thankfulness as she looked towards the woman whose opportune arrival had saved her from (at least) an unpleasant interview.
It was Mrs. Arminell Howard-Hodge, the High-Priestess of the latest New Religion, presently supreme at Rayleigh Abbey.
She approached slowly, seeming instinctively to avoid the trees and the little inequalities of the path, and keeping her eyes fixed on those of Ione with a certain curious persistence. Her face, even in the fitful morning sunshine which alternated with the gusty blasts of driving rain, was grey and colourless. The salt scourge of the wet sea-wind did not whip the blood into her cheek. The lips scarcely showed of any other colour than that of the sallow dried-up skin about them.
As the woman came near Ione felt the brisk forcefulness of the description of Marcus, who constantly averred that only to glance at Mother Hodge gave him the crawls down his spine. "She looked," he cried, "as if she had been buried three days, and had gone about ever since regretting she had been dug up." On the present occasion Mrs. Howard-Hodge came and held out a hand to Ione, in which there was a curious tingling power — some electric force which Ione felt resentfully yet was obliged in some measure to submit to.
"Miss March," said the Seeress, "I have been wishing for a chance to speak to you for some days. It was with that purpose I ventured out into this brutal turmoil of the elements. Your face has dwelt with me ever since I saw it. The others are as nothing to me. No tragedy hides behind their brows. You are soulful. You possess the deep eyes of one for whose spirit the gods and demons are at wrestle. You have had strange sorrows and sad experiences."
"If you mean that I am a girl alone in the world, earning her own living — of course I have," said Ione, striving to keep this dangerous woman on a more ordinary level of conversation.
Mrs. Arminell Howard-Hodge smiled, and laid her hand on the girl's arm impressively.
"Come," she said, "better trust me. You are hemmed in here. I will be your best friend, if you will let me. I know that a friend and an enemy are both here — the man who loves you and the man who hates you. Is it not so? You are silent. Did not the one slink past you with a fiend's grimace only a moment or two ago? Did you not come hither with the hidden hope in your heart that you might meet the other?"
Ione walked on without speech — half in astonishment, half in annoyance. It was certainly strange, yet after all the woman might have found out so much by casual gossip or acute observation.
"You do not trust me — you do not believe! Well, you shall hear yet more, and then you will know that I am your friend. I see the crisis of your life fast coming upon you. You cannot escape from it — the day that shall test whether you are of gold like those rare ones, alas! too few, or dross like the common multitude."
She paused for a moment. Her eyelids drooped, her eyes turning inwards, as if in intense self-communion.
"You have nursed the man you thought to meet to-day. You have sat beside his pillow. You have hearkened to the words of his passionate love. Do not deny it! I can see you sit there with joy and sacrifice in your heart. I can hear the prayer which you thought only the Power-giver listened to in the silence of the night. ‘Take my life for his!' so you prayed. 'Take my life for his!' Girl, your prayer was answered. In your face, when first I saw you, I read the Doom written. There is no escape, and, to do you justice, you desire none. You shall die in his stead!"
Ione was pale now to the lips. She could no longer deny to the woman a certain strange knowledge. How much she might have obtained from information, how much guessed by keen intuition, she did not stop to disentangle. The woman had certainly spoken her very soul, spelling it out, as it were, letter by letter.
Mrs. Howard-Hodge went on again, keeping her chill blue eyes all the time vigilantly upon Ione.
“Ah, you believe me now! You are willing to trust me. Your prayer then is answered. It remains only for you to pay the price. Death and falling on sleep — what are they? A light thing, the ceasing of a breath, a slave's emancipation. But yet there remains a time, and a time, and half a time. Take and enjoy every golden hour — they are milled coin from the mint of the gods; days of perfect love they shall be, for which many lonely and loveless ones would give their immortal souls."
And so, leaving Ione standing there in the streaming mist which came boiling up from below and hissing over the cliff-edge, the Seeress abruptly vanished among the red boles of the trees, leaving them gleaming wet and spectral amid the salt sea-smother.
With her nerves shattered by this strange communication, Ione turned towards the garden-gate, still hoping to see Keith Harford on her way. Nor was she again to be disappointed. It was not long before she saw him come towards her with a new spring and alertness in his gait. It seemed indeed as if, the bargain of life for life once struck and acknowledged, the Fates were henceforth to be favourable.
He held out his hand frankly and boyishly, yet with some of the old quickly vanishing shyness in his eyes.
"I am glad to see you walk like that," said Ione, smiling back at him. "I have not seen anything like that stride since Grindelwald. How long ago that seems!"
Keith ranged himself close at the girl's elbow, and looked fondly and yet wistfully down at the thinness of her oval cheek. He went on to admire the crisp curls of her hair, which, being natural, the wind and wet had divided and multiplied into a thousand glistening ringlets.
He would have given all that he possessed (so he said to himself) for the right to touch the least of these circlets with his hand. But the next moment he laughed within him to think how little he had to give. As for him, he could only look and long.
Meanwhile Ione spoke not at all, the mystery of the unknown oppressing her. Her feet seemed shod with leaden clogs. Her heart felt unaccountably weary and old. A sense of on-coming and irresistible Doom for the first time in her life daunted her. She longed to be alone that she might cast herself on her bed and forget in unconsciousness the sick disappointment and the dull incessant ache.
Keith Harford could no more follow a woman's mood than he could read the secret of the stars or commune with such intelligences as may inhabit them. He was one of the unfortunate and unsuccessful men who reverence women so much that they never understand them.
"Goodbye," said Ione, without holding out her hand, as they came to the foot of the ivy-grown staircase; "I am going in now. And you oughtn't to be out in a day like this, you know."
Whereupon to be avenged for his disappointment at her swift departure, Keith Harford went and walked long upon the cliff-edge, thinking of Ione amid the drumming of the tempest and the thresh of the rain, until he was wet through from head to foot.
But Ione lay on her narrow hospital bed, and communed hopelessly with her own soul. For she knew not that Keith and she were as two electric clouds that cannot be united till after the bursting of the storm, till the levin bolt has flashed and the answering thunder diapasoned between them.
THE PLEASANT PURPLE PORPOISE
Idalia was lying with her ankles crossed over the brass rail at the foot of her bed. She was reading a novel and yawning portentously as she turned the pages.
"Whee-ooh," she whistled, curling and uncurling herself luxuriously like a disturbed kitten. "This is dull as New Jersey," she said. "I must get off soon, or, as I tell Marcus, I shall have to run away all over again with somebody else — anybody, in fact, who will give me a more amusing mother-in-law."
"If you had seen the lady just now — you could not have wished for more or better," said Ione.
"Du tell! Want t'know!" cried Idalia with instant interest, speaking, as she often did, in the dialect of an old summer landlady of hers in the White Mountains.
"Well," said Ione, throwing herself on the opposite end of the bed and leaning an elbow on the brass bar which Idalia had indicated with the gesture of a man offering another a cigar. Idalia obligingly slid her feet further along to make room.
"I met Mr. Harford by accident in the garden - "
“By accident in the garden! Yes, I know! Go on," said Idalia breathlessly, taking her pretty slippered feet down from the bar and gathering them under her with excitement. "Was he making love to you? How nice! I thought it would come to that — high time too! Say, does he do it nicely?"
Ione smiled reflectively.
"Well, no — if it comes to that, he doesn't!" (Idalia looked disappointed.) "In fact, to tell the truth, if there was any love in the vicinity, it was I who was making it."
Idalia nodded with the air of a connoisseur. Her lips smiled slightly and daintily at a remembered deliciousness — like one who tastes old memories and finds them good.
"Yes, that's nice too," she agreed, her eyes still mistily reminiscent. "I didn't think you had it in you, Ione. There's more than one kind of man who needs to be made speak. They mean well, but somehow can't make the riffle. Let me see — there was Mortimer Kitson, he was that kind, and Billy Pitt — no, he wasn't, quite the contrary in fact. But go on, Ione; don't let me interrupt the progress of this romantic ghost illusion. For when it came to solid spooning, I guess the pair of you would be about as warm as a couple of average spectres on a chilly night. In fact you both look like 'haunts' as it is. It's about time you made it up — if that's what concealment does to your four damask cheeks. Why, look at me, I'm getting as fat as a little porpoise — "
She burst into gay song :--
"A sweetly perfect porpoise,
A pleasant purple porpoise,
From the waters of Chili!"
"Oh!" cried Idalia, her ideas darting off at a tangent on the track of something new, "did you ever try to say that second line over in different ways? First seductively, 'A pleasant purple porpoise' — as if the dear beast was before you and you were quite determined to take your hair out of curl-papers and produce your best impression on him? Then tragically with your hands in the air, thus, — 'A pleasant purple porpoise, from the waters of Chili!' Doesn't it sound as if all your friends were dead and you yourself were doomed to an early grave — like that tiresome 'poor little Jim.' Or blubberingly, like sour butter-milk gurgling out of a tin dipper at the old farm up in the mountains. Oh, do you remember that funny calf they had, and Zeke the farm-boy, who fell in love with me?"
Idalia was sitting up now with her feet tucked under her, heedless alike of skirts and lace frilleries in her heady excitement.
"No," commented Ione with severity; "I don't want to hear either about 'pleasant purple porpoises,' or yet of farm hands whom you tried to break the hearts of. Lady Clara Vere de Vere at third hand makes me tired. For, you see, I wasn't at that farm. It was some other gooseberry who aided and abetted. All the same, I don't doubt you proved yourself the same little fiend you always were, Mrs. Marcus Hardy. On the contrary, if you will attend for a moment I will tell you that Mr. Harford and I had the honour to meet your esteemed mother-in-law in the garden walk, and so it came about, that just when she was almost upon us — she saw him- "
“No; you don't say," cried Idalia, clapping her hands joyously. "Good for Keith, excellent good! I never thought he had the spirit."
"I don't know what you mean, Idalia Judd," said Ione with dignity, "nor yet how your inspired cowherds out Salem way were in the habit of behaving. But, as a matter of fact, Mr. Harford was kissing my hand."
"Mff!" came with a sniff contemptuous from the Paris wrapper, "that all? My — what a fuss about nothing! Why, any young men I’d have had anything to do with always did that the second day on the steamer trip, or sometimes when we were just losing sight of the lighthouse, if the ship was a racer!"
"Idalia, I’ll tell Marcus if you talk nonsense like that; I will, for true!"
"Oh, shoot!" cried the married lady, recklessly. "I don't care for a crate of Marcuses. He is a dear old slow-coach anyway, and I had to love him better than the lot of them — I just couldn't help it somehow. But he knows all about it pretty well, I guess. Only, as for me, I've quite given up the follies of my youth. And now for the rest of my life I'm going to devote myself to seeing that Marcus does not flirt — nor kiss my dearest friends in corners — that is, when they are as pretty as some one I know."
"Set a thief to catch a thief!" smiled Ione, willing for the time being to let herself be carried out of her own troubles by the gay irresponsibility of her friend.
"Exactly," cried Idalia, unabashed; "but come, you have not told me all. Reveal the dark secret of your crime. Keith Harford kissed your hand, did he? Well — so far good. It is often enough a fair enough opening, and after that I've frequently mated in four moves. But, after all — it is only the gong before dinner — the question is, 'What next?' sez I to myself, sez I."
"Why, then," said Ione calmly, taking no notice at all of this persiflage, "we looked up, and there was Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy standing tragically on the path before us, like Lady Macbeth done up in a red shawl. And that was all!"
"Come now, Ione March," said Idalia, fixing her friend with a hooked index finger, "look me in the eye! Say, 'Hope-I-may-die,' and then tell me that was all she saw! "
"Well," said Ione slowly, as if trying to recall the infinitely remote, "perhaps he was going to - "
"I knew it — I said it," cried Idalia, clapping her hands, "you can always feel it coming miles before it arrives. What a shame! It would have come all right in another moment but for that crazy old woman. And now — why, it mayn't happen for ever so long. O it's too bad! Keith Harford is just the kind to give up easily when he's crossed — sort of shut off steam sudden-like just when his pressure gauge is registering 160! What an old wretch! Talk about the Scarlet Woman! We must have him here, and then when he is reading us poetry — Tennyson and those things — (he reads poetry beautifully, Marcus says), I’ll pretend that I hear Marcus calling me, and I’ll slip out! See! I've got a lovely collection in the blue and gold series — 'Gems of Love ' it is called. We'll give him that — not a miss-fire from cover to cover — all prizes and no blanks, roses and raptures right through from beginning to end!"
Ione laughed happily. There seemed so few things to laugh about these days that the sound of her own mirth quite startled her.
"Your methods are excellent but crude, Idalia dear," she said; "you might just as well say to Mr. Harford when he comes, as I have heard my father tell of an old negro mammy, at a house where he visited when he was young, 'Go on courtin', honeys! — Doan’ ye mind ole Sally! Ole Sally's bin dar her own self! Shu-ah!'"
Then Ione went out, and Idalia sped off to find her husband. But, strange to relate, Marcus did not laugh.
"You don't know the mater" he said, dolefully shaking his head. "She will stick at nothing once she gets started. I'm deuced sorry we ever thought of bringing Ione here!"
And for once in his life Marcus Hardy looked grave for five minutes at a time.
THE NINTH WAVE
That night Keith dined alone with his hostess — as had indeed been that lady's intention from the first. Idalia and Marcus were to come up afterwards. Nothing was said about Ione.
"Better let the mater have her fling," commented the dutiful son, as his wife and he were passing through the garden, "it will be all the easier sledding for Harford after. The more mother sees of him just at first, the sooner she'll let up on him."
Ione did not accompany Marcus and Idalia. For that night she was infinitely weary and, as it seemed to herself, she had done with life. Instead she stretched herself upon one of the little low beds, like hospital cots, which garnished the ascetic guest chambers of the Garden-House. These had indeed been originally furnished with an eye to the needs of certain Gentile and unregenerate bachelor friends of Marcus, rather than for the guests to whom at present they gave domicile and harbourage.
It was therefore well over in the next afternoon before it was the hap of Keith Harford to meet Ione. They found each other in a still and enclosed garden fastness, made apparently for lovers' converse and security. Even at this late season it was fragrant with blossom, and sonorous with the song of birds welcoming a fallacious spring in the short and fitful sunshine of an English Indian summer.
The girl had suddenly come upon her lover as she loitered listlessly round a curve of the green privet wall. Whereupon Keith had run to her, eager and impulsive as a boy.
“Ione—Miss March,” he cried, “forgive me for calling you that. But when a man owes his life to a friend, he does not stand upon ceremony with him. Tell me of yourself. Do you know you are looking quite pale and ill? I fear what you suffered for me has proved too much for you."
He seized her hand and held it firmly in both of his, gazing meantime into her face as a condemned man might upon that of an angel of mercy suddenly alighted before him with a message of love and hope from another world.
"Thank you," said Ione brightly, removing her hand and putting it for safety into the side pocket of her housewife's morning apron (for she had been helping Caleb with his cookery). "But really I am quite well, and enjoying myself hugely."
"Why then are you so pale — so thin? The wind on these cliffs will blow you away if you venture up there!"
"Oh, as to that," she answered," I always was a rake. There's no putting good flesh on ill bones, as my father used to say. But you — I think the fine sea air straight from France must be doing you good already! Can't you almost smell the patois in it, the blue houses, the white tilted carriers' carts (how I love them!), the maid-servants with their wide goffered caps? — Oh, there is no country in the world like France - "
"And yet you have chosen England!"
"To make my living in—yes, certainly," said Ione wistfully, "but not to live in — not to holiday-make in. Fancy the delight of a walking tour in France - "
"A walking tour," said Keith, sighing a sigh of melancholy remembrance. "I don't feel as if ever I could walk again. I am exactly like the gentleman of your ancient national 'chestnut' who was ‘born tired’!"
"Exactly," cried Ione, glad to see his spirits brightening; "yet I can fancy a walking tour with you as guide — "
"Can you?" ejaculated Keith, with his heart beating rarely and a new light shining in his eyes.
"Why, yes," said Ione, stoutly declining to be drawn into frivolous side issues; "I can fancy you as the leader of a walking party — elsewhere, of course, than among your beloved Alps. You would have all the knapsacks beautifully arranged. We arrive at the station. We disembark on the platform. But, alas, there, ranged at the 'Sortie' are carriages, voitures, victorias, what you will!
"'Let us get in,' you say; 'Providence has manifestly sent us these as the reward of merit. We shall begin our walking-tour when the horses give out.' There — is not that your idea of a walking tour? It is pretty much mine!"
"At present I fear it is something like it. But you — you look ill and tired. Ione, I know what wonderful things you did for a man sick unto death. Oh, if I were truly a man and not a broken-down weakling, I might thank you. As it is — as it is, I can only kiss your hand."
And before she could resist, even if she had wished, gently and very respectfully (much too respectfully) Keith raised Ione's hand to his lips.
Now there is no woman who desires an overplus of deference in the man she loves. He may reverence, in the antique phrase, the very ground she treads on. He may kiss (though the good custom has become obsolete with the evanescence of the ‘princess robe,’ that most becoming of all dresses for a woman with a figure) the hem of her garment. But these are the early stages. When the tide rises to flood and like an overflowing reservoir suddenly let loose, his love takes its way, she desires no deference or holding back.
Rather, like a besieged city, she chooses to be taken by storm and to make an end amidst the fierce delight of battle, not to be sapped by mine and countermine or dominated by slow circumvallation. And with all her yearning for work and freedom Ione was a woman. Keith, on the other hand, was a man adept in many things, but ignorant of the very A B C of love. He had explored the mysteries of pure reason. But the heart of a woman, in which (thank God) is almost always purity but very rarely reason, remained shut to him. He had not even approached its intimate fastnesses. He had not explored its hidden ways. So now, instead of clasping Ione in his arms and taking vehement possession of her love for time and eternity, discreetly and coldly he kissed her hand.
Ione stood a moment irresolute, leaving the hand in his keeping. Then with a certain quick returning self-possession as cold and firm as his own, she drew it in to her again, and looked at the man for whom almost she had laid down her life.
"Not yet," she thought, "is it fitting that he should know all."
Yet better than most women she could appraise exactly the delicate reserve of his withdrawal. She knew that Keith's scrupulous honour was a finer and rarer thing than a stronger man's most insistent passion. But she was a woman like others, and in her heart of hearts she desired to be wooed, not by formal observance or delicate restraint, but impetuously, directly, almost as the soldier-citizens of Rome wooed their Sabine brides. This man with his reverence, his high ideals as to what a man ought to possess before asking a woman to share his lot, appealed strongly to her. But chiefly with pity for the blindness that could not see the equal-glowing love which had grown up in her heart — and with something of contempt too for the weakness which could not take advantage of the yielding in her eyes.
Ione knew that Keith Harford's heart was all hers. What else indeed (save the secret of her own) had she learned during those weariful head-tossing nights when she had sat and watched him? What else had she listened to in the days when the gates of life were drawn back and all the cords of a man were unloosed. She smiled as she looked into Keith's eyes. They seemed to worship her as a divinity set far off. She wondered, with that irritant perversity of mind which comes to women in desperate situations, what would happen if she were to say "Keith — Keith Harford, listen. I, Ione March, love you. I have loved you ever since the first day I saw you!"
But she resisted the temptation to say these words aloud and walked on. Keith followed at her side, slowly growing conscious of the fact that it was now her mood not to be spoken to. Yet he had a sense that something tremendous was about to happen.
Suddenly, as if she had been alone, she began to hum very low the words of the song he had sung on his bed of delirium.
"John Anderson, my jo, John,
When we were first acquent" --
At the first bar Keith Harford stopped and looked at her. The words came to his ear with a strange indeterminate familiarity, bringing with them also the perfume of a woman's most intimate presence. Where had he heard them before, he asked himself? Why should they lie so close to his heart?
“Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonny brow was brent."
Then a belated breaker from the great sea of unconsciousness, the ninth wave of the tide of love swept over him. In a moment he had taken Ione's hand and drawn her to him. Words of ferventest devotion rose unbidden to his lips. In a moment more he would have pleaded his love face to face unashamed and unafraid. But there, at a turning of the path within a few feet of them, stood Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy with a countenance red as any peony. All her eighteen stone of ascetic adipose quivered with indignation like a shaken jelly. At first she could not speak for agitation. Growing slowly almost purple with indignation, she stood brow-beating the two culprits on the path before her. Keith's arm dropped disgustedly from Ione's waist. The effect of the interruption upon the girl was characteristically different. A flush of irritation, mingled with an irresistible smile at the humour of the situation, rose and flushed Ione's cheek and brow. Her lips curled, and in another moment she would have laughed outright.
But Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy turned slowly away with a stamp of her foot, muttering explosively certain words which sounded like "Toad! Snake! Viper! Traitor!" Then she marched majestically out of the garden, and locked the private door behind her.
THE LITTLE BIRD
Two days later Keith Harford arrived. Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy adjusted the red shawl once more, securing it fore, aft, and centre with safety pins capable of holding a second-class cruiser. Then she set a wonderful bird-of-paradise hat rakishly over one eye, ordered her own private team of piebald ponies, and finally drove down to the station to meet her favourite guest.
Marcus smiled a quiet smile as he watched her depart.
"The mater thinks no end of poor old Keith," he confided to his wife. "I am afraid though, he is in for a shocking bad time. But I expect he knows!"
Usually the lady of the house paid no attention to the exits and entrances of her visitors, contenting herself with summoning them to her chamber to be interviewed whenever she desired their presence. Many of those who most regularly attended the séances, were lodged in a rambling unattached barracks built in the early days of the water-cure, and now made self-sustaining by an impost of two guineas a week levied upon those adepts who could afford it — and upon neophytes whether they could afford it or not.
The vast stone and iron alleys of the castle itself were honeycombed with bedrooms like a rabbit warren, but the servants attended to none of the guests, excepting a few who dwelt in Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy's own private wing, and were under her immediate protection. The rest shifted for themselves in the intervals between the three regulation meals in hall, of which all partook in common.
At these the lady of the house ate little, claiming ascetic privileges, and (apart even from the society of her intimates) making her truly sustaining meals in the privacy of her own chamber.
Marcus and his guests continued to occupy their fortress in the garden wing, and enjoyed there a delightful combination of runaway match and picnic, which was particularly agreeable to the feelings of the newly-married pair.
"I never thought a Home for Cranks could be so interesting," said Idalia. "Do you know, Ione, I actually saw a man to-day who looked as if his clothes had been made for himself, and a woman who seemed to have got into her gown right side first."
It was a shy, pale, shattered Keith Harford who stood on the Rayleigh station platform that night and looked out eagerly for his friend Marcus. He turned to give some directions concerning his luggage, and when he faced about again he found himself almost smothered in the portly eighteen-stone embrace of Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy.
"Mr. Harford, Marcus is at home. But it is I who am the little bird to welcome you. I could not rest till I had told you the first news of the dear place, and of us all!" cried the widow romantically as she shook his thin hand. "But bless my life, dear, de-e-ar friend, how pale you look! Marcus told me that you had been ill, but had the little bird known how ill you really were — well — I will not confess, but perhaps — perhaps she would have flown to you. No matter, it is all over now. The breezes of the Channel, and the manifestations of the healing POWER will soon restore you again. For now the little bird can watch over and cherish you all by itself!"
Keith, upon whose faculties the journey and the weakness had acted disastrously, could not achieve anything more sentimental in reply to this, than a spasmodic and semi-articulate ejaculation that he must go and look after his luggage.
"Oh, the servants will assuredly have attended to that already!" said Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, promptly checkmating this move. "But if, like a naughty, unkind, fidgetty man, you are set on going—why, the little bird will come too!"
At this point she gave a skip intended to represent the charming innocence of her birdlike nature but which was more suggestive of a sportive circus elephant privately practising on tubs, or of a haycock which late in life had taken to step-dancing.
It was as his companion had predicted. Keith's shabby old travelling bags, rescued by Ione from the tender mercies of Mrs. Horehound, were already being driven away in the luggage cart towards the vast bulk of the Abbey, which rose against the sky like a veritable St. Michael's Mount, its lighted windows in serried array, tier above shining tier.
The lady life-renter of Rayleigh and the financial mainspring of all these mysteries, conveyed Keith to the carriage by means of a tender compelling pressure upon his arm. The sleek piebalds stood twitching their long tails at the white-painted gates. The lamps were lighted, and shed a soft radiance forward upon shining harness and well-groomed horseflesh. A trim-buttoned tiger held the door, while Caleb himself sat immovable on the low box looking his woodenest into the darkness.
“Now confess,” whispered Martyria Evicta, archly, "wasn't this a sweet surprise to you? You thought it would be Marcus or someone else — instead of me!"
She cooed the last words like a turtle-dove coquetting with its mate, and bent rapturously over so that she might look into Keith's eyes. By this time they had started, and already the carriage was passing swiftly and evenly over fine roads of hard sand upwards to the Abbey. The lamps shone on the swinging gait of the ponies, whose sides flashed out and in alternately white and tan as the lights from the burnished reflectors and the shadows of the trees fell upon them. Invincibly fixed in his place, as if stanchioned to the seat with iron rods, sat Caleb the sphinx, and beside him Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy's tiger folded his arms inscrutably like one of the junior divinities upon Olympus, or, perhaps, (more exactly) a party-leader at question time.
Presently the widow laid a plump soft hand on the back of Keith's buckskin glove, with an enticing pressure which made the favoured swain wince as if he had accidentally trodden upon a toad in the heather.
"Is Marcus quite well?" he said lamely, to break the silence. Then he laughed to himself. The question reminded him of the homecomings of boyhood in vacation time. For when he met his father at the station, he could never think of anything to say all the way home, except "Is mother quite well?" "I have been quite well." "Is Charlie quite well?" "Thomson Major is quite well." "Is Mary the cook quite well?" "Is old Snoggins still quite well?"
"Do not trouble about Marcus," replied the widow, smiling, "he will answer for himself, all in good time. But tell me about your illness. How came you to be so poorly, and never to write and tell me? You know that there is nothing I would not have done for you. I would have brought you here at once, and if you had been too weak to come, I should have brought the POWER to you, and nursed you myself."
Her hand was stroking the back of his glove undisguisedly now, and making him as jumpy and nervous as if a steam-roller had been playing with it as a cat plays with a mouse.
"Miss March is with you, is she not?" he ventured at last. For his heart cried out, shy and reticent lover though he was, for news of the Beloved.
"Miss March," said the lady, evidently puzzled, but with a colder strain apparent in her voice, "I don't know Miss March. Is she a patient at the Abbey? There are scores I do not know even by name or sight. But Mrs. Howard-Hodge will doubtless be able to inform you."
"She is the young lady who came with Marcus and his wife," explained Keith, with a certain indignation that any one should profess ignorance of a girl so remarkable as Ione March.
"Oh, the tall pale-faced companion!" cried Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy. "Yes, I remember now — I believe I did see her. She looks rather like a lamp-post rigged out in an umbrella cover, doesn't she? Poor thing! Mrs. Howard-Hodge tells me she is not long for this world. Her position must be a very trying one. It is so hard to be dependent on the charity of others. She was at the same school as my daughter-in-law, I think — who is, you know, the daughter of the famous John Cyrus Judd, the American millionaire. It is very good of Mrs. Marcus Hardy to countenance her. For she does look dreadfully like a monitor, or a charity scholar, or something of that kind."
"I assure you. Miss March is the daughter of one of the best - " Keith began, indignantly, and then paused. He felt that he had no right to inform his hostess of facts which Ione might wish to keep concealed, and of which, at all events Marcus knew quite as much as he.
"Come, Keith," murmured the widow, "do not let us talk of Miss March or any one else! Tell me all about yourself! That is the only subject of real interest between us."
The time was short and the lady was anxious to bring the conversation back to legitimate lines.
"Oh, it was nothing much," said Keith. "I have had a serious illness, but I have been well looked after."
"Ah," said Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, "the usual doctors I suppose — mere ignorant butchers. And such nasty flirting nurses as they have in common hospitals — not women of Grace and Power!"
"Well," smiled Keith, "my doctor was an M.D. of Edinburgh, with three stars after his name in the calendar — before he was twenty-eight. And as to nurses - "
"All the worse — the more wedded to their despicable superstition," interrupted the widow decidedly. "In the coming manifestation of the True POWER, all surgical instruments of every kind will be banished from the land under the pain of death. Nothing but prayer and the application of God's bountiful provision of cold water, mustard plasters, and anointing oil on suitable linen dressings, will be permitted in all cases. An M.D. of Edinburgh, dear Mr. Harford, will no more be tolerated than a mad dog which runs the streets inoculating rich and poor alike with the froth of his own rabies!"
The widow was quoting now from one of the addresses of Mrs. Arminell Howard-Hodge upon the physical manifestations of the POWER.
"At all events I had the best of nursing!" said Harford. For alas! Jane Allen had not been quite as discreet as Ione might have wished. And as he glanced up at the gloomy embrasures of the battlements of the Abbey, and then at the lighted windows ranged below, he wondered behind which flake of light was the dear and shapely head of the girl who had saved his life. Ah, if only he were well and a success in life — instead of a wreck and a failure! But what had he to offer to such a girl!
With an easy movement of C springs and rubbered tires, the carriage rolled smoothly into the courtyard, and round under the arches of iron and glass, till it stopped at Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy's private entrance to her own wing of the Abbey of New Religions.
The well-buttoned wasp-waisted tiger was at the door obsequiously touching his scalloped hat. Mrs. Hardy descended with the tread of a festive buffalo.
"You shall have all the privileges of illness," she said, smiling, "the little bird will be your nurse — and guardian! And a greater power — a dearer and a sweeter, I might say, than that of any M.D. of Edinburgh — will have the felicity of sustaining your wearied steps."
And she cast her eyes upward as if she had been singing one of the especial hymns of the new cult. For Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy had had a choir of orphan girls trained, who sang at all the fairs and harvest festivals for miles round — and who were expected to pay the cost of their keep by the fees and gratuities they received. Each of these choristers was conspicuously placarded on the back with her name as follows:--
received on the
"Come to my own rooms, dear Mr. Harford," said the enamoured widow, "a little confection awaits us there, just a trifle of beef-tea, and, ah — sparkling wine — nothing more. The latter is not generally partaken of in this establishment, because — ahem — I hold (as did my dear father before me) somewhat strict views on the subject. But in cases of necessity like yours and mine, dear Keith — I mean Mr. Harford — some allowance must surely be made."
"Certainly, certainly! I — I should like to see Marcus," Keith began, with a nervous dread of any further tête-à-tête manifestations of interest.
"Marcus is very well. Your friendly anxiety does you credit!" replied the widow, patting his arm affectionately, "but in the meantime you and I are much better company by ourselves. Who came and met you at the station — Marcus or I? Who brings you to our home (she dwelt lovingly upon the pronoun), Marcus or I? Which — ahem — respects you most, Marcus or I?"
"You are very kind," stammered the unfortunate Keith, as they found themselves in the privacy of the boudoir of Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, hung with white and gold, cosy and radiant with light and the glitter of silver ranged on the board. "You are too kind, Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy!”
"Ah," yet more softly cooed the widow leaning her head towards her victim, "call me by a dearer, a sweeter name! Call the little bird by her own pet name — say 'Tiny.' Call me 'Tiny ' — dear Keith!'
And with a sigh of amorous content eighteen stone of devotion (and ‘Tiny’) laid its head upon Keith Harford's shoulder.
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.
THE LADY OF THE RED SHAWL
The hum of humanity now waxed louder and nearer. The scattered lights grew more concentrated, the air became more stifling, and they entered a gallery, long-vistaed like those of a museum. Here many people were waiting about, some in evening dress, others in the ordinary tweeds of unconventional life, one or two in decent black which suggested the respectable Scot in Sunday attire. The majority of these were strolling about like day-trippers on a pier, while a few looked listlessly over a kind of balcony, as from the boxes of a theatre one may look down on a disturbance in the pit. Not a soul took the slightest notice of the travellers or appeared to recognise in the young man the future owner of this strange house.
Marcus went forward to where there was a break in the ranks and looked over the iron rail. Then, after a glance, he beckoned the girls forward.
"Now please just pinch yourselves to make sure that you are alive, and then look!" he said.
Ione came to the balustrade and did as she was bidden. Directly beneath her, where the pit of a theatre would be, there appeared a dusky chapel enveloped in a blue haze of incense smoke, and scantily illuminated by lamps let down from the ceiling, which glimmered, mere points of twinkling fire, here and there in the gloom. The chapel-like ground-floor was shaped like the deck of a ship. The back part of it was filled with pews of the most ordinary design, wherein many people sat crowded together.
The upper end, corresponding pretty closely to the choir of an ordinary church, was dotted all round with little points of light at about mid-way its height, making a complete circle of flame which cast a subdued straw-coloured radiance upon semi-prostrate forms and deep blue hangings.
The figures appeared to be kneeling, and were arranged in a semi-circle as at a communion rail, while two others, clad in priestly robes of spotless white, went to and fro as if administering a rite. Ione fairly gasped, and began to fear, either that her mind must be giving way, or that she had unwittingly set foot in a mad-house. Then her eyes, growing accustomed to the gloom, distinguished two great chairs enthroned on either side of the choir, on which (and directly opposite to each other) sat an elderly lady and gentleman. The lady wore a low-necked evening gown, and held a vinaigrette in one hand, while with the other she continually rearranged a huge red shawl about her head and shoulders, which as persistently managed to slip down again as soon as she had got it to her mind.
Occasionally, when the white-robed figures came near in the performance of the function, this lady nodded and smiled to them in a friendly and encouraging way like a past master familiar with all mysteries. The other throne was occupied by a fine-looking old man in full evening dress, who sat dangling one foot over the other knee, a glimpse of red flowered stocking showing coquettishly on his shrunk shank, and his ten fingers triangled in front of him, precisely in the attitude most affected by the respectable old gentlemen who come down to the House of Peers to support Her Majesty's Government every time the constitution is in danger.
"That's the mater and my uncle the Admiral on the judge's stand down there," whispered Marcus, irreverently; "but I can't make out what these Johnnies in the centre are up to — oiling up, or anointing, or something, it seems to me!"
As he spoke one of the kneeling figures at the rail, immediately on having some liquid dropped on the parting of her hair ("exactly like sweetening a bicycle bearing," said Marcus) leaped up and shouted, "Thank the Lord, I'm cured."
"Praise the Lord — our sinful sister is healed!" rejoined a chorus of twenty or thirty people from the gloom of the chapel, prompt as an echo.
"Stand up and give praise to the Healer," said a deep, stern voice, which proceeded from the taller of the white officiating figures.
The woman who had been anointed rose and began a chant, strange, high, strident — a howl rather than a song — which rose and fell and diminished, and then again took on volume till many of those who had been languidly perambulating the balcony were attracted to the rail of the balustrade.
"Praise the Lord!" Ione heard one white-bearded man say, "she has got IT. Jane Grace Tomlins is speaking with tongues."
Marcus for the first time grew somewhat uneasy.
"This is quite a new dodge," he murmured — "how that woman howls! It is worse than the kennels on a moonlight night. I should just like to go down and stop the noise with a dog-whip."
Then one by one, leaping up unexpectedly here and there, like the hammers of a disfronted piano when you play without watching the keys, men and women rose from the kneeling circle, crying out that they had found "healing" or "grace." Then they joined the horrible swaying medley of discord till the chorus began to affect all in the chapel, while some even among the promenaders on the gallery fell on their knees and showed hysterical symptoms as the wild barbaric chant rose and swelled beneath them. Tears dropped down bearded faces. Apparent strangers clasped one another round the neck, and the torrent of sound rose and swirled dismayingly among the weird iron arches and gaunt, black, cobwebby network of beams overhead, till the roof itself seemed in danger of being rent off by the explosion of pent-up emotion.
"O Marcus, take me away; I cannot stand this! Do you hear? Why did you bring me to such a horrible place?" cried Idalia, suddenly clutching her husband by the arm, "I know I shall scream the next moment, or jump over the edge of the gallery."
Marcus Hardy looked very grim, and took his wife firmly by the wrist.
"This is a game I knew nothing about — quite a fresh deal since my time. But you shan't see it again, little girl! Just wait a moment to shake hands with the mater for decency's sake, and then I’ll take you to more respectable quarters."
Even as he spoke the turmoil stilled itself as if by magic. Ione, perhaps owing to the feeble state of her health, was thoroughly fascinated, and could not take her eyes off the pair of veiled, white, officiating figures. They had retired into the deep blue gloom, and now stood with hands above their heads, illuminated duskily by the circle of pale willow-leaves of fire which flickered in a semi-circle around them.
"All things are possible to them that believe," intoned the slow, stern voice of the taller officiant; "only have faith and your diseases do not exist. Give praise to the Healer and He will heal you. Those to whom He has given power are but instruments in his hands. Praise them not."
The lights went out as on a set scene. The white figures vanished into the darkness behind, and from the body of the chapel there came up the ordinary sounds of an audience dispersing.
"Come on," said Marcus hastily, "let us go and trap the mater before she goes to bed, or else we won't see her till goodness knows when."
And with his wife still clinging distressfully to his arm, and Ione more impressed than she cared to admit even to herself, Marcus Hardy descended a narrow iron winding-stair, which led to a different part of the castle. Ione was growing faint for want of something to eat, while her journey, the drive through the shrewd winterish air, and her strange abrupt entrance upon this place of horrors, mockeries, and incantations had almost deprived her of the powers of thought and speech.
Marcus moved like one who desires to get an unpleasant duty over, and Ione followed him thinking her friend's husband more of a man than ever she had done before.
"Honour thy father and thy mother," she said to herself— "it was never harder to do!"
As the three crossed a dimly-lighted corridor, they saw before them a hall covered with thick Indian matting. The lady and gentleman who had been seated on either side of the choir in the chapel, were walking up and down arm in arm.
"Mother!" said Marcus, going up hastily to the woman of the red shawl.
The lady turned and looked at her son. She was tall, dark, and had been strikingly handsome. Her straight thick eyebrows almost met over her close-set eyes. At this time the lady's weight must have reached eighteen stones. Her nose was prominently hooked, the lower part slightly pendulous, as if her habit of perpetually caressing it with the fingers had given to the point a permanent droop.
"My son!" cried Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, opening her arms, "you are restored to me — you have returned to Grace. Tranter, see that Master Marcus has a mustard footbath in his room! Prodigal, I welcome you! Why did you not send me word, and I would have come out and - "
"Yes, mother, I know," said Marcus; "fallen on my neck and kissed me — with new effects and dresses, also a brand new fatted calf. But the fact is, I'd rather not — on the station platform at least. But, I say, you're looking pretty fit, mater!"
"I have at last found peace, my son," returned the tall dark lady, impressively, "this time, indeed, undoubtedly so. I have had THE SECRET revealed to me. There is no more left to discover. These blessed angels, Mr. and Mrs. Arminell Howard-Hodge, have completely solved the mystery of life. The Millennium itself has begun at Rayleigh Abbey. Yes, indeed; and it is such a privilege! So precious! We have had such a beauu-tiful meeting — so refreshing, was it not. Admiral? It would have greatly benefited your soul, my poor dear unbelieving boy. But who are these two ladies?"
"One of them is my wife, mother!" said Marcus, abruptly. "Idalia, come and kiss your mother!"
It was somewhat of the suddenest. But the blood of Cyrus Judd was capable of anything. Idalia ran forward with a little gesture of self-renunciation, as if, in her husband's interest, she had been about to fight with all the beasts of Ephesus. As she went she sent one glance up at Marcus which said as plain as print, "See what I am ready to do for your sake!"
But Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy fended her off adroitly with one hand.
"Avaunt, woman!" she said haughtily, her eyebrows raised almost to the roots of her hair, "think not to come near me. My son has doubtless been in the far country, and has been spending his substance - ahem - among the usual sort of people!"
"Mother!" said Marcus warningly.
The lady of the eyebrows stopped. Clearly she had her own reasons for being afraid of her son.
"Well," she continued in a milder tone, "remember, if you are really married you have made your bed, and you must lie on it. And if you and this woman are a pair of paupers, don't come whining to me and thinking that I will do anything for you! As you know, my little money is all embarked in the sacred service of the Cause. You won't get a penny beyond your allowance so long as I am alive! So I warn you!"
And she hitched her red shawl over her head, and glowered, like an elderly Fate of a determined frame of mind, down upon the rash couple.
But Marcus, like Pet Marjorie's duck, was more than usual calm. He knew his mother.
"Mater,'' he said, nonchalantly, "I told you that this was my wife. Her maiden name was Idalia Judd, and she is the daughter of Mr. John Cyrus Judd, the great American millionaire."
It was the first time and the last in his life that Marcus used the substantive and attributive adjectives to describe his father-in-law.
Now on this occasion Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy proved herself a woman of quick capacities and a sympathetic heart. No sooner had she heard the distinguished and world-famous (or, according to the point of view, infamous) name, than she flew towards Idalia, who in her turn submitted with a good grace to be enfolded and temporarily lost to sight in that capacious maternal embrace.
“My beloved daughter!" she cried, with the beautiful impulsiveness born of a lifetime of prescribing mustard and water, "I was prepared to love you from the first moment. One glimpse of your sweet face, and nothing more was needed! It was as if it had been revealed. But who may this be? Your sister? So like you; your very image, indeed! I love and welcome her too for your sake! Such an acquisition as you will both be! We shall hold a thanksgiving service at once. Tranter, go and ask Mr. and Mrs. Arminell Howard-Hodge to come to me!"
"This is Miss March, a friend my wife brought with her as a companion! "interposed Marcus, hastily, just in time to save Ione from sharing the fate of Idalia. He saw from Ione's face that in her present frame of mind, she could not stand that infliction.
"Oh, a companion!" ejaculated Martyria Evicta Lucretia, instantly checking her enthusiasm and promptly losing interest.
She turned to Idalia.
"But tell me about yourself, my love! Is your dear, de-e-ar father with you ? Or your charming mother — your mother, I suppose, is living? They might both be of immense use to us in the Cause, if they could only be brought to see the light. I hope you will be instrumental, my dear!"
"Thank you," said Idalia, "my father and mother are both quite well. They are unfortunately not with us."
Then she added to Marcus in a lower tone unheard by Martyria, "But I bet a bright new dollar they're after us!"
Rayleigh Abbey in the county of Hants, was as a city set on a hill, conspicuous near and far, taking the eye of the wayfarer from sea and plain, by valley and down. Its massive towers apparently betokened reverend age. Its gateways of rough hewn stone were fitted to withstand the battering elements of a thousand years. A square Norman keep rose in the centre, indented dark and solemn against the sky, a cliff-like wall of stone and lime like those of Loches or Threave. Battlements and towers cinctured it about, vast in their proportions, built apparently of overawing and pretentious masonry. Thus shone Rayleigh Abbey from a distance.
A nearer view, however, showed all this magnificence to be but the "insubstantial pageant of a dream."
The massive walls were relatively no thicker than pasteboard, the flanking towers mere shells, the grand square of the lofty keep was iron-framed with windows uncompromising as those of a factory. While from an interior view the great castle, cynosure of travellers' eyes and a landmark from afar, became a mere "Crystal Palace" set-piece, involving only so many thousand square feet of frontage and a wilderness of ungainly props and struts behind. Its future owner, Marcus Hardy, for once happily inspired with words, had named it Castle Gimcrack. In the meantime, it was life-rented by his mother, Mrs. Forsaker-Hardy, and Marcus and his wife were received only as guests, little more favoured indeed than countless others who flocked thither like unclean birds from the four quarters of heaven.
Rayleigh Abbey had been designed, founded, and completed— so far at least as so gaunt a jest in iron and stone can ever be said to be completed — by one Theophrastus Wiseman Hardy, the grandfather of Marcus, and the inventor of the Body-and-Soul Water-and-Mustard-Plaster Mind Cure, applicable to all diseases that flesh is heir to.
Theophrastus Hardy had made a fortune in slave-running from the Gold Coast to the Southern States of America early in the century, and, while yet comparatively a young man, had retired upon an ample competence, an uncomfortable conscience — and a new religion. His only son, Aldebaran January Hardy, had sunk into a too early grave under the unjust burdens of his name and of the wife imposed upon him by his father. Soon after assisting at the preliminary horoscope of his only son Marcus, he laid down the double burden, and became indeed but a name, a bust, and an inscription in carven marble on the chapel wall of Rayleigh Abbey. Thus ran his memorial: --
Here does not lie aught that is mortal of
ALDEBARAN JANUARY HARDY,
only son of
THEOPHRASTUS WISEMAN HARDY
and Beloved Co-partner of
MARTYRIA EVICTA LUCRETIA FORSAKER-HARDY
of Rayleigh Abbey, Hants.
His Ashes, being passed through the Fire, were
Scattered over the Wide Sea.
His Soul, recomposed and reinvested,
as Angel or Jelly-fish,
SOMEWHERE AWAITS THE ETERNAL
No one could deny a certain extraordinary eclectic vigour to Theophrastus Wiseman Hardy, the original inventor of the Body-and-Soul Water-and-Mustard-Plaster Mind Cure, nor yet a striking executive capacity to Martyria Evicta Lucretia, his daughter-in-law and successor in that thriving curative establishment. All creeds had gone to the making of the Psychophysical Regenerative Religion, as, alternatively, its founder delighted to call it. Theophrastus, a white-haired, keen-faced, venerable man, mostly attired sailor-wise in a blue coat and a stemmed officer's cap like that of a mate in the mercantile marine, had long been dead; but he lived on nevertheless in various pictures and engravings generously dispersed throughout almost every room of the Abbey. Theophrastus had been a man without culture, lacking even (to begin with) the elements of an ordinary education. Yet afterwards he had read all manner of books at first hand, without any of that scholastic piloting which polarises their meaning to most of us. Then, with the assistance of scissors and paste, he had selected and arranged from each what seemed best suited to his purpose, as ruthlessly as in his time he had taken the finest buck negroes out of the slave pens of Bonny, in spite of the wailing of forsaken wives and the desperately clinging arms of orphaned children.
Theophrastus Hardy possessed a vast library in the square halls of the keep, stored mostly according to subject, and the marks of his scissors were through them all. Here and there pages had been riven clean out. Further on a paragraph had been neatly snipped away. Blue, red, and yellow underscorings ran across the pages, and radiated in all directions to the desecrated margins, like the railway map of a flat country or Signor Schiaparelli's chart of the Martian canals. One of the most characteristic volumes was a copy of the Christian scriptures, Grangerised, "improved," and spiced to the taste of Theophrastus Hardy by additions from the astrology and black-stone scrying of Dr. Dee, and from the word-cunning, wet-bandaging, and primitive leechdom of the Elizabethan herbalists.
It is said that when searching for a catchword to give some unity and coherence to his olla, Theophrastus hesitated long between Christ and Buddha, and only decided upon the Nazarene on account of the rooted ignorance of a public which (in these pre-Theosophist days) declined to distinguish between Buddha and Confucius, and was apt to take it for granted that all such curious names represented different varieties of tea.
But under the new dispensation of Martyria Evicta Lucretia, the elastic system of the founder had suddenly become mawkishly spiritualistic, and now manifested itself chiefly in the Healing of the Hands of Faith, the Anointing with Oil, the Presence and Manifestations of Spirits good and Spirits evil — and, above all, in the necessity for all mankind to conform to the gospel (as it happened to be at the time) according to Martyria Lucretia, decked in the apocalyptic red shawl, and spiced by an extempore prayer sandwiched between each course at dinner.
All this made the English Mecca of the new eclectic religion a strange place for Ione and Keith to build up their bodies in, and "minister to minds diseased."
But at least the air was pure at Rayleigh Abbey. It stood on the coast at a lonely spot overlooking the waters of the English Channel, set high above the crumbling gravel banks of the southern coast line. Opposite, the purple-grey cliffs of the Needles stood up like shadowy ninepins deserted after a stirring game by dead giants. From the misty water, ten miles away, the Isle of Wight heaved its blue shoulders out of the brine. While to the left the long curlew's beak of Hurst Castle promontory pecked perpetually at the tawny breakers of the Solent.
"You don't need to mind the mater" pleaded Marcus; "there’ll be no end of rum people about, but you can always get a quiet smoke behind the stables."
So with this to look forward to, Ione agreed willingly enough to accompany them, especially as Keith Harford, being now convalescent, was soon to follow; and, in the meanwhile, could very well be left to the motherly care of Mrs. Adair and the tart and caustic encouragements of Jane Allen. For Ione had been insensibly drifting into a condition of constant severe headaches, accompanied by strange lassitude, which often ended in vertigo and chronic dizziness. This had begun so subtly that she could not recall any particular time as the beginning of her illness, the more serious developments of which, however, probably dated from the shock of her father's death.
After Keith Harford's return to consciousness, Ione had but seldom gone into his room, leaving the actual nursing to the capable kindly hands of Mrs. Adair. Indeed, she straitly charged both of her friends that they were on no account to divulge her share in Keith Harford's transference to Audley Street; and both, with the natural alacrity of women to guard each other's secrecies, faithfully promised what she asked.
It was in the dusk of a November evening that Ione and Idalia, with Marcus carrying wraps and dressing bags, found themselves at the little wayside station upon whose platform they had been dropped off the Bournborough express, with an immense pile of buildings looming dimly up above them, and crowning the seaward cliff.
To Ione, looking upward from beneath, Rayleigh Abbey seemed to rise into the very skies. Along the south and west the chill yellow of the sunset still lingered, and as they rumbled dully through the bedraggled woods, the Channel wind drove in their faces in gusts which sent the blood stirring sharper through the veins, and whipped the tingling cheeks of the three voyagers as with tangible thongs of bitter air.
They were driven by an immobile ancient coachman, who had indeed saluted with the well-bred passivity of his race when his young master came out of the station, but who afterwards had devoted himself entirely to watching his horses' ears and to the maintenance of his personal self-respect.
Marcus cast his eye knowingly along the horses' legs from the right front.
"Grey's near fore going rather stiff, Caleb?" he said.
"Yessur — I daresay, sir," returned the coachman with a slight cough of apology. "It's that hold Hadmiral, sir! Well, 'tis a wonder as all the grey's legs ain't broke to flinders — 'im ride to meet!"
"Any more up at the house?"
"Lor', Lor' — such a mixed pack they do be, Master Marcus, begging your pardon! There's two o' them broadcloth gypsies — making so bold, as we calls them 'ere mediums — tellin' fortin's an' a-pourin' oil an' a-holding of their hands afore folk's eyes to make 'em better o' what they never was took ill o'! Just the same old gammon done in a new way, interferin' wi' proper doctors and decent droogists wi' licenses from the Queen — God bless 'er! And some there is, that thinks no more o' theirselves than to pertend they's got a summat the matter wi' their insides, and be took into chapel to get anointed all over wi' a slobber o' hoil. And then they sucks up to the Hadmiral and let's on as how they have got the Healing Blessing! Hup there, will 'ee!"
All this Caleb the coachman delivered with his eyes and his whip directed between his horses' heads, and without a muscle of his face altering or (apparently) his lips moving. He did not so much seem to answer Marcus as to confide the matter in hand to his horses, which all the while stood perfectly well drilled and gently restive, with ears alternately laid back to ascertain Caleb's intentions and set forward to be ready for the wild-whooping, incomprehensible stallions which went ramping past upon the iron way.
"We’ll have a fine time, Ide; Bedlam ain't in it," Marcus said to his wife as he swung after them into the front seat of the open victoria, and the horses settled into their long, clean, eight-mile-an-hour gait. "There's just packs and packs of lunatics up there. You’ll have to learn to smoke, Ide. The back of the stable's the only place I know of."
"Oh, shoot!" cried his wife, turning up her nose, "I guess, if it comes to that, I can smoke just as well as the next man. Why, when I was — I mean, there was once a handsome young Spaniard on board the Aurania who made the most lovely cigarettes - "
Ione turned upon her quickly with inflated nostril.
"And you don't mean to say, Idalia, that the Spaniard was another?"
"No, I don't — not any more than usual, that is," answered Mrs. Marcus Hardy calmly. "I only mean that he taught Astoria to smoke, and — well, I got not to mind it so very much!"
"I see," said Ione, seeing very clearly indeed, for with marriage had come discretion, and the pith of Idalia's remarks lay not so much in what she said as in what she omitted.
Caleb, sitting square and immovable aloft as one of the towers of the Abbey itself, at this moment drove through a great gate across an open space within high bounding walls, and finally stayed the horses within a covered courtyard exactly like a railway terminus with the rails left out.
Glimpses of brilliantly lighted staircases were seen on either hand, but no monk of orders grey or brown came forth to bid welcome to the arriving guests at this curious Abbey.
"So long, Caleb!" cried Marcus; "take our traps round. We’ll be at the garden house for dinner in an hour, and then I’ll get you to coach me as to the particular breed of vampire we are hatching now. You are the only soul in this mad place who has got his head screwed on straight. Lord, won't I just make a clearance here if ever - Ah!"
And Marcus ground his teeth as he looked about him at the ghastly, glass-roofed cave of the winds which served for an entrance hall.
"Well, come on, girls," he cried, affecting a more cheerful tone. "Let's find the mater and get it over!" he said. "There's all the marks of a big carnival on to-night. We're in luck, Idalia. On the first night of our coming to Bedlam, to drop in for a boss A1 Tarantella show of bounding idiots!"
The journey had somehow given Ione little singing pains in her head, and now the feeling that all this huge bulk about her could be no more than a hollow painted masque came over her. There was a curious smell on the staircase and through all the lower corridors which she could not account for — an odour apparently compounded of stale wet straw and paraffin oil. Marcus explained it in one word, which, however, failed to bring any satisfaction to the girls, who after that walked on tiptoe, lifting contumelious skirts.
"Cockroaches! Millions on 'em!" he said unctuously. "Wait till night, though; then they come out in earnest to guard the palace from the enemy. Napoleon himself dare not charge over their prostrate bodies."
Idalia gripped her husband's arm.
"Marcus," she cried in a horrified tone, "I shan't sleep a wink in this place. You must take me away this very instant! I’ll have hysterics on the spot — I feel them coming on — if I so much as catch a sight of one of the horrid beasts."
"They don't come upstairs, Idalia," said Marcus, soothingly; "and in a day or two you won't mind the smell or even think of it, except as the attar of all true Body-and-Soul Water-and-Mustard-Plaster religionaries."
After this explanation Idalia and Ione lifted their skirts yet a little higher, and walked more gingerly and with still more delicate particularity. At the top of the wide iron stairs they came upon a long array of lights in shaded lamps. They heard also the distant sound of voices, but no human beings appeared either to stay or welcome them. They seemed, however, to leave the musty underground smell of wet straw and paraffin altogether beneath them as soon as they reached this upper floor.
"The recreation hall is to the right, the chapel to the left," said Marcus. "I guess, if it's a big 'do,' it will be held in the chapel. Let's draw that cover first."
The walls of the passage were covered with a curious kind of decoration. Patches of paper faintly yellow occupied the centre of the panels. Ione looked narrowly at one. It seemed to be an ordinary print covered with some kind of varnish, and the whole decorated with garish colours, like a child's first attempt at painting.
"That's English history," said Marcus, with the air of a showman. "We are somewhere about the Wars of the Roses here, I think. My grandfather used to stick up pictures like that out of histories issued in sixpenny numbers. The worse the pictures were, the better they pleased him. He used to work at colouring them himself on wet days, and say that the Spirit revealed to him exactly what the people were like. For instance, Warwick the Kingmaker was always dressed in green with a red nose, and Queen Elizabeth habitually came out all over different coloured spots, like those you see when you look too long at the sun. As for Adam and Eve, you should look in the dining-room behind the sofa - "
"Marcus!" cried Idalia, warningly.
The next morning Ione and Jane Allen were again at the door of the dirty house in Tarvit Street. Ione had wished to go first to Mrs. Vincent Harford in order to enlist her aid. But she had not got half through the account of her interview with that lady when Jane Allen shut authoritatively down on that project.
"I wouldn't trust a pet white rat to a toad like that!" was the unscientific but clear and unmistakable formula in which she expressed her dislike of the selfishness of Mrs. Vincent Harford. So Ione pressed the matter no more.
Jane began the day by going to the manager of the Gopher & Arlington Company, who was opening his day's mail in the little mahogany-panelled office in King William Street. She demanded a whole holiday, which the manager willingly accorded to one of his best and most regular workers. Down a long vista of typewriting tables he saw the slim figure of Ione, who was standing looking at an instruction book. With a sudden increase of interest he said to Jane Allen, "Is that your friend Miss March, who left us some time ago? I heard that her father was dead. I wonder if she wouldn't like to come back to us now."
Jane, however, shook her head. She felt that it was not the time to make such a proposition to Ione, and so presently the two girls found themselves stemming the strong morning tide of humanity running eastward and cityward along Fleet Street.
Having arrived at number 9, Tarvit Street, W. C., Ione rang the bell. This produced no effect whatsoever, so with a quick and sure hand she knocked loudly upon the rusty unblacked knocker, so that the echo came back at once from roof and basement.
"How is Mr. Harford to-day?" asked Ione with a quiet aplomb, which was made more stern and determined by the presence of Jane Allen, in whom she felt there resided an invaluable reserve of power and language in case of a first repulse.
It was the same grimy unwashed serving-maid who answered the door.
"Muster Harford, mum? Why, 'e ain't no better."
"Can we see him?"
The serving-maid glanced over her shoulder.
"I think as 'ow I could manage to slip 'e oop when missus goes for the neck of mutton."
She leaned over towards the girls with a grimly confidential look upon her face.
"She's that 'orrid mean — she goes out every day to buy the very cheapest stuff to feed 'em on. She’ll be gone in ten minutes, and she’ll stop a whole hour, nosin' round and cheapenin'. I’ll sneak you up then, mum, an' no one never the wiser."
She nodded to Ione with a knowing twinkle in her eyes. Evidently she had conceived a low opinion of Jane Allen on the spot, for she added, pointing to Ione's companion, "'Er can stop below along o' me!"
But Ione had imbibed a new spirit, which forbade her to be dependent upon the good offices of a lodging-house Abigail.
"Thank you," she said; "you are very kind, and I shall not forget it. But I would like to see Mr. Harford now."
"Bless you, miss," said the girl, "I daren't! 'E goes on just hawful—'E's fairly off is chump — an' 'as bin for three days. And missus, she won't let 'im go because she 'as collared 'is trunk, an' - No, ma'am, I ham sorry that you can't see Mr. 'Arford to-day. 'E is not receiving no visingtors to-day."
The abrupt change in the manner of the servant girl was produced by the appearance of Mrs. Horehound, the landlady of the Tarvit Street mansion at the head of the stairs, with an expression of such fixed and deadly hatred on her face that Ione, left to herself, would have precipitately retired, but for the strong reserve behind her in the shape of Jane Allen.
"No," grated Mrs. Horehound, from her coign of vantage, "and you can't see Mr. Harford, an' you shan't see Mr. Harford. This is a respectable boardin' house for young gentlemen, and I can't be admittin' young women promiscuous-like off the street, as it were."
"But I must see Mr. Harford," said Ione firmly; "I hear he is very ill. He may need to be removed to a hospital."
"He will not be removed till the arrears of his rent is paid in full. Nor yet until a doctor certifies that he is to be moved to a place where he can be better taken care of, than by a humble but respectable person in my sphere in life."
"You have called in a doctor, then?" queried Ione.
"And, pray, what business may that be of yours whether I 'ave or whether I 'aven't? " retorted Mrs. Horehound. "I suppose I am responsible for my own lodgers?"
Then, with her nose in the air, the landlady became exceedingly ironical. "Perhaps, miss, you are the young gentleman's wife or his sister?"
"Neither," returned Ione promptly. "I am only one of his friends."
"His friend — yes — friends often come to see my young men. But I'm not going to be took in by you nor the like of you. I've seen too many o' your sort — minxes!"
Jane Allen stepped to the front.
“We have come to take Mr. Harford away," she said, "and get him into a hospital. Try to stop us at your peril. If he dies you will be taken up for manslaughter, if not murder?"
"Is this another ‘friend’?" sneered the grim-visaged landlady, making a final rally.
"I am what it does not concern you to know. Let us see Mr. Harford, or we will go away and come back with a policeman and the County Council doctor. They’ll see to it that you are prosecuted for having a case of contagious disease in your house without reporting it. You can get two years for that!"
It was an arrow shot at a desperate venture into the air, but the joints of Mrs. Horehound's armour were many and wide.
"I dunno' as 'tis any case of infectious disease," she grumbled, "but perhaps you had better bring a doctor. But mind you, I don't let a thing belonging him pass out of my house till I am paid every penny of my just dues!"
She retreated up the stairs without a word more, and led the way to Keith's room. After the first landing the wax-cloth was worn into holes, and the feet of the girls felt the steps uneven beneath. Up and up they went, turning after turning, and at each the floor grew more uneven and broken, the staircase narrower and meaner. All pretence of wax-cloth ceased at the beginning of the third flight and even the banisters began to show blanks in their serried array.
As they ascended they became conscious of a voice speaking continuously and very fast, while sometimes an ironic laugh, that seemed hardly human, pealed through the house. Again the softest and most moving accents of adoration and entreaty reached their ears, causing Mrs. Horehound to look to either side, to make sure that the doors leading into the lower rooms were tightly closed.
"Ione March — I beg your pardon. Miss March, but you make me forget myself — you know you are so kind to me. You are not going to marry that rascal! I do know him to be a rascal, Marcus. Hold your tongue! You were angry with me in the Court at Grindelwald, Miss March, but you will forgive me now — now — before I die."
There was a pause, and the voice began again when they were almost at the door:
"Marcus, I did not tell you before that I loved that girl; but I do. I loved her from the very first day I ever saw her. With all my heart's heart I loved her. I would die to save her finger from aching. What do you know about it? You've been in love with twenty girls. I never loved but her; yet she will never know it, Marcus. I would not touch her sweet young life with the shadow of my failure. An old-young man and in love — ha, ha! Forty next year, and the grey already running through the black! Well, both will be laid away for repairs among the worms, deep under the roots of the churchyard grass!"
At this point a feeble elricht voice burst into song:
“’John Anderson my jo, John,
When we were first acquent,
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonny brow was brent;
But noo your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snaw,
But blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson my jo."
''Ha! ha! ha! ha!"
A strange cackling laugh, like that of a parrot, rang out as the door was opened.
And there before them, on a dingy London bed, under a common coverlet, lay Keith Harford, his eyes open and brilliant with fever, turning his head slowly from side to side with the wearying iteration of a chained wild animal.
He had been staring fixedly at the ceiling, but he paused a moment and looked fixedly at the incomers.
"Is that you, Mrs. Horehound? No, Bloodhound, I mean — sired by Vulture out of Horseleech! Ha, ha! Good! The top of the morning to you, Mrs. Bloodhound! Did you happen to see my Sylvia pass this way? If you did, I hope you told her to meet me at the churchyard gate."
Then pausing, he sang, still in that dreadful voice:
“’Great King Pandion, he is dead;
All his friends are lapt in lead!’”
Ione bent down and laid her cool ungloved hands upon the pale and burning brow.
"Keith!" she said softly, with her face immediately above his.
He turned upon her eyes that were vacant of all sight. They seemed to look through and beyond and behind her.
"Hush!" he said impressively, raising his hand and pointing upward; "they told me she was dead. But they lied. I knew she would cheat them. She comes to see me when they are all gone. I heard her voice just now. Once she laughed, softly and sweetly. But I wish she would not play bo-peep with Mr. Sweel behind the curtains. I think it is a little unkind, when I am going to die so soon. But still — I am glad to see her in such excellent spirits. Young lady! — You with the smut on your nose and the hair in curl-papers — prithee tell me — did you happen to see my Sylvia pass this way?"
And he smiled as he tirelessly reeled off his wandering sentences; yet he spoke the words themselves as clearly as if he had been delivering a lecture in class.
"They took her money, the scoundrels. But I sent it back. Ha, ha! that was good — eh, Marcus? She could never guess how. And I did not want the books anyway, though the man that bought them was a rogue and cheated me damnably. What should a dying man want with books? But they need not have sent me to prison — for all the time I had to live. I am glad, though, it did not get in the papers; so she will never know. A pauper's funeral! Ha, ha! I say, Marcus, I wrote up one years ago, when I was on the Dispatch. It made all the women cry, so they said. But they never paid me for it, all the same. I nearly cried myself when I was writing it. But I can't cry now, when I'm going to have a pauper's funeral myself. Perhaps some luckier chap will write up mine, and get paid for it! Don't let that woman come near me! (vehemently). I don't want to see her. — Well, if I have to, I’ll go through with it. She has a sweet little girl — too good for such a harpy — and after all she was my brother's wife. I must not forget that. By the way, when I get along There, I must look up old Lyall. He used to mend salmon rods rather well!"
Keith's voice altered again. It grew restrained and conversational.
"My dear sister," he said, "I am so glad to see you. I am sorry I have no money besides the quarter's allowance which I have already sent you. I cannot put you into a better house, I have no money even for myself, nor can I beg from my friend Mr. Hardy, who has gone to America — for the present at any rate."
Ione's steady hand was cooling his brow. She had taken her handkerchief and wetted it at a water-bottle, greasy and green from lack of internal cleaning, which stood on the bare round table by the young man's bed.
Presently he looked up again.
"I do not know who you are," he said softly, his eyes were very large and dark in their deadly purple sockets, "but it was good of you to send her away. That woman wearies me, and I have no more money to give her. That other harpy downstairs — but I will not rant like a fool! Of course the woman takes what is her due. And she can't help it if her name is Horehound. With a headpiece like that to support in respectability she ought to have married an honest man named Smith or Jones. Thomson is good name, too, though more uncommon. What o'clock do they wake a fellow up when they are going to hang him — daybreak, isn't it? Well, if they would only put up the gallows somewhere else than just outside the window, I would not care. The strokes of the hammers ring through my head all the time, and I can't get any sleep. I declare I shall write to the Times upon 'The Rights of Englishmen about to be Hanged.' What a capital subject for the silly season!"
And so without a minute's pause Keith wandered on and on and ever on. Ione looked up to Jane Allen, who stood with clasped hands and anxious brow at the foot of the bed.
"Jane," she said, "we must get him out of this, to a place where he can be properly nursed and cared for."
"Not a foot till my just debts is paid in full!" said Mrs. Horehound, determinedly.
"Let me see your account!" said Ione.
"Don't you do anything of the kind, Ione; she can't help you taking him to an hospital."
"I'm going to take him home to Audley Street if the doctor will allow it," said Ione. "Do you fetch him, and I will settle with the woman."
Jane went swiftly and silently downstairs. She knew where there was the office of an insurance doctor close by. She would bring him if he happened to be in.
"I do not practise in the neighbourhood," said Doctor Spencer Bateson, a tall, stout man, of genial aspect, beaming down upon the anxious girl; "it is not etiquette; but if there is any danger or need, I will go. Is the gentleman a friend of yours?"
"He is a friend of a friend of mine," said Jane. "She is with him now. Come this way at once, please!"
While she spoke the doctor had been getting his hat, and slipping a small case of remedies and another of instruments into his pocket.
They returned together to the high grimy room in Tarvit Street. The landlady was standing on the lower step of the stair with a dazed kind of look on her face. She had emerged signally worsted from her financial conflict with Ione. For that practical young woman had insisted upon her displaying the vouchers for all her alleged extra purchases. While by comparison with other weeks for which the account had been settled, the fact was established that for the last fortnight she had charged her lodger three times the real rent of the room. Driven from post to pillar, Mrs. Horehound had at last written a receipt for the amount of her account after full deductions, and this was now safe in Ione's pocket as she sat calmly beside Keith Harford, waiting for Jane's return.
Doctor Spencer Bateson possessed such a majestic carriage and such a commanding and sonorous voice that, from his first entrance, he fairly appalled Mrs. Horehound.
"Where is your patient, madam?" he demanded, as soon as he came within the outer door. "I hope you have him in a clean and airy room, or else I cannot answer for the consequences."
And he sniffed all the way up the stairs in a most discomposing manner.
Arrived in the room in which Keith lay, he made a hasty diagnosis, stood awhile in thought, then tapped with his pencil on his hand.
"The patient is suffering from congestion of the brain, with marked delirious symptoms. The disease is probably the result of worry and mental strain, which has ended in nervous breakdown. He ought to be moved at once to some place where he can have pure air and ample attention."
"We will take him home and nurse him there!" she said.
The doctor fought a good fight for the public hospital, but something in Ione's eyes mastered him. Besides, he could not help noticing the purposeful and decided way in which she moved about the sick room.
"You have had experience," he said quickly, as she shifted Keith's head a little higher on the pillow.
"A little," said Ione quietly. "I was only three months in training, but I have been through a season's cholera in an Italian city."
The doctor said no more.
"I will bring an ambulance waggon at once," he said, "if you will have the patient ready for removal. I will go down with you myself!"
In this way Keith Harford was taken to 33, Audley Street, Battersea, where he was laid in Ione's own room, and tended daily by Doctor Spencer Bateson — who, curiously enough, found that it was wholly convenient to take Battersea on his way from Hampstead to his office in the Strand.
From the first the symptoms pointed to a somewhat prolonged illness. It was not till the fifth day that Keith began to recover his consciousness. Then the quick over-activity of the brain and the constant and wearying pour of words gave way to a sleepy unconsciousness, from which he only waked at intervals to resume his mental wanderings. Sometimes Ione would go out for a turn in the noble park, the southern entrance of which was within a few minutes' walk of Audley Street, and on these rare occasions she seemed to float light-headed in a new chill world of phantoms and unrealities.
One day as she came rapidly round a corner from the direction opposite to that by which she had gone out, she almost stumbled upon a young man. He seemed to be gazing ardently in the direction of No. 33, while the rest of his body was clapped as close to the brick wall as if he had been crawling along its base like some foul, creeping thing. His attitude suggested that he was exceedingly anxious not to disclose his identity. Something familiar about the hock-bottle slope of the neck and narrow shoulders caused Ione to turn quickly round.
She found herself almost face to face with H. Chadford Eaton, late confidential clerk to Mr. Nathaniel Shillabeer.
The youth, finding that he was recognised, suddenly withdrew his head, and pulling out his cigarette-case, he began with an obvious assumption of careless ease to light up, keeping however his eyes persistently averted from Ione's face. She proceeded slowly to the door of number 33. Tom Adair was just going out to meet Jane Allen — as he had got into the habit of doing, ostensibly because in these days of trouble and sick-nursing Jane generally carried home ice and all manner of dainties and medicaments, which could be more cheaply obtained at Billingsgate or Covent Garden than in the suburbs.
"Tom," cried Ione, eagerly, "the fellow who followed us before is at the corner. I wish you would - "
Ere she had finished her sentence Tom Adair was off. He never paused save to thrust his best new "bowler" more firmly down on the back of his head. But Mr. H. Chadford Eaton knew that the district of Battersea would be warm for him, and as soon as Ione passed he had taken to his heels riverwards.
When Tom reached the first corner he was already disappearing at the end of the street. Tom gave the view hallo, and redoubled his exertions. But H. Chadford knew his pursuer, and did not wish to repeat his experiences of the yard gates.
The confidential clerk ran straight for the nearest underground station. He battered up the long approach to the Albert Bridge. He dived into the intricate maze of small streets and courts which lies to the south of King's Road, and finally just as Tom Adair was close upon him, he ran across an open square and plunged unexpectedly down the steep descent of an underground station. A train passed up the platform at the same moment with a growling creak of brakes and a whirl of escaping steam.
Tom almost had his enemy that time, but H. Chadford was through before him. All ticketless, he burst past the guardian of the gates. Tom was about to follow, but the gate porter was not to be caught twice. Slam came the heavy postern in his face. "Too late, sir! Next train in five minutes!"
And before the words were out of his mouth the guardian was at his work of securing doors, and crying in some unknown tongue the name of the station.
H. Chadford passed slowly opposite his pursuer as the train slid groaning and hissing out. As he did so he made that ancient gesture of contempt and defiance whose origin is lost in solar myth, but whose practise to this day arouses passion and excites language of quite different origin.
"Oh, wait —just wait, young man!" gritted the irate Tom Adair between his teeth, as he slowly remounted the stairs — so angry as to be all unconscious that Jane Allen had arrived by the same train which had borne away his triumphant foe. They mounted almost parallel on the stairs. Jane walked a little behind Tom, complacently smiling. She did not speak till they had almost reached the top.
Then she said, "Oh, Tom, I did not think you could be so mean — to let me carry all these heavy parcels up those long stairs!"
Whereupon neither Tom Adair's remorse nor his profuse explanations and apologies availed him anything.
When Ione went into the sick-room one Sunday Keith Harford looked up at her with a new intelligence raying from his eyes.
"Do you know," he said confidentially, "that you very distinctly remind me of some one who did a great deed of kindness for me. Once, long ago, I was condemned to die, and a girl took my punishment and died instead for me."
“She must have loved you!” said Ione softly.
Keith Harford leaned forward. He was so weak that he could not even raise his hand, but the eager boyishness of his face was accentuated by the pallor of a brow from which the Alpine sunburn had quite faded.
"No," he said, "she did not love me — she could not. But it was her fate, and she could not help it. Don't you think it is mean to live on and to let a girl die for you? Would you like to know her name? It was Ione March!"
And as he spoke Ione felt a chill shadow creep over her as if he had indeed spoken the truth, and she was in reality doomed to die instead of Keith Harford.
And she remembered the words of the epistle she had heard that morning in church.
“Yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.”
First serialised in 'Woman at Home' as 'The Woman of Fortune' in 1899.