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20 Complete Works of Richard Marsh A DuelA Hero of RomanceA Master of DeceptionA Second ComingA Woman PerfectedAmusement OnlyConfessions of a Young LadyBetween The Dark and the DaylightFrivolitiesMiss Arnott's MarriageThe BeetleThe Chase of the RubyThe Coward Behind the CurtainThe Crime and the CriminalThe Datchet DiamondsThe Twickenham PeerageThe Woman with One Hand (and) Mr. Ely's EngagementTom Ossington's GhostUnder One FlagViolet Forster's Lover
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The Complete Collection of Richard Marsh
A Hero of Romance
A Master of Deception
A Second Coming
A Woman Perfected
Confessions of a Young Lady
Dark and the Daylight
The Chase of the Ruby
The CowardBehindthe Curtain
The Crime and the Criminal
The Woman with One Hand (and) Mr. Ely's Engagement
Under One Flag
Violet Forster's Lover
METHUEN & CO. 36 ESSEX STREET W.C. LONDON
First published, 1904
THE END OF THE HONEYMOON.
AN OFFER OF MARRIAGE.
WHOM GOD HATH JOINED.
ACONVERSATION WITH THE DOCTOR.
HUSBAND AND WIFE.
ATUG OF WAR.
THE SLIDING PANEL.
THE GIRL AT THE DOOR.
SIGNING THE WILL.
THE ENCOUNTER IN THE WOOD.
IN CUTHBERT GRAHAME'S ROOM.
"THE GORDIAN KNOT".
MARGARET IS PUZZLED.
AN UNEXPECTED VISITOR.
THE IMPENDING SWORD.
OUT OF THE BLUE.
MARGARET SETTLES THE QUESTION.
MARGARET RESOLVES TO FIGHT.
ALARUMS AND EXCURSIONS.
SOLICITOR AND CLIENT.
MR. LAMB IN A COMMUNICATIVE MOOD.
MARGARET PAYS A CALL.
MRS. LAMB IN SEARCH OF ADVICE.
MRS. LAMB RETURNS TO PITMUIR.
AT THE GATE.
AT THE DOOR.
THE END OF THE HONEYMOON
Isabel waited till the rat-tat was repeated a second time, then she went down to the front door. Since Mrs. Macconichie and her husband were both out, and she had the house to herself, there was nothing else for her to do, unless she wished the postman to depart with the letters. As it was, when she appeared at the door, he grumbled at being delayed.
"These Scotchmen are all boors," she told herself, in her bitterness.
She looked at the letter which had been thrust into her hand. It was addressed to "Mr. G. Lamb". The sight of it reopened the fountains of her scorn.
"They might at least have put G. Lamb, Esq. G. Lamb! What a fool I've been!"
Further consideration of the envelope led her to the conclusion that it was the letter they had both been waiting for--the answer to her husband's plea for help. She pressed it between her fingers to learn, if possible by the sense of touch, what the envelope contained.
"I believe there's only a letter--no cheque, nor anything. If there isn't, then we are done."
She hesitated a moment, then tore it open. It contained merely a sheet of common writing-paper, on the front page of which was this brief note:--
"I like the idea of your asking me to help you. You've had all the help you'll ever have from me. The shop won't bear it; business is getting worse. If it weren't, you'd get no more money out of me.
"You'd better get your wife to keep you.
Susan Lamb! That was his mother, the mother of the man she had married. So the truth was out at last. His mother kept a shop; he had been sponging on her for the money he had scattered broadcast. There was neither address nor date upon the letter, but the postmark on the envelope was Islington. Islington! His mother was a small shopkeeper in that haunt of the needy clerk! And she had believed him when he had posed before her as a "swell"--an aristocrat; when he had talked about his "coin" and his "gees". He had jockeyed her into supposing that money was a matter of complete indifference to him; that, as she boasted to her friends and rivals, "he rolled in it". So successfully had he hoodwinked her that she married him within a month of their first meeting--she, Belle Burney, the queen of song and dance! Had thrown up all her engagements to do it, too; and she was beginning to get some engagements which were not to be despised.
At the commencement he had done things in style: had taken her up to Edinburgh, leisurely, in a motor. She had imagined that the motor was his own. At Edinburgh it vanished; he told her to receive some trifling repairs. But she, having already discovered he was a liar, suspected him of having sold it. Later she learned that the machine had only been hired for a fortnight.
Already, at Edinburgh, money began to run short. He did his best to conceal from her the state of the case, but the thing was so obvious that his attempts at concealment were vain. He had lied bravely, protesting that, in some inexplicable way, his remittances had gone wrong; that in the course of a post or two he would be in possession of an indefinitely large sum of money. The posts came and went, but they brought no money. So they drifted hither and thither, each time to humbler quarters. Now, within six weeks of marriage, they were stranded at a remote spot in Forfarshire, within a drive of Carnoustie. Isabel had reason to suspect that, at the time of their marriage, her husband had less than two hundred pounds in the world. He had squandered more than that already; the motor had made a hole in it. The pawnbroker had come to the rescue when the coin was gone. They were penniless; owed for a week's food and lodging; their landlady was already showing signs of anxiety. Now the much-talked-of and long-expected letter had arrived which was to bring the munificent remittance.
It turned out to be half-a-dozen lines from his shopkeeping mother, who declined to advance him a single stiver!
When the young wife realised, or thought she realised, all that the curt epistle meant, she told herself that now indeed the worst had come. She had just had another bitter scene with her husband; had, in fact, driven him out into the night before the tempest of her scorn and opprobrium. The landlady had departed on an errand of her own. Isabel told herself that now, if ever, an opportunity presented itself to cut herself free from the bonds in which she had foolishly allowed herself to be entwined. She went upstairs, put on her hat and jacket, crammed a few of her scanty possessions into a leather handbag, and then--and only then--paused to think.
It was nearly nine o'clock, late for that part of the world. The nearest railway station was at Carnoustie, more than seven miles away. She knew that there was an early train which would take her to Dundee, and thence to London; but, supposing she caught it, how about the fare? The fare to London was nearly two pounds; she had not a shilling. She did not doubt that, once in London, she could live, as she always had lived; but she had to get there first, across five hundred miles of intervening country.
She arrived at a sudden resolution, one, however, which had probably been at the back of her mind from the first. Yesterday, going suddenly into the landlady's own sitting-room, she had taken the old lady unawares. Mrs. Macconichie had what Isabel felt sure were coins--gold coins--in one hand, and in the other the lid of a tobacco jar which stood in a corner of the china cupboard. Although seeming to notice nothing, Mrs. Lamb, struck by the old lady's state of fluster, leaped to the conclusion that that tobacco jar was her cash-box. Now, bag in hand, she came downstairs to learn if her surmise had been correct.
Although she was aware that the sitting-room was empty, she was conscious of an odd disinclination to enter, dallying for some seconds with the handle in her hand. Once in, she lost no time in ascertaining what she wished to learn, meeting, however, with an unlooked-for obstacle. The china cupboard was locked; no doubt Mrs. Macconichie had the key in her pocket. She took out her own keys; not one of them was any use. She could see the tobacco jar on the other side of the glass door. She did not hesitate long; moments were precious. Taking a metal paper-weight off the mantelshelf she smashed the pane, breaking it right away to enable her to gain free access to the jar. She removed the lid. The jar was full of odds and ends; she did not examine them closely enough to gather what they were. At the bottom, under everything else, was a canvas bag. She took it out. It was tied round the neck with pink tape. It undoubtedly contained coins; perhaps twenty or thirty. Should she open it, and borrow two or three? or should she take it as it was?
The answer was acted, not spoken. Slipping the bag between the buttons of her bodice, she passed from the room and from the house. So soon as she was in the open air she thought she heard the sound of approaching footsteps; as if involuntarily she shrank back into the doorway, listening. She had been mistaken; there was not a sound. She came out into the street again, drawing a long breath. She looked to the right and left; not a creature was in sight. She set off in the direction of Carnoustie.
Her knowledge of the surrounding country was of the vaguest kind. She had not gone far before it began to dawn on her that this was a foolhardy venture in which she was engaged. It was a habit of hers to act first and think afterwards, or she would never have become Mrs. Gregory Lamb. Hard-headed enough when she chose to give her wits fair play, she was, at that period of her career, too much inclined to become a creature of impulse. The impulses to which she was prone to yield were only too apt to be wrong ones. For instance, she had not long left Mrs. Macconichie's before she perceived clearly enough that the chances were possibly a hundred to one against her reaching Carnoustie in the darkness on foot. Houses were few and far between; the road was a lonely one; it was quite on the cards that she might not meet a soul from whom to make inquiries. If she had given the thing any thought at all, she would have perceived from the first how slight her chances were, in which case, since it was no use jumping out of the frying-pan into the fire, she would certainly have postponed her departure. Now it was too late to return. The pane of glass in the china cupboard was broken; the canvas bag was inside her bodice. With the best will in the world she might find it difficult to conceal what had happened, not to speak of the possibility of Mrs. Macconichie's having already discovered her loss. So she pressed on.
Indeed, shortly she could not have gone back if she had wished. She had not started half an hour before she was forced to admit that she had lost her bearings utterly; that she had not the faintest notion in which direction Carnoustie lay, nor whereabouts she was. She was on a black road; that was all she knew. A rough, uneven road, which apparently straggled over open moorland. She could make out trees here and there, but the road itself seemed to have no boundaries. So far as she could make out, there was nothing on either side in the shape of a hedge or landmark.
Soon she was not at all sure that she was not off the road; that she was not roaming, blindly, over the open country. It seemed impossible that any road could be so uneven. She kept stumbling over unseen obstacles. Once she caught herself descending what seemed to be the steep sides of some sort of pit. With a sense of shock she drew back in time. She listened; she seemed to hear the sound of running waters. Could she be standing on the bank of some stream or river, into which, in another second, she might have descended? Anxious, even a little alarmed, turning right about face, she moved forward in what she supposed was the opposite direction. She seemed to be stumbling over a succession of hillocks. This could not be the road; she must have gone entirely astray. If she did not take care she would be running into some serious danger.
All at once her foot caught in some trailing root or plant; she went headforemost to the ground. Fortunately, she came down lightly enough. The fall was of little consequence, but when she tried to regain her perpendicular she learned, to her dismay, that her ankle refused to support her. Willy-nilly, she had to remain squatted where she had fallen.
"I seem to be in for a real good thing," she groaned. "Am I to stay here all night? I shall be frozen to the bone before the morning, to say nothing of waiting like a rat in a trap for Mrs. Macconichie to catch me."
She had to wait there for probably more than an hour, not exactly on the same spot. She managed, at intervals, to half hobble, half crawl across, perhaps another couple of hundred yards of ground. But the labour was thrown away. At that rate she would not have covered a mile before daybreak. Yielding to necessity, still clutching her bag, crouching on the turf, she watched for the light to come. She felt no need for sleep; she was only consumed by a great impatience, in that all things seemed to be against her.
The skies were clouded like her fate. Nowhere was there a glimmer of a star. A cool breeze was coming from what she judged to be the sea. It made itself more and more felt as the time stole on. By degrees it began to bring a mist with it. As she had foreseen, she became chilled to the marrow of her bones.
"If this goes on I shall freeze to death."
The idea recurred to her like a sort of formula. She kept telling herself again and again that that night would be the end of her.
When her vitality seemed at its lowest point the stillness of the night was broken by a sound--the sound of wheels.
AN OFFER OF MARRIAGE
She raised her head to listen, thinking that her senses must be playing her a trick. No; it certainly was the sound of wheels, coming nearer and nearer. Some one was driving fast through the darkness, so fast that in what seemed to her to be less than a minute the driver was close upon her. Apparently nearly in front of her, although she could not see it, was a road along which the vehicle was approaching. It carried no lights; nothing broke the shadows; but, if her ears could be trusted, within a stone's-throw of where she was some wheeled conveyance was hurrying past. She stood upon her one sound foot and shouted:--
"Hallo!--hallo-o!--hallo-o-o!" again and again.
Her first shouts went unheeded. Possessed by a wild fear that she might remain unnoticed, raising her voice to a desperate yell, she started to scream herself hoarse.
This time her tones travelled. Suddenly the vehicle ceased to move. An answering shout came back to her:--
"Who's there? What's the matter with you?"
The accent was broad Scotch. Had it been the purest Cockney it could not have seemed more welcome. She replied to the inquiry:--
"I've sprained my ankle so that I can hardly move".
This time in the other voice there was an unmistakable suggestion of surprise.
"Is it a woman?"
Her tone was fainter.
"And what might you be doing here at this hour of the morning?"
"I'm going to Carnoustie."
"Carnoustie! You're going to Carnoustie!--along this road? You're joking! Can you get as far as this, so that I can have a look at you?"
She did try. It was a distance of barely a hundred yards, but traversing it was a work of time. When the space was covered it was only by clutching at the wheel of the trap that she saved herself from subsiding in a heap upon the ground. In an instant the driver was off his seat, and with his arm about her.
"Is it so bad as that?"
"It is pretty bad," she stammered.
"For the Lord's sake, don't faint! We've no time to waste upon such trifles."
"I'm not going to faint." At any rate the tone was faint enough. Suddenly she seemed to pull herself together, as if stirred by a spirit of resentment. "I never have fainted in my life--I'm not going to begin to do it now."
He laughed--that is, the little husky sound he made might have been intended for a laugh.
"If you'll keep quite still I'll lift you up into the trap somehow, though, by the feel of you, you're as big as I am, and, maybe, heavier. The mare won't move. She's one of the few female things I ever met that wasn't troubled with the fidgets."
As he put it, "somehow" he did get her up into the trap, then climbed on to the seat beside her. Presently they were bowling along together. For some seconds neither spoke. She was endeavouring to accustom herself to her new position. He, possibly--as his questions immediately showed--was wondering who it was that he had chanced upon.
"Staying in these parts?"
"I'm on a walking tour."
"A walking tour at one o'clock in the morning!"
"It wasn't one o'clock when I started. I've been where you found me for hours and hours."
"Where were you making for?"
"I've told you, I was going to Carnoustie."
"Going from Carnoustie, you mean. You'll never be finding it in this part of the country."
"I daresay. Since it became dark I've been hobbling round about just anywhere. I don't know where I am; I've lost myself completely." He was silent, as if he found something in her words which made him think. Then she took up the rôle of questioner: "Where are you going?"
"To a man that's dying."
"Are you a doctor?"
"It's my trade."
"Then you'll be able to look at my ankle. I hope it's nothing serious, but it seems to be getting worse instead of better."
"I'll look at your ankle, never fear. I'll find you an easier patient than the one I'm bound for."
Little more was said on either side. The doctor seemed to be by nature a taciturn man, or perhaps he was too preoccupied for speech. Isabel was feeling too miserable to talk. She was cold and wet; her ankle was occasioning her no little pain. She could hardly have been less inclined for conversation, and she, also, had at times a gift of silence. During the twenty or thirty minutes the drive continued probably not half-a-dozen words were exchanged.
At last the doctor brought his mare to a standstill.
"I suppose you couldn't get down and open a gate? There's one right in front of us. I can see it's closed."
His eyes must have had the cat's quality of being able to penetrate the darkness; she could see nothing.
"I might be able to get down--if I had to tumble, but I doubt if I'd ever be able to get up again."
He grunted as if in disapprobation.
"Can you hold the reins while I get down?"
"I daresay I could do that."
He passed her the reins and descended. She heard a gate swing back upon its hinges. He reappeared at the horse's head.
"I'd better lead her through and up to the house; it's as black as the devil's painted under the trees. I ought to have brought my lamps, but I came away in such a hurry. When some folks are dying they will not wait."
They passed through a darkness which was so intense that she could not see the horse which was drawing her on. The avenue seemed a long one. It was some minutes before, drawing clear of the overhanging foliage, they stopped in front of a house which loomed grim and ominous in the shadows. Apparently their approach had been heard. No sooner had they stopped than the door was thrown wide open. The figure of a woman was seen peering out into the darkness, with a lamp in her hand.
"Is it the doctor?" she demanded.
"Yes, it's the doctor. And how is he now?"
"He's as near to death as he can be to be still alive. I believe he's only keeping the breath in his body till he gets a sight of you."
"To be sure that's uncommonly good of him. Now, madam, will that ankle of yours permit you to tumble down with the help of a hand from me?"
Without answering Isabel commenced a laborious and painful descent. At sight of her the woman on the doorstep evinced a lively curiosity.
"Why, doctor, who is it you're bringing with you?"
"It's a visitor for you, and another patient for me, Nannie. You'll have to find her a corner somewhere while I go up to see the laird. When I've done with him I'll have to start with her. I'm hoping that she'll be the easier job of the two. Come, lend a hand. It's beyond my power to get her into the house alone, and it seems that by herself she'll never do it."
Between them they got her up the steps, through the door and into a room which, immediately after passing it, was entered on the right. They placed her on a couch.
"Now, madam," observed the doctor, "here you'll have to stay until I've seen my other patient. And since Heaven only knows how long he'll keep me, you'll have to make the best of it until I come. So keep up the character you told me of and don't you faint, or any silliness of that kind, but just make yourself as comfortable as ever you can."
With that the speaker left her, the woman going with him. She had placed on a table the lamp which she had borne in her hand. It was a common glass affair, which did not give too good a light. For some minutes Isabel showed no inclination to avail herself of its assistance to learn in what manner of place she was. By degrees, however, as the time continued to pass, and there were still no signs of any one appearing, she began to show a languid interest in her surroundings. She was dimly conscious that the room was not a large one; that it was sparely, even austerely, furnished. She was aware that the couch on which she lay was of the old-fashioned horsehair kind, both slippery and uncomfortable. She had a vague suspicion that if she was not careful she would slip right off it, and her misty imaginings became mistier still. Before she knew it she was asleep.
She slept for two good hours before she was disturbed; at least that period of time had elapsed before the doctor made his reappearance in the room. The sight of the sleeping woman seemed to occasion him surprise. He observed her with a slight smile adding another pucker to his wrinkled cheeks. He was a little, thin man, clean shaven and bald-headed. He had a big, aquiline nose. His eyes were sunk deep in his head, looking out from overhanging shaggy eyebrows. His lips were drawn so tightly together as to hint at a paucity of teeth.
"Who are you, I wonder? You've youth, health, good looks--three good things for a woman to have. You're not ill-dressed. And yet there's that about you, as you lie sleeping there--we're all of us apt to give ourselves away when we're asleep--which makes me wonder who you are, and how you came to sprain your ankle on Crag Moor when going to Carnoustie. However that may be, there's an adventure lying ready to your hand--if you've a fancy for adventures. And, unless I'm much mistaken, I think you have."
He laid his hand upon the sleeper's shoulder. The touch was a light one, but it was sufficient to arouse her. With a start she sprang up to a sitting posture, crying--
"You shan't! It's a lie! You shan't." She put her hand to her bodice, as if to guard something which was hidden there. The doctor said nothing; he stood and watched. Waking to a clearer sense of her surroundings, she perceived him standing by her side. "Oh, it's you. How long have I been asleep?"
"Sufficiently long, I hope, to rest you. Will you allow me to introduce myself? My name is Twelves--David Twelves, M.D., of Edinburgh. May I ask if you have any objection to introduce yourself to me, and tell me your name?"
"Not the least; why should I have? I'm not ashamed of my name. Why do you want to know it?"
"Because the immediate object of my presence here is to make you what is to all intents and purposes an offer of, say, twenty thousand pounds, and I have a not unnatural desire to know to whom I am offering it."
She sat more upright on the couch, swinging round so as to bring her feet upon the floor, looking at him with eyes which were now wide open.
"What do you mean? You are making fun of me."
"I am doing nothing of the kind. This is likely to be one of the most serious moments of your life. I am not disposed to lighten it by misplaced attempts at playfulness." Yet even as he spoke again that nebulous smile seemed to add another pucker to his cheeks. "What I say is said very much in earnest. There is a man upstairs who's dying. Perhaps he is already dead while I stand here talking to you. If he's not dead, before he dies he wants another curious thing--a wife."
"A wife!--and you say he's dying!"
"It's because he's dying that he wants her. He has had no need of such an encumbrance living. I have come to ask you if you'll be his wife."
"I be his wife!"
Instinctively she doubled up the finger on which was the wedding-ring. She still wore her gloves, so it had remained unnoticed.
"Yes, you. You're the only woman within reach, except old Nannie, who hardly counts, or I wouldn't trouble you. Answer me shortly--yes or no--will you be his wife?"
"Marry a perfect stranger!--a man I've never seen!--who you say is dying!"
"Precisely; it is a mere formula to which I'm asking your subscription. He'll certainly be dead inside two hours, possibly in very much less. You'll be a widow in one of the shortest times on record; in possession of a wife's share of all his worldly goods--and that, by all accounts, should be worth fully twenty thousand pounds."
"Twenty thousand pounds! But why should he want to marry any one if he's dying?"
"There's not much time for explanation, but I'll explain this much. He's made a will in favour of a certain person. That will he is anxious to revoke. If he marries it will become invalid. As matters stand it will be easier for him to take a wife than to make another will."
"You are sure he will be dead within two hours?"
"Quite. I shall not be surprised to learn that he's dead already. You are losing your chances of becoming a well-to-do widow by lingering here."
"You are certain he will leave me twenty thousand pounds?"
"The simple fact of his death will make it yours. So soon as the breath is out of his body you will become entitled to a wife's inheritance--if you are his wife."
"You are not playing me any trick? It is all just as you say?"
"On my honour, it is all just as I say. There is no trick. If you will come with me upstairs you will be able to judge for yourself."
"But how can we be married at a moment's notice? Is there a clergyman in the house?"
"You forget you are in Scotland. Neither notice nor clergyman is needed. It will be sufficient for you to recognise each other as husband and wife in the presence of witnesses; that act of mutual recognition will in itself constitute a legal marriage which all the lawyers will not be able to break. That is why it will be easier for him to marry than to make another will."
"There is not the least doubt that he will be dead within two hours?"
"Not the least--unless a miracle intervenes."
She was sitting with her hands clenched in her lap, a perceptible interval of silence intervening before the words burst from her lips--
"Then I'll marry him!"
WHOM GOD HATH JOINED
Dr. Twelves showed no sign of either surprise or gratification. He looked at her dispassionately, almost apathetically, from under his overhanging eyebrows.
"Can you walk upstairs without assistance?"
"I'm afraid not. I don't think my ankle is any better."
He stooped down.
"It's swollen; it looks as if it were going to be an awkward business. Your boot and stocking will have to be cut away; but there's no time to do it now--moments are precious. You will have to wait until you're married. It's only on the first floor. Do you think you'll be able to get up with the aid of my arm and of the baluster?"
"Might I suggest, before we start, that it would do no harm if you were to remove your hat and jacket. It would seem more in keeping."
She acted on his suggestion.
"I ought to wash and tidy myself; I know I'm all anyhow."
"Now you will do very well. Your future husband is too far gone to be able to tell if your hair is straight or crooked; at the point he's reached that sort of thing doesn't matter." When they had reached the landing at the top of the stairs the doctor said to her: "By the way, the name of your future husband is Grahame--Cuthbert Grahame. May I ask what yours is? It is just as well that he should know it."
She hesitated a moment.
"My name is Isabel Burney."
"Miss Burney, allow me to introduce you to Mr. Grahame's room."
He threw open the door of the room in front of which they had been standing. As he did so Isabel slipped off her left-hand glove, bringing with it, at the same time, her wedding-ring. Crumpling up her glove she squeezed it into her waistband, the ring inside it. On the doctor's arm she hobbled to a big armchair, into which she sank with a sigh of unmistakable relief.
The room in which she found herself, although low-ceilinged, was a spacious one. It seemed to her that all the furniture it contained was old-fashioned, a fact which, although she did not know it, increased its value perhaps a hundred-fold. She thought it simply dowdy. A huge Chippendale bed was in the centre of the room. In it, propped up on pillows, was the figure of a man which, if only from the point of size, fitly matched the bed. Leaning over him, on the other side, was Nannie, the old woman who had admitted them into the house. The doctor addressed himself to her.
"How is he?"
"About the same."
Although they had both spoken in a whisper their voices were audible to the man in the bed.
"Is that that old devil Twelves come back again?"
The tone was harsh, and it was obvious that the speaker spoke with difficulty, but the words themselves were plain enough. The doctor evinced no sign of annoyance at the other's somewhat uncomplimentary reference to himself; on the contrary, he chose to apply to himself the other's epithet as he answered:--
"Yes, it's the old devil back again, and, what's more, he's brought the young devil too--begging your pardon, Miss Burney, for speaking of you in such a manner. But it's the fashion in this house to use strong language, and always has been. Laird, I've brought the lady."
"Where is she?"
"At this moment she's sitting in your armchair. As I told you, she's sprained her ankle, which makes it difficult for her to walk, or even stand."
"Damn her ankle!"
"By all means. You should know more about that sort of thing than I do. You're nearer to it than I am."
"You think that hurts me?"
"Not I. I know that nothing hurts you. I doubt if even the torments of hell will trouble you much. You're past all hurting. Shall I tell Miss Burney she isn't wanted, and can go again?"
"What's her name?"
"Burney--Isabel Burney. At least, she says so."
"Isabel Burney, you are my wife; you're Mrs. Cuthbert Grahame. I acknowledge you as my wife, and I wish all men to acknowledge you also. Are you content that it should be so?"
"You hear, Nannie? You hear, Twelves? You're both witnesses. I take Isabel Burney to be my wife, and she agrees."
"I hear. But does she take you for her husband--eh, Miss Burney?"
"I do. I take Cuthbert Grahame to be my husband in the sight of God and man."
Isabel had returned to one of her old faults--overemphasis. There was a theatrical intensity about both her manner and her words which was singularly out of place when compared with the matter-of-fact ribaldry which seemed to mark the husky utterance of the man in the bed. Its inappropriateness seemed to strike the others. After a perceptible pause the man in the bed wheezed--
"Leave God out of it". Presently he added, still more wheezily, "Come here, Mrs. Cuthbert Grahame".
The doctor moved towards her.
"Can I assist you, Mrs. Grahame, to your husband's side?" With the doctor's aid she gained the bed. "Laird, here's your wife; can you see her?"
Isabel saw the man whom she had taken to be her husband. The sight of him shocked her. She told herself that she had never seen a more dreadful object even in her dreams. His size was abnormal. Not only was he naturally a big man, but his frame had become swollen and bloated till it was monstrous--a horror to look upon. His head and face were covered with scanty red hair, which needed cutting. He had a huge head, and his neck was so short and thick that it conveyed a grotesque impression that his head sprang directly from his trunk. His whole form seemed to be afflicted with some sort of tetanus, so that he was rigid, immovable. He lay on his back, with his arms straight down at his sides. Through his parted lips came jerky, stertorous breaths. His eyelids were partially open, but only the whites of his eyes were visible; his own words made it clear that they were of little use to him as organs of sight.
"See her? No, I can't see her. I don't want to."
As he spoke a tremor passed all over him. His whole frame heaved; as if seized by a sudden convulsion he began fighting for his life. The doctor spoke to her.
"You had better go, unless you'd like to see the last of him. This is likely to be the end. He'll hardly win through another bout."
He moved towards the bed, Nannie joining him. Isabel was left to her own devices. Powerless to move far unaided it was all she could do to stagger to the nearest chair. In it she sat, waiting, watching, listening, like an unwilling spectator in some bad dream. It was a scene which she never wholly forgot. The dim light, the quaintly furnished room, the figures of the old man and woman bending this way, then that, as they struggled with the creature on the bed. What ailed him she did not know; she vaguely surmised that he might be in the throes of some kind of epileptic fit. His contortions shook the bed, indeed the room. He kept uttering sounds which had a disagreeable resemblance to the half-strangled yelps of some wild beast.
How long it lasted she did not know. Long enough to strain her already highly strung nerves almost beyond endurance. At last there came a lull. The man on the bed was first quieter, then still. She took advantage of the silence to exclaim:--
"Can't you take me away somewhere? You know I can't move. If I have to stay here much longer I--I shall make a fool of myself."
The doctor and Nannie paid her no heed. Side by side they were stooping together over the silent figure. After affording them what she deemed a more than sufficient opportunity to answer, she appealed to them again.
"Can't you hear me? Take me away somewhere--I don't care where! I'll go mad if you don't."
The doctor did not answer her directly; he spoke to Nannie.
"Do as she bids you; take her away."
"Where'll I take her?" the woman asked.
"Take her and put her to bed in the best bedroom. Remember that she's now the mistress of this house."
Nannie moved towards Isabel. For a woman, she was tall and brawny, but she was probably well past fifty, and Isabel certainly had not credited her with the capacity to do what she immediately did. She eyed the stranger for a moment in silence, then she asked, in the broadest Scotch:--
"Can't you walk by your own self?"
Isabel resented both the tone and the scrutiny.
"You know I can't."
Without more ado the woman, stooping, put her arms about her and lifted her bodily from the chair as if she were some great child. Isabel was taken by surprise, and a little alarmed.
"You'll drop me!" she cried.
"I'll not drop you; you're nothing of a weight."
As if to prove it, the old woman bore her from the room, across the landing, to another room on the other side, one which was in darkness. But Nannie seemed to know its geography by instinct. She deposited her burden on what Isabel realised was a bed. Striking a match on a box which she took from her pocket, she lit some candles which stood on the mantelshelf. Isabel, remaining where she had been placed, eyed her as she moved about.
"You're very strong."
"I'm not so strong as once I was. There was a time when I'd have carried four of you, and thought nothing of it either. Now can you undress yourself, or will you be needing me to do it for you?"
"Thank you, I think I can undress myself; but if you would help me take the boot off my bad foot."
Nannie bent over the foot which the other extended. She regarded it in silence, then, still without a word, she left the room. So soon as she was gone Isabel dragged the glove which contained her wedding-ring out of her belt, and the canvas bag which had come out of Mrs. Macconichie's tobacco jar from her bodice, and thrust them as far as possible under the bolster which was beneath the pillow on which she was reclining. Scarcely had she done this when Nannie reappeared, in her hands a pair of large scissors. With their aid she proceeded, still speechless, to cut, first, the laces of Isabel's boot, and then the boot itself, till it came away from her foot. As it came away she did what she boasted she had never before done in her life--she fainted. When she came to herself again she found that Nannie, who had apparently remained indifferent to the fact that her senses had left her, having bathed her foot and ankle, was putting the finishing touches to the bandages in which she had swathed it. When the bandage was completed the old woman, still without vouchsafing a word, began to undress her, and did it with a deftness and neatness which would have done her credit had she played the part of lady's-maid her whole life long. Almost before she knew it, she was ready for the sheets, and so soon as she was ready she was placed between them.
"You're very good to me," she murmured, with a luxurious sigh, as she recognised what a delicious feeling it was to be between them.
"I'm not good to you--anyway I'm not wanting to be good to you."
Isabel looked up with surprise; the tone was almost savage.
"Why not? Don't you think that you will like me?"
"Like you!--like you!"
The emphasis with which the words were repeated was unmistakable. It would have been difficult for scorn to have been more eloquent. Without condescending to further speech, as if everything had been said which could be said, Nannie moved towards the door. Isabel put a question to her as she reached it.
"Is my husband dead?"
Nannie turned swiftly round to her.
"Your husband!--your husband!"
Again the repetition was marked by the same wealth of scorn. Isabel was moved to some show of resentment.
"He is my husband--you know he's my husband."
"Oh, he's your husband, Mrs. Cuthbert Grahame. I'm not doubting it, ma'am, or that you're a fit and proper wife for him. I'm ready to tell to any one that you're a well-matched pair."
"Is he dead?"
As she repeated her inquiry Isabel's manner was a trifle more subdued; she was finding Nannie a difficult person to contend with.
"You'd better be asking Dr. Twelves if your husband's dead, ma'am; he's a surer judge of dead folk than I am. You'll be feeling anxious till you know, and so I'll tell the doctor. When a woman's been acquainted with a man so long as you've been acquainted with your man, so that you've come to know all the secrets of his heart, and the very shape and fashion of the soul which God has lent him, to be sure all her nature stirs within her when she begins to fear he's near to dying. It's hard to lose the husband to whom you've only been married a couple of minutes, so I'll tell the doctor to hurry and let you know if you're a widow before you're a wife."
Without giving Isabel a chance to retort, Nannie opened the door with a swishing movement, which was in harmony with her state of mind, and vanished from the chamber.
A SECOND HONEYMOON
She had slept well; Isabel admitted so much. She suspected something else, that the morning was far advanced. There was that in the atmosphere which conveyed that impression. Apparently some one had been in while she still slept and put the room in order. The blinds were up, the curtains drawn back, the sun streamed in through the small square windows which were set deep in the thickness of the wall. As she looked about her, from her vantage place on the pillow, she felt that this was the queerest place she ever had been in. Everything, including the room itself, seemed to her to be hundreds of years old. The paper on the walls was like nothing she had ever seen before. The furniture was of the oddest shapes; indeed, what some of the articles might be intended for was beyond her comprehension. As she gradually absorbed it all, she began to be conscious of an almost eerie feeling that she had woke up in some ancient habitation and in some bygone age of which she had no knowledge.
Then something else forced itself on her attention, she felt that she was helpless. As she tried to turn in bed, the better to enable her to see what was to be seen, a spasm of pain passed over her, which was so acute that she had to shut her eyes and bite her lips to prevent herself from crying out. For some moments she lay quite still, waiting for the pain to go. It was some time before it diminished; even when it was easier she learnt, to her dismay, that she would have to be very careful in her movements if she did not wish it to return with probably increasing violence. Her foot seemed, from the feel of it, to be about as bad as it could be. It was not only useless, it held her prisoner. The slightest attempt to move it in any direction resulted in the keenest anguish. It seemed that relief from almost unendurable torment could only be obtained by remaining entirely quiescent. That meant, in effect, that she was chained, possibly for an indefinite period, to the bed in which she was lying. An agreeable prospect!
As the true inwardness of the position began to dawn on her, in phantasmagoric procession the events of the previous night flashed across her mind. The letter to her husband--to Gregory Lamb--which she had opened and read, the letter with the Islington post-mark, containing the curt refusal to accord him further help; the resolution to leave him, which she had instantly arrived at after its perusal; her visit to Mrs. Macconichie's sitting-room; her forcible entry into the china cupboard; her abstraction of the canvas bag from the tobacco jar.
At this point, her thoughts branching off in another direction, she felt, gingerly enough, for it seemed that movement of any sort meant pain, under the bolster, and produced from it the bag in question and the glove in which she had secreted the wedding-ring. The sight of the ring started her thoughts travelling again.
To her flight through the darkness, with the leather handbag. By the way, what had become of that bag? She had no recollection of having done anything with it. Possibly she had put it down when she had sprained her ankle, and, in her trouble, had forgotten its existence; in which case it might be still upon the moor. If it were found, and nothing could be learned of her, what deductions would be drawn? She wondered. One thing was certain, it contained all her worldly possessions. Without it she had not so much as a pocket-handkerchief, not to speak of such a necessity of existence as a brush and comb.
Then the trap had come through the night, and borne her to the house in which she lay. There she had been married to a man upon his death-bed. Such a man and such a death-bed! Could it be possible? She clenched her fists, and asked herself if the whole business had not been the wild imaginings of some disordered dream. Even to herself she could not furnish a satisfactory answer.
Why had she suffered herself to be dragged through such a farce?--to play a part in such an odious scene? Because that old man who called himself a doctor had told her that the creature would be dead within two hours, and that then she would be richer by twenty thousand pounds. Twenty thousand pounds! Could that part of the tale be possible? Why, in that case, this house, the very room in which she was, the queer furniture which filled it, all might be hers. She would be a wealthy woman, who had won her wealth so easily without incurring risk worth mention. Because, even in the storm and stress of the moment, she had understood that bigamy was bigamy, even though one of the marriages into which she had entered was a Scotch one. Of course, nothing could make that marriage of the night before a real one, since she was a wife already. But, as the man was dead, and she was supposed to be his widow, if fortune favoured her the truth never need come out. She believed that she was clever enough to conceal it--at any rate from whom it was worth her while to do so. Only let her get hold of the twenty thousand pounds, or so much of it as could be turned into ready cash--let them find out afterwards what they chose--they would find it hard to get the money back from her. Twenty thousand pounds! She fancied herself letting go of such a sum as that if she once had it in her grip!
The first thing she had to do was to inform herself as fully as possible as to the actual situation. If she was a widow, and her husband had died without a will--he had certainly not made one after marrying her, while the doctor had assured her that marriage had rendered nugatory any he might have made before--then this house, and all that it contained, if it had been his property, was now hers. At least she hoped it was, because, after a little muddled consideration, it began to occur to her that, by English law, a wife did not necessarily inherit all that a husband who had died intestate left behind him. Exactly what share was hers she was not sure, but she had a more or less dim conviction that it was less than the whole. The same objectionable law might obtain in Scotland, or even a worse one. The sooner she ascertained exactly how the ground lay the better it would be for her peace of mind. So she began to call attention to the fact that she was wide awake. Since there was apparently no bell within reach, she had to make the best use of her voice.
"Nannie!" she called. "Nannie! Nannie!" And she kept on calling, because there was none that answered. Her voice was a strong one--she exerted it to the utmost--but it seemed that it was not strong enough to reach any one outside that room. She shouted till she was hoarse, and angry too, quite in vain; nothing resulted.
"If there's any one in the house they must hear me, and I expect they do, only they don't choose to come. Oh, if it weren't for this foot of mine! That Nannie's an insolent hag. She knows perfectly well that I can't move, and thinks she can treat me as she likes. If I could move I'd soon show her. Nannie! Nannie!" She shouted till she could really shout no longer. No one came; nor was there anything to show that she was heard. She began to be possessed by a fresh alarm. "I wonder if the house is empty? Suppose that old hag has gone off and left me alone in the house with that--that dead man. I'll be bound she's quite capable of doing it--old wretch! I shall starve to death! Nannie! Nannie!"
But all the strength had gone out of her voice--it was not strange that those muffled tones remained unheeded--a fact of which she herself was conscious. At last, wholly exhausted, she lay and thought hard things of every one. She was genuinely hungry. She told herself that if some one did not come soon and bring her food something would have to be done, though she had not the faintest notion what. Self-help was out of the question; she was as powerless to move as if she had been riveted to the bed.
She was rapidly reaching a despairing stage when Nannie entered with a tray in her hand, quite calmly, as if it were the most natural thing in the world that she should come just then and not before. Isabel broke into angry expostulation.
"Why have you kept me waiting. Why didn't you come before? You must have heard me long ago--you're not stone deaf. I've screamed myself hoarse."
Nannie placed the tray upon a table. Then, with the most matter-of-fact air, putting her arms about the angry woman, she raised her to a sitting posture, arranging the pillows so that they formed a prop for her back. Divided between indignation and bewilderment, Isabel submitted in silence; she was so helpless, the old woman's manner was so masterful, that to expostulate seemed vain. The tray was put beside her on the coverlet, Nannie observing--
"When you've eaten your fill I'll come and take a look at that foot of yours".
"It's ever so much worse. I've been in agony--and am still. I believe I've broken a bone."
"Not you; it's no but a sprain."
"It's more than a sprain--much more, I'm convinced of it. Where's Dr. Twelves? He ought to attend to it at once. He said he would come and see me. Why hasn't he been?"
"He's been and gone hours ago."
"Been and gone! Why didn't you let me know that he was here?"
"What for should I let you know?"
"You knew that I wished to see him."
"You never said it; and, anyway, he never said that he was wishing to see you."
"You're taking advantage of me! You think I'm at your mercy, and that you can do as you like with me because I can't move! You're a wicked old woman!"
"Am I? Then I'm reckoning that age is the only difference there is between us."
Burning words flamed to Isabel's lips, but she had enough prudence and self-control not to allow them to go any farther. She was at the other's mercy, and she knew it. The only way to obtain from her some slight consideration was to endeavour to appease, not anger her. Instead of giving her anger vent, she put to her a question, the one she had put the night before.
"Is my husband dead?"
She received what was practically the same answer.
"Didn't I tell you that for that you must ask Dr. Twelves, since he's knowing when folks are dead better than me?"
Without affording Isabel another opportunity to speak Nannie left the room.
If the new Mrs. Grahame could have got out of bed there would have been some lively doings. It is not impossible that Nannie would have found that she had met her match. When that lady was really roused, and had a fair chance to show it, she was a difficult person to deal with. But she was, literally, held by the leg; as incapable of doing what she would have liked to have done as if she had been an infant in arms.
When, after an interval of no long duration, the ancient servitor returned, Isabel did treat her to what she meant to be a taste of her claws. For all the effect she produced she might have saved herself the trouble. The Scotchwoman evinced a serene indifference to anything she might say or do, which influenced her more than she would have cared to own. Then the pain she endured was exquisite. Nannie's ministrations were deft enough. She set about her task like one who understood well what she had to do, and was capable of doing it. She removed the bandages, bathed the injured foot, applied hot poultices; so far as Isabel was able to judge, did all that could be done. But the most delicate touches could not prevent her suffering agony. By the time the other had finished her anger was forgotten. All she desired was rest--peace--to be left alone.
For seven days Isabel remained, willy-nilly, in bed. All the time the only person she saw was Nannie. Dr. Twelves never came near her. Whether the fault was his or her attendant's was more than she could determine. She heard no news of any sort or kind. Nothing could be got out of Nannie. No answers to any of her questions; only the fewest possible words on unimportant subjects.
It is true that during the first two or three days her ankle gave her so much trouble, her sufferings from it were so intense, that she was, in a measure, content to be left alone and in ignorance. But as the pain lessened her impatience, and indignation, grew apace. More than once she attempted to get out of bed and to start on a voyage of exploration through the house to acquire information on her own account. Since, however, her attempts only resulted in disaster, and it was made plain that they only postponed her convalescence, common-sense gained the upper hand. She resolved to endure with as much calmness as she could command till the time arrived when, at least to some extent, she should again be mistress of her own powers of locomotion.
After the longest week she had ever known she decided that that time was not far off. She informed Nannie that, since her foot was now on the high road to recovery, on the morrow she would be capable of getting out of bed, and that, therefore, get out of bed she would. Nannie, as was her wont, kept silence when this piece of information was vouchsafed to her. But that she was impressed by it was evident when on the morrow in question, instead of the old woman, Dr. Twelves came into the room. It seemed as if Nannie must have told him that the time had now come when it was desirable that he should make his re-entry on the scene. At least that was the conclusion at which, at sight of him, the lady in the bed instantly arrived.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE DOCTOR
"So you've come, have you, at last! I suppose that old hag told you you had better before I came to you? I should have come in half an hour."
That was the greeting the angry lady accorded her tardy visitor.
Dr. Twelves seemed to be in no haste to answer. Coming to within a foot or two of her bed-side he stood and eyed her. He looked very old in the daylight, older than she had thought he was. Short; thin to the point of emaciation. There was something almost sinister in his attitude, in the way in which, inclining his head a little forward, his arms held close to his sides, he examined her keenly, as if he were some bird of prey, and she an object on which he was doubtful whether or not to pounce. As she gave him glance for glance she understood that this was a person who was not so frail as he might at first sight appear. But want of courage was not a deficiency which could justly be laid to the lady's charge. When he did reply it was with a question.
"Why do you speak to me like that?"
"You know very well why! You promised that first night that you would attend to my foot; but though I've asked for you again and again you've never been near me once, till you were afraid that I should be after you."
"You've been in good hands. Nannie has done all for you that I could have done."
"I don't doubt that."
"Then of what do you complain?"
"You've kept me a prisoner."
"Kept you a prisoner! I! Madam, you jest. Has not your foot had something to do with your confinement? Is it not holding you a prisoner still?"
"It won't do long, so don't you think it. I'll be out and about before the day's over, and when I am I'll make things hum. Is my husband dead?"
"My husband! Are you deaf?"
"No, madam, not yet. So far age has not robbed me of my hearing. But to whom do you refer when you speak of your husband?"
There was that in the fashion in which he asked the question which caused her to clench her fists, tighten her lips and descend to vulgarity--unfortunately an easy descent for her to make when her temper waxed warm.
"What are you playing at? Do you think you're clever, or that I'm an utter fool? You're wrong if you do, you may take it from me. Is my husband, Cuthbert Grahame, dead? I've not been able to get an answer out of that old harridan, but I'll get one out of you."
"Then is Cuthbert Grahame your husband?"
"Is he! Isn't he? Didn't he marry me the other night in front of you and that old woman?"
"Have you a certificate or any writing to show it?"
"A certificate! What do I want with a certificate? You said nothing about a certificate! Look here, old man, don't you try to play any fool-tricks with me, or you'll be sorry. Are you trying to make out that he's not my husband?"
"Not at all; I am trying to do nothing. I should like to ask you a question, to which, before you answer it, I would suggest that you should give a little careful consideration. Would you rather be Cuthbert Grahame's wife or not?"
"I am his wife, and you very well know it, so it's no use talking, and that's enough said. I ask you again, is my husband dead?"
"Your husband? That is the point which I am gradually approaching. Mr. Cuthbert Grahame is not dead."
Her jaw dropped open.
"But you told me----"
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