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The Rainbow Feather written by Fergus Hume who was a prolific English novelist. This book was published in 1898. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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The Rainbow Feather
CHAPTER I. A TERRIBLE PROPHECY.
CHAPTER II. POVERTY VILLA.
CHAPTER III. THE SERMON.
CHAPTER IV. WHAT HAPPENED ON SUNDAY NIGHT.
CHAPTER V. PAUL MEXTON, JOURNALIST.
CHAPTER VI. ELIZA'S EVIDENCE.
CHAPTER VII. AT THE VICARAGE.
CHAPTER VIII. IN THE WINDING LANE.
CHAPTER IX. THE INQUEST AT HERNE ARMS.
CHAPTER X. THE PROPHECY AGAIN.
CHAPTER XI. BRENT SPEAKS OUT.
CHAPTER XII. A STARTLING PIECE OF EVIDENCE.
CHAPTER XIII. THE DEFENCE OF MISS CLYDE.
CHAPTER XIV. "DUST TO DUST."
CHAPTER XV. DR. LESTER TELLS A STORY.
CHAPTER XVI. CATINKA.
CHAPTER XVII. THE SOCIETY OF THE RAINBOW FEATHER.
CHAPTER XVIII. IRIS CONFESSES.
CHAPTER XIX. WHO MR. LOVEL WAS.
CHAPTER XX. GRAN JIMBOY.
CHAPTER XXI. THE RETURN OF HERNE.
CHAPTER XXII. A DENIAL.
CHAPTER XXIII. DREK'S OPINIONS.
CHAPTER XXIV. THE TRIAL.
CHAPTER XXV. THE TRUTH AT LAST.
CHAPTER XXVI. "ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL."
"'The lef' han', dearie, an' gowld for th' charm. Aye! a bewtiful han' for a bewtiful maid. I 'udn't rade false for—eh, dear life, what is't? Th' lines goo criss an' crass. Duvel! I be mortal feared to tell 'ee. Take tha han'. Gran hes nought to spake for sich a mayden."
As she said the last word, a startled look came into the glazed eyes of the old gipsy; and with a quick gesture she flung back the hand she had been holding. The pretty, fair-haired girl who was having her fortune told laughed nervously, and shot an anxious glance at the young man who stood near her. He was tall and dark and masterful; also he was in love with the girl, as could be seen from the tenderness in his eyes and the smile on his lips. But as the sibyl spoke, as the girl started, he changed the smile to a frown, and caught the woman roughly by the arm. She was on the point of hobbling away; but, on feeling the man's grip, she turned doggedly to face him. With her rags and wrinkles, red cloak, and Oriental countenance, she looked like the Witch of Endor—at bay.
"Not so fast, gran!" said the young man, severely. "Miss Lester has given you a shilling, so you must earn it by telling her fortune—if you can," he added, in a scoffing tone, which savoured of scepticism.
"Ef I can!" repeated gran, looking contemptuously from under bushy gray eyebrows. "Eh, young gentl'man, that han' be asy raidin' tu I. But fur all this," she waved her stick round the gorse-besprinkled common upon which they were standing—"for all that"—she pointed towards the blue arch of the July sky—"I w'uldn't freeze th' blood o' this gude maid."
"How you do go on, Mother Jimboy!" giggled the girl, with an affectation of carelessness. "I don't believe a bit in hand-reading; I'm sure I don't, so there! I know my own fortune well. Don't I, Mr. Lovel?" and again she shot a glance at the young man—this time a coquettish one.
"Of course," he assented, with a smile; "and I know mine."
"An' I know both o' mum!" cried Mrs. Jimboy, striking her stick on the ground. "Hee! hee! 'Tis gran as cud fright the smile from they pretty faces, I du say. Haw be young squire, Miss Milly?"
"Insolent!" muttered Lovel, wrathfully. "Hold your tongue, you old hag, and tell Miss Lester's fortune at once!"
"I's feared for sure, dearies both; I's mortal feared."
"You silly old witch!" said Milly, with scornful bravery. "I'm not. I shall know what is in my hand; though I shan't believe a single word you say."
"Tis as ye plase, miss; belave or not, 'tis all one. But the skein will run till 'tis clipped for all that!"
"What do you mean by this jargon?" cried Lovel, still furious at the late illusion to the squire. "Speak plainly, or I'll hand you over to the police as an impostor!"
The last word touched the old dame nearly, and she reared up her bent frame to point a crooked finger at Lovel; but she spoke generally to the one and the other.
"Imposter, am I? Hee! hee! An you don't belave, Miss Milly? Hee! hee! I'll spare ye no more! Gimme th' han', dear soul alive, give th' han'; and if ye weep blood fur the tellings o' mum—well, I warned ye, I warned ye!"
Milly stamped a dainty foot, and held out a dainty hand to be seized by gran's brown claws.
"Do your worst!" said she petulantly. "I'm sure I shan't believe a single nasty thing you tell me!"
"Aye! eh!" mumbled Mrs. Jimboy, tracing the pink palm lines with a dirty forefinger; "but Fate, you zee, be stronger nor young things, dearie; aw, yis, fur sure. Here mum be, ef ye mus' now"—man and girl bent their comely heads, while gran continued—"you'm bound to one; you'm loved by another; but none o' mum shall call ye wife."
"Why not?" demanded Lovel roughly, while Milly drew back her hand with an ejaculation of alarm.
"Why?" cried the gipsy fiercely—"'cause the grave 'ull be her bridal bed, for sure; an' worms 'ull feast on the beauty ye love. Death, dearie; death an' murder, I du tell 'ee; an' murder, dear souls, an' yis," she concluded, with a relish for her evil speaking.
Enraged by this speech, which made Milly cling to him in a tremor of nervous excitement, Lovel raised his cane threateningly. With an activity wonderful in one so old, gran shuffled nimbly back, spitting and snarling like a cat. Her eyes fairly sparkled with fury.
"Duvel!" she flashed out, using the Romany oath with a shaking of her stick; "the black curse on the pair o' ye! Death to her, an' sorrow to ye. One shall be taken, the other left. Ho, ho! How will ye look then, my delicate rye? You an' the squire, wi' death houlding your gude maid in his maw. I overlook mum, I du; an' so ye've the worth of your gowld from the impostor!"
After which fiery speech Mrs. Jimboy crawled away without as much as a glance behind her. Soon she dwindled to a scarlet spot on the distant greenness; and Milly, hitherto motionless, began to recover from her fears. Some red-tiled houses were visible on the edge of the common; through the golden glories of gorse blossom wound the high-road, broad and dusty; and over all arched the cloudless azure of the sky. Save the two young people, no human being was in sight; and they looked silently at one another, weighing and considering the ominous words of the gipsy—her early refusal to speak; her pointed use of the sinister word "murder;" and her fierce casting of words and money. These were the things which took the colour from the cheeks of the couple, and made them eye each other with secret apprehensions.
"I'll go home now," said Milly abruptly, and she turned her face towards the square tower of a distant church.
Lovel walked quickly after her and laid a detaining hand on her arm. "Don't go yet," he entreated. "My dear Milly——"
"You have no right to call me so!" she interrupted sharply.
"Then give me the right."
"I can't; you know I can't. Why do you say such silly things?"
"Why?" burst out Lovel—"because I love you. Listen to me, Milly—now, it is no use your frowning—I shall call you by that name: I love you—I love you!"
"Oh!" said Miss Lester with great coolness, "then Miss Clyde——"
"I know what you are about to say," he said quickly—"that I love Miss Clyde. But you are wrong. It is true that I admired her, but when you came——" He flung out his hands and caught those of the girl's. "Milly," said he earnestly, "you have brought me to your feet for a jest; that jest must become—earnest. You must marry me."
"How you talk!" said Milly fretfully. "You know I can't marry you."
"Because of Mr. Herne—a man you don't care for?"
"Because of Mr. Herne—to whom I have been engaged for six months."
"But you don't care for him!" persisted Lovel.
"I care for him sufficiently to marry him," answered the girl evasively.
"What is the use of trying to deceive me, Milly? You marry Herne for his money and position."
"Well, and what if I do!" cried Miss Lester, flushing; "is it not my duty to do the best I can for myself and my people? What is father?—a poor country doctor with a miserable income. Our house should be called Poverty Villa, it is so wretched; and Iris worries me morn, noon, and night."
"But if your sister——"
"She is not my sister!" interrupted Milly wrathfully. "Iris Link is the daughter of my father's second wife; she is no kin of mine, and has no right to domineer over me like she does. I tell you I am thoroughly miserable at home!" cried Miss Lester with a stamp of her foot; "and I marry Darcy Herne to get away from Poverty Villa."
"Will you be any happier with Herne?"
"Why not? I shall have position and money and society."
"Pardon me," contradicted Lovel, "but you will have none of the three. Herne is as mad as a March hare, with his aspirations for a higher life, and his socialistic ideas that all are equal? Position! He gave that up long ago. Money! Well, he has money, but it will be spent in charity—not in pandering to your vanity. Society! Oh, yes! the society of the halt, the lame, the blind, and the religious! That's the set you'll move in. I tell you, Milly," cried Lovel vehemently, "that Herne does not love you; he loves no one and nothing but his mission, as he calls it. He marries you simply to experiment on you—to lead you into the narrow path, no doubt."
"I know all you tell me," rejoined Milly, coolly, "but I'll alter Darcy's conduct when I am Mrs. Herne!"
"I rather think he'll alter yours, my dear. Now, if you marry me——"
"Yes!" interrupted Milly, disdainfully; "if I marry you, what then?"
"You would be happy," finished Lovel, turning red.
Milly laughed and shrugged her shoulders. "Really, Mr. Lovel, you have a good opinion of yourself! I have known you eight months as a painter, but beyond that I am ignorant. Who are you?"
"A painter—an artist, as you say," said the young man, sulkily.
"Are you rich?"
"No; I have two hundred a year."
"As if we could marry on that!" scoffed Milly. "Are your parents alive?"
"No. I don't know anything about my parents. I have been an orphan ever since I can remember."
"Oh! So you have no money, no position, and—so far as I can see—no name; only your good looks, Mr. Lovel; and on these you wish to marry me. No, thank you, Mr. Egotist," sneered Miss Lester, with a curtsey. "I prefer to marry the squire of Barnstead."
Lovel was goaded into a retort. "You'll never marry him," he said, sharply, "if Gran Jimboy is to be believed."
"How horrid of you to talk like that, just when I was trying to forget what that old wretch said! Lucas"—she said the name with a glint of terror in her blue eyes—"do you believe in palmistry?"
"No," he responded, indifferently—"no more than I believe in Fate."
"But Gran Jimboy said that I should be killed—murdered!"
Lovel looked at her, and laughed in an ugly manner. "As to that, my dear girl," he said with a sneer, "I hope it may be true. I would rather see you dead than the wife of Squire Herne!"
"You cruel wretch!" cried Milly, vehemently. "Why—why?"
"In the first place, because I love you; in the second, because Herne, the Apostle of the Higher Culture, is an unprincipled blackguard!"
"Darcy! Mr. Herne!"
"Yes. Oh, I have heard tales about him in London!"
"What kind of tales?
"Tales of profligacy. He uses his name here to cloak his London wickednesses."
"I don't believe it," cried Miss Lester after a pause. "He is too good a man to be wicked. I don't love him, but I respect him. And if he is as wicked as you say," added Milly, with an afterthought, "he wouldn't be the friend of Mr. Chaskin."
"The Rev. Francis Chaskin," sneered Lovel, "who was an officer of the army before he became a vicar in the Church. Oh, I know all about him!"
"Is he bad also?"
"Herne and he are a pair of—mysteries."
"I think you are a third one," said Milly, in a puzzled tone. "Explain!"
"No—not here; there is no time, and I have no proofs. Meet me to-morrow night in the Winding Lane at half-past eight, and I'll give you the prenuptial character of your future husband."
"To-morrow will be Sunday."
"What of that? You can meet me after evening service."
"Oh!" Milly looked terrified. "What would Darcy say if he knew that I met you at so late an hour?"
"H'm! What would Darcy say if he knew that all his iniquities were about to be laid bare? Come or not, as you like."
Miss Lester considered. "Darcy is in London, and won't be back for four days," she said at length. "I'll come—if you promise to tell no one."
"I promise. At half-past eight, in the Winding Lane."
"Yes; but I won't believe what you tell me."
"You said the same thing about Gran Jimboy's prophecy!" said Lovel, drily; "but you believe it for all that."
"I don't—I don't! Do you?"
When Milly put this question, Lovel looked at her gravely.
"I'll answer that question to-morrow night," said he; and then they parted.
Barnstead was a moderately large village, which had not increased in population or size since the Middle Ages. In fact, it was less important now than it had been in medieval times, for then several battles, detrimental to a kingly dynasty, had been fought in its vicinity. Now it was a quiet, somnolent spot, which had nothing to do with the affairs of the nation; at all events, these were not transacted within its neighbourhood. Ten miles distant, the roaring manufacturing town of Marborough responded to the business spirit of the century, and was connected by rail with the metropolis, but the iron way came no further; and to reach Barnstead it was necessary to drive or ride. For the convenience of chance visitors a coach ran daily between the Herne Arms in Barnstead and the William Pitt Hotel in Marborough. This was the sole link which connected the village with the outside world.
The surrounding country was flat and alluvial and agricultural, with prosperous farms set here and there in the extent of its plain. In the centre of these rich cornlands, which formed the wealth of the region, Barnstead was placed beside a sluggish little stream, too small to be called a river. The quaint houses of the village clustered round a beautiful minster of ornate architecture. This was St. Dunstan's Church, and dated from Saxon times, although its design was Norman, and the greater part of it had been built in the thirteenth century. The Rev. Francis Chaskin, ex-cavalry officer, was its vicar, and the living had been presented to him by Darcy Herne, squire and lord of Barnstead Manor, and the firm friend of this soldier turned priest.
Herne Grange, the great house of the district, was situated a quarter of a mile from Barnstead, and nestled amid the trees of its park, some little way back from the high road leading to Marborough. Its present owner, a man of thirty, was devoured by religious fanaticism, and was subject to trances like those recorded of the Catholic saints. He was tall, meagre, pale, and—so far as could be seen—quite detached from worldly pleasures; so why such a saint should have engaged himself to frivolous Millicent Lester was a problem which no one could solve. Yet eight months before the beginning of this tale the ascetic and the coquette—to describe them by their most pronounced characteristics—became engaged, and the wedding was to take place shortly.
Whatever Herne's reason might have been for the match, his bride-elect made no secret that her consent was based on solely monetary grounds. Her father was poor, her home—owing to the domineering of the inconvenient Iris Link—was disagreeable; and to escape from these ills she was content to become Mrs. Herne, of the Grange. Secretly she would have preferred Lucas Lovel as a husband, as he was good-looking and pleasant, but in the face of his avowed poverty she chose to marry Darcy Herne. Nevertheless, she recompensed herself for this dutiful compliance with necessity by flirting with Lovel whenever she could do so without such behavior coming to the ears of her future husband. With Darcy's strict views, he was quite capable of breaking off the match did he learn of her conduct; and Milly was too anxious to complete this rich marriage to run such a risk. So she coquetted discreetly with Lovel, and assumed a demure demeanor when in the saintly presence of Herne.
Who Lovel was no one knew. He had come from London with an introduction to Herne some eight months previously; and since that time he had remained in the village sketching and fishing, and amusing himself at Barnstead tea-tables. After remaining a month at the Grange he had taken rooms at the Herne Arms, and was quite accepted as a friend and equal by the gentry in and about the village. He was dark, and, as has before been stated, very handsome; also, he had apparently travelled a good deal, and spoke several foreign languages excellently well. His dress and manner were both irreproachable; and he was voted quite an acquisition to Barnstead society. Nevertheless, he had his detractors, and it was hinted by these that the man was an adventurer, in search of a rich wife. But Lovel's friends always pointed out that this could not be so, else he would have married Miss Clyde.
Selina Clyde was a masculine young woman who farmed her own lands and looked after her own monetary affairs. She was tall, raw-boned, and fair, with a contempt for feminine fripperies, which led her to dress in a somewhat mannish way. Wet or dry, she was out riding or walking over her lands, and knew all about draining, top-dressing, manuring, and such like agricultural matters; also, she was a shrewd business woman, and boasted with good reason that no one had ever got the better of her in a bargain. In her farmhouse, a comfortable old homestead some two miles on the other side of Barnstead, she dwelt with Mrs. Drass, her former governess, who was said to be the greatest gossip in the neighborhood. Until the appearance of handsome Lucas Lovel, Miss Clyde had made up her mind to live and die a spinster; but, with his advent, she had yielded to the influence and charm of his manner to such a degree that without inquiring into his antecedents she was quite prepared to marry him. Lovel saw this, and in other circumstances might have seized the chance of a comfortable future; but being in love with Milly, he wanted to make her Mrs. Lovel, and endow her with his poverty. Miss Clyde saw this, felt herself scorned for the frivolous beauty of the doctor's daughter, and soon came to hate Milly with all her heart. And Miss Clyde, as everyone knew, was an admirable hater.
For the last few days Herne had been in London on some business connected with religious missions; and during his absence Milly had contrived to meet Lovel once or twice in what was presumably a casual manner. She was now coming home from the meeting at which Gran Jimboy had prophesied misfortune; and was rather alarmed when she recalled her promise to meet Lucas the next evening at half-past eight. She felt that to keep such an appointment would be indiscreet.
"But I shan't go! I shan't go!" she kept saying to herself on the way home to Poverty Villa. All the same, such was her curiosity to know if there was any truth in Lovel's statements regarding the profligacy of her future husband, she knew very well she would keep the appointment. "I owe it to myself to learn the truth about Darcy before it is too late," she said several times in order to quiet her conscience; and in this frame of mind she arrived at the house of her father.
Poverty Villa, as Milly nicknamed the place, was a scrubby little house with two acres of neglected ground, and was located in the poorest part of the village. Dr. Lester should have had a flourishing practice, but had not, for two causes; the first being that the other medical man had been established for a longer time in Barnstead; the second and more serious reason being that he was an habitual drunkard. All day long he was sip, sip, sipping at brandy; and although never aggressively intoxicated, his brain was always in a confused state, which rendered people distrustful of his judgment in diagnosing cases and prescribing drugs.
"It's a wonder he hasn't killed the few patients he has long ago," said Mrs. Drass, who made no secret of her dislike for the doctor; "but some day he'll give someone the wrong medicine and poison him; then he'll be hanged, and that will be a judgment on him for letting his minx of a daughter flirt with young Lovel," the truth of which speech being that Mrs. Drass, who was something of a toady, wanted Milly to release Lovel from her fascinations, that he might marry Selina Clyde.
But other people shared this opinion, and it was only of a few patients that Dr. Lester could boast, these being mostly amongst the poorer classes of agricultural labourers. Consequently the fees were small, and but that Lester had a few hundreds of his own, it might have gone hard with himself and his daughters. As it was the Lester household was hard up for all but the barest necessities of life. Iris Link, who managed the domestic affairs, did her best to make both ends meet, and to present a fairly decent outside to the world; but all to no purpose. The world of Barnstead knew the truth about Poverty Villa, and openly pitied the trio who lived in it. But it was admitted on all hands that Dr. Lester spent on drink what he should have devoted to the nourishment and clothing of his daughters—or rather, his daughter and stepdaughter.
Milly entered the house in the full expectation of having trouble with Iris, and in this she was not disappointed. Iris met her as she closed the door, and beckoned her into the shabby little drawing-room, where for a moment or so the two girls eyed one another in silence. As Milly had told Lovel, there was no kin between them, for Iris was the daughter of the second Mrs. Lester by her first husband; and when that lady had married the doctor she found him already provided with a child by his first wife. Milly was twenty years of age, Iris twenty-five; and while the first was a beautiful girl with many admirers, the second was dark and quiet, with no grace of form or face, and, as yet, had not gained one lover. Her small accomplishments were quite extinguished by the brilliance and beauty of Milly. Yet Iris possessed the better nature of the two, and would make a better wife, in spite of her looks. The dispositions of the two girls were antagonistic; and they disliked one another exceedingly. Only the narrowness of their circumstances compelled them to live under the same roof, else they would have parted long since. Luckily—as both thought—the marriage of Milly would bring about the wished-for separation; yet even in this there was an element of bitterness to Iris. What that element was may be seen from the slightly acidulated conversation which ensued.
"Really, Milly!" said Iris with a weary sigh. "I do think you might stay at home and help me with the house. There is such a lot to do, and Eliza"—the one servant of the Lesters—"is worse than useless."
"Then get another servant!" retorted Milly, throwing down her hat. "I am not going to stay in on this fine day."
"What would Darcy say if he knew you were wandering about by yourself?"
"Bother! Who cares what he says! Besides," added Milly, defiantly, "I have not been by myself."
"Milly," cried Iris, with a dark shade on her face, "have you been again with Mr. Lovel?"
"For the last hour, my dear."
"Then you ought to be ashamed of yourself."
Milly laughed, and examined herself critically in the mirror over the fireplace. She was used to the scoldings of Iris, and cared very little for them. So long as Darcy did not hear of her flirtations with Lovel she had no fear, and treated the expostulations of Iris and the doctor with cool disdain. She did not trouble herself to reply to the last remark, but continued to admire her beauty with critical eyes, while Iris continued:
"You know Mr. Lovel is almost engaged——"
"To Miss Clyde, I suppose you mean. Oh, dear! no, he isn't! He has just told me that he cares nothing for her and a good deal for me."
"But you are engaged to Mr. Herne."
"I am, my dear; I am!" retorted Milly swinging round on the tips of her toes. "Don't you wish you were?"
Iris flushed crimson, for Milly knew well enough that she more than admired the squire. "If I were," she said, evading the question, "I should act in a more honourable way towards him."
"Pooh! pooh! A few words with Mr. Lovel won't hurt him."
"A few words, as you call them, will hurt both men. You can't marry Mr. Lovel."
"I don't want to; nor can you marry Darcy. Look here, my love," continued Milly coolly: "please don't lecture me any more. If you think Darcy ought to know, tell him about Mr. Lovel, then he'll break off the match with me, and perhaps you'll catch him."
"I would not think of doing such a thing!" cried Iris vehemently.
"Why not? I'd do it in your place. You are too good, my dear; too, too good!"
"I'll speak to father," said Iris, who from habit called the doctor so.
"What good will that do? In the first place, he'll probably not be sober; and, in the second, he's too anxious for me to marry Darcy to tell on me. Oh, dear! I wish you were to marry Darcy, Iris; he is just the prig for you!"
Iris looked at the fire with a frown, and not caring to trust herself to speech, ran out of the room and into the garden. There was something so shameless about Milly's speeches and actions with regard to Lovel that she was almost tempted to tell Herne and prevent the match. But then she loved Herne, and her intervention would be put down to jealousy.
"I can do nothing, nothing," she thought; "if Mr. Lovel——"
At this moment the man himself passed slowly down the road in close conversation with Gran Jimboy. His face was quite pale, and he looked as though he had received a shock—as indeed he had. Mrs. Jimboy had revealed something connected with the meeting of the next night!
By the time Lovel and his oddly-chosen companion had passed out of sight, Iris regained her composure and returned to the house. She said nothing to Milly, who was now playing waltzes on the jingling piano, and did not even re-enter the drawing room. It was quite useless to expostulate further with the spoilt beauty; so Iris went back to help Eliza in the kitchen, and to see after the dinner. Nevertheless, she thought a great deal about Milly's flirtation with Lovel; and, since she could do nothing with the girl, wondered if it would be wise to inform Dr. Lester of the situation.
It must be clearly understood that Iris did not wish Milly to marry the Squire of Barnstead. She was in love with him herself, and would have dearly liked to become his wife. The mysticism of the man attracted her in no small degree, and she sympathised with his aspirations and religious views. It was clear to the most unobservant that Milly would not make him a good wife; and nothing would have pleased Iris better than that something should occur to interrupt the marriage. But she was resolved that the obstacle should not be placed in the way by her, lest it should be said that she was scheming to obtain Herne for herself. Rather than she should be accused of such selfishness, Iris was determined to bring about the marriage by every means in her power. The one danger likely to prevent the match was the flirtation of Milly with Lovel; and Iris decided to tell Dr. Lester of this danger, so that Milly should meet her lover no more. The father alone could save his daughter from jeopardising her future.
Unfortunately, Dr. Lester returned from Marborough more or less intoxicated, and after a pretence of eating retired to his bedroom to sleep off his potations. It was quite useless to appeal to Philip drunk, as Iris knew well; therefore she was obliged to wait till next morning, when there might be some chance of getting Philip sober to take a sensible view of the matter. Milly took no notice of her father's condition, being well used to his debauches, but spent the evening in trimming a hat which she designed to wear to church the next day. Iris sat in the same room, employed with needlework; and took the opportunity of informing Milly what she intended to do. There was nothing secretive about Miss Link; she was an open enemy, and not a snake in the grass; moreover, she hoped by warning Milly of her decision to make her promise to renounce the Lovel flirtation.
"Milly," she said, as they worked rapidly, "have you thought of what I said to you this afternoon?"
"About what?" asked the other carelessly.
"About Mr. Lovel. Will you promise to stop flirting with him?"
"No, I won't!" said Milly flatly; "he amuses me, and I intend to meet him and talk to him as much as I like. If you choose you can tell Darcy."
"You know I shan't do that," replied Iris quietly, "and that you are safe in giving me the permission. But I'll tell your father."
"Pooh! What does that matter? He won't speak to Darcy: he's too anxious for me to marry the man; I told you that this afternoon."
"He will be very angry," cried Iris in despair.
"Let him be angry!" returned the dutiful daughter; "he can't kill me!"
"O Milly! Milly! Why can't you behave in a more honourable manner? If you love Mr. Lovel, break off the match with Mr. Herne."
"And let you have your chance!" sneered Milly, tossing her head. "No, thank you, dear."
"Then stop flirting with Mr. Lovel and be true to your future husband."
Milly laughed, shook her head, and busied herself with threading a needle. "My future husband," said she slowly; "h'm! Perhaps I won't marry him after all."
"Then you intend to accept Mr. Lovel?"
"No, I intend to do nothing. But Gran Jimboy read my hand this afternoon, and she prophesied that I should marry neither."
"What do you mean?" asked Iris sharply. "Have you a third admirer?"
"According to gran I have," said Milly with a shiver; "the third admirer is Death, my dear. I am to be—murdered!"
Iris rose so quickly that her work rolled on to the floor. She looked at Milly in a scared sort of way. "Are you out of your mind?" she said nervously.
"No; I'm only telling you what Gran Jimboy read in my hand. But I don't believe in palmistry; do you, Iris?"
"No, I don't," said Miss Link contemptuously. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, letting Gran Jimboy play on your fears. Did she say you would die?"
"Yes; that I should be murdered. Ugh!" and Milly shivered again.
"You don't believe such rubbish?"
Miss Lester jumped up and threw the hat she had been trimming on the sofa. "I don't know," she said, pacing to and fro. "Sometimes I do; sometimes I don't. I wish you would not talk of death! I hate it!" Then, after a pause, "I'm going to bed," said she.
Iris arrested her at the door. "Milly, do be sensible, and give up these wild ideas."
"Mr. Lovel, I suppose?"
"Yes; don't flirt with him any more, and I'll not tell Dr. Lester."
"You can do as you please!" returned Milly loftily. "I'm doing no harm, and I'll talk to Lucas as much as I please!"
"Lucas! You call him by his first name?"
"When I wish to be nice, I do," replied the girl provokingly; "and he calls me by mine."
"Milly, you are ruining your life!" said Iris in despair.
"Ah, well; what of it? It's going to be a short one—according to Gran Jimboy," and before her sister could make a further remark Milly ran out of the room, with a nervous laugh. Iris resumed her seat, and again devoted herself to work, but her thoughts were busy with the ill-disciplined mind of her companion.
Whether it was Milly's attitude towards Herne, or her conduct with Lovel, or her revelation of the gipsy's prophecy, Iris did not know; but she felt a premonition of evil, and wondered what she could do to prevent the occurrence of ill. There was no thought of self in the desire, for she was genuinely sorry for the fool's paradise in which Lovel was living. Doubtless he thought that Milly would break with Herne to marry him; but Iris was assured that her sister was too fond of money and luxury to do so. Milly had no idea of morality, or right or wrong, and was quite content to flirt with one man and go to the altar with the other, without caring for the consequences. Yet in the complication she had made there lay the elements of tragedy; and Iris wondered if the gipsy had been clever enough to guess this, and had prophesied death and danger merely on the possibility of such result. She was beginning to feel alarmed at the entanglement, and resolved to put matters straight if she could. Failing the authority of Lester over his reckless daughter, which was merely nominal, it yet remained that an explanation and an appeal to Lovel might induce him to withdraw from the fascinations of Milly, and leave the village. Then the marriage with Herne might be pressed on, and under his good influence and care Milly might be sheltered from the dangers of life which were created by her love of admiration. This was the only course to pursue, and Iris decided to take it.
"I'll see Mr. Lovel to-morrow," she said when retiring to bed, "and appeal to his better nature to go away. Darcy is so much in love with her that it would break his heart to lose her. Milly must marry him, and do her best to make him happy. I can do nothing less to show my love for him. Ah! he does not guess how I worship him! If he did—alas! alas!" Here Iris broke off her meditations, and extinguished the light. Then, in the silence and darkness, she wept quietly over her unreturned love and aching heart. Truly, to a woman, the burden of unrequited affection is heavy to bear.
Early on Sunday morning Milly received a letter from Darcy, stating that he would return the next day, as he had concluded his business. The information gave her no pleasure, as it meant that she would have to submit to be bored in his company, and would not be able to see Lucas as often as heretofore. Yet the receipt of the letter gave her the assurance that she could safely keep her appointment with Lovel, without being found out; and her hitherto wavering decision was fixed from that moment. This intention was unknown to Iris else she might have prevented the meeting.
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