On a certain morning in last June I was stooping to fasten a shoelace, having taken advantage for the purpose of the step of a corner house in St. James’ Square, when a man passing behind me stopped.
“Well!” said he aloud, after a short pause during which I wondered–I could not see him–what he was doing, “the meanness of these rich folk is disgusting! Not a coat of paint for a twelvemonth! I should be ashamed to own a house and leave it like that!”
The man was a stranger to me, and his words seemed as uncalled for as they were ill-natured. But being thus challenged I looked at the house. It was a great stone mansion with a balustrade atop, with many windows and a long stretch of area railings. And, certainly it was shabby. I turned from it to the critic. He was shabby, too–a little red-nosed man, wearing a bad hat. “It is just possible,” I suggested, “that the owner may be a poor man and unable to keep it in order.”
“Ugh! What has that to do with it?” my new friend answered contemptuously. “He ought to think of the public.”
“And your hat?” I asked, with wining politeness. “It strikes me, an unprejudiced observer, as a bad hat. Why do you not get a new one?”
“Cannot afford it!” he snapped out, his dull eyes sparkling with rage.
“Cannot afford it? But, my good man, you ought to think of the public.”
“You tom-cat! What have you to do with my hat? Smother you!” was his kindly answer; and he went on his way muttering things uncomplimentary.
I was about to go mine, and was first falling back to gain a better view of the house in question, when a chuckle close to me betrayed the presence of a listener, a thin, gray-haired man, who, hidden by a pillar of the porch, must have heard our discussion. His hands were engaged with a white tablecloth, from which he had been shaking the crumbs. He had the air of an upper servant of the best class. As our eyes met he spoke.
“Neatly put, sir, if I may take the liberty of saying so,” he observed with a quiet dignity it was a pleasure to witness, “and we are very much obliged to you. The man was a snob, sir.”
“I am afraid he was,” I answered; “and a fool too.”
“And a fool, sir. Answer a fool after his folly. You did that, and he was nowhere; nowhere at all, except in the swearing line. Now might I ask,” he continued, “if you are an American, sir?”
“No, I am not,” I answered; “but I have spent some time in the States.”
I could have fancied that he sighed.
“I thought–but never mind, sir,” he began, “I was wrong, It is curious how very much alike gentlemen, that are real gentlemen, speak. Now, I dare swear, sir, that you have a taste for pictures.”
I was inclined to humor the old fellow’s mood. “I like a good picture, I admit,” I said.
“Then perhaps you would not be offended if I asked you to step inside and look at one or two,” he suggested timidly. “I would not take a liberty, sir, but there are some Van Dycks and a Rubens in the dining room that cost a mint of money in their day, I have heard; and there is no one else in the house but my wife and myself.”
It was a strange invitation, strangely brought about. But I saw no reason for myself why I should not accept it, and I followed him into the hall. It was spacious, but sparsely furnished. The matted floor had a cold look, and so had the gaunt stand which seemed to be a fixture, and boasted but one umbrella, one sunshade, and one dog-whip. As I passed a half-open door I caught a glimpse of a small room prettily furnished, with dainty prints and water-colors on the walls. But these were of a common order. A dozen replicas of each and all might be seen in a walk through Bond Street. Even this oasis of taste and comfort told the same story as had the bare hall and dreary exterior; and laid, as it were, a finger on one’s heart. I trod softly as I followed my guide along the strip of matting toward the rear of the house.
He opened a door at the inner end of the hall, and led me into a large and lofty room, built out from the back, as a state dining room or ballroom. At present it rather resembled the latter, for it was without furniture. “Now,” said the old man, turning and respectfully touching my sleeve to gain my attention, “now you will not consider your labor lost in coming to see that, sir. It is a portrait of the second Lord Wetherby by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, and is judged to be one of the finest specimens of his style in existence.”
I was lost in astonishment; amazed, almost appalled! My companion stood by my side, his face wearing a placid smile of satisfaction, his hand pointing slightly upward to the blank wall before us. The blank wall! Of any picture, there or elsewhere in the room, there was no sign. I turned to him and then from him, and I felt very sick at heart. The poor old fellow was–must be–mad. I gazed blankly at the blank wall. “By Van Dyck?” I repeated mechanically.
“Yes, sir, by Van Dyck,” he replied, in the most matter-of-fact tone imaginable. “So, too, is this one;” he moved, as he spoke, a few feet to his left. “The second peer’s first wife in the costume of a lady-in-waiting. This portrait and the last are in as good a state of preservation as on the day they were painted.”
Oh, certainly mad! And yet so graphic was his manner, so crisp and realistic were his words, that I rubbed my eyes; and looked and looked again, and almost fancied that Lord Walter and Anne, his wife, grew into shape before me on the wall. Almost, but not quite; and it was with a heart full of wondering pity that I accompanied the old man, in whose manner there was no trace of wildness or excitement, round the walls; visiting in turn the Cuyp which my lord bought in Holland, the Rubens, the four Lawrences, and the Philips–a very Barmecide feast of art. I could not doubt that the old man saw the pictures. But I saw only bare walls.
“Now I think you have seen them, family portraits and all,” he concluded, as we came to the doorway again; stating the fact, which was no fact, with complacent pride. “They are fine pictures, sir. They, at least, are left, although the house is not what it was.”
“Very fine pictures!” I remarked. I was minded to learn if he were sane on other points. “Lord Wetherby,” I said; “I should suppose that he is not in London?”
“I do not know, sir, one way or the other,” the servant answered with a new air of reserve. “This is not his lordship’s house. Mrs. Wigram, my late lord’s daughter-in-law, lives here.”
“But this is the Wetherbys’ town house,” I persisted. I knew so much.
“It was my late lord’s house. At his son’s marriage it was settled upon Mrs. Wigram; and little enough besides, God knows!” he exclaimed querulously. “It was Mr. Alfred’s wish that some land should be settled upon his wife, but there was none out of the entail, and my lord, who did not like the match, though he lived to be fond enough of the mistress afterward, said, ‘Settle the house in town!’ in a bitter kind of joke like. So the house was settled, and five hundred pounds a year. Mr. Alfred died abroad, as you may know, sir, and my lord was not long in following him.”
He was closing the shutters of one window after another as he spoke. The room had sunk into deep gloom. I could imagine now that the pictures were really where he fancied them. “And Lord Wetherby, the late peer?” I asked, after a pause, “did he leave his daughter-in-law nothing?”
“My lord died suddenly, leaving no will,” he replied sadly. “That is how it all is. And the present peer, who was only a second cousin–well, I say nothing about him.” A reticence which was well calculated to consign his lordship to the lowest deep.
“He did not help?” I asked.
“Devil a bit, begging your pardon, sir. But there–it is not my place to talk of these things. I doubt I have wearied you with talk about the family. It is not my way,” he added, as if wondering at himself, “only something in what you said seemed to touch a chord like.”
By this time we were outside the room, standing at the inner end of the hall, while he fumbled with the lock of the door. Short passages ending in swing doors ran out right and left from this point, and through one of these a tidy, middle-aged woman, wearing an apron, suddenly emerged. At sight of me she looked greatly astonished. “I have been showing the gentleman the pictures,” said my guide, who was still occupied with the door.
A quick flash of pain altered and hardened the woman’s face. “I have been very much interested, madam,” I said softly.
Her gaze left me, to dwell upon the old man with infinite affection. “John had no right to bring you in, sir,” she said primly. “I have never known him do such a thing before, and–Lord ‘a’ mercy! there is the mistress’s knock. Go, John, and let her in; and this gentleman,” with an inquisitive look at me, “will not mind stepping a bit aside, while her ladyship goes upstairs.”
“Certainly not,” I answered. I hastened to draw back into one of the side passages, into the darkest corner of it, and there stood leaning against the cool panels, my hat in my hand.
In the short pause which ensued before John opened the door she whispered to me, “You have not told him, sir?”
“About the pictures?”
“Yes, sir. He is blind, you see.”
“Blind?” I exclaimed.
“Yes, sir, this year and more; and when the pictures were taken away–by the present earl–that he had known all his life, and been so proud to show to people just the same as if they had been his own–why, it seemed a shame to tell him. I have never had the heart to do it, and he thinks they are there to this day.”
Blind! I had never thought of that; and while I was grasping the idea now, and fitting it to the facts, a light footstep sounded in the hall and a woman’s voice on the stairs; such a voice and such a footstep, that, as it seemed to me, a man, if nothing else were left to him, might find home in them alone. “Your mistress,” I said presently, when the sounds had died away upon the floor above, “has a sweet voice; but has not something annoyed her?”
“Well, I never should have thought that you would have noticed that!” exclaimed the housekeeper, who was, I dare say, many other things besides housekeeper. “You have a sharp ear, sir; that I will say. Yes, there is a something has gone wrong; but to think that an American gentleman should have noticed it!”
“I am not American,” I said, perhaps testily.
“Oh, indeed, sir. I beg your pardon, I am sure. It was just your way of speaking made me think it,” she replied; and then there came a second louder rap at the door, as John, who had gone upstairs with his mistress, came down in a leisurely fashion.
“That is Lord Wetherby, drat him!” he said, on his wife calling to him in a low voice; he was ignorant, I think, of my presence. “He is to be shown into the library, and the mistress will see him there in five minutes; and you are to go to her room. Oh, rap away!” he added, turning toward the door, and shaking his fist at it. “There is many a better man than you has waited longer at that door.”
“Hush, John! Do you not see the gentleman?” interposed his wife, with the simplicity of habit. “He will show you out,” she added rapidly to me, “as soon as his lordship has gone in, if you do not mind waiting another minute.”
“Not at all,” I said, drawing back into the corner as they went on their errands; but though I said, “Not at all,” mine was an odd position. The way in which I had come into the house, and my present situation in a kind of hiding, would have made most men only anxious to extricate themselves. But I, while listening to John parleying with someone at the door, conceived a strange desire, or a desire which would have been strange in any other man, to see this thing to the end; conceived it and acted upon it.
The library? That was the room on the right of the hall, opposite to Mrs. Wigram’s sitting room. Probably, nay I was certain, it had another door opening on the passage in which I stood. It would cost me but a step or two to confirm my opinion. When John ushered in the visitor by one door I had already, by way of the other, ensconced myself behind a screen, that I seemed to know would face it. I was going to listen. Perhaps I had my reasons. Perhaps–but there, what matter? I, as a fact, listened.
The room was spacious but somber, wainscoted and vaulted with oak. Its only visible occupant was a thin, dark man of middle size, with a narrow face, and a stubborn feather of black hair rising above his forehead; a man of Welsh type. He was standing with his back to the light, a roll of papers in one hand. The fingers of the other, drumming upon the table, betrayed that he was both out of temper and ill at ease. While I was still scanning him stealthily–I had never seen him before–the door was opened, and Mrs. Wigram came in. I sank back behind the screen. I think some words passed, some greeting of the most formal, but though the room was still, I failed to hear it, and when I recovered myself he was speaking.
“I am here at your wish, Mrs. Wigram, and your service, too,” he was saying, with an effort at gallantry which sat very ill upon him, “although I think it would have been better if we had left the matter to our solicitors.”
“Yes. I fancied you were aware of my opinion.”
“I was; and I perfectly understand, Lord Wetherby, your preference for that course,” she replied, with sarcastic coldness, which did not hide her dislike for him. “You naturally shrink from telling me your terms face to face.”
“Now, Mrs. Wigram! Now, Mrs. Wigram! Is not this a tone to be deprecated?” he answered, lifting his hands. “I come to you as a man of business upon business.”
“Business! Does that mean wringing advantage from my weakness?” she retorted.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I do deprecate this tone,” he repeated. “I come in plain English to make you an offer; one which you can accept or refuse as you please. I offer you five hundred a year for this house. It is immensely too large for your needs, and too expensive for your income, and yet you have in strictness no power to let it. Very well, I, who can release you from that restriction, offer you five hundred a year for the house. What can be more fair?”
“Fair? In plain English, Lord Wetherby, you are the only possible purchaser, and you fix the price. Is that fair? The house would let easily for twelve hundred.”
“Possibly,” he retorted, “if it were in the open market. But it is not.”
“No,” she answered rapidly. “And you, having the forty thousand a year which, had my husband lived, would have been his and mine; you who, a poor man, have stepped into this inheritance–you offer me five hundred for the family house! For shame, my lord! for shame!”
“We are not acting a play,” he said doggedly, showing that her words had stung him in some degree. “The law is the law. I ask for nothing but my rights, and one of those I am willing to waive in your favor. You have my offer.”
“And if I refuse it? If I let the house? You will not dare to enforce the restriction.”
“Try me,” he rejoined, again drumming with his fingers upon the table. “Try me, and you will see.”
“If my husband had lived—-“
“But he did not live,” he broke in, losing patience, “and that makes all the difference. Now, for Heaven’s sake, Mrs. Wigram, do not make a scene! Do you accept my offer?”
For a moment she had seemed about to break down, but her pride coming to the rescue, she recovered herself with wonderful quickness.
“I have no choice,” she said, with dignity.
“I am glad you accept,” he answered, so much relieved that he gave way to an absurd burst of generosity. “Come!” he cried, “we will say guineas instead of pounds, and have done with it!”
She looked at him in wonder. “No, Lord Wetherby,” she said, “I accepted your terms. I prefer to keep to them. You said that you would bring the necessary papers with you. If you have done so I will sign them now, and my servants can witness them.”
“I have the draft, and the lawyer’s clerk is no doubt in the house,” he answered. “I left directions for him to be here at eleven.”
“I do not think he is in the house,” the lady answered. “I should know if he were here.”
“Not here!” he cried angrily. “Why not, I wonder! But I have the skeleton lease. It is very short, and to save delay I will fill in the particulars, names, and so forth myself, if you will permit me to do so. It will not take me twenty minutes.”
“As you please. You will find a pen and ink on the table. If you will kindly ring the bell when you are ready, I will come and bring the servants.”
“Thank you; you are very good,” he said smoothly; adding, when she had left the room. “And the devil take your impudence, madam! As for your cursed pride–well, it has saved me twenty-five pounds a year, and so you are welcome to it. I was a fool to make the offer.” And with that, now grumbling at the absence of the lawyer’s clerk and now congratulating himself on the saving of a lawyer’s fee, my lord sat down to his task.
A hansom cab on its way to the East India Club rattled through the square, and under cover of the noise I stole out from behind the screen, and stood in the middle of the room, looking down at the unconscious worker. If for a minute I felt strongly the desire to raise my hand and give his lordship such a surprise as he had never in his life experienced, any other man might have felt the same; and, as it was, I put it away and only looked quietly about me. Some rays of sunshine, piercing the corner pane of a dulled window, fell on and glorified the Wetherby coat of arms blazoned over the wide fireplace, and so created the one bright spot in the bare, dismantled room, which had once, unless the tiers of empty shelves and the yet lingering odor of Russia lied, been lined from floor to ceiling with books. My lord had taken the furniture; my lord had taken the books; my lord had taken–nothing but his rights.
Retreating softly to the door by which I had entered, and rattling the handle, I advanced afresh into the room. “Will your lordship allow me?” I said, after I had in vain coughed twice to gain his attention.
He turned hastily and looked at me with a face full of suspicion. Some surprise on finding another person in the room and close to him was natural; but possibly, also, there was something in the atmosphere of that house which threw his nerves off their balance. “Who are you?” he cried, in a tone which matched his face.
“You left orders, my lord,” I explained, “with Messrs. Duggan & Poole that a clerk should attend here at eleven. I very much regret that some delay has unavoidably been caused.”
“Oh, you are the clerk!” he replied ungraciously. “You do not look much like a lawyer’s clerk.”
Involuntarily I glanced aside and saw in a mirror the reflection of a tall man with a thick beard and mustaches, gray eyes, and an ugly scar seaming the face from ear to ear. “Yet I hope to give you full satisfaction, my lord,” I murmured, dropping my eyes. “It was understood that you needed a confidential clerk.”
“Well, well, sir, to your work!” he replied irritably. “Better late than never. And after all it may be preferable for you to be here and see it duly executed. Only you will not forget,” he continued hastily, with a glance at the papers, “that I have myself copied four–well, three–three full folios, sir, for which an allowance must be made. But there! Get on with your work. The handwriting will speak for itself.”
I obeyed, and wrote on steadily, while the earl walked up and down the room, or stood at a window. Upstairs sat Mrs. Wigram, schooling herself, I dare swear, to take this one favor that was no favor from the man who had dealt out to her such hard measure. Outside a casual passer through the square glanced up at the great house, and seeing the bent head of the secretary and the figure of his companion moving to and fro, saw, as he thought, nothing unusual; nor had any presentiment–how should he?–of the strange scene which the room with the dingy windows was about to witness.
I had been writing for perhaps five minutes when Lord Wetherby stopped in his passage behind me and looked over my shoulder. With a jerk his eye-glasses fell, touching my shoulder.
“Bless my soul!” he exclaimed, “I have seen your handwriting somewhere; and lately too. Where could it have been?”
“Probably among the family papers, my lord,” I answered. “I have several times been engaged in the family business in the time of the late Lord Wetherby.”
“Indeed!” There were both curiosity and suspicion in his utterance of the word. “You knew him?”
“Yes, my lord. I have written for him in this very room, and he has walked up and down, and dictated to me, as you might be doing now,” I explained.
His lordship stopped his pacing to and fro, and retreated to the window on the instant. But I could see that he was interested, and I was not surprised when he continued, with transparent carelessness, “A strange coincidence! And may I ask what it was upon which you were engaged?”
“At that time?” I answered, looking him in the face. “It was a will, my lord.”
He started and frowned, and abruptly resumed his walk up and down. But I saw that he had a better conscience than I had given him the credit of possessing. My shot had not struck fairly where I had looked to place it; and finding this was so, I turned the thing over afresh, while I pursued my copying. When I had finished, I asked him–I think he was busy at the time cursing the absence of tact in the lower orders–if he would go through the instrument; and he took my seat.
Where I stood behind him, I was not far from the fireplace. While he muttered to himself the legal jargon in which he was as well versed as a lawyer bred in an office, I moved to it; and, neither missed nor suspected, stood looking from his bent figure to the blazoned shield which formed part of the mantelpiece. If I wavered, my hesitation lasted but a few seconds. Then, raising my voice, I called sharply, “My lord, there used to be here—-“
He turned swiftly, and saw where I was.
“What the deuce are you doing there, sir?” he cried, in boundless astonishment, rising to his feet and coming toward me, the pen in his hand and his face aflame with anger. “You forget—-“
“A safe–a concealed safe for papers,” I continued, cutting him short in my turn. “I have seen the late Lord Wetherby place papers in it more than once. The spring worked from here. You touch this knob—-“
“Leave it alone, sir!” cried the peer furiously.
He spoke too late. The shield had swung gently outward on a hinge, door-fashion, and where it had been gaped a small open safe, lined with cement. The rays of sunshine, that a few minutes before had picked out so brightly the gaudy quarterings, now fell on a large envelope which lay apart on a shelf. It was as clean as if it had been put there that morning. No doubt the safe was airtight. I laid my hand upon it. “My lord!” I cried, turning to look at him with ill-concealed exultation, “here is a paper–I think, a will!”
A moment before the veins of his forehead had been swollen, his face dark with the rush of blood. His anger died down, at sight of the packet, with strange abruptness. He regained his self-control, and a moment saw him pale and calm, all show of resentment confined to a wicked gleam in his eye. “A will!” he repeated, with a certain kind of dignity, though the hand he stretched out to take the envelope shook. “Indeed! Then it is my place to examine it. I am the heir-at-law, and I am within my rights, sir.”
I feared that he was going to put the parcel into his pocket and dismiss me, and I was considering what course I should take in that event, when instead he carried the envelope to the table by the window, and tore off the cover without ceremony. “It is not in your handwriting?” were his first words, and he looked at me with a distrust that was almost superstitious. No doubt my sudden entrance, my ominous talk, and my discovery seemed to him to savor of the devil.
“No,” I replied, unmoved. “I told your lordship that I had written a will at the late Lord Wetherby’s dictation. I did not say–for how could I know?–that it was this one.”
“Ah!” He hastily smoothed the sheets, and ran his eyes over their contents. When he reached the last page there was a dark scowl on his face, and he stood a while staring at the signatures; not now reading, I think, but collecting his thoughts. “You know the provisions of this?” he presently burst forth with violence, dashing the back of his hand against the paper. “I say, sir, you know the provisions of this?”
“I do not, my lord,” I answered. Nor did I.
“The unjust provisions of this will!” he repeated, passing over my negative as if it had not been uttered. “Fifty thousand pounds to a woman who had not a penny when she married his son! Ay, and the interest on another hundred thousand for her life! Why, it is a prodigious income, an abnormal income, for a woman! And out of whose pocket is it to come? Out of mine, every stiver of it! It is monstrous! I say it is! How am I to keep up the title on the income left to me, I should like to know?”
I marveled. I remembered how rich he was. I could not refrain from suggesting that he had still remaining all the real property. “And,” I added, “I understood, my lord, that the testator’s personalty was sworn under four hundred thousand pounds.”
“You talk nonsense!” he snarled. “Look at the legacies! Five thousand here, and a thousand there, and hundreds like berries on a bush! It is a fortune, a decent fortune, clean frittered away! A barren title is all that will be left to me!”
What was he going to do? His face was gloomy, his hands were twitching. “Who are the witnesses, my lord?” I asked, in a low voice.
So low–for, under certain conditions, a tone conveys much, very much–that he shot a stealthy glance toward the door before he answered, “John Williams.”
“Blind,” I replied, in the same low tone.
“He is dead. He was Mr. Alfred’s valet. I remember reading in the newspaper that he was with his master, and was killed by the Indians at the same time.”
“True. I remember that that was the case,” he answered huskily. “And the handwriting is Lord Wetherby’s.” I assented. Then for fully a minute we were silent, while he bent over the will, and I stood behind him looking down at him, with thoughts in my mind which he could as little fathom as could the senseless wood upon which I leaned. Yet I, too, mistook him. I thought him, to be plain, a scoundrel; and–well, so he was, but a mean one. “What is to be done?” he muttered at length, speaking rather to himself than to me.
I answered softly, “I am a poor man, my lord,” while inwardly I was quoting, “Quem Deus vult perdere.”
My words startled him. He answered hurriedly: “Just so! just so! So shall I be when this cursed paper takes effect. A very poor man! A hundred and fifty thousand gone at a blow! But there, she shall have it! She shall have every penny of it; only,” he continued slowly, “I do not see what difference one more day will make.”
I followed his downcast eyes, which moved from the will before him to the agreement for the lease of the house; and I did see what difference a day would make. I saw and understood and wondered. He had not the courage to suppress the will; but if he could gain a slight advantage by withholding it for a few hours, he had the mind to do that. Mrs. Wigram, a rich woman, would no longer let the house; she would be under no compulsion to do so; and my lord would lose a cheap residence as well as his hundred and fifty thousand pounds. To the latter loss he could resign himself with a sigh; but he could not bear to forego the petty gain for which he had schemed. “I think I understand, my lord,” I replied.
“Of course,” he resumed nervously, “you must be rewarded for making this discovery. I will see that it is so. You may depend upon me. I will mention the case to Mrs. Wigram, and–and, in fact, my friend, you may depend upon me.”
“That will not do,” I said firmly. “If that be all, I had better go to Mrs. Wigram at once, and claim my reward a day earlier.”
He grew very red in the face at receiving this check. “You will not, in that event, get my good word,” he said.
“Which has no weight with the lady,” I answered politely but plainly.
“How dare you speak so to me?” his lordship cried. “You are an impertinent fellow! But there! How much do you want?”
“A hundred pounds.”
“A hundred pounds for a mere day’s delay, which will do no one any harm!”
“Except Mrs. Wigram,” I retorted dryly. “Come, Lord Wetherby, this lease is worth a thousand a year to you. Mrs. Wigram, as you well know, will not voluntarily let the house to you. If you would have Wetherby House you must pay me. That is the long and the short of it.”
“You are an impertinent fellow!” he repeated.
“So you have said before, my lord.”
I expected him to burst into a furious passion, but I suppose there was a something of power in my tone, beyond the mere defiance which the words expressed; for, instead of doing so, he eyed me with a thoughtful, malevolent gaze, and paused to consider. “You are at Duggan & Poole’s,” he said slowly. “How was it that they did not search this cupboard, with which you were acquainted?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I have not been in the house since Lord Wetherby died,” I said. “My employers did not consult me when the papers he left were examined.”
“You are not a member of the firm?”
“No, I am not,” I answered. I was thinking that, so far as I knew those respectable gentlemen, no one of them would have helped my lord in this for ten times a hundred pounds. My lord! Faugh!
He seemed satisfied, and taking out a notecase laid on the table a little pile of notes. “There is your money,” he said, counting them over with reluctant fingers. “Be good enough to put the will and envelope back into the cupboard. Tomorrow you will oblige me by rediscovering it–you can manage that, no doubt–and giving information at once to Messrs. Duggan & Poole, or Mrs. Wigram, as you please. Now,” he continued, when I had obeyed him, “will you be good enough to ask the servants to tell Mrs. Wigram that I am waiting?”
There was a slight noise behind us. “I am here,” said someone. I am sure that we both jumped at the sound, for though I did not look that way, I knew that the voice was Mrs. Wigram’s, and that she was in the room. “I have come to tell you, Lord Wetherby,” she went on, “that I have an engagement from home at twelve. Do I understand, however, that you are ready? If so, I will call in Mrs. Williams.”
“The papers are ready for signature,” the peer answered, betraying some confusion, “and I am ready to sign. I shall be glad to have the matter settled as agreed.” Then he turned to me, where I had fallen back, as seemed becoming, to the end of the room, and said, “Be good enough to ring the bell, if Mrs. Wigram permit it.”
As I moved to the fireplace to do so, I was conscious that the lady was regarding me with some faint surprise. But when I had regained my position and looked toward her, she was standing near the window, gazing steadily out into the square, an expression of disdain rendered by face and figure. Shall I confess that it was a joy to me to see her fair head so high, and to read, even in the outline of her girlish form, a contempt which I, and I only, knew to be so justly based? For myself, I leaned against the edge of the screen by the door, and perhaps my hundred pounds lay heavily on my heart. As for him, he fidgeted with his papers, although they were all in order, and was visibly impatient to get his bit of knavery accomplished. Oh, he was a worthy man! And Welshman!
“Perhaps,” he presently suggested, for the sake of saying something, “while your servant is coming, you will read the agreement, Mrs. Wigram. It is very short, and, as you know, your solicitors have already seen it in the draft.”
She bowed, and took the paper negligently. She read some way down the first sheet with a smile, half careless, half contemptuous. Then I saw her stop–she had turned her back to the window to obtain more light–and dwell on a particular sentence. I saw–God! I had forgotten the handwriting!–I saw her gray eyes grow large, and fear leap into them, as she grasped the paper with her other hand, and stepped nearer to the peer’s side. “Who?” she cried. “Who wrote this? Tell me! Do you hear? Tell me quickly!”
He was nervous on his own account, wrapped in his own piece of scheming, and obtuse.
“I wrote it,” he said, with maddening complacency. He put up his glasses and glanced at the top of the page she held out to him. “I wrote it myself, and I can assure you that it is quite right, and a faithful copy. You do not think—-“
“Think! think! No! no. This, I mean! Who wrote this?” she cried, awe in her face, and a suppliant tone, strange as addressed to that man, in her voice.
He was confounded by her vehemence, as well as hampered by his own evil conscience.
“The clerk, Mrs. Wigram, the clerk,” he said petulantly, still in his fog of selfishness. “The clerk from Messrs. Duggan & Poole’s.”
“Where is he?” she cried out breathlessly. I think she did not believe him.
“Where is he?” he repeated, in querulous surprise. “Why here, of course. Where should he be, madam? He will witness my signature.”
Would he? Signatures! It was little of signatures I recked at that moment. I was praying to Heaven that my folly might be forgiven me; and that my lightly planned vengeance might not fall on my own head. “Joy does not kill,” I was saying to myself, repeating it over and over again, and clinging to it desperately. “Joy does not kill!” But oh! was it true? in face of that white-lipped woman!
“Here!” She did not say more, but gazing at me with great dazed eyes, she raised her hand and beckoned to me. And I had no choice but to obey; to go nearer to her, out into the light.
“Mrs. Wigram,” I said hoarsely, my voice sounding to me only as a whisper, “I have news of your late–of your husband. It is good news.”
“Good news?” Did she faintly echo my words? or, as her face, from which all color had passed, peered into mine, and searched it in infinite hope and infinite fear, did our two minds speak without need of physical lips? “Good news?”
“Yes,” I whispered. “He is alive. The Indians did not—-“
“Alfred!” Her cry rang through the room, and with it I caught her in my arms as she fell. Beard and long hair, and scar and sunburn, and strange dress–these which had deceived others were no disguise to her–my wife. I bore her gently to the couch, and hung over her in a new paroxysm of fear. “A doctor! Quick! A doctor!” I cried to Mrs. Williams, who was already kneeling beside her. “Do not tell me,” I added piteously, “that I have killed her!”
“No! no! no!” the good woman answered, the tears running down her face. “Joy does not kill!”
An hour later this fear had been lifted from me, and I was walking up and down the library alone with my thankfulness; glad to be alone, yet more glad, more thankful still, when John came in with a beaming face. “You have come to tell me,” I cried eagerly, pleased that the tidings had come by his lips, “to go to her? That she will see me?”
“Her ladyship is sitting up,” he replied.
“And Lord Wetherby?” I asked, pausing at the door to put the question. “He left the house at once?”
“Yes, my lord, Mr. Wigram has been gone some time.”