Title: The White Gipsy Author: J. Monk Foster * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1600841h.html Language: English Date first posted: July 2016 Most recent update: July 2016 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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CHAPTER I.—SIR NICHOLAS CARSLAND.
CHAPTER II.—THE PRODIGAL SON.
CHAPTER III.—THE RETURN OF THE SCAPEGRACE.
CHAPTER IV.—IN THE WOOD OF HOUGH.
CHAPTER V.—SLEEPING OUT.
CHAPTER VI.—AFTER THE NEWS.
CHAPTER VII.—THE NEW BARONET.
CHAPTER I.—THE WHITE GIPSY.
CHAPTER II.—A ROMANTIC ENCOUNTER.
CHAPTER III.—AFTER TWENTY YEARS.
CHAPTER IV.—SALOME'S LOVER.
CHAPTER V.—SALOME SPEAKS OUT.
CHAPTER VI.—HUGH EASTWOOD SPEAKS.
CHAPTER VII.—BEFORE THE FOOTLIGHTS.
CHAPTER VIII.—AFTER THE PLAY.
CHAPTER X.—THE OLD PIT BOTTOM.
CHAPTER XI.—SIR SYDNEY DISSEMBLES.
CHAPTER XII.—EASTWOOD WOOS AGAIN.
CHAPTER XIII.—SALOME'S HISTORY.
CHAPTER XIV.—THE JEWELLED BROOCH.
CHAPTER XV.—LADY CARSLAND'S SCHEME.
CHAPTER XVI.—THE BOLT FROM THE BLUE.
CHAPTER XVII.—SALOME REFUSES TO SPEAK.
CHAPTER XVIII.—THE BIRD FLIES AWAY.
CHAPTER XlX.—ALONE IN LONDON.
CHAPTER XX.—NEWS FROM ABROAD.
CHAPTER XXI.—PAUL HEARS THE NEWS.
CHAPTER XXII.—AT THE BABYLONIAN.
CHAPTER XXIII.—A CHANCE MEETING.
CHAPTER XXIV.—WHAT PAUL DISCOVERED.
CHAPTER XXV.—THE TUG OF WAR.
CHAPTER XXVI.—HUGH EASTWOOD'S STORY.
CHAPTER XXVII.—IN THE STAGE BOX.
CHAPTER XXVIII.—JOY BELLS.
The sun was setting behind the high uplands of Thorrell Moor, and the level rays of crimson and yellow light were flooding the wide spreading valley beneath. Upon the rich meadows and brown cornfields—upon white-washed farms and the straggling, picturesque village—on the innumerable trees which dotted the vale, and on the green lanes that intersected it, the falling summer sun shone warmly and pleasantly, lending an additional and fictitious beauty to the scene.
The numberless windows of Carsland Hall, which looked westward, were ablaze in the sunset's radiance like mirrors of polished gold, and all the rooms on that side the Hall were flooded with the mellow beams.
The home of Sir Nicholas Carsland stood midway between the villages of Thorrell and Thorrell Moor. Behind the house the view was bounded by the swelling uplands, whereon, in olden days, beacon fires had flared out; in front, the country was laid bare to the gaze for over a dozen miles.
Standing on the roof of the Hall one could, apparently, have cast a stone into the village of Thorrell; beyond the hamlet the valley opened out, and was dotted by fields and farms for a mile or two. Then, further on, evidences of industrial enterprise shewed themselves in the shape of lines of railway covered with coal wagons, colliery head-gear, and tall chimneys. Next came another village, named Marsh Green, where the miners mainly resided, and away beyond that again a populous town, noted as being the centre of the South-west Lancashire coalfield.
Such was the landscape presented to the eye from the upper windows of Carsland Hall, and Sir Nicholas Carsland was viewing the picture with a melancholy face. He was seated at the deep-bayed window of a room on the second floor which was called his study, his countenance and bearing betraying a mind diseased.
The character of the baronet may be drawn in a very few words. He was a self-made man of the type so common in Lancashire. He had started life at the bottom of the ladder, and in the course of fifty years had amassed a fortune.
At twenty-five he had married an old lady for the sake of the few thousands she possessed. That money had proved the corner-stone of his success; with it one pit had been sunk, with the most gratifying results; other pits had followed until half-a-dozen collieries dotted the fields between Thorrell village and the mining hamlet of Marsh Green.
The elderly woman Nicholas Carsland had married died before his star arose. She was nearly twenty years her husband's senior, and she ceased to live when her first child saw the light, a year after the marriage.
Five years later Nicholas Carsland had married again. On the second occasion it was a union of hearts as well as of hands. The woman he had fallen in love with was a fine handsome girl who earned her livelihood on the pit top he owned.
For ten years, or thereabouts, Carsland and his wife lived happily together. They loved each other, fortune was smiling upon them, the one mine had already developed into three, hence the Carsland household had nothing to disturb its serenity.
By his second wife Carsland had another child, and this was also a boy, who, when his mother shuffled off this mortal coil, was a bonny lad of five.
When the only woman he ever loved died, Carsland was still in the prime of life, being scarcely over forty, but his thoughts never turned again to matrimony. By this time his success had filled his brain with great ambitions.
From a pit lad, working for a shilling a day, he had risen to be a capitalist worth, at least, a hundred thousand pounds, and having done so much he was resolved to do much more.
He began to take an active interest in the affairs of the adjacent town, Earlsford. He got himself elected as a member of the Town Council, sat as a Councillor for several years, and, in due course, was chosen as Mayor. Then a General Election took place, and he was brought out as a candidate; he spent some thousands of pounds on the contest, bribing right and left, giving free ale and free breakfasts to all and sundry who cared to imbibe and eat at his expense, as was the custom in those days—and the free and independent burgesses of Earlsford voted for his opponent.
The defeat was a bitter pill to swallow, after all his former victories, but he gulped it down quickly, and became Mayor for a second year, feasting the Councillors and Aldermen in a royal fashion, and earning the plaudits of all on account of his generosity.
But Nicholas was playing a game, and he won it. During his second year of office a local infirmary was opened by the Prince of Wales. For one day and night His Royal Highness stayed in the neighbourhood as Mayor Carsland's guest, and was entertained on a princely scale of magnificence at Carsland Hall.
His reward came, and quickly. The party for which he had fought a losing battle had possessed itself of the reins of office, and ere long the "plucky and generous coal prince of Thorrell Moor" was gazetted Sir Nicholas Carsland, Bart.
Sitting at the window of the palatial house of stone he had reared for himself, the baronet looked back upon his busy past with a melancholy countenance which was but the reflex of a discontented mind.
His rise had been hardly won, the stumbling stones in his path had been big and numerous, and as he sate there he was asking himself in all seriousness if those things for which he had fought so desperately were worth the stress and struggle he had undergone.
"But for my son."
Those words were articulated lowly, almost unconsciously by the old man, and his eyes were bent towards the small gipsy table upon which an open letter lay. He adjusted his eyeglasses and re-read the missive. The communication ran in this fashion:—
In spite of the silence, and the contempt and pitilessness which your silence imply—I make one more appeal to you. Give me one more chance to redeem myself. For the love of God and my poor dear dead mother, do! I have been wild, extravagant, sinful—everything that a man ought not to be—but my wild oats are sown now and I mean to redeem myself if possible.
"I will do whatever you desire—will adopt either medicine or law as a profession. If you do not wish me to become either a doctor or a lawyer, send me abroad. Perhaps that would be best. In the wilds of Australia or America I could settle down, and not only recover my good name, but win a competency some day.
"Heaven knows that I am in earnest now. Will you give me one more chance?
"SYDNEY B. CARSLAND."
As the old man perused his erring son's passionately written letter his heart was stirred within him and he was inclined to give his erring lad another chance. Despite all his faults and frailties, Sydney Carsland was very dear to his father's heart. The child of love—the wild and handsome lad his second wife had borne him—had always been nearer and dearer than the elder son, although the latter had lived an irreproachable life, and was in every respect a model son.
While Sir Nicholas was weighing the matter in his mind, the door of the room was pushed noiselessly open, and Frederic Carsland, his first born, entered, walking across the thick carpet in a quiet way, and reaching his father's side ere the other was aware of his presence.
"Is that you, Frederic?" Sir Nicholas said, as he perceived his son. "How you surprised me. I did not hear you."
"I wanted to speak to you about Sydney, father," the younger man returned in a hard, and emotionless voice. "I had a letter from him this morning."
"So had I!" the old man burst forth, in a surprised way. "That is it on the table. I was just considering whether I ought to tell you about it."
"And I have only just made up my mind to tell you about his communication. I was not aware that he had written to you. What does he say?"
"The old story of repentance and——but there is the letter; read it for yourself."
Frederic read it without a sign of eagerness or interest, making no comment until every word was read.
"Well?" Sir Nicholas interrogated, almost impatiently.
"It is almost identical with the letter I received."
"But what are we to do? What would you suggest?"
"I have no advice to offer, father. This is a matter which you ought to settle."
"Do you really believe that Sydney intends to reform?"
"Do you wish me to speak as a brother, or as an impartial judge?"
"As both, Frederic."
"That is impossible. The natural impulse of a brother would be to let considerations of charity outweigh all facts, and give him another chance, and another, and so on till the end of the story."
"You do not believe, then, that he means what he has written?"
"How can either of us believe that? How often already has he made strenuous declarations of his repentance and of his resolves to be a different member of society? And the result has ever been the same. I have no ill feelings against Sydney, father, but I think we ought to look the plain facts in the face like men."
"Just so," the baronet responded sadly, his grey head moving to and fro in a plaintive way. "I do not believe he will ever become a better man."
"Don't say that!" Frederic Carsland cried earnestly. "He may reform—will do, some day, I feel sure."
"Then that is a strong plea for giving him another chance."
"What do you mean?"
"This. All along Sydney has thought that whatever scrapes he got into you would help him out of them, and it is quite possible that his escapades would have been less numerous had his father not been a rich, as well as an over fond and forgiving one. You have forgiven him so often that he thinks he is always certain of talking you over. It is time now that you practised a little cruelty towards him if you wish to be really kind. Refuse all help for the present. Let him fight with the world for a while. Make him shoulder his own troubles. He has ability, I hear, and could earn a decent living on the Press if he would only bend himself resolutely to hard work. Force him to do it by declining to give him more money, and when he has given you indubitable proof of his long talked of reformation, treat him as generously as you desire."
"I believe you are right, Frederic," Sir Nicholas murmured.
"I am right!" the younger man asseverated with emphasis. "To save Sydney from total ruin you must be firm now and apparently cruel. Write to him and tell him in the most definite and unmistakable way that he has finished altogether with you until his reformation is a plain fact."
"I will do it, Frederic. After all, I have been too easy going—much too easy going—with Sydney. I will write to him on the lines you suggest."
"When will you write?"
"And I will do so also."
One bright summer morning, when Mr. Sydney Carsland came down to breakfast about an hour before noonday, he found two letters lying on the table beside his toast and chop. He was living in a quiet and an unfashionable street in the south-west of London, and he and his landlady had been on rather unfriendly terms for some weeks, owing to the unpleasant fact that the young gentleman had been unable to pay during that period for either his board or lodging.
Before pouring out his tea his gaze fell on the couple of envelopes, and seizing them eagerly he glanced first at the handwriting and next at the postmarks. The letters were from Thorrell Moor—his correspondents were his father and brother.
What had they to say? Both had answered him promptly. Was the news they sent good or bad? He broke open his parent's missive first, and the short note he found ran thus:
"Carsland Hall, Thorrell Moor,
July 25th, 1867.
"MY DEAR SYDNEY,
"Your letter to hand. I am just sick and weary of your never-ending talks about reforming, and have no intention of throwing any more money away upon you until your reformation has at least begun. One thing I want you to understand once and for all. Never another penny will you handle of mine till you have shown me and the world that you are not utterly worthless. You have done your best to impoverish me, and it is quite time now that you began to depend on your own hands and brains for a livelihood. At your age I was working night and day, was slaving for gold that you have since thrown to the dogs. When you can shew me that all traces of manliness and honesty are not dead in your breast, then, and never before, will I think of you as a son.
A muttered curse escaped his hot lips, and he threw the letter on the table with a gesture of disgust. Than he took up the other missive, tore it open with violent fingers, and hurriedly ran his eyes over the few lines it contained.
"Dear Sydney,"—the letter ran—
"I am sorry to hear that you are on your beam ends again, as you put it. I have spoken to Father, but he swears that he will do nothing further. Really, you have gone too far. Why not settle down, and become a respectable member of society? Of course, I am very sorry, but can do nothing.
"Your affectionate brother,
Throwing both communications into the grate with a curse, he turned to the table, and tried to eat. But he had no appetite. The night before he had reeled home the worse for liquor, and felt "seedy" enough at that moment. He was thirsty, however, and drained teapot and milk jug of their contents.
His thoughts still ran on the unpleasant missives he had received from home, and presently he went to the fireplace, took up the crumpled sheets, and re-read them carefully, without, however, being enabled to extract a gleam of comfort from one or other of the letters. A second reading only brought out more clearly the unpleasant and plainly made statements they contained, and caused Sydney B. Carsland to curse, not between his teeth now, but openly and loudly.
"That infernal cur is to blame for all this, and not the old man!" he ejaculated. "But I'll be even with him some day!"
He tore the letters into fragments, and scattered them passionately about the floor, afterwards dropping upon the chair, his teeth chafing his under lip, his brow contracted, and his forehead wrinkled in all the fury of impotent rage.
What was he to do? Was this to be the end of his folly? Was he to go under at last, as so many of his friends had been kind enough to predict. No! He would make one more effort before he gave up the struggle.
He would go to Thorrell Moor, even if he had to walk all the distance. But he had no intention of trudging it from London to Lancashire if it were possible for him to raise the money by either hook or crook.
He considered for some moments, but could call to mind no friends who would be willing to lend him the necessary coins of the realm; he had nothing to pawn: what was he to do? Just at this point his landlady—a pleasant-faced and respectable-looking woman of middle age—tapped at the door, pushed it open, and stood in the doorway.
"You got your two letters. Mr. Carsland?" she began, a trifle awkwardly.
"I did," he replied, sullenly and without turning his face towards her.
"You received good news, I hope, sir?"
"Bad news—infernally bad, curse it. I'm at the end of my tether now!"
"You said you thought you might be able to let me have a little of my account to-day, Mr. Carsland."
"So I did, and I meant it!" he cried, twisting round on his seat. "I expected money this morning, and well, I didn't get any. I have no money—not a shilling, and I mean to be in Lancashire to-morrow. I must go. Can't you lend me a pound or thirty shillings? I'll pay you every penny I owe you, Mrs. Edwards. I am a gentleman and would scorn to cheat a hard-working woman like you."
"They all say that, sir."
"But you know that my father is a baronet—Sir Nicholas Carsland, of Carsland Hall, Thorrell Moor, Lancashire, an owner of coal mines."
"So you said," she remarked, drily.
"Do you doubt my word? If you do, pick up those pieces of paper and read them. You will see then that I am not a liar."
"It's no business of mine, Mr. Carsland. I only want my money. I'm a poor woman."
"You shall be paid. But to obtain money I shall have to go home, and Lancashire is a long way. Lend me the money if you can."
"I have none to lend, sir, I'm sorry to say."
"Can't you borrow it from some of your neighbours?"
"I might, but——"
"You can't trust me!" he ejaculated, bitterly. "God knows that I have fallen very low indeed when you believe that I would rob you like a common adventurer or thief!"
"I will try to get you a pound or so," she cried, impulsively, touched by his despair, and she turned to leave the room.
"Do, there's a good soul, and you shall never regret it. If I do not repay you with ample interest may I be——"
She had gone, and he ceased to make assertions. Seeing he was alone, five minutes later Mrs. Edwards returned, and placed a sovereign and ten shillings on the table without a word.
"Thank you very much!" he said, earnestly as he pocketed the money. "And now I'm off to Thorrell Moor, Lancashire. You will hear from me in a few days. You will find my address on those scraps of paper."
It was the evening following that described in the opening pages of this story. After dining with Frederic, Sir Nicholas Carsland had been minded to stroll through his carefully kept grounds in order "to smoke, and think, and help his digestion," as he himself put it to his son. As the evening was fine and warm and his reflections were absorbing, he went right along the drive, smoking his second pipeful of mild weed, and presently the entrance gates and lodge hove in sight through the gloaming.
As Sir Nicholas gazed with an indifferent glance in the direction of the tall dark arch and the great gates of iron underneath, he saw the figure of a man approaching at a fair pace. A visitor to the hall he thought, and loitered. The next minute he and his younger son stood face to face.
"You—Sydney?" the baronet managed to exclaim after an instant's breathless silence which the son seemed unwilling to break.
"Yes, it is I, father," the prodigal replied, his keen eyes fixed on his parent's face as if he desired to divine his thoughts. "You are surprised to see me here," he added, "but I hope you are not sorry."
"I can't say that I am very well pleased to see you," Sir Nicholas answered in a dry, matter of fact voice.
"I was starving in London in a common lodging-house!" said Sydney.
"That was your own fault and exactly what you deserved. The man who chooses to spend his life as you have spent yours must be prepared to take the consequences. The man who cannot keep himself has very small excuse, in my opinion, for existing at all."
"I know what an ass I have been," Sydney responded in a contrite way, "but I have seen the error of my ways and honestly mean to mend them."
"If you hadn't said the same thing so many times before I might be inclined to believe you, Sydney."
"But I do mean it now!"
"We shall see," was the cutting rejoinder.
"You will permit me to stay here awhile until I find something to do?"
"Oh, of course. But you need expect no monetary help from me. I have squandered enough of thousands on your promises. You had better begin work at once. Do something—anything. Rather than be dependent on anyone as you have been all your days I'd go down into the pit again and be a dataller."
"It is all very well, father, for you to talk like that, for you were accustomed to work—hard work from your boyhood. But with me it was very different. My bringing up didn't fit me for anything of the sort, and I don't think I am at all to blame after all."
"Perhaps not. I was too soft with you because I liked you. But I mean to be hard now for your sake and my own."
"I daresay you are wise, father. But I mean to be a better man."
"When you quite satisfy me of that I shall do something for you—not before. I suppose we may as well walk towards the hall."
Hitherto they had carried on their conversation on the spot where they had met so unexpectedly; now they turned and strolled in silence towards the house, the lights of which could be discerned through the trees and the fast falling shadows of the night.
"Do you honestly mean, Sydney," Sir Nicholas asked after a while, "to knuckle down to hard work?"
"Then you shall have the chance."
"Any work that I can fulfil without any loss of dignity as your son."
"Ah! At your age I did not consider dignity so much as other things."
There was another break in the conversation, and then the baronet remarked: "You have never inquired about your brother, Sydney?"
"No. How is he? All right, I hope. The fact is that Frederic and I don't see things in the same light."
"He is about to be married."
"Married! To whom?"
"Miss Adelaide Woodcock, of 'The Limes.'"
"To her! Frederic to be married to Adelaide Woodcock. Why——" Sydney broke off abruptly, and whistled softly.
"What is the matter?"
"She is a most admirable and estimable lady in every respect, and the marriage is a most desirable one. Woodcock's Mines adjoin my own, and the union of the two families would mean a good deal of money saved to us."
"When does the wedding take place?"
"About Christmas, I understand. Frederic has made a very good match, and I mean to mark the affair by making his bride a handsome wedding present."
"Yes. I shall give her the whole of your mother's jewels, which are certainly worth ten or twelve thousand pounds."
Sydney Carsland bit his lips till the blood came, but he said nothing. What his father had told him had aroused all that was evil in his nature, and he was cursing in his throat father and brother, and the prospective bride of the latter.
For this anger on his part there was, he thought, ample grounds. Three years ago, he and Miss Woodcock had seen a good deal of each other. Her beauty and wealth had affected both his head and heart, he had pursued her with the certainty that she was to be had for the wooing; she had shewn him every encouragement; they had walked and talked together on summer days—had flirted and made love to each other in the delightful evenings; and, then, when he had laid his heart and hand at her feet she had coolly dismissed him, saying that she had never cared for him, and desired their acquaintance to terminate.
Now his ill-favoured half-brother was to marry the rich and beauteous girl his handsome self had failed to win. Moreover, the woman who had cruelly cast him away was to have his dead mother's jewels presented to her.
What wonder that his mouth was blood-stained, and that his heart and brain were charged with bitterest pain and thought.
Before the evening was over the half-brothers met. The eldest shewed not the faintest trace of surprise or ill-feeling, as he held out his cold hand, saying,
"I am pleased to see you home again, Sydney?"
"Really; is that quite true, Frederic?" he asked, icily, as he touched the other's fingers for a moment, and then dropped them like a hot coal.
"Certainly, why should you think otherwise?"
"Your letter was scarcely as warm as your welcome here—I am sure you will forgive me if I am wrong, but—it was scarcely the letter one brother might expect from another."
"I could do nothing. Father is really offended with you this time, and in spite of all I could urge, and did urge, he refused to do anything."
"I had an impression, Frederic, that you had possibly used your influence with him in the other direction," was Sydney's tart rejoinder.
"You doubt my word, then—think, suggest that I am a liar?" the elder son replied hotly. "At all events, my word is as good as yours!"
"But even if my father refused to aid me, you could have done something."
"I couldn't do much. My allowance is small enough, heaven knows; and in view of my approaching marriage, I have nothing to spare."
"Father told me that you were engaged to Miss Woodcock. I suppose it is so."
"Yes. We are to be married in December."
"I wish you joy. I was once fool enough to think that the same lady cared for me."
"She told me all about it. It was a mere fancy on your part, as you learned when she declined your offer."
"I discovered my mistake then, but I was stupid enough to imagine that had I been the elder son in place of the younger, the always-do-well in place of the scapegrace and ne'er-do-weel, the answer would have been different."
"Do you mean to insult me? Have you come here to quarrel?"
For a moment the half-brothers glared at one another in silence. They disliked each other thoroughly, and all their lives had striven to disguise their enmity. The elder was freckled, ill-featured, and ungainly of figure. The younger was uncommonly handsome of face, and gracefully built. It was wonderful that any woman of parts would select as lover and husband the former. This thought ran through Sydney's mind, but he did not care to express himself then. He could not afford to quarrel with one who possessed so much influence over Sir Nicholas. So, dissembling his hot wrath, and crushing back his unbrotherly thoughts, he cried with apparent warmth and contrition——
"I'm a fool, Frederic. Forgive me for being so hasty. Shake hands."
His outstretched hand was grasped, warmly shaken, and then the unfraternal brothers parted for the night, each to brood over his own schemes.
Several weeks went by after Sydney Carsland's strange home-coming, without anything of importance happening. Several days after his arrival Sir Nicholas had come to him as he lounged about the lawn in front of the house, and as he walked alongside him had remarked——
"I got a letter from a Mrs. Edwards, of London, with whom you lodged, it appears."
"Indeed. She sent her account, I suppose?"
Sir Nicholas grunted out an assent.
"Then send the poor devil a cheque for the amount. You won't miss it, and she needs it very much. It is only a matter of a few pounds."
The cheque was sent, and Sydney contrived to borrow a few pounds from his father on his own account, in order to rig himself out in a respectable manner.
Sir Nicholas Carsland was very busy at this period, being engaged in negotiations with his neighbour, Squire Woodcock, with a view to the amalgamation of their respective collieries. The baronet was satisfied to have his younger son at home with him, thinking he was out of mischief's way there, and as Frederic went down to the colliery office every day, Sydney was left very much to his own devices.
He had the free run of the house; the best of food, wine, and cigars were at his command; there were fair horses in the stables, so that all he was short of was ready cash.
Cantering along the country lane in the direction of Thurstanley, a mining hamlet a couple of miles to the south of Thorrell Moor, where the Woodcocks lived, he encountered his old flame, Miss Adelaide, on horseback, attended by a groom.
On recognising her in the distance, he slackened pace, intending to speak to the lady, but when they met face to face her curt nod drove him on. Miss Woodcock looked more attractive than ever that morning. The exercise she was taking had flushed her face, which was usually pale as marble; and he went back to his old habit of biting his lips at the thought that this proud beauty had thrown him aside for his brother, and was destined to wear his dead mother's jewels.
A week or two later a strong temptation was thrown in Sydney Carsland's way. One evening Sir Nicholas came home after a day's absence, bringing with him the precious stones his dead wife used to wear. For years they had been stored in the strong room of the bank in the neighbouring town, and when the baronet opened the iron box in which they were placed both his sons were present.
"I thought I would give Miss Adelaide a pleasant surprise when she dines with us to-morrow," said the baronet, as he unlocked the casket, and took therefrom trinket after trinket gemmed with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls, and many other rare crystals. "A present for a princess, are they not, Frederic?"
"They are, indeed," the elder son answered, warmly, as he handled the bejewelled gewgaws, while the younger son—the outcast—looked on with gleaming eyes and darkling brow.
Standing there in silence, Sydney Carsland swore, mentally, that those rare gems his dead mother had worn should never adorn the wife of his half-brother, could he prevent it.
"You mean to present them to Miss Woodcock to-morrow, then, father?" Sydney asked in a low, husky voice.
"Oh, no. I only mean to shew them to her. When you settle down and marry as well as Frederic, your bride shall have a present equal to these."
"I should have preferred my wife to have worn my mother's jewels!" the younger son said rather bitterly as he went out of the room.
On the morrow the stones were shewn to Miss Woodcock, and she examined them calmly, critically as one who understood such things. She expressed her delight in a measured way, and then the valuable stones were locked up in the jewel box and placed in the safe in Sir Nicholas's study by the baronet himself.
Two nights later Sydney carried out a scheme he had conceived. Stung to the soul by the thought that the woman who had rejected him had accepted Frederic and was destined to wear his mother's gems, he had resolved to seize them and take to flight.
A favourable opportunity presented itself at the time indicated. His brother was away in Liverpool on some important business, and was not to return until the morrow; the servants had retired to rest an hour ago, and Sydney and his father sat chatting and enjoying their wines until midnight. Then Sir Nicholas had sought his room, and the younger son was left to execute his plan.
Seeking his room, he remained there until he thought his parent would be asleep. Creeping along the corridor he gained the door of Sir Nicholas's room. The door was ajar, and he pushed it gently open, peered inside, saw the gas burning dimly, and heard his father breathing heavily and regularly.
On his hands and knees he stole over the thick carpet, and soon was near the window with his hand on the tap of the gas. A hurried glance around, and he turned out the light. If his father awoke now he could not recognise him. Then his hand sought the well-remembered drawer in which he knew his father had for years been in the habit of putting his keys on retiring.
The receptacle slid out almost noiselessly, his fingers closed on the bunch of cold steel keys inside, and then he crept on all fours from the apartment. He listened intently at the door, but all was still as death, save the laboured breathing of the slightly inebriated baronet.
A moment later he was in his own room examining the keys by the aid of the gas jet. They were the ones he needed. In another minute he was at the study door, had unlocked it and passed inside. Lighting the gas he opened the safe and lifted out the iron box. He opened that also, and found the casket containing the spoil he sought. The casket was of fine rosewood, bound with brass bands, and he unlocked that also to make certain that the jewels were intact.
When he had satisfied himself on that point he replaced the glittering gold set gems, re-fastened the casket, and placed it in a portmanteau. Then he rummaged through the safe for other valuables, and finding several bank-notes and a handful of gold and silver coins, he pocketed them and prepared for flight.
It took him only a minute or two to boot and coat himself and then he stole out through a back entrance into the darkness and silent of the night.
Midnight had passed an hour or more, and the earth was enveloped in the soft darkness and dreamy silence of an autumn night. A warm mist floated over the country side, hiding the stars from mundane eyes, and making things below vague and indistinct, and not a breath of wind stirred the trees in Hough Wood.
The wood lay about three miles to the west of Carsland Hall, away beyond the great sweep of the swelling upland previously mentioned; and here it was that Sydney elected to hide himself for the night after his successful plundering of the safe.
He was lying now in the heart of the wood, his couch a thick bed of tall bracken, his pillow the stout handbag of leather which contained the stolen jewels.
The spot he had chosen was an open space surrounded by a thick growth of trees and bushes, and the wide patch of fern among which he lay was so dense and luxuriant that no one could see him half-a-dozen yards away.
As he lay there he pondered on many things. His chief thoughts were connected, of course, with his own theft. When the safe was forced open, the jewels, bank notes, and cash, and himself missing, what course would his father pursue?
Would Sir Nicholas set the hounds of the law upon his track? He had no doubt his brother would urge his father to place the matter in the hands of detectives, but he felt almost certain that the baronet would decline to take that course. He calculated that his father would neither attempt to follow nor arrest him. Rather than face the terrible scandal the publication of his theft would create, he would prefer to lose the jewels and permit him to get clear away.
And assuming that he was to be permitted to escape scot free, what line of life and action was he to follow in the future? Was he to drift back to his old haunts, old acquaintances, old pleasures, and old vices?
His blood pulsed through his veins at that thought, and pleasant visions arose before his mental gaze. It would be worth much to go back to the old Bohemians and the old reckless Bohemian existence, a new man with thousands of pounds at his command. He would be able to repay with interest those who had stood by him in the days of his adversity—would be able also to give back scorn for scorn, insult for insult, stones in lieu of bread to those curs who had refused to cheer and aid him when his soul was torn and his spirit broken in the blackest days of his degradation and poverty.
It was a pleasant picture, and he dwelt upon it for a space with keen feelings of enjoyment. But he was not a fool; whatever else he might be. Full well he knew what it would mean—what it would cost him—to gratify his desires in that respect.
Once back in the old channel the current would prove strong enough to carry him along with it as before, and escape would be possible only when he was stranded high and dry—penniless, hopeless, irretrievably wrecked.
No! He must prove strong enough to resist that. The old past was dead and buried. The future must be something different.
Where should he go—America or Australia? In either continent the fates might prove kind and bless him with success. What he already possessed might prove the making of a great fortune, and some day he might come back to his birthland a rich and powerful—even an honoured—member of society.
Now that he forced himself to think calmly and dispassionately, he considered that the offence of which he had been guilty was of a venial kind. Who had a stronger claim, morally, to his dead mother's jewellery than he had? No one, he cried. He had felt for years that Frederic had resented his father's second marriage, and had hated himself. It would have been little less than sacrilege, therefore, to have permitted his half-brother's wife to wear the buried woman's trinketry.
He was glad now that he had taken them away. They were his, and he had got them. How terribly disappointed Mr. Frederic Carsland and Miss Adelaide Woodcock would be when they learned that the precious stones had disappeared, and divined who had appropriated them. He felt sorry that he could not be present to witness their chagrin and pain. How furious his ugly-faced half-brother would be! How strenuously he would urge Sir Nicholas to place the matter in the hands of the police, and how utterly crushed and disconcerted would be his condition when he discovered that the baronet loved his missing son more than the missing gems.
What was that?
Sydney Carsland's heart gave a great bound, and he sprang to his knees with his hands on his bag. He had heard the breaking of twigs under foot, as if someone were about in the wood and near at hand. Had imagined also that he had caught the faintest echo of human voices.
His eyes swept the open space about him, and his auditive powers were strained to their utmost. The mist had cleared away somewhat, and now that his sight had accustomed itself to the semi-darkness he could see fairly well.
He watched and listened and soon his fears were verified. Here and there, among the trees and bushes, the forms of men could be discerned, and now and again a word was wafted to his ears.
Who were they? he asked himself with a sinking heart. Had the theft been discovered already, and were these men running him to earth? It looked as if it were so, for whichever way he turned, the shadowy figures were to be seen. There must be a dozen men at least, and on all sides his hiding-place was guarded.
Throwing himself breast downward among the bracken, with the precious portmanteau gripped in one hand, he burrowed a path snake-like through the sheltering fern, working his way towards the edge of the clearing stealthily, and almost as noiselessly, as some frightened animal of the wood might have done.
Nearer and nearer the edge of the bracken he crept, and soon he was lying within the shadow of the trees. The men were roving about still as he could see and hear. Not a dozen paces from him a pair of dark forms were squatting on the sparse grass.
What was he to do? Creep forward still, or rise to his feet and make a burst for safety.
He decided on the former plan; stole forward on all fours, went sprawling in a rabbit-hole, heard a cry of alarm from several throats, jumped to his feet to make a rush for it, and found himself in the arms of a pair of brawny men. There was an outcry, a chorus of oaths, a short desperate struggle, and then a heavy stick crashed down on Sydney Carsland's head, and he fell senseless and bleeding on the grass.
In a moment a dozen men were around him, all excited and curious.
"Who is he? A lob or the keeper? Shine a light, Zack, let's see who he is?"
A pair of bull's eye lamps were flashed on the unconscious man's face, and then exclamations of wonder fell from the throats of all present,
"It's a gentleman not a lob!" "A regular swell too!" "What's he bin doin' here?" "Wonder who he is!"
These queries were cut short by the ringleader of a gang of poachers, a powerfully-built fellow, with a black beard. He had knocked Sydney down, and was now on his knees with his fingers in the senseless man's pocket.
"Shut up that row or you'll have all the lobs on top o' us. Shine that light this way, and let's see what he's getten in his pockets."
"I know him!" cried one of the younger men of the gang, bending over the prostrate form. "Don't rob him, Hullick. It's the young son of Sir Nicholas Carsland, o' Carsland Ha'. Leave him alone, Hullick. Ah dunno' mahnd a bit o' poachin', but we owt to stop at that."
"Thee shut up, Dick Miller, or I'll shut thy mouth for thee!" the leader growled. "In for a penny in for a pound's my motty. Hello, look here, lads! Bank notes, yellow boys, and silver. Collar that bag of his, and some on yo' gather the baggage. We're in for summat better nor game this neet, my hearties."
Five minutes later the poachers had departed, and the robbed thief was lying prone and unconscious on the sward where Mike Hullick had felled him.
Morning had just broken in the east, and the skies were still dyed with roseate pigments. The birds were piping merrily in the branches of the russet-leaved trees; the barking of dogs, the cackling of hens, and crowing of cocks were to be heard in the farmyard over the meadows; among the cornfields the reapers were hard at work.
Asleep among the rank grass which grew by the hedgerow a tramp lay, and that he was no ordinary vagrant any reasonable being could see at a glance. His garments were fashionably cut, well made, and of the best materials, and although they were dusty and otherwise travel-stained, it was easy to see that the man who wore them was no wandering knight of the footpath.
But if his clothes impressed one favourably, his face did so more powerfully still. It was the face of a man between twenty-two and twenty-six; a handsome, finely-cut face, highly intelligent—even distinguished in appearance. Whoever the wayfarer might be, it was evident that he had sunk down there dead beat and glad to find repose anywhere. His features were pale now, he looked ill, and he seemed to experience great difficulty in breathing.
Fifty yards away stood a little white-washed cottage. In front of the dwelling was a patch of ground filled with flowers of different sorts; over the trellis work at the porch ivy clustered; and trained alongside the diamond-paved windows was a fruitful white rose tree, which in the course of years had spread over half the wall and roof. Behind the cottage there was a kitchen garden well stocked with vegetables, and beyond the cultivated patch miles of forest and moorland.
Out of the cottage a lass of something under twenty came tripping, a light tin pail in her hand and a powerful dog of the mastiff kind walking at her side.
Neither the girl herself nor her attire seemed typical of the country. Her brightly coloured skirt and the silken kerchief bound about her head had a foreign look, and her dark, handsome face reminded one of warmer climes. She appeared as much out of harmony with that quiet corner of English rural life as the fine clothes on the back of the sleeping wayfarer.
The lass was making her way to the well quite unconscious of the contiguity of the tramp, whom she was just then passing, when the dog sprang suddenly from her side and darted upon the sleeper, thrusting his wet, cold muzzle into his face. Then she saw him, and fearing the dog might use his teeth she cried—
"Come away, Leo!"
She had scarcely spoken ere Sydney Carsland—for it was he—struggled to a sitting position, and seeing her there exclaimed in a voice that was both weak and hoarse through privation and exposure—
"Where am I? Give me a drink, for God's sake! I am choking—dying!"
She ran to the well with her pail, and in a minute was back at his side holding to his lips the vessel, from which he drank greedily. Then he thanked her, tried to struggle to his feet, but fell sprawling on the grass, and lay therein a state of semi-consciousness.
With a little cry of alarm she bent over him and essayed to lift his head. But she saw that he was really ill, saw that his hair was matted with blood, and the red stains on his collar and neck and his colourless face frightened her.
Bidding the dog remain at the tramp's side, she darted homeward, disappeared in the cottage, and reappeared a few moments later, accompanied by an old yet still powerful and foreign-looking man, who was evidently the girl's father.
Reaching Sydney's side, the cottager examined the prostrate man for a moment, spoke to him, but received no response; then he carried him in his arms to the cottage.
The adventures of Sydney Carsland since the night he had been knocked down in Hough Wood and robbed of his ill-gotten treasure by the poachers may be related in a few words.
When he recovered from the senseless state into which Hullick's heavy stick had knocked him, the short autumn night was passing away and the day was breaking. When he recalled the incidents of the past night, and found the handbag confining the jewels missing and his pockets rifled, it was easy for him to realise the whole of the affair.
The men who had frightened him must have been poachers as their cries of "a lob" testified, and they had appropriated the treasure he had been at such pains to annex.
Soon as he had pulled himself together and tidied himself up a bit, he struck out northward, selecting the quietest and least-frequented paths. Fear of the law and his relations' fury was then strong within him, and he felt that there was no feeling of security for him until he had placed miles and miles between himself and Carsland Hall.
All through the fine autumn morning he strode along the country lanes, avoiding the hamlets when possible, and scurrying through the villages when he could find no other way, without a word or a glance at the rustics he encountered. Noonday had seen him still hurrying on, and when night came he was twenty miles from Thorrell Moor—was footsore and famished, and at war with the world and all God's creatures.
In the rank grass under the hedge not far from the pretty hamlet of Marlcombe, on the confines of Yorkshire, he had thrown himself with tired body and troubled mind, and there on the following morning the handsome and picturesque cottage girl and her dog had found him.
When Sydney Carsland next came to his senses be found himself lying in a comfortable bed, with abundant evidences of neatness and comfort around him, although the chamber was low-roofed and small—such as respectable working people inhabit.
He was almost too weak to move, and while he was wondering where he was, and how he had drifted thither, he caught the sound of a light foot, and the next moment a vision of enthralling beauty appeared in the doorway. Where had he seen those great masses of jet black hair, those large flashing black eyes, red lips, perfectly moulded features, and rich, warmly dark complexion before?
Then he suddenly remembered the dog that had aroused him as he lay under the hedge, and its handsome mistress, who had given him a drink of cool refreshing water. In a voice whose strangeness surprised himself he cried,
"Where am I? How long have I been here?"
"This is my father's house, sir," she replied in English, which seemed strangely at variance with her dark, foreign-looking face. Then she added, as she walked demurely into the chamber, "You have been here since yesterday morning. Do you not remember? I gave you a drink, and then you fainted, and my father carried you into the cottage."
"Have I been ill?"
"Very ill indeed!" she answered, her black eyes fixed upon him, with warmest sympathy burning in their depths. "The doctor said it was brain fever—you were delirious for a long time. But I am glad to see that you are better now. Is there anything I can get for you?"
"I am thirsty—I should like a drink."
She gave him a glassful of some cooling drink, and then turned to leave the room.
"Stay. Do not go yet. I have much to say—to ask you."
She seated herself and he went on.
"What an ungrateful hound you must think me, Miss——" he paused, and his silence was pointed as a question.
"Velazo," she said quietly. "My father's name is Pedro Velazo; mine is Salome."
"You are not English then?"
"No. Spanish, sir."
"Well, I think it was exceedingly kind of you and your father to take in and tend a poor broken down fellow like me, and I thank you very much. Some day—who knows what may happen—I may be able to repay your goodness with something more substantial than empty words. Where is your father, Miss Velazo?"
"In the woods. He will return about noon and then he will come to you."
"What is the name of the village over there?"
"Is there a town near here?"
"Clitheroe is the nearest town, and it is five miles away."
"Who was the doctor who attended me?"
"Dr. Frith. He was passing in his dog-cart and my father called him in."
"Did he say anything?"
"He said you were very seriously ill and would require great care."
"I mean did he say anything about me—not my illness."
"He said that you were evidently a gentleman, and he wondered a good deal as to whom you were and where you came from. I heard them talking," she added, as if to make an excuse for her knowledge.
"I suppose Dr. Frith would wonder also what I was doing under a hedge!" he cried a trifle bitterly. "I will explain all that to your father when I see him—if he cares to know anything about me."
"I will go now, sir," the girl said as she arose and made towards the door. "If you want anything I can hear you call."
"A moment, Miss Velazo. I had forgotten for the moment that I am still unknown to you. My name is Sydney Barringham."
"Thank you, Mr. Barringham," and with a smile she was gone.
The father of the dusky maiden put in an appearance at noonday; and hearing from the girl that their uninvited guest was better he went to him forthwith. The old man seemed to be as kindly natured as a child, and in his peculiar English, marked still by a strong foreign accent, he expressed his delight on finding that Sydney was greatly improved.
They chatted for a time and Sydney put a few questions to his host, similar in almost every respect to those he had addressed to Salome Velazo. He half expected that the brawny and dark son of Spain would put some awkward inquiries to him, but in this he was mistaken. Pedro Velazo was a reticent man, who seldom spoke, and he seemed content to leave his guest to speak of himself or be silent.
Sydney preferred to say little of himself at that moment, and all the information pertaining to himself that he vouchsafed was that he had been benighted, and that his name was Sydney Barringham.
Dr. Frith looked in during the afternoon, and from him the ailing man learned that he might expect to be out of bed and about again in a week or so—if no relapse took place. Sydney told his medical man no more than he had told Pedro and Salome Velazo respecting himself. He knew from the doctor's manner and words that his position there was a matter of wonderment, but he was not fool enough to take him into his confidence.
There is no occasion to tell in detail the story of Sydney's recovery. Each day saw him grow stronger, and soon he was able to quit his bed, sit in the cottage, or walk about the small garden.
During his illness and the early days of his convalescence, he and handsome Salome Velazo were often thrown together. The girl had ever attended to his needs and wishes with a tenderness and eagerness that had surprised the patient as much as they had delighted him; and seeing how deeply interested she was in him, his own interest in and admiration of Salome soon ripened into passionate affection.
That his love was returned Sydney felt certain, and one morning, when Pedro Velazo was away in the adjoining woods, he took the unresisting damsel in his arms, poured his tale of passion into her ears, and received sweet assurance of her own love for him.
After going so far he knew that more would be expected of him. Of himself and his history and connection his host and sweetheart knew nothing, save the vague hints and the name it had pleased him to call himself by.
Sydney loved Salome sufficiently to desire to possess her, and that was only to be accomplished by marriage. And would the old Spaniard consent to his daughter's union with one of whom he knew nothing.
The outcast resolved to concoct some story that would account for the plight in which he was found that morning now nearly a fortnight ago. If he left the cottage where was he to direct his feet? How was he to live? He dared not face his father and brother—had no desire to leave Salome Velazo's side. If he meant to redeem himself—to work out his redemption, where could he find a better place than this quiet corner of Yorkshire in which to commence the work. He must speak to his host.
That evening Pedro Velazo and Sydney found themselves together in the garden. On a rustic seat beneath a great-branched, leafy elm they were seated, smoking their pipes and engaged in a conversation which as yet had turned on casual matters. All along Sydney had desired to speak on a subject with which his mind was filled, and suddenly he led up to it by remarking—
"I daresay, Velazo, that you have often wondered who and what I am, and how I came to be under the hedge in the lane there."
The old man nodded in reply.
"Well, I have made up my mind to tell you. I had thought of going away and saying nothing more than I have already told you; but that would have seemed so strange, so unthankful and graceless after your great kindness to me."
"Do not speak now, sir," the old man said, speaking slowly, and with the manner of one who had a difficulty in finding his words, "unless you wish to speak."
"I do wish to tell you, and I will. I come of a good family, one that is both honourable and wealthy. All my life I have been a wild fellow, fond of knocking about and seeing the world. My parents were very religious, and my ways did not suit them. They had pampered me all my life, and let me have my own way in everything; and when they wanted me to turn a new leaf over, settle down, and marry an old woman I detested, I kicked against it and left home. You understand me?"
"I understand you."
"And I swore never to go back home until I was sent for. Rather than go back and marry that hateful woman I would work my fingers to the bone—die in the workhouse. If I could only get work of some kind I would settle down here and attempt to repay you and your daughter for your kindness."
"What kind of work?" Velazo asked, with a grim smile on his bearded face.
"Any sort—at least any sort that a—a respectable man might do."
"I heard that his lordship wanted an under-keeper. Lord Marlcombe I mean. Would you take that place?"
"Then I will speak to Symons, the head keeper, about it."
There was a silence of some moments' length, and then Sydney said—
"I thought of speaking to you about Salome."
"What of her?"
"I love her—she returns my love—if I were to settle down I might repay you for all you have done for me."
"You love—would marry Salome?" Pedro Velazo exclaimed, and his long, lean, brown fingers tugged nervously at his beard.
"If I had the chance—if you think me good enough—under present circumstances—for her."
"If Salome wishes it, I have nothing to say against it."
"Then it is agreed. I shall do my best for you and her. Some day, when I and my family are reconciled, you will perhaps be proud of the man your daughter's goodness and beauty and your own generosity have won."
"I am satisfied," was Velazo's sole rejoinder.
On the following morning the lovers were seated on the bench under the elm, and were whispering soft words to each other. They were engaged now and the wedding-day was fixed. After a little breach in their conversation Sydney said,
"It appears such a strange thing, Salome, that you and your father, who are pure Spaniards, should be settled down here in a quiet humdrum English country place. Tell me how it came about, dear."
"Has father never told you?"
"Not a syllable—in fact I did not care to ask him and he never is very talkative, you know."
"It is a rather uncommon story," Salome returned as she leant back and nestled against her lover's shoulder, "and if you wish to hear it there is no reason why I should not tell it to you. I, of course, never saw Spain. I was born in the cottage there and consider myself in every way an English woman."
"Never an Englishwoman possessed such eyes and hair and cheeks as yours," he cried with a fond caress. "But go on."
"Well, to tell the truth, my father was one of a gipsy band who knocked about the country between Valladolid and Madrid. He has told me the story of his own life many times, and I shall never forget it. In the course of his wanderings he met my mother, who was a peasant in the village of Olmedo, and fell in love with her. They met frequently while my father's people were in the neighbourhood of Olmedo; avowed their love of each other, and when circumstances parted them, swore to be faithful to each other unto death.
"When my father next appeared in the village, nearly a year later, he found that his sweetheart had disappeared—had gone to far away England."
"Yes. It seems an Englishman and his wife—Lord Marlcombe and the Countess were spending their honeymoon in Spain. While passing through the village the lady was thrown from her horse and severely injured. For lack of a better place she was carried to the nearest cottage, which chanced to be that my mother's parents lived in. For many days the lady had to remain in the cottage, for her injuries were of such a nature as to render her removal dangerous; and during her illness my mother waited upon the Countess, who became very fond of her.
"When she recovered she urged my mother to accompany her to England, offering her high wages and other things which the poor peasant girl was unable to resist."
"So she went to England—came here to Marlcombe," he broke in, "and left your father disconsolate."
"Not quite," she replied, with a little musical ripple of laughter. "She left a few words behind saying that she loved him still, would return soon—had in fact only gone away in order to save money which would enable them to marry and begin married life in comfort."
"And your father was not satisfied with those promises, Salome? He followed her to England?"
"Yes, and found his love at Marlcombe Hall, over there among the trees, acting as the Countess's maid. He went boldly to the house, and demanded to see his sweetheart. Then my mother had to explain, and in the end my father was also taken into his lordship's service. Afterwards they married, and came to live here. My mother died when I was only a child,—and since then my father and I have lived alone."
"Quite a romance," he said, as she finished.
"Not more romantic," she answered, "than our own love story. What could be stranger than our meeting? Only fancy me finding you that morning by the road side, your illness afterwards and being carried here!"
"Yes, it is all very strange," he responded gravely, his thoughts flying across country to Carsland Hall. "Life," he added, as he stroked her raven hair, "is full of strange things. Some time, dear Salome, something stranger still may happen to us. Who knows?" He loved her very much then, and he was thinking of the joy she and her father would experience when they learned that his father was Sir Nicholas Carsland, the wealthy owner of coal mines in Lancashire. Some day he would be able to reveal the whole truth to the trusting father and loving girl.
A week later the man who called himself Sydney Barringham started work on Lord Marlcombe's estate as a sort of under-keeper; and two or three weeks after that the handsome Englishman and the beautiful Spanish girl were married. Pedro Velazo insisted that the cottage was large enough for them all, and there the newly-wedded lovers settled down to their new life.
The autumn had worn itself away and winter was now come. In the woods the trees stood out in the frosty air ragged and bleak, and under foot the dried leaves lay thick. In three weeks more Christmas would arrive, and already the rustics of Marlcombe were making preparation for the coming of that festive season.
Sydney Barringham felt happier and better in every way than he had done for years. His beautiful wife adored him, his life was pleasant enough, and all the old vicious cravings had died down. He was at last working out his redemption in a quiet and manly fashion.
Since his coming to Marlcombe, Sydney had never failed to read the newspapers with a careful eye, expecting—fearing at first—to see therein some reference to his own disappearance and the theft of the jewels.
But that which he sought so diligently never met his gaze; and as the weeks sped by he was forced to conclude that his father and brother—although they had hidden his crime in the depths of their breasts—and cast him off for ever as one who had sinned and fallen beyond redemption.
One evening a great surprise—a terrible shock—came to him. He was having a glass of beer in the tavern further up the lane when his gaze happened to fall on that day's paper, which lay on the table. Taking it up indifferently, he cast his eye over the columns and suddenly saw something which caused his heart to fly to his mouth.
There in big, staring headlines, he read:
"An accident of a terrible character occurred yesterday in the vicinity of Thorrell Moor in Lancashire. Sir Nicholas Carsland and his son Frederic, were out driving in a barouche when the horse took fright, collided violently with a wall, throwing out the baronet and his son, both of whom were picked up dead. Sir Nicholas is well known in the neighbourhood, as he owned extensive mines there, and his sudden death is generally deplored. The death of his son, Frederic, is all the more lamentable, as he was to have been married in the course of a few weeks."
The room flew round like a teetotum, and Sydney fell back on his seat.
"Curse my stupidity! Here, landlady, fill me another bitter beer?"
The landlady mopped up the slop he had inadvertently caused in the first shock of his surprise, and while he was waiting for his glass to be re-filled Sydney turned the paper, and, while appearing to glance over its contents, peered over the top at his companions.
None of them had noted his astonishment, and after drinking deep of his fresh supply of ale he again turned to the exciting paragraph which had startled him so much, and filled his bewildered mind with a host of burning thoughts.
He was half afraid he would not find the paragraph now—was inclined to think that the whole thing was the outcome of his disordered imagination—or that he had mistaken the names of others for those of his father and brother.
With trembling hands he turned the page, his nostrils dilated, his grey eyes aflame, breathing hard, and with his pulse throbbing at a feverish rate. When he came to think of the matter afterwards, he was compelled to admit that he had behaved in a most inhuman manner at that critical point—the turning one of his life. He had felt afraid not that his father and his brother were killed, but that the account was unfounded, or that he had misread the statement.
"There is no mistake," he whispered, hoarsely, to himself as he slowly re-read the brief account of Sir Nicholas and Frederic Carsland's sudden and terrible end. There it was before him in unmistakable print, and the details given precluded the probability of any mistake having been made by the pressman in respect to the unfortunate men's names.
In a fever of pleased unrest and strange exultation he drained his glass to the dregs, and passed out into the night. He wanted to be alone so that he could think calmly, clearly, of his future course of action.
The night was a moonless one, but the stars shone out from their inky background like remote specks of electric flame. The air bit sharply upon his skin, but he paid no heed; the rime was thick on the browned grasses and black rugged hedgerow, and the lane was silent and tenantless.
He paused a few paces from the tavern and wiped his clammy brow. Half-an-hour before he had entered that country inn a poor, an obscure man—a criminal even, who had not entirely freed his soul from all fear of the law. Now he was Sir Sydney Carsland, the owner of the richest collieries in Lancashire, the proprietor of the lordly mansion from which he had fled thief-like, and in reality a thief, only a few short months ago.
He was rich, titled, free! was young, with the love of life at full flood within him, and the power to enjoy all the world's fair and good things still unimpaired. He could make of existence a perpetual revel now, an endless chain of holidays, feasts, and pleasures. He would realise the dream that had come to him when he had stolen the jewels—would repay old friends with interest and heap the contumely of scorn on his old foes.
He was well nigh intoxicated with the delightful visions his imagination bred, and he walked along the hard roads between the tall hedges like one to whom all the blessings and gifts of the gods had come. Suddenly the swift rush of his pleasant reflections was dammed back—the delicious warmth of anticipated pleasures was chilled, and he came to a quick standstill in the middle of the road.
From the unshuttered windows of the cottage which sheltered Pedro Velazo and his handsome girl came a broad stream of light which, cutting a vivid channel for itself through the surrounding blackness and falling full upon Sydney Carsland, threw his lengthened shadow across the road and upon the hoar jewelled hedge.
Until now, since reading of his kinsmen's decease, he had completely forgotten the existence of his wife and her father, and to be brought suddenly back to a knowledge of them and all it implied gave him small satisfaction indeed.
Rigid and irresolute he stood there, his brows bent and breathing heavily as some men do when unexpectedly brought face to face with a difficulty.
Had the baronetcy and the fortune come to him some months ago when the spell of Salome's beauty was new and strong upon him the result might have been very different. Then in an access of love and gratitude he would have rushed to her side and poured the tale of his great luck into her ears.
And now? Well, he had grown just the least, little trifle tired of the simple and beautiful maiden he had married. Hers was a strong passionate nature which was constantly craving for affection and outward and visible manifestations of love; his was more of a cynical and, cold blooded kind; his passion came in gusts, he had loved too many women already, was too much of a Bohemian and a man of the world to love any one woman for long—much less for all time.
And now Salome was in actual fact Lady Carsland. The handsome daughter of the old Spanish gipsy was entitled now to take her place among the aristocratic ladies of the land. If she were to obtain her rights she would be the Mistress of Carsland Hall.
He heard a sound from the cottage, and thinking either Pedro or Salome was about to open the door, he sped onward into the sheltering darkness.
And as his form plunged into the gloom of the night his mind took the plunge which led him astray from the path of honesty and right. Immediately he began to form excuses for deserting Salome.
Why need he tell her at all? Was it really necessary to do so—just yet? If he were to introduce Salome to the world as Lady Sydney Carsland, what would the world say of him and of her when it was discovered that she was the daughter of a common gamekeeper—the child of a whilom wandering Spanish gipsy?
He would be the talk and the laughing-stock of his neighbours; and how Adelaide Woodcock would curl her proud lip and open her cold, scornful eyes when she learned to what a depth he had descended.
That chance thought of his old flame quickened his feet and drove him more rapidly along in the semi-darkness of the lane. His mind was made up now. Adelaide was free. Would the haughty lady who had played with his heart and declined his hand when he was the prodigal, poor and disreputable younger son, refuse to wed Sir Sydney Carsland supposing he gave her the chance?
He laughed a hard, low, bitter laugh and swung onward, his imagination running riot once more and Salome the gipsy almost forgotten already. Once only he came to a standstill and glanced backward. He could discern the cottage with its lighted window, and the sight stirred his heart just a little, for he knew that the woman he was so cruelly deserting loved him with all the strength of her warm nature and passionate soul.
Behind that light, which shone through the intervening blackness like a star, sat Salome waiting patiently for his home coming. He felt sorry for her, but fate had stepped in and they might never meet again.
When Sydney struck the next village, some three or four miles away, he walked into the hotel beside the small railway station; and when he ordered a glass of beer he asked the maid to oblige him with writing materials. She supplied him with a rusty pen, a penny bottle of thin ink, some flimsy note paper, and a miserable envelope. With these he contrived somehow to produce the following note:—
"Circumstances which I could neither foresee nor control have rendered it absolutely necessary that I should go suddenly away. I cannot tell at present how long I may be away, nor can I tell you where I am going. But you know, dear, that only the most imperative necessity could take me from you. Perhaps after all I may not be away very long. I regret that I cannot take you into my confidence yet. But you will, I know, love me, and believe in me, and wait patiently for my return. I thought it better to send you a word or two in order to allay any uneasiness respecting my absence. You need give yourself no alarm. No matter how long I am away you may rest assured that I am well and safe. Before many days I shall write again. Till then good-bye, dear Salome.
He posted the letter at once, and then made enquiries as to the next train that was bound Liverpool way. An hour afterwards he was being borne toward Thorrell Moor.
It was long after midnight when Sir Sydney Barringham Carsland arrived at Carsland Hall. He had found the house in darkness, and all the servants abed.
But he had no compunction in arousing the domestics from their snug quarters. He was master now; hence his summons to awake by means of bell and knocker was loud, continuous, and peremptory.
The butler, who opened the door for him, was surprised, or appeared to be, but his astonishment did not prevent him from being more deferential—even obsequious, than ever he had been before in the old days.
"Good morning, Sir Sydney," he managed to say. "We were all expecting you. I had your old rooms got ready, for I thought you would like 'em best."
"Quite right, Bennett. I prefer my old rooms—at present. If there is a fire in them I will go at once."
"There is, Sir Sydney."
"Then bring me something to eat and drink there, will you?"
"I will at once, Sir Sydney," Bennett replied, remarking to himself that his new master was taking things very quietly.
When the old butler made his way to Sydney's room, with a tray on which were bread, a cold fowl, and a bottle of champagne, he discovered that the new baronet was taking things as comfortably as cooly. He had cast off his unfashionable and somewhat shabby coat and vest and had donned a flashy dressing gown he had worn during his last sojourn at the hall, had drawn an easy chair in front of the glowing fire and was gazing thoughtfully at the leaping flames.
Bennett drew a small table near to his master's elbow, placed the supper upon it and then stood by.
"Is there anything else I can get for you, Sir Sydney?"
"I should like a smoke after this."
The butler went away, and the new master of Carsland Hall cast his thoughts away from him and set to work resolutely upon the chicken and champagne.
"Frightful accident, Sir Sydney," Bennett ventured to remark as he laid a box of choice cigars on the table.
"Yes," was the laconic and quite matter-of-fact response. "Where are they?"
"In the morning-room downstairs, sir."
"Was there an inquest?"
"Yes; this afternoon. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death."
"Where did the accident take place? How did it occur?"
"Sir Nicholas and Frederic were out driving. In Thorrell Lane, just beside the low wall which fences off the highway from the old Delph, the horse was frightened by a lot of bullocks and ran away. The carriage wheel struck the corner of the wall, and your father and brother were pitched over the wall into the quarry. They were dead enough when picked up. It was an awful accident, Sir Sydney."
"It was, Bennett. Who has had charge of affairs since?"
"Mr. Elliston from Earlsford. Your father's solicitor, you remember."
"I remember him very well."
"Well, he has been here a good deal since the accident. He has asked all the servant's about you—me too—thinking, very likely, that some of us knew where you might be."
"But none of you could tell him, Bennett," Sydney remarked, with his quick eyes turned for a moment on his servant's face.
"Of course not, sir. But he told me to let him know the moment you came home."
"Send one of the men over to him first thing in the morning, will you?"
"That will do, Bennett. Good night."
"Good night, Sir Sydney."
The old fellow shuffled away, and the baronet was left to himself. He turned his chair to the fire, lit a cigar, re-filled his glass with the sparkling wine, and began to dream afresh with his eyes on the live coals. For an hour he sat there smoking, drinking, thinking. Then he went to bed and slept as soundly as any honest man in the three kingdoms.
On the following morning the baronet and his late father's solicitor met.
"Good morning. Mr. Elliston," Sydney cried with great warmth, as he held out his hand. "You see I have turned up. I heard you desired to see me, and I am exceedingly pleased that you have come."
"I am very glad, Sir Sydney, that you have come," the tall, sandy-bearded lawyer replied as he shook the other's hand. "Had I only known where to find you, I should have communicated with you the very moment that terrible disaster happened. A fearful thing, wasn't it, that they should both be taken off like that?"
"So terrible that I cannot find words to express my feelings, Mr. Elliston."
"Well, well, the Lord gives and He taketh away. But it is a blessing you have turned up after all. I was afraid I should have to advertise for you. This business has put me about very much indeed. I had to take charge of everything, and I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. The inquest was held yesterday, and I had arranged that the funeral should take place to-morrow. But, of course, all I have done is subject to alteration, my dear Sir Sydney."
"I leave everything in your hands, Mr. Elliston, with the utmost confidence, remembering the unbounded respect Sir Nicholas had for you, and the trust he placed in you."
"Thank you, thank you, Sir Sydney."
"There is one little private matter, Mr. Elliston, I should like to speak to you about—if one may approach such a delicate thing without any show of disrespect to the dead."
"Certainly, speak. You would never, I know, think of forgetting yourself, Sir Sydney, and the respect that is due to your deceased relatives."
"Then," said the new baronet, sinking his voice, "how will the sudden death of my father and brother affect me? Perhaps it would have been better if I had refrained from putting such a question to you, just now, but you will understand that after the late quarrel between my relations and myself, which was the cause of my leaving home, I am naturally anxious."
"Just so, just so. It is perfectly natural, Sir Sydney. But I am happy to say that you have no reason to complain—no occasion at all to fear the future."
"Because you are practically your father's sole heir—no, not that exactly, but your brother's."
"What! How do you mean? Frederic hated the sight of me."
"Had your brother survived he would have inherited everything."
"Everything, Mr. Elliston?"
"Yes, every stick and stone—every mine and every penny, Sir Sydney. Your father made a new will—or I drew it out according to his instructions, about three months ago."
"And my name was not in that document?"
"Yes, it was; but all he willed to you were your mother's jewels."
"What?" the baronet cried with a white face.
"Your mother's jewels," was the lawyer's quiet reply.
Carsland shot an inquiring glance at his companion's impassive face, and saw that he knew nothing of the theft of the gems.
"It was very kind of him."
"So you will perceive that you inherit as the next of kin of Frederic. Had he been married and had children, you would have had strong grounds for complaint."
"So I should. Well, I suppose the Lord orders all things for the best, and we must bow to the inevitable."
Sir Sydney Barringham Carsland intoned those words in such a manner and with such a sneer on his handsome face as made them little short of blasphemous. So the shrewd solicitor thought; but he was too wise a man to give utterance to his thought, and he contented himself with remarking in his dry way.
"So we must, Sir Sydney! So we must."
"But to fancy that I should be Frederic's sole heir?" Carsland cried with a bitter laugh. "Why it is enough to make him turn in his grave or haunt me. If he had thought that I was going to inherit he would have made a will also in order to spite me, his only—his loving—brother."
"Don't speak like that, Sir Sydney," Mr. Elliston exclaimed, holding his hands up in pious remonstrance.
"He hated me like poison."
"I know. But he is gone now, and you can afford to be charitable."
"So I can. You are right. It is foolish now to remember the past. And now, Mr. Elliston, about the funeral."
"As I have already said, it was arranged to take place to-morrow, but if you think differently the date can be altered to meet your wishes."
"I do not wish the funeral to be delayed."
"It has been suggested that the burial ceremony should be of a public character. Your father was for many years a Town Councillor of Earlsford—was also Mayor of the borough for several years; and the present mayor, Mr. Waddington, suggested that the members of the corporation would be pleased to attend. What do you think, Sir Sydney?"
"I think the funeral should be a public one. My father, after all, was a man of great enterprise. Those chimneys and collieries over there prove that, and the least we can do for him now is to honour his memory. Yes; let the ceremony be as imposing as possible. I will leave all that in your hands; and I will give orders that the collieries remain idle to-morrow. They are to be interred I suppose at the Earlsford Cemetery?"
After some further conversation the baronet and the solicitor parted; each having his own business to look after.
On the following day, shortly after noon, the remains of the late Sir Nicholas Carsland and his elder son were laid away to their last rest. The town of Earlsford, and all the villages of Thorrell, Thorrell Moor, and Marsh Green were astir along the route from Carsland Hall to the burial ground; and Mayor, Aldermen, Town Councillors, and other corporate officials took part in the procession.
On the evening of the funeral there was much feasting and drinking in the villages surrounding the collieries belonging to Sir Sydney Carsland. He had opened his purse strings in a generous fashion, and the inauguration of his reign was only what a lot of people expected who were acquainted with his past life.
In many of the village taverns free ale and food were provided for the work-people and tenants, and when eleven p.m. arrived scores of colliers and their wives, pit youths, and pit-brow lasses reeled home as best they might along the dark, frost-hardened country lanes.
Of course the miners to a man were loud in their praises of the new master. He had filled them with good beer, and that is one of the surest ways of reaching a pit-man's heart.
But others shook their heads when they heard of Sir Sydney's lavish hospitality. He had been a spendthrift all his life, and was evidently one still. And they predicted that the new baronet meant to make ducks and drakes of the fortune it had taken Sir Nicholas all his long years of strenuous labour and successful scheming to accumulate.
But even the most stiff-knecked and sober-minded of people were quickly forced to change their opinions respecting the future of Sir Sydney Carsland.
After that first splendid burst of generosity Sydney settled himself down at the Hall and lived his life in a quiet, gentlemanly, and unostentatious way.
His first business was to clear away the numerous debts he had contracted in various quarters during his last sojourn in London; and it cost him a pretty large sum to do that.
Then he began to devote himself to business in a steady, practical way. He took an active interest in the working of the collieries; made almost all the men and women, lads and lasses who worked for him believe he was deeply anxious for their welfare, and interested in their work.
Many of the pit folk lived in the village of Marsh Lane, as has been intimated already, and a considerable number of them resided in cottages which the late Sir Nicholas had erected. Many of these houses were in a condition that left much to be desired, and he lost no time in having the habitations repaired and improved in many little ways.
His next move was to purchase all the old property in the village and about it he could lay his hands on, and the low, "shambling," unhealthy and uncomfortable dens were swept away, and in their places respectable dwelling-houses—each with its slip of a garden—appeared, which were let to his working people at reasonable rents.
Such work as the foregoing would have been matter for wonder and admiration had it been undertaken and executed by any man, but coming from Sir Sydney Carsland, whom a lot of folks had predicted would go to the dogs fast, it created quite a revulsion of feeling in respect to himself.
One day as Carsland was riding along the high road near his home he chanced upon his father's old friend, Squire Woodcock, who was riding in the opposite direction.
"Good morning, Squire," Sir Sydney sang out in his heartiest manner. "A beautiful morning, isn't it?"
He reined in his horse as he spoke, and the fine-looking, grey-bearded old fellow, who rode erect as a youngster, followed his example, saying pleasantly—
"Yes, it's a splendid morning, Carsland." Then he added, as he ran his eye over the son of his old neighbour, "How well you are looking. One doesn't get to see you so often. Busy, I daresay. By the way, my lad, you don't seem to be going as quickly to the devil as a lot of your friends seemed to think you would, eh?"
"Not quite," Sydney answered, with that bitter laugh of his, "and I daresay some of them are disappointed."
"Well, I am glad, anyway. I was always a bit fond of you, and am glad to see that you are doing your duty like a man. Why, man, the folks are singing your praises in all the villages between here and Earlsford. You could not do more if you were nursing this division of the county in readiness for the next general election."
"Perhaps I am nursing the constituency, Squire."
They both laughed, and then Woodcock asked gravely—
"How is it I never see you over at 'The Limes?'"
"I was hardly sure that I should be welcome," was Carsland's response.
"Welcome! Certainly! Will you dine with me to-morrow evening?"
"Don't mind if I do, thank you."
"Shall expect you, then. Good morning."
Sir Sydney went to "The Limes," as he had promised, and there he met his late brother's fiancée, Miss Adelaide Woodcock. She looked even more charming than of yore, he thought, and a trifle less cold. Probably her recent affliction—the loss of her affianced husband—had softened her a little.
Her welcome was much less frigid than Sir Sydney had expected, and before he left the house to drive homeward he and she were on very amiable terms. "Why," he asked himself, "had she again changed in her manner towards him? Was it because he was no longer poor and disreputable? Or was it because she really cared for him?"
Anyhow there was a change, and no matter what the alteration might be due to, he was delighted with the difference. That meeting was so pleasant to himself that he afterwards availed himself of all the Squire's invitations, and as those were pretty numerous, Sir Sydney and Miss Woodcock saw a good deal of each other.
When the gossips saw the handsome baronet and the Squire's beautiful daughter riding together along the lanes so often, they could only draw one inference. The young people were in love, they said—had been in love all along—and now that Sir Sydney had come into his title and fortune there was going to be a wedding, and Miss Adelaide was to be Lady Carsland after all.
For once the village prophets were right in their prognostications. In the second spring after his father's death, Sir Sydney Barringham Carsland led Miss Woodcock to the altar.
Autumn again, but two decades later than the time indicated at the opening of the prologue.
It was morning, between half-past five and six o'clock. The sun was already well up in the skies, and although the hour was so early the village of Marsh Green and the lanes and thoroughfares about the hamlet shewed abundant signs of life.
The bulk of the pit men and pit lads had left their homes some time ago, and were then either down one or other of the mines, or waiting to be "let down"; but a few later colliers, who had perhaps been forgotten by the "knocker-up," were still to be seen trudging, cans in hand, and Davy lamps slung over their backs, towards the Carsland collieries.
But if male villagers were few and far between in the lanes females were numerous enough. Many of the cottage doors stood ajar, and within one could hear the sound of women's voices as they bustled about preparing for the day's toil. Here and there in the green lanes, one could see the white "brats" and polished clogs of the factory girls, as they journeyed in twos and threes towards Earlsford; and now and again a pit-brow lass making her way towards the mines.
At the end of a row of thatched cottages which stood midway in the lane that led from Marsh Green to the Carsland pits, a maid of the mines was standing attired for work, and evidently awaiting the coming of some companion. She was a tall, well-built lass, strong limbed and agile, with a comely face that had been tanned by exposure to all sorts of weather on the pit-top.
Presently, she appeared to grow impatient, and walking to the door of the end cottage she tapped it with her clog, saying a little sharply:
"Wakken up, Salome lass, or we're goin' to be late!" The words were spoken in the rich dialect of the shire, and the girl who uttered them was in many ways typical of Lancashire life as one sees it near coal pits.
"All right, Nell," someone cried out in answer, "I'll be with you in a minute." The voice of the second speaker was low and sweet, and a listener would have expected the girl to be as attractive as her speech.
By-and-bye the cottage door swung back and Salome came out, fresh and sweet as the autumn morning—bright and fair to see as the white roses which grew at the diamond-paned window.
"It wants a quarter to six yet, Nell," she said, as her eyes met those of her friend and work-mate; "and we can walk to the pit in ten minutes."
"Ah thowt it was later than that, Salome," was Nell's reply, as they turned and went along the lane at a swinging pace in the direction of the collieries, which were visible through the trees and over the green fields.
As they swing along side by side in their picturesque attire, let me describe the girl whom her work-mate had addressed as Salome.
She was about nineteen years of age, was a tall, gracefully-moulded girl, with beautifully rounded limbs, fleet of foot as a deer, strong and active as a wild animal, and as natural and easy in all her slightest movements and gestures. As she strove along with that peculiar gliding motion which marked her gait, no one would have passed her by without a glance of admiration.
But splendidly fashioned as was Salome Barringham's figure, her chief beauty lay in her peerless face. The girl's hair and eyebrows were dark and glossy as a crow's back; the former being wavy and abundant enough to veil her to the waist when left unbound; while the latter were clearly defined and arched like thin black crescents. Her eyes were of the deepest shade of brown, but only when the light fell full upon them could the observer see this, and usually they appeared of the same hue as her tresses. They were large and dreamy, shaded by heavy white lids, fringed with jetty lashes, and when the lass was unaroused the fire that ever slumbered in their depths lent them a soft—an adorable warmth.
But when excited, Salome's eyes became great stars, out of which the light seemed to flash as the stars scintillate on a clear frosty night.
With such eyes and hair one would have expected to find a complexion of a pronounced brunette type. But Salome's skin was fair and satiny as the pure unsullied heart of a white rose. Save when her breast was stirred by some passion, her face was colourless as the white petal of a flower, but when agitated the blood flamed in her transparent cheeks, making of her a perfect type of warm Southern beauty such as is seen but seldom in these chilly, sea-girt lands.
If Salome's mouth was just the least trifle large, that fault was seldom remembered against her, because her lips were so vividly painted like a cloven damask rose; and finely carven, while her mouth itself was mobile and expressive. Her nose was perfection in its cleanly chiselled lines; and the contour of her soft cheeks, the sweep of her full chin, made up a face that was as strong as it was charming.
An artist in either stone or colour who had chanced to meet Salome Barringham as she and her friend Nell Crompton trudged along to their work that morning, would have revelled in the delightful picture she presented. Surely, he would have said, this is some maid of high degree masquerading in the guise of a pit-brow girl.
Salome's hybrid garb added to rather than took from her attractiveness. Around her dark bird-like head a bright kerchief of red and yellow was tied which permitted a black tress of her luxuriant hair to shew itself here and there. About her slim white throat a neat patterned scarf was wound and tied in a bow under her chin.
Her garments consisted of a print jacket which fitted her figure closely; a skirt of striped linsey, which was looped up high in front and fell almost to her heels behind; a pair of trousers of cord, which, worn short, disclosed a pair of pretty ankles clad in dark blue hose; and last of all a pair of clogs, polished like ebony, and fastened at the instep by brass clasps.
She appeared pretty, and sweet, and dainty enough for anything as she tripped along the white, dusty roads, chatting with Nell on topics of interest to them both. When she returned from work in the afternoon, she would be less presentable, for then the omnipresent coal dust would have soiled her lovely face and covered her clothes.
Salome Barringham had always been noticed for the spruceness with which she dressed even at work, and this attentiveness to her personal appearance had excited considerable comment of an adverse character on the part of the other pit-brow lasses when she first began to work at Carsland's Collieries.
But the girl had paid no heed to the sharp words and spiteful allusions of her work mates. Despite their laughs and jeering remarks she never permitted herself to become slovenly in her attire. She was young, strong, unafraid of hard work, always ready to fulfil the task allotted to her, and, being of a sweet temper, she soon won her way to the hearts of all about the place.
The slovenly ones ceased to dislike her because of her own smart appearance; the unhandsome lasses ceased to hate her because she was so much more lovely in appearance and refined in act, word, and thought than themselves. In time her influence made itself felt among the rough, untutored girls. The sluts grew less careless of their attire, the rude less offensive in their language.
On first coming to the village, Salome had dropped a hint to the effect that some of her people had been gipsies, long ago before she was born, and the friend to whom she told this had repeated the remark. This had caused Nan Blackledge—the biggest flirt, the sharpest-tongued, and the bonniest pit-brow lass in the village prior to Salome's coming—to nickname the newcomer "The White Gipsy."
The soubriquet had stuck, as many of the names Nan Blackledge threw at people did, and now Salome Barringham was better known to her fellows on the pit bank, to the miners who worked underground, and to the village folk among whom she lived, as the White Gipsy, than by her own lawful designation.
Leaving Spencer's Lane, Salome and Nell went through a stile, passed along a narrow path bordered by a field of wheat and one of turnips, and soon came to the wagon road leading to the Wood Pit. A couple of minutes later they had mounted the flight of steep wooden steps leading to the pit bank, and were not a little surprised by the sight that awaited them.
The Wood Pit owed its name to the fact that Cale Wood lay only a couple of hundreds of yards distant. It was one of the first pits Sir Nicholas Carsland had sunk, and now, being nearly forty years old, its seams were almost exhausted. It was an old-fashioned place and found employment for scarce three score of miners, whereas the new pit, on the other side of the patch of woodland, furnished work for over four hundred miners all told.
When Salome and her friend gained the top of the mine and made their way towards the rude cabin set apart for them and the other females, they saw that the cage was standing empty on a level with the landing plates, and that a score of men and lads were scattered over the brow. Some of the colliers and their drawers were sprawling over the cool iron plates which covered almost the whole of the level space about the mouth of the pit; others were seated on the small wagons used below, and upon the heap of "props" and "bars"; while a few were lounging about the wooden rails which guarded the edge of the brow.
Against the window of the cabin Nan Blackledge was leaning in a graceful attitude. She was a strapping lump of a lass of two or three and twenty, had a comely, florid face very much freckled, and a great quantity of dark red hair. She had a fearful temper, and could fight like a man whenever occasion demanded.
As Salome and Nell walked into the hut and placed their small baskets and cans filled with meat and tea on the shelves, the latter remarked,
"Has anny o' the men gone down the pit yet, Nan?"
"Not yet, Nell," the red-faced and red-haired lass replied, "an' ah dunnot think as anny one on 'em are goin' to go deawn this mornin'."
"How's that?" Salome asked
"Why, there's on'y abeawt twenty o' the men turned up, an' they never work the pit wi' less than thirty, yo' know."
"Ah dersay a lot o' them hasn't gotten o'er Earlsford Fair yet," Nell Crompton remarked, casually. "Ah heerd tell o' Hugh Eastwood, Ned Tarbuck, an' a' that gang being drunk at th' Commercial Hotel at Earlsford, and makin' rare fools o' theirsels."
"Then tha didn't hear th' truth, Nell Crompton!" Nan cried, hotly, "for ah was wi' Hugh i'th' fair after 'leven o'clock, an' he were sober enough then."
"That's six o'clock blowing, girls," Salome broke in at this point, half fearing that the flame tempered Nan wanted to pick a quarrel with Nell. "And there's the under-looker and manager. We shall soon know now whether we have to work or play to-day."
As Salome spoke a dozen steam whistles at Marsh Green, Thorrell Moor, and Earlsford startled the quiet autumn morning air with their blatant and discordant voices, filling all the welkin with a stream of sound that would have driven a musician into hysterics.
The officials named held a hurried conference together, and presently—before the stridulous screams of the "buzzers" had ceased—the under-looker had told the men to go home as they could not afford to work the pit with such a small number of "coalers," the manager had told all the surface hands the same thing, and colliers and drawers, datallers and pony drivers were wending their respective ways homeward.
Five minutes after the departure of the miners the whole of the pit brow girls who worked at the Wood Pit filed slowly down the narrow stairs leading from the brow. The girls numbered half a dozen; they were all youngsters, and when someone suggested that they should all go blackberrying in Cale Wood not a dissentient voice was raised; even Salome warmly welcomed the proposal.
So towards the wood the bevy of pit-brow lasses set foot in the merriest of moods.
Salome and Nell Crompton were in the rear of the party, and presently the latter said as she tugged at the White Gipsy's sleeve, that she might slacken her pace and permit the others to forge ahead.
"Ah say, Salome, what a temper Nan got in when ah spoke of Hugh Eastwood being drunk last neet at the Commercial."
"She did, but it seems you were mistaken, Nell," the other responded.
"But ah wasn't, ah tell thee. Hugh never seed Nan Crompton last neet, ah'll bet my lahfe. Hoo on'y said that to vex thee, Salome."
"To vex me?"
"What else? Everybody knows that Nan is gradely fond o' Hugh, and everybody knows, too, that he is very much ta'en up with a better lookin' lass than her. Tha knows, Salome, as well as annybody who an' what I meeun." And Nell dug her elbow into her friend's side.
"I know that Hugh Eastwood is nothing to me, Nell—on my word he isn't. And I believe that you and all the rest are mistaken when you think he cares for me."
"Get off wi' thee! Ah tell thee again that everybody can see where Hugh's fancy lies, an' that's what makes Nan Blackledge so nasty at tahmes. Hoo's jealous o' thee."
"It's without occasion, then, believe me. Why, Hugh Eastwood never said a word to me which would lead me to think he cared for me one bit."
"But he's said enough to others."
"That means nothing, Nell."
"But, s'posin' he had spokken to thee, Salome?"
"It would have made no difference in my feelings. I like Hugh, but not in the way you think."
"Tha'art vexed, happen, because o' what Nan said. Ah know that Hugh does not care a rap for her, Salome."
"And I know that I don't care a rap about either of them. That'll do now, Nell. Shut up and let's catch up to the others. They'll wonder what we are talking about."
Nell saw that it was useless at that moment to plead any further in behalf of her friend, the young collier, so she dropped the subject; and quickening their pace, the girls soon overtook the others on the confines of the wood.
"Ah'll tell yo' what, lasses," Nan Blackledge was remarking as Salome and Nell came up. "If we intend to pick anny blegberries we shall ha' to empty eaur baskets and cans. Let's ha' eaur breakfasts. What do yo' sey?"
"Ay! Ay! Let's ha' eaur jackbits, and then we con fill eaur things," cried another.
"Then we'll pic-nic in the wood—among those ferns there," chimed in Salome. "If some o' the lads in the village knew we were here wouldn't there be some downright good fun. Come on, lasses."
Salome was hurrying through the stile dividing the wooded land from the meadow they were in when Nan Blackledge's voice arrested her feet.
"Howd on, Sal Barringham. We've getten nowt but cowd tay in eawr cans, an' ah meeun 'to ha' somethin' better. S'pose we milk one o' thoose cows? What do yo' say?"
There was a chorus of assent from all, for the spirit of mischief was running high in the breasts of the daring lasses; and without more ado they made their way towards the browsing cattle. Some of the girls emptied their cans of their contents, others stood at the head of a cow while Nan Blackledge milked and Salome held the vessel to receive the thin, white, squirting stream.
When two or three of the girls' drinking vessels were filled they ran laughing into the shady depths of the wood. There, selecting a thick bank of bracken, they seated themselves and attacked the food they had brought in their baskets; while their merry musical voices and muffled laughter pealed out on the scented air.
"After that," said Nan, presently, when the whole of them had finished their meal, "ah could do wi' some dessert. Let's creep into Farmer Hilton's orchard. There's plenty o' pears, plums, appoes an' a' sorts o' fruit theer. Come on, lasses. Ahm game for annythin' this mornin'."
"I don't think it would be wise to do that, Nan," Salome remarked gravely. "A bit of fun is all right, but that would be stealing, and might get us all into very serious trouble."
"Besahdes," another lass broke in, "there's a big bull dog at Farmer Hilton's. It took a lump eaut o' a chap's leg last week, that was in th' orchard. Ahm not gooin' theer, Nan."
The thought of the dog ruined Nan's proposal respecting the fruit. So having concluded their repast, and prepared their baskets and cans for the reception of the ripe berries, they scattered themselves about the wood, and blackberrying began in earnest.
The wood was two or three miles in length, but less than half a mile in width at its widest point. The southern end of it extended to the confines of Carsland Park, while the other end adjoined the village of Appleby, a mile and a half north of Marsh Green.
The ground inside the narrow belt of woodland was very uneven in character, rising suddenly in some places, and falling abruptly in others. Here and there throughout its whole length and breadth were rounded hillocks covered with elderberry and blackberry bushes, oak, bracken, and other fern, and lush grasses, among which foxgloves and many other varieties of sweet wild flowers blossomed. Shallow ponds covered with chick and weed, and tenanted by numberless frogs, newts, and jack-sharps abounded in the hollows; and around and about these pools the blackberries throve amazingly. Here and there also were pretty little dells half hidden by the thick undergrowth and trees where the brambles and dainty ferns climbed up the steep side of bare rock or crumbly gravel, and there one might lie on the mossy turf hidden from the most penetrating rays of the strongest summer sun.
Hither and thither the merry band of careless lasses wandered, rifling the thorny bushes of the blackberries, running to and fro among the deep grasses and fern, leaping the little stream that babbled through the wood's heart, and making the leafy glades re-echo with their boisterous peals of laughter when some of them ran after a startled hare or rabbit, or fell in the brook, slipped into a pool after the fruit, or went sprawling among the wiry bracken.
The day was wearing on towards noon ere the party of pit-brow girls found their baskets and cans approaching fulness. They had worked their way along one side of the wood and back on the other side. Now, at eleven a.m., they found themselves not far from the point from which they started.
The morning had been one blaze of autumn splendour, and almost all of them were tired with their ceaseless tramp over the broken and verdure-covered ground. Salome had filled her basket and can a little time ago, and she was ready now for setting her face homeward at any moment. But some of the lasses had been less fortunate. They possessed either larger baskets or had been unsuccessful in finding fruitful bushes, and those who had filled their vessels were waiting now till the rest had done so.
"I'll wait here, Nell," Salome had said, as she cast herself among the ferns. "When you are full shout for me."
"A' reet, Salome, ah'll let thee know when ah've filled my basket."
Nell made haste toward a group of bushes on the other side of the little dell, and Salome was left alone.
And a delightful picture she made lying there among the bracken. She had cast herself down at full length, her head was pillowed on her joined hands, she had untied the silk kerchief from her slim, rounded throat, and her beautiful face was flushed pink with the heat and her exertions.
Lying there she appeared like some strange wood nymph, attired in an unfamiliar and unclassic garb, but all the more interesting perhaps on that account, and certainly none the less wondrously lovely.
So thought one young man who chanced to wander that way and cast his eyes on the maiden engrossed in her day dreams. The stranger was a tallish man of three or four and twenty, with a finely cut face, laughing eyes of light brown hue, a heavy moustache of straw colour, and a full crop of dark brown curls. A strikingly handsome fellow would be the verdict of every woman in respect to him, and few men would have denied his comeliness.
He was well dressed in a suit of grey tweed, although there was not the least pretence of flashiness or show about him, and the flat hat of light straw set carelessly on his head suited him well. At a glance it would have been impossible to discover what was his social standing. He looked an aristocrat every inch, but he might be only a gentlemanly, well-bred clerk, or even a smart commercial traveller.
With a pleasant smile on his handsome face he stood on the edge of the precipitous bank of soft stone which formed one side of the little dell, his keen eyes drinking in every detail of Salome's remarkable loveliness, and her half-manly, half-womanly, and, so far as he was concerned, totally strange attire. And she lay there unconscious of his burning gaze, her dark eyes upturned to the blue skies, across which fleecy clouds were drifting, her rare face shining among the wavy, luxuriant fern fronds like a huge flower.
He coughed lightly. She sprang to a sitting position, and casting her eyes about saw the strange man. She was on her feet in a moment, and had gripped her basket and can as if preparing to fly, while her face, lately pink, had grown the colour of a poppy.
"Do not run away," he cried, earnestly. "I want to speak to you."
"I had no intention of running, sir," she answered, gaining courage from the way in which he spoke. "I was startled, that was all. What do you want?" she asked as she lifted her eyes to his own and remarked to herself how handsome he was.
"I took a wrong path in the wood and got lost. When I saw you resting there I could not help looking at you, you looked so exceedingly beautiful."
"If that's all you want me for I may as well go, sir," she said, trying to look grave, but the mischievous twinkle in her dark orbs betrayed her.
"Well, I thought you might forgive me for asking the road to Thorrell Moor."
"Certainly. Follow the path which runs along the brookside and you will soon come to the high road which runs to Thorrell Moor."
She turned away again, and once more his voice stopped her.
"Don't go yet—I beg of you. I should like to speak further with you. Believe me I have no desire to be impertinent or to trespass upon your good nature."
She paused irresolute whether to stay or go. There was something winning both in his manner and words, and, although she knew that, according to the commonly accepted notions of what was maidenly and becoming she ought to have gone, she somehow desired to stay.
"I cannot stay more than a minute," she replied, pleasantly. "My companions may shout or return for me any moment."
"Are you what they call a pit-brow girl, or are you only masquerading as one?"
"I am a pit-brow girl, and I work at that pit you can see through the trees."
"May I ask you what you are called?"
"Some call me the White Gipsy; others call me Sal, and a few call me Salome," she said, with a mischievous sparkle in her great eyes.
"The White Gipsy!" he echoed. "What a singular name. But won't you tell me your real name?"
"I will, on one condition," Salome cried, with a ripple of uncontrollable laughter.
"Name the condition."
"Tell me your name."
"Oh, that's all right," he responded merrily; "my name is Wilfrid Cunliffe, and I live in Liverpool. Now let me have your name and address, please."
"I'd rather not, sir."
"Honour bright. You promised, you know. Do not break your word."
"Well, my name is Salome Barringham."
"And you live——"
"In Spencer's Lane, Marsh Green."
"Thank you. One so lovely as you are must be engaged, I am sure."
"You said you would not be impertinent, sir."
"I am not impertinent. I have a right to ask that question."
"You! Why? How?" And the laughter of the girl rang out musical and clear.
"Because, Salome, I love you already."
"Mr.—Cunliffe I think you said—you must have a very poor opinion of country lasses—of pit-brow lasses especially."
"On the contrary, I think an immense deal of country and pit-brow lasses—one especially, Miss Barringham, isn't it?"
"Yes—but I must be going."
"But you haven't told me whether you are engaged or not. Do tell me!"
There was a serious undertone in his light bantering voice which did not escape her notice, and that perhaps induced her to say,
"I ought not to tell you—I ought to have run away at first, if I——"
"Had been an ordinary girl. I am glad you are not that. Your staying shews me that I am not offensive in your sight, Miss Barringham."
"I was going to say that a sensible girl with a proper sense of decency, would have been ashamed to have stayed here laughing with and talking to a perfect stranger," she rejoined, smilingly.
"I don't mean that we shall be strangers long if I can help it—that is supposing you are not already engaged to someone."
"I am not engaged," she said quickly, the spirit of mischief, rather than any feeling of coquetry, urging her on.
"You have a sweetheart, I daresay?"
"Half-a-dozen—in fact, I couldn't count them all—but not one I would walk a stride with. Now, Mr. Cunliffe, I am off. Good morning."
With that she ran lightly through the tall bracken, paying no heed to his cries asking her to stop. She could hear her companions close by, and she was glad that they had not caught her flirting with the stranger. Once only did she pause and turn round.
Then she saw that the handsome gentleman was standing where she had left him, his eyes still following her, and a peculiar rapt look upon his face.
She waved her hand to him with a pleased laugh, and he answered by throwing her a kiss. Then she bounded away again, and was soon at Nell Crompton's side.
A week or two previous to the time indicated in the last chapter, Sir Sydney Carsland, his wife and their daughter, had returned to Carsland Hall, after a few months sojourn on the Continent, with the intention of remaining there until the following spring.
The day after their arrival the Carslands had been joined by a young gentleman who was to take up his residence there, and who was considered to be a member of the family circle, although he was not in any way related to either the baronet or Lady Carsland.
This gentleman was Paul Meredith, a handsome, open-handed and kindly-hearted lad, who would, on attaining his twenty-fifth year, come into a considerable fortune. His father and Sydney Carsland had been intimate friends in their youthful days, their intimacy had been renewed after Sydney succeeded to the baronetcy and fortune; and when the elder Meredith died after a long and painful illness he appointed his friend sole executor and Paul's guardian.
At that time Paul was just entering his teens and beginning his education at one of the famous public schools.. His father's decease made him an orphan—his mother having died some years before—and henceforth he had lived at Carsland Hall when he was not at school or college. Oakholme Manor, in Yorkshire, the house in which his parents resided having been let, until he attained his twenty-fifth year.
Hitherto there had been little of a remarkable character in Paul Meredith's short history. He had gone to Cambridge, and despite the fact that he was no great lover of books and study, had contrived to take a respectable degree. The young man's allowance was a generous one, and this had enabled him to gratify many whims and desires of a pleasure-giving kind.
Being handsome, fairly rich, and of a genial nature, he had gone the pace with the other harum scarum fellows of his college, but, although he got into numerous petty scrapes, after the fashion of his kind, he contrived to keep himself out of disgrace.
He had taken his degree while the Carslands were abroad, hence he had still to receive their congratulations when they all met again at Carsland Hall. These gratulations were given him without stint by both Sir Sydney and Lady Carsland, for Paul was a great favourite with them; but what had pleased the newly-fledged B.A. most of all was the prettily worded and softly spoken compliment fair Cordelia Carsland had paid him.
Here may be set down a few words respecting the Carslands, with and wife, and their doings during the past twenty years.
Their married life had been comfortable and happy in a quiet sort of way. Neither of them had been passionately enamoured of the other, although at the time of the wedding Sydney had believed himself deeply in love with the fair Adelaide; and after their brief honeymoon terms of endearment and those little endearing acts and gestures of affection common to people in love rarely passed between them.
Lady Carsland had a clear head, a hot temper, and a decided will of her own, as Sir Sydney soon discovered; and he found out also that the easiest way of managing his handsome and strong-minded spouse was to give her a good deal of her own way.
Her ladyship possessed considerable ambition. She had no intention of passing her life and spending her fortune in that dull corner of Lancashire—she meant to see a good deal of the world; to cut a figure in society—in a phrase—to occupy the position she thought herself entitled to, on account of her beauty, wealth, and title.
Hence, a year after the birth of Cordelia Carsland, Sir Sydney and his wife took up their abode in the Metropolis. She had urged the baronet to secure a residence in town; to enter into public life as a politician—to do all things that would give them a prominent position in the world which has its centre in London.
He acceded readily enough to these proposals for reasons of his own. A palatial mansion in Park Lane was obtained; Sir Sydney became an active and a prominent member of the Carlton Club; was lavish with his money when funds were required for either a general or a local election campaign; made himself invaluable to his political friends and the wire-pullers of his party in numerous little ways; dined and wined with princes, dukes, earls, ex-Cabinet Ministers, and so forth; and, in a couple of years, a safe seat in the House of Commons for one of the Southern Shires was placed at his disposal.
He accepted the seat, and took his place in Parliament. He was only a moderate speaker, and he spoke but infrequently. But he was still as useful as before to his party, and it was hinted as the years rolled on, and the pendulum of political power swung from Liberals to Conservatives, and back again, that his reward would come some day.
From this it will be perceived that Sir Sydney and Lady Carsland played no inconsiderable part in the stirring and eventful drama of social and political life. They had been more successful than either had anticipated at the outset of their voyage of ambitious social adventure.
But this was scarcely matter for wonder. Her ladyship's beauty, Sir Sydney's genial nature, generosity, and good looks were powerful influences in the way of securing friends, and the joint income of husband and wife—which probably exceeded that of many an earl, or even a duke—was the most potent force of all in making their upward way smooth and easy to tread.
Having made for herself a solid position in the fashionable world, Lady Carsland's ambitions expanded. In the early days of her married life she had only desired to take her place amidst the other ladies of title who throng the Metropolis during the season—had only wished to stand on terms of intimacy and equality with the noble—the high and mighty dames whose names figured in and almost constituted current history.
That ambition was quickly gratified, and that moment she was unsatisfied. Success socially had sharpened her appetite. To be the wife of a baronet was only a small thing after all when she came to consider it. If her husband were an earl, or a baron even, she would be content.
These cravings of Lady Carsland were not confined to the recesses of her mind. Sir Sydney knew all about them, and it was in response to her ladyship's intriguing after a title of nobility for her husband that the hint had been given him that he might expect his reward some day. What shape the reward would take he could not guess, and had not yet received the slightest intimation. In all probability it would be a barony—earldoms were seldom given to men as young as he still was.
This brief record of the married life of the Carslands will have been sufficient to shew that they had been fortunate, and one would have expected that success would have sweetened the life of each.
Such was not the case. In fact the first years of Sir Sydney's existence after his espousal of Miss Adelaide Woodcock were spent in fear and trembling. Only when he had placed the wedding ring on the finger of the Squire's daughter did he realise the enormity of the crime he had committed, and the danger of the position in which he had placed himself.
He had been guilty of bigamy. His first wife was alive—the woman known to the world as Lady Carsland was not his wife at all—her children would be in reality illegitimate. The real Lady Carsland was the daughter of the Spanish gipsy, Pedro Velazo—the lovely, trusting woman he had won and then deserted.
Hardened reprobate as Sir Sydney Carsland was, he found it impossible not to think of what he had done, and the evil consequences that might issue from his mad, sinful act, What an awful exposure there would be if his first—his real wife—discovered who and what he really was. The country would ring with his infamy—the Squire and the Squire's daughter, whom he had dishonoured, would prosecute him—he would be sent to gaol, and all the world would read of his ignominy in the press.
Such thoughts as those indicated dogged the baronet's footsteps for years. There was never a day for a long period in which he did not frighten himself with the shadow of Pedro Velazo and his daughter. He could imagine the fiery Spaniard following him like a blood-hound, ferretting out his secret and striking him suddenly.
Hence when Lady Carsland urged him to enter society and rent or buy a house in London, he grasped at her suggestion readily. In the Metropolis he would be safer, he thought, than at Carsland Hall. Among the elite of society he would be more secure from the people he feared. Surely Pedro and Salome would never dream of seeking him there.
As years spent themselves and never a word of either Pedro Velazo or his daughter reached him. Sir Sydney Carsland's fears abated, and were ultimately swept away altogether by the waves of time.
When five years had elapsed he had summoned up courage to pay a secret visit to the scene of his first wedding, was surprised to find that the little cottage had strange tenants.
Pedro Velazo was dead, so he was told, and his daughter had gone no one could tell him whither.
A little easier in his mind, for he had been in deadly fear of the old Spaniard, he ceased his inquiries, which had been carried on incognito' and turned home wondering with an intense wonder what had become of the beautiful girl he had woo'd, won, and afterwards so suddenly and basely deserted.
After that his trepidation found wings for itself and vanished, and in the whirl of political existence and the gaiety of social affairs, thoughts of the past arose in his mind but seldom. His heart and brain were engrossed in the present, and whenever the old days and old things presented themselves he dismissed them with a shadowed face, a wrinkled brow, and a heart that was smitten by a dull pain.
Lady Carsland had borne her spouse several children, all girls, but one only, the first-born, had lived. Sir Sydney had desired a son and heir, but none was vouchsafed him. He did not care to think that his name and race would end with him, and in his sombre moments he was inclined to believe that a son had been declined to him by the Almighty as a punishment for the sins of his younger days.
As the years went by Sir Sydney became very greatly attached to his ward, Paul Meredith. There was much in the young man's nature which reminded him of himself at the same age, and when Paul finished his education and returned to Carsland Hall, it was the desire of the baronet, and Lady Carsland also, that Paul and Cordelia should make a match of it.
Paul Meredith was sole heir to a most valuable estate, which would be his in a couple of years; and besides there were only three lives, none of them too secure, between the young man and a certain earldom in South Wales.
Sir Sydney and Lady Carsland had often talked over the matter. It was the fixed opinion of her ladyship that Paul was passionately attached to Cordelia, and that he required only a little encouragement in order to declare his affection. She expressed herself also as quite confident that Paul would, ere ten years were passed, be Lord Aberlhan.
The present earl, she pointed out, was verging on seventy, and would never marry. His brother and heir was only a few years younger, and his son was consumptive. Whenever she advanced these reasons, which Sir Sydney knew to be well founded, he always gave vent to a hope that Paul and Cordelia would come to an understanding while Meredith remained a commoner. If they did not Paul might fly at higher and more nobly born game when he became a nobleman.
A day or two following the arrival of the Carslands and Meredith at the Hall the baronet and his wile chanced to be sitting in the morning-room. An hour after they had all breakfasted together, the young people had gone out, and Sir Sydney and Lady Carsland were alone.
"I was half afraid, Adelaide," he began, as he permitted his morning paper to fall on his knees, "that Paul would have expressed himself as desirous of spending the remainder of his probation abroad. Young men, as you know, when set free from the trammels of education, generally like to look about them a little before settling down."
"I believe that they do, Sydney," she replied, as she folded her copy of Truth carefully at a page containing some spicy paragraphs. "And is not that the case with Paul?"
"I am glad to say it is not," Carsland rejoined. "He said last night, after you and Cordelia retired, that his first idea on leaving the University was to travel for some time. But he had changed his mind on coming here. He even went so far as to ask me if I didn't think it would be better to remain with us until he had attained to his fortune."
"And you said, of course, that you thought it would?"
"Most assuredly I did."
"And quite right too. I quite expected him to stay with us. Of course you understand why Paul elects to remain."
"I suppose it must be on account of Cordelia."
"Certainly. The girl's beauty has fascinated him, and I think we need have no fear now in reference to her."
"Well, I am pleased it is so. Cordelia might seek much further and fare very much worse. I like Paul very much, and I do not know another man to whom I would give her so willingly. What do you say, Adelaide?"
"The same—but look! There are Cordelia and Paul together!"
The baronet walked to the window, and outside on the lawn he saw his daughter and his ward walking side by side, chatting and laughing with all the frankness of youth, and occasionally looking into each other's face in the manner common to those who love or are learning the gentle art.
Leaving Carsland and his wife let us follow Paul Meredith and Cordelia. They had met by accident beside the house, each bent on a walk, and divining this Paul had said in his frank, brotherly way:
"Hello, Cordelia, off for a walk. So am I. Suppose we go as far as the village?"
"I am going there, Paul," she said. "Isn't it a beautiful morning?"
"Splendid; come along. I'm awfully glad I've dropped across you."
So they set out for the village. Paul had always been very fond of Cordelia, and the change that had taken place in her since he last saw her, eighteen months before, was likely to increase his admiration. She was then a tall, thin, fair faced girl, with flowing flaxen hair and light blue eyes; now she had suddenly developed into a wonderfully beautiful woman. Her hair had darkened into gold, her eyes had deepened into azure, her thin form had filled out and was moulded now on flowing—almost voluptuous lines, and her complexion was of the fairest.
"What a beauty Cordelia is!" was Paul's unspoken comment as he swung along at her side. "I wonder how the deuce it is that I never noticed it before."
This thought was in his mind still when he remarked, as he opened the gate for the girl to pass through,
"On my word, Cordelia, I should scarcely have known you if I had met you anywhere save at home."
"Why, Paul?" she asked.
"Because you have changed so much."
"I am just the same to you, I hope."
"Of course—I meant that you had jumped up into a woman all at once. I wonder if you know, Cordelia, how beautiful you are now," he cried warmly.
"Nonsense, Paul," she whispered, with burning face. "I wish you wouldn't talk like that again."
"But it's true, and I couldn't help saying what I felt. You are ever so lovely, I assure you, and, I daresay, have any number of fellows dangling after you."
"Not one, Paul," she answered, smilingly. "Have you forgotten that we have only just got back home?"
"Of course—I had forgotten for the moment. But for all that there is one fellow after you, I know."
She looked upon him with a surprised gaze, and he added,
"I meant myself, of course. There! I didn't mean to be so abrupt, but it's true enough, Cordelia. Well, if you don't want me to speak now, I wont." The colour had fled from her face and frightened him. "I suppose I ought to speak to your father first. There! I'll let it drop altogether. I must be a brute for alarming you. But you'll forgive me, Cordelia."
"There is nothing to forgive, Paul," she said, recovering her gaiety. "You did not alarm me as you know. I was only surprised."
"I am going to kiss you, dear!" he exclaimed.
"You must not, Paul—don't you see those men in the field there?"
He dropped the hands he had lifted to encircle her fair and slender neck in order to kiss the tempting lips. The farm labourers in the field hard by saved Cordelia from his embraces and caresses—saved him also from taking a step he might have bitterly regretted afterwards.
He was hovering on dangerous ground that morning. His admiration for Cordelia had been mistaken by him for love, and in the heat of the moment he would have declared his affection, and probably made the damsel an offer of his hand and heart. But the coyness of the shy maiden saved him from the plunge.
Still, from that moment it was tacitly understood between them that they were lovers and half engaged to each other. Before the day was done Lady Carsland knew how matters stood. She had easily extracted from Cordelia an account of what took place during that morning walk, and she commended the girl for declining to listen to Paul's avowal on that occasion. It would be time enough, she added, to give an ear to Meredith's avowals when she—Cordelia—understood herself and her lover better.
The shadows of an autumn evening were gathering thickly in the lanes around the hamlet of Marsh Green. The sun had set an hour or more, and a wide straggling path of silvery grey sky shot through with purple, blue, and crimson tints marked where he had fallen. It was a calm and beautiful evening. A score of sweet scents were afloat on the quiet air, the lights came from the unshuttered windows of the cottages, and the murmur of youthful life still astir on the village green in front of the White Crow—the village tavern-was wafted to one's ears.
Along Spencer's Lane, in the direction of the hamlet, a man came walking at a swinging pace. He was tall, well-attired, fair to gaze upon—was, in a phrase, the young man who had met the White Gipsy in Cale Wood, and had introduced himself to her there.
In front of the cottages in which Salome lived he came to a standstill, and looked at the lighted windows. While he looked he listened. After a space of indecision he went onward for a few dozen yards, then turned back, and for some minutes continued to saunter to and fro, making the row of humble dwellings the centre of his peregrinations.
Presently a dirty little lad of nine or ten came bounding through the twilight. He was brown-faced, lithe of limb, and ragged. The stroller addressed the village urchin in this manner—
"Come here, my lad."
"A' reet, sir."
"Do you live about here?"
"Yessir. Ah live in that theer heawse," pointing to the middle cottage in the row.
"Do you know Salome Barringham?"
The lad shook his curly head.
"They call her the White Gipsy, I believe," the young man added, remembering suddenly what the pit-brow girl had told him.
"Oh, ah know her then!" exclaimed the lad, his face lighting up at the mention of Salome's nickname. "Hoo lives theer!" and he pointed to the end cottage.
"Will you go and tell her that a man wishes to see her? Here's a shilling for you. Don't let anyone else hear you tell her. Do you understand?"
The urchin nodded in an emphatic manner, his dirty fingers closed tightly upon the silver coin, and he darted away, going to the back of the cottage, where he knew the kitchen door would be open.
A couple of minutes afterwards Salome Barringham came out of the house by the front door, a shawl thrown over her head and held closely about her face with one hand. Glancing about the lane she perceived the waiting man, and recognising him through the gloom, went in a slow, hesitating way to him.
"You didn't expect to see me to-night?" he began, fixing his keen, grey eyes on her half-concealed face, as if he were desirous of reading whatever expression there might be upon it.
"No, I didn't," she said, quietly, her gaze bent on the opposite hedgerow.
"You never thought that I should have the courage—perhaps you will call it impudence—to come here after you?"
"No," was her immediate answer, spoken as quietly as before.
"But why didn't you meet me? You hardly know yet what I would do—and would not do, for your sake, Salome."
"Perhaps you are right."
"But you haven't told me yet why you did not come to the place arranged to meet. I suppose we may as well walk down the lane a little as stand here? And I want to hear what excuse you have to offer. I was walking beside the wood for over half-an-hour."
She followed the gentle pressure of the hand he had placed on her arm, and they walked slowly along the fast-darkening high road.
"Well, I did not meet you because——well, on account of several things," she murmured.
"Give me one valid reason—but manufacture no excuses. Tell me the truth, Salome?" he cried, earnestly, his gaze again seeking the charming, vaguely defined silhouette her profile made.
"Well, if I am to tell you the truth," she said, her voice hardening as if she had come to some resolution, "I did not meet you because I did not want."
"Nonsense! I don't believe you—I won't believe that."
"In face of this?"
He suddenly paused in the white, dust-covered, unpaved footwalk, and with a dexterous fillip of his hand threw aside the shawl she wore. That act revealed something of importance. Salome was attired in her newest frock.
"Would you have dressed yourself in your best unless you had intended to meet me—but perhaps you were going elsewhere?"
"I wasn't. I dressed myself to meet you, and changed my mind—that was all!" was her quiet rejoinder.
"Because my eyes were suddenly opened to my own foolishness. I have met you too often already, and don't intend to meet you—see you any more!"
The words came quickly, hotly, from her lips, and a faint gasp marked their close. His eyes flashed on her, and he remarked a trifle sneeringly and with an undertone of bitterness in his voice—
"So you can't trust me, then?"
"It isn't that—I have trusted you."
"Perhaps I was mistaken in thinking that you cared for me, Salome."
"That is not it either."
"What is it then?"
"I had come to the conclusion that it was quite wrong to meet you at all, and I made up my mind to do so no more."
"That seems strange now. You never thought of such a thing at first. You saw me, and were neither afraid of me nor suspicious. There is something else under this. Has someone been saying something to you about me?"
"No. I do not know any person who knows you—I am not aware that any person knows about our meetings save ourselves."
"Then what is wrong?"
"It is all wrong!" she burst out, losing her composure at last. "I may be a foolish girl, but I am not a wicked one. It was silly of me to ever consent to meeting you—it was worse than silliness to continue to do so, and now it would be positively wicked on my part to go on! You must see that even more clearly than I can."
"But I do not. I suppose you think that I am only amusing myself at your expense! Is that what troubles you?"
"Perhaps it is. I know that you never ask me to meet you only in quiet, unfrequented places; and I have noticed that you shun even the villagers around here. What do I know about you? Nothing! You have given me a name, but it may be a wrong one; and how am I to know whether you live in Liverpool or not?"
"If you think I am a liar—or something much worse than that—I had better say no more but leave you."
"That would be best. If you are ashamed of being seen with me—if you do not choose to keep company with me openly like an honest man, it is time we parted and we must part. Good-night, Mr. Cunliffe."
She drew up suddenly in the lane and held out her hand. She had spoken very firmly, as if her mind was fully made up, but it had cost her much pain to deliver her soul so plainly. Her eyes were burning like stars, and a spot of crimson flamed in each cheek could he have seen them.
He took her hand, clasped it firmly, but did not release it.
"You are right," he said, "and I am glad you have spoken. Heaven knows that you are worthy of any man's love, but I had no evil intention. I am sorry I could not seek you openly. But I will tell you all before very long."
"There is something to tell me then?"
"Tell me now!"
"I cannot—yet. Wait. Have you no patience? Cannot you trust me? If you loved me a little—if you loved me half so much as I love you, you would be content to let me speak when a fitting time came."
"It is because I love you that I am afraid. You must speak now!"
"I won't now!" he said, doggedly.
"Good night then. I am going!"
She jerked her hand from his warm clinging fingers and turned hurriedly homeward, biting her lips to keep back the tears. She heard him say, "Good night, Salome," and she listened eagerly for other words; but those words spoken he was silent.
Once she paused when a score of paces from him. She could see him standing on the edge of the road, and was half inclined to fly back and beg of him to restore her faith in him by dispersing her vague doubts. A word and she would have rushed to him. He was silent—was lighting a cigar. Then in a sudden access of resolution she sped homeward, the hot tears flowing down her soft cheeks.
The man who called himself Wilfred Cunliffe saw Salome Barringham dart from him and make her way homeward, and the abrupt and decided way in which the girl chose to terminate their interview surprised him so much that for a few moments he knew not what course to pursue.
His first impulse had been to spring after her and detain her by main force. But he had restrained himself with a low, passionate cry of anger, and stood still. The wounded vanity of the lover would not permit him to follow her when she desired to be quit of him, and he echoed the lassie's good-night, thinking she would return when he manifested no intention of pursuing her.
He saw her stop a short distance away, and his heart beat with a pleasurable throb. She had found her senses and was coming back, he thought, and assured of that he nonchalantly lit a cigar. When his weed was glowing like a live coal he turned his head again, to find that Salome was almost out of sight, and speeding from him at a swift pace.
A curse, directed at his own stupidity, rose in his throat, but he checked it. Then he took a step forward, but paused before another pace was taken. It was useless to follow her. What could he gain by doing so? Her mind was made up, and she would refuse to listen to him unless he made a clean breast of all things respecting himself—and he was not prepared for that yet.
For some minutes he lingered there, smoking fiercely, while his mind was filled with indecision. He was very much in love with Salome. He had never dreamed when he entered into that romantic flirtation with the pit-brow girl in Cale Wood that his admiration would develop until it became the absorbing, intoxicating, maddening passion which now filled his soul and brain.
Simply in jest, and merely for the sport, pleasure, and excitement of the thing, he had sought out Salome Barringham after that pleasant chance encounter in the wood. He had made a note of the girl's address while it was fresh in his memory, and some evening later had, impelled by curiosity and an undercurrent of feeling he never troubled himself to analyse, strolled through the village and along Spencer's Lane.
Fate had been with him that balmy autumn evening—or, looking at matters from a different standpoint, against him. Anyway, chance again threw the White Gipsy across his path.
Salome had been to see some friend of her's at a farm across the fields, and coming home she ran against the handsome stranger whom she had laughed, and chatted, and flirted with on that never-to-be-forgotten morning in the wood.
Salome looked even more charming than before, he thought. She was dressed in a close-fitting princess robe of blue print; her hair hung in heavy black waves down her back, a cheap hat of untrimmed straw was poised on her head, and the clear creaminess of her complexion stood out in the gloaming like some strange, white, warm marble.
His greeting had been a warm one, and hers was only a little less cordial. She, of course, had expressed astonishment on meeting him again so soon, and there, of all places in the world; and he had honestly admitted that her charming personality alone was responsible for his presence in the lane. On the mere chance of seeing her he had come to the village after finishing the business which had taken him to Earlsford.
For a while they remained together chatting with the freedom of old friends, and when they parted he had, after strenuous pleadings, extracted a half promise from Salome to meet him in the lane on the next evening.
The appointment then made was kept by them both, and after that they met again frequently, always outside the village as the girl had declared, and in places where they were not likely to be noticed.
Salome had loved her admirer from the very outset, and the discreetness of her conduct in meeting him did not strike her until she had learned to adore Wilfrid Cunliffe with all the depth and fervour of the passion her strong, unspotted soul was capable of feeling.
He, on his part, had scarcely ever noticed whither he was drifting. He knew that Salome was superbly lovely; that her nature was one of the sweetest and most fascinating he had ever encountered, and that it was very pleasant to meet the simple lass in the quiet lanes or quieter woods and walk and talk with her.
At length she had realised her folly, and to atone for her indiscretion she had spoken and eased her heart. Only then he had discovered how far he had drifted—how unspeakably dear had the obscure pit-brow lassie become unto him.
To even think of losing her now filled his heart with gall and wormwood, his mind with painful thoughts, and he could not keep her without breaking faith with another—without casting away the conventionalities he had honoured in thought, at least all his days—could win her only by facing the contempt and derision of the world to which he belonged.
What was he to do? he asked himself as he threw the chewed end of his cigar away and went down the lane. The question was too intricate a problem to be solved off-hand, as he recognised the moment he put it to himself and he had perforce to shelve the matter for settlement at some future time.
Reaching the stile on the left hand side of the high road, he passed through and paced slowly between the fields, his mind thronged with a crowd of conflicting reflections and decisions which chased one another with unflagging feet.
Now he would resolve upon winning Salome at all costs. He loved her too much to live without her, and her possession would repay him for all the world's scorn. Yes, the beautiful and charming girl should be his. But what an awful bother there would be. His friends would laugh at his folly, others would sneer at him, and, well—
He grew cold as he thought of certain contingencies which would follow his open avowal of his love for the pit-brow girl and his determination to marry her, and he fell back into the slough of indecision.
It was night now, and a few stars were twinkling in the dark moonless heavens. Out there in the fields it was almost pitch dark, but the white path shewed clear between the faintly rustling stretches of grain. Coming to the wagon road he crossed it, skirted the black, looming mass made by the pit bank, engine house, and head gear, and made his way towards Cale Wood.
As the brooding lover plunged into the quiet gloomy wood, another man stealthily followed in his rear. Crossing the brook he came to the spot where he and Salome had parted on the first morning of their acquaintance. He paused a moment as he remembered the incident, and then swung along again, his fancy busy now with pleasant reminiscences of that epoch making first meeting, while he fumbled in his pocket for a fresh cigar.
Behind him still slouched the dark figure of the man who was dogging his footsteps, walking in the grass, which muffled his foot-falls, and darting from tree to tree, noiselessly as a rabbit.
Towards the confines of the woodland near which the path now ran, the trees were less abundant, the gloom less thick. Smoking and immersed in thought Salome's lover went on, and was suddenly startled from his reverie by the figure of a man who seemed to have sprung out of the earth. The man behind noted the encounter between the man he was tracking and the unknown wayfarer, and dropping on the sward behind a tree he waited.
"Excuse me, sir, but can you tell me the way to Earlsford?" said the man who stood in front of Cunliffe. "I fear I must have taken the wrong way."
"You have," answered the one addressed, as he took his burning weed from his lips. "You should have kept to the high-road. But if you follow this path it will take you to March Green, and then all you have to do is to follow the road."
"Can you tell me the time, please?"
"I suppose it will be about half-past nine. Wait a moment, and I'll strike a match to see. It's so infernally dark here."
He thrust his cigar between his teeth, drew out matchbox and watch and struck a light. The moment he held down the burning taper towards the face of his timepiece a second tramp arose from the grass behind him, and flung his arms around his throat, while the one in front clutched desperately at the watch and chain.
A low cry of anger and alarm welled from the assailed man's throat as he was pulled down to the earth; and taken unawares as he was the thieves would have robbed him easily, despite his frantic struggles, but for the sudden and unexpected arrival upon the scene of the man who had dogged Cunliffe's steps since he parted from Salome.
With a loud cry of wonder the man sprang from behind the tree where he had been kneeling at the moment the gentleman was attacked, and realising how matters stood he threw himself upon one of the robbers, hauled him off the prostrate man, and pinned him by the throat against a tree.
Thus aided, Cunliffe was enabled to cope with the other thief, and in a few minutes he had mastered his man and was kneeling on his chest. Feeling for his watch he discovered it dangling from his chain; and as he put it back into his pocket he dug his knee into his antagonist's ribs, crying—
"You miserable hound! You want flogging for setting upon a man like that. I have half a mind to break your cursed neck!"
"Have they hurt yo?" the rescuer asked without relinquishing his grip on the man's throat.
"Hand 'em o'er to the police. There's a station in the village."
"That means too much trouble. Let's kick the curs and have done with it. Get up!" The tramp obeyed. "Now, take that!"
The gentleman's clenched fist shot out like a bolt, hitting the vagrant full between the eyes, and he fell back upon the grass and undergrowth cursing and bleeding. But he did not attempt to retaliate, for on gathering himself together he darted away, the wood ringing with his blasphemy. The other tramp was treated in a similar manner, and when the scoundrels had vanished, the two men—the lover of Salome and the one who had followed him by stealth—faced one another in the gloom.
"It was lucky for me you turned up, sir."
"I'm sure I don't know how to thank you sufficiently. Here, take this."
"What is it?"
"I'd rather not," said the rescuer, drawing back, with a little gesture of annoyance.
"I'm sorry I offered it. I hope you are not offended? Do you live about here?"
"Yes. I work at one of the Carsland pits."
"A miner, perhaps?"
"I am glad to hear that, for I shall be able to repay you in some fashion. May I ask your name?"
"My name is Eastwood—Hugh Eastwood."
"Thanks. I shall not forget either you or your name. I am glad now that you did not take the money. I shall use all my influence with Sir Sydney Carsland in your favour, and if you have any ambition to rise in your calling he shall help you on."
"You know Sir Sydney, then?"
"Certainly! I live at Carsland Hall. I am Paul Meredith."
"Sir Sydney's ward?"
"Of course. And if I can ever do anything for you, Hugh Eastwood, you must not scruple to ask me. I'm not the man to forget a good turn."
"Thank you," was the cold, almost sullen answer. "When I need any help I will come to you. Good-neet. This is my way home."
During their talk they had been walking, and as Hugh Eastwood spoke he turned suddenly down a narrow path along a hedge side and disappeared, leaving his friend to stare after him surprised at the abruptness of his departure.
The long schoolroom belonging to the village church at Thorrell Moor was filled from end to end with a merry-hearted and expectant throng consisting of pit-men and their good dames, pit youths and their sweethearts, farmers and their wives and daughters, shopkeepers and their families, and a sprinkling of the gentry of the district to leaven the mass and give a tone of distinction to the gathering.
The excuse for the assembly was the congregational tea party held each year in connection with the Thorrell Moor Sunday School. Half an hour ago the feasters had quenched their vigorous appetites with many slices of currant and seed bread, countless sandwiches of ham, beef, and tongue, and oceans of weak tea. Then they had adjourned while the room was being prepared for the entertainment which formed a conspicuous feature of the evening's doings.
The vicar of the parish, the Rev. Matthew Mallison, had just delivered his annual address. He was a big, rosy-faced, farmer-looking fellow, with genial manners and a large heart, and was well-beloved of his congregation more on account of his kindly nature than because of his preaching, which was broad and charitable rather than narrow and dogmatic.
There was a buzz of expectation as the cleric resumed his seat, for the entertainment was to begin forthwith. A small stage had been constructed at the higher end of the room, and immediately in front of the platform were arranged a number of chairs, which were set apart for the gentry and the performers.
Conspicuous among the former were Lady Carsland and her handsome daughter, Cordelia, whom the vicar had induced to grace his "function" with their presence. Besides the Carslands were the wives and daughters of several small local landowners, solicitors, doctors, who counted it an honour to rub shoulders, shake hands, and exchange small talk with a person of title.
Among the performers was Salome Barringham, neatly dressed in a habit of some dark grey stuff, which fitted her like a glove, and became her wonderfully well. She was down in the programme for a couple of songs, and the fact that this was to be her first appearance in public accounted for the restrained excitement she was then labouring under.
Among the audience were many of Salome's friends and acquaintances, and conspicuous among them were Nell Crompton, Nan Blackledge, Hugh Eastwood, and many other young miners, and miner lasses from Marsh Green. The dancing which was to be allowed after the entertainment concluded probably accounted for the presence of many of them there.
Only in two particulars did the "show" differ from the usual Sunday School entertainment. The neatly-attired youngsters recited their lines, and chanted their songs in the old spirit-less monotone, so familiar to frequenters of such festivities, to the great delight of the children's parents, who applauded the youthful artists in a vociferous fashion.
A hush of expectation fell upon the audience as Miss Cordelia Carsland left her mother's side and mounted the little platform. The young lady was very self-possessed, and she took her seat before the piano in a stately manner which did credit to her mother's training and spoke well for the strength of her own nerves.
She ran her slender fingers lightly over the white keys, and then her voice rose in a thin sweet volume as she sang a sentimental drawing-room ditty in great vogue at that time. Cordelia acquitted herself well. Her notes were accurately rendered, and if her style was mechanical to a degree, the majority of those who listened were too uncritical to take notice of it.
Everyone clapped hands, and the grown-up people told one another that Miss Carsland was a beautiful singer. If the younger folks did not think very much of her ladyship's daughter they were afraid of saying so, and in the matter of bestowing their plaudits they wisely followed the example set them by their elders. Not to have applauded the cold and handsome child of their master would have appeared rank heresy to most of the respectable pit-men and their wives.
A minute later Salome was facing the audience, looking flushed and agitated, but wonderfully beautiful. The accompanist had come back to his stool and was playing the introductory music. The frightened girl bit her lip as if annoyed at herself, and her dark starry eyes swept over the little sea of faces in a rapid glance and afterwards were lifted to the whiter washed roof.
Then she caught at a note and began to sing. The first few lines of "The Gipsy's Warning" were intoned huskily, almost brokenly, and the aspect which spells failure was beginning to freeze itself on each face. But with an evident effort Salome pulled herself together and soon the low shabby-looking room was literally flooded with a rich, warm, soft-swelling stream of vocal music. Her voice was a pure soprano of great compass; she sang dramatically, passionately, feelingly, as if she had projected her very soul into the character of the betrayed gipsy maiden's parent, and when the last note glided from her red lips, a wave of spontaneous applause which swept over even the aristocratic chairs in front, rang out.
"Very nice, indeed," said Lady Carsland and those about her echoed her praise only voicing it in warmer words. The miners and their women folk were clapping still and shouting "Encore! Encore!" but the singer was already back in her seat, and had evidently no intention of answering her "recall."
"Who is the girl?" Lady Carsland asked rather warmly, as the Vicar approached in order to ask Salome to oblige again.
"One of your own pit-brow girls, your ladyship," he replied.
"Isn't she splendid?"
"A pit-brow girl, Mr. Mallison? Surely you must be mistaken?"
"Oh, not at all. She lives somewhere in Marsh Green, and they call her Barring—yes, Miss Barringham, I believe. Hasn't she got a wonderful voice—considering she can have had no training—and I think her perfectly lovely, don't you?"
"She is very pretty, I must admit," Lady Carsland admitted. "Such a girl will be subject to many temptations I daresay. You must look after her."
"Of course, your ladyship. But I am told that she is a very worthy young woman, with ideas above her class. I wish you would let me introduce you to her—If you will pardon my presuming so much upon your good nature."
Lady Carsland graciously assented, and Salome was made known to her ladyship and her ladyship's daughter. Their condescension was of a sufficiently marked character to irritate the over-wrought girl, and, despite icy flatteries of the Carslands and the importunity of the kind cleric, she declined to be persuaded to sing again just then, alleging that she felt too nervous to face the audience again.
Salome stole back to her seat as quickly as she could do without apparent discourtesy; and shortly afterwards, when a lanky, red-haired daughter of a local solicitor was telling in a squeaky treble how she adored someone, she arose from her place and left the schoolroom.
"Where are yo' goin,' Salome?"
The White Gipsy paused with her fingers on the latch of the schoolyard gate, and, turning ere she answered, faced the brawny young collier, Hugh Eastwood.
"I am going home," she said, quietly.
"A'ready! Why, there's to be dancin' soon—when th' entertainment's o'er."
"Yes, I know, Hugh, but I don't care to stay for that."
"But yo' are on th' programme for another sung, Salome."
"I don't mean to sing it!" she exclaimed, resolutely.
"What wilt parson sey?" he answered, his wonderment evident in his voice. "Ah think yo'd better stop, Salome."
"I cannot, and I won't try, no matter what the vicar thinks or says. I was too much upset by that one song to ever attempt to sing again before such a lot of people."
"But I hope yo' will. Yore singing was splendid, Salome. Why, lass, there's a fortin in yore voice if yo' on'y knowed it."
She smiled in a pleasant way at his warm words of approval, and after a moment's silence said in a persuasive tone—
"What is it?"
"You might do a favour, Hugh."
"You might go back and tell Mr. Mallison that I have gone home because I felt too much afraid of singing again."
"Ah'll go and tell him, Salome. But will yo' wait till ah come back?"
"I will wait here."
"You're sure you won't go back into the school, Salome?"
"Wait a minute, then."
He strode away, and she went through the gate and paced up and down the quiet lane in front of the school. Presently she saw her messenger returning, and as she met him she said—
"You told him?"
"Yes, an' he seemed vexed, too."
"Thank you, Hugh, I am much obliged. I will go now. Good night."
"I am goin' too, Salome. There's nothin' here for me if yo' are goin'," he cried, quickly. "If yo' will let me ah'll walk back to th' village wi' yo'."
The girl did not care very much for the young pit-man's company at that moment, or at any other time even, but it was difficult to refuse his company, and she muttered some words of assent. So together they went along the dim, lampless country road, exchanging remarks on topics of local importance only.
Salome did not notice at first that she had to keep up the conversation or that his replies to her queries and statements were disconnected, incoherent, and at times almost inaudible. At length she noticed that her companion appeared to be both agitated and preoccupied What was the matter with him?
Even as that question filled her thoughts her brain supplied the answer. In a sudden flash of recollection she remembered the words Nell Crompton had spoken to her that morning they went blackberrying. Was it true as had been hinted, that Hugh was in love with her? She was sorry now she had permitted him to leave the school and accompany her home.
There was a question in the tone in which he uttered her name, and she turned her face to him in mute answer.
"Ah've wanted to talk to yo' for a lung tahme, Salome."
"What about, Hugh?" she responded, speaking in a matter-of-fact voice, although she was in fear now of what was coming.
"Yo'rsel. Ah lahke yo' very much, and ah wish yo'd keep company wi' me. If yo' will ah'll sign teetotal, be steady—do everythin' to—"
"It's impossible, Hugh! You musn't think of such a thing!" she burst out.
"Yo' don't care for me?" he asked, huskily.
"Not in that way. I like you very much, but not—not——"
"As a sweetheart?" he interpolated quickly.
"That is the truth, Hugh. I am sorry when I hear of your getting drunk and neglecting your work, but I cannot keep company with you."
"Because I don't love you. There! I am sorry, but it is better to tell you the truth, isn't it?"
"Perhaps it is," was Eastwood's sudden reply. "If ah were summot better than a poor ignorant coaler it would be different."
"No, it wouldn't, Hugh. If I liked you I shouldn't care what you were."
"Then it must be because o' that there big swell who's been after yo'."
"He may ca' hissel by that name to yo', Salome," he said, with shut teeth.
"Is it not his name? What do you know of him? If you know anything, Hugh, tell me, won't you?"
"Ah know that he doesn't come fro' Liverpool, and that he's tryin' to make a foo' o yo', dear Salome."
"In which way?" she cried. "You need not fear that. I am able to take care of myself. Again I ask you, Hugh, to tell me what you know."
"Ah know that he's been coortin' yo' under a fawse name."
"What is his name, then?"
"Paul Meredith. He lives at Carsland Hall—is Sir Sydney Carsland's ward an' folks sey that he is engaged to Sir Sydney's dowter, Miss Cordelay."
There was a few moments of silence, and then Salome said in a low, husky voice,
"Leave me, Hugh. I want to be alone."
He stared at her in mute pain for an instant, and then walked hurriedly away.
Salome Barringham and her work-mate, Nell Crompton, were making their way homeward. It was a bright Saturday afternoon in November, and the girls were passing through the centre of the village when their attention was drawn to the bill-poster who was at work on the large hoarding which stood opposite The White Crow.
The man had just completed the posting of a very large, very glaring, and very melodramatic pictorial sheet which was supposed to give a representation of one of the most striking scenes in the drama of "'The Sins of London'—a play of the most sensational and realistic kind produced for twenty years," so the letterpress of the poster announced—which was then on tour through the provinces, and which was to be given during the following week at the Theatre Royal, Earlsford.
Salome and Nell paused for a few moments, and scanned with interest the spirited picture hung up before them. "The villain of the piece" was, of course, denouncing the hero of the play as a murderer, and the minions of the law were just on the point of giving the suspected man; while the heroine was depicted as falling horror-stricken into the outstretched arms of a white-haired, and most benevolent-looking old gentleman, her father.
"Seems to be a good piece, Salome, doesn't it?" Nell remarked. "If yo' lahke, we'll goo an' see it sometahme next week. Come on lass, for ah'm ready for my dinner."
Nell turned away and took a pace or two forward, but Salome neither answered her companion's observations nor followed her example as to turning homeward. The White Gipsy's eyes were bent upon a large poster in vivid scarlet and deep blue colours which announced that a grand performance of "Ingomar," the Son of the Wilderness, would be given at the Theatre Royal, Earlsford, on the following Friday, in aid of the local infirmary, on which occasion the show would be under the distinguished patronage of Sir Sydney and Lady Carsland, Paul Meredith, Esq., His Worship the Mayor of Earlsford, Alderman this, Councillor that, and a lot of other local celebrities.
Salome's eyes were fixed on one name only of the many names the poster contained, and that was the name of the baronet's ward. She had never seen her lover since they had parted so abruptly over a week ago—had heard nothing of him save the astounding intelligence Hugh Eastwood had related that night after the visit to the Thorrell Moor School.
Her reflections since that time had often been centred on the man she loved, and she had continually wondered if it were not possible Eastwood was mistaken in thinking and stating that Wilfred Cunliffe was in reality Mr. Paul Meredith.
It was impossible for her to controvert Hugh's deliberate assertions on that point, much as she desired to do so, but she had resolved to discover the truth for herself. If Paul Meredith lived at Carsland Hall it would, she argued, be no difficult matter to get a glimpse of him, and she had been busy arranging some plan which would enable her to see Sir Sydney Carsland's ward, and herself remain unseen, when the announcement respecting the infirmary programme met her gaze.
She gave a last, lingering look at Paul Meredith's name, and then followed her companion, who was waiting at the corner of Spencer's Lane. Salome's mind was already made up on one point. She intended going to the theatre on Friday evening next. No matter what the truth might be it was best that she should know it forthwith.
There is no occasion to dwell upon the short interval of six days which elapsed ere Salome went to the theatre to confirm her fears or clear her mind of suspicion. When Friday evening came she and Nell were among the first dozen who presented themselves at the Theatre Royal for admission.
Nell had wished to go into the pit where a modest sixpence each would have gained them admission, but Salome, after much persuasion, had induced her friend to accompany her into the side circle.
Selecting a good seat in the second row near the middle of the side circle, the girls seated themselves. Nell immediately drew forth the current number of her favourite journal and was soon deeply interested in its love stories, while Salome leaned back in her cushioned seat and glanced slowly around the house.
The gas jets were turned low yet, but the light was sufficient to enable her to see clearly enough. A thin stream of respectably dressed men and women was pouring into the pit below, a thicker stream of more roughly attired workingmen, youths and lads, with here and there a female among them, were flowing into the gallery above; while tradesmen and their wives and sons and daughters were beginning to fill the side circles.
As yet the dress circle was untenanted. But after the lapse of a quarter of an hour the fashionable people of Earlsford, who had come there simply because it was a show night, that they might see and be seen, began to arrive in knots of twos, and threes, and fours. By this time the seats before, behind, and on each hand of Salome and Nell were occupied, and the people around them were talking about and pointing out the various local celebrities as they took their seats in the fashionable part of the house.
Presently the musicians filed into the orchestra, and the lights were turned up. Glancing at the dress circle, Salome saw no one there that she knew, but she noticed that about a dozen seats in the very front and centre were still unoccupied, and she heard someone near at hand whispering that the big people had not yet arrived, although they might be expected at any moment.
The band began to play a selection from one of the Gilbert Sullivan operas, and just at that moment all eyes were bent upon the doorway which gave access to the circle. The folding-doors had just been cast open by the obsequious manager, and down the scarlet-carpeted steps to the front of the circle came half a dozen pairs of ladies and gentlemen, all attired in evening costume.
Salome's eyes followed the rest of the house, and her heart gave a great throb as she recognised her lover, who had just seated himself, smiling and talking at the side of his beautiful companion, Miss Cordelia Carsland.
She was too agitated to divert her gaze from the man she loved so madly—and hopelessly, it appeared—and all she could do for a time was to sit there, staring at him and the girl. Behind she could hear someone saying—
"That is Sir Sydney Carsland with the scarlet handkerchief shoved between his shirt front and his vest, and the lady on his right is Lady Carsland. The other lady, on his left, is the baronet's daughter—Miss Cordelia, I believe they call her—and the gentleman who is paying such marked attention to her is Sir Sydney's ward, Mr. Paul Meredith. What a finely matched pair they are, are they not? And people do say that their engagement is on the eve of being announced."
The man kept on talking, pointing out and giving a name and place to the other gentry assembled. But his words became a vague, an indistinct hum in Salome's ears. She was satisfied now that Hugh Eastwood had neither lied nor made a mistake.
With an effort she dragged her gaze from the pair and turned her face to the stage. Her friend's tug at her sleeve had warned her that the play was beginning, so she endeavoured to forget the real drama in which she was engaged, and tried to concentrate her attention on the mimic one now opening on the boards.
But her thoughts were not to be chained. The men and women on the stage became shadows, mouthing sentences she could not grasp; and if her face was directed towards the footlights, she and her mind were behind her in the centre of the dress-circle, where Paul Meredith and Cordelia Carsland were sitting, doubtless enjoying themselves and the play, while she was eating out her very heart in direst anguish.
That her handsome and aristocratic lover had been playing with her heart and affections there was no reason to doubt. In every particular concerning himself he had wilfully, grossly deceived her. He had given a false name, a spurious address; and instead of being the commercial traveller he had intimated, he was Paul Meredith, Sir Sydney Carsland's ward.
There was little to be wondered at considering those things that the girl's breast was heavy as earth, and that her head was crowded with thoughts of the bitterest and most disquieting kind.
And yet all the vials of her wrath were not emptied on Paul Meredith alone; she blamed herself as much as she blamed him. Had she been wise, sensible even, she would have refused to meet a stranger of whom she knew almost nothing—would have declined to permit anyone to woo her in secret as a lover whose history was not in her keeping, and of whose probity and honourable intentions there was not the least suspicion.
The fault was hers alone—as was the punishment. She had held herself too cheap, in Paul Meredith's sight, and he had simply taken her at her own valuation. What would he think of her? If he thought of her at all he would write her down as one who was careless of her good name—as a reckless flirt, who was prepared to "carry on" with the first good-looking man who threw himself in her way.
These, and a host of other kindred reflections flitted through Salome's brain, as she sat there so engrossed in her own trouble, that the actors on the stage came and went like the dim creatures that people dreams.
She wanted, ever so much, to turn about and look once again upon her recreant lover and Miss Carsland; but she had not the nerve to face the painful sight; she wished to be anywhere rather than amidst that crowd, but she lacked the courage to get up and walk out, dreading the explanations she would be called on to make to her companion.
If Nell had not been deeply absorbed in the play and the players she could not have failed to notice Salome's distraught condition. With her attention rivetted on the stage Nell seldom permitted her gaze to leave the boards, and the occasional remarks she addressed to her friend were of such a nature as to require no definite answer.
When the curtain fell on the first act there was the usual hum of conversation and bustle of people moving about. Thirsty play-goers in the side circles and dress circle left their seats and picked their way towards the refreshment bar.
Now Salome found courage to glance about her, and her eyes wandered slowly along the edge of the velvet covered ledge until they rested upon Paul Meredith and Cordelia Carsland. He was on his feet and was whispering something into the fair girl's pretty ear—probably excusing himself for leaving her side while he followed the baronet, his worship, and the rest of their male friends to the bar.
At that moment Meredith's eyes and those of Salome met. Her look was cold as ice, defiant as she could make it—his was one of sudden wonder and confusion. That exchange of glances was like a passage at arms. The soul of each was facing the other, and that hers was the stronger and more righteous one was quickly evident, for his handsome countenance flamed scarlet in a moment, his eyes dropped, he turned away with a sudden gesture from Cordelia's side, and mounted the red steps leading to the refreshment room.
Salome watched him until he disappeared through the folding doors, and then she leaned back in her place with some measure of satisfaction in her breast. Out of that silent war of looks she had come victorious. His guilt had been plainly written on his face; and the unexpected sight of her had driven him in haste and confusion from her rival's side.
When the curtain rose again Salome felt rather than saw that Paul Meredith was back in his place. She felt also that his eyes were upon her constantly, but that knowledge did not draw her face back to his. Never again during the rest of the evening did she glance towards the dress circle. She remained with her eyes directed to the footlights, and forced herself to watch the play and to converse with her companion.
At length the play was over, and Salome and Nell passed out of the theatre quickly, timing their departure so as to avoid the crush. Before the door of the theatre they saw a line of carriages and hansoms drawn up, and as they dived among the crowd, which filled both pavement and thoroughfare, they heard some lacquey call out—
"Sir Sydney Carsland's carriage! Make way, please, for Sir Sydney Carsland's carriage!"
In the cosy, well-lighted and prettily-decorated vestibule of the Theatre Royal a well-dressed crowd of gentlemen and ladies were standing about taking leave of each other ere they sought their carriages and hansoms to be driven home.
Conspicuous among the mushroom gentility of Earlsford were Sir Sydney Carsland, Lady Carsland, and their handsome daughter. Around them pressed Mayor and Mayoress, Aldermen and Councillors, local lawyers, doctors, and their women folk, all deferential—obsequious even—and glad of a smile or nod or word from the baronet and his family.
Her ladyship was stately gracious, Cordelia was icily charming, while Sir Sydney was unwontedly amiable even for him, being in the very best of humours. His worship, and his worship's intimate friends, had obtained a promise from the baronet that he would accompany them to their club after the play and sup with them, and they were waiting now until Sir Sydney took leave of his wife and daughter.
Presently Lady Carsland remarked—"Had we not better be going, Sydney? The carriage is waiting."
"Oh, certainly, Adelaide," the baronet responded, "I forgot to tell you that I and Paul have promised to take supper with our worthy friend, the Mayor here, and these gentlemen. You and Cordelia can take the carriage, and I and Meredith can engage a hansom."
Her ladyship's brows bent themselves for the smallest fraction of a second, but cleared again immediately, and her ready answer was urbane enough.
"Then in that case,"' she said, "I shall ask Mrs. and Miss Farrington—the Mayor's wife and daughter—to share the carriage with me and Cordelia. We can easily put them down at their villa which is on our way home, you know. We shall be company for each other while our lords and masters are enjoying themselves at the club. What do you say, Mrs. Farrington?"
Of course Mrs. Farrington had only one answer to make to Lady Carsland's question. She answered very readily and willingly. A hired cab was waiting outside somewhere for His Worship and His Worship's good dame and daughter, but the honour of being driven home in the Carsland carriage was too great to be overlooked.
"What has become of Paul?" Sir Sydney asked in a moment or two as he prepared to hand the ladies to the still waiting carriage.
"I daresay he will be with some of our young friends upstairs," said His Worship.
"Mr. Meredith went out of the theatre a short time ago, Sir Sydney," one of the young gentlemen standing by remarked. "I fancy he will have gone to the club, as he and young Scott Bower were together."
"Yes; he will have gone there. Now, ladies, are you quite ready? Will you permit me, Mrs. Farrington?"
The baronet offered his arm in his gallantest manner to the Mayoress, and walked to the carriage—the Mayor paid a like courtesy to Lady Carsland; the young ladies were taken in hand by other cavaliers; and, in the course of a few moments, they were all four comfortably seated in the large, roomy vehicle, and were being driven homeward, while Sir Sydney and his friends repaired to the club.
If Lady Carsland had not pressed the worthy Mayoress and the latter's daughter to accept seats in her carriage the Carslands mother and child would have been spared a sight which gave them no small amount of astonishment and pain.
When the carriage and pair drove up before the semi-detached villa in which the Farrington family resided, the Mayoress was so pressing in her offers of hospitality that her ladyship, unwilling to give offence, alighted and went into the house, to crack a biscuit and sip a glass of cheap wine with her kindly-hearted, if somewhat too obsequious and importunate friend.
Almost half an hour was taken up in that visit, and when the carriage rolled through the dimly-lit, silent and sleeping village of Marsh Green the village tavern had been closed about twenty minutes.
One solitary gas-lamp shone in the centre of the wide space opposite the White Crow, and as the carriage rolled past the lamp, Cordelia Carsland, who chanced at that moment to be gazing through the window, gave a low cry of amazement.
Well might the girl emit an exclamation of wonder, for there under the lamp she beheld two well-known forms—those of Paul Meredith and the White Gipsy.
Lady Carsland heard the note of astonishment, and in a moment she divined the reason therefor. But although she saw her husband's ward and the pit-brow girl, she made no comment upon the surprising fact. It was a matter she could not discuss with her daughter; and as the carriage sped onward, and Cordelia remained silent, there was no occasion to speak. The truth of the matter was that neither desired the other to think she had seen that strangely matched pair beneath the lamp.
But Cordelia Carsland had tightened her thin lips ominously at the sight, vowing the while that her lover should pay dearly for his shameless gallivanting with such a low-born thing; and her mother was considering with bent brows that the sooner Paul Meredith and her daughter were openly affianced to each other the easier she would be in her mind. Sir Sidney's ward must be brought to his senses at once, or there was no telling what might happen—so thought her ladyship.
That meeting between Salome and her lover was not in any way due to her; she had neither sought nor desired to see Paul again after satisfying herself of the unpardonable deception he had practised.
Paul had arranged their meeting. The reader will have gathered that Sir Sydney Carsland's ward was a creature of impulse. The moment his eyes and those of Salome met in the theatre he cursed himself mentally for the fraud of which he had been guilty; and her cold, pitiless face, so eloquent of the scorn in her heart, told him that his deception was laid bare unto her.
During the remainder of the play his eyes had often wandered to Salome. The position in which he sat enabled him to gaze upon the girl without attracting attention, as the slightest deflection of his head took his eyes from the stage to her, and from her to the actors.
Long before the curtain fell for the last time he had resolved to speak to the girl that night by some means. That glance of contempt had set his soul aflame, and he wanted to see her that he might swear that the fraud he had practised had no sinister motive underlying it—to tell her also that he loved her and honoured her more than any other woman in all the world.
Paul Meredith enjoyed the play little more than the pit-brow girl did. Now and again his eyes would wander from Salome's perfect profile to the face of Cordelia Carsland, and while he was compelled to admit that the girl beside him was very handsome, it was impossible to compare her for a moment with the superbly beautiful lass whose heart he had already won.
What a pity it was, he said to himself, that Salome did not belong to his own station of life. In that case, how gladly would he have acknowledged his affection for her before the whole world. Now—well, although he loved her madly, he was too much the slave of custom to dare to offend his world by linking his life and fortune to those of a mere working girl, be she ever so lovely.
It was an easy matter when the curtain dropped upon the last scene in the play for Paul to glide out of the theatre while the Carslands were surrounded by their friends. He had seen Salome and her companion hurry away half a minute before, and, divining that the girls would have to walk home, he resolved to follow them.
Gliding through the crowd, he hurried along the principal thoroughfare, and coming to the top of the street went along the road which led towards Marsh Green, Thorrell, and Thorrell Moor. Walking at a good pace he had soon left the town behind him; the houses became fewer and more scattered, and evidences that the country was near began to shew themselves in the shape of hedgerows, trees, and open stretches of meadow and pasture land.
Paul was just beginning to think that he had missed Salome and her friend—had, he thought, probably passed them in the crowded street in which the Theatre Royal was situate—when he discerned ahead of him two female figures, and, quickening his pace, he was soon able to perceive that one of them was the girl he sought.
Having satisfied himself on that point, he slackened his steps, and permitted them to forge ahead, for they were walking quickly. He did not care to overtake Salome while another person was present, and just keeping the pair of pit-brow lasses in view he trudged on behind, knowing that they would never suspect anyone was dogging their steps owing to the number of pedestrians who were still afoot on the high road, some of whom were seeking their homes in the villages, while others were making their way towards Earlsford.
The young man's walk was not by any means a dull and tedious peregrination. His mind was kept as active as his feet during the whole of the rapid journey from the town to Marsh Green. He was continually wondering how Salome would receive him, when her friend had departed and he and she were face to face—was endeavouring to think out all the excuses he had to urge in extenuation of his little frauds; and was even trying to prepare a short, neat, and an impassioned speech, to deliver to her ears alone.
A couple of hundred yards from the centre of the village he saw the girls stop, heard them say "good-night," and then he saw Salome walking on alone. As she was crossing the wide space of unpaved ground opposite The White Crow he overtook her, laying his hand upon her shoulder, and whispering her name. She stopped suddenly, and they faced each other just beside the lamp, which threw its light around and upon them.
"You!" she cried in accents of amaze.
"Yes, Salome. I could not sleep without seeing you—without speaking to you."
"What do you want?" she said, recovering her composure quickly, and speaking in a harsh, constrained way.
"I wanted to tell you how I came to practise that little——"
"Little!" she said, in a quick, gasping way. "If you think it little, why come here? It's over and done with, and I don't think you will mend the matter by attempting to explain it away."
"But you won't refuse to hear me, Salome?"
"No. You can speak. But I warn you that I am careless about your excuses—I don't want to hear them; and I have no intention of being deceived by you or any other man again. And Mr. Meredith, I think it is now—if you do not mind, I should prefer you to cease using my christian name."
Her tones were measured and icily calm now, and they sent a chill straight to his heart. For a moment or two a sharp fear bit fiercely at his vitals as he thought that the peerless girl before him was slipping from his grasp. Her quiet, cutting words startled him into a confused silence, and just then the Carsland carriage swept past.
He noticed the vehicle, and caught a glimpse of the ladies inside. He realised that it was quite possible he and Salome had been seen and recognised by Lady Carsland and Cordelia, but in his present mood he was careless—reckless even of what they might think or say about him and Salome.
"You have a right to speak to me in that way," he said humbly as the carriage disappeared in the darkness of the night. "I am to blame, I know, and I am sincerely sorry. But for God's sake do not think that I had any evil intent in my mind when I gave you that false name. I never imagined we should meet again when, in a spirit of mischief and fun, I told you that day that my name was Wilfred Cunliffe! Surely you believe me?"
"But was it only the spirit of mischief and fun which induced you to carry on the deception for weeks afterwards?" she asked, bitterly.
"You don't know—you cannot understand how easy it was for me to drift into the position in which I find myself now. I intended night after night to tell you, but was afraid, because I was fearful lest you would never look at me again. I honestly intended to tell you the truth when I met you."
"Have you told me the truth now?"
"As true as I am here I have."
"But not all the truth?"
"I don't follow you now."
"What of Miss Cordelia Carsland? Was it fair to her, honest to me, and honourable in yourself to meet me when you were engaged to her?"
"I am not engaged to her," he burst out; "who said I was?"
"I heard—but it is no business of mine, Mr. Meredith."
"It was a lie, no matter who told you!" he re-asseverated with new emphasis. "I never cared for her, Salome, as I care for you. God knows that I love you. I didn't want to love you, but I couldn't help it. I fought against it because you were only a pit girl—I will be honest and open now at all events—and thought only of what my world would say. If you only knew how difficult my position has been all along and is still you would not be so bitter!"
"I am not bitter," she answered with a little sob which his quick ears caught. "I am only trying to look the facts plainly in the face. I think I understand. Your world and mine are very far apart."
"Not so far sundered, dear Salome, but that love can bring them together. You do believe that I love you?"
She was silent.
"And you love me?"
"Love you! I wish in my heart that I did not for no good can come to a poor girl who loves one so high above her as you are above me."
"Only socially—otherwise I am not fit to wipe your feet, Salome. If I had more backbone in me I should simply carry you off at once and laugh at the world and all it cared to say. Will you go away with me?"
"No, I am too sensible a woman, thank God, to go away, as you put it, with any man."
"I meant no wrong, Salome. I love you enough to cast away all other considerations and marry you."
"That is why I refuse. The bitterness of your proposal lies in the fact that you would have to cast away all other considerations in marrying me. I will not let you do it. You would be mad to marry me considering your position and mine, and would find it out soon afterwards. Knowing this——"
"You do not know it, Salome," he interrupted her hotly,
"Feeling it, then, I should be mad to let you sacrifice us both."
"Because I have deceived you once you will never trust me again!" he cried, despairingly, her resistance to his wishes fanning his passion to a white beat. "I love you, Salome—shall always love you, I know. If you will not marry me now, will you accept me as a lover? Shall we consider ourselves engaged? In two years Sir Sydney Carsland's guardianship will cease, and I shall be my own master then. You will consent to be my wife then? You must, Salome!"
His offer seemed to have astounded her. There was no mistaking his earnestness now, and she was silent, scarce knowing what reply to make.
"Have you nothing to say? You will not marry me now—and it seems you would not wait until I am my own master."
"I will wait," she answered, lowly, "if you wish me."
"I do with all my soul, my darling!"
He flung his arms about her and kissed her dear, rare face rapturously. A minute later, as she freed herself from his warm embrace, she cried hastily—
"I must go now. What time is it? It must be very late. What will Mrs. Hill think of me?"
He walked at her side and they went hand in hand along Spencer's Lane. Before they said good night he whispered,
"You will meet me to-morrow evening—say at half-past seven beside the stile. I have much to tell you—there is ever so much to be arranged between us."
"Yes, Paul, I will meet you," she answered, happy again now that her confidence in her lover was restored.
"I will tell you then all I mean to do. Till then say nothing to any of your friends."
She assented to this, and with a hot, clinging kiss they parted.
"What can have become of Paul, I wonder?" Sir Sydney Carsland remarked as he drew his choice weed from his lips and watched the light cloud he had made drift away. "When he went out did he not intimate where he was going?"
"He did not," her ladyship remarked somewhat snappishly, "he did not even say he would be back to dinner."
The baronet and his wife were strolling on the lawn in front of the Hall, having dined alone, saving the presence of their daughter, a short time before. As the evening was a fine one he had gone out to puff his after dinner cigar, and she had joined him with the intention of saying something about his ward.
"I daresay the young man will have dropped across some friends in town and will have stayed to dinner."
"I don't think so," she said in a tone which drew her husband's eyes upon her quickly.
"Why don't you, Adelaide?"
"For reasons of my own. You do not seem to have noticed that your ward did not return home last night either in your company or with myself or Cordelia."
"I had never thought about it. When I failed to see him at the club I assumed he had made his way here before me."
"So he did. He reached the Hall ten minutes or so before you arrived, and the servants told me that he went straight to his room. And he must have walked all the way from Earlsford," she added in a tone of voice one instinctively uses when making some important declaration.
"He would scarcely tramp all that distance, I should think," he made reply, indifferently. "And if he did what matter?"
"Did you see Paul at the club at all?" she queried, ignoring his question.
"Not that I remember."
"Nor heard either of him being there?"
"So that it is pretty evident that he had somewhere to go to which suited him better than the club with you or the carriage with Cordelia and me."
"I daresay he wanted a walk after being stuffed up in the theatre."
She laughed in his face, and he demanded with some warmth—
"What are you driving at, Adelaide? There is something wrong I can see."
"Nothing wrong so far as I know. But I suspect that your ward is enjoying his leisure this evening where he spent it last night."
"In some of the villages between this and the town with one of your pit brow girls!" she replied, sharply.
"Nonsense!" he ejaculated.
"It may be nonsense, but it is true."
"Paul would hardly be so foolish as to get himself entangled with one of them. He is rather fastidious, I have noticed, where women are concerned—would not look at any girl who was not pretty and refined. And then he's so fond of—is I think deeply in love with Cordelia. I suppose someone has told you this story about him."
"Oh, no. I saw him with my own eyes. He was standing under the lamp opposite the White Crow with the girl when we drove home."
"You are sure it was Paul?"
"At that hour?"
"Quite certain. Cordelia saw them also, and if she begins to think that Paul is behaving badly she will have nothing to do with him. You know what a will of her own she has got!"
"Who was the girl—but I suppose you will not know her?"
"I know her well. You remember the girl who sang at the concert—I think Cordelia told you about her?"
"It's the same. She is very handsome, and no one would think her a pit brow girl if they saw her in any other than her working garments. I was really astonished when Mallison introduced the girl—Barrington he called her—to me as one of your employés. She is very different indeed from the ordinary pit lass, and is good-looking and smart enough to be dangerous in the case of a young man like Paul."
"And do you believe that he is with her to-night?"
"Of course I do not know, but somehow I feel assured that he is."
"Do you think I ought to speak to him?"
"Certainly not. It would spoil everything to do so. Paul is exactly the kind of man who will insist upon going the way his friends do not desire him to take. We had better do nothing at present, and in the course of a few days we may learn more about him and the girl."
No more was said on the subject just then by either the baronet or his wife. He was inclined to treat the affair very lightly—as a mere flirtation which men of Paul's age and inflammable nature were always liable to drift into. But Lady Carsland regarded the matter much more gravely. She had seen Salome, and knew how lovely and fascinating the girl was, and she was afraid the pit-brow girl would move heaven and earth to capture such a rich prize as Sir Sydney's ward.
On the confines of Cale Wood, just beside the stile referred to already several times in the course of this narrative, Salome Barringham was standing.
It was the evening following her visit to the theatre at Earlsford, and it was late enough for the last glimpses of day to have died out of the west.
Behind her the wood lay silent and gloomy; before her rose the head-gear and the bank of the pit whereat she laboured; and on either hand the fields, from which the grain had been gathered weeks ago, stretched dumb and dark and weird.
The girl's mind was filled now, as it had been charged all the busy livelong day, with thoughts of her lover, and the glorious future his glowing words of affection had opened out to her.
She loved him with all her strength, and would have been amply satisfied to have found him a poor man so long as he was honest and returned her affection.
And lo! her lover turned out now to be the ward of Sir Sydney Carsland—a gentleman who was well-born, high-bred, connected, and not very remotely, with the aristocracy, and one who would be a wealthy man in a couple of years, when the guardianship of the baronet expired.
There was a strong undercurrent of romance in Salome's nature in spite of all her common-sense and prudence. She had fed her fancy on the love stories of the most romantic kind the penny journals she took in weekly contained, and her own love story appeared all the more singular and charming on that account.
Surely no romance she had ever read was half so remarkable as her own history had been since she and Paul Meredith first met that morning in Cale Wood. From the first moment of their acquaintance she had seen that the man who called himself Wilfred Cunliffe was socially her superior, but never in her wildest nights of imagination had she dreamed that her lover was one of high social position and considerable wealth.
She had asked herself many a time during the day, while at work that Saturday, and afterwards when she repaired to her humble lodging in Spencer's Lane, if it were not all a vision—a dream which would vanish soon and leave her miserable.
To the girl it appeared incredible almost that she—a mere lass who earned her livelihood by the sweat of her brow on the pit bank—should have attracted the attention and won the love of so handsome and well-born a man as Paul Meredith evidently was. The thought of it frightened her. And to think that he preferred her rather than the handsome, rich, and highly-educated daughter of Sir Sydney Carsland.
While the latter thought was in Salome's mind a light footfall caught her ear, and her quick eyes caught sight of a man's figure which came rapidly towards her. In a moment she divined who the man was, and went forward eagerly to meet him.
"Oh, Paul, it is indeed you. I was afraid you would not come."
"I found it much easier to come, Salome, than to stay away," he replied, with a pleasant laugh. "What is the matter with you? You are trembling like a leaf. Were you afraid of waiting here? It is rather lonely."
"It is not that, Paul. I suppose it is because I am so excited."
"What about, dear?"
"To think that you really care for me, Paul! Me a poor pit-brow girl, and you so much above me. Are you sure, dear, that you like me? That you will not regret all this some day?"
She clung to him nervously, and her beauteous face was uplifted appealing to his own. In answer he crushed her passionately to him, and poured his hot kisses upon her lips, cheeks, brow and hair.
"I know, dear Salome, that I never knew what love really meant till I saw you," he answered. "And I know too that I shall never love any other. Are you satisfied, or shall I swear it on my knees in the grass at your feet. I am your slave, sweet Salome. Do with me what you will."
"I am so glad—and yet so fearful, Paul!" she murmured, with her head resting against his breast.
"Why so glad yet fearful?" he demanded, with the air of one who fears naught, having won his battle.
"Glad to know that you love me," she replied, "and only fearful because I fear that some day you will regret having ever known me, Paul!"
"Never!" he said, firmly.
"If you were only poor I should be the happiest and proudest woman in the world."
"Nonsense, Salome! We love each other, and my fortune will make life pleasant for us both. Do you know what I intend to do in the interval which must elapse ere I come into full possession of my own?"
"I intend to place you in some respectable place where the two years of our engagement and my probation can be spent by you in fitting yourself for the position you will occupy as my wife."
"You mean that I am to go to school?" she said gravely.
"Not exactly. I shall select some poor parson or something of that sort, who will be glad to coach you in return for a liberal fee. You will live with them and accustom yourself to the ways of refined and educated people while I am away."
"Are you going away?" she asked with a little start of apprehension.
"Yes. I have thought the matter out, dear, and I think it will be the best course for me to pursue unless you will marry me right off. I wish you would, Salome."
"Ah, no. Paul! In justice to myself and you, I think you should have plenty of opportunity for repenting of your choice. I am willing to wait for you any length of time, and if you regret our engagement within the two years I will set you free. In two years we shall know each other—and ourselves."
"You talk wisdom like a patriarch," he cried, gaily. "Well, I shall spend the interval in travel, and while I am away you will be in a comfortable home, among people of sound accomplishments and good breeding, and when I come back for my bride I shall expect to find her as learned as she is fascinating and beautiful."
"I shall work very hard to improve my education, Paul, and to make myself worthy of you," she whispered, gratefully. Then, in a sudden access of joy and overflowing affection, she flung her arms around his neck, crying, "Paul, Paul, how kind and good you are to me! Who am I that all this happiness and good fortune should be given me? I am fearful that it cannot last."
"It will last for ever, I hope, darling. We shall always love one another and always be happy."
"You have told the Carslands, I daresay, about your plans?" she said, presently.
"Not yet. I shall try and pluck up courage to-morrow."
"What will they say?"
"All they can say against you, I feel sure. But it will make no difference. I have marked out my way—our way, Salome—and mean to follow it no matter what Sir Sydney and her ladyship and all the world may say and do."
He spoke like the brave young fellow he was, and his courageous words inspirited her. With him at her side she was full of joy and hope, and looked forward to the future with glad eyes and overflowing heart. It was only when alone that she saw shadows ahead, and doubts and fears thronged her breast.
They were now walking slowly between the bare fields which lay twixt the wood and Spencer's Lane, and presently he said,
"You have not yet mentioned our engagement to anyone, Salome?"
"Not yet, Paul. You told me not to do so you remember."
"I did, but if you wish to make it known you can do so now."
"I should like to tell Mrs. Hill."
"The woman you live with?"
"Yes. She has been like a mother to me, and has been very uneasy lately, because she knew that I was meeting some young gentleman secretly."
"Well, tell her, but when you take her into your confidence you had better drop a hint that we do not want to become a topic of gossip among the villagers."
She promised to do as he desired her, and after some further conversation they parted, having made an appointment for the following evening—Sunday.
Hugh Eastwood was leaning against the wall of the high archway of brick, which gave entrance to the Wood Pit Seam. Suspended on hooks, at different points in the walls, were great torches, which gave out flaring red flames, and lit up somewhat dimly the huge cavernous tunnel called the pit eye.
The hour of six a.m. had just arrived, the colliers and their drawers were all away to their working places; the datallers were standing in groups at the pit bottom awaiting orders, the "hooker-on" was busy with the lads who assisted him in arranging the rows of full and empty wagons, and the last cageful of men had just reached the landing plates.
Out of the cage stepped Luke Benion, the under-looker, and Dick Graham, one of the firemen. With them were two others, and as they made their way towards the cabin, Benion's eyes fell upon Hugh Eastwood as he lounged there against the brickwork of the archway.
"Hullo, Hugh, is that thee?" the under-looker cried, genially. "What art doin' here so late?"
"Ah'm waiting to go up," Eastwood made answer.
"How's that? Somethin' wrong with your place? Fallen up, I suppose?"
"It's not that. My drawer hasn't come, an' I couldn't get anybody to draw for me."
"Oh, is that it. Well, wait a bit, Hugh. If yo' want to work ah dersay ah con manage to find yo' a day's datallin'."
"A'reet, ah'll wait," said Eastwood, and he followed the under-looker towards the cabin before mentioned.
In the course of five or ten minutes, the day-wage men were sent to their work in different portions of the mine, and then Luke Benion told Hugh Eastwood to come into the cabin.
"We've just started, Hugh," said the manager, addressing the stalwart collier, who stood at the other side of the table, "to clear up the bottom of the owd Dingle Pit, and that's where I want yo' to go. Some of the datallers are off work, and ah want yo' to take charge of the job to-day. Ah suppose yo'll go?"
"Certainly," was Hugh's answer. "Ah'd rayther do anything than go back this mornin'."
"That's reet then. Some of these datallers will go with thee to draw and pack dirt. Dick, here"—turning to the fireman—"will shew yo' the way through the owd airways."
Ten minutes afterwards Eastwood and two other miners, accompanied by the fireman, Dick Graham, were proceeding along the disused galleries in the direction of the old Dingle Pit, which lay in the valley on the other side of Cale Wood.
Although the Wood Pit and the Dingle Pit were only half a mile or thereabouts apart on the surface, the distance one was compelled to travel underground in order to get from one pit to the other was over twice as lengthy, owing to the tortuous character of the passage.
Only those who are familiar with old disused mining galleries can thoroughly comprehend how difficult it is to travel along them. They are usually very low—so low indeed that one has to crawl on the hands and knees frequently; they wind in and out like a maze, and the broken roof, "rating" sides, and heaps of debris render the passage, not only arduous, but often exceedingly dangerous.
It took the miners close upon an hour to reach the scene of their day's labour, and after indicating the work to be done the fireman went away, promising to return for them when it was time for them to cease toiling in the afternoon.
There is no need to dwell on the details of that day's work underground. Hugh had been placed in charge of the other two men, and his work consisted in filling the small "dirt carts" with the loose rocks and rubbish of all kinds which had been permitted to collect at the bottom of the old pit in the course of five and twenty years.
Hugh and his comrades worked away until noonday, without anything of an unusual nature transpiring. But immediately after the dinner hour had elapsed and the three men had resumed work, Eastwood made a most remarkable discovery.
Withdrawing his spade from out of a heap of loose dirt into which he had thrust it, he noticed a peculiar shaped mass upon it which, upon examination, proved to be a handbag of stout brown leather.
With a low exclamation of surprise he threw down his spade and took the bag into his hands. It was in good condition still, although it was evident from the position in which he had unearthed it that it must have been buried for a long period.
The portmanteau was locked, and its weight testified that it was well filled with something or other. What its contents might be he could not even conjecture. Placing the bag on the ground, he looked around for some implement which would enable him to force it open, and his eyes fell upon the heavy double-headed mining hammer which rested against the side of the road.
He seized the tool and was raising it to burst asunder the lock when the sound of wheels running upon rails caught his ears, and turning instinctively he saw that one of his workmates was approaching with the empty dirt cart.
He hurriedly placed the handbag aside and cast his coat over it, and then he turned to his co-worker with impassive face. They exchanged a few words, rested a minute or two, one sitting on the full cart the other on the empty one; then the man went along the level with the dirt-filled wagon to empty it, and Hugh was again alone.
When the sound of the wagon died away, and the light of the man's lamp could no longer be seen, Eastwood again seized the bag, stretched out his long arm for the hammer, and with one sharp forceful blow shivered the metal fastenings of the article.
Then he pulled the bag open, and the instant his gaze fell upon what it contained a deep cry of mixed wonder and delight burst from his parted lips.
There, lying in a heap and glittering like specks of living flame in the rays of his Davy lamp were trinkets of every description. There were bracelets and brooches, necklaces, and many another form of gew gaw, and the diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and other gems dazzled the young miner's eyes with the lustre of their various coloured fires.
He lifted the glittering treasures from the shattered casket which his hammer had crushed through as well as the metal fastenings, and examined them one by one with flashing eyes and eager trembling fingers.
The lust of gain—which lurks in the heart of every human being—was raging fiercely now in Hugh Eastwood's breast. He had been poor all his life—had slaved and toiled for years—had saved a little now and again and then spent it, and now a fortune—or at all events a fortune's worth—lay there before him.
To what dreams the sight of the precious jewels gave rise in his excited pain—what hopes arose in his breast when he thought of the gold they would bring him? Although he knew little of the jeweller's art, he was shrewd enough to know from the setting of the gems that they were very valuable. Worthless stones would not, he felt assured, have been set in such massy and highly ornate mounts of gold.
With the suddenly awakened avarice of a miser he was already calculating—or rather making attempts to calculate—the value of his treasure trove, and the means he should adopt in order to convert the trinkets into solid cash.
He had already resolved to tell none of his workmates of his remarkable find; and, placing the jewels back in the shattered casket, he emptied the half-gallon can in which he carried his drink and stored the jewels therein.
Replacing the lid of his can, he covered the same with his coat, and then turned to his work and began to fill the empty wagon beside him. He could find no place to hide the handbag, so he cast it aside and went on with his labour. Shortly afterwards he was again joined by the dirt drawer.
"What do yo' think ah've just turned up, Miller?" Eastwood remarked as he rested a moment on his spade and wiped his sweating brow with his bare hand. He spoke in a quiet, matter of fact tone, and the other answered in the same indifferent way.
"Ah dunnot know, Hugh. What is it?"
"An owd leather handbag. There it is. Look at it," Eastwood replied, pointing to the empty and broken portmanteau.
The middle-aged man went to the object Hugh had indicated, and after he had glanced at it for a few moments a cry of astonishment fell from his lips.
"What's up, Dick?"
"Nothin', only ah've seen this bag afoor, ah think."
"Seen it before! When?"
"One or two an' twenty 'ears sin', ah should think. Sit deawn a minute, Hugh, an' ah'll tell thee a' abeawt it."
The two of them perched themselves on the edge of the tubs and the elder man began.
"When ah was abeawt tha'h age, Hugh, me and a lot o' other chaps used to do a bit o' poachin'. One neet we were in Hough Wood, an' we geet disturbed by a chap we thowt was one o' th' keepers. But when Mike Hullick had knocked him senseless we larnt that the mon what had sceered us was no lob, but a reg'lar swell."
"That bag was stuck fast in his hand when Mike Hullick picked his pockets. Ah made some bother abeawt robbin' the chap, but it was no use."
"But how did the bag come here?" Hugh asked.
"Ah'd forgotten to tell thee that, lad. On eawr way back to Marsh Green we dropt across a gang o' keepers, had a tuzzle wi' 'em, and Zack Kenyon, who carried the bag, chucked it deawn th' pit. I have often wondered sin' that tahme whether there was owt or nowt in it, Hugh."
Eastwood shook his head.
"If there was anythin' int' bag when it was chucked deawn th' pit, it'll be amung the dirt. But," he added, suddenly, as a new thought struck him, "who was the man who carried the bag an' was robbed?"
"It was eawr mester!"
"What do yo' meeun, Dick Miller?"
"I meeun that it was the chap what owns these pits—Sir Sydney Carsland!"
"Have you anything especial to do this morning, Paul?" Sir Sydney Carsland asked his ward in a low tone, and in the amiable manner he could assume so well.
The baronet was just finishing his breakfast, and his ward with the eager appetite of a healthy youngster, was attacking his second egg. Lady Carsland and her charming daughter were seated also at the breakfast table, and the talk hitherto had been of the ordinary kind which takes place at the family meals.
"I cannot say that I have, Sir Sydney," Paul, Meredith replied. "I was thinking of riding out, the morning is such a fine one."
"Then in that case you may as well drive over with me to Earlsford. I have a little business to transact in the town, but it will not detain me many minutes, and I shall be glad of your company."
"Many thanks. I shall be pleased to accompany you," Paul answered, frankly. "At what time do you start?"
"In half an hour."
"I will be ready then."
For several days Salome's sweetheart had intended to take his guardian into his confidence, and tell him everything as to how matters stood between himself and the beautiful pit-brow girl.
But he had permitted day after day to glide away, and the words he wished to speak—the story of love he desired to relate were as yet unspoken. It was so easy for him to resolve upon unbosoming himself to Sir Sydney, but it was quite another matter when the moment for speaking out presented itself. He and the baronet met often in the course of each day, and the young man had trembled on the point of deliverance any number of times. He wanted to take the plunge—wished to say, "Sir Sydney, you may think me foolish, mad even, but I love one of your work-girls, and have resolved to marry her!" yet so far had lacked the courage to take the dive.
But the moment had come when he felt that he could speak, and he vowed to take the bull by the horns during the drive to Earlsford that morning.
Half an hour or so after the baronet had extended his invitation to his ward they were bowling along the high road in a dog-cart at the heels of a powerful roan. The morning was clear and slightly frosty; a red sun hung low in the south-east; under the hedges and in shady spots there were patches of rime. The elder man was driving, and the younger one was wondering how he should lead up to the subject with which his mind was filled, when Sir Sydney remarked,
"I suppose, my dear Paul, that you have no fault to find with me as a guardian?"
Paul thought it a singular question to ask at that moment, but he answered quietly as he took the cigar from his mouth,
"Certainly not, Sir Sydney!"
"I have always striven to do my duty towards you as if you were my own son?"
"You have; and I hope I have done nothing—absolutely nothing to lead you to think I was, or am, dissatisfied with your guardianship, Sir Sydney?"
"Nothing. I hope, therefore, you will pardon me if I venture to speak to you respecting a matter which has come to my ears."
"What is it?"
"I may speak, then, without giving you offence?"
"Of course you may."
"Tell me, then what truth there is or is not in this story I have heard about your flirting with some pit-brow girl. I am a much older man than you—have seen not a little of the world, and I know, therefore, how easy it is for a generous, pleasure-loving young fellow like yourself to get entangled with a pretty girl. I should never forgive myself, Meredith, if you were to——"
"Wait a moment, Sir Sydney," Paul burst forth, "and I'll tell you all about it, I've been wanting to talk to you about it ever so long, and I am glad—very glad you have introduced the subject now."
The baronet drew his horse into a quiet trot and waited.
Gathering breath, Paul spoke. He told his companion everything. First he drew a vivid picture of his first meeting with the pit-brow girl in Cale Wood, dwelling upon the lassie's rare beauty, and mentioning what took place during their conversation. Passing on, he spoke of the impression she had made upon him, how he had sought her out afterwards, when his fancy had quickly developed into love of the strongest and most impassioned kind. He laid his own feelings of the time bare, pointed out how he had struggled against the affection he could not conquer, and finally avowed that he was engaged to the lass and meant to marry her.
"I never dreamt that things had gone so far as this," the baronet remarked gravely, when his ward's hasty and eloquent recital terminated.
"You blame me, of course."
"While I cannot honestly blame you—who could blame you for being so open and so honourable?—I must, if I am to be candid with you, Paul, say that you have done a most imprudent thing."
"Yes, looking at the matter from your point of view. But it is only so because she is poor, I suppose? What does her poverty count for? I am rich enough for us both. And, Sir Sydney, she is very beautiful and I love her so much."
"But what will the world—your world and mine—think. To marry such a girl is to commit suicide socially speaking."
"Not at all—and if it were I would do it!" Paul replied, firmly.
"But if you could only see Miss Barringham you would believe as I do that she is the sweetest and dearest girl alive. Besides, we don't mean to marry for ever so long yet. I wanted her to marry me right away but she wouldn't, and we have agreed to wait three years."
"That, at all events, is a sensible arrangement," said Sir Sydney, in a voice which bespoke relief. "It will permit both of you to test yourselves."
"That is what Salome said."
"Is that her name?" Carsland queried, with more eagerness than he had previously shewn.
"Yes; Salome Barringham. Pretty, is it not?"
"It is a most singular name for a pit-brow girl," the baronet answered, with a certain strange far-away look in his eyes. "What is this girl like, Paul? Where does she live? I should like to see her."
The lover described his sweetheart in warm words, and his companion's look of preoccupation increased.
"Does she belong to these parts?" Carsland asked, with an effort the other did not notice.
"I think not, but I cannot say where she hails from. I only know that I love her madly, and that she is the most beautiful woman I ever set eyes on. I know, of course, that she is an orphan, but that is about all I know of her history whatever it may be."
"How old will Miss Barringham be?" Sir Sydney asked, as he roused himself and touched the horse with his whip.
"Nineteen. But I forgot to tell you that I mean to have her educated. In three years she will be fit to mate with any aristocrat in all England. That was one of the matters I desired to speak to you upon. Perhaps you will be able to advise me."
"With pleasure. I suppose Miss Barringham—isn't that her name?—is an especial favourite of the vicar of Thorrell Moor."
"The Rev. Mr. Mallison?"
"I was not aware of it."
"Nor I, until I heard Lady Carsland and Cordelia talking about it. It seems they met this girl at a concert a short time ago—you recollect, I am sure. I had almost forgotten the matter myself. Anyhow, if you intend to place this sweetheart of yours in some place where she will be educated, I should advise you to seek an interview with Mallison. He will be pleased to take the matter in hand, I am sure."
"Just the thing, Sir Sydney. I am awfully glad you have mentioned it," Paul cried, warmly. "I will call upon the rev. gentleman this very afternoon. If Mr. Mallison really cares for Salome, he will be ready to aid her and me in every way. At all events, I will go to him after luncheon and hear what he says."
"Yes, do," answered the baronet, in a tone which meant that the matter had been disposed of.
Paul was content to let the matter rest there. He had, he thought, come out of the business much better than he had expected, for he had anticipated a longer and more strenuous resistance to his plans from his guardian. Therefore he lay back in his seat, well satisfied with himself and the world, and lit a fresh cigar.
Later, when they had returned to the Hall and lunched, the young man set out for the vicarage at Thorrell Moor. He was already on speaking terms with the vicar, Mr. Mallison, and was quite prepared to place the educational and social training of his future wife in the hands of the reverend gentleman.
About the time that Paul Meredith was pouring the story of his love for the charming pit-brow girl and his plans for her welfare into the astonished ears of the kindly natured clergyman, Sir Sydney and Lady Carsland had a chat together in the baronet's own private sanctum. He had sent for her ladyship and she had gone to him at once, for she guessed that he had spoken to his ward, and that he wished to tell her about it.
"What is it, Sydney?" she asked eagerly, as she closed the door of the study and walked up to the table near which he was sitting. "Is it about Paul?"
"It is. I spoke to him this morning."
"And I suppose he had the impudence to deny all knowledge of the girl!" she exclaimed, with an air of certainty in her manner.
"Not at all. He admitted that it was quite true—told me, in fact, all about her."
"And made you believe, I daresay, that he was sorry for carrying on with her, and promised that he would cease to pay her any attention?"
"He said nothing of the kind, Adelaide," he replied gravely. "This business is more serious than you imagine—has gone much further than you would think possible."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that Paul is head over ears in love with his pit girl, and that he intends to marry her."
"Nonsense! It is impossible!" Lady Carsland cried. "Foolish and sentimental as your ward is he will never descend to such unspeakable and unheard of foolery!"
"I quite agree with you, my dear, that it is ridiculous," Sir Sydney answered, "but Paul doesn't seem to see it in that light."
"But you pointed out the folly of the whole thing to him? Surely you expressed your strong disapproval of such a suicidal course?"
"Of course, but he is hot headed, impulsive, and will have his own way. Besides, he is practically his own master now and will be absolutely so in a short time. I thought it best to say little to him, and certainly nothing which would lead him to believe that we cared as to what course he took. As you remarked the other evening, Paul is just the kind of man to take the way his friends try to persuade him not to go."
"Perhaps it was the better course to take," she made response in a reflective tone.
"I think it was. My own opinion is that Paul will tire of the girl before the arrival of the time he has fixed for their marriage."
"He has fixed a time for the wedding?"
"Yes, but it is far enough off yet. It is to take place after my guardianship expires."
"And in the meantime?" she said, eagerly.
"In the meantime the girl is to be trained, educated, polished up so that she will pass muster as a lady. She is to have everything that money can buy for her, for the young fool is simply infatuated with her. I suppose she must be very beautiful."
"She is certainly handsome, after a common style; that she is very clever and unscrupulous the way she has inveigled Paul into her net shews very clearly."
"I suppose Paul will have gone to see the vicar, Mr. Mallison?"
"I advised him to consult the vicar with respect to the girl. I remember that you told me some time ago that Mr. Mallison appeared to take a great interest in her."
"Yes, I recollect."
"Well he has gone there, and I have no doubt the vicar will help him in the matter. Anyhow, we shall hear when Paul returns. But you need not bother your head about it, my dear. Long enough before the time arrives when he will be his own absolute master, he will have changed his mind in respect to this girl he is so infatuated with at present."
"I hope so," her ladyship answered, firmly, and with her mind fully made up that she would leave little undone in order to effect the necessary change in Paul Meredith.
"There's no doubt about it, Adelaide," he rejoined, in his easy, confident way. "He hardly knows what he wants yet, and we cannot do better than allow him to have his own way."
She assented with a nod, and the matter was permitted to drop for the moment.
For several days the gossips at Marsh Green and in the adjoining villages had been discussing with undoubted relish and much eagerness certain rumours which had gained currency in respect to the pit-brow girl, Salome Barringham.
The White Gipsy had conveyed to the kindly-souled and motherly dame with whom she lodged the intelligence that her lover was none other than the ward of Sir Sydney Carsland—Paul Meredith, to wit, and the old lady, despite the fact that Salome had told her the news of her engagement in the most solemn confidence, was quite unable to keep the astounding information to herself.
Hence, as the girl might have foreseen, Mrs. Hill whispered the amazing news to her next door neighbour—in confidence, of course—and in a couple of days every one of the old women of the village knew all about it.
From the women it gradually spread to the men; but while the former were inclined to believe the story of the pit-brow girl's engagement to the young gentleman, their male relations simply scouted the rumour. To the hard-handed pit-men and their grown-up sons it seemed not only highly improbable, but utterly impossible that a gentleman of the social standing and prospective wealth of the baronet's ward would ever dream of taking his wife from the brow of a coal-pit.
Paul Meredith was simply playing with the lass, they said; was making a fool of Salome, and they averred with numerous oaths and hard words that she was a fool or something worse to bother with him and think he meant to marry her.
Among the last to hear the current rumour was the young miner, Hugh Eastwood. He first heard of it down below, where some of his workmates were discussing the matter. Hugh listened, but said nothing. Still he was certain, as all the others were, that Salome Barringham and Paul Meredith would never be mated.
That very evening, as Hugh was crossing the village green, opposite the White Crow, he met Salome. It was about seven o'clock, and the night had fallen. But for the bright glare of the lamp in front of the inn he would have passed her by unnoticed. He came suddenly to a standstill and she stopped also.
"Good night, Salome," he said, dropping the vernacular, and speaking in a quiet, respectful way that was new to him. "A nice night isn't it?"
"It is, Hugh, but a bit frosty," the girl replied, immediately.
"I didn't see you on the pit-brow this afternoon when I came up the pit."
"Oh, no; I wasn't working."
"Poorly, I daresay!"
"No, it wasn't that, Hugh," she said, in a half hesitant manner.
"You are not offended with me for speaking to you that night, Salome?" he queried.
"Not at all," she answered, frankly.
"Nor for stopping you now and putting questions to you?"
"Why should I be? Besides, Hugh, I always was very fond of you—in a friendly way. I think you saw that from the first."
"I did, but I used to think it might lead to our being more than friends some day—but," he added, quickly, "that's done with. Do you know, Salome, what folks are saying in the village?"
"You and Mr. Meredith."
"What are they saying? Are they talking because I have left the pit-brow?"
"You have left it then? Why? Are you going away?" he asked, eagerly.
"No—but because. Well, the fact is, Hugh, I ought not to tell you. It is a secret yet. But you will know soon."
"I know now—all the village is aware of it. You are engaged to Sir Sydney Carsland's ward."
"Who told you?" she stammered.
"It is in everybody's mouth. But is it true? Do you yourself believe Paul Meredith when he says that he means to marry you?" he demanded, impatiently.
"I know it is true—I do believe it!" was Salome's firm response. "In a short time our engagement will be made known."
"So he has made you believe. But he cannot mean it. A gentleman like this Paul Meredith, who is well-connected and worth his thousands a year, will never stoop to marry a poor working girl like you, Salome. He has promised you marriage I am ready to believe, but will he ever fulfil his promise? I think not. I believe he is fooling you, and if he is, it will prove a bad day's work for him," he said, between his teeth.
"You are wrong, Hugh," she said, gently, "in thinking Paul could be capable of such dishonesty. If you knew him as well as I do you would believe in him also."
"But it seems impossible to me that such as he should care for you!" he answered, doggedly. "I may be wrong, but I will not change my opinions until I am certain that this man means to deal fairly with you."
He spoke warmly, hotly even, and his warm words embarrassed her not a little. But knowing that the young pit-man loved her, and that he had her welfare at heart, she could not bring herself to utter any harsh words to him, although he doubted the honesty and sincerity of the one she loved.
"Good night," she said, turning away. "Some day you will find out that Paul Meredith is more honest and worthy than you think he is."
"One moment, Salome," he said, slowly.
"What is it, Hugh?"
"Do you love this man because he is a fine gentleman—because he is well dressed, sweet-tongued, nice-mannered, and rich; and dislike me because I am rough, unrefined, and only a common working pit-man?"
"You need not ask?" she said, with hardening face and voice. "If Paul Meredith were as poor as you are, Hugh Eastwood, I should love him all the same."
"But if I had been rich as he is when I spoke to you on the night when the concert was given in the Thorrell Moor Schools, what would you have said to me?"
"Exactly what I said then. You know, Hugh, that we cannot love where we want, and my love belongs to Paul Meredith."
"But I am rich now, Salome, and my love for you will never die. Paul Meredith may grow tired of you—even if he goes so far as to marry you. But I should never tire of you. I have money enough to keep us for the rest of our lives—have had a fortune of some thousands of pounds left to me," he explained, "and if you would only marry me, dear Salome, we should be happy for ever in one another's love."
His love had made him eloquent, and the hot affection poured itself out in a stream of words she had no chance of stemming back. When he was silent she said coldly,
"This is useless. We cannot alter what has happened. I have chosen my way and shall go it now. If you were worth millions, Hugh, I couldn't change my mind."
"But think of the future," he exclaimed, with the courage of the despairing lover who loves vainly. "His love may prove a delusion and a snare—may prove to be only a fancy which will disappear in a few months and leave you unhappy. You are so far beneath him that it seems a condescension for him to notice you, while you are so far above me that I shall always look up to you and worship you as an angel."
"Stop, Hugh! I will not hear another word," she cried. "Paul Meredith has asked me to be his wife, and I have promised. No matter whether he proves false or true, I shall remain faithful. Good night."
"Good night," he said, huskily.
She turned hastily away to go homeward when his voice arrested her feet.
"What is it?"
"Will you take this as a keepsake? It will remind you of me when I am far away over the sea. Good night, and may God bless you, dear Salome!"
He dropped something into her open palm and walked rapidly away. When she examined his parting gift she found it to be a heavy gold ring, gemmed with many jewels, which flashed in the light of the lamp close by like points of white and red and green flame.
She thrust the ring on to her fingers idly, and finding it fitted one permitted it to remain thereon. Then with a little sigh she went her way homeward.
After leaving Salome's side the miner did not go into the White Crow, as he had intended before meeting her. Instead of turning into the old-fashioned tavern he strode past the wide, gaping doorway, with its red lamp, and plunged into the darkness of the lampless lane beyond.
Chewing the bitter cud of his reflections, Hugh Eastwood went along, cursing the day that he and Salome had met, and the chance which had brought the handsome and wealthy ward of the baronet to that corner of old England.
The miner had made up his mind on one point. He would quit the village at once, and hide his agony in some other land. Across the seas he might bear his sorrow more calmly, and in time learn to forget the handsome pit-brow girl.
As that thought passed through the young fellow's mind he cannonaded against a man whom he had not noticed, so deep were his reflections; and he muttered,
"Excuse me, sir, I didn't see you."
"Oh, it's all right," the other cried, with a light laugh. "It's so confoundedly dark that one is not to blame. But aren't you the man I met that other night in the wood—Hugh Eastwood, I think?"
"I am," was the sullen answer, "and you are Paul Meredith?"
"Yes. Well, I suppose you are still in the mines, here, Eastwood?"
"I am, but I shan't be there very long," Hugh growled.
"I am going to Australia in a day or two. Good night!" and the miner turned to go.
"Here, wait a minute, Eastwood. Why are you leaving this place? I should like to do something for you, and I think you ought to do well here."
"You could do nothing; but would you really care to hear why I'm going away?"
"Of course I would," Paul answered, scarcely knowing whether to be amused or serious.
"Then I will tell you frankly, Mr. Meredith. I am leaving this country because the girl I love is going to marry—so it is said—another man, and you are that man!"
"I have told you. Before you ever set eyes on Salome Barringham I loved her with all my soul; but you came, and—well, you may guess the rest. But I trust, sir, that you love her and will never attempt to betray her under this promise of marrying her. If any man were to harm Salome, I would murder him as sure as God is above us!"
The low intense way in which the pit-man delivered those words impressed his companion; had they not done so he might have felt inclined to resent them. As it was, he saw how matters stood with his unsuccessful rival, and he cried,
"Eastwood, God knows that I love and honour Salome above all women. I would marry her to-morrow if she would have me. I am sorry for you, old fellow; will you shake hands?"
He held out his hand frankly, and ere he was aware of what he was doing Hugh had wrung it, and was fleeing away in the darkness.
Along the quiet, lampless high-road which lies between the village of Marsh Green and Thorrell Moor, Paul Meredith and Salome Barringham were slowly waiting one evening, several days after the occurrence of the incidents related in the last chapter. The air was clear and frosty, and the soft radiance of a full moon flooded the lane, and fields, and quiet country-side. During the afternoon there had been a heavy snowfall, and all about the wandering lovers was stretched an apparently unending wilderness of spotless white.
The sweethearts paid no heed to the sharpness of the night air, for their love filled them with as generous, healthy-giving, pleasurable heat. Paul was wrapped up in a heavy great coat and muffler, while Salome was not less warmly clad in a big coat of sealskin presented to her by her rich wooer that very morning. And so, comfortably garbed and happy, they sauntered along the almost deserted high-road, their feet sinking with a crisp sound into the frozen snow, and their low voices rising and falling on the biting, light filled air. Paul was speaking, and anyone who might have overheard him could have told that his breast was flooded with the gladness of a satisfied and conquering lover. Said he,
"You will leave your present home, Salome, dear one, at the end of this week, and live for the future with Mr. Mallison and his sister at the vicarage. I have made all the necessary arrangements for the change, and the vicar will call on you to-morrow and tell you all about what he and Miss Mallison propose to do for you while I am away."
"You mean to go away then, Paul?" Salome asked, her gloved hand tightening on her lover's arm, and her sweet, pure white face upturned to his for a moment.
"Yes, dear. It will be better for me to go away, I think. If I were to stay here, near you, I should be pestering you every day to marry me. I promised the vicar to go away for a year or so, and leave you entirely to his care—I promised the same thing to Sir Sydney and Lady Carsland—and I will do so."
"I am glad you have quite made up your mind, Paul," she said lowly. "Not glad because I am losing sight of you, but because I want to test your love thoroughly. I should never forgive myself—I could not be really and truly happy if I thought or could make myself think that you had hurried me, in haste, dear, only to repent at your leisure, afterwards."
"Nonsense!" he cried. "You know that would be impossible in our case. I love you, darling, with an affection that will last as long as I live. Just as I never really loved any woman before I knew you, so I feel that I shall never care for any other. Still, for all that, I don't mean to try and evade my promise. As soon as you are settled comfortably with the parson, I shall go away from here for a year or more."
"Have you made up your mind where you are going, Paul?" she queried, with a little quaver in her tones. "I daresay you will not go far away to a place where we cannot write to each other?"
"I shall go to South America, Salome," he replied. "Some of my friends are getting up a sort of shooting party, and I have been asked to go with them, and have accepted the invitation. We should start in a fortnight."
"South America is a very wild and dangerous country, isn't it, dear?" she asked with tremulous voice. "I do hope, Paul, that you will not run into any danger."
"Oh, we shall be all right, dear, never fear, and when I return in about ten months or a year, think of the rapture of seeing you once more. And when I come back, I shall bring with me a heap of all sorts of curiosities in the shape of skins and horns, and such like, with which you will be able to adorn our future home."
"Still, I wish——"
"I've made up my mind, Salome, and there," stopping her sweet mouth with a tender, long-clinging kiss, "don't say any more."
She was silent at his wish, and for some moments they paced along the snow-covered footpath in silence. Presently he spoke.
"Do you know, dear," he said, tenderly, "that I feel very curious as to your past. Very rarely indeed does one find, I am sure, such a face as yours among the working classes of this country. When I first set eyes on you, I honestly thought you were a foreign girl of some kind."
"I am half a foreigner," she replied, with a laugh, "for my mother was a pure Spaniard."
"Indeed!" he cried, his interest evident from his manner and altered tone. "Then I understand where you got those glorious black eyes of yours, and that un-English look one perceives in your face occasionally. But do tell me all about yourself and your dead parents. I have often wondered as to what your history might be, and, if you have no objection, would like you to tell me of it now. What do you say, darling?"
"I shall be very pleased to tell you everything I know about myself and my parents, Paul," the girl answered readily and frankly. "I have thought of telling you many a time, but I made myself believe that you would not care to be bothered with a lot of talk about people whom you had neither seen nor known."
"I should have taken the deepest interest in everything affecting you, dear," he whispered, as his arm stole round her waist. "No detail of your past would have proved, or will now prove, uninteresting to me. Go on, dear, and tell me everything."
"Well, Paul," she began, "I hardly know how or where to commence. My earliest recollections carry me back to about fifteen or sixteen years ago, when I and my mother were living in a small farmhouse in a Yorkshire village, called Marlcombe. My mother was at that time working at a farm, and we were lodging with some friends."
"How was it that your mother was working? What of your father? Surely your mother was not a widow then?" he queried.
"That is the strangest part of the story, Paul," she replied, in a failing voice. "My mother's history is much more remarkable than my own—in fact mine is plain and prosaic enough."
"Tell me your mother's story then first, Salome," he exclaimed.
"I will tell it to you in as few words as I can. I will tell you as she told me when she lay dying over ten years ago. To make you understand it thoroughly I shall have to say something of my mother's parents. My grandfather and grandmother on my mother's side were pure Spaniards, who had by some strange dispensation of the fates drifted to that little village in Yorkshire which I have already mentioned.
"My grandfather or grandmother had done something or other which had won the gratitude of some lord and his lady, and as a reward was given some position on the estate. At Marlcombe my mother was born, and there she remained until she met my father, married him, and I was born.
"The way in which my parents met was very singular. One morning in summer, as mother was going to the well, she saw a man lying, apparently asleep, under a hedge by the road-side. She had a dog with her, and it aroused the man, who, on seeing her, asked for a drink. She ran to the well, gave him a drink, and then he fainted away.
"As you may imagine, my mother was not a little terrified when she saw the stranger fall senseless on the grass, and she at once ran back to the house for assistance. When her father heard of what she had seen, he hurried to the man's assistance, and carried him at once into the cottage. There he lay for many days dangerously ill, according to my mother's account, and when he recovered sufficiently he explained to those who had tended him in his hour of need that he was very well connected, and had left home on account of some serious quarrel he had had with his relations."
"What was the man's name?" Paul asked, in evident eagerness. "At least, what name did he give himself?"
"He said his name was Sydney Barringham," she answered.
"Barringham, Barringham," he muttered in a meditative way, "I think I have heard that name before, but for my life I cannot remember when or where. But where did he say he came from?"
"He never spoke on that point, Paul, and they never questioned him as to where his home was, or where his relatives lived. He told them to wait and have confidence in him and all would be well in time. They must have trusted him very much."
"But what was he like? Did your mother ever describe him to you, Salome?"
"Many a time," was her response. "Mother said he was very handsome-looking and evidently a gentleman from his manners and speech. He was tall, fair-haired, and seemed to be about twenty-five years old."
"Well, go on with your story, dear. What happened after this Sydney Barringham recovered, Salome?"
"He and mother fell in love and were married. My mother's mother had been dead many years at that time, and after the marriage grandfather and my parents all lived together in the cottage."
"And afterwards? What did your father do? Did he go back home to make peace with his relatives?" he demanded.
"I cannot tell you. After the marriage he sought and obtained through my father's influence a situation as under-keeper on the estate, and for several months they lived very happily together. Then suddenly, and without the least warning, my father disappeared. One night in winter he went out saying he was going for half an hour to the village inn—which was not far away—and he never returned."
"Had your mother and father quarrelled?" he asked, his amazement deepening each moment.
"Never a word of anger had ever passed between them, so she told me."
"But when he left the house that night he must have already made up his mind to go away."
"It would not appear so, for he went to the public-house, and remained there some short time. They never saw him again, but he wrote the same night——"
"Where did he write from?"
"From a village a mile or two away."
"What did he say?"
"He said that circumstances over which he had no control had taken him from her, that he could not tell her where he was going or how long he would be away, but he assured her there was no cause for alarm no matter how long he was absent; and he promised to write again soon."
"Never again did she either see him or hear from him. She waited and waited for months, even years, but her watching and waiting was all fruitless; and when grandfather died, and she was forced to leave the cottage, she obtained lodgings with some friends at a farm in the district."
"Your grandfather would leave your mother some means, I daresay, Salome?"
"Only a few pounds, I understand. Mother told me that she supported herself and me by helping in the dairy. After waiting for two years she left the place. She was tired of being an object of curiosity and comment to all the people in the village, for, of course, all the folks in Marlcombe knew of the singular manner in which my mother had been deserted."
"I can understand how she would feel, dear," he whispered in sympathetic tones. "It must have been a terribly trying time for her."
By this time the lovers were within sight of the hamlet of Thorrell Moor. Across the white expanse of snow-covered and moonlit high-road they could see the straggling, old-fashioned cottages, with the warm lights shining in many of the windows; and over the meadows, among the black, leafless trees, they could perceive the peaked roof of the vicarage, which was to be the White Gipsy's home for some time to come.
"Suppose we turn back now, Salome?" Paul suggested, "and as we walk back you can continue your story. I never dreamt, when I asked you to tell me something about your past, that your history would turn out to be so remarkably romantic. Go on, dear. After you and your mother left Marlcombe, where did you go?"
"We went to Manchester, mother had applied for and had obtained a situation in some gentleman's family there, and there we settled down. Before leaving Marlcombe mother told her friends where we were going, and arranged that she was to be written to in case my father or anyone else seeking her on his behalf turned up. And so my mother went into service and I was placed in charge of a poor but respectable woman. Whenever my mother had a holiday she used to come to me, and I have still a vivid recollection of the scenes I used to make when she, at the end of the day, was compelled to go away and leave me."
"There is nothing more to tell you until I come to the time of my mother's death. She died, so the doctors said, of consumption. I believe she died of a broken heart. At the time of her death I was ten years old, and before she passed away she told me all I have told you to-night."
Her voice broke at this point, and he felt rather than saw that she was crying. For a moment or two he was silent, not wishing to intrude upon her sorrow; but he drew her slender form against his own as they paced through the crisp snow. Presently she took up the thread of her narrative.
"I was adopted by the woman with whom I lodged, whose husband was a miner. Originally they had belonged to this part of Lancashire, and when they returned to their native place I came with them. Before coming to Marsh Green, I had worked in the mill, but I disliked the work, so I went to work on the pit-brow. That is all I have to tell you, Paul."
"You must have a remarkable memory," he said, when she had finished, "to remember all those incidents."
"Probably I should have forgotten many things had not Mrs. Hill refreshed my memory now and again. She knew my mother's strange story, and we have talked over it frequently."
"Did you never discover anything of your father, Salome?" he asked, moodily. "Did you never discover where he had gone to, or what had become of him?"
She shook her dark head in silence.
"It is strange—very strange," he went on. "I suppose he must have died after leaving your mother. That seems the only sensible solution of his absence and unbroken silence during all these years."
"That is the only explanation I could think of," she answered. "Surely if he had not died he would not have deserted her. My mother was very beautiful—much more handsome than I am, Paul; and Mrs. Hill said she could have married well afterwards had she cared to do so. But she rejected every offer and died faithful to the man who first won her heart. Even to the day of her death she believed that my father would turn up some day, and her confidence in him never wavered."
"I suppose you have not got a portrait of your father, Salome?"
"No, but I have one of my mother which I will shew you some day if you care to see it."
"Where were your parents married?"
"In the village church at Marlcombe."
"What was your mother's name—her maiden name, I mean?"
"And your father's was Sydney Barringham?"
"I should like to get to the bottom of all this mystery," he said, with a thoughtful and wrinkled brow, "but I suppose it would take a very genius in the detective line to solve the riddle."
"It would, Paul, and I fear the mystery surrounding my father's strange disappearance will never be cleared up now."
"Who can tell?" he replied, more cheerily. "Riddles as strange as this one have been solved often enough before by smart, determined men; and it is quite possible that your father's relatives may be discovered, even if he himself, and the cause of his desertion of your mother, be not revealed."
She shook her head in a doubting way, and he added,
"Have you ever visited Marlcombe, Salome, since you left it a child?"
"Never," she answered. "I have often thought of doing so, but have always been prevented from carrying out my wish owing to one reason or another."
"Some day we will journey there together. I should like to see the cottage wherein you were born, and in which your father and mother spent the first few months of their wedded lives. You cannot imagine, dear, what a deep impression this story of yours has made upon me. But I will not agitate you further by talking about the matter any more just now."
She gave him a pleased look in answer, and they continued their walk along the lane. Suddenly Paul broke the silence by remarking,
"Do you know, Salome, dear, that there is one thing which I have not told you, and which in honesty to you, I think, I ought to confess."
"What is that, Paul?"
"You know Miss Carsland?"
"Yes, I know her. I met her at the concert one evening."
"Well, at one time, I made myself believe that I was in love with Cordelia, and was almost on the point of formally proposing to her."
"There was some truth then in that rumour as to your engagement?" she asked, quietly.
"Not a word, I assure you, dear. I might have committed myself had she not restrained me from speaking, for she is very handsome, and I admired her greatly. Fortunately, the words on my tongue were never uttered, and you cannot fancy how glad I am now. But you must remember that I had not seen you then. Had we never met, dear one, there is no telling what I should have done."
"Miss Carsland knows of our engagement, I suppose, Paul?"
"She must know when it is the common talk of all the villagers round about here."
"I am sorry for her, Paul, if she loved you as I do," Salome whispered, sympathetically. "Do you think she cared for you?"
"Not much, I should imagine, or she would not have stopped me from speaking. Cordelia is rather cold-blooded, and," he added with a laugh, "her health does not appear to be affected by the knowledge that I am going to marry you."
She made no reply, and they crossed the wide white space in front of the White Crow to turn down Spencer's Lane towards the girl's home. As they passed under the gas lamps, Salome tugged at her lover's arm, saying,
"See, Paul! Isn't that Sir Sydney Carsland coming towards us?"
He glanced ahead, and there in the clear moonlight, not more than a score of yards away he perceived a figure walking slowly in their direction, which he easily identified as that of his guardian.
"By Jove, you're right, Salome! Who'd have thought of meeting him here?" he cried. "I'm glad though, for I want you to know him, and he expressed a desire to be introduced to you when I told him of our engagement."
A minute later the baronet and the White Gipsy were shaking each other by the hand, after their hurried and informal presentation by Paul; and Sir Sydney was expressing in his courtliest manner the pleasure he felt in making the acquaintance of one of whom he had heard so much.
But while Carsland's lips fashioned his flattering words his breast was filled with a strange, vague terror, and his eyes were rivetted on the white face of the beautiful girl who stood before him. They stood chatting together for a few moments, and when Sir Sydney raised his hat and was about to bid Salome good night, Paul broke in with,
"If you don't mind waiting a few moments while I see Salome to the door, I will walk home with you, Sir Sydney."
"Certainly, Paul," was the ready even eager response. "I shall be glad of your company, and as the night is cold I'll step into the White Crow and wait for you there. It's years since I set foot in the old house," he added, apologetically.
Paul nodded and walked along the lane at Salome's side; and when he parted from his sweetheart and returned ten minutes afterwards he found Sir Sydney seated in the little parlour of the tavern, toasting his toes before the big fire, with the remains of a brandy and soda at his elbow.
When the young man entered the baronet drained his glass, asked Paul what he would take in the shape of a drink, and receiving his ward's answer, ordered two small brandies and a split soda. As they were walking towards Carsland Hall a short time after this, Sir Sydney remarked quietly,
"And so that is your sweetheart, Miss Salome Barringham, Paul?"
"Yes, Sir Sydney," was Paul's ready reply.
"What do you think of her now?"
"I think she is uncommonly beautiful," was the rejoinder, "and if I had not been told I should never have suspected her of being a pit-brow girl."
"I am sure you wouldn't," was the younger man's pleased answer. "She is in every way above her class, and is singularly refined and intelligent for one who has had to work for a livelihood all her life."
"So I thought. I suppose you have not yet made any inquiries as to where she comes from? She does not speak like one bred and born in this part of Lancashire."
"Salome has told me all about herself this evening, and a most remarkable narrative it was, Sir Sydney."
"Indeed, in which way?"
"In every way!" said Paul, warmly; "and the story of her mother's life was even more singular than her own."
"You interest me very much, Paul," the baronet responded, quite coolly, "and, if you have no objection, I should like to hear more about the girl and her mother—and the father also—for I suppose that he was not less interesting than his wife and daughter."
"I can tell you nothing of Salome's father, for I know nothing—save this—that he deserted them in a mysterious manner before my sweetheart was born."
"You amaze me! But where was she born, Paul?" Sir Sydney asked, his voice steady and perfectly under control.
"At a village in Yorkshire called Marlcombe. Her mother's name was Salome Velazo, and the man she married was a gentlemanly tramp, whom she found sick under a hedge, and nursed back to health and strength. The man called himself——"
"Curse the snow?" broke suddenly from the baronet's lips. So eagerly had he been following his ward's words that he had not looked where he was walking, and had in consequence slipped off the footpath and fallen on his knees in the snow.
"You are not hurt, I hope, Sir Sydney?" Paul queried as his guardian jumped lightly to his feet again.
"Not at all, thank you."
"Well, as I was about to say, it was a most remarkable thing that Salome Velazo should marry an entire stranger, and that he should disappear so quickly afterwards."
"But that is no fault of your sweetheart, for she could not prevent either the marriage or her father's sudden going away. But did they never hear of him again?"
"Never a word!"
"How strange, to be sure. Has Salome's mother been dead long?" was the next question the baronet put to the other, without a trace of concern being perceptible in his tones.
"Nearly ten years ago, so I am given to understand, and I believe she died with her confidence in her mysterious husband unshaken. It's a strange story altogether, Sir Sydney, and I should like to probe the mystery to the very bottom."
"It is not the only mystery in the world, my dear boy, and will, I fear, like so many other mysteries, remain unravelled," said Sir Sydney, lightly. "Of course I can understand your wishing to ferret the thing out, but am afraid it will only be a waste of time and thought, unless you have some clue to set to work upon."
"I have not the faintest clue, Sir Sydney."
"Then I'd never bother my head about it. Your sweetheart is both beautiful and respectable, and the story of her parentage will not cause you to care for her less than you do."
"Certainly not, Sir Sydney!" Paul cried, warmly. "If anything, it will only make me love and honour Salome more than before. Still, for her satisfaction and comfort it would be well to lift the curtain which hides her father's strange action in a cloud."
The baronet made no rejoinder to this, and Paul changed the subject.
It was the week preceding Christmas, and the White Gipsy was residing with the Rev. Matthew Mallison and his sister at the Vicarage. Paul Meredith had gone away over a week ago. Sir Sydney and Lady Carsland had urged him to stay at the Hall until the Christmas and New Year's festivities were over, but the young man had insisted upon leaving at the time indicated, saying, in excuse of his departure, that his friends would be put to great inconvenience if he were not to join them as he had promised.
So the lovers said good-bye to each other with dim eyes, trembling hands, and fast throbbing hearts; and he turned his back upon Thorrell Moor, while Salome resolutely set her mind upon the work before her.
The girl's new home and surroundings were all that she could desire. She was well housed and sumptuously fed, had as great a command of fine garments as if she had been born in the purple instead of having had to work so lately on the pit-top for her bread; and there was no reasonable craving Salome could not have gratified, for before going away Paul had placed in the Vicar's hands a large sum of money for his sweetheart's sole and absolute use.
Mr. Mallison's spinster sister was a tall, angular, sweet-faced and kindly-souled woman of thirty-five, who took a great fancy to Salome from the moment they first met; and Margaret Mallison's kiss and warm words of welcome put the girl at her ease the moment she entered her new home.
Miss Mallison was in every way qualified for the task of improving Salome's education. She was a lady of sound learning and varied accomplishments; and being patient and kindly-natured, was just the sort of teacher the young girl required.
Salome was very eager to begin the work of self-improvement, but Miss Mallison insisted that no work should be undertaken until they had passed a week together under the same roof. Her brother had supported her in that resolution, and so Salome settled down in her new quarter, feeling that fate had been very kind to her indeed in placing her among such friends.
That first week at the Vicarage was a really happy one for the White Gipsy. Day after day she and Miss Mallison made visits to Earlsford for the purpose of purchasing the thousand and one things Salome was supposed to need in her altered station of life. She smilingly protested that she did not require the heaps of costly garments and articles of personal adornment which her companion ordered so lavishly and regardless of expense, but Miss Mallison answered that it was Paul Meredith's desire, and so Salome resigned herself to the inevitable outpouring of good things.
Ere her lover had been absent a fortnight, Salome had accustomed herself to her new surroundings, and was sedulously devoting a portion of each day to the lessons and studies Miss Mallison set before her. She was the most eager of pupils, and her quick intelligence enabled her to grasp readily and with ease the various tasks she was called upon to master. So rapidly indeed did she assimilate knowledge of all kinds, that her informal governess predicted that in a year or so, if she pursued her studies with a like avidity, she would become a highly accomplished—even a brilliant woman.
So things stood when one morning shortly before Christmas, Salome received a surprise in the shape of a small parcel. The girl was hard at work in a small, prettily furnished and bright-looking room set apart for her and her tutor, and was struggling with the intricacies of somebody's grammar when the servant tapped at the door and entered the moment afterwards, bearing in her hands the small parcel already mentioned.
"It is for Miss Barringham," said the maid, as she placed the square parcel upon the table, and went away.
"A present, I suppose, Salome," Miss Mallison remarked. "Well, while you are opening it I will just run away, as I want to speak to my brother."
With that she glided away, and Salome turned to the parcel. She lifted it first of all, and thought that it was rather heavy. What did it contain? Some fresh evidence, she felt sure, of Paul's strong affection. Then she glanced at the address, and saw her own name written in a thick, large, sprawling hand, totally unlike the neat writing of her lover. She next glanced at the postmark, and saw that it was Southampton, the port from which her sweetheart and his comrades were to set out on their voyage of adventure.
With Paul's name on her lips she cut the parcel open, and after removing the outer covering—a box of strong cardboard—she came upon a pretty casket of rosewood with brass mountings. The casket was locked, but the key was attached thereto by means of a cord, and, cutting the string, she fitted the key, turned the lock, and lifted the lid.
A sheet of paper first met her eager gaze, and on lifting it a cry of astonishment left her lips. There before her lay a glittering heap of jewellery—rings, bracelets, brooches, and necklaces of rare stones set in solid gold, and worthy, the amazed lass thought, of decking the person of an empress.
She lifted the sparkling gems with one hand, while she grasped the sheet of note-paper with the other, and her heart went out to the lover who had left her to cross the sea. For a moment or two she forgot the note in her hand in her contemplation of the precious gifts, but suddenly remembering it she spread out the sheet and mastered its contents. This is what she read:—
"When you read this I shall be crossing the sea. I send you these jewels as a slight token of the love I have for you. When you wear them you will sometimes think of one who would have laid down his life for your sake. Do not, I implore you, say who gave them to you.
"Good bye, dear Salome, for ever.
She gave a little gasp, and the note fluttered from her fingers. All along she had felt absolutely certain that the present was a gift from her absent lover, and now it turned out that the donor was in reality none other than the man whose overtures of affection she had refused to accept.
"Poor Hugh!" she murmured sympathetically, and her eyes wandered from the flashing stones to the gemmed ring the young pit-man had placed upon her finger on the occasion of their last meeting opposite the White Crow.
How had Hugh come into possession of such expensive articles of jewellery she asked herself. Surely he could not have purchased them. She glanced afresh at the jewelled trinkets, and then examined them again one after the other.
They were not new, although in no sense the worse for wear, she could see. Then, in a sudden flash of recollection, she recalled to mind what Eastwood had said about some relative having bequeathed to him a fortune; and no inconsiderable portion of the bequest was undoubtedly the jewels in the casket before her.
Not a trifle disturbed by the reflection that Hugh had impoverished himself in order to confer a grand gift upon her, she selected a massive diamond and ruby brooch from the collection, and pinned it in her dress at her throat.
She then carried the remainder to her own private room, and placing the casket in the drawer of her dressing-table, locked it carefully. When she returned to the study she found Miss Mallison awaiting her.
"Well, dear, what was it?" Miss Mallison asked, with all a woman's eagerness and curiosity, and her gaze wandering from the empty box to Salome's face.
"A few small things an old and very dear friend sent me, Miss Mallison," Salome answered quietly. "This," touching the jewel at her throat, "was among them."
"How pretty! May I see it, Salome?"
"Certainly. Here it is."
Miss Mallison took the jewelled article in her white tapering fingers and scanned it closely, now examining the richly-chased massy gold setting with a critical and appreciative eye, and then scanning the diamonds and rubies with the manner of a connoisseur.
"It is a very fine brooch indeed, dear," she said presently, "and must have cost your friend a lot of money—some hundreds of pounds I should think."
"Not so much surely, Miss Mallison?" the girl said with bated breath. The value of the trinket only served to make the gift all the more remarkable.
"It must have—but there, dear, let me fasten it for you." She re-fastened the ornament at the blushing girl's throat, and added, "you ought to be thankful to the Almighty, Salome, that your beauty and your goodness have won for you such gifts."
The White Gipsy thanked her companion with a grateful look, but vouchsafed no reply. Miss Mallison was satisfied that the giver of the rare gifts was her pupil's affianced husband, and Salome's silence respecting the donor only tended to confirm that belief.
A few more days passed away uneventfully, and on the day before Christmas Lady Carsland and her daughter called at the Vicarage. Her Ladyship was shortly after to give a party at the Hall, and she explained to Miss Mallison that she had dropped in as she was passing in order to ask the Vicar, his sister, and Miss Barringham to honour the gathering with their presence.
Of course Miss Mallison accepted the invitation readily, and Salome, quite won over by Lady Carsland's gracious words and manner, in which there was now not a trace of the condescension the girl had been quick to note and object to when they met at the concert, accepted only a trifle less heartily. Had Salome been in every respect the equal of Lady Carsland, her Ladyship could not have been more amiable, and even her stately daughter was less cold and haughty than she formerly had been.
Salome had often wished lately to meet the ladies from Carsland Hall, and had expected when they did meet that she would be severely snubbed by both mother and daughter. She had, therefore, prepared herself for the ordeal when Lady Carsland and Cordelia were announced by the maid, and had made up her mind to meet their scornful coldness with weapons of a like kind.
But the unexpected change in their demeanour had thawed her immediately, and before the four ladies parted they were all chattering easily and frankly together, as if they were friends of considerable standing.
Still, all through the half-hour which the Carsland visit lasted, the girl felt that the eyes of both were upon her, and that they were asking themselves, "Who and what is this girl that Paul Meredith has selected out of the common herd of work a day people to be his wife?"
But she bore herself bravely, and committed herself in no way; and handsome as were both mother and daughter, she felt that her own beauty lost nothing when placed in contrast with their own. She felt also that they had come there thinking to find her a shallow, empty-headed lass, with nothing to commend her to anyone save her comeliness; and to their surprise they found her almost as well-informed as either of them, and certainly as well spoken and fair mannered.
Before going away, Lady Carsland, with a great show of cordiality, asked Salome to run over to the Hall any afternoon when she had leisure, and the girl promised to do so, not that she intended either to avail herself of the invitation or desired to do so, but because she was not rude enough to refuse the offer of friendship held out to her.
Some afternoons later, as Salome was about to leave the Vicarage for her usual walk, Miss Mallison put a question to her.
"Which way are you thinking of taking, Salome?" she asked, as she fastened the fair girl's sealskin coat at the throat.
"I intended to walk through the wood and come back by way of Carsland Hall," the girl answered.
"Would you mind calling at the Hall, dear?"
"Not at all if you wish me to do so. I promised Lady Carsland that I would call, as you know, but have not done so yet."
"Then I shall be glad if you will do so, this afternoon, Salome. Her Ladyship promised to send me several novels which she has read lately, but I suppose she must have forgotten all about the matter. And that, dear, will supply you with an excellent excuse for calling."
"Just so," the White Gipsy responded, laughingly. "I am afraid I should not have ventured to call at the Hall without an excuse of some kind."
"But you needed no excuse, dear, seeing that Lady Carsland was so pressing in her invitation for you to visit them whenever you cared to avail yourself of her kind offer."
"That is so, but I have sometimes wondered if her invitation was in reality so very kind as it appeared," Salome rejoined, seriously.
"Hold, enough! Be off, and enjoy your walk. I won't argue that point further; but be sure you call for the books."
"I will not forget," was the girl's reply, as she walked away, with the quick, easy step and grace of some untamed animal.
It was a fine afternoon. There was a glimmer of sunshine in the air, although the wind bit keenly at the girl's cheeks, and the landscape was white everywhere with the touch of Jack Frost's fingers.
On gaining the high road, Salome went through the village in the direction of Marsh Green till she came to a stile, and then she struck through the rime covered fields, and was among the black denuded trees. During her walk she met occasionally a begrimed pit-man coming from one or other of the Carsland Collieries, and as she was known to many of the miners she was greeted by most of those whom she met with a "Good afternoon, lass," voiced roughly, but most respectfully, and the girl was careful to respond as heartily.
It was not without some feelings of uneasiness that Salome went through the great gates and along the avenue towards the mansion. She had often looked upon Carsland Hall at times when she never dreamed that she would ever become either a friend or acquaintance of its inmates, much less the betrothed of Sir Sydney Carsland's ward, and in consequence her face was grave with thought when she ascended the broad steps of the stately house and timidly rang the bell.
Salome told the servant that she wished to see Lady Carsland. She was asked for her name, and after giving it was shewn into a waiting room. A few moments later her ladyship came sailing into the apartment, her handsome countenance beaming with smiles, and her whole bearing bespeaking the most frank and generous pleasure.
"What a delightful surprise this is, Miss Barringham!" she cried warmly, as she held out her white hand and clasped Salome's hesitating fingers. "I thought I must have offended you in some way, and that you did not mean to accept my invitation. How are you, and how are your friends the Mallisons. Well, I hope, Miss Barringham?"
"Quite well, thank you, Lady Carsland," Salome answered, keeping her self-possession more easily than she had anticipated. "I was asked by Miss Mallison to call upon you with reference to some books—novels she said, I think—which you were kind enough to promise to let her have."
"Oh, yes, I recollect now. How stupid of me to forget the matter. I am honestly sorry for my negligence, and hope you will convey my regrets to Miss Mallison."
"With pleasure, Lady Carsland. Miss Mallison was sure that it had escaped your memory."
"It had quite. I will send the books on to the Vicarage at once with a servant. The least I can do is to repair my oversight immediately." She rose to ring the bell, but her visitor arrested her hand by remarking,
"If you do not mind, Lady Carsland, I will take the books."
"Oh, no, I cannot permit you to fatigue yourself in that way. I will send the footman with them. Do you mind coming to my room for a few moments, Miss Barringham. I am quite alone this afternoon, as Sir Sydney and Cordelia are out driving."
Salome nodded her dark head, and her ladyship led the girl up the broad imposing staircase and along a corridor to a daintily furnished little sitting-room. First pulling the silken bell-cord, Lady Carsland motioned her visitor to a low easy chair, richly upholstered in the palest pink satin, and flung her graceful figure langorously into another chair on the other side of the fireplace, wherein a bright fire was burning, filling the room with a comfortable warmth.
"Gather up those volumes, Callan," Lady Carsland said to her maid, indicating as she spoke with a sweep of her hand some volumes scattered on her dressing table, "and tell James to take them immediately to Miss Mallison at the Vicarage."
The maid gathered the volumes together with a whispered, "Yes, your ladyship," and when she had gone away Lady Carsland added:
"And now, my dear Miss Barringham, will you permit me to offer you a little refreshment. You must be fatigued with your long walk. Do not refuse, I beg. At least you will join me in taking a drop of wine and a biscuit."
Salome was fain to accede to her hostess's pressing offers of hospitality, and in a short space they were sipping their wine and nibbling their biscuits and chatting about the small matters in which ladies take an interest.
The White Gipsy had no reason to complain in any way of her reception at Lady Carsland's hands, still, despite her ladyship's great amiability, she would have preferred her visit to be a short one. But in the face of her hostess's manifest desire to keep her there, nothing short of rudeness would have enabled her to escape.
And so Salome and her ladyship sat there passing from one topic to another with the agility of swift winged birds. Now and again the girl had felt that she was being scanned very closely by her hostess, as if she were endeavouring to read her inmost soul.
Such indeed was the case. Lady Carsland was deeply curious regarding her visitor—was wondering what were her connections and antecedents, and was even then trying to formulate some scheme which would discover to her the girl's whole story.
Salome was seated with her face towards the window, so the full light fell on her comely face, whereas, Lady Carsland's countenance was in the shadow. Suddenly, and just at the moment when the visitor was thinking of rising and taking her leave, her ladyship's attention was rivetted on the jewelled ornament at Salome's throat. It was as much as the cold calculating woman could do to repress the astonishment she felt, but she mastered it in a moment, and rising said, quite coolly,
"What a magnificent brooch you have got, my dear Miss Barringham! And those stones are diamonds and rubies of the first water, I am confident. May I look at it, dear, for a moment?"
"Certainly, with pleasure," was Salome's ready reply, and in a moment she had unfastened the brooch and placed it in the other's hand.
"Thank you—excuse me a moment," and with that excuse her ladyship walked away from the girl and stood beside the window. There she remained for a short time examining the trinket in the most searching way. That she saw something about the article of an extraordinary kind seemed evident from her drawn lips, ominously-flashing eyes, and dilated nostrils.
But all traces of excitement had fled from her face when she walked back to Salome's side, saying—
"It is very beautiful indeed, and must be very valuable. I daresay it was a gift?"
"From Paul Meredith, I daresay?"
"Oh, no, not from Paul, but from an old and dear friend," was the girl's ready and unsuspecting answer.
"I never saw a design I liked more," Lady Carsland went on, "and I must have one made like it. You will not think me presumptuous, Miss Barringham, if I ask you to permit me to shew this brooch to my jeweller, so that he may obtain one exactly similar for myself?"
"I will leave it with pleasure, Lady Carsland."
"Thank you very much. I will let you have it back in a few days. And in the meantime I will lend you one of my own in exchange. Exchange is no robbery you know," and her ladyship's face wreathed itself in smiles as she crossed the room again and took from her jewel case a brooch even of greater value than the one she had in her hands. This she fastened with her own hands at the girl's neck, and shortly afterwards Salome went away.
When the girl departed, Lady Carsland went to the window and watched the White Gipsy's slender figure pass quickly along the avenue. Then she dropped again into her chair with the brooch lying in her open palm and a strange puzzled look upon her face. She was sitting there still attempting to grapple the problem which confronted her, when her maid re-entered the apartment to say that Sir Sydney and Miss Carsland had returned.
"Will you tell Sir Sydney that I desire to see him at once, Callan?"
"Here, your ladyship?"
"Yes, here!" she rejoined, quickly, her voice sounding harsh and strained now.
The servant disappeared, and presently the baronet entered the room.
"What is it Adelaide?"
"Come in and shut the door," was her unceremonious command.
He closed the door and went towards her, remarking, in his former insouciant manner:
"Well, now, what is it, my dear?"
"Do not dear me!" she blazed forth, her pent-up excitement and anger finding a sudden vent, as she jumped to a standing position and faced him.
"What's the row now?" he cried, taken quite aback by his irate spouse's manner and words.
"I will tell you. I want you to tell me, Sir Sydney Carsland, what became of the jewels your father promised to give me on the day I married your brother?"
"How should I know?" he asked, with faltering tongue and blanching face.
"How should you know!" she ejaculated, in a sneering tone. "Who should know if you should not?"
"I don't understand you, Adelaide."
"You will very soon then. Do you think because I married you and have kept the secret all these years, that I did not know who was the thief who robbed his father's safe and pilfered the jewels that formerly belonged to his mother? You stole them. I know that. What became of them?"
"I do not know."
"Do you recognise this?" and she thrust the diamond and ruby brooch into his trembling hand.
"I do not know it."
"You ought to, then, for it once belonged to your mother, and should have belonged to me."
"Where did it come from?"
"Half-an-hour ago I found the White Gipsy wearing it."
Lady Carsland launched those words at her husband as if she were charging him with the committal of some heinous crime, and for a moment he was staggered by her manner, as much by the sentence she had spoken. But he recovered himself quickly, and in almost his natural voice asked:
"You found the White Gipsy—Miss Barringham—I suppose, wearing this brooch?"
"Certainly! Have I not told you so already? You don't think I lied?"
"Not for a moment, my dear," he answered, dropping his gaze from his wife's questioning eyes, and examining the massive, heart-shaped trinket she had thrust into his hand. "But after all I see nothing mysterious in the fact that you found the girl wearing this."
"I think it most mysterious," she replied, hotly, "and I mean to get at the bottom of it before I've done. I ask you again, how did it come into her possession?"
"How should I know? I daresay Paul may have bought it and given it to her."
"That is not the case," she snapped out, triumphantly. "She told me herself that Paul did not present it to her."
"Who did, then?" he queried, knowing that he was only evading the real points at issue between him and his wife, but unspeakably glad to gain a few moments' grace, in which he could think over the difficulty that faced him, and decide how he was to meet it.
"Some old and dear friend, and I want to know who that friend is."
"What does it matter who the giver is?"
"It does matter because that is one of the jewels which would have belonged to me had you not been——" she was about to say 'a thief'—but she added, "had you been an honest man."
"We will not discuss that point now," he said, biting his lip with an anger he could not afford to put into words at that moment.
"As you please; but you will have to discuss it, for I intend to know what you did with those jewels, and how that brooch came into the possession of that pit-brow girl."
"You may be mistaken after all, Adelaide," he remarked, willing to overlook the affront and menace her words contained.
"Mistaken! In which way?"
"This jewel may not have been the one my mother possessed. It resembles it, but I do not think it is the same one. As you must know, articles of this kind—brooches of this very pattern—would be made in scores, perhaps hundreds."
"I am prepared to admit that, but if this is not the brooch I saw that day when your father shewed me the jewels which were to form his wedding present to me, how does it happen that your parent's initials are engraved upon the back?"
"Are you certain?"
He asked the question with an excellently feigned look of amazement. Of course, he had already seen the initials to which she referred, but had hoped they had escaped his wife's notice.
"Quite certain, as you must be. For heaven's sake," she exclaimed, "let me have no more of this pretence! I am not silly enough to be led from my purpose by any of your tricks and make-be-believe dodges. Tell me once and for all what you did with the jewels!"
"I did not take——"
"You did, and you know that I know you did. The safe was found open the next morning and you had disappeared. Your father knew who the thief was, just as I and Frederic knew also. Had you been anyone save your father's son you would have been hunted down and sent to gaol."
"I daresay you and my brother urged my father to put the police on my track!" he cried bitterly, stung at length into retorting by her virulence. "And if I did take them I had a right to them!"
"Not at all. They were your father's property to do with as he liked, and but for the advice of his solicitor, Mr. Elliston, you would have discovered that your relationship to your father made you none the less a plunderer. But why not admit like a man that you took the jewels when you fled?"
"Well, I did take them, and I would do it again. Did you and Frederic think I was cur enough to stand every indignity you could heap upon me? It was not enough that he should cut me out with respect to yourself, but the insult and injury was to be carried farther, inasmuch as his wife was to be given my mother's jewels. It was carrying matters too far that, and I stopped the game."
"I do not blame you so very much for doing so," she replied, in a more amiable way, "for, after all, there was some reason in your point of view."
"Then why rake the business up again after all these years?"
"Because I want to know more. You have admitted that you took the things, now what did you do with them?"
"Why trouble yourself about such a thing? You have jewels in abundance, and if you desire others you have only to speak. You know, Adelaide, that meanness is not one of my failings."
"Nonsense!" she ejaculated, angrily. "I want nothing in that way. I only want to know what you did with the things. There is nothing unreasonable in my request, I think, especially in face of the fact that I found that brooch upon the person who calls herself Miss Barringham. You must tell me what became of the jewels. I insist upon knowing, and if you refuse to speak I shall have to find out through other means, that is all."
"Well, the truth is—if you will know—that I did nothing with the cursed things!"
"Nothing!" she cried with amazed looks.
"I mean that I lost them—was robbed of them—before they had been in my possession many hours."
"But how? And who were the thieves? Will you kindly explain, Sir Sydney?"
He was dumb for a few moments, and his face was dark as a rain cloud. That his unrighteous past was rising up before him and threatening to envelop him in all sorts of difficulties was evident, and he was endeavouring to see his way out of the trouble.
Presently he spoke in a petulant way—
"It happened this way. When the thought that you were to marry my brother and have my mother's jewellery given you had roused me to the point of desperation, I crept into my father's room while he slept, seized his keys, placed the jewels in a handbag and made my way across the country. It was in the night time, and when I reached Hough Wood I hid there thinking it was quite possible that I had been watched and followed.
"I had not been long in the wood when I saw the forms of numerous men stealing to and fro, and the sight of them made me jump to the conclusion that the jewels had been missed, that I had been tracked, and that the men were there to arrest me. You will be able to imagine my feelings at that time. The fear of being arrested made me desperate, so I made a dash for it, hoping to get away somehow under cover of the darkness and the trees.
"But I ran among the men, was knocked senseless, and when I regained my consciousness at daybreak I found that my pockets had been rifled, and the bag containing the jewels was missing. After that I made my way abroad, utterly broken down by my ill fate, for my misconduct had availed me nothing—had, in fact, recoiled upon myself."
"But did you never discover who took the jewels away from you?" she asked, when he had finished.
"Never. Of course I have an idea of what the men were."
"What were they?"
"Poachers, evidently, for I found several dead rabbits about me, and a net such as poachers use."
"Is this the truth?" she demanded, with a gleam of suspicion in her eyes; "or is it only some cock-and-bull story you have hatched in order to hoodwink me?"
"It is the truth, Adelaide!" he asseverated, with great earnestness. "As true as I am standing here, every detail of what I have related to you is a matter of fact."
She was silent for a little while, and her fair brows were contracted in thought. She was half-inclined still to disbelieve his statement respecting the second robbery of the jewels, despite his dramatic protestation as to its accuracy; but was not thinking of that now. Her clever brain was thinking of another matter.
"Perhaps it is only reasonable to suppose that the men who robbed you were poachers," she remarked, presently.
"Certainly, I am absolutely satisfied that they must have been, dear."
"Then in that case it would be fair to assume that the robbers were natives of some of the villages hereabouts?"
"I daresay it would; but what are you driving at?" he queried, with a puzzled look on his countenance.
"Cannot you see?" she cried, with curling lips. "If the poachers who stole the jewels belonged to one or other of the places around here it is easy to understand how that brooch came into the hands of Miss Barringham."
"How? I fail to see it."
"I will shew you then. The robbers would certainly divide the spoil, but were probably afraid of selling the jewels; at all events it is evident that they were not all disposed of or the White Gipsy would not have been the owner of the brooch at this moment."
"But how do you imagine it got into her hands?"
"In all likelihood she got it from one of the pit-men in the villages who was an old admirer of the girl——"
"And," he broke in hurriedly, "you think this old lover of hers was the son or relative of one of the poachers who robbed me that night in Hough Wood."
"I do? How otherwise could it have got into her keeping?" was her quick rejoinder.
"It seems likely enough," he mused.
"It is more than likely!" she cried. "I feel absolutely certain that my solution of the riddle is the true one. But whether it is or not I mean to use it against the White Gipsy."
"Why against her?" he asked, in a voice of mild remonstrance.
"Need you ask? You do not like the idea of such a girl marrying your ward any more than I do, and it appears to me that this affair will afford us an excellent opportunity of driving her away."
"I do not see it; besides she is quite blameless. How was she to know that the trinket had been stolen from anyone."
"I never suggested that she did know. What I wanted to suggest is this: we never looked favourably upon the idea of Paul's mesalliance with this ex-pit-brow girl, and now circumstances have placed a weapon in our hands, which, if skilfully used, will enable us to drive her out of the neighbourhood."
"Perhaps we might; but consider how unfair it would be when we know her to be absolutely blameless," he said, doggedly, something within him spurring him to speak in defence of the girl.
"She is in our way—that is all I care to consider, and all I mean to consider!" she exclaimed, with increasing wrath. "You, yourself, have said more against the girl than I have done; and I cannot understand why you persist in defending her now."
"I am not defending her," he replied. "I am trying to impress upon you, my dear Adelaide, that it is not worth our while to rake up the past in order to get rid of Miss Barringham."
"I think we can get rid of her without exposing you. That is what you mean, I suppose, when you speak of raking up the past? But whatever happens she must go."
"Why do you hate her so?"
"I hate her because she is an upstart, who has stepped between Paul Meredith and Cordelia!" she burst out.
"Cordelia doesn't care for him, I think, my dear," he ventured to remark.
"That shews how blind you are. I tell you that Cordelia loves Paul, and that she is eating out her heart on his account. But for this girl she would have been engaged to him at this moment. She is too proud to wear her heart upon her sleeve, but I know that she cares for him very much, and that the thought of him marrying this common girl is breaking her heart."
"It may be true——"
"It is, and the sooner you get that girl away the better."
"But how am I to do it?"
"Call upon her or send for her here, and charge her with being in possession of stolen jewellery which belonged to you. Don't you see that such a charge would frighten her so much that she would be glad to get away and never shew her face again in this neighbourhood."
"A capital plan, Adelaide," he answered, readily, as his face brightened up suddenly, and a load was lifted from his breast.
"I am glad you think so. And when Paul returns she will have disappeared beyond all his finding out. Besides, her flight will convince him that she was not innocent in respect to the manner in which the jewels were originally obtained."
"If we can frighten her away it will be all right," he said, reflectively, "but suppose she refuses to be driven away."
"Leave it to me then. I will find other means of dealing with her. All I desire you to do at present is to write to the vicarage and ask Miss Barringham to call."
"I will write to-night, unless you think it better for me to go to the vicarage to see her."
"Do not go—write. Mr. Mallison and his sister would be in the way there. Here we shall be able to manage the business without the least fear of interruption."
"I will write then, to-night, and ask her to call to-morrow——"
"In the afternoon about four," she added.
"At four then."
"Be sure you write."
"I will not forget, dear," he responded as he turned away and sought his own room.
On gaining his own private chamber where he was sure of privacy, Sir Sydney Carsland flung himself into a chair and gave up his mind to the thoughts which seethed within it. He had been wishing for some time to be alone in order that he might calmly face the network of difficulties which had slowly woven themselves around him, since the moment Paul Meredith had avowed his love for the pit-brow girl and his intention to marry her.
From the moment when the baronet first learned that the name of his ward's sweetheart was Salome Barringham, his mind had been charged with vague visions of impending troubles, and when a few days later Paul related the girl's story unto him his doubts were confirmed.
This lowly nurtured lass who had worked on the banks of his pits was the child of the woman he had married all those years ago at Marlcombe, in the days when he was poor and a fugitive from home—was his own daughter, and he dared not own her.
That the discovery had alarmed and amazed him needs no recording. It seemed to him nothing less than wonderful that the beautiful Spanish girl he had wooed and won, and afterwards deserted when fortune smiled upon him, should have borne him a daughter after his flight, and that the self-same daughter should turn up as a pit-brow girl who had toiled from early morn to evening within sight of his own princely home.
When he first heard of Salome Barringham from his ward he had said that he would call on the girl and make her acquaintance. That expressed intention was not thoughtlessly made, for at the time he desired very much to see the girl and learn more about her. He was satisfied even then that the pit-brow girl was connected with himself in some manner, seeing that her name was made up of that of his first wife and his own middle name—and, more-over, the name he had been known by at Marlcombe.
He had intended to discover all he could respecting the White Gipsy's past, and in case his suspicions were confirmed he had resolved to send her away. If she were his daughter he was prepared to provide for her in a handsome manner, but he was not prepared to let her remain near him where their relationship might through some means or other become known.
But when Sir Sydney realised that his ward really loved and intended to marry Salome he was checkmated. It would have been useless after that to have gone to the girl in order to induce her to leave the neighbourhood; and to have questioned Salome closely concerning her history might have revealed more of his own hand than it would have been safe to shew, for if once the girl and Paul obtained the slightest inkling as to his interest and connection with her, his secret would be in their keeping if they only cared to set to work to discover it. Even after the lapse of all those years it would not be an exceedingly difficult task for a shrewd and determined man to follow up the trail Sydney Barringham had left behind him at Marlcombe.
In one sense the baronet had been pleased to think that his unacknowledged daughter was to marry his ward. If he dared not avow his relationship to her, it was pleasant to know that she would be comfortably settled in life as Paul Meredith's wife. Had he been a widower, and childless so far as his second marriage was concerned, it is probable that he might have publicly acknowledged Salome as his child.
But to do so now was impossible, and he shuddered at the thought of the storm which would burst around him if Lady Carsland ever discovered the truth.
As he sat there pondering the past and endeavouring to pierce the clouds which veiled the future, he felt that he would have cheerfully resigned half his fortune if that jewelled ornament had never turned up at all—or if it had not been discovered by his wife in Salome's possession.
How had the brooch drifted into the girl's hands? How had the girl herself drifted to that corner of Lancashire? There seemed something inscrutable about both things, and that sense of some mysterious agency being at work in order to expose his old sins, lacerated his breast and filled his brain with painful thoughts.
After all these years of peace and security and good fortune, was he to become an object of derision and scorn to the world? If the whole truth were to be revealed—if his old sins were to find him out, then he might bid farewell to England, her ladyship, and his daughter Cordelia for ever.
But how was he to avoid the threatening sword which might fall at any time, when he least expected the blow? He sat there biting his lips and cudgelling his brains for a scheme which would clear away the troubles and difficulties which beset him, but out of all his thinking there was evolved but one plan, and that he was afraid to commit himself to.
This was to go forthwith to Salome Barringham, and throw himself upon her mercy—to tell her the whole truth from the beginning—to narrate how he had been driven from home, become a thief, got robbed, met, married, and deserted her mother, when he learned that his father and brother were dead, and that he was a rich man and a titled one. For his sake he would urge her to leave the neighbourhood at once, and go to a place where Paul Meredith could join her on his return. Then they would take her affianced into the secret, and he, on account of his great love for her, would overlook everything, would marry, and his good name would be saved, and his wife's and daughter's also.
That scheme seemed feasible enough on the face of it, yet was he afraid to risk all upon its success or failure. Salome might not do all he desired her to do when he had revealed his own relationship to her. She might, woman-like, care more for her own good name than she cared for the reputation of himself, Lady Carsland, and Cordelia. She might go further even, and say, "I have suffered enough for your sins and will suffer no longer. You must clear my mother and me in the eyes of the world. I am your daughter—my mother was your wife. You must tell the world or I will that the woman known as Lady Carsland is not your wife at all seeing that your first wife was living when you married her."
The fear that something like the foregoing might happen stayed his hand, and in the meantime he could only carry out the suggestion that her ladyship had made. How it would all end he could not tell. So he wrote the letter to Salome and left the rest for fate to decide.
On the morning following her visit to Carsland Hall the White Gipsy received the note Sir Sydney had penned on the previous evening. The missive ran thus:
"My dear Miss Barringham,
"I regret very much that I was not at home when you called this day. Will you have the kindness to come over to-morrow afternoon? I should like to see you on a matter of great importance. If you can possibly manage to come do not omit to do so. I and Lady Carsland expect to see you between three and four o'clock.
"I wonder what he wishes to see me for?" Salome murmured as she permitted the note to fall into her lap and looked across the breakfast table to where the Vicar and his sister sat partaking of the morning meal.
"Who is he, dear?" Miss Mallison asked.
"Sir Sydney Carsland, and he says that he wishes to see me on a matter of great importance this afternoon at the Hall."
"Probably he has had a letter from his ward, Mr. Meredith," the Vicar interposed.
"I scarcely think so, Mr. Mallison." Salome replied, "for if that were so, it is almost certain, I think, that Paul would have written to me as well."
"Perhaps you are right, but in any case you had better go. You cannot afford, you know," Miss Mallison added, "to be on bad terms with your sweetheart's guardian. It is probable that Sir Sydney desires to see you respecting some arrangement regarding yourself which Mr. Meredith made before he went away."
"That must be the reason he wishes to see me," the girl said in response, "and, of course, I shall have to go."
"I am surprised, Salome, to hear you speak in that strain," Miss Mallison remarked, severely. "You speak as if it were no honour, but the contrary, to be asked to the Hall."
Salome made some half-laughing, half-apologetic rejoinder, and then the matter was forgotten in other conversation.
Between the hours of three and four o'clock in the afternoon the White Gipsy presented herself at Carsland Hall, and the same servant that had admitted her on the day before again asked her to "step this way." But the visitor was not shewn into a waiting room this time, but was taken instead straight to her ladyship's boudoir, where, the maid intimated, Lady Carsland was awaiting her coming.
Remembering the amiability and warmth of her ladyship's reception of herself the day before, Salome, on entering the cosily-garnished chamber, went forward and held out her hand, and her surprise may be imagined when Lady Carsland pretended not to see it, and motioned the girl to a seat. Without a word, so great was her amazement, Salome dropped into a chair and waited for her ladyship to speak.
"You received my husband's letter, Miss Barringham?" the elder woman began, very coldly.
"I did; that is why I am here, your ladyship," Salome answered, recovering her self-possession somewhat. "He said that he wished to see me on a matter of great importance."
"He will be here in a few minutes, I daresay," her ladyship went on, her manner stiff and her voice icily cold still. "I suppose you would be able to guess what it was he desired to see you about."
"I have no idea."
"You remember the brooch you left with me yesterday?"
"Certainly I do."
"Well, I am sorry to have to inform you that it is part and parcel of a large quantity of precious jewels which were stolen some years ago."
"Stolen!" Salome exclaimed, rising to her feet and her face suddenly losing all vestiges of colour.
"Yes, stolen!" was the ringing, triumphant reply Lady Carsland shot at the trembling girl, "and the thieves were never discovered. You must see that your position is one of the gravest kind. The receiver of stolen goods is held by the law to be as bad as the thief!"
"The receiver of stolen goods is held by the law to be as bad as the thief!"
Lady Carsland flung those accusatory words at Salome as if they were sharp-pointed weapons with which she meant to stab her visitor to the heart, and it was quickly evident to the merciless speaker of them that they had struck home. The hot blood rushed in a warm, roseate flood to the girl's face as she realised the full meaning of her ladyship's utterance, but receded an instant afterwards, leaving her beautiful features marble white, while her frame shivered so violently that she had to cling to the chair in order to support herself.
"What do you mean?" Salome asked, finding her voice with an effort as she dropped back into her seat.
"I mean exactly what I said, Miss Barringham. That brooch you were wearing yesterday was stolen with many other articles of jewellery some years ago; and I need not tell you, as an intelligent woman that the person who receives such things is as liable to be prosecuted as the thief or thieves."
"But I knew nothing. I never suspected anything was wrong! How was I to know the jewels had been stolen?" Salome exclaimed, with her glorious dark eyes fixed entreatingly upon the cold, pitiless face of her companion. "Surely, Lady Carsland, you do not believe for a moment that I knew I was wearing a brooch that had been stolen?"
"It is quite impossible that I should know what you knew or did not know," was her ladyship's icy rejoinder. "What I am aware of is this. The brooch was stolen, and I find it in your possession. What explanation have you to offer?"
"I have none," Salome replied. "Had I dreamed there was anything wrong is it likely that I should have accepted it?"
"I tell you again that I do not know; and you must see that you will have to explain how it came into your possession. Who gave the brooch to you, Miss Barringham?"
"I can only tell you that it was a friend, Lady Carsland. He asked me as a special favour not to give his name."
"Did he?" the other cried, triumphantly. "And did not that fact excite your suspicions? It would have aroused mine immediately."
"I never thought of the matter in that way, your ladyship," Salome answered, simply.
"But you must now, and I insist upon knowing the man's name—I suppose a man made you the present?"
"Who was it?"
"I will not tell you, but I feel sure—certain almost, that the man would never descend so far as to become a thief."
"I did not say that, but he may be acquainted with or related to the real thieves."
"Who were the thieves?" the girl next asked.
"They are unknown, I regret to say, but now that we have obtained a clue they are sure of being discovered."
"When did the robbery occur? I do not remember hearing of it."
"It took place years ago—probably before you were born; but every jewel bears a mark which cannot be mistaken, and the moment I saw you wearing the brooch, I thought I knew it. When I examined it afterwards at the window I found the mark. If you will examine the brooch—here it is—you will find that it has engraved upon it at the back the initials of Sir Sydney's father and mother."
"It was Sir Sydney who was robbed, then?" Salome asked, wide-eyed with a new wonder as she took the articles of jewellery and bent her gaze upon it with a fresh interest.
"Yes, Miss Barringham," broke in a new voice at that juncture, "it was I who was robbed," and the speaker, Sir Sydney Carsland, walked slowly across the room, adding, as he came to a standstill between her ladyship and Salome, "I suppose you have been telling her, Adelaide, that the brooch was one of the stolen jewels?"
"I have. And I have been pointing out to her the suspicious and even dangerous position in which she will find herself in case she refuses to state where she obtained the article."
"But Miss Barringham will not, I am sure, do anything so foolish," said the baronet, gravely, as he faced the girl, who was white-faced still, but quite self-possessed now.
"Your first duty in this painful case is to clear yourself; and you must see, as well as I do, that suspicions of the blackest kind will gather around you unless you reveal all you know about the brooch and the man who gave it to you."
"I cannot do that—whatever happens," Salome answered, lowly, but firmly. "I am perfectly willing to return all the jewels——"
That last sentence caused Sir Sydney and his wife to exchange a quick, wondering, telephatic glance, and Salome, noticing the interchange of looks, paused abruptly. Lady Carsland was the first to break the momentary silence. With her eager, questioning eyes centred upon Salome she demanded,
"So you have other jewels, then?"
"Yes, quite a number of different articles," the girl answered readily, her honest, open eyes meeting the curious stare of her companions unflinchingly. "There are other brooches, but none like this one, and necklaces, bracelets, and other things."
"They all reached you from the same source, I suppose?" Sir Sydney queried.
"They did. I received the lot only a few days ago—I think it was last Friday."
"Where are they now?" Lady Carsland cried.
"In my room at the Vicarage. If they are yours I will hand them over to you at once. I never sought the jewels—I do not care for them, and I shall be pleased to get rid of them, Sir Sydney."
"This is a very singular thing," the baronet muttered, "I never thought that the jewels would be recovered after the lapse of all these years."
"Yes," his wife broke in snappishly, "it is very singular—much too singular to be pleasant; and it goes to prove that I was right in my suggestion that the thieves had been afraid to dispose of their spoil."
"That was fortunate for us, my dear," answered Sir Sydney, "and if Miss Barringham is willing—as she says she is—to hand over the whole of the jewels immediately, I think that this unpleasant affair can be settled amicably, and to the satisfaction of all concerned."
Lady Carsland shot a venomous glance of hot anger at her spouse. It might suit him to smooth matters over, seeing that he was the original sinner, but it would not suit her at all that the affair should be disposed of in that manner. She had resolved to drive Salome away or cover her name with suspicion and obloquy, and having the power to do one or another of those things she was not in the least inclined to shew the girl any mercy.
"Yes, Sir Sydney," Lady Carsland answered, ere the White Gipsy could speak, "this unpleasant affair can be amicably arranged, provided, of course, that Miss Barringham reveals the name of her ac——" she was about to say accomplice, and she voiced that pregnant syllable in such a manner that the remainder of the unspoken word could not be in doubt, but after a momentary pause she went on, "provided that the identity of the giver of the jewels is made clear."
"You will do that, Miss Barringham?" Sir Sydney asked, looking at the girl with eyes and face which said speak and save yourself.
"No! I cannot. I am sorry that it should be necessary to refuse, but I consider that I am under a deep obligation not to make known the man's name who sent the jewels to me. If they are yours I will give them up—that is all I can do!"
"I suppose we shall have to be satisfied with that, Adelaide?" Carsland queried. "Perhaps after all it will be better not to press the matter any further. Don't you think so?"
"I do not think so!" she exclaimed viciously. "To permit the thieves to go unpunished would be to compound a felony. You, Sir Sydney, and you, Miss Barringham, can do as you think fit, but I mean to probe this disreputable matter—this infamous robbery—to the bottom. If Miss Barringham will not willingly disclose the names of her accomplice or accomplices, she must be compelled to do so. That is my last word."
She shot those words at both Salome and her husband with blazing eyes, and figure drawn scornfully erect; they were a menace to the girl and a command to the man to be firm; and when they were uttered she swept with the carriage of an insulted empress from the room.
Salome rose as Lady Carsland walked away, and would have hurried from the apartment also had not Sir Sydney stopped her with a look and a motion of his hand. He was very sorry for the sorely tried girl—had already begun to admire and love her with a warmth he had never felt for his acknowledged child. But he was sorely afraid of the wrath of his irascible better half, and in order to pacify her he was prepared to sacrifice anyone save himself. Therefore, much as he would have liked to befriend Salome, and anxious as he undoubtedly was to repair the injury he had done in the past, he thought it would be better for them all if this handsome girl could be got away.
"She is very bitter and unreasonable, Miss Barringham," he said, lowly, when the door closed behind his tempestuous spouse.
"Most bitter and unreasonable," she replied.
"Unless you speak she will cover you with shame and disgrace."
"I cannot—my lips are sealed. It would be dishonourable to betray the confidence placed in me, and I will not do so no matter what happens," she said, quietly, but with a firm look upon her white face, which satisfied him that she had made up her mind to resist all attempts to force from her lips the name of the man who had presented her with the stolen jewels.
"Will you not confide in me, Miss Barringham?" he pleaded.
"I will not confide in anyone, if by confiding you mean giving up my friend's name!" was her resolute and immediate response.
"I should like to befriend you—will do anything reasonable to extricate you from this unpleasant position if you will permit me," he went on. "But you see how determined she is to get to the bottom of the mystery which envelops this jewel robbery. I am willing—nay, even eager to smooth matters over, but she will call in the police, I feel certain, unless you speak."
"And I have made up my mind not to do so. I am innocent, and my friend is innocent also, I feel sure, whoever may be guilty."
"But what will the world say, Miss Barringham, if you refuse to give his name and thus clear yourself?"
"No matter what the world thinks, I cannot help it," she answered. "I will go now, Sir Sydney."
She moved towards the door, and he put himself in her way, saying—
"But what about the jewels?"
"I will send them to you the moment I get back to the Vicarage."
"Suppose I send one of my servants to bring them?"
"If you will do that, I shall be much obliged, Sir Sydney. It will save me not a little trouble."
"Then, if you will wait a few minutes in the hall below, I will order the carriage, and the coachman who takes you home can bring the jewels back with him."
"If you wish it. I am quite willing to fall in with that arrangement," she said, quietly.
Her quiet resignation and determination smote him to the very soul. The punishment which should have been his, had he been more of a man and less of a coward, was falling upon his innocent child.
Mentally cursing himself for the sins of his youth and his present lack of manliness, he opened the door of the boudoir, and permitted Salome to pass out, following her to the top of the staircase.
"You will not think too harshly of me, Miss Barringham," he said, as he held out his hand, "on account of what has taken place to-day?"
"Oh, no, Sir Sydney," she said frankly, "for you have been most considerate."
He clasped her hand warmly, even affectionately, in his own, and there is no saying what he might not have done, acting upon the impulse of the moment, if Lady Carsland's voice had not rung out sneeringly behind him.
"Sir Sydney! When you have quite done with Miss Barringham I wish to speak to you."
He dropped Salome's hand hastily, glanced kindly into her eyes, and turned away, a mist born of remorse and shame clouding his vision. Then, as the girl tripped down the carpeted stairs, he turned to meet his wife.
"Well, what have you done with her?" she demanded.
"Nothing. She refuses to give the man's name, but has promised to send the jewels here at once. I thought of sending her home in the carriage so that Halliwell could bring the jewels back with him."
"A good idea that," she cried, with evident pleasure. "I am glad that she has made up her mind not to divulge the man's name. It will be easier now to frighten her away. The only question now is this. What steps shall we next take?"
"I shall take no steps against her," he said, with a new-born firmness. "Now that the jewels are recovered I have done with the business altogether. Your ladyship can do what you like."
Without another word he turned away, strode off to his own room, and locked himself in, so as to be free from further annoyance.
Along the short carriage drive which led from the Vicarage to the high road, the White Gipsy was slowly pacing with bent head and a face charged with thought. It was the evening of the day on which she had paid her second visit to Carsland Hall in response to Sir Sydney's note, and the effects of the shock she had then received had not yet passed away from her.
On returning to the vicarage she had hied her to her room, had taken from her finger the massive ring which Hugh Eastwood had given to her that night in the lane, had placed the trinket among the other jewels in the casket, and had despatched the lot to Carsland Hall as arranged.
Then she told the housemaid to inform Miss Mallison that she was indisposed, and that done she locked herself in her chamber, flung herself upon her bed and tried to think calmly of the difficulty in which she was involved.
When night came she stole from the house and tried to find in the fresh, frosty open air the light and nepenthe denied her indoors.
Had she been a less strong minded young woman she would have unburdened her mind to her friend, Miss Mallison. But she felt that she could not take the vicar's sister into her confidence without revealing the whole of the circumstances relating to the jewels, and that she had resolved not to do.
Hugh had implored her not to say where the jewels had come from, and she had respected his desire even at the cost of throwing a serious reflection upon her own character. Besides another thought had actuated her in the course she had pursued. To have admitted that she had received from the pit-man some thousands of pounds worth of jewellery would have denoted the existence of an intimacy between herself and Hugh Eastwood which would have appeared of a seriously compromising character to the outside world.
To one being only—Paul Meredith—was Salome prepared to speak the whole truth concerning the unfortunate jewels. Had her lover been at hand she would have flown to him with her troubles—had he even been within reach of a letter she might have obtained such counsel as would have enabled her to confront and master the difficulties facing her then. But Paul was far away, and there was none else in whom she cared to confide.
Thus thinking she gained the gate which divided the grounds of the vicarage from the high road, and was passing through into the semi-darkness of the quiet and apparently deserted lane, when she heard a quick step, and pausing, a man came towards her out of the gloom, stopping beside her.
"Aren't you Miss Barringham?" the newcomer asked lowly, as he peered into her face.
"Yes. What do you want?"
"Here's a note for you then, miss."
He held out something white, she grasped it and the man disappeared as quickly as he had come. The white object he had thrust into her hand was an envelope, that bulged under the pressure of its contents. She glanced at it eagerly, but even her keen eyes could not decipher the address, the light was so faint.
Her first impulse was to turn back homeward but she did not act upon it. Instead of doing so, she walked sharply along the high road until she arrived in the centre of the hamlet of Thorrell Moor. At the entrance to the village tavern there burned a bright lamp, and under it Salome burst the envelope asunder with trembling fingers.
The contents rustled crisply in her hands, and her amazement increased when her gaze fell on a small bundle of Bank of England notes, pinned to which she found on further inspection the following message:—
"You are in the gravest danger so long as you remain in this neighbourhood. Lady Carsland is determined to bottom the mystery surrounding the jewels. She has already written to her solicitor, and is, I believe, in communication with the police authorities at Earlsford. If you wish to escape not a moment is to be lost. If you value your liberty you will leave this place at once. I beseech you to go, and to accept the enclosed as a slight token of my kindly feelings towards yourself. Whenever you are in need of help I would strongly impress upon you the fact that you need have no scruples in applying to me.
"In great haste,
A hansom cab, which had been rapidly driven all the way from Earlsford, had just come to a rest opposite the imposing front entrance to Carsland Hall, and out of it stepped a thin, cleanly-shaved and white-haired old gentleman. It was Mr. Elliston, whom the thoughtful reader may remember as the family solicitor; and it was evident that business and not pleasure was the cause of his presence there, for, after telling the driver to wait, he mounted the steps in haste and pulled sharply at the bell.
Almost before his fingers fell from the brightly-polished brass knob the door swung back, and the servant standing inside said, "Will you come this way, Mr. Elliston? Sir Sydney and her Ladyship are waiting for you."
The lawyer followed the man through the great vestibule, up the staircase and to Lady Carsland's boudoir where the baronet and his wife were seated.
"Good morning. Sir Sydney—good morning Lady Carsland, fine seasonable weather isn't it?" the attorney cried briskly, as he shook hands with the Carslands. "I was just about to leave the town for Manchester when your messenger arrived. I hope there is nothing serious?"
"Sir Sydney and I wished to consult you on a rather important matter," her ladyship answered gravely. "Pray take a seat and Sir Sydney will explain."
"Well, the fact is, Mr. Elliston," the baronet began, somewhat awkwardly, "the matter we want your advice upon concerns the jewels which formerly belonged to my mother. I daresay you will remember them."
"Quite well, Sir Sydney. They were lodged with my firm for several years, you know."
"Well, as you are doubtless aware," he went on with a gulp, "I took all the jewels away with me when I ran away from home, but I did not dispose of them as you all thought, Mr. Elliston."
"Indeed," said the lawyer, warily.
"As true as God's in heaven, I did not!" Sir Sydney replied, and then he briefly recounted his misadventure that night in Hough Wood.
"And what of the jewels now?" Elliston asked, when the baronet's recital of the robbery was concluded.
"They have turned up in the most singular and unexpected manner—at least, they appear to be the same. Will you shew Mr. Elliston the jewellery, Adelaide? He will, no doubt, be able to identify them, if they are the same."
The gems were brought forth. The old man scrutinised each trinket carefully, and when he had done, he said, very emphatically—
"These are most certainly, Sir Sydney, the jewels your mother possessed. I am ready to swear to them in any court in the world. This is most interesting. How did you come to re-gain possession of them?"
"You know Miss Barringham?" Lady Carsland queried.
"The young lady to whom Mr. Meredith is engaged? Of course."
"Two days ago she was here on a visit, and I then found her wearing this brooch," answered her ladyship. "I recognised it immediately, and made some pretext for detaining it. Yesterday we confronted her with the fact that it was one of the stolen jewels, and ultimately she admitted that she had the remainder of the gems at home."
"You amaze me; I never came across a case like this in my life!" Elliston exclaimed. "But how did Miss Barringham contrive to obtain possession of them?"
"That is the most singular part of the business, and the matter upon which we decided to have your advice. Miss Barringham is most reticent upon that point. All she will say is that the jewels were given to her by an old friend; but even under the strongest pressure she absolutely declines to give the man's name. The question now is, what are we to do in the face of her refusal?"
"I am afraid, my dear Lady Carsland, that you and Sir Sydney have treated the girl a trifle too leniently. The fact that she is engaged to Mr. Meredith would prevent you from speaking to and dealing with her as you would have done with a stranger under similar circumstances."
"You are quite mistaken, Mr. Elliston, I can assure you," her ladyship replied. "We did not spare her in any way, but despite all our threats she refused to name the man."
"That makes the affair all the more serious. You do not believe, I suppose, that Miss Barringham was cognisant of the fact that the jewels had been stolen?"
"Certainly not!" Sir Sydney declared emphatically, and Lady Carsland said the same thing, but in a much less positive manner.
"If you have no objection. I will call upon Miss Barringham. I fancy that I shall be able to get the name of her friend from her. She will be frightened when she learns that you have placed the matter in my hands."
"I hope she will be, but in case she refuses to give you his name, what then?"
"That is for you and Sir Sydney to decide," he said, gravely. "To put the matter in the hands of the police will be to risk raking up all the past."
"And I do not desire that!" Sir Sydney broke in quickly.
"Nor I," Lady Carsland added, "but it is quite possible that it will not be necessary to go to such a length. Mr. Elliston may be able to succeed with Miss Barringham where we failed, and——"
A tap at the boudoir door arrested Lady Carsland's tongue; Sir Sydney called out "Come in," the next moment a servant stood in the open doorway, and was saying that the vicar was below, and desired to see his master and mistress at once.
"Tell Mr. Mallison to come here," her ladyship said. The girl disappeared, and she added, "I am glad the vicar has called, for he ought to know at once all about this unpleasant matter. Don't you think so?"
But the baronet and the lawyer signified their agreement with Lady Carsland, and presently the Rev. Matthew Mallison was ushered into the apartment, looking very much upset about something. His pale face and nervous manner caused Sir Sydney to remark,
"What is the matter, Mr. Mallison?"
"Miss Barringham has disappeared!"
Nelson-road is a quiet little street which runs off one of the principal thoroughfares in the East End of London. The houses in it are sombre-looking three-storey buildings whose fronts are stained black with the smoke, dust, and grime of several generations. Originally they had been dwellings with some pretensions to comfort and gentility, for these had been the habitations of city men and small merchants who were "tidily off," but still not wealthy enough to rent or build smart villas of their own in the more fashionable quarters of the great metropolis. Now they had fallen in the social scale, and were tenanted by working people of the more respectable kind—the foremen of small works, mercantile clerks whose wages were under the "century," spinster ladies of small means, and the widows and daughters of bankrupt traders who had "Furnished apartments to let."
In this street, at No. 25, the White Gipsy was staying, she having engaged a room which chanced to be vacant, and had settled down in that obscure corner of London until such times as a change of quarters would be necessary.
There was something singular about the circumstances which had caused Salome to drift to Nelson-road.
During the latter portion of the long journey from Lancashire to the metropolis the girl had for fellow travellers a pair of somewhat flashily dressed and exceedingly sprightly young damsels, whose conversation at all times was of music halls, music hall "artistes," and various other matters pertaining to the "profession."
They were evidently "serio comics," and Salome found herself following their chatter with considerable interest. They had apparently met casually, were journeying then to different towns, and were comparing notes in the free and easy manner of their kind—speaking of the towns and halls they had worked, the people they knew, money they earned, and the "diggings" they had inhabited during their constant flitting to and fro about the country.
At a certain station before London was reached, the music hall artistes had alighted, had said good-bye to each other in the vociferous fashion of those who live the life of the footlights, and at length our heroine was left alone.
She was a little sorry that both of the ladies had departed, and regretted now that she had kept herself aloof from them. Now that she had cast herself upon the world—had wilfully broken away from old friends and old ways, she had made up her mind to take a further plunge and venture upon the "boards."
Had she been less reticent, had she only made friends with her late fellow travellers, from them she might have easily obtained much information which would have been of inestimable value in the career she had resolved to adopt.
While lolling in her seat and thinking with regret of the opportunity she had permitted to slip through her fingers, Salome's eyes fell upon a slip of white cardboard lying on the opposite seat. Instantly she rose, leaned forward, lifted, and read it. The card ran thus:—
The girl had placed the slip of pasteboard in her purse, and when the capital was at length gained, she had obtained a cab and ordered the driver to take her at once to No. 25, Nelson-road.
Mrs. Pedley had been standing at her door chatting with a neighbour when the vehicle drew up, and when Salome stepped forth on the pavement, richly attired and handsome as a houri, and made inquiries for herself, the old lodging-house keeper was all smiles, and most eager to do all she could for her lovely visitor.
Salome had the hardihood to say that a friend had recommended her to take apartments at Mrs. Pedley's, and the widow had forthwith concluded that Miss Nellie Baring—such was the name our heroine had assumed—was a member of the profession which earned a livelihood in the glare of the footlights.
Mrs. Pedley had only one apartment at liberty, and that was placed at her visitor's service. Miss Nellie Baring engaged the joint bedroom and sitting-room without ever seeing it, at the not over modest rental of seven shillings and sixpence a week, and immediately took possession of the apartment.
After enjoying the meal her landlady had hastily prepared for her—for Salome was half-famished, having tasted no food since leaving Thorrell Moor—the girl had delightfully surprised Mrs. Pedley by insisting upon paying a month's rent in advance, and had tendered in payment one of the notes Sir Sydney Carsland had sent her along with his note of warning.
Mrs. Pedley did not appear over pleased when her lodger tendered a banknote. She had had bank notes given to her before, which had turned out on investigation to be false ones. Still she took the paper without a word, and went to the public-house at the bottom of the street to get it changed. Of course, the paper was found to be all right, and after that the landlady's faith in her new tenant was unbounded.
A few days slipped away and our heroine was now wondering how matters were proceeding at Thorrell Moor. She knew that her flight would satisfy everyone in the village that she was not guiltless in the matter of the stolen jewels; and when she thought of the unpleasant things which would be in the mouths of all who had known her, her blood tingled in her veins, she bit her lips with vexation, and regretted that she had sought refuge from her troubles in flight.
In the reaction which followed the unreasoning fears which had driven her from home, Salome was forced to admit to herself that she had done a most foolish thing in leaving the village at all. Mr. and Miss Mallison would be certain of her guilt, and her lover also, when he heard of the jewels and her disappearance, would conclude that she was in some way connected with those who had possession of the stolen gems.
But it was too late now to think of that. She had taken the path which seemed best to her and could not turn back. Here, at all events, she was safe from the sneers and undisguised animosity of Lady Carsland, and if Paul Meredith really loved her he would seek her out on his return, and then all would be well.
Having made up her mind on these points, Miss Nellie Baring turned her reflections to the future. Many months would elapse ere her sweetheart set foot in England, and the problem which faced her was, how was she to maintain herself in the meantime?
There was no fear of want in the immediate future, for she had still in her keeping over forty-five of the fifty pounds Sir Sydney had enclosed with his note. Besides there was the baronet's assurance that in case she ever required help she had only to make her necessity known in order to be aided by him in the most generous and unstinted fashion.
But there was something humiliating in the thought of receiving support from such a source. She had accepted the baronet's notes only because the money was necessary in order to enable her to reach London, and because she thought some day that she or Paul would be able to repay what she regarded as a temporary loan.
So in face of these matters it was absolutely requisite that she should settle her course of action for the future. That chance meeting with the music hall artistes had turned her thoughts to the stage. She knew that her voice was one of considerable purity and power—the sensation she had created at the Thorrell Moor concert was some evidence of that—and she had shrewdness and common sense enough to know that if she could once get a start on the boards she was not likely to be a failure thereon.
But the great question was how was she to begin? She was a novice in all affairs pertaining to the stage—did not even know personally anyone to whom she could apply for the information and help she desired to obtain.
While matters stood thus Salome noticed that a couple of girls besides herself were lodging in the house. From her window she had watched them sally out each afternoon brightly dressed and attractive, and during the remainder of each day she had heard the girls in the house. They went out with unfailing regularity every evening about half-past six, and returned with a like regularity about midnight—more frequently after twelve than before it.
Occasionally as Salome lay awake in her bed she heard her fellow lodgers come into the house, making the place echo with their loud laughter and merry songs. Sometimes the lasses were not alone, for the equally noisy and merry voices of gentlemen mingled with the thinner notes of the girls.
One morning Salome spoke to Mrs. Pedley about the girls, and her amazement may be imagined when she learned that they were a couple of music-hall artistes who were then appearing nightly in the grand pantomime at Drury Lane.
Salome received that information with a thrill of pleasure. She thanked Mrs. Pedley for the information, and asked for further particulars respecting "Miss Flo Thompson and Miss Violet Stanley," as the pantomime girls dubbed themselves.
The landlady was only too glad to oblige her questioner. She ran on at a considerable length about the vices and virtues of her lodgers, and from what she heard Salome came to the conclusion that her fellow-lodgers were very much like other young people who were rather fond of pleasure, loved life, good living, dress, and the best that they could obtain, but were in other ways little different from, and certainly no worse than a multitude of other lasses in less trying situations.
"Even if the girls did bring young gentlemen home with 'em sometimes they knew how to take care of themselves, they did, and she was not the woman to stop lasses from having their bit of pleasure."
The morning after this conversation Miss Nellie Baring was introduced to Miss Flo Thompson and her companion, Miss Violet Stanley, and the trio had a long chat together, and afterwards partook of tea in company. With the exception of their somewhat free and easy manners and language, the White Gipsy found the girls pleasant enough. Both of them were decidedly good looking, were only a year or two older than herself, and were in receipt of salaries which enabled them to live decently and dress fairly well.
Before she had been acquainted with the artistes twenty-four hours all their past history and future prospects were laid bare. Miss Thompson had been a mill girl in Oldham four years before, when she was seized with stage fever and resolved to take her chance on the boards. At first she began by appearing as a supernumerary at the local theatre, with the extraordinary "screw" of a shilling a night.
After a year or so of that kind of apprenticeship she had obtained an engagement with a touring company of fifth-rate actors and actresses who chanced to visit the town, and with them she travelled for several months playing very minor parts and existing as best she could on the guinea a week which represented her earnings.
But while she knocked about the country with the crowd of mummers who ranted their way through the interminable dialogue and marvellous situations with which "The Gypsy's Vengeance" abounded, Miss Flo Thompson—her real name was Mary Jane Smith—had her wits about her, and was picking up all she could in the way of improvement as an artiste.
She was a decent singer, and had taught herself to dance tolerably, and when the company broke up at the end of the tour through the provincial towns, she quitted the stage and started on her own account as a "serio-comic singer and dancer," beginning her new career in one of the small concert rooms at Preston.
Once started fairly in the music-hall business Flo Thompson had "done middling," so she phrased it. Even in the "free and easies," she could earn more money than was possible on the stage in legitimate business, and being a "decent turn," the music-hall agents had found her plenty of shops. She was now earning, as one of the principal dancers in the ballet, sufficient money to keep her in clover.
The other girl's story was very similar. Miss Violet Stanley—otherwise Susan Wilkinson—had been a shop girl in Liverpool, but tiring of the drudgery had run away from home, got on the boards as a "spectacle figure" in a noted comic opera, and after that had gone to the lower concert halls, and worked her way up as her companion had done.
Such were the stories to which our heroine lent a willing ear. The pair of music-hall artistes had not climbed very high yet, she thought, but they appeared to be happy and contented with their lot. They could keep themselves comfortably, and—in this fact lay the principal charm of their position—they were perfectly free, absolutely mistresses of themselves, and could move about as they listed.
When Salome questioned the light-hearted twain as to their plans for the future, when the pantomime season was over, they told her that they had decided to travel together on the music-hall boards as the "Sisters Lancaster, duettists and dancers."
Salome had noticed one peculiarity which had marked the conversation of the others in respect to herself. They spoke to her freely as one of themselves, using the phraseology in vogue among those who make a livelihood by entertaining others; and that they looked upon her as a "sister pro." was evident. Probably the fact of her being in apartments in a house frequently made use of by "professionals" had something to do with their mistake; anyhow, when Salome explained that she did not belong to the "profession," both Miss Thompson and Miss Stanley expressed considerable amazement and not a little incredulity.
"You are chaffing us, Miss Baring!" Miss Thompson had cried with questioning eyes. "I am certain you are one of us, and that I have seen your name billed somewhere or other."
"So am I!" said the other girl with the same certainty of utterance. "Why I am almost ready to swear that I saw you announced to appear. In Sheffield—I believe it was—when I was there last summer."
"You are both mistaken," Salome replied pleasantly, "for I never was on the stage in my life. The only attempt I ever made in that direction was at a school concert at a little village in Lancashire."
"You come from Lancashire, then, Miss Baring?" the other asked in a breath.
She nodded, and the artistes expressed their pleasure again, saying that the next best thing to being back in dear old Lancashire was to meet with a native of their own loved shire.
"But, really, Miss Baring." Flo Thompson resumed, "do you not belong to either the stage or the music-halls?"
"I belong to neither, Miss Thompson, but I am thinking of joining the profession, as you term it, provided it can be done."
"Oh, that's easy enough," Violet Stanley broke in, with a merry laugh, "provided that you possess either money, beauty, or ability."
"And Miss Baring does possess one of the three things you mention, Violet, as every one with eyes can see."
"Which of them?" Miss Baring said, smiling.
"Beauty, of course! Why, with your face and figure, my dear, you would get a shop anywhere. They would fetch thirty bob a week in any panto, or comic opera, and if you will go to the theatre with us some evening I'll introduce you to old Bradbourne, and ten to one he'll offer you something right off the reel."
"But I should not care to take part in a pantomime, I think," Salome said, with a grave countenance.
"Because," cried Flo, with a burst of laughter, "you cannot tolerate the idea of posturing to a multitude in fleshlings!"
There was a general laugh at this sally, and when the merriment subsided Miss Stanley remarked:
"I can quite understand her scruples, and respect them, too. But, supposing you have made up your mind to enter the profession, Miss Baring, what line are you thinking of taking up? Can you act, dance, or sing?"
"I can sing a little—that is all," was Salome's half-disheartened reply.
"Then the music-hall is your fate!" exclaimed Flo, with serio-comical face, voice, and gesture. "But, cheer up, for heaven's sake, or you will make us believe that you have not got pluck enough for anything. If you have made up your mind to have a try at the business, there is no difficulty in the way that you need fear."
Salome thanked her with a grateful look, and asked:
"But how am I to set about it?"
"Oh, that's all right. I suppose you have a bit of money?"
"Plenty—at least over forty pounds."
"Quite a little fortune, and more than you will require, I should think. Here is the Era. Glance over it and you will find that quite a host of good-natured ladies and gentlemen are quite eager to prepare aspirants for the stage, halls, or concert room, provided they can plank down the necessary lucre for their lessons."
"And quite a crowd of them are willing to fleece every unwary girl they meet," Miss Stanley interposed. "They will take your money, probably insult you, and at the end you will be taught next to nothing."
"But we will see that she doesn't fall into the hands of thieves," Flo added, with a decided shake of her curly yellow head. "Our agent, George Liddcott, will know who's who, and will see that you have a fair chance given you of picking up what you need."
"What do you mean by your agent?" Salome asked, simply.
"I mean the gentleman who looks after our engagements at the different music-halls. Mr. Liddcott is known probably to half the music-hall proprietors in the kingdom, and he can get one an engagement where an artist would seek in vain, unless he or she happened to be a star. Of course, we have to pay him for his trouble, but that's nothing so long as he keeps you in collar; and, besides, it saves one no end of trouble in writing."
"I think I understand you," the White Gipsy made answer, faintly.
She was beginning to fear that she had very seriously underestimated the difficulties which lay in the path of one who aspired to figure on the boards.
"Oh, you'll soon pick up a lot, never fear, Miss Baring; and with your remarkable beauty—well, you know now that you are really uncommonly handsome"—this was the answer to Salome's gesture of disapproval—"you will soon become a big star with a great salary if you only possess a decent voice and know how to work the oracle."
"What do you mean by that!"
"I mean to take care of yourself and miss none of the opportunities which will be thrown in your way. If you succeed, as I dearly hope you may, there is no telling what you may not become with that wonderful face of yours. Now don't be vexed, dear, but the swells will simply go mad after you; will send you all sorts of presents; will make you all sorts of offers—some of them scandalous enough—still, if you are as good and as shrewd as I think you are, you will come out of all temptations all right."
"Don't bother Miss Baring with such rubbishy talk, Flo!" the other girl broke in. "No doubt Miss Baring knows how to take care of herself. The best thing we can do for her at present is to put her in the way of learning things—of making herself acquainted with what she ought to know and will have to learn."
"Just so, Vi. What would you suggest?" said Miss Thompson.
"That she goes with us to the theatre this evening, and then she will be able to judge for herself as to what life really is behind the scenes."
"Just the thing if Miss Baring will go."
"Of course, she will—won't you dear?"
"I do not mind, if it will be right, and I shall not be in the way. I should like very much to have a peep behind the scenes," Salome replied, eagerly.
"Oh, it will be quite right—we can put you in our dressing-room if there is anybody there, and perhaps Mr. Liddcott may turn up during the show. If he does we can see what he says about Miss Baring."
"So we can," Flo replied, and so it was arranged.
Several hours later the White Gipsy had her first sight of a great theatre from the point of view of a performer. When the trio of young women reached the stage quite a crowd of players, ballet girls, supers, and others were crowding along the passages towards the dressing rooms. Before they sought the small den set apart for their use, the girls and Salome had a peep at the large tomb-like house which was still almost empty and shrouded in semi-darkness. A slight shiver passed through our heroine as her vision wandered round the great black vault in front of the stage, and she fancied herself standing there about to sing with the footlights blazing full upon her and the eyes of a multitude of people watching her with a rapt, devouring gaze.
Then they hurried along the corridors and up the stairs until the small room set apart for the two artistes was gained. Flo told Salome to make herself at home, pointing out a big box in a corner for her to seat herself upon, and seating herself as suggested, the White Gipsy glanced about her.
There was no furniture in the place save an old chair; on the walls, over the long bench-like table which ran along one side of the apartment, were a couple of mirrors; and the table itself was completely littered with all sorts of odds and ends—rouge pots, powder, puffs, and pigments; empty chocolate boxes, fragments of cigarettes, a hare's foot, articles of Brummagem jewellery, &c., &c.; while suspended from hooks on the wall facing the cracked looking glasses were the gaudy dresses and bright-coloured silk tights which Flo and Violet were to don during different parts of the pantomime.
The dressing-room, wherein Salome was seated, was surrounded on all hands by other rooms devoted to like purposes, and the latter were filled with ballet girls, supernumeraries, artistes, whose vociferous cries—some of them merry and thoughtless, others petulant and angry, rang out without intermission. All were busy getting ready for the front scene, and the girls were shouting to one another from room to room every sort of statement and interrogation. One damsel had lost a shoe, another's comb and brush were missing, others had got somebody's else's garment, and the lot of them were not only crying out their complaints, but were actually running about the corridor and adjoining rooms in quest of the missing articles.
Presently the babel subsided a little, and when the first call came Flo and Violet were ready to dart downstairs and join the throng on the stage ere the curtain went up.
There is no occasion to dwell further on Salome's first visit behind the scenes. Only once did she venture to the "wings" to watch the show at the earnest solicitation of her two friends. As she stood there the eyes of all the crowd of men and women waiting to take their turn were bent upon her, and she could hear the artistes asking each other who she was.
There was small occasion to wonder at the curiosity she aroused standing quietly there amidst the painted throng with her superbly lovely face, which was set off to the utmost advantage by the large hat and great coat of sealskin.
When the scene ended and her friends came off the stage, she was fain to hurry away with them back to the dressing-room, from which she did not venture again until the pantomime was finished, and the trio made their way homewards.
There was quite a small crowd of young swells hanging about the stage door, and a couple of them stepped forward out of the dark and spoke to the artistes, addressing them familiarly by their names, as if they were old friends. But Flo soon got rid of their admirers, and as they trudged quickly homeward, she said to Salome,
"Well, Miss Baring, what do you think of your first night behind the scenes? Not much, I dare say," she added.
"Oh, I dare say it is right enough when one gets used to it. But I must say, although I am far from being a prude, and I think a lot of the girls do not err on the side of modesty."
"Modesty!" Flo exclaimed with some scorn. "How can you expect modesty for ten, a dozen, and twenty shillings a week. But," altering her voice and manner, "I wonder how it was that our agent, Mr. Liddcott, did not turn up to-night, and just when we wanted him too?"
"It is funny," Violet joined in, "for he has scarcely missed a night since the show began to run. I am sorry he wasn't there, for Miss Baring's sake."
"I daresay he was busy elsewhere," Salome responded, "and I shall have many opportunities of seeing him."
"Of course you will," said Flo. "But if you don't want to lose any time, we can all run over in a cab to Liddcott's office. What do you say?"
"That would suit me nicely," was Salome's ready answer. "Besides, now that I am here, I should like to see something of London, for, although I have been here many a day, I have scarcely been out of the house."
"Then, in that case, we'll shew you some of the sights of the town to-morrow—combine business with pleasure, you know. Have a regular spree, Nell, just by our three selves!"
Nearly three months had passed away since the White Gipsy had vanished so suddenly from Thorrell Moor, and the talk and wonder her disappearance had called forth had entirely subsided now.
Occasionally Salome's name was still mentioned within the walls of the Vicarage, where, for a brief period she had found such a pleasant, even happy home. Both the Vicar and his sister uttered the girl's name in a tone which implied respect, for they had all along refrained from joining in the chorus of condemnation raised against the missing lass by Lady Carsland and others. Although the ex-pit-brow girl had resided with the Mallisons for a few days only, she had won her way to their confidence and esteem, and when she vanished, and her flight was shewn to be due to the fact that Sir Sydney Carsland's stolen jewels had been found in her possession, their surprise and sorrow may be imagined.
Had it been possible to defend Salome they would have done so willingly, eagerly; but in face of her running away their mouths were closed. "If she is not guilty why has she fled?" people said, and neither the kindly hearted parson nor his tender natured sister could tender a satisfactory answer to that ugly question. Still they refused to believe in her guilt, and told each other that there was a mistake somewhere—that Salome's hands were clean so far as the jewels were concerned, and that the whole truth would come out before very long.
At Carsland Hall the name of the White Gipsy was never uttered between the baronet and his wife. So elated had her ladyship been with the success of the scheme she had concocted to drive Salome Barringham from the neighbourhood, that she openly levelled all sorts of charges and accusations against her.
She told her friends that there could be no doubt as to Miss Barringham's guilt. She must have known that the jewels were stolen, and in all probability was perfectly well acquainted with the whole of the mysterious history of the gems since the time they were taken.
But her ladyship was not satisfied with accusing Salome of being an accessory after the fact, but hinted in the broadest way that there was not even one redeeming feature about the girl. She insinuated that the White Gipsy was no better than a common adventuress who had inveigled Sir Sydney's ward into an engagement out of which he was desirous at all costs to escape, and in support of this statement she pointed out that Paul Meredith had gone away to South America, and was not expected back for a long time.
This virulent gossip had the effect Lady Carsland intended it should have. Respectable people shook their heads gravely when Salome's name was mentioned in their presence, and even the poor folks among whom the White Gipsy had lived and laboured were compelled to think that she was a "very bad lot" indeed, seeing that everyone thought and said so.
It had cost Sir Sydney Carsland much annoyance and positive pain to listen mutely to the tirades his wife was never tired of launching out at Salome? In the presence of others his mouth was sealed, but when he and Adelaide were alone he remonstrated with her and said that it was worse than cruel, after driving the girl away, to cast mud and stones at one who was in all likelihood quite innocent.
That remark had brought a sharp retort from her ladyship; he had reiterated his observation, hot words had ensued from both and thus it had come about that the White Gipsy's name was never spoken by either man or wife in the other's hearing.
Seven weeks after Salome left Thorrell Moor a letter addressed to her had reached the vicarage, and as the envelope bore an American stamp and post mark the Mallisons could only come to the conclusion that the writer thereof was Paul Meredith.
At first the vicar and his sister did not know what course to take with regard to the missive; but after the lapse of a couple of days they decided to open it. They argued that the enclosure might contain the young traveller's address, and in that case they decided that they would write to him and let him know what had happened since he went away.
But on opening the communication they met with a disappointment. The missive was such a one as a fond lover might be expected to pen to the absent sweetheart to whom he was passionately attached. Every sentence of the long letter overflowed with love, and the eyes of Margaret Mallison were dim with moisture when she had mastered its contents.
The epistle went on to say that the writer and his companions had reached their destination in safety after a delightful voyage. He and they were, at the time of writing, located at Para, at the mouth of the Amazons, and they intended next day to make the journey up the mighty stream so well described by Bates. Paul promised to write again before the beaten track of civilisation was left behind entirely, but he did not, of course, say how a letter was to find him in case Salome desired to write. He was in fact going beyond the world of the postman, and did not dream that anything had gone wrong with the one he loved at Thorrell Moor.
The result of the counsel the Mallisons took of each other after reading Paul's letter was that the vicar paid a hurried visit to Carsland Hall, to shew Sir Sydney and Lady Carsland the letter intended for Salome.
He found them both at home, and was not surprised to learn that Paul had written a brief note to his guardian, announcing the arrival of himself and his friends at Para, and of their projected journey the following day.
During the brief conversation that ensued, the baronet said they could do nothing but let matters go their own course. To write to Paul would be useless, as no letter could possibly overtake him, for before any communication could reach Para the party of travellers would be somewhere in that huge wilderness which forms the interior of the Brazilian Empire.
The vicar was already aware of that, and he said so, and thus matters stood when one morning, some two months later, another letter reached Carsland Hall. This epistle was addressed to Sir Sydney, and, as the baronet and his family were then residing in London—Parliament having reassembled—the letter was forwarded to him.
Sir Sydney, his wife, and daughter were at lunch in their almost princely mansion in Park-lane, when the letter from his ward was brought in by the well-trained servitor. He glanced at the outer envelope with an indifferent eye, for he saw that it came from Thorrell Moor; but his interest quickened somewhat when he came upon the enclosure with the foreign-looking stamp, and his ward's handwriting upon it.
On tearing the second cover, he discovered the following:—
"My dear Sir Sydney,
"You will be astonished to hear that our trip is at an end, and that I am coming back home almost at once. The reason is sad enough. A week ago two of our party—poor Ernest Vivian and Francis Warrington—caught the fever so prevalent at certain seasons here, and I regret to say that dear old Vivian has succumbed to the disease. We buried him to-day, and the rest of us have made up our minds to go no further, but return at once—that is, as soon as Warrington is well enough to undertake the journey down the Amazon.
"You will understand that we are awfully upset by the poor fellow's death; and you will, therefore, excuse me for not writing you at greater length. But I thought it would be as well to let you know that I shall be back with you in a couple of months at the outside.
"I may add that I am not writing to either Salome or the Mallisons, and I shall be much obliged if you will not tell either of the three of my expected return. I want to give them all a great surprise, you know. Personally, I am in excellent health, and hope that you, Lady Carsland, and Cordelia, are as fortunate,
Sir Sydney's face had assumed a serious aspect by the time he had finished reading the letter. As he quietly folded it and was placing it in his pocket, his wife turned her quick eyes upon him and his grave countenance caused her to say,
"What is it, Sydney? Nothing serious, I hope, dear."
"It is a letter from Paul," he answered, with the cloud still on his countenance.
"Is that all—there is nothing wrong with him?"
"Nothing; but he is coming back. You had better read the note?"
As Lady Carsland took the sheet of paper from her husband, their daughter rose, and, making some excuse, left the room. Lunch was over, and Cordelia was quick enough indeed to see that her absence would be a relief to her parents at that moment.
"This is nothing!" her ladyship exclaimed, two minutes later. "I am glad he is coming home again so soon."
"Because I am satisfied that Paul repents already of his engagement, and when he discovers that the girl was a thief——"
"She was no thief!" he said sternly.
"The accomplice, then."
"Not even that."
"Well, at all events, she fled rather than face the storm she had raised about her ears."
"You mean the storm you contrived to raise!"
"You are defending that girl again."
"I am only correcting your mistakes."
"Indeed. Well, she is gone, and Paul Meredith will not—cannot marry a woman with such a stained reputation."
"Paul is very singular, and there is no telling what he may not do!" he cried, a trifle sharply.
"I will manage that."
"You had better. I do not relish the idea of standing face to face with Paul Meredith when he learns that we drove Salome Barringham from the home in which he had placed her. It was a mean—a cowardly thing to do, and I am infernally sorry that I ever lent myself to it!"
"It is too late now to say that."
"It is never too late to express regret for having done a cruel and dishonourable act," he said bitterly, as he strode towards the door.
It was a beautiful morning in midsummer about an hour before noon. In the fields about Thorrell Moor the villagers were hard at work getting in the hay; through the green leafy depths of Cale Wood the sun shot long beams of warm yellow light; among the umbrageous timber, flowering bushes and rank grasses, birds flitted and piped; in the hamlet the bare-armed women were gossiping on the shady side of the street, near the grocery stores; while the great chimneys at the Carsland Collieries were shooting forth great pillars of smoke, which rose in a straight line sky-ward, for there was not a breath of a breeze abroad.
Along the high-road which leads from the small station to the village a man came walking. He was brown-faced and handsome, and he swung along the dusty road at an easy pace, as if he were enjoying the dust and glare and felt at peace with all the world.
As he sauntered past the group of village dames he threw them a smile and a cheery, "good morning, ladies," and when he was a dozen yards away one of the women cried suddenly, as if she had made a discovery—
"Ah'll tell yo' wot, wimmen, that theer y'ung chap is 'im wot used to live at th' Ha' wi' Sir Sydney. Ah can tell him in spite o' his whiskers."
"Dost meeun that theer rich fellay as was gooin' to wed th' White Gipsy?"
"Ay, 'im an' nobuddy else. He went away yo' a' know, an' ah'll bet a shillin' that he's heerd nuthin' abeawt wot the wench did, an' that hoo hes run away."
"That's it, Peggy, sure enough for sithee he's tekkin' through the vicarage gate!"
The women watched Paul Meredith's figure until it vanished from their view, and then they entered with new zest upon the fresh topic of gossip which the young fellow's unexpected re-appearance in the village had supplied them with. Some of the women were of the opinion that Sir Sydney's ward would now go back to his old fancy and finish up by marrying Cordelia Carsland; but there were others of a more romantic nature who vowed that Paul would follow the White Gipsy, discover her, bring her back, prove her innocent of everything that had been said against her, and wind up the romance by making her his wife.
Quite unconscious of the deep interest the gossips were taking in his affairs, and utterly oblivious of the startling intelligence in store for himself at the hands of the parson, and the reverend gentleman's sister, Paul Meredith sauntered along the avenue, casting his eyes hither and thither, as if he were either renewing his acquaintance with the spot, or was on the outlook for someone.
The young fellow's heart was throbbing with a gladness he had never experienced before bidding Salome farewell. Deeply as he had loved her then his affection had not passed into the state of adoration, which marked it at this moment. A few months absence from her side had intensified and strengthened his love for the lovely lass, and as he swung along the red drive, which was barred at every stride by rays of sunlight and patches of shadow, he cut at the grass with his stick, tugged at his light beard with his left hand, but thought of scarcely anything save the holy pleasure of meeting his sweetheart once more.
Presently, as Paul went towards the house, his keen eyes caught sight of the vicar, who was seated on the big rustic seat under the wide-spreading elm on the edge of the lawn. Mr. Mallison was busy with the morning paper, and he never noticed Meredith's approach until Paul cried pleasantly—
"Good morning, Mr. Mallison. How are you? A magnificent morning, isn't it?"
"God bless me, is it you?" the vicar exclaimed, as he dropped the newspaper and stared at the other through his glasses. "When did you come back?"
"This morning only," Paul said, laughingly, as he held out his hand. The other took it quietly, and the young man added, "I thought I would not write, but would give you all a pleasant surprise. Of course, I wrote to Sir Sydney. Surely you are glad to see me, Mr. Mallison?" Paul questioned, for he thought the vicar's attitude towards him a little singular. "I know I have turned up before the stipulated time, but, under the circumstances, I am justified, as I think you will admit, when you hear all."
"You will pardon me, Mr. Meredith," the clergyman said, apologetically, "if my manner seemed strange. But I was not thinking of that at all. Have you seen the Carslands?"
"No, I came straight on here because I supposed they would be in London."
"They are. But have you not even been to the Hall?"
"No. I have walked from the station right on here. But where is Salome? Out I daresay somewhere. How is she getting along with her studies? All right, I know, for she is wonderfully intelligent. Give me an hour of her company, Mr. Mallison, and after that I will run away again for a year."
Thus the light-hearted, happy lover ran on, and the parson did not attempt to stop him. He had realised that Paul knew nothing as to Salome's disappearance, and he was wondering in what way he should break the news.
"Have you heard nothing, Paul?" Mallison asked sympathetically, as he laid his lean white hand on the lad's shoulder.
"Heard nothing! What do you mean?" Meredith cried, with questioning eyes. "About Salome do you mean? What is wrong? Tell me! I can see there's something amiss."
"She has gone away."
"Gone away—when? Where? What for?"
Paul's face had suddenly blanched as he blurted forth these terse and pregnant inquiries, and the elder man answered.
"Sit down—calm yourself, my lad, and I will relate the whole of the miserable business so far as I know and understand it."
The muscles of Paul Meredith's mouth set themselves rigidly as he sank upon the wooden bench encircling the elm and prepared to listen to what his companion had to state.
"Shortly after you went away," the minister began, "a small parcel came to the Vicarage addressed to Miss Barringham. It appears the parcel contained quite a collection of most valuable jewellery, some of which Salome wore occasionally. I and Margaret thought, of course, that the gems were a gift of yours, but it appears now that they were the proceeds of a robbery perpetrated on Sir Sydney Carsland many years ago."
"And Sir Sydney recognised the trinkets Salome wore?" Paul broke in.
"No; it was Lady Carsland who did so, and subsequently it came out that the whole of the jewels in Miss Barringham's possession—which were worth many thousands of pounds—were the identical jewels of which the baronet was robbed."
"I think I understand!" Paul said, lowly, but with a meaning in the words the other did not miss. "And this frightened her away?"
"I suppose so. She refused absolutely to reveal where the jewellery came from, and I believe Lady Carsland threatened to prosecute her unless she told. She gave up all the jewels at once, but refused in the most emphatic way to give the name of the man who presented them to her. To avoid prosecution she fled."
"Where did Salome go?"
"I cannot tell you—I knew nothing of all this till she disappeared. When she was missing one morning I went to the Hall and heard the whole story from the Carslands."
"You have never heard of Salome since?"
"Never, although I took it upon myself to advertise in the papers for her."
"Have you any idea where she would go?"
"Do you know of any friends Salome possessed in any part of the country?"
"Not a single one except those she used to live with at Marsh Green."
"Do you think they know where she is?"
"I do not think so. I have been to Mrs. Hill's several times and it is not likely that she would be so greatly distressed if she knew where Miss Barringham was."
"You are not going."
"Yes; I must go. I will never rest until I have got to the bottom of this. God knows," the young man cried solemnly, "that Salome is innocent and I mean to prove it before I have done!"
"But you will stay to lunch?"
"I cannot. I must go. First of all I will call on Salome's old landlady, and if she can tell me nothing I shall go and see the Carslands in London; they are there, I suppose?"
"Then I shall go there and demand the whole truth from them. They never cared for Salome; they did all they could to turn me against her, and I am satisfied that they drove her away and covered her name with shame to prevent me from marrying her!"
"I firmly believe that she was innocent," Mr. Mallison said. "She could not have known where the jewels came from or she would not have accepted them."
"Of that I feel certain!" Paul cried. "If I could only find Salome, I would snap my fingers at everything else. And I will find her, never fear."
"I hope you may, Meredith," was the parson's fervent response; "and when you discover anything you will let me know. Good afternoon, if you will not stay."
Paul wrung the vicar's hand, and then went slowly back along the avenue, his serious countenance bearing striking evidence as to the change that had come over his dreams in the space of the last half hour.
It was Saturday evening, and Sir Sydney Carsland and his wife were entertaining a party at their home in Park Lane. The baronet was lounging in a corner of his extensive and sumptuously-furnished drawing-rooms, talking politics with an hon. member who sat on the contrary side of the House to himself, when an obsequious lackey entered and tendered a note.
"Who sent this?" Sir Sydney asked.
"Mr. Meredith, Sir Sydney."
"Tell him I will be with him shortly—take him to my private room, Benson," Carsland said, quietly. His first impulse on hearing his ward's name had been to jump to his feet and emit a cry of astonishment, but he had suppressed his emotion and was now on the surface as cool as the proverbial cucumber.
Five minutes later guardian and ward met in a little, snug apartment, far away from the merry guests. Sir Sydney was attired in a faultless evening costume, while Paul was dressed in the light suit of tweed and grey dust-coat he had been wearing all day. The younger man seemed tired, even ill, was travel stained also, and there was a look about him his guardian did not like.
"What, a surprise this is, Paul!" Sir Sydney exclaimed, holding out a hand which his ward preferred not to see, "I am simply astonished to see you here. How is it you did not send me word the moment you arrived in England?"
"I forgot to write to you," Paul answered boldly, "because I was so eager to get back to Thorrell; and when I got there you know what I found. Will you tell me the whole truth respecting those jewels that were found in Salome's possession?"
"I can only tell you that the jewels were those which were stolen from me, and that Miss Barringham could not or would not say plainly how they came into her hands."
"And you threatened to prosecute her knowing that she was to be my future wife?"
"I did not threaten her—nay, more, Paul, I never even believed her guilty," cried the baronet, warmly.
"Then why did you drive her away?"
"I did not do so."
"Who did?—I will know."
"Her ladyship did not look so leniently upon the matter as I was inclined to do, Paul. I was satisfied to recover the jewels, but she insisted upon knowing the name of the man who presented them to her."
"And you permitted her ladyship to threaten Salome with all sorts of pains and penalties, although you believed her innocent?"
"I remonstrated with her without avail, Paul. I assure you. Of course, no proceedings would have been taken."
"But Salome did not know that, and you drove her away. Lady Carsland——"
He paused suddenly, for the door had opened, and her ladyship was standing in the apartment.
"What of me, Mr. Meredith?" she asked coolly as she walked forward.
"I think you were unnecessarily cruel and arbitrary in your dealings with Miss Barringham," he said, sharply. "For my sake, if not for her own, you might have spared her all the shame and pain your charges and bitterness caused the woman I love and mean to marry in spite of everything."
"I was not bitter—I was only just," she replied, "and if I erred it was to save you from one whose character had been impeached. Would she have taken to flight had she not been guilty?"
"I cannot answer that, your ladyship, but she will when I find her—and I shall find her some day. Before I go I will say again in the most emphatic way that I consider that both of you have treated Salome disgracefully. I will now bid you good evening."
"Stay, Paul!" Sir Sydney cried. "Why are you going away? You will stay here, of course."
"Stay here!" the young man exclaimed, with a beat and a scornfulness he had never before displayed in their presence, "when she, to whom I solemnly pledged myself, body and soul, is cast out, and I know not what has become of her. No! I am going to find her if I can, and I may also discover something else. Good evening, Sir Sydney. Good evening. Lady Carsland."
Without another word he strode quickly from the place.
The Babylonian Theatre of Varieties is probably the most magnificent place of entertainment of its kind, to be found not only in the kingdom, but in the world. Outside it forms one of the most commanding blocks in London, while the interior is furnished in a manner simply regal.
"Speciality artistes" from all quarters of the earth are gathered together here regardless of expense. The management cater for the public with a lavish hand. For anything in the way of a show which is exceedingly curious or wonderfully smart money is poured out like water, and hence the Babylonian had come to be known and justly, too, as the chiefest of all temples devoted to the variety business.
There might be seen nightly the kings of comic song, the empresses of burlesque, queens of the dance, great ventriloquists, wonderful magicians, famous acrobats, the most fearless of trapeze artistes, the funniest of comedians, and the prettiest, cleverest, most frail and vicious of all the female sex.
The Babylonian Theatre was, in a sense, the mecca of the music-hall world. Upon its stage the eyes of all music hall aspirants were fixed with a feverish longing gaze, and they who had not had the happiness of offering their devotions on its boards were praying for the chance of being permitted to make a pilgrimage thither.
But only stars of the first magnitude were permitted to shine behind the footlights of the Babylonian. An artiste must have an established reputation who obtained an engagement there, and to make a decided hit at that theatre of varieties was more profitable than to write a successful book, for some of the principal entertainers were paid the salary of a cabinet minister.
On one particular evening in August, the Babylonian was crowded to the utmost of its exceedingly great seating capacity, every available place in dress circle, stalls, pit and gallery, being occupied, while scores of people were standing at the sides and back of the house.
In the circle and stalls a throng of swells of all ages were lounging, many of them attired in evening dress, and not a few having as companions fair faced, loud mannered, and flashily habited members of the demi-monde such as are common in all great centres of civilisation.
All eyes were turned towards the stage, upon which a splendidly limbed creature with an evilly beautiful face was posturing and pattering to the evident relish of the soft-headed and flame-hearted swells, most of whom were whispering to each other strange stories respecting the magnificent sinner's powers of fascination, her extravagance, cruelty and viciousness.
There was a tremendous round of applause as "The charming Linda Beauchamp" bounced smilingly from the stage; which was renewed after an interval of a few seconds, when "Rowley, the Lancashire Lad," sauntered jauntily from the wings to the footlights.
For a dozen minutes or so the audience were kept in thrall by the quips, gestures, facial play, and humorous flashes of the famous comedian. The costers and cockneys in the cheaper portions of the theatre followed the vernacular patter and rhymes of the vocalist as easily as if they had been born and bred in the City of Cotton, instead of within the sound of the Bells of Bow; and even the fine gentlemen and damsels in the dress circle and stalls appeared to enjoy the witticisms couched in the Lancastrian dialect which the artist flung about.
The famous comedian "did his turn," receiving a "fair show of hands" in reward, and then the number in front of the proscenium was changed to five, which in the programme was opposite the name of "Miss Nellie Baring, the New Star Ballad Vocalist."
There was a thin ripple of applause and a general murmur of admiration as Salome Barringham—for it was no one else—came quietly forward and took up a position in the centre of the great stage. She was perfectly self-possessed, although her face was as pale as the bunch of white flowers at her breast; and the well-cut attire of dark grey silk set off her finely-moulded figure and incomparably lovely features to the greatest advantage.
Her appearance had given rise to quite a spirited conversation, which was carried on in an undertone by the tenants of the circle and stalls.
"By Jove, what a beauty!" one gay swell whispered to his friend. "Simply superb, I think, eh? 'Pon my soul, I never saw a more fascinating creature."
"Yes, her face is perfection itself. Wonder who she is and where she hails from, my boy. Should like to stand her a champagne supper or take her to her diggings in a cab, old man."
"They say she is a really fine singer. Been working the small halls, you know. Her first appearance here, they tell me."
"The papers have been cracking her up. Did you see the notice she got in The Era last week? I don't think there is much in her. These people can get any sort of a critique, you know, provided they are prepared to plank down the coin."
Quite unconscious of the criticism to which she was being subjected in every part of the Babylonian, Salome commenced to sing. The songs she affected were old familiar ballads such as never go out of fashion, and which have been sung for generations by small and great singers. It was her first appearance on those boards, and she knew how much depended on her initial effort. If she failed she would drop back to the small music halls, wherein she had toiled so arduously during the past few months, but if she succeeded there was no saying how high she might climb.
But the result was never in doubt after the first word left her lips, and ere she concluded she had filled the great theatre with such a soft, deep, thrilling flood of vocal music that the regular habitues of the Babylonian were startled from their critical composure and compelled to give her a perfect ovation.
She was equally successful in her other songs, and when she made her final bow for the night to the audience, and was making her way through the knot of people who stood at the wings, the manager of the Babylonian, with a couple of friends at his heels, came smilingly towards her.
"You have fetched them, and no mistake, Miss Baring!" the manager cried, warmly. "I never expected you to make such a decided hit. I am awfully pleased with your success to-night, and here are a couple of my friends who wish to pour their congratulations into your ears. Will you permit me to introduce them to you? Lord Dallesborough, Miss Baring, and this is Mr. Lloyd Craven, the well-known musical critic of The Thespian."
The gentlemen bowed and looked very pleasant, and Salome, elated with her recent success, was very amiably inclined. Therefore she proferred her hand to each of the gentlemen, who shook it warmly.
"I could not deny myself the great pleasure, Miss Baring," the literary man said earnestly, "of intruding upon you, for I wanted to be one of the first to congratulate you on the great success you have made. I have some slight influence in the musical world, as you may know, and next Friday I shall not forget to tell the public that a new singer has arisen."
"I am so glad, Mr. Craven," the radiant girl answered, "that you think I can sing a little."
"You can sing, and not a little, which is more than I can honestly say of many so called 'star' vocalists who figure frequently on these boards. But, if you will permit me to say so, I think you have made a mistake in electing the music halls for the field of your labours. Nothing short of opera—grand opera—is worthy of your voice."
"My dear boy," exclaimed the manager jestingly to Lloyd Craven, "don't flatter Miss Baring too much just yet, for my sake. If you go on in this key she will want me to double her salary at the end of the week."
They all laughed at this sally, and for a few moments longer stood there chatting. Then Salome made some excuse and went to her dressing room to change her attire before going home.
"How long is Miss Baring engaged here, Millington?" the critic asked.
"Six nights only," was the manager's reply. "I wanted to see what she was like you know, but am sorry now I didn't make it a fortnight, or even a month."
"What's Miss Baring's screw—if the question is a fair one?"
"Oh, I don't mind telling you and Lord Dallesborough, but, of course, it needn't go any further. I am giving Miss Baring"—here he lowered his voice to a whisper—"ten quid a week."
"Then I would strongly advise you—if she is open to accept your offer—to make it double or even treble that amount, and let the engagement be for three months. Before the week is out she will be the talk of the town, and all the managers in London will be after her with big offers. You have a real chance now Millington of securing a big thing and a real star."
"It's singular, Craven," the manager said with a broad grin, "that we should both have been thinking of the same thing. Before Miss Baring left the stage I had already made up my mind to keep her in my hands as long as possible, even if I had to offer her her own terms."
"Those are my sentiments, Millington," his lordship broke in. "I also shouldn't mind taking Miss Baring on her own terms."
"Short of making her the countess," Lloyd Craven said, sharply. "But you need not bother yourself, my dear Dallesborough, for this lady is not one of that kind."
"I never dreamt that she was, Craven," the young aristocrat replied, earnestly; "nor did I mean what you think. I was thinking seriously, old man, that I might do worse than marry Miss Baring, although she is but a music-hall artiste."
"And I am thinking that Miss Baring might do better than marry you, although you happen to be an earl, my dear boy!" the littérateur retorted cynically.
"Oh, chuck that Craven, and talk sense," his lordship said, somewhat irritably.
"I always talk to you like a father, don't I?"
"But you know that I am all right, and if I care for the girl, why shouldn't I do as I like? A title and a decent income are not to be sneezed at by anyone."
"But a rake—even a good-looking and decent young rake like you, Dallesborough—is not fit to mate with a superbly beautiful girl who sings like an angel, and is, doubtless, as pure as one, too. There, no more nonsense; come along, and let's have a bit of supper at the club. Ta-ta, Millington; perhaps you will look in at the Garrick when the show is over."
With that the grey-moustached critic and his aristocratic companion sauntered away, going out by the stage door.
A month had slipped away since that memorable evening on which Salome had made her first appearance on the boards of the Babylonian Theatre of Varieties.
"Miss Nellie Baring" was still figuring on the daybills of the great music-hall, and she was now accorded one of the most prominent positions in the programme. The marked success she had achieved there had only been the precursor of a larger success she was to win.
On the Friday following her first appearance on the boards of the Babylonian, The Thespian—the theatrical and musical journal for which Mr. Lloyd Craven was critic—had contained a most flattering account of her début. The entirely favourable critique said, among other pleasant things, that "Miss Nellie Baring was one of the handsomest women who had ever made her bow to a Metropolitan audience, and was in addition to that probably the finest singer who had ever graced the music halls with her presence." After this the well-known critic had said that it was not likely that theatres of variety would long remain in possession of such a genuine artiste. Miss Baring was meant for opera of the best kind, and would soon find her true vocation in one or another of the temples devoted to the best work of the great musical composers.
The effect of that notice, appearing as it did in a musical and dramatic paper of high standing and undoubted influence, may be imagined. It caused no small stir in the circles who are closely concerned with the stage; people began to talk about the new star; editors sent representatives to the Babylonian, and the chorus of praise was daily augmenting.
Before the first week of her engagement had transpired Salome and her agent had received many offers from enterprising managers on the outlook for a new star whose ability would serve as a lure to fill the empty benches of their houses.
But Millington, the wide awake manager of the Babylonian, had already secured the artiste's services for two months, at a salary of thirty pounds a week. He had even offered an engagement at that rate for six months, Miss Baring to sing nightly at different halls in London according to his instructions, but acting upon the advice of her agent, Mr. Liddcott, she had declined to make any arrangement beyond the time named.
Of the two months she was destined to remain at the music-hall over which Mr. Millington held sway, four or five weeks had passed, and Salome had begun to appreciate the advice the music-hall artistes—Miss Flo Thompson and Miss Violet Stanley—had given her, respecting the temptations to which her good looks would subject her when she once commenced her career on the boards.
Her great beauty and conspicuous ability had made her the central feature of attraction to the crowds of men, good, bad, and indifferent, poor, well-to-do, wealthy, and titled who flocked each evening to the Babylonian.
Scarcely a night passed during which she did not receive some evidence of the impression she had made on the inflammable hearts of her admirers. After each vocal effort it was a common occurrence for pretty and costly bouquets to be thrown to her on the stage, and not a few of these floral offerings contained a note asking her to grant the writer an appointment at some place to be selected by herself.
Occasionally the bunches of roses contained presents of dainty jewellery and offers of all kinds from wealthy men, who were prepared to spend thousands of pounds on the gratification of their sensual pleasures. But to none of these importunate and vicious adorers did the girl ever vouchsafe a word of reply. When it was possible the presents were returned; and when no name and address accompanied the gift, Salome never even condescended to wear the trinkets.
The decided success she had won had in no sense disturbed either the mental or the moral equilibrium of our heroine. She was too much the mistress of herself to permit her vision to be clouded for a moment by the tempting baits held out to her by her admirers. The offer of a luxurious home, of horses and carriages, splendid dresses and beautiful diamonds, never troubled Salome for a moment. They were cast aside the moment they were received, and forgotten almost as quickly.
She cared more for her good name than for all else the world had to offer, and, despite the altered condition of things, she still regarded herself as the affianced wife of her lover, Paul Meredith. She looked forward hopefully to the future, believing firmly that when her sweetheart returned from overseas he would seek her out, establish her innocence, and make her his happy bride.
Salome was now residing in a more aristocratic portion of the town. Her agent had pointed out that Nelson-road was not the place where a rising star ought to live, and she had removed to more comfortable quarters in the West End.
But this was almost the only change she had made in her way of living. She drove down to the Babylonian in a cab each night, and when she finished her business returned home in the same way.
She passed her time in a quiet and unpretentious fashion, though, had she preferred it, she might have lived the gayest and merriest of lives, for invitations to all sorts of parties were poured upon her.
But the sensible, strong-souled girl was living for the future, not the present, and for Paul's sake, as much as her own, she desired to come unspotted through the new world into which she had drifted.
Occasionally Miss Nellie Baring had visitors at her cosy lodgings in St. John's Wood. These were brother and sister artistes of the better and most respectable kind, whose acquaintance she had made and for whom she had conceived a liking; and now and again Lord Dallesborough and his friend, Mr. Lloyd Craven, dropped in to chat and take a cup of tea with the singer.
Salome had indeed seen a lot of his lordship during the past five weeks. Since the evening on which he had been introduced to the lovely vocalist, Dallesborough had become one of the most regular attendants at the Babylonian.
Night after night the young scion of nobility was to be seen in his private box there, but usually for only a short time before Nellie Baring appeared and seldom after she had made her final bow for the night.
Dallesborough's friends and acquaintances had noted this and were not slow to divine the cause of his presence there. They had remarked also that he had been an altered man lately—had given up all his wild and vicious habits, was living a quieter and more cleanly life than he had done for years, and some said boldly that the change was directly attributable to the influence of the fair singer at the Babylonian. Others said that it was quite on the cards that the stage would shortly contribute another member to the list of those who had quitted the boards to share a nobleman's home and honours.
For all this there was certainly plenty of foundation. Dallesborough was honestly in love with Salome, and meant when he could summon up courage to tell her so. Had his passion been less deep and strong he might not have made up his mind to take the honourable course he had resolved to pursue. But he loved her so passionately that he had determined to make her his wife. That his offer would possibly be refused he had never dreamed—who had ever heard of a music-hall artiste declining to become a countess?
One morning, shortly before noon, Salome was seated in her cosy little sitting room. A novel which she had been reading was lying open in her lap, but her eyes were fixed not upon the book but on the roadway outside the daintily-draped window, through which a glint of cold wintry sunshine came.
Salome was wondering when she and Paul would meet again—was wondering also what her old friends and workmates in the Lancashire village would think could they see her then, when a hansom dashed up to the door of the little semi-detached villa, and out of it stepped Lord Dallesborough.
A few moments later the neat little waiting maid came into the room with his lordship's card, and Salome told the servant to show the gentleman in.
"Good morning, Miss Baring," said Dallesborough a trifle awkwardly, as he came forward and held out a faultlessly-gloved hand to the girl. She took it and said in her pleasant way—
"Good morning, your lordship. A nice morning, isn't it?"
"Yes, a trifle cold though, don't you think? How comfortable you are here," he added, as she nodded to a chair on the other side of the glowing fire, which he took.
"Oh, yes, I am comfortable enough, thank you. Favourite artistes are almost as well off nowadays as members of the aristocracy," she cried, laughingly.
"By Jove, yes!" he replied, his spirits rising at once, and his hesitating manner vanishing before her amiability. "But can you not guess, Miss Baring," he asked, growing serious again, "why I have intruded upon you this morning?"
"Not unless it is to congratulate me upon my great success last night."
"It is not that, although I could not find words if I tried to express all I feel when I hear you sing, Miss Baring. But I do know this. If I had been fortunate enough to have met you earlier I should have been a better man to-day!" he said, lowly and very earnestly.
"Oh, nonsense, Lord Dallesborough," she responded, quickly, shaking her pretty head to emphasise her disagreement from what his words implied. "I will not permit you to say a word against yourself. I daresay you have been a little fast and very extravagant, but I know also that you are a hundred times better a man than many who have better names, but who never had your temptations."
"God bless you for saying so! Do you know, Miss Baring," he said, rising and standing on the hearthrug, facing her, "that I have loved you ever since I was introduced to you that night, and that I want you to marry me. I——"
She stopped him with a gesture.
"I am sorry, Lord Dallesborough."
"Because I love another man to whom I am engaged. You did not know, and I am sorry you did not, for it would have spared us both."
He listened in amaze, but took his trouble like a man. Her face shewed him that she was in deadly earnest, and like the really honest hearted and well bred man he was, he apologised for speaking on such a subject. Then he changed the subject suddenly, and after a few minutes made his departure.
The surprises of the day were not yet at an end. In the evening while Salome was singing, her eyes, roaming indifferently over the sea of faces in stalls, pit, dress circle and gallery, alighted on one familiar countenance, the unexpected sight of which sent her heart to her throat.
There sitting in the gallery among the crowd of cockneys, was a familiar Lancashire face—that of Hugh Eastwood, and the miner's hungry eyes were fixed upon her as if he were fascinated.
That he had recognised her she felt certain, and she hoped with all her strength that he would not hurry away when the performance was over, and thus prevent her from seeing him.
With some difficulty she contrived to "do her turn," and then, after hastily changing her attire, she made for the gallery exit, and met Hugh Eastwood face to face.
"Salome!" he cried. "It is you, then?"
"Yes, Hugh—how glad I am that you have not gone away. I want to speak to you—have so much to tell you. My cab is here; will you come with me?"
"To the end of the world if you want me, Salome," he said, quietly.
Within the precincts of his own cosy little study at Carsland Hall, Sir Sydney was seated one morning a few days after the occurrence of the events set forth in the last chapter. He was alone, and was evidently in the brownest of brown studies, for one hand was pressed against his brow, which was puckered into thoughtful lines, while his eyes were bent on a long and closely written communication lying on the small table before him.
It was a letter from his ward Paul Meredith, and had reached him an hour ago. The epistle had been placed in his hands at the breakfast table, but after a hasty glance at the handwriting, he had thrust it into his pocket unopened. He had recognised the hand of his ward in the address, and a foreboding that something of an unpleasant nature was pending had precluded him from reading Paul's letter with the eyes of his wife and daughter upon him.
So, after a poor and hurried meal, he had excused himself to Lady Carsland and Cordelia, and sought the privacy of his private sanctum. There he had torn off the envelope with eager fingers to find the following amazing statement:—
"My Dear Sir,
"You will probably remember that when I last saw you in London I left your house in a temper. I had come home expecting to find Miss Barringham waiting to welcome me back again, and instead of that I found that you and Lady Carsland had taken advantage of my absence, and other matters which had arisen, to drive Salome away.
"You may recollect also that I left you both with a veiled threat on my lips. I told you then that I was going to find Salome, if I could do so, and that I might also discover something else. What that something else meant you will learn by reading on to the end. An idea has just struck me, and I instantly resolved to set to work and prove to my own satisfaction whether the thought was well founded or completely baseless.
"I will tell you, Sir Sydney, what that idea was. It was this. That you were really the father of Salome Barringham. Once such a thought got fixed in my mind, I had no difficulty in recollecting certain matters which all tended to shew that my supposition was right. First of all you had shewn a dislike to the engagement between Salome and myself, and I well remember how interested—even startled—you were that night when I made you acquainted with the history of Salome and her mother, as she had told it to me.
"Besides these things, there was the singular fact that the name of the man who married Salome Velazo was identically that of yours—with the exception of your surname—and his age was apparently what yours would be at that time. Again, I had been told that for some months before the sudden death of your father and brother, you were away from home in disgrace. Where you were hiding then, my informant—an old friend of yours—could not say, but it struck me that you must have been at Marlcombe.
"Reasoning thus, I resolved to set to work at once, and did so. My first step was to proceed to Carsland Hall, where I remembered there was an excellent portrait in miniature of yourself, painted by someone shortly after you succeeded to the title and estates.
"The servants will have told you, I daresay, that I visited the hall and stayed there a few hours, but they would not notice that your portrait, which stood on the mantel-piece of the west drawing-room, was missing. Probably, they never missed it, but if you care to look you will find that it is gone. Of course I took it, and you will guess why.
"My next step was to make my way to the Yorkshire village where Salome, her mother, grandfather, and grandmother had lived. On arriving at Marlcombe I had no difficulty in discovering quite a number of people who remembered old Pedro Velazo, his daughter Salome Velazo, and the man calling himself Sydney Barringham, who had married the old game-keeper's child and who had disappeared so mysteriously a few months afterwards.
"Not a few of these people seemed to possess a vivid recollection of Salome Velazo's husband. He had come to settle among them in such a remarkable fashion that they had taken more than a passing interest in his appearance and personality, as you can well understand; and the majority of these folks when I shewed them your portrait identified it immediately as that of the man whom they had all known as Sydney Barringham.
"Among those whom I interviewed was the Rev. Martin Robinson, the present vicar of St. Chad's Church, at Marlcombe. He was the clergyman who united Sydney Barringham and Salome Velazo, and he is one of those who are most certain that your portrait is that of Salome's Barringham's father.
"But I came across another thing which furnishes even more conclusive proof in support of my theory that Sydney Barringham and Sir Sydney Barringham Carsland are simply the same man. Among the Marlcombe women who remembered Salome's mother there is one, a farmer's wife, who was formerly on terms of intimacy with Salome Velazo. After being deserted by her husband, Mrs. Barringham went to live with this woman, Mrs. Willans who was just then newly-married and stayed with her for a considerable time.
"Before leaving the neighbourhood, Mrs. Barringham, being in very poor circumstances, disposed of a ring to Mrs. Willans. This ring, it seems, had belonged to Sydney Barringham, and after his disappearance it was found among his things. I bought the ring from the woman, and it is now in my possession. It is a signet ring—one of the kind which were much in vogue many years ago—and probably belonged originally, to your father, Sir Nicholas Carsland, as the seal consists of his crest and initials. When you see it, I am in hopes that you will be enabled to identify it, and to explain how it came into the possession of the man Salome Velazo was married to.
"I think I have said sufficient to shew you that I have reasonable grounds for believing that you are Salome Barringham's father. I may venture further without being foolish, and say I am in a position to prove it, and mean to prove it, too, if you render such proof necessary. But that you will force me to take legal action I cannot believe. It will, I think, suit you and your family much better to keep such an affair out of court.
"But I mean to have Salome's claim upon you admitted—established, no matter who suffers in consequence. Perhaps you will have considered your course of action by the time I reach the Hall to-morrow afternoon.
"I am, dear sir,
After mastering the foregoing, Sir Sydney sat there plunged in the profoundest meditation. The whirlwind bred of the wind he had sown in his wild days, was hovering about his head and might burst and overwhelm him in the course of a few more hours.
What was to be done to avert the calamity? What could he do to save himself now from the consequences of his youthful folly? To acknowledge the White Gipsy as his legitimate child was to brand Lady Carsland as his mistress and Cordelia as their illegitimate offspring—which after all was only the naked truth.
On the other hand if he refused to admit that he was the man who had married Salome Velazo, his ward, impelled by his love of his sweetheart and his desire to clear her reputation in the eyes of the world, would carry the case into a court of law, in the event of which the whole country would ring with the story of Lady Carsland's shame and his own infamy.
In dire tribulation he rose from his seat and paced about the room, seeking vainly a way of escape from the difficulties that encompassed him. What must he do? Take Lady Carsland into his confidence, tell her the story of his youthful folly and sin and throw himself upon her mercy. For the sake of her own name and that of her child she would be likely to forgive him ultimately, no matter how much she might storm at and denounce him at first.
But he feared her ladyship's biting tongue as a whipped dog fears the lash, and he determined not to face it until all other chance of refuge was denied him. Perhaps he might induce Paul to forego the vengeance he had threatened to take. He was ready to admit to his ward and to the White Gipsy that he was her father and was prepared to will half his fortune to her. Probably his ward would be satisfied with such a concession, and in case he was not he could only face the worst then.
Just as the baronet came to this determination there was a light tap at the study door which opened the next moment to admit her ladyship. Startled by the knock Sir Sydney ran to the table, picked up the letter, and thrust it into a drawer, but not in time to prevent his wife from seeing the act.
"What is the matter with you, Sydney?" Lady Carsland asked as she came forward towards him.
"Nothing, my dear," he answered, with forced composure. "Why do you ask?"
"Because I can see there is something wrong. Was that letter from Paul?"
"What has he to say you do not desire me to know?"
"Nothing—nothing, I assure you, dear!"
"Tell me the truth! He has discovered that girl, I suppose, and is bringing her back again to this neighbourhood."
"He has written to say that he is coming here this afternoon. That is all Adelaide."
"But why is he coming?" she demanded, her curiosity quickening rather than getting less.
"To talk over some business matters with me."
"If that is all why did you not open his letter at the breakfast table, and why are you so agitated now? If he has not discovered the girl what business can he have with you that I ought not to know of? May I see your ward's letter?"
"You cannot—he might not like you to see it," he answered.
"That is not the real reason why you will not shew the letter to me. You are afraid. There is something wrong, I tell you again. I can see it in your face. I am your wife, and if there is trouble you ought to trust in me."
"I wish I could," he muttered.
"Then why not do so?"
"Because I daren't!" he blurted out, ere he was aware of it. "There! You have made me say more than I wished to say. Now go and leave me in peace!" he cried.
"I will go when I have learned what the trouble is—not before. Tell me what it is, or shew me Paul Meredith's letter."
He was silent for a moment, his head on his hands. Suddenly he took arms against his fears, and resolved to face the worst there and then. Lady Carsland must know the truth some time, and perhaps it would be better, all things considered, to tell her everything before his ward arrived.
"If you insist upon knowing, I will tell you then," he said.
"I insist," was her response.
"You will be pained terribly—shocked beyond all your expectations, and I wished to spare you if I could."
"Have done with this mystery, and speak."
"Well, before I came to the title and estates, when I was in hiding after taking those damnable jewels, I was tramping through Yorkshire, and chanced to fall ill—fainted, in fact, by the road-side. When I came to my senses I was in a respectable cottage, and a pretty woman was attending upon me. I was there some time, passing under a false name, and I ultimately married the woman. When my father and brother met their death so suddenly, I deserted my wife and came here. I——"
"What was the name you gave yourself?" Lady Carsland gasped.
"My God!" she exclaimed, as she sank into a chair, "I see it all now. Your wife had a child, and that child is Salome Barringham, the pit brow girl?"
He nodded with a white face.
"And you knew this all along?"
"I never even suspected it until Paul told me the story of the girl he wished to marry. I was told that the woman was dead—had died a few months after my return to Carsland Hall, and I never dreamt that she had left a daughter behind her."
"When did the woman die!" Lady Carsland demanded, white to the lips now, and quivering from head to foot with suppressed passion.
"Ten or a dozen years ago."
"So that you committed bigamy?"
"You committed it all the same!" she hissed, "and I am not your wife at all, save in name, and Cordelia is——"
"For God's sake do not make a scene, Adelaide!" he cried, imploringly. "Think of the terrible scandal there will be if the secret leaks out. For your own sake, mine, and our daughter's let us keep this thing to ourselves. You must see that it will be better for all concerned to take that course. Come what may, this thing must never be made known to the world!"
"Does Paul Meredith know."
"He does. I regret to say."
"And threatens to publish it broadcast unless you acknowledge Miss Barringham as your daughter?"
"He does—but read his letter and then you will perhaps be able to suggest some scheme to checkmate him."
He opened the drawer and took therefrom the letter he had put away so hurriedly a few minutes before. She took it from him, glanced through its contents hastily, and then her long pent up passion found vent in hot, scathing, bitter words.
"You infernal scoundrel!" she exclaimed, with a face distorted by rage and her steely eyes gleaming like fire. "You talk calmly of checkmating him as if you were blameless. This is abominable, insufferable, and you deserve to be sent to gaol! To think that my reputation and that of my child should be in danger of being dragged through the mud owing to your blackguardly conduct. My God, it is maddening!"
"For the love of heaven," he cried, hoarsely, despairingly, appealingly, as he seized her by the hands and drew her into the room from which she was about to fly, "do not make such a noise, or it will be over the house at once. Calm yourself, Adelaide. To let this get out will ruin everything. I beseech you not to say another word now."
She shot a look of the most concentrated malevolence at him, but had sense enough to know that it was better to say no more then. She therefore did not cry out again.
The fateful afternoon had arrived, and with it had come Paul Meredith. He, Sir Sydney, and her ladyship were now sitting in the baronet's private room, which, as the reader is aware, had already been the scene of more than one stormy episode.
Paul seemed a trifle agitated, but the lines about his mouth were firm, and it was evident that he had marked out a clear course for himself, and did not mean to be turned away from it. The baronet was pale and ill at ease, while his wife was apparently as cool and self-possessed as usual. The greeting between the two had been of the most formal kind, and when it was over Paul said,
"I wish, Sir Sydney, to see you alone for a short time. I suppose you received my letter this morning?"
"I did but her ladyship knows all about it, and if it is of the matters alluded to in your communication, I think it will be better for us all if she remains during our interview. Do you not think so, Paul?"
"If Lady Carsland prefers to stay," Meredith replied, coldly, "I do not see that I have any right to object to her being present."
"I prefer to stay—mean to stay, Mr. Meredith," her ladyship responded quickly.
"I only object because I wish to save you any unnecessary pain. Lady Carsland," the young man explained. "But if as Sir Sydney says, you know everything, then I will say no more."
"I do know everything about this terrible business," she added bitterly, "and even you must admit that I have a right to know what is going to be done. While I cannot blame you, Paul, for attempting to clear the name of the woman you love and intend to make your wife, you will understand that my good name and the good name of Cordelia are at stake now, and through no fault of our own. May I ask first of all what you intend to do?"
"That will depend entirely upon what Sir Sydney intends to do," Paul answered in the most impassive tone.
"What is it that you desire me to do in this exceedingly painful matter, Paul?" the baronet asked eagerly.
"I will tell you in a moment, but before I do so, answer me one thing. Are you prepared to deny that my sweetheart, Salome Barringham, is your daughter?"
"I am not," was the immediate response. "To deny it would be useless. I believe, from what you have told me, that she is my child—in fact, such must be the case if what you have stated to me is true."
"You admit, also, that Salome's mother, the woman known as Salome Velazo, the daughter of the gamekeeper, Pedro Velazo, was your lawful wife?"
"Certainly, but permit me to say this much in extenuation of my apparently inexcusable sin. When I left my wife all those years ago at Marlcombe, I did not, as God is my judge, know that she was likely to become a mother; and afterwards, when I had squared up the affairs which required attention after my father and brother's sudden end, the man whom I sent to the Yorkshire village to make enquiries concerning the woman I had deserted told me that she had disappeared and that judging from the intelligence he could gather, he believed she was dead."
"The man most have been either a fool or a knave," Paul replied drily. As a matter of fact he did not believe Sir Sydney's story, and he made no attempt to conceal his thoughts.
"Still I believed him, Paul," the baronet urged. "If I had not done so, is it at all likely that I should have run the risk of being sent to gaol for marrying again while my first wife was still living?"
"That is a question I cannot answer, Sir Sydney," said Paul, coldly. "For the sake of your own conscience I hope it is true."
"It is true, I assure you."
"Well, with respect to Salome. You have admitted that she is your daughter, and that her mother was your wife, and all I ask for now is that such admissions be made public."
"I cannot do that without ruining the reputations of my wife and daughter. To publish such a thing would be to brand Adelaide and Cordelia with a stigma that would make them the outcasts of society. You must see that, Paul!" Sir Sydney cried.
"Certainly you must see it, Mr. Meredith," Lady Carsland chimed in. "Even to establish Miss Barringham's reputation you have no right to blast my good name and that of my daughter. You must remember we are as guiltless of all blame in this matter as is Miss Barringham herself, and to ruin her and me socially in consequence of another's sin would be utterly inexcusable."
"I have no desire to injure either you or Miss Carsland, your ladyship," Paul returned, "but I must insist upon Salome's claims being fully recognised. Her relation to Sir Sydney and her legitimacy also must be publicly acknowledged."
"But how can that be done without inflicting an irreparable injury on my wife and daughter?" the baronet asked. "I am willing—nay even eager—to do anything in reason, but do not, I implore you, ask me to do anything that will injure them."
"To do the fullest justice to Salome now is the least you can do after all these years. She requires only that you should say she is your daughter and that her mother was your wife. I will not accept less, nor will I attempt to persuade her to be satisfied with anything less."
"Suppose I am willing to settle a considerable sum upon her, and to make her a generous allowance in future? In addition to those things I am prepared to enter into an undertaking to share my fortune equally between Salome and Cordelia at my death."
"You offer her what she will not need when she becomes my wife," Paul responded, firmly. "I am wealthy enough for us both, and all I care for is Salome's honour. At all costs I mean to protect that."
"It is not in danger," Sir Sydney replied.
"At present she is at the mercy of anyone who cares to ask about the father she never knew."
"You refuse my offer, then, Paul?"
"Mr. Meredith came here with his mind made up," Lady Carsland exclaimed, hotly, "and it is useless to argue with him. He wishes to crush me and Cordelia into the dust."
"I would spare you if I could."
"It does not look like it. Besides, Mr. Meredith, you forget one very important matter." This with a certain ring of triumph in her voice.
"What is that, Lady Carsland?"
"It is this. Remember that Miss Barringham is still at our mercy. She has not yet explained how those jewels came into her possession. It is not too late yet to take proceedings against her, and you may rest assured that the very moment you lift your finger to establish Miss Barringham's claims, that instant will I set the law in motion against her for being concerned in the jewel robbery."
Paul Meredith's face changed instantly as her ladyship flung out that threat. For the time being he had forgotten the reason of Salome's flight from Thorrell Moor, and for the moment he was nonplussed.
Lady Carsland was quick to note the impression her words had made upon him, and she added—
"I think it would be better for us all—would save everyone great annoyance—to come to a compromise. What do you say?"
"I will not!" he cried, hotly. "You both know that Salome is innocent, and I shall be able to prove it some day. But Sir Sydney cannot disprove what I have to allege against him. Therefore I refuse to accept any terms but those I have named!"
"It is war then?" she cried.
A tap at the door arrested Paul's voice, and drew all their eyes to the door. Sir Sydney gave the usual permission and a servant entered.
"A note for Mr. Meredith."
Paul ran almost to the maid, and taking the slip of paper from her glanced hurriedly over it. This is what he read—
"I must see you at once. I am waiting with a friend. We can clear up everything with respect to the jewels Miss Barringham is accused of having stolen!"
The moment Paul Meredith had mastered the meaning of Hugh Eastwood's brief note he made up his mind how to act. Holding out the sheet of paper towards Sir Sydney, he said in a quick, imperative voice,
"I think that both you and Lady Carsland ought to read this at once." Then, turning to the servant who was standing on the threshold of the room, he added, "Will you kindly wait for an answer?"
The baronet took the note, cast his eyes over it hurriedly, and then handed it to his wife with a look of wonder on his face. A few moments later her ladyship asked sharply,
"Who is this Hugh Eastwood?"
"A young pit-man who lives—or did live at Marsh Green, and who told me that he worked in one of Sir Sydney's mines. I was attacked one night by a couple of tramps while making my way through Cale Wood, and might have got robbed and maltreated had he not chanced to be at hand. He appears to be a most respectable young fellow, and if he and his friend know anything about the jewels I think we ought to see them at once. What do you say, Sir Sydney?"
"I am willing to hear them," the baronet returned, "if her ladyship has no objection."
"I do not object—tell Mr. Eastwood and his friend to come here," her ladyship answered, addressing the last part of her sentence to the maid, who at once departed, to return a short time later with Hugh Eastwood and the old miner, Dick Miller.
"This," said Paul, as he shook hands with the younger of the two visitors, "is Hugh Eastwood. But is it true, Eastwood, that you can explain this mystery surrounding the jewels which Salome Barringham had in her possession?"
"I can explain a portion of it, and my companion here, whose name is Miller, and who lives at Thorrell Moor, and works at the Wood Pit, can tell you the rest. In the first place let me say that it was from me that Salome Barringham got the jewels."
"From you?" Sir Sydney and his ward exclaimed in a breath.
"Yes, from me, strange as it may seem," Hugh replied, quickly.
"And where did you obtain them?" Lady Carsland queried.
"I found them one day about ten months ago while at work in the mine. Dick and me were working together that day, and he knows that while we were clearing up the bottom of the old shaft called the Dingle Pit we found—at least I found—a leather handbag. The bag was fastened up when I found it, and when I broke it open I found all the jewels inside. But Miller here never knew until I told him this afternoon what was in the bag. I was alone when I found the bag, and I told him when I had hidden the jewels in my can that it was empty. He looked at the bag, and recognised it, didn't you Dick?"
"Ah did," the old pit-man replied, somewhat slowly. "But, Sir Sydney, afore ah tell what ah know yo' will ha' to gie me yore word that yo' will not do owt at me for what I say."
The baronet was silent for a moment, and Paul broke out impulsively:
"You may speak out. Sir Sydney will give you the assurance you want, and I will see that you lose nothing by anything you say in order to clear Salome from the suspicion under which she now rests."
"Yes—speak out," said the baronet, with a dogged air of resignation. "I suppose you were one of the gang of poachers who robbed me that night in Hough Wood?"
The miner answered in the affirmative, and then proceeded in his own rough fashion to relate how the poachers attacked Sir Sydney, thinking he was a gamekeeper, and how, on discovering their mistake, the ringleader had insisted on robbing him in spite of his—Miller's—protestations. Then he spoke of the row the gang had with the keepers near Cale Wood, when the locked bag was thrown down the disused shaft.
Sir Sydney, Lady Carsland, and Paul Meredith listened quietly, but with wondering faces, to the old pit-man's story, and when it was ended Eastwood spoke again.
"When I discovered the jewels," he said, "and learned from Miller that the bag was taken from you, Sir Sydney, I knew that the ornaments must be valuable. I was a poor man, and it was a great temptation, but I did not touch a single one, I am glad to say. I sent them all to Miss Barringham, and made her believe that they had been left to me by a relation."
"I am glad the thing is cleared up, Eastwood." Paul remarked, "but it would have saved us all much trouble had you returned the jewels at once to their rightful owner."
"I was sorry enough, Mr. Meredith, I can assure you," Hugh replied, "when I heard that Miss Barringham was suspected of being mixed up with the robbery, and had run away."
"But why did you not tell the whole truth to Sir Sydney and Lady Carsland long ago?"
"Because I was in Australia when I heard of it. I came back straightway—throwing up my work and everything. I only landed in Southampton a couple of days since, so that you will see, Mr. Meredith, that I have not lost much time."
"You have not, indeed, and I beg your pardon for what I said," Paul said, warmly. "And if you really came all the way from Australia simply to clear Salome's name I shall never forget such a service, Eastwood."
"It is quite enough for me to know that I am able to undo the harm I did in sending the jewels to her. I daresay Miss Barringham would not have accepted them had she been able to send them back to me," Hugh said.
"How do you make that out, Mr. Eastwood?" Lady Carsland interposed. "What was there to prevent her refusing them?"
"Because by the time they reached her at the vicarage, where she was living then, your ladyship, I was on board ship on my way to Melbourne," the young man answered. "You must all see now that she was not to blame at all for what has happened. I am most to blame, for if I had done as I ought to have done—brought the jewels at once to Sir Sydney—she would not have been covered with shame, and hounded out of the place."
"Never mind, Eastwood," Paul remarked, "I for one am perfectly satisfied that the mystery which enveloped the jewels is at last cleared up, and especially as it turns out that no one—not even you—was seriously to blame. I am sure that Sir Sydney and her ladyship are quite content with the explanations of yourself and your friend."
"I am quite satisfied," the baronet replied with some earnestness, "and I suppose Lady Carsland is satisfied also."
"I suppose I must be satisfied," her ladyship said a trifle sullenly. "But it appears to me that Miss Barringham is not quite so blameless as you all desire to make her out to be."
"How?" Meredith demanded, "I do not follow your meaning."
"I mean that Miss Barringham might have spared us all this trouble and annoyance had she taken the proper course at the outset. If she had but given us the name of the person from whom she received the jewels all this turmoil and ill feeling would have been avoided."
"But Miss Barringham considered herself under an obligation to keep my name secret, and, as you all know, rather than make known the name, she permitted herself to be driven away from a comfortable home and all her friends. I think it is very much to her credit," Hugh cried, stoutly.
"And so do I," Paul exclaimed. "But it is all at an end, happily, and we will not make any more bother about it. There is only one thing now, Hugh Eastwood, for us to do."
"What is that, Mr. Meredith?"
"To find Salome."
"That will be easy—if you really wish to discover her, sir."
"Wish to find her!" Paul said, warmly. "There is nothing I desire under Heaven so much. Bat I am sure now that we shall have little difficulty in finding out where she is hiding herself. I have had a private detective engaged for some time trying to trace her, but he seems to be of no use. I'll bother with the fellow no longer now. You and I will see what we can do."
"I can take you straight to her, Mr. Meredith, in a few hours," the miner said with a smile. "I have her address in my pocket—I was speaking to her only last night."
"Then for God's sake tell me," Paul returned, his agitation manifesting his amazement and delight. "How did you find her? Where is she? How is she?"
"She is in London, and never appeared to be better than when I dropped across her so strangely last night. It happened this way," Hugh went on. "After landing at Southampton I made my way to London, and, as I had never been in the Capital before I made up my mind to spend a day or so there. Last night chance led me to the Babylonian Music Hall, and while there I got one of the biggest surprises I ever received in my life. When about one half of the entertainment was over, who should walk on the stage but——"
"Not Salome, surely, Eastwood?" Paul broke in, hastily, unable to restrain himself.
"It was nobody else, sir," Hugh rejoined. "At first I could not believe my own eyes. I thought it must be some woman who resembled her. But when I heard her voice I knew it was the White Gipsy herself, and nobody else. You should hear her sing now," the pit-man cried, admiringly. "When she had done singing the people simply made the great building ring with their clapping and shouts."
"But afterwards, afterwards?" Paul said, impatiently.
"Well, I had come all the way from Australia to help her, and there, as if through the working of some miracle, she was. I went out, after getting to know that Miss Barringham's stage name was Miss Nellie Baring, resolved to get to speak to her. I believed that she had recognised me, for when her eyes wandered my way she had given a start of surprise. So I went out soon after she left the stage and met her at the entrance to the gallery."
"And then?" Sir Sydney asked, breaking silence for the first time.
"Then she took me home with her and told me everything—how she had left the vicarage in fear, and also how you, Sir Sydney, had warned her and sent her fifty pounds. She thinks that you, Mr. Meredith, are still abroad, and I came here to make matters right with Sir Sydney and her ladyship, but never thought of meeting you until I heard in the village that you were here."
"I shall never be able to repay you, Eastwood, for all you have done for me and Salome!" Paul cried, warmly. "Now give me the address, that I may not lose another moment."
"Here it is," said Hugh, as he handed a slip of paper to Meredith, who, after glancing at it for a moment, slipped it into his pocket, saying—
"You will excuse me, Sir Sydney, and you also, Lady Carsland, for leaving you so abruptly. When I have found Salome and told her all, I will see you again."
"Are you going to London at once?" the baronet asked.
"Immediately. Good afternoon. Come along, Eastwood, and bring your friend."
It was evening, and the Babylonian Theatre of Varieties was even more than usually crowded.
In one of the private boxes near the stage Lord Dallesborough was lounging, petulently fingering his moustache, and regarding with decided indifference the posturing and patter of the well-known music hall artiste, Linda Beauchamp.
Since the inception of his passionate love for Miss Nellie Baring, and her emphatic refusal of the offer of marriage he had made her, Lord Dallesborough had never glanced upon another woman with adoring eyes.
It was the greatest shock he had ever received in his life when a music-hall singer declined to wed him; and he had not yet got over the surprise and pain such a refusal had occasioned him. He had hopes still that his devotion might soften the heart of the fair songstress.
Presently with a sneer at the pranks of the beautiful evil creature on the stage, he rose and stalked from his box, going along the corridor towards the refreshment lounge. As he strode moodily along he was startled by some gentleman slapping him heartily on the shoulder, and crying,
"Hallo, Dallesborough! Is it really you? 'Pon my soul I scarcely knew you."
"You, Meredith!" his lordship cried, as he recognised his old schoolmate. "Where have you been all this time, and what are you doing here?"
"I happened to be in town, so I thought I would drop in and hear a song or two," Paul answered.
"All right—you can share my box, but come and have a drink first."
They went to the bar, ordered drinks, and as they lounged there for a few minutes their talk drifted naturally to the old days when they were lads together. Presently Paul remarked,
"They tell me, Dallesborough, that this Miss Nellie Baring who is singing here is very smart, and rather good looking."
"Have you never heard her?"
"Well, smart is not the word to use in regard to her singing, and good-looking is too poor an adjective to convey any idea of her appearance."
"Indeed," Paul responded, with a faint smile.
"Yes. Miss Baring is one of the finest singers on the music-hall stage, and the most beautiful woman I ever saw, Meredith!"
"Oh, come now, that's nonsense, Dallesborough," said the other jocularly. "I hardly expected to find you so lavish of praise in respect of a mere artiste."
"Wait till you see and hear Miss Baring, and then you will be prepared to endorse every word. Besides, old man, she is no more like the ordinary music-hall lady than a duchess is like a fishwoman. She is as pure and unsophisticated as the average run of her fellows are unworthy."
"Hit, evidently," quoth Paul.
"So I am, by Jove, and I am not ashamed of admitting it, Meredith. But come along for Miss Baring is the next turn."
The two young fellows sauntered away and seated themselves in his lordship's box, Dallesborough sitting well to the front, while Meredith lounged, with an air of indifference, behind the heavy velvet hangings. Shortly afterwards Salome Barringham walked quietly up to the footlights, amid a storm of cheers, and his lordship whispered to his companion,
"This is Miss Baring. What do you think of her, Meredith? Is she not lovely?"
"Very lovely indeed, Dallesborough!" Paul responded lowly as he peered with quickly throbbing pulse and fascinated gaze on his sweetheart. "She is magnificent, and I no longer wonder at your infatuation."
Dallesborough turned round sharply and faced Paul. There had been something in his companion's voice that puzzled him.
"Do you know, Meredith, that I would marry Miss Baring to-morrow if she would have me."
"I don't doubt it, Dallesborough," said Paul in a dry way. "And I wouldn't mind doing it myself, my boy."
"I am not jesting, Meredith!" his lordship said, earnestly. "Do you know that I asked her to become my wife the other day?"
"She refused me in the most emphatic way told me that she was already engaged, and of course no honourable man could speak after that."
"Just so, Dallesborough. Give me your hand, old man," Paul muttered, huskily. "That is the woman I am going to marry. She is my sweetheart."
"Yes. Draw that curtain and I'll tell you all about it. A stranger story you never came across."
In a few minutes Paul made his old friend acquainted with the main points in the story of his life since the morning he first met the White Gipsy in Cale Wood; and when his hurried recital was concluded, and Dallesborough had learned why Paul had come to the Babylonian that evening, he took Meredith behind the scenes to introduce him to the manager.
A short time later Paul and Salome met in the fair singer's dressing-room. He had scribbled a few words saying he was there, waiting to see her, had sent them to her and she had told the messenger to bring him to her at once.
Of the tenderness and rapture of that meeting I will say nothing here. No pen can do justice to the ecstacy of such a reunion.
It was a pleasant morning a week or two before Christmas, and the villages of Thorrell Moor, Thorrell, and Marsh Green presented a most festive appearance. Although the air was sharp, and a few inches of snow covered the whole of the country side, quite a crowd of men and women, youths and maidens, were gathered about the gates of the old church at Thorrell Moor, discussing with varying interest the ceremony being solemnised within.
The name of the White Gipsy was upon every tongue, and the strange story of her life was being talked about in a wondering way by the people among whom she had lived and worked for two or three years.
It had seemed to them a wonderful thing at first that Sir Sydney's ward, the handsome and rich young gentleman, Paul Meredith, should have chosen as his affianced a young woman who toiled upon the pit-bank; and their amazement had been intensified a hundredfold when the news was spread about that Salome Barringham was the daughter of the master of Carsland Hall, by his first wife, who had died shortly after giving birth to the White Gipsy.
No one knew or suspected that Salome's mother had lived for years after her child's birth—was living when Sir Sydney married Adelaide Woodcock. The story in circulation was to the effect that Sir Sydney, when his chances of succeeding to the title and estates were most remote, had married a poor girl, had quarrelled with her soon afterwards; they had parted never to meet again, and the fact of his wife becoming a mother had never reached the baronet until a short time ago.
Such was the story put into currency in order to establish Salome's claim to her real name, and to prevent a suspicion of shame from falling upon Lady Carsland and Cordelia. And as all those concerned confirmed the story, the outside public were led to accept it as the whole truth.
Meanwhile, inside the grey old pile, our heroine and her lover were kneeling before the Vicar, the Rev. Matthew Mallison, who had just joined them together in the bonds of holy wedlock. Sir Sydney was near at hand, but no other member of the Carsland family was present.
In one of the pews close by sat sturdy Hugh Eastwood, and at his elbow sat the honest-hearted and handsome pit-brow lass, Nell Crompton, who had always been the dearest friend of the White Gipsy. Hugh and Nell were sweethearts now—were, in fact, to be married in a few weeks, and the young pit-man was already mine host of the "White Crow," for which position he had to thank the generosity of Paul Meredith.
The wedding day of the White Gipsy will never be forgotten by those who took part in the festivities given in the honour of bride and bridegroom. All that day high revel was held in the villages, and while the miners were enjoying themselves Paul and Salome were on their way to the continent, where they were to spend their honeymoon. Will my readers wish them a happy and long life.
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