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A TROUBLED IDYLL
LESTER remained at the Hall all night. After such a disturbance he was not surprised to find only the servants stirring when he went down-stairs about ten o'clock. He strolled out on to a long balcony which overlooked the broad, smooth lawn, and presently came upon Aingier, now a hearty convalescent, who had been wheeled out to enjoy the fresh morning air.
He had slept soundly enough through the excitement of the previous night, and it was not thought advisable to agitate him with a recital of the latest outrage. Lester chatted absently for a time with the old lawyer. His thoughts were fixed on Edith, and he reproached himself bitterly for the absurd jealousy which had led him to treat her so coldly. In other words, though he would not admit it, the ridiculous position in which Bradshaw was placed put an entirely different complexion on affairs.
In the midst of a discussion anent the state of the money-market, Lester was surprised to find his companion giving vent to a series of dry chuckles. For a moment, be wondered whether the injury to his head had affected the old man's reason.
"Just as it should be," said Aingier, rubbing his hands, "just as it should be! The finest possible way out of a difficult situation!"
"But, really, I don't understand —"
"Look," whispered Aingier, clutching Lester's arm, and pointing downward into the grounds.
Lester's eyes followed and he stood rigid, as though frozen by the sudden chill which fell on his heart. In the distance were Edith and Bradshaw; but the distance was not so great that he could not see the American's arm linked affectionately within that of his companion.
"The best thing that could have happened," cackled old Aingier again.
Lester was not sorry that the solicitor was too absorbed in his own chatter to notice his agitation. His day-dream was shattered. The sunlit landscape suddenly became gray in his eyes.
"It is quite clear that Lord Arncliffe's nephew has strong moral claims. Under these new conditions, it looks very much as though the property will belong to both of them. I am delighted!" went on the other.
"Yes, yes!" said Lester, striving to keep his voice steady. "As you say, one of the best things that could have happened."
The couple strolling beneath were near at hand now. Edith was smiling up at her companion, with more of careless merriment in her face than her lover had seen there since that first meeting in the park.
"The best thing that could have happened," he repeated dully. Though Aingier rattled on, Lester was too absorbed in his own thoughts to hear or care what was said. He realized, with a soul-shaking pang, that this was, indeed, the natural solution of the difficulties created by Bradshaw's appearance on the scene. Love-blinded, he had never for a moment thought of such a development. What a fool he had been! Edith, of course, by this means would do justice to Lord Arncliffe's nephew and at the same time retain her proud position as mistress of Arncliffe Hall. And the American was a nice fellow and a good fellow and — his thoughts flying to the thinning hair of his own temples — a somewhat younger-looking and more attractive man than himself. He passed through an inferno of agony before he was able to address the lawyer in his usual quiet tones.
"I must be off now — good-by."
He strode away from the balcony and made for the entrance hall. He must be alone. He felt that his face would betray him, though he was unaware of the extent to which that sudden anguish had carved its record. He was ashen pale, with the peculiar grayness which pallor brings to the cheek of a deeply bronzed man, and his eyes were contracted as though some sudden light had dazzled them.
He took his hat and went out. There was a turquoise sky; the breeze was gentle and balmy; a little way off an angel-throated thrush was singing the story of the sunshine; wherever Lester's gaze wandered, gay flowers flaunted themselves shamelessly at him. The very joyousness of nature smote him with a sense of outrage. Almost he could have wept. But the sound of a liquid laugh brought him back into defiant manhood; when, a moment later, he met Edith and the American, still arm in arm, there was little except his extreme paleness to betray the ordeal he was undergoing.
"You see I have cheated you," called Bradshaw, gaily, as they approached.
"My dear fellow," said Lester, "this is really very imprudent of you. There is nothing serious the matter, but a cut like that may develop erysipelas, if you don't take care. You ought to have remained in bed at least twenty-four hours."
"So I have been telling him, Dr. Lester," began Edith, instantly pausing, however, as she noticed his expression. She had intended to exact humble repentance for his manner at their last parting, but now such trivialities were forgotten. He must be ill, she thought, looking up at him with tender anxiety.
Lester met her gaze with calmly inscrutable eyes. There was nothing of resentment in them; nor was there any sign of that wondrous telegraphy Edith expected to meet, and she began to feel deeply wounded. Then, all at once, her face and neck were flooded with crimson. She had just realized that Bradshaw was still clinging to her arm with apparent affection.
She drew away, blushing yet more furiously. The action in itself was guilty, and it seemed to, her that there came a gleam of contempt into Lester's eyes and that his mouth hardened. Yet she met his gaze truthfully and steadfastly, though she felt it was crushing her, and it was Lester who at length retired from the moral contest. After all, it was cowardly to shame a woman, whatever the circumstances.
"Pray make this unruly patient return to his bed, Miss Holt," he said, in tones so unimpassioned that they chilled Edith more than any reproach. "It is hopeless to expect that he will obey me, but perhaps you may be more successful. And now I will thank you for your hospitality, and say good-by. I have some important business which requires a return to my rooms at once."
"But you have not had any breakfast," faltered Edith, not unwilling to detain him until an opportunity for explanation might arise.
"That is not a very serious matter," he said with a polite smile. "Good-by. And do send Mr. Bradshaw to bed."
He was gone, without even shaking hands. Edith was so dazed that Bradshaw's conversation sounded to her like some distant murmuring which she answered mechanically. A mention of Lester aroused her.
"Do you know," he said, "I think Lester looks frightfully ill?"
"Oh, no," she protested. "You see he did not have much rest last night."
"Such a man as Lester does not look as if he had swallowed an eel because of a lost beauty sleep," persisted Bradshaw with somber pessimism. "I have seen a lot of tribulation among my fellow-sinners, and when one of these iron men, like Lester, exhibits that sort of look on his face, it generally means he has got it in the neck good and hard."
"I do wish to goodness you would endeavor to speak English!" exclaimed Edith, petulantly. "I don't suppose there is anything the matter with Dr. Lester. However, we do know that you are an invalid, so you will oblige me by doing as you are told and return to bed at once. No, no!" as Bradshaw began to protest. "I won't have any insubordination. Go to bed! Your breakfast shall be sent up to you. And you are not to get up again until to-morrow morning."
"Are you going to nurse me?" asked Bradshaw, hopefully.
"Certainly not — there are two trained nurses in attendance on Mr. Aingier, and one of them can very well be spared to look after you. Now I must go and see about household affairs. Poor Mrs. Warren cannot be fit for much after her alarming experience. Don't you think she showed remarkable presence of mind?"
He looked at her reproachfully. Without another word, he walked away to his room, with a pretense of offended dignity.
Edith did not attempt to "see about household affairs." She had reached the conclusion that what women call a "good cry" was absolutely essential. Directly she was free from the restraint of Bradshaw's presence, she rushed to her room and, flinging herself face downward on her pillow, began to sob bitterly.
The simple facts of the case were that the American, afraid lest the details of his escapade would eventually leak out, decided that an explanation coming from himself would place him in a far less ridiculous light than if some other person made the disclosure. He therefore made a clean breast of the whole affair to Edith, telling his story with so much naive humor that, although she strongly disapproved of his conduct in spying on Mrs. Warren and her son, Bradshaw escaped lightly on that score. Best of all, he succeeded in making Edith laugh with him rather than at him.
So much for the bright looks to which Lester so unreasonably objected. As for the linked arms, the explanation was one which might satisfy the most jealous of lovers. Bradshaw, to excite sympathy, and to start well, had basely pretended to be weak, and Edith, in all innocence and womanly tenderness, insisted that he should lean upon her arm. Bradshaw would have been more than human had he resisted such an offer from the lovely young woman who had more than half won his heart. Still, trivial as the incident was, it was enough to put a serious barrier between Edith and George Lester. She was too proud to justify a perfectly innocent action, and he, equally proud, had the question of Edith's fortune brought vividly before him.
The feelings of Edith, when her fit of weeping had abated a little, underwent some change. At first, her emotion had been pure grief that the person she loved best on earth could misjudge her so cruelly. But now anger assumed its sway. It was no longer "How could he?" but "How dared he?"
He ought to have trusted her implicitly. One thing was certain: nothing would ever bring things back to the old level. Everything was at an end between them.
And what of Lester? He, too, regarded the one romance of his life as irrevocably ended. At an age when most young men are falling in and out of love, he had been making medical history in the African swamps and jungles. Hence, when he did catch the disease, he developed it seriously. Its symptoms were simple enough. Presently, when the first smart had worn off, he would try to find some scientific explanation of it, probably coming to the conclusion that the severity of his attack was due to the fact that he had not been "immunized" by previous inoculation from Cupid's shafts.
At first he decided to leave Arncliffe at once and seek distraction in travel and hard work. He even went so far as to pay his bill at the inn and send the bulk of his luggage to the station. Then he remembered that the mystery of Lord Arncliffe's death was still unsolved, and while that was the case Edith remained in peril. No, he must remain and see it out.
While he was coming to this decision, Edith was alarming herself with the possibility that he might go away and never, never return. He had looked dreadfully ill. Edith, with a shudder, recalled Bradshaw's expressive opinion of Lester's state. She proceeded forthwith to kill her lover with typhoid fever, at the same time drawing so moving a picture of herself living alone and unwed, for his dear sake, that she began to weep again with unimpaired vigor.
There came a sharp tap at her door, and she sprang up, instinctively putting her hands to her hair, and rushing to the looking-glass.
"What is it?" she called, "I am dressing."
"A young lady has arrived, miss, and she is waiting —"
"No, she is not," broke in a clear, musical voice. "Here I am, Edith. Do let me in, there's a dear!"
Edith ran eagerly to the door. The next instant she was clasped in the arms of a radiant young beauty, who greeted her with genuine affection. This was the friend to whom Edith had written in one of the letters purloined by Hobson.
"You poor darling!" exclaimed the visitor, breathlessly. "I could not wait down-stairs. I felt I had to come to you at once."
"How good of you to come, dear Phyllis," said Edith, returning her affectionate glance. "I have not been able to exchange two ideas with a woman for ages. Mrs. Aingier, the wife of my trustee, has taken it into her head to regard me as a monster of iniquity; and although Mrs. Warren, the house keeper, has shown me many thoughtful kindnesses, she is so unemotional that one might as well make friends with a fish."
"I know," nodded Phyllis; "I saw her — a stately old party with a face like a graven image. She looked respectful disapproval when I rushed up here without even waiting to be properly announced. But tell me all about yourself — why, you bad girl! I do believe you have been crying!"
There was a marked contrast between the two girls. While "beautiful" was the term invariably applied to Edith, no one ever thought of calling her companion anything but "pretty." And ravishingly pretty she was — small, but exquisitely proportioned, and having that deadly combination of demure eyes and saucy mouth which works such havoc on impressionable man. She was fashioned by nature to be a breaker of hearts.
Edith's lips began to quiver again. Phyllis, sitting on the edge of the bed, drew her to her side with motherly tenderness.
"There, now," she whispered soothingly, "tell me all about it. Surely you are not allowing the tittle-tattle of a lot of spiteful and envious people to upset you?"
"No, it is not that."
"But, Edith," interrupted her friend severely, "you are not going to tell me you are crying on account of a mere man? I have a shrewd suspicion that your dear doctor is responsible for all this?"
Edith's pride came to the rescue. She would not have it supposed she was wearing the willow on Lester's account.
"Oh, dear no!" she said, with an airy indifference that was, perhaps, a little too marked. "There is absolutely nothing between Dr. Lester and myself."
"That settles it," remarked Phyllis, nodding her head with an air of sage conviction. "My dear girl, I have been in love thousands and thousands of times, while I positively believe this precious doctor is the first man you have ever looked at twice. Your childlike efforts to deceive me are quite useless, so you had better tell me the truth. Besides, I am counsel's opinion in matters of this sort." Herein Miss Phyllis did herself no more than justice. She was probably the most outrageous flirt in the Three Kingdoms.
"Oh, Phyllis," murmured Edith, abandoning her policy of concealment, "he has treated me so cruelly, so infamously."
"I know, I know," answered the expert, soothingly, "they always do. But what has he done? There is not another woman, is there?"
"Certainly not!" said Edith, scornfully. "Do you suppose I would waste a second thought on any man who could be capable of such conduct?"
"Don't be too trustful, my child. Men are capable of anything. However, if there is not another woman in the case, the obvious and only conclusion is that there is another man."
"Phyllis, how dare you?" Edith's cheeks were aflame with indignation.
"Pooh! Bless its good little heart! Did it never have a flirtation in all its life? Come, now, tell me about the other man. Why, an occasional touch of jealousy will do your excellent doctor a world of good!"
Thus adjured, Edith told the story of her stroll in the grounds with Bradshaw, and the subsequent misconstruction of her harmless action by Lester. Women are far less reticent than men in affairs of the heart, and Edith was so absorbed in drawing a dramatic picture of her lover's awful sternness that not until the end of her story was reached did she become aware that her sworn friend was convulsed with merriment.
"I did not expect this of you at least, Phyllis," said Edith, deeply hurt.
"Oh, you dear baby — you will kill me! Why, don't you see that this is one of the best things that could have happened. Your doctor is probably calling himself a brute by this time, and thinking of all sorts of plans for a reconciliation. Now, when you meet him, you must have a sort of 'wounded animal' look in your eyes, and yet bear yourself with pathetic dignity. You must avoid being alone with him for some little time, because that would precipitate matters. And, of course, you want to torture him."
"I don't!" exclaimed Edith, with real indignation.
"Be quiet! Yes, you do. And then at last, when you have forgiven him, he will be so abject that you will have him right under your thumb. After that, "concluded this implacable chastener of man, "it will be your own fault if you ever let him get up again."
"But I do not want him to be tortured and abject and under my thumb," repeated Edith, emphatically. "I could not respect such a man!"
"Are you afraid of him?" asked Phyllis, bluntly.
Edith looked startled and blushed. "Yes," she whispered reluctantly, "I suppose I am a little bit afraid of him."
"I see — and you rather like it, I expect. I know the type of person -- horrid square jaws and mouth cut out of granite. Nasty creature! However, you are evidently quite hopeless. But what a strange thing it is that you, who ordered people about as though you were a queen, and always seemed to get your own way, should glory in having some one to domineer over you."
"Oh!" rejoined Edith, proudly. "I like a man to be a man! How beautifully fresh and elegant you look," she cried suddenly, changing the subject, as her friend's banter was not wholly to her liking. "No one would dream that you had been traveling all night."
"My dear simpleton, when I had to change at Newcastle, I replaced my traveling dress with this muslin, and underwent a general course of renovation. Somehow, one always looks dusty and bedraggled after a long railway journey, and I was not going to risk meeting some nice man before I had time to make myself presentable."
"Always men — you shameless flirt!" said Edith, with an indulgent smile.
"Of course," said Phyllis, coolly. "And that reminds me, I had to make my choice between beautifying and breakfast. With Spartan resolution, I chose the first. I have had nothing except a glass of milk and an unutterable bun, and I am simply starved."
"Shall we breakfast alone together this morning?" asked Edith. "I generally join Mr. and Mrs. Aingier, now he is convalescent; but —"
"How old is Mr. Aingier," interrupted Phyllis.
"No other men?"
"No. Mr. Bradshaw has gone to bed again."
"Then we will breakfast with them, by all means. I should not like any presentable young man to see me eat such a meal as I intend to dispose of. But an elderly personage, and married too, does not count."
The solicitor's age, however, did not prevent her from playing on him with a pair of big, trustful eyes. She could not, for the life of her, avoid this operation. Naturally, the big, trustful eyes inspired Mrs. Aingier with anything but trust, and she regarded this brazen creature with a growing disfavor which nearly culminated in an outburst when her husband patted the curly, brown head with a fatherly hand.