Part the Third
Chapter 8
 

Alma was walking on the sea-road at Penzance, glad to be quite alone, yet at a loss how to spend the time. Rolfe had sailed for Scilly, and would be absent for two or three days; Mrs. Frothingham, with Hughie for companion, was driving to Marazion. Why -- Alma asked herself -- had she wished to be left alone this morning? Some thought had glimmered vaguely in her restless mind; she could not recover it.

The little shop window, set out with objects carved in serpentine, held her for a moment; but remembering how often she had paused here lately, she felt ashamed, and walked on. Presently there moved towards her a lady in a Bath-chair; a lady who had once been beautiful, but now, though scarcely middle-aged, looked gaunt and haggard from some long illness. The invalid held open a newspaper, and Alma, in passing, saw that it was The World. At once her step quickened, for she had remembered the desire which touched her an hour ago.

She walked to the railway station, surveyed the papers on the bookstall, and bought three -- papers which would tell her what was going on in society. With these in hand she found a quiet spot, sheltered from the August sun, where she could sit and read. She read eagerly, enviously. And before long her eye fell upon a paragraph in which was a name she knew. Lady Isobel Barker, in her lovely retreat at Boscombe, was entertaining a large house-party; in the list appeared -- Mrs. Hugh Carnaby. Unmistakable: Mrs. Hugh Carnaby. Who Lady Isobel might be, Alma had no idea; nor were any of the other guests known to her, but the names of all seemed to roll upon the tongue of the announcing footman. She had a vision of Sibyl in that august company; Sibyl, coldly beautiful, admirably sage, with -- perhaps -- ever so little of the air of a martyr, to heighten her impressiveness.

When she could command herself, she glanced hurriedly through column after column of all the papers, seeking for that name again. In one, an illustrated publication, she came upon a couple of small portraits, side by side. Surely she recognised that face -- the bold, coarse-featured man, with his pretentious smile? But the girl, no; a young and very pretty girl, smirking a little, with feathery hair which faded off into an aureole. The text was illuminating.

'I am able to announce,' wrote Ego, 'and I think I shall be one of the first to do so, that the brilliant composer, Mr. Felix Dymes, will shortly vanish from the gay (if naughty) world of bachelorhood. I learn on excellent authority that Mr. Dymes has quite recently become engaged to Miss Lettice Almond, a very charming young lady, whose many gifts (especially musical) have as yet been known only to a comparatively small circle, and for the delightful reason that she is still only eighteen. Miss Almond is the daughter of Mr. Haliburton Almond, senior partner in the old and well-known firm of Almond Brothers, the manufacturers of fireworks. She is an only daughter, and, though she has two brothers, I may add (I trust without indiscretion) that the title of heiress may be fittingly applied to her. The marriage may take place in November, and will doubtless be a brilliant as well as a most interesting affair. By-the-bye, Mr. Dymes's new opera is not likely to be ready till next year, but some who have been privileged to hear the parts already composed declare that it will surpass even "Blue Roses" in the charm of sweet yet vivacious melody.'

When she had read and mused for more than an hour, Alma tore out the two passages that had a personal interest for her, and put them in her purse. The papers she left lying for anyone who chose to pick them up.

A fortnight later she was back at Gunnersbury; where, indeed, she would have been content to stay all through the summer, had not Harvey and the doctor insisted on her leaving home. All sorts of holidays had been proposed, but nothing of the kind attracted her. She declared that she was quite well, and that she preferred home to anywhere else; she had got used to it, and did not wish to be unsettled. Six weeks at Penzance simply wearied her; she brightened wonderfully on the day of return. Harvey, always anxious, tried to believe that the great sorrow through which she had passed was effecting only a natural change, subduing her troublesome mutability of temper, and leading her to find solace in domestic quietude.

On the third day after her return, she had lunched alone, and was sitting in the library. Her dress, more elaborate than usual, and the frequent glances which she cast at the clock, denoted expectation of some arrival. Hearing a knock at the front door, she rose and waited nervously.

'Mr. Dymes is in the drawing-room, mum.'

She joined him. Dymes, with wonted frankness, not to say impudence, inspected her from head to foot, and did not try to conceal surprise.

'I was awfully glad to get your note. As I told you, I called here about a month ago, and I should have called again. I didn't care to write until I heard from you. You've been ill, I can see. I heard about it. Awfully sorry.'

Alma saw that he intended respectful behaviour. The fact of being in her own house was, of course, a protection, but Dymes, she quite understood, had altered in mind towards her. She treated him distantly, yet without a hint of unfriendliness.

'I began to wonder whether I had missed a letter of yours. It's some time since you promised to write -- on business.'

'The fact is,' he replied, 'I kept putting it off, hoping to see you, and it's wonderful how time slips by. I can hardly believe that it's more than a year since your recital. How splendidly it came off! If only you could have followed it up -- but we won't talk about that.'

He paused for any remark she might wish to make. Alma, dreamy for a moment, recovered herself, and asked, in a disinterested tone ----

'We paid all expenses, I suppose?'

'Well -- not quite.'

'Not quite? I understood from you that there was no doubt about it.'

'I thought,' said Dymes, as he bent forward familiarly, 'that my silence would let you know how matters stood. If there had been anything due to you, of course I should have sent a cheque. We did very well indeed, remarkably well, but the advertising expenses were very heavy.' He took a paper from his pocket. 'Here is the detailed account. I shouldn't have spent so much if I hadn't regarded it as an investment. You had to be boomed, you know -- floated, and I flatter myself I did it pretty well. But, of course, as things turned out ----'

Alma glanced over the paper. The items astonished her.

'You mean to say, then, that I am in your debt for a hundred and thirty pounds?'

'Debt be hanged!' cried Dymes magnanimously. 'That's all done with, long ago. I only wanted to explain how things were.'

Alma reddened. She was trying to remember the state of her banking account, and felt sure that, at this moment, considerably less than a hundred pounds stood to her credit. But she rose promptly.

'Of course, I shall give you a cheque.'

'Nonsense! Don't treat me like a regular agent, Mrs. Rolfe. Surely you know me better than that? I undertook it for the pleasure of the thing ----'

'But you don't suppose I can accept a present of money from you, Mr Dymes?'

'Hang it! Just as you like, of course. But don't make me take it now, as if I'd looked in with my little bill. Send the cheque, if you must. But what I really came for, when I called a few weeks ago, was something else -- quite a different thing, and a good deal more important. Just sit down again, if you can spare me a few minutes.'

With face averted, Alma sank back into her chair. Harvey would give her the money without a word, but she dreaded the necessity of asking him for it. So disturbed were her thoughts that she did not notice how oddly Dymes was regarding her, and his next words sounded meaningless.

'By-the-bye, can we talk here?'

'Talk ----?'

'I mean' -- he lowered his voice -- 'are we safe from interruption? It's all right; don't look frightened. The fact is, I want to speak of something rather awkward -- but it's something you ought to know about, if you don't already.'

'I am quite at leisure,' she replied; adding, with a nervous movement of the head, 'there will be no interruption.'

'I want to ask you, then, have you seen Mrs. Strangeways lately?'

'No.'

'Nor Mrs. Carnaby?'

'No.'

'I understand you've broken with them altogether? You don't want anything more to do with that lot?'

'I have nothing whatever to do with them,' Alma replied, steadying her voice to a cold dignity.

'And I think you're quite right. Now, look here -- you've heard, I dare say, that I'm going to be married? Well, I'm not the kind of fellow to talk sentiment, as you know. But I've had fair luck in life, and I feel pretty pleased with myself, and if I can do anybody a friendly turn -- anybody that deserves it -- I'm all there. I want you just to think of me as a friend, and nothing else. You're rather set against me, I know; but try and forget all about that. Things are changed. After all, you know, I'm one of the men that people talk about; my name has got into the "directories of talent", as somebody calls them; and I have a good deal at stake. It won't do for me to go fooling about any more. All I mean is, that you can trust me, down to the ground. And there's nobody I would be better pleased to help in a friendly way than you, Mrs. Rolfe.'

Alma was gazing at him in surprise, mingled with apprehension.

'Please say what you mean. I don't see how you can possibly do me any service. I have given up all thought of a professional career.

'I know you have. I'm sorry for it, but it isn't that I want to talk about. You don't see Mrs. Carnaby, but I suppose you hear of her now and then?'

'Very rarely.'

'You know that she has been taken up by Lady Isobel Barker?'

'Who is Lady Isobel Barker?'

'Why, she's a daughter of the Earl of Bournemouth, and she married a fellow on the Stock Exchange. There are all sorts of amusing stories about her. I don't mean anything shady -- just the opposite. She did a good deal of slumming at the time when it was fashionable, and started a home for women of a certain kind -- all that sort of thing. Barker is by way of being a millionaire, and they live in great style; have Royalties down at Boscombe, and so on. Well, Mrs. Carnaby has got hold of her. I don't know how she managed it. Just after that affair it looked as if she would have a bad time. People cut her -- you know all about that?'

'No, I don't. You mean that they thought ----'

'Just so; they did think.' He nodded and smiled. 'She was all the talk at the clubs, and, no doubt, in the boudoirs. I wasn't a friend of hers, you know -- I met her now and then, that was all; so I didn't quite know what to think. But it looked -- didn't it?'

Alma avoided his glance, and said nothing.

'I shouldn't wonder,' pursued Dymes, 'if she went to Lady Isobel and talked about her hard case, and just asked for help. At all events, last May we began to hear of Mrs. Carnaby again. Women who wanted to be thought smart had quite altered their tone about her. Men laughed, but some of them began to admit that the case was doubtful. At all events, Lady Isobel was on her side, and that meant a good deal.'

'And she went about in society just as if nothing had happened?'

'No, no. That would have been bad taste, considering where her husband was. She wasn't seen much, only talked about. She's a clever woman, and by the time Carnaby's let loose she'll have played the game so well that things will be made pretty soft for him. I'm told he's a bit of a globe-trotter, sportsman, and so on. All he has to do is to knock up a book of travels, and it'll go like wildfire.'

Alma had pulled to pieces a tassel on her chair.

'What has all this to do with me?' she asked abruptly.

'I'm coming to that. You don't know anything about Mrs. Strangeways either? Well, there may be a doubt about Mrs. Carnaby, but there's none about Mrs. S. She's just about as bad as they make 'em. I could tell you things -- but I won't. What I want to know is, did you quarrel with her?'

'Quarrel! Why should we have quarrelled? What had I to do with her?'

'Nothing about Redgrave?' asked Dymes, pushing his head forward and speaking confidentially.

'What do you mean?'

'No harm, I assure you -- all the other way. I know Mrs. Strangeways, and I've had a good deal of talk with her lately, and I couldn't help suspecting you had a reason of your own for getting clear of her. Let me tell you, first of all, that she's left her house in Porchester Terrace. My belief is that she and her husband haven't a five-pound note between them. And the queer thing is, that this has come about since Redgrave's death.'

He paused to give his words their full significance. Alma, no longer disguising her interest, faced him with searching eyes.

'She's a bad un,' pursued the musician, 'and I shouldn't care to tell all I think about her life for the last few years. I've seen a good deal of life myself, you know, and I don't pretend to be squeamish; but I draw a line for women. Mrs. Strangeways goes a good bit beyond it, as I know for certain.'

'What is it to me?' said Alma, with tremulous impatience.

'Why, this much. She is doing her best to harm you, and in a devilish artful way. She tries to make me believe -- and it's certain she says the same to others -- that what happened at Wimbledon was the result of a plot between you and Redgrave's housekeeper!'

Alma stared at him, her parted lips quivering with an abortive laugh.

'Do you understand? She says that you were furiously jealous of Mrs Carnaby, and didn't care what you did to ruin her; that you put Redgrave's housekeeper up to telling Carnaby lies about his wife.'

'How long has she been saying this?'

'I heard it for the first time about two months ago. But let me go on. The interesting thing is that, at the time of the trial and after it, she was all the other way. She as good as told me that she had proof against Mrs. Carnaby; I fancy she told lots of people the same. She talked as if she hated the woman. But now that Mrs. Carnaby is looking up -- you see? -- she's going to play Mrs. Carnaby's game at your expense. What I should like to know is whether they've done it together?'

'There can't be much doubt of that,' said Alma, between her teeth.

'I don't know,' rejoined the other cautiously. 'Have you reason to think that Mrs. Carnaby would like to injure you?'

'I'm quite sure she would do so if it benefited herself.'

'And yet you were fast friends not long ago, weren't you?' asked Dymes, with a look of genuine curiosity.

'We don't always know people as well as we think. Where is that woman living now? -- I mean, Mrs. Strangeways.'

'That's more than I can tell you. She is -- or is supposed to be -- out of town. I saw her last just before she left her house.'

'Is the other in town?'

'Mrs. Carnaby? I don't know. I was going to say,' Dymes pursued, 'that the story Mrs. S. has been telling seems to me very clumsy, and that's why I don't think the other has any hand in it. She seemed to have forgotten that Redgrave's housekeeper, who was wanted by the police, wasn't likely to put herself in Carnaby's way -- the man she had robbed. I pointed that out, but she only laughed. "We're not bound to believe," she said, "all that Carnaby said on his trial."'

'We are not,' Alma remarked, with a hard smile.

'You think he dressed things up a bit?'

'I think,' answered Alma, 'that he may have known more than he told.'

'That's my idea, too. But never mind; whatever the truth may be, that woman is doing you a serious injury. I felt you ought to know about it. People have talked about you a good deal, wondering why on earth you dropped out of sight so suddenly after that splendid start; and it was only natural they should connect your name with the Carnaby affair, knowing, as so many did, that you were a friend of theirs, and of Redgrave too.'

'I knew Mr. Redgrave,' said Alma, 'but I was no friend of his.'

Dymes peered at her.

'Didn't he interest himself a good deal in your business?'

'Not more than many other people.'

'Well, I'm very glad to hear that,' said Dymes, looking about the room. 'I tell you, honestly, that whenever I have a chance of speaking up for you, I shall do it.'

'I am very much obliged, but I really don't think it matters what is said of me. I am not likely ever to meet the people who talk about such things.'

She said it in so convincing a tone that Dymes looked at her gravely.

'I never know any one change so much,' he observed. 'Is it really your health? No other reason for giving up such magnificent chances?'

'Of course, I have my reasons. They concern nobody but myself.'

'I might give a guess, I dare say. Well, you're the best judge, and we won't say any more about that. But look here -- about Mrs. S. and her scandal. I feel sure, as I said, that she's toadying to Mrs. Carnaby, and expects to make her gain out of it somehow. Her husband's a loafing, gambling fellow, and I shouldn't wonder if he gave her the skip. Most likely she'll have to live by her wits, and we know what that means in a woman of her kind. She'll be more or less dangerous to everybody that's worth blackmailing.'

'You think she had -- she was dependent in some way upon Mr. Redgrave?' asked Alma, in an undertone.

'I've heard so. Shall I tell you what a woman said who is very likely to know? Long ago, in the time of her first marriage, she got hold of something about him that would have made a furious scandal, and he had to pay for her silence. All gossip; but there's generally a foundation for that kind of thing. If it's true, no doubt she has been at his relatives since his death. It doesn't look as if they were disposed to be bled. Perhaps they turned the tables on her. She has looked sour and disappointed enough for a long time.'

'I was just thinking,' said Alma, with an air of serious deliberation, 'whether it would be worth while for me to turn the tables on her, and prosecute her for slander.'

'If you take my advice, you'll keep out of that,' replied the other, with emphasis. 'But another thing has occurred to me. I see your opinion of Mrs. Carnaby, and no doubt you have good reason for it. Now, would it be possible to frighten her? Have you' -- he peered more keenly -- 'any evidence that would make things awkward for Mrs. Carnaby?'

Alma kept close lips, breathing rapidly.

'If you have,' pursued the other, 'just give her a hint that Mrs Strangeways had better stop talking. You'll find it effectual, no doubt.'

He watched her, and tried to interpret the passion in her eyes.

'If I think it necessary,' said Alma, and seemed to check herself.

'No need to say any more. I wished to put you on your guard, that's all. We've known each other for a longish time, and I've often enough felt sorry that something didn't come off -- you remember when. No good talking about that; but I shall always be glad if I can be a friend to you. And, I say, don't think any more about that cheque, there's a good girl.'

The note of familiar patronage was more than distasteful to Alma.

'I shall, of course, send it,' she replied curtly.

'As you please. Would you like to hear a bit from my new opera? It isn't every one gets the chance, you know.'

Quite in his old way, he seated himself at the piano, and ran lightly through a few choice morceaux, exacting praise, and showing himself vexed because it was not fervent. In spite of her wandering thoughts, Alma felt the seductiveness of these melodies -- their originality, their grace -- and once more she wondered at their coming from the mind of such a man.

'Very pretty.'

'Pretty!' exclaimed the composer scornfully. 'It's a good deal more than that, and you know it. I don't care -- there's somebody else feels deuced proud of me, and good reason too. Well, ta-ta!'

There are disadvantages in associating with people whose every word, as likely as not, may be an insidious falsehood. Thinking over what she had heard from Dymes, Alma was inclined to believe him; on the other hand, she knew it to be quite possible that he sought her with some interested motive. The wise thing, she knew, would be to disregard his reports, and hold aloof from the world in which they originated. But she had a strong desire to see Mrs. Strangeways. There might be someone at the house in Porchester Terrace who could help her to discover its late tenant. However dangerous the woman's wiles and slanders, an interview with her could do no harm, and might set at rest a curiosity long lurking, now feverishly stimulated. With regard to Sibyl, there could be little doubt that Dymes had heard, or conjectured, the truth. Sibyl was clever enough to make her perilous reverse a starting-point for new social conquests. Were there but a hope of confronting her with some fatal disclosure, and dragging her down, down!

That cheque must be sent. She would show Harvey the account this evening, and have done with the unpleasantness of it. Probably he remembered from time to time that she had never told him how her business with Dymes was settled. No more duplicity. The money would be paid, and therewith finis to that dragging chapter of her life.

Harvey came home at five o'clock, and, as usual, had tea with her. Of late he had been uneasy about Cecil Morphew, whose story Alma knew; today he spoke more hopefully.

'Shall I bring him here tomorrow, and make him stay over Sunday? Sunday is his bad day, and no wonder. If there were a licensed poison-shop in London, they'd do a very fair trade on Sundays.'

'There are the public-houses,' said Alma.

'Yes; but Morphew doesn't incline that way. The fellow has delicate instincts, and suffers all the more; so the world is made. I can't help hoping it may come right for him yet. I have a suspicion that Mrs. Winter may be on his side; if so, it's only a question of time. I keep at him like a slave-driver; he has to work whilst I'm there; and he takes it very good-humouredly. But you mustn't give him music, Alma; he says he can't stand it.'

'I'm much obliged to him,' she answered, laughing.

'You understand well enough.'

After dinner Alma found her courage and the fitting moment.

'I have something disagreeable to talk about. Mr. Dymes called this afternoon, and handed in his bill'

'His bill? Yes, yes, I remember. -- What's all this? Surely you haven't obliged him to come looking after his money?'

'It's the first account I have received.'

Rolfe puckered his face a little as he perused the document, but ended, as he began, with a smile. In silence he turned to the writing-table, took out his cheque-book, and wrote.

'You don't mind its being in my name?'

'Not at all. Indeed, I prefer it. But I am sorry and ashamed,' she added in a murmur.

'Let it be taken to the post at once,' said Rolfe quietly.

When this was done, Alma made known what Dymes had told her about Sibyl, speaking in an unconcerned voice, and refraining from any hint of suspicion or censure.

'I had heard of it,' said Harvey, with troubled brow, and evidently wished to say no more.

'What do you suppose Mr. Carnaby will do?' Alma inquired.

'Impossible to say. I'm told that the business at Coventry is flourishing, and no doubt his interest in it remains. I hear, too, that those Queensland mines are profitable at last. So there'll be no money troubles. But what he will do ----'

The subject was dropped.

Harvey had succeeded in hiding his annoyance at the large debt to Dymes, a sum he could ill afford; but he was glad to have paid it, and pleased with Alma's way of dismissing it to oblivion. The talk that followed had turned his mind upon a graver trouble: he sat thinking of Hugh Carnaby. Dear old Hugh! Not long ago the report ran that his health was in a bad state. To one who knew him the wonder was that he kept alive. But the second year drew on.