Part the Third
Chapter 10
 

Yet once again did Alma hypnotise her imagination with a newideal of life. Her talk was constantly of Greystone. She began a correspondence with Mrs. Morton, who did her best to encourage all pleasant anticipations -- careful the while, at her husband's bidding and Harvey's too, not to exaggerate the resources of Greystone for a mind and temper such as Alma's. Of course the little town had its musical circle, in which Mrs. Rolfe's talent would find an appreciative reception. Touching on this point to her correspondent, Alma remarked, with emphasised modesty, that she must not be regarded as a professional violinist; it would be better, perhaps, if nothing were said about her 'rather audacious experiment' in London. Meanwhile, a suitable house was being looked for. There need be no hurry; Midsummer was the earliest possible date for removal, and a few months later might prove more convenient.

At Easter came Mary Abbott's wedding, which was celebrated as quietly as might be. Alma had done her utmost to atone for bygone slights and coldness; she and Mary did not love each other, nor ever could, and for that reason they were all the more affectionate at this agitating time. When all was over, the Rolfes set forth on their visit to Greystone. Harvey could not look forward to complete enjoyment of the holiday, for by this time Cecil Morphew had succumbed to his old habits of tossing indolence, and only pretended to look after his business. If Harvey withdrew, the shop must either be closed or pass into other hands. Pecuniary loss was the least vexatious part of the affair. Morphew, reckless in the ruin of his dearest hope, would seek excitement, try once more to enrich himself by gambling, and so go down to the depths whence there is no rescue. As a last hope, Harvey had written to Henrietta Winter a long letter of all but passionate appeal; for answer he received a few lines, infinitely sorrowful, but of inflexible resolve. 'In the sight of God, Mr. Morphew already has a wife. I should be guilty of a crime if I married him.' With a desperate ejaculation, Rolfe crushed up the sheet of paper, and turned to other things.

Whilst she was at Greystone, Alma heard again from Felix Dymes, his letter having been forwarded. He wrote that Mrs. Strangeways was about to return to England, and that before long she might be heard of at a certain hotel in London. As this letter had escaped Harvey's notice, Alma was spared the necessity of shaping a fiction about it. Glad of this, and all but decided to put Mrs. Strangeways utterly out of her life and mind, she sent no answer.

But when she had been back again for some weeks at Gunnersbury; when a house at Greystone was taken (though it would not be ready for them till Michaelmas); when she was endeavouring, day after day, to teach Hughie, and to manage her servants, and to support a wavering hope, there arrived one morning a letter from Mrs. Strangeways. It was dated from the hotel which Dymes had mentioned, and it asked Alma to call there. A simple, friendly invitation, suggestive of tea and chat. Alma did not speak of it, and for an hour or two thought she could disregard it altogether. But that evening she talked to Harvey of shopping she had to do in town, and the following afternoon she called upon Mrs. Strangeways.

A lift carried her to the topmost, or all but topmost, storey of the vast hotel, swarming, murmurous. She entered a small sitting-room, pretentiously comfortless, and from a chair by the open window -- for it was a day of hot sunshine -- Mrs. Strangeways rose to greet her; quite in the old way, smiling with head aside, cooing rapidly an effusive welcome. Alma looked round to see that the door was shut; then, declining the offered hand, she said coldly ----

'You are mistaken if you think I have come as a friend.'

'Oh! I am so sorry to hear you say that. Do sit down, and let me hear all about it. I have so looked forward to seeing you.'

'I am only here to ask what good it can do you to talk ill of me.'

'I really don't understand. I am quite at a loss.'

'But I know for certain that you have tried to injure me by telling extraordinary falsehoods.'

Mrs. Strangeways regarded her with an air of gently troubled deprecation.

'Oh, you have been grievously misled. Who can have told you this?'

'The name doesn't matter. I have no doubt of the fact.'

'But at least you will tell me what I am supposed to have said.'

Alma hesitated, and only after several interchanges of question and answer did the full extent of her accusation appear. Thereupon Mrs Strangeways smiled, as if with forbearance.

'Now I understand. But I have been cruelly misrepresented. I heard such a rumour, and I did my best to contradict it. I heard it, unfortunately, more than once.'

Again Alma found herself in conflict with an adroitness, a self-possession, so much beyond her own, that the sense of being maliciously played with goaded her into rage.

'No one but yourself could ever have started such a story!'

'You mean,' sounded the other voice, still soft, though not quite so amiable, 'that I was the only person who knew ----'

And there Mrs. Strangeways paused, as if discreetly.

'Knew? Knew what?'

'Only that you had reason for a little spite against your dear friend.'

'Suppose it was so,' exclaimed Alma, remembering too well her last conversation with this woman. 'Whatever you knew, or thought you knew, about me -- and it was little enough -- you have been making use of it disgracefully.'

'You say I knew very little,' put in the other, turning a ring upon her hand; 'but you will admit that it was enough to excite my curiosity. May I not have taken trouble to learn more?'

'Any amount of trouble would have taught you nothing; there was nothing to discover. And that you know as well as I do.'

Mrs. Strangeways moved her head, as if in good-natured acquiescence.

'Don't let us be harsh with each other, my dear. We have both had our worries and trials in consequence of that unfortunate affair. You, I can see, have gone through a good deal; I assure you, so have I. But oughtn't you to remember that our misfortunes were caused by the same person? If I ----'

'Your misfortunes are nothing to me. And I shouldn't think you would care to talk about them.'

'Surely I might say the same to you, my dear Alma? Is there very much to choose between us?'

Alma flushed with resentment, but had no word ready on her parched tongue. The other went on in an unbroken flow of mocking good humour.

'We ought to be the best of friends. I haven't the least wish to do you harm, and nothing would please me better than to gratify your little feeling against a certain person. I may be able to manage that. Let me tell you something -- of course in the strictest confidence.' Her voice was playful for a moment. 'I have been trying to find someone -- you know who I mean -- who mysteriously disappeared. That interests you, I see. It's very difficult; such people don't let themselves be dropped upon by chance a second time. But, do you know, I have something very like a clue, at last. Yes' -- she nodded familiarly -- 'I have.'

In vain Alma tried to lock her lips.

'What if you find her?'

'Do you forget that someone will very soon be at large again, and that someone's wife, a very clever woman, counts on deceiving the world as she deceived him?'

'You are sure she did deceive him?'

Mrs. Strangeways laughed.

'You are acute, my dear. You see the puzzle from all sides. But I won't go into that just now. What I want to show you is, that our interests are the same. We should both dearly like to see a certain person shown up. I begin to see my way to do it very thoroughly. It would delight you if I were at liberty to tell what I actually have got hold of, but you must wait a little. My worst difficulty, now, is want of money. People have to be bought, you know, and I am not rich ----. Don't you think you could help a little?'

The question came out with smooth abruptness, accompanied by a look which startled the hearer.

'I? I have no money.'

'What an idea!'

'I tell you I haven't a penny of my own!'

'My dear Alma, you have obliging bankers. One of them is doing very well indeed. You didn't go to his wedding?'

Alma felt a chill of fear. The woman's eyes seemed to cast a net about her, and to watch her struggle as it tightened.

'I don't understand you. I have nothing to do with your plots.'

She strung her muscles and stood up; but Mrs. Strangeways, scarcely moving, still looked at her with baleful directness.

'It would be a shame to lose our sport for want of a little money. I must ask you to help, really.'

'I can't -- and won't.'

'I feel sure you will -- rather than have anything happen. You are leading, I hear, a most exemplary life; I should be so sorry to disturb it. But really, you must help in our undertaking.'

There was a very short silence.

'A week, even a fortnight hence, will do. No great sum; two or three hundred pounds. We won't say any more about it; I depend upon you. In a fortnight's time will do.'

'Do you imagine,' exclaimed Alma, on a high, quivering note, 'that I am in your power?'

'Hush! It is very dangerous to talk like that in a hotel. -- Think over what I have said. You will find me here. Think, and remember. You will be quite satisfied with the results, but your help is indispensable.'

Therewith Mrs. Strangeways turned to the open window. Looking at her elaborately plaited yellow hair, her thin neck, her delicate fingers just touching the long throat, Alma felt instinct of savagery; in a flash of the primitive mind, she saw herself spring upon her enemy, tear, bite, destroy. The desire still shook her as she stood outside in the corridor, waiting to descend. And in the street she walked like a somnambulist, with wide eyes, straight on. Curious glances at length recalled her to herself; she turned hurriedly from the crowded highway.

Before reaching home, she had surveyed her position, searched her memory. 'The wretch is counting on my weakness. Knowing she can do nothing, she thinks I shall be frightened by the threat. Money? And perhaps all she said only a lie to tempt me! Let her do her worst -- and that will be nothing.'

And by this she held, letting the days go by. The fortnight passed. She was ill with apprehension, with suspense; but nothing happened. Three weeks, and nothing happened. Then Alma laughed, and went about the house singing her deliverance.

On that day, Mrs. Strangeways sat talking with Mrs. Carnaby, in the latter's drawing-room. Her manner was deferential, but that of a friend. Sibyl, queening it at some distance, had the air of conferring a favour as she listened.

'I haven't the least doubt that I shall soon lay my hand upon her. I have had an answer to my last advertisement.'

'Then let me see it,' replied Sibyl coldly.

'Impossible. I put myself in a position of much danger. I dare not trust even you, Mrs. Carnaby.'

'Very well. You know my promise. Get her into the hands of the police, and your reward is waiting.'

'But I may lose my opportunity, for want of money. If you would trust me with only -- say a hundred pounds.'

'Not a farthing. I didn't ask you to undertake this. If you do it, well and good, I will pay you. But nothing till then.'

Mrs. Strangeways perused the carpet.

'Anyone else,' she murmured, 'might be tempted to think that you didn't really care to have her caught.'

'You may be tempted to think exactly what you like,' answered Sibyl, with fine scorn.

The other scrutinised her, with an eye of anxious uncertainty.

'Have you thought, again, of taking any steps in the other matter?'

'Have you anything to show?'

'No. But it can be obtained. A charge of slander could be brought against her at any moment. If you prefer libel, it is merely taking a little trouble.'

Sibyl reflected.

'There is no hurry. I will pay you, as I said, for any trustworthy evidence -- of any kind. You bring me none. -- Does she come to see you?'

'Occasionally.'

'And -- have you succeeded in making her pay?' asked Sibyl, with a curl of the lips.

Mrs. Strangeways merely smiled. After a brief pause, Sibyl looked at her watch, and rose.

'I have an engagement. And -- pray don't trouble to come again unless you have really something to come for. I can't pretend to have any taste for this kind of conversation. It really matters very little; we know that woman will be caught some day, and I shall have the pleasure of prosecuting her for stealing my jewellery and things. The other person -- perhaps she is a little beneath my notice.'

She rang the bell, and Mrs. Strangeways, having no alternative, slightly bent her head and withdrew.

Mrs. Carnaby had no engagement; she was quite at leisure, and, as usual nowadays, spent her leisure in thought. She did not read much, and not at all in the solid books which were to be seen lying about her rooms; but Lady Isobel Barker, and a few other people, admired her devotion to study. Certainly one or two lines had begun to reveal themselves on Sibyl's forehead, which might possibly have come of late reading and memory overstrained; they might also be the record of other experiences. Her beauty was more than ever of the austere type; in regarding her, one could have murmured --

Chaste a' the icicle That's curded by the frost from purest snow, And hangs on Dian's temple.

But in privacy Sibyl did not look her best. Assuredly not after the withdrawal of Mrs. Strangeways, when her lips, sneering away their fine contour, grew to an ugly hardness, and her eyes smalled themselves in a vicious intensity of mental vision.