Chapter XXVII.
 

Mrs. Staines uttered a sharp cry and seized the ring. Her eyes dilated over it, and she began to tremble in every limb; and at last she sank slowly back, and her head fell on one side like a broken lily. The sudden sight of the ring overpowered her almost to fainting.

Falcon rose to call for assistance; but she made him a feeble motion not to do so.

She got the better of her faintness, and then she fell to kissing the ring, in an agony of love, and wept over it, and still held it, and gazed at it through her blinding tears.

Falcon eyed her uneasily.

But he soon found he had nothing to fear. For a long time she seemed scarcely aware of his presence; and when she noticed him, it was to thank him, almost passionately.

"It was my Christie you were so good to: may Heaven bless you for it: and you will bring me his letter, will you not?"

"Of course I will."

"Oh, do not go yet. It is all so strange: so sad. I seem to have lost my poor Christie again, since he did not die at sea. But no, I am ungrateful to God, and ungrateful to the kind friend that nursed him to the last. Ah, I envy you that. Tell me all. Never mind my crying. I have seen the time I could not cry. It was worse then than now. I shall always cry when I speak of him, ay, to my dying day. Tell me, tell me all."

Her passion frightened the egotist, but did not turn him. He had gone too far. He told her that, after raising all their hopes, Dr. Staines had suddenly changed for the worse, and sunk rapidly; that his last words had been about her, and he had said, "My poor Rosa, who will protect her?" That, to comfort him, he had said he would protect her. Then the dying man had managed to write a line or two, and to address it. Almost his last words had been, "Be a father to my child."

"That is strange."

"You have no child? Then it must have been you he meant. He spoke of you as a child more than once."

"Mr. Falcon, I have a child; but born since I lost my poor child's father."

"Then I think he knew it. They say that dying men can see all over the world: and I remember, when he said it, his eyes seemed fixed very strangely, as if on something distant. Oh, how wonderful all this is. May I see his child, to whom I promised"--

The artist in lies left his sentence half completed.

Rosa rang, and sent for her little boy.

Mr. Falcon admired his beauty, and said quietly, "I shall keep my vow."

He then left her, with a promise to come back early next morning with the letter.

She let him go only on those conditions.

As soon as her father came in, she ran to him with this strange story.

"I don't believe it," said he. "It is impossible."

She showed him the proof, the ruby ring.

Then he became very uneasy, and begged her not to tell a soul. He did not tell her the reason, but he feared the insurance office would hear of it, and require proofs of Christopher's decease, whereas they had accepted it without a murmur, on the evidence of Captain Hamilton and the Amphitrite's log-book.

As for Falcon, he went carefully through Staines's two letters, and wherever he found a word that suited his purpose, he traced it by the usual process, and so, in the course of a few hours, he concocted a short letter, all the words in which, except three, were facsimiles, only here and there a little shaky; the three odd words he had to imitate by observation of the letters. The signature he got to perfection by tracing.

He inserted this letter in the original envelope, and sealed it very carefully, so as to hide that the seal had been tampered with.

Thus armed, he went down to Gravesend. There he hired a horse and rode to Kent Villa.

Why he hired a horse, he knew how hard it is to forge handwriting, and he chose to have the means of escape at hand.

He came into the drawing-room, ghastly pale, and almost immediately gave her the letter; then turned his back, feigning delicacy. In reality he was quaking with fear lest she should suspect the handwriting. But the envelope was addressed by Staines, and paved the way for the letter; she was unsuspicious and good, and her heart cried out for her husband's last written words: at such a moment, what chance had judgment and suspicion in an innocent and loving soul?

Her eloquent sighs and sobs soon told the caitiff he had nothing to fear.

The letter ran thus:--

MY OWN ROSA,--All that a brother could do for a beloved brother, Falcon has done. He nursed me night and day. But it is vain. I shall never see you again in this world. I send you a protector, and a father to your child. Value him. He has promised to be your stay on earth, and my spirit shall watch over you.--To my last breath, your loving husband,

CHRISTOPHER STAINES.

Falcon rose, and began to steal on tiptoe out of the room.

Rosa stopped him. "You need not go," said she. "You are our friend. By and by I hope I shall find words to thank you."

"Pray let me retire a moment," said the hypocrite. "A husband's last words: too sacred--a stranger:" and he went out into the garden. There he found the nursemaid Emily, and the little boy.

He stopped the child, and made love to the nursemaid; showed her his diamonds--he carried them all about him--told her he had thirty thousand acres in Cape Colony, and diamonds on them; and was going to buy thirty thousand more of the government. "Here, take one," said he. "Oh, you needn't be shy. They are common enough on my estates. I'll tell you what, though, you could not buy that for less than thirty pounds at any shop in London. Could she, my little duck? Never mind, it is no brighter than her eyes. Now do you know what she will do with that, Master Christie? She will give it to some duffer to put in a pin."

"She won't do nothing of the kind," said Emily, flushing all over. "She is not such a fool." She then volunteered to tell him she had no sweetheart, and did not trouble her head about young men at all. He interpreted this to mean she was looking out for one. So do I.

"No sweetheart!" said he; "and the prettiest girl I have seen since I landed: then I put in for the situation."

Here, seeing the footman coming, he bestowed a most paternal kiss on little Christie, and saying, "Not a word to John, or no more diamonds from me;" he moved carefully away, leaving the girl all in a flutter with extravagant hopes.

The next moment this wolf in the sheep-fold entered the drawing- room. Mrs. Staines was not there. He waited, and waited, and began to get rather uneasy, as men will who walk among pitfalls.

Presently the footman came to say that Mrs. Staines was with her father, in his study, but she would come to him in five minutes.

This increased his anxiety. What! She was taking advice of an older head. He began to be very seriously alarmed, and, indeed, had pretty well made up his mind to go down and gallop off, when the door opened, and Rosa came hastily in. Her eyes were very red with weeping. She came to him with both hands extended to him; he gave her his, timidly. She pressed them with such earnestness and power as he could not have suspected; and thanked him, and blessed him, with such a torrent of eloquence, that he hung his head with shame; and, being unable to face it out, villain as he was, yet still artful to the core, he pretended to burst out crying, and ran out of the room, and rode away.

He waited two days, and then called again. Rosa reproached him sweetly for going before she had half thanked him.

"All the better," said he. "I have been thanked a great deal too much already. Who would not do his best for a dying countryman, and fight night and day to save him for his wife and child at home? If I had succeeded, then I would be greedy of praise: but now it makes me blush; it makes me very sad."

"You did your best," said Rosa tearfully.

"Ah! that I did. Indeed, I was ill for weeks after, myself, through the strain upon my mind, and the disappointment, and going so many nights without sleep. But don't let us talk of that."

"Do you know what my darling says to me in my letter?"

"No."

"Would you like to see it?"

"Indeed I should; but I have no right."

"Every right. It is the only mark of esteem, worth anything, I can show you."

She handed him the letter, and buried her own face in her hands.

He read it, and acted the deepest emotion.

He handed it back, without a word.