Chapter XIII
 

Cynthia and Georgina Welwyn were dining at Beechmark on the eventful evening. They took their departure immediately after the scene in the drawing-room when Geoffrey French, at his cousin's wish, gathered Buntingford's guests together, and revealed the identity of the woman in the wood. In the hurried conversation that followed, Cynthia scarcely joined, and she was more than ready when Georgina proposed to go. Julian Horne found them their wraps, and saw them off. It was a beautiful night, and they were to walk home through the park.

"Shall I bring you any news there is to-morrow?" said Horne from the doorstep--"Geoffrey has asked me to stay till the evening. Everybody else of course is going early. It will be some time, won't it,"--he lowered his voice--"before we shall see the bearing of all this?"

Cynthia assented, rather coldly; and when she and her sister were walking through the moonlit path leading to the cottage, her silence was still marked, whereas Georgina in her grim way was excited and eager to talk.

The truth was that Cynthia was not only agitated by the news of the evening. She was hurt--bitterly hurt. Could not Buntingford have spared her a word in private? She was his kinswoman, his old and particular friend, neglectful as he had shown himself during the war. Had he not only a few weeks before come to ask her help with the trouble-some girl whose charge he had assumed? She had been no good, she knew. Helena had not been ready to make friends; and Cynthia's correctness had always been repelled by the reckless note in Helena. Yet she had done her best on that and other occasions and she had been rewarded by being treated in this most critical, most agitated moment like any other of Buntingford's week-end guests. Not a special message even--just the news that everybody might now know, and--Julian Horne to see them off! Yet Helena had been sent for at once. Helena had been closeted with Philip for half an hour. No doubt he had a special responsibility towards her. But what use could she possibly be? Whereas Cynthia felt herself the practical, experienced woman, able to give an old friend any help he might want in a grave emergency.

"Of course we must all hope she will die--and die quickly!" said Lady Georgina, with energy, after some remarks to which Cynthia paid small attention. "It would be the only sensible course for Providence--after making such a terrible mistake."

"Is there any idea of her dying?" Cynthia looked down upon her sister with astonishment. "Geoffrey didn't say so."

"He said she was 'very ill,' and from her conduct she must be crazy. So there's hope."

"You mean, for Philip?"

"For the world in general," said Georgina, cautiously, with an unnoticed glance at her companion. "But of course Philip has only himself to blame. Why did he marry such a woman?"

"She may have been very beautiful--or charming--you don't know."

Lady Georgina shrugged her shoulders.

"Well, of course there must have been something to bait the hook! But when a man marries out of his own class, unless the woman dies, the man goes to pieces."

"Philip has not gone to pieces!" cried Cynthia indignantly.

"Because she removed herself. For practical purposes that was as good as dying. He has much to be grateful for. Suppose she had come home with him! She would have ruined him socially and morally."

"And if she doesn't die," said Cynthia slowly, "what will Philip do then?"

"Ship her off to America, as she asks him, and prove a few little facts in the divorce court--simple enough! It oughtn't to take him much more than six months to get free--which he never has been yet!" added Georgina, with particular emphasis.

"It's a mercy, my dear, that you didn't just happen to be Lady Buntingford!"

"As if I had ever expected to be!" said Cynthia, much nettled.

"Well, you would, and you wouldn't have been!" said Georgina obstinately. "It's very complicated. You would have had to be married again--after the divorce."

"I don't know why you are so unkind, Georgie!" There was a little quaver in Cynthia's voice. "Philip's a very old friend of mine, and I'm very sorry and troubled about him. Why do you smirch it all with these horrid remarks?"

"I won't make any more, if you don't like them," said Georgina, unabashed--"except just to say this, Cynthia--for the first time I begin to believe in your chance. There was always something not cleared up about Philip, and it might have turned out to be something past mending. Now it is cleared up; and it's bad--but it might have been worse. However--we'll change the subject. What about that handsome young woman, Helena?"

"Now, if you'd chanced to say it was a mercy she didn't happen to be Lady Buntingford, there'd have been some sense in it!" Cynthia's tone betrayed the soreness within.

Lady Georgina laughed, or rather chuckled.

"I know Philip a great deal better than you do, my dear, though he is your friend. He has made himself, I suspect, as usual, much too nice to that child; and he may think himself lucky if he hasn't broken her heart. He isn't a flirt--I agree. But he produces the same effect--without meaning it. Without meaning anything indeed--except to be good and kind to a young thing. The men with Philip's manners and Philip's charm--thank goodness, there aren't many of them!--have an abominable responsibility. The poor moth flops into the candle before she knows where she is. But as to marrying her--it has never entered his head for a moment, and never would."

"And why shouldn't it, please?"

"Because she is much too young for him--and Philip is a tired man. Haven't you seen that, Cynthy? Before you knew him, Philip had exhausted his emotions--that's my reading of him. I don't for a moment believe his wife was the only one, if what Geoffrey said of her, and what one guesses, is true. She would never have contented him. And now it's done. If he ever marries now, it will be for peace--not passion. As I said before, Cynthy--and I mean no offence--your chances are better than they were."

Cynthia winced and protested again, but all the same she was secretly soothed by her odd sister's point of view. They began to discuss the situation at the Rectory,--how Alice Alcott, their old friend, with her small domestic resources, could possibly cope with it, if a long illness developed.

"Either the woman will die, or she will be divorced," said Georgina trenchantly. "And as soon as they know she isn't going to die, what on earth will they do with her?"

As she spoke they were passing along the foot of the Rectory garden. The Rectory stood really on the edge of the park, where it bordered on the highroad; and their own cottage was only a hundred yards beyond. There were two figures walking up and down in the garden. The Welwyns identified them at once as the Rector and his sister.

Cynthia stopped.

"I shall go and ask Alice if we can do anything for her."

She made for the garden gate that opened on the park and called softly. The two dim figures turned and came towards her. It was soon conveyed to the Alcotts that the Welwyns shared their knowledge, and a conversation followed, almost in whispers under a group of lilacs that flung round them the scents of the unspoilt summer. Alice Alcott, to get a breath of air, had left her patient in the charge of their old housemaid, for a quarter of an hour, but must go back at once and would sit up all night. A nurse was coming on the morrow.

Then, while Georgina employed her rasping tongue on Mr. Alcott, Cynthia and the Rector's sister conferred in low tones about various urgent matters--furniture for the nurse's room, sheets, pillows, and the rest. The Alcotts were very poor, and the Rectory had no reserves.

"Of course, we could send for everything to Beechmark," murmured Miss Alcott.

"Why should you? It is so much further. We will send in everything you want. What are we to call this--this person?" said Cynthia.

"Madame Melegrani. It is the name she has passed by for years."

"You say she is holding her own?"

"Just--with strychnine and brandy. But the heart is very weak. She told Dr. Ramsay she had an attack of flu last week--temperature up to 104. But she wouldn't give in to it--never even went to bed. Then came the excitement of travelling down here and the night in the park. This is the result. It makes me nervous to think that we shan't have Dr. Ramsay to-morrow. His partner is not quite the same thing. But he is going to London with Lord Buntingford."

"Buntingford--going to London?" said Cynthia in amazement.

Miss Alcott started. She remembered suddenly that her brother had told her that no mention was to be made, for the present, of the visit to London. In her fatigue and suppressed excitement she had forgotten. She could only retrieve her indiscretion--since white lies were not practised at the Rectory--by a hurried change of subject and by reminding her brother it was time for them to go back to the house. They accordingly disappeared.

"What is Buntingford going to London for?" said Georgina as they neared their own door.

Cynthia could not imagine--especially when the state of the Rectory patient was considered. "If she is as bad as the Alcotts say, they will probably want to-morrow to get a deposition from her of some kind," remarked Georgina, facing the facts as usual. Cynthia acquiesced. But she was not thinking of the unhappy stranger who lay, probably dying, under the Alcotts' roof. She was suffering from a fresh personal stab. For, clearly, Geoffrey French had not told all there was to be known; there was some further mystery. And even the Alcotts knew more than she. Affection and pride were both wounded anew.

But with the morning came consolation. Her maid, when she called her, brought in the letters as usual. Among them, one in a large familiar hand. She opened it eagerly, and it ran:--

"Saturday night, 11 p.m.

"MY DEAR CYNTHIA:--I was so sorry to find when I went to the drawing-room just now that you had gone home. I wanted if possible to walk part of the way with you, and to tell you a few things myself. For you are one of my oldest friends, and I greatly value your sympathy and counsel. But the confusion and bewilderment of the last few hours have been such--you will understand!

"To-morrow we shall hardly meet--for I am going to London on a strange errand! Anna--the woman that was my wife--tells me that six months after she left me, a son was born to me, whose existence she has till now concealed from me. I have no reason to doubt her word, but of course for everybody's sake I must verify her statement as far as I can. My son--a lad of fifteen--is now in London, and so is the French bonne--Zelie Ronchicourt--who originally lived with us in Paris, and was with Anna at the time of her confinement. You will feel for me when you know that he is apparently deaf and dumb. At any rate he has never spoken, and the brain makes no response. Anna speaks of an injury at birth. There might possibly be an operation. But of all this I shall know more presently. The boy, of course, is mine henceforth--whatever happens.

"With what mingled feelings I set out to-morrow, you can imagine. I feel no bitterness towards the unhappy soul who has come back so suddenly into my life. Except so far as the boy is concerned--(that I feel cruelly!)--I have not much right--For I was not blameless towards her in the old days. She had reasons--though not of the ordinary kind--for the frantic jealousy which carried her away from me. I shall do all I can for her; but if she gets through this illness, there will be a divorce in proper form.

"For me, in any case, it is the end of years of miserable uncertainty--of a semi-deception I could not escape--and of a moral loneliness I cannot describe. I must have often puzzled you and many others of my friends. Well, you have the key now. I can and will speak freely when we meet again.

"According to present plans, I bring the boy back to-morrow. Ramsay is to find me a specially trained nurse and will keep him under his own observation for a time. We may also have a specialist down at once.

"I shall of course hurry back as soon as I can--Anna's state is critical--

"Yours ever effectionately,

"BUNTINGFORD."

"P.S.--I don't know much about the domestic conditions in the Ramsays' house. Ramsay I have every confidence in. He has always seemed to me a very clever and a very nice fellow. And I imagine Mrs. Ramsay is a competent woman."

"She isn't!" said Cynthia, suddenly springing up in bed. "She is an incompetent goose! As for looking after that poor child and his nurse--properly--she couldn't!"

Quite another plan shaped itself in her mind. But she did not as yet communicate it to Georgina.

After breakfast she loaded her little pony carriage with all the invalid necessaries she had promised Miss Alcott, and drove them over to the Rectory. Alcott saw her arrival from his study, and came out, his finger on his lip, to meet her.

"Many, many thanks," he said, looking at what she had brought. "It is awfully good of you. I will take them in--but I ask myself--will she ever live through the day? Lord Buntingford and Ramsay hurried off by the first train this morning. She has enquired for the boy, and they will bring him back as soon as they can. She gives herself no chance! She is so weak--but her will is terribly strong! We can't get her to obey the doctor's orders. Of course, it is partly the restlessness of the condition."

Cynthia's eyes travelled to the upper window above the study. Buntingford's wife lay there! It seemed to her that the little room held all the secrets of Buntingford's past. The dying woman knew them, and she alone. A new jealousy entered into Cynthia--a despairing sense of the irrevocable. Helena was forgotten.

At noon Julian Horne arrived, bringing a book that Cynthia had lent him. He stayed to gossip about the break-up of the party.

"Everybody has cleared out except myself and Geoffrey. Miss Helena and her chaperon went this morning before lunch. Buntingford of course had gone before they came down. French tells me they have gone to a little inn in Wales he recommended. Miss Helena said she wanted something to draw, and a quiet place. I must say she looked pretty knocked up!--I suppose by the dance?"

His sharp greenish eyes perused Cynthia's countenance. She made no reply. His remark did not interest a preoccupied woman. Yet she did not fail to remember, with a curious pleasure, that there was no mention of Helena in Buntingford's letter.

Between five and six that afternoon a party of four descended at a station some fifteen miles from Beechmark, where Buntingford was not very likely to be recognized. It consisted of Buntingford, the doctor, a wrinkled French bonne, in a black stuff dress, and black bonnet, and a frail little boy whom a spectator would have guessed to be eleven or twelve years old. Buntingford carried him, and the whole party passed rapidly to a motor standing outside. Then through a rainy evening they sped on at a great pace towards the Beechmark park and village. The boy sat next to Buntingford who had his arm round him. But he was never still. He had a perpetual restless motion of the head and the emaciated right hand, as though something oppressed the head, and he were trying to brush it away. His eyes wandered round the faces in the car,--from his father to the doctor, from the doctor to the Frenchwoman. But there was no comprehension in them. He saw and did not see. Buntingford hung over him, alive to his every movement, absorbed indeed in his son. The boy's paternity was stamped upon him. He had Buntingford's hair and brow; every line and trait in those noticeable eyes of his father seemed to be reproduced in him; and there were small characteristics in the hands which made them a copy in miniature of his father's. No one seeing him could have doubted his mother's story; and Buntingford had been able to verify it in all essential particulars by the evidence of the old bonne, who had lived with Anna in Paris before her flight, and had been present at the child's birth. The old woman was very taciturn, and apparently hostile to Buntingford, whom she perfectly remembered; but she had told enough.

The June evening was in full beauty when the car drew up at the Rectory. Alcott and Dr. Ramsay's partner received them. The patient they reported had insisted on being lifted to a chair, and was feverishly expecting them.

Buntingford carried the boy upstairs, the bonne following. The doctors remained on the landing, within call. At sight of her mistress, Zelie's rugged face expressed her dismay. She hurried up to her, dropped on her knees beside her, and spoke to her in agitated French. Anna Melegrani turned her white face and clouded eyes upon her for a moment; but made no response. She looked past her indeed to where Buntingford stood with the boy, and made a faint gesture that seemed to summon him.

He put him down on his feet beside her. The pathetic little creature was wearing a shabby velveteen suit, with knickerbockers, which bagged about his thin frame. The legs like white sticks appearing below the knickerbockers, the blue-veined hollows of the temples, and the tiny hands--together with the quiet wandering look--made so pitiable an impression that Miss Alcott standing behind the sick woman could not keep back the tears. The boy himself was a centre of calm in the agitated room, except for the constant movement of the head. He seemed to perceive something familiar in his mother's face, but when she put out a feeble hand to him, and tried to kiss him, he began to whimper. Her expression changed at once; with what strength she had she pushed him away. "Il est afreux!" she said sombrely, closing her eyes.

Buntingford lifted him up, and carried him to Zelie, who was in a neighbouring room. She had brought with her some of the coloured bricks, and "nests" of Japanese boxes which generally amused him. He was soon sitting on the floor, aimlessly shuffling the bricks, and apparently happy. As his father was returning to the sickroom a note was put into his hand by the Rector. It contained these few words--"Don't make final arrangements with the Ramsays till you have seen me. Think I could propose something you would like better. Shall be here all the evening. Yours affectionately--Cynthia."

He had just thrust it into his pocket, when the Rector drew him aside at the head of the stairs, while the two doctors were with the patient.

"I don't want to interfere with any of your arrangements," whispered the Rector, "but I think perhaps I ought to tell you that Mrs. Ramsay is no great housewife. She is a queer little flighty thing. She spends her time in trying to write plays and bothering managers. There's no harm in her, and he's very fond of her. But it is an untidy, dirty little house! And nothing ever happens at the right time. My sister said I must warn you. She's had it on her mind--as she's had a good deal of experience of Mrs. Ramsay. And I believe Lady Cynthia has another plan."

Buntingford thanked him, remembering opportunely that when he had proposed to Ramsay to take the boy into his house, the doctor had accepted with a certain hesitation, which had puzzled him. "I will go over and see my cousin when I can be spared."

But a sudden call from the sickroom startled them both. Buntingford hurried forward.

When Buntingford entered he found the patient lying in a deep old-fashioned chair propped up by pillows. She had been supplied with the simplest of night-gear by Miss Alcott, and was wearing besides a blue cotton overall or wrapper in which the Rector's sister was often accustomed to do her morning's work. There was a marked incongruity between the commonness of the dress, and a certain cosmopolitan stamp, a touch of the grand air, which was evident in its wearer. The face, even in its mortal pallor and distress, was remarkable both for its intellect and its force. Buntingford stood a few paces from her, his sad eyes meeting hers. She motioned to him.

"Send them all away."

The doctors went, with certain instructions to Buntingford, one of them remaining in the room below. Buntingford came to sit close by her.

"They say I shall kill myself if I talk," she said in her gasping whisper. "It doesn't matter. I must talk! So--you don't doubt the boy?" Her large black eyes fixed him intently.

"No. I have no doubts--that he is my son. But his condition is very piteous. I have asked a specialist to come down."

There was a gleam of scorn in her expression.

"That'll do no good. I suppose--you think--we neglected the boy. Niente. We did the best we could. He was under a splendid man--in Naples--as good as any one here. He told me nothing could be done--and nothing can be done."

Buntingford had the terrible impression that there was a certain triumph in the faint tone. He said nothing, and presently the whisper began again.

"I keep seeing those people dancing--and hearing the band. I dropped a little bag--did anybody find it?"

"Yes, I have it here." He drew it out of his pocket, and put it in her hand, which feebly grasped it.

"Rocca gave it to me at Florence once, I am very fond of it. I suppose you wonder that--I loved him?"

There was a strange and tragic contrast between the woman's weakness, and her bitter provocative spirit; just as there was between the picturesque strength of Buntingford--a man in his prime--and the humble, deprecating gentleness of his present voice and manner.

"No," he answered. "I am glad--if it made you happy."

"Happy!" She opened her eyes again. "Who's ever happy? We were never happy!"

"Yes--at the beginning," he said, with a certain firmness. "Why take that away?"

She made a protesting movement.

"No--never! I was always--afraid. Afraid you'd get tired of me. I was only happy--working--and when they hung my picture--in the Salon--you remember?"

"I remember it well."

"But I was always jealous--of you. You drew better--than I did. That made me miserable."

After a long pause, during which he gave her some of the prepared stimulant Ramsay had left ready, she spoke again, with rather more vigour.

"Do you remember--that Artists' Fete--in the Bois--when I went as Primavera--Botticelli's Primavera?"

"Perfectly."

"I was as handsome then--as that girl you were rowing. And now--But I don't want to die!"--she said with sudden anguish--"Why should I die? I was quite well a fortnight ago. Why does that doctor frighten me so?" She tried to sit more erect, panting for breath. He did his best to soothe her, to induce her to go back to bed. But she resisted with all her remaining strength; instead, she drew him down to her.

"Tell me!--confess to me!"--she said hoarsely--"Madame de Chaville was your mistress!"

"Never! Calm yourself, poor Anna! I swear to you. Won't you believe me?"

She trembled violently. "If I left you--for nothing--"

She closed her eyes, and tears ran down her cheeks.

He bent over her--"Won't you rest now--and let them take you back to bed? You mustn't talk like this any more. You will kill yourself."

He left her in Ramsay's charge, and went first to find Alcott, begging him to pray with her. Then he wandered out blindly, into the summer evening. It was clear to him that she had only a few more hours--or at most--days to live. In his overpowering emotion--a breaking up of the great deeps of thought and feeling--he found his way into the shelter of one of the beechwoods that girdled the park, and sat there in a kind of moral stupor, till he had somehow mastered himself. The "old unhappy far-off things" were terribly with him; the failures and faults of his own distant life, far more than those of the dying woman. The only thought--the only interest--which finally gave him fresh strength--was the recollection of his boy.

Cynthia!--her letter--what was it she wanted to say to him? He got up, and resolutely turned his steps towards the cottage.

Cynthia was waiting for him. She brought him into the little drawing-room where a lamp had been lighted, and a tray of food was waiting of which she persuaded him to eat some mouthfuls. But when he questioned her as to the meaning of her letter, she evaded answering for a little while, till he had eaten something and drunk a glass of wine. Then she stretched out a hand to him, with a quiet smile.

"Come and see what I have been doing upstairs. It will be dreadful if you don't approve!"

He followed her in surprise, and she led him upstairs through the spotless passages of the cottage, bright with books and engravings, where never a thing was out of place, to a room with a flowery paper and bright curtains, looking on the park.

"I had it all got ready in a couple of hours. We have so much room--and it is such a pleasure--" she said, in half apology. "Nobody ever gets any meals at the Ramsays'--and they can't keep any servants. Of course you'll change it, if you don't like it. But Dr. Ramsay himself thought it the best plan. You see we are only a stone's throw from him. He can run in constantly. He really seemed relieved!"

And there in a white bed, with the newly arrived special nurse--kind-faced and competent--beside him, lay his recovered son, deeply and pathetically asleep. For in his sleep the piteous head movement had ceased, and he might have passed for a very delicate child of twelve, who would soon wake like other children to a new summer day.

Into Buntingford's strained consciousness there fell a drop of balm as he sat beside him, listening to the quiet breathing, and comforted by the mere peace of the slight form.

He looked up at Cynthia and thanked her; and Cynthia's heart sang for joy.