The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter XI. Another New Friend
The country folk did call upon the Steels, as indeed, they could scarcely fail to do, having called on him already as a bachelor the year before. Nor were the Uniackes and the Invernesses the bell-wethers of the flock. Those august families had returned to London for the season; but the taboo half-suggested by Mrs. Venables had begun and ended in her own mind. Indeed, that potent and diplomatic dame, who was the undoubted leader of society within a four-mile radius of Northborough town hall, was the first to recognize the mistake that she had made, and to behave as though she had never made it. Quite early in June, the Steels were bidden to a dinner-party in their honor at Upthorpe Hall.
"Mrs. Venables!" cried Rachel, in dismay. "Is that the gushing woman with the quiet daughters who called last Thursday?"
"That is the lady," said Steel, a gleam of humor in his grim eyes. He never expressed an opinion to his wife about any one of their neighbors, but when she let fall an impression of her own, he would look at her in this way, as though it was the very one that he had formed for himself a year ago.
"But need we go?" asked Rachel, with open apprehension.
"I think so," he said. "Why not?"
"A dinner-party, of all things! There is no cover at the dinner-table; you can't even wear a hat; you must sit there in a glare for hours and hours!" And Rachel shuddered. "Oh, don't let us go!" she urged; but her tone was neither pathetic nor despairing; though free from the faintest accent of affection, it was, nevertheless, the tone of a woman who has not always been denied.
"I am afraid we must go," he said firmly, but not unkindly. "You see, it is in our honor--as I happen to know; for Venables gave me a hint when I met him in the town the other day. He will take you in himself."
"And what is he like?"
"Fond of his dinner; he won't worry you," said Steel, reassuringly. "Nor need you really bother your head about all that any more. Nobody has recognized you yet; nobody is in the least likely to do so down here. Don't you see how delightfully provincial they are? There's a local lawyer, a pillar of all the virtues, who has misappropriated his own daughter-in-law's marriage portion and fled the country with the principal boy in their last pantomime; there are a lot of smart young fellows who are making a sporting thousand every other day out of iron warrants; the district's looking up after thirty years' bad times; and this is the sort of thing it's talking about. These are its heroes and its villains. All you hear from London is what the last man spent when he was up, and where he dined; and from all I can gather, the Tichborne trial made less impression down here than that of a Delverton parson who got into trouble about the same time."
"They must have heard of my trial," said Rachel, in a low voice. They were walking in the grounds after breakfast, but she looked round before speaking at all.
"They would glance at it," said Steel, with a shrug; "an occasional schoolboy might read it through; but even if you were guilty, and were here on view, you would command much less attention than the local malefactor in an infinitely smaller way. I am sorry I put it quite like that," added Steel, as Rachel winced, "but I feel convinced about it, and only wish I could convince you."
And he did so, more or less; but the fear of recognition had increased in Rachel, instead of abating, as time went on. It had increased especially since the rapid ripening of her acquaintance with Morna Woodgate into the intimacy which already subsisted between the two young wives. Rachel had told her husband that she would not have Morna know for anything; and he had appeared in his own dark way to sympathize with a solicitude which was more actual than necessary; but that was perhaps because he approved of Mrs. Woodgate on his own account. And so rare was that approval, as a positive and known quantity, yet so marked in this case, that he usually contrived to share Morna's society with his wife.
"You shall not monopolize Mrs. Woodgate," he would say with all urbanity as he joined them when least expected. "I was first in the field, you know!"
And in the field he would remain. There were no commands, no wishes to obey in the matter, no embargo upon the comings and goings between the two new friends. But Mr. Steel invariably appeared upon the scene as well. The good vicar attributed it to the elderly bridegroom's jealous infatuation for his beautiful young bride; but Morna knew better from the first.
"Are you going?" asked Rachel, eagerly, when she and Morna met again; indeed, she had gone expressly to the Vicarage to ask the question; and not until she had seen the Woodgates' invitation could Steel himself induce her to answer theirs.
The Woodgates were going. Morna was already in alternate fits of despair and of ideas about her dress.
"I wish I might dress you!" said Rachel, knowing her well enough already to say that. "I have wardrobes full of them, and yet my husband insists upon taking me up to London to get something fit to wear!"
"But not necessarily on your back!" cried Steel himself, appearing at that moment in his usual way, warm, breathless, but only playfully put out. "My dear Mrs. Woodgate, I must have a special wire between your house and ours. One thing, however, I always know where to find her! Did she tell you we go by the 12:55 from Northborough?"
It was something to wear upon her neck--a diamond necklet of superb stones, gradually swelling to one of the first water at the throat; and Rachel duly wore it at the dinner-party, with a rich gown of bridal white, whose dazzling purity had perhaps the effect of cancelling the bride's own pallor. But she was very pale. It was her first appearance at a gathering of the kind, not only there in Delverton, but anywhere at all since her second marriage. And the invitation had been of the correct, most ample length; it had had time to wind itself about Rachel's nerves.
Mr. Venables, who of course did take her in, by no means belied her husband's description of him; he was a rotund man with a high complexion, and his bulging eye was on the menu before his soft body had sunk into his chair. His conversation proved limited, but strictly to the point; he told Rachel what to eat, and once or twice what to avoid; lavished impersonal praise upon one dish, impartial criticisms upon another, and only spoke between the courses. It was a large dinner-party; twenty-two sat down. Rachel was at last driven to glancing at the other twenty.
To the man on her left she had not been introduced, but he had offered one or two civil observations while Mr. Venables was better engaged; and, after the second, Rachel had chanced to catch sight of the card upon which his name had been inscribed. He was, it seemed, a Mr. Langholm; and all at once Rachel leant back and looked at him. He was a loose-limbed, round-shouldered man, with a fine open countenance, and a great disorderly moustache; his hair might have been shorter, and his dress-coat shone where it caught the light. Rachel put the screw upon her courage.
"These cards," she said, with a glimpse of her own colonial self, "are very handy when one hasn't been introduced. Your name is not very common, is it?"
"Not very," he answered, "spelt like that."
"Yes it's spelt the same way as the Mr. Langholm who writes."
"Then are you any relation?"
"I am the man himself," said Langholm, with quite a hearty laugh, accompanied by a flush of pleasurable embarrassment. He was not a particularly popular writer, and this did not happen to him every day.
"I hoped you were," said Rachel, as she helped herself to the first entree.
"Then you haven't read my books," he chuckled, "and you never must."
"But I have," protested Rachel, quite flushed in her turn by the small excitement. "I read heaps of them in Tauchnitz when we were abroad. But I had no idea that I should ever meet you in the flesh!"
"Really?" he said. "Then that's funnier still; but I suppose Mr. Steel didn't want to frighten you. We saw quite a lot of each other last year; he wrote to me from Florence before you came over; and I should have paid my respects long ago, but I have been up in town, and only just come back."
The flush had died out of Rachel's face. Her husband told her nothing--nothing! In her indignation she was tempted to say so to the stranger; she had to think a moment what to say instead. A falsehood of any sort was always a peculiar difficulty to Rachel, a constitutional aversion, and it cost her an effort to remark at last that it was very stupid of her, she had quite forgotten, but now she remembered--of course! And with that she turned to her host, who was offering an observation across his empty plate.
"Strange thing, Mrs. Steel, but you can't get the meat in the country that you can in town. Those fillets, now--I wish you could taste 'em at my club; but we give our chef a thousand a year, and he drives up every day in his brougham."
The novels of Charles Langholm were chiefly remarkable for their intricate plots, and for the hope of better things that breathed through the cheap sensation of the best of them. But it was a hope that had been deferred a good many years. His manner was better than his matter; indeed, an incongruous polish was said by the literary to prevent Langholm from being a first favorite either with the great public or the little critics. As a maker of plots, however, he still had humble points; and Rachel assured him that she had burnt her candle all night in order to solve one of his ingenious mysteries.
"What!" he cried; "you call yourself a lady, and you don't look at the end before you reach it?"
"Not when it's a good book."
"Well, you have pitched on about the best of a bad lot; and it's a satisfaction to know you didn't cut the knot it took some months to tie."
Rachel was greatly interested. She had never before met a literary man; had no idea how the trick was done; and she asked many of those ingenuous questions which seldom really displease the average gentleman of this type. When not expatiating upon the heroine whom the exigencies of "serial rights" demanded in his books, Charles Langholm, the talker and the man, was an unmuzzled misogynist. But nobody would have suspected it from his answers to Rachel's questions, or from any portion of their animated conversation. Certainly the aquiline lady whom Langholm had taken in, and to whom he was only attentive by remorseful fits and penitential starts, had not that satisfaction; for her right-hand neighbor did not speak to her at all. There was thus one close and critical follower of a conversation which without warning took the one dramatic turn for which Rachel was forever on her guard; only this once, in an hour of unexpected entertainment, was she not.
"How do I get my plots?" said Langholm. "Sometimes out of my head, as they say in the nursery; occasionally from real life; more often a blend of the two combined. You don't often get a present from the newspaper that you can lift into a magazine more or less as it stands. Facts are stubborn things; they won't serialize. But now and then there's a case. There was one a little time ago. Oh, there was a great case not long since, if we had but the man to handle it, without spoiling it, in English fiction!"
"And what was that?"
"The Minchin case!"
And he looked straight at her, as one only looks at one's neighbor at table when one is saying or hearing something out of the common; he turned half round, and he looked in Rachel's face with the smile of an artist with a masterpiece in his eye. It was an inevitable moment, come at last when least expected; instinct, however, had prepared Rachel, just one moment before; and after all she could stare coldly on his enthusiasm, without a start or a tremor to betray the pose.
"Yes?" she said, her fine eyebrows raised a little. "And do you really think that would make a book?"
It was characteristic of Rachel that she did not for a moment--even that unlooked-for moment--pretend to be unfamiliar with the case.
"Don't you?" he asked.
"I haven't thought about it," said Rachel, looking pensively at the flowers. "But surely it was a very sordid case?"
"The case!" he cried. "Yes, sordid as you like; but I don't mean the case at all."
"Then what do you mean, Mr. Langholm?"
"Her after life," he whispered; "the psychology of that woman, and her subsequent adventures! She disappeared into thin air immediately after the trial. I suppose you knew that?"
"I did hear it."
Rachel moistened her lips with champagne.
"Well, I should take her from that moment," said Langholm. "I should start her story there."
"And should you make her guilty or not guilty?"
"Ah!" said Langholm, as though that would require consideration; unluckily, he paused to consider on the spot.
"Who are you talking about?" inquired Mr. Venables, who had caught Rachel's last words.
"Mrs. Minchin," she told him steadily.
"Guilty!" cried Mr. Venables, with great energy. "Guilty, and I'd have gone to see her hanged myself!"
And Mr. Venables beamed upon Rachel as though proud of the sentiment, while the diamonds rose and fell upon her white neck, where he would have had the rope.
"A greater scandal," he went on, both to Rachel and to the lady on his other side (who interrupted Mr. Venables to express devout agreement), "a greater scandal and miscarriage of justice I have never known. Guilty? Of course she was guilty; and I only wish we could try her again and hang her yet! Now don't pretend you sympathize with a woman like that," he said to Rachel, with a look like a nudge; "you haven't been married long enough; and for Heaven's sake don't refuse that bird! It's the best that can be got this time of year, though that's not saying much; but wait till the grouse season, Mrs. Steel! I have a moor here in the dales, keep a cellar full of them, and eat 'em as they drop off the string."
"Well?" said Rachel, turning to Langholm when her host became a busy man once more.
"I should make her guilty," said the novelist; "and she would marry a man who believed in her innocence, and he wouldn't care two pins when she told him the truth in the last chapter, and they would live happily ever afterwards. Nobody would touch the serial rights. But that would be a book!"
"Then do you think she really was guilty?"
And Rachel waited while he shrugged, her heart beating for no good reason that she knew, except that she rather liked Mr. Langholm, and did not wish to cease liking him on the spot. But it was to him that the answer was big with fate; and he trifled and dallied with the issue of the moment, little dreaming what a mark it was to leave upon his life, while the paradox beloved of the literary took shape on his tongue.
"What does it matter what she was? What do the facts matter, Mrs. Steel, when one has an idea like that for fiction? Fiction is truer than fact!"
"But you haven't answered my question."
Rachel meant to have that answer.
"Oh, well, as a matter of fact, I read the case pretty closely, and I was thankful the jury brought in an acquittal. It required a little imagination, but the truth always does. It is no treason to our host to whisper that he has none. I remember having quite a heated argument with him at the time. Oh, dear, no; she was no more guilty than you or I; but it would be a thousand times more artistic if she were; and I should make her so, by Jove!"
Rachel finished heir dinner in great tranquillity after this; but there was a flush upon her face which had not been there before, and Langholm received an astonishing smile when the ladies rose. He had been making tardy atonement for his neglect of the aquiline lady, but Rachel had the last word with him.
"You will come and see us, won't you?" she said. "I shall want to hear how the plot works out."
"I am afraid it's one I can't afford to use," he said, "unless I stick to foolish fact and make her innocent."
And she left him with a wry face, her own glowing again.
"You looked simply great--especially towards the end," whispered Morna Woodgate in the drawing-room, for she alone knew how nervous Rachel had been about what was indeed her social debut in Delverton.
The aquiline lady also had a word to say. Her eyes were like brown beads, and her nose very long, which gave her indeed a hawk-like appearance, somewhat unusual in a woman; but her gravity was rather that of the owl.
"You talked a great deal to Mr. Langholm," said she, sounding her rebuke rather cleverly in the key of mere statement of fact. "Have you read his books, Mrs. Steel?"
"Some of them," said Rachel; "haven't you?"
"Oh, no, I never read novels, unless it be George Eliot, or in these days Mrs. Humphrey Ward. It's such waste of time when there are Browning, Ruskin, and Carlyle to read and read again. I know I shouldn't like Mr. Langholm's; I am sure they are dreadfully uncultured and sensational."
"But I like sensation," Rachel said. "I like to be taken out of myself."
"So you suggested he should write a novel about Mrs. Minchin!"
"No, I didn't suggest it," said Rachel, hurriedly; but the beady brown eyes were upon her, and she felt herself reddening horribly as she spoke.
"You seemed to know all about her," said the aquiline lady. "I'm not in the habit of reading such cases. But I must really look this one up."