The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter XII. Episode of the Invisible Visitor
That was something like a summer, as the saying is, and for once they could say it even on the bleak northern spurs of the Delverton Hills. There were days upon days when that minor chain looked blue and noble as the mountains of Alsace and hackneyed song, seen with an envious eye from the grimy outskirts of Northborough, and when from the hills themselves the only blot upon the fair English landscape was the pall of smoke that always overhung the town. On such days Normanthorpe House justified its existence in the north of England instead of in southern Italy; the marble hall, so chill to the tread at the end of May, was the one really cool spot in the district by the beginning of July; and nowhere could a more delightful afternoon be spent by those who cared to avail themselves of a general invitation.
The Steels had not as yet committed themselves to formal hospitality of the somewhat showy character that obtained in the neighborhood, but they kept open house for all who liked to come, and whom they themselves liked well enough to ask in the first instance. And here (as in some other matters) this curious pair discovered a reflex identity of taste, rare enough in the happiest of conventional couples, but a gratuitous irony in the makers of a merely nominal marriage. Their mutual feelings towards each other were a quantity unknown to either; but about a third person they were equally outspoken and unanimous. Thus they had fewer disagreements than many a loving couple, and perhaps more points of insignificant contact, while all the time there was not even the pretence of love between them. Their lives made a chasm bridged by threads.
This was not seen by more than two of their acquaintance. Morna Woodgate had both the observation and the opportunities to see a little how the land lay between them. Charles Langholm had the experience and the imagination to guess a good deal. But it was little enough that Morna saw, and Langholm's guesses were as wide of the mark as only the guesses of an imaginative man can be. As for all the rest--honest Hugh Woodgate, the Venables girls, and their friends the young men in the various works, who saw the old-fashioned courtesy with which Steel always treated his wife, and the grace and charm of her consideration for him--they were every one receiving a liberal object lesson in matrimony, as some of them even realized at the time.
"I wish I could learn to treat my wife as Steel does his," sighed the good vicar, once when he had been inattentive at the table, and Morna had rebuked him in fun. "That would be my ideal--if I wasn't too old to learn!"
"Then thank goodness you are," rejoined his wife. "Let me catch you dancing in front of me to open the doors, Hugh, and I shall keep my eye on you as I've never kept it yet!"
But Rachel herself did not dislike these little graces, partly because they were not put on to impress an audience, but were an incident of their private life as well; and partly because they stimulated a study to which she had only given herself since their return to England and their establishment at Normanthorpe House. This was her study of the man who was still calmly studying her; she was returning the compliment at last.
And of his character she formed by degrees some remote conception; he was Steel by name and steel by nature, as the least observant might discern, and the least witty remark; a grim inscrutability was his dominant note; he was darkly alert, mysteriously vigilant, a measurer of words, a governor of glances; and yet, with all his self-mastery and mastery of others, there were human traits that showed themselves from time to time as the months wore on. Rachel did not recognize among these that studious consideration which she could still appreciate; it seemed rather part of a preconceived method of treating his wife, and the wary eye gleamed through it all. But it has been mentioned that Rachel at one time had a voice, of which high hopes had been formed by inexperienced judges. It was only at Normanthorpe that her second husband became aware of her possession, one afternoon when she fancied that she had the house to herself. So two could play at the game of consistent concealment! He could not complain; it was in the bond, and he never said a word. But he stood outside the window till she was done, for Rachel saw him in a mirror, and for many an afternoon to come he would hover outside the same window at the same time.
Why had he married her? Did he care for her, or did he not? What could be the object of that extraordinary step? Rachel was as far from hitting upon a feasible solution of these mysteries as she was from penetrating the deeper one of his own past life. Sometimes she put the like questions to herself; but they were more easily answered. She had been in desperate straits, in reckless despair; even if her second marriage had turned out no better than her first, she could not have been worse off than she was on the night of her acquittal; but she had been very well off ever since. Then there had been the incentive of adventure, the fascination of that very mystery which was a mystery still. And then--yes!--there had been the compelling will of a nature infinitely stronger than her own or any other that she had ever known.
Did she regret this second marriage, this second leap in the dark? No, she could not honestly pretend that she did; yet it had its sufficiently sinister side, its occasional admixture of sheer horror. But this was only when the mysteries which encompassed her happened to prey upon nerves unstrung by some outwardly exciting cause; it was then she would have given back all that he had ever given her to pierce the veil of her husband's past. Here, however, the impulse was more subtle; it was not the mere consuming curiosity which one in Rachel's position was bound to feel; it was rather a longing to be convinced that that veil hid nothing which should make her shudder to live under the same roof with this man.
Of one thing she was quite confident; wherever her husband had spent or misspent his life (if any part of so successful a whole could really have been misspent), it was not in England. He was un-English in a hundred superficial ways--in none that cut deep. With all his essential cynicism, there was the breadth and tolerance of a travelled man. Cosmopolitan on the other hand, he could not be called; he had proved himself too poor a linguist in every country that they had visited. It was only now, in their home life, that Rachel received hints of the truth, and it filled her with vague alarms, for that seemed to her to be the last thing he need have kept to himself.
One day she saw him ride a fractious horse, not because he was fond of riding, but because nobody in the stables could cope with this animal. Steel tamed it in ten minutes. But a groom remarked upon the shortness of his stirrups, in Rachel's hearing, and on the word a flash of memory lit up her brain. All at once she remembered the incident of the gum-leaves, soon after their arrival; he had told Morna what they were, yet to his wife he had pretended not to know. If he also was an Australian, why on earth should that fact, of all facts, be concealed from her? Nor had it merely been concealed; it was a point upon which Rachel had been deliberately misled, and the only one she could recall.
She was still brooding over it when a fresh incident occurred, which served not only to confirm her suspicions in this regard, but to deepen and intensify the vague horror with which her husband's presence sometimes inspired her.
Mr. Steel was an exceptionally early riser. It was his boast that he never went to sleep a second time; and one of his nearest approaches to a confidence was the remark that he owed something to that habit. Now Rachel, who was a bad sleeper, kept quite a different set of hours, and was seldom seen outside her own rooms before the forenoon. One magnificent morning, however, she was tempted to dress and make the best of the day which she had watched breaking shade by shade. The lawns were gray with dew; the birds were singing as they never sing twice in one summer's day. Rachel thought that for once she would like to be up and out before the sun was overpowering. And she proceeded to fulfil her wish.
All had been familiar from the window; all was unfamiliar on the landing and the stairs. No one had been down; the blinds were all drawn; a clock ticked like a sledge-hammer in the hall. Rachel ran downstairs like a mouse, and almost into the arms of her husband, whom she met coming out of the dining-room with a loaded tray. Another would have dropped it; with Steel there was not so much as a rattle of the things, but his color changed, and Rachel had not yet had such a look as he gave her with his pursed mouth and his flashing eyes.
"What does this mean?" he demanded, in the tone of distant thunder, with little less than lightning in his glance.
"I think that's for me to ask," laughed Rachel, standing up to him with a nerve that surprised herself. "I didn't know that you began so early!"
A decanter and a glass were among the things upon the tray.
"And I didn't know it of you," he retorted. "Why are you up?"
Rachel told him the simple truth in simple fashion. His tone of voice did not hurt her; there was no opposite extreme of tenderness to call to mind for the contrast which inflicts the wound. On the other hand, there was a certain satisfaction in having for once ruffled that smooth mien and smoother tongue; it was one of her rare glimpses of the real man, but as usual it was a glimpse and nothing more.
"I must apologize," said Steel, with an artificiality which was seldom so transparent; "my only excuse is that you startled me out of my temper and my manners. And I was upset to begin with. I have a poor fellow in rather a bad way in the boathouse."
"Not one of the gardeners, I hope?" queried Rachel; but her kind anxiety subsided in a moment, for his dark eyes were measuring her, his dark mind meditating a lie; and now she knew him well enough to read him thus far in his turn.
"No," replied Steel, deciding visibly against the lie; "no, not one of our men, or anybody else belonging to these parts; but some unlucky tramp, whom I imagine some of our neighbors would have given into custody forthwith. I found him asleep on the lawn; of course he had no business upon the premises; but he's so far gone that I'm taking him something to pull him together before I turn him off."
"I should have said," remarked Rachel, thoughtfully, "that tea or coffee would have been better for him than spirits."
Steel smiled indulgently across the tray.
"Most ladies would say the same," he replied, "but very few men."
"And why didn't you bring him into the house," pursued Rachel, looking her husband very candidly in the face, "instead of taking him all that way to the lake, and giving yourself so much more trouble than was necessary?"
The smile broadened upon Steel's thin lips, perhaps because it had entirely vanished from his glittering eyes.
"That," said he, "is a question you would scarcely ask if you had seen the poor creature for yourself. I don't intend you to see him; he is a rather saddening spectacle, and one of a type for which one can do absolutely nothing permanent. And now, if you are quite satisfied, I shall proceed, with your permission, to get rid of him in my own way."
It was seldom indeed that Steel descended to a display of sarcasm at his wife's expense, though few people who came much in contact with him escaped an occasional flick from a tongue that could be as bitter as it was habitually smooth. His last words were therefore as remarkable as his first; both were exceptions to a rule; and though Rachel moved away without replying, feeling that there was indeed no more to be said, she could not but dwell upon the matter in her mind. Satisfied she certainly was not; and yet there was so much mystery between them, so many instinctive reservations upon either side, that very little circumstance of the kind could not carry an ulterior significance, but many must be due to mere force of habit.
Rachel hated the condition of mutual secretiveness upon which she had married this man; it was antagonistic to her whole nature; she longed to repudiate it, and to abolish all secrets between them. But there her pride stepped in and closed her lips; and the intolerable thought that she would value her husband's confidence more than he would value hers, that she felt drawn to him despite every sinister attribute, would bring humiliation and self-loathing in its train. It was the truth, however, or, at all events, part of the truth.
Yet a more unfair arrangement Rachel had been unable to conceive, ever since the fatally reckless moment in which she had acquiesced in this one. The worst that could be known about her was known to her husband before her marriage; she had nothing else to hide; all concealment of the past, as between themselves, was upon his side. But matters were coming to a crisis in this respect; and, when Rachel deemed it done with, this incident of the tramp was only just begun.
It seemed that the servants knew of it, and that it was not Steel who had originally discovered the sleeping intruder, but an under-gardener, who, seeing his master also up and about, had prudently inquired what was to be done with the man before meddling with him.
"And the master said, 'leave him to me,'" declared Rachel's maid, who was her informant on the point, as she combed out her mistress's beautiful brown hair, before the late breakfast which did away with luncheon when there were no visitors at Normanthorpe.
"And did he do so?" inquired Rachel, looking with interest into her own eyes in the glass. "Did he leave him to your master?"
"He did that!" replied her maid, a simple Yorkshire wench, whom Rachel herself had chosen in preference to the smart town type. "Catch any on 'em not doin what master tells them!"
"Then did John see what happened?"
"No, m'm--because master sent him to see if the chap'd come in at t' lodge gates, or where, and when he got back he was gone, blanket an' all, an' master with him."
"Blanket and all!" repeated Rachel. "Do you mean to say he had the impudence to bring a blanket with him?"
"And slept in it!" cried her excited little maid. "John says he found him tucked up in a corner of the lawn, out of the wind, behind some o' them shrubs, sound asleep, and lapped round and round in his blue banket from head to heel."
Rachel saw her own face change in the glass; but she only asked one more question, and that with a smile.
"Did John say it was a blue blanket, Harris, or did your own imagination supply the color?"
"He said it, m'm; faded blue."
"And pray when did you see John to hear all this?" demanded Rachel, suddenly remembering her responsibility as mistress of this young daughter of the soil.
"Deary me, m'm," responded the ingenuous Harris, "I didn't see him, not more than any of the others; he just comed to t' window of t' servants' hall, as we were having our breakfasts, and he told us all at once. He was that full of it, was John!"
Rachel asked no more questions; but she was not altogether sorry that the matter had already become one of common gossip throughout the house. Meanwhile she made no allusion to it at breakfast, but her observation had been quickened by the events of the morning, and thus it was that she noticed and recognized the narrow blue book which was too long for her husband's breast-pocket, and would show itself as he stooped over his coffee. It was his check-book, and Rachel had not seen it since their travels.
That afternoon a not infrequent visitor arrived on his bicycle, to which was tied a bouquet of glorious roses instead of a lamp; this was Charles Langholm, the novelist, who had come to live in Delverton, over two hundred miles from his life-long haunts and the literary market-place, chiefly because upon a happy-go-lucky tour through the district he had chanced upon what he never tired of calling "the ideal rose-covered cottage of my dreams," though also for other reasons unknown in Yorkshire. His flat was abandoned before quarter-day, his effects transplanted at considerable cost, and ever since Langholm had been a bigoted countryman, who could not spend a couple of days in town without making himself offensive on the subject at his club, where he was nevertheless discreetly vague as to the exact locality of his rural paradise. Even at the club, however, it was admitted that his work had improved almost as much as his appearance; and he put it all down to the roses in which he lived embowered for so many months of the year. Such was their profusion that you could have filled a clothes-basket without missing one, and Langholm never visited rich or poor without a little offering out of his abundance.
"They may be coals to Newcastle," he would say to the Woodgates or the Steels, "but none of your Tyneside collieries are a patch on mine."
Like most victims of the artistic temperament, the literary Langholm was a creature of moods; but the very fact of a voluntary visit from him was sufficient guarantee of the humor in which he came, and this afternoon he was at his best. He had indeed been writing all day, and for many days past, and was filled with the curious exhilaration which accompanies an output too rapid and too continuous to permit a running sense of the defects. He was a ship with a fair wind, which he valued the more for the belts of calms and the adverse weather through which he had passed and must inevitably pass again; for the moment he was a happy man, though one with no illusion as to the present product of his teeming pen.
"It is nonsense," he said to Rachel, in answer to a question from that new and sympathetic friend, "but it is not such nonsense as to seem nothing else when one's in the act of perpetrating it, and what more can one want? It had to be done by the tenth of August, and by Jove it will be! A few weeks ago I didn't think it possible; but the summer has thawed my ink."
"Are you sure it isn't Mrs. Steel?" asked one of the Venables girls, who had also ridden over on their bicycles. "I heard you had a tremendously literary conversation when you dined with us."
"We had, indeed!" said Langholm, with enthusiasm. "And Mrs. Steel gave me one of the best ideas I ever had in my life; that's another reason why I'm racing through this rubbish--to take it in hand."
It was Sybil to whom he was speaking, but at this point Rachel plunged into the conversation with the sister, Vera, which required an effort, since the elder Miss Venables was a young lady who had cultivated languor as a sign of breeding and sophistication. Rachel, however, made the effort with such a will that the talk became general in a moment.
"I don't know how anybody writes books," was the elder young lady's solitary contribution; her tone added that she did not want to know.
"Nor I," echoed Sybil, "especially in a place like this, where nothing ever happens. If I wanted to write a novel, I should go to Spain--or Siberia--or the Rocky Mountains--where things do happen, according to all accounts."
"Young lady," returned the novelist, a twinkle in his eye, "I had exactly the same notion when I first began, and I remember what a much older hand said to me when I told him I was going down to Cornwall for romantic background. 'Young man,' said he, 'have you placed a romance in your mother's backyard yet?' I had not, but I did so at once instead of going to Cornwall, and sounder advice I never had in my life. Material, like charity, begins at home; nor need you suppose that nothing ever happens down here. That is the universal idea of the native about his or her own heath, but I can assure you it isn't the case at all. Only just now, on my way here, I saw a scene and a character that might have been lifted bodily out of Bret Harte."
Sybil Venables clamored for particulars, while her sister resigned herself to further weariness of the flesh. Rachel put down her cup and leant forward with curiously expectant eyes. They were sitting in the cool, square hall, with doors shut or open upon every hand, and the gilded gallery overhead. Statuettes and ferns, all reflected in the highly polished marble floor, added a theatrical touch which was not out of keeping with a somewhat ornate interior.
"It was the character," continued Langholm, "who was making the scene; and a stranger creature I have never seen on English earth. He wore what I believe they call a Crimean shirt, and a hat like a stage cowboy; and he informed all passers that he was knocking down his check!"
"What?" cried Rachel and Sybil in one breath, but in curiously different tones.
"Knocking down his check," repeated Langholm. "It's what they do in the far west or the bush or somewhere--but I rather fancy it's the bush--when they get arrears of wages in a lump in one check."
"And where did you see all this?" inquired Rachel, whose voice was very quiet, but her hazel eyes alight with a deeper interest than the story warranted.
"At the Packhorse on the York Road. I came that way round for the sake of the surface and the exercise."
"And did you see the check?"
"No, I only stopped for a moment, to find out what the excitement was about; but the fellow I can see now. You never set eyes on such a pirate--gloriously drunk and bearded to the belt. I didn't stop, because he was lacing into everybody with a cushion, and the local loafers seemed to like it."
"What a joke!" cried Sybil Venables.
"There is no accounting for taste," remarked her sapient sister.
"And he was belaboring them with a cushion, did you say?" added Rachel, with the slightest emphasis upon the noun.
"Well, it looked like one to me," replied Langholm, "but, on second thoughts, it was more like a bolster in shape; and now I know what it was! It has just dawned on me. It looked like a bolster done up in a blanket; but it was the swag that the tramps carry in Australia, with all their earthly goods rolled up in their bedding; and the fellow was an Australian swagsman, that's what he was!"
"Swagman," corrected Rachel, instinctively. "And pray what color was the blanket?" she made haste to add.
And, again from sheer force of instinct, Rachel gave a nod.
"Were you ever out there, Mrs. Steel?" inquired Langholm, carelessly. "I never was, but the sort of thing has been done to death in books, and I only wonder I didn't recognize it at once. Well, it was the last type one thought to meet with in broad daylight on an English country road!"
Had Langholm realized that he had put a question which he had no business to put? Had he convicted himself of a direct though unpremeditated attempt to probe the mystery of his hostess's antecedents, and were his subsequent observations designed to unsay that question in effect? If so, there was no such delicacy in the elder Miss Venables, who became quite animated at the sudden change in Rachel's face, and at her own perception of the cause.
"Have you been to Australia, Mrs. Steel?" repeated Vera, looking Rachel full in the eyes; and she added slyly, "I believe you have!"
There was a moment's pause, and then a crisp step rang upon the marble, as Mr. Steel emerged from his study.
"Australia, my dear Miss Venables," said he, "is the one country that neither my wife nor I have ever visited in our lives, and the last one that either of us has the least curiosity to see."
And he took his seat among them with a smile.