Chapter XV. A Chance Encounter
 

There was now an open breach between the Steels, but no third person would have discerned any difference in their relations. It was a mere snapping of the threads across the chasm which had always separated Rachel from her second husband. The chasm had been plain enough to those who came much in contact with the pair, but the little threads of sympathy were invisible to the naked eye of ordinary observation. There was thus no outward change, for neither was there any outward rupture. It takes two to quarrel, and Steel imperturbably refused to make one. Rachel might be as trying as she pleased; no repulse depressed, no caprice annoyed him; and this insensibility was not the least of Steel's offences in the now jaundiced eyes of his wife.

Rachel felt as bitter as one only does against those who have inspired some softer feeling; the poison of misplaced confidence rankled in her blood. Her husband had told her much, but it was not enough for Rachel, and the little he refused to tell eliminated all the rest from her mind. There was no merit even in such frankness as he had shown, since her own, accidental discoveries had forced some measure of honesty upon him. He had admitted nothing which Rachel could not have deduced from that which she had found out for herself. She felt as far as ever from any satisfactory clew to his mysterious reasons for ever wishing to marry her. There lay the kernel of the whole matter, there the problem that she meant to solve. If her first husband was at the bottom of it, no matter how indirectly, and if she had been married for the dead man's sake, to give his widow a home, then Rachel felt that the last affront had been put upon her, and she would leave this man as she had been within an ace of leaving his friend. So ran the wild and unreasonable tenor of her thoughts. He had not married her for her own sake; it was not she herself who had appealed to him, after all. Curiosity might consume her, and a sense of deepening mystery add terrors of its own, but the resentful feeling was stronger than either of these, and would have afforded as strange a revelation as any, had Rachel dared to look deeper into her own heart.

If, on the other hand, she had already some conception of the truth about herself, it would scarcely lessen her bitterness against one who inspired in her emotions at once so complex and so painful. Suffice it that this bitterness was extreme in the days immediately following the scene between Rachel and her husband in the drawing-room after dinner. It was also unconcealed, and must have been the cause of many another such scene but for the imperturable temper and the singularly ruly tongue of John Buchanan Steel. And then, in those same days, there fell the two social events to which the bidden guests had been looking forward for some two or three weeks, and of which the whole neighborhood was to talk for years.

On the tenth of August the Uniackes were giving a great garden party at Hornby Manor, while the eleventh was the date of the first real dinner-party for which the Steels had issued invitations to Normanthorpe House.

The tenth was an ideal August day: deep blue sky, trees still untarnished in the hardy northern air, and black shadows under the trees. Rachel made herself ready before lunch, to which she came down looking quite lovely, in blue as joyous as the sky's, to find her husband as fully prepared, and not less becomingly attired, in a gray frock-coat without a ripple on its surface. They looked critically at each other for an instant, and then Steel said something pleasant, to which Rachel made practically no reply. They ate their lunch in a silence broken good-naturedly at intervals from one end of the table only. Then the Woodgates arrived, to drive with them to Hornby, which was some seven or eight miles away; and the Normanthorpe landau and pair started with, the quartette shortly after three o'clock.

Morning, noon, and afternoon of this same tenth of August, Charles Langholm, the minor novelist, never lifted his unkempt head from the old bureau at which he worked, beside an open window overlooking his cottage garden. A tumbler of his beloved roses stood in one corner of the writing space, up to the cuts in MSS., and roses still ungathered peeped above the window-sill and drooped from either side. But Langholm had a soul far below roses at the present moment; his neatly numbered sheets of ruled sermon-paper were nearing the five hundredth page; his hero and his heroine were in the full sweep of those emotional explanations which they had ingeniously avoided for the last three hundred at least; in a word, Charles Langholm's new novel is being finished while you wait. It is not one of his best; yet a moment ago there was a tear in his eye, and now he is grinning like a child at play. And at play he is, though he be paid for playing, and though the game is only being won after weeks and months of uphill labor and downhill joy.

At last there is the final ticking of inverted commas, and Charles Langholm inscribes the autograph for which he is importuned once in a blue moon, and which the printer will certainly not set up at the foot of the last page; but the thing is done, and the doer must needs set his hand to it out of pure and unusual satisfaction with himself. And so, thank the Lord!

Langholm rose stiffly from the old bureau, where at his best he could lose all sense of time; for the moment he was bent double, and faint with fasting, because it was his mischievous rule to reach a given point before submitting to the physical and mental distraction of a meal. But to-day's given point had been the end of his book, and for some happy minutes Langholm fed on his elation. It was done at last, yet another novel, and not such a bad one after all. Not his best by any means, but perhaps still further from being his worst; and, at all events, the thing was done. Langholm could scarcely grasp that fact, though there was the last page just dry upon the bureau, and most of the rest lying about the room in galley-proofs or in typewritten sheets. Moreover, the publishers were pleased; that was the joke. It was nothing less to Langholm when he reflected that the final stimulus to finish this book had been the prospect and determination of at last writing one to please himself. And this reflection brought him down from his rosy clouds.

It was the day of the Uniacke's garden-party; they had actually asked the poor author, and the poor author had intended to go. Not that he either shone or revelled in society; but Mrs. Steel would be there, and he burned to tell her that he had finished his book, and was at last free to tackle hers; for hers at bottom it would be, the great novel by which the name of Langholm was to live, and which he was to found by Rachel Steel's advice upon the case of her namesake Rachel Minchin.

The coincidence of the Christian names had naturally struck the novelist, but no suspicion of the truth had crossed a mind too skilled in the construction of dramatic situations to dream of stumbling into one ready-made. It was thus with a heart as light as any feather that Langholm made a rapid and unwholesome meal, followed by a deliberate and painstaking toilet, after which he proceeded at a prudent pace upon his bicycle to Hornby Manor.

Flags were drooping from their poles, a band clashing fitfully through the sleepy August air, and carriages still sweeping into the long drive, when Langholm also made his humble advent. He was a little uneasy and self-conscious, and annoyed at his own anxiety to impart his tidings to Mrs. Steel, but for whom he would probably have stayed at home. His eye sought her eagerly as he set foot upon the lawn, having left his bicycle at the stables, and carefully removed the clips from his trousers; but before his vigilance could be rewarded he was despatched by his hostess to the tea-tent, in charge of a very young lady, detached for the nonce from the wing of a gaunt old gentleman with side whiskers and lantern jaws.

Fresh from his fagging task, Langholm did not know what on earth to say to the pretty schoolgirl, whose own shyness reacted on herself; but he was doing his best, and atoning in attentiveness for his shortcomings as a companion, when in the tent he had to apologize to a lady in blue, who turned out to be Rachel herself, with Hugh Woodgate at her side.

"Oh, no, we live in London," the young girl was saying; "only I go to the same school as Ida Uniacke, and I am staying here on a visit."

"I've finished it," whispered Langholm to Rachel, "this very afternoon; and now I'm ready for yours! I see," he added, dropping back into the attitude of respectful interest in the young girl; "only on a visit; and who was the old gentleman from whom I tore you away?"

The child laughed merrily.

"That was my father," she said; "but he is only here on his way to Leeds."

"You mustn't call it my book," remonstrated Rachel, while Woodgate waited upon both ladies.

"But it was you who gave me the idea of writing a novel round Mrs. Minchin."

"I don't think I did. I am quite sure it was your own idea. But one book at a time. Surely you will take a rest?"

"I shall correct this thing. It will depress me to the verge of suicide. Then I shall fall to upon my magnum opus."

"You really think it will be that?"

"It should be mine. It isn't saying much; but I never had such a plot as you have given me!"

Rachel shook her head in a last disclaimer as she moved away with the Vicar of Marley.

"Oh, Mr. Langholm, do you write books?" asked the schoolgirl, with round blue eyes.

"For my sins," he confessed. "But do you prefer an ice, or more strawberries and cream?"

"Neither, thank you. I've been here before," the young girl said with a jolly smile. "But I didn't know I should come back with an author!"

"Then we'll go out into the open air," the author said; and they followed Rachel at but a few yards' distance.

It was a picturesque if an aimless pageant, the smart frocks sweeping the smooth sward, the pretty parasols with the prettier faces underneath, the well-set-up and well-dressed men, with the old gray manor rising upon an eminence in the background, and a dazzling splash of scarlet and of brass somewhere under the trees. The band was playing selections from The Geisha as Langholm emerged from the tea-tent in Rachel's wake. Mrs. Venables was manoeuvring her two highly marriageable girls in opposite quarters of the field, and had only her own indefatigable generalship to thank for what it lost her upon this occasion. Mr. Steel and Mrs. Woodgate apparently missed the same thing through wandering idly in the direction of the band; but the tableau might have been arranged for the express benefit of Charles Langholm and the very young lady upon whom he was dancing laborious attendance.

Mrs. Uniacke had stepped apart from the tall old gentleman with the side whiskers, to whom she had been talking for some time, and had intercepted Rachel as she was passing on with Hugh Woodgate.

"Wait while I introduce you to my most distinguished guest, or rawther him to you," whispered Mrs. Uniacke, with the Irish brogue which rendered her slightest observation a delight to the appreciative. "Sir Baldwin Gibson--Mrs. Steel."

Langholm and the little Miss Gibson were standing close behind, and the trained eye of the habitual observer took in every detail of a scene which he never forgot. Handsome Mrs. Uniacke was clinching the introduction with a smile, which ended in a swift expression of surprise. Sir Baldwin had made an extraordinary pause, his hand half way to his hat, his lantern jaws fallen suddenly apart. Mrs. Steel, though slower at her part of the obvious recognition, was only a second slower, and thereupon stood abashed and ashamed in the eyes of all who saw; but only for another second at the most; then Sir Baldwin Gibson not only raised his hat, but held out his hand in a fatherly way, and as she took it Rachel's color changed from livid white to ruby red.

Yet even Rachel was mistress of herself so quickly that the one or two eye-witnesses of this scene, such as Mrs. Uniacke and Charles Langholm, who saw that it had a serious meaning, without dreaming what that meaning was, were each in hopes that no one else had seen as much as they. Sir Baldwin plunged at once into amiable and fluent conversation, and before many moments Rachel's replies were infected with an approximate assurance and ease; then Langholm turned to his juvenile companion, and put a question in the form of a fib.

"So that is your father," said he. "I seem, do you know, to know his face?"

Little Miss Gibson fell an easy prey.

"You probably do; he is the judge, you know!"

"The judge, is he?"

"Yes; and I wanted to ask you something just now in the tent. Did you mean the Mrs. Minchin who was tried for murder, when you were talking about your plot?"

Langholm experienced an unforeseen shock from head to heel; he could only nod.

"He was the judge who tried her!" the schoolgirl said with pardonable pride.

A lady joined them as they spoke.

"Do you really mean that that is Mr. Justice Gibson, who tried Mrs. Minchin at the Old Bailey last November?"

"Yes--my father," said the proud young girl.

"What a very singular thing! How do you do, Mr. Langholm? I didn't see it was you."

And Langholm found himself shaking hands with the aquiline lady to whom he had talked so little at the Upthorpe dinner-party; she took her revenge by giving him only the tips of her fingers now, and by looking deliberately past him at Rachel and her judge.