Chapter XVI. A Match for Mrs. Venables
 

That was absolutely all that happened at the Uniackes' garden-party. There was no scene, no scandal, no incident whatsoever beyond an apparently mutual recognition between Mrs. Steel and Mr. Justice Gibson. Of this there were not half-a-dozen witnesses, all of whom were given immediate reason to suppose that either they or the pair in question had made a mistake; for nothing could have surpassed the presence of mind and the kindness of heart with which Sir Baldwin Gibson chatted to the woman whom he had tried for her life within the year. And his charity continued behind her back.

"Odd thing," said Sir Baldwin to his hostess, at the earliest opportunity, "but for the moment I could have sworn that woman was some one else. May I ask who she is exactly?"

"Sure, Sir Baldwin," replied Mrs. Uniacke, "and that's what I thought we were to hear at last. It's who she is we none of us know. And what does it matter? She's pretty and nice, and I'm just in love with her; but then nobody knows any more about her husband, and so we talk."

A few more questions satisfied the judge that he could not possibly have been mistaken, and he hesitated a moment, for he was a pious man; but Rachel's face, combined with her nerve, had deepended an impression which was now nearly a year old, and the superfluous proximity of an angular and aquiline lady, to whom Sir Baldwin had not been introduced, but who was openly hanging upon his words, drove the good man's last scruple to the winds.

"Very deceptive, these likenesses," said he, raising his voice for the interloper's benefit; "in future I shall beware of them. I needn't tell you, Mrs. Uniacke, that I never before set eyes upon the lady whom I fear I embarrassed by behaving as though I had."

Rachel was not less fortunate in her companion of the moment which had so nearly witnessed her undoing. Ox-eyed Hugh Woodgate saw nothing inexplicable in Mrs. Steel's behavior upon her introduction to Sir Baldwin Gibson, and anything he did see he attributed to an inconvenient sense of that dignitary's greatness. He did not think the matter worth mentioning to his wife, when the Steels had dropped them at the Vicarage gate, after a pleasant but somewhat silent drive. Neither did Rachel see fit to speak of it to her husband. There was a certain unworthy satisfaction in her keeping something from him. But again she underrated his uncanny powers of observation, and yet again he turned the tables upon her by a sudden display of the very knowledge which she was painfully keeping to herself.

"Of course you recognized the judge?" said Steel, following his wife for once into her own apartments, where he immediately shut a door behind him and another in front of Rachel, who stood at bay before the glitter in his eyes.

"Of course," she admitted, with irritating nonchalance.

"And he you?"

"I thought he did at first; afterwards I was not so sure."

"But I am!" exclaimed Steel through his teeth.

Rachel's face was a mixture of surprise and incredulity.

"How can you know?" she asked coldly. "You were at least a hundred yards away at the time, for I saw you with Morna Woodgate."

"And do you think my sight is not good for a hundred yards," retorted Steel, "when you are at the end of them? I saw the whole thing--his confusion and yours--but then I did not know who he was. He must have been in the house when we arrived; otherwise I should have taken good care that you never met. I saw enough, however, to bring me up in time to see and hear more. I heard the way he was talking to you then; that was his damned good-nature, and he has us at his mercy all the same."

Rachel had never seen her husband in such a passion; indeed, she had never before known him in a state of mind to justify the use of such a word. He was paler than his wont, his eyes brighter, his lips more bloodless. Rachel experienced a strange sense of advantage, at once unprecedented and unforeseen, and with it an irresistible temptation to the sort of revenge which she knew to be petty at the time. But he had made her suffer; for once it was her turn. He could be cold as ice when she was not, could deny her his confidence when she all but fell upon her knees before him; he should learn what it was to be treated as he had treated her.

"I'm well aware of it," said Rachel, with a harsh, dry laugh, "though in point of fact I don't for a moment believe that he'll give me away. But really I don't think it matters if he does."

Steel stared; it was wonderful to her to see his face.

"It doesn't matter?" he repeated in angry astonishment.

"Not to me," rejoined Rachel, bitterly. "You tell me nothing. What can matter to me? When you can tell me why you felt compelled to marry me--when you have the courage to tell me that--other things may begin to matter again!"

Steel stared harder than before; he did not flinch, but his eyes seemed to hedge together as he stared, and the glittering light in them to concentrate in one baleful gleam. Yet it was not a cruel look; it was the look of a man who has sealed his lips upon one point for ever, and who views any questioning on that point as an attempt upon his treasury. There was more of self-defence than of actual hostility in the compressed lips, the bloodless face, the glaring eyes. Then, with a shrug, the look, the resentment, and the passion were shaken off, and Steel stepped briskly to the inner door, which he had shut in Rachel's path. Opening it, he bowed her through with a ceremony conspicuous even in their ceremonious relations.

But Rachel nursed her contrariety, even to the extent of a perverse satisfaction at her encounter with the judge, and a fierce enjoyment of its still possible consequences. The mood was neither logical nor generous, and yet it was human enough in the actual circumstances of the case. At last she had made him feel! It had taken her the better part of a year, but here at last was something that he really felt. And it had to do with her; it was impending disaster to herself which had brought about this change in her husband; she knew him too well not to acquit him of purely selfish solicitude for his own good name and comfortable status in a society for which he had no real regard. There was never a man less dependent upon the good opinion of other men. In absolute independence of character, as in sheer strength of personality, Steel stood by himself in the estimation of his wife. But he had deceived her unnecessarily for weeks and months. He had lied to her. He had refused her his whole confidence when she begged him for it, and when he knew how he could trust her. There was some deep mystery underlying their marriage, he could not deny it, yet he would not tell her what it was.

He had made her suffer needless pain; it was his turn. And yet, with all her resentment against him, and all her grim savoring of the scandal which he seemed to fear so much, there ran a golden thread of unacknowledged contentment in the conviction that those fears were all for her.

Outwardly she was callous to the last degree, reckless as on the day she made this marriage, and as light-hearted as it was possible to appear; but the excitement of the coming dinner-party was no small help to Rachel in the maintenance of this attitude. It was to be a very large dinner-party, and Rachel's first in her own house; in any case she must have been upon her mettle. Two dozen had accepted. The Upthorpe party was coming in force; if anybody knew anything, it would be Mrs. Venables. What would she do or say? Mrs. Venables was capable of doing or of saying anything. And what might not happen before the day was out?

It was a stimulating situation for one so curiously compact of courage and of nerves as the present mistress of Normanthorpe House; and for once she really was mistress, inspecting the silver with her own eyes, arranging the flowers with her own hands, and, what was more difficult, the order in which the people were to sit. She was thus engaged, in her own sanctum, when Mrs. Venables did the one thing which Rachel had not dreamt of her doing.

She called at three in the afternoon, and sent her name upstairs.

Rachel's heart made itself felt; but she was not afraid. Something was coming earlier than she had thought; she was chiefly curious to know what. Her first impulse was to have Mrs. Venables brought upstairs, and to invoke her aid in the arrangement of the table before that lady could open fire. Rachel disliked the great cold drawing-room, and felt that she must be at a disadvantage in any interview there. On the other hand, if this was a hostile visit, the visitor could not be treated with too much consideration. And so the servant was dismissed with word that her mistress would not be a moment; nor was Rachel very many. She glanced in a glass, but that was all; she might have been tidier, but not easily more animated, confident, and alert. She had reached the landing when she returned and collected all the cards which she had been trying to arrange; they made quite a pack; and Rachel laughed as she took them downstairs with her.

Mrs. Venables sat in solitary stiffness on the highest chair she had been able to find; neither Sybil nor Vera was in attendance; a tableful of light literature was at her elbow, but Mrs. Venables sat with folded hands.

"This is too good of you!" cried Rachel, greeting her in a manner redeemed from hypocrisy by a touch of irresistible irony. "You know my inexperience, and you have come to tell me things, have you not? You could not have come at a better time. How do you fit in twenty-six people at one table? I wanted to have two at each end, and it can't be done!"

Mrs. Venables suppressed a smile suggestive of some unconscious humor in these remarks, but sat more upright than ever in her chair, with a hard light in the bright brown eyes that stared serenely into Rachel's own.

"I cannot say I came to offer you my assistance, Mrs. Steel. I only take liberties with very intimate friends."

"Then I wonder what can have brought you!"

And Rachel returned both the smile and the stare with irritating self-control.

"I will tell you," said Mrs. Venables, weightily. "There is a certain thing being said of you, Mrs. Steel; and I wish to know from your own lips whether there is any truth in it or none."

Rachel held up her hands as quick as thought.

"My dear Mrs. Venables, you can't mean that you are bringing me a piece of unpleasant gossip on the very afternoon of my first dinner-party?"

"It remains with you," said Mrs. Venables, changing color at this hit, "to say whether it is mere gossip or not. You must know, Mrs. Steel, though we were all quite charmed with your husband from the moment he came among us, we none of us had the least idea where he came from nor have we yet."

"You are speaking for the neighborhood?" inquired Rachel, sweetly.

"I am," said Mrs. Venables.

"Town and county," murmured Rachel. "And you mean that nobody in the district knew anything at all about my husband?"

"Not a thing," said Mrs. Venables.

"And yet you called on him; and yet you took pity on him, poor lonely bachelor that he was!"

This shaft also left its momentary mark upon the visitor's complexion. "The same applies to you," she went on the more severely. "We had no idea who you were, either!"

"And now?" said Rachel, still mistress of the situation, for she knew so well what was coming.

"And now we hear, and I wish to know whether it is true or not. Were you, or were you not, the Mrs. Minchin who was tried last winter for her husband's murder?"

Rachel looked steadily into the hard brown eyes, until a certain hardness came into her own.

"I don't quite know what right you think you have to ask me such a question, Mrs. Venables. Is it the usual thing to question people who have made a second marriage--supposing I am one--about their first? I fancied myself that it was considered bad form; but then I am still very ignorant of the manners and customs in this part of the world. Since you ask it, however, you shall have your answer." And Rachel's voice rang out through the room, as she rose majestically from the chair which she had drawn opposite that of the visitor. "Yes, Mrs. Venables, I am that unhappy woman. And what then?"

"No wonder you were silent about yourself," said Mrs. Venables, in a vindictive murmur. "No wonder we never even heard--"

"And what then?" repeated Rachel, with a quiet and compelling scorn. "Does it put one outside the local pale to keep to oneself any painful incident in one's own career? Is an accusation down here the same thing as a conviction? Is there nothing to choose between 'guilty' and 'not guilty'?"

"You must be aware," proceeded Mrs. Venables, without taking any notice of these questions--"indeed, you cannot fail to be perfectly well aware--that a large proportion of the public was dissatisfied with the verdict in your case."

"Your husband, for one!" Rachel agreed, with a scornful laugh. "He would have come to see me hanged; he told me so at his own table."

"You never would have been at his table," retorted Mrs. Venables, with some effect, "if he or I had dreamt who you were; but now that we know, you may be quite sure that none of us will sit at yours."

And Mrs. Venables rose up in all her might and spite, her brown eyes flashing, her handsome head thrown back.

"Are you still speaking for the district?" inquired Rachel, conquering a recreant lip to put the question, and putting it with her finest scorn.

"I am speaking for Mr. Venables, my daughters, and myself," rejoined the lady with great dignity; "others will speak for themselves; and you will soon learn in what light you are regarded by ordinary people. It is a merciful chance that we have found you out--a merciful chance! That you should dare--you, about whom there are not two opinions among sensible people--that you should dare to come among us as you have done and to speak to me as you have spoken! But one thing is certain--it is for the last time."

With that Mrs. Venables sailed to the door by which she was to make her triumphant exit, but she stopped before reaching it. Steel stood before her on the threshold, and as he stood he closed the door behind him, and as he closed it he turned and took out the key. There was the other door that led through the conservatory into the garden. Without a word he crossed the room, shut that door also, locked it, and put the two keys in his pocket. Then at last he turned to the imprisoned lady.

"You are quite right, Mrs. Venables. It is the last conversation we are likely to have together. The greater the pity to cut it short!"

"Will you have the goodness to let me go?" the visitor demanded, white and trembling, but not yet unimpressive in her tremendous indignation.

"With the greatest alacrity," replied Steel, "when you have apologized to my wife."

Rachel stood by without a word.

"For what?" cried Mrs. Venables. "For telling her what the whole world thinks of her? Never; and you will unlock that door this instant, unless you wish my husband to--to--horsewhip you within an inch of your life!"

Steel merely smiled; he could well afford to do so, lithe and supple as he still was, with flabby Mr. Venables in his mind's eye.

"I might have known what to expect in this house," continued Mrs. Venables, in a voice hoarse with suppressed passion, "what unmanly and ungentlemanly behavior, what cowardly insults! I might have known!"

And she glanced from the windows to the bells.

"It is no use ringing," said Steel, with a shake of his snowy head, "or doing anything else of the sort. I am the only person on the premises who can let you out; your footman could not get in if he tried; but if you like I shall shout to him to try. As for insults, you have insulted my wife most cruelly and gratuitously, for I happen to have heard more than you evidently imagine. In fact, 'insult' is hardly the word for what even I have heard you say; let me warn you, madam, that you have sailed pretty close to the wind already in the way of indictable slander. You seem to forget that my wife was tried and acquitted by twelve of her fellow-countrymen. You will at least apologize for that forgetfulness before you leave this room."

"Never!"

Steel looked at his watch and sat down. "I begin to fear you are no judge of character, Mrs. Venables; otherwise you would have seen ere this which of us will have to give in sooner or later. I can only tell you which of us never will!"

And Rachel still stood by without a word.