The Shadow of the Rope by E.W. Hornung
Chapter XVIII. "They Which Were Bidden"
The rose-covered cottage of Charles Langholm's dreams, which could not have come true in a more charming particular, stood on a wooded hill at the back of a village some three miles from Normanthorpe. It was one of two cottages under the same tiled roof, and in the other there lived an admirable couple who supplied all material wants of the simple life which the novelist led when at work. In his idle intervals the place knew him not; a nomadic tendency was given free play, and the man was a wanderer on the face of Europe. But he wandered less than he had done from London, finding, in his remote but fragrant corner of the earth, that peace which twenty years of a strenuous manhood had taught him to value more than downright happiness.
Its roses were not the only merit of this ideal retreat, though in the summer months they made it difficult for one with eyes and nostrils to appreciate the others. There was a delightful room running right through the cottage; and it was here that Langholm worked, ate, smoked, read, and had his daily being; his bath was in the room adjoining, and his bed in another adjoining that. Of the upper floor he made no use; it was filled with the neglected furniture of a more substantial establishment, and Langholm seldom so much as set foot upon the stairs. The lower rooms were very simply furnished. There was a really old oak bureau, and some solid, comfortable chairs. The pictures were chiefly photographs of other writers. There were better pictures deep in dust upstairs.
An artist in temperament, if not in attainment, Langholm had of late years found the ups and downs of his own work supply all the excitement that was necessary to his life; it was only when the work was done that his solitude had oppressed him; but neither the one nor the other had been the case of late weeks. His new book had been written under the spur of an external stimulus; it had not written itself, like all the more reputable members of the large but short-lived family to which it belonged. Langholm had not felt lonely in the breathing spaces between the later chapters. On the contrary, he would walk up and down among his roses with the animated face of one on the happy heights of intercourse with a kindred spirit, when in reality he was quite alone. But the man wrote novels, and withal believed in them at the time of writing. It was true that on one occasion, when the Steels came to tea, the novelist walked his garden with the self-same radiant face with which he had lately taken to walking it alone; but that also was natural enough.
The change came on the very day he finished his book, when Langholm made himself presentable and rode off to the garden-party at Hornby Manor in spirits worthy of the occasion. About seven of the same evening he dismounted heavily in the by-lane outside the cottage, and pushed his machine through the wicket, a different man. A detail declared his depression to the woman next door, who was preparing him a more substantial meal than Langholm ever thought of ordering for himself: he went straight through to his roses without changing his party coat for the out-at-elbow Norfolk jacket in which he had spent that summer and the last.
The garden behind the two cottages was all Langholm's. The whole thing, levelled, would not have made a single lawn-tennis court, nor yet a practice pitch of proper length. Yet this little garden contained almost everything that a garden need have. There were tall pines among the timber to one side, and through these set the sun, so that on the hottest days the garden was in sufficient shadow by the time the morning's work was done. There was a little grass-plot, large enough for a basket-chair and a rug. There was a hedge of Penzance sweet-brier opposite the backdoor and the window at which Langholm wrote, and yet this hedge broke down in the very nick and place to give the lucky writer a long glimpse across a green valley, with dim woods upon the opposite hill. And then there were the roses, planted by the last cottager--a retired gardener--a greater artist than his successor--a man who knew what roses were!
Over the house clambered a William Allen Richardson and two Gloires de Dijon, these last a-blowing, the first still resting from a profuse yield in June; in the southeast corner, a Crimson Rambler was at its ripe red height; and Caroline Testout, Margaret Dickson, La France, Madame Lambard, and Madame Cochet, blushed from pale pink to richest red, or remained coldly but beautifully white, at the foot of the Penzance briers. Langholm had not known one rose from another when he came to live among this galaxy; now they were his separate, familiar, individual friends, each with its own character in his eyes, its own charm for him; and the man's soul was the sweeter for each summer spent in their midst. But to-night they called to closed nostrils and blind eyes. And the evening sun, reddening the upper stems of the pines, and warming the mellow tiles of his dear cottage, had no more to say to Langholm's spirit than his beloved roses.
The man had emerged from the dreamy, artistic, aesthetic existence into which he had drifted through living alone amid so much simple beauty; he was in real, human, haunting trouble, and the manlier man for it already.
Could he be mistaken after all? No; the more he pondered, the more convinced he felt. Everything pointed to the same conclusion, beginning with that first dinner-party at Upthorpe, and that first conversation of which he remembered every word. Mrs. Steel was Mrs. Minchin--the notorious Mrs. Minchin--the Mrs. Minchin who had been tried for her husband's murder, and acquitted to the horror of a righteous world.
And he had been going to write a book about her, and it was she herself who had given him the idea!
But was it? There had been much light talk about Mrs. Steel's novel, and the plot that Mrs. Steel had given Langholm, but that view of the matter had been more of a standing joke than an intellectual bond between them. It was strange to think of it in the former light to-night.
Langholm recalled more than one conversation upon the same subject. It had had a fascination for Rachel, which somehow he was sorry to remember now. Then he recollected the one end to all these conversations, and his momentary regret was swept away by a rush of sympathy which it did him good to feel. They had ended invariably in her obtaining from him, on one cunning pretext or another, a fresh assurance of his belief in Mrs. Minchin's innocence. Langholm radiated among his roses as his memory convinced him of this. Rachel had not talked about her case and his plot for the morbid excitement of discussing herself with another, but for the solid and wholesome satisfaction of hearing yet again that the other disbelieved in her guilt.
And did he not? Langholm stood still in the scented dusk as he asked his heart of hearts the point-blank question. And it was a crisper step that he resumed, with a face more radiant than before.
Yes, analytical as he was, there at least he was satisfied with himself. Thank God, he had always been of one opinion on that one point; that he had made up his mind about her long before he knew the whilom Mrs. Minchin in the flesh, and had let her know which way almost as long before the secret of her identity could possibly have dawned upon him. Now, if the worst came to the worst, his sincerity at least could not be questioned. Others might pretend, others again be unconsciously prejudiced in favor of their friend; he at least was above either suspicion. Had he not argued her case with Mrs. Venables at the time, and had he not told her so on the very evening that they met?
Certainly Langholm felt in a strong position, if ever the worst came to the worst; it illustrated a little weakness, however, that he himself foresaw no such immediate eventuality. There had been a very brief encounter between two persons at a garden-party, and a yet more brief confusion upon either side. Of all this there existed but half-a-dozen witnesses, at the outside, and Langholm did not credit the other five with his own trained insight and powers of observation; he furthermore reflected that those others, even if as close observers as himself, could not possibly have put two and two together as he had done. And this was sound; but Langholm had a fatal knack of overlooking the lady whom he had taken in to dinner at Upthorpe Hall, and scarcely noticed at Hornby Manor. Cocksure as he himself was of the significance of that which he had seen with his own eyes, the observer flattered himself that he was the only real one present; remembered the special knowledge which he had to assist his vision; and relied properly enough upon the silence of Sir Baldwin Gibson.
The greater the secret, however, the more piquant the situation for one who was in it; and there were moments of a sleepless night in which Langholm found nothing new to regret. But he was in a quandary none the less. He could scarcely meet Mrs. Steel again without a word about the prospective story, which they had so often discussed together, and upon which he was at last free to embark; nor could he touch upon that theme without disclosing the new knowledge which would burn him until he did. Charles Langholm and Rachel Steel had two or three qualities in common: an utter inability to pretend was one, if you do not happen to think it a defect.
As a rule when he had finished a rapid bit of writing, Langholm sat down to correct, and a depressing task his spent brain always found it; but for once he let it beat him altogether. After a morning's tussle with one unfortunate chapter, the desperate author sent off the rest in their sins, and rode his bicycle to abolish thought. But that mild pastime fell lamentably short of its usual efficacy. It was not one of his heroines who was worrying the novelist, but a real woman whom he liked and her husband whom he did not. The husband it was who had finished matters by entering the field of speculation during the morning's work. It may he confessed that Langholm had not by any means disliked him the year before.
What was the secret of this second marriage on the part of one who had been so recently and so miserably married? Was it love? Langholm would not admit it for a moment. Steel did not love his wife, and there was certainly nothing to love in Steel. Langholm had begun almost to hate him; he told himself it was because Steel did not even pretend to love his wife, but let strangers see the abnormal terms on which they lived.
What, then, was the explanation--the history--the excuse? They were supposed to have married on the Continent; that was one of the few statements vouchsafed by Steel, and he happened to have made it in the first instance to Langholm himself. Was there any truth in it? And did Steel know the truth concerning his wife?
Your imaginative man is ever quick to form a theory based upon facts of his own involuntary invention. Langholm formed numerous theories and invented innumerable facts during the four-and-twenty hours of his present separation from the heroine and the villain of these romances. The likeliest of the lot was the idea that the pair had really met abroad, at some out-of-the-way place, where Rachel had been in hiding from the world, and that in her despair of receiving common justice from her kind, she had accepted the rich man without telling him who she was. His subsequent enlightenment was Langholm's explanation of Steel's coldness towards his wife.
He wondered if it was the kind of coldness that would ever be removed; if Steel believed her guilty, it never would. Langholm would not have admitted it, was not even aware of it in his own introspective mind, but he almost hoped that Steel was not thoroughly convinced of his wife's innocence.
The night of the dinner-party was so fine and the roads so clean that Langholm went off on his bicycle once more, making an incongruous figure in his dress-suit, but pedalling sedately to keep cool. Fortune, however, was against him, for they had begun clipping those northern hedgerows, and an ominous bumping upon a perfectly flat road led to the discovery of a puncture a long mile from Normanthorpe. Thence onward the unhappy cyclist had to choose between running beside his machine and riding on the rims, and between the two expedients arrived at last both very hot and rather late. But he thought he must be very late; for he neither met, followed, nor was followed by any vehicle whatsoever in the drive; and the door did not open before Langholm rang, as it does when they are still waiting for one. Then the house seemed strangely silent when the door did open, and the footman wore a curious expression as he ushered the late comer into an empty drawing-room. Langholm was now almost convinced that he had made some absurd mistake, and the impression was not removed by the entry of Steel with his napkin in one hand.
"I've mistaken the night!" exclaimed the perspiring author.
"Not a bit of it," replied Steel; "only we thought you weren't coming at all."
"Am I really so late as all that?"
And Langholm began to wish he had mistaken the night.
"No," said Steel, "only a very few minutes, and the sin is ours entirely. But we thought you were staying away, like everybody else."
"My dear fellow," said Steel, smiling on the other's bewilderment, "I humbly apologize for having classed you for an instant with the rank and file of our delightful neighbors; for the fact is that all but two have made their excuses at the last moment. The telegrams will delight you, one of these days!"
"There was none from me," declared Langholm, as he began to perceive what had happened.
"There was not; and my wife was quite confident that you would come; so the fault is altogether mine. Langholm, you were almost at her heels when she was introduced to the old judge yesterday?"
"Have you guessed who she was--before she married me--or has anybody told you?"
"I have guessed."
Steel stood silent for an instant, his eyes resting in calm scrutiny upon the other, his mouth as firm and fixed, his face fresh as a young man's, his hair like spun silver in the electric light. Langholm looked upon the man who was looking upon him, and he could not hate him as he would.
"And do you still desire to dine with us?" inquired his host at last.
"I don't want to be in the way," faltered Langholm, "on a painful--"
"Oh, never mind that!" cried Steel. "Are you quite sure you don't want to cut our acquaintance?"
"You know I don't," said Langholm, bluntly.
"Then come in, pray, and take us as we are."
"One moment, Steel! All this is inconceivable; do you mean to say that your guests have thrown you over on account of--of--"
"My wife having been a certain Mrs. Minchin before she changed her name to Steel! Yes, every one of them, except our vicar and his wife, who are real good friends."
"I am another," said Langholm through his big mustache.
"The very servants are giving notice, one by one!"
"I am her servant, too!" muttered Langholm, as Steel stood aside to let him pass out first; but this time it was through his teeth, though from his heart, and the words were only audible to himself.