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CHAPTER XV.

The months dragged themselves slowly away as though they hated to go, but would infinitely prefer to remain and gloat over my misery. I could not make up my mind to confer with my mother again. Although she had told me she would aid me, I seemed unable to pluck up the courage to know the worst.

My life at Tavistock Villa was unchanged. My relations with my husband were colder than ever. Though never once did he allude to the subject of the conversation recorded in the last chapter, I could see that it had made an impression upon him. He looked at me wistfully; our conversation was strained; a horrible form had stepped in between us, assuming shape as definitely as did the geni in the Arabian Nights story, from a mere shadow.

You would think that his course of action would have been changed. Not a bit of it. We met as before at breakfast and at dinner, after which be would leave the house. He never attempted any explanation, and I, always on the eve of desperate measures, maintained an equally guarded silence.

Of course I was in Grosvenor Square frequently during those wretched days, but as I did not allude to my misfortunes, my mother, selfishly afraid of a scandal which might endanger her eminently respectable position in the society which she loved a great deal better than she did her soul, made no effort to ascertain the situation of affairs.

I suppose nay husband and I might have lived together pleasantly. There are women in this world—I have met a few of them—who have occupied similar positions with a smile on their faces. I could not do it. I was not a humbug, I was sorry to say. If only young girls were forced to study the elements of humbuggery as a part of an academic curriculum, what a quantity of subsequent suffering some of them would be spared! The study might be absolutely necessary to only a few, but it would be of benefit to all.

My cup of anguish was full when I met Letty Bishop—married and wonderfully happy. Dear me! How she loved that husband of hers. I compared her affection for dear Reginald to mine for Arthur Ravener, and then stopped. Her husband returned her love with interest. There never was a better mated couple.

I met them at my mother's house one evening. Arthur was with me for the sake of appearances, I suppose. How he ever managed to tear himself away from HER I could not imagine. I did not ask him for any information on the subject.

"What a happy couple!" I said with a sigh. I could not help the remark. Arthur was beside me. I was sitting, like an antique, faded wallflower in the drawing-room, while the others talked and chatted and laughed and gossiped at the other end of the room. He followed my eyes and saw Reginald talking in a whisper to Letty, while a pink-faced maiden executed a morceau on the piano.

"They are very impolite to talk while Miss Lancaster is playing," he said coldly.

"They have so much to say," I suggested.

"Doubtless."

"We shall never be troubled with such a burning desire to speak," I went on scornfully.

"That is your fault. I am always willing to talk with you. I enjoy talking with you, Elsie. You are unhappy, and it grieves me sorely to know it—because—because—I am helpless. Our marriage was a—a—mistake. You will not make the best of it. You are eating your heart away with worry. I would give all I possess to have it otherwise."

"You must imagine," I said sternly, "that I am either a lunatic or an idiot, otherwise you would not talk to me so senselessly."

"I imagine nothing of the kind."

"Then you did when you married me?"

"I did not. I thought, as we said so often, that you were in earnest when you declared you would be satisfied with quiet friendship instead of impetuous passion—"

"Then, as you imagine you were mistaken, you propose allowing matters to remain as they are."

"I do not see what else to do. Elsie, why need we quarrel? I esteem you. I admire you, I am sorry—"

"Thank you very much," I said bitterly. "You are very kind. You do me a great honor. You esteem me. You admire me. Oh, that is charming of you. Could you not have esteemed me and admired me without this nonsense?" pointing to my wedding ring. I would have flung it from the open window before us, only I, too, had appearances to keep up.

He made no answer, and I left him, going over to my friend Letty, and permitting her to pour her rhapsodies into my ears. She enjoyed the process immensely, and—well, I could just stand it, and that is about all.

Before I left my mother's house my mind was made up. I would dilly-dally no longer. I would accept my mother's aid, and settle matters finally. I was, as Arthur said, eating out my heart, and it would be better to act while there was still something left of it. I would see my mother on the following morning, and before X returned to Kew I would know that my "case" was in hands that would dispose of it satisfactorily.

I did not sleep at all that night, but with the ever faithful Marie by my side " killed time " as best I could. Marie was a good girl, but like most of her class, officious. She thought it quite correct to openly sympathize with me, and declare that monsieur treated his wife shamefully. This irritated me, and, if anything, made me still more fretfully anxious.

I was in Grosvenor Square early the following morning, and burst into my mother's room while she was putting a little suspicion of something rosy upon her face.

"Good gracious me, Elsie!" she exclaimed in amazed vexation, as I threw myself into a chair, "you should indeed cultivate a little repose. You really alarm me with your impulsive movements."

I made no answer. I was not in a humor for repartee of any kind. I waited as quietly as I could while mamma hurried a little china dish containing red out of sight, fondly imagining, I suppose, that I had not seen it. Then she sat down with a hectic flush on one side of her face.

"Domestic troubles, of course," she said, satirically.

"Of course," I replied, with equal satire.

"Well?"

"You said you would help me when I needed your services. I need them now," I replied.

My mother meditated. I could see that she was unwilling to assist me. She dreaded anything happening which might give the matter publicity. In a word, she was afraid of me, and I admit, not without reason.

"I do not like interfering between man and wife," she began tentatively.

But I was equal to the occasion. The avalanche had started on its course, and nothing could now stop it.

"Very well," I said with palpably assumed indifference, "if you will not aid me in a matter concerning my happiness, I shall leave my husband at once."

As I said, my indifference was palpably assumed, but my mother was one of those who cannot see a pin's point below the surface. The random shot took effect.

"You will do nothing of the kind," she said, severely. "I beg of you, Elsie, to do nothing rash. You will bring my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave," tearfully.

She had employed that expression ever since I could remember, and its dramatic force was impaired by old age. When I used to spoil my frocks at school, when I said rude things, when I insulted my governess, or when I overdrew my weekly allowance—errors with which she was always made acquainted—I was ever threatened with bringing her gray hairs in sorrow to the grave.

She walked to her secretaire, and sat down. Then, taking a sheet of note paper with a crest and monogram of enormous proportions, she scribbled a few lines in a bold, back-hand. Folding the sheet, she placed it in a heavily monogrammed envelope, which she left open as she handed it to me. It was addressed to Octavius Rickaby, Esq., Holborn Viaduct.

"Go there," she said, shortly.

"Who is Octavius Rickaby?" I asked feebly. My mother smiled contemptuously. "Of course you wouldn't know," she said. "Mr. Rickably is a very clever private detective—or rather the head of,an admirably conducted private detective office. He conducts a great many society cases"—sinking her voice to a whisper—"in fact I could name several of my friends whom he has helped. Of course, Elsie, if you make a fool of yourself, and fail to put him in possession of every detail of your case—every detail, mind—you must not be surprised if he fails. If you make a confidant of him, he will be of very material assistance, in fact your husband will not be able to wink unless you know it. He is reasonable, and, my dear, he is perfectly upright. He will never trouble you after you have settled his bill."

My heart sank within me. The word detective had an awful significance in my mind. In fact, I think I would as soon have invoked the aid of Mephistopheles. Detectives always suggested murders and abductions and burglaries to me. A great many people will doubtless sympathize with this feeling.

My mother was "eyeing" me. "You do not intend to consult Mr. Rickaby, I see plainly," she said. "You will be sorry for it one of these days."

She might be right. After all, a detective might be of great service, and something must be done. "I will see Mr. Rickaby, and at once," I declared, rising with determination. "I am much obliged to you, mother. I am sorry to have disturbed you," I said, really becoming cheerful as I resolved upon immediate action; "I know I am an awful nuisance. Now go on with your dressing." I meant painting, but accuracy at times is detestable.

I drove at once to Mr. Rickaby's office in Holborn Viaduct, and was soon in front of a large glass door with the words "Octavius Rickaby" in gleaming black letters staring me in the face. I did not dare to stop and think for one moment. I walked straight in, just as my excitement, born of my eagerness to act, was wearing away like the effect of a much abused drug. I found myself in a neat little office, comfortably furnished, and not at all murderous or penny-dreadful looking. A polite young clerk, in a blue tie and a jovial face, which he seemed perpetually endeavoring to harmonize with the solemnity of his position, received me.

"Please take my card and this letter to Mr. Rickaby," I said, trying to appear as indifferent as though it were part of the daily routine of my life to consult with private detectives.

Of course I expected to be kept waiting. I ignorantly classed detectives with doctors and lawyers and editors, who are always "very busy just now," or if they are not, they pretend to be for the sake of appearances. I was agreeably surprised when Mr. Rickably said he would see me at once. No, there could be no humbug about that man.

The great Octavius was stout and rubicund—another favorable point with me. No one could have looked less mysterious, and more matter of fact. I believe I half expected to enter his presence with an "open sesame," and to behold two or three imps of darkness skipping about with a caldron between them. He rose as I entered, placed a chair for me, and leaned back in his own cosy, cushioned seat.

"Tell me everything, Mrs. Ravener," said Mr. Rickaby suavely, "no one comes to see me unless he has something to tell. Consider me your doctor or your lawyer. Explain your case, and I will diagnose it."

He said all this in rather a fragmentary manner, expecting me to begin, and uttering each new sentence as he noticed that I remained silent.

He encouraged me by his patience and well-bred demeanor. I told him my story,—at least as much as I could of it. I omitted the fact that Arthur left me a few hours after our wedding. Mr. Rickaby remained silent for some moments after I had finished. Then he asked me if I had taxed Arthur with neglect. I told him I had done so in a very vigorous manner.

"You suspect that you have a rival?" he asked, looking at me keenly.

"What am I to think?"

"Have you ever discovered any letters or papers in your husband's possession that would lead you to such a belief?"

"I have not tried to discover any," I said.

"Will you do so?"

I promised that I would, but begged him not to wait for any possible discoveries on my part before he began proceedings in the matter.

"You have not told me everything, Mrs. Ravener." Mr. Rickaby said this with such an air of certainty that I was dumfounded. He had not removed his eyes from my face during the progress of my story, or during the time he had interrogated me.

"I have told you all—all I—I can tell you," I said in a low tone, averting my head. Still those eagle eyes were rivetted upon me. They seemed to burn into my soul. I was disconcerted and rose hastily.

"Do not stare at me so," I said angrily, walking to the window.

"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Ravener," he remarked quietly, "I am sorry to annoy you. Sit down." I sat down. "You know," playing musingly with a paper knife, "I often have customers who tell me all they can—like you," he said, "so I have to adopt other means to learn the information withheld. I read it in their faces."

"Then—?" I began furiously.

"You need not trouble to tell me any more," he said quietly. "It is not necessary."

I cannot describe my sensations. They were too painful to he recognizable in pen and ink. My face burned and my lips were parched. I was almost sorry I had come. But the worst was over, and I must bring this loathsome interview to an end.

"Do you think that—that," I hated to use the horrible expression that I had heard from my mother's lips—"there is a woman in—in the case?"

"It is possible," he said indefinitely.

"Possible!" I echoed in surprise. "What do you mean?"

"Mrs. Ravener," said Mr. Rickaby, "I will not express an opinion; I have no right to do so. I will possess myself of all the information I can. I will find out where your husband goes."

"You will?" I exclaimed joyfully. "Then, Mr. Rickaby, if you will do that you can leave the rest to me. Just find out for me where he goes, and I will then see what it will be best for me to do. Leave me to discover who the woman is. I—I should like to know—exclusively."

I told the truth. I did not want even a detective to possess himself of all my husband's secrets. To my surprise Mr. Rickaby seemed relieved.

"You will do this," I asked, "without going any farther?"

"Most willingly," he replied, "I will obey your instructions to the letter. It is to my interest to do so." That satisfied me.