Dishonoured and Unsung
MRS. STANLEY HUBBARD was giving a dinner-party at her new house in Park Lane. It was a very gorgeous house, and it was certain to be a very gorgeous dinner, for she had engaged as her chef the great Alphonse, whose last place had been with the Emperor of Austria. Besides, it had somehow leaked out that a slight misunderstanding had arisen between Mrs. Hubbard and her social godmother, Lady Willie Onslow, and people thought it would be interesting to see how the Bread Trust millionairess managed things in her first hour of freedom.
Thirteen invitations had been sent out and accepted. The first arrival was a youthful scion of foreign Royalty who had borrowed money of Mrs. Stanley Hubbard. The second was Lady Willie herself, wearing a veiled smile of malicious anticipation, and a paste copy of a diamond tiara which had been Mrs. Hubbard's first gift to her. The remaining guests then began to follow one another in quick succession.
The grandfather clock in the big hall, which did queer, expensive, astronomical things to music every fifteen minutes, chimed the quarter before nine, and at the same instant the tallest footman in London announced "Lord and Lady Hardacre and Miss Faithfull."
After all—was the thought which telegraphed itself round the drawing-room—"Mother Hubbard" was not doing badly out of leading-strings. It counted nothing that she had secured Prince Roberto, for he was to be bought when the price was big enough; and, then, he was in love with pretty Lady Willie. But Lady Hardacre had been the beauty and wit of several seasons—the most popular girl of her day; and Lord Hardacre was the hero of the hour, in spite of whispers against him since the beginning of a certain inquiry. Everybody wanted this distinguished pair, who had been married a few months ago, soon after Lord Hardacre's triumphant return from the war; and it was a brilliant feather in the cap of such a woman as Mrs. Stanley Hubbard to have secured them. But the strange thing was that Lady Willie Onslow still bore her well-known smile of dainty malice.
Lady Hardacre, sweeping towards her hostess in diamanté draperies of cloudy black tulle, might have posed to an artist for the Goddess of Night. She was tall and dark, smiling and splendid. Everything about her glittered: the life-sized diamond swallow in her dusky, rippling hair; her great brown topaz eyes; her while teeth, between the scarlet lips of a mouth over large for perfect beauty, but ideal for expression; the necklace on her long, white throat, the diamonds on her bosom; her belt of brilliants, the sparkling embroidery on her dress, the buckles on her little pointed shoes.
She held her head high (as well she might, having secured the man whom no girl in England would have refused), and looked as all young queens or princesses ought to look and very seldom do.
General Lord Hardacre was forty-four; but to be forty-four is to be young when a man is a hero to his country. He had a well-featured, sallow, smileless face, which his friends called intellectual and his enemies arrogant. His figure was so erect and military that he gave the effect of being taller than he really was; if not precisely handsome, the merest passing glance told that he was someone in particular.
As for Miss Faithfull, she was only Lady Hardacre's sister, eight years younger and ten times less beautiful. Nevertheless, she was pretty, in a slim, brown, fawn-like little way of her own. She had eyes and lashes, and she was seventeen. Her name was Pearl, though it should, to be suitable, have been Hazel; and she was just "out." She did not talk much, but she looked as if she could think seriously, and for that reason and many others she would never rival the magnificent Diana in popularity.
Everyone was delighted to see the Hardacres, and "Mother Hubbard's" only son, down from Oxford for the "Long," was delighted to See Pearl Faithfull. The girl had very little money, but she was related to half the aristocracy in England, and a connection by marriage with Lady Hardacre would be as good a thing as could happen to a rich new-comer. Mrs. Hubbard had gleaned a vast deal of such valuable knowledge as this under Lady Willie's tutelage, and was proud of her 'cuteness in having invited the little brown Pearl to-night. Altogether, the Bread Trust millionairess was well pleased with herself, and was chuckling inwardly at what must be Lady Willie's chagrin at her unassisted success, when another announcement was made.
Mrs. Hubbard's face beamed with hospitality and pride in the fine sound of the name as it rang through her drawing-room. That was the secret joy of it all—her guests, her drawing-room, her house, her triumph. She turned from the Hardacres to welcome the last arrival, who was the fourteenth member of the party, counting the hostess. But, even in turning, she was smitten in the face with a wave of electricity which tingled through the room.
What was the matter with her guests? She did not know. It was as if a spell had fallen upon them, freezing them into gravity and silence. Something had happened. The cold chill which is the forerunner of disaster pinched Mrs. Hubbard's flesh like the icy wind that heralds a storm on a warm day of sumptuous summer.
"So glad to see you, dear General Falconer," she rallied her forces to exclaim, raising her heavily-jewelled hand high in air to shake that of the soldier.
But the mysterious chill had touched him also.
He was a tall, lean, dark man, with the bold, uncompromising gaze of an eagle. It was fierce at this moment as well as uncompromising. With his lips pressed together, his thin nostrils a-quiver, his sombre eyes suddenly alight like a beacon, the man looked dangerous.
In the midst of the hush which had fallen on the room Mrs. Hubbard, in her torture and bewilderment, could have screamed. She did not know what to do. Involuntarily her frightened eyes travelled for help to Lady Willie; but Lady Willie's was the one radiant face in the stricken circle, and, catching that smile, her ex-pupil read the truth. She had done something awful. Lady Willie had known all the time, had let her drift happily to the lip of the cataract, and now would rejoice as she went over. This was the discarded Mentor's revenge.
Had the tension lasted more than one intolerable moment Mrs. Hubbard must have collapsed utterly, but the strain was relaxed in a way as unexpected as beneficent. Little Pearl Faithfull ran forward, and—like the child that she was—held out both hands to General Falconer.
"It is good to see you," she cried. "I don't know when I've been as glad of anything." The girl of seventeen and the soldier of forty shook hands once and again. He smiled down at her and looked at nobody else. Then she turned blushing and dewy-eyed to Mrs. Hubbard, with a glance which took in everyone. "I think I'm very lucky," she said, "to have General Falconer for one of my oldest friends. We have known him, my sister and I ever since I was a little girl—oh, a very little girl. And a great bother I must have been to him often, but he was always kind, wasn't he, Di?"
This direct challenge Diana Hardacre received like the woman of the world that she was, though she was in a mood to slaughter the widow of Stanley Hubbard and not count it murder. She smiled a non-committal smile, murmured a few vaguely-agreeable, vaguely-audible words, and asked her husband a question which drew him instantly into a conversation with herself and Prince Roberto of Pisa. A Liberal peer and his wife, who called herself an Anarchist, spoke to Falconer, and dinner was announced.
In wild haste, snatching at salvation for herself and her ship of state, the hostess stumbled among ideas of readjustment. General Falconer was to have taken in Lady Hardacre, but now this was clearly impossible; they had scarcely exchanged a salutation, and the two men had frankly glared for an electric second.
In sheer desperation Mrs. Hubbard flung Falconer and Pearl Faithfull to each other, and as this one change upset all other arrangements a sort of "general post" took place. The Prince, who, as the highest in rank, should have taken his hostess, got Lady Willie, and astonished people were paired off helter-skelter, amused or annoyed as the case might be.
"How too terribly delicious!" cooed Lady Willie to her princely neighbour.
"My getting you? It's heavenly," answered Roberto, who would have liked to marry morganatically this fascinating widow, if she had had any other fortune than her face and wicked tongue.
"No, no. Don't be foolish. I mean, of course, the situation."
"I don't understand it—except that something is queer."
"Something is very queer. Horrid old thing! I could dance with joy. She'll crawl to me now. Never did pride come before a worse fall."
"What is the mystery?" asked the Prince.
"Surely you know about the row between Hardacre and Falconer? I thought everybody did, except Mother Hubbard. She never reads anything in the papers—except the society news, as she calls it. She never knows what is going on except marriages, or what is coming off except divorces and last year's hats. She told me, all puffed up with pride like a pouter pigeon, that the Hardacres were coming; and only a day or two ago my dear Anarchist cousin happened to mention that she and Lord Exmouth had persuaded Falconer to accept, lest people should say he was ashamed to be seen about. But I feared it was too good to be true."
"I'm afraid I don't read your English newspapers," said the Prince. "It is all I can do to keep up with the squabbles of my own country. Besides, I have been in London only six weeks, and I have thought of nobody but you."
"Mother Hubbard has been here twice that time and has thought of nobody but herself. Oh, there's no excuse for her. She'll never live this down. I'm quite grateful to you for not knowing the story. I shall like telling it. It's quite a romance. Well, to begin with, once upon a time there were two men. They were the youngest generals in the Army, having been rewarded for magnificent service in the Soudan campaign; and they were both in love with the same woman—who was in love with herself. She was twenty-five, and had saved herself up through six seasons, with the view of getting the best bargain in the market. Then came the war. The two men proposed. The girl, being a very wise girl, accepted neither, but secretly encouraged both to hope. She said she could not quite make up her mind, and asked each one to wait. There was jealousy between them, but neither one dreamed how far it had gone with the other; men never do if the woman is clever. So each fought to succeed better than his rival, so that in the end he might have more to offer.
"This was what the girl wanted. She knew that reputations were made and unmade by war, and she didn't intend to commit herself until she saw what would happen.
"What happened was this.
"In the beginning both men did brilliantly, and the eyes of all England were on them. Falconer was the younger in years and in rank, but he made a great start; it looked to those in the know as if he might win the race. Unluckily for him, however, he was under Hardacre's orders (he wasn't Lord Hardacre then); some wily old Boer person was being pursued. Falconer had made certain dispositions, when Hardacre swept down on him like a whirlwind and upset them. He took away some of Falconer's men and batteries, and sent a verbal order that a direct assault should be made. Falconer (all this is his side of the story) thought there must have been some mistake. He says that he scribbled off a despatch explaining the whole situation, and asking if the order really was exactly as he had received it. This despatch he sent post-haste by his aide-de-camp. The answer came again verbally, that Falconer was to proceed as directed. He obeyed, and had one of the worst disasters of the war.
"Then came the row between the two men. Hardacre denied having ordered the direct assault. The man who had brought the instructions had been killed, but, of course, Hardacre's word was good, and as he swore he had never received any such despatch as Falconer said he had sent, and that aide-de-camp was dead also, it was simply a question as to which man had lied. Hardacre was the one who had the ear of the powers that be. He was believed; and as the very next thing he did was to bring off a big coup he sprang at once on to a pedestal as a hero. The newspapers did the rest. Fate was Hardacre's friend through the whole campaign, while that one stroke of ill-fortune ruined Falconer. He was blamed for the frightful disaster, which he attempted to throw on Hardacre's shoulders; was severely reprimanded, invited to resign, and came home. At the end of the war Hardacre returned also, but in a very different way; he was a conqueror; he had a grand reception; his name was on the list for Coronation honours; he was made a viscount; and soon after Diana Faithfull married him.
"One would have thought that Falconer was whistled down the wind; but having lost the girl he loved, and most other things worth having, he seemed doggedly determined not to let honour go without a last struggle. He has some powerful friends, Exmouth among others, and the affair came up in Parliament. There were furious ructions; but everybody was tired of the war, and the newspapers made as little of the matter as they could, because they didn't want Hardacre knocked off the pedestal on which they had helped to place him, or Falconer put up on the height from which they'd helped to drag him down.
"Nevertheless, you know how stories grow. A certain set have started disagree- able rumours about Hardacre, and there are still people who say that he did give the order which caused the disaster; that Falconer did send the despatch; that it was received and suppressed by Hardacre to save his own reputation and ruin that of his most dangerous rival.
"All this is vieux jeu (though the two haven't met socially till to-night), and the gossip hasn't hurt Hardacre much. The only thing which could really harm him now would be to have it proved that he had got the despatch; but it's the most unlikely thing in the world to happen. Still, there you have the situation with the two men, and the one woman between them."
"And the little girl with the eyes. Doesn't she count?"
"She counted to-night, just as the smallest trump may take a trick. But the child has no real part in the game, though they do say she has been in love with Falconer ever since she was eight or ten years old, and he used to take Pearl on his knee, tell her stories, and bring her sweets or toys, to please Diana. A quiet, shy little thing it is, like some small creature of the woods. I was surprised to see how she came out at the critical moment. I never heard her say so many consecutive words before in company. Look at her now, sitting next to him. She's dumb as a little doll. The girl lives with the Hardacres, and Di is trying to marry her off to Tom Hubbard. She'll probably do it, too, unless I put a spoke in her wheel."
"And shall you?"
"I hardly think so. Di Hardacre and I have never interfered with each other; that is, neither of us has wanted any of the other's men. She was the most ambitious girl I ever knew—and the hardest. But one should always be nice to girls, because one doesn't know whom they may marry; and I'm rather glad now I've always been nice to Di. She has got what she wanted. She has succeeded in reaching the top round of the ladder."
"Does she love Hardacre?"
Lady Willie laughed. "She loves success. But isn't it amusing? Isn't it too delicious, Mother Hubbard having them all here?"
"Anything is delicious when one is near you," said Prince Roberto.
Lord and Lady Hardacre, with the latter's sister, were the first to break up the party, which, despite valiant efforts made by some of the members, had been a dismal failure. The Hardacres were going on to a political reception, and dropped the young girl on the way at their own house in Berkeley Square.
It was eleven o'clock; and though Pearl Faithfull was "out," eleven still appeared to her a reasonable bedtime. But never in her life had she felt less inclined for bed than she did to-night.
Every nerve in her small body was tingling as she went up to her room on the third floor of the big, silent house.
It was the end of May, but the night was chill, and the girl shivered, either with cold or nervousness, as she passed through the dimly-lighted corridors. Physically she was glad of the freshly-kindled fire which crackled on the hearth and caught her attention as she entered the room. A moment later Lady Hardacre's maid appeared, in time to take off the long white cloak. Pearl had no maid of her own, but this woman had been with Diana for years and did what she could for the younger sister through fondness rather than obligation.
"This room is in a terrible state, miss," she said, "but you would insist on the things being brought in the minute her ladyship had told me what she could spare for your poor folk, so here they are, scattered about for you to dispose of. I fetched them in when I got a hit of time after you had gone out; but you won't want to look through anything to-night; and hadn't I better lay them aside till to-morrow, when——"
"No, thank you, Morris," replied the girl, glancing at a pile of miscellaneous clothing spread out upon a sofa and chair. "The things won't he in my way. and I sha'n't need you to help me undress. I may write a few letters. Go and have a nap until Lady Hardacre wants you."
The maid said "good-night" and softly shut the door. It was good to he alone. Pearl breathed more freely. She began walking up and down, restlessly, hovering one minute before the fire, holding out little, ringless hands to the blaze without feeling the warmth, then flitting to a long minor, and staring into the eyes of her white reflection, as if asking sympathy from a friend.
Years ago, when Pearl Faithfull had been a lonely child, she had given her image in the glass a name, pretending that it was another little girl, living in an adjoining house with a great, open window in between. She called this playmate "Grace," which was her favourite name: and now she thought wistfully of the old days when she had had Grace to confide in. There was no one now. Still, she spoke half aloud to the pale reflection.
"Cruel! cruel!" she said. "What horrible injustice! He is so thin and haggard, even though he laughed and talked and asked me if I remembered little things. If I remembered! Oh, if I could have died to save him! The noblest man—the bravest—and they have dragged him down——"
The blood rushed to her face and she saw it in the glass. Suddenly she was ashamed of her own emotion. She turned from the mirror and almost ran across the room to the pile of discarded clothing, to which she addressed herself in a frenzy of energy.
Pearl was not like the splendid Diana, born for and happy only in society. Since she left the schoolroom, where she had worked with a strange passion for study—almost any study—she would have been wretched without her charities. She had a few hundreds a year of her own, with which she was allowed to do as she chose, and her choice was to limit her own wardrobe and support a crèche, where babies were looked after in the absence of their mothers at work. Pearl often visited the crèche, knew the whole life-history of every woman who benefited by it, and pestered her sister and friends for cast-off clothing to bestow upon them either for themselves, their husbands, or their children.
With a view of putting away thoughts which clamoured at the door of her heart, the girl began feverishly sorting out these last contributions. There were three country frocks of Di's, nobly sacrificed on the altar of charity by Morris; a dressing-gown, several pairs of shoes, and two old suits of clothes of Hardcre's—one "mufti" the other battered khaki.
Pearl knew exactly how she would apportion off these things. She began dividing them into separate heaps, to be wrapped in parcels later, and as she took up each garment she almost mechanically searched the pockets, as Di had once warned her she must do, after losing a diamond ring unaccountably.
Morris, evidently, had been before her in this task. The dresses were laid aside again, after being examined in vain. Hardacre's civilian clothing followed; and then Pearl took up the khaki jacket. As she did so a curious pang shot through her, keen and thin as a needle's point.
"He wore this in battle," the girl said to herself. "Could a woman who loved a man give away such a thing? If I——no, I couldn't do it! Anything else should go sooner."
She fumbled in the pockets, as in duty bound. There was a half-used package of cigarettes in one, which would have seemed rather pathetic if she had been fond of Lord Hardacre; but Pearl had not been able to love her brother-in-law. It would have broken her heart to see Di married to Dick Falconer, yet she had wished for the marriage for Falconer's sake, and she resented Hardacre's taking her sister away from the other man as if he were a thief who had stolen a jewel. Then, as she was folding the coat, something rustled. The girl looked again in one pocket and saw nothing; but in the second the lining was torn, and she found a crumpled piece of paper which had worked its way between the pocket and the cloth. She took it out and tossed it on the floor, instead of throwing it into the waste-paper basket as she had intended. But it gave a disorderly look to the pretty room, and she picked it up, meaning to take better aim at the basket. Her eyes rested for a moment upon the ball of paper. With a quick impulse she opened it, and then gave a sharp cry which no one heard save Grace, in the mirror.
There was no mistake. Pearl knew the whole story. She had read the papers, and had never forgotten the wording of the famous despatch which General Falconer said he had sent and Lord Hardacre said he had never received.
This was the identical document. It had been in Bernard's pocket. He had lied.
What to do? If the man disgraced through that lie had this proof in his possession and knew where it had been found, he could exonerate himself even now. His whole life might be different. But what of Diana's husband? What of Diana?
Pearl felt herself a child. She knew not what to do with this tremendous weapon in her hand. Her brain, numbed at first as if by a blow, acted slowly; but pictures of past and present rose before her eyes. She saw her childhood's idol in the dust, flung there by his rival, who had profited in love and honours by the fall. It was in her power—hers—to raise him. Could she hesitate?
"No-no!" she cried out, and sprang to her feet.
At this instant ringed fingers tapped on the door, and Diana came in in her glittering black dress and jewels.
"I saw your light," she said. "My head ached, and it was stupid at the Whitakers'. Bernard has gone to the Rag and I came home, partly because I was bored and partly because I wanted to speak to you alone before you had time to get to bed. How dared you behave as you did at the Hubbard woman's, talking to that man as if we were still friends and nothing had happened? I could have boxed your ears. A man who has lied and tried to ruin my husband, whose bread you are eating!"
A wave of fire ran through the girl's veins.
"Richard Falconer never told a lie or did a mean or cowardly or dishonourable thing in his life," she said, in a strange voice. "It is Bernard who is guilty of all."
"Ungrateful little wretch! I don't know what you mean. I doubt if you know yourself."
"Are you sure that you don't know?"
"Of course I am sure. What are you talking about?"
A sudden and curious change passed over Diana Hardacre's face. It was a quivering of the muscles, then a conscious stiffening as if to control them. Pearl saw it, and, seeing, realized that her sister knew.
"Oh, Di!" the girl broke out at her, passionately. "What is the use of quibbling and denying? Bernard did give the order and did receive General Falconer's despatch, which he said that he had never had. I have found it."
Diana grew pale. In an instant she looked years older. All the hardness of her handsome face, veiled at most times by the dazzle of her smile, was nakedly accentuated. "I suppose," she said, "that Dick Falconer showed something to you which he made you believe was the despatch. Of course, it is a forgery."
Pearl's eyes blazed. "He doesn't even know it exists. But he shall know. Would Bernard have carried about a forgery in his pocket?"
Involuntarily she glanced towards the khaki jacket hanging over the back of a chair. Diana's glance followed. and her quick wits leaped at the truth. She pointed, and her rings and bangles scintillated with the shaking of her hand. "You found it—there?"
"Yes. It had slipped down through a torn lining."
"There is some mistake, of course. But—it might do harm. Give what you have found to me and I will throw it into your fire without even reading it."
"I will not give it to you, Di. General Falconer is to have the paper."
"Are you mad? That would ruin Bernard—ruin me."
"I am very sorry. But Bernard did not hesitate to ruin Dick."
"What did it matter for him, compared with us? Listen, Pearl, I am going to tell you something. You are only a child, but I will throw myself upon your mercy. I lied when I said that I didn't know what you meant. This dreadful affair has been half killing poor Bernard for a long time. He confessed all to me. It isn't as bad as you think—not nearly as bad. He thought he had lost or destroyed the paper. When all the fuss began and Falconer demanded that it should be produced, it was true that Bernard hadn't it. He had never seen the thing since the day it was received. As it couldn't possibly be produced, the simplest and best way was to say that he had not had it."
"The best for himself."
"The best for England. A man in his position must think of big issues; he must even do evil—if you like to call it so—that good may come. To revive the scandal now, when it is dying out, would not help Dick Falconer much and it would ruin us for ever."
"It would restore Dick's reputation. It isn't too late for that."
"His reputation is a thousand times less important—now—than Bernard's for England's sake—for mine. You must see that, Pearl. Between two evils you must choose the less. I have lived through this and I have suffered, too; but always I said to myself, 'The despatch doesn't exist. No one can ever know.' Think what it would be to spoil Bernard's career just when it is brightest. Think what the world would say of you."
"I don't think of the world or care for it, though I am sorry for you. Most of all I think of Dick—and of the one right thing to do. At first I wasn't sure; but now I am sure, and I am going to do it."
"You shall not!"
"I shall. Nothing shall prevent me."
"I will prevent you." Fierce and lithe as a panther Diana sprang at her. Arguments had failed, but force was left, and she was stronger than the slender young girl.
Quick as light Pearl pushed the crumpled paper deep down into the low-cut bodice of her dress, and was ready, as Diana's strong hands would have snatched it, to ward them off and defend herself. She was no match for the elder woman in strength, and knew it, but she matched her in determination, and was ready to guard the document which meant Dick Falconer's honour, even with her life.
Diana was a whirlwind as she rushed upon her, clashing aside the barrier of a chair behind which Pearl was entrenched. The strong, beautiful hands fastened on the two slim shoulders and shook the girl till her teeth chattered. "Will you give it to me?" she demanded.
"No!" came the answer, brokenly.
They struggled together, the two sisters, swaying, panting, their gaze interlocked, their breath hot on one another's face. Then Diana's foot turned in her high-heeled slipper. She stumbled; her grasp on Pearl's wrists slackened for a second. Before she could recover the girl had shaken her off and rushed from the room, shutting the door with violence.
Almost instantly Di followed, but already her sister had vanished. It was in the woman's mind that the child meant to hide the paper where she could not find it. She looked for her everywhere, going quietly that the servants might not hear and have subject for wonder and gossip. In each room where Pearl might have hidden Diana searched, and it was not until the last that she guessed at the bold thing which the girl must have done.
Pearl was not in the house, and there was but one person to whom she would have gone with that paper. She must have run out in her low-necked dinner-dress, without a cloak, to give the despatch to General Falconer. It was a mad thing to do at any hour, especially at such an hour as this; but Di believed that, rather than risk losing the paper, this was the thing that she had done.
There was no time to waste in useless anger. The despatch must be got back. Keen as though a dagger's point flashed through it, and bright as the steel of its blade, came an inspiration. There was a way by which she might save the situation. To try it was to risk something—to risk even her reputation; but when there is only one hope of averting ruin a woman is not squeamish—especially such a woman as Diana Hardacre.
She had not yet rung for her maid, having meant to scold Pearl for her sins before beginning to undress. Now she was glad of this. She went back to her room, consulted the mirror, saw that her pallor took nothing from her beauty, rejoiced for a quick instant that she was one of the chosen women before whom men are as children, put on again her cloak of yellow and gold, and let herself softly out into the street.
She walked swiftly away from Berkeley Square towards Piccadilly, and in eight or ten minutes had hailed a cab. "Take me to Queen Anne's Mansions," she said to the driver.
On the way there was time to think what she would do. The scene to which she looked forward would need all her wit, all her powers of resource; yet, since it must be gone through, there would be a certain thrill of savage joy in it—the joy of mastering a strong man made weak by his great love. It was not that which she dreaded; it was the thought of the preliminaries. She knew where Falconer's rooms were in Queen Anne's Mansions. He had had them for years, and once or twice she had gone there to tea with Pearl (then almost a child) and an aunt who had been the chaperon of her maidenhood. She would be well able to find her way to the flat again, but the danger was that she would not, at this time of night, be allowed to do so unquestioned. Her cab was a quick one. She arrived before she had decided on a definite plan of action; and as she entered the hall a big clock announced the half hour after midnight. "I am supping here with friends," she said to the porter. As she spoke her eyes roved. On the list of residents she saw a name she knew. "Lady Arbuthnot," she added.
It was enough. Her beauty, her elegance, were passport enough; and three minutes later she had stepped out of the lift on the second floor (where one hasty glance had told her Lady Arbuthnot lived} and was on her way up to the fourth—Falconer's floor—on foot.
Her heart beat thickly. What if he had not come home? What if he had come, had already seen Pearl, and gone out again? There would hardly have been time for that; yet it might have happened. Her hand was trembling as she rang Falconer's bell. But her suspense was not for long. She could scarcely have counted ten before the man himself opened the door.
The long corridor was dimly lit, but he stood with a bright light behind him, which shone into her face.
"Lady Hardacre!" he exclaimed. But the exclamation was not loud. It could not have reached other ears outside.
"Yes," she answered. "I must speak to you on a matter of life or death. Are you alone?"
"But—someone has been here? Someone has lately left you?"
"She has been. She has given it to him already and gone," was the thought that sprang into Lady Hardacre's brain with his answer. But aloud she said, "It is late, and you will think my coming here to you strange, perhaps unpardonable. When you have heard what I have to say, though, it will seem neither. Please let me come in."
"Pray do so." He spoke coldly.
She swept past him into the flat and he shut the door. When it was safely closed, and he had followed her to the room which was study and smoking-room combined, she stood to face him, her gold and yellow cloak thrown off, her perfect neck gleaming with the soft whiteness of new ivory under the light— uncovered save for jewels—as it rose out of her diamond-sewn black dress.
"Dick!" she faltered, with a sob in her voice, which she could make poignant-sweet as the low notes of a 'cello—"Dick, I have come to remind you of all we once hoped to be to each other and to throw myself on your mercy."
"You have come to remind me of that?"
"Yes; for I cared for you then as I never have and never can care for anyone else. Can't you believe that?"
"I neither can nor do I wish to believe it now, lady Hardacre. It would lower you in my eyes to think that you had loved me and married another man."
"Ah, men can't understand women. You were an ideal man for me, and then, when I thought you guilty of terrible mistakes, of stooping to untruths to save yourself, the ideal died."
"If you had really cared you would not have believed me guilty. Your sister, little Pearl, who has thought of me as an elder brother—no more—how faithful she has been through all! I never knew till to-night what the child's heart was. It was worth much to find out; and mine has been warmed by her dear loyalty as I didn't know it could ever be warmed again."
Diana Hardacre's pale cheeks lit with sudden anger against Pearl, and against the man whose mind could wander from such a confession as hers to praise of a child. A malicious impulse to strike her sister down from the high place where she had climbed stung her to forgetfulness of diplomacy.
"Pearl's loyalty!" she sneered. "What is loyalty worth when it is not disinterested? Pearl has been in love with you since before she gave up dolls. She was sick with jealousy when she feared that one day you and I might be everything to each other. You call her a child. But she is a woman, passionately in love, and ready to fawn on you, to show that she would stand by you before the world, no matter who has turned against you. She is ready to do any unscrupulous thing to win you: she has proved that to-night."
"Lady Hardacre!" The man's dark face flamed. "Shame upon you for such words. Even if they were true it would be cruel, unwomanly, to speak them. As they are not true——"
"Oh, true or not, what docs it matter?" she broke in, quick to see her error and anxious to undo it. "What does Pearl or anyone or anything in this world matter, except the thing that brought me to you? Dick, if I have offended you, forgive me. I'm half out of my mind to-night, or I would not be here pleading to you to save me. I let you go out of my life, and, whatever my regret may be, it is too late to think of that, madness to dwell on it. Loyalty and all interests bind me to the man I have married. He and I are one: what breaks him breaks me. I don't plead with you for him, but for myself. If it will move you I'll go down on my knees and say, 'Dick, spare me! For Heaven's sake, for old days' sake, spare me!'"
He sprang forward and caught her up, as she would have knelt to him; but when he raised her he did not hold the lovely, palpitating figure fast, on an instant's passionate impulse. He put her from him, simply, with gentle coldness, the lines of his face hardening with all a reserved nature's dislike of theatrical surprises.
"I don't know what you mean," he said.
"But you must know. The despatch—oh, how hard you make it for me, since the man is my husband, and my duty is to him as his wife, no matter what he is, what he has done! After all, he received it. The revelation came to me to-night. Believe me, if I had guessed—but I mustn't speak of that now. He must have suffered—surely he has suffered. If this thought could be revenge enough for you—but I can't hope it. You are a good man, but not a saint, and so I ask the sacrifice for myself, because I am a woman you once loved and you are chivalrous. I'm weak—weak. I live for the world. I couldn't bear the shame of his being found out—all the sordid horror, the newspapers, the whispers, the cold looks, the fire of adulation which has been my life turned to ashes. Think of what it means to me. A thousand times more than to a strong nature like yours, Dick. You've passed the worst of it. Will you go on bearing the burden, to save me from death and worse, now that it has been put in your power to throw it off? How I would worship you! How I should be down on my knees before you, in spirit, so long as I lived! You would be my saviour. If you refuse I shall kill myself. Oh, can't I move you? You look at me as if you were made of stone."
"If I do it is because I understand no more than a stone. We are at cross purposes, Lady Hardacre. So far as I know it is not in my power to injure you or yours."
"What! Pearl has not brought you the despatch?"
"I have not seen her since you took her away from Mrs. Hubbard's house."
"Ah-h!" It was a long breath of mingled relief and bewilderment. But the relief was only momentary. "She means to give it to you," Diana said. "I know her well enough to be sure of that. She fought like a tigress when I would have taken it to save our honour, and her from doing so mad, so cruel a thing. She ran out of the house to escape from me; and I can't prevent her now from keeping her threat, because she will be careful not to put herself in my way before she has carried it out. It is certain that sooner or later she will come to you and give you the despatch which you sent to my husband and he said he had never received. She found it—no doubt she will tell you how and where. I thought she had been before me. It was that I was counting on. But it is only a question of time—a few minutes; a few hours. I can do nothing. It is only you who can do all."
"What is it that you ask me to do?"
"I—ask you to destroy the paper—the one existing proof—to let it be as though it had never been found."
A strange light leaped into Richard Falconer's eyes. He had flushed at hearing that the despatch was found—whether only with surprise or triumph as well Diana Hardacre could not guess. She did not know him to-night; she could not read his eyes now, but she feared the light in them.
"That is all you ask!" he exclaimed, his voice ringing out for an instant beyond self-control. "To accept ruin, to save the man who of set purpose wrecked my life and trampled on it, wearing stolen laurels which he had lied to steal. Now, when you say I have justice under my hand, that is all you ask!"
"No, no. I ask you to save me."
"By what right do you ask it?"
"The right your manhood gives the woman you love."
His look sent ice into her veins.
"You killed my love months ago. The higher the temple, the greater the fall thereof. But if there had been a spark of the old fire alive it would have died in this hour."
"You mean because it is unworthy to take advantage of my womanhood and to ask such a sacrifice by the memory of a love which——"
"You played with. You have put the words into my mouth, Lady Hardacre. And if I am cold and bitter, is it all my own fault?"
"You were not always so; I know that. Is there nothing left of the old Dick—not enough to forgive and pity?"
"It is easy to forgive when one has ceased to care. As for pity, you have come here tonight meaning to play with me again as you used to do. Adversity has sharpened my eyes. I read you, Lady Hardacre. You had to play for a great stake and you have played cleverly, but not quite cleverly enough. Actress as you are, you could not make your voice ring true when you tempted me by talking of your love. If you could have made me believe that you had once loved me honestly loved me—I might, perhaps, in spite of all, have made this sacrifice for your sake, happy in thinking that you knew what I had done, though no one else would ever know. As it is, no thrill of passion bids me fling my body under your chariot wheels."
"Oh, Heaven—we are lost then!"
"That was the real touch at last, Lady Hardacre. But pray wait, don't go yet. You are not lost. I have made up my mind, watching and listening to you (since you told me the thing that had happened and was likely to happen), just what is worth my while, what is not worth it. That which is no longer in my heart to do for your sake, something in my soul compels me to do for my own. I don't know that I can make you understand; I have hardly argued it out to myself, but I feel strongly, because you are what you are, because I am what I am, that if the document does come into my hands I shall destroy it and say nothing."
"Heaven bless you! You do care a little."
"Not for you—except your womanhood. Don't leave me fancying that. I think—if I know why I am making this promise—it is for scorn, not love. I may say that, because it will not hurt you. You want my promise; the rest is a matter of indifference. Well, you have it. And now, Lady Hardacre, since this interview must be painful to you, let us end it. You may trust me. You have nothing to fear."
She held out both hands to him. "How can I thank you?"
He did not see the hands. "By not thanking me at all."
"But you have saved my life. You have given me back everything. Oh, you do not even look interested. Dick, the strangeness of it! Once the curtain rang up for you only when I was on the stage."
"I have outgrown the theatre. Let me take you to the door."
"Please come no farther. Good-night, Dick."
"Good-bye, Lady Hardacre."
She gathered up her cloak and went out.
When she had gone and he had shut the door behind her—quickly, that no chance passer-by in the corridor might see Diana Hardacre leaving him at this unseemly hour—he walked back to the room, where the perfume of her presence lingered. On the table, among a litter of pipes and papers, lay a handkerchief. He stood looking down at the wisp of cambric and lace, unseeingly, his head bowed by the weight of the burden he had undertaken to bear for ever, for the sake of—what? His pride, perhaps. Or was there something more? As he asked himself these questions, dully, the electric bell rang again, as if touched by timid fingers.
He had no doubt that Diana had come back, perhaps to reclaim the forgotten handkerchief; but it was Pearl Faithfull who hovered outside the threshold, in the shadows, as he opened the door.
"My child!" he exclaimed, in a voice very different from that which froze Diana's histrionic ardours. "You here? You should be at home and asleep."
"I have no home any more, and I could never sleep until I had given you this," said the girl. "You know, I suppose? I saw Di come out."
"Yes, I know," answered Falconer. "Come in, child, since you are here, and we will talk for a little. But it must not be of me. Instead, we will speak about what you are to do and where you are to go if, indeed, for my sake you have lost your home with Lord and Lady Hardacre."
He drew her into the room which Diana had perfumed with some rich, tropical flower scent. The girl had a folded paper in her hand and held it out to him, her big eyes shining, her face dusky-pale; but he did not take it.
He saw that she had snatched up some piece of silk-embroidered drapery and flung it over her evening dress in place of a cloak, and guessed at the haste with which she had left home—for him.
"I walked here," she said. "I had no money with me, and I had to come. They didn't want to let me in; I suppose I look rather strange, but I told the man my name, that we were old friends, and that I must see you on important business. Then, when I came up here, my courage failed. Over and over again I tried to ring or knock. But, I thought, what if you were asleep? And as I was making up my mind I heard voices just inside the door. Oh, how I flew down the corridor, all the way to the end! But there I turned to look. The light shone out and I saw Diana. When she was gone I dared to come back. I think Fate must have delivered your enemy into your hand. Here is the despatch which I found in an old khaki coat of Bernard's. It is yours to do with as you will."
"To do with as I will?" He took the childish hand that held the folded paper, and kissed it with grave tenderness. "First, then, dear little friend, I thank you with all my soul for what you have done to-night. I know what it has cost you. Next, since you give me the despatch to do with as I will, this is what I will to do."
He took it from her and passed it over the lamp. The flame leaped up, caught the paper, and in an instant a flimsy brown ash fell from his fingers.
The girl cried out sharply, as if her flesh had been burnt. "Oh, how could you?"
"Because it was the only thing to do."
"How you love her!"
"No. It is my pride I love. I had to show her how paltry it all is to me. I didn't know myself until an hour ago. That is one more thing I have to thank you for. Dear little one, you have brought me back as near to happiness as I can ever come. I thought everyone was against me. But I have you left, sweet, loyal child; and I have this night to remember—always; to the day of my death, if it's at the farthest end of the world. Believe me, it is better than any other revenge. I've chosen the best thing. And now, for this night, at all events, you must return to your sister. If she refuses to receive you (but she will not) you had better go to your aunt's, Mrs. Hawthorne's. I shall take you down and put you into a cab."
"To-morrow and all the to-morrows I shall remember and thank you."
The girl covered her face with her hands and subbed. "You are going away?"
"Yes. My arrangements are made. England doesn't want me any more. May be some other country will take a soldier."
"Your friends want you."
"You are my only friend."
She wept the more bitterly, and it was as if her tears fell hot upon his heart. "Child!" he cried, "if you really care——"
"If I really care! Don't go—or else take me."
"I have no right to ruin your life."
"I have no life without you."
"Then come. I want you. Oh, how I want you!"
He held out his arms; the brown ash lay on the table forgotten; and it may be that the world was well lost.
- A. M. Williamson