The Career of Joan Carthew/Chapter 3
No. III.—THE TENANTS OF ROSENEATH PARK.
JOAN had no difficulty in selling the Titania, for Lady John Bevan, to a Swiss millionaire, the proprietor of a popular chocolate, who was disporting himself on the Riviera that winter. The yacht was to be delivered to him at Corsica, so that when the charming Miss Mordaunt and her chaperon steamed out of Nice Harbour, none of those who bade them farewell had to know that the Titania was to be disposed of. If they found out afterwards, it did not matter much to Joan. After her the Deluge.
The girl had grown fond of Lady John Bevan, and could not bear to exchange her friend's warm affection and gratitude for contempt. Therefore she made up a pretty little fiction about an unexpected summons to America, and parted from Lady John with mutual regret at Ajaccio. Joan's one grief in this connection was that Miss Mordaunt would scarcely be able to keep her promise to write from New York; but this grief was only one of the rain-drops in that "deluge" which had to fall after the vanishing of the American heiress.
If she had been prudent, Joan might have come out of this adventure with a small fortune after sending Tommy Mellis his share of the spoil; but she had been intoxicated with success, and had spent lavishly, as money came from the sale of the shares. She made a good commission on the "deal" with the yacht, which she sold for a somewhat larger sum than Lady John had asked; but where a less generous young person might have closed the episode with thousands, Joan Carthew had only hundreds. She had also, however, many smart dresses, some jewellery, and the memory of an exciting experience. Besides, the money she kept had been got easily, in addition to the joy of her adventure.
It had been in the girl's mind, perhaps, that she might, as Miss Mordaunt, capture a fortune and a title; but in this regard, and this only, the episode of the Titania had proved a failure. She had had plenty of proposals, to be sure; but the men who were rich were either too old, too ugly, or too vulgar to suit the fastidious young woman who called the world her oyster; and the titles laid at her feet were all sadly in need of the gilding which a genuine American heiress might have supplied for the sake of becoming a Russian princess or a French duchesse.
So Miss Mordaunt disappeared from the brilliant world where she had glittered like a star; and at about the same time, Miss Joan Carthew (who had nothing to conceal) appeared at her old quarters in Woburn Place. She went back there for two reasons; indeed, Joan had bought her experience of life too dearly to do anything without a reason. The first was because she wished to lie hid for awhile, spending no unnecessary money until the twilight of uncertainty should brighten into the dawn of inspiration and show her the next step on the ladder which she was determined to mount. The second reason was that the landlady—a quite exceptional person for a landlady—had been kind, and Joan desired to reward her.
If the girl had not gone back to Woburn Place, her whole future might have been different. But—she did go back, and arrived in the midst of a crisis. Since Joan had vanished, some months ago, bad luck had come into the house and finally opened the door for the bailiff.
Joan found the landlady in tears; but to explain the fulness of the girl's sympathy, the landlady must be described.
In the first place, she was a lady; and she was young and pretty, though a widow. Her husband had been the Honourable Richard Fitzpatrick, the scapegrace son of a penniless Irish viscount. "Dishonourable Dick," as he was sometimes nicknamed behind his back, had gone to Australia to make his fortune, had naturally failed, but had succeeded in marrying an exceedingly pretty girl, an orphan, with ten thousand pounds of her own. He had brought her to England, had spent most of her money on the racecourse, and would have spent the rest, had it not occurred to him that it would be good sport to do a little fighting in South Africa. He had volunteered, and soon after died of enteric.
Meanwhile, the Honourable Mrs. Fitzpatrick was at a boarding-house in Woburn Place, where the landlord and landlady were so kind to her that she gladly lent them several hundred pounds, not knowing yet that she had only a few other hundreds left out of her little fortune.
Suddenly the blow fell. Within three days Marian Fitzpatrick learned that she was a widow, that her dead husband had employed the short interval of their married life in getting rid of almost everything she had; and that, her landlord and landlady being bankrupt, she could not hope for the return of the three-hundred-pound loan she had made them. It was finally arranged, as the best thing to be done, that she should take over the lease of the boarding-house, and try to get back what she had lost, by "running" the establishment herself.
Mrs. Fitzpatrick had just shouldered this somewhat incongruous burden, when Joan Carthew had been attracted to the house by the brightness of the gilt lettering over the door, and the pretty, fresh curtains in the windows. Joan was nineteen, and Marian Fitzpatrick twenty-three. The two had been drawn to one another with the first meeting of their eyes. When, after a few weeks' acquaintance, the girl had been told the young widow's story, her interest and sympathy were keenly aroused, for Joan's heart was not hard except to the rich, most of whom she conceived to be less deserving, if more fortunate, than herself. Now, when she came back, fresh from her triumphant campaign on the Côte d'Azur, to hear that things had gone from bad to worse, all the latent chivalry in her really generous nature was aroused.
Joan was tall as a young goddess brought up on the heights of Olympus, instead of at a French boarding-school. Despite the hardships and wretchedness of her childhood, she was strong in body and mind and spirit, with the strength of perfect nerves and a splendid vitality. Marian Fitzpatrick, broken by disappointment, and worn by months of anxiety, was fragile and white as a lily which has been bent by savage storms, and the sight of her small, pale face and big, sad, brown eyes fired the girl with an almost fierce determination to assume the rôle of protector.
"I've got money," she reflected, in mental defiance of the Fate with whom she had waged war since childish days, "and I can make more when this is gone. I suppose I'm a fool, but I don't care a rap. I'm going to help Marian Fitzpatrick, and perhaps make her fortune, as I mean to make my own. But just for the present, mine can wait, and hers can't."
Aloud, she asked Marian what sum would tide her over present difficulties. Two hundred and fifty pounds, it appeared, were needed. Joan promptly volunteered to lend, on one condition, but she was cut short before she had time to name it.
"Condition or no condition, you dear girl, I can't let you do it," sobbed Marian. "I'm perfectly sure I could never pay. I'm in a quicksand and bound to sink. Nobody can pull me out."
"I can," said Joan; "and in doing it, I'll show you how to pay me. You just listen to what I have to say, and don't interrupt. When I get an inspiration, I tell you, it's worth hearing, and I've got one now. What I want you to do is to give up trying to manage this house. You're too young and pretty and soft-hearted for a landlady, and you haven't the talent for it, though you have plenty in other ways, and one is, to be charming. My inspiration will show you how best to utilise that talent."
Then Joan talked on, and at first Marian was shocked and horrified; but in the end the force of the girl's extraordinary magnetism and self-confidence subdued her. She ceased to protest. She even laughed, and a stain of rose colour came back to her cheeks. It would be very awful and alarming, and perhaps wicked, to do what Joan Carthew proposed, but it would be tremendously exciting and interesting; and there was enough youthful love of mischief left in her to enjoy an adventure with a kind of fearful joy, especially when all the responsibility was shouldered by another stronger than herself.
The first thing to do towards the carrying out of the great plan was to get someone to manage the boarding-house in Mrs. Fitzpatrick's place. This was difficult, for competent and honest managers, male or female, were not to be found at registry-offices, like cooks; but Joan was (or thought she was) equal to this emergency as well as others. She sorted out from the dismal rag-bag of her early Brighton experiences the memory of a wonderful woman who had done something to make life tolerable for her when she was the forlorn drudge of Mrs. Boyle's lodging-house at 12, Seafoam Terrace.
This wonderful woman had been one of two sisters who also kept a lodging-house in Seafoam Terrace. The Misses Witt owned the place, consequently it was not improbable that they were still to be found there, after these seven years; and as they had not always agreed together, it seemed possible that the younger Miss Witt (the clever and nice one, who had given occasional cakes and bulls'-eyes to Joan in those bad old days) might be prevailed upon to accept an independent position, with a salary, in London.
Joan had always promised herself that, when she was rich and prosperous, she would sweep into the house of her bondage like a young princess, and bestow favours upon little Minnie Boyle, whom she had loved. But Lady Thorndyke had not wished her adopted daughter even to remember the sordid past; and after the death of her benefactress, the girl had not until lately been in a position to undertake the rôle of beneficent princess. Even now, to be sure, she was not rich, but she swam on the tide of success and she had at least the air of dazzling prosperity. She dressed herself in a way to make Mrs. Boyle grovel, and bought a first-class ticket, one Friday afternoon, for Brighton. She took her seat in an empty carriage, and hardly had she done so when a man got in. It was George Gallon; and if he had wished to get out again on recognising his travelling companion, there would not have been time for him to do so, as at that moment the train began to move out of the station.
These two had not seen each other since the eventful morning when Joan had resigned her position as Mr. Gallon's secretary. She was not sure whether she were sorry or glad to see him now, but the situation had its dramatic element. George spoke stiffly, and Joan responded with malicious cordiality. Knowing nothing of her identity with Grierson Mordaunt's brilliant niece, long pent-up curiosity forced the man to ask questions as to where she had been and what she had been doing.
"I have an interest in a London boarding-house, and am going to Brighton to try and engage a manageress," Joan deigned to reply, with a twinkle under her long eyelashes. "I forgot that you would have kept on the old place at Brighton. I suppose you are going down for the week-end?"
George admitted grimly that this was the case, and as Joan would give only tantalising glimpses of her doings in the last few months, and seemed inclined to put impish questions about the office she had left, he took refuge in a newspaper. Joan calmly read a novel, and not another word was exchanged until the train had actually come to a stop in the Brighton station. "Oh! by the way," the girl exclaimed then, as if on a sudden thought. "It was I who got hold of those Clerios I believe you had an idea of buying in very cheap. I knew you could afford to pay well if you wanted them. One gets these little tips, you know, in an office like yours. That's why I snapped at your two guineas a week. Good-bye. I hope you'll enjoy the sea air at dear Brighton."
Before George Gallon could find breath to answer, she was gone, and he was left to anathematise the hand-luggage which must be given to a porter. By the time it was disposed of, the impertinent young woman had disappeared. But Joan's little impulsive stab had made Gallon more her enemy than ever, and perhaps the day might come when she would regret the small satisfaction of the moment.
She had no thought of this, however, and drove in the gayest of moods to Seafoam Terrace, where she stopped, her cab before the door of No. 12. There, however, she met disappointment. Her first inquiry was answered by the news that Mrs. Boyle had died of influenza in the winter, and the house had passed into other hands. The servant could tell her nothing of Minnie; but the new mistress called down from over the baluster, where she had been listening to the conversation, that she believed the little girl had been taken in by the two Misses Witt next door.
Death had stolen from Joan a gratification of which she had dreamed for years. Mrs. Boyle could never now be forced to regret past unkindnesses to a young fairy princess who had emerged like a splendid butterfly from a despised chrysalis; but Minnie was left, and Joan had been genuinely fond of Minnie. She had now, therefore, a double incentive in hurrying to the house next door.
The nice Miss Witt herself answered the ring, and Joan had a few words with her alone. She would be delighted to accept a good position in London; and it was true that Minnie Boyle was there. She had taken compassion on the child, who was as penniless and friendless as Joan had been when last in Seafoam Terrace; but the elder Miss Witt wished to send the little girl to an orphanage, and the difference of opinion, and Minnie's presence in the house, led to constant discussion. "The only trouble is," said the kindly woman, "that if I leave, sister will send the little creature away."
"She won't, because I shall take Minnie off her hands," retorted Joan, with the promptness of a sudden decision. "Do let me see the poor pet."
Minnie was nine years old, so small that she did not look more than six, and so pathetically pretty that Joan saw at once how she might be fitted into the great plan. She could do even more for the child. now than she had expected to do; and because the little one was poor and alone in the world, as she herself had been, Joan's heart grew more than ever warm to her playmate of the past. She made friends with Minnie, who had completely forgotten her, and so bewitched the child with her beauty, her kindness, and her smart clothes that Minnie was enchanted with the prospect of going away with such a grand young lady.
"I used to know some nice fairy stories when I was very, very little," said the child. "This is like one of them."
"I told you those fairy stories," returned Joan, "Now I am going to make them come true."
About the first of May, when Cornwall was at its loveliest, everybody within twenty miles of Toragel (a village famed for its beauty and its antiquity, as artists and tourists know) was delighted to hear that Lord Trelinnen's place was let at last, and to most desirable tenants. Lord Trelinnen was elderly, and too poor to live at Roseneath Park, therefore Toragel had long ceased to be interested in him; but it was intensely interested in the new people, despite the fact that their advent was the second excitement which had stirred the fortunate village within the last few months.
The first had been the home-coming of Sir Anthony Pendered, the richest man in the county, who had volunteered for the Boer war, raised a regiment, and, when peace was declared, had come back to Torr Court covered with honours. He was only a knight, and had been given his title because of a valuable new explosive which he had discovered and made practicable. He had grown enormously rich through his various inventions, and, after an adventurous life of some thirty-eight years, had bought a handsome place near his native village, Toragel. At first the county had looked at him askance, but the South African affair had settled all aristocratic doubts in his favour. About five months before the letting of Roseneath Park, he had been enthusiastically received by all classes, and was still a hero in everybody's eyes; nevertheless, the first excitement had had time to die down, and the county people and the "best society" of the village united with more or less hidden eagerness to know what poor old Lord Trelinnen's tenants would be like.
The Trelinnen pew in the pretty church of Toragel was next to that where Sir Anthony Pendered was usually (and his maiden sister always) to be seen on Sunday mornings. The first Sunday after the new people's arrival, the church was full; but service began, and still the Trelinnen pew was empty. After all, the tenants of Roseneath Park (whom nobody had seen yet) had come only yesterday. Perhaps they would not appear till next Sunday; but just as the congregation was sadly resigning itself to this conclusion, there was a slight rustle at the door. The first hymn was being sung, therefore eyes were able to turn without too much levity; and it is wonderful how much and how far an eye can see by turning almost imperceptibly, particularly if it be the eye of a woman.
Two ladies and a little girl were shown to the Trelinnen pew. Both ladies were young; the elder could not have been more than twenty-three, the younger looked scarcely nineteen. Both were in half-mourning; both were beautiful. They were, in fact, no other than the Honourable Mrs. Fitzpatrick, and her sisters, Miss Mercy and Mary Milton, these latter being known in other circles as Joan Carthew and little Minnie Boyle.
The child, who appeared to be about six years old, was charmingly dressed, and extraordinarily good during the service. As for her elders, they were almost aggravatingly devout, scarcely raising their lovely eyes from their prayer-books, and never glancing about at their neighbours, not even at Sir Anthony Pendered, who looked at the two more than he had ever been known to look at any other women. This was saying a good deal, because he was by no means a misanthrope, although he was forty and had remained a bachelor. It was rumoured that he wished to marry, if he could find a wife to suit him, though meanwhile he was content enough with the society of his sister, who was far from encouraging any matrimonial aspirations.
When Marian and Joan and Minnie were driven back to Roseneath Park (in the perfect victoria and by the splendid horses which advertised the solid bank balance they did not possess), the two "elder sisters" talked over their impressions.
Minnie played with a French doll, that somewhat resembled herself in her new white frock, with her quantities of yellow hair. Marian, leaning back on a cushioned sofa, waiting for the luncheon-gong to sound, was prettier and more distinguished-looking than she had ever been; while Joan, as Mercy Milton, would scarcely have been recognised by those who knew her best. Marian's maiden name had really been Milton, and "Mercy" had been selected to fit the picture for which Joan had chosen to sit. Her beautiful, gold-brown hair was parted meekly in the middle and brought down over the ears, finishing with a simple coil in the nape of her white neck. She was dressed as plainly as a young nun, and had the air of qualifying for a saint.
"Well, dear, what did you think of him?" she inquired of Marian.
"Of whom?" asked Mrs. Fitzpatrick, blushing.
"Oh, if you are going to be innocent! Well, then, of the distinguished gentleman whose name and qualifications I showed you in the Mayfair Budget a few days after I got back to England and you. The eligible parti, in fact, whose residence near Toragel is responsible for our choice of abode."
"Joan! Don't put it like that!"
"'Mercy,' if you please, not Joan. And I've found out exactly what I wanted to know. Your reception of my brutal frankness has shown me that you like him. So far, so good."
"I may like him, but that won't help your plan. Oh, Jo—Mercy, I mean, I do feel such a wretch! That man looks so honest and frank and nice, and he could hardly take his eyes off you in church. If he knew what frauds we are!"
"You are not a fraud, and it is you with whom he is concerned, or it will be, as I'll soon show him, if necessary. Your name is Fitzpatrick; you are a widow; we are sisters—in affection. You haven't a fib to tell; you've only got to be charming."
"But it's you he admires, you it would be so. If one of us is to be Lady——"
"'Sh!" said Joan; and the gong boomed musically for lunch.
Had it not been for the existence of innocent little Minnie, the county might not have accepted the lovely sisters as readily as it did. Joan had thought of that, as she thought of most things; and Minnie, the protegée of charity, was distinctly an asset. "A very good prop," as Joan mentally called her, in theatrical slang, which she had learned, perhaps, from her long-vanished mother.
The presence of Minnie in the feminine household gave a kind of pathetic, domestic grace, which appealed even to tradespeople; and tradespeople were extremely important in Joan's calculations.
She had obtained credentials, on starting on her new career, in a characteristic way. Miss Jenny Mordaunt wrote to Lady John Bevan, asking for a letter of introduction for a great friend of hers, the Honourable Mrs. Fitzpatrick, to the solicitors who had charge of Lord Trelinnen's affairs, as Mrs. Fitzpatrick wanted to take Roseneath Park. Lady John gladly managed this. Mrs. Fitzpatrick called upon her, and she was charmed. She had known the "Dishonourable Dick" slightly, years ago, had heard that he had married an heiress, and wondered that he had been tolerated by so sweet a creature as this. Lady John offered one or two letters of introduction to old friends in Cornwall, and they were gratefully accepted. As the friends were not intimate, and as Lady John detested the country, except when hunting or shooting was in question, there was little danger that she would inopportunely appear on the scene and recognise the saintly Mercy Milton as the late Miss Mordaunt.
Everybody called on the fair, lilylike young widow and her very modest, retiring, unmarried sister—everybody, that is, with the exception of Miss Pendered, who pleaded, when her brother urged, that she was too much of an invalid to call on new people. Soon, however, he boldly went by himself, excusing his sister with some tale of rheumatism which she would have indignantly resented. Mrs. Fitzpatrick and Mercy Milton were surrounded with other visitors when Sir Anthony Pendered was announced, and he was just in time to hear a glowing account of the orphaned sisters' "dear old Australian home," which Joan had learned by heart, partly from Marian's reminiscences, partly from a book.
"When father and mother died, little Minnie and I were the loneliest creatures you can imagine," the gentle Mercy was saying. "Dear Marian had just lost her husband, and so she wrote for us to join her. It is so nice having a home in the country again. We both felt we couldn't be happy without one, and we chose Cornwall because we thought it the loveliest county in England. We are very glad we did, now, for everybody has been so kind."
She might have added "and the trades-people so trusting"; but on that subject she was silent, though she intended that they should go on trusting indefinitely. Indeed, thus far the scheme worked almost too easily to be interesting.
Sir Anthony Pendered outstayed the other visitors, and he stopped unconscionably long for a first call; but that was the fault of his hostesses, who made themselves so charming that the man lost count of time—and perhaps lost his head a little, also. At first it seemed that Marian's impression was right, and that, despite Mercy's retiring ways, it was the young girl who attracted him. This made Marian secretly sad; for when she had seen Sir Anthony looking up from his prayer-book in the adjoining pew, she had said in her heart, with a sigh: "How good he would be to a woman! How he would pet her and take care of her! To be his wife would be very different from——" but she had guiltily broken short that sentence in the midst.
Persuaded and fired by Joan, she had entered into this adventure. She had even laughed when Joan selected the neighbourhood of Toragel because a Society paper announced the advent of a particularly desirable bachelor. "You will be the prettiest and nicest woman in the county, of course; therefore, he will fall in love with you and propose. He will marry you; you will live happy ever after; and you will be able to pay all the debts that we shall have run up in the process of securing him," the girl had remarked. But now, when the "desirable bachelor" had become a living entity, and she felt her heart yearning towards him, Marian's conscience grew sore. Still, though she told herself that she could not carry out the plan and try to win Sir Anthony Pendered, it was a blow to see him prefer Joan.
The symptoms of his admiration were equally displeasing to the girl. She was deliberately effacing herself for this episode; while it lasted, she was to be merely the "power behind the throne." Knowing that she was more strikingly beautiful and brilliant than Marian Fitzpatrick, she had studied how to reduce her fascinations, that Marian might outshine her. Evidently she had not entirely succeeded; but during that first call of Sir Anthony's, she quickly, surreptitiously changed a diamond-ring from her right hand to the "engaged" finger of her left, flourished the newly adorned member under his eyes, and spoke, with a conscious simper, of "going back some day to Australia to live." Sir Anthony did not misunderstand, and as he had not yet tumbled over the brink of that precipice whence a man falls into love, he readjusted his inclinations. After all, Mrs. Fitzpatrick was as pretty, he thought, and certainly more sympathetic. He was glad that Minnie was her sister, and not her child. Though he had always said he would not care to marry a widow, this case was different from any that he had imagined. Mrs. Fitzpatrick had only been married a year or two when her husband died, and she had soon awakened from her girlish fancy for the man—so Miss Milton had guilelessly confided to him.
Thanks to this, and much further "guilelessness" of the same kind on the part of that meek maiden, Sir Anthony Pendered discovered, before the sisters had been for many weeks tenants of Roseneath Park, that he was deeply, passionately in love with Marian Fitzpatrick. Accordingly, he proposed one exquisite June afternoon, amid the ruins of a storied castle overhanging the sea. Joan had got up a picnic to this place expressly to give him the opportunity which she felt triumphantly sure he was seeking, and she was naturally annoyed with Marian when she discovered that the young widow had asked for "time to think it over."
"You little idiot! Why didn't you fall into his arms and say 'Yes—yes—yes'?" the girl demanded, in Marian's bedroom, when they had come home towards evening.
"Because I love him, and because I'm a fraud!" exclaimed Marian. "Oh! I know what you must think of me. I haven't played straight with you, either. You've done everything for me. I was to make this match; and the rent of this place, and our horses and carriages, the payment of all the tradespeople on whom we've been practically living depend on my catching the splendid 'fish' you've so cleverly landed for me. You've lent me money; and what you had left when we came here, you've been spending——"
"I've spread it like very thin butter on very thick bread, to make the hundreds look like thousands. To carry off a big coup like this, one must have some ready money," broke in Joan, with a queer little smile at her own cleverness, and the thought of where it would land her if Marian's "conscientious scruples" refused to be put to sleep. "We shall be in rather a scrape if you won't marry Sir Anthony—and you're made for each other, too. But never mind, we shall get out of it somehow. At worst, we can disappear."
"And leave everything unpaid, and let him and everybody know we are adventuresses!" exclaimed Marian, breaking into tears.
"Don't cry, dear; don't worry; and don't decide anything," said Joan. "I have an idea."
She induced Marian to go to bed and nurse the violent headache which the battle between heart and conscience had brought on. When it was certain that Mrs. Fitzpatrick would not appear again that evening, she sent a little note by hand to Sir Anthony, as fortunately Torr Court was the next estate to Roseneath Park. "Do come over at once. It is very important that I should see you," wrote the decorous Mercy.
Sir Anthony Pendered was in the midst of dinner when the communication arrived, and to his sister's disgust he begged her to excuse him, as it was necessary to go out immediately on pressing business.
"That adventuress has sent for you!" Ellen Pendered fiercely ejaculated. "She has got you completely in her net. I don't believe those three are sisters. They don't look in the least alike, and it is all very well to say an ignorant nurse spoiled the child's accent. I have heard her talk more like a Cockney than an Australian. I tell you there is something wrong, very wrong, about them all."
"I advise you not to tell anyone else, then," answered Anthony Pendered furiously—"that is, unless you wish to break off for ever with me. This afternoon I asked the 'adventuress,' as you dare to call her, to marry me, and she refused. I had to plead before she would even promise to think it over." With this he left his sister also to "think it over," and decide that, between two evils, it might be wise to choose the less.
Marian's lover could not guess why Marian's younger sister had sent for him, and his anxiety increased when he saw the gravity of the girl's face.
"Is Mar—is Mrs. Fitzpatrick ill?" he stammered.
"A little, because she is unhappy; but you can make her well again—if you choose," replied Joan inscrutably.
"Of course I choose!" he almost indignantly protested.
"Wait," said she, "and listen to what I have to say. Poor Marian is the victim of her own goodness and sweet nature; and because she swore to me that she would never tell the story of our past, she feels it would be wrong to marry you. I cannot let her suffer for Minnie and me, so I am now going to tell you myself. But on this condition—if you do decide that you want her for your wife in spite of all, you will never once mention the subject to her. I will inform her that you know the truth and that she is not to speak of it to you. Is that a bargain?"
"Yes; but you needn't tell me the story unless you like. I'm sure she is not to blame for anything," replied the man, who was now thoroughly in love with Marian, even to the point of wondering what he had ever seen in Mercy.
"Certainly it is not she; but as she thinks it is, it amounts to the same thing. The facts are these: Dear, good Marian took pity on Minnie and me in a London boarding-house, where we chanced to meet after her widowhood. She had decided to come here to live, because she longed for the country, but had not meant to take as grand a house as this, as she had just found out that her dead husband had spent most of her fortune. I implored her to bring Minnie and me to her new home, and give me a good chance of making a rich marriage by introducing us as her sisters. She was rather a 'swell'—at least, she had married an 'Honourable,' and we were nobodies. The poor darling finally consented to handicap herself with us. I had a little money, too, which had—er—come to me through a lucky investment, and I was so anxious to live at Roseneath Park that I made Marian (who is most unbusinesslike) believe that together we would have enough to take the place. I am supposed to be practical, and so the management of everything has been left to me. I have paid scarcely anything, except the servants' wages, so you see what I have brought my poor Marian down to. The only atonement I can make is to try and save her happiness by confessing my wrongdoing to you and begging that you will not visit it on her."
"I certainly will not do that," said Sir Anthony Pendered quickly. "As you say, her one fault has been a kindness of heart almost amounting to weakness, which, in my eyes, makes her more lovable than ever. As for the loss of her money, that matters nothing to me. I have more than I want, and——"
"You'll pay everything, without betraying me to Marian? Oh! I don't deserve it; but do say you will do that, and I will relieve you of my presence near your fiancée as soon as possible, as a reward. I know that, after what I have told you, it would be an embarrassment to you to see me with Marian, because as you are very chivalrous, you could not let people know I was not her sister. I will disappear, and everyone can think I have been suddenly called out to my Australian lover to be married."
"Doesn't he exist?" questioned Sir Anthony, looking at her "engaged" finger and thinking of the matrimonial schemes she had just confessed.
"Not in Australia. But as I haven't been a success here, I may decide to be true to the person who gave me this ring." (She had bought it herself.) "Now that I've promised to go out of Marian's life for ever, you'll guard her happiness by seeing that everything is straightened here—financially?"
"I shall be only too delighted, if you will tell me how to manage it without my name appearing in the matter."
"We—ll, if you'd trust the money to me, I'd use it honestly to pay our debts, and give you all the receipts."
"So it shall be."
"You're a—a brick, Sir Anthony. The only difficulty left then is about poor little Minnie, of whom Marian is really very fond. People might gossip if Marian let her youngest sister go back to Australia with me; for as we are supposed to be so nearly related, surely it would be better to save a scandal and let—well, let sleeping sisters lie?"
"If Marian is really fond of Minnie, there will be plenty of room for the child at Torr Court, and she will be welcome to stay there, as far as I am concerned. I must say, Miss—er—Milton, that I think the child will be better off under our guardianship than in the care of her real sister."
"You are good, and I quite agree with you," responded Joan meekly, far from resenting his look of stern reproach. "When you've trusted me with that money to pay things, and I hand you the receipts, I'll hand you also a written undertaking never to trouble you or—Lady Pendered. You would like me to do that, wouldn't you?"
"I—er—perhaps something of the kind might be advisable," murmured Sir Anthony.
When he had gone, the girl chuckled and clapped her hands. Then she ran to a looking-glass. "You're not exactly stupid, my dear," she apostrophised her saintly reflection. "You've provided splendidly for Marian and you've saved her sensitive conscience. Her slate is clean. As for Minnie, she will be all right until the time comes, if it ever does, that you can do better for her. As for yourself—well, you can leave Marian a couple of hundred for pocket-money, and still get out of this with something on which to start again. You've finished with Mercy Milton, thank goodness! and—it will be a relief to do your hair another way."
Two days later, Joan Carthew had turned her back upon Toragel, and Mrs. Fitzpatrick's engagement to Sir Anthony Pendered was announced.