The Fate of Fenella/Chapter 13

CHAPTER XIII.

BY MRS. EDWARD KENNARD.

"THE SCARS REMAINED."

When Lord Francis Onslow listened to Dr. Fairfax's advice, he resolved to act upon it without loss of time, especially as he sadly realized that in the present condition of affairs he could do nothing to expedite his wife's recovery. The issue lay in God's hands. He felt this keenly, chafing at his helplessness. During the many hours spent in the chamber of the sick woman, he reviewed his past life with bitter repentance. Little by little he distinctly perceived how unworthy had been his own conduct, and how much he was to blame for the terrible occurrences which had recently taken place. When he recalled Fenella as she was when they were first married, he found it impossible to hold himself guiltless. However wayward and childish she might have been, in those days no one could doubt her purity and innocence. Moreover, she loved him, and a man does not lose a woman's love without some cause. Now she lay stained and crushed upon a bed of pain, like a white lily stricken to earth. Her name was in all men's mouths. The spotlessness of her reputation had departed, never to return. She might have been a happy wife and mother, and now what was she? A creature shunned by her kind, fallen from her pedestal, and blackened by crime. Ah! it was pitiful to think of; still more pitiful to trace the folly, vanity, and wrong-doing which had brought about such a result. Why could they not have rested content with one another's love. What a fevered, unnatural existence theirs had been of late years. He smiled a wan smile, as it occurred to him that their histories contained an unwonted amount of sensation and melodrama. Their experiences would form a strange narrative. Once, long ago, Fenella had loved him truly and well. Of that he felt morally certain. If he had only exercised a little patience with his beautiful child wife, and sought to correct her errors by example, rather than by preaching and criticism, how differently things might have turned out. She was young. Her faults were chiefly those of youth and ignorance, combined with the natural craving for admiration of a pretty woman. But there was no harm in her—then. She might have been guided. A girl in her teens is made of plastic material. Her character is not firmly set as a rule, either for good or evil. It was in his power to have influenced her, and to have developed the finer side of her nature. But, instead of this, what had he done? In lieu of recognizing the responsibility which he assumed, by taking the life of another into his keeping, he had sought to justify his own shortcomings by exaggerating hers, and imitating them. If she flirted, he flirted. If she were foolish, he was doubly so. Was that the way for the head of a family to behave? When her coquetries irritated him, he looked for consolation elsewhere, and eventually allowed himself to fall completely under the spell of a middle-aged woman, remarkable rather for her beauty than her virtue. And then, when Fenella resented his conduct, and in forcible language pointed out that the marriage ceremony should be as binding for the husband as the wife, what reply did he make? He answered, in the false, unjust voice of the world: "No; you labor under a very great mistake in upbraiding me, and have no ground whatever to stand upon. Society has decreed that a man may do as he likes, be as unfaithful (within certain limits) as he pleases; but you are totally different. A woman cannot go out of bounds, without getting the worst of it. Therefore, once for all, you had better recognize your position."

He could see the hot blood rush to her cheek. "But this is monstrous, no matter what Society has decreed. May I ask, Frank, if such is the law by which you intend to shape your conduct in the future?"

With shame, he remembered his answer. "Yes, Fenella. Right or wrong, it is the law of every man of the world."

And from that day they had become more and more estranged, until at last their unhappiness reached a culminating pitch, and by mutual desire, they determined to separate. But had they been happier apart than together? He, for one, could answer that question in the negative. In the midst of the wildest dissipation, the gayest scene, his heart had ached, and ever in his memory there dwelt the recollection of loving words and looks, which no effort on his part could banish. Looking back on the past, he saw that he was even more to blame than she. There had been faults on both sides, but mainly on his. As he sank on his knees by Fenella's bedside, he admitted the fact, freely and without reserve. And thus kneeling, a flood of tenderness and remorse swept over his spirit, and he, who had not prayed for years, and was in the habit of denying the existence of a Deity, bowed down his head, humbly, meekly, like a little child, and prayed.

"Oh! good God," he cried, "be merciful. Spare her to me, if only that I may atone for all my past errors by a life of devotion. We have stood on the brink of a precipice. Almost she and I have fallen into a bottomless pit; for in our blindness we turned our backs upon thee, but now, oh, great All-Father, strengthen us and counsel us in this, our sore necessity."

He arose from his knees, sobered but calm. Then he stooped, kissed Fenella's burning brow, and went forth to seek his son—the little, innocent boy, with the curly head and clear eyes, the very thought of whom made his heart grow big.

There are seasons in the lives of all of us when the best of which we are capable rises to the surface—when the resolutions which we make for the future are not based on an insecure and worthless foundation, but on a fixed and permanent one. Such a time had come to Lord Francis. He left Guernsey a chastened, but a better man, determined henceforth to lead a new and purer life.

The journey seemed interminable. The tedious hours dragged on, and steam and machinery were unable to convey him fast enough to his destination. At last he reached Felixstowe, and hurried to Mrs. Grandison's residence. Philip Grandison was related to the Onslow family. Lord Francis had seen a great deal of his wife before his marriage, and they called each other by their Christian names.

"Helen," he cried, as Mrs. Grandison, taken aback by his unexpected visit and haggard appearance, stared at him as at an apparition, "where is Ronny? I want to see Ronny. Bring him to me at once. Fenella murmured in her delirium that he was with you."

"Have you not sailed? You and Lady Francis have not started, then, for Brazil, after all?" she asked in bewilderment.

"No," he answered impatiently. "I haven't the least idea what you are talking about. There never was any question of our going to Brazil, Fenella is lying at death's door, and I have come here to fetch Ronny away."

"But, Frank, Ronny has gone. You yourself sent for him. Surely you must remember having done so."

"I sent to fetch Ronny! Helen, have you taken leave of your senses?" And he gripped her hard by the wrist.

"Don't, Frank," shaking him off, and fearing for his reason as she looked into his wild eyes; "you hurt me."

"I sent no one to take Ronny away," he said, with increasing excitement. "Do you mean to say that the child is not here?"

"No, Ronny left us several days ago. I made sure that you knew."

Lord Francis staggered. The intelligence fairly prostrated him. For a moment or two he could not speak; then, in a hoarse voice, he said:

"Of course you know where the boy has gone, Helen? You can tell me where to find him? It is of the utmost importance that I should take him back to Guernsey with me at once. His mother's life may depend upon Ronny's presence."

Mrs. Grandison's countenance assumed an expression of sore perplexity. She felt that Lord Francis held her responsible for his son.

"Unfortunately," she said, "I have not the least idea where he has gone. The other day a lady came here–—"

"A lady!" he interrupted eagerly. "What kind of a one? Describe her personal appearance. It may give me a clew."

"She was not exactly a young woman, Frank; nevertheless she was very beautiful in a Southern, majestic style. Her eyes and hair were almost coal black, and she spoke with a foreign accent. In short, she looked like an Italian or Spaniard."

The wretched man groaned aloud. Too well he knew who his boy's abductor was, and his conscience told him that Lucille de Vigny's conduct was actuated by motives of revenge. She resented his desertion, and took this means of telling him so. He tottered to a chair, and sinking down on it, hid his face in his hands. Were the consequences of his imprudence ever to pursue him? Oh! it was horrible, horrible.

"Frank," said Mrs. Grandison, gazing at him in alarm, "do you know the lady? Is she an acquaintance of yours?"

He shuddered. "For my sins, yes. Would to God she were not! I have to thank Mme. de Vigny for all my misery. If I had never set eyes on that woman, Fenella and I might have been living happily together at this moment. It was she who came between us, curse her!"

"Mme. de Vigny!" exclaimed Helen, with a red flush mantling in her cheek, "O Frank, if only I had known, nothing on earth would have induced me to give Ronny up into her charge. Poor dear little Ronny! Why, she is an odious woman—an abominable woman!"

"I quite agree," he said moodily. "But abuse cannot alter the fact of her having stolen my boy. I can't think, though, how you let him go."

"She came here, Frank," continued Mrs. Grandison, in self-defense, "and some instinct warned me against her. I refused at first to accede to her request, but she was so urgent that at last I believed she was really empowered by you to take Ronny away. See, here is your card, which she produced in token of the genuineness of her errand." And so saying, Helen turned to the mantelpiece and showed Frank his card. He looked at it, then snatched up his hat and prepared to leave.

"This is a bad business," he said tremulously. "A very bad business, indeed; I would not have had it happen for a year's income. But perhaps you can tell me where Mme. de Vigny is to be found?"

"Alas! no. She left no address, and I haven't the faintest notion where she resides. But stay," putting her hand up to her forehead, "if I remember rightly, Mme. de Vigny did hint at traveling abroad and taking a long journey. Why, Frank, how impetuous you are!" as her visitor opened the door. "Where are you going?

"Going!" he replied, his face all working with emotion. "I am going straight to London to engage a detective to hunt out Mme. de Vigny's whereabouts, and after that I intend returning to Guernsey. Fenella is lying dangerously ill of brain fever. We do not know what turn her illness may take. The doctor thought that the sight of Ronny might do her good, but now—now," breaking down suddenly, "I must go back alone, so help me God." And without wishing Mrs. Grandison good-by, he rushed downstairs.

Helen looked after his retreating form with the tears springing to her eyes. "Poor Frank!" she sighed, "how he loves Fenella. And yet she has completely spoilt his life. He was such a bright, nice boy once upon a time. It quite makes one's heart ache to see him as he is now."