The Fate of Fenella/Chapter 9

CHAPTER IX.

BY MRS. LOVETT CAMERON.

And my soul from out that shadow that h'es floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—Nevermore!

She was free—free to go where she pleased—to do as she liked. The hideous nightmare of the trial was over; a jury of her countrymen had brought in a verdict of "Justifiable homicide." The laws of her country had given her back her liberty, and Fenella was a free woman.

Perhaps the jury had not been altogether, unimpressed by the pale loveliness of the unhappy girl who had stood before them as "prisoner in the dock" during those two terrible days; perhaps the sight of the small pale face, of the piteous brown eyes, of the childish rosy lips that quivered a little, yet that never swerved in that one statement that they repeated through all the weary examination and cross-examination, may have influenced those rough men, who held her life in their hands, more than they had any idea of.

"I confess it. I killed him; he attempted my life, and I killed him in self-defense."

"When you say your life, you mean probably more, do you not?" inquired the barrister who was examining her; and she answered him simply, "I do—I mean that which to a woman is dearer than life itself;" and at the words a sort of shiver of suppressed excitement ran through that packed and crowded court—a shiver that made as though one heart-throb of sympathy and of admiration. But more than all else did Fenella owe her salvation to the man who stood up for a whole hour to defend her.

Clitheroe Jacynth, it was said afterward, made his professional reputation over the defense of Lady Francis Onslow. He had been known to be clever, he had been reckoned among the rising men of his day, but never until now had the world quite realized the power that was in him. He had all the eloquence, the fire, the passionate pleading of a man whose whole soul was in the cause that he advocated, and his arguments carried all before them by the sheer force of will and talent. No one who saw the dark, passionate face—the eyes that shone with righteous wrath—who listened to the strong, sinuous words that seemed to burn into the hearts of his hearers as they fell, like living fire, from his lips, ever forgot Jacynth as he was that day. And when, at the last, he looked round the court, and, after a moment of silence, more eloquent than words, began with a deep and low-voiced impressiveness; "I see around me here a crowd of men—fathers, husbands, and brothers—men who have women they love at home, and whose honor lies in the hands of those women. Which of us, my brothers—my fellow-men," he cried suddenly, aloud, stretching forth his right arm in a passionate appeal to those before him, "which of us all, did those women whom we love stand where my unfortunate client stood upon that fatal night, alone in the darkness, with no arm to defend her, no ear to hear her cry, with nothing but a certain and a shameful dishonor before her—which of us, I say, would not desire that the women we love and hold sacred, you and I, and every true man in all England, should do as this woman did; and save her honor at all costs?"

There was a murmur of applause that ran round the court as he sat down. Then the judge summed up strongly in her favor. There had been no evidence to contradict the prisoner's own statement. No eye save her own had been in that chamber of death in the darkness of the night. Something, indeed, had been said about signs of more force having been used than it was in the power of a woman's frail hands to employ, but there had been no evidence in support of that theory; not a vestige of any other presence in the prisoner's chamber, save that of her would-be destroyer, had come to light; and the jury must bear in mind that a desperate woman is often given an almost miraculous strength in such moments of horror and of fear, and that if the blow with the silver dagger had been, as it appeared, struck first, the victim would necessarily have become much weakened, and was probably in a partial state of collapse.

There was much more of it, but it was all in her favor, and almost before the jury retired it was felt that their decision was a foregone conclusion. No one could righteously condemn a woman to death for murder who had taken a man's life under such circumstances as these. So the horror of it all came to an end, and Lady Francis Onslow was told that she was free; that she could go where she pleased, and do as she liked.

One thing there was, however, that not all the judges and the juries in the land could do for her; they could not wash the stain of blood from her hands.

It was when Clitheroe Jacynth came that night to visit her at her hotel in Dover Street (she had left for London immediately after the trial), that this terrible fact first came home to her in all its dreadful reality. As he entered the room, she ran gladly to meet him, impulsively reaching out both her small hands to him.

"It is to you I owe my life!" she cried; "it is you who have saved me. How can I ever repay you, or ever thank you enough?"

But Jacynth stood with a grave, sad face, and downcast eyes, and arms folded together across his breast, and took no notice whatever of those little white hands stretched out to him.

A dull sense of dismay crept over her; something—she hardly knew why or wherefore—struck a cold chill to her heart, and her hands sank nervelessly down again to her side.

"Won't you shake hands with me, Mr. Jacynth?—you, who have just saved my life?"

"If I have saved you, it is because it was my duty, and because—because—alas, I love you, Fenella! and I shall love you to my dying day! That is why, if I can serve you, I will do so, if I can be of use to you. You can command me now, and always, but I cannot take your hand, for there is blood on it!" and he averted his face gloomily.

There was a moment of terrible silence between them. In the old days Fenella would have flamed out at him—would have heaped abuse and rage and anger upon his head; but now she said not one single word—not one. The events of the last month had broken her down, and crushed her to the earth, and her tongue was tied. She could not deny the charge, nor tell the truth. She had taken this blood-guiltiness upon her soul to save him she loved—and to the end she must bear it—to the end! Only, she had not realized before how dreadful it would be to bear. That Jacynth, who had worshiped the very ground she stood upon, should refuse to touch her hand, was very terrible to her.

She sat down. There was a moment of intense silence, then dully, spiritlessly, she asked:

"Why have you come here, then?"

"To see you—to help and advise you, if you will take my help, and to tell you about Ronny."

"Ah, Ronny!" she cried, looking at him with a sudden eagerness, while a pink flush flooded her pale cheeks. "Where is Ronny? I must have him. Will you bring him to me now—at once—this very night?"

"My dear Lady Francis, I want you to be very reasonable and sensible, and to listen to me."

"I never was reasonable and sensible in my life," she began—with a little pout and a shrug of her shoulders that reminded him almost too painfully of her own wayward self—"but I will listen if you like," she added humbly.

"I want you to let Ronny be where he is—for the present at least. He is with my sister Helen, and with Grandison her boy, his old playfellow. I think it would be good for them both to be left together. My nephew has an excellent tutor, and Ronny can share his lessons. My sister has taken them both down to the country, to her home in Sussex. She was very hard to you, Fenella, but she is not really a bad-hearted woman, and she was very, very sorry for poor little Ronny when—when it all happened—and when—you were taken from him. Let Ronny be where he is."

"But I want him, I want him!" she cried. "He is all I have on earth—why should I be parted from him?"

"For his own good, Fenella!"

"It is best for a child to be with his mother."

He looked at her fixedly, but very sadly and seriously.

"Do you think so," he asked slowly—"in this case?"

Then she understood. Understood, that because of the brand of Cain upon her brow, the world would not think it good for her boy to be brought up by his own mother!

Her cup of woe was indeed full. She bowed her head—the bright brown head that he would have died to serve—upon her hands, and wept aloud.

"Don't," he said, a little unsteadily; "don't give way; be brave, as you always have been, my dear. Live down this story—this stain upon your life; go to other countries, where no one will know you; make new friends, who will have heard nothing. The world is before you; leave England, and do not come back to your boy till time has covered up with its kindly mantle this wretched episode of your life. Ronny shall be well cared for. I will look after him, and write to you constantly about him. Only—for his own sake—separate yourself entirely from him, until he is old enough to know and to choose."

He waited for a moment, looking at her yearningly and anxiously, but the bowed head never stirred. Then, in the silence and gloom of the bare and half-lit room, he turned, and left her alone in her sorrow and her desolation.

Thirty-six hours later Fenella stood by herself upon the deck of a Channel steamer, watching the white cliffs of England as they receded further and further into the distance. She was quite alone in the world—she had not even taken a maid with her. She had made up her mind that she would break every connection of her former life, and start entirely anew. There should not be even a servant about her to remind her of her past. It was for this reason that she had decided to go to the Channel Islands—for a time at least, until she could settle her further plans. Guernsey was a quiet and comparatively secluded place, and she was not likely to meet any of her former friends and acquaintances there, and it would be easy to go on to France from there, should she feel inclined to do so.

Jacynth entirely approved of her idea, and went down himself with her to Weymouth to see her off. To be with her in so close a friendship, and yet to be unable even to take her hand as a friend should do, was inexpressibly painful to him, yet he did not shrink from sacrificing his own feelings in order to serve her, whom, in spite of everything, he still loved and admired more than any woman on earth.

"I have treated you very badly," she said to him once on the train; "I led you on and flirted with you, and made you fall in love with me, and all for nothing but the pleasure of making an empty conquest! I played with your heart as I have done with that of dozens of others; but I think you will allow that I have been punished for it!"

He could not answer her. The punishment her own folly had brought upon her was indeed terrible. And yet he did not know one-half of the burden she had to bear; nor did he guess at her hopeless and helpless love for the husband for whose crime she was suffering, that seemed to have sprung up into new life in her heart during these last three weeks of peril and of well-nigh despair.

Where was he for whom she had suffered so much, for whose sin her own life had been in jeopardy? This was the question she asked of herself, wildly and despairingly, as she leant over the bulwarks of the steamer, and watched the green waves, as they hurried by and dashed themselves into foam against the side of the vessel.

Who that had known the wild, reckless girl of old, the Lady Francis who had flirted, and laughed, and danced; who had shocked her acquaintances, and terrified her best friends, by her mad and foolish frolics—who would have recognized Lady Francis Onslow in the sad-eyed "Mrs. Orme," in her dark and Quakerlike simplicity of dress, who stood mournfully alone upon the steamer, and looked her last upon her native shores.

It is a week later. A little furnished house, standing in a garden that runs down to the edge of the cliff, about a mile out of St. Peter's Port, has been taken by a quiet but very lovely little lady, who apparently is a widow, and who has given her name to the house agent as "Mrs. Orme."

She has engaged a couple of maids, and filled her tiny house with the flowers for which Guernsey is famous, and that are so cheap that not to have flowers in every corner is not to have the very breath of life. The window of her little sitting room looks over the blue sea that is bluer than any other sea in English waters. Out there is the low land of Herm, and all the little rocky islands glittering and shining like jewels set in the blue, and far away the long straight line of Sark, with her steep cliffs and jagged rocks filling in the picture on the horizon; while, in the foreground, there are countless little sails of snowy whiteness that move to and fro upon the crisp and azure waters. "Mrs. Orme" sits watching it all from her garden lawn. It amuses her vaguely and quietly, but she has nothing to do, and it is very dull and quiet at Prospect Cottage. It gives her quite a little excitement when a beautiful schooner yacht turns into the bay, with all her sails set, and makes as straight as wind and tide can take her for the entrance of the harbor.

Fenella thought she would run down to the quay to see her come in. She was glad of an excuse to go into the town, so she started off quite in good spirits, having attired herself quickly in a smart little sailor hat and a trim serge jacket.

"I can call at the post-office, and see if there are any letters from Jacynth or Ronny," she thought; and so she started off, little knowing that she was starting to meet a new complication in her fate.

The beautiful yacht came in, nearer and nearer to port—her sails came down with a ringing noise, and from the shore one could hear the cries and the songs of the sailors upon the deck. Fenella stood among the crowd upon the quay watching her.

"What yacht is that?" she asked of a respectable-looking individual, in the blue serge garments of a seafaring man, who stood next to her.

"She's the Seamew, a hundred-and-twenty-ton schooner," replied the man.

"And to whom does she belong?"

"To Lord Castleton."

Fenella started. "To Lord Castleton!" she repeated blankly.

"Ay, ay! but he aint aboard her now; he have lent her, I hear, to a friend who has had her for the last six weeks. She started from this very port, did the Seamew, six weeks ago, bound for Madeira and the Canary Islands, where she have been cruising about ever since, and now she have come home again to the very day, as she was expected to do."

"You are quite sure Lord Castleton is not on her?" inquired Fenella, earnestly.

"Sartin sure. Miss"—they always called her "Miss," she was so young and girlish!—"his lordship was off to the south of France the werry day she started, and that's how he came to lend his schooner to his friend."

Fenella breathed anew. "And the friend's name?" she inquired, after a minute; but her acquaintance had already moved away from her side, and was talking to some cronies of his own further on.

The yacht had settled down to her moorings in the dock. The crowd began to disperse—there seemed nothing more to wait for, and Fenella, with the rest, moved away.

She had an errand or two to do in the town before going home, and so she clambered up the steep, irregular, picturesque little street, and went about her small shoppings. Just as she was about to turn into a baker's shop, half-way up the hill, a man's tall slender figure, in a blue serge suit and peaked cloth cap, suddenly darkened the narrow doorway.

"Frank!" she gasped, falling back a step.

"My God—Fenella!" he said; and for a moment they stood there—pale, speechless, petrified, gazing with horror and despair into each other's faces.