“I will tell Mrs. Carter that you are here, sir,” said the trim little housemaid, with an almost imperceptible toss of the head. With that terrible instinct that with women takes the place of logic, she had divined that it was the wife, not the husband, whom he wished to see. Rupert sat down upon the ottoman, and looked round the room. All was familiar to him. The little work-table, the yellow damask chairs, the bird cage, the piano with its scattered wealth of printed melody. Even the water-colours on the walls were old friends. “’Pon my word, it’s a very pretty place,” he said, and then he walked across to the piano. The song he had requested her to sing the evening before, was open on the music rack, and there was a handkerchief beside it. “She has been playing it again,” thought he, and then he took up the handkerchief. It was perfumed with some cheap scent, which offended his finer senses. “Just like your half-bred women,” he said, “their taste always fails them in minor details. However, one can’t expect perfection.”
Then the door opened, and she came in.
She wore a close fitting high dress of some shimmering delicately-coloured silk, with no ornaments save a heavy chain of gold (her husband’s first gift) coiled round her slender throat. Her face was pale, and though her eyes shone with a steady, unusual lustre, there were dark, bistre shadows underneath them.
“There has been a quarrel, and she has been crying,” thought Rupert.
“How do you do, Mr. Dacre,” said she. “I—I did not expect you this evening.”
“I thought that I would just look in, to see if you had recovered your equanimity,” said he, with a laugh. “Poor Cyril was quite put out last night.”
She looked fixedly at him. “What did he say to you after I had gone?” she asked at last.
“Thanked me for taking care of you during his absence.”
Carry sat down. “Yes, it was very kind of you. If you had not come to see me, I should have been left quite alone.”
There was sufficient provocation in her tone to almost warrant the raising of the eyebrows with which he glanced at the door. “Where is he?”
“I have not seen him since the morning. He is in the study, I think.”
“Perhaps,” she replied, with assumed indifference, but Dacre saw that his shot had told, and that her jealous heart had suggested Kate Ffrench, her unknown rival, as the recipient of any letters that her husband might choose to write.
Rupert sighed. A very successful sigh. One which he had practised often upon many women. A sigh which meant, “How cruel! Poor girl! He does not know her value, and I do.”
She got up hastily and went to the piano.
“I have been singing your song again.”
“Did you think of me then?”
She raised her eyes and looked at him. There was a hard, defiant meaning in their steady glance as she replied,
“Yes, I am always thinking of you.”
The words were tender enough, but there was no tenderness in the tone. Had they been spoken by a young girl blushing with radiant shame upon her lover’s breast, they would have been but ordinary love-words, forgotten as soon as uttered; but, from a married woman’s lips, they meant something more.
Dacre, master of the gamut of shame, comprehended them well. He knew why the eyes were hard, and why the tone rang false; and as, with a triumph in his glance that he cared not to conceal, he took his friend’s wife in his arms, he muttered,
“It is not because she loves me, but because she hates him.”
At the first touch of his lips she withdrew,—as if appalled at her own act, from his fierce embrace;—but he caught her hands and forced her to listen. Not being moved by aught save passion, he was able to choose his words and frame his sentences to her melodramatic liking.
“You love me then? Oh! I have hoped for this, and yet struggled against it. Carry, my love, my darling, if you knew what I have suffered when I saw you chained to that cold, calculating boy! You never could have loved him. He has no power to touch a heart like yours. Your affection is too pure, too noble for him to understand. You are a woman fit to shine in any sphere, and he has condemned you to the obscurity of this place. He despises you. His conceit makes him ashamed of you.”
This was just a little mistake, and as soon as he had uttered the words he felt it.
She sprang up, crimson with shame.
“Oh, let me go! Rupert—Mr. Dacre, how dare you! Oh! what have I done! I am ashamed of myself. I hate myself, and you! Let me go!”
And she burst into a passion of tears.
Rupert was rather taken aback. Crying must be stopped at all hazards.
“Hush—hush!” he whispered. “Suppose he was to come in and find you like this!”
She stopped for a moment, and then all the flood of her great misery came upon her, and she threw herself upon his breast.
“Oh! Rupert—Rupert, what shall I do? My heart is broken!”
He smiled over her shoulder at the picture which the mirror reflected.
“Don’t cry, darling,” said he, “but listen. I must speak plainly, for it is but right that you should know the truth. I cannot marry you.” She gave a little start, and then clung closer.
“I love you—love you more than any woman I have ever known, and I have known many” (this was a delicate touch that spoke the true artist), “but I cannot marry you—that is as the world calls marriage; but, if a lifetime devoted to you—if the love of all my heart can make you forget that Society prescribes a priest and a prayer-book—you shall forget it.”
She sobbed and quivered in his arms, but spoke no word.
“I am not one of those men who lie to a woman,” he went on. “I am wicked, and careless, and passionate, perhaps, but I am not cruel. You can never be my wife, Carry.”
She shuddered, and then raised her streaming eyes to his.
“I only want to be loved,” said she. “Will you love me, Rupert?”
“Always, my darling—always!” he said, and kissed her.
His lips were hot, and their fierce caress frightened her. “Oh, this is madness!” she cried. But he held her close; and, like a bird in the hand of the fowler, she fluttered, and lay still.
By and by, he spoke again.
“You must leave this place.”
Her eyes were dry now, and her cheeks brilliant with an unholy red. “Yes, I will leave it, when you wish.”
Rupert reflected rapidly. To tell the truth, he had not expected so easy a triumph, and he was all unprepared.
“I have to go down to Loamshire about my election,” he said. “It comes off in a week. We must wait until then.”
The thought of living for a week of treacherous shame with the husband she was plotting to deceive was too much for her.
“I cannot stay here,” she said, with a shudder.
Rupert, calm in his own selfishness, weighed the question. “What can I do with her?” he thought. “I shall have my hands full during the next week. It is impossible—she must stop.” He threw an artificial passion into his voice as he replied,
“My darling, Heaven knows that I would take you away at once, but I cannot. I have many things to settle. I must be at Kirkminster. No, no, dearest—you must wait.”
“It will kill me. I cannot see him every day. I should go mad.”
“He will not be here. He will be down with his cousin at Matcham. Did he not tell you that he also is going up for the borough?”
She shook her head. “He never tells me anything.”
“You see you can stop here quite quietly, and you can write to me if you like. It will only be a week, dearest.”
“As you wish,” said she.
A door opened in the passage, and they started apart.
Cyril came in. He had known that Dacre was with his wife, and had still sat on, persistently alone, his hands clenched and his temples beating heavily. He was tormented with jealousy, and sick with fear. At last he could bear it no longer. He would go in and see how his horrible scheme was progressing.
As he opened the drawing-room door, he took in at a glance his wife’s flaming cheeks and dilated eyes. The smiling scoundrel whom he had chosen as the instrument of his own shameful freedom, held out his hand with well-bred ease. For one instant a terrible glance of baffled-beast-like rage shot out from Cyril’s haggard eyes. Dacre saw it, and so did Carry. In another second the mental shutter which had flown up came down, and his white face resumed its usual expression. He smiled—a hideous, contorted smile—and took the offered hand.
“He knows it!” thought Carry, and she shuddered with uncontrollable disgust and loathing.
The fingers that Dacre clasped were clammy and cold, and the shifting eyes could not meet his own.
“The cur!” he thought; and such is the strength of habit, that the man who had deliberately planned the seduction of his friend’s wife, felt himself actually degraded at the thought that that friend did not interfere.