Secure in his self-conceit, he had never imagined that his wife would have eyes for any other man but her lawful lord, and his vanity was rudely shocked. As he walked, however, his passion began to evaporate.
“I am not going to be jealous, surely!” he laughed; and then the old thought came back to him again.
Put into words, it would run something in this way:
“I am married to a woman I dislike. I have promised to marry another woman whom I love. There is only one way to break the bond.”
What that way must be, he scarcely dared consider.
“What a fool I was to marry her!” he cried out, in the bitterness of his soul.
It had begun to rain, and the pavement was wet and shining. Foot passengers were hurrying home, and the omnibus horses steamed as those vehicles pulled up jerkily to admit fresh bundles of bedraggled humanity. But Cyril did not feel the rain. He was too busy thinking. He walked on in the direction of St. John’s Wood mechanically; and the faster he walked the more perplexed he became. Should he take no notice of what he had seen, and leave matters to chance? No; he was not so utterly base as that. He did not love, perhaps; but his pride, his wounded honour, tingled in every nerve. Those red lips, that supple figure, that wealth of brown hair, had no charms for him; but the girl was his wife, and insulted honour joined in chorus with wounded vanity. What should be his future course he knew not; at present his only care was to reach home at once. There arose in his mind a half-formed thought that the opportunity he had so often longed for had come at last, and that he might discard his wife at once and for ever; but he would not give the thought words, even to himself. He would see. The cab was still at the door. The light in the drawing-room was burning brightly. He unlocked the latch, and entered the hall.
In another instant he had opened the door, and surprised Dacre almost in the act of raising his wife’s hand to his lips.
The sight startled him out of all composure. “You scoundrel!” he cried, and stepped forward into the room.
Dacre was startled too. The vision of an enraged and injured husband was farthest from his thoughts. He believed Cyril to be at Matcham. What should he do? To be balked in the moment of victory was galling enough, but the position in which he found himself was ridiculous. He rose and stood by the sofa, an angry flush on his face, but spoke never a word.
Carry—the first impulse of shame and terror over—felt, strange as it may seem, an impulse of affection to the man who had saved her. Her husband did love her then after all, and he had not deserted her.
She ran to him, and would have thrown herself on his heart.
But his eyes were looking straight over her at Dacre, and she stopped midway.
“Cyril!” she cried—“Cyril! will you not speak to me?”
His face was white, and his lips compressed. All his long-felt, long-concealed hatred for Dacre boiled up in his heart. The sight he had seen at the door put all his worldly maxims to flight. A red mist was before his eyes, and something seemed to rise in his throat and choke him.
Carry was seized with sudden, deadly terror. She had never seen that look before on human face, but some instinct told her that it meant Murder. She sank at her husband’s feet in extremity of terror.
“Cyril, what do you mean! I meant no harm. I had been—”
He shook off her grasp, and she fell, face downwards, upon the floor. Another step brought him face to face with Dacre.
“Now sir, explain what you do here?” he said, in a low voice, husky with intensity of passion.
The interval of respite had been brief, but it had been long enough for Rupert Dacre to collect his thoughts. He saw one way of escape, and he availed himself of it.
“I came to tell your wife that her husband had promised to marry another woman,” he said in a low voice.
Cyril’s face turned from white to scarlet in an instant, and he raised his clenched hand to strike.
Dacre caught his arm.
“Silence, you fool!” he hissed. “I have not told her yet. Shall I do so now?”
The blow was craftily dealt, and it went home.
Cyril Chatteris dropped his eyes.
“Come, get up!” he cried, brutally enough, to the prostrate figure on the carpet. “I’m not going to hurt you!”
Dacre was master of the situation in an instant. He rang the bell.
“Cyril, my dear fellow, how you startled us all. Allow me, Mrs. Chatteris! Overcome with joy! Always the same, Chatteris,—always impetuous and headstrong.”
He raised Carry from the ground.
“I have saved you!” he whispered. “Don’t be afraid!” then aloud, as the summoned maid-servant appeared, “Good night, Mrs. Carter. You will be better in an hour or so; the excitement has been too much for you.”
She pressed his hand, and as the door closed, he turned away from the sofa, where Cyril was sitting, to conceal a smile.
Cyril felt thoroughly beaten, and his rage increased. He was no match for Dacre, and he felt it. Perhaps, after all, he had wronged his wife. His father was constantly writing to Dacre, and, perhaps, one of those letters might have contained the news of his intended marriage. Yet why should Dacre take the trouble to find out Carry and tell her? He turned round with a vicious snarl, like a fox at bay.
“What game is this that you are playing?” he asked.
Dacre leant against the mantelpiece in his favourite attitude, and looked down upon his questioner with easy contempt.
By the way, have you ever remarked, reader, the vast mental superiority which an erect posture seems to give a conversational adversary?
“Upon my word, Chatteris,” he said, “I think that you are the most disagreeable, unreasonable fellow I have ever met. I have gone out of my way,—put myself to considerable trouble and inconvenience, to do you a service, and you rush into the house like the injured husband in one of your favourite French novels, and enact all sorts of heroics.”
Having thrown up his arms, Cyril’s only course was to accept the position with the best grace he could.
“That’s nonsense!” said he. “I came home unexpectedly, and—Besides,” he continued, suddenly awaking to the consciousness that the interference of his friend was perfectly unwarranted—“who told you I was going to be married?”
Dacre’s white hand carelessly strayed to a pocket, and produced a letter. Cyril recognised his father’s handwriting.
“Your father told me. Here is the old gentleman’s letter, breathing all sorts of tender hopes for future amendment. He doesn’t know of this charming little dove-cote, I suppose.”
Cyril was not endowed with any great amount of filial affection, but I suppose no man likes to hear his father laughed at to his face. He rose angrily, but contented himself with walking up and down the room.
“What business is it of yours?” he said at last.
“Theoretically, none. Practically, a highly-interesting study of human nature. Look here, Cyril,—I am not of a deeply-religious turn of mind, but, upon my word, you have been behaving shamefully. Why did you not trust me at first?”
Cyril laughed bitterly.
“I suppose you think that I am not trustworthy. You are a very ungrateful boy,—after all I have done for you. However, that is nothing to the purpose. I promised your father that I would look after you, and I have kept my word.”
“I wish to heaven I had never seen you!”
“Possibly; but having seen me, you must take the consequences. Now, don’t be an impetuous young booby, but let us talk over your future prospects. What do you intend to do? To go down to Matcham as I suggested, and marry your cousin after the old programme?”
Cyril looked up sharply. Was it possible that Dacre did not know that he was married already? He would try and discover.
“Suppose I am?”
“Then the not unnatural question arises—what is to become of the lady up-stairs?”
“I don’t know—and I don’t care.”
Dacre laughed outright. The obstinacy of his friend amused him. “He still will persist then in denying the marriage,” he thought.
“I have heard and read of young gentlemen like you,” he said aloud, “but I never met one before. You are a perfect paragon of vice, my boy. Why, you don’t mean to deny your marriage, to me, surely?”
Cyril, driven to bay for the last time, grew savage. “Look here, Dacre— I’ve had enough of this. I’ve told you twice before that I am not married.”
“Precisely, and you lied each time. Don’t start. I tell lies myself sometimes—most private secretaries do. But as I happen to know that you are married, you may as well confess it. You were married to Miss Manton the same day that I sent you the telegram which announced your brother’s death.”
Cyril turned sick with fear. He was discovered, then. His schemes were at an end. His folly and cowardice had brought him to this pitch. If he had only accepted his fortune, and told the truth at first, all might have been well. Now, he was entangled beyond hope of freedom. The blow stunned him, and he was silent.
“It is a lie!” he burst out at last. “I was never married! The girl thought so, curse her—but I was not married. Do you hear, Dacre, I was not married!”
It was Dacre’s turn to be puzzled now. This persistency of denial staggered him. Could there have been some evasion of law of which he knew nothing? Could the young man have deceived everybody, even the wary mother-in-law herself? It might be so.
“She is not your wife, then?”
“Upon your honour!”
“Upon my honour.”
Dacre threw himself back in his chair and laughed.
“You are the cleverest scoundrel I know,” he said.
Cyril’s blood was up again at this fresh insult, but he dared not speak.
“And you really mean to marry Miss Ffrench?”
“My dear boy, I congratulate you. She is a charming girl, and will make an excellent wife. It is the best thing you could do. Forgive me my suspicions; but you managed the thing so cleverly that I was deceived.”
It was a new sensation to Cyril to be congratulated for successful villany, and he did not half like the sensation.
“You are going to join our Party, your father tells me,” went on Dacre, in an ordinary tone. “I am very glad of that. I think that we can get you in for Kirkminster with a little trouble. Upon my word, my dear fellow, I am so glad to find that you are not as deeply in the mire as I thought you were.”
And the good fellow actually sprang up and shook the boy’s hand warmly.
“Of course, when I heard of your engagement, I felt bound—for Miss Ffrench’s sake—to come and find out the truth of Miss Manton’s story. I am so glad to find that my suspicions were not confirmed. Marrying beneath one’s self is the deadliest of social errors; and although the little girl is very charming and very accomplished, she is not a fit wife for a man in your position.”
Cyril was in an agony of shame. One moment he felt inclined to tell the truth, defend his honour, and dash the smiling scoundrel before him to the earth; the next, the thought of Kate and his father would come before him, and he could only grind his teeth helplessly.
Dacre took out his watch.
“Nearly two o’clock! I must go. You had better come down to the office to-morrow, and we will have a chat. Of course this little matter”—he nodded his head at the piano as the nearest embodiment of womanhood— “will be entirely between ourselves. It is a sad thing, but it might have been worse. We must think of some plan to get rid of the little girl. You can’t send her back to her mother, of course?”
Cyril did not speak. He could not. Dacre attributing his silence to a totally different cause from the real one, went on.
“These affairs are always difficult to settle, but if you are really tired of the girl—and I suppose you must be—you had better get some friend to take her off your hands.”
The wretched boy on the sofa never moved. He scarcely understood the meaning of the words. His perceptions were dulled by violence of restrained passion. He felt Dacre take his hand, and he was dimly conscious that he murmured some phrase of farewell in answer to the other’s “good night.” Then the door shut, and he was alone.
He sat quite still. He did not curse or scream, or indulge in any impotent ebullition of rage. He had been hit too hard for that. The memory of his shame weighed upon him like a grave-stone. He felt degraded in his own eyes. All his vanity and self-conceit had been crushed out of him, and he sat with his head in his hands, like one who has just received some heavy blow. At last some purpose began to shape itself out of this chaos of misery. His thought had been put into words at last, and after the first horror which its embodiment had induced, he could bear to look on it calmly. “Get some one to take her off your hands.” Yes, that was the hideous thought that had arisen to him in the library at Matcham. He shuddered even now at it. But it was his own idea. It might be done. Such things did happen. Men have kept worse secrets before now. It was the only way.
He rose, and mechanically extinguishing the lights, went up stairs.
His wife was asleep, her brown hair scattered over the pillow, and her eyes red with recent tears. There was a phial of laudanum on the little table by the bed (Carry did not always sleep soundly now), and his bloodshot eyes wandered from the sleeping face to the printed word upon the tiny bottle that held the drug. Yes, there was another way yet.
“She might die, perhaps!” he said, half unconsciously.