“The humbug that fellows talk about morality!” said he, and laughed pleasantly. “It is all very well to read about, but practice is quite a different thing. Here am I, an absolute proof of the virtue of viciousness. I have been peristently selfish from youth up; have never spared anybody, or anything; and have lived happily, cheerfully, and comfortably, up to the ripe age of thirty. At thirty, I am member of Parliament;—an influential person; known, respected, and admired; and have not been without my little bonnes fortunes either. This is one of them,—really, the most pleasant of any, I think. A nice girl—accomplished—loves me, too—and the wife of an intimate friend! What could the heart of man desire more? I have been very lucky. My destiny, I suppose. Kismet! We are the slaves of circumstance,” he added, satirically, “and when one does an infamous action, it is consolatory to reflect that one is but an instrument in the hands of Fate!”
It would have been a strange comment upon his theory could he have known that at the moment the thought shaped itself in his brain, the seven o’clock express rattled and roared out of Kirkminster station, and that, flung into a corner of a carriage, with fierce eyes, staring as though he would pierce the darkness ahead, was Cyril Chatteris, wild with rage, despair, and hate, borne through the blinding rain and furious sleet,—borne onwards through the silent night, with glare of red lamps, and rush and roar of wheels, and shrill shriek of fierce steam; borne onwards hard on his track with such relentless devouring of space and savage eagerness of pursuit, as might have belonged to the Avenger of Blood in the old Jewish days. But he knew nothing, suspected nothing. All seemed safe and secure, and he smoked and read, and laughed silently at his own cynical thoughts, and scoffed at all that was good and true, and hugged himself in his own hideous egotism, and was borne on to the end that the Fate he worshipped had in store for him.
Springing out at the station, he drove to Brook-street. His plans were all laid. The little cottage in a certain quiet suburb, tenanted recently by Mdlle. Aglae, late “tiger” at the Bouffées, Paris, was empty, and thither he would convey his prize.
“I shall have Cyril completely in hand then,” he said. “Killing two birds with one stone one may say. He will marry the charming Kate, and I shall always have a comfortable home at Matcham Park,—and a sort of lien, so to speak, on the Matcham treasury. If, on the other hand, the marriage is broken off, I still keep my Cyril tied by the leg, and can either put in that Australian booby, or make her Mrs. Rupert Dacre.” The thought of Bob made him speculate a little on the probable issue of the Chester Cup, which had been decided while his election had been trembling in the balance at Kirkminster. “I suppose Ryle’s horse will be sure to be beaten. He was at a hundred to one yesterday. Even if he wins, I can’t lose much;—but it’s impossible!”
The careful Harris, who had been left behind to look after the house during Dacre’s short absence, stared at the sudden reappearance of his master.
“Business in town,” said Rupert, shortly. “Unpack these things.”
Harris, who was quite well bred, had an appointment with a milliner’s apprentice (she thought he was a man of family), and swore inaudibly.
Dacre glanced at the clock on the mantelshelf—(Una and the Lion in bronze: Rupert cultivated the fine arts). It was half-past eight o’clock.
“Any news?” he asked, hurriedly swallowing a cup of coffee.
“The Cardinal has won the Chester Cup!” says Harris. “Noos came by telegraph, sir.”
“The deuce he has!” cried Rupert, and paused for a moment.
This unexpected reverse seemed like the beginning of disaster. Was his luck going to desert him, after all? But putting away the unwelcome thought, he comforted himself with the reflection that he had arranged in a measure for such a contingency, and that the event which made him a loser enriched his milch-cow, Bob Calverly. Moreover, the race was not of much moment with him now. He had won the big stake he had played for. He was member for Kirkminster, at all events, and his spirits rose again.
“Anything else?” he asked, with his back to the freshly-lighted fire, whose cheerful blaze gleamed upon the thousand luxuries which made up the elegant selfishness of his bachelor-rooms.
“Well, they do say, sir, that the Ministry’s going out!” says Harris, whose evening paper had informed him of the result of the political-combat at Kirkminster.
Dacre’s eyes flashed triumph. He had heard some such rumour, too. He would go down to the clubs and hear more about it. If the Ministry resigned, his fortune was made. Nantwich would be Premier, and he—Rupert Dacre—provided for at once. But he must first take away the “little woman” whom he had come to meet.
“I may be back to-night, and I may not,” he said, putting on his hat and gloves again. “You can leave the door latched and go to bed if you like,” and then, humming gaily some opera air, he dived into his cab and drove off.
Harris, watching him from the door, rubbed his careful hands with a catlike delight. “So we are a Member of Parliament, are we!” he said, going up to pick out a perfectly irreproachable shirt from Dacre’s stock; and as, smoking one of Dacre’s best cigars, he walked down to make some excuse to the little milliner, he felt quite Representative himself.
Ordering the cab to wait at the corner of the street, Dacre gaily opened the wicket gate of the well-known villa. Lights were burning in the hall and in the drawing-room.
All was ready; she was evidently waiting for him. So certain was he, that he did not even pause to notice the trim little parlour maid who answered his ring, and who seemed eager to speak; but, pushing past her, he entered the little drawing-room.
No Carry, blushing, palpitating, eager, loving; no unhappy wife distracted with misery, and maddened with shame; no fresh proof of the truth of his cynical doctrine—but a thin, tall figure that he knew well; a haggard face and pair of scornful eyes, before which even his own bold glance quailed and fell.
“Mr. Bland!” he cried, in utter astonishment.
“Sit down, sir,” says Bland, “I have been expecting you.”
The blow was tremendous. Discovered!—and by such a miserable as the shabbiest reporter on his friend’s newspaper! It was not often that the admirable Dacre blushed, but he did on this occasion. He could not reply for the moment, and the other stood looking at him as he might have looked at a dog. A moment’s pause, however, sufficed him to collect his thoughts. He had been used to self-control all his life. It was the one virtue which he had cultivated, and it stood him in good stead now. How much did this fellow know? Was he a protector or a friend? How had he found out poor Carry’s secret? Perhaps he only suspected it after all.
“Pray, my dear Mr. Bland,” he said, slowly pulling off his delicate gloves finger by finger, “may I ask you for the reason of your presence here?”
Bland, with one hand on the table and the other in his breast, seemed to be nerving himself for the contest. “I have come to tell you that your errand here is known,” he said.
“Indeed! You will forgive me, Mr. Bland, if I am inquisitive, but will you kindly tell me what you believe to be the nature of my ‘errand,’ as you are pleased to call it.”
“To ruin a poor girl, who never injured you—you scoundrel!” says Bland, suddenly, turning his face full on him.
Dacre gave a little laugh, and stroked his beard. “My dear sir, what a mind you must have. Do you think, then, that I am a roaring lion, going about seeking for victims? Come, Mr. Bland, you are too hard upon me.”
The shadow of disgust that crossed the other’s face, brought the colour back again to Rupert’s cheeks. “Mr. Dacre,” says Bland, speaking over his head as it were, “There is no need to argue. I know all the story of your infamy and treachery towards your friend and your friend’s wife. I know that you have come here to-night, at her request, to take her away from the shelter of her husband’s roof.”
“And pray how do you know this?” asked Dacre, smoothing his glove on his knee.
“I know it, that is sufficient.”
“Not quite. You appear in a lady’s drawing-room, at”—he took out his watch affectedly—“at half-past nine at night, and tell me some ridiculous story about ‘husbands’ roofs.’ Does Mr. Cyril Chatteris know that you are under the shelter of his roof?”
“He does not.”
“So I should imagine. ‘Roofs’ like this,” the well-dressed man glanced round the well-furnished room, “are not usually honoured by such brilliant literary lights as you appear to be, my friend.”
Bland, looking away over his head, said nothing. His silence was so full of scorn, that Dacre felt compelled to speak.
“Pray who gave you the right to interfere in my affairs?” said he, rising.
“The right!” returned the other. “The right! Who gave you the right to ruin a woman to serve your own pleasures, you miserable coward?”
Rupert blanched to the lips at the insult, but stood still. He knew that any quarrel, any violence, would be useless.
“You appear to be a little silly, my friend. I have not ruined any woman at present; and if I intend to do so, allow me to remark, that I shall do so without your interference.”
“You are a mean scoundrel!” says Bland, with blazing eyes. “You think that profligacy makes you admired and liked; you set your passions by rule, and strike a weekly balance of your iniquities. I know you, and men like you; miserable imitations of vice; sordid shams of lust and passion. Your whole lives are a lie, your love is a lie, and your honour is a lie.”
“Don’t, my good sir, don’t,” says the other. “You are wasting excellent sentiment upon a very unworthy object. Casting your pearls before swine, I assure you. Keep that rubbish for the penny journals. And tell me, without any rhetorical flourishes, how it is that I find you here, instead of the very charming young lady I came to meet?”
He saw that it was all over now. He guessed that by some chance Carry’s flight had been interrupted, and that his chance was gone. He would revenge himself upon Cyril.
“I was warned of your intentions,” says the shabby reporter, “by your secretary.”
Dacre began to feel ridiculous again. Rupert Dacre, the astute, the intelligent, the clever, the self-possessed, to be beaten by such an adversary.
“The little whelp!” he thought. “So he has been spying upon me.” The ridicule of his position and the shame of his defeat came upon him, and with a sudden fury he leapt to his feet.
“Stand aside,” he said, “and let me pass! She sent for me, and I will see her!”
With a terrible light in his eyes, the old man seized the other by the wrist with one hand, and forced him nearly to his knees.
“You villanous hound!” he said. “How dare you say you ‘will’ see her? Her mother is with her; her mother knows all. The world shall know all tomorrow. She hates you, detests you, despises you. Do you think there is no goodness in the world, no virtue in woman, no honesty in man? Take your hands from my collar! I have struggled with stronger men than you.”
Rupert Dacre, white, breathless, trembling, was cowering on one knee at the feet of the poor old despised Bland, who seemed in that moment, by his streaming grey hairs, his flashing, scornful eyes, and his grim, gaunt figure, to be some terrible personification of outraged honesty and truth.
“Curse you—let me go!” cries baffled Dacre, in a choked voice.
In the height of his passion and anger, Bland shook him like a reed.
“You will see her! You will see her! You miserable scoundrel, have you no sister whom you love—no mother whom you remember? Have you any place in your heart that is not wholly blackened and corrupt, that you can dare to think of thrusting your damnable presence between a mother and her child? I know the whole history of this poor girl. I know how you offered up yourself a willing instrument to her coward husband’s baseness. I know it, you dog, I know it. You dare! You! If I was to tell this story tomorrow, Rupert Dacre, you would be shunned by all the fools who now admire you. They may be cruel—they may be steeped to the lips in sin and folly, but not one of them would take your hand again if they knew what I do!”
He flung him off as he spoke, as if his touch were contamination.
Dacre sprang to his feet, and stood, shaking with mingled passion and fear, before him. He was beaten; he knew it. The girl had confessed all, and was now snivelling in her mother’s arms. He had been duped by Binns, a “cad,” a fool, whom he thought to have “used” as he pleased, and had been struck and insulted by a shabby newspaper hack. How London would laugh if the story got abroad! He thought of the devilish mirth of the smoking-rooms, and shuddered. One expiring effort he made, as he smoothed his crushed shirt-cuffs with a hand that would tremble in spite of all his self-command.
“You are very complimentary—very. But you don’t understand these things. I don’t want to disturb the mother’s blessing, my good sir. It is a simple matter of business to me. I am not likely to go into mourning over my loss. The girl wanted to come, and I was ready to take her. If she doesn’t want to come, well—” And he shrugged his shoulders with an affectation of the old French manner.
Bland, breathing hard, stood looking at him as one might look at a strange animal.
“You say that you will tell my friends about this ’affair,’” Dacre went on. “If you have any respect for the character of your scullerymaid I should recommend you to do nothing of the kind. Hold your tongue, and I shall hold mine.” He picked up his gloves and commenced to fit them to his fingers. “After all. I am rather obliged to you. You have done me a great service. You have given me the hand of Cyril’s cousin, and saved me from a very considerable expense.”
Seeing here a contraction about the other’s lips, that made him think he was going to strike him, he drew back instinctively.
“I won’t touch you,” says Bland, contemptuously. “I am sorry that I did just now. Go away, and remember that, scoff as you may, there is a God who sees the hearts of such men as you are, and can punish as well as pardon.”
Dacre stopped at the door, with the old wicked smile—so long the delight of unfledged cavalry cornets and rising young attachés—fluttering upon his lips.
“My dear Mr. Bland,” he said, “is it possible that a man of your ability can really believe in such an exploded fallacy as that?”
And then, with an easy bow—defiant to the last—he shut the door and went out into the night.
Bland—his excitement departed—sinking, all trembling and unnerved, into a chair, shuddered at the hideous cynicism of the reply. It would have been a strange commentary upon his theory also, could he have seen, by any sort of second sight, the haggard figure that the Kirkminster down-express had just landed upon the edge of the roaring stream of London night-traffic, and that with fixed purpose—Fury driven—was coming up through wind and rain, driving furiously through the gaslit, gleaming streets, hard on the track.