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From the shelter of the little French hostelry in University Place, Diane wrote, on the following morning, to Miss Lucilla van Tromp, telling her as briefly and discreetly as possible what had occurred. While withholding names and suppressing the detail which dealt with the manner of her husband's death, she spoke with her characteristic frankness, stating her case plainly. Though she denied the main charge, she repeated the admissions Derek had found so fatal, and accepted her share of all responsibility.
"Mr. Pruyn is not to blame," she wrote. "From many points of view he is as much the victim of circumstances as I am. I have to acknowledge myself in fault; and yet, if I were more so, my problem would be easier to solve. There are conditions in which it is scarcely less difficult to discern the false from the true than it is to separate the foul current from the pure, after their streams have run together; and I cannot reproach Mr. Pruyn if, looking only on the mingled tides, he does not see that they flow from dissimilar sources. Though I left his house abruptly, it was not because he drove me forth; it was rather because I feel that, until I have regained some measure of his respect, I cannot be worthy in his eyes--nor in my own--to be under one roof with his daughter."
* * * * *
To Miss Lucilla, in her ignorance of the world, it seemed, as she read on, as if the foundations of the great deep had been broken up and the windows of heaven opened. That such things happened in romances, she had read; that they were not unknown in real life, even in New York, she had heard it whispered; but that they should crop up in her own immediate circle was not less wonderful than if the night-blooming cereus had suddenly burst into flower in her strip of garden. Miss Lucilla owned to being shocked, to being grieved, to being puzzled, to being stunned; but she could not deny the thrill of excitement at being caught up into the whirl of a real love-affair.
When the first of the morning's duties in the sickroom were over she waylaid Mrs. Eveleth in a convenient spot and told her tale. She did not read the letter aloud, finding its phraseology at times too blunt; but, with those softening circumlocutions of which good women have the secret, she conveyed the facts. There was but one short passage which she quoted just as Diane had written it:
"'I am sure my mother-in-law will stand by me, and bear me out. She alone knows the sort of life I led with her son, and I am convinced that she will see justice done me.'"
Mrs. Eveleth listened silently, with the still look of pain that belongs to those growing old in the expectation of misfortune.
"I've been afraid something would happen," was her only comment.
"But surely, dear Mrs. Eveleth, you don't think any of it can be true!"
The elder woman began moving toward the door.
"So many things have been true, dear, that I hoped were not!"
This answer, given from the threshold, left Miss Lucilla not more aghast than disappointed. It brought into the romance features which no single woman can afford to contemplate. She would have entered into the affairs of a wronged heroine with enthusiastic interest; but what was to be done with those of a possibly guilty one? She was so ready for the unexpected that as she stood at a back window, looking into the garden, it was almost a surprise not to find the night-blooming cereus really lifting its exotic head among the stout spring shoots of the peonies. With the vague feeling that the Park might prove more fruitful ground for the phenomenon, she moved to a front window, where she was not long unrewarded. If it was not the night-blooming cereus that drove up in the handsome, open automobile, turning into the Park, it was something equally portentous; for Mrs. Bayford had already played a part in Diane's drama, and was now, presumably, about to enter on the scene again. Miss Lucilla drew back, so as to be out of sight, while keeping her visitors in view. For a minute she hoped that Marion Grimston herself might be minded to make her a call, for she liked the handsome girl, whose outspoken protests against the shams of her life agreed with her own more gentle horror of pretension. Marion, wreathed in veils, was, however, at the steering-wheel, and, as she guided the huge machine to the curbstone, showed no symptoms of wishing to alight. Beside her was Reggie Bradford, a large, fat youth, whose big, good-natured laugh almost called back echoes from the surrounding houses. As the car stopped he lumbered down from his perch, and helped Mrs. Bayford to descend. When he had clambered back to his place again the great vehicle rolled on. It was plain now to Miss Lucilla that a new act of the piece was about to begin, and she hurried back to the library in order to be in her place before the rising of the curtain. For Miss Lucilla's callers there was always an immediate subject of conversation which had to be exhausted before any other topic could be touched upon; and Mrs. Bayford tackled it at once, asking the questions and answering them herself, so as to get it out of the way.
"Well, how is Regina? Very much the same, of course. I don't suppose you'll see any change in her now, until it's for the worse. Poor thing! one could almost wish, in her own interests, that our Heavenly Father would think fit to take her to Himself. Now, I want to talk to you about something serious."
Mrs. Bayford made herself comfortable in a deep, low chair, with her feet on a footstool.
"I suppose you've never guessed," she asked, at last, "why Marion has been with me all this time?"
"I did guess," Miss Lucilla admitted, with a faint blush, "but I don't know that I guessed right."
"I expect you did. No one could see as much of her as you've done without knowing she had a love-affair."
"That's what I thought."
"It's been a great trial," Mrs. Bayford sighed, "and it isn't over yet. In fact, I don't know but what it's only just beginning."
"Oh yes; very much so, and is so still. It wasn't that. He was all that any one could wish--old family, position, title, good looks, everything."
"But if Marion liked him, and he liked her--?"
"I could explain it to you better if you knew more about men."
"I do know a--a little," Miss Lucilla ventured to assert, shyly.
"There is a case in which a little is not enough. You've got to understand a man's capacity for loving one woman and being fascinated by another. I think they call it double consciousness."
"I don't think it's very honorable," Miss Lucilla declared, in disapproval.
"A man doesn't stop to think of honor, my dear, when he's in a grand passion. Bienville has honor written in his very countenance, but this was an occasion when he couldn't get it into play. It was perfectly tragic. He had already spoken to Robert Grimston in the manliest way--told all about himself--found out how much Marion would have as her dot--and got permission to pay her his addresses--when all came to nothing because of another woman."
With this as an introduction it was natural that Mrs. Bayford should go on to repeat the oft-told tale in its entirety, lending it a light that no one had given to it yet. With the information she already possessed from Diane's letter it was impossible for Lucilla not to recognize all the characters as readily as Derek Pruyn had done, while she had the advantage over him of knowing Marion Grimston's place in the action. It was a dreadful story, and if Miss Lucilla was not more profoundly shocked it was because Mrs. Bayford, by overshooting the mark, rendered it incredible. None the less she agreed with Mrs. Bayford on the main point she had come to urge, that Diane, on one side, and Marion and Bienville, on the other, should be kept, if possible, from meeting.
"Not that I think," Mrs. Bayford went on, "that Raoul--that's his name--would ever take up with her again. Still, you never can tell; I've seen such cases. A fire will often blaze up when you think it's out. And now that everything is going so smoothly it would be a thousand pities to throw any obstacle in the way."
"Everything is going smoothly, then? I'm glad of that, for Marion's sake."
"Yes; it's practically a settled thing. When it seemed likely that he would return to France by way of New York, Robert Grimston wrote me to say that if anything happened it would have his full consent. Things move rapidly in Paris, and the whole episode is as much a part of the past as last year's styles. Then, too, everybody there knows now that Raoul didn't kill George Eveleth; and, of course, that removes a certain unpleasant thought that some people might have about him."
"Have you seen him yet?"
"I heard from him this morning. He asked if he could call on Marion and me this afternoon. You can guess what was my reply."
The nature of this having been made clear, Mrs. Bayford went on to express her fears as to the complications which might arise from the chance meeting of Bienville and Derek on the steamer, of which the former had given her information in his note. Nothing would be more natural now than for Derek to invite Marion and Bienville to dinner; and there would be Diane!
"I think I can relieve your mind on that point," Miss Lucilla said, trying to choose her words cautiously. "There would be no danger of their meeting Mrs. Eveleth just now, as she has left Dorothea for the present."
There was so much satisfaction to Mrs. Bayford in knowing that, as far as Diane was concerned, the coast was comparatively clear, that she gathered up her skirts and departed. After she had gone, Miss Lucilla's sense of being the pivot of a romantic plot was heightened by the appearance of Diane. She came in with her usual air of confidence in her ability to meet the world, and if her pale face showed traces of tears and sleeplessness, its expression was, if anything, more courageous. Had it not been for this brave show Miss Lucilla would have wanted to embrace her and hold her hands, but, as it was, she could only retire shyly into herself, as in the presence of one too strong to need the support of friends.
"No; don't call my mother-in-law yet," Diane pleaded, as Miss Lucilla was about to touch a bell. "I want to talk to you first, and tell you things I couldn't say in writing."
Then the story was told again, and from still another point of view. Once more Diane acknowledged the weaknesses of conduct she had confessed already, but Miss Lucilla was a woman and understood her speech.
"I knew you'd believe in me," Diane said, half sobbing, as she ended her tale. "I knew you'd understand that one can be a foolish woman without having been a wicked one. Mr. Pruyn would not have been so hard on me if he had thought of that."
"Shall I go and tell him?"
"No; it's too late. The wrong that's been done needs a more radical remedy than you or I could bring to it. Bienville has lied, and I must force him to retract. Nothing else can help me."
To poor Miss Lucilla this was a new and alarming feature in the situation. If it was so, then Marion Grimston ought not to be allowed to marry him. If Diane was right--and she must be right--Mrs. Bayford was mistakenly urging on a match that would bring unhappiness to her niece. This complication was almost more than Miss Lucilla's quietly working intellect could seize, and she followed Diane's succeeding words with but a wandering attention. She understood, however, that, next to being justified by Bienville, Diane attached importance to the aid she expected from Mrs. Eveleth. Hers was the only living voice that could testify to the happy relations always existing between her son and his wife. She could tell, and would tell, that George had fallen as the champion of Diane's honor, and not as the victim of her baseness. If he died it was because he believed in her, not because he was seeking the readiest refuge from their common life. Diane would explain all to Mrs. Eveleth, to whose loyalty she could trust, and on whose love she could depend.
"I'll go and find her," Miss Lucilla said, rising. "You'd like to see her alone?"
"No; I'd rather you were present. My troubles have got beyond the stage of privacy. It's best that those who care for me should hear what can be said in my defence."
Miss Lucilla went, and returned. A few minutes later Mrs. Eveleth could be heard coming slowly down the stairs. But before she had time to enter the room Derek Pruyn, using the privilege of a relative, walked in without announcement.
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