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A bombshell, in the shape of Lady Betty Burns, burst into the bedroom of
Emily and Mary next morning, while the two girls were sitting up in
their great bed at about eight o'clock, reading their letters and
sipping their tea.
"May I come in, darlings?" a voice full of purpose said, and a flaxen
head peeped in.
"Why, Betty, of course!" both girls answered and, in a blue silk
dressing-gown and a long fair plait of hair hanging down, Lady Betty
None of the Council of Three, going to deliver secret sentence, could
have advanced with more dignity or consciousness of the solemnity of the
occasion. Emily and Mary were thrilled.
"Be prepared!" she said dramatically, while she climbed to the foot of
the bed and sat down. "It is just what I told you. She's been the
heroine of a murder--if she did not do it herself!"
"Heavens! Betty, who?" almost screamed the girls.
"Your sister-in-law! I had to come at once to tell you, darlings. Last
night, Aunt Muriel (the young Lady Melton was her uncle's second wife
and chaperoning her to the party) would drag me into her room, and I
could not get to you. You would have been asleep when I at last escaped,
so I determined to come the first thing this morning and tell you my
Four round eyes of excited horror fixed themselves upon her, so with
deep importance of voice and manner, Lady Betty went on:
"I sat with Captain Hume in the picture gallery, just before we went to
bed. Believe me, I have not been able to sleep all night from it, dears!
Well, we had been speaking of that fighting scene by Teniers in a beer
house, you know, the one which hangs by the big Snuyders. The moon--no,
it could not have been the moon. It must have been the arc light over
the entrance which shines in from the angle. Anyway, it felt as if it
were the moon, when I drew aside the blind; and it struck my heart with
a cold foreboding, as he said such things, fights, happened now
sometimes, and he was at Monte Carlo when Count Shulski was shot; and,
though it was hushed up by the authorities and no one hardly heard of it
much, still it made a stir. And," continued Lady Betty, now rising
majestically and pointing an accusing forefinger at Emily and Mary,
"Countess Shulski was your sister-in-law's name!"
"Oh, hush, Betty!" said Emily, almost angrily. "You must not say such
things. There might have been a lot of Count Shulskis. Foreigners are
But Lady Betty shook her head with tragic sorrow and dignity, much at
variance with her sweet little childish turned-up nose.
"Alas, darlings, far be it from me to bring the terrible conviction home
to you!" Great occasions like this required a fine style, she felt. "Far
be it from me! But Captain Hume went on to say, that, of course, was the
reason of Lady Tancred's dreadfully mysterious and remorseful look."
"It is perfectly impossible, Betty," Mary cried excitedly. "But even if
her husband were shot, it does not prove she had anything to do with
"Of course it does!" said Lady Betty, forgetting for a moment her style.
"There's always a scene of jealousy, in which the husband stabs the
other man, and then falls dead himself. Unless," and this new bright
thought came to her, "she were a political spy!"
"Oh, Betty!" they both exclaimed at once. And then Emily said gravely,
"Please do tell us exactly what Captain Hume really said. Remember, it
is our brother's wife you are speaking of, not one of the heroines in
Thus admonished, Lady Betty got back on to the bed, and gradually came
down to facts, which were meager enough. For Captain Hume had instantly
pulled himself up, it appeared; and he had merely said that, as her
first husband had been killed in a row, Lady Tancred had cause to have
tragedy imprinted upon her face.
"Betty, dearest," Emily then said, "please, please don't tell anything
of your exciting story to any one else, will you? Because people are so
At this, Lady Betty bounced off again offendedly.
"You are an ungrateful pair," she flashed. "Before I brave meeting Jimmy
Danvers in the passage again, in my dressing-gown, to come and tell you
delicious things, I'll be hanged!"
And it was with difficulty that Emily and Mary mollified her, and got
her to re-seat herself on the bed and have a bit of their
bread-and-butter. She had fled to announce her thrilling news before her
own tea had come.
"I do think men look perfectly horrid with their hair unbrushed in the
morning, don't you, Em?" she said, presently, as she munched, while
Mary poured her out some tea into the emptied sugar-basin and handed it
to her. "Henry's fortunate, because his is curly"--Here Mary
blushed--"and I believe Jimmy Danvers gets his valet to glue his down
before he goes to bed. But you should see what Aunt Muriel has to put up
with, when Uncle Aubrey comes in to talk to her, while I am there. The
front, anyhow, and a lock sticking up in the back! There is one thing I
am determined about. Before I'm married, I shall insist upon knowing how
my husband stands the morning light."
"I thought you said just now Jimmy's was quite decent and glued down,"
Emily retorted slyly.
"Pouff!" said Lady Betty, with superb calm. "I have not made up my mind
at all about Jimmy. He is dying to ask me, I know; but there is Bobby
Harland, too. However, this morning--"
"You've seen Jimmy this morning, Betty!" Mary exclaimed.
"Well, how could I help it, girls?" Lady Betty went on, feeling that she
was now a heroine. "I had to come to you. It was my bounden duty; and
it's miles away, for Aunt Muriel always will have me in the
dressing-room next her, when she takes me to stay out, and Uncle Aubrey
across the passage; and it makes him so cross. But that's not it. I
mean, it is not my fault, if the Duke has only arranged three new
bathrooms down the bachelors' wing, and people are obliged to be waiting
about for their turn, and I had to pass the entrance to that passage,
and it happened to be Jimmy's, and he was just going in, when he saw me
and rushed along, and said 'Good morning,' not a bit put out! I thought
it would look silly to run, so I said 'Good morning,' too; and then we
both giggled, and I came on. But I am rather glad after all, because
now I've seen him; and he looks better--like that--than I am sure Bobby
would have done, so perhaps, after all, I'll marry him! And you will be
my bridesmaids, darlings, and now I must run!"
Upon such slender threads--the brushing of his hair--how often does the
fate of man hang! If he but knew!
Almost every one was punctual for breakfast. They all came in with their
gifts for Lady Ethelrida; and there was much chaffing and joking, and
delightful little shrieks of surprise, as the parcels were opened.
Every soul loved Lady Ethelrida, from the lordly Groom of the Chambers
to the humblest pantry boy and scullery maid; and it was their delight
every year to present her, from them all, with a huge trophy of flowers,
while the post brought countless messages and gifts of remembrance from
absent friends. No one could have been more sweet and gracious than her
ladyship was; and underneath, her gentle heart was beating with an extra
excitement, when she thought of her rendezvous at half-past ten o'clock.
Would he--she no longer thought of him as Mr. Markrute--would he be able
to find the way?
"I must go and give some orders now," she said, about a quarter past
ten, to the group which surrounded her, when they had all got up and
were standing beside the fire. "And we all assemble in the hall at
eleven." And so she slipped away.
Francis Markrute, she noticed, had retired some moments before.
"Heinrich," he had said to his Austrian valet, the previous evening, as
he was helping him on with his coat for dinner, "I may want to know the
locality of the Lady Ethelrida's sitting-room early to-morrow. Make it
your business to become friendly with her ladyship's maid, so that I
can have a parcel of books, which will arrive in the morning, placed
safely there at any moment I want to, unobserved. Unpack the books,
leaving their tissue papers still upon them, and bring them in when you
call me. I will give you further orders then for their disposal. You
It was as well to be prepared for anything, he thought, which was most
fortunate, as it afterwards turned out. He had meant to make her ask him
to her sitting-room in any case, and his happiness was augmented, as
they had talked in the picture gallery, when she did it of her own
Lady Ethelrida stood looking out of her window, in her fresh,
white-paneled, lilac-chintzed bower. Her heart was actually thumping
now. She had not noticed the books, which were carefully placed in a
pile down beside her writing table. Would he ever get away from her
father, who seemed to have taken to having endless political discussions
with him? Would he ever be able to come in time to talk for a moment,
before they must both go down? She had taken the precaution to make
herself quite ready to start--short skirt, soft felt hat, thick boots
Would he? But as half-past ten chimed from the Dresden clock on the
mantelpiece, there was a gentle tap at the door, and Francis Markrute
He knew in an instant, experienced fowler that he was, that his bird was
fluttered with expectancy, and it gave him an exquisite thrill. He was
perfectly cognizant of the value of investing simple circumstances with
delightful mystery, at times; and he knew, to the Lady Ethelrida, this
trysting with him had become a momentous thing.
"You see, I found the way," he said softly, and he allowed something of
the joy and tenderness he felt to come into his voice.
And Lady Ethelrida answered a little nervously that she was glad, and
then continued quickly that she must show him her bookcases, because
there was so little time.
"Only one short half-hour--if you will let me stay so long," he pleaded.
In his hand he carried the original volume he had spoken about, a very
old edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, from which he had carefully had
one or two removed. It was exquisitely bound and tooled, and had her
monogram worked into a beautiful little medallion--a work of art. He
handed it to her first.
"This I ventured to have ordered for you long ago," he said. "Six weeks
it is nearly, and I so feared until yesterday that you would not let me
give it to you. It does not mean for your birthday: it is our original
bond of acquaintance."
"It is too beautiful," said Lady Ethelrida, looking down.
"And over there by your writing table"--he had carefully ascertained
this locality from Heinrich--"you will find the books that are my
birthday gift, if you will give me the delight of accepting them."
She went forward with a little cry of surprise and pleasure, while,
instantaneously, the wonder of how he should know where they would be
presented itself to her mind.
They were about six volumes. A Heine, a couple of de Musset's, and then
three volumes of selected poems, from numbers of the English poets.
Lady Ethelrida picked them up delightedly. They, too, were works of art,
in their soft mauve morocco bindings, _chiffr�_, with her monogram like
the other, and tooled with gold.
"How enchanting!" she said. "And look! They match my room. How could you
have guessed--?" And then she broke off and again looked down.
"You told me, the night I dined with you at Glastonbury House, that you
loved mauve as a color and that violets were your favorite flower. How
could I forget?" And he permitted himself to come a step nearer to her.
She did not move away. She turned over the leaves of the English volume
rather hurriedly. The paper was superlatively fine and the print a gem
of art. And then she looked up, surprised.
"I have never seen this collection before," she said wonderingly. "All
the things one loves under the same cover!" And then she turned to the
title-page to see which edition it was; and she found that, as far as
information went, it was blank. Simply,
"To The Lady Ethelrida Montfitchet
was inscribed upon it in gold. A deep pink flush grew on her delicate
face, and she dared not raise her eyes.
It would be too soon yet to tell her everything that was in his heart,
he reasoned. All could be lost by one false step. So, with his masterly
self-control, he resisted all temptation to fold her in his arms, and
"I thought it would be nice to have, as you say, 'all the bits one
loves' put together; and I have a very intelligent friend at my
book-binder's, who, when I had selected them, had them all arranged and
printed for me, and bound as I thought you might wish. It will gratify
me greatly, if it has pleased you."
"Pleased me!" she said, and now she looked up; for the sudden conviction
came to her, that to have this done took time and a great deal of money;
and except once or twice before, casually, she had never met him until
the evening, when, among a number of her father's political friends, he
had dined at their London house. When could he have given the order and
what could this mean? He read her thoughts.
"Yes," he said simply. "From the very first moment I ever saw you, Lady
Ethelrida, to me you seemed all that was true and beautiful, the
embodiment of my ideal of womanhood. I planned these books then, two
days after I dined with you at Glastonbury House; and, if you had
refused them, it would have caused me pain."
Ethelrida was so moved by some new, sudden and exquisite emotion that
she could not reply for a moment. He watched her with growing and
passionate delight, but he said nothing. He must give her time.
"It is too, too nice of you," she said softly, and there was a little
catch in her breath. "No one has ever thought of anything so exquisite
for me before, although, as you saw this morning, every one is so very
kind. How shall I thank you, Mr. Markrute? I do not know."
"You must not thank me at all, you gracious lady," he said. "And now I
must tell you that the half-hour is nearly up, and we must go down.
But--may I--will you let me come again, perhaps to-morrow afternoon? I
want to tell you, if it would interest you, the history of a man."
Ethelrida had turned to look at the clock, also, and had collected
herself. She was too single-minded to fence now, or to push this new,
strange joy out of her life, so she said,
"When the others go out for a walk, then, after lunch, yes, you may
And without anything further, they left the room. At the turn in the
corridor to the other part of the house, he bent suddenly; and with deep
homage kissed her hand, then let her pass on, while he turned to the
right and disappeared towards the wing, where was his room.
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