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At the door of the breakfast-room, Miss Bride was approached by Lady Ogram's maid, who in an undertone informed her that Dr. Baldwin had been sent for. Lady Ogram had passed a very bad night, but did not wish it to be made known to her guests, whom she hoped to meet at luncheon. Of the possibility of this, the maid declared herself very doubtful; she did not think the doctor would allow her mistress to get up.
"Let me know when the doctor is leaving," said Constance. "I should like to see him."
Sir William and his wife breakfasted with the two young ladies. Lord Dymchurch did not appear. When the others had left the room, Constance asked a servant if his lordship was down yet, and learnt that he had this morning gone away, leaving a note for Lady Ogram. At the same moment, word was brought to Miss Bride that Dr. Baldwin waited in the library. Constance replied that she would see him. Then, turning to the other attendant, she asked whether Lord Dymchurch's note had been delivered to Lady Ogram. It lay, she learnt, with the rest of the morning's letters, which the maid had not yet taken up. Thereupon Constance sought and found it, and carried it with her as she entered the library.
"How do you find your patient, doctor?" she inquired, in her usual tone.
"Quite unfit to get up to-day, though I fear she is determined to do so," replied Dr. Baldwin. "Wonderful, the influence of her mind upon her physical state. I found her alarmingly weak, but, as usual, she insisted on hearing the news of the town, and something I was able to tell her acted with more restorative force than any drug in the pharmacopaeia."
"What was that?"
"Mr. Robb's will. I hear on good authority that he leaves not a penny to our hospital. Lady Ogram was delighted. It makes the field clear for her. She declares that she will buy the site on Burgess Hill immediately. The will is dated fifteen years ago, they say; no doubt he meant to make another."
"That, I am sure, was a cordial," exclaimed Constance. "Impossible for Mr. Robb to have done Lady Ogram a greater kindness."
After a few more inquiries concerning the patient, she let the doctor take his leave. Then she stood looking at the outside of Lord Dymchurch's letter, and wondering what might be its contents. Beyond a doubt, they were of an explosive nature. Whatever his excuse, Lord Dymchurch's abrupt departure would enrage Lady Ogram. Had he been refused by May? Or had something come to pass which made it impossible for him to offer marriage something connected with Lashmar's early visit this morning? That he had intended a proposal, Constance could not doubt. Meanwhile, she felt glad of the outbreak in prospect; her mood desired tumultuous circumstances. What part she herself would play in to-day's drama, she had not vet decided; that must largely depend upon events. Her future was involved in the conflict of passions and designs which would soon be at its height. How much it would have helped her could she have read through the envelope now in her hand!
There came a knock to the door. Lady Ogram wished to speak with Miss Bride.
It was the rarest thing for the secretary to be summoned to her ladyship's bedroom. In the ante-chamber, the maid encountered her.
"My lady means to get up," whispered this discreet attendant. "She thinks herself very much better, but I am sure she is very ill indeed. I know the signs. The doctor forbade her to move, but I durstn't oppose her."
"Does she know that Lord Dymchurch has gone?" asked Constance.
"No, miss. I thought it better to say nothing just yet. Everything excites her so."
"You were very wise. Keep silence about it until Lady Ogram leaves her room."
"My lady has just asked for her letters, miss."
"Bring up those that have come by post. I will deliver the other myself."
Constance entered the bedroom. With cheeks already touched into ghastly semblance of warm life, with her surprising hair provisionally rolled into a diadem, the old autocrat lay against upright pillows. At sight of Constance, she raised her skeleton hand, and uttered a croak of triumph.
"Do you know the news?" followed in scarce articulate utterance. "Robb's will! Nothing to the hospital--not a penny for town charities."
Constance affected equal rejoicing, for she knew how the singular old philanthropist had loathed the thought that Hollingford's new hospital might bear Robb's name instead of her own.
"But I beg you not to excite yourself," she added. "Try to think quietly--"
"Mind your own business!" broke in the thick voice, whilst the dark eyes flashed with exultation. "I want to know about Lord Dymchurch. What are the plans for this morning?"
"I don't think they are settled yet. It's still early."
"How is May?"
"Quite well, I think."
"I shall be down at mid-day, if not before. Tell Lord Dymchurch that."
The morning's correspondence was brought in. Lady Ogram glanced over her letters, and bade Constance reply to two or three of them. She gave, also, many instructions as to matters which had been occupying her lately; her mind was abnormally active and lucid; at times her speech became so rapid that it was unintelligible.
"Now go and get to work," she said at length, coming to an abrupt close. "You've enough to occupy you all the morning."
Constance had paid little attention to these commands, and, on returning to the library, she made no haste to begin upon her secretarial duties. For more than an hour she sat brooding. Only as a relief to her thoughts did she at length begin to write letters. It was shortly before mid-day when again there came a summons from Lady Ogram; obeying it, Constance took Lord Dymchurch's letter in her hand.
Lady Ogram had risen. She was in the little drawing-room upstairs, reclining upon a sofa; the effort of walking thus far had exhausted her.
"I hear that Mr. Lashmar has called this morning," she began, half raising herself, but at once sinking back again. "What did he come about? Can't he come to lunch?"
"Yes, he will be here at one o'clock," Constance replied.
"Then why did he come? It was before nine. What had he to say?"
"He wanted to speak to me in private."
"Oh, I suppose that's privileged," returned the autocrat, smiling. "What have you got there? Something just come?"
"It's a note for you from Lord Dymchurch."
"From Lord Dymchurch? Give it me at once, then. Where is he? Why couldn't he wait till I came down?"
She tore the envelope with weak trembling hands. Constance watched her as she read. Of a sudden, the shrunk, feeble figure sprang upright, and stood as though supported by the vigorous muscles of youth.
"Do you know what this contains?" sounded a clear, hard voice, strangely unlike that which had just been speaking.
"I have no idea."
"But you knew that he had left?"
"Yes, I knew. I kept it from you till now, because I feared you were not well enough to bear the agitation."
"And who," cried the other fiercely, "gave you authority to detain letters addressed to me? What have you to do with my health? When did Lord Dymchurch leave?"
"Whilst we were at breakfast," Constance answered, with a great effort at self-command. "He saw nobody."
"Then you lied to me when you came up before?"
"I think, Lady Ogram," said Constance, standing rigid and with white face, "you might give me credit for good intentions. It was nothing to me whether you heard this news then or later; but I knew that you had passed a sleepless night, and that the doctor had been sent for."
"You knew--you knew!" cried the listener, with savage scorn. "Did you know why Lord Dymchurch had gone?"
"I took it for granted that--it had something to do with Miss Tomalin."
"Answer me in plain words, without a lie, and without shiftiness. Do you know that Lord Dymchurch has proposed to May, and been refused?"
"I did not know it."
"You suspected as much."
"I thought it possible. But the business was none of mine, and I gave very little heed to it."
Lady Ogram had begun to totter. She let herself sink upon the sofa, and re-read the letter that shook in her hand.
"He says he has a sister ill. Did you hear anything of that?"
"Nothing at all."
The autocrat stared for a moment, as though trying to read Constance's thoughts; then she waved her hand.
"Go back to your work. Stay in the library till you hear from me again."
Constance quivered with the impulse to make indignant reply, but prudence prevailed. She bent her head to conceal wrathful features, and in silence went from the room.
Five minutes later, May Tomalin entered by the awful door. She knew what was before her, and had braced her nerves, but at the first sight of Lady Ogram a sinking heart drew all the blood from her checks. Encountering the bloodshot glare from those fleshless eye-caverns, she began to babble a "Good-morning, aunt!" But the words failed, and her frightened simper, meant for a smile, passed into mere blankness of visage.
"Come here, May. Is it true that you have refused Lord Dymchurch?"
The voice was less terrifying than her aunt's countenance had led her to expect. She was able to recover her wits sufficiently to make the reply she had spent all the morning in preparing.
"Refused him? I didn't mean that. He must have misunderstood me."
"What did you mean, then?"
"I hardly knew what Lord Dymchurch meant," answered May, trying to look playfully modest.
"Let us have no nonsense," sounded in stern accents. "Lord Dymchurch writes me a letter, saying distinctly that he has proposed to you, and that you have refused him, and then he goes off without a word to anyone. Did you know he was leaving this morning?"
"Certainly not," answered the girl, with a bold plunge into mendacity. "I expected to see him at breakfast. Then I was told he was gone. I don't understand it at all."
From the moment of entering the room, she had put away all thought of truthfulness. This, plainly, was no time for it. As soon as possible, she would let Dyce Lashmar know that they must feign and temporise: the policy of courage looked all very well from a distance, but was quite another thing in the presence of the mistress of Rivenoak enraged. Lashmar must caution Constance, who seemingly (much to May's surprise) had submitted to his dictation at this juncture. For a time, nothing could be done beyond cloaking what had really happened, and soothing Lady Ogram's wrath with apparent submission.
"When did you see him last?" pursued the questioner.
"This morning, before breakfast, for a few minutes in the garden."
Better to be veracious so far, thought May. She might otherwise fall into self-contradiction.
"Was it an appointment?"
"No. By chance. I never thought of meeting him."
"And what did he say to you? Tell me his words."
"I couldn't possibly recall them," said May, who had seated herself, and was becoming all but calm. "Lord Dymchurch has a very vague way of talking. He rambles from one subject to another."
"But didn't he say anything at all about marriage?" cried Lady Ogram, in exasperation.
"He spoke of his position and his prospects. Perhaps he hoped I should understand--but it was all so vague."
"Why, then, the man is a scoundrel! He never proposed to you at all, and he runs away leaving a lying letter behind him. Yet I should never have thought that of Lord Dymchurch."
She fixed her eyes on May, and added fiercely:
"Are you telling me the truth?"
The girl bridled, staring straight before her with indignant evasiveness of look.
"My dear aunt! How can you ask me such a question? Of course I may have misunderstood Lord Dymchurch, but, if it hadn't been for what you have once or twice said to me, I really shouldn't ever have supposed that he meant anything. He talks in such a rambling way--"
She grew voluble. Lady Ogram listened awhile, then cut her short.
"Very well. There has been some queer sort of mistake, that's plain. I should like to know what Lord Dymchurch means. Why couldn't he see me, like an honest man? It's very extraordinary, this running away before breakfast, saying good-bye to nobody."
She mused stormily, her eye ever and again turning upon the girl.
"Look here, May; do you think Constance knows anything about it?"
"I really can't say--I don't see how--"
"It was she that brought me his letter. Do you think he spoke to her?"
"About me?" exclaimed May, uneasily. "Oh! I don't think so--I never noticed that they were friendly."
"Ring the bell."
Constance Bride was sent for. Some moments passed; Lady Ogram stamped impatiently. She ordered May to ring again, and demanded why Miss Bride kept her waiting. Considerably more than five minutes had elapsed before the figure of the secretary appeared: her face wore an expression of proud indifference, and at the sight of May's subdued, timid air, she smiled coldly.
"Why have you been so long?" cried Lady Ogram.
"I came as soon as I could," was the clear reply.
"Now listen to me, Constance," broke vehemently from the bloodless lips. "I'll have no nonsense! You understand that? I'll not be played with. Deceive me, or treat me in any way unbecomingly, and you shall remember it the longest day you live. I want to know whether Lord Dymchurch said anything to you to explain his sudden departure?"
"To me? Certainly not."
"Now mind! I'll get at the truth of this. You know me! May says that Lord Dymchurch never proposed to her at all. What do you make of that?"
Constance glanced at Miss Tomalin, whose eyes fell. Again she smiled.
"It's very strange," she answered, with a certain air of sympathy. "That's really all I can say. It's impossible to have any opinion about such a personal matter, which doesn't in the least concern me."
"Please remember, aunt," put in May, "that I only said I didn't understand Lord Dymchurch in that sense."
"Are you a fool, girl!" screeched the autocrat, violently. "I never thought you so, and if he had said anything that was meant for an offer of marriage, you would have understood it quickly enough. Either you're telling me the truth, or you're lying. Either he proposed to you, or he didn't."
May caught the look of Constance turned upon her; it suggested amusement, and this touched her feelings far more deeply than the old lady's strong language.
"I am obliged to remind you, aunt," she said, her cheek flushing, "that I have no experience of--of this kind of thing. If I made a mistake, I think it's excusable. I see that Miss Bride thinks it funny, but she has the advantage of me in age, and in--in several other ways."
Even whilst speaking, May knew that she committed an imprudence; she remembered all that depended upon Constance's disposition towards her. And indeed, she could not have spoken more unwisely. In the inflamed state of Constance's pride, a feminine slap such as this sent such a tingling along her nerves that she quivered visibly. It flashed into her mind that Dyce Lashmar had all but certainly talked of her to May--with significant look and tone, whatever his words. How much had he told her? Lady Ogram's voice was again heard.
"Well, that's true. You're only a child, and perhaps you said something which sounded as you didn't mean it."
Constance was gazing at the speaker. Her lips moved, as if in a nervously ineffectual effort to say something.
"Miss Bride can go back to her work again," said Lady Ogram, as if dismissing a servant.
May smiled, openly and disdainfully. She could not resist the pleasure of showing her superiority. The smile had not died away, when Constance spoke.
"I will ask your permission to stay for a few minutes longer, Lady Ogram. As Miss Tomalin has so satisfactorily explained her part in this unfortunate affair, I think I had better use this opportunity for making known to you something which concerns her, and which, I am sure, will interest you very much. It won't take me long--if you feel able to listen."
"What is it?" asked the autocrat, sharply.
"You are aware that Mr. Lashmar called very early this morning. He came, as I said, on private business. He had something of importance to tell me, and he asked my help in a great difficulty."
"Something about the election?"
"It had nothing whatever to do with that. I'll put it in the fewest possible words, not to waste your time and my own. Mr. Lashmar began by saying that if I didn't mind, he would be glad to be released from his engagement to me."
"Pray don't let there be any misunderstanding--this time," said Constance, whose grave irony was perhaps somewhat too fine for the intelligence of either of her hearers. "Mr. Lash mar behaved like a man of honour, and I quite approve of the way in which he expressed himself. His words would have been perfectly intelligible--even to Miss Tomalin. Admitting his right to withdraw from the engagement if he had conscientious objections to it, I ventured to ask Mr. Lashmar whether there was any particular reason for his wish to be released. He paid me the compliment of perfect frankness. His reason was, that he wished to marry someone else."
"And who is that?" came hoarsely from Lady Ogram.
May had lost her natural colour. She could not take her eyes from the speaker; her lips were parted, her forehead was wrinkled into a strange expression of frightened animosity. Until the utterance of her name, she had hoped against hope that Constance did not intend the worst. For the first time in her life, she felt herself struck without pity, and the mere fact of such stern enmity affected her with no less surprise than dread. She would have continued staring at Constance, had not an alarming sound, a sort of moaning snarl, such as might proceed from some suddenly wounded beast, caused her to turn towards her aunt. The inarticulate sound was followed by words painfully forced out.
"Go on--what else?--go on, I tell you!"
The speaker's breath came with difficulty. She was bent forward, her eyes starting, her scraggy throat working as if in anguish. Constance had stepped nearer to her.
"Are you ill, Lady Ogram? Shall I call for help?"
"Go on! Go on, I tell you!" was the hoarse reply. "I hadn't thought of that. I see, now. What next did he say?"
"Mr. Lashmar," pursued Constance, in a voice somewhat less under control, "did me the honour to say that he felt sure I had only his interests and his happiness at heart. He knew that there might be considerable difficulties in his way, even after it had been made known that he was free to turn his attention to Miss Tomalin, and he was so good as to request my assistance. It had occurred to him that I might be able to present his case in a favourable light to you, Lady Ogram. Naturally, I was anxious to do my best. Perhaps this is hardly the moment to pursue the subject. Enough for the present to have made known Mr. Lashmar's state of mind."
Lady Ogram seemed to have overcome her physical anguish. She sat upright once more, and, looking at May, asked in a voice only just above a whisper:
"What have you to say to this?"
"What can I say," exclaimed the girl, with high-voiced vehemence. "I know nothing about it. Of course it's easy enough to believe that Mr. Lashmar wants to get out of his engagement to Miss Bride." She laughed scornfully. "He--"
She stopped, checking in her throat words which she suddenly remembered would be fatal to the attitude she had assumed.
"Go on!" cried Lady Ogram. "He--what?"
"I was only going to say that Mr. Lashmar might easily have thought that he had made a mistake. Well, that's my opinion; if it isn't pleasant to Miss Bride, I can't help it. I tell the truth, that's all."
"And that I will have!" said her aunt, with new self-command. "The very last word of it, mind you! Constance, why are you standing all this time? Sit down here, on this chair. Now I want you to repeat what you have told me. First of all, at what o'clock did this happen?"
"At about half-past eight this morning."
Had it been possible, Constance would have rolled oblivion over all she had spoken. Already she found her vengeance a poor, savourless thing; she felt that it belittled her. The fire of her wrath burnt low, and seemed like to smoulder out under self-contempt. She spoke in a dull, mechanical voice, and gazed at vacancy.
"May," Lady Ogram resumed, "when did you get up this morning?
"At about--oh, about half-past seven, I think."
"Did you go out before breakfast?"
"I have told you that I did, aunt. I saw Lord Dymchurch in the garden."
"I remember," said her aunt, with a lowering, suspicious look. "And you saw Mr. Lashmar as he was coming to the house?"
"No. I didn't see him at all."
"How was that? If you were in the garden?"
May glibly explained that her encounter with Lord Dymchurch took place not before, but behind, the house. She had a spot of red on each cheek; her ears were scarlet; she sat with clenched hands, and stared at the lower part of her aunt's face.
"Constance," pursued the questioner, whose eyes had become small and keen as her utterance grew more sober, "tell it me all over again. It's worth hearing twice. He began--?"
The other obeyed, reciting her story in a curt, lifeless way, so that it sounded less significant than before.
"And you promised to help him?" asked Lady Ogram, who repeatedly glanced at May.
"No, I didn't. I lost my temper, and said I don't know what foolish things."
This was self-punishment, but it, too, sounded idle in her ears as soon as she had spoken.
"But you consented to release him?"
"Now, look at me. Have you told me all he said?"
"Look at me! If I find that you are keeping any secret--! I shall know everything, you understand that. I won't sleep till I know everything that has been going on. Deceive me, if you dare!"
"I am not deceiving you," answered Constance, wearily. "You have heard all I know."
"Now, then, for what you suspect," said Lady Ogram, leaning towards her. "Turn your mind inside out. Tell me what you think!"
"That is soon done. I suspect--indeed, I believe that Mr. Lashmar's behaviour is that of a man with an over-excited mind. He thinks everything is within his reach, and everything permitted to him. I believe he spoke to me quite honestly, thinking I might somehow plead his cause with you."
"That isn't what I want. Do you suspect that he had any hopes to go upon?"
"I care so little about it," answered Constance, "that I can't form any conjecture. All I can say is, that such a man would be quite capable of great illusions--of believing anything that flattered his vanity."
Lady Ogram was dissatisfied. She kept a brief silence, with her eyes on May's countenance.
"Ring the bell," were her next words.
Constance rose and obeyed. A servant entered.
"When Mr. Lashmar arrives," said Lady Ogram, "you will bring him at once to me here."
"Mr. Lashmar has just arrived, my lady."
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