There are lovely days in England sometimes in November or December, days when the departing year strives to make us forget that winter is nigh, and autumn smiles, gentle and benignant, caressing with a still tender kiss the last leaves of the scarlet oak which linger on the boughs, and touching up with a vivid brush the evergreen verdure of bay trees, of ilex and of yew. The sky is of that pale, translucent blue which dwellers in the South never see, with the soft transparency of an aqua-marine as it fades into the misty horizon at midday. And at dusk the thrushes sing: 'Kiss me quick! kiss me quick! kiss me quick' in the naked branches of old acacias and chestnuts, and the robins don their crimson waistcoats and dart in and out among the coppice and through the feathery arms of larch and pine. And the sun which tips the prickly points of holly leaves with gold, joins in this merry make-believe that winter is still a very, very long way off, and that mayhap he has lost his way altogether, and is never coming to this balmy beautiful land again.
Just such a day was the penultimate one of November, 1793, when Lady Anthony Dewhurst sat at a desk in the wide bay window of the drawing-room in Combwich Hall, trying to put into a letter to Lady Blakeney all that her heart would have wished to express of love and gratitude and happiness.
Three whole days had gone by since that exciting night, when before the break of day in the dimly-lighted old church, in the presence of two or three faithful friends, she had plighted her troth to Lord Anthony: even whilst other kind friends -- including His Royal Highness-- formed part of the little conspiracy which kept her father occupied and, if necessary, would have kept M. Martin-Roget out of the way. Since then her life had been one continuous dream of perfect bliss. From the moment when after the second religious ceremony in the Roman Catholic church she found herself alone in the carriage with milor, and felt his arms -- so strong and yet so tender-- closing round her and his lips pressed to hers in the first masterful kiss of complete possession, until this hour when she saw his tall, elegant figure hurrying across the garden toward the gate and suddenly turning toward the window whence he knew that she was watching him, every hour and every minute had been nothing but unalloyed happiness.
Even there where she had looked for sorrow and difficulty her path had been made smooth for her. Her father, who she feared would prove hard and irreconcilable had been tender and forgiving to such an extent that tears almost of shame would gather in her eyes whenever she thought of him.
As soon as she arrived at Combwich Hall she had written a long and deeply affectionate letter to her father, imploring his forgiveness for the deception and unfilial conduct which on her part must so deeply have grieved him. She pleaded for her right to happiness in words of impassioned eloquence, she pleaded for her right to love and to be loved, for her right to a home, which a husband's devotion would make a paradise for her.
This letter she had sent by special courier to her father and the very next day she had his reply. She had opened the letter with trembling fingers, fearful lest her father's harshness should mar the perfect serenity of her life. She was afraid of what he would say, for she knew her father well: knew his faults as well as his qualities, his pride, his obstinacy, his unswerving determination and his loyalty to the King's cause -- all of which must have been deeply outraged by his daughter's high-handed action. But as she began to read, astonishment, amazement at once filled her soul: she could hardly trust her comprehension, hardly believe that what she read could indeed be reality, and not just the continuance of the happy dream wherein she was dwelling these days.
Her father --gently reproachful-- had not one single harsh word to utter. He would not, he said, at the close of his life, after so many bitter disappointments, stand in the way of his daughter's happiness: 'You should have trusted me, my child,' he wrote: and indeed Yvonne could not believe her eyes. 'I had no idea that your happiness was at stake in this marriage, or I should never have pressed the claims of my own wishes in the matter. I have only you in the world left, now that misery and exile are to be my portion! Is it likely that I would allow any personal desires to weigh against my love for you?'
Happy as she was Yvonne cried -- cried bitterly with remorse and shame when she read that letter. How could she have been so blind, so senseless as to misjudge her father so? Her young husband found her in tears, and had much ado to console her: he too read the letter and was deeply touched by the kind reference to himself contained therein: 'My lord Anthony is a gallant gentleman,' wrote M. le duc de Kernogan, 'he will make you happy, my child, and your old father will be more than satisfied. All that grieves me is that you did not trust me sooner. A clandestine marriage is not worthy of a daughter of the Kernogans.'
'I did speak most earnestly to M. le duc,' said Lord Tony reflectively, 'when I begged him to allow me to pay my addresses to you. But then,' he added cheerfully, 'I am such a clumsy lout when I have to talk at any length -- and especially clumsy when I have to plead my own cause. I suppose I put my case so badly before your father, m'dear, that he thought me three parts an idiot and would not listen to me.'
'I too begged and entreated him, dear,' she said with a smile, 'but he was very determined then and vowed that I should marry M. Martin-Roget despite my tears and protestations. Dear father! I suppose he didn't realize that I was in earnest.'
'He has certainly accepted the inevitable very
gracefully,' was my lord Tony's final comment.
Then they read the letter through once more, sitting close together, he with one arm round her shoulder, she nestling against his chest, her hair brushing against his lips and with the letter in her hands which she could scarcely read for the tears of joy which filled her eyes.
'I don't feel very well to-day,' the letter concluded; 'the dampness and the cold have got into my bones: moreover you two young love birds will not desire company just yet, but to-morrow if the weather is more genial I will drive over to Combwich in the afternoon, and perhaps you will give me supper and a bed for the night. Send me word by the courier who will forthwith return to Bath if this will be agreeable to you both.'
Could anything be more adorable, more delightful? It was just the last drop that filled Yvonne's cup of happiness right up to the brim.
The next afternoon she sat at her desk in order to tell Lady Blakeney all about it. She made out a copy of her father's letter and put that in with her own, and begged dear Lady Blakeney to see Lady Ffoulkes forthwith and tell her all that had happened. She herself was expecting her father every minute and milor Tony had gone as far as the gate to see if the barouche was in sight.
Half an hour later M. de Kernogan had arrived and his daughter lay in his arms, happy, beyond the dreams of men. He looked rather tired and wan and still complained that the cold had got into his bones: evidently he was not very well and Yvonne after the excitement of the meeting felt not a little anxious about him. As the evening wore on he became more and more silent; he hardly would eat anything and soon after eight o'clock he announced his desire to retire to bed.
'I am not ill,' he said as he kissed his daughter and bade her a fond 'Good-night,' 'only a little wearied . . . with emotion no doubt. I shall be better after a night's rest.'
He had been quite cordial with my lord Tony, though not effusive, which was only natural-- he was at all times a very reserved man, and -- unlike those of his race-- never demonstrative in his manner: but with his daughter he had been singularly tender, with a wistful affection which almost suggested remorse, even though it was she who, on his arrival, had knelt down before him and had begged for his blessing and his forgiveness.
But the following morning he appeared to be really ill: his cheeks looked sunken, almost livid, his eyes dim and hollow. Nevertheless he would not hear of staying on another day or so.
'No, no,' he declared emphatically, 'I shall be better in Bath. It is more sheltered there, here the north winds would drive me to my bed very quickly. I shall take a course of baths at once. They did me a great deal of good before, you remember, Yvonne -- in September when I caught a chill. . . they soon put me right. That is all that ails me now . . . I've caught a chill.'
He did his best to reassure his daughter, but she was far from satisfied: more especially as he hardly would touch the cup of chocolate which she had prepared for him with her own hands.
'I shall be quite myself again in Bath,' he declared, 'and in a day or two when you can spare the time -- or when milor can spare you -- perhaps you will drive over to see how the old father is getting on, eh?'
'Indeed,' she said firmly, 'I shall now allow you to go to Bath alone. If you will go, I shall accompany you.'
'Nay!' he protested, 'that is foolishness, my child. The barouche will take me back quite comfortably. It is less than two hours' drive and I shall be quite safe and comfortable.'
'You will be quite safe and comfortable in my company,' she retorted with a tender, anxious glance at his pale face and the nervous tremor of his hands. 'I have consulted with my dear husband and he has given his consent that I should accompany you.'
'But you can't leave milor like that, my child,' he protested once more. 'He will be lonely and miserable without you.'
'Yes. I think he will,' she said wistfully. 'But he will be all the happier when you are well again, and I can return to Combwich satisfied.'
Whereupon M. le duc yielded. He kissed and thanked his daughter and seemed even relieved at the prospect of her company. The barouche was ordered for eleven o'clock, and a quarter of an hour before that time Lord Tony had his young wife in his arms, bidding her a sad farewell.
'I hate your going from me, sweetheart,' he said as he kissed her eyes, her hair, her lips. 'I cannot bear you out of my sight even for an hour. . . let alone a couple of days.'
'Yet I must go, dear heart,' she retorted, looking up with that sweet, grave smile of hers into his eager young face. 'I could not let him travel alone. . . could I?'
'No, no,' he assented somewhat dubiously, 'but remember, dear heart, that you are infinitely precious and that I shall scarce live for sheer anxiety until I have you here, safe, once more in my arms.'
'I'll send you a courier this evening,' she rejoined, as she extricated herself gently from his embrace, 'and if I can come back to-morrow. . .'
'I'll ride over to Bath in any case in the morning so that I may escort you back if you really can come.'
'I will come if I am reassured about father. Oh, my dear lord,' she added with a wistful little sigh, 'I knew yesterday morning that I was too happy, and that something would happen to mar the perfect felicity of these last few days.'
'You are not seriously anxious about M. le duc's health, dear heart?'
'No, not seriously anxious. Farewell, milor. It is au revoir . . a few hours and we'll resume our dream.'
There was nothing in all that to arouse my lord Tony's suspicions. All day he was miserable and forlorn because Yvonne was not there -- but he was not suspicious.
Fate had a blow in store for him, from which he was destined never wholly to recover, but she gave him no warning, no premonition. He spent the day in making up arrears of correspondence, for he had a large private fortune to administer -- trust funds on behalf of brothers and sisters who were minors -- and he always did it conscientiously and to the best of his ability. The last few days he had lived in a dream and there was an accumulation of business to go through. In the evening he expected the promised courier, who did not arrive: but his was not the sort of disposition that would fret and fume because of a contretemps which might be attributable to the weather -- it had rained heavily since afternoon-- or to sundry trifling causes which he at Combwich, ten or a dozen miles from Bath, could not estimate. He had no suspicions even then. How could he have? How could he guess? Nevertheless when he ultimately went to bed, it was with the firm resolve that he would in any case go over to Bath in the morning and remain there until Yvonne was able to come back with him.
Combwich without her was anyhow unendurable.
He started for Bath at nine o'clock in the morning. It was still raining hard. It had rained all night and the roads were very muddy. He started out without a groom. A little after half-past ten, he drew rein outside his house in Chandos Buildings, and having changed his clothes he started to walk to Laura Place. The rain had momentarily left off, and a pale wintry sun peeped out through rolling banks of grey clouds. He went round by way of Saw Close and the Upper Borough Walls, as he wanted to avoid the fashionable throng that crowded the neighbourhood of the Pump Room and the Baths. His intention was to seek out the Blakeneys at their residence in the Circus after he had seen Yvonne and obtained news of M. le duc.
He had no suspicions. Why should he have?
The Abbey clock struck a quarter-past eleven when finally he knocked at the house in Laura Place. Long afterwards he remembered how just at that moment a dense grey mist descended into the valley. He had not noticed it before, now he saw it had enveloped this part of the city so that he could not even see clearly across the Place.
A woman came to open the door. Lord Tony then thought this strange considering how particular M. le duc always was about everything pertaining to the management of his household: 'The house of a poor exile,' he was wont to say, 'but nevertheless that of a gentleman.'
'Can I go straight up?' he asked the woman, who he thought was standing ostentatiously in the hall as if to bar his way. 'I desire to see M. le duc.'
'Ye can walk upstairs, zir,' said the woman, speaking with a broad Somersetshire accent, 'but I doubt me if ye'll see 'is Grace the Duke. 'Es been gone these two days.'
Tony had paid no heed to her at first; he had walked across the narrow hall to the oak staircase, and was halfway up the first flight when her last words struck upon his ear . . . quite without meaning for the moment . . . but nevertheless he paused, one foot on one tread, and the other two treads below. . . and he turned round to look at the woman, a swift frown across his smooth forehead.
'Gone these two days,' he repeated mechanically; 'what do you mean?'
Well! 'Is Grace left the day afore yesterday -- Thursday it was . . . 'Is man went yesterday afternoon with luggage and sich . . . 'e went by coach 'e did . . . Leave off,' she cried suddenly; 'what are ye doin'? Ye're 'urtin me.'
For Lord Tony had rushed down the stairs again and was across the hall, gripping the unoffending woman by the wrist and glaring into her expressionless face until she screamed with fright.
'I beg your pardon,' he said humbly as he released her wrist: all the instincts of the courteous gentleman arrayed against his loss of control. 'I . . . I forgot myself for the moment,' he stammered; 'would you mind telling me again . . . what . . . what you said just now?'
The woman was prepared to put on the airs of outraged dignity, she even glanced up at the malapert with scorn expressed in her small beady eyes. But at sight of his face her anger and her fears both fell away from her. Lord Tony was white to the lips, his cheeks were the colour of dead ashes, his mouth trembled, his eyes alone glowed with ill-repressed anxiety.
' 'Is Grace,' she said with slow emphasis, for of a truth she thought that the young gentleman was either sick or daft, ' 'Is Grace left this 'ouse the day afore yesterday in a hired barouche. 'Is man -- Frederick-- went yesterday afternoon with the liggage. 'E caught the Bristol coach at two o'clock. I was 'Is Grace's 'ousekeeper and I am to look after the 'ouse and the zervants until I 'ear from 'Is Grace again. Them's my orders. I know no more than I'm tellin' ye.'
'But His Grace returned here yesterday forenoon,' argued Lord Tony calmly, mechanically, as one who would wish to convince an obstinate child. 'And my lady. . . Mademoiselle Yvonne, you know. . . was with him.'
'Noa! Noa!' said the woman placidly. ' 'Is Grace 'asn't been near this 'ouse come Thursday afternoon, and 'is man left yesterday wi' th' liggage. Why!' she added confidentially, ' 'e ain't gone far. It was all zettled that zuddint I didn't know nothing about it myzelf till I zeed Mr. Frederick start off wi' th' liggage. Not much liggage neither it wasn't. Sure but 'Is Grace'll be 'ome zoon. 'E can't have gone far. Not wi' that bit o'liggage. Zure.'
'But my lady . . . Mademoiselle Yvonne. . .'
'Lor, zir, didn't ye know? Why 'twas all over th' town o'Tuesday as 'ow Mademozell 'ad eloped with my lord Anthony Dew'urst, and . . .'
'Yes! Yes! But you have seen my lady since?'
'Not clapped eyes on 'er, zir, since she went to the ball come Monday evenin'. An' a picture she looked in 'er white gown . . .'
'And . . did His Grace leave no message . . . for. . . for anyone? . . no letter?'
'Ah, yes, now you come to metion it, zir. Mr. Frederick 'e give me a letter yesterday. " 'Is Grace," sez 'e, "left this yere letter on 'is desk. I just found it," sez 'e. "If my lord Anthony Dew'urst calls," sez 'e, "give it to 'im." I've got the letter zomewhere, zir. What may your name be?'
'I am Lord Anthony Dewhurst,' replied the young man mechanically.
'Your pardon, my lord, I'll go fetch th' letter.'
Lord Tony never moved while the woman shuffled across the passage and down the back stairs. He was like a man who has received a knock-out blow and has not yet had time to recover his scattered senses. At first when the woman spoke, his mind had jumped to fears of some awful accident. . . runaway horses . . a broken barouche. . . or a sudden aggravation of the duc's ill-health. But soon he was forced to reject what now would have seemed a consoling thought: had there been an accident, he would have heard -- a rumour would have reached him -- Yvonne would have sent a courier. He did not know yet what to think, his mind was like a slate over which a clumsy hand had passed a wet sponge -- iimpressions, recollections, above all a hideous, nameless fear, were all blurred and confused within his brain.
The woman came back carrying a letter which was crumpled and greasy from a prolonged sojourn in the pocket of her apron. Lord Tony took the letter and broke its heavy seal. The woman watched him, curiously, pityingly now, for he was good to look on, and she scented the signifigance of the tragedy which she had been the means of revealing to him. But he had become quite unconscious of her presence, of everything in fact save those few sentences, written in French, in a cramped hand, and which seemed to dance a wild saraband before his eyes:
'You tried to steal my daughter from me, but I have taken her from you now. By the time this reaches you we shall be on the high seas on our way to Holland, thence to Coblentz, where Mademoiselle de Kernogan will in accordance with my wishes be united in lawful marriage to M. Martin-Roget whom I have chosen to be her husband. She is not and never was your wife. As far as one may look into the future, I can assure you that you will never in life see her again.'
And to this monstrous document of appalling callousness and cold-blooded cruelty there was appended the signature of André Dieudonné Duc de Kernogan.
But unlike the writer thereof Lord Anthony Dewhurst neither stormed nor raged: he did not even tear the execrable letter into an hundred fragments. His firm hand closed over it with one convulsive clutch, and that was all. Then he slipped the crumpled paper into his pocket. Quite deliberately he took out some money and gave a piece of silver to the woman.
'I thank you very much,' he said somewhat haltingly. 'I quite understand everything now.'
The woman curtseyed and thanked him; tears were in her eyes, for it seemed to her that never had she seen such grief depicted upon any human face. She preceded him to the hall door and held it open for him, while he passed out. After the brief gleam of sunshine it had started to rain again, but he didn't seem to care. The woman suggested fetching a hackney coach, but he refused quite politely, quite gently: he even lifted his hat as he went out. Obviously he did not know what he was doing. Then he went out into the rain and strode slowly across the Place.