“When one has to live as I do, one has to do many things decent and indecent,” retorted the countess-dowager sharply. “He has had his hint, and you’ve got yours: and you are no true girl if you suffer yourself now to be triumphed over by Anne Ashton.”
Maude cried on silently, thinking how cruel fate was to have taken one brother and spared the other. Who—save Anne Ashton—would have missed Val Elster; while Lord Hartledon—at least he had made the life of one heart. A poor bruised heart now; never, never to be made quite whole again.
Thus the dowager, in her blindness, began her plans. In her blindness! If we could only foresee the ending of some of the unholy schemes that many of us are apt to weave, we might be more willing to leave them humbly in a higher Hand than ours. Do they ever bring forth good, these plans, born of our evil passions—hatred, malice, utter selfishness? I think not. They may seem to succeed triumphantly, but—watch the triumph to the end.
The dews of an October evening were falling upon Calne, as Lord Hartledon walked from the railway-station. Just as unexpectedly as he had arrived the morning you first saw him, when he was only Val Elster, had he arrived now. By the merest accident one of the Hartledon servants happened to be at the station when the train arrived, and took charge of his master’s luggage.
“All well at home, James?”
“All quite well, my lord.”
Several weeks had elapsed since his brother’s death, and Lord Hartledon had spent them in London. He went up on business the week after the funeral, and did not return again. In one respect he had no inducement to return; for the Ashtons, including Anne, were on a visit in Wales. They were at home now, as he knew well; and perhaps that had brought him down.
He went in unannounced, finding his way to the inner drawing-room. A large fire blazed in the grate, and Lady Maude sat by it so intent in thought as not to observe his entrance. She wore a black crepe dress, with a little white trimming on its low body and sleeves. The firelight played on her beautiful features; and her eyelashes glistened as if with tears: she was thinner and paler; he saw it at once. The countess-dowager kept to Hartledon and showed no intention of moving from it: she and her daughter had been there alone all these weeks.
“How are you, Maude?”
She looked round and started up, backing from him with a face of alarm. Ah, was it instinct caused her so to receive him? What, or who, was she thinking of; holding her hands before her with that face of horror?
“Maude, have I so startled you?”
“Percival! I beg your pardon. I believe I was thinking of—of your brother, and I really did not know you in the uncertain light. We don’t have the rooms lighted early,” she added, with a little laugh.