Part 2 out of 3
"I was going to propose that you make her come among us more, now Ned is
gone. It must be dull for her, moping about alone. I'm sure it is for
me. She is an entertaining little person, and I enjoy her music very
much. It's good for Mamma to have gay evenings; so you bestir yourself,
and see what you can do for the general good of the family."
"That's all very charming, and I've proposed it more than once, but
Lucia spoils all my plans. She is afraid you'll follow Ned's example,
and that is so silly."
"Lucia is a--no, I won't say fool, because she has sense enough when she
chooses; but I wish you'd just settle things with Mamma, and then Lucia
can do nothing but submit," said Gerald angrily.
"I'll try, but she goes up to read to Uncle, you know, and since he has
had the gout, she stays later, so I see little of her in the evening.
There she goes now. I think she will captivate the old one as well as
the young one, she is so devoted."
Coventry looked after her slender black figure, just vanishing through
the great gate, and an uncomfortable fancy took possession of him, born
of Bella's careless words. He sauntered away, and after eluding his
cousin, who seemed looking for him, he turned toward the Hall, saying to
himself, I will see what is going on up here. Such things have happened.
Uncle is the simplest soul alive, and if the girl is ambitious, she can
do what she will with him.
Here a servant came running after him and gave him a letter, which he
thrust into his pocket without examining it. When he reached the Hall,
he went quietly to his uncle's study. The door was ajar, and looking in,
he saw a scene of tranquil comfort, very pleasant to watch. Sir John
leaned in his easy chair with one foot on a cushion. He was dressed with
his usual care and, in spite of the gout, looked like a handsome,
well-preserved old gentleman. He was smiling as he listened, and his
eyes rested complacently on Jean Muir, who sat near him reading in her
musical voice, while the sunshine glittered on her hair and the soft
rose of her cheek. She read well, yet Coventry thought her heart was not
in her task, for once when she paused, while Sir John spoke, her eyes
had an absent expression, and she leaned her head upon her hand, with an
air of patient weariness.
Poor girl! I did her great injustice; she has no thought of captivating
the old man, but amuses him from simple kindness. She is tired. I'll put
an end to her task; and Coventry entered without knocking.
Sir John received him with an air of polite resignation, Miss Muir with
a perfectly expressionless face.
"Mother's love, and how are you today, sir?"
"Comfortable, but dull, so I want you to bring the girls over this
evening, to amuse the old gentleman. Mrs. King has got out the
antique costumes and trumpery, as I promised Bella she should have
them, and tonight we are to have a merrymaking, as we used to do when
Ned was here."
"Very well, sir, I'll bring them. We've all been out of sorts since the
lad left, and a little jollity will do us good. Are you going back, Miss
Muir?" asked Coventry.
"No, I shall keep her to give me my tea and get things ready. Don't read
anymore, my dear, but go and amuse yourself with the pictures, or
whatever you like," said Sir John; and like a dutiful daughter she
obeyed, as if glad to get away.
"That's a very charming girl, Gerald," began Sir John as she left the
room. "I'm much interested in her, both on her own account and on her
"Her mother's! What do you know of her mother?" asked Coventry, much
"Her mother was Lady Grace Howard, who ran away with a poor Scotch
minister twenty years ago. The family cast her off, and she lived and
died so obscurely that very little is known of her except that she left
an orphan girl at some small French pension. This is the girl, and a
fine girl, too. I'm surprised that you did not know this."
"So am I, but it is like her not to tell. She is a strange, proud
creature. Lady Howard's daughter! Upon my word, that is a discovery,"
and Coventry felt his interest in his sister's governess much increased
by this fact; for, like all wellborn Englishmen, he valued rank and
gentle blood even more than he cared to own.
"She has had a hard life of it, this poor little girl, but she has a
brave spirit, and will make her way anywhere," said Sir John admiringly.
"Did Ned know this?" asked Gerald suddenly.
"No, she only told me yesterday. I was looking in the _Peerage_ and
chanced to speak of the Howards. She forgot herself and called Lady
Grace her mother. Then I got the whole story, for the lonely little
thing was glad to make a confidant of someone."
"That accounts for her rejection of Sydney and Ned: she knows she is
their equal and will not snatch at the rank which is hers by right. No,
she's not mercenary or ambitious."
"What do you say?" asked Sir John, for Coventry had spoken more to
himself than to his uncle.
"I wonder if Lady Sydney was aware of this?" was all Gerald's answer.
"No, Jean said she did not wish to be pitied, and so told nothing to the
mother. I think the son knew, but that was a delicate point, and I asked
"I shall write to him as soon as I discover his address. We have been so
intimate I can venture to make a few inquiries about Miss Muir, and
prove the truth of her story."
"Do you mean to say that you doubt it?" demanded Sir John angrily.
"I beg your pardon, Uncle, but I must confess I have an instinctive
distrust of that young person. It is unjust, I dare say, yet I cannot
"Don't annoy me by expressing it, if you please. I have some penetration
and experience, and I respect and pity Miss Muir heartily. This dislike
of yours may be the cause of her late melancholy, hey, Gerald?" And Sir
John looked suspiciously at his nephew.
Anxious to avert the rising storm, Coventry said hastily as he turned
away, "I've neither time nor inclination to discuss the matter now, sir,
but will be careful not to offend again. I'll take your message to
Bella, so good-bye for an hour, Uncle."
And Coventry went his way through the park, thinking within himself, The
dear old gentleman is getting fascinated, like poor Ned. How the deuce
does the girl do it? Lady Howard's daughter, yet never told us; I don't
HOW THE GIRL DID IT
At home he found a party of young friends, who hailed with delight the
prospect of a revel at the Hall. An hour later, the blithe company
trooped into the great saloon, where preparations had already been made
for a dramatic evening.
Good Sir John was in his element, for he was never so happy as when his
house was full of young people. Several persons were chosen, and in a
few moments the curtains were withdrawn from the first of these
impromptu tableaux. A swarthy, darkly bearded man lay asleep on a tiger
skin, in the shadow of a tent. Oriental arms and drapery surrounded him;
an antique silver lamp burned dimly on a table where fruit lay heaped in
costly dishes, and wine shone redly in half-emptied goblets. Bending
over the sleeper was a woman robed with barbaric splendor. One hand
turned back the embroidered sleeve from the arm which held a scimitar;
one slender foot in a scarlet sandal was visible under the white tunic;
her purple mantle swept down from snowy shoulders; fillets of gold bound
her hair, and jewels shone on neck and arms. She was looking over her
shoulder toward the entrance of the tent, with a steady yet stealthy
look, so effective that for a moment the spectators held their breath,
as if they also heard a passing footstep.
"Who is it?" whispered Lucia, for the face was new to her.
"Jean Muir," answered Coventry, with an absorbed look.
"Impossible! She is small and fair," began Lucia, but a hasty "Hush, let
me look!" from her cousin silenced her.
Impossible as it seemed, he was right nevertheless; for Jean Muir it
was. She had darkened her skin, painted her eyebrows, disposed some wild
black locks over her fair hair, and thrown such an intensity of
expression into her eyes that they darkened and dilated till they were
as fierce as any southern eyes that ever flashed. Hatred, the deepest
and bitterest, was written on her sternly beautiful face, courage glowed
in her glance, power spoke in the nervous grip of the slender hand that
held the weapon, and the indomitable will of the woman was
expressed--even the firm pressure of the little foot half hidden in the
"Oh, isn't she splendid?" cried Bella under her breath.
"She looks as if she'd use her sword well when the time comes," said
"Good night to Holofernes; his fate is certain," added another.
"He is the image of Sydney, with that beard on."
"Doesn't she look as if she really hated him?"
"Perhaps she does."
Coventry uttered the last exclamation, for the two which preceded it
suggested an explanation of the marvelous change in Jean. It was not all
art: the intense detestation mingled with a savage joy that the object
of her hatred was in her power was too perfect to be feigned; and having
the key to a part of her story, Coventry felt as if he caught a glimpse
of the truth. It was but a glimpse, however, for the curtain dropped
before he had half analyzed the significance of that strange face.
"Horrible! I'm glad it's over," said Lucia coldly.
"Magnificent! Encore! Encore!" cried Gerald enthusiastically.
But the scene was over, and no applause could recall the actress. Two or
three graceful or gay pictures followed, but Jean was in none, and each
lacked the charm which real talent lends to the simplest part.
"Coventry, you are wanted," called a voice. And to everyone's surprise,
Coventry went, though heretofore he had always refused to exert himself
when handsome actors were in demand.
"What part am I to spoil?" he asked, as he entered the green room, where
several excited young gentlemen were costuming and attitudinizing.
"A fugitive cavalier. Put yourself into this suit, and lose no time
asking questions. Miss Muir will tell you what to do. She is in the
tableau, so no one will mind you," said the manager pro tem, throwing a
rich old suit toward Coventry and resuming the painting of a moustache
on his own boyish face.
A gallant cavalier was the result of Gerald's hasty toilet, and when
he appeared before the ladies a general glance of admiration was
bestowed upon him.
"Come along and be placed; Jean is ready on the stage." And Bella ran
before him, exclaiming to her governess, "Here he is, quite splendid.
Wasn't he good to do it?"
Miss Muir, in the charmingly prim and puritanical dress of a Roundhead
damsel, was arranging some shrubs, but turned suddenly and dropped the
green branch she held, as her eye met the glittering figure advancing
"You!" she said with a troubled look, adding low to Bella, "Why did you
ask _him?_ I begged you not."
"He is the only handsome man here, and the best actor if he likes. He
won't play usually, so make the most of him." And Bella was off to
finish powdering her hair for "The Marriage � la Mode."
"I was sent for and I came. Do you prefer some other person?" asked
Coventry, at a loss to understand the half-anxious, half-eager
expression of the face under the little cap.
It changed to one of mingled annoyance and resignation as she said, "It
is too late. Please kneel here, half behind the shrubs; put down your
hat, and--allow me--you are too elegant for a fugitive."
As he knelt before her, she disheveled his hair, pulled his lace collar
awry, threw away his gloves and sword, and half untied the cloak that
hung about his shoulders.
"That is better; your paleness is excellent--nay, don't spoil it. We are
to represent the picture which hangs in the Hall. I need tell you no
more. Now, Roundheads, place yourselves, and then ring up the curtain."
With a smile, Coventry obeyed her; for the picture was of two lovers,
the young cavalier kneeling, with his arm around the waist of the girl,
who tries to hide him with her little mantle, and presses his head to
her bosom in an ecstasy of fear, as she glances back at the approaching
pursuers. Jean hesitated an instant and shrank a little as his hand
touched her; she blushed deeply, and her eyes fell before his. Then, as
the bell rang, she threw herself into her part with sudden spirit. One
arm half covered him with her cloak, the other pillowed his head on the
muslin kerchief folded over her bosom, and she looked backward with such
terror in her eyes that more than one chivalrous young spectator longed
to hurry to the rescue. It lasted but a moment; yet in that moment
Coventry experienced another new sensation. Many women had smiled on
him, but he had remained heart-whole, cool, and careless, quite
unconscious of the power which a woman possesses and knows how to use,
for the weal or woe of man. Now, as he knelt there with a soft arm about
him, a slender waist yielding to his touch, and a maiden heart throbbing
against his cheek, for the first time in his life he felt the
indescribable spell of womanhood, and looked the ardent lover to
perfection. Just as his face assumed this new and most becoming aspect,
the curtain dropped, and clamorous encores recalled him to the fact that
Miss Muir was trying to escape from his hold, which had grown painful in
its unconscious pressure. He sprang up, half bewildered, and looking as
he had never looked before.
"Again! Again!" called Sir John. And the young men who played the
Roundheads, eager to share in the applause begged for a repetition in
"A rustle has betrayed you, we have fired and shot the brave girl, and
she lies dying, you know. That will be effective; try it, Miss Muir,"
said one. And with a long breath, Jean complied.
The curtain went up, showing the lover still on his knees, unmindful of
the captors who clutched him by the shoulder, for at his feet the girl
lay dying. Her head was on his breast, now, her eyes looked full into
his, no longer wild with fear, but eloquent with the love which even
death could not conquer. The power of those tender eyes thrilled
Coventry with a strange delight, and set his heart beating as rapidly as
hers had done. She felt his hands tremble, saw the color flash into his
cheek, knew that she had touched him at last, and when she rose it was
with a sense of triumph which she found it hard to conceal. Others
thought it fine acting; Coventry tried to believe so; but Lucia set her
teeth, and, as the curtain fell on that second picture, she left her
place to hurry behind the scenes, bent on putting an end to such
dangerous play. Several actors were complimenting the mimic lovers. Jean
took it merrily, but Coventry, in spite of himself, betrayed that he was
excited by something deeper than mere gratified vanity.
As Lucia appeared, his manner changed to its usual indifference; but he
could not quench the unwonted fire of his eyes, or keep all trace of
emotion out of his face, and she saw this with a sharp pang.
"I have come to offer my help. You must be tired, Miss Muir. Can I
relieve you?" said Lucia hastily.
"Yes, thank you. I shall be very glad to leave the rest to you, and
enjoy them from the front."
So with a sweet smile Jean tripped away, and to Lucia's dismay
"I want you, Gerald; please stay," she cried.
"I've done my part--no more tragedy for me tonight." And he was gone
before she could entreat or command.
There was no help for it; she must stay and do her duty, or expose her
jealousy to the quick eyes about her. For a time she bore it; but the
sight of her cousin leaning over the chair she had left and chatting
with the governess, who now filled it, grew unbearable, and she
dispatched a little girl with a message to Miss Muir.
"Please, Miss Beaufort wants you for Queen Bess, as you are the only
lady with red hair. Will you come?" whispered the child, quite
unconscious of any hidden sting in her words.
"Yes, dear, willingly though I'm not stately enough for Her Majesty, nor
handsome enough," said Jean, rising with an untroubled face, though she
resented the feminine insult.
"Do you want an Essex? I'm all dressed for it," said Coventry, following
to the door with a wistful look.
"No, Miss Beaufort said _you_ were not to come. She doesn't want you
both together," said the child decidedly.
Jean gave him a significant look, shrugged her shoulders, and went away
smiling her odd smile, while Coventry paced up and down the hall in a
curious state of unrest, which made him forgetful of everything till the
young people came gaily out to supper.
"Come, bonny Prince Charlie, take me down, and play the lover as
charmingly as you did an hour ago. I never thought you had so much
warmth in you," said Bella, taking his arm and drawing him on
against his will.
"Don't be foolish, child. Where is--Lucia?"
Why he checked Jean's name on his lips and substituted another's, he
could not tell; but a sudden shyness in speaking of her possessed him,
and though he saw her nowhere, he would not ask for her. His cousin came
down looking lovely in a classical costume; but Gerald scarcely saw her,
and, when the merriment was at its height, he slipped away to discover
what had become of Miss Muir.
Alone in the deserted drawing room he found her, and paused to watch her
a moment before he spoke; for something in her attitude and face struck
him. She was leaning wearily back in the great chair which had served
for a throne. Her royal robes were still unchanged, though the crown was
off and all her fair hair hung about her shoulders. Excitement and
exertion made her brilliant, the rich dress became her wonderfully, and
an air of luxurious indolence changed the meek governess into a charming
woman. She leaned on the velvet cushions as if she were used to such
support; she played with the jewels which had crowned her as carelessly
as if she were born to wear them; her attitude was full of negligent
grace, and the expression of her face half proud, half pensive, as if
her thoughts were bittersweet.
One would know she was wellborn to see her now. Poor girl, what a
burden a life of dependence must be to a spirit like hers! I wonder
what she is thinking of so intently. And Coventry indulged in another
look before he spoke.
"Shall I bring you some supper, Miss Muir?"
"Supper!" she ejaculated, with a start. "Who thinks of one's body when
one's soul is--" She stopped there, knit her brows, and laughed faintly
as she added, "No, thank you. I want nothing but advice, and that I dare
not ask of anyone."
"Because I have no right."
"Everyone has a right to ask help, especially the weak of the strong.
Can I help you? Believe me, I most heartily offer my poor services."
"Ah, you forget! This dress, the borrowed splendor of these jewels, the
freedom of this gay evening, the romance of the part you played, all
blind you to the reality. For a moment I cease to be a servant, and for
a moment you treat me as an equal."
It was true; he _had_ forgotten. That soft, reproachful glance touched
him, his distrust melted under the new charm, and he answered with real
feeling in voice and face, "I treat you as an equal because you _are_
one; and when I offered help, it is not to my sister's governess alone,
but to Lady Howard's daughter."
"Who told you that?" she demanded, sitting erect.
"My uncle. Do not reproach him. It shall go no further, if you forbid
it. Are you sorry that I know it?"
"Because I will not be pitied!" And her eyes flashed as she made a
"Then, if I may not pity the hard fate which has befallen an innocent
life, may I admire the courage which meets adverse fortune so bravely,
and conquers the world by winning the respect and regard of all who see
and honor it?"
Miss Muir averted her face, put up her hand, and answered hastily, "No,
no, not that! Do not be kind; it destroys the only barrier now left
between us. Be cold to me as before, forget what I am, and let me go on
my way, unknown, unpitied, and unloved!"
Her voice faltered and failed as the last word was uttered, and she bent
her face upon her hand. Something jarred upon Coventry in this speech,
and moved him to say, almost rudely, "You need have no fears for me.
Lucia will tell you what an iceberg I am."
"Then Lucia would tell me wrong. I have the fatal power of reading
character; I know you better than she does, and I see--" There she
"What? Tell me and prove your skill," he said eagerly.
Turning, she fixed her eyes on him with a penetrating power that made
him shrink as she said slowly, "Under the ice I see fire, and warn you
to beware lest it prove a volcano."
For a moment he sat dumb, wondering at the insight of the girl; for she
was the first to discover the hidden warmth of a nature too proud to
confess its tender impulses, or the ambitions that slept till some
potent voice awoke them. The blunt, almost stern manner in which she
warned him away from her only made her more attractive; for there was no
conceit or arrogance in it, only a foreboding fear emboldened by past
suffering to be frank. Suddenly he spoke impetuously:
"You are right! I am not what I seem, and my indolent indifference is
but the mask under which I conceal my real self. I could be as
passionate, as energetic and aspiring as Ned, if I had any aim in
life. I have none, and so I am what you once called me, a thing to
pity and despise."
"I never said that!" cried Jean indignantly.
"Not in those words, perhaps; but you looked it and thought it, though
you phrased it more mildly. I deserved it, but I shall deserve it no
longer. I am beginning to wake from my disgraceful idleness, and long
for some work that shall make a man of me. Why do you go? I annoy you
with my confessions. Pardon me. They are the first I ever made; they
shall be the last."
"No, oh no! I am too much honored by your confidence; but is it wise, is
it loyal to tell _me_ your hopes and aims? Has not Miss Beaufort the
first right to be your confidante?"
Coventry drew back, looking intensely annoyed, for the name recalled
much that he would gladly have forgotten in the novel excitement of the
hour. Lucia's love, Edward's parting words, his own reserve so strangely
thrown aside, so difficult to resume. What he would have said was
checked by the sight of a half-open letter which fell from Jean's dress
as she moved away. Mechanically he took it up to return it, and, as he
did so, he recognized Sydney's handwriting. Jean snatched it from him,
turning pale to the lips as she cried, "Did you read it? What did you
see? Tell me, tell me, on your honor!"
"On my honor, I saw nothing but this single sentence, 'By the love I
bear you, believe what I say.' No more, as I am a gentleman. I know the
hand, I guess the purport of the letter, and as a friend of Sydney, I
earnestly desire to help you, if I can. Is this the matter upon which
you want advice?"
"Then let me give it?"
"You cannot, without knowing all, and it is so hard to tell!"
"Let me guess it, and spare you the pain of telling. May I?" And
Coventry waited eagerly for her reply, for the spell was still upon him.
Holding the letter fast, she beckoned him to follow, and glided before
him to a secluded little nook, half boudoir, half conservatory. There
she paused, stood an instant as if in doubt, then looked up at him with
confiding eyes and said decidedly, "I will do it; for, strange as it may
seem, you are the only person to whom I _can_ speak. You know Sydney,
you have discovered that I am an equal, you have offered your help. I
accept it; but oh, do not think me unwomanly! Remember how alone I am,
how young, and how much I rely upon your sincerity, your sympathy!"
"Speak freely. I am indeed your friend." And Coventry sat down beside
her, forgetful of everything but the soft-eyed girl who confided in him
Speaking rapidly, Jean went on, "You know that Sydney loved me, that I
refused him and went away. But you do not know that his importunities
nearly drove me wild, that he threatened to rob me of my only treasure,
my good name, and that, in desperation, I tried to kill myself. Yes,
mad, wicked as it was, I did long to end the life which was, at best, a
burden, and under his persecution had become a torment. You are shocked,
yet what I say is the living truth. Lady Sydney will confirm it, the
nurses at the hospital will confess that it was not a fever which
brought me there; and here, though the external wound is healed, my
heart still aches and burns with the shame and indignation which only a
proud woman can feel."
She paused and sat with kindling eyes, glowing cheeks, and both hands
pressed to her heaving bosom, as if the old insult roused her spirit
anew. Coventry said not a word, for surprise, anger, incredulity, and
admiration mingled so confusedly in his mind that he forgot to speak,
and Jean went on, "That wild act of mine convinced him of my indomitable
dislike. He went away, and I believed that this stormy love of his would
be cured by absence. It is not, and I live in daily fear of fresh
entreaties, renewed persecution. His mother promised not to betray where
I had gone, but he found me out and wrote to me. The letter I asked you
to take to Lady Sydney was a reply to his, imploring him to leave me in
peace. You failed to deliver it, and I was glad, for I thought silence
might quench hope. All in vain; this is a more passionate appeal than
ever, and he vows he will never desist from his endeavors till I give
another man the right to protect me. I _can_ do this--I am sorely
tempted to do it, but I rebel against the cruelty. I love my freedom, I
have no wish to marry at this man's bidding. What can I do? How cart I
free myself? Be my friend, and help me!"
Tears streamed down her cheeks, sobs choked her words, and she clasped
her hands imploringly as she turned toward the young man in all the
abandonment of sorrow, fear, and supplication. Coventry found it hard to
meet those eloquent eyes and answer calmly, for he had no experience in
such scenes and knew not how to play his part. It is this absurd dress
and that romantic nonsense which makes me feel so unlike myself, he
thought, quite unconscious of the dangerous power which the dusky room,
the midsummer warmth and fragrance, the memory of the "romantic
nonsense," and, most of all, the presence of a beautiful, afflicted
woman had over him. His usual self-possession deserted him, and he could
only echo the words which had made the strongest impression upon him:
"You _can_ do this, you are tempted to do it. Is Ned the man who can
"No" was the soft reply.
"Do not ask me. A good and honorable man; one who loves me well, and
would devote his life to me; one whom once it would have been happiness
to marry, but now--"
There her voice ended in a sigh, and all her fair hair fell down about
her face, hiding it in a shining veil.
"Why not now? This is a sure and speedy way of ending your distress. Is
In spite of himself, Gerald leaned nearer, took one of the little hands
in his, and pressed it as he spoke, urgently, compassionately, nay,
almost tenderly. From behind the veil came a heavy sigh, and the brief
answer, "It is impossible."
She flung her hair back with a sudden gesture, drew away her hand, and
answered, almost fiercely, "Because I do not love him! Why do you
torment me with such questions? I tell you I am in a sore strait and
cannot see my way. Shall I deceive the good man, and secure peace at the
price of liberty and truth? Or shall I defy Sydney and lead a life of
dread? If he menaced my life, I should not fear; but he menaces that
which is dearer than life--my good name. A look, a word can tarnish it;
a scornful smile, a significant shrug can do me more harm than any blow;
for I am a woman--friendless, poor, and at the mercy of his tongue. Ah,
better to have died, and so have been saved the bitter pain that has
She sprang up, clasped her hands over her head, and paced despairingly
through the little room, not weeping, but wearing an expression more
tragical than tears. Still feeling as if he had suddenly stepped into a
romance, yet finding a keen pleasure in the part assigned him, Coventry
threw himself into it with spirit, and heartily did his best to console
the poor girl who needed help so much. Going to her, he said as
impetuously as Ned ever did, "Miss Muir--nay, I will say Jean, if that
will comfort you--listen, and rest assured that no harm shall touch you
if I can ward it off. You are needlessly alarmed. Indignant you may well
be, but, upon my life, I think you wrong Sydney. He is violent, I know,
but he is too honorable a man to injure you by a light word, an unjust
act. He did but threaten, hoping to soften you. Let me see him, or write
to him. He is my friend; he will listen to me. Of that I am sure."
"Be sure of nothing. When a man like Sydney loves and is thwarted in his
love, nothing can control his headstrong will. Promise me you will not
see or write to him. Much as I fear and despise him, I will submit,
rather than any harm should befall you--or your brother. You promise me,
He hesitated. She clung to his arm with unfeigned solicitude in her
eager, pleading face, and he could not resist it.
"I promise; but in return you must promise to let me give what help I
can; and, Jean, never say again that you are friendless."
"You are so kind! God bless you for it. But I dare not accept
your friendship; she will not permit it, and I have no right to
mar her peace."
"Who will not permit it?" he demanded hotly.
"Hang Miss Beaufort!" exclaimed Coventry, with such energy that Jean
broke into a musical laugh, despite her trouble. He joined in it, and,
for an instant they stood looking at one another as if the last barrier
were down, and they were friends indeed. Jean paused suddenly, with the
smile on her lips, the tears still on her cheek, and made a warning
gesture. He listened: the sound of feet mingled with calls and laughter
proved that they were missed and sought.
"That laugh betrayed us. Stay and meet them. I cannot." And Jean darted
out upon the lawn. Coventry followed; for the thought of confronting so
many eyes, so many questions, daunted him, and he fled like a coward.
The sound of Jean's flying footsteps guided him, and he overtook her
just as she paused behind a rose thicket to take breath.
"Fainthearted knight! You should have stayed and covered my retreat.
Hark! they are coming! Hide! Hide!" she panted, half in fear, half in
merriment, as the gay pursuers rapidly drew nearer.
"Kneel down; the moon is coming out and the glitter of your embroidery
will betray you," whispered Jean, as they cowered behind the roses.
"Your arms and hair will betray you. 'Come under my plaiddie,' as the
song says." And Coventry tried to make his velvet cloak cover the white
shoulders and fair locks.
"We are acting our parts in reality now. How Bella will enjoy the thing
when I tell her!" said Jean as the noises died away.
"Do not tell her," whispered Coventry.
"And why not?" she asked, looking up into the face so near her own, with
an artless glance.
"Can you not guess why?"
"Ah, you are so proud you cannot bear to be laughed at."
"It is not that. It is because I do not want you to be annoyed by silly
tongues; you have enough to pain you without that. I am your friend,
now, and I do my best to prove it."
"So kind, so kind! How can I thank you?" murmured Jean. And she
involuntarily nestled closer under the cloak that sheltered both.
Neither spoke for a moment, and in the silence the rapid beating of two
hearts was heard. To drown the sound, Coventry said softly, "Are you
"No, I like it," she answered, as softly, then added abruptly, "But why
do we hide? There is nothing to fear. It is late. I must go. You are
kneeling on my train. Please rise."
"Why in such haste? This flight and search only adds to the charm of the
evening. I'll not get up yet. Will you have a rose, Jean?"
"No, I will not. Let me go, Mr. Coventry, I insist. There has been
enough of this folly. You forget yourself."
She spoke imperiously, flung off the cloak, and put him from her. He
rose at once, saying, like one waking suddenly from a pleasant dream, "I
do indeed forget myself."
Here the sound of voices broke on them, nearer than before. Pointing to
a covered walk that led to the house, he said, in his usually cool, calm
tone, "Go in that way; I will cover your retreat." And turning, he went
to meet the merry hunters.
Half an hour later, when the party broke up, Miss Muir joined them in
her usual quiet dress, looking paler, meeker, and sadder than usual.
Coventry saw this, though he neither looked at her nor addressed her.
Lucia saw it also, and was glad that the dangerous girl had fallen back
into her proper place again, for she had suffered much that night. She
appropriated her cousin's arm as they went through the park, but he was
in one of his taciturn moods, and all her attempts at conversation were
in vain. Miss Muir walked alone, singing softly to herself as she
followed in the dusk. Was Gerald so silent because he listened to that
fitful song? Lucia thought so, and felt her dislike rapidly deepening
When the young friends were gone, and the family were exchanging
good-nights among themselves, Jean was surprised by Coventry's offering
his hand, for he had never done it before, and whispering, as he held
it, though Lucia watched him all the while, "I have not given my
"Thanks, I no longer need it. I have decided for myself."
"May I ask how?"
"To brave my enemy."
"Good! But what decided you so suddenly?"
"The finding of a friend." And with a grateful glance she was gone.
ON THE WATCH
"If you please, Mr. Coventry, did you get the letter last night?" were
the first words that greeted the "young master" as he left his room
"What letter, Dean? I don't remember any," he answered, pausing, for
something in the maid's manner struck him as peculiar.
"It came just as you left for the Hall, sir. Benson ran after you with
it, as it was marked 'Haste.' Didn't you get it, sir?" asked the woman,
"Yes, but upon my life, I forgot all about it till this minute. It's in
my other coat, I suppose, if I've not lost it. That absurd masquerading
put everything else out of my head." And speaking more to himself than
to the maid, Coventry turned back to look for the missing letter.
Dean remained where she was, apparently busy about the arrangement of
the curtains at the hall window, but furtively watching meanwhile with a
most unwonted air of curiosity.
"Not there, I thought so!" she muttered, as Coventry impatiently thrust
his hand into one pocket after another. But as she spoke, an expression
of amazement appeared in her face, for suddenly the letter was
"I'd have sworn it wasn't there! I don't understand it, but she's a deep
one, or I'm much deceived." And Dean shook her head like one perplexed,
but not convinced.
Coventry uttered an exclamation of satisfaction on glancing at the
address and, standing where he was, tore open the letter.
I'm off to Baden. Come and join me, then you'll be out of harm's way;
for if you fall in love with J.M. (and you can't escape if you stay
where she is), you will incur the trifling inconvenience of having
your brains blown out by
Yours truly, F.R. Sydney_
"The man is mad!" ejaculated Coventry, staring at the letter while an
angry flush rose to his face. "What the deuce does he mean by writing to
me in that style? Join him--not I! And as for the threat, I laugh at it.
Poor Jean! This headstrong fool seems bent on tormenting her. Well,
Dean, what are you waiting for?" he demanded, as if suddenly conscious
of her presence.
"Nothing, sir; I only stopped to see if you found the letter. Beg
And she was moving on when Coventry asked, with a suspicious look, "What
made you think it was lost? You seem to take an uncommon interest in my
"Oh dear, no, sir. I felt a bit anxious, Benson is so forgetful, and it
was me who sent him after you, for I happened to see you go out, so I
felt responsible. Being marked that way, I thought it might be important
so I asked about it."
"Very well, you can go, Dean. It's all right, you see."
"I'm not so sure of that," muttered the woman, as she curtsied
respectfully and went away, looking as if the letter had _not_
Dean was Miss Beaufort's maid, a grave, middle-aged woman with keen eyes
and a somewhat grim air. Having been long in the family, she enjoyed all
the privileges of a faithful and favorite servant. She loved her young
mistress with an almost jealous affection. She watched over her with the
vigilant care of a mother and resented any attempt at interference on
the part of others. At first she had pitied and liked Jean Muir, then
distrusted her, and now heartily hated her, as the cause of the
increased indifference of Coventry toward his cousin. Dean knew the
depth of Lucia's love, and though no man, in her eyes, was worthy of her
mistress, still, having honored him with her regard, Dean felt bound to
like him, and the late change in his manner disturbed the maid almost as
much as it did the mistress. She watched Jean narrowly, causing that
amiable creature much amusement but little annoyance, as yet, for Dean's
slow English wit was no match for the subtle mind of the governess. On
the preceding night, Dean had been sent up to the Hall with costumes and
had there seen something which much disturbed her. She began to speak of
it while undressing her mistress, but Lucia, being in an unhappy mood,
had so sternly ordered her not to gossip that the tale remained untold,
and she was forced to bide her tune.
Now I'll see how _she_ looks after it; though there's not much to be got
out of _her_ face, the deceitful hussy, thought Dean, marching down the
corridor and knitting her black brows as she went.
"Good morning, Mrs. Dean. I hope you are none the worse for last night's
frolic. You had the work and we the play," said a blithe voice behind
her; and turning sharply, she confronted Miss Muir. Fresh and smiling,
the governess nodded with an air of cordiality which would have been
irresistible with anyone but Dean.
"I'm quite well, thank you, miss," she returned coldly, as her keen eye
fastened on the girl as if to watch the effect of her words. "I had a
good rest when the young ladies and gentlemen were at supper, for while
the maids cleared up, I sat in the 'little anteroom.'"
"Yes, I saw you, and feared you'd take cold. Very glad you didn't. How
is Miss Beaufort? She seemed rather poorly last night" was the tranquil
reply, as Jean settled the little frills about her delicate wrists. The
cool question was a return shot for Dean's hint that she had been where
she could oversee the interview between Coventry and Miss Muir.
"She is a bit tired, as any _lady_ would be after such an evening.
People who are _used_ to _play-acting_ wouldn't mind it, perhaps, but
Miss Beaufort don't enjoy _romps_ as much as _some_ do."
The emphasis upon certain words made Dean's speech as impertinent as she
desired. But Jean only laughed, and as Coventry's step was heard behind
them, she ran downstairs, saying blandly, but with a wicked look, "I
won't stop to thank you now, lest Mr. Coventry should bid me
good-morning, and so increase Miss Beaufort's indisposition."
Dean's eyes flashed as she looked after the girl with a wrathful face,
and went her way, saying grimly, "I'll bide my time, but I'll get the
better of her yet."
Fancying himself quite removed from "last night's absurdity," yet
curious to see how Jean would meet him, Coventry lounged into the
breakfast room with his usual air of listless indifference. A languid
nod and murmur was all the reply he vouchsafed to the greetings of
cousin, sister, and governess as he sat down and took up his paper.
"Have you had a letter from Ned?" asked Bella, looking at the note which
her brother still held.
"No" was the brief answer.
"Who then? You look as if you had received bad news."
There was no reply, and, peeping over his arm, Bella caught sight of the
seal and exclaimed, in a disappointed tone, "It is the Sydney crest. I
don't care about the note now. Men's letters to each other are not
Miss Muir had been quietly feeding one of Edward's dogs, but at the name
she looked up and met Coventry's eyes, coloring so distressfully that he
pitied her. Why he should take the trouble to cover her confusion, he
did not stop to ask himself, but seeing the curl of Lucia's lip, he
suddenly addressed her with an air of displeasure, "Do you know that
Dean is getting impertinent? She presumes too much on her age and your
indulgence, and forgets her place."
"What has she done?" asked Lucia coldly.
"She troubles herself about my affairs and takes it upon herself to keep
Benson in order."
Here Coventry told about the letter and the woman's evident curiosity.
"Poor Dean, she gets no thanks for reminding you of what you had
forgotten. Next time she will leave your letters to their fate, and
perhaps it will be as well, if they have such a bad effect upon your
Lucia spoke calmly, but there was an angry color in her cheek as she
rose and left the room. Coventry looked much annoyed, for on Jean's face
he detected a faint smile, half pitiful, half satirical, which disturbed
him more than his cousin's insinuation. Bella broke the awkward silence
by saying, with a sigh, "Poor Ned! I do so long to hear again from him.
I thought a letter had come for some of us. Dean said she saw one
bearing his writing on the hall table yesterday."
"She seems to have a mania for inspecting letters. I won't allow it. Who
was the letter for, Bella?" said Coventry, putting down his paper.
"She wouldn't or couldn't tell, but looked very cross and told me
to ask you."
"Very odd! I've had none," began Coventry.
"But I had one several days ago. Will you please read it, and my reply?"
And as she spoke, Jean laid two letters before him.
"Certainly not. It would be dishonorable to read what Ned intended for
no eyes but your own. You are too scrupulous in one way, and not enough
so in another, Miss Muir." And Coventry offered both the letters with
an air of grave decision, which could not conceal the interest and
surprise he felt.
"You are right. Mr. Edward's note _should_ be kept sacred, for in it the
poor boy has laid bare his heart to me. But mine I beg you will read,
that you may see how well I try to keep my word to you. Oblige me in
this, Mr. Coventry; I have a right to ask it of you."
So urgently she spoke, so wistfully she looked, that he could not refuse
and, going to the window, read the letter. It was evidently an answer to
a passionate appeal from the young lover, and was written with
consummate skill. As he read, Gerald could not help thinking, If this
girl writes in this way to a man whom she does _not_ love, with what a
world of power and passion would she write to one whom she _did_ love.
And this thought kept returning to him as his eye went over line after
line of wise argument, gentle reproof, good counsel, and friendly
regard. Here and there a word, a phrase, betrayed what she had already
confessed, and Coventry forgot to return the letter, as he stood
wondering who was the man whom Jean loved.
The sound of Bella's voice recalled him, for she was saying, half
kindly, half petulantly, "Don't look so sad, Jean. Ned will outlive it,
I dare say. You remember you said once men never died of love, though
women might. In his one note to me, he spoke so beautifully of you, and
begged me to be kind to you for his sake, that I try to be with all my
heart, though if it was anyone but you, I really think I should hate
them for making my dear boy so unhappy."
"You are too kind, Bella, and I often think I'll go away to relieve you
of my presence; but unwise and dangerous as it is to stay, I haven't the
courage to go. I've been so happy here." And as she spoke, Jean's head
dropped lower over the dog as it nestled to her affectionately.
Before Bella could utter half the loving words that sprang to her lips,
Coventry came to them with all languor gone from face and mien, and
laying Jean's letter before her, he said, with an undertone of deep
feeling in his usually emotionless voice, "A right womanly and eloquent
letter, but I fear it will only increase the fire it was meant to
quench. I pity my brother more than ever now."
"Shall I send it?" asked Jean, looking straight up at him, like one who
had entire reliance on his judgment.
"Yes, I have not the heart to rob him of such a sweet sermon upon
self-sacrifice. Shall I post it for you?"
"Thank you; in a moment." And with a grateful look, Jean dropped her
eyes. Producing her little purse, she selected a penny, folded it in a
bit of paper, and then offered both letter and coin to Coventry, with
such a pretty air of business, that he could not control a laugh.
"So you won't be indebted to me for a penny? What a proud woman you are,
"I am; it's a family failing." And she gave him a significant glance,
which recalled to him the memory of who she was. He understood her
feeling, and liked her the better for it, knowing that he would have
done the same had he been in her place. It was a little thing, but if
done for effect, it answered admirably, for it showed a quick insight
into his character on her part, and betrayed to him the existence of a
pride in which he sympathized heartily. He stood by Jean a moment,
watching her as she burnt Edward's letter in the blaze of the spirit
lamp under the urn.
"Why do you do that?" he asked involuntarily.
"Because it is my duty to forget" was all her answer.
"Can you always forget when it becomes a duty?"
"I wish I could! I wish I could!"
She spoke passionately, as if the words broke from her against her will,
and, rising hastily, she went into the garden, as if afraid to stay.
"Poor, dear Jean is very unhappy about something, but I can't discover
what it is. Last night I found her crying over a rose, and now she runs
away, looking as if her heart was broken. I'm glad I've got no lessons."
"What kind of a rose?" asked Coventry from behind his paper as
"A lovely white one. It must have come from the Hall; we have none like
it. I wonder if Jean was ever going to be married, and lost her lover,
and felt sad because the flower reminded her of bridal roses."
Coventry made no reply, but felt himself change countenance as he
recalled the little scene behind the rose hedge, where he gave Jean the
flower which she had refused yet taken. Presently, to Bella's surprise,
he flung down the paper, tore Sydney's note to atoms, and rang for his
horse with an energy which amazed her.
"Why, Gerald, what has come over you? One would think Ned's restless
spirit had suddenly taken possession of you. What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to work" was the unexpected answer, as Coventry turned toward
her with an expression so rarely seen on his fine face.
"What has waked you up all at once?" asked Bella, looking more and
"You did," he said, drawing her toward him.
"I! When? How?"
"Do you remember saying once that energy was better than beauty in a
man, and that no one could respect an idler?"
"I never said anything half so sensible as that. Jean said something
like it once, I believe, but I forgot. Are you tired of doing nothing,
at last, Gerald?"
"Yes, I neglected my duty to Ned, till he got into trouble, and now I
reproach myself for it. It's not too late to do other neglected tasks,
so I'm going at them with a will. Don't say anything about it to anyone,
and don't laugh at me, for I'm in earnest, Bell."
"I know you are, and I admire and love you for it, my dear old boy,"
cried Bella enthusiastically, as she threw her arms about his neck and
kissed him heartily. "What will you do first?" she asked, as he stood
thoughtfully smoothing the bright head that leaned upon his shoulder,
with that new expression still clear and steady in his face.
"I'm going to ride over the whole estate, and attend to things as a
master should; not leave it all to Bent, of whom I've heard many
complaints, but have been too idle to inquire about them. I shall
consult Uncle, and endeavor to be all that my father was in his time. Is
that a worthy ambition, dear?"
"Oh, Gerald, let me tell Mamma. It will make her so happy. You are her
idol, and to hear you say these things, to see you look so like dear
Papa, would do more for her spirits than all the doctors in England."
"Wait till I prove what my resolution is worth. When I have really done
something, then I'll surprise Mamma with a sample of my work."
"Of course you'll tell Lucia?"
"Not on any account. It is a little secret between us, so keep it till I
give you leave to tell it."
"But Jean will see it at once; she knows everything that happens, she is
so quick and wise. Do you mind her knowing?"
"I don't see that I can help it if she is so wonderfully gifted. Let her
see what she can, I don't mind her. Now I'm off." And with a kiss to his
sister, a sudden smile on his face, Coventry sprang upon his horse and
rode away at a pace which caused the groom to stare after him in blank
Nothing more was seen of him till dinnertime, when he came in so
exhilarated by his brisk ride and busy morning that he found some
difficulty in assuming his customary manner, and more than once
astonished the family by talking animatedly on various subjects which
till now had always seemed utterly uninteresting to him. Lucia was
amazed, his mother delighted, and Bella could hardly control her desire
to explain the mystery; but Jean took it very calmly and regarded him
with the air of one who said, "I understand, but you will soon tire of
it." This nettled him more than he would confess, and he exerted himself
to silently contradict that prophecy.
"Have you answered Mr. Sydney's letter?" asked Bella, when they were all
scattered about the drawing room after dinner.
"No," answered her brother, who was pacing up and down with restless
steps, instead of lounging near his beautiful cousin.
"I ask because I remembered that Ned sent a message for him in my last
note, as he thought you would know Sydney's address. Here it is,
something about a horse. Please put it in when you write," and Bella
laid the note on the writing table nearby.
"I'll send it at once and have done with it," muttered Coventry and,
seating himself, he dashed off a few lines, sealed and sent the letter,
and then resumed his march, eyeing the three young ladies with three
different expressions, as he passed and repassed. Lucia sat apart,
feigning to be intent upon a book, and her handsome face looked almost
stern in its haughty composure, for though her heart ached, she was too
proud to own it. Bella now lay on the sofa, half asleep, a rosy little
creature, as unconsciously pretty as a child. Miss Muir sat in the
recess of a deep window, in a low lounging chair, working at an
embroidery frame with a graceful industry pleasant to see. Of late she
had worn colors, for Bella had been generous in gifts, and the pale blue
muslin which flowed in soft waves about her was very becoming to her
fair skin and golden hair. The close braids were gone, and loose curls
dropped here and there from the heavy coil wound around her well-shaped
head. The tip of one dainty foot was visible, and a petulant little
gesture which now and then shook back the falling sleeve gave glimpses
of a round white arm. Ned's great hound lay nearby, the sunshine
flickered on her through the leaves, and as she sat smiling to herself,
while the dexterous hands shaped leaf and flower, she made a charming
picture of all that is most womanly and winning; a picture which few
men's eyes would not have liked to rest upon.
Another chair stood near her, and as Coventry went up and down, a strong
desire to take it possessed him. He was tired of his thoughts and wished
to be amused by watching the changes of the girl's expressive face,
listening to the varying tones of her voice, and trying to discover the
spell which so strongly attracted him in spite of himself. More than
once he swerved from his course to gratify his whim, but Lucia's
presence always restrained him, and with a word to the dog, or a glance
from the window, as pretext for a pause, he resumed his walk again.
Something in his cousin's face reproached him, but her manner of late
was so repellent that he felt no desire to resume their former
familiarity, and, wishing to show that he did not consider himself
bound, he kept aloof. It was a quiet test of the power of each woman
over this man; they instinctively felt it, and both tried to conquer.
Lucia spoke several times, and tried to speak frankly and affably; but
her manner was constrained, and Coventry, having answered politely,
relapsed into silence. Jean said nothing, but silently appealed to eye
and ear by the pretty picture she made of herself, the snatches of song
she softly sang, as if forgetting that she was not alone, and a shy
glance now and then, half wistful, half merry, which was more alluring
than graceful figure or sweet voice. When she had tormented Lucia and
tempted Coventry long enough, she quietly asserted her supremacy in a
way which astonished her rival, who knew nothing of the secret of her
birth, which knowledge did much to attract and charm the young man.
Letting a ball of silk escape from her lap, she watched it roll toward
the promenader, who caught and returned it with an alacrity which added
grace to the trifling service. As she took it, she said, in the frank
way that never failed to win him, "I think you must be tired; but if
exercise is necessary, employ your energies to some purpose and put your
mother's basket of silks in order. They are in a tangle, and it will
please her to know that you did it, as your brother used to do."
"Hercules at the distaff," said Coventry gaily, and down he sat in the
long-desired seat. Jean put the basket on his knee, and as he surveyed
it, as if daunted at his task, she leaned back, and indulged in a
musical little peal of laughter charming to hear. Lucia sat dumb with
surprise, to see her proud, indolent cousin obeying the commands of a
governess, and looking as if he heartily enjoyed it. In ten minutes she
was as entirely forgotten as if she had been miles away; for Jean seemed
in her wittiest, gayest mood, and as she now treated the "young master"
like an equal, there was none of the former meek timidity. Yet often her
eyes fell, her color changed, and the piquant sallies faltered on her
tongue, as Coventry involuntarily looked deep into the fine eyes which
had once shone on him so tenderly in that mimic tragedy. He could not
forget it, and though neither alluded to it, the memory of the previous
evening seemed to haunt both and lend a secret charm to the present
moment. Lucia bore this as long as she could, and then left the room
with the air of an insulted princess; but Coventry did not, and Jean
feigned not to see her go. Bella was fast asleep, and before he knew how
it came to pass, the young man was listening to the story of his
companion's life. A sad tale, told with wonderful skill, for soon he was
absorbed in it. The basket slid unobserved from his knee, the dog was
pushed away, and, leaning forward, he listened eagerly as the girl's low
voice recounted all the hardships, loneliness, and grief of her short
life. In the midst of a touching episode she started, stopped, and
looked straight before her, with an intent expression which changed to
one of intense contempt, and her eye turned to Coventry's, as she said,
pointing to the window behind him, "We are watched."
"By whom?" he demanded, starting up angrily.
"Hush, say nothing, let it pass. I am used to it."
"But _I_ am not, and I'll not submit to it. Who was it, Jean?" he
She smiled significantly at a knot of rose-colored ribbon, which a
little gust was blowing toward them along the terrace. A black frown
darkened the young man's face as he sprang out of the long window and
went rapidly out of sight, scrutinizing each green nook as he passed.
Jean laughed quietly as she watched him, and said softly to herself,
with her eyes on the fluttering ribbon, "That was a fortunate accident,
and a happy inspiration. Yes, my dear Mrs. Dean, you will find that
playing the spy will only get your mistress as well as yourself into
trouble. You would not be warned, and you must take the consequences,
reluctant as I am to injure a worthy creature like yourself."
Soon Coventry was heard returning. Jean listened with suspended breath
to catch his first words, for he was not alone.
"Since you insist that it was you and not your mistress, I let it pass,
although I still have my suspicions. Tell Miss Beaufort I desire to see
her for a few moments in the library. Now go, Dean, and be careful for
the future, if you wish to stay in my house."
The maid retired, and the young man came in looking both ireful
"I wish I had said nothing, but I was startled, and spoke involuntarily.
Now you are angry, and I have made fresh trouble for poor Miss Lucia.
Forgive me as I forgive her, and let it pass. I have learned to bear
this surveillance, and pity her causeless jealousy," said Jean, with a
"I will forgive the dishonorable act, but I cannot forget it, and I
intend to put a stop to it. I am not betrothed to my cousin, as I told
you once, but you, like all the rest, seem bent on believing that I am.
Hitherto I have cared too little about the matter to settle it, but now
I shall prove beyond all doubt that I am free."
As he uttered the last word, Coventry cast on Jean a look that affected
her strangely. She grew pale, her work dropped on her lap, and her eyes
rose to his, with an eager, questioning expression, which slowly changed
to one of mingled pain and pity, as she turned her face away, murmuring
in a tone of tender sorrow, "Poor Lucia, who will comfort her?"
For a moment Coventry stood silent, as if weighing some fateful purpose
in his mind. As Jean's rapt sigh of compassion reached his ear, he had
echoed it within himself, and half repented of his resolution; then his
eye rested on the girl before him looking so lonely in her sweet
sympathy for another that his heart yearned toward her. Sudden fire shot
into his eye, sudden warmth replaced the cold sternness of his face, and
his steady voice faltered suddenly, as he said, very low, yet very
earnestly, "Jean, I have tried to love her, but I cannot. Ought I to
deceive her, and make myself miserable to please my family?"
"She is beautiful and good, and loves you tenderly; is there no hope for
her?" asked Jean, still pale, but very quiet, though she held one hand
against her heart, as if to still or hide its rapid beating.
"None," answered Coventry.
"But can you not learn to love her? Your will is strong, and most men
would not find it a hard task."
"I cannot, for something stronger than my own will controls me."
"What is that?" And Jean's dark eyes were fixed upon him, full of
His fell, and he said hastily, "I dare not tell you yet."
"Pardon! I should not have asked. Do not consult me in this matter; I am
not the person to advise you. I can only say that it seems to me as if
any man with an empty heart would be glad to have so beautiful a woman
as your cousin."
"My heart is not empty," began Coventry, drawing a step nearer, and
speaking in a passionate voice. "Jean, I _must_ speak; hear me. I cannot
love my cousin, because I love you."
"Stop!" And Jean sprang up with a commanding gesture. "I will not hear
you while any promise binds you to another. Remember your mother's
wishes, Lucia's hopes, Edward's last words, your own pride, my humble
lot. You forget yourself, Mr. Coventry. Think well before you speak,
weigh the cost of this act, and recollect who I am before you insult me
by any transient passion, any false vows."
"I have thought, I do weigh the cost, and I swear that I desire to woo
you as humbly, honestly as I would any lady in the land. You speak of my
pride. Do I stoop in loving my equal in rank? You speak of your lowly
lot, but poverty is no disgrace, and the courage with which you bear it
makes it beautiful. I should have broken with Lucia before I spoke, but
I could not control myself. My mother loves you, and will be happy in my
happiness. Edward must forgive me, for I have tried to do my best, but
love is irresistible. Tell me, Jean, is there any hope for me?"
He had seized her hand and was speaking impetuously, with ardent face
and tender tone, but no answer came, for as Jean turned her eloquent
countenance toward him, full of maiden shame and timid love, Dean's prim
figure appeared at the door, and her harsh voice broke the momentary
silence, saying, sternly, "Miss Beaufort is waiting for you, sir."
"Go, go at once, and be kind, for my sake, Gerald," whispered Jean, far
he stood as if deaf and blind to everything but her voice, her face.
As she drew his head down to whisper, her cheek touched his, and
regardless of Dean, he kissed it, passionately, whispering back, "My
little Jean! For your sake I can be anything."
"Miss Beaufort is waiting. Shall I say you will come, sir?" demanded
Dean, pale and grim with indignation.
"Yes, yes, I'll come. Wait for me in the garden, Jean." And Coventry
hurried away, in no mood for the interview but anxious to have it over.
As the door closed behind him, Dean walked up to Miss Muir, trembling
with anger, and laying a heavy hand on her arm, she said below her
breath, "I've been expecting this, you artful creature. I saw your game
and did my best to spoil it, but you are too quick for me. You think
you've got him. There you are mistaken; for as sure as my name is Hester
Dean, I'll prevent it, or Sir John shall."
"Take your hand away and treat me with proper respect, or you will be
dismissed from this house. Do you know who I am?" And Jean drew herself
up with a haughty air, which impressed the woman more deeply than her
words. "I am the daughter of Lady Howard and, if I choose it, can be the
wife of Mr. Coventry."
Dean drew back amazed, yet not convinced. Being a well-trained servant,
as well as a prudent woman, she feared to overstep the bounds of
respect, to go too far, and get her mistress as well as herself into
trouble. So, though she still doubted Jean, and hated her more than
ever, she controlled herself. Dropping a curtsy, she assumed her usual
air of deference, and said, meekly, "I beg pardon, miss. If I'd known, I
should have conducted myself differently, of course, but ordinary
governesses make so much mischief in a house, one can't help mistrusting
them. I don't wish to meddle or be overbold, but being fond of my dear
young lady, I naturally take her part, and must say that Mr. Coventry
has not acted like a gentleman."
"Think what you please, Dean, but I advise you to say as little as
possible if you wish to remain. I have not accepted Mr. Coventry yet,
and if he chooses to set aside the engagement his family made for him, I
think he has a right to do so. Miss Beaufort would hardly care to marry
him against his will, because he pities her for her unhappy love," and
with a tranquil smile, Miss Muir walked away.
THE LAST CHANCE
"She will tell Sir John, will she? Then I must be before her, and hasten
events. It will be as well to have all sure before there can be any
danger. My poor Dean, you are no match for me, but you may prove
These thoughts passed through Miss Muir's mind as she went down the
hall, pausing an instant at the library door, for the murmur of voices
was heard. She caught no word, and had only time for an instant's
pause as Dean's heavy step followed her. Turning, Jean drew a chair
before the door, and, beckoning to the woman, she said, smiling still,
"Sit here and play watchdog. I am going to Miss Bella, so you can nod
if you will."
"Thank you, miss. I will wait for my young lady. She may need me when
this hard time is over." And Dean seated herself with a resolute face.
Jean laughed and went on; but her eyes gleamed with sudden malice, and
she glanced over her shoulder with an expression which boded ill for the
faithful old servant.
"I've got a letter from Ned, and here is a tiny note for you," cried
Bella as Jean entered the boudoir. "Mine is a very odd, hasty letter,
with no news in it, but his meeting with Sydney. I hope yours is better,
or it won't be very satisfactory."
As Sydney's name passed Bella's lips, all the color died out of Miss
Muir's face, and the note shook with the tremor of her hand. Her very
lips were white, but she said calmly, "Thank you. As you are busy,
I'll go and read my letter on the lawn." And before Bella could speak,
she was gone.
Hurrying to a quiet nook, Jean tore open the note and read the few
blotted lines it contained.
_I have seen Sydney; he has told me all; and, hard as I found it to
believe, it was impossible to doubt, for he has discovered proofs which
cannot be denied. I make no reproaches, shall demand no confession or
atonement, for I cannot forget that I once loved you. I give you three
days to find another home, before I return to tell the family who you
are. Go at once, I beseech you, and spare me the pain of seeing your
Slowly, steadily she read it twice over, then sat motionless, knitting
her brows in deep thought. Presently she drew a long breath, tore up the
note, and rising, went slowly toward the Hall, saying to herself, "Three
days, only three days! Can it be accomplished in so short a time? It
shall be, if wit and will can do it, for it is my last chance. If this
fails, I'll not go back to my old life, but end all at once."
Setting her teeth and clenching her hands, as if some memory stung her,
she went on through the twilight, to find Sir John waiting to give her a
"You look tired, my dear. Never mind the reading tonight; rest yourself,
and let the book go," he said kindly, observing her worn look.
"Thank you, sir. I am tired, but I'd rather read, else the book will not
be finished before I go."
"Go, child! Where are you going?" demanded Sir John, looking anxiously
at her as she sat down.
"I will tell you by-and-by, sir." And opening the book, Jean read for a
But the usual charm was gone; there was no spirit in the voice of the
reader, no interest in the face of the listener, and soon he said,
abruptly, "My dear, pray stop! I cannot listen with a divided mind. What
troubles you? Tell your friend, and let him comfort you."
As if the kind words overcame her, Jean dropped the book, covered up her
face, and wept so bitterly that Sir John was much alarmed; for such a
demonstration was doubly touching in one who usually was all gaiety and
smiles. As he tried to soothe her, his words grew tender, his solicitude
full of a more than paternal anxiety, and his kind heart overflowed with
pity and affection for the weeping girl. As she grew calmer, he urged
her to be frank, promising to help and counsel her, whatever the
affliction or fault might be.
"Ah, you are too kind, too generous! How can I go away and leave my one
friend?" sighed Jean, wiping the tears away and looking up at him with
"Then you do care a little for the old man?" said Sir John with an eager
look, an involuntary pressure of the hand he held.
Jean turned her face away, and answered, very low, "No one ever was
so kind to me as you have been. Can I help caring for you more than I
Sir John was a little deaf at times, but he heard that, and looked well
pleased. He had been rather thoughtful of late, had dressed with unusual
care, been particularly gallant and gay when the young ladies visited
him, and more than once, when Jean paused in the reading to ask a
question, he had been forced to confess that he had not been listening;
though, as she well knew, his eyes had been fixed upon her. Since the
discovery of her birth, his manner had been peculiarly benignant, and
many little acts had proved his interest and goodwill. Now, when Jean
spoke of going, a panic seized him, and desolation seemed about to fall
upon the old Hall. Something in her unusual agitation struck him as
peculiar and excited his curiosity. Never had she seemed so interesting
as now, when she sat beside him with tearful eyes, and some soft trouble
in her heart which she dared not confess.
"Tell me everything, child, and let your friend help you if he can."
Formerly he said "father" or "the old man," but lately he always spoke
of himself as her "friend."
"I will tell you, for I have no one else to turn to. I must go away
because Mr. Coventry has been weak enough to love me."
"What, Gerald?" cried Sir John, amazed.
"Yes; today he told me this, and left me to break with Lucia; so I ran
to you to help me prevent him from disappointing his mother's hopes
Sir John had started up and paced down the room, but as Jean paused he
turned toward her, saying, with an altered face, "Then you do not love
him? Is it possible?"
"No, I do not love him," she answered promptly.
"Yet he is all that women usually find attractive. How is it that you
have escaped, Jean?"
"I love someone else" was the scarcely audible reply.
Sir John resumed his seat with the air of a man bent on getting at a
mystery, if possible.
"It will be unjust to let you suffer for the folly of these boys, my
little girl. Ned is gone, and I was sure that Gerald was safe; but now
that his turn has come, I am perplexed, for he cannot be sent away."
"No, it is I who must go; but it seems so hard to leave this safe and
happy home, and wander away into the wide, cold world again. You have
all been too kind to me, and now separation breaks my heart."
A sob ended the speech, and Jean's head went down upon her hands again.
Sir John looked at her a moment, and his fine old face was full of
genuine emotion, as he said slowly, "Jean, will you stay and be a
daughter to the solitary old man?"
"No, sir" was the unexpected answer.
"And why not?" asked Sir John, looking surprised, but rather pleased
"Because I could not be a daughter to you; and even if I could, it would
not be wise, for the gossips would say you were not old enough to be the
adopted father of a girl like me. Sir John, young as I am, I know much
of the world, and am sure that this kind plan is impractical; but I
thank you from the bottom of my heart."
"Where will you go, Jean?" asked Sir John, after a pause.
"To London, and try to find another situation where I can do no harm."
"Will it be difficult to find another home?"
"Yes. I cannot ask Mrs. Coventry to recommend me, when I have innocently
brought so much trouble into her family; and Lady Sydney is gone, so I
have no friend."
"Except John Coventry. I will arrange all that. When will you go, Jean?"
"So soon!" And the old man's voice betrayed the trouble he was trying
Jean had grown very calm, but it was the calmness of desperation. She
had hoped that the first tears would produce the avowal for which she
waited. It had not, and she began to fear that her last chance was
slipping from her. Did the old man love her? If so, why did he not
speak? Eager to profit by each moment, she was on the alert for any
hopeful hint, any propitious word, look, or act, and every nerve was
strung to the utmost.
"Jean, may I ask one question?" said Sir John.
"Anything of me, sir."
"This man whom you love--can he not help you?"
"He could if he knew, but he must not."
"If he knew what? Your present trouble?"
"No. My love."
"He does not know this, then?"
"No, thank heaven! And he never will."
"Because I am too proud to own it."
"He loves you, my child?"
"I do not know--I dare not hope it," murmured Jean.
"Can I not help you here? Believe me, I desire to see you safe and
happy. Is there nothing I can do?"
"May I know the name?"
"No! No! Let me go; I cannot bear this questioning!" And Jean's
distressful face warned him to ask no more.
"Forgive me, and let me do what I may. Rest here quietly. I'll write a
letter to a good friend of mine, who will find you a home, if you
As Sir John passed into his inner study, Jean watched him with
despairing eyes and wrung her hands, saying to herself, Has all my
skill deserted me when I need it most? How can I make him understand,
yet not overstep the bounds of maiden modesty? He is so blind, so
timid, or so dull he will not see, and time is going fast. What shall I
do to open his eyes?
Her own eyes roved about the room, seeking for some aid from inanimate
things, and soon she found it. Close behind the couch where she sat hung
a fine miniature of Sir John. At first her eye rested on it as she
contrasted its placid comeliness with the unusual pallor and disquiet of
the living face seen through the open door, as the old man sat at his
desk trying to write and casting covert glances at the girlish figure he
had left behind him. Affecting unconsciousness of this, Jean gazed on as
if forgetful of everything but the picture, and suddenly, as if obeying
an irresistible impulse, she took it down, looked long and fondly at it,
then, shaking her curls about her face, as if to hide the act, pressed
it to her lips and seemed to weep over it in an uncontrollable paroxysm
of tender grief. A sound startled her, and like a guilty thing, she
turned to replace the picture; but it dropped from her hand as she
uttered a faint cry and hid her face, for Sir John stood before her,
with an expression which she could not mistake.
"Jean, why did you do that?" he asked, in an eager, agitated voice.
No answer, as the girl sank lower, like one overwhelmed with shame.
Laying his hand on the bent head, and bending his own, he whispered,
"Tell me, is the name John Coventry?"
Still no answer, but a stifled sound betrayed that his words had
"Jean, shall I go back and write the letter, or may I stay and tell you
that the old man loves you better than a daughter?"
She did not speak, but a little hand stole out from under the falling
hair, as if to keep him. With a broken exclamation he seized it, drew
her up into his arms, and laid his gray head on her fan: one, too happy
for words. For a moment Jean Muir enjoyed her success; then, fearing
lest some sudden mishap should destroy it, she hastened to make all
secure. Looking up with well-feigned timidity and half-confessed
affection, she said softly, "Forgive me that I could not hide this
better. I meant to go away and never tell it, but you were so kind it
made the parting doubly hard. Why did you ask such dangerous questions?
Why did you look, when you should have been writing my dismissal?"
"How could I dream that you loved me, Jean, when you refused the only
offer I dared make? Could I be presumptuous enough to fancy you would
reject young lovers for an old man like me?" asked Sir John,
"You are not old, to me, but everything I love and honor!" interrupted
Jean, with a touch of genuine remorse, as this generous, honorable
gentleman gave her both heart and home, unconscious of deceit. "It is I
who am presumptuous, to dare to love one so far above me. But I did not
know how dear you were to me till I felt that I must go. I ought not to
accept this happiness. I am not worthy of it; and you will regret your
kindness when the world blames you for giving a home to one so poor, and
plain, and humble as I."
"Hush, my darling. I care nothing for the idle gossip of the world. If
you are happy here, let tongues wag as they will. I shall be too busy
enjoying the sunshine of your presence to heed anything that goes on
about me. But, Jean, you are sure you love me? It seems incredible
that I should win the heart that has been so cold to younger, better
men than I."
"Dear Sir John, be sure of this, I love you truly. I will do my best to
be a good wife to you, and prove that, in spite of my many faults, I
possess the virtue of gratitude."
If he had known the strait she was in, he would have understood the
cause of the sudden fervor of her words, the intense thankfulness that
shone in her face, the real humility that made her stoop and kiss the
generous hand that gave so much. For a few moments she enjoyed and let
him enjoy the happy present, undisturbed. But the anxiety which devoured
her, the danger which menaced her, soon recalled her, and forced her to
wring yet more from the unsuspicious heart she had conquered.
"No need of letters now," said Sir John, as they sat side by side, with
the summer moonlight glorifying all the room. "You have found a home for
life; may it prove a happy one."
"It is not mine yet, and I have a strange foreboding that it never will
be," she answered sadly.
"Why, my child?"
"Because I have an enemy who will try to destroy my peace, to poison
your mind against me, and to drive me out from my paradise, to suffer
again all I have suffered this last year."
"You mean that mad Sydney of whom you told me?"
"Yes. As soon as he hears of this good fortune to poor little Jean, he
will hasten to mar it. He is my fate; I cannot escape him, and wherever
he goes my friends desert me; for he has the power and uses it for my
destruction. Let me go away and hide before he comes, for, having shared
your confidence, it will break my heart to see you distrust and turn
from me, instead of loving and protecting."
"My poor child, you are superstitious. Be easy. No one can harm you now,
no one would dare attempt it. And as for my deserting you, that will
soon be out of my power, if I have my way."
"How, dear Sir John?" asked Jean, with a flutter of intense relief at
her heart, for the way seemed smoothing before her.
"I will make you my wife at once, if I may. This will free you from
Gerald's love, protect you from Sydney's persecution, give you a safe
home, and me the right to cherish and defend with heart and hand. Shall
it be so, my child?"
"Yes; but oh, remember that I have no friend but you! Promise me to be
faithful to the last--to believe in me, to trust me, protect and love
me, in spite of all misfortunes, faults, and follies. I will be true as
steel to you, and make your life as happy as it deserves to be. Let us
promise these things now, and keep the promises unbroken to the end."
Her solemn air touched Sir John. Too honorable and upright himself to
suspect falsehood in others, he saw only the natural impulse of a lovely
girl in Jean's words, and, taking the hand she gave him in both of his,
he promised all she asked, and kept that promise to the end. She paused
an instant, with a pale, absent expression, as if she searched herself,
then looked up clearly in the confiding face above her, and promised
what she faithfully performed in afteryears.
"When shall it be, little sweetheart? I leave all to you, only let it be
soon, else some gay young lover will appear, and take you from me," said
Sir John, playfully, anxious to chase away the dark expression which had
stolen over Jean's face.
"Can you keep a secret?" asked the girl, smiling up at him, all her
charming self again.
"I will. Edward is coming home in three days. I must be gone before he
comes. Tell no one of this; he wishes to surprise them. And if you love
me, tell nobody of your approaching marriage. Do not betray that you
care for me until I am really yours. There will be such a stir, such
remonstrances, explanations, and reproaches that I shall be worn out,
and run away from you all to escape the trial. If I could have my wish,
I would go to some quiet place tomorrow and wait till you come for me. I
know so little of such things, I cannot tell how soon we may be married;
not for some weeks, I think."
"Tomorrow, if we like. A special license permits people to marry when
and where they please. My plan is better than yours. Listen, and tell me
if it can be carried out. I will go to town tomorrow, get the license,
invite my friend, the Reverend Paul Fairfax, to return with me, and
tomorrow evening you come at your usual time, and, in the presence of my
discreet old servants, make me the happiest man in England. How does
this suit you, my little Lady Coventry?"
The plan which seemed made to meet her ends, the name which was the
height of her ambition, and the blessed sense of safety which came to
her filled Jean Muir with such intense satisfaction that tears of real
feeling stood in her eyes, and the glad assent she gave was the truest
word that had passed her lips for months.
"We will go abroad or to Scotland for our honeymoon, till the storm
blows over," said Sir John, well knowing that this hasty marriage would
surprise or offend all his relations, and feeling as glad as Jean to
escape the first excitement.
"To Scotland, please. I long to see my father's home," said Jean, who
dreaded to meet Sydney on the continent.
They talked a little longer, arranging all things, Sir John so intent on
hurrying the event that Jean had nothing to do but give a ready assent
to all his suggestions. One fear alone disturbed her. If Sir John went
to town, he might meet Edward, might hear and believe his statements.
Then all would be lost. Yet this risk must be incurred, if the marriage
was to be speedily and safely accomplished; and to guard against the
meeting was Jean's sole care. As they went through the park--for Sir
John insisted upon taking her home--she said, clinging to his arm:
"Dear friend, bear one thing in mind, else we shall be much annoyed, and
all our plans disarranged. Avoid your nephews; you are so frank your
face will betray you. They both love me, are both hot-tempered, and in
the first excitement of the discovery might be violent. You must incur
no danger, no disrespect for my sake; so shun them both till we are
safe--particularly Edward. He will feel that his brother has wronged
him, and that you have succeeded where he failed. This will irritate
him, and I fear a stormy scene. Promise to avoid both for a day or two;
do not listen to them, do not see them, do not write to or receive
letters from them. It is foolish, I know; but you are all I have, and I
am haunted by a strange foreboding that I am to lose you."
Touched and flattered by her tender solicitude, Sir John promised
everything, even while he laughed at her fears. Love blinded the good
gentleman to the peculiarity of the request; the novelty, romance, and
secrecy of the affair rather bewildered though it charmed him; and the
knowledge that he had outrivaled three young and ardent lovers
gratified his vanity more than he would confess. Parting from the girl
at the garden gate, he turned homeward, feeling like a boy again, and
loitered back, humming a love lay, quite forgetful of evening damps,
gout, and the five-and-fifty years which lay so lightly on his
shoulders since Jean's arms had rested there. She hurried toward the
house, anxious to escape Coventry; but he was waiting for her, and she
was forced to meet him.
"How could you linger so long, and keep me in suspense?" he said
reproachfully, as he took her hand and tried to catch a glimpse of her
face in the shadow of her hat brim. "Come and rest in the grotto. I have
so much to say, to hear and enjoy."
"Not now; I am too tired. Let me go in and sleep. Tomorrow we will talk.
It is damp and chilly, and my head aches with all this worry." Jean
spoke wearily, yet with a touch of petulance, and Coventry, fancying
that she was piqued at his not coming for her, hastened to explain with
"My poor little Jean, you do need rest. We wear you out, among us, and
you never complain. I should have come to bring you home, but Lucia
detained me, and when I got away I saw my uncle had forestalled me. I
shall be jealous of the old gentleman, if he is so devoted. Jean, tell
me one thing before we part; I am free as air, now, and have a right to
speak. Do you love me? Am I the happy man who has won your heart? I
dare to think so, to believe that this telltale face of yours has
betrayed you, and to hope that I have gained what poor Ned and wild
Sydney have lost."
"Before I answer, tell me of your interview with Lucia. I have a right
to know," said Jean.
Coventry hesitated, for pity and remorse were busy at his heart when he
recalled poor Lucia's grief. Jean was bent on hearing the humiliation of
her rival. As the young man paused, she frowned, then lifted up her face
wreathed in softest smiles, and laying her hand on his arm, she said,
with most effective emphasis, half shy, half fond, upon his name,
"Please tell me, Gerald!"
He could not resist the look, the touch, the tone, and taking the little
hand in his, he said rapidly, as if the task was distasteful to him, "I
told her that I did not, could not love her; that I had submitted to my
mother's wish, and, for a time, had felt tacitly bound to her, though no
words had passed between us. But now I demanded my liberty, regretting
that the separation was not mutually desired."
"And she--what did she say? How did she bear it?" asked Jean, feeling
in her own woman's heart how deeply Lucia's must have been wounded by
"Poor girl! It was hard to bear, but her pride sustained her to the end.
She owned that no pledge tied me, fully relinquished any claim my past
behavior had seemed to have given her, and prayed that I might find
another woman to love me as truly, tenderly as she had done. Jean, I
felt like a villain; and yet I never plighted my word to her, never
really loved her, and had a perfect right to leave her, if I would."
"Did she speak of me?"
"What did she say?"
"Must I tell you?"
"Yes, tell me everything. I know she hates me and I forgive her, knowing
that I should hate any woman whom _you_ loved."
"Are you jealous, dear?"
"Of you, Gerald?" And the fine eyes glanced up at him, full of a
brilliancy that looked like the light of love.
"You make a slave of me already. How do you do it? I never obeyed a
woman before. Jean, I think you are a witch. Scotland is the home of
weird, uncanny creatures, who take lovely shapes for the bedevilment of
poor weak souls. Are you one of those fair deceivers?"
"You are complimentary," laughed the girl. "I _am_ a witch, and one
day my disguise will drop away and you will see me as I am, old, ugly,
bad and lost. Beware of me in time. I've warned you. Now love me at
Coventry had paused as he spoke, and eyed her with an unquiet look,
conscious of some fascination which conquered yet brought no happiness.
A feverish yet pleasurable excitement possessed him; a reckless mood,
making him eager to obliterate the past by any rash act, any new
experience which his passion brought. Jean regarded him with a wistful,
almost woeful face, for one short moment; then a strange smile broke
over it, as she spoke in a tone of malicious mockery, under which lurked
the bitterness of a sad truth. Coventry looked half bewildered, and his
eye went from the girl's mysterious face to a dimly lighted window,
behind whose curtains poor Lucia hid her aching heart, praying for him
the tender prayers that loving women give to those whose sins are all
forgiven for love's sake. His heart smote him, and a momentary feeling
of repulsion came over him, as he looked at Jean. She saw it, felt
angry, yet conscious of a sense of relief; for now that her own safety
was so nearly secured, she felt no wish to do mischief, but rather a
desire to undo what was already done, and be at peace with all the
world. To recall him to his allegiance, she sighed and walked on, saying
gently yet coldly, "Will you tell me what I ask before I answer your
question, Mr. Coventry?"
"What Lucia said of you? Well, it was this. 'Beware of Miss Muir. We
instinctively distrusted her when we had no cause. I believe in
instincts, and mine have never changed, for she has not tried to delude
me. Her art is wonderful; I feel yet cannot explain or detect it, except
in the working of events which her hand seems to guide. She has brought
sorrow and dissension into this hitherto happy family. We are all
changed, and this girl has done it. Me she can harm no further; you she
will ruin, if she can. Beware of her in tune, or you win bitterly repent
your blind infatuation!'"
"And what answer did you make?" asked Jean, as the last words came
reluctantly from Coventry's lips.
"I told her that I loved you in spite of myself, and would make you my
wife in the face of all opposition. Now, Jean, your answer."
"Give me three days to think of it. Good night." And gliding from him,
she vanished into the house, leaving him to roam about half the night,
tormented with remorse, suspense, and the old distrust which would
return when Jean was not there to banish it by her art.
All the next day, Jean was in a state of the most intense anxiety, as
every hour brought the crisis nearer, and every hour might bring defeat,
for the subtlest human skill is often thwarted by some unforeseen
accident. She longed to assure herself that Sir John was gone, but no
servants came or went that day, and she could devise no pretext for
sending to glean intelligence. She dared not go herself, lest the
unusual act should excite suspicion, for she never went till evening.
Even had she determined to venture, there was no time, for Mrs. Coventry
was in one of her nervous states, and no one but Miss Muir could amuse
her; Lucia was ill, and Miss Muir must give orders; Bella had a studious
fit, and Jean must help her. Coventry lingered about the house for
several hours, but Jean dared not send him, lest some hint of the truth
might reach him. He had ridden away to his new duties when Jean did not
appear, and the day dragged on wearisomely. Night came at last, and as
Jean dressed for the late dinner, she hardly knew herself when she stood
before her mirror, excitement lent such color and brilliancy to her
countenance. Remembering the wedding which was to take place that
evening, she put on a simple white dress and added a cluster of white
roses in bosom and hair. She often wore flowers, but in spite of her
desire to look and seem as usual, Bella's first words as she entered the
drawing room were "Why, Jean, how like a bride you look; a veil and
gloves would make you quite complete!"
"You forget one other trifle, Bell," said Gerald, with eyes that
brightened as they rested on Miss Muir.
"What is that?" asked his sister.
Bella looked to see how Jean received this, but she seemed quite
composed as she smiled one of her sudden smiles, and merely said, "That
trifle will doubtless be found when the time comes. Is Miss Beaufort too
ill for dinner?"
"She begs to be excused, and said you would be willing to take her
place, she thought."
As innocent Bella delivered this message, Jean glanced at Coventry, who
evaded her eye and looked ill at ease.
A little remorse will do him good, and prepare him for repentance after
the grand _coup_, she said to herself, and was particularly gay at
dinnertime, though Coventry looked often at Lucia's empty seat, as if he
missed her. As soon as they left the table, Miss Muir sent Bella to her
mother; and, knowing that Coventry would not linger long at his wine,
she hurried away to the Hall. A servant was lounging at the door, and of
him she asked, in a tone which was eager in spite of all efforts to be
calm, "Is Sir John at home?"
"No, miss, he's just gone to town."
"Just gone! When do you mean?" cried Jean, forgetting the relief she
felt in hearing of his absence in surprise at his late departure.
"He went half an hour ago, in the last train, miss."
"I thought he was going early this morning; he told me he should be back
"I believe he did mean to go, but was delayed by company. The steward
came up on business, and a load of gentlemen called, so Sir John could
not get off till night, when he wasn't fit to go, being worn out, and
far from well."
"Do you think he will be ill? Did he look so?" And as Jean spoke, a
thrill of fear passed over her, lest death should rob her of her prize.
"Well, you know, miss, hurry of any kind is bad for elderly gentlemen
inclined to apoplexy. Sir John was in a worry all day, and not like
himself. I wanted him to take his man, but he wouldn't; and drove off
looking flushed and excited like. I'm anxious about him, for I know
something is amiss to hurry him off in this way."
"When will he be back, Ralph?"
"Tomorrow noon, if possible; at night, certainly, he bid me tell anyone
"Did he leave no note or message for Miss Coventry, or someone of
"No, miss, nothing."
"Thank you." And Jean walked back to spend a restless night and rise to
meet renewed suspense.
The morning seemed endless, but noon came at last, and under the
pretense of seeking coolness in the grotto, Jean stole away to a slope
whence the gate to the Hall park was visible. For two long hours she
watched, and no one came. She was just turning away when a horseman
dashed through the gate and came galloping toward the Hall. Heedless of
everything but the uncontrollable longing to gain some tidings, she ran
to meet him, feeling assured that he brought ill news. It was a young
man from the station, and as he caught sight of her, he drew bridle,
looking agitated and undecided.
"Has anything happened?" she cried breathlessly.
"A dreadful accident on the railroad, just the other side of
Croydon. News telegraphed half an hour ago," answered the man,
wiping his hot face.
"The noon train? Was Sir John in it? Quick, tell me all!"
"It was that train, miss, but whether Sir John was in it or not, we
don't know; for the guard is killed, and everything is in such confusion
that nothing can be certain. They are at work getting out the dead and
wounded. We heard that Sir John was expected, and I came up to tell Mr.
Coventry, thinking he would wish to go down. A train leaves in fifteen
minutes; where shall I find him? I was told he was at the Hall."
"Ride on, ride on! And find him if he is there. I'll run home and look
for him. Lose no time. Ride! Ride!" And turning, Jean sped back like a
deer, while the man tore up the avenue to rouse the Hall.
Coventry was there, and went off at once, leaving both Hall and house in
dismay. Fearing to betray the horrible anxiety that possessed her, Jean
shut herself up in her room and suffered untold agonies as the day wore
on and no news came. At dark a sudden cry rang through the house, and
Jean rushed down to learn the cause. Bella was standing in the hall,
holding a letter, while a group of excited servants hovered near her.
"What is it?" demanded Miss Muir, pale and steady, though her heart
died within her as she recognized Gerald's handwriting. Bella gave
her the note, and hushed her sobbing to hear again the heavy tidings
that had come.
Uncle is safe; he did not go in the noon train. But several persons
are sure that Ned was there. No trace of him as yet, but many bodies
are in the river, under the ruins of the bridge, and I am doing my
best to find the poor lad, if he is there. I have sent to all his
haunts in town, and as he has not been seen, I hope it is a false
report and he is safe with his regiment. Keep this from my mother
till we are sure. I write you, because Lucia is ill. Miss Muir will
comfort and sustain you. Hope for the best, dear.
Those who watched Miss Muir as she read these words wondered at the
strange expressions which passed over her face, for the joy which