Over The Hills, and Far Away: A Story of New Zealand
Chapter XXIX. The Third Time
Chapter XXIX. The Third Time.
“We were two sisters of one race.”
Such a long silence followed Louis' words, it seemed as if the two men were stricken dumb. You might have counted a hundred, and still neither spoke; they stood confronting each other with white faces, and in a stillness that seemed breathless. Dacre was the first to break the spell.
“Where is she?” he asked; and Louis answered, “She is here. She is within ten yards of you now!”
Another pause; and then, scarcely above a page 296 whisper, he added, “Which of us is to tell her?”
“I will,” returned Dacre; “and let her look to it, for my blood is fairly up at last.”
Louis led the way out of the verandah without another word. They crossed the dark sitting-room, and an equally dark passage beyond. Then Louis threw open a door, and they stepped into a large well-lighted room, with pretty chintz curtains, and ottomans covered with the same, a handsome carved side-board at one end, and some clever water-colour sketches on the walls. There was a table in the centre, inlaid with beautiful New Zealand wood of different kinds; upon this stood books, a few pretty trifles of china and aluminium, and a tête-à-tête tea-service of delicate white French china. Last of all, at the further end of the room, was a lady seated at a piano, who rose as they entered and faced them.
She had not been singing, but merely turning over the leaves of some new music with her tea-cup in her hand. She set this quietly down on the table, page 297 and then drew back a step or two, and seemed to wait their pleasure. To all outward appearance she was not embarrassed in the least.
She was beautifully dressed, and in full dress too. Black lace over white silk, looped with scarlet roses, and roses to match in her black hair, which was taken up in a splendid coronet of plaits over her head. What fancy could have induced her to attire herself after this magnificent fashion for an evening in a quiet New Zealand station, it is impossible to say. But, however it may have been, this whim of hers was destined to have an effect, and that a wonderful one, upon the scene which followed.
Looking at Laura as she stood before him, queenly and magnificent, Dacre was haunted by an idea that there was something strange about her, something peculiar, which made her unlike her usual self; but what gave rise to this notion in his mind he could not make out.
Louis remained standing quietly by the door, which he had carefully closed behind him. It was a dark corner of the room, and he was half hidden page 298 in the shadow. Dacre, on the other hand, came forward; but as he advanced Laura retreated, and when he stopped at last, there were still several paces between them.
“You must know what I have come here for,” Dacre said. “Seeing Cunningham and yourself together—you, who have striven so hard to keep us apart, must be aware that your game is up at last.”
Mightily as his temper was roused, he yet spoke calmly, and repressed his passion with an iron hand. Dacre was a man with a large gift of self-control; he possessed assuredly the greatness of “he that ruleth his spirit.”
Laura did not answer a word; she only gave a quick, uneasy glance at Louis, standing by the door.
“I suppose nothing I can say will have much effect,” Dacre went on; “not even if I tell you—” He came to a sudden stop.
“What is it? What is it?” himself uneasily. Something was wrong about Laura; what could it be?page 299
Suddenly the whole truth flashed upon him. She was standing by the table in front of him, full in the light of the lamp, which stood in its centre. She was, as before described, in full dress—gold bracelets on her round white arms, and a necklace with gold pendants round her beautiful neck. The velvet band was gone!
Dacre's eye had found it out. His glance sought out the spot where the scar should have been— where his dog's teeth had met in the white flesh, and left an indelible mark, years ago. He looked for it, but that too was gone!
Then all at once the woman before him drew herself up defiantly—fairly at bay at last.
“You have found it out,” she said; “and I don't wish to keep it from you any longer. I am not your wife Laura! Laura is lying on the slope of the hill at Brighton, and I am—Beatrice!”
“Yes; the Beatrice whom you never saw, but whom you were told was the living image of your wife, as time has proved to be the truth. The game page 300 is up now, Rylston Dacre, as you said yourself; and I do not care if I set matters right at last in your mind—if not for your sake, for the sake of some one else.”
She gave another uneasy glance at Louis, who stood listening like a man stunned, taking no part at all in what went forward.
“I may as well tell you the whole story from the beginning,” she Tyent on, “or you will never under-stand either it or me. It was on the fourth of March, eight years ago, that I, then living with my sister Nora in a quiet little country town in England, received a letter from Laura, dated from Brighton.
“She was my favourite sister, as you know, and of course I had heard from her all the particulars of her acquaintance with you, formed whilst she fulfilled the duties of governess in your uncle's family —a dependent position, perhaps, but one in which you would have been far kinder to have left her— and afterwards of her marriage. Up to the time when I received her letter I had always thought of her as happy and contented as your wife. After- page 301 wards I learnt the truth—the truth which rendered me your deadly enemy thenceforward. I did not learn it from her letter however. That merely told me my sister was ill and alone at Brighton, begging me to go to her at once. I went to Brighton. I went to see and to lose almost the only human being I then really loved. I found Laura in miserable little lodgings, with no money, no friends, and dying! That, Rylston Dacre, was the end of your wife! Are you not ashamed to stand before her sister now? When I reached Brighton it was almost too late. The fever was too far advanced, and she did not know me. She never knew me except, I think, just at the very last, when speech was gone. But from her broken, delirious wanderings I gathered that you had treated her very badly, and that you had cast her off to die among strangers. Can you wonder if, seeing her loneliness and misery, I vowed to have revenge? The last day of her life she made an effort to beckon to me with one hand. ‘Rylston,’ she said faintly; ‘don't let him know! don't let him know!’ She repeated this brokenly many times page 302 over. It was mingled with the incoherent repetition of some other name which I could not distinctly catch, but I think the words suggested to me my revenge. She died. She lies buried there at Brighton. Even now I cannot bear to speak about that time. I went straight home from her grave and wrote to you but I wrote in Laura's name and merely told you, to prevent the accidental discovery of the truth, that I myself was dead. I said, ‘His love for her is over; the tie between them had become a mere clog to him. Very well, I will hold him bound—bound to an imaginary Laura—and as long as I have the power to hinder it he shall never form another home and take another wife.’ It was a poor retaliation perhaps, but it was all that I could think of at the time, and, upon the whole, it appears to have answered better than I could have hoped for. Months passed. My hatred of you began to fade a little. I made up my mind when Nora married to join my other sister in New Zealand, and the day before I sailed I wrote to you. You were in Plymouth then, as I thought, and in that letter I confessed my page 303 deceit and directed you where to find your wife's grave; but you never received it; it was not to be. When I met you on board the ‘Flora Macdonald’ I saw at once that you mistook me for Laura. Perhaps my being in possession of her watch, which you recognized, assisted the delusion. The old temptation to punish you for your conduct towards her leaped up in a moment, all the more fiercely because I saw, or fancied that I saw, you were attached towards Lucy Cunningham. I played my part well, I think, on the whole, but it was six years since you had seen Laura, and we were always very much alike. I think the velvet band, which I fortunately recollected in time, made the resemblance complete.”
She paused a moment with her hand on the gold necklace, which now replaced the velvet she had formerly worn. “Louis” gift,” she said gently to herself, with a sudden softening of the great grey eyes and a smile that touched the corners of her mouth.
Then to Dacre once more she added, “Arthur Winstanley, who was wild about Laura long ago, when he was reading with a tutor in Devonshire, page 304 before you married her and ruined her life, was sharper far in his perception than you were. He must have loved her better than you did, for he found me out at once, though at first my great resemblance to Laura cost him a sudden fit of faintness; but I bribed him to silence with the money you paid me for my passage to England, and he is far away in Australia by this time.”
Dacre looked steadily into Beatrice's eyes while she poured out her story, in sentences short and curt, with repressed passion; and it never for an instant occurred to him to doubt that she spoke the truth; not even though she was giving him proof at that very moment of her skill in cool systematic deception. He saw from her eyes—which looked as they did when she sat by Laura's grave at Brighton long ago—that she was at present desperately in earnest.
He was not conscious, however, that at this moment Beatrice, if she had wished to deceive him, dare not have done so. He had no idea what his own face seemed to her at that moment, and how page 305 —only a woman, after all!—she had begun to quail inwardly, and to feel afraid before the righteous wrath of the two men before her; for that Louis was against her also was evident from something indefinable in his look and position, although he did not speak.
Dacre's manner, too, was quite calm. He seemed perfectly unmoved by the contempt she had lavished upon him during the course of her story; and when she had finished, he, too, kept silence for some minutes, until the interval became so awful to Beatrice that she felt obliged to break it in some manner herself.
She took up the small bunch of trinkets hanging at her watch-chain, and slowly detached from them a wedding-ring and its guard—a circle of dead gold set with three turquoises.
“There,” she said, offering them to Dacre, “take them back! I took them off your wife's cold hand; and now that they have played their part with me I can bear to restore them as a token that Laura and you are quits at last!”page 306
But Dacre put them back decidedly. “No,” he said, “I can't touch those; I never will. You seem to imagine that the wrong throughout lay altogether on my side. Did Laura never speak to you of Captain Rollo?”
The third time now that this man's name had leaped up out of the past! Beatrice turned very pale, and looked at Dacre with a vague terror in her eyes.
He saw that she was puzzled. “You did not know it then?” he said. “She did not tell you that she chose to leave her husband for that man's sake? That you found her alone, friendless, and without money at Brighton does not surprise me. It was what might have been expected of Rollo. But perhaps you can understand now why I must decline the wedding-ring which I put once upon your sister's finger, and why it scarcely strikes me as so very generous of you to forgive me in her name.”
Beatrice had turned from pale to red; a burning glow covered all her face. She played a moment with page 307 the two rings, then refastened them once more to her chain.
“No doubt,” said Dacre as she did so, with the contempt which he felt in his turn, “they must be very precious to you as a memento of the sister you so loved and respected!”
He was sorry for the sneer a moment afterwards, but Beatrice deserved it, and she was not without words in her own defence.
“I see,” she said, “I have been a little—mistaken; but, remember, I never saw Laura until she was past speaking coherently. She could not tell me anything then; and if I have done you wrong, things certainly looked very black against you.”
Not one word of this made the slightest impression upon Dacre. He did not care for any slight apology that Beatrice might make him. The expression of his face had quite changed, and his brown eyes were brilliant. He had suddenly grasped the idea that he was a free man, and that Lucy was within a few miles of him.page 308
“Cunningham,” he said, turning to Louis for the first time, “I am going.”
Louis only nodded. He did not require to ask where.
“Good-bye, old fellow!” said Dacre, holding out his hand as he passed him.
“Good-bye!” said Louis, returning the salute cordially. They were the first words he had spoken since he entered the room.