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A Strange Friendship: A Story of New Zealand

Chapter XV. Dolly's Story

page 142

Chapter XV. Dolly's Story.

I grasped hold of Mr. Maberley's arm in my excitement.

“You really saw Violet!” I gasped out. My first sensation was one of infinite relief. She was not dead, then; I did not at the first moment realize all the conclusions forced upon us by her re-appearance. “Oh, thank God!” I said softly to myself.

Hugh looked down again moodily, and trod harder than ever upon the gravel at his feet.

“It is not much of a matter of thankfulness to me,” he said.

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“What, not to find that she is alive?” I returned, indignantly.

“I never thought her dead,” he replied, “except for a day or so at the first. And if she had been dead, I could have loved and honoured her still, instead of despising her, as I do now, for her treachery.”

These were bitter words; but a man treated as Hugh had been had a right to feel indignant. I was beginning to be aware that I should now for the first time in my life be compelled to hear Violet blamed, and not be able to stand forth in her defence.

“I am truly sorry, Mr. Maberley,” I said, very humbly now. “Indeed I feel for you from my heart. But perhaps even yet Violet may be able to explain everything quite simply to us some day.”

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I do not know what wild ideas were running through my mind. One of the least improbable was, that Violet had in some perfectly innocent manner been the cause of the policeman's fall into the creek, and had fled in a panic to avoid the consequences of discovery.

Hugh shrugged his shoulders at my words.

“Your trust in her is something wonderful, Miss Dolly,” he said; then, with a sudden softening in his tone, “but I think on the whole I admire you for it.”

I made no reply to this compliment, which fell very flatly on my ears. I was still revolving in my brain all kinds of wonderful and impossible theories to account for Violet's conduct, and there was a silence betwixt us for some moments. Hugh was the first to speak again.

“It is as plain as daylight now,” he said, “that page 145 Violet loved some other man, and only used me for her own purposes. When she had done with me she threw me overboard. It is enough to make a fellow curse all womankind.”

He spoke with exceeding bitterness.

“But, Mr. Maberley, think for a moment,” I said, entreatingly. In my simplicity I was still trying to believe in my lost Violet. “Who could she have been attached to? No one ever came to our house half so often as yourself.”

“Yes,” he returned; “one person did.”

“And who was that?”

“It was Ainsleigh.”

Remembering that we were standing just within the boundaries of Ainsleigh's own garden, he lowered his voice with the last words.

I felt myself grow pale at this unexpected reply, and could not answer for a moment. How could page 146 I tell Hugh Maberley of the real reason which made Alan such a frequent visitor of ours?

“I have thought it all over,” Hugh went on, presently. “And it is quite plain to me now. Of course it was Ainsleigh, and we were all perfectly blind not to have seen it at the time.”

“But Violet did not like Mr. Ainsleigh,” I said, goaded by despair to enter some kind of defence. “His sister was the one she liked best.”

“That is nonsense,” said Hugh. “She only pretended she did not like him. Girls are fond, I believe, of professing dislike to a man they are really wild about. As for his sister, he used her for a cloak to his real designs. Madelaine Ainsleigh is perfectly mad, you know; I am sure of it. But she has still quite enough wits to carry out the part he set her to play.”

But the Ainsleighs were away,” I protested page 147 once more, but more faintly, being borne down by the decision with which he spoke. “They had, been gone a week before Violet disappeared.”

“That is the most suspicious circumstance of all,” said Hugh. “Gone? Not they. At least not so far but that she could join them at a preconcerted signal. Where had they gone to? It was a very sudden move on their part, and why have they never been back since? If you can answer these questions, I will allow that there is just a chance I may be mistaken.”

He spoke so confidently, as a man who had weighed the evidence on both sides and thoroughly made up his mind with regard to the verdict, that I was completely silenced. Not one word more could I add in defence of anybody.

“So now you see, Miss Dolly,” Hugh wound up more kindly, “why I am so sure about this page 148 matter, and why I have been behaving like a bear lately to you and Mrs. Somerset. You must forgive me, for you know I have, and always shall have, the very highest opinion of you.”

Once more his compliment sounded to me as empty words. What was a soft speech or two to me after the dreadful discoveries I seemed to have been lately making?

I murmured something in reply; what it was I do not know, but Hugh shook hands with me very cordially, begged I would forgive anything he had said which might have offended me, and, adding that his business there was over, as he had learnt that Ainsleigh had not yet returned, he walked away again out of the little gate by which he had entered the garden.

I stood for some minutes on the spot where he had left me, and presently saw him riding away page 149 across the paddock in the distance. Then I crept back to my old place among the blue gums and laid my face in my hands and tried to think.

If Hugh was right, then nothing could exceed Alan's falseness—except Violet's. But oh! I could not help believing even now that he must be mistaken. Had not Alan begged me with his own lips to trust him till he could come forward and clear his good name?

I don't know how long I sat there, but I sprang up at last hastily, frightened to remember how time was passing by, and that my errand at the house was still unaccomplished. I walked round to the front of the house, and Mrs. Barton saw me through one of the windows and opened the door to me immediately.

She was a pleasant, middle-aged woman, with no children; an Englishwoman, and came from page 150 the same county that I did. This made us quite good friends directly, and she received my thanks for the fruit she had sent us very graciously.

I could not resist asking her when she expected Mr. Ainsleigh home, for I felt a nervous dread all the time lest the door should open suddenly and he should make his appearance and find me in the very heart of his territories. I felt inclined to start at the least noise.

Well, Mrs. Barton could not say when he might be expected for certain; but not immediately, she believed. Anyhow, Barton had directions in Mr. Ainsleigh's hand-writing for the management of the place during the next two months.

“Is Miss Madelaine likely to come home any sooner? “I asked.

No, Mrs. Barton did not think so; and then she laughed.

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“Miss Madelaine is an odd lassie, isn't she, Miss Somerset?”

“Mrs. Barton,” I said—ashamed of myself for asking, but quite unable, after my late conversation with Hugh, to resist the temptation—“did you ever see anything about her to make you think she was a little deranged?”

Mrs. Barton deliberated.

“Well, no,” she said at last; “I can't honestly say that I have; though I know many people think it of her, too. But she's a strange young lady, is Miss Madelaine! And she's that cunning! Her brother don't know half of her goings on; and she's a sore trouble to him as it is.”

“I thought it was a mistake, Mrs. Barton,” I said. “But I had heard people call her mad, and I wanted to ask you.”

“Well, you know, ma'am,” she replied; “any- page 152 body might well think it, who saw how cranky she is sometimes. If doing nothing that most young ladies do, and everything that most young ladies don't, makes people think her mad, why it can't be wondered at; but there's no doubt that she knows right from wrong as well as you or me.”

I thought I had heard enough, by this time, and got up to take my leave. But Mrs. Barton was quite distressed at this proceeding.

“Not until you have had a cup of tea, my dear,” said she; and put me forcibly back into Mr. Ainsleigh's easy chair, and hastened out of the room to prepare it.

I was not hungry, or thirsty; but all my life I have had a great dread of hurting people's feelings by refusing to accept trifling acts of kindness. If I could not eat, I could pretend to do so, and that would answer the purpose as well.

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So I waited, and looking round for something to beguile the time, my eye lighted on a photographic album, bound in crimson velvet, upon the book-shelves.

But when I had taken it down and opened it, I was disappointed of the amusement I expected. There were only two photographs in the book; all the others had been removed, and the names beneath carefully erased. The two that remained were framed side by side. One was of Alan himself, a very good one. I had the curiosity to look at the name of the photographer. The name was an uncommon one, an Italian name; it lingered in my memory, and so did that of the town—a country town—where the photograph had been taken. I mention this to throw a light upon what happened afterwards.

Side by side with Alan's portrait was one of a page 154 very beautiful woman. The face was quite strange to me; it was a sweet and lovely face, very gentle and very sad. The photograph appeared to have been copied from a picture.

It could not have been Alan's mother; the fashion of the hair and dress was too recent for that. Another sister of his? That seemed more likely; but if so, she did not resemble him in the least.

I shut the book and put it away, and it struck me then, with a cold chill, how very little I really knew about the man who had not so very long ago expressed a determination to make me his wife. No one knew where he came from or what he had come out here for, or who his friends might be. He did not pass as a married man, but he might have been for aught that any one knew to the contrary.

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Long, after I had left Fernyhurst and walked home, I caught myself wondering again and again who' could be the original of the lovely portrait which Alan had placed by the side of his own.