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A Strange Friendship: A Story of New Zealand

Chapter XVI. Dolly's Story

page 156

Chapter XVI. Dolly's Story.

Of course I told Kate and Harry about my meeting with Hugh Maberley, and equally of course I left out all that he had said about the Ainsleighs. I merely made them aware that Hugh had seen Violet in Melbourne, and had come home bitterly indignant at the deceit which had been practised upon him.

We could no longer feel any doubt that our sister had deliberately run away. It was very sad and shocking, and poor Kate took it dreadfully to page 157 heart. Harry flamed up with a man's anger, and vowed that Violet should never again cross his threshold. As for myself, troubles seemed to press upon me just then till I was almost brokenhearted.

Violet's room had been kept locked ever since she disappeared. We had looked over her things once, as I mentioned before, hoping vainly to make some discovery which might guide us through the mystery of her loss. But we had met with nothing that could in any way help us. All her small possessions were as she had been accustomed to keep them. So we locked up the room.

But on my way home from Fernyhurst it struck me suddenly that all Madelaine Ainsleigh's letters to Violet must have been destroyed, as we had not found one of them amongst her things. This set page 158 me considering, and finally I resolved to have another search, and a more complete one by myself, without letting Kate know of my intention.

But though I resolved this, when the time arrived for carrying out my purpose I shrank from doing so with a reluctance which I could not myself account for. I let opportunity after opportunity slip by, and still I could not bring myself to open the locked door.

While I loitered thus, unconscious that I was upon the verge of a great discovery, and pausing with a vague uneasiness upon the brink, a chance push from another hand decided the question, and gave me the impetus required.

Sitting one day with Kate and helping her to sew for little Fred, she tossed across the table to me a scrap of bright-coloured braid.

“There,” she said, “I want another yard, of that page 159 to finish, the trimming of baby's pinafore; Violet had some of it among her things, I know she had. Oh, Dolly, do go and look if you can find some in her drawer for me.”

Kate shrank from going herself, and I could not bear to refuse. So that afternoon I entered Violet's room, and, when once there, I locked myself in.

What did I hope or expect to find? I don't know; it was the scrap of paper I had picked up at Fernyhurst which had turned my thoughts in the direction of written traces of my sister. I determined to look everywhere in which the smallest atom of a letter, or even an envelope, might have lam concealed.

I took out in the first place all Violet's dresses, shook them carefully, and searched in every pocket. There were the lavender and the Japanese silks, in which she had looked so beautiful on days I page 160 remembered; the white piqué, the green and white muslin, delicate prints too, which she had worn in a morning, and little aprons with pockets, lying folded safely in the drawers. It was all in vain, I found nothing except, in one muslin dress, a withered rose, most probably from the garden at Fernyhurst, for we had no roses about our house as yet.

I sat down on the neat little bed, which I had taken care was ready made, as if we had expected Violet back that night, and considered where to look next. Violet had no desk, merely a small morocco writing-case in which she was accustomed to keep a few sheets of paper and an envelope or two at a time. This we had found empty after her disappearance, and it was now in Harry's safe keeping.

She had very few trinkets, like myself; Violet page 161 had sometimes troubled herself about this, and wished for handsome jewellery far beyond her reach. Such as we both had we kept in common, generally in Violet's little workbox. I looked it over, and found them all there as usual, nothing was missing except a small jet brooch and earrings, which I remembered Violet was wearing when she kissed me in the verandah on that last afternoon. She must have meant that kiss for a farewell, and I was so unsuspicious at the time.

I did not know where to look next, yet I was loth to give up the search. It seemed to me as if I must find something before I left the room.

At last I took out all the drawers, one by one, from their frame, and looked carefully behind them, and then I really did make a discovery at last! Behind the smallest drawer, on the left-hand side, I found a photograph. It must have slipped out page 162 and lain hidden there for some little time, for it had grown dusty, and was besides rather crushed.

It was a photograph of a man. Upon the back was written, in a man's bold hand, “From Richard to Violet.” “Richard,” then, was the “R.” to whom her note was addressed.

It was a stroke of wonderful good luck, indeed, to have stumbled upon Richard's likeness.

At the first glance I did not recognize the face before me. It seemed the face of a stranger. Looking at it again, I perceived a resemblance to some one with whom I was acquainted, but I could not recall whom. At the third inspection I knew it.

It was Madelaine Ainsleigh in the dress of a man!

Turning the photograph over, I saw that it had on the back the same name and that of the same town as the portrait of Alan Ainsleigh which I had page 163 seen at Fernyhurst. Probably they had both been taken at the same time.

The whole truth flashed, like the sudden striking of a light, across my mind. We had all been the victims of a monstrous deception, and Madelaine Ainsleigh was not a girl at all, but a man in woman's disguise.

All her odd ways were now accounted for, and the extraordinary repugnance I had always experienced towards her. But Violet! she had allowed herself to be drawn on, until this man's influence over her could compel her to leave home and friends, and go with him wherever he chose to take her. The little brook had swelled at last into the great river which Violet could never recross again, and Dolly stood looking after her mournfully from the further side.

“Richard!” what was Richard's other name? page 164 and in what relation did he really stand to Alan Ainsleigh? I comprehended now why Alan had hesitated when I asked him point-blank if Madelaine was his sister.

I got up from the bed with the photograph clasped tight in one hand, and mechanically unfastened the door, which I had locked, passed out of the room, and refastened it behind me. The kitchen was empty, the outer door stood open, the cool evening air stole in on my flushed face.

The next moment I found myself outside the house, and in another instant, though how I got there I hardly know, I was leaning against the fence of the paddock at the back of the house.

Some one came up to me softly in the gathering dusk leading a horse. Dimly I recognized the easy grace of the most distinguished—looking man I knew—Alan Ainsleigh.