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A Tragedy in Black and White and Other Stories

Chapter II

page 52

Chapter II.

Next morning found the rector in much the same condition as the preceding day. He was conscious to a certain extent, but did not seem to recognise anyone. Helen, herself, was fully occupied in attending on her aunt, who had given way completely, the sudden shock of her husband's accident having made her so nervous and depressed that she could not bear to lose sight of her niece. Mr. Steyne was, therefore, thrown on his own resources, and employed part of his morning in walking down to the cottage, as he had promised Helen, to give the Whytes the latest news of the rector. He found Flossie very sympathetic, and, when, after staying half-anhour or so, he rose to go, she would “not ask him to stay to lunch as dear Helen would be so anxious, but she would walk up to the rectory that evening and try and persuade Helen to go out. It was so bad for her health staying in all day, and perhaps she herself might be allowed to sit with Mrs. Graham, so as to relieve the dear girl.”

Jack found himself wondering, as he walked home, how it was he had never noticed before that Miss Whyte was rather a pretty girl; she had improved immensely in the last few months. “Don't suppose she is as fond of Helen as she pretends to be, and she certainly is a flirt, but after all, I daresay the girl has some good in her.” Then he lit his pipe, and dismissed Miss Whyte from his thoughts for the next few hours.

Helen came down at lunch time for half-an-hour, but was obliged to return to her aunt directly afterwards. However, about five, Miss Whyte made her appearance according to promise, and, Mrs. Graham having consented to a change of attendants, Helen was able to go out for a stroll with Jack. When they returned after a lengthy absence, common politeness demanded that Mr. Steyne should escort Miss Whyte home, and having done so, it was but natural that he should linger a short time in the cool, pretty garden before returning to the rectory. This day might be taken as an example of the ensuing fortnight.

For the first week there was no perceptible improvement in the rector's state, then he gradually began to recognise page 53 people, and seemed pleased when either Helen or Jack was in the room, but perfect qurte being essential, he was not allowed many visitors. Mrs. Graham still continued ailing, and Helen, having to attend on her and also to the various household duties, was unable to devote much time to Jack till the evening. Miss Whyte repeated her offer to sit with Mrs. Graham, but it was declined, Mrs. Graham pettishly refusing to see “that girl” whom she had never liked. Mr. Steyne was therefore obliged to amuse himself as best he might. He got into the habit of walking to the cottage every morning to give an account of the rectory invalids. Once there, there was no reason why he should hurry away—the drawing-room was cool, Miss Whyte was pretty and attentive. She had a good voice and sang well, Mr. Steyne was fond of music, and had rather a nice tenor; thus the morning would slip away so quickly that lunch-time would come, and Mr. Steyne was easily persuaded to stay for that meal. After lunch he would, by special invitation, smoke a pipe in the garden. Finally he and Miss Whyte would walk up to the rectory together. Helen was surprised and pleased at Jack's evident efforts to obey her commands and be agreeable to her friend; and when he told her that Miss Whyte wasn't at all a bad sort of girl, she was much gratified, and said triumphantly: “I was sure you would like her when you knew her well.”

One day Helen got a holiday, and the three went out boating, an amusement of which she and Jack were passionately fond, and which Miss Whyte said she adored. But somehow the expedition was a failure. Helen was tired, and not in her usual spirits; and the other two, though they talked and laughed, felt the influence of that undefinable cloud which sometimes mars our pleasure under the most favourable circumstances. When they parted at the cottage gate, some suggestion was made as to repeating the excursion next day, which was eagerly seconded by Miss Whyte. Helen said she should not be able to go, but added, “That's no reason why you two shouldn't go; I daresay you can be trusted to look after each other.”

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“Oh yes, indeed!” came simultaneously from the lips of the others; and Helen, looking up, laughing at the coincidence, caught a glance passing between them which made her feel vaguely uneasy, she hardly knew why. So it was arranged that Miss Whyte and Mr. Steyne should go out on the morrow, weather permitting.

That evening, when the lovers were enjoying their usual tÉte-à-tÉte, Helen was very restless, and at last, with an effort, broke a somewhat prolonged silence.

“Jack,” she said, “I want to ask you something.”

“Well, dear, what is it?”

“Don't think I'm silly or jealous, or anything of that sort; but, Jack!” speaking very rapidly, and with her face turned away from him, “are you quite sure you want to marry me still? Do you still care for me?”

Jack was thoroughly startled. Rising, he put his arm round Helen's waist.

“You silly girl,” he said, “what put that idea into your head?”

“Oh! I don't know; but men do change sometimes, and,” in a low whisper, “Flossie is very attractive.”

“Jealous! “Well, Helen, I thought you trusted me more than that. Surely you are not going to fret every time I speak civilly to another girl. Besides, was it not your own wish that I should make friends with Miss Whyte? To please you I cultivate her acquaintance, and then you turn round and say I am fickle and deceitful. I am very much disappointed, Helen. I thought you were above that sort of thing,” turning with dignity.

Poor Helen was quite subdued. She had had no real reasons for the little outburst which had called forth such righteous indignation. She told herself that Jack was quite right, it was she who had thrown him into Miss Whyte's society, and she ought not to be so suspicious. So she went softly across the room to the arm-chair in which the justly offended young gentleman had seated himself, and bending down, whispered in his ear, “I am so very sorry I annoyed page 55 you, dear. I am rather tired to-night, that's why I am so cross. You know I do trust you really. Please forgive me.”

“Of course, my pet, we won't say anything more on the subject. Only don't talk like that again. It is the first time you have shown jealousy, and I hope it will be the last.” Thus Jack, judicially; then softening as he caught sight of her woe-begone face, “Now, give me a kiss, dear, and forget all about it.”

Helen went off to bed, feeling rather as if she had been dismissed with a caution, and repeating to herself, “I do trust him thoroughly, it is so silly to be jealous.”

Left to himself, Mr. Steyne smoked at least three pipes, thinking deeply all the while. As he rose and knocked out the ashes of the last one he muttered, “She certainly would fool any man who wasn't on his guard, but there is no danger with me. Helen is worth ten of her. Don't think I'll go out boating with her to-morrow. However, we'll see.”

Despite his half-formed resolution of the preceding night, Mr. Steyne went out boating next day with Miss Whyte. He did, indeed, announce at breakfast that he thought of giving up the expedition, but Helen, anxious to make up for her unworthy suspicions, begged him so earnestly to go, saying that otherwise she should think he was still angry, that he finally consented not to disappoint Miss Whyte. Helen, left at home, tried to employ herself with her duties, but her fancy was continually flying away to the little boat rocking on the blue sea, or to the shady cove, where a search for ferns was to be prosecuted during the afternoon. However, she greeted Jack cheerily when he came in, and as he was in excellent spirits they spent a very happy evening. The next day Mr. Steyne spent entirely at the rectory, devoting himself as much as possible to Helen, and her peace of mind was entirely restored. Although Mr. Graham was getting better, Helen was still very much occupied, especially as the rector, who was slowly recovering his reason, liked to have her in his room, where she used to sit and work. Thus she felt that page 56 being unable to entertain her lover herself, she ought not to grudge his finding amusement elsewhere. One day, about a week after the lovers' little tiff, the doctor had paid his visit, and pronounced his patient to be progressing favourably, Jack had gone out for a walk, and Helen was sitting with her aunt, when there was a loud ring at the front door.

“A telegram, Miss, for Mr. Jack.”

Helen took it, and as her aunt had just fallen asleep, thought she would look for Jack, who was probably in the village, and give it to him.

It was a lovely morning, and delighted to find herself in the open air, she strolled slowly along, her spirits rising at every step.

At the little village shop she stopped to ask if Mr. Steyne had been there. Yes, he had, and on leaving had turned down the lane leading to Myrtle Cottage. Thither Helen bent her way.

Arrived there, she pushed open the little gate and went straight to the drawing-room window. No one was inside. “Out in the garden, I suppose,” she thought, and turned off across the lawn. She remembered a certain favourite seat of Miss Whyte's, which was approached by two paths, one a short cut through the bushes. This she chose mechanically, as it was the one she and her friend always used. As she drew near she caught a glimpse of a white dress, and knew that her search had been successful. A few steps further and she could see the bench and the occupants thereof, who, however, were too much engrossed to hear her soft step.

Truly it was a pretty picture.

The bright sun, glinting through the leaves, shone in ever restless patches on the white dress and upturned face of a lovely girl. Her head was resting on her companion's shoulder, and he was looking down at her with evident admiration.

It is to be doubted, however, if the solitary spectator of the scene appreciated the beauty of it. A girl must have page 57 an uncommon sense of the picturesque to fully enjoy the sight of another woman in her lover's arms, however intrinsically beautiful the situation may be.

Helen was stunned. All the vague suspicious and jealousies which had been floating in her mind came back with overwhelming power. She stood motionless, unable to go on, equally unable to turn back, only watching with eager eyes. She had a dim feeling that it was mean thus to play the spy, but it was overcome by a burning curiosity to see the end of the little drama. Presently Miss Whyte's voice was audible.

“Then you do not hate me now, Jack.”

There was a slight triumphant ring in this speech which the enraptured Jack did not notice.

Hate you, Flossie!” he said, and Helen, with madness raging in her heart, watched him bend down till his lips touched Flossie's. She had heard and seen enough now, and without a word or sign that could betray her presence, she turned and went away, walking like one in a dream. She met nobody on her way back to the rectory, and only when Martha, the parlour-maid, asked if she had found Mr. Jack, did she remember the telegram which had been the cause of her taking the fatal walk. She placed it on the hall table, and telling Martha that Mr. Jack would probably be out to lunch, she went up to her own room and, locking the door, flung herself on the bed, and gave herself up to bitter thoughts.

Late in the afternoon she heard Jack's step in the hall Then her name was called. Jumping up, she seized her hat and ran hastily down the backstairs. She felt she could not face him just at that moment, and took refuge in the garden. She had been there for about half-an-hour, when she heard the sound of wheels, apparently going away. She looked cautiously out through the shrubs, and was greatly surprised to see Jack in the rectory trap, driving very fast. Going back to the house, she interviewed Martha, who told her that Mr. Jack had been in, got his telegram, and looked everywhere for her. Not finding her, he had packed a small bag and gone away, page 58 leaving a message to say that he was called to town on urgent business, but hoped to be back in a couple of days.

Under the circumstances, his departure was a great relief to Helen. She was very distrait for the rest of the day, and was glad when she was able to retire for the night, though she was by no means sleepy. Hour after hour she sat in her room thinking. At last she rose, her mind made up. She would not condemn the culprits without a hearing, but she would see Flossie first, and beg her to say if she and Jack really cared for each other. If Flossie said yes, then she would write to Jack and break off her engagement. Then she went to her desk and took out her treasures, a bundle of letters, a couple of photographs, and a tiny lock of hair. As she touched the hair, she remembered in a flash all the circumstances connected with it; how Jack had asked for a piece of her hair and she gave him a long wavy bit, saying she must have a piece of his in exchange; how they had laughed over the difficulty of finding a satisfactory lock, Jack, like most men, shaving his head as though he had just come out of prison; how she had said that it was very unlucky to exchange locks of hair, and Jack's reply that no bad luck should ever come between him and her. “We never thought of Flossie Whyte,” she murmured bitterly, “I suppose he has a lock of her hair, I wonder if it is tied up with mine.” Then altering her tone, she cried, “It can't be true, it is a bad dream; he must care for me still. I am just the same as when he said he loved me, and I love him, ah! I love him more than ever.”

But the scene in the Whytes' garden rose again before her eyes, and she knew it was no dream. “He would not kiss another girl if he loved me,” she reasoned.

You see she was an ignorant young woman, and had no idea that a man could really love and be engaged to one girl and yet have no scruples about administering such delicate little attentions to another.

The letters and photographs she tied up together, meaning to burn them, but she hesitated long over the hair, page 59 finally putting it back into her desk. Then she went to bed, but did not sleep till nearly morning, when thoroughly worn out, she dropped into a heavy slumber.