The Malefactor by E. Phillips Oppenheim - HTML preview
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"This," she remarked quietly, handing it over to her husband, "may interest you."
He adjusted his eye glasses and read it aloud:--
"Dear Lady Ruth,--I am leaving London today for several weeks. With the usual inconsistency of the person to whom life is by no means a valuable asset, I am obeying the orders of my physician. I regret, therefore, that I cannot have the pleasure of entertaining your husband and yourself during Cowes week. The yacht, however, is entirely at your disposal, and I have written Captain Masterton to that effect. Pray extend your cruise, if you feel inclined to.--I remain, yours sincerely, W."
Mr. Barrington looked at his wife inquiringly.
"That seems to me entirely satisfactory, Ruth," he said.
"I think that he might have added a word or two of acknowledgment for what you did for him. There is no doubt that, but for your promptness, things might have gone much worse."
"Yes," Lady Ruth said slowly, "I think that he might have added a few words."
Her husband regarded her critically.
"I am afraid, dear," he said, "that all this anxiety has knocked you up a little. You are not looking well."
"I am tired," she answered calmly.
"It has been a long season. I should like to do what Wingrave has done--go away somewhere and rest."
Barrington laid his hand upon hers affectionately. It seemed to him that the rings hung a little loosely upon the thin, white fingers. She was pale, too, and her eyes were weary. He did not notice that, as soon as she could, she drew her hand away.
"'Pon my word," he said, "I wish we could go off somewhere by ourselves. But with Wingrave's yacht to entertain on, we must do something for a few of the people. I don't suppose he minds whom we ask, or how many."
"No!" she answered, "I do not suppose he cares."
"It is most opportune," Barrington declared.
"I wanted particularly to do something for the Hendersons. He seems very well disposed, and his influence means everything just now. Really, Ruth, I believe we are going to pull through after all."
She smiled a little wearily.
"Do you think so, Lumley?"
"I am sure of it, Ruth," he answered.
"I only wish I could see you a little more cheerful. Surely you can't still--be afraid of Wingrave," he added, glancing uneasily across the table.
She looked him in the eyes.
"That is exactly what I am," she answered.
"I am afraid of him. I have always been afraid. Nothing has happened to change him. He came back to have his revenge. He will have it."
Lumley Barrington, for once, felt himself superior to his clever wife. He smiled upon her reassuringly.
"My dear Ruth," he said, "if only you would reflect for a few moments, I feel sure you would realize the absurdity of such fancies. We did Wingrave a service in introducing him to society here, and I am sure that he appreciated it. If he wished for our ruin, why did he lend us eight thousand pounds on no security? Why does he lend us his yacht to entertain our friends? Why did he give me that information which enabled me to make the only money I ever did make on the Stock Exchange?"
She smiled contemptuously.
"You do not understand a man like Wingrave," she declared.
"Nothing that he has done is inconsistent with my point of view. He gave you a safe tip, knowing very well that when you had won a little, you would try again on your own account and lose--which you did. He lent us the money to become our creditor; and he lends us the yacht to give another handle to the people who are saying already that he occupies the position in our family which is more fully recognized on the other side of the Channel!"
"You are talking rubbish," he declared vehemently.
"No one would dare to say such a thing of you--of my wife!"
She laughed unmercifully.
"If you were not my husband," she said cruelly, "You would have heard it before now. I have been careful all my life--more careful than most women, but I can hear the whisperings already. There are more ways to ruin than one, Lumley."
"We will refuse the yacht," Barrington said sullenly, "and I will go to the Jews for that eight thousand pounds."
"We will do nothing of the sort," Lady Ruth answered.
"I am not going to be a laughing stock for Emily and her friends if I can help it. We'll play the game through now! Only--it is best for you to know the risks . . ."
Wingrave's second letter was to Juliet. She found it on her table one afternoon when she came back from her painting class. She tore it open eagerly enough, but her face clouded over as she read.
"Dear Juliet,--I am sorry that I am unable to carry out my promise to come and see you, but I have been slightly indisposed for some days, and am leaving London, for the present, almost at once. I trust that you are still interested in your work, and will enjoy your trip to Normandy.
"I received your letter, asking for my help towards re-establishing in life a poor family in whom you are interested. I regret that I cannot accede to your request. It is wholly against my principles to give money away to people of this class. I look upon all charity as a mischievous attempt to tamper with natural laws, and I am convinced that if everyone shared my views, society would long ago have been re-established on a sounder and more logical basis. To be quite frank with you, also, I might add that the gift of sympathy has been denied to me. I am quite indifferent whether the family you allude to starve or prosper.
"So far as you yourself are concerned, however, the matter is entirely different. If it gives you pleasure to assist in pauperizing any number of your fellow creatures, pray do so. I enclose a check for L100. It is a present to you. Use it entirely as you please--only, if you use it for the purpose suggested in your letter to me, remember that the responsibility is yours, and yours alone.--I remain, sincerely yours, Wingrave Seton."
Juliet walked straight to her writing table. Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes were wet with tears. She drew out a sheet of note paper and wrote rapidly:--
"My dear guardian,--I return you the check. I cannot accept such presents after all your goodness to me. I am sorry that you feel as you do about giving money away. You are so much older and wiser than I am that I dare not attempt to argue with you. Only it seems to me that life would be a cruelly selfish thing if we who are so much more fortunate than many of our fellow creatures did not sometimes try to help them a little through their misery. Perhaps I feel this a little more keenly because I wonder sometimes what might not have become of me but for your goodness.
"I am sorry that you are going away without coming to see me again. You are not displeased with me, I hope, for asking you this, or for any other reason? I am foolish enough to feel a little lonely sometimes. Will you take me out again when you come back?--Your affectionate ward, Juliet."
Juliet went out and posted her letter. On the way back she met Aynesworth.
"Come and sit in the Park for a few minutes," he begged.
She turned and walked by his side willingly enough.
"Have you been in to see me?" she asked.
"Yes!" he answered.
"I have some tickets for the Haymarket for tonight. Do you think we could persuade Mrs. Tresfarwin to come?"
"I'm sure we could," she answered, laughing. Hannah never wants any persuading. How nice of you to think of us!"
"I am afraid," he answered, "that I think of you a good deal."
"Then I think that that also is very nice of you!" she declared.
"You like to be thought of?"
"Who doesn't? What is the play tonight?"
"I'll tell you about it afterwards," he said.
"There is something else I want to say to you first."
She nodded. She scarcely showed so much interest as he would have liked.
"It is about Berneval," he said, keeping his eyes fixed upon her face.
"I saw Mr. Pleydell today, and he told me that you were all going there. He suggested that I should come too!"
"How delightful!" she exclaimed.
"Can you really get off?"
"Yes. Sir Wingrave is going away, and doesn't want me. I must go somewhere, and I thought that I might go over and take rooms near you all. Would you care to have me?
"Of course I would," she answered frankly.
"Oh!" she exclaimed suddenly, her face clouding over--"I forgot!"
"I am not sure," she said, "that I am going."
"Not going?" he repeated incredulously.
"Mr. Pleydell told me that it was all arranged."
"It was--until today," she said.
"I am a little uncertain now."
He looked at her perplexed.
"May I know why?" he asked.
She raised her eyebrows slightly.
"You are rather an inquisitive person," she remarked.
"The fact is, I may need the money I have saved for Berneval for somewhere else."
"Of course," he said slowly, "if you don't go--I don't. But you can't stay in London all through the hot weather!"
"Miss Pengarth has asked me to go down there," she said.
He laid his hand suddenly upon hers.
"Juliet," he said.
She shook her head.
"Miss Lundy, please!"
"Well, Miss Lundy then! May I talk to you seriously?"
"I prefer you frivolous," she murmured.
"I like to be amused."
"I'll be frivolous enough later on this evening. I've been wondering if you'd think it impertinent if I asked you to tell me about your guardian."
"What do you want to know?" she asked.
"Just who he is, and why he is content to let you live with only an old woman to look after you. It isn't the best thing in the world for you, is it? I should like to know him, Juliet."
She shook her head.
"I am sorry," she said, "I cannot tell you anything."
There was a short silence. Aynesworth was disappointed, and showed it.
"It isn't exactly ordinary curiosity," he continued.
"Don't think that! Only I feel that you need someone who has the right to advise you and look after you. I should like to be your guardian, Juliet!"
She laughed merrily.
"Good!" she declared.
"I like you so much better frivolous. Well, you shall have your wish. You shall be my guardian for the evening. I have one cutlet for dinner, and I am sure it will be spoilt. Will you come and share it?"
She rose to her feet and stood looking down upon him. He was struck, for the first time, by something different in her appearance. The smooth, delicate girlishness of her young face was, as yet, untroubled. Her eyes laughed frankly into his, and all the grace of natural childhood seemed still to linger about her. And yet--there was a change! Understanding was there; understanding, with sorrow in its wake. Aynesworth was suddenly anxious. Had anything happened of which he was ignorant? He rose up slowly. He was sure of himself now! Was he sure of her?