SO NEAR—SO FAR AWAY.
I never think but to regret
I know too much——
The hush and silence had fallen over the outer world beyond and about the great hotel, and something of its hush and mystery brooded too in the deserted corridors and vacated public rooms of the building itself. Perhaps one or two of its inmates—so strangely thrown together—would have given almost every earthly possession for the power to gaze unknown—unseen—into one of those locked chambers; a room where a woman sat alone, with all the light and laughter and mischief gone from her face, and the shadows of suffering and regret resting like somber memories in her veiled and sorrowful eyes.
This was not Lady Francis as the world knew her—as the men whom she bewitched and tormented and flirted with in so audacious a fashion knew her. No, this was a woman maddened by self-reproach and unavailing regrets, fired with jealous hatred of a rival, and filled to the heart's core with the memories and the longings that one voice, one face, alone in all the world had power to awaken, and had awakened to-day.
She had thrown on a loose muslin wrapper, and the soft lace and pale tinted ribbons seemed to cling lovingly around the lissom figure, the snowy throat and arms. The long glass opposite reflected her as she raised her drooping head with its wreath of unbound hair, and the sorrowful eyes that met her own struck sharply on her senses as a surprise—so unlike they were to the eyes she was used to see. "Oh, what a fool I have been," she cried, with an impatience and intolerance of herself that was the more maddening by reason of its vain remorse. "And yet I suppose I should do it again to-morrow under the same circumstances; yet, O Frank, Frank, how I loved you once—how you seemed to love me!"
She looked down again at the table by which she was seated. On it lay an open photograph case containing a photograph. The dark eyes smiled at her—the handsome, gay, young face looked radiant in its happy youth and supreme content with life.
Her own intent gaze seemed to drink in thirstily every line, every feature, well as she knew them all. "He doesn't look happy—now," she said, and a little sob broke from her.
Impatiently she closed the case, and began to pace up and down the room in a stormy, impetuous fashion—dashing the tears from her wet lashes, though they only thronged back fast and swift in very mockery of her efforts to deny their weakness.
"How could I expect it to be different? Isn't it always the same—always, always?" she repeated passionately. "Love doesn't last; it can't. And there were so many temptations; and then the excitement of conquest, and the vanity of wishing to show him I could still charm others, though he seemed to think I had no right to try. But it was all so false, so—so foolish. If he had only trusted, if he had only spoken gently, kindly—as he used to speak! And then that hateful woman, that French serpent—fiend—adventuress. Heavens! how I hated her; how I hate her still. If I thought he cared, really cared—if I thought he had ever held her to his heart—kissed her as he used to kiss me—if—oh! I could kill her!"
She broke off abruptly, pressing her hand to her heart, while the blood rushed in a crimson torrent to her face. "Oh! he can't!" she moaned, throwing herself face downward on the cushions of the couch. "And yet I believed it—once; and I've never even let any man's lips touch my hand; never, with all my whims and follies and vagaries, allowed myself to forget that I am Frank's wife. But he doesn't care any longer. How could I expect it? And yet if he had only spoken one word to-day—one little word, I would have thrown myself at his feet and said, 'O Frank, I love you—I've never ceased loving you. Oh! take me back and let us forget all this miserable mistake.' Frank!" She raised her head and shook back the rich, soft hair impatiently, and stretched longing arms out to the empty silence. "Frank," she whispered more loudly, "why don't you come to me? Why don't you feel I want you as—as surely—sometimes—you want me. Frank—"
She rose unsteadily, supporting herself by one hand that rested on the back of the couch.
Her face had grown strangely white, her eyes had a look of intensity that spoke of strained mental force. "If I dared go to him," she said, still in that strange whisper. "I've never said I was wrong—or—or sorry, but I am, Frank—God knows I am. Don't drive me desperate; I'm too unhappy and too reckless to be always patient. But if you swear you never loved any other woman, Frank, I—I will swear I never loved or thought of any man save you. Never, dear heart—never."
Still with that strained look, intense and far off as that of a sleep walker, still with face deathlike in its rigid whiteness, she moved across the room. The loose shower of hair seemed to annoy her by its weight. She paused an instant before the table and took up a curious-looking silver dagger. Then, hastily twisting the hair into a thick coil, she fastened it with the dagger and turned toward the door.
"Will she read it?" muttered Lord Francis to himself, as he looked at the closely-covered pages of the letter in his hand. "Oh, if she would only believe, if she would only let me know what she really feels. It is maddening to be placed in such a position, to see her playing fast and loose with reputation, to have no more right to kiss her lips or touch her hand than the veriest stranger. To be here now, to-night, the same roof covering us, not half a dozen walls dividing us, and yet not dare——"
He broke off abruptly, his eyes grew dark with stormy passions. The pain and fever of aroused memories throbbed wildly in his heart, and thrilled his veins anew with love and longing, as once her light step and sweet low laugh had thrilled him.
"Fenella! wife!" his heart cried. "O God! are our lives to be forever wrecked and spoiled by this miserable folly? Child, surely you know I love you, that all other women are but as shadows to me. Oh, how my heart aches for you! Surely you feel it—you can't have forgotten—you can't!"
He looked again at the letter, then placed it in an envelope and sealed it hastily.
"I will go to her—I know her room. I can slip it under the door if—if she is asleep; but, perhaps——"
He did not finish that thought audibly. Only opened the door and looked down the dark and silent corridor beyond.
How still it was. He heard a clock striking, somewhere in the silence, two hours after midnight. A strange chill—a feeling of half shame, half uncertainty—held him there on the threshold. There seemed something guilty and wrong about the simple action he intended.
"To think," he muttered to himself, "that a man should actually feel there was something improper in leaving a letter at his own wife's door. Yet, if I were seen, who would believe it?"
He drew the door after him. The whole corridor was in darkness. At the further end stood a marble statue surrounded by tall palms. He had noticed it already during the day. The room next to it was the one he had seen Lady Francis enter.
He moved softly down the long passage. Suddenly he paused, and shrank back into a doorway close at hand. That door beside the statue and the palms was thrown open; a slender white figure stood revealed by the light within the room. At the same moment another figure—the figure of a man—advanced rapidly, and spoke in a low, hurried voice.
The watcher stood as if turned to stone. He saw the woman retreat backward step by step into the room she had just quitted. He saw the man attempt to follow her. The door shut; again all was darkness and silence.
For one hateful, throbbing moment, that seemed to hold a lifetime of agony in its passage, Lord Francis stood there, gazing at the closed door. At last, with trembling limbs and face bloodless as the dead, he staggered back to his own room, and sank down on the chair where he had written that letter, with its pleading for love and reconciliation.
"Too late!" he cried. "O Heaven! to think my own eyes should be the witness of my own eternal shame and—hers!"
His head fell on his arms. He was as one dazed and stunned by the consciousness of misery undreamt of, despite those cold and silent years.
Moment after moment passed. One hour and then another dropped into the gulf of time that is no more. Still he never stirred. Consciousness of anything besides his own misery—besides the living recognition of his own shame—was dead within him; dead as youth was dead, and hope, and truth, and all things fair and sweet in life—slain by a woman's hand.
The dawn was brightening into daylight as at last Lord Francis roused himself from his long stupor.
"What had happened?" he thought confusedly. "Had he been ill? Had he done anything?"
A hideous dread seized and appalled him. In those brief hours he seemed to have lived a lifetime.
"Why did I not kill him?" he muttered, lifting his haggard young face up to the faint rose light that filtered through the curtains. "Kill him! aye, and in her arms—kill him and her too! Heaven!" a strange, hoarse laugh escaped him.
"I shall go mad if I stay here—under the same roof with them."
He began to move about confusedly, putting things together, and tossing his clothes into his portmanteau. He was possessed but by one idea—to leave a place made hateful by this discovery, to get away from these men and women, with their jeering tongues and malicious smiles, who all guessed or knew of his disgrace. It had been so public, so shameless. She had summoned this man to her side. She had flaunted her preference for him before his very face, and now—
He cursed her in his heart, as still, with fevered haste and strange, impetuous movements, he gathered together his few possessions. Then he locked his box and wrote a hurried note to the manager of the hotel, inclosing a check and stating that the portmanteau would be sent for later on. A hurried glance around—a glance which passed over the letter he had written but a few brief hours before. It lay where it had fallen from his hand when he sank into the chair by his writing-table—lay there so innocent, yet so fraught with power to work remorse or retribution in days that were to come.
The gray light of the early dawn gleamed like a pale phosphorescence over the shadowy corridor, and lit with spectral mystery the white statue and the dusky palms. He shuddered as his eyes fell on them. How significant they had become.
Then, with a smothered oath that breathed vengeance for the future, he rushed down the staircase and past the sleeping porter in the entrance hall, and in another moment was standing in the fresh, sweet atmosphere of life and light that God and Nature have so freely given to the thankless, sated eyes of men.
How that day passed Lord Francis never knew. It seemed to him, when his senses grew clearer, that weeks and months must have gone by since that awful moment that had brought to him the full and complete knowledge of his wife's perfidy. Yet there had been a strange and consistent purpose in all his actions. He had walked for miles and miles before taking the train. He had reached London, and driven straight to his chambers, to the no small dismay and discomfiture of, his man, who had been inaugurating a brief spell of leisure not as wisely as he might have done. He had given orders to this man to pack up clothes sufficient for a long journey, paid his wages, arranged with his usual caretaker to remain in the chambers, then departed for Charing Cross to catch the tidal train en route for Paris.
All this he remembered afterward. Remembered vaguely, impassively, as if every action had been performed by someone apart and outside of himself; as if he had been spectator instead of actor. Remembered, even as he remembered the crowded station, the flashing lights, the hoarse cries of the porters, the bustle and confusion on the platform, and high above all the shrill voice of the newsvendors crying out the news of the evening papers—"Pall Mall!" "St. James Gazette!" or "Star! Latest edition! Mysterious murder of a foreign count in a hotel! Latest special!"
He threw himself back on the seat of his carriage. What mattered murders or tragedies to him? In heart he knew himself a murderer by desire and fierce hatred—in reality, his life had turned to tragedy deep and bitter and terrible, with a hopelessness that the coming years could never brighten, and the dawn of Hope would never bless.
The shrill whistle of the engine sounded above all the clamor. The train moved slowly out of the station, and still clear and distinct those words reached him like a meaningless echo: "Murder of a foreign count! Mysterious occurrence! Special edition! Special edition!"