BY RICHARD DOWLING.
When Lord Francis found himself in the train on his way up to London from Felixstowe his mind was in a condition bordering on frenzy. The wife of his youth, the wife of his choice, the only woman to whom his heart had ever gone forth with unalloyed joy and limitless bounty, lay at death's door, from which one hope existed of beckoning her back—the touch of their child's tiny hand. And now, at this moment of supreme crisis, cursed Fate stepped in and took the child from his sight, snatched the possible deliverer from his arms!
Cursed Fate, or Nemesis, or lex talionis, call it what one might, there was the maddening fact, the overwhelming act of that foreign woman whom once, in his malignant perversity, he thought he loved, who over and over again swore she loved him and only him! Granted he had treated her badly, had he attempted her life? Why, then, should she attempt his? Why should she seek to kill him through the hearts he held most dear? Because he had made love to her and ridden away? Great Heavens! Was his sin against her a mustard seed to the whole world, in comparison to this attempt on Fenella's life?
From the beginning of their acquaintance, Lucille knew he was married—at no time of their acquaintance did he know much of her. She had her dark eyes, and her mystery, and her history—these were parts of her fascination. She had enslaved him, as a drug or wine might enslave him, for a time; but she had never touched the essence of his being—that was for Fenella, for Fenella only.
When he reached London he drove straight to Scotland Yard. If he had been in a normal state he would no doubt have paid a visit to his solicitors first, but he was in no normal state. He could not have told when he ate last, or where he had slept; what day of the week or month it was. All that was usual was worthless, and only the quest he was on worthy of heed.
At Scotland Yard he was at once shown into the presence of Inspector Brown. His father's position made his name illustrious; the murder trial had made himself notorious.
"My child—my boy of six—has been stolen. His mother. Lady Francis, is in danger of death from illness, and the instant recovery of the boy is a matter of life and death. She is in brain fever, and the doctor says if her boy is at her bedside when she recovers her senses it may save her life. Whatever sum of money may be necessary to recover the boy I'll double it, treble it, quadruple it, if you only find him for me, and at once," he cried out to the inspector, all in a breath.
"The recovery of the child does not, unfortunately, depend on mere money, my lord."
"On what, then?"
"On possibility. If it is possible to be done it will be done; and whether we succeed or fail, you may rely on no time being lost. Will your lordship kindly give me all the particulars?"
The father told the history of the boy's abduction, as Mrs. Grandison had given it to him.
"And this foreign, handsome lady who took the child away, do you happen to know her name?"
Did he happen to know Lucille's name! Good Heavens, how strange such a question seemed! But it was one thing to know her name, and vow hatred of her, and another thing to give to the police the name of a woman he once made love to. He hesitated.
The inspector looked up from the sheet of paper on which he had been taking down the particulars.
The inspector, believing the other had not heard, repeated the question.
"Bah!" thought Lord Francis, "why should I hesitate? She has not hesitated to lie and to steal Ronny; and Fenella's life is in the scales." He said aloud: "The lady is French;" the inspector recommenced writing; "her name is Mme. de Vigny."
The inspector looked up again, this time with a start, laid down his pen, and cleared his throat as though to clear his mind. "May I ask your lordship to repeat the name?"
"Mme. de Vigny—Lucille de Vigny. Do you know anything of her?"
"Perhaps," said the inspector, touching an electric bell.
A policeman in uniform entered. The inspector handed the man a slip of paper. The constable withdrew. In a few moments he returned, handed some documents to his superior officer, and retired.
"Does your lordship happen to know anything of this Mme. Lucille de Vigny before she came to England a few years ago?"
"I suppose we are talking of the same lady"—the inspector looked down at his papers—"a tall, strikingly handsome, dark woman of about thirty-five or forty now. She was in the Prospect Hotel, Harrogate, at the time of the late tragic occurrence there, though she was not herself brought into the case."
"Yes, that is the lady."
"Well, we do know something of her here. We have been keeping an eye on her for a little time at the request of the French police. A French detective has been over here about her. It was not until the day before yesterday, when instructions came from Paris to act, that we knew she had left the country."
"Left the country!" cried Lord Francis, falling back on his chair in consternation.
"Sailed for New York from Liverpool four days ago. She is wanted in France for connection with some wholesale swindling of a bank in Lille four or five years ago. We lost sight of her for a little while lately, but that we have just explained by the fact that she recently went through a form of marriage at a registry with a rich American Senator, Colonel Clutterbuck. I say went through a form of marriage, for her husband, one of the clerks in the Lille bank, is now in the hands of the French police. My lord, you may make your mind easy about your boy. No doubt he is the child who sailed with Colonel and Mrs. Clutterbuck four days ago as Mrs. Clutterbuck's nephew, Roland Tyrrell, aged six."
"What is to be done now?" cried Lord Francis, relieved at getting a clew to his boy, and in despair at finding the child must already be halfway across the Atlantic.
"She will be arrested on landing, and brought back."
"But the boy, my son?"
"If you wish it, we can cable, and have him looked after for you. There will be a few days lost in legal formalities in New York."
"I'll follow the boy. I'll go by the next boat!" and, with this resolution, and no thought of anything else, he rushed away from Scotland Yard for his chambers.
At his chambers he found everything as he had left it weeks ago. Into a couple of portmanteaus he bundled some clothes—any, no matter what, he could put his hands on. Then he sat down to think. His brain was in a whirl. Only one thought had any value, any place in his mind—the recovery of Ronny. On that depended all. On that depended the life of Fenella, and his own power of making reparation to her for all she had gone through.
He had forgotten one thing at Scotland Yard. The inspector had said they could cable to have the boy taken care of for him. He had not asked the inspector to do so. He sat down, and, with a hand that shook so that he could hardly hold the pen, he wrote to the inspector, begging that a message might be sent by cable, bidding them look after Ronny on his behalf in New York. He marked the envelope "private," for there was plenty of time for the cable, and he wished the wHole affair to be kept as quiet as possible.
Then he had nothing else to do but to get forward. He did not think of looking to see, or of inquiring when the next boat left. Queenstown was the point nearest to America, and, by the Irish mail that night, he started for Cork.
It was not until he had been six hours plunging through the Atlantic toward the New World, in the huge ocean steamer, that he remembered he had sent no word to Guernsey. But he dismissed the omission from his mind as a matter of no moment; "for," thought he, "all the messages in the world would not serve my poor girl as she now is, and I am going to fetch the elixir of life for her—our Ronny's voice."
At the moment that Lord Francis was soothing his mind, and cheering his way with this encouraging reflection. Inspector Brown, of Scotland Yard, was writing to him, as follows:
I hasten to acknowledge the receipt of your note of the day before yesterday, which came after I left. It was marked "private," and, consequently, was not opened in the ordinary course. I was absent on duty yesterday, and only got it just now. Hence I could not answer it sooner. The French authorities have decided that, having secured the so-called Mme. Lucille de Vigny's husband, and she having got off to America, they will not follow her further for the present. She will, therefore, walk ashore free out of the steamer, and, in the absence of formal instructions, we shall be powerless to stop her. Hoping this may reach you in time, I am, my lord, your humble servant,
Christopher Brown, Inspector.
Meanwhile the struggle for life in that cottage room in Guernsey had turned in favor of Fenella. The doctor had given a guarded opinion when Lord Francis made his frantic appeal to him. Before her husband fronted the Western Ocean, the wasted sufferer opened her eyes, and once more looked out, through the glance of reason, on the world where she had endured so much.
For a day or two she hung between life and death. She looked too frail for this world. But she had store of the best of medicines in her own blood—youth—and she began to mend rapidly.
Happily, when she came to herself, she did not clearly remember the dreadful past. All was dim and shadowy. The doctor was careful to say nothing that could renew her sorrow. He was aware that her husband had set off to recover the boy, but since Lord Francis dashed out of the place no word had come from him, and as the patient made no inquiries the doctor held his peace. The nurse knew nothing, and Fenella herself had a vague feeling that the past, whatever was in it, had better be let alone. She was too weak for conflict, for even consecutive thought.
Hour after hour she lay, weak and silent and gentle, the ghost of her former self, all the old audacious sprightliness vanished. She took what they gave her, and spoke when she was spoken to, and resisted nothing the attentive people around ordained for her. She did not ask questions. She had no memory of her husband's penitential visit; no means of knowing that he had gone to fetch their child.
The doctor seeing that she was in no distress left her in the hands of beneficent Nature. Peace was the finest cordial his patient could taste now, and if she showed no sign of joyousness, she was easy and at rest.
Fenella's brain being free of the fever, her splendid constitution and her youth asserted their prerogative to lead her to health, and the kindly doctor stood amazed at the progress she made toward convalescence. "You have nothing to do now but get well," said he, "and you are getting well as if getting well were a fever in full power. You are building up as fast—ay, faster—than you lost."
She answered only with a smile. She took no particular interest in getting well, or in anything else, for that matter. Although the brain may have been relieved from the ravages of active disease, it was inert, lifeless. The fountains of memory were still frozen, or dried up. She knew she lay at her cottage in Guernsey, but she did not actively realize why she was there. She felt that if she made a great effort, she could tell herself the story of her presence upon the island; but she was languid, and took no interest in anything, not even in herself.
"You may sit up for an hour to-morrow," said the doctor, one day.
She said: "Thank you, doctor." He was careful not to call her by any name, and he told the nurse and maids not to address her as "Mrs. Orme." "Let us get the body strong first," thought he. "Until word comes from Lord Francis, we have nothing pleasant to say to her, and she may forget that she was ever 'Mrs. Orme.'"
So day slid into morrow, and brought no news—no word of any kind—and Lord Francis was a whole week gone, and the sufferer was allowed to move about a little. The good doctor concluded that Lord Francis had changed his intention again, and for some reason or other reverted to the condition of mind he had been in when he borrowed Lord Castleton's yacht, and took himself away into southern seas beyond the voice of England.
On the eighth day a letter came from London. It was addressed in a clerkly hand. It was the first letter that had come for Fenella since she had fallen ill. She was sitting in an armchair by the fire when she took it from the doctor, for he had given strict orders she was to get no letter except from his hand. The superscription was in such commonplace clerkly writing that the good doctor made sure that it was some ordinary business communication, one from her lawyer or trustee, or some other person connected with the routine of her affairs. She was now strong enough to stroll a short distance out-of-doors, and had taken a turn in the garden the day before, and was to walk a mile along the road later to-day when the sun grew stronger.
"A letter from some of your business people," said the man of science. "I hope it brings you good news." A little rousing would not come amiss to the lovely invalid.
It was addressed to "Mrs. Orme." She broke the cover. It contained a brief note from her lawyer and a letter inclosed, the writing of which, a woman's, was unfamiliar to her. The lawyer's letter ran:
I inclose a letter which reaches me from an unknown source,
with an anonymous request that it may be forwarded to you. I
am, dear madam, yours faithfully,
The letter inclosed was addressed to "Lady Francis Onslow." She broke the cover of that. It, too, was short. It ran:
Your husband has left you forever, and I have taken care you shall never see your child again.
Lucille de Vigny.
That was all.