BY ADELINE SERGEANT.
"ALIVE OR DEAD."
The Liverpool streets were, as usual, muddy, crowded, and malodorous; but had they been bowers of Elysian bliss they could not be traversed by men with gladder hearts than those of Onslow and Jacynth when they set foot on English soil. The gladness was of a sober sort, and tinged, perhaps, by anxiety for the future and sorrow for the past; but there was a natural elation, brought about by the recollections of the peril that they had escaped, and triumph in the thought of Ronny's restoration to his mother's arms. They took a friendly leave of the captain and officers of the ship which had brought them to Liverpool, and then proceeded to the nearest hotel, where they intended to stay for a few hours only, in order to replenish their pockets and wardrobes.
"Shall we telegraph to Fenella?" Frank asked wistfully; and Jacynth replied, in a brisker tone:
"Why, of course, or she will be hearing some garbled version of the shipwreck story, and will imagine that she has lost Ronny forever."
"Don't put too much in the telegram," said Lord Francis, still in an uncertain voice. "'Ronny safe and well; we are bringing him back to you to-day.' And Jacynth, old man, sign it with both our names. She owes his safety to you rather than to me. Sign it by your name alone, if you like. I have no right [a little bitterly] to claim her gratitude."
Jacynth stood silent for a moment. Onslow was generous, but did he not, after all, speak truth? Surely he—Jacynth—had some right to Fenella's gratitude; it was all that would be left to him when the husband and wife were reconciled. He felt sure that that reconciliation would take place, and no place would then be left for him save that of a useful friend. Yes, he was tempted for a moment to claim the whole of Fenella's gratitude for the safety of her boy. But how could he let Frank Onslow be more generous than himself?
He laughed slightly when that little pause was ended, and shook his head.
"Lady Francis will question me pretty closely, and will soon find out where credit is due," he said. "There is no question as to which of us has suffered most in her cause and Ronny's." And he signed the telegram with Onslow's name alone.
They had thought of going south that evening, but an unexpected delay arose. Ronny developed symptoms of a severe cold, verging on bronchitis, and the doctor, who was immediately summoned, declared that it would be the height of folly to let him travel for a day or two. "It's nothing serious, but you cannot be too careful where children are concerned," he said, "and the boy has had a chill. You, too [glancing at Lord Francis] don't look quite fit for a long journey."
"I am fit for anything; all I want is to be with my wife again," Onslow averred feverishly.
The doctor glanced at him in a dubious way and shook his head. He knew something of the Onslows' history—as who did not—and did not understand the young man's anxiety to seek out his presumably erring wife. "Even for yourself I should not recommend the journey until you have had a rest," he said, "and as your little boy is so unwell, you cannot do better than keep yourselves quiet and warm, for a day or two, until he is recovered."
He spoke privately to Jacynth afterward.
"The little fellow is not seriously ill; you need not be alarmed," he said. "I am making a trifle worse of his case than I need in order to detain Lord Francis for a short time. I suppose you see for yourself how much he is in need of rest and care. The fire must have given him a severe nervous shock."
"He is not strong, but I hoped that he would be better if I could get him to Guernsey and leave him in good hands."
"Do you mean his wife's hands?" the doctor asked abruptly.
"I do. He will never be happy till he has seen her."
"Then why not telegraph to her to come here? The great thing just now with Lord Francis is to keep his mind easy. If her presence would soothe and calm him you had better send for her at once, especially as the boy is unwell. If he should be unduly excited or agitated, however, I would not answer for the consequences."
Jacynth hesitated, "I do not know," he said slowly, "whether she could travel so far. She has been ill—and——"
"And, perhaps—she may not care to come, eh?" said the shrewd old doctor. "You must excuse me if she is a friend of yours, but the fact is, everything I have heard of Lady Francis Onslow leads me to conclude that she will not put herself much out of her way for her husband's sake."
"You do not know her," said Jacynth warmly; then, controlling with some difficulty a feeling of offense, he added, "I believe that she is very much attached to Lord Francis, and would come at once if she thought that he was ill."
"Then telegraph," said the doctor. "Anything rather than let him travel in his present state of nerves and heart. It might be the death of him." And with a brusque nod he took himself off, leaving Jacynth more than ever perplexed by the duty that devolved on him.
What could he say to Fenella that would neither frighten nor repel? If he told her that Ronny was ill, she would be frantic with alarm. If he said that Lord Francis needed her, she might shrink away with wounded pride. He thought of the way in which she had spoken to him of her husband, and decided that he could not hope to conjure by his name. As he had said to the doctor, she would come if he told her that Lord Francis were ill; but if he summoned her on that account, how explain her appearance to Onslow himself? Every way seemed to be surrounded by difficulties. At last, in desperation, he wrote and dispatched the following telegram:
Ronny knocked up by traveling; Lord Francis also unwell; can you come to us in order to save delay?
"The mother's heart in her," said Jacynth to himself, "will supply all that is ambiguous in this message, and we shall have her with us to-morrow."
He felt so much more at ease when the message was sent off, that he turned into the smoking room to glance at the papers and smoke a cigar before going back to Onslow. Ronny was under the care of a nurse, and Onslow was probably resting; he had no special responsibility with respect to either of them at present, and he was glad to feel himself free.
The papers already contained long accounts of the fire, of the swamping of the boats, and of the rescue of the four survivors found clinging to the wreck. A list of the drowned passengers and crew was appended, and here Jacynth caught sight of the name of Mme. de Vigny. "So she went back to her old title, did she?" he mused. "Well, one obstacle to Fenella's happiness has been removed now that that woman is dead. Let us hope that she is dead indeed. It would be no kindness to her or to others to hope for her safety."
His eye had fallen on a short paragraph, which at first he had overlooked. Here it was stated that three or four of the crew had managed, by clinging to floating spars or other pieces of wreckage, to come safe to land, and that it was possible that more lives had been preserved in this way, than could at present be ascertained. There was no mention, however, of any woman among the survivors: and, uncharitable as the wish might sound, it must be confessed that Jacynth heartily desired to be assured that Lucille de Vigny would trouble no man's peace again.
The rest of the day dragged slowly by—slowly, because he and Onslow were both fretting at the delay caused by poor Ronny's illness. They were longing to reach the sunny shores of Guernsey, to enter that rose-wreathed cottage, and to pour their stories—each in his own way—into the ears of the woman dearer to them than any other in the world. And Onslow was not upheld by the hope that Jacynth cherished—namely, that Fenella, forgetting her past injuries in the love of her child, would fly at once to nurse him, and to clasp her newly-rescued husband in her arms. Painful as this consummation might be to Jacynth personally, he was unselfish enough to rejoice in the prospect of Fenella's future happiness, but Lord Francis, who did not know of the later telegram, grew irritable in his state of suspense and anxiety, and would neither rest by day nor sleep by night.
Jacynth had counted confidently on a return telegram from Fenella as soon as possible, and he was annoyed and disappointed when another day dragged slowly by without any news of her. Did she harbor so much resentment against Lord Francis, that she would not even come to him when their child was in danger? Jacynth's anger burned a little at the thought. He could not believe that Fenella would be thus implacable. And Ronny was distinctly worse, he was feverish, and wandered in his talk, calling out for "Mummy" and imploring to be taken away from Mrs. Clutterbuck in a way that was pitiful to hear. There were hints, too, of that darker time when he had been left alone with men and women of a coarser type—brutes in human guise, who starved and beat him and swore at him because he would neither lie nor steal. This part of his story his friends had striven to make him forget, but when his brain was clouded by fever, the frightful images of those terrible weeks in a New York slum came back to him with redoubled force, and it sometimes seemed as though only the presence of the mother for whom he cried so constantly could chase them away.
And yet Fenella did not come.
On the third day Jacynth waxed desperate, and resolved to telegraph again. He had seen in the newspapers some accounts of a gale which had been raging in the Channel, and it occurred to him that the Guernsey boats might perhaps have ceased running, which would of course give a reason for Fenella's silence, and yet it seemed to him impossible that she should have heard nothing yet, or been unable to send him any answer. He would telegraph again, but he would go to Onslow first; it was possible—just possible—that she might have written to him.
From the look of agitation on Frank's face, and the convulsive tightness with which he grasped a letter in his hand, Jacynth fancied at first that his conjecture had been correct. "What is it?" he said hurriedly. "Your wife—is she coming? Does she know that you are safe?"
"Heaven knows! She makes no sign. No, the letter is not from her."
His face was so pale, his aspect so disordered, that Jacynth could only gaze at him in surprise. And seeing his expression, Frank suddenly thrust the letter into his hand.
"See there," he said. "What does it mean? Do you think there is anything in it? If it should be true—of Fenella, my darling—what have we done?" And he sank down in a chair beside the table, and buried his face in his hands.
Jacynth opened the letter, which was written on coarse blue paper, and inclosed in a common envelope. Outside it looked like a tradesman's circular. There was no stamp, no postmark; it was simply superscribed with Onslow's name, and addressed to the hotel. The writing was evidently disguised, many of the words were printed, others written in a sloping hand.
"I will not tell you who I am," the letter began, "or you may not believe me; nevertheless, I speak the truth. I am the only person, except Lady Onslow, who can unravel the mystery of Count de Mürger's death. From her lips you will never hear it; will you hear it from mine?
"She is innocent of his death; I can convince you of that. She is screening another. Do you not want to know his name? I was in the corridor on the night when the murder took place; I saw and heard all that occurred.
"If you want to clear your wife's name, come at four o'clock this afternoon to No. 10 Pearson's Row, Mersey Street, then I will tell you all.
"One Who Knows the Truth."
The paper dropped from Jacynth's hands. "If Mme. de Vigny were living I should say that she wrote this letter," he remarked. "But how," he added, rather to himself than to Frank, "how could she know?"
Onslow looked up. His face was haggard, and there was a wild light in his eyes. "If she lives," he said brokenly, "she shall pay for all that she has done——"
"There is no likelihood that she has been saved," Jacynth broke in. "I don't think a single woman was rescued. No, Frank, this is a plant; and of course you will take no notice of it."
"No notice of it! But do you think that I would leave a stone unturned where Fenella's honor is in question?"
"For Heaven's sake, don't go," cried Jacynth hotly. "There can. be no possible good in it. What can there be for you to hear, unless you doubt your wife's story?"
His brow became dark and menacing as he spoke, but he was more anxious than angry. He and Fenella knew the truth, and he was bound by her wishes to keep it secret from Lord Francis; was it possible that anyone else should know? Surely, he said to himself, no other soul on earth now living had an inkling of the truth. But at all hazards he would try to prevent Onslow from keeping so suspicious and so unworthy a tryst.
Frank Onslow, however, had made up his mind, and did not respond to any of Jacynth's somewhat ineffective arguments. And when the clock struck three, he took up his hat and went out without saying whither he was bound. But Jacynth was only too certain that he had gone to the place mentioned in the letter.
While he still stood hesitating whether to follow and force his company on him whether he would or no, there was a sound outside the door which made him start—the rustle of a woman's dress, the well-known intonation of a woman's voice.
"My Ronny; is he here? And Frank—Frank?"
Fenella had arrived.
She came in, radiant with hope and joy, holding out her hands to Jacynth, who came slowly forward and clasped them in his own.
"My Ronny," she repeated. "Ah, how happy you have made me. I shall have both Ronny and Frank again. Take me to them at once; I cannot bear another instant of delay."