BY F. ANSTEY.
"WHOM THE GODS HATE DIE HARD."
It seemed that the doctor was right after all; Frank Onslow was feeling better, distinctly, undeniably better, as he lay on the chintz couch in the little sitting room of the rose-hung cottage at Guernsey. The pain about the region of the heart had entirely disappeared under skilled medical treatment; not for many a day had he felt more vigorous and hopeful, reclining there with his eyes fixed upon the door in momentary expectation that it would open and admit the slight girlish form of the wife from whom he had been so long and cruelly separated. Yes, Fenella was on her way to him, he would see her, hold her in his arms! There might be years of happiness yet in store for them—years in which to atone, to forget. Surely the boat must have arrived by this time! What was that sound? He had not deceived himself; there was a light step on the gravel outside. She had come, she was here, in another instant she would be at his side! The door was gently opened, he rose to his feet with a smothered cry of joy, rose—and the next instant sat down again heavily, with a groan of irrepressible disappointment. For the woman who stood there, dazzling yet in her faded southern beauty, was not Fenella; it was Lucille de Vigny, whom, as he fondly imagined, he had last beheld drowning in the blue-green waves, clasped in the fierce embrace of her injured and revengeful husband, the blade of whose dagger was deeply embedded in her bosom.
The shock of the surprise was considerable; it was some time before he could recover sufficiently to express himself in appropriate terms.
"Witch, demoness, arch-fiend that you are!" he groaned, "how came you here? Has the sea given you up once more?"
"Ah, Frank!" she said, with a soft musical accent of reproach, "I did not expect that question (to say nothing of the form in which it was put) from you of all men. Who should know how I escaped what seemed a well-nigh inevitable doom, if not the man who preserved my life?"
"I—I preserve your life?" gasped Onslow, in a bewilderment which, under the circumstances, was not unnatural.
"You forgot soon, sooner than I. I can see the whole scene yet; my horrible husband holding me closer, closer still; the steely glitter of the blade as it touched my breast; you on the rock thirty feet above, gazing with eyes that are fixed—oh, but fixed! [she closed her own as she spoke, with a flicker like the instantaneous shutter of a camera] and next, without warning, with a sudden bound you leapt the distance between us, hurled, with a strength that in your shattered state seemed almost supernatural, my would-be executioner into the sea with one hand, while you supported my half-fainting form with the other, and then strode away up the cliff like one in a dream. Surely you remember?"
Frank shook his head; he had no recollection whatever of the incident. That this should be so will not surprise the reader, who is already aware that he was subject, under certain mental conditions, to hypnotic trances. In one of them he had, as we know, destroyed a life; in another he had preserved one—with an equal lack of volition of consciousness in either case. Even now he could not bring himself to credit her account, any more than he could affect a decent degree of satisfaction at so untimely a resuscitation.
Still, there she stood, alive—whoever had rescued her; and it occurred to him presently that he might at least profit by the fact to obtain some light upon a point which had cost him several anxious thoughts of late. Had she, or had she not, written that mysterious letter from Pearson's Row? If she had, could she indeed prove that Fenella was guiltless of Count de Mürger's blood?
Despite his intrinsic loyalty to his wife, he could not help preferring that her fair little hand should be unstained even by a justifiable homicide. It was weakness, no doubt, but man is built up of prejudices which can neither be defended nor overcome.
"Lucille," he said brokenly, "you have not treated me altogether well; you have done your best to keep my wife and me apart; you have wantonly abducted my only son, my little Ronny; you have had me shut up in a lunatic asylum; I strongly suspect that you know more than you should about the fire which occasioned the total loss of the Danic, and all but a small percentage of her crew and passengers—and yet—and yet, Lucille, I cannot but think that you still retain a lingering spark of true womanliness somewhere, in spite of all! By that spark, I adjure you solemnly, to tell me, as you hope for mercy, whether you did or did not write that letter signed 'One who knows the truth'?"
"I did," she answered, "I do know it. I have come here with the full intention of telling it."
"And you can clear Fenella?" asked Frank. "Then I forgive you freely all the wrong you have done—only speak, Lucille, tell me all at once, keep me no longer in suspense!"
"Wait," she said calmly and almost soothingly, "are you quite sure that you can bear to know the truth?"
"Sure?" he exclaimed, "if only Fenella did not stab the count, what care I what other hand dealt the fatal blow?"
Lucille de Vigny smiled, a dark and mystic smile, as she said slowly, "Not even if the hand should prove to be your own?"
Frank Onslow fell back with blue and writhing lips. "It is a lie," he said hoarsely, "a cruel lie!"
"It is the truth, my poor Frank; I can prove it."
Now, as has been already stated, this was mere conjecture on her part. In spite of the assertion in her letter, she had not been in the corridor of the Prospect Hotel when the tragic occurrence had taken place. On the contrary, she had been, perhaps, the most perplexed by Frank's disappearance the next morning. It was only subsequently that her feminine intuition had supplied a partial solution of the mystery. However, her shot told with terrible effect.
"Prove it!" he repeated incredulously. "Why, after I had seen the count enter Fenella's room, I went straight to my own; I sat up in a stupor till daylight, I did indeed, Lucille!"
"And at daylight you fled," said Mme. de Vigny softly.
"Only as far as Paris," he rejoined, "and I did not fly. I traveled in my ordinary manner."
"At least you left your wife to go through the inquest and trial alone."
"I did not know of either until weeks afterward, when Castleton showed me the reports."
"Not know of a sensation that was convulsing all England? Paris is scarcely Kamschatka, my dear Frank. English papers are procurable at the hotels."
"I—I was ill," he said feebly, "or else I was yachting for weeks in the Bay of Biscay. Or both—I don't know!" Even to his sick and bewildered brain his story began to seem rather a lame and unprofitable one. "But my wife," urged the wretched Frank, with a pitiful return of hopefulness, "expressly admitted, when she was examined and cross-examined on her trial, that she had done the deed herself in defense of her life. I have never yet known Fenella, with all her faults, stoop to a direct falsehood. How do you get over that, Lucille?"
"I am a foreigner," was the chilling response, "and, as such, imperfectly acquainted with your criminal procedure. Still, I have always understood that persons indicted for such offenses are not entitled to give evidence in their own defense. I may be wrong."
It should be explained here that Mme. de Vigny was wrong—or partly so. There certainly is some such rule, but it would be strange, indeed, if an advocate of Clitheroe Jacynth's position and influence could not succeed in getting it set aside in favor of his fair client, when, as his legal acumen had divined, the effect of such an admission would inevitably insure the prisoner's triumphant release, even on a trial for manslaughter. And the result, as has been stated, amply justified his calculations.
But the diabolical plausibility of Lucille's rejoinder destroyed the last vestige of hope for Frank, who was less familiar with the laws of his country than every well-educated Briton should be.
"You are right," he groaned, "I did it—I must have done it. And—what on earth shall I do now, Lucille?"
Her face, past its first youth as it was, became rapt and transfigured with tenderness as she bent over him and laid one slight burning hand on each of his shoulders.
"I will tell you," she said, in her low, cooing accents; "if you stay here, you are lost! For after your rash visit to Inspector Brown at Scotland Yard, nay, before that, the detectives have been upon your track. It cannot be many years, or months, perhaps, before they hunt you down, even in such a remote island as Guernsey. And if you are arrested and brought to trial, Fenella will be powerless to screen you any longer. As your wife she will be unable to give her testimony in your behalf, as you are doubtless aware. I alone know your guilt, but do you think that I would betray you? Why, I love you, Frank; I think I have always loved you, even when I seemed to hate you most. And now that you have saved me from a hideous death, oh! my dear, my dear, how can I give you up? No, fly with me at once. We will go to South Africa, where society is freer and healthier than here, and conventional prejudices do not exist. Come, Frank, come ere it is too late."
The miserable man wavered on the couch; he did not love this woman, not at least with any passion deserving the name, but he was in her power. And how, how could he face his lovely innocent Fenella with the consciousness that he was a murderer?
As he still hesitated, there came a resounding knock at the trellised door which made them both start. "The detectives!" whispered Lucille de Vigny, "already; quick, Frank, the back door." But Frank Onslow had not lost all his manliness; he drew himself to his full height with a proud dignity. "Back doors are not exactly in my way, Lucille," he said, "let them take me. I am ready to atone with the last remnant of my miserable, ill-spent life." And the door flew open as he spoke—but it was no detective that entered.
Fenella came in in her pretty light frock, her small cheeks flushed with a now unaccustomed rose tint, and something of the old, merry, mischievous sparkle in her tan-colored hazel eyes, for she had been laughing and talking on the way up with Jacynth, and telling him how she had fascinated the steward of the steamer, until, with her customary light-heartedness, she had almost forgotten the gravity of the errand on which she came. Jacynth's dark, clean-shaven face, with the imperturbable expression and the firmly molded jaw, was visible over her slim shoulder.
But, at the sight of Mme. de Vigny, her old enemy and rival, all the merriment and infantile innocence in Fenella's lovely audacious face faded suddenly; her tawny eyes flashed with the tigerish gleam Frank remembered so well, her soft red mouth grew hard and set. "I perceive," she said icily, "that I am de trop. I was not aware that you were well enough to receive a visitor, Lord Francis. Mr. Jacynth, will you please take me away?"
"Fenella!" cried Frank in an agony. "Let me explain! This, this she-fiend, this mocking devil has come to try and persuade me that it was I—I who stabbed Count de Mürger with my own hand! Tell me, for pity's sake, that you at least do not believe it!"
"For once in her life," said Fenella, with a touch of her old airy impertinence, "Mme. de Vigny has spoken the truth. My dear Frank, I would willingly oblige you if possible, but I cannot. I saw you do it with my own eyes!"
The unhappy Frank staggered at these terrible words. "My own wife! She says she saw me do this thing! How you must loathe me, Fenella! How you must loathe me!"
"But I don't, Frank," she assured him earnestly. "I don't loathe you in the least, you poor unhappy boy! Because—oh, listen, Frank—when you killed him, I knew from your expression that you were in a hypnotic trance, and, therefore, neither morally nor legally responsible for your actions!"
Frank wiped his brow; an immense load was lifted from his soul. "That accounts for it," he said slowly, "I felt sure I could not have committed such an act in an ordinary state without retaining some recollection of the circumstance. And yet," he added moodily, "if I am accused, who can prove that I did it in this unconscious state? Not you, Fenella; according to Mme. de Vigny, at least."
"Just so," said Lucille, speaking for the first time. "You are his wife, Lady Francis, and the law will not accept you as a witness. There is no one who can prove it, and therefore, the deduction I leave to you."
"Pardon me,*' said Jacynth, stepping calmly forward. "There is somebody—Lord Castleton. He has lately told me so. It appears, my dear Onslow, that he saw you subsequently, when you were suffering from a precisely similar attack. You stabbed madly, blindly, without being in the least aware of your actions."
"Another murder?" cried the horrified Frank. "Oh, the horror, the black, hopeless horror of it! To be doomed to these deeds of blood, and never to suspect it till too late. Jacynth, I think I shall go mad."
"There is no necessity, my dear boy," said the barrister kindly. "Fortunately, on this particular occasion you were armed with no more formidable weapon than a roll of paper, or else, had there been a victim at hand, which providentially there was not, the consequences might indeed have been disastrous."
Frank's countenance cleared once more; he could embrace his wife now with a clear conscience, and accordingly he turned with extended arms. "Fenella," he cried, "Mrs. Right!"
"Doggie, my own, Doggie!" was the ringing response, and the pair were folded in one another's arms. Jacynth had turned away. Pardon him, reader, if at that supreme moment of reconciliation his own heart was too sore and bitter to bear the sight of the happiness which had been mainly his own work. Devoted friend, self-contained, distinguished barrister as he was, he was still many removes from an angel. But the sound of the old pet names, the namea she remembered on the envelope returned to Chiddingford from the Dead Letter Office, seemed to exasperate Lucille de Vigny to a fury that would not have disgraced a fiend. It must be remembered, in justice to her, that she had loved this man with all the ardor of a passionate, undisciplined nature, she had lost him, had been on the verge of recapturing him, and now he had escaped her once more, and something told her that this time it was forever!
"Very pretty, my faith!" she said, with a. bitter laugh of mingled rage and despair. "Quelle innocence, mon Dieu! You have defenders—is it not?—who combine military duties with a naval footing? How do you call them, hein? I forget."
"Possibly, madame," suggested Jacynth gravely, "you refer to the Marines?"
"The Marines—it is that, yes. Well, tell this fine story to them—to your Marines. Or, better still, for I hear them, they are here at last, to your detectives, and see what they will say to you!" Her fine instinct had not deceived her this time; almost before she had finished speaking a couple of men in plain clothes came into the room. They had the sharp, roving eye of the trained sleuthhound, and one of them carried a pair of steel handcuffs.
"There is the man you seek," cried Lucille, pointing to Frank, who stood quietly awaiting his captors in the center of the room. "Ah, my poor Doggie, you have had your day!"
"Begging your pardon, madame," said one of the men, not uncivilly, slipping the handcuffs over Lucille's slender wrists, "but you're the party we're after. You have given us the slip often enough, but I think we've got you safe this time."
Mme. de Vigny's face changed; for an instant she seemed to contemplate resistance, and then she submitted to the inevitable, and followed her captors to the door. On the threshold she paused and looked back with a gaze of concentrated hate upon the party. "Bah!" she ejaculated, and then, with an indescribable gesture of defiant contempt, she walked out of the room, and out of the lives her baleful influence had done so much to perturb.
As soon as she was gone, Frank, with a sudden recollection, inquired, "And the boy, our Ronny, Fenella? He is not ill—not again? Tell me the worst. I—I can bear it!"
"Ronny," said Fenella, with one of her little spasms of silent mirth, "Ronny is quite well; only he insisted in driving up to the door in a goat chaise. What is the matter, Frank—you are not unwell?"
"No," said Frank faintly, "no, only the dread of some new disaster. We have gone through so many!"
"They are all over now," she said, sweetly and confidently, "all over. Ronny will be here soon, and then we three will live here happily together, and poor Mr. Jacynth, whose time I am afraid I have really monopolized quite shamefully, can go back to his chambers and his clients again."
"Yes," said Jacynth dully. "I can go back. I—I have neglected them too long."
It was the end, he realized; she needed him no longer. He should see her no more—he would go. But before he could carry out his intention, he was startle by a sudden change in Onslow's expression and, shocked beyond words, he saw him throw his arms above his head, turn sharply round three times, and totter heavily against a wire flower stand, full of hyacinths in bloom, which he brought down with him in his fall. It was all over! The long-standing heart trouble, combined with the excitement of the varied events of the past months, and especially of the last hour, had brought poor Frank Onslow's checkered career to a sudden and tragic close, and the form that lay there among the bared bulbs, crushed bells, scattered earth and broken pots of the hyacinths was already itself nothing but lifeless clay.
Fenella felt too much for tears; she stood there in a kind of stupor, wondering what had happened to her, and how it would affect her when she was able to think of it. It was Jacynth who, with his never-failing tact and consideration, came to her relief.
"This is no place for you now," he said in his grave, gentle tones. "Let me lead you away, Fenella."
Fenella allowed herself to be guided by him; she had got so much into the habit of depending entirely upon him lately that somehow it seemed the natural thing to do. Only when they reached the fresh air and sunshine outside she looked up at him with childlike, appealing eyes. "Where are we going?" she inquired dreamily.
"We are going," he said, "to meet Ronny and the goat chaise."
It was strange, perhaps, but this simple remark gave Fenella a vague comfort. It would be some time—weeks, or even months—she knew, before happiness returned to her, and she was her own wayward, light-hearted self again; but that happiness was in store for her, that some day, sooner or later, she would forget all that seemed so painful and unpleasant just now, she knew as surely as that she was walking down the road, and leaning upon Clitheroe Jacynth's strong right arm.
And so these two went down to meet the goat chaise.