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   Chapter 17 LOVE FINDS A WAY

That Mainwaring Affair By A. Maynard Barbour Characters: 14231

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Less than three weeks later, Harold Mainwaring entered Miss Carleton's private drawing-room in Mr. Thornton's London home. Soon after her arrival in the city she had received from him a brief note of apology, stating that unexpected business of the greatest importance would render it impossible for him to call as early as he had anticipated; hence this was their first meeting since the leave-taking on board the "Campania."

As Miss Carleton stepped forward with cordial smile and hand extended to welcome her visitor, she was shocked at the change in his appearance. He was pale, almost haggard, and deep lines about the mouth and eyes told of some intense mental strain. She gave a low cry of astonishment, for it seemed as though years, instead of only a few weeks, had intervened since she had seen that face.

"Mr. Mainwaring, you have been ill!" she exclaimed.

"No, Miss Carleton," he replied, his face lighting with a rare smile; "I have been perfectly well, but loss of sleep and constant care and anxiety have told rather severely on me. Nothing more serious, I assure you."

"Anxiety!" she repeated, at the same time motioning him to a seat by her side. "Surely you do not anticipate any difficulty in establishing your claim?"

"No difficulty so far as its validity is concerned. My attorneys assure me there can be no question as to that with such irrefutable proofs in my possession, but some unlooked-for complications have arisen, and we have had to prepare ourselves to meet them. But I did not call to burden you with my perplexities, Miss Carleton. Tell me of yourself. I trust you have been well since I last saw you."

"Yes, I am usually well," said Miss Carleton, who thought she detected on the part of her visitor an avoidance of any details concerning himself; "but I have been rather bored of late." Then, in answer to his look of inquiry, she continued, "Of course, on account of Hugh Mainwaring's death, we have been living very quietly since our return, but, notwithstanding that fact, society has been paying due homage to the prospective increase of fortune and added social position of the Mainwarings. I am not particularly fond of society in the ordinary sense of the word, you know, and I have found it exceedingly tiresome."

"From reports, I should judge 'society' to be very fond of yourself," he remarked, with a smile.

"After its own fashion," she replied, smiling in return; "but it becomes very monotonous. It is the same old round, you know, only that just now it bows a little lower than formerly, while it mingles condolences and congratulations in the most absurd manner. One hears, 'Such a dreadful affair! so shocking, don't you know!' and 'Such delightful fortune! I quite envy you, my dear!' all in the same breath. I am only awaiting what society will say when the real facts become known."

Harold Mainwaring made no reply, but a strange pallor overspread his already pale face, at which Miss Carleton wondered.

"I have thought very often of you during these past weeks," she continued, "and felt quite impatient to learn how you were progressing, and your note was so brief, you know. It left so much unsaid. I fear you forget how interested I am in all that concerns yourself."

"No," he replied, slowly, "I do not forget; and I appreciate your interest in me even though I may not seem to,-even though I am forced, as you say, to leave so much unsaid which I had hoped to say."

Something in his manner, more than in what he said, thrilled her with a vague, undefinable sense of impending evil, and, during the slight pause which followed, she dreaded his next words, lest they should in some way confirm her apprehensions. He said nothing further, however, and when she spoke it was with an assumed lightness and cheerfulness which she was far from feeling.

"I hoped to have the pleasure of meeting you often ere this, and my uncle and cousin would have been so glad to welcome you to their home during your stay in London, but they have just gone out of town for a few days."

"Ordinarily, Miss Carleton," he replied, quietly, "I should be pleased to meet them, but on the present occasion, as I sail, to-morrow, I naturally care to see no one but yourself."

"To-morrow!" she exclaimed, while her own cheek suddenly paled. "Do you return so soon?"

"Yes," he replied, observing her emotion, and speaking rapidly to conceal his own feelings; "my business is at last completed. I have been detained longer than I expected, and I found the situation more complex than I anticipated, but I shall return well equipped for the battle."

"And you will win, I am sure. Tell me something regarding your plans," she added, with a wistful smile that touched her companion for more than he cared to betray.

"Mr. Alfred Barton goes with me to America," he said, speaking cheerfully; "and we have already cabled instructions to Mr. Sutherland, my New York attorney, regarding the initiatory steps. Mr. Barton and myself will be accompanied by James Wilson, the old servant who witnessed the execution of the will,"-Miss Carleton's eyes brightened,-"and also by a thoroughly competent, first-class Scotland Yard officer."

She gave a low exclamation. "I see what a powerful witness old Wilson will make; but the detective, what will you do with him?"

"We are going to investigate the murder of Hugh Mainwaring," he said, calmly.

"Why, surely, you cannot mean-" she hesitated. "You do not think that suspicion will be directed against any of the guests at Fair Oaks, do you?"

"My dear Miss Carleton, I cannot say at present. Perhaps," he added, slowly, looking steadily into her eyes, "perhaps, when all is over, suspicion will be directed against myself so unmistakably that public opinion will pronounce me guilty."

"I cannot believe that," she cried; "and even were it so,-should the whole world pronounce you guilty,-I would still believe you innocent; and I think," she added, quickly, "that is your object in employing a detective: by finding the real murderer, you will establish your own entire innocence."

"May God grant it!" he replied, with a fervor she could not understand. "I thank you, Miss Carleton, for your kind words; I shall never forget them; and, however the battle goes, I can feel there is one, at least, whose friendship and confidence are mine, can I not?"

"Most assuredly, Mr. Mainwaring. But why do you speak as though there were a possibility of defeat or failure? I am so confident that you will win, after the story of your life that you have given me, that I am all impatience to learn the outcome of the contest, just as having read one chapter in some thrilling romance I am eager for the next."

He smiled at her comparison. "Real life, as well as romance, sometimes contains startling surprises, Miss Carleton. The next chapter might prove less pleasant."

She looked keenly into his face for a moment, and her manner became as serious as his own.

"There must be something," she said, "of which you have not told me; if so, I will not ask your confidence until you cho

ose to bestow it, nor do I trust you, personally, any the less. It only seemed to me, with your prospects of success, and the great wealth and enviable position so soon to become yours, there could be no unpleasant anticipations for the future."

A bitter smile crossed his face, as he inquired in low, tense tones, "Of what avail are wealth and position to one who finds an insurmountable barrier placed between himself and all that he holds most precious on earth?"

"I fear I do not understand you," she replied. "I cannot imagine any barriers surrounding you; and did they exist, my judgment of you would be that you would find some way to surmount or destroy them."

"There are some barriers, some fetters," he said, gently, "against which humanity, even at its best, is powerless."

"Yes," she answered, a touch of sadness in her voice; "and there are sometimes sorrows and troubles in which even the closest and warmest friendship is powerless to aid or comfort."

"Don't allow yourself to think that of your friendship for me," he said, quickly. "Assured of your confidence and sympathy, I shall be ten times stronger to face whatever the future may bring. If I succeed in what I am about to undertake, I shall one day tell you all that your friendship has been worth to me. If I fail, the thought that you believe in me and trust me, while it will not be all that I could wish, may be all that I can ask."

"And if you should fail," she queried, slowly, "would you give me no opportunity to show you, and others, my confidence in you, even then?"

"My dear Miss Carleton," he replied, in tones tremulous with suppressed feeling, "much as I appreciate your kindness, I would never, now or at any future time, willingly mar your life or your happiness by asking you to share any burden which might be laid upon me. I would at least leave you to go your way in peace, while I went mine."

"And I?" she asked, reproachfully. "Would it contribute to my happiness, do you think, to remember the sorrow and suffering which I was not allowed to share?"

"Could you not forget?"

"Never!"

The young man sprang to his feet abruptly, his face working with emotion, and took two or three turns about the room. At last he paused, directly in front of her, and, folding his arms, stood looking down into the beautiful eyes that met his own so unflinchingly. He was outwardly calm, but the smouldering fire which seemed to gleam in his dark eyes told of intense mental excitement.

"Miss Carleton," he said, slowly, in low tones, but yet which vibrated through her whole being, "you are almost cruel in your kindness; you will yet make a coward of me!"

"I have no fear of that," she answered, quietly.

"Yes, a coward! Instead of remaining silent as I intended, and keeping my trouble within my own breast, you will compel me in self-defence to say that which will only give you pain to hear, thereby adding to my own suffering."

"Perhaps you misjudge," she replied, and her voice had a ring of pathos in it; "any word of explanation-no matter what-would be less hard for me to endure than this suspense."

"God knows I would make full explanation if I could, but I cannot, and I fear there is nothing I can say that will not add to your suspense. Miss Carleton, you must need no words from me to tell you that I love you. I have loved you almost from the first day of our meeting, and whatever life may have in store for me, you, and you alone, will have my love. But, loving you as I do, could I have looked forward to the present time, could I for one moment have foreseen what was awaiting me, believe me, you should never have known by word or look, or any other sign, of my love."

He paused a moment, then continued. "If that were all, I might have borne it; I could have locked my love forever within my own heart, and suffered in silence; but the fact that you have given me some reason to believe that you were not wholly indifferent to me,-the thought that I might in time have won your love,-makes the possibilities of the future a thousand times harder to bear. It is harder to forego the joys of Paradise when once you have had a glimpse within! It was to this I alluded when I spoke of the insurmountable barrier placed between myself and all that I hold holiest and best on earth!"

"But I do not understand!" she cried, her lovely color deepening and her eyes glowing with a new light, until Harold Mainwaring confessed to himself that never had he seen her so beautiful. "What barrier could ever exist between you and me?"

For an instant he looked at her in silence, an agony of love and longing in his eyes; then drawing himself up to his full height, he said, slowly,-

"Not until I can stand before you free and clear from the faintest shadow of the murder of Hugh Mainwaring, will I ever ask for that most precious gift of your love!"

Her face blanched at the mere possibility suggested by his words. "But you are innocent!" she cried in swift protest, "and you could prove it, even were suspicion directed against you for a time."

"Even admitting that I were, the taint of suspicion is sometimes as lasting as the stain of crime itself."

She arose and stood proudly facing him. "Do you think I would fear suspicion? To hear from your own lips that you love me and that you are innocent would be enough for me; I would defy the whole world!"

He did not at once reply, and when he spoke it was slowly and reluctantly, as though each word were wrung from him by torture.

"My dear Miss Carleton, even to you I cannot say that I am innocent."

There was a moment's pause, during which she gazed at him, speechless with astonishment; a moment of intense agony to Harold Mainwaring, as he watched whether her faith in him would waver. But she gave no sign, though she scanned his face, as the condemned criminal scans the document handed him as the fateful day approaches, to ascertain whether it contains his pardon or his death sentence.

"Understand me," he said at last, gently, unable longer to endure the terrible silence, "I do not admit that I am in any way guilty, but until I am fully acquitted of any share in or knowledge of the death of Hugh Mainwaring, I can make neither denial nor admission, one way or the other."

"But you still love me?" she inquired, calmly.

"Miss Carleton,-Winifred,-how can you ask? You are, and always will be to me, the one, only woman upon earth."

"That is sufficient," she answered, with a strange, bright smile; "my faith in you is perfect, and faith and love can wait."

"Wait, my love! until when?" he cried.

"If needful, until Eternity's sunlight dispels Earth's shadows! Eternity holds ample compensation for all of Earth's waiting."

"But, my darling," he said, half protesting, while he folded her to his breast, "you know not the risk you may be running; I cannot accept the sacrifice that may be involved."

"My decision is taken, and it is irrevocable," she answered, with an arch smile; then added, "There can be no barriers between us, Harold, for Love will find a way!"

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