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   Chapter 21 THE LAST THROW

That Mainwaring Affair By A. Maynard Barbour Characters: 25785

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


There being no further testimony in the case, but little time was occupied by Mr. Sutherland at the afternoon session. Briefly and forcibly he summarized the evidence already adduced, emphasizing the strongest points and closing with numerous citations bearing upon the case taken from recent decisions of the highest legal authorities.

Several days would be required for consideration of the case pending the decision of the court, and as the crowd surged out into the corridors and diffused itself through the various exits, there was much speculation as to what that decision would be and what would be the action taken by the opponents. Among the clubmen who had made the acquaintance of Ralph Mainwaring, heavy bets were offered that he would contest the case before the will was even admitted to probate.

"He is a fool if he does," said one; "the young fellow has the best show."

"He'll not give up, however," was the reply; "he's got too much of the bull-dog about him; nothing will make him break his hold till he has spent his last shilling."

"Well, he'll spend it for nothing, that's all!" said another. "I'll wager you a dinner for the whole club that the young fellow will beat him. Anybody that knows Sutherland, knows he hasn't played his trump card yet; and you may rest assured that English lawyer isn't over here as a figure-head!"

Ralph Mainwaring, passing hastily from the court-room, accompanied by Mr. Whitney, overheard the last remark. His only reply, however, was a look of scorn flashed at the speaker, but the sardonic smile which lingered about his closely compressed lips betokened on his part no anticipations of defeat, but rather the reverse. Even Mr. Whitney wondered at his silence, but young Mainwaring, leisurely following in the rear, knew it to be only the calm which presages the coming storm.

His father, followed by the attorney, stepped quickly into the Mainwaring carriage and beckoned impatiently for him to follow, but the younger man coolly declined the invitation.

"No, thank you, governor. I'm going for a bit of a stroll; I'll join you and Mr. Whitney at dinner."

As the carriage rolled away he stood for a few moments lost in thought. His father's words to him that morning had stung his pride and aroused in him a spirit of independence altogether new, which had made him the more keen in observing his father's expressions and movements, and in drawing his own deductions therefrom. He had formed some theories of his own, and as he now stood in the soft, autumnal sunshine, he resolved to put them to the test.

Turning suddenly in an opposite direction from that which he had at first taken, he found himself confronted by Harold Mainwaring and his party as they descended the court-house steps to the carriages in waiting.

Instantly the young men clasped hands, and the frank, blue eyes gazed into the piercing dark ones, with a friendliness of whose sincerity there could be no doubt.

"Egad, old fellow!" he exclaimed, in low tones, "I'm glad to see you, though you have taken us rather by surprise. I'll not take back a word of the promise I made you, nor of what I've said about you, either."

"I did not think you would, Hugh," Harold replied, grasping the proffered hand heartily; "I had a great deal of faith in you and in your word. I only regretted that I could not explain matters at the time; it seemed like taking advantage of you and your friendship, though I warned you that the future might make some unexpected revelations."

"Well, I don't regret anything. I always said you had good blood in you, don't you know," Hugh continued, with a boyish laugh, then added, a little huskily, "I'll say this much, and I mean it. I would rather give up what I supposed was mine to you than to anybody else that know of."

"Thank you, Hugh; I appreciate that, I assure you. Come around to the Waldorf, I would like to have a talk with you."

"Indeed I will. Of course, I suppose it would be of no use to ask you up to the house; I couldn't expect you to come, but I'll see you as soon as I can," and with another handclasp the young men parted.

On arriving at the Waldorf, a note was handed to Harold Mainwaring, with the information that the bearer had been waiting nearly an hour, as there was an answer expected. He well knew the writing; it was the same as that of the little missive given him on the first day of the inquest, and with darkening face he opened it and read the following lines:

"I must see you at once, and I beg of you to come to my apartments this afternoon at five o'clock, without fail. In the name of mercy, do not deny me this one favor. I can tell you something important for you to know, of which you little dream.

"ELEANOR HOUGHTON MAINWARING."

After brief consultation with his attorneys, an answer was sent to the effect that he would call in compliance with the request, and a little later he started upon his strange errand.

With what wildly conflicting emotions Mrs. LaGrange in her apartments awaited his coming may perhaps be more easily imagined than portrayed. She had not recovered from the morning's shock, but was nerving herself for the coming ordeal; preparing to make her final, desperate throw in the game of life. Success now, in this last venture, would mean everything to her, while failure would leave her nothing, only blank despair. Pride, the dominant passion of her life, struggled with a newly awakened love; doubt and dread and fear battled with hope, but even in the unequal contest, hope would not be vanquished.

Shortly before the hour appointed, Richard Hobson's card was handed her with the information that he must see her without delay. She understood the nature of his errand; she knew his coming was inevitable; her only desire was to postpone the meeting with him until after the interview with Harold Mainwaring, but on no account would she have him know of her appointment with the latter. She tore the bit of pasteboard in two.

"Tell him to call to-morrow," she said to the messenger; but he soon returned, with another card on which was written,-

"Important! must see you to-day."

It was nearly five. Quickly, with fingers trembling from her anxiety lest he delay too long, she wrote,-

"Call at eight o'clock this evening; I can see no one earlier."

As she gave the card to the messenger, she glanced again at the little French clock on the mantel.

"Three hours," she murmured; "three hours in which to decide my fate! If I succeed, I can bid defiance to that craven when he shall come to-night; if not-" she shuddered and walked over to the window, where she watched eagerly till she saw the cringing figure going hastily down the street.

He had but just disappeared around the corner of the block when a closed carriage was driven rapidly to the hotel, and a moment later Harold Scott Mainwaring was announced.

Her heart throbbed wildly as she turned to meet him, then suddenly stopped, seeming a dead weight in her breast, as her eyes met his.

For a moment neither spoke; once her lips moved, but no sound came from them. Before that face, hard and impassive as granite, and as cold, the impulse which she had felt to throw herself at his feet and plead for mercy and for love died within her; her tongue seemed paralyzed, powerless to utter a word, and the words she would have spoken fled from her brain.

With swift observation he noted the terrible change which the last weeks, and especially the last few hours, had wrought in the wretched woman before him, and the suffering, evidenced by her deathly pallor, her trembling agitation, and the look of dumb, almost hopeless pleading in her eyes, appealed to him far more than any words could have done.

He was the first to speak, and though there was no softening of the stern features, yet his tones were gentle, almost pitying, as he said,-

"I have come as you requested. Why did you send for me? What have you to say?"

At the sound of his voice she seemed somewhat reassured, and advancing a few steps towards him, she repeated his words,-

"Why did I send for you? Why should I not send for you? Think you a mother would have no desire to see her own son after long years of cruel separation from him?"

"There is no need to call up the past," he said, more coldly; "the separation to which you refer was, under existing circumstances, the best for all concerned. It undoubtedly caused suffering, but you were not the sufferer; there could be no great depth of maternal love where there was neither love nor loyalty as a wife."

Her dark eyes grew tender and luminous as she fixed them upon his face, while she beckoned him to a seat and seated herself near and facing him.

"You forget," she replied, in the low, rich tones he had so often heard at Fair Oaks; "you forget that a mother's love is instinctive, born within her with the birth of her child, while a wife's love must be won. I must recall the past to you, and you must listen; 'twas for this I sent for you, that you, knowing the past, might know that, however deeply I may have sinned, I have been far more deeply sinned against."

"Not as regards my father," he interposed, quickly, as she paused to note the effect of her words; "he sacrificed fortune, home, friends, everything for you, and you rewarded his love and devotion only with the basest infidelity."

"That your father loved me, I admit," she continued, in the same low, musical tones, scarcely heeding his words; "but, as I said a moment ago, a wife's love must be won, and he failed to win my love."

"Was his treacherous brother so much more successful then in that direction than he?" Harold questioned, sternly. "Within six months after your marriage to my father, you admitted that you married him only that you might have Hugh Mainwaring for your lover."

She neither flushed nor quailed under the burning indignation of his gaze, but her eyes were fastened upon him intently as the eyes of the charmer upon his victim.

"Half truths are ever harder to refute than falsehood," she replied, softly. "I said that once under great provocation, but if I sought to make Hugh Mainwaring my lover, it was not that I loved him, but through revenge for his having trifled with me only to deceive and desert me. Before I married your father, both he and his brother were among my most ardent admirers. The younger brother seemed to me far more congenial, and had he possessed one-half the chivalry and devotion which the elder brother afterwards manifested, he would have completely won my love. The rivalry between the two brothers led to bitter estrangement, which soon became known to their father, who lost no time in ascertaining its cause. His anger on learning the facts in the case was extreme; he wrote me an insulting letter, and threatened to disown either or both of his sons unless they discontinued their attentions to a 'disreputable adventuress,' as he chose to style me. Hugh Mainwaring at once deserted me, without even a word of explanation or of farewell, and, as if that were not enough, on more than one occasion he openly insulted me in the presence of his father, on the streets of London. I realized then for the first time that I cared for him, coward that he was, though I did not love him as he thought,-had I loved him, I would have killed him, then and there. Mad with chagrin and rage, I married your father, partly for the position he could give me-for I did not believe that he, the elder son and his father's favorite, would be disowned-and partly to show his brother and their father that I still held, as I supposed, the winning hand. On my wedding-day I vowed that I would yet bring Hugh Mainwaring to my feet as my lover, and when, shortly afterwards, your father was disinherited in his favor, my desire for revenge was only intensified. I redoubled my efforts to win him, and I found it no difficult task; he was even more willing to play the lover to his brother's wife than to the penniless girl whom he had known, with no possessions but her beauty and wit. At first, our meetings were clandestine; but we soon grew reckless, and in one or two instances I openly boasted of my conquest, hoping thereby to arouse his father's displeasure against him also. But in that I reckoned wrong. He disinherited and disowned his son for having honorably married a woman whom he considered below him in station, but for an open affaire d'amour with that son's wife, he had not even a word of censure.

"Your father discovered the situation and decided upon a life in Australia. If he had then shown me some consideration, the future might have been vastly different; but he grew morose and taciturn, and I, accustomed to gay society and the admiration of crowds, was left to mope alone in a strange country, with no companionship what

ever. What wonder that I hungered for the old life, or that a casual admiring glance, or a few words even of flattery, were like cold water to one perishing with thirst! Then new hope came into my lonely life, and I spent months in dreamy, happy anticipations of the future love and companionship of my child. But even that boon was denied me. It was hard enough, believing, as I did, that my child had died, but to find that I was robbed of that which would have been not only my joy and happiness, but my salvation from the life which followed!" She paused, apparently unable to proceed, and buried her eyes in a dainty handkerchief, while Harold Mainwaring watched her, the hard lines deepening about his mouth.

"After that," she resumed, in trembling tones, "all hope was gone. Your father deserted me soon afterwards, leaving me nearly penniless, and a flew years later I returned to England."

"To find Hugh Mainwaring?" he queried.

"Not at the first," she answered, but her eyes fell before the cynicism of his glance. "I had no thought of him then, but I learned through Richard Hobson, whom I met in London at that time, of the will which had been made in my husband's favor, but which he told me had been destroyed by Hugh Mainwaring. He said nothing of the clause forbidding that any of the property should pass to me, and I immediately sailed for America in search of Hugh Mainwaring, believing that, with my knowledge of the will, I, as his brother's widow, could get some hold upon him by which I could compel him either to share the property with me or to marry me."

"Then you were not married to Hugh Mainwaring in England, as you testified at the inquest?"

"No," she replied, passionately; "I was never married to him. I have made many men my dupes and slaves, but he was the one man who made a dupe of me, and I hating him all the time!"

"And Walter!" he exclaimed, "you stated that he was the son of Hugh Mainwaring."

"He is Hugh Mainwaring's son and mine," she answered, with bitter emphasis; "that was another of my schemes which failed. I found I had little hold upon Hugh Mainwaring, while he had the same power over me as in the days before I had learned to despise him. When Walter was born, I hoped he would then fulfil his promises of marriage; but instead, he would have turned me adrift had I not threatened that I would then disclose everything which I knew concerning the will. He sneered at me, but offered me a place as servant in his home, and support and education for his child on condition that the relationship should never be known, and that I would remain silent regarding the will. I could do nothing then but accept his conditions, but they were galling,-too galling at last to be longer endured!"

"How is it that you and Walter bear the name of LaGrange?" he asked.

She hesitated a moment, then replied: "I married a man by that name soon after leaving Australia."

"Before or after the tidings of my father's death?" he questioned, sternly.

"We heard the news of his death soon after our marriage, but he had deserted me years before, so it made little difference. I met Captain LaGrange in Sydney, and we sailed together for Paris and were married there, but we soon grew tired of each other. I left him in about two years and went to Vienna, and from there returned to England. In some way, Hugh Mainwaring learned of the marriage, and when I came to Fair Oaks, he insisted on my taking that name for myself and child."

She spoke wearily and with an air of dejection, for it was plainly evident that Harold Mainwaring was not to be deceived by misstatements, however plausible, nor were his sympathies to be aroused by simulated grief. A few moments of silence followed, while she watched him intently, her face again falling into the pinched and haggard outlines which he had observed on entering the room.

When he at last spoke, his voice was calm, without a trace of anger or bitterness.

"Mrs. LaGrange, I have been informed that in the days before you ruined my father's life you were an actress in a second-class London playhouse, and I see you have not yet lost some little tricks of the stage; but we are not now before the footlights, and it will be much better to lay aside everything pertaining to them. Nothing that you have said has awakened my pity or touched my sympathies for you; in fact, what you have told me has only steeled my heart against you because of its utter falsity. It is unnecessary to go over the ground again, but if you could not reciprocate the love and devotion bestowed upon you by my father, you should never have accepted it; but accepting it as you did, you were bound by every consideration to be true and loyal to that love and to him. Instead, from beginning to end, you have been false to him, false to his memory, false to your own wifehood and motherhood, false to yourself! I have not come here to reproach you, however. I will only say that I do not believe the capacity-the capability even-of love exists, or has ever existed, within you. But," he continued, in gentler tones, "the capacity for suffering does exist, and I can see without any simulation on your part that you have suffered."

Before the look of pity which now for the first time softened the stern features, she broke down, and genuine tears coursed down her pallid cheeks as she cried, "Suffered! what have I not suffered! I am homeless, penniless, degraded, an outcast! There is no hope, no help for me unless you will help me. I know what you must think of me, how even you, my son, must despise me, but as a drowning man catches at a straw, I sent for you, hoping that you would in mercy pity me and help me."

"Do you wish me to help you pecuniarily? I will willingly do that."

"Pecuniarily!" she exclaimed, almost in scorn. "Cannot you understand what I need most? It is pity, sympathy, love! I want the love and support of my first-born son, and I am willing to beg for it," and, rising from her chair, she threw herself upon her knees beside him, "only be my son, forget the past and let me be to you, as I am, your mother! No, let me be!" she exclaimed, as he would have raised her from her kneeling posture. "I have no son but you, for Walter, like his father, has deserted me, with taunts and sneers. I can help you, too," she added, eagerly, but in low tones, "help you in a way of which you little dream. Do you know what Ralph Mainwaring will attempt next? He will try to implicate you in the murder of Hugh Mainwaring!"

"That will be no more than you yourself attempted at the inquest," he answered.

"Ah, but his motive is different; in my case it was but the resort of a weak woman to divert suspicion from herself; but he will seek to fasten this crime upon you to defeat you, to crush and ruin you, because he fears you as his opponent, and it is within my power to clear you from any charges he may bring against you."

Her voice sank nearly to a whisper, her eyes were dilated, and she was trembling with excitement.

He watched her intently for a moment, then spoke in a tone of calm command. "Tell me how you could help me. What do you know of that affair?"

"Listen, and I will tell you," and leaning towards him, she whispered a few words in his ears.

Only a few words, but Harold Mainwaring started as from a shock, while his face grew as pale as her own, and it was with difficulty he could control his voice, as he demanded in quick, excited tones,-

"Do you know what you are saying? Are you speaking the truth?"

"Yes, before Heaven, it is the truth, and the horror of it has haunted me day and night; the thought of it has driven me nearly mad, but I dared not breathe it to any living human being."

"You have told no one else what you have just told me?"

"No, I dared not."

He asked a few more questions which she answered, and from her manner he was convinced that she spoke the truth. Then he sat for a moment silent, his head bowed, his eyes covered, lost in thought, while strangely commingled emotions surged within his breast.

At last she broke the silence. "It will help you-what I have told you-will it not?"

"It is of inestimable value to me," he answered, but instead of exultation, there was a strange sadness in his voice.

"You will let me help you, and you will be a son to me, will you not?"

He looked at her with an expression of mingled pity and bitterness, and then, without replying, lifted her gently but firmly and reseated her, while he himself remained standing at a little distance. She watched him anxiously.

"Harold," at last she ventured, "think what I have suffered, and do not refuse my one prayer."

"I can see that you have suffered," he answered, gently; "and, as I have told you, I will help you pecuniarily and will befriend you, only do not ask me that which I cannot give."

"I ask nothing more," she exclaimed, passionately, rising to her feet, "than that you be a son to me, and I will accept nothing less."

"I am sorry to hear you say that," he replied, "for you are only unnecessarily depriving yourself of many benefits that might be yours. I would provide a home for you where you would be unknown, and means that you could spend the remainder of your life in comfort."

"What would I care for any home or wealth that you might provide for me," she demanded, angrily, "if you yourself would not acknowledge me as your mother! I will accept nothing from you under such conditions."

"Then we may as well end this conference," he replied, calmly, "for I hold my father in too deep love and reverence ever to permit of my applying to you the sacred name of 'Mother.'"

Her eyes flashed at the mention of his father, and she was about to speak, but he lifted his hand warningly. "Hush!" he commanded; "not one word shall you speak against him in my presence! Before I go, I will give you an opportunity to reconsider your declaration of a moment ago."

"I will not reconsider it. You are like every Mainwaring that I have ever known, in that you think money and shelter, such as you might fling at some superannuated servant, will take the place of the true position and honor that are my due."

"Do you then, finally and once for all, refuse any and all offers of assistance from me?" he asked.

"I do," she replied, proudly; "I will not accept charity from a Mainwaring,-not even from you!"

"Very well; if that is your decision, I bid you adieu," and before she could reply, he was gone.

He passed swiftly down the corridor, his head bowed slightly, looking neither to the right hand nor to the left, but his step had an elasticity it had not possessed in weeks, and any one passing near him would have heard the single exclamation, "Thank God!"

Upon reaching his carriage, he spoke quickly to the driver, "To the Waldorf at once!" and was borne away by the impatient steeds even more swiftly than he had come.

Meanwhile, within the room which he had just left, the wretched woman, whose falseness and pride had wrought her own undoing, stood listening to the retreating footsteps; she heard them die away in the distance, heard the carriage-wheels roll rapidly down the avenue, then sank upon a low couch with a cry of despair.

"All is over," she moaned, "and I have failed. I could not force him to my terms, and I would never yield to his. I will take charity from no one, least of all from him. I will be first, or nothing!" and she shivered faintly.

After a tune she arose, and ringing for her maid, ordered a light repast brought to her room, as she would not go down to dinner; "And," she concluded, "you can have the evening to yourself: I expect callers, and will not need you."

An hour later, Richard Hobson crept along the corridor and tapped for admittance. There was no answer, and cautiously pushing open the door, he entered unbidden, but started back in horror at the sight which met his eyes. The electric lights had not been turned on, but a few tall wax tapers, in a pair of candelabra upon the mantel, were burning, and in the dim, weird light, Mrs. LaGrange, still elegantly attired for her interview with Harold Mainwaring, lay upon the low couch near the grate, her features scarcely paler than a few hours before, but now rigid in death. Upon the table beside her, the supper ordered by the maid stood untasted, while on the same table a small vial bearing the label of one of the deadliest of poisons, but empty, told the story. Underneath the vial was a slip of paper, on which was written,-

"I have staked my highest card-and lost! The game is done."

Terror-stricken, Hobson glanced about him, then pausing only long enough to clutch some of the gleaming jewels from the inanimate form, he stealthily withdrew, and, skulking unobserved along the corridors, passed out into the darkness and was gone.

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