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   Chapter 24 MY DILEMMA

The Yellow House By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 11220

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


It seemed to me during the days that followed that I was confronted with a problem of more than ordinary complexity. I at any rate found it so. To live through childhood and girlhood wholly unconscious of the existence of a living mother, and then to find her like this, with such a history, was altogether a bewildering and unrealizable thing. Was I unnatural that I had not fallen into her arms? Ought I to have heard her story with sympathy, or at least, with simulated sympathy? At any rate I had not erred on the side of kindness towards her! I had made her suffer, and suffer very bitterly. Yet was not that inevitable? The seed was of her own sowing, not of mine. I was her unconscious agent. The inevitable requital of offences against the laws of social order had risen up against her in my person. If I had pretended an affection which I certainly had not felt, I must have figured as a hypocrite-and she was not the woman to desire that. I liked her. I had been attracted towards her from the first. Doubtless that attraction, which was in itself intuitive, was due to the promptings of nature. In that case it would develop. It seemed to me that this offer of hers-to go to her with a definite post and definite duties would be the best of all opportunities for such development. I was strongly inclined to accept it. I was both lonely and unhappy. In a certain sense my education and long residence abroad had unfitted me for this sedentary (in a mental sense) and uneventful life. The events of the last few weeks had only increased my restlessness. There was something from which I desired almost frantically to escape, certain thoughts which I must do my utmost to drown. At all costs I desired to leave the place. Its environment had suddenly become stifling to me. The more I considered my mother's offer the more I felt inclined to accept it.

And accept it I did. Early one morning I walked down to the Yellow House, and in a very few words engaged myself as Mrs. Fortress's secretary. We were both of us careful, for opposite reasons, not to discuss the matter in any but a purely businesslike spirit. Yet she could not altogether conceal the satisfaction which my decision certainly gave her.

"I only hope that you will not find the life too monotonous," she said. "There is a good deal of hard work to be done, of course, and mine is not altogether interesting labor."

"Hard work is just what I want," I assured her. "It will be strange at first, of course, but I do not mind the monotony of it. I want to escape from my thoughts. I feel as though I had been living through a nightmare here."

She looked at me with a soft light in her eyes.

"Poor child!" she murmured, "poor child!"

I was afraid that she was going to ask me questions which I could not well have answered, so I rose to my feet and turned away. Yet there was something soothing in her evident sympathy. She walked to the door with me.

"When shall you be ready to go to London with me?" she asked, upon the threshold.

"Any time," I answered, promptly. "There is nothing I desire so much as to leave here."

"I will write to have my little place put in order to-day," she said. "It will be ready for us in a week, I dare say. I think that I too shall be glad to leave here."

I walked quietly home through the shadowy plantation and across the little stretch of common. On my way upstairs to my room Mary, our little housemaid, interrupted me.

"There is a young lady in the drawing room waiting to see you, miss," she announced; "she came directly after you went."

I retraced my steps slowly. Of course I knew who it was. I opened the door, and found her sitting close to the fire.

She rose at once to her feet, and looked at me a little defiantly. I greeted her as pleasantly as I could, but she was evidently in a bad humor. There was an awkward silence for a moment or two. I waited for her to explain her mission.

"I saw you with Mr. Deville the other day," she remarked at last.

I nodded.

"It is quite true. I did all that I could to avoid him. That was what I promised, you know."

"Is that the first time you have seen him since we made our arrangement?" she asked.

"The first time," I answered.

"You have not been with him this afternoon?" she asked, suspiciously.

"Certainly not," I assured her. "I have only been down to see Mrs. Fortress for a few minutes."

"He was not there?"

"No."

She sighed and looked away from me into the fire, and when she spoke her voice was thick with rising sobs.

"He does not care for me. I cannot make him! My money does not seem to make any difference. He is too fierce and independent. I don't think that I shall ever be able to make him care."

I looked steadily down upon the carpet, and set my teeth firmly. It was ridiculous that my heart should be beating so fiercely.

"I'm sorry for you," I said, softly.

She fixed her black eyes upon me.

"You are sorry for me," she repeated. "Very good, you do not care for him yourself. But listen! I am afraid, I fear that he cares for you."

"You do not know that," I faltered. "You--"

"Bah!" she interrupted, scornfully. "I know. But you-there is some one else. That is our secret. Never mind, you do not care for him at any rate. You shall help me then. What do you say?"

"How can I help you?" I repeated. "Have I not already done all that I can by refusing to see him? What more can I do?"

"It was all a mistake-a stupid mistake, that idea of mine," she cried, passionately. "Men are such fools. I ought not to have tried to keep you apart. He

has been grim and furious always because he could not see you. I have had to suffer for it. It has been hateful. Oh, if you want to escape the greatest, the most hideous torture in this world," she cried, passionately, her thin voice quavering with nervous agitation, "pray to God that you may never love a man who cares nothing for you. It is unbearable! It is worse than hell! One is always humiliated, always in the dust."

I was very sorry for her, and she could not fail to see it.

"If you are so sure that he does not care for you-that he is not likely to care for you-would it not be better to go away and try to forget him?" I said. "It can only make you more miserable to stay here, if he is not kind to you."

She threw a curious glance at me. It was full of suspicion and full of malice.

"Oh, yes! of course you would advise me to go away," she exclaimed, spitefully. "You would give a good deal to be rid of me. I know. I wish--"

She leaned over a little nearer to me, and drew in her breath with a little hiss. Her eyes were fixed upon my face eagerly.

"You wish what?" I asked her, calmly.

"I wish that I understood you; I wish I knew what you were afraid of. What have you to do with Philip Maltabar? If he is not your lover, who is he? If he is not your lover, what of Bruce Deville? Oh! if you have been fooling me!" she muttered, with glistening eyes.

"You are a little enigmatic," I said, coldly. "You seem to think that you have a right to know every detail of my private life."

"I want to know more, at any rate, than you will tell me," she answered; "yet there is just this for you to remember. I am one of those whose love is stronger than their hate. For my love's sake I have forgotten to hate. But it may be that my love is vain. Then I shall put it from me if I can-crush it even though my life dies with it. But I shall not forget to hate. I came here with a purpose. It has grown weak, but it may grow strong again. Do you understand me?"

"You mean in plain words that if you do not succeed with Mr. Deville, you will recommence your search for the man you call Philip Maltabar."

She nodded her head slowly; her keen eyes were seeking to read mine.

"You will do as you choose, of course," I answered; "as regards Mr. Deville, I can do no more for you than I have done."

She commenced twisting her fingers nervously together, and her eyes never left my face.

"I think that you could do more than you have done," she said, meaningly. "You could do more if you would. That is why I am here. I have something to say to you about it."

"What is it?" I asked. "Better be plain with me. We have been talking riddles long enough."

"Oh, I will be plain enough," she declared, with a touch of blunt fierceness in her tone. "I believe that he cares for you, I believe that is why he will not think for a moment even of me. When I tell you that you know of course that I hate you."

"Oh, yes, I have known that for some time."

"I hate you!" she repeated, sullenly. "If you were to die I should be glad. If I had the means and the strength, I believe, I am sure that I would kill you myself."

I rose to my feet with a little shudder. She was terribly in earnest.

"I don't think, unless you have anything more to say, that it is a particularly pleasant interview for either of us," I remarked, with my hand upon the bell. But she stopped me.

"I have something else to propose," she declared. "You have said that you do not love him. Very well. Perhaps his not seeing you has irritated him and made him impatient. See him. Let him ask you-he will not need much encouragement-and refuse him. Answer him so that he cannot possibly make any mistake. Be rude to him if you can. Perhaps then, if he knows that you are not to be moved, he will come to me. Do you understand?"

"Oh, yes, I understand," I said, slowly; "I understand perfectly. There is only one thing you seem to forget. Your idea that Mr. Deville is interested in me is only a surmise. It is more than possible that you are altogether mistaken. He and I are almost strangers. We have not met a dozen times in our lives. He has never shown any inclination to make any sort of proposal to me; I should think it most unlikely that he should ever do so. Supposing that you were right, it would probably be months before he would mention it to me, and I am going away."

She smiled at me curiously. How I hated that smile, with its almost feline-like exhibition of glistening white teeth!

"He will propose to you if you will let him," she said, confidently. "If you are really ignorant of that fact, and of your conquest, I can assure you of it."

Suddenly she broke off and looked intently out of the window. Across the park in the distance a tall, familiar figure was coming rapidly towards us. She turned and faced me.

"He is coming here now," she declared. "I am going away. You stay here and see him. Perhaps he will ask you now. Can't you help him on to it? Remember, the more decidedly you refuse him the safer is Philip Maltabar. Be rude. Laugh at him; tell him he is too rough, too coarse for you. That is what he thinks himself. Hurt his feelings-wound him. It will be the better for you. You are a woman, and you can do it. Listen! Do you want money? I am rich. You shall have-I will give you five-ten thousand pounds if-if-he ever asks me. Ten thousand pounds, and safety for Philip Maltabar. You understand!"

She glided out of the room with white, passionate face and gleaming eyes. Whither she went I did not know. I stood there waiting for my visitor.

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