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   Chapter 12 A COWARDLY COMMUNICATION.

In Friendship's Guise By William Murray Graydon Characters: 9705

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


"You doubtless know why I have come," said Stephen Foster, as he stepped into the room and closed the door. He looked penetratingly at the young man through a pair of gold-rimmed eye-glasses.

"I think I do, sir," Jack replied, "and I am very glad to see you. I rather expected a visit from you. Take a seat, please."

"Thank you-I prefer to stand. My business is very brief, Mr. Vernon. It is quite unnecessary to enter into discussions or explanations. You are aware, of course, that my daughter has told me everything. Do you consider that you have acted honorably-that your conduct has been what a gentleman's should be?"

"It has, sir. Appearances are a little against me, I admit, but I have a clear conscience, Mr. Foster. I love your daughter with all my heart, and I have no higher aim in life than to make her my wife. I am heartily glad of the opportunity to tell you this to your face. Believe me, it was not from choice that I stooped to clandestine meetings."

Stephen Foster laughed contemptuously.

"You took an unfair advantage of an innocent and trustful girl," he said. "My daughter is young, ignorant of the world, and she does not know her own mind. You have cast a spell over her, as it were. She defies me-she refuses to obey my orders. You have estranged us, Mr. Vernon, and brought a cloud into what was a happy home. I appeal to you, in a father's name, to release the girl from the ill-advised and foolish promises she made you."

"I cannot give her up, sir. I fear you do not understand how much Madge-Miss Foster-is to me. If words could prove my sincerity, my devotion to her-"

"Her marriage to you is out of the question."

"May I ask why?"

"My reasons do not concern you."

"But at least I am entitled to some explanation-it is no more than my due," said Jack. "Why do you object to me as a son-in-law? I am not a rake or an idler-you can easily satisfy yourself of my character, if you like. I am not a rich man, but I can offer your daughter a comfortable, even a luxurious, home. I have succeeded in my profession, and in another year I shall doubtless be making an income of two or three thousand pounds."

"I am ready to admit all that," was Stephen Foster's curt reply. "It does not alter the position, however."

"I suppose you have higher views for your daughter!" Jack cried, bitterly.

"Yes, I have," Stephen Foster admitted, after a moment's hesitation. "I don't mind saying as much. But this interview has already lasted longer than I intended it should, Mr. Vernon. Have I appealed to you in vain?"

"With all proper respect to you, sir, I can answer you in only one way," Jack replied, firmly. "Your daughter returns my affection, and she is a woman in ten thousand-a woman for whose love one might well count the world well lost. I cannot, I will not, give her up."

The young artist's declaration, strange to say, brought no angry response from Stephen Foster. For an instant the hard lines on his face melted away, and there was a gleam of something closely akin to admiration in his eyes; he actually made a half-movement to hold out his hand, but as quickly withdrew it. He turned and opened the door.

"Is this your last word?" he asked from the threshold.

"That rests with you. I cannot retreat from my position. Should I renounce your daughter, after winning her heart, I would deserve to be called-"

"Very well, sir," interrupted Stephen Foster. "I shall know what measures to take in the future. Forewarned is forearmed. And, by the way, to save you the trouble of hanging about Strand-on-the-Green, I may tell you that I have sent my daughter out of town on a visit."

With that parting shot he went down the short flight of steps, and passed into the street. Jack closed the door savagely, and began to walk up and down the studio, as restless as a caged beast.

"Here's a nice mess!" he reflected. "Angry parent, obdurate daughter, and all that sort of thing. But I rather fancy I scored-he gained nothing by his visit, and after he thinks the matter over he will probably take a more sensible view of it. His appeal to me shows clearly that he failed to make Madge yield."

On the whole, after further consideration, Jack concluded that there was no ground for despondency. His spirits rose as he recalled the girl's earnest and loving promises, her assurances of eternal fidelity.

"My darling will be true to me, come what may," he thought. "No amount of persuasion or threats can induce her to give me up, and in the end, when Stephen Foster is convinced of that, he will make the best of it and withdraw his objections. If Madge has been sent out of town, she went against her will. But, of course, she will manage to let me hear from her."

Jack sat down to his desk, intending to write a letter to a friend in Paris, a well-to-do artist

who lived in the neighborhood of the Pare Monceaux. He held his pen undecidedly for a moment, and then leaned back in his chair with a puzzled countenance.

"By Jove, it's queer," he muttered; "but Stephen Foster's voice was awfully familiar. We never met before, and I never laid eyes on the man, so far as I can remember. I am mistaken. It is only a fancy. No-I have it! He suggests M. Felix Marchand-there is something in common in their speech, though it is very slight. What an odd coincidence!"

That it could possibly be more than a coincidence did not occur to Jack, and he would have laughed the idea to scorn. He dismissed the matter from his mind, wrote and posted the letter, and then went off to dine by appointment with Victor Nevill.

There was no word from Madge the next day, and it is to be feared that Jack's work suffered in consequence, and that Alphonse found him slightly irritable. But on the following morning a letter came in the well-known handwriting. It was very brief. The girl was not out of town, but was stopping near Regent's Park with an elderly maternal aunt who lived in Portland Terrace, and was addicted to the companionship of cockatoos and cats, not to speak of a brace of overfed, half-blind pugs.

"I am in exile," the letter concluded, "and the dragon is a watchful jailer. But she sleeps in the afternoon, and at three o'clock to-morrow I will be inside the Charles street gate."

"To-morrow" meant to-day, and until lunch time Jack's brush flew energetically over the canvas. He was at the trysting-place at the appointed hour, and Madge was there waiting for him, so ravishingly dressed that he could scarcely resist the temptation to gather her in his arms. As they strolled through the park he rather gloomily described his visit from Stephen Foster, but the girl's half-smiling, half-tearful look of affection reassured him.

"You foolish boy!" she said, chidingly. "As if there were any danger of your losing me. Why, I wouldn't give you up if you wanted me to! I think you got the best of father, dear. He understands now, and by and by he will relent. He is a good sort, really, and you will like him when you know him better."

"We made a bad beginning," Jack said, ruefully.

They had reached the lake by this time, and they went on to a bench in a shady and sequestered spot. Madge's high spirits seemed suddenly to desert her, and she looked pensively across the glimmering water to the tall mansions of Hanover Terrace.

"Madge, something troubles you," her lover said, anxiously.

"Yes, Jack. I-I received an anonymous letter at noon. Mrs. Sedgewick forwarded it to me. Oh, it is shameful to speak of it-"

"An anonymous letter? There is nothing more vile or cowardly! Did it concern me?"

"Yes."

"And spoke badly of me?"

"It didn't say anything good."

"I wish I had the scoundrel by the throat! You have no idea who sent it?"

"None, dear. It was in a strange, scrawly hand, and was postmarked Paddington."

"It is a mystery I am powerless to explain," Jack said dismally. "To the best of my knowledge I have not an enemy in the world. I can recall no one who would wish to do me an ill turn. And the writer lied foully if he gave me a bad character, Madge. Where is the letter?"

"I destroyed it at once. I hated to see it, to touch it."

"I am sorry you did that. It might have contained some clew. Tell me all, Madge. Surely, darling, you don't believe-"

"Jack, how can you think so?" She glanced up at him with a tender, trustful, and yet half-distressed look in her eyes. "Forgive me, dear. It is not that I doubt you, but-but I must ask you one question. You are a free man? There is no tie that could forbid you to marry me?"

"I am a free man," Jack answered her solemnly. "Put such evil thoughts out of your mind, my darling. By the passionate love I feel for you, by my own honor, I swear that I have an honest man's right to make you mine. But, as I told you before, I had a reckless past-"

"I don't want to hear about it," Madge interrupted.

No one was within sight or sound, so she put her arms about his neck and lifted her lips to his.

"Jack, you have made me so happy," she whispered. "I will forget that false, wicked letter. I love you, love you, dear. And I will be your wife whenever you wish-"

Her voice broke, and he kissed a tear from her burning cheek.

"My Madge!" he said, softly. "Do you care so much for me?"

Half an hour later they parted at the Hanover Gate. As he turned his steps homeward, the cowardly anonymous letter lay heavily on his mind. Who could have written it, and what did it contain? He more than suspected that it referred to his youthful marriage with Diane Merode.

When he reached the studio he found on his desk a letter bearing a French stamp. He opened it curiously.

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