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   Chapter 10 No.10

Moth and Rust; Together with Geoffrey's Wife and The Pitfall By Mary Cholmondeley Characters: 15609

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Thine were the weak, slight hands

That might have taken this strong soul, and bent

Its stubborn substance to thy soft intent."

-William Watson.

It was hard on Stephen that when he walked into a certain drawing-room the following evening he should find Anne there. It was doubly hard that he should have to take her in to dinner. Yet so it was. There ought to have been a decent interval before their next meeting. Some one had arranged tactlessly, without any sense of proportion. Though he had not slept since she left him in the garden, still it seemed only a moment ago, and that she was back beside him in an instant, without giving him time to draw breath.

She met him as she always met him, with the faint enigmatical smile, with the touch of gentle respect never absent from her manner to him, except for one moment last night. He needed it. He had fallen in his own estimation during that sleepless night. He saw the sudden impulse that had goaded him into an offer of marriage-the kind of offer that how many men make in good faith-in its native brutality-as he knew she had seen it. When he first perceived her in the dimly-lighted room, and he was aware of her presence before he saw her, he felt he could not go towards her, as a man may feel that he cannot go home. Home for Stephen was wherever Anne was, even if the door were barred against him.

But after a few minutes he screwed his "courage to the sticking-place," and went up to her.

"I am to take you in to dinner," he said. "It is your misfortune, but not my fault."

"I am glad," she said. "I came to you last night because I had something urgent to say to you. I shall have an opportunity of saying it now."

The constraint and awkwardness he had of late felt in her presence fell from him. It seemed as if they had gone back by some welcome short cut to the simple intercourse of the halcyon days when they had first met.

He cursed himself for his mole-like obtuseness in having thought last night that she was playing into her mother's hands. When had she ever done so? Why had he suspected her?

In the meanwhile the world was

"At rest with will

And leisure to be fair."

The Duchess was not there, suddenly and mercifully laid low by that occasional friend of society-influenza. The Duke, gay and débonnaire in her absence, was beaming on his hostess whom he was to take into dinner, and to whom he was sentimentally linked by a mild flirtation in a past decade, a flirtation so mild that it had no real existence, except in the imaginative remembrance of both.

Presently Anne and Stephen were walking in to dinner together. It was a large party, and they sat together at the end of the table.

Anne did not wait this time. She began to talk at once.

"I am anxious about a friend of mine," she said, "who is, I am afraid, becoming entangled in a far greater difficulty than she is aware. But it is a long story. Do you mind long stories?"

"No."

Stephen turned towards her, becoming a solid block of attention.

"My friend is a Miss Black, a very beautiful woman, whom Mr De Rivaz is dying to paint. You may recollect having seen her where he saw her first, the day after the fire in Lowndes Mansions, in the burnt-out flat of that unfortunate Mrs Brand."

"I saw her. I remember her perfectly. I spoke to her about the dangerous state of the passages. I thought her the most beautiful creature, bar none, I had ever seen."

Stephen pulled himself up. He knew it was most impolitic to praise one woman to another. They did not like it. It was against the code. He must be more careful, or he should offend her again.

Anne looked at him very pleasantly. Her eyes were good to meet. She was evidently not offended. Dear me! Mysterious creatures, women! It struck him, not for the first time, that Anne was an exception to the whole of her sex.

"Isn't she beautiful!" said the exception warmly. "But I am afraid she is not quite as wise as she is beautiful. She is in a great difficulty."

"What about?"

"It seems she burned something when she was alone in the flat. At least she is accused by Mr Brand of burning something. A very valuable paper-an I O U for a large sum which her brother owed Mr Brand, and which became due a month ago-is missing."

"She did burn something," said Stephen. "I was on the floor above at the time, and smelt smoke, and came down, and De Rivaz told me it was nothing; only the divinity burning some papers. He was alarmed, and left his sketch to find where the smoke came from. He saw her burn them."

"He said that to you," said Anne, "but to no one else. I talked over the matter with him last night, and directly he heard Miss Black was in trouble, he assured me that he had thoughtlessly burnt a sheet of drawing-paper himself. That was what caused the smoke. And he said he would tell Mr Brand so."

"H'm! Brand is not made up of credulity."

"No. He seems convinced Miss Black destroyed that paper."

"And does she deny it?"

"Of course."

"She can't deny that she burned something."

"Yes, she does. She sticks to it that she burned nothing."

"Then she must be a fool, because three of us know she did. De Rivaz knows it, I know it, and I see you know it."

"And it turns out the lift man knows it; at least he was reprimanded for being on the upper floors without leave, and he said he only went there because there was a smoke, and he was anxious; and the smoke came from the Brands' sitting-room, which Miss Black left as he came up. He told Mr Brand this, who put what he thought was two and two together. Fred Black, it seems, would have been ruined if Mr Brand had enforced payment, and he believes Miss Black got hold of the paper at her brother's instigation and destroyed it."

"Well! I suppose she did," said Stephen.

"If you knew her you would know that that is impossible."

Stephen looked incredulous.

"I've known a good many unlikely things happen about money," he said slowly. "I daresay she did it to save her brother."

"She did not do it," said Anne.

"If she didn't, why doesn't she say what she did burn, and why? What's the use of sticking to it that she burned nothing when Brand knows that's a lie? A lie is a deadly stupid thing unless it's uncommonly well done."

"She has had very little practice in lying. I fancy this is her first."

"The only possible course left for her to take is to admit that she burned something, and to say what it was. Why doesn't she see that?"

"Because she is a stupid woman, and she does not see the consequences of her insane denial, and the conclusions that must inevitably be drawn from it. When the room was examined, ashes were found in the grate that had been paper."

"How does she explain that?"

"She does not explain it. She explains nothing. She just sets her teeth and repeats her wretched formula that she burned nothing."

"What took her up to the flat at all then, just when her friend was dying?"

"She says Mrs Brand sent her up to see if her portrait was safe. But Mr Brand does not believe that either, as he says he had already told his wife that it was uninjured."

"This Miss Black is a strong liar," said Stephen. "I should not have guessed it from her face. She looked as straight and innocent as a child; but one never can tell."

"I imagine I do not look like a liar. But would you say if I also were accused of lying that you never can tell?"

Stephen was taken aback. He bit his little finger and frowned at the wonderful roses in front of him.

"I know you speak the truth," he said, "because you have spoken it to me. I should believe what you said-always-under any circumstances."

"You believe in my truthfulness from experience. Do you never believe by intuition?"

"Not

often."

"When first I saw Miss Black I perceived that she was a perfectly honest, upright woman. I did not wait till she had given me any proof of it. I saw it."

"I certainly thought the same. To say the truth, I am surprised at her duplicity."

"In my case you judged by experience. In her case I want you to go by intuition, by your first impression, which I know is the true one. I would stake my life upon it."

"I don't see how my intuitions would help her."

"Oh! yes, they will. Mr Brand is aware from the lift man, who saw you, that you were on the spot directly before he smelt smoke. Mr Brand will probably write to you."

"He has written already. He has asked me to see him on business to-morrow morning. He does not say what business."

"He is certain to try and find out from you what Miss Black was doing when you saw her in his flat. It seems you and Mr De Rivaz both left your cards on the table-why I can't think-but it shows you were both there. He came up himself next day and found them."

"We both sent messages to Brand by Miss Black."

"It seems she never gave them. She says now she forgot all about them."

Stephen shook his head.

"If Brand comes I shall be obliged to tell him the truth," he said.

"That was why I was so bent on seeing you. I am anxious you should tell him the truth."

Stephen looked steadily at her.

"What truth?" he said.

"Whatever you consider will disabuse his mind of the suspicion that she burned her brother's I O U. Mr De Rivaz' view of the truth is that the smoke came from a burnt sheet of his own drawing-paper."

"I am not accountable for De Rivaz. He can invent what he likes. That is hardly my line."

He coloured darkly. It was incredible to him that Anne could be goading him to support her friend's fabric of lies by another lie. He would not do it, come what might. But he felt that Fate was hard on him. He would have done almost anything at that moment to please her. But a lie-no.

"I fear your line would naturally be to tell the blackest lie that has ever been told yet, by repeating the damaging facts exactly as they are. If you do-to a man like him-not only will you help to ruin Miss Black, but you will give weight to this frightful falsehood which is being circulated against her. And if you, by your near-sighted truthfulness, give weight to a lie, it is just the same as telling one. No, I think it's worse."

Stephen smiled grimly. This was straight talk. Plain speaking always appealed to him even when, as now, it was at his expense.

"Are you certain that your friend did not burn her brother's I O U?" he said after a pause.

"I am absolutely certain. Remember her face. Now, Mr Vanbrunt, think. Don't confuse your mind with ideas of what women generally are. Think of her. Are not you certain too?"

"Yes," he said slowly, "I am. She is concealing something. She has done some folly, and is bolstering it up by a stupid lie. But the other, that's swindling-no, she did not do that."

"Then help the side of truth," said Anne. "My own conviction is that she burned something compromising Mrs Brand, at Mrs Brand's dying request, under an oath of secrecy. And that is why her mouth is shut. But this is only a supposition. I ask you not to repeat it. I only mention it because you are so--" she shot a glance at him unlike any, in its gentle raillery, that had fallen to his lot for many a long day-"so stubborn."

He was unreasonably pleased.

"I should still be in a dry goods warehouse in Hull if I had not been what you call stubborn," he said, smiling at her.

"May I ask you a small favour for myself?" she said. "So far I have only asked for my friend."

"It seems hardly necessary to ask it. Only mention it."

"If my mother talks to you, and she talks to you a great deal, do not mention to her our-our conversation of last night. It would be kinder to me."

Stephen bowed gravely. He was surprised. It had not struck him that Anne had not told her mother. A brand-new idea occurred to him, namely that Anne and her mother were not in each other's confidence. H'm! That luminous idea required further thought.

"And now," said Anne, "having got out of you all I want, I will immediately desert you for my other neighbour." And she spoke no more to Stephen that night.

* * *

"My dear," said the Duke of Quorn to Anne as they drove home, "it appeared to me that you and Vanbrunt were on uncommonly good terms to-night. Is there any understanding between you?"

"I think he is beginning to have a kind of glimmering of one."

"Really! Understandings don't as a rule lead to marriage. Misunderstandings generally bring about those painful dislocations of life. But the idea struck me this evening-I hope needlessly-that I might after all have to take that richly gilt personage to my bosom as my son-in-law."

"Mr Vanbrunt asked me to marry him yesterday, and I refused him."

The Duke experienced a slight shock, tinged with relief.

"Does your mother know?" he said at last in an awed voice.

"Need you ask?"

"Well, if she ever finds out, for goodness' sake let her inform me of the fact. Don't give me away, Anne, by letting out that I knew at the time. If she thought I was an accomplice of the crime-your refusal-really if she once got that idea into her head-- But next time she tackles Vanbrunt, perhaps he will tell her himself. Oh, heavens!"

"I asked him not to mention it to her."

The Duke sighed.

"And so he really did propose at last. I thought your mother had choked him off. Most men would have been. Well, Anne, I'm glad you did not accept him. I don't hold with mixed marriages. In these days people talk as if class were nothing, and the fact of being well-born of no account. And, of course, it's a subject one can't discuss, because certain things, if put into words, sound snobbish at once. But they are true all the same. The middle classes have got it screwed into their cultivated heads that education levels class differences. It doesn't, but one can't say so. Not that Vanbrunt is educated, as I once told him."

"Oh! come, father. I am sure you did not."

"You are right, my dear. I did not. He said himself one day, in a moment of expansion, that he regretted that he had never had the chance of going to a public school, or the University, and I said the sort of life he had led was an education of a high order. So it is. That man has lived. Really when I come to think of it, I almost-no, I don't-Ahem! Associate freely with all classes, but marry in your own. That is what I say when no one is listening. By no one I mean of course yourself, my dear."

Anne was silent. There had been days when she had felt that difference keenly though silently. Those days were past.

"Vanbrunt is a Yorkshire dalesman, with Dutch trading blood in him. It is extraordinary how Dutch the people look near Goole and Hull. I shall like him better now. I always have liked him till-the last few months. You would never say Vanbrunt was a gentleman, but you would never say he wasn't. He seems apart from all class. There is no hall-mark upon him. He is himself. So you would not have him, my little Anne? That's over. It's the very devil to be refused, I can tell you. I was refused once. It was some time ago, as you may imagine, but-I have not forgotten it. I learned what London looks like in the dawn, after walking the streets all night. So it's his turn to wear out the pavement now, is it! Poor man! He'll take it hard in a bottled-up way. When next I see him I shall say: 'Aha! money can't buy everything, Vanbrunt.'"

"Oh! no, father. You won't be so brutal."

"No, my dear, I daresay I shall not. I shall pretend not to know. Really I have a sort of regard for him. Poor Vanbrunt!"

* * *

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