Infomotions, Inc.Behind a Mask, or a Woman's Power / Alcott, Louisa May, 1832-1888



Author: Alcott, Louisa May, 1832-1888
Title: Behind a Mask, or a Woman's Power
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Tag(s): miss muir; muir; coventry; jean; bella; lucia; gerald; ned; jean muir; sydney; miss beaufort; miss; edward; miss muir's; lady sydney
Contributor(s): Bright, Mynors, 1818-1883 [Translator]
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Rights: GNU General Public License
Size: 42,882 words (really short) Grade range: 8-10 (high school) Readability score: 69 (easy)
Identifier: etext8677
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Title: Behind A Mask, Or A Woman's Power

Author: A. M. Barnard

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Behind a Mask _or_ A Woman's Power By A.M. Barnard




_chapter I_


JEAN MUIR

"Has she come?"

"No, Mamma, not yet."

"I wish it were well over. The thought of it worries and excites me. A
cushion for my back, Bella."

And poor, peevish Mrs. Coventry sank into an easy chair with a nervous
sigh and the air of a martyr, while her pretty daughter hovered about
her with affectionate solicitude.

"Who are they talking of, Lucia?" asked the languid young man lounging
on a couch near his cousin, who bent over her tapestry work with a happy
smile on her usually haughty face.

"The new governess, Miss Muir. Shall I tell you about her?"

"No, thank you. I have an inveterate aversion to the whole tribe. I've
often thanked heaven that I had but one sister, and she a spoiled child,
so that I have escaped the infliction of a governess so long."

"How will you bear it now?" asked Lucia.

"Leave the house while she is in it."

"No, you won't. You're too lazy, Gerald," called out a younger and more
energetic man, from the recess where he stood teasing his dogs.

"I'll give her a three days' trial; if she proves endurable I shall not
disturb myself; if, as I am sure, she is a bore, I'm off anywhere,
anywhere out of her way."

"I beg you won't talk in that depressing manner, boys. I dread the
coming of a stranger more than you possibly can, but Bella _must_ not be
neglected; so I have nerved myself to endure this woman, and Lucia is
good enough to say she will attend to her after tonight."

"Don't be troubled, Mamma. She is a nice person, I dare say, and when
once we are used to her, I've no doubt we shall be glad to have her,
it's so dull here just now. Lady Sydney said she was a quiet,
accomplished, amiable girl, who needed a home, and would be a help to
poor stupid me, so try to like her for my sake."

"I will, dear, but isn't it getting late? I do hope nothing has
happened. Did you tell them to send a carriage to the station for
her, Gerald?"

"I forgot it. But it's not far, it won't hurt her to walk" was the
languid reply.

"It was indolence, not forgetfulness, I know. I'm very sorry; she will
think it so rude to leave her to find her way so late. Do go and see
to it, Ned."

"Too late, Bella, the train was in some time ago. Give your orders to me
next time. Mother and I'll see that they are obeyed," said Edward.

"Ned is just at an age to make a fool of himself for any girl who
comes in his way. Have a care of the governess, Lucia, or she will
bewitch him."

Gerald spoke in a satirical whisper, but his brother heard him and
answered with a good-humored laugh.

"I wish there was any hope of your making a fool of yourself in that
way, old fellow. Set me a good example, and I promise to follow it. As
for the governess, she is a woman, and should be treated with common
civility. I should say a little extra kindness wouldn't be amiss,
either, because she is poor, and a stranger."

"That is my dear, good-hearted Ned! We'll stand by poor little Muir,
won't we?" And running to her brother, Bella stood on tiptoe to offer
him a kiss which he could not refuse, for the rosy lips were pursed up
invitingly, and the bright eyes full of sisterly affection.

"I do hope she has come, for, when I make an effort to see anyone, I
hate to make it in vain. Punctuality is _such_ a virtue, and I know this
woman hasn't got it, for she promised to be here at seven, and now it is
long after," began Mrs. Coventry, in an injured tone.

Before she could get breath for another complaint, the clock struck
seven and the doorbell rang.

"There she is!" cried Bella, and turned toward the door as if to go and
meet the newcomer.

But Lucia arrested her, saying authoritatively, "Stay here, child. It is
her place to come to you, not yours to go to her."

"Miss Muir," announced a servant, and a little black-robed figure stood
in the doorway. For an instant no one stirred, and the governess had
time to see and be seen before a word was uttered. All looked at her,
and she cast on the household group a keen glance that impressed them
curiously; then her eyes fell, and bowing slightly she walked in. Edward
came forward and received her with the frank cordiality which nothing
could daunt or chill.

"Mother, this is the lady whom you expected. Miss Muir, allow me to
apologize for our apparent neglect in not sending for you. There was a
mistake about the carriage, or, rather, the lazy fellow to whom the
order was given forgot it. Bella, come here."

"Thank you, no apology is needed. I did not expect to be sent for." And
the governess meekly sat down without lifting her eyes.

"I am glad to see you. Let me take your things," said Bella, rather
shyly, for Gerald, still lounging, watched the fireside group with
languid interest, and Lucia never stirred. Mrs. Coventry took a second
survey and began:

"You were punctual, Miss Muir, which pleases me. I'm a sad invalid, as
Lady Sydney told you, I hope; so that Miss Coventry's lessons will be
directed by my niece, and you will go to her for directions, as she
knows what I wish. You will excuse me if I ask you a few questions, for
Lady Sydney's note was very brief, and I left everything to her
judgment."

"Ask anything you like, madam," answered the soft, sad voice.

"You are Scotch, I believe."

"Yes, madam."

"Are your parents living?"

"I have not a relation in the world."

"Dear me, how sad! Do you mind telling me your age?"

"Nineteen." And a smile passed over Miss Muir's lips, as she folded her
hands with an air of resignation, for the catechism was evidently to be
a long one.

"So young! Lady Sydney mentioned five-and-twenty, I think, didn't
she, Bella?"

"No, Mamma, she only said she thought so. Don't ask such questions. It's
not pleasant before us all," whispered Bella.

A quick, grateful glance shone on her from the suddenly lifted eyes of
Miss Muir, as she said quietly, "I wish I was thirty, but, as I am not,
I do my best to look and seem old."

Of course, every one looked at her then, and all felt a touch of pity at
the sight of the pale-faced girl in her plain black dress, with no
ornament but a little silver cross at her throat. Small, thin, and
colorless she was, with yellow hair, gray eyes, and sharply cut,
irregular, but very expressive features. Poverty seemed to have set its
bond stamp upon her, and life to have had for her more frost than
sunshine. But something in the lines of the mouth betrayed strength, and
the clear, low voice had a curious mixture of command and entreaty in
its varying tones. Not an attractive woman, yet not an ordinary one;
and, as she sat there with her delicate hands lying in her lap, her head
bent, and a bitter look on her thin face, she was more interesting than
many a blithe and blooming girl. Bella's heart warmed to her at once,
and she drew her seat nearer, while Edward went back to his dogs that
his presence might not embarrass her.

"You have been ill, I think," continued Mrs. Coventry, who considered
this fact the most interesting of all she had heard concerning the
governess.

"Yes, madam, I left the hospital only a week ago."

"Are you quite sure it is safe to begin teaching so soon?"

"I have no time to lose, and shall soon gain strength here in the
country, if you care to keep me."

"And you are fitted to teach music, French, and drawing?"

"I shall endeavor to prove that I am."

"Be kind enough to go and play an air or two. I can judge by your touch;
I used to play finely when a girl."

Miss Muir rose, looked about her for the instrument, and seeing it at
the other end of the room went toward it, passing Gerald and Lucia as if
she did not see them. Bella followed, and in a moment forgot everything
in admiration. Miss Muir played like one who loved music and was perfect
mistress of her art. She charmed them all by the magic of this spell;
even indolent Gerald sat up to listen, and Lucia put down her needle,
while Ned watched the slender white fingers as they flew, and wondered
at the strength and skill which they possessed.

"Please sing," pleaded Bella, as a brilliant overture ended.

With the same meek obedience Miss Muir complied, and began a little
Scotch melody, so sweet, so sad, that the girl's eyes filled, and Mrs.
Coventry looked for one of her many pocket-handkerchiefs. But suddenly
the music ceased, for, with a vain attempt to support herself, the
singer slid from her seat and lay before the startled listeners, as
white and rigid as if struck with death. Edward caught her up, and,
ordering his brother off the couch, laid her there, while Bella chafed
her hands, and her mother rang for her maid. Lucia bathed the poor
girl's temples, and Gerald, with unwonted energy, brought a glass of
wine. Soon Miss Muir's lips trembled, she sighed, then murmured,
tenderly, with a pretty Scotch accent, as if wandering in the past,
"Bide wi' me, Mither, I'm sae sick an sad here all alone."

"Take a sip of this, and it will do you good, my dear," said Mrs.
Coventry, quite touched by the plaintive words.

The strange voice seemed to recall her. She sat up, looked about her, a
little wildly, for a moment, then collected herself and said, with a
pathetic look and tone, "Pardon me. I have been on my feet all day, and,
in my eagerness to keep my appointment, I forgot to eat since morning.
I'm better now; shall I finish the song?"

"By no means. Come and have some tea," said Bella, full of pity
and remorse.

"Scene first, very well done," whispered Gerald to his cousin.

Miss Muir was just before them, apparently listening to Mrs. Coventry's
remarks upon fainting fits; but she heard, and looked over her shoulders
with a gesture like Rachel. Her eyes were gray, but at that instant they
seemed black with some strong emotion of anger, pride, or defiance. A
curious smile passed over her face as she bowed, and said in her
penetrating voice, "Thanks. The last scene shall be still better."

Young Coventry was a cool, indolent man, seldom conscious of any
emotion, any passion, pleasurable or otherwise; but at the look, the
tone of the governess, he experienced a new sensation, indefinable, yet
strong. He colored and, for the first time in his life, looked abashed.
Lucia saw it, and hated Miss Muir with a sudden hatred; for, in all the
years she had passed with her cousin, no look or word of hers had
possessed such power. Coventry was himself again in an instant, with no
trace of that passing change, but a look of interest in his usually
dreamy eyes, and a touch of anger in his sarcastic voice.

"What a melodramatic young lady! I shall go tomorrow."

Lucia laughed, and was well pleased when he sauntered away to bring her
a cup of tea from the table where a little scene was just taking place.
Mrs. Coventry had sunk into her chair again, exhausted by the flurry of
the fainting fit. Bella was busied about her; and Edward, eager to feed
the pale governess, was awkwardly trying to make the tea, after a
beseeching glance at his cousin which she did not choose to answer. As
he upset the caddy and uttered a despairing exclamation, Miss Muir
quietly took her place behind the urn, saying with a smile, and a shy
glance at the young man, "Allow me to assume my duty at once, and serve
you all. I understand the art of making people comfortable in this way.
The scoop, please. I can gather this up quite well alone, if you will
tell me how your mother likes her tea."

Edward pulled a chair to the table and made merry over his mishaps,
while Miss Muir performed her little task with a skill and grace that
made it pleasant to watch her. Coventry lingered a moment after she had
given him a steaming cup, to observe her more nearly, while he asked a
question or two of his brother. She took no more notice of him than if
he had been a statue, and in the middle of the one remark he addressed
to her, she rose to take the sugar basin to Mrs. Coventry, who was quite
won by the modest, domestic graces of the new governess.

"Really, my dear, you are a treasure; I haven't tasted such tea since my
poor maid Ellis died. Bella never makes it good, and Miss Lucia always
forgets the cream. Whatever you do you seem to do well, and that is
_such_ a comfort."

"Let me always do this for you, then. It will be a pleasure, madam." And
Miss Muir came back to her seat with a faint color in her cheek which
improved her much.

"My brother asked if young Sydney was at home when you left," said
Edward, for Gerald would not take the trouble to repeat the question.

Miss Muir fixed her eyes on Coventry, and answered with a slight tremor
of the lips, "No, he left home some weeks ago."

The young man went back to his cousin, saying, as he threw himself
down beside her, "I shall not go tomorrow, but wait till the three
days are out."

"Why?" demanded Lucia.

Lowering his voice he said, with a significant nod toward the governess,
"Because I have a fancy that she is at the bottom of Sydney's mystery.
He's not been himself lately, and now he is gone without a word. I
rather like romances in real life, if they are not too long, or
difficult to read."

"Do you think her pretty?"

"Far from it, a most uncanny little specimen."

"Then why fancy Sydney loves her?"

"He is an oddity, and likes sensations and things of that sort."

"What do you mean, Gerald?"

"Get the Muir to look at you, as she did at me, and you will understand.
Will you have another cup, Juno?"

"Yes, please." She liked to have him wait upon her, for he did it to no
other woman except his mother.

Before he could slowly rise, Miss Muir glided to them with another cup
on the salver; and, as Lucia took it with a cold nod, the girl said
under her breath, "I think it honest to tell you that I possess a quick
ear, and cannot help hearing what is said anywhere in the room. What you
say of me is of no consequence, but you may speak of things which you
prefer I should not hear; therefore, allow me to warn you." And she was
gone again as noiselessly as she came.

"How do you like that?" whispered Coventry, as his cousin sat looking
after the girl, with a disturbed expression.

"What an uncomfortable creature to have in the house! I am very sorry I
urged her coming, for your mother has taken a fancy to her, and it will
be hard to get rid of her," said Lucia, half angry, half amused.

"Hush, she hears every word you say. I know it by the expression of her
face, for Ned is talking about horses, and she looks as haughty as ever
you did, and that is saying much. Faith, this is getting interesting."

"Hark, she is speaking; I want to hear," and Lucia laid her hand on her
cousin's lips. He kissed it, and then idly amused himself with turning
the rings to and fro on the slender fingers.

"I have been in France several years, madam, but my friend died and I
came back to be with Lady Sydney, till--" Muir paused an instant, then
added, slowly, "till I fell ill. It was a contagious fever, so I went of
my own accord to the hospital, not wishing to endanger her."

"Very right, but are you sure there is no danger of infection now?"
asked Mrs. Coventry anxiously.

"None, I assure you. I have been well for some time, but did not leave
because I preferred to stay there, than to return to Lady Sydney."

"No quarrel, I hope? No trouble of any kind?"

"No quarrel, but--well, why not? You have a right to know, and I will
not make a foolish mystery out of a very simple thing. As your family,
only, is present, I may tell the truth. I did not go back on the young
gentleman's account. Please ask no more."

"Ah, I see. Quite prudent and proper, Miss Muir. I shall never allude to
it again. Thank you for your frankness. Bella, you will be careful not
to mention this to young friends; girls gossip sadly, and it would annoy
Lady Sydney beyond everything to have this talked of."

"Very neighborly of Lady S. to send the dangerous young lady here,
where there are _two_ young gentlemen to be captivated. I wonder why
she didn't keep Sydney after she had caught him," murmured Coventry to
his cousin.

"Because she had the utmost contempt for a titled fool." Miss Muir
dropped the words almost into his ear, as she bent to take her shawl
from the sofa corner.

"How the deuce did she get there?" ejaculated Coventry, looking as if he
had received another sensation. "She has spirit, though, and upon my
word I pity Sydney, if he did try to dazzle her, for he must have got a
splendid dismissal."

"Come and play billiards. You promised, and I hold you to your word,"
said Lucia, rising with decision, for Gerald was showing too much
interest in another to suit Miss Beaufort.

"I am, as ever, your most devoted. My mother is a charming woman, but I
find our evening parties slightly dull, when only my own family are
present. Good night, Mamma." He shook hands with his mother, whose pride
and idol he was, and, with a comprehensive nod to the others, strolled
after his cousin.

"Now they are gone we can be quite cozy, and talk over things, for I
don't mind Ned any more than I do his dogs," said Bella, settling
herself on her mother's footstool.

"I merely wish to say, Miss Muir, that my daughter has never had a
governess and is sadly backward for a girl of sixteen. I want you to
pass the mornings with her, and get her on as rapidly as possible. In
the afternoon you will walk or drive with her, and in the evening sit
with us here, if you like, or amuse yourself as you please. While in the
country we are very quiet, for I cannot bear much company, and when my
sons want gaiety, they go away for it. Miss Beaufort oversees the
servants, and takes my place as far as possible. I am very delicate and
keep my room till evening, except for an airing at noon. We will try
each other for a month, and I hope we shall get on quite comfortably
together."

"I shall do my best, madam."

One would not have believed that the meek, spiritless voice which
uttered these words was the same that had startled Coventry a few
minutes before, nor that the pale, patient face could ever have kindled
with such sudden fire as that which looked over Miss Muir's shoulder
when she answered her young host's speech.

Edward thought within himself, Poor little woman! She has had a hard
life. We will try and make it easier while she is here; and began his
charitable work by suggesting that she might be tired. She acknowledged
she was, and Bella led her away to a bright, cozy room, where with a
pretty little speech and a good-night kiss she left her.

When alone Miss Muir's conduct was decidedly peculiar. Her first act was
to clench her hands and mutter between her teeth, with passionate force,
"I'll not fail again if there is power in a woman's wit and will!" She
stood a moment motionless, with an expression of almost fierce disdain
on her face, then shook her clenched hand as if menacing some unseen
enemy. Next she laughed, and shrugged her shoulders with a true French
shrug, saying low to herself, "Yes, the last scene _shall_ be better
than the first. _Mon dieu_, how tired and hungry I am!"

Kneeling before the one small trunk which held her worldly possessions,
she opened it, drew out a flask, and mixed a glass of some ardent
cordial, which she seemed to enjoy extremely as she sat on the carpet,
musing, while her quick eyes examined every corner of the room.

"Not bad! It will be a good field for me to work in, and the harder the
task the better I shall like it. _Merci_, old friend. You put heart and
courage into me when nothing else will. Come, the curtain is down, so I
may be myself for a few hours, if actresses ever are themselves."

Still sitting on the floor she unbound and removed the long abundant
braids from her head, wiped the pink from her face, took out several
pearly teeth, and slipping off her dress appeared herself indeed, a
haggard, worn, and moody woman of thirty at least. The metamorphosis was
wonderful, but the disguise was more in the expression she assumed than
in any art of costume or false adornment. Now she was alone, and her
mobile features settled into their natural expression, weary, hard,
bitter. She had been lovely once, happy, innocent, and tender; but
nothing of all this remained to the gloomy woman who leaned there
brooding over some wrong, or loss, or disappointment which had darkened
all her life. For an hour she sat so, sometimes playing absently with
the scanty locks that hung about her face, sometimes lifting the glass
to her lips as if the fiery draught warmed her cold blood; and once she
half uncovered her breast to eye with a terrible glance the scar of a
newly healed wound. At last she rose and crept to bed, like one worn out
with weariness and mental pain.




_chapter II_


A GOOD BEGINNING

Only the housemaids were astir when Miss Muir left her room next morning
and quietly found her way into the garden. As she walked, apparently
intent upon the flowers, her quick eye scrutinized the fine old house
and its picturesque surroundings.

"Not bad," she said to herself, adding, as she passed into the adjoining
park, "but the other may be better, and I will have the best."

Walking rapidly, she came out at length upon the wide green lawn which
lay before the ancient hall where Sir John Coventry lived in solitary
splendor. A stately old place, rich in oaks, well-kept shrubberies, gay
gardens, sunny terraces, carved gables, spacious rooms, liveried
servants, and every luxury befitting the ancestral home of a rich and
honorable race. Miss Muir's eyes brightened as she looked, her step grew
firmer, her carriage prouder, and a smile broke over her face; the smile
of one well pleased at the prospect of the success of some cherished
hope. Suddenly her whole air changed, she pushed back her hat, clasped
her hands loosely before her, and seemed absorbed in girlish admiration
of the fair scene that could not fail to charm any beauty-loving eye.
The cause of this rapid change soon appeared. A hale, handsome man,
between fifty and sixty, came through the little gate leading to the
park, and, seeing the young stranger, paused to examine her. He had only
time for a glance, however; she seemed conscious of his presence in a
moment, turned with a startled look, uttered an exclamation of surprise,
and looked as if hesitating whether to speak or run away. Gallant Sir
John took off his hat and said, with the old-fashioned courtesy which
became him well, "I beg your pardon for disturbing you, young lady.
Allow me to atone for it by inviting you to walk where you will, and
gather what flowers you like. I see you love them, so pray make free
with those about you."

With a charming air of maidenly timidity and artlessness, Miss Muir
replied, "Oh, thank you, sir! But it is I who should ask pardon for
trespassing. I never should have dared if I had not known that Sir John
was absent. I always wanted to see this fine old place, and ran over the
first thing, to satisfy myself."

"And _are_ you satisfied?" he asked, with a smile.

"More than satisfied--I'm charmed; for it is the most beautiful spot I
ever saw, and I've seen many famous seats, both at home and abroad," she
answered enthusiastically.

"The Hall is much flattered, and so would its master be if he heard
you," began the gentleman, with an odd expression.

"I should not praise it to him--at least, not as freely as I have to
you, sir," said the girl, with eyes still turned away.

"Why not?" asked her companion, looking much amused.

"I should be afraid. Not that I dread Sir John; but I've heard so many
beautiful and noble things about him, and respect him so highly, that I
should not dare to say much, lest he should see how I admire and--"

"And what, young lady? Finish, if you please."

"I was going to say, love him. I will say it, for he is an old man, and
one cannot help loving virtue and bravery."

Miss Muir looked very earnest and pretty as she spoke, standing there
with the sunshine glinting on her yellow hair, delicate face, and
downcast eyes. Sir John was not a vain man, but he found it pleasant to
hear himself commended by this unknown girl, and felt redoubled
curiosity to learn who she was. Too well-bred to ask, or to abash her by
avowing what she seemed unconscious of, he left both discoveries to
chance; and when she turned, as if to retrace her steps, he offered her
the handful of hothouse flowers which he held, saying, with a gallant
bow, "In Sir John's name let me give you my little nosegay, with thanks
for your good opinion, which, I assure you, is not entirely deserved,
for I know him well."

Miss Muir looked up quickly, eyed him an instant, then dropped her eyes,
and, coloring deeply, stammered out, "I did not know--I beg your
pardon--you are too kind, Sir John."

He laughed like a boy, asking, mischievously, "Why call me Sir John? How
do you know that I am not the gardener or the butler?"

"I did not see your face before, and no one but yourself would say that
any praise was undeserved," murmured Miss Muir, still overcome with
girlish confusion.

"Well, well, we will let that pass, and the next time you come we will
be properly introduced. Bella always brings her friends to the Hall, for
I am fond of young people."

"I am not a friend. I am only Miss Coventry's governess." And Miss Muir
dropped a meek curtsy. A slight change passed over Sir John's manner.
Few would have perceived it, but Miss Muir felt it at once, and bit her
lips with an angry feeling at her heart. With a curious air of pride,
mingled with respect, she accepted the still offered bouquet, returned
Sir John's parting bow, and tripped away, leaving the old gentleman to
wonder where Mrs. Coventry found such a piquant little governess.

"That is done, and very well for a beginning," she said to herself as
she approached the house.

In a green paddock close by fed a fine horse, who lifted up his head and
eyed her inquiringly, like one who expected a greeting. Following a
sudden impulse, she entered the paddock and, pulling a handful of
clover, invited the creature to come and eat. This was evidently a new
proceeding on the part of a lady, and the horse careered about as if
bent on frightening the newcomer away.

"I see," she said aloud, laughing to herself. "I am not your master, and
you rebel. Nevertheless, I'll conquer you, my fine brute."

Seating herself in the grass, she began to pull daisies, singing idly
the while, as if unconscious of the spirited prancings of the horse.
Presently he drew nearer, sniffing curiously and eyeing her with
surprise. She took no notice, but plaited the daisies and sang on as if
he was not there. This seemed to pique the petted creature, for, slowly
approaching, he came at length so close that he could smell her little
foot and nibble at her dress. Then she offered the clover, uttering
caressing words and making soothing sounds, till by degrees and with
much coquetting, the horse permitted her to stroke his glossy neck and
smooth his mane.

It was a pretty sight--the slender figure in the grass, the
high-spirited horse bending his proud head to her hand. Edward Coventry,
who had watched the scene, found it impossible to restrain himself any
longer and, leaping the wall, came to join the group, saying, with
mingled admiration and wonder in countenance and voice, "Good morning,
Miss Muir. If I had not seen your skill and courage proved before my
eyes, I should be alarmed for your safety. Hector is a wild, wayward
beast, and has damaged more than one groom who tried to conquer him."

"Good morning, Mr. Coventry. Don't tell tales of this noble creature,
who has not deceived my faith in him. Your grooms did not know how to
win his heart, and so subdue his spirit without breaking it."

Miss Muir rose as she spoke, and stood with her hand on Hector's neck
while he ate the grass which she had gathered in the skirt of her dress.

"You have the secret, and Hector is your subject now, though heretofore
he has rejected all friends but his master. Will you give him his
morning feast? I always bring him bread and play with him before
breakfast."

"Then you are not jealous?" And she looked up at him with eyes so bright
and beautiful in expression that the young man wondered he had not
observed them before.

"Not I. Pet him as much as you will; it will do him good. He is a
solitary fellow, for he scorns his own kind and lives alone, like his
master," he added, half to himself.

"Alone, with such a happy home, Mr. Coventry?" And a softly
compassionate glance stole from the bright eyes.

"That was an ungrateful speech, and I retract it for Bella's sake.
Younger sons have no position but such as they can make for themselves,
you know, and I've had no chance yet."

"Younger sons! I thought--I beg pardon." And Miss Muir paused, as if
remembering that she had no right to question.

Edward smiled and answered frankly, "Nay, don't mind me. You thought I
was the heir, perhaps. Whom did you take my brother for last night?"

"For some guest who admired Miss Beaufort. I did not hear his name, nor
observe him enough to discover who he was. I saw only your land mother,
your charming little sister, and--"

She stopped there, with a half-shy, half-grateful look at the young man
which finished the sentence better than any words. He was still a boy,
in spite of his one-and-twenty years, and a little color came into his
brown cheek as the eloquent eyes met his and fell before them.

"Yes, Bella is a capital girl, and one can't help loving her. I know
you'll get her on, for, really, she is the most delightful little dunce.
My mother's ill health and Bella's devotion to her have prevented our
attending to her education before. Next winter, when we go to town, she
is to come out, and must be prepared for that great event, you know," he
said, choosing a safe subject.

"I shall do my best. And that reminds me that I should report myself to
her, instead of enjoying myself here. When one has been ill and shut up
a long time, the country is so lovely one is apt to forget duty for
pleasure. Please remind me if I am negligent, Mr. Coventry."

"That name belongs to Gerald. I'm only Mr. Ned here," he said as they
walked toward the house, while Hector followed to the wall and sent a
sonorous farewell after them.

Bella came running to meet them, and greeted Miss Muir as if she had
made up her mind to like her heartily. "What a lovely bouquet you have
got! I never can arrange flowers prettily, which vexes me, for Mamma is
so fond of them and cannot go out herself. You have charming taste," she
said, examining the graceful posy which Miss Muir had much improved by
adding feathery grasses, delicate ferns, and fragrant wild flowers to
Sir John's exotics.

Putting them into Bella's hand, she said, in a winning way, "Take them
to your mother, then, and ask her if I may have the pleasure of making
her a daily nosegay; for I should find real delight in doing it, if it
would please her."

"How kind you are! Of course it would please her. I'll take them to her
while the dew is still on them." And away flew Bella, eager to give both
the flowers and the pretty message to the poor invalid.

Edward stopped to speak to the gardener, and Miss Muir went up the steps
alone. The long hall was lined with portraits, and pacing slowly down it
she examined them with interest. One caught her eye, and, pausing before
it, she scrutinized it carefully. A young, beautiful, but very haughty
female face. Miss Muir suspected at once who it was, and gave a decided
nod, as if she saw and caught at some unexpected chance. A soft rustle
behind her made her look around, and, seeing Lucia, she bowed, half
turned, as if for another glance at the picture, and said, as if
involuntarily, "How beautiful it is! May I ask if it is an ancestor,
Miss Beaufort?"

"It is the likeness of my mother" was the reply, given with a softened
voice and eyes that looked up tenderly.

"Ah, I might have known, from the resemblance, but I scarcely saw you
last night. Excuse my freedom, but Lady Sydney treated me as a friend,
and I forget my position. Allow me."

As she spoke, Miss Muir stooped to return the handkerchief which had
fallen from Lucia's hand, and did so with a humble mien which touched
the other's heart; for, though a proud, it was also a very generous one.

"Thank you. Are you better, this morning?" she said, graciously. And
having received an affirmative reply, she added, as she walked on, "I
will show you to the breakfast room, as Bella is not here. It is a very
informal meal with us, for my aunt is never down and my cousins are very
irregular in their hours. You can always have yours when you like,
without waiting for us if you are an early riser."

Bella and Edward appeared before the others were seated, and Miss Muir
quietly ate her breakfast, feeling well satisfied with her hour's
work. Ned recounted her exploit with Hector, Bella delivered her
mother's thanks for the flowers, and Lucia more than once recalled,
with pardonable vanity, that the governess had compared her to her
lovely mother, expressing by a look as much admiration for the living
likeness as for the painted one. All kindly did their best to make the
pale girl feel at home, and their cordial manner seemed to warm and
draw her out; for soon she put off her sad, meek air and entertained
them with gay anecdotes of her life in Paris, her travels in Russia
when governess in Prince Jermadoff's family, and all manner of witty
stories that kept them interested and merry long after the meal was
over. In the middle of an absorbing adventure, Coventry came in,
nodded lazily, lifted his brows, as if surprised at seeing the
governess there, and began his breakfast as if the ennui of another
day had already taken possession of him. Miss Muir stopped short, and
no entreaties could induce her to go on.

"Another time I will finish it, if you like. Now Miss Bella and I should
be at our books." And she left the room, followed by her pupil, taking
no notice of the young master of the house, beyond a graceful bow in
answer to his careless nod.

"Merciful creature! she goes when I come, and does not make life
unendurable by moping about before my eyes. Does she belong to the
moral, the melancholy, the romantic, or the dashing class, Ned?" said
Gerald, lounging over his coffee as he did over everything he attempted.

"To none of them; she is a capital little woman. I wish you had seen her
tame Hector this morning." And Edward repeated his story.

"Not a bad move on her part," said Coventry in reply. "She must be an
observing as well as an energetic young person, to discover your chief
weakness and attack it so soon. First tame the horse, and then the
master. It will be amusing to watch the game, only I shall be under the
painful necessity of checkmating you both, if it gets serious."

"You needn't exert yourself, old fellow, on my account. If I was not
above thinking ill of an inoffensive girl, I should say you were the
prize best worth winning, and advise you to take care of your own heart,
if you've got one, which I rather doubt."

"I often doubt it, myself; but I fancy the little Scotchwoman will not
be able to satisfy either of us upon that point. How does your highness
like her?" asked Coventry of his cousin, who sat near him.

"Better than I thought I should. She is well-bred, unassuming, and very
entertaining when she likes. She has told us some of the wittiest
stories I've heard for a long time. Didn't our laughter wake you?"
replied Lucia.

"Yes. Now atone for it by amusing me with a repetition of these
witty tales."

"That is impossible; her accent and manner are half the charm," said
Ned. "I wish you had kept away ten minutes longer, for your appearance
spoilt the best story of all."

"Why didn't she go on?" asked Coventry, with a ray of curiosity.

"You forget that she overheard us last night, and must feel that you
consider her a bore. She has pride, and no woman forgets speeches like
those you made," answered Lucia.

"Or forgives them, either, I believe. Well, I must be resigned to
languish under her displeasure then. On Sydney's account I take a slight
interest in her; not that I expect to learn anything from her, for a
woman with a mouth like that never confides or confesses anything. But I
have a fancy to see what captivated him; for captivated he was, beyond a
doubt, and by no lady whom he met in society. Did you ever hear anything
of it, Ned?" asked Gerald.

"I'm not fond of scandal or gossip, and never listen to either." With
which remark Edward left the room.

Lucia was called out by the housekeeper a moment after, and Coventry
left to the society most wearisome to him, namely his own. As he
entered, he had caught a part of the story which Miss Muir had been
telling, and it had excited his curiosity so much that he found himself
wondering what the end could be and wishing that he might hear it.

What the deuce did she run away for, when I came in? he thought. If she
_is_ amusing, she must make herself useful; for it's intensely dull, I
own, here, in spite of Lucia. Hey, what's that?

It was a rich, sweet voice, singing a brilliant Italian air, and singing
it with an expression that made the music doubly delicious. Stepping out
of the French window, Coventry strolled along the sunny terrace,
enjoying the song with the relish of a connoisseur. Others followed, and
still he walked and listened, forgetful of weariness or tune. As one
exquisite air ended, he involuntarily applauded. Miss Muir's face
appeared for an instant, then vanished, and no more music followed,
though Coventry lingered, hoping to hear the voice again. For music was
the one thing of which he never wearied, and neither Lucia nor Bella
possessed skill enough to charm him. For an hour he loitered on the
terrace or the lawn, basking in the sunshine, too indolent to seek
occupation or society. At length Bella came out, hat in hand, and nearly
stumbled over her brother, who lay on the grass.

"You lazy man, have you been dawdling here all this time?" she said,
looking down at him.

"No, I've been very busy. Come and tell me how you've got on with the
little dragon."

"Can't stop. She bade me take a run after my French, so that I might be
ready for my drawing, and so I must."

"It's too warm to run. Sit down and amuse your deserted brother, who has
had no society but bees and lizards for an hour."

He drew her down as he spoke, and Bella obeyed; for, in spite of his
indolence, he was one to whom all submitted without dreaming of refusal.

"What have you been doing? Muddling your poor little brains with all
manner of elegant rubbish?"

"No, I've been enjoying myself immensely. Jean is _so_ interesting, so
kind and clever. She didn't bore me with stupid grammar, but just talked
to me in such pretty French that I got on capitally, and like it as I
never expected to, after Lucia's dull way of teaching it."

"What did you talk about?"

"Oh, all manner of things. She asked questions, and I answered, and she
corrected me."

"Questions about our affairs, I suppose?"

"Not one. She don't care two sous for us or our affairs. I thought she
might like to know what sort of people we were, so I told her about
Papa's sudden death, Uncle John, and you, and Ned; but in the midst of
it she said, in her quiet way, 'You are getting too confidential, my
dear. It is not best to talk too freely of one's affairs to strangers.
Let us speak of something else.'"

"What were you talking of when she said that, Bell?"

"You."

"Ah, then no wonder she was bored."

"She was tired of my chatter, and didn't hear half I said; for she was
busy sketching something for me to copy, and thinking of something more
interesting than the Coventrys."

"How do you know?"

"By the expression of her face. Did you like her music, Gerald?"

"Yes. Was she angry when I clapped?"

"She looked surprised, then rather proud, and shut the piano at once,
though I begged her to go on. Isn't Jean a pretty name?"

"Not bad; but why don't you call her Miss Muir?"

"She begged me not. She hates it, and loves to be called Jean, alone.
I've imagined such a nice little romance about her, and someday I shall
tell her, for I'm sure she has had a love trouble."

"Don't get such nonsense into your head, but follow Miss Muir's
well-bred example and don't be curious about other people's affairs. Ask
her to sing tonight; it amuses me."

"She won't come down, I think. We've planned to read and work in my
boudoir, which is to be our study now. Mamma will stay in her room, so
you and Lucia can have the drawing room all to yourselves."

"Thank you. What will Ned do?"

"He will amuse Mamma, he says. Dear old Ned! I wish you'd stir about and
get him his commission. He is so impatient to be doing something and yet
so proud he won't ask again, after you have neglected it so many times
and refused Uncle's help."

"I'll attend to it very soon; don't worry me, child. He will do very
well for a time, quietly here with us."

"You always say that, yet you know he chafes and is unhappy at being
dependent on you. Mamma and I don't mind; but he is a man, and it frets
him. He said he'd take matters into his own hands soon, and then you may
be sorry you were so slow in helping him."

"Miss Muir is looking out of the window. You'd better go and take your
run, else she will scold."

"Not she. I'm not a bit afraid of her, she's so gentle and sweet. I'm
fond of her already. You'll get as brown as Ned, lying here in the
sun. By the way, Miss Muir agrees with me in thinking him handsomer
than you."

"I admire her taste and quite agree with her."

"She said he was manly, and that was more attractive than beauty in a
man. She does express things so nicely. Now I'm off." And away danced
Bella, humming the burden of Miss Muir's sweetest song.

"'Energy is more attractive than beauty in a man.' She is right, but how
the deuce _can_ a man be energetic, with nothing to expend his energies
upon?" mused Coventry, with his hat over his eyes.

A few moments later, the sweep of a dress caught his ear. Without
stirring, a sidelong glance showed him Miss Muir coming across the
terrace, as if to join Bella. Two stone steps led down to the lawn. He
lay near them, and Miss Muir did not see him till close upon him. She
started and slipped on the last step, recovered herself, and glided on,
with a glance of unmistakable contempt as she passed the recumbent
figure of the apparent sleeper. Several things in Bella's report had
nettled him, but this look made him angry, though he would not own it,
even to himself.

"Gerald, come here, quick!" presently called Bella, from the rustic seat
where she stood beside her governess, who sat with her hand over her
face as if in pain.

Gathering himself up, Coventry slowly obeyed, but involuntarily
quickened his pace as he heard Miss Muir say, "Don't call him; _he_ can
do nothing"; for the emphasis on the word "he" was very significant.

"What is it, Bella?" he asked, looking rather wider awake than usual.

"You startled Miss Muir and made her turn her ankle. Now help her to the
house, for she is in great pain; and don't lie there anymore to frighten
people like a snake in the grass," said his sister petulantly.

"I beg your pardon. Will you allow me?" And Coventry offered his arm.

Miss Muir looked up with the expression which annoyed him and answered
coldly, "Thank you, Miss Bella will do as well."

"Permit me to doubt that." And with a gesture too decided to be
resisted, Coventry drew her arm through his and led her into the house.
She submitted quietly, said the pain would soon be over, and when
settled on the couch in Bella's room dismissed him with the briefest
thanks. Considering the unwonted exertion he had made, he thought she
might have been a little more grateful, and went away to Lucia, who
always brightened when he came.

No more was seen of Miss Muir till teatime; for now, while the family
were in retirement, they dined early and saw no company. The governess
had excused herself at dinner, but came down in the evening a little
paler than usual and with a slight limp in her gait. Sir John was there,
talking with his nephew, and they merely acknowledged her presence by
the sort of bow which gentlemen bestow on governesses. As she slowly
made her way to her place behind the urn, Coventry said to his brother,
"Take her a footstool, and ask her how she is, Ned." Then, as if
necessary to account for his politeness to his uncle, he explained how
he was the cause of the accident.

"Yes, yes. I understand. Rather a nice little person, I fancy. Not
exactly a beauty, but accomplished and well-bred, which is better for
one of her class."

"Some tea, Sir John?" said a soft voice at his elbow, and there was Miss
Muir, offering cups to the gentlemen.

"Thank you, thank you," said Sir John, sincerely hoping she had
overheard him.

As Coventry took his, he said graciously, "You are very forgiving, Miss
Muir, to wait upon me, after I have caused you so much pain."

"It is my duty, sir" was her reply, in a tone which plainly said, "but
not my pleasure." And she returned to her place, to smile, and chat, and
be charming, with Bella and her brother.

Lucia, hovering near her uncle and Gerald, kept them to herself, but
was disturbed to find that their eyes often wandered to the cheerful
group about the table, and that their attention seemed distracted by
the frequent bursts of laughter and fragments of animated conversation
which reached them. In the midst of an account of a tragic affair which
she endeavored to make as interesting and pathetic as possible, Sir
John burst into a hearty laugh, which betrayed that he had been
listening to a livelier story than her own. Much annoyed, she said
hastily, "I knew it would be so! Bella has no idea of the proper manner
in which to treat a governess. She and Ned will forget the difference
of rank and spoil that person for her work. She is inclined to be
presumptuous already, and if my aunt won't trouble herself to give Miss
Muir a hint in time, I shall."

"Wait until she has finished that story, I beg of you," said Coventry,
for Sir John was already off.

"If you find that nonsense so entertaining, why don't you follow Uncle's
example? I don't need you."

"Thank you. I will." And Lucia was deserted.

But Miss Muir had ended and, beckoning to Bella, left the room, as if
quite unconscious of the honor conferred upon her or the dullness she
left behind her. Ned went up to his mother, Gerald returned to make his
peace with Lucia, and, bidding them good-night, Sir John turned
homeward. Strolling along the terrace, he came to the lighted window of
Bella's study, and wishing to say a word to her, he half pushed aside
the curtain and looked in. A pleasant little scene. Bella working
busily, and near her in a low chair, with the light falling on her fair
hair and delicate profile, sat Miss Muir reading aloud. "Novels!"
thought Sir John, and smiled at them for a pair of romantic girls. But
pausing to listen a moment before he spoke, he found it was no novel,
but history, read with a fluency which made every fact interesting,
every sketch of character memorable, by the dramatic effect given to it.
Sir John was fond of history, and failing eyesight often curtailed his
favorite amusement. He had tried readers, but none suited him, and he
had given up the plan. Now as he listened, he thought how pleasantly the
smoothly flowing voice would wile away his evenings, and he envied Bella
her new acquisition.

A bell rang, and Bella sprang up, saying, "Wait for me a minute. I must
run to Mamma, and then we will go on with this charming prince."

Away she went, and Sir John was about to retire as quietly as he came,
when Miss Muir's peculiar behavior arrested him for an instant. Dropping
the book, she threw her arms across the table, laid her head down upon
them, and broke into a passion of tears, like one who could bear
restraint no longer. Shocked and amazed, Sir John stole away; but all
that night the kindhearted gentleman puzzled his brains with conjectures
about his niece's interesting young governess, quite unconscious that
she intended he should do so.




_chapter III_


PASSION AND PIQUE

For several weeks the most monotonous tranquillity seemed to reign at
Coventry House, and yet, unseen, unsuspected, a storm was gathering.
The arrival of Miss Muir seemed to produce a change in everyone, though
no one could have explained how or why. Nothing could be more
unobtrusive and retiring than her manners. She was devoted to Bella,
who soon adored her, and was only happy when in her society. She
ministered in many ways to Mrs. Coventry's comfort, and that lady
declared there never was such a nurse. She amused, interested and won
Edward with her wit and womanly sympathy. She made Lucia respect and
envy her for her accomplishments, and piqued indolent Gerald by her
persistent avoidance of him, while Sir John was charmed with her
respectful deference and the graceful little attentions she paid him in
a frank and artless way, very winning to the lonely old man. The very
servants liked her; and instead of being, what most governesses are, a
forlorn creature hovering between superiors and inferiors, Jean Muir
was the life of the house, and the friend of all but two.

Lucia disliked her, and Coventry distrusted her; neither could exactly
say why, and neither owned the feeling, even to themselves. Both watched
her covertly yet found no shortcoming anywhere. Meek, modest, faithful,
and invariably sweet-tempered--they could complain of nothing and
wondered at their own doubts, though they could not banish them.

It soon came to pass that the family was divided, or rather that two
members were left very much to themselves. Pleading timidity, Jean Muir
kept much in Bella's study and soon made it such a pleasant little nook
that Ned and his mother, and often Sir John, came in to enjoy the music,
reading, or cheerful chat which made the evenings so gay. Lucia at first
was only too glad to have her cousin to herself, and he too lazy to care
what went on about him. But presently he wearied of her society, for she
was not a brilliant girl, and possessed few of those winning arts which
charm a man and steal into his heart. Rumors of the merry-makings that
went on reached him and made him curious to share them; echoes of fine
music went sounding through the house, as he lounged about the empty
drawing room; and peals of laughter reached him while listening to
Lucia's grave discourse.

She soon discovered that her society had lost its charm, and the more
eagerly she tried to please him, the more signally she failed. Before
long Coventry fell into a habit of strolling out upon the terrace of an
evening, and amusing himself by passing and repassing the window of
Bella's room, catching glimpses of what was going on and reporting the
result of his observations to Lucia, who was too proud to ask admission
to the happy circle or to seem to desire it.

"I shall go to London tomorrow, Lucia," Gerald said one evening, as he
came back from what he called "a survey," looking very much annoyed.

"To London?" exclaimed his cousin, surprised.

"Yes, I must bestir myself and get Ned his commission, or it will be all
over with him."

"How do you mean?"

"He is falling in love as fast as it is possible for a boy to do it.
That girl has bewitched him, and he will make a fool of himself very
soon, unless I put a stop to it."

"I was afraid she would attempt a flirtation. These persons always do,
they are such a mischief-making race."

"Ah, but there you are wrong, as far as little Muir is concerned. She
does not flirt, and Ned has too much sense and spirit to be caught by a
silly coquette. She treats him like an elder sister, and mingles the
most attractive friendliness with a quiet dignity that captivates the
boy. I've been watching them, and there he is, devouring her with his
eyes, while she reads a fascinating novel in the most fascinating
style. Bella and Mamma are absorbed in the tale, and see nothing; but
Ned makes himself the hero, Miss Muir the heroine, and lives the love
scene with all the ardor of a man whose heart has just waked up. Poor
lad! Poor lad!"

Lucia looked at her cousin, amazed by the energy with which he spoke,
the anxiety in his usually listless face. The change became him, for it
showed what he might be, making one regret still more what he was.
Before she could speak, he was gone again, to return presently,
laughing, yet looking a little angry.

"What now?" she asked.

"'Listeners never hear any good of themselves' is the truest of
proverbs. I stopped a moment to look at Ned, and heard the following
flattering remarks. Mamma is gone, and Ned was asking little Muir to
sing that delicious barcarole she gave us the other evening.

"'Not now, not here,' she said.

"'Why not? You sang it in the drawing room readily enough,' said Ned,
imploringly.

"'That is a very different thing,' and she looked at him with a little
shake of the head, for he was folding his hands and doing the
passionate pathetic.

"'Come and sing it there then,' said innocent Bella. 'Gerald likes your
voice so much, and complains that you will never sing to him.'

"'He never asks me,' said Muir, with an odd smile.

"'He is too lazy, but he wants to hear you.'

"'When he asks me, I will sing--if I feel like it.' And she shrugged her
shoulders with a provoking gesture of indifference.

"'But it amuses him, and he gets so bored down here,' began stupid
little Bella. 'Don't be shy or proud, Jean, but come and entertain the
poor old fellow.'

"'No, thank you. I engaged to teach Miss Coventry, not to amuse Mr.
Coventry' was all the answer she got.

"'You amuse Ned, why not Gerald? Are you afraid of him?' asked Bella.

"Miss Muir laughed, such a scornful laugh, and said, in that
peculiar tone of hers, 'I cannot fancy anyone being _afraid_ of your
elder brother.'

"'I am, very often, and so would you be, if you ever saw him angry,' And
Bella looked as if I'd beaten her.

"'Does he ever wake up enough to be angry?' asked that girl, with an air
of surprise. Here Ned broke into a fit of laughter, and they are at it
now, I fancy, by the sound."

"Their foolish gossip is not worth getting excited about, but I
certainly would send Ned away. It's no use trying to get rid of 'that
girl,' as you say, for my aunt is as deluded about her as Ned and Bella,
and she really does get the child along splendidly. Dispatch Ned, and
then she can do no harm," said Lucia, watching Coventry's altered face
as he stood in the moonlight, just outside the window where she sat.

"Have you no fears for me?" he asked smiling, as if ashamed of his
momentary petulance.

"No, have you for yourself?" And a shade of anxiety passed over her
face.

"I defy the Scotch witch to enchant me, except with her music," he
added, moving down the terrace again, for Jean was singing like a
nightingale.

As the song ended, he put aside the curtain, and said, abruptly, "Has
anyone any commands for London? I am going there tomorrow."

"A pleasant trip to you," said Ned carelessly, though usually his
brother's movements interested him extremely.

"I want quantities of things, but I must ask Mamma first." And Bella
began to make a list.

"May I trouble you with a letter, Mr. Coventry?"

Jean Muir turned around on the music stool and looked at him with the
cold keen glance which always puzzled him.

He bowed, saying, as if to them all, "I shall be off by the early train,
so you must give me your orders tonight."

"Then come away, Ned, and leave Jean to write her letter."

And Bella took her reluctant brother from the room.

"I will give you the letter in the morning," said Miss Muir, with a
curious quiver in her voice, and the look of one who forcibly suppressed
some strong emotion.

"As you please." And Coventry went back to Lucia, wondering who Miss
Muir was going to write to. He said nothing to his brother of the
purpose which took him to town, lest a word should produce the
catastrophe which he hoped to prevent; and Ned, who now lived in a sort
of dream, seemed to forget Gerald's existence altogether.

With unwonted energy Coventry was astir seven next morning. Lucia gave
him his breakfast, and as he left the room to order the carriage, Miss
Muir came gliding downstairs, very pale and heavy-eyed (with a
sleepless, tearful night, he thought) and, putting a delicate little
letter into his hand, said hurriedly, "Please leave this at Lady
Sydney's, and if you see her, say 'I have remembered.'"

Her peculiar manner and peculiar message struck him. His eye
involuntarily glanced at the address of the letter and read young
Sydney's name. Then, conscious of his mistake, he thrust it into his
pocket with a hasty "Good morning," and left Miss Muir standing with
one hand pressed on her heart, the other half extended as if to recall
the letter.

All the way to London, Coventry found it impossible to forget the
almost tragical expression of the girl's face, and it haunted him
through the bustle of two busy days. Ned's affair was put in the way of
being speedily accomplished, Bella's commissions were executed, his
mother's pet delicacies provided for her, and a gift for Lucia, whom
the family had given him for his future mate, as he was too lazy to
choose for himself.

Jean Muir's letter he had not delivered, for Lady Sydney was in the
country and her townhouse closed. Curious to see how she would receive
his tidings, he went quietly in on his arrival at home. Everyone had
dispersed to dress for dinner except Miss Muir, who was in the garden,
the servant said.

"Very well, I have a message for her"; and, turning, the "young master,"
as they called him, went to seek her. In a remote corner he saw her
sitting alone, buried in thought. As his step roused her, a look of
surprise, followed by one of satisfaction, passed over her face, and,
rising, she beckoned to him with an almost eager gesture. Much amazed,
he went to her and offered the letter, saying kindly, "I regret that I
could not deliver it. Lady Sydney is in the country, and I did not like
to post it without your leave. Did I do right?"

"Quite right, thank you very much--it is better so." And with an air of
relief, she tore the letter to atoms, and scattered them to the wind.

More amazed than ever, the young man was about to leave her when she
said, with a mixture of entreaty and command, "Please stay a moment. I
want to speak to you."

He paused, eyeing her with visible surprise, for a sudden color dyed her
cheeks, and her lips trembled. Only for a moment, then she was quite
self-possessed again. Motioning him to the seat she had left, she
remained standing while she said, in a low, rapid tone full of pain and
of decision:

"Mr. Coventry, as the head of the house I want to speak to you, rather
than to your mother, of a most unhappy affair which has occurred during
your absence. My month of probation ends today; your mother wishes me to
remain; I, too, wish it sincerely, for I am happy here, but I ought not.
Read this, and you will see why."

She put a hastily written note into his hand and watched him intently
while he read it. She saw him flush with anger, bite his lips, and knit
his brows, then assume his haughtiest look, as he lifted his eyes and
said in his most sarcastic tone, "Very well for a beginning. The boy has
eloquence. Pity that it should be wasted. May I ask if you have replied
to this rhapsody?"

"I have."

"And what follows? He begs you 'to fly with him, to share his fortunes,
and be the good angel of his life.' Of course you consent?"

There was no answer, for, standing erect before him, Miss Muir regarded
him with an expression of proud patience, like one who expected
reproaches, yet was too generous to resent them. Her manner had its
effect. Dropping his bitter tone, Coventry asked briefly, "Why do you
show me this? What can I do?"

"I show it that you may see how much in earnest 'the boy' is, and how
open I desire to be. You can control, advise, and comfort your brother,
and help me to see what is my duty."

"You love him?" demanded Coventry bluntly.

"No!" was the quick, decided answer.

"Then why make him love you?"

"I never tried to do it. Your sister will testify that I have endeavored
to avoid him as I--" And he finished the sentence with an unconscious
tone of pique, "As you have avoided me."

She bowed silently, and he went on:

"I will do you the justice to say that nothing can be more blameless
than your conduct toward myself; but why allow Ned to haunt you evening
after evening? What could you expect of a romantic boy who had nothing
to do but lose his heart to the first attractive woman he met?"

A momentary glisten shone in Jean Muir's steel-blue eyes as the last
words left the young man's lips; but it was gone instantly, and her
voice was full of reproach, as she said, steadily, impulsively, "If the
'romantic boy' had been allowed to lead the life of a man, as he longed
to do, he would have had no time to lose his heart to the first
sorrowful girl whom he pitied. Mr. Coventry, the fault is yours. Do not
blame your brother, but generously own your mistake and retrieve it in
the speediest, kindest manner."

For an instant Gerald sat dumb. Never since his father died had anyone
reproved him; seldom in his life had he been blamed. It was a new
experience, and the very novelty added to the effect. He saw his fault,
regretted it, and admired the brave sincerity of the girl in telling him
of it. But he did not know how to deal with the case, and was forced to
confess not only past negligence but present incapacity. He was as
honorable as he was proud, and with an effort he said frankly, "You are
right, Miss Muir. I _am_ to blame, yet as soon as I saw the danger, I
tried to avert it. My visit to town was on Ned's account; he will have
his commission very soon, and then he will be sent out of harm's way.
Can I do more?"

"No, it is too late to send him away with a free and happy heart. He
must bear his pain as he can, and it may help to make a man of him," she
said sadly.

"He'll soon forget," began Coventry, who found the thought of gay Ned
suffering an uncomfortable one.

"Yes, thank heaven, that is possible, for men."

Miss Muir pressed her hands together, with a dark expression on her
half-averted face. Something in her tone, her manner, touched Coventry;
he fancied that some old wound bled, some bitter memory awoke at the
approach of a new lover. He was young, heart-whole, and romantic, under
all his cool nonchalance of manner. This girl, who he fancied loved his
friend and who was, beloved by his brother, became an object of interest
to him. He pitied her, desired to help her, and regretted his past
distrust, as a chivalrous man always regrets injustice to a woman. She
was happy here, poor, homeless soul, and she should stay. Bella loved
her, his mother took comfort in her, and when Ned was gone, no one's
peace would be endangered by her winning ways, her rich accomplishments.
These thoughts swept through his mind during a brief pause, and when he
spoke, it was to say gently:

"Miss Muir, I thank you for the frankness which must have been painful
to you, and I will do my best to be worthy of the confidence which you
repose in me. You were both discreet and kind to speak only to me. This
thing would have troubled my mother extremely, and have done no good. I
shall see Ned, and try and repair my long neglect as promptly as
possible. I know you will help me, and in return let me beg of you to
remain, for he will soon be gone."

She looked at him with eyes full of tears, and there was no coolness in
the voice that answered softly, "You are too kind, but I had better go;
it is not wise to stay."

"Why not?"

She colored beautifully, hesitated, then spoke out in the clear, steady
voice which was her greatest charm, "If I had known there were sons in
this family, I never should have come. Lady Sydney spoke only of your
sister, and when I found two gentlemen, I was troubled, because--I am so
unfortunate--or rather, people are so kind as to like me more than I
deserve. I thought I could stay a month, at least, as your brother spoke
of going away, and you were already affianced, but--"

"I am not affianced."

Why he said that, Coventry could not tell, but the words passed his lips
hastily and could not be recalled. Jean Muir took the announcement oddly
enough. She shrugged her shoulders with an air of extreme annoyance, and
said almost rudely, "Then you should be; you will be soon. But that is
nothing to me. Miss Beaufort wishes me gone, and I am too proud to
remain and become the cause of disunion in a happy family. No, I will
go, and go at once."

She turned away impetuously, but Edward's arm detained her, and Edward's
voice demanded, tenderly, "Where will you go, my Jean?"

The tender touch and name seemed to rob her of her courage and calmness,
for, leaning on her lover, she hid her face and sobbed audibly.

"Now don't make a scene, for heaven's sake," began Coventry impatiently,
as his brother eyed him fiercely, divining at once what had passed, for
his letter was still in Gerald's hand and Jean's last words had reached
her lover's ear.

"Who gave you the right to read that, and to interfere in my affairs?"
demanded Edward hotly.

"Miss Muir" was the reply, as Coventry threw away the paper.

"And you add to the insult by ordering her out of the house," cried Ned
with increasing wrath.

"On the contrary, I beg her to remain."

"The deuce you do! And why?"

"Because she is useful and happy here, and I am unwilling that your
folly should rob her of a home which she likes."

"You are very thoughtful and devoted all at once, but I beg you will not
trouble yourself. Jean's happiness and home will be my care now."

"My dear boy, do be reasonable. The thing is impossible. Miss Muir sees
it herself; she came to tell me, to ask how best to arrange matters
without troubling my mother. I've been to town to attend to your
affairs, and you may be off now very soon."

"I have no desire to go. Last month it was the wish of my heart. Now
I'll accept nothing from you." And Edward turned moodily away from
his brother.

"What folly! Ned, you _must_ leave home. It is all arranged and cannot
be given up now. A change is what you need, and it will make a man of
you. We shall miss you, of course, but you will be where you'll see
something of life, and that is better for you than getting into
mischief here."

"Are you going away, Jean?" asked Edward, ignoring his brother entirely
and bending over the girl, who still hid her face and wept. She did not
speak, and Gerald answered for her.

"No, why should she if you are gone?"

"Do you mean to stay?" asked the lover eagerly of Jean.

"I wish to remain, but--" She paused and looked up. Her eyes went from
one face to the other, and she added, decidedly, "Yes, I must go, it is
not wise to stay even when you are gone."

Neither of the young men could have explained why that hurried glance
affected them as it did, but each felt conscious of a willful desire to
oppose the other. Edward suddenly felt that his brother loved Miss Muir,
and was bent on removing her from his way. Gerald had a vague idea that
Miss Muir feared to remain on his account, and he longed to show her
that he was quite safe. Each felt angry, and each showed it in a
different way, one being violent, the other satirical.

"You are right, Jean, this is not the place for you; and you must let me
see you in a safer home before I go," said Ned, significantly.

"It strikes me that this will be a particularly safe home when your
dangerous self is removed," began Coventry, with an aggravating smile of
calm superiority.

"And _I_ think that I leave a more dangerous person than myself behind
me, as poor Lucia can testify."

"Be careful what you say, Ned, or I shall be forced to remind you that I
am master here. Leave Lucia's name out of this disagreeable affair, if
you please."

"You _are_ master here, but not of me, or my actions, and you have no
right to expect obedience or respect, for you inspire neither. Jean, I
asked you to go with me secretly; now I ask you openly to share my
fortune. In my brother's presence I ask, and _will_ have an answer."

He caught her hand impetuously, with a defiant look at Coventry, who
still smiled, as if at boy's play, though his eyes were kindling and his
face changing with the still, white wrath which is more terrible than
any sudden outburst. Miss Muir looked frightened; she shrank away from
her passionate young lover, cast an appealing glance at Gerald, and
seemed as if she longed to claim his protection yet dared not.

"Speak!" cried Edward, desperately. "Don't look to him, tell me truly,
with your own lips, do you, can you love me, Jean?"

"I have told you once. Why pain me by forcing another hard reply," she
said pitifully, still shrinking from his grasp and seeming to appeal to
his brother.

"You wrote a few lines, but I'll not be satisfied with that. You shall
answer; I've seen love in your eyes, heard it in your voice, and I know
it is hidden in your heart. You fear to own it; do not hesitate, no one
can part us--speak, Jean, and satisfy me."

Drawing her hand decidedly away, she went a step nearer Coventry, and
answered, slowly, distinctly, though her lips trembled, and she
evidently dreaded the effect of her words, "I will speak, and speak
truly. You have seen love in my face; it is in my heart, and I do not
hesitate to own it, cruel as it is to force the truth from me, but this
love is not for you. Are you satisfied?"

He looked at her with a despairing glance and stretched his hand toward
her beseechingly. She seemed to fear a blow, for suddenly she clung to
Gerald with a faint cry. The act, the look of fear, the protecting
gesture Coventry involuntarily made were too much for Edward, already
excited by conflicting passions. In a paroxysm of blind wrath, he caught
up a large pruning knife left there by the gardener, and would have
dealt his brother a fatal blow had he not warded it off with his arm.
The stroke fell, and another might have followed had not Miss Muir with
unexpected courage and strength wrested the knife from Edward and flung
it into the little pond near by. Coventry dropped down upon the seat,
for the blood poured from a deep wound in his arm, showing by its rapid
flow that an artery had been severed. Edward stood aghast, for with the
blow his fury passed, leaving him overwhelmed with remorse and shame.

Gerald looked up at him, smiled faintly, and said, with no sign of
reproach or anger, "Never mind, Ned. Forgive and forget. Lend me a hand
to the house, and don't disturb anyone. It's not much, I dare say." But
his lips whitened as he spoke, and his strength failed him. Edward
sprang to support him, and Miss Muir, forgetting her terrors, proved
herself a girl of uncommon skill and courage.

"Quick! Lay him down. Give me your handkerchief, and bring some water,"
she said, in a tone of quiet command. Poor Ned obeyed and watched her
with breathless suspense while she tied the handkerchief tightly around
the arm, thrust the handle of his riding whip underneath, and pressed it
firmly above the severed artery to stop the dangerous flow of blood.

"Dr. Scott is with your mother, I think. Go and bring him here" was
the next order; and Edward darted away, thankful to do anything to
ease the terror which possessed him. He was gone some minutes, and
while they waited Coventry watched the girl as she knelt beside him,
bathing his face with one hand while with the other she held the
bandage firmly in its place. She was pale, but quite steady and
self-possessed, and her eyes shone with a strange brilliancy as she
looked down at him. Once, meeting his look of grateful wonder, she
smiled a reassuring smile that made her lovely, and said, in a soft,
sweet tone never used to him before, "Be quiet. There is no danger. I
will stay by you till help comes."

Help did come speedily, and the doctor's first words were "Who
improvised that tourniquet?"

"She did," murmured Coventry.

"Then you may thank her for saving your life. By Jove! It was capitally
done"; and the old doctor looked at the girl with as much admiration as
curiosity in his face.

"Never mind that. See to the wound, please, while I ran for bandages,
and salts, and wine."

Miss Muir was gone as she spoke, so fleetly that it was in vain to call
her back or catch her. During her brief absence, the story was told by
repentant Ned and the wound examined.

"Fortunately I have my case of instruments with me," said the doctor,
spreading on the bench a long array of tiny, glittering implements of
torture. "Now, Mr. Ned, come here, and hold the arm in that way, while I
tie the artery. Hey! That will never do. Don't tremble so, man, look
away and hold it steadily."

"I can't!" And poor Ned turned faint and white, not at the sight but
with the bitter thought that he had longed to kill his brother.

"I will hold it," and a slender white hand lifted the bare and bloody
arm so firmly, steadily, that Coventry sighed a sigh of relief, and Dr.
Scott fell to work with an emphatic nod of approval.

It was soon over, and while Edward ran in to bid the servants beware of
alarming their mistress, Dr. Scott put up his instruments and Miss Muir
used salts, water, and wine so skillfully that Gerald was able to walk
to his room, leaning on the old man, while the girl supported the
wounded arm, as no sling could be made on the spot. As he entered the
chamber, Coventry turned, put out his left hand, and with much feeling
in his fine eyes said simply, "Miss Muir, I thank you."

The color came up beautifully in her pale cheeks as she pressed the hand
and without a word vanished from the room. Lucia and the housekeeper
came bustling in, and there was no lack of attendance on the invalid. He
soon wearied of it, and sent them all away but Ned, who remorsefully
haunted the chamber, looking like a comely young Cain and feeling like
an outcast.

"Come here, lad, and tell me all about it. I was wrong to be
domineering. Forgive me, and believe that I care for your happiness more
sincerely than for my own."

These frank and friendly words healed the breach between the two
brothers and completely conquered Ned. Gladly did he relate his love
passages, for no young lover ever tires of that amusement if he has a
sympathizing auditor, and Gerald _was_ sympathetic now. For an hour did
he lie listening patiently to the history of the growth of his brother's
passion. Emotion gave the narrator eloquence, and Jean Muir's character
was painted in glowing colors. All her unsuspected kindness to those
about her was dwelt upon; all her faithful care, her sisterly interest
in Bella, her gentle attentions to their mother, her sweet forbearance
with Lucia, who plainly showed her dislike, and most of all, her
friendly counsel, sympathy, and regard for Ned himself.

"She would make a man of me. She puts strength and courage into me as no
one else can. She is unlike any girl I ever saw; there's no
sentimentality about her; she is wise, and kind, and sweet. She says
what she means, looks you straight in the eye, and is as true as steel.
I've tried her, I know her, and--ah, Gerald, I love her so!"

Here the poor lad leaned his face into his hands and sighed a sigh that
made his brother's heart ache.

"Upon my soul, Ned, I feel for you; and if there was no obstacle on her
part, I'd do my best for you. She loves Sydney, and so there is nothing
for it but to bear your fate like a man."

"Are you sure about Sydney? May it not be some one else?" and Ned eyed
his brother with a suspicious look.

Coventry told him all he knew and surmised concerning his friend, not
forgetting the letter. Edward mused a moment, then seemed relieved, and
said frankly, "I'm glad it's Sydney and not you. I can bear it better."

"Me!" ejaculated Gerald, with a laugh.

"Yes, you; I've been tormented lately with a fear that you cared for
her, or rather, she for you."

"You jealous young fool! We never see or speak to one another scarcely,
so how could we get up a tender interest?"

"What do you lounge about on that terrace for every evening? And why
does she get fluttered when your shadow begins to come and go?"
demanded Edward.

"I like the music and don't care for the society of the singer, that's
why I walk there. The fluttering is all your imagination; Miss Muir
isn't a woman to be fluttered by a man's shadow." And Coventry glanced
at his useless arm.

"Thank you for that, and for not saying 'little Muir,' as you generally
do. Perhaps it was my imagination. But she never makes fun of you now,
and so I fancied she might have lost her heart to the 'young master.'
Women often do, you know."

"She used to ridicule me, did she?" asked Coventry, taking no notice of
the latter part of his brother's speech, which was quite true
nevertheless.

"Not exactly, she was too well-bred for that. But sometimes when Bella
and I joked about you, she'd say something so odd or witty that it was
irresistible. You're used to being laughed at, so you don't mind, I
know, just among ourselves."

"Not I. Laugh away as much as you like," said Gerald. But he did mind,
and wanted exceedingly to know what Miss Muir had said, yet was too
proud to ask. He turned restlessly and uttered a sigh of pain.

"I'm talking too much; it's bad for you. Dr. Scott said you must be
quiet. Now go to sleep, if you can."

Edward left the bedside but not the room, for he would let no one take
his place. Coventry tried to sleep, found it impossible, and after a
restless hour called his brother back.

"If the bandage was loosened a bit, it would ease my arm and then I
could sleep. Can you do it, Ned?"

"I dare not touch it. The doctor gave orders to leave it till he came in
the morning, and I shall only do harm if I try."

"But I tell you it's too tight. My arm is swelling and the pain is
intense. It can't be right to leave it so. Dr. Scott dressed it in a
hurry and did it too tight. Common sense will tell you that," said
Coventry impatiently.

"I'll call Mrs. Morris; she will understand what's best to be done." And
Edward moved toward the door, looking anxious.

"Not she, she'll only make a stir and torment me with her chatter. I'll
bear it as long as I can, and perhaps Dr. Scott will come tonight. He
said he would if possible. Go to your dinner, Ned. I can ring for Neal
if I need anything. I shall sleep if I'm alone, perhaps."

Edward reluctantly obeyed, and his brother was left to himself. Little
rest did he find, however, for the pain of the wounded arm grew
unbearable, and, taking a sudden resolution, he rang for his servant.

"Neal, go to Miss Coventry's study, and if Miss Muir is there, ask her
to be kind enough to come to me. I'm in great pain, and she understand
wounds better than anyone else in the house."

With much surprise in his face, the man departed and a few moments after
the door noiselessly opened and Miss Muir came in. It had been a very
warm day, and for the first time she had left off her plain black dress.
All in white, with no ornament but her fair hair, and a fragrant posy of
violets in her belt, she looked a different woman from the meek, nunlike
creature one usually saw about the house. Her face was as altered as her
dress, for now a soft color glowed in her cheeks, her eyes smiled shyly,
and her lips no longer wore the firm look of one who forcibly repressed
every emotion. A fresh, gentle, and charming woman she seemed, and
Coventry found the dull room suddenly brightened by her presence. Going
straight to him, she said simply, and with a happy, helpful look very
comforting to see, "I'm glad you sent for me. What can I do for you?"

He told her, and before the complaint was ended, she began loosening the
bandages with the decision of one who understood what was to be done and
had faith in herself.

"Ah, that's relief, that's comfort!" ejaculated Coventry, as the last
tight fold fell away. "Ned was afraid I should bleed to death if he
touched me. What will the doctor say to us?"

"I neither know nor care. I shall say to him that he is a bad surgeon to
bind it so closely, and not leave orders to have it untied if necessary.
Now I shall make it easy and put you to sleep, for that is what you
need. Shall I? May I?"

"I wish you would, if you can."

And while she deftly rearranged the bandages, the young man watched her
curiously. Presently he asked, "How came you to know so much about
these things?"

"In the hospital where I was ill, I saw much that interested me, and
when I got better, I used to sing to the patients sometimes."

"Do you mean to sing to me?" he asked, in the submissive tone men
unconsciously adopt when ill and in a woman's care.

"If you like it better than reading aloud in a dreamy tone," she
answered, as she tied the last knot.

"I do, much better," he said decidedly.

"You are feverish. I shall wet your forehead, and then you will be quite
comfortable." She moved about the room in the quiet way which made it a
pleasure to watch her, and, having mingled a little cologne with water,
bathed his face as unconcernedly as if he had been a child. Her
proceedings not only comforted but amused Coventry, who mentally
contrasted her with the stout, beer-drinking matron who had ruled over
him in his last illness.

"A clever, kindly little woman," he thought, and felt quite at his ease,
she was so perfectly easy herself.

"There, now you look more like yourself," she said with an approving nod
as she finished, and smoothed the dark locks off his forehead with a
cool, soft hand. Then seating herself in a large chair near by, she
began to sing, while tidily rolling up the fresh bandages which had been
left for the morning. Coventry lay watching her by the dim light that
burned in the room, and she sang on as easily as a bird, a dreamy,
low-toned lullaby, which soothed the listener like a spell. Presently,
looking up to see the effect of her song, she found the young man wide
awake, and regarding her with a curious mixture of pleasure, interest,
and admiration.

"Shut your eyes, Mr. Coventry," she said, with a reproving shake of the
head, and an odd little smile.

He laughed and obeyed, but could not resist an occasional covert glance
from under his lashes at the slender white figure in the great velvet
chair. She saw him and frowned.

"You are very disobedient; why won't you sleep?"

"I can't, I want to listen. I'm fond of nightingales."

"Then I shall sing no more, but try something that has never failed yet.
Give me your hand, please."

Much amazed, he gave it, and, taking it in both her small ones, she sat
down behind the curtain and remained as mute and motionless as a statue.
Coventry smiled to himself at first, and wondered which would tire
first. But soon a subtle warmth seemed to steal from the soft palms that
enclosed his own, his heart beat quicker, his breath grew unequal, and a
thousand fancies danced through his brain. He sighed, and said dreamily,
as he turned his face toward her, "I like this." And in the act of
speaking, seemed to sink into a soft cloud which encompassed him about
with an atmosphere of perfect repose. More than this he could not
remember, for sleep, deep and dreamless, fell upon him, and when he
woke, daylight was shining in between the curtains, his hand lay alone
on the coverlet, and his fair-haired enchantress was gone.




_chapter IV_


A DISCOVERY

For several days Coventry was confined to his room, much against his
will, though everyone did their best to lighten his irksome captivity.
His mother petted him, Bella sang, Lucia read, Edward was devoted, and
all the household, with one exception, were eager to serve the young
master. Jean Muir never came near him, and Jean Muir alone seemed to
possess the power of amusing him. He soon tired of the others, wanted
something new; recalled the piquant character of the girl and took a
fancy into his head that she would lighten his ennui. After some
hesitation, he carelessly spoke of her to Bella, but nothing came of
it, for Bella only said Jean was well, and very busy doing something
lovely to surprise Mamma with. Edward complained that he never saw
her, and Lucia ignored her existence altogether. The only intelligence
the invalid received was from the gossip of two housemaids over their
work in the next room. From them he learned that the governess had
been "scolded" by Miss Beaufort for going to Mr. Coventry's room; that
she had taken it very sweetly and kept herself carefully out of the
way of both young gentlemen, though it was plain to see that Mr. Ned
was dying for her.

Mr. Gerald amused himself by thinking over this gossip, and quite
annoyed his sister by his absence of mind.

"Gerald, do you know Ned's commission has come?"

"Very interesting. Read on, Bella."

"You stupid boy! You don't know a word I say," and she put down the book
to repeat her news.

"I'm glad of it; now we must get him off as soon as possible--that is, I
suppose he will want to be off as soon as possible." And Coventry woke
up from his reverie.

"You needn't check yourself, I know all about it. I think Ned was very
foolish, and that Miss Muir has behaved beautifully. It's quite
impossible, of course, but I wish it wasn't, I do so like to watch
lovers. You and Lucia are so cold you are not a bit interesting."

"You'll do me a favor if you'll stop all that nonsense about Lucia and
me. We are not lovers, and never shall be, I fancy. At all events, I'm
tired of the thing, and wish you and Mamma would let it drop, for the
present at least."

"Oh Gerald, you know Mamma has set her heart upon it, that Papa desired
it, and poor Lucia loves you so much. How can you speak of dropping what
will make us all so happy?"

"It won't make me happy, and I take the liberty of thinking that this is
of some importance. I'm not bound in any way, and don't intend to be
till I am ready. Now we'll talk about Ned."

Much grieved and surprised, Bella obeyed, and devoted herself to Edward,
who very wisely submitted to his fate and prepared to leave home for
some months. For a week the house was in a state of excitement about his
departure, and everyone but Jean was busied for him. She was scarcely
seen; every morning she gave Bella her lessons, every afternoon drove
out with Mrs. Coventry, and nearly every evening went up to the Hall to
read to Sir John, who found his wish granted without exactly knowing how
it had been done.

The day Edward left, he came down from bidding his mother good-bye,
looking very pale, for he had lingered in his sister's little room with
Miss Muir as long as he dared.

"Good-bye, dear. Be kind to Jean," he whispered as he kissed his sister.

"I will, I will," returned Bella, with tearful eyes.

"Take care of Mamma, and remember Lucia," he said again, as he touched
his cousin's beautiful cheek.

"Fear nothing. I will keep them apart," she whispered back, and
Coventry heard it.

Edward offered his hand to his brother, saying, significantly, as he
looked him in the eye, "I trust you, Gerald."

"You may, Ned."

Then he went, and Coventry tired himself with wondering what Lucia
meant. A few days later he understood.

Now Ned is gone, little Muir will appear, I fancy, he said to himself;
but "little Muir" did not appear, and seemed to shun him more carefully
than she had done her lover. If he went to the drawing room in the
evening hoping for music, Lucia alone was there. If he tapped at Bella's
door, there was always a pause before she opened it, and no sign of Jean
appeared though her voice had been audible when he knocked. If he went
to the library, a hasty rustle and the sound of flying feet betrayed
that the room was deserted at his approach. In the garden Miss Muir
never failed to avoid him, and if by chance they met in hall or
breakfast room, she passed him with downcast eyes and the briefest,
coldest greeting. All this annoyed him intensely, and the more she
eluded him, the more he desired to see her--from a spirit of opposition,
he said, nothing more. It fretted and yet it entertained him, and he
found a lazy sort of pleasure in thwarting the girl's little maneuvers.
His patience gave out at last, and he resolved to know what was the
meaning of this peculiar conduct. Having locked and taken away the key
of one door in the library, he waited till Miss Muir went in to get a
book for his uncle. He had heard her speak to Bella of it, knew that she
believed him with his mother, and smiled to himself as he stole after
her. She was standing in a chair, reaching up, and he had time to see a
slender waist, a pretty foot, before he spoke.

"Can I help you, Miss Muir?"

She started, dropped several books, and turned scarlet, as she said
hurriedly, "Thank you, no; I can get the steps."

"My long arm will be less trouble. I've got but one, and that is tired
of being idle, so it is very much at your service. What will you have?"

"I--I--you startled me so I've forgotten." And Jean laughed, nervously,
as she looked about her as if planning to escape.

"I beg your pardon, wait till you remember, and let me thank you for the
enchanted sleep you gave me ten days ago. I've had no chance yet, you've
shunned me so pertinaciously."

"Indeed I try not to be rude, but--" She checked herself, and turned her
face away, adding, with an accent of pain in her voice, "It is not my
fault, Mr. Coventry. I only obey orders."

"Whose orders?" he demanded, still standing so that she could not
escape.

"Don't ask; it is one who has a right to command where you are
concerned. Be sure that it is kindly meant, though it may seem folly
to us. Nay, don't be angry, laugh at it, as I do, and let me run
away, please."

She turned, and looked down at him with tears in her eyes, a smile on
her lips, and an expression half sad, half arch, which was altogether
charming. The frown passed from his face, but he still looked grave and
said decidedly, "No one has a right to command in this house but my
mother or myself. Was it she who bade you avoid me as if I was a madman
or a pest?"

"Ah, don't ask. I promised not to tell, and you would not have me break
my word, I know." And still smiling, she regarded him with a look of
merry malice which made any other reply unnecessary. It was Lucia, he
thought, and disliked his cousin intensely just then. Miss Muir moved as
if to step down; he detained her, saying earnestly, yet with a smile,
"Do you consider me the master here?"

"Yes," and to the word she gave a sweet, submissive intonation which
made it expressive of the respect, regard, and confidence which men find
pleasantest when women feel and show it. Unconsciously his face
softened, and he looked up at her with a different glance from any he
had ever given her before.

"Well, then, will you consent to obey me if I am not tyrannical or
unreasonable in my demands?"

"I'll try."

"Good! Now frankly, I want to say that all this sort of thing is very
disagreeable to me. It annoys me to be a restraint upon anyone's liberty
or comfort, and I beg you will go and come as freely as you like, and
not mind Lucia's absurdities. She means well, but hasn't a particle of
penetration or tact. Will you promise this?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"It is better as it is, perhaps."

"But you called it folly just now."

"Yes, it seems so, and yet--" She paused, looking both confused and
distressed.

Coventry lost patience, and said hastily, "You women are such enigmas I
never expect to understand you! Well, I've done my best to make you
comfortable, but if you prefer to lead this sort of life, I beg you
will do so."

"I _don't_ prefer it; it is hateful to me. I like to be myself, to have
my liberty, and the confidence of those about me. But I cannot think it
kind to disturb the peace of anyone, and so I try to obey. I've promised
Bella to remain, but I will go rather than have another scene with Miss
Beaufort or with you."

Miss Muir had burst out impetuously, and stood there with a sudden fire
in her eyes, sudden warmth and spirit in her face and voice that amazed
Coventry. She was angry, hurt, and haughty, and the change only made her
more attractive, for not a trace of her former meek self remained.
Coventry was electrified, and still more surprised when she added,
imperiously, with a gesture as if to put him aside, "Hand me that book
and move away. I wish to go."

He obeyed, even offered his hand, but she refused it, stepped lightly
down, and went to the door. There she turned, and with the same
indignant voice, the same kindling eyes and glowing cheeks, she said
rapidly, "I know I have no right to speak in this way. I restrain myself
as long as I can, but when I can bear no more, my true self breaks
loose, and I defy everything. I am tired of being a cold, calm machine;
it is impossible with an ardent nature like mine, and I shall try no
longer. I cannot help it if people love me. I don't want their love. I
only ask to be left in peace, and why I am tormented so I cannot see.
I've neither beauty, money, nor rank, yet every foolish boy mistakes my
frank interest for something warmer, and makes me miserable. It is my
misfortune. Think of me what you will, but beware of me in time, for
against my will I may do you harm."

Almost fiercely she had spoken, and with a warning gesture she hurried
from the room, leaving the young man feeling as if a sudden thunder-gust
had swept through the house. For several minutes he sat in the chair she
left, thinking deeply. Suddenly he rose, went to his sister, and said,
in his usual tone of indolent good nature, "Bella, didn't I hear Ned ask
you to be kind to Miss Muir?"

"Yes, and I try to be, but she is so odd lately."

"Odd! How do you mean?"

"Why, she is either as calm and cold as a statue, or restless and queer;
she cries at night, I know, and sighs sadly when she thinks I don't
hear. Something is the matter."

"She frets for Ned perhaps," began Coventry.

"Oh dear, no; it's a great relief to her that he is gone. I'm afraid
that she likes someone very much, and someone don't like her. Can it be
Mr. Sydney?"

"She called him a 'titled fool' once, but perhaps that didn't mean
anything. Did you ever ask her about him?" said Coventry, feeling rather
ashamed of his curiosity, yet unable to resist the temptation of
questioning unsuspecting Bella.

"Yes, but she only looked at me in her tragical way, and said, so
pitifully, 'My little friend, I hope you will never have to pass through
the scenes I've passed through, but keep your peace unbroken all your
life.' After that I dared say no more. I'm very fond of her, I want to
make her happy, but I don't know how. Can you propose anything?"

"I was going to propose that you make her come among us more, now Ned is
gone. It must be dull for her, moping about alone. I'm sure it is for
me. She is an entertaining little person, and I enjoy her music very
much. It's good for Mamma to have gay evenings; so you bestir yourself,
and see what you can do for the general good of the family."

"That's all very charming, and I've proposed it more than once, but
Lucia spoils all my plans. She is afraid you'll follow Ned's example,
and that is so silly."

"Lucia is a--no, I won't say fool, because she has sense enough when she
chooses; but I wish you'd just settle things with Mamma, and then Lucia
can do nothing but submit," said Gerald angrily.

"I'll try, but she goes up to read to Uncle, you know, and since he has
had the gout, she stays later, so I see little of her in the evening.
There she goes now. I think she will captivate the old one as well as
the young one, she is so devoted."

Coventry looked after her slender black figure, just vanishing through
the great gate, and an uncomfortable fancy took possession of him, born
of Bella's careless words. He sauntered away, and after eluding his
cousin, who seemed looking for him, he turned toward the Hall, saying to
himself, I will see what is going on up here. Such things have happened.
Uncle is the simplest soul alive, and if the girl is ambitious, she can
do what she will with him.

Here a servant came running after him and gave him a letter, which he
thrust into his pocket without examining it. When he reached the Hall,
he went quietly to his uncle's study. The door was ajar, and looking in,
he saw a scene of tranquil comfort, very pleasant to watch. Sir John
leaned in his easy chair with one foot on a cushion. He was dressed with
his usual care and, in spite of the gout, looked like a handsome,
well-preserved old gentleman. He was smiling as he listened, and his
eyes rested complacently on Jean Muir, who sat near him reading in her
musical voice, while the sunshine glittered on her hair and the soft
rose of her cheek. She read well, yet Coventry thought her heart was not
in her task, for once when she paused, while Sir John spoke, her eyes
had an absent expression, and she leaned her head upon her hand, with an
air of patient weariness.

Poor girl! I did her great injustice; she has no thought of captivating
the old man, but amuses him from simple kindness. She is tired. I'll put
an end to her task; and Coventry entered without knocking.

Sir John received him with an air of polite resignation, Miss Muir with
a perfectly expressionless face.

"Mother's love, and how are you today, sir?"

"Comfortable, but dull, so I want you to bring the girls over this
evening, to amuse the old gentleman. Mrs. King has got out the
antique costumes and trumpery, as I promised Bella she should have
them, and tonight we are to have a merrymaking, as we used to do when
Ned was here."

"Very well, sir, I'll bring them. We've all been out of sorts since the
lad left, and a little jollity will do us good. Are you going back, Miss
Muir?" asked Coventry.

"No, I shall keep her to give me my tea and get things ready. Don't read
anymore, my dear, but go and amuse yourself with the pictures, or
whatever you like," said Sir John; and like a dutiful daughter she
obeyed, as if glad to get away.

"That's a very charming girl, Gerald," began Sir John as she left the
room. "I'm much interested in her, both on her own account and on her
mother's."

"Her mother's! What do you know of her mother?" asked Coventry, much
surprised.

"Her mother was Lady Grace Howard, who ran away with a poor Scotch
minister twenty years ago. The family cast her off, and she lived and
died so obscurely that very little is known of her except that she left
an orphan girl at some small French pension. This is the girl, and a
fine girl, too. I'm surprised that you did not know this."

"So am I, but it is like her not to tell. She is a strange, proud
creature. Lady Howard's daughter! Upon my word, that is a discovery,"
and Coventry felt his interest in his sister's governess much increased
by this fact; for, like all wellborn Englishmen, he valued rank and
gentle blood even more than he cared to own.

"She has had a hard life of it, this poor little girl, but she has a
brave spirit, and will make her way anywhere," said Sir John admiringly.

"Did Ned know this?" asked Gerald suddenly.

"No, she only told me yesterday. I was looking in the _Peerage_ and
chanced to speak of the Howards. She forgot herself and called Lady
Grace her mother. Then I got the whole story, for the lonely little
thing was glad to make a confidant of someone."

"That accounts for her rejection of Sydney and Ned: she knows she is
their equal and will not snatch at the rank which is hers by right. No,
she's not mercenary or ambitious."

"What do you say?" asked Sir John, for Coventry had spoken more to
himself than to his uncle.

"I wonder if Lady Sydney was aware of this?" was all Gerald's answer.

"No, Jean said she did not wish to be pitied, and so told nothing to the
mother. I think the son knew, but that was a delicate point, and I asked
no questions."

"I shall write to him as soon as I discover his address. We have been so
intimate I can venture to make a few inquiries about Miss Muir, and
prove the truth of her story."

"Do you mean to say that you doubt it?" demanded Sir John angrily.

"I beg your pardon, Uncle, but I must confess I have an instinctive
distrust of that young person. It is unjust, I dare say, yet I cannot
banish it."

"Don't annoy me by expressing it, if you please. I have some penetration
and experience, and I respect and pity Miss Muir heartily. This dislike
of yours may be the cause of her late melancholy, hey, Gerald?" And Sir
John looked suspiciously at his nephew.

Anxious to avert the rising storm, Coventry said hastily as he turned
away, "I've neither time nor inclination to discuss the matter now, sir,
but will be careful not to offend again. I'll take your message to
Bella, so good-bye for an hour, Uncle."

And Coventry went his way through the park, thinking within himself, The
dear old gentleman is getting fascinated, like poor Ned. How the deuce
does the girl do it? Lady Howard's daughter, yet never told us; I don't
understand that.




_chapter V_


HOW THE GIRL DID IT

At home he found a party of young friends, who hailed with delight the
prospect of a revel at the Hall. An hour later, the blithe company
trooped into the great saloon, where preparations had already been made
for a dramatic evening.

Good Sir John was in his element, for he was never so happy as when his
house was full of young people. Several persons were chosen, and in a
few moments the curtains were withdrawn from the first of these
impromptu tableaux. A swarthy, darkly bearded man lay asleep on a tiger
skin, in the shadow of a tent. Oriental arms and drapery surrounded him;
an antique silver lamp burned dimly on a table where fruit lay heaped in
costly dishes, and wine shone redly in half-emptied goblets. Bending
over the sleeper was a woman robed with barbaric splendor. One hand
turned back the embroidered sleeve from the arm which held a scimitar;
one slender foot in a scarlet sandal was visible under the white tunic;
her purple mantle swept down from snowy shoulders; fillets of gold bound
her hair, and jewels shone on neck and arms. She was looking over her
shoulder toward the entrance of the tent, with a steady yet stealthy
look, so effective that for a moment the spectators held their breath,
as if they also heard a passing footstep.

"Who is it?" whispered Lucia, for the face was new to her.

"Jean Muir," answered Coventry, with an absorbed look.

"Impossible! She is small and fair," began Lucia, but a hasty "Hush, let
me look!" from her cousin silenced her.

Impossible as it seemed, he was right nevertheless; for Jean Muir it
was. She had darkened her skin, painted her eyebrows, disposed some wild
black locks over her fair hair, and thrown such an intensity of
expression into her eyes that they darkened and dilated till they were
as fierce as any southern eyes that ever flashed. Hatred, the deepest
and bitterest, was written on her sternly beautiful face, courage glowed
in her glance, power spoke in the nervous grip of the slender hand that
held the weapon, and the indomitable will of the woman was
expressed--even the firm pressure of the little foot half hidden in the
tiger skin.

"Oh, isn't she splendid?" cried Bella under her breath.

"She looks as if she'd use her sword well when the time comes," said
someone admiringly.

"Good night to Holofernes; his fate is certain," added another.

"He is the image of Sydney, with that beard on."

"Doesn't she look as if she really hated him?"

"Perhaps she does."

Coventry uttered the last exclamation, for the two which preceded it
suggested an explanation of the marvelous change in Jean. It was not all
art: the intense detestation mingled with a savage joy that the object
of her hatred was in her power was too perfect to be feigned; and having
the key to a part of her story, Coventry felt as if he caught a glimpse
of the truth. It was but a glimpse, however, for the curtain dropped
before he had half analyzed the significance of that strange face.

"Horrible! I'm glad it's over," said Lucia coldly.

"Magnificent! Encore! Encore!" cried Gerald enthusiastically.

But the scene was over, and no applause could recall the actress. Two or
three graceful or gay pictures followed, but Jean was in none, and each
lacked the charm which real talent lends to the simplest part.

"Coventry, you are wanted," called a voice. And to everyone's surprise,
Coventry went, though heretofore he had always refused to exert himself
when handsome actors were in demand.

"What part am I to spoil?" he asked, as he entered the green room, where
several excited young gentlemen were costuming and attitudinizing.

"A fugitive cavalier. Put yourself into this suit, and lose no time
asking questions. Miss Muir will tell you what to do. She is in the
tableau, so no one will mind you," said the manager pro tem, throwing a
rich old suit toward Coventry and resuming the painting of a moustache
on his own boyish face.

A gallant cavalier was the result of Gerald's hasty toilet, and when
he appeared before the ladies a general glance of admiration was
bestowed upon him.

"Come along and be placed; Jean is ready on the stage." And Bella ran
before him, exclaiming to her governess, "Here he is, quite splendid.
Wasn't he good to do it?"

Miss Muir, in the charmingly prim and puritanical dress of a Roundhead
damsel, was arranging some shrubs, but turned suddenly and dropped the
green branch she held, as her eye met the glittering figure advancing
toward her.

"You!" she said with a troubled look, adding low to Bella, "Why did you
ask _him?_ I begged you not."

"He is the only handsome man here, and the best actor if he likes. He
won't play usually, so make the most of him." And Bella was off to
finish powdering her hair for "The Marriage  la Mode."

"I was sent for and I came. Do you prefer some other person?" asked
Coventry, at a loss to understand the half-anxious, half-eager
expression of the face under the little cap.

It changed to one of mingled annoyance and resignation as she said, "It
is too late. Please kneel here, half behind the shrubs; put down your
hat, and--allow me--you are too elegant for a fugitive."

As he knelt before her, she disheveled his hair, pulled his lace collar
awry, threw away his gloves and sword, and half untied the cloak that
hung about his shoulders.

"That is better; your paleness is excellent--nay, don't spoil it. We are
to represent the picture which hangs in the Hall. I need tell you no
more. Now, Roundheads, place yourselves, and then ring up the curtain."

With a smile, Coventry obeyed her; for the picture was of two lovers,
the young cavalier kneeling, with his arm around the waist of the girl,
who tries to hide him with her little mantle, and presses his head to
her bosom in an ecstasy of fear, as she glances back at the approaching
pursuers. Jean hesitated an instant and shrank a little as his hand
touched her; she blushed deeply, and her eyes fell before his. Then, as
the bell rang, she threw herself into her part with sudden spirit. One
arm half covered him with her cloak, the other pillowed his head on the
muslin kerchief folded over her bosom, and she looked backward with such
terror in her eyes that more than one chivalrous young spectator longed
to hurry to the rescue. It lasted but a moment; yet in that moment
Coventry experienced another new sensation. Many women had smiled on
him, but he had remained heart-whole, cool, and careless, quite
unconscious of the power which a woman possesses and knows how to use,
for the weal or woe of man. Now, as he knelt there with a soft arm about
him, a slender waist yielding to his touch, and a maiden heart throbbing
against his cheek, for the first time in his life he felt the
indescribable spell of womanhood, and looked the ardent lover to
perfection. Just as his face assumed this new and most becoming aspect,
the curtain dropped, and clamorous encores recalled him to the fact that
Miss Muir was trying to escape from his hold, which had grown painful in
its unconscious pressure. He sprang up, half bewildered, and looking as
he had never looked before.

"Again! Again!" called Sir John. And the young men who played the
Roundheads, eager to share in the applause begged for a repetition in
new attitudes.

"A rustle has betrayed you, we have fired and shot the brave girl, and
she lies dying, you know. That will be effective; try it, Miss Muir,"
said one. And with a long breath, Jean complied.

The curtain went up, showing the lover still on his knees, unmindful of
the captors who clutched him by the shoulder, for at his feet the girl
lay dying. Her head was on his breast, now, her eyes looked full into
his, no longer wild with fear, but eloquent with the love which even
death could not conquer. The power of those tender eyes thrilled
Coventry with a strange delight, and set his heart beating as rapidly as
hers had done. She felt his hands tremble, saw the color flash into his
cheek, knew that she had touched him at last, and when she rose it was
with a sense of triumph which she found it hard to conceal. Others
thought it fine acting; Coventry tried to believe so; but Lucia set her
teeth, and, as the curtain fell on that second picture, she left her
place to hurry behind the scenes, bent on putting an end to such
dangerous play. Several actors were complimenting the mimic lovers. Jean
took it merrily, but Coventry, in spite of himself, betrayed that he was
excited by something deeper than mere gratified vanity.

As Lucia appeared, his manner changed to its usual indifference; but he
could not quench the unwonted fire of his eyes, or keep all trace of
emotion out of his face, and she saw this with a sharp pang.

"I have come to offer my help. You must be tired, Miss Muir. Can I
relieve you?" said Lucia hastily.

"Yes, thank you. I shall be very glad to leave the rest to you, and
enjoy them from the front."

So with a sweet smile Jean tripped away, and to Lucia's dismay
Coventry followed.

"I want you, Gerald; please stay," she cried.

"I've done my part--no more tragedy for me tonight." And he was gone
before she could entreat or command.

There was no help for it; she must stay and do her duty, or expose her
jealousy to the quick eyes about her. For a time she bore it; but the
sight of her cousin leaning over the chair she had left and chatting
with the governess, who now filled it, grew unbearable, and she
dispatched a little girl with a message to Miss Muir.

"Please, Miss Beaufort wants you for Queen Bess, as you are the only
lady with red hair. Will you come?" whispered the child, quite
unconscious of any hidden sting in her words.

"Yes, dear, willingly though I'm not stately enough for Her Majesty, nor
handsome enough," said Jean, rising with an untroubled face, though she
resented the feminine insult.

"Do you want an Essex? I'm all dressed for it," said Coventry, following
to the door with a wistful look.

"No, Miss Beaufort said _you_ were not to come. She doesn't want you
both together," said the child decidedly.

Jean gave him a significant look, shrugged her shoulders, and went away
smiling her odd smile, while Coventry paced up and down the hall in a
curious state of unrest, which made him forgetful of everything till the
young people came gaily out to supper.

"Come, bonny Prince Charlie, take me down, and play the lover as
charmingly as you did an hour ago. I never thought you had so much
warmth in you," said Bella, taking his arm and drawing him on
against his will.

"Don't be foolish, child. Where is--Lucia?"

Why he checked Jean's name on his lips and substituted another's, he
could not tell; but a sudden shyness in speaking of her possessed him,
and though he saw her nowhere, he would not ask for her. His cousin came
down looking lovely in a classical costume; but Gerald scarcely saw her,
and, when the merriment was at its height, he slipped away to discover
what had become of Miss Muir.

Alone in the deserted drawing room he found her, and paused to watch her
a moment before he spoke; for something in her attitude and face struck
him. She was leaning wearily back in the great chair which had served
for a throne. Her royal robes were still unchanged, though the crown was
off and all her fair hair hung about her shoulders. Excitement and
exertion made her brilliant, the rich dress became her wonderfully, and
an air of luxurious indolence changed the meek governess into a charming
woman. She leaned on the velvet cushions as if she were used to such
support; she played with the jewels which had crowned her as carelessly
as if she were born to wear them; her attitude was full of negligent
grace, and the expression of her face half proud, half pensive, as if
her thoughts were bittersweet.

One would know she was wellborn to see her now. Poor girl, what a
burden a life of dependence must be to a spirit like hers! I wonder
what she is thinking of so intently. And Coventry indulged in another
look before he spoke.

"Shall I bring you some supper, Miss Muir?"

"Supper!" she ejaculated, with a start. "Who thinks of one's body when
one's soul is--" She stopped there, knit her brows, and laughed faintly
as she added, "No, thank you. I want nothing but advice, and that I dare
not ask of anyone."

"Why not?"

"Because I have no right."

"Everyone has a right to ask help, especially the weak of the strong.
Can I help you? Believe me, I most heartily offer my poor services."

"Ah, you forget! This dress, the borrowed splendor of these jewels, the
freedom of this gay evening, the romance of the part you played, all
blind you to the reality. For a moment I cease to be a servant, and for
a moment you treat me as an equal."

It was true; he _had_ forgotten. That soft, reproachful glance touched
him, his distrust melted under the new charm, and he answered with real
feeling in voice and face, "I treat you as an equal because you _are_
one; and when I offered help, it is not to my sister's governess alone,
but to Lady Howard's daughter."

"Who told you that?" she demanded, sitting erect.

"My uncle. Do not reproach him. It shall go no further, if you forbid
it. Are you sorry that I know it?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"Because I will not be pitied!" And her eyes flashed as she made a
half-defiant gesture.

"Then, if I may not pity the hard fate which has befallen an innocent
life, may I admire the courage which meets adverse fortune so bravely,
and conquers the world by winning the respect and regard of all who see
and honor it?"

Miss Muir averted her face, put up her hand, and answered hastily, "No,
no, not that! Do not be kind; it destroys the only barrier now left
between us. Be cold to me as before, forget what I am, and let me go on
my way, unknown, unpitied, and unloved!"

Her voice faltered and failed as the last word was uttered, and she bent
her face upon her hand. Something jarred upon Coventry in this speech,
and moved him to say, almost rudely, "You need have no fears for me.
Lucia will tell you what an iceberg I am."

"Then Lucia would tell me wrong. I have the fatal power of reading
character; I know you better than she does, and I see--" There she
stopped abruptly.

"What? Tell me and prove your skill," he said eagerly.

Turning, she fixed her eyes on him with a penetrating power that made
him shrink as she said slowly, "Under the ice I see fire, and warn you
to beware lest it prove a volcano."

For a moment he sat dumb, wondering at the insight of the girl; for she
was the first to discover the hidden warmth of a nature too proud to
confess its tender impulses, or the ambitions that slept till some
potent voice awoke them. The blunt, almost stern manner in which she
warned him away from her only made her more attractive; for there was no
conceit or arrogance in it, only a foreboding fear emboldened by past
suffering to be frank. Suddenly he spoke impetuously:

"You are right! I am not what I seem, and my indolent indifference is
but the mask under which I conceal my real self. I could be as
passionate, as energetic and aspiring as Ned, if I had any aim in
life. I have none, and so I am what you once called me, a thing to
pity and despise."

"I never said that!" cried Jean indignantly.

"Not in those words, perhaps; but you looked it and thought it, though
you phrased it more mildly. I deserved it, but I shall deserve it no
longer. I am beginning to wake from my disgraceful idleness, and long
for some work that shall make a man of me. Why do you go? I annoy you
with my confessions. Pardon me. They are the first I ever made; they
shall be the last."

"No, oh no! I am too much honored by your confidence; but is it wise, is
it loyal to tell _me_ your hopes and aims? Has not Miss Beaufort the
first right to be your confidante?"

Coventry drew back, looking intensely annoyed, for the name recalled
much that he would gladly have forgotten in the novel excitement of the
hour. Lucia's love, Edward's parting words, his own reserve so strangely
thrown aside, so difficult to resume. What he would have said was
checked by the sight of a half-open letter which fell from Jean's dress
as she moved away. Mechanically he took it up to return it, and, as he
did so, he recognized Sydney's handwriting. Jean snatched it from him,
turning pale to the lips as she cried, "Did you read it? What did you
see? Tell me, tell me, on your honor!"

"On my honor, I saw nothing but this single sentence, 'By the love I
bear you, believe what I say.' No more, as I am a gentleman. I know the
hand, I guess the purport of the letter, and as a friend of Sydney, I
earnestly desire to help you, if I can. Is this the matter upon which
you want advice?"

"Yes."

"Then let me give it?"

"You cannot, without knowing all, and it is so hard to tell!"

"Let me guess it, and spare you the pain of telling. May I?" And
Coventry waited eagerly for her reply, for the spell was still upon him.

Holding the letter fast, she beckoned him to follow, and glided before
him to a secluded little nook, half boudoir, half conservatory. There
she paused, stood an instant as if in doubt, then looked up at him with
confiding eyes and said decidedly, "I will do it; for, strange as it may
seem, you are the only person to whom I _can_ speak. You know Sydney,
you have discovered that I am an equal, you have offered your help. I
accept it; but oh, do not think me unwomanly! Remember how alone I am,
how young, and how much I rely upon your sincerity, your sympathy!"

"Speak freely. I am indeed your friend." And Coventry sat down beside
her, forgetful of everything but the soft-eyed girl who confided in him
so entirely.

Speaking rapidly, Jean went on, "You know that Sydney loved me, that I
refused him and went away. But you do not know that his importunities
nearly drove me wild, that he threatened to rob me of my only treasure,
my good name, and that, in desperation, I tried to kill myself. Yes,
mad, wicked as it was, I did long to end the life which was, at best, a
burden, and under his persecution had become a torment. You are shocked,
yet what I say is the living truth. Lady Sydney will confirm it, the
nurses at the hospital will confess that it was not a fever which
brought me there; and here, though the external wound is healed, my
heart still aches and burns with the shame and indignation which only a
proud woman can feel."

She paused and sat with kindling eyes, glowing cheeks, and both hands
pressed to her heaving bosom, as if the old insult roused her spirit
anew. Coventry said not a word, for surprise, anger, incredulity, and
admiration mingled so confusedly in his mind that he forgot to speak,
and Jean went on, "That wild act of mine convinced him of my indomitable
dislike. He went away, and I believed that this stormy love of his would
be cured by absence. It is not, and I live in daily fear of fresh
entreaties, renewed persecution. His mother promised not to betray where
I had gone, but he found me out and wrote to me. The letter I asked you
to take to Lady Sydney was a reply to his, imploring him to leave me in
peace. You failed to deliver it, and I was glad, for I thought silence
might quench hope. All in vain; this is a more passionate appeal than
ever, and he vows he will never desist from his endeavors till I give
another man the right to protect me. I _can_ do this--I am sorely
tempted to do it, but I rebel against the cruelty. I love my freedom, I
have no wish to marry at this man's bidding. What can I do? How cart I
free myself? Be my friend, and help me!"

Tears streamed down her cheeks, sobs choked her words, and she clasped
her hands imploringly as she turned toward the young man in all the
abandonment of sorrow, fear, and supplication. Coventry found it hard to
meet those eloquent eyes and answer calmly, for he had no experience in
such scenes and knew not how to play his part. It is this absurd dress
and that romantic nonsense which makes me feel so unlike myself, he
thought, quite unconscious of the dangerous power which the dusky room,
the midsummer warmth and fragrance, the memory of the "romantic
nonsense," and, most of all, the presence of a beautiful, afflicted
woman had over him. His usual self-possession deserted him, and he could
only echo the words which had made the strongest impression upon him:

"You _can_ do this, you are tempted to do it. Is Ned the man who can
protect you?"

"No" was the soft reply.

"Who then?"

"Do not ask me. A good and honorable man; one who loves me well, and
would devote his life to me; one whom once it would have been happiness
to marry, but now--"

There her voice ended in a sigh, and all her fair hair fell down about
her face, hiding it in a shining veil.

"Why not now? This is a sure and speedy way of ending your distress. Is
it impossible?"

In spite of himself, Gerald leaned nearer, took one of the little hands
in his, and pressed it as he spoke, urgently, compassionately, nay,
almost tenderly. From behind the veil came a heavy sigh, and the brief
answer, "It is impossible."

"Why, Jean?"

She flung her hair back with a sudden gesture, drew away her hand, and
answered, almost fiercely, "Because I do not love him! Why do you
torment me with such questions? I tell you I am in a sore strait and
cannot see my way. Shall I deceive the good man, and secure peace at the
price of liberty and truth? Or shall I defy Sydney and lead a life of
dread? If he menaced my life, I should not fear; but he menaces that
which is dearer than life--my good name. A look, a word can tarnish it;
a scornful smile, a significant shrug can do me more harm than any blow;
for I am a woman--friendless, poor, and at the mercy of his tongue. Ah,
better to have died, and so have been saved the bitter pain that has
come now!"

She sprang up, clasped her hands over her head, and paced despairingly
through the little room, not weeping, but wearing an expression more
tragical than tears. Still feeling as if he had suddenly stepped into a
romance, yet finding a keen pleasure in the part assigned him, Coventry
threw himself into it with spirit, and heartily did his best to console
the poor girl who needed help so much. Going to her, he said as
impetuously as Ned ever did, "Miss Muir--nay, I will say Jean, if that
will comfort you--listen, and rest assured that no harm shall touch you
if I can ward it off. You are needlessly alarmed. Indignant you may well
be, but, upon my life, I think you wrong Sydney. He is violent, I know,
but he is too honorable a man to injure you by a light word, an unjust
act. He did but threaten, hoping to soften you. Let me see him, or write
to him. He is my friend; he will listen to me. Of that I am sure."

"Be sure of nothing. When a man like Sydney loves and is thwarted in his
love, nothing can control his headstrong will. Promise me you will not
see or write to him. Much as I fear and despise him, I will submit,
rather than any harm should befall you--or your brother. You promise me,
Mr. Coventry?"

He hesitated. She clung to his arm with unfeigned solicitude in her
eager, pleading face, and he could not resist it.

"I promise; but in return you must promise to let me give what help I
can; and, Jean, never say again that you are friendless."

"You are so kind! God bless you for it. But I dare not accept
your friendship; she will not permit it, and I have no right to
mar her peace."

"Who will not permit it?" he demanded hotly.

"Miss Beaufort."

"Hang Miss Beaufort!" exclaimed Coventry, with such energy that Jean
broke into a musical laugh, despite her trouble. He joined in it, and,
for an instant they stood looking at one another as if the last barrier
were down, and they were friends indeed. Jean paused suddenly, with the
smile on her lips, the tears still on her cheek, and made a warning
gesture. He listened: the sound of feet mingled with calls and laughter
proved that they were missed and sought.

"That laugh betrayed us. Stay and meet them. I cannot." And Jean darted
out upon the lawn. Coventry followed; for the thought of confronting so
many eyes, so many questions, daunted him, and he fled like a coward.
The sound of Jean's flying footsteps guided him, and he overtook her
just as she paused behind a rose thicket to take breath.

"Fainthearted knight! You should have stayed and covered my retreat.
Hark! they are coming! Hide! Hide!" she panted, half in fear, half in
merriment, as the gay pursuers rapidly drew nearer.

"Kneel down; the moon is coming out and the glitter of your embroidery
will betray you," whispered Jean, as they cowered behind the roses.

"Your arms and hair will betray you. 'Come under my plaiddie,' as the
song says." And Coventry tried to make his velvet cloak cover the white
shoulders and fair locks.

"We are acting our parts in reality now. How Bella will enjoy the thing
when I tell her!" said Jean as the noises died away.

"Do not tell her," whispered Coventry.

"And why not?" she asked, looking up into the face so near her own, with
an artless glance.

"Can you not guess why?"

"Ah, you are so proud you cannot bear to be laughed at."

"It is not that. It is because I do not want you to be annoyed by silly
tongues; you have enough to pain you without that. I am your friend,
now, and I do my best to prove it."

"So kind, so kind! How can I thank you?" murmured Jean. And she
involuntarily nestled closer under the cloak that sheltered both.

Neither spoke for a moment, and in the silence the rapid beating of two
hearts was heard. To drown the sound, Coventry said softly, "Are you
frightened?"

"No, I like it," she answered, as softly, then added abruptly, "But why
do we hide? There is nothing to fear. It is late. I must go. You are
kneeling on my train. Please rise."

"Why in such haste? This flight and search only adds to the charm of the
evening. I'll not get up yet. Will you have a rose, Jean?"

"No, I will not. Let me go, Mr. Coventry, I insist. There has been
enough of this folly. You forget yourself."

She spoke imperiously, flung off the cloak, and put him from her. He
rose at once, saying, like one waking suddenly from a pleasant dream, "I
do indeed forget myself."

Here the sound of voices broke on them, nearer than before. Pointing to
a covered walk that led to the house, he said, in his usually cool, calm
tone, "Go in that way; I will cover your retreat." And turning, he went
to meet the merry hunters.

Half an hour later, when the party broke up, Miss Muir joined them in
her usual quiet dress, looking paler, meeker, and sadder than usual.
Coventry saw this, though he neither looked at her nor addressed her.
Lucia saw it also, and was glad that the dangerous girl had fallen back
into her proper place again, for she had suffered much that night. She
appropriated her cousin's arm as they went through the park, but he was
in one of his taciturn moods, and all her attempts at conversation were
in vain. Miss Muir walked alone, singing softly to herself as she
followed in the dusk. Was Gerald so silent because he listened to that
fitful song? Lucia thought so, and felt her dislike rapidly deepening
to hatred.

When the young friends were gone, and the family were exchanging
good-nights among themselves, Jean was surprised by Coventry's offering
his hand, for he had never done it before, and whispering, as he held
it, though Lucia watched him all the while, "I have not given my
advice, yet."

"Thanks, I no longer need it. I have decided for myself."

"May I ask how?"

"To brave my enemy."

"Good! But what decided you so suddenly?"

"The finding of a friend." And with a grateful glance she was gone.




_chapter VI_


ON THE WATCH

"If you please, Mr. Coventry, did you get the letter last night?" were
the first words that greeted the "young master" as he left his room
next morning.

"What letter, Dean? I don't remember any," he answered, pausing, for
something in the maid's manner struck him as peculiar.

"It came just as you left for the Hall, sir. Benson ran after you with
it, as it was marked 'Haste.' Didn't you get it, sir?" asked the woman,
anxiously.

"Yes, but upon my life, I forgot all about it till this minute. It's in
my other coat, I suppose, if I've not lost it. That absurd masquerading
put everything else out of my head." And speaking more to himself than
to the maid, Coventry turned back to look for the missing letter.

Dean remained where she was, apparently busy about the arrangement of
the curtains at the hall window, but furtively watching meanwhile with a
most unwonted air of curiosity.

"Not there, I thought so!" she muttered, as Coventry impatiently thrust
his hand into one pocket after another. But as she spoke, an expression
of amazement appeared in her face, for suddenly the letter was
discovered.

"I'd have sworn it wasn't there! I don't understand it, but she's a deep
one, or I'm much deceived." And Dean shook her head like one perplexed,
but not convinced.

Coventry uttered an exclamation of satisfaction on glancing at the
address and, standing where he was, tore open the letter.

    _Dear C:

    I'm off to Baden. Come and join me, then you'll be out of harm's way;
    for if you fall in love with J.M. (and you can't escape if you stay
    where she is), you will incur the trifling inconvenience of having
    your brains blown out by

    Yours truly, F.R. Sydney_

"The man is mad!" ejaculated Coventry, staring at the letter while an
angry flush rose to his face. "What the deuce does he mean by writing to
me in that style? Join him--not I! And as for the threat, I laugh at it.
Poor Jean! This headstrong fool seems bent on tormenting her. Well,
Dean, what are you waiting for?" he demanded, as if suddenly conscious
of her presence.

"Nothing, sir; I only stopped to see if you found the letter. Beg
pardon, sir."

And she was moving on when Coventry asked, with a suspicious look, "What
made you think it was lost? You seem to take an uncommon interest in my
affairs today."

"Oh dear, no, sir. I felt a bit anxious, Benson is so forgetful, and it
was me who sent him after you, for I happened to see you go out, so I
felt responsible. Being marked that way, I thought it might be important
so I asked about it."

"Very well, you can go, Dean. It's all right, you see."

"I'm not so sure of that," muttered the woman, as she curtsied
respectfully and went away, looking as if the letter had _not_
been found.

Dean was Miss Beaufort's maid, a grave, middle-aged woman with keen eyes
and a somewhat grim air. Having been long in the family, she enjoyed all
the privileges of a faithful and favorite servant. She loved her young
mistress with an almost jealous affection. She watched over her with the
vigilant care of a mother and resented any attempt at interference on
the part of others. At first she had pitied and liked Jean Muir, then
distrusted her, and now heartily hated her, as the cause of the
increased indifference of Coventry toward his cousin. Dean knew the
depth of Lucia's love, and though no man, in her eyes, was worthy of her
mistress, still, having honored him with her regard, Dean felt bound to
like him, and the late change in his manner disturbed the maid almost as
much as it did the mistress. She watched Jean narrowly, causing that
amiable creature much amusement but little annoyance, as yet, for Dean's
slow English wit was no match for the subtle mind of the governess. On
the preceding night, Dean had been sent up to the Hall with costumes and
had there seen something which much disturbed her. She began to speak of
it while undressing her mistress, but Lucia, being in an unhappy mood,
had so sternly ordered her not to gossip that the tale remained untold,
and she was forced to bide her tune.

Now I'll see how _she_ looks after it; though there's not much to be got
out of _her_ face, the deceitful hussy, thought Dean, marching down the
corridor and knitting her black brows as she went.

"Good morning, Mrs. Dean. I hope you are none the worse for last night's
frolic. You had the work and we the play," said a blithe voice behind
her; and turning sharply, she confronted Miss Muir. Fresh and smiling,
the governess nodded with an air of cordiality which would have been
irresistible with anyone but Dean.

"I'm quite well, thank you, miss," she returned coldly, as her keen eye
fastened on the girl as if to watch the effect of her words. "I had a
good rest when the young ladies and gentlemen were at supper, for while
the maids cleared up, I sat in the 'little anteroom.'"

"Yes, I saw you, and feared you'd take cold. Very glad you didn't. How
is Miss Beaufort? She seemed rather poorly last night" was the tranquil
reply, as Jean settled the little frills about her delicate wrists. The
cool question was a return shot for Dean's hint that she had been where
she could oversee the interview between Coventry and Miss Muir.

"She is a bit tired, as any _lady_ would be after such an evening.
People who are _used_ to _play-acting_ wouldn't mind it, perhaps, but
Miss Beaufort don't enjoy _romps_ as much as _some_ do."

The emphasis upon certain words made Dean's speech as impertinent as she
desired. But Jean only laughed, and as Coventry's step was heard behind
them, she ran downstairs, saying blandly, but with a wicked look, "I
won't stop to thank you now, lest Mr. Coventry should bid me
good-morning, and so increase Miss Beaufort's indisposition."

Dean's eyes flashed as she looked after the girl with a wrathful face,
and went her way, saying grimly, "I'll bide my time, but I'll get the
better of her yet."

Fancying himself quite removed from "last night's absurdity," yet
curious to see how Jean would meet him, Coventry lounged into the
breakfast room with his usual air of listless indifference. A languid
nod and murmur was all the reply he vouchsafed to the greetings of
cousin, sister, and governess as he sat down and took up his paper.

"Have you had a letter from Ned?" asked Bella, looking at the note which
her brother still held.

"No" was the brief answer.

"Who then? You look as if you had received bad news."

There was no reply, and, peeping over his arm, Bella caught sight of the
seal and exclaimed, in a disappointed tone, "It is the Sydney crest. I
don't care about the note now. Men's letters to each other are not
interesting."

Miss Muir had been quietly feeding one of Edward's dogs, but at the name
she looked up and met Coventry's eyes, coloring so distressfully that he
pitied her. Why he should take the trouble to cover her confusion, he
did not stop to ask himself, but seeing the curl of Lucia's lip, he
suddenly addressed her with an air of displeasure, "Do you know that
Dean is getting impertinent? She presumes too much on her age and your
indulgence, and forgets her place."

"What has she done?" asked Lucia coldly.

"She troubles herself about my affairs and takes it upon herself to keep
Benson in order."

Here Coventry told about the letter and the woman's evident curiosity.

"Poor Dean, she gets no thanks for reminding you of what you had
forgotten. Next time she will leave your letters to their fate, and
perhaps it will be as well, if they have such a bad effect upon your
temper, Gerald."

Lucia spoke calmly, but there was an angry color in her cheek as she
rose and left the room. Coventry looked much annoyed, for on Jean's face
he detected a faint smile, half pitiful, half satirical, which disturbed
him more than his cousin's insinuation. Bella broke the awkward silence
by saying, with a sigh, "Poor Ned! I do so long to hear again from him.
I thought a letter had come for some of us. Dean said she saw one
bearing his writing on the hall table yesterday."

"She seems to have a mania for inspecting letters. I won't allow it. Who
was the letter for, Bella?" said Coventry, putting down his paper.

"She wouldn't or couldn't tell, but looked very cross and told me
to ask you."

"Very odd! I've had none," began Coventry.

"But I had one several days ago. Will you please read it, and my reply?"
And as she spoke, Jean laid two letters before him.

"Certainly not. It would be dishonorable to read what Ned intended for
no eyes but your own. You are too scrupulous in one way, and not enough
so in another, Miss Muir." And Coventry offered both the letters with
an air of grave decision, which could not conceal the interest and
surprise he felt.

"You are right. Mr. Edward's note _should_ be kept sacred, for in it the
poor boy has laid bare his heart to me. But mine I beg you will read,
that you may see how well I try to keep my word to you. Oblige me in
this, Mr. Coventry; I have a right to ask it of you."

So urgently she spoke, so wistfully she looked, that he could not refuse
and, going to the window, read the letter. It was evidently an answer to
a passionate appeal from the young lover, and was written with
consummate skill. As he read, Gerald could not help thinking, If this
girl writes in this way to a man whom she does _not_ love, with what a
world of power and passion would she write to one whom she _did_ love.
And this thought kept returning to him as his eye went over line after
line of wise argument, gentle reproof, good counsel, and friendly
regard. Here and there a word, a phrase, betrayed what she had already
confessed, and Coventry forgot to return the letter, as he stood
wondering who was the man whom Jean loved.

The sound of Bella's voice recalled him, for she was saying, half
kindly, half petulantly, "Don't look so sad, Jean. Ned will outlive it,
I dare say. You remember you said once men never died of love, though
women might. In his one note to me, he spoke so beautifully of you, and
begged me to be kind to you for his sake, that I try to be with all my
heart, though if it was anyone but you, I really think I should hate
them for making my dear boy so unhappy."

"You are too kind, Bella, and I often think I'll go away to relieve you
of my presence; but unwise and dangerous as it is to stay, I haven't the
courage to go. I've been so happy here." And as she spoke, Jean's head
dropped lower over the dog as it nestled to her affectionately.

Before Bella could utter half the loving words that sprang to her lips,
Coventry came to them with all languor gone from face and mien, and
laying Jean's letter before her, he said, with an undertone of deep
feeling in his usually emotionless voice, "A right womanly and eloquent
letter, but I fear it will only increase the fire it was meant to
quench. I pity my brother more than ever now."

"Shall I send it?" asked Jean, looking straight up at him, like one who
had entire reliance on his judgment.

"Yes, I have not the heart to rob him of such a sweet sermon upon
self-sacrifice. Shall I post it for you?"

"Thank you; in a moment." And with a grateful look, Jean dropped her
eyes. Producing her little purse, she selected a penny, folded it in a
bit of paper, and then offered both letter and coin to Coventry, with
such a pretty air of business, that he could not control a laugh.

"So you won't be indebted to me for a penny? What a proud woman you are,
Miss Muir."

"I am; it's a family failing." And she gave him a significant glance,
which recalled to him the memory of who she was. He understood her
feeling, and liked her the better for it, knowing that he would have
done the same had he been in her place. It was a little thing, but if
done for effect, it answered admirably, for it showed a quick insight
into his character on her part, and betrayed to him the existence of a
pride in which he sympathized heartily. He stood by Jean a moment,
watching her as she burnt Edward's letter in the blaze of the spirit
lamp under the urn.

"Why do you do that?" he asked involuntarily.

"Because it is my duty to forget" was all her answer.

"Can you always forget when it becomes a duty?"

"I wish I could! I wish I could!"

She spoke passionately, as if the words broke from her against her will,
and, rising hastily, she went into the garden, as if afraid to stay.

"Poor, dear Jean is very unhappy about something, but I can't discover
what it is. Last night I found her crying over a rose, and now she runs
away, looking as if her heart was broken. I'm glad I've got no lessons."

"What kind of a rose?" asked Coventry from behind his paper as
Bella paused.

"A lovely white one. It must have come from the Hall; we have none like
it. I wonder if Jean was ever going to be married, and lost her lover,
and felt sad because the flower reminded her of bridal roses."

Coventry made no reply, but felt himself change countenance as he
recalled the little scene behind the rose hedge, where he gave Jean the
flower which she had refused yet taken. Presently, to Bella's surprise,
he flung down the paper, tore Sydney's note to atoms, and rang for his
horse with an energy which amazed her.

"Why, Gerald, what has come over you? One would think Ned's restless
spirit had suddenly taken possession of you. What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to work" was the unexpected answer, as Coventry turned toward
her with an expression so rarely seen on his fine face.

"What has waked you up all at once?" asked Bella, looking more and
more amazed.

"You did," he said, drawing her toward him.

"I! When? How?"

"Do you remember saying once that energy was better than beauty in a
man, and that no one could respect an idler?"

"I never said anything half so sensible as that. Jean said something
like it once, I believe, but I forgot. Are you tired of doing nothing,
at last, Gerald?"

"Yes, I neglected my duty to Ned, till he got into trouble, and now I
reproach myself for it. It's not too late to do other neglected tasks,
so I'm going at them with a will. Don't say anything about it to anyone,
and don't laugh at me, for I'm in earnest, Bell."

"I know you are, and I admire and love you for it, my dear old boy,"
cried Bella enthusiastically, as she threw her arms about his neck and
kissed him heartily. "What will you do first?" she asked, as he stood
thoughtfully smoothing the bright head that leaned upon his shoulder,
with that new expression still clear and steady in his face.

"I'm going to ride over the whole estate, and attend to things as a
master should; not leave it all to Bent, of whom I've heard many
complaints, but have been too idle to inquire about them. I shall
consult Uncle, and endeavor to be all that my father was in his time. Is
that a worthy ambition, dear?"

"Oh, Gerald, let me tell Mamma. It will make her so happy. You are her
idol, and to hear you say these things, to see you look so like dear
Papa, would do more for her spirits than all the doctors in England."

"Wait till I prove what my resolution is worth. When I have really done
something, then I'll surprise Mamma with a sample of my work."

"Of course you'll tell Lucia?"

"Not on any account. It is a little secret between us, so keep it till I
give you leave to tell it."

"But Jean will see it at once; she knows everything that happens, she is
so quick and wise. Do you mind her knowing?"

"I don't see that I can help it if she is so wonderfully gifted. Let her
see what she can, I don't mind her. Now I'm off." And with a kiss to his
sister, a sudden smile on his face, Coventry sprang upon his horse and
rode away at a pace which caused the groom to stare after him in blank
amazement.

Nothing more was seen of him till dinnertime, when he came in so
exhilarated by his brisk ride and busy morning that he found some
difficulty in assuming his customary manner, and more than once
astonished the family by talking animatedly on various subjects which
till now had always seemed utterly uninteresting to him. Lucia was
amazed, his mother delighted, and Bella could hardly control her desire
to explain the mystery; but Jean took it very calmly and regarded him
with the air of one who said, "I understand, but you will soon tire of
it." This nettled him more than he would confess, and he exerted himself
to silently contradict that prophecy.

"Have you answered Mr. Sydney's letter?" asked Bella, when they were all
scattered about the drawing room after dinner.

"No," answered her brother, who was pacing up and down with restless
steps, instead of lounging near his beautiful cousin.

"I ask because I remembered that Ned sent a message for him in my last
note, as he thought you would know Sydney's address. Here it is,
something about a horse. Please put it in when you write," and Bella
laid the note on the writing table nearby.

"I'll send it at once and have done with it," muttered Coventry and,
seating himself, he dashed off a few lines, sealed and sent the letter,
and then resumed his march, eyeing the three young ladies with three
different expressions, as he passed and repassed. Lucia sat apart,
feigning to be intent upon a book, and her handsome face looked almost
stern in its haughty composure, for though her heart ached, she was too
proud to own it. Bella now lay on the sofa, half asleep, a rosy little
creature, as unconsciously pretty as a child. Miss Muir sat in the
recess of a deep window, in a low lounging chair, working at an
embroidery frame with a graceful industry pleasant to see. Of late she
had worn colors, for Bella had been generous in gifts, and the pale blue
muslin which flowed in soft waves about her was very becoming to her
fair skin and golden hair. The close braids were gone, and loose curls
dropped here and there from the heavy coil wound around her well-shaped
head. The tip of one dainty foot was visible, and a petulant little
gesture which now and then shook back the falling sleeve gave glimpses
of a round white arm. Ned's great hound lay nearby, the sunshine
flickered on her through the leaves, and as she sat smiling to herself,
while the dexterous hands shaped leaf and flower, she made a charming
picture of all that is most womanly and winning; a picture which few
men's eyes would not have liked to rest upon.

Another chair stood near her, and as Coventry went up and down, a strong
desire to take it possessed him. He was tired of his thoughts and wished
to be amused by watching the changes of the girl's expressive face,
listening to the varying tones of her voice, and trying to discover the
spell which so strongly attracted him in spite of himself. More than
once he swerved from his course to gratify his whim, but Lucia's
presence always restrained him, and with a word to the dog, or a glance
from the window, as pretext for a pause, he resumed his walk again.
Something in his cousin's face reproached him, but her manner of late
was so repellent that he felt no desire to resume their former
familiarity, and, wishing to show that he did not consider himself
bound, he kept aloof. It was a quiet test of the power of each woman
over this man; they instinctively felt it, and both tried to conquer.
Lucia spoke several times, and tried to speak frankly and affably; but
her manner was constrained, and Coventry, having answered politely,
relapsed into silence. Jean said nothing, but silently appealed to eye
and ear by the pretty picture she made of herself, the snatches of song
she softly sang, as if forgetting that she was not alone, and a shy
glance now and then, half wistful, half merry, which was more alluring
than graceful figure or sweet voice. When she had tormented Lucia and
tempted Coventry long enough, she quietly asserted her supremacy in a
way which astonished her rival, who knew nothing of the secret of her
birth, which knowledge did much to attract and charm the young man.
Letting a ball of silk escape from her lap, she watched it roll toward
the promenader, who caught and returned it with an alacrity which added
grace to the trifling service. As she took it, she said, in the frank
way that never failed to win him, "I think you must be tired; but if
exercise is necessary, employ your energies to some purpose and put your
mother's basket of silks in order. They are in a tangle, and it will
please her to know that you did it, as your brother used to do."

"Hercules at the distaff," said Coventry gaily, and down he sat in the
long-desired seat. Jean put the basket on his knee, and as he surveyed
it, as if daunted at his task, she leaned back, and indulged in a
musical little peal of laughter charming to hear. Lucia sat dumb with
surprise, to see her proud, indolent cousin obeying the commands of a
governess, and looking as if he heartily enjoyed it. In ten minutes she
was as entirely forgotten as if she had been miles away; for Jean seemed
in her wittiest, gayest mood, and as she now treated the "young master"
like an equal, there was none of the former meek timidity. Yet often her
eyes fell, her color changed, and the piquant sallies faltered on her
tongue, as Coventry involuntarily looked deep into the fine eyes which
had once shone on him so tenderly in that mimic tragedy. He could not
forget it, and though neither alluded to it, the memory of the previous
evening seemed to haunt both and lend a secret charm to the present
moment. Lucia bore this as long as she could, and then left the room
with the air of an insulted princess; but Coventry did not, and Jean
feigned not to see her go. Bella was fast asleep, and before he knew how
it came to pass, the young man was listening to the story of his
companion's life. A sad tale, told with wonderful skill, for soon he was
absorbed in it. The basket slid unobserved from his knee, the dog was
pushed away, and, leaning forward, he listened eagerly as the girl's low
voice recounted all the hardships, loneliness, and grief of her short
life. In the midst of a touching episode she started, stopped, and
looked straight before her, with an intent expression which changed to
one of intense contempt, and her eye turned to Coventry's, as she said,
pointing to the window behind him, "We are watched."

"By whom?" he demanded, starting up angrily.

"Hush, say nothing, let it pass. I am used to it."

"But _I_ am not, and I'll not submit to it. Who was it, Jean?" he
answered hotly.

She smiled significantly at a knot of rose-colored ribbon, which a
little gust was blowing toward them along the terrace. A black frown
darkened the young man's face as he sprang out of the long window and
went rapidly out of sight, scrutinizing each green nook as he passed.
Jean laughed quietly as she watched him, and said softly to herself,
with her eyes on the fluttering ribbon, "That was a fortunate accident,
and a happy inspiration. Yes, my dear Mrs. Dean, you will find that
playing the spy will only get your mistress as well as yourself into
trouble. You would not be warned, and you must take the consequences,
reluctant as I am to injure a worthy creature like yourself."

Soon Coventry was heard returning. Jean listened with suspended breath
to catch his first words, for he was not alone.

"Since you insist that it was you and not your mistress, I let it pass,
although I still have my suspicions. Tell Miss Beaufort I desire to see
her for a few moments in the library. Now go, Dean, and be careful for
the future, if you wish to stay in my house."

The maid retired, and the young man came in looking both ireful
and stern.

"I wish I had said nothing, but I was startled, and spoke involuntarily.
Now you are angry, and I have made fresh trouble for poor Miss Lucia.
Forgive me as I forgive her, and let it pass. I have learned to bear
this surveillance, and pity her causeless jealousy," said Jean, with a
self-reproachful air.

"I will forgive the dishonorable act, but I cannot forget it, and I
intend to put a stop to it. I am not betrothed to my cousin, as I told
you once, but you, like all the rest, seem bent on believing that I am.
Hitherto I have cared too little about the matter to settle it, but now
I shall prove beyond all doubt that I am free."

As he uttered the last word, Coventry cast on Jean a look that affected
her strangely. She grew pale, her work dropped on her lap, and her eyes
rose to his, with an eager, questioning expression, which slowly changed
to one of mingled pain and pity, as she turned her face away, murmuring
in a tone of tender sorrow, "Poor Lucia, who will comfort her?"

For a moment Coventry stood silent, as if weighing some fateful purpose
in his mind. As Jean's rapt sigh of compassion reached his ear, he had
echoed it within himself, and half repented of his resolution; then his
eye rested on the girl before him looking so lonely in her sweet
sympathy for another that his heart yearned toward her. Sudden fire shot
into his eye, sudden warmth replaced the cold sternness of his face, and
his steady voice faltered suddenly, as he said, very low, yet very
earnestly, "Jean, I have tried to love her, but I cannot. Ought I to
deceive her, and make myself miserable to please my family?"

"She is beautiful and good, and loves you tenderly; is there no hope for
her?" asked Jean, still pale, but very quiet, though she held one hand
against her heart, as if to still or hide its rapid beating.

"None," answered Coventry.

"But can you not learn to love her? Your will is strong, and most men
would not find it a hard task."

"I cannot, for something stronger than my own will controls me."

"What is that?" And Jean's dark eyes were fixed upon him, full of
innocent wonder.

His fell, and he said hastily, "I dare not tell you yet."

"Pardon! I should not have asked. Do not consult me in this matter; I am
not the person to advise you. I can only say that it seems to me as if
any man with an empty heart would be glad to have so beautiful a woman
as your cousin."

"My heart is not empty," began Coventry, drawing a step nearer, and
speaking in a passionate voice. "Jean, I _must_ speak; hear me. I cannot
love my cousin, because I love you."

"Stop!" And Jean sprang up with a commanding gesture. "I will not hear
you while any promise binds you to another. Remember your mother's
wishes, Lucia's hopes, Edward's last words, your own pride, my humble
lot. You forget yourself, Mr. Coventry. Think well before you speak,
weigh the cost of this act, and recollect who I am before you insult me
by any transient passion, any false vows."

"I have thought, I do weigh the cost, and I swear that I desire to woo
you as humbly, honestly as I would any lady in the land. You speak of my
pride. Do I stoop in loving my equal in rank? You speak of your lowly
lot, but poverty is no disgrace, and the courage with which you bear it
makes it beautiful. I should have broken with Lucia before I spoke, but
I could not control myself. My mother loves you, and will be happy in my
happiness. Edward must forgive me, for I have tried to do my best, but
love is irresistible. Tell me, Jean, is there any hope for me?"

He had seized her hand and was speaking impetuously, with ardent face
and tender tone, but no answer came, for as Jean turned her eloquent
countenance toward him, full of maiden shame and timid love, Dean's prim
figure appeared at the door, and her harsh voice broke the momentary
silence, saying, sternly, "Miss Beaufort is waiting for you, sir."

"Go, go at once, and be kind, for my sake, Gerald," whispered Jean, far
he stood as if deaf and blind to everything but her voice, her face.

As she drew his head down to whisper, her cheek touched his, and
regardless of Dean, he kissed it, passionately, whispering back, "My
little Jean! For your sake I can be anything."

"Miss Beaufort is waiting. Shall I say you will come, sir?" demanded
Dean, pale and grim with indignation.

"Yes, yes, I'll come. Wait for me in the garden, Jean." And Coventry
hurried away, in no mood for the interview but anxious to have it over.

As the door closed behind him, Dean walked up to Miss Muir, trembling
with anger, and laying a heavy hand on her arm, she said below her
breath, "I've been expecting this, you artful creature. I saw your game
and did my best to spoil it, but you are too quick for me. You think
you've got him. There you are mistaken; for as sure as my name is Hester
Dean, I'll prevent it, or Sir John shall."

"Take your hand away and treat me with proper respect, or you will be
dismissed from this house. Do you know who I am?" And Jean drew herself
up with a haughty air, which impressed the woman more deeply than her
words. "I am the daughter of Lady Howard and, if I choose it, can be the
wife of Mr. Coventry."

Dean drew back amazed, yet not convinced. Being a well-trained servant,
as well as a prudent woman, she feared to overstep the bounds of
respect, to go too far, and get her mistress as well as herself into
trouble. So, though she still doubted Jean, and hated her more than
ever, she controlled herself. Dropping a curtsy, she assumed her usual
air of deference, and said, meekly, "I beg pardon, miss. If I'd known, I
should have conducted myself differently, of course, but ordinary
governesses make so much mischief in a house, one can't help mistrusting
them. I don't wish to meddle or be overbold, but being fond of my dear
young lady, I naturally take her part, and must say that Mr. Coventry
has not acted like a gentleman."

"Think what you please, Dean, but I advise you to say as little as
possible if you wish to remain. I have not accepted Mr. Coventry yet,
and if he chooses to set aside the engagement his family made for him, I
think he has a right to do so. Miss Beaufort would hardly care to marry
him against his will, because he pities her for her unhappy love," and
with a tranquil smile, Miss Muir walked away.




_chapter VII_


THE LAST CHANCE

"She will tell Sir John, will she? Then I must be before her, and hasten
events. It will be as well to have all sure before there can be any
danger. My poor Dean, you are no match for me, but you may prove
annoying, nevertheless."

These thoughts passed through Miss Muir's mind as she went down the
hall, pausing an instant at the library door, for the murmur of voices
was heard. She caught no word, and had only time for an instant's
pause as Dean's heavy step followed her. Turning, Jean drew a chair
before the door, and, beckoning to the woman, she said, smiling still,
"Sit here and play watchdog. I am going to Miss Bella, so you can nod
if you will."

"Thank you, miss. I will wait for my young lady. She may need me when
this hard time is over." And Dean seated herself with a resolute face.

Jean laughed and went on; but her eyes gleamed with sudden malice, and
she glanced over her shoulder with an expression which boded ill for the
faithful old servant.

"I've got a letter from Ned, and here is a tiny note for you," cried
Bella as Jean entered the boudoir. "Mine is a very odd, hasty letter,
with no news in it, but his meeting with Sydney. I hope yours is better,
or it won't be very satisfactory."

As Sydney's name passed Bella's lips, all the color died out of Miss
Muir's face, and the note shook with the tremor of her hand. Her very
lips were white, but she said calmly, "Thank you. As you are busy,
I'll go and read my letter on the lawn." And before Bella could speak,
she was gone.

Hurrying to a quiet nook, Jean tore open the note and read the few
blotted lines it contained.

_I have seen Sydney; he has told me all; and, hard as I found it to
believe, it was impossible to doubt, for he has discovered proofs which
cannot be denied. I make no reproaches, shall demand no confession or
atonement, for I cannot forget that I once loved you. I give you three
days to find another home, before I return to tell the family who you
are. Go at once, I beseech you, and spare me the pain of seeing your
disgrace._

Slowly, steadily she read it twice over, then sat motionless, knitting
her brows in deep thought. Presently she drew a long breath, tore up the
note, and rising, went slowly toward the Hall, saying to herself, "Three
days, only three days! Can it be accomplished in so short a time? It
shall be, if wit and will can do it, for it is my last chance. If this
fails, I'll not go back to my old life, but end all at once."

Setting her teeth and clenching her hands, as if some memory stung her,
she went on through the twilight, to find Sir John waiting to give her a
hearty welcome.

"You look tired, my dear. Never mind the reading tonight; rest yourself,
and let the book go," he said kindly, observing her worn look.

"Thank you, sir. I am tired, but I'd rather read, else the book will not
be finished before I go."

"Go, child! Where are you going?" demanded Sir John, looking anxiously
at her as she sat down.

"I will tell you by-and-by, sir." And opening the book, Jean read for a
little while.

But the usual charm was gone; there was no spirit in the voice of the
reader, no interest in the face of the listener, and soon he said,
abruptly, "My dear, pray stop! I cannot listen with a divided mind. What
troubles you? Tell your friend, and let him comfort you."

As if the kind words overcame her, Jean dropped the book, covered up her
face, and wept so bitterly that Sir John was much alarmed; for such a
demonstration was doubly touching in one who usually was all gaiety and
smiles. As he tried to soothe her, his words grew tender, his solicitude
full of a more than paternal anxiety, and his kind heart overflowed with
pity and affection for the weeping girl. As she grew calmer, he urged
her to be frank, promising to help and counsel her, whatever the
affliction or fault might be.

"Ah, you are too kind, too generous! How can I go away and leave my one
friend?" sighed Jean, wiping the tears away and looking up at him with
grateful eyes.

"Then you do care a little for the old man?" said Sir John with an eager
look, an involuntary pressure of the hand he held.

Jean turned her face away, and answered, very low, "No one ever was
so kind to me as you have been. Can I help caring for you more than I
can express?"

Sir John was a little deaf at times, but he heard that, and looked well
pleased. He had been rather thoughtful of late, had dressed with unusual
care, been particularly gallant and gay when the young ladies visited
him, and more than once, when Jean paused in the reading to ask a
question, he had been forced to confess that he had not been listening;
though, as she well knew, his eyes had been fixed upon her. Since the
discovery of her birth, his manner had been peculiarly benignant, and
many little acts had proved his interest and goodwill. Now, when Jean
spoke of going, a panic seized him, and desolation seemed about to fall
upon the old Hall. Something in her unusual agitation struck him as
peculiar and excited his curiosity. Never had she seemed so interesting
as now, when she sat beside him with tearful eyes, and some soft trouble
in her heart which she dared not confess.

"Tell me everything, child, and let your friend help you if he can."
Formerly he said "father" or "the old man," but lately he always spoke
of himself as her "friend."

"I will tell you, for I have no one else to turn to. I must go away
because Mr. Coventry has been weak enough to love me."

"What, Gerald?" cried Sir John, amazed.

"Yes; today he told me this, and left me to break with Lucia; so I ran
to you to help me prevent him from disappointing his mother's hopes
and plans."

Sir John had started up and paced down the room, but as Jean paused he
turned toward her, saying, with an altered face, "Then you do not love
him? Is it possible?"

"No, I do not love him," she answered promptly.

"Yet he is all that women usually find attractive. How is it that you
have escaped, Jean?"

"I love someone else" was the scarcely audible reply.

Sir John resumed his seat with the air of a man bent on getting at a
mystery, if possible.

"It will be unjust to let you suffer for the folly of these boys, my
little girl. Ned is gone, and I was sure that Gerald was safe; but now
that his turn has come, I am perplexed, for he cannot be sent away."

"No, it is I who must go; but it seems so hard to leave this safe and
happy home, and wander away into the wide, cold world again. You have
all been too kind to me, and now separation breaks my heart."

A sob ended the speech, and Jean's head went down upon her hands again.
Sir John looked at her a moment, and his fine old face was full of
genuine emotion, as he said slowly, "Jean, will you stay and be a
daughter to the solitary old man?"

"No, sir" was the unexpected answer.

"And why not?" asked Sir John, looking surprised, but rather pleased
than angry.

"Because I could not be a daughter to you; and even if I could, it would
not be wise, for the gossips would say you were not old enough to be the
adopted father of a girl like me. Sir John, young as I am, I know much
of the world, and am sure that this kind plan is impractical; but I
thank you from the bottom of my heart."

"Where will you go, Jean?" asked Sir John, after a pause.

"To London, and try to find another situation where I can do no harm."

"Will it be difficult to find another home?"

"Yes. I cannot ask Mrs. Coventry to recommend me, when I have innocently
brought so much trouble into her family; and Lady Sydney is gone, so I
have no friend."

"Except John Coventry. I will arrange all that. When will you go, Jean?"

"Tomorrow."

"So soon!" And the old man's voice betrayed the trouble he was trying
to conceal.

Jean had grown very calm, but it was the calmness of desperation. She
had hoped that the first tears would produce the avowal for which she
waited. It had not, and she began to fear that her last chance was
slipping from her. Did the old man love her? If so, why did he not
speak? Eager to profit by each moment, she was on the alert for any
hopeful hint, any propitious word, look, or act, and every nerve was
strung to the utmost.

"Jean, may I ask one question?" said Sir John.

"Anything of me, sir."

"This man whom you love--can he not help you?"

"He could if he knew, but he must not."

"If he knew what? Your present trouble?"

"No. My love."

"He does not know this, then?"

"No, thank heaven! And he never will."

"Why not?"

"Because I am too proud to own it."

"He loves you, my child?"

"I do not know--I dare not hope it," murmured Jean.

"Can I not help you here? Believe me, I desire to see you safe and
happy. Is there nothing I can do?"

"Nothing, nothing."

"May I know the name?"

"No! No! Let me go; I cannot bear this questioning!" And Jean's
distressful face warned him to ask no more.

"Forgive me, and let me do what I may. Rest here quietly. I'll write a
letter to a good friend of mine, who will find you a home, if you
leave us."

As Sir John passed into his inner study, Jean watched him with
despairing eyes and wrung her hands, saying to herself, Has all my
skill deserted me when I need it most? How can I make him understand,
yet not overstep the bounds of maiden modesty? He is so blind, so
timid, or so dull he will not see, and time is going fast. What shall I
do to open his eyes?

Her own eyes roved about the room, seeking for some aid from inanimate
things, and soon she found it. Close behind the couch where she sat hung
a fine miniature of Sir John. At first her eye rested on it as she
contrasted its placid comeliness with the unusual pallor and disquiet of
the living face seen through the open door, as the old man sat at his
desk trying to write and casting covert glances at the girlish figure he
had left behind him. Affecting unconsciousness of this, Jean gazed on as
if forgetful of everything but the picture, and suddenly, as if obeying
an irresistible impulse, she took it down, looked long and fondly at it,
then, shaking her curls about her face, as if to hide the act, pressed
it to her lips and seemed to weep over it in an uncontrollable paroxysm
of tender grief. A sound startled her, and like a guilty thing, she
turned to replace the picture; but it dropped from her hand as she
uttered a faint cry and hid her face, for Sir John stood before her,
with an expression which she could not mistake.

"Jean, why did you do that?" he asked, in an eager, agitated voice.

No answer, as the girl sank lower, like one overwhelmed with shame.
Laying his hand on the bent head, and bending his own, he whispered,
"Tell me, is the name John Coventry?"

Still no answer, but a stifled sound betrayed that his words had
gone home.

"Jean, shall I go back and write the letter, or may I stay and tell you
that the old man loves you better than a daughter?"

She did not speak, but a little hand stole out from under the falling
hair, as if to keep him. With a broken exclamation he seized it, drew
her up into his arms, and laid his gray head on her fan: one, too happy
for words. For a moment Jean Muir enjoyed her success; then, fearing
lest some sudden mishap should destroy it, she hastened to make all
secure. Looking up with well-feigned timidity and half-confessed
affection, she said softly, "Forgive me that I could not hide this
better. I meant to go away and never tell it, but you were so kind it
made the parting doubly hard. Why did you ask such dangerous questions?
Why did you look, when you should have been writing my dismissal?"

"How could I dream that you loved me, Jean, when you refused the only
offer I dared make? Could I be presumptuous enough to fancy you would
reject young lovers for an old man like me?" asked Sir John,
caressing her.

"You are not old, to me, but everything I love and honor!" interrupted
Jean, with a touch of genuine remorse, as this generous, honorable
gentleman gave her both heart and home, unconscious of deceit. "It is I
who am presumptuous, to dare to love one so far above me. But I did not
know how dear you were to me till I felt that I must go. I ought not to
accept this happiness. I am not worthy of it; and you will regret your
kindness when the world blames you for giving a home to one so poor, and
plain, and humble as I."

"Hush, my darling. I care nothing for the idle gossip of the world. If
you are happy here, let tongues wag as they will. I shall be too busy
enjoying the sunshine of your presence to heed anything that goes on
about me. But, Jean, you are sure you love me? It seems incredible
that I should win the heart that has been so cold to younger, better
men than I."

"Dear Sir John, be sure of this, I love you truly. I will do my best to
be a good wife to you, and prove that, in spite of my many faults, I
possess the virtue of gratitude."

If he had known the strait she was in, he would have understood the
cause of the sudden fervor of her words, the intense thankfulness that
shone in her face, the real humility that made her stoop and kiss the
generous hand that gave so much. For a few moments she enjoyed and let
him enjoy the happy present, undisturbed. But the anxiety which devoured
her, the danger which menaced her, soon recalled her, and forced her to
wring yet more from the unsuspicious heart she had conquered.

"No need of letters now," said Sir John, as they sat side by side, with
the summer moonlight glorifying all the room. "You have found a home for
life; may it prove a happy one."

"It is not mine yet, and I have a strange foreboding that it never will
be," she answered sadly.

"Why, my child?"

"Because I have an enemy who will try to destroy my peace, to poison
your mind against me, and to drive me out from my paradise, to suffer
again all I have suffered this last year."

"You mean that mad Sydney of whom you told me?"

"Yes. As soon as he hears of this good fortune to poor little Jean, he
will hasten to mar it. He is my fate; I cannot escape him, and wherever
he goes my friends desert me; for he has the power and uses it for my
destruction. Let me go away and hide before he comes, for, having shared
your confidence, it will break my heart to see you distrust and turn
from me, instead of loving and protecting."

"My poor child, you are superstitious. Be easy. No one can harm you now,
no one would dare attempt it. And as for my deserting you, that will
soon be out of my power, if I have my way."

"How, dear Sir John?" asked Jean, with a flutter of intense relief at
her heart, for the way seemed smoothing before her.

"I will make you my wife at once, if I may. This will free you from
Gerald's love, protect you from Sydney's persecution, give you a safe
home, and me the right to cherish and defend with heart and hand. Shall
it be so, my child?"

"Yes; but oh, remember that I have no friend but you! Promise me to be
faithful to the last--to believe in me, to trust me, protect and love
me, in spite of all misfortunes, faults, and follies. I will be true as
steel to you, and make your life as happy as it deserves to be. Let us
promise these things now, and keep the promises unbroken to the end."

Her solemn air touched Sir John. Too honorable and upright himself to
suspect falsehood in others, he saw only the natural impulse of a lovely
girl in Jean's words, and, taking the hand she gave him in both of his,
he promised all she asked, and kept that promise to the end. She paused
an instant, with a pale, absent expression, as if she searched herself,
then looked up clearly in the confiding face above her, and promised
what she faithfully performed in afteryears.

"When shall it be, little sweetheart? I leave all to you, only let it be
soon, else some gay young lover will appear, and take you from me," said
Sir John, playfully, anxious to chase away the dark expression which had
stolen over Jean's face.

"Can you keep a secret?" asked the girl, smiling up at him, all her
charming self again.

"Try me."

"I will. Edward is coming home in three days. I must be gone before he
comes. Tell no one of this; he wishes to surprise them. And if you love
me, tell nobody of your approaching marriage. Do not betray that you
care for me until I am really yours. There will be such a stir, such
remonstrances, explanations, and reproaches that I shall be worn out,
and run away from you all to escape the trial. If I could have my wish,
I would go to some quiet place tomorrow and wait till you come for me. I
know so little of such things, I cannot tell how soon we may be married;
not for some weeks, I think."

"Tomorrow, if we like. A special license permits people to marry when
and where they please. My plan is better than yours. Listen, and tell me
if it can be carried out. I will go to town tomorrow, get the license,
invite my friend, the Reverend Paul Fairfax, to return with me, and
tomorrow evening you come at your usual time, and, in the presence of my
discreet old servants, make me the happiest man in England. How does
this suit you, my little Lady Coventry?"

The plan which seemed made to meet her ends, the name which was the
height of her ambition, and the blessed sense of safety which came to
her filled Jean Muir with such intense satisfaction that tears of real
feeling stood in her eyes, and the glad assent she gave was the truest
word that had passed her lips for months.

"We will go abroad or to Scotland for our honeymoon, till the storm
blows over," said Sir John, well knowing that this hasty marriage would
surprise or offend all his relations, and feeling as glad as Jean to
escape the first excitement.

"To Scotland, please. I long to see my father's home," said Jean, who
dreaded to meet Sydney on the continent.

They talked a little longer, arranging all things, Sir John so intent on
hurrying the event that Jean had nothing to do but give a ready assent
to all his suggestions. One fear alone disturbed her. If Sir John went
to town, he might meet Edward, might hear and believe his statements.
Then all would be lost. Yet this risk must be incurred, if the marriage
was to be speedily and safely accomplished; and to guard against the
meeting was Jean's sole care. As they went through the park--for Sir
John insisted upon taking her home--she said, clinging to his arm:

"Dear friend, bear one thing in mind, else we shall be much annoyed, and
all our plans disarranged. Avoid your nephews; you are so frank your
face will betray you. They both love me, are both hot-tempered, and in
the first excitement of the discovery might be violent. You must incur
no danger, no disrespect for my sake; so shun them both till we are
safe--particularly Edward. He will feel that his brother has wronged
him, and that you have succeeded where he failed. This will irritate
him, and I fear a stormy scene. Promise to avoid both for a day or two;
do not listen to them, do not see them, do not write to or receive
letters from them. It is foolish, I know; but you are all I have, and I
am haunted by a strange foreboding that I am to lose you."

Touched and flattered by her tender solicitude, Sir John promised
everything, even while he laughed at her fears. Love blinded the good
gentleman to the peculiarity of the request; the novelty, romance, and
secrecy of the affair rather bewildered though it charmed him; and the
knowledge that he had outrivaled three young and ardent lovers
gratified his vanity more than he would confess. Parting from the girl
at the garden gate, he turned homeward, feeling like a boy again, and
loitered back, humming a love lay, quite forgetful of evening damps,
gout, and the five-and-fifty years which lay so lightly on his
shoulders since Jean's arms had rested there. She hurried toward the
house, anxious to escape Coventry; but he was waiting for her, and she
was forced to meet him.

"How could you linger so long, and keep me in suspense?" he said
reproachfully, as he took her hand and tried to catch a glimpse of her
face in the shadow of her hat brim. "Come and rest in the grotto. I have
so much to say, to hear and enjoy."

"Not now; I am too tired. Let me go in and sleep. Tomorrow we will talk.
It is damp and chilly, and my head aches with all this worry." Jean
spoke wearily, yet with a touch of petulance, and Coventry, fancying
that she was piqued at his not coming for her, hastened to explain with
eager tenderness.

"My poor little Jean, you do need rest. We wear you out, among us, and
you never complain. I should have come to bring you home, but Lucia
detained me, and when I got away I saw my uncle had forestalled me. I
shall be jealous of the old gentleman, if he is so devoted. Jean, tell
me one thing before we part; I am free as air, now, and have a right to
speak. Do you love me? Am I the happy man who has won your heart? I
dare to think so, to believe that this telltale face of yours has
betrayed you, and to hope that I have gained what poor Ned and wild
Sydney have lost."

"Before I answer, tell me of your interview with Lucia. I have a right
to know," said Jean.

Coventry hesitated, for pity and remorse were busy at his heart when he
recalled poor Lucia's grief. Jean was bent on hearing the humiliation of
her rival. As the young man paused, she frowned, then lifted up her face
wreathed in softest smiles, and laying her hand on his arm, she said,
with most effective emphasis, half shy, half fond, upon his name,
"Please tell me, Gerald!"

He could not resist the look, the touch, the tone, and taking the little
hand in his, he said rapidly, as if the task was distasteful to him, "I
told her that I did not, could not love her; that I had submitted to my
mother's wish, and, for a time, had felt tacitly bound to her, though no
words had passed between us. But now I demanded my liberty, regretting
that the separation was not mutually desired."

"And she--what did she say? How did she bear it?" asked Jean, feeling
in her own woman's heart how deeply Lucia's must have been wounded by
that avowal.

"Poor girl! It was hard to bear, but her pride sustained her to the end.
She owned that no pledge tied me, fully relinquished any claim my past
behavior had seemed to have given her, and prayed that I might find
another woman to love me as truly, tenderly as she had done. Jean, I
felt like a villain; and yet I never plighted my word to her, never
really loved her, and had a perfect right to leave her, if I would."

"Did she speak of me?"

"Yes."

"What did she say?"

"Must I tell you?"

"Yes, tell me everything. I know she hates me and I forgive her, knowing
that I should hate any woman whom _you_ loved."

"Are you jealous, dear?"

"Of you, Gerald?" And the fine eyes glanced up at him, full of a
brilliancy that looked like the light of love.

"You make a slave of me already. How do you do it? I never obeyed a
woman before. Jean, I think you are a witch. Scotland is the home of
weird, uncanny creatures, who take lovely shapes for the bedevilment of
poor weak souls. Are you one of those fair deceivers?"

"You are complimentary," laughed the girl. "I _am_ a witch, and one
day my disguise will drop away and you will see me as I am, old, ugly,
bad and lost. Beware of me in time. I've warned you. Now love me at
your peril."

Coventry had paused as he spoke, and eyed her with an unquiet look,
conscious of some fascination which conquered yet brought no happiness.
A feverish yet pleasurable excitement possessed him; a reckless mood,
making him eager to obliterate the past by any rash act, any new
experience which his passion brought. Jean regarded him with a wistful,
almost woeful face, for one short moment; then a strange smile broke
over it, as she spoke in a tone of malicious mockery, under which lurked
the bitterness of a sad truth. Coventry looked half bewildered, and his
eye went from the girl's mysterious face to a dimly lighted window,
behind whose curtains poor Lucia hid her aching heart, praying for him
the tender prayers that loving women give to those whose sins are all
forgiven for love's sake. His heart smote him, and a momentary feeling
of repulsion came over him, as he looked at Jean. She saw it, felt
angry, yet conscious of a sense of relief; for now that her own safety
was so nearly secured, she felt no wish to do mischief, but rather a
desire to undo what was already done, and be at peace with all the
world. To recall him to his allegiance, she sighed and walked on, saying
gently yet coldly, "Will you tell me what I ask before I answer your
question, Mr. Coventry?"

"What Lucia said of you? Well, it was this. 'Beware of Miss Muir. We
instinctively distrusted her when we had no cause. I believe in
instincts, and mine have never changed, for she has not tried to delude
me. Her art is wonderful; I feel yet cannot explain or detect it, except
in the working of events which her hand seems to guide. She has brought
sorrow and dissension into this hitherto happy family. We are all
changed, and this girl has done it. Me she can harm no further; you she
will ruin, if she can. Beware of her in tune, or you win bitterly repent
your blind infatuation!'"

"And what answer did you make?" asked Jean, as the last words came
reluctantly from Coventry's lips.

"I told her that I loved you in spite of myself, and would make you my
wife in the face of all opposition. Now, Jean, your answer."

"Give me three days to think of it. Good night." And gliding from him,
she vanished into the house, leaving him to roam about half the night,
tormented with remorse, suspense, and the old distrust which would
return when Jean was not there to banish it by her art.




_chapter VIII_


SUSPENSE

All the next day, Jean was in a state of the most intense anxiety, as
every hour brought the crisis nearer, and every hour might bring defeat,
for the subtlest human skill is often thwarted by some unforeseen
accident. She longed to assure herself that Sir John was gone, but no
servants came or went that day, and she could devise no pretext for
sending to glean intelligence. She dared not go herself, lest the
unusual act should excite suspicion, for she never went till evening.
Even had she determined to venture, there was no time, for Mrs. Coventry
was in one of her nervous states, and no one but Miss Muir could amuse
her; Lucia was ill, and Miss Muir must give orders; Bella had a studious
fit, and Jean must help her. Coventry lingered about the house for
several hours, but Jean dared not send him, lest some hint of the truth
might reach him. He had ridden away to his new duties when Jean did not
appear, and the day dragged on wearisomely. Night came at last, and as
Jean dressed for the late dinner, she hardly knew herself when she stood
before her mirror, excitement lent such color and brilliancy to her
countenance. Remembering the wedding which was to take place that
evening, she put on a simple white dress and added a cluster of white
roses in bosom and hair. She often wore flowers, but in spite of her
desire to look and seem as usual, Bella's first words as she entered the
drawing room were "Why, Jean, how like a bride you look; a veil and
gloves would make you quite complete!"

"You forget one other trifle, Bell," said Gerald, with eyes that
brightened as they rested on Miss Muir.

"What is that?" asked his sister.

"A bridegroom."

Bella looked to see how Jean received this, but she seemed quite
composed as she smiled one of her sudden smiles, and merely said, "That
trifle will doubtless be found when the time comes. Is Miss Beaufort too
ill for dinner?"

"She begs to be excused, and said you would be willing to take her
place, she thought."

As innocent Bella delivered this message, Jean glanced at Coventry, who
evaded her eye and looked ill at ease.

A little remorse will do him good, and prepare him for repentance after
the grand _coup_, she said to herself, and was particularly gay at
dinnertime, though Coventry looked often at Lucia's empty seat, as if he
missed her. As soon as they left the table, Miss Muir sent Bella to her
mother; and, knowing that Coventry would not linger long at his wine,
she hurried away to the Hall. A servant was lounging at the door, and of
him she asked, in a tone which was eager in spite of all efforts to be
calm, "Is Sir John at home?"

"No, miss, he's just gone to town."

"Just gone! When do you mean?" cried Jean, forgetting the relief she
felt in hearing of his absence in surprise at his late departure.

"He went half an hour ago, in the last train, miss."

"I thought he was going early this morning; he told me he should be back
this evening."

"I believe he did mean to go, but was delayed by company. The steward
came up on business, and a load of gentlemen called, so Sir John could
not get off till night, when he wasn't fit to go, being worn out, and
far from well."

"Do you think he will be ill? Did he look so?" And as Jean spoke, a
thrill of fear passed over her, lest death should rob her of her prize.

"Well, you know, miss, hurry of any kind is bad for elderly gentlemen
inclined to apoplexy. Sir John was in a worry all day, and not like
himself. I wanted him to take his man, but he wouldn't; and drove off
looking flushed and excited like. I'm anxious about him, for I know
something is amiss to hurry him off in this way."

"When will he be back, Ralph?"

"Tomorrow noon, if possible; at night, certainly, he bid me tell anyone
that called."

"Did he leave no note or message for Miss Coventry, or someone of
the family?"

"No, miss, nothing."

"Thank you." And Jean walked back to spend a restless night and rise to
meet renewed suspense.

The morning seemed endless, but noon came at last, and under the
pretense of seeking coolness in the grotto, Jean stole away to a slope
whence the gate to the Hall park was visible. For two long hours she
watched, and no one came. She was just turning away when a horseman
dashed through the gate and came galloping toward the Hall. Heedless of
everything but the uncontrollable longing to gain some tidings, she ran
to meet him, feeling assured that he brought ill news. It was a young
man from the station, and as he caught sight of her, he drew bridle,
looking agitated and undecided.

"Has anything happened?" she cried breathlessly.

"A dreadful accident on the railroad, just the other side of
Croydon. News telegraphed half an hour ago," answered the man,
wiping his hot face.

"The noon train? Was Sir John in it? Quick, tell me all!"

"It was that train, miss, but whether Sir John was in it or not, we
don't know; for the guard is killed, and everything is in such confusion
that nothing can be certain. They are at work getting out the dead and
wounded. We heard that Sir John was expected, and I came up to tell Mr.
Coventry, thinking he would wish to go down. A train leaves in fifteen
minutes; where shall I find him? I was told he was at the Hall."

"Ride on, ride on! And find him if he is there. I'll run home and look
for him. Lose no time. Ride! Ride!" And turning, Jean sped back like a
deer, while the man tore up the avenue to rouse the Hall.

Coventry was there, and went off at once, leaving both Hall and house in
dismay. Fearing to betray the horrible anxiety that possessed her, Jean
shut herself up in her room and suffered untold agonies as the day wore
on and no news came. At dark a sudden cry rang through the house, and
Jean rushed down to learn the cause. Bella was standing in the hall,
holding a letter, while a group of excited servants hovered near her.

"What is it?" demanded Miss Muir, pale and steady, though her heart
died within her as she recognized Gerald's handwriting. Bella gave
her the note, and hushed her sobbing to hear again the heavy tidings
that had come.

    _Dear Bella:

    Uncle is safe; he did not go in the noon train. But several persons
    are sure that Ned was there. No trace of him as yet, but many bodies
    are in the river, under the ruins of the bridge, and I am doing my
    best to find the poor lad, if he is there. I have sent to all his
    haunts in town, and as he has not been seen, I hope it is a false
    report and he is safe with his regiment. Keep this from my mother
    till we are sure. I write you, because Lucia is ill. Miss Muir will
    comfort and sustain you. Hope for the best, dear.

    Yours, G.C._

Those who watched Miss Muir as she read these words wondered at the
strange expressions which passed over her face, for the joy which
appeared there as Sir John's safety was made known did not change to
grief or horror at poor Edward's possible fate. The smile died on her
lips, but her voice did not falter, and in her downcast eyes shone an
inexplicable look of something like triumph. No wonder, for if this
was true, the danger which menaced her was averted for a time, and the
marriage might be consummated without such desperate haste. This sad
and sudden event seemed to her the mysterious fulfilment of a secret
wish; and though startled she was not daunted but inspirited, for fate
seemed to favor her designs. She did comfort Bella, control the
excited household, and keep the rumors from Mrs. Coventry all that
dreadful night.

At dawn Gerald came home exhausted, and bringing no tiding of the
missing man. He had telegraphed to the headquarters of the regiment and
received a reply, stating that Edward had left for London the previous
day, meaning to go home before returning. The fact of his having been at
the London station was also established, but whether he left by the
train or not was still uncertain. The ruins were still being searched,
and the body might yet appear.

"Is Sir John coming at noon?" asked Jean, as the three sat together in
the rosy hush of dawn, trying to hope against hope.

"No, he had been ill, I learned from young Gower, who is just from town,
and so had not completed his business. I sent him word to wait till
night, for the bridge won't be passable till then. Now I must try and
rest an hour; I've worked all night and have no strength left. Call me
the instant any messenger arrives."

With that Coventry went to his room, Bella followed to wait on him, and
Jean roamed through house and grounds, unable to rest. The morning was
far spent when the messenger arrived. Jean went to receive his tidings,
with the wicked hope still lurking at her heart.

"Is he found?" she asked calmly, as the man hesitated to speak.

"Yes, ma'am."

"You are sure?"

"I am certain, ma'am, though some won't say till Mr. Coventry
comes to look."

"Is he alive?" And Jean's white lips trembled as she put the question.

"Oh no, ma'am, that warn't possible, under all them stones and water.
The poor young gentleman is so wet, and crushed, and torn, no one
would know him, except for the uniform, and the white hand with the
ring on it."

Jean sat down, very pale, and the man described the finding of the poor
shattered body. As he finished, Coventry appeared, and with one look of
mingled remorse, shame, and sorrow, the elder brother went away, to find
and bring the younger home. Jean crept into the garden like a guilty
thing, trying to hide the satisfaction which struggled with a woman's
natural pity, for so sad an end for this brave young life.

"Why waste tears or feign sorrow when I must be glad?" she muttered, as
she paced to and fro along the terrace. "The poor boy is out of pain,
and I am out of danger."

She got no further, for, turning as she spoke, she stood face to face
with Edward! Bearing no mark of peril on dress or person, but stalwart
and strong as ever, he stood there looking at her, with contempt and
compassion struggling in his face. As if turned to stone, she remained
motionless, with dilated eyes, arrested breath, and paling cheek. He did
not speak but watched her silently till she put out a trembling hand, as
if to assure herself by touch that it was really he. Then he drew back,
and as if the act convinced as fully as words, she said slowly, "They
told me you were dead."

"And you were glad to believe it. No, it was my comrade, young Courtney,
who unconsciously deceived you all, and lost his life, as I should have
done, if I had not gone to Ascot after seeing him off yesterday."

"To Ascot?" echoed Jean, shrinking back, for Edward's eye was on her,
and his voice was stern and cold.

"Yes; you know the place. I went there to make inquiries concerning you
and was well satisfied. Why are you still here?"

"The three days are not over yet. I hold you to your promise. Before
night I shall be gone; till then you will be silent, if you have honor
enough to keep your word."

"I have." Edward took out his watch and, as he put it back, said with
cool precision, "It is now two, the train leaves for London at half-past
six; a carriage will wait for you at the side door. Allow me to advise
you to go then, for the instant dinner is over I shall speak." And with
a bow he went into the house, leaving Jean nearly suffocated with a
throng of contending emotions.

For a few minutes she seemed paralyzed; but the native energy of the
woman forbade utter despair, till the last hope was gone. Frail as that
now was, she still clung to it tenaciously, resolving to win the game in
defiance of everything. Springing up, she went to her room, packed her
few valuables, dressed herself with care, and then sat down to wait. She
heard a joyful stir below, saw Coventry come hurrying back, and from a
garrulous maid learned that the body was that of young Courtney. The
uniform being the same as Edward's and the ring, a gift from him, had
caused the men to believe the disfigured corpse to be that of the
younger Coventry. No one but the maid came near her; once Bella's voice
called her, but some one checked the girl, and the call was not
repeated. At five an envelope was brought her, directed in Edward's
hand, and containing a check which more than paid a year's salary. No
word accompanied the gift, yet the generosity of it touched her, for
Jean Muir had the relics of a once honest nature, and despite her
falsehood could still admire nobleness and respect virtue. A tear of
genuine shame dropped on the paper, and real gratitude filled her heart,
as she thought that even if all else failed, she was not thrust out
penniless into the world, which had no pity for poverty.

As the clock struck six, she heard a carriage drive around and went down
to meet it. A servant put on her trunk, gave the order, "To the station,
James," and she drove away without meeting anyone, speaking to anyone,
or apparently being seen by anyone. A sense of utter weariness came over
her, and she longed to lie down and forget. But the last chance still
remained, and till that failed, she would not give up. Dismissing the
carriage, she seated herself to watch for the quarter-past-six train
from London, for in that Sir John would come if he came at all that
night. She was haunted by the fear that Edward had met and told him. The
first glimpse of Sir John's frank face would betray the truth. If he
knew all, there was no hope, and she would go her way alone. If he knew
nothing, there was yet time for the marriage; and once his wife, she
knew she was safe, because for the honor of his name he would screen and
protect her.

Up rushed the train, out stepped Sir John, and Jean's heart died within
her. Grave, and pale, and worn he looked, and leaned heavily on the arm
of a portly gentleman in black. The Reverend Mr. Fairfax, why has he
come, if the secret is out? thought Jean, slowly advancing to meet them
and fearing to read her fate in Sir John's face. He saw her, dropped his
friend's arm, and hurried forward with the ardor of a young man,
exclaiming, as he seized her hand with a beaming face, a glad voice, "My
little girl! Did you think I would never come?"

She could not answer, the reaction was too strong, but she clung to him,
regardless of time or place, and felt that her last hope had not failed.
Mr. Fairfax proved himself equal to the occasion. Asking no questions,
he hurried Sir John and Jean into a carriage and stepped in after them
with a bland apology. Jean was soon herself again, and, having told her
fears at his delay, listened eagerly while he related the various
mishaps which had detained him.

"Have you seen Edward?" was her first question.

"Not yet, but I know he has come, and have heard of his narrow escape. I
should have been in that train, if I had not been delayed by the
indisposition which I then cursed, but now bless. Are you ready, Jean?
Do you repent your choice, my child?"

"No, no! I am ready, I am only too happy to become your wife, dear,
generous Sir John," cried Jean, with a glad alacrity, which touched the
old man to the heart, and charmed the Reverend Mr. Fairfax, who
concealed the romance of a boy under his clerical suit.

They reached the Hall. Sir John gave orders to admit no one and after a
hasty dinner sent for his old housekeeper and his steward, told them of
his purpose, and desired them to witness his marriage. Obedience had
been the law of their lives, and Master could do nothing wrong in their
eyes, so they played their parts willingly, for Jean was a favorite at
the Hall. Pale as her gown, but calm and steady, she stood beside Sir
John, uttering her vows in a clear tone and taking upon herself the vows
of a wife with more than a bride's usual docility. When the ring was
fairly on, a smile broke over her face. When Sir John kissed and called
her his "little wife," she shed a tear or two of sincere happiness; and
when Mr. Fairfax addressed her as "my lady," she laughed her musical
laugh, and glanced up at a picture of Gerald with eyes full of
exultation. As the servants left the room, a message was brought from
Mrs. Coventry, begging Sir John to come to her at once.

"You will not go and leave me so soon?" pleaded Jean, well knowing why
he was sent for.

"My darling, I must." And in spite of its tenderness, Sir John's manner
was too decided to be withstood.

"Then I shall go with you," cried Jean, resolving that no earthly power
should part them.




_chapter IX_


LADY COVENTRY

When the first excitement of Edward's return had subsided, and before
they could question him as to the cause of this unexpected visit, he
told them that after dinner their curiosity should be gratified, and
meantime he begged them to leave Miss Muir alone, for she had received
bad news and must not be disturbed. The family with difficulty
restrained their tongues and waited impatiently. Gerald confessed his
love for Jean and asked his brother's pardon for betraying his trust. He
had expected an outbreak, but Edward only looked at him with pitying
eyes, and said sadly, "You too! I have no reproaches to make, for I know
what you will suffer when the truth is known."

"What do you mean?" demanded Coventry.

"You will soon know, my poor Gerald, and we will comfort one another."

Nothing more could be drawn from Edward till dinner was over, the
servants gone, and all the family alone together. Then pale and grave,
but very self-possessed, for trouble had made a man of him, he produced
a packet of letters, and said, addressing himself to his brother, "Jean
Muir has deceived us all. I know her story; let me tell it before I read
her letters."

"Stop! I'll not listen to any false tales against her. The poor girl has
enemies who belie her!" cried Gerald, starting up.

"For the honor of the family, you must listen, and learn what fools she
has made of us. I can prove what I say, and convince you that she has
the art of a devil. Sit still ten minutes, then go, if you will."

Edward spoke with authority, and his brother obeyed him with a
foreboding heart.

"I met Sydney, and he begged me to beware of her. Nay, listen, Gerald! I
know she has told her story, and that you believe it; but her own
letters convict her. She tried to charm Sydney as she did us, and nearly
succeeded in inducing him to marry her. Rash and wild as he is, he is
still a gentleman, and when an incautious word of hers roused his
suspicions, he refused to make her his wife. A stormy scene ensued, and,
hoping to intimidate him, she feigned to stab herself as if in despair.
She did wound herself, but failed to gain her point and insisted upon
going to a hospital to die. Lady Sydney, good, simple soul, believed the
girl's version of the story, thought her son was in the wrong, and when
he was gone, tried to atone for his fault by finding Jean Muir another
home. She thought Gerald was soon to marry Lucia, and that I was away,
so sent her here as a safe and comfortable retreat."

"But, Ned, are you sure of all this? Is Sydney to be believed?" began
Coventry, still incredulous.

"To convince you, I'll read Jean's letters before I say more. They
were written to an accomplice and were purchased by Sydney. There was
a compact between the two women, that each should keep the other
informed of all adventures, plots and plans, and share whatever good
fortune fell to the lot of either. Thus Jean wrote freely, as you
shall judge. The letters concern us alone. The first was written a few
days after she came.

    _"Dear Hortense:

    "Another failure. Sydney was more wily than I thought. All was going
    well, when one day my old fault beset me, I took too much wine, and
    I carelessly owned that I had been an actress. He was shocked, and
    retreated. I got up a scene, and gave myself a safe little wound, to
    frighten him. The brute was not frightened, but coolly left me to my
    fate. I'd have died to spite him, if I dared, but as I didn't, I
    lived to torment him. As yet, I have had no chance, but I will not
    forget him. His mother is a poor, weak creature, whom I could use as
    I would, and through her I found an excellent place. A sick mother,
    silly daughter, and two eligible sons. One is engaged to a handsome
    iceberg, but that only renders him more interesting in my eyes,
    rivalry adds so much to the charm of one's conquests. Well, my dear,
    I went, got up in the meek style, intending to do the pathetic; but
    before I saw the family, I was so angry I could hardly control
    myself. Through the indolence of Monsieur the young master, no
    carriage was sent for me, and I intend he shall atone for that
    rudeness by-and-by. The younger son, the mother, and the girl
    received me patronizingly, and I understood the simple souls at
    once. Monsieur (as I shall call him, as names are unsafe) was
    unapproachable, and took no pains to conceal his dislike of
    governesses. The cousin was lovely, but detestable with her pride,
    her coldness, and her very visible adoration of Monsieur, who let
    her worship him, like an inanimate idol as he is. I hated them both,
    of course, and in return for their insolence shall torment her with
    jealousy, and teach him how to woo a woman by making his heart ache.
    They are an intensely proud family, but I can humble them all, I
    think, by captivating the sons, and when they have committed
    themselves, cast them off, and marry the old uncle, whose title
    takes my fancy."_

"She never wrote that! It is impossible. A woman could not do it," cried
Lucia indignantly, while Bella sat bewildered and Mrs. Coventry
supported herself with salts and fan. Coventry went to his brother,
examined the writing, and returned to his seat, saying, in a tone of
suppressed wrath, "She did write it. I posted some of those letters
myself. Go on, Ned."

    _"I made myself useful and agreeable to the amiable ones, and
    overheard the chat of the lovers. It did not suit me, so I fainted
    away to stop it, and excite interest in the provoking pair. I
    thought I had succeeded, but Monsieur suspected me and showed me
    that he did. I forgot my meek role and gave him a stage look. It had
    a good effect, and I shall try it again. The man is well worth
    winning, but I prefer the title, and as the uncle is a hale,
    handsome gentleman, I can't wait for him to die, though Monsieur is
    very charming, with his elegant languor, and his heart so fast
    asleep no woman has had power to wake it yet. I told my story, and
    they believed it, though I had the audacity to say I was but
    nineteen, to talk Scotch, and bashfully confess that Sydney wished
    to marry me. Monsieur knows S. and evidently suspects something. I
    must watch him and keep the truth from him, if possible.

    "I was very miserable that night when I got alone. Something in the
    atmosphere of this happy home made me wish I was anything but what I
    am. As I sat there trying to pluck up my spirits, I thought of the
    days when I was lovely and young, good and gay. My glass showed me
    an old woman of thirty, for my false locks were off, my paint gone,
    and my face was without its mask. Bah! how I hate sentiment! I drank
    your health from your own little flask, and went to bed to dream
    that I was playing Lady Tartuffe--as I am. Adieu, more soon."_

No one spoke as Edward paused, and taking up another letter, he read on:

    _"My Dear Creature:

    "All goes well. Next day I began my task, and having caught a hint
    of the character of each, tried my power over them. Early in the
    morning I ran over to see the Hall. Approved of it highly, and took
    the first step toward becoming its mistress, by piquing the
    curiosity and flattering the pride of its master. His estate is his
    idol; I praised it with a few artless compliments to himself, and he
    was charmed. The cadet of the family adores horses. I risked my neck
    to pet his beast, and_ he _was charmed. The little girl is romantic
    about flowers; I made a posy and was sentimental, and_ she _was
    charmed. The fair icicle loves her departed mamma, I had raptures
    over an old picture, and she thawed. Monsieur is used to being
    worshipped. I took no notice of him, and by the natural perversity
    of human nature, he began to take notice of me. He likes music; I
    sang, and stopped when he'd listened long enough to want more. He is
    lazily fond of being amused; I showed him my skill, but refused to
    exert it in his behalf. In short, I gave him no peace till he began
    to wake up. In order to get rid of the boy, I fascinated him, and he
    was sent away. Poor lad, I rather liked him, and if the title had
    been nearer would have married him._

"Many thanks for the honor." And Edward's lip curled with intense scorn.
But Gerald sat like a statue, his teeth set, his eyes fiery, his brows
bent, waiting for the end.

    _"The passionate boy nearly killed his brother, but I turned the
    affair to good account, and bewitched Monsieur by playing nurse,
    till Vashti (the icicle) interfered. Then I enacted injured virtue,
    and kept out of his way, knowing that he would miss me, I mystified
    him about S. by sending a letter where S. would not get it, and got
    up all manner of soft scenes to win this proud creature. I get on
    well and meanwhile privately fascinate Sir J. by being daughterly
    and devoted. He is a worthy old man, simple as a child, honest as
    the day, and generous as a prince. I shall be a happy woman if I win
    him, and you shall share my good fortune; so wish me success._

"This is the third, and contains something which will surprise you,"
Edward said, as he lifted another paper.

    _"Hortense:

    "I've done what I once planned to do on another occasion. You know
    my handsome, dissipated father married a lady of rank for his second
    wife. I never saw Lady H----d but once, for I was kept out of the
    way. Finding that this good Sir J. knew something of her when a
    girl, and being sure that he did not know of the death of her little
    daughter, I boldly said I was the child, and told a pitiful tale of
    my early life. It worked like a charm; he told Monsieur, and both
    felt the most chivalrous compassion for Lady Howard's daughter,
    though before they had secretly looked down on me, and my real
    poverty and my lowliness. That boy pitied me with an honest warmth
    and never waited to learn my birth. I don't forget that and shall
    repay it if I can. Wishing to bring Monsieur's affair to a
    successful crisis, I got up a theatrical evening and was in my
    element. One little event I must tell you, because I committed an
    actionable offense and was nearly discovered. I did not go down to
    supper, knowing that the moth would return to flutter about the
    candle, and preferring that the fluttering should be done in
    private, as Vashti's jealousy is getting uncontrollable. Passing
    throught the gentlemen's dressing room, my quick eye caught sight of
    a letter lying among the costumes. It was no stage affair, and an
    odd sensation of fear ran through me as I recognized the hand of S.
    I had feared this, but I believe in chance; and having found the
    letter, I examined it. You know I can imitate almost any hand. When
    I read in this paper the whole story of my affair with S., truly
    told, and also that he had made inquiries into my past life and
    discovered the truth, I was in a fury. To be so near success and
    fail was terrible, and I resolved to risk everything. I opened the
    letter by means of a heated knife blade under the seal, therefore
    the envelope was perfect; imitating S.'s hand, I penned a few lines
    in his hasty style, saying he was at Baden, so that if Monsieur
    answered, the reply would not reach him, for he is in London, it
    seems. This letter I put into the pocket whence the other must have
    fallen, and was just congratulating myself on this narrow escape,
    when Dean, the maid of Vashti, appeared as if watching me. She had
    evidently seen the letter in my hand, and suspected something. I
    took no notice of her, but must be careful, for she is on the watch.
    After this the evening closed with strictly private theatricals, in
    which Monsieur and myself were the only actors. To make sure that he
    received my version of the story first, I told him a romantic story
    of S.'s persecution, and he believed it. This I followed up by a
    moonlight episode behind a rose hedge, and sent the young gentleman
    home in a half-dazed condition. What fools men are!"_

"She is right!" muttered Coventry, who had flushed scarlet with
shame and anger, as his folly became known and Lucia listened in
astonished silence.

"Only one more, and my distasteful task will be nearly over," said
Edward, unfolding the last of the papers. "This is not a letter, but a
copy of one written three nights ago. Dean boldly ransacked Jean Muir's
desk while she was at the Hall, and, fearing to betray the deed by
keeping the letter, she made a hasty copy which she gave me today,
begging me to save the family from disgrace. This makes the chain
complete. Go now, if you will, Gerald. I would gladly spare you the pain
of hearing this."

"I will not spare myself; I deserve it. Read on," replied Coventry,
guessing what was to follow and nerving himself to hear it. Reluctantly
his brother read these lines:

    _"The enemy has surrendered! Give me joy, Hortense; I can be the
    wife of this proud monsieur, if I will. Think what an honor for the
    divorced wife of a disreputable actor. I laugh at the farce and
    enjoy it, for I only wait till the prize I desire is fairly mine, to
    turn and reject this lover who has proved himself false to brother,
    mistress, and his own conscience. I resolved to be revenged on both,
    and I have kept my word. For my sake he cast off the beautiful woman
    who truly loved him; he forgot his promise to his brother, and put
    by his pride to beg of me the worn-out heart that is not worth a
    good man's love. Ah well, I am satisfied, for Vashti has suffered
    the sharpest pain a proud woman can endure, and will feel another
    pang when I tell her that I scorn her recreant lover, and give him
    back to her, to deal with as she will."_

Coventry started from his seat with a fierce exclamation, but Lucia
bowed her face upon her hands, weeping, as if the pang had been sharper
than even Jean foresaw.

"Send for Sir John! I am mortally afraid of this creature. Take her
away; do something to her. My poor Bella, what a companion for you! Send
for Sir John at once!" cried Mrs. Coventry incoherently, and clasped her
daughter in her arms, as if Jean Muir would burst in to annihilate the
whole family. Edward alone was calm.

"I have already sent, and while we wait, let me finish this story. It is
true that Jean is the daughter of Lady Howard's husband, the pretended
clergyman, but really a worthless man who married her for her money. Her
own child died, but this girl, having beauty, wit and a bold spirit,
took her fate into her own hands, and became an actress. She married an
actor, led a reckless life for some years; quarreled with her husband,
was divorced, and went to Paris; left the stage, and tried to support
herself as governess and companion. You know how she fared with the
Sydneys, how she has duped us, and but for this discovery would have
duped Sir John. I was in time to prevent this, thank heaven. She is
gone; no one knows the truth but Sydney and ourselves; he will be
silent, for his own sake; we will be for ours, and leave this dangerous
woman to the fate which will surely overtake her."

"Thank you, it has overtaken her, and a very happy one she finds it."

A soft voice uttered the words, and an apparition appeared at the door,
which made all start and recoil with amazement--Jean Muir leaning on the
arm of Sir John.

"How dare you return?" began Edward, losing the self-control so long
preserved. "How dare you insult us by coming back to enjoy the mischief
you have done? Uncle, you do not know that woman!"

"Hush, boy, I will not listen to a word, unless you remember where you
are," said Sir John with a commanding gesture.

"Remember your promise: love me, forgive me, protect me, and do not
listen to their accusations," whispered Jean, whose quick eye had
discovered the letters.

"I will; have no fears, my child," he answered, drawing her nearer as he
took his accustomed place before the fire, always lighted when Mrs.
Coventry was down.

Gerald, who had been pacing the room excitedly, paused behind Lucia's
chair as if to shield her from insult; Bella clung to her mother; and
Edward, calming himself by a strong effort, handed his uncle the
letters, saying briefly, "Look at those, sir, and let them speak."

"I will look at nothing, hear nothing, believe nothing which can in any
way lessen my respect and affection for this young lady. She has
prepared me for this. I know the enemy who is unmanly enough to belie
and threaten her. I know that you both are unsuccessful lovers, and this
explains your unjust, uncourteous treatment now. We all have committed
faults and follies. I freely forgive Jean hers, and desire to know
nothing of them from your lips. If she has innocently offended, pardon
it for my sake, and forget the past."

"But, Uncle, we have proofs that this woman is not what she seems. Her
own letters convict her. Read them, and do not blindly deceive
yourself," cried Edward, indignant at his uncle's words.

A low laugh startled them all, and in an instant they saw the cause of
it. While Sir John spoke, Jean had taken the letters from the hand which
he had put behind him, a favorite gesture of his, and, unobserved, had
dropped them on the fire. The mocking laugh, the sudden blaze, showed
what had been done. Both young men sprang forward, but it was too late;
the proofs were ashes, and Jean Muir's bold, bright eyes defied them, as
she said, with a disdainful little gesture. "Hands off, gentlemen! You
may degrade yourselves to the work of detectives, but I am not a
prisoner yet. Poor Jean Muir you might harm, but Lady Coventry is beyond
your reach."

"Lady Coventry!" echoed the dismayed family, in varying tones of
incredulity, indignation, and amazement.

"Aye, my dear and honored wife," said Sir John, with a protecting arm
about the slender figure at his side; and in the act, the words, there
was a tender dignity that touched the listeners with pity and respect
for the deceived man. "Receive her as such, and for my sake, forbear all
further accusation," he continued steadily. "I know what I have done. I
have no fear that I shall repent it. If I am blind, let me remain so
till time opens my eyes. We are going away for a little while, and when
we return, let the old life return again, unchanged, except that Jean
makes sunshine for me as well as for you."

No one spoke, for no one knew what to say. Jean broke the silence,
saying coolly, "May I ask how those letters came into your possession?"

"In tracing out your past life, Sydney found your friend Hortense. She
was poor, money bribed her, and your letters were given up to him as
soon as received. Traitors are always betrayed in the end," replied
Edward sternly.

Jean shrugged her shoulders, and shot a glance at Gerald, saying with
her significant smile, "Remember that, monsieur, and allow me to hope
that in wedding you will be happier than in wooing. Receive my
congratulations, Miss Beaufort, and let me beg of you to follow my
example, if you would keep your lovers."

Here all the sarcasm passed from her voice, the defiance from her eye,
and the one unspoiled attribute which still lingered in this woman's
artful nature shone in her face, as she turned toward Edward and Bella
at their mother's side.

"You have been kind to me," she said, with grateful warmth. "I thank you
for it, and will repay it if I can. To you I will acknowledge that I am
not worthy to be this good man's wife, and to you I will solemnly
promise to devote my life to his happiness. For his sake forgive me, and
let there be peace between us."

There was no reply, but Edward's indignant eyes fell before hers. Bella
half put out her hand, and Mrs. Coventry sobbed as if some regret
mingled with her resentment. Jean seemed to expect no friendly
demonstration, and to understand that they forbore for Sir John's sake,
not for hers, and to accept their contempt as her just punishment.

"Come home, love, and forget all this," said her husband, ringing the
bell, and eager to be gone. "Lady Coventry's carriage."

And as he gave the order, a smile broke over her face, for the sound
assured her that the game was won. Pausing an instant on the threshold
before she vanished from their sight, she looked backward, and fixing on
Gerald the strange glance he remembered well, she said in her
penetrating voice, "Is not the last scene better than the first?"





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