- CHAPTER XX "BEGINNING TO BURN"
|<< chapter 19||< chapter 1||chapter 21 >||chapter 30 >>|
"BEGINNING TO BURN"
"ONE is pretty sure to be alone here, I fancy," says Aunt Cass, always the pink of courtesy to strangers, however much she may snub her friends, "unless it may be by some chance like this of ours." She is making mental note of the pretty stranger while she speaks. "It is so far from town, you see."
Inwardly her thoughts runs thus: "Pretty, rather, but looks ill. Brunette, good style, good taste, half-mourning," for there is a little white vest peeping out from the well-fitting jacket, a strip of white lawn at the throat, and a snowy aigrette standing up from the little toque set back upon the head of black and waving hair.
"I am a stranger here," the lady is saying, "and find the time heavy upon my hands. Sometimes I think these doctors are not so wise after all; when one is ill one should be amused, not banished. I hope you will pardon me," a sudden note of restraint coming into her voice; "I am thrusting my own personal grievances upon you, as if I knew you."| | 223
"There's no reason why you should not," says Aunt Cass composedly. "I am Miss Cassandra Chetwynde, of the Villa--'Beach Villa' some call it; it's really not a villa after all."
"Miss Chet-" the stranger starts, and her colour changes a bit, "Miss--did you say Chet-" she halts again on the last syllable.
"Chet-wynde," says the spinster concisely. "Is the name familiar to you?" The social thermometer is suddenly at zero.
"Oh, I beg your pardon! I will not deny what must be quite plain to you. I have heard the name of Chetwynde; I have heard that sad story, and to me it seemed like a hurt." A small blue-gloved hand goes to the dark eyes, and the pretty worn face is turned away. "Miss Chetwynde, don't think me a common gossip, a hunter after sensations! Your brother's death was so like my own love. My husband was found--dead, like that."
And the ice is broken. Impulsive, warm-hearted Aunt Cass explains her relationship to the dead man. Madam gives her name, her card. She is stopping at a country house, on the outskirts of Lakeville; she drove out this morning with a hired pony and her luncheon to explore the wood; she had not meant to come so far, but, being here, had decided to drive on to Lee, she had never visited Lee--unless she can find shelter somewhere nearer--she is used to driving about alone, and the country is so "sweet and safe." In her husband's lifetime they often lived in a tent a part of the summer. It was a fad of his, too. "I fear I shall not have the heart for that any more!" she says, sighing heavily. | | 224 "Ah, Miss Chetwynde, I must talk of something else."
And now she interests herself in the green mounds about her, and the names upon them, and presently they have reached Felix Chetwynde's grave, and the spinster starts with a sudden exclamation.
"What is it, Miss Chetwynde? Ah! the beautiful flowers. Is it some new made grave then? Some young girl's perhaps? Surely, only a lover's hand would shower roses, red roses, like that!" and she stoops above the mound, as if drinking in the richness of the great cluster of crimson roses lying loosely upon the mound.
And this time it is the spinster's tongue that is loosed, and she tells of her surprise, her wonder at sight of those crimson roses. For they do not come from Hope, "his sister," nor from herself, nor, she is sure of it, "they do not come from Redlands."
"Red-lands?" the stranger repeats the name slowly. "Such strange names--to me! But, Miss Chetwynde, are they not perhaps from--from the young lady-love? He was engaged, I think they told me, and loved her so dearly they said. Poor girl!"
If there is an influence, an ungodly power which will send Aunt Cassandra's temper and patience into the nineties it is the hearing of unauthorized gossip--about her own. Of course she knew very well the truth and the error of all this! But how should all the Lakeside know so much? Impatience came in and discretion flies out.
"I can't fancy how such rumours speed from a mere nothing!" she says testily. "My nephew was deeply in love with a most charming young lady, | | 225 but--it is wrong to let the idea go out that she is, or was, engaged to him! She is a sweet and lovely girl, and would have done us all honour by accepting him; but she never did."
"And--he died--loving her still?"
"I fear there's little doubt of that."
"And yet--these, you say, are not her flowers?"
"She will never place flowers upon his grave, I fear."
"But why--why not?"
"Because," looking down at the grave, and finding a sort of relief in speaking out to this passing sympathiser--"because--I'm afraid he made her--almost with his last act--very unhappy! Hurt her beyond repair--almost."
"What! Madam! Miss, you do not mean--do you mean that he trifled with her?--that he wrecked her life--even--"
"Madam!" all the proprieties have returned to their wonted seats, and Aunt Cassandra realises what she has done--is doing, but--there is no stopping now. "How can you imagine such a thing? But you are a stranger! Lorna Hilton could never become a toy, a tool, a plaything in any man's hands, least of all in Felix Chetwynde's. On the contrary, it was he who lost, first his heart, and then his head!"
For a long moment the stranger stands with her head bowed, her face turned away. Then she comes a step nearer.
"Won't you forgive me?" she says brokenly, and her eyes are full of a dull pain. "I am a very miserable woman. I have been trying to forget my own | | 226 grief--by interesting myself in other's--and their sorrows; and now I have offended the only woman--the only lady who has been kind to me in all this lonely week! I will not intrude upon you longer--I will go."
And Aunt Cassandra veers round again. Felix Chetwynde's name and his affairs are stopped by mutual consent, and, instead, the spinster talks upon a, to her, delightful theme--the bicycle.
"I never could ride," the pretty stranger affirms "I am too great a coward, too nervous, and--I don't think I could ever learn to love the exercise. To me it looks all labour."
"Ah!" the spinster shakes her head. "I thought so once, and said that I would never, never ride a wheel. Indeed, I began it under--a--well almost--against my will, but--"
"Against your will, Miss Chetwynde? How--how was that?" the other asks breathlessly, and peering earnestly into the spinster's face. "Do you mean that some one made you ride--coerced you?"
There is a wary look now in the eyes of the little spinster, but she only utters a little half-laugh.
"Sometimes," she says, quite amiably, considering her distaste for personal queries--"sometimes, you know, we elderly and lorn women come under a dictatorship as tyrannous as Juggernaut, and when we have nieces, nephews, grandchildren who are bent upon making us young--well, it is a tyranny; but a well meant and most affectionate sort. I'm properly grateful, now, at all events." And they begin to talk about the lake.
When Aunt Cass leaves the cemetery Mrs. Myers | | 227 is driving her pony towards Lee. The two part with utmost friendliness. The spinster has instructed her just how, by taking an upper road, to reach Lee "with least circumlocution," and has kindly asked her to call on her way back to Lakeville next day.
And now we find Aunt Cass sitting opposite her niece, with no mind to tell all of her afternoon's adventures, and quietly skipping her encounter with the pretty brunette widow in favour of the story of the roses.
"Perhaps they're from some one at Lee," Hope hazards, when the fact had been announced. "One could find out, I suppose, at the greenhouses."
"I don't believe any one at Lee would carry such an immense bunch of great half-blown, deep-red roses, all of one colour and kind," her aunt objects, and at the mention of the "deep-red roses" Hope is so long silent that Aunt Cass plunges into a recital of her meeting with Mrs. Myers, not giving the story in full, and dwelling less upon their conversation than upon the good looks of the lady, and the evidences of past suffering that her face still bore, thus witnessing to the truth of her tale.
"And why, pray, should it not be the truth?" Hope asks somewhat impatiently. "It's only another summer boarder, aunt; we shall have them in every house presently," and then she lapses into a "train of meditation" which her aunt seems too indolent or too well occupied with her own thoughts to wish to break; and, as those thoughts continue to be of the lady of the cemetery, she is a little surprised when Hope suddenly sits erect and begins--| | 228
"Aunt Cass!" Now Hope has three forms of address for her aunt, as well as three degrees of warmth, and it is the emphasis, in part, that marks the difference. When she is in her absorbed and direct mood she says "Aunt Cass," the last word slightly explosive, and then you know that Hope is occupied, and wants a direct answer. When she says "Aunt Cassie," she is languid, amiable, and probably idle. But when she says Aunt Cassandra! the question is beyond argument, and the battle must be to the strong.
>Aunt Cass starts then, when Hope utters her name with that little explosive accent upon it.
"Well, my dear!" growing suddenly wary in her turn.
"At what time did you reach the grave--and find the--red roses upon it?"
"At," Aunt Cass consults her timepiece gravely. "I can't say to a moment. I left Mrs. Hilton at half-past three; and--my dear, you must hear about this ghost!"
"Presently, auntie. Now how long were you in reaching the grave--after you entered the cemetery gate?"
"Well, I declare! Let me see, fifteen minutes, I fancy."
"And--the roses--they were quite fresh, you say?"
"Quite! As fresh as possible."
"Um! and the lady, how long had she been there?"
"Just arrived; so she said. I did not see her when I first led my wheel in. I was looking after that."| | 229
"Oh!"groans Hope. "Those wretched bicycles, they manage to thwart me, to get in my way--quite too often!"
"Well, the pretty widow won't get in your way, at least, on a 'bike'; she dislikes them, too. Though not so hotly as yourself."
"On such a day as this," says Hope unheeding and oracular, "such a cluster of roses, cut ever so freshly, and laid upon the earth in the sun--more or less--were they in the sun?"
"Yes! I declare--they were, part of them at least."
"Then, Aunt Cassandra, they had not been on that grave one hour!"
There are steps and voices outside, although the hour is growing late for callers. Hope moves towards the portiere, but it swings apart and Sheriff Cook stands in the doorway--Sheriff Cook--and behind him--Mrs. Myers.
"Good evening," he says genially as is his wont; among the ladies he is always a beau of the old school. "Miss Cassandra Chetwynde, I bring you a waif, a stray. She was violently endeavouring to steer her bark into Lee by your chart and compass, and was coming to grief when I came by, a good Samaritan for once, and rescued her."
There are politely formal greetings, and, presently, it is made clear that Mrs. Myers has mistaken the road, and that her pony, having taken fright, had first scampered to the very outskirts of the villa garden, and then overturned the phaeton. That Sheriff Cook, whose title is not made known to Mrs. Myers, | | 230 having appeared timely and gallant, has ventured to bring the lady straight to their door.
"In fact," he says, at the end of his little speech, "I call it a lucky mishap, madam--Mrs. Myers; for the town of Lee is filled to-night with wheelmen, and you would have found it difficult to secure quarters there suited to a lady. You've fallen into good hands, I do assure you, ma'am."
"And you are both most welcome." It is Hope who speaks. Hope who, with a swift glance toward her aunt, and a swift step forward, stands for a moment facing the sheriff--and between him and the strange lady. "You are very welcome, both," the words are pointed by a keen look in his face, and then she turns towards Mrs. Myers.
"How fortunate, Mrs. Myers, that our friend was on his way to us, just at this time! It is not often that he honours us with his company for longer than a luncheon or dinner; but I suppose the cyclers have driven you out--of Lee, too, Mr. Cook, although your note did not tell me that."
"I should like to know what it did say," thinks the astonished sheriff; but he plays into her hands like the born actor he is, and soon there is a little circle about the library table, and tea is served for the benefit of Mrs. Myers.
While she is sipping this Hope telegraphs to her aunt, mutely, but quite clearly it would seem, and after a moment rises, and turns to the sheriff.
"I know you do not keep late hours, Mr. Cook; and so, if you will come with me, I will put the papers and letters at once in your hands, and--if you don't mind, you may occupy my brother's room, | | 231 at least his study, and look over the papers as long or as little as you like. I'm very glad that you could find the time to come and to help us." She murmurs an apology to Mrs. Myers, promises to return soon, and the two go out and down the hall to the morning-room.
"Now" says the sheriff, when he has looked up and down the hall before closing the door, What is it, Miss Chetwynde?"
"First," eagerly, "you can stay here to-night, can you not?"
"If you need me--yes."
"Listen," coming closer and lowering her voice to the merest whisper, "I told you of the boy who came here to take a last look at my brother on the day he was buried?"
"Yes. Your brother had been good to him, you said."
"And--he said--one thing I did not tell you, because, at the moment, it seemed just a pathetic little piece of sentiment."
"And--do you see it differently now?"
"You shall hear! Aunt Cassandra visited the cemetery this afternoon, and--she found the grave strewed with red roses; deep-red, hot-house roses."
"Ah!" bending suddenly toward her, "and what else?"
"The thing I omitted to tell you about that boy is this. When he thought I did not see him, he put a single deep-red rose inside the coffin lid, pushing it quickly out of sight."
"Miss Chetwynde, you were wrong in withholding that bit of a clue!"| | 232
"I fear so! I shall not repeat the error. When you arrived at our door just now, Mr. Cook, my aunt had just been telling me that when she reached the cemetery Mrs. Myers was there before her."
"And the flowers?"
"And the flowers!"
He stands a moment looking down into her face. Then he asks, "Is this all? Be careful now. Little things count in these cases. Think!"
"There's this one thing. It may, or may not, be of value. My brother's favourite flower was the red rose."
"Ah, ha! we're 'beginning to burn' as the children say."
"And this is just my suspicion. I am almost sure that the boy and this woman are in some way connected. Mr. Cook, cannot you look through my brother's desk and boxes to-night?"
"It's just what I mean to do! and I must have a little talk with you after your guest is stowed away for the night; and," putting his hand upon a nervously throbbing wrist, "rest easy, Miss! Hope! old man Cooks to the fore, no one will come in to your brother's rooms to-night, and nothing will be taken out except by me."
"Don't ask questions, Aunt Cass," says Hope, wearily, when their guests have been disposed of for the night, and the two were again alone. To-morrow there'll be so much to say, but first I'll tell you that I went to Lee to-day to give the sheriff carte blanche and to turn all of Fee's letters and papers over to him for inspection."
"Oh I so that's why he came to-night, is it?"| | 233
"No, it is not! His coming is quite unexpected to me. But I asked him to stay, and the letters and papers give me the excuse I needed for putting him in Fee's rooms."
"But why there? There are other rooms."
"True; but they do not need guarding."
"Guarding! upon my word, Hope Chetwynde, I believe you take that poor little woman for a female housebreaker!"
Hope turns away with a weary gesture. "Auntie, I can't talk to-night. I want to think I and things are becoming so strangely confused. To-morrow we will talk and I will explain everything so far as I can. And please, Aunt Cassie, try and recall everything that passed between yourself and this stranger; every word she said, so that you can tell it to Mr. Cook and myself to-morrow as soon as she goes, for as sure as you and I live I believe that woman put the red roses upon Fee's grave, and that she is the mysterious Inez!"
|<< chapter 19||< chapter 1||chapter 21 >||chapter 30 >>|