A Terrible Secret by May Agnes Fleming

A Terrible Secret by May Agnes Fleming

CHAPTER I.

BRIDE AND BRIDEGROOM ELECT.

Firelight falling on soft velvet carpet, where white lily buds trail along azure ground, on chairs of white-polished wood that glitters like ivory, with puffy of seats of blue satin; on blue and gilt panelled walls; on a wonderfully carved oaken ceiling; on sweeping draperies of blue satin and white lace; on half a dozen lovely pictures; on an open piano; and last of all, on the handsome, angry face of a girl who stands before it—Inez Catheron.

The month is August—the day the 29th—Miss Catheron has good reason to remember it to the last day of her life. But, whether the August sun blazes, or the January winds howl, the great rooms of Catheron Royals are ever chilly. So on the white-tiled hearth of the blue drawing-room this summer evening a coal fire flickers and falls, and the mistress of Catheron Royals stands before it, an angry flush burning deep red on either dusk cheek, an angry frown contracting her straight black brows.

The mistress of Catheron Royals,—the biggest, oldest, queerest, grandest place in all sunny Cheshire,—this slim, dark girl of nineteen, for three years past the bride-elect of Sir Victor Catheron, baronet, the last of his Saxon race and name, the lord of all these sunny acres, this noble Norman pile, the smiling village of Catheron below. The master of a stately park in Devon, a moor and “bothy” in the highlands, a villa on the Arno, a gem of a cottage in the Isle of Wight. “A darling of the gods,” young, handsome, healthy; and best of all, with twenty thousand a year.

She is his bride-elect. In her dark way she is very handsome. She is to be married to Sir Victor early in the next month, and she is as much in love with him as it is at all possible to be. A fair fate surely. And yet while the August night shuts down, while the wind whistles in the trees, while the long fingers of the elm, just outside the window, tap in a ghostly way on the pane, she stands here, flushed, angry, impatient, and sullen, her handsome lips set in a tight, rigid line.

She is very dark at all times. Her cousin Victor tells her, laughingly, she is an absolute nigger when in one of her silent rages. She has jet-black hair, and big, brilliant, Spanish eyes. She is Spanish. Her dead mother was a Castilian, and that mother has left her her Spanish name, her beautiful, passionate Spanish eyes, her hot, passionate Spanish heart. In Old Castile Inez was born; and when in her tenth year her English father followed his wife to the grave, Inez came home to Catheron Royals, to reign there, a little, imperious, hot-tempered Morisco princess ever since.

She did not come alone. A big boy of twelve, with a shock head of blue-black hair, two wild, glittering black eyes, and a diabolically handsome face, came with her. It was her only brother Juan, an imp incarnate from his cradle. He did not remain long. To the unspeakable relief of the neighborhood for miles around, he had vanished as suddenly as he had come, and for years was seen no more.

A Moorish Princess! It is her cousin and lover’s favorite name for her, and it fits well. There is a certain barbaric splendor about her as she stands here in the firelight, in her trailing purple silk, in the cross of rubies and fine gold that burns on her bosom, in the yellow, perfumy rose in her hair, looking stately, and beautiful, and dreadfully out of temper.

The big, lonesome house is as still as a tomb. Outside the wind is rising, and the heavy patter, patter, of the rain-beats on the glass. That, and the light fall of the cinders in the polished grate, are the only sounds to be heard.

A clock on the mantel strikes seven. She has not stirred for nearly an hour, but she looks up now, her black eyes full of passionate anger, passionate impatience.

“Seven!” she says, in a suppressed sort of voice; “and he should have been here at six. What if he should defy me?—what if he does not come after all?”

She can remain still no longer. She walks across the room, and she walks as only Spanish women do. She draws back one of the window-curtains, and leans out into the night. The crushed sweetness of the rain-beaten roses floats up to her in the wet darkness. Nothing to be seen but the vague tossing of the trees, nothing to be heard but the soughing of the wind, nothing to be felt but the fast and still faster falling of the rain.

She lets the curtain fall, and returns to the fire.

“Will he dare defy me?” she whispers to herself. “Will he dare stay away?”

There are two pictures hanging over the mantel—she looks up at them as she asks the question. One is the sweet, patient face of a woman of thirty; the other, the smiling face of a fair-haired, blue-eyed, good-looking lad. It is a very pleasant face; the blue eyes look at you so brightly, so frankly; the boyish mouth is so sweet-tempered and laughing that you smile back and fall in love with him at sight. It is Sir Victor Catheron and his late mother.

Miss Inez Catheron is in many respects an extraordinary young lady—Cheshire society has long ago decided that. They would have been more convinced of it than ever, could they have seen her turn now to Lady Catheron’s portrait and appeal to it aloud in impassioned words:

“On his knees, by your dying bed, by your dying command, he vowed to love and cherish me always—as he did then. Let him take care how he trifles with that vow—let him take care!”

She lifts one hand (on which rubies and diamonds flash) menacingly, then stops. Over the sweep of the storm, the rush of the rain, comes another sound—a sound she has been listening for, longing for, praying for—the rapid roll of carriage wheels up the drive. There can be but one visitor to Catheron Royals to-night, at this hour and in this storm—its master.

She stands still as a stone, white as a statue, waiting. She loves him; she has hungered and thirsted for the sound of his voice, the sight of his face, the clasp of his hand, all these weary, lonely months. In some way it is her life or death she is to take from his hands to-night. And now he is here.

She hears the great hall-door open and close with a clang; she hears the step of the master in the hall—a quick, assured tread she would know among a thousand; she hears a voice—a hearty, pleasant, manly, English voice; a cheery laugh she remembers well.

“The Chief of Lara has returned again.”

The quick, excitable blood leaps up from her heart to her face in a rosy rush that makes her lovely. The eyes light, the lips part—she takes a step forward, all anger, all fear, all neglect forgotten—a girl in love going to meet her lover. The door is flung wide by an impetuous hand, and wet and splashed, and tall and smiling, Sir Victor Catheron stands before her.

“My dearest Inez!”

He comes forward, puts his arm around her, and touches his blonde mustache to her flushed cheek.

“My dearest coz, I’m awfully glad to see you again, and looking so uncommonly well too.” He puts up his eye-glass to make sure of this fact, then drops it “Uncommonly well,” he repeats; “give you my word I never saw you looking half a quarter so handsome before in my life. Ah! why can’t we all be Moorish princesses, and wear purple silks and yellow roses?”

He flings himself into an easy-chair before the fire, throws back his blonde head, and stretches forth his boots to the blaze.

“An hour after time, am I not? But blame the railway people—don’t blame me. Beastly sort of weather for the last week of August—cold as Iceland and raining cats and dogs; the very dickens of a storm, I can tell you.”

He give the fire a poke, the light leaps up and illumines his handsome face. He is very like his picture—a little older—a little worn-looking, and with man’s “crowning glory,” a mustache. The girl has moved a little away from him, the flush of “beauty’s bright transcient glow” has died out of her face, the hard, angry look has come back. That careless kiss, that easy, cousinly embrace, have told their story. A moment ago her heart beat high with hope—to the day of her death it never beat like that again.

He doesn’t look at her; he gazes at the fire instead, and talks with the hurry of a nervous man. The handsome face is a very effeminate face, and not even the light, carefully trained, carefully waxed mustache can hide the weak, irresolute mouth, the delicate, characterless chin. While he talks carelessly and quickly, while his slim white fingers loop and unloop his watch-chain, in the blue eyes fixed upon the fire there is an uneasy look of nervous fear. And into the keeping of this man the girl with the dark powerful face has given her heart, her fate!

“It seems no end good to be at home again,” Sir Victor Catheron says, as if afraid of that brief pause. “You’ve no idea, Inez, how uncommonly familiar and jolly this blue room, this red fire, looked a moment ago, as I stepped out of the darkness and rain. It brings back the old times—this used to be her favorite morning-room,” he glanced at the mother’s picture, “and summer and winter a fire always burned here, as now. And you, Inez, cara mia, with your gypsy face, most familiar of all.”

She moves over to the mantel. It is very low; she leans one arm upon it, looks steadily at him, and speaks at last.

“I am glad Sir Victor Catheron can remember the old times, can still recall his mother, has a slight regard left for Catheron Royals, and am humbly grateful for his recollection of his gypsy cousin. From his conduct of late it was hardly to have been expected.”

“It is coming,” thinks Sir Victor, with an inward groan; “and, O Lord! what a row it is going to be. When Inez shuts her lips up in that tight line, and snaps her black eyes in that unpleasant way, I know to my cost, it means ‘war to the knife.’ I’ll be routed with dreadful slaughter, and Inez’s motto is ever, ‘Woe to the conqueror!’ Well, here goes!”

He looks up at her, a good-humored smile on his good-looking face.

“Humbly grateful for my recollection of you! My dear Inez, I don’t know what you mean. As for my absence—”

“As for your absence,” she interrupts, “you were to have been here, if your memory will serve you, on the first of June. It is now the close of August. Every day of that absence has been an added insult to me. Even now you would not have been here if I had not written you a letter you dare not neglect—sent a command you dare not disobey. You are here to-night because you dare not stay away.”

Some of the bold blood of the stern old Saxon race from which he sprung is in his veins still. He looks at her full, still smiling.

“Dare not!” he repeats. “You use strong language, Inez. But then you have an excitable sort of nature, and were ever inclined to hyperbole; and it is a lady’s privilege to talk.”

“And a man’s to act. But I begin to think Sir Victor Catheron is something less than a man. The Catheron blood has bred many an outlaw, many bitter, bad men, but to-day I begin to think it has bred something infinitely worse—a traitor and a coward!”

He half springs up, his eyes flashing, then falls back, looks at the fire again, and laughs.

“Meaning me?”

“Meaning you.”

“Strong language once more—you assert your prerogative royally, my handsome cousin. From whom did you inherit that two-edged tongue of yours, Inez, I wonder? Your Castilian mother, surely; the women of our house were never shrews. And even you, my dear, may go a little too far. Will you drop vituperation and explain? How have I been traitor and coward? It is well we should understand each other fully.”

He has grown pale, though he speaks quietly, and his blue eyes gleam dangerously. He is always quiet when most angry.

“It is. And we shall understand each other fully before we part—be very sure of that. You shall learn what I have inherited from my Castilian mother. You shall learn whether you are to play fast and loose with me at your sovereign will. Does your excellent memory still serve you, or must I tell you what day the twenty-third of September is to be?”

He looks up at her, still pale, that smile on his lips, that gleam in his eyes.

“My memory serves me perfectly,” he answers coolly; “it was to have been our wedding-day.”

Was to have been. As he speaks the words coldly, almost cruelly, as she looks in his face, the last trace of color leaves her own. The hot fire dies out of her eyes, an awful terror comes in its place. With all her heart, all her strength, she loves the man she so bitterly reproaches. It seems to her she can look back upon no time in which her love for him is not.

And now, it was to have been!

She turns so ghastly that he springs to his feet in alarm.

“Good Heaven, Inez! you’re not going to faint, are you? Don’t! Here, take my chair, and for pity’s sake don’t look like that. I’m a wretch, a brute—what was it I said? Do sit down.”

He has taken her in his arms. In the days that are gone he has been very fond, and a little afraid of his gipsy cousin. He is afraid still—horribly afraid, if the truth must be told, now that his momentary anger is gone.

All the scorn, all the defiance has died out of her voice when she speaks again. The great, solemn eyes transfix him with a look he cannot meet.

Was to have been,” she repeats, in a sort of whisper; “was to have been. Victor, does that mean it never is to be?”

He turns away, shame, remorse, fear in his averted face. He holds the back of the chair with one hand, she clings to the other as though it held her last hope in life.

“Take time,” she says, in the same slow, whispering way. “I can wait. I have waited so long, what does a few minutes more matter now? But think well before you speak—there is more at stake than you know of. My whole future life hangs on your words. A woman’s life. Have you ever thought what that implies? ‘Was to have been,’ you said. Does that mean it never is to be?”

Still no reply. He holds the back of the chair, his face averted, a criminal before his judge.

“And while you think,” she goes on, in that slow, sweet voice, “let me recall the past. Do you remember, Victor, the day when I and Juan came here from Spain? Do you remember me? I recall you as plainly at this moment as though it were but yesterday—a little, flaxen-haired, blue-eyed boy in violet velvet, unlike any child I had ever seen before. I saw a woman with a face like an angel, who took me in her arms, and kissed me, and cried over me, for my father’s sake. We grew up together, Victor, you and I, such happy, happy years, and I was sixteen, you twenty. And all that time you had my whole heart. Then came our first great sorrow, your mother’s death.”

She pauses a moment. Still he stands silent, but his left hand has gone up and covers his face.

“You remember that last night, Victor—the night she died. No need to ask you; whatever you may forget, you are not likely to forget that. We knelt together by her bedside. It was as this is a stormy summer night. Outside, the rain beat and the wind blew; inside, the stillness of death was everywhere. We knelt alone in the dimly-lit room, side by side, to receive her last blessing—her dying wish. Victor, my cousin, do you recall what that wish was?”

She holds out her arms to him, all her heart breaking forth in the cry.
But he will neither look nor stir.

“With her dying hands she joined ours, her dying eyes looking at you. With her dying lips she spoke to you: ‘Inez is dearer to me than all the world, Victor, except you. She must never face the world alone. My son, you love her—promise me you will cherish and protect her always. She loves you as no one else ever will. Promise me, Victor, that in three years from to-night you will make her your wife.’ These were her words. And you took her hand, covered it with tears and kisses, and promised.

“We buried her,” Inez went on, “and we parted. You went up to Oxford; I went over to a Paris pensionnat. In the hour of our parting we went up together hand in hand to her room. We kissed the pillow where her dying head had lain; we knelt by her bedside as we had done that other night. You placed this ring upon my finger; sleeping or waking it has never left it since, and you repeated your vow, that that night three years, on the twenty-third of September, I should be your wife.”

She lifts the betrothal ring to her lips, and kisses it. “Dear little ring,” she says softly, “it has been my one comfort all these years. Though all your coldness, all your neglect for the last year and a half, I have looked at it, and known you would never break your plighted word to the living and the dead.

“I came home from school a year ago. You were not here to meet and welcome me. You never came. You fixed the first of June for your coming, and you broke your word. Do I tire you with all these details, Victor? But I must speak to-night. It will be for the last time—you will never give me cause again. Of the whispered slanders that have reached me I do not speak; I do not believe them. Weak you may be, fickle you may be, but you are a gentleman of loyal race and blood; you will keep your plighted troth. Oh, forgive me, Victor! Why do you make me say such things to you? I hate myself for them, but your neglect has driven me nearly wild. What have I done?” Again she stretches forth her hands in eloquent appeal. “See! I love you. What more can I say? I forgive all the past; I ask no questions. I believe nothing of the horrible stories they try to tell me. Only come back to me. If I lose you I shall die.”

Her face is transfigured as she speaks—her hands still stretched out.

“O Victor, come!” she says; “let the past be dead and forgotten. My darling, come back!”

But he shrinks away as those soft hands touch him, and pushes her off.

“Let me go!” he cries; “don’t touch me, Inez! It can never be. You don’t know what you ask!”

He stands confronting her now, pale as herself, with eyes alight. She recoils like one who has received a blow.

“Can never be?” she repeats.

“Can never be!” he answers. “I am what you have called me, Inez, a traitor and a coward. I stand here perjured before God, and you, and my dead mother. It can never be. I can never marry you. I am married already!”

The blow has fallen—the horrible, brutal blow. She stands looking at him—she hardly seems to comprehend. There is a pause—the firelight flickers, they hear the rain lashing the windows, the soughing of the gale in the trees. Then Victor Catheron bursts forth:

“I don’t ask you to forgive me—it is past all that. I make no excuse; the deed is done. I met her, and I loved her. She has been my wife for sixteen months, and—there is a son. Inez, don’t look at me like that! I am a scoundrel, I know, but—”

He breaks down—the sight of her face unmans him. He turns away, his heart beating horribly thick. How long the ghastly pause that follows lasts he never knows—a century, counting by what he undergoes. Once, during that pause, he sees her fixed eyes turn slowly to his mother’s picture—he hears low, strange-sounding words drop from her lips:

“He swore by your dying bed, and see how he keeps his oath!”

Then the life that seems to have died from her face flames back. Without speaking to him, without looking at him, she turns to leave the room. On the threshold she pauses and looks back.

“A wife and a son,” she says, slowly and distinctly. “Sir Victor
Catheron, fetch them home; I shall be glad to see them.”

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