It was the paralyzed Countess who spoke. She had managed to partly raise herself on her couch, and her face expressed positive terror. Her husband hurried to her side,— and, with a curiously cynical smile on his lips, Rimanez rose from the piano. Miss Charlotte, who had sat rigidly upright and silent for some time, hastened to attend upon her sister, but Lady Elton was singularly excited, and appeared to have gained a sudden access of unnatural vigour.
"Go away,—I'm not ill," she said impatiently. "I feel better,—much better than I have done for months. The music does me good." And addressing her husband, she added, "Ask your friend to come and sit here by me,—I want to talk to him. He has a magnificent voice,—and— I know that song he sang,—I remember reading it—in a manuscript album—long ago. I want to know where he found it."
Rimanez here advanced with his gentle tread and courteous bearing, and Lord Elton gave him a chair beside the invalid.
"You are working miracles on my wife," he said. "I have not seen her so animated for years."
And leaving the two to talk, he crossed over to where Lady Sibyl, myself, and Miss Chesney, were all seated in a group, chatting more or less unrestrainedly.
"I have just been expressing the hope that you and your daughter will pay me a visit at Willowsmere, Lord Elton," I said.
His brows contracted a little, but he forced a smile. "We shall be delighted," he mumbled. "When do you take possession ?''
"As soon as it is at all feasible," I replied. "I shall wait in town till the next Levee is over, as both my friend and myself have arranged to be presented."
"Oh—ah—yes!—er—yes! That is always advisable. And it's not half such a troublesome business as a Drawing- room is for the ladies. It's soon over,—and low bodices are not de rigueur—ha! ha! ha! Who is your presenter ?''
I named a distinguished personage, closely connected with the Court, and the Earl nodded.
"A very good man,—you could not have a better," he said complacently. "And this book of yours,—when does it come out?"
"We must get it,—we must certainly get it," said Lord Elton, assuming interest.—"Sybil, you must put it down on your library list.''
She assented, though, as I thought a trifle indifferently.
"On the contrary you must allow me to present it to you," I said. "It will be a pleasure to me which I hope you will not deny."
"You are very kind," she answered, lifting her beautiful eyes to mine as she spoke; "but the librarian at Mudie's is sure to send it—he knows I read everything. Though I confess I never buy any books except those by Mavis Clare."
Again that woman's name! I felt annoyed, but took care not to show my annoyance.
"I shall be jealous of Mavis Clare," I said playfully.
"Most men are!" she replied quietly.
"You are indeed an enthusiastic partisan of hers !" I exclaimed, somewhat surprised.
''Yes, I suppose I am. I like to see any member of my sex distinguish herself as nobly as she does. I have no genius of my own, and that is one of the reasons why I honour it so much in other women."
I was about to make some suitable compliment by way of response to this remark, when we were all violently startled from our seats by a most horrible cry,—a gasping scream, such as might be wrung from some tortured animal. Aghast at the sound we stood for a moment inert, staring at Rimanez, who came quickly towards us with an air of grave concern.
"I am afraid," he said softly, "that the Countess is not so well,—perhaps you hid better go to her—"
Another shriek interrupted his words, and, transfixed with horror, we saw Lady Elton struggling in the throes of some sudden and terrific convulsion, her hands beating the air as if she were fighting with an unseen enemy. In one second her face underwent such hideous contortions as robbed it of all human semblance, and between the agonized pantings of her difficult breath, her half-choked voice could be heard uttering wild cries—
"Mercy!—mercy !—oh God!—God! Tell Sibyl!—pray —pray to God,—pray"
And with that she fell heavily back, speechless and unconscious.
All was instant confusion. Lady Sibyl rushed to her mother's side, with Miss Charlotte,—Diana Chesney hung back trembling and afraid,—Lord Elton sprang to the bell and rang it furiously.
"Fetch the doctor!" he cried to the startled servant. "Lady Elton has had another shock! She must be taken to her room at once."
"Can I be of any service?" I inquired, with a side glance at Rimanez, who stood gravely apart, a statuesquely composed figure of silence.
"No, no,—thanks all the same !" and the Earl pressed my hand gratefully. "She should not have come downstairs,—it has been too exciting for her. Sibyl, don't look at her, my dear—it will only unnerve you.—Miss Chesney, pray go to your room,—Charlotte can do all that is possible"
As he spoke, two of the men-servants came in to carry the insensible Countess upstairs,—and as they slowly bore her on her coffin-like couch past me, one of them drew the coverlet across her face to conceal it. But not so quickly that I could not see the awful change impressed upon it,—the indelible horror that was stamped on the drawn features,—. horror such as surely never was seen except in a painter's idea of some lost soul in torment. The eyes were rolled up and fixed in their sockets like balls of glass, and in them also was frozen the same frenzied desperate look of fear. It was a dreadful face !—so dreadful in its ghastly immovableness, that I was all at once reminded of my hideous vision of the previous night, and the pallid countenances of the three phantoms that had scared me in my sleep. Lady Elton's looks now resembled theirs! Sickened and appalled, I averted my eyes, and was glad to see Rimanez taking farewell of his host, the while he expressed his regret and sympathy with him in his domestic affliction. I myself, approaching Lady Sibyl, pressed her cold and trembling hand in mine, and respectfully kissed it.
"Iam deeply sorry!" I murmured. "I wish I could do anything to console you."
She looked at me with dry calm eyes.
"Thank you. But the doctors have always said that my mother would have another shock depriving her of speech. It is very sad; she will probably live for some years like that."
I again expressed my sympathy.
"May I come and inquire about you all to-morrow?" I asked.
"It will be very kind of you," she answered quietly."Shall I see you if I come?" I said in a lower tone."If you wish it,—certainly!"
Our eyes met; and I knew by instinct that she read my thoughts. I pressed her hand again, and was not repulsed; then bowing profoundly, I left her to make my adieux to Lord Elton and Miss Chesney, who seemed terribly upset and frightened. Miss Charlotte Fitzroy had left the room in attendance on her sister, and she did not return to bid us good-night. Rimanez lingered a moment behind me to say another word or two to the Earl, and when he joined me in the hall and threw on his opera-coat, he was smiling to himself somewhat singularly.
"An unpleasant end for Helena, Countess of Elton," he said, when we were in our brougham, driving away. "Paralysis is perhaps the worst of all the physical punishments that can befall a ' rapid' lady.''
"Was she 'rapid'?"
"Well,—perhaps 'rapid' is too mild a term, but I can find no other," he answered. "When she was young,—she is barely fifty now,—she did everything that could be done by woman at her worst and wildest. She had scores of lovers, —and I believe one of them cleared off her husband's turfdebts,—the Earl consenting gladly,—on a rather pressing occasion."
"What disgraceful conduct!" I exclaimed.
He looked at me with an expression of cynical amusement.
"Think so? The 'upper ten' quite condone that sort of thing in their own set now-a-days. It is all right. If a lady has lovers, and her husband beams benevolence on the situation, what can be said? Nothing. How very tender your conscience is, Geoffrey!"
I sat silent, thinking. My companion lit a cigarette and offered me one. I took it mechanically without lighting it.
"I made a mistake this evening," he went on. "I should not have sung that "Last Love-song." The fact is, the wordi were written by one of her ladyship's former admirers, a man who was something of a poet in his way,—and she had an idea that she was the only person living who had ever seen the lines. She wanted to know if I knew the man who composed them, and I was able to say that I did—very intimately. I was just explaining how it was, and why I knew him so well, when the distressing attack of convulsions came on, and finished our conversation.''
"She looked horrible!" I said.
"The paralyzed Helen of a modern Troy? Yes,—her countenance at the last was certainly not attractive. Beauty combined with wantonness, frequently ends in the drawn twitch, fixed eye and helpless limbs of life-in-death. It is Nature's revenge on the outraged body,—and do you know, Eternity's revenge on the impure Soul is extremely similar?"
"What do you know about it?" I said, smiling in spite of myself, as I looked at his fine face, expressive of perfect health and splendid intellectuality. "Your absurd fancies about the soul are the only traces of folly I discover in you."
"Really? Well I am glad I have something of the fool in my disposition,—foolishness being the only quality that makes wisdom possible. I confess I have odd, very odd notions about the soul."
"I will excuse them," I said, laughing,—God forgive me, in my own insensate blind conceit,—the while he regarded me fixedly. "In fact, I will excuse anything for the sake of your voice. I do not flatter you, Lucio,—you sing like an angel."
"Don't use impossible comparisons," he replied. "Have you ever heard an angel sing?"
"Yes!" I answered smiling—" I have,—this very night!" He turned deadly pale.
"A very open compliment!" he said, forcing a laugh; and with almost rough haste, he suddenly let down the window of the carriage, though the night was bitter cold. "This vehicle is suffocating me,—let us have some air. See how the stars are shining !—like great crown jewels—Deity's regalia! Hard frost, like hard times, brings noble works into prominence. Yonder, far off, is a star you can hardly perceive; red as a cinder at times, and again blue as the lightning,— I can always discover it, though many cannot. It is Algol, —judged by superstitious folk to be an evil star. I love it chiefly on account of its bad reputation,—it is no doubt much maligned. It may be a cold quarter of hell where weeping spirits sit frozen in ice made of their own congealed tears,—or it may be a preparatory school for Heaven—who knows! Yonder, too, shines Venus,—your star, Geoffrey !— for you are in love, my friend!—come confess it! are you not?"
"I am not sure," I answered slowly. "The phrase 'in love' scarcely describes my present feeling … "
"You have dropped these," he said suddenly, picking up a fast fading knot of violets from the floor of the brougham and holding them towards me. He smiled, as I uttered an exclamation of annoyance. They were Lady Sibyl's flowers which I had inadvertently let fall, and I saw he knew it. I took them from his hand in silence.
"My dear fellow, do not try to hide your intentions from your best friend," he said seriously and kindly. "You wish to marry the Earl of Elton's beautiful daughter, and you shall. Trust me !—I will do everything I can to promote your desire.''
"You will?" I exclaimed with unconcealed delight, for I fully recognised the influence he had over Sibyl's father.
"I will,—I promise," he answered gravely. "I assure you that such a marriage would be one after my own heart. I'll do all I can for you,—and I have made many matches in my time."
My heart beat high with triumph,—and when we parted that night I wrung his hand fervently, and told him I was devoutly grateful to the fates for sending me such a good friend as he was.
"Grateful to—whom did you say?" he asked with a whimsical look.
"To the Fates!"
"Are you really? They are very ugly sisters I believe. Perhaps they were your ghostly visitors of last night!"
"God forbid!" I ejaculated.
"Ah! God never forbids the fulfilment of His own laws!" he answered. "To do so He would have to destroy Himself."
"If He exists at all!" I said carelessly.
And with this, we separated to our different quarters in the 'Grand.'