The Heart of a Woman
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But the outer lobby of the fairy universe was surpassingly beautiful, and though the golden gates to the inner halls beyond were ajar and would yield to the slightest pressure of Louisa's slender fingers, yet she was glad to tarry awhile longer. Were they not hand in hand? What mattered waiting since eternity called beyond those golden gates?
This morning, however, convention Ц still voiced by Lady Ryder Ц was more vigorous than was consistent with outward peace. Louisa, worried by aunt, and with the memory of Luke's expression of misery and disappointment when last night she had again refused to fix the wedding day, chided herself for her silly fancies, and at eleven o'clock set out for a stroll in Battersea Park, her mind made up, her unwonted fit of sentimentality smothered by the louder voice of common-sense.
She and Luke always took their walks abroad in Battersea Park. In the morning hours they were free there from perpetual meetings with undesired company Ц all outside company being undesirable in the lobby of the fairy universe. Louisa had promised to meet Luke in the tropical garden at half-past eleven. She was always punctual, and he always before his time; she smart and businesslike in her neat, tailor-made gown and close hat which defied wind and rain, he always a little shamefaced when he took her neatly gloved hand in his, as most English young men are apt to be when sentiment for the first time happens to overmaster them.
To-day she saw him coming toward her just the same as on other days. He walked just as briskly and held himself as erect as he always did, but the moment that he was near enough for her to see his face she knew that there was something very wrong in the world and with him. Some one from the world of eternity beyond had seen fit to push the golden gates closer together, so that now they would not yield quite so easily to the soft pressure of a woman's hand.
"What is it, Luke?" she asked very quietly, as soon as her fingers rested safely between his.
"What is what?" he rejoined foolishly and speaking like a child, and with a forced, almost inane-looking, smile on his lips.
"What has happened?" she reiterated more impatiently.
"Nothing," he replied, "that need worry you, I think. Shall we sit down here? You won't catch cold?" and he indicated a seat well sheltered against the cold breeze and the impertinent gaze of the passers-by.
"I never catch cold," said Louisa, smiling in spite of herself at Luke's funny, awkward ways. "But we won't sit down. Let us stroll up and down, shall we? You can talk better then, and tell me all about it."
"There's not much to tell at present. And no occasion to worry."
"There's nothing that worries me so much as your shilly-shallying, Luke, or the thought that you are making futile endeavours to keep something from me," she retorted almost irritably this time, for, strangely enough, her nerves Ц she never knew before this that she had any Ц were slightly on the jar this morning.
"I don't want to shilly-shally, little girl," he replied gently, "nor to keep anything from you.There, will you put your hand on my arm? 'Arry and 'Arriet, eh? Well! never mind. There's no one to see."
He took her hand Ц that neatly gloved, small hand of hers Ц and put it under his arm. For one moment it seemed as if he would kiss that tiny and tantalizing place just below the thumb where the pink palm shows in the opening of the glove. Luke was not a demonstrative lover, he was shy and English and abrupt; but this morning Ц was it the breath of spring in the air, the scent of the Roman hyacinths in that bed over there, or merely the shadow of a tiny cloud on the uniform blue of his life's horizon that gave a certain rugged softness to his touch, as his hand lingered over that neat glove which nestled securely in among the folds of his coat sleeve?
"Now," she said simply.
"Have you," he asked with abrupt irrelevance, "read your paper all through this morning?"
"Not all through. Only the important headlines."
"And you saw nothing about a claim to a peerage?"
"Well! that's all about it. A man has sprung up from nowhere in particular, who claims to be my uncle Arthur's son, and, therefore, heir presumptive to the title and all."
Luke heaved a deep sigh, as if with this brief if ungrammatical statement, his own heart had been unburdened of a tiresome load.
"Your uncle Arthur?" she repeated somewhat bewildered.
"Yes. You never knew him, did you?"
"No," she said, "I never knew him, though as a baby I must have seen him. I was only three, I think, when he died. But I never heard that he had been married. I am sure father never knew."
"Nor did I, nor did Uncle Rad, nor any of us. The whole thing is either a thunderbolt or.. an imposture."
"Tell me," she said, "a little more clearly, Luke dear, will you? I am feeling quite muddled." And now it was she who led the way to the isolated seat beneath that group of silver birch, whose baby leaves trembled beneath the rough kiss of the cool April breeze.
They sat down together and on the gravelled path in front of them a robin hopped half shyly, half impertinently, about and gazed with tiny, inquisitive eyes on the doings of these big folk. All around them the twitter of bird throats filled the air with its magic, its hymn to the reawakened earth, and drowned in this pleasing solitude the distant sounds of the busy city that seemed so far away from this secluded nook inhabited by birds and flowers, and by two dwellers in Fata Morgana's land.
"Tell me first," said Louisa, in her most prosy, most matter of fact tone of voice, "all that is known about your uncle Arthur."
"Well, up to now, I individually knew very little about him. He was the next eldest brother to Uncle Rad, and my father was the youngest of all. When Uncle Rad succeeded to the title, Arthur was heir-presumptive of course. But as you know he died Ц as was supposed unmarried Ц nineteen years ago, and my poor dear father was killed in the hunting field the following year. I was a mere kid then and the others were babies Ц orphans the lot of us. My mother died when Edith was born. Uncle Rad was said to be a confirmed bachelor. He took us all to live with him and was father, mother, elder brother, elder sister to us all. Bless him!"
Luke paused abruptly, and Louisa too was silent. Only the song of a thrush soaring upward to the skies called for that blessing which neither of them at that moment could adequately evoke.
"Yes," said Louisa at last, "I knew all that."
Lord Radclyffe and his people were all of the same world as herself. She knew all about the present man's touching affection for the children of his youngest brother, but more especially for Luke on whom he bestowed an amount of love and tender care which would have shamed many a father by its unselfish intensity. That affection was a beautiful trait in an otherwise not very lovable character.
"I daresay," resumed Luke after a little while, "that I have been badly brought up. I mean in this way, that if Ц if the whole story is true Ц if Uncle Arthur did marry and did have a son, then I should have to go and shift for myself and for Jim and Frank and Edith. Of course Uncle Rad would do what he could for us, but I should no longer be his heir Ц and we couldn't go on living at Grosvenor Square and Ц "
"Aren't you rambling on a little too fast, dear?" said Louisa gently, whilst she beamed with an almost motherly smile Ц the smile that a woman wears when she means to pacify and to comfort Ц on the troubled face of the young man.
"Of course I am," he replied more calmly, "but I can't help it. For some days now I've had a sort of feeling that something was going to happen Ц that Ц well, that things weren't going to go right. And this morning when I got up, I made up my mind that I would tell you."
"When did you hear first, and from whom?"
"The first thing we heard was last autumn. There came a letter from abroad for Uncle Rad. It hadn't the private mark on it, so Mr. Warren opened it along with the rest of the correspondence. He showed it to me. The letter was signed Philip de Mountford, and began, 'My dear uncle.' I couldn't make head or tail of it; I thought it all twaddle. You've no idea what sort of letters Uncle Rad gets sometimes from every kind of lunatic or scoundrel you can think of, who wants to get something out of him. Well, this letter at first looked to me the same sort of thing. I had never heard of any one who had the right to say 'dear uncle' to Uncle Rad Ц but it had a lot in it about blood being thicker than water and all the rest of it, with a kind of request for justice and talk about the cruelty of Fate. The writer, however, asserted positively that he was the only legitimate son of Mr. Arthur de Mountford, who Ц this he professed to have only heard recently Ц was own brother to the earl of Radclyffe. The story which he went on to relate at full length was queer enough in all conscience. I remember every word of it, for it seemed to get right away into my brain, then and there, as if something was being hammered or screwed straight into one of the cells of my memory never really to come out again."
"And yet when Ц when we were first engaged," rejoined Louisa quietly, "you never told me anything about it."
"I'll tell you directly how that was. I remembered and then forgot Ц if you know what I mean Ц and now it has all come back. At the time I thought the letter of this man who called himself Philip de Mountford nothing but humbug. So did Mr. Warren, and yet he and I talked it over and discussed it between us for ever so long. It all sounded so strange. Uncle Arthur Ц so this man said who called himself Philip de Mountford Ц had married in Martinique a half-caste girl named Adeline Petit, who was this same Philip's mother. He declares that he has all the papers Ц marriage certificates or whatever they are called Ц to prove every word he says. He did not want to trouble his uncle much, only now that his mother was dead, he felt all alone in the world and longed for the companionship and affection of his own kith and kin. All he wanted he said, was friendship. Then he went on to say that of course he did not expect his lordship to take his word for all this, he only asked for an opportunity to show his dear uncle all the papers and other proofs which he held that he was in real and sober truth the only legitimate son of Mr. Arthur de Mountford, own brother to his lordship."
"How old is this man Ц this Philip de Mountford Ц supposed to be?"
"Well, he said in that first letter that the marriage took place in the parish church of St. Pierre in Martinique on the 28th of August, 1881; that he himself was born the following year, and christened in the same church under the name of Philip Arthur, and registered as the son of Mr. Arthur Collingwood de Mountford of Ford's Mount in the county of Northampton, England, and of Adeline de Mountford, n?e Petit, his wife."
"Twenty-four years ago," said Louisa thoughtfully, "and he only claims kinship with Lord Radclyffe now?"
"That's just," rejoined Luke, "where the curious part of the story comes in. This Philip de Mountford Ц I don't know how else to call him Ц said in his first letter that his mother never knew that Mr. Arthur de Mountford was anything more than a private English gentleman travelling either for profit or pleasure, but in any case not possessed of either wealth or social position. Between you and me, dear, I suppose that this Adeline Petit was just a half-caste girl, without much knowledge of what goes on in the world, and why she should have married Uncle Arthur I can't think."
"If she did marry him, you mean."
"If she did marry him, as you say," said Luke with a singular want of conviction, which Louisa was not slow to remark.
"You think that this young man's story is true then?"
"I don't know what to think, and that's the truth."
"Tell me more," added Louisa simply.
"Well, this Philip's story goes on to say that his father Ц Uncle Arthur Ц apparently soon tired of his exotic wife, for it seems that two years after the marriage he left Martinique and never returned to it to the day of his death."
"Pardon," said Louisa in her prim little way, "my interrupting you: but have any of you Ц Lord Radclyffe I mean, or any of your friends Ц any recollection of your uncle Arthur living at Martinique for awhile? Two years seems a long time Ц "
"As a matter of fact, Uncle Arthur was a bit of a wastrel you know. He never would study for anything. He passed into the navy Ц very well, too, I believe Ц but he threw it all up almost as soon as he got his commission, and started roaming about the world. I do know for a fact that once his people had no news of him for about three or four years, and then he turned up one fine day as if he had only been absent for a week's shooting."
"When was that?"
"I can't tell you exactly. I was only a tiny kid at the time, not more than three years old I should say. Yes, I do remember, now I come to think of it, that Uncle Arthur was home the Christmas after my third birthday. I have a distinct recollection of my dad telling me that Uncle Arthur was one of my presents from Father Christmas, and of my thinking what a rotten present it was. Later on in the nursery all of us children were rather frightened of him, and we used to have great discussions as to where this uncle came from. The Christmas present theory was soon exploded, because of some difficulty about Uncle Arthur not having been actually found in a stocking, and his being too big anyway to be hidden in one, so we fell back on Jim's suggestion that he was the man in the moon come down for a holiday."
"You," she said, "had your third birthday in 1883."
"That was the year, then, that your uncle Arthur came home from his wanderings about the world, during which he had never given any news of himself or his doings to any member of his family."
"By Jove, Lou, what a splendid examining magistrate you'd make!" was Luke's unsophisticated comment on Louisa's last remark.
But she frowned a little at this show of levity, and continued quietly:
"And your uncle, according to this so-called Philip de Mountford, was married in 1881 in Martinique, his son was born in 1882, and he left Martinique in 1883 never to return."
"Hang it all, Lou!" exclaimed the young man almost roughly, "that is all surmise."
"I know it is, dear; I was only thinking."
"That it all tallies so very exactly and that this Ц this Philip de Mountford seems in any case to know a great deal about your Uncle Arthur, and his movements in the past."
"There's no doubt of that; and Ц "
Luke paused a moment and a curious blush spread over his face. The Englishman's inborn dislike to talk of certain subjects to his women folk had got hold of him, and he did not know how to proceed.
As usual in such cases the woman Ц unmoved and businesslike Ц put an end to his access of shyness.
"The matter is Ц or may be Ц too serious, dear, for you to keep any of your thoughts back from me at this juncture."
"What I meant was," he said abruptly, "that this Philip might quite well be Uncle Arthur's son you know; but it doesn't follow that he has any right to call himself Philip de Mountford, or to think that he is Uncle Rad's presumptive heir."
"That will of course depend on his proofs Ц his papers and so on," she assented calmly. "Has any one seen them?"
"At the time Ц it was sometime last November Ц that he first wrote to Uncle Rad, he had all his papers by him. He wrote from St. Vincent; have I told you that?"
"Well, it was from St. Vincent that he wrote. He had left Martinique, I understand, in 1902, when St. Pierre, if you remember, was totally destroyed by volcanic eruption. It seems that when Uncle Arthur left the French colony for good, he lodged quite a comfortable sum in the local bank at St. Pierre in the name of Mrs. de Mountford. Of course he had no intention of ever going back there, and anyhow he never did, for he died about three years later. The lady went on living her own life quite happily. Apparently she did not hanker much after her faithless husband. I suppose that she never imagined for a moment that he meant to stick to her, and she certainly never bothered her head as to what his connections or friends over in England might be. Amongst her own kith and kin, the half-caste population of a French settlement, she was considered very well off, almost rich. After a very few years of grass-widowhood, she married again, without much scruple or compunction, which proves that she never thought that her English husband would come back to her. And then came the catastrophe."
"The destruction of St. Pierre. You remember the awful accounts of it. The whole town was destroyed. Every building in the place Ц the local bank, the church, the presbytery, the post-office Ц was burned to the ground; everything was devastated for miles around. And thousands perished, of course."
"Mrs. de Mountford and her son Philip were amongst the very few who escaped. Their cottage was burned to the ground, but she, with all a Frenchwoman's sense of respect for papers and marks of identification, fought her way back into the house, even when it was tottering above her head, in order to rescue those things which she valued more than her life, the proofs that she was a respectable married woman and that Philip was her lawfully begotten son. Her second husband Ц I think from reading between the lines that he was a native or at best a half-caste Ц was one of the many who perished. But Mrs. de Mountford and Philip managed to reach the coast unhurt and to put out to sea in an open boat. They were picked up by a fishing smack from Marie Galante and landed there. It is a small island Ц French settlement, of course Ц off Guadeloupe. They had little or no money, and how they lived I don't know, but they stayed in Marie Galante for some time. Then the mother died, and Philip made his way somehow or other to Roseau in Dominica and thence to St. Vincent."
"When was that?"
"Last year I suppose."
"And," she said, meditating on all that she had heard, "it was in St. Vincent that he first realized who he was Ц or might be?"
"Well, in a British colony it was bound to happen. Whether somebody put him up to it out there, or whether he merely sucked the information in from nowhere in particular, I can't say: certain it is that he did soon discover that the name he bore was one of the best known in England, and that his father must, as a matter of fact, have been own brother to the earl of Radclyffe. So he wrote to Uncle Rad."
Louisa was silent. She was absorbed in thought and for the moment Luke had come to the end of what he had to say Ц or, rather, of what he meant to say just now. That there was more to come, Louisa well knew. Commonplace women have a way of intuitively getting at the bottom of the thoughts of people for whom they care. Louisa guessed that beneath Luke's levity and his school-boyish slang Ц which grew more apparent as the man drew to the end of his narrative Ц that beneath his outward flippancy there lay a deep substratum of puzzlement and anxiety.
The story as told by Luke sounded crude enough, almost melodramatic, right out of the commonplace range of Louisa's usual every-day life. Whilst she sat listening to this exotic tale of secret and incongruous marriage and of those earthquakes and volcanic eruptions which had seemed so remote when she had read about them nine years ago in the newspapers, she almost thought that she must be dreaming; that she would wake up presently in her bed at the Langham Hotel where she was staying with aunt, and that she would then dress and have her breakfast and go out to meet Luke, and tell him all about the idiotic dream she had had about an unknown heir to the Earldom of Radclyffe, who was a negro Ц or almost so Ц and was born in a country where there were volcanoes and earthquakes.
How far removed from her at this moment did aunt seem, and father, and the twins! Surely they could not be of the same world as this exotic pretender to Uncle Radclyffe's affection, and to Luke's hitherto undisputed rights. And as father and aunt and Mabel and Chris were very much alive and very real, then this so-called Philip de Mountford must be a creature of dreams.
"Or else an imposter."
She had said this aloud, thus breaking in on her own thoughts and his. A feeling of restlessness seized her now. She was cold, too, for the April breeze was biting and had searched out the back of her neck underneath the sable stole and caused her to shiver in the spring sunshine.
"Let us walk," she said, "a little Ц shall we?"
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