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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Prince Of Sinners - Part 1 - Chapter 17. Fifteen Years In Hell
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A Prince Of Sinners - Part 1 - Chapter 17. Fifteen Years In Hell Post by :bambito Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :1471

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A Prince Of Sinners - Part 1 - Chapter 17. Fifteen Years In Hell

PART I CHAPTER XVII. FIFTEEN YEARS IN HELL

"Really," Lady Caroom exclaimed, "Enton is the cosiest large house I was ever in. Do throw that Bradshaw away, Arranmore. The one o'clock train will do quite nicely."

Lord Arranmore obeyed her literally. He jerked the volume lightly into a far corner of the room and came over to her side. She was curled up in a huge easy-chair, and her face caught by the glow of the dancing firelight almost startled him by its youth. There was not a single sign of middle age in the smooth cheeks, not a single grey hair, no sign of weariness in the soft full eyes raised to his.

She caught his glance and smiled.

"The firelight is so becoming!" she murmured.

"Don't go!" he said.

"My dear Arranmore. The Redcliffes would never forgive me, and we must go some time."

"I don't see the necessity," he answered, slowly. "You like Enton. Make it your home."

She raised her eyebrows.

"How improper!" "Not necessarily," he answered. "Take me too."

She sat up in her chair and regarded him steadily.

"Am I to regard this," she asked, "as an offer of marriage?"

"Well, it sounds like it," he admitted.

"Dear me. You might have given me a little more notice," she said. "Let me think for a moment, please."

Perhaps their thoughts travelled back in the same direction. He remembered his cousin and his playfellow, the fairest and daintiest girl he had ever seen, his best friend, his constant companion. He remembered the days when she had first become something more to him, the miseries of that time, his hopeless ineligibility--the separation. Then the years of absence, the terrible branding years of his life, the horrible pit, the time when night and day his only prayer had been the prayer for death. The self-repression of years seemed to grow weaker and weaker. He held out his hands. But she hesitated.

"Dear," she said, "you make me very happy. It is wonderful to think this may come after all these years. But there is something which I wish to say to you first."

"Well?"

"You are very, very dear to me now--as you are--but you are not the man I loved years ago. You are a very different person indeed. Sometimes I am almost afraid of you.

"You have no cause to be," he said. "Indeed, you have no cause to be. So far as you are concerned I have never changed. I am the same man."

She took one of his hands in hers.

"Philip," she said, "you must not think hardly of me. You must not think of me as simply afflicted with the usual woman's curiosity. I am not curious at all. I would rather not know. But remember that for nearly twenty years you passed out of my life. You have come back again wonderfully altered. You do not wish to keep the story of those years for ever a sort of Bluebeards chamber in our lives?"

"Not I," he answered. "I would have you do as I have done, rip them out page and chapter, annihilate them utterly. What have they to do with the life before us? To you they would seem evil enough, to me they are thronged with horrible memories, with memories which, could I take them with me, would poison heaven itself. So let us blot them out for ever. Come to me, Catherine, and help me to forget."

She looked at him with strained eyes.

"Philip," she said, "I must understand you. I must understand what has made you the man you are."

"Fifteen years in hell has done it," he answered, fiercely. "Not even my memory shall ever take me back."

"If I marry you," she said, "remember that I marry your past as well as your future. And there are things--which need explanation."

"Well?"

"You have been married."

"She is dead."

"You have a son."

He reeled as though he had been struck, and the silence between them was as the silence of tragedy.

"You see," she continued, "I am bound to ask you to lift the curtain a little. Fate or instinct, or whatever you may like to call it, has led me a little way. I am not afraid to know. I have seen too much of life to be a hard judge. But you must hold out your hand and take me a little further."

"I cannot."

She held him tightly. Her voice trembled a little. "Dear, you must. I am not an exacting woman, and I love you too well to be a hard judge of anything you might have to tell me. Ignorance is the only thing which I cannot bear. Remember how greatly you are changed, you are almost a stranger to me in some of your moods. I could not have you wandering off into worlds of which I knew nothing. Sit down by my side and talk to me. I will ask no questions. You shall tell me your own way, and what you wish to leave out--leave it out. Come, is this so hard a task?"

He seemed frozen into inanition. His face was like the cast of a dead man's. His voice was cold and hopeless.

"The key," he said, "is gone. I shall never seek for it, I shall never find it. I have known what madness is, and I am afraid. Shall we go into the hall? I fancy that they are serving tea."

She looked at him, half terrified, half amazed.

"You mean this as final?" she said, deliberately. "You refuse to offer any explanation, the explanation which common decency even would require of these things?"

"I expected too much," he answered. "I know it very well. Forgive me, and let us forget."

She rose to her feet.

"I do not know that you will ever regret this," she said. "I pray that you may."

To Brooks she seemed the same charming woman as usual, as he heard her light laugh come floating across the hall, and bowed over her white fingers. But Sybil saw the over-bright eyes and nervous mouth and had hard work to keep back the tears. She piled the cushions about a dark corner of the divan, and chattered away recklessly.

"This is a night of sorrows," she exclaimed, pouring out the tea. "Mr. Brooks and I were in the midst of a most affecting leave-taking--when the tea came. Why do these mundane things always break in upon the most sacred moments?"

"Life," Lady Caroom said, helping herself recklessly to muffin, "is such a wonderful mixture of the real and the fanciful, the actual and the sentimental, one is always treading on the heels of the other. The little man who turns the handle must have lots of fun."

"If only he has a sense of humour," Brooks interposed. "After all, though, it is the grisly, ugly things which float to the top. One has to probe always for the beautiful, and it requires our rarest and most difficult sense to apprehend the humorous."

Lord Arranmore stirred his tea slowly. His face was like the face of a carved image. Only Brooks seemed still unconscious of the shadow which was stalking amongst them.

"We talk of life so glibly," he said. "It is a pity that we cannot realize its simplest elements. Life is purely subjective. Nothing exists except in our point of view. So we are continually making and marring our own lives and the lives of other people by a word, an action, a thought."

"Dear me!" Lady Caroom murmured. "How-ever shall I be able to play bridge after tea if you all try to addle my brain by paradoxes and subtle sayings beforehand! What does Arranmore mean?"

He put down his cup.

"Do not dare to understand me," he said. "It is the most sincere unkindness when one talks only to answer. And as for bridge--remember that this is a night of mourning. Bridge is far too frivolous a pursuit."

"Bridge a frivolous pursuit?" Sybil exclaimed. "Heavens, what sacrilege. What ought we to do, Lord Arranmore?"

"Sit in sackcloth and ashes, and hear Brooks lecture on the poor," he answered, lightly. "Brooks is a mixture of the sentimentalist and the hideous pessimist, you know, and it is the privilege of his years to be sometimes in earnest. I know nothing more depressing than to listen to a man who is in earnest."

"You are getting positively light-headed," Sybil laughed. "I can see no pleasure in life save that which comes from an earnest pursuit of things, good or evil."

"My dear child," Lord Arranmore answered, "when you are a little older you will know that to take life seriously is a sheer impossibility. You may think that you are doing it, but you are not."

"There must be exceptions," Sybil declared.

"There are none," Lord Arranmore answered, lightly, "outside the madhouse. For the realization of life comes only hand in hand with insanity. The people who have come nearest to it carry the mark with them all their life. For the fever of knowledge will scorch even those who peer over the sides of the cauldron."

Lady Caroom helped herself to some more tea.

"Really, Arranmore," she drawled, "for sheer and unadulterated pessimism you are unsurpassed. You must be a very morbid person."

He shrugged his shoulders.

"One is always called morbid," he remarked, "who dares to look towards the truth."

"There are people," Lady Caroom answered, "who look always towards the clouds, even when the sun is shining."

"I am in the minority," Lord Arranmore said, smiling. "I feel myself becoming isolated. Let us abandon the subject."

"No, let us convert you instead," Sybil declared. "We want to look at the sun, and we want to take you with us. You are really a very stupid person, you know. Why do you want to stay all alone amongst the shadows?" Arranmore smiled faintly.

"The sun shines," he said, "only for those who have eyes to see it."

"Blindness is not incurable," she answered.

"Save when the light in the eyes is dead," he answered. "Come, shall we play a game at fourhanded billiards?"

It resolved itself into a match between Lady Caroom and Lord Arranmore, who were both players far above the average. Sybil and Brooks talked, but for once her attention wandered. She seemed listening to the click of the billiard-balls, and watching the man and the woman between whom all conversation seemed dead. Brooks noticed her absorption, and abandoned his own attempts to interest her.

"Your mother and Lord Arranmore," he remarked, "are very old friends."

"They have known one another all their lives," she murmured. "Lord Arranmore has changed a good deal though since his younger days."

Brooks made no reply. The girl suddenly bent her head towards him.

"Are you a judge of character?" she asked.

He shook his head.

"Scarcely. I have not had enough experience. It is a fascinating study."

"Very. Now I want to ask you something. What do you think of Lord Arranmore?"

Her tone betokened unusual seriousness. His light answer died away on his lips.

"It is very hard for me to answer that question," he said. "Lord Arranmore has been most unnecessarily kind to me."

"His character?"

"I do not pretend to be able to understand it. I think that he is often wilfully misleading. He does not wish to be understood. He delights in paradoxy and moral gymnastics."

"He may blind your judgment. How do you personally feel towards him?"

"That," he answered, "might be misleading. He has shown me so much kindness. Yet I think--I am sure--that I liked him from the first moment I saw him."

She nodded.

"I like him too. I cannot help it. Yet one can be with him, can live in the same house for weeks, even months, and remain an utter stranger to him. He has self-repression which is marvellous--never at fault--never a joint loose. One wonders so much what lies beyond. One would like to know."

"Is it wise?" he asked. "After all, is it our concern?

"Not ours. But if you were a woman would you be content to take him on trust?"

"It would depend upon my own feelings," he answered, hesitatingly.

"Whether you cared for him?"

"Yes!"

She beat the floor with her foot.

"You are wrong," she said, "I am sure that you are wrong. To care for one is to wish ever to believe the best of them. It is better to keep apart for ever than to run any risks. Supposing that unknown past was of evil, and one discovered it. To care for him would only make the suffering keener."

"It may be so," he admitted. "May I ask you something?"

"Well?"

"You speak--of yourself?"

Her eyes met his, and he looked hastily downwards.

"Absurd," she murmured, and inclined her head towards the billiard-table. "They have been--attached to one another always. Come over here to the window, and I will tell you something."

They walked towards the great circular window which overlooked the drive. As they stood there together a four-wheeled cab drove slowly by, and a girl leaned forward and looked at them. Brooks started as he recognized her.

"Why, that must be some one for me," he exclaimed, in a puzzled tone. "Whatever can have happened to old Bullsom?"

She looked at him politely bewildered.

"It is the niece of a man whom I know very well in Medchester," he exclaimed. "Something must have happened to her uncle. It is most extraordinary."

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