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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Lighted Way - Chapter 20. Woman's Wiles
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The Lighted Way - Chapter 20. Woman's Wiles Post by :markbc Category :Long Stories Author :E. Phillips Oppenheim Date :May 2012 Read :1554

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The Lighted Way - Chapter 20. Woman's Wiles

CHAPTER XX. WOMAN'S WILES

Arnold sprang to his feet. It was significant that, after his first surprise, he spoke to Fenella with his head half turned towards his companion, and an encouraging smile upon his lips.

"I had no idea that we were coming here," he said. "We should not have thought of intruding. It was your chauffeur who would not even allow us to ask a question."

"He obeyed my orders," Fenella replied. "I meant it for a little surprise for you. I thought that it would be pleasant after your drive to have you call here and rest for a short time. You must present me to your friend."

Arnold murmured a word of introduction. Ruth moved a little in her seat. She lifted herself with her left hand, leaning upon her stick. Fenella's expression changed as though by magic. Her cool, good-humored, but almost impertinent scrutiny suddenly vanished. She moved to the side of the motor car and held out both her hands.

"I am so glad to see you here," she declared. "I hope that you will like some tea after your long ride. Perhaps you would prefer Mr. Chetwode to help you out?"

"You are very kind," Ruth murmured. "I am sorry to be such a trouble to everybody."

Arnold lifted her bodily out of the car and placed her on the edge of the lawn. Fenella, a long parasol in her hand, was looking pleasantly down at her guest.

"You will find it quite picturesque here, I think," she said. "It is not really the river itself which comes to the end of the lawn, but a little stream. It is so pretty, though, and so quiet. I thought you would like to have tea down there. But, my poor child," she exclaimed, "your hair is full of dust! You must come to my room. It is on the ground floor here. Mr. Chetwode and I together can help you so far."

They turned back toward the house and passed into the cool white hall, the air of which was fragrant with the perfume of geraniums and clematis. On the threshold of Fenella's room they were alone for a moment. Fenella was summoning her maid. Ruth clung nervously to Arnold. The room into which they looked was like a fairy chamber, full of laces and perfume and fine linen.

"Arnold," she whispered, "you are sure that you did not know about coming here?"

"I swear that I had no idea," he answered. "I would not have thought of bringing you without telling you first."

Then Fenella returned and he was banished into the garden. At the end of the lawn he found Mr. Weatherley, half asleep in a wicker chair. The latter was apparently maintaining his good spirits.

"Glad to see you, Chetwode," he said. "Sort of plot of my wife's, I think. Your young lady friend in the house?"

"Mrs. Weatherley was kind enough to take her to her room," Arnold replied. "We have had a most delightful ride, and I suppose it was dusty, although we never noticed it."

Mr. Weatherley relit his cigar, which had gone out while he dozed.

"Thought we'd like a little country air ourselves for the week-end," he remarked. "Will you smoke?"

Arnold shook his head.

"Not just now, thank you, sir. Is that the river through the trees there?"

Mr. Weatherley nodded.

"It's about a hundred yards down the stream," he replied. "Bourne End is the nearest station. The cottage belongs to my brother-in-law--Sabatini. I believe he's coming down later on. Any news at the office yesterday morning?"

"There was nothing whatever requiring your attention, sir," Arnold said. "There are a few letters which we have kept over for to-morrow, but nothing of importance."

Mr. Weatherley pursed his lips and nodded. He asked a further question or two concerning the business and then turned his head at the sound of approaching footsteps. Ruth, looking very pale and fragile, was leaning on the arm of a man-servant. Fenella walked on the other side, her lace parasol drooping over her shoulder, her head turned towards Ruth's, whose shyness she was doing her best to melt. Mr. Weatherley rose hastily from his chair.

"God bless my soul!" he declared. "I didn't know--you didn't tell me--"

"Miss Lalonde has been a great sufferer," Arnold said. "She has been obliged to spend a good deal of her time lying down. For that reason, to-day has been such a pleasure to her."

He hurried forward and took the butler's place. Together they installed her in the most comfortable chair. Mr. Weatherley came over and shook hands with her.

"Pretty place, this, Miss Lalonde, isn't it?" he remarked. "It's a real nice change for business men like Mr. Chetwode and myself to get down here for an hour or two's quiet."

"It is wonderfully beautiful," she answered. "It is so long since I was out of London that perhaps I appreciate it more, even, than either of you."

"What part of London do you live in?" Fenella asked her.

"My uncle and I have rooms in the same house as Mr. Chetwode," she replied. "It is in Adam Street, off the Strand."

"Not much air there this hot weather, I don't suppose," Mr. Weatherley remarked.

"We are on the top floor," she replied, "and it is the end house, nearest to the river. Still, one feels the change here."

Tea was brought out by the butler, assisted by a trim parlor-maid. Fenella presided. The note of domesticity which her action involved seemed to Arnold, for some reason or other, quaintly incongruous. Arnold waited upon them, and Fenella talked all the time to the pale, silent girl at her side. Gradually Ruth overcame her shyness; it was impossible not to feel grateful to this beautiful, gracious woman who tried so hard to make her feel at her ease. The time slipped by pleasantly enough. Then Fenella rose to her feet.

"You must carry Miss Lalonde and her chair down to the very edge of the lawn, where she can see the river," she told Arnold. "Afterwards, I am going to take you to see my little rose garden. I say mine, but it is really my brother's, only it was my idea when he first took the place. Mr. Weatherley is going down to the boat-builder's to see some motor-launches--horrible things they are, but necessary if we stay here for the summer. Would you like some books or magazines, Miss Lalonde, or do you think you would care to come with us if we helped you very carefully?"

Ruth shook her head.

"I should like to sit quite close to the river," she said shyly, "just where you said, and close my eyes. You don't know how beautiful it is to get the roar of London out of one's ears, and be able to hear nothing except these soft, summer sounds. It is like a wonderful rest."

They arranged her comfortably. Mr. Weatherley returned to the house. Fenella led the way through a little iron gate to a queer miniature garden, a lawn brilliant with flower-beds, ending in a pergola of roses. They passed underneath it and all around them the soft, drooping blossoms filled the whole air with fragrance. At the end was the river and a wooden seat. She motioned to him to sit by her side.

"You are not angry with me?" she asked, a little timidly.

"Angry? Why should I be?" he answered. "The afternoon has been delightful. I can't tell you how grateful I feel."

"All the same," she said, "I think you know that I laid a plot to bring you here because I was curious about this companion of yours, for whose sake you refused my invitation. However, you see I am penitent. Poor girl, how can one help feeling sorry for her! You forgive me?"

"I forgive you," he answered.

She closed her parasol and leaned back in her corner of the seat. She seemed to be studying his expression.

"There is something different about you this afternoon," she said. "I miss a look from your face, something in your tone when you are talking to me."

He shook his head.

"I am not conscious of any difference."

She laughed softly, but she seemed, even then, a little annoyed.

"You are not appreciating me," she declared. "Do you know that here, in the wilderness, I have put on a Paquin muslin gown, white shoes from Paris, white silk stockings--of which you can see at least two inches," she added, glancing downwards. "I have risked my complexion by wearing no hat, so that you can see my hair really at its best. I looked in the glass before you came and even my vanity was satisfied. Now I bring you away with me and find you a seat in a bower of roses, and you look up into that elm tree as though you were more anxious to find out where the thrush was singing than to look at me."

He laughed. Through the raillery of her words he could detect a certain half-girlish earnestness which seemed to him delightful.

"Try and remember," he said, "how wonderful a day like this must seem to any one like myself, who has spent day after day for many months in Tooley Street. I have been sitting up on the hills, listening to the wind in the trees. You can't imagine the difference when you've been used to hearing nothing but the rumble of drays on their way to Bermondsey."

She looked up at him.

"You know," she declared, "you are rather a mysterious person. I cannot make up my mind that you are forced to live the life you do."

"You do not suppose," he replied, "that any sane person would choose it? It is well enough now, thanks to you," he added, dropping his voice a little. "A week ago, I was earning twenty-eight shillings a week, checking invoices and copying letters--an errand boy's work; pure, unadulterated drudgery, working in a wretched atmosphere, without much hope of advancement or anything else."

"But even then you leave part of my question unanswered," she insisted. "You were not born to this sort of thing?"

"I was not," he admitted; "but what does it matter?"

"You don't care to tell me your history?" she asked lazily. "Sometimes I am curious about it."

"If I refuse," he answered, "it may give you a false impression. I will tell you a little, if I may. A few sentences will be enough."

"I should really like to hear," she told him.

"Very well, then," he replied. "My father was a clergyman, his family was good. He and I lived almost alone. He had an income and his stipend, but he was ambitious for me, and, by some means or other, while I was away he was led to invest all his money with one of these wretched bucket-shop companies. A telegram fetched me home unexpectedly just as I was entering for my degree. I found my father seriously ill and almost broken-hearted. I stayed with him, and in a fortnight he died. There was just enough--barely enough--to pay what he owed, and nothing left of his small fortune. His brother, my uncle, came down to the funeral, and I regret to say that even then I quarreled with him. He made use of language concerning my father and his folly which I could not tolerate. My father was very simple and very credulous and very honorable. He was just the sort of man who becomes the prey of these wretched circular-mongering sharks. What he did, he did for my sake. My uncle spoke of him with contempt, spoke as though he were charged with the care of me through my father's foolishness. I am afraid I made no allowance for my uncle's peculiar temperament. The moment the funeral was over, I turned him out of the house. I have no other relatives. I came to London sooner than remain down in the country and be found a position out of charity, which is, I suppose, what would have happened. I took a room and looked for work. Naturally, I was glad to get anything. I used to make about forty calls a day, till I called at your husband's office in Tooley Street and got a situation."

She nodded.

"I thought it was something like that," she remarked. "Supposing I had not happened to discover you, I wonder how long you would have gone on?"

"Not much longer," he admitted. "To tell you the truth, I should have enlisted but for that poor little girl whom I brought down with me this afternoon."

His tone had softened. There was the slightest trace of a frown upon her face as she looked along the riverside.

"But tell me," she asked, "what is your connection with her?"

"One of sympathy and friendliness only," he answered. "I never saw her till I took the cheapest room I could find at the top of a gaunt house near the Strand. The rest of the top floor is occupied by this girl and her uncle. He is a socialist agitator, engaged on one of the trades' union papers,--a nervous, unbalanced creature, on fire with strange ideas,--the worst companion in the world for any one. Sometimes he is away for days together. Sometimes, when he is at home, he talks like a prophet, half mad, half inspired, as though he were tugging at the pillars which support the world. The girl and he are alone as I am alone, and there is something which brings people very close together when they are in that state. I found her fallen upon the landing one day and unable to reach her rooms, and I carried her in and talked. Since then she looks for me every evening, and we spend some part of the time together."

"Is she educated?"

"Excellently," he answered. "She was brought up in a convent after her parents' death. She has read a marvellous collection of books, and she is very quick-witted and appreciative."

"But you," she said, "are no longer a waif. These things are passing for you. You cannot carry with you to the new world the things which belong to the old."

"No prosperity should ever come to me," he declared, firmly, "in which that child would not share to some extent. With the first two hundred pounds I possess, if ever I do possess such a sum," he added, with a little laugh, "I am going to send her to Vienna, to the great hospital there."

She shrugged her shoulders.

"Two hundred pounds is not a large sum," she remarked. "Would you like me to lend it to you?"

He shook his head.

"She would not hear of it," he said. "In her way, she is very proud."

"It may come of its own accord," she whispered, softly. "You may even have an opportunity of earning it."

"I am doing well enough just now," he remarked, "thanks to Mr. Weatherley, but sums of money like that do not fall from the clouds."

They were both silent. She seemed to be listening to the murmur of the stream. His head was lifted to the elm tree, from somewhere among whose leafy recesses a bird was singing.

"One never knows," she said softly. "You yourself have seen and heard of strange things happening within the last few days."

He came back to earth with a little start.

"It is true," he confessed.

"There is life still," she continued, "throbbing sometimes in the dull places, adventures which need only the strong arm and the man's courage. One might come to you, and adventures do not go unrewarded."

"You talk like your brother," he remarked.

"Why not?" she replied. "Andrea and I have much in common. Do you know that sometimes you provoke me a little?"

"I?"

She nodded.

"You have so much the air of a conqueror," she said. "You look as though you had courage and determination. One could see that by your mouth. And yet you are so much like the men of your nation, so stolid, so certain to move along the narrow lines which convention has drawn for you. Oh! if I could," she went on, leaning towards him and looking intently into his face, "I would borrow the magic from somewhere and mix a little in your wine, so that you should drink and feel the desire for new things; so that the world of Tooley Street should seem to you as though it belonged to a place inhabited only by inferior beings; so that you should feel new blood in your veins, hot blood crying for adventures, a new heart beating to a new music. I would like, if I could, Arnold, to bring those things into your life."

He turned and looked at her. Her face was within a few inches of his. She was in earnest. The gleam in her eyes was half-provocative, half a challenge. Arnold rose uneasily to his feet.

"I must go back," he said, a little thickly. "I forgot that Ruth is so shy. She will be frightened alone."

He walked away down the pergola without even waiting for her. It was very rude, but she only leaned back in her chair and laughed. In a way, it was a triumph!

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