His first thought was, curiously, of the story he had heard of the man who had left London to escape the plague and had found it waiting for him at Highbury. He bowed to the ground.

“Madam,” he said, “I have never before been so honoured. My poor rooms—— But is this visit in accordance with the well-known discretion of Mrs. Abington?”

“’Tis a great risk I run, sir,” she cried, with a delightful uplifting of two shapely arms and an expression of fear such as one assumes in order to make a child laugh,—“oh yes, a terrible risk!—but I am adventurous.”

“And your example is stimulating to the timid, madam; that is why I beg of you to be seated. Pray Heaven that that fiery young Mr. Sheridan be not in the neighbourhood. Still, for five minutes of Mrs. Abington’s wit a more timid man than myself would run the chance of a duel with Colonel Thornton himself.”

This was scarcely the style of the conversation which he hoped to have with the lady when he had been on his way to her lodgings; but one does not adopt the same style with a person to whom one is about to make an appeal, as one adopts with a person who is about to be an appellant; and he felt sure that Mrs. Abington had come to him in this character.

“Dear sir, I protest that you overwhelm me with your compliments,” she cried. “The younger generation have much to learn in courtesy from the one to which you and I belong, sir.”

“Madam,” he said, “you prove the contrary when you couple me with yourself. What are all the compliments which my poor ingenuity could discover compared with that ‘you and I’ which has just come from your lips?”

“Nay, but I can prove that we belong to the same generation, sir; for are not you marrying a lady of the same age as the gentleman who is to be my husband?” she cried, with an exquisite assumption of archness.

“Against such profundity of logic ’twere vain to contend, Mrs. Abington,” he said. “I yield to it, more especially as you prove what I have spent my years trying to prove to myself. Alas, madam! is it not sad that old age should come down upon a man before he has succeeded in convincing himself that he is still young?”

“Mr. Long,” said the lady, “I couple myself with you for our mutual protection.”

“I acknowledge the honour, madam, but appreciate the danger,” said he.

“Let me explain myself, sir.”

“To explain yourself, Mrs. Abington, were to supply a key to the most charming riddle of the century. Let me paraphrase Mr. Dryden:

‘A dame so charming that she seem’d to be
Not one, but womankind’s epitome.’”

“That is the wittiest turning of satire into comedy I have ever known,” she cried. “And it makes my explanation easy. Mr. Long, I desire to be your best friend; and when a woman professes a wish to be a man’s best friend, you may be sure that she wants him to stand in that relationship to her. But you gathered, I know, that I was thinking at least as much of myself as of you when I made you that offer.”

“I give you credit for thinking most of the one worthiest of your thoughts, Mrs. Abington,” said he.

She took a step nearer to him.

“Mr. Long,” she said in a lower tone, “these young people are very well, and they make delightful companions for us, but they cannot always be depended on.”

“You mean that——”

“I mean that Dick Sheridan and Betsy Linley were once in love with each other, and that they fancy they love each other still.”

“That means that they are to be depended on, does it not?”

“They may be depended on to lose no opportunity of making fools of themselves if we allow them, Mr. Long.”

“Does that mean that they may be trusted to marry, the one you, t’other me?”

“It means that you would do well to keep an eye on Elizabeth Linley, or you will lose her, sir.”

“What is this?”

“’Tis the truth, Mr. Long. Only to-day there came to my ears the whisper of preparations for an abduction having your Miss Linley for its object—the hiring of relays of horses along the London road, and so forth. My woman, an honest creature, gave me the hint; she had the news in confidence.”

“And in confidence transferred it to you, no doubt.”

“I am not the woman to credit every rumour that the gossips of Bath set in circulation; but this special rumour was so circumstantial that——”

“Ah, if ’twas circumstantial its falsity is assured,” cried Mr. Long. “Dear madam, can you really believe that Dick Sheridan would make the attempt to run away with Miss Linley when he is still under an engagement to marry you?”

“Psha, sir!” she cried, “I know but too well that his heart is still with Miss Linley. Would my gentleman be so ready to answer my beck and call—would he be so desperately punctilious in his discharge of all the duties of lovership in respect to me, if he were not in love with Miss Linley? Mr. Long, the husband who is punctilious in his treatment of his wife is, you may be sure, not in love with her, and the lover who—— Ah, sir! I have had my experiences, Heaven help me! and I am now in the position of the doctor who knows the condition of a patient the moment he looks into his face. Sir, I have had my finger on Dick Sheridan’s pulse, so to speak, for the past week, and though he has tried hard to deceive me into the belief that he loves me, he has not succeeded. I have seen through his attentions—his constant show of devotion. O sir, I am a miserable woman! But I cannot lose him—I swear to you that I shall not lose him! And you—would you be content to lose her—to lose Elizabeth Linley?”

“I would be content to lose her if I were sure that she did not love me,” said Mr. Long.

“What? what? Ah, you do not love her!” she cried contemptuously.

“I love her so well as to have implicit confidence in her,” said he. “There will be no running away so far as Miss Linley is concerned—rest assured of that, my dear madam, and take my word for it, Dick Sheridan is too honourable to entertain such a design.”

“Ah, honourable! what does honour mean to a man when he is in love—ay, or to a woman either?” she cried.

“You are proving one of your contentions by entertaining such suspicions,” said he.

“They are well founded. Ah, when I think that he loved her so well as to give up his life only for the sake of saving her from the pang of seeing her brother made a fool of, I have a right to my suspicions. He will never love me like that. When I think of it all, I feel tempted—sometimes; the fit soon passes away, thank Heaven!—I feel tempted to let him go to her—to let him be happy with her: she would not let you stand in the way of her own happiness, you may be sure, though she has promised to marry you.”

“If you loved Dick Sheridan truly, madam, you would not stand between him and happiness,” said Mr. Long.

“And if you loved Miss Linley truly, you would not stand between her and happiness,” responded the actress, turning suddenly upon him with the stage instinct of making an effective retort.

“Nor shall I,” he cried. “Come, Mrs. Abington, let us make a compact for their happiness. I will release Miss Linley if you will do the same for Dick Sheridan.”

“No—no—no!” Her voice had almost become a shriek, and it went through the room without the interval of a second. Her head was craned forward; her hands were clenched; her eyes were half closed.

So she remained for a long time after that shriek had come from her. Then she drew a long breath. She kept her eyes fixed keenly upon his face. She went back from him slowly, step by step.

Suddenly she made a quick movement toward him with her right hand outstretched, as if about to clench a compact. But when his hand went out to hers, she snatched her own back with a cry.

“No, no, I cannot do it—I cannot do it! I cannot give him up. I have made him mine—mine he shall remain. You shall tempt me no further.”

“He never was yours—he never shall be yours! You know it, woman, you know it! That is the thought which is in your heart just now, and that is the thought which makes your life a curse to you. Never yours—never yours! By your side, but never yours—never yours!”

With a cry she covered her face with one hand, the other was on the handle of the door. She staggered out.

“Did ever man utter words of such cruelty?” said Mr. Long when he heard the hall door close. “Poor creature! poor creature! And I trod on her—I crushed her. God forgive me! God forgive me!”

An hour later Mrs. Abington, shining out amid her jewels as a rose is resplendent amid the diamonds of a spendthrift morning, welcomed the arrival of Dick Sheridan with smiles and a gracious white hand for him to kiss. He kissed the hand, and noticed that the lady was wearing a gown which he had never before seen—something roseate and misty—the waves of dawn, out of which the goddess Aphrodite was in the act of rising; he saw her before him, and said so; he called her the Cyprian: she had been called that so often that she understood quite well what he meant.

“You have come in good time, my dear!” she cried. “If you had not come early I would have gone to you.”

“I got your note only a quarter of an hour ago,” said he.

“’Twas only writ half an hour ago,” she said, “and the express from Mr. Colman arrived within the hour. Dear Dick, we must fly to London post haste in the morning. They can do without me no longer. Mr. Colman implores of me to come. Ruin stares him in the face. I must have some pity for him.”

“The humblest thing that crawls—even the manager of a theatre—claims one’s compassion now and again,” said Dick. “Will you set out in the morning?”

“At daybreak. You can pack your trunk before you sleep to-night, and the chaise will pick it up and you astride of it when we start.”

“Heavens, my dear madam! I heard nothing about my departure! Mr. Colman does not venture to say that ruin stares him in the face if I remain in Bath.”

“Nay, he does not go so far. ’Tis only I who claim you. I shall need your escort, Dick, and I shall make arrangements for your remaining in London—some simple arrangements, Dick.”

“The simpler they are the more difficult it is for me to accept them. I do not think it would be wise for me to be your escort to London and in London, enviable though the duty would be.”

She started into a sitting posture. She had been reclining on her tiny sofa.

“What is’t you mean, sir?” she cried. “Surely if I find no fault with the arrangement you need not do so. Scandal? Psha! My name has been associated with more than one scandal in my time, and yet I do not think that I am greatly the worse for it to-day.”

“No,” he said, “but you may be to-morrow. My dear sweet creature, I perceive at once how much depends on our discretion just now; and if I were, in the absence of my father in Dublin, to desert my sisters and the household, people would call me a wretch, and they would be right, too.”

“People would call you a wretch—a wretch and—a poltroon—a—a curmudgeon, and they would be right, too, were you to stay in Bath when I—I—ask your protection on my journey to London,” she cried.

He was silent. He did not even shake his head. He saw her diamonds flashing ominously. Theirs was a summer lightning, denoting a storm taking place out of sight—a storm that might rise over the horizon at any moment. He became conscious of a highly charged atmosphere. A flash or two came from her eyes.

“Why do you stand there dumb?” she said. “Do you not think me worthy of a word, Dick?”

“Dear lady, you are worthy only of words that will give you pleasure; that is why I am silent now,” he said.

“You have but to say one word to give me the greatest pleasure that I look for in this world, and I know that you will say it, Dick—my Dick.”

“Alas—alas!” he said.

“That is not the word, Dick; you know that that is not the word I want you to speak.”

“That is the word which we should both say, my dear, if I were even to breathe the word which you ask of me. Oh, you must surely see that it would be impossible for me to forsake all that my father has entrusted me with. My sisters are young. What sort of brother should I be were I to leave them alone at a moment’s notice? No, no! you will not ask me to do it; you have always shown yourself to be full of sensibility. You would hate me if I were to desert my sisters at such a time as this.”

She looked at him straight in the eyes for a long time—it was a searching, suspicious gaze. Then she gave a laugh—a scornful, suspicious laugh. Her scorn was not intolerable; it was tempered by the half-amused smile that flashed about the corners of her lips.

“It must be pleasant to have so strong a sense of duty, Dick,” she said,—“yes, very pleasant, when your duty and your inclination go hand in hand; nay, perhaps their relationship is closer still. Inclination puts an arm round the waist of duty, and so they go dancing down the green mead—Oberon and Titania—only without a chance quarrel. But it appears to me that if Betsy Linley were not in Bath your duty to your sisters would somewhat relax. Listen to me, Dick. You are not so near a holiday as you have been led to believe, for, by the Lord Harry, if you refuse to come with me to London I shall remain at Bath, if only to frustrate your plans. Ay, sir, I know more about your plans than you may perhaps think.”

“If you know anything of them whatsoever, your knowledge is wider than mine,” said he.

“Oh, go away—take yourself off. I am beginning to tire of you, Dick Sheridan,” she said, leaning back in an attitude of negligent ennui between the sympathetic arms of her sofa.

“I do not need to be told to go a second time, madam,” said Dick.

But before he reached the door the capricious creature had sprung from her seat and flashed beside him.

“Dick, my Dick, I am a fool—oh, such a fool!” she cried. “But the truth is that I am too fond of you, my beloved boy! Now, don’t go, Dick—or go if you please to go—you may do what you please; I will not think anything of it. Oh, if you could only give me a little of your love! Must she have all—all—all?”

“Do not be foolish, my dear,” said he. “And you know as well as I do that ’tis foolish to be jealous. Ah, you know that I am true to you. I need not protest to you of my truth.”

She looked at him steadfastly once more; and now there was no scorn in her look—only a nervous anxiety.

“I think,” said she, “that you are true to me, and that you detest yourself on that account; because to be true to me involves your being false to Betsy Linley. Oh, this constancy according to compact is no virtue. Honesty is no virtue on the part of a man who is cast on a desert island. But you will come with me to-morrow, Dick—my Dick?”

“Indeed, it is impossible,” he replied. “I will leave you now. Think over the matter till to-morrow, and you will agree with me, I am convinced.”

With an exclamation of impatience she went back to her sofa, wheeled it suddenly round, and then seated herself in it with her back turned to him.

He went behind her with a laugh.

“Good-bye, you beautiful, petulant, typical woman,” he said. “Good-bye, I will come to you to-morrow, when I am sure you will be polite enough to turn your face to me.”

She gave a pout and a shrug and picked up the newspaper which she had been pretending to read at his entrance. She pretended to read it again.

He responded with another laugh of good-humour, not of derision, and went to the door.

He shouted another “Good-bye!”

She made no answer. But when he had left the house she tore her newspaper to shreds and snowed them on the carpet at her feet. Then she put her face down to the pillow and wept, but only for a few minutes. She was on her feet again and tugging at the bell-pull.

Her maid was at her side before the bell had ceased to sound.

“Are you sure that ’twas the evening of to-day that was named for the rendezvous you told me of, Williams?” she asked.

“There is no mistake, madam,” replied the woman. “If it were mere gossip, I should never have mentioned it. Lud! if one gave attention to all the gossip that one hears! But this is the truth. The chaise is to wait on the London road, and the young lady is to be brought to it in a chair at nine o’clock. ’Twill then be rather more than dusk.”

“Good!” said Mrs. Abington. “You got the hint from your cousin—I think you said he was your cousin—who is confidential servant to Allen, the postmaster?”

"You will accompany me to the rendezvous"

“You will accompany me to the rendezvous on the London road to-night, Williams.”

[page 349 .

“Yes, madam—cousin on my mother’s side. My mother married for the second time into the Cookson family, and they thought a good deal of themselves, through Cookson having been butler to a vicar; but they really wasn’t so much after all——”

“You will accompany me to the rendezvous on the London road to-night, Williams. You will hire a fly, and when we get within sight of the coach, the fly shall turn down one of the lanes, so as to excite no suspicion. We shall get out and conceal ourselves among the bushes at the roadside until the chair with my lady is brought up. I think that we shall probably surprise them, Williams.”

The maid simpered.

“And I shall wear the travelling-cloak that is quilted with the pink satin. The chaise lamps will doubtless be lighted, and I have no desire to look like a guy.”

“I vow ’twill be quite an adventure, madam!” said the woman, simpering very agreeably.

“You will see that nothing miscarries, my good Williams,” said the actress. “The most romantic adventures have been known to break down before now through so foolish a thing as a lame horse.”

“You may trust to me, madam,” said the maid.

When she was alone, Mrs. Abington stood in the centre of the room, with a smile that was not a smile on her face.

“A compact—a compact!” she muttered. “He fancied that I should be blinded by his fidelity. Oh, his fidelity was touching—ay, up to that last cheery ‘good-bye’ that he said at that door before going home to complete the packing of his trunk. By the lud! if ’twere not for the humiliation, I could e’en bring myself to let the pair of them run away together and make fools of themselves. But I will show them that I am not one to be hoodwinked.”

It was barely half-past nine that night when a fly dashed up to the door of the Sheridans’ house, and a lady wearing a travelling-cloak lined with quilted pink satin sprang to the ground and battered at the door of the house. She met Dick Sheridan in the hall.

“Dick—Dick,” she gasped, “a dreadful thing has happened! O Dick, he has got her in his power now—Mathews—a plot—a vile plot to abduct her! He is on his way to London with her now in a chaise with four horses.”

“Woman, what do you mean? Good God! Mathews—Betsy—is it Betsy, you mean?” cried Dick.

“Yes—yes—Betsy! Oh, why do you wait here like a fool? Why are you not on your way after them? Follow them, Dick!—follow them and save her for yourself. She is yours, Dick. I never was yours! Ah, man, why do you stand there? Oh, I am dead!”

She dropped into a chair, gasping.

Dick caught her hand, and when he found that it was warm he kissed it.

She laughed, and her laugh continued long after he had rushed out of the house; it went on and on, and the two Sheridan girls stood by listening in horror to that laugh.

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