MRS. NETTLETON, being of a cheerful disposition, limited her case against life to a mild complaint that it was not as amusing as it might be; it was not a tragedy to her but a comedy; only the comedy was apt to flag. Even this murmur she uttered shamefacedly, since she was aware that she herself had rather handicapped life by marrying Mr. Nettleton. Yet, though Mr. Nettleton had been dead now three years, life had not improved much. It was still a little dull, and she, of course, still very sorry for her husband, although slightly resentful that everybody should consider her grief as no more than proper. Since she was young, pretty and merry, she felt sometimes that her grief was creditable, and not merely proper. There was something annoying in the way in which her relatives, both by blood and affinity, acquiesced in a lifelong mourning for her while they were doing their best to enjoy themselves very handsomely. True, they were not widows, but even in India, (Mrs. Nettleton understood) suttee was abolished.
Her brother-in-law Fred was an exception. To him she was indebted for such gaiety as fell to her lot, and for her occasional escapes from an atmosphere too reminiscent of Mr. Nettleton. Fred had been very fond of his brother, but took leave to think that the excellent man, who had striven to promote his wife's pleasure while he lived, would not grudge her a little recreation after his death. He did not agree with the idea that by dying we acquire, or indeed should be indulged in, a posthumous habit of reproachful selfishness. At this time he had expressed his opinion so forcibly as to extort from his mother, with whom Marcia and he had been staying in the country, the concession that there was nothing very shocking in two or three days' bicycle excursion; he and Marcia would look after one another very well; the country was distant and retired; two days out and two days back would be a charming trip for Marcia. Mrs. Nettleton senior yielded with some doubts and reluctance. The pair set forth in high spirits, having arranged means whereby their luggage should meet them at their nightly stopping-places. Their only fear was lest the luggage should fail them; that they themselves should be defaulters had not come into their heads.
Such an occurrence had, however, suggested itself to Fate. On the evening of the second day, about eight o'clock, when rain was falling heavily, the roads turning to bogs, and they still, as they believed, ten or twelve miles from their destination, a complication of misfortunes overtook Fred's bicycle. Suddenly it appeared to do and suffer everything which bicycles should not. The result was that Fred was thrown into a ditch, and the machine itself settled down on the road in pathetic and obvious helplessness. Marcia, having surveyed it for a moment, felt inclined to cry; she was so wet.
"You must take mine," she said with a shiver. "Ride on to the inn and send a carriage for me. It'll only take about—about two hours." She endeavoured by her tone to impart an unreal shortness to this space of time.
"You'd catch your death," said Fred in contemptuous affection. "You must ride on, and I'll follow with the beastly thing. The trap 'll meet me. The road's quite straight; you can't miss it. What? Look odd you arriving alone? All right—if you'd rather stay here all night."
Mrs. Nettleton decided to risk the impression which she might create by arriving unattended, listened carefully to more directions about the road, and left Fred trying to light his pipe from a box of sodden matches. As she ploughed off through the mud, it struck her that after all there was no unseemly riotousness of mirth about this expedition.
Now a road may seem very straight to persons intimately acquainted with it and yet appear to a stranger rich in possible and seductive alternatives. After about two miles this particular road branched into two. The road might be straight, but which was the road? So far as Marcia could see, an equal amount of divergence was involved in going either way. However, after long consideration, she made up her mind that she turned less aside by bearing to the left than by swerving to the right. Her opinion when formed became—as opinions will—at once a certainty; she could not suppose that anybody could be stupid enough to hold any other. She bore to the left; then she rode on for a great many miles, or so it seemed. It rained harder than ever; she dripped from head to foot; mud slushed about the reluctant wheels of her bicycle. She dismounted, deciding that it had been a mistake to force her mother-in-law into an approval of this mad jaunt.
"I could cry," she declared as she shook herself and felt the spray from her clothes flying round her.
In dogged obstinacy she began to walk up a long steep hill, dragging the bicycle with her. She seemed to get no nearer the top; the bicycle appeared to engage itself in a persistent effort to roll down to the bottom. She remembered with vain regret the days when she considered bicycling an unladylike pursuit. Prejudices are no doubt properly condemned, but they save many a disenchantment.
"Thank heaven," said Marcia, "there's a house! I don't suppose it's an inn, but if they're Christians they'll dry me and send something to pick up Fred."
The house to which she referred stood a little way back from the road. At the very first glance it had an air of comfort, of warmth, of a thing even more precious at the moment—absolute dryness. Marcia pushed on at a quicker pace and turned in through the gate. No dog barked inhospitably. She felt as though she would be welcome.
"After all," she reflected, "I'm rather a nice person to turn up out of the night like this!" But a revulsion of feeling followed quickly. "What a fright I must look! I hope there won't be a party."
Leaning her bicycle against the door-post, she rang the bell. The pause that followed plunged her into a nervous and apologetic condition; the conviction of frightfulness grew stronger; her fringe hung in damp strings, her skirt clung round her in an affectionate but unbecoming manner; she felt sure that her face was streaky. And it would undoubtedly look queer that she should arrive alone. These circumstances reduced her to a state of intense embarrassment, which was not lessened when the door opened and revealed a young and good-looking man in evening dress.
"Is your master at home?" she blurted out.
"For the time I am my own master," was the answer, given in smooth, polished and pleasant tones. "May I ask——?"
"Oh, I'm so sorry. I—I thought—oh, well, I mean, one of our bicycles has broken down and—I'm Mrs. Nettleton, you know, and I've lost my way; and Fred's somewhere back on the road, and—oh, dear, I'm so wet!"
The young man smiled very pleasantly.
"I understand perfectly," said he. "Believe me, I shall be delighted to assist you. You must come in and get dry."
"And you'll send for——?"
"I'll send for your husband as soon as I can."
Marcia smiled; it was very amusing that Fred should be taken for her husband, a boy like Fred! But she did not undeceive her host. Perhaps it was as well as it was. She would tell him later on, when Fred came. Meanwhile the little deception was rather fun.
"This is yours?" the young man asked, laying his hand on the bicycle. "I'd better bring it in, hadn't I?" He brought it into the hall, and after an examination of it looked up smiling as he observed, "This one seems right enough, Mrs.—er—Nettleton."
He seemed pleased to see her. Not surprise, which she had anticipated, not amusement, which she had dreaded, but simple gratification inspired the smile which lit up his handsome features as he ushered her into the hall. The house was delightfully warm and dry. Marcia sighed in contentment.
"It's so kind of you," she murmured gratefully, with a glance at his face.
"I'm delighted," said he. "The trap shall go and fetch. Mr. Nettleton as soon as possible." He smiled pleasantly, repeating, "as soon as possible." Then he added, "Meanwhile you must change your things."
"Oh, but I've got no luggage."
"That's all right,"he assured her. "There's everything you want here."
"He's married," Marcia decided in a satisfaction just vaguely touched with disappointment. Raiment was assured at the cost of romance. Well, the world is what it is, and Marcia was wet.
They passed into the dining-room. The table was spread, places for two being laid. The young man rang the bell. A maid-servant of mature years and most respectable aspect appeared. Marcia turned towards her rather defiantly; she was thinking of what the maid would certainly be thinking. But the maid looked merely deferential.
"Mrs. Nettleton will change in the blue room," said the young man; "and supper in half an hour."
"Yes, sir. Will you step this way, ma'am?" said the maid.
Marcia followed her, rather surprised that nothing was said about the mistress of the house. Supper was laid for two!
"Susan," called the young man.
"Mrs. Nettleton will select whatever she likes. I suppose everything is ready?"
"In the blue room, sir?"
"Oh, certainly, sir."
The young man laughed. Susan's face seemed to hint a protest, but she said nothing more. Marcia followed her with a renewed feeling of bewilderment. If there were a mistress of the house, where was she? If there were not——
"This is the room, ma'am," said Susan. "You'll find everything you want, I think."
Everything that anybody could want seemed to be in that most charming blue room. The fire burned bright, the toilet-table gleamed with silver brushes and the accompanying furniture; a beautiful tea-gown draped the sofa; a pair of silk stockings warmed on a screen by the fender. Marcia turned inquiring eyes on Susan; Susan was taking articles of clothing from a drawer, dry, clean, dainty articles, and disposing them on chairs.
"Will you take a bath, ma'am?" asked Susan.
Marcia resigned herself to the unexpected. There seemed a magical readiness for her; the fancy occurred to her that indiscreet questions might have some such effect as she had read of in fairy tales, that inquisitiveness would bring its penalty, the house, the blue room, the warm stockings, the bath vanish, and she be left again, dank and weary, on the muddy road.
"Yes, I should like a bath," said Marcia.
Was it all a dream? At least the tea-gown was a dream. So Marcia declared as she put it on and studied its effect in the pier-glass. It fitted her so well—a little tight perhaps, but what of that? Its red suited her dark hair admirably; really she had never looked better! And what a perfect maid Susan was! Who could question such a paragon?
"I do hope the carriage will find Mr. Nettleton," she said.
"Your husband, ma'am?"
Marcia hesitated for a moment, then she smiled at herself in the glass as she answered,
"Yes, Mr. Nettleton. My name's Nettleton."
"So I understood, ma'am," answered Susan.
Prudence and misgivings have little chance beside a consciousness of looking one's best. Marcia entered the dining-room with a bright smile. Her host shared her good spirits; he was laughing to himself as she came in. The soup was on the table. A man-servant entered and drew back a chair, inviting Marcia to seat herself. The young man sat opposite and helped the soup.
"Susan wishes to know, sir," said the man-servant, "whether she shall prepare the red room?"
The young man looked up.
"Yes, she'd better," said he.
"You're too kind," said Marcia. "But isn't there an inn to which we could go? We mustn't put you to all this trouble."
The young man laughed.
"Not within miles," said he. "Yes, Joseph, we'll have the red room ready—in case it's wanted, you know."
"I'll tell Susan, sir," said Joseph.
"Have you given the orders about the carriage?"
The young man turned to Marcia.
"Where do you think your husband is?" he asked.
"I—I don't know," she stammered—and truly enough, although there was no reason to take other than a hopeful view of the matter.
"Oh, but whereabouts?" he smiled. Marcia suddenly remembered the position, blushed very red, and cried hastily, in the hope that her confusion had unnoticed,
"Oh, you mean Fred! He's—he's——" She paused. Her host was regarding her with an inquisitive amusement. "He's where I left him," she added with great dignity.
"That's more than a wife can always say about her husband," remarked the young man. "Do you think you can describe the place for us?"
Marcia obeyed; Joseph listened, bowed and left the room.
"The carriage shall go and look for him as soon as possible," said the young man again. "Oh, and perhaps I might say that my name is Forester—Noel Forrester. I hope you found your room comfortable?"
"Delightful, Mr. Forrester. It really looked as if you expected someone."
"I'm of a sanguine disposition," he answered, smiling, "but fortune outruns even my hopes sometimes."
He was charming, that was certain; but it was equally certain that he was not communicative. Marcia wished she had not begun her silly joke about Fred. She shrank from owning to it now; it would sound so foolish.
Supper went on; food, wine and service were excellent. By the end of the meal, when Joseph brought coffee and finally withdrew, Marcia was in radiant spirits. She had forgotten poor Fred, still out in the rain; she had forgotten the rather unconventional nature of her visit; she had forgotten even the curious readiness of everything in the blue room. Undoubtedly Noel Forrester was charming; and she thought that she herself had been very agreeable.
"Marriage is a very pleasant condition," remarked Mr. Forrester suddenly.
"Oh—er—yes, very," murmured Marcia.
"Provided," he continued, "that perfect confidence reigns between husband and wife. I have always insisted on that—I mean I should always insist on it if the occasion arose. It's essential."
"Of course it's nice," said Marcia.
"I should from my wife," Forester went on. "I'm very easy going, but I do like to be trusted. Don't you, Mrs. Nettleton? But I'm sure your husband must trust you implicitly."
"He never says he doesn't," murmured Marcia, hiding a smile.
"I happen to object very much to being questioned," said Mr. Forrester. "My servants never question me; I don't allow my friends to question me. Most questions, Mrs. Nettleton, are either superfluous, or impertinent, or both. Have you observed that?"
"Yes, they are, most of them," said Marcia.
"So none are asked in this house. Let me put your cup down for you."
He rose, but by evil chance, as Marcia handed him her cup, she upset it in the saucer; a few drops fell on her gown. With a cry of dismay she began dabbing at the stuff with her handkerchief.
"I hope I haven't spoilt this lovely gown," she exclaimed. "Its owner would never forgive me."
"I assure you I should forgive you much worse things than that," smiled Mr. Forrester.
Marcia stared at him for a moment. He would not wear a red tea-gown. But—a question rose to her lips. She remembered his objections and paused. Besides, she did not wish to set going an exchange of questions; it might end in her own detection.
"A gown more or less is no great matter," said he, shrugging his shoulders.
"But this is such a lovely one."
"I hope it fits you?"
"It's a little—just a little—tight," she murmured.
"Ah, figures do differ," he remarked. "That's inevitable, you know."
Marcia's high spirits began to be dashed by a vague uneasiness; the distrust which had assailed her as she followed Susan to the blue room revived. It was nearly ten o'clock; surely Fred would make his appearance soon! The position became embarrassing to her. She had to admit that no such feeling was displayed by her host. He had obtained her permission to light a cigarette and was smoking composedly.
"How funny it would look if anybody found me here," she said, forcing a smile. "But of course nobody will come now." Her assertion masked a question; did he expect another guest?
"I don't know about that," observed Mr. Forrester smiling. "I didn't expect you, you know; but you came all the same. So somebody else might."
"I'm sure I hope nobody will."
"Except your husband?" he half asked, half reminded her.
"Oh, except Fred, of course," she agreed hastily.
His eyes dwelt reflectively on her face for a moment.
"Except Fred, I mean," he remarked with his pleasant smile. But Marcia, to her horror, felt herself blushing. Had he guessed her deception? And if he had—heavens, what might the man think or not think? At the cost of some humiliation she determined to confess her joke and put matters on a proper footing. She would look very silly, but that penalty must be faced.
"Mr. Forrester," she began timidly, "I—I think I ought to say——"
"Hark!" said Forrester, raising his hand. "I hear wheels——"
"Oh, it's Fred! How glad I am!" cried Marcia. "Do let me run and open the door for him." She rose to her feet. Her host followed her example and stood with his back to the fire.
"You can open the door if you wish it," said he, flicking off the ash of his cigarette. "But I'm afraid you'll be disappointed."
"I mean you won't find your husband. Oh, don't be distressed. The man will take a fresh horse and go in search of him at once. Ah, she's at the door." For the bell was rung briskly.
Marcia stared at him in a bewildered way.
"You see," he explained, "I haven't been able to send for Mr. Nettleton sooner, because my only trap had gone to the station. But never mind, we shall soon find him now—if he's where you left him, I mean."
"But—but—but who is it?"
"Who is who?" asked Noel Forrester.
"Who is it who's come?"
He had walked half-way towards the door. He paused to give his answer.
"I can't be sure, of course, without looking," said he. "But it ought to be Celeste. Excuse me a moment, Mrs. Nettleton." And with a courteous bow he went out, closing the door behind him.
Marcia sank into a chair gasping. Who was Celeste? What was she to think of Celeste? And, worse, what would Celeste think of her? With a flash of horror she jumped to the conclusion that the gown she wore was Celeste's.
After a few moments, employed by Marcia in a succession of desperate and futile resolves, Noel Forrester returned.
"It's all right," he announced cheerfully. "They'll be on your husband's tracks in no time now, Mrs. Nettleton. They'll find him, never fear. And I'm told there's a little inn quite near where you left him, so perhaps he'll have found his way there; I hope so, for it's a horrible night."
He sat down by the fire. Marcia, after a minute's hesitation, formulated her question.
"And—and your friend?"
"Oh, it was Celeste. She's just gone to get into a dry gown. She'll be down directly. I've sent up some soup and things for her."
"You've told her I'm here?"
Forrester gave a little start, and then an amused laugh.
"Upon my word," said he, "I forgot to mention it. But it's all right. I'll introduce you, Mrs. Nettleton. You'll like her, I'm sure. She's not a bit stiff or strait-laced."
"But she'll-she'll be so surprised," protested Marcia.
"Most pleasantly, I'm sure. You can explain to her yourself, can't you? Tell her about your husband, and so on."
He ended with another amiable smile, and again Marcia was conscious of hateful blushes.
"Ah, I think I hear her step," he went on.
"But what am I to call her?" she cried, springing up and catching his arm.
"To call her? Oh, to be sure! Of course! Oh, call her Forrester, Mrs. Nettleton." And with a merry laugh he opened the door.
On the threshold stood a very handsome girl, tall, fair and slender. At the first instant her lips wore an engaging smile; the next moment her eyes fell on Marcia; her face assumed an expression of intense surprise. She started back a step, then came forward, and entered the room with an air of mingled dignity and wonder. Noel Forester closed the door behind her and came towards where Marcia stood in an agony of embarrassment.
"This is Mrs. Nettleton, Celeste," said he.
"Mrs. Nettleton?" echoed Celeste in a sweet but rather supercilious tone. She looked first at Marcia, then at Noel. "Mrs. Nettleton?" she repeated with a stronger emphasis.
"Yes, Mrs. Nettleton," said Noel, poking the fire. Then he turned round and added, "By an unexpected but most fortunate chance Mrs. Nettleton has arrived the same evening as you, Celeste. Do sit down by the fire."
Celeste took no notice of this invitation, but stood in statuesque stillness by the table; her eyes were fixed on Marcia and seemed to search her face.
Marcia, forgetful of her own suspicions in the agony of being suspected, started the story of the strange events which had brought her to Mr. Forrester's door that evening. Celeste listened in silence, but to Marcia's dismay a look of undisguised incredulity spread over her handsome features as the tale proceeded. Once only she interrupted.
"The gentleman you speak of as Fred is your husband?" she asked coldly.
Marcia looked from her impassive face to the pleasant smile of Noel Forrester. There was a chance for the truth now; but would not the truth seem of all things most incredible to this icy girl? Marcia coloured, looked down, hesitated, presented every sign of severe confusion, but she dared not face Noel's smile and Celeste's unbelieving stiffness.
"Of course—my husband," she murmured in the end.
"I see," observed Celeste, and at last she moved, sitting down in an arm-chair and gazing into the fire. Marcia sank on a sofa by the wall. Noel Forrester stood between them, warming his back and looking from one to the other with much apparent amusement.
"I do hope he'll come soon," Marcia moaned.
"Oh, I hope so," said Noel with a laugh.
"I don't expect to see him just yet," observed Celeste in a tone of delicate irony.
The limit of Marcia's patience was reached. Guilty herself of the merest peccadillo, nay, of the merest pleasantry, she was being subjected to contemptuous and scornful treatment and to the most injurious suspicions by a lady concerning whom she began herself to have the gravest doubts. Ignoring her own vulnerability, she determined on an offensive movement.
"I haven't been formally introduced to you yet," she remarked to Celeste with a look as full of significance and distrust as that which the new-comer had directed at herself.
Her remark elicited only a scornful smile from Celeste. But Noel Forrester gave a very low whistle as he opened his case and took out another cigarette. Then he nodded slightly and in a rather confidential way at Marcia. "You've hit it there," he seemed to say. Marcia, although not at all comforted by his demeanour, stuck to her point and turned from Celeste to him. "Will you tell me what I am to call this lady?" she asked.
"I thought I told you to call her by my name," he said in a tone of bland surprise. "I meant to say that. By my name, please, Mrs. Nettleton."
Without more Marcia launched her bolt.
"But Miss Forrester or Mrs. Forrester?"
A pause followed. Marcia watched her companions closely. They glanced at one another, at first apparently in some little hesitation or confusion. Then to Marcia's dismay and wrath both burst at the same instant into loud and merry laughter. Marcia sprang to her feet, glaring at them. They laughed on for some seconds; the joke seemed to amuse them very much. At last Celeste controlled herself and gasped out in an exhausted tone,
"Oh, Mrs., please. We're all Mrs. to-night, Mrs, Nettleton." And then, with another glance at Noel, she went off into a renewed peal of mirth which ended as she jumped up and, looking at herself in the glass over the mantelpiece, cried triumphantly: "Don't I make a splendid Mrs. Forrester?"
Marcia sank back on her sofa in speechless horror. Who was the creature? Into what company had she come?
At this moment the door opened and Susan appeared. Marcia's fancy now cast a lurid light on Susan's fair-seeming respectability. A whited sepulchre, this Susan!
"What is it?" asked Noel. His tone was composed but his eyes still twinkled.
"The carriage has returned, sir. Mr. Nettleton had found his way to the inn."
"Ah, good! You must feel relieved, Mrs. Nettleton."
"Mr. Nettleton wishes to thank you for your great kindness to Mrs. Nettleton, sir, and, since you're so good, he'll remain at the inn to-night and call for Mrs. Nettleton early in the morning. He trusts, sir, that you've been put to no inconvenience."
"Inconvenience! On the contrary! That'll do, Susan. The ladies will ring when they want you." Susan withdrew. Noel turned to Marcia: "I'm afraid you must resign yourself to being sheltered by this roof until the morning," he said.
"I won't stay!" cried Marcia in fierce wrath at Fred's desertion of her. How like a lazy selfish boy to prefer the comfort of the inn to her safety and the plain dictates of propriety! Mr. Forrester's brow was wrinkled in perplexity.
"I don't see how you can go alone," he said. "It wouldn't be safe. And even if I had a fresh horse it would be positive cruelty to send the coachman out again; and—er—under the circumstances" (he glanced for an instant at Celeste) "it would be difficult for me to offer to escort you."
"Escort her! Impossible!" observed Celeste. "Would you leave me alone, Noel?"
Marcia was beaten. Much, as she loathed her present position she dared not face the solitary journey.
"If I must, I must!" she said rising with an obstinate look on her face.
"It's such a pleasure to me to offer you hospitality," Noel assured her. "There's plenty of room—only Celeste and me besides in the house. And we shan't be in your way."
"No," said Celeste with a smile.
"I'll go to my own room!" said Marcia haughtily.
"It's my room," observed Celeste in a meditative half-absent tone.
"Don't be inhospitable, my dear Celeste. I'm sure you'd make Mrs. Nettleton welcome to anything that is yours."
"Oh, well, with one exception," laughed Celeste, directing an arch glance towards Noel.
"You're really too charming!" he cried, and, bending, he took her hand and kissed it. But he seemed still to have an eye for Marcia amid his devotion to Celeste.
"Oh!" gasped Marcia, making for the door. But she was not quick enough to prevent Noel Forrester opening it for her and honouring her angry departure with a deferential bow. As the door closed behind her a gay shout of laughter from the abandoned creatures whom she left set the crown on her shame and anger. And they thought——! Horror on horror! They thought that she was as bad as themselves! She did not hear the remarks which followed immediately on her exit.
"Poor woman! It's really rather hard on her!" said Celeste.
"Oh, I don't know! And didn't she look pretty in her tantrum?" said Noel.
"I'd better not ask what she thinks of me."
"I certainly mean to find out her opinion of me, though."
"You old silly!" And then they kissed one another. Happy indeed were the eyes of Mrs. Nettleton in that they did not behold this thing.
Marcia did not enjoy her night in the blue room. Its luxury, its prettiness, the reckless disregard of expense which the furniture and appointments of it displayed, served now only to disgust her; gilded vice seemed to find here its highest and most complete exemplification. The red tea-gown, once her delight, had become an instrument of torture. She flung it from her with fierce relief. When she had got into bed she lay wakeful for a long time, tortured by apprehension and remorse. What might not happen in such a house? And why, oh, why had she given any excuse to the creatures by that silly falsehood about her husband? As she reflected she grew terribly ashamed of this little falsehood; it swelled to vast dimensions. She hoped most fervently that Fred would not discover it. To prevent that catastrophe she would be silent as to all the indignities which she had suffered, and would not exhort her brother-in-law to call Mr. Noel Forrester to a just account. Yet at last, worn out by these and other no less poignant self-reproaches, she found forgetfulness in sleep.
In the morning Susan brought her a most admirable breakfast; her own garments reappeared, dried, brushed and spruce. In spite of herself she begun to feel in better spirits; but this improvement was not to last. Susan dashed her to the ground again by announcing that Mr. Nettleton had arrived and was now at breakfast. When would Mrs. Nettleton be pleased to come downstairs?
"In a few moments," muttered Marcia, faced with the horrible necessity of meeting her brother-in-law and her host, both of whom must now know of her deception. But Celeste? She had a weapon in Celeste. If Noel Forrester assailed her she would strike back and strike home. She held her head high as she walked downstairs. In the hall the man-servant was busy polishing her bicycle. On the sight of her he desisted and hastened to open the dining-room door. She went in and glanced quickly round. Fred was eating kidneys with a hearty appetite. He laid down his knife and fork and greeted her with a "Hurrah!" Noel Forrester rose from the head of the table and bowed most politely. Celeste was not to be seen. Noel expressed a polite hope that Mrs. Nettleton (there was a shade of emphasis on the name) had slept well. The morning seemed somehow so different from the night before that she could do no more than murmur a conventional " Very, thank you." Yet she had meant to say something quite other than this.
"Really we're both most awfully obliged to you," said Fred to his host. "Not many fellows would have put themselves out as you did."
"I assure you I didn't put myself out at all," said Noel. "I only wish that I could have offered Mrs. Nettleton better entertainment."
Marcia sat down by the table.
"Have you breakfasted, Marcia?" asked Fred.
"Yes, thank you, upstairs," she answered.
"I can't think," said Fred, "why women like to breakfast upstairs. I hate it."
"I understood that Mrs. Nettleton preferred it," said Noel.
Marcia's answer was a slight inclination of her head. Her thoughts were busy with the question of Celeste.
"Well," said Fred, who was in high good humour and talkative, "all I can say is that if I ever marry I hope my wife won't like it."
The thing had come! Marcia dared not look up, dared meet neither Fred's eye nor Noel's. She gazed fixedly at the tablecloth, awaiting the exposure that must follow. Well, she would not be struck without striking back. What of Celeste?
"I confess," said Noel Forrester in a suave tone, "that I think it would be pleasant to see one's wife at the breakfast table."
Marcia raised her eyes in one swift glance. He was smiling and appeared unconscious of anything unusual. But, as her eyes met his, he gave her one significant look. Its meaning was plain; it proposed to her a partnership, a conspiracy of guilty silence, if he said nothing about her falsehood she was to say nothing of Celeste. Her eyes fell again to the table, and again she knew that she blushed. She hated bitterly the degrading position in which she found herself.
Having done thorough justice to his breakfast, Fred was eager to start; his bicycle was itself again and he panted for action. Mr. Forrester offered no opposition. Marcia knew well how anxious he must be to get them away; any moment might reveal the shameful secret to which she was such an unwilling party. And how gladly she herself would turn her back on the house! Yet Noel Forrester was so kind and attentive, so prodigal in his offers of guidance, of escort, and of provisions, that in her heart she could not help being a little sorry for him. Under other circumstances, freed from bad influences and bad surroundings, how nice he might have been! So she thought as, in a final visit to that hateful blue room, she put on her hat; then she came downstairs to rejoin the men. As she appeared Fred cried,
"Ah, here's my sister-in-law! Come along, Marcia."
She came slowly; Fred, in the ardour of youth, ran to his bicycle and prepared to mount. Noel Forrester took hold of Marcia's and held it in readiness for her. He was looking now quite grave, rather reproachful, and not a little puzzled. Marcia could not avoid him; that wretched Fred was already at the gate. She came up and took her machine from his hands. He looked at her for a moment.
"Really," he observed in a plaintive tone, "it would be convenient if, before you and Mr.-er—Nettleton start on another tour, you just made up your minds what relations you are. Any relationship you like, you know; but it's better that you should be in the same story about it. Celeste and I never differ."
For a moment Marcia was silent; then the flood of her wrath broke through all control.
"I don't see how you can talk!" she cried with an angry toss of her head. "I only told a harmless fib. You——"
"I didn't even do that," said Mr. Forrester. "But I agree; I don't see how I can talk." He leant forward with an air of mystery. "Your secret is safe. Keep mine. If we meet again it must be as strangers." Then, resuming his ordinary manner and smiling pleasantly, he lifted his hat and wished her better fortune on her ride than the previous day had afforded.
"Well!" said Marcia as she rode down to the gate. But when she reached the road she turned her head for a moment. Mr. Forrester was no longer to be seen; but from a window above the porch a white arm waved a handkerchief in farewell, and she caught one glance of a laughing mischievous face. Thus insult pursued her even until the end.
Presently Fred slackened his pace and allowed her to overtake him. He was smiling.
"Rather a romantic adventure for a young widow," said he in fraternal chaff. "All alone with a handsome young man! I say, we mustn't talk about it, Marcia."
"Heavens, I don't want to talk about it! It was horrible!" cried Marcia.
"The ingratitude of women! Forrester said it was delightful."
"He's the most odious man I ever met."
"He seemed to me a very good chap." Fred's smile grew broader. "Must find it rather slow, though, living all alone there," he added compassionately.
All alone! Marcia could not answer in words, but deep and awful scorn overspread her features. All alone indeed! All alone!
It is sad to reflect that in most cases follies are more irksome to look back on than grave offences, and we recollect with greater irritation the occasions on which we have seemed ridiculous than the acts which we admit to have been wrong. Although two years had elapsed, her brief visit to Mr. Noel Forrester, with its attendant circumstances, was still a bitter memory to Mrs. Nettleton. She had never told anybody about it; she could not bring herself to a disclosure so humiliating; even Fred had been left in ignorance both of his sister-in-law's light crime and of her severe punishment. Once or twice in London Marcia had passed Mr. Forrester in the streets. She had wavered in her purpose, but he had no such hesitation; his absolute unconsciousness had relieved her from making up her mind whether she should ignore him altogether or give him a cold bow, which would convey a rebuke even more severe. As for Celeste—but she did not move in circles where she would be likely to see or hear of Celeste. She still grew hot when she thought of that lady's cool insolence, and of the blue room's flaunting luxury.
Just now Marcia was returning to London in October, rather earlier than was her wont. She wanted to see Fred. She was anxious about him. He had fallen in love again, and this time the matter seemed serious. His letters had been full of it. Miss Vincent's name appeared continually. Her charms were sung with ardour; but it appeared that she was capricious and rather difficult to understand. Marcia thought that Fred needed advice: a woman's dispassionate inspection and opinion would be of value. So she wrote and told Fred that she would join him at his mother's house for a few weeks; thus she could give him the benefit of her experience and judgment, because after all (and in spite of one or two silly incidents in her life) she was wiser than Fred, as well as being a year his senior. Fred responded cordially to her suggestion, adding with solemnity that his personal affairs were approaching a crisis.
On arriving at the house, which was in the neighbourhood of Sloane Street, Marcia found a letter waiting her in the hall. She opened it eagerly and read, "I'm going to meet her to-night. If I can I shall. Please sit up for me."
"Oh, I do hope she's nice!" said Marcia with a pang of fear and doubt. She wished that she had come in time to offer counsel.
When she had dined she betook herself to Fred's sanctum, and fell into a large arm-chair in front of a bright little fire. Now she was in a more hopeful mood and found herself wishing success to Fred. Marriage was a good condition, she reflected. She became rather forlorn when she thought how lonely her own life had been for the last five years; there was nothing wrong in dreaming how different it might become if she happened to meet—well, under other conditions. Then, by a sudden and fantastic trick of memory, the face of Noel Forrester seemed to appear for a moment before her eyes. How handsome he was! And really his manners were very fascinating. Under other influences—— Marcia sighed, smiled and leant back, raising her eyes to Fred's mantelpiece.
Had there been a bystander he would have seen a strange and alarming alteration in her face. Her smile vanished, her lips hung open in wonder and growing alarm. For a moment she sat, staring up; then she rose in a slow and rigid fashion, advanced to the mantelpiece, bent forward, gasped a long "Oh!" and stretched out her hand. A large full-length photograph stood close by the clock; it represented a tall, fair, slender girl of great attractions, elegantly dressed; at the foot might be read in a bold handwriting, "Very sincerely yours, Celestine Vincent." Marcia read this inscription several times; for many moments she scanned the handsome face. Surely she was wrong! But hope refused to come to her call. She was sure—and she was right. The photograph could not lie; the proud mocking smile was impressed on her memory. How came the thing here? A certainty, heavy as lead, bitter as death, fell upon her. The picture was there because its original was Fred's new idol; and Fred's new idol was his sister-in-law's old acquaintance. Celestine was Celeste. Miss Vincent was the person whom she had been told that she was at liberty to call Mrs. Forrester. She drew a long gasping breath as she murmured,
"Oh, but it's too horrible to be true!"
Alas! the optimism which peeped out in this observation was powerless against the cold cruelty of facts. One hope only remained. Celestine Vincent was without doubt Celeste (although by no means without doubt Celeste Forrester), but it was barely possible that she might not be Fred's present flame. An instant later this short-lived hope was killed. By the picture lay a little note; Marcia caught at it. It bore the date of the very day, and it said, " Yes; I shall be there about 10. Don't be late.—C. V."
"It's true!" cried Marcia, falling back in the arm-chair, a pitiable spectacle. "Oh, poor boy, poor boy! Oh, what am I to do? Vincent indeed! Vincent! I suppose the creature calls herself just whatever happens to be convenient."
A great resolution formed itself in her mind. Here was a task for her. She must and would save Fred. If necessary he must be told the truth, the cruel truth; but she might be able to spare him that. She would appeal to the woman herself; she would threaten exposure; she would, at the cost of any agony to herself, communicate with the man Forrester. The thing must be stopped; the woman must be terrified into relinquishing her prey. As Marcia came to this conclusion a secret fierce joy pervaded her soul. She would not only save Fred, she would revenge on that pair the laughter and insults of two years ago. Mrs. Nettleton made ready for battle, and in these preparations the evening wore away quickly.
A step sounded on the stairs. Fred burst in, radiant and triumphant. Success had crowned his suit; the world was rosy-coloured. Marcia did not know what to say, what to do, how to look.
"I'd only just time," cried Fred. "The moment she'd—she'd said yes, you know, we were interrupted by some fool. But I'm going to lunch with her to-morrow. You must come and see her soon, Marcia. She's simply the most beautiful!—Oh, but there she is on the mantelpiece, you can see for yourself."
Marcia could see, and had seen, for herself.
"I've often spoken to her about you. She seems so interested in you," said Fred, beaming broadly. "She'd always rather talk about me and my people than about herself."
Marcia was not surprised at that. Some subjects are difficult.
"In fact I don't believe she's got many people."
Marcia thought that was very likely the case, or anyhow that she would very likely say so.
"At any rate they don't seem to see much of her."
Marcia was sure that they must have seen more than enough of her.
"Oh, by the way, she knows Forrester."
"That good chap who was so kind to you. Come, you remember him, Marcia."
"Oh, yes, of course; yes, I remember him."
"She said she used to see a good deal of him at one time. What? Oh, I thought you spoke. She was awfully amused to hear about you and him—said she'd chaff him when she next saw him."
Marcia rose abruptly.
"I'm tired, Fred. I shall go to bed," she said. She must have time to think.
"All right, dear. Wish me joy though, before you go."
"I hope, I do hope all will turn out for the best, Fred." Marcia moved towards the door, but paused a moment. "Where does she live?" she asked in an indifferent tone.
"39 Tangent Terrace—a jolly little house. I've only been there once though."
"Yes, I don't suppose she'd let him see too much of her house," reflected Marcia as she went to bed. "Well, she'll have a visitor she doesn't expect to-morrow—and before lunch!" For the ardour of battle was on Mrs. Nettleton. The wretch's effrontery was too barefaced; she must be taught a lesson. "I won't spare her! She told me she was Mrs. Forrester. Well, I'll ask for Mrs. Forrester." Marcia laughed in bitter exultation as she pictured the dismay of her enemy.
At half-past ten the next morning Mrs. Nettleton alighted from a cab at the door of 39 Tangent Terrace and rang the bell with a determined air. A maid-servant (not Susan, but a young girl) opened the door. With an acid smile Marcia asked, "Is Mrs. Forrester at home?" and waited to see the effect of her question.
A look of some surprise or indecision appeared on the maid's face; she hesitated.
"I am Mrs. Nettleton—Mrs. Nettleton," said Marcia, enjoying the maid's confusion. "Please tell your mistress that I'm here. Say I come on business."
"Yes, ma'am. Will you step in and wait for a moment?"
Marcia stept in and found herself in a prettily furnished hall. The maid then showed her into a small sitting-room on the ground floor, and left her there. This room also was very pretty, but Marcia recognised with grim satisfaction an engraving which had decorated the walls of that never forgotten blue room. She had not long for inspection; in a few minutes the door opened and the enemy appeared. Celeste entered, looking very charming in a neat morning frock. Her face showed no surprise; she was smiling in quite her old fashion.
"I think it must be me whom you wish to see, Mrs.—er—Nettleton," said she. "Pray sit down."
"Thank you I'd rather stand," answered Marcia very stiffly.
"Just as you like," said Celeste pleasantly as she seated herself in a low chair and looked up at Marcia. "Well?" she added after a short pause. Then seeming to recollect, she went on, "Oh, I suppose you've come about Mr. Nettleton?"
"About my brother-in-law."
"Yes; he is your brother-in-law, isn't he? Really, I mean? You see you must tell me the truth now, because I'm going to marry him! I can't think why you said such a curious thing before." Celte's eyes expressed innocent but aggrieved wonder.
"It was not so curious as what you said," observed Marcia.
"Oh, but you knew that was only a joke! Now didn't you? I know you never believed that Mr. Forrester was married to me—not really married, you know. If he had been, of course I couldn't have been going to marry your brother-in-law; because Mr. Forrester's still alive. I see him quite often. Indeed he was here yesterday."
"Here yesterday?" exclaimed Marcia. She had told herself that she was prepared for anything, but her anticipations had not included this.
"Yes. I dare say he'll come to-day."
"To lunch?" asked Marcia ironically.
"Oh, no. Your brother-in-law's coming to lunch. Tea perhaps," said Celeste smiling. Then she laughed a little. "The servant was quite puzzled at your asking for Mrs. Forrester. She wondered if you meant Mrs. Vincent."
"She didn't seem so very much surprised," said Marcia grimly.
"Oh, she guessed who you meant, of course, because of Mr. Forrester," said Celeste carelessly.
Marcia lost patience. She had not come on her errand in order to be derided.
"Let us speak plainly," she said. "You've managed to entangle my brother-in-law in this engagement. Of course he knew nothing about you."
"I told him just the same thing," observed Celeste.
"You must release him," said Marcia firmly.
"Of course," Celeste agreed. "If he wants to go, I'll release him."
"You can't escape that way. He's infatuated with you."
"Dear boy!" said Celeste with a pensive smile.
"You must send him away. You must break it off."
"Oh, I couldn't. I'm so fond of him!"
"I imagine you'll soon console yourself. If you refuse I shall tell the whole story."
"What, all of it?"
"Yes, the whole truth."
"About yourself too?" Celeste smiled amiably. "And I've been so considerate in not betraying you to him!"
"I shall not spare myself; Fred's happiness comes first."
"How amused all your friends will be when they hear about it," remarked Celeste. "It's so funny to call your brother-in-law your husband."
"Do you consent to send him away, or will you face exposure?"
"I'll face exposure, if you don't mind it," said Celeste. And as she looked at Marcia's angry face she broke into just such a merry peal of laughter as her visitor had heard two years ago. Then, before Marcia could speak or move, she sprang up and ran out of the room, turning a merry face over her shoulder for an instant as she shut the door. Marcia sank into a chair. She had right and might both on her side; the merits and the power alike were hers; yet without doubt she had been ridiculed, beaten and defied. After an instant she sprang up crying,
"Then I must tell Fred the truth, that's all! Oh, let me get out of this horrid house! It suffocates me!"
She walked to the door, but just as she was bout to lay her hand on the handle the door opened. There, on the threshold, stood Noel Forrester. Marcia sprang back, half in surprise, half in resentment.
"How dare you?" she gasped out. Here again her forecast had fallen short of reality.
Noel came in and shut the door gently.
"I'm so much at home here," said he suavely, "that I thought I might take the liberty of adding my welcome to Celeste's. We're so glad to see you here in what is our real home."
Marcia's only answer was to draw herself up to her full height and wave him from her path with a haughty gesture.
"I wish you'd hear what I've got to say," said he.
"What can you possibly have to say?" She looked at him. He appeared meek and submissive. "Oh, I dare say she's worse than you are; but—well, you see for yourself. My plain duty is to tell my brother-in-law. You know, of course, that he's mad enough to intend marrying this—this Miss——" Marcia paused. "Miss what or Mrs. what?" her manner asked.
"Miss Vincent? Oh yes, I know that. Well, why shouldn't he?" asked Noel Forrester. "Come, Mrs. Nettleton, let bygones be bygones. We must forgive and forget. The past is irrevocable; the future is our own. Let's say no more about it, and let the young people be happy!"
Marcia regarded him with a bewilderment that conquered auger. He seemed so genuine, so sincere, ostensibly so reasonable in his monstrous request and the monstrous frame of mind which made its utterance possible. The old sense of regret for him, of waste, of conviction that he had been meant for better things, came over her; she shook her head decisively, but her air was more gentle.
"I'm afraid the kindest thing I can think of you is that you're rather mad," she said. "But I'm sane, Mr. Forrester, and I must do my duty—my duty to my brother-in-law."
He appeared to abandon the contest, and with some readiness.
"If you must, you must!" he said. "But I venture to hope that you'll judge me mercifully. After all, we all of us practise little deceptions at times. By the way, you'll mention to Mr. Nettleton——?"
"I shall tell Fred everything. And you can tell him yourself if you like."
"Thank you. It may be convenient that I should." He paused and nodded reflectively. Then he made almost the same comment as had proceeded from Celeste.
"How very amused he'll be," he said.
"Amused! His heart will be broken. But that's better than his life being ruined."
"Much. It doesn't last half so long," observed Noel Forrester. "For my part I think he'll forgive both you and Celeste—when he hears everything, I mean."
"I must ask you not to couple us together, please. The two things are not exactly on the same footing."
"Why, you both played a part that wasn't your own."
"As if it was that!" cried Marcia indignantly.
"And you neither of you succeeded in deceiving anybody. Celeste didn't impose on you, and you didn't impose on Celeste, because I'd told her, you know. Besides, you didn't do it very well; you showed embarrassment."
"How did you know?" she asked.
"Well, you see, you carried on your bicycle a little leather case; the lid was open, and I perceived that your card was tacked on to it inside. And your card ran, 'Mrs. Sydney James Nettleton.' So I thought it odd that your husband should be named Fred."
"You ought to have told me, and not let me make a——"
"False impression? Well, you didn't really, you know, any more than Celeste. You both tried and both failed. Poor Celeste, she couldn't act up to the part!"
"Please don't mention her again to me." Marcia rose. "I'm going now to find my brother-in-law," she said.
"I wish I could think that you forgive me." observed Noel very humbly.
"As far as I'm concerned I should very readily forgive you," said Marcia, enjoying a fine sense of magnanimity. "You mustn't think that I'm acting from personal feelings. It's long ago, and, greatly as I suffered, I should not allow my own feelings to influence me in the matter." She was now at the door, and Noel was opening it for her. "It's my brother-in-law," she ended as she stept into the hall.
"Is it really only your brother-in-law?" he asked. "You bear no grudge on your own account?"
"I have forgiven, and I will try to forget, your treatment of myself. It is Fred and Fred only."
"Honestly and sincerely?" he asked, following her into the hall.
"Sincerely and honestly," she declared. And she thought that her words were true.
"Will you give me your hand on it?"
After a moment's hesitation Marcia put out her hand. Noel Forrester grasped it heartily.
"That's all right!" said he in a cheerful tone. And without more he escorted Marcia to her cab.
"Dear me," said she as she drove away, "he takes it very lightly!" And she shook her head with sorrowful solemnity. But suddenly, in spite of herself, she smiled. "He seems to think more of my forgiveness than of anything else," she murmured. "What nonsense, to be sure! But I dare say the poor fellow regrets it all now!"
Fred was not at home when Marcia arrived; indeed he had the good fortune not to appear at all before lunch, thus escaping a very trying interview. Marcia took her meal in solitary misery, conscious that poor Fred, still deluded, still undeceived, was enjoying false happiness at 39 Tangent Terrace. Surely Noel Forrester would not have the effrontery to be present! Yet who could set bounds to his effrontery? It seemed to be of that unconscious kind which rather ignores than defies the dictates of propriety and the voice of shame. He was mad, he must be mad; but Celeste was simply wicked. Mrs. Nettleton defined this difference between them quite distinctly and definitely as she drank her coffee. Then she went to Fred's room, removed Celeste's portrait to a remote corner, and sat down to read her Morning Post; after breakfast her agitation and her early start had combined to render a proper study of that journal impossible.
As she read, a brougham drove up to her door and three people got out. One of them opened the door with a latch-key and admitted his companions. The three then with stealthy tread entered and examined the drawing-room and the dining-room successively; both were empty. Then quietly and slowly they filed upstairs and came to the door of Fred's room. Their leader put his ear to the keyhole and listened; the rustle of a turned newspaper was audible. Holding up his finger he imposed silence on his companions. They waited some moments, during which nothing more was audible from the inside of the room. Then the three held a whispered conversation; the result was that two of them filed downstairs again, leaving the third in a watchful attitude by the door. He bent and listened again. Another rustle met his ear; Mrs. Nettleton was turning the Morning Post again.
"She must have got to the page now," he muttered, and he smiled joyously. A moment later there was a noise as of somebody rising suddenly and of a chair pushed back; then came a gasp, a little scream, and a voice crying aloud in bitter anger and contempt,
"His granddaughter! How insolent and ridiculous!"
The watcher outside smiled more broadly but did not move. The next thing that he heard was the murmur of a puzzled voice. The words he could not distinguish, but he guessed what they were. Marcia was reading over the paragraph in the Morning Post, and trying to understand the insane audacity which inspired it. He could fancy her expression at every line and the culmination of scorn with which she would read the last few words. For there could be very little doubt that Marcia Nettleton was perusing the following paragraph: "A marriage has been arranged between Mr. Frederick Nettleton, second son of the late Lieutenant-Colonel R. Nettleton (Coldstream Guards), and Miss Celestine Vincent, daughter of the late Mr. William Vincent, of Brighton, and granddaughter of Mr. Noel Forrester, of Mere Park, Shropshire."
The murmur ended. "His granddaughter!" came again in scornful accents. There was a swift movement across the room; the door was thrown open wide. But then Marcia fell back in amazement. Noel Forrester stood before her, smiling happily.
"You! How did you come here?" she gasped.
He stept in, and, paying no attention to her question, observed,
"It may sound odd, you know, but it's quite true."
Marcia held up the paper and pointed a scornful finger at the paragraph. The occasion was an admirable one for irony, and she was minded to employ it to the full.
"Granddaughter! You might have found something a little more plausible," she remarked, with a toss of her head.
"Do you think I might?" he asked in a doubtful, rather regretful tone.
"I suppose you're about thirty-five, aren't you?"
"Don't be hard on me. Thirty-two, Mrs. Nettleton. Not a day more, on my honour."
"Celeste's just twenty-one, Mrs. Nettleton—birthday in September."
Marcia surveyed him with scornful eyes.
"Why not be reasonable? Make her your niece," she suggested bitterly.
"Niece?" He appeared to turn the suggestion over in an open mind.
"That would be possible anyhow. Somebody might believe that—people who didn't know as much about it as I do."
"But I've no married sister, or brother either. That makes it difficult."
"Oh, you could invent one. That would be nothing to you."
Noel Forrester assumed a candid and appealing smile.
"I'll do anything to please you, Mrs. Nettleton," said he. "She shall be a niece if you wish it. I agree that a granddaughter lacks probability. But, excuse me, would it suit you as well if I made her a sister? For family reasons it would be more convenient to me to have her a sister."
"Oh, if you like," said Marcia. "But there's a little difficulty about the names, isn't there?" She looked at him in malicious triumph. He had forgotten the names!
"About the names? I don't quite understand," he murmured apologetically.
"Brothers and sisters generally have the same surnames. You don't mean a half-sister?"
"Oh no, my own sister, please. Nobody ever heard of my having a half-sister."
"Really you're a little dense. You see her name is Vincent and yours is Forrester."
A sudden light appeared to break in on Noel Forrester. He advanced a step nearer to Marcia, then after a little pause he asked,
"You're quite sure about the personal grudge? You remember what you said about it?"
"I really have nothing but pity for you. But as for her——"
"That's all right; never mind her. Well, you see—do look a little more gentle, Mrs. Nettleton, or I can't go on, I can't indeed!"
"I'm ready to listen," Marcia declared.
"You see—in fact, when I inherited Mere Park, I took the name of Forrester. But Celeste kept her own name." He looked rather as though he wondered whether she would believe him.
"Then you mean to say——?" cried Marcia.
"I mean to confess that she's my sister, Mrs. Nettleton. I never said she wasn't, you know. As for Mrs. Forrester, whom you were so kind as to ask for, the maid thought you must mean my mother, Mrs. Vincent. She's unhappily an invalid, and hasn't been able to take Celeste about, so she's not very well known. I'm sure I hope you will make her acquaintance though."
Marcia had fallen into a chair and was regarding him with a helpless stare. Was it true? Then calamity was averted. But at what a cost? How had they dared to make such a fool of her? Noel came to the hearth-rug and stood looking down at her.
"Fred and Celeste are downstairs," he observed. "Fred brought us here. Shall I ask them to come up? Fred knows all about it now, you know."
Marcia made no answer. Presently, however, she looked up and asked,
"Was it because I said Fred was my husband?"
"That put it into my head." He drew up a chair and sat down by her. Marcia did not attempt to avoid this proximity. "And then you were so gloriously suspicious," he went on, with a smile of reminiscence. "The blue room suggested such terrible things to you, didn't it? Now do you think you'd have believed me if I'd said Miss Vincent was my sister? And then—well, Celeste has always been fond of private theatricals." He glanced at her for a moment. "And then——" he said; but here he paused.
"Well, what then?" asked Marcia.
He turned and looked her full in the face. Marcia's lips were suddenly pressed together in a marked accession of severity.
"And then——" he began again. "Well, in fact, a little anger doesn't spoil your appearance, Mrs. Nettleton."
"I never said she wasn't my sister," he murmured. "And you did say——"
"Oh, do be quiet!" said Marcia.
Suddenly the door opened. Marcia sprang to her feet, ready again to be very angry. But no time was allowed her for the expression of any such feeling. A graceful slight figure darted across the room and, before Marcia could take any defensive steps, she was in Celeste's arms, and was being kissed by that young lady.
"Oh, you dear!" said Celeste. "It was perfectly horrid of us, wasn't it? But I don't think I was ever so much amused in all my life!You do forgive us, don't you?"
Noel Forrester interposed gravely.
"You must not think, Celeste," said he, "that Mrs. Nettleton was acting from personal feelings. It's long ago, and, greatly as she suffered, she will not allow her own feelings to influence her in the matter. It's her brother-in-law——"
"And her brother-in-law," said Fred from the door, "is not resentful!"
Marcia looked round at them. They were all smiling in the most shameless manner. At last the smile broke out on her own face.
"At least I'll never say I'm anybody's wife again!" she cried.
Noel Forrester looked at her for an instant, and then up to the ceiling.
"You mean—unless it should happen to be true, Mrs. Nettleton?" said he.
And in a certain space of time it happened to be true.