The Great Impersonation/Chapter 12
Dominey spent a curiously placid, and, to those with whom he was brought into contact, an entirely satisfactory afternoon. With Mr. Mangan by his side, murmuring amiable platitudes, and Mr. Johnson, his agent, opposite, revelling in the unusual situation of a satisfied landlord and delighted tenants, he made practically the entire round of the Dominey estates. They reached home late, but Dominey, although he seemed to be living in another world, was not neglectful of the claims of hospitality. Probably for the first time in their lives, Mr. Johnson and Lees, the bailiff, watched the opening of a magnum of champagne. Mr. Johnson cleared his throat as he raised his glass.
"It isn't only on my own account, Sir Everard," he said, "that I drink your hearty good health. I have your tenants too in my mind. They've had a rough time, some of them, and they've stood it like white men. So here's from them and me to you, sir, and may we see plenty of you in these parts."
Mr. Lees associated himself with these sentiments, and the glasses were speedily emptied and filled again.
"I suppose you know, Sir Everard," the agent observed, "that what you've promised to do to-day will cost a matter of ten to fifteen thousand pounds."
"Before I go to bed to-night," he said, "I shall send a cheque for twenty thousand pounds to the estate account at your bank at Wells. The money is there waiting, put aside for just that one purpose and—well, you may just as well have it."
Agent and bailiff leaned back in the tonneau of their motor-car, half an hour later, with immense cigars in their mouths and a pleasant, rippling warmth in their veins. They had the sense of having drifted into fairyland. Their philosophy, however, met the situation.
"It's a fair miracle," Mr. Lees declared.
"A modern romance," Mr. Johnson, who read novels, murmured. "Hello, here's a visitor for the Hall," he added, as a car swept by them.
"Comfortable-looking gent, too," Mr. Lees remarked.
The "comfortable-looking gent" was Otto Seaman, who presented himself at the Hall with a small dressing-bag and a great many apologies.
"Found myself in Norwich, Sir Everard," he explained. "I have done business there all my life, and one of my customers needed looking after. I finished early, and when I found that I was only thirty miles off you, I couldn't resist having a run across. If it is in any way inconvenient to put me up for the night, say so—"
"My dear fellow!" Dominey interrupted. "There are a score of rooms ready. All that we need is to light a fire, and an old-fashioned bed-warmer will do the rest. You remember Mr. Mangan?"
The two men shook hands, and Seaman accepted a little refreshment after his drive. He lingered behind for a moment after the dressing bell had rung.
"What time is that fellow going?" he asked.
"Nine o'clock to-morrow morning," Dominey replied.
"Not a word until then," Seaman whispered back. "I must not seem to be hanging after you too much—I really did not want to come—but the matter is urgent."
"We can send Mangan to bed early," Dominey suggested.
"I am the early bird myself," was the weary reply. "I was up all last night. To-morrow morning will do."
Dinner that night was a pleasant and social meal. Mr. Mangan especially was uplifted. Everything to do with the Domineys for the last fifteen years had reeked of poverty. He had really had a hard struggle to make both ends meet. There had been disagreeable interviews with angry tenants, formal interviews with dissatisfied mortgagees, and remarkably little profit at the end of the year to set against these disagreeable episodes. The new situation was almost beatific. The concluding touch, perhaps, was in Parkins' congratulatory whisper as he set a couple of decanters upon the table.
"I have found a bin of Cockburn's fifty-one, sir," he announced, including the lawyer in his confidential whisper. "I thought you might like to try a couple of bottles, as Mr. Mangan seems rather a connoisseur, sir. The corks appear to be in excellent condition."
"After this," Mr. Mangan sighed, "it will be hard to get back to the austere life of a Pall Mall club!"
Seaman, very early in the evening, pleaded an extraordinary sleepiness and retired, leaving his host and Mangan alone over the port. Dominey, although an attentive host, seemed a little abstracted. Even Mr. Mangan, who was not an observant man, was conscious that a certain hardness, almost arrogance of speech and manner, seemed temporarily to have left his patron.
"I can't tell you, Sir Everard," he said, as he sipped his first glass of wine, "what a pleasure it is to me to see, as it were, this recrudescence of an old family. If I might be allowed to say so, there's only one thing necessary to round the whole business off, as it were."
"And that?" Dominey asked unthinkingly.
"The return of Lady Dominey to health. I was one of the few, you may remember, privileged to make her acquaintance at the time of your marriage."
"I paid a visit this morning," Dominey said, "to the doctor who has been in attendance upon her since her marriage. He agrees with me that there is no reason why Lady Dominey should not, in course of time, be restored to perfect health."
"I take the liberty of finishing my glass to that hope, Sir Everard," the lawyer murmured.
Both glasses were set down empty, only the stem of Dominey's was snapped in two. Mr. Mangan expressed his polite regrets.
"This old glass," he murmured, looking at his own admiringly, "becomes very fragile."
Dominey did not answer. His brain had served him a strange trick. In the shadows of the room he had fancied that he could see Stephanie Eiderstrom holding out her arms, calling to him to fulfill the pledges of long ago, and behind her—
"Have you ever been in love, Mangan?" Dominey asked his companion.
"I, sir? Well, I'm not sure," the man of the world replied, a little startled by the abruptness of the question. "It's an old-fashioned way of looking at things now, isn't it?"
Dominey relapsed into thoughtfulness.
"I suppose so," he admitted.
That night a storm rolled up from somewhere across that grey waste of waters, a storm heralded by a wind which came booming over the marshes, shaking the latticed windows of Dominey Place, shrieking and wailing amongst its chimneys and around its many corners. Black clouds leaned over the land, and drenching streams of rain dashed against the loose-framed sashes of the windows. Dominey lit the tall candles in his bedroom, fastened a dressing-gown around him, threw himself into an easy-chair, and, fixing an electric reading lamp by his side, tried to read. Very soon the book slipped from his fingers. He became suddenly tense and watchful. His eyes counted one by one the panels in the wall by the left-hand side of the bed. The familiar click was twice repeated. For a moment a dark space appeared. Then a woman, stooping low, glided into the room. She came slowly towards him, drawn like a moth towards that semicircle of candle. Her hair hung down her back like a girl's, and the white dressing-gown which floated diaphanously about her was unexpectedly reminiscent of Bond Street.
"You are not afraid?" she asked anxiously. "See, I have nothing in my hands. I almost think that the desire has gone. You remember the little stiletto I had last night? To-day I threw it into the well. Mrs. Unthank was very angry with me."
"I am not afraid," he assured her, "but—"
"Ah, but you will not scold me?" she begged. "It is the storm which terrifies me."
He drew a low chair for her into the little circle of light and arranged some cushions. As she sank into it, she suddenly looked up at him and smiled, a smile of rare and wonderful beauty. Dominey felt for a moment something like the stab of a knife at his heart.
"Sit here and rest," he invited. "There is nothing to fear."
"In my heart I know that," she answered simply. "These storms are part of our lives. They come with birth, and they shake the world when death seizes us. One should not be afraid, but I have been so ill, Everard. Shall I call you Everard still?"
"Why not?" he asked.
"Because you are not like Everard to me any more," she told him, "because something has gone from you, and something has come to you. You are not the same man. What is it? Had you troubles in Africa? Did you learn what life was like out there?"
He sat looking at her for a moment, leaning back in his chair, which he had pushed a few feet into the shadows. Her hair was glossy and splendid, and against it her skin seemed whiter and more delicate than ever. Her eyes were lustrous but plaintive, and with something of the child's fear of harm in them. She looked very young and very fragile to have been swayed through the years by an evil passion.
"I learnt many things there, Rosamund," he told her quietly. "I learnt a little of the difference between right doing and wrongdoing. I learnt, too, that all the passions of life burn themselves out, save one alone."
She twisted the girdle of her dressing-gown in her fingers for a moment. His last speech seemed to have been outside the orbit of her comprehension or interest.
"You need not be afraid of me any more, Everard," she said, a little pathetically.
"I have no fear of you," he answered.
"Then why don't you bring your chair forward and come and sit a little nearer to me?" she asked, raising her eyes. "Do you hear the wind, how it shrieks at us? Oh, I am afraid!"
He moved forward to her side, and took her hand gently in his. Her fingers responded at once to his pressure. When he spoke, he scarcely recognised his own voice. It seemed to him thick and choked.
"The wind shall not hurt you, or anything else," he promised. "I have come back to take care of you."
She sighed, smiled like a tired child, and her eyes closed as her head fell farther back amongst the cushions.
"Stay just like that, please," she begged. "Something quite new is coming to me. I am resting. It is the sweetest rest I ever felt. Don't move, Everard. Let my fingers stay in yours—so."
The candles burned down in their sockets, the wind rose to greater furies, and died away only as the dawn broke through the storm clouds. A pale light stole into the room. Still the woman slept, and still her fingers seemed to keep their clutch upon his hand. Her breathing was all the time soft and regular. Her silky black eyelashes lay motionless upon her pale cheeks. Her mouth—a very perfectly shaped mouth—rested in quiet lines. Somehow he realised that about this slumber there was a new thing. With hot eyes and aching limbs he sat through the night. Dream after dream rose up and passed away before that little background of tapestried wall. When she opened her eyes and looked at him, the same smile parted her lips as the smile which had come there when she had passed away to sleep.
"I am so rested," she murmured. "I feel so well. I have had dreams, beautiful dreams."
The fire had burned out, and the room was chilly.
"You must go back to your own room now," he said.
Very slowly her fingers relaxed. She held out her arms.
"Carry me," she begged. "I am only half awake. I want to sleep again."
He lifted her up. Her fingers closed around his neck, her head fell back with a little sigh of content. He tried the folding doors, and, finding some difficulty in opening them carried her out into the corridor, into her own room, and laid her upon the untouched bed.
"You are quite comfortable?" he asked.
"Quite," she murmured drowsily. "Kiss me, Everard."
Her hands drew his face down. His lips rested upon her forehead. Then he drew the bedclothes over her and fled.