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MARIETTA'S MARRIAGE

[By W. E. N orris]

[Copyright.]

CHAPTER XLI ON THE BRINK.

On a cold,' wild, and windy afternoon Lady Middlewood sent the carriage which, was waiting for her at the door back to the stables and set forsh on foot, bound she neither kne>v nor cared whither. Walking was not much to her taste ; but it was upon the whole a shade less dreary than driving, she thought, and time had to be killed somehow. She had her time and her abode all to herself, to do what she liked with, for Lionel had gone off to Newmarket to see a horse of his run in one of the great autumn handicaps, and she had declined an amiable invitation which had reached her by post from Lady Maria Halsted. That same post had brough her a letter from Lady Gosport, which she took out of her pocket as she wandered across the park and read for the fourth or fifth time, although only a few of its numerous sentences had any interest for her. That Lady Gosport was arranging a concert for the benefit of distressed Irish ladies, that she wanted it to be a great success, and that she confidently appealed, to her cousin to travel several hundred miles in order to render vocal assistance on the occasion—these were statements which scarcely called for re-perusal. They might be answered, and indeed had beeD answered, by a prompt expression of regret that recent bereavement reudered it quite out of the question for Lady Middlowood to appear upon a public platform. But such remarks as the following were less easily disposed ofr:

"I really think Aunt Maria must be going off her head ! Can you imagine what she means by offering—from what I hear, she literally is offering—Betty to that Mr Strahan, who is a rising man, I dare say, but who has absolutely no position at present, nor any antecedents that can be discovered ! lam told that at the Wortleys', where they were staying the other day, everybody expected the engagement to be announced, and now she has asked the man down to Chelton, it seems. I wish you would speak to Lionel about it; he ought, as head of the» family, to interfere. Of course I know that Betty was inexcusably foolish last season; but it does not follow that she should be thrown away upon the first nobody who approaches her. I would write to Aunt Maria myself, only there is never the slightest use in my saying anything, and I should only be told to mind my own business. What a dreadful mistake it is to make any woifian, young or old, independent !" The independence of Lady Maria was doubtless deplorable ; that of Bettv Mallet might or might not be so. All would depend upon whether she was or was not enamored of Roland Strahan, and Marietta derived some comfort from a tolerably strong conviction that she was not. Betty wa3 not at all likely to marry any man without loviDg him, nor was she the sort of girl to be influenced for a moment by the persuasions of her. grandmother. It was, however, quite conceivable that the ambitious Strahan might be tempted to espouse an attractive and highly connected heiress for whom he entertained no tender passion. That he was being virtually invited to do so appeared almost certain, and even if Lady Gosport had said nothing, Marietta's suspicions would have been aroused by his own announcement of his impending visit to Chelton.

To that announcement she had made no epistolary rejoinder. In her disappointment and vexation she had determined to leave him severely alone, and had gone so fir as to say to herself that she would not care a straw if she never saw him agiin. But it must be assumed that she did care, or that ahe thought she cared, or at any rate that she could not bear the idea of tamely allowing her captive to be filched from her; for a telegram containing a curtly-worded summons to Ludworth was even now on its way to Lady Maria'a visitor. He was requested to come over to luncheon on the morrow, and was informed that a carriage would be sent to the station to meet him.

"He will have to come," Marietta mused; ." it would be hardly possible for him-to refuse. I wonder what he will say ? I should not like to be in his place ; and yet—very likely he won't mind. He is cold enough and material enough to shrug his shoulders and declare that he can't afford to disregard the main chance. Besides, he will have realised that I am powerless—that I can neither betray him nor stoop to reproach him."

She rehearsed a dialogue in which her faithless lover was made to feel exceedingly uncomfortable, and in which she herself made various cutting and contemptuous speeches; but the prospect of dismissing Strahan with his tail between his legs failed somehow to satisfy her. The ODly ' reflection which did give her some satisfaction was-that at least she had never, told him that she loved him. She had told herself, that she did; but that, perhaps, had not been the truth. She told herself now that she did not, and the assertion availed her 80 little that tears of mortification came into her eyes. Now, whatever may have been the condition of her feelings (and it was quite beyond her to unravel them), she was clear upon one point—namely, that she was a most miserAble and disenchanted woman. She stood for a time with her back against the trunk': of a Scotch fir, and contemplated the; wide domain over which she bore joint rule, while the wind roared through the boughs overhead and the homing rooks were blown about like black rags against a pale yellow Bky... " Che commedia !" she muttered, thinking of. her life and its ironically fulfilled aspirations. Wealth, liberty, a splendid social position, and a husband who, to do him justice, was complaisant and pecuniarily generous, if not very ardently affectionate—what more had she ever desired ? Assuredly ehu had not desired or expected more on her wedding day, and that made the bitter taste of all these sweet things the more irritating and perplexing. Bitter or sweet, they were worth nothing to her, and she was ready to resign them all at a word. So, at least, she assured the rooks and the trees, in the absence of a more attentive but less «afe confidant. Such a confidant might possibly, on the morrow, speak such a word, in which, base

"In which case," said Marietta, smiling for the first time, "he will not be taken at it, ' No ! it would be madness to trust him,and he does not deserve to be trusted. Still, I should like to bring him t.n hfa Vnppa onno more before I send him away. I want to xejecb him, nob be rejected." Well, at all events, she had now discovered one thing that she wanted, and on her return to the house she found the anticipated telegram which informed her that her commands would be obeyed. [.,? "Delighted to go to you by the train you ",' mention'," was.. Strahan'a message. "So .Borry.to hear that yori won't come to us." To speak of visiting Lady Maria as _"coming to us" was, to Say the least'of it, 'l\ rather suggestive. Could the suggestiyeness ...be intentional? A strong suspicion that it jwas caused Marietta to furbish up her armor in preparation: for the encounter which she "foresaw, and enabled her to harden her heart against the respectfully eloquent glances of the gentleman who was duly shown into her presence on the following day. She met those .glances of his with a cold and steady stare; if "ho had any news to impart or to imply, a difficult ta3k should not bo rendered.aasy for him. . But he declined to take the initiative. He discoursed easily and fluently upon commonplaqe subjects during luncheou, and.when the servants had withdrawn he .invited his hostess to fire first by asking her point-blaDk why she had sent for uirh; "Because," said he, "I am not,vain enough to believe, as I should like to believe, that you merely wished to do an act of kindness to an old friend."

Marietta put forward the anxiety that he knew of as her motive. " You said in your letter that you were as completely bafH'jd as the/police; but I cau't think that you are really as stupid as they are. Have you baen doing anything all this time? , Have Jon been trying to hit upon a clue? It deems so impossible for such a murder to be ■committed in broad daylight and for the murderer to vanish, without leaving the faintest trace!" : ' ~"

Strahan made a gesture of VJtdoes seem impossible," he acknowledged,

"aticl we are as' stupid as you like to Call us; but—what can v l say?/ 1 assure you I haven't been idle, and I don't mean to admit that we are beaten yet. At the same time I can't: help feeling that each blanjk day diminishes our chances of ever getting at the truth. My only consolation is that, after all, revenge would not give us back what we have lost."

"Oh, you haven't lost anything," said Marietta brusquely; " yori don't require , any consolation. And if you did, you have found it by this time, I imagine." "You think I have lost nothing?" returned StrahaD, looking straight into her eyes. " You think I don't know what I have lost? Well, you are mistaken. I suppose I ought not to speak about it; but nothing will ever convince me that that fatal afternoon did not rob me of—in short, of all that I care to live for." " I did not mean to keep my appointment with you that afternoon," she said quickly. '? Because your father dissuaded you." " How do you know that ? " "I guessed it; and it seems that I guessed rightly. Oh, and I can guess other things, too. Your feelings have changed. After such a shock, and in view of the fact that your poor father had a very natural dislike for me, that is not unnatural." I don't wonder at it, and I don't complain." "I am sure you don't. You have the be3t of reasons for being resigned, have you not ?" His request that she would, explain herself was granted with promptitude. The conversation was not taking quite the course which Marietta had meant it to take, and she was conscious of losing the self-control which jier interlocutor obviously retained; but what was not less obvious to her was that he wanted to make his escape upon the plea that he had been forcibly emancipated, and this she was resolved that he should not do. She charged him in plain language with perfidy ; she dared him to deny that he was at Chelton in pursuance of a design upon Betty Mallet's hand and fortune. "And do you suppose," she asked, in conclusion, " that I shall allow the poor girl to throw herself away upon you when a few words from me will be enough to enlighten her a3 to what you really are? I don't, for my own part, believe that she will accept you; but if she should, I could hardly remain silent."

Strahan was not frightened. Threats seldom frightened him ; besides which, that particular threat, as he perfectly well understood, was unlikely to bs carried into effect. On the other hand, his blood wa3 stirred, and his admiration was greatly excited by the warmth with which Marietta, expressed herself. If he had doubted that she loved him, he now doubted no longer ; nor did he —for the moment—doubt that her love was worth any price that she might bo pleased to set upon it.

"Si," said he, with a slight smile, "I am accused of wanting to marry your sister-in-law. Well, why not? It would, of course, bs a great match for me, and I see no-necessity for a man to be in love with his wife. I do not quite understand what you mean by perfidy. In the first place I have not changed, and shall never change, whatever you may have done ; and in the second, it can make no difference to you whether lam married or single. What do you care 1"

She murmured something which he did not catch, and which she declined to repeat when begged to do so. Then, all of a sudden

"Tell me (lie truth, Marietta !" he exclaimed, "do you care what becomes of me or not ? It all rests with you. There is nothing that I wouldn't gladly resign for your sake, nor anything that can be worth having if I am to lose you." She began a dignified reply to the effect that she cared a good deal what became of Butty, but broke down in the middle of it. She was no longer angry with the man ; for his face and his voice had convinced her that he was sincere, and she could not bear to give him up. So she faltered; and he was not slow to take advantage of her weakness. His arms were rouod her before she could stop bim, her head fell forward upon his shoulder, and he was kissing her as Lionel had never kissed her yet. For an instant she rejoiced in the surrender which was scarcely disciuguishablo from a triumph; but only for an instant. In a swift revulsion of feeling she repelled him, ga3ping out :

" On, I can't! —l am not as bad as you think I am—l can't live with one man and love another. We mu3t never meet again after this."

"Unless we meet never to part again," Strahan returned. " I also am not as bad as you think I am ; I know how you feel, and I have looked the inevitable consequences of our love in the face. For you it muat mean the loss of title, fortune, and character ; for me, the abandonment of-my present office, salary, and career. It is a heavy penalty ; but lam ready to take my share of it. Are you ready to take youra, and begin life over again with me on the other side of -the world?"..

She -shivered and sighed. The man frightened, her with his. cool, relentless common sense, which had an effect of 'mockery, "although he was so evidently in earnest. She begin to make feeble excuses for herself. Her husband did not love her ; she had no friends ; she was so miserably lonely ! It wa3 wicked, perhaps, to love a man who was not her husband ; but things happen to one over which one has no control. At least, however, she would refrain from ruining the man whom she loved. " You can't ruin me," Strahan'declared with a smile: "I am capable of making a fortune in Australia, happen what may, and T mean to make ; one." The question is whether you are willing to give up as much as I am."

" There is Bob," she objected faintly. ' He: nodded. "Well, yes; I didn't mention the child, though I didn't forget him. It has to be all or nothing, Marietta. Which is it to be?"

He had found it a hard matter to say truthfully, which he wished it to be ; but he had a gambler's exultation in staking his whole future upon the hazard of a woman's decision, and he awaited her reply with a composed countenance. Her reply, when it came, was a plea for time. She had been completely taken by surprise, she said ; it was necessary for her to think things over quietly and make up her mind, if possible, to a step which, when once must of course be irrevocable. "It is hot as if I had only myself to consider. That is' your cise ; mine is much more complicated." "In other words," observed Strahan, "you care for me a little, but not quite enough to disregard everybody and everything else." " Perhaps that is so ; I don't know." " And how long am I to wait for your answer ?"

"I don't know," answered Marietta again. " That is scarcely fair. Suppose I get ' No' for an answer some weeks hence ?"

" You are at liberty to propose to Betty in themeantime, if you choose," replied Marietta, her lips curving themselves into a smile; for she felt very sure that he would not do that.

He relumed gravely :" So be it. lam not bound, nor are you. But I hope, for many reasons, that you will not keep me waiting long. Most likely Middlewood will ask me to come on here from Chelton. I am not over squeamish; still I would a little rather not accept hospitality from him again. Do you understand ?" ; She made a sign of assent, and asked at what hour his train left. " You won't mind my saying bhat I should like you to go away now," she added. "I can't —it is impossible "

"I suppose it is," Strahan agreed. " Well, if I walk to the station", and walk slowly, I shall not have very long to wait on the platform. May I-write?" • "No, please. I will write to you soon—as soon as I can. I must ring and tell them that you won't want a carriage." By means of this stratagem she was enabled to take leave of her visitor with a formal shake of the haud in the presence of the butler—a small assertion of independence on her part which he did not grudge her, seeing that it was in all human probability the- last that she would ever attempt with him.

But what about his own independence,' which he-had virtually surrendered ? What about his vanished ambitions and his ruined -career? Roland Strahan was not the man to take sneb a step as he now contemplated without a'distinct comprehension of what it ' must imply, and.while he wended his deliberate way towards the. station be. apostro-

phiaed his eondueb-in language*more4»rsGthan complimentaryir he did not exactly xepe'nt. He was going to repent,, he knew ; he was as certain to do that as,a, man who has indnlged too freely in strongdrink is to become sober and sorry. But", not at once—not,, perhaps, for a longishtime to come. >'.

" Moreover," said he to himself, with a half laugh, "I am not across the Rubicon yet, and it remains upon the cards that I shall not be asked or allowed' to ,thake the crossing." '•'. '''..',, ,:]'. i; \_ : CHAPTER XLII.': NOT CAUOnT YET.-' • '■; Strahan," Whoße mental vision ; was : unclouded and who was under no illusion as to his feelings, actual or prospective,;' foresaw ; that he was bound, sooner or later, to tire of the woman whom he loved. ./Marietta, though much less clear as -to what L she Wanted or expected, perceived.-.nevcrthelesß,, that she had made what might prove to-be a terrible mistake, and after herlover had left her Bhe spent a long time in vainly wishing that she had not sent for him. She'had not, to be sure, promised to run away with hint; she remained, in a manner speaking, free-; but she had confessed her love, and—she had allowed the man to kiss her. She shuddered slightly at' the recollection, which surely would not have been so distasteful to Ker if she had really loved the subject of her: perplexed meditations. , " Whether I go to him or not," she thought, "I can never undo what has been done ; and even if nobody else ev. r knows he will always know that I have disgraced myself!" The poor woman, it will be observed, scarcely knew her world,, and some readers who have hitherto entertained a low opinion of her may now, in view of the extreme' severity with which she judged herself, be willing to throw her a crumb of amused pity. Nobody, of course, can bo expected to sympathise with her, for her nature- was so queer and so ill-regulated that she was, quite incapable of distinguishing between right.and wrong—which is simply unheard of. - She could, however, distinguish between what was expedient and what was inexpedient (according to certain philosopher's that is another way of saying the Bame thing), and expediency obviously enjoined upon her to remain where she was. Only, then Strahan would marry Betty Mallet; or, in the event of his being refused by Betty, he would marry somebody else—perhaps love somebody else.. Besides, Lionel would escape the punishment which.was his due. She had persuaded herself that. Lionel's good-natured indifference - merited'; punishment, finding in that reflection "her own chief excuse. It was only when she.pictured to herself the divorced Lionel contracting a second and a' happier alliance that she almost resolved to send Strahan about his business. •

Thus through the night and the whole of the ensuing day she wavered and doubted, striving without success to solve a problem which was in truth one of elementary simplicity. Setting aside religious principle and domestic affection—as she had practically done from the outset—the only question for her to consider was whether she loved Strahan enough to resign a coronet and a big income for his sake ; but matters struck her as being a good deal more complicated than that. Bob was made, the recipient of abrupt and unwonted caresses,' which he appeared to find a little disconcerting. The carriage was twice ordered and twice sent away; finally, a-telegram wa3 despatched to Lionel at Newmarket, requesting him to return as soon as he conveniently could.

Now, when, in prompt obedience to this summons, his lordship arrived, his first, words, naturally enough, were an inquiry what was the matter; and, on being told that nothing was the matter, he not less naturally exclaimed: " Then, why the deuce ?—but never mind ; I suppose you did want me for something." " I did not want to put you to any inconvenience," Marietta replied : '* I particularly said that you were only to come back as soon as you conveniently Qould." "Yes; but one hardly knew what that meant. Is the boy all right ?-" "Perfectly right. I am sorry to have brought you home in such a hurry and against your will."

" Oh, that's of no consequence," answered Lionel, who had been done out of a rather interesting day's racing and had had something of a fright into the bargain ; " only I don't quite understand yet why you telegraphed." She shrugged her shoulders. "I was lonely," she said. "In order to know what loneliness really means one should spend a short time in a house of this size, surrounded by a swarm of silent servants."

" I am very sorry ; I shouldn't have gone away if I hadn't thought that you wished to be left alone. But I didn't think that would have been your only reason ; there was something else, surely."

; " Was there? Well, perhaps there was. Nothing of much importance though. Mr Strahan came over from Chelton the other day and. lunched with me." _" Did he? I hope you asked him to transfer himself here as soon as he' had finished his visit to granny." . " No; I didn't do that; ,1 fancy that his visit to Lady Maria may last rather a long time. That was what I wanted to say to you. You wouldn't very much like him to be your brother-in-law, would you ?" - ' "No," answered Lionel, decisively,'"l shouldn't. Not" that I have any power to prevent Betty from pleasing herself; but I confess that I would rather not see her married to Strahan. Do you mean that there is a chance of her doing anvthins so foolish?" - * s

Marietta read extracts from Lady Gosport's letter and implied, though she did not actually say, that Sttahan had admitted his intentions. It had been with no such motive in her mind that she had called her husband away from Newmarket; but that impulsive telegram ,had to be accounted for somehow, and it occurred to Jier that she might at once divert possible suspicion from herself'and place an incidental spoke in Strahan's wheel by giving information to the head of the family.

The head of the family, however, did not, upon reflection, see his way to interfere. He remarked very sensibly that more human harm than good was likely to result from the issueof ordersor prohibitions which could not be enforced. "If I know anything of Betty," he added, "she will do just exactly what she wants to do, with my approval or without it, and I doubt very much whether she wants to marry Strahan. I could understand his wanting to marry her—though he has never breathed a "word to' me-upon the subject—and it isn't impossible that opposition might drive her to accept him. But if she is left alone. I quite hope and believe that she will send him-flying. Anyhow it isn't a question to deal with by letter,~and I can't manage to see her justab, present, because I have got to go up to "London;! unfortunately, in a day or two." ' "For long?" asked Marietta, inßomewhat dismayed accents. . • .'.., " No; only for aboub a week, I think. -1 am very sorry to bo obliged to leave you again so soon ; but it can't very well be helped. W hen your telegram arrived I was upon the point of writing to ask whether you would care to come up with me. I suppose you wouldn't?"- ..-;;:;

"I would rather go anywhere on earth than spend another week here all by myself!" exclaimed Marietta, with unexpected vehemence. "But perhaps," she/weht on, "you would not care to be bothered with me. Perhaps I should boiu your way;" To be jealous of a husband whbm'you contemplate abandoning-is doubtless illogical; but Lady Middlewoo'd's sentiments were not trammelled by the hard and fast rules of logic, nor was she disposed to ; acquieacs tamely in a departure for which ho pretext had been vouchsafed to her. .Many smart ladies frequent Newmarket at certain seasons of the year, and why should not one of them have made ! an appointment with a good-looking young nobleman whose melancholy and discontented wife chose to leave him to his own devices? But there was do suggestion of conscious guilt in liionel's honest eyes, and it, was impossible to doubt that he was Bpeakingthp truth when he replied : ' '■ ■-' "You <:ould never be in my, way, Marietta ; I should like to have you always with me, if I could. Surely you must know that." • ...

don't always bshav© «w U _y n a

;have me letting jjier-eyfilida -..,..!^?^ is because I am ajfraid of being a ratherbe'oauijje, ,X,{tn6iy.':.th»tl:oftenVaJ» a bore."' *. »->; , ■;;.: '•' Ah, that is audi au easy way ,6f putting yourself in the right J ." -■-:''■• .< J'lt'aitrue, at all.events, and I didn't say-, it to make you ap'pe"ar ihthe wrong.^'ntc-r—" He paiiaed ■for a-iriiomeiit, - colored' slightly.. and resumed':- "I'm-auoli an awfully bad hand at expressing u myaelf !; "Only I want, jou.tojknow, once for;all, Marietta, that I ; a in. Just' what'l was oin. dur wedding day. It's inevitable,!: dare aay, that time should aeem tp ; make- a difference; but it; doesn't really, .and--and' when you-want me you'll find me in the old place ; I haven't budged, andol-never shall; Therein—now I'll: stop, being Sentimental£and' go round to the" Btables;" I hear the'bhestnttt triare has been coughing again;.'; ' .. ,Fe«lihg aiit'tle'fbbliah, "and being in. rathera hurry put of • the room, he did ; nob notice the tears which were running down hiawife'a cheeks; "It was perhaps as 'well that he did not notice them, for she was in a' condition so nearly hysterical that it would not have taken much to draw from her an avowal which might eaaily have haddiaastrous cohßtqueneea. thoae few'kindly, embarrassed words of Lionel's "almost had the effect of making her resolve to steer clear of'disaster; She resolved, at all events, to leave for London without sending any intimation of her intentions to ; ■C*ielton, and it waa with some inward satis-: faction that she -imagined the long face which Strahau would pull on hearing that she had gone;

.. (To be continued.)

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Bibliographic details

MARIETTA'S MARRIAGE, Evening Star, Issue 10458, 30 October 1897, Supplement

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4,670

MARIETTA'S MARRIAGE Evening Star, Issue 10458, 30 October 1897, Supplement

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