John Rex found the "George" disagreeably prepared for his august arrival. Obsequious waiters took his dressing-bag and overcoat, the landlord himself welcomed him at the door. Two naval gentlemen came out of the coffee-room to stare at him. "Have you any more luggage, Mr. Devine?" asked the landlord, as he flung open the door of the best drawing-room. It was awkwardly evident that his wife had no notion of suffering him to hide his borrowed light under a bushel.
A supper-table laid for two people gleamed bright from the cheeriest corner. A fire crackled beneath the marble mantelshelf. The latest evening paper lay upon a chair; and, brushing it carelessly with her costly dress, the woman he had so basely deserted came smiling to meet him.
"Well, Mr. Richard Devine," said she, "you did not expect to see me again, did you?"
Although, on his journey down, he had composed an elaborate speech wherewith to greet her, this unnatural civility dumbfounded him. "Sarah! I never meant to--"
"Hush, my dear Richard--it must be Richard now, I suppose. This is not the time for explanations. Besides, the waiter might hear you. Let us have some supper; you must be hungry, I am sure." He advanced to the table mechanically. "But how fat you are!" she continued. "Too good living, I suppose. You were not so fat at Port Ar---Oh, I forgot, my dear! Come and sit down. That's right. I have told them all that I am your wife, for whom you have sent. They regard me with some interest and respect in consequence. Don't spoil their good opinion of me."
He was about to utter an imprecation, but she stopped him by a glance. "No bad language, John, or I shall ring for a constable. Let us understand one another, my dear. You may be a very great man to other people, but to me you are merely my runaway husband--an escaped convict. If you don't eat your supper civilly, I shall send for the police."
"Sarah!" he burst out, "I never meant to desert you. Upon my word. It is all a mistake. Let me explain."
"There is no need for explanations yet, Jack--I mean Richard. Have your supper. Ah! I know what you want."
She poured out half a tumbler of brandy, and gave it to him. He took the glass from her hand, drank the contents, and then, as though warmed by the spirit, laughed. "What a woman you are, Sarah. I have been a great brute, I confess."
"You have been an ungrateful villain," said she, with sudden passion, "a hardened, selfish villain."
"Don't touch me!" "'Pon my word, you are a fine creature, and I was a fool to leave you." The compliment seemed to soothe her, for her tone changed somewhat. "It was a wicked, cruel act, Jack. You whom I saved from death--whom I nursed--whom I enriched. It was the act of a coward."
"I admit it. It was." "You admit it. Have you no shame then? Have you no pity for me for what I have suffered all these years?"
"I don't suppose you cared much."
"Don't you? You never thought about me at all. I have cared this much, John Rex--bah! the door is shut close enough--that I have spent a fortune in hunting you down; and now I have found you, I will make you suffer in your turn."
He laughed again, but uneasily. "How did you discover me?"
With a readiness which showed that she had already prepared an answer to the question, she unlocked a writing-case, which was on the side table, and took from it a newspaper. "By one of those strange accidents which are the ruin of men like you. Among the papers sent to the overseer from his English friends was this one."
She held out an illustrated journal--a Sunday organ of sporting opinion-- and pointed to a portrait engraved on the centre page. It represented a broad-shouldered, bearded man, dressed in the fashion affected by turfites and lovers of horse-flesh, standing beside a pedestal on which were piled a variety of racing cups and trophies. John Rex read underneath this work of art the name,
MR. RICHARD DEVINE, THE LEVIATHAN OF THE TURF.
"And you recognized me?"
"The portrait was sufficiently like you to induce me to make inquiries, and when I found that Mr. Richard Devine had suddenly returned from a mysterious absence of fourteen years, I set to work in earnest. I have spent a deal of money, Jack, but I've got you!"
"You have been clever in finding me out; I give you credit for that."
"There is not a single act of your life, John Rex, that I do not know," she continued, with heat. "I have traced you from the day you stole out of my house until now. I know your continental trips, your journeyings here and there in search of a lost clue. I pieced together the puzzle, as you have done, and I know that, by some foul fortune, you have stolen the secret of a dead man to ruin an innocent and virtuous family."
"Hullo! hullo!" said John Rex. "Since when have you learnt to talk of virtue?"
"It is well to taunt, but you have got to the end of your tether now, Jack. I have communicated with the woman whose son's fortune you have stolen. I expect to hear from Lady Devine in a day or so."
"Well--and when you hear?"
"I shall give back the fortune at the price of her silence!"
"Ho! ho! Will you?"
"Yes; and if my husband does not come back and live with me quietly, I shall call the police."
John Rex sprang up. "Who will believe you, idiot?" he cried. "I'll have you sent to gaol as an impostor."
"You forget, my dear," she returned, playing coquettishly with her rings, and glancing sideways as she spoke, "that you have already acknowledged me as your wife before the landlord and the servants. It is too late for that sort of thing. Oh, my dear Jack, you think you are very clever, but I am as clever as you."
Smothering a curse, he sat down beside her. "Listen, Sarah. What is the use of fighting like a couple of children. I am rich--"
"So am I." "Well, so much the better. We will join our riches together. I admit that I was a fool and a cur to leave you; but I played for a great stake. The name of Richard Devine was worth nearly half a million in money. It is mine. I won it. Share it with me! Sarah, you and I defied the world years ago. Don't let us quarrel now. I was ungrateful. Forget it. We know by this time that we are not either of us angels. We started in life together--do you remember, Sally, when I met you first?--determined to make money. We have succeeded. Why then set to work to destroy each other? You are handsomer than ever, I have not lost my wits. Is there any need for you to tell the world that I am a runaway convict, and that you are--well, no, of course there is no need. Kiss and be friends, Sarah. I would have escaped you if I could, I admit. You have found me out. I accept the position. You claim me as your husband. You say you are Mrs. Richard Devine. Very well, I admit it. You have all your life wanted to be a great lady. Now is your chance!" Much as she had cause to hate him, well as she knew his treacherous and ungrateful character, little as she had reason to trust him, her strange and distempered affection for the scoundrel came upon her again with gathering strength. As she sat beside him, listening to the familiar tones of the voice she had learned to love, greedily drinking in the promise of a future fidelity which she was well aware was made but to be broken, her memory recalled the past days of trust and happiness, and her woman's fancy once more invested the selfish villain she had reclaimed with those attributes which had enchained her wilful and wayward affections. The unselfish devotion which had marked her conduct to the swindler and convict was, indeed, her one redeeming virtue; and perhaps she felt dimly--poor woman--that it were better for her to cling to that, if she lost all the world beside. Her wish for vengeance melted under the influence of these thoughts. The bitterness of despised love, the shame and anger of desertion, ingratitude, and betrayal, all vanished. The tears of a sweet forgiveness trembled in her eyes, the unreasoning love of her sex--faithful to nought but love, and faithful to love in death--shook in her voice. She took his coward hand and kissed it, pardoning all his baseness with the sole reproach, "Oh, John, John, you might have trusted me after all?"
John Rex had conquered, and he smiled as he embraced her. "I wish I had," said he; "it would have saved me many regrets; but never mind. Sit down; now we will have supper."
"Your preference has one drawback, Sarah," he said, when the meal was concluded, and the two sat down to consider their immediate course of action, "it doubles the chance of detection."
"People have accepted me without inquiry, but I am afraid not without dislike. Mr. Francis Wade, my uncle, never liked me; and I fear I have not played my cards well with Lady Devine. When they find I have a mysterious wife their dislike will become suspicion. Is it likely that I should have been married all these years and not have informed them?"
"Very unlikely," returned Sarah calmly, "and that is just the reason why you have not been married all these years. Really," she added, with a laugh, "the male intellect is very dull. You have already told ten thousand lies about this affair, and yet you don't see your way to tell one more."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, my dear Richard, you surely cannot have forgotten that you married me last year on the Continent? By the way, it was last year that you were there, was it not? I am the daughter of a poor clergyman of the Church of England; name--anything you please- and you met me--where shall we say? Baden, Aix, Brussels? Cross the Alps, if you like, dear, and say Rome." John Rex put his hand to his head. "Of course--I am stupid," said he. "I have not been well lately. Too much brandy, I suppose."
"Well, we will alter all that," she returned with a laugh, which her anxious glance at him belied. "You are going to be domestic now, Jack--I mean Dick."
"Go on," said he impatiently. "What then?"
"Then, having settled these little preliminaries, you take me up to London and introduce me to your relatives and friends."
He started. "A bold game."
"Bold! Nonsense! The only safe one. People don't, as a rule, suspect unless one is mysterious. You must do it; I have arranged for your doing it. The waiters here all know me as your wife. There is not the least danger-- unless, indeed, you are married already?" she added, with a quick and angry suspicion.
"You need not be alarmed. I was not such a fool as to marry another woman while you were alive--had I even seen one I would have cared to marry. But what of Lady Devine? You say you have told her."
"I have told her to communicate with Mrs. Carr, Post Office, Torquay, in order to hear something to her advantage. If you had been rebellious, John, the 'something' would have been a letter from me telling her who you really are. Now you have proved obedient, the 'something' will be a begging letter of a sort which she has already received hundreds, and which in all probability she will not even answer. What do you think of that, Mr. Richard Devine?"
"You deserve success, Sarah," said the old schemer, in genuine admiration. "By Jove, this is something like the old days, when we were Mr. and Mrs. Crofton."
"Or Mr. and Mrs. Skinner, eh, John?" she said, with as much tenderness in her voice as though she had been a virtuous matron recalling her honeymoon. "That was an unlucky name, wasn't it, dear? You should have taken my advice there." And immersed in recollection of their past rogueries, the worthy pair pensively smiled. Rex was the first to awake from that pleasant reverie.
"I will be guided by you, then," he said. "What next?"
"Next--for, as you say, my presence doubles the danger--we will contrive to withdraw quietly from England. The introduction to your mother over, and Mr. Francis disposed of, we will go to Hampstead, and live there for a while. During that time you must turn into cash as much property as you dare. We will then go abroad for the 'season'--and stop there. After a year or so on the Continent you can write to our agent to sell more property; and, finally, when we are regarded as permanent absentees-- and three or four years will bring that about--we will get rid of everything, and slip over to America. Then you can endow a charity if you like, or build a church to the memory of the man you have displaced."
John Rex burst into a laugh. "An excellent plan. I like the idea of the charity--the Devine Hospital, eh?"
"By the way, how did you find out the particulars of this man's life. He was burned in the Hydaspes, wasn't he?"
"No," said Rex, with an air of pride. "He was transported in the Malabar under the name of Rufus Dawes. You remember him. It is a long story. The particulars weren't numerous, and if the old lady had been half sharp she would have bowled me out. But the fact was she wanted to find the fellow alive, and was willing to take a good deal on trust. I'll tell you all about it another time. I think I'll go to bed now; I'm tired, and my head aches as though it would split."
"Then it is decided that you follow my directions?"
She rose and placed her hand on the bell. "What are you going to do?" he said uneasily.
"I am going to do nothing. You are going to telegraph to your servants to have the house in London prepared for your wife, who will return with you the day after to-morrow."
John Rex stayed her hand with a sudden angry gesture. "This is all devilish fine," he said, "but suppose it fails?"
"That is your affair, John. You need not go on with this business at all, unless you like. I had rather you didn't."
"What the deuce am I to do, then?"
"I am not as rich as you are, but, with my station and so on, I am worth seven thousand a year. Come back to Australia with me, and let these poor people enjoy their own again. Ah, John, it is the best thing to do, believe me. We can afford to be honest now."
"A fine scheme!" cried he. "Give up half a million of money, and go back to Australia! You must be mad!"
"But, my dear--"
"Hush, here's the waiter."
As he wrote, John Rex felt gloomily that, though he had succeeded in recalling her affection, that affection was as imperious as of yore.