By Wit of Woman is a web novel produced by Arthur W. Marchmont.
This lightnovel is currently completed.
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“Finding them _out_, you mean,” I retorted, slowly and significantly.
“Will you leave me to do this now, or will you tell me frankly?”
“There is no new plan.”
“You will find it not only useless but unsafe to attempt to deceive me.
I know already much of the new plan and within a few hours shall know all.” She had been already so impressed by the discoveries I had made that she was quite prepared to believe this bluff; and she was so nervous and agitated that she would not trust herself to speak.
I paused some moments and then said with impressive deliberation:
“Henriette, our relative positions here are changing fast. I came here that you might help me to push my fortunes. I know so much and am so much better and stronger a player than you, that either I shall leave you altogether to carry my knowledge to those who need it badly, or I shall stay to protect you and your fortunes from the man who is threatening both. Think of that while I go upstairs to my room; and think closely, for your future–ruin or success–is the stake at issue; and one false step may cost you everything.”
“You mean to threaten me?” she cried, half nervously, half in bravado.
“It is more an offer of help than a threat; but you can regard it as you please;” and I went out of the room.
I ran up hastily to my room full of a new idea which had just occurred to me; but fortunately not so preoccupied as to keep my eyes shut. As I pa.s.sed Madame d’Artelle’s room the door was not quite closed, and through the narrow slit I caught a glimpse of Ernestine. She was vigorously dusting some object that was out of my line of sight.
I am accustomed to study trifles; they often act as finger posts at the forked roads of difficulty and point the proper way. Ernestine was a very particular lady’s maid indeed, and never dreamt of dusting out rooms. Why then was she so busy?
I paused and managed to get a peep at the object of her unusual industry. It was a travelling trunk; large enough to hold a big suggestion for me. I pushed the door open.
“Good-morning, Ernestine. I’ve come back, you see,” I said, smiling.
“Ah, good-morning, Mademoiselle Gilmore. I am glad to see you.”
Ernestine was very friendly to me. I had bought her goodwill.
“Madame and I have been talking over our arrangements,” I said, lightly. “It is all rather sudden. Do you think you will have time to alter that black silk bodice for me before we start?”
“I’m afraid not, mademoiselle. You see every thing has to be packed.”
“Of course it has. If I had thought of it, I would have left it out for you before I went, the day before yesterday.”
“If I had known I would have asked you for it, mademoiselle. But I had not a hint until this morning.”
“Come up and see if we cannot contrive something. A bertha of old lace might do for the time.”
I did not wish Madame to catch me in her room, so Ernestine and I went on to mine. We talked dress for a couple of minutes and, as I wished her not to speak of the conversation, I said that as the alteration could not be made, I might as well give her the dress. It was nearly new, and delighted her.
“I suppose you’ll be ready in time? You are such a clever packer. But the time is short.”
She repudiated the suggestion of being behind. “I have all to-day and part of to-morrow. I could pack for you as well,” she cried, with a sweep of her hand round the room.
“Never mind about that. I may not go yet.”
“Oh no, of course not;” and she laughed archly. “They will not want Mademoiselle la Troisieme.”
“_Mechante_,” I cried, dismissing her with a laugh, as though I fully understood the joke. And in truth she had given me a clue which was very cheap at the price of a silk dress.
Instinct had warned me of the change in the position, and now I began to understand what the new plan was. Madame had made her avowal about not marrying Karl much too clumsily; and the dusting of that travelling trunk, coupled with Ernestine’s sly reference to “Mademoiselle la Troisieme,” was too clear to be misunderstood. They meant to hoodwink me by an apparent abandonment of the marriage; and then make it clandestinely.
I laughed to myself as I left the house to hurry up my own plan.
Having made sure that I was not being followed, I hailed a carriage and drove to the neighbourhood where Colonel Katona lived.
I finished the distance on foot, and scanned the house closely as I walked up the drive. It was a square, fair-sized house of two floors, and very secluded. Most of the blinds were down, and all the windows were heavily barred and most of them very dirty. It might well have been the badly-kept home of a recluse who lived in constant fear of burglars. Yet Colonel Katona was reputed a very brave man. Barred windows are as useful however, for keeping those who are inside from getting out, as for preventing those who are out from getting in; and I remembered Gareth’s statement that she had scarcely ever lived at home.
When I rang, a grizzled man, with the bearing of an old soldier, came to the door and, in answer to my question for Colonel Katona, told me bluntly I could not see him.
“I am a friend of his daughter and I must see the Colonel,” I insisted.
He shut me outside and said he would ask his master.
Why all these precautions, I thought, as I waited; and they strengthened my resolve not to go away without seeing him. But my use of Gareth’s name proved a pa.s.sport; and presently the old soldier returned and admitted me.
He left me in a room which I am sure had never known a woman’s hand for years; and the Colonel came to me.
He had as stern and hard a face as I had ever looked at; and it was difficult to believe that the little shrinking timorsome child who had nestled herself to sleep in my arms the night before could be his daughter. The colouring pigment of the eyes was identical; but the expression of Gareth’s suggested the liquid softness of a summer sky, while those which looked down at me were as hard as the lapis lazuli of the Alps.
“Accept my excuses for your reception, Miss Gilmore. I am a recluse and do not receive visitors as a rule; but you mentioned my daughter’s name. What do you want of me?”
I a.s.sumed the manner of a gauche, stupid school-girl, and began to simper with empty inanity.
“I should never have taken you for Gareth’s father,” I said. “I think you frighten me. I–I–What a lovely old house you have, and how beautifully gloomy. I love gloomy houses. I–I—-“
He frowned at my silliness; and I pretended to be silenced by the frown.
“What do you know of my–of Gareth?”
“Please don’t look at me like that,” I cried, getting up as if in dismay and glancing about me. “I didn’t mean to disturb you, sir–Colonel, I mean. I–I think I had better go. But Gareth loved you so, and loved me, and–oh—-” and I stuttered and stammered in frightened confusion.
If she has a really stern man to deal with, a girl’s strongest weapon is generally her weakness. His look softened a little at the mention of Gareth’s love for us both, as I hoped it would.
“Don’t let me frighten you, please. I am a gruff old soldier and a stern man of many sorrows; but a friend of Gareth’s is a friend of mine–still;” and he held out his hand to me.
The sorrow in that one syllable, “still,” went right to my heart.
“I am very silly and–weak, I know,” I said, as I put my hand timidly into his and met his eyes with a feeble smile.
I could have sighed rather than smiled; for at that moment everything seemed eloquent to me of pathos. The dingy, unswept room, the dust acc.u.mulating everywhere, his unkempt hair and beard, his shabby clothes, the dirt on the hand which closed firmly on mine–everywhere in everything the evidences of neglect; the silent tribute to a sorrow too absorbing to let him heed aught else.
“What can I do for you?” he asked much more gently, after a pause.
“Oh please,” I cried, nervously. “Let me try and collect my poor scattered wits. I ought not to have come, I am afraid.”
“Don’t say that. I am glad you have come. What could I be but glad to see one who was a friend of Gareth’s?”
“_Was_ a friend. Is a friend, I hope, Colonel, and always will be.
She always wanted me to come and see her home–but she was hardly ever here, was she? So she couldn’t ask me.”
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