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curiosity to know how it is that you are here."

"Well, we owe it to your son, Mr. Orme here, I should imagine, Sir
Stephen," she replied. She had fully recovered her self-possession, and
her manner and voice had all the tone of pride and indolence which
Stafford had noticed when he met her at the inn. "If he had not stopped
the horses, I suppose we should have either been killed or on the way
to the nearest hospital. By the way, have you thanked Mr. Orme yet,
father?"

"Not yet; and I shall find it difficult to do so," said Mr. Falconer.
"Thanks are poor return for one's life, Mr. Orme. I hope you were not
hurt." He glanced at Stafford's usually immaculate dress-clothes, which
were covered with dust on one side, and displayed a rent in the sleeve
of the coat.

"Oh, that's all right, sir," returned Stafford, with all an
Englishman's dread of a fuss. "They stopped short the moment I got hold
of them, and I only slipped, and got up directly.

"You are not hurt, then, Stafford?" said Sir Stephen. "As I came up I
thought, was afraid that you were smashed up - and I daresay I showed my
fear: it's my only boy, Falconer."

He looked at his old friend meaningly, and Falconer promptly backed him
up.

"Well, yes, you looked fairly startled and scared," he said. "But now,
if the horses are all right, we may as well get on. We have given you
quite trouble enough."

"The horses are all right, sir," said the driver. "I've managed to take
up the broken trace; it was that that startled them, sir, and they'll
be quiet enough now."

"Oh, but where are you going?" said Sir Stephen, with hospitable
eagerness. "Were you not coming to us, to the Villa?"

"No; we were going to Keswick," said Mr. Falconer. "My daughter had a
fancy for seeing the lake district, and we are making a kind of tour."

"You have no other engagement? I am delighted to hear it," said Sir
Stephen. "Oh, I'll take no denial! What! Do you think I shall part with
an old friend so quickly - and after such a - er - sudden and unexpected
meeting! Miss Falconer, let me beg you to plead with your father for
me!"

Mr. Falconer regarded Sir Stephen for a moment curiously, then looked
towards his daughter. Her fine eyes rested on Stafford's face, and he
could do not less than repeat his father's invitation.

"I hope you'll consent, Miss Falconer," he said. "You have no doubt
been a little upset by the accident, and it is rather late to go on.
Pray stay with us!"

"Thanks. I shall be delighted." she said, with her indolent, regal air.

By this time, as they went towards the gate, some of the men who had
been walking in the garden came up, and Howard's voice called out:

"Hallo, Stafford! Anything the matter?" "No; nothing whatever," said
Stafford, promptly; and Sir Stephen seized the opportunity to steer the
Falconers through the group. "Some old friends of mine, Mr. Howard;
their carriage broke down - fortunately at our very door - this way,
Falconer. Stafford, will you give Miss Maude your arm?"

"Strange, our meeting again so soon, and under such circumstances," she
said. "You must have stopped those horses very pluckily. I thought that
kind of thing was out of date now, and that gentlemen only called the
police on such occasions. You are sure you are not hurt? I thought from
your father's face you must be. He must be very fond of you to look so
scared. He was as white as a ghost."

"He is fond of me, I hope and think," said Stafford. "Candidly, I did
not think he would be so alarmed - but I don't know him very well
yet - we have been living apart until just recently."

"Why, that is my case," she said. "My father and I were strangers until
the other day, when he came from abroad - What a beautiful house! It is
like a miniature palace."

She looked at the Villa and then at Stafford with renewed interest.

"I suppose your father is _the_ Sir Stephen Orme of whom one has heard
so much? I did not think of it until this moment."

Stafford was giving instructions that the Falconers' carriage should be
seen to, and so was spared a reply. She stood in the hall looking round
with a kind of indolent admiration and surprise, and perfectly
self-possessed, though the hall was rapidly filling with the men from
the garden.

"You would like to go to your rooms at once," said Sir Stephen, in his
serene and courtly voice. "If you should be too tired to come down
again to-night I will have some dinner sent up to you - but I hope you
won't be. It would be a great disappointment."

"Oh, I am not at all tired," said Miss Falconer, as she followed the
housekeeper and the two demure maids up the exquisite staircase.

Sir Stephen looked after them with a bland smile, then he turned to
Stafford and caught his arm.

"Not hurt, my boy?" he said, in a tone of strained anxiety.

Stafford was beginning to get tired of the question, and answered
rather impatiently: "Not in the least sir - why should I be! I'll change
my things and be down in five minutes!"

"Yes, yes!" Sir Stephen still eyed him with barely concealed anxiety.
"Strange coincidence, Stafford! I - I haven't seen Ralph Falconer
for - for - ever so many years! And he is thrown at my very gate! And
they say there is no such thing as Fate - "

"Hadn't you better go into the drawing-room, sir," Stafford reminded
him. "They'll think something has happened."

"Eh? Yes, yes, of course!" said Sir Stephen, with a little start as if
he had been lost in thought; but he waited until he saw Stafford walk
up the stairs, without any sign of a limp, before he followed his son's
advice.

The butler, who was too sharp to need any instructions, quickly served
a choice little dinner for the unexpected guests, and Stafford, who had
waited in the hall, accompanied them into the dining-room. Miss
Falconer had changed her travelling-dress for a rich evening-frock, and
the jewels Stafford had noticed were supplemented by some remarkably
fine diamonds.

"I wish you had come in time for dinner!" he said, as he conducted her
to her seat.

"So do I!" she returned, serenely. "We are giving a great deal of
trouble; and we are keeping you from your guests. The maid who waited
on me told me that you had a large house party."

"Yes," said Stafford. "It is a kind of house-warming. My father intends
settling in England for some time, I think," he added. "And he has
built this place."

Mr. Falconer looked up from his plate in his alert, watchful way.

"Sir Stephen's plans rather uncertain?" he said. "I remember he always
used to be rather erratic. Well, if he means settling, he's made
himself a very cosy nest." He looked round the magnificent room with a
curious smile. "A wonderful man, your father, Mr. Orme!"

"Yes?" said Stafford, with a non-committal smile.

"Yes; of course, I've heard of his great doings - who hasn't! Did you
ever hear him speak of me - we were great friends one time?"

"No, I don't think I have," replied Stafford. "But as I was telling
Miss Falconer, I have not seen very much of him." "Ah, yes, just so,"
assented Mr. Falconer, and he went on with his dinner.

Stafford had taken a seat at the table and poured out a glass of wine
so that they might not hurry; but he felt that he need not have been
anxious on that account, for the girl ate her dinner in a most
leisurely manner, talking to him in her soft, slow voice and looking at
him from under her half-closed lids. She talked of the scenery, of the
quaint inns and hotels they had put up at, of the various
inconveniences which she had suffered on the way; then suddenly she
raised her lids and looked at him fully and steadily.

"I suppose the young lady we saw with you this morning is your sister?"

With all his natural simplicity, Stafford was a man of the world, and
he did not redden or look embarrassed by the suddenness of the question
and the direct gaze of the luminous eyes.

"No," he said. "I have neither sister nor brother - only my father. She
was a friend."

"Oh," she said; then after a pause: "She was very pretty."

Stafford nodded. Like a flash floated before him the exquisite
loveliness of Ida Heron.

"Do you think so?" he said, with affected indifference.

"Why, yes; don't you?" she retorted.

"Oh, yes," he assented; "but I didn't know whether you would; men and
women so very seldom agree upon the question of looks. I find that most
of the women I think pretty are considered next door to plain by my
lady-friends."

"Well, there can't be any doubt as to your friend's good looks," she
said. "She made rather a striking, not to say startling figure perched
sideways on that horse, in the pelting rain. I suppose she is one of
your neighbours?"

"Yes," replied Stafford, as easily and casually as he could, for the
face still floated before him - "yes; but not a very near one. Let me
give you some more wine."

"No, thanks. Father, haven't you nearly finished? Mr. Orme has kept us
company so nicely that we've been tempted to forget that we are keeping
him from his guests."

She rose, and with a peculiarly sinuous movement threw out the train of
her dress, and swept languidly to the door Stafford offered her his arm
and they entered the drawing-room.

Her appearance naturally caused a little sensation, for some of the men
had learnt and told of the story of Stafford's plucky arrest of the
bolting horses, and the people were curious to see the father and
daughter who had been rescued, and who had proved to be friends of Sir
Stephen.

By a sort of tacit understanding, Lady Clausford, who was a
good-natured individual, was playing the part of hostess and general
chaperon, and Stafford led Miss Falconer up to her.

Before a quarter of an hour had passed Miss Falconer seemed to be quite
at home in her novel surroundings; and leaning back in her chair, and
slowly fanning herself, received with perfect self-possession the
attentions which her beauty, her costly dress, and her still more
costly jewels merited. Presently Stafford heard Lady Clansford ask her
to sing; and he went to conduct her to the piano.

"My music is upstairs in my box - but it does not matter: I will try and
remember something," she said. "I wonder what you like?" She raised her
eyes to his, as her fingers touched the keys. "The simple ballad would
be rather out of place, wouldn't it? Do you know this thing of
Wagner's?"

As she began to sing the talking died down and gradually ceased; and
every eye was fixed upon her; for it was evident that she not only had
an exquisite voice, but knew how to use it. She sang like an artist,
and apparently without the least effort, the liquid notes flowing from
her red lips like the water of a mountain rill.

Stafford was surprised, almost startled, but as he stood beside her, he
was thinking, strangely enough, not so much of the singer as of the
girl he was going to meet on the morrow. When she had finished, there
was a general murmur of applause, and Lady Clansford glided to the
piano and asked her to sing again.

"You have a really wonderful voice, Miss Falconer. I don't think Melba
ever sang that better."

"Melba's register is ever so much greater than mine," remarked Miss
Falconer, calmly. "No, thanks; I won't sing again. I think I am a
little tired."

She went back to her seat slowly, her fan moving languidly, as if she
were too conscious of the worth of her voice to be affected by the
murmurs of applause and admiration; and Stafford, as his eyes followed
her, thought she resembled a superb tropical flower of rich and subtle
colouring and soft and languorous grace.

None of the women would venture to sing after this exhibition, and one
of the young men went to the piano and dashed off a semi-comic song
which believed the tension produced by Miss Falconer's magnificent
voice and style. Then the woman began to glance at the clock and rise
and stand about preparatory to going to bed, and presently they went
off, lingering, talking, and laughing, in the hall and in the
corridors.

The men drifted into the billiard and smoking-room, and Sir Stephen
started a pool. He had been at his very best in the drawing-room,
moving about amongst the brilliant crowd, with a word for each and all,
and pleased smile on his handsome face, and a happy, genial brightness
in his voice. Once or twice Sir Stephen approached Mr. Falconer, who
leant against the wall looking on with the alert, watchful eyes half
screened behind his lids, which, like his daughter's had a trick of
drooping, though with a very different expression.

"Your daughter has a magnificent voice, Falconer," Sir Stephen had said
in a congratulatory voice; and Falconer had nodded.

"Yes. She's been well taught, I believe," he had responded,
laconically; and Sir Stephen had nodded emphatically, and moved away.

"Will you play, Falconer?" he asked, as Stafford gave out the balls.
"You used to play a good game."

Falconer shrugged his shoulders.

"Haven't played for years: rather look on," he said.

"Let me give you a cigar. Try these; they are all right, Stafford
says."

Falconer seated himself in one of the lounges and looked at the players
and round the handsome room in contemplative silence. Sir Stephen's eye
wandered covertly towards him now and again, and once he said to
Stafford:

"See if Mr. Falconer has some whiskey, my boy?"

As Stafford went up to Mr. Falconer's corner he saw that Mr.
Griffinberg and Baron Wirsch had joined him. The three men were talking
in the low confidential tone characteristic of city men when they are
discussing the sacred subject of money, and Stafford caught the
words - "Sir Stephen" - "South African Railway."

Mr. Falconer looked round sharply as Stafford stood at his elbow.

"Eh? Whiskey? Oh, yes, thanks, I have some," he said.

As Stafford returned to the billiard-room, Falconer nodded after him.

"Is the son in this?" he asked, sharply.

"Oh, no," replied the baron, with a smile. "He knows nothing; he ees
too young, too - vat do you say? - too vashionable, frivolous. No, Sir
Stephen doesn't bring him in at all. You understand? He is ze
ornamental, shleeping' pardner, eh?" And he chuckled.

Falconer nodded, and leaning forward, continued the conversation in a
low voice. The men went off to bed one by one, and presently only Sir
Stephen, Stafford and Falconer remained; and as the latter rose as if
to retire, Sir Stephen laid a hand on his shoulder.

"Don't go yet! I should like to have a little chat with you - about old
times."

Falconer sank into his seat again and took a fresh cigar, and Stafford
left them.


CHAPTER XI.


Sir Stephen closed the door after him, then went back to the
smoking-room and stood looking down at Falconer, who leant back in his
chair with his cigar in his mouth and eyed Sir Stephen under
half-closed lids with an expression which had something of mastery and
power in it.

Sir Stephen bit at the end of his moustache, his thick black brows
lowered, as if he scarcely knew how to begin the "chat," and Falconer
waited without any offer of assistance. At last Sir Stephen said:

"You asked me outside just now, Falconer, if it was to be 'friend or
foe?' I'm thinking the question ought to have come from me."

"Yes," assented Falconer, his eyes growing still narrower. "Yes, I
suppose it ought."

"Would your answer have been the same as mine - 'friends'?" asked Sir
Stephen in a low voice.

Falconer was silent for a moment, then he said:

"It oughtn't to have been. If ever a man had cause to regard another as
an enemy, I've had cause to regard you as one, Orme!"

Sir Stephen flushed, then went pale again.

"There is no use in raking up the past," he muttered.

"Oh, I've no need to rake it up; it's here right enough, without
raking," retorted Falconer, and he touched his breast with his thick
forefinger. "I'm not likely to forget the trick you played me; not
likely to forget the man who turned on me and robbed me - "

"Robbed!" echoed Sir Stephen, with a dark frown.

Falconer turned his cigar in his mouth and bit at it.

"Yes, robbed. You seem to have forgotten: my memory is a better one
than yours, and I'm not likely to forget the day I tramped back to the
claim in that God-forsaken Australian hole to find that you'd
discovered the gold while I'd been on the trail to raise food and
money - discovered it and sold out - and cleared out!"

His eyes flashed redly and his mouth twitched as his teeth almost met
in the choice Havana.

Sir Stephen threw out his hand.

"I heard you were dead," he said, hoarsely. "I heard that you had died
in a street row - in Melbourne."

Falconer's heavy face was distorted by a sneer.

"Yes? Of course, I don't believe you: who would?"

"As Heaven is my witness - !" exclaimed Sir Stephen; but Falconer went
on:

"You didn't wait to see if it were true or not; you cleared out before
I'd time to get back, and you took precious good care not to make
enquiries. No; directly your partner's back was turned you - sold him;
got the price and levanted."

Sir Stephen paced up and done, his hands clenched behind him; his fine
leonine head bent; then he stopped in front of the chair, and frowned
down into the scowling face.

"Falconer, you wrong me - it was not so bad, so black as it looked. It's
true I sold the claim; but I swear that I intended saving half for you.
But news was brought in that you were dead - a man said that he had seen
you fall, that you were dead and buried. I had to leave the camp the
night the money was paid: it would not have been safe to remain: you
know what the place was, and that the man who was known to have money
carried his life in his hand. I left the camp and tramped south. Before
a month had passed, the money had gone; if I had had any doubts of your
death, it was too late to enquire; it would have been useless; as I
tell you, the money was gone. But I hadn't any doubts; in simple truth,
I thought you were dead."

Falconer looked round the luxurious room.

"You lost the money? But you appear to have picked it up again; you
seem to be pretty flourishing, my friend; when you got on your feet
again and made your pile, why didn't you find out whether your old pal
was alive or dead?"

Sir Stephen was silent for a space, then he raised his head and met the
other's accusing gaze unflinchingly.

"I'll tell you - I'll tell you the whole truth, Falconer; and if you can
make excuse for me, if you can put yourself in my place - "

He drew his hand across his brow as if the sweat had broken out upon
it. "The luck was dead against me for a time, the old luck that had
haunted you and me; then it swung round completely - as it generally
does when it changes at all. I was out in Africa, on the tramp, picking
up a day's work now and again at the farms - you know the life! One day
I saw a Kaffir boy playing with some rough stones - "

Falconer nodded.

"Diamonds. I fancy I've read an account of the great Sir Stephen Orme's
first beginnings," he put in with a touch of sarcasm.

Sir Stephen reddened.

"I daresay. It was the start, the commencement of the luck. From the
evening I took those stones in my hands - great Heaven! I can see the
place now, the sunset on the hill; the dirty brat playing in the
dust! - the luck has stood by me. Everything I touched turned out right.
I left the diamond business and went in for land: wherever I bought
land towns sprang up and the land increased in value a thousandfold.
Then I stood in with the natives: you've heard of the treaty - "

Falconer nodded.

"The treaty that enabled you to hand over so many thousand square miles
to the government in exchange for a knighthood."

"No," said Sir Stephen, simply. "I got that for another business; but I
daresay the other thing helped. It doesn't matter. Then I - I married. I
married the daughter of a man of position, a girl who - who loved and
trusted me; who knew nothing of the past you and I know; and as I would
rather have died than that she should have known anything of it, I - "

"Conveniently and decently buried it," put in Falconer. "Oh, yes, I can
see the whole thing! You had blossomed out from Black Steve - "

Sir Stephen rose and took a step towards the door, then remembered that
he had shut it and sank down again, his face white as ashes, his lips
quivering.

- "To Sir Stephen Orme, the African millionaire, the high and lofty
English gentleman with his head full of state secrets, and his safe
full of foreign loans; Sir Stephen Orme, the pioneer, the empire
maker - Oh, yes, I can understand how naturally you would bury the
past - as you had buried your old pal and partner. The dainty and
delicate Lady Orme was to hear nothing - " Sir Stephen rose and
stretched out his hand half warningly half imploringly.

"She's dead, Falconer!" he said, hoarsely. "Don't - don't speak of her!
Leave her out, for God's sake!"

Falconer shrugged his shoulders.

"And this boy of yours - he's as ignorant as her ladyship was, of
course?"

Sir Stephen inclined his head.

"Yes," he said, huskily. "He - he knows nothing. He thinks me - what the
world sees me, what all the world, saving you, Falconer, thinks me: one
who has risen from humble but honest poverty to - what I am. You have
seen him, you can understand what I feel; that I'd rather die than that
he should know - that he should think badly of me. Falconer, I have made
a clean breast of it - I'm in your hands. I'm - I'm at your mercy. I
appeal to you" - he stretched out his white, shapely hands - "you have a
child of your own: she's as dear to you as mine is to me - I've watched
you to-night, and I've seen you look at her as she moved about and
talked and sang, with the look that my eyes wear when they rest on my
boy. I am at your mercy - not only mine, but my son's future - "

He wiped the sweat from his forehead and drew a long breath.

Falconer leant back and smoked contemplatively, with a coolness, an
indifference to the other's emotion which Sir Stephen found well-nigh
maddening.

"Yes," said Falconer, after a pause, "I suppose your house of cards
would come down with a crash if I opened my mouth say, at breakfast
to-morrow morning, and told - well, all I know of the great Sir Stephen
Orme when he bore the name of Black Steve. Even you, with all you
colossal assurance, could not face it or outlive it. And as for the
boy - it would settle his hash now and forever. A word from me would do
it, eh, Orme? And upon my soul I don't know why I shouldn't say it!
I've had it in my mind, I've kept it as a sweet morsel for a good many
years. Yes, I've been looking forward to it. I've been waiting for the
'physiological moment,' as I think they call it; and it strikes me that
it has arrived."

Sir Stephen's face grew strained, and a curious expression crept into
it.

"If you ask me why you should not, I can give you no reason," he said.
"If you were poor I should offer you money - more, a great deal more
than I received for the old claim; but I can see that that would not
tempt you to forego your revenge. Falconer, you are not poor; your
daughter wears diamonds - "

Falconer shrugged his shoulders.

"No, I'm not in want of money. You're not the only man who has had a
change of luck. No, you can't bribe me; even if I were hard up instead
of rather flush, as I am, I wouldn't take a hundred thousand pounds for
my revenge."

Sir Stephen rose. There was an ominous change in his manner. His
nervousness and apprehension seemed to have suddenly left him, and in
its place was a terrible, stony calmness, an air of inflexible
determination.

"Good!" he said; and his voice had changed also, changed from its
faltering tone of appeal to one of steadfast resolution, the steadiness
of desperation. "I have made my appeal to you, Falconer, and I gather
that I have failed to move you; that you intend to exact your revenge
by - denouncing me!"

Falconer nodded coolly.

"And you think that I could endure to live under such a threat, to walk
about with the sword of Damocles over my head? You ought to know me
better, Falconer. I will not live to endure the shame you can inflict
on me, I will not live to tempt you by the sight of me to take your
revenge. I shall die to-night."

Falconer eyed him intently, and carefully selected a fresh cigar. When
he had as carefully lit it, he said callously:

"That's your business, of course. I shouldn't venture to interfere with
any plan of that kind. So you'd sneak out of it, eh, Orme? Sneak out of
it, and leave that young fellow to bear the brunt? Well, I'm sorry for
him! He seems the right sort - deuced good-looking and high-class - yes,
I'm d - - d sorry for him!"

Once again Sir Stephen's lips twitched and the big drops of sweat stood



Online LibraryCharles GarviceAt Love's Cost → online text (page 9 of 33)