H. Rider Haggard.

Colonel Quaritch, V.C. A Tale of Country Life online

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He heard her now, and looking up saw her standing in the glow and
flicker of the firelight, which played upon her white face and black-
draped form. He started violently; as he did so she loosed the heavy
cloak and hood that she wore and it fell behind her. But where was the
lovely rounded form, and where the clustering golden curls? Gone, and
in their place a coarse robe of blue serge, on which hung a crucifix,
and the white hood of the nun.

He sprang from his chair with an exclamation, not knowing if he
dreamed or if he really saw the woman who stood there like a ghost in
the firelight.

"Forgive me, Edward," she said presently, in her sweet low voice. "I
daresay that this all looks theatrical enough - but I have put on this
dress for two reasons: firstly, because I must leave this town in an
hour's time and wish to do so unknown; and secondly, to show that you
need not fear that I have come to be troublesome. Will you light the
candles?"

He did so mechanically, and then pulled down the blinds. Meanwhile
Belle had seated herself near the table, her face buried in her hands.

"What is the meaning of all this, Belle?" he said.

"'Sister Agnes,' you must call me now," she said, taking her hands
from her face. "The meaning of it is that I have left the world and
entered a sisterhood which works among the poor in London, and I have
come to bid you farewell, a last farewell."

He stared at her in amazement. He did not find it easy to connect the
idea of this beautiful, human, loving creature with the cold sanctuary
of a sisterhood. He did not know that natures like this, whose very
intensity is often the cause of their destruction, are most capable of
these strange developments. The man or woman who can really love and
endure - and they are rare - can also, when their passion has utterly
broken them, turn to climb the stony paths that lead to love's
antipodes.

"Edward," she went on, speaking very slowly, "you know in what
relation we have stood to each other, and what that relationship means
to woman. You know this - I have loved you with all my heart, and all
my strength, and all my soul - - " Here she trembled and broke down.

"You know, too," she continued presently, "what has been the end of
all this, the shameful end. I am not come to blame you. I do not blame
you, for the fault was mine, and if I have anything to forgive I
forgive it freely. Whatever memories may still live in my heart I
swear I put away all bitterness, and that my most earnest wish is that
you may be happy, as happiness is to you. The sin was mine; that is it
would have been mine were we free agents, which perhaps we are not. I
should have loved my husband, or rather the man whom I thought my
husband, for with all his faults he was of a different clay to you,
Edward."

He looked up, but said nothing.

"I know," she went on, pointing to the picture over the mantelpiece,
"that your mind is still set upon her, and I am nothing, and less than
nothing, to you. When I am gone you will scarcely give me a thought. I
cannot tell you if you will succeed in your end, and I think the
methods you are adopting wicked and shameful. But whether you succeed
or not, your fate also will be what my fate is - to love a person who
is not only indifferent to you but who positively dislikes you, and
reserves all her secret heart for another man, and I know no greater
penalty than is to be found in that daily misery."

"You are very consoling," he said sulkily.

"I only tell you the truth," she answered. "What sort of life do you
suppose mine has been when I am so utterly broken, so entirely robbed
of hope, that I have determined to leave the world and hide myself and
my shame in a sisterhood? And now, Edward," she went on, after a
pause, "I have something to tell you, for I will not go away, if
indeed you allow me to go away at all after you have heard it, until I
have confessed." And she leant forward and looked him full in the
face, whispering - "/I shot you on purpose, Edward!/"

"What!" he said, springing from his chair; "you tried to murder me?"

"Yes, yes; but don't think too hardly of me. I am only flesh and
blood, and you drove me wild with jealousy - you taunted me with having
been your mistress and said that I was not fit to associate with the
lady whom you were going to marry. It made me mad, and the opportunity
offered - the gun was there, and I shot you. God forgive me, I think
that I have suffered more than you did. Oh! when day after day I saw
you lying there and did not know if you would live or die, I thought
that I should have gone mad with remorse and agony!"

He listened so far, and then suddenly walked across the room towards
the bell. She placed herself between him and it.

"What are you going to do?" she said.

"Going to do? I am going to send for a policeman and give you into
custody for attempted murder, that is all."

She caught his arm and looked him in the face. In another second she
had loosed it.

"Of course," she said, "you have a right to do that. Ring and send for
the policeman, only remember that nothing is known now, but the whole
truth will come out at the trial."

This checked him, and he stood thinking.

"Well," she said, "why don't you ring?"

"I do not ring," he answered, "because on the whole I think I had
better let you go. I do not wish to be mixed up with you any more. You
have done me mischief enough; you have finished by attempting to
murder me. Go; I think that a convent is the best place for you; you
are too bad and too dangerous to be left at large."

"/Oh!/" she said, like one in pain. "/Oh!/ and you are the man for
whom I have come to this! Oh, God! it is a cruel world." And she
pressed her hands to her heart and stumbled rather than walked to the
door.

Reaching it she turned, and her hands still pressing the coarse blue
gown against her heart, she leaned against the door.

"Edward," she said, in a strained whisper, for her breath came thick,
"Edward - I am going for ever - have you /no/ kind word - to say to me?"

He looked at her, a scowl upon his handsome face. Then by way of
answer he turned upon his heel.



And so, still holding her hands against her poor broken heart, she
went out of the house, out of Boisingham and of touch and knowledge of
the world. In after years these two were fated to meet once again, and
under circumstances sufficiently tragic; but the story of that meeting
does not lie within the scope of this history. To the world Belle is
dead, but there is another world of sickness, and sordid unchanging
misery and shame, where the lovely face of Sister Agnes moves to and
fro like a ray of heaven's own light. There those who would know her
must go to seek her.

Poor Belle! Poor shamed, deserted woman! She was an evil-doer, and the
fatality of love and the unbalanced vigour of her mind, which might,
had she been more happily placed, have led her to all things that are
pure, and true, and of good report, combined to drag her into shame
and wretchedness. But the evil that she did was paid back to her in
full measure, pressed down and running over. Few of us need to wait
for a place of punishment to get the due of our follies and our sins.
/Here/ we expiate them. They are with us day and night, about our path
and about our bed, scourging us with the whips of memory, mocking us
with empty longing and the hopelessness of despair. Who can escape the
consequence of sin, or even of the misfortune which led to sin?
Certainly Belle did not, nor Mr. Quest, nor even that fierce-hearted
harpy who hunted him to his grave.

And so good-bye to Belle. May she find peace in its season!



CHAPTER XXXVIII

COLONEL QUARITCH EXPRESSES HIS VIEWS

Meanwhile things had been going very ill at the Castle. Edward
Cossey's lawyers were carrying out their client's instructions to the
letter with a perseverance and ingenuity worthy of a County Court
solicitor. Day by day they found a new point upon which to harass the
wretched Squire. Some share of the first expenses connected with the
mortgages had, they said, been improperly thrown upon their client,
and they again and again demanded, in language which was almost
insolent, the immediate payment of the amount. Then there was three
months' interest overdue, and this also they pressed and clamoured
for, till the old gentleman was nearly driven out of his senses, and
as a consequence drove everybody about the place out of theirs.

At last this state of affairs began to tell upon his constitution,
which, strong as he was, could not at his age withstand such constant
worry. He grew to look years older, his shoulders acquired a stoop,
and his memory began to fail him, especially on matters connected with
the mortgages and farm accounts. Ida, too, became pale and ill; she
caught a heavy cold, which she could not throw off, and her face
acquired a permanently pained and yet listless look.

One day, it was on the 15th of December, things reached a climax. When
Ida came down to breakfast she found her father busy poring over some
more letters from the lawyers.

"What is it now, father?" she said.

"What is it now?" he answered irritably. "What, it's another claim for
two hundred, that's what it is. I keep telling them to write to my
lawyers, but they won't, at least they write to me too. There, I can't
make head or tail of it. Look here," and he showed her two sides of a
big sheet of paper covered with statements of accounts. "Anyhow, I
have not got two hundred, that's clear. I don't even know where we are
going to find the money to pay the three months' interest. I'm worn
out, Ida, I'm worn out! There is only one thing left for me to do, and
that is to die, and that's the long and short of it. I get so confused
with these figures. I'm an old man now, and all these troubles are too
much for me."

"You must not talk like that, father," she answered, not knowing what
to say, for affairs were indeed desperate.

"Yes, yes, it's all very well to talk so, but facts are stubborn. Our
family is ruined, and we must accept it."

"Cannot the money be got anyhow? Is there /nothing/ to be done?" she
said in despair.

"What is the good of asking me that? There is only one thing that can
save us, and you know what it is as well as I do. But you are your own
mistress. I have no right to put pressure on you. I don't wish to put
pressure on you. You must please yourself. Meanwhile I think we had
better leave this place at once, and go and live in a cottage
somewhere, if we can get enough to support us; if not we must starve,
I suppose. I cannot keep up appearances any longer."

Ida rose, and with a strange sad light of resolution shining in her
eyes, came to where her father was sitting, and putting her hands upon
his shoulders, looked him in the face.

"Father," she said, "do you wish me to marry that man?"

"Wish you to marry him? What do you mean?" he said, not without
irritation, and avoiding her gaze. "It is no affair of mine. I don't
like the man, if that's what you mean. He is acting like - well, like
the cur that he is, in putting on the screw as he is doing; but, of
course, that is the way out of it, and the only way, and there you
are."

"Father," she said again, "will you give me ten days, that is, until
Christmas Day? If nothing happens between this and then I will marry
Mr. Edward Cossey."

A sudden light of hope shone in his eyes. She saw it, though he tried
to hide it by turning his head away.

"Oh, yes," he answered, "as you wish; settle it one way or the other
on Christmas Day, and then we can go out with the new year. You see
your brother James is dead, I have no one left to advise me now, and I
suppose that I am getting old. At any rate, things seem to be too much
for me. Settle it as you like; settle it as you like," and he got up,
leaving his breakfast half swallowed, and went off to moon aimlessly
about the park.

So she made up her mind at last. This was the end of her struggling.
She could not let her old father be turned out of house and home to
starve, for practically they would starve. She knew her hateful lover
well enough to be aware that he would show no mercy. It was a question
of the woman or the money, and she was the woman. Either she must let
him take her or they must be destroyed; there was no middle course.
And in these circumstances there was no room for hesitation. Once more
her duty became clear to her. She must give up her life, she must give
up her love, she must give up herself. Well, so be it. She was weary
of the long endeavour against fortune, now she would yield and let the
tide of utter misery sweep over her like a sea - to bear her away till
at last it brought her to that oblivion in which perchance all things
come right or are as though they had never been.

She had scarcely spoken to her lover, Harold Quaritch, for some weeks.
She had as she understood it entered into a kind of unspoken agreement
with her father not to do so, and that agreement Harold had realised
and respected. Since their last letters to each other they had met
once or twice casually or at church, interchanged a few indifferent
words, though their eyes spoke another story, touched each other's
hands and parted. That was absolutely all. But now that Ida had come
to this momentous decision she felt he had a right to learn it, and so
once more she wrote to him. She might have gone to see him or told him
to meet her, but she would not. For one thing she did not dare to
trust herself on such an errand in his dear company, for another she
was too proud, thinking if her father came to hear of it he might
consider that it had a clandestine and underhand appearance.

And so she wrote. With all she said we need not concern ourselves. The
letter was loving, even passionate, more passionate perhaps than one
would have expected from a woman of Ida's calm and stately sort. But a
mountain may have a heart of fire although it is clad in snows, and so
it sometimes is with women who seem cold and unemotional as marble.
Besides, it was her last chance - she could write him no more letters
and she had much to say.

"And so I have decided, Harold," she said after telling him of all her
doubts and troubles. "I must do it, there is no help for it, as I
think you will see. I have asked for ten days' respite. I really
hardly know why, except that it is a respite. And now what is there
left to say to you except good-bye? I love you, Harold, I make no
secret of it, and I shall never love any other. Remember all your life
that I love you and have not forgotten you, and never can forget. For
people placed as we are there is but one hope - the grave. In the grave
earthly considerations fail and earthly contracts end, and there I
trust and believe we shall find each other - or at the least
forgetfulness. My heart is so sore I know not what to say to you, for
it is difficult to put all I feel in words. I am overwhelmed, my
spirit is broken, and I wish to heaven that I were dead. Sometimes I
almost cease to believe in a God who can allow His creatures to be so
tormented and give us love only that it may be daily dishonoured in
our sight; but who am I that I should complain, and after all what are
our troubles compared to some we know of? Well, it will come to an end
at last, and meanwhile pity me and think of me.

"Pity me and think of me; yes, but never see me more. As soon as this
engagement is publicly announced, go away, the further the better.
Yes, go to New Zealand, as you suggested once, and in pity of our
human weakness never let me see your face again. Perhaps you may write
to me sometimes - if Mr. Cossey will allow it. Go there and occupy
yourself, it will divert your mind - you are still too young a man to
lay yourself upon the shelf - mix yourself up with the politics of the
place, take to writing; anything, so long as you can absorb yourself.
I sent you a photograph of myself (I have nothing better) and a ring
which I have worn night and day since I was a child. I think that it
will fit your little finger and I hope you will always wear it in
memory of me. It was my mother's. And now it is late and I am tired,
and what is there more that a woman can say to the man she loves - and
whom she must leave for ever? Only one word - Good-bye. Ida."

When Harold got this letter it fairly broke him down. His hopes had
been revived when he thought that all was lost, and now again they
were utterly dashed and broken. He could see no way out of it, none at
all. He could not quarrel with Ida's decision, shocking as it was, for
the simple reason that he knew in his heart she was acting rightly and
even nobly. But, oh, the thought of it made him mad. It is probable
that to a man of imagination and deep feeling hell itself can invent
no more hideous torture than he must undergo in the position in which
Harold Quaritch found himself. To truly love some good woman or some
woman whom he thinks good - for it comes to the same thing - to love her
more than life, to hold her dearer even than his honour, to be, like
Harold, beloved in turn; and then to know that this woman, this one
thing for which he would count the world well lost, this light that
makes his days beautiful, has been taken from him by the bitterness of
Fate (not by Death, for that he could bear), taken from him, and given
- for money or money's worth - to some other man! It is, perhaps,
better that a man should die than that he should pass through such an
experience as that which threatened Harold Quaritch now: for though
the man die not, yet will it kill all that is best in him; and
whatever triumphs may await him, whatever women may be ready in the
future to pin their favours to his breast, life will never be for him
what it might have been, because his lost love took its glory with
her.

No wonder, then, that he despaired. No wonder, too, that there rose up
in his breast a great anger and indignation against the man who had
brought this last extremity of misery upon them. He was just, and
could make allowances for his rival's infatuation - which, indeed, Ida
being concerned, it was not difficult for him to understand. But he
was also, and above all things, a gentleman; and the spectacle of a
woman being inexorably driven into a distasteful marriage by money
pressure, put on by the man who wished to gain her, revolted him
beyond measure, and, though he was slow to wrath, moved him to fiery
indignation. So much did it move him that he took a resolution; Mr.
Cossey should know his mind about the matter, and that at once.
Ringing the bell, he ordered his dog-cart, and drove to Edward
Cossey's rooms with the full intention of giving that gentleman a very
unpleasant quarter-of-an-hour.

Mr. Cossey was in. Fearing lest he should refuse to see him, the
Colonel followed the servant up the stairs, and entered almost as she
announced his name. There was a grim and even a formidable look upon
his plain but manly face, and something of menace, too, in his formal
and soldierly bearing; nor did his aspect soften when his eyes fell
upon the full-length picture of Ida over the mantelpiece.

Edward Cossey rose with astonishment and irritation, not unmixed with
nervousness, depicted on his face. The last person whom he wished to
see and expected a visit from was Colonel Quaritch, whom in his heart
he held in considerable awe. Besides, he had of late received such a
series of unpleasant calls that it is not wonderful that he began to
dread these interviews.

"Good-day," he said coldly. "Will you be seated?"

The Colonel bowed his head slightly, but he did not sit down.

"To what am I indebted for the pleasure?" began Edward Cossey with
much politeness.

"Last time I was here, Mr. Cossey," said the Colonel in his deep
voice, speaking very deliberately, "I came to give an explanation; now
I come to ask one."

"Indeed!"

"Yes. To come to the point, Miss de la Molle and I are attached to
each other, and there has been between us an understanding that this
attachment might end in marriage."

"Oh! has there?" said the younger man with a sneer.

"Yes," answered the Colonel, keeping down his rising temper as well as
he could. "But now I am told, upon what appears to be good authority,
that you have actually condescended to bring, directly and indirectly,
pressure of a monetary sort to bear upon Miss de la Molle and her
father in order to force her into a distasteful marriage with
yourself."

"And what the devil business of yours is it, sir," asked Cossey, "what
I have or have not done? Making every allowance for the disappointment
of an unsuccessful suitor, for I presume that you appear in that
character," and again he sneered, "I ask, what business is it of
yours?"

"It is every business of mine, Mr. Cossey, because if Miss de la Molle
is forced into this marriage, I shall lose my wife."

"Then you will certainly lose her. Do you suppose that I am going to
consider you? Indeed," he went on, being now in a towering passion, "I
should have thought that considering the difference of age and fortune
between us, you might find other reasons than you suggest to account
for my being preferred, if I should be so preferred. Ladies are apt to
choose the better man, you know."

"I don't quite know what you mean by the 'better man,' Mr. Cossey,"
said the Colonel quietly. "Comparisons are odious, and I will make
none, though I admit that you have the advantage of me in money and in
years. However, that is not the point; the point is that I have had
the fortune to be preferred to /you/ by the lady in question, and
/not/ you to me. I happen to know that the idea of her marriage with
you is as distasteful to Miss de la Molle as it is to me. This I know
from her own lips. She will only marry you, if she does so at all,
under the pressure of direst necessity, and to save her father from
the ruin you are deliberately bringing upon him."

"Well, Colonel Quaritch," he answered, "have you quite done lecturing
me? If you have, let me tell you, as you seem anxious to know my mind,
that if by any legal means I can marry Ida de la Molle I certainly
intend to marry her. And let me tell you another thing, that when once
I am married it will be the last that you shall see of her, if I can
prevent it."

"Thank you for your admissions," said Harold, still more quietly. "So
it seems that it is all true; it seems that you are using your wealth
to harass this unfortunate gentleman and his daughter until you drive
them into consenting to this marriage. That being so, I wish to tell
you privately what I shall probably take some opportunity of telling
you in public, namely, that a man who does these things is a cur, and
worse than a cur, he is a /blackguard/, and /you/ are such a man, Mr.
Cossey."

Edward Cossey's face turned perfectly livid with fury, and he drew
himself up as though to spring at his adversary's throat.

The Colonel held up his hand. "Don't try that on with me," he said.
"In the first place it is vulgar, and in the second you have only just
recovered from an accident and are no match for me, though I am over
forty years old. Listen, our fathers had a way of settling their
troubles; I don't approve of that sort of thing as a rule, but in some
cases it is salutary. If you think yourself aggrieved it does not take
long to cross the water, Mr. Cossey."

Edward Cossey looked puzzled. "Do you mean to suggest that I should
fight a duel with you?" he said.

"To challenge a man to fight a duel," answered the Colonel with
deliberation, "is an indictable offence, therefore I make no such
challenge. I have made a suggestion, and if that suggestion falls in
with your views as," and he bowed, "I hope it may, we might perhaps
meet accidentally abroad in a few days' time, when we could talk this
matter over further."

"I'll see you hanged first," answered Cossey. "What have I to gain by
fighting you except a very good chance of being shot? I have had
enough of being shot as it is, and we will play this game out upon the
old lines, until I win it."

"As you like," said Harold. "I have made a suggestion to you which you
do not see fit to accept. As to the end of the game, it is not
finished yet, and therefore it is impossible to say who will win it.
Perhaps you will be checkmated after all. In the meanwhile allow me
again to assure you that I consider you both a cur and a blackguard,
and to wish you good-morning." And he bowed himself out, leaving
Edward Cossey in a curious condition of concentrated rage.



CHAPTER XXXIX


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Online LibraryH. Rider HaggardColonel Quaritch, V.C. A Tale of Country Life → online text (page 23 of 27)