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The Life Sentence

The Life Sentence


Victoria Cross fi*

Author of "Life's Shop Window,' 1 "The Night of
Temptation, 1 ' etc.


Published, 1914, ft






CHAPTER IV , . 134

CHAPTER V ....... 157




The Life Sentence



IT was a perfect day in June, and the hot
afternoon sunshine poured down on the
steel tracks of the Great Western line,
making them glitter like burnished silver
as the sun rays danced upon them. The
express from London swung smoothly
along, mile after mile, through enchant-
ing vistas of wavering trees, laughing
meadows, and by sparkling streams, re-
flecting in their shallow pools the cloud-
less turquoise of the sky.

In one of the first-class carriages alone
sat two passengers, a man and a girl.


The man sat at the far end reading a
paper, and half concealed behind it; the
girl leant forward in her seat, looking
through the window, and the sun fell on
the pastel blue of her dress and seemed to
linger in her cloud of bright hair, under
the velvet hat, as if it found her the
prettiest thing to rest upon and wished to
caress her. And she was so pretty, this
girl, although her nose was not the clas-
sic shape, nor any of her features perfect.
The burnished mass of her hair against
the silky whiteness of her skin, the blue
eyes like great clear pools, with their
dark lashes, under their soft brown
brows, and the colour of the mouth like
a damask rose, these were the birthday
gifts of Nature to her at the commence-
ment of her sixteenth year.

As she gazed out now, the blue eyes
were troubled; there was a shadow in


their depths which deepened when she
turned her head for a moment and saw
her companion was still hidden behind
the newspaper. She looked out again at
the ever-changing landscape with a sigh.
The extreme care that had evidently been
bestowed upon her toilette, the beautiful
and somewhat extravagant dress, the un-
certain expression on her face, the slight
wavering flush that came and went so
quickly in her cheeks, all suggested, even
to the most careless observer, that she was
a bride, and the new dressing-case beside
her, the new cloaks on the opposite seat,
confirmed this fact.

It had been a very smart wedding that
day in town, for the bridegroom's wealth,
position, and status made it so. To the
girl this day had been the longest in her
life it seemed of endless, superhuman
length. When had it begun? It seemed


ages ago that she had risen after a sleep-
less night and commenced to move in the
long pageant of dressing and decorating
herself, of receiving her bridesmaids, of
seeing new faces, of answering congratu-
lations; then the drive to the church in
her white splendour, the beauty of the
building, the scent of the banks of flowers,
the wonderful music that seemed lifting
her soul to unknown heights, the service,
the solemnity of the moment when she
knelt on those marble steps; then the re-
turn, that seemed so swiftly made and of
which she could remember nothing, ex-
cept one glorious, golden moment, when
the man beside her had bent over her and
kissed her. That moment hung in her
memory and blazed there, as a great ruby
seems to blaze in the firelight of a shad-
owy room. Then again more glitter
and pomp and colour, and voices and


faces, and hurry and more dressing, and
through it all her heart was beating,
trembling, almost breaking with delight,
for she loved him, this man she had mar-
ried, and all this idle show was nothing
to her, except that it gave him to her, and
her to him, and the great joy of that
knowledge ran in waves all over her be-
ing, making her hands shake and her
eyes swim. It was with difficulty she
saw and talked and thought and did all
that was required of her in order. But
now it was over, leaving on her mind a
confused vision of colour and splendour
and laughter and music and voices; she
had passed through it all, and now, so
quietly and swiftly the great train was
bearing them them together, into the
heart of the green, silent country.

And now she was troubled. Why did
he read the paper? Why did he read


that paper? The rhythmic thud, thud of
the train beneath her feet seemed repeat-
ing the words and hammering them into
her brain!

This was her wedding journey, and it
was not going quite right; that was the
half-formed thought in her brain. It
was quite true she knew nothing of wed-
ding journeys; this was her first; she had
no experience. Perhaps they were like
this, after all! She knitted her brows on
the smooth, tranquil forehead, till they
looked like a hard black line. She was
trying to recollect not what she had read,
for she had never been allowed to read
anything about such things, but all that
she had thought, which had led her to ex-
pect something different.

That kiss in the brougham! How
delightful it had been! When would he
kiss her again, she wondered. They


were alone in the carriage; it was full of
sun and so quiet, with its soft, onward,
rocking movement, and the maze of
bright green woodlands beyond the win-
dows. It was just the place to lean her
head on his shoulder and feel his arm
about her and be kissed!

She turned again and looked at him,
still absorbed in his reading. He was a
man of about fifty-eight, and though the
disparity of years between him and his
bride of sixteen was at once, of course,
apparent, still any judge of human na-
ture looking at him would know that he
was a man whom women had loved at
every age and would continue to love, till
the hour of his death, and that at fifty-
eight he was as dangerous to their peace
of mind as at twenty-eight or thirty-
eight. His figure, stretched out easily in
the carriage as he sat in the extreme cor-


ner, had still all the litheness and sym-
metry of youth; it was slim, athletic-
looking, finely proportioned, and had all
that natural grace about it that comes
from strength and use of that strength.
If sloth is not one of the deadly sins, as
our ancestors considered, it is certainly
cursed with a deadly punishment. Sloth
kills beauty. This man's active energy
throughout his life had preserved all that
beauty of outline and contour that the
sloth and ease of middle life ordinarily
destroys. A small head was well set on
a long neck, and it would be very difficult
amongst Englishmen to find a profile to
match this one in straightness and dis-
tinction; the face, like the figure, had a
clean-cut hardness, that generally be-
longs to youth alone; the skin, though
lined by the emotions and passions of
forty years, was clear, fine in texture and


lightly tanned, showing up on its pale
brown tint, the deep black hair now
growing a little thin and lined with grey;
the eyebrows were straight and black on
a good forehead; and the nose, high-
bridged and fine, matched in beauty the
kind mouth and perfectly modelled chin.
As he read on, unconscious of her gaze,
the girl sat and looked at him in a trance
of pleasure, her eyes fixed on his face,
now visible above the folded paper, her
hands clasped hard together in her lap.
How she loved him, worshipped him,
adored him! There was nothing no,
nothing in this wide world she would
not do for him. To die for him, that
would be quite easy. But she would do
more; she would live in agony, die by
torture, be burnt or stoned to death, if
this man asked it, wished it, smiled on
her in reward. Such was her feeling,


such is all virgin love ; it is reverence,
worship, adoration. How happy she
was! she reflected. What a priceless
thing to have won his love ! And he must
love her, for he had everything, he was
so rich she remembered her mother had
told her that and she had nothing; she
was poor, and he had lands and estates
and castles and houses and money with-
out limit, and every girl and every mother
in town, so her mother had said, had
wanted him in marriage, and he had seen
these girls, beautiful girls with wealth
and titles and girls of noble houses that
he could have allied himself with, and he
had left them all to choose her her who
had nothing! How wonderful it all was !
His face, how it enchanted her, lean-
ing back in the shadow of the curtained
window! Her mother's talk before the
wedding had been all of his possessions,


of what he could give her, do for her, but
the girl had hardly listened. His castles
might have been cardboard toys, for her.
The thought that leapt before her, turn-
ing all her being to joy, when her mother
spoke of marriage, was of the moment
when this face should bend over her,
these arms hold her. But her parents
had never mentioned anything like that.
They had pointed out how excellent it
would be for her to accept him, and
asked whether she would do so, and she
had murmured "Yes" with downcast
eyes, and then fled away to her room, to
throw herself face downwards on her
bed and dream of his brows and eyes.

And now it was all done and he was
hers, and her heart beat so with delight;
she could hardly breathe as she sat and
looked at him.

Suddenly the man laid down the paper,


his eyes fell upon hers, before she could
avert them. Her face was strained and
pale, her lips half open.

That look on a woman's face was too
familiar to him to misread it for an in-
stant. He leant forward, and drew her
into his arms.

"My darling, I thought you were
reading too!" and he glanced at the illus-
trated and comic papers which littered
the opposite seat.

The girl put her lips against his neck.
"Reading! How could I read now, and
why should I when I have you to look
at?" The words were almost a sob.

The man's face grew a shade paler, a
look of anxiety contracted his brows.

"Sweetheart, you spoil me! You must
not say such things."

"Why not?" came in the trembling ac-
cents from the soft lips on his neck.


''Now we are married I can say anything
to you, can't I?"

The man pressed her to him, and
stroked the soft loop of her hair that
pushed out below her hat brim; and the
girl lay still in his clasp, and shivered
with delight at his touch. He looked
worried and troubled, and the same cloud
that had been in her eyes as she looked
out at the landscape, grew up now in his
as he turned them away from her form
in his arms, through the window. After
a minute he drew her head up gently
from his shoulder, turned her face to
him, and kissed her as he had done in the
brougham; and all Paradise seemed to
open before the girl, and all the music
of the spheres seemed singing in her ears
as he did so. It was only for a moment;
then he put her from him gently and
rose from his seat.



"We are nearly there," he remarked,
as he began to gather together the papers
and take her sunshade and scarf from the

A chill fell over the girl. It was not
quite right. There was some shadow,
some thin impalpable wall between them.
What was the matter? That kiss was
so divine, but so short. Why did he not
prolong it? Why did he not wish to?
She sat quite still and silent in her seat;
that delightful fear that tinges all a
young girl's adoration for an older man
was upon her. She watched him as he
collected their things, not daring to speak.

"There is the old place," the man said,
after a moment, looking through the win-
dow. "That's Carlingford Towers;
they look fine in this soft light. Does
that view console you now for having
foregone the regular honeymoon? Does



it reconcile you to settling down there
with an old fogey like me?"

He drew the girl forward to the win-
dow. A magnificent block of old grey
stone buildings showed softly against the
luminous sky, the gold of which was
melting slowly into rose. Velvet lawns
like huge emeralds lay round the Towers
to the south and west; on the bleak north
they turned their back, nestling against a
slope of glorious trees.

Carlingford Towers was supposed to
be the most beautiful seat in the county,
and the girl looked out upon it with un-
seeing eyes.

"I don't care where it is or where I
have to settle as long as I am with you,"
she said in a very low tone; and looking
down at the slight brown hand that yet
had such tremendous power in it, she
longed to lean down and press her lips


to it where it rested on the window-sill,
but not daring to, she stood there motion-
less and afraid.

The man did not answer, and she saw
his face was very pale and grave as he
looked towards the Towers.

A carriage was waiting for them at
Carlingford Station, and as the train
slowed to a standstill and they descended
in the flood of warm sunlight, filled with
the fragrance of roses and jasmine, she
forgot for a moment the chill that seemed
settling round her heart; and then, just
as she turned to speak to her maid, who
had come up to take her dressing-case,
she heard a voice behind her say

"Ah, 'tis an unlucky day for sure ! The
poor master ought never to have mar-

She turned quickly, and saw two old
farm labourers, as they seemed to her,


close beside the train, watching the
alighting of the pair and the arrangement
of their luggage. Her husband had gone
forward, her maid was waiting. She
walked on. In another moment she was
in the carriage, driving through the
sweet-scented air under the rosy sky to
her future home. The first notes of the
nightingale came tremblingly through
the golden evening, but her ears were deaf
to the music, they seemed seared by those
words just heard at the station.

When they reached the Towers she had
no more time for thought the garden,
the great grey pile itself of buildings
rising with so much stately grandeur
against the golden sky, the lovely trees,
all claimed her attention. 'He seemed to
wish her to admire them, so in obedience
to his wish she threw herself into enthusi-
astic praise of all these things.


Then there was the great hall where
they entered the tapestries, the armour,
the old servants and then she was
separated from him and carried off to
dress, yet one more troublesome dressing
the third in that endless day.

Still, she was consoled by the mirror,
when, after an hour, she stood before it
ready to go to dinner with him. Her
gown was of the palest rose, embroidered
with silver. It was cut low, and on her
firm white breast rested her only orna-
ment a round pendant of diamonds with
the word "Bruce," the one word in all the
languages of the world for her her hus-
band's name written in rubies across it.

What a vision she was with her sunny

golden hair and turquoise eyes and those

round white arms, dimpled and snowy,

clasped by the gold and diamond brace-



lets Bruce had given her! The beauty of
her own image soothed her; a delicious
sense of power came to her. Only six-
teen, and with nothing and yet so much I
She had this to give. And that was all
the use of her beauty in her eyes. She
wanted it all, but only for this, just to de-
light and please this one man. She
smiled back at herself, her eyes were radi-
ant, her lips curled with laughter and red
and warm. With steps the grass would
hardly have bent under, she went down
the great staircase.

Bruce was waiting at the foot of it for
her. How splendid he looked! she
thought. What a fitting master for all
this state and grandeur round them! and
a rush of devotion filled her as her eyes
took in the beauty of his face and figure
and carriage. She stopped a few steps


from the last. Had she followed her in-
stinct she would have sunk to her knees
at his feet and taken his hands to kiss.

"How lovely you look, my sweet!" he
said, looking up at her as she paused a
little above him. "Come, you must be
hungry, I am sure. I arranged to have
dinner in the little dining-room. The
great hall seems desolate. In the little
room we shall be closer together!"

They were standing side by side now,
and he took her arm and pressed it. The
girl, looking up, felt thrilled through
and through with love for him, with feel-
ings she could not express, and in silence
they walked into the dining-room.

During dinner the servants were in the
room, and only indifferent subjects were
discussed. The girl talked and answered
mechanically. The flower-laden table,
the silver branching candlesticks, the


gleam of the glass, the ruby and topaz
colours of the wines, swayed in an indis-
tinct vision before her. When the des-
sert had been set on the table and they
were at last left alone, a silence fell upon
them, in which it seemed to her the beat-
ing of her heart must be audible. She
sat still in her place, looking at him
through the wreath of white roses and
smilax that crowned the table. He
looked very grave and preoccupied al-
most as if he were unconscious of her
presence. How long they sat there in si-
lence the girl did not know, ages of time
seemed flowing heavily over her head.
She only felt she did not dare to move nor
speak. At last he rose somewhat ab-
ruptly and came over to her.

"Are you not very tired, Flora? You
must be. Would you like to go to your
room now?"



The girl rose and stood before him, her
eyes were cast down. It seemed as if
iron were on the lids and she could not
raise them to meet his. A great unhappi-
ness, a sense of loss, of desolation, of fear,
was closing round her. She could not
tell why, nor could she find any words
to express her feelings.

"As you wish," she murmured almost
in a whisper.

Bruce bent over her, clasped her, kissed
her, held her to his breast for one mo-
ment, then he released her. Mechanic-
ally the girl moved with him to the door.
He opened it for her and stood back.
She hesitated on the threshold. Oh, how
she longed to find her voice, to ask him if
he were not coming with her, if he would
come to her, but the words stayed frozen
on her lips! She did not know what was
expected of her perhaps it would not


be right for her to speak! Her great
terror of offending him conquered her
natural instinct. She passed out in si-
lence, her heart bursting with all she left
unuttered, and went slowly up the great
staircase. Halfway up she heard the
door below gently close. She went on
up to her room, and as she entered it she
caught sight of her own reflection in a
long mirror facing her. She shut the
door, and then crossed with quick step
to her own reflection. As she looked
at it, the load seemed to roll off her heart.

"How silly I am!" she thought, smil-
ing at it. "Of course he will come; he is

There was a tap at the door, and her
maid entered, bearing on her arm her
mistress' lilac silk dressing-gown.

"Shall I undress you now, madam?"

Flora hesitated. Then she looked


again at the long mirror. She was so
lovely in that glow of rose satin with
the diamonds blazing on her breast, and
her gold hair all bound up with pearls.
No, when he came he should see her like
this again ; then he could. . . .

She turned to the maid; a great wave
of crimson flowed up over her throat and
fair face to the edge of her hair.

"No, Aline, I am not ready yet, and
and I don't think I shall want you again.
Please go to bed when you like."

The maid bowed impassively, laid the
lilac robe on the bed, and withdrew,
noiselessly shutting the door after her.

Flora stood alone and looked round.
It was a large room that she found her-
self in, and beautifully decorated and
furnished, in the French style, with every-
thing in it to make it light and brilliant,
contrasting sharply with the heavy kind


of furnishing that prevailed in all the
other rooms at the Towers. There were
beautiful inlaid tables from Italy, ex-
quisite vases of Sevres on the white
mantelpiece, deep Florentine mirrors on
the satin-covered walls, but the girl no-
ticed nothing of all this. She walked
restlessly about, backwards and forwards,
with noiseless feet, on the white velvet
pile of the carpet, nervous and agitated,
like a young lioness turned into a new
cage. When would he come? That was
her single thought. This beautiful,
lonely room, these lights and flowers,
these rich curtains and hangings, these
priceless inanimate objects brought from
the ends of the earth, what were they to
her? Could they speak to her, comfort
her, caress her?

She wanted Bruce so much. Her body
was tired, wearied out. She wanted to


end this interminable day; to be taken
into his arms and rest there against his
heart for hours and hours and hours, and
whether she woke again from that sleep
or not seemed to be of little account to

Minutes passe'd by. There was no
sound except the soft silvery tone of the
French clock, and its delicate clash as it
marked every quarter go by. The girl
grew more impatient every moment, and
an impulse of anger and indignation
against him rose in her from time to time
to be instantly suppressed. "He does not
know, certainly he does not know how
much I want him to come," she told her-
self. At last in the silence there was a
knock at the door. With an electric
shock of extreme joy, she sprang from her
chair. That was certainly Bruce. She
ran to the door and threw it wide open,


her figure expanded, her eyes dilated,
beautiful as a woman can only be when
she really loves. The footman stood
there with a tray of tea-things in his
hands. That was all. She drew back.
The man advanced respectfully, and set
the tray on the nearest table.

"Mr. Challoner thought you would
like your tea served here," he murmured.

The girl made a motion of assent.
Her throat seemed closed, choking her.
For an instant she longed wildly to de-
tain the servant, to say, "Where is your
master? What is he doing? Why is he
not here? Find him, tell him to come to
me," but she said nothing. The man left
the room. Then she thought suddenly,
why not write a little note, why not send
a message to Bruce? There were bells
there; in a moment she could call a serv-
ant to take it to him. She crossed the


room to a writing-table and drew out the
paper and an envelope. Then she
stopped again. What should she say?
"How silly I am!" she thought, glancing
at the clock. "It is quite early yet, only

She left the note unwritten, and went
back to the armchair and flung herself
into it. The table with the tea-things on
it was close to her. She poured out some
tea and drank it. Then she leant back in
the chair, each slender white hand grasp-
ing its velvet arm, her eyes on the clock,
waiting. The quarters, the halves, the
hours went by, gently toned out in the
stillness, and as they went that curious
silence of the night settled down upon
the room. The slight sounds that had
come from the garden below ceased.
The occasional footfall passing her door
also ceased. Now there was nothing.


The day had gone ; the night was in full
sway, and that also was passing. It was
so late. The thought now in her mind
was not, he has not come, but he will not
come. Nervous, suffocated with distress,
and with sharp anxiety beginning to grow
up in her, she left her chair, and began to
pace the length of the room again. A
thousand thoughts like burning arrows
seemed flying in a storm through her
brain. Perhaps he was ill! Perhaps he
had gone out in the grounds and some
accident had happened to him! Perhaps
he was lying somewhere needing help!
Possessed with this idea, she ran suddenly
across the room, pulled open her door,
and looked out into the blackness. The
corridor was unlighted, it was quite dark,
but before her yawned the great well of
the staircase, and at the bottom of that
some dim lights were burning. Should


she go and seek him? But the place was
so large, she had no idea how to find her
way about in it. All was black and quite
still, except at intervals came to her the
muffled baying of the great hounds from
the courtyard and the lower passages of

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