A Traitor in London
CUPID IN LEADING STRINGS.
"It's an infernal shame!"
"I call it common sense!"
"Call it what you please, Malet. I deny your right to keep back my money."
"Right? Your father's will gives me every right. If I approve of your marriage, the money will be paid down on your wedding day."
"But you don't approve, confound you!"
"Certainly not. Brenda Scarse is not the wife for you, Harold."
"That's my business."
"Mine also--under the will. Come, come now; don't lose your temper."
The elder speaker smiled as he proffered this advice, knowing well that he was provoking his cousin beyond all bounds. Harold Burton was young, fiery-tempered, and in love. To be thwarted in his love was something more than exasperating to this impetuous lover. The irritating request that he should keep his temper caused him to lose it promptly; and for the next five minutes Mr. Gilbert Malet was witness of a fine exhibition of unrestrained rage. He trembled for the furniture, almost for his own personal safety, though he managed to preserve a duly dignified outward calm. While Harold stamped about the room, his burly cousin posed before a fireless grate and trimmed his nails, and waited until the young man should have exhausted this wholly unnecessary display of violence.
They were in the library of Holt Manor. It was a sombre, monkish room; almost ascetic in its severity. Bookcases and furniture were of black oak, carpet and curtains of a deep red color; and windows of stained glass subdued the light suitably for study and meditation. But on this occasion the windows were open to the brilliant daylight of an August afternoon, and shafts of golden sunshine poured into the room. From the terrace stretching before the house, vast woods sloped toward Chippingholt village, where red-roofed houses clustered round a brawling stream, and rose again on the further side to sweep to the distant hills in unbroken masses of green. Manor and village took their Teutonic names from these forests, and buried in greenery, might have passed as the domain of the Sleeping Beauty. Her palace was undoubtedly girdled by just such a wood.
But this sylvan beauty did not appeal to the pair in the library. The stout, domineering owner of the Manor who trimmed his nails and smiled blandly had the stronger position of the two, and he knew it well--so well that he could afford to ignore the virile wrath of his ward. Strictly speaking, Captain Burton was not a ward, if that word implies minority. He was thirty years of age, in a lancer regiment, and possessed of an income sufficient to emancipate him from the control of his cousin Gilbert. Still, though possible for one, his income was certainly not possible for two, and if Gilbert chose he could increase his capital by twenty thousand pounds. But the stumbling-block was the condition attached to the disposal of the money. Only if Malet approved of the prospective bride was he to part with the legacy. As such he did not approve of Brenda Scarse, so matters were at a standstill. Nor could Harold well see how he was to move them. Finding all his rage of no avail, he gradually subsided and had recourse to methods more pacific.
"Let me understand this matter clearly," he said, taking a seat with a resolute air. "Independent of my three hundred a year, you hold twenty thousand pounds of my money."
"To be correct," replied Malet in a genial tone, "I hold forty thousand pounds, to be equally shared between you and your brother Wilfred when you marry. The three hundred a year which you each possess I have nothing to do with."
"Well, I want to marry, and----"
"You do--against my wishes. If I do not approve of your choice I need not pay you this money. I can hold it until I die."
"And then?" asked Harold, sharply.
Gilbert shrugged his burly shoulders. "Then it goes to you and Wilfred direct. There is no provision made for my handing it over to another trustee. You are bound to get your share in the long run; but I am not thinking of dying just yet, my dear Harold."
"I can't imagine what possessed my father ever to make so foolish a will."
"Your father was guided by experience, my boy. He made a miserable marriage himself, and did not want you or Wilfred to go and do likewise. He had evidently confidence in my judgment, and knew that I would stand between you and folly."
"Confound your impudence," shouted Harold, his dark face crimson with anger. "You're only fifteen years older than I am. At the age of thirty I am surely capable of selecting my own wife!"
"I hardly think so, when you select Miss Scarse!"
"What the deuce have you against her?"
"Nothing, personally. She is a nice girl, a very nice girl, but poor. A man of your extravagant tastes should marry money. Brenda is well enough, for herself," continued Malet, with odious familiarity, for which Harold could have struck him, "but her father!--Stuart Scarse is a Little Englander!"
Captain Burton was taken aback at the irrelevancy of this remark. "What the devil has that to do with her or me?" he demanded bluntly.
"Everything, if you love your country. You belong to a Conservative family. You are a soldier, and the time is coming when we must all rally round the flag and preserve the Empire. Scarse is a member of that pernicious band which desires the dismemberment of our glorious----
"Oh, I'm sick of this!" Harold jumped up and crammed on his cap. "Your political ideas have nothing to do with my marriage. You have no reason to object to Miss Scarse. Once for all, will you pay me this money?"
"No, I will not. I shall not agree to your marrying the daughter of a Little Englander."
"Then I shall throw the estate into Chancery."
Malet looked uneasy, but sneered. "By all means, if you want the whole forty thousand to go to fee the lawyers! But, before you risk losing your money, let me advise you to make sure of Miss Brenda Scarse!"
"What do you mean?"
"Ask Mr. van Zwieten, who is staying with her father."
"Oh!" said Harold, contemptuously, "Brenda has told me all about him. Her father wants her to marry him, and it is true he is in love with her; but Brenda loves me, and will never consent to become the wife of that Boer!
"Van Zwieten is no Boer. He is a Dutchman, born in Amsterdam."
"And a friend of yours," sneered Captain Burton. "He is no friend of mine!" shouted Malet, somewhat ruffled. "I detest the man as much as I do Scarse. If----"
"Look here, Gilbert, I don't want any more of this. I trust Brenda, and I intend to marry her."
"Very good. Then you'll have to starve on your three hundred a year."
"You refuse to give me the money?"
"Then I'm glad I don't live under your roof and can tell you what I think of you. You are a mean hound, Malet--keep back, or I'll knock you down. Yes, a mean hound! This is not your real reason for refusing to pay me this money. I'll go up to town to-day and have your trusteeship inquired into."
Gilbert changed color and looked dangerous. "You can act as you please, Harold; but recollect that my powers are very clearly defined under the will. I am not accountable to you or to Wilfred or to any one else for the money. I have no need to defend my honor."
"That we shall see." Harold opened the door and looked back. "This is the last time I shall enter your house. You meddle with my private affairs, you keep back money rightfully belonging to me on the most frivolous pretext, and, in fact, make yourself objectionable in every way; but, I warn you, the law will force you to alter your behavior."
"The law cannot touch me!" cried Gilbert, furiously. "I can account for the money and pay it when it should be paid. Out of my house----!"
"I am going--and, see here, Gilbert Malet, if the law affords me no redress, I shall take it into my own hands. Yes, you may well turn pale. I'll make it hot for you--you swindler!" and Captain Burton, banging the door, marched out of the house, furious at his helpless position.
Left alone, Malet wiped his bald forehead and sank into a chair. "Pooh!" he muttered, striving to reassure himself. "He can do nothing. I am his cousin. My honor is his honor. I'm in pretty deep water, but I'll get ashore yet. There's only one way--only one!" Then Mr. Malet proceeded to cogitate upon that one and only way, and the obstacles which prevented his taking it. His thoughts for the next half hour did not make for peace of mind altogether.
Meanwhile, Captain Burton, fuming with rage, strode on through the green woods to the lady of his love. They had arranged to meet and discuss the result of this interview. As Mr. Scarse did not approve of his attentions toward his daughter, the cottage where she dwelt was forbidden ground to Harold. He was compelled, therefore, to meet her by stealth in the woods. But the glorious summer day made that no hardship. He knew the precise spot where Brenda would be waiting for him--under an ancient oak, which had seen many generations of lovers--and he increased his pace that he might the sooner unburden to her his mind. As he left the park and made his way through the orchards which surrounded Chippingholt, he saw Mr. Scarse no great distance away.
"That's a queer get-up the old man's got on," muttered Harold, perplexed at the wholly unusual combination of a snuff-colored greatcoat and a huge black scarf. "Never saw him in that rig before. I wonder what it means!"
As he came up within a dozen paces of the thin, white-haired figure, he was more than ever puzzled, for he noticed that the black scarf was of crape--there must have been several yards of it wound round the old man's neck. It was undoubtedly Mr. Scarse. There was no mistaking that clean-shaven, parchment-like visage. Burton took off his cap in greeting, but did not speak. He knew the old man was not well-disposed toward him. Mr. Scarse looked blankly at him and pressed on without sign of recognition; and even though he had half expected it, Captain Burton felt mortified at this cut direct.
"Brenda and I will have to marry without his consent," he thought; "never mind!"
But he did mind. To marry a girl in the face of parental opposition was all against his inclinations. The future looked dismal enough to him at the moment, and his spirits were only further depressed as the sky began to blacken over with portentous clouds. Impressionable as he was, this endorsement of nature was full of meaning for him in his then pessimistic frame of mind. The sunshine faded to a cold grey, the leaves overhead shivered, and seemed to wither at the breath of the chill wind; and when he caught sight of Brenda's white dress under the oak, her figure looked lonely and forlorn. The darkling sky, the bitter wind, the stealthy meeting, the solitary figure--all these things struck at his heart, and it was a pale and silent lover who kissed his sweetheart under the ancient tree. His melancholy communicated itself to Brenda.
"Bad news, dear--you have bad news," she murmured, looking into his downcast face. "I can see it in your eyes."
They sat silent on the rustic seat. The birds had ceased to sing, the sun to shine, and the summer breeze was cold--cold as their hearts and hands in that moment of sadness.
They were a handsome couple. The man tall, thin-flanked, and soldiery of bearing; dark eyes, dark hair, dark moustache, and a clean-cut, bronzed face, alert, vivacious, and full of intelligence. Brenda was a stately blonde, golden-haired, blue-eyed, and passionate as one of those stormy queens of the Nibelungen Lied, to whom love, insistent and impassioned, was as the breath of life. Both were filled with the exuberant vitality of youth, fit to overcome all obstacles, greatly daring and resolutely courageous. Yet, seated there, hand in hand, they were full of despondency--even to cowardice. Brenda felt that was so, and made an effort to rouse herself and him.
"Come, dear," she said, kissing her lover, "the sun will shine again. Things can't be so bad as to be past mending. He has refused?"
"Absolutely. He won't give me the money."
"On the ground that he does not approve of me!" Harold nodded. "He tried to make out that you were in love with Van Zwieten!"
"Oh! he is so ready to stoop to any meanness," said Brenda, scornfully. "I always disliked Mr. Malet. Perhaps my dislike is hereditary, for my father detests him."
"On political grounds?"
"Of course. But those are strongest of all grounds for hatred. Religion and politics have caused more trouble and more wars than--" she broke off suddenly. "Of course you don't believe this about Mr. van Zwieten."
"Need you ask?" said Burton, tenderly. "The fellow is staying with you still?"
"Yes. He has been here for the last two days talking politics with father, and worrying me. Thank goodness, he goes to-morrow!"
"Glad of it," growled Burton. "He is the Beast mentioned in Revelation. By the way, Brenda, who is Van Zwieten?"
Miss Scarse looked puzzled. "A friend of my father's."
"Yes; but what is his position--where does he come from--how does he make his income? There is something mysterious about the fellow."
"He comes from Holland--he is a friend of Dr. Leyds--and he is shortly going out to fill some post under the Transvaal Government. That's all I know about him."
"He seems to have plenty of money."
"Yes, he spends a good deal, to judge from what I saw of him in town last season. Then he is a popular cricketer, you know."
"I know. But the idea of a foreigner playing cricket!"
"Well, Mr. van Zwieten does, and very well too. You must have seen about his play in the papers. He is a great man at Lord's."
"All the same, he is a mystery; and he is too much mixed up with the Boers to please me. If there is a war, I hope he'll be with them that I may have a shy at him."
Brenda laughed, and pressed her lover's arm. "You silly boy, you are jealous."
"I am, I am. Who wouldn't be jealous of you? But this is not war, Brenda dear. Let us talk about ourselves. I can't get this twenty thousand pounds until Malet dies. I see nothing for it but to marry on my three hundred a year. I dare say we'll scrape along somehow."
"I have two hundred a year of my own," cried Brenda, vivaciously; "that makes ten pounds a week. We can easily manage on that, dear."
"But your father?"
"Oh, he wants me to marry Mr. van Zwieten, of course," said she, with great scorn. "So I must just do without his consent, that's all. It sounds wrong, Harold, doesn't it? But my father has never done his duty by me. Like most men who serve the public, he has sacrificed his all to that. I was left to bring myself up as best I could and so I think I have the right to dispose of myself. My father is nothing to me--you are everything."
"Dearest!" He kissed her. "Then let us marry--but no--" he broke off abruptly. "If war should break out in South Africa I would have to leave you!"
"But I wouldn't be left," said Brenda, merrily. "I would go out with you--yes, to the front!"
"I'm afraid you couldn't do that."
"I could and I would. I would go officially as a nurse. But, Harold, why don't you see your lawyer about this money? He may find means to force Mr. Malet to pay it to you."
"I intend to see him to-morrow, dearest. I am going up to town by the six train this evening, though I confess I don't like leaving you with this Van Zwieten."
"I think I can undertake to keep Mr. van Zwieten at his distance," said Brenda, quietly, "even though my father encourages him."
"I believe your father hates me," said Harold, gloomily, "He cut me just now."
"Cut you, dear; what do you mean?"
"Just what I say, Brenda. I met you father, and he cut me dead."
She stared at her lover in amazement. "You can't possibly have seen my father," she said decisively. "He is ill with influenza, and hasn't left his room for two days!"