The Malefactor

Book 2

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 9 - "I Am Misanthropos, And Hate Mankind"


Wingrave had just come in from an early gallop. His pale cheeks were slightly flushed, and his eyes were bright. He had been riding hard to escape from disconcerting thoughts. He looked in at the study, and found Aynesworth with a mass of correspondence before him.

"Anything important?" he asked.

"Not yet," Aynesworth answered. "The letters marked private I have sent up to your room. By the bye, there was something I wanted to tell you."

Wingrave closed the door.

"Well?" he said.

"I was up in the gallery of the Opera House last night," Aynesworth said, "with a--person who saw you only once, soon after I first came to you--before America. You were some distance away, and yet--my friend recognized you."

Wingrave shrugged his shoulders.

"That, of course, is possible," he answered. "It really does not matter so very much unless they knew me--as Wingrave Seton!"

"My friend," Aynesworth said, "recognized you as Sir Wingrave Seton."

Wingrave frowned thoughtfully for a moment.

"Who was it?" he asked.

"A most unlikely person," Aynesworth remarked smiling. "Do you remember, when we went down to Tredowen just before we left for America, a little, long-legged, black-frocked child, whom we met in the gardens--the organist's daughter, you know?"

"What of her?" Wingrave asked.

"It was she who was with me," Aynesworth remarked. "It was she who saw you in the box with the Marchioness of Westchester."

Aynesworth was puzzled by the intentness with which Wingrave was regarding him. Impenetrable though the man was, Aynesworth, who had not yet lost his early trick of studying him closely, knew that, for some reason or other, his intelligence had proved disturbing.

"Have you then--kept up your acquaintance with this child?" he demanded.

Aynesworth shook his head.

"She is not a child any longer, but a very beautiful young woman," he said. "I met her again quite by accident. She is up in London, studying art at the studio of an old friend of mine who has a class of girls. I called to see him the other afternoon, and recognized her."

"Your acquaintance," Wingrave remarked, "has progressed rapidly if she accepts your escort--to the gallery of the Opera!"

"It was scarcely like that," Aynesworth explained. "I met her and Mrs. Tresfarwin on the way there, and asked to be allowed to accompany them. Mrs. Tresfarwin was once your housekeeper, I think, at Tredowen."

"And did you solve the mystery of this relation of her father who turned up so opportunely?" Wingrave asked.

Aynesworth shook his head.

"She told me nothing about him," he answered.

Wingrave passed on to his own room. His breakfast was on the table awaiting him, and a little pile of letters and newspapers stood by his plate. His servant, his head groom, and his chauffeur were there to receive their orders for the morning. About him were all the evidences of his well-ordered life. He sent both the men away and locked the door. It was half an hour before he touched either his breakfast or his letters . . . .

He lunched at Westchester House in obedience to a somewhat imperative summons. There were other guests there, whom, however, he outstayed. As soon as they were alone, his hostess touched him on the arm and led him to her own room.

"At last!" she exclaimed, with an air of real relief. "There, sit down opposite to me, please--I want to watch your face."

She was a little paler than usual, and he noticed that she had avoided talking much to him at luncheon time. And yet he thought that he had never seen her more beautiful. Something in her face had altered. He could not tell what it was for he was not a man of much experience as regarded her sex. Yet, in a vague sort of way, he understood the change. A certain part of the almost insolent quietness, the complete self-assurance of her manner, had gone. She was a little more like an ordinary woman!

"Lady Ruth proved herself an excellent tactician last night," she remarked. "She has given me an exceedingly uncomfortable few hours. For you, well for you it was a respite, wasn't it?"

"I don't know that I should call it exactly that," he answered thoughtfully.

She looked at him steadfastly, almost wistfully.

"Well," she said, "I am not going to make excuses for myself. But the things which one says naturally enough when the emotions provoke them sound crude enough in cold blood and colder daylight. We women are creatures of mood, you know. I was feeling a little lonely and a little tired last night, and the music stole away my common sense."

"I understand," he murmured. "All that you said shall be forgotten."

"Then you do not understand," she answered, smiling at him. "What I said I do not wish to be forgotten. Only--just at that moment, it sounded natural enough--and today--I think that I am a little ashamed."

He rose from his seat. Her eyes leaped up to his expectantly, and the color streamed into her cheeks. But he only stood by her side. He did nothing to meet the half-proffered embrace.

"Dear Lady Emily," he said, "all the kind things that you said were spoken to a stranger. You did not know me. I did not mean anyone to know me. It is you who have commanded the truth. You must have it. I am not the person I seem to be. I am not the person to whom words such as yours should have been spoken. Even my name is an assumed one. I should prefer to leave it at that--if you are content."

"I am not content," she answered quietly; "I must hear more."

He bowed.

"I am a man," he said, "who spent ten years in prison, the ten best years of my life. A woman sent me there--a woman swore my liberty away to save her reputation. I was never of a forgiving disposition, I was never an amiably disposed person. I want you to understand this. Any of the ordinary good qualities with which the average man may be endowed, and which I may have possessed, are as dead in me as hell fire could burn them. You have spoken of me as of a man who failed to find a sufficient object in life. You were wrong. I have an object, and I do my best to live up to it. I hate the whole world of men and women who laughed their way through life whilst I suffered--tortures. I hate the woman who sent me there. I have no heart, nor any sense of pity. Now perhaps you can understand my life and the manner of it."

Her hands were clasped to the side of her head. Something of horror had stolen into the steadfast gaze with which she was still regarding him. Yet there were other things there which puzzled him.

"This--is terrible!" she murmured. "Then you are not--Mr. Wingrave at all?"

He hesitated. After all, it was scarcely worth while concealing anything now.

"I am Sir Wingrave Seton," he said. "You may remember my little affair!"

She caught hold of his hands.

"You poor, poor dear!" she cried. "How you must have suffered!"

Wingrave had a terrible moment. What he felt he would never have admitted, even to himself. Her eyes were shining with sympathy, and it was so unexpected. He had expected something in the nature of a cold withdrawal; her silence was the only thing he had counted upon. It was a fierce, but short battle. His sudden grasp of her hands was relaxed. He stood away from her.

"You are very kind," he said. "As you can doubtless imagine, it is a little too late for sympathy. The years have gone, and the better part of me, if ever there was a better part, with them."

"I am not so sure of that!" she whispered.

He looked at her coldly.

"Why not?"

"If you were absolutely heartless," she said, "if you were perfectly consistent, why did you not make me suffer? You had a great chance! A little feigned affection, and then a few truths. You could have dragged me down a little way into the pit of broken hearts! Why didn't you?"

He frowned.

"One is forced to neglect a few opportunities!"

She smiled at him--delightfully.

"You foolish man!" she murmured. "Some day or other, you will turn out to be a terrible impostor. Do you know, I think I am going to ask you again--what I asked you last night?"

"I scarcely think that you will be so ill-advised," he declared coldly. "Whether you believe it or not, I can assure you that I am incapable of affection."

She sighed.

"I am not so sure about that," she said with protesting eyebrows, "but you are terribly hard-hearted?"

He was entirely dissatisfied with the impression he had produced. He considered the attitude of the Marchioness unjustifiably frivolous. He had an uneasy conviction that she was not in the least inclined to take him seriously.

"I don't think," he said, glancing at the clock, "that I need detain you any longer."

"You are really going away, then?" she asked him softly.

"Yes."

"To call on Lady Ruth, perhaps?"

"As it happens, no," he answered.

Suddenly her face changed--she had remembered something.

"It was Lady Ruth!" she exclaimed.

"Exactly!" he interrupted.

"What a triumph of inconsistency!" she declared scornfully. "You are lending them money!"

"I am lending money to Lady Ruth," he answered slowly.

Their eyes met. She understood, at any rate, what he intended to convey. Certainly his expression was hard and merciless enough now!

"Poor Ruth," she murmured.

"Some day," he answered, "you will probably say that in earnest."