Kissing the Rod, Vol. 3 (of 3) A Novel
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KISSING THE ROD.
AUTHOR OF "BROKEN TO HARNESS," "RUNNING THE GAUNTLET," "LAND AT LAST," ETC.
"The heart knoweth its own bitterness."
IN THREE VOLUMES. VOL. III.
TINSLEY BROTHERS, 18 CATHERINE ST. STRAND.
[All rights of translation and reproduction reserved.]
ROBSON AND SON, GREAT NORTHERN PRINTING WORKS,
PANCRAS ROAD, N.W.
CONTENTS OF VOLUME III.
|III.||HUSBAND AND WIFE.|
|IV.||WINGED IN FLIGHT.|
|VI.||HESTER IN POSSESSION.|
|VII.||A SPLIT IN THE CAMP.|
|VIII.||THE PLEDGE REDEEMED.|
KISSING THE ROD
It was perhaps fortunate for Robert Streightley that the pressure ofan immediate necessity for exertion was put upon him at the same timethat he received his wife's letter. The blow was so frightful that itmight have completely crushed him, had he not been forced to rousehimself from its first effect, to put the meaning of the terriblecommunication aside for a time, while he attended to the stern dutieswhich were his, as the only representative of the dead man. Thesubdued bustle, the ceaseless coming and going, the people to be seen,the letters to be written, the innumerable demands upon his attentionin reference to his deceased father-in-law, to say nothing of theexigencies of his own affairs, from which he had not an hour'srespite, controlled him in spite of himself, and by suspendingsoftened the intensity of the knowledge of the punishment that hadovertaken him.
The suspense and perplexity into which Katharine's unexplained absencefrom home had thrown the household on the preceding day had preparedthem to expect that some important intelligence was contained in theletter which had reached their master that morning; and the unhappyman comprehended the necessity of making some communication on thesubject. He briefly informed Katharine's maid that she had left townfor the present; and on being asked whether the woman was to join hermistress at Middlemeads, he said Mrs. Streightley was not there; thatshe had better wait for orders, and in the mean time ask no morequestions. An injudicious answer; but Robert neither knew nor caredwhat would have been the judicious course to pursue. He knew only thathis sin had found him out; that the chastisement had come; and thatthe woman whom he had so loved and so wronged had left him forever--left him hating and despising him.
The hours of that dreadful day wore through somehow. Robert had beenengaged during many of them in making arrangements consequent upon Mr.Guyon's death; he had been at Queen Anne Street, and at his office inthe City, transacting business of different but invariably unpleasantkinds. He had seen several persons, but not any by whom the domesticcalamity which had fallen upon him was suspected. He had written tohis mother, informing her of Mr. Guyon's death, and requesting thatEllen would not come to Portland Place for the present; but giving noexplanation of this request. All the day he had carried about with himthe dreadful knowledge of what had befallen him--had been oppressed byits weight, darkened by its shadow; but he had not examined hisburden--he had gone his appointed way, and done his relentless task,and the day had been got through somehow. Now he was going to look thetruth in the face; he was going to force his mind to understand it, totake it in fully, and to suffer the torture at his leisure.
He shut himself up in his "study," and gave orders that no one was tobe admitted. Then, with the door locked and sure of solitude, he readKatharine's letter again,--not that he needed to do so; every one ofits few remorseless words seemed to have burned themselves into hisbrain,--and then he read the letter which hers had enclosed--theletter endorsed "Shown to R. S." He had not looked at it in themorning; it had sufficed him to know that the letter which Mr. Guyonhad shown him on the day which had witnessed their disgracefulcompact--the letter which they had tacitly agreed to suppress, stillexisted, for his conviction, for his condemnation, and had reached thehands to which it had been addressed at last: he had put it away witha shudder. But now he read it--steadily, and with utter amazement.There it was; and on the blank side of the sheet, in Mr. Guyon's hand,were the words, "Shown to R.S." But this letter was sill in Mr.Guyon's hand, and Robert had never seen it--had never heard of it;this was not the letter from Gordon Frere to Katharine which herfather had shown to him; there was a dreadful mistake somewhere. AsRobert read the heartless words in which Mr. Guyon rejected GordonFrere on his daughter's behalf, he understood for the first time howthe conspiracy which had resulted in so sad a success had been carriedout. This, then, was the method Mr. Guyon had adopted, and into whichRobert had never inquired. He saw it all--he understood it all now;and he honestly recoiled at the baseness by which his triumph had beensecured. He even thought he would not have consented, had he known howthe thing was to be done; but his conscience was not so deadened as toaccept that sophistry, and another moment's thought taught him that hewas as guilty as ever.
But how came the letter to be endorsed with words, intended by theirwriter only as a private memorandum, which were not true? This puzzledRobert, until he guessed, what really was the case, that Mr. Guyonhad put Frere's letter and his reply away together, and had mistakenthe one for the other. Why had he kept them at all? thought Robert;why had he put such dangerous and useless documents aside, thusrunning the risk of detection now realised? "He never could haveintended to use them as a weapon against me," thought Robert, who hadarrived at a tolerably correct appreciation of the character of hisdeceased father-in-law. "They convict him directly; me, thoughconclusively to her, only indirectly to others. Why on earth did hekeep them?"
Ah, why? Why is half the mischief that is done in the world done bythe instrumentality of letters, which ought to have been read anddestroyed, being treasured up instead by foolish women, or read andleft about by men whom experience has not availed to teach? If RobertStreightley had quite understood Mr. Guyon's character, he would haveknown, in the first place, that that gentleman had never been in thehabit of contemplating the contingency of his own death, or of makingany preparation, temporal or spiritual, for that event; in the second,that his vanity was of so ominous a kind that he liked to indulge inthe recollection of successful enterprises, no matter what theirnature, and treasured up the trophies of his fortunate coups, asother people might keep love-tokens or relics of departed friends,--aghastly perversion, it is true, but a characteristic trait of Mr.Guyon, as Robert came to learn, when he had to examine all the deadman's papers and personal effects.
After all, it did not matter very much that this mistake had beenmade. Any one of the papers concerning this transaction, so endorsed,would have equally convicted her husband in Katharine's eyes. For amoment, when Robert perceived the error and recognised how it hadoccurred, a faint hope had sprung up in his heart that all might beexplained, in explaining that he had never seen the draft of Mr.Guyon's letter to Gordon Frere; but it lasted only for a moment, andthen left Robert more shame-stricken, more despairing than before.
The bitter remembrance of his resolutions of the day before came totorment him now. How futile they were! made all too late, and useless;how ridiculous they seemed, too! Would he ever have had the courage totell the woman he had wronged the truth concerning himself and her?Cowering as he was now under the blast of her scorn and anger, hecould not believe that he would; he heaped upon himself all thereprobation which the sternest judge could have measured out to him.His sin had found him out indeed, and nothing could save him now fromthe fullest retribution. It had come in its worst form, complicatedwith the death of his accomplice, as a double horror. RobertStreightley was not a man who could coldly contemplate such an eventas Mr. Guyon's death. He had indeed retained but little personalregard for him; but that fact, the growing knowledge of the man whichrendered such regard impossible, invested his death with additionalhorror to Robert. That such should have been the manner of thedetection and the punishment, impressed him with awe. Standing, as hehad done that day, by the dead man's bed, he had bowed his headsubmissively to the tremendous lesson which the scene conveyed. Wherewas their fine scheme now? Where was the wealth for which the fatherhad sold the daughter? Gone--almost all gone; and if it had remained amillion times told, what could it avail to the form of clay which laythere waiting for the coffin and the grave? Where was the beautifulwife whom the father's accomplice had purchased at the price of hishonour? Who was to tell that to the wretched husband, who knew nothingbut that she had detected them both, and fled from them both,--fromthe living and the dead?
As he thought these thoughts, and a thousand others which could findno utterance in words, no expression by the pen, the long hours of thenight were wearing by. Up and down the room, long after the fire haddied out, unnoticed, Robert Streightley walked, buried in histormenting thoughts, full of horror, remorse, shame, the sense ofrighteous retribution and torturing grief. She was gone,--his darling,the one treasure of his life, the beautiful idol of his worship: thedesolation of that knowledge had not come to him yet; he had had notime to think of the meaning of life without her; the fear, theexcitement, the strangeness of the fact were all that he had as yetrealised. The awful sorrow, the hopeless bereavement were for thefuture. The strokes of the rod were beginning to fall upon him;strokes which were to continue, ceaseless and stinging, until the end.Any one who has ever battled, quite alone, with a tremendous sorrow inits first hours of strife, knows how vain is the effort to collect histhoughts at the time, and to recall their order afterwards; knows howthe merest trifles will intrude themselves on the attention at times,and at others how the faculties will seem to be suspended, and a kindof dull vacuity will succeed the access of raging pain. The story ofRobert's suffering in no way differed from that of any other supremeagony. It had all the caprices, all the fantasies of pain; it had thedreadful vitality, and the intervals of numbness and wandering. Manytimes in the course of that night Robert sat down in a chair and fellasleep, to wake again--with a start, and an impression that some voicehad uttered his name--to the renewed consciousness of his misery.
It was very long before he began to think about the circumstances ofKatharine's flight from her home, before he began to speculate uponhow she had gone, and whither. From the moment he had read herassurance that in this world he should never see her face again, hehad been seized with a horrible conviction that this was literallytrue: he would seek her, of course; he would find out where she hadgone to,--he did not even stop to think whether there would be much,or any difficulty about that--but he should see her face no more. Nosuch wild notion as that Katharine would relent and forgive him evercrossed Robert's mind. He knew how cold and proud she was--how coldand proud when she was ignorant of his sin against her, and when hehad lived only in the hope of winning her love some happy day beforehe died;--he knew how insensate any hope would now be, and he nevercherished such a delusion for a moment. She was dead to him, and allthe gorgeous fabric of the life he had built up for himself hadcrumbled away.
The new day was dawning, when Robert Streightley went wearilyupstairs, and stopped at the door of his wife's dressing-room. He hadhardly courage to enter the deserted chamber,--it was as though shelay dead inside. There had been so