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    Chapter 9

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    Chapter 9
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    LADY COVENTRY

    When the first excitement of Edward's return had subsided, and before
    they could question him as to the cause of this unexpected visit, he
    told them that after dinner their curiosity should be gratified, and
    meantime he begged them to leave Miss Muir alone, for she had received
    bad news and must not be disturbed. The family with difficulty
    restrained their tongues and waited impatiently. Gerald confessed his
    love for Jean and asked his brother's pardon for betraying his trust. He
    had expected an outbreak, but Edward only looked at him with pitying
    eyes, and said sadly, "You too! I have no reproaches to make, for I know
    what you will suffer when the truth is known."

    "What do you mean?" demanded Coventry.

    "You will soon know, my poor Gerald, and we will comfort one another."

    Nothing more could be drawn from Edward till dinner was over, the
    servants gone, and all the family alone together. Then pale and grave,
    but very self-possessed, for trouble had made a man of him, he produced
    a packet of letters, and said, addressing himself to his brother, "Jean
    Muir has deceived us all. I know her story; let me tell it before I read
    her letters."

    "Stop! I'll not listen to any false tales against her. The poor girl has
    enemies who belie her!" cried Gerald, starting up.

    "For the honor of the family, you must listen, and learn what fools she
    has made of us. I can prove what I say, and convince you that she has
    the art of a devil. Sit still ten minutes, then go, if you will."

    Edward spoke with authority, and his brother obeyed him with a
    foreboding heart.

    "I met Sydney, and he begged me to beware of her. Nay, listen, Gerald! I
    know she has told her story, and that you believe it; but her own
    letters convict her. She tried to charm Sydney as she did us, and nearly
    succeeded in inducing him to marry her. Rash and wild as he is, he is
    still a gentleman, and when an incautious word of hers roused his
    suspicions, he refused to make her his wife. A stormy scene ensued, and,
    hoping to intimidate him, she feigned to stab herself as if in despair.
    She did wound herself, but failed to gain her point and insisted upon
    going to a hospital to die. Lady Sydney, good, simple soul, believed the
    girl's version of the story, thought her son was in the wrong, and when
    he was gone, tried to atone for his fault by finding Jean Muir another
    home. She thought Gerald was soon to marry Lucia, and that I was away,
    so sent her here as a safe and comfortable retreat."

    "But, Ned, are you sure of all this? Is Sydney to be believed?" began
    Coventry, still incredulous.

    "To convince you, I'll read Jean's letters before I say more. They
    were written to an accomplice and were purchased by Sydney. There was
    a compact between the two women, that each should keep the other
    informed of all adventures, plots and plans, and share whatever good
    fortune fell to the lot of either. Thus Jean wrote freely, as you
    shall judge. The letters concern us alone. The first was written a few
    days after she came.

    _"Dear Hortense:

    "Another failure. Sydney was more wily than I thought. All was going
    well, when one day my old fault beset me, I took too much wine, and
    I carelessly owned that I had been an actress. He was shocked, and
    retreated. I got up a scene, and gave myself a safe little wound, to
    frighten him. The brute was not frightened, but coolly left me to my
    fate. I'd have died to spite him, if I dared, but as I didn't, I
    lived to torment him. As yet, I have had no chance, but I will not
    forget him. His mother is a poor, weak creature, whom I could use as
    I would, and through her I found an excellent place. A sick mother,
    silly daughter, and two eligible sons. One is engaged to a handsome
    iceberg, but that only renders him more interesting in my eyes,
    rivalry adds so much to the charm of one's conquests. Well, my dear,
    I went, got up in the meek style, intending to do the pathetic; but
    before I saw the family, I was so angry I could hardly control
    myself. Through the indolence of Monsieur the young master, no
    carriage was sent for me, and I intend he shall atone for that
    rudeness by-and-by. The younger son, the mother, and the girl
    received me patronizingly, and I understood the simple souls at
    once. Monsieur (as I shall call him, as names are unsafe) was
    unapproachable, and took no pains to conceal his dislike of
    governesses. The cousin was lovely, but detestable with her pride,
    her coldness, and her very visible adoration of Monsieur, who let
    her worship him, like an inanimate idol as he is. I hated them both,
    of course, and in return for their insolence shall torment her with
    jealousy, and teach him how to woo a woman by making his heart ache.
    They are an intensely proud family, but I can humble them all, I
    think, by captivating the sons, and when they have committed
    themselves, cast them off, and marry the old uncle, whose title
    takes my fancy."_

    "She never wrote that! It is impossible. A woman could not do it," cried
    Lucia indignantly, while Bella sat bewildered and Mrs. Coventry
    supported herself with salts and fan. Coventry went to his brother,
    examined the writing, and returned to his seat, saying, in a tone of
    suppressed wrath, "She did write it. I posted some of those letters
    myself. Go on, Ned."

    _"I made myself useful and agreeable to the amiable ones, and
    overheard the chat of the lovers. It did not suit me, so I fainted
    away to stop it, and excite interest in the provoking pair. I
    thought I had succeeded, but Monsieur suspected me and showed me
    that he did. I forgot my meek role and gave him a stage look. It had
    a good effect, and I shall try it again. The man is well worth
    winning, but I prefer the title, and as the uncle is a hale,
    handsome gentleman, I can't wait for him to die, though Monsieur is
    very charming, with his elegant languor, and his heart so fast
    asleep no woman has had power to wake it yet. I told my story, and
    they believed it, though I had the audacity to say I was but
    nineteen, to talk Scotch, and bashfully confess that Sydney wished
    to marry me. Monsieur knows S. and evidently suspects something. I
    must watch him and keep the truth from him, if possible.

    "I was very miserable that night when I got alone. Something in the
    atmosphere of this happy home made me wish I was anything but what I
    am. As I sat there trying to pluck up my spirits, I thought of the
    days when I was lovely and young, good and gay. My glass showed me
    an old woman of thirty, for my false locks were off, my paint gone,
    and my face was without its mask. Bah! how I hate sentiment! I drank
    your health from your own little flask, and went to bed to dream
    that I was playing Lady Tartuffe--as I am. Adieu, more soon."_

    No one spoke as Edward paused, and taking up another letter, he read on:

    _"My Dear Creature:

    "All goes well. Next day I began my task, and having caught a hint
    of the character of each, tried my power over them. Early in the
    morning I ran over to see the Hall. Approved of it highly, and took
    the first step toward becoming its mistress, by piquing the
    curiosity and flattering the pride of its master. His estate is his
    idol; I praised it with a few artless compliments to himself, and he
    was charmed. The cadet of the family adores horses. I risked my neck
    to pet his beast, and_ he _was charmed. The little girl is romantic
    about flowers; I made a posy and was sentimental, and_ she _was
    charmed. The fair icicle loves her departed mamma, I had raptures
    over an old picture, and she thawed. Monsieur is used to being
    worshipped. I took no notice of him, and by the natural perversity
    of human nature, he began to take notice of me. He likes music; I
    sang, and stopped when he'd listened long enough to want more. He is
    lazily fond of being amused; I showed him my skill, but refused to
    exert it in his behalf. In short, I gave him no peace till he began
    to wake up. In order to get rid of the boy, I fascinated him, and he
    was sent away. Poor lad, I rather liked him, and if the title had
    been nearer would have married him._

    "Many thanks for the honor." And Edward's lip curled with intense scorn.
    But Gerald sat like a statue, his teeth set, his eyes fiery, his brows
    bent, waiting for the end.

    _"The passionate boy nearly killed his brother, but I turned the
    affair to good account, and bewitched Monsieur by playing nurse,
    till Vashti (the icicle) interfered. Then I enacted injured virtue,
    and kept out of his way, knowing that he would miss me, I mystified
    him about S. by sending a letter where S. would not get it, and got
    up all manner of soft scenes to win this proud creature. I get on
    well and meanwhile privately fascinate Sir J. by being daughterly
    and devoted. He is a worthy old man, simple as a child, honest as
    the day, and generous as a prince. I shall be a happy woman if I win
    him, and you shall share my good fortune; so wish me success._

    "This is the third, and contains something which will surprise you,"
    Edward said, as he lifted another paper.

    _"Hortense:

    "I've done what I once planned to do on another occasion. You know
    my handsome, dissipated father married a lady of rank for his second
    wife. I never saw Lady H----d but once, for I was kept out of the
    way. Finding that this good Sir J. knew something of her when a
    girl, and being sure that he did not know of the death of her little
    daughter, I boldly said I was the child, and told a pitiful tale of
    my early life. It worked like a charm; he told Monsieur, and both
    felt the most chivalrous compassion for Lady Howard's daughter,
    though before they had secretly looked down on me, and my real
    poverty and my lowliness. That boy pitied me with an honest warmth
    and never waited to learn my birth. I don't forget that and shall
    repay it if I can. Wishing to bring Monsieur's affair to a
    successful crisis, I got up a theatrical evening and was in my
    element. One little event I must tell you, because I committed an
    actionable offense and was nearly discovered. I did not go down to
    supper, knowing that the moth would return to flutter about the
    candle, and preferring that the fluttering should be done in
    private, as Vashti's jealousy is getting uncontrollable. Passing
    throught the gentlemen's dressing room, my quick eye caught sight of
    a letter lying among the costumes. It was no stage affair, and an
    odd sensation of fear ran through me as I recognized the hand of S.
    I had feared this, but I believe in chance; and having found the
    letter, I examined it. You know I can imitate almost any hand. When
    I read in this paper the whole story of my affair with S., truly
    told, and also that he had made inquiries into my past life and
    discovered the truth, I was in a fury. To be so near success and
    fail was terrible, and I resolved to risk everything. I opened the
    letter by means of a heated knife blade under the seal, therefore
    the envelope was perfect; imitating S.'s hand, I penned a few lines
    in his hasty style, saying he was at Baden, so that if Monsieur
    answered, the reply would not reach him, for he is in London, it
    seems. This letter I put into the pocket whence the other must have
    fallen, and was just congratulating myself on this narrow escape,
    when Dean, the maid of Vashti, appeared as if watching me. She had
    evidently seen the letter in my hand, and suspected something. I
    took no notice of her, but must be careful, for she is on the watch.
    After this the evening closed with strictly private theatricals, in
    which Monsieur and myself were the only actors. To make sure that he
    received my version of the story first, I told him a romantic story
    of S.'s persecution, and he believed it. This I followed up by a
    moonlight episode behind a rose hedge, and sent the young gentleman
    home in a half-dazed condition. What fools men are!"_

    "She is right!" muttered Coventry, who had flushed scarlet with
    shame and anger, as his folly became known and Lucia listened in
    astonished silence.

    "Only one more, and my distasteful task will be nearly over," said
    Edward, unfolding the last of the papers. "This is not a letter, but a
    copy of one written three nights ago. Dean boldly ransacked Jean Muir's
    desk while she was at the Hall, and, fearing to betray the deed by
    keeping the letter, she made a hasty copy which she gave me today,
    begging me to save the family from disgrace. This makes the chain
    complete. Go now, if you will, Gerald. I would gladly spare you the pain
    of hearing this."

    "I will not spare myself; I deserve it. Read on," replied Coventry,
    guessing what was to follow and nerving himself to hear it. Reluctantly
    his brother read these lines:

    _"The enemy has surrendered! Give me joy, Hortense; I can be the
    wife of this proud monsieur, if I will. Think what an honor for the
    divorced wife of a disreputable actor. I laugh at the farce and
    enjoy it, for I only wait till the prize I desire is fairly mine, to
    turn and reject this lover who has proved himself false to brother,
    mistress, and his own conscience. I resolved to be revenged on both,
    and I have kept my word. For my sake he cast off the beautiful woman
    who truly loved him; he forgot his promise to his brother, and put
    by his pride to beg of me the worn-out heart that is not worth a
    good man's love. Ah well, I am satisfied, for Vashti has suffered
    the sharpest pain a proud woman can endure, and will feel another
    pang when I tell her that I scorn her recreant lover, and give him
    back to her, to deal with as she will."_

    Coventry started from his seat with a fierce exclamation, but Lucia
    bowed her face upon her hands, weeping, as if the pang had been sharper
    than even Jean foresaw.

    "Send for Sir John! I am mortally afraid of this creature. Take her
    away; do something to her. My poor Bella, what a companion for you! Send
    for Sir John at once!" cried Mrs. Coventry incoherently, and clasped her
    daughter in her arms, as if Jean Muir would burst in to annihilate the
    whole family. Edward alone was calm.

    "I have already sent, and while we wait, let me finish this story. It is
    true that Jean is the daughter of Lady Howard's husband, the pretended
    clergyman, but really a worthless man who married her for her money. Her
    own child died, but this girl, having beauty, wit and a bold spirit,
    took her fate into her own hands, and became an actress. She married an
    actor, led a reckless life for some years; quarreled with her husband,
    was divorced, and went to Paris; left the stage, and tried to support
    herself as governess and companion. You know how she fared with the
    Sydneys, how she has duped us, and but for this discovery would have
    duped Sir John. I was in time to prevent this, thank heaven. She is
    gone; no one knows the truth but Sydney and ourselves; he will be
    silent, for his own sake; we will be for ours, and leave this dangerous
    woman to the fate which will surely overtake her."

    "Thank you, it has overtaken her, and a very happy one she finds it."

    A soft voice uttered the words, and an apparition appeared at the door,
    which made all start and recoil with amazement--Jean Muir leaning on the
    arm of Sir John.

    "How dare you return?" began Edward, losing the self-control so long
    preserved. "How dare you insult us by coming back to enjoy the mischief
    you have done? Uncle, you do not know that woman!"

    "Hush, boy, I will not listen to a word, unless you remember where you
    are," said Sir John with a commanding gesture.

    "Remember your promise: love me, forgive me, protect me, and do not
    listen to their accusations," whispered Jean, whose quick eye had
    discovered the letters.

    "I will; have no fears, my child," he answered, drawing her nearer as he
    took his accustomed place before the fire, always lighted when Mrs.
    Coventry was down.

    Gerald, who had been pacing the room excitedly, paused behind Lucia's
    chair as if to shield her from insult; Bella clung to her mother; and
    Edward, calming himself by a strong effort, handed his uncle the
    letters, saying briefly, "Look at those, sir, and let them speak."

    "I will look at nothing, hear nothing, believe nothing which can in any
    way lessen my respect and affection for this young lady. She has
    prepared me for this. I know the enemy who is unmanly enough to belie
    and threaten her. I know that you both are unsuccessful lovers, and this
    explains your unjust, uncourteous treatment now. We all have committed
    faults and follies. I freely forgive Jean hers, and desire to know
    nothing of them from your lips. If she has innocently offended, pardon
    it for my sake, and forget the past."

    "But, Uncle, we have proofs that this woman is not what she seems. Her
    own letters convict her. Read them, and do not blindly deceive
    yourself," cried Edward, indignant at his uncle's words.

    A low laugh startled them all, and in an instant they saw the cause of
    it. While Sir John spoke, Jean had taken the letters from the hand which
    he had put behind him, a favorite gesture of his, and, unobserved, had
    dropped them on the fire. The mocking laugh, the sudden blaze, showed
    what had been done. Both young men sprang forward, but it was too late;
    the proofs were ashes, and Jean Muir's bold, bright eyes defied them, as
    she said, with a disdainful little gesture. "Hands off, gentlemen! You
    may degrade yourselves to the work of detectives, but I am not a
    prisoner yet. Poor Jean Muir you might harm, but Lady Coventry is beyond
    your reach."

    "Lady Coventry!" echoed the dismayed family, in varying tones of
    incredulity, indignation, and amazement.

    "Aye, my dear and honored wife," said Sir John, with a protecting arm
    about the slender figure at his side; and in the act, the words, there
    was a tender dignity that touched the listeners with pity and respect
    for the deceived man. "Receive her as such, and for my sake, forbear all
    further accusation," he continued steadily. "I know what I have done. I
    have no fear that I shall repent it. If I am blind, let me remain so
    till time opens my eyes. We are going away for a little while, and when
    we return, let the old life return again, unchanged, except that Jean
    makes sunshine for me as well as for you."

    No one spoke, for no one knew what to say. Jean broke the silence,
    saying coolly, "May I ask how those letters came into your possession?"

    "In tracing out your past life, Sydney found your friend Hortense. She
    was poor, money bribed her, and your letters were given up to him as
    soon as received. Traitors are always betrayed in the end," replied
    Edward sternly.

    Jean shrugged her shoulders, and shot a glance at Gerald, saying with
    her significant smile, "Remember that, monsieur, and allow me to hope
    that in wedding you will be happier than in wooing. Receive my
    congratulations, Miss Beaufort, and let me beg of you to follow my
    example, if you would keep your lovers."

    Here all the sarcasm passed from her voice, the defiance from her eye,
    and the one unspoiled attribute which still lingered in this woman's
    artful nature shone in her face, as she turned toward Edward and Bella
    at their mother's side.

    "You have been kind to me," she said, with grateful warmth. "I thank you
    for it, and will repay it if I can. To you I will acknowledge that I am
    not worthy to be this good man's wife, and to you I will solemnly
    promise to devote my life to his happiness. For his sake forgive me, and
    let there be peace between us."

    There was no reply, but Edward's indignant eyes fell before hers. Bella
    half put out her hand, and Mrs. Coventry sobbed as if some regret
    mingled with her resentment. Jean seemed to expect no friendly
    demonstration, and to understand that they forbore for Sir John's sake,
    not for hers, and to accept their contempt as her just punishment.

    "Come home, love, and forget all this," said her husband, ringing the
    bell, and eager to be gone. "Lady Coventry's carriage."

    And as he gave the order, a smile broke over her face, for the sound
    assured her that the game was won. Pausing an instant on the threshold
    before she vanished from their sight, she looked backward, and fixing on
    Gerald the strange glance he remembered well, she said in her
    penetrating voice, "Is not the last scene better than the first?"
    Chapter 9
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