Sir Eustace did not go straight back to the Albany, but, calling a hansom, drove down to his club.
“Well,” he thought to himself, “I have played a good many curious parts in my time, but I never had to do with anything like this before. I only hope George is not much cut up. His eyes ought to be opened now. What a woman—-” but we will not repeat Sir Eustace’s comments upon the lady to whom he was nominally half engaged.
At the club Sir Eustace met his friend the Under-Secretary, who had just escaped from the House. Thanks to information furnished to him that morning by Bottles, who had been despatched by Sir Eustace, in a penitent mood, to the Colonial Office to see him, he had just succeeded in confusing, if not absolutely in defeating, the impertinent people who “wanted to know.” Accordingly he was jubilant, and greeted Sir Eustace with enthusiasm, and they sat talking together for an hour or more.
Then Sir Eustace, being, as has been said, of early habits, made his way home.
In his sitting-room he found his brother smoking and contemplating the fire.
“Hullo, old fellow!” he said, “I wish you had come to the club with me. Atherleigh was there, and is delighted with you. What you told him this morning enabled him to smash up his enemies, and as the smashing lately has been rather the other way he is jubilant. He wants you to go to see him again to-morrow. Oh, by the way, you made your escape all right. I only hope I may be as lucky. Well, what do you think of your lady-love now?”
“I think,” said Bottles slowly–“that I had rather not say what I do think.”
“Well, you are not going to marry her now, I suppose?”
“No, I shall not marry her.”
“That is all right; but I expect that it will take _me_ all I know to get clear of her. However, there are some occasions in life when one is bound to sacrifice one’s own convenience, and this is one of them. After all, she is really very pretty in the evening, so it might have been worse.”
Bottles winced, and Sir Eustace took a cigarette.
“By the way, old fellow,” he said, as he settled himself in his chair again, “I hope you are not put out with me over this. Believe me, you have no cause to be jealous; she does not care a hang about me, it is only the title and the money. If a fellow who was a lord and had a thousand a year more proposed to her to-morrow she would chuck me up and take him.”
“No; I am not angry with you,” said Bottles; “you meant kindly, but I am angry with myself. It was not honourable to–in short, play the spy upon a woman’s weakness.”
“You are very scrupulous,” yawned Sir Eustace; “all means are fair to catch a snake. Dear me, I nearly exploded once or twice; it was better than [yawn] any [yawn] play,” and Sir Eustace went to sleep.
Bottles sat still and stared at the fire.
Presently his brother woke up with a start. “Oh, you are there, are you, Bottles?” (it was the first time he had called him by that name since his return.) “Odd thing; but do you know that I was dreaming that we were boys again, and trout-fishing in the old Cantlebrook stream. I dreamt that I hooked a big fish, and you were so excited that you jumped right into the river after it–you did once, you remember–and the river swept you away and left me on the bank; most unpleasant dream. Well, good night, old boy. I vote we go down and have some trout-fishing together in the spring. God bless you!”
“Good night,” said Bottles, gazing affectionately after his brother’s departing form.
Then he too rose and went to his bedroom. On a table stood a battered old tin despatch-box–the companion of all his wanderings. He opened it and took from it first a little bottle of chloral.
“Ah,” he said, “I shall want you if I am to sleep again.” Setting the bottle down, he extracted from a dirty envelope one or two letters and a faded photograph. It was the same that used to hang over his bed in his quarters at Maritzburg. These he destroyed, tearing them into small bits with his strong brown fingers.
Then he shut the box and sat down at the table to think, opening the sluice-gates of his mind and letting the sea of misery flow in, as it were.
This, then, was the woman whom he had forgiven and loved and honoured for all these years. This was the end and this the reward of all his devotion and of all his hopes. And he smiled in bitterness of his pain and self-contempt.
What was he to do? Go back to South Africa? He had not the heart for it. Live here? He could not. His existence had been wasted. He had lost his delusion–the beautiful delusion of his life–and he felt as though it would drive him mad, as the man whose shadow left him went mad.
He rose from the chair, opened the window, and looked out. It was a clear frosty night, and the stars shone brightly. For some while he stood looking at them; then he undressed himself. Generally, for he was different to most men, he said his prayers. For years, indeed, he had not missed doing so, any more than he had missed praying Providence in them to watch over and bless his beloved Madeline. But to-night he said no prayers. He could not pray. The three angels, Faith, Hope, and Love, whose whisperings heretofore had been ever in his ears, had taken wing, and left him as he played the eavesdropper behind those blue velvet curtains.
So he swallowed his sleeping-draught and laid himself down to rest.
* * * * *
When Madeline Croston heard the news at a dinner-party on the following evening she was much shocked, and made up her mind to go home early. To this day she tells the story as a frightful warning against the careless use of chloral.