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Part II. The Veiled Picture

MY nervous system had received a shock which resulted in an attack of utter prostration, accompanied by low fever. When the Storm-King arrived in the docks, I was unable to stand, and quite incapable of deciding for myself, or even of giving directions as to my destination. I had made no friends on the passage, and had rather shrunk from well-intentioned proffers of assistance and counsel. The question, however, had finally resolved itself into what was to be done with me? With me, Magdalen Challis, that strong and self-reliant young woman, now lying there in her deck chair, listening to the discussion as if it concerned somebody else!

And the ship was actually in, and people coming on board to look after their friends amongst all the indescribable bustle and commotion of greetings and collection of luggage, etc. Idly my gaze rested on a lady who had come on board with a lovely petted

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little daughter, to fetch and bring away her ‘very own self’ the king-parrot and yellow-crested cockatoo that some kind Australian friend had sent out to the little girl.

The interest which I had ceased to feel in myself and my own concerns, or those of any other human being, was suddenly roused and centred in the pretty English mother and child, who were standing close to my chair while waiting for their precious consignment.

I saw the little one clutch at her mother's dress to arrest her attention, and caught a look of wonderment in the big blue eyes that were fixed upon myself.

‘What the matter with the pale lady, mamma?’

‘Hush, Lucy! it is rude to make remarks about people. The lady will hear you.’

But the eyes of the speaker were turned upon me too, and I read a sweet soft pity in them, just as I had read the wondering indifference of childhood in those of her little girl. A sudden impulse moved me to speak.

‘I have been very ill,’ I said; ‘I am alone on board —I have money, but I don't know a soul in London, nor even where to go.’

I knew afterwards, when little Lucy's mother had become my one dear woman friend in the great world of London, that I had hardly finished speaking that day on board when I fell back fainting in my chair, and the parrot and cockatoo became a mere secondary consideration.

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Mrs. Rivers held a hurried consultation with the doctor and the captain,—the latter, who knew who I was, being thus in a position to vouch for my respectability,—and carried me off then and there to lodgings that she knew of in a Surrey farmhouse, giving up the rest of the season, with all her engagements, to come there also, and herself to nurse me back to the health and vigour of which I had been so proud, and which, but for this sisterly hand stretched out in the hour of need, I might never otherwise have regained.

But though my splendid health and strength of body in time returned to me, I was never again quite the same woman I had been before the terrible ordeal which had so nearly overthrown my mental balance. I was for ever haunted by the remembrance of my dead model, and could not divest myself of the foreboding that some tragic result to myself was yet to follow the chance connection of my own birthday with hers on the day of her burial. Two anniversaries had come and gone with no special event to mark them; the third was not far off.

Fortune meanwhile had been most kind, and had led me through pleasant paths to a pinnacle of success, where stood a flower-crowned temple of happiness of which she had given me the key.

From the day in which I had taken my studio in Chelsea, everything had prospered with me. In my wildest visions of success I had never aspired to

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such a position as the one in which I found myself on the eve of my twenty-fifth birthday, a woman of ample means, admired and feted, famous and envied, beautiful and beloved.

Yes—not only had Fame stooped to place her chaplet on my brows, but Love had kissed me on the mouth, and taken my hand in his. Between them they had led me to the feast; and while the pungent perfume of Fame's incense clung with subtle fragrance to my garments and my hair, Love held out to me the cup of rich red wine, of which I drank deep draughts till the thrill of life ran through me to my finger-tips. 'Twas in this supreme moment that a formless shadow cast its gloom athwart the brilliant sunlight, and a pale finger wrote upon the wall— ‘Lily, Lily, Lily—buried on her birthday!’

That anniversary had now returned for the third time, and I had nerved myself to meet and celebrate it as usual. Shut up within my studio, admittance denied to all, I offered up a propitiatory sacrifice; the sacrifice of one of those bright days of life that are all too few and short—one whole day!

Taking from its resting-place the picture which I kept jealously hidden all the year from my own eyes as well as from those of others, I reverentially withdrew the crape that veiled it, and forced myself to gaze upon the dead girl, who, I trust, unconsciously, seemed to influence and mar the life which had never

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so much as touched the fringe of hers, but which she had enchained and bound in those fetters from which death had released her.

The studio was transformed into a kind of chapelle ardente; the blinds drawn close, all light as far as possible excluded, wax candles burning on a table with a black velvet covering that stood in front of the easel, white flowers everywhere. Myself in white, girdled with a sash of deep violet, offering up my sacrifice to—whom or what—I knew not.

Thus did Una Rivers find me. She had been of late such a frequent visitor, that my orders to admit no one had probably not been considered to include herself. After a moment's pause of bewildered surprise, her laugh rang out like a silver bell.

‘Why, Magdalen, what freak is this, and what new and startling picture does it portend? I did not know that artists “composed” in this way. I must own that it is all so very realistic, quite Tosca-ish, in fact, that I felt almost alarmed for a moment.’

For sole answer, I suddenly broke into a passion of hysteric weeping. Oh, the relief of those blessed, weak, womanish tears! Una wisely did not attempt to check them; she just held my hand in a firm, close clasp, and let the fit exhaust itself. A devil had been cast out of me, and after a time I was myself again, and able to tell her the story of the picture,— that story which for those three years had veritably held me bound and enchained under a kind of demoniac possession. I had never before spoken of

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it to any human being: at the outset, I felt as if I were committing sacrilege in doing so now; but by degrees, while I was speaking, all my morbid imaginings were dispelled, peace returned to my heart, and the horrible, haunting, formless dread which I had so long cherished, vanished like the troubled memory of a dream. I had passed through fire with a spectre which was consumed while I was saved; but from its ashes had arisen an angel, with the sweet face of a mortal woman, who held my hand in hers and smiled upon me as she wiped away my tears.

‘You are yourself again, Magdalen dearest. This terrible experience, I venture to say, will become to you a sad memory, and nothing more. By degrees, too, even that will pass away, and for a beginning, let us both set to work to alter all this gloomy mise en scène; come, help me to make your pleasant studio bright again.’

We extinguished the tapers and let in the sunlight; the black velvet pall was replaced by a bright striped Algerian cloth; and even the blooms of my balcony plants, the vivid scarlet geraniums and yellow calccolarias, were ruthlessly plucked by Mrs. Rivers' busy little fingers to mingle with the white waxen scented blossoms. The easel was moved into a corner of the room, and its funereal drapery of crape cast aside into a closet; but, with one of those subtle delicacies of womanly feeling which none but a woman can appreciate, as my friend took off from my waist the mourning sash of violet that

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encircled it, she threw it tenderly across the denuded easel.

‘All this explains much, Magdalen,’ said she, ‘that has hitherto puzzled and even troubled me in your conduct towards my brother Val. That you love him, dear fellow, I know, and I believe you are proud of the love he feels for you; but that there was something on your mind which you had not told either of us, has been patent to me since the first moment I knew you. But I trusted you, dear, and believed that in your own good time you would tell him all.’

‘I have had the feeling that there was a doom upon me, Una, and I loved him too well to involve him in it.’

‘But that was a purely morbid fancy, darling. You will not keep him waiting any longer now. You will fix the day, will you not, to make him happy? Sometimes I have thought,’ she continued, ‘that it might seem to you too short a time had elapsed since he lost his wife. Poor Gracie! But it is nearly eighteen months ago. She was our cousin, you know, and we were both fond of her in a cousinly way; but Val never loved her, Magdalen. He has never loved any other woman but yourself—never!’

‘Tell me then—How was it? Why did he marry her?’

‘Don't you know, darling? But of course not—Val would not tell. It was an act of pure generosity on his part. Grace had offended Uncle Stephen by

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marrying against his wishes,—a foolish, bad marriage it was; but she was an only child, and had always had her own way. Uncle Stephen, too, had set his heart on her husband, whoever he might be, taking her name, as she was quite an heiress. People thought he would eventually come round; but when he died, it was discovered that he had left all his money away from her to Val, who was to take his name and enter into undisputed possession at once. This was partly to punish Grace, and partly, I verily believe, to annoy our father, with whom he had quarrelled, by making Val independent of him. They were both men of stern, unforgiving spirit, and Val had also got into the black books at home, and had had to seek his fortune in Australia, whence he was hastily summoned by the news that this fortune had been left him. You know Val had been in Australia?’

I nodded my head in acquiescence. Yes, I knew; but as we had never met out there, nor had I even heard of a Mr. Lennox, I had not asked him any questions upon a subject on which he had not volunteered information. I had shaken the dust of my unappreciative country off my feet. I never meant to return there. I was trying to become thoroughly English in all my ways and mode of life. I wanted to forget Australia altogether.

‘And so,’ continued Mrs. Rivers, ‘as Val had been summoned home by a mere bare telegram, he did not know any particulars. When he found that he was to be enriched at the expense of poor little Grace, who

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had become a widow only two days after her father's death by an accident that had befallen her drunken, good-for-nothing husband, he point-blank refused to take one penny of the money that had been left to him. Grace on her side was not to be outdone, and this kind of thing went on for months, and might have continued indefinitely—Val declaring he should go back to Australia, Grace saying she would go out as a governess, and a fortune lying idle between them—had not Gracie discovered one fine day that she had fallen desperately in love with Val, poor little thing! She told him, it appears, that it would kill her if he went out to Australia, and—well, I suppose it really amounted to asking him to marry her, if one could ever have got at the exact truth. However that may be, they were married after a decent interval of widowhood on her side, but she only lived six months to enjoy her happiness; and if ever there were a happy wife it was Grace. She was quite utterly content and satisfied, and thought Val a perfect husband—as he was—to her. But it would require a very different kind of woman to make Val happy.

Una's soft brown eyes were fixed upon me with an expression that went to my heart. I could not resist their pleading inquiry.

‘Do not fear, Una, I know I can do so, and, please God, I will.’

‘Do you know, Magdalen, you look as I could fancy one of the vestal virgins, or a prophetess of old, taking a vow to devote herself to some lifelong

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duty and service. You are such a grand woman—the ideal wife for my noble Val.’

For all reply, I took her little curly brown head between both my hands and kissed her on her smooth forehead. What she had said was quite true. I felt as if I had solemnly dedicated myself to a lifelong duty and service which was at the same time the object of my fondest hopes, my deepest prayers, my highest aspirations, my most perfect and unselfish love.

For a time we sat there serious and silent—sisters in heart, as we hoped soon to become in reality. We were both recalled to a more everyday state of feeling by the striking of a clock on the mantelpiece.

‘Five!’ exclaimed Mrs. Rivers, springing from her seat. ‘Why, I must have been here an hour at the very least, and I have not even told you what I came for. It went completely out of my mind when I came in and saw you.’

‘Excuse me,’ I interrupted, shrinking from a recurrence to the past, ‘and sit down again, Una, for five minutes. I will ring for tea.’

‘But indeed I ought to be at home now. I promised the child to have tea with her in the school-room, and we are dining at seven ourselves to-night. You have got to dine with us too, Magdalen, for Val has a box for Lohengrin. You said you wanted to hear your famous countrywoman, Madame Melba, in the part of “Elsa;” and everybody knows that a Wagner enthusiast like yourself would not want to miss one

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note of the overture, so it was all settled I was to come and let you know quite early, and about six Val would fetch you himself, and bring you on to Lowndes Square. I can't persuade my dear old stupid Guy to come, so we shall have to share Val between us. And I really must be off, darling. You can give Val some tea when he comes instead of me.’

She was not to be persuaded to stay; so, having acquiesced in the arrangement, I kissed the little woman and let her go.

It was just striking half-past five when a tall, fair, distinguished-looking man came leisurely down the steps of the Reform Club and got into a hansom that was in waiting. ‘Cheyne Row’ was the address given to the driver, and thither we will follow him on his way. But the drive, short as it was, was not to be an uneventful one, for the vehicle nearly came into collision with an omnibus that was coming down the crowded King's Road thoroughfare, and as it drew sharply to one side to avoid it, a little child, who had just started to cross the street, was caught by the wheel and thrown across the kerb upon the pavement. She was not hurt in any way, a fact which the gentleman, who had sprung out of the cab to her assistance, was careful to ascertain as he raised her up and placed her in safety on the pavement. One of the dirty little fat arms had been grazed just sufficiently to draw blood, however, and the child was preparing to set up a howl, which was promptly arrested at

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sight of a bright new shilling laid in its palm, over which the fingers closed immediately. The gentleman got into the cab again and proceeded on his way, reaching his destination without further adventure. He did not dismiss it, but told the driver he should probably keep him about half-an-hour; and when the door was opened, entered the house without parley, as if he knew that the person he had come to see was in and would receive him. In the same way he closely followed the servant along a ground-floor passage, and was in the room as soon as, or even before, she had announced, ‘Mr. Lennox, madam.’

There was only one person present, who rose up from a low seat to greet him; a woman not much shorter than himself, with the splendid proportions and noble carriage of a Greek goddess. But there was no mistaking the mere womanliness in the look she turned upon him, or in the tones of her low, full voice.

‘Val, Val!’ she cried, and threw herself upon his neck, and clung to him in a very passion of abandonment. The man himself turned pale with the surprise and joy of it, and the intensity of his own emotion. But as suddenly disengaging herself, she started back with a cry of horror—‘Oh! what is it? What is it? Are you hurt? Blood on your wrist! For heaven's sake, Val, what has happened?’

She was now trembling like a leaf, and he gently guided her to the couch from which she had risen, and sat down by her side.

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‘It is nothing, my dearest, absolutely nothing. A little child fell in the street, and grazed its arm; in picking it up and holding it for a moment this must have been the result.’

But she persisted in asking for details of the affair, and he had to tell her the whole incident. She had turned a little pale, and he saw her shiver as he described the accident.

‘Why, Magdalen, my queen, you are surely not quite your own brave self to-day? Come, let me look at you, silly Magdalen! And sweet Magdalen, and beautiful Magdalen—sweeter and more beautiful today than ever!’

He was looking at her, not only with the enraptured admiration of a lover, but with the critical appreciation of a man who knows how and what to admire, and can estimate at its proper value the beauty of a woman as of that of a picture or a statue.

Then suddenly his expression changed to one of proud and satisfied proprietorship, as he exclaimed,—

‘Among all the handsome women in London, you will be the loveliest in the whole opera-house to-night, Magdalen.’

Well might he say so, for this was the picture that met his eyes. A noble figure robed in some soft white fabric embroidered in silver that draped her in classic folds. It was cut slightly low around the throat, which rose out of it like a polished column; but the beautiful contours of neck and bust were covered, only the massive rounded arms bared to

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their full length from the shoulder. In her sunny hair she wore a silver fillet, and a silver girdle encircled her waist. In each was thrust a cluster of blood-red blossoms of some rare tropical plant, which threw out the creamy tint of her draperies and the ivory pallor of her face,—a face from which the grey eyes looked steadily out beneath straight heavy black brows and lashes, which formed a curious contrast to hair of a bright chestnut that seemed to have caught and imprisoned the sunlight in its burnished masses. It was altogether a strange, wonderful face, with its curved, sensitive lips and dilated nostrils, its powerful chin and broad low forehead,—a face that flashed upon you its varying moods and its varied expressions, whose swift, sudden smile was like unexpected summer lightning.

On only two human beings did this smile ever linger and soften into tenderness, and these were Una Rivers and her brother. Such a look came across her now as she turned to the man who was gazing upon her with earnest intensity, while he attempted to speak with playfulness. She replied both to his look and words.

‘Silly, am I, Val? and sweet, which is better; and beautiful, which is best of all? I am silly for myself, because it is my birthday to-day, and I don't want the least little miserable trifle to happen on such a day to spoil it. Silly Magdalen! And sweet for you, Val, because I love you; and beautiful for you, Val, so that you may love me.’

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Happy Magdalen!

Val Lennox caught her to his heart.

‘Your beauty is not what I care for, Magdalen, lovely as you are. It is not— Yes; it is, it is—my goddess, my idol. I love it, I worship it. Your beauty is driving me mad.’

He pressed her closer to him as he spoke, raining passionate kisses on her hair, eyes, throat, and arms, then threw himself at her feet, clasping her knees, and buried his face in her lap with a sob.

Magdalen bent down and laid her hand on it with a soft, caressing touch.

‘Val, listen to me. It is my birthday, as I told you. You did not know it, and you brought me no gift, but I shall give you one instead. I promised Una to-day I would marry you whenever you chose to ask me. And I give myself to you now—this moment. I am yours when you like to claim me—do you hear, Val? Your very own, your wife.’

He slowly raised himself to a level with the woman who was bending over him, and, seating himself on the couch, threw his arm around her. Her eyes sank beneath the intensity of his gaze; she swayed towards him as it were involuntarily, but all at once sprang to her feet with a cry,—

‘The blood, the blood on your wrist! Oh, let me wash it off, and then we will go, Val! We had better go—you know we had better go.’

She had taken hold of his now passive hand, and drawn him after her to a corner of the studio where

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a white marble nymph held up a vase from which water flowed into a shell beneath. Like one in a dream she turned on the little silver tap and took up a sponge from the basin. He was gazing almost mechanically before him, beyond the little fountain to the corner of the room where a small easel draped in violet stood with a picture upon it. All at once his glance was arrested, and a look of surprise came into his face.

‘Lily Mordaunt!’ he exclaimed, and made a step forward.

Whether in loosing Magdalen's hand, which was holding his, she lost her balance, dazed and bewildered as she was from the violent emotion through which she had just passed, or what happened to cause her to fall, was never known. She swayed and tottered for a moment, but he was not in time to catch her before she fell heavily backwards, overturning the easel. In her fall her temple struck on the sharp edge of the marble basin, and great drops of blood fell like a slow rain upon the picture. Horror-stricken he raised her in his arms, but the doom she dreaded had wrought its consummation—Magdalen Challis was dead.

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