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The letter which told Miss Bellingham that her lover was master of Penwyn seemed to her almost like the end of a fairy tale. Lady Cheshunt had dropped in to afternoon tea only a quarter of an hour before the letter arrived, and Madge was busy with the old Battersea cups and saucers, and the quaint little Wedgwood teapot, when the accomplished serving man, who never abated one iota of his professional solemnity because his wages were doubtful, presented Churchill's letter on an antique salver.

'Put it on the table, please,' said Madge, busy with the tea-service, and painfully conscious that the dowager's eye was upon her. She had recognised Churchill's hand at a glance, and thought how daring, nay, even impudent it was of him to234 write to her. It was mean of him to take such advantage of her weakness that Sunday morning, she thought. True, that in one fatal moment she had let him discover the secret she was most anxious to hide; but she had given him no right over her. She had made him no promise. Her love had been admitted hypothetically. 'If we lived in a different world. If I had myself only to consider,' she had said to him; which meant that she would have nothing to do with him under existing circumstances.

She glanced at Viola, that fragile Sèvres china beauty, with her air of being unfitted for the vulgar uses of life.

'Poor child! For her sake I ought to marry Mr. Balecroft, that pompous Manchester merchant; or that vapid young fop, Sir Henry Featherstone,' she thought, with a sigh.

'Read your letter, my dear love,' said Lady Cheshunt, leaning over the tray to put an extra lump of sugar into her cup, and scrutinizing the address of that epistle which had brought the warm crimson blood to Madge Bellingham's cheeks and235 brow. The good-natured dowager permitted herself this breach of good breeding, in the warmth of her affection for Madge. The handwriting was masculine, evidently. That was all Lady Cheshunt could discover.

Miss Bellingham broke the seal, trying to look composed and indifferent, but after hurriedly reading Churchill's brief letter, gave a little cry of horror.

'Good heavens! it is too dreadful!' she exclaimed.

'What is too dreadful, child?'

'You remember what we were talking about last Saturday night, when you took so much trouble to warn me against allowing myself to—to entangle myself—I think that's what you called it—with Mr. Penwyn.'

'With the poor Mr. Penwyn. I remember, perfectly; and that letter is from him—the man has had the audacity to propose to you? You may well say it is too dreadful.'

'His cousin has been murdered, Lady Cheshunt—his cousin, Mr. James Penwyn.'


'And your man comes into the Penwyn estate,' cried the energetic dowager. 'My dearest Madge, I congratulate you! Poor young Penwyn! A boy at school, or a lad at the University, I believe. Nobody seems to know much about him.'

'He has been murdered. Shot from behind a hedge by some midnight assassin. Isn't that dreadful?' said Madge, too much shocked by the tidings in her lover's letter to consider the difference this event might make in her own fortunes. She could not be glad all at once, though that one man whom her heart had chosen for its master was raised from poverty to opulence. For a little while at least, she could only think of the victim.

'Very dreadful!' echoed Lady Cheshunt. 'The police ought to prevent such things. One pays highway rates, and sewer rates, and so forth, till one is positively ruined, and yet one can be murdered on the very high road one pays for, with impunity. There must be something wrong in the legislature. I hope things will be better when our party comes in. Look at that child Viola, she's as white as a sheet of paper—just as if she were going to faint.237 You shouldn't blurt out your murders in that abrupt way, Madge.'

Viola gave a little hysterical sob, and promised not to faint this time. She was but a fragile piece of human porcelain, given to swooning at the slightest provocation. She went round to Madge, and knelt down by her, and kissed her fondly, knowing enough of her sister's feelings to comprehend that this fatal event was likely to benefit Madge.

'Odd that I did not see anything of this business in the papers,' exclaimed Lady Cheshunt. 'But then I only read the Post, and that does not make a feature of murders.'

'Papa is at Newmarket,' said Viola, 'and Madge and I never look at the papers, or hear any news while he is away.'

Madge sat silent, looking at Churchill's letter till every word seemed to burn itself into her brain. The firm, straight hand, the letters long and narrow, and a little pointed—something like that wonderful writing of Joseph Addison's—how well she knew it!


'And yet he must have been agitated,' thought Madge. 'Even his quiet force of character could not stand against such a shock as this. After what he said to me, too, last Sunday—to think that wealth and position should have come to him so suddenly. There seems something awful in it.'

Lady Cheshunt had quite recovered her habitual gaiety by this time, and dismissed James Penwyn's death as a subject that was done with for the moment, merely expressing her intention of reading the details of the event in the newspapers at her leisure.

'And so, my dear Madge, Mr. Penwyn wrote to you immediately,' she said. 'Doesn't that look rather as if there were some kind of understanding between you?'

'There was no understanding between us, Lady Cheshunt, except that I could never be Mr. Penwyn's wife while he was a poor man. He understood that perfectly. I told him in the plainest, hardest words, like a woman of the world as I am.'

'You needn't say that so contemptuously, Madge. I'm a woman of the world, and I own it without a239 blush. What's the use of living in the world if you don't acquire worldly wisdom? It's like living ever so long in a foreign country without learning the language, and implies egregious stupidity. And so you told Churchill Penwyn that you couldn't marry him on account of his poverty! and you pledged yourself to wait ten or twenty years for him, I suppose, and refuse every decent offer for his sake?'

'No, Lady Cheshunt, I promised nothing.'

'Well, my dear, Providence has been very good to you: for, no doubt, if Mr. Penwyn had remained poor you'd have made a fool of yourself sooner or later for his sake, and gone to live in Bloomsbury, where even I couldn't have visited you, on account of my servants. One might get over that sort of thing one's self, but coachmen are so particular where they wait.'

Her ladyship rattled on for another quarter of an hour, promised Madge to come and stay at Penwyn Manor with her by and by, congratulated Viola on her sister's good fortune, hoped that her dear Madge would make a point of spending the season in London when she became Mrs. Penwyn; while Madge sat240 unresponsive, hardly listening to this flow of commonplace, but thinking how awful fortune was when it came thus suddenly, and had death for its herald. She felt relieved when Lady Cheshunt gathered up her silken train for the last time, and went rustling downstairs to the elegant Victoria which appeared far too fairy-like a vehicle to contain that bulky matron.

'Thank Heaven she's gone!' cried Madge. 'How she does talk!'

'Yes, dear, but she is always kind,' pleaded Viola, 'and so fond of you.'

Madge put her arms round the girl and kissed her passionately. That sisterly love of hers was almost the strongest feeling in her breast, and all Madge's affections were strong. She had no milk-and-water love.

'Dearest!' she said softly, 'how happy we can be now! I hope it isn't wicked to be happy when fortune comes to us in such a dreadful manner.'

'You do care a little for Mr. Penwyn, then, dear?' said Viola, without entering upon this somewhat obscure question.


'I love him with all my heart and soul.'

'Oh, Madge, and you never told me!'

'Why tell you something that might make you unhappy? I should never have dreamt of marrying Churchill but for this turn in Fortune's wheel. I wanted to make what is called a good marriage, for your sake, darling, more than for my own. I wanted to win a happy home for you, so that when your time came to marry you might not be pressed or harassed by worldly people as I have been, and might follow the dictates of your own heart.'

'Oh, Madge, you are quite too good,' cried Viola, with enthusiasm.

'And we may be very happy, mayn't we, my pet?' continued the elder, 'living together at a picturesque old place in Cornwall, with the great waves of the Atlantic rolling up to the edge of our grounds—and in London sometimes, if Churchill likes—and knowing no more of debt and difficulty, or cutting and contriving so as to look like ladies upon the income of ladies' maids. Life will begin afresh for us, Viola.'

'Poor papa!' sighed Viola, 'you'll be kind to him, won't you, Madge?'


'My dearest, you know that I love him. Papa will be very glad, depend upon it, and he will like to go back to his old bachelor ways, I dare say, now that he will not be burthened with two marriageable daughters.'

'When will you be married, Madge?'

'Oh, not for ever so long, dear; not for a twelvemonth, I should think. Churchill will be in mourning for his cousin, and it wouldn't look well for him to marry soon after such a dreadful event.'

'I suppose not. Are you to see him soon?'

'Very soon, love. Here is his postscript. 'Madge read the last lines of her lover's letter: '"I shall come back to town directly the inquest is over, and all arrangements made, and my first visit shall be to you."'

'Of course. And you really, really love him, Madge?' asked Viola, anxiously.

'Really, really. But why ask that question, Viola, after what I told you just now?'

'Only because you've taken me by surprise, dear; and—don't be angry with me, Madge—because Churchill Penwyn has never been a favourite of243 mine. But of course now I shall begin to like him immensely. You're so much better a judge of character than I am, you see, Madge, and if you think him good and true——'

'I have never thought of his goodness or his truth,' said Madge, with rather a gloomy look. 'I only know that I love him.'


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