Sanguine as Victor Carrington had been, confidently as he had calculated upon the fascination which Paulina had exerted over Douglas Dale, he was not prepared for the news contained in Miss Brewer’s promised letter, which reached him punctually, a few hours after Paulina had become the affianced wife of Douglas Dale. This was indeed success beyond his hopes. He had not expected this result for some days, at the very earliest, and the surprise and pleasure with which he learned it were almost equal. Carrington did not believe in good; he absolutely distrusted and despised human nature, and he never dreamed of imputing Madame Durski’s conduct to anything but coquetry and fickleness. “She’s on with the new love, beyond a doubt,” said he to himself, as he read Miss Brewer’s letter; “whether she’s off with the old is quite another question, and rests with him rather than with her, I fancy.”
Victor Carrington’s first move was to present himself before Madame Durski on the following day, at the hour at which she habitually received visitors. He took up the confidential conversation which they had had on the last occasion of their meeting, as if it had not been dropped in the interval, and came at once to the subject of Douglas Dale. This plan answered admirably; Paulina was naturally full of the subject, and the ice of formalism had been sufficiently broken between her and Victor Carrington, to enable her to refer to the interview which had taken place between herself and Douglas Dale without any impropriety. When she had done so, Carrington began to play his part. He assured Paulina of his warm interest in her, of the influence which he possessed over Sir Reginald Eversleigh, and the fears which he entertained of some treacherous proceeding on Reginald’s part which might place her in a most unpleasant position.
“Reginald has no real love for you,” said Carrington; “he would not hesitate to sacrifice you to the meanest of his interests, but his vanity and his temper are such that it is impossible to calculate upon what sort of folly he may be guilty.”
Paulina Durski was a thorough woman; and, therefore, having utterly discarded Reginald from her heart, having learned to substitute utter contempt for love, she was not averse to receiving any information, to learning any opinion, which tended to justify her change of feeling.
“What harm can he do me with Douglas?” asked Paulina, in alarm.
“Who can tell that, Madame Durski?” replied Carrington. “But this is not to the purpose. I don’t pretend to be wholly disinterested in this matter. I tell you plainly I am not so; it is very important to me that Sir Reginald should marry a woman of fortune, and should not marry you.”
“He never had any intention of marrying me,” said Paulina, hastily and bitterly.
“No, I don’t believe he had; but he would have liked very well to have compromised you in the eyes of society, so that no other man would have married you, to have bragged of relations existing between you which never did exist, and to have effectually ruined your fortunes in any other direction than the gaming-table. Now this I am determined he shall not do, and as I have more power over him than any one else, it lies with me to prevent it. What that power springs from, or how I have hitherto exercised it, you need not inquire, Madame Durski; I only wish you to believe that I exercise it in this instance for your good, for your protection.”
Paulina murmured some vague words of acknowledgment. He continued —
“If Reginald Eversleigh knows I am here, constantly cognizant of the state of affairs, and prepared to act for your advantage, he will not dare to come here and compromise you by his violent and unreasonable jealousy; he will be forced — it is needless to explain how — to keep his envy and rage to himself, and to suppress the enmity with which he regards Douglas Dale. Let me tell you, Madame Durski, Reginald’s enmity is no trifling rock ahead in life, and your engaged lover has that rock to dread.”
Paulina turned very pale.
“Save him from it, Mr. Carrington,” she said, appealingly. “Save him from it, and let me have a little happiness in this weary world, if such a thing there be.”
“I will, Madame Durski,” replied Victor. “You have already done as I have counselled you, and you have no reason to regret the result.”
The soft, dreamy smile of happy love stole over Paulina’s face as she listened to him.
“Let me be here with you as much as possible, and you will have no reason to fear Reginald. He is capable of anything, but he is afraid of me, and if he knows that I am determined to advance the marriage of yourself and Douglas Dale, he will not venture to oppose it openly. But there is one condition which I must append to my frequent presence here”— he spoke as though he were conferring the greatest favour on her —“Mr. Dale must not know me as Victor Carrington.”
With an expression in which there was something of the suspicious quickness which Miss Brewer had manifested when Carrington made a similar statement to her, Paulina asked him why.
Then Victor told her his version of the story of Honoria Eversleigh, the “unfortunate woman,” whom Douglas Dale’s unhappy and misguided uncle had raised to such undoubted rank and fortune, and the wild and absurd accusations the wretched woman had made against him.
“Mr. Dale never saw me,” said Victor, “and I know not whether he was thoroughly aware of the absurdity, the insanity of this woman’s accusations. At all events, I don’t wish to recall any unpleasantness to his mind, and therefore I venture to propose that I should visit here, and be introduced to him as Mr. Carton. The fraud is a very harmless one; what do you say, Madame Durski?”
Paulina had her full share of the feminine love of mystery and intrigue, and she consented at once. “What can the name matter,” she thought, “if it is really necessary for this man to be here?”
“And there is another consideration which we must take into account,” said Victor; “it is this. Mr. Dale may not like to find any man established here, in the degree of intimacy to which (in your interests) I aspire; and therefore I propose, with your leave, to pass as a relation of Miss Brewer’s — say, her cousin. This will thoroughly account for my intimacy here. What do you say, Madame Durski?”
“As you please,” said Paulina, carelessly. “I am sure you are right, Mr. Carrington — Carton, I mean, and I am sure you mean kindly and well by me. But how odd it will seem to Charlotte and me, lonely creatures, waifs and derelicts as we have been so long, to have any one with whom we can claim even a pretended kinship!”
She spoke with a mingled bitterness and levity which have been painful to any man of right feelings, but which was pleasant to Victor Carrington, because it showed him how helpless and ignorant she was, how her mind had been warped, how ready a tool he had found in her. When the interview between them came to an end, it had been arranged that Mr. Dale was to be introduced on the following day at Hilton House to Miss Brewer’s cousin, Mr. Carton.
The introduction took place. A very short time, well employed in close observation, sufficed to assure Victor that Douglas Dale was as much in love as any man need be to be certain of committing any number of follies, and that Paulina was a changed woman under the influence of the same soul-subduing sentiment which, though not so strong in her case, was assuming strength and intensity as each day taught her more and more of her lover’s moral and intellectual excellence. Douglas Dale was much pleased with Mr. Carton; and that gentleman did all in his power to render himself agreeable, and so far succeeded that, before the close of the evening, he had made a considerable advance towards establishing a very pleasant intimacy with Sir Reginald Eversleigh’s cousin.
Victor Carrington, always an observant man, had peculiarly the air of being on the watch that day during dinner. He noticed everything that Paulina ate and drank, and he took equal note of Miss Brewer’s and Douglas Dale’s choice of meats and wines. Miss Brewer drank no wine, Paulina very little, and Douglas Dale exclusively claret. When the dinner had reached its conclusion, a stand of liqueurs was placed upon the table, one of the few art-treasures left to the impoverished adventuress, rare and fragile Venetian flacons, and tiny goblets of opal and ruby glass. These glasses were the especial admiration of Douglas Dale, and Paulina filled the ruby goblet with curaçoa. She touched the edge of the glass playfully with her lips as she handed it to her lover; but Victor observed that she did not taste the liqueur.
“You do not affect curaçoa, madame?” he asked, carelessly.
“No; I never take that, or indeed, any other liqueur.”
“And yet you drink scarcely any wine?”
“No,” replied Paulina, indifferently; “I take very little wine.”
There was the faintest possible significance in Carrington’s tone as he said this. He had watched Madame Durski closely during dinner, and he had noted an excitement in her manner, a nervous vivacity, such as are generally inspired by something stronger than water. And yet this woman had taken little else than water during the dinner. And it was to be observed that the almost febrile gaiety which distinguished her manner this evening had been as apparent when she first entered the drawing~room as it was now. This was a physiological or psychological enigma, extremely interesting to Mr. Carrington. He was not slow to find a solution that was, in his opinion, sufficiently satisfactory. “That woman takes opium in some form or other,” he said to himself.
Miss Brewer did not touch the liqueur in question, and her cousin took Maraschino. After a very short interval, Douglas Dale and his new friend rose to join the ladies. They crossed the hall together, but as they reached the drawing-room door, Mr. Carrington discovered that he had dropped a letter in the dining-room, and returned to find it, first opening the drawing-room door that Dale might pass through it.
All was undisturbed in the dining-room; the table was just as they had left it. Victor approached the table, took up the carafon containing curaçoa, and, holding it up to the light with one hand, poured the contents of a small phial into it with the other. He watched the one liquid mingling with the other until no further traces of the operation were visible; and then setting the carafon softly down where he had found it, went smiling across the hall and joined the ladies.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50