Read CHAPTER XLVIII - THE PLANT AUNT MARGUERITE GREW. of Of High Descent , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

As Duncan Leslie walked up the steep path leading to the old granite house he could not help thinking of the absurdity of his act, and wondering whether Louise Vine and her father would see how much easier it would have been for him to call at Van Heldre’s.

“Can’t help it,” he said.  “The old man must think what he likes.  Laugh at me in his sleeve?  Well, let him.  I shan’t be the first man in love who has been laughed at.”

“In love, man, in love!  How stupid it sounds; and I suppose I am weak.”

“Human nature!” he said after a pause; and he walked very fast.

Then he began to walk very slowly, as a feeling of hesitation came over him, and he asked himself whether the Vines would not feel his coming as an intrusion, and be annoyed.

“She can’t be annoyed,” he said half aloud.  “She may think it unfortunate, but she knows I love her, and she is too true and sweet a woman to be hard upon me.”

With the full intention of going boldly to the house, and trying to act in a frank, manly way, letting Louise see that he was going to be patient and earnest, he again strode on rapidly, but only to hesitate again and stop by one of the great masses of rock which occurred here and there along the shelf-like slope cut from the side of the towering hill.

Here he rested his arms upon the shaggy stone and stood gazing out to sea, the darkness looking wonderfully transparent and pure.  From where he stood the harbour was at his feet, and he could see a spark-like light here and there in cottage or boat, and a dull glow from some open doorway on the opposite side of the estuary.

The red light at the end of the east pier sent a ruddy stain out to sea, and there was another light farther out just rocking gently to and fro, and as it caught his eye he shuddered, for it shone out softly, as did the light of the lugger on the night when Harry Vine took that terrible leap.

“Poor weak boy,” said Leslie to himself.  And then, “The more need for her to have one in whom she can confide; only I must be patient ­ patient.”

He turned with a sigh, and began to walk back, for in his indecision the feeling was in him strong now that a call would be an intrusion, and that he must be content to wait.  By the time he was fifty yards down the path the desire to see Louise again was stronger than ever, and he walked back to the stone, leaned over it, and stood thinking.  After a few minutes he turned sharply round and looked, for he heard a heavy step as of a man approaching, but directly after, as he remained quiescent, he just made out that it was not a man’s step, but that of a sturdy fisherwoman, who seemed in the gloom to resemble Poll Perrow, but he could not be sure, and forgot the incident as soon as she passed.  By the time the steps had died out, Duncan Leslie’s mind was fully made up; and, following the woman, he walked firmly up to the gateway, entered, and, reaching the hall door, which stood open, he rang.  He waited for some time, listening to a low murmur of voices in the dining-room, and then rang again.  There was no reply, consequent upon the fact that Liza was at the back gate, to which she had been summoned by her mother, who had come up in trouble, and was asking her questions whose bearing she could not understand.

Leslie’s courage and patience began to fail, but he still waited, and then at last changed colour, feeling the blood rush to his cheeks, for there was a peculiarity in the conversation going on in the dining-room, and it seemed to him that some one was agitated and in pain.

He turned away so as to force himself not to hear, feeling that he was an interloper, and then, in spite of himself, he returned to find that the sounds had grown louder, and as if involuntarily agitated and troubled more than he would have cared to own, he rang again and then entered the hall.

He hesitated for a few moments, and then certain from the voices that there was something strange, and divining wrongly or rightly from the tones of one of the voices ­a voice which thrilled him as he stood there trembling with excitement ­that the woman he loved needed help, he threw aside all hesitation, and turned the handle of the door.

The words which fell upon his ear, the scene he saw of Louise kneeling at some strange, rough-looking man’s feet, sent the blood surging up to his brain, rendering him incapable of calm thought, and turned the ordinarily patient, deliberative man into a being wrought almost to a pitch of madness.

It did not occur to him that he was an intruder, and that he had no right to make such a demand, but taking a stride forward, he exclaimed ­

“Louise! who is this man?” as the lamp was swept from the table, and they were in darkness.

For a few moments no one spoke, and Louise stood clinging to her brother, trembling violently, and at her wits’ end to know what to do.

The simple way out of the difficulty would have been to take Duncan Leslie into their confidence at once; but in her agitation, Louise shrank from that.  She knew his stern integrity; she had often heard of his firmness with his mine people; and she feared that in his surprise and disgust at what seemed to her now little better than a trick played by her brother to deceive them, Leslie would turn against him and refuse to keep the secret.

On the other hand, Harry, suffering from a fresh access of dread, but now strung up and excited, placed his lips to her ear and bade her be silent on her life.

The silence was for a few moments terrible, and then Harry’s breath could be heard coming and going as if he had been hunted, while Louise, in her agony of excitement, sought vainly for words that should put an end to the painful encounter.

No one moved; and in the midst of the nervous strain a sharp puff of wind came sweeping up from the sea, like the avant garde of a storm, and the casement window was blown to with a loud clang.

Harry started as if he had felt that his retreat was cut off, but he kept his face averted, and dragged his rough hat down over his eyes, though the action was unnecessary, for the darkness was too great for him to be recognised.

As he started Louise clung to him, and for the moment he struggled to escape from her, but he clung to her the next instant, and quivered with fear as the silence was broken by Leslie’s voice, so cold, deep, and harsh that it seemed as if a stranger was speaking.

“I suppose I have no right to interfere,” he said; “but there are times when a man forgets or puts aside etiquette, and there are reasons here why I should speak.  Miss Vine, where is your father?”

Louise made an effort to reply, but there was only a spasmodic catching of her breath.

“Send him away.  Tell him to go,” whispered Harry.

“I said, where is your father, Miss Vine?” said Leslie again more coldly.

“At ­at Mr Van Heldre’s,” she murmured at last.  “Mr Leslie ­pray ­”

“I am your father’s friend, and I should not be doing my duty ­ah! my duty ­to myself,” he cried angrily, “if I did not speak plainly.  Does Mr Vine know that this gentleman is here?”

No,” said Louise, in an almost inaudible voice, and in the contagion of her brother’s fear she seemed to see him once more hunted down by the officers of justice; and the terrible scene on the pier danced before her eyes.

“So I suppose,” said Leslie coldly.

“Send him away,” whispered Harry hoarsely.

“It is not in Miss Louise Vine’s power to send me away, sir,” cried Leslie fiercely; and the poor trembling girl felt her brother start once more.

“You, sir, are here, by her confession, clandestinely.  You are a scoundrel and a cur, who dare not show your face, or you would not have dashed out that light.”

Harry made a harsh guttural sound, such as might be uttered by a beast at bay.

“Who are you?  I need not ask your object in coming here.  I could not help hearing.”

“Tell him to go away,” said Harry sharply, speaking in French to disguise his voice.

“Mr Leslie, pray, pray go.  This is a private visit.  I beg you will go.”

“Private enough,” said Leslie bitterly; “and once more I say you may think I have no right to interfere.  I give up all claims that I might have thought I had upon you, but as your father’s friend I will not stand calmly by and see wrong done his child.  Speak out, sir; who are you?  Let’s hear your name, if you are ashamed to show your face.”

“Tell him to go away,” said Harry again.

Leslie writhed, for Aunt Marguerite’s hints about the French gentleman of good descent came up now as if to sting him.  This man he felt, in his blind rage, was the noble suitor who in his nobility stooped to come in the darkness to try and persuade a weak girl to leave her home; and as he thought this it was all he could do, hot-blooded, madly jealous and excited, to keep from flinging himself upon the supposed rival, the unworthy lover of the woman he had worshipped with all the strength of a man’s first passion.

“I can’t talk to him in his wretched tongue,” cried Leslie, fiercely; “but I understand his meaning.  Perhaps he may comprehend mine.  No.  I shall not go.  I shall not leave this room till Mr Vine returns.  He can answer to your father, or I will, if I have done wrong.”

“Mr Leslie!” cried Louise, “you don’t know what you are doing ­what you say.  Pray ­pray go.”

“When my old friend George Vine tells me I have done wrong, and I have seen you safe in his care.”

“No, no.  Go now, now!” cried Louise.

Leslie drew a deep breath and his heart beat heavily in the agony and despair he felt.  She loved this man, this contemptible wretch who had gained such ascendancy over her that she was pleading in his behalf, and trying to screen him from her father’s anger.

“Mr Leslie.  Do you hear me?” she cried, taking courage now in her despair and dread lest her father should return.

“Yes,” he said coldly, “I hear you, Miss Vine; and it would be better for you to retire, and leave this man with me.”

“No, no,” she cried excitedly.  “Mr Leslie! you are intruding here.  This is a liberty.  I desire you to go.”

“When Mr Vine comes back,” said Leslie sternly.  “If I have done wrong, then no apology shall be too humble for me to speak.  But till he comes I stay.  I have heard too much.  I may have been mad in indulging in those vain hopes, but if that is all dead there still remains too much honour and respect for the woman I knew in happier times for me to stand by and let her wrong herself by accompanying this man.”

“Mr Leslie, you are mistaken.”

“I am not.”

“Indeed ­indeed!”

“Prove it then,” he cried, in stern judicial tones.  “I am open to conviction.  You love this man?” Louise was silent.  “He was begging you to accompany him in flight.”  Louise uttered a low wail.  “Hah!” ejaculated Leslie, “I am right.”

“No, no; it is all a misapprehension,” cried Louise excitedly.  “Mr Leslie, this ­”

“Hold your tongue,” whispered Harry hoarsely, and she moaned as she writhed in spirit.

“There are reasons why my father should not know of this visit.”

“So I suppose,” said Leslie sternly; “and you ask me to be a partner by giving way to a second blow to that true-hearted, trusting man.  Louise Vine, is it you who are speaking, or has this man put these cruelly base words in your mouth?”

“What can I say?  What can I do?” wailed Louise, wringing her hands, as with every sense on the strain she listened for her father’s step.

Harry, who now that the first shock had passed was rapidly growing more calm and calculating, bent down over his sister, and whispered to her again in French to go quickly, and get her hat and mantle.

“He will not dare to stop us,” he said.

Louise drew a long breath full of pain, for it seemed to be the only way to save her brother.  She must go; and, taking a step or two she made for the door.

“No,” said Leslie calmly, “it is better that you should stay, Miss Vine.”

Harry was at her side in a moment.

“Never mind your hat,” he whispered in French; “we must go at once.”

“Stand back, sir!” cried Leslie, springing to the door.  “Your every act shows you to be a base scoundrel.  You may not understand my words, but you can understand my action.  I am here by this door to keep it till Mr Vine returns.  For the lady’s sake, let there be no violence.”

“Mr Leslie, let us pass!” cried Louise imperiously, but he paid no heed to her, continuing to address his supposed rival in calm, judicial tones, which did not express the wild rage seething in his heart.

“I say once more, sir, let there be no violence ­for your own sake ­for hers.”

Harry continued to advance, with Louise’s hand in his, till Leslie had pressed close to the door.

“Once more I warn you,” said Leslie, “for I swear by Heaven you shall not pass while I can lift a hand.”

At that moment, in the obscurity, Louise felt her hand dropped, and she reeled to the side of the room, as now, with a fierce, harsh sound, Harry sprang at Leslie’s throat, pushed him back against the door in his sudden onslaught, and then wrenched him away.

“Quick, Louise!” he cried in French.  “The door!”

Louise recovered herself and darted to the door, the handle rattling in her grasp.  But she did not open it.  She stood as if paralysed, her eyes staring and lips parted, gazing wildly at the two dimly-seen shadows which moved here and there across the casement frames in a curiously weird manner, to the accompaniment of harsh, panting sounds, the dull tramping of feet, heavy breathing, and the quick, sharp ejaculations of angry men.

Then a fresh chill of horror shot through her, as there was a momentary cessation of the sounds, and Leslie panted,

“Hah! then you give in, sir!” The apparent resignation of his adversary had thrown him off his guard, and the next moment Harry had sprung at him, and with his whole weight borne him backwards, so that he fell with his head upon the bare patch of the hearthstone.

There was the sound of a terrible blow, a faint rustling, and then, as Louise stood there like one in a nightmare, she was roused to action by her brother’s words.

“Quick!” he whispered, in a hoarse, panting way.  “Your hat and mantle.  Not a moment to lose!”

The nightmare-like sensation was at an end, but it was still all like being in a dream to Louise, as, forced against her own will by the effort of one more potent, she ran up to her own room, and catching up a bonnet and a loose cloak, she ran down again.

“You have killed him,” she whispered.

“Pish! stunned.  Quick, or I shall be caught.”

He seized her wrist, and hurried her out of the front door just as Liza went in at the back, after a long whispered quarrel with her mother, who was steadily plodding down towards the town as brother and sister stepped out.

“What’s that? some one in front?” whispered Harry, stopping short.  “Here, this way.”

“Harry!” moaned his sister, as he drew her sidewise and began to climb up the rough side of the path so as to reach the rugged land above.

“It is the only chance,” he said hastily.  “Quick!”

She followed him, half climbing, half dragged, till she was up on the granite-strewn waste, across which he hurried her, reckless of the jagged masses of rock that were always cropping up in their way, and of the fact that in three places farther along, once fenced in by stones, which had since crumbled down, were, one after the other, the openings to three disused mines, each a terrible yawning chasm, with certain death by drowning for the unfortunate who was plunged into their depths.