Read CHAPTER LI - TOO LATE. of The Master of the Ceremonies , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

“How long has the fair Pontardent taken to the nursing up of scruples?”

“Do you suppose a woman is all evil?” was the retort.  “You men make us bad enough, but you cannot kill all the good.  I say it is a shame.”

“A shame!” said Rockley derisively.  “Ha, ha, ha!  What a woman you are!  You don’t know what has taken place.  I tell you this; she is mine.  All she wants is the excuse and opportunity that she finds to-night with me.  The old man watches her like a hawk.”

“Is this really so, Rockley?”

“On my honour.  I should not have done what I have if she were not willing.  I’ve a chaise and four waiting outside the lower gate behind here.”

“You have?”

“It has been there this half hour, and we are only waiting for our opportunity.  Now then, will you help me?”

“Well,” said Mrs Pontardent hesitating, “if it is that ­”

“It is like that, I tell you; but she wants it to appear that she had no hand in it, to keep up the fiction.  You see?”

“Yes,” said the woman, rather hoarsely; “but I don’t like it, Rockley.”

“Friends or enemies? ­one word?” he said sternly.

“Friends,” she said quickly.  “What am I to do?”

“Go back at once, and get hold of young Denville.  He’s half-tipsy somewhere.”

“Yes.”

“Tell him he has shamefully neglected his sister, and that he is to take her out in the garden for a walk straight down the broad grass path, and beg her pardon.”

“But ­”

“Not a word.  Do what I say.  The boy will obey you like a sheep dog.”

“And then?”

“What then?  That is all.”

“But, Rockley, no violence.”

“Bah!  Rubbish!  Do as I bid you.  I shall push the boy into a bush; that’s all.”

There was a dead silence.

“Must I do this, Rockley?”

“Yes, you must.  Go at once.  You shall not be mixed in the affair at all.  No one can blame you, for the boy is too tipsy to recollect anything to-morrow.  Now go.”

There was a rustle of a dress, and Cora had just time to draw out of sight as Mrs Pontardent passed her.

Cora heard her voice as she went by.  It was almost like a sigh, but the words were articulate, and they were: 

“God forgive me!  It is too bad.”

What to do?

Cora stood motionless, her pulses beating furiously, and the blood surging to her brain, and seeming to keep her from thinking out some plan.

Major Rockley ­the cruel, insolent libertine ­had a post-chaise waiting; by a trick Claire was to be got out, and down the broad walk, led like a sheep to the slaughter by her weak, half-tipsy brother, and then carried off.  The plan seemed to Cora devilish in its cunning, and the flush of her ardent blood intoxicated her with a strange feeling of excitement ­a wild kind of joy.

It was all for her.  Claire away ­carried off, or eloped with Rockley, Richard Linnell would rage for a week, and then forget her.  Poor fellow!  How he had struggled to hide that limp, and how handsome he looked.  How she loved him ­her idol ­who had saved her life.  He would be hers now, hers alone, and there would be no handsome, sweet-voiced rival in the way to win him to think always of her soft, grey, loving eyes ­so gentle, so appealing in their gaze, that they seemed to be looking out of the darkness at her now.

Yes, there they were so firm and true ­so softly appealing, and yet so full of womanly dignity that, as she hated her, so at the same time she loved.

“And in perhaps half an hour she would be away ­on the road to London ­ in the Major’s arms.”

“And Richard Linnell will be free to love me, and me alone?”

She said it aloud, and then tore at her throat, for a thought came that made the blood surge up and nearly suffocate her.

“Why, he would curse me if he knew, and loathe me to his dying day.”

She took a few hasty steps forward, and then staggered and stopped short.

“I must have been mad!” she panted.  “Am I so bad as that?”

She hurried towards the house, and narrowly missed her late partner as she reached one of the windows.

Thank heaven! she was not too late.  There sat Claire where she had left her.  No:  it was some other lady.

She hurried in as quickly as she could without exciting notice.

Where was Claire?

She went from room to room, but she was not visible.

Where was Richard Linnell?

Nowhere to be seen.

If she could find Colonel Mellersh, or Mr Barclay ­but no; there was not a soul she knew, and from different parts of the room men were approaching her, evidently to ask her to dance.

She escaped into another saloon, and there was Denville.

She took a few steps towards him, but he hurried away as if to attend to a call from their hostess, who was smiling at the end of the room.  The next moment Cora saw her take the arm of the Master of the Ceremonies and go through a farther door.

Impossible to speak to him now.  It was as if Mrs Pontardent had divined the reason of her coming, and was fighting against her with all her might.

Another gentleman approached, but she shrank away nervously, expecting each moment to see again her companion of the dark walk.

All at once, to her great joy, she caught sight of Mrs Barclay, looking in colour like a full-blown cabbage-rose, and exhaling scent.

She hurried up to the plump pink dame, to be saluted with: 

“Ah, my dear, how handsome you do look to-night!”

“Where’s Claire Denville?” cried Cora huskily.

“Claire, my dear?  Oh, she was with me ever so long, but she has just gone down the grounds.”

A spasm seemed to shoot through Cora Dean as she said to herself:  “Too late!”