Read THE DEVIL’S ACRE - CHAPTER I. of The Christian A Story, free online book, by Hall Caine, on ReadCentral.com.

Behind Buckingham Palace there is a little square of modest houses standing back from the tide of traffic and nearly always as quiet as a cloister.  At one angle of the square there is a house somewhat larger than the rest but just as simple and unassuming.  In the dining-room of this house an elderly lady was sitting down to lunch alone, with the covers laid for another at the opposite end of the table.

“Hae ye the spare room ready, Emma?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said the maid.

“And the sheets done airing?  And baith the pillows?  And the pillow-slipsand everything finished?”

The maid was answering “Yes” to each of these questions when a hansom cab came rattling up to the front of the house, and the old lady leaped out of her seat.

“It’s himself!” she cried, and she ran like a girl to the hall.

The door had been opened before she got there, and a deep voice was saying, “Is Mrs. Callender ”

“It’s John!  My gracious!  It’s John Storm!” the old woman cried, and she lifted both hands as if to fling herself into his arms.

“My guidness, laddie, but you gave poor auld Jane sic a start!  Expected ye?  To be sure we expected you, and terribly thrang we’ve been all morning making ready.  Only my daft auld brain must have been a wee ajee.  But,” smiling through her tears, “has a body never a cheek, that you must be kissing at her hand?  And is this your dog?” looking down at the bloodhound.  “Welcome?  Why, of course it’s welcome.  What was I saying the day, Emma?  ‘I’d like fine to have a dog,’ didn’t I? and here it is to our hand.Away with ye, James, man, and show Mr. Storm to his room, and then find a bed for the creature somewhere.  Letters for ye, laddie?  Letters enough, and you’ll find them on the table upstairs.  Only, mind ye, the lunch is ready, and your fish is getting cold.”

John Storm opened his letters in his room.  One of them was from his uncle, the Prime Minister:  “I rejoice to hear of your most sensible resolution.  Come and dine with me at Downing Street this day week at seven o’clock.  I have much to say and much to ask, and I expect to be quite alone.”

Another was from his father:  “I am not surprised at your intelligence, but if anything could exceed the folly of going into a monastery it is the imbecility of coming out of it.  The former appears to be a subject of common talk in this island already, and no doubt the latter will soon be so.”

John flinched as at a cut across the face and then smiled a smile of relief.  Apparently Glory was writing home wherever she was, and there was good news in that, at all events.  He went downstairs.

“Come your way in, laddie, and let me look at ye again.  Man, but your face is pale and your bonnie eyes are that sunken.  But sit ye down and eat.  They’ve been starving ye, I’m thinking, and miscalling it religion.  It’s enough to drive a reasonable body to drink.  Carnal I am, laddie, and I just want to put some flesh on your bones.  Monks indeed!  And in this age of the world too!  Little Jack Horners sitting in corners and saying, ‘Oh, what a good boy am I!’”

John defended his late brethren.  They were holy men; they lived a holy life; he had not been good enough for their company.  “But I feel like a sailor home from sea,” he said; “tell me what has happened.”

“Births, marriages, and deaths?  I suppose ye’re like the lave of the men, and think nothing else matters to a woman.  But come now, more chicken?  No?  A wee bitty?  Aye, but ye’re sair altered, laddie!  Weel, where can a body begin?”

“The canonhow is he?”

“Fine as fi’pence.  Guid as ever in the pulpit?  Aye, but it’s a pity he doesna’ bide there, for he’s naething to be windy of when he comes out of it.  Deacon now, bless ye, or archdeacon, and some sic botherment, and his daughter is to be married to yon slip of a curate with the rabbit mouth and the heather legs.  Weel, she wasna for all markets, ye ken.”

“And Mrs. Macrae?”

“Gone over to the angels.  Dead?  Nae, ye’re too expecting altogether.  She’s got religion though, and holds missionary meetings in her drawing-room of a Monday, and gives lunches to actor folk of a Sunday, and now a poor woman that’s been working for charity and Christianity all her days has no chance with her anyway.”

“And Miss Macrae?”

“Poor young leddy, they’re for marrying her at last!  Aye, to that Ure man, that lord thing with the eyeglass.  I much misdoubt but her heart’s been somewhere else, and there’s ane auld woman would a hantle rather have heard tell of her getting the richt man than seeing the laddie bury hisel’ in a monastery.  She’s given in at last though, and it’s to be a grand wedding they’re telling me.  Your Americans are kittle cattlejust the Jews of the West seemingly, and they must do everything splendiferously.  There are to be jewels as big as walnuts, and bouquets five feet in diameter, and a rope of pearls for a necklace, and a rehearsal of the hale thing in the church.  Aye, indeed, a rehearsal, and the ’deacon, honest man, in the middle of the magnificence.”

John Storm’s pale face was twitching.  “And the hospital,” he said, “has anything happened there ?”

“Nothing.”

“No other case such as the one ”

“Not since yon poor bit lassie.”

“Thank God!”

“It was the first ill thing I had heard tell of her for years, and the nurses are good women for all that.  High-spirited?  Aye; but dear, bright, happy things, to think what they have to know and to be present at!  Lawyers, doctors, and nurses see the worst of human nature, and she’d be a heartless woman who’d no make allowances for them, poor creatures!”

John Storm had risen from the table with a flushed face, making many excuses.  He would step round to the hospital; he had questions to ask there, and it would be a walk after luncheon.

“Do,” said Mrs. Callender, “but remember dinner at six.  And hark ye, hinny, this house is to be your hame until you light on a better one, so just sleep saft in it and wake merrily.  And Jane Callender is to be your auld auntie until some ither body tak’s ye frae her, and then it’ll no be her hand ye’ll be kissing for fear of her wrinkles, I’m thinking.”

The day was bright, the sun was shining, and the streets were full of well-groomed horses in gorgeous carriages with coachmen in splendid liveries going to the drawing-room in honour of the royal birthday.  As John went by the palace the approaches to it were thronged, the band of the Household Cavalry was playing within the rails, and officers in full-dress uniform, members of the diplomatic service with swords and cocked hats, and ladies in gorgeous brocades carrying bouquets of orchids and wearing tiaras of diamonds and large white plumes were filing through the gate toward the throne-room.

The hospital looked strangely unfamiliar after so short an absence, and there were new faces among the nurses who passed to and fro in the corridors.  John asked for the matron, and was received with constrained and distant courtesy.  Was he well?  Quite well.  They had a resident chaplain now, and being in priest’s orders he had many opportunities where death was so frequent.  Was he sure he had not been ill?  John understoodit was almost as if he had come out of some supernatural existence, and people looked at him as if they were afraid.

“I came to ask if you could tell me anything of Nurse Quayle?”

The matron could tell him nothing.  The girl had gone; they had been compelled to part with her.  Nothing serious?  No, but totally unfit to be a nurse.  She had some good qualities certainlycheerfulness, brightness, tendernessand for the sake of these, and his own interest in the girl, they had put up with inconceivable rudeness and irregularities.  What had become of her?  She really could not say.  Nurse Allworthy might knowand the matron took up her pen.

John found the ward Sister with the house doctor at the bed of a patient.  She was short, even curt, said over her shoulder she knew nothing about the girl, and then turned back to her work.  As John passed out of the ward the doctor followed him and hinted that perhaps the porter might be able to tell him something.

The porter was difficult at first, but seeing his way clearer after a while he admitted to receiving letters for the nurse and delivering them to her when she called.  That was long ago, and she had not been there since New Year’s Eve.  Then she had given him a shilling and said she would trouble him no more.

John gave him five shillings and asked if anybody ever called for her.  Yes, once.  Who was it?  A gentleman.  Had he left his name?  No, but he had said he would write.  When was that?  A day or two before she was there the last time.

Drake!  There could not be a shadow of a doubt of it.  John Storm looked at the clock.  It was 3:45.  Then he buttoned his coat and crossed the street to the park with his face in the direction of St. James’s Street.

Horatio Drake had given a luncheon in his rooms that day in honour of Glory’s first public appearance.  The performance was to come off at night, but in the course of the morning there had been a dress rehearsal in the salon of the music hall.  Twenty men and women, chiefly journalists and artists, had assembled there to get a first glimpse of the debutante, and cameras had lurked behind portieres and in alcoves to catch her poses, her expressions, her fleeting smiles, and humorous grimaces.  Then the company had adjourned to Drake’s chambers.  The luncheon was now over, the last guest had gone, and the host was in his dining-room alone.

Drake was standing by the chimney-piece holding at arm’s length a pencil sketch of a woman’s beautiful face and lithe figure.  “Like herselfalive to the fingertips,” he thought, and then he propped it against the pier-glass.

There was a sound of the opening and closing of the outer door downstairs, and Lord Robert entered the room.  He looked heated, harassed, and exhausted.  Shaking out his perfumed pocket handkerchief, he mopped his forehead, drew a long breath, and dropped into a chair.

“I’ve done it,” he said; “it’s all over.”

Polly Love had lunched with the company that day, and Lord Robert had returned home with her in order to break the news of his approaching marriage.  While the girl had been removing her hat and jacket he had sat at the piano and thumbed it, hardly knowing how to begin.  All at once he had said, “Do you know, my dear, I’m to be married on Saturday?” She had said nothing at first, and he had played the piano furiously.  Heavens, what a frame of mind to be in!  Why didn’t the girl speak?  At last he had looked round at her, and there she stood grinning, gasping, and white as a ghost.  Suddenly she had begun to cry.  Good God, such crying!  Yes, it was all over.  Everything had been settled somehow.

“But I’ll be in harder condition before I tackle such a job again.”

There was silence for a moment.  Drake was leaning on the mantelpiece, his legs crossed, and one foot beating on the hearth-rug.  The men were ashamed, and they began to talk of indifferent things.  Smoke?  Didn’t mind.  Those Indian cigars were good.  Not bad, certainly.

At length Drake said in a different voice, “Cruel but necessary, Robertnecessary to the woman who is going to be your wife, cruel to the poor girl who has been.”

Lord Robert rose to his feet impatiently, stretched his arm, and shot out his striped cuff and walked to and fro across the room.

“Pon my soul, I believe I should have stuck to the little thing but for the old girl, don’t you know.  She’s made such a good social running latelyand then she’s started this evangelical craze too.  No, Polly wouldn’t have suited her book anyhow.”

Silence again, and then further talk on indifferent things.

“Wish Benson wouldn’t sweep the soda water off the table.”  “Ring for it.”  “The little thing really cares for me, don’t you know.  And it isn’t my fault, is it?  I had to hedge.  Frank, dear boy, you’re always taunting me with the treadmill we have to turn for the sake of society, and so forth, but with debts about a man’s neck like a millstone, what could one do ”

“I don’t mean that you’re worse than others, old fellow, or that sacrificing this one poor child is going to mend matters much ”

“No, it isn’t likely to improve my style of going, is it?”

“But that man John Storm was not so far wrong, after all, and for this polygamy of our ‘lavender-glove tribe’ the nation itself will be overtaken by the judgment of God one of these days.”

Lord Robert broke into a peal of derisive laughter.  “Go on,” he cried.  “Go on, dear boy!  It’s funny to hear you, thoughafter to-day’s proceedings too”; and he glanced significantly around the table.

Drake brought down his fist with a thump on to the mantelpiece.  “Hold your tongue, Robert!  How often am I to tell you this is a different thing entirely?  Because I discover a creature of genius and try to help her to the position she deserves ”

“You hypocrite, if it had been a man instead of a charming little woman with big eyes, don’t you know ”

But there had been a ring at the outer door, and Benson came in to say that a clergyman was waiting downstairs.

“Little Golightly again!” said Lord Robert wearily.  “Are these everlasting arrangements never ”

The man stopped him.  It was not Mr. Golightly; it was a stranger; would not give his name; looked like a Catholic priest; had been there before, he thought.

“Can it be –­Talk of the devil ”

“Ask him up,” said Drake.  And while Drake bit his lip and clinched his hands, and Lord Robert took up a scent bottle and sprayed himself with eau de cologne, they saw a man clad in the long coat of a priest come into the roomcalm, grave, self-possessed, very pale, with hollow and shaven cheeks and dark and sunken eyes, which burned with a sombre fire, and head so closely cropped as to seem to be almost bald.

John Storm’s anger had cooled.  As he crossed the park the heat of his soul had turned to fear, and while he stood in the hall below, with an atmosphere of perfume about him, and even a delicate sense of a feminine presence, his fear had turned to terror.  On that account he had refused to send up his name, and on going up the staircase, lined with prints, he had been tempted to turn about and fly lest he should come upon Glory face to face.  But finding only the two men in the room above, his courage came back and he hated himself for his treacherous thought of her.

“You will forgive me for this unceremonious visit, sir,” he said, addressing himself to Drake.

Drake motioned to him to be seated.  He bowed, but continued to stand.

“Your friend will remember that I have been here before.”

Lord Robert bent his head, and went on trifling with the spray.

“It was a painful errand relating to a girl who had been nurse at the hospital.  The girl was nothing to me, but she had a companion who was very much.”

Drake nodded and his lips stiffened, but he did not speak.

“You are aware that since then I have been away from the hospital.  I wrote to you on the subject; you will remember that.”

“Well?” said Drake.

“I have only just returned, and have come direct from the hospital now.”

“Well?”

“I see you know what I mean, sir.  My young friend has gone.  Can you tell me where to find her?”

“Sorry I can not,” said Drake coldly, and it stung him to see a look of boundless relief cross the grave face in front of him.

“Then you don’t know ”

“I didn’t say that,” said Drake, and then the lines of pain came back.

“At the request of her people I brought her up to London.  Naturally they will look to me for news of her, and I feel responsible for her welfare.”

“If that is so, you must pardon me for saying you’ve taken your duty lightly,” said Drake.

John Storm gripped the rail of the chair in front of him, and there was silence for a moment.

“Whatever I may have to blame myself with in the past, it would relieve me to find her well and happy and safe from all harm.”

“She is well and happy, and safe tooI can tell you that much.”

There was another moment of silence, and then John Storm said in broken sentences and in a voice that was struggling to control itself:  “I have known her since she was a child, sir –­You can not think how many tender memories –­It is nearly a year since I saw her, and one likes to see old friends after an absence.”

Drake did not speak, but he dropped his head, for John’s eyes had begun to fill.

“We were good friends too.  Boy and girl comrades almost.  Brother and sister, I should say, for that was how I liked to think of myselfher elder brother bound to take care of her.”

There was a little trill of derisive laughter from the other side of the room, where Lord Robert had put the spray down noisily and turned to look out into the street.  Then John Storm drew himself up and said in a firm voice: 

“Gentlemen, why should I mince matters?  I will not do so.  The girl we speak of is more to me than anybody else in the world besides.  Perhaps she was one of the reasons why I went into that monastery.  Certainly she is the reason I have come out of it.  I have come to find her.  I shall find her.  If she is in difficulty or danger I intend to save her.  Will you tell me where she is?”

“Mr. Storm,” said Drake, “I am sorry, very sorry, but what you say compels me to speak plainly.  The lady is well and safe and happy.  If her friends are anxious about her she can reassure them for herself, and no doubt she has already done so.  But in the position she occupies at present you are a dangerous man.  It might not be her wish, and it would not be to her advantage, to meet with you, and I can, not allow her to run the risk.”

“Has it come to that?  Have you a right to speak for her, sir?”

“Perhaps I have ” Drake hesitated, and then said with a rush, “the right to protect her against a fanatic.”

John Storm curbed himself; he had been through a long schooling.  “Man, be honest,” he said.  “Either your interest is good or bad, selfish or unselfish.  Which is it?”

Drake made no answer.

“But it would be useless to bandy words.  I didn’t come here to do that.  Will you tell me where she is?”

“No.”

“Then it is to be a duel between usis that so?  You for the girl’s body and I for her soul?  Very well, I take your challenge.”

There was silence once more, and John Storm’s eyes wandered about the room.  They fixed themselves at length on the sketch by the pier-glass.

“On my former visit I met with the same reception.  The girl could take care of herself.  It was no business of mine.  How that relation has ended I do not ask.  But this one ”

“This one is an entirely different matter,” said Drake, “and I will thank you not to ”

But John Storm was making the sign of the cross on his breast, and saying, as one who was uttering a prayer, “God grant it is and always may be!”

At the next moment he was gone from the room.  The two men stood where he had left them until his footsteps had ceased on the stairs and the door had closed behind him.  Then Drake cried, “Bensona telegraph form!  I must telegraph to Koenig at once.”

“Yes, he’ll follow her up on the double quick,” said Lord Robert.  “But what matter?  His face will be enough to frighten the girl.  Ugh!  It was the face of a death’s head!”

At dinner that night John Storm was more than usually silent.  To break in upon his gravity, Mrs. Callender asked him what he intended to do next.

“To take priest’s orders without delay,” he said.

“And what then?”

“Then,” he said, lifting a twitching and suffering face “to make an attack on the one mighty stronghold of the devil’s kingdom whereof woman is the direct and immediate victim; to tell Society over again it is an organized hypocrisy for the pursuit and demoralization of woman, and the Church that bachelorhood is not celibacy, and polygamy is against the laws of God; to look and search for the beaten and broken who lie scattered and astray in our bewildered cities, and to protect them and shelter them whatever they are, however low they have fallen, because they are my sisters and I love them.”

“God bless ye, laddie!  That’s spoken like a man,” said the old woman, rising from her seat.

But John Storm’s pale face had already flushed up to the eyes, and he dropped his head as one who was ashamed.