|Chapter Title||Nina Visits Me Again.|
|Newspaper Title||Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1870 - 1907)|
|Trove Title||The Mystery of Phillip Bennion's Death|
Nina Visits Mo Again.
On ithe afternoon of that day I received a visit from Mks Macrae. There was about her, as ehe came in, an air of repressed excitement-the air of a person who not only has something to tell, but who burns to tell it. She looked, I thought, prettier' than ever; and 'tall, willowy Nina had been always pretty. There was an alertness- in her Btep and in bea- manner, a light in her eyes, a flush upon her cheeks, a smile about her lips; which/ things were, to hei-, an added charm.
She stood at the door, holding the handle in her .hand, looking at me with a roguish smile. After
the thoughts which had been.' occupying my mina of late, to the exclusion of all others, that smile came like a ray of sunshine.
Crossing the room she laid lier two gloved handfe upon my shoulders, and stooped to kies me, then looked at me, with merry glaucos, from under the broad brim of a bewitching hat.
She laughed, as if my mild tu quoque had bean intended for a j eut. As she continued to regard mc, a slight shadow flitted across her face.
"What is the matter with you? What have you been doing, you bad man? Do you know that you
I deemed it more than possible. It would have been strange if I had not looked worried. But I did not ohoosa ito tell her so.
"Youth and age, ruy dear, youth and age. When you attain to my years of wisdom-if you ever become so wise-you will learn that a certain gravity of feature is befitting."
I do not think that my evasion altogether crai~ tented' her, but she let my words pass muster. She went and stood before the fire, and began to play with the things upon the mantelshelf. A fine pic ture of English maidenhood. She was like sun shine in. the room. I was glad to dave her there.
"Guardian!" 'As she spoke ehe was looking down at the dancing fiâmes. Her lips were parted In a emilie; in her eyeis there was a smile os well. "I have something which I wish to tell you."
"You do not say so. It is impossible." She glanced up quickly.
"What do you mean?" She flushed. "Guar dian, have you guessed?"
"Calm, self-posseseed Mies Nina all at once was crimson. "Red as a rosa was she." It fceramo .her very well, indeed, that roseate hue.
"Guessed. My dear, what is lhere I could g'UQtB?"
'But I fancy that (-he saw a twinkle In my eye?. For, suddenly, she knelt down upon the rug, and put her elbows on my knees, and looked me closely in the face. After all, old age has certain privi leges which are not, upon the whole, unpleasant. The saucy, yet tender, familiarity with, which young and even pretty womeui saldom hesitate to treat one, is not among the least of them.
"Mr. Otway! You wicked man !"
What had I done that I was accused of wicked ness?
"Miss Macrae! In what have I sinned?"
"You know all about it, you know you do."
"I? My dear young lady, I know nothing. I never did know anything; I never shall."
She covered her eyes with her gloved hands.
"Guardian, he has told me that he loves me." I pretended to be amazed. . "He! Gocd Heavens! Who?"
"You know very well, sir. Ralph."
With what an air of reverential rapture she spoke the name. It had its sweet, as well as its humorous side. Dear lady, was there never a time when you pronounced a name like that? I hope, for your cwn sake, chat it comes from ya !" lips as tenderly to-day. '
"Ralph? Is it possible that you mean Raíph
She took her hands away. .SI:", looked at me with gleaming eyes.
"Of course I mean Ralph Hardwicke. Guar dian, aren't you glad?"
"In such a case as this, my dear, I fancy that it is not my feelings which are of primary import ance, but yours."
"You know very well what I mean. May I?"
"May you what? May you give him permission to tell you that he loves you? I think it is pos sible that your permission might not be asked. From what I know of Mr. Hardwicke, I fancy it may be only fancy, but there it is-but I fancy that if he had made up bis mind to tell you that he loved you, he would tell you, Avith your permission or without."
"I think he would." She looked down, pre tending to pick imaginary pieces of cotton from my trouser knees. "He never asked my permis sion, I assure you. He quite frightened me, in deed."
"Beware, young lady, of hypocrisy-that beset ting sin of women and of girls."
"He did frighten me, I declare it's true." She smiled her sauciest smile. "I don't say that it was a disagreeable kind of fright, you know."
"Young lady, I am, as you are aware, an old man, and in my way an observer of human na ture. I have often wondered what are the sensa tions of a young woman when a young man first tells her that he loves her. If you will kindly favor me with an analytical account of yours I will enter .t, for purposes of future reference, in my com monplace hook."
As she looked at me, both laughter and defiance were in her eyes.
"Would you like me to favor you with a full and particular account just now?"
"At your pleasure and at your leisure. At the same time T should like to be informed if you were favoring me with an account of your sensa tions when the first man told you that he loved you. In these matters one likes to have all avail
"It is neither the second nor the third man, but, it will be the last."
'The last? How so?"
"How so? Just as though you didn't know! Those other men said that they loved me. This time I know that I love him."
"This is-really, this is-ought I to say, this irf deplorable?"
"I can tell you that, you had better not. You dare! Guardian!" Stretching out her arms, she again laid her hands upon my shoulders. She became very much in earnest all at once. "Say that I may be his wife!"
"Is it for me to say, or for you?"
"Do not laugh at me-not now." A perceptible change took place in the tone of her voice. I thought it was rather an odd change, too. "You know, or perhaps you don't know, but it is a fad, that the one subject, on which Mr. Bennion ami I didn't quite agree was this." She paused. Whoa she resumed, in her voice there was an obvious tremor. "Of course, Ralph had never said any thing to me. At least, nothing particular; but T suppose that Mr. Bennion saw I liked him, because he went out of his way to warn me that I was to have as little to do with Ralph as I possibly could. I have always believed that he spoke to Ralph, too, because, just before that time, Ralph
I was surprised. I had supposed that it would have been thc chief desire of Philip Reunion's life that these two should come together. Cer tainly I had never seen anything in him which would have led me to think the contrary. He was not a demonstrative man, few men less so, but I knew that they had both been to him as his chil dren. They were thc dearest tilings bc had in the world. I verily believe that they were even dearer to him than his collection! And I had al ways imagined, and had always supposed that I had reason to believe, that thc crowning object of his life would be attained when he saw them to gether as man and wife.
And yet I was not so surprised as I should have been if she had spoken to me, for instance, the day before. Because last night, in glancing through Philip Bcnnion's diary, I had lighted on some words which seemed to suggest that some such object ion as Nina referred to had all the time existed in his mind. Nina's words seemed to con firm what 1 had only glanced at, and had certainly not entirely understood.
Nina was waiting for me to speak.
"Did he ever give any reason why he wished you to keep apart from Ralph?"
"Not the slightest. He was quite disagreeable. I thought him most unkind."
"Are you sure you did not misunderstand him? It was always my idea that nothing would have given him greater pleasure than to see you two together." She looked down; then, a moment af ter, looked up again with a burning blush..
"So I thought. Why should I conceai it from you? You won't think any the worse of me." She clasped her hands gently about my own. "So I thought, until he told me the contrary. It was quite impossible to misunderstand him; he told me so over and over again. And when he wasn't speaking I felt that he was' watching me. I be lieve he knew every time I spoke to Ralph, and almost what I said to him. I feel sure that he spoke to Ralph and sent him abroad, because I feel certain, never mind why, hut I do feel cer tain," and again Miss Nina blushed-she was in a blushing mood that day--"that Ralph would never have gone if it hadn't been for him."
I pondered tho young lady's words, as taking my ease In my great armchair, with her kncollug on tho rug in iront ol' me, 1 sut and watched her radiant face. I rellectcd that there are none so blind as those who won't sec, and that after all, it ls not always thc looker-on who sees most ot the game. AU this had been going on before my eyes-this little comedy of thc stern guardian and the unwilling ward, and I, who fancied myself om niscient, had seen nothing at all.
"What reasons could he possibly have hadI
She looked up with a still more vivid flush. She spoke quito viciously for Nina.
"He thought 1 wasn't good enough for Ralph I.know he did. And, of course, I know I'm not; but Mr. Bennion needn't have told me so."
"Do you mean to say that Philip Bennion told you, in so many words, that he didn't think you were good enough for Ralph?"
"Not in so many words, but there was no mis taking what he meant. Indeed, once he said, straight out, that such men as Ralph Avere not meant for girls like me. And when I asked him what he meant, because I had done nothing what ever to provoke the attack, he laughed-you know that cynical little laugh he had?-and said that mon like Ralph were predestined for women of a very different class to that which I belonged to."
"That was an odd remark for him to make." I thought it was odder than I chose to say.
But she departed in peace. I sent her con tented away. I was not disposed to play the part of a stony-hearted griffin, not I. I thought that he Avas made for her, and that she Avas made for him, that it Avas one of those matches which arc made in heaven. I told her so. Whereupon she kiss ed me and fondled me, and made so much of me that I really began to think that she had mistaken me for Ralph. I told her, also, that; on which sho said that I was very much in error. She Avould never have dared to treat, him as she Avas treating me-she respected him too much; which amused me mightily.
When she had gone, leaving behind her, as it seemed to my imagination, a pleasant savor of her presence in the air, 1 fell again to examining Philip Bennion's diary.
Her words had sot me Avondering; recently I had done nothing else but Avonder. I had noticed, the night before, when looking for something else, an allusion to Nina Macrae, which, in my cursory haste, and in the preoccupation of my mind, I had failed to understand. I turned it up again, and this time I understood it. even less than I had done before.
Here it is. It was undated, apparently entered "a propos des bottes," and pitchforked between memoranda of the purchase, A, of some Carolus spoons, and, B, of some Chinese carvings.
"That jade Nina' will Avork Ralph some michief yet. If he were wise he would keep away from her. I am afraid that be has a weakness for thc lures of her syren's eyes. I shall have to give the minx a hint that she is no good for him."
What could be the meaning of such an entry as that in Philip Bennion's diary? He Avrote as if he positively disliked the girl Avhom he had given all the world good reason to believe he idol
To my amazement the entry Avas no means an isolated one. The book literally teemed Avith al lusions to Nina. Almost invariably they Avere couched in bitter and sarcastic terms. I could not discover ono in which she Avas referred to kindly. The actual brutality of some of the entries Avas absolutely painful. They revealed Philip Bennion in a wholly unexpected phase. It was like reading his character by "flashes of light ning," and flashes of lightning of an unpleasantly
One entry in particular caught my eye. lt Avas, to me, so incomprehensible, that 1 read it over «nd over again, and was still at a loss. It had been written nearly twelve months ago:
"Jan. llih.-N.M. has been at ber tricks again. She seems bent on keeping up her little game. Damn her! Ralph will go stark mad if he does not take care. Thc girl is dangerous-there are moments when I should like to strangle her. Has not mischief enough boen done already? Heaven knows! What are women for? The little-! Not liât justifia for me."
If I had not seen it there, in black and Avhite, in Philip Bennion's own penmanship, I should have judged him incapable ol' Avriting such a paragraph as that, referring to my gentle Nina! In what spirit could it have boon written? Had I under stood his complex character even less than I imagined, and had ho been able to conceal from me tho fact thal, ho had been subject to recurrent attacks of dangerous insanity?
If so, what new light, might not bo shod upon matters as to Avhich I had hoon, and still Avas, Avbolly in the dark? If he had been, in any appreciable degree, insane-and really, Avhen I carno to think tilings over, I remembered how ofter. I bad thought that his eccentricities verged upon insanity-then possibly, in that fact, 1 might find the key to all the riddles which lately had been addling my brain.
lt seemed to mc to be inconceivable that a sane mau could have treated Nina Macrae in public, and oven in Iiis confidential intercourse Avith nie, as Philip Bennion had done, and then write other in private with the malevolence Avhich disfigured the pages of his diary. What had she done to de serve it? In what had she offended him? Surely if, in any Avay, she had incurred his resentment or merited his reprobation, bo Avould, at some time or other, have dropped a hint of it, at any rate to
But, no, not a word-not one, at any time. Never had I-heard him speak of Nina Macrae-and she had been the constant theme of his conversation except in tones of the sincerest affection, and, I riiight almost add, of reverential admiration.
And yet, for months and months, as far back as the diary Avent, he had been Avriting of her in terms Which were not only entirely destitute of a ' spark of affection, but which would have only been applicable to the most abandoned of Avomen.
To me, I say, in a sane man, the thing seemed
The Avorst of it was, that as I read and re-read the passages in Philip Bennion's diary in Avhich Nina Macrae Avas alluded to', I began to wonder if it was not I Avho had been mistaken. If, attel ai!, she Avas tho sort.of girl I had supposed she
Philip Bennion's eccentricities had only been upon the surface-superficialities, which he put off and on as lie put his gloves-often designed in a spirit of mischief with a view of tormenting me. At bottom he was as shrewd, as cool, as hard headed; and as cloar-headed a man as I ever knew. A,man of catholic tantea, abd Avith a wide knoAV
lodge ol! mon and of Ulinga; a man who know lila world, as they have it, "aux bouts des ongles." Never a man less likely to weigh hard upon a sinner! Witness his tolerance, oven of a Mr. Raymond Clinton.
The more attentively I read those entries In his diary the more I was compelled to ask myself if Philip Bennion had been the sort of man to write like that of anyone without some cause? Whether, that is, he had been the sort of man to write, in the pages of his confidential diary, evil of a person-and that person a woman, his own ward -merely for the wanton pleasure which he felt in writing evil?
If this question bad been put to me by an out sider, from the knowledge which I had of the man, yes or no, I should have said, instantly and emphatically, no-never a man less likely!
It had been a marked feature of his character, ns I had known him-and I should like to be told who had known him better-that he could never be induced to speak ill of a woman. There are women about of whom it is difficult to speak good -tho very stones proclaim the thing!-but even of them Philip Bennion, at any rate, would repeat
Plc always held that the temptations which assail women are more numerous and more irre sistible than those which come to men-an opin ion which is not held very strongly by the world, and for that he cried shame upon the world. That the lines fell for them in harder places. That they had more of the storm and the stress and less of the joy of the fray. And when a woman went wrong, so far from saying lhere was no excuse for her, he insisted that there were generally mil
lions of excuses. If all the Mary Magdalenes of ' the world had stood up before him in ono vast array, he would have held that he, as a man, had not the smallest right to liing even the tiniest peb ble at any one of them. I had always felt that, deep down In his heart, there was an inexhausti ble spring of infinite, and possibly-I know not illogical pity for the blackest sins of a woman.
Therefore, he being the man he was, it was strange to lind those entries in his diary in which, he alluded to Nina Macrae. The more I thresh ed the thing out in my mind, the less I could bring myself to believe that he would write in such a spirit-not once or twice, but over and over again, ami month after month, up to a few days before his death-without some cause, and some strong cause, too. But-angels and ministers of grace defend us!-what cause could he, of all men in the world, have had for writing evil of that ilowcr of English maidenhood, Nina Macrae?
The entries, as 1 have said, extended up to a few days before he died. The last entry in which allusion was made to Nina, was dated four days before his death. lc was thc last entry but one the book contained-the absolutely last entry re ferred to a purchase of some hammered brasses which he had made the day before he died-and it was not the least curious..
It must be remembered that, at that time, Ralph Hardwicke was travelling in Italy. Philip Ben nion spoke of a letter which he had received from him, and then wound up with these sufficient ly remarkable words :
"Poer Ralph! I believe that minx would kill him if she had her way-murder him, no doubt, after a fashion which would keep her out of tho meshes of the avenger of blood."
What could one make of such words as those? Nina commit murder! My tender-hearted Nina; who would not hurt that proverbial nuisance, the pestiferous fly ! No wonder that 1 closed the book with a conviction that the complication had be come more complicated, that Hie maze was ono from which there was no way out. Philip Ben nion's life had been a riddle; his death had been a harder riddle; but the words which, as it were, issued from Iiis grave presented the hardest riddle of ail.
Nor did tlie visit which Ralph Hardwicke was destined that night, to pay me tend much to my
enlightenment; indeed, he left me with still ano- . thir nut to crack.
it was not strange that I was beginning to feel, as Alice felt when she got through the looking glass;, that I had wandered into a world of cross questions and crooked answers.
(To ibe continued.)