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,-Vain Villainy


_u" [ALL Eights Ebsbevbd.] Vain Villainy BY THE EARL OF IDDESLEIGH. Author of Belinda Fitzwarren," Luck o* Lassea- dale," Charms," &c. Miss Selina Knowstone was reclining easily Ia a garden chair under an ancient beech tree that spread out its boughs to a width suffi- ciently generous to have satisfied the rustics of whom Virgil sang nearly two thousand years ago. Th. ough the dancing leaves stole the sunbeams li0 liting up her soft golden hair till it shone with a radiance that was divine to Edgar Raekfo.d's loving eyes. Divine, too, WAS the face of the girl where blood mantled swiftly under the fine clear skin and upon which ever rested the expression of a bright alert spirit; nor did the tall slender form do anything but add to the exceeding charm. Edgar Rackford's adoration was pas- sionate and consuming, but the man who could have denied it a foundation never yet breathed. The goddess spoke, "My dear boy, what trash." They were not very god-like words. "It is not trash," said Edgar stoutly, "I do love you, I worship you, I lose myself in you, the touch of your hand lifts me to the heavens. I believe if you told me I might kiss the tip of your shoe, I would expire in my ecstasy, I Miss Knowstone interrupted him, "You donkey." "Oh, call me what you please," he went on, quite unchecked by a repulse so rude, "but I am speaking nought save simple truth, in you is bour.d up my life, my soul, my all; you can- OOt make me other than I am." "No, I can't," said Selina cruelly, "but I should think you might make yourself." "If I could I would not; if I would I could not. "Well, then, I must again blame your folly —you address me as if you were some wan- dering troubadour and I were the damsel on whom for the time being he had conferred the title of the queen of his affections. Really in the twentieth ce:itury that sort of thing is just twaddle." "Selina, you have no heart." "I can't agree; I believe that my heart is a, Sound one and in excellent working order." "1 hate materialism, and of you it is so un- worthy." "My dear Edgar, I aspire to good sense and rational conduct in life. I detest rhap- sodies—to speak plainly, I despise them." "Love is no rhapsody." "Ah, we differ. To me love is just what the sensible old Romans called it, a brief madness." Curse the old Romans," exclaimed Edgar With pardonable irritation. "It could certainly do them no harm," and her mischievous smile was so sweet that it was with difficulty that he restrained himself from a wild rush—a wild grasping of her in his arms. from a wild rush—a wild grasping of her in his arms. Selina, have mercy, you have never told I me to despair; but now grant me one ray of hope." She shook her head, "Oh, Edgar, not that old story over again." I "Again, again, and for ever again, until I prevail, until the fire in my veins shall have i melted your icy coldness." I But my friend, be reasonable; you have told me very often that you wish me to marry you, but you have never been able to give me any reason, good, bad, or indifferent, why I I should do so." "Because I adore you." She sighed patiently. "But that is no rea- I son at all, as I have explained to you so Often." "It is the strongest of reasons." "But I think otherwise; I should consider it folly to marry a man because I adored him, if I were capable at all of such a feeling; but to marry a man because he adored me would be lunacy." He dashed his hands violenHy together. "If you were not there before my sight in all your glorious loveliness I would swear that you could not be a creature of flesh and blood." "Marriage," said Selina very calmly, "is a matter of business, a very serious affair, a contract that cannot be broken. If I ever do marry I shall do so after long, tranquil, and earnest reflection; no gusts of passion shall .t ever disturb my judgment." "Indeed," said Edgar, stung into bitter- ness, "and pray have you formed your ideas as to what your husband is to be." "He must be able and ambitious, of course," said Selina, with perfect placidity. I used to think that I should like a soldier or else an artist, or an author; but I find that my views are beginning to change. I fancy I should like a politician." "A politician," with evident dismay. "Yes." "Good Lord "What is it?" asked Selina, with aroused interest. "I've just refused to stand for Lowdale." "Oh, Edgar," and now in her tones there was grave reproach, "such a chance of dis- tinction offered to you and you throw it away ae a child flings off a toy of which it has srawr.,weary-ol), why not be a man and do I » man's work ? Think of what others do, think of such a person as Mr. Morchard, for in- stance, who with youth, wealth, every gift of fortune, devotes himself to his one object of obtaining a seat in the House of Commons that he may be in a position to serve his country." A muttered expletive that passed through Edgar's lips probably conveyed no good wishes for Mr. Morchard's welfare, but Miss Knowstone, without noticing it, went on: "I declare when I saw him at Stickleham en- gaged in his canvass I was thrilled by his zeal and energy, I was lost in admiration at the mingled patience and ability with which he would argue out any question that was set before him turning darkness into light. It was noble, it was sometimes pathetic, and how I long for his success." "You always run up Morchard," said Ed- gar, sulkily. "I believe it's only because he appens to dance well, and you love danc- ing." But Miss Knowstone rejected the' gibe with scorn, "1 do love dancing," she said, and she moved her feet as if the music were playing. "And Mr. Morchard does dance well, so do you, Edgar, for the matter of that, and pleased I am to have either of you for my partner." "But you like me best," cried Edgar, eagerly. "You can at least say that much." "I don't know," said Selina, judicially, "but it signifies little. Dancing is delightful, but it is not business, it should not engage the attention of a rational being except at a jfew odd moments." And you call yourself a girl," Edgar ex- claimed almost with a groan. "A rational girl," she corrected; "but, Edgar, let us be serious. You tell me that you have been invited to stand as a candi- date for Lowdale, and that you have rejected the proposal. Cannot you change your mind? Is it too late? Oh, that such an oiler could be made to me!" "But you would carry any seat," said Edgar fatuously, "and then charm the House of Commons. Now I should prove a wretched candidate and an even worse member of Par- liament." "I pity you," said Selina, loftily. "I didn't know you thought so much of politics," said Edgar with a rueful look. "Would it really improve your opinion of me if I went and stood for this beastly place?" "Then it is not too late," said Miss Know- stone, very quickly, "the opportunity is still open to you." "Well, I suppose it may be. I expect I shall be asked to reconsider my determina- tion. "Oh, then reconsider it," she said with fervour, "seize fortune by the fore-lock, and show to the world the good stuff of which you are made." And you, if I obey you, you will-" "I never make bargains." How he did long to kiss the lips that spoke so proudly. < The day before the poll 1. The joys of a con- tested election had come very near to their end after having kept Lowdale for some week or two in a fever of hissing excitement. Everything proper to such an occasion had been done, peaceable, respectable citizens had accused other peaceable, respectable citi- zens of crime that might have drawn blushes to the cheek of the most habitual criminal, and the accusations had been returned with equal fervour and regard for probability. Edgar Rackford had gone through all the casting of mud mental and physical which cheers on the candidate to even more strenu- ous exertions, and undoubtedly his ardour had intensified and his spirit had risen as the battle ran its course. Not only the wish to please Miss Knowstone now led him on, but also tke craving for victory in itself. Still be- fore his eyes the beauty of Selina was alwaya shining, the conviction never left him, that in some way success with her would follow suc- cess at Lowdale, while if he failed in politics he would fail also in love. He was well aware that in each case the fight would be hard. At Lowdale parties were evenly divided, and it was agreed on all hands that the majority would be a small one which- ever side might win. And Selina had so many admirers, why legion was their name, and though to Edgar she was rarely unkind, did she not show to others quite equal kindness? That brute Morchard that she so con- stantly praised. He was rich, he loved to posture, to avow himself, to be moved only by lofty aims. He was clever perhaps, at any rate clever enough to pass himself off as genuine in Miss Knowstone's judgment; and he could dance—no one who could not dance would ever please a young lady whose devo- tion to that exercise showed that with all her high flown views she was still a daughter of Eve. Yes, as a rival Morchard was truly formidable. Thus did Edgar Rackford muse as the half hour required for dressing purposes and so favourable for contemplation sped by. He was not a man given to speculative thought, lie scouted dreams as the offspring of indi- gestion, otherwise he might have been dis- turbed by a nightmare that had visited him in his slumber in the shape of a vision of Selina Knowstone lying dead still in the midst of a stony highway whilst a runaway horse and dog-cart were disappearing in the distance. He did indeed shudder as he called up the horrible picture, but it did not enter his head to send a telegram to inquire for Miss Knowstone's welfare. If such an idea could have occurred to him he would have rejected it as preposterous. The business of the day began, and for each hour a hundred separate tasks seemed, to be appointed. In the evening there was to be a huge mass meeting of voters, to whom Edgar was to make his final speech; some would be there who had never yet seen him and great importance was attached to the occasion. The time wore on, and late in the afternoon Edgar snatched a breathing space to indulge in a cup of tea in his Committee Room, several of the Committee men them- selves being present. A servant appeared with a missive that was quickly perceived to be a telegram, and at the instant, to his own surprise, there shot through- Edgar's brain the remembrance of his dream. The tele- gram was for himself, he opened it, then he grew deadly white as he read the cruel mes- sage, Miss Knowntone met with a danger- ous, probably fatal accident." It was signed by George Simpson," the name of a doctor who lived near to Selina's home. You have bad news, I fear, Mr. Rack- ford," said his principal agent. I must leave you." Edgar could hardly command his voice. There were loud and vehement cries of Impossible," Not to be heard of," It would be utter ruin," but they passed by Edgar like unnoticed breezes of the wind. He moved onwards to the door of the room as if he were unconscious of the presence of his companions, and he was on the thresnold before interruption came; then a restraining hand was laid on his arm. Mr. Rackford, this will not do." Edgar turned to the speaker. "The person who in the whole world is most dear to me is dying; do you think that you or any one can detain me?" There was a silence, the fruit of sympathy and perhaps discomposure, and then the agent spoke bluntly. Grieved as we all must be, Sir, at this terrible calamity, it is my duty to tell you that if you go the elec- tion goes too/' "Then let it go, what care I?" Then spoke a fussy little man, "Yes, Sir, yes, that's all very well, and I'm sure I can't say how sorry I am for your bad news, but you see, Sir, that now if I may say so, you don't hardly belong to yourself you're a public man, Sir, and the public has so to speak a share in you." At least," said a grave citizen, wait and attend the meeting this evening. If you make your speech there, and then explain your present circumstances, you might travel to-night by special train, and your absence to-morrow, however unfortunate, might be excused by the voters." But Selina was dying. In Edgar Rackford's mind that horror reigned alone, and he burst out of the chamber on his way to his love. The clocks in Knowstone Manor were strik- ing ten as Edgar Rackford, travel-stained and with his face whitened by agony, gained the entrance of the house. The telegram am 'K_ f j had not mentioned the nature of the acci- dent, but throughout the long hours in j train he had seen the vision reA^ealed to him ■; dent, but throughout the long hours in the j train he had seen the vision reA^ealed to him ■; | in his dream, his darling lying by" the road- pide silent and still. He was met by the old butler. "Miss Knowstone?" "In the draw- ing-room, Sir." So they could not even get S her upstairs, was his swift excruciating thought. He sprang forward, he opened the drawing-room door and gazed with eyes S eager though terror-stricken into the in- terior of the chamber. Then with a wild cry of amazement he leaped in the air, and for the moment his senses absolutely de- serted him. Instead of the figure prostrate and swathed in bandages which he had expected to see, Selina stood before him in her full glory. The young lady was in fact in one of her lighter moods and was engaged in practising a dancing step before a looking glass, j Selina j "Edgar! of all people in the world!" Thea as she began to perceive his condition, Oh, my poor boy, what is it. Have you met with some very great misfortune?" « It said you were dying," he gasped out, I while the room seemed to be whirling around I him. Me! dying! who said so?" The telegram," and he began to fumble in his pockets for the paper that had caused him such acute misery. She snatched it from his hand, she read it with one swift glance, she flushed like a rose. > It's a vile hoax to rob you of your elec- tion." j But he had by this time recognised the reality. Selina was safe and well, and mighty thrills of rapture shot through every fibre ¡I of his being. My darling, you are all in all." The rose colour deepened on Selina's face, so overwhelming was his passion that it awoke in her feelings new and strange, though from their contemplation she instinc- tively shrank. He advanced to her with open arms, and she did not retreat. Could the light feet be turning traitors? Were they failing to carry their mistress out of danger? He drew nearer, still she never moved, his embrace encircled her, his kisses rained down upon her sweet lips, and of resistance there was none. One moment of utter bliss and then she was again herself. Just this once," she murmured, in regard of your suffer- j ings." "I am repaid a thousand-fold." "But Edgar, this nonsense must never be repeated, mind now, never." As you will, *my darling," were his words, but his thoughts may not have been the same. And now to work," she exclaimed, briskly. To work without the loss of a second, you must telegraph to Lowdale and return there at once, and I almost think. "You almost think?" She looked at him half shyly, though there was laughter in her eyes. I almost think that I had better go with you, as a living proof ef the fraud which has been practised." You would do that for me," and he stepped towards her eagerly with intentions obvious if not deliberate. She checked him hurriedly. Not for you," she corrected, but for justice. Time presses urgently, my presence must confirm the story which you will have to tell the elec- tors and which in my absence some of your opponents might doubt or pretend to doubt. I see no other way of providing such confir- mation." In truth you are an angel." Attended by a maid who had lived with her for many years, Miss Knowstone travelled to Lowdale with Edgar Rackford.. At the railway station at which they en- tered the train they had met Dr. Simpson re- turning from some errand of mercy and they had shown him the false telegram. He had expressed his extreme anger and disgust and then mentioned that he had actually been inside the telegraph office that afternoon in company with Mr. Morchard, who had been sending* off & message. At this news both Selina and Edgar had been startled. That Mr. Morchard should be in- the neighbour- hood of Knowstone Manor without calling- there was most remarkable, though Dr. Simpson had been satisfied by an assurance- that the visit would certainly have beew paid had time and business permitted.- When a man is standing for Parliament he cre't call his soul his own," Mr. Morchard' cre't call his soul his own," Mr. Morchard' had said, I've just rushed down here for aa: hour on a matter of extreme necessity, an hour I grudge having to spend outside the I constituency which I am contesting, but tell Miss Knowstone that I mean to win, and then I'll come to her with the laurels of vio- tory." The doctor's tale aroused in Edgar's mind suspicion of the blackest hue. He believed Mr. Morchard to be unscrupulous, to be the I man of men to hold that all was fair in love and war, to be even capable of sending the false telegram. Who else could have sent it since at Lowdale he was confronted with an honourable opponent? But Morchard, ia: his baseness might quite probably be willing to play a dastardly trick in the hope of de- priving a rival of a seat in Parliament, all honour which must raise that rival in the" eyes of Miss Knowstone. By heaven, Mor- chard had done this atrocious thing, and! Edgar burned with fierce fury; it was long- before his mind was able to recogaiae that between suspicion and proof yawns a deep' wide gulf and that here proof would hardly, be found. And proof never was found. The scoun- drel who concocted that barbarous lie re- mains unknown, though Edgar entertains no" doubt about his identity. But the villainy, whatever its object, did not succeed. Selina had yielded once to the wild passion with which events had inspired her lover, and the effects of such submission must abide. The hearts of the Lowdale citizens beat high in their wrath when they learned of the vile- deed that had been enacted, a deed that was calculated to stain the fair fame of their town, and they gave Edgar Rackford suffi- cient votes to secure his victory. Three' montha slipped by, and a great ball was given by the Mayor in Lowdale Town Hall, where by young and old, by high and low, W'1J.J it decided that none had ever before be- held such perfection in dancing as that J which was now displayed by Selina Rackford, the most lovely of brides.

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