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CHAPTER THE NINTH.
NEWS FROM MANNHEIM.
Lady Janet's curiosity was by this time thoroughly aroused. Summoned to explain who the nameless lady mentioned in his letter could possibly be, Julian had looked at her adopted daughter. Asked next to explain what her adopted daughter had to do with it, he had declared that he could not answer while Miss Roseberry was in the room.
What did he mean? Lady Janet determined to find out.
'I hate all mysteries,' she said to Julian. 'And as for secrets, I consider them to be one of the forms of ill-breeding. People in our rank of life ought to be above whispering in corners. If you must have your mystery, I can offer you a corner in the library. Come with me.'
Julian followed his aunt very reluctantly. Whatever the mystery might be, he was plainly embarrassed by being called upon to reveal it at a moment's notice. Lady Janet settled herself in her chair, prepared to question and cross-question her nephew—when an obstacle appeared at the other end of the library, in the shape of a man-servant with a message. One of Lady Janet's neighbours had called by appointment to take her to the meeting of a certain committee which assembled that day. The servant announced that the neighbour—an elderly lady—was then waiting in her carriage at the door.
Lady Janet's ready invention set the obstacle aside without a moment's delay. She directed the servant to show her visitor into the drawing-room, and to say that she was unexpectedly engaged, but that Miss Roseberry would see the lady immediately. She then turned to Julian, and said, with her most satirical emphasis of tone and manner, 'Would it be an additional convenience if Miss Roseberry was not only out of the room before you disclose your secret, but out of the house?'
Julian gravely answered,'It may possibly be quite as well if Miss Roseberry is out of the house.'
Lady Janet led the way back to the dining-room.
'My dear Grace,' she said, 'you looked flushed and feverish when I saw you asleep on the sofa a little while since. It will do you no harm to have a drive in the fresh air. Our friend has called to take me to the committee meeting. I have sent to tell her that I am engaged—and I shall be much obliged if you will go in my place.'
Mercy looked a little alarmed. 'Does your ladyship mean the committee meeting of the Samaritan Convalescent Home? The members, as I understand it, are to decide to-day which of the plans for the new building they are to adopt. I cannot surely presume to vote in your place?'
'You can vote, my dear child, just as well as I can,' replied the old lady. 'Architecture is one of the lost arts. You know nothing about it; I know nothing about it; the architects themselves know nothing about it. One plan is no doubt just as bad as the other. Vote, as I should vote, with the majority. Or as poor dear Dr. Johnson said, "Shout with the loudest mob." Away with you — and don't keep the committee waiting.'
Horace hastened to open the door for Mercy.
'How long shall you be away?' he whispered confidentially. 'I had a thousand things to say to you, and they have interrupted us.'
'I shall be back in an hour.'
'We shall have the room to ourselves by that time. Come here when you return. You will find me waiting for you.
Mercy pressed his hand significantly and went out. Lady Janet turned to Julian, who had thus far remained in the background, still, to all appearance, as unwilling as ever to enlighten his aunt.
'Well?' she said. 'What is tying your tongue now? Grace is out of the room; why don't you begin? Is Horace in the way?'
'Not in the least. I am only a little uneasy'
'Uneasy about what?'
'I am afraid you have put that charming creature to some inconvenience in sending her away just at this time.'
Horace looked up suddenly with a flush on his face.
'When you say "that charming creature,"' he asked sharply,'I suppose you mean Miss Roseberry?'
• Certainly,' answered Julian. 'Why not?'
Lady Janet interposed. * Gently, Julian,' she said. 'Grace has only been introduced to you hitherto in the character of my adopted daughter'
'And it seems to be high time,' Horace added haughtily, 'that I should present her next in the character of my engaged wife.
Julian looked at Horace as if he could hardly credit the evidence of his own ears. 'Your wife!' he exclaimed, with an irrepressible outburst of disappointment and surprise.
'Yes. My wife,' returned Horace. 'We are to be married in a fortnight. May I ask,' he added, with angry humility,' if you disapprove of the marriage?'
Lady Janet interposed once more. 'Nonsense, Horace,' she said. 'Julian congratulates you, of course.'
Julian coldly and absently echoed the words. 'Oh, yes, I congratulate you, of course.'
Lady Janet returned to the main object of the interview.
'Now we thoroughly understand one another,' she said, 'let us speak of a lady who has dropped out of the conversation for the last minute or two. I mean, Julian, the mysterious lady of your letter. We are alone, as you desired. Lift the veil, my reverend nephew, which hides her from mortal eyes! Blush, if you like—and can. Is she the future Mrs. Julian Gray?'
'She is a perfect stranger to me,' Julian answered quietly.
'A perfect stranger! You wrote me word you were interested in her.'
* I am interested in her. And, what is more, you are interested in her, too.'
Lady Janet's fingers drummed impatiently on the table. 'Have I not warned you, Julian, that I hate mysteries? Will you, or will you not, explain yourself?'
Before it was possible to answer, Horace rose from his chair. 'Perhaps I am in the way?' he said.
Julian signed to him to sit down again.
'I have already told Lady Janet that you are not in the way,' he answered. 'I now tell you—as Miss Roseberry's future husband—that you too have an interest in hearing what I have to say.'
Horace resumed his seat with an air of suspicious surprise. Julian addressed himself to Lady Janet.
'You have often heard me speak,' he began, 'of an old friend of mine who had an appointment abroad?'
'Yes. The English consul at Mannheim?'
'The same. When I returned from the country, I found, among my other letters, a long letter from the consul. I have brought it with me, and I propose to read certain passages from it, which tell a very strange story more plainly and more credibly than I can tell it in my own words.'
'Will it be very long?' enquired Lady Janet, looking with some alarm at the closely-written sheets of paper which her nephew spread open before him.
Horace followed with a question on his side.
'You are sure I am interested in it?' he asked. 'The consul at Mannheim is a total stranger to me.'
'I answer for it,' replied Julian, gravely, 'neither my aunt's patience nor yours, Horace, will be thrown