Franks uttered an angry exclamation.
"Have you forced your way into my room about that?" he said.
"I have. You have received and published three stories _purporting_ to be by the pen of Florence Aylmer. You have also published one or two articles by the same person. You are waiting for the fourth story, which was promised to the readers of the _Argonaut_ in last month's number.
The first three stories made a great sensation. You are impatient and disturbed because the fourth story has not come to hand. Here it is."
Bertha hastily opened a small packet which she held in her hand and produced a ma.n.u.script.
"Look at it," she said; "read the opening sentence. I am not in the slightest hurry; take your own time, but read, if you will, the first page. If the style is not the style of the old stories, if the matter is not equal in merit to the stories already published, then I will own to you that I came here on a false errand and will ask you to forgive me."
Franks, with still that strange sense of being mesmerized, received the ma.n.u.script from Bertha's long slim hand. He sank into his office chair and listlessly turned the pages.
He read a sentence or two and then looked up at the clock.
"I have wired to Miss Aylmer to expect me at twelve: it is past that hour now. I really must ask you to pardon me."
"Miss Aylmer will not be in. Miss Aylmer has left Prince's Mansions. I happened to call there and know what I am saying. Will you go on reading? You want your story. I believe your printers are waiting for it even now."
Franks fidgeted impatiently. Once again his eyes lit upon the page. As he read, Bertha's own eyes devoured his face. She knew each word of that first page. She had taken special and extra pains with it; it represented her best, her very best; it was strong, perfect in style, and her treatment of her subject was original; there was a note of pa.s.sion and pathos, there was a deep undercurrent of human feeling in her words. Franks read to the end.
If he turned the page Bertha felt that her victory would be won--if he closed the ma.n.u.script she had still to fight her battle. Her heart beat quickly. She wondered what the Fates had in store for her.
Franks at last came to the final word; he hesitated, half looked up, then his fingers trembled. He turned the page. Bertha saw by the look on his face that he had absolutely forgotten her. She gave a brief sigh: the time of tension was over, the victory was won. She rose and approached him.
"I can take that to another house," she said.
"No, no," said Franks; "there is stuff in this. It is quite up to the usual mark. So Florence gave it to you to bring to me. Now, you know, I do not quite like the tone nor does my chief; but the talent is unmistakable."
"You will publish it, then?"
"Certainly. I see it is the usual length. If you will pardon me, as things are pressing, I will ring and give this to the printers."
"One moment first. You think that ma.n.u.script has been written by Florence Aylmer?"
"Why not? Of course it has!" He looked uneasily from the paper in his hand to the girl who stood before him. "What do you mean?"
"I have something to tell you. You may be angry with me, but I do not much care. _I_ possess the genius, not Florence Aylmer; _I_ am the writer of that story. Florence Aylmer wrote one thing for you, a schoolgirl essay, which you returned. I wrote the papers which the public liked; _I_ wrote the stories which the public devoured. I am the woman of genius; I am the ghost behind Florence Aylmer; I am the real author. You can give up the false: the real has come to you at last."
"You must be telling me an untruth," said Franks. He staggered back, his face became green, his eyes flashed angrily.
"I am telling you the truth; you have but to ask Florence herself. Has she not broken off her engagement with you?"
"She has, and a good thing, too," he muttered under his breath.
"Ah! I heard those words, though you said them so low, and it is a good thing for you. You would never have been happy with a girl like Florence. I know her well. I don't pretend that I played a very nice part; but still I am not ashamed. I want money now; I did not want money when I offered my productions to Florence. I hoped that I should be a very rich woman. My hopes have fallen to the ground; therefore I take back that talent with which Nature has endowed me. You can give _me_ orders for the _Argonaut_ in the future. You will kindly pay _me_ for that story. Now I think I have said what I meant to say, and I wish you good-morning."
"But you must stay a moment, Miss--I really forget your name."
"My name is Keys--Bertha Keys. Other well-known magazines will pay me for all I can write for them; but I am willing to give you the _whole_ of my writings, say for three months, if you are willing to pay me according to my own ideas."
"What are those?"
"You must double your pay to me. You can, if you like, publish this little story about Florence and myself in some of your society gossip--I do not mind at all--or you can keep it quiet. You have but to say in one of your issues that the _nom de plume_ under which your talented author wrote is, for reasons of her own, changed. You can give me a fresh t.i.tle. The world will suspect mystery and run after me more than ever. I think that is the princ.i.p.al thing I have to say to you. Now, may I wish you good-morning?"
Bertha rose as she spoke, dropped a light mocking curtsey in Franks's direction, and let herself out of the room before he had time to realize that she was leaving.
It is, alas! true in this world that often the machinations of the wicked prosper. By all the laws of morality Bertha Keys ought to have come to condign punishment; she ought to have gone under; she ought to have disappeared from society; she ought to have been hooted and disliked wherever she showed her face.
These things were by no means the case, however. Bertha, playing a daring game, once more achieved success.
By means of threatening to take her work elsewhere she secured admirable terms for her writing--quite double those which had been given to poor Florence. She lived in the best rooms in Prince's Mansions, and before a year had quite expired she was engaged to Tom Franks. He married her, and report whispers that they are by no means a contented couple. It is known that Franks is cowed, and at home at least obeys his wife. Bertha rules with a rod of iron; but perhaps she is not happy, and perhaps her true punishment for her misdeeds has begun long ago.
Meanwhile Florence, released from the dread of discovery, her conscience once more relieved from its burden of misery, bloomed out into happiness, and also into success.
Florence wrote weekly to Trevor, and Trevor wrote to her, and his love for her grew as the days and weeks went by. The couple had to wait some time before they could really marry, but during that time Florence learned some of the best lessons in life. She was soon able to support herself, for she turned out, contrary to her expectations, a very excellent teacher. She avoided Tom Franks and his wife, and could not bear to hear the name of the _Argonaut_ mentioned. For a time, indeed, she took a dislike to all magazines, and only read the special books which Mrs. Trevor indicated.
Kitty Sharston was also her best friend during this time of humiliation and training, and when the hour at last arrived when she was to join Trevor, Kitty said to her father that she scarcely knew her old friend, so courageous was the light that shone in Florence's eyes, and so happy and beaming was her smile.
"I have gone down into the depths," she said to Kitty, on the day when she sailed for Australia; "it is a very good thing sometimes to see one's self just down to the very bottom. I have done that, and oh! I hope, I do hope that I shall not fall again."
As to Mrs. Trevor, she also had a last word with Kitty.
"There was a time, my dear," she said, "when knowing all that had happened in the past, I was rather nervous as to what kind of wife my dear son would have in Florence Aylmer, but she is indeed now a daughter after my own heart--brave, steadfast, earnest."
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