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PROLOGUE
THE NEW HOUSE AT HOLMSWELL

The New House at Holmswell lies, far back from the road, upon the great highway to Norwich. Local topographers delight to tell you that it is just forty-five miles from that city and five from the Cesarewitch course at Newmarket. They are hardly less eloquent when they come to speak of its late owner, Sir Luton Delayne, and of that unforgotten and well-beloved woman, the wife he so little deserved.

To be sure, the house is not new at all, for it was built at the very moment when the great Harry put his hands into the coffers of the monasteries and called upon high Heaven to witness the justice of his robberies. They faced it with wonderful tiles some years ago, and stamped the Tudor rose all over it; but the people who first called it "new" have been dead these four hundred years, and it is only the local antiquary who can tell you just where the monastery (which preceded it) was built.

Here, the master of a village which knows more about the jockeys of the day than about any Prime Minister, here lived Sir Luton Delayne and that gentle woman who won so many hearts during her brief tenure of the village kingdom. Well the people knew her and well they knew him. A florid, freckled-faced man with red hair and the wisp of an auburn moustache, the common folk said little about his principles and much about his pugnacity. Even these dull intellects knew that he had been "no gentleman" and were not afraid to tell you so. His fame, of a sort, had culminated upon the day he thrashed the butcher from Mildenhall, because the fellow would halt on the high road just when the pheasants were being driven from the Little Barton spinneys. That was no famous day for the House of Delayne; for the butcher had been a great bruiser in his time, and he knocked down the baronet in a twinkling without any regard at all for his ancestry or its dignities. Thereafter, Sir Luton's violent speech troubled the vulgar but little, and when he rated Johnny Drummond for wheeling a barrow over the tennis-court, the lad fell back upon the price of mutton and took his week's notice like a man.

To Lady Delayne local sympathy went out in generous measure. If little were known of the sorrows of her life, much was surmised. The "county" could tell you many tales and would tell them to intimates. These spoke of a ruffian who had sworn at that gentle lady before a whole company at the meet; who openly snubbed her at her own table; who had visited upon her the whims and the temper of a disposition at once vicious and uncontrollable. Darker things were said and believed, but the sudden end surprised no one; and when one day the village heard that she had gone for good, when a little while afterwards the bailiffs came to the New House and Sir Luton himself disappeared, it seemed but the sudden revelation of a tragedy which all had expected.

Whither had Lady Delayne gone, and what was the truth of the disaster? Few could speak upon matters so uncertain, but amongst the few the name of Redman Rolls, the bookmaker, stood high. Report from Newmarket said that Luton Delayne had lost twenty-seven thousand pounds upon the Cambridgeshire and that this loss, following extensive and disastrous speculation in American insecurities, had been the immediate instrument of disaster. As to Lady Delayne's hurried flight from the New House, that was a delicate affair upon which no one could throw much light. She had relatives in the North, and was believed to possess a small fortune of her own; but no news of her came to Holmswell, and the far from curious village had no particular interest in the whereabouts of a man who had browbeaten and bullied it for more than ten years. He had gone to Somaliland to join his brother who was out after big game, the parson said. It meant little to the simple folk, who had not the remotest idea where Somaliland was unless it lay somewhere beyond Norwich—a conclusion to which they arrived in the kitchen of the ancient inn.

To be sure, there were many tales told of the final separation of these unhappy people, and some of them were sad enough. The servants at the New House well remembered how Sir Luton had come home upon that unlucky day; and what he had done and what he had said upon his arrival. To begin with, Martin, the motor-man, could speak of a savage, silent figure, driving blindly through the twilight of an October afternoon, of the narrow escape from accident at the lodge gate and of the oaths with which his attentions were received. Morris, the butler, would tell how Sir Luton had almost knocked him down when he opened the door, and had cursed her ladyship openly when he heard she had company. There was the maid Eva, to tell of her mistress half dressed for dinner and of a scene which in some part she had witnessed. Few believed her wholly when she said that her master had attributed his misfortunes to the day when he met his wife, and had told her that "he had done with her, by Heaven!" And then upon that there would be Morris's further story of the table laid for dinner, the candles lighted, the soup hot and steaming—and not a soul in the great room where dinner was served. They waited a long time, this faithful old gossip and the lean footman with the dull eyes; but neither Sir Luton nor her ladyship came down. And then, shortly before nine, the old horse and the single brougham were ordered—and the kindest lady they would ever know went from them and they heard of her no more.

But the man remained, though he had become but a shadow in the house. All night he drank in the little study behind the billiard room, and a light still burned there at six o'clock next morning, as Jelf, the under-gardener, could testify. If he made any effort to recall the wife, who would willingly have stood by him in the darkest hour, none knew of it. For a few days, Morris carried his meals to the study and would discover him there, sitting at a table and staring blankly over the drear park as though dim figures of his own life's story moved beneath the stately trees. Then, following an outburst which surpassed all the servants could remember, an outburst of passion and of obscenity inconceivable, he was driven one morning to Mildenhall Station, and Holmswell heard with a satisfaction it made no attempt to conceal that this was the end.

The New House was the scene of a great sale shortly afterwards, and brokers came from London to buy the porcelain and the pictures, while many a country gentleman drove in to bid for the well-proved '63 port and the fine bin of Steinberg Cabinet. Few in the village could be more than spectators at such a scene as that; but the old clergyman, Mr. Deakins, bought Lady Delayne's mirror for three pounds fifteen shillings, and when they asked him why, had a ready answer.

"An old man's fancy," he said; "and yet—who knows that some day it may not show me again the face of the gentlest lady I have ever known?"
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