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Title: The Last Bouquet: Some Twilight Tales (1933) Author: Marjorie Bowen * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0900571h.html Language: English Date first posted: Mar 2013 Most recent update: Mar 2013 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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Mme. Marcelle Lesarge and Miss Kezia Faunce quarrelled violently in the private sitting-room of an expensive Parisian hotel. The interview had begun with embarrassment, but decorously, and had proceeded through stages of mutual exasperation to final outbursts of recrimination that were without restraint. The disgust, contempt, and fury which each had cherished in their hearts for years rose to their lips, and rage at being involved in such a humiliating quarrel added force to the energy with which they abused each other.
Mme. Lesarge was a fashionable actress, beautifully dressed in a frilled interchangeable crimson and blue silk, with dark red feathers in the small hat exquisitely poised on her glossy curls. The reticule that dangled from the wrist of her white kid pearl-buttoned gloves was of gold mesh, and the handle of her parasol was carved ivory. There were real diamonds at her ears and in the costly lace at her throat. All her movements were graceful and well trained, at once impetuous and languishing.
Miss Faunce wore an ugly brown travelling dress frogged with black braid. Her hair was grey and brushed into a chenille net. Her gestures were brusque and her voice was harsh.
These two women, who seemed in everything dissimilar, were twin sisters. They had not seen each other for ten years.
A spiteful curiosity that thinly masked hatred had brought Miss Faunce to Paris, and the same emotion had induced Mme. Lesarge to call at her sister's hotel. Yet the first interchanges after this long silence had been civil enough. Miss Faunce had sent quite a friendly little note stating casually that she was in Paris for a few days, naming her hotel and adding how pleased she would be to see Martha again after so many years.
Mme. Lesarge replied in a letter written on an impulse of kindness and had accepted, quite warmly, the invitation to renew the relationship broken off so early and for such a great while, as it seemed, completely forgotten.
But, when they met, the first friendly conventionalities had soon changed into this bitter quarrelling. Neither woman could forgive the appearance of the other. Miss Kezia Faunce saw in the actress the woman who had attained everything which she, in the name of Virtue, had denied herself. She admired, envied and loathed all the manifestations of this unblushing Vice which had made such a profitable use of its opportunities. In this successful wanton who was really her twin sister Kezia Faunce saw the woman she would have liked to have been, and the realisation of this brought to a climax the smouldering anger of years. But, if she were enraged, no less deep was the fury of Martha who called herself Marcelle Lesarge, for in this plain woman with the grey hair, harsh voice, drab complexion, and clumsy clothes she saw herself, the woman who, without her affectations, her graces, her costly clothes, her paints and dyes, she really was.
It was true that she contrived to look thirty and that Kezia did not look a day less than fifty, but they were twins and their common age, forty-five, seemed to the actress to be written all over the red plush and gilt of the hotel sitting-room.
There was a pause in their fierce speech and they sat slack, exhausted by passion, staring at each other and each thought: 'It must never be known by any of my friends that that dreadful woman is my sister.'
'I should be ruined,' the actress said to herself. 'Everyone would think I am even older than I am. That hideous, middle-aged, dowdy bourgeoisemy sister! I should be laughed out of Paris. Why did she come here? Why was I such a fool as to see her?'
And Kezia thought:
'If anyone at Stibbards were to see her I should be ruined and I should never be able to hold up my head again. A great, blousy, painted trollop! I must have been crazy to come.'
The actress was the first to recover herself. Her rage had resolved itself into a steady fear that someone in Paris should get to know that this miserable English provincial was her twin sister.
Mme. Lesarge was not without rivals nor fears for the future. She had skilfully built up many legends about herself that even the whisper of the existence of Miss Faunce would destroy.
So, pulling at the large pearls that fastened her pale grey gloves she said, with some art:
'It is very stupid of us to quarrel. You should not have come and I should not have seen you. But now I suppose we have said all the unpleasant things we can think of. We had better try to forget each other again.'
'I wish I could forget, Martha, but you know perfectly well that one can't forget just because one wants to...I've tried to forget you time and again for years, but it's no use. You keep coming up in my mind—between me and my duty, between me and my prayers, sometimes.'
Mme. Lesarge laughed uneasily. The more she considered the situation the more she felt it imperative for her sister to leave Paris quietly and at once.
'Well, I can't help that, can I, Kezia? You must have got a morbid mind. I can't say I ever think of you, though I very well might. I might say that you got on my nerves.'
'That's impertinence,' put in Kezia sharply. Her lips were dry and trembling, and her flaccid cheeks quite pale.
'I don't see that it is impertinence. I ran away from home when I was sixteen, and I have had all manner of adventures since.'
'Pray don't relate any of them to me,' flung in Kezia.
'As if I should!' The actress smiled with a maddening self-complacency. 'You wouldn't understand them. They are quite out of the range of your experience. But, as I said, I left home when I was sixteen and I think it would be quite reasonable for me to feel that it was rather dreadful to think of you at Stibbards all that time—going on just the same, day in, day out. Doing everything exactly as mother used to do it. And grandmother before that, I suppose.'
'In other words,' interrupted Kezia, 'leading the life of a decent gentlewoman with a sense of honour and of duty.'
'How can you talk like that?' asked Mme. Lesarge with a vicious smile. 'Don't you realise how really shocking that sounds to me? But I suppose I ought to be sorry for you. You never had the strength to break away.'
Miss Faunce rose and walked to the window and peered down through the stiff, white, starched lace curtains into the narrow noisy street below and watched a baker's boy putting the very long powdered loaves into a handcart. She wanted to say what she had to say with the deadly effect of perfect calm. She realised that it would, perhaps, be better to say nothing at all, but she could not attain to that amount of self-control.
She must, clearly, and once and for all, get out of her heart and soul all her thoughts about her twin sister.
Mme. Lesarge was glad of this respite. She was sorry about the quarrel, which had been unbecoming and exhausting; she regretted that she had not had more power over herself. It had been a very long time since she had been in such a rage; she was, on the whole, a good-natured woman and not often crossed nor exasperated. Her life had been easy, full of facile success, light friendships and superficial adulation; she avoided everyone who disapproved of her, therefore this violent interview had been a detestable experience.
She rose also and went, not to the window, but to a mirror and there skilfully adjusted the smooth curls that should, perhaps, have been the same colour as the harsh locks of her sister, but which were very carefully tinted a glossy auburn. She took paint and powder from her reticule and made up her lips and her cheeks; she always looked at herself a little anxiously when she studied her face in the mirror, but never had she looked at herself so anxiously as she did now. For she seemed to see in her comely face, which had satisfied her well enough until the present moment, the ugly lines, the sour bilious tint, the creeping wrinkles, and the sagging folds that for the last half-hour she had been observing with fear and terror in the countenance of her twin sister.
She had thought, quite gaily, as she had come up the hotel stairs:
'I suppose Kezia will be looking a terrible frump by now.'
But she had been quite unprepared for what Kezia really did look like.
All the time they had been quarrelling she had been unable to take a terrified, fascinated gaze from the plain woman seated opposite her, and she had thought continuously, 'She is my age to the very minute.' Of course, no one would recognize that there was the least likeness between them; it was not only the dress and the paint and the dye and the acquired graces that disguised the actress. Although they were twin sisters their natures were absolutely different, always had been, but the fact remained that they were twin sisters, and Mme. Lesarge knew that she would feel deeply uneasy until she was assured that Kezia had left Paris and was not likely to return.
So, when she had a little reassured herself by that nervous, anxious contemplation of her reflection in the mirror (her figure at least was very good, and her taste in clothes excellent), she turned and said, with an attempt at conciliation:
'Let us part with some civility at least, Kezia. I wish you no ill will. It was a stupid mistake for us to meet. When are you leaving Paris?'
Miss Faunce turned round from the window. She felt she had herself well in hand now, would be able to say exactly what she meant without allowing her passion to betray her into useless abuse.
'I don't know that it was a mistake for me to come to Paris,' she said deliberately. 'I felt it my duty to do so. As I said, I have been thinking of you continuously for years. I live alone, as you know, and of course, there is plenty to do, I am never idle. But there is no other person beside yourself nearly connected with me. Say and think what you like, Martha, we are twin sisters, and I suppose there is some sort of bond,' she paused and added, 'even if it be a bond of hatred.'
'Hatred,' repeated the actress, with an elegant shrug, 'that's an ugly word to use, isn't it? Why do you bother about me at all? I don't hate you, I assure you.'
'Oh, yes, I think you do,' said Miss Faunce. 'I think you do, Martha. I saw hatred in your eyes all the time we were talking together. You were thinking that I was old and ugly and your twin sister.'
'Did you read me as clearly as that?' smiled Mme. Lesarge, rather pale under the careful tinting of powder and rouge. 'Well, perhaps some such thought did come into my mind. You've let yourself go, you see, terribly, Kezia. You look fifteen years older than you are. I suppose you rather revel in it.'
'I've let myself alone,' replied Miss Faunce. 'I am as God made me. My hair is the colour yours ought to be, my face looks as yours would look without all that stuff you've got on it.'
'Not quite, I think,' said Mme. Lesarge. 'We have different thoughts, different minds. We live very differently. I don't suppose if we were stripped side by side we should look in the least alike.'
'Don't you? Well, I think that if we were stripped, people would know us for twins, but that's not what I want to argue about. And I don't want to hear about your life, which I am sure is vile and disgusting. It was thinking of your life and how horrible it was that brought me here. I felt it was my duty to try and save you.'
'Oh, for pity's sake,' murmured the actress. She picked up her gold-mesh bag and her ivory-handled parasol. 'You are really becoming absurd, ridiculous. Save me—from what?'
'You know quite well what I mean, and I really do want to save you. I dare say that, as you boast, I don't know as much of the world as you do, but I know what happens to women like you when they are not young. I suppose you haven't saved anything?'
'No, and I am in debt,' smiled the actress.
'I thought so. What are you going to do when you can't any longer get parts—when you can't find any friends?'
'That is many, many years ahead,' replied Mme. Lesarge. 'You need not concern yourself about my future, my dear Kezia. Even if I do live to be old I shall—'
'Well, what will you do?'
Miss Faunce leaned forward eagerly.
'I shall repent, of course. Either marry some good man and go and live in the country or go into a convent. You know I am a Roman Catholic?'
Miss Faunce shuddered.
'You are the first of our family to become that,' she said with real distress.
Mine. Lesarge laughed. She was uneasy and wanted to escape.
'Did you really come to Paris to say these silly things to me?' she said. 'You have wasted your time and your money.'
'I have plenty of both,' replied Kezia, 'you know Grandmother Tallis died last year. She left me all her fortune. Half of it would have been yours if you had been—a different sort of woman. I'd give you what would have been your share now, if you'd like to change your way of living.'
'Repent—I suppose, is what you wanted to say, Kezia. This is all so hopeless. We don't even talk the same language. I don't want Grandmother Tallis's money nor any of yours. Though you must admit,' she added, a little grimly, 'that it has been fortunate for you, from a practical point of view, that I did take—the primrose path, I suppose you'd call it, eh? You had everything, didn't you—the house, the lands, the money, father's fortune, mother's fortune, Grandmother Tallis's fortune. To whom are you going to leave it when you die?'
'To charities,' replied Kezia Faunce sternly. 'Every penny of that money will be left to do good to someone. I am quite prepared, as I said just now, to give you all you need, if you leave the stage—leave Paris.' Then, on another note, she added, 'Don't you ever feel homesick, Martha?'
Mme. Lesarge reflected. The words did take her back to certain broken dreams and odd moments of nostalgia. She had run away from home when she was sixteen, a schoolgirl home for the holidays. She had eloped with a subaltern from the neighbouring garrison. They had gone to India and in three years she had been divorced ignominiously. There had been another marriage with a husband who drank and ill-treated her, and this time a separation without a divorce. Then, a long connection with Adrian Lesarge, the French actor, who had taught her his language and his art, given her the place which she had contrived to hold since. For she was industrious, clever, and talented, and had a rare charm and radiance in her personality.
It seemed a long time ago since she had fled from Stibbards, with a veil down over her bonnet and a small case in her hand. It was very early summer, she could recall the scent of the flowering currant bushes as she had hurried through the kitchen garden to let herself out by the back door in the red-brick wall where the apricots grew.
Homesick—for those sixteen years in an English village! She remembered it as always afternoon and always sunny, quiet, with the smell of hot jam coming from the kitchen.
Kezia was watching her keenly.
'You are homesick,' she said, 'you are. Martha, why don't you come back?'
Mme. Lesarge looked up quickly, as if she wondered if these were the accents of love. Love? How could it be, or any touch of affection or any kindly feeling? Curiosity, envy, fused into hatred gazed out of Kezia's dull brown eyes. And Mme. Lesarge knew that this expression was reflected in her own gaze. Yes, envy too. There was something about Kezia's life and character which she envied; when she looked at her sister she thought of things that she had missed, just as Kezia thought of lacks in her own existence when she looked at her sister.
Each woman hated and envied in the other what she might have been—it was a complex and terrible emotion.
The actress contrived to speak lightly.
'Return! Impossible! And you know it is. You would not wish to have me at Stibbards.'
'No, I suppose not,' agreed Miss Faunce. 'You're quite right, it would be a scandal—intolerable. Unless some story could be made up or you came as a penitent.'
Mme. Lesarge laughed.
'I suppose you really are crazy enough to think that might happen—that I might come with a made-up story behind me, or as a penitent, and that you would be able to torture me day after day! We're both going crazy, I think. Let's try to talk of real things.'
She spoke with a good deal of resolution and with far fewer graces or affectations than she had used on her entry into this gilt and plush sitting-room. She was becoming indeed, though she did not know it, more like her sister in manner than she had been for years, more familiar with her own language that she had not spoken for so long, more like Kezia in abrupt gestures and straight looks.
'You know that I am not coming back. You know that I am not going to take any of Grandma Tallis's money. You know that I don't want ever to see you again. If you should come to Paris again, pray don't disturb me.'
She grasped the ivory-handled parasol so tightly that it seemed it might break. Kezia Faunce watched her very curiously.
'I daresay you think that I am completely degraded, but pray don't waste any such pity on me. I am successful—I always have been successful. I am, in a way, triumphant over everything, over the usual conventions, the traditions that bind women, over the usual stupid emotions that cause them to waste their hearts and lives; over all the pettifogging duties and obligations that wear away a woman like you. Yes,' she repeated, with a shrill note creeping into her voice, 'I am in every way successful and triumphant, and I beg that you will not think of me with any compassion or believe that I have or ever could have any regrets.'
Miss Faunce's contemptuous smile had deepened as she listened to this flaunting speech.
'And the end?' she asked. 'What is the end to be?'
'I beg you not to concern yourself about that, Kezia. I daresay my end will be as comfortable and as edifying as yours, and at least, it is a long way off.'
'You are not so secure as you think,' said Miss Faunce. 'I was in Paris two or three days before I let you know that I was here, and I made inquiries, and I read things for myself. You are not so popular as you were. Although you deliberately blind yourself, people do realise that you are getting old.'
The actress gave a painful smile.
'A woman like myself is never old.'
'Oh, that is very easy to say, Martha, and I have no doubt that it consoles you. You are forty-five. It will not be very long before you are fifty. There are younger women, and I know that you do not get such good parts as you did. And the men don't run after you like they used to. That you have lost one or two wealthy—protectors, don't you call them? That you go about now with very much younger men, quite young boys in fact.'
'So you have been spying on me!' cried Mme. Lesarge, who looked quite livid. 'You who call yourself an honest, honourable woman!'
'No, I haven't been spying on you, Martha. It wasn't difficult to find out these things. Just a word here and there at the dressmakers, the perfumers, in the foyer of the theatre itself. Oh, I've been to see you two or three times. You act quite well, but you're getting tired, aren't you—very tired?'
'Your talk is ridiculous, inspired by envy. We are both of us in the prime of life. You need not look an old woman. If you had ever lived you would not do so, it is because everything has been dried up in you—always, you have faded without blooming.' Then, in desperation, almost with a note of appeal, Mme. Lesarge added: 'Why could you not let me alone? I haven't thought of you for years. When your note came I did have an impulse of kindness.'
'Neither of those statements is true,' interrupted Kezia Faunce with a force that held the other woman utterly silent. 'You know that you have thought about me, again and again, and of Stibbards, and of the life I lead, of your own childhood and our own father and mother and all our neighbours and friends. Yes, we are twins, there is some affinity between us, and in a way we do know each other's thoughts, and I know you have thought of me—that I have haunted you like you have haunted me. That is the truth, is it not, Martha?'
With a half step threateningly forward the actress, with a shrug pulling at the pearls fastening her pale gloves, admitted sullenly:
'Yes, I suppose it is true. You have rather haunted me. And that is why I came. But what is there in it? Why do we talk about it or think of it?'
'And the other thing you said is not true, either,' continued Kezia coming still closer to the other woman. 'You didn't come here in a fit of kindness. You hate me as much as I hate you. You can't endure to think that I am existing in Stibbards, any more than I can endure to think that you are existing in Paris.'
'It does get on my nerves, sometimes,' admitted Mme. Lesarge, 'but I don't know why it should. It is a mere accident that we're sisters—twin sisters. We're quite different women.'
'I wonder,' said Kezia Faunce, with great bitterness. 'Perhaps we really are the same kind of woman, only in you one side, and in I the other, has got the uppermost. Well, it's no good talking about that. I, at least, have behaved myself, and you haven't. I've every right to scorn you, but you've no right at all to scorn me. You've been a bad woman since you were a young girl—bad daughter, bad wife. Not fulfilling a single duty or obligation, while I did everything that was expected of me.'
Mme. Lesarge echoed these words with an accent of mockery.
'Everything that was expected of you—poor Kezia!'
'It's all very well to jeer, but I stayed behind. I nursed mother, I nursed father, I didn't get married when I might have got married, because it meant leaving them. There were all kinds of things that I would have liked to have done, but I didn't even think about them. And when father and mother were dead I felt a duty towards Stibbards, to the name, the position we held.'
Mme. Lesarge interrupted this with great gusts of laughter, half-hysterical laughter. She turned towards the door.
'I really think I shall go mad if I stay here and listen to you any longer. I do hope you will leave Paris soon. And please don't try to see me again.'
'No,' said Kezia sourly, 'I won't try to see you again, it's too horrible. The worst of it is that I shan't be able to avoid thinking about you.'
'I suppose not.'
Mme. Lesarge had her hand on the door-knob. The two sisters were looking at each other very intently and in the utter unself-consciousness of that moment of passion the likeness between them was quite strong. The dyed curls of the actress and the harsh grey hair of Kezia Faunce seemed mere details in the general resemblance, which was one of shape and structure.
'Are you going to act tonight?' asked Miss Faunce.
'Yes. I hope you won't be there to see me. It would make me nervous if I thought you were watching.'
'I've watched you twice, as I told you. I shan't come again. I suppose there'll be bouquets?'
'I suppose so. It is rather an especial occasion. Why did you ask?'
Kezia Faunce did not reply. She had grown flowers, profusion, multitudes of flowers all her life, she had given away flowers for village weddings and funerals, to the poor, the sick, to charity, to church festivals; she had plucked flowers by the armful, the basketful, to adorn her room, but she had never had as much as a single rose or lily given her, and all her life Martha had been receiving bouquets.
'Well,' she said, 'one kiss has got to be the last kiss, you know, and one bouquet the last bouquet. I wonder if you've ever thought of that?'
'Yes, I've thought of it,' replied the actress coolly. 'I daresay we have a good many thoughts in common. Never mind, my dear, I daresay I shall repent, as you call it, in time. I shall marry, as I said, some old respectable man, and keep house for him to the best of my ability. Or I shall go into a convent, or, I might die suddenly. In any of these cases there would be no more kisses nor bouquets, and I suppose you would be satisfied, Kezia?'
'Satisfied? I don't know. But I should like to think that the kind of life you are leading had come to an end. I shall watch the papers, Martha—the French papers.'
'Whatever I do won't be in the papers,' laughed Mme. Lesarge. 'I shall keep it secret.'
'How am I to know then? I don't want you to write to me. I don't want a French letter to be seen at Stibbards.'
'Oh, I shan't write to you, but you'll know, somehow. I'll send you my last bouquet, Kezia.'
She pulled the door open, and with the swiftness of one well versed in dramatic effect was gone.
Kezia Faunce sat down, trembling; the palms of her hands and her forehead were damp. How hateful this interview had been! What a mistake—this hideous visit to Paris! She had certainly satisfied a curiosity that had haunted her for years; through all her monotonous, orderly, placid life had always run the question 'What is Martha like? She had sometimes woken up in the middle of the night after a dream that had been of some other subject and sat up in bed and said to herself, half-aloud: 'What is Martha doing now? What is she wearing? Who is her present lover? What part is she playing? How many people are drinking her health or sending her presents? What does she look like and how much money has she got?' And all these questions had been like so many arrows piercing her in the dark. She had felt that her own life was poor and mean before the opulence and splendour of Martha's life and yet at the same time, by a maddening paradox, she had felt intensely proud of her own virtue, supremely scornful of her twin sister's wickedness.
Nobody ever spoke of Martha in Stibbards. It was nearly thirty years since she had run away and Miss Faunce hoped that she had been forgotten through the sheer force of never being mentioned. Many people, surely, believed she was dead, and a great many more, even if they did occasionally read the newspapers and see the name therein of a certain famous actress, would not associate the name of Marcelle Lesarge with that of Martha Faunce. But always in her twin sister's mind she had been alive, vital, and exasperating, until this suppressed emotion had not been any longer endurable and Miss Faunce, under some excuse, more or less feasible, had left Stibbards and come to Paris and sought out and really seen Martha.
And now it was over, that momentous interview, and it had been nothing but recriminations, a bitter and humiliating quarrelling and an intensifying of her deep emotion of mingled contempt and envy. She sat stiffly in the red plush empire chair and rested her head on the back and closed her eyes and imagined herself in Martha's place.
She saw herself as Mme. Marcelle Lesarge stepping out into her little phaeton with the smart groom in a smart livery on the box, and some comely, well-dressed gentleman beside her. She saw herself being swept over the cobbled Paris streets, laughing, chattering, bowing to acquaintances, and so to her sumptuous apartments.
Why hadn't Martha asked her to her apartment, why hadn't she, Kezia, insisted on going there? Merely through lack of courage. Because she had been ashamed of herself as much as of her sister. She would not have known how to behave to the people whom she might have met in Martha's bijou little house.
Ah, what was it like, that little house? Very different from Stibbards, Kezia was sure, full of gilded furniture, of pictures and statuary, all presents from her lovers, no doubt. And these lovers, who and what were they? Kezia Faunce had heard many rumours, many scandalous tales. She did not know which of them to credit. But what did that matter, the lovers were there, and she might imagine them as she pleased.
She opened her eyes and sat up. She found that this identification of herself with her twin sister was a dangerous pastime. Tomorrow she would return to England and to Stibbards. Everything would be as it was, outwardly, at least. She would not soon be able to forget, perhaps she would not be able to ever forget the interview in this hateful, gaudy room, with the vulgar, red plush and gilt furniture, the great mirrors, wreathed with coarse carvings that rose to the ceiling. Neither of the sisters would influence the other by one iota. Their tragedy was that neither could forget the other.
Her last bouquet!
What did she mean by that? How could she say anything so absurd?
'Send me her last bouquet!' Kezia Faunce could not get that out of her excited mind. She, who all her life had never had a posy sent her, to receive that bouquet which would mean that her sister's life of sin was over! The idea was as exasperating, as ridiculous as it was hateful.
Miss Faunce left Paris the next day. Her progress to the station was rendered hateful by constant glimpses of her sister, pretty, provoking, and elegant, smiling at her in red and black paint from the bill posters. In one of these she was depicted as holding an enormous cluster of scarlet roses in a stiff white paper frill, and Miss Faunce, staring at the vivid drawing which had in the set of the nose and chin a grotesque likeness to herself, repeated with bitter vexation:
'Her last bouquet! Her last bouquet!'
Kezia Faunce lived very well at Stibbards. She had power, money, position, activities and leisure, and valued all these things exactly in that order.
There was no one to dispute her authority either in her own household or in the village; there was no fear of any contradiction either in her management of the Manor or in her general supervision of her poorer neighbours' affairs. She was charitable and even kind, for she felt these things to be virtuous and she had early set herself out to be virtuous. The fine Palladian Manor House, Tudor timber and bricks, re-fronted with eighteenth-century stone, classic portico and windows, was far too large for her, for she lived alone and seldom entertained. But she refused to shut up any of the rooms and the large staff of servants kept everything as precise and orderly as if the original number for which the house had been built still inhabited its spacious wings. And she filled her days that would otherwise have been sometimes empty and often lonely, by a minute supervision of all the details of her own household, by a close supervision of all the affairs of all her servants, tenants, and poorer neighbours.
For years she had led this active, authoritative life with no trouble save the annoying thought of Martha in Paris, and since she had been to Paris and seen Martha this thought had grown until it overspread all her days as a fungus will overspread a healthy tree, seizing on a speck of diseased wood and growing until there is no sap or vitality in root or branch, and, in the next Spring, no leaves are put forth.
There was no one to whom Kezia Faunce could speak of her sister, and therefore she brooded the more deeply day and night on that same personality that was at once so alien and so much part of herself, leading that other life so distant from her own, and yet very much a life that would have expressed something of herself that had never been expressed. It was not likely that she would ever see her again or that they would ever correspond. Some day she would read in the paper of the retirement or the death of Mme. Marcelle Lesarge; possibly of her marriage or her disappearance into a convent. There was only one thing that Mme. Lesarge, supposing that she ever looked at an English newspaper, could read of her, and that would be her death and her burial in the churchyard which was so near Stibbards and where every other Faunce lay and would lie, except Martha herself.
The estate would go to a distant cousin whose name was not Faunce, and Kezia's money would go to austere charities. And so the very existence of the two sisters would be, as it were, wiped off the earth. There would only be Kezia's name among all her ancestors in the English churchyard, and that assumed, false name of Marcelle Lesarge in some huge Parisian cemetery. And Kezia often wondered which of them would die first. Which would read the notice of the other's death in the paper? And what would it be like for her to realise that that other self of hers in Paris had ceased to exist, or for Martha to know that her second half which had stayed at home in Stibbards had left the familiar rooms empty?
Kezia Faunce tried, often enough, to analyse her feelings towards her sister, to get, as it were, to the very heart of this dull, envious hatred, but she could not. Whenever she tried to do so she became both confused and rebellious. She was quite sure that her scorn for Martha was sincere and that she despised the kind of woman that Martha was, and yet she was forced to admit that Martha had had a great deal that she would have liked to have had, experiences that she would have given much to have enjoyed, adventures that she would have delighted to have tested.
She believed that Martha felt much the same about her; surely she had seen regret and envy in those dark, painted eyes under the elegant little hat with the crimson ostrich feathers!
Martha had regretted, ah, surely, that she had forfeited her status as an English gentlewoman, that she had no part in Stibbards, and all that Stibbards meant. She had envied Kezia and the courage which had chosen the dull, monotonous way, the dignity that had clung to duty, the self-sacrifice, the austere decorum which would force even the most ribald and light-minded to respect Miss Kezia Faunce.
This obsession about Martha, which she had hoped a sight of her would efface, grew, on the contrary, from day to day, until it became almost unbearable.
'I suppose it will go on for years and years,' she thought, with a sense of panic, 'I used to think I saw her sitting at table with me, walking beside me in the garden, and even through the woods and the orchards; meeting me in the village and coming into my bedroom at night. But I always saw her as I remembered her—a young girl in a muslin frock, doeskin slippers, and long curls falling from under a chip straw bonnet. Well, I have got rid of that image, but it has been replaced by another. I see her now as I saw her in that detestable red plush and gilt drawing-room in the Paris hotel, in that vulgar interchangeable blue and red silk, in those diamonds—yes, I believe they were real—in that lace, I was sure it was genuine, on her bosom, with her hair dyed and her face painted, and the little hat with the crimson feather placed so elegantly on her curls; looking, I must confess, no more than thirty-five, and yet I thought that towards the end of the interview she looked as old as I do. Yes I see her like that now. It is quite unescapable. I don't know what I shall do. It must be some kind of an illness.'
And she wondered passionately if Martha were haunted by her, if Martha, at the theatre, in her choice little apartment, in her tilbury, driving in the Bois in the midst of her little supper parties, saw her, Kezia Faunce, in her plain frock, cut by a provincial dressmaker, with her grey hair in the chenille net, with her uncared-for complexion and dull eyes, with her keys at her waist, and her account or receipt book in her hand, going from still-room to closet, from kitchen to dairy, through all the handsome well-kept, unused rooms of Stibbards.
'It is grotesque, it is absurd.' With all the force of her strong mind she endeavoured to shake off the obsession, and threw herself with suppressed and burning energy into good works.
Her charities, always considerable, became lavish; she gave away blankets and coals, medicines and foods, until the vicar protested that she was spoiling his parishioners. She bought a new organ for the church, although she cared nothing about music, and she spent many hours on her knees in her high pew with the green curtains though she knew nothing about prayer.
She began several letters to her sister, formal epistles, asking after her health, and the drama that she was appearing in, and asking, vaguely, for news.
But she sent none of these.
Towards September she felt much more at ease and she began to think with a great thankfulness that the haunting, as she secretly named it to herself, had ceased. She could not, of course, forget Martha, but the figure of the actress became vague and blurred in her mind, and for hours together, when she was absorbed in some task or in some outside interest she would not think at all of the woman in the full, beruffled, interchangeable blue and red taffeta, in the little hat and the crimson feathers.
She began to cease wondering how Martha was employing her time, to cease turning over in her mind, so ignorant of such affairs, the possible various episodes of that alien yet closely connected life. She ceased to wonder and to brood over these coquetries, the wickednesses, the successes of Martha. She was soothed by a sense of being more fairly treated than she had hitherto been, for it had always seemed to her grossly unjust that she, the virtuous, the spotless, the irreproachable, should have been troubled in the slightest by any thought of the worthless, the degraded, the contemptible.
Surely the reward for her noble life of complete self-sacrifice should, at least, have been complete peace of mind.
'God,' she thought, 'should have seen to that.' And now she felt that He had done so, for when she did think of her sister it was in a vague, compassionate fashion. She would still wake up suddenly in the night, alert, and full of exasperation, expecting to be challenged by that thought of Martha. But now there would be emptiness, merely her large, handsome, silent bedroom with the harvest moon showing through the unshuttered windows, and a sense of security all about. She would think of Martha, certainly, but only of someone very far away who did not concern her in the least.
She would lie contentedly in the large bed considering her own possessions, Stibbards, full of her furniture, her silver, her pictures, her china; the stables, with her horses in them, the park full of her timber and sheep and cattle; her farms, well stocked, prosperous. All hers, glorifying her, supporting her, giving her honour, dignity and importance, while Martha had no part in any of them. Martha had run away from all this thirty years before, when she had gone through the garden perfumed by the early currants, and slipped away to her worthless young soldier, to whom she had not been for very long faithful.
In the first week of September, Miss Kezia Faunce superintended the making of pickles, sauces, and relishes from the early unripe fruit. Never yet, since as a girl of ten or so she began to help her mother in these domestic duties, had Miss Kezia missed the different picklings, preservings, jam and wine making as they came round at their several times of the year. The cupboards, closets, and presses of Stibbards were filled by the products of her industry; perfumes, lotions, preserves, balm, aromatics, sweet waters, washes, and confections, more than she would be able to use in the rest of her life, stood stocked in the darkness that they filled with a musty fragrance.
This year, when the last day of this work was over, Kezia Faunce felt suddenly tired, almost as if she were going to be ill. She walked out into the garden about the time of sunset in a lassitude that was too indifferent to seek rest. The evening was cloudless, overwhelming in spacious gold, the landscape was transfigured by the pure uninterrupted light of the western sun; the air was full of Autumn fragrances, and from the house came the mingled sour-sweet smell from the preserving-pans, still redolent of hot spices and sugared fruits.
The large house was silent, as if everyone rested after the day's labour. There was no one in the wide trim gardens but Miss Kezia Faunce herself. She wiped continually with a delicate handkerchief the last sparkles of sugar from her fingers. She felt a mingled sensation of excitement and apprehension, but she did not think of Martha at all. She went to the herb garden and noted how the various plants, hot and cold, moist and dry, were growing in the warm air. Everything grew well that year. It seemed as if there was going to be a splendid harvest of every kind of fruit, a thing that Miss Kezia Faunce could not remember having happened before—everything in fruitage at once. She found herself trembling and she sat down on the circular stone seat beside the great beds of thyme, rosemary, and lavender, all silver grey in that increasing golden light, for, as a lamp will flare up at the last before it goes out, so as the sun finally sank it seemed to give out a more powerful glow.
Miss Kezia Faunce thought that never before had she noted so much light. She sat there on the semi-circular stone seat, between those high, silver-grey plants of rosemary, lavender, marjoram; she felt her senses becoming slightly confused and she had a sensation of light-headedness, as she had often experienced before a severe thunderstorm. Her glance fastened on a large rose bush in the bed opposite, which looked unnaturally tall and seemed to have uncommonly large red thorns. There were no flowers now on this bush, but she knew that it bore crimson blooms, the last of which had fallen about a week ago.
She thought then, not definitely of Martha, but of a bill poster that she had seen stuck up on an ugly brick wall in Paris as she drove to the station. An actress with a nose and mouth something like her own, holding a large bouquet of crimson roses with a white paper frill. The garden seemed too large and the sky too vast, and the bright light of the sunset too overwhelming for Miss Kezia Faunce's senses.
She turned and walked back towards the house as one seeking a refuge. She had not quite reached the large terrace when she saw Sarah, the new kitchen-maid, coming hurriedly towards her.
Miss Faunce frowned. It was not part of Sarah's duties to run errands or take messages to her mistress and she certainly had no business to be in the garden in the print dress and the white apron, now slightly sticky, which she had worn to help in the pickling and the preserving.
Miss Kezia Faunce hastened her step with a rebuke ready on her lips, but what Sarah had to say was so curious that Miss Faunce forbore her reproof.
The little kitchen-maid, who spoke rather breathlessly, had, she said, been standing at the kitchen door scouring out the last of Cook's pots when she had looked up and seen a lady standing just before the square of potherbs. She had stared at Sarah, smiled, turned away without a word, and gone through the gate in the privet hedge towards the house. Sarah had run after her, but lost sight of her. Then, seeing Miss Faunce in the distance, she had thought that she should tell her of this stranger.
'What was there strange in it?' asked Miss Kezia quickly. 'It was some visitor who had lost her way and come to the side kitchen door instead of to the front entrance. I can't see anything peculiar about it, Sarah.'
'But she was so odd, ma'am, and not like anyone round here.'
'What was she like, child? Don't make so many words about nothing. What was this lady like?'
'She was very finely dressed, ma'am, and had a queer look of you.'
'A look of me? What do you mean, child? Express yourself better. Do you mean that she was like me?'
The kitchen-maid became confused under this severity.
'She was something like you, ma'am. I don't know. She made me think of you. She had a big nosegay in her hand.'
Miss Kezia's lips pinched themselves together.
'Run away and finish your duties, Sarah. This lady has no doubt gone into the house, where she is waiting for me.'
Dismissing the kitchen-maid, Miss Faunce continued her slow walk towards the terrace.
So, Martha had come to Stibbards. Now, why? And in what devilish mood of mockery and spite? Was she going to be married or to enter a convent? Was she at least leaving the stage and her disgraceful manner of life? Miss Kezia felt her thin cheeks flush. Martha had come, bringing with her the bouquet.
The last bouquet?
'She means to disgrace me, I suppose. To make a scandal and a talk all over the place. Perhaps she has lost all her money and may be dependent on me, after all.'
Her thoughts full of hate, Miss Kezia Faunce entered the house which seemed to her more than usually quiet. If Martha had left the side kitchen door and gone through the gate in the privet hedge and then been lost sight of by Sarah, she must have entered the house by the front door. So Miss Kezia Faunce went directly to that and looked in the hall.
This was empty.
'I suppose that she would, even after all these years, remember the place very well. She has probably gone to the green parlour, where she used to sit and do her lessons with Mamma.'
So Miss Faunce opened the door of the green parlour, a room that, though kept spotlessly clean, swept and dusted, had been long since shut up and disused. The slatted dark-green shutters were closed now and the strong last sunlight beating on them filled the room with a subdued glow, almost as if it were under water.
The walls were painted an old-fashioned, dull green; the carpet was green and so were the rich curtains, the damask covered chairs. Everything was the same as it had been when Martha and Kezia used to have their lessons there with their mother.
There was the desk at which they had worked, the piano at which they had practised, and on the walls still hung some of the water-colours of moss roses, birds' eggs in nests, and white rabbits which they had drawn and painted together.
The room smelt slightly of musk and Miss Kezia, whose mind was not working very alertly and who felt some vagueness over all her senses, thought:
'I must have the shutters opened tomorrow and a little sun and air let in. I had forgotten quite how long it was since the room was used.'
And then she saw Martha standing up close against an inner door, looking at her over her shoulder, holding rather stiffly in both hands, a large bouquet of crimson roses, exactly as she had held them in the poster which Miss Kezia had seen the day she drove to the railway station in Paris.
'Martha,' said Miss Faunce stiffly, 'so you've come home at last. To give me the bouquet?'
Still smiling and still without speaking, Mme. Marcelle Lesarge's delicately gloved hands held out the crimson bouquet.
Kezia Faunce took it, and as she did so all the roses turned to blood and emptied themselves into her bosom.
Miss Kezia Faunce was found dead in the green parlour where she and her twin sister Martha so often had lessons with their mother. She had fallen, and her head had struck the harp, an instrument that she used, in her girlhood, to play very well.
She had been dead several hours when she was found. The doctor said that her heart had always been weaker than he dared to tell her. She had, of late, been wearing herself out with good work and had been labouring in the kitchen on that particular day. She might have fallen, when unconscious, and killed herself by the blow given her by the harp.
There was no mystery about the affair and not much mourning.
Sarah, the kitchen-maid, did not dare to tell anyone about the lady who had come to the kitchen door with the bouquet. She feared that she would get into severe trouble for an untruthful romancing girl.
Mme. Marcelle Lesarge died in the same hour precisely as her twin sister, but not in so agreeable a manner.
She had lately become rather desperate in her choice of admirers, and on that September evening she had taken home to her apartments a worthless young rake who for some while had been flattering her.
What passed between them on this particular evening no one would ever exactly know, though it was not difficult to guess, for in the morning she was found murdered, her room robbed and rifled, all her jewellery stolen, and nothing left but the large bouquet of crimson roses, which were found flung down carelessly on her bosom, profaned, drooping, and dappled with her blood.
A roofless house in the middle of a grove of firs, always in shade from the blue-black foliage, and further darkened by a huge cypress. Who planted this sombre, exotic tree so near a mansion of austere grey stone? One of gloomy tastes, surely; perhaps, in a mood of heartbroken penitence, some wrongdoer brought a long jade-coloured cone from the Holy Land in his pocket and dropped it in this lonely place when, suddenly, the devils he had not been able to placate, sprang up and pursued him through the haunted wood.
Roofless is this bluish granite mansion; from the broken hearth-stones stinging-nettles grow thickly, and in the fallen doorway is an ash sapling, that ill-omened tree; the window-spaces all open on to the darkness of the trees; even from the top of the tower (more ancient, more stoutly built than the house) up to which you may still mount by worn steps, weeds sprout in every crack of stone, there is no prospect only the upper branches of the firs, the flat boughs of the cypress, and the pale sky between appears very lonely, very far away.
This was the jointure house; the vast mansion to which it was attached has disappeared; only a sloping smoothness in the turf of the deserted park shows where the terraced lawns sloped down to the artificial lake; only a broken row of ancient chestnut trees shows where a grandiose avenue led to lordly portals of stone and iron.
Many widowed women lived and died in the jointure house, retiring there after handing over their keys to a son's or an heir's wife; but there came a time when it was shut up and another dower house was built on the other side of the spacious grounds.
This was because of Madam Spitfire; no one (they say) cared to live in the old one after her; the house was avoided, it fell into decay; even when the great mansion was pulled down later for building materials the old jointure house was left alone...not that it had any reputation of ghost or goblin; it was simply ignored. By then the tale of Madam Spitfire had worn thin, to a mere pale tradition; now it is nearly forgotten altogether.
No one knows where she is buried; some say it is under the rank patch of nettles on the broken hearth at which she used to sit; some that it is under the heap of bricks and stone where the old Mausoleum once stood; at least it is certain that she does not rest among her husband's kin in the solitary little church on the edge of the estate, which stands among white grave-stones like an old shepherd among a crowding flock.
I do not know when she lived, and if I did I would not care to give this story dates; it is simply a long time ago; the colours in it are faded like the yarns in an old needlework piece which have changed to a uniform mignonette green and indigo blue with here and there the dim russet of a fox, a pard, an acorn.
Why am I impelled to relate the tale of Madam Spitfire? Why does it come to me with such poignant clarity as I linger within the four walls of the old jointure house and watch the rays of light cut through the cypress boughs and show on the old dark stone where the tenacious ivy clings with threadlike tendrils and glossy leaves?
Madam Spitfire was married when she was not so very young; she came in her full pride to the proud Hall in the great park and everything was refurnished for her reception; the Squire was very much in love with her and—'under her thumb' as his people said.
From the first there was hostile talk; neither her family nor her past was known; some cried her down as a foreigner or even a play actress, but nothing could be proved, and she was well enough bred.
Yet almost at once her sharp ways with the servants and tenants gained her the name of Madam Spitfire; she was soon hated by her inferiors, and few of her equals came to the vast mansion whilst she ruled there; she stood between her husband and all his old friends and ways. He was a very good-natured man and spared no expense to keep his wife in a pleasant mood; she was costly in everything; I can see her going to church in a coach new gilt, wearing a cherry-coloured satin that flares impudently against the sober, lordly pew.
Two people beside her weak husband concerned Madam Spitfire. One was a young woman named Agnes who occupied a sad enough place in the opulent household; a dependent but not a servant; subject to all the insolence and caprice of a mistress, but unpaid and unable to leave if tyranny became intolerable. It was believed she was the Squire's daughter, but he never acknowledged this, though he endeavoured to be kind to her in a secret feeble fashion. It certainly appeared, at least, that she was an orphan, helpless, alone, entirely at the mercy of those on whose charity she existed; she was pretty and gentle and happy enough in a thoughtless fashion; her character was weak, and she was uneducated save in household work.
The other personage who concerned Madam Spitfire was Mr Jenniston, the steward; though he was agreeable with all, he was suspected of underhand villainies; he was middle aged, ugly, elegant, and did what he would with his master. Abroad, he affected to deplore the harsh temper, the greedy extravagance of Madam Spitfire, but it was believed that they understood each other very well.
You may believe that this passionate woman's intense hope was to have children, to have an heir to secure her position and assure her future. She remained barren and that sharpened her fiery disposition; she conceived such a hatred for the heir-at-law, Mr William Garnet, her husband's nephew, that he never dared visit the Hall; the spiteful servants watched her closely, for they thought that she would not hesitate to introduce a false child as her own, if she had the least opportunity.
If she were indeed waiting for such a chance the more horrible must have been her disappointment when her husband was one day brought in dying from a hunting accident.
Her face was frightful to see as she ran into the painted chamber where they had laid him; the girl Agnes was on her knees by his side; the western sun poured through the huge window and showed her white dress, her misery, her piteous, childish fear.
'Remember,' slowly whispered the dying man, 'to keep very carefully what I gave you, Agnes.'
Madam Spitfire snatched the girl aside and stared down at her husband; the last sunlight tinged with red the yellow ribbons in her hair.
'I'm done for,' he murmured; a smile of apology spread over his fat white face.
'I'll never forgive you!' she cried furiously.
The bystanders, in horror, drew her out of the room; Agnes crept back to the couch, crying and wringing her hands.
Well, that was the end of the reign of the proud, selfish woman; she was then Madam Dowager and must go to the jointure house; she was not poor; her marriage settlements were generous enough—but to be a childless widow in the Dower House, while another ruled at the Hall, you may guess what that meant to this fierce creature.
The day of the funeral she called to her side the trembling Agnes.
'What was it my husband told you to keep so carefully?'
'A bond, madam. For a thousand pounds, payable when I am of age.' Seeing the other's look of fury, the weeping girl added: 'It is my sole fortune, madam!'
'And a very fine fortune, too, for a nameless charity brat like yourself! But you are only eighteen; who is to look after you, feed and clothe a lazy, stupid chit like you?'
'Indeed, I don't know. But Mr Barton' (she named the clergyman of the parish) 'said he would perhaps take me in—'
'That don't suit me. It would be to make me appear unnatural—no, you'll come to the Dower House with me. Give me the bond to keep for you.'
Agnes said that she had already put it in the hands of Mr Barton to lock away among the church papers.
'Cunning slut!' cried Madam Spitfire, giving the girl a blow on the side of her face; but she insisted no more for she had other affairs to occupy her; on the very day that the Squire was laid in the Mausoleum, Mr William Garnet had declared that he wished immediate possession of the Hall.
'It will be ready for him in a week,' declared the angry widow, 'and not before.'
He gave her so much grace; to his undoing, for when he came to reside in the great mansion it was stripped bare; tapestries, porcelains, plate, pictures had been moved to the Dower House; only a few poor hacks were in the stables, and by an unaccountable accident a sudden fire had burnt out the coach-house and destroyed the carriages, while the glass-houses having been left open a sharp frost had destroyed the orange trees and other costly shrubs.
Mr Garnet lost no time in going to law; but by the time he had won his case the property could not be traced; some she had sold, some hidden; in everything she was helped by Edmund Jenniston, the steward, who had been instantly dismissed by the new Squire, and found employment with the widow.
It is easy to imagine the furious bad blood between the great Hall where Mr Garnet, a jolly young man, entertained his town friends, and the Dower House where Madam Spitfire sulked.
This part of the tale is dark with evil passions, fierce ruminations, the black clash of a high tide of bitterness, which one can no longer distinguish in detail.
It might have been supposed that the disappointed and furious woman would have gone to town or abroad; but, like many vindictive spirits, she chose to remain on the scene of her defeat and plague her successor in her lost honours.
It seems that she made life almost intolerable for Mr William Garnet and soured his pleasant nature to bitterness and an angry desire for revenge; the climax of her tormenting was that she was able, by the most subtle and underground intrigues, by secret slander, to break off the match between the Squire and the amiable daughter of a wealthy neighbour.
At this, her satisfaction was as sharp as his deadly resentment.
She became, for a while, even agreeable to poor Agnes, whom she turned into a slave as hard worked as any on the Plantations.
The meek girl, profoundly unhappy, would kneel, where the nettles grow now, latching the vixen's shoes or holding a screen between the fire and her sullen brooding face.
Is it not odd to imagine the flames flickering on that damp stone, a Persian cloth where the parsley and sorrel flourish, a warm light where the shadows of the trees fall so thickly? No one has seen a ghost here, but something is wrong with the place, surely.
These people are now all lost on the endless sweeps of eternity, and it is strange that even I recall their story which still vibrates in the air, in the shiver of the cypress boughs, in the movement of the shadows among the weeds, in the sighs, almost imperceptible, that come across the lonely park.
The figure of Edmund Jenniston loomed more important in the tale after the final and deadly breach with the Hall; there was much land and several farms attached to the jointure house and he managed all; affecting to deplore the harshness and unjust exactions of his employer, lamenting her greed and penury, but in reality he was only her faithful agent.
Of course it was said that he was more than her servant; her lover, or her unacknowledged husband; it was certain that he lived in the jointure house and bore himself as master, for all his cringing, humble ways.
The servants who came and went so frequently reported angry whispers from behind locked doors, the low sounds of suppressed quarrels when Madam and her steward came to a disagreement; they also gossiped over the constant weeping of Miss Agnes; often she sobbed half through the night in her mean upper room; it must have been where the tuft of pink stonecrop now grows out of the loosened blocks of granite and at evening the solitary night-jar gives his rude cry; the cypress boughs sweep close to the masonry here, and when the wind is strong the sound of their swaying is not unlike a womanish lamenting; the constant fall of the dry mortar and dust on to the leaves sounds like the rustle of a gown.
Shortly one of Madam's farms came into the market and such was her reputation that Mr Jenniston had difficulty in finding a tenant.
At length a stranger applied for it, readily agreed to the bad terms, had the best of credentials, and was duly installed at Summerbrayes.
This man's name was Francis Rowe and he came from a far part of the country, being minded, he said, to try fortune on his own, away from friends and favour; he was a gentleman and it was at once assumed that he was escaping some failure or disappointment that had clouded him at home.
But all doubt of him was soon forgotten in the enchantment of his address and the unusual attraction of his person, which was of an elegance that appeared odd among the rustical farmers of the neighbourhood.
From the first Madam distinguished him with kindness, received him as an equal, invited him often to the jointure house, favoured with regard Summerbrayes above her other tenancies, and soon flattered and caressed him.
She was as passionate as she was cruel; her husband had been no more than a shadow to her; she was in the prime of life still, all her emotions were unsatisfied; hateful as she was, I think here she was to be pitied for she was invaded in her sullen retreat, defenceless and unprotected as she was, by a man irresistible to women.
If Edmund Jenniston was jealous he did not show it, he remained smiling in the background and warmly praised the new favoured tenant.
Mr Rowe had the gift of music; there, near that broken stone window-frame where the valerian blooms in June through the cracks in the sunk sill, stood the harpsichord, and there Mr Rowe would play a musetteor rigadoon, or sing—'As Vesta was from Latmos Hill descending—' or 'Flora gave me fairest flowers—'
Madam (here again you must see her where the nettles grow, pure small white flowers gathering under the rank vicious leaves, on the hearth place), listening with secret rapture, was eager to give him any blooms she had in her posy; nervous and restless she was for his approach, his embrace.
She had long thrown off her mourning, her gowns were bright and glossy; she affected the most brilliant colours, the most sparkling gems, her vivid carnation needed no paint; to Francis Rowe she was soft and melting, showing none of her tempers. She would ride with him through the park, flaunting the Squire with this cavalier who was in all his superior; Mr Rowe had a fine seat, easy, well back in his saddle, his mount was fastidiously chosen; all believed that he would turn his graces to good account and marry the widow, ay, and master her too.
But another figure, hitherto effaced, enters the drama; Agnes, from the window where the stonecrop now shows succulent rosy leaves, watched the riders go forth towards the now broken chestnut avenue then very straight and lordly. Agnes, on her humble stool on this sunken hearthstone, also listened to the music of Mr Rowe and let her heart be stolen without an effort to save it; she knew nothing but unhappiness and she had no friends but the servants and the purblind old parson.
But, and here an ironic bitterness flavours the tale, she was lovely; her prettiness had opened into a beauty brilliant in freshness, she had abundant charms, and, despite her miseries, also a stately air, that was more than chance innocence; it was impossible to associate her with anything vulgar or mean.
Madam was quick to sense a secret rival though she could not, with all her cunning, detect any response on the part of her tenant, any indiscretion on the part of Agnes who pined in silence and wept more abundantly, for her tyrant's humours increased to a dreadful degree of sharpness. If the deep blue eyes of Francis Rowe flickered for an instant to the poor dependant, if his soft voice addressed her but one casual word, she had to pay for it in dismal torments.
She was then nearly twenty-one years of age and looked forward with breathless impatience to the redeeming of her bond.
'What will you do, friendless, nameless, when you have this money?'
'Madam, I shall go from here—Mr Barton will find me some other place—'
As the woman jealously studied the girl's fair features she saw there a dreadful resemblance to her dead husband, a repetition of that softness, that gentle kindness she had so despised; her hatred was increased, nor was it a little untouched by fear.
For of all the evil whispered of Madam Spitfire this was always accounted the most awful—that she had said to a dying man to whom she owed everything—'I will never forgive you.'
Many regarded her, because of this, with a kind of awe; men believed in Hell fire then and there were those who thought that the woman who could have uttered those words was damned; she was aware of this and shivered a little before the dead man's look in the living girl.
And Agnes suffered.
Continually Madam tormented her to show her the bond.
'It may be a flam for all I know. I would like to see if it is the signature of my dead husband—'
One darkening winter day the girl brought to her the precious paper, which, she said, Mr Barton had reluctantly delivered to her...
Madam tore off the signature and threw it into the fire with a grin of triumph.
Agnes did not appear so perturbed as she should have been at this loss of her fortune, and Madam soon got at the truth, for Mr Barton, mistrusting her, had sent a careful duplicate of the bond, charging the girl not to divulge this; but she, poor fool, was no match for Madam, and greatly she had to suffer for what her tyrant termed her incredible insolence.
But Madam Spitfire felt oddly defeated; torment the girl as she would, Agnes seemed every day to bloom more radiantly, to endure her miserable life more patiently; Madam, watching her keenly, even saw her secretly smile, even heard her secretly sing; was it possible that she was cherishing some joyous secret?
But the sharp, shrewd widow could surprise nothing; she could not believe that Francis Rowe was such a consummate deceiver as to be able to woo the girl under her nose and she not know it; why, that would have taxed the ingenuity of a town libertine, and he was, after all, a country farmer.
But she mused as to whether this were a correct description of him—she liked to think there was some romantic mystery attached to him, she liked to think him in all more splendid than he was; but in truth the man was too fine for his station; his farm did not prosper, his lease was short and against his interests, he declared all his hopes lost in the venture—
'Why don't he offer himself?' thought Madam in an agony of waiting; she longed to feel his fingers on her breasts, his smooth face so close to her that she could detect the flecks of darker blue in his azure eyes.
She stared at herself in her mirror till her sight ached; she spent extravagantly on adornment, on entertainment, and yet he checked his wooing (if wooing it was) at a certain point, though she gave him opportunity after opportunity.
One night Edmund Jenniston sneered:
'He is fooling you.'
'Bah, with you and I to watch them?'
'Them? Of whom are you thinking?'
'Why should he fool me? He ought to be mad with gratitude that I notice him!'
'Don't you see how pretty Agnes is? And so young!'
Madam Spitfire threw a paper-knife that gave him a broken bruise on the sallow cheek; she thought:
'My God! In a few months she will have a thousand pounds. Are they waiting for that? She will be free, free. I shall have no hold on the slut—'
She hastened to the parsonage (the modest house yet stands behind the grey church, the grey graves) and so intimidated the poor old clergyman that he delivered up the true bond to her keeping, but not before he had made her swear on the altar to keep it safely, and menaced her with the law if she did not.
'Take care, madam; now everyone trembles before you, but the day will come! If you break this oath your husband will surely return to punish you—'
'My husband? Standing among the dead she curbed her temper.
'Ah, madam, it was an awful thing to say to a dying man—"I will never forgive you—"'
Madam hastened home with the precious bond; Mr Rowe was in her parlour; he was singing to himself—'Sombre Woods'; his voice came gently to her as she opened the door; '—then I shall meet my beloved, then I shall keep her for evermore...'
Singing to himself? Madam Spitfire thought she had heard a step on the stair as if someone had fled at her approach.
She did not know what to say or do for passion; sank on to the low chair by the hearth and told him how she had got the bond from the old, senile fellow—'who might lose it, or destroy it—if he dies of a sudden where are we? But with me the poor child's little fortune is safe.'
Mr Rowe's fingers lingered on the keys; he eyed her, smiling.
'Is she not old enough to have charge of it herself?'
'When she is of age, perhaps—though, Lord knows, I think her feeble-minded.'
'What do you intend, madam, for this poor friendless creature? 'Tis a sad case.'
'I will keep her till she marries some fellow of her own station; she is useless—lazy, stupid, ill-tempered, but perhaps with the money some rustic may take her—'
While she spoke she was thinking: 'Why don't he cross the room, why don't he take me in his arms? Oh, God, how long am I to endure this?'
But Mr Rowe made no definite advances; when he had left the room Edmund Jenniston told her that she was being 'talked about', that people laughed at her gross infatuation; if the man had offered to marry her, why, very well, but she seemed to woo him in vain—why didn't she put an end to it?
How could she put an end to it?
Mr Jenniston reminded her that Francis Rowe was at her mercy—it was not likely that he would be able to pay his rent, he had a wretched lease—it was a wonder that he had signed it—
'I know all that, you fool. Tell me,' her jealousy burst all decorum, all discretion, 'have you noted anything—about Agnes?'
'That she is a beauty.'
'I did not mean that, and you know it, rogue—'
'Ah, with regard to this spark? Well, I do feel something in the air.'
'You have felt that, too? Tell me, Edmund Jenniston, we have been good friends in our way, am I still a beautiful woman?'
He gave her a smiling glance that blasted her as surely as if he had uttered a potent curse.
'You look your age and that is more than even your enemies guess.'
He was amused at her overthrow; she turned speechlessly and stared at the wall where the spiders now creep in and out of the crannies; a mirror hung there then.
After that the position became still more terrible; what fearful passions, what desperate emotions did not this roofless house then contain! What black midnight meditations, what evening tears, what prayers at morning, what ill-suppressed furies and half-hidden fears!
Only a little thing was needed to send Madam Spitfire into an open tempest, for Mr Rowe still dallied; and that little thing she soon found.
She came upon Agnes practising a melody by Dowland which Francis Rowe had played—named suitably enough 'The Sorrowful Pavane'—Lachrimae Pavan.
The girl sank before the abuse heaped on her; Madam withered her with insults, branded her with the word then easily used for love children, snatched the music and tore it up, accused her of all her own lascivious desires, her own bitter miseries, her own consuming jealousies, revealed her own lustful heart in such a torrent of horrible self-revelation that the girl, who understood nothing of all this, started up suddenly, in the extreme of terror, like the hare when the hunter is near his form and concealment is no longer possible, and ran out into the frosty night in her poor darned dress, with her thin patched shoes. It is not easy for simple, romantic childish first love to endure the hot face of lust violently revealed.
When twilight falls the nettles give out a rank sickly odour, it is then that you may believe that Madam Spitfire is buried beneath them.
Old Mr Barton, the parson, by his winter fire, heard a tapping and saw a frantic face pressed against his window.
'Let me in, Mr Barton! Let me in!'
Agnes, on his hasty opening of the door, came cowering to the hearth and could not speak a word; she bit her forefinger and her eyes were scared.
For a while in the reaction that followed the opening of her evil heart, Madam was scared too; she went upstairs to destroy the bond and could not do it; her sworn oath rose up, like a tangible object, and checked her wicked desire.
'But I did not swear to deliver it up, only not to destroy it.'
And she locked it securely into a casket that she placed in the press in Agnes's room.
'If she wants it, let her come for it—'
But Agnes would not enter that house again, be the scandal what it might; and soon Madam heard that Francis Rowe was visiting the parsonage.
Mr Jenniston laughed.
'Well, they are in your power, you can turn him out of his farm in March—he'll be ruined if you take all his stock for rent. And you've got the slut's fortune.'
This did not assuage her agonies; the thought of the two possible lovers, beyond her ken, beyond her spying, was Hell fire to her; she resolved to make away with the bond for which Mr Barton had already asked in vain.
When she had come to this resolution she was in her bed (in the room with the great window through which the cypress bough now enters with the tips of black foliage); mighty with wrath and hate she no longer felt afraid of anything.
But she was powerless before a dream.
She did not move, in this dream, from the heavy bed with the dark baldaquin and stiff curtains; she still saw the glow of fading firelight on the floor; then, moving across this, she observed what she thought to be a fat dog, wheezing, uncomfortable; but a closer glance showed that this creature trailed drapery, knotted like a bunch of leaves above the head; it was her husband. He appeared to be nosing round the room on a tense quest.
'It is not here,' she jeered. 'You won't find it—'
He rose; his sagging body was stout and flabby as she remembered it, but his legs had dwindled to mere bones, his shroud tied on the top of his skull was rotted into tatters, his face was shapeless; she saw the dying fire through a hole in his cheek; his decayed eyes had the glitter of foul, stagnant water. Madam wanted to take back her last words to him; she wanted to say:
'I forgive you now, do you hear?'
But she could not speak, and abruptly he came at her, gathering together his corrupted members for a leap on to her sumptuous bed.
A fury of terror woke Madam; she scrabbled aside her curtains for air and knew that she would not be able to destroy the bond.
The next morning she rode through a fog frost to the parsonage. Agnes must come home, this was a scandal, she would not endure the reflections cast on her by the whims of a stupid girl; her face, usually so warmly coloured, was palely vehement, but Mr Barton resisted her importunities; he had not only public opinion on his side, but the Squire; Mr Garnet had declared that the girl might be his cousin for all he knew, that he would not have her tormented, and that when he married she might come to the Hall to goffer his wife's frills and comb her lap-dog; he knew of the bond, too, and swore he would see it redeemed.
Madam had gone too far, but the horror of her defeat was softened by comforting information she wormed out of the foolish, agitated old man.
Agnes had taken a queer aversion to Francis Rowe; she refused to see him, she blushed painfully when he was mentioned, she spent much time in church and seemed every whit as unhappy as she could possibly have been at the jointure house; Mr Barton even feared for her mind; surely she was suffering from some nervous disorder?
The sound of Mr Rowe's step or the clatter of his horse's hoofs was enough to send her into convulsions...What had Madam done to her?
Madam rode home, not ill satisfied; she smiled into the frost fog that hung between the bare boughs of the chestnut avenue; she understood very well what she had done.
Her instinct had been right; of course the girl had begun to cherish a delicate, tender, unavowed passion for the sumptuously handsome young man—but she, the voluptuous woman, had poisoned that by accusing the girl of her own sufferings.
'You want him to take you in his arms, you want him to cover you with kisses—you can't rest for thinking of it—'
Very openly, very crudely had she spoken in her fury; the soul of Agnes was destroyed like a bud pulled open before its time is destroyed before it has bloomed.
Madam sent for Mr Rowe; she had her account books under her hand.
'My steward tells me that you are in trouble with your farm.'
'I have not complained.'
'I might. You are an ill tenant; it is clear that you'll not be able to pay in March and the property is abused by your neglect.'
She was nettled by his indifference.
'I do what I can, madam.'
'No; you don't! There is one thing you could very easily do that would make your fortune.' Her golden eyes, delicately suffused with blood, boldly invited him; she had drawn the curtain between herself and the winter light to give herself an illusion of youth; her bosom, still fair, was much exposed above a gleaming bodice of saffron-coloured satin. As he did not answer, her hand trembled on the books filled with the labours of Mr Jenniston. 'You know what I mean.' She looked at his fine forehead, the sweep of his dark brows, the arch of his upper lip.
'I am a wealthy woman, Francis—'
She was aware that he must have known that he could have had her, not only for a wife but for a mistress, a creature to do what he pleased with...but he left her with some casual courtesy.
A few days after this Agnes came of age; both the Squire and Mr Barton demanded the bond.
'Let Agnes come herself for it,' said Madam, who was by then as vicious as a pursued beast speared against a wall.
But no one knew better than she that on those conditions she was safe to keep the bond till Judgment Day.
On an afternoon of drizzling rain and low clouds Francis Rowe came again to the jointure house and what he said was beyond computation amazing to Madam.
He demanded the bond in the name of his future wife; he intended to marry Agnes; he must have been a very fearless man to bring this news to Madam Spitfire; she instantly resolved to, somehow, destroy them both, and consoled by this, contrived a fair front.
'Ah! But I thought she was disordered in her mind and would not even see you—'
He gave her a distressed, a suspicious look.
'Assuredly I shall overcome that. And must if it takes years. I know she did not regard me with aversion—and this unaccountable—timidity—'
He knew she had favoured him, the traitor, the serpent, he had contrived, then, to elude her spying—he and Agnes; she had been deceived, mocked...all the worse should be her revenge.
'How are you going to live? Your farming has failed.'
'Agnes has the thousand pounds.'
'I refuse to give it to you.'
'Very well, madam.'
He left her with no pleading or argument; she called, in her agony, Edmund Jenniston.
'Can you take your gun, go out and shoot that man? The scoundrel wants to marry Tom's crazy wench—'
'And you must be content with my lean visage that is certainly beginning to wear out.'
'Put a bullet through him, d'ye hear, rogue?'
'I'll not hang to please you. Be patient—the fool is ruined and she half out of her mind. And you have the bond—danmed poor, that's what they'll be—that will cool his ardour—stark poverty.'
That night Madam could not sleep for anguish, for terror of dreaming of her husband, for longing for Francis Rowe.
And in the depth of the winter cold and dark she heard a sudden fracas, and ran out with a candle and a chintz robe huddled on.
On the half-lit stairs Mr Jenniston was struggling with Francis Rowe, who looked wild and dishevelled and had a short sword in his hand.
'A low ruffian after all!' she screamed, and shouted up the servants as the younger man cast off the steward and sent him down the stairs; in his roused strength and rage he was, in her eyes, even more admirable; she felt a great pleasure at his overthrow of Edmund Jenniston. 'So you break into my house?'
He pulled his torn shirt together at his throat.
'Madam, you have received me with that kindness which made me think I might not be unwelcome.'
He regarded her boldly, tossing back the loosened hair from his brow; she knew then that she had never known him, that he had always been on his guard, even in disguise before her; she approached him, laughing with excitement.
'Is it true you came to see me?'
The infatuate woman took no heed of the groans of Mr Jenniston from the well of the stairs, of the gathering of the maids along the corridors.
'Should not you and I meet like this instead of formally? But your watch dog is too shrewd, damn him!'
Francis Rowe was breathing heavily; she seized his arm; he smiled down at her, yielding at last; she was about fiercely to order away the steward and servants, even to say the man was there at her summons, when, leaning towards him, she saw something familiar obtruding from the pocket of his full skirt coat; it was the box in which she had locked the bond.
In one second the miserable woman realised that the fellow had broken into her house with reckless daring to secure the fortune of his future wife and that in desperation he had played his last card—her insensate passion, affecting the lover to save his neck.
She shrieked out in fury.
'Thief! Murderer! Take him, you gaping fools! He was in my room, rifling my jewels, he tried to murder Mr Jenniston! I saw him with his sword at his throat!'
She whirled into her chamber, snatched up what ornaments she had loose, ran back with them, screamed that she had dragged them from the pockets of the miscreant; the steward limped upstairs to corroborate her tale; hideous in his night attire he showed blood on his hand, a bruise on his breast...unarmed, half naked, he had been villainously attacked.
'Blasted liars!' shouted Mr Rowe, struggling with two bewildered grooms. 'A trull and her jackal! I would I had put you both where you belong long since!'
'I'll put you where you belong, my pretty fellow—and that's the gallows!'
'Robbery with violence,' grinned Mr Jenniston. 'Nothing can save you, popinjay!'
Still resisting his captors, Mr Rowe passionately declared 'he had but come to take what was unlawfully withheld and had offered no violence, only striving to escape when surprised—' Then he groaned, as if suddenly fully realising his miseries. 'I am not what you take me to be,' he said, and added that it was 'a dirty game at best and he would he had not meddled in it—'
'He has lost his wits like his doxy,' said Madam. 'Trull did ye call me! You'll soon be carrion,' and she struck the helpless man, pinioned by the weight of three others, full in the flushed face.
But her own last word sobered her; 'carrion' reminded her of her dream of her husband; she staggered into her room and closed the door; the prisoner was dragged away.
And Mr Jenniston, alone on the landing, laughed with real amusement.
Now, a butterfly (though butterflies rarely come here) could fly in a few seconds across the roofless mansion, and now it is strange to think of it as it was on that fearful night, the many dark rooms and corridors, the whispering, frightened servants, the agonies of the woman locked in her bed-chamber, Mr Jenniston's rank humour, the young man dragged away; the darkness flowing in from the wood and flecked with hastily lighted candle and lamp.
Madam was assured of her revenge; he would hang; Agnes would go mad in truth, no doubt; at least they would never lie in each other's arms.
Early in the morning Mr Barton, much overcome, waited on her, appealing for mercy.
'He is no criminal—a reckless fool, no doubt, but you had no right to detain the bond.'
'He shall hang.'
'Ah, madam, do you want two injured souls waiting for you on the other side?'
She knew he referred to her husband, and she squinted dangerously.
'He shall hang—'
Close after the clergyman came the most unexpected visitor; one who had never crossed her threshold before; the Squire; this robust young man seemed in the most intolerable distress of mind; he stammered and sighed, and blurted out his errand with a painful effort.
'Madam, you must withdraw the charges against Francis Rowe.'
'He shall hang.'
'Do you know what that means? A strong fellow to hang by the neck?'
She knew—to strangle by one's own weight; she knew what he would look like afterwards; nothing less would satisfy her.
'A scoundrel, a villain, he corrupted my ward, he corrupted my maid—the slut confessed this morning she had let him in and told him where the bond was. He shall hang.'
'No,' said Mr Garnet. 'Not if I have to go to the King myself about it—'
At that she flew into a tearing passion.
'What the devil has this got to do with you?'
'I must tell you though 'tis the most awkward tale a man ever took on his tongue—'
This was the story that Mr Garnet, miserably enough, confessed to Madam:
Francis Rowe was an assumed name; the young man was no farmer, but a city gallant of a noble family and wild reputation, a close friend of the Squire, who had agreed to play this part to avenge Mr Garnet on the widow; he was to make her ridiculous, wither her reputation, even to lead her as far as the altar, anything, before he dropped the mask—it had all been a plot, a jest such as were then à la mode, ungentlemanly, vile, what you will, but the taste of the times was coarse and Madam had pushed the Squire very far.
'But all was spoilt by the rogue taking a fancy to the girl—he's done no harm there, I swear, and he wants to marry her.'
Madam sat silent (surely her ghost crouches sometimes among those nettles, on the very place of her hearth-stone), she realised what an easy prey she had been to the wicked devices of the young men, what an abject fool she had made of herself, how rustical she was not to have guessed the quality of Francis Rowe—how he had never been at her mercy through the farm lease...
'Has he money?'
'He will have—with the title—he lacks nothing now.'
'Why did he come to my house—stealing?'
'He was beside himself at your refusal to deliver the bond—he had set his heart on earning the gratitude of Agnes by coming to her with it in his hand—'
'He shall hang.'
Does it not sometimes seem when the trees send their whispers through the empty, roofless house that these words sob through the swish of their boughs—'he shall hang—'?
Mr Garnet pleaded; he humbled himself, took all the blame of the malicious trick, offered what reparation she would—he dwelt on the noble family of the reckless youth—on the horrible ignominy of a felon's death—she had only to say—'I asked him to the house. I gave him the bond.'
But Madam only revelled in the distress, the humiliation of the Squire, only rejoiced that it was in her power to so utterly avenge herself.
'Leave my house. I will never forgive him—or you—'
Then Mr Garnet on his side flew into a fury.
'Take care—you said those words to a dying man before. You are an evil woman, you blight all you meddle with!'
He rode away, grey of face; he believed that he must see his friend hang; he had sworn not to reveal who he was, so that the scandal might be kept from the world, so little or no influence could be used for the unfortunate wretch.
All Madam's servants left her, save an ancient couple, cut off by deafness from gossip; she and Edmund Jenniston were alone in the jointure house the day before the trial, when Mr Barton came to make a last appeal.
'Will you dare, madam, to go tomorrow and bear false witness? For you know that he did not come for your jewels and had no intention of murdering Mr Jenniston—'
'I shall say the truth and put the rope round the neck of a villain,' she declared; then, as he was leaving she asked him for a copy of the Book with a wafer on the cover.
'You must be in great extremity to ask me that—'
'I dream. I think I see the spectre of my husband. I want to say—"I forgive you—go to your rest", but I cannot speak. I thought if I clasped the Book when he appears my tongue might be loosened.'
'It will not be till you have come to a sincere repentance.'
Then Madam jeered and said she had spoken in a wry jest and was afraid of nothing; she asked after Agnes, hoping the girl was dead or crazed; but Mr Barton said:
'There has been a great change in the young woman, she has lost all her timidity and terror of Mr Rowe. She declares she is betrothed to him and has taken a lodging near the jail. If you would have mercy, madam, they would be a very happy couple.'
He fled before her dreadful face, away into the grey mist of the park; I think I can see him now, on his ambling pad, hastening through the chestnut avenue—averting his face as he passes the uncertain shape of the Mausoleum where the late Squire's body mouldered...but his spirit, where was it?
The poor parson put up a prayer to this wretched ghost which might be, for all he knew, wandering in the neighbourhood, and bade him, if he could, save his innocent daughter and her lover...and he believed that he saw an errant shape, like a globe of pale wavering light, start through the ground mist and float towards the jointure house.
Madam and Mr Jenniston were very silent that evening; she had prepared his false evidence, all the lies he was to swear to, and presently went up to her chamber, giving him a silent insult by her last look.
The steward sat alone where the nettles now grow and tried to warm himself, but the fire seemed to give out no heat.
And as he sat there he heard a tapping on the window and rose and drew the curtains fearfully.
There was a dim light showing without, as if one held a candle in the fog, then Edmund Jenniston, peering closer, saw it was no light, but the fat face of the dead Squire, luminous with charnel damps.
As he recoiled into the room he heard a squeaky voice say:
'Edmund Jenniston, wilt thou be damned for this wicked woman?'
The steward did not go to bed that night, but sat crouched over the flames, thinking of many things not pleasant to consider even in the daylight.
On the morrow he took in Madam pillion to town (the Assizes being on) and there she gave her false witness without a blush or a falter; had she needed an incitement to her evil purpose she would have found it in the presence of Agnes who sat close beneath the dock where the prisoner stood.
Then came the turn of Edmund Jenniston; there seemed, then, no hope for Francis Rowe (the tale knows not his real name and rank) and I recall that in those days a man went straight from his trial to his hanging, with the utmost grace of about twenty-four hours...Madam had engaged a room at The Black Horse that she might witness the execution.
But the steward's evidence changed all; he said that Madam had asked Mr Rowe to the jointure house and that he had taken the message, that the young man had come for the sake of the bond, that Madam had made love to him and, on his coldness, staged the fracas.
The prisoner interrupted—'this was not true—he had had no such invitation'—but his words were unheeded; what Edmund Jenniston had said was what everyone wanted to hear; any evil was eagerly believed of Madam, and her infatuation for the prisoner was well known, while the young lovers had the sympathy even of the roughest; the verdict was 'Not Guilty', and the Judge sternly ordered Madam to deliver up the bond.
The wretched woman fainted as she saw Francis Rowe leave the dock and take Agnes in his arms, Mr Garnet, the parson, all the neighbours crowding round them; they left her alone to recover as best she might.
When she got her senses, she cried out:
'Edmund Jenniston, take me home—'
'Nay,' he grinned. 'I do not like the company you keep.'
'How could you betray me?'
'I don't fancy Hell fire.'
He pushed through the crowd and was gone; to Canada, they said; he had amassed a pretty fortune while in the service of Madam.
And she, abandoned by all, rode back alone through the winter evening to the jointure house.
At the Mausoleum the horse shied violently; she believed that a hand caught at the bridle; it was getting very dark.
Beatrice, say you forgive me for dying.'
'I cannot, my lips are sealed on those words.'
Her spirit was broken and her passion dead within her; not even the embraces of Francis Rowe could have warmed her then, as she stumbled over the threshold where the ash sapling now waves and the toads hide beneath flat stones.
Not even Edmund Jenniston for company that night and her utter defeat heavy on her; the two old servants avoided her, frightened of her look.
She went up to her chamber with the bowed back and slow step of an old woman; she was forced to go up, though she knew what awaited her there.
Only one person pitied Madam Spitfire; and that was Agnes, healed by love, happy in all that makes life beautiful; she had persuaded her lover to take her to the jointure house.
'We will ask her to forgive us—we will bring people, friends, round her again—'
They came through the bare woods, he reluctant, she full of foolish hope.
The jointure house was empty save for the two old servants who were, they muttered, leaving; nothing could be got out of them; they did not know what had become of Madam.
No one ever saw her again, alive or dead.
Agnes, clinging to her lover, saw on the parlour table the bond signed by her father; it was weighed down by a heavy gold signet ring the Squire was known to have worn when he was buried in the Mausoleum.
Claude Boucher found himself awaiting with increasing dread the approach of the 12th of December.
He still called it December to himself; the new names of the divisions of the years of liberty had never taken root in his heart, which remained faithful to many of the old traditions.
Yet he was a good servant of the new Republic and had so far escaped peril during perilous times without sinking into servile insignificance. He was a clerk in the Chamber of Deputies, well paid and unmolested. From the safe vantage of a dignified obscurity he watched greater men come and go; and ate his supper and smoked his pipe in peace while the death-carts went to and from the prisons and the Place de la Revolution—which Boucher, in his mind, thought of as the Place du Louis XVI.
He had his ambitions, but he held them suspended till safer times: he was not the man for a brilliant, fiery career ending in the guillotine; he was not, either, pessimistic; a better epoch, he would declare, would certainly emerge from the present confusion (he refused to accept it as anything else), which could but be regarded as the birth-throes of a settled state.
Therefore, being young and calm and having lost nothing by the upheaval of society, he waited, as he felt he could afford to wait, until the order of things was once more stable and established. The horrors that had washed, like a sea of filth and blood, round his safety, had scarcely touched him; this terror he felt at looking forward to the 12th of December was the first fear that he had ever known.
A fear unreasonable and by no means to be explained.
The first and main cause of his dread was a trifle, an affair so slight that when he had first heard of it he had put it from his mind as a thing of no importance.
One of the Deputies of Lille had put his finger on a conspiracy in the Department of Béarn, involving several names that had hitherto passed as those of good friends of the Republic. The matter did not loom large, but required some delicacy in the handling. The Deputy for the Department concerned was away; no steps were to be taken until his return, which would be on the 12th of December; then Boucher, as a man reliable and trustworthy, was to carry all papers relating to the alleged conspiracy to his house at Saint-Cloud.
At first the young clerk had thought nothing of this; then he had been rather pleased at the slight importance the mission gave him. That night, over his supper in the little café in the Rue Saint-Germains, he began to think of Ambrosine, who had long been a forbidden memory.
She was a little actress in alight theatre that existed during the days of the Terror like a poisonous flower blooming on corruption.
She had lived in a little house on the way to Saint-Cloud, a house on the banks of the river, an innocent and modest-looking place to shelter Ambrosine, who was neither innocent nor modest.
Claude Boucher had loved her; and every night she had finished her part in the wild and indecent performance, he would drive her home in a little yellow cabriolet which had once belonged to a lady of fashion.
They had been quite happy; she was certainly fond of Claude and, he believed, faithful to him; he had rivals, and it flattered him to take her away from these and make her completely his, almost subservient to him; she was only a child of the gutters of Saint-Antoine, but she was graceful and charming, and endearing too in her simplicity and ardour, which she preserved despite her manifold deceits and vices.
She was not beautiful, but she had dark blue eyes and kept her skin lily pale, and her hair was wonderful, and untouched by bleach or powder; fair and thick and uncurling, yet full with a natural ripple, she kept it piled carelessly high with such fantastic combs as she could afford, and from these it fell continuously on to her thin bosom and slanting shoulders.
Claude, sitting in his café, remembered this fair hair, and how it would fly about her when she ran from the stage, flushed, panting, half naked from the dance by which she had amused men inflamed with blood.
He thought; 'To take those papers I shall have to pass the house where she lived...'
He checked himself then his thought continued: 'Where she died.' Ambrosine had been murdered three years ago.
One day in winter she had not appeared at the theatre. As there was a new topical song for her to learn, they had sent a messenger to the little house on the river.
He found her in her bed-gown on the floor of her bedchamber, stabbed through and through the fragile body. The house was in confusion and had been stripped of its few poor valuables.
No-one knew anything: the house was lonely, and Ambrosine lived alone; the old woman who worked for her came in for a portion of the day only. It was found that she had no friends or relatives and that no-one knew her real name—she was just a waif from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine.
That night Claude went to see her; they had quarrelled a little, and for two days he had kept away.
Rough care had disposed her decently on the tawdry silks of the canopied bed; she was covered to the chin, and her face, bruised and slightly distorted, had the aggrieved look of a startled child.
Her hair was smoothed and folded like a pillow beneath her head, her little peaked features looked insignificant beside this unchanged splendour of, her hair.
As Claude looked at her he wondered how he could have ever loved her—a creature so thin, so charmless; his one desire was to forget her, for she now seemed something malignant.
He paid what was needful to save her from a pauper's burial and went back to Paris to forget. No-one found it difficult to forget Ambrosine; her obscure tragedy troubled no-one—there was too much else happening in France. Thieves had obviously murdered her for her few possessions: it was left at that, for no-one really cared. The Faubourg Saint-Antoine could provide plenty such as she.
For a while she held Claude at night; with the darkness would come her image, holding him off sleep.
Always he saw her dead, with the strained, half-open lips, the half-closed, fixed eyes, the thin nose, and the cheeks and chin of sharp delicacy outlined against the pillow of yellow hair.
Always dead. Again and again he tried to picture her living face, her moving form, but he could not capture them.
He could not recall the feel of her kisses or her warm caresses, but the sensation of her cold yet soft dead cheek as he had felt it beneath a furtive touch was long with him.
But after a while he escaped from Ambrosine; he forgot.
Now, as he remembered the way his route took him on the 12th of December, he remembered.
Not that he had any horror of the house or the locality—it simply had not happened that he had ever had occasion to go there since her death. Probably there were other people living there now, or the house might even be destroyed—in any case he would take a détour round the deserted park.
But it was absurd to suppose that he was afraid of that house or unwilling to pass the way he had last passed coming from her deathbed. It was all over and he had forgotten. So he assured himself; yet he began to recall Ambrosine, and always with a sensation of faint horror.
That night was the beginning of his fear.
He went home late to his lodging near the café and, on sleeping, dreamt very exactly this dream, which had the clearness and force of a vision.
He dreamt that it was the 12th of December and that he was riding towards Saint-Cloud carrying the papers he was to take to the Béarnais Deputy.
It was a cold, clear, melancholy afternoon, and the silence of dreams encompassed him as he rode.
When he reached the great iron gates of the dismantled park, his horse fell lame. He was not very far from his destination, and he decided to go on foot. Leaving his horse at a little inn, he struck out across the park.
He saw it all perfectly plainly—the great avenues of leafless trees, the stretches of greensward scattered with dead leaves, the carp ponds and fountains with their neglected statues and choked basins, the parterres where flowers had bloomed not so long ago, and that now looked as utterly decayed; and to his right, as he walked, always the pale glimpse of the river, shining between the trees.
Now, as he proceeded and the dusk began to fill the great park with shadows, he was aware of a companion walking at his side, step for step with him. He could not discern the head and face of this man, which seemed inextricably blended with the shadows, but he saw that he wore a green coat with dark blue frogs.
And he at once began to conceive of this companion a horror and dread unspeakable. He hastened his steps; but the other, with the silent precision of dreams, was ever beside him. The day had now faded to that fixed, colourless light which is the proper atmosphere of visions, and the trees and grass were still, the water without a ripple.
They came now, Claude and the figure that dogged him, to a flat carp-basin, dried and lined with green moss. A group of trees overshadowed it with bare branches; a straight stone figure rose behind, faceless and ominous. Claude could not remember this place, well known as was Saint-Cloud to him.
His companion stopped and bent down to adjust the buckles of his shoe. Claude longed to hasten on, but could not move; the other rose, took his hand, and led him hurriedly across the dry grass.
They approached the bank of a river and a house that stood there, on the confines of the park.
Claude knew the house. It was shuttered as when he had seen it on his last visit to Ambrosine. The garden was a mass of tangled weeds—he noticed a bramble that barred the door across and across.
'They did not find the place so easy to let,' he found himself saying.
His companion released him, and, wrenching off the rotting shutter of one of the lower windows, climbed into the house. Claude, impelled against his will, followed.
He saw, very distinctly (as, indeed, he had seen everything very distinctly in his dream), the dreadful, bare, disordered room of Ambrosine.
Then a deeper and more utter horror descended on him. He knew, suddenly, and with utter conviction, that he was with the murderer of Ambrosine.
And while he formed a shriek, the creature came at him with raised knife and had him by the throat, and he knew that he was being killed as she had been killed, that their two fates were bound together; and that her destiny, from which he had tried to free himself, had closed on him also.
This being the culmination of the dream, he woke; he slept no more till morning, and even in the daylight hours the dream haunted him with a great and invincible dread.
It was the more horrible that reality mingled with it—remembrance of days that had really existed were blended with remembrance of that dreadful day of the dream, recollections of Ambrosine were blended with that vision of her deserted home.
The past and the dream became one, rendering the dead woman an object of horror, hateful and repellent. He could not without a shudder recall her gayest moments or think of the little theatre where she used to act.
So three days passed, and then he dreamt the dream again.
In every detail he went through it as he had been through it before, and by no effort could he awake until the dream was accomplished and he was in the grip of the murderer of Ambrosine, with the steel descending into his side.
And the day of his journey was now only a week off he hardly thought of trying to evade it, of pleading illness or asking another to take his place; it was part of the horror of the thing that he felt that it was inevitable that he should go—that his journey was not to be evaded by any effort, however frantic, that he might make.
Besides, he had his sane, reasonable moments when he was able to see the folly of being troubled by a dream which had recalled a little dancer with whom he had once been in love, and involved her with a certain journey near her dwelling that he was bound to make.
That was what it came to—just a dream and a recollection.
He argued in these quiet moments that it was not strange that his proposed journey to Saint-Cloud should arouse memories of Ambrosine and that the two should combine in a dream.
He distracted himself by taking a deeper interest in the wild, fierce life of Paris, by listening to all the tragedies daily recounted, by visiting all the quarters most lawless and most distressed. One day he even went, for the first time, to watch the executions. The real horror would check, he thought, the fanciful horror that haunted him.
But the first victim he saw was a young girl with hands red from the cold, a strained mouth and fair hair turned up on her small head; her eyes, over which the dullness of death seemed to have already passed, stared in the direction of Claude. He turned away with a movement so rough that the crowd, pressing round him, protested fiercely.
Claude strode through the chill and windy streets of Paris and thought of the approaching 12th of December as of the day of his death. So intense became his agitation that he turned instinctively towards his one friend, as one being enclosed in darkness will turn towards the one light.
René Legarais was his fellow clerk and his first confidant and counsellor—a man a few years older than himself, and, like himself, sober, quiet, industrious, and well balanced.
Claude found his lodging near the Pre-aux-Clercs empty; René was yet at the Chamber.
Claude waited; he found himself encouraged even by the sight of the cheerful, familiar room, with books, and lamp, and fire, and the coffee-service waiting for his friend's return.
He now tried hard to reason himself out of his folly.
He would tell René, and with the telling he would see the absurdity of the whole thing and they would laugh it away together over a glass of wine.
René, he remembered, had also been in love with Ambrosine, but in a foolish, sentimental fashion—Claude smiled to think of it, but he believed that René had been ready to marry the little creature. She had even favoured his respectful wooing (so gossip said) until Claude had appeared, with bolder methods and his vivid good looks and his lavish purse.
René had retired with the best of grace, and that was all long ago and forgotten by both; Claude wondered why he thought of it now, sitting here in the warmth and light. Only because he was unnerved and unstrung and obsessed by that weird dream.
René came home at his usual hour, flushed by the sharp wind and shaking the raindrops from his frieze coat. He was a pale young man with heavy brown hair, insignificant features, and a mole on his upper lip. He looked unhealthy and pensive, and wore horn-rimmed glasses when he worked.
'Where were you this afternoon?' he asked. 'Your desk was empty.'
'I was not well,' said Claude.
René gave him a quick glance.
Claude looked well enough now, a colour from the fire in his handsome brown face, his slim figure stretched at ease in the deep-armed leather chair and a half-mocking smile on his lips.
'I went to see the executions,' he added.
'Bah!' said René.
He came to the fire and warmed his hands, which were stiff and red with cold; they reminded Claude of the hands of the girl whom he had seen on the platform of the guillotine.
'It is the first time,' replied Claude, 'and I shall not go again.'
'I have never been,' said René.
'There was a girl there.' Claude could not keep it off his tongue. 'There always are girls, I believe.'
'She was quite young.'
'Yes?' René looked up, aware that interest was expected of him.
'And then—like Ambrosine.'
'You remember,' said Claude impatiently, 'the little dancer...at Saint-Cloud.'
'Oh, whatever made you think of her?' René looked relieved, as if he had expected something more portentous and terrible.
'That is what I wish to know—what has made me think of her? I believed that I had forgotten.'
'I had, certainly.'
'So had I.'
'What has reminded you?'
Claude struggled with his trouble, which now seemed to him ridiculous.
'I have to go to Saint-Cloud,' he said at last.
'On business of the Chamber?'
'And this reminded you?'
'Yes—you see,' explained Claude slowly, 'I have not been there since.'
'Not since?' René pondered, and seemed to understand. 'And lately I have had a dream.'
'Oh, dreams,' said René; he lifted his shoulders lightly and turned to the fire.
'Do you dream?' asked Claude, reluctant to enter on the subject, yet driven to seek the relief of speech.
'Who does not dream—now—in Paris?'
Claude thought of the thin girl on the steps of the guillotine. 'There is good matter for dreams in Paris,' he admitted, adding gloomily; 'I wish that I had not been to the executions.'
René was making the coffee; he laughed good-naturedly.
'Come, Claude, what is the matter with you? What have you on your conscience?'
René lifted his brows. 'Have you not found, in Paris, in three years, a woman to make you forget Ambrosine, poor little fool?'
'I had forgotten,' said Claude fiercely, 'but this cursed journey—and this cursed dream—made me remember.'
'You are nervous, overworked,' replied his friend; it was quite true that in these few weeks Claude had been working with a desperate energy; he snatched eagerly at the excuse.
'Yes, yes, that is it...but the times...enough to unnerve any man—death and ruin on either side and the toils closing on so many one knew.'
René poured out the coffee, took his cup, and settled himself comfortably in the armchair opposite Claude. He drank and stretched his limbs with the satisfaction of a man pleasantly tired.
'After all, you need not take this journey,' he said thoughtfully; 'there are a dozen would do it for you.'
'That is just it—I feel impelled to go, as if no effort of mine would release me.' He hesitated a moment, then added: 'That is part of the horror of it.'
'Of the whole thing—do you not see the horror?' asked Claude impatiently.
'My dear fellow, how can I—when you have not told me what this wonderful dream is about?'
Claude flushed, and looked into the fire; after all, he thought, René was too commonplace to understand his ghostly terrors—and the thing did seem ridiculous when he was sitting there warm and comfortable and safe.
Yet it could not be dismissed from his mind—he had to speak, even if to a listener probably unsympathetic.
'It is like a vision,' he said. 'I have had it three times it is a prevision of the journey to Saint-Cloud.'
René, attentive, waited.
'It is so very exact,' continued Claude, 'and each time the same.'
'Oh, it is only that—the ride to the gate, the leaving of the lame horse, the walk through the park, and then—'
'The appearance of a man walking beside me.'
'You know him?'
'I hardly saw the face.'
'Well?' René continued to urge Claude's manifest reluctance. 'We went, finally, to the house of Ambrosine.'
'Ah yes, she lived there on the banks of the river—'
'Surely you remember—'
'We were never intimate,' smiled René. 'I do not believe that I ever went to her house. Of course, it was familiar to you?'
'I saw it again exactly—it was shut up; deserted and in decay. My companion broke the window shutters and stepped in. I followed. The room was in disrepair, unfurnished. As I looked round the place—'
He shuddered, in spite of his strong control.
'The fiend with me revealed himself. I knew that he was the murderer of Ambrosine, and he fell on me as he had fallen on her.' René was silent a moment.
'Why should the murderer of Ambrosine wish to murder you?' he asked at length.
'How do I know? I tell you my dream.'
'An extraordinary dream.'
'Would you take it as a warning?'
'Of what will happen?'
'It is obviously absurd,' said René quietly.
'Yes, absurd—yet I feel as if the 12th of December would be the day of my death.'
'You have brooded over it—you must put it out of your mind.'
'I cannot,' said Claude wildly. 'I cannot!'
'Then don't go.'
'I tell you it is out of my power to stay away.'
René looked at him keenly. 'Then how can I help you?'
Claude took this glance to mean that he doubted his wits. 'Only by listening to my fool's talk,' he said, smiling.
'Does that help?'
'I hope it may. You see, the whole thing—that wretched girl—has become an obsession, waking and sleeping.'
'After you had forgotten.'
'Yes, I had forgotten,' said Claude.
'So had I, to tell the truth.'
'Why should one remember? It was a curious affair.'
'Her murder, yes.'
'I do not see that it was so curious. A little wanton, living alone with some spoils foolishly displayed—she courted her fate.'
'But she had so little—a few bits of imitation jewellery, a few coins; and who should have known of them?'
René shrugged and put down his empty coffee-cup.
'And they said she was liked by the few poor folk about—'
'There are always ruffians on the tramp on the watch for these chances.'
'Yes; yet it was strange—'
René interrupted with an expression of distaste. 'Why go back to this?'
Claude stared, as if amazed at himself. 'Why, indeed?'
'You become morbid, unreasonable, Claude; rouse yourself, forget this thing.'
The other laughed; it did not have a pleasant sound.
'I suppose I am haunted.'
'Why should you be? You did not do her any wrong.'
'She cared for me.'
René laughed now.
'By God!' said Claude fiercely. 'She cared for me—I believe she still cares. That is why she will not let me go...'
René rose and took a step or two away from him.
'What are you talking of?' he asked.
'I say, she cares—that is why she is trying to warn me.'
'You think it is she?'
'You must not allow yourself these fancies, my poor fellow.'
'You may well pity me. I never cared for her; I think I hated her when she was dead. I hate her now. Why won't she keep quiet in her grave and leave me alone?'
He rose and walked across the room with a lurching step. René, leaning against the table, watched him.
'What was the house like—in your dreams?'
'I told you.'
'And tainted. It had a taint of death—like a smell of stale blood.'
'It is not likely,' said René, 'that the place is empty. Now, if it was inhabited, would not that shake your faith in your vision?' Claude stopped short in his walk; he had not thought of that.
'Now,' smiled René, 'send someone to look at the place.'
'Who could live there—after that?'
'Bah! Do you think people stop for that nowadays? If they did, half the city would be uninhabited. The place is cheap, I presume, and someone's property. I do not suppose it has been allowed to fall into disrepair. That was your fancy.'
'I might send someone to see,' reflected Claude.
'That is what I suggest—find out before the 12th, and if the house is inhabited, as I am sure it is, all this moonshine will clear away from your brain and you will undertake your journey with a good heart.'
'I will do that,' answered Claude gratefully. 'I knew that you would help me—forgive me for having wearied you, René.'
His friend smiled.
'I want you to be reasonable—nothing is going to happen. After all, these papers to the Béarnais are not of such importance; no-one would murder you to get them.'
'Oh, it had nothing to do with the Béarnais, but with Ambrosine.'
'You must forget Ambrosine,' said René decidedly. 'She has ceased to exist and there are no such things as ghosts.'
Claude smiled; he was thinking that once René had been quite sentimental over Ambrosine; certainly he was cured of that fancy. Why could not he too completely put the little dancer from his mind?
He also had long ceased to care.
But he was ashamed to refer further to his fears and imaginings.
'You have done me good,' he declared. 'I shall think no more of the matter. After all, the 12th will soon come and go, and then the thing will cease to have any meaning.'
René smiled, seemingly relieved by his returned cheerfulness. 'Still, send someone to look at the house,' he said; 'that will send you on your journey with a lighter heart.'
'At once—tomorrow.' They parted, and Claude went home through the cold streets.
As soon as he had left the lighted room and the company of his friend, the old dreary terror returned.
He hastened to his chamber, hoping to gain relief amid his own surroundings, and lit every candle he could find.
He would not go to bed, as he dreaded the return of the dream, yet he was sleepy and had nothing to do.
Presently, he went to a bottom drawer in the modest bureau that served him as a wardrobe and took out a small parcel wrapped in silver paper. He unfolded it and brought forth a chicken-skin fan, wreathed with figures of flying loves in rose and silver tones that surrounded a delicate pastoral river scene, the banks trailing with eglantine, the azure sky veiled in soft clouds, and a blue, satin-lined boat fastened by a gold cord to an alabaster pillar in readiness for amorous passengers.
The fan was not new: there were the marks of some spots that had been cleaned away, spots of blood perhaps, and the fine ivory sticks were stained in places.
Claude had bought it at a bric-à-brac shop filled with the plunder of château and hôtel; it had been cheap and valuable, and at the time he had not cared that it had probably been stolen from some scene of murder and violence and that its one-time owner had almost certainly bowed her neck to a bitter fate—no, it had rather amused him to buy for the little dancer of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine the property of some great lady.
Now it seemed a sinister and horrid omen, this toy with the bloodspots scarcely erased. It had been meant as a peace-offering for Ambrosine—after their little quarrel, which was never to be mended this side of the grave.
He had had it in his pocket when he had gone to look at her for the last time.
Since then it had lain in the drawer forgotten, it had never occurred to him to give it to another woman—it was doubly the property of the dead. Now he handled it carefully, opening and shutting it in the candlelight and staring at those cupids who brought no thoughts of love and that faery scene that brought no thoughts of peace.
And as he looked he seemed to see the delicate thing in the small hands of Ambrosine as she sat up in the big bed with the gaudy draperies, and her fair hair fell down and obscured the fan.
Her fair hair...
How plainly he could see her fair hair as he had last seen it, folded into a neat pillow for her head.
He put the fan away and built up a big fire, feeding it with pine knots; he was possessed by the certainty that if he slept he would again dream of the journey to Saint-Cloud.
It seemed as if Ambrosine was in the room, trying to speak to him, to tell him something; but he would not let her, he would not put himself in her power; he would not sleep.
Among the neglected books on the little shelf by his bed was an old copy of Pascal. Claude took this down and began reading it with painful exactitude and attention. With this and strong coffee he kept himself awake till morning.
Before he left for the Chamber, he paid his landlord's son to go to Saint-Cloud and look at the house of Ambrosine, which he very carefully described, adding the excuse that he had been told of the place as a desirable house for the summer heat; above all things, the boy must notice whether it was inhabited or not.
All that day he was languid and heavy-eyed, weary from lack of sleep, with his nerves on the rack.
Through the dreary, monotonous hours he was picturing his messenger, treading unconsciously the way that had become so terrible to him, approaching the fatal house and finding it, as he had found it, three times in his dreams, deserted and decayed.
René made no reference to their conversation of the previous night, but he was more than ever friendly and pleasant.
When the intolerable day was at last over, he asked Claude to dine with him, but the other declined; his reason, which he did not give, was that he was desperately anxious to hear the news the boy had brought from Saint-Cloud.
When he reached home the fellow had returned; a boat had given him a lift each way.
Claude was foolishly relieved to see his calm cheerfulness. 'Well?' he asked, with the best indifference he could assume.
'Well, Citizen Boucher, I should not take that house at Saint-Cloud.'
'Why?' The words came mechanically.
'First of all, there has been a bad murder there.'
'How did you find that out?'
'The people on the boat told me—they go past every day.' So the thing was known—remembered.
'Never mind that, boy. What of the house?'
'It is in ruins, decay—'
'Well, all shuttered up—'
'Yes, citizen,' he began, staring at Claude, whose manner was certainly startling, 'and the garden full of weeds.'
Claude made an effort to speak rationally.
'So you did not see the house inside, eh?' he asked.
'No-one knew who had the key—the landlord lived in Paris, they said, and never came there. The place had a bad reputation because of the horrid murder done there.'
'In these times,' muttered Claude, 'are they so sensitive?'
'They are just ignorant people, citizen—those on the boat and those I met in the forest.'
'And the house was impossible?'
'It would need a good deal of repairing.'
'And the weeds in the garden were monstrous—there was one great bramble across and across the door.'
Claude gave him a terrible look and dismissed him.
So it was all there, exactly like his dream.
There were only three days to the 12th—only three days perhaps to live.
When he reached his room he looked at the calendar, hoping he had made some mistake in the date.
No; in three days it would be the 12th.
He could not go to bed, but no coffee could keep him awake.
As soon as he was asleep he dreamed his dream of the journey to Saint-Cloud, nor could he rouse himself until the horrid sequence of events was complete.
He awoke shivering, unnerved and cold with sweat. He had to take brandy before he could fit himself to make his toilet and go to the Chamber.
As he hurried along the street fresh with the transient morning freshness of the city, the burden of his misery was lightened by a sudden thought. He would take a companion with him, he would take René.
That would defeat the dream.
The warning would have saved him; no-one would attack two of them and they could go armed; they need not go near the house, and they could proceed by water and not walk through the Park.
Claude felt almost himself again as he thought out this plan.
No sooner had he reached the Chamber than he found his friend and broached the scheme to him. René was agreeable, and readily accorded his company.
'I thought of it myself,' he said. 'I can easily get permission to come with you, and we will lay this ghost once and for ever.'
Claude was so relieved that he almost lost his old foreboding.
But the night before the journey he again dreamed that he was being murdered by the murderer of Ambrosine, who wore a green coat with dark blue frogs.
At the appointed hour they set out, René endeavouring to cheer Claude, who was gloomy and taciturn, but as the journey proceeded, his spirits rose; the charm had been proved wrong in the first instance, he was not going on horseback to Saint-Cloud.
But when they reached the gates of the park, he was disappointed to find the boat stopped at the little quay and began unloading.
René had arranged with the captain; and René, it seemed, had misunderstood.
The boat went no farther.
But it was only a short walk across the park to Saint-Cloud and the Deputy's house—the captain could not understand Claude's discomfiture.
Well, they must walk—here again the dream was wrong.
He had a companion. René laughed at him; the walk would do them good this cold evening, and they would be at their destination long before dusk—as for the return, if they were not offered hospitality, well, there were good inns at Saint-Cloud.
They entered the magnificent iron gates, now always open, and started briskly across the grass.
Here it was, exactly as he had seen it in his dreams, the huge bare trees, the dead leaves underfoot, the pallid gleam of the river to the right, the expanse of forest to the left, through which now and then a fountain or a statue showed.
It was bitterly cold, the sky veiled, and presently a thin mist rose off the river, dimming everything with fog. Like the dim light of his dream.
'We shall lose our way,' he said.
'No; I know this way well.'
'You know it?'
'When I was a boy I used to live at Saint-Cloud,' said René.
They proceeded more slowly, muffled to the throats in their greatcoats, which they had worn all the journey, for it had been cold on the river also.
Claude thought of Ambrosine till his senses reeled round that one image.
Here she had walked, he with her, often enough—near was her house, near her grave.
He seemed to see her in every dimness between the trees—Ambrosine, with her fair hair mingling with the mist.
Suddenly before him a huge fountain arose with a dried basin and a featureless statue behind. And René stopped to latch up his shoe.
He was not thinking of his dream now, but he had the sensation that this had all happened before. As he looked at René, he muttered to himself, half stupidly: 'What an extraordinary coincidence!'
Then René straightened himself and slipped his hand through his friend's arm.
His mantle had fallen back a little, and Claude saw that he wore a new suit, dark green, frogged with dark blue, and again he muttered: 'What an extraordinary coincidence!'
'I know the way,' said René, and led him, as if he had been a blind man, through the shifting mist.
In a few moments they stood on the outskirts of the park and before the decayed and deserted house of Ambrosine—as he had seen it, with the weeds in the garden and the bramble across the door.
They entered the little patch of ground.
'Now we are here,' said René, 'we may as well look inside.'
So saying, he wrenched off one of the rotting shutters and climbed into the room.
Claude followed him, like a creature deprived of wits.
They stood together in the damp, dull, bare room—as they had stood together in the dream.
Claude looked at René's face, which had quite changed. 'So you murdered her?' he said in a sick voice.
'You never guessed?' asked René. 'I loved her, you see, and she loved me till you came. And then I hated both of you. I was mad from then, I think, as mad as you with your infernal dreams.'
'You murdered Ambrosine!' whimpered Claude.
'And your dream showed me the way to murder you. I have been waiting so long to find how to do it.'
Claude began laughing.
'Her fair hair—if one could open her grave one might see it again—like a pillow for her head...' He looked at René, whose pale and distorted face seemed to grow larger, until it bore down on him like an evil thing blotting out hope.
Claude did not put a hand .to any of the weapons he had brought; he fell on his knees and held up his hands in an attitude of prayer, while he began to gabble senseless words.
And René fell on him with the knife that had killed Ambrosine.
"Nothing at all," smiled the Doctor, "but a few bruises and shock. No, really nothing. It was a very brave thing for Joliffe to do," he added; "extremely brave."
"Of course, I understand that," said Professor Awkwright, a little stiffly. He felt that the Doctor thought him lacking in gratitude and sympathy, and he knew that he was indeed incapable of any emotional expression, also that he resented, deeply resented, the intrusion of the violent and sensational into a life that he had contrived to make exactly as he wished it to be.
But, all the same, he did feel immensely grateful to Joliffe, and said so again, snappishly, blinking behind the thick crystal spectacles that distorted his pale eyes.
"Naturally I shall do all in my power to show my deep appreciation."
The Doctor, who did not like the Professor, cheerfully remarked:
"It is rather rare, you know, for a scholar—a man who leads an intellectual and sedentary life—to be so prompt and decisive in action; it's no reflection on Joliffe to say that I would have thought him the last man—not to have the will to, but to have the power—to risk his life for another."
When the Doctor had gone Professor Awkwright rather resentfully considered these words. He agreed with the Doctor; he secretly thought that Joliffe's action was quite amazing and the last thing he would have expected of him.
"I could never have done it," he confessed to himself ruefully. He had always, in a kindly fashion, patronized Joliffe, but now Joliffe was definitely revealed as the superior being. Really, in the Professor's estimation, the whole episode was disagreeable, and what was worse, slightly ridiculous; he was sure that the Doctor had been faintly amused.
Yet, he certainly ought to feel grateful to Joliffe and on many counts.
The incident which had first alarmed, then irritated the Professor, was this: his orphan ward Edmund had been out as usual with his tutor, Samuel Joliffe, and Charles the vicar's son, just one of the usual rambles over the lovely North Wales hills which were undertaken every day as a matter of duty; when Edmund, scrambling on ahead, had slipped, like the clumsy lad he was, over a precipice and hung, stunned, on a ledge overhanging a ravine.
Now the Professor would have thought that the jolly athletic Charles, a stout, trained youth, would really without any fuss at all have gone down the face of the rock and brought up Edmund; but Charles had done nothing of the kind; he had just "lost his head" like a silly girl and could think of nothing better to do than to run and fetch help from the nearest cottage which was some distance away. On the other hand, Samuel Joliffe, middle-aged, stiff-limbed, shortsighted, absent-minded to all appearances, cautious and timid, whom no one would expect to be quick or active, had actually lowered himself down the face of the precipice, supported Edmund till help arrived and then, with great coolness and dexterity, with the aid only of a dubious rope and some frail saplings, hauled up Edmund and himself to safety.
It was all, Professor Awkwright thought, very grotesque, the sort of thing one would so much rather had not happened.
He peeped in at his nephew sleeping heavily on his bed behind a screen. Mrs. Carter, the housekeeper, was in charge; the wretched woman seemed to enjoy the sensation caused by the accident, as Professor Awkwright looked at the boy with the bandaged head, breathing heavily under the influence of the sleeping potion, she began to murmur the praises of Mr. Joliffe.
It was clear that the tutor would be a hero in the eyes of everyone; the Professor resented this as a fuss and an interruption to a very smooth existence, but he was, at bottom, a just, even an amiable man, and he did not wish to evade his obligations to Samuel Joliffe.
So he went downstairs rather nervously to the study where he was sure the tutor would be working and, as he went, he honestly put before himself the extent of his obligations towards Samuel Joliffe; these were very varied and deep and amounted to far more than gratitude for the rather absurd act of heroism yesterday.
Professor Awkwright was a born scholar and solitary; his one interest and passion was the most abstruse branch of archaeology, the deciphering of dead languages; he had always had sufficient means to enable him to devote himself entirely to this fascinating labor and the one interruption in a life otherwise devoid of incident had been when his only brother had died and left in his charge a sullen, unruly boy of ten years of age, of the type known as "difficult and awkward," slightly abnormal and not very lovable, but a boy who had a comfortable income from a nice little fortune that would make him, when he attained his majority, quite a wealthy man.
Professor Awkwright had the conventional ideas of duty and subscribed, to the full, to the codes endorsed by his class and training, so he very scrupulously did his best with his unwelcome charge and made the great sacrifice of keeping with him a boy so obviously unfitted for school.
And after the Professor had found Samuel Joliffe, Edmund was no trouble at all; and the little household in the exceedingly comfortable but lonely Welsh mansion ran very smoothly and with a most agreeable, if eventless, harmony.
For Samuel Joliffe, besides being the perfect tutor, was the perfect secretary, the perfect assistant, and had thrown himself with the greatest ardor into the Professor's enthusiastic labors.
Indeed, Professor Awkwright, pausing at the door of the study, realized, in the emotional upset of the accident, that Joliffe was absolutely essential to him; after eight years of his support, help, assistance and company Joliffe was indeed indispensable; indispensable, that was the word.
"I daresay," said the little scholar to himself, pausing on the threshold, "I never quite appreciated Joliffe—of course, he has been handsomely paid and very well treated, but really I don't believe that I ever quite realized his—his sterling worth."
And Professor Awkwright thought, with a shudder, how ghastly it would have been if poor Edmund had died in that miserable way; he was fond of the unattractive boy who would probably never evoke any other affection in all his futile life.
And with that sharp realization of happiness that comes when happiness is threatened, the Professor cast over with profound gratitude all the blessings he had hitherto taken for granted...the smooth, easy life; the congenial, successful work; the way that all four of them, himself, Joliffe, Edmund, Mrs. Carter the housekeeper, all fitted together, like hand in glove—the comfort, the peace, the ordered leisure of it all! And surely much of this was owing to Joliffe—Joliffe who was never out of humor, nor ill, nor wanted a holiday, who was never tired or dull, who had known from the first how to "manage" Edmund, who never crossed Mrs. Carter nor vexed the servants, who worked so diligently, with such enthusiasm and skill under his employer's direction...
The Professor opened the door quickly; he crossed to the desk where Joliffe was sitting (as he had known he would be), and said:
"I don't know how to thank you, Joliffe, how to express my gratitude, I really don't."
Joliffe rose and stared; this was the first time since his knowledge of him that Awkwright had expressed himself on impulse; the tutor stood humbly; behind him the huge desk was neatly piled with the manuscripts that embodied their joint labors on the subject of the Minoan language.
"But," added the Professor with even greater warmth, "I am quite resolved that you shall have your name on the book. That is only just—it is your work as much as mine, you have been far more, for years now, than an assistant—"
Joliffe's sandy face flushed.
"I could not think of that, sir, really, I couldn't; what I have done has been the greatest pleasure and honor."
He spoke sincerely, without servility; Awkwright grasped his hand.
"I know. But, of course, we are to go equal shares in this—I ought to have thought of it before."
He glowed with the pleasure of his generous action; it was no ordinary prize, no feeble glory that he offered; he believed that when his, their, book was published it would bring to the authors a fame equal to that of Champollion.
For the two secluded scholars working almost in secret were convinced that they had discovered the clue to the long-dead language of one of the most interesting civilizations of prehistoric Greece, that of Crete.
"I hope, sir, yesterday had not put this into your mind. What I did was nothing. Anyone would have done as much."
"I don't think so, Joliffe."
"Anyone, sir, as fond of Edmund as I am."
"Again I disagree. Presence of mind, coolness like that! Rare indeed. But, of course, one can't talk of rewards; absurd, of course; but—"
The Professor sat down in front of the great bow-window; his kindly, conventional and rather simple face, with the thin beard, speckled like his grey tweed coat, and the thinner hair exact and glossy over the large brow was clearly outlined against the shining laurels in the garden and the blue hills beyond.
Joliffe regarded him with meek intentness.
"But, you were saying, sir," he prompted—
"I was about to say," remarked the Professor candidly, "that a shock—like this—clarifies the air, as it were. I suppose we live rather a monotonous, rather an old-fogeyish sort of life, values get a little dimmed, one gets absorbed in the past, in one's work. One's own life gets a little unreal...until a thing like this happens..."
"I have never felt that," replied Joliffe thoughtfully.
"No? A remarkably clear brain," agreed the other with simple admiration. "I've noticed how you never lose grip on things. That's why you've been so successful with Edmund. But really, for myself, I confess that a—a revelation of this kind—what the loss of Edmund would mean—the sort of man you really are—wakes me up, puts everything clearly."
"I don't see that the fact that I rescued Edmund, in the most ordinary way, reveals the sort of man I am."
"But that kind of prompt action isn't expected of—of our type, Joliffe. It's most unusual; the Doctor said so."
"I don't think Dr. Jones knows very much."
"No, but I agreed with what he meant. And it is settled about the book."
Professor Awkwright felt very content for the rest of that day; the sense of the absurdity of the accident, the irritating, disturbing excitement had passed away. Edmund came down to tea and the household was stolidly normal again; but the Professor continued, as he had himself put it, "to see clearly"—the vast value of Joliffe, for instance, and Edmund's inarticulate and pathetic affection for him, and the very agreeable intimacy that bound them all together; it was surprising how fond he was himself of the unattractive, slightly "mental" youth; why, he believed that if Edmund had really been killed the shock would have prevented him from finishing the book.
When the two men settled down in the study that evening after Edmund had gone to bed Professor Awkwright felt that their relationship had subtly changed; never had they been so intimate, never so frank, as if there was no possibility of any misunderstanding or irritation between them.
Joliffe seemed to "let himself go" intellectually; his usually respectful, almost timid manner mellowed, he was more candid, more brilliant, slightly, though quite unmistakably, different, Awkwright thought, from his habitual self.
One of Mrs. Carter's most tempting dinners had celebrated Edmund's escape; there had been good wine and afterwards, contrary to custom, good brandy.
Perhaps it was the brandy that stimulated the Professor's added sense of clarity, of which he had been aware all day; a most temperate man, he had always, on the few occasions when he had drunk liberally, been teased as to the right naming of his heightened perceptions. Did alcohol give everything an air of caricature, or did it allow you to see everything as it really was?
Was it, for instance, just excitement and then the brandy that made him think what a queer fellow Joliffe was?—or had he, Awkwright, always had his head so in the air that he had never before observed the strangeness of his constant companion? Joliffe sat a little more at his ease than he had ever sat before; a very tall, stiff, long-legged man, with an odd look of being featureless; the only definite object about his face was his glistening spectacles, for the rest a sandy glow seemed to blot out any salient point in his countenance; even his profile seemed to mean nothing; a closer inspection showed his features to be sharp, small and neat, his expression composed and kindly.
He also must have been a little excited that night, also a little stimulated by the occasion and the brandy, for he forgot (to the Professor's amusement) to go up to his room and listen for the wireless news bulletin.
Professor Awkwright had always refused to have wireless, gramophone or telephone; but Joliffe, with meek persistence, had indulged in all in his own room; he had little chance of using any of these inventions and he scrupulously contrived so that they never annoyed the rest of the household; but he liked to "sneak off," as the Professor put it with indulgent irony, to listen to news, a talk, or a concert; but tonight he seemed to have forgotten even the attraction of the evening bulletin which he so seldom missed.
The two elderly men talked of their researches, of the book that was going to bring glory to both, and of the accident of yesterday which the Professor, at least, could by no means dismiss from his mind.
"It was pure impulse," said Joliffe at last; "if I had reflected at all I don't suppose that I should have done it."
"I'm sure that you would."
"No, because I always think that we attach too much importance to human life. And Edmund wouldn't really mind dying; I daresay he'd be better off in another state."
"I didn't know that you had those ideas."
"They aren't ideas. Surely, sir, you don't hold by all the orthodox views—"
"I'd really rather—"
"Oh, the sacredness of human life, et cetera, et cetera?"
"I suppose so, I haven't quite thought it out."
"I have. I can't see, sir, how, after all your researches you can avoid a broader view...look at the East, Russia, Mexico, today—look at the Elizabethans, look at America, at Italy—and how they regard and have regarded death—"
"You don't think it matters—violent death?"
"No. An intelligent man should be able to deal with death—give it, withhold it, accept it, avoid it, according to his reason. The world was more worthwhile when this was so."
"But, my dear Joliffe, to argue like that is to condone murder," Awkwright smiled, very comfortable in his chair, "and suicide."
Joliffe did not reply, he seemed sunk in a pleasing reverie; to rouse him Awkwright said:
"I suppose one gets conventional-minded on these subjects, but I think the West is right in the value put on human life—our violences, our indifferences to right and wrong, our cowardices are nothing, I fear, but manifestations of the hidden ape, still lurking within so many of us, alas!"
Joliffe listened to this speech with closed eyes.
"On the contrary," he declared, "I believe that the hidden ape in me made me rescue Edmund."
"My dear Joliffe, as if apes—"
"They do—animal affection—animal devotion, no reason, no logic. I am fond of Edmund."
"Why?" wondered the Professor rather wistfully.
"One doesn't know. The ape again! The boy never pretends, he is very wise about some things, has extraordinary instincts! I believe I understand him as no one else ever will."
Joliffe sat up suddenly. He was smiling, his small eyes looked yellow behind the glasses, his movement seemed to dismiss the subject; they each drank some more brandy and began to discuss the book; but this speedily brought them to the same point; Joliffe remarked on the beauty of some of the Minoan seals he had been copying the very morning of the accident, and Awkwright's comment was that the artist who designed them had an evil mind.
"Why?" challenged the tutor with his new freedom.
"Well, they are evil. The Minoans were, it is acknowledged—cruel; consider their bull-leaping sports—no soul..."
"Nonsense!" Never had Joliffe expressed himself so boldly to his employer; he seemed really excited, "They were simply too civilized to put so much value on individual life—"
"The hidden ape wasn't hidden, you mean?" smiled Awkwright.
They argued keenly and at length, remaining in the study long after their usual hour for retiring; to Awkwright it was an entirely academical discussion, but Joliffe seemed to throw more and more feeling into it until he was making quite a personal point of his contention that no civilized people would consider murder a crime.
The Professor did not know how they had got to this subject; it was strange how the accident seemed to have thrown both a little out of their stride, a little off their balance; even Awkwright felt the mental atmosphere becoming distasteful, an unpleasant sense of unreality obscured the familiar cosy room; he wished that Joliffe would not talk so much, so at random (and he had never wished that before). He roused himself out of a disagreeable lethargy to say, with a rather false attempt at authority:
"This sort of stuff is really absurd from a man like you, Joliffe." The tutor rose and stood in front of the fire; his attitude was dogmatic, his habitual featurelessness seemed to have developed into a face that Awkwright did not recognize.
"Pardon me, my dear sir, how do you know what kind of man I am?"
"We have been intimate for eight years."
"But I know you much better than you know me."
"I don't agree.
"Well, what do you know of me? You said yourself that what I did yesterday surprised you."
Joliffe talked him down.
"You've always accepted me on my face value, you just met me through an agency. I had excellent credentials and you were quite satisfied. You never asked me why I had no relations, no friends, why I never wanted a holiday—"
"My dear Joliffe," interrupted the Professor testily, "don't try to make yourself out a mysterious person. I know you as just a solitary scholar like myself, one who happens to have drifted away from his relatives and not cared to make friends; come, come, this is all really rather childish."
"Is it?" Joliffe peered over his glasses down on the little man in the chair, his face was sharpened by what seemed a queer vanity. "So you think that you know me through and through?"
"My dear fellow, of course I do."
"Well, to begin with, my name isn't Samuel Joliffe."
The Professor tried to smile; he thought this was a joke, but it was certainly a stupid, vulgar joke, and he wished that the tutor, who must really be a little drunk, would be quiet and go up to bed.
"Do you remember the Hammerton case—ten years ago?" demanded Joliffe.
"As if I ever took the slightest interest—"
"No, I thought you didn't. Well, it was the case of a man, an educated man of means, well-connected, intelligent, being tried for the murder of his wife. The usual arsenic from weed-killer."
"I do recall something—Hammerton was acquitted, wasn't he?"
"Yes. But no one thought he was innocent; the jury just gave him the benefit of a very small doubt. A "not proven" it would have been in Scotland. He was ruined—he had to disappear."
"But I don't see what all this has got to do with anything—"
"Wait a minute. Though everyone thought Hammerton was guilty, everyone had a secret sympathy with him."
"No, his wife was such an awful woman, she nagged and whined and pestered and was always sickly, and he was a very decent fellow; he just wanted peace and quiet, and then, perhaps, one day she went too far even for his patience—"
"And the hidden ape leaped up in him? A very usual case—"
"Not at all. Perhaps he used his reason and removed a worthless, tiresome, repulsive creature—"
"If he did he was a murderer," snapped the Professor. "And, since he was acquitted, we have no right to assume that."
He rose, hoping to silence Joliffe, but the tutor leaned forward, took him by the lapel of the coat, and said with a smile: "I am Hammerton."
The little Professor twisted and squealed in grotesque (through it all he felt all was grotesque) horror.
"No," he cried, "no, we've both had too much to drink and it's time we went to bed."
But the tutor did not release his calm, steady grasp on the other's lapel.
"A man of your intelligence, sir," he said gently, "should not find my information so surprising, I merely gave it to prove a point; it can't possibly make any difference to our relationship."
"Of course you were acquitted, but, but it is very terrible, very unfortunate. And the false name..."
"I had no chance with my own. I waited for two years for an opportunity like you gave me. And I did not deceive you. My credentials were exact save for the name. I had all the attainments, the qualifications you required, and I believe that I have served you faithfully—you and Edmund."
"Of course." The Professor made a show of recovering himself, he twisted away from the other and sat down. "And then yesterday—but I wish that you hadn't told me."
"Why, what difference can it make?"
"Well, it's a shock and you spoke just now as if—as if you were—but it's absurd."
"Didn't you say that you had—that you were—?"
"Guilty? I assumed it, yes. I don't say so definitely—let it go. I was acquitted and no one can touch me now, even if I confessed, and I don't intend to confess. We need not talk of it again."
Professor Awkwright sickened; he sat shrunk together in the big cosy, pleasant chair and felt all the agreeable, safe and familiar places of his life laid bare and devastated.
"I should like to think that it isn't true, Joliffe." The little man's eyes were pathetic behind the thick crystals.
"I can prove it if you wish. What difference can it make? There's the boy, our work, the book, all our years together. Whatever I did can't affect any of that?"
"Quite so. Quite so."
The tutor went to bed; he did not seem in the least disturbed, he spoke of the Minoan seals he hoped to finish copying in the morning, and gave his usual "Good night, sir" cheerfully.
The Professor sat alone with his problem.
What ought he to do?
What did he intend to do?
Joliffe was essential to him, to the boy, to the book...where would he find another man who suited him so well, who would be willing to live his kind of life? Who would put up with Edmund?
Professor Awkwright groaned and began to argue speciously with himself.
Joliffe had been acquitted, a victim of a terrible misfortune; it was ten years ago and no one's business; Joliffe had put him under the greatest obligation yesterday—why shouldn't everything go on as before?
"Just forget all about it, eh? Joliffe would never speak of it again."
But there was that stern streak in the Professor that made him soon reject the easy, the convenient way, and all specious, fallacious reasonings.
He grimly tackled himself; the man was almost, on his own confession, a murderer, and one without remorse; the Professor utterly rejected all arguments about the codes of the Cretans, the Elizabethans, Mexico and Chicago and the value of human life; he was an upright, law-abiding man; murder was murder, deceit was deceit; of course it was most extraordinary that a cultured human being like Joliffe...He returned to his own theory of the hidden ape, the ape striking down where it hated, rescuing where it loved; he shuddered before the horrid vision of Joliffe, suddenly agile as a monkey, scaling down those rocks after Edmund...he had wondered how the stiff-limbed man had done it...the Professor checked these crazy, miserable thoughts, he forced himself to be brave and cool.
After all, there was only one thing to be done. Joliffe must go.
Yes, if all the Professor's peace and happiness went with him he must go; that was the only right, reasonable and logical solution of the horrid problem.
And, screwed up to an unnatural courage that he feared would not last till the morning, Professor Awkwright went up at once to Samuel Joliffe's (for so he persisted in naming him) room.
The tutor opened the door to the timid knock of his employer. "I am afraid I must speak to you, Joliffe, at once."
Joliffe wore a camel-hair dressing-gown, rather short in the sleeves, he looked meek, surprised and of an imperturbable innocence; the Professor felt very shaky indeed as he followed him into the neat bedroom.
"Speak to me, sir, at once? About the book?"
Joliffe glanced at a pile of notes on the table by his bedside, but Awkwright glanced at the wireless set, the gramophone, the telephone.
Why had it not occurred to him before that these were outlets for the tutor's personality which was by no means satisfied by the quiet scholarly life that, outwardly, seemed so to content him?
Perhaps he spoke to friends of the old days on the telephone, no doubt he kept in touch with the busy doings of the world by means of the wireless, and indulged personal tastes with the gramophone discs—safety valves all these for a dangerous, complex personality.
"I'm afraid"—Professor Awkwright checked himself with a cowardly clutching at a faint hope—"I suppose it wasn't all a joke about your being Hammerton?"
"It wasn't a joke. I thought I knew you well enough to tell you. But you began to say, am afraid'—?"
"I am afraid that you must go."
"I must go? You mean that I am dismissed?"
"I wouldn't put it like that—"
"But that is what it comes to—"
"I'm afraid so."
Joliffe seemed completely amazed; he took off his glasses, fidgeted with them, returned them to his nose, and asked dully:
"What about the boy?"
"It's dreadful, I know—but—"
"What are you going to tell him?"
"Oh, not the truth—some excuse—I know it is all dreadful," repeated the Professor feebly.
"Dreadful?" repeated Joliffe shortly. "It is absurd. It means that we have never understood each other—indeed, totally mistaken each other—all these years. I thought that, under your little mannerisms, you were a broad-minded man—"
"But a question of—of—"
"Of murder? I never admitted to murder, but if I had? It can't be possible that you take the view of the man in the street about that—think of these ancient peoples we are always studying—"
"It is no use, Joliffe." Professor Awkwright was shuddering with anguish. "You must go."
"And the book?"
The little Professor's drawn face took on a livelier expression of grief.
"The book must be sacrificed"—there was heroism in his supreme renunciation. "I quite agree that you have a large share in it—but to publish it under an assumed name—or under your own!"
"Quite impossible, you must see it."
"I don't see it."
They stared at each other with the bitter hostility only frustrated affection can assume; Professor Awkwright's dry and trembling fingers stroked his thin grey beard; he felt quite sick with the temptation to "forget all about it" as he put it childishly to himself—why not, for the book's sake, the boy's sake, hush up the whole affair? It was so long ago and who was to care now?
But the little man's innate integrity was too strong for his intense desires; Joliffe was watching him quietly, with dignity, yet as a prisoner may watch a judge about to pronounce sentence. "I'm happy here and useful," he remarked drily. "And you have nothing to go on but bare suspicion—you might consider that."
"I can't tell you quite what it is, Joliffe—" The Professor's anguish was very stressed and Joliffe's glance darkened into some emotion that seemed (the other man thought) pity mingled with disdain.
"Perhaps," he said, "you are afraid? Of me? Of what you call 'the hidden ape'?"
"That's absurd!" Awkwright made a great effort to give the whole nightmare business a commonplace, almost a jovial, air, to reduce what was so fantastically horrible and had indeed changed the aspect of everything for him, into an affair of everyday—just the giving of "notice" to a secretary, a tutor, who had proved unsuitable—a distasteful business, no more, but he shuddered with the desperate futility of this attempt; he made for the door with an uncontrollable need to get away from Joliffe's gaze.
He had said that it was "absurd" for him to be afraid—but of course he was afraid, horribly afraid, of Joliffe, of his own weakness, of something more powerful than either that seemed to fill the room like a fearful miasma.
But nothing sensational happened; Joliffe said in the most ordinary tones:
"Very well. I will go tomorrow. Of course I shall miss the book. And Edmund."
At the door Professor Awkwright mumbled:
"I shall always remind Edmund that you saved his life—what a great deal he owes you."
"Oh, there won't be any need of that—he'll remember me all right—good night, Professor Awkwright."
The Professor closed the door, and went, not to his bedroom, but to his study where he and Joliffe had worked for so long in complete harmony.
"I'm sure I've done right," he kept saying to himself, "I'm quite sure I've done right." But he found it unbearable to look at the other man's notes, at the neat evidences of his long labor, he found it impossible to rest or in any way to consider the situation calmly, and he could not for a second conceive in what manner he should deal with Edmund when that poor youth discovered that Joliffe was gone.
And there was another torturing horror working in Awkwright's mind.
"I say I am quite sure, but I never shall be quite sure—I mean if he is—or not—"
Professor Awkwright sat quite still for a full quarter of an hour; staring at the materials for his book which showed familiar yet horrible in the shaded electric lamp. He was really hardly able to grasp his misery nor the full value of all that he had sacrificed to a principle; he tried to comfort himself by the sheer strength of his integrity of purpose, the blamelessness of his own motives—but it was useless; he could make himself conscious of nothing but his great personal disaster.
The window had been set open to air the room and Awkwright became gradually conscious of the physical discomfort of the cold draft blowing beneath the blind.
He rose at last heavily, and almost without his own volition to remedy this; exhausted by emotion he stood with the blind in his hand and stared stupidly across the lawn and the shrubbery, faintly lit by the beams of a high moon falling through a mist; he soon forgot that he had risen to shut the window, and stood patiently in the cold air which harshly stirred his loose grey hair.
Suddenly his attention was aroused and held by an object which suddenly swung into the circle of his vision and seemed immediately to become the focus of the midnight landscape and of his own mind.
A thin, darkly clad figure was proceeding across the lawn, half leaping, half crawling through the shadows; the arms looked very long, now and then the lanky, uncouth shape appeared to sink to hands and knees in a scrawling effort at haste.
Professor Awkwright dropped the blind; with no more hesitation than if an imperative hand had seized his collar he swung round, ascended the stairs and crept into Edmund's room.
Until he looked on the bed he did not know why the sight of the ape-like figure had sent him to the boy.
The cosy glow of the carefully sheltered night light showed in the warm flickers of soft illumination a lifeless body on the scarcely disarranged pillow; powerful hands had skilfully strangled Edmund in his sleep.
Again Awkwright found himself at the window, trying now to scream, to signal, to express his scattered soul; again he saw the ape-like figure, running over the fields beyond the garden, towards the gloomy hills; it seemed to proceed with a hideous exultation, a dark joy powerfully expressed in the swinging animal movements, in the triumphant haste towards the wilderness, in the challenging thrown back head which seemed to howl at the moon that swung in an unfathomable, dreadful void.
This is a queer story, the more queer for the interpretation of passions of strong human heat that have been put upon it, and for glimpses of other motives and doings, not, it would seem, human at all.
The whole thing is seen vaguely, brokenly, a snatch here and there; one tells the tale, strangely another exclaims amaze, a third points out a scene, a fourth has a dim memory of a circumstance, a nine-days' (or less) wonder, an old print helps, the name on a mural tablet in a deserted church pinches the heart with a sense of confirmation, and so you have your story. When all is said it remains a queer tale.
It is seventy years odd ago, so dating back from this present year of 1845 you come to nearly midway in the last century when conditions were vastly different from what they are now.
The scene is in Glasgow, and there are three points from which we start, all leading us to the heart of our tale.
The first is the portrait of a woman that hangs in the parlor of a respectable banker. He believes it to be the likeness of some connection of his wife's, dead this many a year, but he does not know much about it. Some while ago it was discovered in a lumber-room, and he keeps it for the pallid beauty of the canvas, which is much faded and rubbed.
Since, as a young man, I first had the privilege of my Worthy friend's acquaintance, I have always felt a strange interest in this picture; and, in that peculiar way that the imagination will seize on trifles, I was always fascinated by the dress of the lady. This is of dark-green very fine silk, an uncommon color to use in a portrait, and, perhaps, in a lady's dress. It is very plain, with a little scarf of a striped Roman pattern, and her hair is drawn up over a pillow in the antique mode. Her face is expressionless, yet strange, the upper lip very thin, the lower very full, the light brown eyes set under brows that slant. I cannot tell why this picture was always to me full of such a great attraction, but I used to think of it a vast deal, and often to note, secretly, that never had I chanced to meet in real life, or in any other painting, a lady in a dark-green silk dress.
In the corner of the canvas is a little device, put in a diamond, as a gentlewoman might bear arms, yet with no pretensions to heraldry, just three little birds, the topmost with a flower in its beak.
It was not so long ago that I came upon the second clue that leads into the story, and that was a mural tablet in an old church near the Rutherglen Road, a church that has lately fallen into disrepute or neglect, for it was deserted and impoverished. But I was assured that a generation ago it had been a most famous place of worship, fashionable and well frequented by the better sort.
The mural tablet was to one "Ann Leete," and there was just the date (seventy-odd years old) given with what seemed a sinister brevity. And underneath the lettering, lightly cut on the time-stained marble, was the same device as that on the portrait of the lady in the green silk dress.
I was curious enough to make enquiries, but no one seemed to know anything of, or wished to talk about, Ann Leete.
It was all so long ago, I was told, and there was no one now in the parish of the name of Leete.
And all who had been acquainted with the family of Leete seemed to be dead or gone away. The parish register (my curiosity went so far as an inspection of this) yielded me no more information than the mural tablet.
I spoke to my friend the banker, and he said he thought that his wife had had some cousins by the name of Leete, and that there was some tale of a scandal or great misfortune attached to them which was the reason of a sort of ban on their name so that it had never been mentioned.
When I told him I thought the portrait of the lady in the dark-green silk might picture a certain Ann Leete he appeared uneasy and even desirous of having the likeness removed, which roused in me the suspicion that he knew something of the name, and that not pleasant. But it seemed to me indelicate and perhaps useless to question him. It was a year or so after this incident that my business, which was that of silversmith and jeweller, put into my hands a third clue. One of my apprentices came to me with a rare piece of work which had been left at the shop for repair.
It was a thin medal of the purest gold, on which was set in fresh-water pearls, rubies and cairngorms the device of the three birds, the plumage being most skilfully wrought in the bright jewels and the flower held by the topmost creature accurately designed in pearls.
It was one of these pearls that was missing, and I had some difficulty in matching its soft lustre.
An elderly lady called for the ornament, the same person who had left it. I saw her myself, and ventured to admire and praise the workmanship of the medal.
"Oh," she said, "it was worked by a very famous jeweller, my great-uncle, and he has a peculiar regard for it—indeed I believe it has never before been out of his possession, but he was so greatly grieved by the loss of the pearl that he would not rest until I offered to take it to be repaired. He is, you will understand," she added, with a smile, "a very old man. He must have made that jewellery—why—seventy-odd years ago."
Seventy-odd years ago—that would bring one back to the date on the tablet to Ann Leete, to the period of the portrait.
"I have seen this device before," I remarked, "on the likeness of a lady and on the mural inscription in memory of a certain Ann Leete." Again this name appeared to make an unpleasant impression.
My customer took her packet hastily.
"It is associated with something dreadful," she said quickly. "We do not speak of it—a very old story. I did not know anyone had heard of it—"
"I certainly have not," I assured her. "I came to Glasgow not so long ago, as apprentice to this business of my uncle's which now I own."
"But you have seen a portrait?" she asked.
"Yes, in the house of a friend of mine."
"This is queer. We did not know that any existed. Yet my great-uncle does speak of one—in a green silk dress."
"In a green silk dress," I confirmed.
The lady appeared amazed.
"But it is better to let the matter rest," she decided. "My relative, you will realize, is very old—nearly, sir, a hundred years old, and his wits wander and he tells queer tales. It was all very strange and horrible, but one cannot tell how much my old uncle dreams."
"I should not think to disturb him," I replied.
But my customer hesitated.
"If you know of this portrait—perhaps he should be told; he laments after it so much, and we have always believed it an hallucination—"
She returned the packet containing the medal.
"Perhaps," she added dubiously, "you are interested enough to take this back to my relative yourself and judge what you shall or shall not tell him?"
I eagerly accepted the offer, and the lady gave me the name and residence of the old man who, although possessed of considerable means, had lived for the past fifty years in the greatest seclusion in that lonely part of the town beyond the Rutherglen Road and near to the Green, the once pretty and fashionable resort for youth and pleasure, but now a deserted and desolate region. Here, on the first opportunity, I took my way, and found myself well out into the country, nearly at the river, before I reached the lonely mansion of Eneas Bretton, as the ancient jeweller was called.
A ferocious dog troubled my entrance in the dark overgrown garden where the black glossy laurels and bays strangled the few flowers, and a grim woman, in an old-fashioned mutch or cap, at length answered my repeated peals at the rusty chain bell.
It was not without considerable trouble that I was admitted into the presence of Mr. Bretton, and only, I think, by the display of the jewel and the refusal to give it into any hands but those of its owner.
The ancient jeweller was seated on a southern terrace that received the faint and fitful rays of the September sun. He was wrapped in shawls that disguised his natural form, and a fur and leather cap was fastened under his chin.
I had the impression that he had been a fine man, of a vigorous and handsome appearance; even now, in the extreme of decay, he showed a certain grandeur of line and carriage, a certain majestic power in his personality. Though extremely feeble, I did not take him to be imbecile nor greatly wanting in his faculties.
He received me courteously, though obviously ill-used to strangers.
I had, he said, a claim on him as a fellow-craftsman, and he was good enough to commend the fashion in which I had repaired his medal.
This, as soon as he had unwrapped, he fastened to a fine gold chain he drew from his breast, and slipped inside his heavy clothing. "A pretty trinket," I said, "and of an unusual design."
"I fashioned it myself," he answered, "over seventy years ago. The year before, sir, she died."
"Ann Leete?" I ventured.
The ancient man was not in the least surprised at the use of this name.
"It is a long time since I heard those words with any but my inner ear," he murmured; "to be sure, I grow very old. You'll not remember Ann Leete?" he added wistfully.
"I take it she died before I was born," I answered.
He peered at me.
"Ah, yes, you are still a young man, though your hair is grey." I noticed now that he wore a small tartan scarf inside his coat and shawl: this fact gave me a peculiar, almost unpleasant shudder. "I know this about Ann Leete—she had a dark-green silk dress. And a Roman or tartan scarf."
He touched the wisp of bright-colored silk across his chest. "That is it. She had her likeness taken so—but it was lost."
"It is preserved," I answered. "And I know where it is. I might, if you desired, bring you to a sight of it."
He turned his grand old face to me with a civil inclination of his massive head.
"That would be very courteous of you, sir, and a pleasure to me. You must not think," he added with dignity, "that the lady has forsaken me or that I do not often see her. Indeed, she comes to me more frequently than before. But it would delight me to have the painting of her to console the hours of her absence."
I reflected what his relative had said about the weakness of his wits, and recalled his great age, which one was apt to forget in face of his composure and reasonableness.
He appeared now to doze and to take no further notice of my presence, so I left him.
He had a strange look of lifelessness as he slumbered there in the faintest rays of the cloudy autumn sun.
I reflected how lightly the spirit must dwell in this ancient frame, how easily it must take flight into the past, how soon into eternity. It did not cost me much persuasion to induce my friend, the banker, to lend me the portrait of Ann Leete, particularly as the canvas had been again sent up to the attics.
"Do you know the story?" I asked him.
He replied that he had heard something; that the case had made a great stir at the time; that it was all very confused and amazing, and that he did not desire to discuss the matter.
I hired a carriage and took the canvas to the house of Eneas Bretton.
He was again on the terrace, enjoying with a sort of calm eagerness the last warmth of the failing sun.
His two servants brought in the picture and placed it on a chair at his side.
He gazed at the painted face with the greatest serenity.
"That is she," he said, "but I am glad to think that she looks happier now, sir. She still wears that dark-green silk. I never see her in any other garment."
"A beautiful woman," I remarked quietly, not wishing to agitate or disturb his reflections, which were clearly detached from any considerations of time and space.
"I have always thought so," he answered gently, "but I, sir, have peculiar faculties. I saw her, and see her still as a spirit. I loved her as a spirit. Yet our bodily union was necessary for our complete happiness. And in that my darling and I were balked."
"By death?" I suggested, for I knew that the word had no terrors for him.
"By death," he agreed, "who will soon be forced to unite us again."
"But not in the body," I said.
"How, sir, do you know that?" he smiled. "We have but finite minds. I think we have but little conception of the marvellous future."
"Tell me," I urged, "how you lost Ann Leete."
His dim, heavy-lidded, many-wrinkled eyes flickered a glance over me.
"She was murdered," he said.
I could not forbear a shudder.
"That fragile girl!" I exclaimed. My blood had always run cool and thin, and I detested deeds of violence; my even mind could not grasp the idea of the murder of women save as a monstrous enormity. I looked at the portrait, and it seemed to me that I had always known that it was the likeness of a creature doomed.
"Seventy years ago and more," continued Eneas Bretton, "since when she has wandered lonely betwixt time and eternity, waiting for me. But very soon I shall join her, and then, sir, we shall go where there is no recollection of the evil things of this earth."
By degrees he told me the story, not in any clear sequence, nor at any one time, nor without intervals of sleep and pauses of dreaming, nor without assistance from his servants and his great-niece and her husband, who were his frequent visitors.
Yet it was from his own lips and when we were alone together that I learned all that was really vital in the tale.
He required very frequent attendance; although all human passion was at the utmost ebb with him, he had, he said, a kind of regard for me in that I had brought him his lady's portrait, and he told me things of which he had never spoken to any human being before. I say human on purpose because of his intense belief that he was, and always had been, in communication with powers not of this earth. In these words I put together his tale.
As a young man, said Eneas Bretton, I was healthy, prosperous and happy.
My family had been goldsmiths as long as there was any record of their existence, and I was an enthusiast in this craft, grave, withal, and studious, over-fond of books and meditation. I do not know how or when I first met Ann Leete.
To me she was always there like the sun; I think I have known her all my life, but perhaps my memory fails.
Her father was a lawyer and she an only child, and though her social station was considered superior to mine, I had far more in the way of worldly goods, so there was no earthly obstacle to our union.
The powers of evil, however, fought against us; I had feared this from the first, as our happiness was the complete circle ever hateful to fiends and devils who try to break the mystic symbol.
The mistress of my soul attracted the lustful attention of a young doctor, Rob Patterson, who had a certain false charm of person, not real comeliness, but a trick of color, of carriage and a fine taste in clothes.
His admiration was whetted by her coldness and his intense dislike of me.
We came to scenes in which he derided me as no gentleman, but a beggarly tradesman, and I scorned him as an idle voluptuary designing a woman's min for the crude pleasure of the gratification of fleeting passions.
For the fellow made not even any pretence of being able to support a wife, and was of that rake-helly temperament that made an open mock of matrimony.
Although he was but a medical student, he was of what they call noble birth, and his family, though decayed, possessed considerable social power, so that his bold pursuit of Ann Leete and his insolent flaunting of me had some licence, the more so that he did not lack tact and address in his manner and conduct.
Our marriage could have stopped this persecution, or given the right to publicly resent it, but my darling would not leave her father, who was of a melancholy and querulous disposition.
It was shortly before her twenty-first birthday, for which I had made her the jewel I now wear (the device being the crest of her mother's family and one for which she had a great affection), that her father died suddenly. His last thoughts were of her, for he had this very picture painted for her birthday gift. Finding herself thus unprotected and her affairs in some confusion, she declared her intention of retiring to some distant relative in the Highlands until decorum permitted of our marriage.
And upon my opposing myself to this scheme of separation and delay she was pleased to fall out with me, declaring that I was as importunate as Dr. Patterson, and that I, as well as he, should be kept in ignorance of her retreat.
I had, however, great hopes of inducing her to change this resolution, and, it being then fair spring weather, engaged her to walk with me on the Green, beyond the city, to discuss our future. I was an orphan like herself, and we had now no common meeting-place suitable to her reputation and my respect.
By reason of a pressure of work, to which by temperament and training I was ever attentive, I was a few moments late at the tryst on the Green, which I found, as usual, empty; but it was a lovely afternoon of May, very still and serene, like the smile of satisfied love. I paced about, looking for my darling.
Although she was in mourning, she had promised me to wear the dark-green silk I so admired under her black cloak, and I looked for this color among the brighter greens of the trees and bushes. She did not appear, and my heart was chilled with the fear that she was offended with me and therefore would not come, and an even deeper dread that she might, in vexation, have fled to her unknown retreat.
This thought was sending me hot-foot to seek her at her house, when I saw Rob Patterson coming across the close-shaven grass of the Green.
I remembered that the cheerful sun seemed to me to be at this moment darkened, not by any natural clouds or mists, but as it is during an eclipse, and that the fresh trees and innocent flowers took on a ghastly and withered look.
It may appear a trivial detail, but I recall so clearly his habit, which was of a luxury beyond his means—fine grey broadcloth with a deep edging of embroidery in gold thread, little suited to his profession.
As he saw me he cocked his hat over his eyes, but took no other notice of my appearance, and I turned away, not being wishful of any encounter with this gentleman while my spirit was in a tumult.
I went at once to my darling's house, and learnt from her maid that she had left home two hours previously.
I do not wish to dwell on this part of my tale—indeed, I could not, it becomes very confused to me.
The salient facts are these—that no one saw Ann Leete in bodily form again.
And no one could account for her disappearance; yet no great comment was aroused by this, because there was no one to take much interest in her, and it was commonly believed that she had disappeared from the importunity of her lovers, the more so as Rob Patterson swore that the day of her disappearance he had had an interview with her in which she had avowed her intention of going where no one could discover her. This, in a fashion, was confirmed by what she had told me, and I was the more inclined to believe it, as my inner senses told me that she was not dead.
Six months of bitter search, of sad uneasiness, that remain in my memory blurred to one pain, and then, one autumn evening, as I came home late and dispirited, I saw her before me in the gloaming, tripping up the street, wearing her dark-green silk dress and tartan or Roman scarf.
I did not see her face as she disappeared before I could gain on her, but she held to her side one hand, and between the long fingers I saw the haft of a surgeon's knife.
I knew then that she was dead.
And I knew that Rob Patterson had killed her.
Although it was well known that my family were all ghost-seers, to speak in this case was to be laughed at and reprimanded.
I had no single shred of evidence against Dr. Patterson.
But I resolved that I would use what powers I possessed to make him disclose his crime.
And this is how it befell.
In those days, in Glasgow, it was compulsory to attend some place of worship on the Sabbath, the observation of the holy day being enforced with peculiar strictness, and none being allowed to show themselves in any public place during the hours of the church services, and to this end inspectors and overseers were employed to patrol the streets on a Sabbath and take down the names of those who might be found loitering there.
But few were the defaulters, Glasgow on a Sunday being as bare as the Arabian desert.
Rob Patterson and I both attended the church in Rutherglen Road, towards the Green and the river.
And the Sunday after I had seen the phantom of Ann Leete, I changed my usual place and seated myself behind this young man. My intention was to so work on his spirit as to cause him to make public confession of his crime. And I crouched there behind him with a concentration of hate and fury, forcing my will on his during the whole of the long service.
I noticed he was pale, and that he glanced several times behind him, but he did not change his place or open his lips; but presently his head fell forward on his arms as if he was praying, and I took him to be in a kind of swoon brought on by the resistance of his spirit against mine.
I did not for this cease to pursue him. I was, indeed, as if in an exaltation, and I thought my soul had his soul by the throat, somewhere above our heads, and was shouting out: "Confess! Confess!"
One o'clock struck and he rose with the rest of the congregation, but in a dazed kind of fashion. It was almost side by side that we issued from the church door.
As the stream of people came into the street they were stopped by a little procession that came down the road.
All immediately recognized two of the inspectors employed to search the Sunday streets for defaulters from church attendance, followed by several citizens who appeared to have left their homes in haste and confusion.
These people carried between them a rude bundle which some compassionate hand had covered with a white linen cloth. Below this fell a swathe of dark-green silk and the end of a Roman scarf. I stepped up to the rough bier.
"You have found Ann Leete," I said.
"It is a dead woman," one answered me. "We know not her name."
I did not need to raise the cloth. The congregation was gathering round us, amongst them was Rob Patterson.
"Tell me, who was her promised husband, how you found her," I said.
And one of the inspectors answered:
"Near here, on the Green, where the wall bounds the grass, we saw, just now, the young surgeon, Rob Patterson, lying on the sward, and put his name in our books, besides approaching him to enquire the reason of his absence from church. But he, without excuse for his offence, rose from the ground, exclaiming: 'I am a miserable man! Look in the water!'
"With that he crossed a stile that leads to the river and disappeared, and we, going down to the water, found the dead woman, deep tangled between the willows and the weeds—"
"And," added the other inspector gravely, "tangled in her clothes is a surgeon's knife."
"Which," said the former speaker, "perhaps Dr. Patterson can explain, since I perceive he is among this congregation—he must have found some quick way round to have got here before us."
Upon this all eyes turned on the surgeon, but more with amaze than reproach.
And he, with a confident air, said:
"It is known to all these good people that I have been in the church the whole of the morning, especially to Eneas Bretton, who sat behind me, and, I dare swear, never took his eyes from me during the whole of the service."
"Ay, your body was there," I said.
With that he laughed angrily, and mingling with the crowd passed on his way.
You may believe there was a great stir; the theory put abroad was that Ann Leete had been kept a prisoner in a solitary, mined hut there was by the river, and then, fury or fear, slain by her jailer and cast into the river.
To me all this is black. I only know that she was murdered by Rob Patterson.
He was arrested and tried on the circuit.
He there proved, beyond all cavil, that he had been in the church from the beginning of the service to the end of it; his alibi was perfect. But the two inspectors never wavered in their tale of seeing him on the Green, of his self-accusation in his exclamation; he was very well known to them; and they showed his name written in their books.
He was acquitted by the tribunal of man, but a higher power condemned him.
Shortly after he died by his own hand, which God armed and turned against him.
This mystery, as it was called, was never solved to the public satisfaction, but I know that I sent Rob Patterson's soul out of his body to betray his guilt, and to procure my darling Christian burial.
This was the tale Eneas Bretton, that ancient man, told me, on the old terrace, as he sat opposite the picture of Ann Leete.
"You must think what you will," he concluded. "They will tell you that the shock unsettled my wits, or even that I was always crazed. As they would tell you that I dream when I say that I see Ann Leete now, and babble when I talk of my happiness with her for fifty years."
He smiled faintly; a deeper glory than that of the autumn sunshine seemed to rest on him.
"Explain it yourself, sir. What was it those inspectors saw on the Green?"
He slightly raised himself in his chair and peered over my shoulder.
"And what is this," he asked triumphantly, in the voice of a young man, "coming towards us now?"
I rose; I looked over my shoulder.
Through the gloom I saw a dark-green silk gown, a woman's form, a pale hand beckoning.
My impulse was to fly from the spot, but a happy sigh from my companion reproved my cowardice. I looked at the ancient man whose whole figure appeared lapped in warm light, and as the apparition of the woman moved into this glow, which seemed too glorious for the fading sunshine, I heard his last breath flow from his body with a glad cry. I had not answered his questions; I never can.
Martha Pym said that she had never seen a ghost and that she would very much like to do so, "particularly at Christmas, for you can laugh as you like, that is the correct time to see a ghost."
"I don't suppose you ever will," replied her cousin Mabel comfortably, while her cousin Clara shuddered and said that she hoped they would change the subject for she disliked even to think of such things.
The three elderly, cheerful women sat round a big fire, cosy and content after a day of pleasant activities; Martha was the guest of the other two, who owned the handsome, convenient country house; she always came to spend her Christmas with the Wyntons and found the leisurely country life delightful after the bustling round of London, for Martha managed an antique shop of the better sort and worked extremely hard. She was, however, still full of zest for work or pleasure, though sixty years old, and looked backwards and forwards to a succession of delightful days.
The other two, Mabel and Clara, led quieter but none the less agreeable lives; they had more money and fewer interests, but nevertheless enjoyed themselves very well.
"Talking of ghosts," said Mabel, "I wonder how that old woman at 'Hartleys' is getting on, for 'Hartleys,' you know, is supposed to be haunted."
"Yes, I know," smiled Miss Pym, "but all the years that we have known of the place we have never heard anything definite, have we?"
"No," put in Clara; "but there is that persistent rumour that the House is uncanny, and for myself, nothing would induce me to live there!"
"It is certainly very lonely and dreary down there on the marshes," conceded Mabel. "But as for the ghost—you never hear what it is supposed to be even."
"Who has taken it?" asked Miss Pym, remembering "Hartleys" as very desolate indeed, and long shut up.
"A Miss Lefain, an eccentric old creature—I think you met her here once, two years ago—"
"I believe that I did, but I don't recall her at all."
"We have not seen her since, 'Hartleys' is so un-get-at-able and she didn't seem to want visitors. She collects china, Martha, so really you ought to go and see her and talk 'shop.'"
With the word "china" some curious associations came into the mind of Martha Pym; she was silent while she strove to put them together, and after a second or two they all fitted together into a very clear picture.
She remembered that thirty years ago—yes, it must be thirty years ago, when, as a young woman, she had put all her capital into the antique business, and had been staying with her cousins (her aunt had then been alive) that she had driven across the marsh to "Hartleys," where there was an auction sale; all the details of this she had completely forgotten, but she could recall quite clearly purchasing a set of gorgeous china which was still one of her proud delights, a perfect set of Crown Derby save that one plate was missing.
"How odd," she remarked, "that this Miss Lefain should collect china too, for it was at 'Hartleys' that I purchased my dear old Derby service—I've never been able to match that plate—"
"A plate was missing? I seem to remember," said Clara. "Didn't they say that it must be in the house somewhere and that it should be looked for?"
"I believe they did, but of course I never heard any more and that missing plate has annoyed me ever since. Who had 'Hartleys'?"
"An old connoisseur, Sir James Sewell; I believe he was some relation to this Miss Lefain, but I don't know—"
"I wonder if she has found the plate," mused Miss Pym. "I expect she has turned out and ransacked the whole place—"
"Why not trot over and ask?" suggested Mabel. "It's not much use to her, if she has found it, one odd plate."
"Don't be silly," said Clara. "Fancy going over the marshes, this weather, to ask about a plate missed all those years ago. I'm sure Martha wouldn't think of it—"
But Martha did think of it; she was rather fascinated by the idea; how queer and pleasant it would be if, after all these years, nearly a lifetime, she should find the Crown Derby plate, the loss of which had always irked her! And this hope did not seem so altogether fantastical, it was quite likely that old Miss Lefain, poking about in the ancient house, had found the missing piece.
And, of course, if she had, being a fellow-collector, she would be quite willing to part with it to complete the set.
Her cousin endeavoured to dissuade her; Miss Lefain, she declared, was a recluse, an odd creature who might greatly resent such a visit and such a request.
"Well, if she does I can but come away again," smiled Miss Pym. "I suppose she can't bite my head off, and I rather like meeting these curious types—we've got a love for old china in common, anyhow."
"It seems so silly to think of it—after all these years—a plate!"
"A Crown Derby plate," corrected Miss Pym. "It is certainly strange that I didn't think of it before, but now that I have got it into my head I can't get it out. Besides," she added hopefully, "I might see the ghost."
So full, however, were the days with pleasant local engagements that Miss Pym had no immediate chance of putting her scheme into practice; but she did not relinquish it, and she asked several different people what they knew about "Hartleys" and Miss Lefain.
And no one knew anything save that the house was supposed to be haunted and the owner "cracky."
"Is there a story?" asked Miss Pym, who associated ghosts with neat tales into which they fitted as exactly as nuts into shells.
But she was always told: "Oh, no, there isn't a story, no one knows anything about the place, don't know how the idea got about; old Sewell was half-crazy, I believe, he was buried in the garden and that gives a house a nasty name—"
"Very unpleasant," said Martha Pym, undisturbed.
This ghost seemed too elusive for her to track down; she would have to be content if she could recover the Crown Derby plate; for that at least she was determined to make a try and also to satisfy that faint tingling of curiosity roused in her by this talk about "Hartleys" and the remembrance of that day, so long ago, when she had gone to the auction sale at the lonely old house.
So the first free afternoon, while Mabel and Clara were comfortably taking their afternoon repose, Martha Pym, who was of a more lively habit, got out her little governess cart and dashed away across the Essex flats.
She had taken minute directions with her, but she had soon lost her way.
Under the wintry sky, which looked as grey and hard as metal, the marshes stretched bleakly to the horizon, the olive-brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on the saffron-tinted bogs, where the sluggish waters that rose so high in winter were filmed over with the first stillness of a frost; the air was cold but not keen, everything was damp; faintest of mists blurred the black outlines of trees that rose stark from the ridges above the stagnant dykes; the flooded fields were haunted by black birds and white birds, gulls and crows, whining above the long ditch grass and wintry wastes.
Miss Pym stopped the little horse and surveyed this spectral scene, which had a certain relish about it to one sure to return to a homely village, a cheerful house and good company.
A withered and bleached old man, in colour like the dun landscape, came along the road between the sparse alders.
Miss Pym, buttoning up her coat, asked the way to "Hartley" as he passed her; he told her, straight on, and she proceeded, straight indeed across the road that went with undeviating length across the marshes.
"Of course," thought Miss Pym, "if you live in a place like this, you are bound to invent ghosts."
The house sprang up suddenly on a knoll ringed with rotting trees, encompassed by an old brick wall that the perpetual damp had overrun with lichen, blue, green, white colours of decay.
"Hartleys," no doubt, there was no other residence of human being in sight in all the wide expanse; besides, she could remember it, surely, after all this time, the sharp rising out of the marsh, the colony of tall trees, but then fields and trees had been green and bright—there had been no water on the flats, it had been summer-time.
"She certainly," thought Miss Pym, "must be crazy to live here. And I rather doubt if I shall get my plate."
She fastened up the good little horse by the garden gate which stood negligently ajar and entered; the garden itself was so neglected that it was quite surprising to see a trim appearance in the house, curtains at the window and a polish on the brass door knocker, which must have been recently rubbed there, considering the taint in the sea damp which rusted and rotted everything.
It was a square-built, substantial house with "nothing wrong with it but the situation," Miss Pym decided, though it was not very attractive, being built of that drab plastered stone so popular a hundred years ago, with flat windows and door, while one side was gloomily shaded by a large evergreen tree of the cypress variety which gave a blackish tinge to that portion of the garden.
There was no pretence at flower-beds nor any manner of cultivation in this garden where a few rank weeds and straggling bushes matted together above the dead grass; on the enclosing wall which appeared to have been built high as protection against the ceaseless winds that swung along the flats were the remains of fruit trees; their crucified branches, rotting under the great nails that held them up, looked like the skeletons of those who had died in torment.
Miss Pym took in these noxious details as she knocked firmly at the door; they did not depress her; she merely felt extremely sorry for anyone who could live in such a place.
She noticed, at the far end of the garden, in the corner of the wall, a headstone showing above the sodden colourless grass, and remembered what she had been told about the old antiquary being buried there, in the grounds of "Hartleys."
As the knock had no effect she stepped back and looked at the house; it was certainly inhabited—with those neat windows, white curtains and drab blinds all pulled to precisely the same level.
And when she brought her glance back to the door she saw that it had been opened and that someone, considerably obscured by the darkness of the passage, was looking at her intently.
"Good afternoon," said Miss Pym cheerfully. "I just thought that I would call to see Miss Lefain—it is Miss Lefain, isn't it?"
"It's my house," was the querulous reply.
Martha Pym had hardly expected to find any servants here, though the old lady must, she thought, work pretty hard to keep the house so clean and tidy as it appeared to be.
"Of course," she replied. "May I come in? I'm Martha Pym, staying with the Wyntons, I met you there—"
"Do come in," was the faint reply. "I get so few people to visit me, I'm really very lonely."
"I don't wonder," thought Miss Pym; but she had resolved to take no notice of any eccentricity on the part of her hostess, and so she entered the house with her usual agreeable candour and courtesy.
The passage was badly lit, but she was able to get a fair idea of Miss Lefain; her first impression was that this poor creature was most dreadfully old, older than any human being had the right to be, why, she felt young in comparison—so faded, feeble, and pallid was Miss Lefain.
She was also monstrously fat; her gross, flaccid figure was shapeless and she wore a badly cut, full dress of no colour at all, but stained with earth and damp where Miss Pym supposed she had been doing futile gardening; this gown was doubtless designed to disguise her stoutness, but had been so carelessly pulled about that it only added to it, being rucked and rolled "all over the place" as Miss Pym put it to herself.
Another ridiculous touch about the appearance of the poor old lady was her short hair; decrepit as she was, and lonely as she lived she had actually had her scanty relics of white hair cropped round her shaking head.
"Dear me, dear me," she said in her thin treble voice. "How very kind of you to come. I suppose you prefer the parlour? I generally sit in the garden."
"The garden? But not in this weather?"
"I get used to the weather. You've no idea how used one gets to the weather."
"I suppose so," conceded Miss Pym doubtfully. "You don't live here quite alone, do you?"
"Quite alone, lately. I had a little company, but she was taken away, I'm sure I don't know where. I haven't been able to find a trace of her anywhere," replied the old lady peevishly.
"Some wretched companion that couldn't stick it, I suppose," thought Miss Pym. "Well, I don't wonder—but someone ought to be here to look after her."
They went into the parlour, which, the visitor was dismayed to see, was without a fire but otherwise well kept.
And there, on dozens of shelves was a choice array of china at which Martha Pym's eyes glistened.
"Aha!" cried Miss Lefain. "I see you've noticed my treasures! Don't you envy me? Don't you wish that you had some of those pieces?"
Martha Pym certainly did and she looked eagerly and greedily round the walls, tables, and cabinets while the old woman followed her with little thin squeals of pleasure.
It was a beautiful little collection, most choicely and elegantly arranged, and Martha thought it marvellous that this feeble ancient creature should be able to keep it in such precise order as well as doing her own housework.
"Do you really do everything yourself here and live quite alone?" she asked, and she shivered even in her thick coat and wished that Miss Lefain's energy had risen to a fire, but then probably she lived in the kitchen, as these lonely eccentrics often did.
"There was someone," answered Miss Lefain cunningly, "but I had to send her away. I told you she's gone, I can't find her, and I am so glad. Of course," she added wistfully, "it leaves me very lonely, but then I couldn't stand her impertinence any longer. She used to say that it was her house and her collection of china! Would you believe it? She used to try to chase me away from looking at my own things!"
"How very disagreeable," said Miss Pym, wondering which of the two women had been crazy. "But hadn't you better get someone else."
"Oh, no," was the jealous answer. "I would rather be alone with my things, I daren't leave the house for fear someone takes them away—there was a dreadful time once when an auction sale was held here—"
"Were you here then?" asked Miss Pym; but indeed she looked old enough to have been anywhere.
"Yes, of course," Miss Lefain replied rather peevishly and Miss Pym decided that she must be a relation of old Sir James Sewell. Clara and Mabel had been very foggy about it all. "I was very busy hiding all the china—but one set they got—a Crown Derby tea service—"
"With one plate missing!" cried Martha Pym. "I bought it, and do you know, I was wondering if you'd found it—"
"I hid it," piped Miss Lefain.
"Oh, you did, did you? Well, that's rather funny behaviour. Why did you hide the stuff away instead of buying it?"
"How could I buy what was mine?"
"Old Sir James left it to you, then?" asked Martha Pym, feeling very muddled.
"She bought a lot more," squeaked Miss Lefain, but Martha Pym tried to keep her to the point.
"If you've got the plate," she insisted, "you might let me have it—I'll pay quite handsomely, it would be so pleasant to have it after all these years."
"Money is no use to me," said Miss Lefain mournfully. "Not a bit of use. I can't leave the house or the garden."
"Well, you have to live, I suppose," replied Martha Pym cheerfully. "And, do you know, I'm afraid you are getting rather morbid and dull, living here all alone—you really ought to have a fire—why, it's just on Christmas and very damp."
"I haven't felt the cold for a long time," replied the other; she seated herself with a sigh on one of the horsehair chairs and Miss Pym noticed with a start that her feet were covered only by a pair of white stockings; "one of those nasty health fiends," thought Miss Pym, "but she doesn't look too well for all that."
"So you don't think that you could let me have the plate?" she asked briskly, walking up and down, for the dark, neat, clean parlour was very cold indeed, and she thought that she couldn't stand this much longer; as there seemed no sign of tea or anything pleasant and comfortable she had really better go.
"I might let you have it," sighed Miss Lefain, "since you've been so kind as to pay me a visit. After all, one plate isn't much use, is it?"
"Of course not, I wonder you troubled to hide it—"
"I couldn't bear," wailed the other, "to see the things going out of the house!"
Martha Pym couldn't stop to go into all this; it was quite clear that the old lady was very eccentric indeed and that nothing very much could be done with her; no wonder that she had "dropped out" of everything and that no one ever saw her or knew anything about her, though Miss Pym felt that some effort ought really to be made to save her from herself.
"Wouldn't you like a run in my little governess cart?" she suggested. "We might go to tea with the Wyntons on the way back, they'd be delighted to see you, and I really think that you do want taking out of yourself."
"I was taken out of myself some time ago," replied Miss Lefain. "I really was, and I couldn't leave my things—though," she added with pathetic gratitude, "it is very, very kind of you—"
"Your things would be quite safe, I'm sure," said Martha Pym, humouring her. "Who ever would come up here, this hour of a winter's day?"
"They do, oh, they do! And she might come back, prying and nosing and saying that it was all hers, all my beautiful china, hers!"
Miss Lefain squealed in her agitation and rising up, ran round the wall fingering with flaccid yellow hands the brilliant glossy pieces on the shelves.
"Well, then, I'm afraid that I must go, they'll be expecting me, and it's quite a long ride; perhaps some other time you'll come and see us?
"Oh, must you go?" quavered Miss Lefain dolefully. "I do like a little company now and then and I trusted you from the first—the others, when they do come, are always after my things and I have to frighten them away!"
"Frighten them away!" replied Martha Pym. "However do you do that?"
"It doesn't seem difficult, people are so easily frightened, aren't they?"
Miss Pym suddenly remembered that "Hartleys" had the reputation of being haunted—perhaps the queer old thing played on that; the lonely house with the grave in the garden was dreary enough around which to create a legend.
"I suppose you've never seen a ghost?" she asked pleasantly. "I'd rather like to see one, you know—"
"There is no one here but myself," said Miss Lefain.
"So you've never seen anything? I thought it must be all nonsense. Still, I do think it rather melancholy for you to live here all alone—"
Miss Lefain sighed:
"Yes, it's very lonely. Do stay and talk to me a little longer." Her whistling voice dropped cunningly. "And I'll give you the Crown Derby plate!"
"Are you sure you've really got it?" Miss Pym asked.
"I'll show you."
Fat and waddling as she was, she seemed to move very lightly as she slipped in front of Miss Pym and conducted her from the room, going slowly up the stairs—such a gross odd figure in that clumsy dress with the fringe of white hair hanging on to her shoulders.
The upstairs of the house was as neat as the parlour, everything well in its place; but there was no sign of occupancy; the beds were covered with dust sheets, there were no lamps or fires set ready. "I suppose," said Miss Pym to herself, "she doesn't care to show me where she really lives."
But as they passed from one room to another, she could not help saying:
"Where do you live, Miss Lefain?"
"Mostly in the garden," said the other.
Miss Pym thought of those horrible health huts that some people indulged in.
"Well, sooner you than I," she replied cheerfully.
In the most distant room of all, a dark, tiny closet, Miss Lefain opened a deep cupboard and brought out a Crown Derby plate which her guest received with a spasm of joy, for it was actually that missing from her cherished set.
"It's very good of you," she said in delight. "Won't you take something for it, or let me do something for you?"
"You might come and see me again," replied Miss Lefain wistfully.
"Oh, yes, of course I should like to come and see you again."
But now that she had got what she had really come for, the plate, Martha Pym wanted to be gone; it was really very dismal and depressing in the house and she began to notice a fearful smell—the place had been shut up too long, there was something damp rotting somewhere, in this horrid little dark closet no doubt.
"I really must be going," she said hurriedly.
Miss Lefain turned as if to cling to her, but Martha Pym moved quickly away.
"Dear me," wailed the old lady. "Why are you in such haste?"
"There's—a smell," murmured Miss Pym rather faintly.
She found herself hastening down the stairs, with Miss Lefain complaining behind her.
"How peculiar people are—she used to talk of a smell—"
"Well, you must notice it yourself."
Miss Pym was in the hall; the old woman had not followed her, but stood in the semi-darkness at the head of the stairs, a pale shapeless figure.
Martha Pym hated to be rude and ungrateful but she could not stay another moment; she hurried away and was in her cart in a moment—really—that smell—
"Good-bye!" she called out with false cheerfulness, "and thank you somuch!"
There was no answer from the house.
Miss Pym drove on; she was rather upset and took another way than that by which she had come, a way that led past a little house raised above the marsh; she was glad to think that the poor old creature at "Hartleys" had such near neighbours, and she reined up the horse, dubious as to whether she should call someone and tell them that poor old Miss Lefain really wanted a little looking after, alone in a house like that, and plainly not quite right in her head.
A young woman, attracted by the sound of the governess cart, came to the door of the house and seeing Miss Pym called out, asking if she wanted the keys of the house?
"What house?" asked Miss Pym.
"'Hartleys,' mum, they don't put a board out, as no one is likely to pass, but it's to be sold. Miss Lefain wants to sell or let it—"
"I've just been up to see her—"
"Oh, no, mum—she's been away a year, abroad somewhere, couldn't stand the place, it's been empty since then, I just run in every day and keep things tidy—"
Loquacious and curious the young woman had come to the fence; Miss Pym had stopped her horse.
"Miss Lefain is there now," she said. "She must have just come back—"
"She wasn't there this morning, mum, 'tisn't likely she'd come, either—fair scared she was, mum, fair chased away, didn't dare move her china. Can't say I've noticed anything myself, but I never stay long—and there's a smell—"
"Yes," murmured Martha Pym faintly, "there's a smell. What—what—chased her away?"
The young woman, even in that lonely place, lowered her voice.
"Well, as you aren't thinking of taking the place, she got an idea in her head that old Sir James—well, he couldn't bear to leave 'Hartleys,' mum, he's buried in the garden, and she thought he was after her, chasing round them bits of china—"
"Oh!" cried Miss Pym.
"Some of it used to be his, she found a lot stuffed away, he said they were to be left in 'Hartleys,' but Miss Lefain would have the things sold, I believe—that's years ago—"
"Yes, yes," said Miss Pym with a sick look. "You don't know what he was like, do you?"
"No, mum—but I've heard tell he was very stout and very old—I wonder who it was you saw up at 'Hartleys'?"
Miss Pym took a Crown Derby plate from her bag.
"You might take that back when you go," she whispered. "I shan't want it, after all—"
Before the astonished young woman could answer Miss Pym had darted off across the marsh; that short hair, that earth-stained robe, the white socks, "I generally live in the garden—"
Miss Pym drove away, breakneck speed, frantically resolving to mention to no one that she had paid a visit to "Hartleys," nor lightly again to bring up the subject of ghosts.
She shook and shuddered in the damp, trying to get out of her clothes and her nostrils—that indescribable smell.
Elsie was always lonely, but her desolation seemed more poignant when the day was sunny.
Elsie lived with her grandmother in a large house at Hampstead. She thought that there could not be, anywhere, a house with more rooms, more stairs, more quiet and empty.
There were three servants. They lived in the day downstairs in a large basement, and nightly slept in attics at the top of the house. Both basement and attics were out of Elsie's reach; she was not allowed to speak to the servants. There was not, to Elsie's mind, a single thing in this great house that was cheerful or pleasant. A great many people must have lived there once, there were so many empty rooms. There was an empty schoolroom, the inky, tattered lesson-books still on the shelves round the walls, a globe in one corner, and a tattered map hanging between the windows, and worn cut desks and benches as if quite a number of children had once learnt their lessons there.
There was also an empty study, with a huge bookcase with a glass front, that was always locked; and there was a drawing-room in which no-one ever sat. The shutters were always closed in this room into which Elsie had only, just by chance, once peeped. It was full of mirrors with glass frames and little cabinets lined with quilted silk in which stood china figures.
Then there was the dining-room, so much too large for Elsie, who had her dinner and tea there alone on a little cloth laid at one end of the long, shining mahogany table.
But Grandmamma always had her meals in bed. She suffered from what Elsie had been told was a 'stroke'. When Elsie asked what that was, her grandmother replied, 'The hand of God'.
So Elsie thought of God's hand reaching out of heaven into Grandmamma's large bedroom and stroking her down one side and leaving that dead.
Elsie did not find Grandmamma's bedroom a pleasant place, either. It was very large and had two windows which looked on to the garden at the back. Between the two windows was a dressing-table, covered in white spotted muslin over stiff pink stuff.
There were a great many engravings on the walls. They seemed to be all very much alike, with a smooth baby face, like a china doll, and each of these pictures had a little story.
One was of a young prince: the Prince Imperial, Grandmamma said, who had recently been killed by blackamoors. Another was of a girl, crying over a dead bird which she held in her hand, and there was a little hole at her feet where the bird was presently to be buried. And another was of a woman tying a scarf on to a man's arm, and Grandmamma explained that if he went out without the scarf he would be murdered.
Grandmamma's bed was very large. Grandpapa used to sleep there, too, before he had died. It had curtains at the back which looped on to the wall. Beside the curtain was Grandmamma's slipper-case and watch-case, made of stiff, white, perforated cardboard, tied up with dark ribbon. There were a great many objects in the room, but Elsie was forbidden to touch any of them. Grandmamma sat up in bed in a little wool jacket and knitted and crocheted all day long. She had on a lace cap with thick, pale mauve, velvet ribbons on it. Sometimes she would be helped to a chair and drawn to the window. The doctor used to come to see her every day; sometimes another man, whom Elsie heard referred to as a lawyer; and whenever these people were there, Elsie was sent out of the way.
Her grandmother used to tell her to 'efface herself', and Elsie soon became aware that this word meant that she was to act as if she didn't exist. She soon began to understand that she ought never to have existed. Her father, Grandpapa's son, was dead and her mother was poor, therefore neither of them were of any use to Elsie.
She was six years old and could neither read nor write, but she soon understood quite plainly that she ought never to have been born. Indeed, Mrs Parfitt, the cook, had once said as much in her hearing: 'Poor little thing, it was a pity she was ever born.'
Elsie thought so too. She had never enjoyed a moment of her short life, Father being dead and Mother being poor, and Elsie having to suffer for something very wrong which they had evidently both done.
Everything that Elsie did was wrong too. She knew that, and was resigned to the fact. Whenever her grandmother spoke to her it was nearly always to say something beginning with 'don't'.
The few people who ever came to the house and who ever took any notice of her nearly always also said something beginning with 'don't', or else 'run away'.
Elsie liked the servants, Grace and Sarah and Mrs Parfitt. Sometimes she opened the swing door at the top of the basement stairs and sat there listening to their talk and laughter; not that she could hear what they said, but the sound of voices was comforting in the large, empty house, with Grandmamma sleeping or dozing and no other company at all.
When Mrs Parfitt found Elsie one day at the top of the stairs, she too began to talk of 'don't' and 'mustn't'. She said that Elsie was a 'telltale' and a 'spy' and a 'nuisance' and would lose them all their places. Though Elsie did not understand what any of this meant, she realised that she had again done something wrong.
But sometimes, even after that, the servants were kind. Mrs Parfitt once brought her up an apple after her lunch, and on another occasion, in the middle of a long afternoon, some sandwiches. Once, when there was a thunderstorm and Grandmamma had had her sent to bed, the servants allowed Elsie to come down and sit by the kitchen fire. There was a cat on the hearth and a kettle, and rows of shining pots and plates on the walls and red curtains at the windows, and for a little while Elsie felt almost happy, though she shuddered whenever the door was opened to think of the stone passage without, and all the vaults and cellars and closets and presses, which, like the rest of the house, were disused.
But the moment came when Elsie had to go upstairs to her little bed in the dressing-room which opened out of Grandmamma's great room. Cook said it 'was a shame', but Elsie had to go just the same, and lie awake all night in the dark room, listening to the thunder and watching the lightning, her teeth chattering with terror, biting the pillow for fear she cried out.
She lay awake the most part of every night. She had only cried out once. That time she had disturbed Grandmamma and been punished, beaten very hard on the backs of her hands with a hairbrush, by Mary, who looked after Grandmamma, and made to stay in bed all the next day with nothing but bread and water to eat and drink. This diet was no such very great change for the little girl, for her fare was of the plainest and often such as she could not stomach. She was fastidious and preferred to go hungry rather than eat fat cold mutton, coarse boiled potatoes, stiff rice-puddings, and Normandy pippins boiled into a pulp. She did not know why she was living with Grandmamma, but she understood it was very kind of Grandmamma to have her there. Indeed, it was very kind of anybody to endure her at all; nobody wanted her, and of course she must be, she was sure, quite useless and a nuisance.
Once she had contrived to creep into the wide hall when Sarah, who was good-humoured, was washing the black and red tiles, and Sarah began to talk to her. She was evidently smarting under some reprimand from Grandmamma, and Elsie understood from what Sarah said in a low, careful voice, that all Grandmamma's children had been useless and nuisances.
It seemed hard to believe that once that great house had been full of people. Grandmamma had had quite a lot of children, boys and girls. They were all dead or had gone away. None of them, so Elsie understood, was any good. Only Grandmamma remained, powerful and, of course, virtuous, always there and always right.
'Your poor papa was the favourite,' said Sarah. 'I shouldn't be surprised if you was to get the money after all.'
'But Grandmamma hasn't got any money,' said Elsie. 'When she talks to me she always says: "Mind, I haven't got a farthing!"'
At that Sarah laughed, and pushed back a lock of hair from her forehead with her wet hand that still held the scrubbing brush. She said that Grandmamma was very rich, but a miser; that no doubt there was gold hidden all over the house if one only knew where to look for it.
Elsie asked what was the good of it? Sarah said that it was all the good in the world. If you had gold you could do anything. She said that that was what Master Tom used to come about. That's why the old lady had a stroke, quarrelling with him.
Elsie asked who was Master Tom? Sarah said: Why, your uncle of course, silly.' And then Mrs Parfitt called out to Sarah and Elsie had to go away.
After that, she used to look for gold for something to do in the long afternoons—she even ventured into those empty rooms which she held most in horror. One had a large hole in the floor. She used to lean down and bring her little face close to the hole and peer into the darkness and think that she might see gold lying there among the dust. She knew what gold was like—there was a gold clock in the drawing-room and her grandmamma had a gold watch, and her wedding ring, which moved round on her thin, knobby finger, was gold too. And on Grandmamma's kidney-shaped dressing-table were boxes that Grandmamma kept locked. Once, on a wet day, she had let Elsie bring them to the bed, and opened them, and there was this gold too, brooches and chains and earrings, and Elsie had played with them on the down coverlet.
Elsie never found any gold—gold which would do anything, even procure an escape from this house. She frightened herself very much wandering in and out of those empty rooms, some furnished, some unfurnished, but all silent, dusty, and desolate. The whole street, which was full of large houses with pillared porticoes like Grandmamma's, seemed to Elsie to be always silent, desolate. Occasionally a carriage and pair passed, and sometimes, peering from the window in the midst of an afternoon that seemed endless, she would see some woman and child go by and her little heart would be pinched with an odd nostalgia for a happiness she had never known—no, not even the name of, and then for hours and hours the wide street would seem as silent, as empty as the house. Even the sunshine—and that summer there was a great deal of sunshine—could not lighten the tedium of that street and house to Elsie.
Even the flowering trees, lilac, laburnum, and may (for every house had before the basement a little square in which grew such trees and shrubs), could not give an air of cheerfulness and joy to those dreary sunny afternoons.
Every house had striped sunblinds out over the windows and striped curtains hanging in front of the door. The very sight of these awnings, mostly red and white, filled Elsie with an unutterable woe, born of complete loneliness. She had nothing to do, neither work nor play. Mrs Parfitt had said that she was getting a big girl and would soon be sent to school, and Elsie had hoped that as she was such a nuisance and ought to efface herself, she might indeed be sent away somewhere. She did not know what 'school' was; it could not be worse than the great house in Hampstead.
Once Mary turned her into the back garden, shut the door of the schoolroom that gave on to it, and told her to stay there all the afternoon. Elsie hated the garden almost as much as she hated the house. It had a dirty, high brick wall all round it and at the bottom a sloping bank on which were four tall poplar trees. The heart-shaped leaves fluttered continually to the ground; they were dirty and had a disagreeable smell and a harsh texture. The stems of the lilac bushes were thick with soot and the flowers were tarnished and brown almost as soon as they came out.
There were no other flowers in the garden. The square of grass in the middle was rusty and dirty. Everything in the garden was dirty; Elsie never played in it, but she often got a scolding when she came in for having spoiled her pinafore. And this afternoon she began to amuse herself by trying to make a mud pie. The first digging with her fingers brought up some worms, and she left off, sick with disgust, that attempt at diversion.
When at last she was allowed into the house Mary scolded her, as she had expected to be scolded, as a naughty, naughty girl for getting herself into a mess. The servants all seemed rather excited. She was given her tea in the schoolroom, bread-and-butter and milk and a piece of seed cake, and scolded again because she did not like the seeds and tried to pull them out with her unskilful fingers.
When she had finished she tried to creep into the kitchen, with a hope of a sight of the cat or the kettle. She heard the servants talking about Master Tom and how he had been there that afternoon. There had been 'a scene', and Elsie wondered what 'a scene' was. It all seemed even more wrong and unhappy than before. It seemed to Elsie not only a pity that she had ever been born, but that anyone else had.
'He's a regular scapegrace, and will come to a bad end, you mark my words,' said Cook; and Elsie longed to ask what a bad end was, but she did not dare to be seen. She was discovered just the same, and smacked and turned out of the kitchen up into the lonely, empty passage, study, and dining-room, where she roamed at will all day, when she was not sitting by Grandmamma's bed or in her own room, which was quite bare, save for a bed and a tin wash-hand stand. Everything had been taken out of it when Elsie came to live there for fear she should touch something. She quite accepted the justice of this, because everything she touched was either spoilt or broken or soiled, for her hands were never clean and she seemed incredibly clumsy.
Except on those rare trembling expeditions when she had been looking for secret gold in a desperate hope that it might somehow procure her release from her present predicament, Elsie had never ventured up above her grandmother's bedroom, though there were three stories above that floor. The servants slept up there, but that did not seem to give an air of human habitation to those dreadful upper floors. One of them contained a large black oil painting the sight of which had made Elsie sick with terror. Some children, long ago, perhaps her own uncles and aunts, had used the picture for a target, and filled it full of small holes from toy arrows or darts.
It was the portrait of a dark man, and Elsie thought that he scowled in agony from his many wounds and that he would leap from the canvas to pursue her if she stared at him a second longer. Elsie had never looked into that room again, and besides that there were ghosts upstairs. Mrs Parfitt and Mary and Sarah had all said so.
Once, when she had lain awake listening to Grandmamma's snoring in the other room, she had certainly heard footsteps overhead, and unable at length to bear her torture any longer she had run downstairs in her nightgown and screamed out at the top of the basement stairs that she had heard steps overhead.
Mrs Parfitt had said good-humouredly: 'Nonsense! There's nobody up there.' Words which had filled Elsie with complete terror.
Sarah had laughed and said: 'The ghosts, I dare say.'
Mary had added: 'Of course—the ghosts!'
Mrs Parfitt, meaning to console, had assured Elsie that if she was a good girl and behaved herself and kept out of the way and didn't annoy Grandmamma ghosts would leave her alone.
Elsie had not returned to her own bed that night. She had not enough courage to do so. She had crept, instead, into her grandmother's room, and lain awake, curled, cold and sweating, on the outside of the coverlet, taking what comfort she could from the old lady's heavy snoring. And in the morning, just before Mary came in to bring Grandmamma her tea and wash her and comb her hair and put on her thick lace cap with the heavy, pale-violet, velvet ribbons, Elsie had crept away into her own bed and pretended to sleep.
All the next day she tried to make herself very agreeable to Grandmamma because she wanted to ask her about the ghosts upstairs. She held her wool for her and fetched her scissors and tried to remember to close the door quietly and not to raise her voice nor to talk too loud nor too fast.
Presently, in the afternoon, holding on her tiny hands the skein of orange wool, she asked: 'Have you ever seen the ghost upstairs, Grandmamma?'
Grandmamma was in a good humour that day. You would hardly have thought she was ill at all. She had been a very handsome woman and she still had an air of energy and vigour.
Propped up against her big pillows she laughed and said: 'I should think there are a good many ghosts in this house, my dear. Think of all the people who have been born and died here, even in my time, and only you and I left, eh, little Elsie!'
'How many people were there, Grandmamma?'
'Eh, I couldn't remember now. You see, this was your grandfather's father's house. He had it when it was first built and there were a lot of children then. They died or scattered. Mostly died, I think. I remember four of them went off in a week with typhus. Then there were my own. Plenty of them, little Elsie. You wouldn't think now, would you, there used to be such a noise here that I often didn't know what to do. Children all over the place, boys and girls—in the schoolroom, running up and down the stairs, playing in the garden—'
She stopped and dropped her knitting needles on to the sheets. 'Plenty of noise then, little Elsie; quiet enough now, isn't it?'
'Are they all ghosts now?' asked Elsie, and she dropped the skein of wool on to her lap.
'Ghosts—or worse,' said Grandmamma, with a sigh; 'most of them seemed to go wrong somehow.'
'Were they nuisances, like I am?'
Grandmamma looked at her sharply, as if she suspected her of an impertinence.
'Never mind what's become of them, Elsie, or whether they're ghosts or not. Pick up that wool—it'll get tangled; and put the pillow straight under my left arm. Mary knows I can't knit like this.'
Though Grandmamma was partially paralysed down one side, she could, by a deft arrangement of pillows propping up one of her elbows, still knit and crochet, which she did for hours every day with a certain ferocity, making thick grey garments for the poor and the heathen and squares and squares of crochet in bright colours, which were going to be sewn together one day into a great quilt.
Elsie thought of the poor and the heathen with horror; she saw armies and armies of them in grey woollen petticoats advancing on her with hostile looks and menacing cries when she woke in the middle of the night.
Cunningly she tried to get more information about the ghosts. 'Are there ghosts in the schoolroom, Grandmamma?'
'Aye, indeed, I should think there are ghosts in there. That's where they learnt their lessons, all of them. Learnt no good, no, not one of them. That's a strange thought, Elsie—all of them down there, learning lessons year after year and not one of them learning anything good.'
'And the ghosts upstairs in the bedroom?' persisted Elsie.
'There'd be ghosts there. That's where a lot of them died. Your grandfather died in this room, but I don't suppose you'll see his ghost. Why are you so interested, little Elsie? It's a funny thing for a child to talk about, isn't it? Have you been gossiping with the servants?'
Elsie shook her head. She was accustomed to the quick lying of utter fear.
'I thought I heard one last night, Grandmamma. Walking about.' Her child's vivid imagination forced her to add: 'When I got out of bed and opened the door I thought I saw a ghost coming down the stairs and I wondered who it was.'
'Who would you like it to be?' grinned the old lady. 'Who would you like it to be out of all your uncles and aunts and great-uncles and aunts? Well, they weren't any of them any good, as I told you. Except your father, perhaps. Yes, that now, your father.'
'I'd like to see him,' said Elsie. 'Is he a ghost, too?'
Grandmamma was silent for a while. She seemed to be dozing, and Elsie felt even more afraid than she usually did when the old lady went off into one of her half-trances, half-sleeps, sitting propped up against the pillows, with her sharp chin on the little jacket of white Iceland wool she wore across her shoulder and breast.
Elsie began to whimper through fear of the ghosts and of Grandmamma and of loneliness of the great empty house. But Grandmamma was not asleep nor ill. She had only been thinking of the past.
'Your father would be a very pleasant sort of ghost. He was my youngest—the flower of the flock. Yes, if you saw him, Elsie, you would see a very handsome young man. Well, he wouldn't be so young now, I suppose. He died soon after you were born. How old are you, Elsie?'
'Nearly seven years old, Grandmamma.'
'Yes, he wouldn't be such a very young man, but he was handsome. Oh yes, my James was handsome. He had a mole on his left cheekbone.'
'I hope I won't see him,' said Elsie, shuddering, as she sat rigid on her little stool. 'I hope he'll stay upstairs. I wonder where he lived. I expect in that room with the big black picture all full of holes.'
'He used to amuse himself with that old canvas,' said Grandmamma, smiling, as if at a pleasant recollection. 'He used to have his games and sport there. He always was bold and spirited, and very loving to me, whatever they say about him.'
'And Uncle Tom?' asked Elsie. Was he loving too?'
At that name a convulsive spasm passed over Grandmamma's face. She struck out angrily with her strongest hand, missing Elsie, Who shrank back from the bedside.
'You have been gossiping with the servants! You haven't got an Uncle Tom! There's no such person! He doesn't exist! Who told you there was an Uncle Tom?
'Nobody,' said Elsie, 'only you yourself, Grandmamma, the other day when you seemed half asleep you said something about Uncle Tom coming.'
The old woman looked at her dubiously, but was not able to contradict this, for she knew that she had not always full control over her senses.
'Well, perhaps I did, perhaps I did,' she grumbled. 'You shouldn't have taken any notice. I didn't know what I was saying. I dare say I've been dreaming about the ghosts upstairs, Elsie, just like you have—a lot of nonsense! There's no Uncle Tom. If you ever meet one who says he's your Uncle Tom or says he's any son of mine, you tell him that he's a scoundrel and a liar, Elsie. I've no son, do you hear? Do you hear? All my sons are dead—dead.'
Elsie said 'Yes' obediently and readily. Uncle Tom did not, after all, matter much to her. It was the ghost upstairs who concerned her and about whom she wanted to hear.
One afternoon in that odious June was more dreadful than any other afternoon to Elsie, for she was left quite alone in the house with her Grandmamma. Of course, this should never have happened and was not meant to happen. It occurred like this.
Mary and Sarah were, it seemed, both nieces of Mrs Parfitt, and when an uncle of theirs died all three wanted to go to the funeral. Grandmamma, of course, could not be left alone. Mrs Parfitt said she could easily arrange to send in a friend—a Mrs Skerrell—who would sit with Grandmamma and give Elsie her tea and do anything that was wanted until she, Mrs Parfitt, and the two girls came back about six o'clock, as they easily could, for the funeral was at Highgate.
So Mrs Parfitt told Elsie to be a good girl and Mary said, 'Don't get into mischief; Sarah said, 'Don't you go telling no tales to your grandmother about what you haven't seen or heard'; and Elsie was left alone with Grandmamma and Mrs Skerrell, who was a dreary widow woman in a long black garment and a bonnet with jet flowers.
Elsie had taken advantage of this unusual confusion to get down into the kitchen. She was staring at Mrs Skerrell just untying the strings of the black bonnet when there was a sharp ring at the bell. Both the woman and the child started. Nothing was, as Mrs Parfitt had put it to Mrs Skerrell, 'expected'. All the tradespeople had called and visitors were rare.
Mrs Skerrell said 'Drat it', retied the strings of her bonnet, and ran up the stairs from the basement into the hall. Elsie remained alone in the kitchen. She wished she had the strength to get down one of the jars full of sultanas or sugar or motley biscuits and spice and eat large handfuls. She was always hungry. She had neither the strength nor the courage, so she remained standing beside the large, scrubbed, white-deal table, and looking up through the kitchen window into the area, she could just see a foot or so of the railings which divided the stone area, with its doors into coal cellars, from the square of garden where grew the ragged laburnum tree and the sooty lilac bushes.
Mrs Skerrell seemed to have been gone a very long time and loneliness increased and crystallised on the small figure of Elsie. She was shut into the desolation like a fly into a lump of amber, not daring to move for fear of finding worse things than loneliness in the other parts of the house. She peered up at the railings. Presently she saw the bottom of Mrs Skerrell's beaded mantle and black skirt going past. Then Elsie ran to the window and, pressing her face to the panes, looked up. Mrs Skerrell was certainly leaving the house. Elsie listened and heard the gate go 'click', the iron tongue of the lock into the iron socket. She knew that sound so well; indeed, she knew every sound in the large empty house in which she had spent her entire life.
She was, then, in the house alone with Grandmamma, who, about this time in the early afternoon, was always asleep. Elsie's first sensation was not one of added fear, but rather of deliverance. She now, given so much time, might be able to climb up on to the dresser and get down some of those canisters of things good to eat. She might be able to make a slow and careful hunt right through the kitchen and find out where the biscuits and the candied peel were kept; she might be able to tiptoe to the pantry, discover if there was a slice of pie or a portion of cake or a dish of fruit there. All things which she was not allowed and that were not good for Grandmamma, and off which the servants freely feasted.
Then she thought of an even fiercer temptation—an even more resplendent opportunity—the long, darkly gleaming sideboard in the dining-room. There was no speculation about that—there would not need to be any search. Elsie knew exactly where, on the top shelf when the large folding doors underneath the drawers were open, was kept jam, marmalade, and sugar. She was never allowed any of these delicacies. The marmalade used to go on her Grandmamma's breakfast tray, the jam on her afternoon tea tray. There were preserves, too, and cherry and quince, that were brought out for the rare visitors.
It was true that this cupboard, which was large enough to have contained a dozen Elsies, was usually locked, and Grandmamma had the keys. Elsie had seen her take them out of a little box on the table by her bedside and give them to Mary, and seen Mary give them back to her. And once Elsie had found the cupboard open. It was true she had been discovered before she had time to take anything, but perhaps, just perhaps, Mrs Parfitt, in the excitement of her day's outing, had left it open again, then Elsie would be able to help herself.
She would be discovered without doubt. She had little hope of being able to conceal the crime, there would be horrid stickiness on her fingers. When her fingers were sticky, she could, somehow, never get it off, even though she held them under the tap or wiped them on the towels.
But to satisfy her hungry craving for something sweet and delicious and delicate it would be worth enduring the punishment of being smacked on the backs of both her hands with a hard hairbrush, sent to bed in the daylight, or something worse if Grandmamma and Mrs Parfitt could think of a more severe punishment.
So she crept quietly up the stairs into the large, empty house. It was the very worst part of the afternoon, sunny, silent, with a feeling that it would be hours and hours and hours before the dark fell, as if the world had stopped and all life was in suspension and only she, Elsie, was alive and miserable.
As cautious as if she were certain that she would be overheard, Elsie went down the wide, black and red tiled corridor and into the dining-room, which was shuttered against the sun and full of dusty shadows, which lay in little straight lines of gold from the slats of the Venetian blinds.
Elsie had no luck. She found the sideboard locked. She had become by now reckless and daring; she would go upstairs, she decided, and take the key from the little box beside Grandmamma's bed. Grandmamma would be asleep, and she had heard Mrs Parfitt tell Mrs Skerrell the old lady `had had her medicine and wouldn't give any trouble'.
The sunny, silent afternoon hung like a halter round Elsie's soul. She thought that if she could get the keys and open the cupboard, a pot of jam, yes, a whole pot of jam, eaten slowly and with relish, would do something to mitigate the horrible loneliness of her imprisonment.
Grandmamma was, as she had thought she would be, asleep. The clothes were drawn up over her face as usual, and only the top of her cap with violet ribbons could be seen against the pillow. There were the slippers in the slipper-case, the watch neatly in the watchcase, there was the box standing beside the bottle of medicine with the glasses, the spectacles in their case, the Bible with the bronze clasp, and the different balls of wool, the various pieces of knitting.
The sunblinds were drawn over Grandmamma's window; the poplars in the garden made a fluttering shadow on them. The little breeze lifted them now and then so that a spurt of golden sunlight would fall into the shadowed room. All the smooth-faced pictures on the wall seemed to be watching Elsie—the girl with the dead bird, the girl tying the bandage on the man's arm, the baby-faced boy who was called the `Prince Imperial'; all these, in their pale, smooth, shining frames, seemed to turn and stare at Elsie, but she did not falter.
She lifted the lid of the key-box and was putting in her hand to take out the key when she heard, overhead, footsteps.
The ghost of course, undoubtedly the ghost, and she alone in the house and at its mercy. On a frantic impulse of terror she turned and tried to rouse her grandmother, even venturing, seldom as she dared to touch the invalid, to shake the gaunt shoulder that heaved up the clothes. Grandmamma was very soundly asleep and did not rouse. The steps came nearer, unmistakably descending the stairs from the upper room. Elsie thought only of hiding, of creeping under the bed or into the huge cupboard where Grandmamma kept hanks and hanks of brightly-coloured wool and skeins and skeins of grey wool. But before she had time to run farther than the length of the bed, the door, which she had left ajar, was pushed open and the ghost walked in.
It was a handsome man with red hair and a mole on the left cheekbone. Elsie remembered what Grandmamma had said about her father and stood still at the end of the bed, staring. The apparition gave her no special feeling of terror; it was, indeed, far less terrible than she had supposed it would be. She even thought that in the warm glint of the eyes, the half curl of the lips, she detected promise of an ally. He was, at least, younger and more attractive than any creature she had seen for a long time, nay, than she had ever seen before.
'Hullo, little nipper,' said the ghost. 'What are you doing here?' And as Elsie did not answer he advanced into the room and said in a low, steady voice, 'Oh, you're Elsie, I suppose, James's child.'
'And you're James,' said Elsie. 'Grandmother told me about you.'
'James,' said the ghost, 'your father do you mean? He's dead.'
'Yes, I meant that. I meant that you are my father and dead and a ghost. Isn't that right, please?'
The apparition seemed to reflect and gave a frown that made Elsie feel as if she were dwindling away with terror, then he said shortly, in the same low, cautious tone: 'Well, if you like. Come here and let me have a look at you.'
Elsie stood mute, shaking her head in terror. The ghost became at once angry.
'Don't be a little fool. I'm here for your good as well as my own. You don't have much of a life, do you? They've always packed you out of the way when I've been before.'
'Oh, you've been before?' whispered Elsie in a thin tone of curiosity.
'Yes, I don't suppose you heard anything about that. Well, I shan't come again. Come outside, anyway, I might help you. How old are you?'
'Seven,' replied Elsie, who felt that the extra six months gave her added importance. Not for anything would she have admitted to six and a half.
'I see. Well, you're old enough to have some sense. I've come here looking for something. Perhaps you could help me find it.'
'Grandmamma would know where it is,' said Elsie, pointing to the bed.
'I don't want to wake her,' said the man, with a queer look. 'She's asleep. I think she's going to sleep for a long time.'
'Mrs Skerrell ought to be looking after her,' whispered Elsie. 'What happened to Mrs Skerrell?'
'I sent her away with a cock-and-bull story. Never you mind that. I want a little time in this house to myself. I've been looking out for an opportunity for a long while. I had it today when the women went out. Now look here, if you'll help me, I'll do something for you. Is there anything you want?'
Elsie understood nothing of this except the last question. She did not know to what sort of creature she spoke; she was quite bewildered. She felt more confident than she had ever felt before, more happy than she had been since she had been brought, so long ago that she could not remember it, to this house.
'I came up for Grandmamma's keys.'
'Her keys?' asked the other sharply. 'Where are they?'
'In the little box by the bed.'
'What did you want with her keys?'
'I was going to take something out of the sideboard—jam.'
The man looked at her very shrewdly out of narrow eyes.
'I suppose the old miser—God forgive me—keeps you half-starved. Well, you shall have some jam, Elsie, and something else too. What else would you like?'
'Sixpence,' said Elsie, in wild bravado.
The stranger smiled sourly.
'I'll give you a gold sovereign. You could do a lot with that, couldn't you, a child of your age?'
Elsie's senses reeled. On rare occasions Mary or Sarah had taken her for short walks, but she had seen, oh, a long way off, shops in which, the servants had told her, almost anything could be purchased for money. There would not be any limit to what one could get with a golden sovereign.
'What do you want me to do?' she asked. Then her small shrewd face clouded. 'Have you come here looking for gold?'
He seemed startled.
'Gold! What made you think of that? I promised you a sovereign. I didn't say I'd come here looking for gold.'
'I thought perhaps you had, because there isn't any. Grandmamma's only got farthings, she told me so herself. Mrs Parfitt said something about gold hidden in the house, but I looked, and there wasn't any. Grandmamma,' she repeated, 'has only farthings. I think they're hidden under her pillow.'
'No, I haven't come looking for gold. I want to know where your grandmother keeps her writing-desk, her papers. Has she got them here? Or does Furnival, that's the lawyer, have them all?'
Elsie shook head, not understanding.
'Don't be a stupid,' said the man keenly, and with a certain desperation she had thought was impatience. 'How can I put it so that you'll understand? I'm looking for a piece of paper, do you see? And it's very important. It may not be here; but she used to, when I lived here, keep all her papers under her own eye and look at them secretly. Now, have you ever seen her sit up in bed and call for a little desk or a box and turn it over and look at the papers?'
'Yes, she does that sometimes. And I have to fetch them.'
'Good girl.' The man seemed with difficulty to control an intense eagerness. 'Now, if you can find those papers and let me see them, I suppose the key's on the same bunch where the key for your jam cupboard is?'
Elsie nodded again. She began to feel herself important.
At least here was action, a chance to express oneself, to show one's quickness and courage. She opened the box, put her hand in, and took out the bunch of keys. She knew them all, through quick observation and a keen memory.
'This opens the cupboard downstairs, the jam and sugar cupboard. This is the key of the little box that Grandmamma keeps in her wool cupboard underneath her grey wool, and I bring it to her sometimes, and there are papers in it.'
'Give it to me.'
He held the keys in his hand, while Elsie went to the cupboard and quickly found this box of inlaid wood.
'Aren't you afraid she'll wake?' she said, as she came back and laid this on the quilted coverlet.
'No,' he said, tucking up his lips in a peculiar smile. 'I'm not afraid she'll wake. I'm not afraid of her at all.'
He quickly found the right key. His deft, swift fingers turned over the papers in the small box. The child stared at him, her peaked face taut with interest.
'I don't believe you're a ghost,' she said at length. 'I think you're Uncle Tom.'
At that he turned on her with a low snarl. 'Who told you there was an Uncle Tom?'
'Mrs Parfitt talked about him.'
'And she...' The man pointed to the huddled outline of the sleeping woman in the bed. Did she say anything about me?'
'No,' said Elsie; 'she said there was no such person as Uncle Tom.'
'Well, isn't that right? Wouldn't she know? There is no such person. I am James, the ghost of James, your father, as you said just now when you saw me. That's right, isn't it?'
'I suppose so,' said Elsie, 'but I don't seem to be afraid like I should have been if you were a ghost.'
'You've forgotten your pot of jam, my dear,' he said, taking envelope, after envelope out of the box and scanning them keenly. 'Yes, and the golden sovereign I promised you. Ah, here we are. I knew she'd keep it. She was always in two minds about everything.'
He had taken two documents that looked very dull to Elsie and laid them on the bed.
'You can't read, I suppose, my little dear, can you?'
The child shook her head.
'Will you give me the other key and I'll run downstairs and get the jam,' she said. 'If they punish me afterwards you might come back and say you let me take it.'
'They won't punish you. They'll have something else to think about.' He tossed her the keys. 'Bring them back here. You seem sharp and spry. You ought to know your way about.'
'What are those two pieces of paper?'
'Never you mind. I've found what I want. I'll give you two sovereigns, but you're not to tell anybody you saw me. You understand?'
'Oh, why mayn't I say I've seen a ghost? I said the other night I'd seen one and I hadn't really and nobody minded.'
He laughed and the tension of his dark face relaxed.
'Oh, well, you can say you've seen a ghost if you like. That will do very well. Why not?'
'Didn't Mrs Skerrell see you?' asked the child cunningly.
'No she didn't. What's that to you, anyway? Yet I ought to be grateful to you for reminding me. I suppose the hag'll be back soon.'
He stood staring at the two papers in his hand, then put one paper carefully back into the box, locked it, and watched Elsie while she cunningly returned it underneath the piles of grey wool in the cupboard. Then he tore the second piece of paper into small pieces and put them carefully in the inner breast pocket of his coat and followed Elsie downstairs and stood over her in a listening attitude while she unlocked the cupboard and took out a pot of apricot jam.
Her eyes glistened and her mouth watered so at the sight of the jam that she almost forgot about the two sovereigns and her bewilderment as to whether or not the man was an apparition or flesh and blood. Whoever he was, he took two sovereigns out of his pocket and placed them on the end of the shining mahogany table.
'There you are, my dear; you can't say I haven't kept my bargain. Now mind, I am a ghost. If you say anything about me I don't like, I shall come in the middle of the night and give you a fright. Perhaps carry you away to where it's all bogies and blue flames.'
'Oh, please,' said Elsie, nearly dropping the pot of jam in her terror, 'I'll do anything you like. What do you want me to say?'
'Nothing at all. Only that you've just seen a ghost. Better not mention the jam or the keys or those papers I took. See—not a word.'
He frowned and thrust his head forward and made himself look so menacing and hideous that Elsie began to weep.
'There, I know you're a good girl and won't say anything. Now take the jam somewhere you're not likely to be found and remember you've simply seen a ghost this afternoon—the ghost of your father, James.'
'Are you going away now? Where do you go? Through that stepladder up on to the roof? .I think that's the way the ghosts come.'
'No, I shall go out the back. Do you know who lives next door? Anybody likely to be about just now?'
'One house is empty,' said Elsie, 'there's only a caretaker there, and they don't come until the evening. The other side the people are away. There's never anyone there at all.'
'Good! My lucky day. Now remember what I told you about the ghost.'
Then he was gone.
When Elsie had finished her pot of jam she looked round for the sovereigns, but they had gone too. This caused her to weep bitterly, for it was the vanishing of the brightest dream of her life. Yet in her soul she felt that it was logical. What could a ghost leave but fairy gold? But she cried all the same in pure disappointment at the loss of the golden visions that the two golden coins had conjured up.
Mrs Skerrell, coming back hurried and panting, and out of temper, found her crying in the dining-room.
'Why aren't you up with your grandmother, you naughty girl? You're old enough—you might have been watching of her. What'll happen to me if the old lady's come to some harm while I was away?'
Mrs Skerrell, untying her bonnet and unfastening her cloak, began to mutter about a queer business—a boy had come with a message to say she was wanted at home, a matter of illness, serious and immediate. When she'd rushed back there had been nothing at all. The boy had said that it was a stranger whom he had never seen before had told him to give the message. He thought the gentleman was a doctor, he was very civil and had given him half a crown.
'All a lot of rubbish,' said Mrs Skerrell, going upstairs, considerably ruffled and discomposed, with Elsie behind her for the sake of company.
'Grandmamma's asleep,' said Elsie, 'Better leave her alone.' Then, because she could not keep her great secret any longer to herself: 'I've seen a ghost. He gave me two sovereigns, and as soon as he went the money went too.'
'Don't be a naughty wicked girl and tell a pack of lies,' scolded Mrs Skerrell. The old lady seems asleep,' she added with a sigh of relief. 'Better leave her, she won't want her tea before five, and by that time Mrs Parfitt will be home.'
Mrs Parfitt was punctual. At the usual appointed hour when she brought up Grandmamma's tea Elsie was sitting on her little stool sobbing to herself at the loss of the fairy gold, trying to wind the yellow wool. When Mrs Parfitt and Mrs Skerrell endeavoured to rouse Grandmamma they found they could not do so.
The old lady was dead.
When the doctor came he said she had been dead for some hours. Of course, it was quite likely that she might have had a sudden stroke. 'She passed away,' as the phrase went on, in her sleep. It was really not worth while making any question or raising any fuss. What else could have happened?
Mrs Skerrell did not admit that she had been decoyed away from the house and Elsie did not even mention the ghost. The doctor had thought that there were queer marks round the old woman's throat, as if her frail life had been impetuously shaken out of her, but of course, he assured himself, this must have been a delusion.
The lawyer said that Grandmamma had left a recent will leaving everything to Elsie, but as this could not be found he was quite prepared to believe that the old lady, in a capricious mood, had destroyed it. The earlier will, then, which was found quite readily in a box where the old lady kept her important papers hidden under the pile of grey wool which she knitted into petticoats for the poor, was proved.
Grandmamma's only surviving son, Mr Thomas, came into all her money and into the big lonely house at Hampstead. Grandmamma was a much wealthier woman than anyone had thought she was, and Mr Thomas behaved generously towards Elsie.
He paid for her to go into an orphanage for the daughters of decayed gentlefolk.
He did not come near the house at Hampstead himself, so Elsie never saw him.
She left the house with a great feeling of relief. She did not, of course, expect to be happy in the orphanage nor anywhere. She knew that she was a nuisance and not wanted and must always efface herself, but she was glad to get away from the house which was haunted by the ghost of her father, James. Though she had loyally kept her word to him, and never said a word about what he had done when he visited her the day Grandmamma died, she was filled with fear that his angry apparition might return one night under some hideous form.
And another reason for her relief at leaving the great house in Hampstead was the fact that now there was hardly any possibility that anyone would discover that she had stolen the pot of apricot jam.
The Lady Clodagh now found pleasure in detaching herself from the world; the sharp sadness of her grief was assuaged by the sublime and gentle comforting of religion; in an ancient convent near Douai in Flanders she mourned without bitterness and endured her widow's black without too gross a pang; she felt herself being drawn daily nearer to the Heaven where her lost beloved surely dwelt—the kind good man! Truly there would be no more than the briefest taste of Purgatory for him, with his upright life and the great benefactions he had made to Holy Church.
Clodagh, her short period of probation over, intended to take her vows, to become a religieuse; the poor woman! what had she now to live for?
The grey nuns, the grey church, the shadowed cloisters, the convent building of small lamp-lit cells closed her in; dark low clouds blew across the flat land and cast heavy rain over the plain gravestones, the wreaths of withered leaves in the earth, the stone statues of saints resigned in their weather-worn draperies, and all seemed to enfold Clodagh, wrapping her away from life.
She had great estates in Connacht; though the law was cruel then against those of her faith, it was often not enforced, and peaceable people, if discreet, were allowed to live in peace; these lands were held in trust for her only son Dermot, who was being trained for the great place he would one day inherit—but what had she to do with him, the poor foolish creature she knew herself to be? He had his tutors and counsellors, her kin and his father's kin; let her leave him alone lest her maternal love engrossed her, hindered the youth and distracted her from the decent dedication of her widowhood to Heaven.
So the Lady Clodagh mourned in the convent near Douai, not without patience, knowing peace at least. And when she had been in the convent nearly three years she forgot that she was a beautiful woman and her son Dermot became a faint tender memory only, scarcely stronger than the memory of Dermot her husband.
Then Clodagh was disturbed in the sloth of her piety, for her Irish steward wrote urgently:
'Madam, you must surely now return to Connacht, as the guardian of my young lord and in your own name you must plead before the law against the vexations, insolent villainies of your neighbour who is a notorious rogue and breaker of the peace; he has consumed his own fortune and now infringes on yours, for he seizes your meadows where the estates march, your cattle and your timber and has trumped up a case to get Murrish, your jointure, into his possession. I speak of Thomond O'Malley, God help him, a heretic and one who learnt more than his native evil, serving the Usurper's Government in Flanders—'
There was much more of this, and Clodagh was bewildered and not a little troubled; what did she know of such things? Let her kin and her husband's kin concern themselves with these worldly matters...
But no, she must face the matter, though the abbess and nuns cried out against this interference with her holy peace, her piety, her withdrawal from all that was earthly.
'I'll not go.' She shuddered at the thought of leaving her retreat where she was so sheltered, where her soul was being daily wafted Heavenwards on the incense of perpetual prayers; she even had a faint but terrible perception of fierce danger awaiting her if she ventured to turn aside from her chosen path of abnegation and resignation.
But her husband, in his complete love and trust, had left her in charge of his estates and guardian of the son; besides, some of the lands this ruffian Thomond O'Malley had dared to claim were hers, an inheritance from her father; was not this wicked man, already infamous for his great daring and wrongdoing, venturing on his insolence because he believed the Lady Clodagh was a foolish grief-smitten widow who had not wit nor courage to defend her own? A religieuse, dedicated to God and memory?
So Clodagh, trembling and weeping, returned to Connacht to defend her right to the lands and that of her son.
What must she now do, the sad, pious woman? Her steward, her lawyers, her kin (distant and strange to her) gathered round with advice, with suggestions; she heard much evil of Thomond O'Malley, yet the worst known of him was not fit to tell to any woman; she felt lonely and frightened in the large empty mansion where she had been richly happy; she was homesick for the convent, for the nuns, for the quiet peace of Douai.
Her son was almost a stranger, too, now a grave youth immersed in his studies, absorbed by his tutors; his coldness increased her timidity.
'When this law case is over I shall return to Douai, Dermot.'
'It is fitting that you should do so, Madam.'
'Soon,' said Clodagh wistfully. 'You will be a man and all will be put into your hands.'
'I shall be glad to take charge of all, Madam.'
'I shall want nothing, Dermot, you may take even my jointure—it is my desire to strip myself and hide my bereavement under the veil of a nun.'
The young lord inclined his head.
'I am indeed very sorry, Madam, that the action of this scoundrel Thomond O'Malley has disturbed your pious solitude, and brought you to Ireland again.'
He regarded her, she saw, with profound respect, almost as a saint already in a shrine, and she sighed, not having yet, she discovered, overcome all desire for the soft fond follies of the human heart—the poor weak woman!
On a chill golden day of autumn, with the clouds curdling high in a faint blue heaven, the Lady Clodagh went to the Court-house, and all the countryside turned out to see her pass, applauding her sorrow, her courage, loving her for her beauty, her chastity, her wrongs; ah, the hard things they said of her persecutor, the wicked man! And wasn't he hated already by high and low and the mark of Satan was on him?
She took her seat in the Court-house and all turned towards her with admiring respect and deference; she was tender and trembling in her full suit of mourning with her veil of widowhood, almost she was dedicated to God.
As she took her oath she glanced timidly round the filled Court, abashed by all these stern-looking men, by the Judge and the lawyers, amazed by the grim parade of the place; she saw her son, silent and austere, proudly controlled, her kin and her counsellors, and in a long beam of sunshine in which the motes played, she saw a man who made all these others seem but of pale worth.
The man moved his head in the beautiful light that sent gold through his dark hair, and now he smiled at the Lady Clodagh.
Her words broke on her lips, she sank down and the Book fell from her hand; they feared that a swooning fit was upon her and that this appearance after so long a seclusion was more than she could well endure.
Her laces were loosened and her veils lifted and the throwing aside of this cloud of dark gauze revealed her as soft and lovely so that even the dry Judge thought: 'A fair woman indeed'.
She composed herself as her breeding enabled her, and looked again at the stranger seated the other side of the Court, and again he smiled as if they were alone in the chamber.
Then the Lady Clodagh knew that never had she loved her husband nor any man, that her life till then had been pretence and sham, that never could she be a religieuse, that God was so far away that it was hopeless to think of reaching Him.
She gave her evidence in much confusion of mind, which passed very well for a natural emotion; her case was manifestly just; but what cared the Lady Clodagh now for that, or even for her son's heritage?
Who was the man who had smiled at her?
She was soon to know; he was the defendant in the case—Captain Thomond O'Malley.
'I am sure,' sighed Clodagh in her heart, 'he is not wicked.'
She marvelled indeed that anyone could suppose he was evil; all he did was engaging and his bearing had nothing of the villain; from under her lids she marked his figure, slim waisted, broad shouldered, in the blue riding-coat with silver buttons—aye, every detail of him, from the folds of muslin at his throat to the bullion tassels on his sword string, did the poor woman note; and while her lawyer was pleading her just cause, she was thinking: 'Whatever they said of Thomond O'Malley, no one could deny that he had a perfect mouth.'
She listened not at all to her own case, but when he came to speak (he took charge of his own defence, being more cunning than any attorney) she listened with all her soul.
Everyone there was hostile to Thomond O'Malley, a renegade, who served the usurper, despised by those who employed him, and hated by his countrymen, for he might call himself what he would, his breed was clear enough in the look of him; he was direct descendant of the Ni Inhaille, sea kings of the Isle of Clare, and of the great Grainne, ruler of Clew Bay, who had defied Queen Elizabeth of England—was it not in their right he still held Achill and Mallavanny?
A shame and a disgrace, surely, was this man to such noble ancestors of Ireland—
Yet his pleasant modesty and his manly candour almost seduced his enemies and hushed their malice against their wish; he looked no more at Clodagh and she thought: 'How can any resist him when he speaks in such a voice?'
Very skilfully he put his case, using all the nice arts of a fine gentleman which he had learned in France.
'Far be it from me to wrong a widow and her son—if there has been marauding of land and cattle by men of mine, it has been without my knowledge and consent. Who can be responsible for the villainies of his people? Very willingly will I see any hanged who have disturbed this noble lady and this gallant youth'—and he bowed slightly, like a King granting a favour, towards my young lord, who bit his lip and looked bitterly offended—'and as for my occupation of the lands of Ballycroy and Curraun, I believed I had a good title to them.'
And he dwelt at length on old title deeds in the Latin which all present believed to be forged, running over ancient claims and descents with learning and clarity, turning with great deference to the Judge, yet without abasement or servility.
And what was the Lady Clodagh thinking of the while? She was in a deep muse, and precious delights that she had dreamed of long ago yet never known and believed forgotten, returned to her, thick as bees round a blossoming lime-tree.
Ah, the thoughts she had had as a young girl alone in the walled garden of her father's house, in the still drowsy afternoons; the lover she had imagined coming through the flowering grasses, embracing her beneath the fruiting trees, loosening her hair, raising her face, kissing her lips, all in the lonely, lovely silence...
And there he stood, that lover, with his law papers clasped in his fine hand; Clodagh blushed at the thought of those long white fingers stealing across her bosom, and they thought she coloured with shame at the man's false, specious reasoning.
Captain O'Malley lost his case; yet he had cast some spell on them all, for though he had done what merited hanging, yet he was acquitted of blame and went unpunished; how may this be accounted for? They all knew the evil he had done and many had suffered from it, but he seemed armoured against all attack, and when he left all with suave compliments none could deny a civil reply, though all felt uneasy.
The kin of Clodagh were discontented.
'He escapes without punishment! The Government protects him because he is a renegade! He will be a perilous neighbour yet—'
'He looks like a King,' thought Clodagh.
She waited at the door of the Court-house for her sedan; my young lord fumed at her side, complaining of injustice and the heavy disabilities he was under because of his ancient Faith; little heed gave Clodagh to that, she was lingering for the coming forth of Thomond O'Malley, and when he came, descending the steps slowly while he drew the buckles of his gloves, she had but one desire and that was to turn about and follow him, not asking where he went.
He paused and saluted her and my lord very civilly, regretting (he smiled) the vexatious manner of their making acquaintance; Clodagh ventured to give him a close glance, so anxious was she to know the colour of his eyes at a near view, and he looked at her as the lover she had never known would have looked.
'Sir,' said young Dermot in a voice which was not yet that of a man, 'I can scarcely pretend to desire a closer knowledge of you—'
And, awkwardly, yet grandly, he handed his mother into her chair, while Thomond O'Malley stood at pause on the steps, unperturbed, and smiling with his eyes on Clodagh; now she knew the colour of them, flecked green and brown they were, very clear and radiant, like water of a shallow mountain stream.
Thomond O'Malley returned to his Castle of Carrigahooly, which had been one of the strongholds of the sea kings of Clare and which lay beneath the mountains of Buckoogh and Bengoern and close to the glen running into the heart of the hills that all held to be haunted; he was glad to hide himself for a while, men declared, and the simple folk thought that he had gone to consult with Satan his master in the lonely mountain pass by Lough Fee.
Clodagh returned to her demesne of Aghagower, and everyone expected her soon to return to Douai; what was to prevent her now?
But it was impossible for her to go.
'I would sooner be under the seas or the mountains than in the grey church with the grey nuns, and what would be coming between me and my prayers?' she mourned to herself, and aloud she made excuses of this and that, and so all was delayed through the warm autumn weather.
Lonely was the great mansion and not built for a widow surely; the Lady Clodagh went timidly through the vast rooms and up the wide stairs, and shadows seemed to start and fly before her; there was no one to keep her company; Dermot was shut away with his tutors, and the servants with their work, and the day seemed so long.
'I would like again to see a man's beaver and gloves, sword and cane in the hall,' mused Clodagh. 'And to open a press and see his coats and boots, aye, and the impress of his head on the smooth pillow by my side.'
But it was not for the return of her husband that she longed; the poor man! she had forgotten him, save when she wondered sometimes how she had come to wed one so fair, when all her delight was in a dark complexion.
But for the boy she felt a frightened tenderness and tried to woo him into her solitude.
'Dermot, there are only the two of us and we should be more together. Have a little patience with me—for soon you will bring a wife home and I shall have no part in you.'
'I shall always love and protect you, Madam. But were you not more happy at Douai? Everyone wonders that you do not return there.'
'Oh, Dermot, if you do love me a little you will want to keep me here and cherish me.'
There was a sighing wistfulness in her words that the boy did not understand; he was uneasy because everyone said that his mother should return to the convent, and because something (he knew not what) about her was strange and alarming.
The truth was that Clodagh had grown in beauty since the day of the trial and was soft, warm and dazzling as a rose widespread to the sun at crown of summer; and though this tall boy was her son, she was younger than anyone thought, so childish had she been at her wedding, the poor creature!
What background was this empty house for her, what adornment her widow's mourning?
When she went to her husband's grave in Burrishoule Abbey she felt she stood by the last bed of a stranger, and all the gay little grasses that fringed his stone seemed more important than his bones beneath.
Ah, she was sorry for young Dermot because she had cared so little for his father, and so maybe caused the coldness in him, and she yearned over him delicately.
From his Castle of Carrigahooly Thomond O'Malley came to wait on her; it was a beautiful horse he had and he rode superbly, it was natural to him to have all splendid about him, but in his person he was very plain in the finely cut blue coat with the silver buttons and his black hair in a club.
'I have not been able to rest, Madam, thinking of the disease I put you to, with that unlucky lawsuit of mine. You so lonely, Lady Clodagh, in this great house—you'll never return to Douai?' he added abruptly.
'Here or there is my life—lonely—and both places lonely too, Captain O'Malley.'
'And you obscured in this ugly crape! Had I left a sweet fair creature behind in the world, I would not wish her to go in black, surely.'
Oh, he changed the very air she breathed, the gay, bold man! So gentle he was and deferential, yet the look in his eyes made her cast hers down; her heart sang like a bird in May and when he had gone from her she locked herself in her room and took out a shift of pale satin, yellow and pink interchanged, and flung off her mourning and stood in the dainty night rail, half naked, laughing before the long mirror which had reflected her husband's stiff outline straight between the tall death-watch candles.
Three times did Thomond O'Malley come to woo her and she did not listen to the outcry this caused, nor to the reproaches of my young lord; on the third visit he asked her for his wife.
'Dear woman, indeed I love you—from the first when I saw you in the Court-house and cared no longer how my cause went! Whatever you have heard of me, never has it been like this with me before—here my life changes, stops, and is offered to you—do with it what you will!'
Clodagh made no feint of resistance; that was beyond her power, from the first moment she had seen him her spirit had sent up the old cry of surrender—'I can deny thee nothing.'
She gave him her hand and the tears lay in her gentle eyes; she thought: 'If God meant this man to be refused He should have fashioned him differently.'
And when he embraced her, gently, delicately, all her childish, bright dreams crowded round her heart, so dazzling and overwhelming her that she was near fainting in his arms.
Ah, the exclaim and the scandal there was!—the sending to and fro of expresses, the visits of angry kin.
'The fellow is a blackguard, suffocated with debts, of a foul reputation, no honourable woman would endure his presence! Clodagh, you're never in love with a mere fine figure and handsome face, surely?'
And others, the women, more deadly, more correct:
'Ahi, well, he's a pretty fellow and you've tumbled into his arms just like every other woman he's ever seduced!'
Clodagh cared nothing for all this, but she winced before the bitter scorn, the cold fury of her son.
'Will you put this scoundrel in my father's place? Am I to be beggared to pay his creditors? This is a shameful and an awful thing surely.'
'Dermot,' she pleaded with him earnestly, 'I'll never love you less for loving another—and you are heir of all your father's estate.'
'You, God help me, are my guardian till I am twenty-one. All is in your hands.'
'Do you think I would touch a pebble or a blade of grass that is yours?'
'I fear it. So gross a passion for so worthless a creature!'
'Dermot, that I will not hear. The man is noble, of higher birth than ours—of great estates, too.'
'All encumbered, Madam. Even you know his reputation, surely?'
'I have heard of some reckless passages in his youth much blown on-but—'
The youth interrupted:
'—but, Madam, you intend to have him, and I then can hold myself no better than ruined.'
It was true that Clodagh meant to marry Thomond O'Malley whatever was said against him, but there was more truth in her than that; she really believed the man to be what he appeared to her, noble, generous, honourable, fine and greatly maligned by mean spirits.
And in the matter of her son's right she felt herself impregnable.
Candidly she broached the subject to her lover.
'All that is mine is yours to the pearls at my breast—but what I have in trust from my husband is for Dermot—forgive me that I speak of this.'
So intense was her love that she wished his disinterestedness confirmed by his own lips, and publicly known.
He responded just as she wished him to do.
'Surely I am not so mean as to encroach on the boy's rights! I shall not even enquire after the amount of his fortune. My own is not so poor though something disordered—but what is all this compared to what is betwixt me and thee, my love?'
She married him in Burrishoule Abbey; nor were those lacking to applaud him as well as those who pitied her, for he had his friends and followers, his creditors and those who hoped to profit from his wife's wealth; ah, they knew already that the fond woman had put into his hands all her property with softest words of adoration—'Would I had more to give thee, Love.'
In grief and fury her kin stayed away; and Dermot's face was pinched and shadowed as he put off his mourning to attend his mother's wedding. Yet truly he had nothing against Thomond O'Malley who had behaved to him openly with flattering respect, and had told him: 'It is my last desire to interfere with your affairs—you must acquit me of any intention of vexing you. God grant we may live in friendliness, my dear lord.'
It was the palest day of earliest spring and veils on veils of fine vapour were blown across the ancient sides of the mountains when Clodagh came to Carrigahooly Castle; ah, she was happy, the wedded woman, could she believe how happy she was?
In every kiss he gave her she felt some foretaste of an infinity of bliss and her spirit entered into the surrender of her body surely.
With her girdle and her garters on the floor at her feet, all her laces loosened, she lay against his breast and over his shoulder watched the clouds flying past the mountain gorges trembling with the hues of sunset.
And when the sun rose again and she woke to find him asleep at her side, how could she say how happy she was then?
Trembling, she touched the dark locks on the pillow and vowed to his service her all; with joy she noted that his alluring face was candid in sleep; this man had no secrets, surely.
Even her angry kin sullenly admitted that the ill-omened (so they called it) marriage went very smoothly; some began to think Captain O'Malley maligned.
What had they against him? Nothing.
Truly he managed them all with consummate skill; he had great arts; he could find the weakness of each and flatter it, he could make common events exciting, gild dullness, create gaiety and touch all with ardour and enthusiasm; in all he did was the sense of a passion of life surging up and held in, as if the world was too small for what he might do; nor was he gross in anything, neither a drunkard nor a glutton nor foul mouthed.
With these graces he won over even my young lord, at least to the extent of inducing him to live under the same roof, for Clodagh loved better to be at Aghagower than Carrigahooly, which was so vast and lonely in the mountains, built for war and close to the darkly haunted glen of the fatal Lough Fee.
So she returned with her second husband to her son's demesne and it was agreed that when Dermot married, the jointure house should be rebuilt for her; no one could say that she was not the contented woman, surely.
At the end of six months her stewards, her attorneys had one tale to tell and told it grimly:
'Madam, will you not look into your affairs? Is Captain O'Malley our master? He bids us sell and mortgage—cut timber—neglect farms.
'He is master.'
She dismissed her stewards, she sent away her lawyers, she said to her husband:
'All is yours. I know you have good reason for all you do.'
My lord's tutor said to her face:
'Madam, if Captain O'Malley could not get your estates one way he has another; I pray you consider a little, for the sake of your son—'
'Sir, I forgive your indiscretion—your mistake—because of your long, loving service. My lord's estates shall not be touched.'
What did her husband's extravagance matter to her?—-did she need an account from him of what he spent, as if he were a hired servant? She liked to see his fine horses, his liveried servants, the rich wine and food on the table, his clothes from Paris, his dogs, his costly equipage; she liked his lavish entertainments, his presents of jewels, of enamel, of porcelain to herself, for were they not always given with kind and loving words? Nay, she even endured his long absences in Dublin, in London, and none dare tell any tale of him; for did he not always return with an eager air and caress her tenderly?
It took him a year to come to the end of her resources and by then her happiness was a little clouded because she had had no child; she became restless, secretly tormented by this insatiable passion that possession could not allay; she had utterly divorced herself from holy thoughts, she dared not pray, no priest came to the house, her visits to church were few and hurried; she could not believe that the quiet woman mourning at Douai was herself, so completely had she given herself to an earthly love.
The return of the spring reminded her of her passionate bridals; she besought him to put off a proposed visit to Dublin.
'Why, if you will, my love, but will you not rather come with me to the city?'
Clodagh shook her head; she would not have the world break in on their love.
'Stay here—why should you go?'
'I have some business, Clodagh. You know I struggle against embarrassments. I cannot free myself—'
'All I have is yours—'
'But it is not enough, Clodagh,' he smiled tenderly. 'You do not understand, sweet, what our spendings are—'
'It is true, my dear love.' She sighed, wishing she were a wealthy woman; no one had told her how he gambled, what debts he had all over Mayo, the mistresses he kept in London and Dublin. What would have been the use? She would have believed none of it. 'I would I had more,' she mourned.
'You could raise what you wished on Dermot's estates.'
'That I will never do,' said the Lady Clodagh.
'It is three years before he is of age—in that while I could repay—'
'Thomond, I must not do it. I have sworn to respect Dermot's possessions.'
'What do you know of oaths, pretty Clodagh?'
'I have kept that I made to you. But for the boy—'
'He is a boy—what does he want with all that great wealth lying idle?'
Clodagh was very pale; never before had she refused him anything.
'I cannot. The boy—and the dead—trust in me.'
Her husband regarded her smilingly; his courteous demeanour did not falter.
'Make me the boy's guardian,' he said. 'Leave all in my hands—you have given me everything, why refuse me this?'
'It is not mine to give.'
'All is in your power, to the last farthing, you know that?'
'That is why I cannot touch it. If we did we should provoke the Judgment and the Fire of Hell.'
'Do you not love me, my wife, better than this child and his dead father?'
'I love you so much, Thomond, that I would give you everything I have. But this I have not.'
He saw she was not to be moved and he embraced her, telling her that he but spoke to test her spirit and applauding her loyalty to the boy. And presently he went to Dublin, leaving her for a long while alone.
When Captain O'Malley's influence was withdrawn, my young lord began to turn restive and listen to tales of his stepfather which he understood better than he had a year ago; shameful things cannot long be hushed up and Dermot discovered that all his mother had to give she had given; he learnt, too, something of the way in which Clodagh's portion had been spent, and being serious and shrewd he took counsel secretly with his kin.
'Your mother is in the power of a villain, surely, but she will hold out against wronging you. Make no broil, but be patient, enduring all until in three years you are your own master. We watch your interests and will quickly make a scandal if he touches a stone of yours—but before the law we are powerless.'
This was the answer my young lord got and he was much disturbed in mind and dreaded what might happen in those three years to come by reason of Thomond O'Malley working subtly on his mother.
Taking advantage of his stepfather's absence he said:
'Madam, my affairs are a vast burden and responsibility, and though my father, God save his soul, left all to you in love, yet it was too much for a woman. And would it not relieve you if all your powers were transferred to my kin, men of my father's house?'
'You fear my husband,' said Clodagh. 'What has he ever done to you?'
'Nothing. I think him too courteous, perhaps, I fear he flatters me.'
'Indeed you grow too much of a man, Dermot, to be so suspicious.'
'Alas, many give me advice!'
'And tell you tales, too, Dermot.'
'At least it is known that he is ruined and has ruined you.'
Clodagh was stricken that this should be common talk, though she thought it a slander.
'I will give your estates into the keeping of your kin, surely.'
The boy kissed her, wistfully, with regret; why had she left Douai, where she was safe, soul, body and estate, in the keeping of God?
When Thomond O'Malley returned to Aghagower his wife told him of her design to transfer the guardianship of Dermot to his kin; to her deep pleasure her husband agreed instantly and offered to assist in every way.
''Twill be a weight off you, and maybe a slander off me—for they say I meddle in the lad's affairs.'
'This will prove them wrong—and, Thomond, it is not true that we are ruined?'
'Why, no,' he laughed. 'We are very well, my difficulties that I lamented are solved. I have found a way out of all of them. Come, we have been married a year, what fault have you to find with this rogue who was to break your heart?'
'None, ah, none!' Her whole soul spoke in the passionate affirmation.
That night he helped her write to Dermot's kin and when the letter was dispatched by express to Sligo to the Castle by Lough Gill, my young lord felt all his suspicions vanish and the charm of Captain O'Malley exert itself again so strongly that he could almost persuade himself that he liked the man and credited none of the gossip as to his wickedness.
And in pleasant amity they spent some days in Aghagower, awaiting the answer from Sligo.
It was near the anniversary of the death of Dermot's father, early summer and fine weather; my young lord rode morning and evening to the Abbey to attend Masses and prayers for his father's soul, and sometimes Thomond O'Malley (who had re-entered Holy Church) accompanied him; but on a day of sharp clouding and sudden thunder darkness, he did not do so, for it was time, surely, he said, that the answer arrived from Lough Gill, and he was impatient to receive it, so he stayed with Clodagh and was busy with the plans for rebuilding the jointure house.
In the afternoon the express arrived from Dermot's kin and Clodagh ran to show the letter to her husband; she did not immediately find him, and in her excitement finally went to his private toilet closet where she had never been before, and after one knock opened the door.
He was changing his clothes, buttoning on a long skirted waistcoat, and Clodagh stepped back, smiling and begging forgiveness for her intrusion and a little bewildered also, by two queer little details.
The first was the look her husband had given her when she had broken in on him; surely her impulsive entry on to his toilet (fastidious as she knew him to be) did not justify those dark flames in his eyes, the frown that changed his whole face, the first anger he had ever shown her?
The second was a glimpse she had had of a fine white cord wound round and round his waist over his shirt; this was an odd manner of belt for a man so nice in his attire.
But he had fastened his waistcoat so quickly, smiled so instantly, rejoiced with her so heartily over the friendly, grateful letter from Sligo, that she forgot these things.
It was a riding-suit he had changed to, and though the day was darkening down he would go abroad for a little air and exercise.
'To meet Dermot?'
'Nay, in the other direction, the road is better—the boy will be pleased with the letter!'
He smiled, kissed her and was gone; how happy then was Clodagh, secure in his good faith, his love, his honour, the future of her son secured!
Yet as the twilight deepened she grew a little uneasy for Dermot had never been so late before and to return from the Abbey he had to take a mountain path which was, to her woman's nervous fancy, perilous.
When her husband returned, flushed from the ride, he chided her fears; but when complete dark fell, he led her servants in a search for my young lord.
It was near the dawn before they brought him back to the weary wretched waiting woman; they carried him on a gate, covered by his own summer cloak; they had found him and his horse dead with broken necks, beneath the steep narrow mountain path that Clodagh had been justified in thinking perilous.
An accident and one not so difficult to understand—the dusk, a nervous mount, a youthful rider, the sudden alarm of bird or beast—a bolt, a slip—and no need for anyone to concern themselves about the future of my young lord.
Clodagh was ill with grief, with horror, with a strange remorse; yet what wrong had she done, the poor woman? This perhaps—the day that her son was laid in holy turf beside his father she thought (her senses coming back to her slowly): 'Supposing it had been Thomond?'
Now one grave held all of her past; she need struggle with her infatuate passion no more; there was no one to claim the wide lands, the money, the castles, the lakes, the villages she had held in trust for young Dermot.
'All that is mine is thine.'
Within three months of her son's cruel death she had placed all his possessions in her husband's hands, not keeping even a pittance for herself, and all her grief was that she still had no other child.
And in her distress she resolved to consult a wise old woman, esteemed through the whole of Connacht; and so set out secretly, ashamed of her superstitious credulity, to the Isle of Clare where the beldam dwelt.
So, on a late autumn day Clodagh, cloaked like a peasant, was rowed out to Roonagh through the mists, and entered the hut of the wise woman, who peered at her through the peat smoke.
'Is it of the son whom you have lost or the son whom you hope to have you have come to ask me, Clodagh O'Malley?'
'The son I have lost lies in the lap of God, surely. There is an unchangeable loss. But may I hope for an heir to the line of Ni Inhaille, sea kings of Clare and Clew? Truly I love my lord, truly he loves me, and I am shamed because I am barren.'
'You should have deeper shames than that, Clodagh O'Malley. Are you a fool that you do not hear the whispers all round you? The man whom you love has sold himself to Satan.'
'Truly I did not think to hear the wild speech of ignorance here.'
'Return home and thank God fasting that you have borne no child to that man.'
Clodagh rose, frightened.
'Have you no more to say beyond this foolish spite?'
'Ask Matty O'Flaterty, a servant in your house, what he knows.'
Clodagh fled; when she returned to Aghagower it was evening, and in the twilight she sent for O'Flaterty, who was a man employed in the stables, and across the dim room she addressed him, holding her muff before her face.
'O'Flaterty, what do you know that I ought to know?'
'Who said I knew anything?' he muttered, troubled.
'Someone speaks behind my back. I am told of whispers. What do you know?'
'Something I do not wish to tell you.'
He approached reluctantly across the grand, shadowed room, and pulled from his pocket and showed her a length of broken white cord.
'I found that the day of my young lord's death tied round the stem of a tree on the mountain path. Who dares say anything? A cord drawn tight across his way in the dusk. All had been removed but this—Captain O'Malley was there first.'
Clodagh took the cord in her hand; in that moment she had a vision of the devil standing in a clear spurt of Hell Fire—he was buttoning a long skirted waistcoat over a cord wound round his waist; his eyes were angry and he had the charming aspect of the man in whose arms she had so often lain with rapture.
'She takes it very easy,' thought O'Flaterty. 'Is it that she knew, God help her?'
Clodagh left him standing troubled in the dusk; she went to her husband's room where he was writing letters by the light of fine candles.
'I am going to Douai tonight,' she said.
He looked up, smiled, looked again, rose and smiled no more.
'Is it that you have had all? All of mine, all of theirs? God let me be tempted and now I must be damned.'
She did not speak with any extravagance of passion but simply as a natural expression of her intense misery.
'And you so courteous and kind, loving, too—it must have been the Devil, surely, lent you such arts. And you caring nothing for me.'
'I have cared for you more than I ought for my own interests.' Thomond O'Malley was more troubled than she had ever known him; but she did not perceive that. 'I was sure of you,' he added. 'Have you at last been listening to tales of me?'
Clodagh had nothing more to say to this man; she took the piece of broken cord she had held behind her back and placed it between the two candles; her husband was silent and she left him.
When he enquired of her he learnt that she had left Aghagower with two servants for Galway.
Then he had everything, the cunning, scheming man! And if people said again that the Devil had helped him surely, was that a wonder?
There was then no restraint on him; all the great properties of the dead man and the murdered boy were, through a woman's folly, in his hands to do as he would with, and no one daring to say a word against him save very secretly.
And Clodagh was in a convent, mortifying the feeble flesh that had betrayed her spirit.
In Aghagower Captain O'Malley held festival, bringing about him the friends, hangers-on and flatterers he had kept at a distance while Clodagh was there; very gay were they all with the substance he had so easily cajoled from his wife, very sumptuously he entertained them with games, gambling and all wantonness of music, dancing, plays and indulgence of all carnal lusts.
Her house was filled with these people and he was drinking at her board (since she had left him he was not so sober) when he heard the news of her death.
Not for long had her poor body withstood the penance she had inflicted on it; God (the nuns said) had had pity on her remorse; she had died in her bare cell, wearing a hair shirt—but what was all this to Thomond O'Malley enjoying the fruits of his wickedness?
She had sent him a letter, sealed in black; he thrust it into his pocket and went on with his merriment.
Then, in the middle of the feast, when they were bringing out the dice boxes and more wax lights he left the chamber suddenly and went upstairs to my young lord's room.
There he lit a taper and looked about; all was neatly arrayed; the boy's globes and his books, his gloves and his cane; on the bed the valances were folded and the curtains carefully laid by.
Thomond O'Malley opened the shutters, for the air was close; but, in the moonbeams that flowed in from across the mountains he hid his face as if he feared the cold light would discover what he wished to conceal.
He opened her letter, leaning against the heavy bedpost; why should he be reading it?
It would contain nothing but a withering curse; he had had her soul, her honour, her son, her possessions; because of him she had died miserably, in her own estimation horribly dishonoured, the fond creature!
But he read her message, in the light of taper and moon.
His companions missed him; his wantons and toadies called up the stairs to him with sallies and jests, entreating him to return to the festival.
Clodagh had written:
<'Through you I have had all the joy and happiness that I have ever known.'
And he was snared.
He heard them coming up the stairs joyously to draw him back into their wicked plays and he bolted the door; how had it come about that he must pass judgment and sentence on himself?
He did not know; as his fellow-sinners retreated from the locked door and went away whispering, he took from his pocket a piece of broken white cord that he always carried with him and made it into a noose.
She who had been Florence Flannery noted with a careless eye the stains of wet on the dusty stairs, and with a glance ill used to observance of domesticities looked up for damp or dripping ceilings. The dim-walled staircase revealed nothing but more dust, yet this would serve as a peg for ill-humor to hang on, so Florence pouted. "An ill, muddy place," said she, who loved gilding and gimcracks and mirrors reflecting velvet chairs, and flounced away to the upper chamber, lifting frilled skirts contemptuously high. Her husband followed; they had been married a week and there had never been any happiness in their wilful passion. Daniel Shute did not now look for any; in the disgust of this draggled homecoming he wondered what had induced him to marry the woman and how soon he would come to hate her.
As she stood in the big bedroom he watched her with dislike; her tawdry charms of vulgar prettiness had once been delightful to his dazed senses and muddled wits, but here, in his old home, washed by the fine Devon air, his sight was clearer and she appeared coarse as a poppy at the far end of August.
"Of course you hate it," he said cynically, lounging with his big shoulders against one of the bedposts, his big hands in the pockets of his tight nankeen trousers, and his fair hair, tousled from the journey, hanging over his mottled face.
"It is not the place you boasted to have," replied Florence, but idly, for she stood by the window and looked at the tiny leaded panes; the autumn sun gleaming sideways on this glass, picked out a name scratched there:
"Look here," cried the woman, excited, "this should be my ancestress!"
She slipped off a huge diamond ring she wore and scratched underneath the writing the present year, "1800." Daniel Shute came and looked over her shoulder.
"That reads strange—'Born 1500'—as if you would say died 1800," he remarked. "Well, I don't suppose she had anything to do with you, my charmer, yet she brought you luck, for it was remembering this name here made me notice you when I heard what you were called."
He spoke uncivilly, and she responded in the same tone. "Undervalue what is your own, Mr. Shute. There was enough for me to choose from, I can swear!"
"Enough likely gallants," he grinned, "not so many likely husbands, eh?"
He slouched away, for, fallen as he was, it stung him that he had married a corybante of the opera, an unplaced, homeless, nameless creature for all he knew, for he could never quite believe that "Florence Flannery" was her real name.
Yet that name had always attracted; it was so queer that he should meet a real woman called Florence Flannery when one of the earliest of his recollections was tracing that name over with a curious finger in the old diamond pane.
"You have never told me who she was," said Mrs. Shute.
"Who knows? Three hundred years ago, m'dear. There are some old wives' tales, of course."
He left the great bedroom and she followed him doggedly downstairs.
"Is this your fine manor, Mr. Shute? And these your noble grounds? And how am Ito live here, Mr. Shute, who left the gaieties of London for you?"
Her voice, shrill and edged, followed him down the stairs and into the vast dismantled drawing-room where they paused, facing each other like things caught in a trap, which is what they were.
For he had married her because he was a ruined man, driven from London by duns, and a drunken man who dreaded lonely hours and needed a boon companion to pledge him glass for glass, and a man of coarse desires who had bought with marriage what he was not rich enough to buy with money, and she had married him because she was past her meridian and saw no more conquests ahead and also was in love with the idea of being a gentlewoman and ruling in the great grand house by the sea—which was how she had thought of Shute Manor.
And a great grand house it had been, but for twenty years it had been abandoned by Daniel Shute, and stripped and mortgaged to pay for his vices, so that now it stood barren and desolate, empty and tarnished, and only a woman with love in her heart could have made a home of it; never had there been love in Florence Flannery's heart, only greed and meanness.
Thus these two faced each other in the gaunt room with the monstrous chandelier hanging above them wrapped in a dusty brown holland bag, the walls festooned with cobwebs, the pale wintry sunshine showing the thick dust on the unpolished boards.
"I can never live here!" cried Mrs. Shute. There was a touch of panic in her voice and she lifted her hands to her heart with a womanly gesture of grief.
The man was touched by a throb of pity; he did not himself expect the place to be so dilapidated. Some kind of a rascally agent had been looking after it for him, and he supposed some effort would have been made for his reception.
Florence saw his look of half-sullen shame and urged her point.
"We can go back, cannot we?" she said, with the rich drop in her voice, so useful for coaxing; "back to London and the house in Baker Street? All the old friends and old pleasures, Mr. Shute, and a dashing little cabriolet to go round the park?"
"Curse it!" he answered, chagrined. "I haven't the money. Flo; I haven't the damned money!" She heard the ring of bitter truth in his voice and the atrocious nature of the deception he had practiced on her overwhelmed her shallow understanding.
"You mean you've got no money, Mr. Shute?" she screamed. "Not enough for London, m'dear."
"And I've to live in this filthy barn?"
"It has been good enough for my people, Mrs. Shute," he answered grimly. "For all the women of my family, gentlewomen, all of 'em with quarterings, and it will be good enough for you, m'dear, so none of your Bartholomew Fair airs and graces."
She was cornered, and a little afraid of him; he had been drinking at the last place where they stopped to water the horses and she knew how he could be when he was drunk; she remembered that she was alone with him and what a huge man he was.
So she crept away and went down into the vast kitchens where an old woman and a girl were preparing a meal.
The sight of this a little heartened Mrs. Shute; in her frilled taffetas and long ringlets she sat down by the great open hearth, moving her hands to show the firelight flashing in her rings and shifting her petticoats so that the girl might admire her kid shoes.
"I'll take a cordial to stay my strength," she said, "for I've come a long way and find a sour welcome at the end of it, and that'll turn any woman's blood."
The old dame smiled, knowing her type well enough; for even in a village you may find women like this.
So she brought Mrs. Shute some damson wine and a plate of biscuits, and the two women became friendly enough and gossiped in the dim candle-lit kitchen while Daniel Shute wandered about his old home, even his corrupt heart feeling many a pang to see the places of his childhood desolate, the walks overgrown, the trees felled, the arbors closed, the fountains dried, and all the spreading fields about fenced by strangers.
The November moon was high in a misted space of open heaven by the time he reached the old carp pond.
Dead weeds tangled over the crumbling, moss-grown stone, trumpery and slime coated the dark waters.
"I suppose the carp are all dead?" said Mr. Shute.
He had not been aware that he spoke aloud, and was surprised to hear himself answered.
"I believe there are some left, esquire."
Mr. Shute turned sharply and could faintly discern the figure of a man sitting on the edge of the pond so that it seemed as if his legs half dangled in the black water.
"Who are you?" asked Daniel Shute quickly.
"I'm Paley, sir, who looks after the grounds."
"You do your work damned badly," replied the other, irritated. "It is a big place, esquire, for one man to work."
He seemed to stoop lower and lower as if at any moment he would slip into the pond; indeed, in the half dark, it seemed to Mr. Shute as if he was already half in the water; yet, on this speech, he moved and showed that he was but bending over the sombre depths of the carp pond.
The moonlight displayed him as a drab man of middling proportions with slow movements and a large languid eye which glittered feebly in the pale light; Mr. Shute had an impression that this eye looked at him sideways as if it was set at the side of the man's head, but soon saw that this was an illusion.
"Who engaged you?" he asked acidly, hating the creature.
"Mr. Tregaskis, the agent," replied the man in what appeared to be a thick foreign accent or with some defect of speech, and walked away into the wintry undergrowth.
Mr. Shute returned home grumbling; in the grim parlor Mr. Tregaskis was waiting for him—a red Cornishman, who grinned at his employer's railings. He knew the vices of Mr. Shute, and the difficulties of Mr. Shute, and he had seen Mrs. Shute in the kitchen deep in maudlin gossip with old Dame Chase and the idiot-faced girl, drinking the alcoholic country wine till it spilled from her shaking fingers on to her taffeta skirt.
So he assumed a tone of noisy familiarity that Mr. Shute was too sunken to resent; the last of the old squire's Oporto was sent for and the men drank themselves on to terms of easy good-fellowship.
At the last, when the candles were guttering, the bottles empty, and the last log's ashes on the hearth, Mr. Shute asked who was the creature Paley he had found hanging over the carp pond.
Mr. Tregaskis told him, but the next morning Mr. Shute could not recollect what he had said; the whole evening had, in his recollection, an atmosphere of phantasmagoria; but he thought that the agent had said that Paley was a deserted sailor who had wandered up from Plymouth and taken the work without pay, a peculiar individual who lived in a wattled hut that he had made himself, and on food he caught with his own hands.
His sole explanation of himself was that he had waited for something a long time and was still waiting for it; useful he was, Mr. Tregaskis had said, and it was better to leave him alone.
All this Mr. Shute remembered vaguely, lying in the great bed staring at the pale sun glittering on the name "Florence Flannery" scratched on the window with the two dates.
It was late in the autumnal morning, but his wife still lay beside him, heavily asleep, with her thick heavy chestnut hair tossed over the pillow and her full bosom panting, the carnation of her rounded face flushed and stained, the coarse diamonds glowing on her plump hands, the false pearls slipping round her curved throat.
Daniel Shute sat up in bed and looked down at her prone sleep. "Who is she? And where does she come from?" he wondered. He had never cared to find out, but now his ignorance of all appertaining to his wife annoyed him.
He shook her bare shoulder till she yawned out of her heavy sleep. "Who are you, Flo?" he asked. "You must know something about yourself."
The woman blinked up at him, drawing her satin bedgown round her breast.
"I was in the opera, wasn't I?" she answered lazily. "I never knew my people."
"Came out of an orphanage or the gutter, I suppose?" he returned bitterly.
"But your name?" he insisted. "That is never your name, 'Florence Flannery'?"
"I've never known another," she responded indifferently. "You're not Irish."
"I don't know, Mr. Shute. I've been in many countries and seen many strange things."
He laughed; he had heard some of her experiences.
"You've seen so much and been in so many places I don't know how you've ever got it all into one life."
"I don't know myself. It's all rather like a dream and the most dreamlike of all is to be lying here looking at my own name written three hundred years ago."
She moved restlessly and slipped from the bed, a handsome woman with troubled eyes.
"'Tis the drink brings the dreams, m'dear," said Mr. Shute. "I had some dreams last night of a fellow named Paley I met by the carp pond."
"You were drinking in the parlor," she retorted scornfully. "And you in the kitchen, m'dear."
Mrs. Shute flung a fringed silk shawl, the gift of an Indian nabob, round her warm body and dropped, shivering and yawning, into one of the warm tapestry chairs.
"Who was this Florence Flannery?" she asked idly.
"I told you no one knows. An Irish girl born in Florence, they said, when I was a child and listened to beldam's gossip. Her mother a Medici, m'dear, and he a groom! And she carne here, the trollop, with some young Shute who had been travelling in Italy—picked her up and brought her home, like I've brought you!"
"He didn't marry her?" asked Mrs. Shute indifferently.
"More sense," said her husband coarsely. "I'm the first fool of me family. She was a proper vixen. John Shute took her on his voyages; he'd a ship and went discovering. They talk yet at Plymouth of how she would sit among the parrots and the spices and the silks when the ship came into Plymouth Hoe."
"Ah, the good times!" sighed Mrs. Shute, "when men were men and paid a good price for their pleasures!"
"You've fetched your full market value, Mrs. Shute," he answered, yawning in the big bed.
"I'd rather be John Shute's woman than your wife," she returned. "What do you know of him?"
"I saw his portrait on the back stairs last night. Goody Chase showed me. A noble man with a clear eye and great arms to fight and love with."
"He used 'em to push Florence Flannery out with," grinned Mr. Shute, "if half the tales are true. On one of their voyages they picked up a young Portuguese who took the lady's fancy and she brought him back to Shute Court."
"And what was the end of it?"
"I know no more, save that she was flung out, as I'd like to fling you out, my beauty!" foamed Mr. Shute with gusty violence. His wife laughed and got up discordantly.
"I'll tell the rest of the tale. She got tired of her new love, and he wasn't a Portuguese, but an Indian, or partly, and his name was D'Ailey, Daly the people called it here. On one voyage she told John Shute about him, and he was marooned on a lonely island in the South Seas—tied up to a great, great stone image of a god, burning hot in the tropic sun. He must have been a god of fishes for there was nothing else near that island but monstrous fish."
"Who told you this?" demanded Mr. Shute. "Old Dame Chase, with her lies? I never heard of this before."
"'Tis the story," resumed his wife. "The last she saw of him was his bound figure tied tight, tight, to the gaping, grinning idol while she sat on the poop as the ship—the Phoenix—sailed away. He cursed her and called on the idol to let her live till he was avenged on her—he was of the breed, or partly of the breed, that these gods love, and Florence Flannery was afraid, afraid, as she sailed away—"
"Goody Chase in her cups!" sneered Mr. Shute. "And what's the end of your story?"
"There's no end," said the woman sullenly. "John Shute cast her off, for the bad luck that dogged him, and what became of her I don't know."
"It's an ugly tale and a stupid tale," grumbled Daniel Shute with a groan as he surveyed the bleak chill weather beyond the lattice panes. "Get down and see what's to eat in the house and what's to drink in the cellar, and if that rogue Tregaskis is there send him up to me."
Mrs. Shute rose and pulled fiercely at the long wool-embroidered bell-rope so that the rusty bell jangled violently.
"What'll you do when the wine is all drunk and the boon companions have cleared out your pockets?" she asked wildly. "Do your own errands, Mr. Shute."
He flung out of bed with a pretty London oath, and she remained huddled in the chair while he dressed and after he had left her, wringing her hands now and then and wailing under her breath, till Dame Chase came up with a posset and helped her to dress. The sight of her dishevelled trunks restored some of Mrs. Shute's spirits; she pulled out with relish her furbelows and flounces, displaying to Goody Chase's amazed admiration the last fashions of Paris and London, mingling her display with fond reminiscences of gilded triumphs.
"Maybe you'd be surprised to learn that Mr. Shute isn't my first husband," she said, tossing her head.
The fat old woman winked.
"I'd be more surprised, m'lady, to learn he was your last."
Mrs. Shute laughed grossly, but her spirits soon fell; kneeling on the floor with her tumbled finery in her lap, she stared out through the window on which her name was written at the tossing bare boughs, the chill sky, the dry flutter of the last leaves.
"I'll never get away," she said mournfully, "the place bodes me no good. I've had the malaria in me time, Mrs. Chase, in one of those cursed Italian swamps and it affected me memory; there's much I can't place together and much I recall brokenly—dreams and fevers, Mrs. Chase."
"The drink, m'ady."
"No," returned the kneeling woman fiercely. "Wasn't the drink taken to drown those dreams and fevers? I wish I could tell you half I know—there's many a fine tale in me head, but when I begin to speak it goes!"
She began to rock to and fro, lamenting.
"To think of the fine times I've had with likely young men drinking me health in me slipper and the little cabriolet in Paris and the walks in the Prater outside Vienna. So pleasant you would hardly believe!"
"You'll settle down, m'lady, like women do."
Indeed, Mrs. Shute seemed to make some attempt at "settling down"; there was something piteous in the despairing energy with which she set to work to make her life tolerable; there was a suite of rooms lined with faded watered green silk that she took for her own and had cleaned and furnished with what she could gather from the rest of the house—old gilt commodes and rococo chairs and threadbare panels of tapestries and chipped vases of Saxe or Lunéville, one or two pastel portraits that the damp had stained, together with some tawdry trifles she had brought in her own baggage.
She employed Mr. Tregaskis to sell her big diamond in Plymouth and bought pale blue satin hangings for her bedroom and spotted muslin for her bed, a carpet wreathed with roses, a gaudy dressing-table and phials of perfume, opopanax, frangipane, musk, potent, searing, to dissipate, she said, the odors of must and mildew.
Arranging these crude splendors was her sole occupation. There were no neighbors in the lonely valley and Mr. Shute fell into melancholy and solitary drinking; he hung on to his existence as just more tolerable than a debtor's prison, but the fury with which he met his fate expressed itself in curses awful to hear. Such part of the estate as still belonged to him he treated with complex contempt; Mr. Tregaskis continued to supervise some rough farming and the man Paley worked in the garden; taciturn, solitary and sullen, he made an ill impression on Mr. Shute, yet he cost nothing and did some labor, as carrying up the firewood to the house and clearing away some of the thickets and dying weeds and vast clumps of nettles and docks.
Mrs. Shute met him for the first time by the carp pond; she was tricked out in a white satin pelisse edged with fur and a big bonnet, and wandered forlornly in the neglected paths. Paley was sitting on the edge of the carp pond, looking intently into the murky depths.
"I'm the new mistress," said Mrs. Shute, "and I'll thank you to keep better order in the place."
Paley looked up at her with his pale eyes.
"Shute Court isn't what it was," he said, "there is a lot of work to do."
"You seem to spend a power of time by the pond," she replied. "What are you here for?"
"I'm waiting for something," he said. "I'm putting in time, Mrs. Shute."
"A sailor, I hear?" she said curiously, for the draggled nondescript man in his greenish-black clothes was difficult to place; he had a peculiar look of being boneless, without shoulders or hips, one slope slipping into another as if there was no framework under his flabby flesh.
"I've been at sea," he answered, "like yourself, Mrs. Shute." She laughed coarsely.
"I would I were at sea again," she replied; "this is horror to me."
"Why do you stay?"
"I'm wondering. It seems that I can't get away, the same as I couldn't help coming," a wail came into her voice. "Must I wait till Mr. Shute has drunk himself to death?"
The wind blew sharp across the pond, cutting little waves in the placid surface, and she who had been Florence Flannery shuddered in the bite of it and turned away and went muttering up the path to the desolate house.
Her husband was in the dirty parlor playing at bezique with Mr. Tregaskis and she flared in upon them.
"Why don't you get rid of that man Paley? I hate him. He does no work—Mrs. Chase told me that he always sits by the carp pond and today I saw him—ugh!"
"Paley's all right, Mrs. Shute," replied Tregaskis, "he does more work than you think."
"Why does he stay?"
"He's waiting for a ship that's soon due in Plymouth."
"Send him off," insisted Mrs. Shute. "Isn't the place melancholic enough without you having that sitting about?"
Her distaste and disgust of the man seemed to amount to a panic, and her husband, whose courage was snapped by the drink, was infected by her fear.
"When did this fellow come?" he demanded.
"About a week before you did. He'd tramped up from Plymouth."
"We've only his word for that," replied Mr. Shute with drunken cunning; "maybe he's a Bow Street runner sent by one of those damned creditors! You're right, Flo, I don't like the wretch—he's watching me, split him! I'll send him off."
Mr. Tregaskis shrugged as Daniel Shute staggered from his chair.
"The man's harmless, sir; half-witted if you like, but useful."
Still Mr. Shute dragged on his greatcoat with the capes and followed his wife out into the grey garden.
The carp pond was not near the house, and by the time that they had reached it a dull twilight had fallen in the cold and heavy air.
The great trees were quite bare now and flung a black tracing of forlorn branches against the bleak evening sky; patches and clumps of dead weeds obstructed every path and alley; by the carp pond showed the faint outline of a blind statue crumbling beneath the weight of dead mosses.
Paley was not there.
"He'll be in his hut," said Mr. Shute, "sleeping or spying—the ugly old devil. I'll send him off."
The dead oyster white of Mrs. Shute's pelisse gleamed oddly as she followed her husband through the crackling undergrowth.
There, in the thickening twilight, they found the hut, a queer arrangement of wattles cunningly interwoven in which there was no furniture whatever, nothing but a bare protection from the wind and weather.
Paley was not there.
"I'll find him," muttered Mr. Shute, "if I have to stay out all night."
For his half-intoxicated mind had fixed on this stranger as the symbol of all his misfortunes and perhaps the avenger of all his vices.
His wife turned back, for her pelisse was being caught on the undergrowth; she went moodily towards the carp pond.
A moment later a sharp shriek from her brought Mr. Shute plunging back to her side. She was standing in a queer bent attitude, pointing with a shaking plump hand to the murky depths of the pond.
"The wretch! He's drowned himself!" she screamed.
Mr. Shute's worn-out nerves reacted to her ignoble panic; he clutched her arm as he gazed in the direction of her finger; there was something dark in the shallower side of the pond, something large and dark, with pale flat eyes that glittered malevolently.
"Paley!" gasped Mr. Shute.
He bent closer in amazed horror, then broke into tremulous laughter.
"'Tis a fish," he declared; "one of the old carp."
Mrs. Shute indeed now perceived that the monstrous creature in the water was a fish; she could make out the wide gaping jaw, tall spines shadowing in the murk, and a mottled skin of deadly yellow and dingy white.
"It's looking at me," she gasped. "Kill it, kill it, the loathsome wretch!"
"It's—it's—too big," stammered Mr. Shute, but he picked up a stone to hurl; the huge fish, as if aware of his intentions, slipped away into the murky depths of the pond, leaving a sluggish ripple on the surface.
Daniel Shute now found his courage.
"Nothing but an old carp," he repeated. "I'll have the thing caught."
Mrs. Shute began to weep and wring her hands. Her husband dragged her roughly towards the house, left her there, took a lantern, and accompanied now by Mr. Tregaskis returned in search of Paley.
This time they found him sitting in his usual place by the side of the pond. Mr. Shute had now changed his mind about sending him away; he had a muddled idea that he would like the pond watched, and who was to do this if not Paley?
"Look here, my man," he said, "there's a great carp in this pond—a very big, black old carp."
"They live for hundreds of years," said Paley. "But this isn't a carp."
"You know about it, then?" demanded Mr. Shute.
"I know about it."
"Well, I want you to catch it—kill it. Watch till you do. I loathe it—ugh!"
"Watch the pond?" protested Mr. Tregaskis, who held the lantern and was chilled and irritable. "Damme, esquire, what can the thing do? It can't leave the water."
"I wouldn't," muttered Mr. Shute, "promise you that."
"You're drunk," said the other coarsely.
But Mr. Shute insisted on his point.
"Watch the pond, Paley, watch it day and night till you get that fish."
"I'll watch," answered Paley, never moving from his huddled position.
The two men went back to the desolate house. When Mr. Shute at last staggered upstairs he found his wife with half a dozen candles lit, crouching under the tawdry muslin curtains with which she had disfigured the big bed.
She clutched a rosary that she was constantly raising to her lips as she muttered ejaculations.
Mr. Shute lurched to the bedside.
"I didn't know that you were a Papist, Flo," he sneered. She looked up at him.
"That story's got me," she whispered, "the man tied up to the fish god—the curse—and he following her—tracking her down for three hundred years, till she was hounded back to the old place where they'd loved."
Daniel Shute perceived that she had been drinking, and sank into a chair.
"Goody Chase's gossip," he answered, yawning, "and that damned ugly fish. I've set Paley to catch him—to watch the pond till he does."
She looked at him sharply, and appeared relieved.
"Anyhow, what's it to do with you?" he continued. "You ain't the jade who left the man on the island!" He laughed crudely. Mrs. Shute sank down on her pillows.
"As long as the pond is watched," she murmured, "I don't mind."
But during the night she tossed and panted in a delirium, talking of great ships with strange merchandise, of lonely islands amid blazing seas, of mighty stone gods rearing up to the heavens, of a man in torture and a curse following a woman who sailed away, till her husband shook her and left her alone, sleeping on a couch in the dreary parlor.
The next day he spoke to Mrs. Chase.
"Between your news and your lies you've turned your mistress's head. Good God! she is like a maniac with your parcel of follies!"
But Goody Chase protested that she had told her nothing.
"She told me that story, esquire, and said she had found it in an old book. What did I know of Florence Flannery? Many a time you've asked me about her when you were a child and I've had no answer to give you—what did I know save she was a hussy who disgraced Shute Court?"
At this Daniel Shute vehemently demanded of his wife where she had got the tales which she babbled about, but the woman was sullen and heavy and would tell him nothing; all the day she remained thus, but when the few hours of wintry light were over she fell again into unbridled terror, gibbering like a creature deprived of reason, beating her breast, kissing the rosary, and muttering, "Mea culpâ, mea culpâ, mea maximâ culpâ!"
Mr. Shute was not himself in any state to endure this; he left his wife to herself and made Tregaskis sleep with him for company in another room.
Winter froze the bleak countryside; Paley kept guard by the pond and the Shutes somehow dragged on an intolerable existence in the deserted house.
In the daytime Mrs. Shute revived a little and would even prink herself out in her finery and gossip with Mrs. Chase over the vast log fire, but the nights always found her smitten with terror, shivering with cowardly apprehension; and the object of all her nightmare dread was the fish she had seen in the pond.
"It can't leave the water," they told her, and she always answered: "The first night I was here I saw wet on the stairs."
"My God, my God!" Daniel Shute would say, "this is like living with someone sentenced to death."
"Get a doctor over from Plymouth," suggested Mr. Tregaskis.
But Mr. Shute would not, for fear of being betrayed to his creditors.
"Better rot here than in the Fleet," he swore.
"Then take her away—and keep her from the bottle."
The wretched husband could do neither of these things; he had no money and no influence over Mrs. Shute. He was indeed indifferent to her sufferings save in so far as they reacted on him and ever accustomed him to the spectacle of her breakdown; he knew it was not really strange that a woman such as she was should collapse under conditions such as these, and his life was already so wretched that he cared little for added horrors.
He began to find a strange comfort in the man Paley, who, taciturn, slow and queer, yet did his work and watched the pond with an admirable diligence.
One night in the blackest time of the year, the bitter dark nights before Christmas, the shrieks of Mrs. Shute brought her husband cursing up the stairs.
Her door was unbolted and she sat up in bed, displaying, in the light of his snatched-up taper, some red marks on her arm. "Let him kill me and done with it," she jabbered.
Mr. Tregaskis came pushing in and caught rudely hold of her arm. "She's done it herself," he cried; "those are the marks of her own teeth."
But Mrs. Shute cried piteously:
"He came flopping up the stairs, he broke the bolts; he jumped on the bed! Oh! oh! oh! Isn't this the bed, the very bed I slept in then—and didn't he used to creep into this room when John Shute was away?"
"Still thinking of that damned fish," said Mr. Tregaskis, "and it's my belief you neither of you saw it at all, esquire—that man Paley has been watching, and he's seen nothing."
Mr. Shute bit his fingernails, looking down on the writhing figure of his wife.
"Light all the candles, can't you?" he said. "I'll stay with the poor fool tonight."
While Mr. Tregaskis obeyed he went to the door and looked out, holding his taper high.
There were pools of wet and a long trail of slime down the dusty, neglected stairs.
He called Mr. Tregaskis.
"Ugh!" cried the Cornishman, then, "It's from Goody Chase's water crock."
On the following windy morning Mr. Shute went out, shivering in the nipping air, to the carp pond.
"I don't want another night like last," he said.
"You'll sleep across my wife's door—she thinks that cursed carp is after her—"
Then, at the gross absurdity of what he said, he laughed miserably. "This is a pretty pantomime I'm playing," he muttered. A horrid curiosity drove him up to look at his wife.
She sat between the draggled muslin curtains hugging her knees in the tumbled bed; a wretched fire flickered wanly in the chill depths of the vast room; a wind blew swift and remote round the window on which was scratched the name of Florence Flannery. Mr. Shute shivered.
"I must get you away," he said, stirred above his fears for himself; "this is a damned place—the Fleet would be better, after all." She turned lustreless eyes on him.
"I can't get away," she said dully. "I've come here to die—don't you see it on that window—'Died 1800'?"
He crossed the floor and peered at the scratching on the glass. Someone had indeed added the word "died" before the last date.
"These are the tricks of a Bedlamite," he said nervously. "Do you think there was only one Florence Flannery?"
"And do you think," she returned harshly, "that there were two?"
She looked so awful crouched up in bed with her hanging hair, her once plump face fallen in the cheeks, her soiled satin gown open over her laboring breast, her whole air and expression so agonized, so malevolent, so dreadful, that Daniel Shute passed his hand over his eyes as if to brush away a vision of unsubstantial horror.
He was shaken by an hallucination of light-headedness; he appeared to enter another world, in which many queer things were possible.
"What are you?" he asked uneasily. "He's been after you for nearly three hundred years? Aren't you punished enough?"
"Oh, oh!" moaned the woman. "Keep him out! Keep him out!"
"I'll put Paley at the door tonight," muttered Mr. Shute.
He crept out of the horrible chamber; he now detested his wife beyond all reason, yet somehow he felt impelled to save her from the invincible furies who were pursuing her in so gruesome a fashion.
"She's a lunatic," said Mr. Tregaskis brusquely. "You'll have to keep her shut in that room—it's not difficult to account for—with the life she's led and this place and the coincidence of the names." The first snow of the year began to fall that night, sullen flakes struggling in the coils of the leaping wind that circled round Shute Court.
In the last glimmer of daylight Paley came to take up his post. Drab, silent, with his sloping shoulders and nondescript clothes, he went slowly upstairs and sat down outside Mrs. Shute's door. "He seems to know the way," remarked Daniel Shute.
"Don't you know he works in the house?" retorted Mr. Tregaskis.
The two men slept, as usual, in the parlor, on stiff horsehair couches bundled up with pillows and blankets; the litter of their supper was left on the table and they piled the fire up with logs before going to sleep. Mr. Shute's nerves were in no state to permit him to risk waking up in the dark.
The wind dropped and the steady downdrift of the soft snow filled the blackness of the bitter night.
As the grandfather clock struck three Daniel Shute sat up and called to his companion.
"I've been thinking in my dreams," he said, with chattering teeth. "Is it Paley, or Daley? You know the name was D'Ailey."
"Shut up, you fool," returned the agent fiercely; but he then raised himself on his elbow, for a hoarse, bitter scream, followed by some yelled words in a foreign language tore through the stillness.
"The mad woman," said Mr. Tregaskis; but Daniel Shute dragged the clothes up to his chattering teeth.
"I'm not going up," he muttered. "I'm not going up!"
Mr. Tregaskis dragged on his trousers and flung a blanket over his shoulders and so, lighting a taper at the big fire, went up the gaunt stairs to Mrs. Shute's room. The glimmering beams of the rushlight showed him tracks of wet again on the dirty boards.
"Goody Chase with her crocks and possets," he murmured; then louder, "Paley! Paley!"
There was no one outside Mrs. Shute's door, which hung open. Mr. Tregaskis entered.
She who had been Florence Flannery lay prone on her tawdry couch; the deep wounds that had slain her appeared to have been torn by savage teeth; she looked infinitely old, shrivelled and detestable.
Mr. Tregaskis backed on to the stairs, the light lurching round him from the shaking of his taper, when Mr. Shute came bustling up out of the darkness.
"Paley's gone," whispered Mr. Tregaskis dully.
"I saw him go," gibbered Mr. Shute, "as I ventured to the door—by the firelight; a great fish slithering away with blood on his jaws."
Two young esquires were riding from Canterbury, jolly and drunk, they shouted and trolled and rolled in their saddles as they followed the winding road across the downs.
A dim sky was overhead and shut in the wide expanse of open country that one side stretched to the sea and the other to the Kentish Weald.
The primroses grew in thick posies in the ditches, the hedges were full of fresh hawthorn green, and the new grey leaves of eglantine and honeysuckle, the long boughs of ash with the hard black buds, and the wand-like shoots of sallow willow hung with catkins and the smaller red tassels of the nut and birch; little the two young men heeded of any of these things, for they were in their own country that was thrice familiar; but Nick Bateup blinked across to the distant purple hills, and cursed the gathering rain. "Ten miles more of the open," he muttered, "and a great storm blackening upon us."
Young Crediton who was more full of wine, laughed drowsily. "We'll lie at a cottage on the way, Nick—think you I've never a tenant who'll let me share board and bed?"
He maundered into singing,
"There's a light in the old mill, Where the witch weaves her charms; But dark is the chamber, Where you sleep in my arms. Now came you by magic, by trick or by spell, I have you and hold you, And love you right well!"
The clouds overtook them like an advancing army; the wayside green looked livid under the purplish threat of the heavens, and the birds were all still and silent.
"Split me if I'll be soaked," muttered young Bateup. "Knock up one of these boors of thine, Ned—but damn me if I see as much as hut or barn!"
"We come to Banells farm soon, or have we passed it?" answered the other confusedly. "What's the pother? A bold bird as thou art, and scared of a drop of rain?"
"My lungs are not as lusty as thine," replied Bateup, who was indeed of a delicate build and more carefully dressed in greatcoat and muffler.
"But thy throat is as wide!" laughed Crediton, "and God help you, you are muffled like an old woman—and as drunk as a shorn parrot."
"Tra la la, my sweeting, Tra la la, my May, If now I miss the meeting I'll come some other day."
His companion took no notice of this nonsense, but with as much keenness as his muddled faculties would allow, was looking out for some shelter, for he retained sufficient perception to enable him to mark the violence of the approaching storm and the loneliness of the vast stretch of country where the only human habitations appeared to be some few poor cottages, far distant in the fields.
He lost his good-humor, and as the first drops of stinging cold rain began to fall, he cursed freely, using the terms common to the pot-houses where he had intoxicated himself on the way from Canterbury.
Urging their tired horses, they came on to the top of the little hill they ascended; immediately before them was the silver ashen skeleton of a blasted oak, polished like worn bone standing over a small pool of stagnant water (for there had been little rain and much east wind), where a few shivering ewes crouched together from the oncoming storm.
Just beyond this, rising out of the bare field, was a humble cottage of black timber and white plaster with a deep thatched roof. For the rest, the crest of the hill was covered by a hazel copse and then dipped lonely again to the clouded lower levels that now began to slope into the marsh.
"This will shelter us, Nick," cried Crediton.
"'Tis a foul place and the boors have a foul reputation," objected the lord of the manor. "There are those who swear to seeing the Devil's own phiz leer from Goody Boyle's windows—but anything to please thee and thy weak chest."
They staggered from their horses, knocked open the rotting gate and leading the beasts across the hard dry grazing field, knocked with their whips at the small door of the cottage.
The grey sheep under the grey tree looked at them and bleated faintly; the rain began to fall, like straight yet broken darts out of the sombre clouds.
The door was opened by a woman very neatly dressed, with large scrubbed hands, who looked at them with fear and displeasure; for if her reputation was bad, theirs was no better; the lord of the manor was a known roysterer and wild liver, and spent his idleness in rakish expeditions with Sir Nicholas Bateup from Bodiam, who was easily squandering a fine property.
Neither was believed to be free of bloodshed, and as for honor, they were as stripped of that as the blasted tree by the lonely pool was stripped of leaves.
Besides, they were both, now, as usual, drunk.
"We want shelter, Goody Boyle," cried Crediton, pushing his way in as he threw her his reins. "Get the horses into the barn."
The woman could not deny the man who could make her homeless in a second; she shouted hoarsely an inarticulate name, and a loutish boy came and took the horses, while the two young men stumbled into the cottage which they filled and dwarfed with their splendor.
Edward Crediton had been a fine young man, and though he was marred with insolence and excess, he still made a magnificent appearance, with his full blunt features, his warm coloring, the fair hair rolled and curled and all his bravery of blue broadcloth, buckskin breeches, foreign lace, top boots, French sword and gold rings and watch chains.
Sir Nicholas Bateup was darker and more effeminate, having a cast of weakness in his constitution that betrayed itself in his face; but his dress was splendid to the point of foppishness and his manners even more arrogant and imposing.
Of the two he had the more evil repute; he was unwed and therefore there was no check upon his mischief, whereas Crediton had a young wife whom he loved after his fashion, who checked some of his doings, softened others, and stayed very faithful to him and adored him still, after five years of a wretched marriage, as is the manner of some women.
The rain came down with slashing severity; the little cottage panes were blotted with water.
Goody Boyle put logs on the fire and urged them with the bellows. It was a gaunt white room with nothing in it but a few wooden stools, a table and an eel-catcher's prong.
On the table were two large fair wax candles.
"What are these for, Goody?" asked Crediton.
"For the dead, sir."
"You've dead in the house?" cried Sir Nicholas, who was leaning by the fireplace and warming his hands. "What do you want with dead men in the house, you trollop?"
"It is no dead of mine, my lord," answered the woman with evil civility, "but one who took shelter here and died."
"A curst witch!" roared Crediton. "You hear that, Nick! Came here—died—and now you'll put spells on us, you ugly slut—"
"No spells of mine," answered the woman quietly, rubbing her large clean hands together. "He had been long ailing and died here of an ague."
"And who sent the ague?" asked Crediton with drunken gravity. "And who sent him here?"
"Perhaps the same hand that sent us," laughed Sir Nicholas. "Where is your corpse, Goody?"
"In the next room—I have but two."
"And two too many—you need but a bundle of faggots and a tuft of tow to light it—an arrant witch, a contest witch," muttered Crediton; he staggered up from the stool. "Where is your corpse? I've a mind to see if he looks as if he died a natural death."
"Will you not ask first who it is?" asked the woman, unlatching the inner door.
"Why should I care?"
"Who is it?" asked Sir Nicholas, who had the clearer wits, drunk or sober.
"Richard Horne," said Goody Boyle.
Ned Crediton looked at her with the eyes of a sober man.
"Richard Horne," said Sir Nicholas. "So he is dead at last—your wife will be glad of that, Ned."
Crediton gave a sullen laugh.
"I'd broken him—she wasn't afraid any longer of a lost wretch, cast out to die of ague on the marsh."
But Sir Nicholas had heard differently; he had been told, even by Ned himself, how Anne Crediton shivered before the terror of Richard Horne's pursuit, and would wake up in the dark crying out for fear of him, like a lost child; for he had wooed her before her marriage, and persisted in loving her afterwards with mad boldness and insolent confidence, so that justice had been set on him and he had been banished to the marsh, a ruined man.
"Well, sirs," said Goody Boyle, in her thin voice that had the pinched accent of other parts, "my lady can sleep o' nights now—for Robert Horne will never disturb her again."
"Do you think he ever troubled us?" asked Crediton with a coarse oath. "I flung him out like an adder that had writhed across the threshold—"
"A wonder he did not put a murrain on thee, Ned. He had fearful ways and a deep knowledge of unholy things."
"A warlock. God help us," added the woman.
"The Devil's proved an ill master then," laughed Crediton. "He could not help Richard Horne into Anne's favor—nor prevent him lying in a cold bed in the flower of his age."
"The Devil," smiled Sir Nicholas, "was over busy, Ned, helping you to the lady's favor and a warm bed. You were the dearer disciple."
"Oh, good lords, will you talk less wildly with a lost man's corpse in the house, and his soul riding the storm without?" begged Goody Boyle; and she latched again the inner door.
Murk filled the cottage now; waves of shadow flowed over the landscape without the rain-blotted window, and drowned the valley. In the bitter field, the melancholy ewes huddled beneath the blasted oak beside the bare pool, the stagnant surface of which was now broken by the quick raindrops; a low thunder grumbled from the horizon and all the young greenery looked livid in the ghastly light of heaven.
"I'll see him," said Ned Crediton, swaggering. "I'll look at this gay gallant in his last smock!—so that I can swear to Anne he has taken his amorous smile to the earthworms—surely."
"Look as you like," answered Sir Nicholas, "glut your eyes with looking—"
"But you'll remember, sirs, that he was a queer man and died queerly, and there was no parson or priest to take the edge off his going, or challenge the fiends who stood at his head and feet."
"Saw you the fiends?" asked Ned curiously.
"Question not what I saw," muttered the woman. "You'll have your own familiars, Esquire Crediton."
She unlatched the inner door again and Ned passed in, bowing low on the threshold.
"Good day, Robert Horne," he jeered. "We parted in anger, but my debts are paid now and I greet you well."
The dead man lay on a pallet bed with a coarse white sheet over him that showed his shape but roughly; the window was by his head and looked blankly on to the rain-bitten fields and dismal sky; the light was cold and colorless on the white sheet and the miserable room.
Sir Nicholas lounged in the doorway; he feared no death but his own, and that he set so far away it was but a dim dread.
"Look and see if it is Robert Horne," he urged, "or if the beldam lies."
And Crediton turned down the sheet.
"'Tis Robert Horne," he said.
The dead man had his chin uptilted, his features sharp and horrible in the setting of the spilled fair hair, on the coarse pillow. Ned Crediton triumphed over him, making lewd jests of love and death, and sneering at this great gallant, who had been crazed for love and driven by desire, and who now lay impotent.
And Sir Nicholas in the doorway listened and laughed and had his own wicked jeers to add; for both of them had hated Robert Horne as a man who had defied them.
But Goody Boyle stole away with her fingers in her ears.
When these two were weary of their insults they returned the flap of the sheet over the dead face and returned to the outer room. And Ned asked for drink, declaring that Goody Boyle was a known smuggler and had cellars of rare stuff.
So the lout brought up glasses of cognac and a bottle of French wine, and these two drank grossly, sitting over the fire; and Goody Boyle made excuse for the drink, by saying that Robert Horne had given her two gold pieces before he died (not thin pared coins but thick and heavy) for his funeral, and the entertainment of those who should come to his burying.
"What mourners could he hope for?" laughed Ned Crediton. "The crow and the beetle and the death-watch spider!"
But Goody Boyle told him that Robert Horne had made friends while he had lived an outcast on the marshes; they were, no doubt, queer and even monstrous people, but they were coming tonight to sit with Robert Horne before he was put in the ground.
"And who, Goody, have warned this Devil's congregation of the death of Robert Horne?" asked Sir Nicholas.
She answered him—that Robert Horne was not ill an hour or a day but for a long space struggled with fits of the marsh fever, and in between these bouts of the ague, he went abroad like a well man, and his friends would come up and see him and the messenger who came up to enquire after him was Tora, the Egyptian girl who walked with her bosom full of violets.
The storm was in full fury now, muttering low and sullen round the cottage with great power of beating rain.
"Robert Horne was slow in dying," said Sir Nicholas. "Of what did he speak in those days?"
"Of a woman, good sir."
"Of my wife!" cried Ned.
Goody Boyle shook her head with a look of stupidity.
"I know nothing of that. Though for certain he called her Anne, sweet Anne, and swore he would possess her yet—in so many words and very roundly."
"But he died balked," said Ned, swaying on his stool, "and he'll rot outside holy ground."
"They'll lay him in Deadman's Field, which is full of old bones none can plough and no sheep will graze," answered the woman, "and I must set out to see lame Jonas who promised to have the grave ready—but maybe the rain has hindered him."
She looked at them shrewdly as she added,
"That is, gentles, if you care to remain alone with the body of Robert Horne."
"I think of him as a dead dog," replied Ned Crediton.
And when the woman had gone, he, being loosened with the French brandy, suggested a gross jest.
"Why should Robert Horne have all this honor, even from rogues and Egyptians? Let us fool them—throwing his corpse out into the byre, and I will lie under the sheet and presently sit up and fright them all, with the thought it is the Devil!"
Sir Nicholas warmly cheered this proposal and they lurched into the inner chamber which was dark enough now by reason of a great northern cloud that blocked the light from the window.
They pulled the sheet off Robert Horne and found him wrapped in another that was furled up under his chin, and so they carried him to the back door and peered through the storm for some secret place where they might throw him.
And Ned Crediton saw a dark bed of rank hemlock and cried, "Cast him into the kecksies," that being the rustic name for the weed.
So they flung the dead man into the hemlocks which were scarce high enough to cover him, and to hide the whiteness of the sheet, broke off boughs from the hazel copse and put over him, and went back laughing to the cottage, and there kept a watch out from the front window and when they saw Goody Boyle toiling along through the rain, Ned took off his hat and coat and sword and folded them away under the bed, then Sir Nicholas wrapped him in the under sheet, so that he was shrouded to the chin, and he lay on the pillow, and drew the other sheet over him.
"If thou sleepst do not snore," said Sir Nicholas, and went back to the fire and lit his long clay full of Virginian tobacco.
When Goody Boyle entered with her wet shawl over her head, she had two ragged creatures behind her who stared malevolently at the fine gentleman with his bright clothes and dark curls, lolling by the fire and watching the smoke rings rise from his pipe.
"Esquire Crediton has ridden for home," he said, "but I am not minded to risk the ague."
And he sipped more brandy and laughed at them, and they muttering, for they knew his fame, went into the death-chamber and crouched round the couch where Sir Nicholas had just laid Ned Crediton under the sheet.
And presently others came up, Egyptians, eel-catchers and the like, outcasts and vagrants who crept in to watch by the corpse. Sir Nicholas presently rolled after them to see the horror and shriekings for grace there would be, when the dead man threw aside his shroud and sat up.
But the vigil went on till the night closed in and the two wax candles were lit, and still Ned Crediton gave no sign, nor did he snore or heave beneath the sheet, and Sir Nicholas became impatient, for the rain was over and he was weary of the foul air and the grotesque company.
"The fool," he thought (for he kept his wits well even in his cups), "has gone into a drunken sleep and forgot the joke."
So he pushed his way to the bed and turned down the sheet, whispering,
"This jest will grow stale with keeping."
But the words withered on his lips, for he looked into the face of a dead man. At the cry he gave they all came babbling about him and he told them of the trick that had been put upon them.
"But there's Devil's work here," he added. "For here is the body back again—or Ned Crediton dead and frozen into a likeness of the other"—and he flung the sheet end quickly over the pinched face and fair hair.
"And what did ye do with Robert Horne, outrageous dare fiend that ye be?" demanded an old vagrant; and the young lord passed the ill words and answered with whitened lips.
"We cast him into yon bed of kecksies."
And they all beat out into the night, the lout with a lantern. And there was nothing at all in the bed of kecksies...and Ned Crediton's horse was gone from the stable.
"He was drunk," said Sir Nicholas, "and forgot his part—and fled that moment I was in the outer room."
"And in that minute did he carry Robert Horne in alone and wrap him up so neatly?" queried Goody Boyle.
"Well go in," said another hag, "and strip the body and see which man it be—"
But Sir Nicholas was in the saddle.
"Let be," he cried wildly, "there's been gruesome work enough for tonight—it's Robert Horne you have there—let be—Ill back to Crediton Manor—"
And he rode his horse out of the field, then more quickly down the darkling road, for the fumes of the brandy were out of his brain and he saw clearly and dreaded many things.
At the cross-roads when the ghastly moon had suddenly struck free of the retreating clouds he saw Ned Crediton ahead of him riding sharply, and he called out:
"Eh, Ned, what have you made of this jest? This way it is but a mangled folly."
"What matter now for jest or earnest?" answered the other. "I ride home at last."
Sir Nicholas kept pace with him; he was hatless and wore a shabby cloak that was twisted about him with the wind of his riding.
"Why did not you take your own garments?" asked Sir Nicholas. "Belike that rag you've snatched up belonged to Robert Horne—"
"If Crediton could steal his shroud he can steal his cloak," replied Ned, and his companion said no more, thinking him wrought into a frenzy with the brandy and the evil nature of the joke.
The moon shone clear and cold with a faint stain like old blood in the halo, and the trees, bending in a seaward wind, cast the recent rain that loaded them heavily to the ground, as the two rode into the gates of Crediton Manor.
The hour was later than even Sir Nicholas knew (time had been blurred for him since the coming of the storm) and there was no light save a dim lamp in an upper window.
Ned Crediton dropped out of the saddle, not waiting for the mounting block, and rang the iron bell till it clattered through the house like a madman's fury.
"Why, Ned, why this panic homecoming?" asked Sir Nicholas; but the other answered him not, but rang again.
There were footsteps within and the rattle of chains, and a voice asked from the side window:
"Who goes there?"
And Crediton dragged at the bell and screamed:
"I! The Master!"
The door was opened and an old servant stood there, pale in his bedgown.
Ned Crediton passed him and stood by the newel post, like a man spent, yet alert.
"Send some one for the horses," said Nick Bateup, "for your master is crazy drunk—I tell you, Mathews, he has seen Robert Horne dead tonight—"
Crediton laughed; the long rays of the lamp light showed him pale, haggard, distorted with tumbled fair hair and a torn shirt under the mantle, and at his waist a ragged bunch of hemlock thrust into his sash.
"A posy of kecksies for Anne," he said; and the sleepy servants now up, began to come into the hall, looked at him with dismay. "I'll lie here tonight," said Sir Nicholas; "bring me lights into the parlor. I've no mind to sleep."
He took off his hat and fingered his sword and glanced uneasily at the figure by the newel post with the posy of kecksies.
Another figure appeared at the head of the stairs, Anne Crediton holding her candle, wearing a grey lutestring robe and a lace cap with long ribbons that hung on to her bosom; she peered over the baluster and some of the hot wax from her taper fell on to the oak treads.
"I've a beau pot for you, Anne," said Crediton, looking up and holding out the hemlocks. "I've long been dispossessed, Anne, but I've come home at last."
She drew back without a word and her light flickered away across the landing; Crediton went up after her and they heard a door shut.
In the parlor the embers had been blown to flames and fresh logs put on and Sir Nicholas warmed his cold hands and told old Mathews (in a sober manner for him) the story of the jest they had striven to put on Goody Boyle and the queer, monstrous people from the marsh, and the monstrous ending of it, and the strangeness of Ned Crediton; it was not his usual humor to discourse with servants or to discuss his vagrant debaucheries with any, but tonight he seemed to need company and endeavored to retain the old man, who was not reluctant to stay though usually he hated to see the dark face and bright clothes of Nick Bateup before the hearth of Crediton Manor.
And as these two talked, disconnectedly, as if they would fill the gap of any silence that might fall in the quiet house, there came the wail of a woman, desperate yet sunken.
"It is Mistress Crediton," said Mathews with a downcast look. "He ill-uses her?"
"God help us, he will use buckles and straps to her, Sir Nicholas." A quivering shriek came brokenly down the stairs and seemed to form the word "mercy."
Sir Nicholas was an evil man who died unrepentant; but he was not of a temper to relish raw cruelty or crude brutalities to women; he would break their souls but never their bodies.
So he went to the door and listened, and old Mathews had never liked him so well as now when he saw the look on the thin dark face. For the third time she shrieked and they marvelled that any human being could hold her breath so long; yet it was muffled as if some one held a hand over her mouth.
The sweat stood out on the old man's forehead.
"I've never before known her complain sir," he whispered. "She is a very dog to her lord and takes her whip mutely—"
"I know, I know—she adores his hand when it caresses or when it strikes—but tonight—if I know anything of a woman's accents, that is a note of abhorrence—"
He ran up the stairs, the old man panting after him with the snatched-up lantern.
"Where is her chamber?"
"Here, Sir Nicholas."
The young man struck on the heavy oak panels with the hilt of his sword.
"Madam, Madam Crediton, why are you so ill at ease?" She moaned from within.
"Open to me, Ill call some of your women—come out—" Their blood curdled to hear her wails.
"Damn you to Hell," cried Sir Nicholas in a fury. "Come out, Ned Crediton, or I'll have the door down and run you through." The answer was a little break of maniac laughter.
"She has run mad or he," cried Mathews, backing from the room. "And surely there is another clamor at the door—"
Again the bell clanged and there were voices and tumult at the door; Mathews went and opened, and Sir Nicholas looking down the stairs saw in the moonlight a dirty farm cart, a sweating horse and some of the patched and rusty crew who had been keeping vigil in Goody Boyle's cottage.
"We've brought Esquire Crediton home," said one; and the others lifted a body from the cart and carried it through the murky moonlight.
Sir Nicholas came downstairs, for old Mathews could do nothing but cry for mercy.
"It was Edward Crediton," repeated the eel-catcher, shuffling into the hall, "clothed all but his coat and hat and that was under the bed—there be his watches and chains, his seals and the papers in his pockets—and for his visage now there is no mistakening it."
They had laid the body on the table where it had so often sat and larked and ate and drunk and cursed; Sir Nicholas gazed, holding up the lantern.
Edward Crediton—never any doubt of that now, though his face was distorted as by the anguish of a sudden and ugly death. "We never found Robert Horne," muttered one of the mourners, trailing his foul muddy rags nearer the fire, and thrusting his crooked hands to the blaze.
And Mathews fell on his knees and tried to pray, but could think of no words.
"Who is upstairs?" demanded Sir Nicholas in a terrible voice. "Who is with that wretched woman?"
And he stared at the body of her husband.
Mathews, who had loved her as a little child, began gibbering and moaning.
"Did he not say he'd have her? And did not yon fool change places with him? Oh God, oh God, and has he not come to take his place—"
"But Robert Horne was dead. I saw him dead," stammered Sir Nicholas, and set the lantern down, for his hand shook so the flame waved in the gusts.
"Eh," shrieked old Mathews, grovelling on his hands and knees in his bedgown. "Might not the Devil have lent him his body back for his own pitchy purposes?"
They looked at him a little, seeing he was suddenly crazed; then Sir Nicholas ran up the stairs with the others at his heels and thundered with his sword, and kicked and shouted outside Anne Crediton's chamber door.
All the foul, muddy, earthy crew cowered on the stairs and chittered together, and in the parlor before the embers old Mathews crouched huddled, and whimpered.
The bedroom door opened and Robert Horne came out and stood and smiled at them, and the young man in his fury fell back and his sword rattled from his hand to the floor.
Robert Horne was a white death, nude to the waist and from there swathed in grave clothes; under the tattered dark cloak he had ridden in, was his shroud knotted round his neck; his naked chest gleamed with ghastly dews and under the waxen polish of his sunken face the decayed blood showed in discolored patches; he went down the stairs and they hid their faces while his foul whiteness passed.
Sir Nicholas stumbled into the bedchamber. The moonlight showed Anne Crediton tumbled on the bed, dead, and staring with the posy of kecksies on her bare breast, and her mouth hung open and her hands clutching at the curtains.
The mourners rode back and picked up Robert Horne's body whence it had returned from the kecksie patch and buried it in unholy ground with great respect, as one to whom the Devil had given his great desire.
The house was built beside a river. In the evening the sun would lie reflected in the dark water, a stain of red in between the thick shadows cast by the buildings. It was twilight now, and there was the long ripple of dull crimson, shifting as the water rippled sullenly between the high houses.
Beneath this house was an old stake, hung at the bottom with stagnant green, white and dry at the top. A rotting boat that fluttered the tattered remains of faded crimson cushions was affixed to the stake by a fraying rope. Sometimes the boat was thrown against the post by the strong evil ripples, and there was a dismal creaking noise.
Opposite this house was a garden—a narrow strip of ground closed round by the blank, dark houses, and led up to from the water by a flight of crumbling steps.
Nothing grew in this garden but tall, bright, rank grass and a small tree that bore white flowers. The house it belonged to was empty and shuttered; so was every house along the canal except this one, at the top window of which Lucius Cranfield sat shivering in his mean red coat. He was biting his finger and looking out across the water at the tree with pale flowers knocking at the closed shutter beside it.
The room was bare and falling to decay. Cobwebs swung from the great beam in the roof, and in every corner a spider's web was spun across the dirty plaster walls.
There was no glass in the window, and the shutters swung loose on broken hinges. Now and again they creaked against the flat brick front of the house, and then Lucius Cranfield winced.
He held a round, clear mirror in his hand, and sometimes he looked away from the solitary tree to glance into it. When he did so he beheld a pallid face surrounded with straight brown hair, lips that had once been beautiful, and blurred eyes veined with red like some curious stone.
As the red sunlight began to grow fainter in the water a step sounded on the rotting stairway, the useless splitting door was pushed open, and Lord James Fontaine entered.
Slowly, and with a mincing step, he came across the dusty floor. He wore a dress of bright violet watered silk, his hair was rolled fantastically, and powdered such a pure white that his face looked sallow by contrast. To remedy this he had painted his cheeks and his lips, and powdered his forehead and chin. But the impression made was not of a pink and fresh complexion, but of a yellow countenance rouged. There were long pearls in his ears and under his left eye an enormous patch. His eyes slanted towards his nose, his nostrils curved upwards, and his thin lips were smiling.
He carried a cane hung with blood-colored tassels, and his waistcoat was embroidered with green flowers, the hue of an emerald, and green flowers the tint of a pale sea.
"You paint signs, do you not?" he said, and nodded.
"Yes, I paint signs," answered the other. He looked away from Lord James and across the darkening water at the lonely tree opposite. The sky above the deserted houses was turning a cold wet grey. A flight of crows went past, clung for a moment round the chimney-pots, and flew on again.
"Will you design me a sign-board?" asked Lord James, smiling. "Something noble and gay, for I have taken a new house in town."
"My workshop is downstairs," said Lucius Cranfield, without looking round. "Why did you come up?" He laid down the mirror and rubbed his cold fingers together.
"I rang and there was no answer, I knocked and there was no answer, so I pushed open the door and came up; why not?" Lord James regarded the sign-painter keenly, and smiled again, and pressed the knob of his clouded cane against his chin.
"Oh, why not?" echoed Lucius Cranfield. "Only this is a poor place to come to for a gay and noble sign."
He turned his head now, and there was a curious twist on his colorless lips.
"But you have a very splendid painting swinging outside your own door," said Lord James suavely. "Never did I see fairer drawing nor brighter hues. It is your work?" he questioned.
"Mine, yes," assented the sign-painter drearily.
"Fashion me a sign-board such as that," said Lord James. Lucius Cranfield left off rubbing his hands together.
"The same subjects?" he asked.
The other lowered his lids.
"The subjects are curious," he replied. "Where did you get them?"
"From life," said the sign-painter, staring at the tattered veils of cobwebs fluttering on the broken window-frame. "From my life."
The bright dark eyes of the visitor flickered from right to left. He moved a little nearer the window, where, despite the thickening twilight, his violet silk coat gleamed like the light on a sheet of water.
"You have had a strange life," he remarked, sneering, "to cull from it such incidents."
"What did you behold that was so extraordinary?" asked Lucius Cranfield.
"On one side there is depicted a gallows, a man in a gay habit hanging on it, and his face has some semblance to your own; the reverse bears the image of a fish, white, yet shot with all the colors...it is so skilfully executed that it looks as if it moved through the water..."
An expression of faint and troubled interest came over the sign-painter's face.
"Have you ever seen such a fish?" he asked.
Lord James's features seemed to contract and sharpen.
"Never," he said hastily.
Lucius Cranfield rose slowly and stiffly.
"There are two in the world," he said, half to himself; "and before the end I shall find the other, and then everything will be mended and put straight."
"Unless you lose your own token first," remarked Lord James harshly.
"How did you know I had one?" asked the sign-painter sharply. Lord James laughed.
"Oh, you're going mad, my fine friend! Do you not feel that you must be, living alone in such fashion in this old house?" Lucius Cranfield dragged himself to a cupboard in the wall.
"How my limbs ache!" he muttered. "Mad?" A look of cunning spread over his features. "No, I shall not go mad while I have the one crystal fish, nor before I find the owner of the other."
It was so dark they could barely see each other; but the nobleman's dress still shone bright and cold in the gloom.
"Yet it is enough to make a man go mad," he remarked suavely, "to reflect how rich and handsome you were once, with what fine clothes and furniture and friends...and then to remember how your father was hanged, and you were ruined, and all through the lies of your enemy...
"But my enemy died, too," said Lucius Cranfield. He took a thick candle and a rusty tinder-box out of the cupboard.
"His son is alive," replied Lord James.
A coarse yellow flame spurted across the dust.
"I wish I had killed them both," said the sign-painter; "but I could never find the son...How badly the candle burns!..."
He held the tinder to the cold wax, and only a small tongue of feeble fire sprang up.
"You are quite mad!" smiled Lord James. "You never killed either...and now that your blood is chilled with misery and weakened with evil days, you never will."
The candle-flame strengthened and illumined the chamber. It showed Lord James holding his sharp chin in a long white hand, and woke his diamonds into stars.
"Will you come downstairs and choose your design?" said Lucius Cranfield, shivering. "Take care of the stairs. They are rather dusty."
He shuffled to the door and held aloft the light. It revealed the twisting stairway where the plaster hung cracked and dry on the walls, or bulged damp and green in patches as the damp had come through. The rafters were warped and bending, and in one spot a fan-shaped fungus had spread in a blotch of mottled orange.
Lord James came softly up behind the sign-painter, and peered over the stairs.
"This is a mean place," he said, smiling, "for a great gentleman to live in...and you were a great gentleman once, Mr. Cranfield." The other gave him a cunning look over his shoulder.
"When I find the owner of the fish," he answered, "I shall be a great gentleman again or kill my enemy—that is in the spell." They went downstairs slowly because of the rotting steps and uncertain light. Lord James rested his long fingers lightly on the dusty balustrade.
"Do you not find the days very long and dull here?" he asked.
The reply came unsteadily from the bowed red figure of the sign-painter.
"No...I paint...and then I make umbrellas."
"Umbrellas!" Lord James laughed unpleasantly.
"And parasols. Would you not like a parasol for your wife, James Fontaine?"
"Ah, you know me, it seems."
"I know what you call yourself," said Lucius Cranfield. "And here is my studio. Will you look at the designs upon the wall?"
Lord James grinned and stepped delicately along the dark passage to the door indicated. It opened into a low chamber the entire depth of the house. There were windows on either side: one way looking onto the river, the other onto the street.
Lucius Cranfield set the candle in a green bottle on the table, and pointed round the walls where all manner of drawings on canvas, wood, and paper hung. They depicted horrible and fantastic things—mandrakes, dragons, curious shells and plants, monsters, and distorted flowers. In one corner were a number of parasols of silk and brocade, ruffled and frilled, having carved handles and ribboned sticks.
Lord James put up his glass and looked about him.
"So you know who I am?" he said, speaking in an absorbed way and keeping his back to Lucius Cranfield, who stood huddled together on the other side of the table, staring before him with dead-seeming eyes.
There was no answer, and Lord James laughed softly.
"You paint very well, Mr. Cranfield, but I must have something more cheerful than any of these"—he pointed his elegant cane at the designs. "That fish, now, that you have on your own sign, that is a beautiful thing."
The sign-painter groaned and thrust his fingers into his untidy brown hair.
"I cannot paint that again," he said.
"Sell me the sign, then." Lord James spoke quickly.
"I cannot...it is hanging there that it may be seen...that whosoever holds the other fish may see it...and then..."
"How mad you are!" cried Lord James. "What then, even should one come who has the other fish?" His black eyes blinked sharply, and his lips twitched back from his teeth.
"Then I shall find my enemy. The witch said so..."
"But you may die first."
"I cannot die till the spell is accomplished," shivered Lucius Cranfield. "Nor can I lose the fish."
Lord James put his hand to his waistcoat-pocket.
"Your light is very dim," he remarked. "I do not see clearly, but I think I observe a violet-colored parasol—"
The other lifted his head.
"They are very interesting to make."
"Will you show me that one?"
Lucius Cranfield turned slowly towards the far corner of the room.
"I began to work on that the night my father was hanged...as I sewed on the frills I thought of my enemies and how I hated them; and the night I killed one of them I finished it, carving the handle into the likeness of an ivory rose."
"You have sinned also," said Lord James, through his teeth. He took his hand from his pocket and put it behind his back. "I have been a great sinner," answered the sign-painter.
He took the purple parasol from the corner and shook out its shimmering silk furbelows.
"I will buy that." Lord James leant against the table, close to the candle flaring in the green bottle. In its yellow light the brilliant color of his coat shone like a jewel.
"The parasol is not for sale," said Lucius Cranfield sourly, gazing down on it. "Why do you not choose your design and go?" Now it was quite dark, both outside, beyond the windows, and in the corners of the long room. The waters sounded insistently as they lapped against the house. There was no moon; but through a rift in the thick, murky sky one star flickered, and the sign-painter lifted his dimmed eyes from the candle-flame and looked at it.
"What do you see?" asked Lord James curiously. He came softly up bed the other.
"A star," was the reply. "It is shining above the lonely white tree that is always knocking at the closed shutters..."
Lord James's hand came round from behind his back.
"But one can never see them both at the same time," continued the sign-painter. "When the star comes out, the tree is hidden; and only when the star sets..."
Lord James's fine hand rose slowly and fell swiftly...
Lucius Cranfield sank on his face silently, and the flaring light of the unsnuffed candle glistened on the wet dagger as it was withdrawn from between his shoulders.
Lord James stepped back and gazed with a long smile at his victim, who writhed an instant and then lay still on the dusty floor.
The sound of the water without seemed to increase his strength. The secretive yet turbulent noise of it filled the chamber like a presence as Lord James turned over the body of the sign-painter and opened his red coat.
In an inner pocket he found it, wrapped in a piece of blue satin.
The crystal fish. It was of all colors yet of no color; translucent as water, holding, like a bubble, all hues, finely wrought with fins and scales, light and cold to the hand, shining with a pure light of its own to the eye.
Lord James rose from his knees and put out the candle.
The river sounded so loud that he paused to listen to it. He thought he could distinguish the swish of oars and the latter of them in the rowlocks.
He went to the window and looked out. By the glimmer of the star and the radiance cast by the fish in his hand he could discern that there was nobody on the river, only the deserted boat fastened to the rotting stake.
He smiled; the faint light was caught in his ribbons, his diamonds, his dark, evil eyes. As he stared up and down the black road of water, the crystal fish began to writhe in his hand. It pushed and struggled, then leapt through his fingers and plunged into the blackness of the river.
Lord James peered savagely after it, his smile changing to a grin of anger. But the fish had sunk like a bolt of iron, and thinking of the depth of the river Lord James was comforted.
He came back to the table. It was quite dark, but his eyes served him equally well day or night. He picked up his clouded cane with the crimson tassels, his black hat laced with gold, his vivid green cloak, he kissed his hand to the prone body of the sign-painter, and left the room. In a leisurely fashion he walked down the passage, pushed open the crazy front door, and stepped out into the lonely street.
He looked up at the sign on which were painted the crystal fish and the man on the gallows; then he began to put on his gloves.
As he did so the violet parasol came to his mind. He turned back.
Softly he re-entered the long studio. The noise of the water had subsided to a mere murmur. Rats were running about the room and sitting on the body of Lucius Cranfield. He could see them despite the intense darkness, and he stepped delicately to avoid their tails.
The violet parasol was on the floor near the dead man. He stooped to pick it up, and the rats squealed and showed their teeth.
Lord James nodded to them and left the house again with the parasol under his arm.
The garden sloped down to the straight high-road upon the side to which the house faced, and at the back ran the river dividing the pleasaunce from the meadows.
Separating the garden from the road was a prim box hedge, very high, very wide, and very old. Behind this grew the neat garden flowers, and beneath it the tangled weeds that edged the road.
Here sat Lord James on a milestone, playing Faro with a one-eyed gipsy
The summer sunset sparkled on the red gables of the house and in the clothes of Lord James, which were of crimson and blue sarcenet branched with gold and silver.
The gipsy was young and ugly; he wore a green patch over his eyeless socket, and now and then listened, keenly, to the sound of the church-bells that came up from the valley, for the village ringers were practicing for Lord James's wedding.
The two played silently. The red and black cards scattered over the close green grass shaded by the large wild-parsley flowers. Beside the milestone lay Lord James's hat, stick, and cloak. His horse was fastened by its bridle to a stout branch of a laurel-tree that bent over from the garden.
"You always win," said the gipsy.
Lord James smiled, then coughed till he shook the powder off his face on to his cravat.
"Another game," he said, and shuffled the cards.
At this a lady looked over the box hedge, and gave them both a bitter frown.
Little bright pink and blue ribbons were threaded through her high-piled white curls, round her neck was a diamond necklace, and on the front of her black velvet bodice a long trail of jasmine was pinned. Her painted lips curled scornfully, and her azure eyes darkened as she stared across and over the box hedge at Lord James.
He looked up at her, waved his hand, and rose.
"You are late," she remarked stiffly.
"I have been playing cards," he answered. "May I present you to my friend?" He pointed to the gipsy.
"No," she said, and turned her back.
The gipsy laughed silently. The sound of the bells swelled and receded in the golden evening.
"Take my horse round to the stables." Lord James grinned at the gipsy, and gathered up his hat and cloak from the grass.
"I hate those bells!" cried the lady pettishly.
"They will ring no more after tomorrow, my dear."
Lord James came round to the gate as he spoke, and entered the garden.
She gave him a side-glance, and pouted. Her enormous pink silk hoop, draped with festoons of white roses, overspread the narrow garden-path, and crushed the southernwood that edged it. Her hands rested on her black velvet panniers embroidered with garlands of crimson carnations. There was a moon-shaped patch on her bare throat and one like a star on her rouged cheek; beneath her short skirts showed her black buckle shoes and immensely high red heels. Her name was Serena Thornton.
"I have broken my parasol," she said, looking at the gables of her house where the red-gold sunset rested. "The violet one you brought me."
"It can be mended," answered Lord James.
He came up to her, and they kissed.
"Yes," assented Serena. "I sent it to be mended today," she added. He laughed.
"There is no one here can mend a parasol like that. You must give it to me, Serena, and I will take it to town."
They moved slowly along the gravel walk, he in front of her, since her hoop did not allow him to be by her side.
It was a very pleasant garden. There were beds of pinks, of stocks, of roses, bushes of laurel, yew, and box, all intersected with little paths that crossed one another and led towards the house.
"There is a man in the village," said Lady Serena, "who is a maker of umbrellas. He came here yesterday."
"Ah?" questioned Lord James. He glanced back over his shoulder. "I heard he was painting a new sign for 'The Goat and Compasses,' and that he had made a beautiful blue umbrella for the host, so I sent down my parasol."
A slight greenish tinge, visible through the paint and powder, overspread Lord James's handsome face.
"It was careless of you to break it," he said softly.
Lady Serena lifted her shoulders.
"I could not help it. Shall I tell you how it happened?"
They had reached a square plot of close grass round which ran the box hedge and a low stone coping. In the center stood a prim fountain, and in its clear water swam the golden and ruby carp.
"Yes, tell me how it happened," said Lord James. He pressed his handkerchief to his thin lips and looked up at the sunset.
"I wish they would stop those bells!" cried Lady Serena.
"They are practicing for our wedding tomorrow, my dear," he smiled.
They could walk now side by side, she looking in front of her, and he gazing at the sunset that was pale and bright, the color of soft gold, of pink coral, and of a dove's wings above the gables of her house.
"I was walking by the river two days ago," said Lady Serena, "and I had in my hand the crystal fish. Do you remember, Lord James, that I showed it to you just before you left for town?"
"Yes; a foolish toy," he answered.
"How pleasant the box smells!" murmured Lady Serena, in a softer tone. "Well, I walked along the bank, thinking of you, and as I looked into the water I saw another fish—it floated just as if it were swimming—and oh, it was like the one I held in my hand! Just as it neared me it became entangled in the water weeds..."
"This does not explain how you broke your parasol," remarked Lord James.
"I drew the fish to land with it—my new parasol that your little black boy had just brought me—and broke the handle."
Lord James turned his pallid face towards her.
"Did you get the fish?"
"Yes. It is just like the one I have." She pulled out a green ribbon from the white velvet bag that hung on her arm, and at the end of it dangled two crystal fishes, cut and carved finely, holding a clear light, and filled with changing colors.
Lady Serena touched one with her scented forefinger. "That is the one I found. See, it has a bright blood-like stain across the side."
"So it has," said Lord James, putting up his glass. "It is curious you should have found it. A witch gave you the other, did you not say?"
"Yes," she answered half sullenly. "And she told me that the other was owned by my lover, and that he must live in misery till he found me." She turned the blue light of her eyes on her companion.
"You should have had it," she said, and slipped the fishes back into her bag.
The afterglow was fading from the sky, and they turned towards the house.
"I won three thousand pounds at Faro last night," said Lord James, "and I have brought you some presents."
And he thrust his hand into his pocket and drew out a string of amethysts.
"I dislike the color," said Lady Serena, and put it aside. "It is the color you wear," he answered.
She took the necklace at this with a sudden laugh, and fastened it round her long, pale throat.
They reached the three shallow steps that led to the open door of the house, and passed side by side out of the sunset glow into the soft-hued gloom of the wide hall.
In the great banqueting-room a dinner of two covers was laid. The service was of agate and silver, the glasses twisted with milk-white lines. The table was lit by six tall candles painted with wreaths of pinks and forget-me-nots, and their light ran gleaming and faint over the white cloth.
"I am going to try on my wedding-dress," said Lady Serena. "Will you wait for me?"
"It is unlucky to wear your wedding-dress before your wedding-day," answered Lord James.
But she left the chamber without a word or a smile.
The room opened by wide windows onto the terrace at the back that sloped down to the river, and the sound of the water throbbing between its banks seemed to grow in volume and to speak threateningly to Lord James as he sat at the table with the glass and silver glittering before him, and the heart-shaped candle-flames casting a flickering glow over his sickly face.
It was the same river, and he knew it. As the last flush of light faded from the heavens he could see the moon, a strong pearl color, rise above the trees, and a great sparkling reflection fell across the river, marking with lines of silver the turbulent eddies that chased one another down the stream.
After a while Lord James rose and walked softly to the window, and his eyes became wide and bright as he stroked his chin and stared at the river.
When he turned round again, Lucius Cranfield stood in the doorway looking at him.
A spasm of fear contracted Lord James's features; then he spoke evenly.
"Good evening," he said.
"Good evening," replied Lucius Cranfield, and he bowed. "I have brought back a parasol I have mended—a lady's parasol, purple, with an ivory rose on the handle."
Between them was an ill-lit space of room and the bright table bearing the candles. They looked at each other, and Lord James's face grew long and foxy.
"How much do I owe you, Mr. Cranfield?" he asked.
"A great deal," said the sign-painter, shaking his head. "Oh, a great deal!"
Smiling, he set the parasol against a chair. His eyes were no longer bloodshot nor his cheeks pallid. His hair was neatly dressed. He wore the same red suit, and between the shoulder-blades it had been slit and mended with stitchings of gold thread.
"How much?" repeated Lord James.
Lucius Cranfield laughed.
"I do not believe that you are alive at all," sneered the other, rubbing his hands together. "How did you get away from the rats?"
"Do you hear the river?" whispered the sign-painter. "It is the same river."
Lord James came towards the table.
"I will pay you tomorrow for your work," and he pointed to the mended parasol.
"That is no debt of yours," answered Lucius Cranfield. "I did it for the lady of the house, Serena Thornton."
"She is my betrothed," said Lord James. "And I will pay you tomorrow—"
And the sign-painter smiled and stepped nearer.
"You lost the crystal fish," murmured Lord James, biting his forefinger and glancing round the dark, lonely room.
"But someone else has found it."
The other gave a snarl of rage.
"No! It is at the bottom of the river!"
At that Lucius Cranfield leant forward and seized his enemy by the throat. Lord James shrieked, and they swayed together for a moment. But the sign-painter twisted the other's head round on his shoulders and dropped him, a heap of gay clothes, on the waxed floor.
Then he began to sing, and turned to the open window.
The river was quiet now, flowing peacefully in between its banks, and Lucius Cranfield stepped out onto the terrace and walked towards its waters shining in the moonlight.
Almost before the last echo of his footsteps had died away in the silent room, Lady Serena Thornton entered, holding her dress up from her shoes.
Her gown was white, all wreathed across the hoop with ropes of seed-pearls, and laced across the bodice with diamonds. In her high head-dress floated two soft plumes fastened with clusters of pale roses. Round her neck hung Lord James's gift of amethysts.
She stood in the doorway, her painted lips parted, her dark blue eyes fixed on the body of her betrothed husband.
Presently she went up and looked at him; then she sat down on the chair by the table—sat down, breathing heavily—with her right hand on the smooth satin of her bodice, and slow, strange changes passing over her face. She glanced at the purple parasol, resting across the chair where Lord James should have sat, and then out at the distant river, that showed white as her bridal-dress where the moonlight caught its ripples.
She heard the far-off singing of the sign-painter, and she sighed, closing her eyes.
The six candles burnt steadily, casting a rim of dark shadow round the table and the dead man on the floor, and glittering in the embroidered flowers on his gaudy coat and in the jewels of the woman at the table.
The black clock on the mantelshelf struck ten. The sound was echoed by the chimes from the village church.
Lady Serena Thornton rose and went upstairs, he: wide hoop brushing the balustrade either side, her high heels tapping on the polished wood.
She entered her room and lit a little silver lamp on the dressing-table.
The chamber looked out upon the back; the window was open, and she could still see the river and hear Lucius Cranfield singing.
Slowly she took the feathers, ribbons and flowers out of her curls, and laid them on the tulip-wood table. Then she shook down her hair from its wire frame and brushed the powder out of it. She had almost forgotten what color it was—in reality a ruby golden-brown, like the tint of wallflowers.
She unlaced her bodice and flung aside her jewels. She stepped out of her hoop and took off her satin coat, staring at herself in the gilt oval mirror.
Then she washed her face free of paint and powder in her gold basin, and tied up her locks with a red ribbon. She cast off her long earrings, her bracelets, her rings, the necklace Lord James had given her. This slipped, like a glitter of purple water, through her fingers, and shone in a little heap of stars on the gleaming waxed floor.
She arrayed herself in a brown dress, plain and straight, and took the two fishes from their velvet bag to hang them round her neck. Again she looked at herself. Who would have known her? Not Lord James himself, could he have risen from the floor in the solitary room below, and come up the wide stairs to gaze at her. Her face was utterly changed, her carriage different.
She blew out the lamp. A faint trail of smoke stained the moonlight that filled the room. She listened and heard the river and the sign-painter singing. On her bosom the fishes throbbed and glowed, opal-colored and luminous.
Leaving the room lightly, softly she descended through the dark to the dining-room.
The six flower-wreathed candles still burnt steadily among the glass and silver. She glanced at Lord James sorrowfully, and picked up the mended parasol.
As she did so the bells broke out in a volume of glad sound—the villagers practicing yet again for her wedding on the morrow.
Lady Serena Thornton smiled, and as Lucius Cranfield had done, and almost in his steps, went down the long room and through the open window on to the terrace. Slowly she walked towards the river, which she could see moving restlessly under the moonlight. The bells were very loud, but through them came the words of his song—
"The clouds were tangled in the trees They broke the boughs and spoiled the fruit; The sleeper knows what the sleeper sees— You play spades, and I follow suit!
The clouds came down the drops of rain, And woke the grass to blooms of fire; The sleeper tore his dream in twain, And sought for the cards in the bitter mire!"
The bells ceased suddenly. Lady Serena saw the dark figure of the sign-painter, standing at the edge of the water, his back to her.
"If I have won, 'tis little matter; If I have lost, 'tis naught at all; The wind will chill and the sun will flatter, And the damp earth fill the mouth of all."
There was a boat before him, rocking on the argent water, and as the lady came up the sign-painter stooped over it. Then he turned and saw her.
"Good even," said Lady Serena. He took her hands and kissed her face. The sound of the river was heavily in their ears.
"I found your fish," she whispered.
He nodded, and they entered the boat. It was lined with violet silk and scented with spices.
"The villagers will have practiced for nothing," said Lady Serena. Lucius Cranfield loosened the rope that held the boat fast to a willow, and it began to drift down the stream towards the town.
"We are going to a house where a tree with white flowers knocks for admittance on the shutters," he said.
"I know," she answered; "I know."
She sat opposite to him, leaning back, and the light night wind blew apart her brown robe here and there on the gleam of the bright green petticoat beneath. Her yellow hair floated behind her, and the crystal fishes rose and fell with her breathing. Across her knees lay the purple parasol.
They looked at each other and smiled with parted lips. The boat sped swiftly under a high bank, treeless and full under the rays of the moon. Here, by a round stone, sat two figures playing cards.
Lucius Cranfield glanced up. The players turned white, grinning faces down towards the boat. They were the one-eyed gipsy and Lord James.
"Good night," nodded the sign-painter. "I do not believe you are alive at all. Why, I can almost see through you!..."
"Do you know me?" mocked Lady Serena.
And the boat was swept away along the winding river.
Lord James listened to the sign-painter's song that floated up from the dark water.
"If I win, 'tis little matter;
If I lose, 'tit naught at all;
The wind will chill and the sun will flatter,
And the red earth stop the mouths of all."
"They will never get there," grinned Lord James. "T shall go down tomorrow and see the empty boat upside down, tossing outside the shuttered house."
"There is no tomorrow for such as you," leered the gipsy. "You had your neck broken an hour ago...presently we will go home...your deal..."
Lord James sighed, and a great cloud suddenly overspread the moon.
The gipsy began to sing in a harsh voice, and his eyes turned red in his head as he shuffled the cards.
"If I win, 'tis little matter;
If I lose, 'tis naught at all;
The wind will chill and the sun will flatter,
And the damp earth stop the mouths of all."
Far away down the river the boat flashed for the last time in the moonlight, then was lost to sight under the shadow of the overhanging trees.
Linley was fond of collecting what he called "raw material" and, as a fairly successful barrister, he had good opportunity for doing so. He despised novelists and romancists, yet one day he hoped to become one of these gentry himself, hence his collection of the raw material...however, after some years he became disgusted and overwhelmed by the amount of "stuff" (as he termed it) which he had gathered together—scenes, episodes, characters, dialogues, descriptions and decorations for all or any possible type of tale; he remained, he declared, surprised at the poverty of invention of the professional story-tellers who gave so little for the public's money in the way of good, strong, rousing drama, such as he, Robert Linley, had come across, well, more times than he cared to count...
"There isn't anything," he declared with some vehemence, "of which I haven't had experience."
"Ghosts?" I asked, and he smiled contemptuously.
"Yes, of course, I've had any amount of experiences with ghosts, with people who've seen 'em, and people who think they've seen 'em, and with the ghosts themselves..."
"Well," I asked, "have you come across a real Christmas ghost story—what we used to call the old-fashioned kind? They're getting a bit threadbare now, you know; they've been told over and over again, year after year; have you got a novelty in that direction?" Linley, after a moment's pause, said that he had.
"There's some raw material for you," he cried, waxing enthusiastic, "the story of the Catchpoles and Aunt Ursula Beane, there's some raw material—why, there's everything in it—comedy, tragedy, drama, satire, farce—"
"Hold on!" I cried, "and just tell us as briefly as possible what your 'raw material' consists of. I'm out for a Christmas ghost story, you know, and I shall be disappointed if you don't give us something of that kind."
Linley made himself extremely comfortable and, with a lawyer's relish of the right phrase and the correct turn of sentence, gave us the history of Aunt Ursula Beane, with the usual proviso, of course, that the names and places had been altered. Before he began his narration Linley insisted on the novelty of the story, and before he had finished we all of us (those select few who were privileged to hear him hold forth) agreed that it was very novel indeed.
The case of Aunt Ursula Beane, as he called her, had come under his notice in a professional way and in the following manner, commonplace enough from a lawyer's point of view, although the subsequent case was one which the papers endeavored to work up into what is described by that overworked word "sensational." As far as the lawyers and the public were concerned it began with an inquest on Mrs. Ursula Beane. In Linley's carefully selected phrases the case was this:
"Mrs. Ursula Beane had died suddenly at the age of seventy-five. The doctor who had been intermittently attending her—she was an extremely robust and healthy old woman—had not been altogether satisfied with her symptoms. He had refused a death certificate, there had been an autopsy, and it was discovered that Mrs. Ursula Beane had died from arsenical poisoning. The fact established, an enquiry followed, eliciting the following circumstances. Mrs. Ursula Beane had lived for forty years in a small house at Peckham Rye which had belonged to her father and his father before him. The house had been built in the days when Peckham Rye—well, was not quite like it is now. She resided with a nephew and niece—James and Louisa Catchpole. Neither of them had ever married, neither of them had ever left Peckham Rye for more than a few weeks at a time, and the most minute investigation did not discover that either of them had had the least adventure or out-of-the-way event in their lives. They enjoyed a small annuity from a father who had been a worthy and fairly prosperous tradesman. James was, at the time of the inquest, a man over sixty and had been for many years a clerk—'confidential clerk' as he emphasized it—with a large firm of tea merchants. He received a sufficient, if not a substantial salary and was within a year or two of a pension. His sister, Miss Louisa Catchpole, was younger—fifty or so; she also had a substantial, if not a brilliant, position as a journalist on one of those few surviving monthlies which rather shun publicity and cater for the secluded and the virtuous. She wrote occasional short stories in which the hero was always a clergyman and the heroine sans peur et sans reproche. She also wrote little weekly causeries—as I believe they are called—'Meditations in a Garden'; they were headed and adorned with a little cut of an invalid in a basket-chair gazing at a robin. In these same causeries Miss Louisa Catchpole affected month after month, year after year, with unfaltering fortitude, a vein of Christian cheerfulness, and encouraged her readers with such maxims as 'Character is stronger than Destiny,' 'A man is only as strong as his faith in himself,' and chirpings about the recurring miracle of spring, together with quotations from the more minor poets—you know the type of thing.
"It is irrelevant to our story to go into why Aunt Ursula Beane lived with those two; they seemed to be the only surviving members of their very unimportant family, and they had lived together in the house at Peckham Rye for forty years, ever since Louisa was quite a small child and had gone there to live with Aunt Ursula who, on her husband's death, had retired to this paternal abode. Nobody could think of them as apart one from the other. During those forty years James had gone to and fro his work, Louisa had written her articles and stories, and at first had been looked after by, and afterwards had looked after, Aunt Ursula Beane. Their joint earnings kept the tiny establishment going; they were considerably helped by the fact that there was no rent to pay and they lived in modest comfort, almost with (what James would have called) 'every luxury.' Besides giving them the house to live in, Mrs. Beane paid them at first thirty shillings, then, as the cost of living went up, two pounds a week for what she called 'her keep.' What, you will say, could have been more deadly commonplace than this? But there was just one touch of mystery and romance. Aunt Ursula was reputed to be of vast wealth and a miser—this was one of those family traditions that swell and grow on human credulity from one generation to another. The late Mr. Beane was spoken of with vague awe as a very wealthy man, and it appeared that the Catchpoles believed that he had left his widow a considerable fortune which she, a true miser, had concealed all those years, but which they might reasonably hope to inherit on her death, as a reward for all their faithful kindness. Investigation proved that what had seemed rather a fantastic delusion had some startling foundation. Mrs. Ursula Beane employed a lawyer and his evidence was that her late husband, who had been a tobacconist, had left her a tidy sum of money when he had died forty years ago, amounting to fifteen thousand pounds, which had been safely invested and not touched till about five years before. What Mrs. Beane lived on came from another source—a small capital left by her father that brought her in about a hundred and fifty pounds a year; therefore this main sum had been, as I have said, untouched and had accrued during those thirty-five years into a handsome sum of nearly fifty thousand pounds. The lawyer agreed that the old lady was a miser, nothing would induce her to draw out any of this money, to mention its existence to a soul, or to make a will as to its final disposal. The lawyer, of course, was pledged to secrecy. He knew that the Catchpoles guessed at the existence of the hoard, he also knew that they were not sure about it and that they had no idea as to its magnitude. Five years before her death the old lady had drawn out all her capital—forty-eight thousand pounds—without any explanation whatever to the lawyer, and had taken it away in a black bag, going off in a taxicab from the lawyer's office in Lincoln's Inn. It might have been the Nibelung hoard flung into the Rhine for all the mystery that was attached to it, for nobody saw or heard of it again. Both the Catchpoles swore that they had no knowledge whatever of the old woman realizing her capital; she had certainly not banked it anywhere, she must have taken that very large sum of money in notes and, I believe, a few bonds, to that small house at Peckham Rye and in some way disposed of it. A most exhaustive search revealed not so much as a five-pound note. In the bank was just the last quarterly instalment of her annuity—barely enough, as Louisa Catchpole remarked with some passion, 'to pay the doctor and the funeral expenses.'
"There you have the situation. This old woman dead in what was almost poverty, the disappearance of this large sum of money she had realized five years previously, and the fact that she had died from arsenical poisoning. To explain this there were the usual symptoms, or excuses, whatever you like to call them; she had been having medicine with arsenic in it, and she might have taken an overdose. There had been arsenic in the house in the shape of powders for an overgrown and aged dog, and in the shape of packets of weed-killer, James had always taken an industrious interest in the patch of garden that sloped to the Common. The old lady might have committed suicide, she might have taken some of the stuff in mistake, or the Catchpoles might have been murderers. The only possible reason for suspecting foul play would have been that the Catchpoles knew of her hoard and wished to get hold of it. But this it was impossible to prove. I was briefed to watch the case for the Catchpoles. There was, of course, a certain sensation and excitement over the fact of the large sum of money, the only startling and brilliant fact about the whole commonplace, drab and rather depressing story. I myself thought it rather absurd that any question of suspicion should attach to the Catchpoles. After forty years of placid uninspired devotion to Aunt Ursula Beane, why should they suddenly decide to put her out of the way when, in the nature of things, she could not have had more than a few years to live? Their demeanor, too, impressed me very favorably. There was none of the flaunting vanity, posing or vehement talk of the real criminal, they seemed slightly bewildered, not very much disturbed, and to trust wholly in their undeniable innocence, they almost found the whole thing grotesque and I could understand their point of view. The verdict, however, was rather surprising. It was confidently expected that it would be Death from misadventure,' but instead, the verdict was 'Death from arsenical poisoning not self-administered.' This is really about as near as we can get in England to the Scottish verdict 'Not proven,' and I was rather indignant, for it seemed to me to attach a great deal of wholly unmerited suspicion to the two Catchpoles. Still, of course, they were quite free and no direct blame was laid on them. In fact, the coroner had remarked on their devoted care of an old lady who must have been, from the various facts proved by the doctors, 'very trying and difficult,' as the saying goes. They conducted themselves very well after the inquest, still with that slightly bewildered patient air of resignation. It seemed to me that they did not realize the ghastly position in which they stood and, as I knew when I heard the verdict, the very narrow escape they had had from being arrested on a charge of murder. They paid all the expenses connected with the inquest at once and without any trouble. They had, as James explained with a certain mild pride, 'savings.' I was interested in them, they were so meek and drab, so ordinary and repressed; there was something kindly and amiable about them and they were very attached to each other. I questioned them about this mysterious hoard, the existence of which would have been difficult to believe but for the evidence of the lawyer. They did not seem very concerned, they had always known that Aunt Ursula Beane had money and, said Louisa without passion, they had always guessed that she had tried to do them out of it—she had been an extraordinarily malicious old woman, they complained, and it was quite likely that the money was buried somewhere, or had been destroyed. She was capable of feeding the fire with it, of sticking it in a hole in the ground, of throwing it into the water in a bag weighed down with stones, in fact of doing anything in the world with it except putting it to some profitable use. She was undoubtedly not right in her head.
"'She ought to have been certified years ago,' I declared.
"James Catchpole shook his head. 'She was never bad enough for that,' he announced with resignation.
"They had really been slaving and 'bearing' things for forty years for that money, and they took the loss of it, I thought, with extreme gallantry.
"They returned to the little house in Peckham Rye which came to them as next-of-kin. The little annuity, which was all that Aunt Ursula had left of her worldly goods after she had disposed of her main fortune, perished with her. James and Louisa would have to live on his clerkship and her journalism."
At this point Linley stopped to ask me if we did not perceive a real strong drama in what he had told us—"A whole novel, in fact," he added triumphantly.
"Well," I replied, "one might make it into a whole novel by inserting incidents and imagining this and that and the other. As you have given it, it seems a dreary stretch of nothingness with a rather damp squib at the end. After all, there was no murder, I suppose the old woman took an overdose of medicine by mistake. Where," asked, "does the Christmas ghost story come in?"
"I will tell you if you will have just a little more patience. Well, I have said that I was interested in the Catchpoles, I even went to see them once or twice. They seemed to me to be what used to be called 'human documents'—the very fact that they had such blank faces made me want to study them. I know there must be some repression somewhere, some desire, some hope, something beside what there appeared on the surface—this blank negation. They did not betray themselves. Louisa said she missed the old lady and that she was having quite a handsome headstone put on her grave in the vast London cemetery where she had been laid to rest. James spoke of the old lady with a certain deference, as if the fact of her being dead had made a saint of Aunt Ursula Beane.
"I continually asked them if they had had any news of the money. They shook their heads with a compassionate smile at my hopefulness. They were convinced that during those five years Aunt Ursula Beane had completely destroyed the forty-eight thousand pounds—easily destroyed, for most of it had been in hundred- and thousand-pound notes. Of course the garden had been dug over and every brick and plank in the house disturbed, with no result.
"'And if she never left the house and garden?' I asked.
"They told me she had. She was a robust old woman, as I said before, and she used to take long walks and every year during those five years she went away for a fortnight—sometimes with Louisa, sometimes with James, sometimes to the seaside and sometimes to lodgings in a farmhouse, and on all these different occasions she had had plenty of opportunity of getting rid of her money. Of course these five several lodgings had been searched and the country round about them, but always with no result.
"'You see, sir,' said James, with his meek and placid smile, his pale faded eyes gleaming at me behind the glasses, 'she was far too cunning for all of us.'
"One winter evening about a year after the inquest the mood took me to go and visit these two curious specimens. I found them with a planchette, their eyes goggling at the sprawling writing that appeared on the piece of paper beneath. James informed me without excitement that they had 'taken up' spiritualism, and Miss Louisa chirped in that they were getting 'the most wonderful results.'
"Aunt Ursula Beane had 'come through,' as they put it, almost at once, and was now in constant communication with them. "'Well, I hope she can tell you what she did with the money.' "They answered me quite seriously that that was what they were trying to find out, but that the old lady was just as tricky and malicious on the other side, as they termed it, as she had been on this, luring them on with false scents and wayward suggestions. At the same time, they declared, placidly but with intense conviction, they believed that sooner or later she would disclose to them her secret.
"I soon began to lose interest in them after this. When people of the type of the Catchpoles get mixed up with this spiritualistic business they cease to be—well, almost cease to be 'human documents.' I thought I'd leave 'em to it, when I received a rather urgent invitation from Miss Louisa Catchpole, begging me to be present at a 'demonstration' at which Aunt Ursula Beane would undoubtedly appear in person.
"I went to the little house in Peckham where the furniture, the wallpaper, even the atmosphere did not appear to have been changed all those monotonous forty years—forty-one now to be exact. There was a medium present and no one else save myself and the brother and sister. We sat round the table. The medium who beamed with a rather fussy kindness went off with surprising celerity into a trance, and soon the 'demonstration' took place.
"At first I was cynical, secondly I was disgusted, and thirdly, I was rather disturbed, finding myself first in the midst of farce, low charlatanry and chicanery, then suddenly in the presence of something which I could not understand. The 'demonstration' began by groans and squeaks issuing from the lips of the medium, greetings to Louisa and James (presumably in the voice of the defunct Aunt Ursula), various jovial references to a bottle containing poison, a few other crude remarks of that nature, and then several knocks from different parts of the room—rappings loud and quick, and then beating time, as if to a piece of music, then a sudden clatter on the table in the middle of us as if the old lady were dancing there with heavy boots on. James and Louisa sat side by side, their hands clasped, listening to all this without a shade of expression on their blank faded faces. The hideous little room was the last resort of the antimacassar, and presently these began to fly about, scraps of the horrible white crocheted tatting gliding through the air in a way which would have been very funny if it hadn't been rather dreadful. Of course I knew that many mediums have these powers and there is nothing much in them—I mean, it can all be explained in a perfectly practical and satisfactory fashion. At the same time I did not greatly care about the exposition, and I begged the Catchpoles to bring it to an end, particularly as the old lady had nothing definite to say. James whispered that the medium must not be disturbed while she was in trance. Aunt Ursula Beane then began to sing a hymn, but with a very unpleasant inflection, worse than any outspoken mockery. While the hymn was being sung I gained the impression far more vividly than I had ever received before that Aunt Ursula Beane had been a rather terrible person. When she had finished the hymn she began in an old half-broken voice softly to curse them all in a language that was not at all agreeable to listen to, coming as it did in those querulous, ancient feminine tones. This was rather too much for me, and I shook the medium violently. She came out of her trance. Louisa and James did not seem in the least affected, drank tea, ate biscuits, and discussed in banal terms the doings of those on 'the other side.'
"I received no more invitations from the Catchpoles and did not go near them for a considerable time. In fact, I think I had rather forgotten about them, as I had had a great many other interesting cases and a good many other interesting specimens had come my way. I had heard a vast number of stories as good as the story of Aunt Ursula Beane, but it did happen one day that I had to pass through Peckham and could not resist the passing impulse of curiosity that urged me to go and look at the house on the Common. It was 'To Let' or 'To be Sold,' according to two or three estate agents' blatant boards on the front railing. I called next door and was received with the inevitable suspicion with which the stranger is usually regarded in small places. I did, however, discover what I had set out to discover, namely, that the Catchpoles had left the neighborhood about six months ago, and no one knew where they were. I took the trouble to go to one of the estate agents whose address was given on the board, to make further enquiries. The house was to be let or sold, it did not seem to have been considered a great prize, and it certainly had not gone off very quickly, though it was cheap enough; the neighborhood, even the estate agent admitted, 'was not what it had been.' Then, of course, one couldn't deny that the Ursula Beane case and the fact that the old lady had died there, and of poison, had given a slightly sinister air to the modest stucco building. As to the Catch-poles, the estate agent did not know where they had gone; all he had was the address of a bank, nor was it any of my business, so I decided to dismiss the whole thing from my mind.
"Good raw material, no doubt, but none of it worked up sufficiently to be of much interest."
Linley glanced round at us all triumphantly as he said this.
"But it was all rounded off as neatly as any novelist could do it. Let me tell you," he added with unction.
"Five years afterwards I ran over to Venice for Christmas—I don't know why, except just the perverse desire to see the wrong place at the wrong time, instead of forever the right place at the right time. I like Venice in the winter fogs, with a thin coat of ice on the canals, and if you can get a snowstorm—well, so much the better—St. Marco, to me, looks preferable with the snowflakes in front of the blue and the bronze instead of that eternal sunshine...Well, there I was in Venice, and I'm not going to bore you with any more local color or picturesque details. I was in Venice, very well satisfied with myself, very comfortable and alone. I was tolerably familiar with the city and I always stay at the same hotel. One of the first things I noticed was that a large and very pretentious palace near by had recently been handsomely and expensively 'done up'; I soon elicited the fact that the place which I had always envied had been bought by the usual rich American who had spent a great deal of money in restoring and furnishing it, but who did not very often live there, he only came and went after the fashion of all Americans, and was supposed to travel considerably in great luxury. Once or twice I saw this American going past in a gondola, wrapped in a foreign, rather theatrical-looking cloak, lounging with a sort of ostentation of ease on the cushions. He was an elderly man with a full grey beard, and wore, even now in the winter, blue sunglasses. On two separate occasions when I was sitting on the hotel balcony in the mild winter sunlight and he was being rowed past underneath I had the impression that he was looking at me sharply and keenly behind those colored spectacles, and also the impression, which was likely enough to be correct, that I had seen him before. I meet, of course, a great many people, but even with a memory on which I rather pride myself, cannot immediately place everyone. The hotel at which I was staying—and this was one of the reasons I always selected it—did not have any of those ghastly organized gaieties at Christmas; we were left to ourselves in a poetic gloom best suited to the season and the city. I was seated by myself enjoying a delicious kind of mournful repose, piquantly in contrast with my usual life, when I received a message and a very odd one: the gentleman, Signor Hayden, the American from next door, would very much like to see me. He had observed me on the balcony, knew my name and my profession, and requested the honor of my company. Attracted by anything queer or the least out of the way, I at once accepted, and in ten minutes or so found myself in the newly-restored palace which I had so often admired and envied. The place was furnished with a good deal of taste, but rather, I suspected, the orthodox taste of the professional decorator. Mr. Hayden was not immediately visible, but, I understood, in bed ill; I expressed my willingness to go to his bedside and was shortly conducted there. The room was very handsome, the servants very well trained, and I was impressed by the fact that this rich American must be very rich indeed. One knows, of course, what these out-of-the-way little caprices of newly-restored palaces in Venice cost. The owner of this up-to-date luxury was in bed, propped up with pillows and shaded by old-fashioned mauve velvet curtains. He still wore the colored glasses, and I concluded that he had some defect in his sight. He appeared to see me perfectly well, however, and beckoned to me to approach his bedside. As I did so he removed his glasses; there was an electric standard lamp on an antique table by the bedside and the light of it was turned full on to the sick man's face, which I immediately recognized. I was looking down into the faded, mild, light-blue eyes of James Catchpole.
"'Very odd that you should be here,' he smiled at me, 'very odd indeed. You've always been interested in us and I thought perhaps you'd like to hear the end of the story, that is, if any story ever does end; there's a pause in ours at this point, anyway.'
"I expressed due surprise and gratification at seeing him. In truth, I was considerably amazed. I was startled, too, to see how ill he was. He asked me to help him up in bed. He declared, without emotion, that he knew himself to be dying.
"'Where's Miss Louisa?' I asked; 'where is your sister?'
"'She died last year,' he answered placidly. 'She had a thoroughly good time for four years and I suppose it killed her, you know; but, of course, it was worth it, she always said so.'
"The inevitable conclusion had jumped to my mind.
"'You found Miss Ursula Beane's hoard?' I suggested.
"James Catchpole, passing his hand over the full grey beard which had so changed his face, replied simply:
"'We never lost it—we had it all the time.'
"'You mean you?' I asked dubiously, and he nodded and replied:
"'That you—?' I suggested, and this time he nodded and said:
"'Louisa persuaded her to realize her capital,' he continued with childish calm. 'She was a proper miser and she rather fretted not having the actual stuff in her hands. It wasn't difficult to make her get it—she liked a real hoard, a thing you can put under the hearthstone or in the mattress, you know. We thought we should get hold of it easier that way when she came to die. You never knew with anyone like that what she might do in the way of a will, she was keen on lost cats and Christians. We thought she would enjoy herself playing with it, and then we'd get it if we were patient enough.'
"He blinked up at me and added, with the faintest of ironic smiles—We'd been patient for forty years, don't you suppose we spent some part of that time planning what we would do with the money? We were both engaged, to start with, but her young man and my young woman couldn't wait all those years...We read a good deal, we made lists of things we wanted, and places we wanted to go to...We had quite a little library of guide-books, you may have noticed them on the bookshelf—one of them was a guide to Venice. Louisa, writing her piffling articles, and I at my piffling job, to and fro—well, you don't suppose we didn't have our ideas?'
"'I see,' I said doubtfully, 'and then, when there was that little misfortune about the arsenic, I suppose you didn't care to mention the hoard?'
"'It wouldn't have been altogether wise, sir, would it?' smiled James Catchpole simply. It would have thrown a lot of suspicion on us, and we'd been very careful. There wasn't any proof, not a shred. We had to wait until the case had blown over a bit, and then we—well, we did the best we could with the time that was left us. We lived at the rate of ten thousand a year. We had the best of everything...Of course it was the pace—don't you call it?—that killed. We were neither of us young, and we knew we couldn't stand it for long, so we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly, believe me, sir, thoroughly.'
"He paused and added reflectively:
"'But it's a good thing we made a move when we did, we shouldn't have been able to get about at seventy; she—she might have gone on to a hundred and ten.'
"'Do you mean that you—?' I suggested quietly.
"'It was the easiest thing in the world,' he smiled, 'to drop a couple of those dog powders into her milk...'
"I'd always been intensely interested in murderers. I tried to question James Catchpole as to his motives, his sensations, his possible remorse; he appeared to have had none of any of these...
"'You didn't regret it afterwards, you haven't felt the Furies behind you, or anything of that sort?'
"He replied, as far as his feeble strength would permit:
"'I have enjoyed myself thoroughly. I wish we hadn't waited so long.'
"I was puzzled. They had always seemed such very nice people.
"'I am dying now,' said James Catchpole, 'and it's about time, for I've spent all the money. The doctor said my next heart attack would be fatal, and I've done my best to bring one on. I couldn't go back to lack of money.'
"'Who are you going to leave all this to?' I asked with professional interest. I glanced round the handsome room.
"He smiled at me with what I thought was compassion.
"'I haven't been so silly as all that,' he replied. 'Everything that I possess wouldn't pay half of my debts. I have had full value, I can assure you. After all, I had a right to it, hadn't I? I'd waited long enough.'
"'What about the planchette and the demonstrations?' I asked. 'I suppose all that was a fake to throw us off the scent?'
"'Not at all,' he declared, in what seemed to be hurt surprise, 'that was perfectly genuine. We made up our minds to get in touch with Aunt Ursula Beane, to find out what she thought about it all.'
"'And what did she think?' I asked, startled.
"'She said we were a couple of fools not to have done it sooner.' "'Come, come, Mr. Catchpole,' I cried, something shocked, 'this is unseemly jesting.'
"'No jesting at all,' he assured me. 'Aren't I dying myself? I shall be in the old girl's company in a few minutes, I daresay. You heard her yourself, sir, dancing on the table that evening. She said she'd been a perfect fool herself, and now that she'd "got over" she realized it. She said if we didn't have a good time, or someone didn't have a good time with that damn money, she'd never forgive us. You see, sir, at first we began to have that miserly feeling too and didn't want to spend it. We thought we'd go on hoarding it, living just the same and knowing it was there. She used to scribble out on the planchette saying what idiots we were. That's why she used all that strong language. "You've got it—now use it!" That was what she always said. "I'll go with you and share in your good time"—and so she has, sir, believe me. We've often seen her sitting at the table with us, nodding over the champagne; she'd have been fond of champagne if she'd allowed herself...We've seen her dancing in some of those jazz-halls, we've seen her in boxes listening to opera, we've seen her sitting in the Rolls-Royce revelling in the cushions and the speed...Remorse? Why, I tell you we've given the old girl the good time she ought to have had years ago.'
"'Come, come, James Catchpole,' I said, 'you're delirious. I'd better fetch the doctor.'
"He smiled at me with compassion and some contempt.
"'You're a clever lawyer,' he said, 'but there are a lot of things you don't understand.'
"Even as he spoke he seemed to fall into a peaceful sleep and I thought it was my responsibility to fetch a doctor. Of course I believed hardly anything he said—I thought it was quite likely that he hadn't poisoned Aunt Ursula Beane, but that he had invented the story. At the same time there was the hard concrete evidence of the palace, the servants, the furniture—he had got money from somewhere.
"'Good raw material, eh? Think what you could make of it if you wrote it up!'
"I went downstairs, telephoned on my own responsibility to the address of one of the English doctors. It was Christmas Eve and I could not find him at home. I was quite uncertain what to do. I stood hesitant at the foot of the wide magnificent staircase, when I observed a dreadful old woman creeping up the stairs with a look of intense enjoyment on her face—Mrs. Ursula Beane—not a doubt of it—Aunt Ursula Beane! I saw her so clearly that I could have counted the stitches in the darns at the elbows of her black sleeves. I ran up after her, but of course she was there before I was. When I carne up to the bedside James Catchpole was dead, with an extremely self-satisfied smug smile on his face.
"There's my Christmas Eve ghost! An hallucination, of course, but you can give it all the usual explanation. There's the story, you can put it together as you will. There's plenty of stuff in it—good raw material, eh, take it how you will?"
We all agreed with Linley.
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