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Title: The Hospitallers Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402641h.html Language: English Date first posted: Oct 2014 Most recent update: Oct 2014 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy. 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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WHEN I am tired and weary of the world, there is one spot where I can find balm for the vexed spirit and rest for an overburdened mind. You would pass it day by day and year by year, never dreaming of the paradise that lies within the city walls. All the passer-by sees is a long blank wall facing the hot dusty street, and nothing to break its dreary monotony save an iron-studded door, like the entrance to a jail. How should you know that beyond it lies all that remains of an erstwhile flourishing monastery of the Dominicans, and that the half-effaced inscription over the grim door points to the fact that, at the suppression of the religious houses, 'the site was granted to John Le Marchant and Raphael Hutchinson, Esquires?' Also, that early in Elizabeth's reign, it belonged to the Fotheryngsbys of Fotheryngsby Court; and further, as every student of Welsh Border history can tell, it is known as the Fotheryngsby Hospital to this day; for in the year of grace 1614 one Sir Thomas Fotheryngsby erected within the walls a quadrangular building to contain 'ten servitors, a Corporal to be over them, and also for a chaplain for their souls' good; five of them to be such as have borne arms, and five such as have served their masters well and faithfully.' And furthermore, 'that each Hospitaller at his first admittance should have a fustian suit of ginger colour of a soldier-like fashion, seemly laced; a hat with a band of white, and red slippers; a soldier-like jerkin with half-sleeves, and a square shirt down half the thigh, with a moncado or Spanish cap; a soldier-like sword with a belt to wear as he goeth abroad; a cloak of red cloth lined with a baise of red, and reaching to the knee; and a seemly gown to be worn of red cloth reaching down to the ankle, lined likewise with red baise, to be worn in walks and journeys.' All of which, with the exception of the sword, has been studiously observed to this very day in the year of our Lord 1888.
Here is such a change from the dusty Widemarsh Street as will startle and delight you. Close the door behind and shut out the workaday world, for, in the historic words of the Quaker, it hath no business here. There is a dim passage opening out suddenly into a quadrangle, formed of twelve houses, four a side; and on the other the ancient chapel, where the chaplain, who is no longer an inmate, officiates; a wonderfully quaint building, containing on the reading-desk a veritable chain-Bible. The houses are small, but neat and clean; and round each doorway, far into the flagged court, are a profusion of flowering plants in pots, making the quiet spot a veritable garden. We have stepped back into the past. There are clean old men and women clad in the 'cloak of red cloth lined with a baise of red;' and for the latter pensioners, the 'seemly gown,' also of ruddy hue. Beyond, there is another passage leading to the gardens, filled with peas and beans, and such produce as the owners care to cultivate; and then, when you have noted and admired the Arcadian neatness, you will have another surprise; for exactly opposite you there stands the ivy-mantled ruin of the old monastery, its roofless walls showing the bright blue sky beyond, with a peep of the same boundless heaven through an open chimney, where now the swallows and sparrows build. Where once the rushes were strewn underfoot, lies a carpet of emerald turf; great heads of foxglove rear themselves on the open hearthstone; the very preaching-cross where vast multitudes were wont to assemble to hear exhortations in time of war, or prayer in the hour of disaster, still remains in the midst of this silent silvan beauty, presided over by the invisible spirit of Peace.
Every inch of this ground is teeming with historic interest. For a small honorarium the Corporal will shake his white head, and pour out his store of antiquarian lore for the stranger's behoof, embellishing his history with certain scraps of information, easy to one long versed in the art of concocting historical fiction, yet at the same time believing every word that falls so solemnly from his own lips.
One bright August morning, some two years since, or it may be more, for time stands still in Fotheryngsby Hospital, two of its inmates sat under the shady side of the refectory wall, facing the gardens. One was an old man, so old that his clean shaven face was one mass of wrinkles; the other, somewhat more robust and hearty, who listened politely to his senior's amiable chatter with some show of interest, for the discussion was warlike, not to say bloodthirsty, to the last degree. Their gray heads were close together, contrasting not inharmoniously with the scarlet coats; on the breasts of each gleamed more than one silver medal with its parti-coloured clasp.
'It's in the blood, Jacob,' said the younger man, reflectively sucking his pipe. 'There was that lad of mine just the same. He might have been the old Squire's body-servant, and a good place too; but nothing would do but soldiering. He fell at Balaklava, in the charge. He was a good lad, was Jim.'
'They was like we, Ben. There's a mort of trouble in bein' a father, not as I ever had time to think much of that sort of thing. When I was a boy, it was a sore time for wives and sweethearts. I'm ninety-five, Mr Choppin—ninety-five next Sunday, and I fought under the Duke at Waterloo——'
'It was in Balaklava harbour,' returned Mr Choppin, not to be outdone, 'as I see my most active service—A.B. on the old Ajax. It was there as Master Frank got killed——'
'And he never smiled again,' interrupted Mr Jacob Dawson, in the tone of one who repeats a well-learnt lesson or an oft-repeated story. 'I've heerd the tale afore, Benjamin, though as sad a one as I ever heerd tell.'
Ben Choppin looked into space meditatively, perfectly unconscious, as was the last speaker, of the irony underlying his words. It was a hot still morning, with the gentlest of breezes ruffling the ivy mantle of the ruin—a time for rest and retrospection.
'He never smiled again, Jacob,' Choppin resumed approvingly; 'leastwise, not till Miss Sylvia was born, and that was twelve years afterwards. There was three besides her and Master Frank, all of 'em dyin' of infantcy'—as if childhood was some fell disease—'the rest was Turkish Bonds, I'm told.'
Mr Dawson nodded his head approvingly, somewhat hazy in his mind, as well he might be, as to whether the bonds in question represented another and more virulent complaint peculiar to children of tender years.
'There was a lad for you,' continued the narrator, with rising enthusiasm—'a gentleman and a Goldsworthy every inch of him. And, mind you, though he was a midshipman aboard his father's own ship, there was no favour for him.—Well, we was just laughing together—for he always had a pleasant word for everybody—when plump comes a ball and cuts him right down.'
'And then he said, faintlike: "Ben, old fellow, never mind me, but fetch the dear old gov'nor,"' Jacob Dawson exclaimed parenthetically. 'Then you lifts him—all, all white from the pain as he pretends he can't feel. That's what I calls being something like an Englishman.'
'Jacob,' asked Choppin suspiciously, 'where did you get that last bit from?'
'That bit,' Dawson returned, with some show of pride, 'is my own. Still, I won't make a pint on it, Ben, if you do object.'
But Ben was so overcome that he could find no words to reprimand the Corporal for his unparalleled audacity in spoiling the symmetry of his best story.
Interruptions, so far as they were quotations from the original text, were permitted, and indeed accepted as a compliment; but never before, in the course of fourteen years' friendship, had Mr Dawson ventured to interpolate ideas of his own into the story-teller's polished narrative.
It was, after all, a commonplace tale enough. Captain Goldsworthy, the last of a good old Downshire family, had commanded the Ajax in the Black Sea squadron during the Crimean War; and Ben Choppin, a Downshire man, had been boatswain's mate on board that gallant ship. It was to the death of Captain Goldsworthy's only son that the threadbare story related; but how the Captain came to be a pensioner in the same Hospital as his humble follower was one of those points which Choppin was somewhat hazy upon.
But this was an old story, likewise the history of an honest single-minded gentleman, who refused to accept his pension on the ground that he had sufficient for his own wants without drawing an income he might not earn. We hear the rest of the sorry details often enough; the simple individuals who listen to the voice of the charmer, and fondly imagine that every financial genius who floats a bogus company risks his time and money with the philanthropic intention of finding the public a safe investment for spare capital at the rate of twenty per cent.
Goldsworthy asked for nothing when the crash came save a roof, other than that of the poor-house, to cover his gray hairs. Proud to the last degree, nothing savouring of charity would he accept; and so it came to pass that, when he was jestingly offered a shelter in the Blackfriars Hospital, he surprised the patron by accepting the offer. He had no encumbrances, no one depending upon him but his daughter Sylvia, a girl now in her twentieth year. The townspeople who knew him and his story wondered that he should care to have the girl with him in company with decayed soldiers and servants; but even in the midst of these poor surroundings there was a certain innate refinement in the pair that caused their fellow-inmates to look up to and respect them.
But Sylvia Goldsworthy, lady bred and born to her dainty finger-tips, was no idle heroine of fiction, bewailing her hard lot, and waiting for the handsome lover to carry her off to his ancestral castle. There was work to be done in Castleford, music-lessons to be given to more or less refractory pupils, and painting lessons at the Ladies' College. A girl who can support herself two years in London studying at the Royal Academy and College of Music, does not fear to face the ordeal of country-town drudgery.
'I wonder,' the Captain would say, nodding his gray head with the air of a connoisseur over some pretty landscape, or listening to some brilliant piece of music, for the Hospital home boasted a piano—'I wonder you did not stay in London, Sylvia. Think what a future was before you!'
'And what was to become of you? Why will you persist in thinking me to be a genius? Oh, I assure you there are hundreds in London far more clever than I who can scarcely get a living. Besides, it was so lonely, and I am far happier here.'
Such conversations were by no means rare in the cottage. Then the Captain would nod disapprovingly, as he contemplated this modesty of true genius. 'I sometimes think, I don't know why, that you had some reason more powerful than loneliness for leaving your work in town.'
Sylvia said nothing, but bent her head closer over the canvas upon which she was engaged. There was a little brighter colour in her cheeks, though her eyes were dimmer than before. 'At any rate, I did my duty,' she replied; and some instinct warned the Captain that he had best seek no further information. There was that perfect confidence between them that exists so rarely between parent and child, yet without the vulgar curiosity which impels some fathers to probe into every secret thought and fancy.
But Ben Choppin, smoking his pipe in the peaceful sunshine, with his bosom-friend the Corporal, knew nothing of this, except that he would have cheerfully laid down his life for his young mistress, as he would persist in calling her. Not a single bit of drudgery was there in the Captain's cottage but owed something of its cleanliness to the activity of the erstwhile boatswain. Even at the moment of his perturbation at Jacob Dawson's audacity, the sight of a large tin basin of unshelled peas attracted his attention, and in the labour of shelling these, his late ill-humour vanished with every cracking hull.
'I heard last night,' he continued, in the pauses of this somewhat unmanly occupation, 'as the Hospital had been sold, Jacob.'
'We shan't have to turn out, Benjamin?' asked the Corporal, startled out of his philosophic calm. 'That don't mean as the place is to be pulled down?'
'They couldn't do it if they wanted to, 'cause Blackfriars is endowed. You see, it's just this way: one of the kings of England granted the Fotheryngsby estates on condition that they always kept up this place for such as we. The new gentleman at Fotheryngsby Court will be our new patron, that's all.'
'I hope he won't forget the Christmas 'bacca and plum-pudding, and beer,' Dawson returned practically. 'We must give him a 'int of that 'ere, Ben.'
'I don't think he's likely to forget that, because he's a soldier—a young one, it's true, but still a soldier; and they say he's very rich, far richer than Sir Reginald Fotheryngsby, our present patron.'
'Who is richer than our patron?' asked a voice at this moment, as another Hospitaller stole upon the old men unawares. Choppin looked up, and touched the brim of his cap to his fellow-resident, Captain Goldsworthy.
He was somewhat younger than the others, though his hair was white; and his blue eyes burned with all the fire and brilliancy of youth. His face, tanned by long exposure to tropical suns and ocean gales, bore a kindly, gentle expression, totally unsoured by misfortune; yet the face, and the slim upright figure, clad in a somewhat faded uniform of a Commander in Her Majesty's navy, bore the unmistakable hallmark of gentleman; the same as he did when on Sundays, in his 'seemly coat of red,' he attended with the rest in the Hospital chapel. Mr Choppin touched his cap again, and unfolded his budget of news at much greater length than before.
'It will not affect us, as you say, Dawson,' remarked the Captain with a smile; 'but I am truly sorry for Sir Reginald all the same. Why, he and I were boys together, gracious me! half a century ago; and now he is forced to sell his very house, and I——' He broke off abruptly, and commenced to pace the narrow strip of turf in front of the two old men, as if it had been the Ajax quarter-deck, striding so many measured paces backwards and forwards, with his eyes fixed upon the soft August sky. Memory, finding us with mental food as we grow older, was busy among the faded rose-leaves of the past 'He was a sailor, too, like all his race. He joined me in '45 on the Bloodhound; or was it the Ocean Hawk?—I forget which.'
'The Greyhound, Captain,' Choppin struck in, suspending his occupation for the moment; 'Captain Seymour, afterwards Admiral Sir Guyer Seymour, Commander. It was on that very voyage that your honour got mastheaded for——'
'It's a great piece of presumption on your part to insinuate such a thing,' the Captain replied gravely, a merry twinkle in his eye, nevertheless. 'Dear me! how time changes us all, and to think—— Who is to be our new patron, Ben?'
'Mr, at least, Lieutenant Debenham, of Leckington Hall. Your honour will be sure to remember old Squire Debenham.'
'Ay; I remember him well enough,' Goldsworthy replied with a sternness of face and manner which fairly startled the boatswain.—'Can this news be true?'
'Well, sir, if his steward—who used to be an honest man, and a good blacksmith to boot, before he became rich at other people's expense, and is own brother-in-law to myself—is any judge, it is sure to be.'
But the Captain caught but faintly the drift of this complicated and not too complimentary explanation. So perturbed did he seem, that the Corporal, who had remained silent through the interview, ventured to heal this anxiety by the information that the Hospitallers might still look forward with tolerable equanimity to their usual good cheer at the festive season.
'Do you imagine that is all we think of?' asked the Captain sternly. 'Pah! man, I know one who would rather starve than taste his hospitality;' and saying these words, the speaker turned abruptly towards his cottage, leaving the unhappy Corporal on the verge of tears.
In the tiny cottage parlour, gay with flowers, and bright as the hands of a refined woman could render it, Sylvia sat at her easel painting, with the shadows cast by the chapel walls throwing her face in the shade. A sweet girlish face, a more beautiful copy of the Captain's, looked up at him from a frame of deep chestnut-hued hair, and as her eyes encountered his and she saw the unhappiness there, she laid her brush aside and placed one hand lovingly upon his shoulder. 'What is it, dear?' she asked simply.
'The Hospital is sold; and to whom, do you think? None other than the son of my friend, Crichton Debenham, the scoundrel who induced me to place my all where he declared his money was—the wretch who persuaded me to buy into a concern so that he might come out unscathed.—Sylvia, we must say good-bye to Blackfriars.'
'But, father, the son should not be answerable for the father. He may not be such another; nay, I am convinced he is not. Hugh Debenham I know to be one of the noblest and best of men.' Sylvia spoke quickly, almost passionately, her eyes bright and glittering, though her cheeks were pale and her hands trembled.
The Captain, hard and stern, changed and quivered strangely as he caught the light in his daughter's eyes and read its meaning. 'You—you know him?' he asked. 'And yet you never told me.'
Sylvia bowed her head under the gentleness of this reproach. 'It was in London,' she faltered, 'months ago, and we used to meet where I was a teacher. I—I will tell you all presently. Then one day he—he asked me to be his wife.'
'And you refused him.—Ah, I am glad of that.'
'I did not, I dared not. I was cowardly enough to run away. You see, if we had been in the same station in life, I might have thought——' She could say no more, another word would have choked her.
The Captain drew her closer to his side and kissed her gently. 'This is a pleasant finding,' said he, with a jocularity he was far from feeling. 'What hypocrites you women are! I should like to know, very much like to know, how this thing is going to end?'
'The very thing,' said Sylvia, smiling through her tears, 'that gives me so much anxiety.'
MANY of the old mansions of the Welsh Borders bear to this day the sign and symbol of a bygone martial age. Most of the castles, such as Goodrich and Raglan, have long since become nothing but historical and romantic ruins; but where some of the great houses have remained in prosperous hands, the feudal character in many instances still obtains.
And perhaps one of the most perfect specimens along the whole length of Offa's Dyke is Fotheryngsby Court. Built originally of some dark stone, almost impervious to the onslaught of time, and repaired at frequent periods by succeeding Fotheryngsbys, the house, or rather castle, presents to this day perhaps the most perfect specimen of a border fortress. It stands upon a gentle eminence, commanding a wide and beautiful stretch of country, protected by a moat, which is crossed by a drawbridge, bounded by a green courtyard, now devoted to nothing more warlike than the exercising of horses; and beyond this again lies the Court, flanked by a forest of gigantic elms, where a colony of herons have formed their noisy republic. The moat, no longer a blank watery ditch, is clear and deep, with feathery ash and alder shading the water-lilies, a smooth tarn filled with many kinds of fish. The house itself, with a central tower and widely spreading battlements seems to have lost its frown, as it looks down upon the sloping lawns and trim parterres all ablaze with scarlet geranium and lobelia, rioting in the huge stone vases on the terrace. Where once the vassals gathered together at the sound of horn, or the warning fires burning on the battlements, long stretches of greensward bear thin white lines, denoting a gentler pastime; the great quadrangle is now a rose-garden, with grassy paths between, the gray walls sheltering the delicate cream and yellow and crimson blooms, so that the winds of heaven may not visit their sweetness too roughly.
Inside, the old medieval character is still maintained, with so much of modern art and culture as lends an air of comfort to the place. The house, with its dusky oak and chain-armour and stained glass, had no appearance of ruin or disaster, nothing to show that the last of the Fotheryngsbys was gone and that an alien reigned in his stead, master of his very house, proprietor of every stick and stone within the Court.
But the fortunate young owner of all this majestic beauty was occupied with other thoughts as he sat in his library, where no work literary or otherwise had yet been done, save when a harassed Fotheryngsby indicted epistles to hungry creditors. Hugh Debenham was thinking nothing of this as he sat with a blank sheet of note-paper before him and an unlighted cigar between his teeth. Seated opposite to him, and watching his moody countenance with ill-disguised anxiety, was a lady, a haughty-looking dame, whose flashing black eyes and dark hair proclaimed the fact, as a glance at the young man would show, that their relationship was a close one.
Hugh Debenham looked up and laughed uneasily. 'I daresay I am very much to blame,' said he, with some traces of sarcasm underlying the words; 'still, you know, it was not my fault I was born with a heart. If you only saw——'
'There; spare me the gushing details. If you were five years younger I should know how to deal with you; but as it is—— Still, I am only wasting words, as we both very well know. Really, Hugh, I cannot understand your going through the solemn farce of consulting me in the matter.'
'No? I have a fancy to ask my mother's opinion upon these questions—another proof of my being old-fashioned and out of date. We won't quarrel, however; because there is small probability of your being deposed from your high state at present. A man can't very well marry a girl who hides herself away from him, as Sylvia has done.'
Mrs Debenham looked around her with a sigh of satisfaction. The idea of any one but a damsel of the bluest blood presiding over the destinies of the house of Debenham was utterly repugnant to her patrician soul. Still at the same time it seemed a strange thing that any girl, and especially one of lowly station, should have the audacity to scorn the handsome and gallant owner of such a place as Fotheryngsby.
'I cannot help respecting her,' returned the lady more cheerfully. 'She displayed a most lady-like feeling in doing as she has done.'
'But, my dear mother, she is a lady. There is no doubt of that.'
'There are ladies and ladies,' Mrs Debenham continued smoothly. 'For instance, Mrs Clayton, your solicitor's wife, is a lady; so equally is our neighbour the Countess De la Barre; yet you could not place them on the same level.'
'I haven't made a study of these nice distinctions,' said Hugh dryly. 'And though Miss Goldsworthy did hold an inferior position—isn't that the correct phrase?—I must confess to seeing little difference between mistress and servant. Besides, we are not entirely free from the taint, if it is a taint, which I very much doubt, of being connected with business.'
'That is by no means a just view to take,' said the listener severely. 'It is true that your father speculated with a view to mending his fortunes, as many gentlemen do now. It would be absurd to rank him with an ordinary business man working solely for gain.'
'We won't go into the ethics of aristocratic commerce at present, because I have an engagement in Castleford this morning. I am about to pay my new possession there a visit.—Is it really true that old Captain Goldsworthy is actually an inmate of Blackfriars?'
Mrs Debenham did not speak for a moment. When she did so, there was a certain hardness in her voice that would have struck an observant listener as being akin to something like terror. For a moment her face lost its haughty expression; her eyes seemed to be contemplating some long-forgotten but unpleasant mental picture.
'He is there—yes. I never thought of that. There was some—some unpleasantness between your father and him when Captain Goldsworthy lost his money. I know there were some terrible things said between them.'
Hugh, playing listlessly with a pen and scattering the ink recklessly, heard nothing of this, for a new light had suddenly illuminated the darkness of his mind. It seemed as if the clue for which he had been so long groping in the dark was at length in his hands. 'I wonder,' said he, speaking partially to himself, 'if my Miss Goldsworthy and the Captain are related? Strange that such an idea did not occur to me before.'
'It is possible,' Mrs Debenham returned, with well-simulated carelessness. 'I never saw much of him, though he and your father were such great friends. I fancy this daughter went to London in some capacity.'
'It might be she,' said Hugh musingly, 'it might.—What nonsense am I talking! Do not give yourself any unnecessary anxiety, mother. In all probability it will be my fate to wed a Clara Vere de Vere yet.'
As his mother stood and watched him drive away in the direction of Castleford, the pained expression on her face deepened, and certain uncomfortable forebodings troubled the watcher, as the memory of an old crime is touched by some unconscious hand. 'Was it a crime,' she murmured to herself, 'or only an act of prudence?' She turned away, and approaching a distant corner of the room, unlocked a small ebony cabinet, ornamented by heavy brass fittings. Inside lay a heap of papers, faded letters tied up with a piece of faint blue riband, from which there arose that sickly smell peculiar to old documents. Hastily turning over the various bundles, she arrived at length at the packet she was in search of—a small parcel of documents folded in brown paper, and bearing the written inscription, 'Goldsworthy.'
Most of the letters were merely tissues—that is, business epistles indited in an old-fashioned letter-book of the carbon paper and stylus type, dry communications of a purely commercial nature, mostly relating to stocks and shares, the jargon of which would be unintelligible to the average reader. One of them, folded away by itself, ran as follows:
DEAR GOLDSWORTHY.—I cannot see you to-day, being confined to the house with a broken arm, as you probably know. This anxiety is fearful. But you must not suffer for me, as, after all, I can stand the crash best. Go to town immediately and dispose of every share, and warn all your friends. Think only of yourself, and nothing of the unhappy individual who has placed you in such imminent financial peril. I have wired my broker to do the best he can.
H. CRICHTON DEBENHAM.
P.S.—If you have time, give me ten minutes before you start.
'If he had known,' murmured Mrs Debenham, 'we should have been ruined. As it was, there was barely time to save ourselves. And yet I could almost wish that I had never seen this fatal letter.'
Meanwhile, all unconscious of this nameless, shapeless dishonour, Hugh Debenham drove into Castleford, looking forward with almost boyish pleasure to visiting his new and strange possession. A thousand charitable schemes engaged his mind, little plans for the increased comfort of his pensioners, who, sooth to say, had been somewhat neglected by the last of the Fotheryngsbys. There was some little business to be transacted, first principally a visit to a decorator and artist who had taken no slight part in the adornment of Fotheryngsby Court. It was in the direction of this individual's house that Debenham first directed his steps upon reaching Castleford.
There are few towns of any size without one inhabitant of more than ordinary mental powers, and Harold Abelwhite, the crippled artist, represented most of the artistic talent of Castleford. Born of the humblest parentage, and often being acquainted with the actual want of food, there was yet something indomitable in that white face and feeble body. He lived alone in one of the small cottages on the outskirts of Castleford, attending to his own wants, and painting such pictures as one day will make him famous. Unaided, untaught, weighed down by stress of circumstance, the painter had yet succeeded in educating himself, and, what is harder still, in keeping himself by the proceeds of his brush and pencil.
It was a pretty little cottage, with a small garden, filled with old-fashioned flowers; and as Debenham approached, he found the painter tying up some sweet-peas to a trellis-work behind which lay the house. There were but two rooms down-stairs, each meanly furnished, and devoted to the requirements of eating and sleeping. It was only when the stairs were mounted that the owner's artistic tastes were fully disclosed.
The whole floor, turned into one room, and lighted by a large latticed window, had been converted into a studio. There was a curiously-woven Persian carpet on the floor, contrasting harmoniously with the draped hangings on the walls, out of which peeped here and there a finished picture, or a marble statue standing boldly out against the sombre background; or, again, a suit of Milanese armour towering above a perfect forest of palms and ferns, with which the studio was profusely ornamented; while the only flowers there were huge nosegays of deep yellow roses, thrown carelessly, as it seemed, into china bowls. In the centre of the floor stood a picture on an easel, carefully covered with a white cloth, and this, together with an open paint-box, was the sole evidence of there being any particular work on hand.
'What a beautiful room!' Debenham cried admiringly. 'There is certainly nothing conventional in its treatment, and that is something nowadays.'
'Every one can enjoy art at home now,' replied the cripple, his sensitive face flushing at the compliment, 'if he only has the taste. I could make every home in England artistic, with no outlay to speak of.'
Hugh nodded slightly, but said nothing in return. He was fascinated by the quiet beauty of the place, and not a little interested in the earnestness of his companion. There was something contagious in the enthusiasm of the handsome cripple, with face aflame and dark eyes burning, as he touched upon his favourite theme—the artistic education of the people. At length Hugh asked, 'How about the cabinet?'
'The difficulty is solved; the damaged marqueterie has been repaired, even better than I thought possible. Look there.' The speaker pointed to an exquisite specimen of an inlaid cabinet, so perfect that Debenham could scarcely believe it to be the same damaged work of art he had seen it to be only a week previously.
'I always thought you were a genius,' he said admiringly. 'It was a pet piece of furniture of my father's—the receptacle for his business papers, in fact. May I see the picture you have veiled so closely?'
The artist flushed again, but this time in a bashful kind of way, as a lover might when displaying his lady's picture. With a certain lingering tenderness he put the white cloth aside.
It was a simple subject enough, treated without any meretricious attempt at display—a simple cottage interior, with the window filled with geraniums and creeping plants; and in the dim light filtering through the leaves was the figure of a girl, clad all in white, reading from a book upon the table. Close by her side was another figure, that of a man clad in a naval uniform, his hands crossed before him in an attitude of attention; while the group was made up by a third, a somewhat older man, clad in a scarlet coat, his eyes fixed devotedly upon the reader's face. The colouring, soft and subdued, served only to throw up the vivid naturalness of the painting.
Artist and spectator stood a moment, the one regarding the work intently, the painter with his gaze fixed almost sternly upon his companion's face, and as he did so he saw a strange glad light flash into Debenham's eyes—a look of pleased recognition illuminating every feature.
'That is no effort of imagination,' he cried; 'you know all those characters?'
'Yes, I know them,' said the artist quietly. 'How did you discover that?'
'Because I happen to be acquainted with that lady. Will you so far favour me as to give me her address?'
'Ah!' said the cripple, 'I am a solitary man, with few pleasures and few friends. To me the study of expression is a necessity of my art. And as you examined that picture I watched you. In that brief moment I learnt your secret—I read the joy in your face. Forgive me if I speak plainly. What is Sylvia Goldsworthy to you?'
'That question you have no right to ask,' Hugh replied gently. 'I am not angry with you, because I feel that you mean well.'
But Abelwhite scarcely caught the purport of these words. Every nerve in his body quivered with restless agitation, though his keen earnest gaze never turned from his visitor's face. For a moment he hesitated, like one who complies against his will; then he simply said, 'Come with me.'
They passed out together through the streets of Castleford, the handsome aristocrat and crippled artist walking side by side in silence, till at length the Widemarsh Street was reached. Here, before the long blank wall bounding the Blackfriars' Hospital, Abelwhite paused, and turning down a side-lane, opened a door in the wall and bade his companion enter.
The gardens lay still and quiet in the peaceful sunshine. The ancient ruin, with its mantle of ivy rustling in the breeze, gave a quaint bygone air to the place. It seemed to Hugh as if he had shaken off the world, and left every feeling, save that of rapture, far behind.
'What a beautiful old place!' he cried. 'What do you call it?'
'We call it the Blackfriars' Hospital—your property now.—Mr Debenham, you will find it to be a great responsibility. It is in your power to make the lives of these worthy men happy. Come and see them occasionally, and note what a little it takes to make people joyful and light-hearted.'
'They shall not complain,' Hugh replied mechanically. 'Can I see the cottages?'
There were cool shadows in the quadrangle, a pleasant smell of homely flowers—wallflowers, mignonette, and Brompton stock, and over all a dead silence, save for the voice of a woman reading behind one of the open doors. Hugh felt himself drawn towards the cottage, and, looking in, beheld a copy of Abelwhite's picture, only the figures were real and lifelike. There was the Captain, seated in his chair; and opposite him Ben Choppin, listening reverently to the words falling from the reader's lips, the sound of a sweet womanly voice, the tones of which caused the watcher's heart to beat a little faster and the colour to deepen on his cheek. For some momenta he stood, till the even tones ceased at length and the book was laid aside.
'May we enter?' Hugh asked eagerly. 'Would they mind?'
'Why not?' Abelwhite asked. 'They should be pleased enough to welcome you, and I am a constant visitor; and'—here the speaker lowered his voice till his words were scarcely audible—'may it be that I have done right; but I am not without misgivings.'
IF the mornings within the Hospital walls passed quietly and smoothly, the evenings were far more redolent of brooding peacefulness. When the doors were closed upon the busy city, shutting out all the world except a merry shout of children at play in the meadows beyond, the pensioners in their best red coats sat under the monastery walls, or worked in their garden patches among their vegetables and flowers. Ben Choppin, smoking his evening pipe with his friend and ally the Corporal, watched a pair of figures promenading the path round the preaching-cross—Sylvia Goldsworthy and the painter, Harold Abelwhite, in earnest converse.
'It came upon me like a thunderclap,' said the sailor, as if resuming the broken thread of a story. 'Miss Sylvia, she had just finished the Battle o' the Nile, when our new gov'nor walks in with the picture-chap yonder. "You are our new patron?" says the Captain.—"I have the honour to be so," says Mr Debenham.—"Then," says the Captain, "allow me to inform you that my cottage is at your disposal; I can accept no favour from a Debenham."—I was that astonished you might ha' knocked me down with the butt-end of a musket.'
'I daresay,' Mr Dawson replied meditatively, 'I did hear, when the Captain first came here, as he had had words along with the young gentleman's father. I only hope as it won't make any difference at Christmas.'
Sir Choppin hastened to assure his friend that such a dread consummation was not likely to happen in consequence of the Captain's indiscretion. That the new patron and his chief pensioner had come to high words was common property in the Hospital, and had been warmly discussed amongst the inhabitants from a more or less personal point of view.
But Sylvia and her companion, walking in the gloaming beneath the shadow of the ancient preaching-cross, were likewise speaking of the scene that morning. The artist listened sympathetically to the girl, who spoke in a low voice, that trembled with emotion from time to time. Her features were pale, and on her cheeks were signs of recent tears.
'It is not for me to blame my father,' she said after a pause. 'I do not think he cared for the loss of his money; it was the treacherous action on the part of his friend that makes him so hard.—But it is not just; it is not like him to visit the sins of one upon another innocent head.'
'And such a handsome head!' replied the artist somewhat bitterly. 'I have not heard the whole story. Would you mind enlightening me?'
'It is simple enough. When my father gave up his profession, he had quite sufficient for his wants; indeed, he would to this day, had he not been persuaded by his friend Mr Debenham to speculate. There was a lot of money invested in certain bonds; and when they were repudiated—whatever that may mean—all our money was lost. But my father found out afterwards that Mr Debenham had sold out the week before. If it was done deliberately, it was a cruel, heartless thing to do.'
'But how could this Debenham benefit by your ruin?'
'I have no head for business,' said Sylvia wearily. 'But I understand if my father's share had been placed suddenly in the market it would have seriously jeopardised Mr Debenham's chance of disposing of his. Can you understand? To me it is simply hopeless confusion.'
Abelwhite listened to this explanation thoughtfully, though with the reputation of Debenham, father or son, he felt but little impetus to show a partisan spirit. Gradually there had grown up in his imagination a picture, painted coldly at first by the cynical sarcasm with which those bodily afflicted treat their own physical infirmities; but gradually the picture grew in glowing colours, and as yet the painter refused to own that the pigments mixed by the hand of love himself had turned to the blackness of despair.
'We have always been friends,' Sylvia continued after a pause. 'Mr Abelwhite, can't you find some way to help me now?'
'I would lay down my life to make you happy. Tell me, if this quarrel is explained away, will you be any happier then?'
'Surely. Why, then, if he should say to me——'
She stopped, and Abelwhite was grateful, for every word falling from her lips was torture to his proud and sensitive soul. There was a wild passion in his affection for the girl, an adoration such as poets tell us of; and as he looked into her serious eyes, his madness alternately cooled and burned, despair and love mingled in a breath. He paused a moment, intending to refuse, a negative that he could not have uttered if he would.
'There are some men,' said he, 'who are born to have no wish, no ambition ungratified. They have riches and health and beauty, everything that makes life happy, and yet, should they but covet the only jewel of a poor man's heart, it is theirs.'
'Fie!' said Sylvia archly. 'Surely you envy no one.'
'And no one envies me, which is considerate under the circumstances.—Now, what if I were to tell you that I—I, Harold Abelwhite, the cripple, can resolve this mystery, and show you that it is all a misunderstanding, and that for Captain Goldsworthy's misfortune his friend was not to blame?'
'Do you know that?' Sylvia cried, her cheeks aflame. 'If you only can do this, I shall be grateful all the days of my life.'
'"And gratitude is a lively sense of favours to come,"' Abelwhite quoted. 'I do not say I can; it is merely a hypothetical case I am putting.'
The light in Sylvia's eyes died out; a gentle sigh betrayed the deepness of her disappointment.
The painter, watching these signs of alternate hope and despair, felt his conscience tax him for this cruel levity. But the keen torture of his own feeling was too poignant as yet to spare a little room for the noblest of all virtues, self-sacrifice. Seeing that his feelings were somewhat akin to her own, Sylvia touched him gently on the arm.
His pale face blazed with excitement as he started back. 'Don't!' he cried, almost roughly. 'Do you think I have no feelings? that because I am not like other men—— But I frighten you—you, whom I would not injure for the world. Bear with me only a little longer.'
He was past all power of acting now; there was in his emotional nature no vein of stoicism, no worldly training such as enables us to disguise grief and sorrow under the mask of simulated gaiety. He seated himself upon the steps of the old preaching-cross, and hid his face in his hands. 'I have been happy here, far too happy. Do not chide me for my folly, Sylvia. I had hoped—fool that I am—to see some day, when I became rich and famous. But that is only the dream of a poor crippled painter.'
'Oh! surely not,' Sylvia cried, in deep distress. 'We shall live to see it yet.'
'One part, perhaps,' said the artist with a mournful smile; 'the other, never. There is something in this place that causes one to weave Arcadian dreams, an air that makes me feel on an equality with all men; and I was mad enough to think that you might, after many days—— But I will not distress you. I think I can assist you, and I will.'
Sylvia murmured her thanks and held out her hand. He took it, and carried it to his lips with a gentle reverence, for all the fire and passion had burnt itself away, leaving nothing but the dead ashes behind.
'In two days I will come to you again. I am going to take a bold step, and one that may cost me much; but I shall not fail. It is strange that you should come to me; but sometimes the mouse in the fable is acted in real life. And now, I shall say good-night.'
'But you must come in, if only for a few minutes,' said Sylvia.
'Not to-night,' the artist persisted. 'I could not. Say good-night here, and let me go through the side-door. Do not lose heart, but wait and hope.'
With these parting words of advice, Abelwhite turned abruptly away, and disappeared into the gathering darkness of the street beyond. There was no gleam of recognition in his face for passers-by, as he walked slowly, painfully along; but by degrees his pace increased, till at length the cottage was reached, and the owner sat himself down in his studio to think.
There was not a soul in the house to disturb these painful meditations, yet every article of furniture or ornament conjured up some unhappy memory. There was the chair where Sylvia had sat for her portrait, the very book represented in the picture lying upon a side-table. Here it was that the dream of happiness had been commenced, and raised story by story, till every airy detail was complete. And even now it was not too late. The Captain would lie in his grave before he would give his child to the son of his dishonoured friend; Sylvia would never disregard her father's word, though it cost her all her happiness. Then Hugh Debenham would go away, and forget; another and fresher beauty would charm his eye, and then—— But then the thoughts grew darker and more troubled; for the painter knew that, juggle with his conscience as he would, it was in his power to solve the mystery and bring the lovers within each other's reach.
He had the power to do this thing; that was the worst of all. There stood the innocent-looking cabinet, the workmanship and restoration of which, by Abelwhite, Hugh Debenham had so much admired; and there, concealed within its artistic depths, lay confirmation strong as proof of holy writ. A little curiosity, a glance, and finally a somewhat closer search, had brought to light the fact that the Captain's anger was in vain, and that his erstwhile friend had done his best to save him from ruin.
'What a temptation!' he cried; 'what a hideous trial of this poor body! Yet there should be no hesitation. I am—so I tell myself—by education and instinct, if not by birth, a gentleman; still, I am deliberately contemplating the act of a scoundrel. If I do right, I shall lose every hope of her; if I do wrong, she will be no nearer to me than now. And yet—and yet——'
But the good angel of the man had so far triumphed with the morning, that Abelwhite resolved that there was only one honourable course before him. Not that the task was an easy one, embracing as it did certain painful disclosures, and an interview from which the sensitive nature of the artist recoiled, as some natures shrink from physical pain. It was easy enough to prove that Debenham's father had been entirely innocent of treachery towards his old friends; but this, simple as it seemed, could not be accomplished without certain disgraceful disclosures affecting the happiness of more than one of the parties most directly concerned. No man possessed of the ordinary feelings of humanity cares to bring home disgrace to his fellow-creatures, especially if they are of the gentler sex.
Abelwhite walked the entire distance from Castleford to Fotheryngsby Court, a somewhat toilsome journey for one so bodily afflicted, without arriving at any satisfactory solution of the difficulty before him. He had racked his brain in vain to devise some scheme whereby the truth should be exposed without violating the confidence which he had so unwittingly gleaned from the contents of the old cabinet. In the first place, he had no earthly right to read the papers; and having done so, under ordinary circumstances, it was his duty to preserve an inviolate silence upon the matter. But after all—and there lay the difficulty—it was not an ordinary occasion, but one deeply affecting the happiness of two people. He who sows the wind must expect to reap the whirlwind; but the repetition of this homely philosophy brought no grain of comfort to the troubled breast of Harold Abelwhite.
He passed under the frowning portcullis, across the blazing parterres of flowers glowing on the lawns, and walked up the steps to the great hall door. A supercilious footman, contemplating his misshapen figure with a glance of undisguised contempt, vouchsafed the information that Mrs Debenham was at home, though whether she would condescend to receive visitors at so unusual an hour was quite another thing.
'I don't suppose she'll see you, and that's a fact, young man,' said the superlative footman affably. 'Any message you may leave——'
'I shall leave no message,' Abelwhite replied firmly. 'My business is important and urgent. Take in my card, and inform your mistress that I can wait to suit her convenience, but see her I must.'
The servant disappeared, leaving Abelwhite standing in the hall, and returned in a few moments with a visible change of manner, and the information that Mrs Debenham would spare him a few moments if he would kindly walk into the library.
The artist braced his nerves for the coming fray. He had no anticipation of an easy victory, knowing that his case would have to be fully proved, and that nothing short of the most convincing evidence would suffice. And as Mrs Debenham, calm, haughty, and condescending, swept into the room, Abelwhite gave one swift glance into her face, and realised for the first time the extreme delicacy of the task before him.
'You wished to see me?' asked the lady. 'What can I do for you?'
'I came,' said Abelwhite, clearing his throat, 'not on my own behalf. It is for my friend Captain Goldsworthy that I wish to speak.'
The listener, still haughty and listless, drew herself up with an air of proud surprise, though her lips trembled slightly, but not so slightly that Abelwhite saw and noticed the ominous change.
'Of course I will attend to anything you have to say, Mr Abelwhite,' replied the lady, a little more graciously. 'I am rather surprised to receive any communication from Captain Goldsworthy, that is all. You will pardon me if I ask if you are well acquainted with his affairs?'
The artist bent his head. 'So far as any man knows,' said he.
'Then of course you are aware that some years ago my husband and Captain Goldsworthy were great friends. They were in the habit of doing business together, until a certain unfortunate quarrel—a quarrel in which the Captain was pleased to accuse my husband of something like dishonesty.'
'Wholly false,' returned Abelwhite laconically. 'I know that.'
The glib graciousness of Mrs Debenham's manner vanished before this plain and somewhat strongly-marked observation. She was simply talking to gain time, and her visitor was perfectly alive to the fact.
'I thank you for having cleared the ground for me,' he continued. 'It was on that very point that I wished to consult you. Knowing, as we both do, certain details, I will not go into them, but simply point out that unless Captain Goldsworthy was warned by the late Mr Debenham of the financial condition of the company in which the former's money was invested, there was treachery. Now, what we wish to know is this, what became of the letter written by Mr Debenham to the Captain, warning him to sell out at once?'
'Indeed, I have no head for business,' said the mistress of Fotheryngsby, white to the lips. 'It would have been utterly unintelligible to me.'
'A view by no means shared by your husband,' returned Abelwhite dryly. A well-deserved compliment is never unwelcome. 'Please favour me with your attention for a moment while I read this letter.' So saying, the speaker drew from his pocket a few sheets of flimsy paper, book-copies of letters written with a stylus on the old carbon-paper principle. The rustling of the thin leaves and the unhappy listener's laboured breathing were the only sounds to break the oppressive silence.
'First a letter from your husband to Captain Goldsworthy, warning him to lose no time in disposing of his shares—a letter never received. The next is far more interesting, dated a month later—after the crash—and evidently written in reply to an indignant outburst from Captain Goldsworthy, denouncing the shameful treatment he had received. Shall I read it aloud?'
Mrs Debenham bowed. She could not have spoken for the mines of Golconda.
'MY DEAR GOLDSWORTHY,
I am utterly amazed at your note. On my honour, I wrote you nearly a month ago, when I had no means of personal communication, imploring you to lose no time in disposing of your shares without regard to me. I deemed that letter so important that I specially charged my wife, who is an excellent business woman, to see you received it. For the sake of our old friendship, call upon me, for I am still too ill to see you at your house, and all shall be explained. That I did write you, warning you, my letter-book will show.
H. CRICHTON DEBENHAM.
'There are three others, all bearing upon the same question. There is no necessity to read them?'
Abelwhite paused, looking keenly at his antagonist. Her face was very pale, but all the iron self-possession had not yet forsaken her. 'You need not,' she replied; and the artist felt grateful that she had inquired no further into his questionable possession of this evidence. 'I think we understand each other.—Name your price.'
'You are quite mistaken, madam; it is no mere question of money. I have no such purpose to serve—far from it. I hold out no promises, and make no threats. Go to Captain Goldsworthy and tell him the whole truth; then these proofs are yours. For his sake and that of his daughter, I have taken this painful course. The issue is entirely in your hands.'
'And if I do this, if I clear up this mystery, and make things pleasant for Captain Goldsworthy and his daughter—for that this has something to do with her I am convinced—what do I gain?'
'Really, I had not considered you in the matter at all,' Abelwhite replied candidly. 'You are quite right in assuming that Miss Goldsworthy's happiness is a powerful inducement, and in this view I should certainly be borne out by Mr Hugh Debenham.'
'Ah!' cried the unhappy woman, now genuinely moved, 'if he must know——'
'He will never know. Madam, there is something more powerful than human schemes and devices, and that is Fate. Your sin has found you out—the time for expiation has arrived. Do as I ask you, and I pledge you my word that your son shall never know.'
There was a long pause between them before Mrs Debenham found sufficient courage to reply. 'I will take you at your word,' she at length said. 'If you fail me, I shall not blame you. But there is something in your face that tells me I shall not be betrayed. Anything, so long as he remains in ignorance.'
'Your secret will be safe in Captain Goldsworthy's hands; not even by look will he reproach you; for——' and here the speaker lowered his voice reverently—'the loss of a little wealth matters nothing to one who has found the peace that passeth all understanding.'
IT is hard enough to own one's self in the wrong, and to admit the mistake makes the matter very little pleasanter; but to confess a fault in cold blood is perhaps the most painful test to which a proud nature can be put. Still, Harold Abelwhite's estimate of George Goldsworthy's character was not very wide of the mark when he assured the mistress of Fotheryngsby that her confession would be met in the most forbearing spirit.
On the morning on which Mrs Debenham had succeeded in screwing up her courage to the sticking-point, Ben Choppin, in an unusual fit of contrariness, had deemed it his duty to take his late commander to task touching the latter's reception of Hugh Debenham upon the occasion of his initial visit to the Hospital. Sylvia being absent upon some scholastic duty, it devolved upon the Captain to read the matutinal allowance of 'British Battles.' He had donned his spectacles and cleared his throat, usually the signal for rapt attention upon the boatswain's part; but instead of assuming an attitude of deep admiration, Ben laid his pipe on one side and made a sign that he wished to speak.
'Captain,' he commenced oracularly, 'heave-to and drop your anchor for a moment. I've got something on my mind; and that bein' so, it's got to come out. Let's discuss this matter without violence.'
'What do you mean?' asked the Captain mildly.
'You know what I mean well enough. You calls yourself a Christian man. I don't believe you're anything of the sort—so there.'
Choppin hurled this defiance at his antagonist as Betsy Prig denounced the apocryphal Mrs Harris, only the effect was not so theatrical as upon that historic occasion. The Captain's spectacles beamed with benign astonishment.
'There is all kinds o' pride,' pursued the speaker, 'some proper, and some not. Pride brought you here, and pride 'll carry you away. But I didn't owt to see the gentleman as I have looked up to for nigh upon thirty years, go and insult another gentleman as never done him any harm.'
'You think I was wrong?' asked Goldsworthy meekly. 'You cannot understand some things, Ben, and this is one of them. Our young patron's father once did me a grievous injury. I cannot accept any favour from his hands.'
Ben Choppin described a few circles, indicative of contempt, with his pipe-stem. 'He come here affable and friendly enough—as nice a mannered young man as I could wish to see. And what do you do? Why, insult him in your own house. That's because his father had done something or other he shouldn't. Not that I believe it, mind, for the gentleman I remember on the Greyhound, him as was so thick with you, couldn't ha' done it.——I tell you what it is,' continued Choppin, waxing warm, 'if you leaves Blackfriars, my name's Walker.'
'But my decision need not influence you,' replied the Captain, somewhat touched by this evidence of his old friend's fidelity. 'You must not think of such a thing, Ben. What could you do?'
'Ay, and what could you do, either? I could put up with the workhouse, as many a better man has done; but I don't stop here without you, sir. I'm a lonely old man, with few to care for a worn-out old sailor. There's Miss Sylvia, God bless her! with always a word and a smile for me.—Captain, I'd lay down my life for her happiness!'
'I believe you would, Ben,' replied the Captain huskily, as he wiped his spectacles, which had somehow become misty. 'I believe you would, Ben. I believe we all would.'
'And a nice way you've got of showin' it There's a model parent for you! All along of pride, he's goin' to give up a comfortable house, and live upon his daughter's little earnings. What do you think of that? Pride! It's nothin' but wickedness and tomfoolery; it's——'
'Ben, be quiet,' cried the listener. 'How—how dare you say such things? Why, if I had you on the quarter-deck at this moment, I would—— My old friend, pray, do not say such terrible things.'
But Mr Choppin for the time being was adamant to the piteous plea. Always tenacious of his point, he was not slow to see the advantage he had gained, and, like a good general, resolved to follow up his first impression. 'Fair words butter no parsnips,' he rejoined sententiously; 'and you can't hurt me by cutting off your nose to spite your face. Just say as you didn't mean it, and I shall be the first to let bygones be bygones.'
The Captain melted visibly, being considerably softened by Ben Choppin's rugged, but no less forcible, arguments. There was, too, a certain rough tenderness in this dog-like fidelity, a quality for which Goldsworthy had the highest admiration; and, moreover, every word was replete with truth.
'You are right, and I am wrong,' he said. 'Don't reproach me with my weakness, Ben. You do not know how I have been tried.' Here he paused for a moment. 'Let us say no more.—And now to our "Battles."'
'The battle of Trafalgar, commencing—"At this point the Victory"—chapter 10, page 374,' said Ben cheerfully. 'Ah! it makes me feel young again.'
But the stirring history of that memorable victory was not destined to enlighten Mr Choppin on this particular occasion, for scarcely had the place been found, when the Corporal, in a state of somewhat agitated dignity, appeared, followed in the distance by a dapper footman, clad in the claret and silver livery of the house of Debenham.
'Mrs Debenham would like to see Captain Goldsworthy for a few moments, if he is not particularly engaged,' Mr Dawson announced, with the air of one repeating a lesson, at which the footman in the background nodded approvingly. 'And please, Captain, may she come inside?'
'Certainly,' replied Goldsworthy calmly, 'if she cares to come this way.'
Dawson shuffled away in company with the gorgeous footman, while the Captain and Ben Choppin regarded each other in speechless astonishment.
'There's going to be a reconciliation,' said the latter solemnly, first to find his tongue. 'You mark my words. I think you're to be trusted this time, Captain. And whatever you do,' continued the speaker confidentially, 'no insults—nothing about the late Mr D., because ladies ain't fond o' hearing their belongings abused.'
This valuable counsel was scarcely imparted before the lady in question appeared, preceded by the agitated Corporal. Her own servant she dismissed with a gesture, Choppin and his fidus Achates retiring to their favourite retreat to discuss this event, at once so portentous and unexpected.
Captain Goldsworthy rising, bowed, and motioned his visitor to a chair. 'Pray, be seated,' he said, 'I am sorry the accommodation is so limited.'
Mrs Debenham took the proffered chair. There was an awkward silence for a moment as each scanned the others features. There had been little ravage wrought by the hand of time upon the one, rich, prosperous, and free from the carking cares of life; while the other, save that his hair was whiter, his figure not quite so straight as it had been, carried his troubles well and manfully.
'This is an honour I had not anticipated,' said the Captain, all the easy courtesy natural to a gentleman recurring in the presence of an equal. 'Will you be good enough to explain the occasion for your visit?'
There was something in this simplicity that immediately set the visitor at her ease, not that the confession she had to make came to her tongue any the more readily. But a woman of the world, troubled by no excess of awkwardness, the training stood her in good stead now.
'What I have to say,' she commenced, 'will be painful to you, but infinitely more distressing to me. In the first place, Captain Goldsworthy, I will ask you to remember the time when my husband and yourself were friends.'
The Captain inclined his head gently. Up to a certain point the recollection of that time was pleasant enough.
'Then something came between you—something you were pleased to call, and not without some show of reason, I admit—treachery. In the first place, I must tell you that my husband was true enough to you. There was treachery, but not on his part; that was left to another.'
'I should like to believe that,' cried the Captain eagerly. 'It would be very pleasant to know that my old friend Debenham was innocent of deception. Madam, the loss of that money for its own sake I never deplored; it was the loss of my friend that I most regretted.'
'I believe you, Captain Goldsworthy; I do indeed,' said the lady warmly. 'Your faith has not been misplaced. I am to blame.'
'An accident,' replied Goldsworthy, somewhat incredulously. 'Is it possible?'
The moment for confession had arrived, and, strangely enough, it seemed far easier than it had done an hour since. Without the slightest hesitation or faltering, Mrs Debenham told her tale.
'You will remember that my husband was, owing to an accident, unable to attend to his duties. From time to time I had helped him, till at length I grew to be interested in business affairs, and, for a woman, knew a great deal respecting stocks and shares. I do not want to revive painful recollections; but the warning you declared you never received was written in my presence, and handed me as an important document to post myself. That letter I deliberately suppressed.'
Still, not a word or sign of astonishment from the listener. For a moment there was a look of mingled reproach and astonishment in his blue eyes, but so gentle that the penitent took fresh heart of grace to proceed.
'My reason, as you can guess, was this: My husband was unable to travel and see to his own interests. Had he been badly crippled over that one speculation, ruin would have followed. On the other hand, you could have been in London the same day the sinister rumours arrived. You might have sold out, and saved your money. But what would have followed? Twenty thousand pounds sold out in one day, and our chance of getting out would not have been worth the trouble of a journey. That is all I have to say. And from the bottom of my heart I thank you for making this humiliating confession of mine less degrading than I expected it to be.'
'Dear, dear,' said the Captain regretfully, 'and my old friend was true to me, after all. It serves me right. What business had I to doubt him?'
Not a single word of reproach, nothing that tended to embarrass the now thoroughly penitent speaker. Her face was flushed to a deep crimson; there were heavy tears in her eyes and rolling down her cheeks.
'You are a good man,' she said brokenly. 'How can I thank you!'
'I want no thanks,' replied the Captain gravely. 'To find that my trust was not misplaced is sufficient happiness for me. Will you oblige me by saying no more? Let us be thankful it has been no worse.—Nay, do not ask it. Your secret is perfectly safe in my hands.'
It was with a heart singularly light that Mrs Debenham turned her face homewards, so light, indeed, that, rapt in her pleasant reverie, she drove past Hugh in the Widemarsh Street without the slightest recognition. She had stayed long enough to see Sylvia, and signify approval of her refined beauty and singular charm of manner. After all, she thought, there was money enough, and the Goldsworthys were as old a family as, nay, older than the Debenhams. It was the pleased expression engendered by this train of thought that Harold Abelwhite, walking towards the Hospital with Hugh, caught and interpreted as a happy omen. The latter had heard, not without astonishment, of his mother's determination to visit the obdurate Captain; but that her mission would be successful he had not for a moment anticipated.
'It is safe,' said the artist, half jestingly, half sadly. 'Come, sir; I shall have much pleasure in presenting you to the genuine Captain Goldsworthy, a gentleman without equal in all this broad county. Mr Debenham, the gods must love you passing well.'
'It will be an acceptable change,' said Hugh dryly. 'I suppose I must ask no questions. Only, I cannot stand a repetition of last week.'
But there was nothing frosty in Captain Goldsworthy's manner as he came to the door of his cottage to meet the new patron. That Hugh intended to pay the Hospital another visit in the course of the day, he had gathered from a parting observation of Mrs Debenham. In honour of the occasion he had donned his best uniform, a decided breach of the rules, but, under the circumstances, perfectly excusable.
'I hope you have forgiven me?' he said in his most courtly manner. 'There had been a grievous mistake, for which I am altogether to blame.'
In spite of himself, Abelwhite was forced to turn away to disguise a smile. Like Uncle Toby, the Captain's perversion of the truth must have been ignored by the recording angel.
'I have heard of some misunderstanding,' Hugh replied as easily. 'But I have been out of England so long, that really——'
'It is best forgotten. We old servants of Her Majesty are apt to be hasty in our judgments sometimes. Your father and I were old shipmates, and bosom friends many years ago. If you are half as good a man, you will fill his place worthily.'
There was nothing more for it but to shake hands, which they did with more than usual heartiness. Then Hugh looked round, as if he had missed something, an action by no means thrown away upon the observant painter.
'Your family circle is not complete, Captain Goldsworthy,' he observed. 'Mr Debenham is wondering what has become of Miss Sylvia.'
'I must plead guilty to the impeachment,' Hugh admitted unblushingly.—'Come, Captain, in common fairness to me, you must remove the very unfavourable impression created the other afternoon.'
'Nay; you must do that yourself, lad,' cried the Captain, in great good-humour. 'If you have as winning a tongue as your appearance is pleasing, there is no likelihood of failure on your part. If you care to walk round your new possessions, you will probably find her in the ruins.'
Hugh, eager as he was, hesitated a moment; but reading the unmistakable 'Yes' in Abelwhite's eyes, tarried no longer. The latter watched his retreating figure with a curious mixture of pain and pleasure at his heart. It is hard for a man to destroy the fabric of his happiness to form the material upon which to build up the felicity of a rival.
The shadows had already commenced to lengthen across the lawn; there was only the faintest of breezes stirring the green ivy round the ruined monastery. From the street beyond there came the muffled roar of traffic, here soft and subdued to something like drowsy music. A little rain had fallen in the morning, freshening the borders of mignonette and tenweek stock. There was not a 'seemly coat of red' to be seen, no figure save that of a girl standing before the preaching-cross, her eyes fixed upon the worn lettering round the base.
Hugh stepped across the strip of lawn, his feet deadened by the elastic turf, and stood by her side. As she turned, half-startled, and her eyes met his, there was something there more eloquent of welcome than any words could be. He took her hand in his and held it for a moment. 'I have been talking to your father,' he said.
'Yes? I am glad you came, for I should not like you to misjudge him. Your mother was here this morning, and explained the miserable misunderstanding. It was very good of her to come.'
'Why did you leave London?' asked Hugh. He had heard but vaguely the preceding remark. 'I have been looking for you everywhere.'
'Have you? I thought you knew that—that—who I was. I knew you were the son of my father's old friend. I thought I could be happier here than there. It is a beautiful place, and I have got to love it.'
They had moved towards the ruin, and with no fixed intent on either side, presently stood within the naked walls, alone and unperceived, shut out as it were from the outer world. Hugh waited patiently till she had ceased to speak, then drew a pace closer to her side.
'I have heard most of the story,' he said. 'Of course there is no one to blame; still, I feel that I and mine owe you and yours a great deal. And yet, selfish that I am, I want to go deeper into your debt. If I had spoken to you a week ago it would have been useless; now, I hope differently.'
'Say on,' said Sylvia gaily, though there was a slight break in her voice. 'I am so happy to-day that I could not refuse any favour. Anything that there is in my power to grant shall be yours.'
'Many thanks,' said Hugh, calmly appropriating the hands Sylvia had held out to him half jestingly. 'Then I want this.—Now, be silent. I am the governor of this place, and its inmates are subject to my supreme command.—Sylvia, I command you to say "Yes."'
'But really,' Sylvia ejaculated, laughing and crying in a breath, her blue eyes tilled with tears; 'it is so sudden——'
'But not unexpected. Oh! you sweet hypocrite! you deceitful Sylvia! And this is how soon you have forgotten that morning in Kensington Gardens, but five months ago, that you promised to——'
'I didn't,' Sylvia cried indignantly—'I didn't promise to marry you.'
'No; but you promised, if you didn't marry me, you wouldn't marry any one else,' Hugh retorted coolly. 'See, I am waiting.'
'You are very patient,' Sylvia murmured; 'and I am a happy, happy girl. Oh! how much more do you want me to say than that?'
Mr Corporal Dawson, wandering towards his accustomed seat, heard the voices, and peeped in. There Ben Choppin discovered him ten minutes later, a rigid statue of astonishment at the unaccustomed spectacle of a beautiful girl with her lover's arm round her and her head upon his shoulder. Ben, taking in the situation at a glance, led his friend kindly, but none the less firmly, to the accustomed seat, where he eyed him for some moments in silent scorn and loathing.
'Jacob Dawson,' said he in a judicial whisper, 'ain't you ashamed of yourself?'
But the Corporal's energetic and far-seeing mind was busy discounting the future. 'If so be as that be the case,' he replied meditatively, 'it ought to mean summut hexter at Christmas'—a low practical remark, accepted by Ben Choppin with the contempt it unquestionably deserved.
In accordance with the Corporal's anticipations, there was a wedding a little later, of so romantic a description that the Úlite of Castleford and neighbourhood had conversational matter enough to last through at least a dozen dinner-parties and such-like festivities. The idea of being married from an almshouse was unconventional enough in all conscience; but then a Goldsworthy of Lugwardine, as every woman in the west of England knows, can trace descent from Llewellyn himself. Under the old ruin, roofed over for the occasion, Hugh and his bride cut the wedding cake; and the Corporal and Ben Choppin, the breach being healed, drank so many toasts that they became exceedingly vain-glorious and inflated with pride, thus engendering a sore feeling with the rest of the Hospitallers for some days afterwards.
There was but one notable absence from the marriage-feast—that of Harold Abelwhite. He sent the bride a present, the picture Hugh had so greatly admired; and the same day Mrs Debenham received a present likewise—three sheets of tissue-paper enclosed in an envelope. A week later an enclosure, containing bank-notes to the value of five hundred pounds, found its way to the artist's cottage; a little tribute of admiration, said the sender, of Mr Abelwhite's genius, and to enable him to complete a course of study he had long contemplated. Had he been able to regard the gift as a genuine tribute to his abilities, he might have retained it; but it looked too much like bribing him to silence, hence he returned it. His pictures are yearly increasing his reputation; but in his London studio he has as yet found no time or inclination to design another castle in the air.<
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